Books of a Feather
Chapter 1 continued
I glanced around and couldn’t help admiring our newly remodeled space. Our living room was now almost twice as big as before and we had expanded the kitchen, too. We’d turned my second bedroom into a spacious office for Derek. The two bedrooms of the newly purchased loft had become a comfortable suite for guests that included their own kitchen. I was hoping this new addition would entice more of Derek’s family to visit us from England. Especially now that we were getting married.
Married. There was that tingling feeling again. I couldn’t help grinning as Crane regaled me with tales of wild adventures from their prep school days.
“But enough of that nonsense,” he finally said. Changing topics, Crane leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees. “Derek tells me you work with rare books. It would be fascinating to watch you do that.”
A flash of guilt made me hesitate. I’d hidden all my pricey books earlier, unsure whether our guest was trustworthy or not. Now that we’d officially met and I knew he was one of Derek’s oldest friends, I felt a bit silly for having hidden them from him. Still, the books were valuable, so I refused to feel bad for being cautious. “Yes, I’m a bookbinder. I take books apart and clean them up and put them back together again.”
“She’s being modest,” Derek said. “Brooklyn has a unique gift for repairing the rarest of books and making them come alive again. Almost like a skilled surgeon.”
“Without all the blood,” I murmured.
“But she’s also an artist,” he continued. “She’s designed some fantastic book art.”
I felt my cheeks heating up. I knew Derek appreciated my work, but all this lavish praise was going straight to my heart.
He tapped my knee. “Darling, Crane has an impressive art collection. I think he would enjoy seeing your work.”
“I would indeed,” Crane said, helping himself to a cracker. “I collect all sorts of art, including books. As you might expect, my interests are mainly in Asian art, but I’d very much like to see your work sometime.”
I gave Derek an assessing look, then said to Crane, “We’d love to have you join us tomorrow night at the Covington Library if you’re free. They’re having a big party to celebrate the opening of a new exhibit featuring Audubon’s massive book of bird illustrations. It’s a real masterpiece.” I gave a self-conscious shrug. “And if there’s time, I can show you some of my own work on display.”
Crane blinked, clearly surprised by my invitation. But then he flashed me a spectacular smile. “I would like that very much. I was about to invite you both to dinner tomorrow night, but perhaps we could dine together this weekend instead. Are you available Saturday night?”
Derek and I exchanged upbeat glances and he said, “We are and we’d enjoy it very much.”
“Sounds like fun,” I chimed.
“Wonderful,” Crane said, pulling out his phone to send himself a reminder. “I’ll make the arrangements and text you the details tomorrow morning.”
Crane settled back in his chair. “I must say, I find it remarkable that they’re opening an Audubon exhibit while I’m in town. I don’t believe I’ve ever told you this, but I happen to have a tenuous family connection to James Audubon.”
“Is that true?” I asked.
Derek leaned forward. “I had no idea, Crane. Tell us.”
Crane’s laugh was self-deprecating. “When I say tenuous, I truly mean it.” He considered for a moment and then held out his hand to count on his fingers. “It’s to do with my great-great-great-great-great-grandfather. Five ‘greats.’ His name was Sheng Li, and he was born in 1795, the son of a prominent Mandarin scholar. His father arranged for him to be smuggled out of China to England because he wanted Sheng to attend Oxford and learn Western ways. Because he was an obedient son, my ancestor studied very hard. He spoke perfect English and was talented in math and science. But his true passion was art. He was a painter. And here’s the big coincidence. It was his good fortune to meet the great painter James Audubon while traveling the east coast of Scotland.”
“That’s amazing,” I said, imagining what it must have been like. “What a coincidence.”
“Isn’t it?” Crane said, giving me a smile that said he knew exactly what I was thinking. “Audubon saw one of my ancestor Sheng’s paintings and invited him to work as a colorist in anticipation of the publication of his great work of bird illustrations.”
I shook my head in wonder. “What a small world. And how excited Sheng must have been to get such a prestigious invitation. Although it couldn’t have been easy for him, living as an artist in a foreign land.”
His lips tightened into a scowl. “No, it wasn’t. He was living in Britain during the lead-up to the first Anglo-Opium War and despite it being fought thousands of miles away in the ports of China, people in England looked with great suspicion on the Chinese living in their country. Especially as opium’s use grew in popularity.”
“Was Audubon able to protect him at all?” I asked.
