Killer Stuff

A Jane Wheel Mystery

Jane Wheel Mysteries (Volume 1)

Sharon Fiffer

Minotaur Books

Killer Stuff
1
If she hadn't spent an hour sorting through the postcards and theater programs under the workbench, if she hadn't held each slope-shouldered pale blue jar up to the window searching for chips and cracks, if she hadn't pretended to be Nancy Drew, sniffing out an early copy of The Hidden Staircase, complete with book jacket, page-by-weathered-page checking for mildew, Jane might have been the scout, the picker, the shopper, the collector who found the small dull-green vase--maybe it was even Grueby, just maybe it was the real thing--in a box of oh-so-desirable vintage flowerpots, each of which were marked one dollar.
Instead, it was some neighbor who dragged the box right out from under Jane's nose and chatted incessantly in the check-out line to anyone who would listen about her African violets and how poor Hettie's sweet little pots would brighten them up. This woman, this violet farmer, paid seven dollars and walked outside, not even aware of what she was carrying. Jane, tapping her foot in line, watched the woman from the large picture window and saw a man approach her. He kept his back to the house, but Jane saw him hold out his hand and the woman nod. He apparently made an acceptable offer, since Jane watched him walk away with the entire box, leavingthe silly woman shaking her head and holding a twenty-dollar bill. Jane had only glimpsed the matte green glaze of the vase nestled in with the flowerpots, and could have talked herself out of believing it was a valuable find if she hadn't seen that picker sniff it out and disappear.
"I don't even collect ephemera!" she screamed at the four hand-tinted postcards spread out on the driver's seat. Greetings from Carlsbad Caverns. Mount Baldy. Painted Canyon at Sunrise. Badlands Sunset. "I don't even travel!"
Jane, driving her neighbor's Suburban, a bus of a car that might accommodate the Hoosier cabinet she had hoped to find that morning, tried to merge into unusually heavy traffic on Interstate 94. "It's Saturday morning. Go home and sleep."
She thought the approaching blue pickup was slowing down for her, so she gunned the engine and gritted her teeth. The vehicle had the power, but she didn't have the feel for its size; she lost control and nearly went across two lanes as she slid into the traffic. She saw the driver of the pickup snarl and twist his mouth. Through her rolled-down windows, she heard the swearing that was required when a driver made a dumb mistake. She thought she even heard dogs barking and growling. There was another flurry of horns, two swerves, one squeal, as she straightened out the car and stayed in the middle lane. No real damage. She thought she saw a few fingers raised in her direction. "Yeah, peace to you, too."
Nine A.M. Already 82 degrees. Humidity rising. Jane felt herself melting down at the core. It wasn't even August yet. She cranked the temperature up to frigid, then rubbed her bare arms as the arctic air blasted her elbows.
It was too hot to go to another sale, especially an architectural sale where she would have to haul out her crowbar,hammer, and screwdriver and help dismantle a graceful old beauty so that new money yups could build a six-thousand-square-foot mausoleum with a family room and attached three-car garage. But she was after doorknobs. Not just the crystal prisms that she was scouting for Miriam in Ohio, but small closet knobs, solid brass ovals that could be mounted either vertically or horizontally. They felt like cool metal eggs in your hand. Just below the knob, another plate was mounted, the keyhole, waiting for its skeleton, cleverly concealed by another brass oval that hung vertically. Cunning little doorknobs. When you looked at them dead on, they looked like the punctuation mark of a new language.
Jane glanced down at the map. She exited the expressway, beginning to like the feel of a truck. She was tall behind the wheel, powerful. Maybe this will be my career change, she thought. Maybe I can go to the famous trucker's school. Or maybe I'll let Charley have the house back and move into a van with Nicky.
Two more turns, down a quarter-mile private lane, and she was there. A large circle drive was already filled with pickups, vans, and a fleet of Range Rovers and their relatives like the Suburban she drove. More cars were parked on the lawn. A man in a bright orange vest waved her into a spot between the rose garden and a rusted fountain. There were three people on their knees in the garden carefully digging up the roses as well as the hostas and dwarf lilacs. There was no line at the door, which was good and bad. Good because the heat wouldn't kill her as she waited to get her crack at the inch-by-inch destruction of this arts and crafts masterpiece. Bad because she was late, maybe too late to locate and claim her doorknobs and any other pane of leaded glass, unusual door hinge, or drawer pull she had to have. Jane didn'talways know what she wanted, what she needed, what she craved until she saw it.
