Authors: Tamar Myers
t's a forgery,” I sobbed in a hoarse whisper into my cell phone.
Bob bellowed into my ear. “Abby, how can a carpet be a forgery?”
“I don't know!” I realized with a start just how loud I must have been speaking. Andrea was staring at me from across the room, but at least Thackeray had the training to ignore the wild machinations ofâNo he hadn't; he was grinning from ear to ear. I'd have bet dollars to doughnuts that Thackeray was yet another drama student at the College of Charleston. With nothing to lose, I decided to heed a lesson from the book of “The Wise Words of Abigail Washburn, Chapter Eight, Verse Two”: When caught staring at the headlights and with no time to jump, you might as well wave.
“Are you there?” Bob demanded.
“Drawn and quartered, and about to be hung on the village gates for all to see.”
“Then at least the worst part is over.”
“Ha ha. Bob, what do I do? How do I stall Andrea? She seems like a nice enough personâa good sport
evenâbut she wants to go to the police. Funny, but she didn't mention the police when she came to the shop this morning.”
“What did you say her name is again?”
“It couldn't beâcould it?”
“How should I know? You haven't told me what âit' is.”
“Where's she from?”
“Getting closer, feeling warmer. Do you know where in Michigan?”
“Kazooâ¦Kalamazoo, that's it.”
“Hot, hot, hot!”
“Weird, weird, weird, but you're still a dear friend.”
“Where are you now, Abby?”
“Isle of Palms, just down from the public beach.”
“Go with her to Coconut Joe's and snag an outside table. I'll be there in twenty.”
“What if she doesn't like seafood?”
“Then she can eat chicken. Or a salad.”
“Shall I tell her you're coming?”
was so loud that I fumbled with the phone, thereby making a total fool of myself.
“Is anything else wrong, Abby?” Bob has a basso profundo voice, but Andrea booms pretty well herself.
I shook my head. “Shoot, a monkey, Bob,” I hissed. “Can you keep it down? She already thinks I'm a total incompetent, if not an out and out thief. What if she refuses to come to lunch altogether?”
“Nobody from Kalamazoo, Michigan, ever turned down a free lunch,” he said, and hung up.
Coconut Joe's restaurant is upstairs facing the sea. In the afternoon, when the breezes shift and come off the Atlantic Ocean, lunch there can be a truly delightful experience. The food and service are great too, a fact of which Andrea was well aware, because she offered to drive.
Thackeray wanted to come as well, but Andrea ordered him to clear away our drinks and make sure he had all the ingredients to prepare a proper beef Wellington for some guests she was having over that night.
Then she nudged me. Dunce that I was, she had to nudge me twice.
“Anyone special?” I asked.
“Why yes, as a matter of fact. The head of the household at Buckingham Palace, Mr. Michael Grimswater. He says he knows you quite well, Thackeray, and he's looking for a chance to catch up. Tut tut, cheerio, and all that sort of rot.”
Once outside, Andrea couldn't stop laughing, if indeed one could call the loud trumpets and snorts coming from her proper laughs. Without meaning to be rude, I can only describe it as if someone had spliced together two
nature tapes, one on elephants, the other on wart hogs. At any rate, long after we were seated at our table, Andrea was still emitting the occasional honk. Because school year was still in session, I was indeed able to snag an outdoor table facing the ocean. Mercifully, her back was turned
to the other diners and she missed out on their expressions and, I believe, most of their comments.
I saw Bob Steuben coming toward us from the bar area, but I didn't expect him to sneak up behind Andrea and put his hands over her eyes.
“Quick,” he said, “what is the main ingredient in kangaroo tail soup, Miss Kalamazoo?”
Andrea not only managed to jump straight off her seat several inches, but to somehow swivel in the air before plastering herself on Bob like a barnacle on a piling. There was no kissing, to be sure, just the pressing of leathery tanned flesh against pale freckled flesh. The entire time, Andrea was shrieking like a banshee on steroids. Customers and waiters who'd formerly been snickering at wild hog and pachyderm sounds now found themselves in the primate house just before feeding time.
