Authors: Ben Tripp
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For the AgÃ©d Crone
New York City
Asmodeus Saxon-Tang knew the French NapolÃ©on III clock to be an authentic piece with a sound provenance; the same could not be said for the blonde bidding against him. Like the clock, she was all porcelain and gilding. But she had neither the authority of age or the freshness of art about her. She was a piece of work. He thought he could detect tool marks.
Sax inclined his catalog with an imperceptible twitch of the wrist, raising his bid another hundred dollars. She flicked her paddle, swatting his bid away like a fly. Number ninety-six, the paddle proclaimed. Sax required no paddle; he was
. Impatience nipped at him. He should have eaten lunch, his figure be damned. Low blood sugar influenced his mood. He was bidding with his emotions, not with the great brass-bound Turing's Automatic Computing Engine inside his head. What mattered was determining the margin between an object's value and its cost, then staying well within that range. A few hundred calories could make the difference between a moment's petty triumph and an excellent deal. But there was something more to add to the calculation this time.
The ormolu clock, in excellent condition, was shaped like a footed funerary urn, in blue enamel with wheat, laurel, acanthus, and fruit mountings, wreathed and beribboned, all gilt; its eight-day movement was by Hazard and the face was from a much older piece, signed by Antide Janvier. It was created in Paris in the year 1895. All of this made it a worthwhile object.
There was something else that made the clock what the vulgarites would call an
The magic of good provenance, the biography of the piece itself. Sax knew through an intimate connection that the clock had been owned not only by Jean Cocteau but also by Sergei Diaghilev, founder of the Ballets Russes; the latter gentleman had given the clock to the former as an affectionate token for his services in writing
, the 1917 balletâdesigned, pleasingly enough, by Pablo Picasso, with music composed by Erik Satie.
A handful of clients with exquisite taste, sharing Sax's relish for beautiful objects enriched by time, would desire this clock. They understood its significance. Great men, great talents in the vibrancy of their youth, had gathered before it, cast their reflections upon it; they had set their watches by it, their voices had reverberated against its gleaming belly. The clock was witness. God knew
it had witnessed: Cocteau and Diaghilev were a couple of outrageous queens, Picasso would fuck anything that moved, and Satie was an inveterate masturbator with an umbrella fetish.
Somehow, the blonde must have got wind of this delicious intelligence as well, because the damn clock wasn't worth fourteen thousand euros without the detailed provenance (which was absent in the auction catalog). It might, however, sell to the right collector for upward of eighteen thousand, if the anecdote could reliably be attached to the piece. Which it could, if one had read the letters of the author Raymond Radiguet and knew that the “golden egg, clucking its opprobrium” in Cocteau's room, mentioned in the epistle dated December
12, 1920, precisely three years before his death, could be no other object than this clock.
These letters of Radiguet's had never been published. Therefore, the blonde had access to the contents of some private archives to which Sax did not think she was qualified for admittance. Therefore, she was acting as an accomplice for someone else, someone within a small circle possessing the requisite access. That someone was unknown to Sax, further reducing the diameter of the circle.
Sax knew something else that was not common knowledge: Radiguet was certainly murdered by a vampire.
That being the case, there was an outside chance the blonde was working for the very fiend who had slain the young poet. Against this possibility, Sax estimated, it would be well worth the premium to win this clock, regardless of price, humiliating though it might be in the jaded eyes of the auctioneers.
Has Saxon-Tang lost his nerve?
they would wonder over their sandwiches and whiskey after the sale.
Is the old dragon becoming sentimental after sixty years of ruthless trading in aged and beautiful things?
Despite the loss of face, Sax knew he must persist. He scented prey. He twitched his catalog again, the price ascended past fifteen thousand, and as the blonde raised the bid yet again, it occurred to Sax that he had somehow traded beauty for age himself. Never mind. At least he didn't dye his hair.
he clock went for 20,200 euros, a third again what it was worth, anecdote or no anecdote. A slack-faced Japanese businessman had entered the bidding at 16,500, apparently trying to impress the blonde. He exited at 17,200 without eliciting so much as a glance. The three dozen other auction-goers in the room were breathless, hushed, as attentive as the crowd around a baccarat table in Monte
Carlo watching two fortunes in a cockfight. The telephone proxy bidders at the back of the hall, professionals themselves, fell silent, their clients on the other end of the lines squawking audibly for information. The auctioneer, Samuel J. Wesson III, kept up his steady uninflected patter, but his voice rose an octave in pitch toward the end.
The blonde had apparently been given a ceiling of twenty thousand, which she surpassed by only a single bid, most likely because anything above her limit would have come out of her cut or salary. Despite her flinty poise, she had also been feeling the rush of acquisition by then, the brute force of money against money. But that was the danger of auctions: Every bidder can stake a fortune. Only the winner loses their money.
