THE CURIOUS CASE OF THE BOOKSHOP IN BRIGHTON by Francis Marie de Châtillon
Harry Fielding was a happy man. His messy divorce now finalised, he could get on with the rest of his life, which, he reasoned, at 45, left him quite a few years ahead. He’d got out of London and away from the secondary school where he taught, and move to Brighton at the beginning of the month. Harry was still exploring Brighton and Hove (hated the Royal Pavilion) and the various watering holes for which it is famous (loved the Great Eastern). Harry had managed to come out of his divorce with enough money in the bank to buy a small, Victorian terraced house in Cuthbert Road, in the Queen’s Park area, up near the hospital. He loved it. There was a corner shop almost across the road and a pub at the end, which, happily for him, wasn’t noisy at chuck out time on Fridays and Saturdays. He planned to do a bit of redecorating just to put his mark on it, so to speak. With this in mind, Harry was out and about this Saturday morning looking to buy a few inexpensive things to dot about.
The sun shone brightly this late April morning as Harry strolled into the Lanes, that narrow, winding system of passages that used to be the centre of the old fishing town of Brighthelmstone, to explore some of the quaint there. He stopped at a pawnbroker’s to examine some second hand signet rings; something he wanted to get for his right hand now he’d taken off his wedding ring of near twenty years. He browsed in two or three bookshops; he had taken a keen interest in reading now, rather than spend the evening sprawled in front of the television. He had a coffee in a small café before moving on to the antique shops and ‘curiosity’ shops that abound.
Turning into one lane he found what looked to be a strange shop. The front windows were a yellow colour, as if they had that old cellophane over them from years ago to stop things from fading in the window. They were also well below eye level, which indicated to Harry that it was a basement, yet it had no upper parts. It looked queerly old, with an odd entrance that made him go up four or five steps only to descend again when inside.
The interior of the shop was no less curious than the outside: it was a veritable Aladdin’s cave of old leather bound volumes, antique mirrors, paintings and whatnot else. Everything was dusty. The light was noticeably dim and the recesses of the room quite dark. Chaos seemed to be the order of the day. To his surprise there appeared to be nobody attending the shop: he called out to announce himself but no one answered or came to attend him. Harry felt a little uncomfortable looking around seemingly alone, but he shifted about in the gloom finding old silver teapots piled up in one corner, along with some goblets of all sorts of shapes and sizes. Then, he moved on to some very old Venetian mirrors. At these he contemplated whether one of the larger ones would suit in the living room; but then dismissed it, as seeing himself too often would make him feel a glutton for punishment.
Looking farther around he saw vast piles of what looked like mixed art work: canvases of all sizes with and without frames, prints, and drawings likewise stacked against a wall. Now, these interested Harry as he was looking for some things to hang on the walls, and so he set to amongst them. He went through dozens but, strangely, nothing caught his eye. Harry was just about to turn away and give up, when the corner of a small panel painting, about 10x8ins, caught his eye. He pulled it out from under a couple of prints and studied it closely. It was a small portrait of a stately looking elderly man in what seemed Renaissance clothing. He was obviously wealthy and although almost square to the picture plane, appeared to be eyeing someone over to his left, engaging their attention. Harry liked it and he put it aside. He then noticed there was another small picture again mostly hidden in amongst other material, and so he tugged that out also. He smiled broadly. It was another fine looking panel portrait, about the same size as the other; only this was of a younger man in his mid-fifties. He too looked authoritative and commanding in his aspect and attire; Harry put the portrait down with the other.
Suddenly, a man appeared from out of nowhere from behind something. Startled, Harry jumped; the man had, seemingly, materialised instantly in the manner of Jeeves in one of Wodehouse’s books. Seeing Harry jump he sort of bounced backwards.
“Oh! I’m so sorry to have come on you so suddenly. Please forgive me!” the man apologised.
