Elian Greco, a small man with a comb-over, cheap suit, and a pointed nose, shook my hand, without enthusiasm, as we followed prospective buyers into his gallery. He had no time for the riffraff. He reserved his welcoming warmheartedness for those, who he believed to be serious buyers. Angie didn't bother with Greco. She already had her priority set when she read there would be a wet bar at the auction. She didn't worry about socializing with potential buyers or the riffraff or with Greco. She studied art and loved art, but regarded art people as pretentious overblown assholes.
Aside from being art fans, Angie and I are partners in our own private investigative firm. We deal mostly with art crimes, like theft and forgery.
We both have degrees in art history. And for the first fourteen years of Angie's life, she was raised by her father, an art forger and a murderer. And as invaluable as her experience is, her greatest contribution is her PhD in busting heads, which she got from growing up in the back alleys of Kansas City and being raised by a piece of shit father.
When she's not helping me and when she's not working out at Arguello's Gym, she takes part time jobs bouncing at local night clubs or working as a bodyguard for some of the city's more wealthy types. And when she's not doing any of those things, she competes on a roller derby team with the Kansas City Roller Warriors. Often when a case requires some muscle or a persuasive tone, Angie's the one who usually steps in and gets it done.
For tonight's occasion, she wore a pair of jeans with holes in the knees and a tight black tank top that read, 'I Pooped Today' in white letters, across the front, and a charcoal grey fedora with a red band. The black tank top seemed to work well with her solid black tribal tattoos that snaked down both her arms and across her chest and back.
Her hair color changes with her moods. This week her hair matched the color of her tattoos, a rich profound black. It's short and spiked in places and when she walks, people give her a wide berth and when she got to the wet bar, other patrons moved aside.
Simon Lamb sat in the first row, waiting for his newly discovered Catherine Klee painting to be auctioned off. According to an article in the Kansas City Star, his painting titled, “The Jazz Player,” had been hidden away in his basement for the past fifty years. He said he discovered it while going through some old boxes, looking for items to donate for a charity sale.
The auction room of the gallery was small with walnut wainscoting and a wood trim pattern on the ceiling. The first row of chairs were dark finished cherry high backs with leather cushioning. The other five rows were metal fold-out chairs. An isle was cleared down the center of the seating area with the painting displayed at the end of the isle on a large wooden easel, directly in front of the podium. It depicted a black man in a black suit and black fedora, leaning against a street lamp, playing the saxophone, under the evening moon light. Neon lights in the background. People were mingling with their wine and discussing the importance of Klee's work. I passed on giving an opinion to people who I thought were only showing off.
I've known Simon for some time now. He's always been the type of person who always had a story to tell and was always ready to engage in conversation, regardless the topic. But today he sat hunched in his seat with his arms folded over his chest. He seemed uninterested in conversation.
Catherine Klee was a local artist from the early twenties to the late fifties. Many of her paintings depicted the roaring night life of Kansas City, during the prohibition years. Her work became world known for her portrayals of the music scene and many of her paintings, thought to have been lost, have been popping up in recent years. Because of this, demand for her work has been steadily increasing.
A voice behind me muttered, “Markus.” It was a voice I recognized right away. I turned and saw Joe Lucas, local businessman and organized crime boss, presenting me with a grin.
“What are you doing here?” I said.
Joe nodded toward the Klee painting, “I hope to make a purchase to add to my collection.”
He was in his mid fifties and was in shape with a full head of black hair, mixed with streaks of grey. He wore Armani pants and Italian shoes. He also wore a sweatshirt, that under normal circumstances, would be inappropriate for tonights occasion, but it was also Armani... and he was Joe Lucas, and like Angie, he didn't worry much about being appropriate.
“What about you,” he said, “on another case?”
I shook my head, “Just here to see the Klee painting.”
Angie returned carrying two glasses of red wine and said, “They didn't have PBR.”
She handed me one of the glasses and looked at Joe with puzzlement and amusement. She shook her head and laughed.
Joe looked at me, held his arms out and said, “What?”
She said, “You still pawning off forgeries?”
“There's nothing going on here, Angie.”
