“Not just any pig in a poke, the pig in a poke. The Unruh Pig.” Her boss, Benjamin Porter, couldn’t have been any more condescending if she’d asked “Which Liberty Bell?” Of course, Del was used to his attitude. As creator of Porter Auctions, the premier auction house of the Midwest, Porter tended to address her with a certain level of disdain on a regular basis.
She was used to it, but she didn’t like it.
“Ah, the Unruh Pig.” Del searched her memory for mention of any swine in Unruh’s history. The pottery company, though legendary, had enjoyed a brief existence in the early 1900s. They were best known for their founder’s eccentric free-form designs—never had she heard of anything resembling a pig.
“That was before the second fire, wasn’t it?” A safe question, since everything of any value was created before the second rebuilding of the factory.
“So, you have heard of it?” Porter beamed at her. “I was certain if anyone knew the history, it would be you.”
Lucky her. Rolling her pearls between the pads of her index finger and thumb, she asked, “Who did you say tipped you off the Pig was back in circulation?”
Porter leaned against the worn leather of the one side chair allotted to her office and watched her over the top of his tortoise-shell glasses. “I didn’t.”
Ass. “Fair enough.” She pulled a spiral notebook that served as her Day Timer from her lap drawer. “So you want me to authenticate the piece before we accept it?”
“Yes.” Porter adjusted his skinny butt, like he couldn’t get comfortable in the hand-me-down seating. Del hoped both of his cheeks went numb.
Expecting more information, she waited, pen poised over paper. Nothing came.
Okay, try another tactic. “Is this to be an open auction or are we just acquiring it for a ‘special’ client?”
Apparently more comfortable with this topic, Porter replied, “An open auction. The tip was a personal favor to me, a repayment of sorts.”
Del gave him time to continue.
He didn’t. Fine, she wasn’t in the “need to know” club. Hell, she got kicked out of Brownies; she couldn’t expect more from Pompous Porter. He had to give her something though.
“Did this person mention where the Pig is now?” He had to answer that—unless the thing was supposed to materialize at midnight under the light of a gibbous moon, or some other such nonsense. She tapped her pen against her desk calendar.
Porter took a moment to check his cell phone for text messages. Looking up, he seemed surprised to see her. “You were saying?”
That you are a complete moron, with a dick the size of a toothpick. She smiled. “Just wondering where the Pig is now. Did this person give you an address or just a contact name and number?”
“Neither, actually.” He flipped his phone shut. “Just somewhere in southern Missouri.”
Somewhere in southern Missouri? Del kept her face purposely blank. “Really. Do you have a starting point?”
“Allen County, that’s where the rumors started. So, that’s where we’ll start. Well, you, anyway. You can leave tonight.”
Leave tonight? For southern Missouri? Del pasted a cooperative look on her face. “Are you sure I’m the right person for this? David has a lot more experience in acquisitions than I do, and this could be a big one. I don’t want to step on any toes.” Or have my toes caught and hauled off.
Porter stood. “Stomp on toes if you have to, but get the Pig. We have an Unruh collection slated for sale in one month. I want the piece by then.”
“Will do as I tell him. He’d be as out of place in southern Missouri as a Loetz vase at a Five and Dime. You’ll blend right in.”
Gee, thanks. Del’s smile was getting a little tired. Porter didn’t seem to notice. He headed for the door.
“Wait, do you have any more information other than just Allen County?” Was the frustration beginning to edge into her voice? “I mean, that could be a big area.”
He halted. “Not so big, the place is a speck of dirt on the map—maybe five thousand people in the entire county. Good news for us.”
“Good news?” Del didn’t see how leaving the conveniences of Chicago for a half-a-horse town in southern Missouri could possibly be good news.
Porter slipped her a self-satisfied smile. “Certainly, think about it. Even if the Pig turns up, who there would have the sense to know what it is?”
Sam Samson gripped the head of his mallet and surveyed the crowd from atop a flatbed trailer. All the usuals were here: the rusty-junk crowd, the pretty-glass set, and even the I-can-make-a-buck-on-anything throng. Yep, the players were here, but their dollars weren’t on the board.
