“Four remote buyers today,” Martin nodded to the side of the room where a bank of phones was staffed by serious-looking interns. He turned slightly and faced the front of the large room where the lectern and an easel shared the stage with the loud auctioneer. Paintings came and went slowly as the auction progressed.
“It’s possible he’s here in person, too” El sighed and took another sip of her coffee. “Or sent a proxy. Fuck, it can be anyone. How the hell are we supposed to find him?”
“Ever the optimist. There’s a piece that’s coming up, supposed to fetch one point two, at least. And the artist made the headlines last year, that thing in LA. Think that’s our best bet.” Martin extended a clipboard to El and pointed to a long, consonant-filled German name on the paper. “So we see who bids on it and maybe that’s our man.”
“Hmm.” El said nothing and handed the clipboard back.
The director’s office, a glass-walled room that overlooked the auction house floor below them, was their temporary HQ. Martin and El stood at the window that looked out onto the crowded floor and watched as white paddles went up every few seconds, million-dollar offers flying back and forth as rich folks tried to acquire marked-up canvases.
El shook her head at the idea and swallowed another mouthful of expensive coffee, then faced Martin.
“Is this what you guys at the FBI do, stake out auctions?”
“When we’re looking for a serial killer who targets artists, yeah,” Martin nodded and continued watching the auction. A red painting was in the front, though he was watching the wings where a large white self-portrait was being prepared.
“How long have you been after him?”
“Myself, eight months.”
“The rest of the department took some convincing?”
Martin looked over at El, his eyes narrowing slightly for a second, before he nodded and took a step toward the director’s large mahogany desk. On the desk was a suitcase, and from this the agent pulled a manila folder with the FBI masthead on it. He passed the folder to El.
“Yeah. The victims were suicides, and it wasn’t apparent how they were connected.”
“But they are?” She took the folder and started flipping through, her coffee forgotten.
“I think so, and the data divers agree. Every one of those suicides leads to the artist’s paintings suddenly spiking in value.”
“That’s what happens when famous people die, suddenly their shit is selling like hotcakes. No?”
“Statistically, yes, but we’re seeing upticks in the purchases before and after the suicides, spikes that are out of the norm.”
“So statistics makes you think someone’s knocking off artists to improve their portfolios?”
Martin nodded and motioned towards the front of the auction room. The large white self-portrait was moved into position.
El took the scene in and after a moment said, “That thing’s going for one point two? Shit, picked the wrong field.”
A wave rippled through the auction room as the attendees turned around to look toward the back of the house. Martin opened the director’s door and walked out to the railing to better see the scene below.
In the back of the auction room was a man in a wheelchair, and as he moved toward the front the attendees stood and bid him welcome, some shaking his hand and others in the back waving a friendly greeting.
“Helmut,” Martin said to El.
The German with the long name, the artist.
El watched him as the man’s wheelchair drove slowly through the crowd and to the painting on display. He was bald on top, had a small amount of white hair on the sides, and looked to be in his sixties. He wore a green sweater and a dark wool blanket covered his lower body. His left eye was covered by a black eye patch, and clear tubes ran from the back of the chair to the man’s nose.
He wore a tan-colored prosthetic over the bottom of his face, it covered his mouth and chin. El watched the crowd and saw quite a few people raise a hand to their own mouths and almost subconsciously rubbed their jaw, probably tried to imagine what everyday life was like for the deformed artist.
“That thing in LA,” El remembered. “Jesus.”
Martin nodded but didn’t say anything.
Helmut reached the front and the auctioneer introduced the artist and his last work of art. The auction house was quiet, the only sound a whir of the motors in the wheelchair as Helmut maneuvered himself right in front of the large white canvas. The director repositioned the microphone closer to the wheelchair and after a moment a mechanical voice rasped out through the handful of the room’s speakers.
“Thank you for being here today. I’m very gratified to be able to present this work, my last piece, a self-portrait I’ve been working on for the past nine months.”
El leaned toward Martin and began, quietly, to ask him a question, when he nodded and said, “Ten months since Glad Too.”
Helmut described the excruciating months of recuperation and physical therapy that he’d had to endure to appear here and even speak. In that time he began a self-portrait, and the canvas captured the artist’s path of recovery as the quality of the features changed, representations that charted Helmut’s path back to the man he was. The background, it was clear, was done by a man with little muscle control. The eyes, absurdly large, were a fine-detailed affair, and even contained nebula as the iris.
Martin and El stood on a ledge that overlooked the auction floor, and ran around it in a circular path. It also connected the offices on the second floor of the building.
El listened with half an ear and concentrated on the crowd, watched them for anything obvious. She didn’t really care if she found it. She doubted one of these millionaires was about to off a cripple in a wheelchair, but the FBI was calling the shots, so what the hell, let’s try and figure out which one’s the sick bastard.
“...and now,” she heard while watching the rear door of the auditorium, “I complete this masterpiece, and make you fuckers a few million.”
El glanced back just in time. She watched as Helmut drew a gun from the blanket in his lap, placed the barrel on his forehead, and squeezed the trigger. The shot rang out through the building, but only silence followed it, the auction house was still.
The bullet had gone through Helmut’s brain and passed right through the large face behind him, exactly in the forehead. Helmut’s brains were splattered all over his self-portrait.
Martin’s phone buzzed.
“Some people just became wealthier,” he said, quietly, as he answered the phone.