“He saw my article in the LA Times,” Jethro said. “Apparently. ‘Living Archives.’ The one about archival binding and…”
Curtis continued to look at the ceiling.
“Antique triangulation. What should I do?” he asked, louder.
A woman slid a book onto the table that doubled as a checkout counter. Novelization of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. Hardback. Slipcover, pristine.
“Just that,” she said, searching in her bag for her wallet.
Even in his current state, Jethro wondered how he’d let such a trivial work slip into his otherwise exceptionally manicured collection of used books. Possibly a first edition. Or signed by an actor, he thought.
“Gag gift,” the customer said, which didn’t help.
Jethro rang it up on the iMac, casually checking the first few pages — neither first edition nor signed — before slipping a Tinseltown Used & New bookmark behind the cover. The bell rang on the door as the customer walked out, leaving the two men alone again.
His eyes rested on the same anodyne spot in the ceiling.
Curtis jerked his head, caught his balance in the folding chair, wiped his face, and wrinkled up his nose, in more or less one motion. He crossed one ankle on a knee and folded his arms over his sweater.
“Thirty-four thousand?” he said, shaking his head, jogging his foot in the air. “Man, I should’ve been a producer.”
Jethro nodded roundly, as unable to believe it as his friend, even if he had witnessed it with his own eyes that morning. The most books he’d ever seen in a private library.
When he’d arrived at the Mooney estate, a housemaid answered the door wearing a white apron over a black dress. She led Jethro down a passage and out the back door, through rows of topiaries, past an immense locker labeled ARMORY, and beyond the central fountains to the gargantuan library building, which made the greenhouse next to it seem more like a scale model than actual housing for plants.
Inside, the housemaid left Jethro to stare up in wonder at three grand floors of books before returning with a cup of coffee, which she set on one of the many sideboards along with a carafe of creamer and small plate of sugar cubes, departing again in silence.
Oblivious to anything but the books, Jethro closed his eyes and breathed in the musty air.
At some point, he realized he was not alone. An older gentleman stood a few feet away holding a glass of what appeared to be whiskey. Jethro resisted the urge to check his watch; he knew it couldn’t be much past nine in the morning.
“Jethro Swain, I presume,” the man said, his bald head speckled with light from one of the crystal chandeliers. He extended his hand, “Pleasure to meet you at last. Mooney.”
Jethro shook Mooney’s hand. The man described the library, stated the number of books held therein (over 34,000), and outlined the duties for which he required Jethro’s services.
“And so, you see,” Mooney said, sweeping the air with his glass, “I hate to leave this all to, well, to fate.”
Jethro heard, but he didn’t quite comprehend.
“Magpies,” Mooney said. “A pile of ash.”
The conversation came to a close, as the housemaid replaced Mooney and guided Jethro’s hand through a series of signatures, in order to begin work the following day. What seemed just a few minutes later, he found himself in the Prius parked outside his bookstore.
— — —
“I’m going with you,” Curtis said.
“What? Why?” Jethro asked.
“I know my way around a library.”
“You design them,” Jethro said.
“And I can’t just bring someone else in,” Jethro said. “Mooney hired me. I’m assessing his collection.”
“I’m your associate.”
Jethro gave him a dubious, exasperated look.
“He doesn’t know that,” Curtis said with a smirk.
The swivel chair let out a wheeze as Jethro sank into it.
“Look, if you think he’s actually going to do it, I want to see it first. Need to. For posterity,” Curtis said. “And I’ll watch the store while you’re gone. I’m in between anyway. How ‘bout it?”
Jethro considered the proposition. He knew Curtis would happily laze in his store all day, “between” clients as he was. But it did seem better for another party to vouch for the whole titanic thing of it before the nightmare Mooney seemed to have promised. Why else take the job, knowing full well what would transpire, but to bear witness? What other reason did he have to entangle himself in such an ill-fated undertaking?
“He can’t just burn it all to the ground, can he?” Jethro said.
“His stuff,” said Curtis. “Guess he can do whatever the hell he wants with it.”
— — —
Jethro weaved through Pasadena with Curtis in tow, down the private drive, finally reaching the cobblestone cul-de-sac’s culmination where the Mooney estate lay in waiting. At the front door, the housemaid welcomed the men inside without question, as though she’d been expecting Curtis all along.
Cutting straight back through the narrow central corridor, they exited the rear of the mansion and passed through the gardens. Jethro noticed what looked like a tennis court in the distance.
“An entire building for guns,” Curtis said as they neared the fountains. “What’s he expecting, plebes and pitchforks?”
Jethro tamped down a smile.
When they arrived at the library, Curtis stopped and slid tortoiseshell sunglasses up onto a sandy mop of hair. He wiped his face with both hands and stared up at the thing, as though finally seeing proof of some conspiracy, the set where they filmed the moon landing.
Inside, Jethro eased onto one of the ritzy chaises and opened his laptop. He clicked on a spreadsheet and watched the cursor blink in the first blank cell until his eyes rose up of their own accord, untethered balloons floating across the endless shelves and books.
