SOMETHING FOR EVERYONE originally appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, April 1974. It was anthologized in Allen J Hubin’s series, Best Detective Stories of the Year—1975 and has been reprinted several times, including in the Peter Sellers anthology, Cold Blood: Murder in Canada (1987). As a story, it’s a little bit of fun, and I’ve always been pleased that I made an appearance in the last descendant of the pulps.
SOMETHING FOR EVERYONE
BY ANTHONY HAND
Victor Cranberry, the antique dealer, owned a small shop in a little street that ran behind Soho Square. It was not a fashionable location—his neighbours were a Chinese laundry and a cheap printer—and the facade of his store made no attempt to overcome this handicap. The sign on the door read CRON BERRY’S ANT Q ES, and though the lettering was gold in colour it was certainly not gold-leaf.
But the drab appearance of his store didn’t bother Victor, for he didn’t depend on transient customers. The fact was, Victor didn’t really enjoy selling anything; he was a dealer, and his store, if not quite a front, was only a base. Victor’s true work lay elsewhere, within the small, closed world of wealthy collectors, a world in which Victor was well-known and had a special place.
He knew who was willing to sell what, who would likely want to buy it, and what a reasonable price might be. Victor was proud of his position, and usually styled himself an “advisor” or “consultant.” He had “clients” rather than “customers,” was paid a “fee” rather than a “markup,” and offered his services rather than goods—his knowledge, advice and ingenuity.
The only product he might admit to selling was contentment. “A dealer,” he always liked to say, “is one who brings buyer and seller together for their mutual satisfaction.” And satisfaction, he would always add, is only assured “when the deal has something for everyone.”
Today, Victor hoped, would see the culmination of just such an arrangement, and as he boarded the train at Waterloo he felt a certain satisfaction with himself. The seller was eager, the buyer would surely become so, and Victor—well, Victor listened happily to the clicking of the rails until, two hours later, the train slowed to a stop at Maiden Fairey in Wiltshire.
It was a small town, obviously declining, but Victor noted that it remained sufficiently rural for the auction to be something of an event. A flyer advertising it was prominently displayed on the station notice-board, and the address he gave the taxi driver was instantly recognized.
“The Fairey place. You’ll be going to the auction, then?”
“That’s right,” replied Victor.
The driver nodded sadly. “Everyone here thinks it’s terrible, selling of all those beautiful things. And, you know, young Fairey’s even going to sell the old house. Now I can remember a time—“
Victor, who had spent his life picking over failed fortunes, found nothing new in the Fairey’s decline, and barely listened. It was an old tale, and when the taxi finally reached the house, he saw there was no surprise twist to the ending. The property was enclosed by a fieldstone wall, many of whose stones were missing, and the house itself was settled to one side, like a listing ship. A noble ruin, he thought. “Lo, how the mighty have fallen.”
As usual, the curious were flocking to witness the final agony. Cars were parked everywhere up and down the street—a white Triumph, Victor noted, was squeezed right up to a fire hydrant—and many cars had been left on the lawn. To Victor, this seemed appropriately symbolic: the barbarians were at the gates, and through. With head slightly bowed, as though in reverence, he went up the drive to the house.
Inside, a sombre confusion reigned, as at a poorly organized funeral. No one was quite certain where to go and everyone felt mild embarrassment; no voice spoke above a whisper and eyes resolutely refused to meet. In his tatty old raincoat Victor easily faded into the crowd and began edging by tables on which neatly numbered lots spoke the pathetic stories of generations past: *#82: Georgian candelabra. Set of two. #98 Globe. Mahogany base. #66 Fine china dinner set. 108 pieces. Complete. *
He stopped for a second and examined a plate skeptically. An ugly pattern. Chip out of the butter dish. With a sniff he passed on, through the small salon, into the second sitting room, across the library, his glance flicking over tables with a speed that undoubtedly belied his alertness. But there was really little of interest. “The bric-a-brac of the rich,” he murmured, “but bric-a-brac just the same.”
