THE OLD WOMAN'S PAINTINGS
THE OLD WOMAN’S PAINTINGS
He lifted the cup to his lips. He was enjoying the rich and gentle aroma wafting from the tea.
“I’ve brought you two more plates of sandwiches, just as you requested,” the waitress said as she placed them on the table.
He adjusted his glasses and smiled at the waitress. “Thank you.”
“Enjoy your meal, sir,” she said, and walked away.
After she left, he took another sip of his tea.
“Sorry we’re late, boss,” someone said. They were all dressed in blue jeans and coloured t-shirts. Unlike him, they looked much younger. He looked up and his gaze stopped at the third man in front of him. He was the youngest of the three, he was tall with wavy blonde hair and blue eyes.
“Who is this?” he asked, a trifle irritated.
The first man on the right raised his hand hesitantly. “I forgot to tell you, boss. He’s a friend of mine. I thought I’d bring him along.”
“You thought? Wait, let me understand this for a moment, Peter. You actually thought it would be a good idea? You actually made a decision without consulting me?”
“No, it’s not like that, boss! I figured that he’d be an asset, you know? He’s very trustworthy. I’m sure we can use him,” Peter said.
The boss nodded, his face softening a little. “You should all sit down. I’ve already ordered some sandwiches for you. But since I didn’t expect you to bring a friend along, I’ll have to order one more plate.”
As they all sat down, the boss turned and waved to the waitress. She hurried over to his table.
“Can I have another plate of these lovely sandwiches?” he asked with a smile on his face.
“Of course, sir,” she said and hurried away.
He glanced around the restaurant briefly. There weren’t too many people around. There was a couple seated at a corner not too far from them. An old lady was nibbling from a plate of salad at a table nearby. A young woman was eating and drinking with two young girls, probably her daughters. He couldn’t sense any threat from them, so he turned back to the three young men in front of him.
“Tom, do you know our new friend that Peter decided to bring along?”
Tom nodded. “Yes, boss, I know him. He’s an old friend of Peter’s from way back in school. He’s fine, boss. I mean, I can say that he’d be an asset.”
The boss sipped his tea and nodded. “Really? And what is your name, young man?”
“Nigel, sir. My name is Nigel.”
“Okay, Nigel. And what do you know about these two gentlemen sitting with you?” the boss asked, taking yet another sip of his tea.
Nigel looked sideways at his two friends. “They’re okay, sir.”
“Okay? What do you mean by ‘okay’?”
“I’m sorry, sir. I meant they’re nice, like trustworthy and stuff. I mean, they were kind enough to introduce me to you.”
“Is that so? Well, I don’t know much about you. But I guess I’ll have to work with whatever references they have given about you. And from the looks of it, the references are good.”
“Good? Yes, they’re both good.”
“I meant their references, Nigel. Their references about you seem okay.”
“Okay. Yes, they are okay.”
The boss glanced at Peter and Tom. “Your friend here seems very excited. Am I wrong?”
Tom shook his head. “No, you’re not, boss. You’re right about that.”
Peter grabbed Nigel’s arm and shook him. “Come on, man. Just relax, okay. You’re with the boss now. Just calm down!”
“I’m sorry, sir. I’m just excited for the chance to work with you. I mean, I never expected it. You all don’t know what this means to me. I mean, I’m over the moon! I know what a cool life my two pals here have with you, and somebody like me with not too great an education—you know what I mean?”
Just then, the waitress arrived with the additional plate of sandwiches. “Do you need anything else?”
The boss nodded. “Could you please get us four cups of tea?”
“Of course, sir,” the waitress replied and left.
The man turned his attention back to Tom, Peter and Nigel. “Why not start eating your sandwiches, boys? They’re quite fresh and tasty, I must say. But for me, it’s the tea that’s making my day.”
While they ate, the boss pointed at Nigel. “Like I was saying earlier, Nigel. I’m going to work with you based on the recommendations of your two friends here. I have worked with them a number of times in the past.”
Nigel nodded. “Yes, boss.”
“That’s good. I hope they told you how I run things? You have to be dedicated, calm and focused on the job at hand. Do you think you can do that?”
“Yes, boss. I can do that.”
“You can do what?”
“Be dedicated, calm and focused, boss.”
“That’s right, Nigel. Because the efficiency and success of our operations are hinged on those three factors. If one of them is lost, then we might as well forget about succeeding. And for us, success is paramount. Right, guys?”
Both Peter and Tom nodded in unison.
“Sure it is. Otherwise, why bother starting any operation in the first place, unless it’s going to be successful?”
