The Pot Thief Who Studied Escoffier

The Pot Thief Who Studied Escoffier

by J. Michael Orenduff


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781480458819
Publisher: Open Road Integrated Media LLC
Publication date: 01/28/2014
Series: Pot Thief Series , #4
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 280
Sales rank: 510,957
Product dimensions: 5.25(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.64(d)

About the Author

J. Michael Orenduff grew up in a house so close to the Rio Grande that he could Frisbee a tortilla into Mexico from his backyard. While studying for an MA at the University of New Mexico, he worked during the summer as a volunteer teacher at one of the nearby pueblos. After receiving a PhD from Tulane University, he became a professor. He went on to serve as president of New Mexico State University.

Orenduff took early retirement from higher education to write his award-winning Pot Thief murder mysteries, which combine archaeology and philosophy with humor and mystery. Among the author’s many accolades are the Lefty Award for best humorous mystery, the Epic Award for best mystery or suspense ebook, and the New Mexico Book Award for best mystery or suspense fiction. His books have been described by the Baltimore Sun as “funny at a very high intellectual level” and “deliciously delightful,” and by the El Paso Times as “the perfect fusion of murder, mayhem and margaritas.”

Read an Excerpt

The Pot Thief Who Studied Escoffier

A Pot Thief Mystery

By J. Michael Orenduff


Copyright © 2011 J. Michael Orenduff
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4804-5856-7


The sallow-faced man sauntered into my Old Town pottery shop on a brisk November day and asked to use my restroom.

I directed him to the public ones around the corner.

"You don't have any customers," he said, "so I figured your restroom would be empty."

I didn't appreciate his reminder that business was slow, but I held my tongue.

His need was evidently less than urgent because he started walking around the shop examining the merchandise. "These pots are old, right?"

"Some of them are. The old ones have the estimated date and the culture they represent written on the card in front of them. Most of the ones from the last hundred years or so have the potter's name, the pueblo and the date."

"So some of these potters are alive?"

Strangers wanting to use my bathroom annoy me, but this one seemed to be transitioning from irritant to customer. I came out from behind the counter and placed a pot in his hand. "The man who made this is alive and well. He does excellent work, and his pots are bargains because he's not yet as famous as he will be."

"How can I contact him?"

"You can't."

His yellowish-brown complexion darkened to a strange ochre. At least the part of it I could see. Most of his face was covered by a beard. From the look of him, I guessed he had grown it to hide a weak chin or a cruel mouth or some other facial feature with a personality disorder.

"I'm not trying to cut you out of a sale," he said. "I want to commission him to make some chargers."

I pictured a herd of ceramic horses. "Chargers?"

"The decorative plates you see when you're seated at a fine restaurant. They are strictly for show and are taken away when the first course arrives. I'm starting a new restaurant and need some special chargers."

Why he was telling me this I couldn't guess. "The potter's name is Seepu," I said. "He does only traditional pottery."

"I'd pay handsomely."

"Wouldn't matter. I pay him several thousand dollars for a small pot, and even at that price he's willing to sell me only two or three a year."

He placed the pot back on the shelf and picked up one from Zuni.

"How about this guy?"


"Molinero. Santiago Molinero." He stuck his hand out awkwardly and we shook.

"I'm Hubert," I told him, "but people generally call me Hubie. I stock only traditional pottery. There is no chance that any of the artisans represented here will make plates for you."

"Hmm." He walked around the store and selected another pot. "This looks real old. Why doesn't it have a date on it? I thought you said the older pots have estimated dates on them."

It was another of the awkward moments peculiar to people who make forgeries. Or copies, as I prefer to think of them. If someone were to walk into the shop and pay the price on that particular copy, I would take the money, say goodbye to my handiwork and hello to ten thousand dollars. The buyer would think he got a bargain on an Anasazi pot and would enjoy it just as much as the real thing.

But I have scruples. If someone asks whether a pot is genuine, I tell the truth. If they still want it at full price ... Well, that hasn't happened yet, but a guy can hope. Usually they walk away. Sometimes they bargain. My rule of thumb is that copies should bring fifteen percent of the value of the genuine article. I make a lot of money selling copies, but I make a lot more selling originals that I dig up by the light of the moon.

I'm a pot thief. It's a harsh phrase and undeserved in my opinion, but that's what the Feds call me. Of course these are the same people who brought us bailouts for bankers and cash for clunkers. Or was it cash for bankers and bailouts for clunkers? It amounts to pretty much the same thing either way.

When I was a callow youth, I fancied myself a treasure hunter, someone who discovers ancient artifacts, enriching both our knowledge of the past and my bank account of the present. But professional archaeologists pressured Congress to outlaw treasure hunting, and the Archaeological Resources Protection Act (ARPA) put an end to legal pot digging on public land. You can graze cattle on public land. You can cut down trees for lumber. You can dig for gold or drill for oil. Evidently, you can even drill incompetently and recklessly and fill the entire Gulf of Mexico with crude. But if you take a single pot shard, you're a criminal.

