I was settling in at the Piece of History and getting training in almost every aspect of the store. This meant more responsibilities and education regarding the world of art on a global scale.
It had been weeks since the awkward encounter with Bili and Viktoria and Bili had been treating me different ever since. She wasn’t any more rude than usual, but I felt she had backed away somewhat, making it more business-like. Before then I felt like I was starting to form a fledgling friendship with her, seeing cracks in stone barrier, but now it seemed we had taken three steps back. I didn’t want to ask if there was a problem, especially if it was all in my head, hoping that she would come around eventually. I really liked Bili and I knew deep down she was a good person. There had to be a reason she was so icy. I learned enough in psychology to know that she had to have scars on top of scars. Anyone that guarded has a history.
One Friday afternoon Theo sent Bili and me on a delivery, as we did on a fairly regular basis. Bili was driving and after thirty minutes of the silent treatment I had had enough. I looked over at her as she stared at the road ahead.
“What’s with you?” I said.
“What do you mean?”
“The attitude lately? Did I piss you off more than normal or are is it something else? It’s hard to tell with you most of the time, but I do know that you have treated me differently since you met Viktoria. Does it have something to do with her?”
Bili looked at me and held her gaze for a long few seconds. It was long enough that I was concerned about her running off the road.
She opened her mouth as if she was going to say something, then she just turned back toward the road in silence.
“What!?” I said more than a little annoyed.
She said nothing, which fueled my aggravation.
We arrived at our destination and dropped off the pieces to one of the regular’s of the store. She was real nice and Bili was even nicer, which irritated me even more for some reason. I couldn’t get the weather out her, but Mrs. Turner and Bili talked about floor tiles for 20 minutes.
She invited us in for lunch, but we politely declined, saying we had other stops to make. When we headed back to the truck I got in the driver’s seat without asking. I thought Bili was going to protest, but surprisingly she did not. She just walked to the passenger side and got in without protest. I think I would rather she complained, or physically punched me.
We drove for another ten minutes without a word before she finally broke the silence.
“I’m not mad at you.” She said in a manner that was bordering on apologetic.
“Does this have something to do with Viki or not?” I asked.
“If you want to date a woman who spends her days talking about cupcakes and unicorns that’s your business, it’s just that there are a few things you ought to know.”
“Everything you idiot! You’re...” She said.
Her raised voice tapered and cut off. It seemed that the anger was not directed at me. Even the ‘idiot’ part.
“I’m talking about the things in this life that you are oblivious to and I think that you should be brought up to speed, considering...”
“Nothing. You’re right. I don’t like the bitch. She looks like a high maintenance cheerleader that would spend hours contemplating toe nail polish. I just got a bad vibe from her that’s all. Sorry.”
The fact that Bili used the word ‘sorry’ struck me as very odd. I had never heard her apologize to anyone, let alone me, for anything, ever. After I got past that I felt I needed to defend Viki.
“Well I assure you she’s not. You might actually like her if you got to know her.” I said. “But it may be a moot point anyway. I haven’t heard from her since our last date. Which was the first one actually. The same day you met her.”
I didn’t tell Bili about seeing her near the store and getting into the mysterious car. The last thing I needed to do was give her another reason to hate or distrust her in the event I did see her again.
“Have you tried calling her?” Bili asked
“Yeah, a few times, but her phone went right to voice mail. I left a message, but I hadn’t heard back. It’s weird, because I thought our date was going really well. Then she got called into work, I left, and that was the last time I spoke to her.”
“Called into work?” she said as if I had fallen for the oldest trick in the book. “I thought you said she worked in business or something?”
“Yeah, her boss called and she said it was some kind of business emergency.” I said, realizing how stupid it sounded as I said it out loud.
“I know it sounds like a blow off move, but I really didn’t get that impression from her. Everything else about the date was perfect.”
“You’re right.” She said.
“Sounds like she’s blowing you off.” Bili said without batting an eye.
I stared at her until I saw that long lost smidgen of a smile. She almost laughed I think. Nothing seemed to make her happy like the misery of others.
“Don’t worry about it Jack. I’m sure it’s for the best. Now speed up before you send us back in time.”
“You would make an excellent social worker.” I said as sarcastically as I could.
That made her grin even more.
For the rest of the trip Bili seemed in a much better mood. I guess sometimes you just have to talk things through.
When we got back to the store Theo was there and he went over some online sales and research with me. He was teaching and testing at the same time. I was a fast learner and I was seeing the trends he had been talking about.
