Josh Lanyon Main Title

The Dickens With Love

An excerpt from the novella by Josh Lanyon

Chapter One

“Anything you have to do,” Mr. Stephanopoulos said, pouring sherry. “I must have that book.”

“Anything?” I repeated carefully.

We stood in the spacious living room of his Century City penthouse. The Palladian windows looked out over a city alight and twinkling on this rainy afternoon four days before Christmas. In one corner of the room was a large and particularly vulgar Christmas tree that managed to convey all the holiday charm of a sequined dildo. In the other was a plasma television set, sound muted. It’s a Wonderful Life—the scene where Clarence explains to George Bailey how angels get their wings—played a silent background to our conversation.

Stephanopoulos smiled, handing me the fragile amber glass of sherry. “Short of murder, of course.”

“Of course.” Was that supposed to be funny? What a prick he was. What a godawful, odious prick.

“I don’t want to know details. I want results.”

I sipped the sherry. It was probably excellent sherry, if you liked sherry. I prefer brandy, but Mr. Stephanopoulos hadn’t asked. The Mr. Stephanopouloses of the world don’t.

“Well?” Mr. S. demanded when I didn’t immediately answer.

I said lightly—although the mockery was more for me than him, “Have I ever failed you?”

“No. You have not. And no one knows his Dickens like you do, James.”

He managed to make it sound lascivious. That was unlikely his intent; Stephanopoulos was staunchly heterosexual. One more reason to be glad I was born gay.

I watched him savor the sherry, wet glistening on his plump red lips. He looked like a Tim Burton version of Father Christmas.

“Crisparkle. That can’t be this professor’s real name.”

“Why do you say so?”

I quoted, “‘Mr. Crisparkle, Minor Canon, early riser, musical, classical, cheerful, kind, good-natured, social, contented, and boy-like.’ Canon Crisparkle is a character in The Mystery of Edwin Drood. He helps Neville Landless escape to London when he’s suspected of killing Edwin Drood.”

“That’s right. How could I forget?”

How? Beside the fact that Mr. S. had never read The Mystery of Edwin Drood? Actually, I doubted if Mr. S. had read much of any Dickens. I don’t suppose he even liked Dickens. He thought Boz was a smart acquisition. And he was right. The previous week an 1859 first edition of A Tale of Two Cities—illustrated by H.K. Browne and bound by Birdsall & Son from the original seven monthly serial installments—went for $6,950 on the Advanced Book Exchange.

Though Mr. S. ruthlessly and relentlessly collected Dickens for investment purposes, his personal preferences ran to 1920s erotica. Primarily naughty pictures and, ideally, French. Hey, c’est la vie.

“I believe it’s his real name, though,” Mr. S. said. “Sedgwick Crisparkle. He’s a Professor of Chemistry at the University of London.”

Sedgwick? He’s having you on.” As in totally yanking the fat man’s chain. Still, what did it matter to me? I would be paid for my expertise whether the article in question was genuine or not.

“And how did this professor of chemistry get hold of a lost Dickens manuscript?”

Mr. S. said vaguely, “That’s all part of the mystery. Not that I give a fuck how he got hold of it so long as I get first crack at it—assuming it’s the real thing.”

I smiled politely. When it came to ethics, Mr. S. made the House of Medici look like the Waltons. Say goodnight, John Boy. Only I couldn’t say goodnight. If I didn’t want to live in a cardboard box under Los Angeles River Bridge come the New Year, I had to have this commission.

“You’ll have to be discreet, though. If Crisparkle knows you’re acting as my agent he won’t sell the book to you. Regardless of the money involved.”

Interesting.

I said only, “Discretion is my middle name.”

Stephanopoulos smirked. I resisted the temptation to dash my drink in his face. Desperation makes ugly bedfellows. Anyway, a thimbleful of sherry was a ridiculous gesture. He’d probably just lick it off.

Stephanopoulos handed me a slip of paper with a phone number. “He’s staying at the Hotel Del Monte. It’s crucial that you get a look at the book and, assuming it’s genuine, that I’m able to make an offer before LAABF on Saturday.”

LAABF was the Los Angeles Antiquarian Book Fair. The fair was held every other year. It was neither the largest nor the most prestigious of such book fairs—not in the state and not in the country—and I wondered why Professor Crisparkle had decided to auction his valuable manuscript here. It seemed one more indication that all was not kosher. Not my problem.