You might be wondering, in light of ARPA, how I can display ancient pottery in my shop. In the first place, it is not illegal to own and sell pots unearthed prior to the passage of ARPA. But since it has now been over two decades since that low point of lawmaking, the "I dug it up when it was legal to do so" excuse becomes less credible with each passing year.

I was in my twenties when I dug up my first pots legally, and I've been digging them illegally for over twenty years. I'm over forty five and should repent, but I know I won't.

It also remains legal to dig on private land so long as it isn't a gravesite, and what sort of ghoul would do that anyway? I know people who have ancient ruins on their land, but none who will allow me to dig there. Mainly because they are turning the stuff up themselves and making a fortune in the process.

So rich land owners can profit from artifacts, but we average taxpayers can't dig on public land we all own. I am devoted to righting this injustice.

Of course I didn't have all these thoughts run through my brain as Molinero stood there with my faux Anasazi in his hand. I hesitated only long enough to ask my conscience whether it would allow me to tell him the pot was original. He was a shifty-looking guy. On top of that, he was insensitive to my lack of customers and wanted to pee in my bathroom. But despite all those flaws, my conscience would not allow an exception.

"That's not a genuine Anasazi," I admitted. "It's a copy I made."

He turned to the light and examined the pot more closely. "Then I'll commission you to do the chargers," he announced.

"I'm like the artisans I represent," I responded. "I do only traditional work."

"I need 100 chargers. I'll pay you $250 for each one."

My resolve to do only traditional work softened as I did the math. "How soon do you need them?"

He smiled, and I felt like I had sold out.

"You won't regret this, Mr. Schuze."

The words had scarcely passed his lips when I began to think he was wrong.


"The last guy who hired you with a beard got you in big trouble," said Susannah.

"No one ever hired me with a beard," I responded snappily. "I've always been clean shaven."

She sighed. "You know what I mean. In fact, Carl Wilkes got you in two fixes."

"Yeah, but he was at least likeable. Molinero seems shifty."

"So why did you agree to work for him?"

"He gave me twenty-five thousand good reasons."

"He paid you in advance?"

I hesitated.

"You just said he was shifty, and you didn't get an advance?" She was shaking her head slowly.

"He was telling me about all these arrangements he's going to make, and it was all sort of overwhelming. I just didn't think to ask about the pay."

"What sort of arrangements?"

"For starters, he wants me to do the work at the restaurant."


"He insists I need to be onsite to capture the essence of the place. He doesn't seem like the psychobabble type, so I suspect the real reason is he wants close oversight. I told him I could work at home and take samples to him, but he was adamant. He's going to arrange my housing and pay all my living expenses, so I gave in."

"You get any of this in writing?"

Susannah is the straightforward type. Once she spots a weakness, she closes in for the kill. I knew she was just trying to protect me, but she seemed to be enjoying it. She's a couple of inches taller than me, a couple of decades younger and a fun friend to have.

I bought some time by signaling to Angie for another round of margaritas. We were at our favorite table at Dos Hermanas Tortilleria enjoying our daily cocktail hour. Which sometimes runs more than an hour if Susannah doesn't have a class or a date. Her dating issues are often a topic of our discussions and were again that evening because a new guy was working at La Placita where she waits tables during the lunch shift.

"What's his name?"

"Rafael Pacheco, but everyone calls him Ice. He's the new garde manger at the restaurant."

The holiday season was approaching, and I knew La Placita always has a crèche in the lobby.

"I didn't realize they hired someone to guard the manger," I said.

"The garde manger doesn't guard anything, Hubert. He's in charge of preparing cold food."

"Isn't restaurant food supposed to be served hot?" I asked, making no acknowledgement of my ignorance of French.

"Salads, aspics, pâté and all sorts of things are served cold. That's why they call him Ice."

I didn't think her dating someone known as Ice was a good idea. It sounds like a name for a pimp.

"Where does the term garde manger come from?" I asked.

"I think it originally meant the person who oversees the pantry."

"See," I said triumphantly, "he does guard something."

She rolled her eyes and sipped her margarita.


I spent a sleepless night trying to calculate how long it would take me to design, throw and glaze a hundred chargers.

Somewhere in my subconscious I knew I was really calculating how long I would have to be in Santa Fe. Not that Santa Fe is a bad place to be. Despite its too precious plaza and too many super-rich Californians, it has many of the things I like about my native state—great food, piñon-scented air, traditional adobe architecture and pueblo pottery.

This may tell you more than I want you to know about me, but I suspect the reason I dislike travel is the loss of control. In my residence behind my shop, no jarring surprises await.

The sheets are five-hundred thread count Egyptian long-staple cotton. I know what's in my larder and what I will have for breakfast. As you already know, no strangers use my bathroom.

Being away from home places you at the mercy of others. Who knows about the sheets in hotels? About the food they serve. About the people who clean the toilets.

I awoke hungry, happy that I could do my own breakfast. Secure in the knowledge that a new bottle of Gruet Blanc de Noir was in the fridge. I scrambled some eggs with diced jalapeños, tomatoes and cilantro. I dumped the mixture in a bowl, threw three corn tortillas in the hot pan and pushed them around with my fingers until they were heated through. Then I placed them on a plate, spooned the egg mixture and some pico de gallo on the tortillas and folded them over. Breakfast tacos and champagne. Heaven.