His tour ended in the grand salon, where the auction itself would take place and where the finer pieces were displayed: a crystal chandelier, the “best” silver, two excellent quilts, a table of leather-bound books. But Victor barely seemed to notice them. With a discreet though efficient use of his elbows he pushed through the crowd till he finally reached the corner of the room devoted to art. There was, naturally, a great deal of it: muddy family portraits, schooners at anchor, stags at bay, numerous bowls of fruit and flowers.
And there was also a small group of watercolours.
He gave them a quick, cursory glance; then he moved on. But about ten minutes later, as though by accident, he’d worked his way back to them. He pursed his lips. Landscapes. Lakes with islands. In several, dark storms were building up in the background. Perhaps a little nervously he glanced about him, and then, with a deft movement, worked loose the mat on one of the paintings so he could examine the back of it.
After a few seconds, he replaced the mat, immediately left the table, and assumed a position at the back of the room. Ever so slightly, he rocked back and forth on his heels; ever so quickly the fingers of one hand drummed a little tune against his leg. But he looked straight ahead, apparently oblivious to anything except the milling throng—the old people with their memories and those legions who find nothing more exciting than an auctioneer rattling off the bids. Their comments buzzed round him.
“I swear, I’ve never seen so many commodes in all my life!”
“If only her son had a little more spirit.”
“Mmm. What do you think of the silver?”
“The silver? I rather think it’s what Sotheby’s refused to take.”
Then, for a second, the buzzing ceased as two men stepped into the room: one was elderly, dressed in a dignified grey suit, and the other was younger and more cheerfully attired—he sported a bright polka-dot tie. Victor immediately recognized the older man as an old-fashioned auctioneer: he would be scrupulously honest except when it came to recognizing the bid of a man he disliked. But then, suddenly, Victor was recognized himself. A tall grey figure elbowed between two people and said, “I’ll be damned! Victor Cranberry!”
Victor’s face fell. Dealers do not like other dealers, and their relationships are usually marked by mutual suspicion. They are inevitable rivals, and even if the exigencies of a particular situation create the need for cooperation, that cooperation is always uneasy and often ends in betrayal. This was especially true with Chilton. Victor could recall a time—but no, it was hardly pleasant to recall that time. Rather stiffly he said, “So it’s you, Chilton.”
Chilton, perceiving Victor’s evident consternation, smiled happily. “You look rather surprised to see me, old boy.”
Victor grunted. “I’d have rather thought you were off your usual circuit.”
The crowd pushed round them, but both men held their ground. Chilton leaned toward Victor, who was thus given a powerful clue as to Chilton’s brand of tobacco.
Chilton said, “I could say the same about you, old boy. But I had a tip there might be something out here, so I decided to trot along. If there is anything, though, I’m afraid I haven’t spotted it.”
Chilton was a man of about 50. As usual, his expression was wary and alert, his watery glance skittering about him with the anxious anticipation of one who scans the sidewalk in front of him for coins dropped by passers-by. And perhaps he had seen something, for his eyes suddenly snapped into focus on Victor. “What about you? Seen anything yourself?”
Victor’s lips tightened.
Chilton eyed him carefully. “Why Victor,” he said slyly, “I do believe you have.”
“Damn you,” Victor spluttered. “Of all the times—“
“Now Victor,” said Chilton soothingly, “be a little more friendly.”
Victor glared at him. “You can bloody well find them yourself.”
“Them?” Chilton raised his eyebrows. Then he smiled happily. “You know as well as I do that once you start bidding, everyone in the room will know what you’re interested in.”
Victor strained to get a grip on himself. “Chilton, I’ll give you £100 not to bid against me—to mind your own bloody business.”
A rasping vocal event took place deep in Chilton’s throat, symbolic of a laugh. “Come, come, dear boy. If I don’t know what you’re interested in, I can hardly tell whether your offer’s fair or not. Besides, you haven’t any choice.”
And what choice did Victor have? “Those watercolours,” he finally muttered. “On the little table in the corner.”
“Eh?” Chilton looked startled. “I already looked.”
“But did you notice the paper they’re done on?”
Chilton looked doubtful. He hurried away. When he returned, there was a gleam in his eye and he was slightly breathless. “Wrapping paper. Watercolours on cheap wrapping paper. You think they’re by David Cox?”
