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The Grand Complication

by Allen Kurzweil

Paperback, 359 pages, Hyperion Books, List Price: $21 |


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Allen Kurzweil

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Book Summary

Confronted by both professional and personal crises, reference librarian Alexander Short gains a new lease on life when he meets Henry James Jesson III, who hires him for some research into an enigmatic eighteenth-century inventor.

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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: The Grand Complication

The Grand Complication


Copyright © 2002 Allen Kurzweil
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0786885181

Chapter One

THE SEARCH BEGAN with a library call slip and the graciousquery of an elegant man.

    "I beg your pardon," said the man, bowing ever so slightly."Might I steal a moment of your time?"

    He deposited his slip on the reference desk and turned it sothat the lettering would face me. And if this unusual courtesywasn't enough to attract attention, there was also the matterof his handwriting—a gorgeous old-fashioned script executedwith confident ascenders and tapering exit strokes—as well asthe title of the book he requested. Secret Compartments inEighteenth-Century Furniture played right to my fascinationwith objects of enclosure.

    "Let's see what we can do for you, Mr.—"I double-checkedthe bottom of the slip before uttering his improbably literaryname. "Henry James Jesson III."

    After I had directed him to the tube clerk, curiosity gotthe best of me, so I rang the stack supervisor and asked thatshe expedite retrieval. In a further breach of protocol, I pushedthrough the swing gate and planted myself near the dumb-waiterin Delivery, where I waited for the book to surface.

    "This is terribly kind of you," Jesson said as I slid SecretCompartments under the brass grille.

    "Glad to be of service."

    I was professional enough not to mention the uncanny overlapof our interests—I don't meet many readers keen on letteringtechnique and enclosures. But that same restraint left memildly disappointed. The call slip was so enticing, ourexchange so stilted and brief.

    Jesson settled himself at a table near the municipal taxcodes. He quickly supplied further proof of a charmingly outmodedmanner by digging deep into his capacious trouser pocketsto extract a roll of paper, a tiny ink pot, and a calligraphypen. Though he seemed to ignore the stares of nearby readers,he occasionally glanced in my direction, as if to confirm thatI'd stuck around. Which, of course, I had. In fact, while hetook notes on Secret Compartments, I took notes on him, convincedthat the consonance of our uncommon pursuits demandedannotation.

    He wore billowy trousers of moss-green corduroy that hadwale as thick as pencils. These he partnered with a button-downshirt of subtle stripe and a dainty chamois vest tied atthe back with a fat purple ribbon. He had an indulgent-lookingface and blue-gray eyes that recalled the color of thebuckram on my compact OED. Despite a bump at the bridgeof his nose and teeth that predated fluoridation, he was undeniablyhandsome, a scholar who appeared unencumbered bythe tattered frugality of most academics I assist. Those, in toto,were my preliminary observations of the elderly man wishingto steal a moment of my time.

* * *

When the closing bell sounded, I sifted through the wire basketof call slips kept at Returns. My friend Norton noticed meswapping the calligraphic original for a quickly scribbled substitute.

    "A little something for your collection?"

    I nodded.

    "What is it this time?"

    "Just some furniture book," I said, downplaying my interest.Norton and I disagreed about the utility of paper records,and I didn't want to be deflected from inspection by yet anothersparring session.

    I located Jesson's book without difficulty. Secret Compartmentswas filled with line drawings of card tables, glass-frontedcabinets, and pedestal globes, each image accompaniedby a technical description of the mechanism triggering release.

    Norton glanced over my shoulder and chuckled. "Let's seehere. A book about false fronts and hidden recesses." Hepaused. "Seems an awful lot like you."

Chapter Two

AFTER MR. SINGH, one of our more vigilant exit guards,doweled through my satchel with his stick of polished pine,I said good night to Norton and started the long walk uptown.

    At a traffic light near Lincoln Center, on a stretch of Broadwaythat brashly disrupts the city's grid, I withdrew thepurloined call slip just as a taxi pulled up to the curb. Thedriver, compact and neatly dressed, jumped out, popped thetrunk, and produced a small rug, which he unfurled with afirm, practiced snap. Then, facing a warehouse topped by aminiature Statue of Liberty, he kneeled in prayer. While thecabby, oblivious to the rush-hour traffic, satisfied his devotionalobligations, I focused on the slip, noticing for the firsttime that its lettering leaned gently backward, as if to corroboratethe writer's inclination toward the past. When the lightchanged, I put the slip back in my pocket, determined to investigatethe origins of the beautiful script.

    I got home just as the sun was dropping behind the watertowers. Mr. Lopez, wearing his super's hat (he also ownedthe corner bodega), was hosing down an old ceramic sign thatsaid, NO LOITERING OR BALL PLAYING, a wistful reminder ofquieter times—before the spray of fluorescent paint and nine-millimeterbullets blemished the brick, before teenage crackdealers hung sneakers from lampposts to advertise their drive-bybusiness.

    "Hey, Mr. Lopez," I called out. "Can we get the landlordto update that sign?"


    "Maybe it should just say, NO DRUGS."

    Mr. Lopez said, "Okay, my friend," his standard response toall complaints, whether about street crime, boiler malfunctions,or rats sharpening their teeth against the rotting wallboard. Heturned to admire one of his children, who had just crawled insidethe cabinet of a television set abandoned on the curb a weekbefore. The little boy, discovering that an old paint roller servednicely as a gun, scanned the block for targets and soon found hisfather and me in his sights. As the child squeezed off imaginaryrounds from inside the TV, I took a few quick notes. The naturalplace to register the scene would have been the "Enclosure"section of my girdle book, but I'd determined long before to restrictthat rubric to purely autobiographical entries. I opted for"Street Views, Misc."

    A gypsy cab caught my eye. Once more a driver hoppedout and yanked something from the trunk. This time the objectwas a black satin jacket that advertised Les Misérables.The cabby beckoned Mr. Lopez, who, after careful inspectionof the contraband, peeled a twenty from a fat roll of cash. Ashe was completing the sale, the nightly drug trade startedrevving up.

    "We gots blue." ... "Blue's doin' it." ... "Blue's out."

    The super grabbed his child from the TV cabinet and bundledhim into the building. I followed close behind but stoppedwhen I felt a crunch underfoot. I bent down and picked upan inch-long torpedo of plastic used to package crack cocaine.This isn't blue, I found myself thinking. There's too muchpurple in the mix. Periwinkle, maybe, or cornflower. SuddenlyI had a vision of the guys on the corner shouting, "Periwinkle'sdoin' it!" and "We gots cornflower!" Maybe I couldscrounge up an offprint of "A System of Color Identificationfor Bibliographical Description" and convince the dealers torefine their patter.

    My attention shifted when an ebony BMW pulled up tothe curb. A tinted window lowered with an electronic whir.

    "Yo! You with that fuckin' notebook thing. You gots aproblem?"

    The challenge was punctuated with a prodigious gob ofspit. Sensing there was little dividend in direct response, Ismiled and ducked inside, taking the stairs two at a time. Atthe front door of our apartment, I tripped over the size 16EEEsneakers my wife keeps around to scare off intruders.

* * *

I hung up my jacket and satchel and checked the mail: creditcard bills, the Dewey Circle quarterly, and a course bulletinfrom House of Paper, the arts center where Nic taught theodd course on pop-up design. There was also a letter from alibrary-school classmate I never much liked, announcing his