I’ll never forget the day a murderer walked into my antiques store. A steady stream of tourists flowed through my air-conditioned building to escape the muggy Charleston air. Most were “Just browsing,” which means “Don’t mind me; I’m not here to buy anything.” I sat listening to a sweet older couple reminiscing about a china pattern they once owned, when Ichabod Crane slunk in. It wasn’t Ichabod exactly, but the twentyish man did share his tall, gaunt frame. I saw only a glimpse of him as he passed behind Mr. and Mrs. Finkelstein, heading down the stairs to the cellar.
After a half hour of chatting, the Finkelsteins bid me a lovely day and left in search of more memories at more second-hand stores. It was then I realized the young man was still in the cellar. At least, I couldn’t remember having seen him leave. Not wishing to join the stranger below, where there were no exits, I moved to the top of the stairs and called down, “Can I help you with anything?” Silence. Then came a rustling sound, and his head popped around a corner.
The young man took the steps two at a time, forcing me to stumble backward to avoid a collision. When I regained my footing, I scurried behind the counter and stood next to the shelf that held my gun. As a woman who works alone, I’ve had my moments of apprehension and it’s for that reason I keep a revolver beneath the cash register.
Ichabod followed me, but stayed to his side of the counter. He leaned his palms on the marble top and peered out from under thick strands of greasy black hair. His dull, muddy eyes seemed to stare through me to the wall behind my back. That was unsettling enough, but what happened next chilled me: at once, the young man focused, as if seeing a real live woman for the first time. His gaze cruised along the contours of my body as he licked his lips like a starving man appraising a juicy steak dinner. I reached down and wrapped my fingers around the handle of the gun, careful to keep it out of sight.
Mustering a steady voice, I asked, “How can I help you, sir?”
He folded his arms and bent down until his elbows rested on the marble, bringing him eye-level with me. “You got any knives for sale?” he asked, stretching the vowels like taffy. I shuddered.
Before I could squeak out more than a weak “No,” the bell over the front door jangled as another customer walked in. Ichabod saw him first and stood up straight, backing away from me. Hoping it was a policeman, I craned my neck to see past a large bookcase and caught sight of a smartly dressed gentleman in a light gray suit. His chestnut-colored hair was combed and gelled into place, his face freshly shaven, even his fingernails manicured to perfection. A warm woodsy scent drifted off his skin as he approached the counter. He smiled at me, crinkling the corners of his eyes. I couldn’t help but smile back, in spite of my frayed nerves.
“Don’t let me interrupt,” he said, winking.
Of course, I was grateful for the interruption, but I knew better than to say so with Ichabod standing nearby. Before I could respond to my rescuer, the younger man asked again, “So you got any knives or don’tcha?”
Feeling braver now, I straightened my back and met his stare. “No, sir. We do not carry knives in this store. I’m sorry I won’t be able to help you today.”
Ichabod looked from me to the other man, then back at me. Eyes cast downward, he shoved his hands in his pants pockets, mumbled “Whatever” and headed out the door, the bell jangling after him.
I released my grip on the gun and let out a lungful of air, surprised to find I’d been holding my breath. “Thank you,” I said to the gentleman. “I’m sorry, I don’t know your name.”
His smile grew wider as he reached for my hand. As we shook, he spoke in a warm New Orleans drawl, “Christopher St. James. But I have to admit I’m a little confused, and therefore I must inquire, what did I do to earn your gratitude?”
I blushed. Mr. St. James appeared to be in his early forties and was exactly the sort of handsome, distinguished-looking man I’d imagined marrying. After gazing at him a few more seconds, I realized he was waiting for an answer.
“Oh,” I stammered, “he just…I mean, I don’t know that young man who was just in here, but he made me very nervous, the way he was staring at me and asking for knives.” I felt like a silly schoolgirl, babbling in the presence of the cutest boy in class.
“Well, then, I suppose I did happen along just in time. And certainly glad to be of service to you…Miss-?”
“Benson. Carrie Benson. And how may I help you, Mr. St. James? Find a gift for your wife, perhaps?”
