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Live or Die by the Book

by Amy Pauley 11 months ago in literature

Follow the watch...

I am late. My heels are clicking on the sidewalk as I will my legs to move faster. I am supposed to give the eulogy at my professor’s funeral. Why did I agree to it? I took several philosophy classes from him, a sweet older man who always dressed impeccably. I did tend to ask lots of questions, visit his office pretty regularly and help him with his computer issues. I guess everyone figured I knew him well. He must not have any relatives.

I manage to squeeze into a hard pew at the back just as the somber music begins. A priest came forward and gave a short speech about the loneliness of the academic world, which was quite a downer, if you ask me. Next, a petite woman dressed all in black, stepped forward. From the podium, she looked out into the small audience, and locked eyes with me. I was momentarily confused, thinking she may be looking at somebody behind me, but I am in the last row.

She lifted her chin, pointed a bony finger at me, and crooked it to summon me to the front. I have never felt this exposed in my life. I rose, shaking, and walked as normally as I could to the front. As I approach the lectern, she clears her throat, and announces that I knew the professor best and would give him a proper send-off.

I moved behind her and grab the solid oak edges to steady myself. What was I going to say? I smoothed out the note I took from my pocket and stared at it. All the words I had written on it had smeared into a blue mess.

In front of me, a little black book beckoned. Maybe I could find something in there? It looked like a sermon book of some sort. As I lift the cover, I find a single entry on the Contents page: “My reflections on a life well lived.” Okay then, that’s what I needed.

I read the short poem and prose out loud to the quiet audience. Some dab at their eyes with tissues, while others stare at me like they are mesmerized by my words. I just feel relief to have something to say.

As I finish the recitation, I glance at the next page. It is nearly blank, except for these words – TAKE ME WITH YOU AND YOU WILL SUCCEED. As I close the book, I slip it into my blazer pocket and turn to leave. The priest seizes my arm and seems to be searching my face. Oh no, he wants the book back!

Then a curious thing happened. His face softens and he begins to breath one tearful “Thank you” after another. Soon the audience moves forward to shake my hand and hug me. I am dumbstruck. Finally, a journalist came forward and shakes my hand.

“Would you mind if I publish your poem and speech in the obituary column?” he asks.

“No. That would be fine.” I agree. It was such a useful article that I am sure it is printed somewhere else. He had recorded the speech and just needed my signature. I sign, and then move to escape this church, this funeral and the overwhelming feeling of eyes on me.

Outside the church, I pull out the book and look at it. Plain, flat black leather cover that appears a bit worn around the edges. No more than six inches along the spine. I open it and look for the entry I had just read. It’s gone!

I flip through the pages looking for anything I could have missed. Nothing. Then, on the last page, I find a feathery script.

Use this book wisely. It can make you rich, or it could lead to death.

Look within whenever you are in need. Keep it secret or lose your breath.

I close the book and sigh. I recall a conversation I had with my professor several weeks ago. He said something about ‘all his wisdom could be written in a single book, but nobody would ever get to read it unless they listened first. I had listened to his lectures. I had asked questions and listened to his responses. Did he, somehow, leave his “book” to me? Did he do something with this book that led to his death? I shivered.

___

I had to get to work. I stuffed the book back in my pocket and took off for the WKAT news office. I do odd writing jobs for the reporters and research information for some of the lifestyle shots. It’s a part-time gig that fits with my school schedule. When I arrive, my office manager hands me a stack of requests. At my desk, I sort through them and pick out the more intriguing stories.

One of the art museums in town is holding an antiquities auction. Anybody who has antiques or historical items they wish to sell, can bring them in, have them critiqued, and then sell them during the auction. It is the highlight of the season and attracts major buyers from across the country. I was definitely interested in writing something on this.

I found a great deal of background on the museum, past auctions, and lists of their more famous finds. I started thinking it would be amazing to be part of the show. I pulled out the black book and studied it. If somebody saw this book, would it go for a large sum?

I could feel goosebumps on my skin. The warning came back to me. My professor’s last words echoed in my ears as well. I certainly don’t want death.

