All the perimeter Berndnaut Clouds had tethered themselves to the recharge post beside the entrance, their mist obscuring the anchor points. The Collector tapped the Driver’s shoulder.
“Something’s not right. Drive slowly.”
The Driver nodded, playing his role well. He was a Character Actor from a leading repertory theatre company. In addition to Driver he could portray cook, butler, bodyguard and, for a significant Transaction, male escort.
They crawled through the entrance, and up the drive. None of the external alarm systems had triggered.
“Stop here,” The Collector said, waiting until the car came to a halt against the driveway kerb, house still out of sight. He reached out and pressed a switch on the leather interior. A Parchment folded out, silk-woven screen glittering to life. Scrawling in his signature sketch he waited and checked the security settings.
“Do you want me to carry on?”
He could see the Driver in the rear view mirror, gaze straight ahead.
“Yes. The Berndnauts must have exhausted themselves chasing squirrels.”
“Of course sir,” he said, not laughing. Staying in role.
The car started moving, and the Collector folded away the Parchment, staring at marble sculptures just visible on the lawn, until they pulled up in front of the doors.
“I have another appointment I’m afraid,” the Driver said “but I could request another performer. I think our Soubrette is available this evening.”
The Collector shook his head.
“No need for that. I’m sure I’m just being over-cautious.”
“I could contact the Copyright Patrol and ask them to attend.”
A look passed between them and the Driver moved his hand away from the phone. The Collector opened the Parchment again, transacting a very rare porcelain Japanese ghost statue, adding a small oil painting for the Driver’s professionalism.
Inside he waited for the car to leave, opened the panel beside the door, and reset the alarm system. Leaning against the wall he tried to catch his breath, but could not fill his lungs through the taste of sour wine. He knew this day might come. No security system was impenetrable to a determined thief. He did not know it would come so soon. Canvases lined the walls; Bruegel, Campendonk and Braque, colours flattened by the darkness. There was no comfort there tonight.
The door was normally hidden behind the fitted cabinets, mirrored wall reflecting back rare statues at attention. Tonight it stood wide open, small Parchment lock unfurled like a flag of distress, fibres overwhelmed by a thick tar paint. He listened. Inside there was no sound. He glanced across the room toward the telephone on the small table. Copyright Patrol would be here in minutes. The Intruder might have already left, and he didn’t want to make a fuss. He ran a handkerchief across his face. It did nothing to calm him.
He opened the front of the swung wide display case, retrieving the small knife. The blade was cast from a melted down Henry Moore damaged at the time of the last Biennale. It felt too heavy, but the edge was keen and the handle fitted perfectly in his hand.
The room was polygonal and the Intruder sat in the centre surrounded by canvases, their paint scraped away. Beside him was a large canvas bag, a machete against his leg. All across the floor lay paintings. Each one had been pulled carelessly from the wall, wrenching out hooks and tearing picture wire from the backs of frames.
“Were you going to steal them?”
“I was going to kill you, you know, and then take them,” the Intruder said.
He picked up the machete and waved it in the air, the unbalanced blade dropping to clatter on the floor. A cloud of powdered paint rose from the floor at the impact. Even across the room the Collector smelt alcohol on the man’s breath. He moved his own knife behind his back.
“What did you do?”
The Collector shrugged, trying to stay calm. “I transacted paintings. What did you do?” The man’s hair was tangled, weeks of growth on his cheeks, too untamed to call a beard. He used the point of his weapon to stand, and gestured at the now empty walls.
“And hid them away down here.”
The Collector moved toward the nearest stack of paintings, coloured dust staining his shoes. Leaning forward the Intruder waved his knife in a clumsy arc.
“Stay away from them.”
Stepping back the Collector shook his head.
“Copyright Patrol are on their way.”
“No they’re not. They would have been here by now. You would have contacted them as soon as you saw the Berndnauts tethered. Downloading their feeds. You didn’t. You don’t want anyone to see this.” The machete swung further, unbalancing the man, sending him stumbling toward a wall.
“I’ve nothing to be ashamed of. I’ve not broken any laws.” Even as he said it, even in that moment of complete confidence in his words, the Collector’s hand went to his neck, to his Newlyn Code, as if he could feel the numbers against his fingers. “How did you get in? Is there someone else here?”
“I’m not poor. You saw to that,” the Intruder said, kicking toward the nearest pile of paintings.