“Yes, boss. It wouldn’t make any sense to start an operation if we’re not confident we’ll succeed.”
“Exactly. Now tell me, Nigel, how much experience do you have?”
“Of course, yes, I want to know what I’m going to do with you, what role you would play in our next job.”
“Is there another job lined up, boss?” Peter asked.
The boss adjusted his glasses and smiled. “Of course there is. Why would you think I’d take the time out of my schedule to shout you all a meal in this restaurant? You think I’m in love with you?”
They all laughed briefly. It was an uncomfortable laugh meant to ward off trouble, more than an attempt at being convivial.
“It’s funny, isn’t it? I mean, anyone would think that we’re having a jolly good time together. Right? But it goes beyond all that. And you know that, don’t you? It’s all about being close-knit, working with precision, and being focused on the job at hand.”
Nigel saw Peter and Tom nodding. He joined them as well, even though he wasn’t really sure what the boss had just said.
This seemed to have a positive effect on the boss. He liked the fact that all three were listening attentively to what he was saying.
“So, boss, what about this new job?” Peter asked.
The boss sipped some more of his tea. “I’m about to get to that. Are you sure we shouldn’t call the waitress for more tea?”
Nigel shook his head. “Nah, I’m okay, boss.”
Peter nodded. “Same here, boss. I’m not really a tea person.”
Tom glanced at his friends. “Somehow I’m beginning to love this stuff. Man, it’s so relaxing, and cleanses my system like magic. I think I’ll have some more.”
The boss smiled. “There, I knew I’d have a convert soon enough. Tom is now a disciple of my tea-loving enterprise. Nigel and Peter, you better join the winning team before it’s too late.”
The boss’s demeanour was a lot more pleasant now, and he didn’t appear half as intimidating as he did a few moments ago. Nigel wondered if it was the impact of the tea or the prospect of beginning the new project.
“How has drinking tea suddenly become your favourite pastime, Tom? You used to love beer before,” Peter said, sneakily.
Tom shook his head as he sipped some more tea. “You seem to forget that times change, bro. And as they do, people follow suit. Besides, the boss is into it. And that means it’s good for us. You should try it, bro.”
Peter shook his head. “Nah, I think I’m okay for now. I just want to know more about the next job.”
They were quiet now as all attention was focused on the boss. He just kept drinking his tea.
Eventually, the boss placed his teacup in the saucer and looked at the three faces in front of him. He could see the eagerness and enthusiasm in their eyes.
He liked the fact that he had ignited their curiosity. Slowly, he picked up the tablet by his side. He turned it on and selected some files before passing it over to Peter. “That’s going to be our next job,” he announced as Peter looked at the image on the tablet.
Nigel could see Peter frown before passing it over to Tom. After Tom had looked at it, he passed it on to Nigel.
“An old house,” Nigel said, in a voice that sounded more like an announcement rather than an enquiry.
“Yes, it is, Nigel. But not just any ordinary old house.”
“What do you mean?” Nigel asked.
“This one has prospects, and lots of potential. Believe me when I say that this is really going to be worth it, guys.”
Peter cleared his throat. “I’m sorry, boss. It’s not as if I want to question you or your plans, but I really don’t see why we have to work on an old house like this. I mean, what prospects could there be in it?”
“I was expecting you to ask that. You want to make sure you’re not wasting your time working on this house, right? Well, wait till you see this,” the boss said as he tapped the screen of the tablet and opened another folder. Then he pushed the tablet towards Peter. Peter looked at the screen for a while. The frown on his face dissolved into a glow of interest.
“What is it, Peter?” Tom asked, shifting closer.
“Take a look for yourself,” Peter replied, and pushed the tablet towards Tom.
After Tom had gazed at the tablet for a while, he whistled softly. “This is wonderful, boss. Seriously.”
“Can I have a look?” Nigel asked.
Tom nodded and passed the tablet to him.
“Paintings?” Nigel asked. “There are paintings on the wall.” The disappointment in his voice was palpable.
The boss nodded. “Lots of them, I must tell you. In fact, the whole house is full of them.”
“Really? Do you think they’re worth anything?”
“They are, Peter. A lot, for that matter.”
“Are you sure?”
“Very sure, Tom. The old woman told me so herself.”
“What old woman?” Peter asked.
“The owner of the house.”
“Wait. You mean the old house belongs to an old woman?”
“Yes, it’s been hers for a long time. According to what she told me, the house has been in her family for centuries now. And so have the paintings on the walls.”
“She told you all this?” Tom asked.
“Yes, a call was made to my office last week. The woman wanted some help with some of the electrical fittings in the house. I was sent there to take a look at the problem. And, guys, I really got an eyeful. That house is a gold mine waiting to be exploited.”
