After a long and arduous winter, spring had finally deigned to show itself in Serenity, a small Midwestern town nestled on the Mississippi River like a quaint reminder of simpler times—particularly as viewed from the air. Trees were budding, tulips were blooming, and lawns were greening. People had begun to come out of their houses, squinting at the sun like moles venturing from their holes, and you could feel the collective happiness in the air.
This elation had proved even shorter-lived than the tulips. Because along with the warmer weather came the melting of ice and snow, and a particularly heavy accumulation up north came flooding down, sending the river over its banks and into our fair city, Nature taking her revenge on Serenity’s idyllic pretensions—hundreds of families forced to flee their homes, dozens of downtown businesses suffering, as the muddy Mississippi sent cold, dirty water rushing into their domains.
According to Mother—who knew everything and everybody in town—this was the worst catastrophe in Serenity since the Great Flood of 1965 … which was before my time, I’ll have you know.
I was sensitive to the travails of my fellow Serenity-ites; many were facing much worse problems than yours truly, although I did have my own concerns and the burgeoning Mississippi River had not had a drop to do with it.
At the moment, I—Brandy Borne, a thirty-one-year-old, blue-eyed bottle-blond divorcée, who had come running home last year to Mother—was looking directly into turbulent waters. Not the river, no—I had my head over the toilet bowl, paused between rounds of barfing.
Standing by, listening to my assured, if-less-than-eloquent, oratory, was Sushi, my blind, diabetic shih tzu, and Mother, a.k.a. Vivian Borne, mid-seventies, antiques lover, Red Hat Society member, director of community theater, and would-be amateur sleuth with a bipolar disorder.
And now for our first aside (and there will be others; deal with it): Mother’s real age is unknown, thanks to a small fire in the 1970s that broke out in the Hall of Records, destroying all birth certificates under “J.” But I’m sure Mother had nothing to do with it, even though, a) she was born Vivian Erma Jensen, b) had long since started lying about her age so she could still play younger roles, c) was the only clerk working at the time of the strangely selective fire, and d) had quit her courthouse job shortly thereafter.
When I next came up for air, Mother raised her chin to advise me, “Buck up, dear … it’s all in your head.”
And here I thought it was all in my stomach. Or used to be.
I glowered at her over my shoulder. “Do you think I enjoy doing this?”
Mother, wearing her favorite emerald-green pants suit, her silver hair pulled back in a bun, eyes looming large behind her oversized glasses, sniffed, “I never had such trouble when I was pregnant. And I was married!”
Now, before you start thinking that I was a wanton woman, let me explain. My best friend, Tina, and her husband, Kevin, couldn’t have children because of Tina’s cervical cancer, so I had offered to be a surrogate mother for them. Aren’t you ashamed of yourself for thinking ill of me? ( We won’t go into the reasons for my divorce right now.).
I shot back, “I was never sick with Jake!”
Jacob was my one and only, now twelve, and living with his father in an upscale Chicago suburb.
Mother sniffed. “You most certainly were! Why, for two whole months, you prayed at the porcelain altar on a regular basis. You’d call me every afternoon, whining, ‘Why me?’ And I’d say, ‘Why not you? What makes you so special? Join the Morning Sickness Brigade and serve proudly!’And you’d reply—”
“All right, all right,” I managed, the hinges of my jaw feeling loose, “maybe I was sick for a few days.”
She put a hand on my shoulder, and said softly, “Do not assume, my precious, that a mother upon the arrival of her little bundle of joy forgets all of the hardships that preceded the blessing event.”
“Don’t call me ‘my precious,’” I said. “I’m not a troll.”
“Of course you aren’t, dear.”
I grunted a nonresponse as I rose. Sushi, at my feet, whimpered, and I picked her up and snuggled her against my face, to let her know Mommy was okay.
Mother clapped her hands twice, then said singsongy, as if I were still her little Brandy, “Now, wash your face, and get dressed, darling—we have places to go, things to do, and people to see.”
“And miles to go before we sleep,” I muttered, knowing already that I was in for a trying day with Mother.
Upstairs in my bedroom I climbed unsteadily into a pair of old jeans, which fit somehow, even though I was three months gone—I’d lost a little weight from the morning sickness. Then I slipped on a warm sweater because it was still nippy outside. What was up with God’s latest little joke on me? That bringing life into the world made me feel like death warmed over?
Downstairs, Mother was waiting impatiently.
“We should take my car,” she said solemnly. “It hasn’t been driven for a while.”
Mother had an old pea-green Audi stored in our stand-alone garage. The reason it hadn’t been driven for a while was that Mother had lost her license—and I don’t mean misplaced it.
“We can’t,” I said.
Mother frowned. “Why ever not?”
“Because I had the tires removed when you were at your Red Hat meeting the other day.”
“What!” she shrieked. “Whatever for?”
I put both hands on my hips. “Because you keep driving it when your license has been revoked.”
Mother, guilty as charged, was uncharacteristically speechless.
“And not just once … but three times!” I waggled a finger in her face. “I did it for your own good. And for the public’s good—poor unsuspecting souls.”
So far, Mother had racked up citations for cutting across a cornfield in order to make curtain time for one of her plays; causing a three-car fender-bender on the bypass after braking for a garage sale sign; and flattening a mailbox shaped in the form of a big fish because “it didn’t look like a mailbox,” which apparently she felt granted her permission to run it over.
Mother’s lower lip protruded. “Now you’re just being mean.”
“Think of it as tough love. Now can we go?”
Leaving Sushi behind with plenty of water (diabetic dogs drink a lot), Mother and I headed outside into the crisp spring air, where the sun shone brightly in a cloudless sky. You could smell lilacs in the gentle breeze, or anyway I could.
Suddenly I felt better.
My (very) used burgundy Buick was parked in the drive, and as I climbed in behind the wheel, I asked, “Where are we going, anyway?”
Mother, next to me, smiled like the cat that ate the canary. Two canaries. Three. “Never you mind, my precious … just go where I tell you.”
“Mother—if you call me ‘my precious’ one more time, I will clobber you with your Collected Tolkien.”
“Point well taken, dear.”
I sighed and fired up the engine. This was, indeed, going to be a long, trying day…
We headed along Elm Street, passing homes similar to ours, mostly three-story dwellings built in the 1920s. Quite a few folks were out tending their lawns, raking dead thatch, and clearing debris bestowed by the winter. Some were even planting a few annual flowers.
At a stop sign, Mother powered down her window and addressed one such person, a man in a plaid flannel shirt, who was putting red geraniums in the ground around his front porch.
She shouted, “You’re jumping the gun!”
Startled, he popped up like a jack-in-the-box and ran around the side of his house.
Mother said, “Now, wasn’t that a strange reaction?”
“Really?” I smirked. “People often act like that when you yell at them.”
A car behind me honked and I moved through the intersection.
“I merely meant,” Mother said defensively, “that it’s too early to plant geraniums. Not too late to have a frost, you know.”
I said, “Well, maybe all he heard was ‘you,’ ‘jump,’ and ‘gun.’”
Mother twisted in her seat to look at me. “Now why would I have a gun?”
Out of the corner of an eye, I could see Mother studying me.
Her voice was arch, her words measured. “I’m not sure I like you off your Prozac.”
I didn’t figure I’d get away with my earlier, caustic remark. And I, too, had noticed that my once-censored thoughts were flying straight out of my mouth, since I’d stopped taking my daily Prozac dosage, and my what-the-heck attitude had been replaced with—dare I say it?—sensibility.
