by Bill Prindle
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3 4
On a freezing winter’s night, after shoving his way into the Broome Street Mission for a meal and a night’s rest, he sat at the crowded table, the hearty aroma of his potato soup mixing with the pungent fug given off by the small army of unwashed misfortunates surrounding him.
A man plunked down across from Chance and greeted him by name. Chance looked up and was shocked to see Fintan “Con” Connelly, a friend whom Chance had once nursed through a nearly fatal case of delirium tremens. So transfigured was Con from his previous incarnation as a walking dustbin to the now clean-shaven, talcum-powdered, white-shirted, wool-suited, comfortably-shod citizen that Chance barely recognized him.
Con gripped Chance’s hand. “Chance, me old son, I was hoping to find you here!” Con crowed. “It’s toodle-loo, for tonight I’m off to Cali-forn-i-aye — to San Francisco — Baghdad by the Bay — for a life of ease!”
“Con? Is it really you?”
“None other, boyo. 1889 has turned out to be the best year of me life. I’m off the drink and bright as a bee!”
“Did you sell the Brooklyn Bridge again?”
“No, I’m off the grift for good. Come closer, but you have to promise to keep it under your hat.”
Con was a skilled confidence man who, with his accomplice William McCloundy, had several times sold the Brooklyn Bridge to rich tourists. He had finally been arrested, done a stretch in Sing Sing, and on his release, had fallen victim to drink and destitution. He told Chance he’d been so hard up the week before that, to survive, he had felt compelled to pawn his last, most treasured possession: a pocket watch that had belonged to his grandfather from Galway.
“Lou the Dip, that pickpocket who works the theaters, told me about Wolfe’s Pawn Shop on Mott Street,” Con said. “The thought of losing my watch was unbearable. The prospect of starving to death was more unbearable, so into Wolfe’s I went.” Con paused, considering what next to say.
“I’m dying to tell you all that happened, Chance, for Wolfe’s is a place like Ali Baba’s cave, and Wolfe is as strange a man as you’ll ever meet. But the terms of my contract with Mr. Wolfe won’t allow me to say another word, except that he and I made a deal that put me back on my feet again.” Con took out his watch and showed it to Chance.
“See? I didn’t even have to pawn it. Now it’s telling me I have to go to Grand Central Terminal to catch my train. Farewell to you, my old comrade, and remember: if you’re ever up against the wall, go to Wolfe’s.”
“But Con, I’ve nothing to pawn.” Chance had sold his watch, medal, and his father’s gold ring years before.
“Doesn’t matter. Talk to Mr. Wolfe. Tell him I sent you!”
Before he bustled out the door, Con pressed a five-dollar gold piece into Chance’s hand. Chance hid it in his shoe but, by the next morning, it had been stolen.
* * *
It was the coldest February in memory. Every day the piteous frozen bodies of homeless men, women, and children were collected from the streets or unheated tenements, stacked like cordwood onto a wagon, and buried, unmarked and unmourned, in Potter’s Field.
As the ranks at the Broome Street Mission thinned, Chance felt the line between life and death attenuating to the thinness of a razor’s edge. On a bleak and blustery Friday afternoon, he huddled through the crucifying cold down Mott Street to Wolfe’s Pawn Shop. He entered and, from the raised entrance, surveyed the vast room before him.
His eyes had to adjust to the gloom, the light of the few gas lamps casting flickering shadows across the cavernous confines of the shop. Slowly he was able to make out the merchandise decorating the ceiling, walls, and floor, each item providing mute testimony to its previous owner’s desperation. A narrow passageway snaked back to the counter at the rear of the shop.
There, barely discernible in the shadows, loomed the shadowy silhouette of Mr. Wolfe. Chance hesitated. The place had a miasmal atmosphere of dust, decay, and despair. But it was also as irresistibly warm as a loaf of bread hot from the oven, and Chance couldn’t bring himself to return to the cold.
“Come in, come in,” called Mr. Wolfe.
So welcoming was the deep, melodious voice that Chance’s wavering was overcome, and he carefully wound his way back, examining the goods surrounding him. Trumpets, trombones, sousaphones, tubas, and euphoniums gleamed dully in the darkness. Guitars, mandolins, shotguns, swords, and braces of dueling pistols dangled from the ceiling.
Staring down from the walls was a gallery of the departed — stuffed heads of bison, walrus, lion, bear, and gnu — and portraits in gilded frames of long-dead befrocked ladies, general and admirals in full uniform, and children, their sweet spectral faces observing Chance’s progress.
