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Authors: Jonathan Gash

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BOOK: The Grace in Older Women
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'Yes, please.' I was sweating buckets from deliverance.

'First is,' I heard Sheehan start up, 'stained-glass windows from
the Black Moat House. Montgomery's bid.'

'Thank you, Mr. Sheehan,' Corinth's assistant stepped forward,
wisely addressing his remarks to Big John. 'The robbery I propose concerns
moderate cost and minimal risk. The Black Moat House is an ancient pile in
coastal Suffolk due west from Thorpeness. It has earned historians' attention
these many years. Visitors are attracted by its windows' quality.'

He patted his pockets, quite the forgetful major wanting map
references. Military bearing, with a smart tash and a brisk manner, he'd been
used to authority, which raised interesting thoughts about why he was
subservient to the beautiful Corinth.

'The windows were designed by Lalique's assistants. French design.
glamorous rather than overtly exotic - '

'Hush now,’ Big John said as if calming a babe. Montgomery clammed
as if gagged. 'There any doubt they're French?'

'No, Mr. Sheehan. I can bring evidence, if you wish.’ Montgomery
Mainwaring was desperate to expound, but Big John knows only money. His
convictions are absolute, though. Montgomery had better

"Right. How much 0 '

'I am authorized to bid nine." Montgomery said, looking
round. 'That is for a clean removal, all windows intact.'

'How many windows are there?" Bog Frew asked, trying to sound
bored, but excited at the value of leaded windows.

'Four large, three small.'

Bog winced. The price was steep. Litterbin chipped in. He could
n
ever resist scraps,
however the word's defined.

'They worth it, though, eh? ' he said. 'Continental stuffs going a
bomb down the chute.' The chute is the Channel Tunnel. 'Go on, then. Ill bid
ten. I'll suffer, you dance.' He said it as if we'd forced him to make the
offer.

'Any advance on ten?' from Big John.

'Eleven,’ Montgomery said. He was calm, give him that.

It was me invented the system of numbers. Some years back, money
got ridiculous from politicians doing secret things that eroded the world's
money. Revaluation, inflation, devaluations, worrying the life out of
everybody. It got stupid. So I started quoting everything in the average wage.
Government statistics include the average annual wage, meaning enough for a
family to live on for a year. Money has to be translated into time, or it means
nowt. Within a twelvemonth antique dealers even, where were quoting in
multiples of the average annual wage. It's the only sensible means of measuring
the importance of the paper stuff we distinguish by the name of gelt.

'All done?’

Litterbin looked restless, but conceded. Big John knocked down the
seven stained-glass windows of the Black Moat House to Montgomery. Now. this
was a tomorrow auction, note. The windows were still in place. And the House's
owner had no part in these proceedings except to wake up one morning to find
their beautiful windows stolen, evaporated with the foggy foggy dew. The money
Montgomery'd bid would be paid up front, the day
before
the theft was due - hence the term 'tomorrow' for this
arrangement. The money is always cash, paid on demand to Sheehan's goons,
whereupon the next day the lovely windows would magically appear in Corinth's 'cran'
- the place where she usually stored illicit antiques.

That's the tomorrow auction: thieves (I exclude honest blokes like
me) bid for a theft of certain objects. Always antiques these days, because of
their unlimited - meaning unchangeable - value to one and all. Now it was up to
the successful bidder to hire crooks good enough to nick the windows, after
which BJS would refund Montgomery's cash deposit less a tenth. There are scores
of variations, but you get the idea.

'Next is a dressing table, made in Copenhagen. F’rook?’

'Thank you, Mr.. Sheehan,' the little sunglasses chap said.
"How do you do, those I have not met hitherto. This table is dear to me.
It stands in the abode of one Dame Millicent Hallsworthy. It has palisander
veneer, most unusual, dated approximately 1790. B J Pengel, Danish. One might
almost believe it to be English manufacture, but its superior Greek fret and
its brass swag over the front of the lower drawer . . .'

He faltered. Big John was glowering. I cringed.

'Superior what?' Quiet voice, far too quiet.