He motioned for Kenny, who was sitting at the wheel of Sam’s dually, to pull forward another five yards. His friend complied, towing the trailer over the rutted ground until Sam was even with a stack of discarded auto parts and old farm tools.
Sam studied the bidders digging through dirty boxes and dingy bedclothes. He spied a likely target.
“Earl, you got your number ready?” Sam called over the bullhorn.
A man in worn overalls and a greasy feed hat waved a white card with a black 87 on it.
Sam lowered the horn. “Where’s Gail?” he called to Earl. The older man was almost always good for upping bids on auto parts. Sam had no idea what Earl did with the dirty crap he hauled home after a sale, but he did know he’d get a lot more action out of Earl if his wife wasn’t around to smack down his bidding arm.
“She’s in the house looking at fancy glass,” Sam’s pigeon yelled back.
“Lot of nice stuff in there,” Sam replied, then searched the trailers for his assistant. Spotting Charlie, he motioned her over.
With his voice low and his gaze on Earl, he said, “Why don’t you go in and help the ladies out? Get them started on the small stuff and I’ll be in just as soon as we’re done with this lot. But whatever you do, keep Gail inside.” Sam nodded toward Earl.
“Will do, boss.” Charlie all but clicked her heels together in a sign of false subservience. Grinning, she whipped her ponytail around and jogged toward the white clapboard house. Sam dragged his hand over his face. She might be cocky, but she’d do her job; now he just had to do his.
Thirty minutes later, Sam had unloaded two tons of spare parts not worth the gas it would cost to haul them to the dump and had made a thousand dollars in the process. Well, not a thousand to him; his cut would be more like three hundred, then he’d have to pay Charlie and the kids who helped out, sorting merchandise before the sale and holding up boxes during. Hell, when you thought about it, Sam probably lost money wheedling and cajoling every penny out of today’s tight-fisted crowd.
He needed a break. He was never going to get the money to set up a second office in Springfield at the rate he was going. One good break, that was all he was asking. Something simple like Jesse James’ gun belt or a previously unknown novel by Mark Twain, anything really. Just something worth some decent cash and with enough mystique to guarantee him lots of bidders and plenty of press. Yep, that was all he needed.
He hopped off the trailer and trotted toward the house. His pointy-toed cowboy boots hit the kitchen’s worn linoleum just in time to hear Charlie call a set of Pyrex bowls sold for one dollar.
Yep, he needed a break. Fast.
Del backed her Insight into the tiny space in front of a diner creatively named the Bunny Hutch. She’d bought the car the same weekend Porter had presented her with her pearls. Naively, she’d been under the impression that along with the pearls came a raise in salary, but no, she still had to prove herself for that. In the meantime she was saddled with car payments she couldn’t afford while she continued to fling herself into work and toward the as-yet-invisible brass ring. This search for the Unruh Pig was, she hoped, the boost she needed.
Porter had been no help whatsoever, not even a vague suggestion on where to start her search. Somewhere in Allen County—maybe. Talk about a needle in a haystack, and only a month to find it. Boss or not, the man was insane.
The thing probably didn’t even exist. If she’d ever heard a tale, and she’d heard plenty, the Unruh Pig had all the markings.
She slammed her car door and went to feed the meter. Illinois plates, small Missouri town, the meter maid was probably salivating already.
It was early, not quite eleven. The lunch crowd hadn’t arrived and the breakfast crowd was gone. That left the regulars—old men who did nothing all day but sit at a Formica-topped table and drink coffee, when there wasn’t a sale within a sixty-mile radius, that was. If anyone could point her in the direction of the Pig, she’d find him here.
She loosened the collar of her silk blouse and slapped a smile on her face.
“What can I getcha?” The waitress had a coffee stain the size of a saucer on her white apron and circles the size of Utah under her eyes. Her name tag read “Becca.”
“Hard day?” Del slid onto a stool at the counter. The seventy-something man sitting near her pushed back his feed cap and nodded. Not one to waste an opportunity, Del flashed him her brightest Crest Whitestrips smile.
“Nothing out of the ordinary.” Becca rested her elbow on the counter-top. “You want coffee?”
Del returned her attention to the woman. She couldn’t be more than twenty-five, but Del knew too well problems didn’t come just with age.
