Jane Austen's Lost Letters

A Josie Prescott Antiques Mystery

Jane K. Cleland

Jane Austen's Lost Letters


The operator assigned to camera one rolled the dolly toward me, framing the shot. I smiled at the lens as if it were a friend, the way Timothy, my TV show’s producer and director, taught me.

“Welcome to Josie’s Antiques!” I said.

Timothy had assured me that on camera I didn’t sound all gooey and mawkish, as I’d feared. My cheeks had reddened with embarrassment when he’d raved that the camera loved me.

“In this segment,” I continued, “we’re going to appraise what might just be a first edition of one of the best-loved children’s books ever published, Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Peter Rabbit. I’m thrilled that two world-renowned document appraisers are here in our beautiful New Hampshire studio for a battle of the experts.”

I took five steps to the right, stopped on the small masking tape X on the floor, my mark, and turned slowly to face camera four. I now stood in front of a room-sized, tempered glass arched window that provided an unobstructed view of Greely Woods, the ancient hardwood forest that separated Prescott’s Antiques and Auctions headquarters from Highbridge, a newish residential development a quarter mile away to the north. The window offered us the opportunity to show off New Hampshire’s spectacular scenery—the pristine snow in winter, the redbuds in spring, the verdant growth in summer, and the gaudy leaves in fall. Right now, we were at the peak of the autumn foliage season, early October, and the forest was ablaze with the colors of fire.

“I’ll introduce you to both experts,” I continued, “then we’ll discuss their appraisals, with an eye to identifying and sorting through any differences.”

I leaned in toward the camera, and lowered my voice, delivering my last line as a gossipy aside. “Doesn’t that sound fun?”

I turned toward Oliver Crenshaw, one of the experts, who was sitting in an old-style red leather wing chair, one of three arranged to form a cozy conversational grouping. The middle one, facing the window, was mine. I walked to join him, the camera following me.

Oliver, who was in his midthirties, looked like a tweedy professor with his head in the clouds, but was actually the third-generation owner of Portsmouth-based Crenshaw’s Rare Books, Prints and Autographs. After his dad died and he took over the business, he got himself certified as a forensic document examiner and approved by half a dozen courts as an expert witness, with an emphasis on materials published or produced from the late eighteenth through the early twentieth centuries, an impressive accomplishment at a relatively young age.

Oliver was also a buddy, an industry pro I’d known for as long as I’d been in New Hampshire, from when he’d manned the cash register for his dad during college. He was popular with the ladies, too. I ran into him at half a dozen benefit galas a year, and he always brought a date, never the same woman twice. He was tall and fit, with short brown hair and regular features. He wore a brick-red collared shirt and Dockers.

Because the TV studio was small, each expert was allowed only one guest. Oliver had brought his mom, Rory, which charmed me no end. Rory was around fifty-five, maybe a little older, tall, and sinewy, like an athlete. She wore a tan-and-navy “Crenshaw’s Rare Books, Prints and Autographs” baseball cap.

About a year earlier, I had taken a flyer and asked Timothy whether we could do more filming at my company’s headquarters in Rocky Point, New Hampshire. We’d always shot a fair number of segments in my company’s massive warehouse using our fully equipped workstations, but I figured that if Timothy was okay with the idea, I’d build a mini-studio where we could film entire episodes on site, sparing me weeks away from home. Timothy thought it was a great idea, and sold the concept to the network—not such an easy task since they’d have to cover the crew’s travel expenses.

Timothy, who knew the ins and outs of TV production, oversaw the entire process. Construction began within a month, and we were up and running six months later. The studio was housed in an addition that abutted the auction gallery, the luxury venue where we held our monthly antiques auctions. The wall separating the two spaces folded like an accordion allowing us to live stream our auctions. The studio contained a state-of-the-art soundstage; storage rooms and cabinets galore; a crew wing, complete with a small gym; a guest area, including dressing rooms with full bathrooms and a green room; an office suite for Timothy; and a dressing room suite for me. We’d also had brackets installed on the outside wall, so we could attach a big tent for team meetings and meals. The tent was fancy, with clear plastic windows that could be rolled up to allow summer breezes to waft through. When it was cold, we brought in free-standing heaters.

“I hadn’t expected it to be so posh,” I’d whispered to Timothy during our initial tour. “You worked wonders with the budget.”

