Original Color (Hugh Kennedy)

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  Our story thus far:

Nelson Albright, the boss with a whim of iron and the East Coast's premier antique print dealer, has come down to his last $50,000. He has also come under intense pressure from Oksana Outka, a British competitor who has taken on antique prints as her new direction. To douse Oksana's sudden blaze of popularity and reestablish himself as the king of his field, Nelson follows up on a brainstorm from a company therapy session: tear a three-volume set of Redouté's Les Roses into 169 individual prints and offer them in a syndication-style drawing. In the process, quadruple return on investment. Can Nelson triumph, despite the doubts of ex-Mafioso clients like Denny D'Amico and his wife Kak's offer to unleash her interior design skills on the site of the drawing? Only Fred Layton, Albright Galleries' new star salesman and the narrator of Original Color, can say for sure....

"The Laura Ashley Memorial Crack Den"

In early February Nelson decided to liberate his Redouté roses from their portfolios and offer the whole set to clients in an afternoon. Those interested would purchase a suite of six prints at a lottery drawing where all the images would be pinned to the walls of a display room. I was unsure of the strength of this marketing idea, since each client would end up taking home at least two weedy roses from the lesser regions of the set, but arguing with Nelson on the point was a waste of breath. The "Redouté Public Offering" was his sole strategy to flatten Oksana Outka's extremely popular "Wallflowers" concept.

We sent out several mailings on the Redouté drawing over the next three months, promising preview parties and receptions to rival a Roman wedding with a 2,000-person guest list, and to my amazement people signed on. By the week before the event, we had sold twenty of the twenty eight available slots for $12,000 each. Even Alfred the analyst had wanted to come in, but the date conflicted with a hypnosis seminar on bed-wetting he attended annually.

Nelson decided to hold the drawing in an unused library at the Weston headquarters, and Kak volunteered her expertise to decorate it. So it was that the afternoon before the event I dropped by to pin up rose prints in the wake of the recently departed Doug Morrow, who'd been found making obscene phone calls to Ruth from within Château Delapompe, and discovered that Nelson's wife had repainted the entire library ostrich-shit olive and hung it to the point of design asphyxiation with navy swags and bows. Since the paint on the walls was tacky when I arrived, I was still pinning up Mylar-wrapped roses four hours later as our preview party began over at Château Delapompe.

Shortly after eight that night, Denny D'Amico knocked on the library door and stepped in to request a quick look at the set. He was impeccably dressed in a deep violet Missoni suit, on his way to meet Jenny for some fund-raising dinner, but when I told him he was the first person to see the entire Roses set up on the walls he beamed and dropped his overcoat on a chair.

"Looks like our own little Garden of Eden," he said.

I decided to ignore this vaguely sexual allusion. Besides, to me the long rows of roses looked more like a set of headshots from a botanical Most Wanted list.

"So, kid," Denny said, and slid a black cashmere scarf from around his thick brown neck, "tell me one more time how this'll go?"

"You'll pick a number out of a hat," I said professionally, "and that number tells you when you can choose a print. Then we have six rounds of selections, and in each round you get to pick one rose off the wall. So if you pick number eight, say, you'll get a rose after people with numbers one through seven have gone. In the second round the order reverses."

Denny frowned. "By the fourth round all the good stuff will be gone, don't you think? All that's left will be that lame-looking shit on the other wall."

"Those are wild roses, actually," I said, though I completely agreed with him. "They're not really bad when you get up close. And the first dozen top ones are just salon roses they hybridized to death to get seven or eight layers of petals. They're like roses with breast implants."

Denny thought a moment, nodded, and handed me an envelope from his inside pocket. His thickly veined hand released it, moved up to pat my cheek twice, then continued on to smooth his glossy black hair. Although we were completely alone in the room, he leaned over to whisper in my ear.

"Fred," he said, "help me out tomorrow. I'm in but I want a couple with the implants."

As if by a sort of extrapecuniary perception, Nelson was waiting for me in the vestibule of Château Delapompe while the big preview party droned on behind him. He tore open Denny's envelope at the door, looked inside, and chuckled.

