Kaitlyn Dunnett/Kathy Lynn Emerson here. Of late, over on Facebook, writers have been tagging each other to post the opening paragraphs of a work in progress. I put up the first scene from the book I just turned in, next year’s Liss MacCrimmon adventure, Overkilt. That’s right. A WIP, by definition, isn’t going to be available for awhile. In some cases, we may be talking years. So, upon thinking it over, and because I was badly in need of a blog topic for today, I’ve decided to share the first scene of the new book you can buy right now, in either hardcover or ebook. This is the opening (from my original manuscript, before some minor copy edits) of X Marks the Scot, the eleventh Liss MacCrimmon mystery. Hint: books make great Christmas presents.
“That is one ugly portrait,” Sherri Campbell said.
“I know.” Despite her agreement, Liss Ruskin raised her paddle to signal that she’d start the bidding at twenty-five dollars.
The auctioneer ramped up his patter, hoping to encourage others to bid. A dark-haired man standing at the back signaled that he’d go to fifty dollars. Before Liss could get her paddle in the air, someone else went to seventy-five.
She hesitated, despite being egged on from the platform set up beneath a large awning in the open area behind the Chadwick mansion. Surely the bidding wouldn’t go much higher. This wasn’t the original, after all, only a very good copy of a moderately famous depiction of a bagpiper. She upped the bid to one hundred dollars.
The “Piper to the Laird of Grant” that belonged to the National Museums of Scotland had been painted in 1714. Its subject was a man named William Cumming, a member of a family of musicians who had already been in the retinue of the leader of Clan Grant for some seven generations by the time he took his turn. Since Liss’s own family, the MacCrimmons, had also been famous for playing the Highland bagpipe a few centuries back, it would be appropriate to acquire the portrait and hang it in Moosetookalook Scottish Emporium, the shop in which she sold Scottish imports and Scottish-themed gift items and clothing.
“Beautiful piece of art! Look at those legs.”
The auctioneer, an out-of-stater brought in by the new owner of the Chadwick mansion to sell off the contents, probably thought he was being funny. A few people in a crowd of perhaps a hundred and fifty, encouraged him by laughing.
The legs in question were clad in hose knit in a different pattern than the kilt, and the kilt itself had been painted in a tartan no member of clan Grant would recognize in the twenty-first century. At least the banner and the depiction of Castle Grant in the background appeared to be fairly accurate.
The dark-haired man bid one hundred and fifty dollars.
The other rival bidder, a sturdy specimen who was sixty if she was a day, waved her paddle in the air and called out that she’d jump to two hundred.
So much for twenty-five dollar increments! Liss winced, but nodded when the auctioneer looked her way, the signal that she’d up the bid by another fifty. She’d already gone over the limit she’d had in mind when she started. That was the trouble with auctions—they brought out the competitive spirit in nearly everyone.
The woman bid again, followed by the man, bringing the high bid to three hundred and fifty dollars. Liss swallowed convulsively but gave it one last shot. In for four hundred dollars, she surreptitiously crossed her fingers.
Neither of her competitors lifted a paddle.
“Sure you don’t want to make another bid? Sir? Madam? It’s a real bargain! No?” He shook his head, as if he took the disappointment personally. “I think you’re making a big mistake! No? Sure? Well, then—going once!”
When he paused to give the other parties one last chance to reconsider, Liss held her breath, but the only person who moved was the photographer who’d been shooting pictures of the event.
“Going twice.” The auctioneer made it sound like a question, but this time he hesitated only an instant before banging down his gavel. “Sold! Item goes to the little lady with paddle number twenty-two!”
Liss expelled a puff of pent-up air. She’d paid way too much, but she’d won. She was now the proud owner of an authentic copy of a truly ghastly portrait of an eighteenth-century bagpiper.
“Next up, a trunk full of books and papers. I’ve got no idea what’s in here, folks. Could be stock certificates for all I know. You’ll have to bid to find out if you’ve made your fortune.”
Sherri gave a delicate snort. “Unless leprechauns hid a pot of gold in there since I last saw it, that’s a trunk full of junk.”
