As his rental car gently cruised through the three-block downtown, Keldon tried to notice things that would make the town unique to him, local flavor. He mildly hoped for quaint, but found nothing of the small-town charm he expected. Instead he saw a chain gas station, a sad-looking pizza parlor with dirty windows, two chubby kids sitting on a curb drinking from 7-Eleven Styrofoam cups, though he could not spot the 7-Eleven itself. The downtown businesses seemed normal enough, a sewing shop (misspelled with the pretentious and empty shoppe), a tax business, a doctor’s office with beige blinds and—
It was normal. Very normal.
This was his third visit to Monroe, Wisconsin, and he could not reconcile how absolutely ordinary the downtown appeared compared to the strange, repulsive purpose of his visit. He wanted the town to appear vaguely menacing, maybe a sinister machine shop or frowning old people in rocking chairs in front of local businesses, so he could use the material for a later anecdote, something about how the character of the town matched the perverse transaction he headed toward. But the ordinary brick façades with cement ornamentation refused to cooperate. Downtown Monroe was quiet. Sleepy, even. He passed an empty garden space with cow-painted columns and a sign welcoming visitors to come and sit. The garden was barren, too early in spring to contain actual plants or seedlings.
The thought flitted across his brain that even if he could turn this into an anecdote, with whom would he share it? Which friends would he call? None. He didn’t have friends anymore. He had dropped them, or they had dropped him. He scolded himself for getting distracted from his true purpose in Monroe. Keldon Thurman intended to stay only long enough to make the acquisition and leave.
Breezing beyond downtown and into the residential streets, he had no problem finding his destination, having already visited the Turners twice previously. He pulled onto their average street lined with unremarkable two-story homes. the Turners’ trees almost perfectly spaced as the evenly spaced trees across the street and down the block.
The green was gradually returning, he noted. Like birds that had flown south, green flocked to the late-April treetops, resting on small branches, ready to burst into song. The grass was not minty-fresh, exactly, not cheerful spring, but rather a deadish- brown with hints of life and occasional mint-green smatterings. Soon these lawns would reveal themselves to be not dead, only sleeping. But not yet. He was just glad he did not have to deal with boots or a snow-covered sidewalk, which would have impacted how he presented himself.
He wanted to look crisp.
The Turners were expecting him, so when he pulled into their driveway at their white aluminum and brick façade home, he wasn’t surprised to see the front door swing open. The lawn was scattered with a few outdoor toys in various states of abandoned. He had not seen the children on the previous two visits and suspected they had been whisked away, far from the delicate negotiations required in selling and purchasing art created by a serial killer.
Keldon noted this fact—the missing children—and figured he might be able to use that if necessary. Of course, he was only supposed to drop off the check and pick up the art. But he did not trust the Turners. Everything was negotiable. He decided to take his time and make them wait at the front door.
He turned off the engine and straightened his power-red tie while walking himself through various contingency plans—how the Turners might try to back out and how he might turn the situation to his advantage. Or everything might go smoothly. But the first three acquisitions with other art owners had not gone as expected, and he had no reason to expect the one with the Turners would either. These paintings brought out the worst in everyone, he’d discovered. Before the first acquisition he’d wondered, Who wants to own a convicted serial killer’s art? Who wants that? Well, now he had an answer. Donna and Gerald Turner of Monroe, Wisconsin.
He finally extracted himself from the front seat and retrieved his briefcase from the back, pretending not to notice Mrs. Turner waiting inside the front door.
The Turners disgusted him, his wealthy patron disgusted him, everything about this work disgusted him, a low-simmering burn in the back of his mind. But the moment that disgust threatened to evolve into a strong opinion, he reminded himself he did not care, he could not afford to care. He did this for the money. Keldon understood being disgusted with oneself. The Turners had flattered a serial killer for two years of that murderer’s prison sentence so he would give them his original art. So what? For the money he would make brokering all fifteen pieces of serial-killer art, Keldon’s nebulous morality could ignore the disgust, or at least mutter to itself in the corner.
Keldon slammed the car door and walked toward Mrs. Turner, flashing her a grin. He hoped it came across as more sincere than he felt.
She did not return it.
