The Portrait Self-Scholarship Caper

“What is this place?”

Reg watched Serena look around the dingy, poorly lit room. A single, incandescent bulb hung from a wire. The walls, floor, and ceiling were all smooth, gray cement. Pipes lined the ceiling.

“It looks like something out of a WWII movie.” She said.

“Cold war, actually. My grandfather built this bunker to save us from ’the bomb.’ Now, it’s base,” he declared, a hint of pride in his voice. “But don’t bother trying to get cell down here.”

In the middle of the room, Marc and Nate sat on folding chairs around a card table covered in papers and snacks. A flip chart on the wall listed things to do, with previous pages tacked up around it, covered in complicated diagrams and mind maps. Several inkjet printouts of the painting were taped to the walls.

“Hi Nate,” Serena walked over to the table.

“Hi. Glad you’ve joined up. We need your help.”

“No we don’t.” Marc mumbled around a mouthful of cookie.

“You’re just sore ’cause she beat you at, what was that? Oh yeah, every math test ever.” Reg prodded his friend.

“No. I’m just saying, we don’t need her.”

“Nice to see you, too.” Serena was used to his sullen defensiveness, but she didn’t have to take it lying down. “If you don’t need me, fine. I’ll just take these, and go home.” She leaned across the table slowly, planting her chest directly in front of Marc’s face before picking up two Oreos and turning toward the door. “Ooh, double stuffed. Good choice.”

Reg and Nate both glared at Marc.

She was halfway up the stairs before Marc called out, “Fine. She can stay.”

• • •

They met in the bunker every day after school and worked on the plan. Steal back the stolen art. Get the reward. Send Reg to college.

Nate had spotted the painting during a party at a classmate’s home, and knew what it was. Ever since he saw the movie “The Monuments Men” freshman year, he had been obsessed with lost WWII artwork stolen by the Nazis.

Marc had the connections, through his uncle’s auction house, to get the painting back to the right people. With a new email account, he sent a few discrete inquiries to art dealers in his uncle’s address book. They had put him in touch with others, who had asked for photos.

Serena got the photos. And access to Barnard’s house, by the simple expedient of dating him. He had been asking her out for months, but she couldn’t stand him. She only said yes to help Reg get to college.

His dad’s business had tanked a few years ago, and he lost the family’s entire savings, including Reg’s college fund, in unsuccessful attempts at life support. Now Reg had the grades, and a partial scholarship, but had to come up with $5,000 within a month or he’d loose his place.

When Nate dragged him over to the painting at the party, he didn’t see anything special about it. It was just a tiny old portrait of a man with his hands folded in front of him, like a dozen other family portraits in the hallway. The next day, Nate showed him websites describing the story of Hans Memling’s lost “Portrait of a Young Man,” and an idea began to form. They could turn it in for the reward, save a priceless piece of history, and pay the tuition, all in one go.

Assuming it was genuine. 

Reg scoured the Internet for the painting’s history, and find-your-ancestry websites for Barnard’s grandfather’s war record, to see if he was part of the German 10th Army in Italy in August, 1944, where the painting was loaded onto a truck that was never seen again. Everything fit.

But telling the authorities where it was would only get them a pat on the back, not the reward money.

They needed the painting.

• • •

Friday night.

Serena came out in a tight yellow dress that accented her caramel skin.

“Wow, you look… Wow.” Reg couldn’t form a clear thought for a minute, and then only, “Don’t take it too far.”

“Duh, I have standards.”

• • •

Barnard’s parents were going out, so Serena and Barnard had the house to themselves. As he got them drinks, she looked around—making sure the front door was unlocked—and found the stereo. She picked out music with a heavy beat.

He stood in the kitchen doorway and watched her hips sway gently as she walked, then followed those hips down the hall.

She slipped in his room, fingers hovering on the door jamb just a bit longer than the rest of her, inviting.

“Hell yeah,” he muttered under his breath, and walked in, closing the door behind him.

Three songs later, Reg and Nate silently opened the front door, crept down the hall, and switched the painting with a look-alike they had ordered from a company that prints photos on canvas. They wrapped the tiny portrait carefully, slipped it in a backpack, and walked out. At only 10″ x 14″, it was easy to handle.

They didn’t say a word until they got back to the bunker.

“We got it.”

“We did it.”

“It worked.”

They turned to each other, eyes wide, breathing heavily. Reg started laughing first, then Nate caught it.

Marc was more practical. He took out the portrait and started taking high quality pictures of both sides to email the gallery in Italy, who would deposit half of $5,000 in an anonymous bank account when they confirmed the pictures, and half when they got the painting.

An hour later, Serena returned.

• • •

Everything had gone smoothly, and the best part was, Barnard’s family couldn’t report the theft without implicating themselves. The gallery, too, was more concerned with getting the painting back than tracking them down.

• • •

“Well, guys, we made it.” Serena beamed at her friends. “First day of college.”

“Together.” Reg glowed with gratitude and excitement.

“Always,” Nate chimed in.

“Yeah, whatever.” Mark blushed.

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