THE ARRANGER STORIES
by Crystal Jones © 2007
Ricollegandosi a una lunga tradizione storica, letteraria e cinematografica che, a partire da Robin Hood, vede come protagonisti eroi che operano al di fuori della legge, Crystal Jones mette in scena in questa sua nuova serie Lady Sylvia e i suoi amici, tutti cittadini al di sopra di ogni sospetto, che segretamente organizzano furti d'arte. A beneficio di loro stessi, ovviamente, ma anche con un forte senso di solidarietà verso i più deboli. Impossibile? Leggete per credere!
Sir Ian smiled as Lady Sylvia arrived. “Sylvia, I’m so glad you could make it! Can I get you something to drink?”
“White wine, please, Ian. You know perfectly well I’d never miss an opportunity to help my favourite charity!”
Sir Ian smiled when he heard Lady Sylvia’s voice whose rich tones reminded him of the Caribbean islands.
“You’ll be happy to know that we have spent the money that was raised at Christmas on new equipment for our Children’s Hospital!”
“Excellent, Ian! But I’m sure that you’re already planning to find more funds for something else!” said Lady Sylvia picking up an appetiser. She was in her late forties – nobody knew her exact age - but was still an attractive woman, not so much beautiful in the modern sense of perfect plastic features, but she managed to fill a room with her friendly smile and humanity.
Sir Ian blushed slightly. “Well, we do have an urgent problem. It seems that there are structural problems in the Baxter Ward – you know, where we treat very seriously ill children, but…”
“You lack funds!” broke in Lady Sylvia. “I’ll see what I can do!”
Lady Sylvia was known as a very humane and generous person. Her husband, Lord Reginald, had been lost to her to pneumonia but she deliberately filled her days always having something interesting or worthwhile to do. Her visits to London were weekly – she never missed a première of a good play or musical, but also loved her country estate with its horses, squirrels and rabbits.
All present were members of the LHCN Let’s Help Children Now charity which held their meetings at the Children’s Hospital. Most members knew one another and Lady Sylvia was happy to be there to find out about the latest plans for the hospital. A cocktail party was arranged there every few months or so and Sir Ian was always very happy when new members came along for the first time but now he wanted to speak to an old friend.
“Er…Sylvia! Would you like to pop into my office for a moment – I’ve got something to show you!” asked Sir Ian.
“Fine, let’s go!” replied Lady Sylvia wondering what on earth Sir Ian was being so mysterious about.
Sir Ian opened the door of his office and invited Lady Sylvia to sit down.
“You know we have quite a number of anonymous benefactors, but there is one who is… well, rather special. May I show you the record of her latest contribution?”
Lady Sylvia gazed at the sum seemingly bewildered, “Oh, yes. Thirty thousand pounds – Thelma Argento. Is she Italian?”
Sir Ian smiled knowingly, “Oh yes, it’s possible – that is, no-one knows who she is or has ever met her. She’s not in the telephone directory either – all we know is that her cheques are always honoured!”
“Well, if she sends you another cheque let’s hope it’ll be honoured too!” exclaimed Lady Sylvia.
“I’m sure it will be! It’s just that I can’t thank her enough. Do you think I will ever meet her, Sylvia – or perhaps I have already!”
“Well, maybe you have. You never can tell, can you?”
“By the way Sylvia, ‘Argento’ is Italian for silver, I believe.”
“Oh, really! Shall we get back to the party, Ian?” said Lady Sylvia getting up from her chair.
As Lady Sylvia got ready for bed that night she mused, “So Sir Ian seems to have guessed that I am Thelma Argento - but he certainly doesn’t know that I am The Arranger!”
Lady Sylvia rang for her butler. “Alex,” she said, turning down her CD of jazz of the thirties. “I have a little job for you.”
Alex was officially Lady Sylvia’s butler but this was only an excuse for his presence in the mansion where he had his own apartments on the second floor in the east wing, including a laboratory for developing his unique inventions and a huge wardrobe of clothes for his manifold disguises. Alex used to work for a film company as a make-up artist but went on to become a special effects and prosthetics designer capable of supplying a whole range of realistic monsters for science fiction films and television programmes. In time he had developed his own special techniques which took the art of disguise onto a new level of perfection. Working for Lady Sylvia, he sometimes acted as her butler in front of visitors, which he didn’t mind doing at all as this gave him the perfect façade he needed.