I opened the book, thinking there would still be blank pages. Instead, I find another Contents entry “A fortune to find.” On the next page, I find a map. Around the edges of the map, somebody has written directions. Since the last entry had disappeared, I thought I might need to memorize this one quickly. I read each entry carefully, memorizing anything I think is important.

I post my museum piece in the share file for the reporters to view, and then leave the office in search of treasure. I follow Lee Street for a block, then wander over to the Post Office. I enter and move toward the wall of post office boxes. All are closed, except the last one on the farthest wall. As I approach it, a gentleman hurries past me to retrieve his mail from a box about 10 spaces away. He didn’t look up and hurried back out the way he came. He looks a lot like my professor, but that might just be my imagination. I stand in front of the box and wait. As I reach to open it all the way, a postman dressed in postal blue with an orange vest over his chest, and a khaki hat on his head, asks me if I need to mail anything? I shake my head and watch him reach up, close the box, and walk back towards the counters. Curious. I read the box numbers, 2345, just like the note in the book. I pull on it, just to make sure it is completely closed, and it swings open easily. I reach inside and pull out a yellowed envelop with spidery writing.

The envelop is addressed to me! Inside, the envelop, I fish out a small piece of an old Sears catalog page. It features a dozen or so pocket watches for $17.95. The page is dry and cracks in my fingers. The year ‘1910’ is penciled in at the top corner.

I recall the note on the map that said “Time to reach in #67.” There was an arrow pointing to a building on campus where I took biology. In my biology classroom, there are cubby holes on the back wall for storing instruments. I call up a ride-share and have my driver take me to the university’s oldest building, Obermeyer Hall. Once inside, I run up the steps to the classroom and pause to see if it is occupied. The class using it is just now leaving and they all stream past me carrying their backpacks and discussing the need for caffeine. I slip inside and find the cubby holes along the back of the room.

Who can remember a time when you could leave valuable equipment on shelves in a classroom? You can’t even leave note paper there now, especially with the scent of formaldehyde permeating anything porous.

I find #67 and peer inside. Something is tucked into the back. I reach in and pull out a canvas covered object. I can just imagine it being a mouse skeleton or dried-up frog legs from long ago. It smells like roses and it seems to be a solid, round item.

I untie the twine, unfold the flaps of rough fabric, and find a watch that looks like the catalog clipping. Its gold is brilliantly polished, and still ticking. An intricately carved star graces the flat back of the watch, and a green gem as the 12, sparkles in the light. I wrap it up, stick it in my other pocket and head back to work.

When I walk into the lobby at work, the journalist from the funeral is standing beside the front desk. The receptionist points at me.

“Hi, you may remember me from Professor Thomas’ funeral?” he said as he stuck out his hand to shake.

“Yes, I recognized you. How can I help you?” I respond.

“Something very strange occurred. When I turned on my recorder to write out the speech you made on Tuesday, I found that everything was there, except your speech.” He stated. “It just recorded static. I was wondering if I could get your notes?”

“That is strange” I said, “but I can’t help you though. I don’t have the speech anymore.”

He looked confused and flustered. “You don’t have it? It was so moving, so uplifting. It could have helped so many. Can you remember any of it?”

“I’m sorry sir,” I said, “I read it, but I didn’t write it.”

He looked down, rubbed at his forehead, thanked me for my time and then turned to go. Stopping, he turned back to me and said, “There was something soothing about those words. It felt like the answer to all grief. I hope you find them again.” Then he slipped through the door and walked away.

I continue to my cubical and ponder this reaction. What kind of book is this? Where is this book leading me?

I skim through the book again. It is blank. I am not sure if I should keep looking inside. The more I look, the crazier my life. I don’t have time for this. I drop it in my backpack and try to forget about it. I have work and classes and tests. Time to concentrate of those things.

