The Bookman’s Wake 1
Slater wasn’t my kind of cop. Even in the old days, when we were both working the right side of the good-and-evil beat, I had been well able to take Mr. Slater or leave him alone. He had played such a small part in my life that, for a moment, I didn’t know who he was. I was working in my office, a small room in the rear of the used-and-rare bookstore I owned in Denver, writing up books for my first catalog, when Millie buzzed me from the front. “There’s a Mr. Slater here to see you,” she said, and the last person I would’ve thought about—did think about—was Clydell. This was annoying. My work was going slowly: I was an absolute novice at bibliography, and even with modern books there are pitfalls everywhere. Open on the table before me was a copy of Nickel Mountain, by John Gardner, as fresh and crisp as the day it was born in 1973. Gardner had signed it on the half title, a nice little touch, since he won’t be signing any more, that almost doubled its value. It’s not yet an expensive book—about $25-40 unsigned, in fine first edition—the kind of book that should be a snap to describe and price. The publisher was Alfred A. Knopf, who not only puts out fine books but also gives you the straight bibliographical poop. He’s not like Lippincott, who states first edition most of the time, or McGraw-Hill, who states it when the guy in the
back shop feels like putting it on: if Knopf says it’s a first edition, you can take it to the bank and cash it . . . although I do remember one or two Willa Cathers that might or might not follow tradition. Let’s face it, all these houses are dotted with land mines. William Morrow was a model of consistency, but on one pricey little Harry Crews title, instead of noting second printing as always before, he put two tiny dots at the bottom of the copyright page. Cute, Morrow. That little piece of camouflage cost me $40 for a spectacular nonfirst last year. Doubleday always, and I mean always, puts the words first edition on his copyright page and takes it off for later printings. But on one John Barth he didn’t: he put no designation whatever, instead hiding a code in the gutter of the last two pages. The code must say H-18—not H-38 or H-Is-for-Homicide or H-anything-else—or it’s not a first. Harper and Row was as reliable as Knopf over the years, except in one five-year period, circa 196873, when for reasons known only to Messrs. Harper and Row in that great bookstore in the sky, they started putting a chain of numbers on the last page, for Christ’s sake, in addition to saying first edition up front. Figure that out. The only way I can figure it out is that people who publish books must hate and plot against people who cherish them, make collectibles of them, and sell them. I can just see old Harper and Row, rubbing their translucent hands together and cackling wildly as some poor slob shells out his rent money, $700, for a One Hundred Years of Solitude, only to discover that he’s got a later state, worth $40 tops. Harper really outdid himself on this title: in addition to hiding the chain of numbers (the first printing of which begins with “1”), he also published a state that has no numbers at all. This is widely believed to be the true first, though there can still be found a few keen and knowledgeable dealers who
would beg to differ. The one certainty is that on any Harper title for that era, the back pages must be checked. Thus concealed are points on early Tony Hillermans in the $750-and-up range, some Dick Francis American firsts (the numbers on one of which seems to begin with “2,” as no “1” has ever been seen), a good Gardner title, and, of course, Solitude, a fall-on-your-sword blunder if you make it, the rent’s due, and the guy who sold it to you has gone south for the winter.
So I was stuck on Nickel Mountain, with a guy I didn’t want to see storming my gates up front. I was stuck because I seemed to remember that there were two states to this particular book, A. A. Knopf notwithstanding. I had read somewhere that they had stopped the presses in the middle of the first printing and changed the color on the title page. God or the old man or someone high in the scheme of things didn’t like the hue, so they changed it from a deep orange to a paler one. Technically they are both first editions, but the orange one is a first-first, thus more desirable. It’s no big deal, but this was my first catalog and I wanted it to be right. The title page looked pretty damn orange to me, but hot is hot only when you have cold to compare it with. Go away, Slater, I thought.
I took an index card out of my desk, wrote check the color, and stuck it in the book. I told Millie to send the bastard back, and I got ready to blow him off fast if he turned out to be a dealer in snake oil or a pitchman for a lightbulb company. Even when he came in, for a moment I didn’t know him. He was wearing a toupee and he’d had his front teeth pulled. The dentures were perfect: you couldn’t tell the hairpiece from the real thing, unless you’d known him in the days when the tide was going out. His clothes were casual but expensive. He wore alligator shoes and the briefcase
he carried looked like the hide of some equally endangered animal. His shirt was open and of course he wore a neckchain. The only missing effect was the diamond in the pierced ear, but I knew it was only a matter of time before he’d get to that too.