“Hotel Del Monte. He must be expecting to make a killing,” I remarked, examining the phone number.

“With good reason.”

I made a noncommittal reply. Well, however things went down, I’d treat myself to a few hours in the Hotel Del Monte’s legendary Champagne Bar. It was one of my favorite places in Los Angeles though generally right out of my price range. The good thing about working for Mr. S. was that he paid promptly and well.

Mr. S. said jovially, “To Dickens’ Christmas books. God bless ’em every one!”

We clinked the crystal glasses. They made a brittle chime. Somewhere a disheartened angel tumbled off a Christmas tree.

* * * * *

This is for all the lonely people...

America’s The Complete Greatest Hits was blasting from the apartment next door to mine. Darcy, my neighbor, was—in her own words—a HUGE fan of the English-American folk rock band. Actually the greatest hits album was an improvement over Holiday Harmony, the group’s Christmas album. I’d heard that album at least twice every single day for the past month. Now I understood why so many suicides happened around this time of year.

Darcy’s door flew open as I was quietly inserting my key into my door lock.

“James.”

“Hey.” I smiled distractedly and turned the lock.

Darcy was a few years older than me. She was a chubby, dishwater blonde with a fondness for baggy jeans, plaid flannel shirts and animal-shaped barrettes. I liked Darcy. She was a good neighbor and a kind and conscientious person. But despite the fact that I had broken it to her early on that I was gay, I was uncomfortably aware that she still, as they used to say, entertained hopes. I did my best not to encourage her.

“Did you decide if you’re spending Christmas day here?” Her expression was studiedly casual.

I’d known the question was coming, so I’m not sure why I didn’t have an answer for her. I did have an answer; only I didn’t want to deliver it. Nobody should have to be alone at Christmas.

And Darcy knew I didn’t have anyone to spend it with, so to refuse was just…personal.

Thinking that love has left them dry...

She was lonely and God knew I was lonely. What did it matter if she was a little dull, a little desperate? The same could be said about me.

Darcy swallowed, met my eyes, and found a cheerful smile with which to meet my impending rejection.

“Yes,” I heard myself say. “Christmas. Christmas would be… Thank you. Yes.”

Darcy’s face lit up. “Really?”

I nodded. “What do I—? Should I bring something?”

“Just yourself.”

“I can do that. That I can do.” I was nodding encouragingly—encouraging myself—like one of those bobble-headed dogs.

She was still beaming at me and I was still nodding as I let myself in my apartment. I waved, she waved, and I shut the door, leaning against it.

“Is that supposed to be your idea of a good deed?” I asked aloud. It was rhetorical. I had no answer and there was no one else to answer—and hadn’t been since Corey kicked me out of our Laurel Canyon home nearly three years ago to the day.

I really didn’t want to start thinking about Corey Navona. It was only the time of year, and Stephanopoulos’s crack about the Louis Strauss debacle—but that was all ancient history. I had a job. A real job instead of the usual slinging books at “barnsonovels”. Things were looking good.

I shoved off the door and opened the mini fridge that served as an end table to the room’s only comfortable chair. I scanned its contents. That took approximately one and one half seconds. I had the choice of two eggs, a jar of raspberry preserves, a jar of possibly moldy Hoisin sauce and a bottle of white grape juice.

I finished the white grape juice and sat down to phone Professor Crisparkle at his hotel. I was astonished to find that my palms were perspiring. Was I afraid the mysterious professor wasn’t going to agree to see me? No. Because I wouldn’t accept his refusal. I was more resourceful than that. If he turned me down, I’d go to the hotel and find his room and camp outside it until he let me have a peek at that manuscript.

Or was I afraid he would let me see the manuscript? That once I saw it I’d know it wasn’t genuine?

Wouldn’t it be worse to know that it was genuine and I was purchasing it for Stephanopoulos?

I couldn’t afford to start thinking like that.

I asked for Professor Crisparkle’s room feeling like an idiot. That couldn’t be his real name. Was this some elaborate hoax? Yes, I could believe that more easily than I could believe in this lost Christmas manuscript.

I was placed briefly on hold. Doris Day whispered fuzzily in my ear about the joys of Toyland, Toyland, Little Girl and Boy Land.

Then Doris vanished and a male voice, deep and definitely English, inquired, “Yes?”

