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Idling outside Dave’s apartment, his car reeking of fast food, Kirk gripped the steering wheel and said, “No more. Dave, I’m not gonna be your errand boy anymore. I’m out.” He frowned, hearing the trepidation in his voice. “Shit, that’s not convincing at all.”

In the passenger seat of his car sat a bag of burgers and fries, another one of Kirk’s errands for Dave. A trip to the drive-thru wasn’t the worst favor Dave had ever made Kirk do for him, but it was the principle of the thing. Whatever Dave wanted from him now was more than just a double bacon cheeseburger.

As Kirk stepped inside the apartment, Dave didn’t bother glancing up at the sound of footsteps or the clatter of the front door. Typical.

Kirk dropped the bag of burgers near Dave’s workstation, careful not to disturb the paints. “I don’t know how you can eat this crap,” Kirk said.

Dave rolled his eyes, stippling his brush over the canvas. “Don’t get all fucking self-righteous with me ‘cause you’re going through a tree-hugger vegetarian phase.”

“I’m not objecting on any ethical grounds. Those burgers are just greasy as fuck.”

“That’s where all the flavor is.” Dave set his brushes down and grabbed the bag before heading into the kitchen.

Kirk studied the painting. It was a work in progress, with basic layers of warm hues already laid down, but Kirk recognized the golden horizon and the white crosses taking shape on the canvas. This was a forgery of an iconic piece by postmodern artist Lars Ulrich.

“Finally doing Master of Puppets, huh?” Kirk said, joining Dave at the small dining table. “Isn’t that one hanging in a gallery somewhere?”

“No, it’s in some rich prick’s private collection.” Dave unwrapped a burger and took a mean bite, which left a smear of ketchup on his chin.

Kirk took a pinch of fries. “Are you gonna lay low after this one?”

“Nope. I’ve got big plans.” Dave wiped away the ketchup smear before Kirk could try dipping his fries in it.

Kirk supposed Dave would elaborate on said plans, so he asked the question on his mind: “Why Lars Ulrich?” While Dave had experimented with copying other artists and forging their work, Lars was the constant.

“He sells,” Dave said with a shrug. “Fuck if I understand the art world, but cult of personality rakes in the dough.”

Dave had tried to make it as a painter in the mid ‘80s but was rejected for being unpolished — all while Lars’ work gained acclaim in the San Francisco art community. When Dave had signed one of his own pieces with Lars’ name and passed it off as an authentic Ulrich, he’d made his first sale.

“And his style is incredibly easy to mimic, since he has none,” Dave said through another huge bite of his cheeseburger. “He sold one interesting piece back in the ‘80s, and he’s been coasting ever since.”

Though only a hobbyist, Kirk saw liveliness and bold expressionism in Lars’ work. Each painting was vastly different from the next as he experimented with something new.

“Is forging a living artist worth the risk?” Kirk asked.

California had a loosely-enforced royalties statute, requiring the seller of any work of fine art sold for more than $1,000 to withhold five percent of the resale price for the benefit of the artist.

There were loopholes, of course. The statute only applied to resales, so Dave’s fake additions to Lars’ catalog were in the clear. In the early years of the forgeries, Dave had used out-of-state middlemen to negotiate sales in nearby states. He’d kept his finger on the pulse of the local art scene and learned that most dealers overlooked the statute. They could get away with it; no artist would be willing to bite the hand that feeds by filing a lawsuit for withheld royalties.

“You tell me,” Dave said. “You’ve made a pretty decent living off your commission.”

Kirk straightened up a little. This was his chance to speak up. “Yeah, about that… I think might be done.”

The glare Dave threw at Kirk would have made a lesser man wither. “You’re out? This is lucrative as fuck for us.”

Kirk hated how Dave talked about forgery as though it was a group effort. Maybe Kirk was a vital cog in the machine, visiting galleries and private buyers to peddle Dave’s fraudulent wares, but it’s not like he was Dave’s only middleman.

“Sure, and I’m happy for you, I guess, but it’s not for me.” Kirk had ethical conflicts about what was essentially stealing, but he’d put them in his blind spot to pay his student loans. “I don’t need the hassle anymore.”

Dave just stared at him like he thought Kirk was a moron. “How much do you rake in at that shitty record store to turn your nose up at this?”

‘That shitty record store’ was Kirk’s day job, a small independent record shop he finally owned after busting his ass for years.

“Enough to be comfortable,” Kirk said. “I’ve always been ambivalent about stealing people’s work anyway.”

“Stealing?” Dave scoffed, rolling his eyes as if Kirk just didn’t get it. “You know how much some of these pieces go for. It’s all just a circlejerk.”

“Doesn’t make it right.”

