Earning a Living
Secondhand dealers come in various categories and this one was a prime example of the sleazy, predatory type.
‘And what would Sir be looking for today?’ he enquired as he slouched up to me, apparently resisting the impulse to rub his hands together.
‘I’m after an urn.’ I replied.
‘We do have just a few cremation urns, of the finest quality of course, but Sir looks so fit!’
I’ve got a right comedian here, I thought, as I forced a thin smile and commenced to put him straight.
‘No, not that kind of urn. I want a sort of brass bucket to put an indoor palm in to decorate my foyer.’
‘Ummm! Sir has a foyer! I am sure I have something, and can do a special price.’
Special price all right – I could see the creep adding on dollars in his mind.
He ushered me to the back of the shop and, with a flourish, indicated a grimy object in the corner. This was about half the size of a domestic dustbin, had a pleasing shape and would take the rest of the weekend to clean. Closer examination showed it had an obscure but interesting pattern engraved over the outer surface. All in all – exactly what I was looking for. I had to have it!
‘For Sir, at a special price, just one hundred and thirty dollars.’ The shopkeeper bestowed on me an oily smile.
‘Sorry, I only speak in two syllables, how about just thirty?’
For a couple of minutes, we exchanged woeful tales about recessions coming and going, how much it cost to bring up kids these days, how expensive Gold Lotto was and how big a fraud it had to be, and so on until we settled for a suspiciously low fifty bucks.
For some reason that I could not easily establish, the urn weighed considerably more than its overall size and the thickness of the metal suggested. So I press-ganged the shop keeper into the loan of a trolley, plus a helping hand to lift the urn into the back of my station wagon.
Once home, and after some grunting and low cunning, the urn was established in the foyer (as I liked to describe the 6′ x 10′ (2m x 3m) entry that also contains the stairs). I set to work examining my purchase. I delved with an exploratory hand into the interior. There appeared to be a deep layer of coarse, black, sticky material that adhered to my hand. So the initial part of the cleaning ceremony was wiping my hands on the rags I had collected together.
The exterior looked as if it would come up well with industrious scrubbing and half a dozen cans of Brasso.. So I wrapped an arm around the urn’s rim for support and began rubbing away at one area to see how it would shine up.
I became conscious that my spare, supporting arm, was now wrapped around a pair of skinny, hairy shins, below some kind of garment the hem of which looked like the trailing edge of a bedsheet. At the same time, someone spoke.
‘Ohhhh! You have such big, broad shoulders!’ Pure reflex had me off my knees and backed against a wall as I re-adjusted to what was now happening.
‘You would not have been trying to peek up my robe would you? Naughty!’
‘No, I damned well was not! Who the hell are you?’ I looked at the figure before me. Skinny and hairy shanks had already been noted. These were surmounted by a shapeless garment with long sleeves and pendant cuffs. On top, was a head with a swarthy face sporting a big, hooked nose. A shock of stiff black hair (going grey in places) featured what should have been jet-black, flashing eyes and a cruel mouth. The latter effect was totally ruined by the slightly wistful look and moist lips – the lower of which was trembling slightly.
‘Actually, I am Claude, and I am so pleased to meet you. Do you think that we will be friends?’
‘Just a second, Sport.’ I said. ‘What are you doing standing in my urn, in my foyer?’
‘Well, if you really want to know, this is my home.’
‘The hell it is your home, this is my place!’ Shock was now being supplanted by anger. My mind was racing. How could this creature have got through the front door and into an urn I had an arm wrapped around without my being aware? Claude pouted and said nothing, but his eyes were roving all over me.
My analytical skills are good, which is why I am successful in my job. I’d learnt long ago that after eliminating what cannot be, then whatever is left, no matter how improbable, is what you deal with. I was dealing with a genie!
‘Do you mind if I just stretch my legs a little?’ Claude enquired, favouring me with a look from under lowered eyelids which he probably imagined was enticing.
‘You stay right there! No way are you trailing the muck from out of the bottom of that bucket all over my carpets!’
‘Well, can I at least sit down for a while?’
I could see no harm in that, and nudged a stool his way with a foot. He took it and seated himself, and by so doing impressed upon me just how serious the situation really was.
Clearly, I had a major décor problem. Claude just did not have the same effect as a potted palm. Worse, I had a social problem as well! If a few of my friends dropped in right now, my personal image would be ruined beyond repair. I would probably have to move to Tasmania, or somewhere equally distant, and the reputation would still follow me.