He wasn’t surprised. She had never smiled at him, never extended him that basic courtesy. She stood with her arms folded, her dirty gray hair pulled up behind her head and clipped with a plastic comb. The baggy wrinkles tracing the contour of her face suggested a history of pouting and negativity. He disapproved of her overly orange fake tan. He suppressed the desire to comment on it, even obliquely. He had enough self-awareness to know his distaste for her was influenced by her treatment of him. Everyone wanted to be liked. But she acted as though Keldon were the enemy instead of an envoy sent by a wealthy patron.
“We have a problem,” she said.
Keldon was not surprised in the slightest. “Oh dear,” he said, affecting surprise and disappointment. “That’s terrible. Let’s discuss it.”
She turned and walked through the front door, and he followed. Keldon didn’t care what the problem was. It didn’t matter. He felt confident he would leave with the acquisition. The outcome was not in question.
There it was, propped against a leather recliner, the king’s throne in the living room.
The painting itself was nothing remarkable: a sloppy unicorn with a wavering silver and pink horn, pawing and prancing before a two-dimensional blue lake. Blob fairies hovered in the background like squashed bugs. Merrick preferred small canvases; it would definitely fit in Keldon’s briefcase. The technique was not impressive, sloppy brush strokes and clumsy attempts at adding distinction. Actually, he reflected, the word technique did not apply at all. The finished product contained all the charm of a paint-by-numbers completed by an inattentive ten-year-old. In fact, it could easily hide in a thrift shop unnoticed, forever scorned by anyone who happened to see it dangling from a crooked hook behind a box of jigsaw puzzles in the back corner. Except for its distinction: painted by a mass murderer. Suddenly, the ugly unicorn painting had value.
“Here’s the thing,” Mrs. Turner announced as soon as she had been reunited with her greasy-haired husband and his pointed Brylcreem moustache. She looked at him for confirmation, and he glanced at Keldon with uneasy eyes. “We think it’s worth a lot more than you’re offering.”
Keldon nodded, wanting to give the appearance of seriously considering her. “What makes you think so?”
“Well, some friends of ours said we might get more money if we had an auction for it online. Said other people besides your rich friend might want it. A lot of rich people might want it.”
Keldon studied them, their living room, re-evaluating the assumptions he had made about them and their lifestyle. A PlayStation and its corresponding cartridges and equipment dominated one-quarter of the living room floor, a giant flat- screen television plastered a nearby wall. Plastic knickknacks and faded landscape prints attempted to transform the bleak room into something cheerful and homey. They failed. Keldon noticed the plastic basket of unwashed clothes sitting on the patterned couch and found it depressing. Dirty plates and a pizza box sat unacknowledged on the coffee table near him. Knowing he was coming, they hadn’t even bothered to straighten up.
All these details he recounted, reminding himself to make assumptions and observations but to resist becoming too attached to them. Through assumptions, he might learn how to conduct himself. But through assumptions, he could also misstep, so he constantly re-examined what he thought he knew and how he thought he knew it.
They hadn’t offered him a seat.
“May I?” He indicated the couch.
Donna Turner inclined her head in irritated agreement, though the idea clearly did not please her. From her reluctance, Keldon understood they had planned to explain their decision to renege and then ask him to leave. His taking a seat was a fly in their ointment, a prelude to greater conversation they did not wish to have.
He realized he would have to pry the painting from their fingers. If not literally, then metaphorically.
“Auction where?” Keldon tried to sound pleasant. “No real auction house will have you because the item for auction is so reprehensible.”
“Someone will take it,” Gerald Turner said, finally contributing. “If they think it will get good bids, they’ll take it.”
“No,” Keldon said, “they won’t. Not Christie’s. Not Sotheby’s. Not Bonhams or Fellows. Sure, this painting may create some cash for them, but more important than a cut on an ugly painting is their reputation. Nobody wants to be the auction house that cared so little for common decency that they were willing to profit extensively from a serial killer’s unicorn fantasy painted from death row. They aren’t ghouls.”
The arrow found its mark, and Donna Turner recoiled slightly, enough for Keldon to decide this approach worked. She understood that he had implied ghouls to mean them as well. He assumed the Turners wanted more money but not the publicity, and that would help him prevail. Keldon wasn’t proud of what he was willing to do, the things he would say to win this negotiation. But he wasn’t hired to be polite. He was hired to acquire the painting. His bonus—his future—depended on winning all fifteen paintings on the list. This was only the fourth.
