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"Where on earth," said Sarah Kelling of the Boston Kellings, "did that looking glass come from?"
Max Bittersohn eased a basketful of Sarah's personal effects to the floor. This was the first time he'd ever been in the front entryway of the clapboard ark known to the Kelling family since Grover Cleveland's day as the Ireson's Landing place.
"Actually," he amended, "nobody's ever found out for sure where those marble-framed looking glasses were made. Seamen during the eighteenth century used to pick them up at the port of Bilbao and bring them home to their wives and sweethearts. That was before scrimshawed corset busks came into vogue, I believe. Whatever possessed you to leave a valuable thing like that hanging in your summer house all winter?"
"But I didn't. That's just the point. It doesn't belong here. I've never seen the glass before."
I'll be damned." Bittersohn leaned forward and inspected the handsome little antique with the eye of an expert, which in fact he was. "Mind if I take this off the wall?"
"Why should I? I've just told you it's not mine."
"And I believe you, heart of my heart, because you'd have rocks in your head not to claim a Bilbao looking glass if you had any excuse to. Furthermore, I deduce from the marks on this revolting wallpaper that some larger object has been hanging here until recently. What was that?"
"A swoony old mezzotint called 'Love's Awakening.' I took it back to Tulip Street last winter to decorate Cousin Theonia's room."
"And look what you started."
Bittersohn spoke absentmindedly. He'd taken out a pocket magnifying glass and was examining the graceful pinky-yellow marble pilasters of the delicate frame in approved Sherlockian manner. "I wish there were more light in this vestibule, or whatever the hell you call it."
"Your wish is my command." Sarah flipped a wall switch. "Or would have been," she amended when nothing happened, "if I'd remembered to tell Mr. Lomax to turn on the electricity. He'll be along pretty soon, I expect. I told him this was official moving day."
"Did you tell him I'd be moving in, too?"
"I expect so. Anyway, he knew I was fixing up the apartment for a tenant because he did most of the work, and he must have realized somebody would be driving me since I don't have a car of my own now."
"I said I'd be glad to give you one for a wedding present."
Bittersohn diverted his attention from their interesting find long enough to convince Sarah that his offer still held. "If you'd quit changing your mind from one day to the next—"
"Max, I am not changing my mind. I need time to get squared away, that's all. You needn't resort to bribery and corruption."
"What would it take to corrupt you?" His free hand roved up inside her jersey.
"Stop that, you sex maniac. I thought you were going to deduce how that looking glass got into this house."
"What looking glass?"
"Max, you're not being fair."
"I could be fairer, wert thou less fair. How's that for a courtly turn of phrase?"
Nevertheless, Bittersohn managed to wrest his attention back to the charming artifact that had so unexpectedly usurped the place of "Love's Awakening."
"Got a towel or something?"
"I'll look in the kitchen. Would you settle for a couple of pot holders?"
"Anything. It's just to protect the frame in case of fingerprints."
"Max darling, do you really do things like that?"
"I might if you'd get me those pot holders."
Sarah went away and came back in a minute or so with a length of mildewed curtain.
"Will this do? It's all I could find."
"Admirably. Hold the front door open, will you? I want to carry the looking glass out into the light where I can get a decent look at it, and I don't want to bash the top on the way."
"That little gesso urn and the gilded wire ornamentation do look awfully fragile."
"They are. That's why you find so few Bilbao looking glasses in mint condition, which I shouldn't be surprised if this turned out to be."
Bittersohn wrapped the musty-smelling curtain around the frame and lifted gently. "Damn, it's stuck. See what that wire's caught on, will you? Don't touch the frame if you can help it."
"It's all right to touch the wire, I suppose?"
"Oh sure. Picture wire wouldn't take a print."
"Wait a second, it's twisted around the hook. There, now lift. The wire looks brand new, Max."
"That doesn't surprise me. Whoever owns this thing probably kept it screwed to the wall. See those little flanges at the sides? All looking glasses used to have them back at that time. Mirrors were too scarce and valuable to take chances with."
"I know. They even used to build a solid wood panel into the parlor wall to fasten the mirror into because plaster was too insecure. Aunt Appie has one at her house in Cambridge."
"She's the aunt whose husband just died?"
"Yes, Uncle Samuel had been ailing for years, from one thing and another. Cousin Mabel always said what really ailed him was Aunt Appie, but what else could one expect from Cousin Mabel? Are those wormholes in the backing?"
"Si, señora. That's a hunk of oak paneling, which is characteristically Spanish and heavy as hell. These holes were undoubtedly chewed by genuine eighteenth-century Spanish oakworms. You could always tell them because they had a habit of shouting 'Olé' before they sunk in their little fangs. Some people will try to tell you Bilbao looking glasses were really made in Italy, which is nonsense. Italian oakworms couldn't have done this much damage. They'd only say, Poco poco, lente lente, which is Italian for "The hell with it, let's send out for a pizza."
