Matisse of the Action
fiction by Lee Hammerschmidt
“And where exactly did you acquire these?” asked Cherise Chevalier, a gorgeous, dark-haired, long, cool drink of Möet. We were in her tony gallery, Chevalier Fine Art and Collectibles. You’ve heard of the famous French entertainer Maurice Chevalier? No relation.
“Storage locker auction,” I said. “You know, those fancy ones up in Happy Valley.”
She nodded as she glanced at the half dozen drawings spread out on the countertop between us, an assortment of simply drawn, yet whimsical, portraits and nudes. “Well, you never know what you’re going to find in one of those. What else was in there Mr., uh…?”
“Call me Rook. Not too much of value except a few pieces of jewelry, a couple of necklaces, some earrings, a brooch, and a dynamite Cartier watch. The pawn shop guy about popped his jock when he got a look at that.”
“Pawn shop? You pawned the jewelry?”
“Everything except the watch. Guy was trying to lowball me. Five gees. The thing was worth at least 21! I looked it up on the internet. Can you believe it! The nerve of some—”
“Ah, yes Rook, but what about these?” Cherise said nodding at the drawings.
“Well, old Diamond Pete, or whatever the hell his name was, said he didn’t deal with art. Too much forgery, too hard to authenticate things. So he suggested I bring them here and have you look them over. Said you were an expert on Matisse.”
“Well, I deal with many works by many artists,” she said, continuing to examine the drawings. “But yes, I have seen a fair share of Henri Matisse’s work.”
“So what do you think, are they the real deal?”
Cherise studied the drawings for a few more moments and nodded. “Yes, I believe they are. At least, Young Nude Woman, Head of a Woman, Flowers, and this Self-Portrait,” she said tapping four of the drawings with her Antiques Roadshow-style pointer. “The other nude and woman’s face might be, but if they are, they’ve never been documented, which would make them quite a find.”
Yeah, and quite valuable.
“So, Cherise,” I said. “How much are we talking about here, money-wise?”
“I would imagine, at auction, depending on the bidders, the collection could go anywhere from $100,000 all the way up to $250,000 if the conditions were right.”
“A quarter mil! Holy van Gogh!”
“Easy there, Rook. That’s at auction. I don’t think these will even get there. I have someone in mind with more of an immediate interest.”
“Whoa, you mean we can close this deal today?” I said, visions of Ferraris and yachts bouncing around in my noggin.
“Let me make a quick call. He lives in the Gregory and knowing his interest, he’ll want to pop over ASAP. Why don’t you make yourself comfortable over in our parlor while you wait. Rafael will bring you a drink. Rafael…”
The Redwood posing as the doorman/security guard stepped over to the small bar set up in the sitting area as I parked my caboose on a fancy designer settee. Better keep my feet off of this baby.
“What can I get you?” Rafael said, in a gruffer voice that was more akin to his stature than the fancy blazer he was stuffed into. My, my, was that the silhouette of a shoulder holster under his armpit? “A glass of wine, perhaps? We have a nice little pinot grigio from Molalla Estates. It’s a dry little number with pear and apple flavors and hints of lemon and mineral. Very refreshing.”
“Pinot grigio,” I said. “Isn’t that the little Italian mouse puppet from the Ed Sullivan Show?”
“I believe that was Topo Gigio,” Rafael said, shaking his head as he poured a glass of white wine.
“You wouldn’t happen to have a High Life or a Rolling Rock behind that bar would you, Rafe. I can call you Rafe right?”
“No, you can’t and no we don’t. This is an art gallery, not a bowling alley.”
“Too bad. Oh, well, free booze is free booze.” I took the wine and downed a hefty gulp. Yep, fruity all right. Too fruity for my tastes. I brought the glass back up and chugged the remainder. Best to drink unpleasant-tasting hooch as quickly as possible. Hey, it’s still alcohol. I let out a small belch and slammed the empty glass down on the small coffee table in front of the couch, almost breaking the stem. Rafael gave me a look like he wanted to break my stem. Probably no chance of a refill.