Harry smiled back weakly. He was looking into the visage of a small, almost wizened man, whose face was crazed with lines. In contrast to his frame, his face was plump, possessed of two very prominent buccal fat pads, which accentuated his deep nasolabial creases. Harry thought this chap seemed to be eyeing him pretty much as a man might a juicy steak after a fast.
“Are you the owner?” Harry asked at last, pushing aside his thoughts.
“Oh yes. Indeed, dear sir!” he fired back with pronounced enthusiasm. He held his hand out in greeting. Harry took it and to his surprise received a firm and vigorous handshake.
“Well, can I ask you about these two portraits here?” Harry said, holding them up. “Do you know who the artist might be, by any chance?”
“Ahhhhh, now,” the elderly gentleman let out. “These are two very fine pieces, of course. Who the artist is or the sitters, however, I’m afraid I don’t know. I bought them at auction and the auction house was also at a loss to identify them.” At this, he beamed in a wistful sort of way. Harry thought him a very strange old bird.
“What price is on them, Mr...” His voice trailed off, yet the old man did not supply a name, but just eyed him with his head tilted to one side. “Because I’m interested in buying them for my house. I’ve just moved here you see.” Why Harry supplied the last intelligence, he had no idea.
“Oh, my dear man, congratulations! Con-grat-u-lations!’ he expostulated grandly. Harry found this almost comic and wondered if the man’s bow tie would suddenly start spinning like an air screw on a Spitfire; then, as if pulled by one, the old man shot forward and slapped Harry smartly on the back a couple of times.
“Er, thanks,” Harry said, surprised. He looked and felt like a recently confounded Pharisee.
“Now, price! Yeeees, price.” The old man looked thoughtful for a moment and then cried out theatrically, “Let’s say £5 each! Yes, I say, £5 the two!”
Harry thought, “This guy’s nuts”.
Despite the bargain being well in his favour, Harry began to explain he couldn’t possibly pay so little, but the eccentric old gentleman wouldn’t hear of it; he was practically pressing Harry to take them.
“Think of it as a small welcoming gift to our town, young man!”
Again, Harry thought, “Yep, this guy’s seriously nuts!”
Harry paid the £5, again protesting the smallness of the sum, and in return, as if prepared beforehand, the strange old man produced a receipt of almost A4 size written in what looked like copperplate. The man thanked Harry profusely, pumped his hand vigorously and all but danced for joy about the shop. Harry didn’t pretend to understand this queer old man and his eccentric manner—he was just glad he’d got the pictures. Harry left the shop a contented man. On the way home, he made a small detour to Trafalgar Street to sink a pint in the Eastern, and then another near his house at the Cuthbert. As he downed the second he thought, “That old man seemed pretty pleased to be rid of those paintings—hope they’re not stolen goods!”
At home, he thought about in which room the paintings would look their best, and decided on his bedroom on the wall at the foot of his bed. There, he reasoned, he could sit up and look at them as he read his books before sleeping.
Harry measured out the height and distance apart for the two paintings and knocked a couple of masonry nails into the wall. He placed the portraits so it appeared the elderly man looking to his left was engaging the other slightly younger man. Harry felt most pleased with this small creative touch. That night he again popped out to the pub and then ordered an Indian takeaway. He watched about thirty minutes of some banal television programme before he felt like shooting himself, then decided that his bed called.
He wearily climbed the stairs and, after a quick trip to the bathroom, slipped on his PJs and got under the quilt. He sat pondering the two pictures before him. Who were they? What lives had they had? Were they even real people, or did they only exist in the imagination of the artist? The last, he hoped was not the case; he much preferred a real backstory to his new purchases. Harry was reading The Thirty Nine Steps at the moment—he was about halfway through—and he loved it! Reading was far better than the TV. Soon, his eyes began to close, the Steps slid from his hand and Harry slept.