“No.” He lowered his gaze and shook his head. “Sadly, I remain a bachelor due to unfortunate circumstances. And please, call me Christopher. Now, I wonder if you might take a look at an heirloom piece I’d like to sell. I have it out in my car, if you don’t mind waiting.”
“Certainly-” I nodded, and he was out the door. I barely had time to imagine what circumstances could possibly prevent him from marrying, when he returned, carrying a filigreed gold and silver box. I estimated its measurements at approximately four inches by six inches by four inches deep. It stood on four small feet and featured a keyhole lock on the center front.
“Is it unlocked?” I asked.
He patted the box. “No, ma’am. And I am sorry to report I have been unable to locate the key since shortly after my mother’s passing. I was hoping to keep the box with me, but it appears that will be impossible. If only I could find the key.”
“Oh, that is a shame. That can make it difficult to sell.” I lifted the small chest to search for a maker’s mark or a Made in Taiwan sticker. “May I ask the provenance of this piece?”
Christopher bowed slightly. “It belonged to my dear departed mother, who claimed to have received it from a favorite aunt upon her return from India. Jaipur, actually. Have you been to India, Miss Carrie?”
I set the box down. “No, I haven’t. How did your mother use this piece?”
A hint of a sneer flickered across his face before he answered me. “She kept her favorite piece of jewelry in it.” His smile returned. “How much do you estimate it’s worth?”
“I’d have to do some research on that before I can give you an answer. Or I can recommend a fellow dealer who specializes in European and Asian antiques.”
Christopher grimaced. “No, ma’am. I’m afraid that won’t do. I am scheduled to depart this afternoon for foreign shores. That leaves me precious little time to visit other dealers.”
My enthusiasm for the handsome stranger dimmed. If he left town today, there was scant possibility we’d end up married. “I can’t promise to give you a fair price without knowing more about it.”
Christopher held up a hand. “How much do you suppose it would sell for?”
I paused, considering his question. “In this shop? Given the filigree and origin, I’d say $100, if it can be unlocked. Otherwise, it’s a lovely paperweight which I don’t believe will sell for more than $25.”
“And then there’s the question of your profit.”
“If you can’t allow me time to research the value, the best I can offer is $20.”
He blanched at my lowball offer. Tracing the flower and vine design on the lid, he countered, “It is a remarkable piece, is it not? Are you certain you are unable to do better? I do have travel expenses to consider, after all.”
I crossed my arms to signal the end of negotiations. Handsome or not, this fellow would not be running off with an armload of my hard-earned and hard-to-come-by dollars. “Without a key or more information on its history, $20 is absolutely the best I can offer.”
Through a forced smile – one that barely concealed his contempt for the pittance I offered – he agreed to the deal. As we finished the transaction, I snuck a look out the picture window at the front of my store, wondering if I’d have less traffic at lunchtime. If things were slow, I could duck out and take the box to the Qwik-Key Shack. I hated the name, but the locksmith was a kindly old man who seemed unaware of the double-entendre. On my second glance at the street, I gasped at a familiar and unwelcome face staring back at me. Ichabod had returned.
Christopher must have noticed my distress because he asked in his honey-dripping voice, “Is everything all right, Miss Carrie?”
I turned to him, mouth agape. “Please don’t leave yet. That man is back. The one who wanted the knives.” I directed his gaze to the young man standing just outside my store.
Christopher put a soft hand over mine and squeezed it. “Tell you what, I’ll get rid of him for you. And thank you, Miss Carrie. Perhaps I’ll see you again.”
He nodded good-bye, then went to the door. The bell rang behind him as he left. From my place at the counter, I could see Christopher approach Ichabod, place an arm around his shoulder and steer him away from my store. Ichabod glanced back in my direction with a question on his face, but did not resist the older man’s guidance. Then they were gone.
A strong lunchtime crowd of looky-loos thwarted my plans to visit the locksmith. The box would have to wait. I leafed through a catalogue borrowed from my Asian antiques dealer colleague, still hoping I’d picked up a priceless gem for twenty bucks. The dealer, Xavier Wright, assured me the chest was a cheap souvenir sold to ignorant tourists. I took the catalogue anyway, just in case Mr. Wright was wrong. He’d even suggested the only way the box was worth more than I’d paid, was if it contained stacks of money. Knowing my usual luck, I had to rule that out. In fact, my one good bit of fortune today was that I’d seen neither hide nor hair of Ichabod since Christopher had dispatched him.
