It's fall in North Harbor, Maine, where Sarah owns a charming secondhand shop and sells lovingly refurbished items of all kinds. The shop is always bustling--and not just because a quirky team of senior-citizen detectives works out of it and manages to get in even more trouble than Sarah's rough-and-tumble rescue cat, Elvis.
A cold case heats up when young Mallory Pearson appears at the shop. Mallory's father is in prison for negligence after her stepmother's mysterious death, but Mallory believes he is innocent and asks the in-house detectives to take on the case. With Sarah and Elvis lending a paw, the detectives decide to try to give Mallory's father a second chance of his own.
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The first thing I saw when I made it to the back wall of the storage unit was Elvis, sitting on top of a wooden casket. He looked at me, cocking his head to one side, and his expression seemed to say, Look what I found!
"Good grief, what's that doing in here?" I said.
He didn't answer. Not that I expected him to, seeing as he was a small, black cat and not the swivel-hipped King of Rock and Roll.
I reached up and ran my hand over the smooth surface of the long wooden box. When I'd bought the contents of the storage space-and a second one three doors down-I'd given things a cursory check, just enough to feel comfortable about making an offer. The fact that the owner of the building had taken that offer without haggling had made me wish I'd offered a little less. At the time, I hadn't spotted the coffin-that's definitely what it was-sitting on several wooden packing crates by the end wall.
"Hey, Sarah, you all right?" my brother Liam called. He'd come along as muscle to help me load my SUV and the trailer it was pulling. He'd been in town for several days, consulting on the harbor front development project.
"I'm fine," I said, raising my voice a little so he could hear me. "You won't believe what Elvis found."
"Let me guess. The real Elvis in one of those white jumpsuits?"
The cat Elvis, who as far as he was concerned was the real Elvis, wrinkled his nose as though he'd understood Liam's words.
"Ha-ha. Very funny," I said. "No, he found a coffin." I looked around for Charlotte but couldn't see her. Charlotte Elliot worked for me part-time. She was also one of my grandmother's closest friends, which was how she'd ended up with a job at my shop.
"Ha-ha. Very funny back at you," Liam retorted. I could hear him moving boxes and furniture out of the way as he made his way to me.
"I'm not joking. It has to be at least six feet long. I think someone made it."
"It's probably just some big wooden box." He gave a grunt of effort and I saw a stack of boxes behind me shift sideways.
"There's a cross carved on the top and there are four handles on the side. It's a casket."
Liam poked his head above a six-foot-long metal toboggan that was blocking his way and grinned at me. He was a shade over six feet himself, with blond hair and blue-gray eyes. "You better hope the person who rented this space wasn't trying to save money in other ways besides not paying for the last six months." He craned his neck and studied the wooden box. "Assuming that's not the person who rented the space in the first place."
There was an orange foam football sitting on an upside-down wooden chair that looked like it had been wrapped in zebra-print duct tape. I threw the football at his head. It bounced off his left shoulder and landed near his feet.
"Your elbow's too high," he said. "Your arm should be making a right angle."
I stuck out my tongue at him.
Elvis's curiosity seemed to be getting the better of him. He scratched at the edge of the wooden box then looked at me.
"You're right," I said. "We should take a look inside, but you'll have to move." I picked him up and put him on the seat of the flipped-over chair. My hair was coming loose from the ponytail I'd pulled it into when we'd arrived at the warehouse. I yanked the elastic loose, raked my fingers through my hair and refastened it.
"You're not really going to look inside that thing, are you?" Liam asked.
"It's pretty much the only way we're going to find out what's in there." I looked over my shoulder at him. "And by the way, if that box actually does have an occupant they'll hear me scream over at the shop."
Liam snatched the foam football from the floor. "I'm ready to protect you," he said, a grin pulling at the corners of his mouth.
"Good to know that if there's a zombie inside you'll bean him with a perfect spiral," I said dryly.
He traced a finger down the outside of his left arm. "Note the perfect right angle, which is what will enable me to throw that perfect spiral, should it become necessary, baby sister." Liam-who was technically my stepbrother-was a month older and never let me forget it.
I laughed and shook my head. He was such a smartass.
