Fred’s scalp blazed between the bristles of dark hair. There was no shade where he stood to the rear of the audience seated on wooden folding chairs. Because of last-minute trouble with the tent, the closest cover was three hundred feet away, under the row of maples that marked the edge of the field. The field itself throbbed, with heat, and with the impending conflict. They’d attracted a good crowd on short notice, pulling in this mix of professional dealers, wealthy locals, and gawkers from as far away as Boston and Providence, and making it feel like a party. Many in the audience wore straw hats against the gorgeous weather. Now and again the ocean breeze got under the rim of a hat, and everyone grabbed, making a wave of festive motion.
Heckie White, who’d been prospecting the crockery, slid to a stop beside Fred and muttered in his ear, “Jesus, Fred, what’s here for you? What masterpieces haven’t I noticed?” Heckie was mostly glass, though he’d also pick up a rug or the odd piece of furniture sometimes.
“I’m here for the porno. Meanwhile, what’s wrong with the view?” Fred said, gesturing across the field of battle. It had been mown right to the edge of the bluff, beyond which a bright sea winked against the annoyance of hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of skidding sailboats making tracks for Cuttyhunk or the Elizabeth Islands or, beyond them, Martha’s Vineyard. Runnymede House, three fields and a small woods away, was invisible from here. They were less than two hours south of Boston, an easy pleasure cruise from Newport and the islands, and within spitting distance of the lotuslands of Nonquitt and Little Compton.
A young flunky made his way from the auctioneer’s vans, passing through ganged furniture and the folding tables that displayed the objects destined to go under the hammer. He coughed a flunky cough into the mike until the crowd got quiet, then remarked lamely, “Testing one, two, and like that.”
Fred glanced toward the vans, where Alphonse Bird was separating his linebacker’s worth of bulk from the huddle of his runners, next to the folding table where a line of women waited to man the telephones, and to record sales. Heckie White scratched his armpits through the straps of his yellow tanktop. Below that he wore khaki shorts. “They’re all dressed up! Have you noticed, Fred, as soon as New Englanders get rich, they think they’re English?” Heckie asked, running his eyes across the crowd.
A number of pros were here, but the majority of the audience was civilians, drawn in by the scent of wealth and scandal, because the sale was associated with Runnymede House, on exclusive Cobb Point Preserve. There’d be dancing later, and drinking, and a picnic for the social set. As Heckie noted, most of the civilians had dressed for an afternoon wedding, or the races at Ascot. The crowd plunged into a lurid hush when a gray Daimler drove onto the field and stopped at the head of the audience. Its uniformed driver came around to open the rear door for a woman whose startling athletic youth, beauty, and blondness were not at all concealed, as she emerged, by the chic short-skirted black suit she wore, and the black veil.
“The grieving widow—not!” Heckie said. “Imagine, Fred! I can’t. I’m too much of a gentleman. The old boy died in the saddle, it is said. Humped himself to death. Oh, Lordy, Lordy, and who wouldn’t!” A sigh of lustful sympathy rippled the crowd as the widow sat. Things should get started now.
Fred had been catching furtive glances from persons in the trade. There was no way he could not stick out. Anyone who cared knew that he was here to act for Clayton Reed, and anyone who knew that much understood that whatever Reed wanted in this sale, it was good. Therefore, whatever he was after, it was also very well concealed.
He’d stayed out of sight until, among the pros remaining for the sale, nobody was left who was exclusively interested in works of art. Those folks had come, looked, and departed. But eight of the furniture and antiques dealers knew paintings well and could risk big money on them. And those who had left, if they’d spotted what Clayton had, might still be planning to operate from deep cover, by phone.
Bird, the auctioneer, was aware of Fred’s continuing presence in the back row. He also must wonder what he had for sale that was worth Clay Reed’s attention. Wherever Fred showed interest, Bird would find a way to tip off one of his claque. Bird, a small-timer from the South Shore, based in Scituate, knew how to milk a sale. He had been known to handle objects of significance, and he understood the business well enough to get good value even from an object he failed to understand. Although their collusion kept his hammer prices down, he did both open and undercover business with a fast cash crowd, the South Shore pool of runners and dealers, whose members, Bird’s drinking buddies, had followed him down for this day’s sale, some distance from their normal stamping grounds.
Aside from a wild card on the telephone, or a civilian gone berserk, Fred had to expect his opposition from the South Shore pool. They were tough and knowledgeable, and dangerous competitors. He had watched them as they looked through the lots, loafing through the display like sharks, before they schooled to discuss their tactics for this sale. Their existence as independents depended on their willingness to collude, up to a point.
As far as the art went, there were very few original paintings of any quality or virginity. For the most part it was an uninspiring selection, ranging from copies to shopworn retreads that the auctioneer’s crony dealers were attempting to pass off as “estate” items despite their tawdry new frames and slick masking varnish. Since there was not much to account for Fred’s continuing to stand watch at the rear of the crowd, wasting an afternoon, half of what the members of the South Shore pool were discussing among themselves had to be, therefore, “What does Fred Taylor want? If he’s here, there’s big money to be made. What are we missing?”
The pool’s members, hearing the microphone squeal, looked up as Alphonse Bird made his way to the lectern at the front of the crowd. They finished their deliberations hastily, nominated their representatives, and fanned out.
Alphonse Bird was casual in jeans and a white knit shirt below whose arms bulged biceps the size of his head. He tapped his papers and surveyed the crowd. A lazy smile flowed onto his face as he made a tentative noise of vocal commitment.
“That asshole,” Heckie White complained as the auctioneer began his warm-up. “I’ve told him a hundred times he isn’t Jerry Seinfeld.”
