A "Luminations" Story
Start at the beginning of the Luminations series
I went into Starro's diner on a Thursday morning toward the beginning of August on one of those days where you wake up stuck to your sheets and you feel like you want to cough out the dampness with each breath. It was gonna be hot and humid with no end in sight, and most sane folks were planning their escape up to Biddeford Maine or down to Cape Cod. I nodded to the regulars and ordered up my usual from Julie: Two eggs over easy, hash browns, sausage links, black coffee. I was just getting settled at the counter when Russ LeBlanc waved me over to the booth where he was sitting. Starro's on a Thursday morning has all the ritual and routine of Catholic high mass, so I tend to be quick to notice when the routine gets broken. Russ wanted to talk in private. I was hoping he had work for me.
I don't pick up work at Starro's very often, because the regulars don't often have much need for a private investigator, but every so often something comes up that they figure I can help out with. Once in a while they're even right.
Russ let me get settled and waited until I got my coffee. The coffee was bad in the way that didn't exactly cure hangovers so much as distract you from them. It was part of the routine, though, and part of the ritual, and I drank down like a good Catholic and waited to hear what Russ had on his mind.
"Shop got broken into the other day."
I nodded and took out a pen, notepad, and a digital voice recorder.
"You mind?" I gestured at the recorder.
"Nah, do your thing."
"Okay, Russ, from the beginning."
Russ owns an antique shop north of town along one of those country roads that still has enough farmland to qualify as scenic. In between cow pastures you see a scattering of art studios, antique shops, farm stands, and the kind of yard sale that is open every weekend of the summer. Russ has been in business since the seventies and he's had the shop out on Blueberry Road since '89. Before that, he'd done his selling at the big flea market down by the racetrack in Salem.
Russ sipped his coffee.
"Ain't much to tell. I stopped by here Tuesday morning for coffee same as always and headed out to open the shop. I knew something was wrong straight away 'cause there was Nellie sittin' up in the window like she was waitin' for me."
"You know Nellie, Chess. The barn cat. Big grey Maine Coon."
I nodded. I'd been over to the shop once or twice, and the cat would always be curled up comfy as could be on one bookshelf or another like she was part of the merchandise. I couldn't recall ever having seen her move, but Russ had assured me there wasn't a mouse anywhere near the place thanks to Nellie.
"So, she was acting strange?"
"Yep. Watchin' me through the window. Normally I'd go in and she'd be curled up on the table on the side, the one with the Depression glass. She'd wait 'til I got in the door and then come around lookin' for her breakfast, but Tuesday she was starin' out as I came in, and I knew there was trouble. Sure enough, back window was busted. Door was kicked open from the inside."
I wrote that down and nodded.
"Jewelry case smashed, so was the rare book display behind the counter. And they took apart the computer."
"Took it apart? They didn't just take it?"
Russ shook his head. "Opened it up and took out some of the parts. Damned if I know what it was. The DVD-thing, maybe? I knew I shouldn't've dropped an extra hundred bucks for that stupid thing. I mean who the hell wants to watch a movie sitting at their damn desk anyway?"
I wasn't worried about the computer, though. Not yet, anyway. There was something else bothering me.
"You said rare books? What kind?"
"Oh, you know, the usual stuff. Old illustrated kids' hardcovers, a couple of first editions, some local authors, some old magazines. About four shelves' worth cleared out."
"Anything valuable?" I was getting a sinking feeling in my gut, and I hoped I was wrong about it. Of course, if I was wrong, it was unlikely I'd have any more luck solving Russ' break-in than the police would. I still hoped I was wrong.
"Not much. I had a lot of other pieces in the shop that're worth more than everything in that bookcase put together. There was an autographed first edition of a Robert Frost collection that might go for a couple hundred bucks."
"What about the jewelry?"
"Just costume crap. The tourists eat the stuff up, but none of its real money. Any jewelry I get that's really worth anything, I have somebody sell it on the internet for me. Say, Chess, you got an idea here? Cops said I may as well just put in an insurance claim and forget about it."
"I might. Let me ask you a couple more questions. Any unique books on those shelves? Anything that might be one-of-a-kind? Even if the author's never been heard from since?"
Russ nodded. "I kept a couple things up there just because none of the rare book people I know ever seem to have copies."
I wasn't surprised.
"Russ, this is a long shot but let me ask you about a woman who might've come into your store recently. Real tall, like six feet or so, curly black hair; she's got huge... tracts of land..." I added that last bit as Julie came over to deliver my breakfast.
