PUBLISHER: Crooked Lane
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ABOUT THE BOOK:
American antiques dealer Kate Hamilton is spending the month of May in the Suffolk village of Long Barston, tending her friend Ivor Tweedy’s antiquities shop while he recovers from hip surgery. Kate is thrilled when a reclusive widow consigns an ancient Chinese jar—until the Chinese jar is stolen and a body turns up in the middle of the May Fair. With no insurance covering the loss, Tweedy may be ruined. As DI Tom Mallory searches for the victim’s missing daughter, Kate notices puzzling connections with a well-known local legend. Kate’s most puzzling case yet pits her against the spring floods, a creepy mansion in the Suffolk countryside, the murky depths of Anglo-Saxon history, and a clever killer with an old secret.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Connie Berry is the author of the Kate Hamilton Mysteries, set in the UK and featuring an American antiques dealer with a gift for solving crimes. Like her protagonist, Connie was raised by antiques dealers who instilled in her a passion for history, fine art, and travel. During college she studied at the University of Freiburg in Germany and St. Clare's College, Oxford, where she fell under the spell of the British Isles. In 2019 Connie won the IPPY Gold Medal for Mystery and was a finalist for the Agatha Award’s Best Debut. She’s a member of Mystery Writers of America and is on the board of the Guppies and her local Sisters in Crime chapter. Besides reading and writing mysteries, Connie loves history, foreign travel, cute animals, and all things British. She lives in Ohio with her husband and adorable Shih Tzu, Emmie.
FOLLOW CONNIE BERRY:
Long Barston, Suffolk, England
The fourth of May was one of those glorious spring days in England that almost convince you nothing evil could ever happen again. Mild, green-scented air wafted through the open door of Ivor Tweedy's antiquities shop. A curious bumblebee meandered inside, had a quick look-around, and buzzed out again in search of the window boxes along Long Barston's main street.
I was perched on a stool behind the counter, polishing silver, when I heard a soft cough.
She stood framed in the doorway, clutching a large striped tote bag as if it held her firstborn—a ridiculous image because the woman had to be in her late sixties. Her thick, iron-gray hair was pulled into a coil at her neck, and she wore a pair of those light-sensing eyeglasses that never quite make it to clear. She was obviously ill at ease, which in itself wasn't unusual. Antiques shops often attract timid souls hoping to raise a little cash by selling grandma's pearls or grandpa's collection of vintage cameras. They come expecting to be cheated.
"Hello." I pulled off my latex gloves and came around the counter, feeling like a kindergarten teacher on the first day of school. "Welcome to The Cabinet of Curiosities."
The woman stepped into the shop. I couldn't see her eyes behind the darkened lenses, but she seemed more wary than timid, which set off alarm bells. Twice in my life I'd been offered stolen property—in both cases, the items brought in by dodgy looking men in their twenties. This woman looked respectable, even old-fashioned. She wore a well-cut linen skirt, a crisp white blouse, and flat orthopedic sandals. An expensive but well-worn Gucci handbag hung from one bone-thin arm. "I was expecting the owner, Ivor Tweedy."
"I'm afraid Mr. Tweedy is recovering from surgery. I'm filling in while he recuperates."
"You're American." Her lips thinned in disapproval.
"I am." Obviously.
Once, this woman had been quite beautiful. I could see it in her bone structure, the line of her mouth, the way she held her head and shoulders.
She studied me for a moment. Her eyes shifted to the small-paned front window. "Do you have somewhere more private?"
"Of course." I grabbed the binder Ivor used to record sales and commissions. "Just let me lock up." I closed the shop door, shot the bolt, and flipped the Open sign in the window to Closed. "My name is Kate Hamilton. And yours?" When she didn't answer, I tried another tack. "Have you brought something for appraisal?"
"Not for appraisal, no." Now that she'd been out of the sun for a few minutes, her glasses had partially lightened, allowing me a glimpse of pale, hooded eyes. "I have something I wish to sell."
I led her through a maze of display cases to an alcove furnished with an early Regency pedestal table and two folding campaign chairs that, according to Ivor, had traveled with Wellington into the Battle of Waterloo.
Once we were seated, the woman settled the carry-all on her lap and peeled down the fabric, exposing a large, roundish object swathed in bubble wrap.
"Be careful. It's heavy." She handed the bundle to me.