"Spare me your erudition," Sarah sniffed. "Max, I don't honestly give a hoot where this looking glass originally came from. I just want to know who parked it in my front entryway."
"You don't suppose one of your rich relatives snuck in and hung it here as a nice little housewarming surprise, do you?"
"Huh! Show me a Kelling who'd leave a valuable antique unguarded in a place like this, and I'll show you six other Kellings trying to get him certified as a raving lunatic."
"Well, can you think of one who owns a Bilbao looking glass?"
"One of them must, I suppose, considering how many relatives I have and how much junk they've amassed over the years. I believe Aunt Emma out in Longmeadow has something like this, come to think of it, but the marble's more yellowish and the top has a hideous walnut pediment instead of this pretty filigree."
"I'm not surprised. That's what generally happened. The tops would get broken and the owners would stick on any abomination that happened to be kicking around the woodshed. Even bastardized like that, a genuine Bilbao looking glass will sell for five thousand dollars and up. You know what, süssele? I think we ought to call the cops."
But he was right, of course. This precious oblong of fragility hadn't got into the house by itself, and nobody was supposed to have a key except Sarah and Lomax, the caretaker. There had been robberies again this winter around the mostly shut-up summer colony, as there had been for the past several years. No burglar would have wasted his time trying to steal anything from the Kelling house, but he could have found this isolated estate a handy parking-place for his loot. That meant he'd be coming back for the looking glass.
"All right," she signed. "Do you suppose we might ask for that darling Sergeant Jofferty?"
It had been Sergeant Jofferty who'd come to tell her about the crash, here to this very drive from which she'd waved good-bye to Alexander. He'd looked so happy then, setting out with his blind mother for what he didn't know would be his last drive in the 1920 Milburn Electric that had been his greatest love, after Sarah herself. Last November, that had been. It was early June now, almost seven months later. One might think she'd have got over the pain, but it kept coming back at odd moments. That was why she still couldn't do what Max Bittersohn wanted; what she herself wanted except at times like this when she started thinking about the elderly, handsome, tortured husband she'd loved so long and lost so shatteringly.
"I know Jofferty," Max replied a shade too quickly. He knew what was in her mind. He always did, somehow. "Is the phone working?"
"It ought to be. I wrote them to resume service as of the first of June. The number for the police is on that pad."
In Alexander's small, meticulous handwriting. Sometime soon she'd have to go through the house and remove all those stabbing little reminders. It would be like killing him all over again. When Max looked up from dialing, he saw that Sarah was crying. He gave her a twisted smile, half compassion, half exasperation, and pulled her close to him while he talked.
"Is Sergeant Jofferty around? Then could you get him on the car radio? Tell him Mrs. Kelling out at Ireson's Landing has something to show him. No, thank God, nothing like that. It's just something that made her wonder if someone's been trying to break in. Oh, sure, I'm her tenant, Max Bittersohn. Ira Rivkin's brother-in-law. Right, I'll tell Ira you said so."
He hung up and fished out his handkerchief. "Here, blow your nose. I hope you understand I'm only to keep you from getting into another mess."
"I know, Max. It isn't that." She sniffled and blew. "It's—you know perfectly well what it is. Why don't you go get the rest of my stuff out of your car while I take this basket up and start unpacking? What shall we do with the looking glass?"
"Hang it back where we found it till Jofferty gets here. Don't worry, Sarah."
Still holding the frame through the scrap of old curtain, Bittersohn put the mirror on its hook, then went out to get Sarah's suitcases while she lugged the basket to her second floor bedroom.
A few weeks ago, on her twenty-seventh birthday, she'd taken control of a trust fund her father had left her, and dipped gingerly into the capital to replace some of the furnishings she'd looted from Ireson's Landing last winter when she'd turned her Beacon Hill brownstone into a boarding house. There was a new mattress in her room and another in the carriage house for Max. He was to have what used to be the coachman's quarters. The relatives would have thought it too scandalous for him to sleep at the main house until such time as he and Sarah were well and duly linked in matrimony. More important, having the carriage house operable would give them both a place to hide out when the estate got too thickly overrun with self-invited Kellings, as it assuredly would be at various times during the summer.
Max could flee to his own relatives if things got too desperate. He had parents not far away in Saugus and a married sister living among the year-rounders over at the other side of Ireson Town. Sarah had been casually acquainted for ages with Miriam's husband Ira, who owned the local garage, and their son Mike, who pumped gas when he wasn't attending classes at Boston University. She'd recently been taken to meet Miriam, too. After a rather stiff first visit with everybody sitting around the living room making polite conversation and being pressed by their hostess to consume a staggering variety of hors d'oeuvres, they'd got down to real talk over tea and muffins around the kitchen table.
