Read The Gondola Scam Online

Authors: Jonathan Gash

The Gondola Scam

This book is dedicated to the ancient

Chinese God of Literature K'uei Hsing,

whom the sea monsters eternally rescue from drowning

in the rising waters of the ocean.

—LOVEJOY

 

A story for Lai, Jackie, Pam, Elizabeth, Roy, and Susan

as always, plus Ruth and Al's mob on the Venice run.

 

 

"Death and Venice go together.”

—James Morris, Venice, 1960

 

"This place won't last long.”

Old lady, on arriving in Venice. —E. V. Lucas, A Wanderer in
Venice, 1923

 

 

scam (skam) n. slang. A fraudulent scheme, especially one for
making money quickly.

 

The Gondola Scam

 

1

Usually people say women come first. Other times it's money,
survival, anger, ambition. But deep down it's none of these delectables.

         
It's antiques.

         
Antiques are
everything. First, last, every single thing.

         
Forever and ever.

 

Fingers tapped on the table, regular as a metronome.
Dup, dup
they went. And the price rose
in tens with each tap from the ring of dealers.
Dup
. Ten.
Dup
. Plus ten.
Dup
. Another ten. And another and
another. My face felt white.

Ever been on tenterhooks for nothing? Think of an illegal auction
in a seedy upstairs pub room. No public, only a ring of hard, grubby antique
dealers tapping on the table, watching through the fag smoke with crinkled
eyes. Not an antique in sight. Ten blokes and two birds all bidding in utter
silence for a painting, with the pub yard and the taproom below heaving like
anglers' bait. And me, mouth dry and chest thumping, wishing the whole sordid
mess would simply go away. I tell you, this antique game seems quiet and
contented—from the outside. Inside, it's horrendous, utterly crazy. I was
frightened and fuming.

The genuine auction had ended half an hour ago. The merry old
public—that shoal of piranhas—were either celebrating hilariously in the boozer
or crawling home in tears according to their degrees of success at today's
bidding. Up here, the real business of the day was being done: the closed ring
auction of dealers illegally reauctioning among themselves the items they'd
bought a few minutes before.

Dup.
My player tapped
again, the maniac, though I'd told him no. Five antique dealers had dropped out
and now sat sulking. That left seven, including Linda from Tolleshunt. And that
lovely ash blonde who seemed so determined. Then there was Sam Wiltshire, he of
the merry jokes, supposedly bidding for himself. There was Big Frank from
Suffolk, with wives and gelt to spare and antique silver always on his mind—he
gets married like other blokes go to the races, meaning to say frequently and
never quite sure of the outcome. Then a hoary old dealer from Salford I didn't
know but who was taking all this silent bidding in his stride, kippering us all
with a dustbin of a pipe. Instead of tapping, his finger nudged a little
electronic printout calculator, a neat way of anticipating the arguments which
often happen after the dealer's ring "knocks down"—stops at the
highest bid. He had sense. Jasper Coke (his real name, incidentally) was also
keeping in but gradually losing impetus. He's a cheerful, square-shaped bloke
with a shop somewhere down the sea estuary, supposedly expert in porcelain and
Georgian household furniture. That only means he's thick as a plank, because
antique dealers always are, though rumor has it Jasper can actually read and
write.

That leaves only my player, the goon I was mad at. Mr. Malleson
was pretty well known from his "sweeps" through East Anglia in search
of antiques for his London showroom. When he has any doubt, he simply hires
somebody like me for a day or so. A sound rule, you might think.

"Call up," he said at that point. I could have kicked
him, almost groaned aloud. "Five."