Mother went on. “I know you want to protect the baby, and that’s a noble goal … but, honestly, dear, it’s difficult living with someone who really should be on her medication.”
This time I just thought, Tell me about it!.
We were approaching the downtown, a small grid of four streets, containing just about every kind of business a modest community like ours might need. The main thoroughfare was (natch) Main Street, five blocks of regentrified Victorian buildings, with little bistros, specialty shops, and antiques stores.
As we drove by the courthouse—a study in Grecian architecture—Mother blurted, “Shit!”
If you are easily offended, you need to know right now that Mother rarely swears, but when she does, the “s” word is her curse of choice. Her father used it and so did her mother and her grandfather and even her grandmother, if rarely (thumb hit by hammer, for example), so this was a family tradition of sorts. I have been known to carry on the tradition myself.
Why this little scatological outburst?
Up ahead was a detour that rerouted us from the downtown.
“River must be high,” I said.
Mother sat forward in her seat, instructing, “Go around the barricade, dear.”
“If the river’s high, I want to see.”
“Mother, there’s a reason they want us to stay away—it’s not safe.”
Straining her seat belt, Mother bounced in her seat like a child denied a cookie. “That car just went in there!”
“They probably live downtown. Local traffic is allowed.”
“Well, we’re local.”
“Who’s to say we don’t live downtown?”
I turned right, complying with the detour. “But we don’t, do we?”
Mother sighed dejectedly and sat back in her seat. “I decidedly don’t like you off your Prozac. You used to be more … adventurous.”
“You mean, compliant,” I said. “By the way, where are we headed?”
Leaving the downtown behind, I continued driving parallel to Main Street, then up a gradual, tree-lined incline, passing grand old homes, some large enough to be called mansions, once belonging to the early barons of Serenity—Germans and Scandinavians and Eastern European industrialists who had made their fortunes opening lumber mills and pearl button factories, and had even started their own banks.
I asked, “Where to now?”
Mother smiled deviously. “Turn left on Cherry Street, my … pet.”
I slowed to a stop, and looked at her through hooded eyes. “Not the Petrova house?” It was the only mansion in all of Serenity that Mother had never dared try to wheedle her way into.
“That’s right, dear.”
Aghast, I asked, “We’re not just dropping in?”.
She pursed her lips in irritation. “Honestly, Brandy, what kind of pushy old broad do you take me for?”
“I’ll plead the Fifth on that one.”
She nodded crisply. “I have an appointment, dear. With Madam Petrova herself.”
Nastasya Petrova was said to be nearly as old as her mansion, and the huge, dark edifice, which she rarely set foot out of, had been built in the late 1920s and perched precariously on the edge of the bluff. Any reported sightings of this Russian grandam over the years had easily been outnumbered by UFOs.
Impressed that Mother had been granted a visit, I asked, “How in heaven’s name did you manage that?”
Nose high, Mother said, “You will find out when I talk to Madam Petrova. I must conserve my energy, however, for the task at hand…. Pull into the circular drive, dear, right up to the portico, so we can arrive in style.”
In a dirty, battered old Buick, we were to arrive in style? I shrugged, and did as I was told.
When I’d turned off the car, I asked, “Should we wait for the footman?”
Mother frowned. “Don’t be facetious, dear—it’s unbecoming. If you’re not going to behave, I’ll leave you behind in the car.”
“I’ll behave,” I promised.
I simply had to find out what Mother was up to…
With Mother in the lead, we walked up wide steps to a massive front door bookended by large, scrolled columns.
Mother stepped forward and grasped the tarnished brass knocker on the thick, weathered wood, and gave it a few whacks.
Going on, thirty long seconds had passed before Mother reached to give the knocker another clank, only to hear a click of a lock. The door began to open slowly, creaking in protestation, haunted-house-style.
There, framed in the doorway, stood a small, frail-looking woman, coarse gray hair piled high on her head, her face as weathered as the door. Still, she was nicely attired in a navy wool dress with a sparkling brooch pinned on one shoulder, and beige pumps. In the 1940s, this outfit had been high fashion—she even wore white gloves, with diamond bracelets on the outside of each wrist. I’d seen the same from Bette Davis in old movies.
Mother drew in a quick, excited breath, then, ridiculously, curtseyed as if the woman were Russian royalty.
Maybe I did want to stay in the car, at that.
Madam Petrova smiled, bemused. “Mrs. Borne,” she said, without a hint of an accent, “please do come in. And who do you have with you?”
As Mother and I passed over the threshold, I said, “I’m her daughter—Brandy.”
In the large foyer of the mansion, Nastasya Petrova paused to appraise me with intense, dark, intelligent eyes. “Ah. And such a pretty daughter, too,” she said. “Are you just visiting, or do you live here in Serenity?”
I engaged the elderly woman in polite conversation, covering for Mother’s bad manners … because Mother was staring openmouthed at the interior’s grandeur, her bug eyes flitting up the exquisitely carved staircase to the full-length stained-glass windows on the landing, then down again and over to a huge, ornately carved grandfather clock, and up once more to an Art Nouveau chandelier.
I said, “Mother….”
Mother gaped. She had the expression of a birdwatcher who’d just spotted a rare one.
She whirled. “Yes, dear?”
“Madam Petrova would like to attend to us in her parlor.”
As I took Mother’s arm, I whispered, “Don’t drool,” and Mother wiped her chin with the back of a hand, taking me literally.
We followed the tiny woman through the large entryway to sliding, wooden double doors, which she opened for us to step into a room whose decor hadn’t changed since the 1920s.
The parlor was dark, having lost the morning sun, its furnishings somber, an eclectic combination of Victorian, Art Nouveau, and Mediterranean. But here and there were clues as to Madam Petrova’s heritage: religious crosses and small statues representing the Russian Orthodox Church, as well as a framed photo on the wall of Tsar Alexander and his family, all smiling, the poor brood not having an inkling of what was to come.
In front of a fireplace (unlit) with a large mirror, gleaming mantel, and an iridescent tile hearth, Mother plopped herself down on a horsehair couch, which gave forth a poof! of ancient dust. I followed her example, my poof being much smaller if no more dignified.
Madam Petrova lit like a dainty firefly on the edge of an ornately carved, red velvet-cushioned chair. Then she leaned forward to reach for an exquisite silver tea set, polished to a shine, which rested on a round table. “Tea?”
I was dehydrated after my bout with morning sickness, and gladly said, “Yes, please.”
Mother also responded in the affirmative, and Nas-tasya Petrova poured, then handed us both identical floral cups and saucers, whose colors were so rich, the blossoms looked real.
After pouring herself a cup, the woman sat back, balancing the saucer on her fragile knees.
“Now,” Madam Petrova began, “what can I do for you, Vivian?”
Mother opened her mouth, but closed it again, as the woman said in an aside to me, “I don’t usually entertain people anymore … but your mother had been so kind to me years ago, when I was in the hospital with pneumonia. I do believe she did more good than those doctors by smuggling in her wonderful casseroles and soups.” The woman raised her cup of tea in a toastlike gesture. “Not to mention the occasional flask of vodka.”
Mother beamed. “My lips are sealed.”
All this must have taken place during Mother’s Florence Nightingale phase, when she would haunt the hospital hallways looking for any juicy piece of gossip, until finally the hospital staff barred her from the premises.
Madam Petrova returned her attention to Mother. “So, Vivian, my darling. Do tell me what’s on your mind.”
Now, usually that could take some time, but Mother surprised me by being relatively concise (for Mother).
She said, “I have been busy organizing a citywide church bazaar to help those affected by this terrible flood.”
