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Authors: Gail Cleare

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BOOK: Destined
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The
day I answered the ad in the newspaper I awoke from a terrible nightmare with
an inexplicable feeling of optimism. I’d been dreaming about a monster chasing
me, one with long scary claws who looked a little bit like Lexi. Of course, the
last thing I did before turning out the light was update my checkbook. I
definitely should have known better.

Shadows swirled in a dark tower,
wisping up against my ankles like a ghostly cat. Yellow eyes smoldered as the
giant monster oozed toward me with a sucking, scraping sound. Long arms reached
out and talons glinted, deadly sharp.

Large windows offered escape but far
below, a cliff gave way to dangerous rocks. Then there was a tiny movement
against the back of my hair and I gave in to terror and ran, jumping right out
the window. My back tingled from the imminent slashes of those terrible claws
as I launched myself onto the wind.

Down through the soft air, drifting in
a slow-motion spiral like the swollen pink petal that drops from the climbing
rose on the garden gate, I fell.

It was horrifying and ecstatic at the
same time. I didn’t rush downwards but simply floated in a leisurely spiral,
with the sun on my face and the soft air buoyant under my back. An effortless,
peaceful feeling like swimming in salt water on a balmy day.

Before I could hit the ground, I woke
up.

I stroked my cat, Tree, and looked
around my third floor studio apartment with relief. He blinked at me solemnly
with his beautiful green eyes and purred a message of serenity and peace.
Obviously I should trust in my good luck and relax, wait for the new direction
to reveal itself. Sunlight was pouring in through the blue skylight overhead
and it looked to be a glorious spring day.

Perfect weather for job hunting! Today
was the day, and my life was going to change.

I dressed conservatively in a black
and white checked skirt and crisp white blouse. I blow-dried my wavy brown hair
until it looked straight and serious. My face in the mirror seemed pale and
tense, so I painted on some blusher and lipstick. Now I felt more
self-confident. Calm blue-gray eyes stared back at me with an expression of
resolve.

Slinging my bag over my shoulder, I
tucked a folder of resumés and newspaper clippings under my arm and headed off.

I
looked up at the shabby brick building on the corner of Market Street and
glanced down at the scrap of paper in my hand. This was the right address. I
studied the building curiously. It had good bones, but had definitely seen
better days.

Ancient ivy snaked up the exterior,
parting over the closed front door to show a peek of stonework underneath. The
number 33 was just visible, the second “3” missing a nail and hanging askew.
Wide steps with wrought-iron railings led up to the entrance, where a small
faded sign said “Books & Etc., H. Paradis.”

At ten o’clock on a weekday morning
the street bustled with people out and about their business. Trucks braked
loudly and double-parked to unload goods. A parade of small children dodged
between the pedestrians, giggling and hooting, while a stately Indian woman
wearing a sari pursued them at a more sedate pace, pushing a stroller
containing two fat-cheeked babies, one with dark skin and one fair.

The ad in the newspaper said, “Manager
Wanted. Retail store with established customers. Library experience a blessing.”

But the building looked deserted, its
front door coated with grime. Suddenly there was a loud clack as the brass door
handle moved and the door swung inwards. I instinctively took a step backwards
as an old man with white, shaggy hair appeared.

He beckoned to me and chuckled. “No,
no...sorry to startle you! We spoke on the telephone? Emily Ross?” He cocked
one ragged white eyebrow at me, his gaze piercing.

I nodded and swallowed, waving the
newspaper clipping in my hand. “Mister...um…Paradis?” I said hesitantly. I
wasn’t sure how to pronounce it, so I tried “Para-deece,” and that seemed to
work.

“Yes, yes, come in.” He stepped back
into the shadowy interior.

Peering inside, I could see very
little. The heavy door slammed shut behind me when I entered, abruptly cutting
off the light from outside. My eyes gradually adjusted as I looked around the
large room. Cluttered with stacks of boxes and odd pieces of furniture, it
stretched deep and long with a very high ceiling, like a giant shoebox. Glass
cases filled with mysterious objects (the “& Etc?”) lined the interior
walls. At the very back of the room, a large brass samovar sat on a counter of
dark wood.

On the right-hand wall were two wide
windows, both covered by heavy curtains. A slit between them admitted a single
bar of light that shot across the room to reveal motes of dust flying in swirls
caused by our passing.

I wondered about the wording of the
newspaper ad. This might be a wild goose chase. I glanced at my watch and
thought about where to go for an early lunch.

 
“Right in here,” he said, leading the way.

He went into the front hallway where a
wide staircase curved up to the second floor. He crossed and entered a
comfortable sitting room where bright sunlight poured in through tall casement
windows.


Lapsang Souchong?
” He had laid out some tea things on
the beautiful old mahogany table, with a shiny electric kettle on a tray. Steam
was rising from the spout.

“It’s my favorite kind!” I decided to
stay for a quick cup of tea.

“Most people don’t like the strong
smoky flavor, but I love it.” He filled the round white teapot with hot water.