Trying to think fast on my little feet, I dashed to the specials board and erased it with the back of my blouse. Then I wrote:
Long lost lovers. She was just rescued from a desert island. Been there fifteen years, bless her heart.
Tobias, the highest ranking waiter, is a real sweetheart. When he saw what I'd written, he held up the board, whereupon there was enthusiastic applause and an empty bread basket was passed around to collect money so the poor leathery woman could buy a bottle of sunscreen and some new clothes.
At last the effusive and prolonged greeting was overâat least to the point where I could convince them to sit down. Tobias brought the bread basket over and gave each of the startled “lovers” a peck on the cheek.
“What was that all about?” Bob asked. “Is he single? Not that I'm in the market, but it doesn't hurt to know what's out there.”
“Tobias is straight,” I said. “He's also French; they kiss everyone.”
Andrea was more pragmatic. “What's the money for?”
“Your fellow diners took up a collection for you. Wasn't that thoughtful of them?”
“A collection? Whatever for?”
“I told them that you'd been stranded on a desert island for fifteen years, Ã la Tom Hanks in
. They thought you might need some new things.”
Andrea jumped up and took a series of deep bows, which inspired a standing ovation, the donation of more cash, and the demand for a speech.
“Keep it short,” I begged. “We have a crime to discuss.”
“It was a dark and stormy night,” Andrea began, her face deadly serious. “My lover, Reginald”âshe gestured at Bobâ“and I were standing on the poop deck, utterly pooped from an evening of tepid sex, when a giant origami type wave washed me overboard. Reginald heard me cry out, but couldn't see, and neither could the captain, who has astigmatism and needs new glasses in the worst possible way. Thankfully, I was washed ashore on a desert island, where I subsisted for fifteen years on a diet of coconuts, fish, and radicchio. Then one day the captain got a better medical plan, some new specs, and here I am. By the way, meeting Reginald here today was totally unplanned. I only wish he had waited for me. Even if
the Church came through and gave him an annulment, how would he explain his thirteen kids?”
She took another bow, but instead of more applause, the air rang with boos as poor Bob was pelted with dinner rolls and virtually anything that could be flung
for money and heavy water glasses. While Tobias tried to gain control of his dining room, I crawled under the table with my newly arrived order of blackened chicken, red beans and rice, and fried plantains. As a mother I am quite aware of the five second rule, and have at times extended it to thirty seconds, so I was well supplied with bread.
Nothing can restore order quite like a sincere threat to call the cops, especially where local businessmen might be caught lunching with secretaries or receptionistsâat least of some description or another. When order was returned and it was safe to resume eating above lap level, my calm gaze met the flashing eyes of a rather angry Bob, who turned them on Andrea.
“Yes, Andy, I am glad to see you, but
children? Did you have to throw that in?” he said.
“Well you know that's what she wanted,” Andrea said.
“What who wanted?” I said.
“How long have you been down here, for Pete's sake?” Bob asked.
“A year this July,” Andrea said.
“So how do you two know each other?” I asked.
“And you never thought to look me up?”
“I didn't think you'd want to hear from me,” Andrea said. “Not after the way things ended between you and Melissa.”
“Who the heck is Melissa?” I asked.
“Andrea, that was sixteen years ago. Besides, I could have helped you to settle in down here.”
“Bob, are y'all talking about your ex-wife?” I said.
“Abby, shut up,” they said in unison.
“Damn, Yankees,” I muttered.
That got their attention. They both apologized, then I apologized, after which Bob explained that Andrea was his former sister-in-law. The last bombshell was Andrea's.
“Speaking of children,” she said, “at least in theory, it might not be too late to produce one. That is to say, I'm divorcing what's his name.”
“Edward?” Bob said.
“Heavens no! He was three husbands ago. This mistake is Chalmers Wheating III. This one is actually leaving
, can you believe that?”
