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Jane Wheel has a lot of stuff. Vintage flowerpots, postcards, Bakelite buttons, pencil sharpeners, mismatched china, linens, even old report cards from children she never knew peek out from the deepest corners of her home, threatening to envelop her entire life. Of course, she's not just a pack rat (or so she tells herself), it's her job: Jane is an antique picker, cruising garage sales and rummage tables looking for items she can turn around and sell to dealers or collectors, picking up a tidy profit. Trouble ...
Jane Wheel has a lot of stuff. Vintage flowerpots, postcards, Bakelite buttons, pencil sharpeners, mismatched china, linens, even old report cards from children she never knew peek out from the deepest corners of her home, threatening to envelop her entire life. Of course, she's not just a pack rat (or so she tells herself), it's her job: Jane is an antique picker, cruising garage sales and rummage tables looking for items she can turn around and sell to dealers or collectors, picking up a tidy profit. Trouble is, she does a lot of buying and so far only a little selling.
When a school permission slip lost among the towering boxes in Jane's kitchen causes her son, Nick, to miss a field trip, Jane vows to get rid of it all, organizing her house and, in the process, she hopes, her life. Meanwhile, she's entertaining two offers of employment—-as an associate with her friend Tim Lowry's antiques dealership and as a consultant in a private investigations firm with former police detective Bruce Oh. Unable to decide, Jane figures she'll take a crack at splitting her time between the two pursuits.
Immediately, and with fragile emotions swirling from her great house-cleaning project, Jane finds herself smack in the middle of a case that will draw on both her new jobs. An antiques dealer has been accused of murder, perhaps as part of covering up an extensive furniture-counterfeiting operation. Jane can hardly wait to investigate—-that is, until she learns the identity of the accused: Claire Oh, wife of her new partner Bruce. Rich in the details of junk-sale ephemera that have intrigued fans of previous Jane Wheel adventures, The Wrong Stuff is another fascinating, meticulously crafted mystery.
Jane Wheel kept up her frantic inner monologue as she stuffed the last small candelabra into her blue plaid shopping bag. Talking to herself calmed her somehow, made her act rather than react. If she gave herself too much time to think, she'd debate every item, every vintage stapler and Bakelite pencil sharpener that rattled in the bottom of one of her overstuffed bags. This candlestick made six. They were badly tarnished and she didn't have time to check for a mark with Big Elvis breathing down the back of her neck. What was he doing out of the book room, anyway? Had he finally succeeded in steamrollering over every other shopper and taping off the room for himself with a big SOLD sign?
He had about a dozen record albums tucked under his arm and was peering over her shoulder, poised on the balls of his feet, ready to pounce on anything she didn't stuff into her bag. His six-foot-four-inch frame-six-feet-six-and-a-half-inch, if you counted his pompadour-gave him an advantage at these sales. He could see over and reach past almost any shopper who had carved out space closer to the jam-packed tables. Jane smelled him even before he cast his shadow over her. She suspected he didn't brush his teeth or bathe as an offensive weapon in the battle for killer stuff. If he couldn't get there first, he could drive you away faster, overwhelming you with his bulk, his bravado, and his body odor.
What were all these dealers and pickers like Big Elvis doing at St. Perpetua's rummage sale anyway? Jane handicapped garage sales the way a racetrack tout eyeballed the ponies. She studied the classifieds and looked for all the clues that meant a good sale, but not one so good that it promised to be overcrowded-the kind where dealers slept in their cars the night before and collected all the early numbers so a loner like Jane wouldn't even get through the door until the third hour of the sale. Sure, she could doze in her car with the best of them, waiting for the sun to rise and the front door of the sale house to open; but most weekends, Jane preferred finding the sleeper, the underdog, the darkhorse sale, and laying her money down there.
Besides, Jane had a husband and a son who expected her to sleep at home most nights and keep some kind of cereal box in the cupboard and to occasionally check the expiration date on the milk carton. For Charley's and Nick's sakes, she had to maintain the vestiges of normal life, so she picked her sales not only by the most tempting description of items but also by proximity and size. A smaller rummage sale at an out-of-the-way church like St. Perpetua's on Chicago's northwest side might yield more for her than one of the big Northshore estate sales, where dealers had already made deals and pickers like Big Elvis had already homesteaded on the lawn for two days.
So why? she asked herself again, fingering a gaudy pink ashtray from the forties that had SOUVENIR OF CORAL GABLES written across a flamingo's back, slowly turning it in her hand, savoring the fact that another picker was salivating behind her, were Big E and some of the other regulars poking around the tables here? She nestled the ashtray into the bubblewrap she had in one of her bags and backed away.
