Ultima, page 25
Two thirty, two fifty. Yermolov continued raising his paddle, an impassive flick, as though he were playing ping pong. Two seventy. You could have heard a Tiffany coke straw drop. Two ninety, three hundred, on they went, urged by the silent, contained frenzy of the crowd.
‘I have three hundred and twenty million pounds.’
A long pause. Then, slowly, Yermolov raised. He couldn’t buy it. I couldn’t do that to him. Pandora was speaking rapidly into the receiver. She waited. Eagles waited. Pandora was still whispering.
‘To the gentleman in the front row at three hundred and thirty?’
Fuck, no. He had to bid, he had to. Pandora was looking out into the crowd, uncertain. The silence stretched while I caught her eye. Say the name, Pandora, say the name. Remind him it’s Yermolov. I was prepared to believe in telepathy, anything to get those three syllables from her lips. She cupped her hand tighter around the receiver, turned away. Good girl, good girl.
Pandora nodded abruptly and signalled.
‘Three hundred and forty million for Gauguin’s Woman with a Fan II. Against you now, sir.’
But Yermolov was already shaking his head, laying down the paddle.
‘At three hundred and forty million pounds, I’m going to close the bids.’
I tasted blood on the inside of my lip.
I was off the blocks before the crowd were on their feet, pushing my way to the back of the saleroom, heading for Rupert’s office. Angelica was across the room in full Insta-frenzy, hopping about like a war reporter. There was just time to catch da Silva’s eye as I barrelled through the doors. Rupert was standing at his desk, beneath the large screen which had live-streamed the sale, watching the mayhem, Eagles strutting down from the rostrum as though he’d just scored the winning penalty in the World Cup final.
He turned, slowly, half-transfixed by what he was watching. There was actually the glimmer of a tear in the crease of his jowl.
‘Three forty,’ he whispered. I scrunched my eyes tight as I stepped into his embrace.
The corks were already popping in the chairman’s drawing room as I made my way towards the warehouse. I’d explained to Rupert that I was too overwhelmed to join the party, and after his brief efflorescence of emotion he had said that he quite understood. With me gone, there’d be no one except Eagles to steal his limelight. I was more than happy to let him have his moment. I hovered about in the passage as the works were returned, checked off by a House expert as they entered the warehouse where they would remain until the paperwork was completed before shipping. I tugged at Jim’s sleeve as he passed with a trolley.
‘Jim! Isn’t it wonderful!’
He grinned at me. ‘Best sale ever. We’ll be done in a minute. Got a lock-in at the York if you’re interested?’
I laughed. ‘Thanks, I wish I could. But I have to get back up there.’
I rolled my eyes wearily to the noise emanating from the drawing room. ‘Listen. I wouldn’t mind having one last look at her, but my pass is in my coat upstairs. Would you mind?’
‘No problem, miss.’ I held my breath as he let me past the door.
‘Thanks. I’ll only be a minute. Oh . . . but Jim.’ I made a little helpless gesture at my white dress. ‘Could I possibly borrow?’
‘Oh. Oh, of course.’ He unpopped his brown overall.
‘You’re a star. I’ll leave it by the rack for you. And here,’ I handed him the two fifties I had ready in my hand. ‘Get the lads a round on me.’
‘That’s very kind of you, miss. Congratulations!’
If I’d ever planned an art heist, this was the moment I would have chosen, immediately after a big sale, the time when everyone is distracted and the works are being moved back into the warehouse, the only tiny tear in the canvas of the House security. I hid in the sedan chair with the Minion until the last of the works were stored and the porters left for the pub.
