For almost five years now, since the eve of her forty-second birthday, Samantha Weller lived on borrowed time. She didn’t mind it, though; in fact, she rather enjoyed the notion. There was a strange pleasure, an odd sense of liberation, in knowing you’d defied death, beat the forces—outlived yourself, so to speak.
Of course, a taxi ride around Manhattan was a sure way to further tempt the Fates. Samantha braced herself in the back seat of a yellow cab as the driver cut off two cars and a bus. “Hold on, mami,” she warned Samantha in broken English, a wad of pink gum muffling her words and obstructing her vision as she blew a bubble so big it touched the brim of her purple baseball cap.
The only thing left for Samantha to hold was her breath, and she did just that as the taxi crossed two lanes and careened to the corner of Hudson and West 10th Street. Stunned, Samantha looked at the giant pink bubble and two dark eyes staring at her in the rearview mirror. For a moment they regarded one another blankly, and then the cabbie began slowly inhaling, deflating the bubble until half of it collapsed on her chin. Samantha watched, amazed, as a tongue darted out and, in one quick swipe, gathered up the whole pink mess and retreated into her mouth.
“Mami, you gettin’ out or what?” the cabbie asked. And when Samantha didn’t respond, she cracked her gum so loud Samantha thought someone had fired a gun, and she jumped.
Forcing a polite smile, Samantha took a deep breath, paid, and climbed out.
The cabbie gave her the once-over with a crooked smile, her elbow propped and sticking out of the open window. “Thanks,” she said, acknowledging the generous tip.
“Oh, no, thank you, Ms. Ramos!” Samantha bowed with an exaggerated sweep of her arm. “A roller-coaster ride couldn’t have been this exhilarating.”
Ms. Ramos stopped chewing, her eyes narrowing. “How you know my name, mami?”
“It is Ramos, yes? MyraRamos?”
Squinting suspiciously, she gestured at Samantha with her chin. “Me and you…we slept together?”
Samantha laughed. “No, we did not! And it’s a good thing for me. I barely survived a taxi ride with you.” She pointed to the displayed photo ID. “Nice picture, too.”
Smirking, Ms. Ramos stared her up and down, then cracked her gum again and sped away.
Samantha shook her head as the cab veered back into traffic and took a moment to collect herself. It was June and unseasonably cool in New York City this week—mid-seventies, expected to dip into the fifties tonight—but the late-afternoon sun was strong, and the reckless taxi ride had her sweating. Samantha slipped out of her blazer, checking the street signs as she rolled up the sleeves of a white shirt. Then she hiked the strap of a messenger bag over her shoulder and tightened her grip on a canvas bag in which she carried an old bookend.
The bookend itself was a ceramic sculpture of an open book, a nearly life-size crow perched upon its pages—unless the crow was meant to be a raven. Samantha couldn’t be sure. She’d bought the thing at an estate sale only last week. But it was heavy, a good few pounds, and after carrying it around the city all day, she felt like it had doubled in weight.
Strolling down Hudson Street, she craned her neck to note the names of shops along the way. She was searching for her sister-in-law’s sister—the gay sister of her brother’s new wife, to be exact. Liz Bowes owned an antique shop somewhere in the vicinity. At least that’s what she’d told Samantha at the wedding four months ago. Liz had named the shop after a movie, she remembered her saying, although just what movie she couldn’t for the life of her recall.
Samantha could have had the bookend appraised elsewhere, but she preferred to deal with someone who, by moral reason of them being related by marriage, wouldn’t take advantage of her ignorance. Not that Samantha intended to part with the piece. It wasn’t every day one stumbled upon art in the form of a raven or crow. The ill-reputed birds had certainly made a permanent nest in the branches of literature and folklore, but definitely not in the visual arts. People didn’t seem to care for the likes of them in their homes—a raven figurine on a shelf, say, or a crow on canvas over the sofa. People preferred ducks, roosters, flamingoes, whimsical birds with less threatening aspects. It was an unfortunate fact, especially for Samantha, who happened to be the proud owner of a real crow. Never mind finding a painting of a crow to hang over her sofa—finding a woman to sit on the sofa with a livecrow proved a more difficult task these days.
Time and again Samantha’s dates outright insulted the bird. From mistaken remarks such as “crows carry disease,” to the more superstitious “crows and ravens are bad omens,” right on down to the more sophisticated “that bird gives me the freaking creeps,” Samantha had heard it all. And so it came to pass, as it always did, that Samantha was forced to choose between a woman and her bird, which didn’t leave much choice at all. For, contrary to superstitions surrounding the black birds and bad luck, Bertha the crow brought only good luck.
