Pirates of Pamlico Sound: Chapter 4

🏴 Present Day * Nags Head.

When he reached the top step, Collin noticed the candle light emanating from the bedroom. His first thought, which he kept to himself, was to question whether he’d forgotten something important. It definitely wasn’t their wedding anniversary. And it wasn’t his birthday — not that this sort of thing would be expected for either occasion. In fact, it had been ages since Bernice had done anything so spontaneous, at least in the romance department, anyway. In the back of his mind, the unusualness of this scenario filled him with a slight hesitation.

But, then again, the two-word note with the large heart was also crystal clear; she wanted a romantic evening. Enough analysis, he thought. Let’s forge ahead see what’s behind door number one. And so, without any further delay, Collin approached the bedroom door and slowly pushed it open.

Bernice looked incredibly sexy. He’d not seen her in lingerie for far too long, he thought. His next thought was borne half out of selfishness and half out of pure curiosity: Should I attempt to wake her up?

Tough question. If he woke her up, she could very well spring back to a normal waking state, fully prepared to embark upon the adventurous evening she’d had in mind. This would be a good thing, of course. On the down side, she might yell at him for coming home a bit late or for dawdling in the kitchen. She also had a track record to consider; Bernice had a curious habit of not waking in the best of moods. Once that woman went to sleep, it was generally best not to stir her. Young couples seldom experience this phenomenon, he thought. But, you learn a thing or two after a few decades together.

Then again, this seemed promising. Why not gently wake her and see if the evening could be salvaged? It was a good thought, and may have turned out exceedingly well were it not for his cell phone. The damned thing was so loud, and he didn’t want to look like a dolt standing there next to his wife taking a work call.

He glanced down and read the caller ID… Ferguson. What in the hell did he want? All right, he gave in, I’ll take the call. Better leave the room, though. He then did what anyone in a Nags Head bungalow would do: He stepped out onto his rooftop deck to pace around in the dark.

Collin’s fatal flaw was leaving the sliding glass door slightly cracked. It wasn’t his voice that woke Bernice; that woman could sleep through a train wreck. But, the cool, moist fall air infiltrated the room and lowered the temperature a good fifteen degrees in the span of a minute or two. By the time Bernice woke, she’d grown quite uncomfortable.

Collin could be heard pacing and ranting away. “Look, Jack, if you’re going to fire her, fire her. All I’m saying is that you need to get your ass moving on bringing in a replacement and getting that replacement up to speed pronto. I don’t want to put all this stuff on hold for eight weeks while we figure out what to do.”

She yelled, “Collin!”

“Jack, I gotta run. Talk to you tomorrow.” He put the phone away and returned to the bedroom extremely quickly, and looking a bit apologetic.

“Sorry, hon. I was just…”

“Collin, what the hell were you thinking?! You see your wife lying there in sexy lingerie and so you decide to take a call from Ferguson on the deck?”

“Actually, I…”

“You what? You think work’s more fun than making love to your wife? I was going to fuck your brains out tonight, you idiot.”

“Aww, come on, Bernice, you were fast asleep.”

“Only because you took so god damn long getting home. I mean, Christ, why don’t you ever leave at a normal time? People have families, you know. They go home for dinner once in a while.”

“I was going to wake you,” he said. “I really was. And then the phone rang, and …”

“… and you answered it. I think that says a lot, don’t you?”

“I know it looked bad, but it was just a freak thing. Look, I’m turning my cell phone completely off, okay?” He clicked a button on the phone.

“Well, it’s just like me, then — completely turned off.” She turned and walked away from him.

He called her name in a pleading tone: “Bernice….”

“Just forget it, Collin. I’m tired.”

Turned off, Bernice turned in. She assumed that telltale position on her own side of the bed — lying on her side facing away from him — that let Collin know she had nothing further to say to him. She drifted off more disappointed than angry, not that she intended to tell this to Collin. It would do him a world of good, she thought, to think of her as furious with his work schedule.

Collin opted for a bit more cable television after all. It felt pathetic to sit around in the living room idly flipping through game shows, music videos, “classic” reruns. But, that’s exactly what he did for the next hour. He’d caught the tail end of an Andy Griffith Show episode and started flipping again as the whistled theme song began. Where the hell was Mayberry, anyway? Not on the Outer Banks, he thought.

