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The Innocent Man

Camino Island

John Grisham

First published in Great Britain in 2017 by Hodder & Stoughton

An Hachette UK company

Copyright © Belfry Holdings, Inc. 2017

The right of John Grisham to be identified as the Author of the

Work has been asserted by him in accordance with

the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced,

stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any

means without the prior written permission of the publisher, nor be

otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that

in which it is published and without a similar condition being

imposed on the subsequent purchaser.

All characters in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance

to real persons, living or dead is purely coincidental

A CIP catalogue record for this title is available from the British Library

ISBN 978 1 473 66376 3

Hodder & Stoughton Ltd

Carmelite House

50 Victoria Embankment

London EC4Y 0DZ

To Renée

Thanks for the story















The imposter borrowed the name of Neville Manchin, an actual profes; sor of American literature at Portland State and soon-to-be doctoral student at Stanford. In his letter, on perfectly forged college stationery, “Professor Manchin” claimed to be a budding scholar of F. Scott Fitzgerald and was keen to see the great writer’s “manuscripts and papers” during a forthcoming trip to the East Coast. The letter was addressed to Dr. Jeffrey Brown, Director of Manuscripts Division, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Firestone Library, Princeton University. It arrived with a few others, was duly sorted and passed along, and eventually landed on the desk of Ed Folk, a career junior librarian whose task, among several other monotonous ones, was to verify the credentials of the person who wrote the letter.

Ed received several of these letters each week, all in many ways the same, all from self-proclaimed Fitzgerald buffs and experts, and even from the occasional true scholar. In the previous calendar year, Ed had cleared and logged in 190 of these people through the library. They came from all over the world and arrived wide-eyed and humbled, like pilgrims before a shrine. In his thirty-four years at the same desk, Ed had processed all of them. And, they were not going away. F. Scott Fitzgerald continued to fascinate. The traffic was as heavy now as it had been three decades earlier. These days, though, Ed was wondering what could possibly be left of the great writer’s life that had not been pored over, studied at great length, and written about. Not long ago, a true scholar told Ed that there were now at least a hundred books and over ten thousand published academic articles on Fitzgerald the man, the writer, his works, and his crazy wife.

And he drank himself to death at forty-four! What if he’d lived into old age and kept writing? Ed would need an assistant, maybe two, perhaps even an entire staff. But then Ed knew that an early death was often the key to later acclaim (not to mention greater royalties).

After a few days, Ed finally got around to dealing with Professor Manchin. A quick review of the library’s register revealed that this was a new person, a new request. Some of the veterans had been to Princeton so many times they simply called his number and said, “Hey, Ed, I’ll be there next Tuesday.” Which was fine with Ed. Not so with Manchin. Ed went through the Portland State website and found his man. Undergraduate degree in American lit from the University of Oregon; master’s from UCLA; adjunct gig now for three years. His photo revealed a rather plain-looking young man of perhaps thirty-five, the makings of a beard that was probably temporary, and narrow frameless eyeglasses.

In his letter, Professor Manchin asked whoever responded to do so by e-mail, and gave a private Gmail address. He said he rarely checked his university address. Ed thought, “That’s because you’re just a lowly adjunct professor and probably don’t even have a real office.” He often had these thoughts, but, of course, was too professional to utter them to anyone else. Out of caution, the next day he sent a response through the Portland State server. He thanked Professor Manchin for his letter and invited him to the Princeton campus. He asked for a general idea of when he might arrive and laid out a few of the basic rules regarding the Fitzgerald collection. There were many, and he suggested that Professor Manchin study them on the library’s website.

The reply was automatic and informed Ed that Manchin was out of pocket for a few days. One of Manchin’s partners had hacked into the Portland State directory just deep enough to tamper with the English department’s e-mail server; easy work for a sophisticated hacker. He and the imposter knew immediately that Ed had responded.

Ho hum, thought Ed. The next day he sent the same message to Professor Manchin’s private Gmail address. Within an hour, Manchin replied with an enthusiastic thank-you, said he couldn’t wait to get there, and so on. He gushed on about how he had studied the library’s website, had spent hours with the Fitzgerald digital archives, had owned for years the multivolume series containing facsimile editions of the great author’s handwritten first drafts, and had a particular interest in the critical reviews of the first novel, This Side of Paradise.

Great, said Ed. He’d seen it all before. The guy was trying to impress him before he even got there, which was not at all unusual.


F. Scott Fitzgerald enrolled in Princeton in the fall of 1913. At the age of sixteen, he was dreaming of writing the great American novel, and had indeed begun working on an early version of This Side of Paradise. He dropped out four years later to join the Army and go to war, but it ended before he was deployed. His classic, The Great Gatsby, was published in 1925 but did not become popular until after his death. He struggled financially throughout his career, and by 1940 was working in Hollywood, cranking out bad screenplays, failing physically and creatively. On December 21, he died of a heart attack, brought on by years of severe alcoholism.

In 1950, Scottie, his daughter and only child, gave his original manuscripts, notes, and letters—his “papers”—to the Firestone Library at Princeton. His five novels were handwritten on inexpensive paper that did not age well. The library quickly realized that it would be unwise to allow researchers to physically handle them. High-quality copies were made, and the originals were locked away in a secured basement vault where the air, light, and temperature were carefully controlled. Over the years, they had been removed only a handful of times.


The man posing as Professor Neville Manchin arrived at Princeton on a beautiful fall day in early October. He was directed to Rare Books and Special Collections, where he met Ed Folk, who then passed him along to another assistant librarian who examined and copied his Oregon driver’s license. It was, of course, a forgery, but a perfect one. The forger, who was also the hacker, had been trained by the CIA and had a long history in the murky world of private espionage. Breaching a bit of campus security was hardly a challenge.

Professor Manchin was then photographed and given a security badge that had to be displayed at all times. He followed the assistant librarian to the second floor, to a large room with two long tables and walls lined with retractable steel drawers, each of which was locked. Manchin noticed at least four surveillance cameras high in the corners, cameras that were supposed to be seen. He suspected others were well hidden. He attempted to chat up the assistant librarian but got little in return. He jokingly asked if he could see the original manuscript for This Side of Paradise. The assistant librarian offered a smug grin and said that would not be possible.

“Have you ever seen the originals?” Manchin asked.

“Only once.”

A pause as Manchin waited for more, then he asked, “And what was the occasion?”

“Well, a certain famous scholar wished to see them. We accompanied him down to the vault and gave him a look. He didn’t touch the papers, though. Only our head librarian is allowed to do so, and only with special gloves.”

“Of course. Oh well, let’s get to work.”

The assistant opened two of the large drawers, both labeled “This Side of Paradise,” and withdrew thick, oversized notebooks. He said, “These contain the reviews of the book when it was first published. We have many other samples of later reviews.”

“Perfect,” Manchin said with a grin. He opened his briefcase, took out a notepad, and seemed ready to pounce on everything laid on the table. Half an hour later, with Manchin deep in his work, the assistant librarian excused himself and disappeared. For the benefit of the cameras, Manchin never looked up. Eventually, he needed to find the men’s room and wandered away. He took a wrong turn here and another one there, got himself lost, and eased through Collections, avoiding contact with anyone. There were surveillance cameras everywhere. He doubted that anyone at that moment was watching the footage, but it could certainly be retrieved if needed. He found an elevator, avoided it, and took the nearby stairs. The first level below was similar to the ground floor. Below it, the stairs stopped at B2 (Basement 2), where a large thick door waited with “Emergencies Only” painted in bold letters. A keypad was next to the door, and another sign warned that an alarm would sound the instant the door was opened without “proper authorization.” Two security cameras watched the door and the area around it.

Manchin backed away and retraced his steps. When he returned to his workroom, the assistant was waiting. “Is everything okay, Professor Manchin?” he asked.

“Oh yes. Just a bit of a stomach bug, I’m afraid. Hope it’s not contagious.” The assistant librarian left immediately, and Manchin hung around all day, digging through materials from the steel drawers and reading old reviews he cared nothing about. Several times he wandered off, poking around, looking, measuring, and memorizing.


Manchin returned three weeks later and he was no longer pretending to be a professor. He was clean shaven, his hair was colored a sandy blond, he wore fake eyeglasses with red frames, and he carried a bogus student card with a photo. If someone asked, which he certainly didn’t expect, his story was that he was a grad student from Iowa. In real life his name was Mark and his occupation, if one could call it that, was professional thievery. High-dollar, world-class, elaborately planned smash-and-grab jobs that specialized in art and rare artifacts that could be sold back to the desperate victims for ransom. His was a gang of five, led by Denny, a former Army Ranger who had turned to crime after being kicked out of the military. So far, Denny had not been caught and had no record; nor did Mark. However, two of the others did. Trey had two convictions and two escapes, his last the year before from a federal prison in Ohio. It was there he’d met Jerry, a petty art thief now on parole. Another art thief, a onetime cellmate serving a long sentence, had first mentioned the Fitzgerald manuscripts to Jerry.

The setup was perfect. There were only five manuscripts, all handwritten, all in one place. And to Princeton they were priceless.

The fifth member of the team preferred to work at home. Ahmed was the hacker, the forger, the creator of all illusions, but he didn’t have the nerve to carry guns and such. He worked from his basement in Buffalo and had never been caught or arrested. He left no trails. His 5 percent would come off the top. The other four would take the rest in equal shares.

By nine o’clock on a Tuesday night, Denny, Mark, and Jerry were inside the Firestone Library posing as grad students and watching the clock. Their fake student IDs had worked perfectly; not a single eyebrow had been raised. Denny found his hiding place in a third-floor women’s restroom. He lifted a panel in the ceiling above the toilet, tossed up his student backpack, and settled in for a few hours of hot and cramped waiting. Mark picked the lock of the main mechanical room on the first level of the basement and waited for alarms. He heard none, nor did Ahmed, who had easily hacked into the university’s security systems. Mark proceeded to dismantle the fuel injectors of the library’s backup electrical generator. Jerry found a spot in a study carrel hidden among rows of stacked tiers holding books that had not been touched in decades.

Trey was drifting around the campus, dressed like a student, lugging his backpack, scoping out places for his bombs.

