Deadly Appraisal

Josie Prescott Antiques Mysteries (Volume 2)

Jane K. Cleland

Minotaur Books

Chapter One
 
“So,” Detective Rowcliff asked, “did you kill her?”
 
My lips parted, but no words came. I’d seen poor little mousy Maisy Gaylor collapse and die at tonight’s Gala, and the horror of it was with me still. “What are you saying?” I managed. “Didn’t she have a heart attack? Or a stroke? Or something?”
 
“Probably not.”
 
“What do you mean?” I asked, confused and frightened.
 
“Let’s stay on track here,” he said impatiently, ignoring my question, his foot rat-a-tatting a staccato beat. “Did you kill her?”
 
“No, of course not,” I said. “My God, no.”
 
He stared at me, his eyes boring into mine. “Tell me what you saw,” he said coldly.
 
I was so scared, I could barely breathe. I glanced away, then back at him, hoping for some sign of empathy or understanding. There was none. “What do you want to know?” I asked.
 
“How did Maisy end up onstage?”
 
I shut my eyes, letting the picture come.
 
My company’s auction hall was decorated to the teeth in honor of the Portsmouth Women’s Guild’s Annual Black and Gold Gala. Even the banner stretched high over the stage was color-matched—the words prescott’s welcomes you were stamped in gold on a black silk background.
 
Dimmed chandeliers and wall sconces cast a soft glow and scores of candles flickered in tall crystal holders. Gilt-edged dishes, polished silver, and etched glasses gleamed in the amber light.
 
We were ready to go by six and guests started arriving about six thirty. By seven, clusters of people stood in small groupings near the antiques display. A brass quartet played classical music softly in the corner. Glasses clinked and people laughed. All around me, chitchat undulated in the background.
 
Most of the women wore all-black gowns, but several twinkled in black with gold sequins or metallic beads. All of the male guests wore black tie, and to keep to the black-and-gold color scheme, my male staff wore black suits with gold ties and the females, me included, wore long black skirts with gold silk jerseys.
 
A tuxedoed waiter passed by and I snared a flute of champagne. I scanned the room, seeking out people I hadn’t yet met and trying hard to remember the names of those I had.
 
Just before we were called to sit for dinner, Maisy Gaylor, the Portsmouth Women’s Guild’s representative, approached me, grinning like a girl. She was wearing a fitted black dress, snug and cut low—an uncharacteristically sexy look for the normally all-business professional woman.
 
“Oh, Josie,” she exclaimed, playfully grasping my arm. “We did it! All these weeks planning and working, and here we are! Aren’t you just so excited?”
 
“Absolutely!” I agreed, smiling, her enthusiasm contagious.
 
“Oh, look! There’s Britt!” Maisy flitted away in Britt’s direction. Britt Epps, the honorary chair of the Gala and the most influential lawyer in town, was looking downright dapper, his bulk well disguised in a custom-made tuxedo. I watched as they air-kissed.
 
Later, after I’d greeted and chatted with dozens of attendees and finished a pretty good dinner, I realized that the event was on track to be a roaring success—the leaders of Portsmouth’s social scene had come to my venue and were, by all appearances, having fun, which was excellent news for me, and they seemed to be bidding well on the antiques, which was excellent news for the Guild.
 
As the waiters cleared dishes, refilling wine for those of us who wanted more and pouring coffee for those who didn’t, I sat idly chatting with my seatmate. Just as I picked up my dessert fork, my assistant, Gretchen, rushed across the room in my direction.
 
“All set!” she said, her emerald green eyes sparkling with delight, handing me the envelope containing the names of the winning bidders.
 
“Great!” I responded. Without opening it, I passed it on to Britt.
 
He stood up and leaned over to Maisy, seated at the table next to ours. “Maisy,” he said in a stage whisper, waving the envelope to catch her eye. “We’re ready to announce the winners.”
 
Maisy jumped right up, her cheeks flushed with pleasure. Britt turned and motioned to Dora Reynolds, holding the envelope high above his head to flag her attention. Dora, the volunteer in charge of the event, nodded her understanding. She looked forty but was probably on the shady side of fifty. She was all gussied up in a full-length black silk slip dress that glittered with gold sparkles. As she approached us, she cooed to various people, working the room like a pro.
 
“I bet you’ve won the tureen!” she called to someone. “I have a witchy feeling about it! You’ll see!”
 
Maisy squeezed Britt’s hand. “I’m just so excited!” she exclaimed, beaming. “And curious!”
 
“Want to venture a guess as to how much we’ll bring in tonight?” Britt teased.
 
Maisy giggled. “Oh, no! I just hope it’s a big number!”
 
