The Squeaky Wheel and the Stradivarius

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Hello, my name is Jack Lockwood, I’m a criminal profiler, who also writes books about true crime and lives near Canterbury, in Kent, England.  Here is what happened to me a little while ago:

“She’s horrible, an absolutely horrible woman, no doubt about it,” explained Cedric, as my friend Stuart and I lifted the new front bumper of the 1963 Austin Healey Sprite into place, and I slotted the bolt through the holes, as I squatted in front of the car on Cedric’s concrete front drive. “My sister Birdie is one o’ them people that people find cranky, nasty, bad tempered,” he continued as we worked. “But of course, she’s the living proof of that old phrase ‘it’s the squeaky wheel that always gets the grease’. Folks are nice to her, because life’s easier that way, she’s so nasty, they don’t want to cross her, see?”

Cedric was a stooping, white haired eccentric of 85, who lived in a small cottage in the village of Brookham, near my home on the outskirts of Canterbury. My friend Stuart Billingham and I work on vintage and classic cars as a hobby, and because Cedric still loves his classic sports car, and likes to go to old car rallies, we help him keep his vehicle in good shape, by replacing parts when necessary. It’s not a one-way street of favours: Cedric is a great character, and it’s good fun to chat to him and enjoy his stories of Canterbury life in the 1930s and 40s. He wears ancient cardigans and creased trousers, but everything about him is spotlessly clean and his home is undecorated but tidy, from the small front yard where we were standing with the car, to the interior rooms, whose walls haven’t met a paintbrush for fifty years.

Shortly afterwards the three of us were in Cedric’s undecorated ancient breakfast room, drinking coffee at his scrubbed pine table. He was telling us more about his sister Birdie, whom I’d only met a few times. I knew that she had a house clearance business in Canterbury and dabbled in antique dealing, and was quite a wealthy woman. Now in her early 70s, I’d heard that she’d bullied her large docile husband into an early grave a couple of years ago, and now was apparently concentrating on her business, which was doing very well indeed.

“Oh aye, the Midas Touch, Birdie has, she always has had,” Cedric muttered. “Matter of fact, one of you boys would be doing me a big favour if you help her out. She’s had some break-ins in her shop. She’d appreciate a bit of advice on security.” He fixed me with his glare. “And what with you knowing all about crime–”

“Well the best people are the police – the local crime prevention officer.”

“Lazy article. He came last week, just huffed and puffed, then wandered off out again, saying she needed to install an expensive alarm system – then he went on about how the police wouldn’t come out unless someone actually saw an intruder on the premises – the days of an alarm going off and the coppers just coming along, are long gone I’m afraid.”

So that’s how I happened to call on Birdie Allardice the following Monday. Just as Cedric had said, she certainly didn’t look like a woman to be reckoned with.

Birdie’s shop was large, and to reach the front counter I had to negotiate vast old wardrobes, chests of drawers and shelves full of china figurines, and glass cases packed with assorted smaller items, including broken fob watches and a glass eye. Behind the counter was a very small bird-like woman, her huge black-framed glasses dwarfing her round face and very much out of kilter with her small mouth and narrow nose. Her frown as I approached was disconcerting.

“You’re late. You said as how you’d be here at 12 o’clock!” were her first words.

“Forget it then. If ten minutes late matters so much to you.”

“No, no, now you’re here you may as well make yourself useful,” she snapped, scurrying from behind the timber length and looking me up and down. “You’re very good looking,” she frowned, as if it was a sin. “I don’t normally trust handsome men. Cedric tells me you’re something to do with the police, and you write books?”

“Yes, that’s right. I’m a Behavioural Investigative Adviser. That’s what used to be called a criminal profiler.”

“Got fancy degrees and such then?”

“One or two.”

“And you help Cedric look after that wretched old car?”

“When I’ve got time.”

“Daft old fool. Shouldn’t be driving at his age, but what can you do? Stubborn, some men, really stubborn. OI, YOU! YES YOU!” she called across to a couple of boys who’d entered the shop. “I’ve got my eye on you little beggars, anything goes missing, and I’ll know where it’s gone!”

The boys looked terrified before they made for the door, its clanging bell echoing as they left.

“Might as well tell you what it’s all about,” Birdie said, pushing past me and locking the outer door and turning the sign in the window to closed. “Thing is, I’ve been accused of doing something terrible.”

“I thought you were worried about break-ins,” I said.

“That as well. But it’s all linked in. Look, follow me, Jack, that is your name isn’t it?”

“Yes.”

I followed her into the back room, then along a corridor until we reached a large garage-like area, filled with all kinds of things. Some of the items looked valueless, other pieces appeared to be antiques. There was a musty smell reminiscent of ancient dust and cobwebs, as if the room wasn’t used very often.

“This is where I was broken into last week. Fact is I’ve had some trouble. Six weeks ago tomorrow, my friend, old Mrs Davies, died. She had a house in town, and her son came down from Birmingham and sorted everything out. He’s a mean, tight fisted basket, disliked him moment I set eyes on him. Mrs D never saw sight or sound of him from one year to the next, but when she died he was straight down here like a vulture looking for pickings. When he’d got rid of anything of value, he asked me to clear the house of the old furniture, which I did. He gave me a bugger-all price I can tell you, and I took everything. That’s the way it works, see? As a rule the householder has a good look around, makes sure there’s nothing of value left in the place, then he asks me what I charge to take away the old tat – that’s what it usually is, most of it, sometimes I do it free. I almost offered to do it free for him, more fool me, load of rubbish it was, but I saw sense in the end. And if I can make any profit on any of the items I clear, then that’s my good luck.”

“Seems clear enough.”