“Professor Crisparkle?”

“Yes?” A trace of impatience.

“My name is James Winter. I’m an antiquarian book appraiser representing a collector who wishes at this time to remain anonymous. He’s requested that I be allowed to examine the Dickens manuscript you’ll be putting up for auction on Saturday at the LAABF.”

“The book has already been authenticated by Angela Nixon and Ford Standish. I believe their credentials are impeccable.” He wasn’t haughty so much as…unequivocal.

“Yes. My client is aware of that fact. If it’s all right, he’d like me to take a look as well.”

He drawled, “And just who might you be when you’re at home, Mr. Winter?”

“Sorry?”

“Why exactly should I permit you to examine this book?”

I said patiently, “Because if it’s what you believe it to be, my client will make you an offer for it immediately.”

“The book is already going to auction on Saturday.”

“This would be in the nature of a preemptive bid.”

Silence.

“Surely that defeats the purpose of going to auction,” Professor Crisparkle said at last.

I said carefully, because he seemed irascible enough to cut me off and hang up, “If you’re choosing to auction the manuscript, you’re hoping to get the highest possible price for it. My client is in a position to pay above and beyond what you could get at auction.”

“Then why doesn’t he simply come to auction and bid on the book?”

Because he’s an arrogant, unprincipled asshole.

I said pleasantly, “For security reasons and others, my client is very careful about his privacy. He rarely makes public appearances.” Not when he can outflank his rivals with an end run.

Silence.

I coaxed, “If the manuscript is genuine, you’ve nothing to lose by letting me take a look. You can always decline my client’s offer if you ultimately believe you can get more at auction.”

“Very well,” he said curtly. “When did you wish to examine the book?”

“What about this afternoon? I could be there in, say, an hour?”

Crisparkle didn’t exactly sigh, but I could feel his irritation. “Very well. I’m in room number 103. One hour.” He hung up.

It was clear to me that if I was late, I was out of luck. I pulled off my shirt—I tended to perspire a lot around Mr. S.—shrugged into a fresh one, doing up the buttons hurriedly.

I didn’t expect the manuscript to be the genuine thing, of course. I knew it couldn’t be. All the same as I changed clothes I had that funny tingle in my chest. I mentally reviewed what I knew about the Christmas books. From a literary standpoint, with the exception of A Christmas Carol, they’re not considered Dickens’ best work, but I had an illogical affection for them. Granted, I had an illogical affection for Christmas itself. Used to anyway. Now days I hated this time of year.

All told, Dickens wrote five Christmas books starting in 1843 with A Christmas Carol in Prose, Being a Ghost Story of Christmas. That’s the holiday classic commonly known as A Christmas Carol. CC was followed by The Chimes in 1844, The Cricket on the Hearth in 1845, The Battle of Life in 1846, and The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain in 1848.

There had been no Christmas story in 1847. Dickens was losing interest in the books, and The Battle of Life had not been very well-received by critics or his public. But the mysterious Professor Crisparkle claimed that there had been a Christmas story—and that he possessed the missing manuscript.

Even knowing better it was hard to rein my imagination in, daydreaming about what might be contained in such a manuscript.

Why wouldn’t Dickens have released it? Was the manuscript unfinished?

I frowned at my reflection in the white and gold framed mirror over the waist-high bookshelves lining the west wall. My eyes were shining, my cheeks were flushed. For all my vaunted cynicism, I had the collector’s bug as bad as anyone. I wanted to believe this manuscript was the real thing.

This is the first and most important step toward getting ripped off.

If anyone should have learned that lesson, it was me. I shook my head at my reflection, and the glint of the tiny black star in my earlobe caught my eye. I stared at it. Stared at my reflection as though running into an old acquaintance after many years. It seemed odd to me that I didn’t look any different. True, three years wasn’t exactly a lifetime, but I’d traveled metaphysical leagues in that time. The marks of that journey should have been on my face and threaded through my hair, but I looked the same as always. A tall and slender man with green eyes and chestnut hair. Granted, I needed a hair cut. The rain was making my hair curl. Three years ago I’d been getting my hair trimmed at The Green Room. Three years ago I would not have been heading out on an appraisal job in jeans. I’d have been wearing Kenneth Cole—right down to a tie. But then three years ago I wouldn’t have considered taking a job from Mr. Stephanopoulos.