“Decaf, if it’s fresh, and a doughnut.” Del pointed to the glass display case that housed stacks of pastries in various degrees of wholesomeness.
“How about a tractor tire? They’re the freshest.” The waitress filled Del’s cup and at Del’s nod, retrieved a three-inch high doughnut.
Del added cream to her coffee, picked up the dessert and dunked as much as would fit into the hot liquid. For a few minutes she forgot her mission, the waitress’ sad eyes, and her own problems. She hadn’t had a fresh doughnut like this since, well it seemed like forever, definitely a life-time ago.
“Where you from?” The spark of interest brought Becca to life, telling Del maybe this one could still be saved, not that Del was in the saving business. She had her own hide to look out for.
“Not from around here, I’m guessing.” Becca nodded to Del’s silk shirt and A-line skirt. Del couldn’t say why she’d donned her normal work apparel today. For some reason the business attire made her feel safe, distanced a bit, and she wanted to prove Porter wrong. She didn’t blend in southern Missouri anymore than David would have.
Glancing at the other woman’s stained apron, she realized she’d made a mistake. She wasn’t here to prove anything, even to herself. She was here to find the Pig and get back to Chicago—period. To do that she was going to have to build trust fast; looking like a foreigner wasn’t going to help any.
“Not too far from here, just haven’t been home in a while.” Del purposely let the accent she had spent the past seven years stamping out of her voice seep back in. It was easy, too easy.
The waitress’ smile warmed another degree or two. “You want another doughnut? How about a bear claw?”
Feeling smaller than a two dollar bid, Del swallowed her last bite. “No thanks.”
Becca grabbed the aluminum-bottomed coffee pot. After refilling Del’s cup, she wandered over to a couple who had just come in.
Del refocused on her purpose. No time for morals, she had a room to work.
Again realizing she was sliding into old habits, Del winced, but shook it off. There was no help for it. As Daddy always said, do unto others before somebody bigger comes along and kicks you in the butt. And she had no desire to be pulling Porter’s Italian loafer out of her behind.
Her friend in the feed hat picked up a newspaper someone had left on the counter. He snapped it open and turned to the classifieds.
“Any good sales coming up?” Del turned on the swivel stool until she faced him.
“Missed a good ‘un this Saturday, Delbert Perkins’ place. His kin shipped ‘im off to the home. Can’t likely picture ole Delbert sitting in a rocker, sipping apple juice, and pissing in a diaper.” Her friend clicked his false teeth. “Them young’uns of his didn’t hardly wait till his bag was out the door before they called in Sam and his outfit. Sold everything, even the family Bible.” He adjusted his dentures with his tongue. “Now what kind of folks got that little respect for family, you tell me that.”
Del made sympathetic noises in the back of her throat.
“I tell you what, anymores people think they can make two bits on somethin’ and they get down right stupid.” He took a loud slurp from his cup.
Shaking her head, Del added more cream to her cup. She could use a little stupid to good advantage right about now. “You get anything good?”
He grinned. “Lever action .22, Delbert was always right proud of that gun.” Slapping his hand on the counter, he laughed. “I picked it up for only sixty dollars. Sam was madder than a tomcat with his tail caught in the garden gate.”
Del smiled in appreciation. “Sounds like a good one. Was there not much turnout or just lazy bidders?”
“A bit of both, the regulars was all there, but they were keeping their hands in their pockets. Just the way I like it.” He winked. “And there weren’t no turnout from Springfield either. Sometimes them dealers come over and you can’t get a decent buy to save your granny’s knickers.”
“So this Sam, he any good?” A big-mouthed small town auctioneer was just the kind of tour guide Del could use to her best advantage.
“Good enough. He’s about the only game in town, ‘bout run everbody else out. He knows how to work a crowd, gets people bidding so fast they lose track of what they’re buying and for how much. Nobody seems to mind much though, can’t stay mad at Sam, especially the ladies.” He threw her another wink. “You looking to go to a sale?”
Del picked up her cup. This Sam sounded perfect, a blow-hard who imagined himself a charmer—an easy mark in Del’s experience. “I might. Looks like I’m going to be here awhile.”
“You a dealer?” Becca had wandered up with the empty coffee pot. She slipped behind the counter and grabbed another pot.
