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A Crime-Noir tale
By Mark Edwards
“Do you think the thieves were after anything?”
“I can’t imagine what. We have nothing of value. I craft violins for a living, Detective-“
“I beg your pardon?”
“Mr. Ivanovich, I’m not a detective. Call me Mister Guthrie. Or Walt.”
“I am sorry, Mister Walt Guthrie.”
“As I was saying, I don’t make much money at all with my business. We only came over from Russia two years ago.”
“All right. Look, why don’t you go back over with your wife and daughter? I want to have a look around.”
“Oh, of course, of course. Thank you so much for coming this late at night.”
I just grunted in response.
The place was a real shit-pit. Whoever had broken into this place didn’t give a damn about tidying his place of business. Damn thieves… I looked down at my notebook, trying to piece some image out of the ragged jigsaw puzzles I’d been given.
-Vasiliy Ivanovich Antonov, aka ‘Mr. Ivanovich’, aka ‘Papa Vasiliy’, aka ‘Pookie’ (?) Wife: Marta Vladimirovna Antonov (née Kropotkin). Daughter: Olga Vasilievna Antonov – 16.
-Violin-maker. Owns east-side shop Antonov’s. Good quality violins (not that I have a large body of experience)
-Break-in last night. Family was out all night at a birthday celebration for ‘Uncle Gregor’ – Gregor Anatolyevich Antonov, Vasiliy’s paternal uncle. Party lasted from 8:00 pm – 1:00 am, but family spent the night with Uncle Gregor’s family. Returned home around 10:00 am.
Three bullets, all blanks. Just how I liked to start an investigation.
“Mind if I smoke?” I called over to the small, white-haired Russian man. I’d already tapped out a Salem and lit it, but I’ve always been a staunch believer in good manners. I was relieved to receive a quick nod.
I was an insurance investigator at the time. My story was cliché enough to warrant me dressing it up when I told it to people. I was a detective, and I left after giving the job my health, my youth, my idealism, and two marriages. Tried some work in the corporate sector, consulting on security and so forth. Decided to try my hand at Private Detective work, but it wasn’t nearly as glamorous as the old Noir novels made it seem. Once I got bored of tailing libidinous husbands and finding lost cats, I signed on with Spartan Insurance (“There to pick up the slack”) as an investigator. Now I’m too old, tired, and often too drunk to do anything else but recover lost goods and wait for death.
The main room was about twenty feet by fifteen feet – a little square shop with an office in back and stairs leading to the family’s living quarters on the second story. Just the kind of place I’d have opened if I had a family… or gave a crap. There were two large arched windows – the old-style you might see in some sausage shop in a small German town, consisting of small diamonds of glass held together by soldered lead. Neither was broken, mainly because it takes too much effort to hurl a brick through them. The one on the right – that’d make it the left facing the door from the outside – was pried open. So much for wood windowsills. Any jackass with a crowbar could get in.
Something tickled about this setup. I kept coming back to the windows. Suddenly, it hit me like 150-proof vodka: the window on the left was covered by a state-of-the-art security cage. It’d take a lot more initiative than your average hood ought to have to get through that thing.
“Ivanovich,” I said gruffly. The small man skittered over to my side like an obsequious mouse. His manner grated on my nerves like a dagger on slate; the feeling was exacerbated by the fact that I couldn’t find anything overtly dislikeable about him.
“Yes, Det – er, Mister Guthrie?” he replied. I choked back my disgust and flicked the butt of my smoke out the window, which was still flapping wide in the late morning breeze.
“These security gates. How long have you had them?” I asked.
“I had them installed two months ago, after the last break-in.” That shocked me a bit.
“This has happened before?”
“Oh yes. I came downstairs in the middle of the night because I heard a sound. Two teenaged boys had come in the window and were looking around. I startled them and they ran out the way they came.”
“Did they take anything?” I was asking more out of curiosity than out of any relevance to my case.
“Just a couple of bows and a rosin sack,” Ivanovich replied. I grunted, apparently not as curious as I thought I was.
“You lock them every night?”
“I beg your pardon?” He must’ve thought I was still on the rosin sacks.
“Oh, yes, yes,” he replied, nodding.
“Both of them?” I asked, my eyes narrowing ever so slightly.
