Since Jeff Talbot left the FBI, he's been investigating yard sales as a professional antiques picker. From furniture to books, from old clothes to broken toys, nothing escapes his keen eye for appraisal. But there is one item that he always keeps his knowing eyes particularly peeled to find: a one-of-a-kind French cabaret set commissioned by Napoleon for his love, Josephine. It is an item any collector would kill for...
So when it's about to be auctioned off — and rival collectors start turning up dead — there are plenty of suspects to choose from. Suddenly Jeff finds himself polishing up his old crime-solving skills as the search for a cabaret set becomes the search for a killer. But can he pick out the right clues before the killer adds him to the collection of dead bodies?
As a long-time picker, I was drawn to Deborah's antique series. It was a pleasure to grab that book and find characters that made me smile (and yes, taught me a thing or two about antiques). Death is a Cabaret moves along at a good clip and, if you're not careful, you might just learn something about history and antiques along the way. – Patricia Lee Macomber
"Deborah Morgan's witty debut is a deft blend of mystery, mayhem, and most terrifying of all, the antics of the antique world. I look forward to sleuthing and antiquing with Jeffrey Talbot again soon."– Harlan Coben, New York Times bestselling author
"...an exceptional mystery series that's sure to please and tease the treasure hunter in every reader."– Publishers Weekly
"Deborah Morgan...should give lessons on the correct way to write an amateur sleuth mystery."– Oline Cogdill, South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Cabaret set is a term used for eighteenth-century tea or coffee services, usually made of porcelain and including a teapot, coffeepot, sugar bowl, creamer, cup and saucer, and tray. A service for one person was called a solitaire, a tête-à-tête was used for two. Breakfast services were sometimes termed déjeuner. Some were in fitted cases, which were at times as elaborate and costly as the sets themselves.
The specific cabaret set Jeff Talbot is pursuing in this novel is a result of the author's imagination. To her knowledge, no such set was commissioned by Napoleon. He did, however, commission many items from the Sevres Royal Porcelain Factory during his reign as French emperor, and at his hands a treasured set played an important role in history.
Following the victories of the Italian Campaign, while negotiating peace with envoys of Emperor Francis II of Austria, Napoleon flew into a rage and hurled a priceless cabaret set to the floor, shattering it. "This is what will happen to Austria!" he shouted. "Your empire is an old maidservant, accustomed to being raped by all and sundry." The Austrian diplomats, alarmed by this act of casual destruction, quickly agreed to his terms and signed the Treaty of Campoformio.
It was something you didn't often see on the expressway: a factory-condition '48 Chevy woodie, glossy black—it had, easily, twenty coats of paint—with gleaming wooden side panels from which came its nickname, and whitewalls like new ivory.
Traffic was on the cusp of the shift-change rush, and the woodie glided along, holding its own, its chrome winking at the passing one-coat wonders with their composite bumpers and similar shapes, like sausages on an assembly line.
Normally, Jeffrey Talbot would acknowledge the waves and smiles from others on the road who slowed down to admire the woodie's lupine beauty, but he was too preoccupied with the day's events.
The hour-long trip back to Seattle was just what he required. He rolled up his shirtsleeves, welcoming the late-afternoon sun that streamed through the windshield.
The heady scent of the car's leather mingled with the fragrant, aged musk of the antiques secured in back, creating an amalgam that permeated Jeff's senses and soothed him like a balm—a much-needed balm after today's run-in with Frank Hamilton.
It had started innocently enough. Both he and Hamilton had shown up at a home in rural Maple Valley where an estate sale was advertised to begin the next day.
The two men were antiques pickers, those largely behind-the-scenes individuals who hunted down items craved by an increasing onslaught of consumers interested in history or heritage or investment or, simply, a new way of decorating. Pickers looked for bargains, then turned a profit by reselling their found treasures to dealers, or private parties with specific tastes.
It was the pickers' grass-roots approach—search the classifieds for promising sales (estate, garage, moving)—then drop by early and try to cut a deal. This practice was called high-grading.
The two pickers had crossed paths several times, and Jeff had learned Hamilton's strategies, his habits, his tells, as though he were an opponent in a poker game. This trait of Jeff's was a holdover from his years with the FBI. Sometimes, Jeff suspected that his training with the Bureau was being put to better use now that he was working fulltime in the cutthroat world of antiques. He could predict Frank Hamilton's approach to buying antiques, probably before Hamilton himself knew it.
Hamilton's boyish charm had a sexual quality that Jeff suspected was his most valuable asset. This was obvious because he usually targeted women—and he usually succeeded.
