"Good evening, ladies and gentlemen," the announcer said, smiling demurely, "The night's auction will begin with Lot no. 27, a print of the beautiful Water Lilies by Claude Monet offered by Wiseacre Incorporated."
He pulled the cloth off a table beside him, revealing an empty surface with no painting or picture to be seen.
"Bidding begins at $10 million US and delivery is included."
The man hit something with a gavel and before I could react people were bidding on the product.
It made absolutely no sense. Why would a print begin at such a mad price, why were these people so willing to pay for it, and where was it?
Something in my brain went off and I was raising my sign without even realizing it.
Boltake eased my hand down and shook his head slightly.
"You don't want to buy that," he whispered, "I made that mistake and the product they sent was terrible."
"Really?" I asked, hiding my shock at having raised my hand without meaning to, "Sebastian is always going on about the quality of his line. No wonder the starting price is so meager."
Name drop. Tally up another point for the French trapeze nut. Maybe that last comment was over the top.
"You know him personally?" Boltake asked, trying to mask his interest.
"Of course, chérie." I replied smoothly, smiling a demure smile of my own.
"Perhaps you could introduce me to him after the auction?"
I coughed painfully and reached for another glass of champagne from a server who had arrived on the balcony, stopped again by Boltake.
"Miss LaRaze, I share your fondness for drink but beyond a glass for appreciating our hosts you shouldn't touch the refreshments. They are somewhat substandard quality, if you know what I mean."
Spiked. No wonder I felt so off. Probably something put into them that made me more likely to raise my hand.
"Spoilsport." I teased, waving the server away.
It felt extremely strange playing the privileged billionaire but it wasn't completely disagreeable. So long as Boltake didn't ask too much about Wiseacre.
"$50 million US going once, going twice....Sold, to the gentleman in seat 58!"
"Wiseacre's losing profit." I heard Boltake mutter to himself, a smug look on his face.
Were they competitors, perhaps? In what business I still was unsure. Drugs?
Wiseacre was a dog but he didn't seem like the kind to dabble in cartels. Something else, something big.
"Now we have Lot no. 28, a print of the magnificent Choice of Hercules by Annibale Caracci, also offered by Wiseacre Incorporated, beginning at $1 billion US."
"A new product." Boltake explained, disgusted, "Wiseacre's investing in R&D, looks like."
This time the bidding was an absolute war. Every second a sign was raised and from where I could see, Wiseacre was nodding in approval of the demand.
Everything was so cryptic that it was getting on my nerves.
"$3 billion US, going once, going twice...sold to 58!"
"You didn't bid?" Boltake asked, raising an eyebrow.
"Of course not. When I want to throw money away I start a charity."
Boltake laughed at my joke, looking pleased.
"A woman after my own heart."
I chuckled too, but for a very different reason, and watched half of the auction go by.
The entire process was extremely boring besides the whole acting rich thing but I tried to remember some of the prints that were being mentioned (the entire auction was for nothing but prints) and bid a few times on Boltake & Co. and other random lots when I was sure I was going to be outbid for the sake of pleasing my seat partner and blending in.
Whoever was in seat 58 bought a good half of everything. I tried multiple times to catch a glimpse but all I could see from my altitude was a fancy lady's hat. I might have spotted the others in the crowd a few times but I couldn't be sure.
"On behalf of The Company, thank you all for attending tonight's auction," the announcer smiled, "There will be a short intermission before we continue with the remainder of today's lots."
I stood up, trying to regain the feeling in my legs. It would be easy to slip out of the crowded room with the others, then get a headstart back to the circus before Wiseacre caught a glimpse of any of us.
"Already heading home, Miss LaRaze?"
Or at least, it should have been.
"I am a busy woman, Monsieur Boltake."
"Please, it's Gabriel. I'll escort you outside."
"That is quite unnecessary, I assure you."
My patience was starting to wear thin but I smiled and nodded. This time I walked as quickly as I could down the stairs and did my best to lose my company in the crowd but, every time I looked back, Gabriel was still there. I had to leave the theater, or I would probably end up looking like an idiot. Making a scene was not an option either.
I stepped out of the Fabulous Fox and breathed in the night air, shaking my head to clear the slight blurriness from my vision. My brain quickly made the connection that hailing a taxi would not be very fitting for a rich tycoon, so instead I walked to the curb, glancing back and forth irritably.
"I don't want to waste your time, Gabriel, but my chauffeur is a complete buffoon. The man probably managed to puncture another tire."
Boltake was leaning against a streetlamp, one foot crossed over the other in the absolute picture of high-bred amusement. His unsettling eyes focused on me, seeming to pierce through my act.
"You could telephone him. Though I can't see how a lady with such exquisite taste could hire such an incompetent driver."
"He's been in employ with my family for years. To fire him now would be a pity and my mother wouldn't let me hear the end of it. Yes, in his old age he has let some of his efficiency slip, but soon enough he will retire and I won't have to deal with any messy situations. I would phone him, if he actually knew how to operate a phone."
Okay, I was officially acing this. I should have gone into acting rather than the circus. Gabriel cocked his head to the side, smirking with mute interest.
"I can have my limo drop you off, Miss LaRaze. Simply give me the address to your estate."
"I have yet to develop any land in St. Louis. Believe it or not, I flew in from Europe just last night. As of now I am staying in in a hotel."
"And you brought a driver with you?"
Boltake was throwing me these questions with remarkable ease, studying me closely as I answered.
"He also serves as a butler, Monsieur Boltake. If I were to bring the entire staff of my estate who would look after those grounds?"
"Where are you staying?"
"The Ritz Carlton. Somewhat gauche, but it serves its purpose."
He looked at me a moment, still unsatisfied.
"Who are you, Miss LaRaze?"
Gabriel's eyes glinted with curiosity as he walked toward me, taking hold of my chin and moving my head from left to right with little regard for my shocked expression.
"You're somewhat clumsily put together but you can't possibly be one of Wiseacre's. He's a resourceful man but he could never make one of his circus brutes into anything reminiscent of an elite. How did he find you? And how did he find me, for God's sake?!"
I jerked away, laughing. This was too much. He thought I was a spy for Wiseacre, of all people! For crying out loud!
When I managed to pull it together the first thing I did was wipe the makeup off my face and pull my hair back into a ponytail. My act was beyond salvaging now, and the best thing I could do at that point was fish for information.
"You, sir, are seriously mistaken." I started, letting my accent drop, "And you insult me by suggesting that I work for someone like Wiseacre. You should know that."
Boltake was taken aback.
"I'm a performer in his circus, so I do work for him at some level."
"Please, Gabriel, if you won't stop interrupting I can't explain a bloody thing."
He shut up after that.
"Let's just say I have a bit of a personal vendetta against the Admiral," I said ominously, "And I want to take him and his business down for good from the inside. Now, seeing as he's your competitor and you two have a lot of history, would you like to help me or just...stand there with your mouth hanging open?"
Boltake shut his mouth (he had pretty nice teeth though) and grinned, bowing at the waist with mock drama.
"Gabriel Boltake, at your service, Miss LaRaze."
"As you wish, Miss St. Croix."
I couldn't remember telling him my last name but at the time I was too busy being glad that I had brought a change of clothes in the surprisingly large purse slung around my shoulder. Now all I had to do was find somewhere to get rid of the terribly annoying dress and then wait for the others.
Oh, and maybe ask Boltake what the entire auction had been about.