“Don’t tell the network . . . I might have given them the impression we were roughing it up here in the boonies.”

With the cameras rolling, I took my seat next to Oliver. “Hello, Oliver! I’m delighted you could join us for today’s battle of the experts. Tell me about the appraisal process you used.”

The team would insert a photo of the book cover to run alongside our conversation in a split screen view. They’d already taken what Timothy called the beauty shots, a series of photos designed to showcase an antique’s attributes, from sheen to shine and from scratches to scruff marks.

Oliver, a polished performer, kept smiling, which isn’t as easy as you might think, especially if you’re expected to talk at the same time. “Thanks, Josie. It’s a pleasure to be here. Time is more valuable to me than money, so many years ago I developed a four-step procedure for appraising antiques, including rare books, prints, and documents. I first consider known anomalies, such as typos or copyright peccadillos. Second, I look at the tangible elements, the paper and ink, for example. Third, I assess the content itself to determine if it’s complete, correct, and appropriate. Finally, I trace provenance.”

“Thank you, Oliver.” During my conversations with people, I didn’t need to think about camera placement. Camera three was aimed at my face all the time, so I simply had to look up to be on camera, and the only time I did so was if I wanted to make a specific point to the viewers. I did so now. “Provenance refers to clear title—tracing ownership from creation, production, or manufacture to the current day. Now let’s meet our second expert, Dr. Gloria Moreau.”

Gloria Moreau, a former supermodel, was a tenured professor of archival studies at Hitchens University in nearby Durham. Gloria had quit modeling when she was thirty, and now, fifteen years later, she was still drop-dead gorgeous, but I had the sense that she couldn’t care less about her appearance. Her ash-blond hair was streaked with gray and cut in a short wash-and-wear bob. She wore black slacks, a sky-blue tunic, and a blue-and-ivory silk scarf— professional garb, but not stylish. She allowed the hair and makeup team to do their thing, but barely glanced in the mirror as they worked.

Gloria was one of the world’s leading experts on signature authentication, having made her mark while still in grad school by validating a previously unknown letter from Thomas Jefferson to French geologist and explorer, Barthélemy Faujas de Saint-Fond, in which the president shared an update on the Lewis and Clark expedition, and proving another was a fake. Gloria had found the letters misfiled in a university library while working on her dissertation. Using her findings as exemplars, she’d developed a unique method of verification related to pressure points—a reliable way to identify not only the forgery, but the forger, something I hoped to learn more about during my interview. While the Jefferson letter forger was never publicly identified because of some kind of plea agreement, Gloria’s protocol became the gold standard in signature authentication. Overnight, she became a cause célèbre in the rarefied antiques world.

Gloria’s guest was Ivan Filbert, her graduate assistant. Ivan was about Oliver’s age, midthirties, and thin, with brown hair swept back and long sideburns. He was curiously quiet, which was hard to interpret. Possibly, he was simply reserved and self-contained; or perhaps he was bashful, even timorous; or maybe he was just taking it all in.

I returned to the window where Gloria was waiting, standing on her mark. Oddly, since she was based less than half an hour away and we both worked with rare objects, this was the first time we’d met, and I was, to my dismay, intimidated. She wasn’t merely beautiful—she was breathtaking. Also, she towered over me. I didn’t feel petite; I felt small, diminished, insignificant, the way I had in middle school when some of the taller girls had picked on me.

Determined to suppress the flare-up of my childhood insecurities, I drew in a deep breath. My dad always told me to fake it till you make it, words that had helped me survive more than one emotional gully.

Before I could speak to Gloria, Timothy cut in, “Makeup! Take a look at Josie.”

Marie, my regular makeup gal, appeared in front of me, wielding a fluffy brush and a tub of translucent powder. Timothy couldn’t bear a shiny nose. Marie had a white stripe running through her waist-long coal-black hair and three gold studs running up her right ear. I often wondered if the stripe was natural or dyed, but I’d never asked. She flicked the brush over my face, narrowed her eyes to seek out sheen, then zipped back to the makeup area.

“Starr!” Timothy shouted, calling to his pink-haired assistant director. She rushed to join him, and he lowered his voice, pointing to his clipboard.

