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Oliver hazard Perry Weston dabbed at his thin, gray mustache with a monogrammed Irish linen table napkin.
"That will be all, Edwin." He nodded to the white-shirted man at his elbow.
"Very good, sir." The gaunt butler disappeared like morning fog.
"Come on, Brady," said Weston to me. "There's something I want to show you."
Perry Weston—Ollie's only son and heir—who was seated at his right, moved quickly to take the handles at the back of his father's wheelchair. Weston flapped the back of his hand at his son without turning around.
Perry jerked his hands away from the wheelchair and held them in front of him in a gesture of mock surrender. Then, with a quick, ironic smile at me, he swiveled around and left the room.
"C'mon, Brady," said Ollie. "Give us a shove, will you?"
"Sure," I replied, taking the handles of his wheelchair.
"Kinda rough on him, weren't you?"
"Nope. He's used to it. Anyway, this is business. For my lawyer, not my son." Ollie raised an aristocratic hand and pointed through the archway and beyond the adjacent living room to a wall of bookshelves that surrounded an enormous fieldstone fireplace.
When I had pushed the old man to the bookcase, he reached up, removed a volume entitled The Road to Serfdom, which appeared to be well used, and reached his hand into the vacant space. He fiddled for a moment with what I guessed was a combination lock against the back of the bookcase. Then I heard the faint whine of a motor, and slowly the bookcase slid away into the wall, opening into a smaller room. "In," ordered Weston. I pushed him in.
The wall eased shut behind us. I looked around. We were alone in a windowless room perhaps twenty feet square. Bookshelves, lined with rich, old-looking volumes, covered an entire wall. In one corner stood a portable bar with shelves of bottles and glittering glassware. In another corner was a giant rolltop desk, which I took to be an antique. Across another wall hung a row of mounted heads: an eland, an elk, a tawny cat which I guessed was some kind of panther, a sheep with huge, curled horns, an antelope. Against the same wall stood a glass-fronted gun cabinet, and aligned beneath the glassy-eyed heads were a series of matched prints in silver frames. I leaned closer to study them and saw that they weren't prints at all, but original watercolors. Grouse shooting in Scotland, quail rising before a brace of pointing setters, geese setting their wings to join a set of decoys, woodcock fluttering above New England alders.
"They're nice," I said. "Didn't know you were a hunter, Ollie."
"Was," said Ollie, slapping his dead thighs with his right hand. "Damn good one, too."
"I doubt it not," I murmured.
"So, Counselor. Welcome to my vault." Ollie hoisted himself from his wheelchair onto a dark leather sofa. In front of the sofa stood a low coffee table. The sofa faced a blank, wood-paneled wall. "Fix us a brandy, will you? And let's have a cigar."
I obeyed. Ollie Weston was accustomed to being obeyed, and I understood that. It was a small price to pay for the lucrative opportunities O. H. P. Weston made available to his personal attorney. For his many business dealings, Weston employed large and prestigious law firms. For his private affairs, he employed Brady L. Coyne, and if it fell short of my old dream of arguing the great ethical issues of the day before what FDR called—how times change!—the "nine old men" of the Supreme Court, the retainers and fees of a few wealthy clients like Ollie Weston kept me comfortably ensconced in a nice apartment overlooking the Boston Harbor, and allowed me to fish for trout in places like Newfoundland and New Zealand and Argentina just about whenever I chose to take a vacation—not to mention Gloria's alimony payments, the mortgage on our—her—house in Wellesley, and the college fund for Billy and Joey. So I didn't really mind fetching brandy and cigars for Ollie Weston. It was a small price to pay.
I handed Ollie his drink and cigar, retrieving one of each for myself, and joined the older man on the sofa. Weston leaned back, exhaling a long plume of bluish smoke which seemed to disappear into the ceiling. I looked around the room again. I could detect no source of light. There were no lamps, no evidence of translucent panels from behind which bulbs might glow, and yet the room seemed suffused in a light whiter than sunshine and cleaner and purer than normal artificial light. There were no windows. And I sensed air in motion, although the room appeared to be airtight.
I glanced at Ollie, who was watching me with a faint smile curling on his thin, bloodless lips.
"What do you think, Counselor?"
"You called it a vault."
"And so it is. A giant safe. Fireproof, independent energy source, computerized humidity and temperature control, sterilized air. The entire house could be burning to the ground around us right this minute and we'd never know it. Nor should we care. We'd be perfectly safe. It's totally impenetrable."
I nodded. "It figures."
Ollie laughed, the short chuckle from deep in the throat of a man who expects to surprise people. "It does figure, doesn't it? A man must have a place for his treasures, after all. One certainly can't trust the banks."
I smiled at his joke. Ollie Weston was trustee for Boston's oldest and largest banking house.
