Consigned to Death
A Josie Prescott Antiques Mystery
by Jane K. Cleland
"Eric!" I shouted from under the table.
"Yo!" he answered cheerfully, close by.
"Didn’t I tell you to use linseed oil on this one?"
I pushed myself out from under and stood up, brushing the grit from my hands onto my jeans. "Not on the back of the legs, you didn’t."
"I thought I did," he said, beginning to hedge.
I’d been working hard and I was tired. Fighting an inclination to snap, I reminded myself that Eric was only nineteen, basically untrained but willing to learn, reliable, mostly honest, and pleasant to be around—overall, a much better-than-average employee. I smiled a little, hoping to blunt the force of my next comments.
"I just looked at it, Eric. You missed the backside of all four legs. Everyone considering bidding on this table will know its quality. And if they’re willing and able to pay the price I expect it to fetch, they will damn sure get down on their hands and knees and examine it closely."
He began to look embarrassed. The Mission-style table dated from the early twentieth century and featured select quarter-sawn oak finished in a warm brown. When properly oiled, the finish became lush and supple. It was a beautiful piece.
"The problem with poor-quality work," I continued, "is that it creates a negative image for the firm, implying that we’re lazy or sloppy. People may even think we’re sleazy. For instance, potential buyers might figure that we slapped some oil on the table as a quick fix, to disguise its previous ill-treatment. Does that make sense?"
"Yeah," he said, grinning sheepishly. "Sorry. I was in a hurry."
"Don’t be. I pay you by the hour—you don’t need to be in a hurry with a job like this."
I nodded and smiled again, sincerely this time. "Don’t get me wrong. Being in a hurry is a good thing most of the time—you know me, I hate slow."
"Don’t I know it," he responded, grinning back.
"Josie!" Gretchen called, her voice echoing in the cavernous warehouse. "Josie? Where are you?"
"Here, in the Wilson corner!" I answered, projecting my voice, referring to a roped off area near the back where the Wilson estate’s goods were being catalogued and readied for Friday’s auction preview.
"There’s a police officer to see you."
"What?" I called back to her, startled.
"A police chief," she answered, as if that helped to clarify the situation.
Leaving Eric at the table, I walked quickly toward the front, my unpolished engineer boots click-clacking on the concrete. I spotted a tall, broad-shouldered man, somewhere near forty, with dark, pock-marked skin and graying hair, waiting by the door that led from the warehouse to the entryway. He wasn’t smiling. My heart began to thud. The last time a cop had asked to see me, it had damn near ruined my life.
Gretchen, my assistant, stood beside him, her copper-colored hair falling in cascades below her shoulders. Her green eyes were big with news, and her flawless ivory skin showed a slight flush.
"Hi," I said to the man as I approached. "I’m Josie Prescott."
"I’m Chief Alverez. Is there somewhere we can talk?"
"Sure," I answered, my internal trouble-spotter whirring into high alert. "What’s going on?"
"I’m the chief of Rocky Point," he told me, flipping open a worn leather case, showing me his badge. Rocky Point, a city of about a hundred thousand, included almost three miles of New Hampshire’s eighteen-mile coastline about ten miles south of Portsmouth.
"Chief of police?" I queried. "What’s up?’
"I have a few questions about a case... maybe it would be better if we talked in private."
"Sure... Gretchen," I said, turning to her, "you can go back to work."
She left, and I moved away from the door toward some used, oversized crates stacked like bricks in a corner of the warehouse near the office door. "Is this all right?"
||From where I stood, I could see the entire warehouse, stocked with furnishings of various types, periods, and quality. To unknowing eyes it probably looked chaotic, but I knew better; it was a production line in perfect working order. Items came in for sorting; the good stuff got primped and primed and sent to auction, usually in-house; the junk, with a good piece or two thrown in to entice the faithful, was left in "as-is" condition for our weekly tag sale. Right now the warehouse was about half full, and half full was good. We were busy, and growing.
"Okay," I said. "We’re private. What’s going on?"
"I understand you knew Nathaniel Grant." It sounded more like an accusation than a question.
"’Knew’ him?" I responded.
"’Did’ I?" Are you saying... Is he... what are you saying?"
"You haven’t heard the news?"
"Where have you been this morning?"
In a nanosecond, I went from confused and slightly impatient to angry and rebellious. Tired of playing cat-and-mouse, I got mad, almost like a switch had been thrown. I stood still and stayed silent, eying him, waiting for information.