The old Salford geezer thumbed his calculator to increase by
fifteens now instead of tens. Malleson tapped the table, and round the morons
went, dup, dup. Only this time Linda lifted a flat hand, the sign of dropping
out. I was glad, because I've a soft spot for Linda. We once got up to no good
together in Norwich after selling a Gantz water-color of Madras, genuine early
1820s. (His paintings in the past three years have soared in value since the
greeting-card people discovered them; if you pass one up, don't say you weren't
warned.) She carefully avoided my eye (she often does), but must have caught a
vibe of my impotent rage. The luscious blonde sitting directly opposite my
idiotic player was still in there, tighter lips though and increasingly bitter
about something. Pretty as the picture we were bidding for—a million times more
authentic. I'd twice told my player, the duckegg, that the painting was a fake,
but he knew best, like all lunatics. Now he was well on the way to losing a
fortune. Serve the silly sod right.

Sam Wiltshire folded, both palms flat, cracking, "A Carpaccio
oil sketch just can't be worth nine whole pence." He got a wan smile from
Jasper Coke, who was already out of his depth and dropped out next round. The
blonde fingered her pearls (real, a risky baroque single string) and tapped.
Three left.

Malleson, still knowing best, tapped.

The Salford dealer took some snuff, varoomed droplets over us all,
and tapped. I was practically screaming inside.

"Call up, five." The blonde did a complicated casual
ritual with powder compact and mirror. It entailed a lot of lip play, and was
watched with fascination by almost all. Even the morose dealers huddled in the
comer stopped grumbling and admired her. Linda sardonically lit a fag and
walked to the window to show she thought the blonde was a scheming bitch. You
now had to bid on in twenties. Old Salford disgustedly clicked his calculator
off, raising a palm.

Two left.

"Call up to twenty-five," Malleson said calmly. My name
would be mud after this lark.

The picture they were after was a clear fraud. Some mauler had
tried to fake that complicated bit of gear from Carpaccio's
Knight in a Landscape
which they guard
so carefully in Lugano, with enough grounding to suggest his authentic
brushwork. Nice attempt, but done by some soulless cretin, doubtless with a
string of diplomas to show how "expert" he was. Pathetic.

"Call up, five," the blonde said, which made even the hard
drinkers freeze. Bids now in thirties. Disconcertingly, I found the bird's eyes
on me.
Stop your man
, her lovely eyes
signaled, stop him because he's a fool. I reddened. I don't need birds telling
me that, but what could I do? Malleson was big money. I didn't have two
farthings to rub together. As usual.

"Call up, five," said my player, the world's expert
know-all. The maniac had raised the bidding to steps of thirty-five quid. I
almost fainted. He'd gone bid-happy, that weird state of compulsion in which
you'll bid to any level, for any old piece of tat. It happens. I once saw two
women go bid-happy, stunning a whole mob of dealers into a dazed silence while
they dueled for a Woolworth chair off a junkheap. It's a very dangerous state
to get yourself into, because you just can't—can't—stop.

A hand on my shoulder pressed me down. I'd actually reached for Mr.
Malleson's neck in my blind rage.

"Want a drink, Lovejoy?"

"Eh?" My gaze cleared. Linda had come to stand close and
was smiling calming messages into my face. Some dealer snickered at my name.
Some friend interested in his welfare quickly shushed him.

"A drink." Linda held up her own glass to prove
nourishment was available on the premises.

"Er, no, ta." I jerked my shoulder away to see the
blonde spread her palm. It was over. The bird had spotted that Mr. Malleson had
gone bid-happy, and ducked out.

He turned and glanced at me, proud as a peacock. The London dealer
immediately got his tabs out—addressed IOU blanks. There was a flurry as
scribbled IOUs changed hands.

"Hurry up. Next item's Lot Seventy," Sam Wiltshire said.
"Who got it?"

"I did." Jasper Coke pulled a face as somebody muttered
the price. "That early monk's chair. Genuine." Genuine all right, I
thought, in a sulk. Only, a wooden armchair which has a rectangular back that
hinges over to form a

small table resting horizontally on the chair's arms is called a
chair table, or a "table-chairwise." We dealers call it a monk's
chair (a fairly modern, invented name like "grandfather clock") to
put medieval flavor into the price tag. I caught Jasper's eye, and he had the
grace to give a wry smile.

