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By Richard Ben Sapir
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1987 Patricia Chute-Sapir
All rights reserved.
TILBURY, ENGLAND, 1588
She was gold, fifty pounds of it used mostly for bulking. She was five square-cut pink topazes, a mere ten karats each, atop the backs of jade lions rampant. She was a magnificent night-blue sapphire the size of a palm, engraved with Poseidon enthroned. She was six diamonds — polished, not cut — the smallest at least twenty karats by weight, set around the thick round base as a border. Garnet brilliants embroidered her upper lips, and lapis lazuli as bright as summer rain speckled her thick gold bosom, reserved for the awesome Christ's head ruby, as purely red as His blood itself.
Simon Sedgewick, of London's Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths, polished the base one last time, waiting to implant his maker's mark. This he would not do until Her Majesty Elizabeth, Queen of England, France, Ireland, and Virginia, had seen it and approved the work.
It was a saltcellar, a proper three feet high, but made under the strangest circumstances. Her Majesty herself insisted goldsmith Sedgewick not only work alone but construct everything here in Tilbury Field in the center of her army waiting for the invasion of the Spanish Armada.
For Sedgewick the impending doom of the massive Spanish fleet was only the least of his problems. Here, he was deprived not only of his bellowed furnaces but of the apprentices to work them. A slow and difficult thing it had been, using hollowed-out logs for fire and layering the gold in sheets as in the old days before the skills of England's smiths became famous. He had burned his hands countless times, and now it was done, done as well, he told himself, as human hands could form it, considering Her Majesty's inviolate orders.
For the first time in two and a half months, he stepped out into the sunlight that burned his eyes and took a good lung of fresh English air from the rich salt marsh surrounding the field. The tents of the thirty thousand were gone, and now only a few stood to house those who guarded him in his labors. The Spanish Armada was no more either, divine winds, they said, having blown the great heavy ships into disorder and disaster in the English Channel.
A captain of the guard did not let Sedgewick walk far.
"Done?" he asked.
"Ready for presentation to Her Majesty and my maker's mark," said Sedgewick.
"You've used every piece given?"
"You may search the tent. There is nothing left but my tools," said Sedgewick. He felt good. He had done something that would make his name live at royal dinners as long as the royals used salt, which was another way of saying forever.
The captain not only searched the tent, accounting for everything in it, but had the cellar crated. Then, without waiting for either Sedgewick or his maker's mark, he took the crate and his entire company away from Tilbury Field, leaving Sedgewick only a Queen's purse and the fresh salt air and sunlight, which now graced a newly powerful England, conqueror of the greatest fleet ever assembled.
Sedgewick would hear the cellar went not to Her Majesty's residence in Greenwich but to Windsor Castle, where it was locked and stored away even from most noble eyes, never to grace the royal table or hold one grain of salt.
Generations of English schoolboys would learn of it as the Tilbury Cellar, commemorating the survival and triumph of an island nation against only one of its awesome foes.
CHELTHAM, ENGLAND, MAY 1945; THE 8:10 TO LONDON, NOW A TROOP TRAIN
"All right, Jack, it's all over. Slow 'er down," said the man with the gun.
The engineer thought pistols should not have barrels that big. It looked like a dark tunnel at the end of the man's hand, a tunnel the engineer imagined filling with a flash and then a large slug. It would be the last thing he would see.
"What're you doin'?" asked the engineer.
"What's it look like I'm doin'. I'm robbin' the bloody train. Slow 'er down, mate."
The pistol was close and the barrel was so big, and the thought of that big lead slug going into his brain so vivid, the engineer didn't even try to sudden brake to throw the lone robber off balance. Instead he slowed the 8:10 as directed to a railway crossing where three lorries waited, their engines running, exhausts coughing cheap smoke and dripping discharge.
"This is a troop train, mate. You crazy?" asked the engineer. "Those boys back there kicked Jerry's arse through Africa, Italy, France, right back into Germany. You can't rob this train. We got a load of armed veterans."
"They're through. We're through. We're gettin' ours, an you're through too, Jack, if you open 'er up again," said the man with the big barrelled gun.
The engineer waited for the first shots. He was going to fall down and get close to the reinforced steel plates. He didn't even think of going for the gun at any opportunity. The war was over. England was no longer desperate. It had arms and allies, and he didn't want to be the last man killed in some line of duty when there were so many soldiers on board. He waited for the shots and he heard laughter. Lots of laughter.
The man with the gun looked out of the engine cab.
"There's your troops, Jack," he said.
Careful not to get too close to the robber to appear threatening, the engineer peered out of the cab back down the tracks. A young subaltern, his face tender as market plums, his new uniform still holding some supply-room creases, ran beside the cars yelling, his face getting redder and his hands getting wilder the more the veterans laughed.