"Answer my question, please," he said quietly, after a pause, his calm contrasting with my agitation. "Where were you this morning?"
Words my father used to speak heading into a difficult business meeting came to mind: The best defense is a good offense. "Not another word will I say," I stated, "until you answer my question about what’s going on."
Alverez took a step closer to me. He was probably a foot taller than I was, which made him six one or better, and I suspected that he was using his height and bulk to try to intimidate me. It was working. I felt my palms become moist. I was shaking, but not enough, I hoped, for him to notice.
"Nathaniel Grant was murdered this morning," Alverez said.
I stared at him. "Mr. Grant was murdered?" I asked.
"Yes," he answered, watching me.
Tears came to my eyes. I swallowed and brushed them away. "Oh, my God! Poor Mr. Grant!" I exclaimed. "What happened?"
"I’m hoping you can help me sort that out."
I turned away, tears spilling down my cheeks. I couldn’t speak.
"Seems like you knew him pretty well," Alverez said.
I shook my head, swallowed again, and used the back of my hand to dry my cheeks. I’d always felt things deeply, but I used to be good at controlling my emotional displays. I could hear my father saying, "Feel all you want, Josie, but show nothing. In business, the more you show, the more you lose."
When I’d worked at Frisco’s, the big auction house in New York City, before I’d been the prosecutor’s star witness at my boss’ price-fixing trial, I’d shown nothing. It wasn’t the trial that got to me, although it was grueling; it was my co-workers reaction to my involvement that stunned me speechless. Once my participation was known, colleagues whom I’d previously trusted wouldn’t give me the time of day. I was shunned, and within weeks, I was forced out of the company. And then, a month later, my father died, and it was as if the world tilted, leaving me utterly off balance.
||I was closer to being on even footing, but I wasn’t there yet. To say that I found it harder to contain my feelings didn’t even begin to describe my lack of emotional control. It was as if my nerve-endings were a little closer to the surface.
I shook my head a little to chase the memory away. I took a deep breath and looked up at Alverez, trying for a smile. "I’m being stupid, I know," I said. "I didn’t know Mr. Grant, not really. I only met him a couple of weeks ago. And look at me." I swept away more tears. "It’s just such a shock. And he was such a sweetheart."
"Tell me about him," Alverez said, leaning against the concrete wall.
I paused, thinking of what to say. "He looked like Santa Claus, except that he was short and sort of shriveled. But he had the beard and the belly and he was jolly as all get out."
"How did you come to meet him?"
"He wanted to sell a lot of furniture and art."
"Out of the blue?"
I swallowed again, fighting back sudden emotion. "Not really. His wife died, you know, about three months ago. The house is huge, well, I guess you know that. It was too much for him, I guess."
"So," Alverez said softly, "where were you this morning?"
"Is that when... I mean... when was he killed?"
"The medical examiner is still working on it."
I nodded. "I just can’t believe it. Mr. Grant! I’m sorry...Okay...let me think." I sighed and paused. "Okay. I got in around eight and was here working," I said, gesturing with a sweep of my hand that I meant inside the warehouse, "until around eleven-ten or eleven-fifteen. Then I drove out to Mr. Grant’s house. I got there around eleven-thirty. We had an appointment, but he wasn’t there."
"How do you know he wasn’t there?"
"I knocked and rang the bell. I went around back and knocked on the kitchen door. I even peeked in windows, but I didn’t see anything."
"What did you do then?"
"I thought Mr. Grant had mistaken the day. He’s pretty old."
Alverez nodded. "So then what?"
I shrugged. "I sat in my car awhile. At quarter to twelve I rang the bell again, in case he hadn’t heard it the first time. Then I left a message on his answering machine and came back here." I wiped away another tear. "I was planning on calling him again later today because I wasn’t sure he knew how to use his answering machine." I smiled a little. "He was such a nice man. What happened?"
"We don’t know yet. Do you?"
"Me? I don’t know anything."
"Sure you do. You knew him and you were there this morning. What would be best is if you came with me to the station."
"Why?" I asked, startled, and immediately wary.
"To answer some more questions."
||"I can’t. I have too much work."
"I’m afraid I’m going to have to insist. It’s important. And I could really use your help."