“Three floors, J?” Curtis called from the other side of the room. “You didn’t tell me there were three floors.”
Curtis roved about the library, fingered the wood panels, spun at intervals, kid-in-a-toy-store.
“This is…” Curtis said.
Jethro stood up with the laptop balanced on his forearm, unsure where to start, uncertain of the whole affair, if he was honest. He walked across the glossy floor and unsheathed a weathered spine from the end of one of the first-floor shelves near the door. Jethro inspected the cover, carefully peeled back the stiff pages one at a time.
Bonfire of the Vanities. Hardcover. First edition. No slip cover. Slight water damage. A scribble on the title page read, “Wolfy, with love”.
He fingered the hardened paper.
The sound of his friend skating across the far wall on one of the rolling ladders lining the second floor shook him from his reverie.
“The crown moulding has crown moulding!” Curtis shouted.
Returning his attention to the book, Jethro carefully folded it back in the middle and pressed his nose to the crease of the spine.
— — —
Fahrenheit 451. First. Dj. No ins. Spine, historical. Museum i. Paper weight medium-heavy. Notes on iv, 6, 8, 49-50, 164, 170ff, blank ends. Pen. No hlt. Type lgb throughout. Bend ii-iii.
For about three and a half months, morning to night, Jethro worked alone, cataloguing the books, estimating the value based on his idiosyncratic appraisal process, consuming bottomless cups of coffee, endless plates of scones and biscuits left by the mostly undetectable housemaid.
Upon inspecting a title, he noted each of the fifty-six characteristics he’d determined necessary to evaluate volume price. In the last cell of each row on his spreadsheet, after the estimated sell value (in which he’d been tempted more than once to type the word priceless), Jethro translated the notation into longhand should an independent arbiter ever be required, such as happened with the Los Angeles County Public Library branch in Agoura Hills, when he was asked to “translate” a full six months of work for the underwriters’ benefit.
About noon, as had become routine, Mooney and his whiskey paid a visit.
“How’s it coming?”
Jethro looked up from his usual couch and gave a perfunctory smile.
A moment later, Mooney cast a shadow over Jethro’s laptop.
“About how much left, would you say?” Mooney inquired.
“I’d say…little less than half,” Jethro replied after a cursory glance at his screen, wanting to get back at it. “Somewhere in there.”
“Hm,” Mooney said, to himself mostly. “I suppose that’ll have to do.”
Jethro searched Mooney’s face, but came up empty.
“You are free to go,” Mooney said, turning to leave. “Of course, you’ll be paid for the full job.”
Mooney’s tasseled leather loafers clopped over the polished wood to the door. Evidently, he considered the conversation to be over.
“You, you don’t want me to finish?” Jethro called after him. “I’m, I’m over halfway. I can go faster if that’s the, the—”
“Won’t be necessary,” Mooney said without turning to face him. “You’ve done quite enough. A fine job, I’m sure.”
It occurred to Jethro then that Mooney might have decided to carry out his bizarre plan before the collection was fully catalogued. In the midst of his work, he’d somehow forgotten why the eccentric billionaire had even asked him to complete the project in the first place, or else had convinced himself the man simply couldn’t be serious about burning the books — alive, he almost added.
Rather than let his children rip apart the library after his death, selling off the titles one by one to the highest bidder like meaningless heirlooms, Mooney seemed intent on literally setting fire to the thing. The whole scheme made no sense to Jethro, but he’d pressed on in spite of it, delighted day after day to be in the presence of such a magnificent collection, an archive beyond measure. Treasure, he thought. Buried in plain sight in this obscenely wealthy man’s immense backyard.
“My Alexandria,” Mooney said.
He also said he’d just claim it as an accident and pocket the insurance, which Jethro couldn’t repeat due to the NDA he signed that first day. Better than the children rifling through it all after his death, Mooney had added.
But why would a man supposedly in love with books and literature and archiving destroy something so precious as this collection? Couldn’t he simply donate the works to a library or museum instead? No matter how Jethro turned it, it didn’t add up. More than that, he felt it was like trying to parse quantum mechanics for someone who’d never taken basic math. The gulf between Mooney’s mind and Jethro’s understanding remained unfathomably wide and at least as deep.
At some point, Jethro realized he was alone again. He ran his fingers over the cover of a copy of Treasure Island on the couch. It felt rough, almost like wood.
“Tonight?” Jethro said.
“What else could it mean,” Curtis responded. He was standing now, pacing in front of the poetry wall, one hand on a hip, the other gesticulating around as if he was trying to grab and strangle the air.
“Is it even legal?” Jethro said.
Curtis eyed the middle distance, while Jethro watched untold spines and pages crackling in an inferno, the building untouched, books burning from within like a crematorium.
Curtis bit his lip, thinking.
Jethro implored with outspread palms.
Curtis looked up at him.
