The Sign of the Book
By John Dunning
Scribner Book Company Copyright © 2005 John Dunning
All right reserved. ISBN: 0743255054
Two years had passed and I knew Erin well. I knew her moods: I knew what she liked and didn't like, what would bore her to tears or light up her face with mischief. I knew what would send her into fits of helpless laughter, what would make her angry, thoughtful, witty, playful, or loving. It takes time to learn someone, but after two years I could say with some real confidence, I know this woman well.
I knew before she said a word that something had messed up her day. She arrived at our bookstore wearing her casual autumn garb, jeans and an untucked flannel shirt.
"What's wrong with you?"
"I am riding on the horns of a dilemma."
I knew she would tell me when she had thought about it. I would add my two cents' worth, she would toss in some wherefores, to which I would add a few interrogatories and lots of footnotes. I am good with footnotes. And after two years I was very good at leaving her alone when all the signs said let her be.
She picked up the duster and disappeared into the back room. That was another bad sign: in troubled times, Erin liked to dust. So I let her ponder her dilemma and dust her way through it in peace. Since she now owned part of my store, she had unlimited dusting privileges. She could dust all day long if shewanted to.
Two customers came and went and one of them made my week, picking up a $1,500 Edward Abbey and a Crusade in Europe that Eisenhower had signed and dated here in Denver during his 1955 heart-attack convalescence. Suddenly I was in high cotton: the day, which had begun so modestly ($14 to the good till then), had now dropped three grand in my pocket. I called The Broker and made reservations for two at seven.
At five o'clock I locked the place up and sidled back to check on Erin. She was sitting on a stool with the duster in her hand, staring at the wall. I pulled up the other stool and put an arm over her shoulder. "This is turning into some dilemma, kid."
"Oh, wow. What time is it?"
"Ten after five. I thought you'd have half the world dusted off by now."
"How's the day been?"
I told her and she brightened. I told her about The Broker and she brightened another notch.
We went up front and I waved to the neighborhood hooker as she trolled up East Colfax in the first sortie of her worknight. "Honestly," Erin said, "we've got to get out of here. How do you ever expect to get any business with that going on?"
"She's just a working professional, plying her trade. A gal's gotta do something."
"Hey, I'm a gal," she said testily. "I don't gotta do that."
"Maybe that lady hasn't had your advantages."
The unsavory truth was, I liked it on East Colfax. Since Larimer Street went all respectable and touristy in the early seventies, this had become one of the most entertaining streets in America. City officials, accepting millions in federal urban renewal money, had promised a crackdown on vice, but it took the heart of a cop to know exactly what would happen. The hookers and bums from that part of town had simply migrated to this part of town, and nothing had changed at all: city officials said wow, look what we did, now people can walk up Larimer Street without stumbling over drunks and whores, but here they still were. I could sit on my stool and watch the passing parade through my storefront window all day long: humanity of all kinds walked, drove, skateboarded, and sometimes ran past like bats out of hell. In the few years since I had opened shop on this corner, I had seen a runaway car, a gunfight, half a dozen fistfights, and this lone whore, who had a haunting smile and the world's saddest eyes.
"You are the managing partner," Erin said. "That was our deal and I'm sticking to it. But if my vote meant anything, we would move out of this place tomorrow."
"Of course your vote means something, but you just don't up and move a bookstore. First you've got to have a precise location in mind. Not just Cherry Creek in general or some empty hole in West Denver, but an actual place with traffic and pizzazz. A block or two in any direction can make all the difference."
She looked around. "So this has pizzazz? This has traffic?"
"No, but I've got tenure. I've been here long enough, people two thousand miles away know where I am. And not to gloat, but I did take in three thousand bucks today."
"Yes, you did. I stand completely defeated in the face of such an argument."
I went on, unfazed by her defeat. "There's also the matter of help. If I moved to Cherry Creek, I'd need staff. My overhead would quadruple before I ever got my shingle out, so I'd better not guess wrong. Here I can run it with one employee, who makes herself available around the clock if I need her. What more could a bookseller want? But you know all this, we've had this discussion how many times before?"
"Admit it, you'll never move." Erin sat on the stool and looked at me across the counter. "Would it bother you if we didn't do The Broker tonight? I don't feel like dressing up."
"Say no more."
I called and canceled.
"So where do you want to eat?"
"Oh, next door's fine."
I shivered. Next door was a Mexican restaurant, the third eatery to occupy that spot since I had turned the space on the corner into my version of an East Denver fine books emporium. In fact, half a dozen restaurants had opened and closed there in the past ten years, and I knew that because I had been a young cop when this block had been known as hooker heaven. Gradually the vice squad had turned up the heat, the topless places and the hustlers had kept moving east, and a series of restaurants had come and gone next door. Various chefs had tried Moroccan, Indian, Chinese, and American cuisine, but none had been able to overcome the street's reputation for harlots and occasional violence. Some people with money just didn't want to come out here, no matter how good the books were.