The library closed at midnight. The four team members, as well as Ahmed in his basement in Buffalo, were in radio contact. Denny, the leader, announced at 12:15 that all was proceeding as planned. At 12:20, Trey, dressed like a student and hauling a bulky backpack, entered the McCarren Residential College in the heart of the campus. He saw the same surveillance cameras he had seen the previous week. He took the unwatched stairs to the second floor, ducked into a coed restroom, and locked himself in a stall. At 12:40, he reached into his backpack and removed a tin can about the size of a twenty-ounce bottle of soda. He set a delayed starter and hid it behind the toilet. He left the restroom, went to the third floor, and set another bomb in an empty shower stall. At 12:45, he found a semi-dark hallway on the second floor of a dormitory and nonchalantly tossed a string of ten jumbo Black Cat firecrackers down the hall. As he scrambled down the stairwell, the explosions boomed through the air. Seconds later, both smoke bombs erupted, sending thick clouds of rancid fog into the hallways. As Trey left the building he heard the first wave of panicked voices. He stepped behind some shrubs near the dorm, pulled a disposable phone out of his pocket, called Princeton’s 911 service, and delivered the horrifying news: “There’s a guy with a gun on the second floor of McCarren. He’s firing shots.”

Smoke was drifting from a second-floor window. Jerry, sitting in the dark study carrel in the library, made a similar call from his prepaid cell phone. Soon, calls were pouring in as panic gripped the campus.

Every American college has elaborate plans to handle a situation involving an “active gunman,” but no one wants to implement them. It took a few dumbstruck seconds for the officer in charge to push the right buttons, but when she did, sirens began wailing. Every Princeton student, professor, administrator, and employee received a text and e-mail alert. All doors were to be closed and locked. All buildings were to be secured.

Jerry made another call to 911 and reported that two students had been shot. Smoke boiled out of McCarren Hall. Trey dropped three more smoke bombs into trash cans. A few students ran through the smoke as they went from building to building, not sure where exactly the safe places were. Campus security and the City of Princeton police raced onto the scene, followed closely by half a dozen fire trucks. Then ambulances. The first of many patrol cars from the New Jersey State Police arrived.

Trey left his backpack at the door of an office building, then called 911 to report how suspicious it looked. The timer on the last smoke bomb inside the backpack was set to go off in ten minutes, just as the demolition experts would be staring at it from a distance.

At 1:05, Trey radioed the gang: “A perfect panic out here. Smoke everywhere. Tons of cops. Go for it.”

Denny replied, “Cut the lights.”

Ahmed, sipping strong tea in Buffalo and sitting on go, quickly routed through the school’s security panel, entered the electrical grid, and cut the electricity not only to the Firestone Library but to half a dozen nearby buildings as well. For good measure, Mark, now wearing night vision goggles, pulled the main cutoff switch in the mechanical room. He waited and held his breath, then breathed easier when the backup generator did not engage.

The power outage triggered alarms at the central monitoring station inside the campus security complex, but no one was paying attention. There was an active gunman on the loose. There was no time to worry about other alarms.

Jerry had spent two nights inside the Firestone Library in the past week and was confident there were no guards stationed within the building while it was closed. During the night, a uniformed officer walked around the building once or twice, shined his flashlight at the doors, and kept walking. A marked patrol car made its rounds too, but it was primarily concerned with drunk students. Generally, the campus was like any other—dead between the hours of 1:00 and 8:00 a.m.

On this night, however, Princeton was in the midst of a frantic emergency as America’s finest were being shot. Trey reported to his gang that the scene was total chaos with cops scrambling about, SWAT boys throwing on their gear, sirens screaming, radios squawking, and a million red and blue emergency lights flashing. Smoke hung by the trees like a fog. A helicopter could be heard hovering somewhere close. Total chaos.

Denny, Jerry, and Mark hustled through the dark and took the stairs down to the basement under Special Collections. Each wore night vision goggles and a miner’s lamp strapped to his forehead. Each carried a heavy backpack, and Jerry hauled a small Army duffel he’d hidden in the library two nights earlier. At the third and final level down, they stopped at a thick metal door, blacked out the surveillance cameras, and waited for Ahmed and his magic. Calmly, he worked his way through the library’s alarm system and deactivated the door’s four sensors. There was a loud clicking noise. Denny pressed down on the handle and pulled the door open. Inside they found a narrow square of space with two more metal doors. Using a flashlight, Mark scanned the ceiling and spotted a surveillance camera. “There,” he said. “Only one.” Jerry, the tallest at six feet three inches, took a small can of black paint and sprayed the lens of the camera.

Denny looked at the two doors and said, “Wanna flip a coin?”

“What do you see?” Ahmed asked from Buffalo.

“Two metal doors, identical,” Denny replied.

“I got nothing here, fellas,” Ahmed replied. “There’s nothing in the system beyond the first door. Start cutting.”

From his duffel Jerry removed two eighteen-inch canisters, one filled with oxygen, the other with acetylene. Denny situated himself before the door on the left, lit a cutting torch with a sparker, and began heating a spot six inches above the keyhole and latch. Within seconds, sparks were flying.

Meanwhile, Trey had drifted away from the chaos around McCarren and was hiding in the blackness across the street from the library. Sirens were screaming as more emergency vehicles responded. Helicopters were thumping the air loudly above the campus, though Trey could not see them. Around him, even the streetlights were out. There was not another soul near the library. All hands were needed elsewhere.

“All’s quiet outside the library,” he reported. “Any progress?”

“We’re cutting now,” came the terse reply from Mark. All five members knew that chatter should be limited. Denny slowly and skillfully cut through the metal with the torch tip that emitted eight hundred degrees of oxygenated heat. Minutes passed as molten metal dripped to the floor and red and yellow sparks flew from the door. At one point Denny said, “It’s an inch thick.” He finished the top edge of the square and began cutting straight down. The work was slow, the minutes dragged on, and the tension mounted but they kept their cool. Jerry and Mark crouched behind Denny, watching his every move. When the bottom cut line was finished, Denny rattled the latch and it came loose, though something hung. “It’s a bolt,” he said. “I’ll cut it.”

Five minutes later, the door swung open. Ahmed, staring at his laptop, noticed nothing unusual from the library’s security system. “Nothing here,” he said. Denny, Mark, and Jerry entered the room and immediately filled it. A narrow table, two feet wide at most, ran the length, about ten feet. Four large wooden drawers covered one side; four on the other. Mark, the lock picker, flipped up his goggles, adjusted his headlight, and inspected one of the locks. He shook his head and said, “No surprise. Combination locks, probably with computerized codes that change every day. There’s no way to pick it. We gotta drill.”

“Go for it,” Denny said. “Start drilling and I’ll cut the other door.”

Jerry produced a three-quarter drive battery-powered drill with bracing bars on both sides. He zeroed in on the lock and he and Mark applied as much pressure as possible. The drill whined and slid off the brass, which at first seemed impenetrable. But a shaving spun off, then another, and as the men shoved the bracing bars the drill bit ground deeper into the lock. When it gave way the drawer still would not open. Mark managed to slide a thin pry bar into the gap above the lock and yanked down violently. The wood frame split and the drawer opened. Inside was an archival storage box with black metal edges, seventeen inches by twenty-two and three inches deep.

“Careful,” Jerry said as Mark opened the box and gently lifted a thin hardback volume. Mark read slowly, “The collected poems of Dolph McKenzie. Just what I always wanted.”

“Who the hell?”

“Don’t know but we ain’t here for poetry.”

Denny entered behind them and said, “Okay, get on with it. Seven more drawers in here. I’m almost inside the other room.”

They returned to their labors as Trey casually smoked a cigarette on a park bench across the street and glanced repeatedly at his watch. The frenzy across the campus showed no signs of dying down, but it wouldn’t last forever.

The second and third drawers in the first room revealed more rare books by authors unknown to the gang. When Denny finished cutting his way into the second room, he told Jerry and Mark to bring the drill. This room, too, had eight large drawers, seemingly identical to the first room. At 2:15, Trey checked in with a report that the campus was still in lockdown, but curious students were beginning to gather on the lawn in front of McCarren to watch the show. Police with bullhorns had ordered them back to their rooms, but there were too many to handle. At least two news helicopters were hovering and complicating things. He was watching CNN on his smart phone and the Princeton story was the story at the moment. A frantic reporter “on the scene” continually referred to “unconfirmed casualties,” and managed to convey the impression that numerous students had been shot “by at least one gunman.”

“At least one gunman?” Trey mumbled. Doesn’t every shooting require at least one gunman?

Denny, Mark, and Jerry discussed the idea of cutting into the drawers with the blowtorch, but decided against it, for the moment anyway. The risk of fire would be high, and what good would the manuscripts be if they were damaged. Instead, Denny pulled out a smaller one-quarter drive drill and began drilling. Mark and Jerry bored away with the larger one. The first drawer in the second room produced stacks of delicate papers handwritten by another long-forgotten poet, one they’d never heard of but hated nonetheless.

At 2:30, CNN confirmed that two students were dead and at least two more were injured. The word “carnage” was introduced.


When the second floor of McCarren was secured, the police noticed the remnants of what appeared to be firecrackers. The empty smoke bomb canisters were found in the restroom and the shower. Trey’s abandoned backpack was opened by a demolition crew and the spent smoke bomb was removed. At 3:10, the commander first mentioned the word “prank,” but the adrenaline was still pumping so fast no one thought of the word “diversion.”

The rest of McCarren was quickly secured and all students were accounted for. The campus was still locked down and would remain so for hours as the nearby buildings were searched.


At 3:30, Trey reported, “Things seem to be settling down out here. Three hours in, fellas, how’s the drilling?”

“Slow,” came the one-word response from Denny.

Inside the vault, the work was indeed slow, but determined. The first four opened drawers revealed more old manuscripts, some handwritten, some typed, all by important writers who didn’t matter at the moment. They finally struck gold in the fifth drawer when Denny removed an archival storage box identical to the others. He carefully opened it. A reference page inserted by the library read, “Original Handwritten Manuscript of The Beautiful and Damned—F. Scott Fitzgerald.”

“Bingo,” Denny said calmly. He removed two identical boxes from the fifth drawer, delicately placed them on the narrow table, and opened them. Inside were original manuscripts of Tender Is the Night and The Last Tycoon.

