The Locksmith and the Harlot

 

The locksmith and the harlot

 

The exhibition of works by the renowned Andeal Willnoton Quillabin was judged by those who know these things to be a success. Andeal sold a number of paintings, was commissioned to produce a number more, and more to the point my unpaid labours in his service produced for me two useful patrons and a number of other fruitful contacts. Yet for Andeal this success merely produced more difficulties.

I described him, somewhat generously, as renowned. It is true that he was better known after the exhibition than before, and the event had brought him to the attention of many who otherwise would not have heard of him. Some of these people even had the money to aspire to possess a picture painted by him.

The difficulty was that it brought him to the attention of those who had no interest in art, but had an unhealthy interest in the wealth of artists. Andeal had had a successful exhibition, therefore these people reasoned, Andeal must have money.

Obviously some of these were merely creditors and an artist who cannot avoid his or her creditors lacks all legitimacy as an artist. But two people who fastened their gaze upon Andeal were criminals not creditors. (Yes dear reader, the two terms are not necessarily synonymous.)

Chiggle the Locksmith and Slinci the Harlot were lovers and partners in crime. Now I don’t want people to think I am casting unkind aspersions on the good name of Slinci. In her heyday she was well known and advertised her very specialist services widely to a discreet (and discrete) circle of discerning clients. That being said she looked ahead and wished to put a little by for her old age. This she did by expanding the criminal side of the couple’s joint enterprise.

Slinci would use her time with a client to advantage, reconnoitring the premises and keeping an eye out for objects of vertu. Then at a later date she would return with Chiggle, before whom all locks opened as if by magic. They wouldn’t merely steal things; they would replace them with something altogether cheaper. So the elegant porcelain figurine of a mermaid weeping for a lost love would be whisked away and replaced by one of those cheap pottery souvenirs one finds should one attend house clearances in the poorer parts of the city.

Yet Slinci’s plans didn’t stop at theft. Her main aim was to undermine the mental stability of her victim. Items would move from one room to another, garments hung in wardrobes would be re-hung in front of the fire as if to air, and indeed Slinci was not above gifting her unwitting client with something uncomfortable, perhaps a doll with an unconvincing leer. Should the client throw the doll out with a shudder of revulsion, Slinci would ensure that it returned, or at least an identical replacement did. Some of her victims, never persons of great mental stability to start off with, degenerated to the level at which they came to believe Slinci was their only friend. After all she was the only one who would listen sympathetically to their stories. She received several valuable legacies by this means.

So when Slinci and Chiggle turned their attentions to Andeal it was a serious threat. The first thing he noticed was some of his paint pots were empty when he’d have sworn he barely opened them. Then items he always stored on one shelf were to be found on a different shelf.

Fortunately Andreal mentioned this to the entirely pragmatic Morri, his muse and potential spouse. She merely nodded and then made arrangements with young Mutt to have Andreal’s flat watched whenever he was out. It was one of Mutt’s cohorts, just another child playing in the dirt, who spotted our two villains. Thus Mutt was able to give Morri a complete verbal report giving the names, abode and modus operandi.

Thus and so, I was summoned and was told what was happening. After a little thought I summoned experts in their field. Lancet Foredeck was an obvious choice, he is after all a performance artist, and useful for heavy lifting. After some discussion we came up with our plan. I then contacted the Guardians of the Secrets of Soi.

The Guardians have never been a popular order and frankly I admit that contacting them is one of the most terrifying things I’ve ever done. Each member of the order wears a hooded robe and a silver face mask. The mask is always the same; it is the face of a pretty girl smiling. The order is made up of those who feel, for some reason, perhaps a diagnosis of terminal illness; that their life is over. They join the order, wear the mask, and collect money and provide succour and justice to those who are dying. Now it is generally held by the ill-educated and superstitious that to see the face of one of the Guardians of the Secrets of Soi is to risk madness and death. I feel that I am neither ill-educated nor suspicious, but still, were one of them to start removing their mask, all they would see is the rapidly retreating back of Tallis Steelyard.

I stopped one of the Order on Ropewalk and mentioned the name of a man. It was known that he had committed suicide and rumour had it that he had been driven to it by Slinci. She had convinced him, in the kindest possible way, that his mind was going and that only the asylum awaited him. Of course, there was no evidence.

