First Chapter of In The Blood

image.pngTHE HIGHEST BIDDER

Claire Marie

The auctioneer was just starting the bidding when I slipped in the side door and took a seat in the back, trying to avoid notice. I scanned the room, looking for anyone who might have glanced my way, but other than the gentleman to my right who moved to make room for me, all eyes were on the stage, staring at the items on display. I knew I wouldn’t have a chance to get all of them. At any rate, buying more than one might raise suspicions. No. I had no choice but to be austere, though the idea of others possessing what rightfully ought to be mine rankled me.

I have never been naturally patient. My grandmama would have said the same. But she told me over and over thinking only of what I want and not of the consequences of my desire would be my ruination. I am only grateful she never knew how right she really was.

Watching intently, I waited, biding my time. I knew when I planned to come here which item I would bid on. One that would raise the least suspicion. There were still those who pay attention and who watch, and above all else, I had to avoid their notice.

As each item went, it pained me, knowing I could not simply take them all. But time was on my side.

At last, the item I came for went up on the block, and I watched the competition, letting them set the starting bids, laying low. Finally, my moment came, and I raised my paddle.

“$35,000 to the lady. Do I hear $35,500?”

It’s not unusual in auctions of this kind for a collector to bid only on one particular item. The prices are high, a catalogue listing of all the options has been published for weeks, and many of the bidders are purchasing the items for clients. This was my saving grace.

A man in a brown suit bid against me, but I saw him sweating. I knew I would get what I came for. There was no other competition.

I raised my paddle again and calmly said, “$40,550.”

The auctioneer nodded, then looked to the gentleman who shook his head, bringing out a handkerchief to wipe his forehead.

“$40,550 to the lady. Going once. Going twice. Fair warning…SOLD!”

The gavel banged, and I relaxed. I stayed in my seat silently, putting on a pair of oversized sunglasses, waiting until the next item went up on display and the bidding started. Then I slipped out, paying the auction house and placing the item in a silver attaché case, attaching it to my wrist with a set of handcuffs. I thanked them and walked out, even as the auction was still wrapping up.

I wanted to leap in triumph, but I held in my excitement until the cab took me back to the safety of my hotel room. I barred the door, closed the curtains, and then and only then did I open the case to see what I’d bought. I stretched out with trembling hands to pick it up from the velvet case which displayed it, and I turned it this way and that, then pressed the fabric to my cheek with delight. “Welcome home, my beauty. Welcome home.”

It was only one piece of my life, but it was mine at last, and I knew I would never let it be taken from me again. I closed the case once more and lay back on the bed, closing my eyes as the memories began surfacing in my mind.

                                                                                                    

“ANTOINNE!”  

I jerk as my grandmama’s sharp voice reprimands me, and I prick my finger with the embroidery needle I’ve been working with. “Ouch!” Sticking my finger in my mouth, I suck the blood away, looking up at her with worry. “What is it?”

“Why are you not dressed for our evening’s entertainment?” She looks me up and down disapprovingly. “You’ve been playing with that dog of yours again. You have hair all over your clothes. What have I said?”

Sighing softly, I look at her with embarrassment. “It’s a dog, not a doll.”

“Precisely. Go get cleaned up. Quickly child.”

I jump up from my seat. “Yes, madame,” I say with a small curtsey, and I make my way toward the door in a hurry. 

“Antoinne,” her voice stops me.

“Yes, madame?” I say, turning.

“Your needlework,” she says, looking at the handiwork I left behind.

I rush back to pick it up.

“Don’t slouch. And don’t run. It’s vulgar.”

“Yes, madame. I am sorry, madame.” I bow my head and curtsey once more, then turn and walk out, this time taking my time, head held high, back straight, with a deliberate and steady gait.

                                                                                                    

I woke from a deep slumber. Those dreams of my past were almost always ones of regret or sorrow. I disappointed my grandmama. She had high expectations. What would she make of me all these years later? I still felt her condemnations. I didn’t have a chance to make her proud. The world never let me.

Stretching, I sat up and checked the clock. Six thirty. Time to be going. They’d be looking for me. I only hoped there wasn’t a security camera in the auction hall pointed in my direction. This trip of mine was careless. I should have used an agent. At least I didn’t buy anything obvious, I hoped.

I hurried to the shower, then dressed quickly, tying my hair back wet, not wanting to waste my time on vanity, much as it goes against my nature. I knew the more time I spent, the closer they would be on my trail, and I could not let them find me. I spent too long staying out of their clutches to lose it all because of carelessness.

I put my small treasure into my briefcase once more. No one would suspect the real value of such an item, and its worth to me is purely personal. I would have paid any price for this small piece of my past.