Ahmed, still glued to his laptop and now drinking a highly caffeinated energy drink, heard the beautiful words: “Okay, boys, we have three out of five. Gatsby’s here somewhere, along with Paradise.”

Trey asked, “How much longer?”

“Twenty minutes,” Denny said. “Get the van.”

Trey casually strode across the campus, mixed in with a crowd of the curious, and watched for a moment as the small army of policemen milled about. They were no longer ducking, covering, running, and dashing behind cars with loaded weapons. The danger had clearly passed, though the area was still ablaze with flashing lights. Trey eased away, walked half a mile, left the campus, and stopped at John Street, where he got into a white cargo van with the words “Princeton University Printing” stenciled on both front doors. It was number 12, whatever that meant, and it was very similar to a van Trey had photographed a week earlier. He drove it back onto campus, avoided the commotion around McCarren, and parked it by a loading ramp at the rear of the library. “Van in place,” he reported.

“We’re just opening the sixth drawer,” Denny replied.

As Jerry and Mark flipped up their goggles and moved their lights closer to the table, Denny gently opened the archival storage box. Its reference sheet read, “Original Handwritten Manuscript of The Great Gatsby—F. Scott Fitzgerald.”

“Bingo,” he said calmly. “We got Gatsby, that old son of a bitch.”

“Whoopee,” Mark said, though their excitement was thoroughly contained. Jerry lifted out the only other box in the drawer. It was the manuscript for This Side of Paradise, Fitzgerald’s first novel, published in 1920.

“We have all five,” Denny said calmly. “Let’s get outta here.”

Jerry repacked the drills, the cutting torch, the canisters of oxygen and acetylene, and the pry bars. As he bent to lift the duffel, a piece of the splintered wood from the third drawer nicked him above his left wrist. In the excitement, he barely noticed and just rubbed it for a split second as he removed his backpack. Denny and Mark carefully placed the five priceless manuscripts into their three student backpacks. The thieves hustled from the vault, laden with their loot and tools, and scampered up the stairs to the main floor. They left the library through a service entrance near a delivery ramp, one hidden from view by a thick, long hedge. They jumped through the rear doors of the van and Trey pulled away from the ramp. As he did so, he passed two campus security guards in a patrol car. He flicked a casual wave; they did not respond.

Trey noted the time: 3:42 a.m. He reported, “All clear, leaving the campus now with Mr. Gatsby and friends.”


The power outage triggered several alarms in the affected buildings. By 4:00 a.m., an electrical engineer had worked his way through the school’s computer grid and found the problem. Electricity was restored in all buildings except the library. The chief of security sent three officers to the library. It took them ten minutes to find the cause of the alarm.

By then, the gang had stopped at a cheap motel off Interstate 295 near Philadelphia. Trey parked the van beside an 18-wheeler and away from the lone camera monitoring the parking lot. Mark took a can of white spray paint and covered the “Princeton University Printing” on both of the van’s doors. In a room where he and Trey had stayed the night before, the men quickly changed into hunting outfits and crammed everything they’d worn for the job—jeans, sneakers, sweatshirts, black gloves—into another duffel. In the bathroom, Jerry noticed the small cut on his left wrist. He had kept a thumb on it during the ride and noted that there was more blood than he’d realized. He wiped it clean with a bath cloth and debated whether to mention it to the others. Not now, maybe later.

They quietly removed all their stuff from the room, turned off the lights, and left. Mark and Jerry got into a pickup truck—a fancy club cab leased and driven by Denny—and they followed Trey and the van out of the parking lot, onto the street, then back onto the interstate. They skirted the northern edge of the Philadelphia suburbs, and, using state highways, disappeared into the Pennsylvania countryside. Near Quakertown, they found the county road they had chosen and followed it for a mile until it turned to gravel. There were no houses in the area. Trey parked the van in a shallow ravine; removed the stolen license plates; poured a gallon of gasoline over their bags filled with tools, cell phones, radio equipment, and clothing; and lit a match. The fireball was instant, and as they drove away in the pickup they were confident they had destroyed all possible evidence. The manuscripts were safely tucked between Trey and Mark on the rear seat of the pickup.

As daylight slowly crept over the hills, they rode in silence, each of the four observing everything around them, which was very little. An occasional vehicle passing in the other direction, a farmer headed to his barn and not looking at the highway, an old woman collecting a cat off the front porch. Near Bethlehem, they merged onto Interstate 78 and headed west. Denny stayed well under the speed limit. They had not seen a police car since leaving the Princeton campus. They stopped at a drive-thru for chicken biscuits and coffee, then headed north on Interstate 81 toward the Scranton area.


The first pair of FBI agents arrived at the Firestone Library just after 7:00 a.m. They were briefed by campus security and the Princeton city police. They took a look at the crime scene and suggested strongly that the library remain closed indefinitely. Investigators and technicians from the Trenton office were hurrying to the school.

The president of the university had just returned to his home on campus, after a very long night, when he got the news that some valuables were missing. He raced to the library, where he met with the chief librarian, the FBI, and the local police. Together, they made the decision to keep a lid on the story for as long as possible. The head of the FBI’s Rare Asset Recovery Unit in Washington was on the way, and it was his opinion that the thieves might contact the school quickly and want a deal. Publicity, and there would be an avalanche of it, would only complicate matters.


The celebration was postponed until the four hunters arrived at the cabin, deep in the Poconos. Denny had leased the small A-frame for the hunting season, with funds that would be repaid when they cashed in, and had been living there for two months. Of the four, only Jerry had a permanent address. He’d been renting a small apartment with his girlfriend in Rochester, New York. Trey, as an escapee, had been living on the run most of his adult life. Mark lived part-time with an ex-wife near Baltimore, but there were no records to prove it.

All four had multiple forms of fake identification, including passports that would fool any customs agent.

Three bottles of cheap champagne were in the fridge. Denny opened one, emptied it into four mismatched coffee cups, and offered a hearty “Cheers, boys, and congratulations. We did it!” The three bottles were gone in half an hour and the weary hunters fell into long naps. The manuscripts, still in the identical archival storage boxes, were stacked like bricks of gold in a gun safe in a storage room, where they would be guarded by Denny and Trey for the next few days. Tomorrow, Jerry and Mark would drift back home, exhausted from a long week in the woods hunting deer.


While Jerry slept, the full weight and fury of the federal government was moving rapidly against him. An FBI technician noticed a tiny spot on the first step of the stairway leading to and from the library’s vault. She thought, correctly, that it was a drop of blood and that it had not been there long enough to turn dark maroon, almost black. She gathered it, told her supervisor, and the sample was rushed to an FBI lab in Philadelphia. DNA testing was done immediately, and the results were rammed into the national data bank. In less than an hour, it tagged a match in Massachusetts: one Gerald A. Steengarden, a paroled felon convicted seven years earlier of stealing paintings from an art dealer in Boston. A squad of analysts worked feverishly to find any trace of Mr. Steengarden. There were at least five in the U.S. Four were quickly eliminated. Search warrants for the apartment, cell phone records, and credit card records of the fifth Mr. Steengarden were obtained. When Jerry woke up from his long nap deep in the Poconos, the FBI was already watching his apartment in Rochester. The decision was made not to go in with a warrant, but to watch and wait.

Maybe, just maybe, Mr. Steengarden would lead them to the others.

Back at Princeton, lists were being made of all students who had used the library in the past week. Their ID cards recorded each visit to any of the libraries on campus. The fake ones stood out because in college fake IDs were used for the underage purchase of alcohol, not to sneak into libraries. The exact times of their use were determined, then matched against video footage from the library’s surveillance cameras. By noon the FBI had clear images of Denny, Jerry, and Mark, though these would prove to be of little value at the moment. All were well disguised.

In Rare Books and Special Collections, old Ed Folk snapped into high gear for the first time in decades. Surrounded by FBI agents, he raced through the log-in registers and security photos of his recent visitors. Each one was called for verification, and when Adjunct Professor Neville Manchin at Portland State spoke to the FBI he assured them he had never been near the Princeton campus. The FBI had a clear photo of Mark, though they did not know his real name.

Less than twelve hours after the heist was successfully completed, forty FBI agents were grinding away, poring over videos and analyzing data.


Late in the afternoon, the four hunters gathered around a card table and opened beers. Denny rambled on and covered ground they had gone over a dozen times. The heist was over, it was a success, but in any crime clues are left behind. Mistakes are always made, and if you can think of half of them, then you’re a genius. The fake IDs would soon be discovered and picked over. The cops would know they had cased the library for days before the heist. Who knew how much damning video footage existed? There could be fibers from their clothing, prints from their sneakers, and so on. They were confident they’d left no fingerprints behind, but there was always that possibility. The four were seasoned thieves and they knew all this.

The small Band-Aid above Jerry’s left wrist had not been noticed, and he had decided to ignore it too. He had convinced himself it was of no consequence.

Mark produced four devices identical to the Apple iPhone 5, complete with the company’s logo, but they were not phones. Instead, they were known as Sat-Traks, tracking devices tied to a satellite system with instant coverage anywhere in the world. There was no cell phone network, no way for the cops to track them or eavesdrop in any way. Mark explained, again, that it was imperative for the four, plus Ahmed, to remain in constant contact over the next few weeks. Ahmed had obtained the devices from one of his many sources. There was no on/off switch, but instead a three-digit code to activate the Sat-Traks. Once the device was turned on, each user punched in his own five-digit password to gain access. Twice each day, at exactly 8:00 a.m. and 8:00 p.m., the five would hook up through the devices with the simple message of “Clear.” Delays were inexcusable and perhaps catastrophic. A delay meant the Sat-Trak, and especially its user, had been compromised in some manner. A delay of fifteen minutes activated Plan B, which called for Denny and Trey to grab the manuscripts and move to a second safe house. If either Denny or Trey failed to report, the entire operation, or what was left of it, was to be aborted. Jerry, Mark, and Ahmed were to leave the country immediately.

Bad news was transmitted by the simple message “Red.” “Red” meant, with no questions asked and no time for delay, that (1) something has gone wrong, (2) if possible get the manuscripts to the third safe house, and (3) by all means get out of the country as quickly as possible.

If anyone was nabbed by the cops, silence was expected. The five had memorized the names of family members and their addresses to ensure complete loyalty to the cause and to each other. Retaliation was guaranteed. No one would talk. Ever.