“Oh boo fucking hoo. Lars can’t buy himself another Ferrari. He’ll live.”

This was a debate Kirk would never win, though that didn’t stop him from trying. Dave knew all the buttons to push.

“So when an artist reaches some nebulous level of fame, it’s suddenly okay to steal from them? How do you decide who’s an acceptable target?”

Dave stole some of Kirk’s fries just to make a point. “He’s already made his fortune ten times over. He has some fucking fancy mansion in San Rafael. I saw it in an issue of Better Homes and Gardens.” Blushing, he added, “I was in the doctor’s office! It was the only magazine there that wasn’t the fucking AARP.”

Kirk shrugged; he was in no position to judge Dave’s reading material. “I’m just saying, does it really come as a surprise that I’m bowing out?”

“No, but I’m still disappointed. You’re my best middleman.”

That was a shallow compliment; as a middleman, everything that went wrong was always Kirk’s fault. He couldn’t control a fickle buyer, no matter how much Dave seemed to think he could.

“I’m flattered, but I think Junior has a bigger knack for this than I do,” Kirk said.

Junior was Dave’s second-best middleman. His real name was David Ellefson, but there was only room for one Dave in this operation, and Dave Mustaine had gotten there first.

Dave nodded like he understood, taking another gruesome bite from his burger. “That’s a damn shame, because I was going to offer you an insider’s deal.”

“Ten percent commission?”

Dave laughed and rose from the table, heading to the small kitchen. “Not exactly. I want to make a name for myself. Go legit, as you’d call it. Once I sell Master of Puppets, I’ll have enough money to keep myself afloat while I try to sell my own work.”

Dave opened the fridge and grabbed a beer for himself. He didn’t ask if Kirk wanted one, and Kirk wasn’t going to ask Dave to do anything for him.

“And you were my first choice to sell my paintings,” Dave said. “But if you’re pulling out, I guess I’ll have to find someone else.”

While the prospect of Dave going legit was promising, Kirk was still cautiously optimistic. “Have you considered you might get accused of copying Ulrich’s style? Since you’ve added so many to his portfolio.”

Dave returned to his seat, cracking open the beer as he did. “I prefer to think I’ve made myself more valuable to the snobs of the art world. It’s like the record industry. Nirvana hits it big, then every label scrambles to sign a band that sounds like them.”

So the fakes that Dave added to Lars’ portfolio created a demand for Dave’s style. Now Dave could swoop in and take his rightful place in the art community. Kirk couldn’t imagine maintaining that level of petty dedication.

“You need to land me a good payday on this one,” Dave said, motioning to the half-finished forgery with his thumb. “That’s going to fund my ‘retirement’ while I build my empire. Then you can cash out and walk.”

Kirk could at least do that much. One more sale for the sake of Dave’s future legitimacy.

“It’s an outrage,” Lars said, pounding his fist on the table.

James nodded and flipped a page in last month’s Car & Driver. “Mhmm.”

“You’re not even listening, are you?”

“You’ve ranted about this dude ten times this month. I get it.”

They sat in James’ dining room. The smell of frying bacon hung in the air as James’ partner, Cliff, worked over the stovetop. James’ six-year-old daughter Cali sat on the couch, immersed in her Game Boy.

“Either nut up and sue this guy, or kindly shut up,” Cliff said to Lars with affection.

“I’d have to find out who he is first,” Lars said, like Cliff was an idiot. “And please tell me you’re not one of those motherfuckers who thinks I should be flattered that I’m being ripped off.”

“Lars said a bad word!” Cali announced, though James swore like a sailor, so clearly she was used to hearing profanities.

“Lars, watch your fucking mouth around my kid,” James said.

Lars flipped him off.

“No, I don’t think you should be flattered,” Cliff said, returning to their previous topic. “It just doesn’t seem like there’s much you can do aside from legal action.”

“Isn’t there some kind of law that’s supposed to give you kickbacks?” James asked. “Threaten to sue the galleries for withholding royalties, and see if they give up a buyer.”

Lars shook his head, ticking off each point on his fingers. “One, that statute is nearly impossible to enforce, because it probably wouldn’t hold up under scrutiny. Two, what artist is gonna screw himself over by suing a gallery? Some of these places won’t even deal with you if you have a written contract. Three, the statute only applies to sales in California, and if this guy’s smart, which it’s safe to say he is, he’s using out-of-state dealers and staying away from California.”

“But you found out,” Cliff said. “He sold to the Orion.”

The Orion was a hot-shit gallery in San Francisco where elite artists congregated.

“And of course the dealer won’t tell me shit!”

“A dollar in the swear jar!” Cali said over the electronic beeps and bloops from her game.

