My Jag growls as I shift it up-gear, the lights of the Big Apple splattering across the windshield like the biggest-assed fireflies you’ve ever seen. I down-shift and spin the wheel, hitting the right turn with a slide that quickens my paper-pusher heart just enough to give me my signature wheeling-and-dealing gleam in the eye. I want that gleam, and it’s got to be as bright as it can be. It’s my genie-gleam; the spark of genius that has made me one of the most powerful hedge-fund magicians in the world. People see that gleam and they say, “This bastard knows how to pull a golden rabbit out of the hat”, and then I do it for them, only I’m pulling it out of their back-pocket because they’re too stupid to know which end a hat goes on. No surprise, really. My clientele always have their heads up their asses.
I slam the brakes and pull into the back-street, behind a large warehouse, and park next to the one and only door in and out of that giant building. The Jag purrs obediently, patiently, in the gloomy shadows, and I kill it with a twist of the wrist. Pocketing my keys, I pull down the visor and flip the interior light so I can see myself in the mirror. The suave, handsome bastard staring at me has slicked-back black hair and movie-star looks, a tan from last week’s trip to the Caribbean Islands and a laser-smooth shave without one black pore betraying that caramel skin. I’d marry me if I wasn’t such a philanderer. With the light on, I got a halo, and I have to crack an ironic smile at that sight.
I adjust the collar on my business suit, straighten my tie, and then flip the visor up, turn off my halo, and get out. Mr. Between is already waiting outside the door, backlit by a single bulb overhead. He is a smallish man in a suit not unlike a mortician’s. He has a black mustachio and thinning hair on his burnt-umber pate.
“Hola, Senor,” Mr. Between says in his heavy Spanish accent. “Bueno noche.”
“A decent night,” I say, never giving more enthusiasm than what’s needed.
“Payment?” he says.
I hook a thumb behind me toward the Jag. “Por supuesto.”
He opens the door for me and I step inside the windowless warehouse. It looks bigger inside, its girder-ribs spaced expansively apart. The cinderblock walls are bleached by the harsh fluorescent lights, giving the lofty heights a starkly airy look. It is like an acid bath of light, eating away every shadow. There is an icy draft in the building, too, and I am glad I am wearing my best Armani suit. I’d hate to have goosebumps while I’m taking care of business. Nothing worse than some physical observation being misconstrued for weakness or fear. Even the semblance of fear is deadly in the concrete jungle. I got to growl on my prowl, just like my Jag outside. Fire every piston flaming hot while showcasing a smooth, cool exterior. Waxed and maxed, I like to say.
Mr. Between closes the door and then gestures for me to follow him.
“Aqui, por favor,” he says.
There isn’t anything in the whole wide-open interior of the warehouse except a cinder-block building with a flat roof. A building within a building; a box within a box. To one side is a regular door. On the other side there is a garage door. It is hard to believe that one of the most famous portrait artists in the world lives here. It seems so neat and desolate a place for a “creative type”. I remember dating a sculptor in college and how her place was a fucking explosion of gaudy abstract art, magazine cut-outs, Punk-girl clothes, and pretentious books that only jobless would-be philosophers would read. Or pretend to read. Then again, it isn’t like I should expect a famous painter like Xenia Agnes to live in a dump like this. This is probably just her studio. I bet her house is a fucking pig sty. I’d bet my magic money wand on it.
If you’ve never heard of Xenia Agnes, it’s because you don’t make enough money to have heard of her. Same goes for me. If you don’t know me it’s because you can’t afford the acquaintance. That’s life. You’re either a winner or a loser. The only other alternative is that you are the winningest winner among winnners, and that’s who I am. Alpha apex among the alphas.
Mr. Between opens the door and beckons me inside the cinder-block building. Inside I am surprised to find that the walls are hung with dark satin sheets and that there are spotlights hanging from the ceiling and standing on three legs in the corners. The building itself seems to be partitioned into two rooms; the one I am in and another one beyond the inner wall.
Mr. Between motions for me to sit on a stool in front of a large mirror lining the inner wall. The stool is made of wood. It doesn’t have any padding and hurts my backside .
“Isn’t there something I can sit on that doesn’t feel like I’m getting fucked in the ass by a pirate’s peg-leg?”
Mr. Between just shakes his head, then busily sets to rearranging the lighting in the room. I watch him in the mirror. Then I stop. For some reason looking at the mirror makes me feel uncomfortable. It’s the kind of feeling I get when I’m looking at a bitch in a bar and suddenly I get this paranoia in my head that she’s got a stowaway in her cockpit that I won’t know about until I start landing that plane. Only this is worse. Somehow more terrifying.
