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Authors: John Dunning

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BOOK: Booked to Die
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“Just called him Peter the Bookscout, just like Bobby. Hell, half those boys never had a name, or don’t want you to know it if they do.”

“Does Peter come by often?”

“He was in here yesterday,” Neff said.

“Comes in three or four times a month,” Ruby said.

“When did you see Bobby and Peter together?”

“Oh, maybe a year ago,” Ruby said. “They were going up to Boulder together, to a book sale. Bobby didn’t drive, so he was hitching a ride with Peter.”

“What do you mean Bobby didn’t drive?” Neff said. “I’ve seen him drive. Don’t you remember that old car he had?”

“That was a long time ago, pardner,” Ruby said. “The cops busted him for no valid license, no insurance. He cracked up the car and ain’t had one since. I know damn well he didn’t have a license.”

“I think you’re wrong about that,” Neff said.

“There was no driver’s license found on the body,” I said.

Neff shrugged. “Then I guess you’re right.”

“I know I’m right,” Ruby said.

“Why would one bookscout drive another one up to a sale?” I said. “It sounds like cutting your own throat to me.”

“That’s what makes me think maybe they were friends,” Ruby said. “At least as much as those guys get to be friends.”

I made a note in my book. “Any idea where I can find this Peter?”

“The only time I see him is when he comes by,” Ruby said.

“If he comes by again, tell him I want to see him.”

“Sure, Dr. J. You bet.”

I looked through my notes. There are many reasons why people get murdered, but ninety-nine percent fall into four broad motive categories: love, hate, greed, insanity. I had looked at two of these.

“Did Bobby have any girlfriends?” I said.

“Not that I ever saw,” Ruby said.

“He ever talk about women he knew, or might have known in the past?”

They shook their heads.

“Anybody you boys can think of who’d want to see Bobby dead?”

“Oh no,” Neff said.

“He was the easiest of ‘em all to deal with,” Ruby said.

“Who’d he sell most of his books to?”

“Us, as much as anybody,” Neff said.

“Not so much anymore, though,” Ruby said.

“Why not?”

Neff gave a little shrug. “We’ve been going through some lean times, Mr. Janeway. We’ve had a few setbacks.”

“Oh, let’s call a spade a bloody fucking shovel,” Ruby said. “We bounced a few checks on him. That’s no big deal, people do it all the time. We always made it good. But these book-scouts hate to take a check anyway. They go all the way down to the bank and the check’s no good. I know where they’re coming from. I understand why they get pissed off.”

“Then why do you do it?”

“You mean write a hot check? You know that, Dr. J, I know you do. It’s book fever. You’ve got it just like I have. You see a book you want, you do what you have to do to get it. My intentions are honorable, it’s my performance that lags a little.”

“Where else did he go to sell his stuff?”

“Might be any one of a dozen places. You know the scene, Dr. J: hell, there’s thirty bookstores in Denver. Probably half of ‘em pay well enough for bookscouts to be able to deal with ’em. Not many places will pay forty percent across the board, but some do. You could narrow it down that way, I guess. Start with the boys up the street, see if they know anything.”

I thought for a minute. Then I said, “Do either of you know where Bobby lived?”

“I do,” Ruby said. “I drove him home a couple of times.”

“You think you could show me where it’s at?”

“Sure. You want to go now?”

“In an hour. I want to talk to the boys up the street first.”

“I’ll be here whenever you say. You better let me sell you this Faulkner before you leave. It’s the world’s best copy and it won’t last long.”

“How much?”

“For you…Today?…Ninety-five bucks.”

Neff groaned as I reached for my checkbook. “Oh, what the hell,” he said. “I get tired of selling Faulkner anyway.”

6

I walked up
the street carrying Mr. William Faulkner under my arm. The next store along the row was Book Heaven, owned by Jerry Harkness.