“Jesus, tell me you don’t have a fucking swear jar,” Lars hissed under his breath to James. “My respect for you hangs in the balance.”

James laughed. “I don’t care if you respect me or not.”

“I thought you were cool,” Lars moaned.

James and Lars had met at an Iron Maiden concert in 1981. Lars had just moved to the US and was ecstatic to meet someone who liked the same British heavy metal bands that he did. They’d done their fair share of partying and drinking together, so seeing James as a suburban husband and father was always somewhat of a mindfuck for Lars.

“If this is what marriage and having kids does to a person, I’m so glad to be single,” Lars said.

Cliff snorted a laugh. “You complain about being single every other day.”

“I do not!”

“You totally do,” James agreed.

Maybe James had a point. Lars didn’t have to give it to him. He folded his arms over his chest. “So I don’t have a lot going on in my life! So what? How about that book of yours, Cliff? You gonna finish it before the new millennium?”

Cliff had been working on his novel for the last five years.

“It’s getting there, okay?” Cliff said defensively. “Writing is hard.”

“Excuses, excuses,” said James with a smile, but Lars thought he felt a vibe, as though this was a back-and-forth James and Cliff had been having for some time.

The four of them ate dinner together at the table. Lars could make all the jokes he wanted about James becoming a boring suburban dad, but he secretly envied the warm, comfortable relationship James, his daughter, and Cliff shared. The way Cliff brought James his favorite chilled beer without being asked, the way their ankles entwined underneath the table, the way James listened intently when Cali excitedly chattered about video games or cartoons.

The house was a cozy little two-story in Berkeley, a far cry from the luxury of Lars’ hilltop estate. But this was a home, lived in and worn by use: Cali’s toys and dolls strewn across every available surface; framed photos of James, Cali, and Cliff in varying stages of togetherness; James’ tools scattered over countertops and tabletops.

Even James’ divorce was as amicable as possible. His ex-wife Fran dropped off their daughter at James and Cliff’s place on weekends, and if Fran was bitter about being dumped for another man, she never showed it.

Lars, meanwhile, still received angry phone calls from an ex he’d broken up with almost a decade ago.

Could there be someone like Cliff or James out there for Lars? That wasn’t too much to ask, was it?

Kirk sat in his car outside the Bel Air mansion of his latest (and hopefully last) private buyer. The guy was a record producer — a sought-out one, if the size of the property was any indication.

Kirk steadied himself with some breathing exercises. Making the sale always got him nervous and jittery, fearful that the buyer could tell he was peddling bullshit.

(”You’re my best middleman.”)

That was even more bullshit, because Kirk wasn’t good at this. Mustering up the charisma to plaster over his fear and awkwardness exhausted him. In the years he’d been working for Dave, it never got easier. He’d rather have his toenails forcibly removed with pliers.

Maybe Dave knew how taxing the whole thing was on Kirk, and gave him these assignments simply to fuck with him. Kirk wouldn’t put it past him.

With another deep breath, Kirk got out of the car and navigated the sloping, tiled walkway to the front door. He rang the bell and waited, his fingers toying with the black plastic cover protecting the painting.

The buyer opened the door. “Ah, you must be the art guy.” He extended a hand, and Kirk shook it. “Bob Rock. Nice to meet you.”

“Frank Cotton.” One of the small pleasures of the job was coming up with pseudonyms; today’s was ripped from the film Hellraiser. Kirk kept a log of the names he’d used before, careful to make each one distinct so he couldn’t be easily traced. They were always rooted in horror, because Kirk was a nerd who had to make his own fun.

“Well, come on in and let me have a look.”

The mansion was even bigger on the inside, Tuscan-style with beige walls and dark wood. Two large curved staircases led to the upper and lower floors.

“Can I get you a drink?” Bob offered. “All I’ve got is wine, but there’s plenty of it. Pick your poison.”

“Surprise me,” Kirk said. He wasn’t a wine guy, but when in Rome...

Bob brought him down into the wine cellar where a smorgasbord of bottles were shelved. A wine aficionado would have a field day here.

“A ‘68 Merlot,” Bob said, and Kirk assumed that meant something special, but fuck if he knew what it was. All wine tasted the same to his uncultured palate.

“Do you always open a new bottle when you buy art?”

Bob gestured to the walls of filled racks surrounding them. “I think I can afford it.”

Kirk couldn’t argue with that.

They went into the sunroom with massive paneled windows that showcased the balcony and the sprawling backyard. A few paintings hung on the walls; Kirk spotted a Renoir, a Monet, and a Martin Johnson Heade landscape. Probably reproductions; keeping an authentic, valuable painting in your house was just asking to be burglarized.