“Not exactly. I’m more looking to add to a collection.” The Unruh collection for Porter to sell, but there was no need to explain that.
“Well, if you’re looking for something special you should see Sam. There’s not a washboard in this county he doesn’t know about. He scopes out his customers long before they’re rolled feet first into Tyler’s.” Becca picked up a menu and wiped it with a wet cloth. “You want something else? It’s getting close to noon. The lunch crowd’ll be in soon.”
Del glanced at the menu. One lonely little doughnut wasn’t going to hold her any time at all. “How about chicken fried steak and mashed potatoes with gravy?” Del wouldn’t be here long, she could afford a few extra calories.
While Becca scribbled her order on a pad, Del assessed her situation. She had one lead, this Sam. He sounded exactly the type she didn’t want to deal with, but if you had to work a con, it was always better to target what you understood and Del understood shysters.
“So you think this Sam could help me out?” She tapped her fifty dollar manicure, a required expense in Porter’s world, on the cup.
Becca raised one brow and looked Del up and down, pausing briefly on the pearl buttons of her shirt. “Oh honey, he’ll help you out. The only question is, out of what?”
Del smiled. She knew his type all right.
“By the way, I’m Becca.” The waitress pointed to her name badge. “I don’t think I caught your name.”
“Del, just call me Del.”
“So what do you collect, Del?”
Glancing from Becca’s stained apron up to her face, Del replied, “Pigs. I collect pigs.”
Sam slung a bag of Hog Chow over his shoulder and slapped it onto the flatbed cart. Hog Chow. Seemed like the animals in this county ate better than the people. Of course, eventually most of the animals got eaten by the people so maybe it evened out.
He tipped his cowboy hat at the dirty-footed, six-year-old girl who stood next to her father while he waited for their order to be rung up.
Tugging on her pigtail, he asked, “You taking care of them hogs for your daddy, Jenny?”
Twisting her neck to look up at him, she replied, “I can’t. Eloise, she’s fixin’ to have babies. Mommy says she’s feeling awful mean right now.”
“Eloise?” Sam had known more than one woman who got a mite mean at about eight months along, but he’d never heard anybody say it out loud.
Jenny nodded. “Yep, she just lays outside her house in the mud and grunts at me.” She leaned toward him and whispered. “If you look real close you can see the babies moving inside her.” The girl seemed both fascinated and disgusted by the revelation. Sam understood the feeling.
“Eloise a sow?” he asked.
“Course.” The look Jenny tossed him said he was four eggs shy a dozen.
To be six again and so sure of your world.
“Daddy’s expecting them piglets to come out any day now. I can’t wait. They’re Hampshires you know.”
At this proud declaration, Jenny’s father gave her a good-natured smack on the behind. “C’mon girl, we need to get home and give Eloise a good spray with the hose. It’s getting hot.” He nodded at Sam and rolled his cart toward the parking lot.
Kenny nodded toward another cart loaded with dog food. “You mind rolling that out to the lot? Someone from the shelter’s gonna stop by in a bit.”
Free office space in the back of his friend’s feed store meant a few unglamorous jobs now and again, but in addition to providing the free room, Kenny frequently helped Sam at the auctions, like he had on Saturday.
“Sure thing, boss.” Imitating the tone Charlie’d used on him at the auction, Sam pulled his hat lower on his brow and sauntered over to the cart.
Outside the sun was bright and the air was crisp. Perfect day for an auction—too bad he didn’t have another one scheduled for weeks. Sam let the cart roll down the cement ramp, holding the handle just tight enough to keep it from racing down and smacking into a blue Honda parked six feet from the door.
Wait a minute, what did we have here?
Peeking at Sam from behind the windshield of the car was about the finest-looking rear end he’d seen in…well, way too long. Covered in gray cloth the butt in question wiggled and bobbed as its owner searched for something in the backseat.
Not wanting to get caught ogling a backside, Sam deserted the dog food. Whistling the theme from Green Acres, he hazarded one last glance and ambled back up the ramp.
Where were they? Wedged in between her bucket seats, Del struggled with her luggage. Somewhere in this mess she had a new pair of high-heeled sandals—strappy, completely impractical, and treacherously sexy.
