HOUDINI

My wife, Jackie, decided a couple of years ago to finish her doctorate. Well, you can’t do that in South Dakota, or at least not in 18th century English Literature, so she had to go out of state. I’m a farmer, so I stayed put in Laskin. That caused a lot of talk. Oh, you betcha. Wife gone most of the time, coming home on weekends, sometimes only once a month? Lot of talk. “Hey, Steve, everything okay at home?” “Fine.” “You sure?” “Yep.” But I wasn’t.
Except that Jackie was happy, and what was I supposed to do? Lock her up? I didn’t like it so much when she got all enthusiastic about a professor, or a student, but I trusted her. For one thing, she always came home. One weekend she came home even more excited than usual.
“Look what I found in the telephone book!” she cried. She pulled out a xeroxed page and pointed to an ad. “Williams Books. Rare and Used Books,” she read aloud. “Estate Sales -- that’s a good sign. You know, great-aunt Lena dies, and they find all these books in her attic and they never bother to actually look at them, they just want to get rid of them. So just before they throw them away, they find an ad like this and ship them off.” Jackie was just beaming. Of course, she’s never recovered from finding a first edition Harriet Beecher Stowe in the trash. Granted, it was “The Mayflower”, not “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, and it was damaged, but it was a first edition.
“So where is this place?”
“You’ll never believe it. Brant, South Dakota.”
“Brant?”
“Uh-huh.”
“Honey, Brant has a population of thirty-seven people and fifty-nine dogs.”
“No, it doesn’t.”
“That’s what it says on the sign going into town.”
“When were you there?”
“I went over with Joe to help with some repairs on a generator, last May.”
“Oh. Well, let’s check it out tomorrow, okay?”
“Okay.”
So, bright and early Saturday morning, we hopped in the car and went off in search of Williams Books. It was a long search. Nobody in Brant had ever heard of the place, which was strange. Brant’s too small for someone to be running a business there and nobody know it. And the directions Jackie got over the phone didn’t make any sense. We were almost in Minnesota, driving down a gravel road, when we finally saw a small wooden sign tacked to a fence post: “BOOKS”
The driveway was blocked by pointed stakes, so I pulled in sideways in front of them and switched off the engine. Two large German Shepherds came bounding up the driveway on the other side of the blockade. Behind them was a tiny old woman pushing a wheelbarrow. I looked at Jackie, who smiled reassuringly. “Don’t worry,” she said. “I’ll beat them off with a stick.”
“That or you’ll be lunch.”
“Thanks,” she said and got out of the car. “Hello, Mrs. Williams? I’m Jackie Thompson, and this is my husband, Steve. I called you yesterday about looking at the books.”
“Of course,” the old woman said. She shooed the dogs away and said, “Come on up.”
I got out of the car and we followed her up the long driveway.
“It was a little hard to follow your directions, Mrs. Williams,” I said.
“Oh, my, yes,” she replied. “I do that on purpose. And my name is Mrs. Torulfson. I only call it ‘Williams Books.’”
“Makes it a little hard to do business, doesn’t it?” I asked.
“No. It’s just my way of making sure that whoever comes out here is all right. Some people -- well.” She stopped in front of the barn. The door was chained and padlocked. She set down the wheelbarrow (the dogs had completely disappeared), fished a huge key out of her pocket, and fumbled the padlock open. “You see, I’ve had such problems with vandalism, I have to be careful.” The door swung open and we went inside.
I swear I’ve never seen anything like it. Yes, it was an old horse barn, and the floor was dirt, but really it was a cathedral of books. Stalls with arched wooden lintels led off from the central hall, like monastery cells, under windows and skylights that should have been of stained glass. Each stall had built-in bookshelves, heavy laden, floor to ceiling. Mrs. Torulfson flipped a switch and electric lights went on. I looked over at Jackie. She looked like she was in church.
“Now over here,” Mrs. Torulfson said, “are all the art books, and in this stall is… let me see… yes, mathematics. Fiction, well, there’s about seven, eight stalls for fiction, English of course, and then -- are you fluent in any foreign languages, dear?”