Bob poured them both a glass of wine, of which Kirk drank just to be polite. It was bitter and strong, not his preferred taste.

“Mind showing me what you got?” Bob asked, even though he knew what was under the black plastic. But it was nice that he wasn’t keen on socializing for thirty minutes before getting down to business.

Kirk dragged a chair free from the table and propped the painting onto it. He peeled away the protective covering to reveal the artwork. “Master of Puppets. 1986. A classic Ulrich.”

Bob stepped closer to admire the canvas. “The original?”

“I wouldn’t waste your time otherwise.”

Bob took hold of the painting and turned it around to inspect the certificate of authenticity tucked into the back. The certificate was forged by one of Dave’s underground associates. Kirk wasn’t worried that Bob would spot the scam; these forged certificates had fooled otherwise qualified gallery owners.

“How’d you land this one?” Bob asked.

“The guy I work for bought it at an estate sale,” Kirk said. “From the previous owner, I guess.”

“And he thinks he can turn a profit by selling it to me?” said Bob, not unkindly.

“It’s one of a kind,” said Kirk with a smile, aware of the irony.

Bob nodded and turned the painting over, apparently satisfied by the credentials. “Not my favorite Ulrich, if we’re being honest. I’m partial to Creeping Death and Of Wolf and Man.”

Of course, Bob knew Kirk didn’t have either of those. This was his way of haggling the price, putting on an air of disinterest in the piece. Kirk knew all the buyer tricks, and his own disinterest now worked in his favor. If he didn’t seem too eager to make the sale, he would come across as more genuine.

So Kirk waited and sipped his wine.

“How much were you looking for?” Bob asked.

Dave studied the market and always provided Kirk with prices. Most of his numbers were attractive to potential buyers, since Dave could afford to lowball.

“He’s willing to let it go for a million,” Kirk said. The actual painting sold for $5 million at Sotheby’s in 1991.

Bob sucked in a breath through his teeth, like that number was too high for his tastes. Kirk waited him out.

“$875,000?” Bob offered.

Kirk sipped more wine, playing the part of the aloof auctioneer. “$925,000 sounds a little better to me.”

“Sure it does,” Bob said with a condescending smile. He offered nothing else. A seasoned haggler.

Kirk had done this long enough to know when a potential client wouldn’t budge. If he stuck to his guns, pretended he had another buyer willing to pay full asking price, he’d lose this sale. Kirk could have lived with that, but Dave wouldn’t.

Even though he could probably scrounge up another interested buyer, Dave would hold that failure against Kirk; now that Kirk had opened his dumb mouth about getting out of the biz, why should Dave bother cutting him in on the second attempt?

$875,000 would have to be the settling point. No matter what, Kirk would leave here in the proverbial doghouse with Dave. Although this would be Kirk’s final sale for Dave, he still didn’t like potentially burning bridges. Maybe he would need Dave’s help somewhere down the line.

“I think we can do $875,000,” Kirk said, forcing a smile.

“You fucked me out of $125,000?” Dave growled when Kirk returned with the money. They stood in Dave’s cramped living room. Dave had already been hitting the bottle when Kirk left hours ago, and now the smell of booze filled the air like excessive aftershave.

“Yes, I purposely undernegotiated just to hurt your feelings,” Kirk said, rolling his eyes, because the suggestion was ridiculous.

“Don’t be sarcastic, you little shithead.” Dave sat up from his prone position on the couch, jabbing a finger at Kirk. “You were s’posed to get at least $900k.”

“So you can’t buy yourself a Ferrari. You’ll live,” Kirk said with a soupçon more bite than he probably should have.

Dave’s upper lip curled in a sneer. “Those lost wages are coming out of your cut, which leaves you with...” He paused, pretending to do math in his head. “Nothing! Also you owe me $120,000. I take cash, credit, and checks. Pleasure doing business with you.”

Kirk’s fists clenched at his sides. He’d been loyal to Dave for years, and aside from one incident in the early days, they’d had an amicable relationship. To be dismissed and disrespected this way kindled a fire in Kirk’s belly.

“That’s bullshit!”

Dave’s brows shot up, creasing in confusion, as though Kirk backtalking him didn’t compute. “Excuse me? I think it’s perfectly fair. You said yourself you ‘don’t need the hassle anymore.’ If you’ve got your panties in a bunch about ‘stealing,’ use your respectable record store wages to make your living. You don’t need me.”

“I did a job for you. It’s only fair I take home something.”

“Fair?” Dave sprang off of the couch, motioning to his drab, dank apartment. “Look around, asshole! Since when the fuck did ‘fair’ ever enter the picture?”

“Don’t give me your fucking sob story again.”

