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Every occupation has its fans. If you're a rock star, there are people ready to throw themselves at your feet and swear allegiance to your lips and eyes and hair. But if you're Arthur Fenn, a Ph.D. in comparative mythology with several publications to your credit, your fan may be no more than an old foreign gentleman with a short white beard and a brown seamed face. Still, it takes only a single fan to bring about change in your life.
Arthur was in his early thirties, somewhat on the tall side, with a scholar's stoop. He was presently unemployed: few universities needed a mythologist with Arthur's meager credentials. He owned a cottage, left to him by his parents, and a bare income from their insurance. He had a fiancee, the beautiful Mimi, though the relationship was going through one of its rockier phases at the moment.
But a fan? Arthur hadn't known he had one until the day Mr. Avodar came by his Florida cottage. It was a typically sultry day in Tahiti Beach, Florida, capital of Magnolia County to the west of Dade and Broward Counties. The county had been carved out of reclaimed land after the Florida Swamplands Reclamation program dried up half the Everglades, decimating the alligators and snowy egrets and provided new land for Florida's ever-growing population of retirees and fruit pickers. Tahiti Beach was a nondescript little city with a population 300,000, most of them recent immigrants from the tumultuous regions of Central America.
It was a hot day, as usual. Even the cypress planking that made up Arthur's cottage was sweating, as were the joists and ties and various other bits of lumber that held the place together. Arthur was only half sweating. The front half of him was facing the air conditioner, which blew cool air on his chest. His back, however, knew no such relief, and so it sweated without cease. Arthur was seated at his old oak roll-top desk, inherited from his father, trying to make sense of his income tax.
There came a knock at the door. Arthur stood up, glad of any relief, slipped on a short-sleeve shirt, and went to answer it.
An old man with a short white beard and a brown seamed face stood there.
"Dr. Fenn," the old man said, with an accent that might have been formed in the Murmad section of Damascus, probably close to the Aleppo gate, to judge by the truncated sibilants. "I am so happy to meet you. You look much better than your photograph."
"Where did you see my photograph?" Arthur asked.
"In the Journal of Canaanite Antiquities. They ran it in the issue containing your remarkable article."
"Which article was that?"
"It was entitled `The Key to Conversation with the Gods: A Pre-Islamic Ritual as Revealed in Modern-day Ashwari Practice.' I am Mr. Avodar, by the way."
Arthur remembered that he'd paid fifty dollars for the honor of being included in the journal, but they hadn't charged him anything extra for running his picture and a short bio.
"Well, come in, Mr. Avodar," Arthur said. He cleared magazines and newspapers from the couch, urged his visitor to sit, and asked if he could bring him coffee or tea.
"Nothing at all," the old man said. "I am on my way to relatives in Hialeah. I have a taxi waiting outside. I just wanted to take this opportunity to meet you and express my very great pleasure at your article."
The article had described an ancient Canaanite text which Arthur had found mentioned in a seventeenth-century French account of explorations in greater Syria by a M. Dubrocq.
Dubrocq's article had never been translated into English. It contained an account Dubrocq claimed to have heard firsthand from his dragoman, Ali, concerning the ancient and infamous key to "conversation with the gods." Ali claimed this was the very key that King Solomon had used to call up demons, dieties, and spirits. According to Dubrocq, it was the lost key that magicians, seers, and alchemists had sought ever since. A copy of the key was said to have been owned by Nicholas Flamel, received from the hand of a man known as Abraham the Jew, this in the late 1300s. Flamel's Tower still stands in Paris, on the right bank, not far from Chatelet, but the key has been missing for many years.
"Yes, I wrote the article," Arthur said. "I presented it as an interesting legend, no more."
"I am aware of that," Mr. Avodar said. "I wish to add some information to your account."
Arthur offered his guest a seat. Avodar took up his story.
His family, he told Arthur, had for many centuries been custodians of Solomon's key, entrusted with it by the Wijis, the original holders, who had gotten it from Solomon himself. This family had died out, the last member falling at the battle of Lepanto.
"And so it came to us, the Avodars," Mr. Avodar said. "And we held it as a sacred trust for all these years."
He unwrapped the package. Inside, covered in many layers of oiled silk, was an ancient book written in Hebrew, with wooden covers fastened with rivets of copper.
Arthur held the book reverently. "Thank you for showing this to me."
"Oh, I intend more than that," Avodar said. "Take it, my dear Dr. Fenn. It is yours. I present it to you."
"I could not possibly accept it," Arthur said. "It must be beyond price."
"It is priceless indeed," Avodar said. "Yet, paradoxically, it is of no value to me. Or rather, it has a great negative value, since my possession of it could cost me my life."
"I don't understand," Arthur said.
"Objects such as this," Avodar said, "are outlawed in present-day Syria, where they are considered pagan blasphemy of the worst kind."
"Surely they must understand that you don't worship it? That it's an object of antiquarian interest?"
"The atmosphere in present-day Syria is such that objects of far less significance than this have cost men their lives. Fanaticism thrives when uncovering apostasy, even when none exists. I should have destroyed this long ago. But by the time I fully understood my danger, it was too late. I managed to escape from my country and come to America. Here I will begin a new life."
"Why don't you sell the book?" Arthur asked. "It would be worth plenty to an antiquarian book dealer."