Furniture enough to fill three mansions crowded around him — grandfather clocks, highboys, eight-foot tall elephant tusks, lacquered Chinese screens, rocking chairs, étagères, jardinières, and funeral urns. Smaller objects — porcelain figurines, mammy dolls, crystal balls, automata, cloisonné ostrich eggs, a stuffed cairn terrier, and an iron doorstop in the likeness of Ulysses S. Grant decorated tabletops. Propped against the glass-topped counter was an array of finely-crafted wooden legs and a child’s coffin with “Dearest Libby” carved into its lid.
Inside the counter, glittering in the dancing light of a single gas jet, was a king’s ransom in silver and gold — serving spoons, salvers, snuff boxes, wedding rings, pocket watches, ivory opium pipes with amber stems and gold fittings, medals, tiaras, bracelets, baubles, and brooches fit for a queen.
On the counter were a human skull with a round hole the exact diameter of a minié ball in the middle of its forehead, a monstrously large shark’s tooth sharp enough to cleave a man’s hand from his arm and, staring up at Chance with unblinking concentration from a velvet-lined tray, were a score of glass eyeballs, neatly arranged by color.
When Wolfe stepped into the light, Chance regarded the strange figure with some trepidation.
Wolfe towered over Chance by at least a foot and was dressed in clothes so dark they seemed at one with the murk surrounding him, only his face and hands visible. A dark, well-trimmed beard framed his handsome features, but his eyes had no iris or pupil and were as cold as those of a serpent.
For such an imposing figure, Wolfe’s hands, though large enough to encircle a man’s neck, had fingers that were finely tapered, like those of a concert pianist or a card sharp. The man simultaneously radiated an air of casual authority, kindliness, and potential menace.
Chance introduced himself. “Fintan Connelly told me to come here if I needed help, Mr. Wolfe, but honestly, I don’t know why I’m here. I’ve nothing of value.”
Wolfe smiled. “We all have something of value, even though we may not know it.”
Chance was again struck by Wolfe’s voice, as serenely sonorous as the bourdon of a church organ.
“I can’t sell you my coat or shoes, Mr. Wolfe. If I do, I’ll die.”
The bell over the front door jangled.
“Sorry, we’ve just closed!” Wolfe called out. The bell rang again when the interloper departed.
“I like to give prospective clients my full attention,” Wolfe said by way of explanation. “Let’s get down to business.
“Your friend Con wanted to pawn his watch, but I’m awash in pocket watches. At best, I could have given him two dollars. So instead I made him an offer and he took it.”
“So he told me,” said Chance.
“My friend, of all these items, which do you suppose has the greatest value?” Wolfe’s right arm described an arc indicating the contents of the shop.
Chance looked around and said one of the diamond wedding rings might be worth a lot.
“You are wrong, sir. There’s something here worth more to me than anything within these walls.” Wolfe leaned forward and brought his face close to Chance’s. “It’s your eternal soul,” he whispered. Chance edged away from the counter.
“Con’s tarnished soul was equal to a certain sum of money. We negotiated the terms, he signed on the dotted line, and away he went, a happy man.”
“He sold you his soul?”
“No, he did not, although I advised him to. Instead he pawned it. The terms were that in exchange for a certain amount of money, I hold the ticket on his soul. Within the time period agreed upon, if he can reimburse the cash advanced, plus interest, and present proof of three virtuous acts, witnessed and attested to, his pawn ticket is redeemed, and I’ll have no future claim on his soul. If he doesn’t, I get his soul when he dies.
“Between you and me and the lamppost, I am one hundred percent certain that he will be incapable of redeeming his ticket. Few of my customers are. Knowing that, I gave Con a little extra, because at heart, I am not an ungenerous man.”
“Are you sure he won’t?”
“I’ve been doing this a long, long time, Chance. Do you honestly think your friend is capable of even one righteous deed?”
Chance was silent. He liked Con, but the man was a scalawag.
“We agree, then.” Wolfe laced his fingers together and rested his hands on the counter. “I can offer you a life of comfort and plenty. Sell your soul outright, and you’ll be well provided for indeed. Pawn it, and you’ll receive a lesser but still substantial amount. What do you say?”
Despite his desperation, Chance was unnerved by Wolfe’s bizarre proposition. He said, “No thanks,” and hurried for the door.
As Chance exited, Wolfe called out, “You’ll be back.”
* * *
Copyright © 2016 by Bill Prindle