Lady Sylvia waited until the maid had left the room and then continued, “Pierre Amsang has just telephoned me. The Lucrezia Borgia casket has resurfaced!”
“Our Lucrezia Borgia casket?
“Yes, the very one. That is, the one in her famous portrait! It’s up for auction next Tuesday at ten o’clock, it’s the first item on the list!”
“Up for auction… but where has it resurfaced from?” replied the astonished Alex.”
“From a legitimate antique dealer, a certain Alfred Cooper-Browne who died in a road accident a week or so ago!”
“Never heard of him! But how is it he had the casket?” asked Alex.
“Apparently he was a friend of Fahmu Ishmail’s!” replied Lady Sylvia.
“Ah, that gentleman who stole the casket from us!” exclaimed Alex.
“Yes. It seems that when Pierre Amsang and Fahmu Ishmail, not to mention us, snatched the casket two months’ ago, while it was being transported to the Moscow museum for an exhibition and substituted it with a perfect copy you took months to make in your laboratory, our friend Fahmu contracted a gang to steal it from us.”
“Then it is true that he was at the bottom of everything!” Alex pointed out.
“Yes, as we thought! As you know, Ishmail is an antique dealer with no antique shop and I imagine that fearing that if he kept it at his house, even in a safe, we would pay a little visit to his home…”
Alex nodded, “In fact we did burgle his home and even opened up his guaranteed burglar-proof safe but the casket wasn’t there. We thought that he might have put it in a security box in the bank or something!”
“Well,” Lady Sylvia commented, “I imagine he may have thought twice about that. If the bank had been broken into, the robbers might have opened his security box and discovered the casket – or the police afterwards! The safest place to hide something is where there are similar things – in an antique shop!”
“The crafty so-and-so!” remarked Alex.
“Not so crafty, as destiny took a hand in ruining his plans. Ishmail’s friend died suddenly and apparently our ex-partner has no documentary evidence that the casket was his, so everything is going to be sold at auction – of course, the casket is being advertised in the catalogue as a copy!” explained Lady Sylvia.
“So we go and bid for it like everybody else?”
“Well, Pierre Amsang will go to the auction and act for us as well. As we know it’s the real McCoy, whilst the others think it’s just a copy, it shouldn’t be any problem at all but...” Lady Sylvia hesitated.
“But the problem is Ishmail, isn’t it?” said Alex.
“Yes. We have to find a way of stopping him from arriving at the auction in time so that Pierre Amsang can bid for the casket without having a rival bidder who also knows how much it’s really worth. Alex, this time it seems we have the opportunity of getting our own back on Ishmail.”
Now it was time for Alex to do his homework. He drove to Mr. Ishmail’s out-of-town residence and studied the ‘geography’ carefully. He knew that their former friend lived alone in a beautifully refurbished Tudor-style house with a small garden in front and a garage where he kept his 1935 Grand Mercedes.
Alex also discovered that Ishmail had a cleaning lady every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, which meant that on Tuesday, the day of the auction, Ishmail would be alone in his house.
The next Tuesday morning Alex “borrowed” a van from a car park in a busy town centre. He then drove to the village where Mr. Ishmail lived and parked the van a few yards away from the entrance of his garage. Alex had transformed his appearance into a much younger man with black hair pulled back in a ponytail who was wearing the very latest jeans and expensive sunglasses.
As he saw the garage door sliding up he prepared himself. Just as Mr. Ishmail came out of his garage in his Mercedes, Alex moved forward blocking the entrance to the house with the van.
“Can you move that van – I can’t get out?” bawled the very rich Mr. Ishmail, getting out of his vintage Mercedes, who was used to ordering people around and looked very anxiously at his watch.
Alex got out of the van. “Are you talking to me?” he replied in a very posh accent.
“Yes I am. Move your van at once - I’ve got a very important meeting to go to!” Mr. Ishmail kept looking at his watch.
“A ve-ry im-portant meet-ing?” continued Alex raising his eyebrows and smiling at Mr. Ishmail ironically. “If you ask me politely – very politely – I might!”
