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Authors: John Dunning

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BOOK: Booked to Die
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Goddard grunted.

“Here’s another thing,” Lambert said. “You remember that old rumor about Hemingway and Wolfe signing each other’s books?”

It was a rumor I had never heard, so I asked him to fill me in.

“Sometime in the thirties, a woman in Indiana was supposed to have sent a package of Hemingway and Wolfe books to Max Perkins, begging for signatures. The books sat around in Perkins’s office for months. Then one night Hemingway and Wolfe were both there and Perkins remembered the books and got them signed. But both of them were three sheets to the wind and Hemingway thought it would be a great joke if they signed all the wrong books. He sat down and wrote a long drunken inscription in
Look Homeward, Angel
, and signed Wolfe’s name. Wolfe did the same with
A Farewell to Arms
. They started trying to outdo each other. Wolfe’s inscription in
Green Hills of Africa
fills up the front endpapers and ends up on the back board.”

“Thomas Wolfe never could write a short sentence if a long one would do just as well,” Goddard said sourly.

“But the point is,” Lambert said unnecesarily, for by then even I knew what the point was, “McKinley has all those books, with the handwriting authenticated beyond any question. She seems to look for unusual associations, offbeat sig-natures, and pristine condition. Hey, she’s got a
Grapes
with a drunken Steinbeck inscription and a doodle of a guy, drawn by Steinbeck, who has a penis six feet long. I mean, a guy would fall on his face from the force of gravity if he had a schmuck like that. Under the picture, Steinbeck wrote, ‘
Tom Joad on the road
.’ All I can say is, I’ve looked at a lot of books, but I’ve never seen a collection quite like that.”

I had some more questions, mostly insignificant, which they asnwered in terms that were generally inconsequential. Then I had Lambert draw me a map to Rita McKinley’s house and I left them to their unfolding squabble. I called headquarters and talked to Hennessey. Rita McKinley had not yet returned my call. I gave Hennessey the names of additional book dealers to check out, and twenty minutes later I was in the foothills, heading for Evergreen.

It was pretty much as Lambert had said, a waste of time. She lived near the top of a dirt road that snaked up the mountainside. You went through Evergreen, a bustling little mountain town about thirty minutes from Denver; then, eight or ten miles out of town, doubled back onto a road that was clearly marked private. There were half a dozen places up there, McKinley’s being at the far end. She had the entire mountaintop to herself. Her privacy was protected, just as Lambert had said, by a locked gate and a fence ten feet high. I wondered about covenants: I didn’t know you could build a fence like that anymore, but there it was. I looked through the chain links and followed the fence through the woods, until it became clear that I was simply circling the mountaintop and the fence went the distance. At one point the trees thinned out and I could see her house, the glass glistening two hundred yards above my head. I called up through the break—cupped my hands to my mouth and shouted her name—but no one came.

I talked to people on the way down: stopped at each of the houses and asked about the mystery woman at the top. She remained that, a faceless enigma. No one knew her. She never stopped to chat. All people saw as they passed on the road was a figure, obviously female, in a car. One man had put together a Christmas party last year for all the neighbors on the mountain. Everyone had come but Rita McKinley, who had sent regrets.

In Evergreen, I called her number again and got the re-cording. I left her a stiff message, telling her I wanted to see her right away. But I had a hunch that I wasn’t going to hear from the lady, that I’d have to track her to earth and pin her down. I had another hunch, that that might prove to be heavy work.

12

For all my
alleged expertise, it was Hennessey who got the first break in the case. While I was spinning my wheels in the mountains, Neal had hit the streets and talked to more book dealers. He had come to a store on East Sixth Avenue where Bobby had sometimes been seen. The owner was a man in his forties named Sean Buckley. He had a good eye for books and he sold them cheap. His store was dark and was sometimes mistaken for a junk palace, but Buckley was no Clyde Fix. He knew exactly what he was doing. His books were priced intentionally low, sometimes drastically low. People talk when they find bargains like that, and Buckley’s store was always crowded with eager treasure hunters.

It was not a place for a claustrophobic: it was dusty, shabby, disorganized; books were piled on the floor and shoved into every nook. Buckley was a pleasant man, easygoing, shy, well liked, highly intelligent. I had spent a rainy afternoon a year ago talking with Buckley about politics, police work, and the intricacies of the book trade. He had just sold a $250
Naked and the Dead
to another dealer for $85, knowing full well but not caring much what the price guides said the book was “worth.” The other dealer might eventually get that high-end money, but it wasn’t easy. Norman Mailer has lost a lot of luster since 1948. People don’t care much anymore, so let the other guy take the chance. If it worked, more power to him. The book had cost Buckley eight-five cents at a flea market. Buckley was the best example I had ever seen of the “keep the stock moving” school of bookselling.