Not that there was anything wrong with this job. Very straightforward from the sound of it. Nor was there anything wrong with jeans—or the way I looked. I was clean, shaven, and presentable enough. Maybe the real change was on the inside.

Safe to say, it wasn’t a change for the better.

Chapter Two

The Hotel Del Monte sat on twelve lushly wooded acres in the middle of some of the most expensive real estate in Southern California. The hotel’s secluded location and small size, the rambling, pink stucco Spanish style ninety-two-room complex and its tranquil and luxuriant gardens full of trees, ornamental ponds and fragrant flowers made it one of the most romantic settings in Los Angeles. No long, anonymous corridors lined with room numbers. Most guest rooms and suites had private entrances and opened directly onto the hotel’s gardens. If I was a guy in the market for a honeymoon, Hotel Del Monte would be my first choice.

I asked at the front desk for Room 103 and then headed out through the ancient sycamores and tree ferns. I crossed a small arched red and gold bridge from where I could see the graceful bell tower on the other side of the small lake where the swans were taking shelter. The rain pattered on the leaves of the lemon and orange trees lining the cobbled path, glittered on the petals of the rose bushes. It smelled good, like walking in the woods. The city seemed very far away.

I found Room 103 without too much trouble, ducking into the stone alcove and knocking on the door. Rain dripped musically from the eaves and ran down the back of my neck.

I shivered. I needed a raincoat, but with only about fifteen to twenty days of rain a year, there were better things to spend one’s pennies on. Like books. There was a 1924 edition of Gertrude Chandler Warner’s The Box-Car Children I had my eye on for this year’s Christmas present to myself.

The hotel room door swung abruptly open. An unsmiling, dark-haired man stood framed against an elegant background of pale cabbage roses and ivy. He was about forty. Tall, rawboned, lean. He wore faded jeans, a cream-colored sweater over a white tee shirt, and horn-rimmed glasses that made him look like a bookish angel.

“James Winter?” he inquired, looking me over like he’d caught me cheating on my chemistry quiz.

“Professor Crisparkle?”

My surprise must have been obvious. “Is there a problem?” he returned sternly.

“No. Not at all.”

The problem was he was gorgeous. It was a no-nonsense brand of gorgeousness, though. Far from detracting from his dark, grave good looks, the glasses accentuated them.

I smiled my very best smile—despite the rain trickling down the back of my neck—and offered my hand. After a hesitation, he shook it.

His grip was firm, his palm and fingers smooth but not clammy or soft. An academic, but not one of the ones who never left his ivory tower.

No wedding ring.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you.” I meant it. I was sort of nonplussed at how much I meant it.

“Come in,” Crisparkle replied, moving aside.

I stepped inside the room which was cozily warm and smelled indefinably expensive, a combination of fine linens, fresh coffee and cut flowers. A fire burned cheerily in the fireplace. The remains of the professor’s lunch were on a tray on the low table before the sage velvet sofa. Soothing classical piano played off the laptop next to his lunch tray.

Corey and I had stayed at the Hotel Del Monte on our one year anniversary. The rooms were all furnished in romantic country-French décor—each unique but with the famous signature touches of Alicante marble, vintage silk or chenille upholstery, and original artwork. It was the best weekend of my life—or maybe it seemed that way in contrast to the following week, which was when my entire world had shattered.

“You must have brought the rainy weather with you.” I smiled again, not bothering to analyze why I was displaying such uncharacteristic cordiality. “Have you seen much of the city since you’ve been here?”

“The book is on the desk.” Crisparkle nodded at the writing desk near the white French doors leading out to a private patio.

Not one for chitchat, was he? Maybe it was an English thing. In any case, I lost all interest in rude Professor Crisparkle. The only thing in that room for me now was the faded red leather book lying on the polished desktop. As I approached the writing table my heart was banging so hard I thought I might be having my first ever panic attack.

A book. Not a manuscript. I’d been thinking that Crisparkle and Mr. S. were playing fast and loose with their terminology, but no. It was a bound book. All the more unlikely, then, that this could be the real thing. Hard enough to believe a manuscript had been lost, let alone an entire print run. Impossible, in fact. And yet, as I reached for the thin volume, finely bound in red Morocco leather, I noted that my hand was shaking. Well, scratch a cynic and you’ll find a disappointed idealist.

