We all have to start somewhere

Unless you were an expert, there was really no way of telling it was a forgery. In fact two experts had cleared it as genuine, although Nat suspected that at least one of them had been paid off.

Peering at the right-hand corner of the canvas, she noticed a tiny speck that didn’t look right, just below the ‘Vermeer’ signature. Usually it was the signatures that were the giveaways, however hard a forger practiced they didn’t have the same ‘sweep of the hand’ and Nat liked to call it. This speck looked too red, like the colours hadn’t been blended well enough. It was possible that Vermeer had been sloppy, this was a newly-discovered work after all, but she knew, and adored, the rest of his work well enough to know a genuine from this.

“Still convinced it isn’t real?” Smarmy Simon sneered as he walked past Nat’s desk.

“Yep,” she said confidently.

She watched him head out the office and stuck her tongue out at his back.

Her colleague, Izzy, gasped. “Nat!”

“Well… he drives me nuts!”

“He drives us all nuts but…”

“He didn’t see me.”

“Well, no, but what if he’d…”

“He was leaving.”

“He could have turned round.”

“Then I’d have pretended to lick my lips or something.”

“And make him twice as obnoxious.”

“Alright then, I could have pretended I had a crumb at the corner of my mouth.”

“And make him think you eat while handling multi-million pound artefacts.”

“OK, point taken, although this isn’t one of them. You’ve not been here as long as I have, you’ll be doing the same in a year or so. What have you got there?”

Izzy held up a gold-coloured bracelet. “Supposed to be Cleopatra’s.”

Nat didn’t look impressed.

“It looks real,” Izzy chirped.

“In your ‘expert’ opinion? Or your ‘wishing it were true’ opinion?” Nat, being paid to validate authenticity, always suspected a piece was a fake until she could prove otherwise. These days with modern technologies they were getting more fakes through the doors then originals and she blamed the economy for that.

“I can’t find any flaws,” Izzy said, less enthusiastically.

“How many pieces have we got to do?”

Izzy looked at a list lying on her desk. “Thirty-two.”

“Oh, great. A week and a bit to validate thirty-two of the world’s most expensive… sorry, potentially the world’s most expensive and rare items. Even if we have sixteen each it’ll be pushing it – it can take me a day just to do one. Take this Vermeer for instance, I’ve got to inspect every brush stroke…”

“Vermeer. Isn’t he the ‘Girl with the Pearl Earring’ guy?”

Nat laughed. “That ‘guy’, yes.”

“So that must be worth a fortune!”

“‘The Girl with the Pearl Earring’ yes… this one, not a lot.”

Izzy screwed up her face. “Oh.”

“Yes, sadly, ‘Oh’.”

“Buy not a lot you mean…”

“Well, we can’t sell it as a genuine so the owner has a choice. It’s still worth something as a painting so he could still sell it but declare that it’s a like-for-like.”

“He can do that?”

“He can but he probably won’t.”

“Why not?”

“Because he’ll take it somewhere else, to a lower profile auction house, where they don’t check so thoroughly, find someone who will say it’s genuine.”

“And someone will?”

“If he looks in the right places.”

“You said he has two choices.”

“Yes. The other is to take it home and hang it above his fireplace.”

“He won’t do that.”

“Exactly.”

“So he’s a crook.” Izzy said wide-eyed.

“I don’t know with this one. Not met him.”

“Either way, it’s a shame about his painting.”

“There is a third option.”

Izzy grinned. “There is?”

“Oh yes. He could find an employee who’s a little… shall we say, dodgy.”

“Who?”

Nat’s eyes looked in the direction of the doorway.

“No!” said Izzy, genuinely shocked.

Nat nodded.

“Simon?”

Nat nodded again. “I’m not saying he is up to no good but can you explain the new car?”

“He was promoted when Victor left.”

“Vic never earned that much.”

“I don’t know then.”

“Maybe a long lost aunt.”

“Do you think?”

“No, Izzy, I don’t think.”

“But you don’t think…”

“Yes, Izzy, I do think.”

“But…”

“Just look at him.”

“Huh?”

“Don’t you think he overcompensates for something?”

“He’s just…”

“Yes?”

“Extroverted?”

“Overcompensating.”

Nat carried on working on the painting as Izzy stared at the door, waiting for Simon to return, not knowing he’d gone for the day. Gone to meet a new client, one with a very expensive vase, Ming possibly, though Nat suspected that when it came to her… Izzy was still too new and inexperienced… that he’d also be sorely disappointed.

***

“Yes, sorry Simon. It’s most definitely a fake.”

“You are sure?”

“Absolutely, no doubt about it.”

“What am I going to tell Mr Jeffries?”

“Would you like me to?”

“Would you? No, I should do it… I am the Manager after all.”

“You are Simon but at least if I can explain to him the flaws… he’s bound to ask you anyway, isn’t he?”

“We’ll both go.”

“He might get angry.”

“Do you think?”

“Oh, absolutely.”

“Then I should definitely go.”

“But he’s less likely to get angry if there’s just me. You know, he’ll not want to lose control in front of a woman.”

Simon looked into the reflection of the photo frame on his desk – the one that everyone thought contained his wife and children but was his sister and his nieces. The sister he’d lost contact with since she married the actor and moved to London, a six-hour journey from Edinburgh. He thought then that maybe he should make more of an effort. “OK then you go. I’ll get a security guard to help you take the picture.”

“Why?”

“Because…” Simon rubbed his chin. “Of course. What are they protecting? It’s worthless.”

“Not worthless.”

“But you said…”

“Oh, it’s a fake alright but it’s a genuine fake.”

