The Wanderer in Unknown Realms (8 page)

BOOK: The Wanderer in Unknown Realms
9.14Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

I greeted him and asked if I might walk with him for a time, to which he assented with a nod and what I thought were the words “Of course,” and “Pleasure, dear fellow,” although they were so interspersed with various “ums” and “ahs” and unintelligible words that it was difficult to be sure. Together we headed toward Tottenham Court Road and on to Oxford Street. As we passed the first of the Lyons Corner Houses he sniffed wistfully at the air, and he required little convincing to enter.

A Gladys took an order for tea and sandwiches, and while we waited for them to arrive Young Mr. Blair sat with his hands clasped in his lap and a pleasant smile on his face, taking in the bustle and life around him. It must have constituted quite the racket compared to the near-monastic silence of Stanford's, but Young Mr. Blair basked happily in it all. I could see no ring on his finger, and I could not imagine that the junior members of staff spent much of their leisure time with him once Stanford's closed its doors. With the passing of his nemesis, Old Mr. Blair, he was now the most senior bookseller, and there would have been few peers to keep him company, even if they could have understood more than a fraction of what he was saying.

I recalled that wistful look he had cast back at the store as he left it. Stanford's was his true home. Wherever he laid his head at night was merely an adjunct to it.

I suspected that Young Mr. Blair, when away from the shop, was sometimes rather lonely.

So we ate our sandwiches and drank our tea, and when Young Mr. Blair had cleaned his plate by licking an index finger and dabbing it on the china so that not even a single crumb might escape, I suggested some apple tart with whipped cream. I raised a hand to the passing Gladys, and Young Mr. Blair, with only a token effort at resistance, agreed that, yes, some tart would be very nice, and so we continued eating, and had our teapot refilled, and it was while we were letting the food settle in our stomachs that I raised again the subject of Dunwidge & Daughter.

Young Mr. Blair puffed his cheeks, and scratched his chin, and drummed his fingers on the table, like a man contemplating the purchase of an item of whose provenance and quality he was profoundly distrustful.

“Dreadful woman,” he said at last, as if the conclusion had ever been in doubt. “Quite, quite dreadful.”

I made it clear that I was not about to disagree with his assessment, and then explained something of my quandary: a mutual acquaintance (at this Young Mr. Blair tapped a finger to his nose and winked theatrically) had sought a book from Dunwidge & Daughter (frown, more puffing of cheeks, “appalling woman”), but the book was so obscure that they were unable to source it. Under such circumstances, I asked, to whom might our mutual acquaintance have turned?

Young Mr. Blair considered the question.

“Occult?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“Bad stuff. Ought to have stayed away from it.”

“Probably.”

“Rare?”

“Very.”

“Expensive?”

“Very, very.”

“Maggs,” said Young Mr. Blair decisively. “Maggs is the man.”

“Does he have a first name?”

“Might do. Never uses it. Rotten fellow.”

He leaned across the table and whispered, “Maggs the Maggot,” and nodded his head solemnly.

“Is he a bookseller?”

“Oooooh, no, no, no.”

Young Mr. Blair appeared quite offended at the suggestion, as though by even implying such a thing I had besmirched the reputation of his trade.

“Book
scout
,” he corrected.

“I don't know what that is.”

“Looks for rare books. Buys 'em cheap—widows and suchlike, don't know any better—and sells 'em on to booksellers. Won't have him in the shop. Thief, um? Cheat, um? But he can find 'em. Can find anything if it's got a cover on it. Knows his books, does Maggs. Doesn't love 'em, though. That's the thing of it. You have to love them. No point to it otherwise.”

Young Mr. Blair rubbed his right thumb against the middle and index fingers of his right hand in an unmistakable gesture.

“All about this, you know? Money, um? Nothing else. Bad as the woman. Ought to marry her!”

He laughed at his joke and glanced at his pocket watch.

“Must be off,” he said.

He withdrew a wallet from the inside pocket of his jacket, but I waved it away.

“A thank you,” I said. “For your help.”

“Oh,” he said, and I thought that his eyes went moist. “Oh, my dear fellow. Most kind.”

“Just one last thing,” I asked, as he began gathering his belongings. “Where would I find this Maggs?”

“Princelet Street,” he said. “By the synagogue. Don't know the
number. Have to ask. Again, most kind, most kind.”

He tapped my arm.