The winner being Sax in this instance, he affected the most neutral demeanor possible, kept his eyes slightly hooded so the auctioneers might think he knew something they didn't, and sizzled with shame at his madcap bidding performance while the room buzzed and breathed again and heads shook in wonderment all around. The blonde, slightly flushed, a lock of pale hair clinging to her smooth, moist brow, spared a single look past her shoulder at Sax, then made her way to the bar downstairs. She hadn't any further lots to bid upon. Sax did, but he'd lost interest in the remaining trifles on the block.
He forced himself to stay in his seat, lamenting the muttering of his empty stomach, picking through the archives of facts and trivia with which his ample brain was crammed, looking for an association of one piece of ephemeral information with another that could inform this strange incident with meaning.
If his theory was correct, he had just unearthed the first part of a glittering trove of artifacts that was buried within the material world of ugly, everyday things, like hidden treasure. Such treasures he had
found before, to his incalculable profit (although he had attempted the calculation, naturally).
It had been many years since the last one. The price of its retrieval was paid in terror, blood, and death.
Sax had never entirely recovered his health following that adventure, and he was much older now, his walking stick no longer an affectation. Yet there was no greater triumph than the liberation of one of these fortunes, rich with history and artâand incidentally worth the kind of money upon which empires were founded.
Well worth the risk, if you didn't end up in an open grave with your still-beating heart shoved up your ass.
ax paid for his auction items and sent word to his warehouse to come pick them up, then took a late luncheon at Ãcrevisse, served by a provisional waiter unfamiliar with his habits. Still, it was twenty minutes past the end of the midday seating, so Sax knew he should be grateful the staff accommodated him at all.
He tried not to think about the wretched blue-bellied clock of which he was now the owner. It would be in his office at the warehouse when next he showed himself there. He would open the clock, and perhaps inside it would be stuffed with rubies or a sketch by Picasso, thus justifying the price.
He picked through a tuft of escarole, followed by shellfish ragoÃ»t with thin slices of polenta and a soft-boiled quail's egg in a tiny footed porcelain cup that reminded him, unfortunately, of the clock. To accompany the light meal, a glass of Dom PÃ©rignon provided by the house. He was at the table less than an hour, then made his way abstractedly back out onto the pavement.
The weather that day was warm in the sunlight, cold in the shade. It had been a terrible summer in Manhattan, humid and wet; now the
autumn was dry but feverish, with skies that seemed somehow the wrong color, lurid, like old nickel postcards of New England scenes. Winter would come eventually, and it would be ferocious.
Sax wondered, without much emotion, if he would live to see the spring.
The yellow air was thick as feathers, stuffed with dust and smoke and exhaust fumes and the stench of the river Mithi. There had been no monsoons that year to flush away the filth.
Mumbai, an island city ten times the size of Manhattan, with twelve times its population, relied on the wind and rain of the monsoons. They washed away millions of tons of industrial waste, excrement, and refuse for which there was otherwise little infrastructure. Without the weather, the city became a stinking pressure cooker. People prayed for rain and hoped they wouldn't get war. The god Indra was associated with both.
The sky hung low and overcast, but there was no rain.
This had no effect on business. Despite the ongoing malaise in the major Western economies, India continued to expand as a commercial power. Its motion picture output, particularly, was becoming more popular every year, with vast audiences in Britain, Germany, Eastern Europe, and even South America. It dwarfed Hollywood.
Bollywood, as Mumbai's entertainment industry was wryly called, was becoming the dominant power in storytelling around the world.
If you wanted to succeed, if you wanted billions of fans and not mere millions, you came to Mumbai. The squalor and the hustlers and the noise and the foul air were nothingâmerely the grime that collects on well-fondled money.
The only thing success could not relieve was the accursed traffic. However many country villas one could afford, however fine one's automobile, getting to the former in the latter was nearly impossible. Even the burgeoning helicopter business was little helpâit was still a drive to the airfield.
eelina “Nilu” Chandra was an item girl. She had started out as an extra in the innumerable crowd scenes called for in Bollywood movies. Eventually she became a dancer, performing choreographed routines alongside several dozen others in the background behind the starsâitem numbers, these musical interludes were called.
Now Nilu had the lead in an item number of her own, in a production called
Kaun Hai Woh Pagal Ladki?
She was playing the part of an anonymous club singer; her job was to dance and lip-synch a
song that echoed the hero's emotional condition as he pined for the heroine (the “
,” or “crazy girl,” of the title). The stars would be involved in the number. Nilu had no fewer than five routines to perform with the hero in the course of the song.