“Really? That’s amazing. So where did she get all those paintings from?” Tom asked.
“She told me that it was her family’s tradition to collect paintings. They’ve been at it for ages. And the wonderful thing is that she has continued the practice as well. That means she still adds to the collection from time to time. I contacted an expert in paintings, and he told me that each of those pieces is worth at least fifteen big ones.”
The three young faces in front of him lit up in anticipation.
“Fifteen? Did, did you just say fifteen thousand dollars for each one?” Peter stuttered.
“You heard me right the first time. And there are over a hundred of them in that house.”
“Then, boss, what are we waiting for?” Tom asked.
“Of course, we need to perfect our plan first. That’s what we’re waiting for. Or do you expect us to just knock on her door and ask her to hand over the paintings?”
“No, not really. It’s just that I’m so excited. This should be the easiest job that we’ve ever done! It’ll be easier than taking candy from a little kid,” Tom said with obvious glee and relish.
“Yes, but even taking candy from a little kid can backfire if you don’t do your homework. That’s why we need to go over our plan meticulously.”
“As always, the boss is right. We need to look over everything to make sure that we have covered all aspects properly,” Peter added.
“Exactly. You know, maybe it’s good you brought Nigel along after all. We’re probably going to need an extra hand on this job. Nigel, are you ready to work and earn some good money?”
“For fifteen thousand, I am ready to do anything, boss.”
“That’s the spirit. Now, I want you all to listen very carefully.”
There was a knock on the door.
An elderly woman went to open it. There, standing in the doorway, was a man.
“Good afternoon, ma’am,” he said with a smile.
The old woman squinted at him through her eyeglasses. “Hello. Who are you?”
“It’s me. The electrician. Remember? I was here last week to check up on your electrical fittings.”
Her old wrinkled face brightened up. “Oh, yes, yes, yes. You’re very right about that. My, it has been a while. It’s so nice to see you again.”
“Thank you. I was in the neighbourhood, and thought it would be nice to come around and see how you’re doing.”
“How kind! Please do come in,” the old woman said, and stepped aside.
The man walked in and she closed the door.
The man adjusted his glasses and quickly scanned around the house. As he did so, his eyes took in the paintings on the wall. “I wanted to ask if there were any more problems with your electrical fittings, ma’am.”
“No, not anymore. I think you did a really nice job the last time you were here. But it’s kind of you to have come by. Not many people would have thought to come back to check over their previous work.”
“It all depends on how such people take their work. For me, it’s important to make sure that those I serve are completely satisfied. That way, they know who to call whenever there’s a problem.”
“That is a very good work ethic, I must say. Sadly, it is something that is lacking these days. A lot of people don’t really care. You should not be like them. You should stand out from the rest, be someone different, and that is how you will be noticed.”
“I agree, ma’am. Being different and standing out is what’s required.”
Just then, there was another knock on the door.
“My, today seems to be a very busy day for me.” She went back to open the door again, and found three men standing before her. “What can I do for you young gentlemen?”
“Sorry, we’re asking about our colleague. He said he wanted to check up on you,” Peter said.
The old woman frowned. “Your colleague?”
The boss stood up from his seat. “I’m sorry, ma’am. Those are my colleagues. We all work together. They were checking up on our van while I came in to see you.”
“Are they? Oh, please do come in.”
Peter, Tom and Nigel came into the house and sat down.
“I was just telling your colleague that he has a very nice work ethic. Not everyone would be willing to come back to see if their work was still in good condition.”
Tom nodded. “Yes, he’s really good at his work. He takes it very seriously.”
“Since you’re all here, let me get you some tea. You remember the one I served you when you were here the first time?”
“Of course, ma’am, I do remember. In fact, I have been hooked on it ever since. I have now made it almost a ritual to have some, every day.”
The old woman’s eyes lit up in surprise. “Every day? How wonderful.”
“You mean the tea we had at that restaurant?” Nigel asked.
“Yes, she was the one who introduced it to me.”
Nigel frowned as he shot glances at Peter and Tom. “So you never really drank tea before you met her?”
He glared at Nigel with barely suppressed anger and said in a low voice, “Yes, I think I mentioned that to you earlier.”
“Is something wrong? Does he not want to have some tea?”
The boss shook his head. “Please don’t worry about him, ma’am, we can have some without him. I’m sure he’ll change his mind once he smells its aroma.”
“Okay, I won’t be long.”
As she turned to leave, the boss stood up abruptly. In one swift motion, he grabbed her by the arm and forcefully spun her around.