Then I hooked my fingers under the thin edge of the lid, blew out a breath and lifted. Elvis craned his neck to see. We exchanged a look.
"So?" Liam couldn't see the inside of the casket from where he was standing.
"Well, I wasn't expecting this," I said. The cat murped his agreement, whiskers twitching.
"Expecting what?" Liam asked impatiently.
I glanced over my shoulder at him again.
He looked at me with one raised eyebrow. "I was only kidding before about someone actually being-" He stopped for a moment. "There isn't, is there?"
"It's full of tea," I said.
"Tea?" His eyes darted from side to side and a frown knotted his forehead.
"Uh-huh," I said. "Boxes of tea, lots of them. And two, maybe three, Pendleton blankets." I ran my hand over the soft, cream-colored wool with the traditional green, red, yellow and black stripes at the border. "We shouldn't have any problem selling these in the shop."
My business, Second Chance, was a cross between a vintage store and a secondhand shop. We sold everything from furniture to dishes to guitars-mostly things from the fifties through the seventies. Some of our stock had been repurposed from its original use: a side table made from an old library card catalog cabinet or a lawyer's bookcase turned nightstand. But much of it just needed someone to appreciate its beauty.
The store was located in an old red brick house from the late 1800s, at the edge of downtown North Harbor, Maine. We were maybe a fifteen- to twenty-minute walk from the harbor front and not far from the off-ramp for the highway, which meant we were easy for tourists to get to.
As a kid I'd spent my summers in North Harbor with my grandmother, my dad's mom. It was where my father had grown up. Eventually I'd bought a house that I'd renovated and rented. For several years I was the host of a late-night syndicated radio show that featured classic rock music. When the media company that owned my station and seven others changed hands, I was replaced by a music feed from California and a nineteen-year-old with a tan and ombre hair who gave the temperature every hour. I'd landed on Gram's doorstep, at the urging of my mom, to try to figure out what I wanted to do next. I'd ended up staying in North Harbor and opening Second Chance.
I picked up one of the boxes of tea and checked the label for the best-before date. "Hey, this is good for another six months."
"You're not really going to drink that stuff, are you?" Liam asked.
"Sarah, what brand of tea is it?" Charlotte called.
"Red Rose," I said.
"Proper tea bags?" Charlotte took her tea very seriously.
"As far as I can tell."
"And how many tea bags are there in the box?"
I turned it over in my hands. "Seventy-two." I looked at the other boxes packed carefully in the wooden casket. "There must be a dozen boxes here at least."
Charlotte appeared then behind Liam. She was wearing a chambray shirt with the sleeves rolled up. She reminded me of actress Helen Mirren. She was tall with lovely posture and white hair cut in a sleek, chin-length bob.
"And a red box," she said, beaming at me. "Splendid!"
"Why does the color of the box matter?" Liam asked, a look of puzzlement on his face.
"Because it tells me that it's Canadian Red Rose tea," Charlotte said.
I nodded because I knew what she meant. Liam didn't. He frowned. "And the nationality of the tea is important because?"
"Because it's orange pekoe, which is Rose's favorite," I said.
Rose Jackson was another of my grandmother's longtime friends, a tiny dynamo in sensible shoes. She also worked for me part-time. She swore the Canadian version of Red Rose tea made a very different cup from the tea the company sold here. Any time we went "across the lines," as she called a trip over the US/Canadian border, our first stop was always a grocery store so Rose could replenish her stash. I knew she'd be tickled with this find.
Rose was also like a second grandmother to me and to Liam. She doted on him and he in turn would do anything for her, including, it turned out, carry a six-foot coffin outside and strap it to the trailer attached to the back of my SUV.
"I have a feeling I'd like whoever rented this storage unit," Charlotte said, putting her arm around my shoulders. "He or she was clearly a very practical person." She patted the top of the casket. "Short-term storage for now and long-term storage for later. Very sensible."
Liam rolled his eyes and Charlotte winked at me.
"You're not going to actually sell that thing in the store, are you?" he asked.
"I'm not sure," I said. "We've sold some pretty odd things." I nudged Charlotte with my hip. "Do you remember that suit of armor?"