“I haven’t got time for this – I’m calling the police…” The exasperated Mr. Ishmail pulled his mobile out of his pocket and started dialling a number but Alex leaned over the gate and snatched his mobile away from him.
“Hey, that’s very interesting - a gold-plated version of the very one I’ve just bought! Very nice – expensive though!”
“How dare you – give me my mobile back immediately!” shouted Mr. Ishmail, now torn between wanting two things at the same time, his mobile and going to the auction.
“You’re a bit of a show-off – aren’t you?” Alex took a couple of steps back and suddenly threw the mobile up in the air saying “Hooray!” and then caught it like a juggler.
“I’ll have you arrested,” retorted Mr. Ishmail who was getting very red in the face by now.
“Go on then! That’ll be an interesting experience. Have you ever been arrested?”
Mr. Ishmail began to look very tense, “Are you mad? What is it you want – do you want money?”
Alex began singing in falsetto, “Money, money, money….” and danced around on the pavement in front of the gate.
Mr. Ishmail began to fear the man in front of him was a madman and spoke in a very nervous high pitched voice, “Look, I’ve really got to go now, I’ll give you my watch if you move your van immediately,” he said taking off his expensive watch and offering it to Alex.
“Too flash for me. All you need to say is sorry!”
Ten minutes had already passed and time was getting short for Mr. Ishmail. But his difficult character continued to get in his way.
“I’m not saying sorry to you or anybody else!” he said aggressively and opened the garden gate with his remote control as though he had finally decided to do something about it.
Alex shook his finger at him like a schoolteacher, “Oh, you naughty boy! You get angry when you can’t get your own way. Ok, you win, here’s your mobile!”
Mr. Ishmail was astonished at this sudden change of heart. Alex went to give it back to Fahmu who held his hand out to receive it but at the last minute Alex threw it over the gate into a bed of roses surrounded by long grass in the garden in front of the house.
“I’m sure a bit of lawn-mowing wouldn’t go amiss!” Alex joked. “Anyway I’m late, I can’t let you keep me any longer. Bye bye.”
Alex suddenly turned round, got into the van and drove away while Mr. Ishmail was looking frantically for his gold-plated mobile amongst the thorns.
When Alex was out of sight, he parked the van in a side turning and walked back to the main road down which Mr. Ishmail was bound to drive along, as it was the quickest route to the motorway. There were signs up saying ‘Road Works Ahead - No cars allowed.’ Alex made sure no one was around, picked the signs up and hid them behind a tree.
A couple of minutes later Fahmu was driving his Grand Mercedes along, free at last to go to the auction. He even began whistling his favourite tune to himself when he suddenly realised that there was a barrier up across the road and a policeman waving at him to stop.
“Can’t you read, sir – or are you just deliberately ignoring the road works signs at the beginning of the road?” the constable asked him acidly.
“What road works signs are you talking about?” replied Mr. Ishmail very defensively. “There were none!”
“Oh really, then if you will reverse your car back twenty yards or so we’ll both have a look to see if you’re right!”
Alex, in the mean time, had replaced the missing signs.
When the policeman and Fahmu arrived at the beginning of the road the antiquarian began to protest that the signs weren’t there a few minutes ago.
“Well, if you say you can’t see that there are road works signs there, I seriously question your eyesight and ability to drive. Sir, can I have your driving license, please?”
In the meantime Alex had returned to the van. He then drove back to the car park where its owner had originally left it, carefully wiping any part of the van he might have touched, for good measure, even though he had worn gloves all the time. Finally Alex pulled out a carefully prepared envelope from his pocket with a hundred pounds in it and left it in the glove compartment to repay the unknown owner for the “rental” of his vehicle.
When Mr. Ishmail finally got to his destination he was perspiring freely as it was already five minutes to ten! The auction house was a tall Edwardian building with rows of windows making it look rather forbidding. An elegant young lady wearing a dark navy-blue suit was waiting for him at the door. Can I help you sir?” she asked him, and when he told her he was looking for the Cooper-Browne jewellery collection she said she would accompany him there herself. Mr. Ishmail was so full of his own importance that he didn’t doubt she had been laid on especially by the auction organisers.
