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The Bookwoman's Last Fling (Cliff Janeway Novels)by John Dunning
The morning was angry but I was cool. The rain rolled in from the west like a harbinger of some vast evil brewing but I had the man's money in my bank account, it was mine, he couldn't get it back unless I went nuts and decided to give it to him, and that made me cool. I had followed his orders almost to the letter, varying them just enough to satisfy my own persnickety nature. Long before the first faint light broke through the black clouds, I got up, dressed, got out of my motel room, and drove out toward the edge of town.
I found the all-night diner without a hitch; parked at the side and sat in my cold car with the motor idling. I was early. I had been told to come at five o'clock, no more or less, but I tend to ignore advice like that, especially when it comes with an attitude. I waited ten minutes and the appointed hour came and went. I could sense his presence off to my left beyond the parking lot: If I looked hard at that patch of darkness I could make out the vaguest shape of a car or truck, a vehicle of some kind in a small grove of trees. At five-oh-five by the clock in my car I got out and went inside. The waiter took my order, a slam-bang something with eggs and pancakes: enough cholesterol to power the whole state of Idaho. I consoled myself. I seldom eat like that anymore unless I am on the road, and apparently I am one of the lucky ones: I have great genes and my so-called good cholesterol readings are always sensational. No matter how much fat I eat, my system burns it. To my knowledge, no one in my family tree has ever died of a heart attack, which only means that I have a fine opportunity to be the first one.
The waiter tried to make the cook understand what I wanted through a serious language barrier. The cook looked illegal as hell: he spoke a kind of Spanglish through the window and the waiter struggled with that. I sat through two cups of coffee and no one came out of the lot beyond parking. My breakfast was surprisingly tasty and hot; I ate it slowly and looked up occasionally for some sign of life in the parking lot. When I looked at my watch again, it was five-thirty. The man was half an hour late.
I stretched out my legs and waited some more. If he didn't come at all it was truly his loss. I had five thousand of his American big ones and that usually guaranteed good faith. I could buy a fairly nice book with that. It was my rock-bottom minimum these days, the least it took for a stranger like him to get me off my dead ass in Denver and on the road to some distant locale. I got the money up front for just such contingencies as this one: a client with guff to match my own. That's one thing people had said about Harold Ray Geiger in all the newspaper accounts I had read of his life and death. He was abrupt, and so was the guy who had called me.
Geiger's man was also mysterious, enigmatic to a fault. He had sent me a cashier's check, so I still didn't know his full name. "My name is Willis," he had said on the phone. "I am Mr. Geiger's representative in Idaho." Normally I wouldn't touch a job like this: I certainly wouldn't leave home and make such a drive without knowing certain salient details. What had sold me on the case were the books. Geiger had died last month with a vast library of great first editions, the estate had a problem with them, and that was partly what I did now. I seldom did appraisal work: I found that boring and there were others who could do it faster and at least as well. There can be huge differences between honest appraisers and I tend to be too condition-conscious for people who, for reasons of their own, want their appraisals high. But I would help recover stolen books, I would try to unravel a delicate book mystery, I would do things, and not always for money, that got me out in the sunshine, away from my bookstore in Denver and into another man's world. It all depended on the man, and the voice on the phone seemed to belong to a five-grand kind of guy.
Six o'clock came and went. I rolled with it, prepared to sit here half the morning. The man deserved no less than that for five thousand dollars.
At some point I saw the truck move out of the shadows and bump its way into the parking lot. It was one of those big bastards with wheels half the size of Rhode Island. The sky was still quite dark and the rain drummed relentlessly on the roof of the truck. I could see his knuckles gripping the wheel — nothing of his face yet, just that white-knuckle grip beyond the glass. I knew he had a clear look at me through the windshield, and at one point I smiled at him and tried to look pleasant. But I had a come-if-you-want-to, don't-if-you-don't attitude of my own. The ball was in his court.
Eventually he must have realized this, for I saw the unmistakable signs of life. A light went on in the truck and a man in a hat and dark glasses materialized. He climbed down and came inside.
I recognized his voice from that cryptic phone call a week ago. I said, "Yep. And you would perhaps be representing the estate of Mr. Harold Ray Geiger?"