There was a noise: a loud one. It had come from somewhere in the street. Sitting up smartly, he listened then checked his watch. It was nearly 3am, so it couldn’t have been some pisshead from the pub. He wondered about an intruder somewhere; then dismissed the thought—intruders tend to be very quiet. After a few minutes listening, the street being again silent, he turned over and tried to sleep, cursing whatever it was that had woken him.
As he lay, he thought he could hear very faint whisperings; straining his ears hard he wondered what it could be. He could swear there was something, but it was just out of reach. What on earth was it? Maybe it was just a figment of his imagination brought on by the startling noise. He tried to sleep but quite in vain, as the ever so slight whisperings continued. “This is quite maddening!” he said aloud, and throwing his legs out the bed he jumped up.
In the kitchen he made some tea, hoping it would relax him and aid his return to sleep. Harry noticed immediately that down here the strange whispering had stopped. He went into the living room, which was at the front of the house, like his bedroom, and listened. There was nothing. He opened the front door and peered out; only an empty street greeted him.
He drank his tea and went upstairs and tried to settle. He turned off the bed side light but not even a minute passed before the whispering started again. This time they were more audible; but he couldn’t make out what was being said—but said something was—he was certain.
“Sod this nonsense!” Harry cried. He sprang up again, and grabbing the golf club he wisely or unwisely kept by the bed (his ex-wife had serious mixed feeling about this habit as a security measure), he flew down the stairs determined to confront whoever the bastards were that interfered with his rest.
He flung the front door open and strode out into the garden and looked around. Checking the street and around the house he found nothing. Harry decided they were hiding. Whacking the club on the path Harry shouted, “OKAY you fuckers. Come out. Now!” But no one materialised from anywhere. He waited then shouted again whacking the club a second time. Yet still nothing.
“Well, whoever you are you’d better piss off quick, or I’ll call the police to you. See if I fucking don’t, you arseholes!” Frustrated, he went inside. He wondered if he’d woken the neighbours.
For the second time Harry climbed the stairs to try and sleep. He was frustrated. “It’s enough to make a monk wank,” he said to himself. As he entered the bedroom again he thought he heard something; but this time he just thought “Fuck it,” and jumped under the quilt. This time Harry was soon asleep.
He was in the throes of a terrible dream. Harry was revolving about in the bed like a top, his pyjamas damp with perspiration. Rain was pouring down somewhere and a frightful wind was howling around the house; just above the noise Harry could hear arguing and shouting. He woke with a terrible start, gasping for breath. To his amazement the weather had changed dramatically from earlier and the storm of his dream was real. He must have somehow imported it into his sleep he realised, and he shivered despite being hot. Harry padded to the bathroom opposite his bedroom, and shaking off his PJs he turned on the water to freshen himself. Harry was just soaping himself over in the shower when, through the hiss of water, he heard it: a low anguished moan, slow as pouring treacle, came from somewhere very near to him. Then:
“You killed him. Murderers! Oh, murderers all, you accursed family.” This was followed by another long stomach wrenching moan of grief.
Harry stood statue still fearing some lunatic intruder. Staring though the steam and involuntarily holding his breath, he watched to see if the door handle would turn: he hadn’t locked the door and felt like bolting over to secure it to improvise a sort of safe room.
“All your grasping family deserve to die, Piero de’ Medici. It’s a shame and a pity only Giuliano met his fate that day.” The voice was rasping and harsh. “Bernardo and my nephew, Francesco, could only do half the task with the knife, for they couldn’t kill your Lorenzo also. Those inept priests are to blame for that, curse them!”
“You are a pig, Jacopo de’ Pazzi!” he snapped. “Ahhh, but look what honeyed vengeance we took on your family. He cried with relish. “You: hanged from the Palazzo Vecchio along with the decomposing Archbishop Salviati—the bastard who plotted with you all. Your precious Francesco de’ Pazzi: hanged! And that cur Bernado Baroncelli.” The voice let out a bitter laugh.