Frank Hamilton displayed a different personality for each of three age groups:
The young ones, eyes sparkling in response to his flirting, said they had better things to do with their Saturday nights than spend them polishing Grandma's silver. Hamilton easily plucked a young thing of her sterling legacy, and she gave it up willingly.
With middle-aged women, he portrayed a college kid, far from home and missing Mommy. Most guys don't give their mothers a second thought once they're out from under the matriarchal thumb. But Mom doesn't know that. So, pretty young Frank cashes in. She gives him milk and cookies. She sews on loose buttons. She sends him home with leftovers—and an antique pedestal table. He's trying to make a little money for schoolbooks and, besides, what is she going to do with that gaudy old piece of furniture when he can get it out of her way and give her a little cash to boot?
Hamilton would later resell the table—with its pietra dura inlay, trinity of carved dragons at the feet, and maker's signature with his Florence address included, no less—for enough to keep him in Italian loafers till someone outlasted Mussolini.
With the elderly, Hamilton was an odd combination of politeness and urgency. He got them to warm up to him, then he turned up the heat: This deal won't be around tomorrow! You'd better act fast! You're going to lose out!
Hamilton had been trying this last method on an old lady when Jeff showed up today.
Only it appeared that he'd forgotten to add the charm.
The large, two-story clapboard house sat off by itself twelve miles from Interstate 90, southeast of Seattle. Jeff had eased the woodie down the long driveway, gravel crunching beneath the tires. He'd recognized Hamilton's old Ford pickup near the house.
Hamilton, in his customary uniform of T-shirt, jeans, oversized sport coat, and loafers without socks, was having a heated discussion with a squat, white-haired woman in faded overalls and a red checkered blouse.
Jeff parked a couple of car lengths back from the pickup and sat there, watching. Suddenly Hamilton popped his forehead with the heel of his left hand. It wasn't the first time Jeff had seen the young picker do this, and he knew what it meant: Hamilton was dangerously close to losing it. Jeff stepped out of the woodie and approached the two slowly. He wanted to be close enough to help the elderly woman if Frank didn't back down, but he also wanted to be far enough away so that she wouldn't feel he was threatening her as well.
Just then, she produced a cell phone from her left pocket and, without breaking eye contact with Hamilton, punched the keypad with her left thumb. Jeff barely heard the three soft beeps over Hamilton's voice, but Frank seemed to have heard them loud and clear, because his mouth clamped shut.
The woman eyed the young picker fiercely. "You get the hell out of here now, or I'll hit Send."
Hamilton didn't budge.
"I didn't get this old by bluffing. Now, git!" She lunged toward the young man. He stepped back. Jeff figured Frank wasn't afraid, merely surprised by the old woman's sudden movement.
Nonetheless, it had the desired effect. Hamilton mumbled something about her missing out, then stomped toward his pickup. He jumped when he saw Jeff, stopped briefly to glare at him before climbing into the cab. After grinding the starter-to its core, Hamilton got the motor to turn. He threw the truck in gear and took off. It lurched over the lawn, shaved past the woodie, and managed a skidding left turn at the end of the driveway.
Jeff looked at the woman and chuckled. "I was about to offer my services, but it appears you don't need them."
"What? Oh, this." She held up the phone. "I'd already be dead and buried if I thought this would bring the local yokels out here in time to help me."
She eased her other hand from the right pocket of the overalls. It held a .38 caliber snub-nose.
The old lady grinned. "My peripheral vision is still intact. You were cool as iced tea back there, not skittish like that kid. Are you a cop?"
"FBI. Used to be, anyway. I switched to antiques because I wasn't seeing enough action."
The woman chuckled, then motioned for Jeff to follow her.
Later, approaching the interstate on-ramp with a carload of antiques from the old woman's garage, he'd seen Frank Hamilton's pickup on the shoulder of the road.
He almost went on past. Then he cursed, pulled in behind the Ford, and rolled down the window. Hamilton, who had been leaning against the truck's bed, walked toward him.
"Did she quit you?" Jeff asked, indicating the pickup.
"Nope," Hamilton muttered as he walked past the driver's window. "Just wanted to see if you'd gotten past the old lady's crappy attitude."
Jeff considered telling Frank who had the attitude, but he let it slide. He got out of the car.
Hamilton peered through the back glass. "What the hell? How. .. ?"
"Just good business, Frank. You wouldn't recognize it."
"I make out fine."
