Bookless In Seattle

Submitted into Contest #122 in response to: Write a story about a limited edition item going on sale.... view prompt

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Christmas Crime Fiction

"I'm here to get my book," Melissa Watson said as the man opened the front door to his home. The man stood in the darkened entryway of the house in the Greenwood neighborhood in north Seattle, holding the door as Melissa started to push the door open. He stopped the door with his foot and looked at the intruder moving out of the diffused daylight and closer to the threshold. He reached for a light switch with his free hand and seemed to recognize the woman pushing the door was not a stranger.

"Maybe you should stop right there," he said as Melissa started to walk past him. "I've not seen you in years. What have you been doing lately?" he said, changing the tone of his voice but still blocking the entryway.

"I'm still solving crime," she replied. "Which is why I'm here." She scanned the hallway and as much of the adjacent rooms as were visible and then turned to face the man who still had not closed the door.

"You're back on the force?" he asked. "I thought you were out on disability."

"I’m here to take back a book you took from my bookstore,” she replied.

Port Seattle Books was a fixture on Lower Queen Ann Hill, having opened in the early 1970s selling both new and used books. The bookstore suffered during the recession in the early 2000s but had a resurgence a decade later with the growth of Seattle’s technology industry and the real estate market. Melissa purchased the store in 2015 after she was discharged on disability from the Seattle Police Department.

During the holiday season, the owner of Port Seattle Books selected a limited-edition book for auction. Each year the featured book was displayed in the storefront window from Black Friday until the final bidding ended with the close of business on Christmas Eve. Auction proceeds were donated to charity, and this year Melissa Watson selected the Seattle Union Gospel Mission mobile shower program as beneficiary. The auction had become a holiday tradition with thousands of sealed bids made both online at the store’s website or by site bid on a form submitted at the store. Historically, the winning bid was four to six times the book's market value.

Customers interested in submitting a bid were allowed to examine the Auction Book under the supervision of bookstore employees. Each evening the featured book was removed from the store window at closing time and put on Melissa’s desk in her office.

This year the featured limited-edition book was Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, a hardcover book, illustrated, printed on fire-resistant paper, and enclosed in an aluminum slipcase. The hardcover design had a vertical notch containing a wooden match to replace the ‘1’ in the title 451. Critics called it “a striking cover design.” The publisher had released only 500 copies, and this one was signed by the illustrator and marked number 2/500. The book retailed for $500, but the market value increased after collectors quickly purchased the initial printing. Melissa expected it to sell at auction for many times over market value because the buyer would receive recognition as a patron in the Seattle arts community. The Seattle Times usually had an article about the auction, the featured book, and the buyer in the Sunday edition following Christmas. Last year, the highest bidder was a senior vice-president of Amazon, which Melissa thought was ironic since Amazon facilitated the demise of so many independent bookstores throughout the country. The featured book that year was The Great Gatsby.

In preparation for holiday shopping, the bookstore hired seasonal staff. Against her better judgment, Melissa hired the inexperienced son of a book distributor representative as an attendant to keep shelves full, arrange displays, and assist customers. He worked part-time and odd hours because he was also enrolled in a couple of classes at Seattle Central College. After a few weeks at the store, he began training to be a sales clerk at the front desk. Other employees complained that he was easily distracted, slow at completing sales and often forgot to place purchases in a bag or include a free bookmark. His worst sin was that he was not a reader, which co-workers complained was increasingly evident. He could not share information or ideas about books with customers and was clueless about genres, book clubs, authors, or publishers. Some of the senior employees nicknamed him ‘Bookless.’

When Melissa came to work on December 23, she noticed that the featured book was not displayed in the storefront window. She unlocked her office, turned on the lights, saw that the book was not on her desk. She opened the cabinet doors where she kept first-editions, limited-editions, collectibles, and rare books. Fahrenheit 451 was missing. As she was looking in the desk drawers, her store manager walked in to say good morning, and Melissa asked about the missing book. “Linda did you close up last night?” she asked.

“No, I got off work early. Why do you ask?” she replied.

“The Auction Book is not on display, and I don’t find it here in my office.”

“Well, I’m sure it is around someplace,” Linda replied. “I’ll check the front desk.”

