“But do you think that you’d connive at some not-quite-honest activity?” the well-dressed stranger asked.

Seth Kimball gave a massive shrug. Half of his third brandy of this art show was inside him, and Jocasta Everleigh was on his arm. He looked pensively at his nearest painting, which showed a bearded stud thrusting his penis up a girl’s ass, and then turned back.

“I’ve always tried to keep my integrity as an artist,” Seth said gravely, “and I don’t know what I’d say if anybody came along and asked me to turn commercial.”

“He’d say yes,” Jocasta Everleigh put in, tossing her dark hair indignantly. “He would if he wants to keep his good friends.”

Seth grunted.

“Satisfactory input.” The well-dressed stranger didn’t sound as if he had been turned off. “May I ask about your politics, Mr. Kimball?’’

“Well, I can’t stand the government.”

“Coming from a popular artist, that’s only to be expected. Do you have any specific political orientation?”

“I, sir,” Seth said, drawing himself up to his full six-two, “am a damned Whig.”

He was still chuckling when he walked off with his Jocasta into the fall night air. They went to his place in the lower East Side of Manhattan’s so-called SoHo artists’ area and Jocasta demonstrated her versatility by doing a blow job on him while she was stretched across a canvas on the floor and again while he was painting a green circle on her ass. He didn’t go down on her until they were in his rickety shower together, and afterwards they had to spend five minutes mopping up the floor of his bathroom. It was a pleasant night.

When they had both been sated and were in the creaky bed at last, Jocasta stirred and looked directly at him.

“If you made a mint of money, Seth, I could give up modeling and we could get married and go off to the Riviera or Cap d’Antibes.”

“Maybe so, honey.” Seth was more than half-asleep already. “But who in hell cares about dough?”

He was working on a minimal painting several after­noons later—a painting of a cunt against a green background—when he heard a series of rapid knocks on his half-cracked door. He opened it on the well-dressed stranger he had met at his art show on East 57th Street. The fellow was wearing a suit that looked like evening dress.

“You will recall our conversation of October seven,” the man said, sitting down gingerly on the only chair in the studio. He was a medium-sized fellow with a twitching nose, but his dry eyes were sharp. “This is a follow-up.”

Seth asked politely, “Who am I addressing?”

“As you are a non-political person, the name will mean nothing to you.” He added, when Seth had cocked his large head, “I, however, am Burris Nortick.”

“How do you d—?”

“My time input must be minimal,” Burris Nortick said after a perfunctory glance at a square-shaped watch with two sets of hands on it. “You’ve stated that you would, if the financial return was satisfactory, sell your services in an extra-legal capacity.”

“I was probably joking, if—excuse me—you know what that word means.”

“Affirmative,” said Burris Nortick, with a blink of his dry eyes. “No criminal activity is actually involved in the projected operation, not on your part or anyone else’s. Clear? Secrecy, however, along with good work, is re­quired. The reward for the effort is maximal.”

“What effort?”

“A painting would be required,” said Mr. Nortick.

“I’ve already got one or two of those for sale,” Seth ad­mitted, pointing to his easel. “This one will be ready in a couple of weeks.”

Burris Nortick looked at the painting of a cunt on the green background. His eyes blinked rapidly.

“You’re a realist, after your fashion, and I can assure you that my interest was caught in your potential for just that reason. But the painting you offer me, Kimball, won’t do. Not by a long chalk.”

“I’m planning to do another painting of a prick on a green background and offer them as a set.”

“There are specifications for this particular job I am offering,” Burris Nortick said firmly. “It would be best not to commit them to writing. I require a painting thirty by sixty in size. It must depict a rural setting, with perhaps a horse or two. There must be snow on the ground. A building would be useful, of course. The choice of coloring is yours, but it must be conventional. I suggest showing at least one child.”

“You’re a little indefinite about that,” Seth said, and chuckled when the other man’s papery cheeks became a dusky red. “What’s the pay for prostituting myself?”

“One thousand dollars.”

Seth kept from whistling in astonishment. “It’s nice to know that the devil wants to buy my soul after all,” he said politely. “Be worse if I was willing to sell and there were no takers.”

Burris Nortick waited.

Seth looked around the little studio, which he liked much better than a studio for a nine-to-five artist in the so-called big time, where he’d have to work among layout men and letterers and cartoonists. Even a small studio like this one had to be paid for, and the most recent art show hadn’t got him quite as many sales as he’d expected. There was a price to be paid, he told himself, for artistic integrity.

“I’ll take the job, but not just for some lousy money.”

“Satisfactory.” Burris Nortick’s lips twitched in a near-smile.

“From your mouth to Satan’s ears,” Seth said.