The voices wore on at each other in similar vein, one accusing the other hideously. The one Jacopo was given grisly treatment: buried in some church, he was later dug up and dragged through the streets. Buried again, he was apparently disinterred a second time and propped up by children against the door of his own house. His rotting skull being used as a macabre door knocker. Harry listened and wondered if he was having some psychiatric interlude. He felt like his legs might give way.
Then, as if a radio had been suddenly switched off, the voices went silent; in fact, Harry thought it must be a radio programme now the gruesome dialogue had abruptly stopped. Vivifying himself, so to speak, he jumped out the shower, wrapped a towel round him and went to the bedroom. He stopped dead. Harry looked at the pictures disbelievingly: where they had been square to the wall minutes before they were now tilted at crazy angles. “How the...?” he muttered.
Quite alarmed now, Harry went round the house checking for disturbances and turning on all the lights; his house shone out like a small football stadium. He even checked to see if the radio in the kitchen was switched off. Under an impulse, he turned it on to be greeted by some cacophonous crap that masqueraded as music. He twitched the dial and reached a night time phone in programme. “I’d just like to know if anyone else out there has seen aliens slinking about in their garden at night?” the caller was asking. His doom laden voice was deep and croaky, betraying a forty a day smoker. He rambled on about some seriously abstruse theory that was, predictably, all his own work.
“Ye gods! The nutters of the night. That’s all I need,” Harry said. “He’s enough to make me want to piss off to Pluto.” He wondered if the caller might get kidnapped by the skulking aliens in his shrubbery and thereby give humanity a chance; then whispered, “Probably no such fucking luck.”
Satisfied that windows and doors were still secure he went back to the bedroom. Harry slowly approached the paintings and then, hesitantly, straightened them. Suspending his disbelief, he put it down to a sudden baffling draught—perhaps wind gusting down the chimney. Still, even with this explanation, he had a creepy ‘not alone’ feeling crawling up his spine and making its way, steady as a march of ants, to his neck. He spun round suddenly frightened. “Get a grip, man!” he chided himself.
Harry got back into bed after climbing into a clean set of pyjamas and propped himself up. He wasn’t going to sleep tonight. The wind and rain was still engulfing the house. Nameless things banged in the street and he heard a roof tile crash nearby. Harry remembered the newspaper story of the famous ‘hurricane’ in the eighties. A huge piece of thick plastic had taken flight from a flat roof and hit a chimney at colossal speed, bringing it down into a bloke’s bedroom where he was getting over the flu. Had it hit him his recovery would have been pointless. After, what seemed like hours, Harry dozed off despite the meteorological turmoil outside.
His slumber was short. A furious exchanged started up again and in astonishment he fell from his bed. He got up and stared across the room to where the voices emanated. “The fucking things are talking to each other!” he cried aloud in shock and fear. Every nerve ending on his head started to tingle. With a scream he fled the room smashing into the door jamb in his panic, giving himself a huge blow to the chin which dislodged two teeth. He careered madly to the top of the stairs, and in his wild haste to get out the house, tripped. Harry fell headlong tumbling over and over, finally hitting the bottom with an ominous crash.
Harry was eventually discovered some days later, as a neighbour reported all the lights on day and night and thought it warranted investigation. Harry was found at the bottom of the stairs in a heap, his neck clearly broken as his head was almost looking behind him. Ignominiously, his pyjamas were round his ankles revealing his nakedness. He looked rather ridiculous.
David, Harry’s son, came to make the necessary arrangements for the funeral and see that his late father’s affairs were up to date. It was while looking through his dad’s various papers that he came across the receipt for the two panel paintings in his father’s bedroom. Now, David took a particular interest in this because he had been to art school. He was intrigued that such paintings cost so little. Therefore, after a few days he went in search of the shop taking the elaborate receipt with him. David had no clear idea of why he wanted to do this. He had a vague notion the paintings were quite valuable; but if so, their price was ludicrous. He felt, also, a strange presence around them and it made him jittery. David found the lane and turned into it. At first he thought it was the wrong lane, as there was no shop at the number on the receipt: well, there was, but not a bookshop. David found himself looking into a small 7/11 supermarket. He walked about searching, but nothing. David thought this really odd and asked about, but no one remembered a shop anything like the one he described: seemingly, it had vanished.