When Dora arrived at the front, Britt asked, “Ready, girls?” sounding more like a stage manager at a burlesque show than an important lawyer hosting a serious charity’s most significant fund-raiser.
 
“Can I see the bid sheets before we announce the winners?” Dora asked.
 
“Of course,” Britt replied, and handed her the envelope.
 
I stood with Maisy and Britt, barely listening to their nothing sayings while Dora thumbed through the bid sheets and slipped them back into the envelope. I sat. They filed onto the stage. Britt went first, his chest puffed out with pride and pleasure, followed by Dora, ethereal as always, almost gliding. Maisy brought up the rear, lifting the hem of her low-cut gown as she stepped up onto the low platform.
 
Just as Britt approached the podium, before he spoke a word and without warning, Maisy choked, uttered a desperate shriek, and tumbled forward, her wineglass shattering. She landed in a heap near my chair.
 
 
 
 
 
Detective Rowcliff began to tap his pencil, startling me out of my reverie. I opened my eyes and turned to him. He was chewing gum, as if he wanted to kill it, while watching me through uncaring eyes.
 
“So?” he prompted, sounding annoyed.
 
Taking a deep breath, I recounted the events of the night, answering his question about how Maisy had ended up on the stage.
 
“And then people rushed up and—” I faltered, unsure what to say next.
 
Rowcliff continued to tap his pencil, thinking about what I’d said. “Who wants Maisy dead?” he asked abruptly.
 
“No one. I mean, I didn’t know her very well, but I can’t imagine that anyone would want to murder her.”
 
His angry eyes challenged me. “Well then,” he demanded with a fierce rat-a-tat of his pencil, “who wants you dead?”
 
Chapter Two
 
stared at him. What is he saying? His question makes no sense. He stared back at me, watching me, waiting for my response.
 
“What?” I asked, giving voice to my confusion.
 
“I asked, ‘Who wants you dead?’ Got any enemies?”
 
“Why would you ask me that?”
 
“Answer the question,” Rowcliff commanded.
 
“What has Maisy’s death got to do with whether I have enemies?” I insisted.
 
He shrugged. “Maybe nothing. I’m just asking questions, trying to cover all bases.” He paused, giving me a chance to speak, then added, waggling his fingers to hurry me up, “So . . . ? Who wants you dead?”
 
“No one,” I said, my voice barely audible.
 
“Right. No one ever wants to kill anyone,” he said in an irritatingly sardonic tone. “Funny, isn’t it, how a lot of people end up dead when no one has any enemies.”
 
“Enemies? Are you saying that Maisy was killed by some enemy? Or are you saying that Maisy was killed by mistake and I’m the one with an enemy?”
 
He shifted position and tapped his pencil a few times against the table. “I’m not saying anything.” After a long pause and a short series of taps, he said, “Describe her to me. What was she like?”
 
I considered how to express my jumbled thoughts. Maisy Gaylor had been my chief contact within the Portsmouth Women’s Guild, and I couldn’t recall that we’d ever shared a lighthearted moment, so it had been something of a shock to see her flitting about at the Gala, vivacious and effervescent. From my prior experience, I’d found her to be a painfully earnest, drab little woman, always quiet and often grim. Her atypical buoyancy had made me wonder at the time if she was high. And when she tumbled off the stage and died, I had the fleeting thought that maybe she had taken drugs and they’d killed her.
 
“I didn’t know her well,” I explained, offering a disclaimer. “But she seemed more high-spirited than usual. I couldn’t help but wonder if she had taken something.”
 
Another riff of rat-a-tat-tat. “Okay. Let’s back up. How long have you known her?”
 
“About . . . four months. Once I accepted the sponsorship.”
 
“Sponsorship of what? The Guild?”
 
“Not exactly . . . not the entire organization. My company sponsored the Gala.”
 
“Which was a fund-raiser for the Guild.”
 
“That’s right.”
 
He picked up the gilt-framed program that listed the evening’s dinner menu, the Guild and Gala officers, the names of the musicians in the New Hampshire Brass Quartet, and the sponsors. He tapped the bottom of the program, indicating that he’d located my company’s name. “Prescott’s Antiques: Auctions and Appraisals,” he read aloud. “Josie Prescott, president.”
 
“Right.”
 
“What does that mean—sponsoring? You pay the bills?”
 
“Well, yes. Some of them. I mean, the caterer discounted the food and the printer comped the invitations and the programs, but sponsoring an event like this involves more than just cash. This room,” I said, gesturing, “is where we hold our monthly antiques auctions, so we’re providing the physical space. We also donated some of the antiques that were auctioned off tonight. Plus, we researched all of them and prepared and produced the catalog.”
 
He dropped the program on the table as if it were garbage and shifted in his seat. “Why?” he asked combatively. “Why be a sponsor?”
 
