Fiction

The sin room

A HOT DAY in old Adelaide, the only sounds being the air-con and the books yammering to themselves – as I like to think. Before the sun rose too high, I had rearranged the display in the shop window, this week’s theme being crime, true and fiction. Barely had I finished when I heard running in the street outside. I reached under the desk for my cricket bat, useful even in a second-hand bookshop.

The door burst open.

‘Hi Will,’ I said to the panting apparition in black, sweat dribbling down from his flaming red hair. ‘What’s up?’

‘Murmur,’ he said, and dashed past me into the back room.

‘Run like ya stole something?’ I called over my shoulder. ‘Just don’t stir the possum.’

Then along came the cavalry: cops and ambos.

‘Have you seen a man, running?’ said the foremost cop.

I temporised, thinking: Will, what have you done? The options seemed limited, library attendants being lawful in my experience.

‘I thought he wanted to use the Shinn Room,’ I finally said.

‘The what? The sin room?’

‘I mean, the outside dunny.’ Complete with nesting possum.

‘He’s been hit by a car,’ said the ambo, pointing down. Only then did I notice the blood drops, fresh and red, leading through my front door and across the seagrass matting. The cavalry followed the trail into the back room.

‘It’s a labyrinth in there,’ I said, bringing up the rear.

‘Jeez, what is this?’ said a cop, staring at the bookshelves reaching to the ceilings, stocked with my wares. The carpet here was ancient, red-brown, didn’t show the blood – never an issue before.

‘The Library of Unseen University,’ I said under my breath, as that was an in-joke Will and I had shared when he worked here. Instead, I led them between the rows of shelves, from Occult to Science Fiction, War, etc., until in Natural History, we stumbled across a prone form, unconscious and white as a page. The ambos sprang into action, and I got out of the way.

 

WHEN THEY LEFT, carrying Will on a stretcher, I closed the shop for the day. My thoughts were all a swirl, and the most important was that Will would be all right, despite concussion and a broken jaw – and the source of the blood, a shallow flesh wound in his back. I saw it when an ambo pulled up Will’s black shirt tail and thought: that’s not road trauma. I know a knife wound when I see it.

Oh Will! I could believe he might have been hit by a car, walking along, his head in a cloud, thinking about his PhD. I could believe he might have been attacked in road rage. Oh Will, the gentlest of men, except in certain specific circumstances. As the stretcher had passed my desk, I’d seen his hand, exposed for the cannula, the knuckles bruised. The last time I had seen damage like that was when Will had thrown out a customer, for very good reason. He had quite a punch on him…

‘What’s up?’ I’d said when he’d charged in the door. He’d replied, but I hadn’t managed to catch it completely. I concentrated on the memory. Murmur? No, that wasn’t quite it.

I tried various combinations on some scrap paper, and finally decided most likely was ‘murder’. Murder? When he worked in a library? A body in the library? It sounded like he was delirious and reverting to his PhD thesis, which was on crime fiction.

I had to stop brooding and do something positive, so I grabbed my big flowery hat and locked up the shop. From what I had overheard from the cops, I knew the direction to take, and so walked a block in the sere heat, mentally following a trail of blood, until I reached the crime scene tape. There I found a news crew, more cops and a tow truck disentangling the front of a vintage Merc from a tree.

There are zilch degrees of separation in Adders: the news crew cameraman was a regular customer for photography books. Before I knew it, I got my fifteen seconds of fame, to be aired on prime-time TV that night. I described Will, dazed and bleeding, running into the shop, which emboldened a witness to the crash to claim her fifteen seconds, too.

‘Sheesh!’ said the cameraman. ‘Fancy chasing a lowlife all the way from the uni library.’

All the way to a road where they’d met a little old lady whose Merc had faulty brakes and couldn’t stop in time. The lowlife had broken a leg in the impact, which hadn’t stopped him waving a knife around. And Will, despite his head injuries and the knife cut, had kept running. Why?

‘Run like ya stole something,’ I repeated.

‘What was it about, you reckon? Drugs?’ said the cameraman.

‘Outta character,’ I said. It had to be something else, entirely in character.

