Gretchen, administrative manager of PRESCOTT’S ANTIQUES & AUCTIONS, spread the photographs over her desk. “I can’t decide,” she said. She looked up and smiled at us, her expressive green eyes reflecting her pleasure. “What do you think? Should I go with the blue hydrangeas and paperwhites? Or the veronicas and baby’s breath?” She angled the two photos so we could see them.
“I love hydrangeas!” Cara, our receptionist, said. Cara was grandmotherly in appearance, with curly white hair and a round pink face that grew pinker when she felt pleasure, embarrassment, or sadness.
“Me, too,” I said, leaning over to see the images. “Especially the blue ones—and the paperwhites in this bouquet are beautiful.” I looked at the other photo Gretchen was holding and laughed. “You’re going to hate me because I’m not going to be of any help at all. I love these veronicas, too!”
“They’re so delicate,” Cara agreed. “Really lovely.”
“I don’t know,” Gretchen said. She gathered up the photographs and jiggled them together. “Luckily I have a week before I have to decide.”
The wind chimes Gretchen had hung on the back of the front door years earlier jingled. Lenny Einsohn stepped inside.
“Josie,” he said. He nodded at Gretchen and Cara, then looked back at me. “Do you have a minute?”
Lenny looked awful, pasty white and too thin. I wasn’t surprised. Wes Smith, the incredibly plugged-in local reporter, had just broken the story that Alice D. Michaels, the founder and CEO of ADM Financial Advisers Inc., was being investigated for running a mega-Ponzi scheme, with or without her associates’ knowledge. The associate most often mentioned as the brains behind the scheme was Lenny. Alice had fired him three months earlier, at the first hint of trouble.
I knew Lenny because his oldest son, now away at college, had caught the stamp collecting bug in junior high school, and after witnessing his elation at several tag sale finds, his parents had joined in the fun. Lenny started collecting Civil War maps and ephemera and his wife, Iris, fell in love with Clarice Cliff jugs.
“Sure. Let’s go up to my office.”
I pushed open the heavy door, stepped into the warehouse, and led the way to the spiral staircase that led to my private office on the mezzanine, our footsteps echoing in the cavernous space. I considered directing Lenny to the yellow upholstered love seat and Queen Anne wing chairs but didn’t. A little voice in my head warned me I should keep our interaction all business.
“Have a seat,” I said, sitting behind my desk as I pointed to a guest chair. “What can I do for you?”
Lenny looked as if he’d rather be at the dentist getting a root canal without anesthetic than talking to me.
“I was going through my Civil War documents the other day. I’ve acquired some nice things over the last few years. Some original maps showing forts and so on. I have two letters signed by Lincoln, too. I paid thirty-five thousand for one of them—a thank-you to Ulysses Doubleday for information about Fort Sumter.” He crossed his legs, then uncrossed them. “I’d like to sell the entire collection.”
I didn’t want any part of it. If Lenny was charged with larceny or fraud or anything related to financial improprieties at ADM Financial, the courts would freeze his assets until the case was settled one way or the other. In situations like this, the authorities often went back ninety days or even longer, trying to recoup monies for victims.
My window was open, and a stack of papers fluttered in the soft, warm breeze. I moved a paperweight—a water-smoothed gray rock my boyfriend and I had picked up from a purling brook during a hike in the White Mountains last summer—onto the top of the pile. Lenny kept his eyes on me, waiting for me to speak.
“Do you want me to appraise the collection for you?” I asked.
“No. I’m hoping you’ll buy it.”
If I purchased his collection and he was subsequently convicted, the courts might decide that the proceeds of the sale should have benefited his victims, not him. Thinking through the worst-case scenario, the powers that be might even confiscate the collection on the theory that it had been originally purchased with stolen money. I’d be out the cash I’d paid him, and the public might think I’d conspired with Lenny to snooker them. That scenario had ugly written all over it. I tried to think how I could extricate myself without offending him but couldn’t. There was no easy way out.
“Sorry, Lenny. I have to pass.”
He bit his lip and tapped the chair arm. “I’ll give you a good deal.”
I shook my head. “Sorry.” I stood up. “Let me walk you out.”
* * *
Back upstairs in my office, I picked up my accountant Pete’s good-news quarterly report, then put it down, my interest in revenue streams and profit margins waning as the breeze wafted through my window. I put the report aside and started reading my antiques appraiser Fred’s draft of catalogue copy for an auction we were planning for next fall on witchcraft memorabilia, thinking it would be more engaging than financial data, but within minutes, I found myself staring at the baby blue sky. I was suffering from a serious case of spring fever.
