The Man from Hong Kong
Jerry Aron called. “About that consulting deal,” he said. “I told you I’d give you a few assignments and we’d see how they work out. Well, I have one for you. Are you ready?”
An hour later, we were sitting together in Jerry’s office. Jerry scratched his chin and said, “I want you to visit a man and verify the authenticity of some works of art.”
“That sounds like a job for an authenticator,” I said.
“It’s complicated. The man’s a Hong Kong multimillionaire named David Chu. He purchased a deluxe vacation condo in the Village that came with three valuable paintings from this gallery. Chu moved in yesterday, examined them, and says they’re fakes.”
“Is it possible he’s right?”
“We don’t sell fakes. The only way he could be right is if the condo seller pulled the old switcheroo.”
“Anything else I should know?”
“Chu’s a prominent member of a Triad family with a reputation for violence. He threatened me.”
“So, you want me to go over there and calmly tell Mr. Chu the paintings are sweet?”
“Frankly, Carlos, what I’d like you to do is make the problem go away.”
A long silence.
“With a Glock?” I said, and waited.
“Just joking,” I said. “Tell you what, Jerry. Get whoever authenticated the paintings down here and we’ll go visit Mr. Chu.”
Jerry looked off into space, nodded at something in the far distance, looked at me, picked up his phone, and punched in a number. Seconds later, his eyes opened wide. “Hello, Mr. Chu. This is Jerry Aron, from Kenningston’s. Sir, if it’s convenient for you, Dr. Acuna and I would like to visit and examine the paintings this morning.” A pause as Jerry listened, then, “Very good, sir. Fifteen minutes.”
“You didn’t say you were the authenticator,” I said. “And I’m Dr. Acuna? Are we doing a role-play?”
“A role reversal. I’ll give you cues, if necessary. One eye blink means the piece is genuine, several means fake.”
We walked from Kenningston’s toward the beach, took a cross street for a few blocks, and reached a new two-story townhouse set on a narrow lot with a tiny rock garden in front and a Mercedes convertible in the carport.
“What do you think?” Jerry said.
“It looks like kid’s building blocks and rocks.”
“It’s probably homey to Chu, scaled down Hong Kong highrise apartment block architecture.”
As we approached, the condo’s front door opened and out came a large buzzcut Caucasian man in a gray suit and tie. He held up his hand for us to stop. As we waited, he walked toward us with a side to side rocking motion like a musclebound bodybuilder, large shoulders, a bodyguard’s pistol bulge on his belt line.
“That’s not Mr. Chu,” Jerry said.
“How can you tell?” I said.
The man came up to us, looked from face to face. “I’m Mr. Chu’s associate, Mr. Johnson,” he said. “Show me some ID.”
Satisfied, he patted us down, then led us into the house—filled with the odor and haze of cigarette smoke. Standing by the window was a short, pale, balding Chinese man in his sixties in a colorful Hawaiian shirt and shorts. As still as a statue, with the wrinkled face of a dedicated smoker, he was clear eyed and intimidating.
“Mr. Chu,” Jerry said. “Let me introduce my associate, Dr. Acuna.”
Chu nodded infinitesimally.
“Good morning, sir,” I said.
Chu looked at Jerry. “You go check my fucked-up pictures.”
“Please show them to us, Mr. Chu,” Jerry said.
Chu went to the coffee table, took a Benson and Hedges from a pack, and lit it with a gold lighter. We followed him and his trail of smoke into an interior room with a cipher lock outside its open steel door. Large oil canvases of abstract oil paintings hung on three walls beneath spotlights.
“Which one?” I said.
“Look, Dr. Expert,” Chu said. “You say.”
I glanced at Jerry, whose eyes rolled toward the painting on the far wall. I walked over to it. It had a shiny surface with a transparent, slightly brownish sheen. I looked closely, moved my nostrils close. “Varnish,” I said. I took hold of the frame, lowered the painting to the floor, and turned it around. The backing looked like particle board with no labels or markings. “This is not a Stella,” I said. I turned it to face outward.
“What is it?” Chu said.
“A poster with a thick coating of varnish,” I said. “Do you have provenance documentation?”
Chu opened a wall safe and handed me some papers.
“These are photocopies,” I said. “What you have here is a copy of a Stella and a copy of the documentation. Someone made a switch.”
Jerry quickly examined the other two paintings, and looked at me with a sour expression, blinking rapidly and shaking his head.
I walked over to Chu, put my arm on his shoulder, and lowered my head like a funeral director comforting a bereaved mourner. “I am so sorry, Mr. Chu. It appears you have been duped.”
Chu reddened. “I have been fucked,” he said with fury. “Fucked up the ass. I will kill the fucker who fucked me up the ass.”
Johnson looked at Chu with concern. “Is everything all right, Mr. Chu?”
Chu glared at Johnson. “No, Johnson. Everything is not all right. I have just been fucked, fucked up the ass by a fucker, I will kill the fucker who fucked me . . .” He stopped suddenly, his legs collapsing beneath him, and fell to the floor.
I knelt down beside him, checked his breathing; undetectable. No pulse. “He needs CPR,” I said, and started to open his mouth. Johnson shoved me aside, took over, breathing into Chu and pounding on his chest.
Jerry called 911 on his cell. Paramedics arrived in minutes, continued working on Chu, and soon hauled him away with Johnson in an ambulance.
Jerry and I were left alone in Chu’s living room.
“He took that pretty hard,” I said.
“Losing fine art can do that to a sensitive man” Jerry said.