“Exactly. It should be. But it’s a sight more complicated than that. Mrs Davies had a daughter as well, but she died. However there’s a granddaughter who lives in New York. A very sweet girl, she’s popped into the shop now and again when she came to visit her granny. Samantha’s an extremely talented violinist. Do you know anything about professional violinists?”

“No.”

“Well, little Samantha told me that every professional violinist needs to have their own instrument. And that violin becomes a part of them, a absolutely vital part of their performance. When Samantha passed all her exams, Mrs Davies bought her a very valuable violin, made in 1886 by Eugenie Degani, of Venice. She paid about thirty five grand. I was staggered, but they tell me that Stradivarius violins, the rarest of all, can fetch millions. Something to do with the rarity, but also the old wood is supposed to give a sweeter sound, kind of thing makes a performance extra special.”

I was wondering where all this was leading.

“But it seems that Mrs Davies bought the violin, only last year and never got around to registering it as belonging to the girl,” she said.

“Why would she need to? “

“Something of that value? Of course she needed to. But fact is, because she didn’t do that, and she never expected to die, none of us do, do we? And her son, Samantha’s uncle Harold, is claiming that the valuable violin should form part of Mrs Davies’s estate, that, according to law, it belongs to him, as he was the sole beneficiary of her will, that she never got around to changing to include leaving the violin to Samantha, as of course I know she’d have wanted to. And Harold, the bastard, he’s determined to have it.”

“Which will wreck Samantha’s chances as a musician.”

Birdie nodded. “Girl’s been using the instrument for nigh-on a year now, she’s getting a lot of work with orchestras, and is making her name with a couple of her pals as a trio. But without the violin, or another one of a similar quality, her career grinds to a halt.”

“That’s a mess,” I agreed.

“Thing is, now the violin has gone missing,” Birdie said. “Samantha had left it with her mum for safekeeping while she went on holiday, so my guess is that someone heard that Mrs D had died, and broke in before Harold got there. But Harold reckons as how I’ve taken it, that it must have been hidden in the house. Had the police here, wanting to search my shop. They weren’t allowed to without a warrant, so I reckon it’s him who’s been trying to break into my premises, to search for it himself. But it’s ridiculous, because Harold searched his mum’s house before he let me in. He knew the violin wasn’t there then.”

“And Samantha left the violin at her mum’s house, yet it’s disappeared?”

She shook her head in exasperation. “Yes. It’s a real mystery. Harold’s convinced it must have been hidden, and I somehow found it by accident.”

I checked her locks and gave her the name of a friend who fits high-end security systems, for a thorough assessment of her aging locks and alarm.

That night I stayed in the storeroom, really as a favour to Cedric, and because Birdie was obviously scared of whoever the mystery intruder might be. I was dozing off, surrounded by the timber furniture, the tick-tock of a grandfather clock in the corner my only company.

Then, just as I’d drifted into sleep, I heard a sound. A footstep outside the back door – earlier on Birdie had showed me that the back entrance to her shop led from the rear of the storeroom. I got up and ran across to where I could see the door – deliberately left unfastened – was opening, letting in the cold night air.

“Hey!” I almost grabbed the man, but he was too fast for me, pulling away and escaping before I’d been able to hold on tight enough. I ran after him but it was no good. Soon he’d vanished into the night.

I woke Birdie up and we reported the attempted break-in to the police, but they didn’t even bother to send anyone round. My security fitter friend arrived next day and beefed up Birdie’s locks and alarm system. At least, it seemed to me, that if the intruder came back, there was no way he’d be able to get in.

For the next few weeks I forgot all about Birdie and her problems, was busy with various other things. It was a couple of months later that I was in Cedric’s kitchen with my two friends, chatting away as usual over coffee. Cedric showed me the newspaper, The New York Times, with a glowing report of a concert given by a trio of classical musicians, one of whom was called Samantha Davies.

There was a short piece beneath the main article about the sell-out concert:

Ms Davies, described as a musical prodigy, had recently lost her own valuable violin, and because it wasn’t in her name it hadn’t even been insured. However, a very similar instrument arrived at her home by private courier a week ago, with no explanation as to who had given it to her, just saying that it was a ‘gift from an unknown admirer’. Valued at around fifty thousand dollars, the unknown admirer certainly must have admired Ms Davies’s performances.

“Birdie was telling me only the other day,” Cedric continued, “when you get the contract to clear a house, you legally own everything that’s in the house, that means all the movable items. What I heard was, that Samantha paid a visit to Birdie’s shop when she came over soon after her mum died, right after her holiday.”

Stuart, speaking from behind his usual three-day stubble and fringe of lank hair above pig-like features, nodded knowingly. “So if, after seeing Birdie, Samantha had been asked to leave an item in her mum’s house, after her uncle had checked the premises were clear for Birdie to take everything away from, if that certain something were found by Birdie within the premises of the house after she’d been authorised to clear the place, then, according to the contract, it would belong to her?”

“Absolutely.”

“And I imagine that an antique violin, even a valuable one, can’t necessarily be identified? Or if it has a serial number or something, that this can probably be altered?”

“I daresay it can,” Cedric replied.

“But you described your sister Birdie as a Squeaky Wheel,” I said, pondering on the ramifications of what had happened. “Who was so disagreeable that people were nice to her because they didn’t want trouble. An unpleasant, awkward woman.”

“Aye, she is. No charm at all. But one thing I learnt from my old dad, women can be crafty as a barrel-of-monkey. And Birdie, she always did know right from wrong.”

If you liked the above, you might like to look at Jack’s two books, available on Kindle:  Rock’n’Roll Suicide

http://amzn.to/XVQ9GF

and the second one, Doppelganger  http://amzn.to/112n98l

See you very soon, and thanks for being interested in my life

From now on, the Jack Lockwood Diaries will be all together on Jack’s blog, which is   http://jacklockwood.wordpress.com/ 

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