As ominous as these preparations were, the mood was still light, even celebratory. They had pulled off a brilliant crime and made a perfect escape.

Trey, the serial escapee, relished telling his stories. He was successful because he had a plan after each escape, whereas most guys spent their time thinking only of getting out. Same with a crime. You spend days and weeks planning and plotting, then when it’s done you’re not sure what to do next. They needed a plan.

But they couldn’t agree on one. Denny and Mark favored the quick strike, which entailed making contact with Princeton within a week and demanding a ransom. They could get rid of the manuscripts and not have to worry about protecting and moving them, and they could get their cash.

Jerry and Trey, with more experience, favored a patient approach. Let the dust settle; let the reality set in as word crept through the black market; allow some time to pass so they could be certain they were not suspects. Princeton was not the only possible buyer. Indeed, there would be others.

The discussion was long and often tense, but also punctuated with jokes and laughter and no shortage of beer. They finally agreed on a temporary plan. Jerry and Mark would leave the following morning for home: Jerry to Rochester, Mark to Baltimore by way of Rochester. They would lie low and watch the news for the next week, and of course check in with the team twice a day. Denny and Trey would handle the manuscripts and move them in a week or so to the second safe house, a cheap apartment in a grungy section of Allentown, Pennsylvania. In ten days, they would reunite with Jerry and Mark at the safe house, and the four would hammer out a definite plan. In the meantime, Mark would contact a potential middleman he had known for many years, a player in the shady world of stolen art and artifacts. Speaking in the hushed code of the trade, he would let it be known that he knew something about the Fitzgerald manuscripts. But nothing more would be said until they met again.


Carole, the woman living in Jerry’s apartment, left at 4:30, alone. She was followed to a grocery store a few blocks away. The quick decision was made not to enter the apartment, not at that time. There were too many neighbors nearby. One word from one of them and their surveillance could be compromised. Carole had no idea how closely she was being watched. While she shopped, agents placed two tracking devices inside the bumpers of her car. Two more agents—females in jogging suits—monitored what she purchased (nothing of interest). When she texted her mother, the text was read and recorded. When she called her friend, agents listened to every word. When she stopped at a bar an agent in jeans offered to buy her a drink. When she returned home just after 9:00, every step was watched, filmed, and recorded.


Meanwhile, her boyfriend sipped beer and read The Great Gatsby in a hammock on the rear porch, with the beautiful pond just a few feet away. Mark and Trey were out there in a boat, quietly fishing for bream, while Denny tended to the steaks on the grill. At sunset, a cold wind arrived and the four hunters gathered in the den, where a fire was crackling away. At precisely 8:00 p.m., they pulled out their new Sat-Traks and punched in their codes, everybody pecked in the word “Clear,” including Ahmed in Buffalo, and life was secure.

Life was indeed good. Less than twenty-four hours earlier, they were on the campus, hiding in the dark, nervous as hell but also loving the thrill of the chase. Their plan had worked to perfection, they had the priceless manuscripts, and soon they would have the cash. That transfer would not be easy, but they would deal with it later.


The booze helped but sleep was difficult, for all four of them. Early the following morning, as Denny cooked eggs and bacon and guzzled black coffee, Mark sat at the counter with a laptop, scanning headlines from up and down the East Coast. “Nothing,” he said. “Plenty of stuff about the ruckus on campus, now officially labeled as a prank, but not a word about the manuscripts.”

“I’m sure they’re trying to keep it quiet,” Denny said.

“Yes, but for how long?”

“Not long at all. You can’t keep the press away from a story like this. There’ll be a leak today or tomorrow.”

“Can’t decide if that’s good or bad.”


Trey walked into the kitchen, with a freshly shaved head. He rubbed it proudly and said, “What do you think?”

“Gorgeous,” said Mark.

“Nothing helps,” said Denny.

None of the four looked the same as they had twenty-four hours earlier. Trey and Mark had shaved everything—beard, hair, eyebrows. Denny and Jerry had lost their beards but changed hair colors. Denny had gone from sandy blond to dark brown. Jerry was a soft ginger. All four would be wearing caps and glasses that changed daily. They knew they had been captured on video and they knew about the FBI’s facial recognition technology and its capabilities. They had made mistakes, but their efforts to remember them were rapidly diminishing. It was time to get on with the next phase.

There was also a cockiness that was the natural aftereffect of such a perfect crime. They had first met a year earlier, when Trey and Jerry, the two felons and the most experienced, had been introduced to Denny, who knew Mark, who knew Ahmed. They had spent hours planning and plotting, arguing about who would do what, and when was the best time, and where would they go afterward. A hundred details, some huge, some tiny, but all crucial. Now that the heist was over, all that was history. Before them now lay only the task of collecting the money.

At 8:00 a.m. Thursday, they watched each other go through the Sat-Trak ritual. Ahmed was alive and well. All present and accounted for. Jerry and Mark said good-bye and drove away from the cabin, away from the Poconos, and four hours later entered the outskirts of Rochester. They had no way of knowing the sheer number of FBI agents patiently waiting and watching for the 2010 Toyota pickup truck leased three months earlier. When Jerry parked it near his apartment, hidden cameras zoomed in on him and Mark as they nonchalantly walked across the parking lot and climbed the stairs to the third floor.

The digital photos were instantly streamed to the FBI lab in Trenton. By the time Jerry kissed Carole hello the photos had been matched to the frozen shots taken from the Princeton library surveillance videos. The FBI’s imaging technology nailed Jerry, or Mr. Gerald A. Steengarden, and it verified the identity of Mark as the imposter who borrowed the name of Professor Neville Manchin. Since Mark had no criminal record, he had no data in the national crime network. The FBI knew he was in the library; they just didn’t know his name.

But it wouldn’t take long.

The decision was made to watch and wait. Jerry had already delivered Mark; perhaps he could give them another one. After lunch, the two left the apartment and returned to the Toyota. Mark was carrying a cheap maroon nylon gym bag. Jerry was carrying nothing. They headed downtown and Jerry drove at a leisurely pace, careful to obey all traffic laws and steer clear of any policemen.


They were watching everything. Every car, every face, every old man sitting on a park bench hiding behind a newspaper. They were certain they were not being followed, but in their business one never rested. They could neither see nor hear the helicopter hovering benignly in the distance, following them three thousand feet in the air.

At the Amtrak station, Mark got out of the truck without a word, grabbed his bag from the back, and hustled along the sidewalk to the entrance. Inside, he bought an economy ticket for the 2:13 train to Penn Station in Manhattan. As he waited, he read an old paperback edition of The Last Tycoon. He was not much of a reader but was suddenly obsessing over Fitzgerald. He suppressed a grin when he thought of the handwritten manuscript and where it was now hidden.

Jerry stopped at a liquor store for a bottle of vodka. As he left the store, three rather large young men in dark suits stepped in front of him, said hello, flashed their badges, and said they’d like to talk. Jerry said no thanks. He had things to do. So did they. One produced some handcuffs, another took the vodka, and the third went through his pockets and removed his wallet, keys, and Sat-Trak. Jerry was escorted to a long black Suburban and driven to the city jail less than four blocks away. During the short drive, no one said a word. He was placed in an empty cell, again without a word. He didn’t ask; they didn’t offer. When a city jailer stopped by to say hello, Jerry said, “Say, man, any idea what’s going on here?”

The jailer looked up and down the hall, leaned closer to the bars, and said, “Don’t know, pal, but you have sure pissed off the big boys.” As Jerry stretched out on the bunk in the dark cell, he stared at the dirty ceiling and asked himself if this was really happening. How in hell? What went wrong?

As the room spun around him, Carole answered the front door and was greeted by half a dozen agents. One produced a search warrant. One told her to leave the apartment and go sit in her car but not to start the engine.

Mark boarded the train at 2:00 and took a seat. The doors closed at 2:13, but the train didn’t move. At 2:30, the doors opened and two men in matching navy trench coats stepped on board and looked sternly at him. At that awful moment, Mark knew things were deteriorating.

They quietly identified themselves and asked him to step off the train. One led him by the elbow while the other grabbed his bag from the overhead rack. Driving to the jail, they said nothing. Bored with silence, Mark asked, “So, fellas, am I under arrest?”

Without turning around, the driver said, “We don’t normally put handcuffs on random civilians.”

“Okay. And what am I being arrested for?”

“They’ll explain things at the jail.”

“I thought you boys had to name the charges when you read me my rights.”

“You’re not much of a criminal, are you? We don’t have to read you your rights until we start asking questions. Right now we’re just trying to enjoy some peace and quiet.”

Mark clammed up and watched the traffic. He assumed they had nabbed Jerry; otherwise they would not have known he, Mark, was at the train station. Was it possible they had grabbed Jerry and he was already spilling his guts and cutting deals? Surely not.

Jerry had not said a word, had not been given the chance. At 5:15, he was fetched from the jail and taken to the FBI office a few blocks away. He was led to an interrogation room and placed at a table. His handcuffs were removed and he was given a cup of coffee. An agent named McGregor entered, took off his jacket, took a seat, and began chatting. He was a friendly type and eventually got around to the Miranda warnings.

“Been arrested before?” McGregor asked.

Jerry had in fact, and because of this experience he knew that his pal McGregor here had a copy of his rap sheet. “Yes,” he said.

“How many times?”

“Look, Mr. Agent. You just told me I have the right to remain silent. I ain’t saying a word and I want a lawyer right now. Got it?”

McGregor said, “Sure,” and left the room.

Around the corner, Mark was being situated in another room. McGregor walked in and went through the same ritual. They sipped coffee for a while and talked about the Miranda rights. With a warrant, they had searched Mark’s bag and found all sorts of interesting items. McGregor opened a large envelope, pulled out some plastic cards, and began arranging them on the table. He said, “Got these from your wallet, Mr. Mark Driscoll. Maryland driver’s license, bad photo but with plenty of hair and even eyebrows, two valid credit cards, temporary hunting license issued by Pennsylvania.” More cards for the display. “And we got these from your bag. Kentucky driver’s license issued to Arnold Sawyer, again with lots of hair. One bogus credit card.” He slowly produced more cards. “Bogus Florida driver’s license, eyeglasses and beard. Mr. Luther Banahan. And this really high-quality passport issued in Houston to Clyde D. Mazy, along with driver’s license and three bogus credit cards.”

