Chapter 7:

What it's truly worth.


Lao Wei gave us a couple of days to relax. He forbade us from leaving the city, but otherwise, we had the freedom to visit anywhere in the city, provided his men followed us. It was less than the ideal vacation we would have liked, but we have long learnt to make do with the cards we had been dealt.

We went to all the places we talked about on the first day. The Belfry, the Groeningemuseum, and more. At each one, I took Liya’s hand and kissed her fondly. I could do that every second of every day, and it would still not be nearly enough. There were no words, in Chinese or otherwise, that could express even one-tenth of my adoration for her.

I placed my forehead against hers. “I love you,” I told her.

That was enough for now.

The next time we saw Lao Wei, he came in a huff. His face was red and he shuffled as he walked. “Okay,” he said. “There’s been a change in the plans.”

He dropped a plastic bag onto the table. “Get dressed.”

Liya emptied the bag. Inside was a velvet red dress, the finest we had ever seen. It was either brought or ironed recently, and it smelt of rich perfume.

“What’s going on?” we asked.

“Complications. Liya, you can speak French, right?”

“I…I can.”

“Good. Get in the dress.”

“Hold on.” I positioned myself between them. “You haven’t explained anything.”

Lao Wei massaged the bridge of his nose. “We have a plan. That plan involves an auction and that plan involves a mole; someone we plant into the audience to help us direct the flow of the bidding. The one we had left. We needknew a new one.”

“You don’t have someone else to do this job?”
“It was last minute. We don’t have anyone else.”

“I don’t care, you bring someone else for this.”

“What does it involve?” asked Liya.

“No, you’re not doing this!”

“Nothing dangerous,” said Lao Wei. “You mingle with some rich foreigners, you drink some wine. You don’t have to draw attention to yourself if you don’t want to. Then, when the auction happens, you raise your hand and say a few numbers a few times. That’s all, I promise.”

“It’s not happening,” I said. “She’s not a part of this.”

“I’ll double the money.”

“It’s not about the money. We’re not actors. This…this is unnecessary harm you’re putting onto her.”

“Xiao Zhou,” she said. “It’ll be fine.”

“But what if something goes wrong?”

“Then we’ll deal with it. Like we have always done and will continue to do.” Liya pinched my cheek. “Besides, I love speaking French.”

We didn’t know anything about the plan. We didn’t know what he was going to do with the painting we made for him. We certainly didn’t realise he was going to hold an auction. Most of all, we didn’t realise how capable Lao Wei was.

“Holy shit,” I uttered.

The venue was a marble mansion, and a line of limousines stretched far out from its stairs and ended where I could not see. Every guest was in lavish wear, with cashmere suits and vibrant dresses.

“C’mon,” said Lao Wei. Both of us wore suits and bow-ties, though I had no idea how to put one on so one of the assistants had to help me.

We weaved through the guests, with Lao Wei occasionally shaking hands with who I assumed were the real ones. Many of the guests were crowded around something on the wall, and it wasn’t until we squeezed pastpassed them did I realise what it was.

It was Vase with Five Sunflowers. The one Liya and I painted. The guests gawked at it, pointing fingers and gushing between themselves. I couldn’t understand their languages, but I felt their emotions from the way they spoke them.

“They’re saying it’s beautiful,” Lao Wei whispered to me.

“I know.”

It was amazing to think they were so in love with a fake painting. Did they know? Did they even care?

A sudden hush fell over the crowd. Heads flashed back. Someone was coming this way, and the sea of people diverged to make a path for them.

I heard everyone whisper the same word. At first, I thought it was something like ‘be quiet,’ but I soon realised it was a name. Furukawa.

With this much reverence, I expected a similarly impressive figure. In truth, it was a shrivelled old Japanese man who wore round spectacles too big for his tiny face. He had so many wrinkles that it was hard to tell which were his eyes and mouth.

“The main guest is here,” said Lao Wei.

“The dying Jap?”

“Ushio Furukawa is a world-renowned art collector. He holds three Van Goghs in his private gallery, the most anywhere in the world save for the Amsterdam Museum. Interestingly enough, he’s also our main target.”

