2019 Maxy Awards "Best Mystery-Detective"
Two old letters reveal the existence of an unknown Van Gogh painting. Only four individuals have ever seen the work, all now dead. One deceased man, an alcoholic thief, claimed to have smuggled the painting out of France at the beginning of World War Two. His two sons dedicate themselves to finding the Van Gogh, seeking personal redemption for their father and damaged childhoods.
Valued at $250 million, the painting attracts an unseen hired killer, three unscrupulous collectors, and the Russian mob. One brother undertakes the search for the painting, accompanied by a beautiful ex-KGB assassin as his bodyguard. Together, their quest takes them from New York to Los Angeles, from Paris to Amsterdam as murders pile up around them. Welcome to the high-end art world, secret deals, and billionaires willing to go to any length to get their hands on the last Van Gogh.
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Saturday Night February 2018 Chicago
Winter rain crystalized into sleet as the police cruiser eased past my gallery's front window. The black and white turned the corner onto Huron and I relaxed. The Adam Barrow Gallery was having a good night and the last thing I needed were flashing red lights reflecting off Vasily Sorokin's paintings.
The police cruiser combined protection and a curse. I'd located my gallery four blocks from what was once Cabrini Green, Lyndon Johnson's failed public housing experiment turned ghetto. Tucked into a block of five attached businesses, my small contribution included what developers generously termed 'gentrified renewal'. Freshened with track lighting and an upgraded interior, first-rate contemporary realism filled inviting alcoves strategically arranged throughout the gallery. I'd accepted the hazards of locating near the city's slums, a part of the city that blended felons with artsy risk-takers. It was a gamble but I found the rich and adventurous got a perverse thrill from occasional slumming.
The crowd appeared in good spirits as I stood by the door, estimating the room's combined net worth, relieved the late afternoon storm off Lake Michigan hadn't dented eagerness to view Vasily's dazzling work. Persistent shards of sleet pinged against the front window as my assistant Sally, attired in the obligatory black cocktail dress, worked the room with her bubbly charm, her cropped blond hair bobbing among the crowd. Our star Vasily slipped among flashy singles and older couples, playing up his Russian accent, the show his largest exhibit to date.
An overfed contented-looking man wandered up and lifted his wine glass toward me. Harry Helms was middle management down to his brown wingtips, his eyes claiming indirect ownership of all he saw around him.
"Good crowd, Adam."
I shook my banker's hand. "Guarantees next month's payment, Harry."
My eyes followed his. The convivial crowds enjoying Vasily' paintings produced simultaneous smiles. Like most borrowers, my feelings for Harry swung between grateful and an urge to tell him to go screw himself. Owing people money does that to you.
"Nice to see you doing well," he said.
"No choice. You drive a tough bargain."
The banker laughed. "Good wine too. Goes with the crowd from what I can see."
"Your check's in the mail."
He grinned and wandered back to the browsers, looking at the walls as if he owned them, which, in fact, he did. I'd been fortunate in locating a small new bank. Desperate for deposits and loans they gambled on my dream. Unlike many competitors, my gallery was not wound around a mommy-and-daddy bank account. Maybe it was the lure of an art gallery as a client, but the bank bet on a desperate thirty two-year old, binding my future to the loan agreement in their files. It was a risk on both our parts, but I knew what I wanted. I wanted headlines that read "Deprived Boy Makes Good" or, "Thief's Son Overcomes Horrific Childhood." Hell, on the worst days, I'd settle for "Struggling Art Dealer Makes a Buck." Despite my unbalanced balance sheet, things were looking up. I'd finally gotten what I wanted, and while I might be slightly damaged goods, I was beating back the past.
My gamble on the talented young Russian artist produced my first major break. Half a dozen major critics agreed with my assessment and I smelled success. I smiled at Sally who winked and surreptitiously rubbed her thumb and forefinger together. Profit was in the air, and even the industrial pungency of newly-installed carpet grew less noticeable. I'd selected better Chardonnays and Pinots for the festivities, foregoing cleverly labeled vinegar that one endured at most openings. Better yet, I'd counted four pieces with red 'sold' tags. So far, so good.
