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THE BOOKSELLERThe First Hugo Marston Novel
By MARK PRYOR
SEVENTH STREET BOOKSCopyright © 2012 Mark Pryor
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe largest of Notre Dame's bells tolled noon just as Hugo reached the end of the bridge, the brittle air seeming to hold on to the final clang longer than usual. He paused and looked across the busy Paris street into Café Panis. The yellow carriage lights above its windows beckoned as dim figures moved about inside, customers choosing tables and waiters flitting around like dancers.
Hot coffee was tempting, but this was the first day of a vacation Hugo didn't want, with nothing to do and nowhere to go, and he didn't much want to sit at a table by himself and think about that.
He squared his shoulders against the wind and turned right, leaving the café behind, heading west alongside the river. He glanced over the parapet as he walked, the growl of a motor launch floating up from below as the boat's propellers thrashed at the icy waters of the Seine. On cold days like this he wondered how long a man could survive in the river's oily waters, struggling against the deceptively strong current before succumbing to its frigid grip. It was a grim thought and one he quickly dismissed. After all, this was Paris; there was too much boat traffic, too many people like him admiring the river from its multitude of bridges, for a flailing man to go unnoticed for long.
Five minutes later he spotted a riverside bookstall, four green metal boxes bolted to the low wall and crammed with books, their colorful spines like the feathers of a bird fanned out on the shelves to attract passersby. The stall's owner was stooped over a box, the hem of his worn, gray coat brushing the pavement. A shoelace had come undone but the man ignored it, even as his fingers scrabbled through the postcards, inches away.
A barrage of shouting made the seller straighten and both men looked toward the voices, ringing out from a stall about fifty yards away, across the entrance to the Pont Neuf bridge. A man, squat and burly, poked a finger and yelled at the stall's owner, a crimson-faced woman who was bundled against the cold and determined to give as good as she got.
The old man shook his head and turned back to his box. Hugo coughed gently.
"Oui, monsieur?" The seller's voice was gruff, but when he looked up and saw Hugo he cracked a grin. "Ah, it's you. Where have you been, mon ami?"
"Salut, Max." Hugo slipped off a glove and took Max's proffered hand, warm despite the chill of the day. They spoke in French even though the old man knew English well enough when it suited—like when pretty American girls were shopping. "What's all the fuss about?" Hugo asked.
Max didn't respond and together they turned to watch. The woman was waving an arm as if telling the stocky man to leave her alone. The man's response shocked Hugo: he grabbed her wrist and twisted it hard enough to spin her around, and in the same movement kicked her legs out from under her. She dropped straight onto her knees and let out a plaintive wail as she threw her head back in pain. Hugo started forward but felt a strong hand holding him back.
"Non," Max said. "It's not for you. Une affaire domestique."
Hugo shook him off. "She needs help. Wait here."
"Non," Max said again, grabbing Hugo's arm with a grip the American could feel through his winter coat. "Let her be, Hugo. She doesn't want your help, believe me when I say that."
"Why not? Who the hell is he?" Hugo felt the tautness in his body and fought the desire to release it on the bully across the street. Something in Max's plea had resonated, the implication that by getting involved he could make things worse. "What's it about, Max?" he repeated.
Max held his eye for a long moment, then let go of Hugo's arm and looked away. The old man turned to his stall and picked up a book, then put on his glasses to read the cover.
Hugo turned to face him and saw that the left lens was missing. "Jesus, Max. Please tell me that guy didn't pay you a visit."
"Me? No." Max ran a sleeve under his bulbous and pockmarked nose, but didn't meet Hugo's eye. "Why would he?"
"You tell me." The quai was front and center for crazies, Hugo knew, drawn like mosquitoes to the water and tourists that flowed through the heart of the city. And the bouquinistes were easy and frequent targets.
"No reason. If you're worried about my glasses, I just dropped them, that's all." Max finally looked Hugo in the eye and the smile returned. "Yes, I'm getting old and clumsy, but I can still take care of myself. Anyway, your job is to keep your ambassador safe, protect your embassy, not worry about old men like me."
"I'm off duty, I can worry about whomever I want."
Again Max put a hand on Hugo's arm, this time reassuring. "I'm fine. Everything's fine."
"D'accord. If you say so." Hugo looked across the street to see the woman on her feet again, the man's arms flailing all around her, but not touching. Reluctantly, Hugo decided to leave it for now. He turned to the books on display. "This is how you take care of yourself, by fleecing tourists, oui? Do you have anything actually worth buying? I need a gift."
