Authors: Nancy Springer
By Nancy Springer
Copyright 2012 by Nancy Springer
Cover Copyright 2012 by Ginny Glass
and Untreed Reads Publishing
The author is hereby established as the sole holder of the copyright. Either the publisher (Untreed Reads) or author may enforce copyrights to the fullest extent.
Previously published in print in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, 2003.
This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be resold, reproduced or transmitted by any means in any form or given away to other people without specific permission from the author and/or publisher. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each person you share it with. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to your ebook retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.
This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to the living or dead is entirely coincidental.
Also by Nancy Springer and Untreed Reads Publishing
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The Mystery World of Nancy Springer: American Curls
The Mystery World of Nancy Springer: Framed
“Phew, what’s that?” Unlocking the front door of her very own beloved shop, Judith smelled something that made her think her ex-husband had played one of his nasty tricks. Had broken in and left her a rotting dead rat, perhaps. Stepping inside, she glanced at crisp white bisque arranged on shiny black shelving; except for the stink, all seemed well. Out of habit, she flipped the ceramic door sign that declared “Personal Pottery is OPEN!” before she headed past the plastic-covered studio tables into the back room to hang up her jacket—
“Oh my God!”
She froze by the coat rack, gawking at shards of glazed bisque piled around the kiln like cyanotic casualties of war: shattered butterfly plaques, smashed fish platters, beheaded bunnies and puppies and kittens, pony figurines in pieces, decorator plates and miniature teapots and fallen knickknacks of all kinds strewn amid the insect-like multi-legged stilts that had supported them—an entire kiln load of crafts lay in dismembered ruins on the linoleum. The expensive ceramic shelves that went in the kiln had been thrown aside, lying in monolithic, fissured slabs, crushing the bluish bodies. It was, in miniature, like the aftermath of a terrorist strike. Judith screamed, backed away, and stumbled to the phone.
By the time the cop cruiser pulled up, she had recovered from her shock and segued into anger. “I want you to get the detectives in here,” she told the township police officer walking toward her as she propped the shop’s front door open to air out the place. “I’ve had enough of this.” Though actually,
had never sabotaged her shop before, just stalked her, slashed her tires, left venomous messages, that sort of thing.
“‘Had enough of this?’” the cop echoed.
“It’s my ex. Because I got a restraining order. I know it’s him.”
The cop gave her a long, almost bovine look. Without inflection he asked, “What’s the problem? The smell?”
“No. Well, I mean, I hadn’t thought…” Judith straightened her spine, annoyed by her own failure to connect the devastation in her back room with the stench until this moment. That lapse showed how unnerved she was, and she hated to be less than poised. Crisp as bisque, she said, “Maybe there’s some rotting garbage involved. I don’t know. This way.” She led him to the inner doorway.
“Everything I loaded into the kiln Sunday night,” she told him as he took in the carnage. “A week’s worth of business. Several hundred dollars I’m going to have to refund. God knows how many ticked-off customers.”
“That stuff used to be, uh, merchandise belonging to you?”
“It was already sold. Glazed, paid for. And overglazed. All I had to do was fire it.” Watching the cop, she saw his placid face rumple; like many people, he didn’t understand what her business was about. Effortlessly, Judith shifted gears into her spiel. “Personal Pottery is unique to this area, a shop where you can creatively color your own ceramics. Select your inexpensive bisque item, and for a nominal studio fee we supply the brushes, the glazes, studio space, everything you need to paint your own one-of-a-kind ceramic artwork. When your—”
Starting to get it, the cop pointed at the kiln. “That’s an oven for pottery?”
, yes.” Quite a good kiln, actually. An expensive kiln. A Cadillac among kilns. A brick-and-metal cylinder a yard wide and four feet high, automated, computerized, and complete with adjustable ceramic shelving, large enough to hold dozens of fancy-handle coffee mugs and ruffle-edged pie plates and teddy-bear tissue covers and personalized piggy banks, Judith’s kiln was the white-hot heart of her paint-your-own-pottery business.
“That broken stuff, was it baked yet?”
“No.” It lay with the greeny-blue overglaze still on it. “That’s what I’m trying to tell you, somebody pulled it out of the kiln and smashed it—”
“What’s in the oven, then?”
“Nothing, I guess.”
“I don’t like that smell,” the cop said. “How hot does that thing get?”
“2300 degrees Fahrenheit. But I keep it at 1800. Why?”
“Smells like a crematory in here. How hot is that thing right now?”
“Room temp.” The computer display flashed the blood-red numerals 72.
Keeping his eyes on the kiln as if it might pull a gun on him, the cop fumbled in a black leather pouch on his belt. He pulled out rubber gloves. He put them on. He took a few cautious steps forward, reached over and inserted his fingertips under the kiln’s heavy lid. He heaved it up.
“Stay where you are,” he told Judith too late. She had followed, and she saw what he did. Ashes, yuck, a coating of reeking, greasy ashes in
kiln, and in the ashes a small blob of something that maybe used to be white, and some quarter-sized puddles with a metallic luster to them. And wallowing in one puddle, an oval, greenly glinting gem. And that was all, except some pallid stubs of—of bone?
Judith caught just a single shocked glance before the police officer lowered the lid. “Get back,” he ordered.
