Giovanni Vecchio woke, the infrequent dream seeming to echo off the narrow walls of the small room where he rested. He sat up and stared at the photograph of Florence which hung on the opposite wall, and the sun-seared shops of the old bridge mocked him.
“Where is your home?”
“Ubi bene ibi patria. Where I prosper is my home.”
“Do not forget: nothing endures, save us and the elements.”
Rising, he unlocked his reinforced door and stepped into the large walk-in closet where he dressed in a white oxford shirt and a pair of slim, black slacks. He spied the grey cat from the corner of his eye.
“Good evening, Doyle.”
The cat turned his copper-eyed stare toward the tall man who spoke to him.
“What did Caspar bribe you with tonight, hmm? Salmon? Fresh anchovies? Caviar?”
The cat gave a small chirp and walked out to the luxurious bedroom beyond the closet to settle on the king-sized bed there. Giovanni’s thoughts still brushed at the dark dream and a faint memory teased the back of his mind.
“Tell me about death, my son.”
“The philosopher said death, which men fear as the greatest evil, may instead be the greatest good.”
“But we do not fear death, do we?”
Despite the hours he had rested, he felt weary. He reached for his favorite grey jacket and walked out of the room.
“Caspar,” he called as he entered the kitchen, still straightening his collar. “I want you to drive me to the library tonight.”
The older man raised a curious eyebrow, but put down the newspaper he had been reading.
“Of course, I’ll get the car.”
Giovanni gathered his briefcase and followed Caspar out the kitchen door. They walked through the small courtyard where the dim light of the early evening still illuminated the burbling fountain, and the air was rich with the fragrance of the honeysuckle vine.
“Balance!” his father spat out. “Temperance! Find it, my son, or you will die.”
He paused for a moment and watched the flow of water as it trickled over and around the rocks in the base of the fountain. Just then, a sharp breeze lifted the spray and it arched toward him, dusting his face with the cold drops. He let the heat rise to his skin and the vapor met the humid night air.
“Oh wow, Char wasn’t lying.”
Giovanni brushed the hair out of his eyes and glanced up from his notebook looking around for the quiet female voice as he paused in the entry to the Special Collections reading room at the Houston University library.
“Pardon me?” he asked in confusion to the girl in the corner.
The black-haired girl behind the counter smiled. He noticed a slight blush coloring her fair skin.
“Nothing,” she said with a quick smile. “Nothing at all. Welcome to the Special Collections reading room. You must be Dr. Vecchio.”
Giovanni frowned as he tucked his notebook into a leather messenger bag. “I am. Is Mrs. Martin unavailable this evening?” He scanned the young woman sitting behind the reference desk on the ﬁfth ﬂoor of the library. Since the department had opened their once-weekly evening hours a year ago, the bookish Charlotte Martin had been the only employee he’d seen behind the desk of the small, windowless room that housed the rare books, manuscripts, and archives.
“She’s not able to do evening shifts anymore. Family reasons, I think. Something about her kids. I’m B, her assistant.” Her voice lacked the twang typical of most Texans, though the ﬂat intonation with only a hint of accent was fairly common among native Houstonians, especially those of younger generations. “Mrs. Martin left me notes about what you’ve been working on, so I’m perfectly able to assist you in your research.”
Despite her rather common accent, the girl’s voice held a faint quality which told him at least one of her parents was a native Spanish speaker. Her thick black hair was pulled into a low ponytail at the nape of her neck, and she was dressed in a black button-down shirt and slim skirt. He smirked when he saw the tops of her tall Doc Marten boots almost touching her knees.
“Are you a student?” he asked.
Her chin jutted out in a barely perceptible movement which matched the quick ﬂash of intelligence in her eyes. “I’ve worked here for almost three years. I’m sure doing a quick computer search or fetching a document is well within my abilities, Dr. Vecchio.”
He could feel the smile crawl across his face. “I meant no disrespect . . . I’m sorry, what was your name?”
“Just call me B,” she said, glancing down at some handwritten notes.
