At five minutes past five, I hitched my large black tote onto my shoulder, stepped into the hall, and locked my office. I hesitated a moment, running a hand over the sign on the door that said “Libby Ballard, Museum Director.”
Then I headed down the ornately carved walnut main staircase of the Dogwood Springs History Museum with my footsteps echoing through the empty building.
Which, sadly, had been empty all day.
Before five, of course, Imani, the education coordinator, and Rodney, the curator, had been with me in the museum. But we hadn’t recorded a single visitor for Thursday, August 3. Even though August was the height of vacation season, a prime tourist time.
At the base of the stairs, I made sure all the lights were off, then went outside and locked the front door of the museum, a big, white, two-story Greek revival that had once been the home of a local businessman here in the Missouri Ozarks.
In contrast to the museum, and in spite of the sticky heat of early evening, the rest of downtown was hopping. Tourists wandered in and out of the quaint shops that lined both sides of Main Street and offered candy, gifts, jewelry, and accessories. Couples chatted in the shade under the maples that had been planted in openings in the sidewalk and admired the giant baskets of pink, purple, and white petunias that hung from each antique light post. And groups of people gathered by the Dogwood Springs Bakery, the casual Dogwood Café, and the upscale restaurants that dotted the street, perusing the menus posted outside while they waited for tables.
Dogwood Springs, known as the prettiest town in Missouri, was a tourist mecca. People came from all over the U.S. to see the blue-green springs, the dogwood trees that filled the town with blossoms every April, and the hard maples that turned orange, red, and gold every October. Charming bed and breakfasts, an award-winning winery, and restaurants far above the normal small-town offerings had sprung up to cater to those tourists, as had the shops that lined Main Street.
I passed the bakery and inhaled deeply, detecting the sweet scent of brownies. There were so many things to love about this town.
When I moved here two months ago, I thought Dogwood Springs was the perfect place to start a new life after my divorce. After all, it wasn’t just a place I picked at random. My mother had been raised here, and I had fond memories of visiting my grandparents here as a child. Plus—an added bonus to someone like me, who loved history—my great-great-grandmother had once been the mayor. She’d helped make Dogwood Springs what it was today and was still seen as a key figure in the town’s history. So much so that a professor at the local university was writing her biography. I even owned the pearls she had once worn.
The town was a beautiful place, a good place, filled with kind people, and when I arrived, I’d firmly believed it was a place where I could rebound from disaster.
But it was proving to be harder than I’d thought.
Despite the throngs of tourists in town, the murder that had taken place at the museum on my first day of work had been a public relations nightmare. Thus far, my marketing efforts had been as effective as if I’d tried to walk past the bakery without going inside on a Wednesday, the day the owner made shortbread.
Thankfully, Rodney, Imani, and I had a plan to change things at the museum, a plan that began with me attending a local auction in two days. Even the effort we’d put into our strategy sessions made me feel more hopeful. Whatever the stressful situation, things were always better with a plan.
After a fifteen-minute walk, I arrived home at my apartment, the first floor of a plain, two-story house built in 1900. While some homes of that era were full of architectural details like wide baseboards and ornate crown molding, my apartment was far less elaborate.
After the hit my finances took with the divorce, I didn’t need elaborate. And at age thirty-two, I knew what I wanted—a place that was close to work, fell within my budget, and had character. My Elm Street apartment was perfect. The mantel was original, hand-carved, with initials I’d found hidden underneath that matched the first owner. An enormous maple in the yard made the concrete slab front porch a shaded oasis. I shared the house with Bella, my golden retriever, and Cleo, my best friend who lived upstairs.
I stepped into the entryway, unlocked my front door, and Bella immediately greeted me.
She trotted over from the front window, where she’d been watching for me, gave a single woof, and rubbed her head against my leg, a none-too-subtle hint that I should pet her.
I willingly obliged, and when I bent down to hug her, she licked my cheek.
“Oh, I’m glad to see you too, sweetie.” Tension I hadn’t realized I was carrying melted from my shoulders as I petted her head. I dumped my purse on the couch and followed Bella to the kitchen, where she headed to the back door, ready to go out into the small yard.
