I was gearing up to poke the bell a second time when the door opened. I’d been expecting Karl Bellermann, and instead I found myself facing a woman with soft blonde hair framing an otherwise severe, high-cheek-boned face. She looked as if she’d been repeatedly disappointed in life but was damned if she would let it get to her.
I gave my name and she nodded in recognition. “Yes, Mr. Rhodenbarr,” she said. “Karl is expecting you. I can’t disturb him now as he’s in the library with his books. If you’ll come into the sitting room I’ll bring you some coffee, and Karl will be with you in-” she consulted her watch “-in just twelve minutes.”
In twelve minutes it would be noon, which was when Karl had told me to arrive. I’d taken a train from New York and a cab from the train station, and good connections had got me there twelve minutes early, and evidently I could damn well cool my heels for all twelve of those minutes.
I was faintly miffed, but I wasn’t much surprised. Karl Bellermann, arguably the country’s leading collector of crime fiction, had taken a cue from one of the genre’s greatest creations, Rex Stout’s incomparable Nero Wolfe. Wolfe, an orchid fancier, spent an inviolate two hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon with his plants, and would brook no disturbance at such times. Bellermann, no more flexible in real life than Wolfe was in fiction, scheduled even longer sessions with his books, and would neither greet visitors nor take phone calls while communing with them.
The sitting room where the blonde woman led me was nicely appointed, and the chair where she planted me was comfortable enough. The coffee she poured was superb, rich and dark and winy. I picked up the latest issue of Ellery Queen and was halfway through a new Peter Lovesey story and just finishing my second cup of coffee when the door opened and Karl Bellermann strode in.
“Bernie,” he said. “Bernie Rhodenbarr.”
“So good of you to come. You had no trouble finding us?”
“I took a taxi from the train station. The driver knew the house.”
He laughed. “I’ll bet he did. And I’ll bet I know what he called it. ‘Bellermann’s Folly,’ yes?”
“Well,” I said.
“Please, don’t spare my feelings. That’s what all the local rustics call it. They hold in contempt that which they fail to understand. To their eyes, the architecture is overly ornate, and too much a mixture of styles, at once a Rhenish castle and an alpine chalet. And the library dwarfs the rest of the house, like the tail that wags the dog. Your driver is very likely a man who owns a single book, the Bible given to him for Confirmation and unopened ever since. That a man might choose to devote to his books the greater portion of his house-and, indeed, the greater portion of his life-could not fail to strike him as an instance of remarkable eccentricity.” His eyes twinkled. “Although he might phrase it differently.”
Indeed he had. “The guy’s a nut case,” the driver had reported confidently. “One look at his house and you’ll see for yourself. He’s only eating with one chopstick.”
A few minutes later I sat down to lunch with Karl Bellermann, and there were no chopsticks in evidence. He ate with a fork, and he was every bit as agile with it as the fictional orchid fancier. Our meal consisted of a crown loin of pork with roasted potatoes and braised cauliflower, and Bellermann put away a second helping of everything.
I don’t know where he put it. He was a long lean gentlemen in his mid-fifties, with a full head of iron-gray hair and a mustache a little darker than the hair on his head. He’d dressed rather elaborately for a day at home with his books-a tie, a vest, a Donegal tweed jacket-and I didn’t flatter myself that it was on my account. I had a feeling he chose a similar get-up seven days a week, and I wouldn’t have been surprised to learn he put on a black tie every night for dinner.
He carried most of the lunchtime conversation, talking about books he’d read, arguing the relative merits of Hammett and Chandler, musing on the likelihood that female private eyes in fiction had come to outnumber their real-life counterparts. I didn’t feel called upon to contribute much, and Mrs. Bellermann never uttered a word except to offer dessert (apfelkuchen, lighter than air and sweeter than revenge) and coffee (the mixture as before but a fresh pot of it, and seemingly richer and darker and stronger and winier this time around). Karl and I both turned down a second piece of the cake and said yes to a second cup of coffee, and then Karl turned significantly to his wife and gave her a formal nod.
“Thank you, Eva,” he said. And she rose, all but curtseyed, and left the room.
“She leaves us to our brandy and cigars,” he said, “but it’s too early in the day for spirits, and no one smokes in Schloss Bellermann.”
“A joke of mine. If the world calls it Bellermann’s Folly, why shouldn’t Bellermann call it his castle? Eh?”
He looked at his watch. “But let me show you my library,” he said, “and then you can show me what you’ve brought me.”
