In the older quarter of Norwich near Fishergate is a narrow street known as Viking Way. Right in the centre of the block and at the narrowest point of the street hangs three brass balls, each almost as large as a soccer ball. From either end of the short road the three balls are the first thing anyone would notice. A pawnshop that has been in continuous operation since 1838 proudly displays the fact on the heading and the brass balls naturally draw one’s eyes to it.
On this day there was a slight fog hanging around the city and at first glance the scene could easily have been a sketch in a Charles Dickens novel. A solitary figure skulked along the edge of the street with a large brown paper parcel held awkwardly under his arms. The thinness of the parcel betrayed the fact that it was a picture clumsily wrapped for disguise or perhaps protection against the elements. He stopped at the Three Brass Balls and made sure there was no one following, then ducked into the shop’s interior. An old-fashioned cowbell clanged and rattled, announcing the man’s entry.
Graham Fischer had purchased the pawnshop for cash on the very dawning of the new century. Graham was just over forty-eight and of average height with ample hair, greying a little around the edges. His bushy eyebrows gave the impression that he was scowling most of the time and owing to his opulence and love of red wine, he presented a somewhat corpulent figure. As usual he sat just behind an Edwardian roll-top desk and like Scrooge’s assistant, Bob Cratchit, he perched on a high chair.
Jonathon Cameron slumped back against the closed door with the parcel clutched firmly in his arms. He looked exhausted as though he had been hurrying and also a little wild-eyed and frightened. His actions were those of man being followed.
‘Is it stolen?’ Graham growled from the darkness of his lookout perch.
‘Stolen? Stolen? Certainly not. Why would you think that?’
‘You look the type. So you want to pawn it or sell it?’
Cameron eased his way over to Graham, still clutching the picture as though it might decide to escape all by itself.
‘It … well … this is my …’
‘For heaven’s sake, show the thing to me and stop wasting my time.’
‘Yes, yes, certainly. I paint quite a lot, you know; it’s my thing, you see, it’s what I do.’
‘I dare say, but unless you are known the painting isn’t worth the cost of the canvas.’
Jonathon Cameron carefully unwrapped the brown paper and slowly presented the picture to Graham.
‘It is dry but new.’
‘Really?’ Graham glared at the picture in total silence for a few moments and then said, ‘So you’re Leonardo de Vinci, are you?’
‘No, I’m Jonathon Cameron.’
‘Well I hate to break the news to you, but de Vinci painted the Mona Lisa hundreds of years ago. What makes yours so unique?’
‘It’s a copy.’
‘No kidding. So why bring it to me? Do I look like I need one?’
‘It’s a good copy. You can hardly tell the difference. It’s exactly like the real thing.’
Graham sighed very loudly. ‘To start with, sonny, this one is too small and the real one, as everyone knows, is in the Louvre and that’s in Paris, as in France.’
‘So you don’t want it, then?’
Graham looked at the painting and pulled it close to his eyes and after several moments of silence said, ‘What you want, pawn or sale?’
Jonathon shrugged. ‘Well, sell if I can. Like I need the money. I have a sick …’
‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, all you artists have a sick aunt or mother. I’ll wager yours is young and takes her clothes of at the drop of a hat.’
‘No, no, not really.’
‘Desperate, are you?’
‘Well, it’s hard making a living as an artist.’
‘Where you from, son?’
‘Happisburgh, up the coast.’
‘Well, I don’t have a market for fakes, well not poor fakes.’ Suddenly, a light bulb came on in Graham’s head, an idea that could make millions, literally millions. ‘How would you like to make some real money, son?’
‘Yeah, say hundreds of thousands?’
Jonathon’s eyes lit up. ‘How?’
Carefully, Graham handed the Mona Lisa back to the young artist.
‘If you could copy, that is, exactly copy a real painting, I might just know someone who could be interested in it.’
‘Yeah,’ he said eagerly. ‘I could do that as long as it’s not illegal.’
‘Well of course it would be above board. I wouldn’t stoop to anything crooked. But you’d have to keep it under your hat. Like not run around shouting about it. People who own copies like to pretend they are real, you see. Running around telling everyone would make the painting worthless. You do see that, don’t you?’
‘Yeah, great. When and how much?’
‘Well, I’ll tell you what I’ll do. I’ll give you fifty pounds for this de Vinci, cash sale. It’ll be sort of a down payment on future investments. I can use it to show prospective customers. You give me your details so I can contact you and we’ll come to some arrangement. So how’s that sound?’
‘Do you have your own studio?’
‘And it’s private, like?’
‘I mean you can work undisturbed; we don’t want any old Tom, Dick or Harry wandering in when you’re supposed to be working for me.’
‘Oh. I work in a barn. I rent it from a farmer. Well, he’s a sort of a farmer – he smokes fish. He don’t use it, you see.’
‘And it’s nice and secluded and private?’
‘Great, then we’ve got a deal. Now keep it under your hat and don’t go blabbing it around.’
