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Divine by Mistake, Page 2

P. C. Cast

  “I would be happy to offer you my expertise if you find any pieces you are interested in bidding on. I would hate to see such a lovely young lady taken advantage of….” His voice cracked and he nervously dabbed the sweat off his upper lip with a folded handkerchief. I noticed the yellowed stains shadowing his pits. Guess that button-down oxford was just a little too warm for this trek.

  “I’ll be sure to let you know if I need you.” My turn, thank God.

  “Name, please.” I could sense hairline’s ears growing to catch the answer.

  “Shannon Parker.”

  “Ms. Parker, your number is 074. Please fill out your address next to the 074 slot. Keep the number with you at all times, the auctioneer will refer to your number if you purchase an item. When you have made all your purchases, simply give the cashier your number and she will present you with your bill.”

  Typical auction directions—I grabbed my number and fled before Hairline turned into a sticky booger. I will never understand why short men are attracted to me. I’m not an Amazon, but in flat feet I stand five foot seven, and I love high heels so I’m rarely in flat feet. My height aside, I am definitely not a small woman. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not big. I work out like a fiend, but I always seem to carry around about five to ten pounds more than I wish I did. I’m not the lean, lanky, anorexic type that’s so “in” today—I’m the voluptuous, chesty, hippy, leggy type. And I feel ridiculous around small men; I always imagine that I could probably beat them up, which makes me totally disinterested in anything else coming up. Give me a man the size of John Wayne and I melt like a Popsicle in a warm mouth. Unfortunately, my love life is as dead as the Duke.

  The bulk of the auction was behind the house in what once must have been gorgeously landscaped gardens. Smack in the center stood a crumbling fountain complete with a naked nymph. The auction lots were in a rough semicircle around the fountain—the open end of the circle pointed toward several pieces of farm equipment. Billy Joe Bobs and Bubba Bo Bobs were clustered in groups amidst the equipment, obviously in a feeding frenzy. Carried on the wind, I could overhear the Oklahoma melodies of “y’all” and “yup.” One of them had a piece of straw stuck in a gap between his front teeth. Really, I’m not making it up.

  The other items were grouped in lots, and upon closer inspection it was obvious that someone had been meticulous in setting them out. Neatly arranged together were pieces of like furniture (bedroom sets, dinettes, ornate chairs, etc.) in one area, and tables filled with lamps, fixtures, sconces and crystal in another. (I noticed Mr. Receding Hairline making a beeline for that particular table.) Knickknacks in boxes marked with lot numbers were spaced so that customers could paw through them without maiming each other, and artwork was displayed tastefully on folding tables and easels.

  The art was where I gravitated. I couldn’t help sending a covetous glance in the direction of the furniture, but a glance was all it took for me to be fairly certain that a schoolteacher’s salary wouldn’t allow for any purchases in that area.

  The soon-to-be ex-owner’s tastes were certainly consistent. All of the paintings displayed on the easels had a like theme—mythology. I wandered from watercolor to acrylic to oil. Everything from Venus’s birth to a great lithograph of Wotan’s farewell to Brunhilde.

  “Ohmygod, that’s hilarious!” I couldn’t help nudging the Garage Sale Queen standing next to me and pointing to a wonderful full-color print of a huge fiery dragon roaring flame at a blond female warrior on a plunging white horse. She was deflecting the fire with a shield and brandishing a sword. I couldn’t make out the artist’s name, but the title painted on the bottom of the print read, Stamp Out Forest Fires.

  “I have to have this one.” I was still chuckling.

  “Well, it’s kinda strange.” The Garage Sale Queen’s nasally twang interrupted my smile.

  “Yep. But I like to think of it as not normal, versus simply strange.” She gave me one of those sheepy, duh looks and started over to the household items section. I sighed and opened my little notebook to write, “Lot #12—dragon print.” A closer look at the frame made me wonder if I had a chance of affording it, but maybe everyone would think it was “kinda strange” and I would be the only bidder.

