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I glanced at the Mickey Mouse clock on Gretchen's desk. It was nine thirty in the morning, a half hour after Prescott's: Antiques and Auctions' regular start time, and my assistant wasn't there. Gretchen, who was supposed to be back to work yesterday after a two-week Hawaiian vacation, and who, in four years, had never once been tardy, hadn't shown up or even called. I was worried sick.
I thought again of the man, the stranger, who'd been trying to reach her. He'd called frequently while she was out of town, wouldn't leave a message, and had seemed increasingly frustrated that we wouldn't reveal details of her schedule. It was company policy that we never gave out specific information about anyone on staff, but he took it as a personal affront.
"Has anyone spoken to that guy lately?" I asked. "You know, the one calling for Gretchen?"
"I did. Tuesday," Fred said, pushing up his square, black- framed glasses. Fred was an antiques appraiser who'd joined my firm a couple of years back, moving from New York City to New Hampshire. He was a terrific find—he had a keen eye and an educated sensibility.
"How did he sound?" I asked.
"Pissed off. He got sarcastic when I told him she wasn't available and offered to take a message. He asked if we kept her chained in the back."
"Wow. That's pretty intense."
Yesterday, I'd managed to contain my anxiety enough to limit myself to one cheerfully worded, "Welcome home, are you okay?"
voice mail message. Today, I needed to do something else, something more, but I didn't know what, and then I thought of Gretchen's friend Mandy Tollerson.
I'd first met Mandy about four months ago when Gretchen had solicited my help on her behalf. According to Gretchen, Mandy's boyfriend, Vince Collins, was a complete creep, and she was encouraging Mandy to break away. When Mandy had confided to Gretchen that she dreamed of starting her own business, an art gallery, Gretchen had brought her to me, hoping that I'd fire her up to act, and that somehow being independent in business would make her independent in her romantic relationship, too. Since then, Mandy had stopped by every few weeks with some business questions. Last week, she'd asked about tracking sales and expenses, and I'd taught her how to calculate break- even.
I dialed her home phone number. A machine picked up after four rings. "Hi, Mandy. It's Josie. Josie Prescott. Would you give me a call, please?" I asked, adding my phone number. It was too early to call her at her job—she was an assistant manager at the Bow Street Emporium, a high- end gift shop in Portsmouth—and I didn't have her cell phone number. A dead end.
I turned to Sasha, my chief appraiser. "If you wanted to call someone who knows Gretchen, to see if they've heard from her, who would it be?"
She tilted her head as she considered my question, her intelligence apparent in her thoughtful expression. Her fine, shoulder-length brown hair hung straight to her shoulders. "She mentioned that a friend was watering her plants while she was gone, but I don't know who."
I asked the same question of Fred and Eric, my back room supervisor, and got the same answer. I wasn't surprised. None of us knew much about Gretchen. From the day she'd showed up on my doorstep, promising to work hard and help my business grow, until the day she'd left for vacation, she'd shared almost nothing about herself. Not long after she started, Sasha had asked her if she was traveling over the holidays to visit family, and she'd given a vague, peppy response. "Home is where the heart is," she'd said.
I didn't even know if Gretchen had family. She was inexorably cheerful, physically beautiful, and quick to learn and adapt. She loved celebrity gossip, but about herself she was relentlessly private. I had no idea where she came from or what she did in her free time.
Trying to figure out what to do, I unlocked the file cabinet where I stored employee personnel files. On Gretchen's, the line for an emergency contact was blank. I'd never noticed that before. I located her condo contact information and called the property manager. Meryl, an associate in the office, listened to my explanation, then put me on hold while she asked for and received permission from her boss to allow me to enter Gretchen's unit. She agreed to meet me there right away with the key.
I told Sasha where I was going.
"Please call as soon as you know something," she requested.
I said I would, and as I spoke, I saw my apprehension reflected in her eyes. We shared the unspoken fear that something was very, very wrong.
I beat Meryl to the Pond View condo complex, where Gretchen owned unit eight, and while I waited for her to arrive, I knocked on Gretchen's door. Nothing. From my perch on the second- floor balcony, I noticed three cars in the lot, not counting mine, and Gretchen's wasn't one of them. An old Chevy with Tennessee plates was parked closest to Gretchen's front door. A Ford SUV and a Toyota sat on the other side of the lot.
A steady stream of traffic noise rose from the street. I heard a complaining caw, caw from the pond barely visible through a passageway between two buildings. A red minivan turned into the parking lot, parking near the Chevy.
A stocky woman of about forty stepped out of the van. She brushed unruly auburn hair out of her eyes as she scanned the area.
"Meryl?" I called.
"Josie?" she asked, squinting into the sun.
She saw me waving. "Have you knocked?" she asked when she joined me. "Yeah. A couple of times." "Just in case," she said. She banged the clapper, stared at the
ground for a count of fifteen, then clapped again. After another ten
seconds' wait, she looked up. I met her anxious gaze and shrugged. "Let's do it," I said. Meryl opened the door and shouted Gretchen's name before
crossing the threshold. There was no reply. We walked inside. The apartment felt very still. Something smelled bad, like rotten eggs, except worse. I heard a hum—a low- pitched, soft, machine sound. The refrigerator, I thought, glancing into the empty kitchen. Shoulder to shoulder, Meryl and I edged down a short carpeted hall. Meryl stepped into the living area, stopped short, and screamed.
At the sound, my heart began to race, and my mouth went arid. She turned to me, her eyes wide open, shocked, and then she crossed herself.
My stomach leapt into my throat, then plummeted. I stepped around her to gain a better view. Sprawled on the sofa was a man— dead—shot.
Excerpted from Killer Keepsakes by Jane K. Cleland.
Copyright © 2009 by Jane K. Cleland.
Published by St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.