The Expensive Universal Instrument – part 7 – “Once more unto the breech” is here.
I’ve been pushed and pulled in so many area of life for the last long while that it’s been hard to write. I’ve decided to noodle around and push on with the serial. Once again, for those at home, these are basically unplanned and first drafts for my (and hopefully your) amusement.
Does our main character get the Expensive Universal Instrument back? What’s in The Buccaneer’s Treasure? Find out…
“Can I help you?”
“Uh.” The simple, up beat and definitely customer oriented question threw me off. My head spun a little and my tongue cowered in my throat.
The clerk, a dark man with a shaved head, large golden earing and coke bottle glasses, stood behind the counter. From outside the shop’s door, he was easily eclipsed by the two thugs standing at the counter. He wasn’t skinny, but compared to the ex-jock types looming, anyone looked that way. The clerk smiled.
“The man asked you a question!” There was that thick New Jersey accent again. The thug could have been Vincenzo’s cousin. For all I know he was.
New Jersey’s friend stepped right up to me. “What’s the matter? You in the wrong place?” He was bigger than New Jersey but bore a closer resemblance to the clerk. He casually clenched his hands into fists, making a sound disturbingly close to what I hear when I have a bowl of Rice Crispies for supper.
I swallowed hard. “A friend a mine recommended your store for unique and interesting things. I thought I’d come in and check it out.” Apparently threatening behavior loosens my tongue rather than friendliness.
“My friends, let the man breathe.” The clerk said. He waved at the two flesh mountains. “Back up. Back up. Come on now. Back up. S’all right.” When the thugs hesitated, the clerk’s voice lowered. “Back off.”
I hesitated a little.
“Come on now sir.” He said, rolling the r in an odd manner. “Don’t be shy.”
I stepped up. I tried to project a confidence I wasn’t feeling. Hey, fake it til you make it right? I straightened my shirt and smiled.
I stumbled hard and slammed my hands on the counter. It was a long glass display and the coolness spread up my hands and a sigh escaped from me. My hands left prints. The man behind the counter frowned again. He produced a white cloth out of nowhere and wiped at them furiously. I looked around at gold watches, rings, jewelry spread out inside the case. Every piece looked well worn.
I was starting to think I had the wrong place. I looked behind me, avoiding eye contact with the thugs now lounging on either side of the doors in frail looking wooden chairs. On hooks dangled battered guitars and one dusty accordion. A burnished saxophone lay on its side.
My eyes landed on a case in the far corner holding cell phones of every make and model, with cases and without. Scattered among them lay various electronic doodads of every sort. I even spotted an iThing! Above on the wall hung several awful paintings with tiny price tags.
Maybe I was in the right place, but where was my Expensive Universal Instrument?
“Sir? Is there something specific you might be looking for?”
I swallowed hard. “Well, I’m uh- looking for unusual sort of things.”
“Unusual? Like what?”
I was stuck. I figured I couldn’t just come out and describe the Expensive Universal Instrument. I didn’t want the guy to know I wanted it back. With Jersey and his buddy lounging behind me, me with no passport or any kind of ID, I couldn’t call the cops and accuse them of having stolen goods. While the gears turned in my head, the clerk was starting to get a little impatient.
“Sir. If you can’t tell me what you are looking for, perhaps you should —”
“No no! I’m sorry.” I shrugged and gave him my best puppy smile. It had no effect. “It’s been a rough day.”
“There is a lot of that, how you say? Going around.”
“Yeah.” I tried a laugh and I figured I sounded like a maniac so I stopped. “Anyway. I can’t really say.” I paced a bit and waved at the jewelry and the cell phones. “I mean this is fine, but I can find this stuff anywhere. Even the paintings. I want something new, pieces I can’t find anywhere else. Maybe something that just came in?” I looked at the clerk sideways.
He was frowning. “Looking at you, forgive me sir, but you don’t look like you can afford anything like that.”
Damn. I didn’t want him to think I was after high end stuff! I quailed inside and fought to keep a poker face.
“I don’t know. It could be anything. I don’t mean a Picasso or anything. It doesn’t have to have a pedigree or provenance.”
The clerk gave a thin smile. “Well that’s good. I don’t give pedigrees, that’s for little animals that you tourists sometimes bring. I don’t concern myself with provenance either. What you see is what you get. No questions asked.”
“Oh no questions will be asked.” I noticed the guy wasn’t saying sir anymore.
The clerk turned to the cash register and slapped the button. It was an old kind with tin number plates that dinged as the drawer slammed open. It made me jump. Behind me, Jersey chuckled. The clerk pulled out a long chain with a tiny key hanging on the end. He dangled it at me and licked his lips. The smile came back.