I looked at him wondering what I should do. The Wilson estate needed careful sorting, and there were only two days until the auction preview. Sasha, an art historian-turned-appraiser who worked for me, could handle that, I supposed. I’d remind Eric to be diligent. Or maybe not. I’d made my point earlier. Gretchen would hold the fort as she always did.
"I guess," I said. "I’d better call my lawyer."
"Why don’t you have him meet you at the station house," he suggested.
"I’ll let him decide."
"Who’s your lawyer?"
I worked with lawyers in my business all the time, but I’d never needed one before. I swallowed, trying to focus. Who should I call?
Max Bixby came to mind. He was one of the first people I’d met when I’d moved to Portsmouth. I remembered his friendly welcome at a Chamber of Commerce breakfast, and he’d been pleasant and accessible ever since. "I’m going to call Max Bixby," I said.
"He’s a good man."
I turned away, heading for the office to talk to Gretchen. Before I reached the door, I stopped and turned back to him. He hadn’t moved. His eyes were dark and knowing.
"May I ask you something?"
"Sure. Whether I answer, well, that depends."
I nodded. Tears came again, unexpected and unwanted. I turned away and wiped them away.
"How was he killed?" I asked quietly.
He shook his head. "That’s under investigation."
I shut my eyes and shook my head. "Was he in the house?"
I shivered. Murdered and left alone to die in his own home.
* * * * *
||After trying his office, I reached Max at home. I could hear a child crying in the background and a woman’s raised voice.
"I’m sorry to disturb you at home," I said.
"It’s okay. I’m glad to have an excuse to remove myself from the situation," he said with a laugh. "What started as a nice family lunch has disintegrated into a temper tantrum."
"Well, I hate calling you there, but I think I’m in trouble, Max," I said, getting to the point.
"Tell me," he ordered, and I told him the whole story.
"It’s good you called," he said when I’d finished. "I’ll meet you at the station house in a half hour. Wait for me in the parking lot."
I found Alverez where I’d left him, standing by the crates, scanning the room. I told him what Max said, and he nodded.
"Half hour’s fine," he said. "I’ll see you there."
I watched as he walked away, leaving me feeling alone, confused, and frightened.
* * * * *
Max and I stood on the edge of the sand dunes watching the ocean as we spoke. I know that it’s popular not to like lawyers, but it’s impossible not to like Max. He’s paternal without being bossy, direct, but always respectful, and old-fashioned without being stodgy. He’s probably about forty-five, but you think he’s older from the way he dresses and conducts himself. He wears tweed jackets and bow ties, and he’s almost courtly in manner.
"If I tell you not to answer any question, don’t. Stop talking when I tell you. If you’re unsure about an answer talk to me in a whisper first," he instructed me. "If you know the answer and I haven’t stopped you, answer only what is asked. Don’t give any extra information. The shorter your answer, the better. One word answers are good."
"What if I can’t give just a one-word answer? What if he asks for my impressions of something?"
"Assuming I don’t stop you, try to answer it in one short sentence. Don’t expound."
I nodded my understanding and agreement. The ocean was rough today. The bottle-green water was dotted with whitecaps, and the waves were bigger. It was mostly overcast. A storm was brewing.
Max told me his fee and I was glad I had enough in savings so it wouldn’t pinch to pay it. We crossed the street and entered the station house. The Rocky Point police station was new, built in the last year or two and designed to look like a beach house with a peaked roof and shingles left to weather to a silvery tone just like most of the houses along the shore.
Alverez pushed through the swinging wooden gate to greet us, then held it open for us to pass through.
"Thanks for coming. How you doing, Max?" he asked.
"Fine, thanks," Max said. "How’ve you been? I haven’t seen you since last summer’s clam bake," Max said.
"That was a good time, wasn’t it?" Alverez asked. "Cathy," he called, "we’ll be in the back."
A big blonde hurried out from somewhere on the left, saying, "Did you see my notes?" she asked. "You had calls." She scooped up old-fashioned pink While You Were Out message sheets from a Formica-topped desk and handed them to him, spotted us, and looked at Alverez, a question in her eyes.
"This is Josie Prescott," Alverez said to her. "And her lawyer, Max Bixby. We’ll be in room two, Cathy." To me he added, "Would you like some coffee or an iced tea or anything?"
"No, thanks," I said.
"You?" he asked Max.
"I’m fine, thanks."
||He led us down a short hall to a cheerless room with a floor-to-ceiling wire-mesh cage partitioned in a corner. "That’s creepy," I said nodding toward it.