“It could be something else,” Judith blurted, starting to shake. “A—a big dog…”
“Only if the big dog wore jewelry. Get
By the end of the day, Judith was still in shock, so much so that she almost didn’t go to Scrabble Club. She had told the police officer she wanted detectives? Hoo boy, she got detectives. The coroner said yes, those were human bones, and Personal Pottery became a crime scene, closed to business—yet more income lost—and all day it had been questions, questions, questions, like Chinese water torture. The signs of forcible entry on the back door—when had she first noticed them?
Because I always use the front door. There’s no parking in back, just a driveway for deliveries.
(Idiots!) The smell, when had she first noticed that?
No, the shop is closed on Monday. Because I fire the kiln on Sunday nights. Heat up and cool down takes 24 hours, makes the place awfully hot, you know?
(Cretins!) But the pottery broken on the floor was never fired?
(Which means he did it Sunday night, shortly after I left. Finally, they’re starting to get it!) So, ma’am, Sunday night you left here at 9 p.m.? And what were your movements at that time?
I went home!
Did you see anyone, talk with anyone?
Anyone who can verify your whereabouts?
Babbling to herself in her car after the detectives finally let her go, Judith declared, “They think I did it! They really think
did it! Morons!” And she was still shaking, because obviously It had put the body in her kiln for some reason, and aside from making her life a living hell, what was It trying to tell her? That she would be next?
She went to Scrabble Club because she didn’t want to face the empty house, alone. Even joining a group of pedantic misfits in a church basement seemed preferable.
Why were all such Sunday School rooms bile green, with those heinous Masonite tables and mustard-colored bulletin boards and the self-same melanic upright piano with a plastic Jesus on top? As she walked in, an egg-shaped, balding man greeted her, “Hi, Judy.”
“Judith,” she corrected him more frostily than was necessary. Poor Dick, he couldn’t help it that he was a hopeless nerd. Judith just enjoyed cruciverbalization, herself, but some of these people were total word freaks, obsessed with cryptograms, anagrams, acrostics, puns, palindromes, whatever. Utter word geeks. At least Dick had said hi, unlike the club’s other nerdy and obsessed male, Doug, who had achieved the Master level in regional Scrabble competition and was now going for national and Expert. Right this minute, while women members stood chatting all around him, Doug sat at one of the tables gazing in his usual baby-blue manner at a list of words he was memorizing—not the meanings, just the spellings. Nobody in the club knew or used Scrabble words in any context other than Scrabble.
“Yataghan,” Doug whispered to himself, his brow creased beneath blunt, childish bangs. “Y-a-t-a-g-h-a-n.”
Standing right beside Doug, Judith knew he was not speaking to her and did not wish to be spoken to. She addressed Dick instead. “Sorry I snapped at you. I’ve had a terrible day. Had to call the police. Somebody—”
“Did you see the trophies from Saturday?” Beaming, Dick pointed toward a gleaming, aspiring display.
There had been a tournament, evidently. Who cared? “Somebody put a body—”
“I’m not in Novice anymore.” Dick’s smile echoed the lines of his triple chin as several women turned to congratulate him. “Yes, I got Master.”
“That’s great,” Judith mumbled. “I suppose Doug won overall?”
“No, Eloise won!”
Judith almost offered Doug her sympathies. Three times so far she had found herself facing Eloise across Eloise’s gold-filigree-and-mother-of-pearl custom-made Scrabble board, and each time she had managed to hold her own—or so she had thought until Eloise, at the end of each game, had used her seven remaining letters (“Bingo! Fifty extra points.”) and gone out. Which was brilliant if done once, almost impossible if done the way Eloise did it—habitually. Each time, caught flat-footed, Judith had realized that Eloise had been playing clawed cat to her mouse—and had looked up to see Eloise watching her get it. (“Aw, Judy want a crying towel?”) Even playing Doug was not as bad as playing Eloise. Doug never cut even the most novice opponent a break, and he always won, but he didn’t gloat. Actually, he didn’t speak at all, usually.
“Sforzato,” Doug whispered, tuning out various conversations. “S-f-o-r-z-a-t-o.”
“Um, good for her,” Judy told Dick. “I guess. Uh, like I was saying, somebody—” But Dick headed away, still nattering about his trophy. Judith turned to one of the women, a retired librarian named Phyllis, and started over. “You know my shop, Personal Pottery?” Dumb question. Judith talked up her business wherever she went. Everybody here knew all about it. “The most horrible thing has happened. Somebody, probably my ex-husband, burned a dead body in my kiln, and the police—”
“Kill,” said an unexpected voice in quite a peremptory tone. Judith looked down to find Doug staring up from under his forelock, his vague, pallid eyes actually focused on her. “Kill,” he repeated. “It’s pronounced ‘kill.’ The ‘n’ is silent.”
“Whatever.” Judith just wanted to talk about what had happened. She
to talk the way she had needed to recite It’s infidelities and It’s emotional cruelties after It had left her. She babbled at Phyllis, “A woman, it had to be a woman, the ashes I mean, because there was a lot of gold in there, and a diamond, and how many men wear that kind of jewelry? Besides, the coroner thinks the bones probably belonged to a woman. Girlfriend, maybe. It had to be—”