I goggled at her. This was all news to me.
“So far,” she continued blithely, “all of the churches I’ve approached have agreed to participate, and they will be asking their congregations to scour attics and basements for antiques and collectibles.” Mother clapped her hands together.
I jumped a little.
Our hostess jumped a little, too.
“Now! In order to make this event competitive, and to attract good merchandise—no white elephants allowed, mind you—I suggested that we form teams, all in the name of Christian charity and good fun. The Methodists will be one team, Presbyterians another, Baptists, Catholics … and so on.” Mother, for once, ran out of breath, and helped herself to one, a generous serving. “Some of the smaller denominations, however, must band together to form teams, and I was hoping that you might join with us…. ‘You’ being the Russian Orthodox Church, and ‘us’ being New Hope, of course.”
When this lengthy explanation was met with silence—as can sometimes happen with Mother’s community theater performances—Mother became more animated, adding, “Also, included on our team would be the Episcopalians, the Lutherans, and our Jewish friends. So we’re nothing to sneeze at!”
I wanted to crawl under the horsehair couch, which coincidentally was almost making me sneeze.
“And,” Mother went on, raising a finger, “here’s the coup de grâce. I have attracted the interest of American Mid-West Magazine, whose publisher assures me that his periodical will not only match the winning team’s proceeds, but will feature that very team in one of its issues!”
Had Mother revealed her true motivation? To be showcased in a national magazine? Or at least a regionally circulated one. (Mother had the peculiar ability to make even such a small ambition seem grandiose.).
Madam Petrova was frowning, deepening the already-well-grooved creases in her face, yet she also seemed to be nodding her approval. I just sat and waited for this mixed signal to play itself out…
Finally our hostess said measuredly, “I am sure I could find several quality items that would bring in a nice sum. And I’m certainly not concerned that my nephew—my only living relative—would object to these donations. Clifford has told me quite frankly that—beyond the house itself, which will one day be his—he is not interested in my possessions, as they are not to his taste … nor is he a sentimental man….”
Clifford Ashland, a millionaire many times over, ran his own brokerage firm in Serenity. He lived with his wife, Angelica, in Serenity’s most exclusive housing development, and collected antique cars as a hobby. His aunt’s treasures would be knickknacks to him.
Mother was saying, “Then I can count on you, and the other members of the Russian Orthodox Church, to participate?”
Madam Petrova responded, “Yes, of course. I believe I can speak for all of us.” She laughed once. “But we are dwindling number, Vivian … only fifteen, now. We’ve never had enough members to have our own local church.”
Mother cocked her head with interest. “Where do you hold services?”
The elderly woman’s eyes went to the ceiling. “Up in the ballroom. A bishop comes from a Chicago diocese once a month. We attend St. Mary’s on the other Sundays. I go with my nephew and his wife.”
Mother most likely knew this, but—not wanting to overplay her hand—feigned interest.
Madam Petrova, finished with her tea, set her cup and saucer carefully on the table. Her intense, dark eyes went to Mother. “What kind of antiques would you want from me?” she asked. “Furniture, china, jewelry …?”
Mother placed her own cup and saucer on the table, making a clatter. “I’m thinking of just one item, Nasta-sya—if I may call you that.”
Now Madam Petrova cocked her head. “Certainly, Vivian. And that item would be …?”
“Your Fabergé egg.”
Madam Petrova’s jaw dropped almost as far as mine.
The woman gasped. “H-how do you even know about the egg?”
Mother’s smile was triumphant. “Then it is true.”
The little woman was shaking her head, her eyes wide and almost alarmed. “Yes … but … it’s been a carefully guarded family secret. Only my nephew knows of the egg.”
And now Mother. Tomorrow the world.
Mother smiled slyly. “Do you remember the night in the hospital when we shared that flask of vodka? Well, that’s when you spilled the beans … or the egg, I should say. But rest assured, my dear, I haven’t told a soul. Never let it be said that Vivian Borne doesn’t know how to hold a secret!”
Normally, I would say Vivian Borne held a secret the way a bucket with a hole in the bottom holds water. But in all these years, I had never heard a word from Mother about the improbable notion that a Serenity resident might own a fabled Fabergé egg.
What next? “Would you fetch the Maltese Falcon for me, my precious? It’s in the garage.” Or maybe, “Check the fridge, would you, dear, and see if that chunk of Titanic iceberg hasn’t suffered freezer burn?”
Nastasya Petrova stood, pulling herself up to her full five feet, and for a moment I thought she was going to ask that we leave; but instead, the woman crossed over to the photo of the Tsar and his family and removed the frame from the wall, revealing a small safe. She spun the dial a few times, opened its door, reached in, then came back with something cradled in her hands. As the woman moved to sit between Mother and me, we scooted over.
Slowly Madam Petrova unfolded the piece of green velvet, uncovering the prize inside. We leaned in, anticipating the treat our eyes were about to feast on.
Mother and I simultaneously went, “Oh!” in a good way … then “Oh,” in not so good a way.
The egg was a disappointment. Made of light-colored wood, it was lacking the diamonds, rubies, and emeralds that were the trademark of a Fabergé egg.
Madam Petrova noted our reaction and said, “I know at first glance, the egg seems rather, well, unprepossessing. But you must remember, Russia had been at war for several long years, and—like the forty-eighth and forty-ninth egg—the Tsar felt it wasn’t quite right, in such times, to have anything lavish made for him to give to his wife.” She shrugged her slight shoulders. “Besides, precious stones and metals by then were harder to come by.”
The woman carefully opened the egg, revealing a small crystal bird with a gold wreath in its beak.
“The dove of peace,” the woman said proudly.
“Well, it’s not much to look at,” Mother said matter-of-factly, “but still, it is the fiftieth and final egg commissioned by the Tsar.”
I asked Madam Petrova, “How can you be sure this is the genuine article?” Quickly adding, after Mother shot me a reproving look, “Not to be impertinent.”
Our hostess smiled enigmatically.
Then she said, “As a very young man, my father, Peter Petrov, was an apprentice at the House of Fabergé in St. Petersburg. Then the Russian Revolution began, and one evening, when he was working late, the Bolsheviks broke down the door and ransacked the business, taking everything of value. My father had only enough time to escape out the back, but he managed to grab one item—this precious egg. Which traveled with him to Finland, then Sweden. And in Norway he caught a boat to America.”
The woman’s smile turned inward.
“That’s where he met my mother, who was returning to Iowa after visiting relatives in Oslo. They fell in love on the crossing, and settled here, where my mother’s family—who owned a lumber mill—brought my father into their business.”
Again, I could tell that Mother knew all of this, and was trying hard not to show her impatience.
Mother cleared her throat. “About the egg …”
Madam Petrova took a deep breath. “I quite agree with you, Vivian.”
She nodded. “I can’t think of any better use for it. This town and its people have been good to me over these many years, and if this object can bring in a good deal of money to help those now in need … then, yes, certainly, of course I agree to donate it.”
Mother smiled broadly, as if auditioning for the Joker role in the next Batman movie.
But I foresaw a possible problem.
I asked, “What about your nephew? Wouldn’t he object?”
Knickknacks were one thing, but a Fabergé egg?
Mother had reached behind Madam Petrova and was in the process of pinching my side, when a deep voice asked, “Would I object to what?”
Entering the room was Clifford Ashland, the son of our hostess’s deceased sister. Tall, confident, with good looks rivaling the old swashbuckling movie star Stewart Granger, he wore expensive resort clothes—navy and white seersucker jacket, butter-yellow open-collar shirt, white slacks, and white deck shoes sans socks. Seeming more Palm Beach than Serenity, the nephew bent and kissed the cheek of his aunt as she raised her smiling face to him.