The magic moment was broken by the sound of the bell as the front door opened and another Rafael-like hulk entered the gallery. Yikes! Bookend muscle! He was followed by a much smaller, oily looking, pinch-faced, yet stylishly dressed 50ish fella. Cherise reappeared from her office and came out to greet him.
“Tony,” Cherise said. “So glad you could come so quickly.”
“Cherise,” Tony said. He nodded at me “This the guy?”
“Yes, this is Rook. Rook, this is Tony Estacada. And this is his, ah, associate Rainier.” She pronounced it renyā like the prince, not the mountain. Or the beer. Again, no relation. “Tony’s an avid art lover with an impressive collection of his own.”
Holy shit! Tony Estacada! Yeah, he’s an art collector all right. As well as the guy who runs most of the local rackets in town. Not a guy to be messed with. Can you say “possible connections to Organized Crime”?
“So, where are they?” Tony asked.
“Over here,” Cherise said. She moseyed over to the counter with Tony, me, and Rainier in tow. Rafael left his spot by the bar and came over to join the party.
“Hey Rafe,” Rainier said. Oh, so he can call him Rafe. “How’s things?”
“Renny,” Rafe said. “Not bad, Bro, all things considered.” He nodded in my direction.
Wait a minute. Rafael. Rainier. Double holy shit! Rafael and Rainier! The notorious Damascus twins! Former arena football players, Portland Wrestling Stars, mixed martial arts cage fighters, and TSA agents! A couple of the nastiest, foul-tempered, violent, yet well-bred and educated thugs in the Pacific Northwest. “Associates” of Tony Estacada? This could have unpleasant side effects.
Tony stepped up to the counter and perused the drawings.
“Yeah, that looks like them all right. What do you think, Cherise?”
“I’m fairly certain they’re the ones. Plus, the watch and jewelry were found with them. He claims he got everything in a storage locker auction.”
“Okay, then, wrap them up and I’ll take them with me.”
“Whoa, there Mr. Ensenada,” I said. “We haven’t talked about a price yet. From what Cherise tells me, these drawings are worth some serious cabbage. Now what’s your opening offer? Shall we say about…?”
“Can it, shitbird!” Tony barked, interrupting what would have been my high end suggestion. Got to leave some wiggle room. “My opening offer is that I let you walk out of here in one piece and never see your miserable ass again. And it’s Estacada, you little prick! Don’t forget it!”
“Hey, those drawings are mine!” I snapped. “They were in a locker that I won and paid for. So if you aren’t interested in purchasing them, I’ll just take them else—”
My tirade was rudely interrupted as Rainier’s car battery-sized fist slammed into my gut, doubling me in half, dropping me to my knees. I fought for air, trying desperately not to return the pinot grigio to the outside world. I don’t think I could handle the taste of that swill again.
“Look punk,” Tony hissed, his face inches from mine. “I’m not in the habit of buying back property that belongs to me in the first place. They’re mine!”
“He’s right, Rook,” Cherise said. “These drawings, along with the jewelry you pawned were stolen from Tony over a year ago. He asked me to keep an eye out for them should anybody try to sell them. He brought in Rafael for added security.”
“That conniving, scheming, lying, harpy of an ex-wife of mine,” Tony said, beginning a tirade of his own. She grabbed as much stuff as she could while I was at a, uh, convention in Vegas. I forgot to change the security codes. When I got back she had hightailed it, flown the coop, split the scene, hit the highway, blown the popsicle stand…”
“Yeah, I get the picture,” I wheezed, my breathe slowly coming back. “But that doesn’t change the fact that I’m out two grand for the locker with nothing to show for it.”
“What did you get for the jewelry,” Tony asked.
“Not that much, about $1200. It was a pawn shop, remember?”
“And the watch?”
“He still has it,” Cherise said
“Boys,” Tony said.
At that simple command, Rafael and Rainier grabbed me and began vigorously frisking me. That ol’ TSA training kicking in. Those folks sure love their work.
“Shorts pocket,” Rainier said.
