It takes all my energy to sit still. Not to fight, to knock my knees together in anxiety. I used to be better at this. The years lurking in the shadows has made me lazy. It’s easy to forget pleasantries when you don’t spend time around people.
Across from me is a man that looks equal parts blackjack dealer and Bond villain. We sit in the low lighting of a Russian tea shop. This is the only place around here that’s open this late and doesn’t have club music thrumming at a mind-numbing volume. The few other customers sit far enough away from our dimly lit corner. The man, Dimitri, leans closer to the table, closer to me. The scent of aftershave wafts towards me.
“And it’s genuine?” he asks, accent thick.
“Yes,” I say. My eyes roam the length of his silver ponytail. He’s so large that he takes up most the corner, with me folded delicately into the seat like a praying mantis. I wait. My heartbeat is pounding through my head. His enormous hands catch my eye and I concentrate on the way he moves the object in front of me.
Gilded gold. Circa 1700’s, though it’s always hard to detect provenance with this type. Deckle edge on the pages. The binding is a little loose, but the leather is genuine, buttery and made more delicious with age.
He unfolds the cover and front few pages with a kind of care that I don’t expect from him. His face gives nothing away. I hope he doesn't feel the nerves rolling off of me, the way my nails are biting into the flesh of my hand under the table.
A line forms between his eyebrows. A crease of worry. I bite my lip while I watch him and then I see that his expression has turned to satisfaction. So then, nothing to worry about. I hear him flip a few more pages and I force myself to lean back, to breathe deeply while I look at the folks that surround us in the cafe.
None of them have any idea about the deal that we’re making here. This is my first time working with Dimitri, but if it goes well, I will work with him again. So far I like him. But Russians are a tricky bunch, aren’t they? I would know.
Dimitri was specific about what he was looking for. The era, the subject (ancient artifacts and civilizations), and of course the place. He wasn’t looking for a book from New York, or from London, or Rome or Greece. He was looking for a book from Perth.
It was nearly impossible to smuggle one out because Perth didn’t exist where most people could get to it. Perth was tucked inside a pocket of reality, a tear in the universe, a stumble into the unknown. Most don’t know of it. Many who do can’t get inside.
But I can.
I never tell the dealers how I get the books. We all know that it's safer for everyone if they don't find out. They only need to know what I can produce for them. And of course, they need to see it.
Dimitri is content with the book. It’s teeny and glittering in the lamp light. He closes the cover and taps his finger once before reaching for his tea. With one gulp the rest of the brown slosh is gone from the cup. He smiles at me, large teeth, a charming and honest face. I’ll never get over how honest a criminal’s face can be. “A good find,” he says at last, and nods as if he approves of our deal. Good. I like him. I’d work with him again. I reach across the table to shake his hand and he misunderstands. He pulls an envelope from his bag and pushes it towards me. I take it. The motion is second-nature now. It slides into my bag. I doubt it’s the only shady deal happening in the joint and yet I’m sure it’s the most interesting one.
“How often do you go?” He asks, and I notice he doesn’t pack up the book, not quite yet. I know he means how often I return to Perth. Most don’t ask me about it, and the question makes me tense up.
“Depends,” I say. That’s all I can afford. I raise my eyebrows in a knowing way, and he nods. There is so much comfort in his silence that I cannot help the guilt that begins to drip from my veins.
“You will go back, though,” he asks, his voice low and rumbling. “If I needed something more?”
“Of course,” I say. The nonchalance is also like a second skin. They need to feel that I have other buyers, but that I would call them first if I had something. And they all needed to feel that way. Demand is how I stay in business.
“It’s starting to rain,” he says, and he points through the window. I can see the reflection of slick streets against the lights above. “I should be going. If I need to call—”
“Same number,” I say, and this time I make it obvious that I want to shake his hand. That I like him. That we should work together again.
“Will I see you at the antiquarian fair?” he asks, and he stands.
I stand too and find that he towers over me, at least two feet above my head. “Maybe,” I say, though I know that he won’t. The last time I was there was when I was at my most desperate. I know for a fact that there are several people going this year that want to kill me.
“Until next time,” he says, and we walk out together into the beginning of a rainstorm, the water slapping against the tin roof and cascading in rivers down to the parking lot. He goes that way, his hulking figure growing smaller and smaller as he hunches against the rain.
I turn and walk the other way. The lights get less frequent, and eventually it grows dark. I have one mile until I reach my dwelling, until I can crawl into my empty bed and plan for tomorrow’s challenges, of which there are many.
The whole way home I imagine Dimitri. I imagine him going to the fair. Not the kind that have features in the American Library Association newsletters. These are not the fairs that scholars send emails about to the Archivists of America email list. This was the fair, the one held in extreme seclusion on our shiny East Coast. The one that all the best and richest dealers went to for their best and richest clients. Rare and antiquarian books get smuggled from realms like Perth and sold to shady dealers. I could picture Dimitri there, his wide shoulders commanding his inhabitance amongst the tweed-wearing, spectacle-eyed academics who had an air of self importance. He’d be so proud of his little book that he got from me tonight. Aged binding, flaking gold on the cover, yellowed pages. I knew the book well. I spent more than enough time pouring over it and lifting the cover just so, creasing the pages just right.
I made that book. I would be satisfied to work with Dimitri again, as long as he doesn’t catch on that he’s just fallen for an act. The book was a fake.