Ashland’s eyes went to Mother, and then me; they did not have Granger’s twinkle, though in other circumstances, they might have. Were Mother and I skunks at a garden party?
Madam Petrova said with a gesture, “You know Mrs. Borne, and this is her daughter, Brandy….”
“Yes, of course,” he said pleasantly. “I’ve bought several small Art Deco items recently from your booth at the antiques mall.”
Mother had been stocking our little business in Pearl City Plaza since I’d been under the weather, so this was news to me.
Mother gushed, “It’s so nice to see you again, Mr. Ashland.”
I suppressed a gag. Had Mother forgotten that before Clifford Ashland had made his millions, he’d been a used-car salesman, from whom I’d purchased my first set of wheels, which had died an unceremonious death in the middle of an intersection on our way home, after which Mother had called him a charlatan (actually a blankety-blank charlatan)? But apparently, all is forgiven if you buy from our booth.
(Look, I know I said the “s” word was pretty much the extent of Mother’s swearing, and it is. What she literally said was, “You’re a blankety-blank charlatan!”).
The nephew’s attention went to the Fabergé egg cradled on his aunt’s lap.
“That ugly old thing,” he said with a chuckle, and a kind of shudder. “Definitely not laid by the golden goose.”
Madam Petrova gave me a knowing look. “As I said, Clifford harbors no sentimentality for this family heirloom. So I’m sure he won’t mind.”
“Mind what?” Ashland asked, his smile fading.
His aunt said, “I’ve decided to sell the Fabergé egg at a citywide church bazaar to raise money for our flood victims.”
Clifford Ashland’s tanned face turned ashen. He took a few steps back and eased into an awaiting armchair.
“You can’t be serious, Auntie,” he said in apparent horror.
“Oh, yes, I can, dear,” Madam Petrova told him firmly, digging in the heels of her beige pumps. “I’ve made up my mind.”
Ashland leaned forward in the chair, gesturing animatedly. “But you’ll never get out of it what it’s worth at a local bazaar! You’d be much better off selling the egg through an auction house like Christie’s or Sotheby’s.”
Mother piped up. “And that’s exactly what we’re going to be doing … in a sense.”
Ashland frowned. “What do you mean?”
“Well,” Mother explained excitedly, “my plan is to hold an auction for that one item, and have representatives from all the large auction houses there … plus private buyers. Think of the publicity! And, we have matching funds promised by a magazine company.”
“Then the magazine people know about the egg?”
Mother put on her vaguely insulted face. “No, of course not. Only the people in this room know of its existence. The publisher, Samuel Woods, understands that there could be some large-ticket items, yes … but he has no idea there might be anything of this magnitude. Or that the likes of Christie’s and Sotheby’s will be on hand. Won’t he be surprised!”
Ashland sat back and grunted, “Yes.” He raised an eyebrow. “Be sure to get the publisher’s offer in writing before you announce it,” Ashland the businessman said. “He won’t be expecting to have to match those kind of funds.”
Madam Petrova looked at her nephew. “Then, dear, I have your blessing to donate the egg?”
Ashland’s smile couldn’t have been more casual if they’d been discussing whether to lend the neighbors a cup of sugar. “Yes, of course. The cause is a good one, and Mrs. Borne has anticipated my objection—that it be given away for a song.”
“You’re sure you don’t object, dear?”
He shrugged. “It’s a charitable contribution. Should be deductible. I’ll have my tax people look into it.”
“Well, that’s fine, dear.”
“I just hope it’s what you want.”
“It is, dear.”
The room fell silent. Aunt and nephew obviously needed to discuss this further, and in private. Under all those “dear’s” was a certain strain.
I stood and said (much to Mother’s dismay), “Well … I guess we should be going.”
Madam Petrova placed the Fabergé egg gently on the coffee table and rose. “Yes, I am tired, now.” She extended her hand to Mother. “You will inform me with further developments of the bazaar? I will want to attend, naturally.”
Mother promised she would.
As Mother and I took our leave of Madam Petrova, Clifford Ashland announced, “I’ll walk you two ladies out….”
And now for our private dressing-down, I thought.
Mother, too, sensed something coming, and outside, under the portico overhang, turned to face Ashland.
He didn’t mince words. “I’m not happy about this,” he snapped, looking from Mother to me, then back to Mother, “but if I know my aunt, once she decides to do something, it’s done.” He raised a lecturing finger, which also seemed like a threat. “Understand, I don’t give a damn about that egg … but I do give a damn about my aunt! And I don’t want to see her hurt.”
Mother looked puzzled. “What do you mean? How could she be hurt?”
“What if someone buys the egg for an exorbitant amount, then claims it’s a fake?” he asked. “Next comes a lawsuit … and scandal. That’s just the kind of thing that could kill my aunt.”
I spoke up. “Do you have any reason to think the egg is not legitimate?”
Ashland shrugged. “No … but what proof is there that the ugly old thing is authentic, really, other than my aunt’s recollections?”
Mother shrugged. “Then let the buyer beware, I say.”
“That’s not good enough,” Ashland said flatly. “If my aunt, and her estate, can’t be protected, then I’m against this.”
I asked, “Is there someone with expertise who could examine the egg? Someone willing to authenticate it, and put his reputation on the line?”
Ashland stoked his chin with one hand. “There was an expert from Chicago, who appraised the egg some years ago—for insurance purposes. In fact, he wanted to buy it.”
“Well then, there’s our answer,” Mother said brightly. “If he could draw up a new appraisal, I’m sure that would give your aunt the necessary legal coverage.”
Ashland was nodding slowly. “Perhaps. I’ll try to contact him. It was a long time ago.”
With that, we left a somewhat appeased Clifford Ashland, who went back in as we walked to my car.
I had a queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach that had nothing to do with morning sickness. No one had yet mentioned other obvious pitfalls in auctioning off such a valuable and rare item—little things, like crowd control and police security…
Had Mother finally bitten off more than she could chew? Was she about to meet her Waterloo? And why was I rhyming all of a sudden?
I looked at Mother, seated next to me in the car. Her face was placid.
As usual she left the worrying to me!
“Chop chop, dear!” Mother said. “So little time, and so much to do. And detour signs be darned, take us into the downtown.”
If she could throw caution to the wind, why shouldn’t I?
“All right,” I said, starting the car, “but you’re paying for any tickets we get.”
“After this auction,” Mother said, “we’ll be the most popular women in town. Any minor offenses we might commit in the meantime will be forgiven. After all, we are the Borne girls, who brought relief to our fellow citizens, all in the form of an antique egg.”
“Right,” I said, and pulled out. “Just don’t forget what happened to Humpty Dumpty.”
A Trash ‘n’Treasures Tip.
At a church bazaar, the best way to get first crack at antiques and collectibles is to help unpack and set up the merchandise. When Mother does this, the other attendees are guaranteed a major discovery: there’s nothing good left..
Suppose I awoke some night to find the Angel of Death hovering near the foot of my bed, and should he/she/it say, “Brandy Borne, you have the choice of either coming with me now, or reliving one more day … but it must be the day of the church bazaar!” And I would shout unequivocally, “Take me now, please!”
Before that excruciatingly long Saturday had ended, sickness and death would fill the air, and as for our fabled Fabergé egg … well, maybe I’m getting ahead of myself…
The morning of the bazaar began benignly enough: the weather beautiful, breezy, and bright—a “perfect ten” on the scale of a Midwestern day.
