The man in the black mask burst into the store brandishing a revolver. It appeared to be a model one might have been only able to acquire at Coney Island during the ‘50’s. Observing the extreme disrepair of the ceiling tiles, he began to wave it around furiously, and shouted “Bang!” at the top of his lungs.
“Everybody down on the floor! No one move! I hope you are all listening! Bang! Stay still! Get down on the floor! Wherever you can find room! Bang! Move books if you have to! Bang again!”
Looking up from my makeshift desk, I tried to calm him down.
“I think you have made your point. There’s no one in here but me.”
“Good. That will allow this to go more smoothly.”
“What can I do for you, Jerry?”
“How do you know it’s me?”
“The mask is covering your mouth and nose, not your eyes.” I answered drily.
“Well, we are in a pandemic.”
“How can I help you, Jerry”
“You don’t have to be so familiar. This is a robbery. It’s Mister Jerry.”
“People don’t rob bookstores, Jerry. They rob banks, they rob jewellery stores, they rob cannabis shops, sometimes all on the same day. But they don’t rob bookstores. There is no money in a bookstore. All the thief is going to get is a book that will teach him that stealing is a crime.”
“I know that. If you are so concerned about people committing crimes, maybe you should have the person who chose the colours for your store arrested.”
“What are you doing here, Jerry?”
“Stop using my name. It’ll complicate things later when you are working with the police sketch artist.”
“Why are you here, Jerry?”
“Okay, I was sitting on the patio at a bar in Dundalk and there’s a guy is over at the next table acting kinda nervous. He scouts around, leans forward a bit, and practically whispers to me. ‘You a reader?’ he asks me. ‘I can read,’ I tell him. ‘I’m talking full throttle, the real thing. With an actual book.’ ‘Sure, I flip some pages. What’s it to you?’ Now he’s really checkin’ things out around him. ‘I know a guy,’ he says. ‘He’s looking for some books. Not the kind that you read on your phone. Real books. Old books. He thinks they’re gonna come back big time. With a vengeance. Like vinyl. See what records sell for now? This guy says he’s got buyers for anything from some writer named George Eliot. You ever heard of him?’ I told him I never heard of the guy.”
“George Eliot is a female writer from the 19th century,” I told him.
“Now that’s some smart marketing plan.”
“Why does your guy want George Eliot?”
He considers the question.
“It’s starting to come clear. This wink-wink author guy kinda bobs and weaves under the radar. Who knew? Nobody even knows who this dude is anymore.”
“I studied him… I mean her.”
“Where’d you go to school? Not in Ontario.”
“I did, actually. And then B.C.”
“That explains everything.”
“Look, Jerry, I got work to do. I’m not going to let you steal one of my vintage George Eliot’s, but if you want to speculate in classic literature, I’m not going to stop you from buying it.”
An idea struck me.
“Tell you what. If you give me the name of your Eliot dealer, I’ll give you a vintage copy of ‘Silas Marner’.”
“Is that about another woman with a man’s name?”
“No. That’s a novel about a man.”
“Pretty sneaky. But I’d be a robber with no integrity if I gave up my fence for a book.” He hesitated. “How about I write his name in code? Then I never actually wrote it.”
“That would be fine.”
He walked over to my desk, picked up a pen and began to write on a sheet of blank paper. When he was finished, Jerry handed me the page.
“All you got to do is substitute the next letter in the alphabet and you have the answer.”
“Or I could just dial the number you wrote under it.”
“Yeah, but if you asked for the name I wrote, they’d think you were nuts. Besides, I don’t know how to invent a code for a number.”
When I gave him the vintage Eliot he studied it for a moment, then asked.
“Hey, any other other male writers who were really women?”
“Another George.” His eyes lit up. “Do you think there’s any chance George Harrison was a woman?”
Watching Jerry walk down the street, I briefly debated calling the library to see if there was a recent run on the works of George Eliot but decided against it.
As I studied the gibberish on the sheet I held in my hands, deciphering the name of the owner of the phone number written below, I had no idea of the nature of the journey on which I was about to embark, one which would lead me to the very heart of the literary underworld.