I scanned the room for anything I might have left behind, stripping the sheets, then taking the pillowcase off the pillow I used, turning it inside out, and stuffing them all into the briefcase. I checked the bed for any stray blond hairs I might have left behind, then, satisfied, I closed the briefcase and walked out of the room, riding the elevator to the lobby where I turned in my keycard, then stepped out onto the sidewalk. I looked carefully right and left to be sure I wasn’t being followed, walked down the street for a few blocks, then turned abruptly into an alleyway. A dumpster stood nearby. I opened the briefcase and tossed the sheets and pillowcase into it.

Checking one last time for prying eyes, I pulled out my cell phone and called for a cab, specifying a location a few blocks away, urging haste, then hanging up and setting off on foot to meet it.

I didn’t like New York City. Its clamor and brashness was a contrast to the way I was raised. I prefer St. Louis, my home. There has always been too much emphasis on the new in New York. The garish signs on Broadway flashed alongside the red lights of lechery, the hard lines of the buildings harsh and forbidding. I missed the welcoming riverfront, gateway to travelers, with a history that ran deep like the lifeblood of its people.

I’ve lived in many places, but St. Louis always had a special place in my heart, perhaps because of its French origins or the open generous hearts of its people. I couldn’t say for sure, but I ached to be home whenever I went away.

There, I was Claire Marie. Two names. It made me smile to give them both. But in New York, no one had two names. It was considered gauche. One more reason to dislike the place.

I reached my rendezvous point, and the cab was waiting for me. “JFK, please.” And I smiled at the driver, though he was too busy to notice or to think of anything but his fare. Just as well.

Reaching into my pocket, I pulled out my iPod and plugged in my earbuds, then I settled back in the seat to listen to some Mozart, closing my eyes as the car wove in and out of traffic. When we finally stopped, I paid the driver, then leaned in close and glamoured him all the same, making sure he remembered nothing of me at all.

Certain I’d cut off the trail, I again put on my sunglasses, before heading into the terminal. I walked to the nearest bathroom and washed my hands, taking my time. A woman entered the bathroom. Too fat. Next was a young girl. Short. Finally, another woman entered wearing a red tank top, jeans, and a cowboy hat, all in my size. This one would do. She caught my eye, and I exerted my influence on her mind, walking with her into the large handicapped stall at the end of the row, shutting the door behind us both.

Ten minutes later, rosy cheeked, I emerged from the bathroom wearing that stranger’s clothes and hat, looking nothing like myself. By the time they found her, I would be be long gone.

I got in line for the security check and showed them my false ID. They passed me on, and I walked to my gate, patiently waiting to board along with the other passengers, letting “Eine kleine Nachtmusik” take me to another place and time.

We taxied down the runway at last, and as the plane lifted off into the sky, I smiled down on all the little lights of New York. “Goodbye to you,” I whispered, forehead against the glass. “You are much more beautiful from up here.”

St. Louis waited for me and, trusting in its warm embrace on my return, I drifted to sleep as the engines whined.

Fin met me at the gate, not smiling, but I gave him one of my own, beaming at him and leaning in to kiss his cheek. “Welcome back,” he said as he took my suitcase. “What’s with the getup?”

“Thank you, my darling,” I said, keeping the briefcase. “Don’t you like it? It’s the new me.”

He glared and walked beside me in sullen silence all the way to the MetroLink terminal, rocking on his feet until the train arrived and we stepped aboard.

“So what was so important you had to risk it all to buy?” Fin said in a low voice once we’d found some seats at the rear of the train, far from the other passengers. He put on a show of annoyance, but I could sense his fear hidden beneath.

Leaning forward and patting his knee reassuringly, I smiled. “I got it. No one followed me.”

“Don’t treat me like a child. I’m not a child. Just tell me, was it worth the risk?” He felt angry, his way of showing he loved me, even after everything.

“It was to me,” I said, settling back into my seat. 

Fin hated traffic. He also had some notion riding public transportation was good for my soul. A car was an extravagance, he said. Greenhouse gasses or some such. I grew weary of the argument, and so I acquiesced to his wishes. “I will show you when we get home. You’ll see. How is Pom Pom? Was he good while I was gone?”

Fin rolled his eyes. “I hate that dog.” I gave him a warning glance out of the corner of my eye, and he sighed. “Pom Pom was good. He only shredded three of my socks this time.”

Smiling, I closed my eyes, listening to the noises of the people on the car, the sound of the train’s movement on the rail. “Good boy,” I said.

I loved my little gated community in the Central West End. Fin scolded me once for snobbishness, but I insisted it was safer for both of us behind its perimeter fence. There was no denying that. Plus, I enjoyed my walk to work each day. Of course, the shop was merely a hobby. Anyone who paid close attention to my finances would realize I never made enough money to maintain my style of living. However, most people simply assumed I had inherited wealth. In a way, they were right. 