“Beware of Maggs,” he said solemnly. “Doesn't love books. Might have done, once, but something happened. Occult. Bad books, bad business. Understand?”

I didn't, not then, but I thanked him once more. We shook hands, and he headed into the night.

Princelet Street: that was in Whitechapel, close to Spitalfields. I knew that part of the city well, and from what I could recall there were two synagogues on Princelet Street: the Princelet Street Synagogue and the Chevrah Torah. I looked at my watch. It was after eight. I could go back to my lodgings, or I could try to find Maggs the book scout. Like Young Mr. Blair, or the domestic vision that I had of him, there was little for me at home, and I realized I might well have been projecting my own loneliness onto the old bookseller.

No matter. I decided to go after Maggs.

VIII

IF IT
was true that nobody in Whitechapel had a bad word to say about Maggs the book scout, then it was only because nobody I encountered appeared to want to waste any words on him at all. I began asking about him in the vicinity of the Chevrah Torah but was directed gruffly to the Princelet Street Synagogue farther along the way. There, questions about Maggs were greeted with dark looks and, in one case, a veritable fountain of mucous spittle that missed my boot by an inch. Eventually, an old Hasidic man wearing an ancient
spodik
on his head directed me to a laneway that smelled of cat piss and stagnant water. There a doorway stood open, revealing a veritable warren of small apartments. A young woman, who might well have been a tart, stood smoking outside.

“Do you live here?” I asked her.

“Live—and work,” she said, and the way she tipped her head in the direction of the stairs removed any doubts I might have had about her profession. When I didn't bite, she sucked deeply on her cigarette and ran her soft pink tongue over her lips.

“You a copper?”

“No.”

“You look like a copper.”

“Is that a good thing?”

“Not around here.”

“I'm trying to find a man named Maggs. I was told he lives nearby.”

“He in trouble, then?”

“Why would you say that?”

“Because men who look like you don't go asking after men like Maggs unless there's trouble involved.”

“And what kind of man is Maggs?”

“He's the kind of man I wouldn't roll with if his cock was dipped in gold and he gave it to me after for a doorstop.”

It was an arresting image.

“I've been struggling to find anyone who might say something pleasant about him,” I said. “When he dies, it's likely to be lonely by the graveside.”

“Shouldn't have thought so. Lot of people will show up just to make sure he's dead.”

“They offer dancing shoes for just such occasions, I believe.”

She smiled. “If they don't, I'll make do with what I have.”

“Is he about, this Maggs?”

“Think so. He came in earlier, I believe. I heard him going up. He coughs a lot, does Maggs. Coughs, but doesn't die.”

“You really don't like him, do you?”

“He looks at women like he's planning to slice them and sell them by the pound. He stinks because he's bad inside. He'd steal the smell from a corpse, and he wouldn't spare a penny if it would save a life.”

She finished the cigarette and tossed it into the shadows.

“Number nine, top of the stairs,” she said.

“You, or him?”

“Him. I'm in number five, if you change your mind.”

“I won't, but thank you anyway.”

“Why? Because you're too good for a tart?”

“No, because the tart's too good for me.”

I found some money in my pocket, and I slipped her what she would have charged for a roll with me. As with the boy from the
post office, I didn't ask for a receipt: Fawnsley and Quayle would just have to take it on trust.

“You don't have to do that,” she said, and her voice was softer than it had previously been.

“You've saved me that much in time,” I said.

The money vanished.

“You watch out for Maggs,” she said. “He's been inside.”

“For what?”

“Murder, they say. With a knife.”

Maggs, it seemed, belied the impression some might have had of the book world as a place filled with the shy and the studious.

“Thank you for the warning,” I said.

I was about to leave her when a thought struck me. I took the picture of Lionel Maulding from my pocket and showed it to her.

“Have you ever seen this man around here?”

She held the picture steady and stared at it for a long time.

“I think so, but he was older than he is in this picture.”

“When was this?”

“I can't be sure. Not as long ago as a month, but not as short as a week.”

“Was he coming to see Maggs?”

“Well, he weren't coming to see me.”

She handed the picture back to me, hitched up her skirts to prevent them from dragging in the foul water of the lane, and went off to seek some business elsewhere. I watched her go. She was pretty in a hard way, but if she stayed in her current trade then the prettiness would fade and the hardness would take over, moving from the surface to the heart like ice on a lake. In another life I might have gone with her. I would have paid my money as much for her company as for any physical pleasure I might have derived from it.