___

Three weeks later, I take the watch to the auction and watch the Blue Ribbon Auction House expert analyze the watch and offer his recommendations on price. Apparently, the watch was produced by the Lancashire Watch Company that went out of business in 1910. He was excited to offer it for sale. I felt giddy. Normally, I would have tried to find the owner, but the envelop with my name on it just seemed to say ‘all yours’ to me.

The auctioneers are excited, and the watch is a favorite. It eventually fetches $3200. Wow, thanks little black book! I wonder what else I will find in those pages, but as often as I look over the weekend, nothing appears. Eventually, I stuff it in my backpack again and spend the afternoon helping my roommate, Cori, pack her meager belongings so she can move in with her boyfriend.

I join my friend, Paige, at a bar Saturday night and dance with a few college guys I recognize from various classes, listen to the newest comedian and make it home before midnight. My cousin is going to move in next weekend, so I have a few days by myself. Good time to study and meet up with my French class study group at Mocha Joe’s. I don’t why we meet there. It’s always crowded with students trying to carve out a bit of creaky wood floor space close to the black subway tile wall and outlets. Needless to say, I get my chai fix, but not much help with verb conjugations.

Back at work on Monday, I find another research prompt in my pile. They want research about the mysterious disappearance of several items from the Blue Ribbon Auction House. It turned out that the buyers for these items were all online, so the Auction House was holding them. The watch I sold was one of the items! This was all a bit odd.

I pulled the black book out of my backpack and study it again. The Contents page has another heading. My pulse races as I read it. “Follow the watch to glory.” Printed on the next page is a link to a website. I leave the book open and type the link in my search engine.

Black Hawk Imports pops up on my screen. They have a sign on Route 7, but I have never seen their actual brick and mortar building. My eyes are drawn to the lower right corner. In a very small box, is a pocket watch icon. Follow the watch…

I click on the watch and the page fades. It is replaced by what looks like computer code; the kind you accidently click on when the page can’t be found, but this page has real words in it. I read over the list of items scattered throughout the type. Gems, cars, guns, boats, jewelry and more. What the heck is this?

I reach for my phone and take a picture. No picture appears. Then I pull a screen grab and try to save it under ‘research’. At least that works. I think there might be a back door to this website. I’m not a computer hacker, but I think there might be something else here. I look at my black book and see that it is, once again, blank. I close it, deposit it in my backpack pocket, lean over the cubical wall and ask Jeremy, the resident computer geek, if he can look at a website for me.

Jeremy pushed his chair away from the desk and rolled around the end of the cubical to my side of the divider wall. Shaking his head, he just chuckles under his breath. “What did you do to the screen?” he asks.

“Nothing really, I just followed a website link and came up with this page with all these items on it. It doesn’t look like anything else I’ve ever seen.” I explain.

Jeremy studied it, then clicks on one of the words. Suddenly, pages of jewelry start slowly rolling upward. Descriptions are short and limited to gem, metal, price and a 5-digit number sequence. Jeremy just sat back and watched, then decided to click on one of the pictures. An emerald ring of white gold is listed for sale for $3200.

That seems weirdly specific. I ask Jeremy to click on it like we plan on buying it. The page dissolves and a single message flashes on the screen.

TEXT 555-444-0110

“Uhm, that looks suspicious.” Jeremy states. “You’re not going to do that, are you?”

“I just followed a hunch last week, found a watch, and sold it for $3200. I found out today that it was stolen from the Auction House. Now I find some strange website with a “ring” that costs $3200. I’m going to text that number and see what happens. Can I use one of the office cell phones?” I ask.

Jeremy retrieved an old iPhone and I type in the number. I watch as a text comes back.

YOUR NUMBER IS VERIFIED. EXCHANGE AT 7PM. 580 MASON.

“Who had this phone last?” I ask him.

Jeremy checked his spread sheets and said “George Calcorn, the late-night news editor who died a few months ago. Creepy guy. I never really talked to him.”

“I’m not going there alone. I have to know what is going on though.” I state. I grab my phone and call my cousin who works at the police station. “Hey, Sarah, do you think you could connect me with a detective? I found some really weird shit that might be something illegal.”