‘Yes, certainly. I’ll just refer to it as … well, as commission. Is that alright?’
‘That’s exactly right, son, you will be on commission. Now fill out this application form.’
‘Application for what?’
‘Employment. You do have a phone, don’t you?’
‘Good. Make sure you fill in all the details.’
Now, villainy is a profession best left to those who have more courage than sense. Graham Fischer had at last discovered the last piece in his life’s puzzle. Now, right in front of his face, was the answer to all his prayers: an artist who has the ability and willingness to copy old masters. He leaned back and smiled to himself as he mentally placed the last piece of the puzzle in position.
Only the day before a gentleman came into the shop with a very sad situation. Graham was seated in his usual perch contemplating nothing in particular, when the cowbell sang out its jingle, announcing someone entering the shop. He looked up and a very worried, youngish man gave him a slow and somewhat greasy smile.
‘Yes, sir,’ Graham asked and slipped off the stool. ‘What can I do for you?’
The young man looked about forty-ish; he had a good crop of dark hair and seemed to be carrying a burden.
‘I heard … well, someone said you lend money.’
‘Did they indeed? Do you have any collateral?’
‘Collateral. I, well, I … like what?’
‘How much are you looking for?’
The young man blushed and moved his head as though his collar was too tight.
‘I, er … I’m sort of looking for …’
‘Well, spit it out. I can’t guess the amount, now can I?’
‘I need 10,000, now.’
Graham nodded all-knowingly; he showed no sign of shock or surprise.
‘I see. And what makes you think I could come up with that kind of bread?’
Graham walked back to his perch and climbed up.
‘Only if there is any chance of getting it back. I don’t run a charity, you know.’
‘Oh, of course. I have a good job and will definitely pay it back; that is with reasonable terms.’
‘So what’s wrong with the bank?’
‘I already owe them too much. They have my mortgage.’
‘So what collateral do you have?’
The young man shrugged. ‘My car.’
‘What do you drive, a Rolls?’
‘No, it’s an old Datsun.’
‘I’m sorry, but without something of value there’s nothing I can do for you. Now if you had the keys to the Bank of England we could probably do a swap,’ he said and laughed at his own joke.
The young man smiled weakly at the intended humour.
‘I really do have a good job. I work in security. In fact, it was me who installed your alarm system in this shop.’
‘Did you, indeed?’ Having a criminal mind that had for years been looking for the perfect score, Graham immediately began to reason the possibilities. If he overextended this young man’s ability to pay up, then he may just be able to pull off the world’s best heist. ‘I’ll tell you what,’ Graham said softly. ‘I might just be able to help you.’
‘So what’s your name?’
‘Hasslett, David Hasslett.’
‘Good, good. And what exactly do you do for a living?’
‘I told you, I install alarm systems and do the inspection and stuff like that.’
‘I see. So how much do you earn, weekly?’
‘I’m not paid weekly; it’s salary. I’m paid a monthly salary.’
‘To the tune of?’
‘Oh, 22,000 per year.’
Graham nodded admiringly. ‘Good, good. Now if you would like to fill out these loan forms. Make sure you fill in all the details; we’ll see what arrangement we can come up with. You do realize my interest rate is a little higher than the bank’s?’
The forms were deliberately complicated and overly obtuse, but after some thirty-five minutes David handed the papers to Graham.
‘So do I get the money now?’
Pouting his lips, Graham slowly and methodically checked every paper.
After a while he said, ‘Looks fine but for the signature at the bottom; I’ll need an independent witness.’
‘No problem. My lawyer lives only three doors away. A quick dingle on the old blower and he’ll be here like a shot. He never misses a chance of turning a coin or two.’
‘Okay, so then do I get the money?’
‘Patience, patience, Rome was not built in a day.’
David sighed and waited for Graham to make the appropriate phone call. After a while Graham stopped muttering into the phone and put the instrument down.
He turned to David and asked, ‘So do you do any large houses or museums or galleries?’
‘Yeah, we’ve got several of the big houses on contract.’
‘Not on my list, but I’m just one of five agents. I look after the North Norfolk Coast.’
‘I see, and does that include Norwich?’
‘No, but we had a man off sick and they asked me to fill in. That’s how I knew of you. We put in your alarm system.’
The cowbell sounded, heralding someone’s entrance into the shop. Moments later a wizened and bent little man walked to the back where Graham conducted his monetary business. The man wore old-fashioned pince-nez and an obviously ill-fitting wig. He was dressed like an undertaker but had a row of pens in his breast pocket.
‘It’ll cost you thirty pounds,’ he said with a slight Scottish lilt.
‘Thirty quid? What the hell for?’ David snapped, aghast.
‘Witnessing. Thirty pounds per hour or part thereof, that’s the price. You called, I’m here. That’s thirty pounds, unless you wish to drag it out to the next hour. Either way, at this moment you owe me thirty pounds.’