The doorbell rang just as I lifted the first taco to my lips. I was tempted to ignore it but went to my workshop and peered through the peephole. Then I went to the front door and opened it for Martin Seepu.

"I hope you didn't come to sell me one of your uncle's pots. I don't have enough money to buy one."

He sniffed the air. "I came for breakfast," he announced and walked back to my kitchen table. He sat down in front of the tacos and looked up at me. "These look great. What are you having?"

He sipped coffee while I cooked up a second batch of tacos. When I finally sat down to eat, he said, "Now mine are cold."

I switched plates with him. They were not cold, and they were great with the Gruet which was. Martin stuck to coffee.

I told him about Santiago Molinero. "He wanted to pay your uncle twenty-five thousand to make chargers."

"He won't do plates."

"How do you know a charger is a plate?"

"You probably figured it was a horse. He hire you instead?"

"How'd you guess?"

"None of the Indians you represent would do it."

"Yeah. And like I told you, I need the money."

"How you know he's gonna pay you?"

"That's what Susannah asked me. Why is everyone worried about my pay?"

"Twenty-five thousand is a lot of wampum."

"It is. Unfortunately, he insists I do the work in Santa Fe."

"How long you gonna be there?"

"I spent all night trying to figure that out. I have no idea."

"Want me to take the dog to my place while you gone?"

"How about you stay here? You could take care of Geronimo and watch the store, too."

"Indians don't run trading posts."

I was paired up with Martin when I was a college student and he was a grade school dropout. The program, run by the University of New Mexico Indigenous Peoples Center, was supposed to give UNM students a chance for public service and the Indigenous Peoples a chance to learn from the White Man. I'm sure that's not the way the Center phrased it, but that's the way it seemed to both me and Martin. Once we agreed on that, we hit it off.

He taught me that his people don't think of themselves as indigenous or as Native Americans. Neither term even makes sense in their worldview. I taught him mathematics for no other reason than it was what I was majoring in at the time. Despite having dropped out of school in the seventh grade, he learned everything I knew about math in a single year.

Martin raises horses and I throw pots, so math is of no practical use to either one of us, but I think it shaped the way we think and gave us a bond. Martin was a taciturn kid. Explaining proofs to me helped him be at ease verbally, something not expected of children in his culture.

"I'll take the dog. You should get Tristan to watch the shop," he suggested. "You pay him anyway. Make him work for it."


Needing to walk off the tacos and champagne, I followed Central to High Street and turned south three blocks to Coal. I passed under Interstate 25 and arrived at Tristan's apartment in the jumble of rental houses and apartments just south of the University of New Mexico campus.

Tristan is the grandson of my great aunt Beatrice. I don't know what kinship relation that creates, but I call him my nephew and he calls me Uncle Hubert. He also calls me when he needs money, which explains Martin's snide remark.

Tristan was asleep, the antemeridian being unknown to him. I had acquired a brace of breakfast burritos at Duran Central Pharmacy for use as an alarm clock. I stuck them under his nose after letting myself in with my key, and they worked.

"Duran's?" he asked groggily. The kid has his uncle's nose for food. While Tristan was in the bathroom throwing cold water on his face, I hit the brew button on his coffeemaker.

I told him about Santiago Molinero while he ate, and he responded like everyone else.

"You better get your money in advance."

"That's what Susanna and Martin both said. Do I make Molinero sound that untrustworthy?"

"Molinero may be fine for all I know, but most restaurants fail within the first year."

"Okay, I'll tell him I need the money up front." I thought about it for a minute and said, "I might be relieved if he says no. I could use the money, but I don't feel comfortable with this project."

He had a mouthful of burrito, so he raised his eyebrows by way of asking for an explanation.

"I don't want to relocate to Santa Fe, even short term. I don't know about making pots in a restaurant that's under construction. But my worst fear is I won't be able to come up with a design. I copy things. I'm not a creative artist."

"So just chose a great design from your inventory and copy it."

"It's an Austrian restaurant. I don't think they have Anasazi symbols in Vienna."

"Do a goat herder in lederhosen," he suggested.

"You're a big help."

He started in on the second burrito with such gusto that I began to think I should have brought three. He has a layer of baby fat, but he's not really overweight. His dark hair hangs in short ringlets, and what the girls call his bedroom eyes are midnight blue.

"If I take the job, I'll need someone to tend the store."

He swallowed the last bite of burrito. "I can do that."

"What about your classes?"

He gave me one his big easy smiles. "Even if I close for a couple of hours a day for classes, Uncle Hubert, I'll still be open more than you are."

He was right, of course. But with my customer demand, what difference does it make how often I'm open? Plus, I might be making big bucks in Santa Fe provided I got paid before the place went bankrupt.


Excerpted from The Pot Thief Who Studied Escoffier by J. Michael Orenduff. Copyright © 2011 J. Michael Orenduff. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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