“Of course. They’re not much good left open, are they?”
“Did you open this gate before I came?”
“Well – I-… er… I…” he stammered. Good, now I was getting somewhere.
“More to the point: did you lock this gate last night?”
The air went right out of Ivanovich and he slumped like a botched Stepford Wife. “No…” he sighed, “I suppose I simply forgot.”
“I see,” I grunted. “Excuse me, will you?” He looked at me for a fraction of a second, thinking I was going somewhere else. Then he got the hint and went to put on a pot of coffee.
I added another note:
-Right-hand inside security gate left open. Accident?
So the thief/ves entered here. I stood up, back to the window, and surveyed the room. Along the left wall were a number of padded wooden hooks – violin display racks. Okay, there were eight racks, seven violins. Looking to the floor, I found number eight, splintered in half. Bastards. I wasn’t much of a musician or art appreciator, but it always chafed when someone’s hard work got pissed on. They were nice violins, too, probably the A-list of Ivanovich’s inventory. None were stolen; one was smashed. Not surprising, assuming the perpetrators were your average brain-dead punk-asses.
The right wall was covered with pictures. Photos of family, friends, famous people, and a dime store print of Sherlock Holmes playing his violin before a cheery fire.
'This case would have been right up your alley, eh, ol’ chap?' I thought with a smirk. 'Though it’d be tough for you to maintain your professional distance.'
The wall looked full in that kitschy sort of way you might see in one of those theme restaurants – the ones with all the crap screwed to the walls to hint at an atmosphere of easygoing miscellany while reminding you that you need to be on your best behaviour. There weren’t any empty nails or conspicuous bare spots on the walls – besides, it would take a special kind of thief to make a conscious effort to steal that stuff. I’ll give Ivanovich one thing: it certainly makes the place homier.
The middle of the store was taken up by various racks. Display cases of bows, tables of rosin bags, racks of sheet music. If I didn’t know better, I’d say the old guy was trying to run a music store… See, this is why I sometimes wish I had a partner – I’d be able to bust out all these witty one-liners to someone other than my internal monologue writer. The sheet music was kicked over and was strewn across the floor, the display case was shattered, broken glass crunching underfoot, and rosin bags and violin polish were everywhere. The store seemed cluttered enough clean, so even this relatively small chaos was heavily felt.
In back of the store there was a counter that stretched from the back right wall about ten feet left. Behind it were a filing cabinet (open and the contents strewn about), a chair (on its side), a cash register (closed), a record player (smashed to hell), and a small rack of records (also smashed to hell). I saw from the labels that they were a mixed bag of violin jazz, well-known composers, some obscure Russian orchestras I’d never heard of, and, to my surprise, an intact single of the Charlie Daniels Band’s “The Devil went down to Georgia”. Behind the counter was a well-worn wooden door leading to the office.
“Mr. Ivanovich, did you do an inventory of everything that was missing?” I called over to the family, who were huddled over steaming mugs of joe. Ivanovich was kind enough to bring over a mug for me. I took a long, slurping sip. “Damn, Vasiliy Ivanovich, this is really good.”
“Eh, thank you, Mr. Guthrie. I did an inventory. No stock is missing, but I fear that broken Istvan Konya will be irreplaceable,” Ivanovich sighed.
“Istvan Konya?” I asked
“A Hungarian violin maker. That one would have sold for about $7000. I got a good deal from his family, all very dear friends of mine. The rest on that wall are my featured works – mostly replicas and pieces inspired by Konya’s work,” he sighed again. “Irreplaceable… the savagery of some people never ceases to stun me.”
“Yeah, it’s a pity, all right. Now how about the register? How much do you keep in there?”
“As I said, I don’t do much business – while my pieces are of good quality, violins aren’t like wine or mushrooms – people don’t buy them every day. A good violin is an investment for all time. So I usually count out the register once a week and take everything down to the bank. Today was supposed to be my banking day so-“
I cut him off. “So last night was pretty much the maximum amount of money you’d have during the week. What are the odds?” I asked, my voice flat.
“Now Mister Guthrie, I don’t know what you could be insinuating, but –“
“Cut the drama, Mister Ivanovich. I’m conducting an investigation here. How much do you keep in the till as float money?”
