Read An Illustrated Death Online

Authors: Judi Culbertson

An Illustrated Death

 

A
N
I
LLUSTRATED
D
EATH

JUDI CULBERTSON

 

D
EDICATION

To my own extraordinary family.

 

A
CKNOWLEDGMENTS

O
NCE AGAIN THANK
you to my tireless agent, Agnes Birnbaum of Bleecker Street Associates, who has gone the distance for me, and to my extraordinary editor at HarperCollins, Chelsey Emmelhainz, who knows instinctively what a book needs—Maxwell Perkins, watch out!

To my New York City writers’ group, who continue to hold my feet to the fire: Jean Ayer, Myriam Chapman, Teresa Giordano, Tom House, Eleanor Hyde, Elizabeth Jakab, Maureen Sladen, Marcia Slatkin, and, most warmly, Adele Glimm for her friendship, multiple readings, and always offering a place to spend the night.

Thanks to my online booksellers’ group, Bibliophile.com, for being so generous with their information.

I come from a family of writers and depend on their support and love. Here’s to Tom Randall, Andy Culbertson, Robin Culbertson, John Chaffee, Heide Lange, Jessie and Joshua Chaffee, Brendan Kiely, and David Chaffee. And to the others, who love books too: David and Liz Randall, Caroline Chaffee, Dave, Katie, and Charlotte Bennett.

Finally, to the people who light up my life every day with their creativity and love: Tom, Andy, Robin, Emily, and Andrew.

Ignatz, Vladimir, and Pangur get a shout-out too.

 

C
ONTENTS

 

C
HA
PTER
O
NE

T
HE DEAD MAN
smiled up at me.

I stared back sadly. Then I read the newspaper clipping on my worktable one more time.

Illustrator, Granddaughter Drown in Family Pool

Tragedy struck an artistic dynasty in Springs yesterday morning when Nate Erikson, 67, and Morgan Marshall, 4, drowned in a swimming pool on the grounds of the family’s estate. The victims were rushed to Southampton Hospital, where efforts at resuscitation failed. A police spokesman stated that Mr. Erikson had been attempting to rescue his granddaughter, but succumbed himself.

Because I make my living selling used and rare books over the Internet, I spend a lot of time in the ancient barn behind my house, cataloging new finds and shipping them around the world. Dinnertime had come and gone but I worked on. I promised myself a spinach-goat cheese pizza and some Yellow Tail Chardonnay. Soon.

The story about Nate Erikson had lain next to my computer for the past three months.

There were the usual comparisons to N. C. Wyeth, Howard Pyle, and Norman Rockwell and a list of some of the books Nate Erikson had illustrated:
The Complete Sherlock Holmes
, Charles Dickens classics, and the better-known Shakespearean plays. Nate Erikson’s survivors included five children, his widow, Eve McGready Erikson, and several other grandchildren.

Whenever I read the clipping I felt the same emptiness I’d had when John Updike and Robert Parker died. My connection to Nate Erikson went back even further, to my childhood and
Bible Stories for Good Children.
I was not a good child, but my Methodist parents took the title at face value, never noticing the wry twists Nate gave to the illustrations. Instead of the cliché image of Noah leading pairs of docile animals onto the ark, the patriarch was shown about to lose his temper with two recalcitrant lion cubs. Isaac was pictured after the sacrifice attempt, looking at the knife in his father’s hand with disbelief.

Care for another walk up the mountain, son?

You’re kidding, right, Dad?

My parents suspected nothing until they found my twin sister, Patience, and me trying to raise our little brother from the dead.

“Don’t breathe,” Patience commanded. “Don’t breathe until I say, ‘Lazarus, come forth!’ ”

“Jon, I can see your stomach moving,” I accused.

Bible Stories for Good Children
disappeared from the room we shared.