Jackie was gaping like a fish, but she managed to gasp, “French.”
“Oh, well, I don’t have too many of those. And I cannot part with many of the ones I have. Some are just too valuable, and others, well…” We had stopped in front of a stall crammed full of books. Jackie hitched herself up on her toes and started reading titles. She and Mrs. Torulfson took up most of the room in the stall, so I wandered across the aisle to a stall with a white floor and empty shelves. I looked closer. The floor was white because it was carpeted with hundreds of thousands of pieces of paper. I looked closer, and print looked back at me; pages and covers, ripped and torn and shredded, maybe six inches deep.
“Oh, my!” I heard Mrs. Torulfson cry out. “I forgot this was out here. I must take this back to the house where it will be safe.”
“What happened over here?” I asked, pointing at the floor.
Mrs. Torulfson came over to me, a book tucked under each arm, and sighed as she looked at the floor. “Vandalism. It never stops. If you’ll excuse me a moment, I’ll go put this in the wheelbarrow.”
She went scurrying off down the center aisle. I went across to Jackie, who was reading titles as fast as she could. “Vandalism?”
Jackie glanced at me. “Probably kids. Old woman living out here alone. Probably terrorize the poor soul.” She reached up and took down a book. “Oh, look at this! This is wonderful!”
“Did you find something, dear?” Mrs. Torulfson asked. She’d come back so quietly that I almost jumped.
“Yes,” Jackie said. This one.”
“Oh, my,” Mrs. Torulfson said, taking it gently from Jackie’s hand. “Oh, no, I can’t let you have this one. This is… this means too much to me. My husband gave it to me, before he left. I’ll have to take this back to the house.” Jackie’s face was something to see, and Mrs. Torulfson hurried to say, “But look at these. A complete set of Joseph Conrad.” There was a whole shelf of them, in brown dust covers, each with an “x” cut into the spine. “Won’t you take them?”
“I don’t know that I can afford a whole set,” Jackie said.
“Oh, nonsense,” Mrs. Torulfson replied. “You’d be doing me such a favor if you took them. I’ll let you have them a dollar a book.” Jackie looked at me and took out a volume. “It’s a very good deal,” Mrs. Torulfson urged. “You can’t pass it up.”
“What happened to the dust covers?” I asked.
“Well…” Mrs. Torulfson looked around and then whispered. “Those x’s mean that… HE’S coming. Fifty cents a book?”
“Who’s he?” I asked.
“Houdini,” Mrs. Torulfson whispered. Jackie and I exchanged looks, and Mrs. Torulfson said, quickly, “Of course, that’s not his name, that’s just what I call him. He’s a professor. He’s been after me for years to let him have my books. He wants me to GIVE them to him, but he’s not… he’s not worthy. I’ve always refused. But ever since my husband… Since the doleful stroke… He knows I’m old and I get so tired at night, and he comes in and steals them! The books! Of course, I’ve got the best ones under lock and key, but he gets in. He gets in and takes them away. Or he has somebody do it. I don’t know, it doesn’t matter, they’re gone.” She was almost in tears. “And it’s just a game to him. He has the gall to let me know which ones he’s going to take. I’ll come in and find books with that --” she pointed to the “x” on the spine, “on them, and then I know that he’s coming back to steal them, or worse.” She looked pleadingly at us. “Won’t you take them? Don’t let him get them. Please. I can’t stop him, I’m too old, and nobody will help me. I’ll let you have the whole set for five dollars.”
Jackie looked at me and said, “I’d love to have them. I like Conrad.”
“Oh, that’s wonderful,” Mrs. Torulfson said, relieved. “Now let’s see if we can’t find you something else to go with them.”
We spent over an hour looking through the stalls. Mrs. Torulfson gathered about thirty books to take back to the house, and Jackie finally ended up with ten books, besides the Conrad set. I was amazed she got that many, since every time Jackie saw something she liked, Mrs. Torulfson instantly said she couldn’t sell it. Unless it had an “x” on the spine. Those we could have. She even gave Jackie two books for free, simply to keep them away from “Houdini.”
