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By Loren Estleman
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2012 Loren Estleman
All rights reserved.
Chief Dockerty knew the shadiest spot in New Mexico wasn't the Santa Rita copper mine in Silver City. It was right there in the town of Good Advice, and it belonged to Avery Sharecross' bookshop.
Sharecross had established it, years before many of the residents were born, in a three-hundred-year-old mission that had been by turns a community theater, a Salvation Army shelter, a home for armadillos, and a place for juvenile delinquents to smoke cigarettes and listen to rock and roll. Its walls were adobe, three feet thick, its few windows just large enough to shoot Indians from inside without attracting too many arrows from outside. During its empty period, it had been as dark and mossy—feeling as a cave. Sharecross had managed to make it darker still by installing towering bookcases and stocking them with volumes, some the same vintage as the building, with narrow passages between the cases. Generations of children had dared one another to approach the place after dark, when the ghosts of William Shakespeare and Mark Twain prowled among the stacks (or during the day, when the proprietor did the haunting); none accepted. Even at high noon, a visitor needed a flashlight to explore the place without running into Thackeray or Gibbon and cracking a tooth.
Fortunately for the chief's new bridge, the bookseller had suspended trough lights from the distant ceiling, with chain switches for the convenience of browsers, who were requested by hand-lettered cardboard signs posted throughout the store to turn them off when they moved from one aisle to the next. The fluorescent tubes flickered and buzzed when activated and spilled watery illumination onto many centuries of literature, but not quite as far as the plank floor, which was heaped with books on both sides of the passages, narrowing the avenues even further. Dockerty groped his way forward with his feet to avoid kicking them over.
The cases were ancient, built of old-growth oak from the East, and gray with the accumulation of dust that had worked its way deep into the grain. Although the proprietor was scrupulous with a duster so that none of his patrons would shun the place to keep from smearing his best suit or her new dress, the pulverized bones of prehistoric buffalo and extinct Indian tribes that made up the Santa Fe Trail would not be prevented entrance, either to the shop or Chief Dockerty's nostrils.
Sneeze. Blow nose. Creep forward. Repeat.
A reader of bulletins and arrest reports exclusively, he hadn't visited the place often, and not in months. He had only a vague memory of the layout, and Sharecross' regard for his customers did not extend to sparing them the annoyance of the occasional dead end: Aisles that were open at both ends alternated with those whose exits were sealed with perpendicular bookcases, and as the bookseller was constantly rearranging his stock and changing how it was displayed, even a Daniel Boone would find himself retracing his footsteps and muttering all the way.
But it was a Tuesday, and therefore a lucky one for the chief of the Good Advice Police Department (five officers, three of them part-timers). That was the day the book club gathered to drink iced tea, eat lemon cookies, and talk about Plot, Theme, and Character. All he had to do was follow the murmur of voices.
"Well, I hated it. Six hundred pages about dancing bears and a boy biting a dog."
This was "Uncle Ned" Scoffield, whose ninety-nine-year-old voice cracked as air whistled through his dentures.
"It isn't just about that, Ned. Garp's a tragic hero."
Birdie Flatt: retired after forty years when the phone company yanked out the old switchboard. Dockerty knew her shrill tones from every call he'd placed when he was a patrolman new to the force.
Someone else snorted. That would be Carl Lathrop, head of the town council, who overrode hecklers at meetings by way of his expressive nasal passages. "He's a cartoon character. Not every book is Wuthering Heights."
"The dancing bear's a symbol, folks," said another man whose voice the chief couldn't peg right away. "Irving's making a point about the folly of human nature."
Ned put in another two cents' worth. "Symbols, shmymbols. Leave it to a newspaperman to like a book about a boy biting a dog."
That made the other man Gordon Tolliver, the publisher of The Good Adviser, a weekly, popularly believed to have been founded by Horace Greeley. At fifty, he'd be the youngest member of the club.
There followed a lively exchange of views, simultaneous and pierced through by Birdie's stridor.
"Friends, friends," Sharecross' reedy tenor quieted the tumult. "This is a literary discussion, not professional wrestling. Ned: There's a great deal more to The World According to Garp than a boy biting a dog, which you'd know if you'd read past the opening chapters instead of just counting the pages.
Miss Flatt: He's not quite a figure of tragedy, because the book is intended as a black comedy, and you can't have both on the same stage at the same time. Neither is he a cartoon character, Carl; he's too fleshed-out for that. Gordon, it pains me to tell you that the dancing bear is just a dancing bear. There's one in nearly every book Irving's written. It's his trademark, like Poe's gloomy tarn and Ayn Rand's monologues."
"Next time, let's read Louis L'Amour," said Uncle Ned. "His dogs don't get bit and his bears don't do the polka."
"Let's mix it up a bit. Each of you pick a book, and we'll compare their various merits and shortcomings next week. Don't forget to mark it in the ledger before you go."
