Things have a funny way of working out – for some people, anyway.
Elliot didn’t know what had made him stop in at the pawnbroker’s on his way home from work that Tuesday evening. Perhaps simply the fact that it was so close to his apartment, just across the street behind his building. He certainly hadn’t anticipated buying Olivia’s engagement ring from a pawnbroker, but once the fellow in the shop had shown him the ring he simply had to have it.
Olivia wouldn’t care where the ring came from. She loved him, and he wasn’t from a rich family. He rearranged his accounts and on Saturday stepped out into the sweltering summer morning with a bank cheque for twenty thousand dollars in his wallet. He’d shoved the wallet in his back pocket, fearing to do anything out of the ordinary. Normally he didn’t mind living in this slightly edgy part of town but not in these circumstances. Soon he was sweating freely and mopping his forehead with a handkerchief.
Midsummer in Sydney. The very bitumen had a life of its own. It heaved, warm and soft like a woman’s breast, petrol and tar shimmering off it like perfume. Light speared his eyes from every angle, from car windscreens and shopfronts, but most of all from the glaring sun, high as noon. Elliot felt it burn the top of his head where the hair had receded. Thank God Olivia didn’t seem to care about baldness, either.
He shielded his eyes from the sun and slipped into the pawnbroker’s. The shop was dark and cluttered and it took a moment for his eyes to adjust. The same man was there, and this seemed a good sign. Imagine if he’d had to explain the whole transaction to some casual weekend salesperson!
The pawnbroker, seated behind his counter, greeted Elliot with a show of teeth. “A-ha! You’re here for the ring?”
“Yes.” Elliot suddenly felt anxious. The twenty thousand dollars in his back pocket represented the savings he’d made towards a house deposit. This was a huge moment, a momentous decision. But actually no decision at all. Olivia was worth it.
The pawnbroker had been eating a bacon sandwich. He put it down on a plate, stood from his stool, held up a finger and walked into his back office. He emerged carrying an unusual ring-box, carved wood in the shape of a flattened ball, detailed with brass.
“Did I show you the box?”
Elliot shook his head. “No. Does it come with the ring?”
“I use these for all special pieces. There’s a trick – like this – adds a layer of protection from thieves.”
Elliot watched as the pawnbroker moved his fingers over the brass elements and pressed. The box sprang open to reveal the large diamond set on an elegant ring of rich gold. To Elliot’s untutored eye it was the most stunning solitaire he’d ever seen, and the pawnbroker’s valuation papers had confirmed its exceptional worth. All in all, it was perfect for Olivia.
“I have a bank cheque.” He fumbled for his wallet, hands damp, struggling with the heavy denim. He opened the wallet and pulled out the cheque.
“Marvellous,” the pawnbroker said with a grin. “I’ll get those papers.”
Elliot accepted the ring box and waited for the papers. He toyed with the brass buttons, imitating the other man, pressing here and there until – click. The box opened. He looked at the ring and smiled. It was perfect. Just like his bride-to-be.
Tonight, he’d show her this magnificent ring and ask her to be his wife. There wasn’t any question, really, but the ring was important, essential that it not only mirror Olivia’s beauty, but also her value. Limitless.
Elliot walked home with the ring shoved into one pocket and the papers in the other. He contemplated the emptiness of his savings account with a giddy feeling. He knew he’d done the right thing. In fact, he couldn’t stop smiling. Back home, he put the ring and the papers on his kitchen table and went to iron his suit for dinner with Olivia.
Claus, the pawnbroker, finished his bacon sandwich and licked the crumbs from his fingers. He stood and took the plate into his back room. On top of some papers on his desk, alongside a couple of new acquisitions, sat a puzzle box identical to the one he’d given the customer. This box contained the real diamond ring.
What a brilliant scheme! The diamond ring had been the ultimate investment, and in fact had cost him close to thirty thousand dollars. The copies he’d had made had cost him twelve hundred each. The gold was real, of course, though less valuable, but the stone was a complete sham. A zirconia, sparkling enough to fool the unknowing, particularly when viewed alongside the valuation papers. Claus had made multiple copies of the originals on the excellent colour printer at the office shop three blocks down. He didn’t feel bad about the deception. Some people even thought a zirconia, with its rainbow flashes, more beautiful than a real diamond anyway.
Elliot was in his bedroom, ironing his mid-grey suit. Tonight he was taking Olivia to Doyle’s at Watson’s bay, an extravagance that would have to be put on his seldom-used credit card. He hoped the weather wouldn’t turn stormy. While a summer thunderstorm brought drama and excitement, it wasn’t quite the backdrop he preferred for the night of his engagement. Elliot heard his dog Jimmie barking but ignored him. It was probably only a cat at the kitchen window, or a bird.
In fact, Elliot had left the kitchen window open. With his owner safely out of the room, Jimmie the Jack Russell leapt up onto the table to investigate the smell of bacon on a small brown box. He picked up the box in his mouth. Was it edible? It was hard, but then, so were bones. He gave it an experimental lick. Delicious. He sank his teeth into the box. Just then, a marmalade cat appeared at the window.