I started toward Vasily when a disheveled figure bumped against the door and slid to the sidewalk, sleet bouncing off his outstretched legs. Unfortunate but not unusual, I thought with a frown. This wasn't Mr. Rogers neighborhood. When I looked more closely at the new arrival, the evening began to slip away.
My brother had arrived in all his glory.
Of all the chaotic nights in my life, I didn't need a besotted Wes appearing like some mythical Greek god bent on destruction. His back against the glass door, slumped beneath a partially collapsed umbrella, a thin khaki raincoat buttoned to his chin, his ratty tennis shoes scuffed sponges. I tried to signal Damon, my door-minder, but he was engaged in a hand-waving discussion with the caterer.
My brother's arrival caused the rain to fall harder and I envisioned the storm following him inside. He folded a broken umbrella with more care than it deserved and removed the high-topped shoes, slinging away water and grime as if the act might dry them. He slipped them back on and struggled to his feet. He pushed open the door and our eyes connected like first-round boxers assessing weaknesses.
The gust of lakefront wind ruffled expensive hairdos, their owners glowering at us as though the gallery was being raided. His soiled Nikes squished onto my pristine maroon carpet and I opened my mouth to suggest a retreat back into the rain, but something in his face chopped off the rebuke. Only moderately drunk for a change, Wes flashed his patented disarming smile.
"I'm looking for my brother, Adam Barrow."
"Hello, Wesley," I said, aware more eyes had shifted from Vasily's paintings to the confrontation.
Soaked to his underwear, his face sallow and lined, Wes seemed to have aged a decade since I'd last seen him sprawled on a tavern floor, but tonight he appeared more vulnerable in out-of-season clothes and a three-day growth of beard. Smiling at the crowd without the usual anger of most street people, he stepped back and theatrically surveyed my Boss blazer, gray slacks, and black silk tee. His sardonic smile confirmed I'd deserted the ranks of the proletariat.
"Bohemian or California cool?"
"Don't be an ass, Wes. What're you doing here?"
"Not the most brotherly greeting," he said with a tired grin. He swayed slightly, a damp stain spreading beneath his shoes. A tipsy brother and evening devoted to coaxing money from wealthy clients did not mix.
"Again, Wes, what do you want?"
"Sorry to ruin your soiree." He glanced down at the carpet, swaying. "And your floor." He smirked at the paintings around us and nodded as though confirming his worst fears. "You finally got what you wanted."
"You mean I didn't become a drunk like you and dad." I regretted the words the moment they left my mouth, but they were true. My brother and I didn't exactly live enchanted childhoods, constantly surrounded by the clink of shot glasses and whiskey bottles. Which was how we'd grown up. I eventually deserted the war zone, while Wes used my father's disease as an excuse to roll downhill.
"Does Barbara know where you are?" I asked.
Wes hesitated, then nodded as though remembering he was married. "Yeah, no problem. I got my pass signed tonight."
Twelve years older than me, my brother barely topped five foot nine. I stood four inches taller and had inherited my father's English genes, while Wes reflected the darker complexion of our Italian mother. My dark brown hair evaded the onset of age, while his was streaked dull gray, any distinguished appearance ruined by defeated eyes and loose skin that resembled spoiled veal. Whatever prompted his arrival, I suddenly regretted relegating my carpet's survival above my only brother. I maneuvered him past disapproving buyers, managing a smile as though a long-lost fraternity brother had stumbled in from the storm. Sally frowned and gestured at a black Lincoln Town Car that pulled to the curb across the street, the hopeful harbinger of more disposable income.
With no time to babysit Wes, I guided him into the work area where art storage bins rose to the ceiling and caterers tended tables laden with food and wine. Tuxedo-attired servers, another extravagance, stared at us. Wes collapsed onto a metal chair and I tossed hors d'oeuvres onto a rented china plate and handed it to him. I needed to get back to the waiting checkbooks.
