STUFF & SUCH

Here’s a sneak peek of Sharpe Cookie, Ch. 1.

Some old habits die hard, and as it turned out, this was one of them.

Estelle had insisted that Gary and Deena ride with her and Russell in the old Bentley she had kept around after her parents died. It was pretentious, of course, but Deena didn’t want to say anything to upset Estelle. Her sister-in-law had had a hard time sorting through her parents’ old treasures, trying to decide what to keep and what to sell off for charity. Deena figured they might as well humor Estelle if she indeed wanted to show up to the auction in her Cinderella  coach.

Leonard Dietz wore his full chauffeur’s uniform for the special occasion. It had been a long time since Estelle had called upon him to drive her. Deena hadn’t seen him since shortly after Estelle’s mother died. At nearly eighty years old, Leonard appeared a little more wrinkled, a little more gray, and a lot more stooped over than Deena remembered.

She wondered if he still even had a driver’s license. Regardless, the community center where the estate auction wasn’t that far away. Surely, they could make it there and back without incident.

“I’m going to feel ridiculous getting out of that thing,” Russell whispered to Deena as they waited for Estelle out on the front porch of his house. He pulled at the knot on his necktie. Deena’s brother still hadn’t gotten used to the trappings of wealth he had obtained when he married Estelle the previous spring.

“Why are you telling me? Why didn’t you say something to Estelle?” Deena said.

“I did, believe me. But she said this is what her mother would have wanted. Who am I to argue?”

Estelle was right. Carolyn Fitzhugh would have wanted her daughter wearing a long gown, pearls, and a tiara just to remind the small town of Maycroft that the Fitzhugh name was still royalty around here.

Luckily, Estelle appeared on the porch wearing a smart looking tailored jacket and skirt, more in the style of Jackie O than Princess Di. Ever since she married Russell, Estelle had metamorphosed from a drab, ugly duckling into a beautiful swan. Well, ‘beautiful’ may be a bit strong, but she certainly was attractive. Gone were the unruly gray locks replaced by a trim stylish cut, complete with highlights and lowlights that perfectly accentuated her narrow face.

Deena pictured her own hair, wondering if it was time to stop fighting the gray roots and go lighter.

Mr. Dietz opened the car door. Russell walked a few steps down off the front porch and then looked back at Estelle who stood still as a statue.

Deena started to say something when Russell apparently had the good sense to go back for his wife. He crooked his arm and escorted her to the car. She got in the back seat. Russell looked at me and Gary.

“I got this,” Gary said and offered Deena his arm. “Shall we, my lady?”

“Shhh,” Deena said. “She’ll hear you.” He escorted her to the car and deposited her on the opposite side of the car. She scooted over next to Estelle to make room for him. Russell had already taken his seat in the front.

The short ride was pleasant enough. Gary and Russell talked football, while Estelle talked about what she planned to do with the items she chose to keep instead of sell.

She fiddled with the handle of her sequined purse. “I guess I should hang those large family oil paintings in the ballroom instead of keeping them stored, but they’re just so creepy. Mother’s eyes seem to follow me wherever I go. And Father, he looks so different than I remember.”

Deena pictured the large wedding photo of Gary and her used to hang in their living room. At some point, it just didn’t look right. They weren’t those young lovebirds anymore. “I can relate. Our wedding portrait is gathering dust in the attic.” She turned toward Gary. “Hey, do you think your mother would like our wedding portrait in her house? Then she could have you almost life-sized.”

“I’ll ask her.” Gary, normally sharp as a tack, didn’t catch the sarcasm.

“You guys are like us,” Estelle said. “With no children to pass your family heirlooms on to, it’s hard to know what to do with them.”

“I wouldn’t call our picture an ‘heirloom’ exactly, but I know what you mean.”

Estelle pulled out a compact to check her face. She wore the high end department store brands now instead of the kind she used to buy at the drug store. “Besides, we’re not getting any younger.”

