Yarrow House

Ashes to Dust

The scrawny, twitchy guy in a flight jacket that Moss had been tailing climbed onto the Number 7 bus going up the Valley. “Just my luck,” Moss bitched to herself, “he’d get on a bus.” She turned her collar down, blending with the rest of the waiting crowd, and scrabbled in her pocket for change.

Flight Jacket got off at Genesee. “He’s exiting from the rear door. Not carrying the gym bag, though. I’ll stick with the bag,” Moss muttered into her cell phone to Raine.

She saw Raine’s old beater pull out around the bus and follow the guy, most likely shortly to have an intimate conversation with him about who, or as Raine would insist, for whom he was stealing the artifacts.

Moss and Raine were tracking down something that had suddenly gone on the move. The job had started with a client walking into the office a week ago. They didn’t get much walk-in traffic any more. Email appeared, to most clients, to be more private. But this bleached blond with graying roots, who looked like she’d been reading too many Dashiell Hammett mysteries, slithered into the room, clutching her black purse to her ample bosom, and started quizzing them about their specialty—Search and Research— before they could even offer her a chair.

“So, what do you want found?” Moss interrupted. She assessed the blond at somewhere around 60.
 
“The bronze urn my husband’s ashes are in. It was stolen.” Another torrent of words concluded with could they find it and get it back.

“That’s our specialty,” Moss assured her. “Funerary urns. Junkies steal them for the metal, you know.” She paused for a moment and priced the woman’s outfit. Her black dress looked like it had come from some high-end shop in Bellevue. “Why come to us? We’re sort of low-rent for someone of your obvious...”

“A friend recommended you. She didn’t really describe your office.” The blond looked around at the sagging couch, rusty file cabinet, and computer monitor resting on a stack of telephone books.

“Which husband?” Raine added. Raine was a blocky, taciturn, unflappable woman, with short grey hair. Moss had known her ever since she’d pulled a teen-aged Moss off the streets.

“Why, my most current, and sadly now departed, husband, Sam. He was such a fine man.” She pulled a lace hanky out of her purse and carefully dabbed her eyes. Must have water-proof mascara, Moss decided. It wasn’t rubbing off onto the hankie. Or maybe there were no tears to dab.

Raine detailed their fee—adding on a difficult client surcharge, Moss noted—and started prying details out of the blond. Irma said her husband had died a few months ago and not wanting to part too quickly from him, she’d installed his ashes in a bronze urn, “a really magnificent antique. Only the best for my Sammy. He deserves to rest in a quality, you know,” she explained. “I have a very extensive collection of antiques, and the urn is one of my best pieces.”

“When did you realize it was missing?” Moss asked.

“Oh, this morning. It must have happened last night sometime. He sits on a credenza in my living room. I said good night to him last night, just like I always do, and when I got up this morning he was gone.” She pulled a photo from her purse. A slick, good-looking man considerably younger than Irma lounged against the balustrade of a veranda overlooking some Italian harbor. “This is from our honeymoon.”

“What else did they take?” Raine asked.

“Well, I’m not sure. I didn’t take time to look. I was just worried about Sammy.” More eye dabbing with the hankie.

“Do you have a photo of the urn?” Moss asked.

Irma handed over a glossy color clipping from what looked like an auction catalogue. Chinese bronze, lidded urn, Ming dynasty. Starting bid in the five digits.

“How’d they break in?” Raine asked, still digging for details.

Irma didn’t really know. No windows were broken, and the security alarm was even still on. She was sure it was taken during the night. And had she spent the night alone? “Of course, I was alone. How could I even begin to think of a new man in my life? Why Sammy is barely cold in the grave.” She paused, hampered by the fact that Sam was not in a grave, but in an urn.

Moss took the opportunity to probe for other possibly missing antiques. “Well, I have so many things, it’s really hard to say you know, but well, lately I’ve been thinking I must have misplaced a few things. They weren’t where I thought they were. But really, you know, Sammy’s what I’m concerned about.”

They assured her Sam would be the focus of their search, collected their sizable retainer, and made arrangements to meet her at her house in Broadmore to look over the scene of the crime. In their experience, all too often, stolen items turned up merely misplaced. “So many things” had been an understatement, however, and after five hours of searching Irma’s home, they were fairly certain that the urn was gone. During their search, they had identified a variety of places where things appeared to be missing, empty spots in displays, incomplete sets. But Irma remained focused on Sam.

They spent the week finding out who dealt in hot Chinese antiques, and what ones were currently on the market. Odds were that the urn had already left town, with or without Sam’s ashes, but with a bunch of well-placed fifties to the usual sources of info on who’s stealing what, Raine had managed to track down some possible Asian antique dealers, and Moss had ID’d a likely thief, a junkie who’d been bragging about the hot location he was mining a few antiques at a time. He had a steady business, her informant said, and luckily for Moss and Raine, he knew where the junkie lived—in a ramshackle apartment building in Rainier Beach.

“Not the kind of place that a high-end antique booster would prefer to live,” Moss observed as they parked where they could watch the door.

“Looks like he doesn’t believe in curtains,” Raine said. “Let’s see what’s visible from outside.” They scrambled through the scraggly bushes that edged the building, and Raine boosted Moss up high enough to get a look through the window.

