In Mint Condition: A Me Too Mystery
by M.L. Ortega
About In Mint Condition
In Mint Condition: A Me Too Mystery
3rd in Series
Setting: Orange County California
Independently Published (June 3, 2023)
Paperback : 146 pages
ISBN-13 : 979-8396902985
Digital ASIN : B0C6WDQCJG
Single mom Maggie Chessman finds what might be a valuable Chinese porcelain bowl. When she takes it to be appraised at the local antique store, In Mint Condition, she finds a dead vendor. To her cop boyfriend’s dismay, this isn’t the first body she’s discovered, including a naked corpse in a model home and her dead sister-in-law at a local salon. But, unknown to him, this one is the corpse of a man who abused her as a child.
If the truth comes out, she might be the prime suspect in his murder. Her best friend and her therapist rally around her, discussing other suspects – the victim had a hand in a variety of crimes and sins.
As Maggie discovers, no adult is in mint condition, life takes its toll on everyone.
About M.L. Ortega
M.L. Ortega, a member of Sisters In Crime, is the author of The Conditions Series. Publisher Weekly said of the first book in the series, Turn Key Condition, “the entire production is . . an appealing mystery comedy.”
She lives in Southern California and enjoys gardening and spending time with her husband, children, grandchildren, and two cats.
Blogsite: mlortega | A fine WordPress.com site
FaceBook: M.L. Ortega
Bookbub: M.L. Ortega
Purchase Link – Amazon
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Excerpt from In Mint Condition
“This is one of the reasons I don’t go to these antique stores,” Maggie said as she spun around the traffic circle for the third time. “No parking.”
The inner circle of the round-about had a small park with a fountain in the dead center and four concrete benches at the four compass points around the fountain. Small plots of grass framed the whole thing. No one was sitting there. Dodging traffic to reach the park was only for the pedestrian with a death wish. The outer circle of the street held restaurants, while the spokes of the street held antique stores and a miscellany of book stores, flower shops and tattoo parlors. She swung around the circle again when Jane yelped.
“Parking spot! Two o’clock,” she said, using the air force designation for the direction at the northeast of the compass.
Maggie slammed on her brakes and maneuvered into the slot where a SUV was emerging.
“Ha! And we’re right in front of In Mint Condition,” Jane announced triumphantly. Her friend was rubbing her neck and taking deep breaths.
“I don’t think the store is open.”
Maggie craned her neck to see the sign on the door of the antique store.
“It should be. For Pete’s sake, it’s mid-day on a Saturday. The sign says they’re open from nine to six.” She stared into the store’s window. “I think you’re right. There’s no lights on inside.”
She opened the van door and exited carefully, shrinking up against the side of the van to avoid traffic in the lane next to the parking space. Jane popped out of the passenger door.
Maggie joined Jane on the sidewalk and, side by side, they peered into the glass-paned door.
“There’s a light on in the back of the store,” she said. “Maybe the clerk is taking a lunch break.”
“What do you want to do?” Jane said.
“After all the trouble of finding a parking space? Are you kidding me?” She checked the time on her cell phone. “It’s two o’clock. He’s probably finishing up his lunch about now. I bet
there’s a back door to this place. Let’s check it out.”
Sure enough, when the two women ferreted out the alley behind the shop, a pebbly-asphalt strip running the length of the block, they found the back door to the shop. Each store had only one small parking spot in the alleyway. Light shined out through a small transom window over the back door. An older model Honda with faded silver paint was in the one stall. Maggie stalked past the car and knocked on the door. There was no movement from inside but the door creaked open a few inches.
“Hello?” No answer.
Maggie pushed the door open and stepped inside. Jane stood hesitantly at the entrance.
“Maggie!” she whispered.
“Well, the lights in the front still aren’t on. The clerk may not know anyone’s here. Let’s let him know he has a customer. Come on.”
They passed through the large back room which apparently served as a warehouse and repair shop. “Hello?” Maggie called every few feet as she crept through the furniture placed in circular arrangements throughout the store.
The perimeter of the store was lined with bureaus and dressers, desks, and bookcases. The bookcases held the requisite amount of old leather-bound volumes and knickknacks. At one hutch with porcelain vases and jars on display, Maggie halted and stared past the glass into the collection.
