"Josie? Josie!" Gretchen, my assistant, shouted from the front office, her voice echoing across the cavernous warehouse. "Josie? Where are you? Rosalie and Paige are here."
"I'm in the Barkley corner. Send them over!"
Her high heels click-clacked on the concrete floor, then stopped. I could picture her pointing to the far back corner where the furniture we'd just purchased from Isaac Barkley's estate was situated.
I was squatting to examine the inside of a tallboy drawer, checking for extra holes that might indicate that the pulls had been changed. Isaac Barkley had some spectacular objects, but I'd identified two reproduction pieces as well.
"Josie?" Rosalie's sweet voice rang out a minute later.
"Here! Behind the tallboy."
"You are not!" she said, a bubble of laughter in her voice. "I'm looking at the tallboy as I speak."
I poked my head out and saw her. Her back was to me, facing a highboy.
She wore a dark-blue down parka over jeans. She was slender and pretty, the kind of pretty that derives as much a vivacious personality as from facial features. Her kid sister, Paige, looked just like her, except that Paige's hair was a lighter shade of blond, almost platinum. Rosalie and I were about the same age, early thirties, and Paige was twelve.
"That's not a tallboy. That's a highboy!" I said, standing, brushing the grit from my palms onto my jeans as I walked toward her.
Rosalie turned to face me and rolled her eyes. "Oh, please. Tallboy, highboy. They're men and they're big. What's the difference?"
I laughed and shook my head. "Highboys are older, dating from the mid-seventieth century. They're chests-on-stands. Tallboys weren't introduced ‘til the turn of the eighteenth century and are chests-on-drawers."
Rosalie nudged Paige playfully. "Learn something new every day, right, Paige?"
"It's interesting," Paige said.
"See," I said to Rosalie, nodding in Paige's direction. "A smart girl." To Paige, I asked, "How's your vacation going?"
"Great! We went skating this morning."
"Paige went skating," Rosalie quipped, making a funny face. "I went falling!"
Paige giggled. "She's really bad."
"Watch it, cutie!" Rosalie said, trying not to laugh. "Paige is the athlete, that's for sure, not me." She waved it away. "Never mind all that. Josie, we're here to kidnap you! I'm dropping Paige off at her ballet lesson and you and I are going to lunch."
"Cool," I said, enjoying their banter. "What's the occasion?"
"No occasion, just a random crime."
"Excellent. I'll all grubby from crawling around the furniture. Go and chat with Gretchen while I clean up, okay?"
"We're always glad to chat with Gretchen."
Ten minutes later, as I entered the front office, Gretchen said, "I know, I know. You're right. I guess it just wasn't meant to be. But I think it's really too bad."
"What wasn't meant to be?" I asked.
"Marcus Wetherby is divorcing Angelina for the second time," Gretchen explained.
"Who are they?"
"Don't you know anything, Josie?" Rosalie teased, laughing. "Marcus is the hero on the soap opera Follow Your Heart. He's a pilot with a girl in every port. Angelina, his first and his third wife, just caught him with Melina in Madrid."
"Not only did I not know that, but I didn't know that you watched soap operas."
"I don't. I'd never heard of it either until Gretchen filled me in just now!"
I laughed. There was no gossip too mundane to interest Gretchen and she was glad for a chitchat about the latest happenings.
Sasha, my chief appraiser, sat at her corner desk, engrossed in a catalogue describing important nineteenth-century Eskimo artifacts. Fred, my other appraiser, wasn't around.
"Did Fred leave for the McIver job already?" I asked Gretchen.
"Yes. He said that since he was going to be in Exeter for that appraisal, he thought he'd stop at the university library."
"Oh, yeah?" I asked. "Why?"
"Let me find the note." She rustled through a pile of papers. "Here it is—he's checking that print you found against a book by Dame Juliana Berners called A Treatyse of Fysshynge wyth an Angle," she read, stumbling over the fifteenth-century spelling.
"Right," I said. "That's good."
Tucked into a box of art prints I'd purchased as a lot was a slightly foxed woodcut that looked as if it might be a rare angling print, and I'd assigned Fred, an expert art historian and my newest appraiser, the job of authenticating it. He was at the university library to compare our print to their original. My fingers were crossed, but I wasn't optimistic that he'd be able to prove that we had a page from one of only a few extant copies of Dame Juliana Berners' 1496 book, one of the rarest publications on earth.
"We're off to lunch. Do you need anything from me before we go?"
"Nope," she said cheerfully. "I'm all set. Have a good time!"
I shrugged into my heavy wool coat. Gretchen's wind chimes jangled as I pushed open the front door. It was a bright, sunny day and whip-cold, typical for January in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
"What a doll Gretchen is!" Rosalie said as we crunched across patches of snow to our cars.
"Complete and utter. I have no idea what I'd do without her. Where am I being kidnapped to?"
