Tamerlane by Mason Willey

A bibliophile stumbles upon an unexpected treasure, with hilarious consequences; by Mason Willey

Bernard's hand seemed to be living a life of its own as he reached tentatively towards the dusty bookshelf to pull out the slim, dark yellow softback from between a dog-eared copy of Kipling's Minor Poems and a fake-leather-bound volume of Walt Whitman. It was shaking as though it belonged to a callow adolescent waiting for his first heavy date to turn up. There was a good reason.

It couldn't be, could it?

He hesitated. For twenty years he'd imagined a moment like this, almost half a lifetime of rummaging in cardboard boxes, twenty years of scanning musty shelves where the literary works of the great and the not-so-great sat huddled together like wallflowers at a college dance, waiting to be chosen. Bernard knew that he was not on his own, bibliophiles just like him, the world over, spent whole vacations searching for the (so far) ultimately elusive item. The world of bookshops and rummage sales was their oyster, but the one pearl beyond price had always remained exasperatingly undetected - until now.

It couldn't be, could it? On the other hand...

Bernard made a conscious effort to still his agitated fingers, and he hooked one over the flimsy spine and carefully extracted the book. Hardly daring to breathe, he opened it, and saw on the title page, what deep down he had never really admitted to being a remote possibility, the few astonishing yet inescapable words which he knew could change his life for ever:

Tamerlane and other poems

by A Bostonian

It looked right, it felt right. And Bernard knew instinctively that it was right. He looked for the date 1827, and found it. He looked for the long-forgotten name of Calvin Thomas, the printer, and found it. Everything was exactly as Bernard had always known it should be. It was the one pearl, perhaps not quite beyond price, but as near as dammit on a good day in the right auction room.

This was the book that all bibliophiles dreamed of finding, the first edition of the first book of Edgar Allan Poe, privately and anonymously published by him when he was just eighteen years old, with the hope that a few copies would be sold, and the work come to the notice of some literary entrepreneur who might fly to the aid of his budding career. It was a vain hope, as it happened, and the book was utterly ignored, and it disappeared into virtual oblivion. Only one copy was hitherto known for certain to have survived intact, and that was housed in the US Library of Congress, as it was considered to be part of the nation's literary heritage, and it was insured for an undisclosed but undoubtedly very substantial sum.

Of course, as a serious bibliophile, Bernard knew all there was to know about Tamerlane, and he wondered just how a copy came to be on the neglected poetry shelf of the less than celebrated and for the most part inaptly named Watson's Rare Book Emporium in a somewhat dubious suburb of New York City. It was in remarkably good condition too, and looked to have been handled little in nigh on two centuries. Bernard got the distinct and unnerving impression that it had been lying in wait for him, anxious to make him rich and famous as a reward for snatching it from its obscure lair to plummet it into what was inevitable international stardom. Luck or providence, Bernard knew not which, but whatever it was, after a lifetime of humdrum obscurity as a two-bit accountant for a two-bit timber importer, he was going to make the most of it.

Bernard put down the book and took out a handkerchief to wipe the sweat from his palms. It would be a crime to soil it, and anyway, he needed to appear as calm and unruffled as possible when he offered to buy it.

How could a bookseller worth his salt not know what it was? Bernard wondered. Then he remembered the Neanderthal who sat at the little desk just inside the entrance - the earring, the greasy baseball cap and the Star-Spangled Banner tattoo on the neck - not your average rare book dealer, he had observed. Another piece of good luck, he hoped and prayed.

Bernard carried his prize carefully to Neanderthal's table and placed it nonchalantly in front of him. He noticed that the man, surrounded as he was by literary works of great import, was poring over a service manual for a '59 Chevvy, painstakingly tracing the diagrams with a nicotine stained finger as though he was struggling to make out the words in a kindergarten reader. Neanderthal spoke dispassionately, "Yeah?"

"How much is this, please?"

Neanderthal picked up the book and bent its cover back hard against the spine, muttering to himself, "Poems, 1827, no pictures." Bernard winced at the man's breathtaking ignorance and unforgiveable ill-treatment of such a treasure, but hastily adjusted his expression to one of what he hoped was bland innocence, as the man looked up and said, "Fifteen bucks."