“You fuckhead,” he said. “Lookitcha, sittin’ there on your damn dead ass with no time to talk to an old comrade-in-arms.”
“Hello, Clydell,” I said without warmth. “I almost didn’t know you.”
He put his thumbs in his lapels and did the strut. On him it was no joke. “Not bad, huh? My gal Tina says I look twenty years younger.”
Tina, yet. An instant picture formed in my mind— young, achingly beautiful, and so totally without brains that she just missed being classified as a new species in the animal kingdom.
“You’re the last guy I’d ever expect to see in a bookstore, Clydell,” I said, trying to keep it friendly.
“I am a doer, not a reader. It’s good of you to remember.”
“Oh, I remember,” I said, sidestepping the gentle dig.
“My deeds of daring have become legends among the boys in blue. I’m still one of their favorite topics of conversation, I hear. So are you, Janeway.”
“I guess I can die now, then. Everything from now on will just be downhill.”
He pretended to browse my shelves. “So how’s the book biz?”
I really didn’t want to talk books with a guy who— you could bet the farm on it—couldn’t care less. “Have a seat,” I said reluctantly, “and tell me what’s on your mind.”
“Listen to ’im,” he said to some attendant god. “Same old fuckin’ Janeway. No time for bullshit, eh, Cliffie? One of these days they’ll make a movie about
your life, old buddy, and that’s what they’ll call it: No Time for Bullshit”
It was all coming back now, all the stuff I’d always found tedious about Slater. His habit of calling people old buddy. The swagger, the arrogance, the tough-guy front. The false hair on the chest, as some critic— probably Max Eastman—had once said about Hemingway. The glitz, the shoes, the bad taste of wearing animal hides and buying them for his wife. Then bragging about it, as if going deep in hock on a cop’s salary for a $4,000 mink was right up there on a scale with winning the Medal of Honor for bravery. Some of us thought it was poetic justice when the Missus took the mink and a fair piece of Slater’s hide and dumped him for a doctor. But there was still light in the world: now there was Tina.
“It’s just that I’m pretty sure you didn’t come in here for a book,” I said. “We sold our last issue of Whips and Chains an hour ago.”
“You kill me, Janeway. Jesus, a guy can’t even stop by for old times’ sake without getting the sarcasm jacked up his ass.”
“To be brutally honest, you and I never ran with the same crowd.”
“I always admired you, though. I really did, Janeway. You were the toughest damn cop I ever knew.”
“I still am,” I said, keeping him at bay.
He made dead-on eye contact. “Present company excepted.”
I just looked at him and let it pass for the moment.
“Hey, you know what we should do?—go a coupla rounds sometime. Go over to my gym, I’ll give you a few pointers and kick your ass around the ring a little.”
“You wouldn’t last thirty seconds,” I said, finally unable to resist the truth.
“You prick,” Slater said in that universal tone of male camaraderie that allows insults up to a point. “Keep talking and one day you’ll really believe that shit.” He decided to take my offer of a chair. “Hey, just between us old warriors, don’tcha ever get a hankering to get back to it?”
“You must be out of your mind. No way on this earth, Clydell.”
He looked unconvinced. “Tell the truth. You’d still be there if it wasn’t for that Jackie Newton mess. You’d go back in a heartbeat if you could.”
“The truth? . . . Well, what I really miss are the Saturday nights. I hardly ever got through a whole shift without having to wade through guts and pick up the pieces of dead children. It’s pretty hard for something like this“—I made the big gesture with my arms, taking in the whole infinite and unfathomable range of my present world—”to take the place of something like that.”
We looked at each other with no trace of humor or affection. Here, I thought: this’s the first honest moment in this whole bullshit conversation—we’ve got nothing to say to each other. But the fact remained: Slater hadn’t come waltzing in here to show off his togs and tell me about Tina.
He lit a cigarette and looked at the bookshelves critically, the way a scientist might look at a bug under a microscope.
“Is there any money in this racket?”
I shook my head. “But it’s so much fun we don’t care.”
“Yeah, I’ll bet,” he said dryly.
I felt my temperature rising. Slater had about twenty seconds left on his ticket and he must’ve known it. Abruptly, he switched directions.
