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Killmaiden's Compendium
Biennial Excerpt

Book I, Chapter 1

The hammer slammed down and a communal gasp escaped the audience. Bejeweled fingers clapped uproariously together, and flawless smiles radiated around the room. Finally, the auctioneer made his announcement to the crowd at Hartley’s Auction House.

“Down it goes,” he intoned. “The Rothko painting is sold to paddle number 553.”  

Natasha Turner—Tash to her friends at the auction house—had observed the auctioneer with genuine excitement. Even though she had worked dozens of such auctions as a specialist for Hartley’s in their New York headquarters, she always felt a rush during the mad waves of a major sale. The prices crested to dizzying heights for key art works and ebbed to six figures for lesser lots. The auction was the focal point of all Hartley’s activities, the beating heart of a $4 billion enterprise that overflowed with glamour, intrigue and unimaginable beauty.  

Tash checked the board on the eastern wall of the sale room. It displayed the prices for each lot in U.S. dollars, and the corresponding conversions into pounds sterling, euros, yen and Hong Kong dollars. The display flipped constantly like a train station board, only this board announced trainloads of money. The hammer price of the Rothko painting flashed on the screen at $24.2 million, a princely sum for one of the sale’s signature works. That didn’t include the twelve percent fee Hartley’s would charge the buyer for making the market for this art work. The sixty-four lot spring auction for Post War and Contemporary Art occurred annually during the second week of May.  Tash and her colleagues had worked sixteen hour days for months to prepare this sale. If all went well it would bring in $200 million dollars. In one night.  

“Tash,” her friend and fellow specialist, Jenny Suarez, interrupted, “the phone line is open. Are you ready for him?”

Tash nodded and eased her way toward the bank of telephones in the corner on the north wall. She walked behind the seats on the floor and around the auction house camera crew. They videotaped the auction to ensure a correct account in the event a discrepancy arose as to whether someone was bidding or simply scratching his nose. This camera was joined by the white lights of the major television networks who were broadcasting the event to the world.  

“Can you believe the crowd at this sale?” Tash asked Jenny as they walked to the phones.

“What?” Jenny said with a shrug. “It’s the usual cast of dealers, collectors, advisors, and average New Yorkers, just more of them tonight. This is the evening’s entertainment for them. I’m not sure I understand it, but I believe it.”

“Come on,” Tash said. “Didn’t you see the Rothko we just sold? Couldn’t you feel it pulsing at you, sucking the air out of the room? It’s gorgeous. I would’ve paid $24.2 million for it. I was just, you know, $24.1 million short.”

As they walked, Jenny pointed towards a man with slicked back hair and his arms folded behind him.  

“You see Jamie McGinn over there?” Jenny asked.

“Yeah. Grinning like the cat that’s just eaten a canary.”

“He won’t be smiling when this is over,” Jenny said. “I bet you make fifteen percent more at this sale than he did in his at Delacourt’s. No need to sweat the competition.”

They reached the phone bank and stood behind the long counter. Tash smoothed the lines of her little black dress—all auction house employees dressed for a sale as if they were going to a very chic funeral—tucked her shoulder length brunette hair behind her ear, and grabbed the phone Jenny had readied for her. Jenny was right, Tash thought. She was going to shine at this sale, and she was going to start with this call.

The phones linked Tash and the other specialists to their clients who wanted to bid but did not want to be present amidst the crowd on the auction house floor. Some lines went upstairs to skyboxes where billionaires whose private jets flew them to their own islands ate caviar and drank champagne. Hartley’s was careful to keep them separate from the mere millionaires seated below who only flew first class to vacation on St. Bart’s. The telephone lines that did not lead to the skyboxes went outside the auction house to buyers who wanted to bid from the privacy of their own mansions. The line Tash picked up went to a very special mansion in the Knightsbridge section of London.

“Lord Terrence,” Tash said, “Are you ready?”

“Indeed, I am, dearest Natasha,” Jonathan Lord Terrence of Guildhall, Marquis of Cotswold and Viscount of Devonshire said. “Where do we stand in the order?”

“After the big Rothko, the lots will slow down a bit,” she said. “We’re doing the Joan Mitchell now, which should sell for about $800,000, and then the Ali Wadee you’re bidding on is up.”

“Do you still think it will hammer at $300,000?” Lord Terrence asked.

“I think so,” she said. “There’s not much of a secondary market for Wadee’s works yet. But there will be after the Venice Biennial, so now’s a good time to sneak in.”

“Have you heard of any other interest in the work?” he asked.

