What came next was work the next day. As was his practice, Louis walked the five short blocks from Taylor House to the weathered street full of first-story tourist shops and second-story flats. Every building on the island looked battered, ancient.
Louis enjoyed his morning walk. Even though the shoppers and beach bums crowded the island every weekend from Friday to Sunday night, before grumbling back to their mainland homes, Friday morning was rarely that busy, both on the street and in the shop. Louis saw a few of the regulars starting out on their morning bargain hunt, but not the usual insane crowds. Now, come lunchtime—forget it. It’s a war-zone outside the front door. Like Mardi Gras, but with none of the fun.
Louis’ shirt was sweat-soaked halfway through his “commute.” This summer just got hotter and hotter. It wasn’t even June, and the temperature flirted with triple digits. All it took was stepping outside to make Louis (briefly) regret ever moving so far south.
Louis passed the last alley, lined with dumpsters and trashcans and the occasional shopping basket, and turned onto the Strand. Those with fancy tastes would think the Strand too grandly named. Indeed, the street looked rather cobbled-together for being the epicenter of commerce on the island. But like the rest of Galveston, the Strand had weathered countless storms, and such adversity takes its toll.
Louis didn’t care. Having lived his life in and around a big city, he’d fallen in love with the small-town feel of this battered, ragged, beautiful place. If questioned, he would have insisted that it had “character” and “charm.”
He walked into the bookstore a few minutes before his shift started, and saw Trent transferring columns of numbers from the paper ledger (which Mr. Borokov insisted on using) to the laptop computer on the counter in front of him. Louis glanced around the store and asked, “Where’s the boss?”
Trent jerked his head upward toward Borokov’s second-floor apartment. “He’s taking the morning off.”
“Is he not feeling well?” Louis asked.
“Well, no, he’s not, but that’s not why. We’ve had some…trouble.”
“What do you mean?”
Trent shifted from foot to foot. He glanced around the empty store, despite knowing that Louis was the only one who had come in, and lowered his voice to a murmur. “Brendan’s gone. And some money’s missing. I don’t want to assume the worst, but you know the boss—folks his age don’t trust kids with tats and piercings.”
“Wow,” Louis replied. “Do you think he might have?”
“No,” Trent snapped. “Absolutely not. It wasn’t him. He’s not like that; he’s incredibly honest. You wouldn’t think it to look at him, but he even reads the Bible and stuff.”
Louis shrugged. “Doesn’t mean he can’t be guilty. I’ve known enough religious people who were liars and thieves.”
“Yeah, well, not him, okay?”
Trent’s glare made Louis uneasy. “Okay, okay. You know him better than I do. If you say it’s not him, then it’s not him.”
Trent nodded once. “Good.” He went back to typing, and said without looking up, “There was a new lot that came in from the Woodlands last night. Estate sale. Looks like some good pick-ups. Boss wants you to get started on that.”
“Right. Thanks.” Louis went to put his bag behind the counter and stopped. “Look, Trent, I’m sorry for saying that. I know Brendan’s your friend and all.”
Trent shook his head and continued typing. “It’s okay… It’s not like I didn’t think it at first, too.” He looked over at Louis. “But I know it’s not him. He knows that this job isn’t something he can’t afford to lose.”
“Right. How much was taken, anyway?”
Trent laughed. “Less than eighty bucks. That’s what doesn’t make sense. We’d already made the week’s deposit that morning. If it were Brendan, he would have taken the money earlier, so he could have walked away with a lot more.”
“Doesn’t add up.”
Louis headed toward the stock room and took a look at his morning project. There were about 400 volumes total, thrown haphazardly into boxes and bags. It took him almost two hours just to sort through what was worth pricing and what was too damaged to be worth more than a few dollars. There were a few treasures mixed in with the refuse, including a two-hundred-year-old Robinson Crusoe. Louis hated reading the book in high school, absolutely despised it. But now that he was a seller, he began seeing things beyond his personal reaction to them. As they say, “one man’s trash is another man’s 45% mark-up.”
Louis finished processing the lot (which took him into the afternoon) and stacked the pieces accordingly in the back, and then he logged on to the main computer in the stock room. This was the only computer with Internet access in the store (Borokov had ignored the clerks’ impassioned pleas for “WiFi”), and it was used primarily to receive online inquiries. There were a few garden-variety requests that Louis answered right away. Then he came upon an inquiry for a book he’d never heard of.
Louis switched on the intercom. “Hey Trent.”
“Have you ever heard of this? ‘The Legendary Oriental Journey of Sir’--“
“ ‘Phillip Langleye.’ By Comstock, right?”
“Yeah! What is this?”
Louis could hear Trent laughing. “It’s a myth, man. Like Bigfoot. Is this a web request?”
Trent replied, “Figures. We get one of these every once in a while. Tell them it doesn’t exist, and offer them something else.”
“We just got a rare ‘Crusoe.’”
“There you go. One fictional journey for another.”
Louis laughed and began typing. “So what is it, exactly?”
“Oh, it’s this mythical 15th century travel book. Some count or something wanted to follow Marco Polo’s route, but got lost. He claimed he discovered the Garden of Eden, so he sent back his servant Comstock with his alleged diary, and he stayed behind.”
Trent chuckled. “Yeah. When it was published, no one had ever heard of this guy, so they assumed it was fictional. When Comstock insisted it wasn’t—quite emphatically and violently, as the stories go--they thought he was a lunatic and locked him up. At one point later on, someone had decided that the book was somehow against the government or the church or something, so they destroyed every copy they could find.”