“Y’know, there are some jobs where you can have
fun and still make a buck or two. Maybe you’ve heard.”
I think I knew what he was going to say in that half second before he said it. It was crazy, but I was almost ready for him when he said, “I could use a good man if you’re ever inclined to get back in the real world.”
I let the full impact of what he was saying settle between us. He raised his eyebrows and turned up his palms, pushing the sincere look. It probably worked like a charm on children and widows and one-celled organisms like Tina.
“Let me get this straight, Clydell. . . you’re offering me a job?”
“More than a job, Cliffie ... a lot more than that.”
“I don’t think so.”
“Don’t jump too fast, old buddy, till you hear me out.” He took a long drag and blew smoke into the air. “Last year I paid tax on a quarter of a million dollars.”
“Somebody’s gotta pay for those two-hundred-dollar toilet seats the Pentagon keeps buying.”
“Listen, you asshole, just shut up and listen. The best thing I ever did was take early retirement and go out on my own. Right now I’m the hottest thing Denver’s ever seen. I may branch out into radio. I was on two shows last week and the program director at KOA says I took to it like nobody she ever saw. Are you listening to me, Janeway? I could make a second career out of this if I wanted to. It’s so easy it oughta be against the law. None of those guys work more than two or three hours a day, and I’m just gettin’ warmed up then. It’s all bullshit. I can bullshit my way out of anything, and that’s all you need in radio. I found that out after the first five minutes. It ain’t what you know, it’s what you got between your legs. You hear what I’m saying?”
“Clydell, what’s this got to do with me?”
“Keep your pants on, I’m getting to it. This is all by way of saying that your old buddy is leading a very full life. They invite me on to talk about the detective business and find out I can hold my own on anything. I’m filling in for the morning drive-time host next week. Denver Magazine is doing a piece on me, a full-blown profile. They’re picking me as one of Denver’s ten sexiest men over fifty. Can you dig that?”
I could dig it. Any magazine that would come up with a horse’s-ass idea like that deserved Slater and would leave no stone unturned in the big effort to find him. I hoped they’d shoot their pictures in the morning, before the town’s sexiest man got his hair off the hat rack and his teeth out of the water glass.
Slater said, “On radio they’re thinking of billing me as the talking dick.”
“This also figures.”
“I can talk about any damn thing. Politics? . . . Hell, I’m a walking statistical abstract. Ask me something. Go ahead, ask me a question . . . about anything, I don’t care.”
“Oh, hell,” I said wearily.
“I’ve got an answer for everything and you can’t even come up with a fuckin’ question.” I looked at him numbly.
“Here’s something you didn’t know. They skew those microphones in my favor. If I get any shit from a caller, all I’ve gotta do is lean a little closer and raise my voice and he just goes away.” He gave me a grin and a palms-up gesture, like a magician who’d just made the rabbit disappear. “I’ll tell you, Cliff, I’m really hot as a pistol right now. I’m at the top of my game. There’s even talk about them doing one of my cases on the network, on Unsolved Mysteries.”
“If you’re such a ball of fire, how come you didn’t solve it?”
“I did solve the goddamn thing, that’s why they
want to do it, you goddamn moron, as a follow-up to a story they did last year about all the meatheads who couldn’t solve the damn thing. Get this straight, Janeway—there is no case I can’t solve. That’s why I’m cutting Denver a new rear end, because I guarantee everything. I get results or I don’t cash the check. You got a missing person?. . . I’ll find the son of a bitch. If he owes you money, I’ll drag his ass back here, and before we’re through with him, he’ll wish he’d never laid eyes on you, this town, and most of all me. I can find anybody in a day or two—it’s just a matter of knowing your guy and using the old noggin. We’ve got a computer database with access to seventy million names in every state in the union. If the bastard’s got a MasterCard, works for a living, or has ever subscribed to a magazine, I’ve got his ass in my computer. I can tell you his home address, phone number, the size of his jockstrap, and how many X-rated videos he watched last week. I can tell you stuff about yourself that you didn’t even know.”
“Okay, the point is, I can’t keep up with it. I’ve got three legmen and three tracers on my payroll full-time, and I still can’t keep up with all the work. I could put on three more people right now and we’d still be a month behind in our billings. I turn down more jobs now than I take on: I take on any more, I won’t be able to do the sexy ones myself. I’ll just be a paper man, shoveling shit and passing out assignments. Not the life for your old buddy, if you know what I mean. This is where you come in.”