Though he was not at the store that often, when he was, he took the time to show me the part of the high end art business few get to see. It was an amazing world that you never hear about in school. The amount of Art that was bought and sold, from country to country and dealer to dealer reminded me of the stock market. It seemed that there was almost nothing Theo was unable to get his hands on if he put his mind to it. He had contacts everywhere. It was more fascinating than I could have ever imagined.
I was still on my computer when Theo came into the backroom and threw my jacket at me.
I saved what I was doing on the computer and quickly followed him out the back door and into his car. I never asked Theo stupid questions. It’s not that he wouldn’t have answered them, and politely for that matter, it just seemed like if he wanted me to know something he would tell me.
Though he didn’t drive reckless, he drove like he had purpose, which is to say that he drove fast and aggressive. The Cadillac was very peppy for a luxury car. I don’t think the engine was stock and it sure didn’t sound like it.
We arrived at a warehouse looking building in a rural town not too far outside Ann Arbor. We turned off the paved road onto a long serpentine gravel drive that leads to a building surrounded by thick forest. Theo hit a button on his visor and a large overhead door began rolling up on the side of the building. There was only one other entrance and if you didn’t look real close you wouldn’t even notice it. The door was made of the same material as the siding of the building, camouflaging it perfectly.
He started driving inside far before the door had rolled all the way up, narrowly missing the door with the top of his car. He never gave it a second thought as if he had done it a thousand times.
If the outside of the building was unremarkable, the inside was the polar opposite. It was amazing to put it mildly. Not only was it so clean you could eat off the floor, but it had an incredible amount of art and artifacts neatly stacked and stored. Theo shut the door behind us as it was obvious that the inside was temperature controlled.
“This is our main storage facility in Michigan. I figured it was time for you to see it since you have been doing several transactions online that involved plenty of these items.” Theo said as he looked at me waiting for questions.
“I had no idea you possessed this amount of inventory in Michigan. Where does most of this come from?” I said still looking at all of the beautiful and priceless works of art.
There was statues form ancient Greece, large paintings from the Renaissance era, and everything else from clay bowls to cave paintings on slabs of stone.
Theo was mysterious to say the least, and I knew he had secrets. I felt as though he was putting me through the paces and slowly letting me into the world he and Bili lived in. In hindsight I wasn’t that far off.
I looked around in amazement. I saw a few pieces that I was pretty sure had been in the Louvre at one point or another.
Was he really that big of a player in the art world, or was he involved in the shadier side? Nothing about him said criminal, especially since I had been privy to the books, but I couldn’t help but wonder. Having access to so many museum quality pieces was a little unusual wasn’t it?
“A Large portion comes from my supplier in France, but the rest I’ve had for many years waiting for the right time to sell. You have to be mindful of the art market, as you no doubt are beginning to appreciate. The prices rise and fall just like any other stock. Right now sales on all things Picasso are soft, with a few exceptions of course. On the other hand, Salvador Dali pieces are ripe for selling. My associate at Christies is waiting for me to ship our entire Dali collection, and she feels it will turn a tidy profit. I have them in the back portion of the warehouse, packed and ready to go. Though this place is secure, I have a little extra security for the most expensive items.”
He walked me over to the large walk-in safe, which was conveniently out of sight from the main floor and had a well manufactured facade that looked like a large grandfather clock backed against the wall. The clock and walled opened together and I couldn’t help but think of those old spy movies. Once opened, the vault had hi-tech digital lock in the middle of the thick steel door. I was more than a little surprised when Theo punched the access code right in front of me. It was a tremendous act of trust. The code seemed familiar as well.
Theo must have seen the look of familiarity on my face.
“It’s the address of the store, keyed in twice. Once normal, then the mirror image, got it?” He said.
“There are going to be times in the future that I will send you here to pick up various pieces. Are you comfortable with that?” Theo asked waiting to see if my face matched my answer.
“I think I can handle it. Thank you for the trust. I won’t let you down.” I said.
“I know you won’t.” Theo said.
The way he said that made me feel good. Theo was the very antithesis of David.
We loaded up the paintings we came for while Theo gave me a quick class on the do’s and don’ts of high end art packing and travel, which was more complicated than I would have thought. The lightweight packing containers had different linings for different materials, each made to allow for the lowest amount of friction and movement. That was just the basics as I won’t bore you with details.
On the ride back I was staring out the side window thinking about how fortunate I was. Something I never thought I would think about myself ever again.
“You are doing a great job Jack. Bili has had nothing but great things to say about your progress and work ethic.”
“Thanks. I really like the work. I never imagined I would be part of the art world in this capacity.” I said sincerely.