As she faced him with surprise and shock written all over her old, wrinkled face, he raised his hand and punched her in the face.
The woman gasped once and suddenly went limp. The man caught her as she started to fall. He gently eased her onto a chair nearby, just as blood began to ooze from her nose.
The man waved his finger at Nigel. “You moron! What was all that talk about the tea for?”
“Nothing, boss. I’m sorry. I was just curious, that’s all.”
“Curious? About tea? You must be terribly naïve or simply foolish. Quick, go and start getting the boxes. We have a lot of work to—” the boss suddenly stopped talking.
“What’s the matter, boss?” Peter asked.
“Where is the old woman?”
“She was just right there,” Tom said, unsure about what had just happened.
The chair was now empty.
“Is this some kind of joke or what?”
“I don’t know, boss. Honestly, I don’t know where she is,” Tom said.
“Me neither, boss. I barely even looked at her twice. Believe me,” Peter said.
“Don’t even look at me, boss. Remember, I was the one who raised my suspicion about the old woman,” Nigel said.
“What do you mean, ‘suspicion’?”
“Well, I pointed out that it was strange, you know? I mean, all of a sudden you’d gotten attached to drinking that type of tea. Something you never used to do before. It looked strange to me, besides the fact that we were robbing an old woman.”
“What’s strange about robbing an old woman? As long as she has prospects, then she’ll do just fine. Now, I don’t want to hear any more stupid talk about superstitious nonsense. Obviously, I didn’t knock her off properly, so she must have snuck away while we were distracted. I want you all to spread out and search for her. She can’t be far.”
“Shouldn’t we go in teams rather than going separate ways?” Tom asked.
“She’s just an old woman, for goodness’ sake! Quit being a sissy and get to work right now.”
“Yes, boss. No problem. We’re on it already,” Tom said, and ran up the stairs.
The boss cursed and began to look around.
As he was about to open the kitchen door, he heard a loud bang and the sound of someone screaming. He turned around to find Tom tumbling down the staircase.
The boss, Peter, and Nigel watched in horror as their colleague fell down the staircase, tumbling over and over until he landed on his head with a huge thud at the foot of the staircase.
They all rushed to him. His eyes were wide open and he was struggling to say something.
“Give him some space, will you? Open up his shirt and let him breathe,” the boss said, kneeling down by his side.
But even after opening up Tom’s shirt and fanning him a little, his condition did not improve. Tom’s eyes were blank and fixated. He raised his hand and pointed.
The boss followed his finger to some paintings on the wall.
“What do you want to say?” the boss demanded.
“It’s the paintings, boss. He’s pointing at the paintings,” Peter replied.
“And what is it about the paintings?”
“I wish I knew, boss. I really wish I knew,” Peter muttered.
Then, with a soft sigh, Tom’s hand fell down by his side, lifeless.
The boss touched his neck, checking for a pulse. He did not feel any.
The boss stood up. “He’ll be all right. He just passed out, because of the fall from the stairs. Quickly, help me carry him to one of these settees. He’ll be fine.”
After Tom had been placed on a settee, the boss pointed up the stairs. “We’re all going to go together this time, understand? I’m not taking any chances. Not ever again.”
They rushed up the stairs and began to comb the rooms, one after the other. The boss could not help but notice the amount of paintings on the walls of the rooms upstairs.
“Guys, can you see what I’m seeing?” the boss asked as they searched.
Nigel nodded. “The number of paintings, boss?”
“Exactly. I really underestimated the number of paintings in this house. There are even more of them upstairs than downstairs. Let that be a source of motivation for our tired and exhausted souls. Just imagine what we’re going to fetch for all these paintings. That would more than compensate for all the—” But he never got to complete his statement. He got interrupted by Peter’s sudden shouts.
“Damn! What is it this time?” the boss demanded.
Peter was pointing downstairs. “He’s gone, boss. Look, Tom is gone!”
The boss shot an angry look downstairs. “What do you mean ‘gone’?”
“Look for yourself!”
The boss frowned as he looked at the settee where Tom had been lying a while ago. It was empty.
“What? Who moved Tom?”
Both Nigel and Peter shook their heads in unison.
The boss bit his lip. He knew that Tom did not have a pulse when he was laid on the settee. That meant that he was already dead. So there was no way he could have suddenly gotten up and walked away.
“I’m sure he must have gotten up after we came upstairs. Let’s not bother about him for now. We have an old woman to catch. And the sooner we do so, the better.”
“Boss, I don’t mean to be rude, but maybe we should be thinking about getting out of this place?” Peter said.