Hurricane Bertha was sweeping the East Coast on the night Samantha and the bird made one another’s unlikely acquaintance. Driving home from a friend’s birthday dinner in the city, she was stopped at a red light in White Plains when, amidst whirling branches and wind-driven debris, something black and very much alive tumbled to the ground. What with the drag created by the bird’s panicked flapping and fluttering, the fledgling survived the fall, but to Samantha’s left and right, where the traffic light was green, oncoming cars approached in the distance. In the middle of the road the helpless crow hobbled in dizzy circles, cawing, summoning Samantha to its rescue.
Without taking time to think, she threw her car into park and jumped out. Using a forearm to shield her face against the windswept rain, she dashed into the intersection, scooped up the huge baby with both hands, and backed away from oncoming traffic just in time. But as she did, a thunderous crashand a boomcame from behind, followed by shouts and screams and the honking of horns. Squinting against the pelting downpour, Samantha spun around to see her car—what little she could find of it—buried beneath the canopy of a fallen tree.
The windshield was mashed, the roof crushed clear to the steering wheel. And at that moment Samantha realized she had been meant to die that night—right there, at a red light, an inadvertent victim of Hurricane Bertha. Or maybe she wasn’t meant to die.
Soaked and in shock, Samantha and the baby crow shared a ride home in the tow truck that evening, and for the rest of the night she sat in her kitchen, alternately feeding the fledgling and trying to decide whether she’d saved the crow’s life or the crow had saved hers. By morning she concluded, in no uncertain terms, that she and the bird had simultaneously saved each other. The whole event, Samantha was sure, was a fine example of cosmic intervention. Synchronicity, perhaps. Maybe synchronicity had saved them both. And so Samantha and Bertha, as the crow was aptly named, went about conducting their lives on borrowed time. And the living only got better with the bird around.
Before Bertha, Samantha’s would-be career as a mystery writer had been bereft of good luck. She’d spent the past fifteen years as a forensic investigator working for a crime lab, which is to say she worked long hours in unsafe and unsanitary conditions, tolerating offensive smells and disturbing scenes. Sometimes those scenes included dead people in various stages of decomposition—in basements, in pieces, in dilapidated buildings, wooded lots, sometimes in two feet of mosquito-infested pond water. In accordance with strict chain-of-evidence procedures, Samantha wrote her highly detailed reports, one after the next, year after year, until one day she decided she wanted to write something else. Forensic investigation wasn’t as glamorous as it appeared on television, but it had given her plenty of ideas for writing glamorous murder mysteries.
Over the course of a year, Samantha spent her days off creating a fictional counterpart and completing a manuscript, but her hopeful agent couldn’t find an interested publisher. And then on the night of her first Halloween with Bertha, Samantha got a new and even better idea for a would-be sleuth.
She had just carried a lighted jack-o’-lantern in from the porch and set it by the hearth for Bertha to see. “Do you remember when we met?” Samantha asked, stretching out on the floor beside the crow and the pumpkin and affectionately recounting their fateful meeting. “Come on, Bertha…speak for Mommy, speak for Sam-Sam. Say it. It was a dark and stormy night,” Samantha began, as all good stories do. “Come on,” she coaxed the crow, ruffling the shiny black feathers on its neck. “It was a darkand—”
“Daak!” the crow yelled, visibly mesmerized by the orange glow. She inspected the pumpkin’s nose and peeked through its triangular eyes, fixated on the flame of the burning candle inside. “Daak-daak!” Bertha squawked when Samantha tickled her under the wing.
“That’s right, Sam-Sam’s brilliant little birdbrain. It was a dark—or daak, if you prefer—and stormy night. A daakand stormy—”
Without warning, the idea struck Samantha as hard as the tree had struck her car, and she found herself caught up in another storm: a brainstorm this time, about a nocturnal sleuth who travels the world, solving paranormal crimes under the guidance of her familiar, a psychic crow. She’d call her sleuth Detective Candice Crowley. Bertha would become her avian Watson.
Samantha wrote it. Her agent liked it. The publisher loved it. Mystery readers couldn’t read the stuff fast enough. In less than four years Samantha had become the acclaimed author of the best-selling Detective Crowley mystery series, her fifth book coming off the press in two weeks. No small thanks to Bertha. And no small thanks to the cosmic principle of synchronicity that had brought them together.
Looking up at the signs around Christopher Street, Samantha wiped her brow with the back of her hand and was just turning to backtrack when a shop across the street caught her eye. Tiny pink lights twinkled in the window, and on a green awning above the door were pink letters reading “Somewhere in Time.” That was it! Somewhere in Time. She’d known it was around here…somewhere.