The table was covered. Mark wanted to vomit but clenched his jaws and tried to shrug. So what?

McGregor said, “Pretty impressive. We’ve checked them out and we know you’re really Mr. Driscoll, address uncertain because you move around.”

“Is that a question?”

“No, not yet.”

“Good, because I’m not saying anything. I have the right to a lawyer, so you’d better find me one.”

“Okay. Odd that in all these photos you got plenty of hair, even some whiskers, and always the eyebrows. Now everything’s gone. You hiding from something, Mark?”

“I want a lawyer.”

“Sure thing. Say, Mark, we haven’t found any papers for Professor Neville Manchin, from out at Portland State. Name ring a bell?”

A bell? What about a sledgehammer to the head?

Through one-way glass, a high-resolution camera was aimed at Mark. In another room, two interrogation experts, both trained in the detection of untruthful suspects and witnesses, were watching the pupils of the eyes, the upper lip, the muscles in the jaw, the position of the head. The mention of Neville Manchin jolted the suspect. When Mark responded with a lame “Uh, I ain’t talking, and I want a lawyer,” both experts nodded and smiled. Got him.

McGregor left the room, chatted with his colleagues, then entered Jerry’s room. He sat down, smiled, waited a long time, and said, “So, Jerry, still not talking, huh?”

“I want a lawyer.”

“Sure, right, we’re trying to find you one. Not very talkative, are you?”

“I want a lawyer.”

“Your buddy Mark is far more cooperative than you are.”

Jerry swallowed hard. He was hoping Mark had managed to leave town on the Amtrak. Guess not. What the hell happened? How could they get caught so quickly? This time yesterday they were sitting around the cabin playing cards, drinking beer, savoring their perfect crime.

Surely Mark was not already singing.

McGregor pointed to Jerry’s left hand and asked, “You got a Band-Aid there. Cut yourself?”

“I want a lawyer.”

“You need a doctor?”

“A lawyer.”

“Okay, okay. I’ll go find you a lawyer.”

He slammed the door as he left. Jerry looked at his wrist. It couldn’t be possible.


Shadows fell across the pond, and Denny reeled in his line and began paddling toward the cabin. As the chill off the water cut through his light jacket, he thought about Trey, and, frankly, how little he trusted him. Trey was forty-one years old, had been caught twice with his stolen goods, served four years the first time before escaping and two years the second time before going over the wall. What was so troubling about Trey was that in both cases he’d flipped, sang, ratted on his buddies for lesser sentences. For a professional, that was a cardinal sin.

Of the five in their gang, there was no doubt in Denny’s mind that Trey was the weakest. As a Ranger, Denny had fought in wars and survived the gun battles. He’d lost friends and killed many. He understood fear. What he hated was weakness.


At eight o’clock Thursday evening, Denny and Trey were playing gin rummy and drinking beer. They stopped, pulled out their Sat-Traks, pecked in their numbers, and waited. Within seconds, Ahmed chimed in with a “Clear” from Buffalo. Nothing from Mark or Jerry. Mark was supposed to be on a train, enduring the six-hour ride from Rochester to Penn Station. Jerry was supposed to be in his apartment.

The next five minutes passed very slowly, or perhaps they raced by. Things weren’t clear. The devices were working, right? They were CIA quality and cost a fortune. For two to go silent at the same time meant . . . well, what did it mean? At 8:06, Denny stood and said, “Let’s take the first few steps. Pack our bags with the essentials and plan to haul ass, okay?”

“Got it,” Trey replied, obviously concerned. They ran to their rooms and began throwing clothes into duffel bags. A few minutes later, Denny said, “It’s eleven minutes after eight. I say at eight-twenty, we’re outta here. Right?”

“Agreed,” Trey said as he paused to look at his Sat-Trak. Nothing. At 8:20, Denny opened the storage room door and unlocked the gun safe. They stuffed the five manuscripts into two green Army duffels padded with clothing, and carried them to Denny’s truck. They returned to the cabin to turn off lights and make one last frantic inspection.

“Should we burn it?” Trey asked.

“Hell no,” Denny snapped, irritated at his stupidity. “That’ll just attract attention. So they prove we were here. Big deal. We’re long gone and there’s no sign of the books.”

They turned off the lights, locked both doors, and as they stepped off the porch Denny hesitated a second so Trey could move a step ahead. Then he sprung, slapping both hands tightly around Trey’s neck, his thumbs jammed into the carotid pressure points. Trey—older, slightly built, out of shape, and unsuspecting—was no match for the ex-Ranger’s death grip around his neck. He wiggled and flailed for a few seconds, then went limp. Denny tossed him to the ground and took off his belt.


He stopped for gas and coffee near Scranton and headed west on Interstate 80. The speed limit was seventy miles per hour. His cruise control was on sixty-eight. He’d had a few beers earlier in the evening but all was clear now. His Sat-Trak was on the console and he glanced at it every mile or so. He knew by now that the screen would remain dark; no one would be checking in. He assumed Mark and Jerry had been nabbed together and their Sat-Traks were being taken apart by some very smart people. Trey’s was at the bottom of the pond, along with Trey, both waterlogged and already decomposing.

If he, Denny, could survive the next twenty-four hours and get out of the country, the fortune would be his and his alone.

At an all-night pancake house he parked close to the front door and took a table with his truck in sight. He opened his laptop, ordered coffee, asked about Wi-Fi. The girl said of course and gave him the password. He decided to stay for a spell and ordered waffles and bacon. Online he checked flights out of Pittsburgh, and booked one to Chicago, and from there a nonstop to Mexico City. He searched for storage units that were climate controlled and made a list. He ate slowly, ordered more coffee, killed as much time as possible. He pulled up the New York Times and was startled by the lead story, one posted about four hours earlier. The headline read, “Princeton Confirms Theft of Fitzgerald Manuscripts.”

After a day of offering no comments and suspicious denials, officials at the university had finally issued a statement confirming the rumors. On the previous Tuesday night, thieves had broken into the Firestone Library while the campus was responding to 911 reports of an active gunman. It was evidently a diversion, and one that worked. The university would not disclose how much of its Fitzgerald collection had been stolen, only that it was “substantial.” The FBI was investigating, and so on. Details were scarce.

There was no mention of Mark and Jerry. Denny was suddenly anxious and wanted to hit the road. He paid his check, and as he left the restaurant he dropped his Sat-Trak into a waste can outside the front door. There were no more ties to the past. He was alone and free and excited about the turn of events, but also nervous now that the news was breaking. Getting out of the country was imperative. That was not what he had planned, but things could not be lining up more perfectly. Plans—nothing ever goes as planned, and the survivors are the ones who can adapt on the fly.

Trey was trouble. He would have quickly become a nuisance, then baggage, then a liability. Denny thought of him only in passing now. As darkness began to dissipate and he entered the northern sprawl of Pittsburgh, Denny slammed the door on any memory of Trey. Another perfect crime.

At 9:00 a.m. he walked into the office of the East Mills Secured Storage operation in the Pittsburgh suburb of Oakmont. He explained to the clerk that he needed to store some fine wine for a few months and was looking for a small space where the temperature and humidity were controlled and monitored. The clerk showed him a twelve-by-twelve unit on the ground floor. The rate was $250 a month for a minimum of a year. Denny said no thanks, he wouldn’t need the space for that long. They agreed on $300 a month for six months. He produced a New Jersey driver’s license, signed the contract in the name of Paul Rafferty, and paid in cash. He took the key back to the storage unit, unlocked it, set the temperature on fifty-five degrees and the humidity at 40 percent, and turned off the light. He walked the hallways taking note of the surveillance cameras and eventually left without being seen by the clerk.

At 10:00 a.m. the discount wine warehouse opened, and Denny was its first customer of the day. He paid cash for four cases of rotgut chardonnay, talked the clerk out of two empty cardboard boxes, and left the store. He drove around for half an hour looking for a spot to hide, away from traffic and surveillance cameras. He ran his truck through a cheap car wash and parked by the vacuum machines. This Side of Paradise and The Beautiful and Damned fit nicely in one of the empty wine boxes. Tender Is the Night and The Last Tycoon were placed in another. Gatsby got a box of his own, once the twelve bottles were removed and left on the rear seat.

By eleven o’clock, Denny had hauled the six boxes inside the storage unit at East Mills. As he left, he bumped into the clerk and said he’d be back tomorrow with some more wine. Fine, whatever, the clerk couldn’t care less. As he drove away, he passed rows and rows of storage units and wondered what other stolen loot could be hidden behind those doors. Probably a lot, but nothing as valuable as his.

He drifted through downtown Pittsburgh and finally found a rough section. He parked in front of a pharmacy, one with thick bars over the windows. He rolled down his windows, left the keys in the ignition, left twelve bottles of bad wine on the rear floorboard, grabbed his bag, and walked away. It was almost noon, on a clear and bright fall day, and he felt relatively safe. He found a pay phone, called a cab, and waited outside a soul food café. Forty-five minutes later, the cab dropped him off at the Departures ramp at Pittsburgh International Airport. He picked up his ticket, eased through security without a hitch, and walked to a coffee shop near his gate. At a newsstand he bought a New York Times and a Washington Post. On the front page of the Post, below the fold, the headline yelled at him, “Two Arrested in Princeton Library Heist.” No photos and no names were given, and it was obvious Princeton and the FBI were trying to control the story. According to the brief article, the two men were picked up in Rochester the day before.

The search was on for others “involved in the spectacular burglary.”


While Denny waited for his flight to Chicago, Ahmed caught a flight from Buffalo to Toronto, where he booked a one-way flight to Amsterdam. With four hours to kill, he parked himself at the bar in an airport lounge, hid his face behind a menu, and started drinking.


The following Monday, Mark Driscoll and Gerald Steengarden waived extradition and were driven to Trenton, New Jersey. They appeared before a federal magistrate, swore in writing that they had no assets, and were assigned counsel. Because of their affinity for fake documents, they were deemed flight risks and denied bail.

Another week passed, then a month, and the investigation began losing steam. What at first had looked so promising gradually began to look hopeless. Other than the drop of blood and the photos of the well-disguised thieves, and of course the missing manuscripts, there was no evidence. The burned-out van, their escape vehicle, was found but no one knew where it came from. Denny’s rented pickup was stolen, stripped, and devoured by a chop shop. He went from Mexico City to Panama, where he had friends who knew how to hide.

