"I'd have guessed thousands."
"That might be stretching it by one or two hundred. A dozen I could dredge up with no effort at all." I took a sip of my beer. "Why do you ask, lovely one? Is this leading somewhere? It's getting fairly egotistical on my part."
"I know, but I asked for it. Please continue, for I am fascinated."
"I was really good at it," I said with no apologies. "You never want to give up something you have that much juice for. When I lost it, I missed the hell out of it. You know all this, there's no use lying, I really missed it, I always will."
I thought of my police career and the whole story played in my head in an instant, from that idealistic cherry-faced beginning to the end, when I had taken on a brute, used his face for a punching bag, and lost my job in the process. "But I was lucky, wasn't I? The book trade came along and it was just what I needed: very different, lots of room to grow, interesting work, good people. I figured I'd be in it forever."
"And indeed, you may well be. But nothing's perfect."
I mustered as much sadness as I could dredge up on a $3,000 day. "Alas, no."
"If you had to give this up, how would you feel about it?"
"Devastated. You mean I get lucky enough to find two true callings in one lifetime and then I lose them both? Might as well lie down in front of a bus. What else would I do? Be a PI? It's not the same after you've been the real thing."
"How would you know? You've never done it: not for any kind of a living."
"I know as a shamus you've got no authority. You don't have the weight of the department behind you, and where's the fun in that? You're just another great pretender."
A moment later, I looked at her and said, "So why are you here on a workday? How come you're not in your lawyer's uniform? What's going on with your case? And after all is said and done, am I finally allowed to ask what this problem is all about?"
"The judge adjourned for the afternoon so he could do some research. I think we're gonna win, but of course you never know. Right now it's just a hunch. So I've got the rest of the day off. And let's see, what was that other question? What's this all about? I need your help."
"Say no more."
"Something's come up. I want you to go to Paradise for me."
"You mean the town in western Colorado or just some blissful state of mind?"
"The town. Maybe the other thing too, if you can be civilized."
"Tough assignment. But speaking of the town, why me?"
"You're still the best cop I know. I trust your instincts. Maybe I'm just showing you that if you did want to do cases, you'd have more work than you've got time for."
"The great if. Listen, being a dealer in so-called rare books leaves me no time for anything else anyway. Why do you keep trying to get me out of the book business?"
"I'm not! Why would I do that? You could do both, as you have already so nimbly demonstrated."
Our food came. The waitress asked if there was anything else and went away. Erin took a small bite, then looked up and smiled almost virginly.
"Let's say I want you to go to Paradise and look at some books. You should be able to do that. Look at some books and see if they might be worth anything. Because if they're not, the defendant may lose her house paying for her defense."
"It would be damned unusual for any collection of books to pay for the exorbitant fees you lawyers charge. Is there any reason to think these might be anything special? What did she say when she called you?"
"She didn't call, her attorney did. Fine time to be calling, her preliminary hearing's set for tomorrow."
She didn't have to elaborate. The most critical hours in any investigation are always the ones immediately after the crime's been committed. "Her attorney says she mentioned selling her husband's book collection," she said. "But she's afraid they aren't worth much."
Copyright © 2005 by John Dunning
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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