“You know, folks, have you ever noticed…,” Bird started— and then took ten minutes of stand-up time to tell everyone that they were in Westport, Massachusetts; that they were honored to be attending a Sunday charity auction for the benefit of the Runnymede House Museum, established under the bequest of the late Lord Hanford; that on account of time pressure and the number of items being offered, the auctioneer had had insufficient time to do meticulous background research; that all items were believed to be as described in the printed list, but after that, buyers were on their own. “Which means, folks, and I want you to understand this. Some of you may be attending your first auction sale. I don’t want anyone to come back later and say, ‘This isn’t what I thought it was.’ We’ve done our best to describe what is here. Beyond that, the only guarantee is: You buy it, you own it. You are the expert. Look carefully and don’t raise your paddle unless you are sure. If you want to bid, get a paddle with a bidding number on it from Linda, over there next to that escritoire we’ve had a lot of interest in, folks, which George the Third of England could have used himself. It, like most of what’s coming before you today, is from Lord Hanford’s estate. It stood in the master- bedroom suite in Runnymede House.”
At mention of the master-bedroom suite in Runnymede House the crowd responded with a communal held breath, as if it had been caught the moment before accidental orgasm. Heckie stage-whispered into Fred’s ear, drowning out Bird’s spiel, “And, folks, now you’ve seen her, imagine Lady Hanford bent right over that escritoire. Can’t you see it? Her pink Brit butt? Correction: the Brits call it a bottom. A bawtomme. It’s all they think about. You seen any of that English TV? They want a laugh, they pull out the old British bawtomme. They will not shut up about it.”
“It’s American,” Fred said. “She’s from Toledo.”
Heckie flicked a suggestive gesture with his green bidding paddle. “Great bawtomme anyway. I’m not prejudiced,” Heckie said. While Bird went on, running through the usual gamut of presale business, Heckie warned Fred, “The trustees of this museum they’re going to build are salted through the crowd, the way Bird likes to slip three genuine Hummels into a run of fakes. He’s told them how to bid things up, especially what they donated them- selves, to make the tax deduction better. That’s, next to the widow, Spar Ballard, the chairman of the board. He’s also chairman of Friends of the Dartmouth-Westport Heritage and Cobb Point Preserve Society. You got their brochure? No? You’ll find it under your wiper. Spar Ballard—the only reason he ever left the womb is, he dropped his cigar.”
Alphonse Bird flashed the boyish grin that had gotten him into the pants and attics of so many widows. “And now a few words about the charity in whose behalf we are gathered: the Runnymede House Museum!”
Bird gave a toenail sketch of the “retired financier-philanthropist- gourmand and aesthete, Lord Hanford,” who, late in life, had, as Bird put it, “fallen in love with Westport, Massachusetts.”
“The truth is Westport, Massachusetts, got him by the balls,” Heckie muttered, “and his heart, his mind, and his money followed. What was he, eighty when he married her?”
Lord Hanford, Bird pushed on, had made a generous bequest to the Friends of the Dartmouth-Westport Heritage, comprising Cobb Point, where they all sat and stood, including his lovely home, Runnymede House, which Lady Hanford would continue to enjoy during her natural life; much of his fine collection of English eighteenth-and nineteenth-century art; and seed money for the new museum that was to be erected on this very spot. Lady Hanford had also made available to this sale much of the financier’s collection that had not previously been earmarked for the museum.
Next Bird introduced the “lovely widow, Lady Hanford. Lady Hanford, would you let the people see you?” The woman in black stood, to subdued applause (her husband was, after all, only five months in the ground).
“Do we know why Westport wants a museum of British art?” Heckie asked. “Because normally I’d say that was a contradiction in terms, like English gourmet cooking.”
“Never mind that Yale’s got the biggest collection of British art outside of London,” Fred agreed, “just ninety miles away.”
Heckie said, “These people would not be comfortable in New Haven. It reminds them they’re Americans. I’m going to take a leak.” He glanced at the lines already pressing toward the pair of tottering Port-O-Lets. “Fuck that!” Heckie muttered. “Let’s be a trendsetter.” He made off in the direction of the line of trees.
Fred scratched his arms and sweated while Chairman of the Board Spar Ballard, a vertical dumpling dressed for drinks on the deck, and Isabel Cooney, the decorative director-designate of the new museum, took their bows and said something. Finally the sale began, with a pair of silver-plated candlesticks.
“What say we buy it together and knock it out?” a suggestion of sweat and nicotine drawled into Fred’s left ear. “It’s the Hoesslin you’re staying here for, obviously. Not everybody’s heard of Hoesslin. It’s a sleeper.” The whispered voice went all too well with John Columbo, a South Shore picker who spent most of his research time collecting rumors in or near the men’s room at the Boston Public Library. Fred hadn’t seen him, so Columbo had also been keeping out of sight. Columbo, even on this sweltering day, had pried his skinny legs into yellow leather pants that were set off by a black T-shirt. His rat’s face twisted with ingratiation. Fred shook his head.
The candlesticks sold for $150, a price it took Bird forty-five seconds to reach. “Jesus, this is going to take forever,” Columbo complained.
Fred looked over toward the line of trees from whose shade Heckie White, zipping ostentatiously, was emerging. John Columbo went on arguing as the auctioneer commenced drawing in bids on a cast-iron doorstop. “Why hurt each other, Fred? Is Clayton Reed too pure to indulge in a little illegal restriction of free trade?” Columbo demanded. “Fred, you know and I know there’s only the one decent painting here. Unless—shit! I can’t imagine Clayton Reed’s falling for the Constable. You’re not talking, huh? Maybe I’ll take a second look at the Constable. I’m around if you want to talk, Fred. If you have second thoughts. Why waste our money sending Fonzie’s kids to college?”
Columbo darted toward the tables where the prints and paintings were laid out.