“I can't believe that,” Bob said, sounding as serious as a Baptist preacher come Judgment Day.
“How interesting,” I said. It's a Southern euphemism for,
Yes, I can surely believe it, based on your thoroughly unpredictable whacky behavior
. In that regard it's very much like exclaiming,
What a tiny little baby!
when forced to admire a newborn that looks just like Mr. Magoo.
“Yeah, he said it was too hot for him. He said that since he was going to Hell anyway, he didn't want to sit through a bunch of previews during his time spent on earth.”
“Can we finally get down to business?” I whined.
“By all means,” Andrea said, having the nerve to suddenly sound impatient. “You'll never guess what happened, BobâHey, do you two know each other?”
Bob winked at meâat least I hope he did. Given that he wears glasses and doesn't have discernible eyelashes, it was hard to tell.
“If this was the 1970s, Abby would be our fag hag.”
“Now I'm just a hag,” I said, strangely flattered.
She ignored my self-deprecating humor.
she asked archly.
“Yes, I've been in a committed relationship for eleven years. But no divorces. My people still aren't allowed to engage in legalized monogamy. Somehow, it seems, it will have a deleterious effect on the institution of marriage.”
“You were always so droll, Bob; I can't wait to hear the details.”
“Maybe tonight? Over cream of lichen soup and musk-oxen steaks. The musk oxen are farm raised, of course. I found this place up in Vermont that even packs a few homegrown tundra berries in with your order for garnish. It's all very good; in fact, I think I'll order some more.”
Andrea laughed delightedly. “I see that you're still into weird cooking. Well, I'm still into eating it.”
I drummed on the table, which, given the size of my digits, went unnoticed. “We're here to discuss a carport that's a fogy,” I bellowed. “I mean a carpet that's a forgery!”
Fortunately, when I bellow, the decibels rise just above the level of the average conversation, so nobody other than my luncheon companions heard me.
“Abby, you're certainly right about that,” Bob said, “so please explain. We're all ears.”
The bellowing had me hoarse, so I cleared my throat.
“Bob, Andrea, although I have no doubt that Lloyd Knudsen's carpet is not a handmade Tabriz, I can't vouch for the fact that it isn't the one Rob sold him.”
“Rob and I don't sell schlock!” Bob is as Waspy as a nest full of yellow jackets, but over the years he's picked up a smattering of Yiddish phrases from his partner.
“Don't get your tighty whites in a bunch, sweetie,” Andrea said. “Abby knows that you don't sell junk.”
“Anyway,” I said, “the Bijar I sold to Andrea is a different story. I was in love with that carpet; I almost didn't put it up for sale. In factâand I shouldn't be saying thisâI had it in my living room for three years before putting it in my shop.”
Andrea feigned shock. “
You sold me a used carpet?”
“That's the beauty of owning an antiques store,” Bob boomed. “You get to try out the merchandise at home and it doesn't lower the value.”
“What fun,” Andrea said.
“My point,” I said, “is that I am intimately acquainted with your Bijar. When we had boring guests, I studied its pattern. Likewise, on those occasions when a loved one might get it into his, or her, head to lecture meânot that it happened oftenâI studied its pattern. If I could draw, I could recreate it on this napkin. Had I sent it out for a cleaning and gotten back a rug that looked similar, I would have immediately spotted the substitution.
“Now the really weird thing is, when Andrea sent this rug out, she got back an
copy, the only difference being that they were woven from different mate
rials. That means one of two things: either the cleaners had access to a machine-made rug that was copied from the original
I bought it at auction, or, through some technogadget wizardry of some sort, they were able to make a replica. Obviously they then kept the original, and most probably for resale.”
Bob raised his glass of chardonnay. “Well thought out, Abby. Brava!”
“Except for one thing,” Andrea said.
ray tell, what might that be?” I asked. You can bet that I was slightly annoyed.
“I never sent it out to be cleaned.”
Oops. “You didn't? Not even once?”
“No, Abby. It's too big. Did
send it out when it graced your living room floor?”