The evidence was clear that Jerry and Mark had used fake student IDs to visit the library several times. Mark had even posed as a Fitzgerald scholar. On the night of the theft, it was clear the two had entered the library, along with a third accomplice, but there was no indication of when or how they left.

Without the stolen goods, the U.S. Attorney delayed the indictment. Attorneys for Jerry and Mark moved to dismiss the charges, but the judge refused. They stayed in jail, without bail, and without saying a word. The silence held. Three months after the theft, the U.S. Attorney offered Mark the deal of all deals: spill your guts and walk way. With no criminal record, and with no DNA from the crime scene, Mark was the better choice to deal with. Just talk and you’re a free man.

He declined for two reasons. First, his lawyer assured him the government would have difficulty proving a case at trial, and because of this he would probably continue to dodge an indictment. Second, and more important, Denny and Trey were out there. That meant the manuscripts were well hidden, and it also meant that retaliation was likely. Furthermore, even if Mark gave them Denny’s and Trey’s full names, the FBI would have trouble finding them. Obviously, Mark had no idea where the manuscripts were. He knew the locations of the second and third safe houses, but he also knew that in all likelihood they had not been used.


All trails became dead ends. Tips that had at first seemed urgent now faded away. The waiting game began. Whoever had the manuscripts would want money, and a lot of it. They would surface eventually, but where and when, and how much would they want?




When Bruce Cable was twenty-three years old, and still classified as a junior at Auburn, his father died suddenly. The two had been feuding over Bruce’s lack of academic progress, and things had gotten so bad that Mr. Cable had threatened more than once to cut young Bruce out of his will. Some ancient relative had made a fortune in gravel, and, following bad legal advice, had set up a scheme of misguided and complicated trusts that had strewn money over generations of undeserving kinfolks. The family had for years lived behind the facade of fine wealth while watching it slowly drip away. Threatening to modify wills and trusts was a favorite ploy used against the young, and it had never worked.

Mr. Cable, though, died before he made it to his lawyer’s office, so Bruce woke up one day with the promise of a quick $300,000, a beautiful windfall but not quite retirement money. He thought about investing it, and doing so conservatively might net him an annual return of between 5 and 10 percent, hardly enough to sustain the lifestyle Bruce was suddenly contemplating. Investing in a more daring way would be far riskier, and Bruce really wanted to hang on to the money. It did strange things to him. Perhaps the strangest was his decision to walk away from Auburn, after five years, and never look back.

Eventually, a girl enticed him to a Florida beach on Camino Island, a ten-mile-long barrier strip just north of Jacksonville. In a nice condo she was paying for, he spent a month sleeping, drinking beer, strolling in the surf, staring at the Atlantic for hours, and reading War and Peace. He’d been an English major and was bothered by the great books he had never read.

To protect the money, and hopefully watch it grow, he considered a number of ventures as he roamed the beach. He had wisely kept the news of his good fortune to himself—the money, after all, had been buried for decades—so he was not pestered by friends offering all manner of advice or looking for loans. The girl certainly knew nothing about the money. After a week together, he knew she would soon be history. In no particular order, he thought about investing in a chicken sandwich franchise, and some raw Florida land, and a condo in a nearby high-rise, and several dot-com start-ups in Silicon Valley, and a strip mall in Nashville, and so on. He read dozens of financial magazines, and the more he read the more he realized he had no patience for investing. It was all a hopeless maze of numbers and strategies. There was a reason he’d chosen English over economics.

Every other day he and the girl wandered into the quaint village of Santa Rosa, to have lunch in the cafés or drinks in the bars along Main Street. There was a decent bookstore with a coffee shop, and they fell into the habit of settling in with an afternoon latte and the New York Times. The barista was also the owner, an older guy named Tim, and Tim was a chatterbox. One day he let it slip that he was thinking about selling out and moving to Key West. The following day, Bruce managed to shake the girl and enjoy the latte by himself. He took a seat at the coffee bar and proceeded to prod Tim about his plans for the bookstore.

Selling books was a tough business, Tim explained. The big chains were deep discounting all bestsellers, some offering 50 percent off, and now with the Internet and Amazon folks were shopping from home. In the past five years, over 700 independent bookstores had closed. Only a few were making money. The more he talked the more somber he became. “Retail is brutal,” he said at least three times. “And no matter what you do today, you gotta start all over again tomorrow.”

Bruce admired his honesty but questioned his savviness. Was he trying to entice a buyer?

Tim said he made decent money with the store. The island had an established literary community, with some active writers, a book festival, and good libraries. Retirees still enjoyed reading and spent money on books. There were about forty thousand permanent residents, plus a million tourists each year, so there was plenty of traffic. What was his price? Bruce finally asked. Tim said he would take $150,000 cash, no owner financing, with the assumption of the lease of the building. Somewhat timidly, Bruce asked if he could see the store’s financials, just the basic balance sheet and profit and loss, nothing complicated. Tim didn’t like the idea. He didn’t know Bruce and thought the kid was just another twentysomething loafing at the beach and spending Daddy’s money. Tim said, “Okay, you show me your financials and I’ll show you mine.”

“Fair enough,” said Bruce. He left, promising to return, but got sidetracked by an idea for a road trip. Three days later he said good-bye to the girl and drove to Jacksonville to shop for a new car. He coveted a sparkling-new Porsche 911 Carrera, and the fact that he could simply write a check for one made the temptation painful. He stood his ground, though, and after a long day of horse-trading he surrendered his well-used Jeep Cherokee for a brand-new one. He might need the space to haul things. The Porsche could always wait, perhaps until he’d earned the money to buy one.

With a new set of wheels, and money in the bank, Bruce left Florida for a literary adventure that he anticipated more with each passing mile. He had no itinerary. He headed west, and planned to one day turn north at the Pacific, then back east, then south. Time meant nothing; there were no deadlines. He searched for independent bookstores, and when he found one he decamped for a day or two of browsing, drinking coffee, reading, maybe even lunch if the place had a café. He usually managed to corner the owners and gently poke around for information. He told them he was thinking about buying a bookstore and, frankly, needed their advice. The responses varied. Most seemed to enjoy their work, even those who were wary of the future. There was great uncertainty in the business, with the chains expanding and the Internet filled with unknowns. There were horror stories of established bookshops driven out of business when large discount stores popped up just down the street. Some of the independents, especially those in college towns too small for the chains, appeared to be thriving. Others, even in cities, were practically deserted. A few were new and enthusiastically bucking the trend. The advice was inconsistent and wide-ranging, from the standard “Retail is brutal” to “Go for it, you’re only twenty-three years old.” But the one constant was that those giving advice enjoyed what they were doing. They loved books, and literature, and writers, the whole publishing scene, and they were willing to put in long hours and deal with customers because they considered theirs to be a noble calling.

For two months, Bruce drifted across the country, zigzagging aimlessly in pursuit of the next independent bookstore. The owner in one town might know three others across the state, and so on. Bruce consumed gallons of strong coffee, hung out with authors on tour, bought dozens of autographed books, slept in cheap motels, occasionally with another bookworm he’d just met, spent hours with booksellers willing to share their knowledge and advice, sipped a lot of bad wine at signings where only a handful of customers showed up, took hundreds of interior and exterior photographs, took pages of notes, and kept a log. By the time his adventure was over, and he was finished and tired of driving, he had covered almost eight thousand miles in seventy-four days and visited sixty-one independent bookstores, no two even remotely similar. He thought he had a plan.

He returned to Camino Island and found Tim where he’d left him, at the coffee bar, sipping espresso and reading a newspaper, looking even more haggard than before. At first, Tim did not remember him, but then Bruce said, “I was thinking about buying the store a couple of months ago. You were asking one-fifty.”

“Sure,” Tim said, perking up only slightly. “You find the money?”

“Some of it. I’ll write a check today for a hundred thousand, and twenty-five grand a year from now.”

“Nice, but that’s twenty-five short, the way I count.”

“That’s all I have, Tim. Take it or leave it. I’ve found another store on the market.”

Tim thought for a second, then slowly shoved forward his right hand. They shook on the deal. Tim called his lawyer and told him to speed things along. Three days later the paperwork was signed and the money changed hands. Bruce closed the store for a month for renovations, and used the downtime for a crash course on bookselling. Tim was happy to hang around and share his knowledge on every aspect of the trade, as well as the gossip on customers and most of the other downtown merchants. He had a lot of opinions on most matters, and after a couple of weeks Bruce was ready for him to leave.

On August 1, 1996, the store reopened with as much fanfare as Bruce could possibly drum up. A nice crowd sipped champagne and beer and listened to reggae and jazz while Bruce relished the moment. His grand adventure had been launched, and Bay Books—New and Rare was in business.


His interest in rare books was accidental. Upon hearing the awful news that his father had dropped dead of a heart attack, Bruce went home to Atlanta. It wasn’t really his home—he’d never spent much time there—but rather the current and last home of his father, a man who moved often and usually with a frightening woman in tow. Mr. Cable had married twice, and badly, and had sworn off the institution, but he couldn’t seem to exist without the presence of some wretched woman to complicate his life. They were attracted to him because of his apparent wealth, but over time each had realized he was hopelessly scarred by two horrific divorces. Luckily, at least for Bruce, the latest girlfriend had just moved out and the place was free from prying eyes and hands.

Until Bruce arrived. The house, a baffling, cutting-edge pile of steel and glass in a hip section of downtown, had a large studio on the third level where Mr. Cable liked to paint when he wasn’t investing. He had never really pursued a career, and since he lived off his inheritance he had always referred to himself as an “investor.” Later, he’d turned to painting, but his oils were so dreadful that he’d been shooed away from every gallery in Atlanta. One wall of the studio was covered with books, hundreds of them, and at first Bruce hardly noticed the collection. He assumed they were just window dressing, another part of the act, another lame effort by his father to seem deep, complicated, and well read. But upon closer observation, Bruce realized that two shelves held some older books with familiar titles. He began pulling them off the upper shelf, one by one, and examining them. His casual curiosity quickly turned to something else.

