Europe, for George, had been a disappointment this time, in more ways than one. The boys had been disappointing. Something, which George had to admit was quite unusual for Europe. Worse still even the art had been a disappointment. In fact, he almost admitted to himself, he might have been better occupied at his select gallery in New York or even at his more select establishment in Boston, which was not a gallery.
Now, however, everything had changed, apparently for the better. Not that the party he was at was any good. It was a ghastly affair. One of those pseudo-intellectual soirees which he normally took pains to avoid. He was though quite pleased that he had not avoided coming to this one. Here, in a small dingy flat, the only good thing about which was that it had a 'good' address, what the picture which now fascinated him.
Amid a pile of Victorian rubbish which hung around the wall was a sketch of a woman's face. The background might be different from that which one associated with the finished work, but for George, there was no mistaking that face.
George pondered for a few moments. Could it really be what it appeared to be? The only answer with which he could come up was yes, it could. From the lines of the sketch, he would say it was the real thing, not some quick copy made by an art student. This was the work of a true draughtsman. Anyway, any art student would have copied the actual background shown in the painting. That though was not shown in the sketch, the background was totally different.
Slowly he moved away from the picture, not quite certain what to do. One thing he was certain of though was that he had to find out where the picture had come from. He looked around the room for Peter, the hustler he had picked up a couple of nights before and who had brought him to this poor apology for a party.
The boy was there if you could call him a boy? He had told George that he was eighteen. More like twenty-eight, well preserved and slightly pickled. Peter was slouched across the chaise lounge, plying his trade for all to see. Though in all likelihood, thought George, most of the guests at this do would know his trade only too well. Those who were not his co-workers would be his clients.
"Peter," he called, indicating that the boy should come across to him. The boy did. Trolling over like a carefully clipped French Poodle. The boy knew who was his meal ticket and was careful to see that the provider was well satisfied.
"Peter, my dear boy," George said, intending to make the boy feel secure or he might start to think for himself. "Do you happen to know where," for a moment George found that he had forgotten the name of the host, they had been briefly introduced on arrival but had not spoken since. He thought for a moment, then recalled the name. "Keith obtained that?" George indicated the picture.
"No, I've not got the foggiest. Though I s'pose the old queen picked it up somewhere. He's always rummaging around old junk shops and visiting auctions, though it could be part of his inheritance."
"Inheritance?" George asked.
"Oh yes," Peter replied. "He comes from quite a family; they go back yonks. I'm sure they have passed a lot of junk down. You should see the stuff his cousin the Duke's got in their place in the Peaks."
"I'm sure you are right, it is probably inherited," George commented. "I was just interested where it had come from."
"Why don't you ask him?" inquired Peter.
"I really don't like to," George replied. "It seems a bit intrusive."
"Look, darling, we are talking about Keith," Peter stated. "There is nothing better that the old queen likes to talk about than his art collection. She'll be delighted to prattle on about her finds. I'll fetch her for you, that is provided he's not ensconced with some young titbit, in which case Armageddon won't budge him."
"Peter set off into the mass of people who made up the event, swinging himself in a highly sensual manner, indicating a promise of the delightful expertise he would provide George with that night. George did not notice. He was busy thinking about the picture. How could it be what he thought it was? If it was, what in the name of all creation was it doing here?
Peter was soon back with Keith.
"Well darling," Peter stated, "here is the old queen for you. Though I can't see what you can do with it." If he had not been too preoccupied with the picture, George would have told him. After two nights with Peter, George was starting to find the boy was beginning to pale as an interesting sex companion. Even from his brief encounter with Keith on arrival at the party he had come to an understanding that intellectually at least he was the more interesting of the two. Also, Keith was not on the game. George had gathered that he had some sort of private income.
Dismissing Peter, George turned his attention to Keith.
"I've been admiring your collection," he lied. The fact was that most of it he considered to be absolute rubbish in the worst possible taste. The type of thing he would not give space to in the city's waste dump. "I was wondering where you got that?" George indicated the picture hanging on the wall in the alcove.
"Oh, that old thing," replied Keith, appearing to be a bit put out. George guessed he had hoped that he was interested in something more than the pictures. "Well, I didn't collect it actually. It's been in the family for years. I suppose one of my forefathers or mothers must have done it whilst on the Grand Tour. I know a couple of them were art students or whatever the equivalent was at that time. One of them probably did it."
"Yes," replied George. "You could be right." He made the statement knowing full well that it was incorrect. Nobody in the second half of the seventeenth century or during the eighteenth century would have used paper like that. In fact, no one in the last four centuries would have. However, if Keith's ancestors had been going on the Grand Tour, there was the chance that one of them could have picked the drawing up along the way. He paused in thought for a moment then continued. "I'm rather fond of studies like that."
That, if anything, was the understatement of the century. If the study was what George thought it was fond was the wrong word. He was passionately in love with the idea of getting his hands on it.