“Uhâ¦no. I had somebody come in. It's just that sending carpets out seems to have caught on lately here.”
“Yeah, well so have a lot of things that make no sense to me. Like wearing lined linen clothes in the summertime. Linen is great for summer because it's an open material that breathes. The moment you line it with polyester, you may as well be wearing a plastic bag.”
“A wrinkled plastic bag,” Bob said. “Abby calls the women who wear lined linen the âLinen Ladies.'”
“I knew I liked you,” Andrea said, her voice building to a crescendo.
“Okay,” I said, “let's review. At Kitty Bohring's hugeâ”
“Fiasco,” Andrea said.
“Were you there?” I asked.
“Of course; all the filthy rich were. I was just three people behind you in the receiving line. I heard every word.”
“Then you know I'm not royalty.”
“I should hope not. From the books I've readâso this is all
, mind youâparticularly about the English royal family, you'd have had to spend far more time committing adultery than even Iâand I hate competitors of any sort. So if I thought that you were really a royalâeven just the Continental kindâwe wouldn't be sitting at the same table.” She grinned, and I noticed for the first time that she had exceptionally large teeth. One tooth in particular was quite enormous.
“Anyway,” I said, feeling a bit like a harried tour director, “Kitty had a gigantic seventh century Aubusson carpet that she bought in Paris decades ago. Today, the real McCoy would be easily worth at least one hundred and fifty grand. At some point, someone switched carpets on herâor not. I have no way of knowing for sure. But she did send it out to be cleaned a couple of months prior to the fiasco.”
Andrea laid her stubby but well-manicured fingers on my arm. “And next we have the hot-tempered, wife-beatingâagain
Lloyd Knudsen. Lloyd sent his carpet out to be cleaned, whereas someone should have cleaned his clock.”
“I take it you don't like him,” Bob said.
“Loathe, would be an understatement. But the icky little man doesn't get it; he thinks just because he built
my house and that we're both rich, we're somehow friends. Abby, I would much rather have a mature butler than that muscle-building Thackeray, but I'm afraid Lloyd is going to show up some night and try to climb into my bed. Do you know that I have a restraining order on him?”
When Bob and I gasp together it sounds a bit like Aunt Nanny settling into an afternoon nap. “No,” I said. “Has he assaulted you?”
“He harasses me. He shows up at all hours of the night, rings the bell, pounds on the door, and when I won't answer it he stands out in the street with a megaphone and yells âSlut.'”
“Icky is the perfect word to describe him then,” I said. “Just like a fungus.”
We were all distracted then by a seven tier chain of kites that floated by just out of reach. The breeze had shifted so it was coming from the ocean, a sure sign that it was now the afternoon. I looked past the kite out to sea. The Atlantic at this latitude is an uninspiring greenish color that becomes leaden gray on cloudy days, but like any sea, its horizon beckons and promises. Were I able to swim, or even sail, straight across the ocean, I would end up in Casablanca, Morocco, which is in North Africa. They have some beautiful rugs there, but without the cachet of the ones to be found in the eastern Mediterranean area. Still, someday I was going to visit Morocco andâ
“Earth to Abby,” Bob said. “Come in, Abby, wherever you are.”
“I'm in the Casbah,” I said, “doing a little personal shopping.”
“Well, we need you here to help us figure out what to do.”
“And just so to be clear,” Andrea said, “after hearing all this, I'm not expecting a refund or anything like that. For all you know, I
have a brother who's a master forger.”
I laughed, mostly out of relief. While I do respect the “buyer's remorse” rule on high ticket items, my merchandise is generally not returnable. Sure, I often let customers take a piece home to see how “it fits,” but they invariably bring it back the next day, sometimes within hours.
“It's not the forgery so much as the production,” Bob said. “I mean, with computers these days you can copy just about any image. But to translate it from the image to the actual productâwell, that would take a factory, wouldn't it? What do you think? China?”