"As you see, I'm in the middle of an opening," I said, ignoring the stares. Was Barbara roaming the streets looking for him? "Do you need a few dollars?" Wes had a reputation of borrowing from street sharks who added 20% interest a day.
He placed the untouched plate on the floor beside him and met my uneasy expression with the infuriating smile. "Actually, I do, but we need to talk about dad."
The mention of our father devalued the evening another notch. I was vaguely aware Damon and the catering supervisor stared at Wes with disgust. Beyond the door, I heard Vasily laugh, the chorus of cheerful voices pleading for my return. What was I supposed to do with an alcoholic brother on the most critical night of my brief career?
"Our father's dead," I managed.
"Something's happened." The light in Wes's eyes was a phenomenon I'd not seen in years. "He left us something quite unexpected, little brother."
"Use my name." I'd always resented being viewed as the family baby. "The estate was settled a year ago. If you remember, we divvied up his junk."
He shrugged. "I just got around to sorting through my share."
Searching for a forgotten twenty squirreled away in a book, I thought. He shrugged out of his sodden coat and hung it over the back of the chair. His soiled shirt, once a button-down white oxford, was remarkably dry, a testament to the valiant raincoat. My brother wasn't going away.
Beaming again, he said, "I found something. You of all people will know if it's bullshit."
I had to get back to my eager clients. "If you found something, keep it as a remembrance."
Wes didn't need my approval for whatever he'd found, having looked after dad in his last days, earning anything he discovered among a lifelong accumulation of junk. I long ago gave up on our father, and time never fabricated maudlin redemption in my eyes.
"This goes back," Wes insisted, "before his world fell apart."
"Look, stay here, eat something. I'll talk to you later. "
He eyed a server with a tray of wine. Slouched in the chair, he jammed his hands in his trouser pockets. "Okay, I'll wait." He cleared his throat. "Maybe one glass of wine?"
I started to protest but the furnace kicked in with a thump and a wave of heat washed over us from overhead vents. He closed his eyes as though a benevolent presence dispensed warmth on the needy.
I should have known better but I said, "All right, one glass, but I may be awhile."
"I can wait."
I pointed at the plate of food and headed back into the swirl of contented murmurs of praise for Vasily's sumptuous oils. The young Russian artist beckoned me toward an older couple who stood before the show's largest painting. Vasily flung an arm around my shoulder and grinned at the man and wife impeccably dressed in formal evening attire.
"Best goddamn gallery owner in city," he boomed at me, thickening his Russian for their benefit.
The wife blanched and her husband ignored Vasily's zeal. I noticed Mister GQ Magazine's diamond pinky ring and heavy Oyster Rolex as he edged back from the five-by-five canvas and grimaced at his bejeweled spouse. She held his stare and he looked back to the painting, a $50,000 magnificent Russian woodland scene of pale blue snow and shadows cast by dying afternoon sunlight, a startling reincarnation of Repin, Monet, and Renoir. I still could barely believe I'd latched onto Vasily before the major players found him.
The husband compressed his lips and shot his cuffs. "Your best price."
It was a practiced gesture, a demand rather than negotiation. I didn't get many assholes in the gallery but this guy just made valedictorian. I made eye contact with Vasily, one of the best artist-salesmen in memory. We both knew a sale stood in front of us, whatever the price. Dressed in black with a small neatly-trimmed black beard, he presented the perfect rendition of a successful artist, and I let him close the sale. His accent intensified as he waved at the painting.
"Ah, this one?" he intoned innocuously. "Best work in last two years." He raised three fingers. "You are third — how you say — expert to ask about it tonight," he lied.
Concern crept over the wife's features, ownership slipping away. She glared at her husband and set her lips in a matching grimace. Conceding defeat, he salvaged his ego as though considering a larger Bentley.
"My wife likes it, but I never pay face value."
Vasily gave the barest smile. "I do not think Adam resists ten percent reduction."
I nodded and matched his smile. "A check's acceptable."