"Here, Fred," he said, "I just got a message from Denny to come meet him for a minute. You better give this to Marty. He's going to make the deposit tomorrow."

"Sure thing."

When Nelson's Merc pulled away I peered inside the envelope. A check for $12,000 was there, wrapped up in a glossy magazine photograph. In the photograph a naked black man of prodigious endowment was lying on his back in the midst of a tidal, self-produced climax. Denny had written "Twelve Big Ones Coming Right At You" at the top of the page.

I examined the photograph for a moment and shook my head. Whatever.

A caterer with a tray approached, and I handed her the envelope and told her to deliver it to Marty.

Nelson returned without Denny D'Amico in tow. I could tell from the big vein bulging in his neck that we had a problem. He came directly through the crowd of clients and salespeople to the bar, where I just happened to be making a stiff drink to celebrate my $1,200 commission. A moment before, Choix had gotten hold of the "Twelve Big Ones" photograph and was now waving it high above her head as she ran among the guests.

"You saw D'Amico tonight," he said. "He seemed okay to you?"

I thought. "Sure. I got the check, remember?"

"Right." His jaw trembled. I began to fear I'd neglected to do something. Then I noticed that Nelson was mixing a double Scotch. I'd never seen him with a drink in his hand before.

"Hello, chum." Kak flowed up in a long red dress with an enormous black ingot around her neck.

"Hello, honey," Nelson said crisply. "The next time you decide to decorate a room in one of my houses, can you please come talk to me about your plans for a tiny second before you start? Would that be okay?"

Kak's charming veneer evaporated faster than spring dew in Dallas. "What do you mean, 'your houses'?"

"My library looks like the Laura Ashley Memorial Crack Den, that's what I mean. Am I clear now?" He swung around, hand extended, to a trim, white-haired man with thick glasses. "Woody Bodega. Good to see you. Hello, Jeri!"

"Now that's service." Mr. Bodega pointed to Nelson's hand. "You've even memorized my drink."

Nelson chuckled. "This one's for me, Woody, but I'd be delighted to make you another. Fred, please get Woody a drink. Has Marty shown you our new Van Goebels? Best fruit painter of the seventeenth century." He took two long gulps and emptied his glass. "I think it's a total home run."

I handed Mr. Bodega his drink and everyone began to walk through the central gallery toward the Van Goebels, which Nelson and Ruth had hung on one of the walls flanking the living-room entrance. It was a darkly varnished 40 by 20-inch oil that to me resembled a mutant Renaissance watermelon vomiting out of the top of a cornucopia.

"It's rather pretty from back at the bar," Mrs. Bodega said diplomatically.

"I've had it for two weeks now," Nelson explained. "Guy I bought it from said, 'Nelson, that painting is like a three-breasted woman. Everybody's interested in her but nobody wants to take her home."

"Mr. Bodega chuckled. "I suppose you wrote a check on the spot, Nelson, after hearing that."

Nelson nodded proudly. "I did indeed. I like three-breasted women."

"Hon-ey," Kak said into Nelson's ear. "May I please see you for a moment alone?"

"I wish I could," Nelson said, "but there are some fine people here to take care of."

Woody Bodega cleared his throat and stepped back. "Perhaps Jeri and I will stroll around a bit."

"No, no! Don't move." Nelson took a glass of red wine from a waiter's tray and threw back half of it. "Kak just feels a little subjugated now and then. I remember one time last summer--"

"Honey," Kak warned.

"--it was about seventy-five degrees out, sunny and dry, and she came into the kitchen to ask me if it was a nice day. I told her to check the paper." He nudged Woody Bodega and barked out a laugh. "But for really subjugated, in my opinion, you've got to cross the big pond. Pinckney Outka, father of Oksana. Whew! Never lifted a finger in his life except to slam his bedroom door shut when company came over. Absolutely crackers. The story goes that his wife poisoned him by running his toothbrush around the inside of a toilet bowl. A month after she went to jail, the three kids each inherited two million pounds. Oksana was a coke addict by the end of that week, and the two sons instantly became screaming faggots and moved to Europe."