To distract myself, I try a little conversation with Mr. Between.
“So, Xenia likes her privacy, huh?” I ask.
“Si, senor,” he said.
“Is she going to be here soon?”
“Ella es aqui ahora,” he says, still adjusting the spotlights.
“She’s here now?” I say, surprised. “Where?”
He points to the mirror.
“Oh!” I say, taken aback. “It’s a two-way mirror. Clever. I need to get these for the bathrooms in our buildings. Awfully handy.”
I stand up and peer into the mirror. I don’t expect to see anything, but it is interesting to think that Xenia is just on the other side of that reflective glass. I’m glad I don’t have to see the bitch staring at me while she paints. That could be unnerving. I hate when people stare at me. You don’t stare at a tiger in the jungle, do you? No, because he’ll stare back, and then he’ll get an appetite on him and eat your ass for lunch. You’re invading his territory with your eyeballs.
Anyway, a two-way mirror is a hell of an idea for a beret-headed artist to have. I could really use these mirrors in the bathrooms back at work. It would be easier to know what everybody really thinks about me when they don’t think I’m around. Not that I would put these mirrors in the Women’s bathroom. That would be a waste. None of them are above a seven in my book— less chance of a lawsuit that way— and moreover I don’t give a shit what women think of me. If I did, I’d never get laid.
“Is Xenia from Spain, too?” I ask.
“No,” Mr. Between says. “Europa.”
“Spain is in Europe,” I say, frowning at Mr. Between. “What region of Europe?”
Mr. Between just shrugs. For a guy “in the know”, he doesn’t seem to know much.
“Her name sounds Greek,” I say. “I bet she’s Greek. Damn, Greek women are ugly. 99% of them, anyway. I vacationed in Greece a couple years ago and expected the women to be beautiful. You know, like Brazilian women. But they aren’t. The beach is wasted on them. Can-opener noses and eyebrows thicker than your mustache, man. Really bring down the market value of the properties over there.”
“No commentario,” Mr. Between says.
I laugh. He knows I’m right, but he’s too afraid to say so in front of his boss. I’m not afraid to say what’s what. I brought Mrs. Agnes her payment. Even if I were to tell her she’s the ugliest Medusa to ever crawl out of a snake-hole in Greece, she’d still paint me to get her hands on this payment. I know people. I know how business works. There’s nothing personal in it, unless, of course, you’ve got a winning personality. And I do, which is why things always work out for me in the end.
See, I never went to business school. That fact really burns my underlings in their panties. They all spent so much money and time going to some prestigious, ivy-choked college and yet I’m the guy they call BOSS. The truth is that business school is a waste of time. Either you got the instincts for business or you don’t, and a lot of these bleeding-heart desk-cowboys don’t. You can’t roll that diploma up and stuff it down your pants and say, “I got the bigger dick, so I’m the boss.” It doesn’t work that way. Either you’re born with a big dick or you’re not, and they weren’t. I was. I got the master magician’s wand and I swing it in everything I do. That’s why I’m magic, both in business and in bed. I started off at the bottom, of course (just about everybody does). The difference between me and the others is that I wacked all of the contenders out of the way and climbed that ladder with a hard-on that never went soft. I’m a hot-blooded, knob-throbbing DICK.
That’s another reason I don’t have anything to fear from the ladies beneath me. No CUNT ever became a DICK, not without missing what was functionally essential to the role. Balls, in other words. Real big BALLS.
“Almost finished?” I say, growing anxious. “I’ve got things to do, amigo. Checks to write, girls to fuck, alibis to plant…”
Mr. Between fidgets with a spotlight in the far corner. This irritates me because I do not see how that light really makes much of a difference. Might as well turn on a baby’s nightlight in the corner for all of the difference it makes.
Finally, Mr. Between stands up and walks over to me. He points at the mirror, has me sit back down, and adjusts my posture and shoulders as I stare at my own reflection. Mr. Between, I realize, is a very short man. I am nearly as tall as him as I sit on the stool. Then again, I am a tall guy. They say taller men tend to achieve higher positions in businesses and I conform to that norm. I wouldn’t accredit it as the only reason for my ascension, but it didn’t hurt. Physical imposition can add to mental imposition, and I have won many arguments simply by looking down at my peons from my full height.
“Is it true that Xania paints with only her fingers?” I ask Mr. Between conversationally. “I mean, don’t oil paints make you go crazy? Like that one painter… What’s his name? The one that cut his own ear off and sent it to his friend…”
Mr. Between answers me by pointing to the mirror again. That’s strange. I did not realize I had been looking away from it. I force myself to look at it again. For some reason it makes me think of smooth ocean water right before a shark erupts up from it, mouth gaping wide with serrated teeth.