The bell above the front door clanged as someone entered. Hoping to meet a serious collector with deep pockets, I stood up, smoothed my hair, and sailed out front. Before I saw my visitor, I heard the distinct sound of the door lock snapping into place. Tiny hairs rose on the back of my neck. I stood in position next to my gun. No one besides me had any business locking that door. I braced myself, expecting to see Ichabod again.
When Mr. St. James appeared from behind the bookcase, I breathed an audible sigh of relief. “Oh, it’s you,” I said brightly. “Welcome back.”
He smiled broadly, in the way I imagine the wolf did when meeting Little Red Riding Hood for the first time. “Miss Carrie, you’ll never guess why I’ve returned.”
I swallowed hard, aware that my heart was racing, although not from lust. Alarm bells chimed in my head, but I tried my best to ignore them. “Oh? Why?”
He reached into his breast pocket and pulled out a tiny silver key, dangling on a red string. “I’ve found the key to mama’s jewelry box.”
I held out my hand to receive the key, expecting him to ask for more money in exchange. Instead, he put the key in another pocket and pulled out a twenty-dollar bill, which he placed in my hand. “I don’t understand,” I said, looking up at him.
The crinkles returned to the corners of his eyes. “Miss Carrie, if I may be so bold, I’d like to have the box back now.” He clipped his words as if to suggest there would be no explanation and no more discussion.
I placed his money on the counter. “This isn’t a pawn shop, Mr. St. James. We made a deal, fair and square.”
“And now we are rescinding that deal. Fair and square.” He leaned in close to me. “I’d like my box back now, please.”
“Is there something in it? Your mother’s favorite piece of jewelry, perhaps?” I leaned against the counter, hoping he wouldn’t notice my legs had turned to jelly.
Christopher’s eyes narrowed to slits. “As a matter of fact, there is.” He reached out and grabbed my upper arm, pulling me to him. “Don’t make me ask you again, Miss Carrie. I want that box.” He released his grip and leaned back.
I wanted nothing more than to give him the box and get him the hell out of my store, but I stood my ground, rooted by fear and stubbornness.
“You know, Miss Carrie, you remind me of my mother,” Christopher said in a way that I knew was meant to be unflattering. “She never let me have what I wanted in life, either. Why is it women are always doing their best to keep men from being truly happy?” He leaned in, nose to nose with me. “Why is that?”
I shook my head. “I…I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Where is the box, Miss Carrie?” Christopher roared.
In surrender, I pointed to my office, hidden behind a curtained partition. Christopher rounded the counter and disappeared into my office, rambling as he went.
“I did you a favor, didn’t I? I got rid of that boy for you, and after all that, you couldn’t be bothered to comply with my simple request to cancel our sale.” He reappeared, holding the box. “Do you know how many years I could get for murdering that boy? Twenty to life, last time I checked. I did that for you, Miss Carrie. And you’re not the least bit grateful.”
Stunned by his casual confession, I attempted to convince myself he was speaking in hyperbole. The look on his face told me otherwise. “I never asked you to kill anyone,” I whimpered.
“I said I was going to get rid of him for you. What did you think I meant?” With a flick of his wrist, he twisted the key in the tiny lock. It unlatched with a soft click. With all the ceremony of a young man opening a Tiffany ring box, Christopher raised the lid and tilted the chest down so I could clearly see its contents.
I shrieked, recoiling at the sight of a withered finger bearing an engagement ring. Judging by the tissue paper skin, I guessed the finger belonged to his “dear, departed” mother.
Christopher grinned and shook his head. “I know what you must be thinking, Miss Carrie. You think my father was a very generous man to gift my mother with such a magnificent diamond.”
I covered my mouth and tried not to throw up. This psycho had no idea what I was thinking.
