The Antique Hunter's Guide to Murder: A Novel

The Antique Hunter's Guide to Murder: A Novel

by C.L. Miller
The Antique Hunter's Guide to Murder: A Novel

The Antique Hunter's Guide to Murder: A Novel

by C.L. Miller

Hardcover

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Overview

USA TODAY BESTSELLER

In this fun, cozy, debut mystery, an antiques hunter investigates a suspicious death at an isolated English manor, embroiling her in the high-stakes world of tracking stolen artifacts.

What antique would you kill for?

Freya Lockwood is shocked when she learns that Arthur Crockleford, antiques dealer and her estranged mentor, has died under mysterious circumstances. She has spent the last twenty years avoiding her quaint English hometown, but when she receives a letter from Arthur asking her to investigate—sent just days before his death—Freya has no choice but to return to a life she had sworn to leave behind.

Joining forces with her eccentric Aunt Carole, Freya follows clues to an old manor house for an advertised antiques enthusiast’s weekend. But not all is as it seems. It’s clear to Freya that the antiques are all just poor reproductions, and her fellow guests are secretive and menacing. What is going on at this estate and how was Arthur involved? More importantly, can Freya and Carole discover the truth before the killer strikes again?

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781668032008
Publisher: Atria Books
Publication date: 02/06/2024
Series: Antique Hunter's Series , #1
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 21,254
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

C.L. Miller started working life as an editorial assistant for her mother, Judith Miller, on the Miller’s Antique Handbook and Pride Guide and other antiquing guides. She liveds in a medieval cottage in Dedham Vale, Suffolk, with her family.

Read an Excerpt

Prologue PROLOGUE
If Arthur Crockleford had been a normal antiques dealer, then perhaps this night would never have arrived.

Arthur hunched over his desk making his final preparations. He had just finished gluing the last photograph into his journal when he heard the rumble of tires on the cobbles behind his antiques shop. He checked the time on his Georgian longcase clock—he adored that clock; it was one of the first antiques he’d ever bought, from a dealer on Portobello Road—the brass hands showed twenty-eight minutes past one in the morning.

A rush of icy night air swept through the back door as it opened and down the long corridor to enter the shop, which was lit by the table lamp on Arthur’s desk. The gust pricked the hairs on the back of his neck.

They’re here.

He shivered, and his fountain pen marked the final full stop in his journal. The clock chimed the half hour.

Time is up.

Arthur rose and hurried to the stairs leading to his apartment above the shop. He knew each noisy step and had to climb over a couple to avoid detection.

His old knee injury clicked.

At the top of the stairs he stopped, scanning the shadows below him, wondering which one of them had come. All the lights in the apartment were off and he was surrounded by thick black night.

A sweep of the rooms reassured him that everything was in order.

The tap of someone’s footsteps on the medieval floorboards below made Arthur shudder.

For decades, he had loved every second of his secret life. Until Cairo. If he’d made different choices, left this underground world behind, then maybe tonight could have been avoided. But what was done, was done, wasn’t it? He could only hope Freya would one day understand. And that it wasn’t too late to make things right.

Arthur walked back down the stairs, this time intending to be heard.

In the dim lighting, he scanned the antiques around him. Each was priced to sell, but it didn’t mean he wanted to part with them. Seeing all the treasures he loved ignited a fury in him, but he knew this was one fight he, at last, would not be able to win. Arthur ran his hand through his shaggy gray hair, readjusting his cravat with the other. If this was to be the end, at least Carole would be proud he’d made such an effort to die stylishly.

“Hello? Is anyone there?” he called, hoping the neighbors would hear him. It would give a more accurate time of death if that was needed.

He positioned himself beside a mahogany tilt-top table, which held a couple of his favorite vases.

Maybe he should’ve tried to set off the alarm. Maybe he should’ve screamed out. Maybe he should’ve raced for the phone to call the police. But the darker side of the antiquities world was finally catching up with him and he conceded that he probably couldn’t outrun it forever. He was too old for running.

It’s over to you now, Freya.

Out of the coal-black corridor a figure emerged. Arthur strained his eyes. Shadows hung over the intruder’s face, but Arthur could just make out what they were doing: they were tugging at their gloves—checking they were on.

They stepped into the shop and into the light.

“You weren’t who I was expecting,” Arthur said.


Chapter 1 1
“All hunts begin with something that has been lost... or taken.”

—Arthur Crockleford

Outside the Victoria and Albert Museum in London I brushed my fingertips over a shrapnel dent in the building’s wall. It had seen a lot, that wall, and had survived whatever had been thrown at it since being built in 1909. No war or hurricane had taken it down. I wished I were as strong.

Early that morning I’d left my house before the real estate agent arrived and fought the commuter’s hustle, bus after bus, to get to South Kensington. I’d waited in a café nearby until the museum opened. The V&A was the place I always escaped to, my very own safe haven.

A smiling man opened the museum’s main entrance. I was one of the first inside—the tourists were probably still having their buffet breakfast.