“Tonight,” he said finally, nodding. “We go tonight.”
Jethro nodded too.
As Curtis drove his Land Rover up the Rose Bowl exit, Jethro could’ve sworn he smelled smoke, but it seemed unlikely. They were still a ways from Mooney’s estate.
Jethro gripped the SUV’s passenger door armrest until his hand turned pale. He cracked the window and aimed his nose at the gap. Ashy clouds draped over the waning moon.
“What are you going to say?” Curtis asked. He flicked on the blinker and turned right, pulled up to a stoplight, flipped the blinker back on to turn left and waited. “J?”
The dashboard clock displayed 10:43. There were no other cars on the road.
When the light turned green, Curtis pulled through the empty intersection and down a steep hill, wound through Pasadena’s neatly trimmed streets. He put the car in park where the asphalt turned to smooth cobblestone.
“Here we are,” Curtis said.
In a single movement, Jethro flung open his door and made as if to step out. But the seatbelt caught him and yanked his body back, clamping it against the leather seat. His fingers and elbows wrestled with the polyester strap, eventually managing to unhook the thing, and he climbed out of the car.
He stood up breathless and stared down the drive. Victorian lampposts cast crisp halos of light at regular intervals.
Curtis turned off the car, unbuckled, and got out as well. He made out the upper half of Jethro’s face in silhouette over the car’s roof and followed his gaze.
“Are we doing this?” he asked.
Jethro kept his eyes fixed down the narrow street.
— — —
“I knew you’d come.”
The words were Mooney’s.
Jethro and Curtis had bolted through the unlocked front door, rushed down the passage, ran across the gardens without noticing the opened ammunition locker and finally stepped into the library. The housemaid was nowhere to be seen.
Whether winded or shocked or both, Jethro could neither breathe nor speak. Curtis wiped perspiration from his forehead and started to say something, but Mooney cut him off with a wave of his glass.
“Take a moment,” he said, rattling the rocks. “Siddown.”
When they didn’t, Mooney decided to press on.
“They’re ruthless crows,” he said, pouring himself another. “Can’t leave anything of importance to them. They’ll have money, of course, but I refuse to let my own bloodthirsty children destroy the only real love of my entire life. Movies were a means, if you must know.”
Mooney turned around, faced them, took a deep breath.
He couldn’t place why exactly, but Jethro felt the man looked like someone about to jump out of an airplane.
“And I refuse to go out with a whimper.”
Mooney used his glass to scratch a place on his glossy temple. For a moment, the room lay still and quiet.
“This is all yours, Mr. Swain,” he said at last. “In a few minutes anyway. You will own this library and can do with it as you wish. I trust you’ll act admirably. As perhaps the only person on earth who possesses as deep a love for bound books as I do.”
Mooney smiled to himself and seemed momentarily lost in thought.
The men looked at each other. The itch of uncertainty crawled up and knit itself into their faces.
“I could never destroy this. You must know that,” Mooney said with a small, shallow laugh. “Not in a million lifetimes! I simply wanted to test you. I suppose. Call it a cruel… but…a condemned man must be allowed his final meal, I think.”
They looked at him, more with concern now than confusion.
“Cancer, of course,” he said. “If it’s not one thing it’s another.”
He started to take a sip of his whiskey, then stopped. He did not elaborate.
Jethro and Curtis stood stock still, mannequins in the storehouse of Mooney’s mind, their eyes roving from him to each other to the books and back again. Eventually, as realization dawned, a reluctant smile began to form on their faces.
Then the books seemed to glow. Not with fire, thank the heavens, but with starlight. As if each spine was a celestial body and Jethro the sun around which the collection traveled in orbit. Curtis basked.
“Goodbye,” Mooney said.
As they turned, a gunshot came from near the door. They flinched in unison and ducked to the ground, hands instinctively cowering above their heads.
When they peeked an eye in the direction of the noise, the two men saw the housemaid holding a rifle. Mooney lay dead on the ground, a pool of blood forming beneath him.
Without a word, the housemaid turned and left. A moment later, she returned casually with a large burlap bag and a mop, which could just as easily have been coffee and biscuits to judge by her manner.
The men watched as she went through the precise motions of cleaning, clearing away, sterilizing the area.
A few minutes later, she was done, and the space seemed even more spotless than before.
— — —
Jethro thanked the housemaid again as she shut the door to the library behind her.
“It’s the Times,” he said, waving the folded stack. “New article’s out.”
Curtis spread out his hands with a smile, offering Jethro the floor, before leaning back in the oversized leather chair, making himself comfortable.
Jethro dropped into his usual chaise and unfolded the paper, cleared his throat.
“My Alexandria,” he began. “A True Story. By Jethro Swain.”
Neal Tucker is a writer living in Los Angeles. He has a Masters in Theatre from the University of South Carolina. His written work has been published in Writ in Dust, The Festival Review, a forthcoming anthology, and many others. His series work has been featured in several international film festivals.