It would shock all England, tired from a brutal war in which this island nation stood alone for so long against what had seemed like invincible legions of darkness.
While three lorries of thieves unloaded an entire car of national treasures that had been stored in bunkers outside of London for the duration of the war, the veterans, a bit boisterous from beer on this warm spring day and the giddy knowledge that no one would be shooting at them again, cheered on the thieves. Three bobbies who had counted on the veterans stood helplessly by. The subaltern tried to save a copy of the Magna Carta with his body but was brushed aside.
The point was not that the thieves had gotten away with so much. Most of it was recovered within days. After all, who would risk jail for owning the standard that had flown over Hastings Field, and where would one sell it? What so shattered the reading public was what one newspaper termed the "loss of the spirit that brought us through."
Later, there were rumors that some valuables were indeed missing, such as the Tilbury Cellar. Scotland Yard was supposed to have been sent at first on a desperate all-points search, then for some reason, never to be fully explained, was told not to look for it at all. Then later there was a newspaper article about how the Tilbury Cellar, like the royal family itself during the blitz, had never left Windsor Castle but remained in the vault where the Virgin Queen had placed it in the early days of the British Empire.
NEW YORK CITY, THE PRESENT
"You can't sell it like that," said Geoffrey Battissen, owner of the Battissen Galleries of Fifth Avenue. "It not only isn't done, it can't be done."
"It's the only way I'm gonna do it," said Vern Andrews of Carney, Ohio, with the righteous twang of a mule trader.
"He'll never agree to it," said Battissen. He shook his balding head as though he had locks that would quiver glamorously.
"Then he won't buy it," said Andrews. "I am not going to get myself killed or robbed."
"Mr. Andrews, Battissen Galleries has been here on Fifth Avenue for twenty-two years and —"
"That's the fourth time I heard that, Mister. I don't care how rich people are supposed to be, or how important they're supposed to be. People have killed for a lot less."
To Vern Andrews everything seemed artistic in this gallery, except the paintings and sculptures. There were marble bench seats, expensive and dramatic track lighting, exotic plants in austere white holders, and Geoffrey Battissen himself, in a cream beige jacket of his own design, which matched his shoes and was tolerably close to the color of his pancake makeup. He was in his mid fifties, fleshy, dramatic, and seeming always about to throw a kiss or spit depending on his moods. He had a redheaded assistant who wore a black dress and white pearls with the kind of body only a homosexual could ignore.
Andrews wore a plain blue suit he had bought in Columbus, which was good enough for business in New York, Frankfurt, London, and Tokyo. He wasn't going to be bullied. He wasn't going to be rushed. He crossed his arms and leaned against a piece of rusted junk priced at more than many Carney homes and which no self-respecting Carney yard would allow uncollected. Andrews was at least ten years older than Battissen, but with more energy in his large body, a strong squarish face that showed a willingness to battle, and disdain for the pressure he was receiving now.
"Battissen Galleries cannot sell any piece, no matter how valuable, unless it has the trust and respect of the client, especially not to a prospective buyer of such importance. The man is a surgeon. He has homes in Switzerland and Italy. He is a member of society on both continents."
"Well, then I'll go back to my hotel and look for another broker, Mr. Battissen. Thank you, kindly." Andrews turned to the door. He wasn't sure what he would do if the art dealer let him reach it. He had to make this sale, and do it in a few days, or the cash wouldn't matter. He was in his sixties and he had made these turns away from deals many times, possibly with as much riding on it at other times, and always it felt like the world would end if he reached that door. It gave life flavor.
"I will try," said Battissen.
"No," said Andrews. "You'll do it."
With a navel-deep sigh of resignation, Battissen excused himself to make a phone call, and Vern Andrews struck up a conversation with the red-haired assistant.
"Some of these pictures are real nice," he said.
"I think they're shit, too," she answered and they both laughed. If Vern Andrews had brought his wife along on this trip or almost anyone else, he would have made an excuse to be free that evening for this redhead. But Claire was with him, and she was his daughter and she was something else. He would never cancel a dinner with Claire, even for a business deal.
Battissen returned bubbling.
"Forgive me if I boast, but I don't think Dr. Martins would ever endure such strange proscriptions for a purchase unless it was Battissen Galleries that had put its reputation on the line. We have been here twenty-two years and earned the trust of people like Dr. Martins, even if we don't have yours, Mr. Andrews."
"Sorry," said Andrews in a clipped sunshine way that cut away mists of remorse.
"He has agreed to look at it, but I am sure he will not purchase it under such conditions."
"Well, let's find out," said Andrews, and leaving the galleries he winked to the redhead, and almost put a hand on Battissen's shoulder, something he normally did to maneuver people during a sale.