After quickly checking the now-empty display in the storefront window, Linda went to the front desk. She did not find the book lying on the countertop or on the shelves where bags, wrapping paper, and ribbons were stored at the sales register. Other employees had not seen the book. Linda checked the work schedule for December 22 to see who had been working that day and who was responsible for closing. As she feared, Bookless was one of two employees who worked until closing, and she saw he was not working today until the afternoon shift. She found the other employee, who had been with the Port Seattle Books for years, and she knew nothing about the featured book and assumed Bookless had put it in Melissa’s office.

Linda called Bookless on his cell phone and explained the problem. He seemed unaware there was even a featured book on display, but after she described the book, he recalled finding a book in an aluminum slipcase on the transaction counter at the front desk. He returned the book to the shelves with other copies of Fahrenheit 451 under classical fiction, not bothering to notice that the book was a different size and cover design from the other copies. It also did not occur to him as unusual that none of the other books were in a metal slipcase. Linda grew more irritated as Bookless explained what he obviously thought was a routine restocking of shelves. As she was talking on the phone to Bookless, she walked to the classical fiction shelves and determined there was no sign of the limited-edition book among the other copies. She told him to come to work at his assigned shift and thanked him for taking her call.

The phone call with Bookless explained why the featured book was missing from the display, but it was still missing from the store. Linda and Melissa considered that possibly the book had been moved by a customer after Bookless put it on what he considered the correct shelf with the other Fahrenheit 451 hardbacks. They started searching the bookstore and quietly told the staff to look for the book as they moved around the store. The morning passed with no sightings. After lunch, Bookless showed up for work, at which point Linda quickly took him to Melissa’s office to continue their investigation.

“Did you see the book at any time after you returned it to where you thought it was supposed to be shelved? I mean, did you ever check the shelves again to see if it was still there?” Melissa asked patiently.

“Yeah, a guy brought it to the front desk, and I sold it to him,” Bookless answered calmly.

Melissa and Linda stared at the hapless college student. It took all of Melissa’s training at interrogation to maintain her composure, “I see, so tell us about the sale.”

As Bookless explained what he thought was a routine transaction, Melissa realized the security video would be a better source of facts than hours of questioning the witness. He was either as clueless as people in the store believed, or he was a master confederate in the theft of a very valuable limited-edition book.

“About what time did this sale take place?” she asked.

“I think it was just about closing time,” he replied. Melissa thanked him for his help. When he left her office, she told Linda to review the security video for the prior day and focus on closing time.

After fast-forwarding the video, Linda came to the last hour of the day, which she watched in real-time. Finally, she saw a customer come into view on the silent video carrying the featured book to the front counter. The customer, a lone white, middle-aged male dressed in business casual attire, wearing a North Face rain jacket, put the metal slipcase and book on the transaction counter. Bookless removed the book from the metal slipcase and looked inside the front cover for a sales price tag to scan with the barcode reader. Finding no price tag, he scanned the barcode on the back cover, which did not register on the computer because the book was never intended for retail sales. Bookless appeared puzzled, said something to the customer, picked up the portable barcode scanner, left the book by the register, and walked out of camera range. Linda guessed Bookless went to the bookshelves in classical fiction and scanned another copy of Fahrenheit 451. When he returned, he put the portable scanner back in the cradle and the register screen displayed the sale, which Linda saw was $29.95. The customer took two twenty-dollar bills out of his wallet and gave them to Bookless, who then appeared to ask the man a question. The man shook his head and Bookless completed the sale by handing back change. The man waited as Bookless put the book in a bag and forgot to include the bookmark. He turned to the next customer and the man left the store.

Linda checked the point-of-sale register for the cash sale of Fahrenheit 451 and found no customer information. By not paying by credit or debit card, the customer avoided identification. The only competent evidence they had was the video. She found Bookless and confirmed that he asked the man if he was a loyalty club member. “And, he said he was not a club member, right?” she asked.

“No, he was a club member. He didn’t have his membership card and didn’t want to take the time for me to look it up on the computer, so he paid in cash,” Bookless replied.

Linda reported her investigation to Melissa, who said she wanted to see the video herself. When she looked at the video, she froze the best section of the recording showing the customer’s face. “I know this guy,” she said. “I used to work with him at SPD. Look up the address for Jim Decker in our club membership list,” she instructed.