“I told you when I hired you that once you were properly trained I would move you to an appropriate salary.” Theo said as he looked straight ahead not taking his eyes of the road.
This day was getting better by the minute. I figured if he added a few dollars more an hour I would be getting close to $60K a year. The thought of it made me giddy.
“I figure an appropriate salary for your current skill level is a hundred thousand a year. Do you feel that is a fair wage?”
I was dumb struck. I couldn’t even get an answer out right away.
A hundred grand?
This was a shock.
“It’s more than fair. Actually, I would say you would be over paying by quite a bit. ” I said.
“You’ve seen the sales we do on a regular basis. That’s only a portion of what we do globally. It’s a fair wage and your direct deposit will start reflecting it as of your next paycheck.” He said.
Theo was not the sort of man you argued with, and though I was sure he was wasting his money, who was I to complain. Life had dealt me a few shitty cards and now that things were going good for me I didn’t know how to handle it. I was waiting for the other shoe to drop.
“I can’t thank you enough Theo.” I said, still not believing what had just happened.
“You’re a good kid, young man rather. You deserve it.” He said as we pulled into the alley of the POH and parked.
“Now go in and help Bili close up. I have to take care of some other business.”
I shook Theo’s hand, thanked him again, and went inside. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but there was something different about Theo’s demeanor. Nothing explainable, more of a feeling really, but he sounded grandfatherly. I know it sounds odd, but that’s the best way I could describe it.
When I walked out into the showroom I noticed the store had a fair amount of customers inside and Bili was helping an older couple with a purchase. I stepped right into work mode, answering questions, and even selling a few nice pieces that were on the higher end.
I used some of the skills Bili had taught me and I even thought I saw her take notice. The customers thanked me for the great deal and helpful service and before long the place was empty again. That’s how it was most days. Busy one second then nothing for an hour.
“So how did you like the warehouse?” Bili asked, knowing I had to be impressed.
“It was okay. It reminded me of the stock room at Wal-Mart. You would be very surprised at the quality of prints they sell there now.” I said trying to keep a straight face, but it was no use. “Seriously, I can’t believe something like that exists in Michigan, outside the D.I.A. that is. It was unbelievable.”
“You should see the New York warehouse.” Bili said casually.
“You guys have one in New York?”
“Of course.” Bili said as if she couldn’t believe I had the nerve to ask such a stupid question.
“I wonder why Theo would spend so much time here when the center of the Art world is New York. It’s nice here, I get it, but it’s off the path a little don’t you think?”
“You would have to ask him that.” She said.
We closed the store and we both had some paperwork to finish up on the computer. I was done first, so I said goodnight to Bili, and surprisingly got a response of ‘goodnight’ in return. Theo had also given me the keys to the store, as well as the huge raise, and I now felt like I was officially part of the team. I know Bili didn’t care if the door was locked or not, but I locked it behind me on my way out anyways.
I started walking and checking messages on my phone when I heard a familiar voice.
“Thought you were never gonna leave.”
I turned and saw her sitting on a large cement flower holder near the corner. It was dark and I could barely see her, but there was no mistaking who it was.
“You don’t like using phones very much do you?” I said, trying to act unaffected by her obvious avoidance of everything that is me.
“No. I feel some things are better said in person, especially when it’s an apology. I know you must think I’m a cold bitch for not returning your call, or worse, think I that I didn’t want to see you again. I had some personal issues I needed to take care of and it took longer than expected.” she said.
She seemed sincere, but the last thing I wanted to be was the sappy idiot who let a pretty girl treat him like dirt. She may be the prettiest woman I ever laid eyes on, but I had my limits of humiliation.
“There is nothing to apologize for. We went on one date, really a half a date at that. No big deal.” I said as nonchalant as I could.
“Well, I wanted to say I’m sorry anyway. Can you forgive me?” She said as she walked up next to me and bumped her shoulder into mine as playful as a kitten.
When she approached me she stepped into the light of the street lamp. Her hair was hanging straight and she was wearing glasses. I don’t know how, but she looked even more appealing.
My attempt at ambivalence was crumbling by the second. I tried to stay stone faced, but it was a lost cause. I started to smile and I’m sure she knew she had me. Maybe I was an idiot.
“Okay, I forgive you. What now?” I asked her.
“I believe I still owe you dinner. As long as my place isn’t on fire, it should be ready soon. Please let me make it up to you.” She said the last part very sincerely.
I was powerless. Not that I would have turned her down in a million years, but I would like to think I could have if I wanted to. I just didn’t want to. I’m fairly sure heroin addicts say that to themselves as well.
