Tuesday, May 5, 2009

According To Their Deeds by Paul Robertson



According To Their Deeds



Bethany House (March 1, 2009)





Monday





Morning


Only one chair was empty.

"Sixteen thousand. Do I see seventeen?"

Charles slipped into the open seat. He paged through the catalog.

"The bid is seventeen. Do I see eighteen? Thank you, eighteen thousand dollars. Nineteen?"

A man beside him, in thick black-rimmed glasses, leaned over.

"I figured you'd show up."

"Which lot are we on?" Charles asked.

"Number sixty. The desk."

"Derek's desk."

"Nineteen, thank you. Twenty?"

"You knew him, right?" the man said.

"Yes."

"Twenty. The bid is twenty thousand dollars. Do I see twenty-one?"

Gold sconces on the pale blue walls pooled light on the white ceiling, and gold and crystal chandeliers showered light down on the fifty dark blue upholstered chairs. The carpet was even darker blue and very thick, a deep river, soaking up every sound but the auctioneer's voice.

The crowd was darkly upholstered as well.

"Do I see twenty-two?"

A wide young man in the front row lifted a wood paddle.

"Twenty-two, thank you. Do I see twenty-three?"

He did, somewhere else in the room.

"Everything's going high," the man in the glasses said. "Too many out-of-towners. I just wanted to buy back what I sold the guy, but I haven't won a bid yet."

"Who's bidding right now, Norman?" Charles asked.

"That guy with the frizzy hair, he looks like Einstein? He's from a big New York showroom. And up front, in the brown suit, he's from Houston. And that guy's from L.A. Everybody else has dropped out."

"The bid is twenty-eight thousand. Do I see twenty-nine?"

"Like I said, it's all going high," Norman said.

"It's a nice desk."

"Oh, yeah. Everything's real nice, all of it. The guy had great taste. Too bad he's gone, he was a great customer. But that desk, I'd have said twenty-six, twenty-eight for it, and we're blowing through thirty without a hiccup. But I don't do furniture, so what do I know."

Every sound of conversation sank into the carpet's downward pull. Wooden paddles rose and fell, or waved like water lilies on bottomless currents.

"I'm glad there was an empty seat," Charles said. A dozen people were standing at the back wall.

"A guy I knew was sitting there a minute ago."

"Oh—is it his chair?"

"No, I think he left."

"Thirty-four. Do I see thirty-five? The bid is now thirty-four thousand. Any bid?"

There seemed not to be. Mr. Einstein from New York, with his wild white hair and black mustache, had bid last and now stared straight and smugly forward.

"Thirty-four thousand. Going once, twice—" The auctioneer's eyes darted, reacting to some new movement deep in the room. "Thirty-five, thank you. The bid is now thirty-five thousand. Do I see thirty-six?"

Heads turned and searched, but Mr. Einstein himself hardly reacted to this new unknown. He only raised his own paddle.

"Thirty-six. Do I see thirty-seven?"

He did, and everyone else did as well. A woman in a light gray suit and very improbable blond hair, standing against the back wall. She held her paddle out like a sword.

"Thirty-eight?"

Charles paged through his catalog. Lot Sixty, Cherry Pedestal Desk, Philadelphia, 1876. Other people were flipping pages as well.

"Not much of a description," Norman said. "Is there something special?"

"It's historic. Derek was proud of it."

"Oh, wait, that's where they found him, right? On top of it?"

Charles didn't answer. The bidding advanced, a conflict of deliberate and formal violence.

"Because that could be worth a premium," Norman said. "They'd clean it up, right? They wouldn't sell it with blood all over it. But you've got to be careful cleaning those old finishes. You can take them right off. I think it was a lot of blood, too."

"Do I see fifty? Fifty, thank you. Fifty-two?"

The formal quiet and the auctioneer's drone stretched a placid surface across the room. All that could be seen was slow and purposeful, apparently calm. But a tension was growing between the two bidders, like monsters beneath the surface sensing each other and edging into battle.

"Fifty-two. Do I see fifty-four?"

He did immediately.

"Fifty-four. The bid is fifty-four thousand dollars. Do I see fifty-six?"

"Fifty-six. Do I see fifty-eight?"

"Somebody's going to hit their limit," Norman said. "Fifty-eight grand! That's twice what it's worth."

"Do I see sixty?"

The blond woman's impudence was finally getting to the man from New York. He waved his paddle defiantly. It was, in the depths, a first ripping by sharp teeth; anger had been provoked.

"Thank you. The bid is sixty thousand. Do I see sixty-five? Sixty-five, thank you."

