Julian told Ashley how he had once been Gary Weiner of Mead, Indiana, a once prosperous factory town that had been dying during his teenaged years as the local auto assembly plant sloughed off workers, on the way to shutting down totally. There seemed nothing for anyone of his generation to do but leave after that—or die along with everything else around them.
Listening to Julian tell her about it she remembered her childhood, her family’s experiences—the move from Leigh, the crummy jobs her parents held afterward. She’d been younger at the time, too young perhaps to fully understand it, but not too young to feel it.
“I had an idea of the kind of life I wanted, though,” Julian said. “I wanted to be comfortable, and respected. I wanted to be surrounded by things that weren’t cheap and shabby. I had a mental image of what it would look like from movies about people who lived in New York, and wore expensive suits, and lived in huge, clean, tasteful homes, and ate in fine restaurants, and—it must sound incredibly inane when I put it like that—”
“No, it doesn’t sound crazy at all,” Ashley said. “I think everyone thinks things like that growing up.”
He smiled wryly. “Thank you for that.
“This not very interesting part of the story ended when one day I stopped just thinking all this and got on a bus to New York. I didn’t know anybody, didn’t even have a plan, and yeah, it was overwhelming when I got here; I’d never even been in a big city before. But going back wasn’t an option. And I eventually caught a break. I got a job as a security guard at an art gallery. It was just a job at first, that was as far as I was thinking at the time, but then I realized what kind of place I was in, and the way in which it was a window into that world I’d only seen before in movies, and which I’d come all the way to New York for.
“These people would come in wearing suits that cost more than I made in a month, two months, casually drop tens, hundreds, of thousands of dollars on a piece of canvas or marble or driftwood. What the hell’s going on here, I thought? A piece of driftwood?
“I started listening to the things these people were saying. Really listening. Even going to the library and borrowing books about them, reading about them. It got so that I started taking extra shifts. I did need the money, but part of what I was thinking was that this would let me spend that much more time there instead of in that hole in the wall to which I would go back after being done. Doing my rounds alone at night, I’d take the time to look at the paintings, the sculptures, really look at them, like some museum visitor.
“One night off I went to this bar, a dive really, and this man came over and started a conversation. He got to asking all kinds of questions about my job. It was obvious he wanted to break into the gallery, and I even had a fairly good idea of what he wanted to take out of it, a piece that had just come in.
“He made me an offer, more money than I’d make in a year, or five, if I got on board, and he made the plan sound like it was foolproof. Like there wouldn’t be any risk, like I wouldn’t have to do anything but take the money . . .
“It was more than I could resist. I said yes. And then it went just like he said. And I not only got my money, but an offer to work with the guy’s crew again. He said he liked the way I’d handled myself, and I liked the idea of seeing that kind of money again. So I ended up doing a few jobs with his crew.
“Now, you already know what happens with all that stolen art. He had contacts, and I met some of them. One was a dealer who had an opportunity for an apprentice.” Henry de Winter, a name she’d heard a number of times before.
“I worked with him a few years before starting out on my own, with the capital I raised working jobs like that. By then I wasn’t Gary Weiner anymore. I was—” He shrugged, as if it seemed better not to say it. Like he preferred not to say the two names in the same breath.
“How’d you pick it?” Ashley asked, not saying the name either.
“The name just sounded right. Like the name of someone who belonged to something worth belonging to. And I made up a life story to go along with it, one that would let him belong while accounting for the things that would seem suspicious. He was born abroad and lived abroad his early life, I decided, so he could seem respectable while having an excuse for not being known here, for being different in little ways. Conveniently alienated from his family, so he could brush off questions about it.
“I pictured this cosmopolitan English expatriate as having a Mid-Atlantic accent, so that was what I cultivated. I pictured him as a man who had a piano in his home, a proper, grand piano, and played it beautifully, the way the rich always do in movies.
“Later on I read Veblen, his writing on the ‘leisure class,’ and ‘conspicuous consumption.’ How the point of that kind of thing, speaking the right way, learning to play the piano even though you’re not at all a serious musician—the point of that’s to show people that you can afford these things. The time and money that kind of education requires. That you can afford to buy a piano like that, and a home in which it wouldn’t appear ridiculous. Even the business I’m in, the whole preoccupation with having something very old or from very far away or with a particular name attached to it in one’s living room is about showing that you have the expensive education and the money to get such things. And the idea is always to be more impressive than one really is, to seem as if one can afford more than one really can.