I let her out and sat on the concrete steps, happy in the sunshine in spite of the humidity, enjoying time with my beloved dog.
When I moved to Dogwood Springs, I had hoped to find a cat or a dog that needed a home. Instead, Bella, who had belonged to a retired FBI agent who had been the former tenant in my apartment before he passed away, had found me. When she’d needed a home, I’d adopted her, foolishly thinking I was doing it to help her. I’d quickly realized she gave much more to me than I could ever give to her. Bella was supersmart and full of love, and she made my whole life better.
A few minutes later, my upstairs neighbor and best friend, Cleo, drove into the gravel alley between our house and the one next door. She pulled her old red Jeep into the open bay on her side of the detached garage.
“Hey, Libby.” Cleo waved and yanked down the garage door.
I waved back.
Cleo’s short, blond hair glinted in the sun as she walked toward me. Even after a long day on her feet as the owner and most sought-after stylist at a local hair salon, her movements were energetic, her personality bubbling through. And somehow, she managed to look put together while wearing a simple outfit of skinny jeans and a vivid purple T-shirt. Maybe because she was taller and slimmer than me?
In contrast, I was average height, average weight, and wore my dark hair shoulder-length, in what once had been a bob. At the end of the day, especially after walking home in the heat, I looked hot and rumpled. Thanks to a heavy level of ragweed pollen in the air today, my green eyes, which I normally considered my best feature, were itchy and a little bloodshot.
Bella ran over to greet Cleo, and Cleo scratched Bella’s ears and told her she was more beautiful than any client she’d seen all day at her salon.
“How was the museum today?” Cleo took off her prescription sunglasses and replaced them with her regular glasses. Her brown eyes softened. “Any more visitors?”
I stood. “No. Still pretty empty.” Even with Cleo, I was embarrassed to say exactly how bad the numbers were. If I couldn’t turn things around, we might not be housemates much longer.
“Surely, the museum board is understanding. You’ve had a rather unusual situation.”
I tipped my head, acknowledging her point. The murder of my predecessor had been a shock to me and to peaceful Dogwood Springs. And it had definitely made my job running the non-profit harder. After the murder, the museum had been closed by the police for several days. “At first, when we re-opened, numbers were great. But I’m afraid those may have been people who wanted to see where the murder took place, not visitors actually interested in history.”
Cleo frowned. “That seems a little ghoulish.”
“I agree, but at least they paid the entrance fee.” Even if they may have found me—the person who couldn’t help but stick her nose in to catch the killer—more interesting than the exhibits. I let out a sigh. It wasn’t simply about filling the museum’s coffers. People needed to visit so they could see how fascinating and important history was. “But when school opens in a couple of weeks, Imani and I have lots of tours lined up.” Not a real money-maker, as we cut school groups a big discount, but at least the museum wouldn’t be so empty. “And we’ve got a fabulous plan to get the town excited about history again.”
“Oh, what’s the plan?”
“September 16th is the official date the town was founded, back in 1845, when it was called Silersville. We’re hosting a town birthday party, with cake and games and prizes and a new display about the town founder.” At more than one hundred and fifty years old, the town deserved a party.
Cleo nodded. “That does sound good. I’d come to that, even if we weren’t friends.”
“Excellent. We think if we can get locals, like the bed-and-breakfast owners, excited about the new exhibit, it should lead to more tourists coming in. We’re reaching out to them especially. After the murder at the museum, I’ve got a pretty good idea we’re not the first tourist spot people have been recommending.”
“Do you have flyers about the party? I could give them to my clients.”
“We do. And that would be wonderful. Thank you, Cleo.”
If all went as planned, the birthday party would turn things around. After the big event, we had several months of in-house programs planned, as well as community outreach.
“Happy to help. Is there anything else I can do?”
“If I didn’t know you work every Saturday, I’d invite you to go to an auction with me.”
“Ooh, how fun. I love auctions.”
“I hope it’s fun. Rodney’s having his knee replacement surgery tomorrow, so I’m in charge of attending the auction of Marjorie Billington’s estate and buying an armoire that belonged to Jedidiah Siler.”