When it came to cats, Jimmy was a traditionalist. He charged at the window and skidded to a halt at the edge of the table. Too clever to jump out the window, he couldn’t let the cat continue up the fire escape without a warning. He opened his mouth and barked. RO-RO-RO-RO-RO!
The puzzle box fell out of Jimmie’s mouth and clanged down the fire escape where it bounced off a step and fell into an air-conditioning unit. It rattled through a gap in the machine before the sound of its movement stopped. The air-conditioner also stopped, and when its hum started up again it was decidedly deeper, the sound of a motor working hard against an obstruction.
Ethel Trott, retiree, was the only person who heard the change in the air-conditioner’s pitch. She’d always had sensitive hearing, which was at times a blessing, at others a curse. Crossing the street behind Elliot’s building, she heard the air-conditioner change its tune and she paused momentarily, not consciously interested, but alert to the auditory.
A driver coming too fast had expected Ethel to have moved out of the way by the time he reached that point. She had not. He braked hard and swerved with a screech of tyres. His car slammed into the front of the pawnbroker’s shop, smashing the window and coming to a halt with its nose buried in the jewellery cases, guitars and bicycles. The shop alarm went off, piercing the air with a siren that made Ethel Trott, who’d run back to where she’d started, drop her string bag and put her hands up over her ears.
Eighteen-year-old Vince Flint saw the whole thing on his way to the gym. He watched the driver climb out of the car. The pawnbroker had come out of the shop and the two began to talk with loud hand movements. Vince continued on his way. The gym shared a back alley with the pawnbroker and Vince went this way, a short cut from his bus stop.
Vince couldn’t help but notice that the back door of the pawnbroker’s stood open, perhaps to let a breeze through. He went closer and peeked in. There was a small back office and past that, the shop. Further still, beyond the broken mess of merchandise and the car, the pawnbroker talked on the footpath with the driver.
Vince never seemed to earn enough at his casual job to pay for rent and food and all the other things he needed. With the damage to the front of the shop, the pawnbroker wouldn’t notice a few things missing. Possibly his insurance would cover the entire stock. Vince ducked into the office for a squiz. There wasn’t a lot here in the back room, just a few bits of jewellery on a shamble of papers on the desk. He picked up a necklace, a watch and a small carved wooden box, shoving them in his pocket. Checking to make sure there was no-one around, he ducked into the alley and continued on to the gym.
A wail of sirens approached. Vince sped up, trying to remain nonchalant. Doubts began to assail him. He wasn’t a criminal. How on earth was he going to sell this stuff? He’d need a ‘fence’, but didn’t even know where to find one. He supposed he could take the jewels to a pawnbroker on the other side of town, but what if there was a network, and they knew where he’d got them from? God, he’d made a big mistake.
He used his card to swipe into the gym and climbed the staircase at the back. In the change rooms, he found himself alone and quickly emptied his pockets into a random locker. He pushed the door half-closed and, further down the bench, chose another locker to stow his backpack. Much relieved, he changed into his gym gear and set off in good spirits for his workout.
At the gym, Fergus, the off-duty fireman, found the jewels in the locker when he came back from his weights session. He’d left his clothes on a bench and caught a glint of metal from a nearby locker. Curious, he opened the door and found the necklace, watch, and the small wooden box. He considered handing the stuff in at the office but didn’t trust the casual receptionist. He’d rather take the whole lot to the cops. He packed his gear and tucked the abandoned necklace and watch in a zip pocket of his duffel.
The wooden box intrigued him. It should open, but he couldn’t figure out how. He held it, absently fingering the bumps of brass.
Fergus had left his car parked around the corner from the gym, opposite the pawnbroker. Police cars had gathered but Fergus was the only one to notice smoke coming from an air-conditioning unit on the second floor of the building opposite.
“Oy!” he yelled, pointing up to the building. A policeman grabbed his radio. Fergus dashed across the street and began to climb the fire escape. Reaching the second floor, he realised he still had the wooden box in his hand. He stowed it on the iron landing near his head before banging on the window beside the air-conditioner.
A head of long blonde hair came into view and Fergus gestured wildly to the air conditioner, which was billowing smoke.
“Switch off the power!” he yelled.
The girl disappeared. She came back within moments and opened the window. She seemed to be around twenty years old and was the most beautiful creature Fergus had ever seen.
“Is there anybody else inside?”
She shook her head. Her eyes were as blue as a tropical ocean and wide with alarm.
Fergus said, “Come on out by the window. The fire engine’s on its way.”
He helped her climb through the window and down the stairs to the street. Together they stood and watched as the fire crew arrived and unravelled the hoses. Fergus noticed the girl was shaking and, after some mental debate, he wrapped an arm around her shoulders to make her feel better.