It was a gorgeous October Friday, all full of sun and crisp air that sliced through your window at 4:00 A.M.-3:00 A.M. if you had any real driving to do-when a picker's alarm went off. And this was a day when there were at least four conducted estate sales that sounded choice. Two of these were run by professionals who actually seemed to like their work, priced fairly, and didn't stare you down when you were in line to pay, gambling on how much they could demand for the unmarked item you so clearly lusted after. There was even another rummage sale, a much larger one at a church in Glenview, which boasted a furniture tent and a treasure room. It was the kind of Friday morning when Jane should have had St. Perpetua's to herself.
Since Jane had agreed to pick for her friend Tim Lowry in addition to her mentor, Miriam, whose shop in Ohio she had been supplying with vintage linens, pottery, old tools, school primers, Alice and Jerry readers, Pyrex mixing bowls, bird prints, group photographs, maps, old frames, and anything else that could be spotted, grabbed, stuffed, inventoried, priced, repacked, and shipped, she found herself playing the smart little pig to Big Elvis's big bad wolf more and more. No matter how early the big bad wolf said to meet him at the apple tree, little piggy Jane would get up earlier and beat him there. Or she would try to find a sweeter orchard.
She had been reveling in this sale at St. Perpetua's, spending the time it took to search through books for foxing, the worn brown spots that dramatically downgraded their collectiblity. She had actually taken the time to unfold colorful old tablecloths to look for stains. Her fellow shoppers had been neighborhood people, parishioners, and thrifty mothers looking for bargains on toys and children's clothes. Now she was elbow to elbow with the piranhas of the picking world, whom she had been so smug about avoiding.
The answer to the puzzle hit her as she was in line to pay. As she removed all the objects from her bags for a nun whose speed and accuracy on the calculator only added to her tough-as-nails, all-business demeanor, she glanced at the vintage watch pin Sister Higgins wore right under her name tag. The clock face was upside down to the world, but right side up to the nun, who would have been able to glance down and know in a heartbeat if Little Bobby had actually spent the required five minutes presenting his oral book report. Jane, staring straight ahead at the hawk-eyed nun, after years in the advertising world presiding over meetings she had wanted to be long over, could easily read the time upside down.
Never wanting to look at her own watch, insulting the people to whom she was supposed to be raptly listening, she'd nod seriously, flutter her eyelids, and glance across the conference table at an account executive's Rolex. If the group had been arguing the merits of a tired television campaign or more than sixty minutes, Jane could take action. No one wanted a meeting to last more than an hour, so she could sympathetically look at the speaker, hold up a kindly hand, and ask if anyone had the time since she knew there were other meetings scheduled and her own Timex had once again stopped. Knowing full well the time from the Armani suit's Rolex, she'd listen to someone say it aloud, then stand and shrug, promising to schedule another meeting as soon as possible to clean up the loose ends. How had she lasted sixteen years in that business?
It was 10:45 A.M. according to Sister Higgins's bosom. No wonder Big E and the rest were lurking-they had fished out the other sales and were winding up their morning shopping at St. Perpetua's. Could she really have spent almost four hours at one sale? Even though she was surprised for the moment, Jane knew in the next that she could account for every second. It was, in fact, all the leafing through pages, all the unfolding that she had luxuriated in. The dealers and pickers had ricocheted through the other sales like stray bullets and now had honed in on her territory. It was time for her to go home and unpack the bags. She had promised Charley to meet him there for lunch, and she wasn't sure if there was anything edible in the refrigerator. She'd zip home, unload, wash her hands, and pick up a lunch they couldn't afford at the gourmet shop near their house. Luckily Foodstuffs accepted credit cards. Sister Higgins and St. Perpetua's had claimed all her cash.
Jane patted her pockets to make sure she had her wallet and cell phone and slid into the car. She flipped down the visor and opened the mirror to check her face for streaks of dirt. When she'd first started making the rounds of the morning sales, she had returned home, looked in the mirror, and seen herself: wild-eyed and glazed with streaks of grime. Pawing through the leavings of others could be a dirty business. These days she stocked the car with a picker's essentials; power bars, water bottles, antibacterial ointment, Band-Aids, and cleaning-up supplies.
She took out a tissue and doused it with some of the liquid "waterless" soap she kept in the glove compartment and wiped her cheek. She saw that she still had the glazed and frantic look she sometimes wore at a sale. Yes, she had gotten calmer and become more professional, but she still could get worked up into a picker's frenzy when she worked a solid little sale like this. And until the last few minutes, she'd felt like she had all of St. Perpetua's rummage to herself-a picker's dream. She closed her brown eyes and took a deep breath before opening them, smiled, and reclaimed her face.
