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ANGEL’S BIDDING

Chapter One

By Sharon Short

© Sharon Short, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

The longest hatpin had the face of an angel and the smile of death. The angel’s wings were too large for the bell-shaped body, the gaping mouth disproportionately wide for the tiny nose and eyes. The exaggerated curves of wings and mouth mocked one another and, combined, made the gold angel seem like a ghoulish jester. Patricia Delaney wondered if the angel’s creator had been inept or had purposefully made the angel grotesque, perhaps weary at the thought of fulfilling yet another Victorian lady’s vain request.

The other hatpins were smaller, eight inches long instead of the angel’s twelve inches, and simpler in design—a square-cut ruby, set in gold with four petite diamonds in the comers, and a peacock, its proud colors faded over time.

The hatpins were lined up on Patricia’s desk in a neat row—the angel in the middle, the peacock and ruby on either side. Besides being relics of another time, they all shared another characteristic. On each was skewered a message created from newspaper print.

Patricia read the messages, put them back on their carriers, then lined the hatpins up on her desk in a neat row, like brave messengers in someone’s personal war.

She looked up at the woman sitting on the other side of her desk. The woman shifted in her chair uncomfortably and stared at the door. Was she having second thoughts? wondered Patricia. Perhaps she’d suddenly bolt and make a run for the door, mumbling apologies for her withdrawal along the way. Some people did, usually people with personal cases, not the business clients. Some would-be clients got as far as the door, saw the sign Patricia Delaney, Investigative Consultant, and left without even poking a head in to apologize for the sudden, intense need to forgo learning the truth.

The truth, as Patricia well knew from her four years’ experience at investigating and thirty-four at living, is a harsh, sometimes cruel, mistress to court. But tempting. Quite tempting. And so the woman, Elsa Kauffman, stayed in the chair and looked back at her.

Elsa was a thin creature who shifted and looked around like a small animal always wary of the dangers of being trapped. She had a narrow, pixie like face, unusually child-like for a woman in her mid-forties, but any expression of mischievousness had long ago been erased by one of worry. Over a flowered, cotton dress she wore a tweed burgundy suit jacket that was meant to look professional. It was too big for her and too hot for the sticky June day that hunkered just outside the building. Patricia’s window-unit air conditioner barely kept the heat at bay.

“This is why you really came, isn’t it?” Patricia asked, nodding toward the hatpins. She guessed the hatpin messages were the problem uppermost in Elsa’s mind, the problem that could send Elsa bolting for the door, suddenly shy about courting truth.

“No. Oh, no. This is—this was incidental. Yes, incidental to the problem I came here for. Really came here for. You see, we really need to find Andy Lawson—”

“Yes, yes,” Patricia said, showing more impatience than she intended. Elsa, she realized, would gladly repeat the whole story of the missing real-estate agent, which she had carefully prepared for her appointment: he hadn’t come in for several days, which was unusual; his landlady hadn’t seen him; he had no relatives nearby. One hundred thousand dollars cash had been taken from the agency’s safe. According to Elsa’s father, who owned the agency, the whole matter was too sensitive to take to the police. Kauffman Real Estate and Auctioneering was in the midst of a major development on the east side of Cincinnati and couldn’t afford any negative press. Elsa was the general manager and bookkeeper for the agency.

“Why don’t you tell me what you know about these hatpins?” Patricia said.

Elsa looked at them uncomfortably, her pale blue eyes darting from the death-smiling angel to the ruby to the faded peacock. She pushed her graying brown bangs back from her perspiring brow. The rest of her hair was pulled back in a ponytail.

“They just came last week,” Elsa said.

“All at once?”

“No, no, that’s not what I meant. One, and then another, then the other. The angel last.”

“They were mailed?”

“No. Just tucked into a white envelope, sealed. Stuck in the mailbox outside the door along with the bills and listings and things.”

“So they weren’t addressed at all?” Patricia asked. “Just stuck in a white envelope.”

“No, not quite. I mean, I’m sorry, no, they weren’t addressed like you say, in the traditional sense, anyway. But whoever sent them—or I guess left them, wouldn’t you say?— whoever left them cut out the name of the agency from a newspaper ad and taped it to the front of the envelope.”

Elsa stared down and played with the sash of her dress, weaving it between her fingers. She spoke so softly that Patricia leaned forward to hear her better.

“I—I think they’re meant for my father specifically. I’m sure they are. His name—the person—whoever sent these things had clipped his name, too, from some ads—Father still insists on representing at least five clients even though he doesn’t have the time or health really for it and—”

Elsa stopped, suddenly embarrassed at the realization that she had been rambling.

“Anyway, Father’s name had been cut out and pasted above the agency name.”