“Yes. At least, that is what Sheng wrote in his journal. Our family owes a debt of gratitude to him for that alone. And for allowing Sheng to work alongside him, as well.”
Derek, who had been leaning forward, listening intently, sat back on the couch. “So it’s possible we could see some of your great-great, et cetera-et cetera, grandfather’s work tomorrow night.”
“I doubt it,” Crane said with an easy chuckle. “But it is a fascinating story, isn’t it?”
“You sure know your family history,” I said.
“The study of one’s ancestors is very important to Chinese parents.” He nodded. “Mine made sure we knew who all those ‘great-greats’ were and exactly what they accomplished.”
“Families are so interesting and complicated, aren’t they?” I grabbed a cracker. “Do you have brothers and sisters?”
“A brother.” He took a quick sip of wine. “And another odd story, if you care to indulge me.”
He smiled. “Perhaps you have heard of the one-child policy of China?”
I pressed my hand to my mouth, chagrined. “That was so stupid of me. I forgot all about that law.”
“No, no. I don’t wish to make you feel bad. It’s a terrible policy that was finally changed just recently. My only point in mentioning it is that my parents were allowed to have two children.”
“How did that happen?” I was really intrigued now.
“My mother’s family is from Hong Kong, so after my mother gave birth to me, she suggested that we all move to Hong Kong for a few years in order to have more children. It was still a British protectorate at the time, so it didn’t fall under China’s one-child policy. The sad irony is that once we were there, my mother began having miscarriages. The doctors decreed that she must stop trying to have children. Shortly after that we moved back to Beijing, and she found out she was pregnant. To avoid a forced abortion, she moved by herself to her sister’s farm, where Bai was born. And that is how I wound up with one brother.”
“Wow,” I said. “So once you were back in China, I guess you must’ve felt pretty lucky. The only boy in town with a brother.”
Derek cleared his throat and took a sip of wine.
Judging by that, there was something I didn’t know. I glanced from Derek to Crane. “Did I just step in it again?”
Crane laughed. “No, no. Derek is reacting to the fact that he has met my unfortunate sibling.”
“Oh dear.” That didn’t sound good. “I’m sorry.”
“I appreciate your concern,” he said. “But do most families not have what they call the black lamb?”
“Sheep,” Derek corrected, smiling.
“Ah. Black sheep. Of course. I confess, my brother, Bai, is one of the reasons I’m here this week.”
Crane pronounced his brother’s name like the word buy, but I doubted it was spelled that way.
“He lives here?” I asked. “In San Francisco?”
Disappointment and sorrow shadowed his expression. “He is currently residing in the city.”
I shot Derek a desperate look. Leave it to me to ruin this happy reunion with his old friend. “I shouldn’t keep asking questions. I’m sorry.”
Crane waved away my distress. “Don’t feel badly. It’s probably good for me to talk about it.”
“Yes, it’s therapeutic,” Derek said with a grin, and Crane chuckled. This seemed to be a topic they’d discussed before.
I looked at Derek. “So you’ve met Bai?”
Derek took up the story. “When Crane was sent to Eton, his brother demanded that he be allowed to go, too.”
“I’m afraid Derek was a convenient target for Bai’s bad behavior. My brother was insistent on proving to Derek what a tough guy he could be.”
“For some reason,” Derek said with a shrug, “his brother didn’t like the fact that Crane had so many friends at school. Bai blamed me for that.”
“As a young man, my brother had what you’d call jealousy and rage issues.”
“Give her some background, Crane,” Derek suggested, and turned to me. “It really is an intriguing story, darling.”
“I’m dying to hear it, as long as you don’t mind talking about it.”
“No. Not at all.” Once again, Crane sat back in the red chair and told his story. “My mother is half English, the daughter of a prominent Hong Kong businessman. Like the father of my ancestor the painter, my mother wanted me to receive a Western education.”
“Didn’t she want the same thing for your brother?”
“No. Again, like my ancestor Sheng, my brother has a gift for painting. My parents wanted him to study at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. It is quite possibly the finest and most selective art school in the world. My brother was quite proud to be accepted to the academy, but at the same time, he wanted to get out of China. He insisted he wanted to see the world. My being sent to Eton intensified his demands. He was very spoiled and reacted badly when he didn’t get his way.”
“So Crane’s parents relented and sent him to Eton,” Derek explained.
I frowned. “And something tells me it didn’t go well.”