Denver is a young man’s book town. In the old days there were only two dealers of note: Fred Rosenstock and Harley Bishop. Those boys died and the book trade fractured into twenty or thirty pieces. The new breed came in and the books changed as well. In Rosenstock’s day you could still find documents signed by Abraham Lincoln or the framers of the Constitution. The trouble was, you couldn’t get much for them. Forty years later, those papers and books are worth small fortunes but can’t be found. What can be found, and sold for good money, is modern lit. We live in a day when first editions by Stephen King outsell Mark Twain firsts ten to one, and at the same price. You explain it: I can’t. Maybe people today really do have more money than brains. Or maybe there’s something in the King craze that’s going over my head. I read
Misery
not long ago and thought it was a helluva book. I’d put it right up with
The Collector
as an example of the horror of abduction, and that’s a heavy compliment since I consider Fowles one of the greatest living novelists. Then I read
Christine
and it was like the book had been written by a different guy. A bigger crock has never been put between two covers. What the hell do I know? I sure can’t explain it when a book like
Solent’s Lot
goes from $10 to almost $1,000 in ten years. That’s half again what a near-perfect
Grapes of Wrath
will bring, if you need a point of reference. You can buy five copies of Hemingway’s
Old Man and the Sea
for that, or six copies of Thomas Wolfe’s
Of Time and the River
. You can buy first editions signed by Rudyard Kipling or Jack London for less money. So the business has changed, no question about it, and the people in it have changed as well. The old guard is dead: long live the new guard. But I can still remember old Harley Bishop, in the year before he died, stubbornly selling King firsts at half the original cover price. The big leap in King books hadn’t yet happened, but even then
The Shining
was a $100 book. Bishop sold me a copy for $4. When I told him he should ask more, he gave me a furrowed look and said, “I don’t believe in Steffan King.”

Jerry Harkness most definitely did believe in Steffan King. He specialized in King and his followers—Dean Koontz, Clive Barker, et al, the little Kinglets. Behind every big ship you’ll find a dozen little ships atrailing. Most of their plots make absolutely no sense, but again, they stand tall where it really matters in today’s world, at the damn cash register. There’s something seriously wrong with a society when its best-selling writer of all time is Janet Dailey. Don’t ask me to prove it: it’s just something I know. I don’t mind a good scare story once in a while, but Jesus Christ, the junk that goes down! The stupidity of some of these plots that sell in the billions is the scariest thing about them.
The Exorcist
is a truly scary book because it only asks you to believe one thing—that Satan does exist. There are no talking dogs or curses lingering from antiquity: there’s no literary sleight of hand, no metaphorical bullshit. Accept the guy’s premise (and who can totally deny it?) and he’s got you where you live. All it takes after that is talent. The trouble today (do I begin to sound like Mel Brooks’s two-thousand-year-old man when I get on one of these soap boxes?) is that show biz is often mistaken for talent. Get to the end, though, and ask yourself what it all meant, what was it all about? The answer’s usually nothing. Relieve the author from the obligation to make sense, and what’s there to be afraid of?

I have come to the conclusion that the people who buy these books don’t care much about books at all. You will seldom see a King guy or a Koontz guy browsing in a bookstore. I’ve been in Ruby’s store and watched the action myself. A guy opens the door. He doesn’t even come inside. He stands on the street with his head sticking in and asks his three questions. Got any King? got any Koontz? got any Barker? If the answer’s no, he’s gone. Ruby points him up the street, to Jerry Hark-ness, and later learns that the guy dropped two grand with Jerry. Unbelievable! What else can you say but absolute around-the-bend insanity? “All a guy needs to make it in this business,” Ruby says, “is an unlimited amount of Stephen King.”

Jerry Harkness had started in the book business as a teenager. He had worked for Harley Bishop and had learned the ropes, but had gone on to do things his own way. He knew his market and his people. His shop contained many items of general interest, but it was his horror, fantasy, and sword and sorcery sections that drew people from all over the country. Harkness had the only copy I’ve ever seen of the signed, very limited edition of King’s
Firestarter
, a $3,000 piece.