Mother had been up since at least four A.M.; even with two pillows over my head, I’d been able to hear her downstairs, below my bedroom, clomping around like a circus fat lady in galoshes. Finally, at six, unable to fall back asleep, I surrendered to crawl out of bed and hit the shower. Sushi, who usually slept on top of the covers, gave me an “I’m not getting up yet” look with her spooky white orbs, and underscored her point by burrowing under the sheets.
At first, the warm water pelting my skin felt fine, like a hundred massaging fingers … but then it seemed like a hundred little needles were pricking me, and I quickly got out of the shower and put on a soft white robe.
In the kitchen, Mother had thoughtfully made a cheese and broccoli quiche, but the smell of it—along with the aroma of strong coffee—sent Miss Morning Sickness of the New Millennium running once again for the downstairs bathroom.
I didn’t make it to the bowl, however, and hunkered at the sink and retched wretchedly. When my stomach finally quieted, I looked at myself in the mirror, and what I saw gave me a start.
I was thin and pale, my skin a sickly color.
Mother, in her pink robe, stood beside me. “Dear, you simply must eat something—it’s not good for you, or your precious little cargo….”
“I know, I know,” I moaned. “But I just can’t.” I started to cry.
Mother put her arms around me, and I lay my head on her shoulder.
When my tears had subsided, she asked, “How about some cinnamon toast and chamomile tea, sweetheart?”
“I’ll even burn the toast just how you like it….”
I wiped my eyes with the back of a hand. “Okay … I’ll … I’ll try.”
Mother smiled and pinched my cheek. “That’s a good girl. Now, go upstairs and get dressed. I’ll have it ready in a jiffy.”
From my closet I selected a girlie-pink Juicy Couture hoodie and sweatpants, and slipped on my pink short UGGS, hoping the spring color would make me look (and feel) better. But I could have easily been mistaken for a very large Easter bunny, like that poor kid in A Christmas Story.
When I came back down, Mother had the hot tea and burnt toast waiting for me at the small, round, table-for-two on the screened-in back porch.
Mother, now dressed in a nautical theme—navy jacket and slacks, and a white blouse with anchors (woman overboard!)—sat with me while I ate.
She said, “I don’t expect you to help much today, dear, considering your condition, and how you’re feeling … but I might need your assistance during the auction.”
“When’s that gonna be?” I asked with my mouth full.
“One o’clock—right after the luncheon.”
I took a sip of tea. “What do you want me to do?” I hoped it wouldn’t be too taxing, as this pregnancy made me so tired these days.
“I’d like you to help me keep track of the bids. It’s going to involve large sums of money, you know.”
About to take another sip, I froze, the cup at my lips. “Why are you worried about it? It’s not like you’re the auctioneer.”
She straightened her hair.
She took off her glasses and polished them with a napkin.
“Mother, you’re not the auctioneer, are you?”
“Well, what if I am, dear?”
“Why look so shocked? I took that course last year. Surely you remember.”
How could I forget? For days after Mother returned from a one-week course at the Worldwide College of Auctioneering in Mason City, she had talked fast in a singsongy chant. To wit (or maybe two half-wits):.
“Mother, when should we leave for the mall?”
“How about two o’clock? Two o’clock, do I hear two-fifteen? That’s two-fifteen, two-fifteen, do I hear two-thirty, two-thirty? That’s two-thirty … going once, going twice, gone!”
Mother was saying, “There’s really nothing to being an auctioneer. My goodness, why pay good money for a professional, I say, when I can do it myself!”
“Well, that’s a wonderful idea. Just because some of the most experienced bidders in the world are going to be in attendance, including representatives of Sotheby’s and Christie’s, plus several private collectors, among them a Russian who came halfway across the world—why on Earth would we want a professional?”
“I’m glad to see you see it the way I do.”
Mother recognizes my sarcasm; she just pretends not to.
“You do realize,” I said, “that everything that happens today will be recorded for posterity by local TV to be broadcast around the world, and posted on the Internet?”
“Oh, yes! Isn’t that exciting!”
I considered telling Mother that I was too sick to go, but then somebody needed to be there to protect her from getting tarred and feathered after the botched auction…
Sushi materialized at my feet, drawn from her warm bed by the smell of the toast. I broke off some crust and gave it to her.
Mother rose from the little table. “We should go soon, dear. I want to be there by eight, to get a good parking place.”
I put my dishes in the sink, then fed Sushi some dog food, followed by a shot of insulin, and the usual dog biscuit treat that was her reward, or really bribe, for not running away from the needle.
With the doggie rituals completed, I put Soosh outside for a few minutes, so I wouldn’t have to clean up a mess when we got back later. Then Mother and I headed out to my car, and an event I was looking forward to with the enthusiasm of one summoned to an IRS audit.
Actually, the charity church bazaar almost hadn’t happened. A major stumbling block had arisen when Mother couldn’t find a facility available on a Saturday that was big enough to handle the large crowd the auction would surely attract. The county fairground was under construction because the grandstand had recently burned down (thanks to Mother—see Antiques Flee Market); the high school gymnasium was being used for a basketball tournament; the community center, located downtown, had been half under water until recently (the aftermath not pretty); and all of the larger churches had weddings scheduled for every weekend.
Then, according to Mother, a miracle happened. A nuptial planned at St. Mary’s Church got canceled after the bride-to-be received an anonymous phone call that her beloved intended had been seen out with another woman. (Shame on you for suspecting Mother!) (Anyway, she swore to me on the family Bible that she hadn’t made the cruel call, because such shameless rumor-mongering was unforgivable, a statement followed by Mother listing five “terrible gossips” who she considered capable of the deed, including Mrs. Mulligan down the street, one of her prime sources.).
While the Catholic Church was not an ideal place to hold the bazaar and auction, the main church building—with its large sanctuary, smaller chapel, choir room, meditation room, and library—could be used to hold the various church “teams.” And the newly attached one-story Catholic elementary school, with its many classrooms, could also be incorporated in Mother’s plan of action. Paramount, too, was St. Mary’s ample parking lot, which could accommodate hundreds of cars.
At the urging of Nastasya’s nephew Clifford—a respected member of St. Mary’s and a major donor—Father O’Brien agreed to host the event, once Clifford pointed out that the church would gain goodwill from the community for this literal act of charity. Plus it might even attract new sheep into Father O’Brien’s flock, or at least round up some old lambs who’d strayed.
When I was in grade school, Mother and I had attended St. Mary’s for a while. Catholicism was just one of a long list of religions Mother “tried out” when she was searching for a perfect heavenly fit for us two earthly creatures. I enjoyed going to mass because there was always some iconic statue or deity to look at while seated in the pews, plus the ritualistic repetition of the service seemed comforting to me during times of mental turbulence with Mother.
But ultimately Mother decided St. Mary’s wasn’t for us, stating, “Their pomp and circumstance is much too theatrical,” so we moved on. (Personally, I think Mother couldn’t stand to be stuck out in the audience, and not performing up at the pulpit. She rarely attends plays she isn’t appearing in.).
Built around the turn of the last century, St. Mary’s was a gloomy, gothic limestone structure sitting high on a hill in the center of town. As a child, I’d heard members of other churches complain that St. Mary’s on its perch was “lording itself over all the other lowly churches” in Serenity. Maybe so, but being on high ground during flood season made it the ideal choice for all the churches to come together for this cause.
I steered the Buick up a steep winding drive to the large cement parking lot behind the church. (About the only people who ever climbed the two-hundred-plus steps from the street level were high school jocks trying to bulk up.) Even though the bazaar wouldn’t begin for another hour, dozens of cars were already there.