“Yes,” Andrea said, “but so far that's only three carpets that we know of so far, and we have no proof that two of these were even genuine antiques to begin with.”
“And let's not forget,” I added, “the splendid original I bought at Pasha's Palace for Cheng and Toy's wedding, but now, since she finds him repulsive and they're separating, I no longer have to give to themâ” I paused to catch my breath. “âand the fact that Gwendolyn Spears, former manager of said establishment, was pulled from the bay wrapped in a gorgeous Tabriz original. I'd say there's something definitely fishy in Mudvilleâto mix a metaphor.”
“Unless it's a mudfish,”
Andrea appeared hopelessly lost.
“There are various varieties of mudfish,” Bob said. “The African mudfish can actually live for months without waterâ”
“Robert Steuben, I don't give a rat's patootie about a mudfish! Abby, when was this that you saw an original Oriental carpet for sale at Pasha's Palace?”
“Just a day or two before the nice young manager, Gwendolyn Spears, was pulled from the harbor.”
“Yes, of course. I was in there about that time too. No offense, guys, but I was looking for an inexpensive carpet to put down on the floor of Thackeray's new room. He might look well-trained in that monkey suit, but he prefers to eat in his room, and there are mornings when I have to get the gardener to come in and hose him down. Anyway, I nearly dropped my dentures when I came across a whole pile of fabulous antique rugs at unbelievable prices.” She grabbed my hand and squeezed so hard that I nearly dropped some viable teeth. “You do understand, don't you, dear, if I bought a few?”
“You wear dentures?” Bob asked. “I have a partial that I find really irritating. I can't imagine a complete set of false chompers.”
Andrea and I focused identical withering glares on our male companion. After the three second glare requirement, I turned to her with a smileâwell, at the very least it was a pleasant expression.
“Forgive me, Andrea, but I'd have to ask this of anyone I spoke to: on what exactly did you base your conclusion that they were antique?”
She didn't recoil, but her eyes flashed, warning me to tread carefully. “Forgive
, Abby, but if someone
were to ask how old you were, I would guess that you were somewhere in your forties. Am I correct?” She didn't wait for an answer. “I can see that you color your hair, but other than that I'm guessing you haven't had any major work done. Still, there's no stopping Old Man Time from leaving his mark; even the best preserved of us look just thatâpreserved.”
“Ouch,” Bob said. I wanted to punch him.
“Point made,” I said. “However, antique carpets get their patina from the wear of feet, sunlight, and the occasional spillage. But ever since wealthy foreign tourists discovered the joys of collecting antique Persian carpets, their vendors have discovered ways of turning new carpets into old.”
Some of the fire left Andrea's eyes. “I guess I shouldn't be surprised. But tell me how.”
“The dyes in new carpets are too bright to emulate the antique, so they're bleached with chemicalsâsometimes harsh chemicals like calcium chlorideâor maybe something as everyday as lemon juice. Of course then the acid has to be neutralized, or it will eat the carpet.”
“It's like getting a perm,” Bob said, who happens to be very nearly bald. “Abby, may I add a few things?”
“Go for it, big guy.”
He grinned; a big guy he's not. “New carpets are also buried in the ground for a while, or sometimes rubbed with coffee grounds to give them that certain patina. One of the most interesting ways of giving them that âlived with' look is to apply a flammable substance to both sides of the carpet, light it, and then instantly douse the flames. Then the scorched fibers
are scraped off, but what is left is very convincingly old.”
“As would be I,” said Andrea. She shook her head. “Abby, I owe you a huge apology.”
I almost told her that no apology was needed, but that would have been rude. “Apology accepted. Still, whatever their age, the carpets you saw were certainly a departure for Pasha's Palace. I was there just this morning, and every one of them was brand spanking new.”
Bob cleared his throat, an action that was loud enough and apparently with enough promise to tempt several sea gulls to land on the railing not ten feet away. They cocked their heads expectantly.
“Stupid little buggers,” he growled. “Now where was I?”
“I don't know,” I said. “You were still getting ready to launch.”