Diagonal mullions divided the library door into a few dozen diamond-shaped sections, each set with a mirrored pane of glass. The effect was unusual, and I asked if they were one-way mirrors.
“Like the ones in police stations?” He raised an eyebrow. “Your past is showing, eh, Bernie? But no, it is even more of a trick than the police play on criminals. On the other side of the mirror-” he clicked a fingernail against a pane “-is solid steel an inch and a half thick. The library walls themselves are reinforced with steel sheeting. The exterior walls are concrete, reinforced with steel rods. And look at this lock.”
It was a Poulard, its mechanism intricate beyond description, its key one that not a locksmith in ten thousand could duplicate.
“Pickproof,” he said. “They guarantee it.”
“So I understand.”
He slipped the irreproducible key into the impregnable lock and opened the unbreachable door. Inside was a room two full stories tall, with a system of ladders leading to the upper levels. The library, as tall as the house itself, had an eighteen-foot ceiling paneled in light and dark wood in a sunburst pattern. Wall-to-wall carpet covered the floor, and oriental rugs in turn covered most of the broadloom. The walls, predictably enough, were given over to floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, with the shelves them-selves devoted entirely to books. There were no paintings, no Chinese ginger jars, no bronze animals, no sets of armor, no cigar humidors, no framed photographs of family members, no hand-colored engravings of Victoria Falls, no hunting trophies, no Lalique figurines, no Limoges boxes. Nothing but books, sometimes embraced by bronze bookends, but mostly extending without interruption from one end of a section of shelving to the other.
“Books,” he said reverently-and, I thought, unnecessarily. I own a bookstore, I can recognize books when I see them.
“Books,” I affirmed.
“I believe they are happy.”
“You are surprised? Why should objects lack feelings, especially objects of such a sensitive nature as books? And, if a book can have feelings, these books ought to be happy. They are owned and tended by a man who cares deeply for them. And they are housed in a room perfectly designed for their safety and comfort.”
“It certainly looks that way.”
He nodded. “Two windows only, on the north wall, of course, so that no direct sunlight ever enters the room. Sunlight fades book spines, bleaches the ink of a dust jacket. It is a book’s enemy, and it cannot gain entry here.”
“That’s good,” I said. “My store faces south, and the building across the street blocks some of the sunlight, but a little gets through. I have to make sure I don’t keep any of the better volumes where the light can get at them.”
“You should paint the windows black,” he said, “or hang thick curtains. Or both.”
“Well, I like to keep an eye on the street,” I said. “And my cat likes to sleep in the sunlit window.”
He made a face. “A cat? In a room full of books?”
“He’d be safe,” I said, “even in a room full of rocking chairs. He’s a Manx. And he’s an honest working cat. I used to have mice damaging the books, and that stopped the day he moved in.”
“No mice can get in here,” Bellermann said, “and neither can cats, with their hair and their odor. Mold cannot attack my books, or mildew. You feel the air?”
“A constant sixty-four degrees Fahrenheit,” he said. “On the cool side, but perfect for my books. I put on a jacket and I am perfectly comfortable. And, as you can see, most of them are already wearing their jackets. Dust jackets! Ha ha!”
“Ha ha,” I agreed.
“The humidity is sixty percent,” he went on. “It never varies. Too dry and the glue dries out. Too damp and the pages rot. Neither can happen here.”
“I would say so. The air is filtered regularly, with not only air conditioning but special filters to remove pollutants that are truly microscopic. No book could ask for a safer or more comfortable environ-ment.”
I sniffed the air. It was cool, and neither too moist nor too dry, and as immaculate as modern science could make it. My nose wrinkled, and I picked up a whiff of something.
“What about fire?” I wondered.
“Steel walls, steel doors, triple-glazed windows with heat-resistant bulletproof glass. Special insulation in the walls and ceiling and floor. The whole house could burn to the ground, Bernie, and this room and its contents would remain unaffected. It is one enormous fire-safe.”
“But if the fire broke out in here…”
“How? I don’t smoke, or play with matches. There are no cupboards holding piles of oily rags, no bales of moldering hay to burst into spontaneous combustion.”
“And even if there were a fire,” he said, “it would be extinguished almost before it had begun.” He gestured and I looked up and saw round metal gadgets spotted here and there in the walls and ceiling.
