Authors: Jonathan Gash
To the Chinese god Kuan Ti, guardian of antique dealers and pawnshops, this book is sincerely and respectfully dedicated.
He is also the god of war.
A story for friends in Tripoli, for Tom in dock, Susan, and the Berwick lifeboat men.
It is naught; it is worthless, said the buyer. Then having bought he goes laughing.
Proverbs XX, verse 14
Constable & Robinson Ltd
55-56 Russell Square
London WC1B 4HP
First published in Great Britain in 1979
This paperback edition published by Constable Crime,
an imprint of Constable & Robinson Ltd, 2013
Copyright © Jonathan Gash, 2013
The right of Jonathan Gash to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by her in accordance with the Copyright,
Designs and Patents Act 1988
All rights reserved. This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, re-sold, hired out or otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
A copy of the British Library Cataloguing in
Publication Data is available from the British Library
Printed and bound in the EU
1 3 5 7 9 10 8 6 4 2
Cover illustration: Peter Mac;
NTIQUES AND WOMEN
are my only interests. It sounds simple, but you just try putting them in the right order.
I was in this tent when somebody hissed my name. It was Tinker Dill, unshaven and shabby as ever. Betty dived with a muted shriek behind a trestle table, clutching at her blouse. I couldn’t blame her. I’d thought it was her husband too for a second. Tinker wormed his way under the tent flap. I almost went berserk. Trust Tinker to interrupt the one chance Betty and I had, even if it was in the middle of our village’s annual fair.
‘Can’t you leave me alone when I’m –’
‘Quick! Come and see, for Gawd’s sake!’ He looked stupid, his head craned upwards among the grass.
‘No,’ I hissed back. ‘Get out.’ My heart was thumping. This is typical of Tinker. Always around when you don’t want him. I could hear the band and chattering voices nearby outside.
I was just going after Betty again when the magic word cleared the love fog from my mind and made me
stop dead. It has to. I’m an antiques dealer keen on survival.
‘Antique.’ Tinker started to wriggle backwards, his job done. ‘One of the kids in the pageant’s got it.’
‘Who was that horrible little tramp?’ Betty was ashen. She started tidying herself mechanically.
‘Tinker Dill,’ I said, thinking hard. ‘My barker. He finds antiques for me.’ I didn’t add that he gets paid a fortune in commissions from every antique I buy or sell. When I’m not broke, that is.
‘He won’t tell on us, darling?’
I hoped not. Her husband’s built like a shire horse.
‘No. Er, look, love.’ I began to edge away.
‘But we haven’t got long –’ She came to me smiling but I pushed her away and made for the flap. The huge marquee was full of spaced tables laden with food and jugs of orange. A million villagers would descend on it at four o’clock and clear the lot. Betty was in charge of the arrangements. Hence the solitude, if a love-tryst in a cathedral-sized tent in the middle of a village pageant can be called solitude, that is.
‘You’re not going?’ She pulled at my arm, angry and disbelieving.
‘Let go.’ I got enough of the flap undone.
‘Of all the –’ Betty tried a furious swipe at my head but I clouted her before her hand landed. She tumbled over a table and a trifle splashed nastily.
‘See you Friday?’ I thought she’d be pleased at that but it only seemed to make her more mad.
‘You swine! I’ll –’ She recovered and came for me again but I was through the flap and off. Safe and sound among the strolling hundreds, nodding and smiling as I went.
Sometimes women really nark me. No sense of priorities. Ever noticed that?
Things hadn’t been too good recently for me. The few I’d seen lately were either rubbish or so highly priced it was heartbreaking. One gem had lit my life for an instant, a luscious porcelain Ting bowl from Hopei Province, about
1150. Some maniac had removed the bronze rim but the dazzling magnolia-ivory colour moved me to tears when I saw it. You’ll have guessed by now I’m a full-time dedicated antiques dealer. I admit dealers are mostly lustful, greedy, savage, crude and vulgar – in fact, just like you. The difference is that I bet I’m a lot more honest about me than you are about you.
‘Lovejoy!’ A shout among the crowd. Tinker was waving across the field near the mediaeval pageant. I started over through the press of people. If you’re going to belly laugh at my name get it over and done with. I’m owner of Lovejoy Antiques, Inc. In fact, I’m the firm as well, the sole proprietor and its one miraculous asset. I add the ‘Inc.’ bit to make me sound a bit more like a huge American firm than otherwise might seem the case. Anything to help with the thousand-year mortgage on my cottage.
Pushing between rows of open air stalls on our village’s fete days is like running the gauntlet. I’d only got a yard before a gushing voice cooed out:
man!’ The vicar’s wife playfully wagged a finger at me from the bottle stall. ‘I’ve caught you at it! Red-handed!’
‘Eh? Er . . .’ I dithered. Mrs Woking’s a nice old dear in tweeds.
‘Scrumping those cream cakes before teatime!’ she trilled.
‘Oh. Well . . .’ I broke into a sweat of relief. Of course. The nosh was crammed into Betty’s marquee. The old dear thought I’d been after her meringues. Some hopes. I’ve still got my own teeth.
!’ The ladies with her tittered. Women love appetites, any old appetites. Ever wondered about that?