“Old books can be valuable,” Liss reminded her.
“Don’t tell me you’re going to bid on it.”
Liss shook her head. Aside from the fact that three people were already waving their paddles in the air, she didn’t see the sense in wasting money on an old steamer trunk, no matter what it might contain.
“The books looked like ledgers to me,” Sherri added. “Dull business stuff.”
“I’ll take your word for it.”
Sherri, Liss remembered, had been stuck with the thankless task of comparing the contents of the house after a theft had been discovered with the inventory made when the town took possession of the property for back taxes. That had been the only way to determine which items were missing.
Liss placed her paddle on the grass beneath her folding chair, further reducing the chance that she’d give in to temptation a second time. When a light breeze stirred the warm air and dislodged a strand of her dark brown hair, she resisted the urge to reach up and tuck it behind her hear. At an auction, even an innocent movement like that could be taken as a bid.
She hadn’t come with the intention of buying anything. Plain old curiosity had brought her back to the Chadwick mansion. Nearly eight years earlier, she had spent a good deal of time surrounded by the items that were now up for sale. She’d volunteered to turn the abandoned house, an example of high Victorian architecture built on the outskirts of her home town of Moosetookalook, Maine, into a Halloween attraction. The project had not exactly gone as planned. Perhaps they should have known better than to think it would, given that the house had once been owned by a notorious gangster.
Sherri hadn’t bothered to sign up to bid. She was in attendance because she was Moosetookalook’s chief of police. Crowd and traffic control were her responsibility. She didn’t expect any problems. People who came to country auctions were usually courteous to each other, but there were bound to be problems if everyone decided to leave at the same time. Cars, vans, and trucks filled the small parking area next to the mansion and extended in a single line all along a quarter-mile of winding driveway and out onto the shoulder of the two-lane rural road beyond.
If Sherri hadn’t been in uniform, she’d never have been taken for a cop. She was a petite, blue-eyed blonde. In her private life she was a wife and the mother of three. She was also a textbook example of how appearances could be deceiving. As Liss well knew, her friend was fully capable of taking down an angry drunk twice her size. She could have him in handcuffs before he knew what hit him.
A four-poster bed was the next item offered for sale. It looked a good deal better than the last time Liss had seen it. All those years ago, it had been covered with dust and cobwebs. Someone had taken the trouble to clean and polish all the furniture in the auction and had done what they could to spruce up other items, too.
“I’m amazed this stuff is in such good shape,” she whispered to Sherri. “Did the last owner ever do anything with the place other than install better locks?”
“Not that I heard.”
The Chadwick mansion had been sold twice since that fateful Halloween. The first time, the town had let the place and its contents go for a song, anxious to be rid of the burden of keeping trespassers off the property. Liss had never met that buyer. The next she’d heard of him, he had died and his heirs had unloaded the property. The new owner proposed to knock down the old house and build senior citizens’ housing in its place.
Both before and after the portrait of the piper was auctioned off, a steady stream of household furnishings came up for bid. Many of the items seemed familiar to Liss, even after such a long time. She’d definitely remembered that standing wardrobe chest, and the hall tree that stood more than six feet tall, and the avocado green kitchen appliances that dated from the 1950s. There had been dozens of framed pictures in all sizes and shapes, and almost as many pedestals, tables, and curio cabinets.
“This auction offers nothing if not variety,” she remarked when the auctioneer’s helpers brought out a parlor organ that was at least a full century older than the stove and refrigerator.
Another bed followed the organ, this one elaborately carved. The same bidder bought it and the matching highboy that was offered next, paying what Liss considered an exorbitant amount of money. He was undoubtedly “from away.”
“And now,” the auctioneer announced, “what you’ve all been waiting for—the original owner’s outstanding collection of the taxidermist’s art.”
First up was a stuffed pheasant that had seen better days. It appeared to be molting. The moth-eaten moose head that came next was just as repulsive, but people bid on both and seemed happy to win them.
“No accounting for taste,” Sherri muttered.