Twenty years have passed since Harkness worked for old Harley Bishop. He must have been young then, full of dreams of this—his own business. I looked in the window and wondered, not for the first time, how the reality matched the dream. I might like it myself, if I wasn’t a cop, if I hadn’t been born a cop. Where’s the truth in that, I wondered: was I really born to wade through guts and mop up blood every Saturday night? Suddenly I had the strangest feeling of my life, almost what they call deja vu in the superspook trade.
I have been here before. I have walked these paths and done these things
. I’ve missed my calling, I thought for the second time in ten hours. I’ve been a book dealer before, I’m a book dealer now, I already know more about books than ninety percent of the bozos in the trade. I’ve always thought I might be a book dealer someday, maybe when I retire. I had begun to put some things in storage for that distant day. Maybe it ain’t so distant, I thought for the first time ever: maybe I’ll just chuck all this crap and do it. I had already made one incredible buy, an act of good judgment that I’d be hard-pressed to duplicate. Almost fifteen years ago, I stumbled across John Nichols’s
Milagro Beanfield War
on a B. Dalton’s remainder table for ninety-nine cents. I read the book in a weekend and loved it, and I went all over town, to every Dalton’s I could find, buying them up. They were all unmarked first editions. At the end of that week I had seventy-five copies. I was twenty-two years old when I did that. I’ve run into Nichols a few times over the years and he’s always been happy to sign books. I had gotten about half of them signed. The book now goes for $150, probably $200 with a signature. I had at least $12,000 worth of books sitting in storage for my $75 investment. Maybe the time had come to do something with it.

Jerry Harkness was long and lean and still fighting the good fight against middle age. He perched on a stool behind his counter and watched me all the way past his front window and through the front door. He had been reading a Clive Barker paperback when I came along, and he put it aside for the customary greeting as I came in. I went straight to the counter and got to the point.

“When was the last time you saw Bobby Westfall?” “

You mean the bookscout? I don’t see him, unless he’s got something for me. He knows I don’t buy stock from scouts. They want too much for the run-of-the-mill stuff. He comes in if he’s got a King or a Burroughs, or maybe an early Gene Wolfe. He knows I’ll pay him more than anybody if it’s something good in my field.”

“So you see him what… once a month?” “

If that. I did see him about two weeks ago. I think he was up the street trying to sell Ruby Seals some books. I don’t know, he didn’t bother showing ‘em to me.”

“Did he seem any different than he usually did?”

“I don’t know how he usually seemed. These bookscouts are almost nonentities after you’ve seen ‘em around awhile. I don’t think about things like how they usually are. But since you asked me, I guess he seemed the same as ever.”

“Which was what?”

“Quiet. Almost mousy. He just walked around looking at my stuff. That’s how they learn, you know… look at the books on the shelves and see how they’re priced. None of ‘em ever have any reference books, they can’t afford that, so they have to keep it all up here.” He tapped himself on the head. “What’s the matter? Bobby get himself in trouble?”

“Bobby got himself dead.”

Harkness opened his mouth and it hung there for a moment. “Did you ever talk to him?” I said.

“As a matter of fact, we passed a few words that day in the store.”

“About what?”

“Usual run of stuff. How bad business is, on both his end and mine. This is the slow time of the year. I’m used to it. In the early summer, right after tax time, you’ll go whole days without seeing more than ten people. Then a dealer will come through and drop five hundred, and in the end the figures balance out okay. But bookscouts have it tough. Books have been drying up. Even the Goodwill is putting horrendous prices on their books lately. God, I wonder who’d kill Bobby.”

I looked at him strangely. He got my drift and shrugged. “You’re a homicide cop; I put two and two together and assumed he’d been murdered.”

I nodded.

“I don’t know what I can tell you. Bobby was singing the blues about those stupid asses at Goodwill. People are just plain greedy: they don’t want to leave anything for anybody else, they don’t want the next guy to make even a dime. Goodwill’s trying to play bookstore again. They’re a thrift store, for God’s sake, and they put everything out at bookstore prices. They’ve got some clerk there who can’t find her ass with both hands, and she’s gonna figure out what a book’s really worth. Right. Of course they get it all wrong. They go on weight and glitz. They’ll put out some useless novel about two lesbians fighting for control of their dead aunt’s cosmetics company for five dollars. Then they’ll let a King first go for fifty cents.”

“How does that hurt the bookscout?”