“Okay, but I just got off work and probably smell like old wood and furniture polish.” I said
“You smell fine, but if you are feeling self-conscious you can take a shower at my place. You wouldn’t want my dinner to burn would you?”
“No. Unless you’re making hot dogs. I love those things burnt crispy.” I said that trying to be funny, but it was true. Burnt dogs are the best.
“Sorry. No hot dogs tonight. That will be date three and a half.” She said as she winked.
I lifted up my right arm like a movie usher.
“What a gentleman.” she said as she walked past me.
I had a million questions running through my mind and it took all of my strength not to blurt them all out at once.
What kind of personal issues? Was she married? In the middle of a messy divorce? Did she have a dying relative that she was taking care of? Was that you at my work that night, and if so, what the hell were you doing there?
As bad as it sounds I was secretly hoping it was the sick relative. That would explain a lot, and I wouldn’t have to deal with the anguish of her being with, or still in love with, someone else.
Miraculously I kept my mouth shut during the short walk to her loft and let her do most of the talking.
We came to her door and marched up the stairs without the dramatics of my first visit, but just knowing that it was her place caused my heart to pick up its pace. I don’t know how to explain it, but when you are completely smitten with someone the littlest things, or gestures, can make you feel like a kid on Christmas morning. Her playful bump, a gentle touch of her hand, or a quick simple hug, were intoxicating. If you have never felt it, it would be hard to explain.
I could smell something cooking and it made my mouth water.
“Whatever is in that oven is going to be better than hot dogs I’m certain.” I said
“It had better, or I’m going to have a word with the butcher at the market. Grab a beer from the fridge, I’m gonna change.” She said as she walked into her bedroom.
“Can I get you something to drink?” I said in a louder than normal voice as I opened the fridge.
“Beer is good. Be right out.” She said, her voice echoing from her room.
I got two beers from the fridge and set hers on the granite counter top in the kitchen. I stayed put in the kitchen because she didn’t close her bedroom door all the way when she went in, and I didn’t want to be that guy. The kitchen had no view into her bedroom, unlike the rest of her flat, and no chance of me looking like a perv.
I took a few sips of my beer and she was already changed and out. She was wearing a tight University of Pennsylvania t-shirt and pair of black shorts. Even casual she looked every bit a movie star. She walked over to the kitchen, grabbed her beer, took a sip, and then gave me quick kiss on the cheek.
She pulled the oven door open, took the glass cooking dish out, and set it on the counter.
The food smelled great, but it paled in comparison to the perfume Viki was wearing. Just the right amount so you could smell it when you were near her, but none existent from a distance.
“I like the t-shirt. It looks like one of those classic tees from the fifties or sixties.” I said
“That’s the style. Everything old is now cool. It’s amazing what you can get online these days.” She said as she grabbed some plates from the cupboard. “You ready to eat?”
We had a great dinner, and a few more beers to go with it. She was easy to talk to, just as before, and I don’t think we had one awkward silence. To me that was like pitching a perfect game.
She threw the dishes in the dishwasher and then sat on her sofa near the fireplace. She patted the seat next to her and looked at me without saying anything. The universal sign of come sit was more than enough to get me to sit.
“I hope that was good enough to make up for the last dinnerless date?”
“It was great, really. I don’t know who cooked that for you, but tell them I said thanks. You really owe them one.”
She stared at me for a second pretending to be mad then grabbed me by my little finger and gently twisted and pulled in a playful attempt to punish me for my insolence.
We both smiled as our hands dropped, but she didn’t let go of my finger. She got a better grip on it and pulled me closer. I didn’t resist and as soon as I was in striking distance she kissed me.
I don’t think the English language possesses the adjectives to describe that kiss. As ridiculous as it sounds, and I hate using it, magical, is the only word that comes close. I didn’t think the human body was capable of such emotion and feeling.
“Did you feel that, or am I imagining things?” She said the second that are lips separated.
She looked at me with those piercing gray eyes and I melted inside. Then I said the first dumb thing that popped in my head.
“Is this real?”
The question didn’t really make sense and just came out as I looked at her. This didn’t seem real. It was too perfect in too many ways.
In case it wasn’t I didn’t hesitate and leaned in for another kiss. This one was longer and more passionate. She grabbed the back of my head and a handful of hair in the sexiest way imaginable. She slowly pulled back, with eyes still closed then slowly opened them. She stared silently for a few seconds and I could tell she was about to say something.