Crane made a face. “You guessed correctly. Besides harassing Derek, Bai was in constant trouble and was finally kicked out. It was a source of great embarrassment for my family.”
“It upset all of us much more than it ever bothered Bai. And now he bounces around the world, enjoying himself. He still has a tendency to get into trouble, but he’s a wealthy man and trouble never seems to cling to him for long. He’s also a talented artist and has many connections in the art world, which makes my mother proud. Her family trust allows Bai a generous allowance every year, so he’s free to do as he wishes. But now my mother is ill and wants me to bring him home.”
“I’m so sorry,” I murmured.
“So that’s the family business you were referring to,” Derek said.
“Yes.” Crane took a sip of wine. “It seems I am still my brother’s keeper, as they say. But along with my mission to convince Bai to come home, I am also conducting company business while I’m here. I’ll be meeting with the Chinese consul general this week to discuss opening up markets to bring new business to my country. And of course I wanted to see you, my friend, and meet the woman who captured your heart.”
I couldn’t help smiling. “Why does Derek call you Crane? Is that your real name?”
“In a manner of speaking.”
I shot a quick glance at Derek, who was watching his friend expectantly. I had a feeling Crane had been asked this question before.
“My actual name is Sheng Li,” he explained, “named after my honorable ancestor. But from the time I was born my mother called me Hè.” He pronounced it “Hua” with a raspy whisper, almost as if he were growling the name.
“Okay,” I said slowly.
“Chinese mothers are very fond of nicknames,” Crane said. “Hè is the Chinese word for a type of bird, which in English is called a crane.”
“Your mother’s nickname for you was a bird?”
“Oh, not just any bird,” he insisted, grinning, “but the most revered of all birds. In Chinese mythology, the crane is thought to be immortal. There is often some magic connected to any story involving cranes. My mother can be fanciful at times.”
Understanding dawned. “She sounds like my mother. I have a sister whose middle name is Dragonfly.”
He held out his hands. “Ah, then you can relate. I believe my mother was a free spirit in her younger days.”
“A hippie,” I said with a laugh.
“So, did you always call yourself Crane?”
“Not until I went to school in England. When I started at Eton, I was a sad, scrawny thing. And Chinese, of course. The other boys were relentless in their ridicule of me for so many reasons. My name, my ethnicity, my physique. Derek was already on his way to becoming the titan he is today, and as my roommate, he took it upon himself to threaten the others with fates worse than death if they continued to bully me. When he found out what my nickname meant in English, he started calling me Crane. It sounded so cool. The rest of the boys seemed to agree and the harassment was quelled.”
“My hero,” I said, patting Derek’s knee. Turning to Crane, I said, “You seem to have, um, outgrown your scrawny phase.”
One of his eyebrows shot up in a rakish glint. “Thank you for noticing, my dear.”
Derek rolled his eyes and I couldn’t help laughing.
Crane continued. “That, too, is due to Derek’s influence. He insisted that we begin daily workouts in the school gym.”
“So you could fight back if necessary,” I said.
In my mind Derek really was a hero, but I wasn’t going to embarrass him by repeating it.
“But let’s change the subject,” Crane said. “I’m tired of talking about myself. Tell me more about the Covington collection. I’ve read about it for years, but I’ve never had the opportunity to see it.”
“I think you’ll be impressed,” I said. “It’s much more than just a library, although there are many exquisite books and so much history. But there’s artwork, too, and beautiful gardens. And the building itself is impressive. I think you’ll enjoy it.”
“I’m sure I will.”
Derek put his arm around my shoulder. “You should be aware that the place also has a sentimental meaning for Brooklyn and me. It’s where we first met.”
“Now I’m truly intrigued,” Crane said.
I almost laughed at the way Derek made it sound so romantic. True, we’d met at the Covington Library, but it was only because my mentor was killed that night and I found the body. Derek, in his role of security expert for the priceless antiquarian book collection on display, had found me with blood on my hands and had immediately accused me of murder. Not the most starry-eyed way to start a relationship, but we’d managed to overcome those first few bumps in the road.
“And just think,” I said, gazing up at Derek, “this time there won’t be any dead bodies to worry about.”
Crane seemed amused, but Derek was no longer smiling. In fact, he was staring at me as though he might’ve wanted to check me into the nearest loony bin. That was when I realized I had just tempted fate in the worst possible way. Right then and there, I began to pray that my words wouldn’t come back to haunt me.