Geoff Nelder lives in Chester with his long-suffering wife and has two grown-up children whose sense and high intelligence persist in being a mystery to him. He is currently at work on an Internet sitcom, LUSH. Excerpts from his work are available at geoffnelder.com.
'What's going on?' Pieter Keukens whispered.
'I called them, dear, we've had a burglary.'
She smiled at the nice policeman, beckoning him into the house. She ignored the way her husband had arrived: panic braking, spraying granite chippings to avoid welding his black BMW to the police car parked in the drive.
'No, it's all right, officer really,' Keukens said, jamming himself awkwardly between the policemen and his ornate stone doorway.
'Excuse me, sir,' said a puzzled sergeant, 'your wife said -'
'No. It's a misunderstanding. I'm having some work done but haven't had a chance to tell my wife.'
'I'd be happier to come in and check it out, sir. You never know.'
'Well I do. Goodbye,' he said, slamming the door.
Glaring at his wife, he was about to shout when the doorbell startled him. He wrenched open the door to the policeman.
'Smart car, sir, but it's blocking us in.'
* * * * * * *
Theo hated heights and hated his brother, Vince, for obliging him to undertake a midnight hazardous crawl along a sandstone wall.
'It's not as high up as it seems,' assured Vince, 'nor as far. You're nearly there.'
'If I fell, my new shirt's bound to get messed up. And why is it always me to go first?'
'You're the youngest. Don't open the window till I get there this time.'
'Oh, yeah. I'm the tester of landmines, the sucker to set off that alarm up there.' Theo moaned, pointing at the pointed gable top where a green LED winked at them.
'Forget it, Theo. It's a dummy box. All the houses on this row are only alarmed on the ground floor.'
'You said that last time. Remember? We had cats running away and dogs chasing after us. Never heard such a racket.'
'The noise covered our escape didn't it? Anyway, I've done more homework this time. Stop shaking Theo, move along and sit on that windowsill while I come up.'
'It's double-glazed, Vince.'
'What do you mean good? Doesn't it make it more difficult?'
'It gives the occupants a false sense of security,' said Vince. 'You did bring the special glass-cutter I wanted?'
'Suppose if it can do one pane it can cut a glass sandwich,' mumbled Theo.
'It can with this adapted carbide-wheel,' said Vince, placing the vacuum sucker near the window handle. Moments later, two circles of glass sat on the windowsill. He put his hand inside.
'Bet it's locked,' said Theo.
Course it is and the keys in the handle,' Vince grinned. 'Now don't forget this time, the owners might be in even though their cars out. So silent working and that includes no whistling Nice and Easy Does It, right?'
The desk lamp washed the study with an ivory light. Theo immediately went into klepto mode, bagging pens, lighters and a cashbox before kneeling on the floor to de-cable a DVD player. Meanwhile, Vince stood, hands on hips, looking at the wall. He toed the supplicant form of Theo.
'What do you think?' Vince whispered.
'Take it,' muttered Theo, anxious to possess the DVD player wondering which cables were essential.
'It's a real oil painting, not a print. You can feel the brush strokes.'
Theo came back, 'Yeah, it's nice. Mum likes pictures with boats and sea.'
'Idiot. I think it's by a famous painter.'
'Like Beethoven?' said Theo, screwing his eyes up at it.
'Well, Beethoven might have dabbled but I was thinking more of Seurat or Turner.'
'Oh, I forgot you went to Art College before you were kicked out for what was it?'
'Let's check this painting isn't booby-trapped,' said Vince.
'Yeah, you slept with the director's wife didn't you?'
Vince looked around the edges of the painting. 'Surprisingly, it doesn't seem to be alarmed.'
'Or tried to, continued Theo. That's right, she was supposed to be his daughter but you got into the wrong bed--'
'Have you finished? Vince cut in. Good, I'm going to carefully de-frame this picture. It should roll to fit my bag.' Vince didn't want to cut it in fear of reducing its value. He was hopeful his haul was worth a thousand times that of his brother's.