It had started with flowerpots. Two years ago while at her parents' house in Kankakee for Thanksgiving, she'd gone into the basement to find the extra gravy boat and spotted a maroon, ceramic flowerpot with an attached saucer. The deep color, the raised design, the hefty utility of it pleased her. She'd brought it upstairs. Her husband, Charley, took it from her, turned it over, and read, "McCoy. My sister collects these." He took one of Jane's mother's plastic pots of ivy and stuck it into the flowerpot and both plant and pot were transformed. Shiny, dark green leaves curled themselves around the wine-colored pottery. Nature nested into man-made object. Family and guests looked up. It created a moment. Even Nicky had looked up from his Gameboy and nodded.
After dinner, packages of turkey and stuffing, green beans and pie, were neatly wrapped and packed into a box for their drive back to Evanston. Jane tucked in the flowerpot. In her own house, on a kitchen shelf next to her cookbooks, it looked lonely. A few months later, when her neighbor's mother died, Sandy had a garage sale and Jane helped her unpack boxes of salt and pepper shakers, animal figurines, souvenir pillows.
"I can't believe my mother, who couldn't even kiss you good-bye when you left for college, could hang on to all this junk. Not a sentimental bone in her body, but she never threw one crummy thing away," Sandy muttered, unpacking carton after taped carton.
When Jane discovered four small flowerpots, green, yellow, pink, and maroon, raised designs, saucers attached, sheasked Sandy if she could buy them. "Take 'em. I want this junk out of my sight."
Five flowerpots on a sunny kitchen shelf made a statement. We are a collection, they said. Jane added collector to her list of titles, along with wife, mother, and advertising executive. She also added stoneware jugs and bowls to the top of her cabinet, pottery vases to the bookcases, and fifties kitchenware to her open cabinets over the sink. She collected slim, elegant cigarette boxes for Charley and ceramic dogs for Nick. Sal at the office mentioned she liked flower frogs, and Jane found her dozens; metal, glass, even a ceramic come-hither mermaid. Mickey collected walking sticks, and Jane presented her with a hand-carved, black walnut, bird head beauty on her fortieth birthday.
Friends of friends, acquaintances began calling her, describing the items that would make their lives complete, giving her a top price, and, often, offering her a commission. At first she refused to make a profit, but after picking up an unusual stork nursery planter, cold paint on the beak intact, at a rummage sale for twenty-five cents that she knew was listed in a McCoy price guide for ninety-five dollars, she allowed Miriam, her secretary's cousin, to give her twenty dollars for it. Miriam, who was a collector and dealer with a small shop in southern Ohio, now regularly supplied her with lists of her own and her customers' hearts' desires.
When Charley had moved out last spring, he'd cleared his books off the bedroom shelves and emptied his closet of blue workshirts and khaki pants. Sighing, he'd touched her cheek and told her now, at last, she would have room for the mechanical banks she had begun bringing home. "On that topshelf over there, don't you think," he'd said, taking out his handkerchief and wiping her eyes gently. "I'll just collect these rare tears, if you don't mind." He slipped the square back into his pocket, picked up his few cases, and left for South Dakota.
Two weeks later Jane's agency lost two large accounts and decided they should eliminate Jane and her entire department.
Jane could have protested that only one of the lost accounts had been hers and the client was notoriously fickle, moving his business around every few years to "keep things fresh," but she didn't have the heart. She regretted that her assistants, creative staff and secretary, were only given three days to clear out and was guiltily embarrassed that she, by virtue of title and time served, was paid more than a half year's salary, barely enough to make the mortgage on the sweet, stucco, four-bedroom with front and back porches and fruit trees in the yard, but more, she thought, than she deserved.
Nicky had planned to spend the summer with his dad at the dig, so Jane told Nicky that she hadn't been fired, she had been given an opportunity then proceeded to pack him up as quickly and efficiently as she had her office files and photos.
"I'm going to find a T. rex, Mom," Nicky had told her as he'd stuffed batteries into the pocket of his suitcase.
"Not if you don't look up from your Gameboy."
"Dad said I could bring it. They have radios and little TVs at the campsite. Dad said just not to count on going into town for batteries all the time."