David Cox, 1783—1859, was the last major figure of the English watercolour school and is noted for his many works on coarse wrapping paper.
Victor laughed slightly. “Of course they are. Look at the subjects—those Welsh landscapes he was always painting.”
Chilton’s head tilted toward the ceiling, on which, it appeared he was working out a calculation. How much would seven watercolours by David Cox fetch at Christies? The answer, Victor knew, was about £2,000. He said, “Chilton, I repeat my offer. £100 to keep your blasted mouth shut when I start bidding.”
Chilton shook his head. “Of course, that would be a ridiculous sum—if I could take your money.”
“If?” queried Victor. One did not usually associate the conditional with Chilton’s attitude toward taking other people’s money.
Chilton looked down at the floor. “Mmm,” he said. “But it wouldn’t be fair unless you were willing to buy someone else off as well. You see, not ten minutes ago, I was talking to Bill Leider out in the hall.”
Chilton made this announcement with obvious satisfaction—which was confirmed by Victor’s surprised look. “Bill Leider,” he muttered.
“None other.” Chilton cleared his throat and cocked his head to one side. “We exchanged a few words. Your name came up, as a matter of fact. I gathered you owe him a spot of money.”
Victor tried to speak with dignity. “Indeed. And I’d be willing to pay him back provided he dropped this idiotic business about interest. Do you know that? He wants to charge me interest!”
Chilton was about to say something—perhaps a remark to the effect that most loans do bear interest—but he never got it out. A large, pink-faced man was pushing through the crowd, making a beeline for Victor. “Cronsberry! You debt-dodging—“
But then Bill Leider saw Chilton, which seemed to take him aback and deflect him from his original purpose. He managed to get a polite smile on his face, and his manner became suddenly hearty. “Well, well. Chilton and Cronsberry jawing together. Do I smell a conspiracy to violate the Public Sales and Auctions Act?”
This remark, intended to provoke amusement, was met with stony silence. Victor looked at Chilton. Chilton looked at Victor. Chilton coughed. “Keep your voice down, you silly ass,” he muttered to Leider.
Victor gave Leider a meaningful glance and then focussed his yes ten feet beyond Leider’s head. In a low voice he said, “Perhaps it’s rather coincidental but under the circumstances I think a conspiracy of just the sort you suggest might be in order.”
Leider looked astonished. “You don’t mean you’ve actually found something worth bidding on?”
Quickly Chilton directed him to the table with the paintings. In a few moments he was back. “You’re right. It is Cox paper. And when you look at them closely you can see they’re pretty decent.”
Chilton nodded, then whispered, “Gentlemen, do we have a deal?”
“Satisfactory,” muttered Victor, though rather grimly.
Chilton smiled. “Good for you, dear chap. One likes to have everything but a third of a loaf is better than none.”
Indeed. And perhaps their arrangement was as old as a proverb. Bidding against each other would only drive the price up and benefit the Faireys; the eventual high bidder would have the paintings but little profit. In such situations the profit motive and survival instinct are clearly joined: competition threatens everyone, therefore cooperation is possible. Perhaps it isn’t fair play, but if you’re playing to win…
Victor, Chilton and Leider stood together and quietly surveyed those who were playing for the love of the game. After a moment Victor looked at his watch. There were only a few more minutes before the auction was scheduled to start. He looked up. “Yes,” he murmured, “yes.”
“What’s that?” whispered Chilton.
“A problem, I’m afraid. You see that young fellow there? The one with the polka-dot tie? Yes. You see? He’s going over for a last look at the paintings. I’m sure he’s a collector—and I think he’s spotted them.”
Leider grunted unhappily. “Well, that spikes us pretty effectively. If we start bidding against him, the whole place will know we’re on to something.”
“Yes,” said Victor, “but I think we’re in luck. I happened to be right behind him when he arrived. The street was terribly crowded and I noticed he parked right in front of a fire hydrant. He was driving a little white sports car. Now if one of us—let’s say you, Bill—were to hand the auctioneer a note a little before our lot came up—“
“Ah yes,” said Chilton. “The police request that the automobile bearing licence number—“
“Exactly,” said Victor. “The problem is the timing. No one minds having their car towed away if they’re just about to make a few thousand quid. So he has to think there’s enough time for him to come back in—except, when he tries to, the door will be locked.”
