Ikechukwu Uzondu, "Ike for short," parked his Lincoln Continental cab at a garage that charged twelve dollars per hour. Before shutting off the engine, he looked at the car's electronic clock. Nine forty-seven a.m.; it meant the gallery would have been open for a little less than an hour. Perfect, Ike thought, for he wished to be done transacting his business before the place started buzzing.
He walked a block and a half to 19 Vance Street. Had a small animal been wedged in his throat, his heart could not have pounded more violently.
The eave over the door bore a sign etched in black over a bluish background: foreign gods, incorporated. It was written in tiny, stylized lettering, as if intended to create a tactful anonymity. Few would stumble upon a store like this; it would be found, it seemed, only by habitués and devotees.
Across the street was a bar. Ike contemplated a quick drink or two to calm his nerves. How odd to flack for a war god while jittery.
Yet, to go in smelling of alcohol might also be a costly mistake.
The gallery door clicked, and a tanned woman walked out. A squat carved statue was clutched close to her breast, held in asuckling posture. At the curb, a gleaming black BMW pulled up. She opened the rear door and leaned in, arched backside revealing the outline of her underwear. Her black high-heeled shoes were riveted with nodes of diamond. She strapped the deity in place with the seat belt and then straightened. The car's front door was opened from inside. She lowered herself in, and the car sped off.
Ike pulled at the gallery door—surprisingly light. A wide, sprawling space unfurled itself: gray marble floors, turquoise walls, and glass-paneled showcases. A multitude of soft, recessed lights accentuated the gallery's dim, spectral atmosphere. In the middle of the room, slightly to the left of the door, a spiral staircase with two grille-work banisters rose to an upper floor. Ike knew from the New York magazine piece that people went upstairs only by invitation. And that those invitations went only to a small circle of long-term collectors or their designated dealers.
There was an otherworldly chill in the air. There was also a smell about the place, unsettling and hard to name. Ike froze at the edge of the run of stairs that led down to the floor of the gallery. From the elevation, he commanded a view. The space was busy but not cluttered. Clusters of short, squat showcases were interspersed with long and deep ones. Here and there, some customers peered into the glass cases or pored over catalogs.
In a matter of two, three weeks, his people's ancient deity, Ngene, would be here, too. And it would enjoy pride of place, not on this floor, with the all-comers and nondescripts, but upstairs, in the section called Heaven. Ngene was a majestic god with a rich legend and history. How many other gods could boast of dooming Walter Stanton, that famed English missionary whose name, in the syllable-stretching mouths of the people of Utonki, became Su-tantee-ny?
The thought gave him a gutsy boost. He trotted down the steps to the floor of the gallery. Walking unhurriedly, he cast deliberate glances about him, so that an observer might mistake him for a veteran player in the rare sport where gods and sacred curios were bought and sold. He paused near the spiral staircase. A sign warned please do not ascend unless escorted. He walked on to a chesthigh showcase. A hefty wooden head stared at him from atop a rectangular stump. The face was pitched forward, like a tortoise's head poking out of a shell. On closer inspection, Ike saw that the carved head was deformed by a chipped, flattened nose and large, bulgy eyes. Inside the case, four fluorescent puck lights washed the statue with crisscross patterns of luminescence and shadows. A fork-tongued serpent coiled itself round the statue's neck.
There was an electronic key code for the showcase's twin-winged door, and several perforations in the glass, small and circular, as if designed to let in and let out just enough air to keep the glum, rigid statue from suffocating. A strip tag glued to the glass cage identified the deity as C1760. Ike picked up a glossy catalog and thumbed to the C section. Each page was columned, with sections marked "inventory code," "name," "brief history," and "price." He ran his finger down the line until he saw the tag number. Then he drew his finger across to the price column: $29,655.
He flipped the pages to the catalog's last section, marked "Heavenly Inventory." The lowest price in the section was $171,455; the highest $1.13 million. He studied the image of one of the deities in that section. Carved from soot-black wood, it had two fused figures, one female, and the other male. The figures backed each other. The female was big breasted and boasted a swollen belly. The male figure held a hoe in one hand, a gun in the other, its grotesque phallus extending all the way to its feet. They shared the same androgynous head, turned neither left nor right but forward. A pair of deep-set eyes seemed to return Ike's stare. It was listed for $325,630. Ike read the short italicized description: A god of the crossroads, originally from Papua New Guinea.
"Wait until they see Ngene," he said under his breath, a flush of excitement washing over him. Surely, a legendary god of war would command a higher price than a two-faced crossroads idler.
At the thought, the catalog slipped from his hands and thudded on the floor. He hastily picked it up, glancing all around. Perhaps the gallery's surveillance camera was beamed on him, trailing his every movement?
