Conan drove to the bookshop the next morning. Usually he walked the two and a half blocks, but he wanted to find out if he could manage the XK-E’s manual shift with his left hand in a cast.
He admitted, grudgingly, that it wasn’t as bad as he expected; his thumb, index, and middle fingers were free, which gave him enough grip to control the wheel while he shifted gears.
A fracture in the fifth metacarpal. That was Dr. Nichole Heideger’s diagnosis after she studied the X-rays at the hospital last night. The break was accompanied by a gash that took ten stitches to close. Nicky X-rayed his aching and swollen jaw, too, and pronounced it intact, although she advised him it would produce a colorful bruise.
She also advised him, with some relish, to stay out of barroom brawls.
He told her it was an accident, which was as true as it was incredible; the broken bone was a result of hitting his left hand on the edge of a table when he went down after inadvertently putting his face in the path of Brian Tally’s fist.
Brian was at the hospital, too, repetitiously and blearily apologetic, looking more in need of medical attention than Conan. Tilda and Max took him away finally after Conan mouthed the words of understanding and forgiveness Brian seemed to need so desperately.
But a true spirit of forgiveness came hard, especially when he had to say good-by to Isadora in the sterile glare of the emergency room with a curious orderly, a nurse, and Nicky as witnesses, and his left hand immobilized in wet plaster.
It was asking a great deal of a man to forgive that.
Two blocks east of his beachfront home, Conan turned left into a parking lane paralleling Highway 101, drove a half block, and stopped directly in front of the bookshop door. That was sheer perversity. Miss Dobie considered it a stone-etched tenet of good business that the best parking places must be left for customers, and she always parked a considerate distance from the shop, even if it meant trudging through a drenching typhoon to reach the door.
And Conan didn’t even have the excuse of rain.
Last night’s storm was well gone, sweeping east to the Cascades; the air was crystalline, the west wind salt-scented and bracing; the sun poured out a beatitude of warmth upon the row of ramshackle old shops facing the highway, of which the Holliday Beach Bookshop was the largest as well as the oldest and most ramshackle.
This was his most prized possession, yet today he surveyed it with an atypically jaundiced eye, noting that three shingles were missing on one of the upstairs gables, and the trim needed painting.
When he got out of the car, he slammed the door, which was also atypical; the Jaguar was another prized possession, and although its inner workings were to him analogous to the Delphic mysteries, he always treated it with awed respect.
But it had been a long night. A long solitary night.
The bells on the door jangled, and Beatrice Dobie, at the counter across from the entrance, offered a sunny smile.
“Good morning, Mr. Flagg. Isn’t it a lovely day?”
Conan muttered, “Good morning, Miss Dobie,” and went to the door behind and to one side of the counter. It was equipped with one-way glass and a sign reading “Private,” but he left it open. That was simply habit.
This room, which he insisted on calling his office, was also a prized possession—rather, a small space serving to house some of his prizes: the Kirman on the floor; the Hepplewhite desk; a cast-iron half ton of an antique safe; the drawings, prints, and paintings—which included a Ben Shahn—crowding the paneled walls.
In the exact center of the desk reposed another of his prizes, although he never made the error of thinking of Meg as a possession. He suspected she considered him a possession, however.
He sat down in the big leather chair behind the desk, bringing his head nearly on a level with Meg’s.
“Good morning, Duchess.”
Siamese cats, Miss Dobie maintained, were descendants of royal houses, to which he always retorted that they had been rat catchers in the temples. But Miss Dobie adhered to the royal house lineage, adding, irrelevantly, that Meg was a blue-point Siamese, as if that made her blood even bluer.
At that moment, the Lady was occupied with her postprandial ablutions, making a pretzel of herself, one hind foot pointed as gracefully as a ballerina’s so that she might wash each dainty, daggered toe.
Conan didn’t disturb her, knowing that cleanliness is next to repletion in the feline lexicon, nor did he start checking the morning mail, which was generally his first order of business; Meg was sitting on it.
He only slumped deeper in his chair, remembering, when Meg spared him a curious glance, that Isadora Canfield’s eyes were exactly the same shade of sapphire blue.
And Isadora was in London.
He was still glumly nursing that thought when Miss Dobie came in carrying a ten-pound tome bound in brown leather, her square face inflated with a beaming smile that made her look incongruously cherubic. She admitted to fifty-five years, but Conan always accepted such feminine admissions with private skepticism.
“Look what came in the mail, Mr. Flagg.” She put the book down on his desk with a triumphant thump and paused meaningfully.
But Conan didn’t comment, nor even move, and Meg, startled by the seismic impact of the book, unwound herself and departed, muttering inscrutable comments all the way to the door.
Miss Dobie watched her go with an absent frown, then turned to her employer and offered enlightenment.
“It’s the Gaston! Portland: Its History and Builders. The third volume. Remember, that collector in Kansas City—oh, what is his name? Chalmers. That’s it. F. T. Chalmers. Well, he offered fifty dollars for volume three to complete his set, and I found this at that estate sale in Amity last week and made a bid for ten. Of course, the asking price was forty, but I told Mrs. Jenks I can’t pay that kind of money and make anything on my time, and it wasn’t very likely she’d find anybody else who’d even offer ten for a single volume out of a set, and what did you do to your face, Mr. Flagg? And—oh, dear—did you break your wrist?”
Conan regarded her with frank amazement, then waved toward the safe where the coffee pot wheezed.
“Will you pour us some coffee, Miss Dobie? No, I didn’t break my wrist. It was a metacarpal bone.”
She filled two mugs, placed one in front of him, and sat down in the chair across from him with the other.
“Well,” she said to his metacarpal, then her gaze shifted to his empurpled jaw. “What happened to your face?” Conan grimaced as he seared his tongue on the coffee.
“I was in a barroom brawl.”
He lit a cigarette, ignoring her lifted brow and the pendant question in that syllable. When it became apparent that he didn’t intend to elaborate, she leaned back and crossed her legs with an air of studied indifference.
“By the way, there was a call for you this morning.”
Obviously, she was feeling as perverse as he.
“When? Who was it from?” His first thought was Isadora, which was nonsense; when she was on tour her communications were limited to an occasional post card.
“Oh…it was a little after ten; about half an hour ago. Earl Kleber.”
He flicked his cigarette irritably against the rim of the ashtray.
“What did he want?”
“Well, I don’t know, but he said it was important. He wanted you to call him as soon as possible.”
“He’s probably selling shares in the police pension fund.” Conan eyed the telephone as if it might explain the vagaries of Holliday Beach’s chief of police, but he didn’t make a move toward it.
“I wondered,” Miss Dobie drawled, “if it might not have something to do with the terrible thing that happened at the Surf House Restaurant last night.”