Home > The Red(11)

The Red(11)
Author: Tiffany Reisz

There was only one word on the entire page and one word was all she needed to know Malcolm had made good on his first payment for her services.

Degas.

The Slave Market

Mona called around to every gallery in town and was given the name and number for Sebastian Leon, a well-respected Degas historian. She took the sketch to him at his apartment on the West Side. When he opened the door to let her in, she was surprised by how young and handsome he was. He couldn’t have been more than thirty-five, and the energy with which he greeted her and the sketch was that of an eager schoolboy.

"I couldn’t sit still waiting for you,” Sebastian said as he pulled her into his apartment. It was a small, intimate sort of place, brick walls painted white with colored framed Degas prints and sketches hung everywhere she looked. He led her to his blue velvet sofa, gave her a glass of white wine, and he sat next to her so close their shoulders touched. "I’ve been pacing.”

He spoke with near childlike enthusiasm. A man who loved art. She liked him already.

"Here it is,” she said. "I need to know if it’s really his.”

Sebastian took the sketch from her, which she’d pressed flat into a leather portfolio. He put on white cloth gloves, opened the portfolio and said, "Ahh…” at the sight of it. "Beautiful.” He had curling dark hair, long enough to tuck behind his ears. The curls fell over his forehead as he bent to examine the sketch.

"Have you seen it before?” she asked, looking more at Sebastian than at the sketch.

"Other sketches like it, but not this one. It looks like his lines. Just like it,” Sebastian said. He picked up a magnifying glass and examined the signature. He sniffed the paper, explaining that forgeries often had a recognizable smell.

"What do you think?” she asked when he at last placed the sketch into the portfolio and closed it again reverently, like a monk closing his illuminated Bible.

"It’s real,” he said with a boyish grin. "It’s absolutely real. I have no doubt.”

"Wonderful,” she said. "How much?”

"If it were me—and I wish it was—I’d have it insured for sixty thousand at least.”

"I will. Thank you.” They clinked their wine glasses in a toast and drank in their happiness.

"I have to ask,” he said as she set his glass down on the table. "Where does it come from? You have the provenance?”

"A man gave it to me as a gift.”

"A man gave it to you? Simply gave it to you?”

"He’d taken me to bed the night before,” she said, wanting to impress handsome Sebastian, perhaps even shock him. "The next morning he had white roses and that sketch delivered to the gallery.”

"I don’t know who I envy more,” he said. "You for having the sketch. Or him, for having you.”

Sebastian didn’t try to take her to bed, but she sensed he wanted to. Professional courtesy kept him chaste, perhaps? She kissed him goodbye on the cheek, and he told her if her lover had any Degas paintings in storage, she should do whatever he asked to get one. No maidenly modesty in the world was worth more than a Degas painting. Mona promised him that she would do anything she could.

It was a promise she meant to keep.

It took very little time to have the sketch insured, especially with Sebastian Leon’s imprimatur behind it. And overnight she was worth sixty thousand more dollars, and all for selling her body to Malcolm. She felt no guilt over sleeping with Malcolm in exchange for valuable art. Although she’d been desperately sore after their night together and had worn finger-sized pale blue bruises on her breasts for a week afterwards, she felt no negative aftereffects. She’d even gone to the nearest clinic and had herself tested for every possible venereal disease and after a tense two weeks of waiting received the results—all negative. Nor was she pregnant, which hadn’t concerned her as much since she was on the pill. He was keeping his end of the bargain. Nothing to do but keep hers.

One month passed.

She knew it was time for another liaison when she walked into her office the fourth Saturday evening after her first assignation with Malcolm and found a book of art history on her desk that she hadn’t left there. Inside the book was her red velvet choker that Malcolm had taken off her neck while she’d slept. Now it was a bookmark. So this is how he intended to give her instructions on how to wait for him, by showing her a painting? How fitting. How very Malcolm. Last time it had been Manet’s Olympia. Her hand shook with equal parts nervousness and excitement as she opened the page.

The Slave Market by Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1866.

Interesting choice. Ostensibly it was a painting that showed the horrors of the Near East slave trade. A young girl was stripped naked by her owner in the open market square while men—prospective buyers—gathered round her and inspected the goods on display. One man even held her by her hair and put his finger in mouth to examine her teeth. Horrible, yes. Oh, but titillating too. She’d always thought of it as a teenage boy’s fantasy of the slave trade—idealized, romanticized, and eroticized. Imperialistic colonial pornography. Yet the naked girl was beautiful with her golden skin, her dark black hair. Unlike Olympia she was passive, accepting the men’s gaze, their touch, their ownership of her without a challenge. She could see why Malcolm would want her in this pose. Would he examine her teeth as well? She’d have to behave herself. The temptation to bite him if he put a finger in her mouth would be almost overwhelming.

So she was to be his slave girl in the marketplace tomorrow night.

Very well. She could do that. Sunday after she closed the gallery, she went to her apartment to nap and to shower and to shave. She arranged her hair as best she could to match the girl in the Gérôme painting. She parted it down the middle and tied it with a purple ribbon at the nape of her neck. Wearing her favorite purple summer dress and sandals, she walked back to the gallery. This time she packed empty glass tumblers she could fill with water at the gallery from the bathroom tap. She didn’t want to give Malcolm any more ideas.

He seemed to have enough ideas of his own.

It was near midnight when she returned to the gallery. She was eager to see Malcolm again, and even more eager to see what artwork she’d earn from his collection. At least she told herself all she cared about was earning the art, earning money for The Red. That she enjoyed earning the money was beside the point. And yet, her step was quick and she’d spent half the day checking the clock.

It was time.

She went to the red door that led to the back room, took a steadying breath, and pushed it open. At once she was seized by rough male hands and dragged into the room. The door slammed behind her and she was pushed against it, her back to it. She tried to scream but a hand covered her mouth.

"Quiet, girl.”

The words came from Malcolm, though he did not look as he did when she’d last seen him. He’d grown a short beard and mustache, which made him look older, even slightly sinister. He held a rope in one hand. So it was to be role play? Very well. She’d given him carte blanche. Anything meant anything. She shouldn’t be shocked or afraid. But she was afraid. She was.

They weren’t alone.

With Malcolm’s hand over her mouth she glanced around the room wildly in her panic. Four men in suits stood waiting by a wooden box in the center of the room. All four men wore masquerade masks—one black, one gray, one red, one gold. They were cyphers in their masks, anonymous. Only Malcolm was unmasked.

"Is there a problem with the girl?” one of the men called out, the one in the red mask. His tone was imperious.

"Not at all,” Malcolm said. "I’ve got her.”

"Let’s see her then,” the man in the black mask said. He sounded bored, impatient. "We haven’t got all night.”

Who were these men? She couldn’t ask because Malcolm had ordered her into silence and his hand still covered her mouth.

"Coming,” Malcolm said. "You won’t be disappointed.”

He spun her without warning, turning her back to him. He put his mouth at her ear and whispered, "Do not fight me, girl. Put on a good show. I want a high price for you.”

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