David had heard his father say grace countless times at a holiday meal. But had never known Jack—who was normally not the most eloquent guy in the world—to deliver such heartfelt words.
“Amen,” Julie said. She lifted her head and smiled at her husband. “I’ll bring the turkey over, and while you carve, Jack, I’ll get the side dishes.”
“Good plan. Just swing that bird my way. I’ll have it carved in a jiffy.” Jack stood up, wielding his carving knife and long fork, and began slicing. “Who wants a drumstick?” he asked.
Kate raised her hand, as if she were in school. “I do!”
Jack gazed around, pretending he didn’t hear her. “Nobody wants a drumstick? Hey, guys, that’s the best part.”
“Me! I want a drumstick, Jack.” Kate kneeled on her seat, trying to get his attention.
Jack cupped his ear. “Do you hear something?” He gazed around and looked at David. “Do you hear like . . . a little mouse or something . . . saying she wants a drumstick?”
David shook his head. “I don’t hear a thing. A mouse, you said? Like, a little squeaking sound?”
Kate sat back, giggling, finally figuring out the joke. David laughed, too. His father had pulled the same stunt on him when he was Kate’s age.
Jack put the precious drumstick on Kate’s dish just as Julie returned to the table. “Jack, you two. Now she’s all giggling and practically falling out of her seat.”
It was true, Kate was a silly little mess. Jack had gotten her going.
“Oh come on now, it’s a holiday. And we have plenty to celebrate.” Jack glanced at David then delivered the second drumstick without even asking.
“That is so true.” Julie sat down and began passing around the many side dishes—sweet potatoes, stuffing, mushrooms, fresh cranberry sauce, string beans, and red cabbage.
“Wow, this food looks awesome,” David said. “I haven’t had a meal like this in ages.”
His words were not an exaggeration. This was the first time since leaving home almost four years ago, right after his mother died, that David had shared a family holiday dinner. Most of that time when he was away, he had been working—at a gas station or in a restaurant kitchen, or at some other drudge job where the staff worked while the rest of the country celebrated.
“You enjoy it, David,” Julie said. “The best part is having you here to share it with us.”
“Amen to that,” Jack agreed between mouthfuls.
David didn’t know what to say. Their gratitude over his safe return was sometimes overwhelming.
It made him feel a bit small, being so focused on his own problems that he had to force himself to come out here a few minutes ago. He resolved to pull himself together, at least long enough to get through dinner, and not spoil everyone’s day.
HE SUITCASE WAS BACK HERE SOMEWHERE. GRACE WAS SURE OF it. Why, she had seen it just a few weeks ago when she pulled out that brass torchère lamp. The bag with the straw weaving and thick leather straps. The handle was frayed, Grace recalled, but she could probably fix it.
If she could find it. Grace had to open the shop in a little while, and she was prepared for a busy Saturday, the first after Thanksgiving, bringing a wave of Christmas shoppers.
She did want to open on time and made a final effort to find the case. She peered into the pile of antiques, near antiques, and just plain junk haphazardly stacked all around the loft. The bare bulb hanging from the rafters did not provide much light, but she had thought ahead and brought along a flashlight.
Its thin, sharp beam darted around the collection like a firefly, bouncing off the wood beams, decorated with cobwebs like crepe paper left over from some long-forgotten celebration. The light fell here and there, randomly illuminating a broken rocking chair, a large hall mirror with a gilt-edge frame, a tattered wedding veil with a pearl tiara, a coat tree draped with dusty hats, and large black umbrellas.
One of these days, when she had the time and energy, she would sort things out up here, get it in some kind of order. Grace made that promise every time she came up. But her business, the Bramble Antique Shop, and her responsibilities caring for her father, kept her busy.
Luckily, her life was pretty much condensed into a small space, with the shop on the first floor of their Victorian house and their apartment taking up the two upper stories. The efficient arrangement suited her. Half the big barn in back held stock. The other side was rented out to Sam Morgan for his woodworking business. Grace could hear him in there now, making a racket with an electric saw.
Now Christmas was coming. Grace braced herself, though she doubted the trade would be overwhelming this year, with the bad economy. It was the kind of year when people were giving needful things, not china teapots and cloisonné figurines. That’s why when a special request came in from one of those fancy decorators, it was best to hop to it. You got a good reputation that way. One would tell another and before long, you had a nice clientele of those folks, professional shoppers for rich people. They hardly cared how much they spent. After all, it was someone else’s money.
Enough of those decorators coming around and you wouldn’t have to worry so much about the regular shoppers, the perennial browsers, looking and looking and hardly buying a thing. Especially the ones who always offered less at the register, even when they could see the price marked on each item, clear as day.
People thought her business was easy. Well, it was not.
She stepped back and sighed, about to give up on her quest. The dust was getting to her. She took out a tissue and dabbed her eyes and nose. She must have imagined the suitcase. She could have sworn there were two, and she had sold the other last summer. Maybe there had only been one? Was she getting old and confused now like her dad? Lord help them both if that was true.
Then, the moment she pocketed the flashlight, she saw it. Down at the bottom of a pile, but thankfully, not under too much paraphernalia. She crouched down, moved some boxes and a small ballroom chair with a torn velvet seat cover, then carefully shimmied it loose.
Eureka. Just what the decorator asked for.
Grace examined the suitcase. The brass latches and hardware on the leather belts would look fine with a little polishing. The straw was worn in some places, but that added to its charm. So did the stamped gold monogram near the handle,
She took hold of the leather handle, about to carry it down, then paused. It seemed awfully heavy. She didn’t want to kill herself climbing down the ladder with that load.