He waved his hand around the room. "And these are all treasures, Brady. The books. First editions, many of them several hundred years old. Priceless. I carry not a penny of insurance on them. And the guns. They are irreplaceable. And safer here than in Fort Knox."
He picked up a small metal box from the coffee table in front of him and punched a button. Instantly the wood panels of the blank wall facing the sofa slid back to reveal a giant television screen. Ollie tapped the button again, and the screen began to glow. His eyes glittered.
"In the old days I hunted," he said. "I've killed the biggest game on six continents. I shot German bombers out of the sky over Spain in. 1936, when I was a lad of twenty. No quarry was too dangerous, too challenging." He lifted his eyebrows. "And now look at me. Reduced to this." He dropped his hands onto his wasted, motionless legs. "Ironic, eh? I've stood up to the charge of a wounded Cape buffalo, held my ground at the fifty-millimeter cannon when the Stukas came strafing—and what gets me? Some goddam virus you need a microscope to see, gnawing away at my spine."
I sipped my brandy and said nothing. After a moment Ollie smiled and said, "So. Let's play."
He again touched the metal box in his hand. Instantly the giant television screen came to life and a beeping wock-a wock-a kind of music filtered through the room. A grid appeared, and I recognized the grinning yellow head of Pac-Man and the multicolored ghosts flitting around.
"Aw, come on, Ollie," I protested.
"You never play Pac-Man?"
"Why, sure but "
"So let's play," ordered Oliver Hazard Perry Weston.
Ollie Weston played the video game the way he did everything else: with absolute concentration and total dedication to victory. He hunched forward in the sofa, his long fingers moving swiftly, commanding the little yellow apparition on the screen through the mazes, eating dots, chasing and destroying the little ghosts. The numbers mounted, bells rang, the wock-a wock-a music became frenetic. Weston's jaws bulged, and his eyes narrowed with effort. From his throat rose grunts of exertion, growls of disgust, sighs of triumph. When he finally sat back, perspiration beaded his forehead. I noticed that his fingers trembled.
"Beat that," he commanded.
With a shrug I took the metal box into my hand. I tried. I was no match for the old man, as I'm sure he expected. "You win," I said, when my Pac-Man was destroyed for the last time.
We both sat back into the leathery folds of the sofa for a moment, relit the cigars clenched between our teeth. Without sitting up, Ollie said, "I said I had something to show you."
"So you did."
"Third shelf, fourth from the left."
I went to the bookshelf and removed a thin volume bound in soft beige tooled leather that felt like pigskin. There was no writing on the binding or the cover. I brought it back and handed it to Ollie. He opened it onto his lap.
"I give you," he announced as if he were unveiling the Mona Lisa, "the Netherlands fifteen-cent 1852 imperforate. Better known as the Dutch Blue Error."
He regarded me expectantly.
The volume he held open contained one page, a transparent plastic sandwich between the sheets of which was a small, unattractive square of paper. I stared at the postage stamp.
It was a dark, dull blue color with a heavy black postmark on the upper right corner. It had squared-off sides, as if its edges had been trimmed carelessly with scissors. The right profile of a bearded man with a high forehead and a sort of page-boy haircut stared off the side of the stamp. The face was framed by a scrolled oval. In the upper left corner appeared the word post and in the upper right zegel. In the lower left was the digit 15, and the lower right held the letter C.
It was clearly very old, and otherwise it was totally undistinguished. I glanced at Ollie. He was staring intently at me. A grin played at the corners of his mouth.
I shrugged, smiled, looked back at the stamp, and said, "Yeah?"
"You're not impressed."
"It's very nice. A real nice one, Ollie."
Weston's eyes shifted. They no longer smiled. "Don't patronize me, Brady Coyne. If you don't know philately, that's okay. But don't humor me."
"Sorry. I guess I don't know philately."
"I paid two hundred and twenty-nine thousand dollars for this portrait of King William III. It's the only one of its kind in the world. It could bring a million dollars on the market today."
"It is a nice one," I said. I smiled at him so that he could see I was contrite.
He rubbed his thumb across the plastic sheet protecting his prize. He seemed to caress the stamp.
"The Blue Error," he said, as if addressing the stamp. "Discovered in 1885 by a Dutch lad by the name of Hans Wilhelm Van Gluckmann among the papers of his grandfather. Young Hans knew something of stamps—an instance of a little knowledge not being enough, in his case, because he sold it to a dealer who had advertised for the fifteen-cent 1852 issue. The dealer was suspicious, of course, since he knew that the stamps he wanted to purchase were supposed to be orange. But he dipped the blue stamp in water, and when the ink didn't run, he reluctantly upheld his part of the bargain, and young Hans returned home happily with his ten guldens. Typical story. The stamp has changed hands several times. Its full value has never really been realized." Ollie turned his head to look hard at me. "The next time it is sold, it will bring full value. It is a genuine rarity. A priceless treasure. And," he added, touching my knee, "it's mine."