Dave liked to lean on his tragic past to drum up sympathy. He’d grown up with an abusive, alcoholic father and had started selling drugs at fifteen to support himself. When the art community had rejected his work, he’d resorted to forging and faking to make ends meet. He’d also fallen into a pattern of substance abuse, recovery, and relapse.

Kirk was no stranger to the horrors of growing up in an abusive household, and when he first started selling for Dave he’d used his newfound funds on cocaine, but, holy fuck, Dave needed to take some responsibility for himself.

Kirk shook his head. It was hard to maintain his anger at Dave when the guy was so pathetic. “Fine. Keep the money. I said I was done, and I am.” He turned to leave, moving for the door.

“W — wait. Don’t — shit, can you just — ” Dave looked lost, like he didn’t understand how to communicate what he wanted from Kirk. “Don’t go, alright? Just — stay here, have a beer, and we’ll fix this.”

A rare moment of groveling, and if Kirk hadn’t been so angry, he might have taken Dave up on it. But selling forged art wasn’t the life Kirk thought he would have at thirty-three years old, and if there was a time to get out, it was now.

“Call Junior if you want a drinking buddy. He’s your second-best, right?” Kirk said before shutting the door behind him.

Kirk earned his (honest) living at Blackened Records, an independent record and music memorabilia store nestled in El Cerrito. The shop catered to fans of metal and hard rock, niches often left wanting by the meager selection at chain stores.

The walls were covered in posters of Slayer, Anthrax, and Black Sabbath; mannequins in the windows wore vintage concert tees and denim jackets with iron-on patches featuring the logos of AC/DC, Judas Priest, and The Misfits.

As the owner, Kirk didn’t really need to be there often, but he liked to stop in to check the books. Today, the store blasted Corrosion of Conformity, courtesy of Jason, who worked the shop floor.

Jason looked up when Kirk came through the door. “Hey, man. Dave called.”

Kirk had enough sense not to share his home phone number with Dave, so the only place he could get in touch with Kirk was at the store. “What’d he want?”

Jason shrugged. “Don’t know. You better call him back.”

Dave probably wanted to make amends after their little spat. Now that Kirk had two weeks of distance from the argument, he might hear the guy out.

Kirk’s office was about the size of an office cubicle, the walls covered in his comic book doodles and sticky note reminders. He picked up the phone and dialed Dave’s number.

“Dave Mustaine,” he answered, short and curt, like he was being interrupted in the middle of something important, like brain surgery.

“It’s Kirk. Jason said you called?”

“That’s right. Listen, I wanted to apologize for the other day,” Dave said. “I’m willing to give you your cut plus ten percent, but you have to do something for me.”

Amazing, really, how Dave was able to circumvent an actual apology by simply saying he wanted to apologize, and then he had the balls to hold Kirk’s rightful cut hostage to another favor. And Kirk couldn’t even be mad, because Dave was so goddamn smooth about it.

“Ten percent of five, or the total haul?”

“Don’t be an idiot, Hammett.”

An extra five-hundred bucks, then.

“Alright, what’s your stupid favor?”

“The Orion’s having an amateur exhibition next month,” Dave said. “They’re taking applicants this weekend. I’m gonna see if I can make my break.”

“You want me to carry your canvases?” Kirk asked, half-joking.

“An extra set of hands would be nice,” Dave said with a hint of avoidance. “But I’ll need someone to hold me back from burning the goddamn place to the ground if I get the bum’s rush.”

Kirk fidgeted with a stress ball on his desk. “So I’m babysitting, then.” Another shitty favor, though it was a step above fetching fast food.

“Look, you’ve never — you have no idea what it’s like. I’d be less insulted if they told me I had no talent. But the killing blow is being told you have a little talent. That you’re good, but not good enough.”

Kirk didn’t have much of a competitive streak. His art was strictly for fun, and he had no pipe dreams of turning pro. But he could see how Dave might go a little nuts after years of having a proverbial carrot dangled in front of him.

It was rare for Dave to allow himself this degree of vulnerability. And Kirk wanted Dave to succeed, especially if it meant moving away from forgeries and fakes.

“Alright, I’ll go with you.”

Kirk stopped at Dave’s apartment on Saturday morning. Five paintings leaned against the couch, and the curtains were pulled open to bring in plenty of light.

“These are my five best,” Dave explained, “but I need to narrow it down to three.” He’d made himself halfway presentable, clad in jeans and a plaid button-up over a dark T-shirt. His long hair was tied back.

Kirk studied each canvas. One featured a skull-headed figure touching an alien in a cryogenic sleeping chamber; another depicted babies being hung on a clothesline; the third was a post-apocalyptic landscape; then there was the same skull-headed figure dressed in military garb and brandishing a rifle; the final painting was a gruesome reversal of a fox hunt, featuring the foxes spearing their human predators.