When I became a bookseller, the first thing I did was track down a replacement copy of
Bible Stories.
I was always on the lookout for Nate Erikson’s books and tomorrow I would have the chance to buy more at a sale that had almost slipped by me. Another book dealer had mentioned it when we were standing in line at an estate sale that morning waiting for the doors to open.

“Are you going to the sale at the Nate Erikson house tomorrow?”

“What sale? I didn’t see any ads,” I said.

“I hear they only sent invitations to bookstores.”

So what was I? Granted, I sold books over the Internet instead of owning a brick-and-mortar shop and I wasn’t listed in the yellow pages, but still . . .

I felt torn between outrage that his family was getting rid of his books so soon and hope that I would be able to own some of them.

Self-interest won.

 

C
HAPTER
T
WO

T
HE SALE AT
the Erikson estate was the Saturday after Labor Day, late in the book-buying season. When I studied the ads in
Newsday
that Friday night over my belated pizza, I found no other sales in the Hamptons, though there were one or two closer to where I lived. Most of the listings were for Nassau County, nearer New York City. But it didn’t matter. Missing a sale at Nate Erikson’s home was like passing up dinner at the White House because you preferred Taco Bell.

Although the sale did not start until 9 a.m., I set my alarm for dawn. I needed time to feed the cats, Raj and Miss T, and stop at the all-night coffee shop, Qwikjava, for the largest cup they sold. Most of all, I had to make sure that my ten-year-old van would start. To miss one of the most promising sales of the decade because of a dead battery would be beyond tragic.

As it was, the trip to the Erikson estate took longer than I’d expected. Light was erasing the sky’s blackboard by the time I veered onto Springs–Fireplace Road. I sped by the Jackson Pollock homestead, going so fast that I missed the turn onto Cooper’s Farm Lane. Backing up I knocked down an old wooden fence. Someone would have to put it up again.

Next to the tasteful “Estate Sale” sign was another that made me smile. The name “Adam’s Revenge” was painted in dark green letters inside a border of flowers, a grinning serpent peeping out from behind a red hibiscus. No doubt the name was meant to express Adam’s hope of creating a better Garden of Eden than the one from which he had been ejected.

Then the house came into view, an imposing, five-gabled structure with a wraparound porch. The salt air had turned its shingles silver gray, making a nice contrast to the turquoise shutters. Like the sign, the house was bordered by flowers, remnants of the summer: impatiens, begonias, and roses, with a few fat blue hydrangeas hanging on.

The road ended in a gravel circle and I braked abruptly, scattering pebbles. But—damn! Why were so many cars already here? It was barely 6 a.m. If even half the drivers had passengers, I might as well turn around and go home. I would never be in the first ten. Ten was the magic number, the number of people allowed inside when the doors opened. Everyone else had to wait until one of the first came out before the next was allowed in. By then the best stuff was gone.

Stepping into the September air, I got a whiff of the marshes of Napeague Bay and looked around to find out who was handing out numbers. The first dealer to arrive was usually responsible for creating the numbers system, writing them consecutively on slips of paper. This way no one could question that he was number one. Numbers were sacrosanct. The most ruthless dealers lined up meekly in one-two-three order. I had never seen anyone try to cut the line and live to tell about it.

A sleek black Lincoln had its window rolled down so I headed toward it, though I didn’t recognize the car. The driver looked a cut above the usual book dealers who wore strange clothing combinations and were often missing teeth. This dealer had a gracefully arched nose, perfect silver hair, and an expensive golf shirt.

With a weary smile he handed me a slip of paper through the window.

I stared at the number: thirteen. “Oh, no! Don’t tell me I came all the way out here for nothing
.
How could this happen?” Why hadn’t I left the house an hour earlier? Why hadn’t I gotten here the night before and pitched a tent in the driveway?

“Oh, please. Don’t look at me like your dog’s just been run over.” He held out a well-manicured hand for the slip. When he returned the slip to me, the number had magically changed into a nine. “Someone from Canio’s Books was supposed to be here, but they know the rules as well as anyone.”