We’re not,” Deena said, “but you are. I swear you look at least ten years younger than when I first met you last year.”

Estelle smiled. “That’s all because of your brother.”

It was true. Once Estelle was out from under her mother’s thumb, she had blossomed. She wore her sixty-three years of life better than a lot of women Deena knew.

Estelle snapped the compact shut. “Isn’t your sixtieth birthday coming up? We should have a party.”

“I agree,” Gary said. “But Deena won’t hear of it.”

“You bet I won’t. I plan to stay in bed all day and not get up until it passes.”

“Oh, fiddle-faddle,” Estelle said. “You should be happy you’re still alive and kicking. At least let me take you for a spa day. We could go to one of those places in the Hill Country where you drink wine all day and get a proper pampering.”

“That does sound good, but it will depend on the day of the week. I’m a working gal now, you know.”

“Oh, that’s right. I keep forgetting you took over at the thrift store for Sandra. How’s baby Sylvia doing?”

Deena cringed. She still hadn’t gotten over the fact that her best friend named her only child the same name as her busy-body mother-in-law. “She’s perfect. Just beautiful. Oh, and by the way, Sandra asked me to thank you for designating the animal shelter as one of the charities you are donating the auction money to. That’s where the thrift store profits go, you know.”

“I’m glad to do it. You know I love my cats, and Russell loves that big dumb dog.”

“Hey,” Russell said, looking over his shoulder from the front seat, “Maggie isn’t dumb.”

“Then why does she keep eating out of Clover’s bowl?”

“Look, we’re here,” Deena said, not wanting to start a Sinclair family feud.

Estelle had told Deena that when she contacted the Auction Barn to sell off some of her parents’ possessions, the owner, Jeb Johnson, knew his small building would never hold the kind of the crowd the event would attract. Not wanting Estelle to move the sale up to Dallas, he contracted with the Maycroft Community Center to hold the auction. He had also advertised the heck out of it.

Good thing, too. People called from far and wide to get details, and the town’s handful of hotels filled up fast. Not only that, many of the locals planned to be there just to see the vast treasures the infamous Fitzhughs generally kept behind closed doors in their large Victorian mansion. Most people in town  referred to it as the “Fitzhugh Estate.”

“Wow! What a crowd,” Russell said as we rolled up to the front door.

Patsy Johnson, wearing her signature turquoise rodeo outfit, came up to the car window. When she spoke, the words practically bubbled out of her mouth. “Welcome! Let me help you out of the car.”

“I’ll get that,” Leonard called out in his gravelly voice.

It was the closest thing to the Academy Awards red carpet Deena had ever seen in Maycroft.  A photographer from the newspaper stood outside the door snapping pictures. People stopped and stared. Estelle even waved to onlookers as though they were fans.

As Gary and Deena trailed behind, she could hear Patsy telling Leonard that she had reserved him a special parking spot right by the back door so we would be able to get out quickly after the event. They were really giving Estelle the VIP treatment.

Patsy caught up to them and led the group through the crowd to a spot on the side of the make-shift stage where the auctioneer’s podium stood. It felt awkward to sit on the side where everyone could stare at us. Deena was surprised they hadn’t constructed a balcony for them to sit in as though they had box seats at the opera. It felt strange, like sitting in the family section of a funeral, but without all the sympathy.

One of those red velvet ropes, like the kind they have to direct lines at the movie theatre, blocked off their row of seats, presumably to keep the riff-raff from stepping on their toes.

People milled around getting a last minute look at the items to be auctioned off. The entire left side of the large hall was filled with furniture and folding tables covered with lamps, statues, pottery, dishes, and every kind of object d’ art imaginable. It was a collector’s paradise.

“Yoo hoo!”