The familiar smell of polish hit me, then the echo of my boots tapping on the tiles in the cavernous hall. I smiled. It was almost enough to make me forget the “For Sale” sign being nailed to my gate.

Ever since my ex-husband, James, moved out almost nine years ago he had insisted the house be sold. Apparently, a large Victorian house in an expensive suburb was wasted on me. James had finally agreed I could live in the house until our daughter, Jade, was eighteen, and now that she had left for university in America there was little I could do to stop the sale. I couldn’t afford the mortgage alone when the child support stopped—Jade wasn’t a child any longer.

I was almost on autopilot when I reached the beginning of the British Galleries on the first floor. I passed the Great Bed of Ware, an enormous bed so large it could sleep two families and so famous it was mentioned in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Farther along on my right was a freestanding bookcase like the one Samuel Pepys once owned. Eventually I reached the stone stairway to the third floor and the Chippendale furniture. I hadn’t been part of the antiques world for over twenty years, but I still adored a finely crafted chair or a beautifully gilded mirror.

I knew each item in the Chippendale furniture section by heart, and something about the Chippendale Garrick Bed (named after the once-famed actor David Garrick) looked wrong. I leaned as close as I dared and studied every inch of the ornate fabric. A couple of moments later I saw it. A very slight indent on the cover. A visitor had decided to check the comfort level of the mattress and left their mark.

Annoyance bubbled inside me and I looked around for a gallery assistant.

My phone rang with Aunt Carole’s ringtone. Jade had put that jingly ringtone on before she left for LA and I’d never gotten around to changing it. I pulled out my phone and silenced it. I desperately wanted to hear my aunt’s voice, but now wasn’t the time. I scanned the empty gallery and walked back toward the stairs in the hope of finding a member of staff when my phone rang again, vibrating insistently in my pocket. I should’ve known Carole was not to be ignored. She would only keep calling until I answered.

“Carole,” I whispered. “I’m sorry, I—”

“Freya, darling,” Carole interrupted dramatically. “Is it today?”

“Yes, they’re putting a sign up this morning,” I replied.

“What a rotter James is.” She was trying to sound annoyed, but there was something strange in Carole’s tone; it was the voice she used when she was acting. “Might be time to let go? Find a new path, a new adventure somewhere—”

“I won’t move.” I tried to keep my voice steady. “I won’t give him the satisfaction.”

“Of course.” Carole sniffed. “But, darling... I may need you to come home for a bit.”

“Why?” It wasn’t like Carole to ask such a thing; I hadn’t set foot in Little Meddington for decades. “What’s wrong?”

“Well...”

“Carole?” My gut twisted and my pulse picked up. It was unusual for Carole to be unsure of her words. “Are you all right?”

She took a deep breath. “Something terrible happened... to Arthur... it’s so...”

“Arthur?” The calm I had momentarily found was shattered. What on earth was Carole doing bringing up that man when she knew what he’d put me through all those years ago in Cairo? She knew I hated to hear his very name, let alone discuss whatever trouble he was in. I headed for the stairs—this conversation was probably not one for a museum.

“It’s just... they’re saying he fell down those old stairs in the dark and had a heart attack, but there has to be more to it. I’d gone to check on him because he phoned me on Saturday afternoon and sounded strange. When I got there...” Carole’s voice cracked.

“Carole?” I froze on the museum staircase. “Is he...?” I couldn’t say the word “dead” out loud, but I knew in my heart that was what Carole meant.

Is he gone?

My first reaction was an unexpected wave of relief. But it was immediately chased by a sharp pang of guilt about my initial response. Arthur was the person I liked least in the world, but he was Carole’s closest friend—Arthur was family to her. And once, long ago, he’d been like a grandfather to me.

“I wasn’t going to call you with everything going on today, but when I was standing outside the shop that new solicitor slicked his way over and told me he needs to see me and you right away.”

I could hear the tremor in Carole’s voice, but I couldn’t take in her words.

“I’m so sorry, Carole,” I managed to say. She blew her nose, and I could imagine the tears tracking down her cheeks. I wondered if Carole was fixated on this solicitor because the thought of losing Arthur was just too much to process. It was a quick, easy decision. “Of course I’ll come up and help you out with the solicitor.”

“Oh, how wonderful.” Carole brightened instantly, and I knew she’d been angling for that all along. “I know you and Arthur didn’t see eye to eye ever since...” She hesitated. “Well, we won’t go into that, will we? Not the time. But I know he wanted you here.”

I knew he wouldn’t have, but Carole needed me and that was what mattered. “I’ll pack a bag and get to Colchester station this afternoon—I’ll stay for as long as you need me. We’ll take on the solicitor together.”

“Excellent. I’ll pick you up if you text me when you’re on your way.”

“No. It’s quite all right. I’ll catch a taxi,” I said quickly. Carole was the worst driver in East Anglia and her ancient convertible Mercedes was highly impractical for small country lanes. Carole believed she could handle any speed. We’d never agreed on the topic.