They walked toward Madison Avenue in the whip of the October winds through the tall buildings, with Battissen struggling to keep up with the strong pace of the larger and older man. Battissen talked of Dr. Martins's reputation in the business of gems, something that would be needed in this sale. Battissen thought Andrews had chosen well in the Battissen Galleries because while Battissen Galleries never dealt in anything of inherent value like gems and gold, Battissen Galleries did understand major purchases and sales.
Vern Andrews hardly listened. He thought of how enormous prices were asked for even the shabbiest building he passed. He was a businessman with a share in many businesses, and he understood all price was only a matter of opinion and all opinion was a matter of timing. He remembered times in his life when he didn't have a quarter for a sandwich, and his mother had remembered not having a nickel for a sandwich, and he was sure his grandmother remembered doing without for lack of three cents. But his daughter Claire never knew hunger or even denying herself anything because of price. And she never would.
The branch of the International Bank and Trust Company was on the corner of Madison Avenue and Fiftieth Street, a place of two-story-high glass windows showing a vast interior of polished steel safes, marble floors, and cold stone teller windows.
An elegant man in a parked forest-green Jaguar waited in front of the bank. Battissen fairly flew to him.
"That's him," said Battissen.
Dr. Martins looked as elegant as his fashionable car. The overcoat fit with the clean lines of careful hand tailoring. Every small detail of collar, shirt, tie, and gloves seemed to be perfection, like an excellence above ordinary men. Even his features seemed a bit too perfect, and only the uneven graying around the temples broke the symmetry of gray suit, tweed coat, gray gloves, and that perfect face. The hands seemed ready for an operating room.
Battissen hovered around the Jaguar door as though waiting to offer his Dr. Martins his back to step out on.
"He wouldn't change his mind," said Battissen. "I tried."
"You want to see it?" said Andrews.
"I'm here at this point," said Dr. Martins with a soft guttural molding the consonants.
"Where's the money?" asked Andrews. "I said there's got to be money."
"He's been like this since the beginning, Dr. Martins. But I guarantee, everything is worth it. And again forgive me the manner in which we are going to have to do the viewing."
Dr. Martins spoke directly to Vern Andrews.
"I am not in the habit of bringing money before I know what I am buying."
Vern Andrews stuck his hands in his pants pockets.
"Terms still the same. No money, no piece."
"Let's see this thing. What is it?" asked Dr. Martins.
"You'll see," said Andrews.
"It's breathtaking," said Battissen. "I thought only you, when I saw the gems. I didn't even think of anyone else."
"Hardly puts pressure on him, fella," said Andrews, smiling. Dr. Martins refused to acknowledge the humor, and Battissen attempted to be above it, as the three men entered the branch office of the International Bank and signed in for access to the safety deposit boxes. Andrews noticed that Dr. Martins signed in as James Smith.
A bank official led them through a large burnished steel door in the rear of the bank. A guard opened the first door and the official's key opened the second. The room was lined with burnished steel drawers the size of filing cabinets, each with double key slots. Overhead a harsh fluorescent lamp glared down on a plain gray-topped table with two chairs. Andrews had used all the pull he had with his bank back home to get this New York bank to rent him a deposit box on short notice.
The bank official inserted her key into one of the locks in front of the shoulder-high box, and Andrews inserted his. Then they turned both simultaneously, and the steel door swung open showing a large square black drawer with a handle. Only when the bank official had left them alone did Vern Andrews, with a grunting effort, pull out the drawer and clunk it down on the gray table at which Dr. Martins sat disdainfully removing his gray gloves. Battissen hovered over him.
Andrews smiled to both and unhinged the top of the large black box, revealing a burlap sack inside. With a grunt, Vern Andrews lifted the sack out so that it stood upright, about three feet high and two feet wide. Dried dirt from the sack cast pale dust on the gray table top. Battissen stretched across the table to wipe it with a beige handkerchief as Dr. Martins leaned away from it.
Andrews's large fingers untied the top, and then like a stripper in a Dayton burlesque house, he slowly undraped the piece, showing first the golden bowl on top, and then the thickness of her gold shoulders, with dark chips of stone, and the heads of the jade lions. With a jerk he exposed the big red stone full in the rounded center, and after Dr. Martins had gotten an eyeful, then revealed the larger blue sapphire just beneath. Finally, at her feet, were six tubular water-clear diamonds. It was almost three feet of a solid chunky fire hydrant of gold, laced with scrollwork and booming precious stones out of its middle and base. She was like a hefty woman with bumps instead of curves, because nothing dipped in anywhere. But what a fat waist. All the fat was gold and the bumps were a mouthful of ruby and a plush palm-sized blue sapphire, both engraved. The diamonds were thick as thumbs. Vern Andrews knew what he had.
Excerpted from Quest by Richard Ben Sapir. Copyright © 1987 Patricia Chute-Sapir. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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