"Murray's, if that's okay. It's close to Paige's ballet school."
At lunch, we sat and talked with the ease and comfort of kindred spirits. I'd known Rosalie for more than a year which qualified her as one of my oldest friends in Portsmouth. We'd met at an installation I was overseeing at Heyer's Modular Furniture.
Rosalie was a Ph.D. candidate ghostwriting a biography for Gerry Fine, the newly appointed CEO of Heyer's. I was installing a boat-load of antiques for him, and we'd run into one another at his office—literally.
Rosalie had been backing out of the little cubbyhole that served as her office during the rare occasions she was on site. Absorbed in reading her notes, her mind was a million miles away, she was backing out, ready to leave. I'd just installed a bracket that was, according to my level, properly mounted, but according to my eye, wasn't. I was backing up to get a wider-lens view of it. Bottom-to-bottom, we collided.
"Oh, my God!" I exclaimed, startled.
"That's a heck of a way to meet someone," Rosalie said, laughing a little.
"Well, we obviously have a lot in common—we both walk backwards."
"And we both concentrate so hard we don't even notice our surroundings."
"I'm sorry," I said.
"Don't apologize. It makes us sisters under the skin." She extended a hand. "I'm Rosalie Chaffee."
Her radiant smile and laughing eyes drew an answering smile from me. We shook, completed our introductions, and chatted in a friendly way.
On the face of it, Rosalie and I didn't have a lot in common. Rosalie seemed to genuinely admire Gerry, the top executive of Heyer's, whereas I thought he was a pompous ass. She was in New Hampshire temporarily while finishing her education. I was a business woman who'd started a new life in Portsmouth and was eager to put down roots. She was raising her sister on her own after their parents died in a car crash years earlier. I lived alone, and had no family. She was boy crazy. I was in a solid, monogamous relationship.
But we had many common interests. We shared a love of murder mysteries, cooking, guavatinis, and good natured debates about politics, love, men, business, and books. Rosalie was whip-smart and open-minded and loads of fun to be around. We never ran out of things to talk about or tired of one another's company.
* * *
When I arrived at Heyer Modular Furniture the next morning, I took the hammer, mounting filament, and level out of my toolbox. I was in a hurry to hang a painting, a small Joseph Henry Sharp oil called Crows in Montana, and get back to my office.
Before my staff began the laborious process of sorting, cleaning, and polishing every inch of every item, I personally examined everything. My warehouse guys would do the hands-on primping and my appraisers would do the authentication and write up the catalogue copy, but it was my responsibility as the owner of Prescott's Antiques: Auctions and Appraisals to determine whether the contents merited a stand-alone auction or whether we'd generate more buzz and realize greater profits if we combined these objects with others. After years trying to develop a decision-making model, I'd given up. As far as I could tell, successful merchandizing was half art and half timing.
Tricia Dobson, Gerry's older, pleasant-faced assistant, looked up from her typing and smiled. "Hi, Josie."
"Hey, Tricia. You look awfully happy for this early on a Thursday morning."
"We're two weeks away from Florida."
"Oh, that's right. Where are you going?"
Holding a plastic container filled with various sized picture hooks, nails and screws, wire, and a screwdriver in one hand, I lifted the painting, gauging whether I could carry it, along with all the paraphernalia to install it properly, to the CFO's office where it was to hang, or whether it would be more prudent to wheel it on a hand truck. It was only three by six inches, and light, but I didn't want to risk dropping it.
"Josie, do I hear your voice? Are you there? Tricia!" Gerry boomed from his inner office, startling me. The plastic container fell and the clasp sprung open, spilling hardware on the carpet.
"One sec!" I called, squatting to pick everything up.
Tricia calmly started toward his office, dictation pad in hand.
"Hurry!" Gerry called.
I left the scattered nails and screws where they'd fallen, slid the painting between the wall and Tricia's credenza, and stepped to the doorway that connected her anteroom to Gerry's office.
"Yes?" I asked from the threshold.
"It's Rosalie… I mean… they just called and told me," Gerry stammered, looking from Tricia to me and back again.
I'd never seen Gerry flustered. On the contrary, typically, he was smooth, confident, and in control. Now, though, his anxiety was palpable and contagious. I glanced at Tricia. She was staring at him, then turned to look at me.
"Who called to tell you what?" I asked, my worry meter whirring onto high.
"The police. She's dead."
"What?" I asked stupidly, gaping.
He jerked his thumb toward the phone. "That was the Rocky Point police. They want me to come down and identify the body."
"You," I asked, confused. "Why you?"
"They can't find any next of kin and since it's still Christmas break, no one's around at Hitchens. I guess they found her Heyer's key card and called HR. Since she worked for me privately, not for the company, HR called me."
I looked at Tricia for answers or support. She was gripping the notebook so hard her knuckles were white. Still, she didn't speak.