My father taught me that in business, as in personal relationships, it’s crucial to deal only in facts. When someone attacks your motive for doing something, he instructed, respond with facts. Don’t get defensive. Don’t attack back. Don’t let your emotional reaction show in any way. Stay calm and stick to the facts. I took a calming breath and reassured myself that no matter what Rowcliff was insinuating, there was nothing shameful about promoting my company’s services.
 
“To help the Guild,” I replied. “And to get my company’s name out.”
 
He picked up his pencil and gave a tap-tap, thinking what to ask next. “Were you and Maisy friends?” he asked.
 
“Not really. We worked together.”
 
“No socializing, no lunches, no chitchat?” he asked, and from his demeanor, I had the sense that except for police-mandated standards, he would have added, like most broads.
 
“No. None. When we were together, we talked business.”
 
He half-sneered in disbelief. Yeah, right, I could almost hear him thinking, women—all business—I doubt it. He punctuated his disdain with a quick tap-tap of his pencil. “Well then,” he said, “let’s try this. When did you first see her today?”
 
I ignored his attitude and focused on answering his question. “She got here early—midafternoon.”
 
“When exactly?”
 
“About three thirty or four. She was excited and fluttered about, touching this and that, arranging flowers and so on.” I smiled at the memory. She’d been almost giddy. “Mostly, to tell you the truth, she got in the way.” I shrugged.
 
“Did you talk to her?”
 
“Then?”
 
“Ever.”
 
“Sure. Lots. But not about anything special.”
 
“Give me an example.”
 
“Okay,” I said. “About five, she asked me if I thought we had enough wine and I told her yes. Just before we sat down to dinner, she told me that she thought someone whose name I don’t remember would bid over the estimate on the three-piece faience pottery set.” I shrugged. “Things like that. Little nothings.”
 
“What’s a faience pottery set?” he asked.
 
“Faience is the French term for tin-glazed earthenware. This set includes two fruit dishes and a bowl. It’s incredibly rare.”
 
“How much is it worth?”
 
“About twenty-five hundred.”
 
“You’re kidding!”
 
I smiled. “Nope. Britt still has the auction sheets, I think, so you can see for yourself how it did.”
 
“Why is it so valuable?”
 
“Aside from the fact that it’s beautiful, the design is crisp and clean, and it’s in perfect condition. Think about it—it’s two hundred and fifty years old and it’s unchipped and uncracked.” I pointed. “Do you see it there?” He turned and tilted his head, squinting a little. “Notice how pure and bright the colors look even from this distance.”
 
He nodded. “What else?”
 
“About the pottery?”
 
“No,” he said, exasperated. “About Maisy.”
 
I thought for a moment. “She told me a couple of times how great she thought the Gala was going.” I shrugged again. “Nothing remarkable at all. I can’t remember anything else.”
 
He glared at me for a long moment, then stood up and looked around. “Looks like just about everyone’s gone. Let’s call it a night.” He stood, shook out his pant leg, gestured to Officer Johnston, who was dutifully taking notes on the other side of the table, to follow him, and headed for the rear doors. I hunched my shoulders as a rush of icy air reached me. October in New Hampshire can be bone-chillingly cold.
 
 
 
 
 
Once the remaining guests and workers were processed out and Detective Rowcliff gave his final instructions to the police officers assigned to overnight sentry duty, he followed me through the warehouse into the main office and watched as I got ready to set the alarm.
 
He informed me in a tone that begged for argument that I had to leave my auction venue—to him a crime scene—unalarmed so the police could enter at will.
 
“No problem,” I responded.
 
I retrieved my purse from where I’d placed it under a desk and turned to leave.
 
“When will you get in tomorrow?” he asked. He still seemed angry about something, but I figured that was his natural state, so I ignored it.
 
“I don’t know. I’m sleeping late, I guarantee you that,” I told him.
 
He didn’t seem tired at all. Maybe murder energized him.
 
“I’m going to want to speak to you again in the morning.”
 
“Let’s talk when I get up,” I said, making no commitment. I had a call in to Max, my lawyer, but even without his in-person support, I knew that I didn’t have to agree to Detective Rowcliff’s schedule.
 
“I’ll call you,” Rowcliff responded, and it sounded like a threat.
 
“Okay,” I said.
 
I wiggled the door to be certain it was latched, told him good-bye, and walked across the lot to my car. Rowcliff’s contempt was both irritating and intimidating.
 
He stood in place by the front door, unmoving. Waiting for the heat in my car to kick in, I sat still, staring at nothing. I glanced back through the rearview mirror. In the shadowy moonlight, it seemed as if his eyes were fixed on mine, and I shivered.
 
 
Copyright © 2007 by Jane K. Cleland. All rights reserved