That night, as David slept in the spare room, he thought he could hear people arguing somewhere—probably just outside in the street. It seemed a bitter argument, he thought, through his sleepy haze.
Now that the funeral was over, David contacted a classy firm of art auctioneers to get some idea of the worth of the two paintings. Two days later he was in the office of a London firm laying the two portraits out on a large mahogany table. Two experts were in attendance and both admired the quality of the work: its colour, details, and the expert rendering. David left them with the auctioneers so they could do some research, and went back to Brighton to conclude his father’s affairs. Some days later he received a call from the company asking him to come back up to London. David went again in the afternoon of the next day, but no wiser than before, as the auctioneer said he wanted to talk to David in person. David reached the office about 4pm and was, to his amazement, shown straight into a plush room. It was quite a step up from his first visit and encouraged he sat in a large Chesterfield. Coffee was brought for him and a selection of biscuits.
The door opened after a few minutes and two rather posh figures strode confidently into the room. These were not the men he saw previously. They introduced themselves as senior partners. David’s heart was beating quickly now as he smelt money.
“Well, Mr Fielding, we have a very interesting story for you and also an offer we hope you will consider most seriously.” It was the taller of the two who spoke first. His voice was mellow and well-practiced; something between a solicitor and a lounge lizard. He was also quite swarthy. David thought he would be the one who would conduct whatever negotiations they were starting.
“Very interesting, indeed. We’ve tracked down who these two people are—and in quite some detail too,” the other added. In looks, he was clearly the more pleasure seeking of the two: fully girthed with sensual red lips that could do justice to Botox. A premiere league two fisted drinker, David thought.
“Firstly, be assured we’re very happy to tell you, Mr Fielding, that they are late fifteenth century Italian,” the taller confirmed with a wide smile and gleaming teeth.
“Florentine actually, unsurprisingly.” The shorter now. David wondered if they were some kind of regular double act at these gigs.
This thought was confirmed when his partner went on to explain, “What you have here, Mr Fielding, are portraits of Jacopo de’ Pazzi,” and he held up one of the small pictures in a white gloved hand, “and here, Piero di Cosimo de’ Medici, called ‘The Gouty’. Both were noble Florentines in the quattrocento and both were head of their respective family; however, Piero had died earlier in 1469 and the succession went to his eldest son, Lorenzo. Lorenzo sported the appellation ‘The Magnificent’.”
“Eh? The quat what?” David queried.
“Fourteen hundreds, Mr Fielding. The fourteen hundreds.” Again, it was an interjection by the florid, venal one.
“What you have here, Mr Fielding, are two rival members of the most powerful families in Florence; a piece of history relating to the Congiura dai Pazzi or Pazzi Conspiracy. And a gory one it was Mr Fielding, with much high drama and bloodshed!”
David’s eyes widened, more because he could see pound signs and hear the ring of a till.
“Now imagine the scene Mr Fielding: it is Easter Sunday and High Mass is being chanted in Florence’s Santa Maria delle Fiore cathedral. A crowd of around ten thousand has gathered outside and all the nobles of Florence are inside. Sacred music and swirling incense. But in this sacrosanct space an assignation plot to kill Lorenzo and his brother is about to unfold.
“At the elevation of the host, Lorenzo’s brother, Giuliano de’ Medici, is suddenly set upon by Francesco de’ Pazzi and his friend Bernardo Bandini dei Baroncelli and savagely murdered. A skull splitting blow from a sword strikes him and he is stabbed some nineteen times in the chest. Worshipers fall back in horror as blood spurts from Giuliano’s brain and heart. Francesco’s blood lust is so fierce he even stabs himself in the leg.