The boss’s eyes flared with anger. “What was that you said? Getting out of this place? Why would you even think of such an option? What about the job at hand? What about the paintings?”
Peter shrugged. “I don’t know, boss. This job seems odd. I mean, just look at what’s been happening. We’re still searching for some old woman. We haven’t even started packing the paintings yet. And there are so many of them! Don’t you think we’re running late on this job? Someone could come in at any moment and start asking questions. I say the smart thing would be to bolt.”
“Are you thinking of throwing in the towel?”
“I don’t know, boss. I’m just saying it as I see it. I mean, we’re not even focused on getting the job done. Who knows where the old woman might be? Perhaps she might have snuck out already and gone to get the cops without us knowing.”
“That’s not possible. You know how fast she would have to move to be able to go get help? I’m positive that she must still be inside, playing hide and seek with us, that old witch.”
“Maybe that is what she is, boss,” Nigel suddenly said.
The boss spun around to glare at him. “What was that you said?”
“I meant the woman, boss. Maybe that’s what she is. A witch.”
“For goodness sake, what is wrong with you guys today? What is all this nonsense? I don’t want anyone talking about witches, okay? We’re searching for a cunning old woman. She is in this house and we’re going to find her, do you understand?”
Nigel looked at Peter and they both reluctantly nodded. Sceptical as they were about the boss’s sense of judgment, they both lacked the nerves to object.
Peter turned to open the next door. A horrid smell assailed his nostrils just as he started opening it—like a combination of rotting garlic and putrid flesh—and he suddenly began to feel dizzy. He staggered backwards.
“What’s wrong with you?”
“My head, boss. Everything seems to be spinning out of control.”
“Just take a deep breath and you’ll be all right,” the boss said, holding him up.
A scream from behind made them jump. They turned to see Nigel suddenly double over. He fell down and started to roll on the ground.
“What the hell is wrong with you?”
“It’s my stomach, boss!” Nigel moaned. “It’s on fire!”
“Let’s go back downstairs and get you some water.”
The three men went down the stairs slowly. Nigel was walking bent over with his hands wrapped around his stomach, while the boss supported Peter.
When they finally got downstairs, the boss helped Peter onto a settee, while Nigel fell onto the floor and continued to moan.
“Just calm down, both of you. Understand? Let me try and figure out what I’m going to do. Damn it, we have a job to complete here! We can’t afford all these distractions. We just can’t. Do you understand?” the boss said, facing both of them.
Both Nigel and Peter were looking at him as he spoke. The boss could see their attention was on him and he liked that. So they’re finally coming to their senses, he thought.
But suddenly, it hit him. He realized that the two young men were not looking at him. They were looking past him.
Fearing the worst, the boss spun around with an angry scowl on his face.
The two young men saw that the boss had suddenly frozen. He just stood there, gazing off into space. Then he began to scream loudly. After a while, his screams seemed to fade away, as if it had been muzzled up by someone or something.
They all tried to scream but were unable to. The three men had their mouths wide open, without any noise coming out of them.
They were stuck, unmoving and transfixed.
None of them could move a muscle. No matter how hard they tried, they were frozen in the same position, as if glued to the same spot.
Then, they saw the old woman floating into their line of sight. She had a smile on her face as she glided towards them.
“What idiots and fools you all are! So you think you can take advantage of an old woman like me?” she asked as her feet came down onto the ground.
The men watched as the old woman touched the boss’s face. She was shaking her head as she did so. “Just look at how foolish you were. And I was already beginning to think that you were different from the rest of them, those men on the walls.”
She caught the glint of shock in the boss’s eyes.
“You seem surprised. Well, you should be! The last time you were here, I forgot to tell you that those paintings, all of them that you can see, are actually fools like you who have tried to rob me over the past years.” The woman nodded. “Yes, all of them have tried to steal from an old woman living in an old house. Pathetic, don’t you think? But then, most human beings are greedy and foolish.”
Her laughter echoed in the silent room.
“Well, today I have acquired four new paintings to add to my collection. Wouldn’t you call that a jackpot?”
A few hours later, a man was hanging up a painting.
“Careful now, young man, I don’t want you falling down while you’re doing that.”
“Don’t worry, ma’am. I am being careful. You must really love paintings.”
“Yes, you could say that I am a lover of art. Would you care for some tea?”
“I wouldn’t mind some, ma’am. Thank you very much.”
He finished hanging the four new paintings on the wall.
The boss could see Nigel, Peter and Tom from the corner of his eyes, also hanging in frames nearby.
One thought crossed his mind as he stared at them. Maybe Nigel was right about the tea and the old woman. I should have stuck with coffee.