Authors: Anson Cameron
Nice Shootin' Cowboy
Silences Long Gone
Confessing the Blues
Lies I Told About a Girl
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Copyright Act 1968
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A Vintage book
Published by Random House Australia Pty Ltd
Level 3, 100 Pacific Highway, North Sydney NSW 2060
First published by Vintage in 2009
Copyright Â© Anson Cameron 2009
The moral right of the author has been asserted.
This is a work of fiction. All central characters are fictional, and any resemblance to actual persons is entirely coincidental. In order to provide the story with a context, real names of places are used as well as some actual events. A number of high-profile people are also referred to, but there is no suggestion that the events described concerning them ever occurred.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted by any person or entity, including internet search engines or retailers, in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying (except under the statutory exceptions provisions of the Australian
Copyright Act 1968
), recording, scanning or by any information storage and retrieval system without the prior written permission of Random House Australia.
Addresses for companies within the Random House Group can be found at
National Library of Australia
Cameron, Anson, 1961â.
ISBN 978 1 74166 917 6 (pbk).
Art thefts â Fiction.
Painters â Fiction.
Melbourne (Vic.) â Fiction.
Cover design by design by committee
âShe smelt of Shalimar and ammonium,' Laszlo re members. âShe'd spend hours in her darkroom up to her eyebrows in chemicals. When she came out she'd spray herself with Shalimar.'
He is staring at the poster Harry has unrolled on the green baize of a billiard table. The poster's corners are weighted with a red ball, a white ball, a black ball, and Laszlo Berg's liver-spotted fist. The massive head of the
lies there, her face opened and rearranged by Picasso, much as a scientist will use a scalpel to shuttle the parts of an urchin around a Petri dish in order to divine its workings.
âWho?' Harry asks.
âDora Maar. Almost fifty years and I can still smell her. Shalimar and ammonium.'
âYou knew Dora Maar?' Harry asks. âYou knew the
Laszlo Berg is an adenoidal man whose nose hums like an untuned radio as he talks. He is big and has become craggy with age, his features enlarged, a moonscape of blackheads and pores. âAnd Picasso. You come here to sell me this painting and you didn't know I knew them?' Laszlo rocks his Scotch, ice cubes chiming in the still of the room. âYou are an errand boy.'
Harry tilts his head to see her from another angle, her lime-green flesh, her eyes pressed together, her nose on the left of her head, where an ear should be.
âThe painting's about war. It's an indictment of fascism. You want to buy it or not?' he asks.
âYes. War. But you must allow an old man to reminisce.' Laszlo looks up at the ceiling dreamily. âShe was a great beauty. Spectacular breasts. Arse like a showgirl. Wild. A jewelled ocelot.' Having detected Harry's discomfort, Laszlo wants to continue it, explore it. This young man, this would-be criminal come here to sell stolen goods, is obviously an art lover, believes in the power of art. He is irked by the suggestion that a Great Work might be something shallower â not a protest against war, just another fragrant French beauty.
What has made an innocent of this sort come here and present himself as a villain? Laszlo lifts his fist and the poster of the
curls inward, leaving only one triangular half of her still visible â her horrified eyes. He reaches down and runs a fingertip across her painted hair, and his eyes soften and his smile amplifies with reminiscence as he stares at her. âThe queen of Paris, back then. And I was a kid. I made love to her while the old boy looked on with a stick of charcoal in his hand, capturing her ecstasy. It was a privilege.'
Harry shakes his head slightly to dismiss this. He knows Laszlo Berg is an adept enough liar to have become wealthy in the markets by outstripping his many competitors, hampered as they were by leg-irons of morality. In another life Laszlo has a prior conviction for receiving stolen goods â a small Modigliani snatched from the Louvre by scarpering Nazis was found in his possession. His wealth and dishonesty, and his predilection for precariously owned art, are why they have chosen him.
But Harry hadn't realised Laszlo was such a deluded egotist as this. Already, in the short time since Harry was admitted to the Savage Club, Laszlo has boasted of knowing Picasso and making love to his woman. The man's ego is clearly out of control and can be preyed on.
âYou want to buy her?' he asks Laszlo. âAn old flame.'
âYou don't own her.'