"This'll be a good summer for you, Nicky. A real camp, not some wussy little storefront YMCA deal."
"Yeah, Dad says we'll pee outside all the time."
"Fabulous."
"And when I come home, I'll bring Dad and you guys don't have to get the divorce."
Jane stopped rolling socks and underwear and T-shirts and hugged her ten-year-old son.
"Just bring home the T. rex, honey."
 
 
"Look out, lady." Jane jumped back, but not far enough. The heavy piece of carved oak molding crashed down, grazing her left shoulder and knocking her back into several people on their knees actually prying up floorboards.
Several men, shirtless and sweating in the morning heat, looked up and swore, ready to say more until they saw that it was just a woman--five-three, bobbed brown hair tied back with a scarf, good-looking in her jeans and tank top, big eyes spilling over with tears from the pain in her shoulder. Nah, she wasn't worth a fight. But not so great looking that she was worth losing the boards for either.
Jane staggered away from them into the open and empty dining room, bare wires hanging from the ceiling where a chandelier had hung, wires protruding from walls where, she imagined, etched bronze sconces had been mounted.
"Hey, lady, I am so sorry. I didn't think that molding would give with just one pull. You okay?"
Jane rotated her left shoulder, dropped her wrist, then slowly raised her arm. Painful, a bad bruise, but no break. "I'm okay."
"Let me make it up to you, what'd you come for?"
Jane studied this eager clumsy stranger. He couldn't bea regular or he never would have left that piece of molding in the hallway.
"First you better collect your weapon."
"The boys'll get it. Those guys prying up the floor are my crew."
"What's so great about that floor?"
"It's the nails. There are some hand-forged roseheads in there. Some early cut nails, too. Way earlier than the house. The carpenter who laid the floor must have hoarded nails like crazy. Some of them aren't even nails that should go in a floor. Bitch to get out so Bill, the sale director, said I could have them for free as long as I bought enough other stuff and hauled away the floorboards. You look pretty pale. I'll get you a Coke from my truck." He turned, then turned back. "I'm Richard."
"Jane."
Jane's shoulder throbbed. She leaned against the wall, trying to get her bearings. Through the dining room doorway, she saw what must be a butler's pantry. It was the only spot that offered a counter where she might be able to have a seat, if she had the strength to boost herself up. No one seemed to be hammering or sawing in there. She walked slowly over, figuring it must already be gutted.
The glass doors of the pantry had been removed, which gave her more space for a seat on the counter. As soon as she drew her knees up to her chest on the counter, she spotted them. Lovely brass oval knobs with keyholes beneath. There were two miniatures on the small, built-in cabinet high above the now doorless china cupboard. Slowly she stretched herself out and turned and stood on the counter. She couldreach the knobs, but her leverage wasn't perfect. She pulled a small screwdriver out of her back pocket. They weren't going to budge. She'd have to take the doors off. She scooted sideways to check the hinges. Her heart racing with discovery, she momentarily forgot the throbbing in her shoulder. When she wedged herself into the corner, she rammed her left side directly into the china cupboard and recoiled like a broken spring. Her weight, now thrown too far back, she began teetering on the lip of the counter, a cartoon character on a cliff.
"Help!"
"Jane!" Richard ran in, braced her from the back while she steadied herself; then he lifted her down from the counter.
"How about that?" Jane said. "I yelled help and somebody came."
"Drink this." Richard called out to Louie, one of the floorboard crew, and asked him to take the cupboard doors off for the lady.
Jane drained the Coke. "First you try to kill me; then you save my neck."
"Yeah, all in a day's work. Thanks, Louie."
"Boss, there's a ..."
"Is that a box up there?" Jane asked.
Treasure. Jane loved nothing more than a mystery box, something everyone else had missed. No dealers here, except for the architectural artifacts guys like Richard. No grabby, bitchy women looking to pay a dime and charge a dollar at their own little flea market tables, no grizzled old prospectors bumping her out of line waiting for numbers at dawn at a northshore estate. It was just Jane and Richard and one heavy cardboard box that clinked when Louie set it down.
Louie looked from Richard to Jane and saw that she had the goofy, glazed look that the real junk junkies get when they are excited.
"You want me to take it out to the truck, boss?"
