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An excerpt from

Picture This

Tobsha Learner

Christies Auction Rooms, Rockefeller Plaza, NYC, 2005

The sculpture was coming up; it was five lots away, about fifteen minutes to go, Felix calculated, looking over at the tall, steel-haired auctioneer standing on the podium, the screen above him showing Lot 18 – a work by Gerhard Richter. The room was packed, everyone important in the art world seemed to be there, and the auctioneer’s Swiss German accent resounded like a low French horn around the cavernous auction room.

Felix’s bidder, a young arts graduate he’d trained for such events, sat in a prime position ten rows back from the front. This was only the graduate’s second appearance at a high-profile auction and, judging from the curious sideways glances from the prominent collectors (all in their customary seats) and no one had made the connection between the handsome young Chinese-American man dressed (courtesy of Baum Galleries) in a razor-sharp Savile Row suit with Felix Baum. No doubt they assumed the Asian student was one of the newer breeds of uber-rich collectors directly off the plane from Shanghai, which had been the gallery director’s intention. The perfect foil, Felix thought before being interrupted by his vibrating mobile. He glanced at the incoming number: Maxine. He checked his watch; as usual, his timing was impeccable. Rising to his feet, he pushed his way past the seated bidders. It was only when he reached the back of the hall, out of view of the auctioneer, that he bothered to put the phone to his ear to listen to the message that had just been left.

‘There’s a huge distance between me and the rest of the world.’ Maxine’s voice was broken and slow. ‘…I’ve become a shadow already, an invisibility that gives me no choice But to finally evaporate…will you miss me? Tell me you’ll miss me…’

Verbose and dramatic as usual, she really was an obsessive romantic as well as bipolar, Felix noted, wondering at the background sound whistling down the phone. Would she do it? It didn’t matter, she would fall either way; he’d made sure of that.

From the other side of the room a collector and one of his major clients – Felicity Kocak, a widow in her fifties, clad from top to manicured toe in a pale orange Chanel suit - glanced in his direction. Hoping she would not corner him after the auction, Felix smiled discreetly back. They were in the middle of negotiating an early Edward Hopper work – Girl in a Yellow Square of Light – and the greater part of the negotiation had involved an outrageous amount of flirtation on Felix’s behalf. As far as he was concerned it was not unlike walking a tightrope; he found the woman repellent, both physically and intellectually. But Felicity, the English widow of a Turkish shipping magnate, was immensely rich and easily influenced. What was she planning to bid for here? Felix wondered. Panicked at the thought that someone else might be advising her, he looked to see who her companion was. To his relief, he recognised the thin, elegant woman beside her as a minor player - an art buyer who worked with several of the top interior designers. The two women were obviously hoping to pick up insignificant works to decorate Felicity’s new mansion in the Hamptons. Nevertheless, irritated at the gauche interruption, Felix decided he would put the price of his Hopper up by a hundred thousand.

A hiss sounded from his mobile. Tentatively he placed his ear against it. The noise at the other end intensified into a high-pitched vibration. Did the Brooklyn Bridge really hum like that forty feet up, a cacophony of wires vibrating in the high winds?

‘… Are you there, Felix? Fuck you, talk to me, you bastard! Watch while I nail the memory of me to the back of your brain.’

Maxine fell silent, but the background grew until the sound reached a wail before the phone cut out. A second later the text he was expecting from another number came through: The porcelain doll is broken and floating.

The gallery director’s only betrayal of emotion was a slight tremor; even so the reality of her death was a shock. Steadying himself against the wall he carefully began dissecting his emotional response; after all, Maxine had been one of his lovers. A moment passed before he concluded that, beyond a kind of sadness, his overriding sentiment was one of relief intermingled with a growing adrenalin rush he recognised as opportunity.

The auctioneer calling out Maxine’s name interrupted his reverie. Looking up, Felix saw that the screen above the podium now displayed a bronze sculpture of a massive reclining black woman with Maxine’s customary totem - a winged serpent, which she always used as her signature – engraved on the ankle.

‘Lot 23, a large bronze sculpture entitled Latisha dormant by the young British sculptress Maxine Doubleday. Do I have fifty thousand?’

As he’d instructed, the Asian student immediately put up his baton to bid. Felix relaxed; it would take at least a day for the news of Maxine’s death to spread, giving him time to buy back all of her work at reserve price. There were four pieces in this auction alone and he knew of several others that would be coming up for sale across the world in the next twelve hours. He had bidders at all the auctions: New York, London, Zurich, St Petersburg and Shanghai. Maxine Doubleday may have failed as an artist in life, but Felix Baum would make sure her work received the acclaim it merited in death. It was the least the gallery director could do. The fact that it would make him very rich made it that little more satisfying.

*

It had been another long grey London day without Maxine, her absence a niggling void at the edge of everything Susie thought or did, impossible to dismiss. Even now, as she stood at her framers, the two of them staring down at a series of preliminary sketches of a work-in-process the Tate Modern had purchased, Susie found it difficult not to wonder what time it was in New York, and what Maxine was doing. Was she happy? Was she lying naked beside someone else, using the same words she’d used with her? Emotions, gestures, the vernacular of lovers Susie had never doubted was exclusively theirs, until she’d found her gone.

The framer, a thin rake of a man whose shoulder-length white hair gave him the air of a dishevelled bohemian murmured something about gilding and Susie forced herself to concentrate. As she followed him past walls hung with Renaissance-style frames, she felt herself being pulled further and further away until she had the sense she was floating far above the wooden angels and glistening picture frames. Suddenly a wave of dread rushed through her, causing her to stumble. The framer, catching her, helped her onto a chair.

‘Are you all right?’ he asked, his bony fingers sharp against her arm.

‘I’m not sure.’

A second later her phone pinged: it was a text message from a journalist friend in New York. Even before she read it, she knew what it would say.