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Give Up the Dead
A Jay Porter Novel
By Joe Clifford
Oceanview PublishingCopyright © 2017 Joe Clifford
All rights reserved.
Dinner was nice. Not the meal so much. The only restaurant we could find open on Thanksgiving was Denny's, and you never walk out of Denny's saying, "That was a good decision" But spending time with my wife and son, just the three of us, the way it's supposed to be — the way it used to be — at least for an hour or so, I was happy, content, at peace. Then her new husband picked them up in his nicer car, and I had to say goodbye to my family in an overcast parking lot as the cold November winds blew.
I tried to rub feeling back in my leg. The nerve damage from an accident three years ago always hurt worse in winter. The pain radiated down my calf, shot into my ribs, jabbing my heart. I dropped my plastic bag of turkey leftovers, lit a cigarette, and tried to forget where it all went wrong.
I was failing miserably when my boss Tom Gable called.
"Will you be able to make an auction tonight?"
"Hate to ask on Thanksgiving. But I got the wife and in-laws at the house, and Freddie is crawling up my ass. This fella, Keith Mortenson, flew in from North Carolina. He's clearing out the family estate. Old money. Real antsy to get back. If we don't host, he'll go to Owen Eaton, and we lose the commission. Supposed to be some bargains."
Wasn't often we got asked to auction on a holiday. In fact I couldn't remember having done one before. And I'd been clearing estates for Tom Gable since high school.
"Besides your usual percentage," Tom said, "how's three hundred sound?"
Sounded pretty fucking good. I was hurting for cash, and I needed something to do with my evening. All I had waiting for me at home was a dumpy one-bedroom above a filling station and a fat cat with whom I didn't particularly get along. Staring at a three-hour drive back to New Hampshire, long stretches of desolate highway, with too much time to think, I would've done it for free. Not that I was telling Tom that.
"Give me a few," I said. "I'm still in Burlington." I didn't need to mention what I was doing there. Tom knew about my life.
"Plenty of time. Auction doesn't start till seven. Dulac said he'd open the shop. Stop by my place. I'll give you the money."
Jacques Dulac rented the other half of the warehouse, a gardening supply outlet that didn't do much business this time of year. During slow months he didn't mind if we stashed our showcase on his side of the room. But that meant when the night was over, I'd have to drag everything back to our side. Total pain in the ass. Which was why I was stoked Tom had acquired a new warehouse in Pittsfield. With way more square footage, the new space was big enough to house a permanent display and host sales. No more rolling stones up a hill.
I flicked my burning cigarette into a snow bank and hoisted my gimpy leg inside the Chevy. "On my way."
"Thanks, Jay. I don't know what I'd do without you."
An ice storm poised to slam us that night. Winter had gotten an early start this season. Life on the mountain. I punched the truck in gear and tried not to think about temporary dinners, permanent missteps, and the possibility of different lives. This afternoon my wife and son were on loan. Seeing Aiden, now almost six years old, hearing the stuff that would come out of his mouth, the one-liners and comebacks, knowing I wouldn't be around to catch those little moments killed me. I turned up the radio so I didn't have to think. Springsteen didn't help.
By the time I crossed state lines I'd worked myself up. It's not the proms or weddings, the driver's license tests or Little League games. I'd catch the big stuff. The real remorse rooted in the mundane, the day-to-day. Silliness around the breakfast table, family movies on a snowy night, hot chocolate, decorating a tree, someone else playing Dad.
Another reason I was grateful for Tom's call. If I focused on work, I could avoid wallowing in the shallow ends of self-pity. And for the first time in a long time, I had my eye on the prize. Tom Gable was getting out of the antiques' game. He wanted to sell. And he wanted me to buy.
"I'm tired of busting ass up here," he said. "Winter lasts too damned long on this mountain. And I've always liked you, Jay."
I liked him too. But mutual admiration wasn't making me forty grand richer. I'd need at least that much to get a loan. My entire life I never enjoyed more than a thousand bucks in the bank. Jenny and her new husband may've shared a big house in the swanky suburbs of Burlington, but I was struggling to keep my head above water in Ashton. Tom and I had a handshake agreement. One year to come up with the cash. Otherwise he'd be forced to sell to Owen Eaton and the Clearing House.
By the time I got to Tom's farmhouse in the foothills, the sky had fallen hard, a slate curtain lowered. Tom met me on the porch with a fat envelope. He was drunk, the big man unsteady on his feet, another reason not to get behind the wheel on these twisty, frozen trails. Sounded like a helluva party inside. I peered around my boss's hefty frame, smelling hot brandy, apples and cinnamon. House was packed, a middle-aged rager. Old-timey Christmas music blared. I saw his wife, Freddie, who smiled and waved me in. I held up the envelope, and she returned an understanding nod.
Tom clasped my shoulder. "Thanks, Jay," he said, slurring, leading me off the porch to my truck as silver flakes floated down from the heavens. "Really bailing me out."