Samantha waited for cars and a limousine to pass, then sprinted across the street and peeked in the window. Two customers stood at the counter with their backs to her, but between them she recognized Liz standing in front of an old brass register. It looked like a scene from a bygone era. She knew Liz was only thirty-two, but with sparkling earrings, knotted beads, and wavy auburn hair slicked back, she looked like a 1920s flapper who’d just stepped out of…well…somewhere in time. Of course, at the wedding she’d been more formally dressed, both she and her female companion, as it were. According to Samantha’s brother, Jason, Liz was quite the ladies’ woman: charming, decadent, rarely seen twice with the same one. Samantha remembered Liz’s older sister, Lisa, telling her over dinner one night that her sister’s promiscuity was attributable to what she suspected was untreated attention-deficit disorder. “Liz can’t focus on anything or anyone for too long. She’s always been the wild child,” Lisa had said.
Wild or not, sitting at Liz’s table at the wedding had been a lot of fun, and Samantha wondered if perhaps Lisa was secretly envious of her sister’s charisma.
Samantha turned the handle of the glass door and went in, bells jingling overhead. As much as Liz appeared to step out of the past, Samantha felt herself stepping into it. The door seemed to be a vortex to the Roaring Twenties. She attempted to close it quietly, but the bells jingled again. Liz looked up from the counter, acknowledging her with an impersonal glance at first. But then her big green eyes widened in recognition. “Sam?”
“Liz!” she said with a nod of greeting. The two women at the counter turned, looking Samantha up and down, and then turned back and whispered to each other.
“Sam—oh my God!” She beamed. “What are you doing here?”
“I was in the city having lunch with my editor, and, well,” she gestured at the bag in her hand, “I need something appraised.”
“I can’t believe it. Are you in a hurry?”
“No, no.” Samantha held up a hand. “Take your time.”
“Good. Have a look around.”
Samantha didn’t care how long she waited. She had found the place and was glad she’d decided to come. Glad, too, that Liz was so happy to see her.
Samantha hated antique shops. Such dank, dreary, depressing places they were. Everything for sale was old, used, somehow expired—like the original owners, she speculated—and if forced to work in one, she’d require antidepressants by payday. That and nasal spray to combat the stuffiness.
But not this place. Liz’s shop was different—colorful and very much alive. Ragtime music wafted from hidden speakers, glass lamps casting seductive glows, and the scent of potpourri masked any would-be mustiness. Overhead, a ceiling fan fit for a saloon spun in rhythm with the music, stirring together sounds and scents and collective memories so that, all in all, the shop had an enchanted feel.
In one panoramic glance, Samantha surveyed everything. She felt like a kid who had discovered the treasure-filled attic of some abandoned mansion. Each aisle was loaded with a hodgepodge of curiosities, an expensivehodgepodge, and she suddenly grew uneasy about breaking something. Setting her belongings down beside a Chippendale chair, she slipped her hands into her pockets and headed down the nearest aisle to browse. But just as she turned, she bumped into her own reflection in a cheval mirror and almost pardoned herself.
Feathery boas and sequined hats were draped over the top of the mirror, and seeing her image framed by it all made Samantha think that, like Liz, she wouldn’t have looked so out of place in the nineteen twenties or thirties. She stood in front of it, thinking that she seemed strange to herself—a bit taller than she remembered, brown eyes darker, lips fuller, jaw more pronounced. Maybe this was an old trick mirror, some antique recovered from a Coney Island carnival and—
“Yoo-hoo! Where’s the mistress-of-mystery hiding?” Liz called, both her voice and the jingle of bells ringing out as the customers left the shop.
“Nice mirror,” Samantha said with a sheepish shrug when Liz came up from behind.
She put her hands on Samantha’s shoulders, but Liz was slightly shorter and had to lean out to the side to see their reflections side by side. “So nice you lost yourself in it, huh?”
Liz was the first redhead she’d ever met who didn’t have freckles. Her skin was fair and flawless, her short wavy hair a dark russet, her eyes green as emeralds. Really, she was quite beautiful, and so young, Samantha thought. She looked at Liz’s roaring-twenties outfit in the mirror, smiling at the low-cut, sleeveless top, the loose and breezy skirt with its fringed hemline. “I could get lost in this whole store,” Samantha answered her.
“And find lots of ideas while you’re getting lost, I bet. I’ve always thought antique shops would be great places for writers to get ideas, you know?”
“I already have one,” Samantha said, “about a mystery writer who finds herself mesmerized by an old mirror…except the mirror isn’t really a mirror, but a portal.”
“Ah…” Liz twisted her lips. “Sort of like a C.S. Lewis grows up. I like it. Just remember to mention that you got the idea in my store. It’ll be good for business. And then you can do a book signing here, and I’ll have lines out the door.” She grinned and rubbed Samantha’s arms affectionately before letting go and stepping aside. “My customers thought you were Rachel Maddow when you first walked in.”
Samantha shrugged. “I get that a lot…even though I don’t wear glasses,” she said. “It must be my haircut.”
“Could be. Either way, you’re very attractive.”