From where he was standing, Giovanni could see the familiar scrawl of Mrs. Martin’s handwriting.
“B? As in the second letter of the Latin alphabet?” he asked, walking closer to the desk.
“No, the Etruscan. I’m wild like that,” she muttered and glanced up. “Mrs. Martin also put a small note here at the bottom of her instructions regarding you.”
“Yes?” He waited, curious what the librarian thought bore mention to her replacement.
“Hmm, it just reads ‘He comes in every week. You’re welcome. ’” The girl’s eyes ran from his handmade shoes, up his tall figure, finally meeting his startling, blue-green eyes. “Thanks indeed, Char,” she said with a smile.
He smirked at her obvious look of approval, noting the small ruby piercing in her nose that caught the ﬂorescent lights of the reading room. Her eyes were lined in black, her skin was fair, and though she did not have classically beautiful features, he thought her dramatic looks would be eye-catching even from a distance.
“I saw you Friday night!” she blurted. “I was coming in to meet a friend after her shift. I saw you heading out.”
Glancing away from her toward the door, he brushed at the dark curls that had fallen into his eyes again. “That’s possible,” he noted. “I like working in the evenings here.”
She shrugged. “Well, obviously.”
“Why?” he asked. “Why obviously?”
She raised her eyebrows. “Because you’re here now? Instead of the middle of the day?”
He blinked. “Of course.”
“So what do you do?”
The girl snorted and looked around the otherwise empty room. “Yeah.”
He opened his mouth and almost considered telling her the truth, just to see what the unusual girl might say.
“I do . . . research.”
She stood, as if waiting for him to continue. When he didn’t, she smiled politely and held out a hand. “Well, it’s very nice to meet you, Dr. Vecchio.”
He paused for a moment, then held out his own hand to shake hers.
“Nice to meet you as well . . .” He frowned a little. “What’s your real name?”
“I . . .” Giovanni had no idea why he wanted to know, except perhaps, because she didn’t seem to want to tell him. So he flashed her his most charming smile and cheered internally when he heard her heart speed up.
She rolled her eyes. “My ‘real’ name is Beatrice. But I hate it, so please just call me B. Everyone does, even Dr. Christiansen,” she added, referencing the very formal Director of Special Collections for the library.
“Of course,” he said with a small smile. “I was simply curious. For the record, however, I think Beatrice is a lovely name.” He made sure to pronounce her name with the softer Italian accent it deserved.
She rolled her eyes again, and tried to keep from smiling. “Well, thanks. What can I get for you this evening?”
“The Tibetan manuscript, please.”
“Of course,” she handed over a small paper slip so he could ﬁll out the formal request for the item. Then she reached into the desk drawer to hand him a pair of silk gloves necessary for handing any of the ancient documents in the collection.
He took a seat at one of the tables in the windowless room, laying out his notebooks, a box of pencils, and a set of notes for Tenzin written in Mandarin. After a few minutes, Beatrice walked through the door from the stacks. Carefully placing the grey paper box containing the ﬁfteenth century Tibetan scroll on the counter, she turned back to make sure the door to the air-controlled room was closed and locked before she walked around the desk and toward Giovanni.
“There is a scroll you need to copy for me,” Tenzin had asked.
“Why do you need it copied? Isn’t there a translation available somewhere?”
“No, I want this one. It’s in Houston. Didn’t you just move there?”
He frowned. “I didn’t move here so I could copy scrolls for you, bird girl.”
“How do you know? Maybe that’s exactly why you moved there.”
“I have to fly. Be a good scribe and copy it. Use the . . . what do you call it when you send me things?”
“The fax machine.”
“Yes, use that. I’m going into the mountains for a while. Have Caspar send them to Nima for me when you’re done.”
“I’m busy right—”
She had already hung up.
He noted again how well-preserved the manuscript was as the girl opened the acid-free paper box. Though it was called a scroll, the document was a series of square, painted panels that contained spells purportedly used by goddesses for healing. The carved wooden covers and gold and black ink were startling in their clarity, and though it held the musty odor typical of old documents, he noted with satisfaction very little scent of mold or mildew clung to it.