Patricia rubbed the white, diagonal scar on the left side of her chin and frowned down at the hatpins. Ruby, angel, peacock. Ruby, angel, peacock. Would the puzzle of why someone would send poison-pen notes on hatpins make more sense to her if she rearranged the hatpins and changed the incantation?

Perhaps, she mused, she could read them like tea leaves, and moved them around with the tips of her fingers, not picking them up but just sliding them. Peacock, ruby, angel. Angel, peacock, ruby.

Patricia shook her head in mild irritation at her own whimsy and muttered, “Nope. Doesn’t make sense. Why hatpins?”

“They were my grandmother’s.”

“Someone from your family, then—”

Elsa shrank back in her seat, eyes wide at the suggestion. “No, no one from my family would do anything—I mean, these were sold over a year ago, at auction. I—I just can’t see—” Elsa stopped suddenly.

Elsa had been hesitant and nervous since she arrived twenty minutes early for her appointment and realized Patricia was not quite ready for her. Patricia tried to make all her clients feel relaxed and comfortable, and she had tried especially hard with Elsa. Patricia considered again offering her coffee or tea. No—that had made Elsa stutter an awkward no, thank you, as if the idea of hospitality toward her startled her.

Patricia tried a warm smile instead and said, “Go ahead. Just tell me what you know about these hatpins. ”

Elsa stretched out her hands, then folded them primly in her lap. “I don’t know much. Just that when my grandmother died—her name was Gertrude—two weeks after her funeral—we had an auction of her things. Well, my father did. Her house—and the things from her house. To settle the estate. But Father was an only child…

Elsa faded off, then looked sharply, defensively, at Patricia, as if she knew what Patricia must be thinking: Friedrich Kauffman auctioned off his own mother's things right after her funeral? Patricia did not say anything and kept smiling encouragingly. She did not believe it was her job to judge or analyze her clients. Leave that to the psychotherapists. Still, it was interesting to note Elsa’s expression; Patricia guessed that she must have encountered the criticism often enough from friends and relatives.

“Well, she was ninety-two. And he wanted to see it done right, out of respect for her. Father is not, as you will see— an emotional person. And we—I—kept a few things.” Elsa shook her head as if to clear it. “Anyway. I remember seeing them at the auction and I thought—I thought they were pretty.”

“You hadn’t seen them before?”

“No—I—” Elsa stopped and stared down at the hatpins. A shadow of expression, of something too painful to fully remember passed over her face.

Elsa cleared her throat and looked up at Patricia. “No, I hadn’t. I guess she wore them in Germany, and she came here with Father just before the Second World War, in 1938.” Patricia quickly calculated—53 years before. Nearly a lifetime in its own right. “Grandmother always said she loved beautiful things as a girl. My grandfather was a jeweler and clockmaker, so he gave her many beautiful jewels, although the hatpins had been her mother’s, my father told me. He remembered them when he saw them at the auction. But after the first war came hard times, and then my grandfather died, and when trouble started up again, Grandmother brought my father and came here to live with her brother. She always said after all that she just didn’t feel like wearing beautiful things. And she didn’t. She was always plainly dressed. No hats.”

“And so, no hatpins for you to recall. But you figure she brought them with her,” Patricia said.

Elsa nodded. “Yes. With all her other jewels. I wore them—I wore them playing dress-up. As a girl.”

“But you don’t remember the hatpins.”

Elsa looked at the hatpins, then quickly away, as if there were something shameful in her inability to remember them. “No, I don’t.”

“And you can attach no significance to them other than that you believe they belonged to your grandmother all this time, since they were among her possessions at the auction of her estate.”

“That’s right.”

Patricia jotted down a few notes, then said, “It would help if you knew who purchased the hatpins.”

“Oh, yes. I know that. Rosie’s Attic. It’s an antique shop. I remember the name because it’s so—so romantic. The owner bought the hatpins, just the hatpins that day.”

“Do you remember the owner’s name?” Patricia asked.

“No. But it’s in here.” Elsa hefted an oversized, man’s-style, hard-sided briefcase onto her lap, clicked it open, and pulled out a file and placed it on Patricia’s desk next to the hatpins. “I keep precise records of all our auctions, all our real-estate transactions going at least ten years back. Taxes, you know. The government is very watchful of small business.”

“Of course,” Patricia said. Patricia was intrigued by how her client’s nervousness abruptly disappeared, replaced by confident efficiency when it came to keeping business records, even ones dating back ten years to 1981.

“I’ll just make a copy of this—”

“This is a copy. Your copy.”

Patricia took a deep breath and then slowly released it. Elsa’s efficiency convinced her that she had come about the hatpins and their notes as much as about the missing agent, even if she wanted to deny it.