Simon pushed his glasses up to his eyebrows and wrinkled his nose.

Nat continued. “It’s probably worth a thousand tops. It’s well done, but certainly no Vermeer.”

“A thousand?”

Nat nodded. “Tops. You interested?”

“Never liked the thing. The old boy’s welcome to it. Obviously thought it would provide him with a retirement nest egg. Buy a big yacht somewhere hot and surround himself with silicone blondes. Dirty old git.”

“We could still sell it… declaring it a like-for-like of course.”

“Oh God no. Wouldn’t give it catalogue room.”

“But you were going to when you thought it was…”

“Of course, Natalie. We have shareholders to think about.”

“Sure. So I’m OK to take it to him now?”

“Please. Get rid. Burn it, ship it off out Outer Mongolia if you like. We get a nice fat fee anyway for your time spent, probably leaving the old boy enough to buy a boat for his bath if he’s lucky.”

“Poor man.”

“Poor man, my arse. He’s so loaded already. Didn’t bat an eyelid when he bought it last year.”

“Do you know what he paid for it?”

Simon burst out laughing. “I remember very well because he couldn’t stop bragging out it. Wish I could see the look on his face when you tell him.”

“And he paid…?”

“Oh yes. Seventeen million. Seventeen million! I ask you, who pays that for a thing like this.”

“A Vermeer lover, I suppose.”

Simon laughed again. “Only his good stuff. Like that girl with the blue hat.”

Nat resisted correcting him, knowing it would only wind him up. “Is our client local?”

“Not far, in the big posh house over in Ravelston. Here. Got his business card. Or what he pretends to be anyway. Importer / exporter. Dodgiest of the dodgy.” Simon handed over the card.

Nat looked at it and smiled. “Yes, I know where that is. I’ll give him a ring and arrange to take it back.”

“Great. Sooner rather than later though, yeah?”

“Sure,” Nat grinned. “Definitely sooner.”

***

“Good afternoon Mr Jeffries,” Nat smiled as he opened the door. “Thank you for seeing me on such short notice.”

“You brought it back,” he said pointing towards the wrapped painting resting against one of the old pale stone entrance pillars.

“I’m afraid so, Mr Jeffries.”

“Not worth anything, is it.”

Nat shook her head. “I’m sorry, not really.”

“Where are my manners? Come in, girl, you must be getting cold.”

“Thank you.”

As Nat stepped over the threshold she struggled to take in the opulence of the place. Everything before her she knew, could tell at a glance, was as real as she was.”

“Firewood value then, is it?” Mr Jeffries asked, deflated.

“Not really, I’d say about a thousand as a like-for-like.”

“You’re still willing to sell it?”

“Unfortunately not, I’m sorry. We only have limited space in…”

“I’ve been debating ever since I got the thing what to do with you. You see, I had my suspicions. I knew I bought it too cheaply and…”

“Too cheaply?”

“Not as it turns out. If it had been real I’d have had to pay twice as much. Almost. Around the thirty mark I’d say. I’d not seen it before but I could tell it was his… not one of his best, granted but a Vermeer through and through, but as we both know it wasn’t to be. So it could go as a like-for-like, can it? Tell people it’s not real and…”

“We can Mr Jeffries but I’m afraid…”

“Catalogue space. Yes, I quite understand. You see, I’d just taken over the house and contents from my father and I thought I was doing something wonderful by buying this… adding to his collection… an unknown Vermeer. I’m just glad he didn’t live to see… Does this mean there’s an original out there somewhere?”

“I’m sure there is, sir.”

“Albert, please.”

“I’m sure there is… Albert. I wonder…” she continued.

“Yes?”

“No, it’s silly really.”

“What, dear?”

“Actually I think it’s probably unethical.”

“That… sounds intriguing.”

“Well, I’ve sort of grown attached to it, having spent so much time on it, I suppose, and I wonder if… I have some money put by.”

“Nonsense, dear.”

“Of course. It’s a shock, and you wouldn’t want to part with it having bought it for…”

“Oh no, dear. I don’t want it. And I certainly don’t want any of your money for it. You’d be doing me a favour actually. Having it around reminds me what I spent on it. Would you take it away?”

Nat nodded cautiously, successfully hiding her enthusiasm. “If you’re sure.”

“Oh absolutely. I liked it when I first saw it but… well, the tarnish has gone off it a bit. Do you know what I mean?”

Nat knew exactly what he meant. Like her falling for Simon’s charms when she first arrived at the auction house, even being one of his conquests for a while, but she’d learned to put on an act. She did it all the time now, and, she thought, was really quite good at it.

She thanked Albert as she left the house, bubble-wrapped picture under her arm. As she drove back to her one-bedroom flat, on the wrong side of the city, she pictured her future; the boat, the blondes, only hers would be natural… genuine… Swedes called Erik or German Gustaves.

This was her first con but as Albert’s grandfather probably told Albert’s father, “we all have to start somewhere” and where else to start but the top?

***

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Unfortunately, as I post an interview a day (amongst other things) I can’t review books but I have a feature called ‘Short Story Saturdays’ where I review stories of up to 2,500 words. Alternatively if you have a short story or self-contained novel extract / short chapter (ideally up to 1000 words) that you’d like critiqued and don’t mind me reading it / talking about and critiquing it (I send you the transcription afterwards so you can use the comments or ignore them) 🙂 on my ‘Bailey’s Writing Tips’ podcast, then do email me. They are weekly episodes, usually released Monday mornings UK time, interweaving the recordings between the red pen sessions with the hints & tips episodes. I am now also looking for flash fiction (<1000 words) for Flash Fiction Fridays and poetry for Post-weekend Poetry.

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