“Bullshit, whenever you're involved in something, someone usually ends up getting shot. Last time it was me.”
Joe looked at me, then back at Angie, “How many times I got to say this, I had nothing to do with that.”
Angie shook her head and took a seat in the last row. Sensing that Joe was still looking, she, without looking at him, gave him the middle finger.
Joe looked at me, leaned in and said, “I think she's still bitter.”
It was nearly a year ago when we were investigating the death of a gallery owner and the theft of a fake Vermeer. Joe wasn't involved in the murder, but he was involved in running forgeries through the gallery. In the end, no body won and Angie ended up taking a bullet in the shoulder. Kimmy, Joe's daughter and shooter for his organization, died from a bullet wound to the neck.
Angie and Kimmy once had a relationship, which ended sometime before the ordeal, but they had remained good friends. Both Joe and Angie took her death pretty hard. It strengthened a bond of, what could be considered, mutual respect between the two. It definitely wasn't a bond of trust.
“Seriously, what kind of scam are you pulling this time?” I said.
Joe sighed, “For fuck's sake, Markus, you too? I'm just interested in the fucking painting.”
I didn't really care what Joe was up too and decided it wasn't worth arguing over. Angie was sitting with a foot resting on the back of the chair in front of her. She didn't seem to care what anyone else was doing and when the person sitting in that chair turned, she presented him with a menacing smile and kept her foot where it was.
Greco took to the podium and announced that the auction will be taking place momentarily.
“Hey Joe,” I said. I nodded towards the podium, “What do you know about that Greco character?”
“I think he's a shady mother fucker,” he said.
I nodded, “Yeah, that's the impression I got too.”
“He knows shit about art.”
I laughed, “And you do?”
Joe shrugged, “Not my job,” he said. “I know how to make money. I know that Catherine Klee's paintings are going up in value. And I have a pretty good sized collection. So purely an investment. Hell, I don't even like her paintings.”
“A real patron of the arts.”
“Hey, I'm honest about it, unlike all these fucking pin heads. Besides. try finding an investment out there with this kind of return,” he said.
Two goons were standing in the back of the room. They were drinking wine like it was mugs of beer, and looking out of place, like a couple of vegans vacationing at a pork packing plant.
“Expecting trouble?” I said.
“What do you mean?” Said Joe.
I nodded towards his men.
Joe sighed and waved his hand in a dismissive gesture.
Once again Elian Greco stepped up to the podium. He straightened his tie and tested the microphone by tapping on it.
“Shall we get started?” He said.
“Show time,” said Joe. He took a seat, that was reserved for him, in the front row. I took my seat in the back row next to Angie. We were with the common people. None of the seats in the back had reserved tags on them.
Greco stood at the podium next to the painting, cleared his throat and said, “I think I’m just as excited as you all are to be able to offer for auction, this lost Catherine Klee painting titled, The Jazz Player. This time in her life was a profound turning point for the artist and for the Kansas City jazz scene, particularly during the prohibition era. This painting is done in oil on canvas, with her signature prominently displayed in the bottom right corner. I'm sure everyone's had a chance to review the painting, so I'd like to get the auction underway by starting the bid at thirty thousand.” He looked around the room, “Do we have thirty thousand?”
Joe raised his hand.
“The bid is thirty thousand. Do we have forty?”
A heavy middle aged woman with frosted blue hair, thick dark eye shadow and a neck that jiggled, raised her hand.
“Do we have fifty thousand?”
Joe raised his hand. He was sitting in his seat sideways, with his arm resting on the back of the chair, so he could have a good view of Frosted Blue Hair. His eyes fixed on her, without expression.
Frosted Blue Hair raised her hand and said, “One hundred thousand.”
“Jesus Christ,” I said. I looked at Angie, “You know who that is?”
Angie leaned over and whispered, “That's Meredith Rivers. She runs a local arts society. It's a gathering of pampered rich women who get together and pretend to be knowledgeable about the arts.”
Joe had no reaction to her bid. He just raised his hand and said, “One fifty,” without looking at the painting or at Greco. His eyes remained fixed on Meredith Rivers. And it was obvious that she felt his glare.