"I used to collect stamps," I said. "When I was a kid. I had several thousand from all over the world. Fascinating hobby. From places like French Equatorial Africa and the Gold Coast and Ceylon, countries that don't even exist anymore. Beautiful things. Colorful birds, maps, kings, athletes. I sold my collection so I could buy a motor scooter when I was fifteen. Got sixty-five bucks for it."
Ollie chuckled. "The man who bought it was probably doing you a favor. Listen. I still collect stamps. It's more than a hobby. It's a passion and an investment. Most of my stamps are drab. They're all very old. My total collection numbers forty-seven. Forty-seven stamps. Total." He pushed his face at me. "My stamp collection is worth, conservatively, five point six million dollars."
I shook my head and whistled softly.
"And the Dutch Blue Error," he continued, "is my prize. It has become the mystery stamp of the philatelic world. I have not exhibited it or loaned it to museums or permitted it to be photographed. I have not acknowledged that I own it. I have encouraged romantic legends about my stamp to circulate. That it was seized and held ransom by Irish terrorists and then burned when their hideout was stormed. That the Central Committee of the Soviet Union has it in a vault in the Kremlin. That a crackpot millionaire buried it in his backyard before he died, leaving a treasure map as yet undiscovered. That a beautiful lady ate it when she discovered its owner, her husband, in bed with her sister. Every serious philatelist in the world would kill to own the Dutch Blue Error."
I looked at Ollie sharply. He held up his hand and laughed. "Not literally, of course. My point is this. There are several unique stamps. One-of-a-kind. All, obviously, equally rare, in equally scarce supply. And yet their value ranges from a bit over a hundred thousand to, as I estimate in the case of my little jewel, something over one million dollars."
"I don't get it," I said. "Why ?"
"Why are some worth so much more than others?" Ollie leaned forward, his hands gripping his lifeless knees. "Demand," he whispered. "Demand, Brady. The other half of the economic equation. Listen. The British Guyana one cent black and magenta—everybody's heard of the black and magenta—it brought a cool eight hundred and fifty thousand back in 1980. Now, that's a unique stamp. Worth an easy million today. But there are other unique stamps, as I told you. The Gold Coast provisional of 1883, for example, or the four-penny Cape of Good Hope Woodblock tête-bêche. Or any of the several American Postmaster provisionals—the Alexandria Blue Boy, or the Boscowan, or the Lockport. All of them are just as rare as the black and magenta. What do you suppose those stamps are worth?"
"Jeez, I don't know, Ollie. I guess "
"I'll tell you." He held up his hand imperiously. "The Lockport Postmaster's Provisional earned its owner a neat twenty-three grand back in 1964. Today? Maybe five times that amount. A bit short of a million, what? The Blue Boy—this is a famous stamp, mind you—the Blue Boy was purchased for eighteen-five in 1967. Now do you see?"
I looked at him. "No. Not really."
"Jesus, Brady. Listen to me. Demand, see? Supply makes value possible. But it's demand that determines it. And demand is something that can be controlled, nurtured. In the world of rare stamps, that is done by myth and legend. Some stamps simply acquire an aura, a mystique. Some never do. Demand is what makes the black and magenta so much more valuable than the others. And the mystique creates that demand. It's what's made my own Dutch Blue Error the equal of the black and magenta."
"What's the mystique, as you call it, of this black and magenta, then?"
"Oh, nothing dramatic. Just that it's universally known as the world's rarest stamp. A misnomer, as I've explained. All unique stamps are obviously equally rare. But the black and magenta was the first truly valuable stamp—the first to bring a big price. It's probably the only stamp that the lay public might recognize. It's ugly as sin. Terrible condition. Its corners have been cut off, and its surface has been rubbed. Somehow that seems to have contributed to its mystique." He shrugged. "You can't always explain mystique. It's like charisma in politicians. Some just seem to have it naturally. Some are able to have it created for them. And some never have a chance for it."
I nodded uncertainly. "And you're creating it for the Dutch Blue Error."
"Yes," he said. He reached over and tapped my leg.
"Only four people in this entire world know that I own the Dutch Blue Error. Four. Therein lies its mystery. If the world knew, the myth would be shattered. So would the value of my stamp."
He pointed at the big rolltop desk. "Top left-hand drawer."
I rose and went to the desk, slid open the drawer, and removed an envelope from the top of a stack of papers. "This?"
"Open it," he said.
I found a single typewritten sheet of paper. I glanced at the bottom and saw no signature, no name. I read it.
Excerpted from The Dutch Blue Error by William G. Tapply. Copyright © 1984 William G. Tapply. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
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