The Value of Vermin Control - Russell Day
I took my hat off and cleared my throat. The young man behind the armour glass and the steel bars didn’t look up, even though I was his only customer. I wasn’t especially surprised. In my experience, pawnbrokers come in two stripes; rat-faced bags of bone or pig-faced barrels of lard.
Neither one looks you in the eye.
This particular one was a skin and gristle rodent. The sort of thing you set traps for in the larder, especially if you don’t have much in there. If the sign above the shop door was to be believed, this one’s name was Micky.
I told it, “Good morning,” and waited for a response.
“Want something?” The words were addressed to the tiny screen of his mobile phone.
“I’m interested in the gold locket, if it’s genuine.”
His nose didn’t actually twitch but the tilt of his head showed he was sniffing the air.
It had been years, decades, since I’d set foot in a pawnbrokers. Things had changed. Even the name. Mickey’s Exchange Centre was fitted out like a supermarket and lit-up like Blackpool Illuminations. There were bright lights for all the goods, spot-lights for some.
When I was growing up – back in what people with bad memories call the good old days – you’d turn your collar up and duck your head if you went into a pawn shop. You might not have been able to keep hold of your pride but at least you could acknowledge you had some shame. Back then the lighting would be dim, sombre even. The goods for sale weren’t so much on display as offering penance.
Even the nature of the goods themselves had changed. In my day, when people had less, pawning it had been an act of desperation. They’d hock the family silver, or their grandmother’s wedding ring. Things of worth, things people might have risked their lives to bring from wherever they’d run.
Things you’d hang onto until even the traps in the larder were empty.
Now, it was consumer durables that had outlasted their appeal. I doubted anything on the shelves I passed would be reclaimed or remembered even. Bought on a whim they were sold off merely to finance the next bad decision.
Mickey was at the back of the shop, locked behind a sheet of armour glass and a row of steel bars.
Along with his cash box and safe.
That hadn’t changed. Some things don’t.
The better items of jewellery were in a dedicated counter. Most of them held their value in weight alone. Little on display had any merit, either historic or aesthetic.
“The Victorian one?” The speaker on the customer’s side of the security glass was small and tinny. It gave his voice an appropriately metallic ring. “There’s still a week on the ticket.”
There were half a dozen lockets in the cabinet. ‘The Victorian one’ was obviously the oldest. Also, it was obviously the only article of any consequence. Consequence, in Mickey’s little world, meaning pounds sterling.
“Week on the ticket?”
Mickey sighed deeply to let me know I was taking up his valuable time.
“Old biddy came in needing cash. I make a loan and she leaves the locket. It stays with me until she pays back the loan. Time’s about up on that one. Come back next week.”
I went back to the display counter and bent over to take a better look. The arthritis in my hip let me know I wasn’t getting younger.
The locket was small, not a lot bigger than a die from a Monopoly board. Heart shaped, it was wrought in eighteen karat gold and set with an old mine cut diamond.
Dealers who knew their trade would have placed it somewhere between 1900 and 1910. Knowing the piece’s history, I could pin it down to 1903. An honest valuation would be somewhere in the region of a thousand pounds.
I happened to know reclaiming it was going to cost the ‘old biddy’ just over four hundred.
Also, I happened to know she wasn’t in any position to reclaim it.
I told Mickey coming back wasn’t possible.
“I’ll be out of town next week.” He didn’t bother answering. “What will you be asking for it? Assuming it isn’t reclaimed of course.”
He stood up with an impatient sigh and pushed the mobile phone deep into his hip pocket.
After he slid into the shop he carefully locked the door of the teller’s cage behind him. Positioned opposite me with the display counter between us, he sighed again.
“We talking about this one, yeah?” He tapped the glass top of the counter and added another finger print to its finish. The cuff of his shirt slipped forward hiding most of his hand, he was smaller when he was out of his cage. “The Victorian one?”
It was Edwardian. I didn’t bother educating him.
Mickey took an overpopulated key-ring from his belt and opened a panel on his side of the counter. When he’d extracted the locket, he held it up to the light pretending to consider its worth. I could see a tiny flat spot on its surface where he’d had scraped it, with a file or wet stone, before applying a drop of nitric acid. It wouldn’t have reacted. Real gold doesn’t
“We’d be talking at least six hundred for a piece like this.” He paused and, for the first time since I’d come into his shop, he looked at me. It was barely a glance.
“Would that price include the chain?”
He answered without hesitation, “No.”
“With the chain?”
Another glance that felt like an audit.
“With the chain, seven hundred.”