The Collector shouted and tried to push the man away, but he was stronger, drunk as he was.
“Then I don’t know what you’re complaining about. I transacted far over their value. Not enough to retire, but more than they were worth.”
“How do you know what they’re worth? How do you have any idea what they’re worth?”
The Collector laughed, running his free hand through his hair. This man was too caught up in some kind of idiotic grief to be any threat. He slipped the knife into his back pocket.
“Because, dear child, I’m a Collector. I’m one of the leading Collectors in Biennale City. I decide what art is worth. Every decision I make influences the transaction value of art. I was generous. I made sure you were well compensated.”
“And then kept them down here.”
“They really weren’t good enough to put on display.”
As soon as the words were out of his mouth he knew it was the wrong thing to say.
“Then why the fuck didn’t you let someone who would appreciate them acquire them,” the Intruder said, opening the canvas bag and taking out an opened bottle of turpentine. The Collector lurched forward and the Intruder stumbled out of reach against the far wall.
“So out of spite you’re going to destroy them? Ruin them?”
“I’m the Artist. I should get to decide the value.”
“And your Colony agrees?” He grabbed the man’s collar and dragged it down. The scar was still livid, the last traces of his Newlyn Code just visible around the edges. He stood over him as he cowered.
“You knew how it worked when you let the Colony send your paintings to the Auction Rooms. You had no objection living off the artworks transacted to you. Now you complain.”
“You scraped them. You obliterated my artwork. You never wanted it.”
“He was a better artist than you. It’s not my fault you decided to reuse his canvases,” the Collector said, and reached behind him for one of the paintings. The dust shuddered to the floor, red and yellow and green. He tried to remember what was painted on there when he first transacted for it, but it had been of little interest to him.
“Look at it. Look at his composition. Look at his use of colour. How you could even think to paint over such beauty with your, admittedly competent, but inferior attempts, I will never understand.”
“I was poor, and my companion had just died. What was I supposed to do? I had nothing to transact for materials.”
“Apart from his paintings. Those beautiful paintings.”
“They were mine. They belonged to me.”
“They belonged to everyone,” the Collector said, his voice rising. “You had no right to hide them away.”
“Like you’re doing?” The Intruder was back on his feet, still unsteady, the machete in one hand. With the other he held one of the canvases in the air. “This one he painted after he first proposed to me.” He let it fall to the ground, and grabbed another. “This one he painted when we first got our Newlyn Codes.” There was a smile on his face. A flicker of memory.
“That’s very sentimental,” the Collector said, not taking his eyes off the man’s hands until the canvas was set down once more.
“Please, just let me have them back.”
“You are joking aren’t you? Do you know how long it took me to find those? How many dismal, low rent Auctions I had to endure? Sitting in this room surrounded by your tedious paintings, while I scraped layer upon layer of colour away. Even with a mask I don’t think my lungs will ever be the same again.” He looked around at the piles of exposed abstracts. “But it was worth it all. Worth it all to own such beautiful work. Worth it to take such low quality paintings out of circulation.”
The machete came up, pointed at the Collector’s face.
“I could just take them. Take them back. What are you going to do to stop me?”
“Copyright Patrol would pick you up within the hour, and I’d push for them cataracting you, so you never had a chance to see your lover’s artwork again.”
The Intruder stared at him, whether it was the effort of focusing, or something else. Tears beaded his cheek. He looked toward the door. Back toward the nearest pile of paintings.
The blade of the machete was through the first two before the Collector could react, cleaving the frame to splinters, tearing the fabric and gesso, and the swirls of colour he had so lovingly revealed. Leaning forward he rammed his palms into the man’s chest, sending him tumbling backward into the damaged stack. His own knife was in his hand. The point flicked across the Intruder’s thigh. For the first couple of moments the Intruder’s clothes absorbed the arterial blood, until they were sodden and it fountained through the air, arcing spatters across the ceiling, and the paintings. Dripping clots around the room until nothing was left in the Intruder. No blood, no resistance. No life.
The Collector pushed himself to his feet. Wiping his hands on his now ruined shirt, he turned and spotted the recharged Berndnaut Cloud drifting by the picture rail. Reaching up, he waited until the mist recognised his skin, grasped the core camera, lowered it to the floor and crushed it beneath his boot. Alone once more, he pushed the now cool corpse to one side and picked up one of the paintings. Staring at the cut cleaved frame, and the triple arcs of blood across the painting he wept.