“Uh-uh,” I said, shaking my head.
“You’d be second-in-command. Write your own ticket. I guarantee you’d make fifty grand, rock bottom, your first year. You’d have your pick of all the interesting cases, you’d be the go-between between me and the staff. You’d get a staff car and all expenses
paid. I’m telling you, old buddy, my people go first-cabin all the way. My liquor cabinet opens at four and the staff has all the privileges. And if you’re lonely at night, we’ve got three secretaries with world-class t-and-a, and they do a helluva lot more for a guy than take his dictation. I know you’re not crazy about me, Janeway, I got eyes in my head. But you ask anybody who works for me, they’ll all tell you what a pussycat I am. A guy does it my way, he’s got no problems. You’re gonna love this, and you’ll love me too before it’s over. Even if you don’t, nobody says we’ve gotta sleep together.”
With that sorry premise, I excused myself and went to the bathroom.
He was still there, though, when I came back.
“Think about it,” he said.
“I already have.”
“Think about it, you dumb schmuck.” He looked around critically. “You’re like me, Janeway, a man of action. What the hell are you doing here?”
I’ll give it one try, I thought, see if I can make him understand the tiniest truth about the world he’s blundered into. But I couldn’t find the words even for that. You’ll never convince a doorknob that there’s anything more to life than getting pushed, pulled, and turned.
“I appreciate the thought,” I said, “but I’ve got to pass.”
“This job’s tailor-made for you, it’s got your name stamped all over it. You want proof? . . . I’ll toss you a plum. Two days’ work, you pick up five grand. There’s even a book angle, if you’re interested.”
I stared at him.
“Do I finally have your attention?” he said, grinning. “Did I just say a magic word or something?”
“You might’ve started with that, saved yourself a lot of time.”
“Shut up and listen. I need somebody to go pick up a skip. My staffs booked solid for the next two weeks; I’m so tight right now I can’t even send the janitor out there. This lady needs to be delivered back to the district court in Taos, New Mexico, ten days from tomorrow, absolute latest. The bondsman’s out fifty grand and he’s willing to grease our cut to fifteen percent for dragging her back. I’ve already done the arithmetic: that’s seventy-five big ones, just for taking a couple of plane rides. I pay your freight out there, you go first-class all the way, plus I give you the big cut.”
“Where’s out there?”
“She’s in Seattle.”
“How do you know that?”
“I went to Madame Houdini and looked in a crystal ball, you fuckin’ schlemiel. I play the odds, that’s how. This gal comes from there, she’s still got people there, where else is she gonna go? I called a guy I know and put him on her case. Just sit and watch, you know the routine. Yesterday, around four o’clock, there she comes, bingo, we got her. My guy just gives her plenty of rope, and after a while she leads him to the Y, where she’s staying.”
“Where’s your guy now?”
“Still on her tail. He called me from a phone booth an hour ago, while she was getting her breakfast at the bus station lunch counter.”
“Why not just have him pick her up? Seems to me that’d be the easy way.”
“It’s not him I’m trying to impress, meatball. Let me level with you, Janeway: I don’t give a rat’s ass about this case, it’s just a way for you to make some quick and easy dough and see how much fun workin’ for your old buddy really is. I swear to God, when I thought of you last night, it was like the answer to some prayer. I’ve been needing somebody like you as
a ramrod in my office for at least a year now, but nobody I talked to seemed right for the job. Then this Eleanor Rigby thing popped and it came to me in one fell swoop. Cliff Janeway! What a natural.”
“What Eleanor Rigby thing?”
“That’s the skip’s name.”
I blinked. “Eleanor Rigby?”
“Just like the song,” Slater said in the same tone of voice. But his eyes had suddenly narrowed and I sensed him watching me keenly, as if, perhaps, I might know Eleanor Rigby as something other than a song of my youth.
“Eleanor Rigby,” I said, staring back at him.
“Yeah, but this little baby’s not wasting away to a fast old age.”
I blinked again, this time at the picture he showed me.
“Not bad, huh? You make five big ones and you get to ride all the way home handcuffed to that. I’d do this one myself, old buddy, if it wasn’t for a radio date and Denver Magazine.”
Then, very much against all my better judgment, I said, “Tell me about it.”