‘I don’t have thirty pounds.’
‘That’s alright,’ Graham said, ‘we’ll just add that to the interest and incidentals. I’ll write him a cheque at the end of the month as usual.’
The old man was expensive but thorough. He read all the papers then watched David sign. He signed as witnessed, smiled and left.
‘He’s a bit steep,’ David commented. ‘Do I get the money now?’
‘I’ll write you out a cheque. Now, I need to know who you owe the money to, name and address.’
‘Really? Is that absolutely necessary?’
‘Well, well … It’s a gambling debt; it’s between me and the fellow I lost to.’
‘Not if I am paying the debt. I’m sorry, I have to know all about it or I can’t help you.’
‘Alright. It’s Hiram Adamson.’
‘Oh, really? Surely not the Hiram Adamson from Cromer?’
‘Yeah, you know him?’
‘He’s not a gambler.’
‘No, he’s a moneylender.’
Graham stared at David blankly for a moment.
‘I thought you said it was a gambling debt, you never mentioned moneylenders.’
‘I did. I was on a winning streak and I needed more money to cover the bet. Adamson just happened to be there and … well, he said he’d spot me for the stake.’
‘And of course you lost.’
‘Too right I did. The man’s a crook. I have to get him off my back; he keeps putting up the interest rate. The way he’s going I’ll never pay the debt.’
‘Hmm! I would suggest you hop over there and pay this man off quickly. Here, I’ll write you a cheque.’
The moment David left the pawnshop Graham made a phone call.
‘Hello, Mr Adamson?’
‘Yes,’ growled a deep voice on the phone.
‘Ah! Yes, this is Graham Fischer, Three Brass Balls.’
‘Oh yes. So, to what do I owe this pleasure?’
‘I had a customer of yours here, a very foolish young gambler. Tells me he owes you ten big ones.’
‘Yeah, so what?’
‘I’ve given him the ability to pay you off, but, well … Let me put it this way. If you could see your way to squeeze him a little harder, we both might profit far more than you might think. Would you like to discuss this over a nice cold beer somewhere real quiet, like?’
‘Alright. Say this Saturday at the Rose and Crown, say three fifteen. I will be passing at around that time.’
‘Sound reasonable. I’ll see you there.’
Graham replaced the phone and rubbed his hands together. Already a grand scheme was formulating in his fervent brain. The pieces of the puzzle were pulling together in a grand fashion.
Adamson was an older gentleman and a senior member of the known criminal fraternity. He specialised in bankrolling would-be thieves and conmen. For pocket change he often hung around gambling circles and lent losers money at exorbitant interest rates. Failure to pay up meant a visit from one of his many heavies and they were neither gentle nor polite.
The pub seemed crowded for a Saturday, but Graham soon found Adamson.
‘I’d like to speak to you in private,’ Graham said and smiled politely.
Adamson nodded his head toward a door at the side of the building. He led the way and Graham followed. The label said “Private” but Adamson just opened it and entered.
‘Take a seat.’
For the first time Graham felt nervous. This man was a dangerous criminal and somewhat of a kingpin in that area.
‘I, er … Well, I have a scheme,’ he said, hardly believing that he could say such a thing.
‘Really.’ The big man slouched on a hard-bottom chair and glared at Graham. ‘I don’t have all day.’
‘Can I buy you a beer?’
‘Yes, well. I have a man who, should I say, can get into art galleries and places like that.’
‘So can I, I just buy a ticket.’
‘No, this man can get in when the alarms are turned on.’
‘Oh yes, why would anyone want to do that?’
‘Ah, well, I have another man who can paint.’
Adamson breathed out, sounding like the relief valve on an air compressor. ‘I think I’ve heard enough. Goodbye, Mr Three Brass Balls.’
‘No, please, let me finish.’
‘Hurry it up, then.’
‘My artist could paint a copy and my technician could put it in the gallery and replace the original. I have the contact to sell the originals. You see, no one would even know they had been stolen.’
‘Are you trying to entice me into some illegal scheme? Do I look like a criminal to you?’
‘Then what the hell do want from me?’
‘David Hasslett owes you ten grand, gambling debt. I want you to squeeze him, make him desperate.’
‘He’s a gambler and an honest fool, but he has the ability to open locked doors, any locks.’
Adamson sighed. ‘What’s in it for me?’
‘You get his money, I get my man, we get a painting.’
‘What would I do with a painting?’
‘Nothing, I’ll sell it and you get your commission. I have all the contacts, particularly in Holland.’
‘Hasslett has paid his debt. You financed him. You push him over the brink. Why would I be interested?’
‘You’re not interested, then?’
‘He’s paid up, it’s out of my hands; he owes you. Not my problem.’
‘What if I were to cancel the cheque?’
Adamson smiled long and slow, then he leaned forward. ‘I like the way you think. Maybe we can come to some mutually beneficial arrangement, but you’ll have to tell me all the details.’