The basement was dim and cool, the only sound the faint thrum of the temperature units. I checked my watch – 10.40, da Silva would be arriving in about fifteen minutes – then texted Elvis: Get moving. Time for a quick wander. Most of the works were stacked in cases, but in the space reserved for British Pictures towards the back several canvases were propped on the counter adjoining one of the large viewing benches. I felt for the switch under the rim of the table and flicked on the UV. William Etty. Creamy Victorian thighs and blushing Victorian bosoms, languishing in every coy posture of Victorian desire, the flesh rendered a surreal blue by the artificial glow. Perfect. Pulling the House overall from my bag, I slipped off my shoes and knotted my dress at the hip, trotted over to the door that led out into the area loading bay. A queue of low wooden trolleys was parked along the wall, waiting for the next day’s deliveries. I wheeled one carefully back inside, the overall flapping over my bare legs, and laid down the iron handle behind the viewing bench, moving my bag up to the counter, within reach behind a pair of entwined naked girls. I just had time to whip off my dress and the overall and hop onto the table before I heard da Silva’s voice.
‘Amore, sei qui?’
‘Over here,’ I answered, lowering myself on one elbow and stretching my length along the wood, aware of the opalescent gleam of my own skin against the varnished sheen of the paintings. He gasped as he came into sight and I caught his gaze, travelling slowly along my body and then over the pictures, all those half-parted lips, rosy nipples, soft, heavy limbs.
‘You said . . .’
I put a finger to my lips. ‘Shhh. It doesn’t matter what I said. Come.’ I sat up as he approached the table, opened my legs wide, trailed a hand down my neck, over my breasts and along my thigh to the lips of my cunt, opening it for his mouth as he sank to his knees in front of me. His hand moved up to rub and squeeze at my breasts as his tongue pressed inside me. I let my head fall back as he lapped and sucked at my wetness, my body answering him even as I reached behind me for the bag. He stood and released his cock, swollen and straining and made to pull me onto him, but I twisted away and patted the table beside me.
‘My turn. Quick, lie down.’ He obeyed and I straddled him, my legs flexed at right angles, only the very tip of his aching cock touching the lips of my pussy. Slowly I lowered my weight to take the head inside me, then pulled back, brushing him again with the mouth of my cunt. He groaned and I pushed his hands behind his head, spiralling my body in short twists, down, round, down, round, taking him deeper each time until just as he was buried there I lifted myself off him, paused at the summit then rammed him so hard it knocked the breath out of me. I settled back with my hips pressed against his, gripping his cock tight along its length as I made slow figures of eight, pulsing my muscles tight at the apex of each stroke.
‘Sei una meravglia.’
Leaning forward, I let his teeth catch at my nipple, still grinding him, pulling him closer, closer, watching his face.
‘You like that? You like it when I fuck you like that?’
He nodded, dumb, frantic, left of the bang.
‘How about like that?’
He came as I popped the little canister from my bag and let the gasp of his orgasm become the first gulp of the butane. It was the Dupont that had given me the idea. The first hit sent his head thumping back against the wood; before he recovered enough to struggle I had the carrier bag over his head, counting to twenty as I released the second dose inside. He spluttered and was limp, inside and out. I slid off him, turned him onto his stomach and got the cuffs on before pulling off the bag. I didn’t want him dead. Replacing the House overall, I hung my bag off the trolley handle and winched the base up level with the bench, then rolled him onto it, securing him with the nylon bands attached across the tray. Then I wheeled him out into the yard. I had to lean back to counter his weight as I pushed him down the slatted ramp that gave its name, ‘Hilling’, to the moving of works. As soon as we were on the flat, I texted Elvis.
The night air seemed to be reviving da Silva: he was moaning and retching. I gave him another little snort to put him back under, then used the pass to open the warehouse gate. This was going to be the most difficult moment. There were no cameras in the warehouse itself – the House was too protective of clients’ privacy – but anyone viewing those in the yard would see a porter and a trolley. The security detail might just check out the warehouse. They wouldn’t find anything amiss – porters sometimes did move works at night, to catch early morning shipments – but we only had the time it would take for them to walk down before they saw us. The security booth was beside the lobby, so a couple of minutes at most.
As planned, Elvis had backed into the mews and left the van doors open. When he got down to help me I saw with a smile that he was wearing an ordinary denim jacket and had even sacrificed his pompadour quiff. Silently, I gestured to him to help me position the trolley.
‘This the package, then?’ he whispered wryly.
‘Cover him up and start the van. Hurry. I’ll put this back.’
