The King’s Jar

A sneak peek into THE KING’S JAR, the second Dani O’Rourke Mystery,
Publication May 2013 by Top Five Books

The King's Jar by Susan C Shea.…The only good thing about being in my San Francisco office at seven o’clock when the phone rang was that it was ten p.m. in New York City, too late for the call to be from Louise Johnson, the chairwoman of the Devor’s volunteer gala committee.

Louise was in over her head as the date for our black tie dinner at the Pilgrim Club loomed. My job before joining her in Manhattan on Saturday was to make things work to her satisfaction. Unfortunately, the Pilgrim’s chef was taking it as a personal insult that the committee had decided, against his recommendation, to use only organic beef tenderloins for four hundred entrees. The florist simply could not be held accountable for the fact that it had been raining in Central America for weeks now and roses were in short supply, especially the apricot color Louise’s committee had chosen.

And, worst of all, dozens of late responses kept upping the head count. The Pilgrim Club steward was warning Louise that we would have to start saying no when the elegant, old dining room with its quartet of massive crystal chandeliers reached capacity. Saying no to the United Nations ambassadors who had finally, a week before the party, decided they would honor the Devor with their presence was anathema to Louise Johnson.

“We can’t turn them away,” Louise had phoned to tell me in a harried voice a couple of hours ago. “Dani, you have to talk to the steward. He didn’t listen to me.”

Because my role at the Devor is to keep everyone happy while artfully picking their pockets, and Louise’s husband, Geoff, is chairman of the board and a man whose pockets I have picked more than once, I was willing to do battle with the steward and the florist on Louise’s behalf.

In two days, I would take the red-eye to New York to do the final on-site preparation for what was to be one of the Devor’s most impressive dinners. The following Thursday, we would celebrate the donation of the King’s Jar to the museum by Fritz McBeel, a powerful San Francisco-based billionaire, and his wife. Tonight, I wanted to lock my door and head home to my perennially starving cat, a glass of pinot noir, and an hour in front of the boob tube with my feet up.

No such luck. The phone rang and I winced. “Dani O’Rourke here,” I said warily.

“Dani, it’s me and I have some bad news.”

‘Me’ sounded like Thomas Burns, whose collection would get said artifact, by far its most significant acquisition.

“Hi, Tom. You’re still here?” Tom was a workaholic, passionately dedicated to making his section of the Devor the most exciting antiquities wing west of the Hudson River. He was also favorite of mine because he was endlessly patient with my dear old lady prospects when they wanted to tell him about their family histories over fundraising dinners at the museum.

“Yeah, I was working on my annual budget request. It was due yesterday.”

“Is the bad news about the budget?”

“No, much worse. Rene Bouvier was found bashed in the head in his lab this afternoon.”

I gasped and my stomach lurched. “That can’t be.” My brain skittered in all directions, working to absorb the unthinkable. “I was there this morning. How is he?”

“He’s dead.”

I swallowed hard but couldn’t speak for a minute.

“Dani, you there?”

“Are you sure?” I said. “How could anyone attack him? The lab was crawling with people when I left.”

“Yeah, well, I heard everyone went out for a late lunch together and when they came back, there he was. I’m as shocked as you are.”

“Can you come upstairs?” I said weakly, my head spinning.

While I waited, I brooded. Simon Anderson had told me that Rene Bouvier had built a reputation in scientific circles for living on a diet of professional jealousies. Simon said Rene wasn’t well liked outside his inner circle, the former students and researchers he had brought onto his team and who defended his scientific standing aggressively. I had seen that side of him this morning, aimed at Simon himself.

“Terrible news,” I said to Tom when he walked into my office and dropped his two hundred and thirty pounds onto the sofa, releasing a small cloud of dust from the cushions. “He wasn’t the most popular man in the world, but that hardly seems like a reason to kill him.”

“It could have been a robbery gone wrong,” Tom said. “What scares the hell out of me is the idea someone would do that to get the jar. I mean, it’s priceless, but to kill for it?”

“Wait a minute. You’re saying the jar is gone?”

“Yeah. The staff did a search right away and it’s definitely missing from the lab.”

“Oh, hell, this complicates everything.” I said, thinking of the New York dinner and hating myself for being so crass. “Could it be somewhere else on campus?”

Tom was silent for a minute. “Possibly, but I wouldn’t count on it. We’ll know tomorrow.” When he looked up at me, I saw that his eyes glistened.

“I’m sorry for sounding so callous,” I said, getting up and coming around to sit next to him on the sofa. I put my arm through his. Tom might be focused on his work, but I knew him well enough to realize he had a big heart, and his reaction chastened me. “Tunnel vision brought on by too many conversations about place cards and champagne prices. It’s a tragedy. Did he have family?”

“No,” Tom said, scratching the ginger goatee that complemented his thinning hair. “He was married to his work. In a way, grad students were his family. They worshiped the old man.”

“Do you think the media will jump on this?” I said, my gut twisting at the idea that the Devor would be dragged into a murder investigation when the missing artifact was understood to be an intended gift to the museum.

“Yeah, the science reporters will,” Tom said, frowning at the floor.

“I was there today and he was agitated. I put it down to the fact that I mentioned Simon. He seems to hate Simon.”

“I know. He isn’t – wasn’t – happy Simon’s been hired to do the catalog. But that can’t be helped. After all, Rene didn’t own the jar. Giving it to us wasn’t his decision.”

“How did you hear about it?”

“A friend of mine called. Everyone in the archeology building is shocked.”

“I better give Peter a heads up tonight,” I said. Peter Lindsey was my boss and the museum’s director.

Tom rose, grunting, from the couch. We hugged briefly and as he lumbered out the door, he said, “McBeel won’t be a happy man when he hears this.”

That was an understatement. Fritz McBeel and his wife Jamie were the billionaire couple we were supposed to honor in New York in less than a week. Fritz was the man responsible for whisking the priceless archeological find out of Kenobia twenty years ago when it looked like it might disappear into the dusty rooms of what was then a poorly run Ministry of Antiquities. He had entrusted it to Rene for research and care ever since. And, with Rene about to retire from Warefield’s faculty, Fritz had had decided to give the vessel to the Devor Museum, which is why I was trying to raise funds. I didn’t want to think about what Fritz McBeel would say if anything went wrong at this point.

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