Quickly losing interest in wildlife that had been dead longer than she’d been alive, Liss shifted her attention to Sherri. She watched her friend scan their surroundings with her professional cop’s eyes. The crowd was beginning to thin out now that the best items had been sold and only more stuffed birds remained. A small traffic jam had developed at the rear of the covered area, where winning bidders went to pay for what they’d bought and collect their prizes. A few buyers were growing impatient, but so far no one had caused any problems.
Liss was in no hurry to leave. She’d bummed a ride to the auction with Sherri, which meant she’d be staying at the site until the bitter end. She was content to amuse herself by people-watching.
The dark-haired man who’d bid against her for the portrait had purchased at least a dozen framed pictures, making her wonder if he was after the ornate wooden frames rather than the artwork. She doubted the frame on the Grant piper was all that valuable, but perhaps he, too, had been caught up in the bidding frenzy. Either that, or he’d been miffed to discover he had competition and had driven up the price out of spite.
As Liss strolled closer to the line of people waiting to pay, she looked around for the second rival bidder. She didn’t see the older woman in the crowd but she did catch sight of the steamer trunk that had been sold right after the portrait. A woman small enough to fit inside it was attempting to haul it toward the parking area. She gave a mighty heave that moved the trunk a few inches but wasn’t making much progress overall. If it was full of ledgers, as Sherri had said, it must weigh a ton. Liss increased her walking speed.
“Can I give you a hand with that?”
The woman gave a start and turned wide hazel eyes upward to meet Liss’s gaze. At five-foot-nothing, she was a full nine inches shorter than Liss. Somewhere in her mid-twenties, she had curly light yellow hair. In the bright sunlight and displayed against equally pale skin, it almost looked white.
As if to emphasize her lack of color, the trunk’s new owner had dressed in black slacks and a burgundy-colored tunic. It had loose, gauzy sleeves gathered at the wrists, but it struck Liss as being much too warm for a nice day like this one. The outfit stood out for another reason, too. Almost everyone else, Liss included, wore jeans and t-shirts. An estate auction in rural Maine was not an occasion to dress up, especially if you expected to cart off heavy pieces of furniture when it ended.
When the woman didn’t say anything, giving the impression that the offer was unwelcome, Liss forced herself to smile and try again. “You look like you could use some help.” It was second nature for her to be friendly and helpful to strangers, especially those who were out of their element, but it belatedly occurred to her that a woman as tiny as this one might well have a streak of independence twice her size. She’d have trouble lifting a folding chair, let alone a steamer trunk full of books, and that must gall her.
A cute-as-a-button turned-up nose wrinkled and the blonde huffed out an exasperated breath. “I’d appreciate that. Thank you! I didn’t think it would be so heavy.”
She spoke in a high, little-girl voice that was a good match for the rest of her. A smile blossomed on her face, revealing dimples in both cheeks and sparking a memory Liss couldn’t quite grasp.
“I’m Liss Ruskin,” she said aloud.
Liss blinked at her.
“Yes. I know it’s a silly name, but Benny is less of a mouthful than Benedicta. Don’t you just love old family names? Is Liss a nickname, too? Or did I misunderstand? Is it Lisa? I’m babbling. Sorry. It’s been a long day.” She put one hand to the small of her back. “I think I pulled something.”
Liss couldn’t help but sympathize. “It’s Liss and it’s short for Amaryllis. My mother is named Violet. She was going for a flower theme.”
Working together, they maneuvered the heavy trunk another few feet, but it was obvious they weren’t going to be able to move it much farther. Liss rested her fists on her hips and assessed the situation. “Maybe this would be easier if we unloaded it first.”
“I don’t have any boxes for the contents and I don’t want to risk damaging anything.”
“Are you a book dealer?”
“Oh, no. This is research for an article I’m writing on businesses in the 1920s.” Her grin broadened and her sausage curls bounced as he head bobbed. “I can hardly wait to dive in.”
At Benny’s words, Liss pictured her poised on the edge of the open trunk as if it were a swimming pool. The image was quickly replaced by an iconic scene in black and white from a very old movie, and Liss suddenly realized why Benny’s appearance had seemed so familiar. Benny Beamer had the look of a grown-up Shirley Temple, the moppet who had been a child star back in the 1930s. She wondered if Benny knew the words to “On the Good Ship Lollipop.”