Although their mother liked seafaring pictures, her nose wrinkled at their prize. It was kept from re-rolling on the kitchen table by the judicious positioning of a bottle of brown sauce, a saltcellar, a licked-clean tablespoon and a half-drunk mug of tea.
'It must be a fake,' said Theo. 'If it was real they'd keep it in the bank.'
'Well done. That's what they expect us to think,' supposed Vince.
'Ah, and leave it on the wall, you mean, even though it was genuine. A sort of fake fake.'
'Exactly, plus they might like it and want to see it on the wall.'
'Doubt it,' said their mother, 'it's not even signed.'
'No problem,' Theo said, taking the cap off a permanent black ink marker pen.
'Keep off, you dolt,' said Vince. 'Defacing it would take thousands off its value. I'm going to take a Polaroid and look it up in the library.'
'We're taking it to Harry then, our usual fence?' asked Theo.
'Don't see why not,' said Vince. 'He ought to know something about art, but I want to be armed with more information first.'
'Yeah, I don't trust him after he only gave us a fifty for those four-hundred quids-worth ornaments we saw, later, on that Cash in the Attic programme.'
Vince could hardly contain his excitement. He left the library with such a grin and watering eyes that he fell over the pavement newspaper stand while the seller was in mid 'Daily Pos- 'ere watch it!'
'Sorry mate, I'll have one.'
He took the local paper and his grin to Littlewoods café, where he could scour the paper for news of his burglary. Nothing. Maybe the report hadn't been filed but more likely it was related to his research: the painting was a Van Gogh. Not just any million pound Van Gogh but the Sea at Scheveningen, painted in 1882, and then stolen in December 2002. Now it was stolen again - by him.
They had to be so careful. The brothers were either going to be rich or famous. The latter would also mean a long prison sentence. A third option worried Vince. He knew the house owner's name was Peiter Keukens. It sounded Dutch, and the painting was stolen from Amsterdam's Van Gogh museum. It could've been an inside job, but it was more likely Keukens had illicit connections. It wasn't just the police Vince had to fear. He decided to visit their dealer without his brother: the situation needed delicate handling.
'I know you're busy, Harry, but you really will want to be part of this.' Vince winced at the cloud of cigarillo smoke. He'd been given a meeting slot at a quiet corner in Manchester's Greco Coffee Bar.
Vince knew Harry was cool about their mutual business arrangements. Theo and Vince were laughably amateurish so Harry would worry they'd involve him when they were eventually caught. Still, he made quite a profit out of them. Harry, of course, wasn't his real name.
'But a painting, Rob, what do you know about art?' Harry said to Vince, who also used a fake name because he wasn't as stupid as Harry assumed.
Vince produced his Polaroid. 'I have the real thing in a safe place.'
'I can't tell much from this, Rob. It could be a copy of a Cezanne or a Manet.'
'It's a Van Gogh,' said Vince, pleased with himself although wary of the older man's propensity to rip him off.
'Not one I know of, Rob,' said Harry, bringing the photo up closer.
'It's the Sea at Scheveningen, nicked last December, worth millions.'
'It wouldn't be the original, a fake, but it could be worth a bob or two. Where is it?'
'I told you. In a safe place,' said Vince.
'I can't do business from photos. How big is it?'
'Thirty-five by fifty-one centimetres, and I can bring it to your shop this after -'
'No, no, no. I'll hire a private room at the Dog & Duck in Trafford, tomorrow. There's a back door from Ermine Street. Bring the painting with you and, Rob?'
'I hope your family haven't been using it as a dinner place mat like on this photo?'
'Only when we have guests,' Vince teased.
'Don't bring that idiot brother of yours.'
'Why not? You'll bring your idiot minder, Gershwin,' grumbled Vince, nodding at a big bald man in the doorway who constantly hummed Rhapsody in Blue.