He grinned again. “Stop it, Abby.
, it seems pretty clear to me that Gwendolyn Spears was trying to send Abby a message by selling her that Tabriz at a ridiculously low priceâwell, giving it to her, actuallyâand that she later paid with her life. Do Tweedledee and Tweedledum know about this?”
?” Andrea asked, dropping her fork, scaring the sea gulls away.
“Two of Charleston's not-so-finest,” I said, glancing around. “If I was paranoid I'd think they were following me. But to answer your question, Bob, they later came to my house for a deposition and I told them everything I know, but I don't think they believed a word. I am, after all, just a lowly antiques dealer.”
“Who has a penchant for solving crimes.” He turned proudly to Andrea. “Abby is the Sherlock Holmes of Charlestonâbut without the drug habit.”
“Are you her Watson?” Andrea sounded distinctly envious to me.
“I'm only one of her many admirers,” Bob said. “But I'm sure she has room in her coterie of disciples for one moreâdon't you, Abby?”
“The more the merrier,” I said. “And the first item on our agenda should be coming up with a way to find out just how many carpets in Charleston have been switched. Any bright ideas on how to do that?”
“We could put an ad in the paper,” Andrea said. “In it we'd ask people to contact usâI mean, youâif they think they've been swindled.”
I shook my head vehemently. “The weight of all those lawyers camped out on my beautiful antebellum piazza will cause it to cave in, resulting in bodily injury to some, thereby precipitating a multitude of lawsuits against yours truly. I couldn't possibly win all the lawsuits, and would be forced to flee the Holy City in the dark of the night disguised as George Stephanopoulos to spend the rest of my life on the island of Mykonos, which will be very pleasant until the real George shows up on vacation with his wife, at which point I'll be exposed as a fraud and shipped off to a nunnery, and then who will care for my cat?”
“I think Abby would prefer another idea,” Bob said. “Hey, I know, what about a carpet clinic?”
“Expound, Bob,” I said. “Brieflyâsort of.”
“Well, we could start with Andrea's ideaâ¦” He
paused long enough to let Andrea beam. “â¦of placing an ad in the Charleston
Post and Courier
. The ad says that for fifty dollars we will come to your home, assuming it is within a ten mile radius of the Battery, and we'll give you a short, written appraisal of your carpet that will be suitable for insurance purposes. We will also give you tips on what you should or should not be doing to extend its wear.”
“I like it,” I said. “But make that
dollars a visit.”
Bob whistled, attracting the attention of the last table of diners other than ourselves. “But Abby, isn't that a little steep? With the economy the way it is, a lot of people won't be able to afford that.”
“Exactly. Bob, I don't mean to be snobbish, but we want to weed out the people who bought their rugs at Pasha's Palace or Home Depot for under a thousand dollars. Besides, people who pay a lot for a particular item are often likely to think more of an appraisal that is also pretty, uhâ”
“Overpriced?” Andrea said.
“I think I get it,” Bob said. “And hey, we do have mileage to consider, and our time is worth something, right?”
“Look at it this way,” I said, “if we were plumbers or electricians making house calls, would we think twice about charging that much?”
Since Andrea had driven me out to the Isle of Palms, it was agreed that Bob would drive me back to the Den of Antiquity. After all, The Finer Things is situated just
across the street. As it was such a beautiful afternoon, we detoured back through Sullivan's Island, hugging the coast so I could see two of my favorite houses. These aren't the monstrosities of the Ã¼ber rich, or built as summer rentals for parties of twenty or more, but eccentric, single-family dwellings.
The first is a so-called “hurricane proof” house that resembles a flying saucer, or a residence on the old TV show the
. As all the surfaces are rounded, the wind supposedly keeps right on going. The second home was created out of an underground bunker, which used to belong to the United States Navy. The entry is fronted by an expanse of glass, through which one can view a stately chandelier, but the roof is a thick blanket of grass and shrubs, and even small trees. It looks like something straight out of a fairy tale.