I looked at the slip again to make sure it hadn’t changed back. “Thanks so much. I really appreciate it.” More seemed indicated, but instinct told me he thought he would have less competition from someone who looked like me than from the preeminent bookseller of Sag Harbor.

I gave him the bad news. “I’m Delhi Laine from Secondhand Prose.”

“You’re a dealer?” Surprised, he took in my morning-tangled hair and my “Shakespeare Did It with a Quill” T-shirt. My jeans were dusty, and I never wore makeup this early in the morning. Most days I never got around to it at all. When you’re fortysomething and working frantically to stay afloat while keeping your younger children from falling out of the lifeboat, and your husband has gone off in search of a better muse, you tend to stick to the basics.

I had been too young, a sophomore in college, when Colin Fitzhugh enticed me into sharing his life as an archeologist and poet. We had been married more than half my lifetime when he’d decided last October that I was a drag on his free spirit. Jane, Hannah, and Jason were already away in college or working and I found myself on my own for the first time. After the initial tears and disbelief, I began creating a new life. I’m still working at it.

The man in the car laughed, either at my business name or his own miscalculation. “And here I thought you were just another pretty face. Charles Tremaine. Manhattan.”

“Wow.” No wonder he looked like he was headed for his yacht.

“And Amagansett,” he confessed. “It was only a short drive this morning.”

“Ah. What do you know about this sale?”

“Very little. Word is, the family moved some books out to the garage to get rid of them. Not Nate’s books though.”

“Really? Not his books?” That was a blow. I had taken all the cash I had out of the bank, planning to buy as many as I could. I knew they would sell well if I could bear to part with any.

“There hasn’t been enough buzz. Buyers would be lined up like Black Friday, people from out of state if it was his library.
You
would never have gotten in. Imagine the association copies alone.”

We paused in reverent silence, as if inside St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and thought about the books inscribed to Nate from other famous people. The best association copy I ever had was an art catalog inscribed by Andy Warhol to Norman Mailer. It had sold on eBay for a small fortune.


Excuse me
, can I get a
number
?” a voice behind me interrupted. I stepped out of his way and went back to my van.

T
HE TROUBLE WITH
important sales is that once you arrive hours early to get a good number, you have to wait around for the doors to actually open. It was too early for me to catch up on phone calls and I was too keyed up to nap. Sometimes I’ll leave to get breakfast, but I’m terrified they’ll decide to start the sale early. (“We have enough people here. Let’s do it!”) Mostly I sit in the van and read or swap war stories with other dealers. Today, though, I didn’t see anyone I wanted to talk to, so I walked slowly back to my van.

For a long time I sat and stared out at the September landscape,
Let the Great World Spin
unspun on my lap. Could Charles Tremaine be right? Had I come all this way for nothing? No, it wouldn’t be nothing. Just being in the atmosphere where Nate had created his magical illustrations and buying books that belonged to his family was more exciting than anything else I had scheduled for today. The plane I thought was bound for Paris had been rerouted to Miami, but a trip was still a trip.

I slid the book off my lap and climbed out of my van to look around, being careful to stay in the gravel circle. Adam’s Revenge was imposing, the kind of estate featured in
Architectural Digest
. What would be like to live here? Behind the main house, the property sloped gently in all directions. I could see two Swiss chalets, a one-room schoolhouse, and a barn set farther back. It looked as if someone had airlifted an alpine village onto eastern Long Island farmland.

But where was the pool Nate and his granddaughter had drowned in? I looked around discreetly, but saw no water anywhere. Had they filled it in already, and covered it over with sod? I wouldn’t blame them if they had. It would have been a horrible reminder of the two lives lost, one a little girl. A hot, honeysuckle morning in June, a golden day’s promise, and then—I was ambushed by the memory of another little girl. A summer afternoon, another life forever lost. I ordered myself not to think about it now.

That door had been slammed shut nineteen years ago and I was not going to open it.

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