Bernard caught his breath and cleared his throat. He was conscious of a deep shade of pink crossing his face, and an almost doubling of his already excessive pulse rate. Neanderthal obviously misunderstood. "Look Mister, I got a wife and kid to support. You think it's easy makin' a livin' out o' this crap? You oughtta try. I bought this place out o' my late daddy's legacy. It's all I can do to afford milk for the baby. Twelve dollars, take it or leave it!"

"I... I'll take it," stammered Bernard, slipping the book carefully into his jacket pocket. He took out his billfold and removed twenty dollars. Then, overcome by a sudden pang of guilt, he added, "Look, I've been chasing this book for I while. I need it you see, to complete a set. Believe me, I wasn't trying to beat you down. I'm so grateful to have found it. Please... keep the change."

Neanderthal raised his eyebrows and took the cash, "Well, OK, thanks mister!" he beamed.

Bernard headed hurriedly for the door. The deed was done. He was going to be a rich man. He was going to be famous. He was going to be known hitherto as 'The Man Who Found Tamerlane'. The doorhandle was in his clammy grasp, and he was halfway through when Neanderthal called out in a breezy voice, "Do you want me to check if I got a nicer copy? I know you collectors like books in good shape."

Bernard stopped dead in his tracks. "What?" he asked, without turning round.

"I got some more out the back. Some might be in better shape. You want me to go see?"

Bernard turned, "You have more?"

"Sure. I got a boxful. All the same, all Tamer... whatsit."

"You have a boxful?" Bernard realised his expression was becoming more than a little suspicious, and his voice cracked like a geeky adolescent, but he couldn't help it. The whole scenario was beginning to take on a bizarre aspect. He glanced round, half expecting to see a hidden TV camera, filming the whole fantastic episode for some cheap daytime show. Then he felt Tamerlane in his pocket, it was the genuine article without a doubt. There was no set up.

"A boxful?" he said.

"You deaf or somethin', Mister? Yeah, a boxful!" Then Neanderthal's expression changed. His beam metamorphosed into an ugly scowl and his eyes became mean slits as he seemed to wrestle with some deep inner conflict. Bernard realised with deep regret, that some tiny spark had ignited in what passed for the man's brain.

"Say, mister. You know something I don't? You not bein' real straight with me now?"

"Er, I don't understand..."

"Let me put you in the picture! I mean, mister, that you got the look of a butcher's dog that just sneaked a prime steak from the boss's plate. "

"I, er... I'm sorry?" Bernard stammered.

"Now, that book there in your pocket. Tell me about it. I got a strong feelin' there's more to it than just an old book of poems. Am I right?"

"Er... Well... I must confess, it is something of a collector's item." Bernard had always believed himself to be an inherently honest man, but he was struggling now, his conscience fighting a mortal duel with his potential bank balance.

Neanderthal jumped up from his table, sprang to the door and grabbed Bernard by the lapels. "Why, you son of a bitch. You were goin' ta screw me weren't you? Weren't you, you bastard! That book's valuable, isn't it? Isn't it?" He shook Bernard like a terrier with some inoffensive rodent about to become a tasty snack.

Bernard tried to wriggle loose, but Neanderthal was as strong as he looked, and an age difference of thirty years and a weight difference of fifty pounds meant no contest. But Bernard had the intellectual edge. His potential fortune immediately dwindled to fifty percent of whatever it would have been, but all was by no means lost.

"OK, OK! Let go of me and I'll be straight with you."

Neanderthal relaxed his hold a little. "OK, I'm listenin' An' you better make it good, or...!"

"I'll make it good. Now let go, and you might end up with enough to buy baby milk for the whole block."

Bernard straightened his jacket and perched himself on the edge of Neanderthal's desk. "OK, close the shop and we'll talk," he said. "You won't want anyone else to hear what I have to say."

With a puzzled look, the proprietor did as he was told. He locked the door and took his seat.

"What's your name?" Bernard asked.


Bernard stifled a grin, as he briefly wondered if it were really short for Neanderthal. "OK, Al. I'm Bernard. How do you do. Now Al, this book is valuable - very valuable indeed. It was written by Edgar Allan Poe - his first book. You heard of him?"