"Rosalie's dead?" I repeated.
Gerry's tone shifted from hapless confusion to sarcastic irritation. "That's what they said."
My heart began to race. How could Rosalie, my friend, be dead? "How did she die?"
"I don't know. All they said was that she washed up on the beach."
"Oh, my God! That's horrible!" I crossed my arms, covering my chest, an instinctive, protective gesture.
"Drowned? Rosalie drowned?" Tricia whispered. "She was so young."
Paige, I thought. Where's Paige?
"Yeah. So, Edie has the limo and I didn't bring her car. Tricia needs to stay here and hold down the fort. Will you take me?" Gerry asked me.
Gerry had negotiated a car and driver as part of his compensation package and if he had no outside appointments scheduled, his wife, Edie, got to shop in style. Sometimes, when she'd commandeered his company car, he tooled around in her BMW, but evidently, today wasn't one of those days.
I was hot and cold at the same time. Chills ran up my arms and down my spine, yet my palms were clammy and I was having trouble breathing. "Sure," I agreed. "Now?"
"Yeah," he said, standing up, grabbing the suit jacket he'd draped over his leather chair. "Let's go."
Gerry was tall, with almost-blond curly hair that he wore too long, and a deep suntan, thanks to the Portsmouth Suntan Salon. In the year plus since I'd begun helping him and his wife, Edie, decorate his office suite with antiques they'd purchased from my company, he'd left during working hours several times to go to the tanning salon, whispering his plans to me with a wink, as if he and I were buddies or co-conspirators. At first I thought he was flirting with me, but then I realized that he was just vain and bragging.
The sun was blinding, reflecting off the bright white snow that dotted the landscape. The ground was winter brown, and the ocean was blue-black, glittering with sun-sparked diamonds.
As I drove up Ocean Avenue, I pressed the pre-programmed button on my cell phone and heard the Chaffee's home number ring and ring, until finally a machine picked up. My throat caught listening to Rosalie's bubbly message. I glanced at Gerry. He stared out of the window toward the ocean.
After the beep, I said, "Hi, Paige. It's Josie. Josie Prescott. If I can do anything, anything at all, call me." I added my number and hung up.
"Paige is Rosalie's sister," I explained to Gerry. "She's only twelve."
He nodded, but didn't reply. In fact, he was quiet the whole way and I was relieved. It gave me time to think, to try and assimilate the shocking information—Rosalie was dead. Yesterday, at lunch, Rosalie was full of weekend plans and lively conversation. How could she be dead?
* * *
While I waited for Gerry to finish his grisly duty, I slipped a George Benson CD into the player and watched the ocean. Small swells rolled in toward shore. Listening to George Benson's rendition of "On Broadway," a song that just tore me up it was so beautiful and mournful all at once, I wished I could forget all the memories connected to Rosalie.
Twenty minutes later, Gerry returned to the car with a police officer I recognized called Griff walking beside him. Officer Griffin, coal-black, in his sixties, gestured that I should open my window. He leaned in to ask me to follow him to the Rocky Point police station.
"Sure," I agreed.
We left the small hospital where Rosalie's body had been brought from the beach and turned south on Ocean Ave. Rocky Point, about a fifteen minute drive from Portsmouth, included three miles of New Hampshire's eighteen-mile coastline. As we drove, my eyes kept drifting to the dunes, and I wondered if Rosalie's body had been found among the tangled brambles near the street or by the thick wash of seaweed closer to shore. It was just awful to think about, and I couldn't stop.
I waited for Gerry to speak, but he didn't. "Was it her?"
"Yes," he answered, sounding stupefied.
I took a deep breath to suppress some unexpected tears. "How did she die?" I asked quietly.
"Badly." He gazed out of the window at the gold-specked ocean, and after a moment, added, "I guess she drowned. Her face was puffy."
I was sorry I asked.
Still following Griff, I pulled into the Rocky Point Police Station lot and parked. The station house was designed to match the prevailing style in the affluent New Hampshire seacoast town. It looked more like a cottage than a police station with shingles weathered to a soft dove gray and the trim painted Colonial blue.
"Are you okay?" I asked him.
I nodded, speculating that his dismissive tone reflected a combination of wishful thinking and denial, murmured something empathetic, and watched as he stepped out of the car.
Officer Griffin approached and told me, "You, too. If you don't mind."
"Me?" I asked, surprised.
"You knew her, right? Rosalie Chaffee?"
Griff nodded. "Come on, then."
Tendrils of anxiety rippled up my back, then down again. I knew nothing about Rosalie's death, but I knew things that I didn't want to talk about including secrets she'd shared in private conversations. My experiences with the police didn't inspire optimism. Interviews were routinely more intrusive than expected and invariably led to an unwarranted veneer of suspicion.
Feeling powerless and fussy, like a child being sent to the principal's office for an infraction she didn't commit, I followed the two men inside.