 

I ONLY MET Will because a charming man once came into the shop with a big bag of art books, saying he was moving and needed the cash. Do you really want to part with these? I asked. They were desirable – unlike the rubbish most people bring to bookshops, only fit for oppies or the little free libraries. He sighed and said, Sadly yes. So I bought the lot and when he left I found gaps in the books in the shelf he leaned against while chatting to me. I looked again at the art books and noticed prices in pencil, rubbed out. Little toerag! He had made me his fence and then stolen my books.

We second-hand booksellers know everyone in the trade, so I made a few phone calls. Missing any books lately? Funny you should mention that…

I thought hard about CCTV, but couldn’t afford it. But why not another pair of eyes? Preferably younger and keen on books. I put a notice in the window, and Will waltzed into my life. I couldn’t pay him much, but students take what they can get. What I wasn’t expecting was that we would get on so famously.

‘Welcome to Unseen University,’ I said.

‘Ook,’ he replied, and I stared at him.

‘I may not be the librarian who got transformed into an orangutan by magic, but I’ve got the long reach…and the hair. Just don’t call me a mon–’

I reached up and put my finger to his lip.

‘Ssh. The job’s yours.’

Few pleasures are greater for the bookish than meeting a fellow fan, though we were decades and worlds different. We had Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series in common, along with crime fiction,­ though for Will the interest was also scholarly. I trusted him not to steal my stock, he being like Pratchett’s ranga: a fierce defender of books. He shelved, he cleaned the shopfront window, he minded the shop when I went to appraise deceased estates.

We made a good team. I never saw my charming thief again, but when other dubious types came along, we had our codeword: ook. It meant, watch them! That included the obvious junkies, those daft or desperate enough to try robbing a second-hand bookshop. Not to mention others, the sort about whom a bookseller develops a sixth, suspicious sense: Old Filth, who liked a wank in the back room; the creepy couple who bought nothing but Gor novels; the fiction writer who defaced the works of his rivals, until Will threw him out of the shop.

But good things in life end, just like a novel, and one day Will got a better job – not tutoring, but being an attendant in the university library: Rare Books, which to both of us was hog heaven. We toasted his success with an excellent Coonawarra Terra Rossa, and a farewell present from me: Everett Wilkie’s Guide to Security Consideration & Practices, Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collection Libraries. The oddest books appear in the second-hand trade, and sometimes they find their ideal recipient.

Will came back a week later, wearing a big grin. ‘Now I know why you called it the Shinn Room.’

‘You’re learning, mate,’ I said.

And that was the last I saw him, until the day he came running bleeding into the bookshop.

 

I LET MY FEET lead me onwards, into the university grounds and towards the library. There, I went up to Rare Books. Daph the librarian got first dibs on anything rare I found: first editions, obscure colonial histories and once, a grubby little book that proved a palimpsest of sixteenth-century alchemy notes. Just because a book is unprepossessing doesn’t mean it isn’t worth an astronomical amount of money.

Behind the security doors of Rare Books was a Fort Knox of valuable tomes, which was why I had to buzz to be let in. Even though they knew me, I still had to leave my shoulder bag and hat in a locker.

Daph was about my vintage, genteel-tough, but she’d been weeping.

‘You look like you should go home.’

‘I will, after the police come and do their interview.’ She took my hand, gripping hard. ‘Who would have thought – fisticuffs in Rare Books.’

She swallowed the sob and released me. ‘The policewoman I spoke to said that when Will comes to, she’ll read him the riot act. Don’t play the hero. What was he thinking?’

‘I have a notion,’ I said.

‘Me too. I thought of Shinn, Spiegelman and Transylvania,’ she said.

Will and I had our own personal jargon; so do rare books professionals, whether collecting, trading or being the custodians of a library’s crown jewels. Daph and I understood each other perfectly. Transylvania University Library in Kentucky had Mrs BJ Gooch, their special collections librarian, attacked with a stun gun and tied up by thieves trying to steal rare natural history books. The story was turned into a heist movie, American Animals, one I cordially disliked: too soft on the thieves. Daniel Spiegelman found a disused book lift at Columbia University and climbed up it to raid the rare book stacks. James Shinn stole from the Mudd Learning Center at Oberlin, which in revenge not only got him jailed but named a bathroom after him: the Shinn Room.

‘What are you missing?’ I asked.