Just the ticket for dealing with a womanizing shyster of an auctioneer, which is exactly how she had Sam Samson pegged. She knew his type, constantly hiking up his pants over a gut made bigger by the six-pack, winking and chuckling when he wasn’t slapping backs (men) and butts (women). Yeah, she knew his type and his type called for man-eating shoes. The fat old codger wouldn’t know what hit him.
Her fingers closed around white leather and beads. Bingo. Slipping back into her seat, she peered around. No one in sight. She hiked up her skirt and peeled off her pantyhose. This called for a bare-legged attack, a lot less ladylike and a lot more possibilities, at least in dirty old men’s minds.
After tossing her jacket into the back, she undid three more buttons on her blouse and smoothed the material open until the hint of cleavage became reality. Perfect. After wiggling her toes into the shoes, she undid the snaps that concealed the slit in her skirt, swung her legs out onto the gravel lot and headed to battle.
At the entrance to the feed store she hesitated. Was Samson’s office really here surrounded by goat chow and kibble? Sure enough, a letter-sized sign declared “Samson Auctions, in the back.” She stepped inside.
The place was dark after the glaring sun of the parking lot and it smelled of milled corn and animal by-products. The combination sent her whirling back in time to when she was maybe seven and waited for her daddy in a store just like this.
She’d perch herself near the door and wait while her daddy did whatever he did to con a few bags of dog food out of the owner. Daddy had a weakness for dogs, but there was never enough food to spare, not even scraps. When things got real lean, they’d head to town and after an hour or so he’d reappear grinning and laughing and towing a bag of kibble after him. There were days the dogs ate better than she did.
She shook her head to dislodge the memories. That was then. Now she could at least afford to eat, if not a lot more, as long as she kept her job.
To do that she needed to find the Pig.
First step that direction, Samson. Spying a blond surfer type in a cowboy hat behind the counter, she put a swish in her hips and sauntered over.
The bodacious butt had made its way inside. Leaning on an old iron and wood scale, Sam took his time admiring the view. She was cast in silhouette by the bright sunlight outside, and every delectable inch of curve was revealed. Based on her outfit, he was guessing she wasn’t here to load up on hog chow. No, she was looking for something, and if it wasn’t feed, it was probably him.
He stepped back into his office and slid behind his desk. Let her come to him. Pulling out a folder, he slapped it open and strived to look busy.
It was less than two minutes before he heard the clod of Kenny’s boots followed by the tap tap of high heels.
“Sam, there’s a lady here to see you.” Kenny shot him a sullen look. The man needed to get over his Charlie-induced heart-ache so he could enjoy a few of life’s simple pleasures—like Sam’s visitor. Pushing his friends’ problems from his mind, Sam gave her a quick glance.
A lady? He hoped not. That would be an awful waste.
Keeping his thoughts to himself, he lowered his pen and motioned her inside.
Blond hair, eyes the color of sweet tea, and breasts that peeped out of her shirt like they couldn’t stand the containment and were aching to break free. Or maybe it was Sam aching for them to break free.
She cleared her throat. Oh, yeah, not proper to stare, he reminded himself.
“I’m sorry. Did we have an appointment?” Sam pulled open his desk drawer and dropped the folder inside.
“No.” She hesitated a moment as if weighing her words. “Do I need one?” Her hand drifted to the swell of her breasts. Sam swallowed—hard.
“Well, it’s usual, but since you caught me here, why don’t you sit down and tell me what I can do for you.”
Or to you.
With a smile she slid into the scarred wooden chair. She crossed her legs and let her foot bounce ever so slightly up and down. Her shoe, an impossible creation of twisted leather and beads, edged down her foot. She arched her foot and caught it, letting it dangle provocatively from her toes.
Those were not the shoes of a lady. No, those were shoes meant to be worn with red nail polish and nothing else, well maybe the pearl necklace that hugged her throat. An image of her lounged in his chair wearing nothing but nail polish, pearls and those do-me-now shoes slammed into him.
Damn, wasn’t imagining the competition naked supposed to help negotiations? No, it was in underwear. Lacy push-up bra, thong, and a garter-belt.