"Shouldn't we see what's inside?" Jane asked, trying to keep her hands from tearing at the cardboard.
"We bought this part of the house already, so we own it, right, boss? I'll take it out to Braver's truck."
Richard put his hand on the box and shook his head at Louie. "Let's guess what's inside," Richard said. "You go first."
"Okay, a signed Tiffany light fixture," said Jane.
"Waterford, decanter and cordial glasses, a forgotten wedding gift," said Richard.
Together they opened the flaps of the box.
"Shit, boss, it's just flowerpots," Louie said. "I'll put 'em in the truck for Doris."
"These are cool, though." Richard held one up to the light.
Jane laughed out loud. "Cool?" Six vintage flowerpots, one McCoy in a pale blue, diamond quilt pattern, the only pattern she didn't own. It was garage sale karma. What's lost is found. "Oh, yes, they are cool."
"So you take 'em. Bill isn't going to want them. Come on," Richard said, "we'll put them in a sturdier box for you."
"What about Doris?" Louie asked.
Richard shook his head. "What my stepmother doesn't know won't hurt her."
Jane let Richard carry her cupboard doors and her box of flowerpots to the table set up by the kitchen door.
"Ten dollars," Bill said, barely looking up, "for the whole thing."
Jane started to reach into her jeans pocket, but Richard grabbed her wrist hard.
"Bill, this is a box of flowerpots that somebody left behind, even the estate sale coven, and two cupboard doors that are off standard. She uses them to paint on."
"Five dollars."
"Better."
Jane mouthed thanks. Louie called out from the hall that there were some fancy hinges upstairs, but Rich was going to have to hurry up to claim them.
"Bill, look up. This woman almost got killed at this underinsured deathtrap. Get one of your goons to carry this stuff out for her."
A stringy teenager, bored and mean, trying desperately to look like the outlaw he desperately wanted to be, grabbed the box with one hand, the doors with the other and stared hard at Jane, daring her to tell him to be careful.
"Wait," Richard said, stopping him, "there's paper here to wrap these babies up and I'll get you a better box. This one's falling apart."
"No, it's fine," she said. She was pleased that he recognized the importance and care of these flowerpots but didn't want him to go to anymore trouble. Truth was, she wasn't used to the attention or the intensity of Richard's eyes as he watched her fumble with her wallet. She was getting flustered. She tossed her keys to the stringy scowler and before Richard could protest further, she told the teenager her car was a blue Suburban with a license plate SMB.
"Thanks, really, you've done enough. You've made my day," Jane said, thinking, Was that the stupidest thing I could say or what?
"Me, too. Here's my card. Call me. Tell me how your shoulder is." As an afterthought, he smiled.
Good teeth, she thought.
"Are you married?" he asked.
"Separated. You?"
"Confirmed bachelor."
It had been so long since she had talked to a single man as a single woman, she had no idea what she was supposed to say.
"I date though. You?"
"Oh yeah, sure," said Jane.
"Call me. Sue me," Richard said, patted her unhurt shoulder, and hurried off.
"Of course, I date. Why wouldn't I date?" she yelled after him.
 
 
"I don't date, Ma! You know I don't date!" she yelled into the phone.
"I still can't hear you, Jane. Your dad and the boys just got back from golfing and the bar's full. Can you call me about this later?" shouted her mother.
"You called me. I'm returning your call, Ma, so you call me back." Jane fished for her shoes under the bed, holding the receiver several inches from her ear.
"Yeah, well, it's something your dad really should talk to you about so he'll call you tonight. Unless you're going out with this junk collector."
"I'll be home."
Jane's mother's phone message:
Yeah, okay. This is Nellie. Your mother. Jane, call me. Callyour mother. It's Saturday. Morning. You're probably out buying junk. Christ. Call me later, Jane. It's Nellie. Your mother.
Jane had unpacked the car and propped the postcards up on the kitchen table. Whenever she brought home something new, something foreign to the collections of glass and metal flower frogs, McCoy vases, flowerpots, old textbooks, poetry chapbooks, Bakelite buttons, marbles, Pyrex mixing bowls, water pitchers, English ivorex tourist plaques, old manual typewriters, she set it out to see if it took.