“Come on, Josie,” I told myself. “Concentrate.”
I reached for a media release we planned to send to doll magazines, blogs, and book reviewers announcing the purchase of Selma Farmington’s doll collection.
Selma Farmington had died just a week earlier in a horrific car accident, and now her daughters, up from Texas, were facing the daunting task of clearing out the sprawling home that had been in their family for generations. When they’d called me in to buy some of the antiques, they’d been frank about feeling shell-shocked and overwhelmed. I’d encouraged them to let me take the time to appraise the doll collection so they could sell the dolls individually at full retail, the best way to command top dollar, but they weren’t interested. They hadn’t even wanted to consign the dolls. When I explained that in order to buy the collection outright, I had to offer them a wholesale price, they’d understood. After a brief discussion, they’d asked me to raise my offer from one-third of their mom’s carefully recorded expenditures to half, and I’d agreed. The $23,000 sales price was fair. Once the dolls were properly appraised, cleaned, and repaired, I’d be certain to make a good profit, and they had one less collection to worry about. While Selma’s doll collection wasn’t of earth-shattering quality, I thought it was varied enough to be of interest to collectors and dealers. My fingers were crossed that we’d get good media coverage. I finished reading the release, e-mailed Gretchen that it was good to go, then considered what to do next.
Nothing appealed to me. I was about to struggle through another few pages of Fred’s catalogue when Gretchen IM’d me. Alice Michaels had called for an appointment, and she’d scheduled her at three. First Lenny, now Alice, I thought. I glanced at the time display on my computer monitor. It was three minutes after two. I gave up trying to work, pushed the papers aside, and headed downstairs. I decided to walk to the church about a quarter mile down the road to the east, in the hopes that indulging my need to be outside for a little while would enable me to buckle down when I returned. Cara was on the phone giving someone directions to Saturday’s tag sale. I told Gretchen I’d be back in half an hour or so.
I stood for a moment in my parking lot enjoying feeling the sun on my face and listening to the birds chat to one another, then started down the packed dirt path that wound through the woods, a shortcut from my property to the Congregational Church of Rocky Point. Everything was blooming or in bud, filled with the promise of renewal, of hope.
May was my favorite time of year in New Hampshire. The wisteria and lilacs were in full bloom, the wisteria hanging low over lush green grass and the lilacs scenting the roads and fields. Violets and lilies of the valley dotted the forest floor. Queen Anne’s lace and heather grew in wild abandon near the sandy shore. May was idyllic. So was June when the dahlias and peonies were in bloom. September was dazzling, too, with its fiery colors and crisp evenings. As was October, with pumpkins as big as wheelbarrows proudly placed on porches and golden and cordovan colored Indian corn hung on doors. The fresh-fallen snow in January created a winter wonderland that to my eye rivaled the postcard-perfect Alpine slopes. I smiled, realizing how much I loved New Hampshire in all seasons, how fully my adopted state had become my home. I paused to admire a clutch of Boston fern, their new fronds just unfurling.
As soon as I stepped onto the church grounds, I spotted Ted Bauer, the pastor, standing by the side garden. I walked to join him.
“Hey, Ted,” I said as I approached.
He looked over his shoulder and smiled. Ted was of medium height and stout. His blond hair was graying, and he’d gained some weight over the last year or so. He looked his age, which I guessed was close to fifty.
“Hi, Josie. You caught me playing hooky. I have an acute case of spring fever.”
“Me, too. I don’t want to do anything but wander around outside admiring plants and flowers and birds.”
“I understand completely. I’ve been standing here looking at the impatiens for way too long. I should be inside preparing next Sunday’s sermon.”
“It’s only Monday. You have time. I should be reviewing catalogue copy Fred wrote. He can’t continue his work until he hears from me.”
“I wish I had plenty of time, but the truth is that it takes me all week to write a sermon. When’s the auction?”
“September. Which, despite being months away, will be here before we know it. We have to start promoting it soon.”
“We share a good work ethic, Josie.”
“That’s true,” I acknowledged.
“But you know what?” he asked, his smile lighting up his eyes. “It’s all right to take a little time now and again to appreciate things like flowers and birds.”
“I know you’re right, but I still feel guilty.”
“Me, too. How’s this? I won’t tell on you if you don’t tell on me.”
“Deal,” I said, grinning.
I circled the church and waved good-bye to Ted as I entered the pathway for my return journey. I stepped onto the asphalt outside Prescott’s in time to see Alice Michaels pull into a parking spot near the front door. I walked to join her. I felt the muscles in my upper back and neck tense as I braced for another difficult conversation.
Copyright © 2012 by Jane K. Cleland