  Many of the other paintings were interesting, but I had already decided to focus my financial energy on a single print, and maybe a small vase or sculpture or some such “strange” knickknack. Behind the paintings were the lots filled with artsy stuff. Tables held individual pieces, along with boxes of variously grouped odds and ends. Again, there seemed to be a theme. Sculptures were miniature reproductions of stuff that looked very Greek or Roman, and, well, very naked.

  This would be fun.

  Three male statuettes were placed on one table. They each stood about two feet high. I paused and gave each the respectful, proper attention they seemed to deserve, while trying not to ogle as I read the identification and lot tags: Lot #17 Statuette of Zeus, Thunderbolt at the Ready (very nude—actually naked, and he looked very, um, ready).

  “Sorry, sweetie. Can’t take you home—too kinky.” I tweaked his thunderbolt.

  Lot #18, Statuette of Hellenistic Ruler, possibly Demetrios I of Syria. Demetrios was a large, muscular, naked man. Very large.

  “Oh, baby, wish you were Galatea and I was your enamored sculptor.” I patted his cheeks and giggled, while I looked around to make sure I wasn’t causing a stir.

  Lot #19, Statuette of Etruscan Warrior. Too skinny for my tastes—only two things stuck out about the statuette: his weapon, and, um, his weapon.

  “Bye-bye, boys. It’s just so…well…hard to leave you.” I chortled at my own pun and moved to the next table, which was filled with about half a dozen large vases. My gaze drifted over the elegant urns…

  And the world stopped. Suddenly, and totally, the day stood still. The breeze died. Sounds ceased. I didn’t feel the heat. My breath stopped. My vision tunneled until my awareness was completely filled by the vase.

  “Oops, sorry. Didn’t mean to bump ya.” Breath rushed into my lungs and the world started again as a kind man grabbed my elbow to steady me.

  “That’s okay.” I sucked air and attempted a smile.

  “Guess I wasn’t looking where I was going. Almost ran ya over.”

  “I’m fine now. No harm done.”

  He looked at me like he wasn’t sure, but nodded and went on his way.

  I brushed a trembling hand through my hair. What was going on? What happened? I was looking at the vases and…

  My attention turned back to the pottery table, and my eyes were immediately drawn to the last of the vases. My feet were moving toward it before I told them to go. My trembling hand reached out to touch the lot identification tag. It read: Lot #25, Reproduction—Celtic vase, original stood over graves in Scottish cemetery—Scene in color represents supplications being made to the High Priestess of Epona, Celtic Horse Goddess.

  My vision was blurred and my eyes felt strangely hot as I looked back at the vase. Blinking my vision clear, I studied it, attempting to ignore how strange I was feeling.

  The vase was a couple of feet tall and shaped like the base of a lamp. A curved handle balanced off one side. The top was open with a gracefully ridged circumference. But it wasn’t the shape or size that drew me; it was the scene painted into the pottery, stretching from one side all the way around. The background color was black, which made the scene seem to jump out with the other colors all highlighted in golds and creams. A woman reclined on some type of cushioned lounge chair. Her back was to the viewer, so all that could be seen of her was the curve of her waist, one outstretched arm with which she motioned regally to the supplicants on their knees before her and the cascade of her hair.

  “It’s like my hair.” I didn’t realize I had spoken aloud until I heard the words. But her hair was like mine, only longer. The same red-gold, the same wavy semi-curls that never wanted to stay put. My finger crept forward of its own accord and I found myself touching
the vase, transfixed.

  “Oh!” It felt hot! I yanked my finger back where it belonged.

  “I didn’t know you were interested in pottery.” Mr. Receding Hairline squinted up at me. “I am actually quite knowledgeable about several categories of Early American pottery.” He licked his lips.

  “Well, I’m not really interested in Early American pottery.” Hairline’s reappearance into my Personal Space had served to dash cold water on whatever weird feelings I had been experiencing. “It’s way too Southwest for me. I’m more of a Greek/Roman-esque kind of girl.”

  “Oh, I see. What a fascinating little piece you were admiring.” He reached his sweaty hands out, and in a jumpy, cockroach-like movement he lifted the vase, turning it upside down to peer at the bottom. I observed him for any signs of weirdness, but he just kept on being his normal, nerdy self.

  “Um, you don’t notice anything, well, odd about that vase, do you?”