"Do you know who she is?" Charles said.

"I've never seen her."

"Sev-en-ty-five." Mr. Einstein had spoken it aloud, each syllable a separate word.

"Seventy-five. Do I see eighty?"

The woman's paddle jerked.

"Eighty. The bid is eighty thousand. Do I see eighty-five?"

"One hun-dred," Einstein said. The room gasped, every person, at the three distinct syllables.

"One hundred thousand dollars. Do I see one hundred five?"

Without hesitation, the woman thrust her paddle straight up, and through.

The man set his paddle under his chair.

It was over, suddenly. A leviathan had been vanquished and now sank away into ultimate deeps.

"One hundred five thousand. Do I see one hundred ten?"

"Not likely," Norman said. He would have been too loud, but the carpet sucked his voice right out of the air. "A hundred five, that had to hurt."

The victor had wounds to nurse, but the battle was past.

"One hundred five. Any other bid? Going once, twice." A pause. "Sold. Lot sixty sold for one hundred five thousand dollars. Next will be lot sixtyone, a Tiffany lamp. Bidding will open at fifteen hundred. Do I see fifteen hundred?"

"What was that?" Norman said. "Fifty was way over the line! A hundred grand? Now that was crazy!"

Ripples of conversation troubled the surface but that was all; the deeps were now still.

"There must be a reason," Charles murmured. The room was filled with murmuring.

"I'd like to know what reason. Twenty-five thousand for the desk and eighty thousand for the reason."

"Thirty-two hundred. Any other bid? Going once, twice, sold. Lot sixty-one for three thousand two hundred dollars. Next will be lot sixty-two, a marble table. Bidding will open at three thousand. Do I see three thousand?"

"So we're back to normal," Norman said. "Thirty-two hundred's high, but just a little. I guess when people fly in from up northeast and from the coast, they don't want to go home empty-handed."

"It's a large collection," Charles said. "It would pull people in from all over."

"I wish they'd stayed back where they came from. But if it's even just the dealers he bought stuff from, it could be this many people. The guy bought all over the place. All I wanted to do was buy back the stuff I sold him."

"Yes. I think you mentioned that."

"But it's all going too high. I'm not going to spend more on a lamp than I can sell it for. At least that blond lady is gone."

She was.

"I do wonder who she was," Charles said.

"Just as long as she's not here to bid on anything I want. Not that I'm getting anything anyway. A hundred grand for a desk! It's crazy."

"I wonder what Derek would have thought," Charles said.

Norman pointed at the next catalog page. "I bet that's the lot you're after."

"Yes."

"Number sixty-four. You got here just in time."

"Going once, twice, sold. Lot sixty-two for five thousand six hundred dollars. Next will be lot sixty-three, two Windsor chairs. Bidding will open at five thousand. Do I see five thousand?"

"Those are nice," Norman said. "I don't do furniture, but those are nice. From Vermont, 1920, all handmade. The real things. It must have taken a long time to pull all this stuff together."

"A lifetime."

"And poof, here it's all gone in three hours. Kind of funny, you know?"

The auctioneer's voice stabbed the air, slicing and cutting, on and on, relentlessly.

"And his wife doesn't want it." Norman said. "It's her selling it off, right?"

"I believe so."

"She's making a bundle. Especially after that desk! I wonder if she knew he was worth so much? His stuff, anyway. Did you get the list?"

"The catalog?" Charles asked, with it in his hand. "This?"

"No, the list from the police."

"I don't know of any list from the police."

"It's the stuff that got stolen, you know, that night he got killed."

"Any other bid? Going once, twice, sold. Lot sixty-three for thirteen thousand dollars."

"They want dealers to be looking for it," Norman said.

"No, I didn't get that list."

"Next will be lot sixty-four, a set of thirteen antique books. Bidding will open at ten thousand. Do I see ten thousand?"

"This is you, right?"

Charles nodded.

"Good luck," Norman said.

"Thanks."

"I guess no books got stolen."

"Ten thousand, thank you. Do I see eleven?"

Norman kept talking. "So that's why they didn't give you the list. Police and FBI, too. They're all looking."

Charles had his own paddle in his lap. He watched the bids increase.

"How much will it go for?" Norman said.

"Twenty-three, twenty-four for the set, maybe twenty-five."

"Remember, it's all going high. You sold them all to him in the first place?"

"Fifteen thousand. Do I see sixteen? Thank you, sixteen thousand."

"Yes. A book at a time, over the last six years."

Charles leaned forward, watching the different bidders.

"Do you know everyone bidding?" Norman said.

"So far."

"From around here?"

