By Dorothy Francis

Although Aunt Maude had given me a home after my parents abandoned me, I hated her. Prim faced and unsmiling, she always smelled slightly of vinegar. She had no understanding of my personal needs—always carping about my hair and clothes. The day we learned her cancer was inoperable, I smiled. Now she’d soon be out of my life forever. But I scowled when she began giving away her possessions. Those possessions should have been mine, all mine. I was her only heir.

The Ramiz seascape was first to go. Art dealers had offered fifty thousand, but she was giving it to the local museum. I tried to cork my anger.

“Museum patrons will appreciate the Ramiz,” Aunt Maude said. “It was always my favorite, and now it will be my special gift to my community. It will be their most important exhibit.”

“Big deal, Aunt Maude. Real big deal. That painting should be mine!”

Aunt Maude snorted. “I’m also donating an alarm system to the museum. The company promised it by next week and maybe even sooner. In the meantime, the police are placing an extra security patrol on the museum.”

“You know I love that painting, Aunt Maude. Since John’s gone, I’m your only family. It’s rotten of you to give the painting to strangers.”

Aunt Maude raised her chin. “Since we’re being so frank, Lenny, I think it was rotten of you to save yourself without trying to rescue my John when The Seasprite sank last year. Witnesses said you might have saved him, had you tried. You—the big work-out-at-the-gym athlete! You selfish coward!”

“Aunt Maude, I’m truly sorry about John, but there were sharks. And a rip tide. No point in us both dying.”

“Always thinking of number one, aren’t you?” Aunt Maude gave that cackle she calls a laugh, sending her acrid vinegar scent into the air. “If you think you’ll inherit my things, you’re mistaken.”

“But Aunt Maude . . . ”

“Tomorrow, I’ve an appointment with my lawyer. I’m willing my estate to the Bayside Beach community. They can auction it for a pretty penny.”

“But what about me, Aunt Maude? What about me?”

“Yes, what about greedy Lenny? I’m leaving you one dollar. Anything else you want from my estate you’ll have to bid on just like everyone else.”

“One dollar! You’ve flipped!”

“The one dollar will prove to the court that I didn’t accidentally forget you when I wrote my will. It’ll prove that I intended to cut you off with nothing.”

“You can’t do that!”

“Indeed I can. Just look at you. Dirty beard, greasy ponytail. Your favorite outfit seems to be those barefoot sandals and those grimy jeans clinging at half-mast with no underwear beneath them. Hitch up your pants, Lenny. Get a belt. Get a shirt. You’re an embarrassment to me.”

“My hair and clothes are my choice, my personal style.” I swiveled my hips, deliberately lowering my jeans another inch. “But what would you know about style? All you know is church and committees and civic duty. I pity you, Aunt Maude.”

“And when I’m not feeling angry at you, I feel sorry for you, Lenny. I offered you a college education and you chose to refuse it. No studying for you. Had to spend your time working out, hanging out with hoods, snorting coke. Well, this’s where it got you. No education. No job. No friends. No future. No legacy. You’re a loser, Lenny.”

My hate for Aunt Maude grew like a malignant mushroom in my mind. That night I headed for the museum. No reason for strangers to have the Ramiz painting. I knew a fence in Miami who could get me at least twenty-five thou for it.

I waited an hour after the museum closed to break in. Easy pickings. Some security Bayside Beach offered. I’m surprised they even bothered to check the doors. I knocked out a tiny pane of glass, reached in and snapped back the lock. It took only a few minutes to locate the Ramiz on special exhibit in the entry hall.

The painting in its gilded frame was a three-by-five and heavy. I propped the door open, intending to lift the painting from its special easel and walk to my car, which I had parked, in deep shadows close by. I knew I could handle the weight, the short distance, but my plan bombed the minute I lifted the painting. An alarm sounded, a raucous screeching that deafened me. I almost dropped the painting. Aunt Maude must have bribed the security company to get started on her job quickly. If only they had wired the doors first and postponed wiring the painting until later, I might have escaped.

Run! No time for if-onlys. I still had a chance. It would take police a few minutes to arrive. I grasped the Ramiz, holding it in front of me like a shield. Now police sirens wailed, and in moments searchlights fanned the museum grounds like strobe lights, almost catching me in their glare before I ducked into a dark hallway. In seconds, the cops entered the building.

“Stop!” an officer shouted. “Come out with your hands up.”

Was he kidding? I knew he hadn’t spotted me. But I had a glimpse of him. Fat Albert, my pals and I called him. I could outrun him any day, even carrying a painting.

Escaping through the back door, I took off at a sprint, ducking behind hibiscus bushes, under low hanging palm branches. Searchlights flashed closer. I swiveled to avoid a statue in the rear courtyard. Then it happened.

My jeans began slipping. I’d lose the painting if I stopped to hitch them up—lose twenty-five big ones—and I’d go to jail.

In those nanoseconds of indecision, my jeans dropped to my ankles and tripped me. I fell. Three officers surrounded me, hands on their guns. In my terror, my hands covered my nakedness. I could still hear Aunt Maude’s voice replaying in my mind: Get a belt, Lenny. Get a belt.

Was that vinegar I smelled?