The intervening twenty-four hours crawled along for Vince. Although he was certain Harry would check out the picture's history, there was a high probability he would unearth much more. Through Harry's underworld contacts he might be able to find out who really lifted the painting in Amsterdam.
'Let's see this famous print then. Umm, a good copy I have to say, Rob.'
'Why do you say that?' said Vince.
'Use logic, Rob. Why would a nobody in Manchester, hang a genuine Van Gogh on his study wall for any two-bit amateur burglar to nick.'
'I've been over this already,' moaned Vince.
'Who with? Oh your brother. You shouldn't confuse sibling squabbling with quality logical deductive reasoning. Do me a favour.'
Vince had to concede the point about his brother but without giving way on the argument. 'Just suppose it was a copy. It must be a damn good one since it looks just like the one in the big art books -'
'Yes,' said Harry, 'but a copy is just that, so we're not talking millions here.'
'But since the whereabouts of the original is unknown it can't be compared with it. We can say this is it.'
'I know where you're going with this. A subtle argument and I like it,' smiled Harry, revealing stained teeth as ghastly as gravestones. 'However, we won't be selling it down the flea market, will we? Leave bullshitting the bullshitters to me, son.'
Vince didn't like being condescended to, but tried to get past the put-down.
'It looks and feels like real old oil-paint,' Vince said, putting his finger nail to a ridge of white foam on an olive wave.
Harry became agitated. 'Don't touch it Rob!'
'And there's what looks like bits of sand stuck in the paint,' he said, looking closer. 'But I bet I can get them out with a damp cloth.' He was tormenting the older man in retaliation, knowing from his research that Van Gogh painted the picture on the beach and was himself annoyed when gusts of wind blew sand onto the wet paint. He reckoned Harry would know, so the picture must be genuine.
'OK, Rob, you're not stupid but a good copy artist would sprinkle sand onto it. Wouldn't you?'
'I didn't paint it! Anyway, just look at it. You can see it's old.'
'I'll have to show it to a real expert,' said Harry, allowing the canvas to re-roll.
'Hey, you're not taking it without a hefty deposit.'
'Expecting a million are we? Listen, I've got to give a hefty analysis payment to an expert I know, pay Gershwin here to keep constant guard and there's my handling fee, danger money and my own personal cut.'
'Don't worry, Rob, you'll do handsomely out of it. You've done well. But consider this; you've tried really hard to sell it as genuine but if it is, then it's sizzling, isn't it? Almost too hot to handle. In fact I'm not sure I'd want to. That would leave you with something so good you couldn't sell it. Know what I mean?'
'So, to show good faith, there's a grand in this envelope. Consider it a down payment. What do you say?'
'I - I -'
'Exactly, it's a lot more than you'd get for a sackful of your usual night's work. Come on Gershwin, we'll leave Rob here to count his earnings and count out the hundred he'll give his brother.'
Vince shuddered with the door. He's sure he's been stitched up again but a lot of Harry's points made sense. Shrugging his shoulders he pocketed the grand, tutting that it was a tenner short.
Theo rustled the Manchester Evening News under Vince's nose.
'Have you seen this?' He rustled the paper again.
'I didn't know you could read,' Vince said. He had seethed inwardly when he read the story. It reported the recovery of Vincent van Gogh's Sea at Scheveningen and the consequent payout of an undisclosed reward in excess of £30,000.
'We should have that money,' spat Theo.
'How? Suppose you walked into the police station and say you found it. Theyd want statements and fingerprints; come and do our house over. That Keukens mightn't have contacted the police but you can bet he'd get to find our name and address. Then there's -'
'All right, Theo said, I get the picture.'
'Well, the gallery has and Harry got the money,' said Vince.
'Yeah, we only got two hundred quid. We was robbed.'
'Exactly, and we're not going to let him get away with it,' said Vince.