I knew from experience this was a minor glitch. He wanted a new shooting sequence or a reshoot or a substitution or something that would delay us, but only for a few minutes. When the delay was longer, he was more upset.

Starr nodded, then called, “Five minutes, everyone!”

“I bet this brings you back to your days of modeling,” I remarked to Gloria. “God, no! In those days, I had to sit for hours and hours getting primped. Boring to the tenth degree.” She raised her arm, gesturing toward the set.

“There’s nothing boring about this.” “Not even all the waiting around?”

“Not to me. Here, the hair and makeup stations are out in the open, and the staff adapts to you. If I want to stand for a few seconds, they step aside and wait. Back then, I was wedged into a small room and told not to move. It felt like jail.” She smiled, and I thought of Helen of Troy, whose face launched a thousand ships. Helen had nothing on Gloria. “Also, I’m a people-watcher. So long as I can observe people, I’m never bored.”

“To you, a deserted beach is a nightmare.” She laughed. “Totally.”

“Yet you live in New Hampshire, not known for its crowds.”

“You go where the jobs are. Tenure track professorships in archival studies aren’t so easy to find.”

“I never considered that. You’ve been here for what . . . ten years?” “Eight. I got tenure last year.”


“Thanks. It’s the single hardest, most stressful thing I’ve ever done, and my proudest accomplishment.”

“I can imagine . . . or maybe I can’t.”

“And please . . . don’t get me wrong . . .” She turned to face the window wall and raised a hand, a silent toast to the scenery. “This place is spectacular.” “True, but when I first moved here, I struggled to make friends. I bet you did, too.”

“Yes, that’s an issue. I don’t blame New Hampshire, though. Moving anywhere as an adult is hard. Most people have long established relationships that date back to childhood. They’re not in the market for new friends.” She grinned. “It’s not an issue, though. When I’m not people-watching, I’m a real homebody.”

“Me, too.”

“You? I never would have guessed.” “Shh! Don’t tell anyone.”

“I somehow got the impression you have a million friends.”

“Not a million, or anything close. Part of it is business, of course. As soon as I started my company, I joined a lot of business groups to get the word out, and I still attend a bunch of those meetings and events. I’m friendly with a lot of the people I’ve met that way. ‘Friendly with’ is different than ‘friends with,’ if you know what I mean.”

“I know exactly. Do you have any real friends?”

“A few. Lucky me.”

“Was it just luck?”

“Not only luck . . . I suppose it’s a combination of luck, timing, and being open to the prospect. I rented a small house for a long time and became really close to the landlady. Also, I began volunteering for New Hampshire Children First! It’s a wonderful organization. I help them with fund-raising.” I thought about Mo, who died too young, Mona, who ran the therapeutic horse riding program, and Helene, the director, one of the finest women I knew. “Connecting with them is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.”

“I wish—”

I’d have to wait to hear what Gloria wished because Starr shouted, “Josie! Urgent message for you.”

I excused myself to Gloria and hurried toward Starr. No one had ever interrupted our filming before. Not once. Good news could wait, so this had to be bad news. The only question was how bad.

Starr pointed toward Cara, Prescott’s grandmotherly office manager, standing near the corridor that connected the studio with the warehouse.

“What’s wrong?” I whispered when I reached Cara.

“Nothing. Maybe nothing. There’s a woman to see you. She said . . . well, I had her repeat it because I could hardly believe my ears . . . oh, Josie . . . she said she has to talk to you about your father.”

I stared at Cara, confused. I assumed I’d misheard. “My father?”

“I know,” Cara said, reaching out a hand to touch my arm, then pulling back. “I told her you were busy, but she insisted. She said it was urgent, and that it would only take a minute.”

“Who is she?”

“Veronica Sutton. She’s waiting for you outside, on the bench.”

It had to be a joke, but that someone would joke about my dad, who’d been dead for twenty years, was silly. Then what was it? A hoax? A con?

Time, I knew, was money. Timothy’s five-minute delay was bad enough. For me to further impede production as if I were a prima donna was an appalling thought, but I had no choice. I thanked Cara, apologized to Timothy, promising to make it quick, and dashed outside, exiting through the tent.

As I sprinted across the parking lot, one of my dad’s favorite sayings came to mind—expect the best, but prepare for the worst. I wondered which side of that equation this woman represented.

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