“The town’s founder?”
“Yep. I wish you could go. I could use the moral support.”
Cleo raised her eyebrows at me.
“I’ve been to auctions before, even bought a few things, but Rodney’s afraid that if people see me bidding, they’ll think the armoire is a valuable antique—which it really isn’t—and bid the price way up, beyond what the museum can afford. I think his nervousness has rubbed off.”
“Who’s running the auction?” Cleo pulled a half-drunk bottle of Diet Dr. Pepper out of her purse and took a swig.
“Then you, my friend, are in luck. Not only am I the best hairstylist in town—who you should really let give you a trim—but I’ve also got connections.”
A tingle of hope bubbled up in my chest. “You know someone at Wilson Sales?”
“My cousin Sheila has worked there for years. Is there a preview tomorrow?”
“Let’s go after I get off work, and I’ll introduce you.”
“That would be fabulous. Thank you.”
Knowing someone at the auction, feeling like I was more on even footing with the locals, who all seemed to have known each other since grade school, would be wonderful.
I’d really lucked into the perfect spot when I rented my apartment. Not only had I found Bella, but Cleo had welcomed me right away and, in just two short months, become the best friend I’d had in years.
And with her help, hopefully I could buy the armoire for the museum and make the town’s birthday party a big hit.
The days without visitors would fade to a distant memory, and the museum would once again be a success.
The next day was Friday, and I was determined to start the day with a good attitude. I put on my favorite green shirt, the one that matched my eyes, and dressed up the outfit with my pearls.
Attendance at the museum did improve that day. Slightly. One woman came in during the afternoon. But Imani and I took full advantage of the time we had to work out more details of the birthday party. We made huge progress, and the day sped by.
That night, Cleo suggested we go out for Mexican, my favorite, before the auction preview. I suspected her idea stemmed from a desire to cheer me up, but I didn’t argue. Wasn’t everyone happier with a basket of hot tortilla chips and some queso and salsa?
After dinner, I drove us back toward downtown, passing Grove University, which formed the southern edge of Dogwood Springs.
I tried to keep my eyes firmly on the road but couldn’t help taking a quick glance toward the computer science building, a glance I hoped Cleo wouldn’t notice.
No such luck.
I’d barely looked back at the road before she spoke. “Has he called?”
“No.” I pressed my lips together. “And it’s probably for the best.”
“Really? The most eligible bachelor in town talks about taking you out and then disappears off the face of the earth, and that’s a good thing?”
“He didn’t disappear. He just didn’t call. And really, I’m in no place to start dating, anyway.”
Cleo sniffed. “It’s been eight months since your divorce and two years since you and your husband separated. You’re in the perfect place to start dating.”
I shook my head and gestured in front of the car at a group of college students who may have started their weekend at noon and were weaving their way across the street. I’d far rather have Cleo think I was focused on my driving than talk about Sam Collins.
I’d met Sam shortly after I moved to town. He’d made a fortune in tech in California, then sold his company and taken a job teaching computer science at the university. I briefly considered him a suspect in the murder of the former director of the museum but quickly cleared his name. After that, we’d had some great conversations, discussing a mysterious, valuable painting by a notable American artist named Clayton Smithton. Sam had found the painting in the historic home he bought outside of town, a home that had coincidentally once belonged to my family.
For a time, I’d been excited at the thought of going out with him. But when he didn’t call… Well, it didn’t do a lot for my already bruised ego or my lack of trust in men. No matter what Cleo said, I didn’t need more of that negative energy in my life.
I navigated around another group of college students and headed for the Billington house.
According to Cleo, Marjorie Billington had died of cancer a couple of months back. Her house was a few blocks from downtown on a street that, after World War I, had been the most exclusive address in town. Even amid its lovely neighbors, the huge, French revival house stood out, sitting on a yard that took up a full block. The home had been lovingly maintained and had perfectly manicured grass and plantings that looked like they were put in by a landscape designer. Cleo said the house had belonged to Marjorie’s husband’s family.
Based on the glare I got from an older woman as I searched for parking, I’d say that Marjorie’s former neighbors only barely tolerated the noise and fuss of all the people at the preview. I’d been to enough auctions to imagine they were going to be even less happy tomorrow.