Russ showed no such shyness. "What? Big tits, you mean? Yeah, she came in. Hard to forget someone like that. Two weeks ago, maybe three. Looked at... Oh shit, Chess. She was all over those rare books. You don't think she... Who is she anyway?"
"Someone who hired me once. She's a collector. Look, Russ, I can check into this, but I'm gonna need you to be patient."
"Hey, whatever you do, it's gonna be more than the cops are doing."
"Okay, you're open Sunday afternoon, right?"
"Okay. I'm gonna do some digging and I'll stop by then. In the meantime, I want you to fax me over a copy of the police report, and I'm gonna send my assistant over to take pictures this afternoon."
I handed him one of my business cards with the name of my company, "Lumination Agency" and above that "Chester Hall, Licensed Private Investigator." Then, I dug into my eggs and hash browns.
I called my office from the road.
"Lumination Agency." Katy was out of school for the summer, and she'd been coming into the office early to help out with paperwork and make some extra cash.
"Heya, kid. How'd you like to photograph a crime scene?"
"Way." I gave her the details and told her to email me the pictures to my cell. I also told her to take a look at the computer that had been wrecked. I wanted the hard drive, if it was still there. I had a feeling it wouldn't be.
I needed to make more calls and get on the road, and I was finishing up with Katy when I suddenly got worried.
"Katy, do you remember Christina Kenney?"
There was a pause. "Yeah. She hired you to get go out to Buffalo looking for that old magazine. Weird case. So, what's she got to do with all of this."
"Nothing... Well, probably nothing. But, Katy... If she shows up at Russ LeBlanc's shop, keep clear of her, okay?"
She started to ask questions, so I told her that I had to hang up and to just get the photos done. I called Melissa to cancel out on dinner. She wasn't happy about it, and she probably would have been even less happy if she'd known where I was headed. Melissa isn't jealous by nature, but everyone has their limits and I wanted to avoid testing hers. She'd been in a bad mood lately anyway. She'd been bugging me about how I wasn't making any progress on the Mattie Ives case, and there were only so many ways to explain to her that I needed to focus on the cases that were paying the bills.
I drove out to the highway and headed south. A couple of hours later I was parked outside of Nancy Matteo's apartment in Worcester, Massachusetts. Nancy wasn't home when I checked, and I sat behind the wheel reading the Boston Herald while I waited for her to show. It took about an hour. She walked up from the corner bus stop lugging a heavy bookbag and a couple of folded mailing boxes from the post office.
Nancy worked at a big chain bookstore, and she bought and sold rare books online. She was just starting out; mid-twenties, still sporting the punk-goth look with long slick black hair that hung heavily on her shoulders. She had a thick build that I might refer to as curvy, although probably not in the presence of either her or my girlfriend. I'd met Nancy a few months back working on a case that ended badly, so I couldn't blame her when she didn't look thrilled to see me walking up to her door.
"Chester Hall." She stood with her back to the door. "What is it? Some more statements or paperwork to fill out?"
"Actually, I came to offer you a job." That got me invited in.
"So, you've heard of the New Hampshire Antiquarian Book Faire?" Nancy's apartment was on the top floor of a rotting three-family, and it was stacked with books and papers on every available bit of surface area.
"Sure." she cleared off some space for me to sit on the sofa. "It's this weekend. I was thinking of going but, you know.... time and money."
"I'll foot the bill. Early admission to dealers' hours tomorrow. I'm gonna put together a want list and you're gonna be looking to buy the items on the list. I'll just be browsing. I'm also looking for your expertise on some questions related to rare and antiquarian books. Like where the hell the word 'antiquarian' comes from to start with. Pretty convoluted way of saying 'old', if you ask me."
She smiled. "I have work tomorrow."
"Call in sick. I'll pay you more than McBookstore does. Besides, you're gonna be like a kid in a candy shop at this show. I'll pay you half up front so you can get yourself an Arkham House limited edition Lovecraft or something."
"You really know the way into a girl's heart, Chester. Okay. You've got yourself a deal."
I'd figured on getting a hotel room, but we ended up ordering Chinese and Nancy offered me couch space, so I spent some time hauling stacks of books and then checked in with Katy after Nancy went to take a shower. The kid sent the photos over to my phone and I uploaded them to the laptop to get a better look while she gave me the full report.