“It’s the stock he makes his bread and butter on. You don’t find Kings every day. What the bookscouts used to be able to do is grab up a handful of these glitzy titles for a buck apiece and double or triple their money in one of the big general bookstores. They can’t do that anymore. Goodwill goes through this silliness once every three or four years. Somebody in the front office gets a wild hair up his ass and they start marking everything through the roof. After a while they learn they can’t sell the damn things and they go back to the old prices. But while they’re at it, guys like Bobby really hurt.”

So this is the gist of what Bobby was complaining about?“

“That’s what he said to me.”

“Did he give you any indication that he might’ve made a recent score?”

“Are you kidding? The way he was talking, he didn’t have bus fare back downtown.”

“Maybe he found something and hadn’t had a chance to sell it yet.”

“I doubt that. I don’t think he had a prayer of seeing any money in the immediate future. He was just too down, too pissed off at the world.”

“Who else did he do business with?”

“Almost everybody. You’re gonna have to go to every bookstore in Denver if you want to touch all of Bobby’s bases.”

“But they have their favorite guys they sell to, isn’t that right?”

“Sure. They all do that. They’ll find a dealer who pays ‘em well and they’ll stick with that guy for a while. Then something happens—either they get pissed off or the dealer does—and they go somewhere else. But it’s never perfect and eventually they come back. It’s a vicious circle. When a book doesn’t sell to anybody reputable, they wind up giving it away for pennies to jerks like the one two doors down.”

“You mean Clyde Fix?”

“What an idiot. I wish we could get that junkman off the block.”

“Can you think of anybody else Bobby might’ve sold to regularly?”

“I think he was in with Roland Goddard. Don’t tell Goddard I sent you, though. He used to be my partner.”

“I didn’t know that.”

“Oh, yeah. But don’t bring it up. We don’t get along now.”

“How come?”

“You don’t really want to get into that. It’s ancient history.”

“Humor me a little.”

“When we were kids we both worked for Harley Bishop. Then we moved on to the Book Emporium, you remember, that big place that used to be on Fifteenth, across from Public Service? They closed it up and Goddard and I bought out the stock and used it to start our first store together. It didn’t work out, that’s all. We’ve got different aims in life, different tastes. At the bottom of it, we just didn’t like each other. Sometimes you’ve got to go into business with somebody to find out how little you like each other. So we flipped a coin to see who would buy the other out. Goddard won. Or lost, depending on how you look at it.“

“That’s a pretty classy shop he’s got.”

“Yeah, but so what? Everything in life has a trade-off. He’s got a great shop and a super location in Cherry Creek, probably makes two hundred grand a year. But the overhead’s got to be unreal. Me, I was out of the business for a couple of years after the big coin flip, but I’m back again. I’ve got what I want.”

“Can you think of anybody else I should see?”

“As a matter of fact, yeah. Go talk to Rita McKinley.”

“Who’s that?”

He raised his eyebrow. “You’re a bookman in this town and you’ve never heard of Rita McKinley?”

“I guess I never did.”

“Well, Officer Janeway, you’ve got a treat in store for you.”

“Who’s Rita McKinley?”

“She’s got a closed shop in Evergreen. Appointment only, that kind of place. Operates out of her house.”

“What’s she got to do with Bobby?”

“I don’t know, except when he was here he dropped a piece of paper with her name on it.”

“You still got it?”

“Sure. I’ve been waiting for him to come in again so I could give it back to him.” He reached into the cash drawer and took out a small sheet of notepaper. In pencil, someone had written the name and a phone number.

I looked at Harkness. “You ever met the lady?”

‘She was in here once, a year or two ago. A real looker, young and pretty and sharp as a new brass tack. She knows books, brother. She knows as much as I do, and I’m talking about books in my field. You know what she did? Bought two copies of
Interview with the Vampire
out of here for fifty bucks apiece. That’s what the son of a bitch was going for then. Now it’s three hundred, and it’s gonna go to five, I’ll betcha. I’d love to have one of those babies back; hell, I’d pay her four times what she paid me. It’s not often that somebody teaches me a lesson in my own field, but Rita McKinley did it. A real cool customer. And I got the feeling talking to her that she knows every field like that. And she can’t be much over thirty.“

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