"Well, let's take a look." I placed the object on the table and used the edge of my thumbnail to peel back a strip of clear tape. That's when I felt it—the tingling in my fingertips, the flush of heat in my cheeks, the pounding of my heart against my ribcage. I've experienced these symptoms from childhood in the presence of an object of great age and beauty.
Some would call it a gift. I've always thought of it as an affliction. My father, who taught me about antiques, had half-jokingly called me a divvy—an antique whisperer—born with the ability to spot the single treasure hidden among the trash that frequently passes for antiques. He wasn't right, of course. My eyes can be fooled by a masterful fake as easily as the next person.
It's the internal symptoms that never fail.
The client watched me, her bony fingers clasping and unclasping in her lap.
I peeled back a layer of bubble wrap and took a sudden breath.
Even before the wrapping was fully removed, I knew what was inside. The technical term is húnpíng, a distinctive type of stoneware jar found in the Han-dynasty tombs of early Imperial China.
The final layer of wrapping slid away. Each húnpíng is unique—some fairly simple, others wonderfully complex. This example was nothing short of dazzling.
The bulbous jar had the earthy gray-green glaze known as celadon, typical of the period. The lower two-thirds of the vessel featured a procession of mold-pressed figures—leaping chimera; riders astride coiling, dragon-like creatures; peak-helmeted warriors wielding long pikes, ready to strike. The fullest part of the jar culminated in a wide mouth supporting a fantastical, multi-storied architectural complex with triple-tiered, tiled roofs and curved corner eaves surrounded by gates and pillars, each entryway guarded by a pair of oversized guards. I tilted the jar to peer at the bottom. Unglazed, unmarked—typical of the Han period.
"Do you know what this is?" I asked.
"Some kind of urn?"
"It's an ancient Chinese funerary jar from the Han dynasty. In English we call it a soul jar or spirit jar."
"They ruled much of China for four centuries, roughly 200 B.C. to 200 A.D."
"Is it valuable?"
"If authentic, very."
"Oh, it's authentic. How much is it worth?"
"My guess would be thirty or forty thousand pounds, but to be sure I'd have to consult someone who specializes in early Chinese ceramics. I'm not an expert."
She blinked and shoved her glasses higher on her nose. "How long would that take? To consult, I mean."
"Two or three days, perhaps a week." I clicked open my pen. "First I'll need your name and the history of the piece, as far as you know it."
Her shoulders stiffened, as if I'd asked to see her bank balance. "My name is Evelyn Villiers. My husband bought the urn forty years ago in Hong Kong. He traveled a great deal for business and often purchased pieces for his art collection. If necessary, I can tell you the name of the shop and exactly what he paid for it. He kept meticulous records."
"That would help," I said, tossing my earlier caution to the wind. This woman actually had documentation. "It's a wonderful piece. May I ask why you're selling?"
"Not for the money, if that's what you're thinking." Mrs. Villiers snapped open the clasp on her handbag and pulled out a white handkerchief. "My husband died eighteen years ago. We had one child, a daughter. When I'm gone, she'll inherit a large trust fund from her father. I can't stop that, but I refuse to let her inherit his art collection as well. I've decided to sell now, while I'm able." She met my eyes, as if daring me to criticize.
Criticism was the last thing on my mind—pots calling kettles black and all that. My own daughter, Christine, and my son, Eric, had recently (and unexpectedly) inherited twenty thousand pounds each from their Scottish aunt, a sum I'd persuaded them to invest in a money-market account in Ohio. Eric's share would help pay for his doctoral degree in nuclear physics. Christine had intended to spend hers, meaning it would have been gone in months, with no more to show for it than a handful of receipts—and very possibly a lady's Rolex. Christine's latest boyfriend, the son of an Italian manufacturing executive, had a Rolex. Doesn't everyone?
Mrs. Villiers cleared her throat, and I put my parenting issues aside. Whatever had caused a rift between this woman and her only child had been a tragedy, and I wasn't about to take advantage.
"We'd love to help you sell the jar, Mrs. Villiers, but you might want to consider Sotheby's or one of the other large auction houses in London. Buyers from all over the world receive their catalogs. Wealthy Chinese collectors are paying top prices for objects like this. I'm sure you'd realize more from them than you could from us."