The hard drive had indeed been missing from the PC in Russ' shop, along with the DVD-drive and video card. Katy seemed to think the box had been disassembled pretty carefully, which was interesting because the display cases had been smashed, along with the back window. Katy mentioned the name of the guy who did computer tech support for Russ. It was a college kid named Tim Mulden. I knew Tim's name. He hangs out at one of the gaming stores I go to. In fact, as I thought about it, I recalled that he did some computer work for that game shop too. I took down Tim's contact information and made a mental note to call him later to see if he had a backup of the hard drive.
Then I had Katy get me Russ LeBlanc's home number and I gave him a call.
"Any luck, Chess?"
"Nothing definite yet. I had a question for you. You know that bookcase that got broken into? Was there anything in there that wasn't for sale?"
"Yeah, now that you mention it, Chess, the whole top shelf."
"What was there?"
"Oh, it was a display of local memorabilia. Political stuff from the old presidential primaries, and some old books and magazines by local authors. It's just there as a display. "
"When the woman I described came in, did she want to buy anything from that shelf?"
"No, she just looked around. She would've known those things weren't for sale, though. I had a sign right on the shelf."
I nodded. "Okay, how good a list can you make of all the books that you're missing?"
"Oh, I don't know, Chess. Most of it, I suppose. I could probably give you a better list once Tim comes by to figure out how to get into this CD."
"Wait a minute... What CD? Katy didn't mention..."
"Oh, yeah. I'd forgotten about it. Came across it after she left. Last month Tim got really busy with a term paper or something and I started getting antsy about backing up the inventory. Tim had recommended we do it once a month, and we were getting almost a full month behind. So I went to Staples and the guy there talked me into getting a CD-backup software thing. It was only like ten bucks and the guy said it was pretty easy to use, so I figured I'd try it out. I stuck the CD in the computer and followed the instructions. Eventually, it spat out the CD and told me to put in a blank one. I did that and after a little while it spat that one out and told me my backup was done. I put the thing in the bottom drawer and forgot about it."
This was looking more interesting by the minute.
"Look, Russ, I'd like you to do something for me. I'd like you to hold onto that CD and give it to Katy first thing tomorrow morning. I'll send her over to pick it up. Oh, and please don't mention it to anyone, okay?"
I told him I'd be in touch, left a vague message for Tim Mulden, and then called Katy back to arrange the pick-up of the CD. Then I settled in for an uncomfortable night on Nancy Matteo's couch.
We spent the drive up to Manchester trading opinions on our favorite SF and horror authors. Nancy took some notes as I went back and forth between talking on the cell to Katy and Russ and putting together a list of the missing rare books. I also left Katy with instructions to make a few other phone calls. I had some suspicions that I needed to confirm.
We arrived at the Manchester Convention Center about an hour into the show, and I briefed Nancy on the plan. This show was an awfully convenient way to sell some rare books quickly, so I figured that if this was just an amateur burglary for the money there might be a chance the thief would show up looking to cash in quick. I had another theory too, one that involved a certain collector with an eye for unique items. If this theory was right, a bunch of the stuff that had been listed was just a cover, and there was a chance that someone involved in the theft might be looking to ditch some of the books that weren't the real objective. I'd concocted a want-list for Nancy that was close enough to the list of stolen books that it might prompt a dealer to buy, but not exact enough to make people too suspicious. At least that's how I hoped it would work. Fortunately, Nancy knew enough about the business that she could play the part. My plan was just to hang back, keep my trap shut, and browse.
Nancy handed a business card to the guy at the front table and we paid the extra fee for early entrance for dealers only. We filled out the registration form. There was a space there for 'specialty'. Nancy put down 'SF/F/H'. Just for giggles, I wrote "Conspiracy Theory" on mine.
The fair didn't use the main hall at the Convention Center, but it was a pretty big room, filled with tables and shelves of books. We were early and guys were still hauling stacks of milk crates on hand dollies and setting books out on their tables.
"Oh shit," I muttered. Christina Kenney was pretty easy to spot even across the room.
"What?" Nancy asked.
"Woman in the back corner. She's involved in this. Don't ask me how I know. Long story that I'll tell you some time over some hard liquor. The point is that she knows me. And she also knows that I'm not exactly in the antiquarian bookselling business."
"No problem. I'll make my rounds. You go chill at the snack bar."
I nodded and let Nancy get down to business. I walked over to the nearest dealer and bought a couple of Edgar Rice Burroughs Pelucidar novels with the Frazetta women on the covers. Figured I might as well have something nice to look at while I waited for Nancy. I got a Coke and a pretzel with mustard and sat down with my back to the wall, looking up every so often to check on Nancy's progress.