I drew back as I realized that I was in danger of dripping on the desk.

“Could I borrow a towel?” I asked.

Crisparkle gave me a funny look, and then disappeared into the bathroom.

I took a moment to remind myself of all the possibilities of any such appraisal. The novel might be the real thing, but it was more likely to be a forgery. It might be a modern forgery or it might be a contemporary forgery. Knowing which would depend partially on discovering the book’s provenance—the documented or authenticated history of its ownership—of which I so far knew nothing.

The professor reappeared with a peach-colored plush towel and I scrubbed my face and hair, tossed the towel to the fireplace hearth and sat down at the desk. I still didn’t touch the book, simply gazing at the gold lettering on the front cover. Miss Anjaley Coutts surrounded in gold-stamped holly and ivy.

That wouldn’t be the title. So the book was a gift and Miss Coutts was the recipient. Why was that name familiar? Who was Miss Anjaley Coutts? Not Mrs. Dickens or a sister-in-law. Not a daughter. Not an alias of Dickens’ mistress, the actress Ellen Ternan, because he didn’t meet her until 1857. Who then?

“It doesn’t bite,” Professor Crisparkle said sardonically, and I realized that I’d been sitting there for more than a minute, unmoving, staring at the cover.

I threw him a quick, distracted look, and then delicately edged the book around to examine its spine. Gold lettering read The Christmas Cake / Dickens / MDCCCXLVII.

The Christmas cake?

I carefully opened the book and turned the flyleaf. On the frontispiece was a hand-colored etching of a truly sumptuous cake—topped by a sly, smiling mouse with crumbs on her whiskers. I looked at the title page: another smaller illustration of an elderly man and woman who appeared, to my wondering eye, to be getting sloshed on the Christmas punch. And the words The Christmas Cake in a familiar, faded hand that most people only viewed through glass.

I turned the page and stared, feeling decidedly light-headed, at the first sentence. Our story begins with a fallen star. But the star is not the story.

I was vaguely aware that Professor Crisparkle spoke to me, but I didn’t hear what he said, and I didn’t care. I was absorbing—devouring—the words with my eyes.

Roofed with the ragged ermine of a newly-fallen snow glittering by starlight, the Doctor’s old-fashioned house loomed grey-white through the snow-fringed branches of the trees, a quaint iron lantern, which was picturesque by day and luminous and cheerful by night, hanging within the square, white-pillared portico to one side. That the many-paned window on the right framed the snow-white head of Mrs. Dimpledolly, the Doctor’s wife, the old Doctor himself was comfortably aware—for his kindly eyes missed nothing, so it was that he spied the falling...

I read for some time before I finally raised my head. I no longer saw the hotel room. I don’t think I even saw the book or the handwritten pages anymore. I was seeing benevolent old Doctor Dimpledolly and his amiable missus as they opened their home to a coachload of strangers stranded on Christmas Eve.

“Satisfied?” Professor Crisparkle asked dryly.

I snapped back to awareness, blinking up at him, dimly taking in the details of elegant nose, long eyelashes, soft dark hair--I couldn’t tell what color his eyes were behind the horn-rims. That mercurial shade of light brown that looked green in certain light and gold in other. He seemed so awfully stern, so awfully strict, reminding me of an uptight schoolmaster. But that was right, wasn’t it? He taught chemistry like Mr. Redlaw, the professor of chemistry in The Haunted Man.

As I stared at him, it occurred to me that Professor Crisparkle didn’t like me much.

Didn’t like me at all.

Why? Not that I was universally beloved—hardly—but what had I done to earn such instant dislike from an out-of-towner?

I said slowly. “It looks... very promising.” My voice nearly gave out. Promising? Who was I kidding? I knew, knew in my bones, this was the real thing. I said more solidly, “I’d have to examine it more closely, of course. To be absolutely sure.”

He gazed at me with an expression of utter contempt.

No, I wasn’t misreading him. I repeated uncertainly, “I’d like to spend a little more time—”

“I’m sure you would.”

Color heated my face at that dry, ironic tone—and I wasn’t quite sure why. I said evenly, “It certainly looks authentic, but you never know.”

“You don’t, do you?”

Again: barely concealed scorn. Too obvious by now to politely ignore.

“Is there a problem?” I asked.

“There is no mysterious client, is there?”

“I didn’t say he was mysterious, but of course there’s a client.”