“You know,” I say, “I don’t know much about paintings, but I don’t need to know much to own a bunch of them. Some people say paintings are priceless and that the true value is inestimable because it has ‘artistic value’. But that’s just hippy-dippy bullshit told by people more in love with the idea of art than the monetary value of it, simply because they’re too fucking poor to buy any art. If paintings were priceless they couldn’t be bought. If artists lived for their art then I couldn’t buy their time and talent with my money. Nothing is priceless on earth. Everything has a quantifying sum. Even artists. Even your boss in there. Senorita Agnes. I’m owning her for a few minutes tonight.”
I don’t know why I’m being so belligerent. I just feel a little unnerved, I guess. This whole appointment has been weird. If I had to be honest about it, I did it on a spur of the moment, and out of some misbegotten sense of pettiness, too. It started when that shit-sucking brown-noser Emerson brought in his portrait and hung it on the wall in his pissy-ass little office. Normally I wouldn’t have given two rat-turd sized fucks about what he hung on his walls, but he was all beaming pride like he had just made a 1000% profit on a dark-horse investment. And then Susie— that little four-eyed traitor— had to ask him about it and he had to go bragging to everybody within a five mile radius about having paid the one and only Xenia Agnes to paint his portrait. At first I thought he was blowing smoke up his own ass, especially since it was by a “world-famous painter” whom I had never heard of. Then he had to one-up the lie by saying she painted it with her fingers and it only took her a few minutes for a very “negotiable rate”. Those two lies I could have overlooked, but later in the day, while he was out talking to a potential investor— and probably fucking up the deal— I went into his office and looked at the gold-framed painting.
At first I thought it was just a blown-up photo of that ugly, rodent-faced Jew, but then I got to looking a little closer at it and saw the actual texture of the paint and the three-dimensionality of the smoothly caked-on strokes. There were strange swirls to the paint itself, when you looked more closely. I guess she paints with her fingers like a conductor leading an orchestra. Even the artist’s signature swirled in its illegible scrawl. I don’t know.
What I do know is that it wasn’t a photo and it wasn’t a print; it was the actual-factual canvas with all of the intricately layered paints forming a facsimile of life so nuanced that it tricked even the genius-gleam in my eye. It was so life-like, actually, that even I found myself envious of Emerson’s prized possession. That little rat-nosed fuck. But I got over it quickly and called Susie to my office, telling her to get me the number of the painter and to set up an appointment. Spared no expense so long as it was a bigger, better portrait than Emerson’s. And, of course, I warned her to be as discreet as possible. Naturally, within the next hour everybody in the building knew about it, including Emerson, and all he could do was squirm like an impotent worm under the realization that I was about to outdo him, just as I outdid him in everything else.
“So…” I say, “is she a leper or an albino?”
Again Mr. Between points at the mirror.
“Perdoname,” I say. “I don’t know why I keep looking away. I thought Xenia Agnes was supposed to be a fast painter. I’m surprised it’s not finished yet.”
I am being belligerent again. I guess I am just trying to put this grandstanding artista in her place. Truthfully, there is a part of me that resents this whole situation.
“Whatever you do, don’t make me look like that rat-faced bastard Emerson,” I say. “I mean, you did a great job accurately capturing him, but you made him look all pale and sweaty and scared halfway to death. I’m surprised he hung it up in the office. I wouldn’t have been… so…keen…”
Looking at my reflection, I realize that I am looking sweaty and pale, too. My Caribbean tan can’t outmatch the pallor. And my eyes are twitchy, my skin goosebumped. It’s not the cold drafts of the warehouse, either. I feel off my game. I feel like game. I feel hunted.
I have instincts, like I’ve said— instincts for this concrete-and-glass jungle— and right now my instincts are telling me that there is something lurking nearby that makes the alpha apex predator in me want to go find a nice bush to hide in and cower under and piddle itself stupid.
I look at Mr. Between. He is standing solemnly in the corner of the room, chin tilted down and eyes sunken into pitted shadows as dark as his mustachio. He is as still as death, his face grim and sweaty and as hunted and haunted as I feel. As I look at him, I feel something looking at me. It feels as if it is looking at me from every angle— looking at me and through me. It sees my thoughts and my memories, my feelings and my fears. I cannot move, the terror like what I felt when I was a snot-nosed brat still afraid of the Boogeyman as I laid under my sheets at night, too scared to breathe because it might attract the make-believe monster’s attention.