He moved to another showcase. He squatted, bit his lip, and peered intensely at the encased quarry, nodding like a connoisseur. From nowhere some foul whiff brushed his nose and he recoiled.
He heard a woman's low voice and stood to look, but two showcases blocked his view.
"Have I ever—ever—been too busy for you?" a man answered in a stentorian voice.
A pair of sequined magenta shoes descended the staircase. These yielded toned calves, then sturdy thighs that disappeared beneath a tight purplish skirt, and then the tanned, tight upper body of a blonde. Then, behind her, the man appeared.
Ike recognized Mark Gruels, the owner of the gallery. He did not panic, his poise a remarkable feat, considering what was at stake. Neither the woman nor Gruels looked Ike's way. Her right arm was around his waist, his left arm draped over her shoulder. They circled the staircase and walked down another aisle, toward the far wall.
Ike watched them but pretended to be riveted by the catalog. Gruels was a head taller than the woman, even though she looked at least five nine. Cerise pearls adorned the woman's neck. Gruels's groomed appearance seemed to leave some room for cultivated ruggedness. He had a full head of black hair, garnished with dots of gray. He wore a dark green down vest over a bleached green shirt, one sleeve rolled up to the elbow, the other left unrolled.
Gruels and the woman spoke inaudibly for a moment, entranced by the same object: a mammoth, snout-faced statue in a showcase.
"So?" the woman finally asked.
Gruels swayed side to side, as if in deep thought. Then he shook his head doubtfully.
"Why not?" she asked.
"Not that one," he said in the tone of a man accustomed to confident judgments. His voice was deep, even a little gravelly. "You're looking at a goddess. She's definitely not a good fit. Not for you. You do better with strong male gods. You'd find her—shall I say—a bit too feisty. Too cranky."
"She's quite the cutie," the woman said, leaning into Gruels.
"No question, but she's not your type. Trust me." He pressed her closer to him. "You don't want a goddess that clashes with your personality. Plus, it doesn't jibe with your other acquisitions."
"It's actually not for me. I'd like something amazing for my brother. And this should do."
"Birthday?" Gruels asked.
"No, he's never been big on birthdays. He's just having a tough time rebounding."
"Has he been sick?"
"Josh?" Gruels sounded incredulous.
"Yes, darling—you know I have only the one brother."
"He and Heather parted ways?"
"Oh, Mark, have you been living in a cave again?"
"No, really," said Gruels. "I'm sorry to hear it."
She turned sideways and rested her body against his. Gruels rubbed and kneaded her shoulders. Ike felt a tug in the crotch.
She related how Heather had run away with another woman, leaving Josh crushed.
Finally, Gruels said, "A man dumped by his wife for another woman deserves some spectacular gift. You can't get better than this." He glanced up at the deity. "This, here, is a Mayan marvel."
"And what are you asking for her?"
"Twenty thousand—eighteen thousand for you."
"Sir, can I help you with anything?"
Ike turned, startled. A petite woman stood behind him.
"How may I help you?" she asked again.
Her nose was pierced midridge with a toothpick-sized coppery crossbar. Her head was shaved close to the scalp. A whorl of tattoos ran all over her arms and neck.
"I came to see—"
"Mark?" she interjected.
"Mr. Gruels," he said. Despite all his years in America, he'd never become comfortable with the idea of calling strangers by their given name. "Yes."
Her eyes lit up. "Did you call two days ago?"
"I recognized that accent!" Ike stiffened at the word "accent," and his eyes blazed. Oblivious, she continued: "Listen, Mark's busy with a customer right now. You can wait for him right here. Unless it's something I can help you with. My name is Stacy."
"I'll wait," he said, still vexed by that reference to his accent. He turned and nearly bumped into Gruels. The gallery owner held the blond with one hand, the Mayan deity with the other.
"Mark, this gentleman wants to see you," Stacy announced.
Letting go of the blond's hand, Gruels seemed to whirl round to Ike.
"You want to see me?"
Not in everybody's presence, Ike thought. "I'll wait until you finish. With her." He pointed at the blond.
Gruels smirked and then retook the woman's hand. "Until I finish with her? What makes you think I want to ever be finished with her?"
Gruels laughed, and the woman followed suit, her head thrown back. Gruels whispered into her ear, released her, and circled back to Ike. "Yes, I'm listening," he said.
Ike's tongue felt coated. Why didn't Gruels invite him to an
office or some secluded corner?
Gruels folded his arms. "Yes?"
"Yes, you have what?"
"A business proposal."
Gruels slapped both hands, bemused. "You want to invest in my business? Great! How much are we talking here?"
Ike gave a short, awkward chuckle.
"It's a busy morning for me," Gruels said. "Business proposal. You've got to spell out what you mean. And you've got to do it quick." He glanced at his wristwatch. "I have a meeting to run to—in, like, now! So?"