We finally piled up all the books in the wheelbarrow, and I insisted on wheeling it back to the house, in spite of the fact that Mrs. Torulfson, trotting back and forth with armloads of hard-cover books, was obviously strong as an ox. Mrs. Torulfson carefully locked the huge padlock on the barn and we headed for her house, plowing through grass that hadn’t been mowed in years.
“Now you must come in and have some refreshments,” Mrs. Torulfson said. “And you must look through my private collection. You don’t know how good it is to have some company out here, especially people who really appreciate books.” She was unlocking another massive chain and padlock affair as she spoke.
“Where would you like these?” I asked, sweeping my hand over the wheelbarrow.
“Oh, just leave them out there,” she replied. “Come in, please.”
Inside, the house appeared to be made of books. Books made tall columns, floor to ceiling, thin as the Needles, four stacks deep, all along the walls. Books were in pyramids on the kitchen table, on the refrigerator, on the chairs, even on the stove. Mrs. Torulfson cleared off a couple of chairs and dug around in the refrigerator, emerging triumphantly with two small cans of pineapple juice. Jackie, who claims that her mother trained her to be courteous and always accept hospitality, drank hers, though I noticed she checked the expiration date first. I declined, and Mrs. Torulfson drank mine.
It was when I was pulling out my wallet that the kitchen door caught my eye. It was painted white, but on the paneling, at seated eye level, in thick, bright red letters (paint? nail polish? blood?) was written:
#
THIEVES THIEVES
RETURN THE DOOR KNOBS
THIEVES
#
I hasten to add that the doorknobs were there. I looked at Jackie, who shook her head very slightly, and I paid Mrs. Torulfson for the books.
“Well, thank you,” Mrs. Torulfson said. “Now you must take a little tour of my house.”
We got up and followed her down the narrow winding path between the columns of books in the hallways and past the rooms, columned and stacked and groaning with books. It was like walking through ancient ruins. The columns were endless, and the paths were barely wide enough for us to go single file, and at least twice I came near to toppling a pillar with my toes. Books ran down the hallways and around the doors of each room and all along the sides of each room. And in the center of each room was a huge tidal wave of ripped pages, from books, magazines, newspapers, rising almost to the ceiling. Room after room after room.
“This house is my sanctuary,” Mrs. Torulfson said. “Or at least it used to be. Back when my husband was here, it WAS my sanctuary. But then came the great infliction. The doleful stroke. My husband gone… Well, I try. But it’s so hard. You don’t know what HE’S like. He stops -- I have some very valuable books here, books that many libraries and museums would pay a fortune for, but he stands in the way.”
“Houdini?” Jackie asked.
Mrs. Torulfson nodded. “He’s got so many tricks. So many connections. Someone will make an offer, and then it will be withdrawn. It’s happened time and again. It’s Houdini, I know it. He won’t let anyone else have my books. He wants them all himself. He’s an evil man, a possessive, evil, jealous man. He’s never forgiven me… Never mind that. He does terrible things. Before my husband… left… he wrote me horrible letters, terrible letters saying all kinds of terrible things. When my husband… when the disaster came, that stopped.” She was staring down at her twitching hands. “I suppose I must not say that he is all evil. But then he started calling me every night, harassing me, until I had the telephone taken out. I couldn’t bear it any more. But I don’t know that now it isn’t worse. He doesn’t just steal, he destroys. In the middle of the night. All those pages, ripped…”
We were at a staircase, and I was trying to look sympathetic rather than nervous. It was so dark and gloomy in that house, with all the windows covered by piles of books, that I couldn’t tell exactly where we were. Mrs. Torulfson sighed and then said, cheerfully as a Norwegian housewife, “Now if you’ll wait here just a minute while I straighten things up, we can finish our little tour.”
She went upstairs and I turned to Jackie. “I don’t know that I want to finish our little tour,” I said. Jackie’s face was a little odd. “What is it?”