‘I don’t know yet.’

She indicated a desk: ‘Those are the items requested by the user. He brought his own notepad and pencils.’

Her breath caught, but she continued. ‘With the staff cutbacks we were down to me and Will today. I was at the other end of the room with old Professor Tregaskis, he’s always needy. Will I left to deal with the only other early customer. And next they were throwing punches at each other. They crashed against the librarian’s desk, and somebody, don’t think it was Will, reached over and pressed the exit button. The pair of them went hurtling down the emergency stairs. Professor Tregaskis decided then and there that he might be having a heart attack, so I couldn’t alert security immediately. And when I did, they were outside the library.’

She blew her nose. ‘Give me a hand. I need to know what’s missing, or else I’ll feel a complete fool in front of the police.’

We started going through the pile of books on the desk. They comprised mainly American poetry from the 1800s, predominantly for the specialist. The books had no maps to be cut out and sold separately, indeed no huge value for book thieves. Even the illustrative engravings were prosaic.

‘With the arts cuts nobody much teaches nineteenth-century American literature,’ Daph said.

I spotted a name written on a flyleaf that rang a faint bell. ‘Mind if I check Google?’

‘Go ahead.’

I used the public access computer console. ‘Rufus W Griswold, as I thought,’ I reported. ‘The literary executor from hell.’

‘Whose?’

‘Edgar Allan Poe.’

‘Ah,’ Daph said, remembering. ‘That arrogant American, just before Christmas.’ She went to her desk, checking records. ‘Professor Baumgarten was here for a conference, but spent a morning in Rare Books before flying out. He requested this item, among others.’

‘Baumgarten. Wrote that controversial biography of Poe?’

‘The same. Will took an instant dislike to him.’

No wonder, I thought. Will got passionate about the authors he loved.

‘Will didn’t make a soft sound…ook?’

Daph stared at me in astonishment, and I remembered she only read modernist women novelists. ‘I believe he did. With both men.’

‘So we have some very low-demand books being requested a few months apart, by different users.’

She steepled her hands. ‘A commissioned theft? Happens mostly overseas.’

We went back to examining the books, but still couldn’t see anything missing. When the police arrived, we had nothing beyond the fact of a library attendant chasing a customer all the way from Rare Books and in front of a Merc.

Worse, when Will came to, he couldn’t remember anything, either.

 

I RETURNED TO the shop, opened it for business, but wasn’t concentrating much. I knew there had to be some denouement, even when the police released Will’s adversary on bail. He promptly skedaddled, despite his injury. That looked suspicious to me, but Daph still couldn’t find anything missing from Rare Books.

After Will was out of hospital, I got a summons from Ling, his girlfriend.

‘He’s driving me mad,’ Ling said. ‘You’ve got to help.’

Ling was a medical student and the daughter of doctors, so her home was heritage, in a plush suburb. I found Will lounging on a daybed, behind him a feature wall showing a photographic diorama of bamboo forest. It looked peaceful, but Will’s expression was anything but.

‘What’s up?’ I said.

An expressive grunt. By his side was an iPad to communicate, since his jaw was still wired shut. He typed: THANKS FOR VISITING

Ling drew up two chairs, made jasmine tea for all of us.

‘Tell me what happened, like you did for the police.’

WHERE DO I START?

‘Professor Baumgarten.’

That grunt again.

‘Was he ook?’

A nod. Will typed: SUSS

‘He’s a distinguished scholar.’

THIEF. HIS GRAD STUDENTS RESEARCH

‘In the uni world that’s legal. You know that.’

DEALS IN RARE BOOKS IN RETIREMENT

‘That’s more like it.’

A WISE?

‘What?’ said Ling.

I took the iPad and called up the wiki entry for Thomas Wise, scholar, antiquarian bookseller and vandal who, when he found that a rare book he was selling had missing pages, would steal those pages from a complete library copy of the same edition, thus increasing his profit. It took years before he was discovered, and librarians still snarl at his name.

‘Went over to the dark side,’ observed Ling.

Will took the iPad back. MAJORLY

Book thieves have types, and the worst begin righteous, then get greedy, or into debt. Wise had loved books, to be sure, but then that love had grown perverted or corrupted.