"Cocaine, is that so?" Mrs. Bodega frowned. "What is it with that awful drug?"

Nelson closed his eyes and nodded profoundly. "It's the scourge of our nation, Jeri."

"Come on now," Kak insisted, and relieved her husband of his drink. "I think you're going a little off the deep end tonight, honey. Don't y'all go away, we'll be right back."

You could have emptied a ton of broken glass into the silence Nelson and Kak left behind. I stared after them as they moved down the central gallery and into the dining room, then turned to smile at the Bodegas, who were looking intently at me. where the hell was Marty, if these people were supposed to be his special clients?

"So," I said, "have you got your hearts set on some roses?"

"We have," Mrs. Bodega said. "I love the ones that show their habit as well as their shape."

"Will you be framing them with us?"

"Jeri does her own framing," Mr. Bodega said, and added, with a slight note of resignation, "She's artistically inclined."

At that moment a loud shriek came from the direction of the kitchen. It sounded like Yolanda, the maid. All conversation stopped.

"What in the world?" Mrs. Bodega said.

"Probably an hors d'oeuvre tray," I said. "Let me go check."

I strolled casually to the end of the gallery and along the entry hall, then scrambled around to the front kitchen entrance once I was out of sight of the guests. Ruth, coming in the other direction through the dining-room door, met me near the dishwasher. Nelson and Kak were nowhere in sight.

"Fred, get out there and save him!" Ruth said. I grabbed a spatula and made several threatening gestures with it. "Who? Out where?"

"This is serious! Nelson's got a chain saw!"

"Nelson's got a chain saw and you want me to go out in the dark after him?"

"All right, all right." She pulled a flashlight from under Kak's butcher block table. "We'll both go."

Ruth and I ran along the west side of Delapompe, keeping close to the taller trees and parked cars. The cloudy suburban night swallowed Ruth's tiny flashlight beam as it played over the damp ground. Rounding the south side of the château, we heard something like a buzz, or the echo of one. It sounded illogically distant. Ruth stopped and listened intently for a moment.

"He's on the other side, near the dining room!"

"It sounds like he's--"

"Oh, my God."

We ran and stumbled and fell and ran again, skidded over the flagstoned patio, then edged around the back of the house and stopped in our tracks. Warm yellow light was flooding out of the dining-room bay, and each windowpane, like some Austrian Christmas decoration, was filled with a gazing face. There in the footlights of his own makeshift stage, chain saw buzzing, Nelson was making short work of a forty-foot red oak that showered leaves and twigs onto his thinning blond hair and the exposed roll of fat between his blue cotton sweater and his sagging cords. As we advanced out of the darkness I recognized faces in the windows: here was Whitney with the Schochs, there was Marty with the Bodegas, and there was our L.A. gallery director Jim Damon with two clients who'd come all the way from Beverly Hills. The buzzing sound veered off now, the oak began a shuddering, reluctant descent toward the ground, and the crowd inside, whose faces were set in something like envy, reacted as one.

They applauded. Without a word, Nelson held the chain saw aloft in both hands and stepped back to survey the effect. As the oak crashed down into the underbrush, I leaned back against the house and tried to make sense of it all. Nelson's trees were his babies. he'd drive from New York to Boston at 110 mph if his groundskeeper called to say that one of his trees was sick or dying, yet here I'd just witnessed him destroying a prize specimen over an argument with his wife. I don't know that anyone else took note of this fact, but when Nelson began to destroy what was dearest to him we were on the verge of some serious trouble.

As Ruth and I turned back toward the kitchen she put her hand on my arm and caught her breath.

"It pains me to admit this," she said, "but I never liked that tree there myself."
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    Excerpted from Original Color by Hugh Kennedy. Copyright © 1996 by Hugh Kennedy. Excerpted by permission of Nan A. Talese, Doubleday, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc.

All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.