Authors: Tamar Myers
She fluffed her skirts, hoping to catch a breeze, but finding none, was forced to exit the storeroom on her own power.
No sooner did the swinging door close behind her than it swung open again, admitting an even stronger personality.
ynnell Crawford is my oldest and dearest friend. When I moved to Charleston two years ago, she sold her antiques shop up in Charlotte and followed me down to open a shop west of the Ashley River. Unfortunately, Wynnell's new store, Wooden Wonders, has not met with the same level of success that the Den of Antiquity has enjoyed. I'm sure a lot of that has to do with the fact my business is located on lower King Street in the prestigious heart of peninsular Charleston. As a result I have to work really hard to keep the green from appearing in my friend's normally brown eyes.
“Hey there,” I called cheerily.
“What's that all about?”
“You mean Mama?”
“She looked fit to be tied.”
“That's because I evicted her. Not to mention she's upset that C.J. wants an ivory white gown.”
“It's C.J.'s wedding. She should have what she wants.” Wynnell picked up the cane Mama had dropped. Without being told, she slid it back into the partially open parcel. “But on the other hand, if she wants to have friendsâwell, enough said. I'm sure you can take it from there.”
“What?” I wasn't sure if I'd heard correctly, and if I had, I was very sure I didn't like what had just been said.
“She adores you, Abby. She'll do anything you say.”
“Were not talking about dress color, are we?”
“Next to you, Abby, I'm her closest friend.”
I nodded. “I thought so. Wynnell, you shouldn't take it personally. C.J. has invited her entire clan to come down from Shelby. As it is, she's having six bridesmaids, so as not to offend anyone.”
“That's easy for you to say, because you're her maid of honor. Besides, her Cousin Zelda isn't even a woman, but a goat.”
“We're not sure about that; the DNA report is inconclusive. Look Wynnell, I know for a fact that C.J. feels really bad about having to exclude you from the wedding party. That's why she wants you and Ed to sit up front with Mama on the groom's side.”
“She said that?”
I nodded vigorously. The truth is that C.J.
have said that, had it occurred to her. And it was
to occur to her just as soon as I got the chance.
Defused, Wynnell extracted a different cane from the bundle. “Abby, this is exquisite.”
“You know about antique canes?”
“Just because I sell used dressers and armoires, some of them barely old enough to qualify as antiques, doesn't mean I'm ignorant about other areas in this business. Take this seemingly plain walking stick. Did you know that it's also a pistol?”
“Get out of town! You're joking, aren't you?”
“No. Look.” My buddy turned the handle until I heard a click, and then gently pulled it back, slowly revealing the barrel of a pistol.
“Well, I'll be dippity-doodled. How did you know to do that?”
“Ed's granddaddy had one of these. Said he got it from
daddy who fought a duel over a woman in downtown Charlotte. He won, by the way.”
“How romantic,” I said, dripping enough sarcasm to ruin my four hundred dollar Bob Ellis shoes.
“Actually, it was. You see, the guy Ed's great-great-granddaddy killed was a carpetbagger. The man had made a pass at Ed's ancestor's wife. Great-Great-Granddaddy Crawford had already lost his first wife from cholera during the War of
Northern Aggression. He said that while he had no regrets in laying down his wife for his country, he'd be damned if he did it again for a Yankee.”
“Wynnell, that's an old joke.”
“Maybe. Anyway, this pistolâ” She set the weapon down gently. “Abby, what's in that barrel?”
The barrel was one of the items in the locked storage shed. It, the canes, a broken space heater, two lawn chairs in need of reweaving, a painting of dubious quality, and boxes of old magazines, dried-up pens, balls of string, and assorted junk too useless even to remember: that's what I'd received for my winning two thousand dollar bid.
“It's part of a locked trunk sale. That's where I got the canes.”
“Abby, how come nobody ever tells me about these sales? I'm a dealer too. Why is it I'm always left out of the loop?”
The truth is that my buddy is not intentionally being left out of anything. She is privy to the same newsletters and sale information that I am; she just chooses not to pay attention. Some days, like today, she doesn't even open her shop, although she can ill afford not to do so.
“Wynnell, who's minding the store?”
