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Playing the Billionaire's Game
Author: Pippa Roscoe

CHAPTER ONE


   INTERVIEWER ONE: Ms Keating, you understand that this interview is being recorded for internal Bonnaire’s purposes only and that you do not need a lawyer present?

   MS KEATING: I’m afraid that hasn’t convinced me that I don’t need one.

   INTERVIEWER ONE: But you understand the statement that I have just made?

   MS KEATING: Yes.

   INTERVIEWER ONE: Then, if you would, can you please explain how you came to believe that the painting in question was a fake?

   MS KEATING: As I have already explained, the painting I assessed in Sharjarhere was most definitely not a fake.

   INTERVIEWER ONE: But you have stated that the painting, Woman in Love, up for auction after a private viewing at Bonnaire’s London gallery and damaged on the night of June the twenty-first, was a fake?

   MS KEATING: [brief pause] Yes. That specific painting was a fake.

   INTERVIEWER TWO: And you claim that this was a different painting from the one you assessed, certified and valued in Sharjarhere and attributed to the painter Etienne Durrántez, owned by Sheikh Alham Abrani?

   MS KEATING: Yes.

   INTERVIEWER TWO: Why is that?

   MS KEATING: Because I’m very good at my job.

   INTERVIEWER ONE: We’ll get to that later. For the moment, can you explain the circumstances under which you identified the damaged painting as a fake?

   SIA KEATING HAD been breathing hard even before the harsh ring of her phone broke through the nightmare that held her in its grip. She’d been fighting a losing battle with the stranglehold her sheets had around her arms and neck.

   Several days later she would wonder if that moment hadn’t been prophetic somehow. She’d woken with a feeling of dread. One that seemed to deepen the moment the words reached her from the mobile phone she pressed to her ear.

   ‘Sia, we have a problem.’

   Her heart dropped so quickly she wasn’t able to form a response for David, the head of Scientific Research. Partly because his nickname in the department was the ‘Art Detective’ and as much as she liked the bespectacled, calm-toned man, there was only one reason an art valuer got a phone call from him.

   ‘The Abrani painting. It’s been damaged.’

   Sia flung back the covers and pushed her hair out of her face, concern for the beautiful piece cutting through the fog from her nightmare. ‘How?’

   ‘There was apparently some kind of altercation at the gallery.’

   ‘Galleries don’t have altercations,’ she replied, confused. She cast a look at the clock by her bed. It was two o’clock in the morning. But he’d said the painting was only damaged? If so, then why was David calling her?

   ‘They did tonight. But the painting...there’s a problem. Could you come down and take a look at it for me? Something’s not right.’

 

   For the entire journey between her little studio flat in Archway and the gallery in Goodge Street, Sia’s heart pounded with fear. The kind of fear that heralded the termination of careers. David might just as well have proclaimed the apocalypse had come. Because ‘something’s not right’ could really only mean one thing. And as the tube rattled its way along the tracks one thought reverberated in time with the clicks and clacks.

   It’s not a fake. It’s not a fake. It’s not a fake.

   It couldn’t be. The painting she had valued two months ago in Sharjarhere was not a forgery because she double-checked, triple-checked her work. Always. She had to.

   Sia bit back the mounting nausea swirling in her stomach. For most art valuers, one or maybe even two forgeries were to be expected. For as well trained as most valuers were, con artists were better, more dedicated, even harder working. They had to be, they got the bigger payout, Sia thought ruefully. Until they were caught.

   Sia’s mind veered dramatically away from the last time she had seen her father in jail. The way he had looked at her from across the table in the visiting room of Brixton Prison, a sheen glistening in his eyes, his body angled slightly to the side, Sia couldn’t help but wonder if he’d purposely arranged himself like a Vermeer. As if everything, his whole life—in hers—had been a forgery.

   It’s not a fake. It’s not a fake. It’s not a fake.

   She ran through the valuation. It had been a bit of a rush as she’d been covering for Sean Johnson, who had fallen ill at the last minute. Even now she felt slightly guilty about the joy she’d felt at having been chosen to replace him and the uncharitable belief that his sickness might have been alcohol-related.

   No matter how good she was, how accurate, precise and detailed, she’d been passed over for evaluations like this again and again. At first, she’d put it down to being the newbie. Then she’d put it down to being paranoid. And three years in and still missing out on some of the big jobs? She’d been forced to realise that her—or, more accurately, her father’s—reputation was once again taking its toll on her life.

   So she’d been determined to ensure that this valuation was perfect. She’d arrived at the palace in Sharjarhere from Athens, where she’d helped her friend Célia d’Argent and Loukis Liordis with an auction that raised an inconceivable amount for charity. Had she been riding so high on her contribution to the charity that she’d missed something at the palace? She shook her head, drawing a slight frown from a fellow tube passenger, even at such an ungodly hour in the morning.

   No, she’d gone through each stage of the valuation process: the signature, the artistic style, the paint, the canvas. She’d removed the frame, checked the backing, the details were all correct—variations in the paint levels and thickness, the blacklight showing nothing untoward.

   And her gut. The natural instinct she’d been born with telling her that she was in the presence of a true Etienne Durrántez, one of the twentieth century’s most famous artists. It didn’t matter to Sia that she knew the painting would fetch more than one hundred million pounds. It didn’t matter to her who would spend such an impossible amount of money on the painting. It was the painting itself.

   The unknown woman stared at the viewer with that same indefinable sense of inner knowledge as the Mona Lisa. The secret smile of, as appropriately titled, a Woman In Love. The swathe of long dark hair was impressive even to Sia, whose tumble of thick Titian waves were so noticeable she almost always swept them up into a bun at her neck. A slash of red across her lips was worn with pride, not arrogance, confidence, not false bravado, and it had made Sia want to have known the mysterious woman. To understand where her sense of admiration sprung from, not for the painter but the model.

   Sia had been so drawn to the painting that there was absolutely no way that it could have been a fake. The signature, the artistic style, the paint, the canvas...she thought, checking through the assessment. And the provenance.

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