The painting hung on the wall as if it were being shown in a museum. It beamed. Encased in a gilded frame, the lavish acrylic strokes that formed a beautiful guitar possessed exquisite light. But this painted guitar was not ordinary. The artist, no doubt a surrealist, had taken great liberty with the neck. Halfway up, the wood transformed into a glass tube vase. In the place of the headstock was a white rose, just beginning to bloom. When Meredith found the painting on the floor of the back seat in a returned rental car, she had second thoughts about keeping it.
She knew who it belonged to. The art dealer, whom she delivered the luxury sedan to, a Mr. Wiseman, spoke optimistically about all of the paintings he carefully arranged in the back of the rental. His plan was to visit the galleries in the city while he was in town, and sell each one to the highest bidder. “Every one of these miraculous pieces should fetch a small fortune,” he told Meredith as he brusquely signed the rental contract she prepared for him on her clipboard. “Don’t you want to inspect the vehicle for damage before you sign?” she pleaded with him. “I did so when you pulled into the hotel’s valet lot,” he answered. “This vehicle is as flawless as every painting I intend to sell today.”
Having worked in the rental car industry for years, Meredith had retrieved a myriad of forlorn personal items. In a hurry to drop off their rentals, customers were always leaving purses, wallets, cell phones and keys behind. Once, she found a diary in a glove compartment. She read several entries before closing it and putting it into the lost and found box kept in the back office. When Mr. Wiseman returned his rental, he had cleared it out of all of the paintings he packed it with. Or so he thought. Unbeknownst to him, one painting strayed from his watch. It stood upright, clinging to the back of the passenger seat. Meredith noticed it when she performed her sweep of the vehicle for interior damage. She did not mention the painting when she dropped him off. Instead, she drove him to his hotel, hoping he would not check the back seat before he exited the car to go up to his suite. “This has been a marvelous trip,” he exulted. “I sold nearly every one of my paintings.” Meredith smiled nervously as he opened the car door and said goodbye. As he strolled triumphantly toward the hotel entrance, Meredith reached behind the passenger seat for the painting. She felt the frame and sighed in relief.
A glass of pinot grigio eased Meredith’s guilty conscience. She sipped restrainedly. She marveled over her new painting. She stood in her living room staring at it. Yet, she could not fully enjoy the moment. What would happen when Mr. Wiseman checked his inventory and noticed the painting was missing? She would be forced to lie to him and her supervisor. She was now a larcenist. The thought of this made her sit her drink down and momentarily take her eyes off the painting. When she looked back up at the painting she noticed that something was different. Oddly, the rose had wilted. The guitar strings were now severed from the bridge and coiled. Meredith froze. There was a knock at the door. “Meredith, my name is detective Argos. I would like to ask you a couple of questions.” The detective hearing a thud, forced the door open, and found Meredith’s lifeless body.
(The short story you just read originally was a submission to NPR’s Three-Minute Fiction contest. The contest rules stated that the story must be no more than 600 words. The challenge, set forth by author Karen Russell, was to “Write a story in which a character finds an object that he or she has no intention of returning.”)