I had put him fairly low on my list of people to see. Book-scouts didn’t do much business there: they don’t like to sell to a low retail man because the margin just wasn’t good enough. But Bobby had come in about a week ago with his pockets stuffed with cash. He had flashed a wad bigger than a man’s fist, and no small bills either. It looked like all hundreds from what Buckley could see: it must’ve been several thousand dollars at least. After much prodding, Hennessey had pinned Buckley down to a date. Last Tuesday it was, three days before the murder.

There was another thing. Bobby was dressed to the hilt, three-piece suit and tie, hair and beard trimmed and combed, shoes shined. It had taken Buckley some time to recognize him. He had come to the store at quarter to five, just before closing. Buckley had been on the phone and hadn’t paid much attention at first. Bobby just moved back into the store and started browsing the stacks. As time passed, Buckley began getting restless. He was a man who ran by the clock—he opened and closed on time and seldom stayed open late for anyone. At five-fifteen, Buckley began turning off the lights. At last he walked back and said, in a soft, apologetic voice, “I need to close now.”

Bobby looked up and grinned. Buckley had to take a few steps back, so great was his surprise. No one had ever seen Bobby the Bookscout in a coat and tie.

“My gosh, Bobby,” Buckley said. “Where you going, to a funeral?”

“Yeah,” Bobby said. “Tonight I’m burying my old life.”

You could see right away how much he was enjoying it, Buckley said. There was always a tendency in these street people to strut when they got a little money—delusions of grandeur, you know. “Tonight I’m making the biggest deal of my life,” Bobby said expansively.

That wouldn’t be much of a deal, Buckley thought, but he was too much of a gentleman to say it.

“I’m not gonna be a bookscout anymore, Buckley,” Bobby said. “Not gonna be anybody’s doormat.”

“What are you gonna do?” Buckley said.

Bobby grinned, a sly that’s-for-me-to-know look crossing his face. “You’ll see soon enough. I’ll tell you this much. After tonight I’ll be a book dealer, same as you guys. That’s all I ever needed, just a stake.”

That’s when he pulled the money out, just for effect.

“Well,” Buckley said, “looks like you got it.”

“This is just pocket money. I’ll be shopping here a lot from now on, Buckley. It kills me to see you selling books for a quarter on the dollar and I can’t buy them myself. That’s all gonna change.”

“Well,” Buckley said, “whatever’s happening tonight, I wish you luck.”

“Don’t need luck; just need to be there at seven o’clock. This is the biggest deal Denver’s ever seen, and nobody even knows about it.”

“Good luck anyway.”

This was the gist of the conversation between Bobby and Buckley, as Buckley told it to Hennessey.

* * *

“So,” Hennessey said, “what’s it mean?”

“Exactly,” I said.

“Looks like a motive anyway.”

“You mean simple robbery?”

“Sure. The guy flashes a wad like that one time too many. There’s plenty of people who’ll kill you for a roll like that… especially out on the street where this guy worked.”

“That might make sense if it had happened the same night,” I said. “But he was going somewhere just to spend that money. He was due there in two hours: all he was doing in Buckley’s was killing time. That’s why he didn’t buy any books there— he didn’t have any money to spend.”

“You mean the big wad was spoken for.”

“To the last dime. In real life, Bobby was still broke.”

“What’s it mean, then?” Hennessey said again.

“Let’s think about it. Where’d he get the clothes, for one thing? I went through his place, you know, and I didn’t see anything that looked like a necktie or a three-piece suit.”

“You were looking for books. I’ve seen you lose track of time when you’re looking at books.”

“Maybe. I’ll go back and look again, but if there’s a coat and tie anywhere in that apartment I’ll eat your shorts.”

“Whether there is or whether there ain’t,” Hennessey said, “the question still remains, what does it mean?”

“It means Bobby had a coat and tie for one night only. It means he either borrowed or rented it. It doesn’t sound like a rental—not formal enough. Buckley didn’t say he showed up in a tux, did he?”

Hennessey gave a little laugh. “Suit and tie is what he said.”

“I think we’d better ask Buckley how well the clothes fit. I think he borrowed that coat and tie, from someone who was just about his size.”

“Could be anybody,” Hennessey said. “He was pretty average.”

“It didn’t have to be a perfect fit for one night. My guess is he got the coat and tie from the same guy who gave him the money. And I think he was as broke as ever two hours after Buckley saw him. Three days later he was in Goddard’s store trying to sell something. Lambert says he didn’t have anything with him, but maybe it was something small. The fact was, he didn’t have that money anymore. He had given that to someone on Tuesday night, and they didn’t have to kill him for it. I think the fact that he wasn’t killed till Friday night rules out robbery as a motive.”

“It might’ve still been robbery,” Hennessey said. “Maybe not for money. Maybe whoever did it took what Bobby
got
for the money.”