“What is the name of your client?”

“I’ve already told you he wishes to remain anonymous.”

Crisparkle said, looking me straight in the eyes, “After we spoke on the phone, Mr. Winter, I did a bit of checking up on you with your colleagues in the ABAA. You have quite an interesting—and not entirely admirable—past.”

I’m not sure why that struck home the way it did. I’d certainly heard worse, but hearing it from Crisparkle—knowing the stories he would have heard about me—was, quite simply, humiliating. I managed to say, “There are two sides to every story, Mr. Crisparkle.”

He didn’t answer.

After a painfully long pause, I said, “I take it you’ve decided not to permit me further access to the book?”

He said, as though it gave him great satisfaction, “You take it correctly, Mr. Winter.”

So why the hell had he permitted me up here to look at it at all? Curiosity? Or had I blown my one and only chance when I pretended not to know for sure that the book was genuine?

I wanted to shout out, it’s not fair. But when was life ever fair? Instead, I expelled a long, shaky breath and managed to keep from saying all the furious, foolish things that wouldn’t help my cause anyway. I could hardly bear to take a final glance at the book. Leaving it lying there in the shadows of reflected rain and firelight, knowing I would never see or hold it again, was like physical pain. I felt it in my core of my body like a physiological reaction to grief. I felt ill. I felt like crying.

Rising, I began gathering my things. Surprisingly, my hands were quite steady now.

I dragged on my coat, still damp with the earlier walk in the rain. All the while Crisparkle stood there watching me in an icy silence like a head butler waiting to expel a grubby tradesman.

I went to the door of his suite and he followed me, still unspeaking. I had my hand on the knob when my anger overtook me, and I turned to face him.

“Not that it’s any of your goddamned business, but I had nothing to do with Louis Strauss’s forgeries, let alone murder. I was never accused or even implicated in any wrongdoing. I merely had the misfortune of working for Strauss. So did several other book hunters. The difference is, they didn’t stay in the business. I stayed because this is my passion and my life.”

“Ah, I see,” he said mockingly. “Why, then, do you suppose so many people say the unflattering things they do about you?”

“Because I was too good at my job. And I was... arrogant. Nearly as arrogant as you.”

His expression altered infinitesimally right before I quietly, carefully, shut his hotel room door.

It was raining harder than ever as I started back down the cobbled path, making my way through the playful statuary and miniature waterfalls, back over the pretty bridge and the lake where the rain sent ripples spreading across the green-gray surface. I strode right across the wet lawns, marched down the steps leading to the long patio with its rustic terra-cotta pavers and urns of massive flower arrangements, pushed open the French doors and went inside the comfortably dark hotel bar to order a drink while I tried to think what to do next.

I’d been to the so-called Champagne Bar many times—back when I was the hot-shot number one book hunter for the leading antiquarian bookseller in Los Angeles. At times it was hard to remember those days. Mostly I didn’t want to. But however much my fortunes had changed, the Champagne Bar was still a gorgeous, welcoming room with gilt-framed paintings, classic dark wood and rich, luxuriously comfortable chairs and sofas, and a large fireplace that was cheerfully ablaze on this cold, wet afternoon. It looked more like the handsome library of a manor house than a trendy Los Angeles bar. From the tapestry cushions, wooden ducks on the mantelpiece and live orchids, every elegant detail was perfect.

I settled into a stool at the bar and ordered a brandy. In a spirit of defiance, an Asbach Uralt.

No use pretending I wasn’t badly shaken by Crisparkle’s censure. Not that I ever forgot my inglorious past, but three years later I no longer brooded on it twenty-four seven. Sometimes I even managed to convince myself that one day people would forget and I’d be respectable again. Never mind respectable. I’d be happy to be regarded as employable again by people besides the Stephanopouloses of the world.

I wasn’t sure what bothered me more: being reminded I was still persona non grata among my former colleagues or knowing I wasn’t going to be able to finish reading The Christmas Cake. Book collecting had never only been about money for me. First and foremost I was a reader, and beneath what probably seemed like a knowledgeable and somewhat jaded exterior was the kid who stayed up late at night reading Mystery of the Witches’ Bridge by flashlight beneath the blankets.