I pondered: ‘You thought that was his game, using a library on the other side of the world, where the books concerned were hardly consulted.’

A nod.

Will called up the university library catalogue, indicating a first edition of Nathaniel Hawthorne.

BAUM REQUESTED IT. He voiced something that sounded like ‘Heh!’, then typed: NO USE TO HIM. RIDDLED WITH BOOKWORM

‘They exist?’ said Ling. ‘I thought it was just an expression.’

MAYBE HE FOUND SOMETHING ELSE

He closed his eyes, concentrating on memory. I pictured the scene: Will looming, never taking his gaze off Baumgarten.

DIDN’T NICK ANYTHING, I’M SURE

‘What did you make of the second user? A proxy?’

‘Ook!’ He actually voiced it. OUTTA CONTEXT. ALL WRONG

That sixth sense again.

BOGAN. IN A LINEN SUIT. WHEN ONLY SPECIALIST WOULD REQUEST THOSE BOOKS. LIKE BAUM. He agitated, flapping his hands before typing: ONE BOOK IN COMMON WITH BAUM. THE ONE OWNED BY GRISWOLD

‘Why,’ I said, ‘would anybody request the Griswold? Why is he remembered?’

‘Hold on,’ said Ling, ‘isn’t Griswold in Will’s thesis?’

‘Entirely the wrong person to be a literary executor,’ I said to Ling. ‘Griswold did his darndest to destroy Poe’s reputation.’

FAILED, typed Will in satisfaction.

‘And what does a literary executor deal with?’

AN AUTHOR’S PAPERS

‘Oh,’ said Ling. ‘You think there was something valuable in the book to do with Poe.’

‘But we don’t know what it was,’ I said.

Will shook his head sadly.

‘You need a memory jog,’ I said. ‘Let’s revisit the scenes of the crime.’

 

LING AND I telescoped Will into her car and drove to the university. Rare Books was empty except for Daph, so we had uninterrupted space for a reconstruction. I sat at a desk pretending to be a bogan in linen; Will loomed; Daph observed.

‘Something happened,’ I said. ‘And you challenged him.’

I THOUGHT HE SLIPPED SOMETHING INTO HIS JACKET

‘Who, me?’ I pantomimed an innocent expression.

THAT’S HOW THE FIGHT STARTED

Daph sighed. ‘I went right through the Griswold. Some period underlining, but no significant marginal notes. Nor pages missing.’

‘There must have been something,’ I hazarded.

Her eyes went distant. ‘My father taught university French in New Zealand. Once he found a previously unknown Voltaire letter in the University of Otago library. He let a graduate student take the credit, to help her career.’

‘Did he say how he found it?’

She shook her head. ‘Misattributed? Stuck in a book?’

‘Until somebody opened the tome,’ I said. ‘Let me play Baumgarten.’ I put on a self-important expression, shot glances at Will over an imaginary pair of half-glasses.

Will clapped his head: HE SUDDENLY LOOKED PUZZLED

‘Maybe not sure what he’d found. But with suspicions.’

A nod and a smile.

 

WE LEFT DAPH behind with her books and escorted Will out of the university grounds, following his approximate route. We walked slowly, because he still tired easily. Finally we stopped in front of a tree with a gashed trunk and fragments of windscreen around it, still gleaming among the dry grass.

‘Will,’ I said, ‘what does a thief do when chased with his booty in hand?’

Ling answered: ‘I’ve seen it happen at the hospital. Junkies stealing medication discard or hide it.’

Will sat down on the grass to use the iPad. DIDNT HAVE A CHANCE. I WAS RIGHT BEHIND HIM

‘The police couldn’t find anything on him,’ I recalled.

‘So where is – whatever it was?’ said Ling.

‘A bit of paper, maybe, apparently worthless.’

Will glanced around hopelessly and only got eyeballed by a magpie.

Ling took his hand. ‘Easy enough for it to get lost somewhere in the crash, or in the hospital.’

‘Will, you ran like ya stole something. From him, when he couldn’t run from you anymore. Is that when he knifed you?’

He looked appalled.

I CAN’T REMEMBER

 

WILL WASN’T FIT to continue, so Ling drove him home. I returned to the shop, retracing Will’s staggering steps. He had run a block in high heat when injured, undoubtedly not thinking straight. Thinking with his feet, following a familiar path. But was there more to it than that? Had he anything in his hand?

