January 29th, 2012
Melanie Goodrich, proprietor and owner of the Royal Appleby Auction House, out of Bristol Yate, hated working on her birthday.
But with the recent liquidation of a bankrupt London maritime museum, thanks to the ailing European economy and people choosing between the need to inspect the past, under glass, or having food to eat always made for tough decisions.
But she had gotten lucky, having been given first dibs on some of the artifacts and show pieces, and today was the shipment date.
It appeared trustees did not take people’s birthdays into account as holidays.
She was not terribly bothered. She knew there was no one waiting at home, a large loft in the central core in Bristol. Plus, being alone on this day tended to remind her of the years passing on. She had two children, who she adored and had done fabulously for themselves. She had been married twice, both times ending in divorce.
The first was as a young woman, having met an aspiring Canadian writer on a cruise ship which turned into a five year relationship in Canada and ended equally as quickly when they both sought the address of their own resident countries and thus, parted ways in friendship.
Occasionally, not often, she found herself guiltily hovering in the bookstore, searching the shelves for his most recent published work. He had made quite a name for himself since their parting. He now had a new beautiful wife and two attractive kids. That and two large Labradors for pets, one a burly chocolate and the other a regal charcoal grey. She sometimes looked back with a pang of regret.
The second husband was a matter of the passion fizzling out, nothing more, transforming her work into her one faithful companion.
Her phone chirped.
She quickly looked at her display and waived her fingers over the touchscreen. Two messages, the kids wishing her a happy fortieth.
’Was she really that old?’
She turned back to her laptop, scrolling her fingers over the toggle, and reviewed the catalogue of items emailed to her.
‘Doesn’t anyone use faxes anymore?’ She thought, not a fan of technology.
As she reviewed the inventory, she found a few choice pieces she knew would fetch an excellent price.
She took a quick break, stood up and checked herself in the mirror. She loved parading before it. Not unlike her first husband who could never get away from it.
She stood at five foot five, long auburn hair which fell into a natural curl. She had deep brown eyes which fit perfectly into her small and demure face. She was lightly tanned by her many months spent in Spain on the beaches of Madrid. She was a sharply dressed woman, with refined tastes and a need to look good in any and all situations, sporting a grey cashmere wool suit, high top boots with a hint of a heel. Around her neck she wore a diamond pendant from a sunken ship in Greece she had acquired in one of her auctions.
She returned to her desk and resumed reading the delivery manifest when she heard a small knock at her door.
Melanie looked up as a door opened and a man peered into her office. He smiled as he entered.
He was five nine, with short brown hair slivered by white. He had sparkling blue eyes, as she noticed such things. His skin was moderately tanned and he was dressed in a black double-breasted blazer, grey turtleneck and matching slacks. What she noticed most of all was he seemed very well built, with his suit accentuating a more than likely chiseled chest beneath.
He stepped forward, extending his hand. “Good day Ms. Goodrich. My name is Anthony Darby.”
She took his hand with grace and gestured for him to take a seat.
With the handshake he handed her a business card.
She turned it over and it read, ‘Attorney at Law.’
“You’re an attorney?”
“You sound surprised?” As he took his seat.
“You don’t look like a lawyer.”
“What pray tell do I look like?”
She smiled. “A banker.”
At that he grinned. “Were my friends here, they’d probably agree with you. However a mere lawyer is all I am.”
She doubted by his confidence, ’mere’ was an adjective ever used to describe him. “How can help you Mr. Anthony Darby?”
“First, you can call me Darby. All my friends do.”
She repeated herself. “How can help you Mr. Darby?”
He smiled again. “Please, just Darby.”
“No need to be. Mister is what I call my father. You can call me Darby.”
She found this somewhat charming, especially in the casualness he presented it. “Okay, Darby… What can I do you for?”
Darby reached into his jacket and pulled out a folded piece of paper. As he opened it, he placed a pair of rounded reading glasses over his eyes which he smoothly pulled from the inside pocket.
Melanie watched as he gracefully opened the sheet, holding it before his eyes to carefully read.
She would swear, by the manner and care he took in his motions, he was a surgeon. “My employer has informed me that you have come into possession of some interesting artifacts from a recent museum bankruptcy.”
Melanie peered at her computer with some confusion. “Your employer is remarkably well informed. I only just acquired the collection this morning.”
