Collectible Corner

A short story about the antiques business

The cardboard boxes tied with string kept coming down the conveyer belt of the baggage return. At first, I thought these were a few boxes being shipped to people here in Mexico City, but thirty of them had rolled off the belt with only two suitcases, neither of which was mine. The men standing around the conveyer belt were dressed nicely, but one by one they picked up these tied boxes and carried them off. It's a very poor man who has to use a cardboard box as a suitcase, I thought. Welcome to Mexico.

I started to get nervous, but finally my bag plopped onto the belt and slowly moved toward me, undamaged and with the locks still in place. I grabbed it and headed for the exit.

Mexico City airport is a confusing mess of multicolored flashing message signs in Spanish and English, but eventually I made it through customs (I'm lucky nobody ever smuggles anything into Mexico, I thought) and made it to the door. I must have looked American because would-be taxi drivers and hotel owners crowded around me like paparazzi around a Kennedy, waving their arms about and shouting over each other in broken English for my business. "You need ride? Nice hotel! Nice hotel!" I fought my way through them to a man standing with a small cardboard sign that said "Borden" in black marker. As I reached him, the cab drivers vanished almost as quickly as they had appeared.

The tall, dark-skinned man with dark hair and sunglasses was dressed in an expensive Italian suit, and he showed no expression when I said, "I'm Borden." My name wasn't actually "Borden," but I needed an alias and the name of the company that makes Elmer's glue was the first one that occurred to me. He showed me to the Land Rover parked outside and opened the door for me. I held onto the suitcase tightly as I slid into the seat, half expecting to be hit over the head as soon as I sat in the car, but there was only the musky smell of the leather upholstery waiting for me. As we started moving I fished the small ring of keys from the pouch around my neck and started unlocking the tiny locks on the suitcase. The man appeared to be looking straight ahead, so I carefully opened the suitcase to make sure the contents were still intact.

The fishing boots were still in the center of the bag, and I pulled out the left one. Carefully I removed the cardboard tube from the boot, and slid out the bubble-wrapped object. I unwrapped it and inspected it for damage, but there was none. The Lily was in perfect condition.

The Lily had belonged to my mother-in-law until eight hours ago when I stole it. It had been a family heirloom, but now I was going to sell it to a collector for a small fortune, and it was all because of Collectible Corner.

Collectible Corner is a TV show where people bring in their old junk to have it appraised. The show travels around the country to different small towns to reveal the true value of all manner of baseball cards, folk art, furniture and toys. My mother-in-law, Florence, was obsessed with the show and would talk about nothing else. Over the dinner table she would go on and on about this or that thing which had been discovered to be unbelievably valuable, but that the person had bought from a yard sale for five dollars or had found in the attic. She was sure The Lily was worth a fortune.

Florence had moved in with us after her husband died, and my wife Margaret and I took care of her the best we could, but neither of us earned a lot of money with our jobs at Stuckey's. It was the only place in town to work now that the tire factory moved operations to Central America. We wanted to move to New Jersey and try to get into real estate, but Florence didn't want to leave her friends and family, so we were stuck here, barely getting by on a few hundred a week, in the middle of nowhere with Florence and The Lily.

The Lily, a brown and green vase that was vaguely flower-shaped, had belonged to Florence' s grandmother. According to family lore, it was a gift from a member of the Roosevelt family. Florence was positive that it was worth a fortune, but I thought the whole story was the result of great-grandmother's Alzheimer's. She had probably won it at a carnival for knocking over some metal milk bottles.

Finally, Collectible Corner came to the local fairgrounds, and Florence was there at five in the morning with The Lily wrapped in a soft fluffy blanket and locked inside of a jumbo red Igloo cooler, with styrofoam peanuts delicately placed into any small spaces left open. This was the way she always packed it, as though on the way over she was going to plunge 1000 feet into a canyon and if she didn't survive, at least the rescue workers would be impressed with her taste in vases.

When she came home, she was trembling and wouldn't tell us what had happened. "You'll have to watch the tape," she kept repeating. Her hands were shaking as she handed an unlabeled videotape to Margaret.