I wanted to know what Doctor and Mrs. Dimpledolly were going to do with the little schoolmaster still grieving for his dead wife, two mischievous schoolboys on their way home for the holidays, and the mysterious pregnant lady who appeared to be on the run from her rich papa, I wanted to know where the Christmas cake came in. Hell, I wanted to know about the mouse.

I sipped my brandy and tried to come up with reasons for postponing calling Mr. S. I could only put it off for so long, of course. My gut feeling was that the book was authentic, but I couldn’t be sure without further examination. After Strauss, I was never going to recommend anything solely based on instinct. Not even my own once-renowned instinct.

But someone else would have to do the appraisal—someone else was going to get that nice fat commission. Someone else would have the privilege of reading that wonderful, magical book.

Three fucking years. They felt like forever. Apparently they were no time at all.

I fought the burning desire to get blind drunk. Not only was it no solution, I couldn’t afford it. Bad enough losing the commission and the chance to further examine the book without having the disgrace and scandal of the Strauss thing dug up again. For the first time I wondered what would have happened had I just kept my mouth shut three years earlier? Suppose I’d just minded my own business and quietly taken another job with another antiquarian book dealer? God knows I’d had plenty of offers back then.

If I’d known then what I knew now?

I finished my brandy and ordered another.

How the hell was I supposed to pay my rent after this? How was I supposed to eat? I could not go on working at Barnes and Noble selling textbooks to college students and romance novels to housewives. I couldn’t.

I realized that I was traveling swiftly from depressed to self-pitying. Maudlin was the next stop, but it didn’t seem to matter. I felt like I’d hit rock bottom.

An orchestral version of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” came on the piped-in music, and I was fleetingly distracted. Or perhaps the brandy was kicking in, muting my misery. Weird to think we were listening to carols Dickens would have heard. He even mentioned “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” in A Christmas Carol.

Why the fuck couldn’t people ever forgive and forget? Why didn’t they have the imagination or honesty to see that…there but for the grace of God goes any of us.

I squinted thoughtfully into the distance. Anjaley Coutts. Why was that name so familiar? Why had Dickens dedicated that Christmas book to her?

Dedicated it? Apparently he’d written it for her. The only copy in existence, or at least that anyone knew of, was the one he’d penned for her. Literally penned. Eighty pages of penning. A novella. A Christmas novella for Anjaley Coutts.

A few more people wandered into the bar and then wandered out again. I checked my watch. Five thirty. It should have been more crowded given that it was happy hour. Maybe the rain was keeping people away. Or holiday shopping.

I considered ordering a third brandy but not only did I not need a DUI for Christmas, I was going to regret drinking the week’s food budget in one afternoon.

Undecided, restless, I turned my glass on the counter. I got that feeling between my shoulder blades—the feeling you get when you’re being watched.

I glanced around. Nobody was watching me, but Sedgwick Crisparkle was seated in one of the comfortable leather chairs, reading the newspaper.

I stared down at my empty glass, my heart pounding as hard as if I’d had a narrow escape.

Why? Whatever Professor Fizzwizzle believed, I had every right to sit in that bar and drink myself stupid if I chose. I considered going over to his table to straighten him out on a few points—and was unnerved at myself. I didn’t want another confrontation with him. I had no doubt Crisparkle would unhesitatingly rip me a new one in public if I annoyed him for even an instant. That kind of press I could do without.

But the inexplicable desire to explain myself to him persisted. Annoyingly. What did I care if he had the wrong idea about me? Especially since it really wasn’t that wrong an idea. I might have been innocent of any wrongdoing in the Strauss affair, but the difficulty of finding work afterwards had led me into more than one, let us say…delicately nuanced transaction. Nothing illegal, but rather close for comfort—and getting closer all the time.

There’s nothing like being treated like a crook to make you start thinking and behaving like one.

I wasn’t a crook. But I wasn’t a choirboy either.

I nursed my drink and thought firmly about getting home. Home to my cold, lonely studio apartment and the never-ending concert by America. Right after I called Mr. S. so he could give my job away to another book hunter.

Right on cue the piped-in music chimed in. “I’ll have a blue Christmas without you…”

There was a ripple of alarm through the bar tables. I put it down to the idea of the restrained strings and harps giving way to Elvis Presley, but I caught puzzling movement out of the corner of my eye.

I turned on my stool.

An ocelot stood about a foot away, staring at me as though he’d just scented prey.


Copyright 2000-17, Josh Lanyon.
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