“On the twelfth of this month, at one-six-oh-oh hours, this work will be picked up.” With only a pause for an ob­jection that never materialized, Burris Nortick closed the door behind him. Seth heard the man’s footsteps meticulously descend the creaky stairs.

Seth took his topcoat over an arm and hurried down to where his chocolate-colored Chevy was parked. After tearing up the parking ticket on his windshield and telling himself that he’d have liked to jam it up the meter maid’s twat, he drove to the upper East Side to see Jocasta. She had just returned from a day’s photo modeling, and greeted him at the door with a milk bottle in one hand.

“I stopped off at the supermarket,” she explained, and drew a deep breath. “I’m tired.”

“Your rich boy friend will perk you up, baby.”

“What do you mean?”

But he wouldn’t explain until he had carefully undressed her, poured the contents of the milk bottle all over her from head to toe, and thrust his milk-moistened tool into her—once while she was standing and a second time when they were lying together under the kitchen sink. Jocasta gasped a few times and finally kissed him on the top of the head. Seth, refusing to wipe his milk-wet lips and tongue, smiled happily.

“What did you mean by ‘rich’?” Jocasta asked when they had stood up.

Seth told her at last

“A thousand dollars is chickenfeed,” Jocasta said crisply. “Three months rent on this apartment, that’s all.”

“Don’t worry, baby, I’ll make us rich yet. Both of us.”

And he kissed her once more in a most untraditional place, for good luck. Then he got into his clothes and went out to seek his fortune.

The commission wasn’t anything like those he usually took on; but he found some examples of Grandma Moses’ work in an art book, with a few Norman Rockwells in the bargain, and got to work. After a few hours, he decided that to do such a job was indeed close to committing a crime, just as Burris Nortick had practically told him.

Nortick came for the work three days later at exactly four o’clock in the afternoon. A uniformed chauffeur at his side packed the painting without looking at it and brought it down to the huge black Buick which Seth saw through his dusty front window.

“The consideration,” Nortick said, counting out money in small bills from a wallet. “Tax-free, of course.”

“Terrific,” Seth agreed. He had never paid income tax, but saw no advantage in saying so.

He was trying to decide whether to make a down payment on a place in Westport or up at Arlington with the money windfall. As it happened, he blew most of it by taking Jocasta on a tour of uptown dives, ending up mid-morning at a tavern in the Chelsea section. They went back to his studio. In a cheery mood, he let her paint the tip of his tool a bright yellow. She was a lousy painter and he told her so. Jocasta left in a huff.

He took her over to Carey Winthrop’s pad a couple of nights later. Carey’s pad was functional except for a cot. There was a TV he was fixing for some chick, but Seth didn’t watch while it was tried out during a newscast. Toward the end of it, though, Jocasta bit his left ear and he looked away and over toward the television.

“President Boyd,” said the announcer, starting a news item, and Jocasta paused ear-biting to indicate her belief that the President’s relations to his maternal parent had been somewhat out of the ordinary, “today allowed news cameras into the White House. At long last we were able to see, along with the entire country, the first result of the new hobby that President Boyd . . .”

“Mother-fucker,” Jocasta said again.

“. . . has pursued during his tenure as president of these United States.”

And there was the nausea-causing Boyd smiling at the camera. He wore a white smock onto which a few colors had been grafted. The rear of a painter’s easel was in front of him.

“Many have said that I’m just an unfeeling politician looking for votes,” the President remarked with his stan­dard rueful smile. “People said that about the late Winston Churchill, too, not to mention—of course—our own late President Eisenhower. These great men and I, however, have shared the same hobby.”

The camera showed the painting, which was the com­mission that Seth had executed for Burris Nortick.

“I’m putting the finishing touches on this one,” President Boyd said through the red haze that had seared Seth’s consciousness. “It shows a dear memory from my childhood in Winnetka. I think it will pass muster for an amateur’s work . . .”

“Mother-fucker,” Jocasta said again.

“Mother-fucker, nothing,” Seth said, jumping to his feet and waving a fist in front of the camera. “That son of a bitch is a father-fucker!”

“. . . and I feel that I should share this one fruit of my hobby, at least, with my fellow Americans . . . Yes, Fletcher, I find that painting relaxes a man between sessions of grappling with the problems of statecraft, and I would recommend that all of my fellow Americans at least consider . . .”

“Father-fucker,” Seth said again.

Jocasta looked at him quizzically. “You sound like you just found out what he’s really like.”

Seth shut his mouth promptly. He had given his word that he’d never talk about what sort of a job he had done for Burris Nortick, and a few more words from him at a time like this would be a few words too many.