According to Their Deeds
Only one chair was empty.
“Sixteen thousand. Do I see seventeen?”
Charles slipped into the open seat. He paged through the catalog.
“The bid is seventeen. Do I see eighteen? Thank you, eighteen thousand dollars. Nineteen?”
A man beside him, in thick black-rimmed glasses, leaned over.
“I figured you’d show up.”
“Which lot are we on?” Charles asked.
“Number sixty. The desk.”
“Nineteen, thank you. Twenty?”
“You knew him, right?” the man said.
“Twenty. The bid is twenty thousand dollars. Do I see twenty-one?”
Gold sconces on the pale blue walls pooled light on the white ceiling, and gold and crystal chandeliers showered light down on the fifty dark blue upholstered chairs. The carpet was even darker blue and very thick, a deep river, soaking up every sound but the auctioneer’s voice.
The crowd was darkly upholstered as well.
“Do I see twenty-two?”
A wide young man in the front row lifted a wood paddle.
“Twenty-two, thank you. Do I see twenty-three?”
He did, somewhere else in the room.
“Everything’s going high,” the man in the glasses said. “Too many out-of-towners. I just wanted to buy back what I sold the guy, but I haven’t won a bid yet.”
“Who’s bidding right now, Norman?” Charles asked.
“That guy with the frizzy hair, he looks like Einstein? He’s from a big New York showroom. And up front, in the brown suit, he’s from Houston. And that guy’s from L.A. Everybody else has dropped out.”
“The bid is twenty-eight thousand. Do I see twenty-nine?”
“Like I said, it’s all going high,” Norman said.
“It’s a nice desk.”
“Oh, yeah. Everything’s real nice, all of it. The guy had great taste. Too bad he’s gone, he was a great customer. But that desk, I’d have said twenty-six, twenty-eight for it, and we’re blowing through thirty without a hiccup. But I don’t do furniture, so what do I know.”
Every sound of conversation sank into the carpet’s downward pull. Wooden paddles rose and fell, or waved like water lilies on bottomless currents.
“I’m glad there was an empty seat,” Charles said. A dozen people were standing at the back wall.
“A guy I knew was sitting there a minute ago.”
“Oh-is it his chair?”
“No, I think he left.”
“Thirty-four. Do I see thirty-five? The bid is now thirty-four thousand. Any bid?”
There seemed not to be. Mr. Einstein from New York, with his wild white hair and black mustache, had bid last and now stared straight and smugly forward.
“Thirty-four thousand. Going once, twice -” The auctioneer’s eyes darted, reacting to some new movement deep in the room. “Thirty-five, thank you. The bid is now thirty-five thousand. Do I see thirty-six?”
Heads turned and searched, but Mr. Einstein himself hardly reacted to this new unknown. He only raised his own paddle.
“Thirty-six. Do I see thirty-seven?”
He did, and everyone else did as well. A woman in a light gray suit and very improbable blond hair, standing against the back wall. She held her paddle out like a sword.
Charles paged through his catalog. Lot Sixty, Cherry Pedestal Desk, Philadelphia, 1876. Other people were flipping pages as well.
“Not much of a description,” Norman said. “Is there something special?”
“It’s historic. Derek was proud of it.”
“Oh, wait, that’s where they found him, right? On top of it?”
Charles didn’t answer. The bidding advanced, a conflict of deliberate and formal violence.
“Because that could be worth a premium,” Norman said. “They’d clean it up, right? They wouldn’t sell it with blood all over it. But you’ve got to be careful cleaning those old finishes. You can take them right off. I think it was a lot of blood, too.”
“Do I see fifty? Fifty, thank you. Fifty-two?”
The formal quiet and the auctioneer’s drone stretched a placid surface across the room. All that could be seen was slow and purposeful, apparently calm. But a tension was growing between the two bidders, like monsters beneath the surface sensing each other and edging into battle.
“Fifty-two. Do I see fifty-four?”
He did immediately.
“Fifty-four. The bid is fifty-four thousand dollars. Do I see fifty-six?”
“Fifty-six. Do I see fifty-eight?”
“Somebody’s going to hit their limit,” Norman said. “Fifty-eight grand! That’s twice what it’s worth.”
“Do I see sixty?”
The blond woman’s impudence was finally getting to the man from New York. He waved his paddle defiantly. It was, in the depths, a first ripping by sharp teeth; anger had been provoked.
“Thank you. The bid is sixty thousand. Do I see sixty-five? Sixty-five, thank you.”
“Do you know who she is?” Charles said.
“I’ve never seen her.”
“Sev-en-ty-five.” Mr. Einstein had spoken it aloud, each syllable a separate word.
“Seventy-five. Do I see eighty?”
The woman’s paddle jerked.
“Eighty. The bid is eighty thousand. Do I see eighty-five?”
“One hun-dred,” Einstein said. The room gasped, every person, at the three distinct syllables.
“One hundred thousand dollars. Do I see one hundred five?”
Without hesitation, the woman thrust her paddle straight up, and through.
The man set his paddle under his chair.
It was over, suddenly. A leviathan had been vanquished and now sank away into ultimate deeps.
“One hundred five thousand. Do I see one hundred ten?”
“Not likely,” Norman said. He would have been too loud, but the carpet sucked his voice right out of the air. “A hundred five, that had to hurt.”
The victor had wounds to nurse, but the battle was past.
“One hundred five. Any other bid? Going once, twice.” A pause. “Sold. Lot sixty sold for one hundred five thousand dollars. Next will be lot sixty-one, a Tiffany lamp. Bidding will open at fifteen hundred. Do I see fifteen hundred?”
“What was that?” Norman said. “Fifty was way over the line! A hundred grand? Now that was crazy!”