“For why would I give you the seller’s name? You want you should buy the thing back from him? Believe me, for that feller’s name would be no good to you.”
“Naw, and I can guess why not! Why, you poor shark — you poor —”
“Now, now, mister! That’s all. Speak polite, or out of my shop you go!”
Squat, square, heavy-shouldered and brute-jowled Mr. Jacob Lutz appeared a poor specimen in whom to seek the traditional Hebraic noncombativeness. Looking upon him, the other man’s bleak gray gaze shifted and fell.
“Slack away!” he muttered. “I ain’t huntin’ trouble, and I ain’t brought you none.”
With a dismissing shrug, the shopkeeper turned and began ostentatiously to flirt the dust from a crowded tableful of odds and ends. There were crudely ugly fetish bowls from the Congo, and naive wooden manikins, shaped in the half-light of a devil-devil hut in the Solomons; there was a cracked, yellowed walrus tusk, painstakingly mal-carved to represent some talented igloo-dweller’s idea of a tornaq, or boulder-inhabiting she-demon; there were several greenish-black bronze Buddhas, a little badly-marred portable shrine, and various other more or less valuable oddities.
This was Mr. Lutz’s “bargain-table,” set out to attract the interest of the casual customers. His “regular people” mostly knew too much to bother with such trash.
Moving delicately to avoid oversetting a stand of Mongolian arms that nestled a huge, bristling bronze dragon beyond the table’s end, Lutz passed around the table and began working back along the other side.
“Say,” complained the man of the bleak gray eyes, “ain’t yer going to give me no lead whatever?”
Lutz flung down his duster.
“For why would I give you a lead?” he demanded impatiently. “Yesterday morning you comes into my shop and says: ‘I get this here curio off a mate of mine who gets it off a Chink steward what gets it off a Manchu that stole it from a Taoist temple. I don’t know how it could be opened, and I don’t know what is inside. How much you give me as she lays?’
“Right away I know somebody’s lying. The writing on the top ain’t Chinese. It looks like it could be archaic Hebrew, maybe; but it ain’t Chinese. Just the same, you being a sailor, I think likely you come by it reasonably honest, and pay you good money. No place else could you sell for so much a curio that has no history, no name, no nothing but a pretty look and a guess for what is inside.
“Then quick I sell it again, and for more — yes, I tell you the truth, mister — for more than I pay. Why not? That is my business, and at that I ain’t so wealthy. But the feller who buys it, he ain’t the kind of feller that wants I should send you bothering him. He is like all my customers. They are all fine, wealthy people —”
“And I ain’t fine enough to take a peep at ’em squint-eyed, eh? Well, now you listen here. I ain’t got the least wish to buy back. See? Fact is, I come to do yer a favor like. After I was in here yesterday, I meets the matey I was tellin’ yer about that I got the thing off in the first place. He opens up with some info I didn’t have when I sold.
“Thinks I, mebbe the poor dealer will get stung, like I did when I sold fer the price of a square. I’ll blow in and put him wise. Mebbe he’ll slip me the half of a bum dime fer sheer gratitude; he looks like a generous slob.
“So when I find you’ve already sold — and fer a darn sight more’n what yer give me, I’ll bet! — I ask yer the man’s name that bought it, so I can wise him up. And fer that I get treated like a dog and pretty near throwed out on my head! You give me a pain — fer a fact yer do. So-long!”
In sullen disgust the visitor jerked at his weather-beaten cap, thrust his hands deep in the pockets of disreputably ancient trousers, and slouched for the door. The dealer promptly called after him.
“Hey, mister! wait a minute. You sell me a curio and say you know nothing about it. Then back you come and say you know all about it. Looks to me like there was fishy business —”
“Sure,” flung back the other. “Fishy-sharky business — dealin’ with you, I could’ve told yer ‘fine customer’ what’s wrote on the bottom, and what language it’s wrote in, and the whole bloomin’ truth about it. But it’s all off, now.”
Again he lunged toward the door.
Five minutes later Lutz was tossing down on the glass of a display case filled with carved white jades, one of his own business cards. The back bore a scribbled address.
“You give Mr. Robinson that,” he instructed, “and tell him Mr. Lutz sent you. I wouldn’t wonder he might give you a nice reward, can you let him know what that inscription is on the top —”
“On the bottom,” corrected the sailor.
Mr. Lutz started slightly. The sailor’s bleak gray eyes were fixed on him, and something in their expression — or perhaps it was a thought in his own mind — seemed to cause Mr. Lutz a sudden strange uneasiness.
“But the inscription — for sure it is on the top, if you lay it down that way,” he insisted.
“On the bottom, lay it just how yer please.”
The bleak eyes held their gaze fixedly. Mr. Lutz looked away hastily. Had he not been so stolid and obviously untimorous, one might have believed that Mr. Lutz was frightened. Under the blue-black of his shaven jowls the skin seemed actually to whiten.
The stranger leaned to thrust his lean, brown, sneering face close to that of the dealer across the showcase.
“On the bottom, however, she lays, matey! And say” — his voice dropped to a rasping whisper — “did yer see the white horses come in, with their red throats gapin’ and the wind and the tide at their tails? Did yer?”
At the apparently senseless question, Mr. Lutz drew still further away. The hint of fear in his face, however, yielded to a sudden, savage irritation. Brick red replaced the pallor, and an artery in his bull neck throbbed visibly.
“You talk foolish!” he snarled. “Mister, get out of my shop. Go talk your foolish white horses to Mr. Robinson. Maybe he’s got the time to listen. I ain’t!”
Some minutes after the man had left however, Mr. Lutz flung down his duster and with a manner oddly distressed ran blunt fingers through his bristling black hair.
“That such foolishness I would let a feller like that put into my head!” he muttered. “Jacob, it is time, you would take a vacation from business! You are tired out with the July heat and too much work. White horses with red throats and — Phew! — I do not like that feller! I wonder —”
He hesitated a moment, then, going to the telephone at the back of his shop, he took down the receiver and called a number.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00