I said, “A sprinkler system? Somebody tried to sell me one at the store once and I threw him out on his ear. Fire’s rough on books, but water’s sheer disaster. And those things are like smoke alarms, they can go off for no good reason, and then where are you? Karl, I can’t believe-”
“Please,” he said, holding up a hand. “Do you take me for an idiot?”
“Do you honestly think I would use water to forestall fire? Credit me with a little sense, my friend.”
“I do, but-”
“There will be no fire here, and no flood, either. A book in my library will be, ah, what is the expression? Snug as a slug in a rug.”
“A bug,” I said.
“I beg your pardon?”
“A bug in a rug,” I said. “I think that’s the expression.”
His response was a shrug, the sort you’d get, I suppose, from a slug in a rug. “But we have no time for language lessons,” he said. “From two to six I must be in the library with my books, and it is already one-fifty.”
“You’re already in the library.”
“Alone,” he said. “With only my books for company. So. What have you brought me?”
I opened my briefcase, withdrew the padded mailer, reached into that like Little Jack Horner and brought forth a plum indeed. I looked up in time to catch an unguarded glimpse of Bellermann’s face, and it was a study. How often do you get to see a man salivate less than an hour after a big lunch?
He extended his hands and I placed the book in them. “Fer-de-Lance,” he said reverently. “Nero Wolfe’s debut, the rarest and most desirable book in the entire canon. Hardly the best of the novels, I wouldn’t say. It took Stout several books fully to refine the character of Wolfe and to hone the narrative edge of Archie Goodwin. But the brilliance was present from the beginning, and the book is a prize.”
He turned the volume over in his hands, inspected the dust jacket fore and aft. “Of course I own a copy,” he said. “A first edition in dust wrapper. This dust wrapper is nicer than the one I have.”
“It’s pretty cherry,” I said.
“Pristine,” he allowed, “or very nearly so. Mine has a couple of chips and an unfortunate tear mended quite expertly with tape. This does look virtually perfect.”
“But the jacket’s the least of it, is it not? This is a special copy.”
He opened it, and his large hands could not have been gentler had he been repotting orchids. He found the title page and read, ‘”For Franklin Roosevelt, with the earnest hope of a brighter tomorrow. Best regards from Rex Todhunter Stout.'” He ran his forefinger over the inscription. “It’s Stout’s writing,” he announced. “He didn’t inscribe many books, but I have enough signed copies to know his hand. And this is the ultimate association copy, isn’t it?”
“You could say that.”
“I just did. Stout was a liberal Democrat, ultimately a World Federalist. FDR, like the present incumbent, was a great fan of detective stories. It always seems to be the Democratic presidents who relish a good mystery. Eisenhower preferred Westerns, Nixon liked history and biography, and I don’t know that Reagan read at all.”
He sighed and closed the book. “Mr. Gulbenkian must regret the loss of this copy,” he said.
“I suppose he must.”
“A year ago,” he said, “when I learned he’d been burglarized and some of his best volumes stolen, I wondered what sort of burglar could possibly know what books to take. And of course I thought of you.”
I didn’t say anything.
“Tell me your price again, Bernie. Refresh my memory.”
I named a figure.
“It’s high,” he said.
“The book’s unique,” I pointed out.
“I know that. I know, too, that I can never show it off. I cannot tell anyone I have it. You and I alone will know that it is in my possession.”
“It’ll be our little secret, Karl.”
“Our little secret. I can’t even insure it. At least Gulbenkian was insured, eh? But he can never replace the book. Why didn’t you sell it back to him?”
“I might,” I said, “if you decide you don’t want it.”
“But of course I want it!” He might have said more but a glance at his watch reminded him of the time. “Two o’clock,” he said, motioning me toward the door. “Eva will have my afternoon coffee ready. And you will excuse me, I am sure, while I spend the afternoon with my books, including this latest specimen.”
“Be careful with it,” I said.
“Bernie! I’m not going to read it. I have plenty of reading copies, should I care to renew my acquaintance with Fer-de-Lance. I want to hold it, to be with it. And then at six o’clock we will conclude our business, and I will give you a dinner every bit as good as the lunch you just had. And then you can return to the city.”
He ushered me out, and moments later he disappeared into the library again, carrying a tray with coffee in one of those silver pots they used to give you on trains. There was a cup on the tray as well, and a sugar bowl and creamer, along with a plate of shortbread cookies. I stood in the hall and watched the library door swing shut, heard the lock turn and the bolt slide home. Then I turned, and there was Karl’s wife, Eva.
“I guess he’s really going to spend the next four hours in there,” I said.
