The Fake
Goodnight NYC
The gallery seemed less austere now it had people filling it, with the paintings all mounted on the walls and properly lit. Being here felt absolutely necessary as far as my relationship with Claire was concerned. How could I back out without looking like the worst boyfriend ever? But it also felt like the last place I should be. What if Gallo made a mistake in his planning? What if the police were already watching?
Once I got past the door security, I looked around for Claire. A girl dressed in black and white, carrying a tray loaded with champagne flutes filled with orange juice stopped and offered me one, and I took it. My hands shook worse than George Foster’s had ever done when I tried to take a sip. I needed to relax and find Claire.
She should have stood out in this group of fashionable dresses and teeteringly high heels. I had to resist the urge to throw my head back and holler, “Marco!”
Someone tapped my shoulder. “About time you showed up.”
Claire. I spun round and there stood a version of Miss Foster that I had never seen before. She wore a black dress that fit her snugly and stopped just below her knees. Her heels were high enough that she could look me square in the mouth, and she stood on them like she knew what she was doing.
For a minute, I forgot everything else.
That ended when I realized Sydney stood right behind Claire. My insides sank to my toes as I waited for the sarcasm. Not tonight. Please.
Sydney leaned over to whisper something into Claire’s ear, then looked squarely at me. “I have somewhere else to be, a date.” She hugged Claire, glared at me, and stalked out of the gallery.
“Was that my fault?” I asked.
Claire shrugged, a little uncomfortably. “She said she had a date. Let’s not worry about it, tonight. Let’s just have fun.”
“Who are you and what have you done with the real Claire Foster?” I asked.
She giggled and fiddled with the flute glass in her hands. Her hair was pulled up into a high ponytail so it slid and shimmered around her head as she laughed. “Oh hush.”
“You look . . . glorious.” I held out the single rose for her and she beamed. “For me?”
“Of course, but you make it look weedy and wilted in comparison.”
Now her giggle turned into a blush and she looked down at her glass. “Thanks. You’re looking pretty decent yourself.”
“Meh. I take no responsibility for this. My sister dressed me.”
“Come on, you have got to try the food. There’s these little canape things with some sort of meaty stuff in it and oh, boy, they are so good.” She grabbed my hand and pulled me toward one of the servers with a tray of miniature food. Claire handed me a paper napkin and then filled hers with about half of the canapes from the tray. “You have to grab tons of them because they’re tiny.”
I laughed. But I only took a few. No way my stomach could process food.
“The paintings look so amazing all lit up and everything.” Claire directed me around the gallery, showing me one piece at a time. “When they sell, the gallery puts a red dot on the plaque here,” she said, pointing to the plaque under one of the pieces. I knew what the dots were for, but I humored her. Almost every piece had a dot on it, including The Chandelier.
It had not been stolen yet, but I already guessed as much. If it had been, it would have been the leading news story, nationwide. My chest tightened. Even if the paintings were still here, the show ran for two weeks. Sometime in the next fourteen days, that painting would disappear.
Claire beamed up at me. “You like that one?”
I blinked and focused on The Chandelier. The painting making its one and only public appearance before Gallo’s client claimed it. “It’s stunning. The way the light hits the glass.”
“Thank you,” she said, lighting up with pride. That did not help the nauseous guilt.
“This is the best night ever. Dad is having a blast.” She glanced over at her father, who held court among a circle of reporters and followers. Every eye in the room was on him. He stood with his arms crossed over his chest, his face as full of pride as Claire’s. Except it was all wrong.
I leaned down to whisper in her ear. “It should be you.”
Her smile faded. “Don’t say that. No, it shouldn’t. Not this time. But it will be.”
“You bet it will.” I swigged down my orange juice and slipped the glass onto a passing tray so that I would have one hand free to take hers as we wandered around the gallery.
As we walked, I forgot about the paintings as I scanned the crowd for any familiar faces—Gallo’s, or anyone else looking shady. But there was nothing. No one.
“Are you coming down with something?” Claire asked, squeezing my hand and looking up at me with a little frown.
“No. I feel fine.”
“You feel a bit clammy, shaky,” she said. “You seem like you’re a million worlds away tonight,” Claire said, throwing her own paper napkin in a trash can.
I smiled at her, trying to get my act together. “I’m just really proud of you. I mean, you know, of your father. It’s an honor to be here.”
