Authors: Bill McGrath
A Xara Smith Mystery By Bill McGrath
Copyright 2008 Bill McGrath
All Rights Reserved.
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My birthday is the twenty-fifth of April, and what Jill suggested my birthday present to myself should be was to refurnish my house. She and I had searched online, then through several catalogs, and then in person at many new furniture stores but still had not found anything decent that I might possibly be able to afford. The furniture was either nice, or affordable, but definitely not both. It was for that reason that Jill and I found ourselves in the uptown area of nearby Dallas which is populated by many used furniture stores.
Right there on Routh street is a small knot of businesses in an old part of town that the locals call the Antique Alley but I had my doubts that everything here was actually old enough to qualify as a real antique. On the up side though we had found several old pieces that were very nice and quite affordable. Of course each piece needed a little TLC first, and I never was exactly a craft person. Jill though had convinced me that we should buy a couple of pieces, haul them back to my house/office in Irving, Texas, and see how much fun we could have refinishing them.
My name is Xara Smith and I will be turning thirty-one later this month. I run my own business which is a detective agency specializing in discrete investigations. At first owning my own business was a struggle but I had completed a rather lucrative case earlier this year so the business was doing better.
In any case I much prefer being my own boss to working for someone else. I am my only real employee but my friend Jill Stepho has weaseled her way into my last two cases so I guess it is fair to call her my partner. I had just come off three tough cases in a row and was now looking forward to a couple of weeks where I did
nothing but work on refurnishing my abode while I waited patiently to get a year older.
Apparently Jill and I were serious though about antique shopping because we had earlier that week rented a storage unit near my home where we would deposit the treasures we bought this week-end so they would have a place to gather dust until we actually started their refinishing process. We also had arranged to transport our finds as we were not currently riding in my six year old Taurus nor Jill’s two year old Beetle. We were, in fact, stylishly motoring around downtown Dallas in an orange and white rented truck which was hard to drive and even harder to park, but it would be just perfect if we found any furniture.
It was not yet desperation time but it was getting closer by the minute. It was three in the afternoon on this beautiful April Saturday and we had been at it for nearly four hours without buying a single thing. Should we end this day without a truck load of old furniture our plan would continue tomorrow, Sunday, at the huge local flea market called “Trader’s Village” in Arlington which is a good sized suburb just west of Dallas. Jill had planned the week-end. She saw nothing wrong with hitting the antique stores on Saturday and the flea market on Sunday. I was in favor of our alternate plan which was that we would buy a truck full of goodies today and spend all Sunday in my hot tub which was only two months old and I still hopped into every chance I got. Therefore, as I said, it was not yet desperation time, but it was getting close.
We exited a small antique store called “Parnell’s Prize Antiques” and walked next door to “Lola’s Attic.” The entire front wall of the store had a faded mural which depicted a six or seven year old girl dressed in an old fashioned flowery blue dress with matching bonnet. The little Lola in the picture was carrying a huge wicker basket up a narrow stair case to what one would expect to be an attic rich with treasures.
As we walked into the building we were greeted by the real Lola who looked to be about seventy years old. I could tell she was Lola though by the old fashioned flowery blue dress and bonnet which matched the girl in the mural.
The real Lola may have been seventy years old but she was sharp as a tack and appeared to be in perfect health. She was currently haggling prices with a young couple but welcomed us to her store and promised to be available to help us in moments.
I really do not know if she ever successfully negotiated a deal with the young couple or not because Jill and I sort of got lost in the treasures while we were waiting. The place was definitely a used furniture store because the huge store front was arranged in row after narrow row of dusty old furniture but to the obvious furniture that was for sale there had been added little things all over the place making it almost impossible to see each piece of furniture without moving
first dusty old paperback books, or country and western eight track tapes, or kitchen utensils, or vacuums that couldn’t possibly be working any more. There were many boxes of bell jars. There were religious statues. There were home made candles. There was yarn and knitting needles. There were art supplies. There were incomplete collections of plates with state maps on them. There was jewelry and purses and I found a really nice old poster of Mae West.
All of this clutter actually made it hard to see the beauty of the furniture we were supposedly shopping for but Jill and I worked our way down three or four rows discovering treasures as we went. There were several pieces we actually considered. It was certain that had either Jill or I made the trip alone we would have filled the rental truck a lot sooner because we spent a good deal of time talking each other out of purchases. For instance, I found a wing backed chair that would have gone very nicely in my bedroom and probably would have bought it had Jill not pointed out the huge rip in the fabric on the back of the chair. Jill found a nice dining set that was much better than the one currently in my dining room, and she probably would have bought it when I pointed out that the chairs were rather small and not at all comfortable to sit in.
Jill and I were actually looking at a brass bed frame arguing about whether it was queen size or king size when Lola walked up to us and introduced herself as “Lola Martin, caretaker of the world’s treasures and grand daughter of the original owner.” She, pointed out that the bed was in fact queen sized but promised that there was a king sized brass frame in the next row over.