“Fine,” Patricia said. “I’ll start by talking with the antique-shop owner. And I need to know who might want to frighten or threaten your father. You mentioned a business partner earlier, for starters.”

Elsa’s pale eyes widened at the question. She rocked back in her chair as if she had been physically repulsed by it. “My—my father doesn’t have any enemies,” Elsa said, then paused to clear her throat. “He is a well-respected businessman in real estate. I’m sure you’ve heard of him before now. He built the Eagle Rise development and he’s involved in another development project now. He’s well respected. He doesn’t have enemies. ”

Patricia tossed the pad and pencil back on her desk and picked up the angel-head hatpin. She held it up for a minute for Elsa to observe, then put it down with the ruby and peacock.

“Someone went to a lot of effort to get just the right hatpin and message together, and get them to your father in a way that is going to make it very hard to trace where they came from—no postmark, no handwriting,” Patricia said, keeping her voice as even as she could. “My guess is that these all add up to a message your father is supposed to understand— and be frightened of. So he’s got at least one enemy somewhere in this world. It’s no insult; we all do, Ms. Kauffman. At least one.”

Patricia paused and studied Elsa Kauffman. Perhaps this petite woman didn’t have even one enemy. She looked scared, vulnerable, a tiny creature quivering with the desire to duck back into a dark, safe spot in her private woods. It was possible that someone like this had remained uninvolved in the world enough to avoid having even one enemy.

But no. Elsa was here, in Patricia’s office, so she hadn’t completely withdrawn from life. If only because there are people in the world who despise fear in others because it reminds them of their own vulnerabilities, Elsa would have enemies. Just sensing the unnamed fear in Elsa, as palpable as a scent, would make those people hate her, make them want to wipe her, and thus the fear, out. Patricia had a theory that that sort of unfortunate chemistry accounted for more than a few muggings each year.

Elsa smiled tentatively. “I’m sorry I’m not much help on this. But I honestly can’t think of any enemies of my father’s. ”

“How about the missing agent”—Patricia ruffled through the papers and notes Elsa had brought about him—“Andy Lawson?”

“No—oh no, not Andy. My father always says that Andy is like the son to him he never had.”

And yet, thought Patricia, Elsa, and apparently her father, were so certain that Andy’s disappearance meant he’d taken the $100,000.

Patricia decided against pointing that out and asked, “You’re an only child?” It wasn’t really pertinent to the investigation, but Patricia was curious. Domineering father, maybe the mother died young, resulting in an only daughter who grows up to be too devoted to her father and too timid with everyone else.

“No, I have a sister and brother,” Elsa said. “I guess my brother didn’t quite turn out the way he wanted—the way my father wanted, that is. My brother likes himself just fine. Anyway he—my father, that is—he is quite upset that Andy— and—and the money from the safe are missing. That is why he told me to find a private investigator.”

So much for guesses. Patricia glanced at the personal computer on her desk. She might call it her ‘little grey box’ with her friends, but she was proud of the machine—a 286 PC, with a 12 Megahertz CPU speed, and Windows 3.0… state of the art technology when she bought it the year before in 1990. Already, she was reading in technical journals about the Windows 3.1 upgrade, and even the 486 PC. Still, her PC empowered her to do research on computer databases—she had electronic subscriptions to the most up-to-date news and legal databases, including Lexis (for law) and Nexis (for news). She was one of only a few private investigators that she knew of using this up-to-date technology for her work. Of course, she also used the traditional interviews, the occasional tailing, and other investigative tools—but using the electronic tools gave her an edge. And was enjoyable and challenging besides.

Patricia refocused and gestured at the hatpins. “What does your father say about these?”

Elsa stared into her lap and began playing with the sashes of her dress. “He doesn’t.”

“He has no opinion at all?”

“No. He doesn’t—he doesn’t even know they arrived.” Elsa looked up quickly with pleading eyes. “He has so much on his mind lately—Andy—the development. I didn’t want to trouble him. And—and he would just say they are noth­ing—silly anyway.”

“How can you be sure of that?”

Elsa’s pale eyes suddenly became icy. “I’ve worked for my father for over twenty years. He would say they are silliness.”

“But you think they are more than just silliness. A real threat.”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

Elsa stared at the hatpins, frowning, as if they entranced her, even though—perhaps because—she remembered nothing about them.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I just do. If you could be so kind as to bill me individually—personally, for looking into them. And if you could refrain from mentioning them to my father for now, until you find out more—”

“Fine, then, to summarize—” Patricia looked down at her notepad. “I’ll look first into Andy Lawson’s disappearance. I can’t assume he took the money, but he is a good enough place to start. I’ll talk to the antique-shop owner about the hatpins. When I find out what he has to say about them, I’ll let you know.”