Before the war, perhaps: before High Wood.

As I climbed the stairs to Maggs's rooms, I began to form a
narrative in my mind. Maulding approaches Dunwidge & Daughter as part of his search for the atlas. When they can't help him, he looks elsewhere and finds his way at last to Maggs. He's offering a lot of money for the book, more money than Maggs has ever seen before, but Maulding has led a sheltered life, and Maggs has not. Maggs sees the possibility of greater wealth than he has ever imagined. He lures Maulding with the promise of the book and then takes his life.

Maggs, the book scout, with knife in hand.

Maggs, the murderer.

All very neat, all very tidy, which meant that it probably hadn't happened that way. But if the girl was right, then Maulding had been here, which made Maggs a link in the chain of events that had led to Maulding's disappearance.

I reached the door of number nine and knocked upon it. There was no reply. I called Maggs's name and knocked again. The door, when I tried it, was locked, but a locked door is more the promise of security than security itself. I removed my wallet of picks, and it was the work of a minute to open the door.

Inside was darkness. The drapes were drawn, and I could hear no sounds of occupancy, no movements, no snores. I called Maggs's name one more time before I entered, mindful of the reputation of the man I was seeking, wary of his knife.

I stepped inside and was immediately in a large single room, furnished with a sagging couch, some mismatched chairs, and a bed in the corner. The rest was books, but after time spent in Maulding's home, and the premises of both Stanford's and Dunwidge & Daughter, I was growing inured to the sight of so many volumes crammed into every available space. A smell of unwashed clothes and unwashed skin prevailed, but beneath it was the stink of burning meat: pork, or something like it.

Beyond the bed, an open door led into a small kitchen, where a man sat upright at a small table, his back to me. He wore a
waistcoat over a gray shirt that might once have been white, and his feet were bare. He was balding, and wisps of hair clung to his pate like gossamer threads caught on stone.

“Mr. Maggs?” I said.

Maggs, if Maggs it was, did not move. I slipped my hand into the pocket of my coat and removed my cosh, but as I drew nearer to the figure I could see that his hands were resting flat upon the table, and there was no weapon in sight.

I stopped when I was a few feet from the door. The man remained still. He was either holding his breath, or he was dead. I moved into the kitchen, and the reason for his stillness was confirmed.

The corpse at the table had no eyes, and his sockets now extended so far into his head that, had I a flashlight to hand, I felt sure I could have shone the light into the holes and glimpsed the inside of his skull. I leaned closer and thought that I smelled burning from the twin orifices, as though a pair of hot pokers had been pushed into his brain, searing as they went. I tested his flesh and found stiffness but no decay, not yet. This man was not long dead.

On the table before him, resting between his hands, lay an envelope. I picked it up and looked inside. It contained five hundred pounds, an enormous sum of money for one such as Maggs, yet there it rested. Where had it come from? I looked again at the envelope. It was cream, and of good quality, with a gentle ridging to the paper. I recalled the desk at the firm of Dunwidge & Daughter, with its pens and its papers. In my wallet I still had the list of names given to me by Dunwidge. I unfolded the list and set it beside the envelope. The paper was the same.

And then I heard a scuttling behind me. I turned, expecting to see a rat, but instead I glimpsed a wriggling, jointed carapace with sharp pincers disappearing behind the stove. Once I had recovered from my shock at the sight of it, I seized a broom from the corner
of the kitchen and went down on my knees. The floor was sticky and had not been washed in years. I peered into the murk beneath the stove and detected movement. Grasping the broom by its bristles with one hand, and placing the other halfway along its length, I stabbed at the presence in the shadows. I felt the tip of the broom handle strike something that wriggled as it was pinned to the wall. I pressed harder, but the thing broke free. It moved to my right, but now it was trapped in the corner, and I had it. I stabbed at it, over and over, until its struggles ceased, then used the broom to push its remains into the light.

BOOK: The Wanderer in Unknown Realms
9.14Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

Lying Together by Gaynor Arnold
Filthy Gorgeous by Knight, Jodi
Blood Sun by David Gilman
Sacrifice of Buntings by Goff, Christine
Brothers by Yu Hua
Ghost of a Chance by Franklin W. Dixon
Queens' Play by Dorothy Dunnett