The flowerpots had started in the kitchen but had moved to an old teacher's desk in the dining room, then a bedroom shelf, and now finally rested comfortably on a piecrust table nestled into the curve of the bay window in the living room. Clustered together, Jane thought of them as a family. At first, when she would place a new, pale green, basket-weave pot in among the others, they'd seemed reluctant to accept a new member. An unusual pattern, a different shape, a new color, the pot stuck out, didn't blend. A few days later, Jane would glance over and it seemed to her that the old familiar pots had circled round, taken in the stranger, championed its place in their natural order.
But what of the new six? They were beauties: pink, green, yellow, black, celery, and pale blue. Not a chip, not a crack. Jane placed them in a sinkful of soapy water and considered new locations. There wasn't a spot left on the family table.
While the pots soaked, Jane went upstairs to shower off the heat and dust of one estate sale, two garage sales, and the salvage sale where, for the first time since Charley had moved out, someone had asked her if she dated. "What a stupid concept," she said out loud as she stood under the steamywater. At her wedding fifteen years ago, her friend Tim had whispered in her ear, "Just think, Janie, now you have a date every night," and she had almost fainted.
Jane pulled on tan shorts and rummaged for a T-shirt in her nearly empty dresser. After Charley left, she had all the drawer space in the bedroom, but she couldn't bring herself to spread out, to occupy what she still thought of as Charley's territory. Her things were normally still crowded into the old dresser on her side of the bed, "her side" being another concept she hadn't been able to erase. Her drawers were almost empty now, she realized, because she hadn't done laundry in two weeks. Nicky wasn't here to keep her domestically honest. No soccer socks or baseball pants or basketball shorts to turn over quickly for the next day's practice, the next night's game. And it was only the end of July. If Charley's dig went as scheduled, he wouldn't be bringing Nick back for another month.
I'll be buried alive in my own filth by then, Jane thought, not entirely horrified. As much as she missed her son, she didn't mind being alone as much as she had feared, and she loved throwing towels on the floor, hanging her socks from the handlebars of Charley's exercise bike.
When she pulled on a white T-shirt, she was surprised at the pain in her shoulder. She had forgotten getting clobbered by the molding, but now as she explored her left shoulder and upper back with her right hand, she could feel the swelling; she could make herself wince with every poke into the spreading bruise. Richard has a way with women, she thought. He makes himself unforgettable.
She had told her mother about him without a second thought. Filler. Just something new to say. Her parents calledher almost every day now with one excuse or another. She knew they were thinking she could end up as some kind of statistic. Downsized, divorced, no, Ma, separated. Yeah right, what the hell's the difference? Nellie always asked. Nicky gone for the summer. They were patiently waiting for her to confess that she had become alcoholic, diet pill dependent, depressed, sedated, suicidal. She could hear the ring of disappointment in her mother's voice when she answered that everything was fine; and yes, she'd thought about selling her big house but not yet; and yes, summer was a good time to put things on the market; and yes, indeed, summer was almost gone; and no, she didn't think she'd come home this weekend, there was a rummage sale she had been looking forward to; and yes, she was still buying junk on the weekends; and no, not yet, she hadn't spent all her money yet. Now her mother would ask her every day about the "junk collector" who'd almost killed her until Jane could think of a new distraction.
Clean and cool, she grabbed a bottle of wine to bring to Sandy as thanks for loaning her the Suburban. Sandy hated the car. It had been her husband Jack's idea to get a Suburban assault vehicle. He wanted to show the neighbors how much money he was making now, that's all, claimed Sandy, and she loved loaning it to Jane. The more she got it out of her sight, out of the garage, the happier it made her.
"You can have Jack, too, for that matter." Sandy had smiled directly into Jane's eyes as she tossed her the keys last night. Jane didn't know whether this was a simple joke or a complicated one. Last March there had been a party, a neighborhood progressive dinner. Jane hated these forced occasions, but Charley had thought they seemed like snobs if they didn't go.
"Yeah, so?" Jane had asked.
"It's rude, it's mean, it's small ..." Charley had stopped.
"It's small town? Charley? It's small town, like me?" Jane was bent over, underbrushing her short hair, and she snapped her head up. Her lips were lightly lined in pink, but the rest of her face glowed with no makeup. She was wearing a simple black T-shirt dress. The neck was scooped low, showing off her beautiful collarbones, her fine neck. All Charley had wanted to do was take her small, perfect face in his hands and cradle her skull as carefully as he would the two-hundred-million-year-old bones of a baby duckbill.