Keldon adjusted the knot of his tie. “Would you take your grandmother’s antique clock to the same auction house that represented serial-killer art? No. You would not.”
“There’s always eBay,” Donna said defiantly, jutting out her chin.
“Yes,” Keldon said, doing his best to look agreeable. “That would work. Of course, it would take months. Maybe a year. You couldn’t sell the painting for full value without a rigorous validation process. You’d have to ship the painting to a laboratory where they could confirm the paint style, the brush strokes, and so forth. Standard wait time is six months depending on their backlog. I’m only estimating.”
“It’s real,” Donna said crossly. “He sent it from prison.”
“Absolutely,” Keldon said. “I don’t doubt you one bit. However, if you’re going to sell ugly, undistinguished art where its only value is proven authenticity, you must have it evaluated and validated by credible outside sources. With the artist dead, if they don’t have any valid means of confirming Merrick painted this, it could take longer. The process is expensive, too, several thousands of dollars paid before you even know if they can confirm authenticity. So, hopefully your big eBay auction would recoup those costs. You might. But usually, the people with a horrible fascination for serial-killer art aren’t flush with money.”
“Except your client,” Gerald said.
“Yes,” Keldon said pleasantly. “Except my client.”
He physically witnessed the Turners’ resolve crumbling, but instead of feeling triumphant, he felt nothing but irritation at the inevitable decision they would make. Keldon knew how to close this deal but resented that he had to re-convince them to sell as he had on both of the previous visits. He sensed they were driven by immediate financial gain, and the thought popped into his head that like recognizes like. He felt revulsion, though he could not tell with whom—them, the artist, his employer, or himself for accepting this job.
He smiled politely and did his best to look affable. “Of course, the negative publicity from selling serial-killer art for the most profit will make you media targets. People will come out of the woodwork to hate on you. I mean, what kind of monsters seek profit from other parents’ inconsolable, lifelong grief? Once the media understands you entertained a decent offer but it simply wasn’t enough money to satisfy…”
Keldon felt his stomach flip. It was an awful thing to say to them. He knew it. He definitely hated himself.
Gerald Turner stood up. “That’s enough. You should leave.”
Keldon remained seated. “I should. But have you thought about your own kids? Hand over the painting to me today, and you’ll have money immediately and perhaps be able to pay off that shiny TV in the corner. I suspect you need this money real quick, given the way you have showered me with questions about payment and how soon you could cash the check. I’m guessing you need that money right now. You sell this on eBay and not only will it take time and cost you money, but your kids will grow up under the shadow of parents who sought to cash in on seventeen murdered hitchhikers and other victims, too. It will haunt them. It will haunt you.”
Donna said, “We’ll sell it anonymously. Nobody will know.”
“Donna,” Keldon said in a patronizing tone, and he saw her displeasure at his familiarity. “We found you with very little effort. How long do you think it will take for the media to find you? The whole world will find out. And since the killer is dead, the outrage and disgust will naturally turn to those profiting from his artistic endeavors.”
Keldon had no clue how difficult it had been to find the Turners. He had only been given a manila folder with the Turners’ information and told, “Acquire it.” But he hoped he had overtly threatened them enough. Instinctively, Keldon felt his client would have no problem releasing the Turners’ information to the press.
Donna jabbed a finger in his direction. “Hey, I corresponded with that asshole for sixteen months in prison, pretending to be a fan, an admirer of his lunacy just to get one of those paintings, because I knew it would be worth something one day.”
Keldon nodded. “Yes. And you were right. My client found you and offered you money.”
“I want more.” She snapped her mouth shut. “This ought to be worth something. I spent sixteen months—”
Keldon held up a hand to interrupt. “If you’re trying to impress upon me that you sank to the lowest possible depths of depravity in whoring yourself to a serial killer, don’t worry, I believe you. I have no doubt you were vile in your letters. Trust me, I believe you. Why don’t you sell those on eBay instead?”
She glared at Keldon, but said nothing.