“That sounds fine.”

“You’ll have to decide then if you want me to talk about them with your father. I think that will be necessary for establishing why he might be getting them. Meanwhile, I’ll find your agent and your money. Sound okay?”

Patricia made a few more notes as she waited for Elsa’s response. When she didn’t get one, she looked back up at her. Elsa was still staring at the hatpins.

“Elsa? Does that sound okay?” Patricia urged.

Elsa looked up at Patricia. She smiled thinly, the smile of a sick or injured person bravely denying the pain.

“Yes, fine. I’ll look forward to hearing from you.” She stood up and so did Patricia. The women exchanged handshakes—Patricia’s grasp firm and quick, Elsa’s hand moist and yielding.

“Thank you, I’ll be in touch,” Patricia said.

Elsa turned and started for the door.

“Oh—one last question. Your office is in Blue Ash?” Patricia asked.

“Yes.” Blue Ash was a suburb north of Cincinnati.

“And you live there, too?”

“Yes.”

Patricia smiled. Most of her clients were people from the suburbs on the north and east sides of Cincinnati—people who wanted to check out a spouse or employee or partner, but discreetly. She realized wryly that, for most of her clients, hiring an investigative consultant in a suburb was more appealing than hiring a private eye in the city. But Elsa wasn’t like most of her clients.

“I went to school here once, to Alliston College,” Elsa offered suddenly. She stared at the window at the back of Patricia’s office as if she could see the college on the hill, even though the only view the window afforded was of a boarded-up corner gas station.

“Chemistry. I studied chemistry and physics there for three years before I went to work in the family business.” She shook her head, then smiled thinly. “But that was a while ago. Anyway, thanks again.”

Patricia nodded. “I’ll be in touch.”

After Elsa left, Patricia got up, shrugged off her black, lightweight jacket, and hung it on the small coat rack next to her navy-blue and tan jackets. They were her only three jackets. She kept them at the office and wore them over whatever she happened to be wearing when clients showed up. If it matched, fine; if not, fine.

That day she had on a bright yellow dress with black polka dots, short-sleeved and straight cut, and black pumps, so it had worked out. There was satisfaction in that for Patricia. She liked it when things worked out.

She went over to the window air conditioner, fiddled with the controls, then gave it a good smack. The unit moaned and kept emitting tepid air. Patricia switched the unit from cool to fan and opened the window. The heavy smell of greasy sugar from the donut shop below coated the sticky June air and drifted in the window.

Patricia went back to her desk, stretched her tall, statuesque frame, then sat back down. She flicked on the computer, in­tending to write up the notes from Elsa Kauffman’s visit.

But the hatpins, still out on her desk, and a sense of restlessness after Elsa’s visit, distracted her. She reread the notes skewered on each hatpin: the angel carried the message Do you know who was watching?-, the ruby offered, I remember, the peacock’s message could have been cut from a Sunday- school primer, Pride before a fall.

Patricia returned to the angel’s-head hatpin and twirled it between her fingers, watching the head with its mawkish grin twirl to the right, then the left. There was something about the case that bothered her already. It wasn’t just the unusual request of tracking the sender of the hatpins and threatening notes—a little change from checking out errant spouses and employees, or doing background checks on potential partners (business and otherwise) was fine with her. It was the nearly palpable fear that Elsa had exuded. Was Elsa really just a person who walked in fear generally, or had her fear been provoked by the hatpins?

Patricia shook her head, wiped the back of her hand across her brow, and ran her fingers through her nearly black, short, curly hair. She looked at the framed photograph of a waterfall on the wall across from her, one of several photos she had used to decorate her office. The waterfall photo, pub­lished in a nature magazine the year before, was one of her best efforts from her modestly successful avocation as an amateur photographer.

Patricia tried to focus on the image of the waterfall and return to the sense of centeredness that she had surely felt when she had taken the photo. She could not. The images of the hatpins kept imposing themselves on her mind.

Suddenly she swept the hatpins into her lap drawer, deciding to find a box for them later. Putting her hands over her eyes, she took several deep breaths, focusing on the slow in and out of her breathing.

But still the hatpins, even tucked out of sight in her lap drawer, kept intruding on her thoughts.

Patricia pushed back from her desk and looked over her notes on the computer screen. She’d find Andy and the missing money. And she’d try to find who was sending the hatpins and the messages, if that was what Elsa really wanted her to do. But whatever fear was driving the woman—she wasn’t getting wrapped up in that. Patricia had tried to be an angel of mercy once before, and so she knew sometimes that meant becoming a messenger of doom. She was not prepared for either role again.


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