Treasure of Darkness
What lies buried in a hoarder’s house—
precious treasure or ghastly secrets?
One moment of misguided generosity throws estate sale organizer Audrey Nealon’s life into turmoil. She loses a client’s money, cripples her budding romance, and witnesses a murder. Strapped for cash, she accepts a questionable project: clearing out the home of a mentally ill hoarder who may have hidden valuable Civil War letters. What really lies at the bottom of twenty years’ worth of collected buttons and dolls and stuffed owls and atlases? As Audrey digs through the hoarder’s obsessions, she unleashes a vengeful response from all sides. The house has destroyed lives in the past. Will Audrey and those she loves be its next victims?
Read Chapter 1
Mr. Wainwright seems deader now than he did eight hours ago.
This morning, 79 Sycamore Avenue was brimming with every comfort of home: two Oriental carpets, a deep red leather Chesterfield sofa, a fifteen-piece set of Calphalon pots and pans, an antique armoire, twenty-seven Madame Alexander dolls, a baseball signed by Cal Ripken, and service for twelve of Royal Doulton “Harlow”, one salad plate missing.
Now, as the winter sunlight fades, only hints of the lives lived here remain. Four worn spots on the hardwood floor mark where a favorite armchair stood next to a southern window—a nice place to read. A ghostly outline of the china cabinet on the flowered wallpaper is all that’s left of countless Christmas dinners and Sunday brunches and baby showers hosted in the dining room. Little pencil marks mar the trim around the pantry door—measurement of a grandchild’s growth.
There’s no point getting morose about what I’ve done. This is why the Wainwright children hired me: to get rid of the things they grew up with but didn’t love enough to keep. Another Man’s Treasure Estate Sales—we do the dirty work families don’t have the energy or the courage to do themselves.
I stand contemplating the empty living room. The only stick of furniture left in the house is a massive armoire. Ty staggers down the steps carrying an overloaded box.
“This is everything from upstairs, Audrey. We only got two boxes for the dump.”
Not surprising. At a sale with so much good stuff, even the bad stuff sells. Somehow the unfashionably wide ties and scratched LP records here are more desirable than those at a trailer park tag sale.
I rush to open the front door for my assistant and he drops the box on the porch next to another with DUMP scrawled on the side.
“That’s it. Sweep up. Load the van. I got Ramon coming to help me with that armoire. We’re ready to rock. Where’s Jill?”
“Working on the pantry.”
“Damn. I forgot the pantry. C’mon—let’s get that shit hauled out.”
We head back to the kitchen and find Jill on a step-ladder clearing the pantry from the top down.
“Want some oatmeal, Ty?” She sticks an open Quaker container under his nose.
“Aiyee!” Ty leaps back. “Worms! I hate them mothers.”
Old people’s houses are full of entomological wonders: pantry moths, hornets’ nests, occupied spider webs, centipedes. Jill peers into the container. “Cool—the whole package is just pulsating with larva. Imagine living in your favorite food. I’d live in a Red Mango fro-yo. How about you, Audrey?”
Before I can answer, Ty tosses a garbage bag at her. He doesn’t share Jill’s passion for the insect world. “Throw that shit away or I ain’t helping with the pantry. What about roaches? You know how I feel about them.”
“Haven’t seen any,” Jill says. “The kitchen’s pretty clean. It’s just this top shelf that’s full of old dusty stuff.” She squints at the top of a can. “This pumpkin expired in 2005.”
“Mrs. Wainwright must’ve died before she got a chance to bake the Thanksgiving pies,” I say. “Their daughter told me the mother died a few years ago, and the father’s been living here alone ever since.”
“I guess he never purged any of his wife’s baking supplies.” Jill finishes tossing packages of hardened baking soda and desiccated raisins in the garbage bag and hops off the ladder to start checking cans from a lower shelf. “The expiration dates on these are all next year. All this soup and tuna and canned peaches must’ve been what the old guy was living on. These two shelves of cans can all be donated to the soup kitchen.”
Ty whips out another garbage bag. “Aw, c’mon. Can’t we just toss all this crap? I don’t feel like goin’ clear to the other side a town just to drop off some old cans.”
“No! This is good food.” Jill starts stacking cans neatly in boxes. “I just got an email from the soup kitchen yesterday saying support always drops off after the holidays, but they need food all year round. They’re feeding two hundred people a day.”
Jill has been volunteering there lately and is always on the lookout for donations.
Ty turns pleading eyes on me. “Can’t we toss it, Audge? It’d save so much time.”