“Maggie,” Jane sidled up to her. “Even if someone’s here –and I don’t see how that could be, since we’ve been halloo’ing all this time – it may not be the appraiser. Which is who you wanted to see, right?”
“On a Saturday, the day they get the most business? I don’t think that’s likely. He’s here.”
She turned to Jane and over her friend’s shoulder caught sight of a counter on the opposite wall with a long box behind it.
“Well, would you look at that? Do you think it’s authentic?”
Jane turned to see what looked like a heavy box made of stone with an ornate design etched into it. It was the length of a coffin and rested on a couple of saw horses.
“It looks like a sarcophagus,” Jane said. “They can’t export those kind of antiquities out of the Middle East anymore. And even when they could, only museums got them. It’s probably like a cigar store Indian. Just something to lure customers in.”
“You’re right,” Maggie agreed, running her hand over the top. “The material is modern and light weight. Probably resin or plastic.”
“Nice workmanship, though,” Jane said. A reclining human figure was painted full-length on the lid of the casket-like box. A male figure garbed in Egyptian loincloth and painted in garish red and gold. He had the head dress of a pharaoh. The hands were crossed and one held a scepter, the other an ankh.
Maggie slid past the curios on the shelf behind the ‘sarcophagus’ and, with both hands, lifted its lid until the hinges locked.
“Oh, my god!” She said, her hands flying up to her heart.
Jane scurried around the box and came to a dead stop next to Maggie, who had leaned closer, her face stopping inches from the face of the dead man inside the sarcophagus.
“It’s him. It’s him,” Maggie whispered. “Oh, my god. Oh, my god. Oh, my god.” Her body jerked away from the sarcophagus and she sank to the floor and, rocking back and forth, kept repeating the three words like a mantra.
Jane automatically clicked into emergency mode. She closed the lid with a finality to block the sight of the body from her friend. Pulling Maggie up from the floor, she frog-marched her past the counter, down the hallway and into the workroom. She plopped her down into a wooden swivel chair which had been placed against a wall. Jane squatted down in front of her.
Maggie had covered her eyes with both hands and continued to chant.
Jane had never seen the sangfroid Maggie in such a condition.
Two years ago, they had discovered a naked dead man at one of Jane’s cleaning jobs. Maggie had known the man and, yet, was calm enough to comfort Jane and then straddle the corpse to take a picture of him with her cell phone.
No, something more than the shock of discovering a corpse was going on here.
Jane looked across the workroom. There was a blanket draped over an armchair. She stood up and moved toward the chair. A makeshift coffee bar rested against the wall at the rear of the room with an electric teakettle and tea and coffee tins lined up on the table. She checked the kettle for water and, satisfied it was full, turned it on. Pulling a mug from a shelf above, she opened a tin and plucked out a tea bag. She unwrapped it and plopped it into the mug.
She watched her friend as the kettle heated up. Maggie was still sitting in the chair and had started rocking back and forth. Her hands were in her lap, but trembling badly. Jane finished pouring hot water over the tea bag and swished it around for a few seconds. That done, she hoisted the bag out, dropped it on the table, scooped two spoons of sugar into the mug and stirred
vigorously. Sweeping the blanket up with her free hand, she brought both blanket and mug over to Maggie.
“Maggie?” She said in a low, calm voice. “Maggie. Here. Drink some of this.”
Maggie held the mug and sipped the hot liquid while Jane wrapped the blanket around her shoulders.
Jane pulled another chair over and sat down. Eyes closed, head bowed, she began silently praying. She didn’t think Maggie had strong religious feelings. That wasn’t the foundation of their friendship. But she needed help in dealing with her friend and this was where she got help.
She could hear Maggie sipping. Jane’s thoughts were falling into place as she calmed down. Then she couldn’t hear any more sipping and brought her head up, opening her eyes.
Maggie was staring at her. She got out of the chair but just stood there, frozen, hands still shaking. Jane stood up too.
“I know him, Jane. I know this guy. He’s the one who . . . you, know. When I was a kid.”
Jane hugged Maggie hard.