He looked at Leider. “Agreed?”
“All right,” Leider said, nodding. Then, lightly, he touched Victor’s arm. “By the way, no matter how this turns out, you’ll be getting some money. I expect to see one hundred and twenty—“
“One hundred. One hundred pounds and not a penny—“
The rap of the auctioneer’s gavel silenced them.
The auction began and proceeded in a completely predictable way, small objects going for small sums. Victor waited patiently at the back of the room, Chilton beside him. Neither, under the circumstances, bothered bidding on any of the other items: the “ring” they had formed was difficult to detect but they agreed there was no reason to make themselves conspicuous.
As lot #109 was called, Victor nodded silently and Bill Leider, who had gone to the other side of the room, slipped through the doorway.
At lot #113 he was back, a folded piece of paper in his hand. He passed it to another man and whispered in his ear. The second man nodded, wormed through the crowd, then tugged at the auctioneer’s elbow. For a moment, the old gentleman studied the note. Then he cleared his throat loudly.
“I’ve just been informed that there is a police constable outside who must ask the owner of a white Triumph car, licence number MNA 9841, to move it immediately as it is parked in front of a fire hydrant. If it is not moved at once, it will be towed off at the owner’s expense.”
There was a slight stirring in the crowd. Victor and Chilton turned toward the man with the polka-dot tie who seemed, for a moment, undecided. “Trying to think if he can get back in time,” muttered Victor. Apparently, the young gentleman decided the question in the affirmative, for in a second he left.
Chilton whispered, “Now it’s all up to Bill.”
Lot Numbers 114, 115, 116, and 117 seemed to take hours; in fact they were dealt with quite quickly. But just as lot #118 was called, a dull pounding sound began at the front of the house.
“You were right,” whispered Chilton. “He had spotted them. He wants to get back in
Victor didn’t acknowledge this remark, but looked straight ahead at the auctioneer as the pounding grew slightly louder. The crowd stirred, heads bowed together and whispered. The auctioneer frowned and raised his voice. “We now come to lot number 118. This consists of seven watercolours, three in period frames, by an unknown artist who may have been a member of the Fairey family in the early part of last century. They are well executed, quite charming and undoubtedly possess much local historical interest.” No man could have done more to describe them, but it was no use; he was forced to mutter, “Let the bidding begin at one pound.”
It almost ended there, too. Only after quite a long pause did someone bid a pound. Then Victor went to thirty shillings and the auctioneer’s energy manage to extort £2 from someone else. But Victor’s bid of two pounds ten met no challengers. The auctioneer chanted: “Two pounds ten shillings going once, twice, thrice—and sold” (bang went the gavel) “to the gentleman in the back of the room. You may pay me now or within one hour of last bid.”
Just as Victor paid and picked up the paintings, the man in the polka-dot tie came back in, panting and looking rather red in the face.
“Let us leave,” Chilton whispered, “by the other door.”
They slipped out quickly and found Leider at the front of the house. After a brief moment of self-congratulation they walked to a nearby pub, where they found a table and ordered beer. Discreetly, Victor kept the paintings under his coat, and he spoke his voice was low.
“If there are no objections,” he said, “I suggest that I now play auctioneer.” Leader and Chilton nodded. “Good then. Usual terms, I think. Minimum increased bid ten pounds, and payment in cash.” The others nodded again. Chilton rasped nervously and worked his hands together.
“All right,” said Victor, “bidding starts at £400.”
Leader grunted. “Why waste time? I’ll bid five.”
“Five-fifty,” said Victor.
“And fifty,” whispered Chilton.
“The hell. Seven hundred.”
At £800 the bidding slowed somewhat, only rising in £20 jumps. Victor himself bid in at £840 and £900. Then, there was a brief pause.
Victor watched carefully as Bill Leider lit a cigarette and Chilton noisily swallowed beer. “Getting a little tight, gentlemen?” he asked.
Leader smiled. “There is the cash problem, of course.” But then he said, “Nine ten.”
“Twenty,” said Chilton.