"I most certainly do," she said with a smile. "I'm the one who cleaned and polished it. And don't forget about those department-store mannequins."
I nodded in agreement. The life-sized figures had come from a department store that had gone out of business. To my amazement it turned out there were people who collected old department store mannequins. After a short stint in our front window as members of the band KISS-part of our Halloween window display-the four figures had been disassembled, packed and shipped to a man in northern Michigan.
I studied the long wooden box. "This may be pushing it, though," I said. "But I'm pretty sure Avery will be able to come up with a way to use this in the front-window display for Halloween."
"Whatever she does it will be creative," Charlotte said. "You know she's been painting pumpkins black, don't you?"
I nodded. "She asked me for black paint, cheesecloth and twinkle lights. I don't have any doubt that window will be creative."
Avery wasn't one of my grandmother's friends. She was, however, the granddaughter of one of them, Elizabeth Emmerson Kiley French, aka Liz. The teen had come to live with her grandmother after some issues at home. Avery went to a progressive private school that only had classes in the morning. In the afternoon she worked for me, a setup that had turned out well for everyone.
Liam had wrapped the long wooden box in a couple of padded moving blankets. He checked the tension on the bungee cords holding it in place on the trailer and then straightened up, brushing off his hands. "You know Christmas is coming and Dad does like practical presents," he began with a teasing smile.
I shook my head emphatically. "No. We are not giving Dad a casket for Christmas."
He cocked his head to one side. "I'm serious. You know how hard it is to figure out what to get for him." The gleam in his blue-gray eyes told me he wasn't really that serious.
"No," I said once more. "We're not giving our father a gift that says Merry Christmas, Peace on Earth, Is your will up to date?" I held up one hand before he could say anything else. "However, as you like to remind me, you are older than I am, so if you want it, consider it yours."
I'd seen Liam set the foam football on top of a cardboard carton in the trailer before he grabbed the bungee cords, so I was ready when he launched it in my direction. I snagged the ball out of the air and did my end-zone victory dance, which I admit looks a lot like the Bird Dance. Then I handed the ball to Charlotte and went back inside.
I cast a critical eye around the storage unit, trying to decide what would fit in the space we had left in the trailer and the SUV. Charlotte had discovered several boxes of books. They should fit into the back of the SUV, I decided. The books all seemed to be hardcover and would probably bring a few dollars each.
"I'll check out all of them," Charlotte said as we carried the cartons out. "Maybe we'll get lucky and find a first edition or two."
It wasn't that far-fetched. We'd found treasures before in odder places, including a Les Paul guitar in a barn and a Marklin model train in a pack rat's home. Our stock came from a variety of places: yard sales, flea markets, people looking to downsize. I'd once rescued a table from a ditch by the side of the road. I was also a regular customer of a couple of trash pickers. I'd already let one of those pickers-Teresa Reynard-go through the leftovers from the first storage unit we'd cleared out and I'd promised her the chance to go through the remains of this unit as well.
We strapped the toboggan Liam had discovered and a vintage wooden sled next to the casket in the trailer and filled the SUV with boxes. By the time we were ready to leave, the unit looked a lot emptier. By my estimate the contents of the first storage space would recoup more than what I paid for both, which meant the second one would be all profit.
Charlotte and I-along with Elvis-headed back to Second Chance in the SUV. Liam followed in his truck, which we'd also filled with a snow blower, a wheelbarrow and a collection of wire racks and rods that I was fairly certain was a closet organizing system, and several boxes of vintage canning jars.
I was very glad to have Liam's help. Normally Mac, my second in command, would have been with us. Mac Mackenzie was the proverbial jack-of-all-trades. There wasn't anything he couldn't fix or reconfigure as far as I'd seen. He was all lean, strong muscle with light brown skin, dark eyes and close-cropped black hair.
Mac had given up his life as a financial adviser in Boston to come to Maine and sail every chance he got. Eventually he wanted to build his own wooden boat. He'd come to work with me when the shop first opened because, he'd said, he liked working with his hands. Second Chance was my store, but Mac was more partner than employee. Most important, he was my friend. Beyond that, I wasn't sure.