"I have a god I can bring," he said.
"You have a god?"
"Great. Let's see it."
"I'm traveling to bring it."
"You don't have it?"
"So what's the point of this discussion?"
Ike swallowed hard. "I want you to buy it."
"Buy what? I can't buy what doesn't exist." Gruels glanced at Stacy, who tightened her lips and shrugged.
"It exists," Ike cried, his voice close to combative. Then, checking
himself, he added, "It's a powerful deity, too."
Gruels regarded him with intense eyes. "I don't buy stories; I buy things. You see what I mean?" He glanced at his watch again and turned sharply sideways, as if to walk away. Instead, he tarried and addressed Ike. "Bottom line, you have nothing to show me."
"In less than three weeks, I will have it."
"So why are we holding this discussion now? Why don't we have it in three weeks—or whenever you've got something to show?"
Ike said, "It's a god of war."
"It could be a god of shit for all I care." Gruels paused, his eyes danced, taking in Ike with curious interest. He put a left hand on Ike's shoulder. "I don't mean to insult you. That's not what I'm about."
"It used to lead our people to war," Ike explained, determined to capitalize on the indirect apology.
"That's great," Gruels said, his tone flavored anew with sarcasm. "Great for your people."
Thoughts tossed about in Ike's mind. He foraged for the magic words that would kindle the other's interest. He saw Gruels's lips quiver, about to speak. Anxiety overcame him.
"Trust me," he said. "It's a very, very ancient deity. A very powerful god."
"So you say. Great! Nobody ever sold me a shitty god. And nobody ever bought one from me. Every god I ever bought or sold had the greatest mojo in all of time. So, what's new?" He took another look at his watch.
"How much are you willing to pay for it?"
Gruels scratched his forehead and then gazed at Ike, silent.
"Trust me," Ike said, unable to bear the silent exchange of stares.
Gruels spread his arms in a sweeping gesture. "This store has great inventory. Look around, see for yourself." He paused, as if to permit Ike to take a look. "You don't seriously expect me to discuss the buying of—nothing! It doesn't even make sense."
"I told you about the—"
"Yes, you've told me a lot. You've said how powerful this god is. You've said it's ancient. You've said blah blah blah." He spread his arms again. "Well, guess what? My entire inventory is made up of powerful, ancient deities. I ask again, what's new?"
"In olden days, this god—it's called Ngene—led our warriors to wars. And they never lost one."
"Ngina—that's the name?"
"Ngene." Ike spelled the word.
"Are there written accounts of these wars?"
"My uncle told me."
"You expect me to do a deal—based on something your uncle told you?"
"He's the deity's chief priest. He knows everything about Ngene."
Gruels crinkled his brow. "Did you say your uncle is the chief priest of this same god?"
Ike nodded and looked away.
"So, is he offering to sell this—what's its name again?"
"Is the priest offering to sell this god?"
Ike shook his head.
"So, you're not acting as your uncle's agent?"
"Let me ask a different way. Do you have your uncle's permission to do this deal?"
Gruels gave a mirthless smile. "Listen, don't think I'm judging you; that's not my thing. I'd love to do business with you—and I mean it. But you've got to show me something. Not just stories your uncle told you, something. We have a process of authentication, and it's fairly rigorous. The gallery's policy is to insist on things that are written down."
"I know," Ike said. "There's a story about the first British missionary
who arrived in Utonki."
"What about him?"
"He threatened to destroy Ngene but drowned in a river owned
by the god."
"Your uncle told you this?"
"Everybody in Utonki knows the story. But it's also in a booklet."
Gruels nodded eagerly. "Great! Now, if that booklet exists, bring
it along with the inventory."
"Mark, remember your meeting at Elbow Room," Stacy shouted.
"Thanks, Stace," Gruels said. Then to Ike: "We'll see you when you've got the stuff in your hands."
Ike raised a hand frantically.
"Yes?" Gruels said.
"We haven't discussed the price. Could you tell me the range?"
Gruels's brow became furrowed in exasperation. "No, really," he said, slowly. "I discuss prices only when the inventory is in front of me. That's policy here at foreign gods. But you can be sure of one thing—no dealer tops our offer. You said you've got great merchandise. You get me a great item, you can count on getting a great offer. That's a promise."
He extended a hand. More out of confusion than design, Ike hesitated for a moment and then took it. Again Gruels placed his left hand on Ike's shoulder.
"Don't think I doubt that this is a great god. But this gallery is huge on authentication. Remember that. Nothing beats seeing things on paper—photographs, books, documents. If there are mentions in one or two scholarly texts, that's terrific."
Ike's heart chugged as he headed for the exit. Once outside, he drew deep drafts of air until he felt steadied. And then, in quick, springy strides, he hastened back to the garage.