"No. Briary Roberts in New York. Jacob Leatherman himself from San Francisco."

"The old guy?"

"Yes."

"Did you know he was coming?"

"We had dinner last night."

His eyes were on the contest. The other bidders took turns, pushing the price up.

"Twenty thousand. Do I see twenty-one?"

Charles lifted his paddle. Now he was joined in the battle himself.

"Twenty-one thousand." For a moment, he owned the bid. "Do I see twenty-two?" And then he did not. "Twenty-two, thank you. Do I see twenty-three?"

Suddenly the bidding intensified with quick jabs from Jacob Leatherman, and then New York again.

"Twenty-five? Thank you. Do I see twenty-six?"

Jacob Leatherman's paddle quivered in the air.

"Twenty-six. Do I see twenty-seven?"

Charles signaled, quickly.

"Twenty-seven thousand. Do I see twenty-eight?"

Jacob was frowning from across the room, but his paddle was on the floor.

"Any other bid? The bid is twenty-seven thousand. Going once, twice, sold. Lot sixty-four sold for twenty-seven thousand dollars."

"But I thought you said it was only worth twenty-four," Norman said.

"Sentiment."

"Next will be lot sixty-five, a wood inlay chess set. Bidding will open at two thousand dollars."

"I don't do books," Norman said, "so what do I know. Oh, I sold this chess set. I'm just trying to get back what I sold him."

Charles stood and took a deep breath and moved toward the door.

*

Charles stepped out from the building into very bright sunlight.

It took a moment to adjust.

Traffic was heavy. On the sidewalk, a dozen people were scattered over the length of the block. The gray stone and mirrored windows of the office building across the street were very bright.

A cardboard box was in front of him, tight in both hands.

He turned south toward Pennsylvania Avenue, three blocks away. The faces he passed were stern and silent against the world, or talking on cell phones, alive, animated, in other worlds. Charles stopped at the first corner.

He was being followed.

Across the street a young man had stayed even with him. He was in torn jeans and a hooded sweatshirt, and he had stopped on his opposite corner. A well-dressed woman, passing him, instinctively drew back, and hurried past.

Charles waited.

Abruptly the man sprang from the curb and sprinted, dodging cars. His eyes were on the box in Charles's hands. A car squealed but the young man, lithe and quick, was already across.

Charles waited. The predator came to a halt, inches away.

"Hey, boss," he said, in a low voice.

"Don't cause a wreck, Angelo."

He shrugged. "You got that?"

"Twenty-seven thousand."

"For a little box." His accent was urban Hispanic and so were his black hair and shadowy face.

"You take it," Charles said.

"Back to the shop?"

Charles handed him the box.

"Take it to the shop. I'll be right there."

"Okay, boss, I'll take it, it's not any problem."

"Be careful."

"You are worrying for me, boss, or you are worrying for that box?"

"The box isn't going to do anything foolish."

Angelo smiled, a tiger showing its teeth. "I am smarter than that little box."

"Try to be."

With no other words he turned away, only walking but very quickly. Charles continued on his own way to a Metro station, and descended into the ground.

*

"King Street. Next stop Eisenhower Avenue." The doors whirred and Charles was on the platform, looking out at the streets of Alexandria. The escalator took him down to them.

The pocket around the station was in giant twelve-story scale, of offices and plazas, tied to the rest of the city only by it being brick. Beyond, though, a few blocks of King Street brought Charles to the three-story scale of real west Alexandria, authentic and shabby from a century of pawn and secondhand existence, now getting better but still not good.

Then another five blocks east and the buildings were solid and many were very good, and rents were high and the shop windows cleaner and the doors were appealing instead of simply peeling.

Charles crossed noisy Washington Street and into the heart of crowds and crowds. At Market Square he turned right into quiet streets, then one more block, and finally up two steps, and into a place that was very, very quiet.

*

The first impression was always the quiet. It was the special calm silence of books aging, books that were very practiced at aging.

"Hello, Alice."

"Good afternoon, Mr. Beale." Alice had a way of speaking that did not disturb the silence. "Mrs. Beale was just asking if I'd seen you."

The second impression was the quiet of color. Only the part of any color that could last decades was left in the room. Even loud colors were quiet.

"Is she upstairs?" he asked.

"Yes, sir."

Then the smell, which was faintest, half like a forest and half like old linen, but sharp.

"And have you seen Angelo?" he asked.

"No, sir." Her dress was the russet of a bright red cover faded over forty years.

"I didn't think he'd be back yet." The counter stretched across the right side of the room and stairs went up the left side, and a rail ran across the back.