“It was your idea, Abby, remember? You said I should ask him to help because he was bored with retirement. Well, I did, and he loves it. Not only that, but he's better at it than I ever was. So, now guess who's retired? Unofficially, of course. Anyway, that's why I'm hereâto see if you want to go to lunch later.”
“That, and to ask me to intercede on your behalf with C.J.”
“You know me too well.” She walked over to the barrel, which had a padlock on top. “Just how do these locked trunk sales work, Abby? I mean, this isn't exactly a trunk.”
“TouchÃ©. Well, I can't speak for all locked trunk sales, but this one advertised that the contents of a storage shed were being sold sight unseen. Apparently the person renting the facility was many years behind in the payments. Anyway, we submitted bids on slips of paper, like at a silent auction, and then the five highest bids were put in a drumâthe kind they use at bingo gamesâand the one pulled was the winner. I won, of course. Wynnell, it was in the
Post and Courier.
She ignored my last comment. “Abby, if you didn't know what you'd be bidding on, why did you even go to this sale?”
“Because I thought it would be fun. And it was a chance to meet other bargain hunters.”
“Other gamblers, if you ask me. Not you, of course.”
Wynnell tapped on the barrel with her knuckles. “When are you going to open this, Abby?”
“Just as soon as I get the time to call a locksmith, or get Greg out here with his toolbox. But in any case, I'm not expecting to find a king's ransom. It feels practically empty, although you can hear something when you tip it. For all I know, there's a human skeleton in there, and nothing else.”
“Would you like me to pick it open?”
“You can do that?”
She grinned lopsidedly. “Maybe you don't know me that well after all. My daddy was a locksmith, remember?”
“When I was a little girl he was my hero. During school vacations I went with him on all his house calls. Believe me, Abby, I can pick any padlock with a paper clip, and as for combination locks, I once opened one with my toes.”
Wynnell, bless her heart, is a bit on the hirsute side. Her eyebrows are like hedgesâmake that one long hedgeâand joint trips to the beach have made me painfully aware that this is one woman who eschews waxing. Just the thought of her hairy
toes picking at a lock made me want to poke out my mind's eye. I dashed back into the showroom to grab a paper clip from my desk drawer.
My friend was true to her word. It took her less time to open the lock than it took me to retrieve the paper clip.
“What do you say to that, Abby?”
“I say you're a wizard, and that it's a good thing you're on the right side of the law.”
She laughed happily. “Okay, Abby, go on and open it.”
The truth be told, I would rather have opened the barrel when I was alone. Then I could have savored the thrill. But since Wynnell had just saved me a locksmith's fee, I couldn't very well exclude her from the event. But I'd be damned if she was going to get the first peek. I jokingly told her to stay back in case there was a live snake in there, and then, with hands trembling from excitement, released the metal band and pried off the lid with my fingertips.
Wynnell, who was supposed to have stayed back, somehow managed to stick her head into the barrel before I could react. “It's only a gym bag,” she bellowed, her voice thankfully muffled by the barrel.
“Let me take it out.” If it sounded like an order, so be it.
Wynnell stepped back obediently, but her prodigious brows puckered in the middle, displaying her true feelings. “I was only trying to be helpful.”
“For which I am eternally grateful.” I should have asked Wynnell, whose arms are nearly twice as long as mine, to hoist the bag out of the barrel. Instead I had to tip it, and unfortunately lost my grip. Fortunately, my Bob Ellis shoes were of the closed toe variety, or I might well have gone from a size four to a size two.
At any rate, it was indeed a gym bag, cloth with plastic handles, probably dating from the sixties. Unless it was stuffed with cash, or jewels from a safe heist, it was hardly worth getting excited about. Of course that didn't stop my heart from racing. We in the antiques business are, after all, treasure hunters.
Just to torment Wynnell, I unzipped the bag as slowly as I dared while still having it look natural. I even pretended the zipper was stuck.
“Abby, give it to me.”
“No, I've got it.” I yanked the bag open. When I saw what it contained, I dropped it immediately and sank to the floor in shock.
“What is it?” Wynnell clambered over me to get the bag. “Abby, you're acting reallyâoh my gosh, it's a skull!”