“I do too,” I said with a nostalgic
twinge, thinking of my beloved Dad, who died a few years back. “It reminds me
of camping as a child.” I felt a little teary.

“The stronger the better, I always
say. Do have a seat, won’t you?” He pulled out a chair and motioned for me to
do likewise. As the tea steeped he launched into a rambling tale of his travels
in “tea country” as he called it, “i.e. the Orient,” as a “young lad.” He was a
good storyteller and had obviously lived an interesting life. I realized he was
trying to put me at ease. And he was also watching me like a hawk.

“My resumé, by the way,” I murmured,
pushing it toward him across the table.

He fumbled in various pockets,
eventually coming up with a pair of tortoise shell reading glasses. I tried to
be patient while he read my credentials.

“Very good.” He whipped the glasses
off and peered at me sharply. “You seem fully qualified for the retail aspect.
But we were really hoping for someone who knows how to organize books. You see,
we have rather a lot of them.”

It occurred to me that he might have a
thriving book business via the Internet, though I hadn’t seen a computer so
far. Maybe there was something to this opportunity, after all.

“Well, I worked in the library for one
semester as a work-study job in college,” I hesitated, thinking this would
never be enough.

He brightened and sat up taller. “Excellent!
Just as I suspected! And, what else? Other talents? Useful skills?”

“I am a voracious reader.” Leaning
toward him, I spun the tale as I went along, “Have been all my life. I go
through at least four or five books every week. Well, maybe three or four.” I
thought of the paperback Romance and Mystery novels stacked on my bedside table
with a guilty twinge, lowering my eyes.

“Yes.” He regarded me with a knowing
smile. “About what, I wonder?” he mused, leaning over to pour the tea.

Taking advantage of his distraction to
stretch the truth a bit more, I mumbled, “Um…I read a lot of philosophy and
psychology, and…classic literature, that kind of thing. I have fairly eclectic
taste.”

“Very good,” Mr. Paradis repeated,
with a thoughtful expression that made me a little nervous. There was an air of
magic about the man, he seemed to be reading my mind.

It’s not often that I meet someone
else who can do that.

A kindred spirit.

He served the tea in two stout white
mugs. It smelled fantastic. I was immediately transported back to campfires in
the Maine woods and felt like I had been trying to con my own grandfather. I
hadn’t exactly lied, but exaggeration is almost as bad. And he was a nice old
guy. I tried to set things right.

“Actually,” I sipped the tea, “I read
a lot of novels as well.” I hoped the confession would balance my precarious
karma.

“I do love a good mystery, don’t you?”
he said and I nodded. We smiled like two conspirators, sipping our tea and
looking at each other appraisingly.

“What kind of books do you sell?” I
tried to get him talking again. “What other merchandise?”

“Many things, whatever we come across.
If it’s remarkable.” He put his mug on the table and gestured with his lean,
wrinkled hands. “Curiosities, art, antiques and rare books. Much of it is
acquired and sold through private connections, more so in recent years. Not
getting out as much as I used to.” He appeared to make a decision and stared at
me with a searching expression. “I’d like to liquidate some inventory. The
showroom there, it used to be our store. I want to open it again. Turn some of
these dust-catchers into cash!”

A tingle of excitement sizzled through
me.

“Would you be interested in getting
things up and running again?” he asked.

“As the store manager?”

He nodded, and relief shot through me.
In the back of my mind I felt something click like a domino falling into place,
and the pattern and fabric of my world shifted. My chest relaxed and I breathed
full and deeply for the first time in months.

This was it, this was my path.

“Just you and me, to start,” he said, “Someone
else to help us when we know what we need. Eventually I’d want you to run the
whole shebang, while I do what I do, upstairs.” He pointed at the ceiling.

“You mean…the private connections?” I
asked, thinking he must have an office on the second floor. I wondered about
his repeated use of the word “we,” since there did not seem to be anyone else
around.

He nodded again, confirming his
private sales activities.

“Well?” he asked and named a salary
figure. Though not huge, it was enough to pay my living expenses and keep my
car on the road. In fact, it was more than I had been making at my last job.

I hesitated briefly, hovering between
trust and fear, but then I plunged in and accepted his offer. We shook hands
and he seemed very pleased. I was too, considering my rent was due and I had
saved barely enough to survive beyond then without begging my mother for
another loan.

We chatted about what time I should
appear in the mornings and leave at night, when I was to start (tomorrow), days
off (Sunday and Monday plus holidays), and he took me on a brief tour of the
first floor.

What I’d thought from a distance was a
brass samovar turned out to be an elaborate espresso machine. The wooden
counter was referred to as “the coffee bar.” I peeked into one of the glass
cases and saw the glint of sparkling crystals and an enormous geode, amethyst
perhaps. A stack of framed Redouté rose prints and small oil paintings leaned
against the wall. Feeling excited, I could sense potential.

BOOK: Destined
11.67Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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