He turned and unlocked a door recessed into the wall. I could barely see the edges. The only way I noticed it was because he slipped the key into the lock. He covered the opening with his body while rummaging. It was more of a closet than a room.
He spoke with his head deep inside the dark opening. “I have a few things here. Some are quite old.”
“Oh, I’d be interested in things you’ve recently acquired maybe?”
“Yeah why?” Jersey said from behind me.
Good question. I swallowed. Think fast, think fast! “Um. I like items that are active?”
“What the hell does that mean?”
The clerk hauled out a plastic bin. “Hey! Shut up there. Quit agitating the customers.” The clerk nudged his chin at me. “He can want what he wants, if he can pay, he gets what he wants. You got that?”
I didn’t dare look back to see Jersey’s reaction.
The clerk slammed the bin on the counter. I cringed, thinking the glass might break. “So you want recent items do you sir? Well this is the stuff I haven’t had the time to sort today. Shall we take a look?” He narrowed his eyes at me. “Now I might have to charge a premium for this, these aren’t supposed to be put on display yet…but what the heck, it be a slow day and I need to register these anyhow.”
He started lining up the items on the counter. A few gold pens, some bizarre sculptures and finally, there it was! The Expensive Universal Instrument! It clunked onto the glass. I swear I heard a lovely echoing note hang in the air. No one else seemed to look at it twice. I yanked my eyes away from it when the clerk looked up and heard me gasp.
“You like this?” He held up the sculpture. It looked like a twisted piece of wood, but made from brass and some sort of shiny blue glass, with bits of marble here and there. It looked grotesque.
“Oh yes! That looks so unusual. How much?”
“I have to say sir that I’ve seen pieces in this particular style before. Note the highlights. Very precious. I cannot let this piece be sold for less than two thousand dollars american.”
“Two thousand? No, I’m sorry, I don’t have that on me.” It was just fine by me, I didn’t want it.
“I would be willing to hold it a day if you needed to find a bank.”
“No, I’m sorry, I was planning to leave.” I looked around frantically. My eyes landed on another piece, a silver watch with an odd design on the face. “This looks interesting.”
“Oh, you have a good eye sir. This is a time piece that comes from a very very bad gambler. I do not think he will come and pay off his marker. This watch is Swiss. Very very good.”
“I don’t know, but it is interesting.”
“I am afraid that this piece is only slightly less costly than the sculpture.”
I hummed and awed a moment and shook my head. “I’m sorry. I guess I just don’t see anything today. It’s a shame really. I had a strong impulse to shop and some very good recommendations about this store.”
The clerk frowned, crestfallen. “I am quite saddened sir. Perhaps next time, one should be better prepared financially.”
I looked around. “I’ll tell you what. I’ll take that, just for fun, for say a hundred bucks?” I pointed at the Expensive Universal Instrument.
“That? We don’t even know what it is!”
“Me neither. I’ll take a chance. What the heck right?” I mentally crossed my fingers. Please! Please! Please! Pretty Please with sprinkles?
The clerk reached up and pinched his lip. His eyes bored holes into my skull.
“Don’t do this crumb any favors Cyrano!”
The clerk, Cyrano, looked back at Jersey but didn’t say anything.
I was starting to sweat. My heart raced. My mouth didn’t want to work but I forced it. “Are you going to let your doormen dictate your business?”
Cyrano’s jaw tensed. He sighed. “You shut up back there. I’m doing my business.”
“Shut up! This is my place. You are a guest.” Cyrano looked at me and licked his lips. “I propose two hundred.”
I smiled. “Two hundred it is, sounds fair.” Thank you! Take that, Jersey, you jerk!
Cyrano smiled wide, his teeth impossibly white against his dark skin. “That was a bit too easy. Perhaps I spoke too soon. Three hundred might be more fair to me I think.”
“Hey! What kind of business are you running here? I was told…”
“Who told you? I say three hundred. It’s my final offer. Yes. Three hundred.”
I forced a frown, inside I was grinning ear to ear. “Fine, but this isn’t right.” I pulled out three bills from Vincenzo’s charity and grabbed at the black square that was the Expensive Universal Instrument.
Cyrano smiled and counted the bills, even though there were plainly only three. “Have yourself a nice day sir, and a nice visit to Nassau.”
I turned and took two quick steps to the door. It jingled as I yanked it open. Jersey and his pal stood, both scowling.
“Wait.” Cyrano called.
I gasped, and bolted. I was out the door like greased lightening. Jersey yelled something incoherent and I swear I felt his hand brush the back of my neck. As I ran down the alley, I could hear the stomping feet of the two thugs chasing me down.