Handshakes and smiles as we turned back to the painting. A waiter appeared with good timing and chilled chardonnay and we toasted the couple's exceptional taste, the wife gushing about hanging the acquisition above their new Brunschwig & Fils sofa. Try as I might, I couldn't avoid the sinking feeling that the astounding piece of art had been purchased as a sofa decoration. Only an interior decorator arriving with a swatch of cloth in hand struck more disgust in the heart of any gallery owner who loved art above adornment. However, in all honesty, I shouldn't have cared, having just covered the next six months' rent.
I cut my eyes toward the storage area where Wes waited. He rarely wanted to talk with me except when I bailed him out of drunk tanks from Chicago to California, sometimes with borrowed money, reluctantly excelling in the role of the younger brother playing Good Samaritan.
I offered another round of congratulations to the couple as Vasily promised to attend the unveiling at their home. He excused himself and I followed him through two more rapid sales, the night humming with magic called a buying frenzy in less sophisticated circles. Halogen spots radiated soft light off his magnificent paintings, breathing life into landscapes and village scenes to the delight of well-heeled buyers. As much as I loved their money, I loved the gallery more, reveling in opening the door every morning to walls of luminous oils encased in golden frames, my link to artists who painted their souls onto canvas and board.
Two hours later the last drinkers and dawdlers departed near midnight, the downpour having stopped, trading sleet for patches of ice along the streets. My calves ached after standing four hours in thin-soled Italian loafers, my smile cramping as I bid Sally and Vasily goodnight. Turning from the door, I faced the gallery, overwhelmed by the profusion of red dots indicating sales until I suddenly remembered Wes whom I'd left to the mercy of Damon and the snickering caterers. He'd kindled my curiosity with his claim of a supposed legacy from our father. Slinging my blazer over one shoulder I hurried into the work area. Two empty cabernet bottles sat beside the metal chair, Wes nowhere in sight.
I struggled to maintain my good mood. Angry but not surprised at being roped in by my brother again, I resolved to avoid him. Brother or no brother, I'd let him wallow in the gutter if he preferred life as a drunk. The thought killed my urge for a celebratory drink and I turned off the lights. I set the alarm system and locked up without a thought about the Lincoln still parked across the street.CHAPTER 2
My phone rang at six-thirty next morning. I rolled over in the grey gloom and stretched my arm across the pillows before recalling I'd slept alone. Saturday mornings were not always so kind. Six girlfriends in four years left too many tangled sheets and tearful arguments. My last adventure, Cecilia, had morphed into a buy-me, take-me who consumed and then destroyed what I thought was a flourishing relationship. This morning, however, my bed and conscience remained intact after a profitable evening.
Rising onto one elbow, I fumbled with the insistent phone and fell back onto the pillow that preserved the aroma of the former queen of American Express.
"Hello," I said, hoarse from the previous night.
"Am I interrupting a tender moment?" Wes, always the wiseass.
"Only my sleep. Where the hell did you go last night?"
"Your wine selection was outstanding but my pride intruded. I got fed up with stares from minimum wage worker bees."
I sat up on the side of the bed, my previous evening's resolve fading as Starbucks asserted its addictive appeal. "You still want to talk?"
"I think we need to." The urgency I'd heard the night before resurfaced, and I wondered if it was a ploy to cajole another'loan.' Barbara had forbidden more Johnny Walker handouts.
"There's a Starbucks around the corner on LaSalle," I said."We met there a few months back, but you were pretty drunk."
"Too crowded. They jam coffee freaks in there like a Japanese commuter train."
Lingering elation from the previous night tempered my impatience. "Your call then."
"Dillon's for lunch. I'll save a booth in the rear. "
"Gee, an Irish pub. What a surprise."
"See you at noon."
He clicked off before I could suggest a quiet restaurant. I liked Dillon's, but bars represented luxury suites in hell with VIP elevators reserved for my brother.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Last Van Gogh"
Copyright © 2019 Will Ottinger.
Excerpted by permission of Black Rose Writing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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