With that the two goons flipped me upside down, each with a massive fist around one of my legs, and began shaking me, Looney Tunes style. After a few shakes, the watch dropped out of my roomy and comfortable cargo shorts into Rafael’s waiting meat hook. Then they dropped me on my head, twisting my neck. Stars appeared; birds tweeted.
“So here’s the deal, Slick,” Tony said as he took the packet of drawings from Cherise. “Let’s consider the pawned jewelry your finder’s fee. Sure, you came up about 800 bucks short on the deal, but hey, that’s the risk you run when you buy a storage locker. And you still got your health. Okay, we’re out of here. Rafe, your work is done here. You’re back with me. Cherise, nice doing business with you.”
He handed her an envelope as thick as a Reuben sandwich as he and the Damascuses (or is it Damasci?) left the shop, giving me a parting stink-eye.
“You okay, Rook?” Cherise asked as she helped me to my feet. “Those boys play kind of rough. I was hoping that could have been avoided.”
“You and me both,” I said, massaging my throbbing neck. “So, what was your finder’s fee?”
“Twenty large. Ten percent of the estimated worth. Think that will cover your services?” She handed me the envelope.
“Yeah, with what I got for the jewelry. And yes, the watch. I sold it for the five grand plus a fake Cartier that Uncle Tony now has. He’s so worried about those drawings that he didn’t stop to examine the watch. Cartier screws—not snaps—their cases together. They also use thicker plating and have high-quality movements, but it can take years for those things to be discovered. What a dipshit. How’d he get to be a crime boss, anyway?”
“So a little insult to injury, huh, Rook? A fake watch on top of six fake Matisse drawings. Which by the way, you did an excellent job of recreating. If I hadn’t known better I might have thought they were genuine. Well, for a minute or two.”
“Thanks. Matisse is pretty easy, especially his drawings. I’ve been doing them since back when we were in art school, remember?”
“Of, course, that’s why I wanted you for this job.”
“So, what have you done with the originals?”
“Pristina has them with her in the Caymans. I have a buyer lined up and I’m flying down there in a few weeks after things settle down here to broker the deal. And get my cut of course.”
Pristina. As in the former Pristina Estacada, vengeful ex-wife of our ol’ buddy Tony. Formerly Pristina Pellegrino, nee, Chevalier. Yes, relation! Half-sister to Cherise. When she scrammed with the drawings, she knew Tony would never rest until he had them back. So what if Tony thought he had them back? Well she could sell them, with her half-sis’s connections for a shitload of simoleans. So they rented a storage locker for a year. They put in the jewelry, the fake Matisses that Cherise had me copy from the originals, and added a bunch of other cheap crap to hide the valuables and throw off other bidders. Then Pristina split the scene with the originals and let the locker default. Cherise bankrolled me at the auction to ensure I snagged it. It all had to look like a legitmate auction to avoid suspicion. Bingo! And here we are!
“So, what’s your cut?” I asked. “You know, just out of curiosity.”
“About a hundred large,” Cherise said. “Pristina gets more of course. She took the biggest risks.”
“Nice payday. So, you want to go buy me a beer with some that money? Something to get the taste of regurgitated wine out of my mouth.”
“I’ll take a raincheck, Rook. We can’t be seen together for a long time. In fact, you should leave town for a spell yourself. Just in case, Tony…”
“Got it covered,” I said pulling an airline ticket out of my side cargo shorts pocket. “Maui. Lot of art galleries over there. The land of opportunity. Maybe you should join me?”
“Maybe I will, but it will be a ways down the road.”
I nodded. “Well, aloha, Cherise,” I headed for the door.
“Hey, Rook, thanks again. You did a great job.”
“No problem. It was a Matisse of cake!”
Lee Hammerschmidt is a Visual Artist / Writer / Troubadour who lives in Oregon. His work has appeared in Page & Spine, Big Pulp, Gumshoe Review, 10Flash, Stealing Time, Crimson Streets, Every Day Fiction, The Norwegian American, Strange Mysteries, Chicken Soup for the Soul, and more. Check out his hit parade on YouTube! www.youtube.com/user/MrLeehammer
This article originally appeared in the April 5, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.