“Park up close to the door, dear,” Mother instructed, as she opened the glove compartment to extract a handicap parking placard she’d gotten ten years ago after minor surgery on an ingrown toenail.
“Put that back!”
“But, dear, you’re pregnant, and I am bipolar.”
“You’re also shameless. I’ll drop you off at the door and park somewhere where we’d be less likely to get hit by lightning.”
Mother frowned. “Dear, this high up anyone might get hit by lightning.”
“Someday when you need a handicapped spot, there won’t be one because you’ve already taken it!”
Even though that didn’t make sense, Mother understood my meaning. “Don’t drop me off,” she said with martyred disdain. “I can manage.”
I parked, not all that far away, and Mother got out of the car, and I followed obediently behind her. She was limping.
“The ingrown toenail was the other foot,” I said.
Then, Praise the Lord, another miracle occurred, as her limp was healed.
Soon we entered a small marble vestibule. More doors led to an octagon-shaped narthex—a large lobby area—where several women were fussing over a long banquet table, preparing to take attendance money, dispense tickets, and hand out maps of team locations. A sign on the wall stated that the ten-dollar fee to get in also included a potluck lunch. Hysteria was already in the air, middle-aged and elderly ladies chattering like novelty-shop teeth.
Mother paid for us, and handed me our tickets for safekeeping; then we headed for our team’s location, which was the main church sanctuary, just off the nar-thex.
Earlier, Mother had told the organizers that our team—dubbed by her “Team Eggs-tra Ordinaire”—would require the sanctuary because that was the best place to hold the auction; no need to bring in chairs, as the pews would serve as seating, and the pulpit had its own sound system for the auctioneer.
No one disagreed with her logic, but I wondered if this arrangement miffed some of the others, especially the home-team Catholics who were relegated to their own small adjacent chapel.
Mother and I entered the sanctuary—which was designed in the shape of a cross—and were immediately greeted by the statue of the Holy Water Angel. Skirting around the baptismal font, we passed the arched entrance to the small chapel, where a middle-aged woman in a conservative gray dress and sensible flats stood staring at us. Madeline Pierce, the church secretary, also wore a frown, showing her displeasure with her team’s cramped location.
Mother nodded curtly and, smiling a little too broadly, marched triumphantly on.
I caught up with Mother in the center aisle, grabbing her arm, pulling her up short.
“Gloating is very un-Christian,” I whispered.
Mother turned, asking disingenuously, “Whatever do you mean, dear?”
“Don’t play innocent. Not here,” I said, playing stern mother to her child. “You don’t need to be rude. Teams or not, this is a community effort.”
Mother’s eyebrows climbed over the rim of her oversized glasses. “Who do you think organized this community effort? Anyway, I thought I was being friendly. I smiled, didn’t I?”
“Like a cat with a mouse in its paws.”
Mother’s laugh was dismissive. “Nonsense.”
I raised a finger. “You don’t like me off my Prozac … and I don’t like you up on your high horse. Let’s strive to be better people, okay? Here in church, at least?”
Mother looked thoughtful for a moment, then said, “Perhaps I was a wee bit smug. We are, after all, guests in God’s house.”
I gave her an earthly smirk. “Try to keep that in mind.”
While Mother hurried on, I took my time, reacquaint-ing myself with the stations of the cross, which represented the final hours of Christ from condemnation to resurrection, and paused to gaze at the beautiful stained-glass windows, made glowingly lovely by the morning sun.
At the west transept (the left arm of the cross), I stopped to stare at the statue of St. Mary, Mother of Sorrows, which had been repainted since I’d seen it last, making the seven daggers piercing her heart more noticeable.
I moved on to the statue of St. Joseph—the Patron of Happy Death—holding the baby Jesus. It, too, had a fresh coat of paint.
I had arrived at the communion railing, where four more long banquet tables displayed a wide variety of antiques and collectibles gathered from our team’s members; each item was tagged and, when appropriate, polished and carefully arranged on white linen tablecloths.
Among the donations were pottery, silver tea sets, china dishes, china figurines, lady-head vases, oil lamps, candlesticks, cookie jars, collectible toys, jewelry, and evening bags. Squatting around the periphery of the tables were a few antique furniture pieces, including a lawyer’s five-shelf bookcase, a set of six caned oak chairs, a claw-footed tea table, and a waterfall Art Deco dresser.
Of the dozen or so people present, I recognized only three from our small church: Alice Hetzler, a retired teacher; Frannie Phillips, former nurse; and Harold Kerr, ex-Army captain. The two women were gal pals of Mother’s, members of her Red-Hatted League mystery book club. The man also belonged to a club—the Romeos (Retired Old Men Eating Out)—and, if Mother is to be believed, the old boy had once tried to play Romeo to her Juliet (after Father passed away, of course).
The other members of our team milling around were from the Episcopalian and Lutheran churches, and the Jewish synagogue. I recognized some of them, but didn’t know their names.
Nastasya Petrova was not among them. My understanding was that she was receiving the qualified bidders in her home early this morning for a private viewing of the Fabergé egg. The protocol was that each bidder would be escorted into the Petrova parlor for a private, individual examination of the artifact, for two purposes—first, to establish to each bidder’s satisfaction that this was the genuine article; and second, to present a sealed bid. All of the bidders were then gathered into the parlor, the sealed bids revealed, and the highest of these would be this afternoon’s opening bid—Mother had predicted three hundred thousand. We would see.
The egg itself had been locked away in Nastasya Petrova’s safe deposit box since the day after Mother and I dropped by to propose the auction. And it had been delivered by local police to the Petrova mansion this morning for that series of private viewings. Those or other armed police guards, provided by Chief Cas-sato, would deliver the egg just in time to be the star of the big show.
Anyway, as our team was getting its act together, Harold began barking as to who should do what once the bazaar began, and I knew Mother would not put up with the ex-Army captain’s orders, and had planned my retreat even before the battle had begun.
“Mother,” I said, “it doesn’t look like I’m needed here. Why don’t I check out the other teams and see how they’re doing?”
Mother always loved subterfuge. “Good idea, dear! And pick up some early bargains for our booth.”
Gathering my purse and map, I decided to first check out the kitchen in the basement, to see what was being served for lunch, hoping that something might look appealing to my finicky stomach.
But instead of heading back through the sanctuary and taking the main stairs down in the narthex (hereafter referred to as lobby), I decided to use a secret passageway, which was located behind the choir benches to the left of the tabernacle, an ornately carved altar with spiral finials supported on the heads of four cherubic angels (ouch).
Years ago, when I sang in children’s choir, I always sat in the back row in front of this panel, and when I got bored with mass I’d slip out and root around in the always-well-stocked kitchen, then return to my choir pew, often with food on my face, and not fooling anybody (especially Mother). I adored the secret passageway, as a child, as it was straight out of the Nancy Drew mysteries I was reading.
Even now I got a kick out of it. I slid the panel open, slipped through, and closed it again. Then, in the dark, I felt my way down the narrow stone steps, palms pressed to the cold, clammy walls.
At the base of the stairs I pushed open another panel, and reappeared in the kitchen behind a cart of pots and pans. Once a dark, claustrophobia-inducing place, the kitchen had been completely remodeled since I’d snuck my last piece of cake. Now it seemed huge—all bright white and shining chrome, with modern, restaurant-quality appliances.