Jane loved her work. Unlike her former days at the agency producing television commercials, when she felt she should be issuing hourly apologies for cluttering people's minds and hearts with meaningless messages, making them want the frivolous, buy the unnecessary, she now did honest work. She recycled, reclaimed, and relocated. She took on the unwanted and the frivolous and gave it meaning. Instead of cluttering people's minds, she now filled them with ... what? Desire for another kind of clutter? Retro reminders of the good and bad old days? No, absolutely not. She provided the tokens and talismans that people needed to express their true selves, or at least that's what it felt like on a good day.
On a bad day, the perfect-looking vase in the bottom of the box that might have been a McCoy had a crack and no maker's mark. The ten-pound tin of buttons were all dirty, broken, white shirt buttons and melted sixties plastic-no Bakelite cookie in the bunch. And the sweet little train case with the sticky lock finally popped open at Jane's kitchen table to reveal a dead mouse-or worse. She had found a few other nonvintage, noncollectibles in her travels. There was neighbor Sandy Balance's dead body, and then Oscar Bateman's severed finger.... Yes, the picking life had its share of bad days.
Today wouldn't be one of them, Jane was sure. She had a bagful of silver that Tim would love and at least ten great forties' tablecloths, unused, still tagged, that Miriam would pay top dollar for. Jane had also found four wide Bakelite bangles in the bottom of a shoebox full of costume jewelry. She'd paid three dollars for the whole box. It was one of those "Eureka" moments that still had her heart racing. The bracelets weren't carved or fancy in any way, but two were red, one was butterscotch, and one was creamed corn, her favorite colors, and had a lovely thickness and patina. She'd have to test them, of course, but she was sure after she dabbed a bit of Simichrome polish on them, her cotton swab would have the yellowish tint of victory. She felt like singing.
Besides, she reasoned with herself, even the bad days-the body-finding days-had led to the crime-solving days, and she knew that might be leading her in another direction altogether. Det. Bruce Oh had seen the value in her keen eye and sharp sense of objects. He had asked her to consider working with him as a PI. And on a day like today, when she had found all the right stuff and been there first, she thought she just might be able to do it all-be a picker and a PI and live happily ever after.
Jane backed her maroon Altima into the driveway-all the better to unpack the trunk efficiently-but when the garage door opened, she saw that it would be impossible to park her car next to the makeshift shelves where she wrapped and packaged goods to mail to Miriam in Ohio. Charley's old Jeep was already parked inside the two-car space, made barely one car because of the boxes, bags, and stacks of books, records, piles of picture frames, three-legged chairs, and broken dresser drawers that Jane intended to make into shadow-box frames. One corner of the garage was devoted to a pile of more than thirty old wooden shutters that Jane had hauled away from a Dumpster parked at a neighborhood teardown that she thought might make cool CD racks if cleaned and hung properly. She had seen it in a magazine and thought she might turn a few of these into well-crafted, recycled pieces of usable art. When she had some spare time.
Why had she promised Charley a nice lunch on a Friday?
More to the point, why had he beaten her home?
Jane, still carrying two plaid overstuffed shopping bags, shouldered her way into the house through the narrow laundry room. The shelves over the washing machine and dryer had been claimed by stacks of vintage cookbooks and boxes of "souvenir kitchenalia" that Jane had to sort before sending out to Ohio. State map tablecloths, dish towels, and aprons; spoon rests in the shape of Florida oranges, California avocados, and Arizona cacti were wedged next to a bottle of laundry detergent and a dusty box of fabric softener sheets that Jane had never opened. She stepped over an overflowing laundry basket and wondered for a moment whether the clothes were clean or dirty.
"Charley?" Jane called. She could hear muffled voices from his study, a euphemism for a closet-sized former sun-porch they had converted for him just off the dining room. "Are you on the phone?"
Jane set her bags down on the kitchen table, already covered with the remains of two morning papers, Nick's breakfast, and yesterday's mail. She had also put two old wooden "tills" on the table-thick wooden trays that had carved-out valleys to hold change from what she hoped was an old general store. The one indentation that was so worn that it was mended with a thin piece of board tacked on from the bottom especially charmed her. It must have held the pennies, she had thought at the flea market when she first ran her own fingers over the worn wood. Now the spaces held Bakelite buttons sorted by size and color. She was thinking about displaying them somehow, but had not yet determined the means.
Two voices in the study? Maybe Charley had invited a graduate student for lunch. She hoped not.
Excerpted from THE WRONG Stuff by SHARON FIFFER Copyright © 2003 by Sharon Fiffer. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted April 12, 2011
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