Deena recognized that voice. She looked around to see Penelope Burrows from the Bluebonnet Club waving at them. She had on her violet, feathered church hat. No doubt the Styrofoam cup in her hand had been spiked with whiskey. Hard to believe that someone who drank like she did could still be going strong well into her seventies. There were several other club members sitting by her, popping up from their seats to wave in their direction. Estelle and Deena both waved back, while Russell and Gary pretended not to notice. Several other people Deena knew walked by to greet them as well. One of her former students asked Estelle to take a selfie with her.

Deena checked the clock. “Time to get this shindig started,” she said to Gary. Actually, the brochure consisted of a stack of white copy paper stapled together showing black-and-white photos of the items to be auctioned off. Still, compared to the Auction Barn’s usual Saturday night fare, it was big time.

“What are you doing?” Deena asked Gary who busily scribbled on the sheets of paper.

“I’m estimating a price that I think each item will go for. It’s like a game show. I want to see how close I come to the hammer prices.”

Deena shook her head. Once an accountant, always an accountant. By the end of the night, he’d know to the penny exactly how much money Estelle’s auction would raise for charity, figuring in Leonard’s commission, the selling price, and the ten percent buyer’s premium.

If Deena hadn’t been accompanying the guest of honor, she might have been bidding on some of the items herself. Occasionally, she was able to drag Gary with her to an auction or a flea market so she could buy things to sell at her antique booth. Usually, she just went alone, leaving him home to watch some “super important” sporting event. However, he drew the line at garage sales. He hated looking through other people’s castaways.

If you think about it though, an auction wasn’t much different. You were still buying someone else’s used stuff. The only real difference was that customers at a high-end auction like this one were looking to buy rare art and Persian rugs instead of old shoes and tube socks.

Deena looked around trying to spot the out-of-towners, the high rollers who had come in to sweep up some rarities from the small town hicks. Good thing she didn’t have a bidding number. She could be very competitive when it came to auctions.

The gavel cracked, calling the crowd to attention. Jeb’s microphone squealed at a pitch high enough to rival the Met’s top soprano.  He adjusted his headphones and welcomed us all. “As you know, all the proceeds from today’s auction—minus my commission, of course— will go to local charities.”

Polite applause.

“And now I’d like to ask Estelle Fitzhugh to stand.”

Estelle rose and the crowd erupted. Patsy rushed up and presented her with a bouquet of red roses as though she’d just won a beauty pageant.

“It’s Estelle Fitzhugh Sinclair,” Russell said, emphasizing her new married name, but no one heard.

Jeb waited for the applause to die down. “Helping me out tonight is my lovely wife Patsy. Take a bow.”

Patsy twirled around and caught the toe of her pointy white boot on a folding chair and nearly took a tumble.

“Um…and my son Leroy and his crew. As you know, Leroy has a moving company and is available to help you with all your transportation needs.”

At last, Jeb got on with it. The first item was an English silver tea service. When the hammer came down, it sold for twenty-two hundred dollars.

Things were clipping along. The auction was well into the second hour, and Deana, of course, got hungry. The choir group from the high school was selling refreshments in the back of the hall. She asked Gary if he wanted anything, knowing it would mess up his calculations if he missed any of the action. He declined. Russell went with her to the refreshment area.

She noticed a small group of men who appeared to be arguing near the far back corner. She recognized one of them as Marty Fisk, Maycroft’s newly-elected mayor and owner of the Lucky Strike Pawn Shop. Deena, being nosy, debated walking over to see what all the fuss was about. But then one of the men’s wives drug him off by the arm and the others went their separate ways. Deena assumed they were arguing over politics since the election had been just a few weeks earlier.

When we got to the front of the refreshment line, she eyed the selections. “Do you think it would be too tacky to buy popcorn? It’s not a ballgame after all.”

“No. And I wish they were selling beer,” Russell said.

Deena’s brother had not inherited her social gene. He preferred small gatherings and a television to keep him entertained.

“Yeah, that’s just what you need at an auction—a bunch of people getting drunk and bidding on pricey antiques.” Deena placed her order for soda and a peanut butter cookie and waited for Russell. “So, have you gotten used to being rich yet?”