“He always does.”
“I’d go for a drive,” I said, “but I don’t have a car. I suppose I could go for a walk. It’s a beautiful day, bright and sunny. Of course your husband doesn’t allow sunlight into the library, but I suppose he lets it go where it wants in the rest of the neighborhood.”
That drew a smile from her.
“If I’d thought ahead,” I said, “I’d have brought something to read. Not that there aren’t a few thousand books in the house, but they’re all locked away with Karl.”
“Not all of them,” she said. “My husband’s collection is limited to books published before 1975, along with the more recent work of a few of his very favorite authors. But he buys other contemporary crime novels as well, and keeps them here and there around the house. The bookcase in the guest room is well stocked.”
“That’s good news. As far as that goes, I was in the middle of a magazine story.”
“In Ellery Queen, wasn’t it? Come with me, Mr. Rhodenbarr, and I’ll-”
“Bernie,” she said, and colored slightly, those dangerous cheekbones turning from ivory to the pink you find inside a seashell. “I’ll show you where the guest room is, Bernie, and then I’ll bring you your magazine.”
The guest room was on the second floor, and its glassed-in bookcase was indeed jam-packed with recent crime fiction. I was just getting drawn into the opening of one of Jeremiah Healy’s Cuddy novels when Eva Bellermann knocked on the half-open door and came in with a tray quite like the one she’d brought her husband. Coffee in a silver pot, a gold-rimmed bone china cup and saucer, a matching plate holding shortbread cookies. And, keeping them company, the issue of EQMM I’d been reading earlier.
“This is awfully nice of you,” I said. “But you should have brought a second cup so you could join me.”
“I’ve had too much coffee already,” she said. “But I could keep you company for a few minutes if you don’t mind.”
“I’d like that.”
“So would I,” she said, skirting my chair and sitting on the edge of the narrow captain’s bed. “I don’t get much company. The people in the village keep their distance. And Karl has his books.”
“And he’s locked away with them…”
“Three hours in the morning and four in the afternoon. Then in the evening he deals with correspondence and returns phone calls. He’s retired, as you know, but he has investment decisions to make and business matters to deal with. And books, of course. He’s always buying more of them.” She sighed. “I’m afraid he doesn’t have much time left for me.”
“It must be difficult for you.”
“It’s lonely,” she said.
“I can imagine.”
“We have so little in common,” she said. “I sometimes wonder why he married me. The books are his whole life.”
“And they don’t interest you at all?”
She shook her head. “I haven’t the brain for it,” she said. “Clues and timetables and elaborate murder methods. It is like working a crossword puzzle without a pencil. Or worse-like assembling a jigsaw puzzle in the dark.”
“With gloves on,” I suggested.
“Oh, that’s funny!” She laughed more than the line warranted and laid a hand on my arm. “But I should not make jokes about the books. You are a bookseller yourself. Perhaps books are your whole life, too.”
“Not my whole life,” I said.
“Oh? What else interests you?”
“Beautiful women,” I said recklessly.
“Like you,” I said.
Believe me, I hadn’t planned on any of this. I’d figured on finishing the Lovesey story, then curling up with the Healy book until Karl Bellermann emerged from his lair, saw his shadow, and paid me a lot of money for the book he thought I had stolen.
In point of fact, the Fer-de-Lance I’d brought him was legitimately mine to sell-or very nearly so. I would never have entertained the notion of breaking into Nizar Gulbenkian’s fieldstone house in Riverdale. Gulbenkian was a friend as well as a valued customer, and I’d rushed to call him when I learned of his loss. I would keep an ear cocked and an eye open, I assured him, and I would let him know if any of his treasures turned up on the gray or black market.
“That’s kind of you, Bernie,” he’d said. “We will have to talk of this one day.”
And, months later, we talked-and I learned there had been no burglary. Gulbenkian had gouged his own front door with a chisel, looted his own well-insured library of its greatest treasures, and tucked them out of sight (if not out of mind) before reporting the offense-and pocketing the payoff from the insurance company.
He’d needed money, of course, and this had seemed a good way to get it without parting with his precious volumes. But now he needed more money, as one so often does, and he had a carton full of books he no longer legally owned and could not even show off to his friends, let alone display to the public. He couldn’t offer them for sale, either, but someone else could. Someone who might be presumed to have stolen them. Someone rather like me.
“It will be the simplest thing in the world for you, Bernie,” old Nizar said. “You won’t have to do any breaking or entering. You won’t even have to come to Riverdale. All you’ll do is sell the books, and I will gladly pay you ten percent of the proceeds.”
