2011 Doris Gooderson – Third Place

Bits and Pieces by John Enos

I certainly wouldn’t lose on the deal, but I wouldn’t make a fortune either.

I’d spotted the locked Gladstone bag in a dark corner of the Brighton Junque Emporium, as grubby and dust covered as the proprietor. My rummage had yielded nothing of obvious value to me but, at least, this looked intriguing. I felt I needed to buy something to justify the hour I’d spent hunting through the predictable but mainly unsaleable stock, and anyway, I’ve always been a bit of a gambler. The prospect that the bag might yield something of interest, if not value, persuaded me to ask its price.

“£10,” was the emphatic reply.

“I’ll give you four,” I countered, “and the initials will certainly not be a selling point.”

“That’s where you’re wrong,” said the salesman. “You recognize the initials, do you? H.H.C. – Horley Harvey Crippen!”

“You’re having me on!” I said – but, to cut a long story short, I got the bag for £6. I’ll never make a good living as a dealer; I’ll swallow any old yarn.

Two hours later, I was seated at my cluttered Victorian desk staring morosely at the shabby bag, its brass lock having resisted all my dozens of keys, ancient and modern, and assorted lengths of bent wire. Finally I managed to force it with a stout screw driver.

I already knew by its weight and muffled rattle when shaken that the bag contained a number of items, but had no idea what they might be.

The first turned out to be a pair of pince-nez spectacles, perhaps gold rimmed. The lenses were badly scratched, but the spring still functioned. Worth £2 of anybody’s money.

Next, a small, black notebook, grubby and dog-eared. Many of the pages had been roughly torn out and of those that remained, most were blank, though a few bore strange symbols drawn in pencil. No value there, then!

Two small glass jars might well have originally contained some potion or other which had long since deteriorated to a sticky, black stain. “Dangerous,” I thought as I tried unsuccessfully to decipher the faded labels, “and worthless.”

The final item was an intricately carved wooden box about ten inches long by six wide and two deep. This was more like it. A well made glove box is worth a few quid, though no one uses them for gloves these days. I’d definitely cover my outlay with perhaps a little profit. If only the shopkeeper’s assertion about Crippen could be proved, the whole transaction would become vastly more lucrative, particularly as one of my less reputable clients had a taste for macabre items with sinister associations.

I opened the box. It contained layers of crumpled, faded tissue paper and, tucked away at the bottom, a dainty pair of lady’s kid gloves turning from white to cream with age.

Now that’s something you don’t see every day – and consequently worth a few quid, perhaps. But no! My hopes were dashed when I discovered not a pair but a single left glove – interesting but worthless. Absent mindedly, I tried to force my fat fingers inside – but it had been made for a hand much slimmer than mine. It was then that I felt through the fine leather a small, hard object.

“The ring finger! It’s probably a ring!” I thought. “It might turn out to be my lucky day after all.”

I held the glove by the finger tip and shook vigorously – Nothing! The ring must be very firmly wedged, so I probed with a pencil and shook again.

Something rattled on to the surface of the desk and skittered on to the floor. Certainly not a ring – but what?

I dropped to my knees and groped under the desk until I located it. With a chilling shock, I recoiled in horror. I realised it was the shrivelled end of a severed human finger, complete with blackened nail!

*

The bell above the door of Belle Époque Antiques jangled as Hugo De Winter emerged from the inner sanctum and squinted over his rimless spectacles. He was short, round and pink, sporting a crimson, quilted smoking jacket. We had known and mistrusted one another with good cause for over thirty years, ever since the caretaker scandal at boarding school. Still, we always managed to maintain an air of reasonable mutual courtesy and respect.

“Not you again!” He exclaimed with mock hostility. “Every time you arrive I lose money.”

“And a very good afternoon to you,” I countered, ignoring his tone. “I just thought I’d pop in to see how business is. I hear things are a bit slow of late.”

“I’m doing well enough, thank you,” said Hugo guardedly. “Now what’s the real reason for your visit? I’ve never known you do anything without the prospect of profit.”

“Well,” I said, “it’s funny you should mention it – I do have a proposition to put to you that could lead to a good profit.”

“Who for?” he asked. “You or me?”

“Don’t be like that” I said. “I really have come across an intriguing item that I’m sure will bowl you over.”

His manner softened somewhat; his interest had been roused.

“Well I’m happy to be convinced. What is it?”

I described my earlier visit to the Emporium, my purchase of the Crippen Gladstone bag and my subsequent grotesque discovery.

His eyes brightened behind his flashing spectacles as I dropped the desiccated, black finger into his plump, pink palm. “If that isn’t worth a tidy sum, I’ll eat my hat – and it’s yours for thirty quid,” I said.

Hugo’s face fell as he reached under the counter and, with a flourish, produced a jar containing what I took to be a pale pink fungus suspended in a colourless liquid. He tapped the label and said, “Van Gogh.”

“What?”

“This ear belonged to Van Gogh.”

“Yes,” I replied, “but what is it?”

“It’s his bloody ear,” he spluttered. “He chopped it off. It’s been sitting around here gathering dust since 1962. No one buys body parts however famous the original owners might have been. You couldn’t get a fiver for Hitler’s moustache or even his solitary testicle,” he grumbled.

*

Three weeks later, having tapped into the computing expertise of one of Hugo’s young friends, we’d advertised our grotesque items for sale on Ebay with a reserve price of £50 under the category “Health and Beauty”, enticing if not entirely accurate.

Apart from a brief and half-expected investigation by the Brighton C.I.D., nothing happened until the very last moment when a bid of £50.10 was registered. We couldn’t believe our luck.

I was in the process of wrapping the items in brown paper ready for dispatch to their new owner while Hugo searched for a label and felt-tipped pen.

“What kind of nut would be crazy enough to pay good money for a finger and left ear?” I asked. “And he says he’d be interested in any similar items we might come across.”

“I expect he’s got some mad-cap scheme in mind, but I guess we’ll never know,” said Hugo, as he started to address the package in bold, black capitals: – – – – – – – – – – – – –

 
 

 

DR.  FRANK  N.  STEIN

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