'Or he'll do it again. Though he has already, hasn't he?'
'Yeah, but suppose we write an anonymous letter to the police, saying he'd arranged to have the picture stolen to order. We could give them a little list of other items. We could drop him right in it,' said Vince, warming to the idea.
'But wouldn't the police know that Harry handed in the painting?'
'Oh no, he would've used a party of the third part of the second part of the first part who didn't know anyone.'
'This is why I deal with Harry and you hold the sandwiches,' tormented Vince, plotting his revenge.
Harry knew the brothers wouldn't be satisfied with the situation. It would ruin their street cred, even though they had none. Their income was derived from selling mostly paste jewellery and from their job-seekers allowance but not always in that order. Harry knew the brothers wouldn't feel safe coming out into the open, as indicated by their laughable attempts to obfuscate their identity. Even so, he liked to have at least two backdoors, even if one was only virtual.
In his line of business Harry needed to invest in blue chip securities. In this case it was a CID officer, DS Anton Mazery, who supplemented his salary by a little injudicious bending.
DS Mazery had the brothers brought in. Vince guessed he hadn't separated them because there was no need: their future was already decided.
'Why do you think you're here,' said Mazery, after going through formalities.
'Because of the painting, I hope,' said Theo. 'What?' he followed, as his brother glared.
'So, you admit it then,' said Mazery, holding back his laughter with some difficulty.
'We found the painting and wrote the note telling you about Harry,' blundered Theo.
'Just a minute,' said Vince, putting a hand on Theo's arm, 'admit to what?'
'You might as well tell me,' said Mazery, focussing on Theo. 'What did you think would happen?'
Vince suspected a hidden agenda with these obscure open-ended questions. The two brothers had naively supposed they had been found out as the authors of the tip-off letter they'd written accusing Harry of masterminding and getting the insurance money under false pretences. Vince realised there was something more.
'We should get the reward 'cos we got it back for you,' said Theo. 'That's right isn't it?' he looked at Vince.
'We have fingerprints on the canvas, ' said Mazery, taking a sheet of paper from a file on the desk. Vince slowly shook his head in anticipation. 'And CCTV footage.'
'Can't have,' blurted Theo.
'Why not? Did you check?'
'We er -' said Theo, realising the trap.
'Where were you both during the first week of December 2002?'
'What?' said Theo.
'You're kidding,' said Vince. 'Neither of us has been to Amsterdam.'
'We have evidence that shows you have, and that you took an unhealthy interest in the Arts.'
'I've only been abroad once,' said Theo,' and that was to Ibiza.'
'Is Ibiza in The Netherlands, Theo?' said Mazery.
Vince, with elbows on the desk held his head in his hands while Theo dug an even deeper hole. Clearly DS Mazery was a fake or at best, bent. The evidence was fake, Harry's claims were fake, and the painting was genuine: a fake fake.
Peiter Keukens sat next to Harry on a new wrought iron bench in the recently fashionable Salford Quays.
'Is Harry your real name?'
'Does it matter?'
'I suppose not. Do you believe in coincidences and Fate, Harry?'
'If there's money in it. Why?'
'Didn't you think it odd that Vincent van Gogh's brother was called Theo?'
'Their possible reincarnations are the reason you want them to steal the painting again?' asked Harry. 'And wait five years assuming they're well behaved inside?'
'That painting was done for my grandmother.'
'So you say, but weren't Van Gogh and your mother inmates in the Hotel-Dieu Hospital for the mentally disturbed in Arles?'
'You do your homework well. Nevertheless, I like the idea of brothers Vincent and Theobald getting into the museum and bringing my painting back to me. There's plenty of time for me to plan it.'
'OK, it's your money. Just remember, the brothers are probably not really the Van Goghs reincarnated - fakes. Also they're not really good thieves: fake fakes.'
'And,' Keukens added, 'they didn't do the crime they're inside for.'
Together they laughed, 'Fake fake fakes.'