An hour later, Melissa was standing just inside the front door of the customer’s home. “We have you on surveillance video and I need it back, now,” she said, holding his gaze. At this point, Melissa expected him to either deny it was him in the video or argue that he made a legitimate purchase. The video quality was not the best, and she was not fully confident it was the man she was now accusing. She also realized he could say he was not returning the book because he paid for what was offered. The worst-case scenario was that he sold the book to an innocent third party. However, if he still had the book, she was prepared to repurchase it at multiple times what he paid to resolve any claim he might make.

Still holding the door, he said, “I don’t recall inviting you into my home. Where’s the fire?” He reached for the front pocket of his jeans and pulled out a smartphone. “I’m calling the cops if you don’t leave when I point at the door. I’ll give you the respect I give to all who wore the uniform, but I won’t be abused in my own home. You aren’t the only one who has security video,” he concluded and looked at her.

“Fair enough, Jim. This will only take a moment. I own Port Seattle Books,” she said and could see a shadow of recognition cross his face. “You are a club member, and yesterday you bought a book that was not for sale. I’m here with a refund or a replacement book.” She continued to look the man in the eye and waited.

“Maybe you should be talking to my lawyer,” he replied.

“Not unless she has the book,” Melissa replied and saw a suppressed smile on his lips at the suggestion he would hire a woman lawyer.

“Look, just tell me what this is all about,” he demanded.

“You took a copy of Fahrenheit 451 that was not for sale, and I need it returned. Does that refresh your memory?” she said and waited for a response. After a few moments, she continued, “I will refund your money or replace the book with another hardback. You  give me the one you took from the store, no harm done.”

“If there is no harm done, what is this about you solving a crime?” he asked.

Melissa realized that in her eagerness, she had overstated her mission to get the book returned. “I gave a flippant answer to your greeting about what or how I’m doing,” she replied. “To be direct with you, I need the book returned because our clerk had no authority to sell that copy. The clerk was inexperienced and failed to recognize the uniqueness and value of the book he sold. If you return it now, there will be no questions. And I’m not saying that as a disguised threat.”

“What is so special about the copy you think I bought from your store?” he asked.

“Have you read the book? I mean, have you ever read Fahrenheit 451?” she asked. “If you have, you know the book should be burned,” she said and watched his reaction.

The man didn’t know what to say to either the question about whether he had read the book or the suggestion that it should be burned.

“No, I see you more as a Guy Montag than a Captain Beatty,” she said. “Jim, the book is a limited edition which is why that copy is up for auction and the proceeds will go to charity. People who bid on the book are either collectors of limited and rare books, or they love Fahrenheit 451, or they see it as a path to recognition for a donation to charity.” She watched for a response, but the man just looked at her.

“One other thing I should mention is provenance. A knowledgeable buyer will want the book's provenance; you know to prove the owner has the right to sell it. The book you have will not end up in a used bookstore; it will always be in the hands of a collector or someone with a special library. Somebody like Professor Faber, who is one of the main characters in the book.” She stopped and waited.

Before closing time, Melissa returned to the bookstore with the featured book. The staff had turned off the lights in the display window, probably hoping nobody would ask about the auction. Linda was helping a customer, excused herself, and followed Melissa into her office. Melissa took off her coat and laid the book and metal slipcover on her desk. “So, your friend Jim Decker had the book?” Linda concluded.

“Yeah, he had it, but I’m not sure he knew what he had.”

“It is interesting that he is a Seattle police officer,” Linda observed.

“Former officer,” Melissa corrected. “He was allowed to resign following an internal investigation,” she added as she put the limited-edition version in the cabinet. “Bring me a trade copy of Fahrenheit 451, then send Bookless in here, please.”

The young man knocked on the open door to Melissa’s office, and she told him to come in. Without standing up, she handed the trade edition of the book across her desk. Bookless held it cautiously like it might burn his hands and stared at her, not sure what he was supposed to do with the book. “Take that to Jim Decker at Seattle Central College. You know Mr. Decker, the part-time law enforcement lecturer. Or do you want to convince me you didn’t know him, even before he came in posing as a customer?” She paused to watch the color drain from the man’s face. “We will tell your father that you resigned. Now get out of my store!” 

December 03, 2021 22:11

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1 comment

Dennis Swanson
20:48 Dec 06, 2021

Loved it, surprise endings are the best. Dennis


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