Chapter 7

“Hate to bother, lass, but I’m having a bit of trouble, actually.”

When Avery told Sarah that he despised money, he had told the truth. It sickened him to see how the common folk debased themselves for it. Once, as a young man, he had been called to appraise an estate, though it was a shabby one—the meager estate of a woman who had recently died. Her relatives wished to liquidate her Oriental rugs, and they sat teary-eyed but alert as they watched Avery inspect a sad collection of worn and dirty rugs. Kneeling, he turned the corner of a large, soiled carpet on the floor and discovered a little stash of $100 bills, perhaps six or eight of them, which the deceased must have hidden there against a rainy day—or perhaps hidden from the very same relatives who sat nearby, watching. Still on his knees, momentarily indecisive, he glanced across the room at the bereaved. It was a mistake. Before he could make a move, they were out of their seats and across the room, and they had quite unnecessarily clawed the money from his hand. Though he was sure he would have called his little discovery to their attention, each of them, after that, glared at him as if he had somehow tried to cheat them. But it was the way they glowered at each other that had most disturbed him. He could see that a horrible battle for the money was shaping up among them, and he quickly excused himself. For some time after that, Avery could not get their greedy eyes out of his mind. Really, he was sickened by the incident, and his spirit, you could say, had been bruised by the greed he had witnessed.

It was not just the money-squabbles of the lesser people that filled him with disgust. The rich, if possible, were even worse. He had been raised in a well-off family whose members constantly battled one another to become sole inheritor of their robber-baron grandfather’s fortune. In their frenzy for money, his siblings, parents, aunts, uncles and cousins maneuvered and positioned and ingratiated themselves. They fawned, weaseled, lied, forged and sued. Since those days of his childhood, he had known many wealthy people whose whole focus was to inherit money and to prevent their relatives from inheriting it. But not Avery. At the age of seventeen he had simply left home, and so from that time he had had to make his own way in the world. During his youth and even now, all he wanted from life, he thought, was to remain above the noisy fray for money while yet surrounding himself with beauty.

That presented difficulties. Unfortunately, beauty frequently came at a high sticker price, and so he was often forced to scrape up some money. That proved easier for him than keeping it. Having no great fondness for the stuff, he tended to squander it, sometimes investing it badly, often giving it away and sometimes simply loosing track of it. In any case, his modus depended on giving the impression of owning it, and he became adept at making a show of having money, whether true or not. For instance, as we have seen, he found that the lines of an old Porsche 928 were just as ravishing as those of a much newer one, and furthermore, used, they cost far less than commonplace new automobiles. But, best of all, he had discovered that their front seats reclined almost fully and, during difficult times, made as comfortable a bed as any you could hope for, and their hatchbacks could store an impressive number of silk scarves, tweed hats and other personal effects for someone who often had to leave town quickly and travel light. So, even though at the moment he was inconvenienced by not having fare for a hotel room, he was able to spend the chilly, winter night after his meeting with Sarah Atwood stretched out comfortably in the fully reclined leather seat of his Porsche, parked under the stars in Berkeley’s Tilden Park, a warm scarf around his neck and a wool hat to keep his head warm. Tomorrow he would sell the silk Kirman for $3000 or $300 or $50. It didn’t matter. It would be enough to get him through. So now he gazed at the night sky through his moon roof and cooked up a plan.

“First read everything on the subject,” he said aloud as he lay under the stars, “then come up with a design and find someone to graph it, then find a source for good wool, then someone who can spin it by hand, then a dyer and a weaver and then…have to trust myself to finish it, make it look four hundred years old.” For he had been thoroughly charmed by the curator of the San Francisco Museum’s rug collection, and he had decided to help her. He would make the rug she was looking for—the Ferrier Dragon Rug. “Sarah could waste her lifetime looking for a rug that may not exist,” he thought. “Bloody waste of time. Much better for her if I cough one up. She can have just what she wants, and I’ll have done her a good turn.” That settled, he pulled his scarf a little tighter around his shoulders and settled in for the night.

“Money,” he mumbled, already half-asleep. “It’s a strange thing, but I always seem to find exactly as much of it as I need.” After that, Avery lay sleeping in his bucket seat. He didn’t hear the family of raccoons that came to investigate and who peered down at the sleeping man through the Porsche’s moon roof on a clear, chilly night.

The famous Martin book is unusual. First, it is enormous: about two feet wide and nearly three feet high, though not at all thick—perhaps less than an inch thick. Its big, black cover is nothing more than the cover of a portfolio, and its text and illustrations are printed on huge loose leaves that are slipped inside when not in use. Sitting at a table in Berkeley’s main library with the pages of Martin’s old book spread before him, Avery finished reading Martin’s thoughts about the Ferrier dragon rug and then turned to the back cover of its portfolio, where he found its old fashioned library card. He pulled the card from its sleeve and squinted at it. “Hah!” he laughed silently. The book had last been borrowed in 1967. “Bloody fools don’t know what they have: a copy of the Martin book. Haven’t even looked at it in a quarter century. Dolts! Morons! They don’t deserve it.” He rubbed a corner of a page between his thumb and forefinger. Its paper, yellowed with age, was heavy and textured as if handmade, and a sour odor of age rose from its pages, spread open before him on the table.