I stood unnoticed as the room swirled with people in motion, coming and going as they added more and more food to the already-overflowing counters. The mixture of smells was dizzying—at once wonderful and horrible—but one really stood out: the inviting aroma of Mrs. Mulligan’s stew.
She stood a short distance away, at the oversized stove, stirring her famous concoction in a large vat with a long wooden spoon. (She wasn’t in the vat—the spoon was.).
As I approached, she glanced up from her task, and said, “Well, well … I’ll be a monkey’s auntie…. If it isn’t Brandy Borne.”
And she did look like a monkey’s aunt—a orangutan to be exact, with her short Lucille Ball–red wig (a little off-kilter), facial hair, and close-set beady eyes. She had the kind of unpleasant appearance that made it difficult to think kind thoughts even in church.
Mrs. Mulligan was well-known in Serenity as the town gossip, running rings around Mother. Unlike Mother, this woman was indiscriminate in her scandal-mongering; she didn’t care if the gossip was true or not, or who it hurt. Still, that hadn’t stopped Mother from going over to Mrs. Mulligan’s, once or twice a week, and not for stew.
With a nod, I said, “Mrs. Mulligan.”
An eyebrow arched, she replied, “I can’t say I approve of any woman renting out her womb….”
At first I thought she had said “room,” Elmer Fudd-style, but then her ball-bearing eyes drifted to my stomach.
I said, “It’s rent-free. My best friend couldn’t have a child and I’m helping her out.”
But then, the town gossip knew all this.
Mrs. Mulligan raised another eyebrow, a lecturing one. “Our bodies are God’s temple and should not be used other than for his purpose.”
“Funny. I thought helping out a friend was a Christian thing to do.”
She sniffed and shrugged. “Still, what’s done is done….” She frowned. “You look terrible, dear.”
“Thank you for your concern.”
“How about some of my famous stew?” she asked, returning her attention to the cauldron.
It did smell good. She might have been a horrible woman, but her stew was legendarily wonderful; sometimes I suspected she was the original Mulligan. My mind said “Yes,” and I waited for my stomach to concur.
To my surprise it growled a long, loud affirmative.
“I’d love some,” I said. “Is it done?”
Mrs. Mulligan smiled proudly. “Oh, yes—I made it yesterday and it’s just reheating.”
I retrieved a bowl from a cupboard, and a bent soup spoon from the silverware drawer, and Mrs. Mulligan used a ladle to fill my dish.
I ate two bowls—it was that delicious.
MRS. MULLIGAN’S SPICY BEEF STEW.
2 Tbl. olive oil.
1½ lbs. lean chuck roast, cubed.
¼ cup flour.
1 can (14 oz.) beef broth.
1 cup beer or dry red wine.
1 onion, chopped.
1 clove garlic, minced.
1 Tbl. brown sugar.
1 tsp. dried thyme.
1 tsp. sage.
½ tsp. cumin.
1 Tbl. mild chili powder.
6 medium potatoes.
4 large carrots.
4 stalks celery.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In Dutch oven, brown beef cubes over medium-high heat. Remove beef and stir in flour. Add all other ingredients, including beef, and bring to a boil. Cover and transfer to oven. Cook for 2 hours.
After eating the stew, I thanked Mrs. Mulligan, who responded warmly (suddenly she didn’t seem so bad), then left the kitchen for the dining hall area where I sat in a folding chair next to a bathroom. After fifteen minutes or so, satisfied that my stomach wouldn’t change its mind about the spicy meal, I headed upstairs to the lobby to begin trolling for bargains …
… and what I found was that there were none to be had!
Every team, in every location, had priced their antiques and collectibles way too high. Understandably, many of the items were family heirlooms going on the block for a worthy cause; but unless dealers—a significant part of the crowd—could make a profit in resale … well, basically, the only sales the teams had made so far were to each other.
I reported back to Mother.
“This is not good,” she responded, dismayed. “Everything will hinge on the auction, and we have our proverbial eggs in one basket.”
“Egg. Just one egg, Mother.”
I will now fast-forward through the luncheon (which I didn’t attend, having already eaten), and get to the auction itself.
To say that the sanctuary was filled to capacity is an understatement—people were packed into the pews like the Pope was speaking, and there wasn’t even standing room left. There were many familiar faces, including such cronies of Mother’s as various members of her Red Hat social club, lovely African-American Shawntea, who drove the local gas-powered trolley, and local barfly Henry Something-or-other, looking surprisingly sober. The church was definitely in violation of the fire code, but no one seemed to care, since Our Heavenly Father apparently didn’t.
At the back of the sanctuary, the media had set up camp, which included several TV camera crews—local affiliates that would no doubt be sending their feed to national channels. But a few renegade reporters had sneaked up to the front where the bidders were sequestered in the first pew, the press squatting in the aisles, their camcorders at the ready.
Mother and I sat in the two celebrant’s chairs next to the lectern (stage left), while Father O’Brien stood stiffly at the pulpit (stage right).
He cleared his throat and a pin-drop hush fell over the crowd. The white-robed priest—a slender, middle-aged man with receding hairline and ruddy complexion, his shoulders hunched, perhaps by the weight of the world—raised a benevolent hand and gave a benediction.
Was a blessing really necessary today? I think the priest probably provided one in response to criticism from certain of his parishioners who reportedly felt the sanctuary should not be used for raising money, even if for a worthy cause. Christ throwing out the moneylenders had been cited. But what did these Christians think collection plates were all about?
After the benediction, a stirring at the back turned heads, and the standing crowd parted for Nastasya Petrova—looking elegantly regal in a long-sleeved, high-necked royal-blue evening dress—carrying the surprisingly unprepossessing Fabergé egg on a small red-velvet pillow.
Two policemen followed close behind her: tall and gangly Officer Munson, and sandy-haired, brown-eyed handsome Brian Lawson, my once and maybe future boyfriend. Our relationship was on hiatus while Brian tended to a personal matter with his ex-wife (their daughter was battling an eating disorder), and while I had Tina and Kevin’s baby.
The presence of police security, by the way, was a Mother touch, to heighten the suspense of the auction; but considering the value of the egg, their presence wasn’t just stagecraft.
All eyes followed Madam Petrova as she made her slow, royal walk down the center aisle, trailed by the two officers, whose expressions suggested they were none too happy to be a part of Mother’s theatrics.
Brian spotted me in the celebrant’s chair, and we exchanged looks—his, exasperated; mine, chagrined.
At the communion railing, the little procession parted ways—Officer Munson taking a spot to the right of the pulpit, and Brian to the left of the lectern—while Madam Petrova ascended the two steps of the inner sanctuary and placed the pillow on the altar table. She then crossed over to the lectern and stood behind it, her head barely visible to the audience.
Mother jack-in-the-boxed up, rushed over, and bent the microphone neck to accommodate the tiny woman, in the process making a loud, amplified THUNK!.
After mother returned to her chair, and I did my best to crawl inside my skin, Madam Petrova—looking even more frail than she had during our visit—began to speak, sharing with the attendees the history of the Fabergé egg and how it came to be in her possession, much as she’d related to us at her home.
Honestly, I didn’t hear much of what she said, caught up in anticipation about the potential disaster that would soon follow in the form of auctioneer Mother. Would her performance find its way onto YouTube, I wondered, and/or Keith Olbermann’s “Oddball” segment on MSNBC’s Countdown?
I looked slowly down the row of bidders, seated near me in front of the lectern. Resting on my lap was a legal pad with their names written down, along with a column for their bids, so that I could prompt Mother if (make that when) she got lost in the process.