"And have we sold anything?"

"A 1940 Gone With the Wind."

"I can empathize with Scarlet," he said. "I feel like I've just come from the burning of Atlanta."

He opened the gate in the middle of the rail and climbed the steps.

*

"There you are."

Her voice was quicksilver and light and everything peaceful.

"Here I am," Charles said. "Dorothy, it was worse than I'd expected."

"I'm sorry." Her hair was slow silver, short and easy, and lovely. "Were you there long?"

"Twenty minutes. But I sat beside Norman Highberg."

"Oh, dear." She smiled, which was the moon at its brightest. "Did you get the books?"

"Yes, for twenty-seven. I had to outbid Jacob Leatherman just at the end. Oh, he scowled!"

"He'll get over it, and you will, too. I'm glad you got them. It helps to close the circle with Derek."

"It does help. And I have to tell you about Derek's desk." His own desk was at the front window, and he sat and pushed aside newspapers and magazines and catalogs to make space for an elbow.

"I suppose there was something special about it?" Anything would be special if she only spoke its name.

"Everything he had was special. But this was more than just ordinary special."

"It was auctioned today?"

"Yes, and sensationally." Now that he was sitting, he stretched his back, and put his hands behind his head. "I came in right in the middle of it. It should have gone twenty-five thousand, and it was about to go for thirty-four, and whoosh, two people bid it right up to a hundred and five thousand. There was a riot."

"A very calm one, I'm sure."

"People actually turned in their chairs and looked around. It was that drastic."

Her blue eyes widened in her own calm amazement. "Why would it sell for so much?"

"It's a complete mystery." He stared out the window at the street. "Poof."

"What?"

"A lifetime. Three hours and it's gone."

"Selling off all his things?"

"His world. Everything he was, all scattered." With his hands behind his head, the space on his desk he'd cleared for his elbow was empty now, abandoned.

"Life is more than what you own," Dorothy said. Her own desk was perfectly ordered, with a computer screen, a neat pile of papers, and two photographs. She put her elbows on the empty middle and looked at him.

"Oh, I know," Charles said. "But that's what's left at the end."

"He was an important person, wasn't he?"

"He was a bureaucrat in the Justice Department. Yes, he was important." He glanced at the newspaper. The first page was rancor in Congress, and the president refusing to cooperate, and officials denying any wrongdoing. "What would the Post print if there were no scandals?"

"Hollywood divorces, like everyone else."

"I guess that would be worse. Every story on the front page is about someone's failing."

The sun was overhead, in the west, full on the townhouses across the street. The shadow of his own building was creeping toward them.

He read a paragraph. "This poor man," he said. "A highly respected federal judge. Ten years on the bench. Then it comes out that he cheated on his exams back in law school. Over thirty years ago! First he was forced to resign, and now he's being disbarred."

"It does seem severe."

"There is more to life than what you own. There's also what you've done wrong."

"And what you've done right. Charles, you're getting moody. Did you bring the books home?"

"Angelo has them, speaking of lives lived questionably."

"I didn't know you took him." The two pictures on her desk were of Charles and of a teenage boy.

"I just decided at the last minute."

"Was he dressed all right?"

"No, he was not. There wasn't time. He wouldn't have come inside anyway."

"We have a delivery for him to make this afternoon in Arlington. And I was thinking we should get him a suit for his next probation review."

"His regular business clothes are fine." He dropped the newspaper into the wastebasket. "Felons in suits annoy me."

"Besides Angelo, how many felons do you know?"

"Aren't we all?"

"Mr. Beale?" Alice had come up the steps. "Mr. Leatherman is here to see you."

"Take a deep breath," Dorothy said.

Charles did.

*

"Jacob!" Charles said from the stairs. "Welcome!"

"What did you do that for?" It would have been a growl, but from such a small and fragile man it was a yip.

Charles reached the floor, smiling all the way. "Let me get you a chair." He swept through the gate and came to rest at his guest. "I'd invite you to the office but it's up all those stairs."

"I don't need a chair."

"I'm glad you could stop in. I was sorry you couldn't after dinner last night."

"I have time before my flight and I don't like sitting in airports. I told the taxi to bring me here."

"I'm so glad," Charles said.

Jacob smacked the floor with his walking stick. "You're glad? You're gloating, that's what it is, for outbidding me. What did you do that for?"

"You could have bid higher if you wanted them, Jacob."

"That's all they're worth. Now I'm going back without anything."

"I'm sorry your trip was a waste. I'll sell them to you, if you want."

"How much?"

"Thirty."