“That makes it robbery of a different kind, though, doesn’t it? Not your garden-variety thug. The average thug would walk right past fifty thousand dollars’ worth of books to lift twenty bucks from the cash register. This would’ve been somebody with a fairly sophisticated span of knowledge. And a damn cold motive for what he was doing.”

“Well,” Hennessey said, “there are guys like that.”

“There are a lot of guys like that.”

“I’ll tell you how it looks to me. Somebody pays Bobby to do a job. Say he was taking delivery of some literary masterpiece. At this point we don’t know how Bobby got involved—we don’t know why whoever hired him couldn’t‘ve taken delivery himself instead of hiring a bookscout to do it for him. Maybe that part of it isn’t important. The bookscout gets hired, then does a double cross and keeps the merchandise. It takes the client three days to track him down.”

“Maybe,” I said.

“How small can something like that be?”

I looked at him, not understanding the question.

“Bobby had several thousand dollars on him the night he went to Buckley’s,” Hennessey said. “Presumably he was going to buy something at a wholesale price.”

“Okay, I’m with you so far.”

“What’s the retail valuation on something you’d pay up to five grand for?”

“Hell, Neal, it could be anywhere from ten to twenty-five thousand dollars.”

“Could it be more than that?”

“If it gets to be much more than that, it stops being wholesale and starts being fraud. Most honorable book dealers figure twenty-five to forty percent as a fair wholesale price. Twenty would be rock-bottom. But for a big-money piece, sometimes you have to go higher than forty percent. If you fall into a piece that’s worth a quarter mil, you might have to put up three-quarters, maybe even eighty percent. That’s still a lot of change for the book dealer.”

“If he can sell it.”

“On that level he can always sell it. The easiest thing in the world to sell is a truly rare book. The biggest problem would be getting the money to buy it.”

I still didn’t see where his mind was going. Hennessey tends to plod in his thinking—that’s why we were a good team. I tend to leapfrog, and sometimes it takes a guy with a more fundamental approach to rein me in and make me see what’s been in front of my face all along.

This time he didn’t seem to know where he was going. He was groping, trying to find a handle.

“You said something a minute ago,” he said. “That most honorable dealers figure such-and-such. How honorable do these guys tend to be?”

“As a group, they’re just like everybody else. There are some old gentlemen straight out of the last century. Fewer of those every day. There are egomaniacs… more of those every day. There are shysters, a few scumbags, a nut or two. There are some guys who’ll take your pants off if you don’t know anything. But I think as a group they have a pretty good standard of ethics. They’ll vary right up and down the scale.”

Hennessey nodded.

“Neal, I still don’t see what you’re getting at.”

He blinked and brought himself back to his premise. “Robbery. Bobby bought something and somebody brained him and took it away from him. That idea works, Cliff, if it was something small enough for him to carry it around with him. I think this is going to be a very stupid question, but does it sound feasible for something that small to cost so much money?”

“Hell yes. Why would you think otherwise?”

“It just seems like, for five g’s, you ought to get something more than a booklet.”

I told him the
Tamerlane
story—how some guy had found one in a bookstore for fifteen bucks and sold it at auction for two hundred grand.

“I hate to say it, but I don’t know what
Tamerlane
is.”

“Poe’s first book. Just a booklet, like you said, but some of the most expensive stuff in the world is very small. Broadsides, pamphlets, papers…”

“Stuff you could put in a pocket.”

“Sure. That’s the first thing a dealer or a bookscout has to learn. Always look at the little stuff.”

“So it’s not farfetched to think that the bookscout might have been carrying something that somebody would kill him for.”

“Not at all. Just imagine that somebody had found a little piece of scroll signed by Jesus Christ. A silly example—I don’t know who the hell they’d get to authenticate it—but for the sake of argument, okay? How much do you think something like that would be worth?”

“I get your point. And I guess that’s what I’ve been trying to pin down… a motive for robbery. Something so tiny he could carry it in his pocket, but worth big bucks. That’s what he was sent to buy, and somebody killed him and took it away from him.”

“If that’s true, it points back to the book trade. It wasn’t a sudden fight or an old enemy. The answer is in the money. Where did the money go, where did it come from? If we can follow the money, we’ll know a lot more than we know now.”

“There’s one more thing we could check,” Hennessey said. “How about the religion angle?”

I saw it suddenly, what Neal had been pushing around in his head all day.

“They say our boy was religious,” Hennessey said. “Found the Lord in prison a few years ago. That means he went to church somewhere. That means he had a life outside the book business. Maybe friends on a whole different level. Maybe a minister he’d confide in. You only see one side of him when you see him in a bookstore.”

I sat up straight in my chair. “How the hell could I miss something like that?”

“You’re too busy looking at the books,” Hennessey said.

BOOK: Booked to Die
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