“Why, thank you.” Samantha lowered her eyes bashfully. “And if you ever want me to do a signing here, I will.”
“Really?” Liz put a hand to her chest. “You’d do that? I’ll hold you to it, you know.” She turned and motioned for Samantha to follow her.
Samantha walked to the front of the shop and set her canvas bag on the counter, immediately drawn to the purple glow of a black light coming from a small curio cabinet mounted on the wall behind Liz. The small shelves held an assortment of green shot glasses and little glass animals that were brilliantly phosphorescent. “What is all that?”
“Uranium glass. Also called Vaseline glass. It’s radioactive.” She turned off the light. “See? Without the black light it looks like plain green and yellow Depression glass, but with the black light on,” she flipped the switch again, “it fluoresces. Is that cool or what?”
“Very cool. Is it safe?”
“Pretty harmless. The uranium is contained in the glass, and it’s just a tiny amount, although some pieces will register radiation on a Geiger counter. Sometimes I think of having a dinner party with uranium-glass table settings and replacing all the lightbulbs in the dining room with black lights so that the whole table glows green.”
“That’s a dinner party I don’t want to miss.”
“Then I’ll put you on the guest list.” Liz bit her bottom lip and gazed thoughtfully at her. “So the writing’s going well, huh?”
“You’re one of my favorite authors, you know.”
“I didn’t know.”
“I tell my sister that all the time.”
“No one tells me anything.”
“I’ve read all your books, Sam. Do you remember my date at the wedding?”
“Sure. I danced with her. Lori, wasn’t it?”
“Good memory. After meeting you, she ran out and bought all your books. Then I started reading and,” she shrugged, “what can I say? I’m hooked.”
“Well, thank you. Thank Lori for me, too, for the compliment and all.”
Liz waved a hand. “She’s history. They all go down in history.”
“Don’t be. It’s me. I don’t do relationships,” she said with a roll of her eyes. “And speaking of all the dear and dispensable people in my life, have you seen our siblings?”
“Once since the wedding,” Samantha confessed. “Have you?”
“Twice since the wedding. We talk, though.”
Samantha narrowed her eyes. “Do we unconsciously avoid them?”
“Personally? I make a conscious effort to do so.”
“I guess it’s wrong to dodge our kin like that.”
“They leave us no choice, Sam. I mean, all they do is talk incessantly about their life, their work, their plans, their friends. There’s never any conversation, just boring monologues about people I don’t even know. No offense, but neither one ever shuts up long enough to say, ‘Hey, Liz. How’s the interior-design and antique-furniture business? What’s new? What’s up with you?’”
Samantha frowned. “Don’t feel too bad. When I sent them my last book, they never even called to thank me.”
Her lips curled in something of a snarl. “Are you serious? How rude!”
“I don’t know whether they liked it, hated it, or even bothered to read it at all.”
“What socially inept little shits.”
“Shits?You mean siblings.”
“Face it, Sam. We’ve got shits for siblings.”
“Maybe they’re just too busy.”
“They’re busy being shits! Don’t excuse that narcissistic behavior. If you ask me, they suffer from the same personality disorder, and if they’re busy doing anything it’s bumping into each other’s ego.”
Samantha grinned. “I guess that’s why they bought that enormous house in the Hamptons. So their egos would have enough space.”
“Oh, pleasedon’t get me started on the East Hampton house. I have fantasies about that house floating into the Atlantic Ocean while they’re asleep in their Ralph Lauren pajamas under their Ralph Lauren sheets.”
Samantha smiled. “Maybe we should start an in-law support group.”
“Yeah. Let’s see…” Liz thought for a moment. “We’ll call ourselves…the Out-laws.”
“I love it. Sign me up.” They stared at one another, eyes twinkling with mischief, until they both laughed aloud.
When they’d regained their composure, Liz turned her attention to the object in front of her. “So. Now that we’ve vented and validated one another…what’s in the bag, mystery writer?”
“Your sister’s head.”
“Ha! You’re lying. You know how I know you’re lying? Because my sister’s mouthwouldn’t fit in that bag.”
Samantha chuckled as she fiddled with the zipper. “Actually, I’ve got a bookend from a yard sale.”
“Yeah? Just one?”
“I think it’s old, probably not worth anything, but I was hoping you might—”
“Well? Let me see,” she said, flailing her hand at the bag to hurry her along.
Samantha had covered it in a ridiculous amount of bubble wrap to ensure a safe and padded journey.
Liz tapped her polished nails on the counter as Samantha carefully unrolled several feet of the plastic stuff. But once she freed the sculpture and set it in front of Liz, her eyes widened with the intrigue of an antiquarian. “Oh, wow…this is Rookwood,” she said.
The moving blades of the ceiling fan caused the lights to shift and play upon the high-gloss finish of the crow’s dark-blue body and the yellow book on which it stood. The piece was ornate but eye-catching, especially here, where it complemented the other antiques.