“Well, what do you know. He still has the urn, right there on the coffee table. Oops, and there he is, too.” Moss dropped back to the ground, crushing what was left of a dying viburnum. Stealth in shrubbery wasn’t necessarily her strong suit. “He had a gym bag and looked like he was going for the urn when I dropped,” Moss said.

Just as they were about to go knock on the door and discuss with the guy the wisdom of handing over the urn, he charged out of the door wearing a flight jacket, gym bag slung over his shoulder.

“I’ll follow him,” Moss said. She darted after Flight Jacket as he headed across a parking lot, through a Safeway, and out to the number 7 bus stop on Rainier.

The narrow-shouldered mid-40s guy who’d been sitting next to Flight Jacket—ragged graying hair and a three-day beard to match—got off the bus at Walden with the gym bag. Moss followed pretty closely. After all, chances that Mr. Gym Bag noticed her were minimal, not worth betting on in fact, and besides if he was going to get on another bus, she wanted to be on it. He looked vaguely familiar, and she ran through her mental file of thieves and no-goodniks trying to ID him.

A taxi pulled up behind the bus, and gym bag guy got into it. They headed on up Rainier. Moss assessed her options. “Hey my man,” she said to the driver of an aging maroon Olds Cutlass who’d stopped to drop off a woman at the bus stop. “I’ve got to catch up with that taxi. Interested in making a buck?” She flashed a fifty. Gave the Cutlass a quick assessment. Dissed it with an eyebrow. Started to pull back the fifty. The bulky black dude behind the wheel pushed the door open. “Name’s Devon.”

Moss admired the smooth way Devon handled the tail, staying a car or two behind the taxi despite rain and rush hour traffic. Their conversation was casual. He wanted to know what was going on, but didn’t care too much about the answer. Moss called Raine. “Looks like we’re heading to Chinatown. Can you get Irma down here in time?”

Raine was ahead of her. She’d already arranged for Irma to wait for them at the Sorento Hotel, an easy taxi-ride from all the suspect antique dealers.

The taxi pulled up at the mouth of Hing Hay Alley, and Gym Bag got out. Devon stopped a couple of cars back. She took another fifty out of her wallet and handed it to him along with her business card. “Thanks, Devon,” she said. “If you’re ever looking for work, let me know. We can always use a man who’s good at tailing.” She headed down the alley after the gym bag.

Gym Bag pressed the key code of a door mid-way down the alley and disappeared into the back of an old brick building. Moss scuttled after him and managed to slip a credit card into the doorjamb as the door shut. She eased the door open and slid inside.

From what she could make out in the dim light, she was in a utility room stacked with shipping boxes, all addressed to Wong Chinese Antiques. Looked like she’d found the hot antiques dealer. She called Raine with the address. “Come in the back with Irma and our job’ll be done,” she whispered into the phone.

Moss followed voices down a hallway from the utility room to an office and surveyed the room from the shadowed hallway. Mr. Wong, presumably, looked to be in his late 60s, a well-fed Chinese man in a stylish charcoal suit and discretely elegant gray tie. Every inch of horizontal space in his office supported Asian art and artifacts, except for the slim laptop computer in the middle of his mahogany desk.

Gym Bag and Mr. Wong were having a financial disagreement. Gym Bag seemed to think the urn was worth more than Mr. Wong was prepared to pay. Moss could already see that the discussion was not going favorably for Gym Bag. Eventually he conceded Mr. Wong’s main point, that Gym Bag had nowhere else to sell the urn, not to mention the other artifacts he expected also to sell to Mr. Wong.

As he was about to hand the urn over to the antique dealer, Raine and Irma walked in. “Sammy!” Irma cried. Moss realized where she’d seen the guy before—lounging against the Italian balustrade in Irma’s photo. “You’re going to sell the urn?”

“Now, Irma, sweetheart, let me explain...” Gym Bag clutched the urn to his chest.

Raine inserted herself into the fray. “Ok , we found the urn for you, ma’am. You owe us. the rest of our fee.”

“Sam, I can’t believe you’d sell your own funerary urn.”

“I’m not dead Irma.”

“But Sam, what about the  funeral? And the nice funeral director?”

“Ma’am,” Raine said again.

“I don’t have a check with me.” Irma brushed Raine off with a wave of her hand.

Moss, who’d slipped into the room behind Irma and Raine, swooped down on Sam and lifted the urn from his hands. “Now, Irma, you have a choice,” she said holding the urn out. “I can give this urn to Mr. Wong, here, or to you.”

Everyone began talking at once. Mr. Wong restated his best offer vaguely including both Sam and Irma, who were arguing about whose ashes were in the urn.

“We take credit cards,” Raine said, pulling a credit card slip out of her inside jacket pocket.

Irma dashed off her signature, and Moss handed over the urn. “Might be wood ashes you know,” she said, tapping the side of the urn.

They left the three arguing over who had the right to the urn and headed out into the Seattle drizzle. Moss turned her jacket collar up against it. “Want to go get some kung pao chicken?”

One-time reproduction for non-resale purposes permitted with the following credit line: by Judith Yarrow, © 2013