Spray

He’d called himself FitzSlay back when he started tagging the side of Fitzgibbon’s Art Supply, a wide canvas that faced onto Broadway at 203rd street, under the IRT tracks. Mr. Fitzgibbon, who’d once accused him of stealing a can of Rust-Oleum Red, whitewashed the building four times before giving up. And soon after, FitzSlay’s bold, funky letters conquered the neighborhood.

From there he’d moved on to daring declarations on the undersides of bridges and full visual narratives that ran the lengths of express trains. Now writing as Slay, he became one of the principals of 70s graffiti—elusive and regal, the stuff of legends. Slay calmly finishing a midnight job on the Whitestone Bridge while NYPD threw trash at his head and waited for him to climb up into their custody. When he disappeared into the East River, the cops assumed he’d died in the water. But, of course, he wasn’t finished. There were those tunnels on Staten Island, done up like cathedrals come to life overnight. And the huge, jeering letters that appeared on the upper tier at Shea the morning of Game Five of the ‘73 World Series.

In clandestine interviews he was cryptic and vaguely superior.

“Yes, anything that anyone ever says about me is true.”

In the 80s when some of the old masters began to make real money, he emerged. Just the right time with just the right representation. He was profiled in toney magazines and celebrated on TV for his upmarket grit. His work went up in pricey galleries and modern art museums. For the next thirty years he lived comfortably in Amsterdam and Nice, where he learned about fine wines and private planes.

When TC Commercial Bank offered him four-and-a-half million dollars to put a mural on a wall that would face their new public atrium, Slay came back to New York for the first time in years. He recreated a 1 train sitting on the elevated tracks above Inwood, circa 1972, loaded from front to back with the story of a young artist. And looming over it all was a kid with a spray can. The graffiti dripped onto the buildings and the streets. It even covered the clouds and the back of the young man’s jacket.

It was unveiled to the familiar sound of men in suits clapping. Then it was written up appreciatively in all the right places. The consensus was that he’d managed to capture the anarchy and the discipline of an essential era. The rough lyricism. The pious vulgarity. Big Apple’s Newest Cultural Landmark? There were metaphors and high-rise parties. Slay lived on champagne and gushing compliments for a few weeks.

The morning he was scheduled to fly back to France, a call came from TC Commercial. The mural had been defaced. They showed Slay the surveillance footage: a man had cut the chain-link fence that connected the atrium to the street. He slid his ladder and his paint through the opening and worked all night, hauling buckets up and down, taking his time with each detail. It was slow going; he wasn’t a young man.

The result was striking. In this version of 1972 Inwood, FitzSlay had been defeated. The trains had all been painted a flinty subway gray. The sides of the buildings and the trestle had been cleaned up, neutralized. The clouds were natural, white puffs, and the kid with the spray can was gone, replaced with blue sky. The desecration was deliberate and total. The whole scene had been de-vandalized. What was illicit in the art had been illegally legitimized.

Slay stared at the screen while the senior vice-president of the world’s fourth largest bank offered his “deepest apologies for this horrific violation.” Then the head of security found a good clear blowup of the criminal’s face. He was worn-out with mustard-colored spots on the top of his bald head, and the uneven scrub of gray beard extended down to his neck. It was Owen Fitzgibbon—Fitzgibbon Art Supply. The store had shut down in 1977. Slay had taken it as a victory—the first of many.

He shrugged.

“No, doesn’t look familiar.”


The Man, The Legend

The first time Louden met him, Mickey was wearing one of those 10-reasons-a-beer-is-better-than-a-woman tee shirts. When they’d gone to see Mickey’s uncle, he’d worn a shirt with stick-figure bride and groom—Game Over. Louden wore a suit and tie to meet the crime boss.

“Hey, Uncle Teddy. This is my buddy from The Department of—”

“Interdepartmental Communications.”

Not the best-known branch of the federal government, but one with an annual operational budget of more than four billion dollars. Louden practically ran the South Atlantic branch office by himself. Unpaid overtime, cleanup after incompetent coworkers, absorbing all the flak from DC. He made 41,776 dollars, and that was frozen for the next five years. Meanwhile Mickey had a Lexus and a condo on the water—just because he was the right man’s nephew.

“The wiring contract. We want that,” Ted said.

“I’ll make sure we give your bid the attention it deserves.”

Ted didn’t look happy with this.

“That’s just how they talk, Uncle Teddy.” Mickey put an arm around Louden. “Fucking desk monkeys—they can’t just say, I’ll give you the contract for 300 grand.”

“You get half on Tuesday,” Ted said.

***

From across the bar, he saw Mickey from behind—Female Body Inspector. Louden didn’t call, didn’t wave to get the man’s attention. He just waited until Mickey adjusted to the dark of the room and approached the back table, smiling big as he sat down with a canvas gym bag in his lap.

“You’re one drink ahead of me, man.”

“It’s just Sprite,” Louden said. Nothing with caffeine today. He was nervous enough.

“Hey, you like the shirt? You know why I wear it?”

“No.”

“Two reasons. First of all: it’s funny. And if I can bring—you know—if I can bring comedy into the world, I’m doing something right.”

“Can we just do this?”

“Wait, come on. Don’t you want to know the second reason?”

Louden had been up all night the past three weeks, disqualifying better bids, keeping Osterman in the dark, making sure O’Neal was happy with his cut, cleaning up the paper trail. It was sober, tedious work, and now he had to humor this strutting clown.

“Go ahead, tell me.”

“I’m not saying this is likely, but what if some woman sees it and thinks it’s, like, an actual agency?”

“I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

“No, it’s not likely. I grant you that, but you would be surprised what some people fall for. Girls especially.”

“Can I see it?”

Mickey put the bag on the table. Neat stacks of 100s inside. He hadn’t even zipped it all the way.

“It won’t be announced for another week,” Louden said. “But O’Neal will sign off on this today.”

“You know—I take back what I said before. About girls being more gullible? I seen men fall for some dumb shit, too. Really, there’s just a lot of stupid people out there.”

You’re right about that.

“But you’re one of the smart ones,” Mickey said. “300 grand just to shuffle a few papers around? That’s not stupid, is it?”

“No. Now, I—”

“I gave you money, you give us the contract, right?”

“That’s right.”

Louden zipped up the bag and left the bar.

***

You can get Wi-Fi and almost any kind of dry cereal you want, but minimum security is still prison.

The investment banker set his Trix across from Louden.

“You want to see the video?” he asked, holding out his phone.

“No.”

“I bet you anything The Bureau leaked it themselves. Too funny.”

“Not interested.”

“You look good in it. Suit and tie, hair slicked back. Like a real man of business.”

Louden wanted to ram his plastic spoon right through the banker’s eye, but he also hoped to get out in two-and-a-half years.

“Just so I understand,” the banker continued. “You took a bribe from an undercover FBI agent who was wearing a shirt that said FBI on it?”

Louden was silent for a long time.

“But on the back—”

“What? What did it say on the back of the shirt?”

“. . . Nothing.”