In the City by the Bay

Claire Yeon

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Twelve Bay-area publications had named Síle the best spot in the city for wine. Claire Yeon was withholding judgment until she’d actually tasted the offerings, but from what she’d seen so far, the hype was not unfounded. The view alone was everything it promised to be and more: the tasting room sat on the twenty-third floor of the Ohlone Tower, with floor-to-ceiling windows that gave an unobstructed panorama of the harbor once the city’s famous fog burned off. Síle Súilleabháin, the eponymous owner, was a former Napa Valley sommelier who catered to San Francisco’s elite. Reviews praised many things, but above all was the encyclopedic knowledge and attention to detail Síle employed to create a customized wine-tasting experience for each guest. Entry was granted only by reservation or invitation, and procuring said reservation or invitation on short notice was nearly impossible unless you knew someone.

Fortunately for Claire, she did.

Said someone was running late, but Claire’s concerns that she would be denied entry without him proved to be unfounded. Síle herself met her at the door, looking exactly how Claire had always wanted to: long and thin and extraordinarily beautiful, with cerulean eyes, pin-straight black hair that reached midway down her back, and a complexion as pale and pure as fresh cream. She doubted there was a stone’s difference in their weight, for all that Síle was a foot taller and Claire was slim to begin with. The elegant sommelier asked about Claire’s preferences as she led her to her table, speaking in a lilting Irish accent tinged on the edges by the arrogance often adopted by those whose services were sought by the rich and powerful. They stopped in front of a white-clothed table set for two next to a window. Claire took her seat, and Síle excused herself, with the promise that she would soon return with the first selection.

We’re not so different, you and I, Claire thought as the sommelier slipped away. Both had cultivated their unique talents into ventures that were in high demand to discerning clientele. Both were acknowledged experts in their field. And both, she realized with a pang of bitterness, could play at being equals with those who sought their services, but would never truly be one of them. That fact meant less to her now than it did a year ago, though. So much had changed. She turned her head toward the window, but instead of surveying the city nearly two hundred fifty feet below, she considered her reflection. The face was mostly the same, but the person behind it was different than the last time she’d been in this city. Older. Wiser. More experienced. Better? Worse? Or just a more authentic version of who she'd been all along?

Her gaze shifted, and she took in the city, getting the first proper look at it since arriving. San Francisco’s iconic skyline was much the same as it had been when she last saw it, save for one addition: a certain tower situated across from Pier 48. It rose some forty-odd stories above the harborfront in a magnificent array of glass and steel. Its blue-tinted windows, which would have been more subdued on a cloudy day, were a dazzling azure in the afternoon light. She had heard a great deal about this tower, and about those who walked its halls. They were not her concern today, though, nor was she theirs; she was passing through their city on business that was entirely legitimate. As to whether or not those reasons would remain such, well, that was up to her friend.

Hugh Tang was one of the few people Claire did consider a friend. They met in Singapore twelve years ago, when both were starting out in the world of art insurance and authentication. Claire’s love for the city - and a longstanding on/off relationship with one of Hugh’s co-workers - brought her back to Singapore many times, and he was the one person she was always glad to see. Four years earlier, he moved to San Francisco to be with his partner, Otto, a private banker specializing in art lending. The two were to be married in the winter. He'd called her the day before yesterday with a lead on an interesting job; before he could get into details, she mentioned she would be passing through his area and they could meet in person if he liked. She couldn’t imagine ACME having a problem with what he had to say. Hugh always followed the letter of the law… and was exceptionally gifted in interpreting it to his favor.