"No public auctions. No catalogs." Mrs. Villiers pinched her lips together. "I insist on doing this privately, without publicity. That's why I came to you…well, to Mr. Tweedy. Just write a check. Whatever you think is fair."
I felt my cheeks turn pink. Ivor's checking account currently held just about enough to cover expenses for the month of May. "I'm afraid we're not in a position to purchase the piece outright. If you're sure you want us to handle the jar, I suggest consignment. We find a buyer. You get the proceeds, minus a reasonable commission. Why don't I show you our standard contract? If you're satisfied, we'd be happy to handle the sale." I turned to the back of the binder, snapped open the rings, and pulled out a printed legal document. As I organized the papers, I tried to make conversation. "Will you be going to the May Fair on the green this evening?"
She mumbled something that sounded like wagon bell.
I looked up. "Sorry? I didn't catch that."
"I said if you can guarantee my privacy, I have more to sell. A lot more."
That was not what she'd said, but I let it go, swept away by the glorious possibilities. What Mrs. Villiers was proposing was nothing short of a miracle—a source of high-quality antiques without any financial investment on Ivor's part. This woman wasn't offering an odd piece now and again but an entire collection, and if the húnpíng was any indication of the quality, a collection that would place The Cabinet of Curiosities among the highest tier of England's private dealers. I couldn't wait to tell Ivor. "What sorts of things did your husband collect?"
"Like the urn—you know, pottery, porcelain, paintings. Old stuff. Special figurines as well—nearly fifty pieces. I can't remember the name, but they're marked on the bottom with crossed swords."
"You mean Meissen." My heart kicked up a notch.
She brightened. "That's right. Meissen."
The famous Meissen factory near Dresden was the first European manufacturer to crack the closely held Chinese secret formula for true hard-paste porcelain. Europeans called it "white gold" in the eighteenth century, beloved for its translucency, resilience, and pure white hue. The Chinese had been producing porcelain since the seventh or eighth century, exporting it all over the world. Then came Meissen with its crossed-swords mark, creating stunning pieces that surpassed even the Chinese in beauty. I couldn't wait to get my eyes on them.
"And jewelry," Mrs. Villiers said. "Wallace loved fine jewelry."
She obviously hadn't shared that interest. Except for a small heart-shaped locket around her neck, she wore no jewelry of any kind.
"We have a tiered commission structure," I said. "The higher the sale price, the lower the percentage." In the description column I wrote Chinese Húnpíng Jar, Han dynasty, approx. 16" high and 11" wide. Value to be determined. "Now, if it's all right, I'll take a few photographs. That way you can take the jar home until I've arranged for an expert to examine it."
"No. I want you to keep it."
"All right—if you're sure." I turned the consignment form toward her and handed her my pen. "Read through the contract carefully. The payment terms are in the final paragraph. Print your name, address, and telephone number there, and sign at the bottom."
While Mrs. Villiers examined the contract, I used my cell phone to snap several images. I couldn't believe our good fortune. I felt like pinching myself. Finally, laying the jar carefully on its side, I took a shot of the unglazed bottom.
Mrs. Villiers turned over the final page. Placing her index finger at the top, she drew it down slowly, stopping briefly at the final paragraph. At the bottom, she printed out her information and added her signature.
Mrs. Evelyn Villiers
Hapthorn Lodge, Hollow Lane,
Little Gosling, Suffolk.
She'd included a phone number. Her signature was a squiggly line.
Standing, Mrs. Villiers smoothed her skirt and gathered her handbag and the now-empty carry-all. "Thank you for your assistance."
"My pleasure." I held out my hand, and she took it. "I'll put a copy of the contract in the mail. And I'll telephone you when I've arranged for the appraisal."
"No mail," she said firmly. "And I never answer the telephone. Text me at this number, and I'll contact you." Picking up the pen I'd provided, she scribbled a different number at the bottom of the contract.
"Of course. I'll be in touch soon." Something floated in the air—a vague uneasiness. Why didn't Mrs. Villiers answer her phone? To avoid telemarketers?
I stood at the front window and watched her cross the High Street and turn left toward the river. She scurried past the shops—shoulders hunched, head bent—until she disappeared down a side street. Had she driven herself, or was someone waiting for her?
That was the least of my questions about Mrs. Evelyn Villiers.
I checked my watch. If I left immediately, I could be at The Willows by eleven thirty.
Time to break the good news to Ivor.