Chapter One

It wasn’t the kind of a car that would turn your head for a second look. It was just a seven-year-old Oldsmobile, two doors, white, with mud spattered along the sides. Yes, it was only an old Cutlass worn by many thousands of hard-earned miles, certainly nothing special, and certainly nothing worthy of study. But then, the man inside the car deserved a second look, if you would have even noticed him stationed almost corpselike in the driver’s seat, as he stared straight ahead without so much as a flared nostril or twitched eyebrow. Yes, he was not at all unlike a haunched cat waiting in the unmowed grass for a pocket gopher to emerge from its run, silent and deadly. But, I’m sure you wouldn’t have noticed him, as no one did, while he sat there on that dimly lit Minnesota Avenue. No, you would not have noticed him, or how he watched the man and woman inside the Northern Lights Bookstore on NW Wall Street, who talked as much with their hands and fingers as they did with their mouths.

But, if you happened to be on that dimly lit street on that cool drizzly evening on the tenth of June, and if you happened to notice the man sitting inside the Cutlass, your instincts might have bade you to take a closer look. And, if you had, you might have seen little less than a dark pillar of ice and felt little more than the chill of a polar storm. But, you would have been moved, and you would have walked away with a tingle in your spine that belied admiration and fear.

The man in the car waited in the darkness and watched until the two concluded their business with a handshake and an exchange. The woman hunched over the sales counter for a moment, tore a check from a leather bound pad, and handed it to the proprietor. And, even from where he sat, the man saw the smile on the face of the woman as she tucked the rare treasure inside her briefcase. She extended her hand a second time and, as they shook hands again, she continued to smile.

He watched the woman leave the bookstore at twenty of nine that Monday evening and drive away in a late model S-Class Mercedes. He watched as the bookseller nodded happily at the check he held in his hand before he turned and disappeared through a solid wooden door at the back of the shop.

The man opened the driver’s door and slid out of the unlit car. He left the door barely ajar and marched towards the shop, silently, on the soft heels of western boots that were less at home on the streets of Bend, than they would be out on the Texas panhandle or up on the Colorado Plateau. He stopped at the corner and turned up the collars of his denim pea coat such that only the tops of his ears and short-cropped brown hair were visible from behind.

He stepped back into the shadow and waited for a car to pass by on the one-way street. He crossed in the silence and then halted at the door, tested it with his gloved hand, and found it unlocked. He took stock of the painted notice on the window beside the door that read: Michael Robinson, Bookseller, and then stepped inside the shop as a buzzer sounded in the rear of the store. He stepped quickly to his right and turned to study a first edition Hemingway, secured inside an alarmed glass cabinet, with a placard indicating that the author had signed it.

The proprietor stepped out of the backroom, walked toward the man from the car, and politely said: “I’m sorry sir, but we’re closed for the night.”

The man from the car continued to study the display, as if he were oblivious to the bookseller’s admonition, as if he was unaware of the bookseller’s footsteps as they approached again, and then stopped only a few feet behind him.

The bookseller coughed and said, with even more emphasis: “I’m sorry sir, but we are closed.”

“Sorry,” the man said, without turning. “I was just passing by and noticed this 1929 Edition of Arms. And, the light was on and the door was unlocked.”

The proprietor studied the man who admired his rare first edition. He wore faded denim jeans and scuffed brown boots with a newer pea coat that almost seemed to have a European flair. The man from the car was fit, stood straight with his feet planted a shoulder’s width apart and his hands crossed in front where the bookseller could not see them, but he could see that the man from the car stood just over six-feet in his boots, which made him several inches taller than the bookseller.

“It’s quite expensive,” the proprietor answered, somewhat sarcastically.

“I expect so. I see they only printed 510. How much you asking?”

“You couldn’t afford it.”

“Likely not,” the man from the car said, and turned slowly to face the proprietor, his hard-whiskered face gaunt and staid. He nodded at the bookseller without changing expression and added: “It’s been a time.”

“Do I know you? Have we done business before?”

“Of sorts. You’ve put on some weight. Easy living making you soft?”

The proprietor shook his head and jabbed his finger at the man from the car: “Look, I don’t know you, and we are closed.”

“Michael Robinson,” the man continued, unabashed, “a purveyor of rare books. Impressive, but you look to me to be the same old Jack Ass you’ve always been.”

“Where do you get …” the proprietor started angrily, and stopped as recognition, and a shadow of fear, cursed his face. “You?”

“Yeah Jack Ass, it’s me,” the man said. “I’ve come to take you back. Justice herself is still waiting for you.”

The bookseller turned and bolted for the sales counter quickly pursued by the man from the car who stepped long, lunged forward, and tackled the proprietor, who crashed sideways against the sales counter. The resounding crack of bone echoed through the bookstore as the tackled man struck the wooden base of the fixture. The man from the car pushed up onto his knees, removed his right-hand glove, and felt for a pulse from the limp man’s body, first on the wrist, then alongside his oddly twisted neck, and found none.

“Damn,” he said, to no one there.


Buy The Seventh Stage from the CreateSpace Store

Buy The Seventh Stage from Amazon