  “No. It’s a rather well-made reproduction, but I don’t detect anything odd about Epona or the urn. What do you mean?” He put the vase down and dabbed at his upper lip with a damp handkerchief.

  “Well, it seemed to feel a little, I don’t know, hot, when I touched it.” I stared into his eyes, wondering if my neurotic breakdown was obvious.

  “Might I suggest—” he leaned even farther into my Personal Space, practically resting his pointy nose on my cleavage “—that the warmth may have been generated by your own generous body heat?”

  He was almost salivating. Ugh.

  “You know, you might be right,” I purred. He stopped breathing and licked his lips again. I whispered, “I think I have been running a low-grade fever. Just can’t seem to get rid of this nasty yeast infection. And it sure is sticky in this heat.” I smiled and squirmed a little.

  “Goodness. Well, my goodness.” Hairline quickly receded from my Personal Space. I smiled and followed. He continued backing up. “I feel that I had better go back to my Depression Era glass lots, I certainly want to be there to open the bidding. Good luck to you.” He turned and scuttled away.

  Guys are such a pain in the ass. But really easy to get rid of, just call into play the dreaded Female Problem card and watch them freak out. I like to think it’s just one small way God lets us get even. I mean, we do have to give birth.

  “Now what’s up with this damn vase?” It was just too Dark Shadows for words. Blurred vision—loss of breath—hot pottery—same hair. Oh, please, I was probably just having a premature hot flash (twenty years early—okay, fifteen years early, at least). So, I decided I’d simply confront the source. The Dreaded Mystery Vase/Urn/Friggin Pot.

  It sat innocently enough just where Receding had left it, vaguely moist spots glistening where his sweaty little fingers had smudged the glossy surface. I took a breath. A deep breath. It certainly was an intriguing-looking pot. I squinted and bent to get a closer look, careful not to touch it. The Priestess did have hair that looked like mine, only longer. Her right arm was draped in a creamy, gauzy white cloth, and there was a definite grace and beauty about the way it was stretched, palm held up and forward, slightly tilted. She seemed gracious in her acceptance of the offered gifts from the kneeling supplicants. A rich-looking gold armlet snaked around her bicep, and golden bracelets adorned her wrist. She wore no rings, but the back of her hand seemed to be decorated with a design—

  “Oh, God!” My own hand flew to my mouth to stifle my screech. I felt a sinking in the pit of my stomach, and all of a sudden it was again difficult to catch my breath. Because it wasn’t a tattoo or a jewel that decorated the back side of her hand. It was a scar. A scar from a third-degree burn. I knew because my right hand was “decorated” with the exact mark.


  “Ladies and gentlemen, the auction will now begin. Please make your way to Lot #1, directly east of the fountain. We will open this afternoon with bedroom and living-room furnishings…”

  I could hear the auctioneer droning in the background as opening bids were taken for Lot #1—Victorian reproduction oak six-piece bedroom set, but the pot captivated my attention. Along with other stragglers, I remained by the item of my choice, waiting for the auction to come to me. With a shaking hand I dug into the black depths of my purse and fished out a wadded-up, aged Kleenex. Slowly, I reached toward the pot and wiped off all the smudges left by the Receding Nerd. Maybe it was just a trick of sweat and the light. I blinked hard and looked back at the priestess’s hand. Then I looked at my own.

  The familiar burn scar was, indeed, there—and had been since I was a four-year-old and had precociously thought I could help Grandma boil water for macaroni faster by shaking the handle of the pot. Of course, boiling water had painfully poured onto my little hand, leaving a funny-looking scar that resembled a star. Thirty-one years later the raised tissue still evoked comments from friends and strangers. And the lady on the pot had the same scar tissue?

  Impossible. Especially in a reproduction of an ancient Celtic urn.

  Yet there it was, in all of its hair-looks-like-mine-hand-has-my-scar-and-makes-me-feel-like-I’m-having-a-nervous-breakdown glory.