“We need a dolly,” Benny said, cutting short Liss’s imaginings.
“The auctioneer probably has one.”
“He’s still selling stuffed birds.” Benny dimpled again. Liss didn’t suppose she could help it.
“Tell you what,” she said. “You stay here with the trunk and I’ll go find some muscle. I have to pay for what I bought today anyway. The cashier should be able to flag down one of the auctioneer’s helpers.”
Liss left her new acquaintance sitting on top of the steamer trunk in the warm June sunshine. Odd what some people considered fascinating reading, she thought. When it came to running her own business, Liss’s least favorite part of the job was the bookkeeping. There was no way she could see herself getting excited about a stranger’s statements of profit and loss, especially when those records were nearly a century old.
She paid for the portrait she’d bought and collected it, but by the time she located a man with a dolly and turned to point him in the right direction, Benny had already been rescued. Her white knight was a muscular young man strong enough to hoist the trunk onto one shoulder as if it contained nothing heavier than feathers.
Amused, Liss watched them move away. Benny was self-reliant and had the brains to write articles on obscure subjects. She was also smart enough to know when it was to her advantage to fall back on her natural assets. Young women who were pretty, petite, and helpless-looking could get away with murder!
With a shrug, Liss half-dragged and half-carried her own purchase toward the far end of the driveway. Sherri had deliberately parked the cruiser there to make sure she didn’t get blocked in, as she might have if she’d chosen a spot closer to the house. Liss took her time, passing scattered groups, some silent, some chatting and laughing, and being passed by other people less burdened with their purchases than she was. As she trudged along, the auctioneer’s increasingly frantic attempts to raise the bid on a worse-for-wear stuffed owl grew fainter and fainter.
Liss didn’t anticipate much of a wait when she finally reached the cruiser. A good many cars and trucks had already left the site and the number of vehicles parked on the shoulder of the narrow road rapidly decreased even as she watched. She caught sight of the steamer trunk again as Benny’s hero loaded it into a white van. The dark-haired man who had bid against her for the Grant piper nodded to her as he stacked framed prints in the trunk of a dark blue hatchback.
At that moment, Sherri came up behind her. “Ready to go?”
“You’re not staying till the bitter end?” A steady stream of departing auction-goers continued to pass by them.
Sherri shook her head. “They’ve mostly cleared out. There aren’t enough people left to snarl traffic.”
Opening the back door of the cruiser, she reached for one end of the portrait frame at the same time Liss tried to pick it up from the other side. Just as they started to lift, Liss lost her grip. As if it had a life of its own, the painting leapt out of her grasp to land with considerable force on one corner of its frame, striking the tarmac with an ominous cracking sound.
In slow motion, the portrait tumbled forward to land on its face. Liss stared down at it in dismay. The wooden backing had split open, leaving a gap through which she could see the reverse of the stretched canvas . . . and something else, something that did not belong there. She bent closer to work it free.
“Talk about a cliché,” she murmured.
“What is it?” Sherri asked.
“You’re going to think this is crazy,” Liss said, “but I think I just found a treasure map.”
Kathy Lynn Emerson/Kaitlyn Dunnett is the author of more than fifty traditionally published books written under several names. She won the Agatha Award and was an Anthony and Macavity finalist for best mystery nonfiction of 2008 for How to Write Killer Historical Mysteries and was an Agatha Award finalist in 2015 in the best mystery short story category. She was the Malice Domestic Guest of Honor in 2014. Currently she writes the contemporary Liss MacCrimmon Mysteries and the “Deadly Edits” series (Crime & Punctuation—2018) as Kaitlyn and the historical Mistress Jaffrey Mysteries (Murder in a Cornish Alehouse) as Kathy. The latter series is a spin-off from her earlier “Face Down” mysteries and is set in Elizabethan England. New in 2017 is a collection of short stories, Different Times, Different Crimes. Her websites are www.KaitlynDunnett.com and www.KathyLynnEmerson.com