When the train stopped at the station, Fin grabbed my bags and followed me out to the taxi stand. We didn’t speak during the car ride, but as he paid the fare and we got out, I told him I was going straight to the shop instead of coming inside. 

“I’ve got to do a few things. I’ll be home soon. Thank you for meeting me, darling.” Kissing him on the cheek once more, I turned on my heel and walked away, wishing I couldn’t see the hurt and protest on his face.

My little shop was a delight, with the tinkling bell at the door, the ever-changing front display window, the pressed tin ceiling, and the winding arrangement of items, leading customers on a meandering path from one section to the next, encouraging a slow perusal. My assistant, Crystal Kirby, came from a small town but kept her warm personality. She had no idea who (or what) I really was, which was just as I preferred to keep it. I loved the glass display cabinets and my ancient cash register, though Fin convinced me of the addition of a computer. He was right, of course. My register was just for show. The real business transactions happened with the keyboard and mouse, but I still liked the cheery little “ding” it made when I opened the drawer.

Pom Pom was waiting for me on his little dog bed as usual. Fin had forgotten to take him home before coming to get me. He probably thought Crystal would dogsit for me. Then again, perhaps Fin had known I’d head here first. Sometimes it seemed he knew me better than I knew myself. 

I picked up the little Pomeranian and kissed his face. “Who’s been a good dog? You have. Yes, you have. Did Crystal give you lots of love? Huh?” He wriggled happily in my arms, loving the attention, then having had enough he squirmed to get free again. “All right. All right. You win.” I placed him on the carpet, and he half ran, half jumped around in circles, barking for several minutes before settling back down with his toys again.

Greetings over, I got down to the real order of business, locking the front door once more and then stepping behind the counter and through the office door, closing it behind me. I didn’t want any prying eyes, even by chance. Once I knew I was completely alone, I could feel a shiver run through me. I’d gotten what I’d set out to collect and so far as I could tell, no one was any the wiser. 

My shoulders relaxed, and I reached back to pull my prize from its hiding place. Turning it over in my hand, running my fingers over the embroidered pattern, I whispered to it softly, “I found you, my lovely. You’re back where you belong at last.” With a smile, I rubbed the fabric against my cheek, closing my eyes. It was so long ago, and yet with this treasure in my hand, I could still feel the stays of my confining dress, and the warmth of the sun on my skin that last day before everything changed. For those memories, the ones that made me smile, I was willing to risk everything.

Strange how we forget the details of our lives. A mother should remember what her children look like. But over the years, their features had softened in my mind. I had no photographs to remind me, and so my memory lost the crispness of reality, fading until they resembled their portraits, though no painter could ever capture the true likeness of my little ones. 

As I held this swatch of fabric from my past, my children’s faces swam before me, suddenly fresh once more, borne to the surface from the depths of my long memory. I staggered on my feet and dropped the handkerchief with a gasp, leaning heavily on the desk to steady myself. I hadn’t expected or even hoped for such a thing. Yet as I stood there, the images receded back into the shadows of the past. I closed my eyes and tried to call them back, but the moment was over, and they were gone. It cut me to the core.

When I finally had collected myself, I bent down to retrieve the handkerchief, gingerly lifting it as though it might burn me. Where moments before I had felt warm and happy, it suddenly made me feel cold and brittle. Not for the first time, I cursed those responsible for what’s happened to me, renewing my vow to be avenged one day, but the words rang hollow on my tongue, and I opened the safe and tossed the handkerchief inside, locking it away with a desperate sadness.

Fin does not, cannot, understand my obsession for buying such small souvenirs from my previous life. I have tried to explain, but he does not comprehend my aching need. He is so young. He does not understand the sort of loss I have experienced. His eyes only see the surface, the physical aspect of each item I’ve collected. “They’re just trinkets. And you lock them away and never look at them. If you’re not going to use these things or at least display them somehow, what is the point of hunting for them?”

I could never be satisfied with this single purchase. I resolved one day to find an item to bring the memory of my children’s faces back to me for good. 

Not surprisingly, therefore, though I had only just returned from my brush with danger, I spent the rest of the evening online looking for other items for sale. When nothing else appeared, I returned home deflated, Pom Pom in tow. Fin was out. I did not know where he went in the evenings. Perhaps it was just as well. Certainly, I was in no mood to talk. 

I walked up the stairs to my bedroom with a heavy heart, changed into my bedclothes, and slipped under the covers. Pom Pom curled up on my feet, and I drifted off at last to dark dreams. They almost always were.

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