“This should be easy then. The grandpa’s so old, I don’t think he can even tell left from right.”

“I wouldn’t be so cocky if I were you.”

“You were the one who said the painting was perfect.”

“Yes, it was perfect to me.” He pressed his hands together behind his back. “But I’ve never seen the real one.”

My eyes widened. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

“Ushio Furukawa was there the last time Vase with Five Sunflowers was shown to the public, fifty-odd years ago. One might even say he’s the last man to have seen it intact, save for Yamamoto himself.”

“But…but that was so long ago.”

“You don’t get to be on top of the art society without having a good memory and a keen eye for detail. If there’s anyone in the world who can tell this is fake, it’s him.”

My eyes dashed around the crowd, frantic. The old man was approaching the painting. “What do we do then?”

Lao Wei patted me on the back. “Pray.”

“And if that doesn’t work?!”
“We all go to prison.”

“You bastard!”

“Nothing ventured, nothing gained, Mr Zhang,” he said. “Have faith in your talent. I do.”

Furukawa stopped in front of the painting, and the world held its breath. He fixed his glasses, leaning closer. I felt my heart hammer against my chest. My mind cycled through all the mistakes that lingered on the canvas.

The last sunflower was painted too roughly.

My colours are probably a shade off.

I should have never come here.

The worstworse thing was that the old man was stone-faced. He didn’t let a single hint of emotion across his dying flesh.

Finally, after what felt like hours, Furukawa turned around. Without saying anything, he disappeared from the crowd, as suddenly as he came.

My legs felt like jelly and my whole body was hot, but I was alive. I passed. I prayed to every god I knew under my breath.

“See?” Lao Wei hit my shoulder. “I told you it was perfect.”

“Can we please just get out of here?”

“Yeah, the auction’s going to start soon anyhow. C’mon.”

He led me into the main hall, where some guests were already seated. On our way backstage, my eyes latched on a splash of red. She stood out from everyone there, but even if she was amongst an ocean of red, I still would have found her immediately. Her face was burnt into my memory; into my soul. The curves of her cheek, the ridge of her nose. Blindfold me, and I would recognise her voice. Take that away too, and I would still find her. From the way she ate, from the way she walked. In life, in death, and everything in between.

“Stop gawking, idiot,” said Lao Wei.

“Sorry, I just–”

“You two can have at each other after the auction, but while you’re in it, I expect professionalism.”

We got behind the curtains just as the auction began. The rows of seats were filled, and the collective hum of conversation drew to a close. A white man in a suit took to the stage with a microphone.

“Hello, ladies and gentlemen,” Lao Wei translated for me. “To all the art lovers in the world, welcome. Tonight we have for you a most special selection of works, leading up to the one I think you have all been waiting for. Let us not waste time and get started.”

A pair of assistants brought up the first piece. It was an oil painting of a cathedral, finely done but I couldn’t tell what was so special for it to be sold at such an event.

People began to raise their hands and call out. One would shout something, and then another would immediately shout something else. This kept going until the last man made his bid, and the auctioneer slammed down his gavel.

“Sold,” said Lao Wei. “For fifteen million francs.”

I choked on air. “Fifteen million?! For that thing?”

“A rather bold thing to say who something who spent his life making knock-offs.”

“Yes, but they were knock-offs of famous pieces. What’s so special about that one?”

“Absolutely nothing, Xiao Zhou,” he said. “It’s not about the artwork itself, it’s about where it’s sold. Just from being auctioned off under this roof, the valued price goes up immensely. You sold your work to Kevin Connolly for nickles on the dollar because it was in that shithole in Shenzhen. You’re about to become rich now because you’ve sold your shit here.”

The assistants came on again to carry the sold painting off while another pair carried the next work upstage.

That was how it went for much of that day. Pieces came and went, and I would predict the amount each would sell for. Suffice it to say, I was not correct for a single one of them.

“Twenty million francs.”

“Twenty-five million.”

“Forty million.”

“Fucking hell,” I said.

“The worse part has only just begun,” said Lao Wei. “You’re up next.”