Hers was the last item of the show, in a special weekly segment called Fortune or Forgery where people are told if something they think is valuable is really counterfeit. The appraiser pointed and the camera zoomed on a tiny LCT on the bottom of the vase, and the appraiser said, "lots of pieces of glass are turning up at our shows with this signature, which is supposed to be the initials of Louis Comfort Tiffany, but most of them are fakes." Ha! I knew I was right! "But this one is the real thing-- a very rare Tiffany. Only about 15 of these are known to exist, and I think this one is in the best condition I've ever seen." My heart stopped. Then she said, "I'd say that on a good day at auction, because of the condition, because of the rarity of the piece, and because of the history, this could easily bring $500,000."

My wife put her hand over her mouth and started making a shrieking sound, and we all jumped up in the air, dancing around with our arms around each other. Half a million! Finally we could do anything we wanted! I was imagining a nice house without a leaky roof, a car that didn't break down every few miles, a giant screen TV with cable or, better yet, one of those small satellite dishes. I said, "Florence, that's incredible! What are you going to do with all that money?"

"Oh, I could never sell it! It's been in our family for 90 years! It was a gift from a Roosevelt!"

I never wanted to kill a person more than I did at that moment.

Margaret said, "Mom, that money would mean a lot to us. We're barely getting by as it is."

"I can't sell it. I'm sorry. When I'm gone it will go to Constance. It's already in my will." Constance was Margaret's older sister who lived in Florida. "Now, I'm going to need your help with this. The people from the show advised me to take out an insurance policy, and I've ordered an alarm system for your house."

I think I passed out at that point. The next thing I remember is my face on the carpet.

The first bills came a few weeks later. This ugly thing was costing us $360 a month, and we weren't going to see a dime from it. I had to take a part-time job at the Sof-T-Cone ice cream stand in order to pay for it.

I was cramming my millionth sugar cone with mint chocolate chip at 10:42 one night when I decided what I had to do. I had to steal The Lily. Then, we would get the money from the insurance policy, plus I could sell it for a few hundred thousand as well. It would all work out.

First I had to find a buyer, but one who wouldn't care if it was stolen. Collectors from around the world were calling us at all hours and making offers, but all of them were representing companies that would be more than a little nervous about insurance fraud. I needed a black market connection. I called pawn brokers and antique dealers in the area for weeks looking for anyone who knew a collector to fit my needs. Eventually I tracked down someone who seemed to know who I was looking for and gave me a phone number with an international prefix.

I called one night from the pay phone at the Sof-T-Cone with a calling card. A woman's voice answered, "Sí."

"Can I speak to Señor Pescado?"

"Who is it and what am I to say it is about, please?"

"My name is Mr. Borden, and I have a valuable piece of glass he might be interested in."

"Señor Pescado is not be available at this time, but he will make contact you" she said, and hung up.

A few days later the pay phone rang at the Sof-T-Cone. A man with a Spanish accent said, "Mr. Borden, my name is Pescado. I understand you have a valuable item you wish to sell."

"Yes," I said, "but only if the buyer is willing to meet my conditions."

"That depends. Will there be people seeking this object?"

"Yes."

"I'm afraid that legal troubles are not something I enjoy. A man in my position, however, can enjoy a certain amount of autonomy. I will have to see the object before I can tell you anything, but know that I will make your trip fruitful if you have something that will fill out my collection. I will expect you in Mexico City next week."

"You will not be disappointed."

Now I was sitting in the back of Señor Pescado's car as we tore down a dusty unpaved road through farmland. The ride of the Land Rover was surprisingly smooth, despite the large rocks we kept barreling over. The driver didn't speak during our two-hour drive from Mexico City, preferring to play an American top-40 radio station. I realized suddenly how foolish I must have looked to him with my fishing clothes on.

To steal The Lily, I had to make sure Margaret and Florence would be away for a few days, and I needed to make up an excuse to get away myself. I brought up the fact that Florence and Margaret haven't seen Constance in a few years, and now that we found out the good news about The Lily, they really ought to pay her a visit. I also said that I was going on a fishing trip up to Lake Monkolingo to relax a little for a few days. They seemed to think it was a great idea.

I used the tree trimmer to reach up and snip the phone wires, then I used the crowbar to pry open the kitchen window.