The local public station was airing a rerun of an Antiques Roadshow episode. All CPAs love that show because of the extraordinary financial returns the featured collectors routinely see. “Well, Mrs. Taylor, your great, great grandfather obviously had an eye for quality because this twenty-five cent knick-knack has appreciated appreciably. If I were to place this at auction, I would place a reserve of two hundred thousand dollars.” That guy, Collin would think, is going to face capital gains issues. My firm could help with that.

Before dozing off in the armchair — he didn’t dare sleep in the bedroom this evening — he noticed last Sunday’s classified newspaper section on the coffee table. Having just watched a man on the Road Show describe how he’d purchased an extremely rare table at an auction for twenty-five dollars, he thought one way to make nice with Bernice would be to take her to an auction, which was among her all-time favorite activities (along with combing garage sales, flea markets, and antique shops).

In no time, he’d found a few listings for this weekend and had circled the best one (rather cleverly) with a large heart drawn in thick red marker. He clipped a paper to that with a note saying “Let me make it up to you Saturday. I’ll buy you something great at auction. Love, C-.”

* * *

A few days later, things had smoothed over a bit. They hadn’t exactly broken out the silk chemise again, but Bernice had responded positively to Collin’s gesture. In addition to the auction, the couple planned a walk on the beach and dinner out. Things were looking up.

Collin yelled upstairs, “Come on, hon. We better get a move on, okay? The place is over in Manteo.”

“Coming…”

Collin drove. He had an SUV, for reasons Bernice could not fathom. According to his rationale, the vehicle was a good car for driving staff and clients around. He didn’t want to make anyone feel claustrophobic, after all. For auctioning, it came in handy as well. One never knew what large impulsive purchase may be in the cards.

On the way to Manteo, Bernice reviewed the advertisement for the hundredth time. It was a spectacular auction ad that pictured an impressive wooden chest that appeared to be chained shut, billed as possibly early eighteenth century. What made the ad unique, though, was the caption in large bold print: “What’s in this box?” She read the ad aloud to Collin.

“Girard Galleries of Nags Head is pleased to present the Alexandre Bellanger Estate featuring a world-class collection of OBX rarities dating back to the colonies. Join us in Manteo, Roanoke Island, Saturday, blah, blah, blah.” She scrolled down to the good part. “…centerpiece of the showing offers an extremely rare opportunity to take home a beautiful eighteenth century wooden sea chest, the contents of which are unknown to anyone alive today. We have been instructed by the estate owner, Thomas Bellanger of New York City, to padlock this chest and sell it to the highest bidder, who alone shall have the thrill of a chance to peer back into the 1700s. Will you find riches, or will it be empty?”

“Sounds interesting,” said Collin, somewhat unconvincingly.

“That’s all you have to say? Collin, this is the coolest auction we’ve ever attended! I mean, hey, maybe you get to attend auctions every day. Maybe that’s what being a CPA is — you go to auctions and they all have three-hundred-year-old locked sea chests that you can buy. But, you know, I’ve never seen anything like this.”

“You want the trunk, don’t you?”

“I want the trunk, Collin. Are you going to buy it for me?”

“You can’t resist an estate sale, can you?”

She rolled the newspaper advertisement into a tube, turned toward Collin, and spoke through it as though it were a megaphone. “Earth. To. Collin. I asked you if you’re going to buy me that trunk today.”

He got the message. “Well, let’s go look at it first, hon. I’ll have to crunch the numbers, of course.” He cracked a slight smile that let her know he would try to win the trunk.

They parked along the street, along with another fifty cars — mostly other SUVs and trucks, which meant that some serious collectors had responded to the ad.

The estate had been broken down into hundreds of lots. People were milling about everywhere, rifling through the various boxes and crates full of sundry items. Collin went to stand in the registration line as Bernice went looking for the trunk, which had apparently been set on display in the living room.

When she made her way to the room, a group of others crowded around the box, obscuring her view at first. She could hear most of their conversations. Most were speculating about the contents. A few serious looking collectors in front of her complained about the publicity stunt. One was saying something like, “To take such a rare piece and throw a chain and padlock onto it with no regard for damaging the wood…”

“Bad form,” the other replied. “She’ll be lucky to land any other estates after this.”