I will not mention the name of the man here; he has family whom I wouldn’t grieve. Still when I said the name the silver face mask turned to face me fully. I quietly told what I knew, and also explained what I’d planned. The mask stared at me impassively and then a dry voice said, “We will be there on the night.”

Firstly we gave out that Andeal had to travel outside the city to meet new patrons interested in commissioning him to paint for them. This gave our villains a short but clear window of opportunity. Then we set to work. We were virtually ready by midnight when Mutt’s hireling opened the front door of Andeal’s tenth floor flat and whistled to let us know that Chiggle and Slinci had been seen entering the building. I locked the door and dived under Andeal’s bed, whilst in the studio next door Lancet lit the candles.

After what seemed like hours we heard somebody working on the door lock. Slowly it opened and Chiggle entered the room carrying a lantern. He and Slinci ignored the combined kitchen and bedroom. This was entirely reasonable; it was such a higgledy-piggledy mess that unless they stole the bed or the stove it could be weeks before Andeal noticed anything else was missing.

They were obviously not expecting to find anybody about because they crossed this room almost casually and walked into the studio without really taking any precautions. Thus they were already in the studio before they noticed that there was a pentagram marked on the floor using soot. They stopped abruptly and this gave them chance to notice five candles, one at each of the pentagram’s points, burning with a strangely coloured flame. Finally, from somewhere in the room they could hear a slow, solemn, chanting.

The chanting was my cue. As silently as possible I rolled out from under the bed and stood up groaning. Chiggle, who’d instinctively stepped backwards away from the pentagram, turned and saw me. Lancet had worked on me for hours, getting the make-up right. No rotting corpse could have looked more realistic. Not only that but I brandished a rusty sword. I stepped slowly and uncertainly towards him.

Chiggle half turned, “Slinci, we have to get out.”

She turned to see what the problem was and at this point Lancet cast a little flash-powder into the flames of the nearest candle. I assume he then closed his eyes because the room was immediately filled with a blinding light. Lancet then screamed in a loud voice, “Free, free at last. Now I can feed.”

This was too much for Chiggle. He grasped Slinci’s hand and ran, half dragging her with him. I made a token effort to pursue but by the time I got to the door the fleeing pair was out of sight.

Whilst my part in the play was over, the second act was about to start. The minute Chiggle and Slinci had left their house, Andeal, along with a few trusted friends, had gained entry. They had stripped it of anything of value and had replaced it with a cart load of tat they acquired for a derisory sum on the grounds that nobody was ever going to pay for a collection of chipped pottery figurines and ornaments. They then fled with their booty.

When Chiggle and Slinci unlocked their front door and entered their house they stopped, stunned by what they saw. Then the door opened behind them and they found themselves surrounded by four of the Guardians of the Secrets of Soi.

Almost by definition I don’t know what happened in the house. Andeal had made sure he wasn’t there when the Order was. Neither Chiggle nor Slinci has ever confided in me. Indeed they fled the city that very night.

Next morning I was sleepily manning the exhibition when one of the Guardians entered. They walked up to me, handed me a purse with the words, “Justice has been done.”

When the Guardian left I was forced to drink most of my lunchtime allowance of wine to steady my nerves.

Still, I gave Andeal the money. With that, and money coming in for his work, Andeal was beginning to look like a citizen of solid worth. He rented a rather nice house about the middle of the Ropewalk, and once he’d got it looking a bit tidy he invited Morri to inspect it. When he’d shown her round and ostentatiously commented on the fact that every window had glass in it; he proposed.

Morri accepted his proposal and I was asked to be master of ceremonies at their wedding. I confess I remember very little of that night, save that one of the wedding presents did not say who had given it. When the happy couple opened the parcel they found a little casket. Then Morri noticed that the casket was addressed to me. She presented it to me fondly leaving it for me to open. In it I discovered a silver ornament such as a man might wear on a watch chain. It was a tiny silver mask of a pretty girl, smiling. It was about that time that I switched from wine to spirits. No good deed goes unpunished.

 

♥♥♥♥

And so our tour comes to a close. Together we have witnessed deeds of courage, betrayal and culinary excellence.

 

“But what about the books?” I hear you cry. Well rest assured,

Tallis Steelyard. The Festival, and other stories.

is still available for purchase for the purely nominal sum of 99p at

 

But a special treat also awaits. I have collected the tour, with the paintings, into a single inexpensive volume. For 99p you can also purchase

Tallis Steelyard. Pictures from an Exhibition.

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