The heroine was supposed to be sitting alone at a table in the club, ignoring all romantic entreaties, so Nilu wouldn't have to compete with her for screen time. It was an ideal opportunity that could result in more item numbers with Nilu as the lead dancer, which could bring about a proper dramatic role with dialogue. From there, it was in the audience's hands. If they liked her well enough, she would become a star.
Nilu had some good features, she knew. Aside from her body, which was the result of good genes, dancing, and not eating anything
containing ghee, Nilu also had the nose of Kareena, the brows of Kajol, and eyes that were all her own. She couldn't sing particularly well, but that meant nothing; neither could any of the stars. The songs were always dubbed by voice-over specialists called playback singers. So Nilu had a fair chance.
The problem wasn't what she did on-screen, but what she didn't do offscreen.
There were certain trapdoors built into the entertainment business. Some were shortcuts to heaven, some to hell. The price of access was one's honor. None of the most successful actresses had fallen into that trap (or at least, none had confessed it), but the temptation came to them all. A girl could do very well in this town if she gave up a little pride and a lot of chastity. The question was, would such compromises keep her from the very top? The Indian press thrived on scandal, and the public feasted on it. An actress was easily ruined.
So far, Nilu had been careful. There were forces, however, conspiring against her better judgment. Tonight she would confront one of those forces in the guise of the film's producer, Mallammanavar Jagadish.
His nickname, “Jag,” was appropriate, as it suggested the supreme being. Which, in cinema, Jag certainly was. He was a second-Âgeneration filmmaker and also produced television commercials. In commercials, his specialty was working with professional athletes. When it came to film, his specialty was actresses. Jag's affairs were conducted with perfect secrecy. His discretion was legendary.
I do not hunt tigers for their skins
, he once said.
The problem was not him or even his household or familiars, but the diabolical skill of scandal hunters for the tabloids. They could deduce a romantic connection merely by observing who disappeared, and when, and for how long. The parties involved need never be seen
together. Verification came from studying the credits of Jag's next film; when it came to women, promotion was a sure sign.
Nilu had made sure to let several people know where she would be that evening and who would be there. That way, the tabloids could only unearth facts with which Nilu herself would agree. The problem was that Jag was notorious for ending a dinner party early, clearing an hour or two in the evening to study the latest script or budget. During that time, a woman might find herself delayed, perhaps to discuss an upcoming role. Upon such hours entire careers might hinge. Nilu had a feeling her hour would be tonight, and she didn't yet know what she would do when it arrived.
he afternoon shoot went well. Nilu spent the entire morning warming up and doing her routines alone; the rehearsal was a single run-through, and then she was on camera, singing and dancing with Sunil Kumar. He was a professional and got everything right. Nilu kept up. She was nearly an inch taller than him, but he had shoes for that.
By the end of the day they had filmed the entire dance number, except for some insert shots of the actress brooding at her table in the club. Nilu had not spared a moment's thought for the evening until an hour after the shoot was wrapped. She was changing into her civilian clothes, fashionable distressed jeans and a backless frock of pistachio-green chiffon. The green was especially suited to Nilu's skin, which was a few shades darker than the current pallid mode. Bangling gold at throat and ears, a cascade of gold bracelets at the left wrist: enough. She was ready. Sexy, but not brazen, she hoped. She tucked her feet into a pair of cork platforms and strode out of the communal dressing room she shared with eight other dancers. Maybe in a few months, she would have her own dressing room.
Maybe in a few months she would disappear, as so many girls did, back to their home villages, another starstruck hopeful ravished and sent away in shame.
Nilu wondered what had happened to some of the girls she had known. For example, a very pretty dancer named Deepa, with whom she had been fairly close. Although Deepa was her competition, Nilu liked her. It helped that Deepa wasn't as good a dancer, of course, but she was also quite charming. She seemed vulnerable in a way Nilu could only pretend to be. Deepa had a way of looking at people that suggested she was waiting for an approving word but didn't expect it to come. This quality vanished once she was dancing on camera, however, and she was just another sexy silhouette, the same as all of them.
Had Deepa been able to harness that vulnerable quality for her performances, she might have become known. As it was, Deepa had gone on some dates with film executives and above-the-line peopleâa director, an executive producerâbut never had she been invited to dine with Mr. Jagadish. Someone had gotten through her defenses, in any case, because after one of these dates, Deepa was not seen again. Speculation in the business was that she had become pregnant during a previous encounter, confronted her lover with the news, and that very night was sent packing back home. As with so many people in Mumbai, where “home” was, nobody knew. Mumbai was home enough for the whole world.