"Thirty?" He smacked the floor again. "They're not worth that. I'd have bid thirty if they were."

"Then I guess I'll keep them."

"I didn't come to have you gloat. I'll give you twenty-three." Smack.

"Thirty-five. And you're perfectly Dickensian when you do that."

"Bah, humbug then. Dickensian?" He rubbed his nose. "I like that. And you said thirty."

"You should have taken it while you could."

"Whippersnapper! Mocking an old man! You'll give me apoplexy, and I have all those airport lines to go through yet. You'll send me to an early grave."

"That's no longer possible, Jacob."

"I know when I'm not wanted. I'll leave if that's how it is." He narrowed his eyes. "The Locke, I'd have liked to look at that one. Is it as nice as you said it is?"

"It is, Jacob. Nothing special—I know you've seen better ones. But it's nice."

Jacob's scowl lightened a little. "I like looking at them. Do you have the books here?"

"No. I had a courier bring them."

"A courier? Why would you do that for?"

"Just common caution. Shall I call you a taxi?"

"I have one waiting outside. Did you say twenty-five?"

"Thirty-five."

"Thirty-five!" Whack. "Mocking an old man. I'll leave. I have to go."

Charles held open the door. "Then have a nice flight."

"No such thing." He started slowly and painfully down the first step, and then froze. "What's that?! Don't touch me!" He lifted his cane.

Angelo was four feet from him, also stopped, his eyes slits and his white teeth showing.

"Jacob—" Charles started.

"Street gangs!" Jacob yelped. "Here at your door! That's why you use a courier!"

"Jacob," Charles said. "This is Angelo Acevedo. He is my courier."

Angelo was silent.

"Just take the box in," Charles said.

Jacob shrank back as Angelo passed. "You let him touch your books?"

"I do," Charles said. "And it's fine. Let me help you to your taxi."

"Bah! I'll make it myself."

"Take care, Jacob."

"You too, Charles." Once Jacob was launched he moved quickly. The cab door was opened for him, the cab driver was scolded, and the cab drove away.

*

Charles closed the door and took a deep breath. "Angelo. Everything went okay?"

"Except that old crazy man."

"That's Mr. Leatherman, and he's actually very nice, just prickly."

Angelo frowned. "What is prickly?"

"Like a cactus."

"Like a little dog to bite at you."

"He doesn't bite, he just barks. But never mind. You took a long time."

"I came a different way from you, or why should I even carry the box instead of you?"

"You're right."

Angelo held out his hands. "So, boss, here is your box."

"Thank you." He took it, respectfully. "Go check with Mrs. Beale. I think she has a delivery for you to do this afternoon."

"Okay."

"And Angelo ..."

He turned back from the steps and waited.

"Do you remember the delivery we made together, last November, and the man had the chess set on his desk, and he talked to you in Spanish?"

"I remember that house and that man."

"That is the man who died. These are his books that I bought back today."

"Oh, that man?" He shrugged. "That's too bad."

"It is too bad. That book we took him, it's here in this box."

Angelo glanced at the box with no greater interest than before, and then turned to his next task.

"I'll be in the basement," Charles said to Alice.

*

But he was interrupted. "Mr. Beale?"

Charles had just started for the basement.

"Yes, Morgan?"

As Angelo had ascended, Morgan had descended. He sat on a step halfway down. "There's a first edition Odyssey that just came up on eBay."

"Which translation?"

Morgan had stopped too high and he had to lean forward to see into the showroom. He bumped down one step, and all his pale face and red hair floated into view. "Alexander Pope."

"A 1725 Pope first edition?" Charles snorted. "I doubt it!"

"The listing says first edition. And it says it's signed by the author."

"The translator, you mean."

"It says the author."

Charles paused. "The Odyssey, signed by the author. That would certainly answer the question of whether it was written or oral. I suppose I should come and see."

*

"Do you think it could be anything you'd want?"

Charles squinted at the picture on Morgan's computer. "Not much of a picture."

"It's not a dealer," Morgan said. "Just an individual."

"Send an email. I want to know the usual—the publisher and city, number of pages, and the date. And I want a picture of the title page, and see if he'll tell us where he got it."

"How much would it be worth?"

"A 1725 Pope first edition? Even in poor condition, at least thirty thousand. But that's nothing like a first edition. I'd say it was nineteenth century. How long is the auction?"

"One week. It just started this afternoon."

"Keep an eye on it. We'll see how high it goes. I might decide to bid once we hear back from the seller."

"Yes, sir."

"Thank you, Morgan."

*

Charles stopped at the door to his office.

"Was Jacob all right?" Dorothy asked.