“But there’s still a week to go on the ticket?”
“That’s what I said. There’s a good chance she won’t pick it up.”
I nodded and shrugged.
“I won’t be here next week.” I let the loss of the sale sink in for a while. He was putting the locket back in the cabinet. “Suppose I offered you eight hundred, cash. Could that week be … brought forward just a little?”
He paused, arm stretched awkwardly under the glass of the display counter. Finally, he dropped the locket back in its place and shook his head.
“Contract,” he said. “All signed and legal.”
“That is a shame.” I carefully placed the canvas bag I was holding on the display counter then put my hat next to it, so both my hands were free. “But really I came here to sell this.”
I undid the top of the bag and folded its sides down to display the gleaming machine inside.
He switched back to pestilent indifference.
“What’s that then?”
“A miniature printing press, German made. The very finest quality.”
“Does it work?”
It’s a strange thing with small mechanisms but people can’t resist fiddling with them. He took hold of the crank and turned it a few times, watching the finely-machined parts move. The precision, the beauty, of what he saw was wasted on him. He left greasy fingers marks on the polished brass handle.
“It works,” I told him. “I don’t have any inks for it, but any serious collector would already have those. There are plates for it also, different patterns and fonts.” I pointed at a linen wrapped package in the bottom of the bag. “Would you mind?” I held my hand out for him to see the tremor. “They’re rather delicate. I’d hate to drop them.”
He took the package and unwrapped it. I told him to be careful because of the residue ink. Still, he managed to smear his thumb with blue-green and then leave his mark on the rear of the plates. He squinted at the engravings on their faces.
“Who are these meant to be?”
“Historical figures,” I explained. “Matthew Boulton, James Watt, Churchill. I think there’s one of Charles Darwin in there too.”
Maybe because none of them were film stars or television personalities he didn’t look impressed.
I shrugged elaborately. “I don’t know. If it makes any difference I won’t be needing a ticket. I’m just selling.”
He pulled him lips thinly across his teeth and sucked in a breath like he was about to do himself harm. It made him look even more rat-like. Now we were talking about money he’d stopped looking at the press and his interest was taken up by the display of indifferent jewellery.
“I can go to twenty-five.” When I didn’t reply his bright little eyes flitted back to the machine. “Cash.”
“The scrap value of the brass alone is worth more than that,” I told him. I shook my head and began putting the press away.
“Fifty. That’s as high as I can go.”
I told him a hundred and he looked appalled. We batted numbers back and forth in the usual way. The final settlement was eighty-five. Cash.
Rather than unlock the teller’s cage he produced a wallet from the depths of his jeans and counted out five-pound notes. They were the newer, polymer type. He lifted the press from the bag and it vanished behind the display counter. I had to remind him to take the package of plates.
When I’d returned to the shop an hour later Mickey was locked away in his teller’s cage again. Again, he’d been engrossed with his mobile phone, until I’d started counting out fifty-pound notes.
“I’m offering a more than fair price,” I spoke carefully, posting the words through the grill in the security glass.
Mickey looked at the pile of notes I’d put on the teller cage’s narrow counter. I could tell he was sniffing the scent of money again.
“I’ve already told you: there’s a week to go on the ticket.”
I added another pair of fifties to the pile, making it a round thousand. Mickey’s attention stayed with my fingers as I slid the money from my wallet. He was trying to gauge how many more notes there were, but the orange rubber thimbles I was wearing distracted him. Without the little thimbles the money would have escaped my trembling grip.
“I won’t be in the country a week from now,” I told him this after leaving a pause, so he’d have time to digest the number of notes on the counter.
“There’s the contract. If the old dear comes back next week…”
He finished the sentence with a cartoon expression of helplessness. I could tell it was a performance, an attempt to draw more bank notes into the open. I pulled two more into the light and added them to the pile.
“Your contract will have a clause to cover such an event, I’m sure.”
He was having trouble not looking at the money.
“It’s in the contract that I’m liable for the agreed value of the item and I’ll forfeit repayment of any sum loaned against its value. That means I’d have to pay her the full ticket price and she’d get to keep the money I’d advanced her.” He pulled himself up straight and tried to look dignified. “And, of course, it wouldn’t do my reputation any good. That could be bad for business.”
I peeled two more notes from my wallet held them in front of me. The tremor made them flutter slightly, the paper made a rasping sound. I found it vaguely unpleasant.
“How much would you need to pay out in total?”
He made a show of trying to remember but we both knew he was calculating. Calculating how much he could inflate the figures.