Liz turned it upside down for careful inspection, then set it down again and stroked the ceramic crow as though petting a real bird. “What did you say you bought it for?”
Samantha shrugged. People collected all sorts of animals, didn’t they? Cats, frogs, bears, Scotty dogs, penguins. “I bought it because it was a crow.”
“I meant, what did you pay for it?”
“Three—? Do you have any idea what you have here, Sam?” She shook her head, waiting expectantly. “Rookwood is a highly desirable American art pottery.”
“So, then the bird is a rook, not a crow?” Samantha asked.
“They list their birds as rooks, but I wouldn’t know a rook from a crow.”
“They’re all in the same family—ravens, crows, rooks, magpies.”
“Well, this one bookend is worth several hundred dollars. What made you bring it here if you thought it was worthless?” she asked, talking to Samantha as she picked it up and inspected the piece.
“I only bought it because it looked like my bird. One person’s junk is another’s treasure, I guess. But when I got it home and started looking at it—reallylooking at it—it seemed too perfect, somehow special.”
Liz gave her a sideways glance. “So you’ve got an eye for valuable pieces. I should start dragging you along to estate sales and letting you sniff out the treasures. It’s every dealer’s dream, you know, to buy a piece of furniture for—oh, a few hundred dollars, say—and discover it’s worth thousands.”
“Sure it happens. Of course, now that tag sales and antique flea markets have become a favorite pastime, people are paying more attention to what they have.”
Samantha nodded. “How do you know it’s Rookwood?”
“Come around here and I’ll show you,” Liz said, turning the bookend over again and picking up a pencil.
Making her way behind the counter, Samantha came up alongside her to view the incised mark on the bottom of the bookend.
“See the backward Rand the P? They stand for Rookwood Pottery.” She pointed with her pencil. “Anyway, see the circle of flames around the letters?”
Samantha squinted to see the little squiggly lines.
“Each one represents a year,” Liz said. “This particular mark was first used in eighteen eighty-six. So, starting from the left, the first flame stands for that year. A full set of fifteen flames brings it to the year nineteen hundred. After that, roman numerals were added. See if you can figure out the date.”
Samantha counted fifteen flames. “Nineteen hundred,” she said.
There were two X’s and a V. “Plus twenty-five, so that’s 1925?”
“Exactly,” Liz said. They stood shoulder to shoulder. “Rookwood is one of the most expensive potteries. Some pieces command thousands of dollars, especially the earlier, artist-signed pieces. The pottery went commercial during the art deco period in America, and this rook bookend is one example of that fact.
“To give you an idea of how it compares with other pottery,” Liz said, “take a look at a few pieces around here. There’s McCoy, which, like Fiesta, was only dime-store stuff at the time. Of course, now it sells for a lot more—especially since Martha Stewart plugged it on her show. Then there’s Roseville and others, which you would have purchased in finer department stores. But Rookwood is top-shelf, so to speak.”
Samantha turned over the piece and examined the mark again. “I’m impressed with your knowledge.”
“Nah,” Liz said, straightening up and waving a hand. “This is all general stuff. I’m not a pottery expert. I deal in furniture, mostly—but I do know a few dealers who specialize in art pottery.” Liz looked up at an antique clock hanging on the opposite wall. It was five past five.
“I’m sorry to keep you,” Samantha said.
“Don’t be. It’s not like I have a wife to get home to or anything. In fact, let me make a quick call.” And with that she disappeared behind a curtain-covered doorway. A moment later Samantha heard her exchanging pleasantries with someone, and not long after that Liz peeked out from behind the curtain, her hand held over the receiver.
“Sam? You’re not looking to sell it, are you?”
“No. Ideally, I’d like to find a match.”
“How romantic,” Liz whispered. “That’s what we call a marriage…finding a cup to match a saucer, or a salt shaker to match a pepper shaker.” She extended her arm, motioning for Samantha to hand her the pad and pencil on the counter, and then disappeared behind the curtain again.
“Yeah, Ed,” Samantha heard her say. “Uh-huh…well, my sister in-law would like to make a marriage if possible. What do you think the chances are of…uh-huh…uh-huh…should I contact her directly?” Liz was silent for a moment, then, “That’d be great, Ed. Laraway? Where’s she located?”
Another minute and Liz was back, scribbling something on one of her business cards and handing it to her.
Samantha looked at it. “Gwen Laraway?”
“She’s up in the Berkshires, western Massachusetts, just east of the Hudson Valley. Ed says she has an enormous Rookwood collection, some of which are museum-quality pieces. He says she does sell on occasion but doesn’t do third-party dealings unless it’s at auction.”
“You think she might have something for me?”