I unlocked the shop door without turning the sign and shut it behind me. Now I closed my eyes to remember. Will had dashed in and spoken one word.

‘Murder,’ I voiced, then stopped. There had been a sibilant at the end. Murders? Even if he’d been referring to his poor stabbed self, it wouldn’t have been in the plural.

If he had wanted help, he would have asked. He ran here for something else. I followed his steps into the back room: my pride and joy, my livelihood, the books in their shelves, from floor to ceiling.

It was my fancy that the books yammered to themselves in their categories – not arranged by Dewey, but by broad subject areas. I could half believe the Travel books compared notes on exotic locations; the War books reminisced about combat; the Crime books, near the door leading to the Shinn Room, talked grisly murder. Or murders…

Will, failing on his feet, hadn’t got that far, collapsing in Natural History. I stood within the imagined chalk outline of his lanky, fallen form. I wasn’t as good as Will at spotting suspicious customers, but had another useful skill, honed when I was a librarian myself and did shelf checks. I had a sixth sense of something out of place, as when Old Filth hid his porn mags in Theology.

Above me, a book protruded slightly from the top shelf. Will had the height, and it was beyond my reach. I dragged in a chair, clambered up. When I got it down to my level I saw it was a book that had come in while Will worked here, from the deceased estate of a zoology professor: a nineteenth-century guide to the fauna of Borneo. Someone might love it, Will had said while we shelved, but it wouldn’t find a home quickly.

I carried it to my desk, where the light was best. Very carefully, I upended it, riffled the pages. Sure enough, out fell a paper folded into a bookmark. I opened it and read the first paragraph, written in fussy penmanship:

About a year ago our ship sailed to the Far-East, to the island of Borneo. I had never before visited Borneo. The forest, the jungle, was thick with trees and other plants, hot and wet and dark. But we went – a friend and I – we went into that forest – for pleasure.

I stopped there, pinned down my discovery with a paperweight and consulted my shelves, first biography, then crime. I brought them back to the desk for consultation, skimming the pages, gulping down information. Examination of the two biographies of Poe I had in stock, neither of them Baumgarten’s, produced an illustration of his rather ornate handwriting. I glanced from the photograph to the ‘bookmark’ and back again, then drew in my breath sharply.

Holograph manuscripts existed of Poe’s verse. However, none survived for the three tales called the first modern detective stories: ‘The Purloined Letter’, ‘The Mystery of Marie Rogêt’ and the brilliant genre debut, ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’.

‘Murders,’ Will had said, indicating he’d had a chance to see what he had grabbed. One word would have sufficed, written in Poe’s familiar hand, leaping off the page: Orangutan. There we saw this Orangutan, a big animal.

In ‘Murders’, Poe got his natural history wrong, but created a famous villain: the ape did it. No known manuscript had survived of the story, until now. Here in my hand was a pearl beyond price. Even this one page was an incredible collectable.

Poor Will, not in his right mind, wounded and reeling. Perhaps he meant to hide his prize in the Pratchett books. An orangutan, hidden in a book featuring orangutans disporting themselves in the coloured engravings, was the sort of joke Will liked.

But was he also tempted? To go over to the dark side, if not secretly selling the page to a wealthy collector, then keeping it himself, to revel in the ownership? Like a mafia don with a stolen Tintoretto in his bedroom?

I eyed the unprepossessing page covetously myself. I too loved Poe, but knew what this find might bring me. If sold discreetly, overseas, I could have a cosy retirement, cruises, the good life… The dark side gets at people like me subtly, undermining our love for the book.

‘Get thee behind me, Satan,’ I said aloud. The shop might have a Shinn Room, but it wasn’t going to be a place where I sinned too. Let Will take the credit, I thought, for making a major literary discovery, just like the student in Otago. PhDs need all the help they can get in a world of uncertain arts tenure. I needn’t say that Will hid it, just that I found it.

I made a few phone calls: the police, the university librarian, Daph, Will. Then I sat at my desk waiting for the cavalry and smiling.

I might have the pleasurable possession of a unique MS for only a few more minutes, but I would enjoy it while I could.

Griffith Review