As they turned to go leftwards, Fahmu pointed to the display board on the wall which said that the Cooper-Browne collection was on the second floor. The young lady replied, “That’s the Cooper-Browne collection of books – didn’t you say you were interested in the jewellery?”
Looking anxiously at his watch, Mr. Ishmail was barely polite when he said, “Yes, yes – take me there as quickly as possible – there’s something on auction which I’ve been after for years. It’s the only one of its type and I can’t afford to miss buying it! I’m already late!” April, the young lady, walked the anxious client along a corridor which lead to an even longer corridor which never seemed to end. The antiquarian was getting more and more bad-tempered every minute.
“Where on earth are you taking me? You don’t seem to understand! I haven’t got time to waste – I must get to the auction immediately!”
“Yes sir. I’m taking you there!” They rushed along even more corridors until Mr. Ishmail could bear it no longer, “What’s this infernal labyrinth you’re taking me through now? You’re making me loose a unique opportunity!”
“No sir. Don’t worry! We’ll be there in a jiffy. Now down these steps and we’ll get to the lift!” However the steps let to yet another long corridor on the left. When they reached the end of it, they discovered there was a barrier with a note stuck onto it saying ‘No Entrance!’
“Oh, what a nuisance, we’ll have to go back to the stairs and turn right…!” April started to explain.
Mr. Ishmail muttered angrily to himself in his mother tongue, too breathless to complain to April.
“Just be patient for a moment sir – we’re arriving – look - we’ve nearly reached the lift - ah, there it is!” April said triumphantly.
As the lift door opened, Mr. Ishmail was just going to get inside when he exclaimed with a horrified expression on his face, “What sort of a lift do you think this is? It’s full of bits of string and cardboard!”
“Yes I know, it’s a service lift because the other lift isn’t working due to flooding in the basement!”
“Flooding? Oh no!” said Mr. Ishmail pushing April’s hand out of the way, “let me press the button otherwise we’ll never get there!”
Unfortunately for Mr. Ishmail the button he had pressed was for one floor down and they ended up in the warehouse!
“Look here, Miss… just leave me alone and I’ll get there on my own!” replied Mr. Ishmail looking around in desperation.
April got out of the lift and thought it a good opportunity to do as he said and disappear completely, so she hid behind a huge pile of cartons. As soon as the lift door closed again, she made her way out of the building and telephoned Monsieur Amsang’s secretary, who was also Pierre Amsang’s daughter.
“How’s the auction going, Sophie?” April asked.
Sophie replied excitedly, “It’s all over, April! Mr. Nasty turned up just as the auctioneer slammed down his gavel for the last time! He looked really pitiful!”
“And did you manage to buy the casket?”
”Yes, we did! None of the other bidders seemed to know that it’s worth a fortune and it went for only three thousand eight hundred pounds!”
April then phoned Lady Sylvia to tell her the good news.
That evening Ishmail Fahmu had one of his worst evenings ever realising how cleverly he had been set up whilst Lady Sylvia, Alex, April, Pierre Amsang and Sophie all dined together in an exclusive French restaurant in Chelsea and celebrated their triumph with several bottles of the best champagne until the early hours. Alex made the others laugh at the antics he had had to get up to to prevent their former partner from attending the auction. However, Lady Sylvia noticed that Pierre Amsang was deep in thought as he pulled on his moustache repetitively. Whenever he did this, she knew he had something up his sleeve. She wondered what it might be… was he about to propose a new venture?
Back at her mansion next day, Lady Sylvia opened a secret drawer in her escritoire where she kept her signet ring and a silver candlestick. She lit the candle, poured some drops of hot wax onto a sheet of paper, then pressed her signet ring onto it. Now in the middle of the sheet there was the letter A, which stood for The Arranger, with a Latin inscription written around it: semper victor, always victorious. Then she addressed an envelope to Fahmu Ishmail, folded the sheet of paper carefully and put it inside. After this Lady Sylvia wrote out a cheque to The Children’s Hospital with a lot of noughts on it, signing herself Thelma Argento.
The Lucrezia Borgia casket was sold by Pierre Amsang the very next day to a rich private collector with interests in the software industry, for which he received a seven figure sum. Naturally, half of the money went to Lady Sylvia. The Arranger had won again!
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