One Book in the Grave
Hello, my name is Brooklyn Wainwright and I am a book addict.
It was Friday morning and I was on my way to the Covington Library to sniff out my personal version of crack cocaine: Books. Old, rare and beautiful.
I didn't need a twelve-step program; I just needed more bookbinding work to keep me off the streets. That was why I'd driven over to Pacific Heights to see my good friend, Ian McCullough, head curator of the Covington Library in San Francisco. He'd called earlier to let me know he had a job for me.
I found a lucky parking spot less than half a block away. Lucky was the perfect way to describe how I was feeling that day. As I walked up the broad concrete steps of the imposing Italianate mansion, I took a moment to appreciate this beautiful building, its setting here at the highest point of my favorite city, and this glorious, early fall day.
A few months ago, after coming within striking distance of yet another callous criminal bent on killing me and a few close friends, I had made a vow to be grateful for every wonderful thing in my life. My family, my friends, my gorgeous, exciting lover, the career I enjoyed so much, my books, pizza; I was grateful for them all. Life was good.
So now I stopped to breathe the crisp clear air, smile at the colorful sight of newly planted pansies lining the sidewalks, and savor the stunning view of San Francisco Bay in the distance.
The moment passed and I strolled up the last few steps. Pushing open the heavy iron doors, I walked through the elegant foyer of the Covington with its broad checkerboard marble floor, coffered ceiling, and sweeping staircases. Those stairs led to the second and third floors where dozens of rooms held priceless artwork and countless collections of the greatest books ever written throughout history. In almost every alcove and nook, a visitor would find a comfortable chair with a good light for reading. It was the most welcoming place for a book lover I'd ever known and I loved it as much now as I did the first time I came here when I was eight years old.
I bypassed the main exhibit hall and headed straight for Ian's office down the wide corridor that led to the inner sanctum. I was anxious to get hold of the book he was so excited about and envisioned myself rushing home, tearing it apart, and putting it back together again. With utmost love and care, of course.
Yes, life was good indeed.
That thought was snuffed out as a sudden, cold sense of dread permeated the very air around me. I shuddered in dismay. In any perfect apple, a worm might be found.
"What the hell do you think you're doing here?"
Shudders rippled through me at the shrill voice of Minka LaBoeuf, my arch-enemy.
My stomach bubbled and roiled in revulsion and I instantly regretted the Spanish omelet I'd eaten for breakfast. I turned to face her and was sorry I had. Chartreuse-and-fuchsia-striped leggings appeared to have been sprayed onto Minka's ample lower body. As God is my witness, the leggings were topped by a matching tube top—a tube top!—and pixie band—a pixie band!—in her hair. She looked like a demented barber pole.
I couldn't make this stuff up.
"I was invited to come here today," I said, shielding my eyes from the glare. "I know you can't say the same, so you should leave. Be sure to let the door hit your ass on the way out."
Baring her teeth, she snarled and said, "You're such a bitch!"
I smiled with concern. "Really? Is that the best you've got? Pitiful."
She moved in close, so close I could smell her new perfume—Eau de Goat—and hissed at me. "If you don't stop trying to take away my jobs, I'll make sure you never work in this town again."
You'll never work in this town again? Had she really said that? Of course she had. Minka was the queen of the tattered cliche.
"Threats, Minka?" I backed away from her, knowing she had an unruly left hook. "Ian won't like hearing that you threatened me."
She sniffed imperiously. "Ian is a jerk."
"I'll be sure to tell him you said so."
"You're a jerk, too."
Feeling disappointed, I shook my head. "Have you been sick or something? Your comebacks are so lame, it's pathetic." I didn't stick around to hear her answer, but turned and hurried off. I didn't look back either—possibly a tactical error where Minka was concerned since she was the master of the sneak attack. But honestly, I couldn't take another violent shock to my nervous system.
"You'll be sorry!" she shrieked.
I rubbed my arms against the chill but kept moving. Minka had the kind of aura that stirred up all the frigid, stagnant Chi that existed in any space. Once I turned the corner and was out of her eyesight, I breathed easier. It was warmer now. The spell was broken.