"Oh, are you?" responded Keith. "Now somewhere around I've some sketches done in Florence by my Great Aunt Bertha." George smiled, moaning inwardly at the idea of the torture which was now going to be imposed upon him.
* * * * *
As far as George was concerned nothing was going right for him on this trip. Absolutely nothing. There he was in bed with what could only be described as a definitely second-class whore. There was no chance that he could see of him getting the one thing which would make this year's annual stock buying trip to Europe worthwhile. In fact, after much consideration, he decided that there was only one way in which he could get his hands on what he wanted. The problem was he could not get it that way. It was not that George had any scruples. Anybody born where he had been born had no scruples. That was why so many of them got to the top of their profession or industry.
The only way that George could see of getting the picture was to steal it. The problem was he had no idea how to go about doing that in England. If he had been in Italy, then everything would have been fine. The right word with the right person and it could all be arranged for a consideration. In England though, it was not so easy. George just did not have the connections here, where the world of art dealing seemed to be run by minor members of the aristocracy, rather than respectable members of the Mafia.
"What is it, George?" Peter asked, putting his arms around his bedmate. "You don't seem yourself tonight."
"Oh, it's nothing," George responded.
"Come off it. Something has been wrong ever since we left Keith's. What is it?"
"If you must know, it's a picture that Keith has, I wanted to buy it."
"And what," demanded George, "is so damned funny you little whore?"
"You don't stand a chance of getting one of Keith's pictures, even if you offered a grand."
"I offered ten," George informed Peter.
"You what!" exclaimed Peter, sitting up in bed.
"I offered him ten thousand."
"Bloody hell George! You offered ten thousand dollars for a measly picture. You must be mad offering that much, and Keith must be mad for refusing. Then we all know he's a bloody eccentric."
"I would agree with you about Keith, but you see that picture," George paused. For a moment he had been about to say what he thought it was, then he realised that if he did Peter would learn its true value. He thought quickly and lied. "Would just about complete a rather small and very special collection I've been putting together for a very special client."
"Oh," Peter responded.
"Incidentally," George informed him. "I may be American, but I offered pounds."
"Good God, you must be made of money."
"Not quite Peter, and don't get any ideas. I may waste money on art, never on boys."
"Pity. It's unfortunate that Keith won't sell. He would waste some on me."
"He might sell yet if I raised the offer," George stated.
"George, I've known Keith since I was fourteen. One thing which everybody knows about Keith is that he will never part with anything. It's indecent the way he hordes things, even lovers, when he can."
"If I offered more, he might make an exception," George observed.
"How much more?" Peter asked.
"Another five thousand," George said.
"You want it that badly?" Peter enquired.
"Yes," responded George.
* * * * *
In the end, it had been easier than George had expected. As Peter informed him there was no way in which he could get Keith to sell. Peter though was, like most in his profession, corrupt and in this case very corrupt. George did not even have to put the idea to him. Peter himself suggested that if George wanted the picture and could pay a bit more than indicated, then it could always be stolen. Not, Peter made clear, that he would steal it, but he knew somebody who could, and would for the right amount. There would, Peter informed George, have to be some consideration in the deal for Peter.
George had no objection to paying the boy to get the picture stolen. There was some bargaining over the consideration though. He may have wanted the picture very badly, but there was no way that George was going to take an ageing harlot back to the States with him. Eventually, a price was agreed, and Peter got a cash payment and a new car.
All in all, it had been the most successful. Here George was a few thousand feet over the Atlantic. The cartoon was in his briefcase in the overhead locker. To add to George's satisfaction, he had pulled one over on the little whore. He would have loved to see Peter's face when he counted the money to find that he had been short-changed by two thousand pounds.
George sat back in his first-class seat and read a very small item in the days Evening Standard, which reported the theft of a couple of not very valuable pictures from a small London flat, which just happened to have the right address to make it newsworthy on a day with very little news. For a moment he pondered what the headlines would have been like if they had known what the cartoon was. With this in contemplation, he smiled, leaned back in his seat and watched the inflight movie.
* * * * *
The warm Mediterranean sun beat down on the two fine, suntanned bodies, which lay on the balcony of the villa. Peter turned over and gently kissed Keith on the forehead.
"I was a bit annoyed about old George," he stated.
"I know Peter, just think the crook shortchanged us."
"I wonder what he will do when he finds out that the picture is a forgery?"
"So, would I. Anyway, you got a car out of it. The money we got from it and the other two have set us up for a bit. Though I think we could do a couple more."
"Oh. How many forged non-existent De Vinci cartoons do you have?" Peter asked."Well, I have another Mona Lisa, three Virgin of the Rocks and a couple of Lady with the Ermine," Keith replied. "Don't think we can push things on that front much more. Anyway, darling, I must go down to the workshop. The Tung horsemen should just about finished their firing."