I left first, dressed in my fishing gear. I went a few miles down the interstate and stopped at a Wal-Mart for a crowbar and a tree trimmer, then I hung around a bar for a few hours until it was dark and I was sure they had left. I drove back to the house and went into the back yard and put on some thick rubber gloves. I used the tree trimmer to reach up and snip the phone wires, then I used the crowbar to pry open the kitchen window. It was a lot easier than I had expected, which kind of scared me a little. Once I got inside, I could hear the alarm system bleeping, but I went down to the circuit breaker and cut off the power so the alarm wouldn't sound. I used the crowbar to smash the alarm keypad and rip out all the wires leading to or from the alarm box. I headed into Florence's room and I pried off the locks of the glass case with the crowbar. I pulled out the cardboard tube full of bubble wrap from my jacket and carefully wrapped up the vase.

Now I had a day to get to and from Señor Pescado's house and up to Lake Monkolingo to do a little fishing before going home. Everything was going according to plan.

In the middle of a corn field we came to a black gate that was being held open by two men wearing uniforms and machine guns. Once inside the gate, we drove for several miles before arriving at a small complex of low tile-covered houses surrounding a larger building which appeared to be a replica of The Guggenheim Museum, although this one was half the size of the one in New York and looked out onto miles of corn instead of Central Park.

Soon, I was sitting on a leather couch in the lobby of the spiral building with my suitcase on my lap. The walls appeared to be completely covered with brightly-lit display cases containing vases and pieces of crystal of all shapes.

A door opened up and a blonde-haired man wearing a suit appeared, and walked over to shake my hand. "I'm sorry, Mr. Borden, Señor Pescado told me to come and tell you that he can't meet with you right now--there's been a bit of a problem with one of his factories that he needs to sort out." I was surprised to hear his British accent. "My name is Philip, and I'm his buying agent, so let me take a look at your piece while we are waiting." He pulled up a small table with a velvet top and put on some cloth gloves.

I opened the suitcase and carefully removed the boot, and then I slid out The Lily and unwrapped it, and placed it carefully on the table.

"Ah!" he said excitedly, and looked at me. "Didn't I see this on Collectible Corner recently? I seem to remember a woman had it on the show..."

"She was... she sold it to me."

"I see. Well. Let me have a look at this..." he said as he picked it up to examine it. "Did she have this piece insured for a large sum of money, by any chance?" he asked.

"Yes, I believe she did."

"I see. Well, what you've got here is a perfect copy of the piece, right down to the signature." I turned red. "See here? This line is where the mold was split. The insurance company probably had this made for her so she could keep the real one locked up in a safe somewhere. Sorry, mate. This isn't worth more than a few pesos." I could feel my body, but it was as though I was no longer in it. He must be bluffing.

"Perhaps I could speak to Señor Pescado," I said.

"I'm afraid not. We'll have Carlos take you back to the airport. Look, I hope you weren't trying to put one over on us-- bringing a copy of a Tiffany to Señor Pescado could mean muerte, but he's too busy with other things now. Good day." He got up and opened the front door. Carlos was waiting next to the Land Rover.

I made it to Lake Monkolingo and even managed to catch a few fish. When I came home there was a police car in the driveway, and the officer was sitting inside filling out some forms. I walked up to his car with my fish in my hand, preparing what I was going to say. "What's the trouble, officer?"

"Is this your house?"

"Yes, sir."

"I'm afraid there's been an accident. Your wife is in the hospital and your mother-in-law Florence has been killed. They swerved to avoid hitting a deer and crashed into a ravine." I certainly wasn't expecting that-- I didn't have to try to act surprised about the burglary, I was genuinely shocked.

"What... How's my wife?"

"She's a little shaken up, a few broken bones but nothing serious. She's over at Mercy Hospital." As he spoke, I noticed that on the seat next to him was Florence's red Igloo cooler.

"Was that cooler in the car?" I asked calmly, hoping he had come to deliver it to me.

"Yes, and it looks to be OK except for the broken lid. It has your mother-in-law's name on it, so it looks like her estate lawyer will have to work out who it belongs to. You know, that brown vase wrapped up in there looks just like one I saw on this TV show a little while ago..."

© 2000, Ken B. Miller & Contributors as Listed. | Reproduced from Shouting at the Postman #40, June, 2000 | 2498

These ads help support my website