"Okay," Sam said, grinning. He always acts as
auctioneer. "Start at ten, up in twos." He tapped the table and they
were off again.

"Cheers," I said, clearing out.

"Oh, Lovejoy," warbled my erstwhile player, but I was
heading for the bar downstairs. If he didn't want to listen to me, he was
beyond hope.

I got my pint after a bayonet charge through the mob of dealers
and paid for Tinker's pint to be sent into the taproom.

The filthy old devil gave me a gappy grin through the bar hatch,
but it quickly changed to consternation when I gave him the bent eye. He eeled
into the porch. "What's up, Lovejoy? We in trouble?"

"The goon bought it."

He goggled, wiped his stubble in a tattered sleeve. "Christ.
An' you let him?"

"What the hell could I do? He's in the ring, not me."

There are two good things about Tinker. He's the world's best
barker—slang for antique finder—and he stinks to high heaven. The first is
great because I'm Tinker's wally, the antique dealer he finds for. The second
is great because his pong clears a space in any crowd, so I can pay for more
beer. Like now.

"He must be off his friggin' nut, Lovejoy." He hitched
his frayed ex-army greatcoat and shook his head, mystified. "He know you
was a divvie?"

"That's why he hired me, you burke."

"Here, Lovejoy." Grinning, he plucked at my arm with his
grease-stained mitten. "I'd like to be there when them

London buyers tell him it's a fake." He fell about at the
notion, cackling evilly.

"Everybody'll think I guessed wrong," I grumbled.

"Nar," Tinker said scornfully, grabbing another ale.
"Every dealer in East Anglia knows you."

"Everybody but Malleson. Where is she. Tinker?"

"Your bint? By the fire." He took the note I slipped
him. "I reckon she's makin' for flu, Lovejoy. She only has orange
juice."

Even fuming, I had to laugh at that. The thought of anybody
drinking an orange's crushed innards makes him giddy. I told him, "Be in
the boozer eightish. Find out who vans off that Yankee silver salver, and if
that Tadolini
Venus and Cupid
changes
hands before tonight."

"Right, mate."

The rare Edward Winslow salver was a delight, made in Boston about
1695. The illicit ring upstairs would bid for it soon. I had to know who
eventually owned it, because that's where tomorrow's fakes would come from. It
was worth a couple of new cars in anybody's shopwindow. The Tadolini figure was
as beautiful, but only 1845 or so and about a quarter of the price. Rome always
did nice stuff, with or without an empire.

Sure enough, Connie was there, scrunged up over the pub's log
fire. She's always perished, even in the hottest bed.

"Darling. At last." She reached up to my hand.
"It's so
drafty
here. Can we
go?"

"Bring my bag."

We sliced the fug and reached the great beyond where my zoomster
waited hub-deep in its flaking rust.

"Why do we carry this stupid thing, darling?" Connie
indicated the plastic bag. It carried Christie's insignia, 1766, South
Kensington.

'To impress customers."

If her teeth hadn't been chattering from the cold, she would have screamed
with laughter. She just muttered, "In this ancient open boat?" and
climbed in. Lovely legs.

"You can always walk," I countered, flipping the switch
and going round to crank the handle. It's an old Austin Ruby. People are always
trying to nick its candle-powered headlamps and door handles. Connie gets mad
because it has no top roof, and the cover doesn't work.

A young bloke nearby laughed, disconcertingly shrill. He was in
one of those DeLoreans and seemed all fawns and yellows. I shrugged, deciding
not to take offense. His lemon leathers could have bought and sold me. I tend
not to argue with wealthy dealers, because they're the dumbest. Just to prove
it, a familiar if irritating voice sounded in my earhole.

"A word, Lovejoy." Good old knowledgeable wiseacre Mr.
Malleson had caught us up and stood there in his posh gaberdine. "Good
day, Mrs. Lovejoy," he added, eyeing Connie. I didn't mind that, because
you can't help looking long and hard at Connie.

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