Elliot heard the sirens from the street but ignored them. There were always sirens in this area. He’d pressed his suit and tried it on and was looking at himself in the mirror, turning this way and that to make sure it was good enough. He jumped when he heard a banging at the door. Jimmie the Jack Russell barked joyously as Elliot went to open it.
“Bernard. What are you doing here?” Elliot was completely stumped. Bernard was a real estate agent they’d met during the week when they’d inspected a lovely cottage near the school where Olivia worked. They’d even met the old lady selling the place, but it had been out of their price-range. Elliot had given Bernard his card, expecting the usual kind of phone calls when similar properties came up for sale. He certainly hadn’t expected a home visit.
Bernard was also wearing a suit and his face was red and sweaty. “Mate, I’ve rushed over here because the old duck’s decided she wants to sell you her house. ‘That nice young couple who came on Wednesday,’ she said. ‘I like the thought of them living here.’”
“Well, I’m sorry, Bernard. We’d love to buy the place, but we simply can’t afford it. Our budget’s more in the five hundred thousand dollar range. And that’s stretching it. Wasn’t she asking five eighty?”
Bernard grabbed both his arms and shook. “That’s what I’m trying to tell you. She wants you to buy it. If five hundred’s what you can pay, that’s the price she’ll take. It’s mad! I shouldn’t allow it. My boss would kill me if he found out. So, your loan’s sorted?”
“Not quite.” Elliot stood stock still. Even if he hadn’t just spent twenty thousand dollars on the ring, he would not have been able to raise enough for a five per cent deposit. Twenty thousand dollars was all he’d had. But the ring was supposedly worth twenty-five thousand, the equivalent of five per cent on a five hundred thousand dollar loan. Could he conceivably use the ring as a surety? “I’ll go to the bank right now.”
“Call me.” Bernard disappeared down the stairs and Elliot shut the door. He went to put on his shoes and socks.
Elliot looked himself up and down. He was certainly dressed for an approach to the bank manager. He strode into the kitchen, eyes trained on the table, ready to grab the ring and the envelope of papers and leave. There was the white rectangle of envelope, but where was the ring? Elliot’s eyes darted this way and that. He’d left it near the fruit bowl, he was sure of it!
Just then a spray of water shot in through the window.
“Hey!” Elliot shouted in surprise. The water stopped and he stuck his head out to see what was going on. A fire engine was parked behind his building with the hose trained on the apartment below.
As Elliot moved to draw his head back inside the window, he spotted the ring box on the fire escape landing.
“Oh my God.” He couldn’t believe he’d nearly lost it. How the hell had it fallen out the window? Jimmie. Jimmie must have knocked it out. Elliot reached out the window and grabbed the box, brought it in carefully and opened it. The ring was still there. Phew!
He shoved it deep in his pocket, picked up the papers and his wallet and keys, closed the kitchen window and headed out.
Elliot waited nervously while the ring was valued by a local jeweller. Boris the bank manager had been sympathetic and was willing to use the gem as security on a no-deposit loan but had insisted on an independent valuation. Boris came back into the room, beaming.
“All good,” he said. “If fact, the jeweller would even have put it a few thousand dollars higher. Now, we’ve got a bit of paperwork to do, if you’ll just bear with me.”
An hour later, Elliot walked homewards with a bounce in his step. First he’d ring the real estate agent and then Olivia. He couldn’t wait to tell her the good news.
On his way back to his building he spotted the damage to the pawnbroker and stopped to express his sympathy. What a shocking event! Perhaps his good news would cheer the poor fellow up.
“I must thank you for this wonderful ring,” he said. “It’s helped me and my fiancé secure the most wonderful little house.” Elliot pulled the ring box out of his pocket and opened it to admire the ring once more. He turned it so the pawnbroker could see it. It really was the most magnificent solitaire.
The pawnbroker knew with a glance that the ring Elliot held was genuine, a real diamond on a pure gold ring. In fact, it looked just like the one he’d kept in the back office for future transactions. How had this come about?
“Well done.” He almost choked on the words before staggering back through his broken shop to the back room. He lifted paperwork, throwing it here and there in a frenzy, but to no avail. He could not find the ring. The ring was gone.
The pawnbroker slumped into his office chair. It was clear to him that Elliot hadn’t stolen the ring. The man was an innocent. The pawnbroker thought and thought, but he just couldn’t figure out what had happened.
Wouldn’t you be surprised if he could?
Author’s note: with thanks to two great stories, The Necklace, by Guy de Maupassant, and Who’s Got the Apple?, by Jan Loof.
Aislinn Batstone is an eclectic reader whose tastes range from the 19th century classics to 21st century mysteries. Since having children, she most enjoys light-hearted fiction where the bad guys get what they deserve — or turn out to be not so bad after all. Aislinn’s short stories can be found at Five Stop Story and Stringybark Stories Australia. She writes paranormal romance under the pen name Aislinn Gilbert. Aislinn lives in Sydney with her three favourite people and the world’s best dog.