Movement detected out of the corner of her eye brought her gaze back inside. A surge of anticipation rushed through her as she hoped to catch sight of her old friend, but it was Síle, accompanied by a waiter carrying bottle, glass, and corkscrew on a silver tray. Claire listened as the sommelier described the wine she had chosen, and managed to retain about half of it. This was a 2014 Vermentinu from Corsica, featuring aromas of pear, lime, and grapefruit, dry on the palate, with the grapefruit flavor rising more prominently at the finish, along with a hint of almond. The Corsican varieties tended to have higher acidity than their Sardinian cousins, according to Síle. Claire would have to take her word for it; she couldn’t recall tasting this style of wine before in either way. At any rate, it was delicious, and she didn’t need the life story of every grape that went into the bottle to know that. Maybe Hugh was on to something with his wine obsession after all.

The sommelier took her leave, and Claire returned to admiring the view. After a few minutes, she took another sip of wine, trying to identify the purported hint of almond. It did not appear, but something else did - or, rather, someone. Hugh Tang, looking dapper in black slacks and a tailored shirt the same color blue as the windows of Accolade, was weaving his way through the tables. One hand clutched a briefcase, the other was raised in greeting. She stood as he closed the rest of the distance between them, set the briefcase down, and took her hands in his. “It’s so good to see you, xīn'ài,” he said, leaning forward to kiss her on the cheek. He released her hands, and both of them took their seats. “Sorry I’m late. Traffic in this city is bad enough without half the streets in downtown under construction. Do you know there have been cones and scaffolding at Third and Howard since last fall? I don’t think they’re really building anything at all - but enough of that. How are you?”

“Quite well,” she answered truthfully. “I am glad it worked out for us to see each other.”

“I know you didn’t come all this way just to hear something I could have told you over the phone,” Hugh continued. “What brought you to my side of the country? You said you would be in San Francisco, but you didn’t say why.”

“A lucky coincidence. I’m on my way to Seattle, and I was already scheduled for a layover here. It was easy enough to change my connecting flight to a later one and free up a few hours.”

“You didn’t come from New York, I take it. Singapore?”

“No. Guadalajara.”

“I see.” Hugh’s eyes flickered downward, and Claire was sure they were confirming the presence of the thin gold band around the third finger of her left hand. “And how is the, ah... archaeologist?”

From that pause, Claire concluded that “archaeologist” had not been Hugh’s first choice of words. That left a range of others to choose from, several of which she had told others never to use in her presence. She felt a surge of anger, and bought enough time for it to pass by finishing off the Vermentinu. She’d accepted the fact that some doubt was inevitable when she married a man she’d known for less than two months, and he was an unexpected choice in many ways, but really, enough was enough. Open speculation as to why the marriage happened so quickly had died out by now - over a year had passed without any of the usual motivators for hastiness emerging - but many in their circles were still trying to figure out what sybaritic, high-strung Claire and laid-back, intellectual Yves saw in each other. Hugh had never given indication that he was one of them, but it also wouldn’t be the first time he’d held his tongue for her sake only to say he’d seen it coming when a relationship imploded. Well, not this time. You’ll see.

When the last of the wine had drained away, so had the ire. Flying into a rage every time someone annoyed her was something she’d invested a great deal of energy into bettering about herself in the last year. Claire was sure Hugh hadn’t meant to offend, but still, she could not let the slight go uncontested. “If you mean my husband,” she said, clearly articulating the last two words, “he is enjoying the respect and recognition he deserves after making the most important discovery in pre-Columbian religious iconography of the last fifty years. He’s on his way to Peru as we speak to consult on the excavation of an Incan temple, and when he gets back, we have an interview with National Geographic. He’s in very high demand right now.”

Hugh had the decency to look abashed. “And I know you had no small part in that. Congratulations - to both of you.”

He was blatantly trying to cover his misstep by appealing to her ego. She considered making him work a bit harder for it, but she liked him too much, and saw him so seldom, to risk marring the occasion with a quarrel. Síle Súilleabháin picked that moment to make her return, bearing two more bottles of wine. Hugh stood and greeted her with almost as much enthusiasm as he had Claire. They exchanged a few lines in what Claire recognized as Irish Gaelic, and when he sat back down, the sommelier introduced the next selections: a Zweigelt from Austria’s Weinviertel region for Hugh, and a Grüner Veltliner from the same area for Claire. She described the flavor profiles - Claire retained even less of this than with the Vermentinu - and departed again. Claire watched her go, feeling dubious. And I thought art people were pretentious.