Russell picked up a stack of napkins. “It’s really not much different from before. I still help out Cliff at the repair shop a couple of days a week. It keeps me humble.” He gave her a wink. “Biggest difference is that there are rooms I’m not allowed to go into at Estelle’s house because of my dirty boots.”

“Still calling it ‘Estelle’s house,’ I see.”

“Yeah. That’ll probably never change.” He squirted ketchup on his hot dog, and they made their way back to their seats.

As soon as they sat down, Estelle tugged at Russell’s sleeve. “Something happened,” she whispered.  “While you were gone, they auctioned off my great-grandfather’s Civil War diaries. I had put those in the stack of stuff to keep. How do you suppose that happened?”

“I don’t know,” Russell said, unwrapping his hot dog. “Maybe you put it in the wrong pile.”

Estelle shot him a look that clearly said she didn’t like his answer.

“Sold! To buyer ninety-five.” Jeb banged the gavel, and the auction workers carried off a velvet settee that used to sit in the parlor that was now Russell’s man cave. “Next up we have lot number twenty-two. It’s an authentic Tiffany lamp. Quite a beauty, ain’t she! Who’ll start us off at a thousand dollars?”

Estelle grabbed Russell’s arm, nearly knocking the hot dog out of his hand. “It’s happening again!” This time, she spoke louder. “I’m positive I set that lamp aside to keep!”

Russell wadded up the hot dog wrapper and picked up his Dr. Pepper. “Are you sure? You’ve got lots of lamps that look just like that.”

“Uhh,” she grumbled. “I’m sure of it.”

“Have you looked at the auction catalog?” Gary asked. He handed her Deena’s copy. “You can see everything that’s included in the auction.”

Grabbing the papers, Estelle jumped as the gavel came crashing down and Jeb announced the selling price of fourteen-thousand dollars for the lamp. She flipped wildly through the pages, not seeming to focus.

Jeb pointed to a large painting as one of the guys set it on an easel. “Next up, we have this beautiful oil painting of Captain Charles S. Fitzhugh, dated 1867. Who’ll start us out—”

“No!” Estelle screamed and leaped out of her chair. She ran up to the front of the hall and grabbed the painting. The guy standing next to it tried to wrestle it away. Estelle kicked him in the shin and ran carrying the painting toward the side door.

“You get him, sister!” someone shouted. Penelope Burrows stood waving her fist.

The crowd erupted in a combination of laughter and gasps.

Another man chased Estelle out the door.

Then a shrill scream came at them from outside. And it was not the kind you normally hear from a mad woman. It was bone-chilling.

Russell jumped up and ran for the door. Gary and Deena sat frozen, not really knowing what to do. It seemed as though all eyes turned to them at once.

The man who had chased Estelle reappeared. “Call 9-1-1! There’s been an accident.”

Deena’s heart skipped a beat. She pictured Estelle laying on the pavement, blood pooling under her head, the old painting crumpled by her side. Had she run into the street and been mowed down by a car?

Gary grabbed her arm and pulled her toward the exit. Others stood up but let them pass before following them outside.

Relief washed over Deena as she spotted Russell and Estelle standing next to the Bentley. She let out her breath and almost smiled. But where was the accident?

Then she saw a uniformed security guard running toward Estelle and the Bentley. Although the car was parallel parked, Deena could tell the driver’s door was open.

Then it hit her. Where was Leonard Dietz? Gary rushed up to Estelle as Deena headed around the front of the car. The guard held out his arm. “Stay back, ma’am.”

He nudged her backward but not before she got a glimpse of Leonard. He lay on the ground with a pool of blood under his head. It was just like how she had pictured Estelle. The painting was even on the ground next to him.

To Deena, he looked dead.

Sharpe Cookie will be released on July 30, 2017. Click HERE to pre-order it for just 99¢.

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