I parked my eight-year-old Camry on the street and approached the house, feeling a bit like the hired help.
Cleo, on the other hand, was in her element, waving to half the people we passed and whispering little tidbits about the others. Before I met Cleo, I’d always heard that hairdressers know every secret in town but thought it was an exaggeration. It wasn’t.
An enormous tent, suitable for a wedding party, had been set up on the side lawn of the house. “I called Sheila last night to tell her we were coming. She said they don’t rent a tent like that for every auction,” Cleo said. “But Danny Larsen, one of Marjorie’s two great-nephews, wants his half of the proceeds from the sale like yesterday. So they don’t want to reschedule, even though there’s a strong possibility of rain.” She pointed to a group of people outside the front door. “There’s Sheila.”
We walked up the curving stone path to the front door, but before we went in, Cleo ran over to hug the woman she’d indicated. “Sheila, this is my friend, Libby Ballard, the new director of the history museum.” Cleo turned slightly. “Libby, this is my second cousin Sheila Dillon.”
We said hello, and Sheila called over a guy who looked like he was in high school. She told him to remind every person going in that the sale would start promptly at nine, not a minute before. Then she led us into the house and turned to me. “Are you interested in anything in particular?”
“An armoire, eighteenth century,” I said quietly. “But I don’t want to draw attention to it.”
Sheila gave me a wink and tucked her shoulder-length blond curls behind her ears. “Let me show you those dishes,” she said, placing heavy emphasis on the word I hoped would throw other shoppers off the scent. “I think they’d be a lovely addition to the museum.” I followed her up the stairs to the bedrooms, wondering if I was the only one who thought Sheila dressed like a country music star. She looked to be about forty-five and wore big earrings, a red plaid shirt with pearl snaps, and a jean jacket decorated with a large American flag made of sequins on the back.
After showing me some attractive and rather rare milk glass, a writing desk that Marjorie Billington believed had been used by a former governor, and a collection of fairly common political buttons from the 1950s and ’60s, she waited until the stripped-down bedroom was empty of other shoppers and led me in to see the armoire.
If I hadn’t known the history of the piece, I might not have looked twice. The armoire was about seven feet tall, probably maple, and had a Palladian cornice. It stood on tapered cone feet and had a carved scalloped skirt and two doors, one of which was covered with a spotty mirror. All in all, it was a rather poor rendition of Hepplewhite style in rather bad condition. According to Rodney’s extensive research, though, this piece had been the prized possession of Jedidiah Siler. Or, more likely, the prized possession of his wife, Frances. If Jedidiah was typical of most male settlers of the time, his prized possession had probably been a horse. Or, since we were in Missouri, maybe a mule.
I looked the piece over, opening the doors and pulling out the two small drawers to check the dovetailing. After making sure no one was in the hall, I used the flashlight app on my phone, lay on the floor, and peeked underneath but found no markings. I pulled the armoire away from the wall, and, attached to the back with three tacks, I found a small piece of paper that Rodney would consider gold.
A man named Tobias Brown, who identified himself as a woodworker living near Dogwood Springs, had used a manual typewriter to document on an index card, now yellowed with age, that in 1963 he repaired the left-hand drawer. He explained the provenance of the piece, stating that Jedidiah’s then elderly son Ethan had told him personally that his father hauled the armoire here by covered wagon when he and his wife moved from New York to Missouri in 1845.
Goosebumps sprang up on my arms. Dogwood Springs, which was then called Silersville, was founded in 1845!
I pointed out the card to Cleo, one finger against my lips. Since I’d moved to Dogwood Springs, Cleo had become a dear, dear friend. She did, however, have a tendency to be a bit loud.
She peeked at the card, and her eyes widened. She gave a silent nod.
I snapped a photo of the documentation with my phone and scooted the armoire back against the wall.
“Have you seen enough?” Sheila’s tone was blasé, but her eyes twinkled.
“I have. Could we go out in the yard and chat?”