“What is it?” I said, still trying to catch my breath and get my heart rate to a safe level.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve dated anyone. Even longer since I went out with someone I cared about. Dating is....complicated for me.”
“How do you mean? Because of work, or the personal issues you were talking about?” I asked.
I probably shouldn’t have asked such a personal question, but I was hoping she would volunteer some information on her disappearance.
She got up from the couch and walked over to the window looking out into the darkness, apparently stalling for time.
“There is a lot about me you don’t know. I mean…more than the obvious things. Normally I wouldn’t even mention it, but...you’re different.” She said, looking over her shoulder at me.
I was still sitting on the couch, but I could see the sadness in her eyes even from a distance.
Coupled with all my recent bouts of phantom paranoia, which I was now starting to question, I was starting to feel like I was in a fairy tale. This couldn’t all be coincidence.
I walked over to where she was and stood next to her.
“Please tell me what you mean. Either I am going crazy, or something weird is going on around me. I’ve been feeling like a fish out of water for some time now. I’ve heard and seen so many bizarre things lately that it would be refreshing to just hear the plain truth for once.” I said.
“I’m sure that whatever you’re concerned about is probably not that big of a deal.” I continued.
She turned to face me and grabbed my hand again.
“You have been through a lot haven’t you? But trust me, what I want to share with you is indeed a big deal Jack. I’ve never been so torn in my life. There are things you may need to know, but…” she stopped suddenly rethinking her words
“Wait. Wait a minute.” I said. “What are we talking about here? I swear, I don’t know who is more vague and cryptic, you or Bili.”
I could see the change in Viki’s eyes the second I mentioned Bili’s name.
“What makes you say that?” She asked.
“Over the past few days Bili has been talking in riddles and making odd comments, not unlike this conversation right now. Either both of you are in on the same secret, or you are twins separated at birth.”
Viki gave quiet snort of a laugh.
“We couldn’t be more different Jack, trust me.”
“I want to trust you, I do, but that statement right there. You act like you know her, but you only saw her for a second or two. What aren’t you telling me?”
When she didn’t answer me I felt like I was being played for a fool and I had had it. Like I said, I had my limits. There was indeed something going on, and I was in the dark.
“Let me know when you want to have an honest conversation. Thanks for dinner.” I said then started for the door.
I couldn’t believe what I was doing, but I was fed up and she could tell.
“Jack, wait.” She said as she reached for my arm and pulled me to her.
“I will have that honest talk with you, I promise. There is just one thing I have to do first, and it can’t be done tonight. Can you please give me a few days? Please?”
I’m not exactly sure what I was going to say, but Viki didn’t give me a chance. She pushed me against the window and kissed me again. Then she pulled me back to the couch, pushed me onto my back then straddled me. She put her finger up against my lips as I was about to protest then slowly removed her finger as her lips replaced it. She kissed me long and passionately.
I instantly lost all of my aggravation and curiosity. I was lost in her and made no attempt to find myself. After the best kiss of my life she slid her head down to my chest and rested it there as I held her. My head, which had been a swirl of mixed emotions, now felt calm. I put all of my questions aside for now, hoping that she would be true to her word and tell me what she was talking about soon.
We laid together on the couch, our breathing in synchronized harmony. The last thing I wanted to do now was ruin the night by having her think I expected more. I decided I should leave.
“Thanks for a great night Viki, but I’m sure you have to work earlier tomorrow, and it’s probably better if I get going. Maybe next time we can finish our almost talk?” I said.
We got up in tandem, and she was still holding my hand.
“We will, I promise.” She said.
“Whatever it is, I hope you will feel comfortable enough with me to talk about it.” I said
“Thanks for understanding.”
I kissed her gently one more time and she walked me to the front door.
Once I got to the bottom of the steps I opened the door to leave, but before I took another step her hand came under my arm and pushed it shut. I froze in one place for fraction before she spun me around for another kiss. This one was different, very different.
She grabbed my hand without a word and walked me back up the stairs and right into her bedroom. It was dark, and the only light was from the moon shining through a sliver of window not blocked by her shades. To say I was nervous was a gross understatement, but the easy way about her and her calming presence made me feel like I belonged with her.
She took full control and I went without resistance. I’m not one to kiss and tell, but I will say this. As cliché as it sounds, it was a night I will never forget.
The next morning I woke up to the sun shining through the window. I was in the middle of an empty bed and it took me a few minutes to realize where I was and that it wasn’t a glorious dream. I rolled over to the side and found a note lying on the pillow next to me.
Stay as long as you like. Waffles in the freezer. xoxo
I stayed and ate some waffles. They were so-so.