I'd sat for maybe half an hour or so, skimming one of the paperbacks while I kept tabs on the room. Looking up from a scene where explorer David Innes was rescuing Dian the Cave-Empress from a ravenous hyenadon, I suddenly noticed something. Nancy was following Christina. Damn. We were starting to deviate from the plan and it was making me nervous. That's the problem with detective work. Every idiot and his sister thinks they know how to do it. I gathered up my stuff, figuring I'd get Nancy's attention and we'd get going. She'd had time to work most of the room. No sense pressing our luck.
Just as I finished putting my books back in my bag, I saw Christina turn toward the restrooms and Nancy followed a moment later. It was way on the far side of the hall, so it took a minute to get over there. I reached the entrance to that hallway and saw Christina come back out of the ladies room door, and she turned and walked out the emergency exit at the end of the hall. The door had one of those "alarm will sound" signs on it, but she didn't hesitate and there was no sound of any alarm when she opened the door. She'd just about gone out when she turned and flashed a nasty smile right at me.
That look gave me a feeling like I'd taken a punch in the gut, and I didn't stop for a second worrying about the whole ladies room issue. I went through the door fast and found Nancy crumpled in a heap under one of the sinks. I kicked the door back open and yelled for someone to call 911 and then ran to check on her.
Nancy was okay. In fact, she seemed fine once she got to the hospital, and she was wisely passing it off as a fainting spell. When I finally got a chance to talk to her alone, she told me she didn't remember what happened. She followed Christina in, she seemed to remember Christina turning toward her, then the EMTs were hauling her out to the ambulance. She didn't have any obvious marks on her. We spent a few awkward minutes trying to apologize to each other. She felt like shit for letting me down and screwing up the job and I felt like shit for putting her in danger, and in the end we kept trying to apologize until we both gave up and started laughing.
I figured I didn't have much of a chance at this point, but I had to try at least. I left the hospital and drove home and got my gun. Then I drove to Tim Mulden's place. Katy had left me the address on my voicemail. Mulden lived in an apartment above the garage of what I presumed to be his parents' house. Didn't look like anyone was home. I parked around the block figuring I'd make my way into the back yard and work from there. When I got back within sight of the house I saw Tim Mulden pull up in an orange Subaru that looked like it had seen better days. He was a skinny guy in jeans and a metal band t-shirt, with glasses and a bad case of zits, and he had just gotten the door unlocked when he finally noticed me walking up.
"Tim Mulden? I'm Chester Hall; I'm a private investigator. Got a minute?"
"Sorry, man, can't help you."
I punched him in the solar plexus as he tried to back toward the door. I shoved him back and took one step inside. He came at me, but he put the brakes on with his face staring down the business end of my .38. I was done being polite.
"Get the fuck on the floor! Now!"
He dropped on his ass like he'd been punched again.
I crouched down so I could meet his eyes. They were bloodshot and he smelled of cigarettes, booze, and sweat.
"When it comes to covering your tracks, Tim, you suck at it. Try to make a robbery look random and it ends up just looking more planned."
"I don't know..."
"Shut up! I'll get to the point. We can make a deal. Maybe. You can start by telling me when she came to get the stuff and where she is now."
"I don't know! She didn't tell me where she is! She said she'd come Monday to get it!"
"Wait a minute... She hasn't picked up the books yet?"
"No. She said Monday."
"Then, Tim, this is your lucky day. Here's what we're gonna do..."
Christina had left three messages on his voicemail. She sounded pissed. Unfortunately for her, Tim had been planning to see her on Monday and acted accordingly. He'd had his cell turned off while he was partying down at Foxwoods Casino for the last day or two.
Christina had told Tim to put aside the stuff from the top shelf. The "not for sale" items. He could keep the rest and get rid of it as he wanted. I had Tim load all the stuff that Christina didn't want into the trunk of my car, and convinced him to hand over enough cash to make good on the register and the computer. Christina had paid him a couple of grand in cash for the job. Fortunately he'd only taken about half of it with him to flush down the slots.
The stuff that she wanted, he could go ahead and give her. With one exception. The way I figured it, she probably only wanted one thing off of that shelf. Now I just had to figure out which one it was.
Tim brought the box over to me, and as it turns out, it wasn't a difficult choice at all.
I walked to my car holding a faded little booklet with some loose pages and a missing staple. I tossed it down on the front seat and took one more look before I drove away.
On the front cover were the words:
"Worn Walking Shoes: Poems of the Road"
Story and Picture by Rick Silva, Copyright 2006