‘I thought nobody noticed.’ I shrugged with mock resignation, smiling.
‘You’re becoming known for it, Lovejoy.’ Jean Evans gazed innocently at me as she put the barb in. Our village schoolmistress, addicted to young gentry with fast cars. She was running the bingo today. I grinned weakly and pushed on towards the silver band. I’d have to sort Jean Evans out sooner or later. Too cool by far. I hurried on. You can’t help becoming excited at the sniff of an antique.
A good crowd had turned up to the pageant. Constable Jilks was in his element at the gate, flagging down the occasional car and pointing the way in to families walking over from our one crossroads.
‘Hey, George,’ I called as I trotted past. ‘They all know the way to the village green. It’s not shifted for three thousand years.’
His pompous smile faded as he blotted his helmet. ‘What are you doing here, Lovejoy?’ he asked suspiciously.
‘Just enjoying the fresh country smog, George.’ I gave him my blandest beam and left him to his useless job. Why people are so suspicious of me I honestly don’t know.
‘Here, Lovejoy.’ Tinker was hopping about eagerly by the display field. People along the ropes had left a space round him, perhaps because he stinks of stale
beer. He’s not really completely horrible, as barkers go. But he usually looks dishevelled and half sloshed, partly because he is and partly because of his tatty greatcoat. He’s not taken it off since he was demobbed.
‘You’re always after the birds, Lovejoy,’ he criticized.
‘I was only helping her,’ I said lamely. ‘Where is it?’
‘Aye,’ he said, disbelieving old clown. Not even my own barker believes me. No trust these days. ‘See that little kid dressed like Caesar?’
Tinker meant a little blond lad in tin. The Romans had dusted our local Iceni tribesmen over as soon as the pageant opened. They were now changing noisily behind the plywood castle façade while our band played manfully on. Parents and teachers ran about rounding up stray infants. There was bunting and flags, banners and coats-of-arms were everywhere. It was bedlam. What the hell we do it for God alone knows. I was knackered and blistered from helping Jean’s assorted nine-year-old psychopaths to build a chariot in her school. I’d been really proud of it. It took me three days. Then they’d ridden it into the Boadicea scene for a couple of seconds and that was it. I tell you, never again.
‘Behind him, Lovejoy.’ Tinker had more sense than to point.
‘The two serfs?’
‘Between them.’ Two little servants were carrying a long wooden board with something on it. I glanced at a neighbour’s programme. They were probably up to King Arthur. A score of children, suddenly pious, were in procession across the grass towards a cardboard Camelot.
‘See the sword, Lovejoy?’ I edged away from the acrid fumes of Tinker’s alcoholic breath and gazed.
The child was struggling but he managed to lift it above his head. A fanfare sounded. A dozen tinfoil knights on Shetland ponies trotted out of the painted castle’s doors to welcome the new king. Applause rippled round. Suddenly I couldn’t move. My breath froze and the world halted on its axis.
‘Yes,’ I croaked.
‘Lovejoy.’ Tinker was holding me back. I’d inadvertently started to climb the rope on to the field. I guessed Norman or Late English. I broke into a sweat. A real find.
‘Come on, Tinker,’ I backed out of the press of spectators.
‘Is it genuine, Lovejoy?’ He trotted beside me as I started round towards the changing areas.
‘Where’d the little basket get it?’ The eternal wail of the barker.
‘Where does anybody get anything?’ I said – the eternal wail of the antiques dealer.
You can’t help being bitter. Any collector will tell you why. You can spend your life searching for a particular antique and never get within a light year of the bloody thing. Then somebody will fall over it. Or buy it for a quid in a junk shop. Or decide to replace an old mantel piece, and it’s eureka for somebody all over again. It happens a lot hereabouts. To damned near everyone else but me, that is. It really hurts.
In the past five years, I’ve seen valuable flintlock duelling pistols in old beam crannies. I’ve seen a Celtic gold tore hoed up by a farm labourer and brought in as a funny old bent horseshoe. I’ve seen a collector’s Venetian veneered cabinet used as a mechanic’s tool bench in a garage. And a beautifully preserved genuine
1751 Chelsea dish stuck under a penny plantpot out in a garden. It breaks your heart.
I tried not to run, Tinker Dill shambled alongside. The end of the green was roped off. A wooden scaffolding held a line of rickety facades in place. Various porch ways were labelled to show where each group of children was to enter. Needless to say, many bits had blown off or been pinched by the little fiends.
‘What are you doing here, Lovejoy?’
That’s all people ever say to me, I thought furiously. ‘Get back to your bingo,’ I replied without looking at Jean. ‘I’ve as much right on the village green as everybody else. I’ve got blisters to prove it.’ That was a mean one.
‘Shouldn’t you be back in the tea tent?’ she said sweetly, shooing a cluster of wandering Druids back.
‘That big sword.’ I couldn’t be sidetracked, not so near a precious find. ‘Whose is it?’
‘Why not ask Betty Marsham?’ That sugary voice again. ‘Perhaps she can . . .
I gave her the bent eye and waited.
‘Well . . .’ she said defiantly. There was a pause while Cromwell’s Ironsides clanked tinnily past on ponies. Now two tiny Anglo-Saxons had got among the Druids.