I looked up at the stage. The assistants had carried up Vase with Five Sunflowers and set it up on an easel. There was a notable difference in the way the audience reacted to this piece compared to the others. Murmurs of excitement filled the hall at once like a rushing flood of noise.

“Ladies and gentlemen.” I had learnt enough French from all the prior sales to know roughly what the auctioneer was saying. “Van Gogh’s Vase with Five Sunflowers.”

The auction began with a roar. It seemed like the entire hall was shouting their bids, so much so the auctioneer didn’t see a point declaring them. They shot off, one after another like bullet-fire.

“Thirty million!”



One hand reached towards the heavens, and its booming voice slashed the room into silence. “Sixty million!” said Ushio Furukawa.

Lao Wei chuckled; a sign that everything was going accordingly. “From detailing the amount that Van Gogh’s previous works have sold for, as well as Furukawa’s finances, we have a rough idea of his upper limit.”

“And what’s that?”

“Seventy million francs.”

The number was so big, it didn’t even phase me. “So that’s how much it’s going to sell for?”

“Seventy million is the absolute most. Under normal circumstances, the painting would just sell for sixty.”

“I’m assuming this isn’t normal circumstances.”

“You’re catching on quickly, Xiao Zhou.”

Another hand broke the silence. A voice, sweet as summer, shouted, “Sixty-one million!”

Heads turned. Every eye in the room clung to the one that dared defy Furukawa: an oriental woman who spoke French like a native. The most beautiful person in the entire world, and the love of my life.

I glanced back at Furukawa. For the first time that day, I saw something under all those wrinkles of his. Was that…anger? “Sixty-two million!”

“Sixty-three!” yelled Liya.

It was definitely anger. I could glimpse the Japanese man’s clenched jaw. “Sixty-five million!”

He smirked, as if expecting that to be the end. His face dropped when he heard, “Sixty-seven!”

Furukawa closed his eyes. “Seventy million!”

The room started to applaud at that impossibly large number. A few even hollered.

Lao Wei breathed a sigh of relief. All his planning, all his work, was worth it in the end. I recognised that face because it was the same one I would make after a big pay from Kevin, though that felt pathetically small compared to the amount of money being thrown around.

“Should we start packing up?” I asked.

“Talk to my men, they’ll give you your share of the profit along with your return tickets to Shenzhen. Make sure to–”

Everything stopped. Nobody could say a word, not the guests, not the auctioneer, not even Furukawa himself. Lao Wei and I turned back to see what had happened.

Liya had her hand raised. I thought she was going to ask a question before I realised it was another bid. “Seventy-one million!”

The crowd lost it.

Lao Wei slammed the wall. The sound was swallowed up by the excitement of the crowd. “What the fuck is she doing?!

Out of everyone, Furukawa was the most shocked. His eyes were wide and his pupil was almost just a dot. His fingers dug into his knee like a claw. I could’ve sworn he muttered bitch under his breath. “Seventy-two!”

“Seven-five!” said Liya

I saw her find me amongst the mob, as easily as I found her. Our gaze met, and I swung my arms wildly.

What the hell’s happening? I wanted to say. You don’t know what you’re doing!

Liya just smiled. It came to her so easily, as if the world wasn’t burning around her. In those lovely hazel eyes, in a moment lost to everyone but us, I glimpsed the years we spent together. I saw cheap rings and an empty banquet hall. Her face, the first thing I saw in the morning and the last every night. Every moment I have ever wanted to hold her close and whisper sweet nothings into her ear.

“Eighty million!” Furukawa called out.


The old Japanese man stabbed his cane into the floor and staggered to his feet. His lips drew back to reveal jagged bestial teeth. “One hundred!”

Liya looked at me again. She shrugged, almost casually. Somehow, someway, her tiny voice found its way to my ear. It’s only one per cent of what it’s truly worth, but I’ll let it slide.

Every newspaper in the world would write about what happened in that room that day. Vincent Van Gogh’s Vase with Five Sunflowers, famously thought to be lost, was sold at auction for one hundred million Belgian francs.