"Not a problem."
"Really bailing me out," he repeated.
On my way off the mountain, I got a call from my buddy, Charlie, who was at the Dubliner, the pub on the other side of town where he spent most nights, drinking beer, playing darts, wasting his life. He'd often try to drag me down with him. I usually begged off. I had to be up at the crack of dawn, and at almost thirty-five years old I'd grown sick of the bar scene. I heard the desperation in his voice tonight. Even though I was running late, I invited him along, hoping he'd say no. He jumped at the offer. After his latest DUI, Charlie wasn't able to drive, so I had to pick him up. I tried to convince myself it's always better to have an extra set of hands, even if Charlie's bad back and lazy disposition made him a lousy helper. Divorced or never married? What difference does it make? Holidays suck when you're alone.
"How's this work?" Charlie asked as we walked in the warehouse, ice shellacking snowdrifts into frozen waves like some postmodern sculpture. Several trucks cluttered the lot. Lamentation Mountain always bore the brunt of nor'easters.
"You never did an auction for Tom?"
After I quit the business a few years back to try my hand at corporate, a brief experiment that did not end well, Charlie left the phone company to take over for me. Sort of. Charlie was a shiftless employee, and Tom stopped using him.
"I guess Tom didn't trust me with that much money."
Charlie's current gig was milking workman's comp for a back injury he sustained climbing telephone poles. His back was messed up. Putting on the pounds hadn't helped. He looked like Jon Favreau, improbably fatter every time I saw him.
The showroom crazed chaotic, merchandise being wheeled in, set up, staged. I pulled my notepad and started taking inventory.
"How was dinner with Jenny and Aiden?" Charlie asked.
In addition to cataloging, a painstaking task, I was also doing surveillance, scoping out what to bid on. I was rolling with five large in my pocket. There were certain items Tom always liked to target — dining and living room sets were a favorite because of the considerable markup — but I had leeway. Right now I had my eye on a Horner end table and Claremore sofa. The Flemish buffet looked good too. I began adding dollars and cents. A ten to fifteen percent markup was my sweet spot.
"Was he there?" Charlie asked.
"Was who where?" I spotted a Serapi carpet. New, those things went for ten grand.
"Y'know ... him?" Charlie mimed jerking off, my nickname for Stephen, Jenny's new husband.
"Are you fucking serious? No. Just us three."
"That was nice of him."
"Of him? Yeah, he's a real fucking sweetheart."
First time I met Stephen, I almost punched him in the head. And that was before he was fucking my wife. I still called Jenny my wife. Didn't matter that we had been divorced for three years, which was almost three times longer than we'd been married. Jenny and I had been together since high school. Some day we'd all sit around the table — me, Stephen, Jenny, Aiden — a modern TV family. I was fine with that day not being today.
"I mean, it's his family, too."
"They were my family first."
I led Charlie across the floor. A group of buyers huddled around a dark oak Wright Mansfield sideboard and Mid-Century Modular sofa. I was about to put in a bid when I saw Owen Eaton, the other man standing in the way of my dreams.
Almost didn't recognize him at first — Owen, too, had packed on a few pounds. Everyone got fatter but me. He was talking to a slight, brown-haired man, off to the side, whispering. When he spotted me, he whisked the little man outside, bee-lining to gladhand.
They say the mark of a man is how he treats others who can't do anything for him. By that standard, Owen Eaton was a prick. Unless the guy personally profited, you might as well be squeegeeing windshields at a traffic light. Cozying up to me wasn't helping his chances of buying Tom's company. That he'd come rushing over, chirpy as a junkie following a fix, a dead giveaway something was fishy.
"Who was that ?" I asked, pointing out the back door where the brown-haired man had been jettisoned.
"Oh him?" Owen said, dismissing my query as if I'd just asked about the key grip in a B-movie. "Keith Mortenson." Like the guy who'd orchestrated today's major sale of high-end merchandise was but a minor detail.
They were still rolling in bigger, more elegant pieces. Milo Baugham loungers, Soren-Georg rocking chairs. Not the kind of score you often found in Ashton. Why was a guy who lived in North Carolina in such a hurry to hawk gems like this up here? There were pieces from all over the world. Each part of the globe carries unique markers. Europe, South America, Mexico. To the trained eye, even gold sparkles differently.
"Not bad," Owen said, eyes roving disinterested over the room, a conman's lowball strategy. "Might be decent find or two."
"Who's helping you tonight?" I asked.
"Flying solo." He feigned consideration for his underlings. "Didn't want to bother my men on Thanksgiving."
"Charlie," I said, nodding at a Wepner stool on the other side of the room. "Do me a favor. See what they are asking for that ?"
I pointed at a stool I didn't give two shits about. Tom already had a set.
I waited till he was gone.
"What's the deal?" I said.