"Its intrinsic value, without a provenance which I cannot supply, would probably be no more than a few hundred dollars. I prefer to give it to you, Dr. Fenn. I hope it brings you better luck than it did me."
Put like that, Arthur could do no more than accept. Mr. Avodar left shortly after that, riding off in his taxi to join his family in Hialeah. Arthur put the wooden-covered book away and didn't think about it until after his experience with Sammy.
Getting Solomon's key was a bit of good luck. Later that week Arthur had another bit of good luck, or what seemed like it at the time. He received a letter from a lawyer in Miami informing him that his Uncle Seymour, he of the dour mouth and droll eye, had written Arthur into his will, perhaps on a whim, since the two hadn't talked in years, and had done this just two days before choking to death on a stone crab in Joe's Stone Crab in Miami Beach. Enclosed was a check for twenty-two thousand dollars.
Arthur immediately telephoned his best friend, Sammy Gluck.
"Twenty-two thousand is a nice little sum," Sammy told him when they met that evening at Thank God It's Friday on the old A1A highway that passed through Tahiti Beach.
"But it's not a useful sum," Sammy added.
"My feelings exactly," Arthur said. "It was good of Uncle Seymour, of course. I never even thought he liked me. But frankly, I wish he'd left me a lot more or a lot less. It's not enough to start a business with and it's too much to waste at the dog track."
"It is just the right sum," Sammy said. Sammy was a skinny young man in his early twenties with wiry black hair and a deep tennis tan. He wore a crisp Madras sport shirt, fawn-colored slacks, and tasseled white loafers.
"How do you figure?"
"It is just the right sum," Sammy said, "to invest in a high-risk proposition that could multiply your money tenfold or leave you without any. Especially when the odds greatly favor the former outcome."
"The tenfold one?" Arthur asked, just to make sure he was registering this correctly.
"That's the one I mean," Sammy said. "In the unlikely event you get wiped out, you could just forget you ever got Uncle Seymour's bequest. But if this little deal pays off, you're set up with some really useful money. I have ideas for that, too."
Sammy was a junior broker in Collins, Aimtree & Dissendorf, a stock brokerage house in a one-story blue stucco building on Tahiti Beach's Miracle Mile, just past the Winn-Dixie and before you got to the Wal-Mart.
Many thoughts might have gone through Arthur's mind at that moment. It was his misfortune that he came up with those dangerous lines from Kipling's famous poem for losers called "If."
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch and toss,
And lose, and turn again to your beginnings,
And never breathe a word about your loss ...
Stirring words, especially for a man like Arthur who thought his character needed some bracing.
"Tell me about the proposition," he said.
Sammy ordered another Harvey Wallbanger and told
Arthur about Amalgamated Mining of Bahia, a Brazilian gold mining stock being offered on the Vancouver stock exchange. His own firm had taken a modest position in the venture.
The only thing Arthur knew about Brazilian gold mining stocks was that they were sure to fail. This was hard-won wisdom handed down from father to son. Arthur mentioned this to Sammy.
"Exactly," Sammy said, with a grin.
"Exactly what?" Arthur asked.
"Amalgamated Mining of Bahia is sure to fail. Practically guaranteed. These fools are mining in a volcanic zone that was played out fifty years ago. Rumor is they've salted the mine — put enough gold into the ground to get up some interest. On the strength of that, they've made some big announcements. For some crazy reason, the stock is zooming."
"Thank you," Arthur said.
"I beg your pardon?"
"You've already succeeded in talking me out of it. Shall we go to jai lai this evening or the dog track?"
"No, no, you don't understand," Sammy said. "I don't want you to buy this stock in hope of it appreciating. I want you to buy it in the almost certain expectation that it is going to fall through the floor within the week."
"Why don't I just make paper airplanes out of my money and throw it to the wind?" Arthur suggested. "It would be a more amusing way of going broke than what you're outlining."
"You still don't get it," Sammy said. "I'm not advising you to buy the stock expecting it to rise. I'm advising you to take a short position, expecting it to fall."
"I don't really understand these matters," Arthur said. "Sumerian and Hittite mythology is my field, not the stock market."
"I am trying to explain. When you sell short, you buy an option to sell stock at a certain price within a certain time. If the stock appreciates in value, you're out the money invested. If it falls, you make a killing. Especially since with twenty-two thousand dollars and my personal guarantee, I'll be able to leverage your holding. This will enable you to take an option on a much bigger piece of the stock than you'd normally be able to. Then, for every point the stock falls when your option falls due, you'll make ... let me see ..."
Sammy began writing rapidly on the paper tablecloth, scrawling figures with wild abandon. Arthur could feel the dollars expanding in his pocket already. The numbers were impressive. And he liked the idea of betting with smart money. It seemed to him the height of sophistication to bet that a worthless stock would go down.
Nevertheless, a final soupcon of caution caused him to pause. "And all I can lose is my stake?"
"That's just about the worst outcome," Sammy said. "And the least likely. What is much more likely is that you'll make a fortune and I'll be declared a genius and made a partner in the firm."
"Are you investing in this stuff yourself?"
Sammy nodded solemnly. "I'm selling it short with every cent I can beg, borrow, or borrow."