"I have key chains, postcards, and petit Eiffel Towers."
"It's for Christine."
"Ah." Max raised an eyebrow and waved a hand at his stall. "Then nothing I have out here."
"You keep the good stuff hidden, eh?" Hugo looked over his friend's shoulder and watched the burly man stalking down the quai, away from them, hands in his pockets. His victim, the bouquiniste, looked unsteady on her feet and Hugo saw her collapse into a canvas chair beside her stall, her face sinking into her hands. As Hugo watched, she reached into a plastic bag beside her and pulled out a clear, flask-sized bottle.
When he looked back, Max was watching him. "That, in her hand, is her biggest problem," the old man said. "But around here, it's best to mind your own business." He gestured toward his books. "So, are you buying or just wasting time? And by that, I mean mine."
Hugo turned his attention back to Max. "A gift, remember?"
"Bien, let me see." Max picked up a hardback, a book of black and white photographs of Hollywood stars from the 1920s to the 1970s. He showed Hugo the cover, a picture of a smiling Cary Grant, all teeth and slick hair. "Looks like you, mon ami."
Hugo had heard that before, from his wife, though he assumed she was just making fun. The caption said Grant was forty-one at the time of the picture, a year younger than Hugo. At six foot one inch, Grant was also an inch shorter than Hugo. But the men shared the same thick hair, though Hugo's was a lighter brown—light enough to camouflage a few recent strands of gray. His was thick hair that had never been touched by the globs of gel, or whatever those guys used. In the picture, Cary Grant's eyes glittered like jewels, a hard look Hugo could emulate when he needed to, but normally his eyes were a darker and warmer brown, more thoughtful than magnetic. The eyes of a watcher, not a player.
"Here." Max took the book back, then stooped and lifted a stack of newspapers off a battered leather briefcase. "I have some books in there. Help yourself."
Hugo knelt, unzipped the case, and peered in. "An Agatha Christie?"
"Oui," Max nodded. "A first edition, so très cher. A humble diplomat like you cannot afford it, I fear."
"I expect you're right, but I know someone who would love it."
Max grinned. "Someone who might love you for giving it, you mean."
"Maybe so." Hugo turned the novel over in his hands. He wasn't quite an expert on rare books but he knew as much as many of the bouquinistes who peddled their wares along the river. This one was a beauty, a 1935 first edition of Death in the Clouds, one of the Hercule Poirot mysteries. It was bound in full maroon Morocco leather, banded, and lettered in gilt with marbled endpapers, and it looked to Hugo like it had the original cloth backstrip. He spotted a short tear to the gutter of the final advertisement leaf, but overall he was impressed. It was clearly a fine copy. Hugo held it up. "How much?"
"For you, four hundred Euros."
"And for everyone else?"
"Three hundred, of course."
"In America we cheat strangers," Hugo said, "not our friends."
"You're not in America." Max's eyes twinkled. "You are a big man, Hugo, big enough to throw me in the river. I would not dare cheat you."
Hugo grunted and pulled another old book out of the bag. Covered in dark blue cloth, it exuded antiquity, and a quick check inside confirmed that: 1873. Gold lettering on a red panel on the spine read On War, then the word Clausewitz. "The first English translation?"
"Merde!" Max hurried over and snatched the book from Hugo's hand. "This one isn't for sale."
"Because." He clutched the book to his chest, then held up a hand in apology. "Je m'excuse, it's important. I just have to look at it more closely, before I decide."
"Let me look at it for you, be happy to advise," Hugo said, his tone intentionally light to mask his curiosity. It wasn't like his friend to be obscure, to guard his words.
"Non." Max held the book tight. "It's not about the book, its value. Look, if I decide to sell it, I'll hold it for you. D'accord?"
"Sure." Hugo nodded. "Thanks."
"Bon." Max smiled and pointed to the cowboy boots on Hugo's feet. "You are the only Texan who knows books, mon ami. But you haven't lived in France long enough to find a good pair of shoes?"
"No compliment without an insult. Sometimes I think you're an Englishman."
Max spat in disgust and muttered something unintelligible.
"Let's see," Hugo went on. "What else do you have?" He dug back into the case and pulled up a slim volume encased in a protective plastic envelope. Hugo inspected the book, which appeared to have its original paper cover. It was off-white, slightly pink perhaps, with a thin black line in the shape of a rectangle about an inch in from the edges, within which the book's information was presented. The name of the author and publisher were also in black type, but the title was in block letters that would once have been blood red.