Kirk had seen them all in various stages of completion, but it was nice to be reminded of Dave’s dark creativity.

“They all look pretty cool,” Kirk said, sitting on the armrest of the couch. “Don’t you think?”

The fact that Dave wanted Kirk’s opinion spoke volumes about his own confidence in his work, but Kirk wanted to hear Dave try to wiggle his way out of admitting that.

Dave didn’t bother. He raked a hand through his wavy, golden fringe. “I like them, obviously. But these fuckers have a totally different set of standards.”

“Plenty of artists with lots of skill but no soul make a decent living. At least you’ve got both.”

Dave smiled, perhaps in spite of himself, and turned away before Kirk could see it. “Yeah, well, thanks. Can you narrow it down to three?”

Kirk moved to observe the paintings again. “Well, the baby and the foxhunt ones are morbid in a way that might score points with people who like art that makes a statement. And of course they look good. Nice use of color and atmosphere. Third...” He paused, giving the art another appraisal. “I think the landscape is a good showcase of color, like working with a limited palette.” He looked over his shoulder at Dave. “What did Junior say?”

“I didn’t ask him. He doesn’t really ‘get’ art.”

“Neither do I. I’m just a guy who likes pretty pictures.”

“Oh, don’t go fishing for compliments.” Dave scoffed, rolling his eyes. “You draw. You get it. That’s all I’m giving you.”

“Would it actually kill you to say something nice about someone?”

“Maybe not, but why risk it?” Dave grinned.

They loaded Dave’s paintings into his truck and made the drive from Oakland into San Francisco. Dave might drive like a maniac, but at least he and Kirk shared similar tastes in music. Dave had stopped into Blackened a handful of times for rare Iron Maiden vinyls and bootlegs. The truck’s stereo blared an Exodus tape, and Kirk nodded along with the beat.

The Orion was a quirky building painted white and yellow, tucked among the hotels and restaurants on Geary Street. Cars were parallel-parked for blocks, and Dave could only manage to squeeze his truck into a spot four blocks down from the gallery. They hauled the wrapped paintings the whole way and waited in a line outside the building for fifteen minutes.

Inside the gallery, Dave took a number at the entrance. Patrons browsed the works on display, while hopeful artists clutched their canvases, anticipating their turn in the observation room, wherever that was. Kirk had never set foot in the Orion before.

A jolt of panic shot through Kirk when he recognized a forged Ulrich he’d sold to a private buyer years ago. He tugged at Dave’s sleeve and said in a whisper, “I think they’ve got one of yours.”

Dave whirled to see one of his forgeries — The Call of Ktulu — hanging on the back wall of the gallery. He grinned, managing to look sinister. “If they only knew.”

When Dave’s number was called, he moved toward the open door of the office where a man dressed in a tuxedo beckoned.

“You want me to come with you?” Kirk asked, hurrying to keep up with Dave’s long-legged stride.

“Hell no, they might think we’re gay or something.” Dave plucked the painting from Kirk’s hands.

“Would that be so awful? I’m a catch!”

Dave made a face and stormed into the room. The tuxedo-clad man followed and shut the door behind them.

Unsure of what else to do but wait, Kirk browsed. He found himself drawn to The Call of Ktulu, studying the brush strokes as though he could tell if this was the real painting. It would have been impossible to know without the two pieces side by side, and Kirk’s untrained eye definitely couldn’t decipher the truth.

“You listen to Diamond Head?”

Someone approached him then. A guy. A cute guy — and, yes, to Kirk that mattered a great deal. The stranger was an inch or two shorter than Kirk, with luminescent green eyes and an impish nose. His brown hair was slicked back, almost black from the gel. The quirk of his lips and eyebrows seemed to imply that he knew a secret but had no intentions of spilling it. He looked familiar, although Kirk couldn’t place where he might have seen him before.

Kirk felt his face grow hot just looking at the guy. He could barely remember what was said, too wrapped up in the tempting little pout of the stranger’s lips. “Um…”

“Your shirt,” he said, pointing to Kirk’s Diamond Head tee. “Name five of their songs.”

An easy task on a normal occasion, but Kirk’s tongue was a dead slug in his mouth, his brain deader still.

You can do this, dummy.

“‘Am I Evil’, ‘Shoot Out the Lights’, ‘It’s Electric’, ‘Borrowed Time’ and, uh, ‘Call Me’.”

That earned a grin as brilliant as the sun. “I had to be sure. The last person I saw with a cool band tee just bought the shirt ‘cause they liked the design. I looked like a dipshit, going on about how Ritchie Blackmore was the soul of Deep Purple.” He had an undefinable accent that gave his speech an interesting timbre.