Laszlo traces the furrows of his brow with the fingertips of his right hand, reading a braille of his own faked bewilderment. âWhat makes you think I would be interested in buying stolen paintings?'
âYou were under-bidder to the NGV when they acquired her. I guess you want her.'
Harry won't mention the Modigliani. Laszlo mustn't suspect they know of his old life. âYou strike me as the type of guy â¦'
âYou young fuck!' Laszlo's voice rockets out of private conversation into indignation and causes the maid standing by the drinks trolley in her uniform to wince, before deadpanning furiously to show that she, a domestic in this gentlemen's club, didn't hear a word. A balding sharebroker slumbering in an armchair before a fireplace of throbbing mallee roots lifts his
head and looks around, undecided whether to be outraged or apologetic â is someone using foul language in the club, or was this a verbal leak from his own rather fruity dream?
âI could offer her to Kerry Packer,' Harry says hurriedly. âMy guess is he'd want her, knowing what she meant to you â¦ Shalimar and, um â¦ ammonium?'
Laszlo's face hardens and his eyes become thin with hatred at the mention of Kerry Packer. The enmity between Kerry and Laszlo is long and has been fought on many fronts. It began when Packer had Laszlo thrown off the board of Genkins Publishing for manipulating the share price and trading in his own shares. Laszlo responded by having Packer's membership of the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia revoked for never having passed his Master Seaman's examination. On that occasion Laszlo called
The Sydney Morning Herald
and, before their flashing cameras, had Packer's catamaran,
, forklifted out of the marina and plonked into open waters among fibreglass runabouts.
Packer responded by buying the marina and closing the mouth of Glaston Bay, thus making it a lake and landlocking Laszlo's 120-foot trimaran,
, which Laszlo was then forced to sell for a fraction of its true worth to a Malaysian chicken millionaire as an inner-city apartment.
In recent years their feud has entered the art world, where Packer has enjoyed showily outbidding Laszlo at public auctions here and in Europe, his great fortune always giving him victory over Laszlo's lesser pile. He takes such pleasure in seeing Laszlo beaten to some treasured piece, his competitor smiling gamely, trying to look unperturbed before a cultured, knowing crowd, that he once flew to Moscow to outbid him on a FabergÃ© Imperial egg given by Tsar Nicholas II to Empress Alexandra Fedorova, and then himself gave it to a comely Aeroflot stewardess over the Himalayas on the way home.
âKerry might want it, I reckon.' Harry nods down at the eyes of the
. âShalimar and ammonium. She really should belong to you. Kerry Packer never even got a sniff of her, let alone, you know â¦' Harry makes an up-thrust fist to signify sex.
Laszlo takes a sip of whisky. His eyes move constantly around the large room, occasionally flashing censure at some member who has wandered from the dusk of its outer reaches. Stay away. âI doubt Kerry would buy a stolen painting. He's not as ethically original as me. And anyway, you don't have it.'
âNot yet. The papers will tell you when I get it. The six o'clock news will tell you. I get it â¦ you'll hear about it.'
âWhen the papers tell me you've got it, call me. I'd like a look at her.'
Harry shakes his head. âYou want to look at her, go to the National Gallery. Admission's free. She's the star attraction. When I get her, you don't look at her for under a million.'
Laszlo's eyes move up and down Harry. A shabby, rust-coloured sports coat, shoes dull-surfaced and wide as gorilla paws, and, yes, traces of paint rimming his cuticles. A bloody artist.
âAll right. Ten days after the papers tell me you've got her, when I know you haven't been caught, you are invited to the Savage Club for a drink.'
Harry's face lights with success, but he tries to remain calm, counting the native headdresses on the walls, before asking in a voice held soft, âDoes that mean you're buying?'
Laszlo holds his mouth still, but his eyes smile. He is in control of this negotiation now. The art puppy's faÃ§ade has cracked. âIt means I'm inviting an old flame for a drink.'
Harry smiles, nods jerkily and does a two-fisted thumbs up in front of his crotch that almost makes Laszlo Berg laugh
out loud. This art puppy has never negotiated anything, and he can't know that what feels like a victory to him is nothing more than a preamble.
Harry rolls the billiard balls off the
with his fingertip, she coils into a tube and he snatches her up and tucks her under his arm. âRead the papers,' he tells Laszlo.
âTen days,' Laszlo answers.