The security gates glided shut as we pulled out of the mews. No sound from inside the warehouse.
‘Have you got my stuff?’
‘There. Next to whatsit in the back.’
I reached over the seat, conscious of my bare arse under the overall, but Elvis had his eyes on the black cab that was passing in the street. For an agonising moment it slowed as though to let out a passenger, but it drove on. My briefcase and the small trolley lay next to the mattress on which da Silva was beginning to come to. Straining round the seatbelt, I shoved him onto his side. He’d puke, and I didn’t want him choking. I wrestled jeans, sweatshirt and sneakers from the trolley and pulled them on.
‘You brought the chair too?’
‘Everything, just like you said. The kit’s in the backpack under the seat. Kevin said to give you this,’ added Elvis impassively. ‘He said you were partial.’
He handed me a Crunchie. Lawrence used to serve Cadbury’s Treatsize instead of canapés. How sweet of Kevin to remember. Elvis lit a fag and peered over the back seat.
‘How’s he looking?’
‘Bit green. All right though.’
I extracted the cash-fat envelope with Elvis’s fee from my handbag.
‘There you go. Three grand, in twenties like I said. You’ve been just brilliant, thank you.’ Christ knew why I was whispering.
‘All right. Glad to do a favour for Kevin.’
‘You’re not a chatter, are you, Elvis?’
‘Doesn’t matter. You’d best get going. I’ll have it back here tomorrow at four.’
‘Sure you can manage him?’
It would have been much quicker and easier to have Elvis help me with da Silva and the kit, but I didn’t want to implicate him any further than I had to. Besides, I needed to do this alone.
The van was bigger than anything I’d ever driven before. In fact, I’d never driven anything except the driving school Vauxhall I had taken my test in. Christ might also know where my licence was. I stalled embarrassingly on Piccadilly and somehow found myself in the bus lane near Chinatown, but finally got the hang of it as we crawled through Soho, up Dean Street towards Oxford Circus. Crowds of tourists and partygoers milled in and out of the bars, lingering in the warm summer air. Three girls, arms linked, swaying on the currents of the night, clacked in front of the van in their platform heels, lovely and arrogant and out on the lash. One of them blew me a kiss. I sucked sweet melting honeycomb from the roof of my mouth. The drive would take about four and a half hours, so we’d be there just before dawn. I made the chocolate last until we were crossing the Westway, heading for the M1 and the north, then I switched on the radio to keep myself awake as the van began to peel off the dark miles, climbing the spine of England, towards Liverpool.
A few times, when I was little, my mum took me to Crosby Beach. Except no one called it that: it was the Erosion, the wide basin of the Mersey Estuary where the ships heaved in, stately behind the puffing tugboats, to anchor in Liverpool Docks. Ships from America, from Greece and Norway and China. My mum and I would try to guess the flags as we sat with our picnic of apples and folded white bread and jam. I remembered the grit of the reddish sand, the way its scratchiness got everywhere, under my jumper, into the turn-ups of my jeans. You weren’t really allowed to swim, the currents and the quicksand were too dangerous, but my mum would take me for a paddle, and once I think there was a fishing net. And 99 Flakes from the ice-cream van, Mr Whippy with bright raspberry sauce. Breaks your heart, doesn’t it?
My journey was punctuated by da Silva’s mutterings and the rasping presence of Darth Vader on Elvis’s satnav, faint thumps and occasional expletives in Italian. Towards the end I almost dozed off, jolting awake as Anakin Skywalker growled at me to turn left on Marine Terrace, towards the boating lake. My watch said 4.35, fifteen minutes until dawn. Dulled with fatigue, I opened the back door and took out the chair. Up here, the air was dismally cold; a spiky wind off the Atlantic gusted seaweed and rot over the rails of the promenade. Aside from the street lamps along the front, the foreshore was black; I held the small torch between my teeth as I carried the chair and the ropes down to the sands. Tentatively, I began to pick my way towards the first of the motionless figures guarding the horizon.