The well-attired players were: handsome, businesslike Don Kaufman, representing the Forbes family, owner of eleven of the Imperial eggs; attractive gray-business-suited brunette Katherine Estherhaus, New York, representing Christie’s Auction House; slender, dark-haired, bespectacled John Richards, here for Sotheby’s of London; stocky, solemn Sergei Ivanov, wealthy Moscow-industrialist; and white-maned, distinguished-looking Louis Martinette, the private dealer (and collector of other Fabergé works), who had originally appraised the egg. The dark-eyed Martinette had an oval face with half-lidded eyes and deep grooves of character or anyway experience.
Also seated among the players was the publisher of American Mid-West Magazine, Samuel Woods, a relatively young man in a dark pinstriped suit; he seemed a bundle of nervous tics, sweating profusely, most likely contemplating the next stockholders’ meeting where he would have to explain a drop in profits due to having to match today’s winning bid.
Madam Petrova ended her ancestral story to thunderous applause (I noticed, however, that the Russian attendee wasn’t clapping) and then she traded seats with Mother, who approached the lectern to start the auction.
I, too, had broken out in a cold sweat, knowing what disaster likely awaited, wishing I could be anywhere else—Mars or Kentucky or maybe that island on Lost. And yet—like a bystander at a bad accident—I couldn’t take my eyes off Mother…
She began by leaning toward the microphone and blurting ridiculously, “Is this on?” So loud that everyone jumped a little.
The reps of Christie’s and Sotheby’s, seated next to each other, exchanged wide-eyed looks. They had come to Podunk in the middle of Flyover Country expecting just about anything—anything but Mother, that is…
I grinned to myself. You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.
Mother straightened her shoulders, produced a gavel from beneath the lectern, and banged it.
“The bidding for the Fabergé egg will begin!” Mother announced.
A cheer went up from the audience, echoing in the sanctuary.
Mother said crisply, “Bidding starts at three. Do I have three?”
Earlier, at our kitchen table, Mother had created some homemade bidding placards, using recycled cardboard and old Popsicle sticks; but I’d convinced her it would be more dignified if the bidders simply used their heads or hands.
And the first bidder—a chubby, local thrill-seeker—now did so, waving his hand wildly like a kid in class who had to use the bathroom.
Mother, flushed with excitement, said, “I have three hundred thousand dollars—do I have three-fifty?”
The Russian nodded his bucket head, and the thrill-seeker appeared relieved to be off the hook for three hundred grand when he may have thought she meant three thousand or even three hundred.
“Three-fifty—do I have four?”
The Forbes rep, Don Kaufman, nodded.
“That’s four … four…. Do I have four-fifty?”
Christie’s Katherine Estherhaus raised a red-nailed finger.
“Four-fifty—do I have five?”
John Richards from Sotheby’s nodded.
Mother picked up the pace; the crowd stayed with her, their excitement mounting.
“Five hundred thousand dollars! Do I have five-fifty?”
Sergei Ivanov swiped the air with a bear paw.
“Five-fifty! Six? Do I have six?”
Don Kaufman nodded.
“Six hundred thousand! I have six hundred thousand. Is there six-fifty?”
The audience began egging the bidders on with chants of “More! More!”
John Richards aimed a forefinger at Mother.
Mother, red-faced, shouted, “Do I have seven?”
When none of the bidders twitched, Mother looked pointedly at Katherine Estherhaus, and asked incredulously, “Are you going to let your cousin across the pond win the bid? Have you so soon forgotten the Boston Tea Party?”
I was squirming in embarrassment, but darned if Es-therhaus’s red-nailed hand didn’t fly up, and the audience cheered.
“I have seven hundred thousand! Do I have seven-fifty?”
Louis Martinette, until now silent, seemingly bored with the proceedings, intoned, “One million,” drawing gasps and shouts of exultation from the crowd. The white-haired gent appeared as casual as somebody ordering a cheeseburger. Or in his case, maybe, a filet mignon.
But suddenly, strangely, there were other sounds emanating from the crowd: cries of alarm, and fear.
Mother, oblivious to anything but her own performance, shouted in her best Dr. Evil style, “One million dollars! Going once … going twice … sold!”
And she banged the gavel.
My eyes were on Brian, who—along with Officer Munson—had been standing at parade rest during the auction. Brian’s body tensed as he, too, became aware of a disturbance in the crowd, beginning with those standing in back.
Here and there, people were moaning, some keeling over, while others cried out for help. The audience was falling ill, a response apparently not inspired by Mother’s performance, which by her standards had been remarkably tame.
Brian moved quickly up the center aisle to aid those who were sick, but his effort was impeded when a gentleman toppled from a pew into his path, and lay curled and convulsing.
Mother, frozen at the lectern, added to the unfolding drama, when the microphone picked up her astonished words, “Dear Lord, what is this? Anthrax?”
Well, maybe not remarkably tame…
Panic ensued as the crowd tried to flee, moving en masse toward the back of the sanctuary, pushing and shoving, and jumping over those who had fallen. Did everybody have morning sickness?
My plan of escape was via the rear of the room, which is to say the front of the sanctuary, through the chambers located behind the tabernacle. I turned to gather Madam Petrova, still seated in the other celebrant’s chair.
She was leaning back, staring straight ahead, though she seemed not to be looking at anything.
“Mother!” I called out, alarmed.
Mother rushed over, then knelt, her knees making a popping sound. She peered into Nastasya’s face, and felt for a pulse in the woman’s neck.
She shook her head somberly. “She’s gone, dear.”
“Are you sure?”
Behind the big lenses, her eyes were wild. “Don’t you think I know a corpse when I see one?”
The question was both blunt and rhetorical: Mother indeed had firsthand experience with dead bodies since I’d returned home and gotten unwillingly caught up in her amateur sleuthing.
I asked pitifully, “Isn’t there anything we can do?”
I was specifically thinking about finding Nastasya’s nephew, Clifford Ashland, but the last I’d seen him, he was standing at the back of the sanctuary, and would likely have been swept out into the lobby by the current of the panicking crowd.
Mother stood, supported by the arm of the celebrant’s chair, her knees now making a grinding noise.
“The best thing we can do, my dear, is to get out of here … out into the fresh air … until we know what is happening.”
The stench of sickness was in both our nostrils. Could Mother have been right—could it be Anthrax? Or Legionnaire’s Disease?
I said, “There’s an exit door in the furnace room.”
Mother shook her head. “You know it’s locked, dear…. Security.” She raised a finger. “But the spiral staircase can take us up to the bell tower, where we can go across the walkway to the front of the church, and down the stairs into the vestibule.”
It sounded like a plan. But when I hesitated, looking at Madam Petrova, Mother said softly, “Come, dear, she’s in God’s hands now. We must think of ourselves—and your little forthcoming bundle from above.”
With Mother in the lead, we fled to the arched wooden door behind the tabernacle, then on through to the choir room, where white robes, hanging like limp ghosts on a clothes rack, flapped their arms as we hurried past.
Through another door we entered the dim, dreary maintenance room, greeted by a water pipe dripping somewhere. We skirted around the ancient metal furnace, shut down for the season, and Mother suddenly stopped short; I stumbled into her, nearly losing my balance.
Father O’Brien was on his knees near the spiral staircase, bent over as if praying, and perhaps he was; if so, it was inspired by the sprawled body of Louis Martinette, who lay on his back, eyes staring upward, head cracked open like an egg, spilling not yellow, but a bright terrible red.
A Trash ‘n’Treasures Tip.
When attending a church bazaar—where money is being raised to help the disadvantaged—leave your price haggling at the door. Don’t be greedy about the needy..