He moved closer. “The truth is, I bought this diamond for my fiancée. But mama ran her off – no, paid her off, is more like it. I took care of mama all her life, even getting rid of Big Daddy when I’d gotten old enough to stop him abusing her. And I promised to take care of mama even after I married. But was that good enough for her? No. She didn’t want Marie moving in with us. Mama wanted me all to herself.”
He backed me into the shelf where I kept my gun. I reached behind and felt for the handle. Christopher hovered over me, his hot breath blowing against my face. My stomach churned and tears burned at the corners of my eyes.
“Somehow, she convinced Marie to take a payout and leave the engagement ring behind. Marie packed up and left without ever speaking to me. Mama lied and said there was no note, nothing. But guess what I found when I went to visit her last week? My engagement ring on mama’s finger. And a letter from Marie that she’d written a week after she’d left. Turns out, she was sorry for leaving and wanted me back. But did mama tell me about the letter?”
Christopher set the box on the marble countertop with a clatter. He placed a hand on my chest, just below my throat, moving it upwards as he spoke. He shook his head to answer his own question. “No, Miss Carrie. She hid the letter from me for twenty-three years. And for twenty-three years, she wore my engagement ring to church on Sundays. The day I visited, she’d been too tired to take it off. So I found out her little secret, didn’t I?”
He wrapped his hand around my throat and squeezed. My vision blurred and specks of gold light darted before my eyes. I panicked and released the gun; my hands flew to his as I tried to pull his fingers back and relieve the pressure on my neck. I screamed for help, anguished to hear only a faint gurgling sound emerge from my throat.
Christopher babbled on, ignoring my pleas. “You know what a good son I am, Miss Carrie? I let mama die in her sleep. I didn’t even bother to wake her before I choked her to death. Oh, her eyes opened a bit, but she probably thought she was having a bad dream.”
He grabbed my neck with both hands, shoving his thumbs under my jaw. I knew I was running out of time and would be unconscious soon. Dropping my hands from his, I struggled to reach for the gun once more. “Please,” I gasped. He stared at me as if cataloging my last moments on earth for some bizarre research.
With a final effort, I lifted the revolver, its hammer digging into my thumb. I felt my body wilting, then – BAM. The sound of the gunshot drilled through my head, leaving me unable to hear for a moment. Christopher opened his mouth in a scream and crumpled to the floor, blood gushing from his thigh. I stumbled to my left, suddenly free of his grasp, which had been the only thing holding me up. He tried to stand. In a flash, I knew what I had to do. This man had admitted to murdering at least three people. I refused to be next. I cocked the hammer back, aimed for his heart, and fired again.
The lead investigator, Marc Rush, visited the store two days later to inquire after my health and to report that the local police had discovered Ichabod’s remains. Through tears, the young man’s mother had confirmed that his name was Jeffrey Carlisle, and that he was a socially awkward, but harmless, collector of antique knives. Even now, I feel those knives plunge deep into my heart every time I think of having unwittingly sent Jeffrey to his doom.
Our attacker – who claimed to be ‘Christopher St. James’ – was identified as Thierry Rousseau by the New Orleans police. In the heart of the French Quarter, they found a decomposing Corinne Rousseau in her bed, sans left ring finger, and the skeleton of Pierre “Big Daddy” Rousseau buried in the vegetable garden of the family home. Only the erstwhile fiancée, Marie Pelletier, had yet to be located, but she’d likely married and moved away years ago.
The investigation was far from finished, but the police surmised Thierry had panicked when he thought he’d lost the key to the box. A closer inspection showed that a tool of some sort had been used in a futile attempt to pry open the lid. Possibly, he had decided to sell the box and get some money for it, while distancing himself from evidence of his crime. Instead of taking the twenty and sailing for “foreign shores,” as he’d put it, he’d located the key and greedily returned for the diamond ring inside.
Officer Rush complimented me again on having kept my composure, which had no doubt saved my life. He swept a lock of sandy blond hair off his brow and fixed sea-blue eyes on me. Marc Rush looked to be in his late thirties and was exactly the sort of cool, intelligent man I could see myself marrying. Dating a police officer might even feel safe, in a sense. Nevertheless, I decided to hold my feelings at bay. This much I knew for certain: appearances can be deceiving.
(Theme: I blame my mother.)