Abruptly, Mr. Between opens his eyes. The change of expression— from grim visage to come-all-ye-faithful relief— frightens me and relieves me at the same time. I laugh a little, nervously, though I don’t think any of it is funny.
“Painting finish,” he says in broken English.
“Good,” I whisper. After a few moments of willing my body to move, I stand up from the ass-flattening stool. “Good,” I say again, this time a little more loudly.
I move towards the door slowly, a little apprehensive about making any sudden movements. Mr. Between opens it for me and follows me out.
“Payment,” he says.
“Yessir,” I say, starting to get my old mojo back. “In the car, mi amigo.”
We step outside and I open the passenger-side door. It is dark beside the warehouse, but the light above the door spills out onto the face of the little girl. She has dark black hair, pale skin, and dirty, oversized clothes. Her crack-whore mother gave her to me for a couple of hundred bucks. Susie set up the exchange. Part of me feels bad for her, but the larger part really, really hates Emerson. I mean, if the girl is going to be sold anyway, why not let her be sold to some lesbian art chick for the night. Right?
I pull her out of the car and she tries to run away. I grab her by the hair and she starts to hyperventilate again, her nostrils flaring wide above the duct-tape that seals her mouth. Tears are still streaming out from under the blindfold I placed over her eyes. She’s been crying since I bought her for the evening off her mother.
“Es bueno?” I ask Mr. Between.
He only nods, then opens the door. I lead the girl into the warehouse. Once we’re near the garage door, I tell her to sit down. I then tell Mr. Between that I want my painting so I can be on my way.
Mr. Between shakes his head. “No, senor. Give her.”
“Look, I am not into this,” I say. “I know a few guys that are, and if Xenia is, that’s fine too. Glad to know women are equal-opportunity at being sickos. But I am not going to stay here and watch it. No thank you. Give me my fucking painting.”
Instead of answering me, Mr. Between takes a remote control out of his pocket and presses a button. The garage door creaks and groans and growls, slowly rising and shuddering all the way.
I expect to see some butched-up lesbian with her hands soaked in paint up to her elbows. You know, pushing two-hundred pounds, wider around than she is tall, and with hair that looks like it was gnawed short by a goat. What I see instead, as the bleaching light of the warehouse illuminates the dark interior, is a mass of writhing tentacles splattered with oil paints and arrayed with glowing globular eyes, all centered around a large, gaping maw encircled with teeth.
I hear a scream piercing the otherwise silent space of that warehouse, and it is only when I gasp for air that I realize that the scream came from me.
“Esta es Xenia,” Mr. Between says. He points to the girl. “Give her. Open eyes. Let see.”
Shock gives way to my usual businesslike approach and demeanor. I take his words to mean I am supposed to remove the blindfold. Kneeling down, I remove the girl’s blindfold. Her eyes are red and still blinded by the sudden fluorescence and the streaming tears. When they have focused, though, they see the mass of tentacles and teeth undulating in front of her, instinctively clenching shut while she tries to scream behind the tape on her mouth. Within seconds she convulses in terror, goes rigid, and then passes out, her body limp on the floor.
I lift her up and walk, cautiously, over to Xenia. Her mouth widens. I can see eternity in her endless gullet. All of the questions and answers that mankind has never asked and would never know await the faithful in her circle of teeth. I stare in awe for a moment, maybe two, but then my professional nature resumes control. I am not a goddamn philosopher. I am a businessman. This is just business. I think in terms of business. It’s the only way to think at times like these. It’s like when I take investments from guys in Africa and Russia. Those tyrant princes and oligarchs with their lousy humanitarian records. I don’t care about where they get their money or how they take care of business. Business is business. It’s not personal. Emotions don’t matter. Not even fear matters. The bottom line matters. Getting what you want matters.
Taking a deep breath, I drop the payment into the receptacle and then step back while it processes. When the investment has gone through, Mr. Between retrieves my portrait from the easel behind Xenia and hands it over to me. The transaction is complete. I like to think I have been very professional in this business deal.
“Let dry,” Mr. Between says.
“I will,” I say, holding my portrait carefully. Without any further formalities, I walk out of the warehouse and get into my Jag. I set the painting in the floorboard and carefully lean it back so the fresh paint does not touch anything. Then I drive straight to my office building, say Hello to Jim, the security guard, and ride the elevator up to my office.
I hang the portrait up with little fuss. All in all, it looks good on my wall. Remarkably photographic for a painting. Xenia even captured my genie-gleam, though it’s brighter than ever before. It is a pretty good investment, as far as art goes. I can’t wait until Emerson sees it. The look on his ratty face is going to be priceless.