“I wonder”—Keldon paused and gazed at the ceiling— “what you wrote to gain his favor. To make your letters really stand out. You probably pretended to be a teenage girl, maybe in the age range he liked to kill, and convinced him he was just misunderstood. If you two had only met some rainy night when you were walking home and become friends…yes, I’m sure the letters are something you’d be proud to show your kids. Your family.”
“She earned it,” Gerald said, his irritation growing to match hers.
“I’m sure she did,” Keldon said. “So show the whole world. Publish the letters. Show them what small-town America can do when motivated by greed with no regard to decency.”
They said nothing to Keldon but did not look at each other, either.
He feared he pushed too hard. He didn’t know what she wrote, but her slight facial twitch suggested he wasn’t far off the mark. Whatever she wrote, she didn’t want it seen. Keldon didn’t like the hard edge he now displayed, crisp and adversarial. He had said horrible things to the Turners. But they had agreed to the offer and since then had changed their minds, tried to renege. It was his job to see they followed through.
Keldon studied them both. “My client offered you a reasonable amount for the painting. I’d suggest you take the deal.”
Donna Turner sputtered. “Your shitty client is no better than us. You can’t show up here and act better than us.”
“Yeah,” her husband said, “he wants it too. Probably to sell online.”
“Perhaps,” Keldon said. “I have no idea why my client wants it. Today, I came with your check. I will hand it over after you sign the paperwork guaranteeing a full year’s silence on this purchase. The gag order prohibits you from speaking to anyone about this transaction, relatives, friends, media—”
“We know,” Donna said. “It’s not fair. We should be able to talk about it.”
“You may. In one year. As we discussed on my last visit, if you speak to anyone before the year expires, legally you owe my client one hundred thousand dollars. And since the only possession of yours with that value is your home, you’d be making yourselves homeless for the privilege of breaking the gag order. And I should probably impress upon you that my client has no problem pursuing the financial restitution of your home. He may not need money, but he will gladly see you punished. He’s not the forgiving type. And if you think you can anonymously leak your news to a media outlet, remember that my client has the money to pay for investigators to track down a leak.”
Donna said, “Tell Mr. Mercer to give us an extra $10,000. It’s worth that much.”
Keldon said, “No.”
“You’re not the boss,” Gerald Turner said. “You shouldn’t answer without your boss.”
“Mr. Mercer will say no.”
Donna crossed her arms. “We’re not signing your piece of paper or turning over that unicorn shit until you take that offer to your boss and get it approved. You’ll have to come back another day.”
Keldon studied them. He thought about pushing the “what about your kids” angle again, but while they flinched with the perception of bad parenting, they didn’t bite enough to convince him that was their greatest concern. They seemed a little too self- centered for that. It had worked with Acquisition Number Two, a bland painting depicting a sunrise over Saturn, but he did not believe that strategy would work again with the Turners. Still, he felt they were close to caving.
“Okay,” Keldon said. “I’ll ask.”
Keldon had established with his employer that today he would pick up Number Four. She had promised to remain on standby, so he texted his client. Mrs. Maggiarra had insisted Keldon present a fictitious art patron named Byron Mercer as the collector behind the acquisitions, so nobody would suspect her true identity. She pretended to be Mr. Mercer’s secretary. Keldon typed while they watched.
Mr. Mercer, the Turners want an additional 10K. Also, Donna Turner probably defrauded Merrick in prison by misrepresenting herself. If that’s so, the Turners may not legally have rights to the painting. Withdraw offer?
Keldon smiled pleasantly while they scowled. He knew he wouldn’t wait long, and in fact, the reply came almost right away.
Disgusting. Drop the offer by 1K and give them four minutes to decide. If they decline, leave and call the police.
Keldon read the text and smiled. “Mr. Mercer counter offered.”
He rose from the couch to stand before them, showing them the text exchange on his phone.
Within five minutes, he left the Turner home with the unicorn painting in his briefcase. He was glad to leave. He drove through town, past the garden with cow-painted columns, but when he passed the downtown Sewing Shoppe, he could not contain it any longer. He eased into a diagonal parking slot away from other cars, and after turning off the car, Keldon cried into his hands, sobbing for a full five minutes, but he did not know why.
Purchase on Wilde City: http://www.edmondmanning.com/2014/07/26/filthy-acquisitions-chapter-1/
Paperback and e-book to follow soon on amazon.com