"Jane, I didn't mean anything."
"Look, pal, every day I spend millions of my clients' dollars persuading people to drink this beer instead of that beer. It will make them smarter and cooler and happier and richer. It will make them laugh and look like twenty-one-year-old studs and studdesses. I may come from saloon keepers in Kankakee, and I just may be small town, but I know artificial attempts at friendship and happy camaraderie when I see them."
"You know I didn't--"
"Like a fucking neighborhood progressive fucking dinner is an uptown night at the fucking opera. Like this isn't small fucking town." Jane jabbed gold hoops recklessly through her earlobes.
Charley nodded at the doorway where Nicky stood, his Gameboy temporarily at his side.
"So you guys aren't going?"
"Oh yes, Nick, we're going. We are most definitely going to do the neighborly thing." Jane went over and hugged her son. "Sorry for the swearing, pal."
"You sounded just like Grandma Nellie."
At the party, Jane, still angry, was restless. She drank too many vodka tonics poured by too many heavy-handed husbands, who also knew that the only way this collection of lawyers and doctors and traders and professors and executives were going to get neighborly was to get drunk. When she went into Sandy's kitchen to refill a breadbasket--they were finally past cocktails and appetizers at the Graylords' house--Jack had been carving a second butterflied leg of lamb. She had leaned over him to inhale the smell of rosemary and garlic; and he had turned his head, kept his eyes wide open, and kissed her on the mouth. She had stayed perfectly still, her eyes locked on his, accepting the kiss without encouraging it. They both heard someone come into the kitchen and quickly leave; neither had looked up, neither had moved.
Jane still didn't know who had come in that night: Sandy, Charley, Nosey Noreen, Blond Barbara. But the rumor flew through the block. Jane felt it. It was a palpable breeze that blew through every open screen door that warm spring.
When she and Charley separated two months later, everyone assumed it was because of Jack. People spoke to her less and less. Fewer and fewer kids gathered on their driveway. Nick spent more and more time at friends' houses.
Sandy was the only neighbor who had never changed her behavior toward her. They weren't close; they weren't pals. All of Jane's best friends were still down home, back in Kankakee. Except for Charley and acquaintances from work, Jane didn't really talk to anyone. She and Sandy joked, they baked each other cookies in December, they traded plant cuttings. They hadn't quite gotten to friendship; but until thekiss, they could almost see it from where they were. Jane hadn't been uncomfortable about borrowing the truck; she needed it and Sandy didn't. But after the remark last night, Jane knew she wouldn't borrow it again.
She knocked on the side kitchen door and walked in, jingling the car keys and calling out. "Sandy, are you home?"
The air-conditioning was cranking. Jane began shivering. It was 60 degrees, tops. She heard the television on in the living room and walked through the kitchen and front hall. "Sandy? Jack? Are you home?"
She could see that the front door was ajar, and she thought one of them might be out in the front yard or on the porch getting the mail. She went over to the door, preparing a smart-ass comment about how they were letting the air-conditioning escape, that it was an oven in there. She opened the door and looked out, but no one was there. The mail was still in the box; the Chicago Tribune was on the step. Jane stepped out and fetched both, stepped in, and closed the door.
"Sandy, what are you doing? Yoga?"
Sandy's feet were on the couch, but the rest of her body was out of sight, presumably on the floor, probably, Jane figured, in deep meditation, since she still hadn't answered.
Her bare feet were pale, almost blue from the cold, Jane thought, until she got closer. Sandy's body was on the floor, her arms stretched out at her side, her torso straight. Her eyes were closed. Her mouth was pursed in a circle; quite possibly her lips were forming Ohm, a mantra Jane could hear and recognize if Sandy had been able to chant, if she had been able to talk, if her throat hadn't been cut, slashed so deeply that her vocal cords recoiled like rubber bands.
Jane went back to the front door and opened it. She was surprised when neighbors began running toward the door, pushing past her, slamming her into the doorway until she slid down the wall and sat on the floor, still.
How did they know, she wondered, unaware that she had been standing, staring straight ahead out the door screaming steadily for five minutes before Barbara Graylord had finally looked up from her roses.
Copyright © 2001 by Sharon Fiffer. Excerpt from Dead Guy's Stuff © 2002 by Sharon Fiffer.