“Half,” I said.
We settled on a third, after protracted negotiations, and later over drinks he allowed that he’d have gone as high as forty percent, while I admitted I’d have taken twenty. He brought me the books, and I knew which one to offer first, and to whom.
The FDR Fer-de-Lance was the prize of the lot, and the most readily identifiable. Karl Bellermann was likely to pay the highest price for it, and to be most sanguine about its unorthodox provenance.
You hear it said of a man now and then that he’d rather steal a dollar than earn ten. (It’s been said, not entirely without justification, of me.) Karl Bellermann was a man who’d rather buy a stolen book for a thousand dollars than pay half that through legitimate channels. I’d sold him things in the past, some stolen, some not, and it was the volume with a dubious history that really got him going.
So, as far as he was concerned, I’d lifted Fer-de-Lance from its rightful owner, who would turn purple if he knew where it was. But I knew better-Gulbenkian would cheerfully pocket two-thirds of whatever I pried out of Bellermann, and would know exactly where the book had wound up and just how it got there.
In a sense, then, I was putting one over on Karl Bellermann, but that didn’t constitute a breach of my admittedly elastic moral code. It was something else entirely, though, to abuse the man’s hospitality by putting the moves on his gorgeous young wife.
Well, what can I say? Nobody’s perfect.
Afterward I lay back with my head on a pillow and tried to figure out what would make a man choose a leather chair and room full of books over a comfortable bed with a hot blonde in it. I marveled at the vagaries of human nature, and Eva stroked my chest and urged a cup of coffee on me.
It was great coffee, and no less welcome after our little interlude. The cookies were good, too. Eva took one, but passed on the coffee. If she drank it after lunchtime, she said, she had trouble sleeping nights.
“It never keeps me awake,” I said. “In fact, this stuff seems to be having just the opposite effect. The more I drink, the sleepier I get.”
“Maybe it is I who have made you sleepy.”
She snuggled close, letting interesting parts of her body press against mine. “Perhaps we should close our eyes for a few minutes,” she said.
The next thing I knew she had a hand on my shoulder and was shaking me awake. “Bernie,” she said. “We fell asleep!”
“And look at the time! It is almost six o’clock. Karl will be coming out of the library any minute.”
She was out of bed, diving into her clothes. “I’ll go downstairs,” she said. “You can take your time dressing, as long as we are not together.” And, before I could say anything, she swept out of the room.
I had the urge to close my eyes and drift right off again. Instead I forced myself out of bed, took a quick shower to clear the cobwebs, then got dressed. I stood for a moment at the head of the stairs, listening for conversation and hoping I wouldn’t hear any voices raised in anger. I didn’t hear any voices, angry or otherwise, or anything else.
It’s quiet out there, I thought, like so many supporting characters in so many Westerns. And the thought came back, as it had from so many heroes in those same Westerns: Yeah… too quiet.
I descended the flight of stairs, turned a corner and bumped into Eva. “He hasn’t come out,” she said. “Bernie, I’m worried.”
“Maybe he lost track of the time.”
“Never. He’s like a Swiss watch, and he has a Swiss watch and checks it constantly. He comes out every day at six on the dot. It is ten minutes past the hour and where is he?”
“Maybe he came out and-”
“I don’t know. Drove into town to buy a paper.”
“He never does that. And the car is in the garage.”
“He could have gone for a walk.”
“He hates to walk. Bernie, he is still in there.”
“Well, I suppose he’s got the right. It’s his room and his books. If he wants to hang around-”
“I’m afraid something has happened to him. Bernie, I knocked on the door. I knocked loud. Perhaps you heard the sound upstairs?”
“No, but I probably wouldn’t. I was all the way upstairs, and I had the shower on for a while there. I take it he didn’t answer.”
“Well, I gather it’s pretty well soundproofed in there. Maybe he didn’t hear you.”
“I have knocked before. And he has heard me before.”
“Maybe he heard you this time and decided to ignore you.” Why was I raising so many objections? Perhaps because I didn’t want to let myself think there was any great cause for alarm.
“Bernie,” she said, “what if he is ill? What if he has had a heart attack?”
“I suppose it’s possible, but-”
“I think I should call the police.”
I suppose it’s my special perspective, but I almost never think that’s a great idea. I wasn’t mad about it now, either, being in the possession of stolen property and a criminal record, not to mention the guilty conscience that I’d earned a couple of hours ago in the upstairs guest room.