“If I was you, I would definitely talk to Sam. He loves tracking down weird shit that smells rotten.” Sarah mused. “I’m texting you his number.”

“Thanks Sarah,” I said, “I’ll see you Friday when you move your stuff over.”

I disconnect and call the number on my screen. “Hi, Sam, my name is Amelia. I’m Sarah’s cousin and I do some research for news stories. I’ve found something odd and I’m not willing to look into it alone.”

Sam questions me about my research, and I tell him about the website, the ring, the cell phone being ‘verified’ and the location. “Black Hawk Imports has been on our radar, but we haven’t been able to find a crack. This might be that break. I’ll go with you. Meet at Mocha Joe’s at 6pm. I’ll be the one in a Yankees cap.”

Jeremy is impressed, but a bit worried. “You’re just a college student. Are you really going to insert yourself into a sting operation?”

How could I explain the little black book? I had to keep it a secret. How would I explain disappearing speeches, amazing treasure hunts, and random website searches? Keep my mouth shut; that’s what I will do. “I’ll just be an observer. I don’t think I’ll be in any real danger.”

___

At 6pm, Jeremy and I are seated in Mocha Joe’s. He insisted on coming with me. I didn’t mind. He’s cute. Dark curly hair, grey blue eyes, clean shaven strong chin and a build that suggests a runner. I think I might like to get to know him better. I reach over and squeeze his hand. “Thank you for coming with me.”

“You’ve intrigued me. I want to know how this all turns out…and I guess I want to make sure you know I’m up for anything.” He says.

I smile at him, then turn to see Sam entering, wearing his Yankee cap, leather jacket and dark jeans. I rise and meet him near the door, and we step outside. “I brought the phone, and the money. The phone belonged to the late George Calcorn, night editor at the news station. If he was tied up in anything illegal, then you should carry the phone, and answer to George.” I told him this information as I handed him the phone and the envelop stuffed with cash.

Sam took the envelop, placed a black and gold sticker in-between some of the cash, and nodded. “This is a tracer, but it’s not much help if they don’t go back to their storage.” I go back inside and wait with Jeremy

“You’re not going with him?” asked Jeremy.

“No, I don’t think it will help. They are obviously waiting on George, or at least a man.” I answered.

“How about we drive over and park next to the river. I think we could just about see where they are meeting.” He said as he leaned closer.

“Tempting.” I state. “But we have to stay back. Can’t make a mess of their sting.”

We meander through a few side streets and find a parking space along the river walk where a burned-out bulb in one of the streetlights offers us cover of darkness.

As we wait, a grey van drives up and parks about three spaces in front of us. A tall bald man in dark colors, and a barrel-chested guy wearing black from head-to-toe, climb out. They slide the door aside and pull out a slender figure with long white-blonde braids. A girl?

We watch as they head toward the rendezvous spot on Mason. “That’s it! The white gold ring is really a girl with white-blonde hair.” I exclaimed. “What do you want to bet she has green eyes?” I reach up and turn off the overhead lights so they don’t come on when I open the door. “Do you want to go see what is in the van?”

Jeremy and I slip out of the car and walk carefully towards the van. Peaking in, we find it empty. The doors are unlocked though. “I wish I had a tracking device to stick in the van.” I whisper to Jeremy.

Jeremy reaches in his pocket and pulls out a small black disc. “It’s a key finder I carry on my key ring. I’m always forgetting my keys. Its logged to my cell phone.” He says.

I take the key finder. This is so exciting that I give him a peck on the cheek. I quietly open the door and slide the disc into the seat pocket behind the driver. Then we run back to the car to wait.

About 20 minutes passed, and then the men came back, climbed into the van and drove off toward the Southside Bridge. We wait a few minutes, then drive back to Mocha Joe’s and wait on Sam.

___

Sam came in a few minutes later with the blonde-haired girl. Just as we thought, she had stunning green eyes. He sat down with her at our table, leaned back in his chair and ran his hands through his thick brown hair. “This is ‘Trixie’, or so she says. She was offered to me for the agreed price. After these two guys with her, left, I told her I’m a detective, not George, but she’s not talking.”