“And that was that?”
“Yeah. Apparently, none of them survived. If one did, it’d be worth…God, millions, maybe. Or at least whatever any lunatic collector would pay for it. …Funny thing is, other than the stories, there’s no record that this book ever existed. Nothing, anywhere. Some think, and I’m prone to agree, that the whole thing is a myth. El Dorado, for the book-seller crowd.”
Louis smiled. “I never knew that selling books would be such an exciting occupation.”
Trent replied, “Oh yeah. Mystery and suspense, every day.”
The workday ended without incident. Brendan still didn’t show up. Dan called in sick, but Mr. Borokov had come down by then, so when 5 o’clock rolled around, he dismissed both of the clerks with a waved hand and a simple “Good night.”
Trent unlocked his bike and quickly sped away. Louis decided he should look into getting a bike, too. It would save on gas getting around town, and the exercise wouldn’t kill him.
This pleasant line of thinking was interrupted by the feeling that something was a bit off. Louis looked around.
Louis had to remind himself that it really was Friday afternoon. Normally, the covered sidewalks would be choked with sweaty tourists wearing abominable floral prints, but there were few people on the street. He noticed the street get a little darker. A wild west wind whirled past him, catching him off guard. He realized that he wasn’t sweating like normal. The skies were overcast. A storm was coming. The faintest peal of thunder rolled in the distance, over the Gulf of Mexico. The wind kept blowing, carrying debris around his feet. Louis quickly headed toward the corner, hoping to get home before the rain started.
He turned the corner and headed past the first row of businesses. He had just passed an alley when two rough hands grabbed his shoulders from behind, jerking him backwards. He was dragged backwards for a few feet, and then thrown backwards against a rough brick wall next to a dumpster. He tried to catch his breath. “I—I don’t have any m”— His assailant punched him in the stomach hard enough to double him over, and then pushed him to the ground.
Louis lay there on his back, looking up at the utility pole. One thing he noticed on this street is that the power transformers were in the alleys, atop wooden structures that looked like tall H’s with crossbars on top. In that first second Louis lay there, it occurred to him how odd they looked from beneath. Then his view was obscured by the face of his attacker, who wore a hooded sweatshirt and a bandana over his mouth, tucked into the jacket.
Louis tried to talk again. “I don’t unders—“
The man kicked him in the side. “Shut the hell up and listen,” the man growled. “You’re not welcome here. Go back to where you belong, or something real bad’s gonna happen to you.”
“Wait, I don’t—“
The attacker punched Louis in the mouth, hard enough to cut his lip. Louis grunted, and so did the masked man, who grumbled as he shook his sore hand. “Just listen to what I’m saying, bitch. Pack up your shit and leave. Don’t ever look back. If you, next time it’ll be worse. Maybe I’ll even pay a visit to that stupid old man who lives with you. How would you—“
Just as quickly as Louis’ attacker had appeared, he disappeared. Louis was disoriented and his face and side were throbbing, but for a second, he thought he saw that the man had been jerked backwards himself. Louis lay there motionless, staring up at the utility pole above him, and beyond that, the dark clouds that began sweeping past.
What Louis heard, however, was something different. He couldn’t understand it, but he heard the meaty sounds of fist (or something hard) hitting flesh. He heard cries of pain, and the sound of a body being thrown to the ground. Was the masked man beating himself up? A silly thought, but it did cross Louis’ muddled mind, as he lay there on the gravel, bleeding from the mouth.
Like another cloud, the face of a man immediately emerged above him. Louis felt someone grabbing his arms, shaking him.
“Mr. Louis! Mr. Louis, are you okay?”
“Aye, lad, are you hurt bad?”
Louis considered the question for a moment. “No, just roughed up a bit.”
“Good to hear that, sir,” Mr. Cross said, smiling, “because you look like hell.”
He helped Louis sit up, then slowly stand. The sound of running feet could be heard down the street, but neither paid it any mind. Cross grabbed his cane leaning against the nearby wall, and they turned to walk to Cross’s pick-up truck, which was idling in the middle of the street with the driver’s side door open. It began raining, pouring, and though they were fifteen feet away when it started, they were soaked by the time they made it inside the truck. They sat in the truck and laughed a bit, as those rushing out of the rain tend to do.
Louis asked, “What happened just now?”
Cross’s brows furrowed. “Well, I was driving home from the market, and I saw that punk pounding someone, so I slowed down long enough to get a look at him to call the police. Then I saw that it was you on the ground, and, well, I stepped in.”
“You grabbed him?”
“Aye. I can’t fistfight like I used to, but I made use of what was available.” He reached down and patted the cane on the seat between them.
“I didn’t realize you used a cane.”
“Yes, sir. On days like today, when the storms come, my old bones act up a bit.”
Louis said, “Mr. Cross, I don’t know how to…”
“Not a problem, Mr. Louis. I know you’d do the same for me.”
Louis nodded. He thought for a moment. “What’s your given name?”
Louis laughed, and then winced at the fresh bruise under his right arm. “Come on. I figure, if we’ve been in a fight together, we can now get past the formalities.”
Mr. Cross smiled. “Felix.”
“Can I call you that?” Louis asked.
“Thank you, Felix. For everything.”
“You’re welcome…Louis.” Felix Cross put the truck into gear, and they started home. After a moment or two, he said, “Call me a ‘stupid old man,’ will he? Dumb bastard.”
Louis laughed all the way home, in spite of his aching ribs.