Lola followed us up and down the aisles and our progress actually got slower because Lola had a story for every single piece in her shop and it was obvious she loved each and every treasure dearly. I found myself really enjoying her stories though and quickly an hour went by without us making a single purchase. We were at the back of the store at the end of the last row of furniture and I almost felt cheated that the wonderful woman would not be able to tell us any more stories of her treasures, so, simply to prolong our stay I asked what was behind the door that was hidden there. Lola apologized that it was a small workroom off her loading dock where she kept pieces that she had bought which were not yet show room quality. In other words she had to clean them up a bit before she could sell them. I begged like a little school girl to be shown the prizes the store room hid. I guess we were lucky that there were no other customers currently in the store because Lola sighed and reluctantly took out an old key and unlocked the door.
There must have been about a dozen pieces of furniture in the room but I saw only one. Immediately old memories flooded my brain. I am an only child but my mother was from a family of six girls. Occasionally we would visit Grand-ma and Papa, and inevitably when we did my mother and her sisters and my grand-mother would gather in the living room to gossip and drink hot tea while Papa and I would sneak away to his den, where we would talk about important things like basketball or space travel while he let me rifle through the many nooks and crannies of his huge old roll top desk. The thing had dozens of visible storage holes and even a couple of hidden areas that I had to earn my way into finding by promising undying love for my grandfather while we chatted and I explored.
There, sitting right on the floor, not covered with other junk, was the exact same model desk my Papa had owned. Without hesitation I asked the price and Lola told me she couldn’t possibly sell it because she had not cleaned it up yet.
Without much preamble she told me she had purchased it this very morning just after she had opened for business with the other pieces in the room from a man who had pulled up a truck and offered to sell her the lot for a very good price. She had bought it all and had not even really looked it all over yet.
It had been years since I had even thought about either of my grand parents since they had both long ago passed, and here this simple old desk had brought up so many memories. I desperately wanted to explore more deeply the emotions the desk brought to the surface. I also wanted desperately to explore this particular desk and see if it contained the same hidden trick compartments my Grandfather’s desk had hidden away.
I begged her to allow me to buy the desk and started sounding a lot like that whiny little girl who had so adored my Papa. Jill quickly pointed out five or six flaws, but eventually Lola and I arrived at a price we could agree on. She never did tell me the amount she had paid for the whole truck load of used furniture, but I handed her one hundred and fifty dollars wondering if she had just made enough on this one desk to cover the entire purchase earlier that day.
She unlocked the door that led to the loading dock and instructed me on how to get my truck back there. Using her skirt she started dusting the desk off a bit and I pleaded with her to leave it as it was.
We three went to the front of the store to do just a bit of paper work. I also snatched the poster of Mae West. Lola hand wrote a bill of sale for the two items and punched the prices of the items into an old cash register. She surprised me next by asking me if I had an e-mail address and when I responded she produced from somewhere a modern computer key board and I watched as she carefully entered all my contact information. Finally, our business done Lola handed Jill and I each one of her cards and asked if we had cards we could give her. Jill did not, but I fished one of mine out. Lola told me the cards were her backup system because she did not yet trust the computer and I watched as she opened an old sewing basket and dropped my card into a slot along with perhaps a thousand other cards chronicling her past sales.
At six feet three inches tall and a healthy but not fat two hundred pounds, I had no trouble at all lifting my end of the desk. My partner Jill though is quite tiny at five feet four and she has to eat thanksgiving dinner to get the scale to top one-ten, so I had to go really slow with her struggling to lift her side of my new roll top. Eventually though we wrestled the massive desk onto the rented truck which we had carefully parked out by the loading dock. When we had the desk successfully loaded into the truck and strapped down so it wouldn’t slide around we went in to say our good byes to Lola but she was deep in story telling with another customer when we returned, so we silently took our leave.
There were still two hours of daylight left and there were several more antique stores on the block, so we parked the truck back where it had been on the street and continued looking for treasures. Eventually though we ended up with an afternoon gone and my two purchases only. The poster we would take directly to my house/office, but we decided to place the desk in our newly rented storage unit so we could start the next day with an empty truck and high hopes at the flea market. So for the second time little Jill and big Xara muscled the desk to its new temporary place. I made sure the security lock was well in place and we headed to a well deserved dinner.
My office is right in the middle of the small suburb called Irving, Texas which itself is right in the middle of the Dallas – Fort Worth metropolis. It is convenient to everything north Texas has to offer and holds the major airport.
Irving also, at least for another couple of years, has Texas Stadium; the home of the Dallas Cowboys football team. Irving has one other thing currently of interest to Jill and I and that is a restaurant called Feldman’s on Fifth, which is on, of course, Fifth Street in Irving four miles south and east on my office. Jill’s father, Joe Stepho, owns the restaurant and it officially is Jill’s place of employment but it has been a few days since she has actually worked a shift as a waitress.
We parked the big rental truck in the parking lot and went inside where we enjoyed good steaks, wonderful cheese cake, and a constant barrage of talk from her father. It was nice seeing Joe and I was quite happy that the restaurant was turning into a success for him. Between the good food and the friendly atmosphere it was a wonderful spot for Jill and I to wind down what had been a very pleasant day.