"I'm Willis. I was Mr. Geiger's right-hand man for more than thirty years."
He sat in the booth and sent up a signal for coffee. He didn't offer his hand and I didn't try to take it. There was another moment when I might have taken it by force, but then he had moved both hands into his lap and I figured groping around between his legs might cast us both in a bad light. From the kitchen the Mexican cook was watching us.
The mystery man sat sipping his coffee.
"Do you have a first name, Mr. Willis?"
"Yes, I have a first name." He said this with dripping sarcasm, a tone you use with a moron if you are that kind of guy. Already I didn't like him; we were off to a bad start.
"Should I try to guess it? You look like somebody named Clyde, or maybe Junior."
I said this in a spirit of lighthearted banter, I hoped, but he bristled. "My first name doesn't matter. I am the man who will either take you out to Mr. Geiger's ranch or leave you to wonder for the rest of your life what this might have been."
Now it was my turn to stifle a laugh.
"Are you making light of this?" I sensed a blink behind his dark shades. "Are you trying to annoy me?"
"Actually, Mr. Willis, I was starting to think it was the other way around."
"You've got a helluva nerve, coming out here with an attitude."
"I wasn't aware I had one."
"Keep it up and you can just climb right back in that car and get the hell out of here."
I stared at him for a long moment. I was suddenly glad I had been paid by cashier's check: his money was now firmly in my bank.
"I want it established right from the start," he said: "You are working for me. You will appraise Mr. Geiger's books and do it ASAP. If it turns out that books are missing and lost forever, I want you to give me a document to that effect, something that will satisfy God, the executor of Mr. Geiger's will, and any other interested party who happens to ask. Is that clear enough?"
"I wasn't told I had to satisfy God as well as all those other people."
"I am not paying you for that kind of wiseass commentary. I was told you are a reliable professional and that's what I want from you. That's all I want."
"Well, let's see if I understand it so far. You want me to look at some books. Supposedly there are some missing titles. I'm to give you a written appraisal and do it on the quickstep. I'm to tell you what's missing based on your assertion that these missing books were ever there in the first place. I'm to do all this in a cheerless environment; I'm not allowed to ever crack a joke or even smile once in a while for comic relief. Twice a day you send a gnome up with bread and water and he hands it to me through the bars. I get to go pee occasionally, as long as I don't abuse this privilege; otherwise it's pucker-up-and-hold-it time. Is that about it?"
"I don't like your attitude."
"We've already established that." I slipped into my Popeye voice. "But I yam what I yam, Mr. Willis. That's what you get for your money, which by the way isn't all that great. And it's looking less great the more we talk."
"Then leave," he said in an I dare you tone.
I slid out of the booth, picked up the check, and started toward the counter. I sensed his disbelief as I paid the tab and sidled back to the booth to leave the waiter a tip.
"Thanks for the call. Give my regards to Idaho Falls."
I was halfway across the parking lot when I heard the door open. He said my name, just "Janeway," and I stopped and turned politely.
"What are you, crazy? You haven't even heard what this is about."
"Believe me, I would still love to be told."
"Then stop acting so goddam superior."
"It's not an act, Clyde. I don't have any act. This may surprise you, but I have lived all these years without any of Mr. Geiger's money. I've gotten wherever I am with no help at all from you guys, and I'm willing to bet I can go the rest of the way on my own as well. I do appreciate the business, however."
"Wait a minute."
We looked at each other.
"What do you think, I brought you out here just for the hell of it?"
"I have no idea why you do what you do. If you want to talk, let's go. Your five grand has already bought you that privilege."
He stood there for another moment as if, with enough time, he could reclaim some of the high ground he had lost. "You're a slick piece of change, aren't you?"
"Yes, sir, I am. I may not be much of many things, but I am slick. Two things before we go. First take off those glasses, please. I like to see who I'm talking to."
He took them off slowly, and in that act the authority passed all the way from him to me. His eyes were gray, like a timber wolf or a very old man.
"Thank you. Now tell me, please, who you are. Is Willis your first name or last?"
"What's your first?"
He stared at me for a long moment. Then he said, "Junior." I swear he did, and that confession made the whole trip worthwhile. Copyright ©2006 by John Dunning
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