Of course, there must be something in it making it so heavy. Clothes or books, old shoes or some such. Everything was such a muddle up here, you never knew what you might find.
Grace set the case down flat and flipped open the latches. She hoped it wasn’t locked. Where would she ever find the key?
The first latch opened easily. The other side was stuck. She found a metal doorstop shaped like a squirrel and gently tapped the latch. Finally, it sprang open.
Grace leaned forward and slowly lifted the top of the suitcase. It did feel like there was something bulky inside.
She saw an old sweater, the fisherman-knit type. Dark gray, full of moth holes and not very pleasant smelling, either. It had to be her father’s. She pushed it aside, expecting more useless old garments. But that’s not what she found. Not at all.
Grace looked down into a suitcase full of money. Bills and more bills, neatly stacked and secured by thick rubber bands.
Her breath caught in her throat, and she thought her heart missed a full beat. What in the world?
She picked up a wad of money and examined it. Was this some sort of joke?
She pulled out the flashlight then pulled off the rubber band. The bills scattered and floated down into the case, covering the sweater. Grace dug her hands into it and felt the paper.
For mercy’s sake . . . the money was real. Big bills, mostly hundreds and fifties. She pressed a few to her nose. On those detective shows she and her dad watched on TV, the investigators always said you can tell fake money by the odor. This money smelled real to her. It had a vaguely fishy scent, no doubt from being imprisoned with that sweater for who knew how long. But it definitely looked, felt, and smelled like real money.
And if it wasn’t, why would she find a suitcase full of fake money up here? Under her father’s old fishing sweater? Well, that would make even less sense, she reasoned.
Her father. He was the one to ask about this treasure chest.
Grace put the bills back inside then closed the case. It took some ingenuity, but Grace got the suitcase down from the loft with the use of a length of clothesline. She watched it land on the floor below, then quickly followed.
Grace entered the building by the back door, then lugged the suitcase up the back stairway to their apartment. She soon found Digger in the kitchen, fixing himself breakfast.
“Found that old suitcase you were looking for? Good for you,” he said mildly. “You already made one good sale today, Gracie, and you ain’t even opened the shop yet.”
Grace stared at him a moment. Over the last few years, her father’s memory had grown foggier and so had his powers of reasoning. It was impossible to tell if he really had no connection to what was inside the case—or if he just didn’t remember.
“Dad,” Grace began calmly, “don’t you recognize this case? I think it’s yours. See the monogram? Your initials.”
As she pointed out the gold stamp to him, Digger glanced down, barely missing a beat as he slathered a slice of pumpernickel toast with strawberry preserves made with the berries from Grace’s garden.
“So it is. Nice-looking piece. They don’t make them like that anymore. But you can have it. It’s probably too heavy for me to haul around these days anyways. Inconvenient, and I sure ain’t going anywhere real soon.”
“It is heavy,” she admitted.
She didn’t want to shock him, not in his frail condition. But it was hard to work her way around to the fact that the case was full of money. Full to the brim.
Digger was just about to bite into his toast. Grace rested her hand on his arm. “Dad, wait a second. I need to show you something.”
He stared at her, obviously confused. “What is it, Gracie? Something wrong?”
“I hope not,” she said carefully. “I found something in the case. It must be yours. It’s really quite . . . quite a shock when you see it. Prepare yourself.”
She set the case down on the floor and crouched down to open it again. Her father was watching but still didn’t seem to remember anything special about the old suitcase.
She popped the latches, lifted the top, and then stood up. “There, see what I mean. Look at all that money. Can you believe it?”
She heard Digger draw in a quick breath. He leaned over to take a closer look. “Well, I’ll be . . . That’s a pile of greens, all right.” He looked at Grace. “You say you found it just now? Sitting right in there?” He pointed toward the barn. “I’ll be a monkey’s uncle.”
Grace sighed. He didn’t remember anything about it, did he?
“Yes, Dad. I just found it. I think it’s real, too. See?” She picked up some bills and let him handle them.
Digger examined the money and nodded his head. “Seems real to me, though I guess you need to take it to a banker to tell for sure.”
“Probably,” she agreed. “I’m just wondering how it got there. Any ideas coming to you? I found this old sweater on top of it, sort of covering it. Looks like yours.”
She pulled the sweater from a plastic bag and showed it to him. Her father’s face lit up, looking much more excited and pleased by the sight of the old ragged sweater than what Grace guessed had to be thousands of dollars.
“My sweater! Well, what do you know? Where did you find this?”
“In the suitcase, sitting right on top of the money,” Grace repeated patiently.
Digger lifted the beloved sweater up to feel the rough wool on his cheek and inhaled the smell. Then he gently laid it in his lap, stroking it as if it were a living thing, a little pet cat, perhaps. “Your mother made me this sweater. Gave it to me one Christmas, not too long before she died. Remember?”
Grace shook her head. “No, Dad. I’m sorry, I don’t remember that.”
“Oh well, she did.” Grace believed him. His memory for distant events was still quite accurate. “After she died, when I sold the house on Clover Street, I didn’t want much inside. I let you and your sisters take the lot of it.”
“Yes, I remember,” Grace said. His mind was wandering again. He didn’t even seem to notice the money anymore. Why was he talking about the old Clover Street house? The sweater must have reminded him.
Grace lost hope of him offering any explanation for the suitcase, at least right now. “You just took your clothes and books and maps. You told us to split up the rest.”