But enough of that. She turned her attention back to Hugh. “Are you learning a new language?” she inquired, seizing upon the opportunity to change the subject with genuine curiosity. Linguistics had never been a strong suit of his, and Irish was an unusual choice even for someone who had the knack of tongues. He spoke English and Mandarin perfectly, having been raised with both, and his Dutch was passable thanks to the influence of his partner, but beyond that, he was known to give up early and spectacularly when he encountered difficulty. She nearly smiled as she recalled an incident six or seven years ago when he became frustrated trying to say a French client’s name and had exclaimed “Why in the hell are there thirteen letters if you only pronounce four of them?” - within earshot of said client. His firm managed to retain the business, but barely.

“Goodness, no - just enough to tell Síle she’s beautiful, and for her to agree. At least, I think that’s what happened. I might have called her a ragged wart, for all the good it’s done me.” He sighed and shook his head. “I’ve been trying to butter her up to the point where she’ll agree to curate the wine list for the wedding, but she keeps refusing me.”

As someone whose own business model depended heavily on maintaining a certain reputation, Claire thought she understood why. “It seems to me that her brand is based around creating a personalized selection for each guest. If she attaches her name to something that goes against that expectation, it could reduce her prestige.”

“Trust you take her side; you two think exactly alike,” Hugh grumbled, though his smile betrayed his true feelings. “Did you know we’ve been planning this wedding for almost two years? I don’t know how you pulled off yours in less than three weeks, xīn'ài.”

She smirked. Neither Hugh nor Otto was particularly well-acquainted with the word “understated.” If half of what she’d heard about their plans came to fruition, the wedding promised to be one of the most extravagant affairs she would ever attend. “Invite seven people and have it in your friend’s living room.”

Hugh laughed. “Well, if any of our friends had a living room like Felicia Mohs, we might have done that!”

Claire’s expression sobered at the mention of her late mentor’s name, and the change in her face reflected back on Hugh’s. He reached across the table and took her hand. “I’m sorry. I know you miss her.”

“She was ready,” Claire said. “She fought as long as she could, but by the end, she’d made peace with it.” The weight on her soul had less to do with the sadness of loss than guilt over time wasted. They rekindled their old bond in the last months of Felicia’s life, but it would have, should have been much longer, had Claire only made the time for it. She’d been much more intentional about her relationships since. Her friends numbered few; that fact did not pain her overmuch, but losing Felicia reinforced the importance of staying close to the ones who mattered.

Hugh raised his glass. “To the ones who shaped us. To friendship transcendent. To Felicia.”

“To Felicia,” Claire echoed, touching her glass to his.

They drank, and for a moment, Claire forgot everything but the Grüner Veltliner. Lemon and nectarine flavors were balanced out by white pepper and honey, with pleasing acidic burst from the first taste that lingered long after the finish. New respect for the sommelier emerged, and she resolved to pay closer attention to the description of the next sampling in addition. Forgive me, Síle. I misjudged you. Her figure and complexion would ever be a source of envy, but Claire could not begrudge the woman her taste in wine.

“I love Austrian wines,” Hugh commented, holding his glass up to the light to admire its rich garnet color. “The region is so well-known for the whites, it’s easy to overlook the reds - a grievous mistake.” He took another drink, and then set down his glass. “Should we get the business out of the way? Then we can catch up on the rest of our gossip.”

“I was about to suggest just that,” Claire replied. He’d hinted in their talk a few days ago that he had something she’d find very interesting, and he was not one to use that term liberally when it came to work. The anticipation had provided a much-needed silver lining to the impending eight weeks of separation while Yves was in Peru. “What do you have for me?”