Genie or not, the reality of the situation to a casual onlooker was that I had some kind of Iraqi, with a Pommie accent and deviant sexual preferences, wearing a recycled bedsheet, and sitting on a stool under my stairs while apparently soaking his feet in a dirty old brass tub. I thought of the barbed wit of my friends and shuddered as I hastily locked the front door and drew the curtain on the side window.
So I had a genie. All right, I could cope with that. I should be able to get it to self-destruct or at least take itself off somewhere other than under my stairs.
‘Now Claude, you are a genie – right?’
‘Well, yes, I am,’ Claude simpered. ‘Isn’t it a lovely name as well? I had a friend once…’
‘Never mind about your mates. Let’s get straight to the three wishes!’
“Ohhhh! You are being good to me. Now for my first wish, let me see…’ He treated me to a smouldering appraisal and appeared to be getting excited.
‘Just a Goddamn minute!’ I snapped. ‘I am supposed to have the three wishes – not you.’ Claude managed to look baffled and disappointed at the same time. But, at that moment, the telephone rang. It was work. I had to go in straight away.
‘Back in the tub Claude, we will finish this discussion later.’
He obediently shrank and disappeared going downwards. I inverted a coffee table on the top of the urn and stacked a full set of encyclopaedias on it to hold him for a while – then hurriedly left.
* * *
At quarter to two in the morning I returned, tired but with a successful result behind me which I had been working up to for several weeks. I let myself in and immediately noticed that the urn had gone. Black footprints on my carpets issued from the place where it had been.
I followed the footprints around the house and began taking tally of what had been taken. Microwave, VCR, tv, stereo system, computer and record collection. The guns had not been touched, but the bastard had eaten all of the strawberry ice cream!
I noted that all the deadlocks were still in place and the windows were undisturbed. However, my gear had left the place, and it had not been by normal means.
I have a personal rule not to start drinking after two o’clock in the morning as scotch followed by Weetabix later does terrible things to me for the rest of the day. However it was only two minutes to the hour so it was all right and I opened a bottle and settled down to do some serious thinking
Secondhand dealers are open on a Sunday and I was back at the shop a little after opening time. I reached up and held the clapper arm of the old bell that warned of the opening door and entered silently. I made my way towards the back, drawn by the murmur of voices. The shopkeeper and Claude (still standing in his tub) were going through my record collection.
‘Good Morning, girls!’ I greeted them in a cold voice.
‘No contest, sonny! How are you going to explain Claude to the police?’
‘No problem, Alice.’ I replied. ‘I am the police!’ and displayed my identification.
There was a faint plop of air rushing in to fill the area that Claude had been displacing before he abruptly vanished back into the urn. The shop keeper spun on his heel, evidently with an urgent appointment he had just remembered. With my free hand I grabbed him by the collar.
‘Now, now, Alice. We are all going to have a nice business chat.’ At that point, I gave the urn a substantial kick and had the satisfaction of hearing it ring like a large bell. Claude shot back out looking dazed and rubbing his ears.
‘You may be a cop but you will never get this past a magistrate.’ The shop keeper was still trying!
At this point I accidentally knocked over a large porcelain figurine of a spaniel – which looked expensive.
‘Who is talking about magistrates, Alice?’ I replied. ‘Now let me tell you how it is going to be. Firstly, all my gear is delivered back to my place within the hour. Secondly the carpet cleaners come in first thing in the morning. Thirdly, unless we become friends quite rapidly, Alice, you are going to be meeting my large mates in the Dealer Squad three times a week for the next three months.’
The shop keeper blanched and began looking ill.
‘As for our tinned fairy here.’ I turned my attention to Claude. ‘He is going to cooperate in our little venture or learn how to climb a palm tree to get out of his can.’ Claud looked appalled at this prospect.
‘Now, what we are going to do is this. You polish up the urn so that it looks presentable and remove all the dirt from inside so we avoid all those footprints. From time to time Claud and the urn are going to be ‘miss-delivered’ to addresses which I will give you.
Claude will stay there a few days using the tape recorder and video camera that I shall supply. If you can get all my gear in that tub then that should be no problem. After a while, Alice, you will pick up Claude and the urn with suitable apologies, or he can do his famous disappearing act and return here under his own steam. With the information I receive my arrest rate is going to become quite spectacular. I favoured both with a big beaming smile.
‘We start tomorrow … or else!’ With that closing remark I turned and walked out into the sunshine savouring the prospects of rapid promotion. This would put a whole new interpretation on earning a living, but I rather thought that now I would look for a terracotta pot for the intended palm in my foyer.