“My employer is a thorough. Being informed is one of their greatest assets. And if I’m correct, the collection has already been delivered.” Said as a statement, not a question.
She was not sure if she should be impressed or frightened. She herself had not known of the pending delivery until this morning when the courier service called ahead to confirm someone would available to sign the receipt. “Your employer is more than well informed, they’re psychic.”
Darby offered a smirk. “My employer would like to think so.”
‘Most lawyers consider the people they represent as clients, not employers.’ But she ignored her thoughts for the time being. She could sense with such interest in the acquisition, equal compensation would follow. “I assume if they know I’ve procured the collection already, they seek something specific from it.” Unsure if the employer was a man or a woman.
“You are an astute woman.” Darby was direct and to the point. Most lawyers billed by the hour, so time was very valuable. “Specifically, an old journal from a patient from 1906, around the time the Royal London Medical Institute was closed down. Some sort of scandal about a fire and an inmate having perished.” Darby looked up, staring over the frames of his glasses. “Stories have it the staff considered him a demon and murdered him.”
Melanie shrugged nonchalantly “I’ve only recently gotten the catalogue over the weekend. I’ve yet to study all their histories.” She kept her cards close to her vest. “But from what I’ve read so far, there was indeed a fire. Around the time Doctor Gerber resigned his post.” She paused for effect. “The new administration was not quite as caring with patients as the previous caretakers and somewhat more… religious. The fire that swept through the place was believed to have started when they set a patient on fire. Likely the one you speak of.”
Darby winced. ’A nasty way to die.’ But he also grinned inwardly, suspecting Ms. Goodrich was far more knowledgeable than he was originally led to believe. “But the journal survived?”
Melanie rose from her desk, left her office into the back chamber where she had been opening and emptying boxes. After a minute or two, she returned with Darby waiting patiently. She presented the old journal to him, its brown edges charred with soot. Corners of pages were lightly scorched, bent in from the heat with its leather bindings holding tight, seemingly to have protected the pages within. It was tied closed with a piece of matching leather string.
Darby took the book as one would hold a baby, caressing its sides with loving care. He inspected the tome, pulled loose the rope and opened the pages. For about a minute, he was perfectly still. He finally spoke. “How much?”
Melanie suspected this was coming. “I’ve yet to assess its exact worth. But the auction isn’t for a week.”
Darby kept his eyes on the book. “My employer finds public auctions like that of farms. Cattle grouped together, baying and grunting on who can get the best corn first.” He looked up. “He feels you and he are above such things.”
’His employer was a man.’ She suspected as much. But for a second, she was both complimented by the elevation of her stature, but equally insulted in the depiction of her career. She chose to ignore it. Money makes a remarkable agent to heal ailing egos. “What is he offering?”
Darby was equally worldly. “Well, it is damaged.”
Melanie interrupted. “I’m sure your employer can procure a new one at a local stationary shop for under ten pounds if he prefers. I mean, if he’s concerned with such matters.”
The negotiations had begun.
Darby knew full well it was the contents of the journal, not the esthetics that was sought. “I’m sure five thousand would be in order. Including a tidy two more for your indulgence in letting us avoid next week’s festivities.”
‘Yes. The salve was already soothing her wounds.’ She tried to contain her excitement at the offer, but her cheeks reddened beneath her light selection of freckles. But she knew, rarely do buyers present the best offer first. “I would think ten would be more in order, PLUS the two.”
Darby carefully flipped through the pages. “I’m prepared to meet you at eight, including the two to make it ten.”
Melanie was not a greedy woman. “American Dollars?”
“I’m actually Canadian.” Darby placed the book in his lap, suspecting a deal has been made. “But let it be known, when I make an offer here, I make it in pounds sterling.”
Melanie used every ounce of her strength to keep her eyes from widening. She had seen the item on the catalogue the day before and presumed it would have to be placed inside of something from the museum so she could rid herself of it. She never expected it to be an item so ardently wanted. “I accept.” She reached under her desk to the drawer to pull out a receipt book.
Darby, in those seconds she turned her eyes, had almost magically placed two stacks of twenty pound notes on her desk, their purplish colour standing out as it etched out the lovely profile of Queen Elizabeth’s face on the top. Each stack was bound with a band which read, ‘£5000’
Melanie had to do a double take trying to figure out where he kept them being his clothes were well fitted and he carried no briefcase.
Darby slid them forward across the blotter. “My employer is not big on record keeping.” Clearly implying a receipt was not necessary, nor wanted.
