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Authors: Jane K. Cleland

Tags: #Mystery

Killer Keepsakes

KILLER
KEEPSAKES

OTHER JOSIE PRESCOTT ANTIQUES MYSTERIES
BY JANE K. CLELAND

Antiques to Die For
Deadly Appraisal
Consigned to Death

MINOTAUR BOOKS
NEW YORK

This is a work of fiction. All of the characters, organizations, and events portrayed in this novel are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.

KILLER KEEPSAKES. Copyright © 2009 by Jane K. Cleland. All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.

www.minotaurbooks.com

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Cleland, Jane K.

   Killer keepsakes / Jane K. Cleland.—1st ed.

        p.  cm.

   ISBN-13: 978-0-312-36944-6

   ISBN-10: 0-312-36944-1

   1. Prescott, Josie (Fictitious character)—Fiction.  2. Appraisers—Fiction.  3. Antiques—Fiction.  4. Murder—Investigation—Fiction.  5. NewHampshire—Fiction.  I. Title.

PS3603.L4555K56 2009

813'.6—dc22

2008041736

First Edition: April 2009

10   9   8   7   6   5   4   3   2   1

THIS IS FOR KATIE LONGHURST,
AND, OF COURSE, FOR JOE.

AUTHOR’S NOTE

While there is a Seacoast Region in New Hampshire, there is no town called Rocky Point, and many other geographic liberties have been taken.

KILLER
KEEPSAKES

CHAPTER ONE

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.

CHAPTER TWO

T

he dead man was a stranger. He was in his early thirties and lean; picturing what his lifeless features might look like if he were alive, I imagined that he would have been handsome. Except for the angry slash of red on his forehead, just over his right eye. I covered my nose with my hand and breathed through my mouth. The stench was foul.

He was wearing jeans and a flannel shirt, the uniform of a working New Hampshire man. His skin was parchment white. There was a hole in the right side of his chest the size of an egg. Black singeing suggested that he’d been shot from close range, and the disgusting odor and black-purple stain of dried blood made me guess that his murder wasn’t recent. His belt buckle was intricately designed. It showed an old Native American man in profile wearing a feathered headdress. There was no blood splatter, no disarray, no bullet holes in the walls or ceiling, nothing to suggest that there’d been a struggle. I didn’t see a gun.

“Do you know him?” I asked.

“No,” Meryl managed, and then she began to cry, covering her face with her hands.

Cope first, Josie—fall apart later,
I told myself. I patted Meryl’s shoulder. “We need to call the police,” I said softly, finding my phone in my oversized tote bag and dialing 911.

As I talked to the emergency operator, Meryl began to back away. Rivulets of mascara-stained tears striped her cheeks.

I hung up and clutched my phone to my chest.

Gretchen,
I thought,
where are you?
I glanced toward a door off to the left—to her bedroom, I guessed.
Was she in there, hurt—or worse?
I looked back at the corpse. “I want to see if Gretchen is here,” I told Meryl.

“I can’t,” she whispered.

I could see in her eyes that she wanted to stay to help almost as much as she wanted to be gone. She was trembling, and her skin was too pale. I thought she might get sick.

“It’s okay,” I assured her. “Go and wait in your car. The police will be here in a sec.”

She nodded, her lips quivering, and fled.

As soon as she left, I walked slowly through the rest of the apartment. I wasn’t afraid, not really, but whatever small concern I felt faded to nothing in the face of my serious worry about Gretchen’s well-being. I gingerly opened closet doors, held my breath as I slid open the shower curtain to peer into the tub, and knelt on the gray carpet to look under the bed. Gretchen wasn’t anywhere.

The apartment was spotless, the bed neatly made, the fireplace swept, the counters bare. A flashing red “5” on the answering machine told me that I wasn’t the only one to have called during her absence. Back in the entryway, I saw something I’d missed before—a crumpled checked baggage tag bearing the letters BOS lay against the baseboard. Gretchen had arrived home from her vacation.

Did Gretchen find the body? Or, I wondered, swallowing hard, did she kill him? I shook my head. Impossible!

As I stood in the carpeted hallway looking at nothing, other questions came to me. Had Gretchen known the man and welcomed him into her home? Or was he a stranger she had surprised in the middle of a break-in? I went to the front door and examined it; there was no sign of forced entry.

“Where are you, Gretchen?” I said aloud, adding in a whisper, “Are you okay?”

I’d never been to Gretchen’s apartment before, and, looking around, I was impressed. Half a dozen fruit plates hung over the dining area table. An unusual light fixture in the hall, probably an antique, certainly hand-painted, showed a field lush with yellow and red tulips and a windmill in the background. An architectural pedestal stood in the corner. I approached it and noted that a faint circle in the center was less dusty than the rest of the top.
What had stood there? A sculpture mounted on a round base? A vase? A ewer?

I heard a thump, and my heart stopped, then began to pound. Heavy footsteps were approaching the front door. It was Officer Griffin. He stepped into the apartment. I’d known Griff for years, from back when Ty, my boyfriend, had been the Rocky Point police chief.

“You okay?” he asked.

“Yeah. Sort of.”

“You don’t live here, do you?”

“No. It’s Gretchen’s apartment. Gretchen Brock, my assistant.”

He nodded. “Where’s the body?”

I pointed, and as he started toward the living room, he told me, “Wait by the door.”

Moments later I heard him speaking to someone, confirming my report of the murder.

“You know him?” he asked as he rejoined me in the hall.

“No. I’ve never seen him before.”

“Did you touch anything?”

I thought back. “Yes. Some things—the shower curtain, some door handles . . . I don’t know what else.”

He nodded and told me to wait again while he returned to the living room. I stood without moving until the recently promoted Detective Claire Brownley arrived about ten minutes later. She opened the door, and Griff stepped into view to greet her.

Detective Brownley had creamy white skin, celadon blue eyes, and thick black hair that fell in soft waves to her shoulders. She wore a burgundy pantsuit with a white blouse and low-heeled pumps. “What do you know about the situation?” she asked.

“Gretchen didn’t come to work after her vacation. She’s organized and thoughtful—she’d never get the dates wrong, and she’d never just not show up. I’ve been calling since yesterday. I left a message. I knew something was wrong. I just knew it.” I took a deep breath and looked at her straight on. “I didn’t know what else to do, so I called the property manager.” I glanced around the apartment, then looked at her again. “What in God’s name happened here?”

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