“Not the police,” I said. “Not yet. First let’s make sure he’s not just taking a nap, or all caught up in his reading.”
“But how? The door is locked.”
“Isn’t there an extra key?”
“If there is, he’s never told me where he keeps it. He’s the only one with access to his precious books.”
“The window,” I said.
“It can’t be opened. It is this triple pane of bulletproof glass, and-”
“And you couldn’t budge it with a battering ram,” I said. “He told me all about it. You can still see through it, though, can’t you?”
“He’s in there,” I announced. “At least his feet are.”
“There’s a big leather chair with its back to the window,” I said, “and he’s sitting in it. I can’t see the rest of him, but I can see his feet.”
“What are they doing?”
“They’re sticking out in front of the chair,” I said, “and they’re wearing shoes, and that’s about it. Feet aren’t terribly expressive, are they?”
I made a fist and reached up to bang on the window. I don’t know what I expected the feet to do in response, but they stayed right where they were.
“The police,” Eva said. “I’d better call them.”
“Not just yet,” I said.
The Poulard is a terrific lock, no question about it. State-of-the-art and all that. But I don’t know where they get off calling it pickproof. When I first came across the word in one of their ads I knew how Alexander felt when he heard about the Gordian knot. Pickproof, eh? We’ll see about that! The lock on the library door put up a good fight, but I’d brought the little set of picks and probes I never leave home without, and I put them (and my God-given talent) to the task.
And opened the door.
“Bernie,” Eva said, gaping. “Where did you learn how to do that?”
“In the Boy Scouts,” I said. “They give you a merit badge for it if you apply yourself. Karl? Karl, are you all right?”
He was in his chair, and now we could see more than his well-shod feet. His hands were in his lap, holding a book by William Campbell Gault. His head was back, his eyes closed. He looked for all the world like a man who’d dozed off over a book.
We stood looking at him, and I took a moment to sniff the air. I’d smelled something on my first visit to this remarkable room, but I couldn’t catch a whiff of it now.
I looked down, scanned the floor, running my eyes over the maroon broadloom and the carpets that covered most of it. I dropped to one knee alongside one small Persian-a Tabriz, if I had to guess, but I know less than a good burglar should about the subject. I took a close look at this one and Eva asked me what I was doing.
“Just helping out,” I said. “Didn’t you drop a contact lens?”
“I don’t wear contact lenses.”
“My mistake,” I said, and got to my feet. I went over to the big leather chair and went through the formality of laying a hand on Karl Bellermann’s brow. It was predictably cool to the touch.
I nodded. “You’d better call the cops,” I said.
Elmer Crittenden, the officer in charge, was a stocky fellow in a khaki windbreaker. He kept glancing warily at the walls of books, as if he feared being called upon to sit down and read them one after the other. My guess is that he’d had less experience with them than with dead bodies.
“Most likely turn out to be his heart,” he said of the deceased. “Usually is when they go like this. He complain any of chest pains? Shooting pains up and down his left arm? Any of that?”
Eva said he hadn’t.
“Might have had ’em without saying anything,” Crittenden said. “Or it could be he didn’t get any advance warning. Way he’s sitting and all, I’d say it was quick. Could be he closed his eyes for a little nap and died in his sleep.”
“Just so he didn’t suffer,” Eva said.
Crittenden lifted Karl’s eyelid, squinted, touched the corpse here and there. “What it almost looks like,” he said, “is that he was smothered, but I don’t suppose some great speckled bird flew in a window and held a pillow over his face. It’ll turn out to be a heart attack, unless I miss my guess.”
Could I just let it go? I looked at Crittenden, at Eva, at the sunburst pattern on the high ceiling up above, at the putative Tabriz carpet below. Then I looked at Karl, the consummate bibliophile, with FDR’s Fer-de-Lance on the table beside his chair. He was my customer, and he’d died within arm’s reach of the book I’d brought him. Should I let him requiescat in relative pace? Or did I have an active role to play?
“I think you were right,” I told Crittenden. “I think he was smothered.”
“What would make you say that, sir? You didn’t even get a good look at his eyeballs.”
“I’ll trust your eyeballs,” I said. “And I don’t think it was a great speckled bird that did it, either.”
“It’s classic,” I said, “and it would have appealed to Karl, given his passion for crime fiction. If he had to die, he’d probably have wanted it to happen in a locked room. And not just any locked room, either, but one secured by a pickproof Poulard, with steel-lined walls and windows that don’t open.”