The books were all first editions, some autographed by the authors. Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, published in 1961; Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead (1948); John Updike’s Rabbit, Run (1960); Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952); Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer (1961); Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus (1959); William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967); Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon (1929); Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (1965); and J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951).

After the first dozen or so, Bruce began placing the books on a table rather than returning them to the shelves. His initial curiosity was overwhelmed by a heady wave of excitement, then greed. On the lower shelf he ran across books and authors he’d never heard of until he made an even more startling discovery. Hidden behind a thick three-volume biography of Churchill were four books: William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury (1929); Steinbeck’s Cup of Gold (1929); F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise (1920); and Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms (1929). All were first editions in excellent condition and signed by the authors.

Bruce fished around some more, found nothing else of interest, then fell into his father’s old recliner and stared at the wall of books. Sitting there, in a house he’d never really known, looking at wretched oils done by an artist with an obvious lack of talent, wondering where the books came from, and pondering what he would do when Molly, his sister, arrived and they would be expected to plan a funeral service, Bruce was struck by how little he knew about his late father. And why should he know more? His father had never spent time with him. Mr. Cable shipped Bruce off to boarding school when he was fourteen. During the summers, the kid was sent to a sailing camp for six weeks and a dude ranch for six more, anything to keep him away from home. Bruce knew of nothing his father enjoyed collecting, other than a string of miserable women. Mr. Cable played golf and tennis and traveled, but never with Bruce and his sister; always with the latest girlfriend.

So where did the books come from? How long had he been collecting them? Were there old invoices lying around, written proof of their existence? Would the executor of his father’s estate be required to lump them in with his other assets and give them, along with the bulk, to Emory University?

Leaving the bulk of the estate to Emory was something else that irked Bruce. His father had talked about it occasionally, without giving too many details. Mr. Cable was of the lofty opinion that his money should be invested in education and not left for children to squander. On several occasions Bruce had been tempted to remind his father that he’d spent his entire life pissing away money earned by someone else, but squabbling over such matters would not benefit Bruce.

At that moment, he really wanted those books. He decided to keep eighteen of the best and leave the rest behind. If he got greedy and left gaps, someone might notice. He fit them neatly in a cardboard box that had once held a case of wine. His father had battled the bottle for years and finally reached a truce that allowed him a few glasses of red wine each night. There were several empty boxes in the garage. Bruce spent hours rearranging the shelves to give the impression that nothing was missing. And who would know? As far as he knew, Molly read nothing, and, more important, avoided their father because she hated his girlfriends. To Bruce’s knowledge, Molly had never spent a night in the house. She would know nothing of her father’s personal effects. (However, two months later, she asked him on the phone if he knew anything about “Daddy’s old books.” Bruce assured her he knew nothing.)

He waited until dark and carried the box to his Jeep. There were at least three surveillance cameras watching the patio, driveway, and garage, and if anyone asked questions, he would simply say he was taking away some of his own stuff. Videos, CDs, whatever. If the executor of the estate later asked about the missing first editions, Bruce would, of course, know nothing. Go quiz the housekeeper.

As things evolved, it was the perfect crime, if, indeed, it was a crime at all. Bruce really didn’t think so. In his opinion, he should be receiving far more. Thanks to thick wills and family lawyers, his father’s estate was wrapped up efficiently and his library was never mentioned.

Bruce Cable’s unplanned entry into the world of rare books was off to a fine start. He plunged himself into the study of the trade and realized that the value of his first collection, the eighteen taken from his father’s house, was around $200,000. He was afraid to sell the books, though, afraid someone somewhere might recognize one and ask questions. Since he did not know how his father had gained possession of the books, it was best to wait. Allow some time to pass, for memories to fade. As he would quickly learn in the business, patience was imperative.


The building was on the corner of Third and Main Street in the heart of Santa Rosa. It was a hundred years old and originally built to house the town’s leading bank, one that collapsed in the Depression. Then it was a pharmacy, then another bank, then a bookshop. The second floor stored boxes and trunks and file cabinets, all laden with dust and utterly worthless. Up there Bruce managed to stake out a claim, clear some space, throw up a couple of walls, move in a bed, and call it an apartment. He lived there for the first ten years Bay Books was in business. When he wasn’t downstairs peddling books, he was upstairs clearing, cleaning, painting, renovating, and eventually decorating.

The bookstore’s first month was August 1996. After the wine-and-cheese opening, the place was busy for a few days, but the curiosity began to wear off. The traffic slowed considerably. After three weeks in business, Bruce was beginning to wonder if he’d blundered badly. August saw a net profit of only two thousand dollars, and Bruce was ready to panic. It was, after all, the high season for tourism on Camino Island. He decided to begin discounting, something the majority of independent owners advised against. Big new releases and bestsellers were marked down 25 percent. He pushed the closing time back from seven to nine and put in fifteen hours a day. He worked the front like a politician, memorizing the names of the regular customers and noting what they bought. He was soon an accomplished barista. He could brew an espresso while hustling to the front to check out a customer. He removed shelves of old books, mainly classics that were not too popular, and put in a small café. Closing time went from nine to ten. He cranked out dozens of handwritten notes to customers, and to writers and booksellers he’d met on his coast-to-coast adventure. At midnight, he was often at the computer, updating the Bay Books newsletter. He wrestled with the idea of opening on Sunday, something most of the independents did. He didn’t want to, because he needed the rest, and he was also afraid of possible backlash. Camino Island was in the Bible Belt; one could easily walk to a dozen churches from the bookstore. But it was also a vacation spot and almost none of the tourists seemed interested in Sunday morning worship. So in September he said to hell with it and opened at 9:00 a.m. Sunday, with the New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, and Chicago Tribune hot off the press, along with fresh chicken biscuits from a café three doors down. By the third Sunday, the place was packed.

The store netted four thousand dollars in September and October and doubled that after six months. Bruce stopped worrying. Within a year Bay Books was the hub of downtown, by far the busiest store. Publishers and sales reps succumbed to his constant badgering and began to include Camino Island on author tours. Bruce joined the American Booksellers Association and immersed himself in its causes, issues, and committees. In the winter of 1997, at an ABA convention, he met Stephen King and convinced him to pop over for a book party. Mr. King signed for nine hours as fans waited in lines that wrapped around the block. The store sold twenty-two hundred copies of his various titles and grossed seventy thousand dollars in sales. It was a glorious day that put Bay Books on the map. Three years later it was voted Best Independent Bookstore in Florida, and in 2004 Publishers Weekly named it Bookstore of the Year. In 2005, after nine hard years in the trenches, Bruce Cable was elected to the ABA Board of Directors.


By then Bruce was quite the figure around town. He owned a dozen seersucker suits, each a different shade or color, and he wore one every day, along with a starched white shirt with a spread collar, and a loud bow tie, usually either red or yellow. His ensemble was completed with a pair of dirty buckskins, no socks. He never wore socks, not even in January when the temperatures dipped into the forties. His hair was thick and wavy, and he wore it long, almost to his shoulders. He shaved once a week on Sunday morning. By the time he was thirty, some gray was working itself into the picture, a few whiskers and a few strands of the long hair, and it was quite becoming.

Each day, when things slowed a bit in the store, Bruce hit the street. He walked to the post office and flirted with the clerks. He went to the bank and flirted with the tellers. If a new retail shop opened downtown, Bruce was there for the grand opening, and he returned soon afterward to flirt with the salesgirls. Lunch was a major production for Bruce, and he dined out six days a week, always with someone else so he could write it off as a business expense. When a new café opened, Bruce was first in line, sampling everything on the menu and flirting with the waitresses. He usually drank a bottle of wine for lunch and slept it off with a little siesta in the upstairs apartment.

Often, with Bruce, there was a fine line between flirting and stalking. He had an eye for the ladies, as they did for him, and he played the game beautifully. He hit pay dirt when Bay Books became a popular stop on the author circuit. Half the writers who came to town were women, most under forty, all obviously away from home, most of them single and traveling alone and looking for some fun. They were easy and willing targets when they arrived at the bookstore and stepped into his world. After a reading and signing session, then a long dinner, they often retired to the apartment upstairs with Bruce for “a deeper search for human emotion.” He had his favorites, especially two young ladies who were doing well with erotic mysteries. And they published every year!

Despite his efforts to carefully groom his image as a well-read playboy, Bruce was at his core an ambitious businessman. The store provided a healthy income, but that was not by accident. Regardless of how late his night had been, he was at the store before seven each morning, in shorts and a T-shirt, unloading and unboxing books, stocking shelves, taking inventory, even sweeping the floors. He loved the feel and smell of new books as they came out of the box. He found the perfect spot for each new edition. He touched every book that came into the store, and, sadly, every book that was re-boxed and returned to the publisher for credit. He hated returns and viewed each one as a failure, a missed opportunity. He purged the inventory of stuff that didn’t sell, and after a few years settled on about twelve thousand titles. Sections of the store were cramped spaces with saggy old shelves and books stacked on the floors, but Bruce knew where to find anything. After all, he had carefully placed them all. At 8:45 each morning, he hurried upstairs to the apartment, showered, and changed into his seersucker of the day, and at precisely 9:00 a.m. he opened the doors and greeted his customers.

He rarely took a day off. For Bruce, the idea of a vacation was a trip to New England to meet antiquarian book dealers in their old dusty shops and talk about the market. He loved rare books, especially those by twentieth-century American authors, and he collected them with a passion. His collection grew, primarily because he wanted to buy so much, but also because he found it painful to sell anything. He was a dealer for sure, but one who always bought and almost never sold. The eighteen of “Daddy’s old books” he’d filched became a wonderful foundation, and by the time Bruce was forty years old he valued his rare collection at two million dollars.


While he served on the ABA Board, the owner of his building died. Bruce bought it from the estate and began expanding the store. He shrunk the size of his apartment and moved the coffee bar and café to the second floor. He knocked out a wall and doubled the size of his children’s section. On Saturday mornings, the store was filled with kids buying books and listening to story time while their young moms were upstairs sipping lattes under the watchful eye of the friendly owner. His rare book section received a lot of his attention. On the main floor, he knocked out another wall and built a First Editions Room with handsome oak shelves, paneling, and expensive rugs. He built a vault in the basement to protect his rarest books.