Hugh did not answer right away. He opened his briefcase, retrieved a black folder from within its depths, and set it on the table in front of him. Clipped to the outside of the folder was a business card, which he pulled off and handed to Claire. “Xavier Hayes, Chief Financial Officer, Therien Microsystems,” she read. She’d heard of the company - they were a recent addition to the Fortune 500 list - but not of Hayes. “Friend of yours?”

“That remains to be seen,” Hugh answered. “He wasn’t very happy with me last time we spoke. Hayes has one of the largest privately-owned collections of Neoclassical pieces on the West Coast, and he's looking to purchase a few more at an auction in London next month. However, he’s got a bit of a cash flow problem. Besides financing, he's also decided to part with an Angelika Kauffman that is expected to fetch no less than five hundred thousand dollars.”

“Let me guess: rich white man wants his rare painting appraised so he doesn’t get undercut by some silver-tongued auctioneer?” She held up her wine glass and swirled the contents, noting the pleasing way in which the golden wine caught the light. “I thought you said this was interesting.”

“Oh, wait for it, xīn'ài,” he replied, the corners of his mouth twitching upward. “You see, when word got out that this particular painting was going to the auction block, Hayes and his lawyers were contacted by one Agatha Jennis, who claims the piece in question has been hanging on her wall for the last ten years.”

“Agatha Jennis?” Claire repeated. That was a name she did recognize. “The same Agatha Jennis who owns one of the biggest real estate holding companies in southern California?”

And the San Diego Padres.”

Claire stared at him for a moment, wine glass still suspended in the air. Finally, she set it down and spoke. “All right, then. I’m listening.”

“Naturally, both Jennis and Hayes are on the warpath,” Hugh went on. “Their lawyers have advised bringing in independent art authentication experts with no prior affiliation to the piece in question. The original sales are also under investigation. Seems that both were through private parties, which explains why this is only coming to light now.”

“Who’s had it longer?” asked Claire. “And who authenticated for them before?”

“Jennis - that is, unless she’s had a forgery all along,” Hugh answered. “Velasquez and Holt did the authentication for her, and Hayes was done by Burgess Venn.”

She frowned. Though she had never worked directly with the Los Angeles-based Velasquez and Holt art law firm, they had an excellent reputation. Venn, as arrogant as he was brilliant, was also well-known in their circles. Their paths had crossed, and there was no love lost between them. Despite her personal feelings for the man, she had to admit he knew what he was doing, and she would have trusted his professional opinion. “It doesn’t seem like either of them to make a mistake like that.”

“That’s the same thing I said when I heard.”

“And how did you hear?” she inquired. It occurred to her that the parties involved would prefer to keep the details of this scandal quiet, and Hugh had yet to explain where either of them came in.

“Hayes contacted me a few days ago and offered me the job. Remember the Émile Bernard I recovered last year? Turns out the owner is a friend of his, and she recommended me. However,” he sighed, “when I said he got financing in addition to trying to sell the Kauffman, he got it through his private bank team by using the rest of his collection as collateral. Guess who is a senior banker in their art lending department?”

And suddenly, everything fell into place. “Otto.”

“Otto,” Hugh confirmed.

Claire shook her head. “Of all the gin joints…”

“Tell me about it. So, instead of taking this very interesting and high-paying job for myself, I had to tell the rich white man’s lawyers that I can’t be involved because his art lender is my fiancé, and thus, I have a personal stake in the current and future value of his collection. Do you know what the finder’s fee on this one is, Claire? Fifteen percent. I could really use that money right now.” He consoled himself with another sip of wine and grumbled something about fireworks.

“Agatha Jennis would sue you for a hell of a lot more if she suspected bias,” Claire reminded him. “Even I might be too close to the situation.”