“Is it real?” Perhaps I'd jumped to the wrong conclusion.
Despite her sometimes annoying habits, Wynnell is precisely the kind of woman I'd want as a companion on an Indiana Jonesâstyle adventure. In a few seconds she overcame whatever squeamishness she was feeling, and reaching into the bag, withdrew the skull.
“Feels real,” she said nonchalantly, as if she were a beauty pageant director assessing the mammary glands of a contested contestant. She hefted it and slid her fingers along the dome. “If it's not real, then it's a darn good imitation.”
“Wynnell, what should we do?”
“Call the police.”
“Yes, but the odds are they'll send you-know-who out to investigate.”
“You mean Tweedledum and Tweedledee?”
Charleston's police force is one of the finest in the world, headed as it is by Chief Greenburg, but not everyone on it is up to par. Officers Tweedledum and Tweedledee seem to share a brain that has, alas, been misplaced. They have, however, managed to keep track of their personalities, which are as abrasive as a bar of Lava soap. Those sad facts, along with their clear dislike of me, ensure that I avoid contact with them at all cost.
“Then you should call Greg,” Wynnell said, stating the obvious.
“And he'll just tell me to call them.”
“Looks like you have no choice, Abby. But just remember, I'm here for you, no matter what.”
But as soon as I hung up with the dispatcher, Wynnell remembered that she had left her coffeemaker on and there was very little of the beverage left in the pot. If the liquid evaporated entirely, the element could overheat, cause a short, and burn down the Crawford house. I couldn't very well have that on my conscience, could I?
I said that I could, but she abandoned me anyway. It was either face the Dum-Dees alone or ask C.J. to close the shop as soon as she could herd the last customer out, and then join me for moral support. My employee and future sister-in-law was all too glad to be of service, which was exactly what I was afraid of.
“Ooh, Abby, can I hold it?”
Seeing as how I'd stupidly allowed Wynnell to get her prints all over the skull, what harm could there possibly be in letting C.J. amuse herself until the police arrived? The brain that arrived at this conclusion is the same brain that designed a transatlantic bridge for my Seventh Grade Science Fair project. The model was almost four feet long and
broke into a dozen pieces before I could get into the auditorium.
Anyhow, C.J. seemed even more at home with the skull than Wynnell had been. She whipped out a miniature caliperâyou'd be surprised what that gal keeps in her pocketsâand measured various things, grunting each time she switched to a new location. After what seemed like an hour, she put the skull reverently back in the bag.
“It's not human, Abby.”
“It belonged to a female gorilla. She had an abscessed tooth. Probably died of blood poisoning, which is just as well, because otherwise she would have starved to death. Gorillas eat tough vegetation that requires a lot of chewing. She wouldn't have been able to do that with this tooth.”
“C.J.! It's not respectful to joke about the dead.”
“I'm not joking, Abby.”
I stared at the big galoot. The cheese may have slipped off her sandwich, but hers was an awesome mind that could think circles around even Marilyn Vos Savant, reputedly the world's smartest woman. C.J. spoke seventeen languages fluently, and solved differential equations during TV commercials.
“C.J., how could you possiblyâI mean, how do you know it's a gorilla skull, as opposed to an
orangutan skull? And how do you know it's female?”
“Ooh, Abby, gorilla and orangutan skulls look nothing alike. And the females of both species look nothing like their male counterparts. You can tell this one was a female because her skull lacks the prominent bony ridge that a male would have, as well as those formidable incisors.”
“I suppose you can tell me how old she was and how many baby gorillas she produced.”
Sarcasm is lost on someone as sweet as C.J. “I'd say she was about thirty-five, which is old for a gorilla living in the wild, but not so old for one living in a zoo. And she had seven babies, give or take one. You can see how much calcium is missing from her jawbones.”
“That's nice, but you mean
in a zoo, don't you?”
“Oh no, Abby. Zoos aren't as awful as most people think. Animals don't wake up each morning thinking, âOh goody, I get to walk twenty miles today through beautiful scenery while searching constantly for things to eat, and at the same time keeping a watchful eye out for predators, but being free in this beautiful place is worth it, so I don't mind.'”