“Float money?” he asked, perplexed.
“Most businesses keep a set amount of money in the drawer as change. How much?”
“Oh, about a thousand, I suppose.”
“My most inexpensive violin costs $3000, Mister Guthrie.”
“Most people pay cash?”
“It is mixed. I take bank cards, cheques, MasterCard, visa, American express also.”
“Right.” I walked over to the door in back and tried the knob. It was locked fast, and there was no sign of anyone trying to get in by unconventional means. “What’s through this door?”
“My office. I keep a desk, files, keys, records, pens, staples –“
“Yes, but it is empty except for a few personal valuables.”
“You said you didn’t have anything valuable,” I corrected, more to be a pain in the ass than anything.
“It is a gold-plated cup, my wife’s only diamond necklace, and some foreign currency; other than that, just some pictures. The safe is more for fire safety than anything.”
“Right. Have you been in here since you found the place sacked?”
“No, I called police first thing, they looked around much like you did, then I called insurance agency and they sent you.”
“You were really on the ball with this insurance thing, weren’t you?” It gave me satisfaction to turn insurance fraud into my own sick joke. I just liked the look on people’s faces when I backhandedly accused them of fraud.
“My family and I decided it was best to call early before the details, er… clues were lost.”
“Gotcha. Would you open this door, please?” I said with a sweet smile, or a reasonable facsimile.
“Of course,” Ivanovich looked at me askance. “Is something wrong with the coffee? Is it too bitter? You are grimacing.”
The office was immaculate. Nothing missing, everything in its place, everything untouched. I was starting to get a tickling feeling on the back of my neck. Something was very wrong, and I had a suspicion I knew what it was.
“May I see your most recent accounts, preferably the ones covering the period between your last bank deposit and today?” I asked. Antonov complied.
$19890 in MasterCard for three violins, $8000 visa for one violin, $12000 Amex for one violin (one violin? Amazing. People will spend what I make in about nine months on something their kid’ll play twice and get bored of…), one personal cheque for $200 for violin lessons paid to the daughter, Olga… total sales of $47894.43… crunch some numbers… that means this week brought in $7804.43 cash… plus the $1000 always in the till…
I let out a low whistle and wrote down “Stolen: Approx. $8804.43 cash; Damaged: one Istvan Konya violin worth approx. $7000.00, records valuing approx. $750.00, miscellaneous damage approx. $2100.00 (Appraiser necessary for records & structural/misc. damage.)”
That covered the company’s needs. Now it was up to them to attach concrete values to everything this poor Russian immigrant had lost, slap a dollar value on it, and pay the proper amount. My job, however, wasn’t finished yet.
I lit another cigarette and walked back into the main room.
“Did you find anything?” Ivanovich asked nervously
“Can I have a look in the register?” I asked. Ivanovich wordlessly opened the till. I looked inside, behind the drawer, under the tray, and under the machine.
“Looks like they really cleaned you out. Something to the tune of-“ I looked at my Loss Report form for dramatic effect – so I can be a ham at times, eat me – and continued: “$8804.43 in total. What baffles me is that this is was a bumper week for you. You sold what? Five or six violins totalling something like $43000? Plus supplies and some $200 violin lessons? Where I come from, that’s a pretty good living. Not something for which people generally leave security cages unlocked, am I right?”
“Well, yes, but this week was an exceptionally busy week. We had that glowing article in the paper, and we are frequented by a very affluent clientele…”
“And all the rich kids are starting school and need a brand new Stradivarius to start the year, right?”
“It was a good week. A very good week.”
“Right…” Which only makes it that much more suspicious that you should be ripped off now, I almost said. I didn’t want to tip my hand too early on the off chance that I was wrong.
“Besides, it is my daughter, Olga, who gives all the lessons.”
“Where is Olga? I’d like a word with her.”
“Upstairs. The stairs are in the back office.”
The upstairs suite was modestly decorated exactly as you’d expect the home of an expatriate family of Russian violinmakers to be decorated. The parents slept in a cozy little room with a comfy-looking bed, small dresser, and a comfy private bathroom. There was a small kitchen and dining area, another bathroom with a combined tub/shower, and a locked door from behind which came the cardiac thud of hip-hop music.