“Call her. It’s worth a try. If you don’t have any luck, Ed suggested you look on eBay, or even call the Cincinnati Art Society. That’s where the Rookwood auctions are held every year.” Liz stared at her, a satisfied gleam in her emerald-green eyes. “Isn’t this exciting? I feel like a matchmaker.”
“On the phone you referred to me as your sister in-law.”
“Yeah, well, it’s easier that way,” Liz said.
“I wish I wereyour sister in-law.”
“No, you don’t. That would make you married to my sister.”
“Or you to my brother.”
“Don’t even go there, Sam.”
“You’re right. I guess it’s better this way.”
“Much better,” Liz said.
“Hey, do you have to be somewhere?”
“Not particularly. Why?”
“Let me take you to dinner,” Samantha said.
“You mean like a date?”
“Well, not a date-date…you know, just a dinner date.”
“Good,” Liz said and took a deep breath, “because I think you’re hot, and if I didn’t know you I’d sleep with you in a heartbeat, but, well, we’re out-laws now. It would be a little strange.”
Samantha smiled in amusement. “Number one, as hot as youare, you’re too young for me, and number two, yes, sleeping with my out-law would feel incestuous. So how about grabbing a bite with me…and then I have to hurry home to my crow by sundown.”
“Okay.” Liz laughed. “I forget that Bertha, the psychic crow, is a real bird. I want to meet her one day. And you know what?” she said, her eyes darting around the shop. “Now that I know you collect crows, I might have something for you.” Sidestepping Samantha, she moved around the counter and went down an aisle. Samantha heard the clinking of glass and pottery and watched her return with a whimsical crow sporting a tuxedo, red vest, and top hat.
“It’s an old bourbon decanter,” she said, pulling off the hat to expose the cork, “from the Old Crow distillery in Kentucky.”
“A dapper fellow, isn’t he?”
“I’ll say…” Samantha inspected the bottle, deciding she must add it to her new crow and rook collection. “Sold,” she said.
“Hey, we’re family. I can’t take money from an out-law. He’s yours. Consider it a gift from a fan and relative…or relative fan.” And with that she took the bottle, wrapped it in newspaper, and handed it back to Samantha.
“Thanks. This is very generous.”
“Don’t mention it.” She turned off the fan and the lights in the shop. “I picked it up at an estate sale. You know, Sam,” she added, as she disappeared down another aisle, “I really am glad you came today.”
“Me, too…” she said, carefully packing both her bookend and the Old Crow bottle into the canvas bag she’d transported it in. “Me, too,” she said again to herself.
“Cappuccino, please,” Liz told the waiter. They’d found a busy café on Christopher Street and tucked themselves away at a corner table on the outdoor patio.
“Make it two.” Samantha pointed to their leftover mussels and calamari. “And a doggy bag, please.”
“A birdbag.” Liz corrected her. “It’s for her pet crow.”
“A crow?” The ponytailed waiter’s eyes lit up. “For real?”
“That’s so cool. I’d love to have a crow,” he said. “Do you like mysteries?”
“Sure. Doesn’t everybody love a good mystery?”
“Oh, man, then you should definitely check out Samantha Weller. She writes the Detective Crowley series. It’s like…you never really know if Crowley is human or supernatural, but she has this pet crow who flies between this life and the afterlife to help her solve crimes.”
Samantha winked at her as they listened to the waiter. He couldn’t have been more than twenty. A college student, Liz guessed.
When the waiter cleared the table, Liz inclined her head toward Samantha and whispered, “Why didn’t you tell him you’re the author?”
“I don’t know…I’m shy that way.” Samantha shrugged. “But it certainly is nice to encounter a young person—anyone under the age of twenty-five, actually—who reads for pleasure.”
Liz nodded, regarding her thoughtfully before she spoke. “So…you live alone with that crow?” she asked, just as the waiter came back with Bertha’s bird bag and the check.
Samantha snatched the check as Liz reached for it and handed it back to the waiter with a credit card. “Just the two of us,” she answered.
“So Bertha isn’t just her fictional name?”
“Nope. She’s Bertha all the time—on and off the pages.”
“And she really eats this stuff?” Liz circled a finger at the bag of leftover seafood. Having read Samantha’s books and grown so familiar with Bertha’s fictional counterpart, she felt as though she knew the bird. “What’s it like living with a crow?”
“A challenge,” Samantha admitted. “She’s beyond inquisitive, hopelessly curious, constantly seeking stimulation.”
“Geez, Sam. That’s me to a T.”
“If she were a woman she’d have exhausted me by now.” Samantha laughed. “But she does retrieve my car keys when I can’t find them.”
“What…you mean she’s really psychic, like in your novels?”
“No, she’s a thief. She steals and hides them, then retrieves them when I lose patience. She likes to steal and hoard any shiny object she can carry.”
“Wow…just like a dragon,” Liz said.