  “I need a drink.” Understatement of the year. A glance toward the auctioneer told me they were only on Lot #7 (reproduction of Louis XIV armoire—bidding was fast and furious). I had time to find the refreshment stand and get a grip on myself before they got near the artsy stuff. Needless to say, I wouldn’t be bidding on Lot #25; the cool dragon print would have to go home with someone else. The pot was where my money and my energy had to be focused.

  Strangely enough, I noticed that as soon as I got away from the pottery table I began feeling normal again. No hot flashes, no trouble breathing, definitely no “time is suddenly freezing” moments. The makeshift refreshment stand was situated near the farm equipment. They had cold drinks, coffee and evil-looking hot dogs for sale. I ordered a “diet anything” and took my time sipping, wandering slowly back toward the pottery.

  I have always had a great imagination. I love fantasy and make-believe. Hell, I’m a friggin English teacher—I actually read. For pleasure, as shocking as that seems to be to some people. But I have always known the difference between fantasy and reality—even relished the difference.

  So, what in the hell was going on with me today? What was up with the strange feelings? And why did the woman on that pot look like me?! I pinched myself, and it hurt. So I wasn’t having one of my ultra-vivid weird dreams that seem real.

  I meandered back to the pottery area, and instantly my stomach tightened. It was utterly bizarre. I should buy the damn dragon print, get in my car, go home and drink a medicinal bottle of Merlot. All this ran through my mind as my legs carried me straight back to the pot.

  “Friggin thing still looks like me.”

  “It is rather odd, is it not, miss?” The skeletal guy from the entrance stood behind the pottery table. He reached out and let his hand slide slowly over the pot, pausing briefly on the priestess’s hair, then tracing the line of her arm with his finger.

  “So you noticed it, too.” My eyes narrowed and he pulled his bony hand away from my pot.

  “Yes, miss. I noticed your hair when you drove in. Quite a nice color to see today—too many young women seem to want to ruin their hair by dying it unnatural colors: burgundy, yellow, black. And cutting it short. So, yours stands out.” His tone was harmless enough, but his eyes had an intensity that suddenly made me feel uncomfortable. And even across the table I could smell his nasty breath.

  “Well, it’s been a surprise for me, actually, kind of a shock.” I watched him. His attention kept leaving me and refocusing on the pot with an almost sexual intensity. And he kept touching it. A lot.

  “Probably Fate telling you that you must buy it.” He turned that unnatural gaze back to me. “This urn must not go home with anyone else.”

  That made me laugh. “I hope Fate knows to keep the bidding within a teacher’s price range.”

  “She does.” With that cryptic rema
rk he caressed the pot one last time and glided away.

  Damn, that guy was strange. More like a talkative Lurch than Children of the Corn’s daddy, though.

  The auction was moving quickly and the bidding was beginning for the statuettes. Seems several people were interested in “the boys.” Can’t say that I blamed them. I stepped into the group around the mobile auctioneer’s platform as it was being wheeled into position behind the table. Bidding began at fifty dollars for Zeus, but five people quickly raised that fifty to one-fifty. Finally it sold to a solid-looking woman for one hundred seventy-five dollars. Not bad. The Syrian got more interest (must have been the muscles). Bidding quickly went from the opening bid of fifty dollars to three-fifty. I was beginning to worry about the price range.

  The Syrian went for four hundred fifty dollars. A bad sign. I had budgeted two hundred dollars for my auction outing today. I could scrape together another fifty, but above that was beyond my limited means.

  The skinny warrior went for four hundred dollars even.

  My stomach clenched again as I drifted with the crowd over to the pottery table and listened to the auctioneer talk about what excellent museum-quality reproductions of Greco-Roman and Celtic pottery were exemplified in the next six lots. Couldn’t he please just shut up? I pushed through the crowd, ignoring the disconcerting feeling that being so close to the pot gave me. The bidding on Lot #20 opened at seventy-five dollars.

  There were only three people who were seriously bidding on the pottery. I noticed that all three had the look of dealers. They had the little handheld notebooks, the glasses perched on their noses and the look of professional intensity casual auction-goers never wore. It was a whole different look than just falling in love with an estate piece and wanting to take it home. The dealer has a clinical attitude about his or her purchases, an “Oh, boy, I can’t wait to get this into my store and mark it up 150 percent” attitude. I was doomed.