“Light interest,” she said. “The auctioneer has a bid on the books, but I don’t think it’s at a serious price. I doubt anyone else will bid. Most people still think of Wadee as one of the Iraqi artists who made those horrible fantasy paintings for Saddam Hussein. That turned off the dealers, and who could blame them. But Wadee painted this work away from Saddam’s palace, and it was sold to a French industrialist right before Saddam fell from power. So Wadee had more freedom in his art than he had with the other works commissioned by Saddam. It’s a good piece. The estimate is $200,000 to $300,000. I like it up to the high end, maybe even $350,000 if you’re feeling frisky. I can’t imagine it going any higher than that.”

“Hmm,” Lord Terrence mused. “I really do love this painting. It has the sense of possibility I felt when I had more hair and less arthritis. How does it feel to still be in your early thirties?”

Tash could hear Lord Terrence chortle over the line, which turned into a series of coughs and then a sputter into what she knew was an old fashioned handkerchief.  

“It feels pretty good,” Tash said. “Are you okay?”

“It looks good, too,” he said slyly. “And, I’m fine. If Lady Terrence would allow me, I’d take you for a dance.”

“But Eleanor will never allow you,” Tash chided. “So be quiet and focus, you terrible old man. Our lot is coming around.”

Of course, she didn’t think Lord Terrence a terrible old man, but she knew he loved to hear her say it. The audience flipped pages in their sale catalogs as the Mitchell painting sold for the $800,000 Tash had predicted.

“Lot 23, by Ali Wadee,” the auctioneer called.  

The turnstile wall behind the auctioneer rotated to reveal a large abstract painting in a blue tone that suggested a river. The work fit inside an oversized frame.  

“The bidding will begin at $200,000 with me,” the auctioneer said, indicating he would be bidding up to a certain amount for a client who had contacted him. This was the “bid on the books” Tash had told Lord Terrence about.  Then the auctioneer turned towards Tash with an arched eyebrow. He knew she had an able buyer for the painting.  

“I’ll take another twenty,” the auctioneer said, meaning the bidding increments would go up by $20,000 per bid, and perhaps more as the price got higher.

“Are we in the hunt, Lord Terrence?” she asked.

“Sound the bugles,” he answered.

Tash indicated a bid with a wave of her hand. The auctioneer registered Tash’s bid and scanned the room for a counter bid.  

“With me at $240,000,” the auctioneer bid on behalf of his client. “Two-forty against you, Natasha.”

Tash took Lord Terrence’s instruction and waved that she was in for $260,000.

“We’re at $280,000, and I’m out,” the auctioneer said, meaning his client had not authorized him to go this high, and Tash retained the high bid.  

“Two-sixty against the room,” the auctioneer said. “Do I have $280,000 anyone? Anyone? Last call—”

Tash gripped the phone tightly. She had fetched a good price for the work, and obtained a decent deal for her client at the same time. This was going perfectly, she thought. But then she noticed one of the young spotters employed by the auction house pointing his finger. She followed his arm to a man seated on the right side of the room. The man had tentatively raised his paddle with the red number 113 embossed on it, signaling his bid at $280,000. Tash inspected the paddle’s holder—a plain, middle-aged man she had never seen before.

“We have $280,000 seated on the floor,” the auctioneer said.

“Did someone else just bid against us?” Lord Terrence’s voice hissed in her ear.



“I don’t know,” she said. “What would you like me to do?”

“Release the hounds,” he said.

Tash signaled her bid at $300,000, and called Jenny over.

“Who’s that guy with paddle 113?” Tash asked. Jenny crinkled her nose. She didn’t know either. “I want to know if he’s bidding for himself or if he’s a proxy for someone else. Can you find out?”

Jenny nodded and hunched over at the nearest Hartley’s computer to search the paddle registry. It would tell her who signed up for the mysterious paddle 113, and she could check that name in the Hartley’s buyer database to find out what he had bid on or purchased in the past.

In the mean time, paddle 113 had counter-bid at $320,000 and the auctioneer was now looking to Tash with a gleam in his eye at $340,000. The bidding had surprised him, and Tash knew he was rarely surprised.

“Lord Terrence?” she asked.

“Once more into the breach, dear friends,” he replied.

The auctioneer acknowledged Tash’s bid and went back to the mysterious bidder.

“Three hundred forty against you on the floor,” he said. “Are you still with us?”