"Une Saison En Enfer," Max said, looking over his shoulder. A Season in Hell. "By Arthur Rimbaud. That is not a first edition."
"No? The only collector's copy of this I've seen is an early edition of Zelda Fitzgerald's translation," Hugo said. He also remembered reading about Rimbaud on a train to Paris from London, a couple of years back. "Can I open the plastic?"
"Have I ever let you?"
"I know, I know. I can open it when I buy it. Can't blame a man for trying."
"If you say so," Max said. "The friend who gave it to me said it is in good shape, which you can see, but that it has some scribble in the front." Max waved a hand. "But he is almost blind, so maybe you'll be lucky and find the author's signature."
Hugo thought for a moment. It was an important book, in the literary world if not the reading one. An extended poem first published in 1873, it was as influenced by the author's choice of drug as it was by his passionate homosexuality. "Christine does have a thing for Oscar Wilde," he said. "This is close enough. How much?" Max looked at him and shrugged. "Hard to say. I haven't looked it over, it may be worth a lot or nothing."
"Very helpful. How about I give you five hundred Euros for both books?"
"How about you just pull out that gun and rob me, eh?"
"Then you tell me." Hugo smiled. "You negotiate like a fox, Max."
"A thousand for both. First you pay and then you thank me for the privilege of paying."
"I'm on vacation," Hugo said, digging into a pocket and pulling out his wallet. "I was thinking about a trip to the states, deliver these in person, but you're taking all my travel money. If I decide to go, I'll have to walk from the airport."
"Ah, but you will have something to read when you rest along the way."
"People don't read rare books, Max, you know that." Hugo handed the old man a wad of cash. "This is all I have on me. I'll bring you the rest later?"
"The ones who don't realize they are rare are the ones who read them." Max took the money but didn't count it. "We have banks in France, you know."
"Then if you can wait thirty minutes, I'll go find one."
Max spread his hands. "Where else would I be, but waiting for you?" He paused, eyeing Hugo. "You really think you're going to America?"
"Why not? The mad romantic dash isn't really my style, but nor is sitting on my ass for two weeks."
"You don't want time off from work?"
"Use it or lose it, they tell me. Not that I mind losing it, but the State Department is convinced my mental health will suffer if I go to work because I want to, not because I have to."
"You Americans." Max shook his head. "How you came to rule the world, I have no idea."
"We have big guns," Hugo said. "And we don't surrender every time the Germans invade."
"Touché," Max guffawed, then pointed again to Hugo's feet. "Alors, if you decide to go, bring me a pair of those cowboy boots, and next time I'll give you an even better deal. Size forty-one, s'il vous plait."
"Bien." Hugo looked at his watch. "I'll go rob a bank, make a phone call, and hopefully be back in less than an hour."
"You are welcome to pay me another time. To consider those books a gift, Monsieur Hugo, for now anyway. If I change my mind, I know where to find you."
"No, you might disappear to some beach somewhere, and I don't like owing people money. I'll be right back."
They shook hands and for the second time Hugo saw something in Max's eyes. But the old man looked quickly away, up at the clouds. "I think it will snow soon," Max said, his voice flat.
Hugo glanced at the sky, gray and heavy, and started back the way he'd come, books in hand. Thirty yards later he looked back at Max. The old man was shuffling along the quai toward his neighbor and, as he crossed the street, Max glanced over his shoulder as if someone might be following him, or watching.
The wind tugged at Hugo's hat, seeming to rise around him and shift direction, placing its cold hands on his back, propelling him along the quai. He walked slowly at first, then his footsteps quickened and he shivered as a chill settled around his neck, cold fingers spreading down his spine. He approached a middle-aged couple dressed in identical blue ski jackets, the man holding a camera and looking hopefully around him. On any other day Hugo would have stopped, offered to take the photo, but he strode past without catching their eye. Their need to capture a moment in time for their kids or grandkids was no match for the disquiet that crowded in on Hugo, the cold wind at his back, the leaden sky above, and a rising fear that he should have pressed Max harder, made sure that everything really was all right.
Excerpted from THE BOOKSELLER by MARK PRYOR Copyright © 2012 by Mark Pryor. Excerpted by permission of SEVENTH STREET BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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