Dockerty emerged from the literary labyrinth just as the group was rising from its folding chairs. Sharecross, who'd been holding court from behind his massive desk, as old and gray as the bookshelves—hell, as old as him, thought the chief—got up from his wooden swivel to greet his visitor. The others nodded greetings, each preoccupied with his or her quest among the stock.
"A pleasant surprise, Chief. Have I persuaded you to join us at last? An experienced criminologist will be invaluable when we take up Ed McBain."
The bookseller resembled a caricature of the trade: gaunt, with hair of a gray to match his shelves straggling to his collar, thick spectacles, and limbs like bent pipe cleaners, his knees and elbows trying to gnaw through the rusty black woolen suit he wore even when the temperature topped a hundred. Now that he thought about it, Dockerty had never seen the man sweat. If someone fetched him a hard blow, his pores would release only dry air and desiccated bindings.
"I'm a cop, not a detective," the chief said. "That's your specialty."
"I've been a bookseller longer than I was a detective. Back then, DNA stood for Do Not Arrest. The captain had a blind spot where his son was concerned."
In the beginning, Dockerty had had trouble picturing this elderly scarecrow collaring and interrogating suspects. Any Hollywood studio would have cast him as the absent-minded ascetic in some musty archive. Then he'd Googled Sharecross' name, and spent twenty minutes reading commendations and looking at pictures of him shaking hands with a U.S. attorney general, an FBI director, and the graduating class at the New York Police Academy. In one shot, with a chestful of medals and a police commissioner placing a ribbon around his neck ending in yet another decoration, his dress uniform appeared to be wearing him rather than the other way around. Even back then he'd looked like an assistant professor employed by a not-very-distinguished university. Twenty years into his own career, the chief had learned the first lesson of police work: Don't judge a man by his appearance.
"I'm not here to join your book club, Avery. It's official business."
Sharecross raised his voice a decibel. "I don't have that one in stock, but I'm attending an estate sale in Albuquerque next week. I'll look for it."
Dockerty was confused, then aware of Lathrup, the last book club member present, letting himself out the door. When it shut behind him, jangling the copper bell attached to it, the bookseller said, "The city council has a right to discuss police business, but I assume you'd rather keep it off the table this early in the investigation."
The chief nodded, embarrassed that he hadn't thought of it himself. "It's Lloyd Fister."
"Lloyd's my best customer. What's happened?"
"Accident, I hope, though it looks like murder."
Not the usual response from an experienced detective. But then, Sharecross wasn't your usual detective.
Lloyd Fister had been born in Good Advice, the fifth generation in his family to first see the light in the rambling Victorian pile on the hill overlooking the town. His great-great-grandfather had brought the railroad and, with it, prosperity, to the town and himself. Rather than desert when the local economy went into decline a hundred years later, Lloyd had stayed on, using a great deal of his inheritance to build one of the finest book collections in private hands. His interest ran toward the history of the Southwest, and Sharecross had been instrumental in helping him stock his shelves. Their friendship had survived the onslaught of the Internet; rather than consign his search for rare and obscure titles to a soulless electronic machine, Fister preferred to continue a relationship that had outlasted his own marriage, which had ended in widowhood many years before.
"I'll print out these pictures at the station." Andy Barlow, the deputy chief, gestured with the digital camera in his hand. "I got every angle."
"Okay. Tolliver will be all over you for a print soon as he hears about it. I'll decide which he can put in the paper. I don't want this showing up on the front page."
As he spoke, Dockerty inclined his head toward the sheet-covered figure on the floor.
"He'll turn that rag into a tabloid if he gets half a chance." Barlow left.
Apart from the number and variety of volumes present, Fister's private library bore no resemblance to the bookshop where he had acquired so many of its titles. Mahogany bookshelves, intricately carved by a long-dead Mexican artisan, walled its seven hundred square feet all the way to the twelve-foot ceiling, holding several thousand volumes bound in leather, buckram, and parchment, all upright and level, with spaces left here and there for future acquisitions which now would never be made. A ladder made of the same wood stood against one wall, fitted into a ceiling track that allowed it to be moved into position to retrieve books from the upper shelves. The collector's desk, of mahogany also, contained a banker's lamp and more books in stacks, and an armchair upholstered in maroon full-grain leather stood in each corner beside a tall reading lamp. The air smelled pleasantly of paper and leather in various stages of genteel decay.
In fact, the only thing untidy about the room was the corpse under the sheet.
Sharecross knelt and lifted the sheet with a half-hopeful expression, as if it might not be his old friend and fellow bibliophile lying there with a cracked skull. He let the sheet fall back into place and rose, his knees creaking and disappointment on his emaciated face.
"His housekeeper called us," Dockerty said. "She found him about an hour ago when she came in to clean. It broke her up bad. Doc Simms has her under sedation."
"Poor Greta. She doesn't sleep here, does she?"