"Yes. Just being sociable. Have you ever read Homer's Odyssey?"

"Yes."

"Do you remember which translation?"

"No. It was in college." She noticed the box in his hands. "And that is the books?"

"This is Derek's books," he said. "Yes. I'm taking them to the basement right now to work on them." He looked at the box in his hand. "Or maybe I shouldn't."

"Why?"

"There might be Greeks hidden inside."

"That was the Aeneid, and that box is not a horse, and they would have to be very small Greeks."

"The Trojans didn't think they were in any danger either."

Afternoon

Down, down, down. He unlocked the door at the bottom and turned on the light.

The building was as old as most of the books, which was fitting. The basement had served many purposes; framed photographs in a corner showed what the renovation had uncovered. The floor had been bare earth for the first half century or so, and then quarters for two slaves, and then for two servants after the Civil War. Then it had been storage and children's rooms and disuse alternating over more years until it had finally become what it now was.

Now the walls were filled with shelves, and the shelves were filled with volumes, and the volumes were filled with ... everything. They rested in their ordered ranks, contemplating the deepest and widest thoughts man had accumulated since contemplation had begun.

The floor, walls, and ceiling were thick and fireproof. The dry, cool air was thick with their philosophies, histories and literatures. It was a very safe place for books.

A few very valuable volumes were in the bank safe deposit, and the lesser items were in the display room upstairs, but this was always the foundation and the heart.

Charles set the box on the desk and turned on the computer.

Then he opened the cardboard box and lifted out the first package, wrapped in crisp brown paper. The paper fell open as he cut the tape.

He opened a drawer and took white gloves, thin clean cotton, to put on, and then he touched the book.

The boards and spine were the brown of soil walked on and worn hard and flat. The lettering was faint.

He lifted the volume and studied it. The spine was sturdy and the page edges were aligned, with none loose. He cradled it in one hand and opened the front board.

The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith.

A two-inch square of light green paper slid off the first page. Alexandria Rare Books was printed on it, with the numbers 7273 2002 handwritten below.

He closed the book, turned it over, and opened the back board. Then he closed it again, turned it vertical, and opened to the center and then to a few other pages, efficiently and carefully, inspecting it at every angle.

Finally he set it back on its wrapping paper and turned to the computer. He typed 7273, read through the book's history on the screen, and then started typing: Purchased at auction 4/21/08, Derek Bastien Estate. Condition unchanged, very good. Price—

He paused and wrote the name of the book on a scrap of the brown paper. He wrote $3,100 beside it, and then typed that number onto the screen. He carried the book to a shelf and moved a ceramic block to make a space.

He typed 235 into the Location field on-screen.

Then he stared again at the brown paper, and paused.

"... eleven ... twelve ... thirteen ..." And he frowned.

But then he shrugged and started on the next package.

*

"Mr. Beale?"

"Yes?" He had four books and four prices listed on the brown paper. Two glass jars and a few small brushes were beside the book he was just closing.

Morgan had marched down the steps. "I'm getting the Anthony Trollope for Angelo to deliver."

"Do you need the computer?"

"For just a minute. And I think Alice was just answering a phone call for you."

"Mr. Beale?" Alice's voice marched down the steps. "There's a call for you, Mr. Edmund Cane."

Charles slid his book into its new space and picked up the phone.

"Charles Beale."

"Good afternoon." A slow, deliberate voice. "My name is Edmund Cane."

"Yes, Mr. Cane? What can I do for you?"

"I understand you were at the Bastien auction this morning?" Every syllable was a distinct word.

"Yes, I was."

"You were present during the sale of the Honaker pedestal desk?"

"Derek Bastien's desk? I was."

"Perhaps you saw the young woman who purchased the desk?"

"Mr. Cane," Charles said. "I hope I'm not being impertinent. By any chance, do you happen to have white hair and a dark gray mustache?"

The phone was silent as Einstein contemplated an equation or two. "Yes, I do. I see you remember me."

"I certainly do, Mr. Cane. It was very dramatic."

"Do you have any idea who might have wanted the desk?"

"Well, you did," Charles said.

Time passed slowly, at least at Charles's end of the phone. Morgan slipped the green label in the front of the Trollope and started wrapping it in brown paper. "Anyone else?" Mr. Cane finally said.

"I am sorry. You might try Norman Highberg. He has a showroom in Georgetown, and he knows the general antiques market much better than I. I only do books."

"Actually, your name was among those given me by Mr. Highberg."

"Hey boss, do you have the box for me?"

They both turned toward the door. In dark pants, dark shirt and dark tie, Angelo was transformed.