“He was locked up tighter than Fort Knox,” Crittenden said.
“He was,” I said. “And, all the same, he was murdered.”
“Smothered,” I said. “When the lab checks him out, tell them to look for halon gas. I think it’ll show up, but not unless they’re looking for it.”
“I never heard of it,” Crittenden said.
“Most people haven’t,” I said. “It was in the news a while ago when they installed it in subway toll booths. There’d been a few incendiary attacks on booth attendants-a spritz of something flammable and they got turned into crispy critters. The halon gas was there to smother a fire before it got started.”
“How’s it work?”
“It displaces the oxygen in the room,” I said. “I’m not enough of a scientist to know how it manages it, but the net effect is about the same as that great speckled bird you were talking about. The one with the pillows.”
“That’d be consistent with the physical evidence,” Crittenden said. “But how would you get this halon in here?”
“It was already here,” I said. I pointed to the jets on the walls and ceiling. “When I first saw them, I thought Bellermann had put in a conventional sprinkler system, and I couldn’t believe it. Water’s harder than fire on rare books, and a lot of libraries have been totaled when a sprinkler system went off by accident. I said something to that effect to Karl, and he just about bit my head off, making it clear he wouldn’t expose his precious treasures to water damage.
“So I got the picture. The jets were designed to deliver gas, not liquid, and it went without saying that the gas would be halon. I understand they’re equipping the better research libraries with it these days, although Karl’s the only person I know of who installed it in his personal library.”
Crittenden was halfway up a ladder, having a look at one of the outlets. “Just like a sprinkler head,” he said, “which is what I took it for. How’s it know when to go off? Heat sensor?”
“You said murder. That’d mean somebody set it off.”
“By starting a fire in here? Be a neater trick than sending in the great speckled bird.”
“All you’d have to do,” I said, “is heat the sensor enough to trigger the response.”
“When I was in here earlier,” I said, “I caught a whiff of smoke. It was faint, but it was absolutely there. I think that’s what made me ask Karl about fire in the first place.”
“When Mrs. Bellermann and I came in and discovered the body, the smell was gone. But there was a discolored spot on the carpet that I’d noticed before, and I bent down for a closer look at it.” I pointed to the Tabriz (which, now that I think about it, may very well have been an Isfahan). “Right there,” I said.
Crittenden knelt where I pointed, rubbed two fingers on the spot, brought them to his nose. “Scorched,” he reported. “But just the least bit. Take a whole lot more than that to set off a sensor way up there.”
“I know. That was a test.”
“Of the murder method. How do you raise the temperature of a room you can’t enter? You can’t unlock the door and you can’t open the window. How can you get enough heat in to set off the gas?”
I turned to Eva. “Tell him how you did it,” I said.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said. “You must be crazy.”
“You wouldn’t need a fire,” I said. “You wouldn’t even need a whole lot of heat. All you’d have to do is deliver enough heat directly to the sensor to trigger a response. If you could manage that in a highly localized fashion, you wouldn’t even raise the overall room temperature appreciably.”
“Keep talking,” Crittenden said.
I picked up an ivory-handled magnifier, one of several placed strategi-cally around the room. “When I was a Boy Scout,” I said, “they didn’t really teach me how to open locks. But they were big on starting fires. Flint and steel, fire by friction-and that old standby, focusing the sun’s rays though a magnifying glass and delivering a concentrated pinpoint of intense heat onto something with a low kindling point.”
“The window,” Crittenden said.
I nodded. “It faces north,” I said, “so the sun never comes in on its own. But you can stand a few feet from the window and catch the sunlight with a mirror, and you can tilt the mirror so the light is reflected through your magnifying glass and on through the window. And you can beam it onto an object in the room.”
“The heat sensor, that’d be.”
“Eventually,” I said. “First, though, you’d want to make sure it would work. You couldn’t try it out ahead of time on the sensor, because you wouldn’t know it was working until you set it off. Until then, you couldn’t be sure the thickness of the window glass wasn’t disrupting the process. So you’d want to test it.”
“That explains the scorched rug, doesn’t it?” Crittenden stooped for another look at it, then glanced up at the window. “Soon as you saw a wisp of smoke or a trace of scorching, you’d know it was working. And you’d have an idea how long it would take to raise the temperature enough. If you could make it hot enough to scorch wool, you could set off a heat-sensitive alarm.”