Jeff opened the hatch—in his opinion, those SUV owners had nothing on his station wagon—and repositioned a wooden box packed with bubble-wrapped statuary that was crowding a pristine wicker perambulator. It was rare to find one of these old baby carriages that hadn't either been painted to within an inch of its life, damaged from storage in damp basements and outbuildings with leaky roofs, or abused beyond repair while being used as a toy by the very children who had once lain swaddled in its shelter. He straightened, looked at Hamilton. "What happened to you back there?"
"I was there first, man. You know the rules."
"Rules?" Jeff's rule book contained two: Do Unto Others (the original one, not the smart-mouthed spin-offs), and The Customer Is Always Right.
"Yeah, rules." Hamilton smirked. "You've been at this long enough to know the damn rules."
Jeff's expression didn't change. At thirty-seven, his hair hadn't started turning gray, and it hadn't started turning loose, either. He wouldn't go back to being Hamilton's age, even if the deal included Whistler's Mother.
"You were coming on too strong, Frank. She had to order you off her property, for God's sake. Don't you know how to take a hint from a woman?"
"I've never had any complaints." Hamilton swaggered up to the woodie, and it was as if he'd seen the perambulator for the first time. He reached into the back of the car and gently stroked the soft lining. Suddenly, he turned and hurried toward his pickup.
While a perplexed Jeff contemplated the contradictions in the man—harsh bravado, then gentle reflection, then abrupt flight—Hamilton turned again. The rebel mask was back in place. "You think people don't talk about your secrets in that fancy house on the hill, old man?" He spat the words out bitterly, leaning on old man, but his voice had a nervous edge to it.
Jeff smiled. He'd heard the rumors about his home life. They ranged from harmless speculation (he had a harem of women at his bidding), to downright sinister (he had an old aunt who'd gone berserk and was kept locked in a room on the third floor). There were more false stories told about his personal life than there were fakes in the antique world.
Before Jeff could respond, Hamilton had said, "Don't ever move in on my game again. Understand?" He had vaulted into the pickup's cab and headed up the ramp to I-90.
Now, trying to sort through this bizarre chain of events, Jeff almost missed his exit. He quickly checked the rearview mirror, then swerved and caught the inside of the vee.
Episodes like the one with Hamilton made Jeff wonder if he should go back into law enforcement. Just as quickly, though, he recalled why he'd left in the first place.
He'd grown weary of tracking missing art and antiques—operative word, missing. He'd rarely had any actual contact with antiques.
Oh, occasionally, he'd go undercover to make a buy. The FBI doesn't have an art theft unit as such, but the machine operates efficiently. The Bureau's corner-office crowd learned of Jeff's genuine love for antiques and figured that gave him an edge over other field agents. He was first-call when they needed a buyer. The problem was, it didn't happen that often. Most things went missing and stayed missing. Some things stayed underground forever.
He saw photos from museum files and artists' records whose works had been stolen from galleries. He saw curators' offices and fronts for illegitimate fencing operations. He spoke with somber-faced security guards who didn't know if they'd be looking for employment by the end-of-the-week whistle, and thugs who'd give their right ears before they'd give you a lead on a missing Van Gogh.
As a buyer, he saw the high-pressure salesmen: sleazes who wouldn't guarantee a provenance, scumbags who danced around issues of origin and skirted direct questions about an object's owner.
The go-betweens, that's who he'd dealt with. Every damn one of them. Go-betweens.
He'd gotten out fast—stunning his fellow field agents, his squad leader, everybody. He wanted to be on a higher road. He wanted to rescue antiques from the basements, storage buildings, and yard sales where people either let them gradually go to ruin or sold them for a few bucks to others who slapped a coat of paint on them with no regard to possible value.
Jeff looked upon his current profession as more of a calling. He was a champion of sorts, a savior of lost souls, a redeemer of things that couldn't redeem themselves.
He thought about Hamilton, wondered how the young picker would behave the next time they ran into each other. And they would run into each other. No place was large enough to avoid the likes of Hamilton when you were in the antique business. Not even Seattle.
The Emerald City loved its antiques, even if it didn't have a clue about how those antiques arrived in its quaint shops and antique malls. No matter. Jeff's veins were filled with the oil that fueled railroad lanterns, the linseed that preserved antique furniture, the inks of ancient documents, the pigments of masterpiece paintings. Antiques weren't merely in his blood; they'd replaced it a long time ago.
Jeff pulled into the parking lot of his favorite antique mall and consciously gave up trying to understand Frank Hamilton's motives. Maybe he'll learn with age, Jeff thought as he stepped out of the car and put on his Harris tweed. If someone doesn't kill him first.