Al nodded. "Didn't he write somethin' about a pit an' a pendulum?" he asked.

"That's the guy. Well, Tamerlane was his first book and everyone thought there were no copies around, and here one's turned up, in your little emporium. So I was going to buy it and keep it for myself. I admit it, but don't tell me you wouldn't do the same if you were me. As it is, I'm basically an honest man, and I wouldn't like to think I'd screwed anyone. Anyway, there should be enough for both of us with a bit of luck."

"How much?"

"Hard to say. But on a good day, with plenty of publicity and the right people at the auction, maybe... six figures?"

Al touched the fingers of his left hand with his right index finger as if counting. "Six figures, that's... A hundred grand!" He jumped up. "A hundred thousand bucks! You messin' me around mister? I'm warnin' you now!"

Bernard placed his hands on Al's shoulders and pushed him gently back into his chair. Relax! Take it easy! I'm not messing with you at all. It may not make that much, but my guess is that it would, maybe more - a lot more."

"So what's the deal, and what do we do?"

"Legally, I'm the owner of this book, so let's say sixty-forty."

"Yeah, an' I'm the legal owner of another boxful, an' I say ninety-ten - with me bein' the ninety!"

Bernard had momentarily forgotten about the others. It just couldn't be possible, could it? "Can you show me?" he asked.

"Sure, follow me."

Al led Bernard through to the back room. The whole place smelled of ancient leather and dust, and was piled high from floor to ceiling with all manner of books in glorious disarray. A bibliophile's paradise where, had there not been a seriously pressing matter, Bernard would have been happy to spend his two weeks' vacation with just the odd break for a cup of coffee and a hamburger.

Al led him to a space between a stacked complete set of Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and a heap of assorted cookery magazines. He crouched down, reached behind and pulled out a cardboard box. He peeled back the lid and Bernard peered inside.

His initial skepticism turned quickly to total disbelief, as one by one, he lifted out the contents and stacked them carefully on the floor, counting in a trembling voice as he did so, "One... two... three..."

"Get on with it!" Al growled.

"Shaddup!" Bernard amazed himself with his shock-induced boldness. "Four... five... six..."

"Look, mister, there's twenty-three of 'em. I already counted 'em"

"Twenty... three?" Bernard took a sharp intake of breath. "Twenty-three Tamerlanes? Twenty-three copies of the rarest book in the world? My God, how did you come across them?"

"My brother works as a demolition man in Boston. He found these in the basement of a house he was... Hey, I just realised. A Bostonian wasn't the guy's name at all, was it? It was where he came from, right?" Al beamed proudly at his flash of inspiration.

Bernard rolled his eyes heavenwards, "Right," he groaned. Then suddenly the irony of the situation hit him like a rock between the eyes and he started to laugh, at first a titter, then building into a full-throated guffaw.

"What's so funny?"

Bernard pulled out a handkerchief and wiped his eyes. "I'll tell you what's so funny, Al. You got twenty-three of these little beauties, and that means..." He started to laugh again, but quickly brought himself under control, after all, it really wasn't a laughing matter. "That means, they aren't nearly as valuable as I first thought. Savvy?"

"No, I don't savvy! And Bernard my friend and business partner," Al was becoming menacing once again, "Don't treat me like a retard! Remember I got the upper hand... in more ways than one."

"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to be patronising, but you really don't understand. If twenty-three copies turn up, there'll be plenty for everyone that wants one. They might fetch a few hundred dollars each, maybe a thousand or more. But if there were only one... Then all the big collectors would all want it for themselves. Supply and demand, that's the name of the game. With one, the demand way outstrips the supply, but with twenty-three, we-e-ll..."

"So, what's the problem?"

"I just explained the problem!" This guy really was beginning to exasperate Bernard.

Al shrugged. "We'll just get rid of twenty-two of 'em."

It dawned on Bernard that when it came to basic animal cunning, it was he, and not Al, who was showing a considerable degree of naivety.

"How, get rid?"

"Bernard!" It was Al's turn to sound exasperated. "You stoopid or what? We'll burn 'em."