“Please wear your gloves at all times and handle the pages as little as possible. Please keep all manuscript materials inside the box as you examine them. If you need further assistance in examining the document, please . . .”
Listening absently to the rote instructions the girl offered, his mind had already moved ahead to his task for the evening. He’d copied the ﬁrst third of the small volume over the summer. He estimated careful transcription of the manuscript would take another four to ﬁve months at the rate he was working. Fortunately, time was not an issue for him on this project.
He settled down to take advantage of the two and a half hours he had left to work on the transcription. He hoped to ﬁnish the second of the six sections by the end of the week so he could have Caspar fax it to Nima with his notes.
“Hmm?” He bit his lip, lost in his own thoughts.
“Did you have any questions?”
He ﬂashed her a smile before turning his face back to his work.
“No . . . no I’m ﬁne. Thank you, Beatrice,” he said, his concentration already shifted to the manuscript in front of him. He heard the young woman quietly return to her seat behind the computer.
They worked for the next two hours, both occupied in their own projects. Every now and then, the girl would glance at him, but he barely noticed, engrossed in his careful transcription of the scroll. The soughing of the air-conditioner provided background noise to the turning paper, the scratching of his pencil, and the quiet click of the young woman’s keyboard as she typed.
Shortly before nine o’clock, she closed her books and walked to his table. He looked up at her, dazed from concentration. He saw her take note of his precise copy of the characters from the scroll. They were a nearly exact copy of the original, down to the thickness of the brush strokes he recreated with the tip of his pencil, over and over again.
“Dr. Vecchio, I have to ask for the manuscript now. The reading room is closing in ﬁfteen minutes.”
He blinked. “Oh . . . yes, if I could ﬁnish this last character set?”
“Of course.” She waited for him, and Giovanni smiled politely as he closed the manuscript, repacked it, and put the lid on the box.
The girl took the scroll back to the locked stacks to put it away in the dim room where it was housed. As she locked up the stacks room, she turned back to see Giovanni putting his pencils and notes away in his leather messenger bag.
“Why don’t you like the name Beatrice?” he asked, looking down as he fastened the brass buckle of his bag.
He looked up at her, dark hair falling into his eyes again.
“It’s a lovely name. Why do you prefer to be called by your initial?”
“It’s . . . old. My name—it sounds like an old woman to me.”
He smiled enigmatically. “Yet, you work around old things all the time.
“I guess I do.”
He leaned his hip against the sturdy wooden table.
“She was Dante’s muse, you know.”
“Of course I know. That’s why I have the stupid name to begin with. My dad was a Dante scholar.” Beatrice looked down to straighten her own papers on the desk. “Kind of a fanatic, really.”
He cocked his head and studied her. “Oh? Does he teach here?”
She paused and shook her head. “No, he died ten years ago. In Italy.”
His eyes darted back to the table, and he pulled the strap of his bag over his head as some faint memory tickled the back of his mind. “I’m sorry. It’s none of my business. Forgive my curiosity.”
She frowned. “I’m not going to start weeping or anything, if you’re worried about that. It was a long time ago.”
“Nevertheless, I apologize. Good evening, Beatrice.” He exited the room, taking care to make as little noise as possible as he slipped down the dark hallway.
He entered the musty corridor, taking a deep breath of the humid air to gauge who else was present. Satisﬁed he was alone, he rapidly descended to the ﬁrst ﬂoor, and made his way through the still crowded student study area. As he approached the glass entrance, he caught a glimpse of Beatrice in the dark reﬂection as she stood near the elevator in the lobby, her mouth gaping as she stared at him. Not turning for even a moment, he pushed his way into the dark night and strolled toward the parking lot adjacent to the library.
When he reached it, he saw the slight ﬂare of the cigarette as Caspar leaned against the black Mercedes sedan.
“A good evening, Gio?”