“No-o-o—” Jill starts howling.
“I didn’t ask you.” Ty snaps open a trash bag. “After the dump, me and Ramon still have to go deliver that armoire. I’ll never get outta here. I got plans.”
“You volunteered to do the delivery. And you’re getting paid extra for it. Do you know that the average person who eats at the soup kitchen experiences food insecurity—”
Ty turns on her. “Don’t you lecture me on what it means to be poor. You think I never seen an empty refrigerator? You think I never went to bed hungry?”
We’re all silent. Ty leans over and picks up the two stacked boxes. “I’ll take the cans.”
Although Ty has worked for me for over a year, these awkward moments still crop up. Jill and I sometimes gloss over the details ofTy’s childhood: the mom who died young, the dad in prison, the grandmother struggling to keep the family clothed and fed. Ty’s cheerful strength in the present allows us to forget about his past. But Ty never forgets.
Ahead of me, I hear Ty’s raised voice. “Hey! Whatchu doin’ out here? Don’t be makin’ a mess for me to clean up.”
I arrive on the front porch to find Ty looming over a much smaller man. Junk from one of the boxes destined for the dump is strewn all over the porch steps.
Stepping around Ty, I see the culprit: a skinny man with a stringy gray ponytail and a frayed backpack that crushes his bony shoulders. Harold.
Harold is a regular, a customer who’s been at every single one of my sales since I started the business ten years ago. Well, every single sale within cycling distance of Palmyrton. Harold is usually first or second in line when we open a sale, arriving and departing on a rickety bicycle. He was here this morning, and after several hours of browsing, purchased a Big Ben alarm clock, an illustrated guide to the castles of the Loire Valley, and a lemon zester. He paid with seven worn and creased one-dollar bills pulled from a bulging wallet held together with duct tape and rubber bands. Jill has noticed this about Harold: he always pays with exact change. It’s as if the man has never possessed crisp twenties from the bank that need to be broken, only an endless supply of frayed and creased ones, fives, and tens.
“What do you think you’re doing, Harold? Now I gotta repack this box.” Ty kicks the box labeled DUMP out of Harold’s reach. “I don’t have time for this foolishness. I got plans tonight, man.”
Although Ty is twice his size and a third his age, Harold is undeterred. He scuttles after the box, diving into its depths.
“What are you after? There’s nothing in there but broken up junk.” Ty turns pleading eyes on me. “Make him stop, Audge.”
“Harold, the sale is over. We’re cleaning up here.” I step toward him and try to tug the box away. For someone so frail looking, his grip is surprisingly tenacious.
“I need this.” Harold’s reply is muffled as his entire upper body is now inside the box. He finally emerges holding a long metal object about three feet long and six inches in diameter. We’d found it on Mr. Wainwright’s basement tool bench. Although I’m pretty good at tool ID, I had no idea what this might be. Or if it was anything at all. But I’ve sold unidentified objects before, so I figured there was no harm in slapping a five-dollar price tag on it and seeing what would happen. No one bit, so now it’s going to the dump.
“What is that thing anyway?”
“It’s the column of a washing machine agitator.”
Harold declares this with great confidence. I suppose it might be that, but I don’t see any conclusive evidence.
“I can use this in case my washing machine breaks.”
Ty squints his eyes. “But how do you know it will fit? And if your washer’s not even broken, why….”
Harold tucks the thing under his arm. “I wanted to buy it earlier, but five dollars was too much.”
“Well, you can have it for free now, but first you gotta help me pick up all this stuff you dumped outta the box.”
The words have barely left his lips and I know I know Ty’s made a terrible mistake. As quickly as he tosses the junk back in the box, Harold dives in to reclaim it.
“This lamp is useful.” Harold holds it aloft.
Ty tries to yank it away. “No, it’s busted—we already tried it out.”
“I could fix it,” Harold says.
I see his eyes dart frantically back and forth and he takes a step closer to the other loaded box.
“No!” Ty and I shout in unison.
“Look, Harold, you can’t carry any more stuff on your bicycle,” I say in my most reasonable voice. The bike is propped against the porch railing, its basket weighed down with books, garden shears and a fierce looking statue—Montezuma, Tecumsuh? Harold has clearly made the rounds of other sales. Bulging saddlebags cover the rear wheel. It’s a miracle the tires stay inflated.
Harold clutches his two newest finds to his chest like a father reunited with his lost children at the end of a war. “I can come back. Just leave the boxes on the porch for me.”