“Oof.” Kirk chuckled. “Well, I own a record shop, so you struck oil.”

“No shit?”

“No shit. Blackened Records in El Cerrito. We specialize in heavy metal and hard rock, so if you like Diamond Head, you’ll have a good time.”

“Fuck yeah. I’m always looking for cool independent record shops.” The stranger flashed a shy smile then settled his gaze on the painting. “You a fan of his stuff?”

“I’m, uh, pretty familiar with some of them.”

He pointed a slender finger at the framed artwork. “Familiar enough to know that’s a fake?”

Terror clamped hold in Kirk’s stomach. “Say what?”

“The original Call of Ktulu is hanging over the fireplace of an English billionaire.”

Fuck. Shit. Fucking shit!

This dude was probably some forgery expert brought in to analyze the gallery’s displays. Though it was unlikely Kirk’s involvement would be discovered, sweat stippled across his brow nonetheless.

“Maybe he sold it,” Kirk offered, keeping his voice steady. “Art changes hands all the time, right?”

“Sure, and I’d give you that. Except…” The stranger stepped forward and pointed to an area on the canvas covered in blue and teal strokes. “The real painting has a dick hidden right here. You can’t see it in photos. You gotta be up close.”

So it was a joke, then. Relief washed through Kirk. “You’re full of shit,” he said, not unkindly. “How would you know that?”

“An artist knows his own work.”

Fresh terror returned like a lightning bolt, rocketing down Kirk’s spine. “What?” he managed to squeak out before panic stole his voice.

So that was why the guy looked familiar. The last photo Kirk had seen of Lars had been a few years ago, when his hair had been much longer. But his face was unique, seared into Kirk’s brain without context.

“Lars Ulrich,” he said, hand outstretched. “You might’ve heard of me, if you’re into art.”

Abort! Abort! Kirk’s brain screamed, flailing like the robot from Lost In Space. Too panicked to reject social norms, he offered a return handshake, his own palm damp with the poison dew of sweat.

“I, um, yeah…” Kirk stammered, making a great case for himself as a functional human being.

“You’re not here to show, are you?” Apparently Lars was oblivious to Kirk’s mental breakdown.

“N—no, just — my friend wanted me to come. He’s been trying to get featured in a show for a long time. I draw, but I just do comic book stuff.”

“‘Just’? Art is art, man, and art is hope. Don’t sell yourself short.”

Kirk had to smile, because it was a corny line, but Lars said it like he believed it. “Alright, I won’t.”

Was he really trying to flirt with the guy whose paintings he’d helped Dave rip off? They could never be friends. If Lars knew how Kirk paid his student loans…

Kirk became aware of a large, looming figure approaching. Dave stomped towards him, carrying his paintings by their wire hangers. The set of his mouth and brow communicated bad news.

“Let’s go,” Dave said in a low voice. “Before I do something I’ll regret.” He observed Lars for a moment, then did a double take when he recognized just who was standing there. Dave said nothing, but his eyes widened.

“Is this your friend?” Lars asked Kirk, then he looked at Dave. “Mind showing me your work?”

This was so fucking surreal. Kirk felt like a man in a dream — or maybe it was a nightmare. Too soon to tell.

Dave seemed frozen in place, so Kirk plucked one of the canvases from Dave’s grip and turned it around so Lars could see. It was the one with the alien, a piece Dave had titled Hangar 18.

Lars grinned, admiring the painting. “Holy shit. This is awesome! They said no to this?”

“Of course they did.” Dave’s jaw twitched, as though he was biting down on some primal urge.

“Show me the rest,” Lars said, so Kirk did. Lars saw Countdown to Extinction and said, “Fucking A, man, tell me how much you want for that one.”

“It’s not for sale,” Dave said.

Lars nodded like he understood. “Fair enough. Jesus, I can’t believe they — Hold up. Come with me.” He strode toward the little room Dave had just left. Kirk and Dave followed.

Inside the room, a stout man in a paisley tie sat at the desk, and the tuxedo-clad bouncer guarded the door. A wave of reverence swept through the room upon Lars’ entrance.

Paisley Tie looked at Lars with wide-eyed awe. “Mr. Ulrich, what can I do for you?” he said in a way that implied he’d polish Lars’ shoes with his tongue if need be.

“If you don’t sign this guy up, you’re making the biggest mistake of your life,” Lars said, pointing to Dave.

The sensation of being in a dream deepened, but Kirk went along with it. He was still holding Dave’s paintings, and he presented them for display.

Paisley Tie observed the artwork again. “Oh. Well, I don’t think the subject matter is really — ”

“Tough shit. You owe me a favor. That Call of Ktulu out there?” Lars pointed out the door to the painting. “It’s a forgery, and a shitty one at that.”