“Do we have two hundred thousand?” said Greco.
Meredith looked at Joe with squinted eyes. Her teeth were showing. It was clear to me, and everyone else in the room, she wanted to rip out his testicles. Joe stared at her with no reaction and this seemed to anger her even more.
“The bid is one hundred and fifty thousand. Do we have two hundred thousand?”
Meredith stood, threw her auction catalog to the floor. Her husband put his hand on her shoulder to comfort her. She quickly pushed it away and snapped, “Keep your fucking hands off me,” as she stormed out of the bidding room.
Angie looked at me and smiled, “This is fun,” she said.
I shook my head.
“One hundred and fifty thousand, going once. Going twice.”
Stephan Colston, a tall man, who I knew from some cases Angie and I have worked on in the past and CEO of Colston Enterprises was standing in the back of the room, said, “Two hundred thousand dollars.”
Colston was in his mid forties but with the body and the hair of someone in their early thirties. The young blond girl he came in with was probably in her late twenties and was over dressed for the occasion in a one shoulder black evening dress and white pearls that dangled just above her cleavage. Colston wasn't paying much attention to her. He owns most of the Klee paintings in existence, and most of the Catherine Klee paintings hanging in the museums today are on loan by him. I'm sure he has a reserved seat in the front row as well. I guess he preferred to stand.
“Three hundred,” said Joe. He never look at the painting during the bidding. He never looked up at Greco. His eyes were now focused on his new opponent... Stephan Colston. He seemed to be reading his body movements and his facial expressions. One thing Joe was good at was reading people. Must be something about being a mobster that makes you a good people reader.
Colston had to clear his throat to get the words “Four hundred thousand,” out. He wasn't looking at Joe. He was staring at the painting that he wanted... that he needed. He was the world's leading expert on Catherine Klee's work and winning this auction would once again put his name in the papers and galleries would continue to showcase his collection, giving him continued status in the art community. He knows that in the art world, fame is just something that's borrowed and some will sharpen their nails and cling to it for as long as they can.
This is what makes Joe different. He's in it for the quick buck and doesn't give a shit about the fame, which is why I question his motives. Any other time, he would have walked away.
The rest of the bidders, who quickly realized they were out of the running, were looking back and forth between Colston and Joe, whispering among themselves, predicting who would come out of this as the victor.
Greco loosened his tie, tapped the microphone again and said, “The bid is four hundred thousand dollars. Do we have five?”
“Five,” said Joe.
Greco looked at Colston and said, “That's five hundred thousand to the front row. Do we have six sir?”
Colston was silent. He looked at the painting, then at Joe, then back at the painting.
Greco leaned over the podium and said, “Sir, the bid is five hundred thousand.”
Colston gave no reaction. He stared at the painting as he calculated his thoughts.
“That's five hundred thousand, going once...”
“Six hundred thousand,” said Colston.
I knew Joe saw what Angie and I were both seeing. This was Colston's last bid. I saw a man clinging on to something that no longer made sense. Then Joe did something unexpected. He looked up at Greco and shook his head... For some unknown reason, Joe had just surrendered to Colston.
Greco seemed physically shaken by the experience and there was a slight stutter in his voice as he said, “Six hundred thousand dollars, going once,” he looked around the room. “Going twice... Sold for six hundred thousand dollars,” then he brought the wooden gavel down that officially ended the auction.
Joe got up and walked towards the door. His two goons followed. Then he did something else I didn't expect. He smiled. And he was still smiling when he walked out of the room. Then I could hear him laughing as he walked down the hall and out the front door.
I looked over at Angie, she shrugged.
People got up from their seats and congratulated Colston on his victory.
Simon Lamb remained seated and quiet. His arms folded tightly over his chest and hunched over, staring out at nothing, probably in disbelief of what had just happened. His long lost painting just sold for over a half million dollars. No one walked up to congratulate him. Everyone's attention seemed to be focused on Colston.
Angie, who was now beaming with excitement and disbelief, started laughing and said, “Fucking hell, six hundred thousand fucking dollars for a Catherine Klee painting.”
I shook my head.
“Seriously, Markus, what the fuck was that all about?”