'Teenagers…' I thought to myself, rolling my neck with a sound like pebbles in a coffee can. I knocked on the door. No answer. I knocked louder. No answer. 'All right, kiddo. You wanna do this the hard way? I’ll show you how we play in my jungle.' I took a step back, winding my leg up for a devastating kick that has shattered many a doorjamb in its day, and suddenly the door opened on the sullen teenaged girl I was about to cripple. I lowered my foot.
Straightening the lapels of my painfully cliché khaki trench coat, I stalked into the room, seething at my lost dignity. The kid was a practised hand at making her elders look like ass-hats, I had to give her that. I stalked over to the stereo and slapped the “Off” button.
“What do you want, cop?” The girl asked with the faintest hint of an accent. She sounded like an adolescent femme fatale from a Bond film.
“I’m not a cop,” I replied, spitting my long-expired cigarette butt onto the floor. My mind registered the fact that I’d taken maybe two puffs of the smoke before I allowed it to burn out in my mouth. I lit another and held my pack towards the teenager. When she reached for one, I tucked the pack into my pocket with a growled “too bad.”
“Alright. Fine. What do you want?” she asked petulantly.
“Your daddy says you teach violin on the side. That’s an awfully wholesome way to spend your free time. Why, you could be out mugging senior citizens, spray painting cars, tipping cows… robbing music stores,” I said suggestively, simply hoping to provoke a reaction. I was feeling hung-over and petty.
“Fuck you, pig,” she snarled.
“You kiss your mother with that mouth?” I asked. The clichés were flying like pies in a Three Stooges flick.
“No,” she replied. I suddenly missed my own mom.
“Okay, enough small talk. Why do you teach violin?”
“I need the money and…” she trailed off.
“And I just like to play. What’s it to you?”
“Okay, let’s change the subject. Why do you need the money?”
“To go to school. I’m graduating in a year and –“
“I thought you were sixteen,” I interrupted.
“I am. I did well on my entrance tests. I’m in a private school, and they bumped me up a grade.”
“Congratulations. So all this hip-hop and swearing is teen rebelliousness?”
“Combined with an intense desire to conform to the standards of my social group,” she muttered.
“What was that?”
“Nothing. Anyway, I’m graduating in a year and I want to study music in New York, but my father says he doesn’t have the money.”
“Which is bullshit because he makes about a million bucks a year off this stupid business,” she spat vehemently.
“I don’t think it’s a real million,” I said dubiously.
The girl snorted. “Shows what you know.”
“Fine. So you’re mad you can’t go to some ritzy music conservatory in the Big Apple, and you think your daddy has enough money to send you, but he’s being a big prick, right?”
I decided to gamble on a bit of subterfuge. “Okay. You were at your Uncle Gordon’s party from 8 until midnight. Did you see or hear anything?”
“Just a car speeding away in the middle of the night,” she replied.
“A car speeding away. What time?” I asked. This was getting very interesting.
“Oh, maybe about 2:00 am,” Olga said.
“Okay, thanks, Olga. Good luck with the violin. Check out some scholarship programs,” I said in my most friendly manner (think Dirty Harry’s birthday party) and went back downstairs.
“Mister Guthrie!” a gruff, feminine voice called from behind me. It was Vasiliy’s plump, red-cheeked wife, Marta.
“Ms. Antonov,” I said politely.
“I do no know what you trying to do, but my husband not a crook! My baby girl not a crook!”
“I never said anyone was a crook. I’m just trying to figure out what happened last night.”
“You ask too many questions. You already had idea who did it. You judge my Vasiliy before you even know anything! You think my baby Olga a ganger! She may hang out with bad types, but she not a bad type!”
“Please calm down. As far as I can tell, based on what your neighbours told me before I came here this morning, some people made a lot of noise breaking in here between 1:00 am and 3:00 am through that window because you forgot to lock the security cage. They messed up the place and made off with about $9000 in cash and broke a $7000 violin. That’s what the evidence shows and that’s what I’ve got in my little notebook here,” I said, holding up my trusty day planner-styled notepad.
“I no trust your types,” Marta said in a husky, low voice, waggling a pudgy red finger at me.