Bernice paid them no mind. She waited patiently and was finally able to approach the mariner’s chest and stroke the worn wood. It was a fantastic high for her — like mainlining colonial history through her fingertips. In a moment, it was as though she were alone in the room. Sounds faded. Her peripheral vision blurred. She stopped wondering where Collin had wandered off to. She stopped thinking of anything besides the allure of this magnificent piece — the way it drew her in, beckoned her, summoned her. Nothing else existed in that moment — just herself and the trunk. She continued to smooth her hands over the piece, as though trying to divine the contents. She felt her respiration heighten in the same way the silk chemise had electrified her body in the car that day. The understanding that she wanted this trunk — that she desired it perhaps more than anyone else in this roomful of collectors — exuded from her being in such a palpable way, a few collectors began to reconsider whether they wanted to compete for it.

An official-looking woman bearing a Girard Galleries name tag engraved with her name, Elsie, approached. “It’s gorgeous, isn’t it?”

Bernice simply nodded, unable to look away. The chest appeared to have been made by a reasonably skilled craftsman — someone with an artistic flair, but not necessarily a cabinetmaker. It wasn’t entirely balanced as one might expect from a professional — and yet the asymmetry added to the piece’s art naïve allure. The maker had selected a fine burled walnut, and had detailed the piece rather conservatively, opting for the simplicity of the wood’s natural beauty over any intricate carving. The left side panel had the name “Bath” inscribed, which everyone assumed meant the relatively nearby city of Bath, North Carolina. On the lower right side, the initials “HG” had been carved; on the lower left, a cruciform, which may or may not indicate that the maker was a church official.

Bernice remained fixed on the chest. “Is it true no one has looked inside?” she asked.

“It’s absolutely true. When the owner asked me to handle the auction this way, I didn’t trust that my husband could resist, so I padlocked the thing myself. Got the key right here.” She patted her jacket pocket.

“How could you resist?” Bernice asked.

“By not thinking about it. I have this entire estate to liquidate, after all, so I was perfectly willing to keep myself in the dark. It was a bit tempting, of course. But, I wanted to do this right, you know?”

Bernice nodded.

“I even thought about submitting myself to a polygraph examination as further proof that, to my knowledge, no one peeked. But, my husband said that was taking things too far. People will just have to trust me. What do you think… Do I look trustworthy?”

Bernice finally made eye contact. In an instant, she knew. “You certainly do, Elsie. I think you’ll get some good PR from this.”

“I think you’re right. In fact, I’ve already signed on another advanced OBX collector as a result. Take a flyer on your way out today if you like these things.”

“I will, thanks.”

“Well, I need to get ready for the big event.” She walked away.

Having snapped out of the trance, Bernice went to find Collin. He’d been chatting with an old business associate he’d run into in the foyer. She waved him over.

“Collin,” she said as he drew nearer, “I absolutely must have that trunk. No matter what the cost, I want us to buy it. I just have a feeling.”

He looked over toward it. “I don’t know, honey. There are so many collectors here. It’s going to be cutthroat.”

“Not if you handle it with complete confidence. As soon as someone bids, you immediately bid higher. Don’t hesitate at all. Act as though you’ll have that chest at all costs.”

“But, hon, you just said exactly that — that you want it at all costs. If price is no object, then why do I have to act any certain way?”

“Because that chest is mine, Collin, and not only do I want it, I intend for there to be no question that we’re driving home with it. The others may as well see it that way, so perhaps they’ll back down sooner.”

“Bernice, I don’t know…”

“Go touch it, Collin. See if it has anything to say to you.”

“What?”

“Just go touch the thing.”

Collin made his way across the room to the chest. Admittedly, he admired it almost immediately. Others nearby seemed interested as well — some even intrigued — but not in the same engrossed way. What was this power the box had? Was it that, in getting so close to something his wife desired, he felt an opportunity to rekindle his relationship with her — an opportunity that, prior to this, he felt may never come?

He was not, after all, completely unromantic, as Bernice had come to view him over the years. In fact, he’d often thought back to their fiery beginnings and longed to return to that. But, so much time had gone by, and so many petty arguments had transpired in the years since those days. Finding their way back seemed impossible and he’d simply come to the conclusion that the proverbial bird had flown away. However, as he laid hands on the piece, he wondered whether that bird had returned via this mariner’s chest.