“I thought about that, so before I called you, I talked to her legal team,” said Hugh. “They’ll accept you - you were name-dropped by someone on their team when they were looking for their hire.” He paused, and then added, “And, honestly, the fact that Burgess Venn hates your guts is working in your favor, for once. They seem to think that you’ll be just as eager for the chance to prove him wrong as to see if your client’s painting is the original.”

It was about time she benefited from Venn’s contempt. She’d certainly been nurturing it long enough. “What happens now?”

“I told the Hayes team I was going to talk to you, and if you’re interested, I’ll pass along your information. They’ll circle back around with their offer. If you accept it, arrangements will be made for you to review both paintings. Present your findings, the other investigator will present theirs, and the lawyers will do the rest. You’ll get paid either way.”

“Those are my five favorite words.” She couldn’t imagine either Jennis or Hayes being terribly put out over the results. One would have an incredibly valuable Angelika Kauffman painting, and the other would have a lucrative insurance payout. Claire lifted her wine glass. “You do know how to make a girl happy, Hugh Tang. I owe you one.”

And it sounds like if Hayes is happy with your work, he’ll keep you on to authenticate anything he buys at the auction next month, too.” Hugh raised his own chalice. “Return the favor someday and we’ll call it even.”

“Deal.”

Both glasses were drained of their contents. Hugh set his back on the table and began to look around the room. “Now, where did Síle go? I know you prefer whites, but if she still has a tempranillo I tried a few weeks ago, I think we can change your mind.”

As he searched for their hostess, Claire’s eyes drifted back to the extraordinary view, and to one building in particular. It wasn’t her intention to let her gaze land on Accolade again, but once it had, she found it hard to look away. I said I would behave myself, and I have. Her allegiances made it impossible for it to always be this way, but for now, she and ACME had no reason to trouble themselves with each other. Soon she would be leaving the city by the bay, and if and when she returned, she'd see to it that this was close as she would get.

Her glass was empty, but she toasted the tower anyway. To you, my worthy opponent. Carry on.
 
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Eugene

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I'm not a wine connoisseur, but this scene was delicious. Just the right blend of story, character and background to keep me scrolling. Bravo.
 

Chase

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Sounds like a nice setup. And it’s happening right under the shadow of Accolade, too.

OOT: So... I don’t know how wine tastings are in the States, but it’s always strange for me to read about one where the wine is actually drank. The full experience of tasting wine includes spitting it out. I expected a spitoon utilized somewhere in this story... (As one-time Marketing Director of Diageo, Moët & Henessy, I am officially an unapologetic liquor snob, you may sue me.)
 

Emma Bezzle

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Ugh, I loved this. The entire tone and voice just screams 'Claire'. There wasn't once when I was reading this that I didn't believe this was coming from Claire. Having this take place with the Accolade in view is a great detail to add. And I love the line 'Or just a more authentic version of who she'd been all along?'

Awesome job, Claire!
 

Morgan

ACME
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I adored this. Your voice is impeccable, of course, and the narrative is a joy to read.

OOT: So... I don’t know how wine tastings are in the States, but it’s always strange for me to read about one where the wine is actually drank. The full experience of tasting wine includes spitting it out. I expected a spitoon utilized somewhere in this story... (As one-time Marketing Director of Diageo, Moët & Henessy, I am officially an unapologetic liquor snob, you may sue me.)
Not to disregard your authority on the programming of fancy events, but I don’t believe it’s necessary in fiction to narrate anything with a ‘spitoon’.
 

Chase

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Not to disregard your authority on the programming of fancy events, but I don’t believe it’s necessary in fiction to narrate anything with a ‘spitoon’.
In defiance of the queen's disregard for his authority, the king decreed that all fiction in the land must include full descriptions of spitoons.
 

Jon Eckart

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And, it can make for a good scene (funny or angering... depending on which way you take it)... ((OOC)) remember... you can write something and mean it one way, but someone can take it to mean something else... and, there's the humor factor to consider, too.
 

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