When I got to Mario’s office at 10 a.m., he and Arthur were sitting at a pair of facing couches smoking foul-smelling stogies. I sat in a chair between them and feigned a cough. The two polluters ignored my gesture.
“You two guys know each other?” Mario said.
“We’ve met,” I said. “Arthur’s Carbone Finance, the lender of convenience for anyone in need. Payday loans, pawnshops, and easy credit.”
Arthur laughed. “I know this guy. He’s got a quick tongue and a smart mouth.”
“He’s a college graduate,” Mario said. “Okay, so we all know each other. This job’s a solo, requires smarts and a certain finesse. You being an educated college graduate, I trust you to get Arthur’s money back.” He nodded at Arthur. “Go ahead, Arthur, tell him your hard luck story.”
Arthur said, “I need your help recovering a loan, Joey. I lent Myles Lustgarten $50,000 on an unsecured sixty-day loan at 12% per month interest to purchase a painting by an artist named Max Kass. He’s a month overdue on repayment. I haven’t received a cent from him. He hasn’t called me and won’t return my calls. I want you to visit him and collect the $63,000 which he presently owes me.” He handed me a copy of the note with an attached photograph.
I read the note. It gave the terms of the loan, described the item being purchased – an oil painting titled Gray Dawn by artist Max Kass, appraised value: $100,000. The photo, a mishmash of varying shades of gray, looked to me like a close-up of smoke rising from a barbecue grill on an overcast day.
“Have you ever loaned him money before?” I asked.
“Yeah, a couple of loans, $5,000, $15,000. He paid up fine and on time.”
“What’s he do for a living?”
“He owns an art gallery. He said he was buying the painting to flip in a quick sale and needed the $50,000 to close the deal.”
“Why didn’t he pay you back on this one?”
“He’s an artiste. I think he fell in love with that painting and couldn’t part with it.”
“Who’s Max Kass?”
“Some fucking artist, he’s supposed to be hot.”
I held the photo up for Mario to see. “Would you hang this on your wall?”
Mario laughed. “My kid could do better.”
“That’s real art,” Arthur said. “You don’t know shit about art, Mario. So, can your boy get my money back?”
All eyes on Costa.
I said, “I got an idea or two. Give me his addresses and phone numbers.”
I researched Max Kass on the Internet and by calling a few galleries and asking questions. He was a young local artist whose work had recently been featured in a major art magazine, and the demand for his work was growing. His most recent paintings had been selling for $125,000 and up.
The next day, I put on a suit, one of my rich roommate’s tailored shirts and ridiculously expensive hand-painted ties, and drove over to the Lustgarten Gallery shortly before lunch. Located on Brea Avenue in Gallery Row, downtown L.A., it was glass on the outside and white walls on the inside with tastefully arranged modernist abstract paintings under individual spotlights and a studious-looking man – wire framed spectacles, spiky haircut, short boxed beard, white suit – sitting at an antique table with an Emeralite lamp in back.
I entered the glass door, paused as if appraising the merchandise, and began slowly walking the perimeter, pausing thoughtfully at this painting or that, randomly, brushing past others, as if making on the spot critical judgments. When I reached the halfway point in back, I noticed the plaque on the table: “Myles Lustgarten.”
I stopped for a moment before passing. Mr. Lustgarten looked up at me, blinked, flashed a millisecond smile, and said, “Welcome. May I help you?”
“Do you have any new works by Max Kass?” I said.
“Not at the moment, Mr. . . .”
“Any relation to . . .”
“My uncle. People always ask. Sorry to disappoint. Do you expect to have any in the near future?”
“Yes, of course. He’s very much in demand these days, very hot, prices are rising at an astronomical rate.”
“Well . . . to tell the truth, I just acquired Gray Dawn for my personal collection. It’s in my private gallery, at home.”
“Actually, it’s not for sale.”
“Hm. I’ll be frank with you, Mr. Lustgarten. I’m acting as an agent for a celebrity collector. He’s anxious to get his hands on a Kass – any Kass. I’m sure he’d pay top dollar for Gray Dawn. Would you consider $250,000?”
“Really, Mr. Clark, I couldn’t . . .”
“I . . .”
“Let’s cut to the chase. What’s the bottom dollar figure?”
After a long silence, “One million dollars.”
“Come, now, Mr. Lustgarten. I made a reasonable offer at three-fifty, which is much higher than the average Kass is selling for – in the neighborhood of $100,000. The only reason I offered that much is because my client, for some reason I don’t understand, has fallen in love with this fellow. If you don’t make a more reasonable counter, I’ll . . .”
Sweating, Lustgarten wiped his brow with a handkerchief. “Five hundred thousand.”
“I can probably manage that, but I’ll have to see the painting before making payment. How soon can you show it to me?”
“This evening, say seven o’clock, at my home, in Westlake?”
“Very good. Write your address on the back of a business card, and I’ll be there. Will a cashier’s check do?”
“Yes, certainly . . .”
We shook hands to seal the deal.
It was an average tract home on an average street in Westlake, a long way from Beverly Hills, and not the type of home one would expect a rich art collector to live in, much less decorate with expensive original artworks, even the abstract of a currently popular hack.
I’d changed from my suit to my bodyguard outfit, black leather jacket and slacks, and was carrying a briefcase. I knocked on the door, soon heard footsteps, noticed Lustgarten’s spiky hair, eyes below peering out of the window lite, and then the door opened. “Good evening, Mr. Clark,” he said, his voice rising an octave as he saw me in black, not the suited fop of our first encounter.
I raised the briefcase and tapped it. “I’m ready to go. Let’s see the merchandise.”
“Please follow me.” He took me into a small dining room with a globular chandelier hanging over an antique dining table with flowery tablecloth surrounded by several chairs. “Please have a seat, Mr. Clark.”
“Please call me Ken,” I said. “Show me what you’ve got, Myles.”
He frowned vaguely, quickly recovered, left the room, soon returned with a grayish oil painting, and laid it on the tabletop. I opened the briefcase, took out the photo, stood, and compared the two. “That’s it. I’ll take it.”
“Please, the check?”
I took out Arthur’s note and showed it to him.
Lustgarten turned white. “Where . . . where did you get that?”
“From my client.”
“You said he was a celebrity collector.”
“He is a celebrity collector, of debts, and I’m his agent.”
“You lied to me, Ken, if that’s your name. You misrepresented yourself. That’s fraud.”
“And you’re a deadbeat, Myles, which makes you a thief. I’ll take the painting, unless you’re willing to pay your debt right now, in cash, $75,000.”
“But I only borrowed $50,000.”
“You’re a month overdue, interest. My time is worth money, and the inconvenience you’ve caused to Mr. Carbone is certainly worth something. You’re lucky he didn’t send his goons over here to break your legs.”
I took a Glock out of the briefcase and laid it on the table. “Don’t come back with a weapon, Myles.”
Lustgarten soon returned with a stack of bills. I counted the money before leaving, $75,000, peeled off $12,000, stuck it in a pocket, wished Mr. Lustgarten good night, and left. He appeared much relieved to see me go.
Arthur would get his $63,000. I rated $800 for my hours. A $12,000 bonus seemed reasonable for my creativity, Mario did not have to agree inasmuch as he’d never know.