“Sounds good to me.” Sheila led Cleo and me out beyond the crowd on the back patio to an isolated spot under a big oak tree. Once we were well out of earshot, she turned to me. “You want it for the museum, don’t you?”
“As an antique, it’s nothing special. Old, but not a great piece to start with. A little banged up. And to my taste”—I shrugged—“kind of ugly. But it should definitely be in the Dogwood Springs History Museum. The historical value of a piece brought west by the founder of the town is priceless.”
“I tried to tell Danny, one of the two brothers who are heirs, that they should donate the piece to the museum, that the tax write-off was probably more than what he’d get at the auction, but he didn’t believe me. He’s the executor, and his younger brother lives out of state and goes along with everything Danny says.” She rolled her eyes. “Marjorie had collected some very nice pieces. But despite what my boss has told him repeatedly, Danny’s sure that this auction is going to be something comparable with Sotheby’s. Frankly, I think the guy’s been watching too much Antiques Roadshow.”
I wasn’t sure it was possible to watch too much of my favorite show, but I got her point. “Do you think I’ll have much competition bidding for the armoire?”
Sheila leaned back on her heels, crossed her arms over her chest, and gave me a long look. “I don’t want to do anything unfair, but Cleo told me that you’re only here because of Rodney’s surgery. And I know if he was here, he’d recognize all the players.”
“He did tell me to watch for one woman who might be interested, Lynne Dunn. He said she’s short and has long, snow-white hair.”
“Lynne won’t be here. I saw her at an auction a couple of weeks ago, and she said she was going out west on vacation.”
A tingle of excitement shot through me. I might be able to get the armoire for even less than I’d hoped. “What perfect timing!”
Sheila’s lips thinned. “There’s this other woman, though, who I think might bid against you. She asked a lot of questions about the piece.”
“Who is she?” Cleo stepped closer to her cousin. “And why do you think she wants it?”
Sheila raised both hands, palms up, in front of her. “All I know is what she looks like. She’s probably in her late fifties, has short, dark brown hair, and carries a leopard-print purse.”
“Odd.” And disappointing. I wanted to get that armoire for the museum. “It’s not a great piece of furniture, but people collect all sorts of things.”
“They do, which is part of what keeps Wilson Sales in business.” Sheila angled her head toward the house. “And speaking of business, I should get back to work.”
Cleo gave Sheila another hug, and I thanked her and told her I’d see her in the morning.
I’d also be on the lookout for the woman with the leopard-print purse. Hopefully, that purse didn’t hold a lot of cash.
Now that I’d seen the documentation from Tobias Brown, I wanted the armoire more than ever. With luck, I could acquire it, and, once Rodney recovered from his knee replacement, he could add it to our upcoming display about the town’s founder.
The display could debut at the birthday party event. The party would be a hit, allowing us to promote all our upcoming programs. And visitors would start coming to learn about local history, not simply to gawk at the place where someone had been murdered. Attendance would rise, and donations would roll in.
It might be a rather ugly armoire, but it was the first step in getting the museum back on track.
On Saturday morning, I got up extra early. I fixed a big mug of my favorite tea, a nice, strong blend from Yorkshire, England, and ate some toaster waffles while doing a crossword. Then I took Bella for a walk on Elm Street, admiring the flowers in all the yards as my neighborhood woke up.
Cleo, Bella, and I lived on the 400 block, where some of the places were rentals. As the house numbers rose, the percentage of rentals dwindled, and the homes grew fancier. But even on our block, the lawns were tidy, and every house had at least one spot of colorful flowers. The entire street—despite being named Elm—was lined with big, shady maples. Birds twittered in the trees, kids zipped by on their bikes, and two women watered their flowers. Both stepped out on the sidewalk to say hello to me and give Bella a pat.
Thanks to Bella’s popularity, over the past several weeks I’d met many of my neighbors, and I’d been encouraged to literally stop and smell the flowers as one gardener after another bragged about their roses. Truly, without Bella in my life, I’d probably have never met so many people and never walked in any direction except toward downtown.
That morning, we took our regular route, down Elm to Thirteenth, where we turned and came back. It was a path Bella must have taken many times with her previous owner. She always preferred it, only accepting variation when I suggested a longer route, turning at Eighteenth.