"She lives with her sister in town. She wasn't here when it happened; the Doc swears to that. He figures Fister was dead at least two hours when he examined him. Blunt-instrument trauma's probably cause of death, but he won't swear to it till the autopsy. I wanted you to see the body before I had it taken away."
"No need. I took your word for it—he's dead." Sharecross walked around the room, looking up toward the top of the shelves, where various objets d'art stood in the space between them and the ceiling.
"We thought of that," Dockerty said. "Maybe one of those doodads fell off and hit him on the noggin. But there wasn't any on the floor, and the angle's all wrong. He was hit on the back of the head with something hard and heavy enough to cave in the skull. Whoever did it didn't leave it behind."
"I wasn't looking for what killed him."
"Then, what ...?"
The bookseller stepped back to the body, placing the toes of his shoes in line with the soles of Fister's. "He stood here, a few yards inside the door. Either someone was waiting, possibly hidden behind the door, or it was someone he knew and trusted, at least not to attack him. The blow was struck from behind and he fell forward onto his face. Tell me if you think I'm wrong. I'm a bit rusty, I'm afraid."
Rusty as a brand-new Swiss watch, the chief thought. "Works for me. I sure hope it was someone hiding behind the door, a burglar passing through. I wouldn't want to think we've got a murderer living here."
"They have to live somewhere. What about that?" He pointed.
Dockerty followed the angle of his finger, but all he saw was a shelf about nine feet from the floor. He said so.
"There's a space between those two books."
"There's spaces all over. I guess he didn't want to have to rearrange the whole library to make room for a new book. I'll be goldarned if I can figure out his system, but he must've had one. Mr. Fister was tidy about everything."
"He arranged them chronologically, beginning with the earliest Spanish explorations all the way up to recent changes made by the state legislatures. But as you see, the spaces he left are wider, to accommodate several books at a time. This gap is approximately the width of two books of ordinary width, or perhaps one large one. It's the only example in the room, and it suggests a book's missing."
"Maybe it belongs to one or two of the books on the desk."
"No, I looked at those. They're reference works, common to the book trade. I have them as well. They're consulted so often it only makes sense to keep them handy rather than constantly be climbing the ladder to retrieve them; certainly not from a shelf so high up. I'm sure you know where I'm heading."
"Well, robbery's a motive I can wrap my head around. You think he surprised somebody while he was stealing the book that belonged there?"
"If Lloyd came back unexpectedly, trapping the thief in the library, forcing him to hide behind the door and strike him just after he came in, that certainly suggests itself. It could just as easily be someone he knew; the moment he turned his back, the thief hit him, then stole the book."
"I like the first theory, and not just because I don't want the killer to be one of ours. It makes it an act of desperation, not planning. He might have wanted just to knock him out so he could make his escape."
Sharecross took off his glasses to wipe them with a handkerchief. Unlike the case with most nearsighted men, his eyes looked sharper when they were naked; he resembled an old and seasoned eagle.
"The only thing that argues against it is: What became of the weapon? It wasn't one of the objects in this room. I hardly think, having eliminated the threat to his freedom and acquired what he came for, he'd stop to put the weapon back. If, on the other hand, he brought it with him, it becomes a cold-blooded act."
"I was trained to think like a murderer. I'd wipe them off rather than take the chance of being seen on the street carrying a bronze vase or a marble bust."
"Possibly. As I said, I'm far from current." He hooked on his spectacles. "Wasn't Lloyd interviewed recently by a television crew?"
"Yeah. Big to-do when a network van rolls into a town this little. Some kind of reality show like Hoarders, only high-end: rich collectors. It was what you call a pilot, hoping to become a series."
"Not an unlikely procession. In many cases, the only difference between a wealthy bibliomaniac and somebody's mother-in-law living in an apartment full of old newspapers and empty pop bottles is the size of the investment."
"Sort of a nutjob Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous."
Sharecross looked pained.
"I'd hate to see that adjective applied to Lloyd. The reason I brought it up ..."
"For once we're neck-and-neck. I'll see about getting that TV footage and we'll compare it to the crime scene. If the picture's sharp enough, we'll see what was in that gap—if Mr. Fister didn't overhaul the library in the meantime."
"I doubt it. It looks the same as the last time I visited him, and as we've discussed, he had the foresight to prevent an extensive reorganization." The bookseller's tone was wistful.
"Cheer up, Avery. One morning you'll hop out of bed, rarin' to give your place a good old-fashioned spring cleaning."
"That's the pep-talk I've been giving myself for thirty years."
"I can't believe it. I can't sleep nights thinking I'll be murdered in my bed."
"Don't concern yourself, Birdie," said Uncle Ned. "It ain't as if everybody in town ain't dreamt about it as long as they knew you."
Excerpted from Book Club by Loren Estleman. Copyright © 2012 Loren Estleman. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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