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It was a little before one P.M. when a wiry American emerged from the Tube station into a drizzle, the type of dreary January weather that earns London its reputation as a depressing place during the long winter months. The man looked around Sloane Square. Normally, even in this dark season, the block was pretty and bustling with shoppers. This Sunday in early 2014, it was desolate.
Val Broeksmit didn’t feel well. He had woken up groggy from the previous night’s drug-fueled jam session with his band. Then, on the crowded Underground train on his way to Chelsea, he had been jolted by a surge of negative energy, like a dark spirit had brushed past him. He lit a cigarette and trudged toward the entrance to the Saatchi Gallery, his head down in a futile attempt to stay dry. He was scheduled to have brunch at the gallery’s café with his parents. The last time he’d seen them was a month earlier, in December 2013, before they’d set off for the Caribbean and then a vacation in Oman. Val had just turned thirty-eight. While he was a talented musician with thirty-four albums to his name (none, alas, were chart-toppers), he lived off the largesse of his father, Bill, who had spent many years as a senior executive at Deutsche Bank, one of the world’s largest financial institutions. Tall, skinny, and scraggly—his friends sometimes told him he resembled a tramp—Val was determined on this Sunday not to get an earful from his mother about looking like a slob. He wore slacks, a blue blazer, and a black woolen cap.
At exactly one o’clock, Val arrived at the arched brick wall that snaked around the Saatchi Gallery. He was notorious in his family for never being on time, but here he was, and his obsessively punctual parents were nowhere to be seen. “Where are you guys?” he texted his mother, Alla. She didn’t respond.
Val wandered across the pedestrianized street, perusing a row of boutiques and overpriced shops. He came across the Taschen bookstore, which specialized in coffee-table books about art and culture. For the past couple of years, Val had been collecting rare first editions—the older and more famous the author, the better. He was so into his hobby that he had done volunteer work for an organization that gathered unwanted books from estate sales and distributed them to needy children. Val would sift through the stacks, searching for hidden gems, and pilfer them for his own little library.
The bookstore was mostly empty. Val browsed its shelves until something caught his eye: an enormous volume with a shimmering silver cover, priced at £650 (about $1,000). It was a limited edition collection of Harry Benson’s iconic photos of the Beatles, including the one of a pillow fight in a Paris hotel room. The book was signed by the photographer, and its pages were so luxuriously metallic that Val could see his reflection in them. He started to daydream about convincing his parents to buy it for him as a belated birthday gift.