There was a small incident when she felt compelled to strain at her leash and warn the neighborhood about a squirrel with some rather loud barking, but I finally got her to calm down. I had come to understand that she considered this her personal mission. Some of my neighbors, though, were probably more concerned with getting a little extra sleep on a Saturday morning than with the shenanigans of what seemed to me to be a harmless furry creature.
After Bella and I returned home, I took a quick shower and pulled on a T-shirt, a short tan skirt, and tennis shoes. Then I packed some lunch and a water bottle in my big purse, put on sunscreen, making sure to get it especially thick on the back of my neck, and tossed a fold-up lawn chair in the back of my Camry.
I left a ten-dollar bill on the kitchen table, along with a note thanking Zeke, Cleo’s teenage nephew, for stopping by to let Bella out at lunch. Even in the shade, today was going to be off-the-charts hot and humid. Bella would probably be fine out in the yard, but I felt better leaving her inside, and I knew she’d get a big dose of attention from Zeke.
The downtown area was still quiet at seven-thirty on a Saturday morning. Oh, the Dogwood Café looked busy as I drove by, with almost all the outside tables full. But most of the tourists were still in bed or enjoying breakfast at the B&B’s, and any college students in town for the summer were certainly still sleeping.
Or slightly hungover and moving slowly.
As for me, I had a mission. The thought of outbidding the woman with the leopard-print purse and sending a text to Rodney to let him know that the museum had acquired the armoire filled me with energy. I’d been on the job for two months now, but far too much of my time had been taken up dealing with the after-effects of the murder. At last, I was getting into the real work of running the museum.
When I left my apartment, I’d thought I’d be one of the first to arrive at the auction, but by the time I neared the area, people were parked on both sides of the street four blocks away. I squeezed into a spot and started walking toward the house, with my folding chair slung over my shoulder.
I passed a man pulling a preschooler in a wagon, a couple arguing about where they would store more dishes if they bought them, and the same woman who’d glared at me the night before, still in her driveway, still annoyed.
The event gave the neighborhood a carnival atmosphere, complete with a food truck selling cinnamon buns and drinks and a sign promising hot dogs for lunch. Still full of waffles, I avoided the cinnamon buns, although the smell was intoxicating and the temptation strong. Other people who’d brought lawn chairs had arranged them in rows under the tent, facing a large platform, apparently where the auctioneer would stand. From snippets of conversation I heard, most people planned to make a day of it. The auction house must have anticipated this, as a trio of pale blue porta-potties had been set up on the east side of the huge lawn.
I added my chair to the last row and wandered through the crowd, looking for Sheila.
I spotted the kid she’d left in charge of the door last night but didn’t see Sheila. For all I knew, though, she might be hauling equipment over from the auction house.
I went over to a folding table at one end of the tent to get registered.
“Welcome.” A plump woman with curly red hair handed me a numbered paddle and a listing of the items for sale. “I’m Jeannie Wilson.” She tapped the logo of the auction house on her navy polo. “One of the owners of the auction house.”
“Nice to meet you.”
“We’re bringing stuff out bit by bit, because of the possibility of rain,” she said. “If you want to see anything, go right on in the house.”
I thanked her and scanned the listing. Aha! There was my quarry. Lot number 93, “antique armoire, door with mirror, two small interior drawers.”
Lot 7 also caught my eye. “Three boxes of miscellaneous old clothing, condition varied.”
Auction listings like that always filled me with a wisp of fantasy that I might buy a lot for a pittance and open the boxes to find piles of historic clothing. After all, my first attraction to history had been the Smithsonian’s display of the first ladies’ dresses.
I decided to allow myself twenty dollars of my own money to bid on Lot 7. Most likely, the three boxes would be filled with stained, worn, kids’ clothes from twenty years ago. After all, someone like Sheila would have recognized historic clothing and described the lot with verbiage that would draw higher bids. The dream of finding a treasure, though, filled the air. How could I not be infected? If I bought junk, I’d pitch it. If I found a treasure, I’d sell it to the museum at what I paid.