Melanie was still a businesswoman. She understood sometimes, collectors preferred the only ones who need to know they had something of value were themselves. She slipped the stacks into her top drawer and closed it, preventing buyer’s remorse, of which she doubted there would be any. She paused. “I’m curious of one thing?”
“I’m single if you’re asking?”
Melanie was taken aback, blushing like a school girl, both at the boldness of the response and with the charm it was played, done smoothly as to avoid insinuation. She took a moment to regain her composure. “No. But thank you for your candor.” She smiled, seriously considering his suggestion. But she had a lot of work to do. “I’m curious as to how your employer became aware of the journal at all? It was only a casual footnote written in after the liquidation of the museum.”
Darby did not feel he was betraying any confidence by answering. “My employer is a man who believes the key to the future is buried in the past.”
“A bit cryptic?”
“In that I agree. But to be honest, he spends a great deal of resources seeking out lost things which he thinks tell stories, tales which may lead him to grander prizes.”
She wanted to laugh. “You think this journal is a treasure map?”
“Hardly.” Darby crossed his one leg over his knee. “One of his recent projects involves the exploits of a ship known as Leviathan.”
Melanie was a well-schooled woman, and being one of the few auction houses who remarketed Maritime historical artifacts, she knew the story well. “Yes. The American ship discovered in the South Atlantic in the late 1800’s. Its whole crew was lost.”
“That’s the one. But it was not the whole crew. One survived.”
She heard rumours of such things, but with very little substantiation.
Darby continued. “My employer was unable to procure the original Serenade Logbook from the curator of the British Historical Society, but he did purchase a souvenir one online, perfectly duplicated in every way.”
‘Why pay for the real one when the fake looks just like it?’ Melanie shrugged with annoyance, knowing such replications only detracted from her authentic products. “She was the ship who discovered the Leviathan. She was under the command of a Captain Rios. This was long before he and his crew were lost at sea three decades later on a private mission of their own.”
“You’re equally well informed.”
“I try to be.”
“Well in his investigations, my employer discovered our very own Captain Rios paid for the personal care and maintenance of the sole survivor for many years. In the very same institution that burned down in 1906.” Darby paused. “Your historians are fabulous by the way.”
Melanie nodded at the compliment.
“Well, my employer assumed all was lost, as there was no mention of anything surviving. But he has many museums under watch, searching for specific code words, especially with sales and receiverships. So when the name Gerber and journal flashed on a web posting, he had me on the first plane out to find what had been saved.”
Melanie smiled. “Before I ask you to dinner, I have to be honest with you. I would have accepted your first offer of seven.”
Darby winked. “I was prepared to offer fifty.”
Melanie felt warm inside, not anger, but amusement. She did not feel cheated, as she was going to dispose of the journal anyway.
Darby offered a casual nod as he stood. “I would love to go to dinner with you, but I have another flight in an hour for Scotland. My employer believes there is a rock with engravings that lead to the Holy Grail.”
Oddly enough, she believed him.
“And because I was only asked to procure that which survived the fire, the journal, my job is done.”
Melanie held up her hand, gesturing for Darby to wait. She rose and departed for her storeroom.
She returned with a large file folder. “That was not all that survived. The journal was placed with a single medical file from Doctor Gerber. Many of the others were lost or destroyed, but this was the only one he had sealed in a metal box to protect it from destruction.”
Darby leaned in with fascination. “This is most unexpected. My employer will be most pleased. He had been unaware of this item.”
She handed it to him. “I feel I’m cheating you on the price of the journal, please take this as I cannot imagine it fetching any high price.”
Darby looked up to her, genuinely impressed with her honesty. “Do you have a box I can take, to carry this with me?”
“Of course.” She returned to her storeroom, talking to him through the empty door while she searched.
Once she found a box of sufficient size, she returned to her office. She froze, as she found Darby gone.
She peered around puzzled.
On her desk were eight more piles of twenty pound notes, bundled the same.
Darby had not lied. ‘He did say he was prepared to pay fifty.’
Far more than she expected to receive.
She felt a pang of guilt though, as she slid the remaining eight piles to join the other two in her desk.
’I’m sure he noticed it.’ She thought. ’He didn’t strike her as a man who missed such things.’
As she never had a chance to mention, when she got the journal delivered that morning, according to the description, the last eight pages had been torn out.