“Yeah. In mythology dragons hoard treasures—like in Beowulfand The Lord of the Rings, remember?”
“Then I guess she is like a dragon…or a pirate, for that matter. Her favorite pastimes are hoarding, listening to music, and staring at candlelight.”
Liz raised her brow. “Quite the thieving hedonist, huh? Reminds me of the woman I was with last weekend.”
Samantha smiled. “You can’t trust her alone with a burning candle, though, because she becomes mesmerized and stands too close. An ornithologist over at the zoo told me crows have been known to carry burning material to empty nests, just to watch the flames…the same way people enjoy bonfires, I suppose.”
Elbows propped on the table, Liz folded her hands and rested her chin on them. “Bertha sounds like the sweetest little sociopath. I can see the headline now: mystery writer goes up in smoke: feathered pyromaniac held suspect in author’s death.”
Samantha laughed as she drank her cappuccino, and it suddenly occurred to Liz that Samantha herself exhibited all the behaviors she attributed to her crow. While Liz was closing the shop, Samantha had stood by the door, clearly captivated by the pink twinkling lights in the window. And when they’d reached the restaurant, Samantha had asked for a corner table by a potted arborvitae tree covered in tiny white lights. She’d even asked the waiter to light the candle on the table, even though it wasn’t yet dark.
Liz looked at Samantha’s upper lip, which was now replete with a cappuccino mustache. She thought to tell her to wipe her mouth, but then decided it looked cute for the moment and neglected to mention it. “Don’t you feel bad keeping a wild bird caged?” she said instead.
“I don’t. She’s outside all day long—that’s why I have to get home. Around dusk she looks to come in. She even knows the sound of my car, and unless it’s dark she sometimes waits up the block and flies home alongside me.”
“Yep. And I really shouldn’t call her a thief, because half the time she actually brings me gifts.”
“Shiny things she finds in the street—bottle tops, buttons, pieces of metal, broken glass. I know it’s stupid, but those gifts mean the world to me. I have a jar full.” Samantha smiled. “It may not be as pretty as beach glass, but it’s an interesting collection.”
“That’s incredible. I’d say a complex thought process is at work, not to mention the feelings of affection involved in gift-giving.”
Samantha nodded like a proud parent. “Anyway, when she comes inside she has a few parrot-size perches scattered throughout the house. If she’s not on a perch, she’s usually walking around following me.”
“What does she do all day outdoors? Fly with a flock of other crows?”
“That would be a murderof crows, not a flock. And I don’t know. I can’t very well spy on her without wings. I thought she’d grow up and leave me for a crow, but we don’t have any in the area. People tell me the West Nile virus wiped them all out there.”
“Why don’t you just clip her wings? Wouldn’t that be safer than having her outdoors?”
“It supposedly changes their personalities—makes them nervous and nasty.”
“Nervous and nasty…sounds like another one of my recent dates.”
“Geez.” Samantha frowned. “It doesn’t sound like you’re too good at picking women. Maybe you should get a bird instead.”
Liz pondered the idea. Maybe she would do well to give up on the prospect of a long-term relationship and get a pet bird instead. Maybe a lovebird. A lone, unpaired lovebird, sort of like Samantha’s bookend. Then she and her lonely, lovesick lovebird could pine over their shared state of lovelessness. Of course, Samantha and herbird could always visit, and the four of them could pine together.
Liz leaned back in her seat as the waiter returned with Samantha’s credit card.
“Oh, man,” the waiter said. “This is embarrassing…you’reSamantha Weller? TheMs. Weller?”
Liz tapped Samantha’s arm. “Wipe your mouth,” she said in a low voice.
“Froth.” She pointed to her own upper lip.
Samantha quickly patted her mouth with her napkin and turned back to the waiter. “Ah, you caught my name on the card. Good detective work. I will confess, I am her.”
“I’m sorry for not recognizing you, Ms. Weller. I—”
“Don’t be. No one recognizes writers. We work behind the scenes. But thanks for plugging my books to your customers.”
“Yeah, but still…you always have a picture on your jacket covers. Is the bird bag really for Bertha, the psychic crow?”
“It is. And I’m sure she’d want me to extend her thanks.”
“Awesome. Um…could I ask you for an autograph?” He offered a pen and paper.
Samantha took the pen but refused the pad. “I have something better,” she said, reaching into her messenger bag and pulling out a black-and-white glossy of Bertha and herself. “I happen to have a few copies of the photo that will appear on the jacket of my new book.”
Liz reached across the table. “Oh, Sam, what a wonderfulpicture.” In it, Samantha wore a black turtleneck and a houndstooth jacket. Bertha sat perched on her forearm. “Can I have an autographed one, too—to hang in the shop?”
“Sure.” Samantha asked the waiter, “What’s your name?”