"I’m going to go look over the evidence and call my office, and I’ll come back later in the afternoon with my findings. Okay?” When I got no answer beyond an accusing stare, I left and got into my car.
“This case is a pain in the ass,” I said to myself with a sigh, lighting another cigarette. I popped open my glove compartment to reveal a road map, a phone directory, my cell phone, a silver snub-nosed revolver in a shoulder holster (technically illegal for “civilians” to carry, but I didn’t plan on getting caught), and a quart flask of Wild Turkey. I grabbed the flask, undid the stopper, and took a long pull. The bourbon burned on the way down and helped to wash away the sticky feeling I was getting from this case.
I went back to my hotel room for a room service lunch and an hour of shuteye.
The tuna salad washed down nicely with a glass of rye and cola, but the nap left me feeling even groggier than if I hadn’t slept. I splashed some cold water on my face in an attempt to wake up, ordered a pot of coffee from room service, and lit a cigarette. The words on my notepad seemed to swim together after the fifth time through. My jigsaw puzzle had enough of the pieces to make sense of the picture, and what I had smelled like shit.
There was too much coincidence. Too many convenient happenstances to make the stories plausible. The girl was lying through her teeth, that much was sure. No, I wasn’t being fair: either the father or the daughter was lying. I didn’t want to believe it was the daughter, simply because my gut didn’t feel it, and I wanted to get as far away from her bad-girl image as possible.
Thieves generally go for a liquor store or a convenience store – some place with chicken shit staff who are trained to hand over the money and let the insurance company front the bill. That, and they can steal their supply of booze and/or tobacco along with the money. A small violin store in a sleepy, upscale neighbourhood just isn’t an obvious target. That’s hole number one, but easily explained by the “Pulp Fiction” theory – if nobody in their right mind would rob a certain place, then it’s the last thing anyone will expect, right?
Second, there’s the gate. Ivanovich knew how much business he did that week, and had an idea that there was a shit load of money in the till. You’d have to be an idiot to forget something like a security gate, especially if you’d been broken into before. Of course, maybe he was excited about his Uncle Gregor’s birthday party.
Third, why wasn’t the office even looked at? Sure, there was a big score in the till, but any punk who reads the news or has seen a movie knows that there’s always a safe. Weren’t they the least bit curious about the door in back? Lord knows they were close enough, and the door stands out just fine against the light-coloured walls. There was no sign of even a credit card being used to jimmy the door open. This too can be explained a number of different ways. Perhaps a police car drove by and spooked the miscreants? Maybe the family was home and someone got up to use the washroom. Maybe one of the robbers got a call on his cell phone that his wife was having a baby. Who knows?
Finally, there was Olga’s story. First of all, she should know the name of her great uncle, especially one so apparently close to the family. I said “Gordon” clear enough that it sounded nothing like “Gregor”. Second, she said she heard a car at about two in the morning. The party ended at one. I didn’t know how long a drive it was to Gregor’s place. According to her father, the whole family was at the celebration and stayed the whole night and returned home to find the shop wrecked at 10:00 the following morning. One of them was obviously lying.
Combine this with all the other suspicious facets of this case, and the shit smell turned positively rancid. It’s possible that one of the holes could be explained away, but all three, plus the fact that someone is giving me the Martha Stewart special? Forget it.
There was only one thing to do. One thing that would put at least my mind at rest. I grabbed the phone directory from my glove compartment and looked up Gregor Anatolyevich Antonov. There was only one number for that name, and it had a listed address. I put on my coat and drove.
The address listed was for a flower shop with no discernible living quarters. I rapped loudly on the door and got shouted at by an irate neighbour for making so much noise at 2:00 in the afternoon on a Sunday, and that the damn flower shop was out of business anyway.
Muttering curses foul enough to melt the skin off a Saint, I got in my car and drove to Antonov’s. The drive took an hour and a half.
When I got to the store, it was dark inside and the windows and door were all latched shut. I barked another oath and raced around back with a squeal of burning rubber. I saw Vasiliy loading suitcases into the back of an old station wagon. I burst out of the car, six feet, three inches, and 200 pounds of seething fury.
“Where the hell do you think you’re going?” I growled like a bear, grabbing the silvery-haired man by the shirtfront and slamming him against the back door of the shop.