“My God,” Eva cried, adjusting quickly to new realities. “I thought you must be crazy, but now I can see how it was done. But who could have done such a thing?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” I said. “I suppose it would have to be somebody who lived here, somebody who was familiar with the library and knew about the halon, somebody who stood to gain financially by Karl Bellermann’s death. Somebody, say, who felt neglected by a husband who treated her like a housekeeper, somebody who might see poetic justice in killing him while he was locked away with his precious books.”
“You can’t mean me, Bernie.”
“Well, now that you mention it…”
“But I was with you! Karl was with us at lunch. Then he went into the library and I showed you to the guest room.”
“You showed me, all right.”
“And we were together,” she said, lowering her eyes modestly. “It shames me to say it with my husband tragically dead, but we were in bed together until almost six o’clock, when we came down here to discover the body. You can testify to that, can’t you, Bernie?”
“I can swear we went to bed together,” I said, “And I can swear that I was there until six, unless I went sleepwalking. But I was out cold, Eva.”
“So was I.”
“I don’t think so,” I said. “You stayed away from the coffee, saying how it kept you awake. Well, it sure didn’t keep me awake. I think there was something in it to make me sleep, and that’s why you didn’t want any. I think there was more of the same in the pot you gave Karl to bring in here with him, so he’d be dozing peacefully while you set off the halon. You waited until I was asleep, went outside with a mirror and a magnifier, heated the sensor and set off the gas, and then came back to bed. The halon would do its work in minutes, and without warning even if Karl wasn’t sleeping all that soundly. Halon’s odorless and colorless, and the air-cleaning system would whisk it all away in less than an hour. But I think there’ll be traces in his system, along with traces of the same sedative they’ll find in the residue in both the coffee pots. And I think that’ll be enough to put you away.”
Crittenden thought so, too.
When I got back to the city there was a message on the machine to call Nizar Gulbenkian. It was late, but it sounded urgent.
“Bad news,” I told him. “I had the book just about sold. Then he locked himself in his library to commune with the ghosts of Rex Stout and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and next thing he knew they were all hanging out together.”
“You don’t mean he died?”
“His wife killed him,” I said, and I went on to tell him the whole story. “So that’s the bad news, though it’s not as bad for us as it is for the Bellermanns. I’ve got the book back, and I’m sure I can find a customer for it.”
“Ah,” he said. “Well, Bernie, I’m sorry about Bellermann. He was a true bookman.”
“He was that, all right.”
“But otherwise your bad news is good news.”
“Yes. Because I changed my mind about the book.”
“You don’t want to sell it?”
“I can’t sell it,” he said. “It would be like tearing out my soul. And now, thank God, I don’t have to sell it.”
“More good news,” he said. “A business transaction, a long shot with a handsome return. I won’t bore you with the details, but the outcome was very good indeed. If you’d been successful in selling the book, I’d now be begging you to buy it back.”
“Bernie,” he said, I’m a collector, as passionate about the pursuit as poor Bellermann. I don’t ever want to sell. I want to add to my holdings.” He let out a sigh, clearly pleased at the prospect. “So I’ll want the book back. But of course I’ll pay you your commission all the same.”
“I couldn’t accept it.”
“So you had all that work for nothing?”
“Not exactly,” I said.
“I guess Bellermann’s library will go on the auction block eventually,” I said. “Eva can’t inherit, but there’ll be some niece or nephew to wind up with a nice piece of change. And there’ll be some wonderful books in that sale.”
“There certainly will.”
“But a few of the most desirable items won’t be included,” I said, “because they somehow found their way into my briefcase, along with Fer-de-Lance.”
“You managed that, Bernie? With a dead body in the room, and a murderer in custody, and a cop right there on the scene?”
“Bellermann had shown me his choicest treasures,” I said, “so I knew just what to grab and where to find it. And Crittenden didn’t care what I did with the books. I told him I needed something to read on the train and he waited patiently while I picked out eight or ten volumes. Well, it’s a long train ride, and I guess he must think I’m a fast reader.”
“Bring them over,” he said. “Now.”
“Nizar, I’m bushed,” I said, “and you’re all the way up in Riverdale. First thing in the morning, okay? And while I’m there you can teach me how to tell a Tabriz from an Isfahan.”
“They’re not at all alike, Bernie. How could anyone confuse them?”
“You’ll clear it up for me tomorrow. Okay?”
“Well, all right,” he said. “But I hate to wait.”
Collectors! Don’t you just love them?