One : 2005

Phone calls are easy. You dial. It rings. Tesca answers. You inform the semi-simian loan shark you've got another painting you can turn into cash.

Call. Now. Before Tesca turns you into a cripple. Or fish food.

Come the fuck on, what's one more painting, this point you've already lost everything. Every penny, your gallery, your car. And as of this week, your hair; past few days your comb's been doing more harvesting than grooming. Compared to that, what's one lousy magnificent Laurie Desh canvas.

That painting. Best day of Dale's life. A Thursday. Seven years ago. Laurie's face when he took one long look and bought it. That Thursday when he discovered Laurie, and became her dealer, and her friend.

Not that she'd been so fucking sentimental about him, had no problem blowing Dale off soon as she caught fire. But, shit. It's like trying to blame a tiger for having teeth. Like most of the great ones, Laurie had the simple clear-eyed selfishness an artist needs to survive.

Survive. Good word.

Dale reached for the phone but it rang. The double ring-ring, ring-ring: front-door intercom.

Tommy Tesca was downstairs. Great. Don't even have to make that easy phone call. Just buzz him in and give him the good news.

Dale buzzed, waited, opened the door, said, "Hi—"

Tesca grabbed Dale by the throat and bulled him across the loft to the open-plan kitchen, where he slammed Dale against the fridge and asked, none too optimistically, "So you got any money for me—like this week's vig—an' last week, plus the week before? Heh, Dalie-boy?"

Dalie-boy made a frantic gagging noise, as verbal as he could get with the loan shark's massive hand clamped on his throat.

"What I thought." Tesca shook his head. "Look, I like you Dale, heh? So you pick what's it gonna be. We go old school, bat to the kneecap. Or how 'bout a welding torch to the nuts. Or—messy, but really does the trick—I put a drill through your eyeball. Your choice."

Dale tried to shout through his nose, which sprayed snot on Tesca's sleeve.

"Heh, gross."

Tesca yanked Dale to the sink, grabbed Dale's arm and shoved Dale's hand down the drain, mashing Dale's fingers against the dull blades of the disposal. "Say we just get it over, heh. Save me goin' out the car for my toolbox." Tesca released Dale's throat to reach for the disposal switch—

"Painting!" Dale gasped, "Ga' 'nother painting—my closet in my closet!"

Tesca scowled. "Thought you were outta paintings."

"Lent it a girlfriend last year but when I asked it back refused claimed it was a gift this morning I made her give it back," Dale rattled off woodpecker fast.

Tesca smirked at the pale, toothpick-limbed Amedagone. American white-bread. Soft, bleached, crust-less. "You made her give it back?" 

"Tommy I can sell that for fifteen—no twenty, twenty thousand Laurie Desh is white-hot, she—"

"Which closet?"

"Up, upstairs—Arrrgggghhhhh!"

Tesca grabbed Dale's ear and dragged the squealing art dealer past forlorn walls pimpled with empty picture hooks, up a short set of stairs to a sleeping loft. Only thing in it was an air mattress, lost inside the imprint left by a king-size bed; Dale's furniture had marched out the door months ago. Tesca kicked the air mattress out of the way as he strode to the closet, with Dale's ear and what was attached to it lurching after him.

Tesca yanked open the closet door. Snorted. The spacious walk-in was a ghost town, populated only by one suit, one pair of black jeans, four shirts, a flock of empty hangers, and, on the floor, leaning against the wall, a 30x20 rectangle wrapped in brown paper.

"Looks small."

"Twenty grand," Dale vowed.

The simian shark released Dale's ear. Dale stepped into the closet and carefully lifted the package.

Tesca fished out a switchblade and popped the blade.

"Let me unwrap it," Dale insisted. Quickly adding, "Please."

Tesca offered him the knife. Amused. What with both of them knowing Dale Phipps plus switchblade added up to zero threat.

Dale shook his head. "One slip and twenty grand turns to shit." He carefully peeled away the paper.

The canvas was entirely shades of dark red. Many of Laurie's early works were. Dale once teased her, Someday this will be known as Desh's Blood-Red Period. Now, not funny… The painting was still a trip. Laurie'd slathered on layers of pigment with a palette knife, making it look like a classic mid-century abstraction. But if you looked long enough the textured edges of slather resolved into a ghostly suggestion of a face. At first critics dismissed it as a trompe l'oeil parlor trick. But Dale knew it wasn't what an artist did, it was how, and Laurie's—

"Heh! Some asswipe pay twenty large for that crap?"

Dale realized he was glaring. He neutered his expression.

"Tommy, there are asswipes lining up to buy Laurie Deshes. I'll need a couple of days, maybe a week, to sell—"

"Ah no no no no no, that leaves here with me." Tesca shot him a shrewd look. "How much you pay for this?"

"Twelve hundred."

"Shit," Tesca complimented him. "How come so cheap?"

"Laurie was  just starting out. Could've paid even less, but I wanted to put a couple of bucks in her pocket."

Tesca peered at the painting, examining it with professorial gravity.

Looked at Dale. "Didja fuck her?"

"No. Well—once—we, uh… Just a bump in the night. Maybe we were a little too drunk."

"Didn't get your twelve hundred worth?"

Dale suppressed an urge to commit suicide by throwing a punch. Settled for throwing Tesca a sour grin and retorting: "Twenty grand."

"That'd make up for a lousy lay," Tesca conceded. Then grumbled, "But you owe me twenty-five."

Dale's heart thudded and he tried not to imagine a drill bit juicing his eyeball. "Please, Tommy, twenty is the bulk, you get that right away, just give me another week—"

"The fuck ya gonna get another five? Plus vig."

"Beg, sell my blood… Ah, shit, this is gonna—just a notion—Laurie's the rock star of young Chicago artists, if you hold that painting a year or two—"

"You owe me now, not in two years." Tesca paused. Frowned. "When'd you buy this crap looks like a wall been plastered by a spazz, heh?"

"Seven years ago."

"Twelve hundred to twenty large. So another seven years, this spazz job brings… four hundred thousand?"

"Jeez, Tommy, no one can—it's not geometry—I mean anything's possible, but even when an artist dies you can't guarantee a price bump that nuclear, I, I, I was just saying, if you did hang on—sorry, sorry, forget I—sell the painting, a-a-and I will do whatever it takes to get the money. What-fucking-ever."

Tesca stared at him. Gauging, Dale was certain, what level of maiming would motivate him to actually do what-fucking-ever.

Tesca still had the switchblade clutched in his paw. Dale tried to take solace in the thought the knife was preferable to the disposal. Truly.

"Wrap it up," Tesca muttered. "And careful."

The brown paper was too torn to re-use. Dale took the painting to the kitchen and wrapped it in his one remaining apron. Secured it by knotting the apron strings. Handed it to Tesca. Promised, soberly, "I will come up with the rest. On time."

"I know," Tesca said. He slapped Dale so hard it spun him around and buckled his knees. Tesca put the painting down. Yanked Dale upright and slammed him against the sink. Shoved Dale's hand into the drain. Turned on the disposal.