Dave bristled at the criticism, but Kirk saw the beads of sweat on his brow.

Lars continued, “I could sue, or maybe ban my work from ever hanging in your halls. I’m sure the press would love to know you let a fake slip through, and that I got jack shit out of the resale. Or maybe you let this guy show, and we’ll call it even.”

The man’s eyes bulged, and he placed his palms flat on the desk. “A forgery? You can’t be serious!”

“Afraid so. It’s an epidemic, but I’m sure the patrons don’t know any better. I think you do, though.”

Paisley Tie pressed his thin lips together. His gaze slid back to Dave’s paintings, as though reconsidering his assessment in the face of Lars’ approval. “Well, if that’s all it takes to smooth things over, Mr. Ulrich, your friend is more than welcome to show at next month’s exhibition.”

“Are you kidding me?” Dave said flatly, like he’d expected this but was dismayed nonetheless.

Kirk and Lars stared at him.

“Just five minutes ago you told me my work was ‘primitive’ and ‘not what we’re looking for,’” Dave said hotly, speaking to Paisley Tie and his tuxedo-clad associate. “Either I’m good enough to show, or I’m not. His opinion” — Dave jabbed a finger at Lars — “doesn’t factor in.”

“Hey, c’mon, he’s giving you an opportunity,” Kirk murmured to Dave. “Don’t piss it away.”

Do you think Lars would be so gracious if he knew you painted that fake out there? Kirk wanted to say.

“It’s all bullshit,” Dave went on, more heated now. “When did nepotism and name recognition become more valuable than skill and creativity? Why do an elite few determine what’s sacred and what’s garbage?”

A small crowd had gathered outside the open door, either drawn by Lars’ presence or Dave’s tirade, or both.

“Jesus Christ,” Kirk muttered under his breath, his pulse racing anew at his involvement in this clusterfuck. Second-hand embarrassment was just as potent as its first-hand cousin. “Dave, just take the deal.”

For the average person, swallowing their pride would be a small price to pay for this opportunity. Dave abhorred this violation of his ethical code, which Kirk found darkly comical considering how he made his living.

“Success usually amounts to five percent skill and ninety-five percent luck,” Lars told Dave, casual and cool even in the heat of observation. “You can’t judge your worth based on whether the right person has recognized it.”

“I know my work is good,” Dave said. “Actually, it’s pretty goddamn great. If you gave a shit about art over prestige, you wouldn’t need him” — another jabbing finger at Lars — “to tell you what to think. If I can only get ahead by ass-kissing privileged fuckwits who make their living criticizing art rather than making their own, then the system is fucking broken.”

Scattered, awkward applause broke out from the crowd huddled around the entryway. Kirk yearned for one of those pellets that magicians used to disappear into a puff of smoke.

Dave snatched his paintings from Kirk’s hands; apparently he could carry all of them if he tried. “Fuck your deal. I’m no one’s pawn.”

Dave stormed out of the room. The crowd parted to let him pass; he paid no mind to any of the glances at his artwork or the murmured conversations about his rousing speech.

Kirk moved to follow Dave, but stopped when he considered if he really wanted to. Dave would be in a sour mood the whole drive back, and Kirk doubted he could reassure Dave that this bold display of artistic integrity was the right career move.

“You gonna go after him, or let him cool off?” Lars asked, disrupting Kirk’s moment of consideration.

If Kirk left, he’d walk out on this gorgeous guy with killer taste in music. Maybe they had more to bond over, if Kirk gave it a chance. Hadn’t he wasted enough time encouraging Dave’s bad decisions?

For fuck’s sake, you’re involved in selling his forged art! The only place this relationship could possibly go is in the gutter, maybe a prison cell for trafficking fraudulent artwork.

“I — I think he might need some time alone.” Kirk glanced at the exit, where Dave was shoving his way out. “But he was my ride home.”

“I’ll pay for your cab.”

“That’s really nice of you, but I live in El Cerrito.”

“The offer still stands.” Lars shrugged like it didn’t matter. “Or you could buy me lunch and we’ll call it even.”

A date. The thought jangled in Kirk’s brain, unwanted but not unpleasant. Of course it wasn’t a fucking date. Lars was just in the habit of making offers, apparently, and didn’t want Kirk to feel as though he was taking charity.

Unlike Dave, Kirk was happy to accept Lars’ offer.

Paisley Tie spoke up from his desk. “I — Mr. Ulrich, you’re not going to hold it against the Orion that your friend won’t be showing?”

“Just take that damn fake down,” Lars said, walking out of the room before the gallery owner could protest.