Avery experienced an impulse to rant, an almost overwhelming impulse. If he had allowed himself, he would have risen and stalked about the room and shouted into people’s faces, “Fools, imbeciles! There you sit, reading your squalid little paperbacks in the library to save spending a buck at a bookstore! You are not twenty feet from a book whose beauty would change your lives, a book that could elevate you, a book of such quality and construction as to open your eyes forever.” And more. He could have gone on forever, but a more charitable idea came to him that tempered his impulse to rant. He took a deep breath. “But why blame them for their tastes?” he thought. “They toil; they need simple pleasures—a paperback and a beer. So they leave F. R. Martin moldering on the shelf for a third of a century. They can’t be blamed for what they’re made of. Deane, old man,” he addressed himself, “there is nothing you can do to change them.” This was a familiar and comforting thought to him, and one that always led to the same conclusion. “All I can do is to redistribute the wealth from the insensate many to the caring few,” and, as that thought had done so often before, it brought relief and calm to Avery as he considered how to liberate the book.

But let’s be truthful. He had anticipated all this beforehand, before he had re-read Martin’s familiar words and had weighed the quality of the book’s paper between his thumb and forefinger. He had guessed that the book would be under-appreciated by folks of the common clay. He had foreseen even the impulse he would have to rant. And, finally, he had anticipated that, in such circumstances, his only recourse would be to pinch the book. And so he had stashed three rolls of gauze in his pants pockets and as many rolls of bandage and a neck brace.

Settled now on what he had to do, Avery gathered and straightened all the loose leaves of the Martin book and slipped them back into their oversized portfolio. He carried the book to “the stacks,” the lofty racks that afforded him some privacy, and he wrapped the big book in gauze. Within three minutes the Martin book was swathed in the white surgical gauze like a mummy and nothing of its true, bookish nature was visible. Rather, it had become vaguely medical-looking. Next, he slipped a brace around his neck that held his head unnaturally high and caused him look like a victim of whiplash. And finally, seeming to struggle with the weight of his medical prop, he dragged himself to the check-out counter and interrupted a young clerk.

“Hate to bother, lass, but I’m having a bit of trouble, actually.” At this he gasped as if struck by an unimaginably sharp pain. His writhing suggested that his pain must have something to do with his neck or his back. The young lady behind the counter, who had been checking out a book to a patron, looked with wide eyes at the poor man.

“Oh God! I’ll call 911!”

Avery recovered from his pain just in time to stop her. “No, no dear, just a spasm. Mustn’t disturb everyone. This is a library, after all.” He smiled weakly. “Hush, hush and all that.” But after his brave joke, he grimaced horribly, obviously weathering another spasm. The girl was at a loss as to what to do. Again she made a move for the phone.

“Ha, ha!” Avery laughed, his face pale. “It’s passed. Put the phone down, dear. But if you would just help me establish traction…”

Her eyes were wide. “Establish traction?”

“Walking traction, that’s what they call it. Just enough to get me out of here and into my car.”

“What can I do?”

“Just strap this brace to my back.”

“God, I don’t know. I’ll go get security!”

“No, please don’t, not for me. But if you would just use this roll of tape. Rather awkward for me to do it, behind my back and all.” Avery spoke through clenched teeth as if suppressing a scream from the pain. “Here,” he said to her, “I’ll get the tape started and then you just send it around a couple of times. Quick! Quick! I feel another spasm coming on!”

She sprinted around the counter to his side and began wrapping the tape around the “brace” and then around his trunk, silk scarf and all, around and around. The tape made a surprising amount of racket in the library as it peeled off the roll. “Nice and tight now, dear,” he said. When a gentleman from Security arrived on the scene, attracted by the noise and the obvious concern of the dozens of library patrons who were watching the heroic librarian do something to the man in the neck brace, the nervous security man seemed to believe that emergency procedures were needed for a hear attack victim, and he asked Avery to lie down. “Why the devil should I do that?” Avery asked, forgetting himself for a moment.

“So I can give you artificial respiration, sir. Please lie on your back, not your stomach or I’ll have to spin you over.”

“Damn you, sir!” Avery shouted, his fight or flight instinct triggered by the sickening image of the man breathing in his face, or worse. It’s likely that he would have fought, but by this time he was rendered nearly helpless by the wrapped-up Martin book cinched tightly to his back.

“Jack, can you tear this tape?” the young librarian asked the guard.

For the first time, Jack noticed what his colleague was doing, and he studied the situation. “Why don’t you just finish off the roll?” he asked her. “That stuff’s hard to tear.”

Her hands had steadied. She agreed, and she wrapped the rest of the tape around Avery and his back brace. During all this Avery made such horrible, contorted faces that it occurred to the onlookers that they had just witnessed the use of some kind of emergency straightjacket on a poor fellow who had lost his mind. Nasty business.

In the end, the man from Security walked Avery to his car and tried to help him inside, but, unable to bend his back because of his brace, Avery finally had to climb head first into the back seat and swim his way to the driver’s station. Even then, he had the devil of a time making himself comfortable in his Porsche’s bucket seat.

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When a Dragon Winks

  • A novel by Emmett Eiland

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