Nilu splurged on a taxi to the corner of the block on which Jag lived, then walked the rest of the way to his gate. Several fine automobiles were parked on the gravel inside the palm-forested compound of his three-story house. The wrought-iron gates were geometric in design. There were no photographers or strangers lurking about anywhere on the street. She took half a dozen deep breaths, then went to the small gate set into the wall beside the main gates. There was a guard at the gate in a red peaked cap. He ushered her through, and she
went up the illuminated path past a glowing blue fountain and into the mansion.
he evening went by in a whirl of moments. Jag himself answered the door. He was a very handsome man, and taller than most. He had a long, structural face and perfect teeth. He radiated strength. His house was enormous and brand-new. The entrance hall was the size of Nilu's parents' house, with a cantilevered staircase in African slate curving up to the second and third levels. A chandelier like a vast bursting firework hung in the center of the space, glittering in the icy-dry breath of the air-conditioning. The dÃ©cor had all been assembled by a professionalâit was impersonal but rich, with acres of bone-colored walls enlivened by slabs of abstract canvas and broad, baronial timbers. There seemed to be dozens of lamps in every room, so no matter where one stood, the light was flattering to the skin. The interior didn't suggest anything of Jag's personality. It merely said he was a man of enormous wealth and taste enough to hire a good decorator.
There was a variety of people at the dinner, held in the wintery-white dining room: Nilu recognized a couple of aspiring actresses who had entered the business through the dramatic side, rather than dancing. Junior artistes, such people were called. Seated opposite Nilu was a retired judge, who now held large tracts of working farmland, and his wife, once an actress who had worked with Mallammanavar Jagadish's father. Beside them were a noted architect and his spouse, a fashion designer who had made a fortune in prewrapped, fitted saris for Westernized
A big, white-haired Russian with a diamond wholesale business in Surat sat to Jag's right. At the opposite end of the table was a director of photography who was known for his action sequences back in the 1970s and whose memoir had been quite successful. He was a very
funny manâit turned out he'd once been a comedian in films, then discovered he preferred life behind the camera.
It was an interesting party, enlivened by Jag's impeccable skill as host. He knew how to keep things moving along. The popular image of the film producer as a demanding boor was entirely out of place with him. His sense of etiquette and propriety could not be faulted. Nilu thought she detected the mode of his sexual conquests: he was so equally interested in everyone that the other two young actresses were competing for his attention. Even Nilu found herself doing it. They all wanted to shine just a little more than the rest, collecting laughter and smiles from the party like gambling chips scooped up from the center of the gleaming mahogany table. It wouldn't take much before one of them carried the competition to the bedroom.
At some point, Nilu realized the formula for success in this setting. Concern for her reputation had kept her from throwing herself completely into the “brightest young thing” contest; the taller of the two actresses was winning that category, as it happened. But it was precisely Nilu's reserve that caught the eyes of them. She observed it was the girl who least often jumped into a conversation, and spoke only thoughtfully, who most fascinated the men. At first she wasn't certain how to amplify the effect: after all, a girl who is
quiet will come off shy or stupid. But Nilu found she didn't have to speak so much as listen.
If she nodded her understanding of the perils of land management when the judge spoke, Jag and the Russian watched her instead of the actresses, who could scarcely feign to be listening at all. But to really make an impression, she couldn't just listenâshe must speak. However, she knew little of the subject.
She scoured her memory for something and recalled an article she had read on a bus the previous year. Something about women's rights and the system of village governance. Yes! So she asked a pointed ques
tion about the
system and land ownership for women, and the judge went off into a lengthy, fairly technical explanation of the issue. Although in truth Nilu had very little idea what he was talking about, the fact that she had composed an informed-sounding question earned her admiration all around.
Eventually Jag announced he was going to have to break up the party earlier than he wished; there was a script that needed revising and Jag had paid the writers enough already. He would do the work himself. Nilu's heart beat faster. If there was to be some kind of assignation, it would be soon.
The party lingered awhile. Nilu watched Jag for signals. She didn't know what they would be, or how she would respond. She wasn't a virgin, but neither was she particularly experienced. She didn't know how they did these things in the swinging world of real players.
The judge and his wife left first; shortly afterward, the fashion designer towed her architect away, although he had been hoping for more drinks. The rest of the party retired to the great room with its vaulted ceilings and tall, stacked fireplace of rough stone.
Jag poured cognac for the Russian and the young women continued on with their Californian white wine. He made a whiskey and water for himself. They sat at intervals on the white leather sectional, which formed the margin of a conversation pit set lower than the rest of the floor. Nilu admired everything, smiled and laughed as the others did, but she was still afraid. She felt like a contestant in a game show she wasn't certain she wanted to win.
Jag checked his ashtray-sized Panerai watch and clapped his hands together.
“Another few minutes,” he announced. “Then we must part ways.”