“As Giuliano bleads to death on the cathedral’s marble floor, Lorenzo is attacked also; two priests who were coerced into the plot grab him from behind. Lorenzo is standing up by the high alter and the priests being unschooled in the art of assassination fail to make a lethal strike. Despite receiving a stab wound in the neck he escapes to the sacristy with the aid of his friend Angelo Ambrogini—better known by his nickname Poliziano.”
The other partner took over the narrative: “High drama indeed, Mr Fielding. There were many famous co plotters who lent help, but principally it was Pope Sixtus IV, Francisco Salviati the Archbishop of Pisa, and the famous condottiere Federico da Montefeltro with his six hundred men who were to secure the city when the brothers had been killed.
“A coordinated attempt to capture the Gonfaloniere and the Signoria—rather like our Mayor and Council—was thwarted when the archbishop and head of the Salviati clan were trapped in a room where the doors were held by a hidden latch. Jacopo de’ Pazzi went to the Pizza Vecchio to persuade the crowds to support the coup, but with mixed success; worse, the Papal supported troops didn’t arrive and without the capture of the Signoria and lock down of the city, the plot then ultimately failed,” his voice trailing to a soft dramatic whisper.
David sat transfixed at the story and super transfixed at the thought of what this might do to up his financial rewards.
“Now, imagine the fear of the Pazzi and their co-conspirators,” the other continued. “Bloodshed and revenge follow: the Piazza Vecchio becomes a theatre of grim reckoning. With popular outrage and family retribution, corpses of the guilty soon lay about the city. Over the next few days the Pazzi family are executed or exiled. Others, are beaten and mutilated. Francesco de’ Pazzi is hanged from the third window of the Loggia dei Lanzi along with Archbishop Salviati. Old Jacopo de’ Pazzi and the priest conspirators suffer the same fate. Bernardo Baroncelli flees to Constantinople but later is captured and returned in fetters for execution. In all, over eighty conspirators are dead.
“The Pazzi name was then expunged from Florence, Mr Fielding—the dolphin arms of the family chiselled off stone and street names changed. Anyone bearing the Pazzi name were made to change it; anyone married into the Pazzi were barred from public office.”
The relator looked at David and could see he was fully engaged in the narrative. David thought this was the time to cut to the chase.
“That’s quite a back story! So, this must make them quite valuable works of art then? If, and I say if, I wanted to sell them, that is.” David intended to play this close to his chest.
“Oh, indeed, Mr Fielding!” The two partners said almost in unison. David had an image of Tweedledum and Tweedledee.
“At auction they could raise many thousands each. But there again, maybe not. It can be quite uncertain. You may not even get your reserve. Can be difficult,” said the corpulent partner. “Which is why we want you to consider selling the pictures in a private sale. Mr Westerman here is prepared to offer you a very large sum to have them in his collection at home.” He indicated his tall business partner.
“Large sum, you say?” David found it hard to enunciate as he had a very dry mouth now.
“A million pounds. In cash.” David realised that it was actually the corpulent guy conducting the details of this negotiation. He’d got it all wrong.
“You see, Mr Fielding, I would really love to have them. Really I would!” Mr Westerman cried. I have a particular interest in Florentine history, which explains the large sum I am prepared to pay. My offer is a very good one, sir.”
David was thinking if he could talk the price up, but he was young and inexperienced in these things. The thought of a million pounds was too tempting to mess up by being greedy. David accepted the deal. Mr Westerman had a private bill of sale ready prepared and took David’s bank details. Within fifteen minutes David was able to confirm the transfer and ‘as happy as Larry’ he left the offices.
Mr Westerman had fallen asleep on the sofa in his living room. It was well after 12 o’clock and the lighting was dim; he could just make out the two newly acquired portraits he was so pleased to have. He let out a sigh of happiness. Then his blood began to run cold: the screams and accusations of murder rang around the room.