“So you could say that I was a fraud imitating other frauds. But somehow it didn’t make a bit of difference to me. All of those things that had seemed magical in Mead still seemed magical, this life, this new life that Julian Montfort lived as an art dealer in Manhattan, in this apartment, with these people, still very much the dream.”
A fraud imitating other frauds, Ashley thought. Twenty years of deliberate, conscious effort, of study and training to become what she had seen, what had so impressed her. She remembered a term she’d encountered in one of her classes, “hyperreal.” It referred to situations in which symbols referenced other symbols, instead of actual things in real life. That seemed to fit what he’d been doing perfectly, developing an image of wealth, of refinement, based on other images of wealth and refinement—like having a grand piano in his living room on which he could play Rachmaninoff like a virtuoso. And she guessed he’d done it perfectly, because as far as she could tell everyone around him had been taken in by that image. She had seen the way the Old Money crowd looked at the nouveau riche and their vulgarities. She had never seen them look at Julian that way. He’d fooled them, fooled them by outdoing them at their game of fooling each other and everyone else.
And yet, just as he’d said of himself, the magic of everything he had, everything he did, seemed undimmed for her, the things that had so impressed her when they first met, the things he’d been teaching her as they’d grown closer together, seeming no less impressive. Even knowing that the aristocratic background was a fake didn’t have that effect. If anything, his whole story had added something to his fascination for her. That sense of aspiration, wrapped up in fighting for a new life the way he had, becoming someone else for whom doors were open, and comfort was part of the air they breathed . . .
But no, that wasn’t all of it. Part of it was the way in which he’d fought for that life. That this genteel-seeming man had been so adventurous, was still so adventurous, added to his excitement for her in a way she’d never expected it to.
“So there you have it, my way in,” Julian said. “Everyone’s way in, to tell you the truth. If not stealing paintings, then something else. Balzac wrote somewhere that ‘Behind every great fortune there’s a great crime.’ Pettier fortunes, pettier crimes.”
“And is that part of your life behind you?” Ashley asked.
Julian didn’t say anything for a while again, tongue held in a way it wouldn’t have been if the answer was “no.”
Ashley wanted to know more, much more, wanted, well, was surprised by what she wanted. But she knew she couldn’t press him for too much right now. A man who’d done things like that had to be careful, as he was being careful with her, avoiding names, places, dates.
“It’s not the same anymore,” he said when he finally spoke, just now looking her in the eye again.
He’d made a great deal of money, he told her in that same weary, confessional tone; there was no denying that. But crime had its costs. It required investments like any business, expenditures. He had to split proceeds with partners, pay other helpers, and what he did net had to be hidden, and laundered.
It also had to be managed. He’d had dealings with brokers, and learned the hard way that sums of money didn’t always grow in their custodianship. Sometimes they shrank.
“Despite all the pretensions to genius, it’s really just gambling.”
And there was no point to denying that much as he’d made, he’d also spent a great deal as well. This apartment they were sitting in, cars like the one in which they’d just driven back here, the clothes he and she were wearing, the evenings out.
He was in this game only so long as he had to be in order to secure his present position. To have investments sufficiently large and diversified that he could comfortably live off of them anywhere in the world, while the entry of statutes of limitations into effect steadily reduced the chances that he would be prosecuted for anything he’d done to zero, even if they came to light. And he had every hope that it wouldn’t be long until then. After that, he would steer clear of anything that even hinted of the shady.
“You’re sure there isn’t more to it than that?” Ashley asked.
“There used to be,” he admitted. “Not anymore. It’s a matter of getting older. What seems like a good idea when you’re twenty doesn’t when you’re thirty, never mind forty. If you’re lucky, part of that’s the fact that you’ve got something to protect now, like you didn’t when you were just starting out. Like I do now,” he said, looking right at her.
Julian confessed that he’d initially worried that she’d be put off by that side of his work, but she told him she wasn’t, that she wanted to be part of it herself, a revelation that astounded Julian—and Ashley herself.