"Yeah. But necessary sometimes for our unruly guests."
"I guess," I said.
"Have a seat. I won’t be long."
I sat so the holding cell was in back of me, out of sight. The chair was hard and uncomfortable. Max sat across from me and pulled a yellow legal pad from his briefcase. I leaned forward, resting my eyes on the heels of my hands, my elbows perched on the scarred wooden table. Max didn’t speak, but I could hear him turning pages on his pad. Unexpectedly, the door latch clicked home with a sharp snap. I looked up, startled by the sound, feeling as trapped as if I’d been locked in the cage behind me.
Without a watch, which I never wore since it always seemed to get in the way when I was working, I had no way of knowing how long Max and I sat. It seemed a very long time, but I felt a sense of unreality, so maybe it wasn’t long at all.
"Sorry to keep you waiting," Alverez said when he came back, business-like, carrying a collection of papers. "I have the medical examiner’s preliminary report. Before I tell you about it, though, let me get the recorder set up."
"Recorder?" I asked.
"Tape recorder. So I don’t have to take notes."
I looked at Max and he nodded. "That’s fine. I’m assuming we can have a copy of the tape?"
"Sure," Alverez said.
I watched as Alverez positioned the small unit on the table and pushed a button. A red light appeared and I heard a whirring sound. Alverez gave our names, the date, and time.
"I appreciate your coming in to help," Alverez said. "Just a formality, but I’m going to ask you to sign a form indicating that you’ve been advised of your rights." Alverez slid a piece of paper across the table to Max as Alverez read me my Miranda rights. It felt hard to breathe. I forced myself to listen, and when he asked me if I understood, I answered that I did. Max nodded that it was okay for me to sign the paper. Never sign something you haven’t read, my dad had taught me. I read it and signed my name.
"Okay," Alverez said. "So. The medical examiner. The preliminary report is in."
"What did he say?" Max asked.
"She. Dr. Young said death occurred this morning."
"Between nine and noon, as best she can figure it."
"Oh, my God!" I exclaimed. "I had a horrible thought before that it was while I was on the porch that he was dying and now, you’re saying it’s true!" Tears came again, but this time I let them fall.
Max patted my arm gently and whispered, "Don’t speak."
"I had an officer check things out," Alverez said, looking at me, changing the subject. "We found your appointment in Mr. Grant’s diary. It lay open to today’s date on the kitchen table. Apparently, he hadn’t forgotten that you were to meet him."
I shook my head. "Poor Mr. Grant."
"And your message was still on the machine—apparently unplayed."
"How did death occur?" Max asked.
"What about it, Josie? Do you know?"
||"What?" I asked, horrified as the implications of his question sunk in. He thought I knew something about Mr. Grant’s murder.
"Do you know how Mr. Grant died?" he asked again.
"No. Of course not."
"Well?" Max prompted, tapping his pen on the table. "Fill us in."
"Mr. Grant was stabbed."
"Oh, God," I exclaimed, and began to cry again. "How awful." I used the sides of my hands and pushed gently under my eyes. The tears gradually stopped.
Struck by a sudden thought, I turned to Max and in a soft voice asked, "I just thought of something. How did they know he’d been killed?"
Max nodded and repeated the question.
Alverez leaned back in his chair, balancing for a moment on the back two legs, keeping his eyes on mine. "His daughter called from Massachusetts and asked us to check on him."
"She did?" I asked, looking from Alverez to Max and back again. "I don’t understand. Why?"
"She got a call from his lawyer, Epps his name is. Mr. Epps was concerned that someone was trying to strong-arm Mr. Grant into selling his treasures for a song. The daughter, hearing this, was, of course, concerned, and immediately started calling him, but she couldn’t rouse him. Her messages were on the answering machine, too. She called a neighbor, but the neighbor wasn’t home. She called both her dad and the neighbor a few more times with no luck. So finally she called us."
"Someone trying to strong-arm Mr. Grant! That’s terrible! Who would do such a thing? Did the lawyer give a name?"
"Yeah, he did. He told Grant’s daughter that it was a shark named Josie Prescott."
|Want to read more of Josie’s dad’s sayings? Did your mom or dad offer wise words like Josie’s? Here are some of Mr. Prescott's.
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Josie made the dishes mentioned in The Josei Prescott Antiques Mystery Series.