I knew that sounded a little insane, but I'd been stalked and harassed and yes, punched in the face by Minka LaBoeuf. I wasn't about to question the possibility that she could cast spells with those evil eyes of hers.
Strolling briskly down the wide hall, I entered the suite of business offices and greeted Wylie, Ian's current assistant.
"He's waiting for you, Ms. Wainwright. Go right in."
I knocked, then opened Ian's door.
"Hey, you," Ian said, jumping up from his chair and rushing to greet me with a hug. "I'm glad you're here. I've been itching to get your opinion on what to do about this book."
Shaking off the last of my Minka-induced negativity, I smiled and hugged him back. "I can't wait to see it."
"I'll warn you beforehand that the outside of the book is less than impressive. Well actually, it's in horrible shape, but I know you can make it shine. The inside is exquisite." He led the way across the room to his lovingly restored Chippendale conference table. We sat and I watched him slowly unwrap several layers of white tissue paper to reveal a rather nondescript book.
The book was big, probably twelve inches tall by nine inches wide, but it was less than one inch thick. The leather cover was green, or it had been at one time; now it was faded to a dull gray. The front cover was badly frayed along the inner edges and outer hinge, where it would probably break apart at the least jarring movement.
And it was disturbingly familiar. I frowned and chewed my lip as I reached for it.
"I know it's ugly," Ian reiterated, misreading my reaction. "But the paper is still in excellent condition and just wait until you see the illustrations."
"Okay." I picked it up cautiously, not only because it was old and falling apart, but because I was afraid of what I would find when I opened it. I stared at the spine. Beauty and the Beast, it read, though the letters had lost most of their gilding.
I opened the book, bypassed the flyleaf and turned to the front illustration across from the title page. It was colorful and sweet and classically Victorian. A tea party for two. Beauty wore a regal red cape and her golden blond hair flowed in waves down her back. She sat at a table pouring tea for the Beast, who was depicted as a huge brown bear. His appearance was hairy and scary, yet he seemed dignified and well-mannered. The tea set was blue. I could've described it blindfolded.
I paged back to the inside flyleaf and stared at the inscription written there. My throat tightened and the pressure building in my chest began to ache.
"It's very rare," Ian said in a rush. "First edition. Look at the interior pages. They're fantastic. I just need you to fashion a new cover and do some clean up, and we'll have a masterpiece to display in the children's gallery."
I ran my fingers over the dried ink and re-read the sentimental inscription. The scrawled penmanship had a beauty all its own.
"Earth to Brooklyn," he snapped. "What's going on? Can you do the work or not?"
I shook myself out of my melancholy and glanced up at Ian. "I'm not sure I can."
"What do you mean, you're not sure? You could do this restoration in your sleep."
"Oh yeah, I can do the work." I turned the book over to see if the damage extended to the back joint, but it was still smooth and unfrayed. "But ... I don't think I can do the work."
He scowled, shoved his chair back from the table and stood over me. "You're speaking in riddles. What's wrong with the damn book?"
"Nothing's wrong with the book," I said, and met his gaze directly. "Except that it was stolen."
"No, it wasn't." He stared at my expression, then shook his head vigorously. "No way. What the hell are you talking about? I bought it from Joseph Taylor, the most reputable bookseller in the city. It was a clean deal."
"I believe you." Joe Taylor was an old acquaintance of mine. My mentor Abraham had known him forever and over the years, we'd done a lot of bookbinding work for him.
I touched the crisp, deckled edges of the paper and fought to stay calm. "But I'd like to find out who sold it to Joe because I know they weren't the rightful owner."
Frustrated, Ian scratched his head, causing his hair to spike wildly. "What aren't you telling me, Brooklyn? How do you know this book was stolen? Who did it belong to?"
Awash in memories, I didn't realize until too late that I had tears in my eyes. I brushed them away with a fierce swipe of my hand and faced him. "Me, Ian. Once upon a time, this book belonged to me."
© Kate Carlisle
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