On the island of Bermuda, Carlos Buschatti relaxed on the terrace of his hilltop villa, looking at a slideshow of photos on his computer screen. He sat up quickly when he saw the following email:
On November 6, 2000 at 9:47 AM,
Item misplaced temporarily. Search underway. Will update later.
Six minutes later, Carlos replied:
On November 6, 2000 at 9:53 AM, <> wrote:
Do NOT use names. Report progress via cafe email. CB
Carlos sighed, poured a brandy and swirled it around in his mouth. He paused, swallowed, and emitted a low grunt. He wanted to curse loudly and smash something, but instead decided to pour another brandy. Tapping his fingers, he turned and gazed at the harbour below, then looked back at the email. He didn't want to believe that Clyde could have lost the document, but there it was, disguised by the word "misplaced." Carlos could never be sure of Clyde's motives, but he was reasonably sure he was serious, as the secretive man from London never joked about anything. Regardless, Carlos had no choice. He wanted to send an immediate reply with a stern recrimination but decided not, as his emails to the U.S. might still be intercepted. He decided to wait and give Clyde a chance to find the item and report back. He deleted the email and closed his laptop. Before ringing for his butler, Carlos poured another brandy and shook his head, trying to forget that all of last year's preparation had come to this sudden and unexpected setback. With a guest list in front of him, he tried to concentrate on the reception he would host that evening for Bermuda's Fine Arts Council.
Three miles north of Boston's Beacon Hill...
Lewis Lowellen stared at the odd looking item in the front window, then opened the door of the Three Eagles Pawn & Jewelry shop and glanced up as a bell tinkled above his head. Georgia would take a while to say goodbye to her sister, and the shop was Lewis's choice for browsing until she was finished. The shop, just blocks from Dorothy's house, reminded Lewis of his first job selling wares in Boston's garment district, every day trudging from one clothing shop to another. Aware that Georgia was having moments of regret about the trip, he thought something like the thing in the window might cheer her up; it did have an old-world look about it, the kind of relic she liked to hang on the wall. Inside, Lewis walked past shelves of hand guns, stereos, band instruments, a cracked Tiffany lamp, and assorted piecemeal objects he couldn't identify. As burning tobacco singed his nostrils, Lewis came to a counter separated by a cage and a workbench. A stout man chewing on a cigar and wearing a Red Sox ball cap bent over the bench, his right hand holding a tiny screwdriver while his left hand held the cylinder of a Smith and Wesson 38.
"Help you?" the man said without looking up.
"That item in the window with the funny writing, what is that?" Lewis looked around at the assortment of abandoned household items, then recognized a smell that he remembered from days when he was young and hung around pool halls: the smell of burnt coffee and body odor. The shopkeeper looked up at Lewis.
"Don't really know," he said, "some scroungy guy brought it in here the other day. Looked like a bum. How 'bout seventy bucks?"
"But you don't know what it is?" Lewis asked. "And those scorch marks, is that what those are, scorch marks?"
"Like I said, mister, I don't know what it is. How 'bout sixty five?"
Lewis walked to the front of the shop, took the item from a stand and walked back to the counter. The shopkeeper wiped his hands of cleaning fluid and took Lewis's sixty five dollars.
"Receipt?" the shopkeeper asked. "You want I should wrap it up?"
"No thanks, I'll carry it."
When Lewis drove back to Dorothy's house, Georgia was waiting on the front steps, a cigarette in her hand. Her sister waved a final farewell then turned abruptly and went inside. Back on the interstate, Lewis stared ahead at the blacktop.
"She's never liked me."
Georgia smiled, but only slightly, wanting to confess that Dorothy had often said he was mean and obstinate. Georgia had even practiced saying it: "She thinks you're mean and obstinate-and so do I!" She never said it, though, and realized that she probably never would.
"I don't know why, dear. She doesn't talk about it."
For a while the only thing Lewis and Georgia could hear was the hum of the engine as Lewis kept his eyes fixed on the road ahead. He noticed Georgia was leaning her head against the window, staring up at the passing clouds.
"I don't know what's wrong with me," she said, her voice suddenly raspy and quivering. She reached into her purse and pulled out a handkerchief and began dabbing the corner of her eye.
"What is it?" Lewis said. "What now?"
"I'm scared, Lewis. All this we're trying to do. I mean giving up our lives here, buying the boat and going all the way to the Caribbean. I'm just afraid, that's all."
Lewis sighed and glanced into the backseat.
"Georgia, we've been over this a million times. Anyway, I got you something...in the back."
Georgia continued to gaze out the window, then remembered that Lewis had said something about the back seat. Blowing her nose, she looked back and asked, "What is that?" Lewis did his best to smile as he told her about the shop, the old-world charm, and wouldn't she like to hang it up or something. Georgia put the item on her lap and studied the rows of strange writing and the faded seal at the bottom.