The loudspeaker squawked with feedback, and a big, bald man wearing a navy polo like Jeannie’s cleared his throat into the microphone. “Take your seats, ladies and gentlemen. I’m Carl Wilson, and this here party’s about to get started.”
A buzz ran through the crowd, and I hitched up my purse and headed to my seat. People laughed and chatted, some boasting about outbidding each other, but the minute the bald man approached the microphone again, the crowd went silent.
He welcomed us, made sure people knew where to register for a number to use in bidding, and gave a leisurely spiel about the “exciting, valuable, chance-of-a-lifetime” items that would be sold today. Then he plunged in, talking a mile a minute, auctioning off Lot 1, four cardboard boxes filled with “surprises” as he termed it.
I kept my numbered paddle firmly under my left thigh. I’d bought a box of “surprises” at an auction before, and they turned out to be sticky old plastic flowers. I liked taking a chance, but not that much of a chance. I was here for Lot 93, and if the spirit moved me, I might bid on Lot 7.
While the auctioneer coaxed the bid on Lot 1 up to $13, I surveyed the crowd. Three rows ahead of me, off to my left, I spotted a leopard-print purse on the grass next to the chair of a woman with dark hair. Perfect. I couldn’t see her face, but I could keep an eye on her and try to determine what type of bidding strategy she used. For the moment, though, she appeared to be reading the listing of items to be sold.
Ten minutes later, the auctioneer popped open the lid on one of the boxes of Lot 7 and pulled out a hideous pair of men’s golf pants. “Any of you gentlemen would look mighty snazzy in these!” He held the waist wide, showing that the pants had to be at least a waist size 52. “And you can’t say they won’t fit. I think these could be altered to work for anyone in the audience.”
The crowd roared.
“How about we start the bidding at five dollars?”
A woman sitting at the end of my row raised her paddle.
She looked at least ten years younger than me, twenty-one or twenty-two, and if I had to guess, based on her orange and green patterned dress, which screamed 1960s, I’d have said she was hoping for vintage clothes in those boxes. But how high was she willing to bid?
Vintage Girl and I jockeyed back and forth, each raising the bid by a dollar. I tried to judge by her expression how far she was willing to go, but she kept her eyes on the auctioneer.
When she bid nineteen dollars, though, she looked over at me. And her expression wasn’t encouraging. It was the bored, almost defiant face of someone who could bid all day to get what she wanted.
“Thirty dollars,” I called out. Yeah, I knew I’d set a $20 limit for myself. I knew my financial situation after the divorce wasn’t exactly what a financial planner would call ideal. I knew those boxes might be full of nothing but golf pants. But sometimes my stubborn streak gets the best of me.
And you know what? It worked.
Vintage Girl blinked at me and shook her head when the auctioneer tried to get her to bid $35.
Lot 7, three boxes of miscellaneous old clothing, condition varied, was mine.
I got up and looked again for Sheila, eager to share the news of my victory over Vintage Girl, but still didn’t see her.
Then, unable to resist, I slipped into the house and headed up the stairs toward the bedrooms. Lot 93 wouldn’t come up for hours. I could take one more peek at the armoire.
I reached the door of the second bedroom on the left and casually glanced inside. A plump, dark-haired woman stood near the armoire. Her mouth was pulled up tight, and her eyebrows, which looked over-plucked and penciled in, were drawn together. From her elbow hung a leopard-print purse.
“Oh, I didn’t see you.” She stepped back from the armoire and gestured toward it. “Rather ugly, isn’t it?” She was interested. I could tell. This wasn’t my first rodeo.
I tried to act as if I’d never noticed the piece before. “I’d have to agree with you. Not a good example of Hepplewhite style.”
I feigned interest in a chest of drawers, and she left the room.
I listened carefully, waiting until her footsteps receded.
Then I practically leapt across the room and looked over the armoire once more.
The best part of the whole piece was the documentation by Tobias Brown that was attached to the back. I was about to edge the armoire away from the wall to make sure the paper was still there when I realized I’d never looked closely at the repair work the man had done. I moved back to the front of the piece and pulled open the door.
Sheila’s body tumbled out, landing on my feet.
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