Tash rubbed her hands as she watched the man straighten up in his seat. Instead of looking like a man who was about to wash out, he seemed like he was gaining confidence. If he bid at $360,000, she knew she had to caution Lord Terrence against going any further. She didn’t want to do that since it was her job to facilitate buying and selling. Adding more sales to Lord Terrence’s account was a way for her to advance up the steep slope of Hartley’s promotional ladder. She knew Jamie McGinn at Delacourt’s wouldn’t warn his clients against overpaying, but she could never bring herself to watch people she cared about get screwed.  

The other bidder raised paddle 113 firmly.

“I’ll take another fifty,” the auctioneer said.

Tash groaned. The increases were at the auctioneer’s discretion and since he smelled a bidding war he had upped the ante to $50,000 increments. The bid was now $410,000, over the high end of the painting’s estimate and higher than she had advised Lord Terrence to go.

“Lord Terrence,” she said, “the bid is to you at $410,000. I’m not sure this picture is worth it, and I certainly wouldn’t go any higher. What would you like me to do?”

“I’d like you to thrash the man with that paddle,” he said. “And then bid the $410,000. I want this painting. I will not be deterred by this pipsqueak, this excuse for a man.”

Tash paused and then bid for Lord Terrence. She was concerned he’d been bitten by auction fever, the irrational desire to win the painting. In fact, overpaying now would mean an eventual market loss if he ever wanted to sell it.  She had seen the fever before and it generally ended in buyer’s remorse, a berating from the spouse, and blame heaped upon the auction house specialist who let it happen. Jenny reappeared, her lips pursed.

“Paddle 113 is no one,” Jenny said. “I didn’t recognize his name, and he’s never purchased or sold anything through Hartley’s before. I asked around the room, talked to the other specialists, some dealers and advisors. Nobody’s heard of this guy, and he’s not connected to anyone we know. He’s a ghost.”

Tash looked across the room as the ghost bid $460,000 for the Ali Wadee painting. He had just set a new world record for Wadee’s work. She didn’t know what to think. She was glad one of the lots in her sale was exceeding its high estimate, but she’d also hoped to get it for her client. More than that, she wanted to know who the hell paddle 113 was and why he wanted this painting so badly. She wasn’t alone. The room hummed with the whispers of bidders, dealers and advisors who wondered aloud what was going on with this lot.  

The auctioneer leveled his gaze at her.

“Five ten to you, Natasha,” he said.

“Time to get out of the hunt,” Tash said into the telephone. “It’s over, Lord Terrence.”

There was a pause on the other end of the line. She could hear Lord Terrence’s breath rasp softly across the wire.

“Five ten,” he finally said.

“Are you serious?” Tash said. “You’re catching auction fever. I wouldn’t pay $510,000 for this painting with Jamie McGinn’s money.”

Lord Terrence chuckled.

“But it’s my money,” he said, “and I have lots of it. Five ten, if you please.”

Tash answered the auctioneer’s gaze, and low whistles spread through the sale room. She prayed paddle 113 would bow out and the bidding would spiral no higher. The bid was now to paddle 113 at $560,000, which was almost double its high estimate. The holder of paddle 113 flipped it up without hesitation, and Tash’s head sunk into her hands.

“Lord Terrence, the world record for a Wadee has not just been broken, it’s shattered. For the love of God and the money your crusty ancestors left you, please don’t bid any higher. Six ten would be ludicrous.”

“Natasha,” he said, “do you think I’ll be run out of town like a criminal by a nobody? I fought with Monty in North Africa, and I shall fight on today. I will go as high as I have to. I will capture this prize for my lady and the family Terrence. I will—”

Suddenly, Lord Terrence’s voice was cut short. Tash thought she heard him gagging, not coughing like before.

“Are you alright?” she asked. There was no response, so she called again, “Lord Terrence?”  

When Jenny came running over, Tash realized how high the pitch of her voice had become. Now she thought she heard the sounds of grunting and furniture being jostled. But the grunts didn’t come from the chest of an eighty year old man. Tash was convinced someone else was in the room with Lord Terrence.

“Lord Terrence,” she shouted, “Speak to me. What’s the matter? Are you okay? Is there someone with you?”

In return, all she heard was more jostling, an almost silent wheeze, and she thought she heard one final word escape Lord Terrence’s lips:


Then there was a long silence, and someone in London hung up the phone. Tash stood motionless as the dial tone rang in her ear. She didn’t notice the auctioneer still calling for her client’s counter-bid, or the crowd of people staring at her. She wasn’t certain how long Jenny Suarez had been tugging at her arm, and she had no idea who or what Headley was. But she was sure of one thing. Jonathan Lord Terrence of Guildhall, Marquis of Cotswold and Viscount of Devonshire had just been murdered.