“I loaned her four hundred pounds and the ticket is set at eight hundred.” I wasn’t surprised at how smoothly he lied. Practise, they say, makes perfect.
I put the notes I was holding onto the pile, drew out another six, added them also.
“That covers the loan.” Another sixteen notes after that. “That covers the ticket. And this…” I pulled out a single note “… should more than cover the loss of reputation.”
If he picked up on the slight he didn’t let me know. The money trap in the counter snapped open. Before I pushed the stack into it I peeled another three notes from my wallet and held them up for him to see. He looked confused. There might have been a hint of caution but greed overwrote it. Even so, he realised the nature of the transaction had altered. He finally met my eye.
“And this ensures I leave this shop not only with the locket but with all paperwork relating to it. I won’t be requiring a receipt.” He opened his mouth to say something but I told him, “Don’t even blink.”
When he nodded I topped off the pile of notes and dropped it into the money trap. It vanished with a clang and reappeared inside the teller’s cage.
“I believe the grand total is two thousand five hundred. You agree?” When he said he did, I nodded. “Then count it, I insist. I want there to be no problems.”
He counted without the aid of rubber thimbles and I noticed his fingertips were smudged with colour. He’d obviously been fiddling with the printing press and its plates.
That was good.
The young woman in the phone shop was kind enough to insert the SIM card for me. I’d held up my trembling hands as evidence of my inability. Then, as if I’d held up a sign reading mentally deficient, she’d explained how to press the buttons and talk when somebody answered.
“I don’t know how to thank you, Solomon.”
Sadie poured tea until the bone china cup was brimming. She’d known me when my hands were as steady as rock and she seldom remembered to take account of their new tremor.
I held the cup over the saucer for a moment before trying to drink from it. That way the ornate table cloth would be spared from whatever slopped over the rim. Sadie served what my father, God rest his soul, had called old ladies’ tea. Bone china cups and saucers, cubes of sugar with silver tongs, a plate for biscuits. And tea so weak you could barely taste it.
I told her there was no need for thanks. “Just promise me you won’t be doing that again.” She blushed and, to my eye at least, looked young again for a second. “You need a little money to tide you over, you come and see me. You understand?”
She told me she did.
Mickey’s contract had been less a legal document than a licence to steal. The original “loan” on the locket was only for seventy-five pounds. The interest rates were huge but Mickey had managed to hide them behind small print.
Sadie took a supermarket digestive from the plate. The plate, like the cups, had seen better days, but then haven’t we all? She chewed for a little while and we sat in silence. I was surprised to see her mother’s locket around her neck. Normally she kept it hidden away in a tiny jewel box. I suspected that after so nearly losing it she wanted to keep it close for a while. Maybe she followed my eye.
“You didn’t have to pay to get this back, did you?” she asked, suddenly.
“No,” I assured her, “I traded it for one of Abba’s printing presses.” Mickey wasn’t the only one who practised. I could lie smoothly also.
For a second it looked as if she might cry.
“Oh, Solomon, not your father’s tools.”
I held up a hand to stop her protests.
“I’ve plenty of Abba’s tools to remember him by. Anyway, these days they make me think less of what I had and more of about what I’ve lost.” We both watched the hand shudder as I tried to hold it still.
The printing press had been one of the last my father had made. Though not his finest piece it was still built with an exactness few could match. But, with the introduction of more and more polymer notes, it was rapidly becoming little more than a curiosity.
In some ways I was glad Abba had died before the age of laser printers and digital reproduction. For him the focus had been the artistry, the joy was in the doing rather than the finished product. That was a legacy of far more importance to me than the workshop full of tools he’d left behind.
I could have still plied the trade had I wished. Computers and cameras could be coaxed to work by my shaking hands, but their use lacked the satisfaction of wielding an engraver’s pen. I could understand Mickey’s simple pleasure in turning the hand crank on the miniature press.
Through I’d always been more careful about leaving fingerprints.
Sadie and I sat in silence again. It was a comfortable silence particular to old age.
When I next walked past the shop, Micky was being helped into the back of an unmarked car. I wondered if he’d think to tell the Fraud Squad about the little rubber thimbles I’d worn to count out the money. It wasn’t a detail many people would consider. It isn’t widely known that fingerprints can be lifted from paper. I suspected it was something Micky would be learning shortly.
The only prints on the pile of fake fifties — and the press that had produced them — were going to be his.
Using the pay-as-you-go mobile just once, before throwing it away, made the tip-off an expensive call. I considered it money well spent.
If you grow up with little in the larder, you learn the value of vermin control.