“No way.” Ty steps towards the packed box. “When we leave here, the place will be empty.”
Harold pitches himself over the box. “There are useful things in here. It can’t go to the dump.”
“Audrey, where are the brooms?” Jill appears in the doorway. Her mascara has reached end-of-the-day smudginess and she looks like a perplexed raccoon. “What’s going on? Hi, Harold.”
Ty starts to explain. Harold interrupts. I try shouting over both of them. Somehow, Jill figures it out. She sits down cross-legged next to Harold and the box. “We’re not taking this box to the dump, Harold.” She speaks in the soothing sing-song I use on my dog Ethel during thunderstorms. “We’re giving it to our friend, Sister Alice, the nun who helps people in Newark. Remember I told you about her?”
Harold nods. His hands are trembling but he listens intently.
Jill pulls a marker from her back pocket and scratches out DUMP. She starts printing S-I-S “Ty just mislabeled this box. Isn’t that right, Ty?”
Ty scowls, but clearly Jill’s ploy is the quickest way to free us from Harold. “Yeah, right. I musta had my wires crossed….or somethin’.”
Gently, Jill lays her hand on Harold’s. “Sister Alice could really use this lamp, Harold. She’s helping a family who lost everything in a fire.”
Slowly, Harold’s pinscher grasp loosens. “You’re sure both boxes are going to Sister Alice? Because there are some useful things in there.”
“Absolutely. Right, Audrey?”
“Definitely. And you can keep the washing machine part.”
Harold allows Jill to take the lamp and limps off the porch with the presumptive washing machine thingie. Resting it across the bike’s basket, he wobbles away, the unbalanced bike sometimes swerving into oncoming traffic. We can hear horns blowing even after he’s disappeared around the corner.
“Nice save, Jill!” I squeeze her shoulder and hand her a broom.
Ty shakes his head, grabs the dump boxes, and starts loading the van. As he returns for the boxes destined for the soup kitchen, a short, dark-haired man approaches the van. “Ramon!” Ty shouts. “Perfect timing, man. Come on in the house. I’ll show you what we got.”
Ramon nods shyly to Jill and me as he passes. He speaks very little English. He’s one of the many Central American men who stand in front of the hardware store in town hoping that contractors will hire them for a day’s work spreading mulch or hauling bricks. Whenever Ty needs an extra set of strong arms, he swings by there for help. He’s used different men, but Ramon is his favorite because he’s so hard-working, and they’ve figured out their own Spanglish communication.
Before long, they emerge carrying the unwieldy armoire.
“Cuidado on the steps, man,” Ty advises.
Although Ramon is much shorter than Ty, his arms and shoulders are powerful and he holds his end up with no problem. I watch until they have the furniture safely in the van, then wave them off.
“When I get back, y’all better be ready to move,” Ty calls out the window as he drives off.
“Ty’s meeting Marcus in the city. They’ve got some big night planned,” Jill tells me as we return to the kitchen to finish sweeping.
“Ah, to be young!”
“Oh, Audrey—thirty-three isn’t old. You should go clubbing in the city.” Jill twirls with her broom. “Meet some new people.”
“I’m not the clubbing type.” But Jill is right. I’m in a rut. I do need to meet some new people. “My friend Maura gets back from England soon. She’ll drag me out to parties. Maybe I’ll at least make it as far as Hoboken.”
“Hoboken has too many frat boys. You’d do better in Williamsburg. It’s arty.”
“Been there, done that. I’ve sworn off depressed poets and starving musicians. What neighborhood do I go to for smart and well-adjusted?”
Our laughter is interrupted by footsteps pounding down the hall. Seconds later, a woman skids into the kitchen.
“Oh, thank God you’re still here!”
It’s Martha, Mr. Wainwright’s daughter, the one who hired me to organize the sale. Blonde hair disheveled, chest heaving, she brushes past me and flings open the pantry door.
She shrieks as if I’d just tossed her baby off a bridge. Eyes blazing, she turns on me. “Where are they?”
“The cans. Where are they?”
“Ty just took them to the soup kitchen. You said you wanted to donate—”
“Not any more. Call him! Get them back!”
I’m really not in the mood for this. Martha Wainwright had seemed like such a nice, reasonable client. Of course she wanted to donate anything useful that didn’t sell. No, she didn’t need to approve the donations. Now here she is going batshit on me.
“What’s the problem?”
She reaches inside her large purse and pulls out a can of Progresso Minestrone. The pop top has been pulled. She thrusts it toward me.
Inside is a tightly coiled wad of cash.