“Charlie. Could you make it out to Charlie and the Count? Count’s my black cat.”
To Charlie and the Count, Samantha wrote. May you never solve the mystery!She signed it, Sam Weller and Bertha the crow.
Charlie read the inscription. “That’s so cool…never solve the mystery…that’s deep. Thanks very much, Ms. Weller.”
Liz looked between them, puzzled as she tried to figure out what was so “deep” about Samantha’s inscription. She forced an understanding smile, feigning comprehension until Charlie the waiter left and they were alone again.
“I don’t get it,” she said flatly. “What does that mean? Why would you never want to solve a mystery?”
“Because once you solve a mystery, the mystery’s gone.”
“So the fun of a mystery is that it isa mystery.”
“You solve them in your books…”
“And see what happens? I have to create another mystery, because it’s the intrigue of the mystery that attracts us. Of course, what I wrote to Charlie refers to the cosmic enigma—you know, life’s bigger mystery.”
“Hmm.” Liz nodded in consideration of the idea. “I think I get it. I could use the same argument for why affairs are preferable to relationships.”
“Oh, I have to hear this,” Samantha said, sitting back with her arms folded. “Go ahead.”
“Well, it’s like you say, Sam.” She paused to finish her cappuccino. “A new lover, an unknown woman, is a mystery. You have to admit there’s nothing like the physical rush of being naked with someone for the first time. But in time—usually between twenty-four and seventy-two hours, in my case—the novelty wears off, the unfamiliar becomes familiar, the mystery unravels, and then,” she threw her hands up, “I have to find another. So solving a mystery is like squelching desire. Once you squelch it, it’s no longer desire.”
“Agreed.” Samantha smiled. “But in real relationships, that intensity of desire you’re talking about just isn’t sustainable. Compatibility, comfort, and contentment figure into the equation…and they can be just as nice, you know?”
“No, Sam. I don’t.”
“You’re still young.” Samantha picked up her cup and drained it. “When the right one comes along, you’ll understand that a healthy, long-term relationship can hope for a ratio of maybe seventy percent to thirty percent.”
“What, thirty percent contentment and seventy percent desire?”
“No. The other way around. If desire held at seventy percent, we’d all end up consumed by lust, staying home from work to have sex and losing our jobs. Long-term, that level of constant desire would distract us from accomplishing other goals.” Samantha studied her. “Where do you meet all these crazy women anyway, online?”
“Never online. I’m a very physical person, Sam. I need an immediate visual. I like to watch, interact, mingle—in real time, not through social media.” She shrugged. “I hang out here in the West Village…the Cubbyhole, Henrietta Hudson. And then there are always private parties, women I meet through business…and during the summer there’s Cherry Grove and the Pines on Fire Island.”
“Hmm. I haven’t been to the Grove in a few years. Maybe I’ll pull myself away from the computer and tag along this summer.”
“You should. I’d love to spend more time with you.”
Samantha checked her watch. “Right now, I should be catching the Metro-North,” she said. “I didn’t leave the porch light on, and Bertha gets spooked sitting alone in the dark.”
“You mean Detective Crowley’s psychic crow is afraidof the dark? I’m shocked.”
Samantha held a finger to her lips. “Shh. Please don’t tell her fans. It’ll ruin her public image, you understand.”
“My lips—I mean, my beak—is sealed.”
It was seven thirty when Samantha stepped off the curb to hail a taxi. And when one pulled up, she opened the door for Liz. “Get in,” she demanded with a crooked smile. “I always see my dates home.”
“It’s out of your way, Sam. I’m on the East Side.”
“Hop in. I’m on my way to Grand Central Station.”
“Thanks,” she said and got in. “You’re very accommodating, very generous, too.”
“Yeah, well, I’m trying to do everything right so you don’t bad-mouth me like you do your other dates.” Samantha grinned.
They traveled uptown together, and when they reached Liz’s building, Samantha got out to say good-bye. “Would you go with me?” she asked.
“To marrymy bookend—providing Ms. Laraway can find me a mate.”
“Of course I would. I’d be happy to, Sam. You know that. Just give me a day’s notice.”
“Thanks.” Samantha kissed her cheek. “Thank you for everything.”
“Thank you, my dearest out-law.” She opened her arms, inviting Samantha in for a tight hug. “And don’t worry about me bad-mouthing you,” Liz whispered against her ear. “This grab-a-bite thing was the most stimulating date I’ve been on in a while.”
“I could say the same.”
“And I’m so happy you went to that estate sale and bought that bookend. If you hadn’t, it might have taken another family disaster—namely, the inevitable birth of theirfirstborn, our niece or nephew—before we found out how well we’d get along.”
“I believe fate is at play here, Ms. Bowes.”
“I couldn’t agree more, Ms. Weller. Something tells me it’s part of that bigger mysteryof yours.”