We settled into a table in the little side room and I ordered from a speckled menu: two Roadrunner burritos, which seemed like pleasant alternatives to the infamous East Colfax dogburger. "What's in this thing we're about to eat?" Erin asked.
"You'll like it better if you don't know."
The waitress brought our Mexican beers and drifted away. Erin reached across the table and squeezed my hand. "Hi," she said.
"Hey. Was that an endearment?"
"Yeah, it was."
I still didn't ask about her trouble. I gave her a friendly squeeze in return and she said, "How're you doing, old man? You still like the book life?"
It was a question she asked periodically. "Some days are better than others," I said. "Today was a really good one on both ends of it. Sold two, bought one -- a nice ratio."
"What did you buy?" she said, putting things in their proper importance.
"The nicest copy you'll ever see of Phantom Lady -- Cornell Woolrich in his William Irish motif. Very pricey, very scarce in this condition. I may put two grand on it. That wartime paper just didn't hold up for the long haul, so you never see it this nice."
"You're getting pretty good at this, aren't you?"
"It doesn't take much skill to recognize that baby as a good one."
"But even after all this time you still miss police work."
"Oh, sure. Everything has its high spots. When I was a cop, I loved those high spots like crazy, I guess because I was good at it. You get a certain rush when suddenly you know exactly what happened. Then you go out and prove it. I can point out half a dozen cases that never would've been solved except for me and my squirrelly logic. There may be dozens of others."
"I'd have guessed thousands."
"That might be stretching it by one or two hundred. A dozen I could dredge up with no effort at all." I took a sip of my beer. "Why do you ask, lovely one? Is this leading somewhere? It's getting fairly egotistical on my part."
"I know, but I asked for it. Please continue, for I am fascinated."
"I was really good at it," I said with no apologies. "You never want to give up something you have that much juice for. When I lost it, I missed the hell out of it. You know all this, there's no use lying, I really missed it, I always will."
I thought of my police career and the whole story played in my head in an instant, from that idealistic cherry-faced beginning to the end, when I had taken on a brute, used his face for a punching bag, and lost my job in the process. "But I was lucky, wasn't I? The book trade came along and it was just what I needed: very different, lots of room to grow, interesting work, good people. I figured I'd be in it forever."
"And indeed, you may well be. But nothing's perfect."
I mustered as much sadness as I could dredge up on a $3,000 day. "Alas, no."
"If you had to give this up, how would you feel about it?"
"Devastated. You mean I get lucky enough to find two true callings in one lifetime and then I lose them both? Might as well lie down in front of a bus. What else would I do? Be a PI? It's not the same after you've been the real thing."
"How would you know? You've never done it: not for any kind of a living."
"I know as a shamus you've got no authority. You don't have the weight of the department behind you, and where's the fun in that? You're just another great pretender."
A moment later, I looked at her and said, "So why are you here on a workday? How come you're not in your lawyer's uniform? What's going on with your case? And after all is said and done, am I finally allowed to ask what this problem is all about?"
"The judge adjourned for the afternoon so he could do some research. I think we're gonna win, but of course you never know. Right now it's just a hunch. So I've got the rest of the day off. And let's see, what was that other question? What's this all about? I need your help."
"Say no more."
"Something's come up. I want you to go to Paradise for me."
"You mean the town in western Colorado or just some blissful state of mind?"
"The town. Maybe the other thing too, if you can be civilized."
"Tough assignment. But speaking of the town, why me?"
"You're still the best cop I know. I trust your instincts. Maybe I'm just showing you that if you did want to do cases, you'd have more work than you've got time for."
"The great if. Listen, being a dealer in so-called rare books leaves me no time for anything else anyway. Why do you keep trying to get me out of the book business?"
"I'm not! Why would I do that? You could do both, as you have already so nimbly demonstrated."
Our food came. The waitress asked if there was anything else and went away. Erin took a small bite, then looked up and smiled almost virginly.
"Let's say I want you to go to Paradise and look at some books. You should be able to do that. Look at some books and see if they might be worth anything. Because if they're not, the defendant may lose her house paying for her defense."
"It would be damned unusual for any collection of books to pay for the exorbitant fees you lawyers charge. Is there any reason to think these might be anything special? What did she say when she called you?"
"She didn't call, her attorney did. Fine time to be calling, her preliminary hearing's set for tomorrow."
She didn't have to elaborate. The most critical hours in any investigation are always the ones immediately after the crime's been committed. "Her attorney says she mentioned selling her husband's book collection," she said. "But she's afraid they aren't worth much."