Trixie looked sad and fidgeted in her chair. I went to the counter and bought a bottle of juice for her. When I hand it to her, she flinches and pulls her hands away. “It’s yours. I just want to find out if there are more like you, being sold, or worse?”

She lowered her head and asks if I am going to use her. When I decline her offer, she asks if she can trust me. “Absolutely. I found the sales site for you by accident and I just want to stop something horrible from happening.” I reassure her.

Barely above a whisper, she explains that she is being held at a house on a hill. She, and several other girls and boys, are fed and clothed, but not allowed out except to sell themselves. George was a regular, but she hadn’t heard from him for months. “Are you going to send me back?” she asked.

“No. We are going to get to the bottom of this.” I state.

Jeremy leans over and hands his phone to Sam. “I…uh…we… put a key finder in the seat pocket of the van she was in. You can track it on my phone.”

Sam grins, gives a thumbs up, pulls out his phone and calls for back-up. “Can you two get Trixie to the precinct?”

“Sure. Trixie, let’s go take down these creeps.” I say as I reach out my hand. She grabs onto me and we make our way out of the shop to Jeremy’s car. “You can call me Kate. That’s my real name.” she murmurs.

As we approached the precinct, several patrol vehicles are pulling in. We enter the precinct and watch the officers pull several guys out of their vehicles. Bald man and all-in-black guy are the first through the door. After them, police direct a smart looking couple in athletic wear. I recognize them. He is on the City Council. She is a personal chef WKAT has featured a few times. I’m a bit disgusted.

A police van pulls up next to the cars. An officer pulls back the sliding door and reaches in to help several girls, and a couple boys out of the van. They are huddled together, but when they see Kate, they hug and grab each other’s hands.

“You are safe here.” One of the officers says. “Let’s get you inside and take some statements. Follow officers Morgan and Green here to one of the lounges on the second floor. None of you are under arrest. We just want to get you somewhere safe.”

Jeremy and I follow the kids through the noisy tile floored precinct, passing doors leading to small court rooms, long wooden benches and rows of vending machines. We both give our statements to the detectives. I leave out the parts that originate in the black book. The watch is now, just an heirloom. The website just happened to pop up in a list. It takes several hours to ‘debrief’, write down our information, and wrap up loose ends. I am ready to crash.

At last, I am able to say goodbye to Kate and promise to check on her tomorrow.

___

Jeremy offers to drive me home and I flop on my bed as soon as I close my apartment door and get my shoes off. What a day.

I pull the little black book out of my backpack and look at it. “You are a pretty special book after all” I say to the book as I run my finger around the edge.

Wondering what might be in there now, I open the cover. Printed in neat type under Contents, are the words “Choose your life’s purpose.” On the following pages I find four descriptions. As I read each, I try to see myself in each one, but one just makes more sense. “I choose number three” I say out loud. The other three fade and more type appears for the third, and now, only choice. I read on.

As I finish reading, I hear a knock on the door. I can’t leave the book, I think. “Who is it?” I yell. No reply.

I reach for my phone to take a picture of the text, but I remember it will not show up in my camera. Sighing, I reluctantly close the book and cover it with the edge of my blanket. I walk to the door, peak out, but don’t see anyone. I crack the door and pick up a FedEx package on the floor.

As I slowly make my way back to my bed, I tear open the package. Inside, I find another yellowed envelop, but much bigger than the first one. My name is written in rounded letters with a looping ‘A’. I shake out several packs of cash. A quick count reveals nearly $20,000!

A note on yellow paper, falls out of the FedEx package, onto the bed.

You have used this book wisely. It will make you rich.

Look within whenever you are in need.

Keep it secret and your destiny will not switch.

My pulse speeds up. I can feel the hair rise on my neck.

Where is the book? I throw back the bedding and dig it out. Trembling, I lightly flip open its cover once again.

It is blank.

literature

Amy Pauley

Just having fun creating new stories.

Read next: The Hiker

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