Not helping. Sam shifted in his seat. How about boxer shorts and a thin tank? His groin throbbed with enthusiasm. Definitely not helping. Maybe without the tank…
“Hmm?” He returned to reality.
Her sweet-tea eyes weren’t looking too sweet right then. “Sorry, I’ve got a lot on my mind,” he said.
“I can imagine.” She drawled the words out like what she imagined was less than complimentary, but then smiled and leaned forward slightly, allowing another half inch of breast to peek out of her shirt.
“What can I do for you?” he repeated. Determined to maintain the upper hand, he concentrated on the light freckles sprinkled across her nose.
“Nothing too exciting I’m afraid. I stopped in at that little coffee shop downtown—you know the one with the cute crocheted bunnies in the window?”
Like there were a half dozen coffee shops in this town. Besides, of course he knew it; his cousin owned it. “I think I know the one you’re referring to.”
Her nose twitched, just like Samantha’s on Bewitched. “Well, while I was there, I just happened to mention that I’m a collector and some folks there said I had to come see you, that you’d know just where I could find some nice buys.”
Some folks, huh? What was Becca up to now? “That right? What is it you collect?”
His guest fluttered her hand in front of her face. “Is it hot in here?”
The movement broke Sam’s concentration. His gaze drifted south of her nose. Lips, stop on the lips—full, with a perfect little bow at the top.
She puckered them, then fanned her shirt against her breasts. “Do you think I could get something to drink?”
His gaze locked onto the flapping material.
“Excuse me, do you think I could get something to drink?”
Startled, he grabbed some quarters from his lap drawer. “Sure, how ‘bout a Coke?”
“Diet, please.” Another nose twitch.
He wandered to the back, waving off a surly Kenny. After feeding the Coke machine, he returned with two ice-cold cans in his hands. He rolled one across his forehead before stepping back into the office.
His guest had moved. Now perched on the end of his desk, she looked flushed and a few strands of blond hair had fallen out of the silver clasp at the base of her head.
What was she up to? Sam glanced around the office, but nothing seemed out of place. Handing her the Diet Coke, he walked back to his chair.
“What did you say you collected?” he asked.
She tapped the top of the can with a perfectly manicured nail. Watching him, she replied, “Pigs, I collect pigs.”
Her eyes were alert, like she expected a response from him. “That’s a pretty broad field, isn’t it? Any certain kind of pig: cartoon like Porky and Petunia, or one to store your pennies, or maybe pigs on velvet?”
She hopped off his desk and dropped into a chair. “I take my collection very seriously.”
Guess she didn’t want any Elvis Porklies. “I’m sure you do.”
“I collect all kinds, but since you ask, I do have a few holes in my collection—specifically pottery.”
“That’s right.” The alertness was back in her eyes.
There was something going on with this woman, and her story was less believable than a politician’s promise. “I don’t think I caught your name.”
“Del, Del Montgomery.”
“You from around here?” He asked just to hear her answer. Everything about her screamed city, but still there was a hint of country that popped up every so often too. The lilt of her voice and the way she didn’t even question his choice of office space. Most city folks, especially ones dressed like her, wouldn’t seem quite so comfortable wedged between sacks of chicken feed and a salt lick.
He really needed to make Kenny haul that crap out of here.
“Of course, you’re Sam Samson, auctioneer extraordinaire.”
Sam’s eyes narrowed as he waited for a sarcastic follow-up, but she just sipped from the Diet Coke can, then smiled.
“So, do you have any ideas of where I might find something for my collection?” she asked.
“I might.” He didn’t have anything to do, and this little number was just the ticket to get him out of his slump. “Why don’t you let me make a few calls and I’ll get back to you. My normal fee is 30%, but on a job like this I’d need to set a minimum, say a thousand?”
Her eyes flickered, and her fingers pinched the pearls at her throat, rolling them slightly, but she replied, “That sounds more than fair. I’ll be staying at that little motel, The Ranch I think it is. You can reach me there.”
It wasn’t until she had sashayed out that he realized she never told him where she was from. He picked up her deserted Coke can—still full. Origins weren’t the only mystery surrounding his bodacious visitor.
Yep, she had a lot of layers, each one of them tantalizing. He couldn’t wait to roll up his sleeves and start peeling.