She laughed. “Silly. It’s not that much of an honor. It’s boring and the people are boring and the best part will be taking these horrible shoes off when it’s over.”
The night progressed in the same way for what felt like forever, and slowly, I began to relax. When we had seen all the paintings once, there was not much else to do except find a seat away from the action and people watch.
“What do you suppose is her story?” Claire asked, nodding toward an older lady who wore a brightly colored mumu and a giant plastic flower in her hair.
“Hmmm. She is a frustrated artist who hasn’t the imagination for abstract or the talent for realism. She has traveled the world in her search for color and flamboyance, only to discover her current, personality-defining ensemble in the local thrift store. On sale. Thirty-five cents.”
Claire cracked up and had to stifle her laughter with her hand. “Perfect. Exactly perfect!”
“What is his story?” I asked her, nodding toward her father.
A soft smile spread across her face. “He is a beautiful man who loves his daughter and lives for her and his art. He is everything.” Tears welled up in her eyes and balanced on her mascara-thickened lashes. She took a deep breath and smiled a wobbly smile at me. “Let’s get out of here. We can order a pizza from the cab on the way and it should arrive not long after we do.”
I could not get out of there fast enough.
I shook George Foster’s hand after he had hugged his daughter goodbye, and flagged a cab down outside. Claire ordered the pizza and I tried to listen to her voice instead of the ones inside my head that were calling me every sort of evil name imaginable.
How could I have done any of this? What was I thinking?
“By my calculations,” Claire said, slipping her phone into her sparkly purse. “We should have enough time to get home and make coffee before the pizza arrives.”
“Oh, good. I’m starved.” It was another lie to add to the growing pile of them.
“Of course you are, I ate most of your canapes. What are you thinking about?”
I shook my head and looked at her. “You. Just you.”
When the cab pulled up outside Claire’s building, we hurried in, avoiding the patches of crusty, fossilized snow as fresh flurries danced in the air around us. “We could have a white Christmas!” Claire giggled as we passed the doorman.
We were not alone in the elevator. An elderly man in a tuxedo with a silk scarf around his neck beat us into it and seemed to have pushed every button up to the tenth floor in an attempt to get the right one. He stood at the back, holding the handrail in one hand and clutching his walking stick in the other.
Claire looked up at me with bright eyes, bit her lip and stifled a giggle. When we finally reached her floor, Claire grabbed my hand and half-ran us up the hallway to her door.
“Don’t panic, the pizza can’t be here yet,” I said, watching her search through her keys for the right one.
“I have got to get out of these shoes before I get gangrene.”
We had time to hang our coats and scarves, kick off our shoes, and make coffee before the pizza arrived. We put all the food on the coffee table and turned on the TV.
I wriggled around in the sofa so I could see her properly, her flushed cheeks, and pizza-sauce smears at the corners of her mouth. “You were easily the prettiest girl there, tonight. ”
She did that cute, coy smile of hers and looked down at her hands. “Cuter than the lady in the mumu?”
“It was close, but yeah.” I laughed and she shoved my shoulder playfully. We barely had time to finish half the pizza when her father’s key was in the door.
“Not up to mischief, here all alone, I hope?” George Foster asked as he hung his coat. But the smile on his face was too wide to be worrying. I was more relieved that nothing happened at the gallery before he left.
“Oh dad, don’t be silly. Come have some pizza. You’re back early.”
He laughed. “Hardly early. It wound down soon after you left.”
“What time is it?” I muttered, and caught a glimpse of my watch. “Oh, no. 3 A. M. Way past curfew.” I jumped up and grabbed my coat. “I’m so sorry, I gotta run. Literally. Congratulations on the show, Mr. Foster. It looks like it was a resounding success. Claire, I’ll call you.” She smiled and blew me a kiss, as I hurried out the door.
I ran, but it was too late for any amount of speed to make a difference.
When I arrived at our door, everything seemed dark and quiet. A better sign than I expected. I slipped my key into the lock and eased the door open. The alarm let out its usual run of warning beeps, and I ran to it and entered my code.
I waited for my father to thunder down the stairs to let me have it for being so late, but there was nothing. His keys weren’t on the table by the door. I glanced through the windows outside, but no sign of it there either.
Mom and Edie’s keys were there. Everything else seemed normal.
What sort of business could call my father out at this hour of night?
And did this mean I got away with being late?
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