The Rivkins' freewheeling hospitality was a welcome contrast to the rigidly structured system into which Sarah had been born and from which, try as she might, she couldn't seem to escape. Aunt Appie was already booked to arrive the following Monday. Her son Lionel had taken it for granted that he and his four sons were included in the invitation. They intended to camp out on the grounds. Sarah would have preferred the Goths and the Vandals. She could only steer them to where the poison ivy grew thickest, and pray for lots of mosquitos.
They'd have to stay clear of the garden anyway. This year, Sarah and Mr. Lomax were going in for gardening on the grand scale. The old caretaker's nephew Pete, who was allegedly helping him, had borrowed a Rototiller from some crony or other and ripped up about half an acre. After that, he and his uncle had dug in a smelly truckload of fish heads and offal brought in from the docks in Gloucester.
The fish heads were still attracting flocks of sea gulls. Mr. Lomax tried to make Sarah believe this had been part of his overall game plan since the gulls would contribute their droppings, further to enrich the soil. However, he'd had to replant the squash and beans twice, and they'd given up completely on the corn.
Green peas and early lettuce were already helping to feed Sarah's boarders back on Beacon Hill, though, and she took comfort from the circumstance that the most viable campsite for Lionel and his pestilential brood was downwind of the fish heads. She was sharing this happy thought with Max when Sergeant Jofferty drove up in his cruiser.
"Well, Mrs. Kelling. Nice to see you looking so chipper.
The sergeant didn't exactly cock an eyebrow in Max's direction, but Sarah blushed anyway. "You're looking well, too, Sergeant Jofferty. Do you know Max Bittersohn?"
"Ira Rivkin's brother-in-law, right?" He got out of the car and shook Max's hand. "Glad to meet you. Ira talks about you a lot. Claims you're his rich relative, but with the price of gas these days, I guess Ira's raking in a few bucks himself, eh?"
"Unfortunately, he has to hand it all back to the oil companies," snarled Max.
"Let's not get started on the oil companies," Sarah interposed. "We seem to have another little mystery here, Sergeant Jofferty. When we came in about fifteen minutes ago, we found something that doesn't belong. Max is going to be renting my carriage house for the summer," she found it necessary to explain.
"My aunt, who's just been widowed too, will be staying with me. However, that's neither here nor there. The point is, we opened the door and discovered this looking glass hanging on the wall here in the entryway. Max says it's valuable and I have no idea how it got into my house. Mr. Lomax is the only person other than myself who's supposed to have a key, and you know Jed Lomax."
Naturally, Jofferty knew Jed Lomax. Like Sarah, he refused to entertain any notion that the caretaker could have got up to something even the slightest bit shady. While he was getting Max to tell him the probable market value of a genuine Bilbao looking glass in first-rate condition, the old man himself drove up in his fishy-smelling truck. As they'd expected, Lomax didn't know a thing.
"I can't rightly recall ever seein' that glass before, Miz Kelling. Kind o' pretty, if you like them sort o' things. Say, how come you got the front door open, anyways? You folks always go in the side."
"I know, but my handbag's crammed with stuff and this was the first key I could find. Otherwise, the glass might have hung there all summer and I wouldn't have noticed. This is such a poky little entry that it's never used except when somebody comes to the front door who doesn't know any better. But you do check the doors, Mr. Lomax."
"I do, an' I done it yesterday same as always. Never seen no sign o' breakin' an' enterin', or I'd o' reported it. You been around to look, Max?"
"You two know each other?" Jofferty asked in some surprise.
"Hell, yes, that's Isaac Bittersohn's boy from Saugus. Known 'im since he was knee-high to a flounder. Yep, that's the one that busted his mother's heart."
The caretaker shook his grizzled head, the long peak of the filthy swordfisherman's cap he wore summer and winter wagging sadly from side to side.
"Miz Bittersohn, she swore up, down, an' sideways Max was goin' to come one mighty cropper when he started that crazy business of his 'stead o' studyin' to be a rich doctor like she wanted 'im to. Then he went an' made a liar out of 'er. Been a sad disappointment, first an' last."
Lomax would hardly have gone so far as to smile, but he did give Mrs. Bittersohn's sad disappointment a look that might almost have been called amiable. "Joff, if Max here tells you this lookin' glass is worth stealin', then I'll bet you my bottom dollar it's been stole. An' you may lay to that."CHAPTER 2
Embarrassed at having gone so far as to commit himself to a definite opinion, Lomax shuffled his feet, hitched at his galluses, and adjusted his cap.
"You need me to help settle, Miz Kelling? If not, I better go stake them tomato plants."
"One thing before you go, Jed," said Max. "Forget you ever saw this looking glass, eh?"
"But why?" Sarah protested. "If it belongs in one of the other houses Mr. Lomax takes care of—"
"The owners may begin wondering how it happened to wind up in your house instead of theirs," Max finished for her.
Excerpted from The Bilbao Looking Glass by Charlotte MacLeod. Copyright © 1983 Charlotte MacLeod. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
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