Farouk looked bewildered, scared out of his wits. 'Superior Greek
style fret

'Superior. To
what?
'

'Er, please, John,' I put in, timid, but not wanting blood on the
carpet before I'd said my piece, I think Mr., er, Farouk means the fret is
placed
superiorly, meaning on top of,
not meaning of quality superior to the old London makers.'

'Superior?' The word gnawed.

'Yes, John. It's in the Oxford English Dictionary. Honest.' Oh,
right.' He glowered round to make sure of whatever he wanted. The shaken
visitor continued at his nod.

Ah, Dame Millicent is a daughter of a Polish refugee, self-titled.
She turned to an agricultural life. She purchased the Cockcroft lands outright
when that family . . .'He ahemed in gentlemanly fashion so we all knew he was
being nice about a clone of sinners '. . . relinquished their property. I saw
this piece of furniture on a visit. Cockcroft Manor's security is moderate.'

'Cavern?' asked Big John.

'Easy, John,' said Cavern. He's a prematurely wrinkled Morne
bloke. You don't mangle with Cavern. Big John once sent him into a gaol to
punish some inmates that Big John wanted corrected. Cavern slipped in,
inflicted the necessary, and was home the following day without a scratch. I
like the sense of security that comes from agreeing with Cavern
et al
.

'I bid one,' Farouk said.

‘Two.' Habit said the bid for Litterbin.

‘Three.' Bog Frew did his I-don't-care pose, fooling nobody but
himself, as Farouk capped Litterbin.

Silence. Sheehan gave it the nod. Farouk looked dismayed, but I
wondered. His sort of quiet reflective type never looks dismayed, however
downcast he might be. So he wanted us to believe he was dejected when he really
wasn't. Now why would an antique dealer propose the theft of an antique from a
country house, pay local thieves to steal it, yet not really want it?

We pressed on, me shelving the little problem. Antiquery's full of
these twists. You can never remember half of them. I'd have to ask Tinker what
Farouk was up to.

Sheehan next allowed some Louis Comfort Tiffany glass to be stolen
from an East London museum, but said Bog Frew would have to make his own
arrangements because this wasn't his area. Tomtom would give Bog a couple of
names, contacts. Besides, Big John couldn't care less about foreign stuff. It
broke my heart to hear of pieces so lovely as Tiffany Glass Company of New York
- leaders in the Art-Nouveau style, late nineteenth century. Oddly, these
glorious American antiques are far more admired by non-Americans than by the
Yanks themselves. The Tiffany firm had a workman called Arthur Nash, whose
colours and designs are brilliant. I'd seen the collection - only eight pieces,
only one night guard. I'd wondered whether to try the place myself, just for one
of Nash's Tiffany 'favrile' pieces, which are simply glass shapes like balls,
vases, fruits, decorated by flowers or vines. Louis Tiffany coined the name
himself, bright lad, and did the same shapes on metalwork and even pottery. I
wondered whether to try to 'chop' (meaning to share) the scam with Bog Frew.
I'd heard lately he had lost heavily on horses. Again.

Big John denied Montgomery permission to do our town's museum for
Roman coins, on the grounds that it was done far too often. But he allowed him
a theft of a vintage motor from a Berkshire museum. There was enthusiastic
bidding for this, the maniacs. Car addicts are really odd. Bog Frew wanted a
lovely flintlock fowling piece by Manton stolen from the Rotunda Museum in
Woolwich, and sulked when Big John said a flat no because it belonged to the
Royal Artillery, the "Gunners'.

'Any separates?' Big John asked.

'Er, John. Sorry and all that . . .'

His gaze interrogated Cavern, who shook his head to tell his
gaffer this was the first he'd heard of an extra proposal.

'Yes, Lovejoy?'

'Er, John. There's a big painting, Stubbs, a horse. Down the
estuary. I've been wondering if . . . Nothing definite, you understand, and I'd
have to get the gelt together, maybe syndicate it, like, and I know it's early
days . . .'

'Picture?' He wouldn't know a masterpiece if he fell over it, but
his shrewdness can't be bested. 'What's he saying, Cavern?'