"Same as you. Tryin' to land a few quality —"
"Cut the shit, Owen." The Clearing House was big enough to employ top-flight appraisers, a whole division for purchasing. "Spare me the holiday crap." Owen Eaton would turn out his own mother on Christmas if he thought she'd fetch a nickel.
Owen glanced toward the back door. I pushed past him, bulling outside into the dark parking lot and biting mountain air.
The man he had been talking to, Keith Mortenson, waited across the snowy gravel, beside a small moving van, its doors closed. He squinted in our direction through the slashing sleet.
Owen came trotting after me, reaching for my arm, out of breath.
"You're trying to buy a piece off-site ? In our parking lot ?"
"No, we were about to ... Okay, you caught me," he said, hushing his voice, which was a stupid precaution, since Keith Mortenson couldn't hear us above the swishing winds. Owen feigned a smile, but it came out more a leer. "Tried to sneak off without payin' the taxman." He pulled a fifty from his clip.
How stupid did he think I was ? Confessing to a lesser crime so I'd look past the elephant hiding beneath the bed sheet, classic misdirection.
I nodded at the moving truck. "What's he got in there? Don't bullshit me."
"Chaucer antique French-carved dresser display cabinet and sideboard."
In decent condition, the 18th century piece could be flipped for twenty tomorrow. Excellent condition, twenty-five wouldn't be out of the question.
Keith Mortenson, with his limp hair and tender frame, didn't have a clue.
"What are you offering?"
Owen fumbled with his hands, chewing on the inside of his cheek. I started toward the truck.
"A grand," he said.
"You're a dirtbag."
"I'll cut you in, Porter. A thousand to keep your mouth shut. Pay Tom his percentage. Or don't. You come up big just by walking away. What do you say?"
If Owen was giving Mortenson a grand, and offering me a thousand more not to say anything, he already had a buyer.
"How much are you selling it for?"
"I'm not at liberty —"
"Hey," I called out to Keith Mortenson. "Open that truck." Mortenson checked with Owen. "Don't worry about him."
Owen muttered obscenities while Keith Mortenson opened the doors.
I climbed in the back of the van and pulled the flashlight on my phone. Not a single ding or dent. "Do you have any idea what this is?"
"My ... mother's ... old dresser."
"Did she ever use it?"
"Mr. Mortenson, that is an antique. One of a kind. Vintage. Top of the line. Mint."
My news didn't register.
"I've been in estate clearing most of my life," I said, hopping down. "I have never seen a piece like this."
"What are you saying?"
"I'm saying that man there —" I glanced over my shoulder, not bothering to shield my disdain "— is trying to fuck you."
Owen Eaton wedged in front of me, in full spin mode. The snow and sleet had begun accumulating at our feet. A fierce howl ripped up the ravine, making it hard to hear.
"Antiques are a tricky business," Owen said. "Not an exact science."
"Don't pull that horseshit. You know how much this is worth."
"Yeah? And where do you suggest Keith here go?" He appealed to Mortenson, before glancing up at the unforgiving sky. "You need to get home to North Carolina? Feel free to try the pawnshop." He pretended to check his watch. "They'll be open in another twelve hours." Owen laughed like we were all old pals. "This is why you come to men like us. Yes, I plan on makin' money. That's my job. I'm giving you a fair price."
"The fuck you are, Owen."
Mortenson looked to me. "My wife's waiting for me. I have a flight to catch."
"Tell you what," Owen said. "I can go as high as two five."
"A real fucking prince."
I had five grand in my pocket. Cold, hard cash. I knew I could get at least twenty. I mean, I was pretty sure. But it wasn't my money. "Can you give me a minute, Mr. Mortenson?"
"Maybe he can," Owen said. "But I can't. This storm is getting bad. I need to get on the road. Listen, Keith, I will pay you three thousand. Right here, right now. But I need your answer."
I could go all in. I had wiggle room but I couldn't go entirely off script. I knew Tom would love to quadruple his money. If I was right.
Keith Mortenson checked with me one last time.
What could I say? Owen had called my bluff. I wasn't a gambler.
"Just make sure we get our cut," I said.
Owen handed me back that fifty and added one more. "Keep the change, Porter."
I headed inside and let Owen complete his swindle. So much for being noble. Mortenson was handing over the prized possession. Owen Eaton was about to make a killing. And for my effort ? I was out a thousand bucks.
I'd almost gotten to the door when Mortenson called after me, running up and passing me a wadded ball of fabric.
"Really appreciate you doing this last-minute sale, Mr. Porter," he said.
I opened the gift, holding it by the shoulders. A winter coat. I could use a new one. Mine was threadbare and worn to shit, frayed at the cuffs. I knew I should say thanks, but I'd lost my family, was out a lot of money, and just wasted my Thanksgiving. I wasn't thanking anyone for a fucking coat.
Excerpted from Give Up the Dead by Joe Clifford. Copyright © 2017 Joe Clifford. Excerpted by permission of Oceanview Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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