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Mr. Alexander lit a cigar.
"Good morning, Mr. Alexander. Isn't it a beautiful day?" Mr. Grimes edged behind the counter until he stood in front of the No Smoking sign.
Grimes' eyes watered as his shop filled with five dollars worth of Corona Magnifico smoke from Mr. Alexander's working lung. "Our shipment from London hasn't yet cleared customs." He twitched his nose. "It should be here in two or three days, I should think. I know how much you like English paintings." A smile buttered his face.
Mr. Alexander condescended to smile through his halo of smoke. A Durer devil looked only half as satanic as Mr. Alexander, who glowed with the power that money gave.
There was a dry parchment sound of anticipated fresh banknotes as Grimes rubbed his hands together. "Just follow me, please, sir." The oil in his tone could shine Mr. Alexander's boots. "Our new French shipment is still in the back. We thought you might like to be the first to see it."
A gray length of cigar ash fell precisely into the most ornate section of an ormolu clock. Gilded lilies and cupids choked under the cigar dropping. "Oh, K.A.," Mr. Alexander said to himself, "you shouldn't have done that; your field is painting." An unnatural silence hung in the air.
Grimes couldn't mention the clock. "Right through here, please," and he inclined from the waist slightly as Mr. Alexander navigated the doorway, leaving waves of yellow smoke foaming in his wake.
"What an extraordinary Matisse, such coloration---that unusual juxtaposition of pale violet and bright green---I must have that." He turned on his heel, careful not to disturb another cylinder of ash forming on his cigar. He'd find a place for that in a moment.
"Ah, there's a little covey of moderns." Bending closer, he selected one whose surface was an impasto of clotted oil. Valleys of violet sulked in the shadows of magenta, gold, and vermilion hills. Dried blobs of oil paint jutted a full half-inch, forming a surface which was ragged enough to collect dust. "Such an unusual technique," he said, his wrist flicking with a motion that had taken so long to develop. "Oh, Mr. Grimes, I am sorry. I suppose I shouldn't be smoking in here. So much ash, too. Permit me to pay for cleaning this." His moist fingers patted dry ash to form muddy fingerprints that masked the saffron, turquoise, amber, and crimson brilliance of the color jungle. "Dear me, I'm afraid I'm not being too helpful," he said, absently cleaning his fingers on a convenient silk-screened surface from the Meiji period.
Grimes' face appeared to forget how to smile. His mouth twitched wetly; his eyes seemed to lose control in a series of winces, tics, and blinks. "I'm afraid cleaning wouldn't help much." A chunk of orange pigment broke off as he put the painting behind the counter.
"You just put that on my bill. I'm very sorry; it was such a lovely little painting."
"I wouldn't think of it, Mr. Alexander. It's the work of a young artist whose paintings were never much in demand. He died a few months ago."
Mr. Alexander sighed with relief. Small bits of luck occasionally helped. But then a symphony of color chords caught the connoisseur's attention. Blue tones modulated to staccato tangerine stabs.
"Ah, I see you've noticed that Roche canvas. He's certainly becoming quite popular. When I first saw it, I thought, 'Mr. Alexander will want that one.'"
"Want it? Of course I don't want it. It's magnificent."
Grimes twisted his mouth out of shape, opened it, closed it again, and swallowed loudly. "No, no, of course not," he said faintly, and his hands trembled as he brought out more paintings.
"I'll take that one."
"Very good choice, Mr. Alexander. You seem partial to this particular artist. She's quite productive."
"Yes, it does seem unusual that a woman should be painting so many canvases." She should be tossing on a bed of pain somewhere, he thought, producing her average one and one-half child as average women should. "No, not that one."
Pained, Grimes looked at the painting he held. He had sold Mr. Alexander dozens of gloomy Dutch paintings before. As he pulled down the green velvet covering, the glint of golden armor under the darkly bearded head disappeared.
A while later, Mr. Grimes said, "That's the last of them. Let's see---you've taken five. I'm really wondering, Mr. Alexander, where you plan to put that Italian Renaissance ceiling painting. I didn't think your walls were that high."
Curiosity put Grimes' head into the lion's mouth. He had visited Mr. Alexander often, but only a few small paintings hung on the walls, and those had always been the same selection. His theory that the paintings had been bought for museums had proven false. His search through the catalogs for one particular painting which Grimes had liked---was it a Gainsborough or a Reynolds?---had failed. It was as if that painting had vanished.
"Of course, you could always try it on your ceiling." Grimes started to laugh at his little joke, but a turgid burst of smoke made him cough.
"There'll be room for it." Mr. Alexander smiled down at the half-smoked cigar.
"Whatever happened to that Borismensky you bought the other day? Wasn't that too large for your home, also?" Grimes' head was tickling the lion's tonsils.
"It fit." Warmth and confidence swept through Mr. Alexander. He had developed a bit of affection for old Grimes through the years. "Really, my dear Grimes, any painting fits into a furnace if you chop it into small enough pieces." He was smiling a Mephistophelian smile as he left the shop. It was a few seconds before Grimes noticed a curl of smoke from the damask chair in which Mr. Alexander had been sitting.
"I'm glad he's not a racist," said Mr. Grimes.

(RETURN TO JEWELBOX) unless you want more stories:

This longish story, "Stark," is a product of my strange adolescent mind.

This story, "The Old Old Man," is remarkably prophetic. I love it.

My cosmological fantasies are mind-blowing. Read "A Light and a Sound."