"Yes," Charles said. "You're always quiet coming into a room."

"Everything is so always quiet here." There was no transformation of his voice, or his eyes.

"Mr. Cane?" Charles said into the telephone. "I'm sorry, I'll be just a moment."

Morgan sealed the cardboard package. "I'm done." He handed it to Angelo.

"Be very nice to the customer when you see him," Charles said.

"Oh, I am always nice."

"Do they think that you're being nice?"

"I don't know what they think."

"I should ask them. You have the receipt for them to sign?"

"I have that."

"Then we'll see you when you get back. Thank you, Angelo."

"Yes, boss." And then he was gone.

"I'm sorry," Charles said again to the telephone. "Is there anything else I can do to help you?"

"I would like to identify the young woman who bid against me. Do you know anything about her?"

"No, I don't. I'm sorry."

"You have never seen her before?"

"Not that I remember."

"How unfortunate."

"Actually, Mr. Cane, I did just think of something. I don't think it would be much use. But an employee of mine was waiting outside the building. He might have seen her leave."

"Could you ask him?"

"He just left for the afternoon. I'll ask him this evening. But I doubt it would be much help."

"That could be a great help."

"I guess it's all relative," Charles said.

"Good day, Mr. Beale."

"Good day, Mr. Cane."

Morgan was looking at the books on the desk. "Those are the Derek Bastien books?"

"Yes. It doesn't look like they've been touched since we sold them. They all still have their green labels in them."

Morgan picked up one of the glass jars. "Was something loose?"

"Not particularly. The Gibbon had a little spot on the spine. I remember gluing it back when Derek first bought it, but it must not have dried all the way."

"There are fourteen of them?"

"No, thirteen."

"Maybe the computer's wrong. Should I put them on the website?"

"Not yet. I'll tell you when. I think they need a little rest first."

*

The room was silent again. The invaders had all been repulsed.

Charles took the next book, the fifth, out of the box.

They were all books of law, government and human rights, by John Locke, Edmund Burke, Adam Smith, John Adams, David Hume; Rousseau, Voltaire, Montesquieu, de Tocqueville and more; man's nature and man's hopes of overcoming it, or at least containing it.

He held the wrapped book, staring at it. He slowly raised and lowered it, feeling its weight.

His eyes darkened and his brow lowered in anger.

He removed the paper, very slowly.

It was John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. The first page was as it should have been, but there was no green paper square. The back cover was normal.

Even as he held it, though, his fingers tensed. He stopped until they had relaxed and he was ready.

Reluctantly, he put his finger against the pages. He took a deep breath and steeled himself. He opened the volume near the middle.

"No!"

He closed his eyes. When he opened them, it was still the same.

"Alice?" he called up the stairs, when he could, trying to sound normal. "Could you ask Mrs. Beale to come down here, please?"

*

"Look," he demanded, even as she was still in the doorway.

It was still on the desk where he'd set it. Defiled.

"What is it, Charles?" Her voice was the stillness that smoothed the waves, and her presence was the water's depths untouched by the storms above.

He touched it. "The pages are cut."

She came close, and she saw it, and his shock and grief was mirrored in her eyes. He waited for her to pass through the sorrow, as he had.

"What is that?"

He touched it, nestled in the hollow space, just a plain box of playing cards. The book had been hollowed for it.

"A card box."

"Which book is it?"

He sighed. "John Locke."

"Why?"

He could only stare. "I don't know."

Together, they could only stare. Then Dorothy asked the first practical question.

"Would Derek have done it?"

"Who else?" He shuddered. "It must have been." The book lay open, embarrassed, on its spine. The cut was exactly sized to fit the box; only a very sharp knife could have cut so cleanly. Charles shivered. "But I can't believe he would have."

"How are the other books?"

"I haven't finished them."

"You should." Encouraging, empathic, and a little stern, all together.

"I'll dread opening each one."

"I know. That's why you need to get through them."

"Just stay down here a little while, won't you?"

"I will," Dorothy said. The book was lying on its brown paper, and she closed it and pulled the whole thing to the side of the desk.

Charles lifted the next package from the cardboard box, took a breath, and opened it.

*

"That was the only one," Charles said, with the last of the other twelve books safely on their shelves.

"We'll have to do something with it," Dorothy said.

"We can't leave it here." He pulled the paper back to the center of the desk. "I don't know what to do. Just throw it away? I couldn't bear to."

"It's completely ruined."

"Thoroughly, through and through. I've never had to deal with such a thing. I can salvage the boards, and maybe we'd use them."

"I suppose we could just put it on the shelf."