"What is it?" she asked, "looks like a picture of some kind. Maybe a poster? I can't read it."
Lewis realized that although the item did have the antique charm that Georgia liked, it was not cheering her up.
"You don't like it?" he asked.
"Oh, it's very nice, dear. I'm just trying to figure out how I could use it aboard the boat."
"Forgot about that. Guess I was thinking we'd have walls. Never mind. I'll get rid of it, sell it or something."
"You'll talk to Junior about moving in?" Georgia asked. Lewis decided just to nod, a gesture he had adopted years ago when he became tired of, "Yes, dear." When Lewis had begun talking about whether to sell the house or rent it, Georgia suggested they let Lewis Junior and Joy, his wife, stay in it for a while. It would be the perfect solution, now that a grandchild was on the way. When Lewis pulled into the driveway, he told Georgia to meet him in the den so they could go over her list of remaining things to do. Georgia usually felt tense during these meetings; Lewis had always looked at her list as though he were grading it. Lewis's added a last entry to his own do-list, "Sell item." Lewis flipped through a stack of papers, looking for the list he had compiled for his son. Frustrated, he threw papers in the air and announced that he had lost the list. Hearing Lewis's outcry, Georgia looked up from her list and shouted.
"It's in your briefcase!"
There were times, toward the end of September, when he had to tell Lewis Junior to meet him at their Boston office so they could go over some of the details. His son was an ace salesman, but did not know the business of manufacturing or distribution, especially for biomedical instruments and supplies. After Lewis made a last entry to his son's list, he glanced at the corner behind him. There, leaning against the wall, was the item, one more attempt by Lewis to relieve his wife's occasional bouts of depression, although this time he had misjudged her taste. On November 7, Lewis's called the classified advertising office of the Boston Globe and purchased the following ad, to be run as soon as possible:
Old poster for sale. Make offer.
Lewis Lowellen. 617-631-7823
Two days later, the phone rang at the Lowellen home. Georgia was on the front porch step, smoking, sipping a cup of coffee Royale and listening to dead leaves flitter down the street ahead of an autumn wind. Lewis, alone in the living room, reached for the phone and looked at the tiny screen... Caller Unavailable.
The voice on the other end had a slow, Hispanic drawl, plus a hesitation as the caller asked, "Is this Mr. Lewis...Lewis Lowellen?"
"Yes, what is it?" Lewis waited, hoping the caller was calling about the ad in the Globe. He waited again, then heard the voice with broken English say, "You ran ad in newspaper?"
Lewis did not know why, but he thought it strange that the caller seemed timid and hesitant. Anytime in the past, when he had placed an ad, there was usually a cheerful mood to the conversation, like two people eager to complete a transaction. Lewis waited again, then asked, "Yes, it's my ad. Are you interested?"
The person on the other end paused longer this time. Thinking he heard whispering in the background, Lewis listened intently.
"You say it's a poster? Is it-"
"I don't know what it is," Lewis said, growing impatient. "It looks old with strange writing on it. Your name, please?"
The man on the other end was quiet again, apparently choosing not to give his name. Lewis wanted to ask the caller why the hesitation, but changed his mind and listened again.
"Does the writing go all the way down to bottom?" the caller asked.
Lewis began to sense something in the man's voice, something that told him the man knew more than he was letting on.
"Yes, it goes all the way down." The voice asked another question, this time quickly, "and does it have seal at the bottom?"
For a moment, Lewis thought the caller could be the true owner.
"How do you know that?" Lewis said, waiting again for another pause. The voice waited much longer this time, then answered in the same slow, Hispanic drawl accompanied by more whispers in the background. The caller continued as though he were reading from a script.
"Some of our old documents got lost recently. They are part of documents the city uses to assess local property values, and..."-Lewis could hear muffled arguing, then the voice again-"we've been looking for them ever since they got lost."
Lewis wanted to ask the caller why no one could read the writing, but decided to forget it. He was quickly becoming annoyed. Georgia walked in and passed Lewis on her way to the kitchen.
"Who's that, dear?" Lewis cupped his hand over the receiver.
"It's somebody about the ad I put in the Globe. But something's fishy. I don't like this guy's attitude. He sounds fishy."
"Whatever you say," Georgia whispered. A fresh cup of coffee Royal in hand, she tripped slightly on the rug as she headed back to the front step. The caller, sensing the moment was escaping, said, "How 'bout if we meet somewhere so I can look at it. That way I know."
Lewis listened, thought for a second, and decided that the voice on the other end did not belong to someone he wanted to meet. Hoping a lie would work, he said, "We're painting the house right now, so how about if I meet you somewhere tomorrow around three? Do you know the Medford Plaza strip mall? There's a Starbucks. I can meet you there."
"I'll look it up. Tomorrow at three. And don't forget the thing."