After ten years of apartment living, Bruce was ready for something grander. He’d kept his eye on several of the old Victorians in historic downtown Santa Rosa, and had even made offers to purchase two of them. In both cases he failed to offer enough, and the homes quickly sold to other buyers. The magnificent homes, built by turn-of-the-century railroad magnates and shippers and doctors and politicians, were beautifully preserved and sat timelessly on streets shaded with ancient oaks and Spanish moss. When Mrs. Marchbanks died at the age of 103, Bruce approached her daughter, age 81 and living in Texas. He paid too much for the house, but then he was determined not to lose a third time.

Two blocks north and three blocks east of the store, the Marchbanks House was built in 1890 by a doctor as a gift to his pretty new wife, and had been in the family ever since. It was huge, over eight thousand square feet sprawled over four levels, with a soaring tower on the south side and a turret on the north, and a sweeping veranda wrapped around the ground floor. It had a roof deck, a variety of gables, fish-scale shingles, and bay windows, many of which were adorned with stained glass. It covered a small corner lot that was lined with white picket fences and shaded by three ancient oaks and Spanish moss.

Bruce found the interior depressing, with its dark wood floors, even darker painted walls, well-worn rugs, sagging, dusty drapes, and abundance of brown-brick hearths. Much of the furniture came with the deal, and he immediately began selling it. The ancient rugs that were not too threadbare were moved to the bookstore and added decades to its ambience. The old drapes and curtains were worthless and thrown away. When the house was empty, he hired a paint crew that spent two months brightening up the interior walls. When they were gone he hired a local artisan who spent another two months refinishing every square inch of the oak and heart pine flooring.

He bought the house because its systems worked—plumbing, electrical, water, heating, and air. He had neither the patience nor the stomach for a renovation, one that would virtually bankrupt a new buyer. He had little talent with a hammer and better ways to spend his time. For the next year, he continued to live in his apartment above the store as he pondered the furnishing and decorating of the house. It sat empty, bright, and beautiful, while the task of molding it into his livable space became intimidating. It was a majestic example of Victorian architecture and thoroughly unsuited for the modern and minimalist decor he preferred. He considered the period pieces fussy and frilly and just not his style.

What was wrong with having a grand old home that stayed true to its origins, at least on the outside, while jazzing up the interior with modern furniture and art? Something was not right with that, though, and he became handcuffed with ideas of a decorating scheme.

He walked to the house every day and stood in every room, perplexed and uncertain. Was it becoming his folly, an empty house much too large and complicated for his uncertain tastes?


To the rescue came one Noelle Bonnet, a New Orleans antiques dealer who was touring with her latest book, a fifty-dollar coffee-table tome. He had seen Noelle’s publisher’s catalog months earlier and was captivated by her photograph. Doing his homework, as always, he learned that she was thirty-seven years old, divorced with no kids, a native of New Orleans, though her mother was French, and well regarded as an expert on Provençal antiques. Her shop was on Royal Street in the Quarter, and according to her bio she spent half the year in southern and southwest France scouring for old furniture. She had published two previous books on the subject and Bruce studied both of them.

This was a habit if not a calling. His store did two and sometimes three signing events each week, and by the time an author arrived Bruce had read everything he or she had published. He read voraciously, and while he preferred novels by living authors, people he could meet, promote, befriend, and follow, he also devoured biographies, self-help, cookbooks, histories, anything and everything. It was the least he could do. He admired all writers, and if one took the time to visit his store, and have dinner and drinks and so on, then he was determined to be able to discuss his or her works.

He read deep into the night and often fell asleep with an open book in the bed. He read early in the morning, alone in the store with strong coffee, long before it opened if he wasn’t packing and unpacking. He read constantly throughout the day, and over time developed the curious routine of standing in the same spot by a front window, near the biographies, leaning casually on a full-sized wood sculpture of a Timucuan Indian chief, sipping espresso nonstop, with one eye on the page and the other on the front door. He greeted customers, found books for them, chatted with anyone who wanted to chat, occasionally helped at the coffee bar or front register when things were busy, but always eased back to his spot by the chief, where he picked up his book and resumed his reading. He claimed to average four books per week and no one doubted this. If a prospective clerk did not read at least two per week, there was no job offer.

At any rate, Noelle Bonnet’s visit was a great success, if not for the revenue it generated, then certainly for its lasting impact on Bruce and Bay Books. The attraction was mutual, immediate, and intense. After a quick, even abbreviated dinner, they retired to his apartment upstairs and enjoyed one hell of a romp. Claiming to be ill, she canceled the rest of her tour and stayed in town for a week. On the third day, Bruce walked her over to the Marchbanks House and proudly displayed his trophy. Noelle was overwhelmed. For a world-class designer/decorator/dealer, the presentation of eight thousand square feet of empty floors and walls behind the facade of such a grand Victorian was breathtaking. As they drifted from room to room, she began having visions of how each should be painted, wallpapered, and furnished.

Bruce offered a couple of modest suggestions, such as a big-screen TV here and pool table over there, but these were not well received. The artist was at work, suddenly painting on a canvas with no borders. Noelle spent the following day alone in the house, measuring and photographing and simply sitting in its vast emptiness. Bruce tended the store, thoroughly smitten with her but also having the first tremors of a pending financial nightmare.

She cajoled him into leaving the store over the weekend and they flew to New Orleans. She walked him through her stylish, though cluttered, store, where every table, lamp, four-poster bed, chest, chaise, trunk, rug, commode, and armoire not only had rich origins in some Provençal village but was destined for the perfect spot in the Marchbanks House. They roamed the French Quarter, dined in her favorite local bistros, hung out with her friends, spent plenty of time in bed, and after three days Bruce flew home alone, exhausted, but also, for the first time, admittedly in love. Damn the expense. Noelle Bonnet was a woman he could not live without.


A week later, a large truck arrived in Santa Rosa and parked in front of the Marchbanks House. The following day, Noelle was there directing the movers. Bruce walked back and forth from the store, watching with great interest and a touch of trepidation. The artist was lost in her own creative world, buzzing from room to room, moving each piece at least three times, and realizing she needed more. A second truck arrived not long after the first one left. Bruce, walking back to the store, mumbled to himself that there could be little left in her shop on Royal Street. Over dinner that night, she confirmed this, and begged him to leave for France in just a few days for another shopping adventure. He declined, saying he had some important authors on the way and had to tend to the store. That night, they slept in the house for the first time, in a wrought-iron contraption of a bed she had found near Avignon, where she kept a small apartment. Every stick of furniture, every accessory, every rug and pot and painting had a history, and her love for the stuff was contagious.

Early the following morning, they sipped coffee on the back porch and talked about the future, which, at the moment, was uncertain. She had her life in New Orleans and he had his on the island, and neither seemed suited for a long, permanent relationship that involved pulling up stakes. It was awkward and they soon changed the subject. Bruce admitted he’d never been to France and they began planning a vacation there.

Not long after Noelle left town, the first invoice arrived. It came with a note, handwritten in her beautiful script, in which she explained that she was forgoing her usual markup and basically selling the stuff at cost. Thank God for small miracles, he mumbled. And now she’s headed back to France for more!

She returned to New Orleans from Avignon three days before Hurricane Katrina. Neither her store in the French Quarter nor her apartment in the Garden District was damaged, but the city was mortally wounded. She locked her doors and fled to Camino Island, where Bruce was waiting to soothe and calm her. For days they watched the horror on television—the flooded streets, the floating bodies, the oil-stained waters, the frantic flight of half the population, the panicked rescue workers, the bumbling politicians.

Noelle doubted she could return. She wasn’t sure she wanted to.

Gradually, she began to talk of relocating. About half of her customers were from New Orleans, and with so many of them now in exile she was worried about her business. The other half was spread throughout the country. Her reputation was wide and well known and she shipped antiques everywhere. Her website was a success. Her books were popular and many of her fans were serious collectors. With Bruce’s gentle prodding, she convinced herself she could move her business to the island and not only rebuild what had been lost but prosper.

Six weeks after the storm, Noelle signed a lease for a small space on Main Street in Santa Rosa, three doors down from Bay Books. She closed her shop on Royal Street and moved what was left of her inventory to her new store, Noelle’s Provence. When a new shipment from France arrived, she opened the doors with a champagne-and-caviar party, and Bruce helped her work the crowd.

She had a great idea for a new book: the transformation of the Marchbanks House as it filled up with Provençal antiques. She had photographed the home extensively as it sat empty, and now she would document her triumphant renovation. Bruce doubted the book would sell enough to cover its costs, but what the hell? Whatever Noelle wanted.

At some point the invoices had stopped arriving. Timidly, he broached this subject, and she explained with great drama that he was now getting the ultimate discount: Her! He might own the house, but everything in it would be theirs together.


In April 2006, they spent two weeks in the South of France. Using her apartment in Avignon as home base, they roamed from village to village, market to market, eating food that Bruce had only seen photos of, drinking great local wines not available back home, staying in quaint hotels, seeing the sights, catching up with her friends, and, of course, loading up with more inventory for her store. Bruce, always the researcher, thrust himself into the world of rustic French furniture and artifacts and could soon spot a bargain.

They were in Nice when they decided to get married, right then and there.




On a perfect spring day in late April, Mercer Mann walked with some anxiety across the Chapel Hill campus of the University of North Carolina. She had agreed to meet a stranger for a quick lunch, but only because of the prospect of a job. Her current one, adjunct professor of freshman literature, would expire in two weeks, courtesy of budget cuts brought on by a state legislature dominated by those rabid about tax and spending cuts. She had lobbied hard for a new contract but didn’t get one. She would soon be out of work, still in debt, homeless, and out of print. She was thirty-one years old, quite single, and, well, her life was not exactly going as planned.

The first e-mail, one of two from the stranger, a Donna Watson, had arrived the day before and had been about as vague as an e-mail could be. Ms. Watson claimed to be a consultant hired by a private academy to locate a new teacher of creative writing for high school seniors. She was in the area and could meet for coffee. The salary was in the range of seventy-five thousand dollars a year, on the high side, but the school’s headmaster loved literature and was determined to hire a teacher who had actually published a novel or two.

Mercer had one novel under her belt, along with a collection of stories. The salary was indeed impressive and more than she was currently making. No other details were offered. Mercer responded favorably and asked a few questions about the school, specifically what was its name and where was it located.

The second e-mail was only slightly less vague than the first, but did re