"That would be as bad as throwing it away," Charles said, "and I'd see it every time I came down here."

"Then throw it away. I'll do it for you."

"Let's wait."

Dorothy had finished with sentiment. "The longer you wait, the harder it will be."

"But not today." Charles put his hand on the closed book. "I suppose we should see if anything is in the little box." He opened the book. The box of cards hadn't moved.

"What if there is?"

He looked at it bitterly. "Then I'll propose a couple rounds of poker." He put his fingers on the edges of the box. "It isn't even period." He worked it free and weighed it in his hand. "Not cards, anyway."

"I hope it wouldn't be." Her voice was always musical; now it had a note of curiosity.

"It's too light," he said, and opened the top flap. "No jewels, no money, no ancient treasures. Just some papers."

Dorothy moved closer to see. "They must be important."

"They'd better be." Several white sheets were folded together, and he opened the first. "I don't even know what this is. A list." Fifty or more handwritten lines, each two letters, a date, and a number. He showed it to Dorothy.

She read one from the middle of the page. "GJ, nine-twelve-oh-five, twenty-two fifty."

"His computer passwords," Charles said. "Or his automobile mileage."

"Why would he keep his mileage inside John Locke?"

"Why would he keep anything inside John Locke? I don't know." He opened another page. "A copy of four checks." He looked at them closely. "Cashier's checks. They are made out to ... Karen Liu."

"That's a lot of money," Dorothy said.

"Five hundred thousand in all."

"I wonder who Karen Liu is."

"I remember Derek mentioning her name." He frowned. "She is a congressman. Congresswoman. Congressperson."

Then they both were silent. It was a silence of confusion, where thoughts were almost audible.

"Why—?" they both said. Dorothy finished the question.

"Why would Derek have that paper?"

Charles answered, staring, but not at anything. "I don't know."

"And what would the checks be for?"

"I don't know."

Dorothy took the paper. "They're dated eight years ago. When did you sell him that book?"

"Five years ago."

"I wonder where he kept the papers before that."

Charles broke from his reverie. "Oh, he must have had some other hiding place. Maybe he had a hole chiseled out of a Renaissance statue? Or a Ming vase? Or maybe thumbtacked to the back of a Van Gogh."

"Did he have a Van Gogh?"

"I don't think so. But I wonder why he had them hidden at all." Then slowly, he opened a third paper. It was a newspaper article. Charles and Dorothy both read the headline.

Man Killed, Police Search County for Wife.

"We shouldn't look at these," Charles said.

"Maybe we should return them."

"Yes," Charles said. "That's what we should do." But he sounded doubtful.

"Will you call his wife?"

"I don't know. I don't know whose they should be. Legally, they're mine."

"I don't think they were meant to be sold," Dorothy said.

"I'm sure they weren't. But sale at auction is absolute."

"You don't want to keep them, do you?"

"No. It just means that they are mine to figure out what to do with."

Now Dorothy was doubtful. "What did he do at the Justice Department?"

Charles folded the papers and put them back in the box. Distastefully, he pushed the box back into its lair. "Derek was Chief of Staff to the Deputy Assistant Attorney General for Legislative Affairs."

Dorothy frowned, and the solemnity that had watched over the room shifted its gaze elsewhere. "I had no idea such a position existed," she said. Her tone was plain that she saw no need that it should.

"It did. It does still, I suppose."

"Then those papers must have something to do with it. They don't have anything to do with us."

"It's still a poor place to keep them," Charles said.

Dorothy's attention was pulled back to the object on the desk.

"What will you do with the book?"

He stared at the ruin of it. "That is the real difficulty. Oh my," he sighed. "I'm so disappointed."

"How much is it worth?"

"I was going to say four thousand," Charles said. "It was the most valuable book he had."

"How much did you sell it to him for?"

"Twenty-six hundred, five years ago. But it's not the money anyway."

"It's what it says about Derek."

Now they were back to the beginning. "Yes," Charles said. "Exactly. If he needed to hide something, there must have been a hundred other places that didn't require destroying something. I remember delivering that book myself, and we talked for an hour about just it. I even remember the chess game we had while we talked."

"He must have had a reason for doing what he did."

"I'd like to know the reason," Charles said.

3 comments:

Sheila Deeth said...

Came here from Forensics and Faith. This book has to go on my list - I'll plan on mentioning it at our book group too.

Bonnie Toews said...

Definitely a winner. I'm hooked too. I will have to add it to my "Must Reads."

Carmen7351 said...

After reading the title and reading the excerpt, it sounds very intriguing. Gets one's mind reeling about who and what.