Anthony Gormley’s Another Place was installed in Crosby in 2005. One hundred cast-iron figures, each moulded from the body of the artist, each weighing 650 kilos. They watch for three kilometres along the coast, staring up to a kilometre into the waves. According to the artist, their objective is to challenge human life against planetary time, which was pretty much what I had in mind too, if not quite in the manner Mr Gormley intended.
About a hundred metres out the give of the sand shifted beneath my feet as it turned from dry to wet. The tides in the estuary turn on a five-day cycle: high tides in the morning range from just after midnight to about 6.30 a.m. Today’s was due at 5.47. Encumbered by the chair I moved slowly. I wanted to hurry as I could sense, rather than see, the first stripes of dawn behind me, but I knew I had to place each step with care, testing the give and suck of the waterlogged sand. I passed several of the ghostly, sea-mangled figures until the ground collapsed, engulfing my leg up to the knee with a greedy slurp. Backing up a little way, I set down the chair, then jogged back the way I had come.
Back at the van, Selena Gomez warbled wistfully about neat whisky. I cocked the Caracal and slung the backpack onto one of the benches along the prom. Da Silva didn’t smell too good – lighter fluid and half-digested canapés don’t make for an alluring fragrance. The vomit had dried in long spools down his neck and soaked his collar and there were welling purple bruises beneath his bewildered eyes. I got the gag on, then tried to hoist him forward, but he resisted, loosening his body into a dead weight. It was impossible to look at his face, impossible to look at those eyes. So I just jammed the Caracal against his ribs, which got him moving. I held it there in an echo of our walk from my prison shed in Calabria as I marched him down the beach. What passed for the sun in these parts was up now, but from behind we’d look like a couple out for a romantic dawn stroll. He was still dazed, stumbling against me as we progressed towards the brown waves.
‘OK, lover. Have a seat.’
I tied his legs together first, looping the rope around the legs of the chair before unbuttoning his horrible Ralph Lauren shirt, tearing it along the seams to get it over the handcuffs. He began protesting at that point, jerking from side to side, trying to kick at me.
‘I wouldn’t do that if I were you. You’ll only knock yourself over. That’d spoil the view.’
I knotted him round the chest to the chair back and threaded the third length of rope round his neck and tightly through his cuffed wrists to keep his head in place, then stepped back to adm
‘This will be ciao, then,’ I called, as I gathered his soiled and shredded shirt and shoved the gun into my jeans. I didn’t look behind me until I was back on the front, lighting a fag on the bench and watching the sea change from murky brown to a paler murky brown. Five a.m. I wondered how long it would take him to work out that he had forty-odd minutes before the sea closed over his head. He had tried to kill me on a beach, after all – I suppose it was even quite poetic. Already, the water was reaching straggly nicotine-scurfed digits towards the chair.
There’s always something mesmeric about watching the sea. That knowledge that whatever happens, those waves will still break on the same shore for an infinity of tomorrows. I supposed that was what the artist was gesturing towards, the strange comfort of our own smallness. We waited together, and after a while, in the lulling susurration of the waves, I almost forgot that the seated figure was more human than its companions. It didn’t seem to matter much. Certainly, it hadn’t mattered to da Silva. I recalled him in the farmhouse in Calabria, casually explaining the way the boats sometimes dumped their human cargo. That indifference was the source of the only affinity we had ever truly had.
Because we were alike, he and I. I’d watched him. The ease with which he lived with doubleness, the ruthlessness, the calm embrace of necessary violence. And I had thought, just like every sad bitch who’d ever sat right here and wept her heart out to the indifferent waters, that it meant that he could love me. Just be yourself, and you’ll find someone who wants you just the way you are. Da Silva had seen me, he knew what I was, what I had done. In Tangier, I’d told him that the best weapon a woman could use was surprise. But love is the best of all. In the end, I had convinced myself that love would deliver him to me, would deliver us both. Perhaps it could have done. I had made and remade myself so many times, but he was a chance to be new. And he took it away from me. Not even when I realised he would sacrifice me, but when I knew that he would do so and feel nothing at all. He wouldn’t save me, so I couldn’t save him.
by L. S. Hilton have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes