Book excerpt

Lethal Treasure

A Josie Prescott Antiques Mystery

Josie Prescott Antiques Mysteries

Jane K. Cleland

St. Martin's Press

CHAPTER ONE
 
 
“Suzanne Dyre—she’s the new manager of the Blue Dolphin,” Leigh Ann Dubois said. “Do you know her, Josie? She hired us to help her redo her condo.”
“I don’t know the name, but if she’s bringing the Blue Dolphin back to life, she’s got to be good people!”
“She’s new to town and just as sweet as sweet potato pie. If only she’d consider other color options … she’s decided to do her living room in mauve and teal. Can you imagine? Those colors went out of style when I was in nursery school. Well, first grade, anyway.”
“I think you’re looking at it backwards, Leigh Ann. It’s good news that she’s so clear on what she wants. The more specific she is, the greater the chance she’ll be happy with the finished product. Which means she’ll tell all her friends what good interior designers you and Henri are.”
“You’re so practical. I admire that. And I think you’re right, now that I reflect on it. Mama always said, ‘Once you stop trying to get people to change, life gets easier.’ You’d think I’d have learned it by now. Suzanne collects thimbles, by the way. I wonder if she’s been to your tag sale.”
“We sure carry a lot of them.” I smiled, not the least bit shy when it came to touting my business, Prescott’s Antiques and Auctions. “Just in case she doesn’t know about us, will you suggest she stop by? Maybe give her one of my cards?”
“Absolutely! I should have thought of it myself.” She fluffed her short blond hair. “I’m so excited about tonight.”
The Dubois were new friends. They’d opened Dubois Interior Designs about six months earlier, right after they’d moved from New York City to tiny Rocky Point, New Hampshire. We’d met when they stopped by my company to introduce themselves, and we’d hit it off right away. Leigh Ann, a bubbly Southern belle, always had a kind word to say and usually had me laughing at her fun, unique take on the world. I liked her husband, Henri, too. A recent immigrant from France, he was a charmer and a hard worker. Over the months, my boyfriend, Ty, and I had hung out with them half a dozen times, and the four of us were well on our way to becoming true friends.
Their shop fronted Rocky Point Green, with a clear view of meandering paths and flowering bushes and the gazebo where bands played familiar tunes on hot summer nights. Today, everything in sight was buried in snow. This February we’d shattered records for both snow accumulation and cold.
Ty and I had asked them to join us in celebrating the reopening of my favorite restaurant, the Blue Dolphin, a change in plans from our original invitation to come to my place for a kitchen clambake. After reading the unqualified praise for the restaurant in this morning’s Rocky Point Foodies blog, I asked if they’d mind a rain check on the clambake. The blogger, a retired chef named Mac who seemed to know all the local food-related gossip, usually before everyone else, wrote that the former executive chef, Chef Ray, had returned to his previous job, along with several other employees. It was like hearing you could go home again after all. I’d come in early, just to visit a while with Leigh Ann. We sat on either side of her ultramodern glass and steel desk.
“I’m more than excited about tonight,” I said, sipping Earl Grey tea from a glass mug. “I’m completely thrilled! I sure hope Mac’s blog is right, and that the restaurant is the same as before.”
“You can give that hope a bye-bye wave as it disappears from sight,” she said, her tone unexpectedly bitter. “Nothing stays the same, no matter how hard you pray.”
I wondered what in her life had changed for the worse, but I didn’t want to ask. We weren’t that sort of friends, not yet. I waited for a few seconds, offering her the opportunity to volunteer more information, but she didn’t. She was staring out the window, a million miles away, remembering something perhaps, or dreaming or planning. I followed her gaze. All the bushes and trees were capped with snow. The streets had been plowed, but a packed white coating covered the asphalt. The sky was overcast. No one was in sight. Leigh Ann is right, I thought. Change is the constant, not stability. I turned back to face her and found that she was looking at me, smiling.
“Sorry,” she said. “Mama always said I could turn a sunny day to rain when I got thinking too hard. I’m betting the food at the Blue Dolphin will be even tastier than you remember. Since we did the redecoration, I know the atmosphere is more elegant than ever.”
“I can’t wait to see what you’ve done,” I said, then paused to come up with a less emotionally loaded subject than change and rejuvenation. “So … are you thinking florals for Suzanne’s living room?”
“I’m not thinking yet,” she said. “I’m still in the cranky phase.”
I laughed. “How long does the cranky phase typically last?”
“It depends. Once, when a client wanted fire-engine red zebra stripes on top of neon pink walls, I was cranky for a week. Mauve and teal … my guess is I’ll be fine in a day or two. Actually, I’ll be fine by tomorrow. I have an old friend coming in for the weekend, and I’m looking forward to seeing him, so I won’t let mauve and teal spoil my mood.”
The antique sleigh bells Leigh Ann had purchased at one of my company’s antiques auctions and hung on their shop door tinkled merrily. I looked up in time to see Henri push his way in, bringing a blast of frigid air with him. He had a small opaque plastic tub tucked under his arm. I cupped the mug to warm my fingers.
“Josie,” he said, smiling. His English was fluent, but his accent was strong, and when he spoke my name, it came out as “Zhozee,” as if the J were pronounced like the g in mirage. As he hung his heavy parka on a standing rack by the front door, he glanced toward Leigh Ann. “Ma cherie.”
“Hello, darlin’!” Leigh Ann said. “What’s in the tub?”
Henri slid it onto a black-granite-topped table positioned against one wall and said, “Hearts … perfect, non? One week before Valentine’s Day? I found them at the back of the storage unit.”
“Oooh!” she said, hurrying across the showroom. “Show me!”
I heard my phone buzz and dug into my tote bag to find it. Ty texted that he was running a little late. He’d be here in half an hour and couldn’t wait to see me. I replied with “xo” and tossed the unit back in my bag.
“That’s so pretty!” Leigh Ann said, holding up a bulbous ceramic heart, glazed a deep bloodred. At its widest point, it was about three inches across. A small gold metal eye was embedded at the top, so it could be hung as a Christmas decoration or wall art.
I joined them at the table, wishing I’d found a box of hearts in the storage unit I’d won earlier that day. Not that I had any complaints. After I’d won the bidding—I’d paid $150, a reasonable amount based on what I could see, which was nothing much—I’d rushed to open the unlabeled cardboard boxes and was thrilled to discover a dozen unsigned but distinctive brass bookends, each one featuring a different forest animal; an orange carnival glass punch bowl set in excellent condition; half a dozen serviceable cast-iron pots and pans; and a collection of Agatha Christie hardback novels, no first editions, but several early printings. Taken together, I calculated that everything would fetch more than $750 at my company’s weekly tag sale, a great return on investment.
Usually my take was less lucrative. Buying abandoned storage units sold at auction wasn’t exactly a blind gamble; it was more of an educated gamble. Based on the visible contents, you took your best guess and went at it. No surprise, it didn’t always pan out. Sometimes, despite neat stacks of clean cardboard boxes, a solid indicator of potential value, I found inexplicable valueless oddities, like half-used bars of soap or rolls of old twine. Other times, amid what appeared to be piles of trash, I’d come across a valuable antique. Usually, though, the units I bought were filled with salable utilitarian pieces and collectibles, and over time, the lockers had become a consistent source of inventory for the tag sale, which, since I’d doubled the size of the venue last fall, and sales were brisk, was seriously good news. The truth was that buying antiques and collectibles was a constant battle because it’s harder by far to buy than it is to sell.
Two or three times a week, I found myself at an auction somewhere in New Hampshire, Massachusetts, or Maine, often bidding against Henri. Our competition was friendly, more cooperative than antagonistic. In fact, we’d begun to work together more closely than either of us could have predicted. Since their firm specialized in contemporary design, Henri often called on my company to appraise objects that didn’t fit their point of view but might have resale value, and generally he and Leigh Ann were as eager to sell or consign them as I was to acquire them.
Henri extracted another ceramic heart from a bubble-wrap sleeve and placed it on his palm for us to view. This one featured white glaze, decorated with lemon yellow polka dots, very jazzy.
“There are twenty of them, all different,” Henri said.
“They’re lovely,” I said, meaning it.
“Are they antiques?” Leigh Ann asked.
I leaned in to read the small print. “Probably not,” I said, pointing at the writing. “Do you see here? ‘Made in West Germany.’ West Germany was formed when? Nineteen forty-nine, wasn’t it?”
“Oui,” Henri said, nodding. “I see. East and West Germany reunited in 1990, so that means the hearts, they were crafted between those two dates. You are very clever, Josie, to notice this thing.”
“Thanks. It’s what I do, actually—I notice things.”
“When did labeling laws come to pass?” Leigh Ann asked. “Maybe we can narrow the span some.”
“Good thought,” I said, “but no. Companies have had to publish the country of origin since 1890.”
“So these hearts don’t qualify as antiques, right?” she asked.
“My company’s policy is that we don’t call anything an antique unless it’s a hundred years old.” I shrugged and smiled. “To get a better date estimate, you’d need to conduct a materials analysis that probably isn’t worth it.”
“Maybe the artist is famous,” Henri said.
“Why don’t we check for a signature. Do you have a loupe handy?”
Leigh Ann said she’d get one and slid open a panel in her credenza in back of her desk. She selected a loupe from a wicker catchall box near her all-in-one scanner/printer/fax. In addition to the loupe, I noticed a few screwdrivers, several wrenches from socket to tension and from pipe to lug, a hammer, and four kinds of glue, from wood to ceramic and from Gorilla to spray mount, tools of the trade.
I examined the heart millimeter by millimeter, searching for a maker’s mark, then turned it over, repeating the process. There was no name or mark. I repeated the process with another of the hearts.
“Nothing,” I said, handing Henri the loupe so he could check for himself. They might not be one-of-a-kind rare trinkets, but it was for sure the right piece at the right time. Priced right, somewhere around twenty dollars, I thought, they would sell in a flash.
He took a cursory look. “I understand … they’re jolie … pretty … but not valuable. Would you like to buy them?”
“I’d love to.”
“What do you think is a fair price?”
My dad taught me that if you start the negotiation, you lose. Let the other guy be the first to name his price.
“You tell me,” I said. “What do you think is fair?”
He named a price I thought was too high, and I countered with a lower offer, explaining my logic—that what with overhead and marketing and appraising costs, Prescott’s never paid more than 30 percent of our estimated sales price for anything. We fussed back and forth, and after a while, Leigh Ann drifted back to her desk and started tapping away on her computer. A minute or two later, Henri and I settled on a price I hoped he thought was as reasonable as I did, $120. We unwrapped all the hearts so I could be certain none was chipped or cracked, then repacked them carefully and shook on the deal.
“Did you show Josie the Merian?” Henri asked Leigh Ann as he handed me the tub.
Leigh Ann was staring out the window again, just as she had earlier, unseeing, absorbed, glum. Leigh Ann wasn’t putting on any airs that I could see. From where I stood, it seemed evident that all was not well in Leigh Ann’s world.
“No,” I said, to spare him having to repeat his question, to spare her having her wandering mind recalled in public. “What edition?”
“Come,” Henri said, “I’ll show you.”
“What a terrific find,” I said, sliding the tub near my tote bag under Leigh Ann’s desk and following him into the back, feeling another ding of envy. “Merian prints are always popular.”
He smiled, and I recognized his expression—he thought he’d hit pay dirt.


 
Copyright © 2013 by Jane K. Cleland
JANE K. CLELAND once owned a New Hampshire-based antiques and rare books business and now lives in New York City. An Anthony Award and two-time Agatha Award finalist, she is a board member of the New York chapter of the Mystery Writers of America and chair of the Wolfe Pack’s literary awards.