“And thirty,” said Victor quickly.
Chilton pushed himself away from the table as though he was going to get up; but then he rocked forward again. Leader’s glance flickered to Victor, who now felt a thin film of perspiration on his forehead. Victor licked his lips very slowly. Leader looked at him a little quizzically, but then said, “Nine hundred and forty pounds.”
There was silence. The sensation of heat under Victor’s arms was quite intense. “Going once,” he said, “twice—“ But then he himself blurted, “Nine hundred and fifty pounds!”
Chilton leaned forward on his elbows. A look of intense concentration appeared on his face. Very slowly, he said, “One thousand pounds.”
The heat that had suffused Victor’s body made him feel he was in a forge. He leaned back. “I’m out, I’m afraid.” He looked over to Leider. “What about you?”
Leader shrugged. “I really didn’t come prepared for this sort of thing.” He turned to Chilton and made a gesture with his hands. “They’re yours, old boy. Lucky fellow. You should double your money.”
Chilton made a small sound of satisfaction. Victor handed the paintings across to him, and Chilton reached for his wallet. “I believe I owe each of you gentlemen £500.”
Victor cleared his throat. “And there is also the question of my expenses for our mutual investment,” he said, meaning the money he’d paid for the paintings. “A pound five shillings from each of you.”
Leader gave him a bland, artificial smile. “Perhaps I’ll hang on that,” he said. “A small payment on account.”
Victor pointedly looked away, but he was careful, as Chilton counted out the money onto the table, to keep one hand on his pile, as though expecting Leider to confiscate another payment. When Chilton finished, Victor quickly stuffed his money into his pocket. He smiled with satisfaction. “An excellent, reasonable arrangement all round.”
“Yes,” said Leider, “I agree. It’s rather like borrowing money. I permit you the use of my funds and, in return, you pay me—“
Victor stopped him with a withering look. “If we must talk about that let us at least wait until we can do so in private.”
Chilton gave Leider a friendly wink. “Don’t mind me,” he said. “I’m just going.”
There were brief protests at this, but Chilton persisted. As he got up, Victor and Leider exchanged wooden glances and as the door closed behind him, both smiled.
Then started laughing.
“By God,” said Leider, “we did it!”
“Got him!” said Victor. “Got him cold!”
A strange look of intense, rapturous pleasure glowed on his face.
With a grin, Leider shook his head. “I thought you were crazy. You pushed him so hard—making me bid £940, then going to £950 yourself! You were mad!”
Victor was still feeling warm, but only comfortably so. “To tell you the truth, I thought I’d be stuck with them. But he dislikes me so much, the old fool, and he’s never one to pass up a bargain.”
Just then the door of the pub opened and a young, anxious-looking man in a polka-dot tie appeared. “Ah,” said Victor. “Young Mr. Fairey.”
“Well done,” said Leider, as Fairey came up to the table, “you played your part perfectly. You were the last convincing touch.”
“I hope I made enough noise,” said the young man. “I didn’t want to pound too hard in case someone actually opened the door.”
Victor leaned back with satisfaction. “I rather think,” he said, “that you struck just the right note.”
The young man smiled diffidently, then anxiously glanced down at the table. After a moment, he cleared his throat and looked up.
“How much did we get?” he asked.
Victor looked sharply at Bill Leider. “Quite good,” he said. “£900. We might have got a bit higher, you know, but we had to make sure that he ended up with the paintings—and we ended up with his money.”
Mr. Fairey nodded, apparently content. “As I understand it, £900 means that each of us gets—“
“We split three ways.” Carefully, Victor counted some of Chilton’s cash into the young man’s trembling hands. Then, deftly, he extracted £10. “I had to pay the chap for the paintings, you see.”
Mr. Fairey seemed much too relieved to object. He suddenly smiled. “You don’t know how much this £290 means to me. All the money from the auction goes for the estate’s debts, not my personal ones.”
Victor grunted with pleasure. “Satisfactory,” he said. “That’s just the way I like it. You, Mr. Fairey, are pulled out of difficult circumstances, my friend here has a debt repaid, with interest, and even I am given a small reward for my efforts. You see? Something for everyone.”