“M-m-mister Guthrie… I…” he stammered. I slammed him against the door again for good measure.
“No more games, you little weasel. There is no ‘Uncle Gregor’, there was no break-in, and there’ll be no big insurance payout,” I roared.
I could feel the blood pulsing in my forehead, which was a sign I was in berserk mode – always a scary sight, especially if you’re only five foot five inches and thin as a rail like Mr. Antonov.
“Wh- what are you talking about?” The fear was gone, replaced with pure, simple confusion. I was suddenly a whole lot less sure about my theory.
“You… you don’t know anything about this, do you?” I said simply, releasing his shirt. He slid a foot down the wall to the ground.
“Anything about what?” Ivanovich asked.
“The robbery was a sham. Insurance fraud. I thought you staged the whole thing, robbed your own store, and made it look like a random attack in order to get the insurance settlement. You’re insured for a lot of money.”
“I… see… and you thought that I-“
“Too many facets of the story didn’t make sense. Why didn’t the thieves break into the back office? Why was the window gate left unlocked? Why even bother with a music shop? How could they have known that this week was very profitable for you and that there’d be so much cash just lying around? Nothing fit the evidence. It was too well thought out. I-“
“Don’t move!” a lightly accented voice ordered. I raised my hands and turned around slowly to face Vasiliy Ivanovich’s daughter, Olga. The sixteen year-old girl was holding a Glock 9mm and she looked like she knew how to use it.
“Olga! What are you doing?” Vasiliy cried in Russian, horrified to see his daughter like this.
“Papa, I’m going to kill him,” Olga replied, her face dead serious but her voice cracking.
“Olga, put the gun down. Let’s talk about this. You’re a mature young woman. Let’s be reasonable,” I said pleadingly, praying she’d listen to reason.
“Shut up! Shut up! Shut up! You’ve ruined everything!” the girl screamed.
“Olga, please, why are you doing this?” Vasiliy said, his voice indicating that he was just shy of tears.
“All of our problems would have been solved if you’d have just done your job and reported it as a robbery. We’d have had the insurance money, I could have gone to New York, and my father could have been something more than some pitiful violin maker selling overpriced instruments to rich Americans!” Olga shouted bitterly, tears coursing freely. How the hell was I going to disarm a hysterical teenage girl?
“I know what you did. I know how you did it. It took me a while to figure it out, but I did. It really was a brilliant plan. You and your parents go out for the night, to the movies or something, and spend the night in a nice hotel – a treat for the whole family. You leave the security gates unlocked, and have some of your friends come over and rob the place in exchange for a cut of the cash. You recover the rest, probably using some dirty laundry to blackmail your friends into playing fair, after your parents get the insurance settlement. With none the wiser, your family is off to a fresh start with lots of ill-gotten money.
But why did your dad lie to me in the first place? I’ll bet that was some subtle manipulation on your part. Perhaps you fooled your parents into thinking that they left the gate unlocked, thus practically inviting a robbery, so they invented a cover story: Uncle Gregor, knowing full well that Gregor Anatolyevich Antonov died and his house became a flower shop, which then went out of business.
You’re a very smart family, but Olga… with your brains, why didn’t you simply apply for scholarships to the conservatory? Why didn’t you get a student loan?” I asked. One so rarely gets a chance to play Miss Marple and detail the culprit’s nefarious scheme. I was just lucky it didn’t get me shot in the eye.
“Oh, Olga…” Vasiliy said, all trace of anguish gone and replaced with the stern disapproval of a disappointed parent. Olga dropped the gun and burst into tears.
“Oh daddy, I’m so sorry… oh daddy…” Olga wept as her father ran forward to take her into his arms. I pulled a relatively clean diner napkin out of my pocket and collected the gun. Olga’s mother, Marta, raced from inside the house and collected her family in her beefy arms. I took the opportunity to call my office and let them know what happened.
Without another word, I hung up my phone and left the Antonov family crying in the alleyway. As I walked back to my car in the fading light of the day, I reached into my pocket for a cigarette, only to find that I had one left, and it was broken.
“Perfect end to a perfect day,” I muttered to myself as I started my car.
I had a hell of a report to compile.
Grizzled veteran of the Console Wars