'Propose it, Lovejoy. Then bid. With,' Cavern added, secretly
rioting in mirth-filled glee, 'money on the nail.'

'I know, John,' I said, desperate. 'But can I give notice that I
want to propose it next time? If that's all right?'

Sheehan thought a second. 'Put it on hold? Right, Lovejoy. But
you'll pay a half extra when you bid.'

I dabbed my sweaty brow. 'Thanks. Really good of you, John.'

'Called?' he asked.

'
Whistlejack
,' I said,
looking to see if anybody present jumped in surprise.

Montgomery did. Bog Frew turned slowly to look at me in utter
astonishment, but he was an actor, right? Farouk didn't, possibly being the dog
that did not bark, as Sherlock Holmes remarked. Only Litterbin's response
seemed normal. He guffawed.

'What a frigging name!'

Practically grovelling in gratitude, I fawned my way out into the
cool daylight, every muscle trembling. I was standing by the Roman wall
recovering when Montgomery came by. I could see Corinth at a cafe table,
smoking her head off.

'Lovejoy!' False heartiness. 'Chance of a word?'

'Sorry. Monty. I'm due at a meeting. Clients waiting.'

He smiled in polite disbelief. 'Ring me. Pretty urgent, what?'

‘Ta. What about?'

'Good idea that, about Whistlejack. I'll tell Miss Corinth.'

So we went our separate ways. I felt I'd done superbly, for now
Whistlejack
. the famous Stubbs painting,
could not be stolen, for Big John Sheehan's writ ran throughout the whole
Eastern Hundreds. I hadn't lost my touch for disaster.

Hurry now to fit in everything before twilight, when I'd have to
do the burglary. Sabrina time.

 

11

One thing you can be sure of: antiques and sex are scarey. Which
one's more frightening than the other, I don't really know, but they run it
close. Which is why I walked past Sabrina's house without looking, then
stro-o-o-olled slowly past the remnants of the Roman wall that borders Castle
Field, carefully not looking across the road to where the luscious Sabrina
palpitated behind her window. Two o'clock, on the dot, and Sunday, as she'd
ordered.

The curtains were drawn upstairs, signal forgo. Her Jaguar, size
of the Norwich express, was backed into the driveway, not bum outwards. Signal
two. And the flowers in the windows downstairs, blue: signal three. I went
towards the house only when nobody happened by walking their dog, across the
small lawn and darted inside, the door opening the instant I made it.

'You're only just on time, Lovejoy.'

What's the answer when a woman says that? Early, I'd be risking
her reputation. Late, disaster.

She enveloped me, mouth seeming rimmed by lips a foot thick, breasts
slamming me against the wall. She clicked the door lock as we groped and
clutched. It was two o'clock Sunday all right. From the corner of my eye, as
passion took over, I caught sight of the printer's proofs of the next Aldeburgh
auction lying tantalizingly on the couch, but I was already too far gone and my
vision blurred. We made the safety of her outhouse before paradise obliterated
my remaining senses.

 

We'd met in odd circumstances. The trip to the Cornish holiday
resort was by reason of some antiques catastrophe. I'd tried to organize a
syndicate to buy an Adam Revival cabinet known to have been exhibited at the
1867 Paris Exhibition. Cruelly, some New Yorker bought it for quarter of a
million slotniks, leaving me owing frightening interest on a loan I'd thought
cast-iron. This Leslie Mulrose bloke I'd come to Cornwall to meet was a heavy
roller, gave loans on antiques. I'd arranged to meet him at his hotel. I had
three forged sale notes on me, all relating to imaginary furniture in the
Midlands, as convincers.

I'd been nearly basking on the bobbing briny - meaning I was
staring out to sea from the sand - when Sabrina happened by. She was carrying
her succulent self and a catalogue from Greenhalgh's Original Antiques Auction
(every word of that title's a laugh) in Aldeburgh. For a moment I was startled,
thinking she'd come after me about an overdue account and a dropsy I'd done -
that's moving a good antique from a mixed job into some dross, so you get it-
and the good little one - cheap. It takes sleight of hand.

We got chatting. I made sure of that.

BOOK: The Grace in Older Women
6.76Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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