Saunders & Swindell – said the sign. Well, the last bit wasn’t far off the mark, thought Geoffrey Green. Below the sign, three spheres hung from a bar – the international sign of the pawnbroker.
He gazed into the window. Several guitars hung on the right-hand side, likely the result of an aversion to practice, coupled with the need for beer money. Before him were rows of TVs and laptop computers, and to the left, in a heavily barred section, row upon row of rings, broaches and pendants. Then there were several Victorinox penknives for travellers. He wondered if they still had a blade for removing stones from horses’ hooves.
The prices were generally quite affordable, bargains even. Reflecting the prices paid, he mused.
On the top shelf were antiques and bric-a-brac, and in the centre, an oil painting of a young woman in a white summer dress, standing in a garden amongst a rainbow of blooms. The price tag was £500. Thank God it hadn’t been sold! He pushed the door open and went up to the counter.
A small, wiry man appeared. His face was blotchy, and his eyes were small and bloodshot. A thin grey stubble covered his cheeks and chin, and beneath a pointed nose, crooked yellow teeth formed something that might have been a smile. “Can I help you, sir?”
He reminded Green of a hungry ferret. “Yes, I sold you a picture, the girl amongst the flowers, it’s in the window.”
“Ah, yes, I remember you, sir. Unfortunately, the option to buy it back expired yesterday.” The yellow teeth disappeared behind compressed thin lips.
“Yes, I know, I couldn’t get here yesterday.” He fought off the memory of alcohol poisoning.
“Well, I’ll tell you what, sir. I’ll knock ten per cent off. You can buy it back for £450, how does that sound?”
“Thanks, that’d be good.”
“Ah … I haven’t got the cash, but I’ve got this ….” Green pulled a heavy silver plate out of a holdall and placed it on the counter.
The ferret wore a badge that said Percival. He stared long and hard, then he picked the plate up, examining it closely, his narrow, disagreeable face inscrutable. Around the edge were embossed heads of notable Roman and Greek gods and dignitaries. He ran a nicotine-stained finger over a bust of Diogenes. “Just a minute, sir.” He disappeared with the plate.
Green stood, looking around at the goods on display, quite oblivious to them. Nervously, he looked at his watch. Twenty minutes till closing. Twenty minutes to get the picture back before his uncle returned from holiday the following day to find it missing. Then all hell would break loose.
After a few minutes, the ferret returned with the silver plate and a magnifying glass. He seemed jaunty and self-important. “Where did you get this, sir?”
Green decided to tell the truth. “Actually, my brother and me were digging some foundations the other day. We found it buried a couple of feet down.”
“Er, was there anything else with it, sir?”
Green looked at his watch. Why wouldn’t this horrible little man simply make him an offer? “Look, does any of this matter? I want some cash so I can get my picture back!”
“Calm down, sir. Look, I’ll tell you a little story.” The ferret took a seat behind the counter and jabbed at his gum with a toothpick. Green could see blood on it.
“Well, it so happens that any gold or silver found buried in our fair land belongs, not to the finder, but to the Crown. It’s ‘treasure trove,’ it is, and must be declared immediately to the police. This is Roman, this is. Solid Roman silver! And it’s valuable, you could likely buy a hundred of your pictures with this!”
Green felt his stomach sinking to the ground. “Well, no one has to know, do they?”
“Ah, that’s where you’re wrong, sir. We pawnbrokers have principles, you know. This must go straight to the police. But the good news is that the finder will be paid its full value … in time.” He raised his eyebrows. “Plus that of any other pieces found with it.”
“Er, well, in that case, could I get the picture back against the promise of my … er, reward?” Green asked, hardly able to believe his luck.
The ferret smiled a yellow smile. “You didn’t hear me properly, sir, the finder gets the full value, and you told me it was you and your brother, but you can’t both have found it. It was one or the other!” He laughed. “Whoever it was is going to be a rich man … eventually. You can sort it out between you! Either way, if you want the picture, you need to pay now – cash only.”
“What? I’ll have it back then!” Green reached over and snatched the plate from the ferret’s hands.
The door opened behind him and the ferret’s face turned from a look of total astonishment to one of triumph.
Green felt a hand on his shoulder. “Going anywhere with that, sir?” asked the policeman.
Featured in the book, Letters from Reuben and Other Stories: 40 Little Tales of Mirth
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