Giovanni frowned at his old friend, ﬂicking the cigarette out of Caspar’s mouth as he approached the door. He stood in front of the man, looking down on him as he spoke.
“I don’t like the cigarettes. I thought you had given them up.”
Caspar looked up with a mischievous grin. “If I’m only living for eighty years or so, I’m going to enjoy them.”
Giovanni opened his mouth as if to say something, but then shook his head and slid into the dark interior of the late-model sedan. Reaching into his messenger bag, he slid on a pair of leather gloves and crossed his arms while his friend got behind the wheel.
“Any requests?” Caspar ﬁddled with the stereo as Giovanni’s eyes scanned the dark parking lot.
“Are the Bach fugues still in the changer?”
“Indeed they are.”
Caspar switched the CD player on. In a few moments, the sedan was ﬁlled with the alternately lively and melancholy notes of the piano. Giovanni sat motionless, listening with pleasure to the modern recording of one of his favorite pieces of music.
“Mrs. Martin was not in the library this evening, Caspar,” Giovanni said, his voice low and bearing more than its usual light accent.
“Oh? Everything all right?”
He shrugged. “Look into it tomorrow. Call and ﬁnd out why she’s changed her hours. If it is simply a family issue, then it is no concern of ours.”
The car was silent as it turned toward Buffalo Bayou.
“Inform me if it is anything other than that.”
“I’ll take care of it.”
A few moments later, they pulled up to the gate, and the wrought iron swung aside at their approach. Giovanni pulled out his pen and used it to push down the button for the automatic window, enjoying the smooth rush of air into the vehicle as it made its way toward the house. The grounds were suffused with the scent of clematis and roses that night, and the air smelled strongly of cut grass.
“The gardeners came early,” he noted.
Caspar nodded. “They did. We’re supposed to get rain tonight.”
“There is a new employee at the desk.”
“Is that so?” Caspar stopped the car near the rear courtyard, shifting the car into park so his employer could exit the vehicle before he put it in the garage behind the house.
“A girl. A student. Beatrice de Novo. Check on her, as well.”
“Of course. Anything in particular you want to know?”
He opened the door, reaching down for his leather bag before he stepped out. “I think . . . there’s something about the father. Let me know if anything jumps out at you.”
Giovanni climbed out of the car, resting his hand lightly on the door frame. Leaning down, he spoke again to his friend.
“I’m swimming for a bit, then I’ll be in the music room for the rest of the night. I won’t need anything. Good night.”
And with that, he stood up, nudged the car door closed, made his way across the courtyard with the bubbling fountain, and strode into the dark house.
Caspar drove the car back to the garage, parked it, and sat in the driver’s seat, petting the steering wheel lightly.
“He’s getting better, darling. Only one little short on the door panel this time. Not that he noticed, of course.”
Chuckling, he exited the vehicle, locked the garage, and made his way into the house, ﬂipping on all the lights in the kitchen. He thumbed through the mail again, separating the household bills from the extensive correspondence of his employer, before he shut all but one of the lights off again and made his way to the library on the second ﬂoor.
Pouring himself a brandy, Caspar settled down with the ﬁrst edition of A Study in Scarlet that Giovanni had given him for his sixtieth birthday. Forgoing a ﬁre, he opened the window facing the front garden and enjoyed the closeness of the night air, which smelled of the grass clippings the gardeners had raked that afternoon.
An hour or so later, he paused when he heard the door to the music room close as Giovanni shut himself in. Caspar wondered which instrument would catch his attention, praying it wasn’t one of the louder brasses. He breathed out a sigh when he heard the ﬁrst notes of the piano struck. From Giovanni’s thoughtful mood earlier in the evening, he expected to hear Bach, so he was surprised to hear the strange Satie melody drift up from the ﬁrst ﬂoor.
The gentle dissonance of the piano was somehow disturbing to the man as he sat in his favorite chair. A breeze came through the window, carrying the earthy smell of coming rain to his nose. Caspar stood, walked to the window, and shut it just before fat drops began to fall.