"Trust her, they aren't. I can smell them from here, I don't even have to look, I can't tell you how many of these things I've gone out on. They never pan out."
"I'm sure you're right. Do this for me anyway."
I looked dubious. "Do I actually get to touch these books?"
"Take your surgical gloves along and maybe. You did keep some rubber gloves from your police days?"
"No, but they're cheap and easy to get."
"Kinda like the women you used to run with, before me."
"That's it, I'm outta here."
She touched my hand and squeezed gently. "Poor Cliff."
She took another bite of the Roadrunner. "This really isn't half-bad, is it?"
I shook my head and slugged some beer. "Oh, Erin, you've got to get out more, you're working too hard, your taste buds are dying from neglect. I'll volunteer for the restaurant detail. I promise I'll find us a place that'll thrill your innards."
"When you get back from Paradise."
I ate, putty in her hands, but at some point I had to ask the salient question. "So do you ever plan to tell me about this thing?"
She didn't want to, by now that was almost painfully clear. "Take your time," I said soothingly. "I've got nothing on my plate, we could sit here for days."
"The defendant's name..." She swallowed hard, as if the name alone could hurt. "Laura Marshall. Her name is Laura. She's accused of killing her husband. She wants me to defend her, but I've got two cases coming up back-to-back. Even if I took her on, which is far from certain anyway, I couldn't get out there until sometime next month. That's it in a nutshell."
"I thought you said she had an attorney."
"He's her attorney of the moment. He sounds very competent, but he's never done a case like this."
She gave me a look that said, That's it, Janeway, that's all there is.
"Well," I said cautiously, "can we break open that nutshell just a little?"
I waited and finally I gave her my stupid look. "What is it you want me to do, Erin? This isn't just an appraisal job. I get the feeling it's something else."
"Maybe you could talk to her while you're there. Take a look at her case."
"I could do that. I'm sure you don't want me to advise her. The last time I looked, my law degree was damned near nonexistent."
"Go down, talk to her, report back to me. You don't need a law degree for that. Just lots of attitude."
"That, I can muster. In fact I'm getting some right now. So tell me more."
"I'd rather have you discover it as you go along."
A long, ripe moment followed that declaration.
"She'll tell you the details," Erin said. "And by the way, I pay top rates."
"So now you're bribing me. Is this what we've come to?" I gave her a small headshake. "Something's going on here. This isn't just some yahoo case that dropped on your head. It's more than that."
She stonewalled me across the table.
"Isn't it?" I said.
"She was my best friend in college. In fact, we go back to childhood."
"We haven't seen each other in years..."
"No, Counselor, what that is, is bad-lawyer bafflegab. Tommyrot, bushwa, caca, bunkum, and a cheap oil change. Not to mention piffle and baloney."
"Old oil sludge," I said. "Remember those ads? Dirty sludge, gummy rings, sticky valves, blackie carbon. And a bad Roadrunner burrito."
She laughed. "Are you all through?"
"Hell no I'm not through. Help me out just a little here. Make at least some sorry stab at giving me a straight answer."
"Marshall was the first great love of my life. Is that straight enough for you?"
"Ah," I said, mildly crushed. My pain was slightly mitigated by the word first.
"He can't compare to you," she said. "Never could've, never would've, though I had no way of knowing that back then. Remember two years ago just after we met? I told you then I had known another guy long ago who collected books. I guess I've always been attracted to book people. I couldn't imagine I'd wind up with Tarzan of the Bookmen, swinging from one bookstore to another on vines attached to telephone poles."
"It was written in the stars."
"I'm not complaining. But that was then, this is now. He was my first real love and she was my best friend. More than that. She was closer than a sister to me, we marched to the same heartbeat. I would have trusted either of them with my life. And they had an affair behind my back."
I said "Ah" again and I squeezed her hand. "Jesus, why would anybody do that to you?"
She shrugged. "It was a long time ago."
"And people do things," I ventured.
"Not things like that."
"So how'd you find out about it? He break down and tell you?"
"She did. Her conscience was killing her and she had to make it right between us."
I took another guess. "So when did you find it in your heart to forgive her?"
"You're assuming facts not in evidence, Janeway." She looked at me across the table, and out of that superserious moment came the steely voice I knew so well. "I'll never forgive her."
"Why doesn't matter. Look, will you do this for me or not?"
I really didn't need to think about it. The answer would have been the same with or without the particulars. All I needed to know was that it was important to her.
"Sure," I said.
Copyright © 2005 by John Dunning
Excerpted from The Sign of the Book by John Dunning Copyright © 2005 by John Dunning. Excerpted by permission.
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