“Absolutely not! It’s spring sunshine and roof down weather!”

How could I say no after what had just happened? “Well, if you’re absolutely sure you’re up to driving?” I would need to pack appropriately: weatherproof jacket, scarves for my hair, and a copy of my life insurance.

“I’m absolutely fine to drive. See you soon.”

After I hung up, unwanted memories of Arthur began to surface. I tried to quash them by focusing on the merits of splurging on a taxi to get home from the V&A and pack quickly, but they wouldn’t be silenced.

I’d been a twelve-year-old orphan with a badly burned right palm—after unsuccessfully trying to open my parents’ flaming bedroom door—when Carole first took me in. The children at my new school stared at my hand and didn’t want to befriend the odd girl. I couldn’t answer all the prying questions of my inquisitive peers. Everyone wanted to know how I’d survived a fire, but they didn’t seem to want to know the girl behind the bandage. All I knew back then was that I was broken and different. Soon, I’d stopped talking altogether.

When Carole first introduced me to Arthur Crockleford, her best friend, he was standing in his antiques shop polishing a silver candlestick. He was about fifty, of average height, with salt-and-pepper hair immaculately swept to one side, and wore a bright blue suit. Arthur’s smile was warm and his eyes kind. “It’s lovely to meet you,” he’d said. “Carole tells me you have an eye for detail.” He held the candlestick up to the light and I saw the unpolished side his cloth had missed. I walked over and pointed it out.

Arthur had tutted and kept polishing. He asked about my father’s job in the British Museum and my mother’s talent as an art restorer—he was never perturbed by my lack of response; he would keep chatting while I absorbed the warmth of his presence. Arthur helped me focus on their lives, not their deaths. I loved him for it almost instantly.

Carole was worried about my silence, but Arthur had a plan.

Six months after my parents’ death, Arthur invited Carole and me to his shop one Saturday afternoon to show me an antique porcelain plate that had been repaired with kintsugi—the Japanese art of putting broken pottery back together with gold. I traced my finger along the shimmering lines. Words I’d shut away began to form on my tongue and in my breath. “It’s... beautiful.” My voice was rusty and weak, but Carole had bear-hugged me when she heard it.

“This plate is different than before, but it’s still precious,” said Arthur. “Most of us have been broken in one way or another. We don’t need to hide the scars, for they make us who we are. This break was mended with real gold.”

In that shop, holding on to the kintsugi plate, I felt something loosen in my chest.

“Who broke the plate?” I asked. “Why?” But Arthur had shrugged and put the plate back in the cabinet.

“I must know how it was broken,” I demanded.

“That isn’t the important part of the story,” he replied.

“It is to me. I need to know.”

Arthur smiled. “Very well. Long ago it belonged to a family who lived by the sea, until one night a tsunami crashed into their house. Only one son survived. When he returned to the land where his home once stood, all he found was that broken plate.” Arthur tapped the glass cabinet that held the plate on its stand. “He mended it, placed it in his bag, and set sail across the seas for new adventures.”

I had pressed my nose to the glass. I understood how broken that boy must have felt, and I admired how he’d mended the plate and set out for a new life. Arthur had given me hope, showing me that pieces like the plate could glitter with mystery and exploration. It was the day when I began to understand that each item held a story waiting to be unlocked.

Years later, when I started working in the shop, I would sometimes pick up the plate and smile. I no longer believed Arthur’s tall tale, but he had made me see that starting again was possible and given me the hope I needed.

By letting one memory in, others followed: The image of Arthur with his brightly colored handkerchiefs neatly placed in his jacket pocket, sitting behind his grand mahogany desk, flicking through auction catalogues, his pen always clenched between his teeth, ready to circle an item he wanted to bid on. An aristocratic collector or a drinking partner calling him on the shop phone. Arthur was well-known for his outrageous turns of phrase and his long chats with anyone who walked into the shop so that they always felt obligated to buy something before leaving. Everyone loved him.

Maybe if I’d focused on learning how to identify a “big profit” art or antique to sell on, I wouldn’t be in my current predicament. Although antiques dealing wasn’t in fact Arthur’s main passion, he still kept an eye out for a “sleeper”—an undiscovered or unidentified antique—at auctions or fairs that would give his shop a good payday. I had no interest in being a traditional antiques dealer. I had therefore concentrated all my efforts on following Arthur into his somewhat covert second business of hunting down something that had been stolen and returning it to its rightful home. But years later that career had been taken from me and I couldn’t get it back.

The sun dipped behind a cloud and the world darkened. I sighed, knowing I might have to accept there was nothing I could do to keep my home, but there was something I could do for Carole. I could try and help her in her unimaginable grief just as she had helped me with mine when I had lost my parents over thirty years ago.

I searched for a black cab and waved at the first one I saw. I no longer cared about the expense. There was somewhere I needed to be.

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