"But... we can't! We just can't! These books are part of this great nation's literary heritage." Bernard realised he was sounding like some pompous Senator opening a new museum, but nevertheless, he knew that he spoke the truth. But then again, there was a certain undeniable logic in Al's simplistic solution to the problem.

Al brooked no objections, "Sort out the best one," he said matter-of-factly, and we'll burn the others in the yard out back."

It would be, Bernard realised, an act of the most appalling vandalism. But the prospect of enough cash to make his life considerably more attractive won the day. He examined the books carefully, and picked out what he thought was the nicest copy and took it into the shop and placed it on Al's desk. On the way out, he picked up the box with the remaining copies and joined his new-found partner in the yard, where Al had made a pile of screwed-up paper to start the fire.

"Put 'em on the pile," he said. Bernard did so, and Al struck a match and lit the paper. It reached the pile of Tamerlanes, but they failed to ignite properly. Bernard realised they should have been torn up first.

"They aren't going to burn," he said.

"Wait here," said Al. He disappeared into the building and reappeared a moment later carrying a can. "This should do the trick," he said, unscrewing the lid.

"Be careful," warned Bernard. "That is kerosene and not gaso..."

He didn't get to finish the word, but the question was quickly answered with an almighty "WHOOSH" as Al threw the contents at the fire. The flames leapt back towards him, and he jumped quickly out of the way, lucky to escape serious burning. The flames meanwhile, leapt twenty feet into the air, and a gust of wind blew them dangerously close to the building. Indeed, as Bernard watched in horror, they began to lick at the paintwork, tinder-dry at the end of what had been a long hot summer, and take hold, In seconds, the whole of the back of the builing was alight, and the fire was making its way through the back room towards the shop itself. For a moment the two men watched speechless, then they turned towards each other and exclaimed, "The book!"

"It's on your desk," yelled Bernard, "Round the front, quick!"

By the time they reached the front of the building, the flames were already through to the shop and licking the legs of Al's desk. Bernard tried to open the door. "Jeez!" he screamed, "We locked the goddam door!" Both the men began to kick the door frantically, but it was no use. Even if they had succeeded, it would have been too late.

They watched transfixed as the fire rapidly destroyed everything in its path. By the time the Fire Department arrived, there was a little knot of people gathered to gawp at Al's misfortune, but in reality there was precious little to gawp at. Where once had stood Watson's Rare Book Emporium there was now a shell of blackened masonry filled with grey ash. Of Tamerlane, or indeed any other recognisable book, there was not the faintest trace.

Al was crying like a baby. "I lost everything," he blubbed, "That was Daddy's legacy gone up in smoke. I ain't never had nothin' worth anythin', and just when I thought..."

"You weren't insured, then?" Bernard asked inanely. Al looked at him and his lip curled, "Go stuff yourself!" he snarled.

"You got a wife and kid," reassured Bernard, "That's more than I got." He put an arm round Al's shoulder.

"C'mon and I'll buy you a drink. We could both do with one."

The two men made their way morosely across the street to Joe's Diner and took their places at the bar. Bernard ordered a couple of beers. He reached into his pocket for his billfold and found something he had completely forgotten was there, and his heart leapt for joy.

He took a sip of his beer, then he said, "Al, how many of those books did you say there were?"

"Twenty-three. Why?"

"Yeah, but when you got them from your brother in Boston, you counted them then, right?"

"Yeah, so what?"

"And how many were there?"

"Twenty... four," Al looked puzzled.

"Well, lookee here what I just found," Bernard tossed a little dark yellow softback book onto the bar.

"Now I paid good money for this little book. You gonna be nice to me or what?"


  1. i really enjoyed this. a nice double twist.
    i suppose there is a lesson to be learnt, but who cares? just enjoy a great story with two great characters.

    michael mccarthy

  2. Great stuff, Mason.

    At the beginning, I really enjoyed the way you described how Bernard reached out for the book, stifling feelings of disbelief. After that came so many twists, so many different endings toyed with, so many 'nearlies'.

  3. I don't know how much research Mason did for this piece, but it certainly sounds convincing, and even for 'funny stories', it's necessary to tackle to reader's 'credibility gap'. Erudite and entertaining, with a moral dimension underlined but not 'trowelled on'. I could have wished for a fuller characterisation for Bernard.