He returned to her side. “Okay hon, you really want to do this?”

Her eyes widened as she stared into his, nodding enthusiastically.

“Well, break out that home equity credit line, ’cause we’re buying that trunk.”

When the moment arrived, Elsie stood on a step stool in the living room and rang a large metal bell. She was a perky woman — rather short and business-like in appearance. She dressed smartly in a black suit with bright red highlights. She began to address the crowd in a professional, articulate, and rather commanding way:

“Hello everyone and welcome to the Alexandre Bellanger estate liquidation auction. I’m Elsie Girard of Girard Galleries in Nags Head. We’re fortunate to be able to offer hundreds of fine lots this afternoon. I’m going to start with a number of smaller lots and collectibles, working my way up to this chest in about an hour.”

Collin, surprisingly, didn’t appear upset at learning he’d need to stay for at least an hour before getting to the main event. He understood that the point of the marketing ploy was to get people to attend in the first place. The gallery didn’t want people coming for just one auction and then leaving. They wanted to make sure that as many people came in, registered, and sat through as many auctions as they could get away with prior to the big event. And, delaying the main auction for a while ensures that those who were running late would still get an opportunity to bid.

The couple kept their eyes on the prize the whole time, resisting any urges felt here and there, to purchase some of the great art glass pieces offered. They’d even offered a magnificent banker’s desk at one point that Collin could easily picture himself happily working late behind. But, they held out for their quarry.

After what seemed like two hours, Elsie addressed the crowd, which had grown considerably since the auction began. “And, we’re finally up to the main event — the pièce de résistance — this beautiful mariner’s sea chest dating back to the early eighteenth century according to our best estimates. Based on the joinery, the wood, and the finish, and compared with similar specimens we’ve seen, we’re confident in our general estimate of the age of the piece, and we’ve deemed it authentic. However, in the interest of full disclosure, our inspection was based on an external examination only. As you all are no doubt aware, this auction is somewhat unusual. The chest is being offered as found. No one, including any employee or owner of Girard Galleries of Nags Head, has opened the chest. As such, the lucky winner shall be the sole benefactor of any items from antiquity that may be inside. A few more announcements and we’ll get started.”

“First,” she said, “in applying the chain — which I accomplished with some care, I assure you — and in transporting the item from the barn to here, we did learn that the chest indeed has contents. Based on my husband’s estimate, there are approximately ten pounds worth of contents in there over and above what the item would likely weigh empty. It could be a couple of stones, for all we know, but it’s somethingnonetheless.”

“Second, and this is quite interesting, after chaining the chest shut, my husband pointed out that this step was perhaps completely unnecessary. As some of you may have noted, this chest has been nailed shut. The nails are tough to see through the varnish, but they’re there and they appear to be period, lending credence as to the speculation that items from the early eighteenth century may be inside.”

“And finally, I just wanted to announce that I’m no longer selling this fine chest.”

Shocked silence from the crowd. For nearly two seconds straight. And then a quiet murmur circled the room. Within a few more seconds, a number of people began angrily yelling at her. “What the hell’s going on?!” they shouted. “What kind of a B.S. move is this?!” However, she raised her hand and stopped the commotion.

“Let me explain!” she said, with a large grin. “You see, as this item has been chained and padlocked shut, the winning bidder would need a key to gain access.” She reached into her pocket and pulled out a small shiny key. She held it up high for everyone to see. “As such, I’ve decided to auction off this little brass key instead. Whoever bids highest for it … can have the chest here for free!”

Everyone laughed — even those who had been on the verge of enraged tirades a few moments earlier. She masterfully leveraged the momentum she’d built up with this by enthusiastically shouting, “Okay, who’ll start the bidding for our treasure chest at, say, $1,000?”

The place went completely mad — a pandemonium of opening bids, shouts from every direction. Elsie knew this was the auction of a lifetime.


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☠️ Jim Dee maintains his personal blog, “Hawthorne Crow,” and a web design blog called “Web Designer | Web Developer Magazine.” He’s also contributes to various Medium.com publications. You can reach him at: Jim [at] ArrayWebDevelopment.com. “Chapter number” background photo atop piece is adapted from “Light Reading” by Martin (Flickr, Creative Commons).