Jackie stepped away from the wall, so that I could see the shotgun behind her. “Just making sure someone’s between her and it,” Jackie whispered.
“Smart move,” I replied.
“So, what do you think’s going on around here?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “But it wouldn’t surprise me if there’s a body upstairs. Sitting in a corner. Stuffed with paper.”
“You want to get out of here?”
I thought about it before I answered. “No. If we go, we’ll be dying of curiosity.”
“True.”
Mrs. Torulfson came down and said, “Please, come upstairs.”
We went up. It was the same as downstairs, columns on columns of books and mountains of ripped pages. Only in her bedroom was there just one long wall of columns that completely encircled her bed, and there the windows were open.
Jackie looked around and said, “It’s a lovely room.”
“Thank you,” Mrs. Torulfson said. “I spend a lot of time here. Remembering.”
“You read a lot of mysteries, don’t you?” Jackie asked.
“Yes. They help me go to sleep. There’s a wonderful one around here someplace. And it’s based on a true story. About an heiress, did I ever tell you I was once an heiress? It was all stolen away, you know. And I have a book somewhere, about an heiress, who was kidnapped by a very evil man and buried alive. Yes! Buried alive! How in the world would she ever escape? You couldn’t help but wonder. Buried alive! But the evil man, he had to make sure that she stayed alive, so that nothing would happen to him, he wouldn’t be charged with murder or anything like that, and that gave her an idea. So one day, she managed to destroy her captor and dig her way out and escape. Isn’t that amazing? She escaped!”
Mrs. Torulfson was obviously waiting for a response, so I said, “That’s amazing.”
“Yes. But it was so sad. For when she finally escaped, no one believed it was her. The powerful people who had stolen all her inheritance told everyone that she was mad. An imposter. She could never convince them that it really was her. Amazing book, absolutely true. Tragic, really, don’t you think?”
“Very,” I said, trying to see what might be behind the columns around the bed. Just an empty bed. But beyond, towards the corner, was another set of columns, like a screen. I drifted towards it as discreetly as I could, while Jackie made herself appear fascinated by Mrs. Torulfson’ tale of a book.
“You must read the book some time. I’ve got it here somewhere. In fact, it may be the only copy left. It was published, against all odds, but then, but you see, the people who stole all her money bought up every single copy of the book. Except for this one. Well, of course they would, to keep anyone from finding out the truth. And then they kept it from being published again. That poor woman, buried alive, everything taken from her, and no one will ever know, no one will ever believe her. I don’t know what they’d do if they found out I have a copy.”
I thought they might arrest her. Behind the books was an old wing-back chair, large and over-stuffed, with someone sitting in it. Parts of the someone were sticking out from underneath an afghan, and they did not look pretty. Or alive.
I drifted back. “You know, Mrs. Torulfson,” I said, “this is all fascinating, but I’m afraid we really have to get going.”
“Oh, must you?”
“Yes,” I said, “I’ve got some work to do this afternoon, and we’ve been here almost four hours.”
“Four hours? Really?” Jackie nodded. “Well, the time has just flown!” Mrs. Torulfson started for the stairs, and I slid myself in front of her. “I can’t tell you when I’ve had a more enjoyable afternoon. I have enjoyed it so much.”
“So have we,” Jackie said as we reached the first floor. She looked up and down the bookshelves that covered the hallway by the stairs. Some of the books were bound in what looked like marble, others in leather. I had a feeling they were extremely old. And, on one after another, little “x’s” were carved in their spines. “You know,” Jackie said, “maybe you should try to get someone to come live with you. Just to help. It might keep Houdini away.”
Mrs. Torulfson looked around and her eyes were brimming again. “There’s nothing I can do about it,” she said. “He comes, and there’s nothing I can do.”
Jackie nodded. “It was just a thought.”
“There’s nothing I can do,” Mrs. Torulfson repeated. “Now that my husband’s gone.”
“Well, we need to get going,” I said. “Thank you for a lovely afternoon.”
“Nothing,” Mrs. Torulfson said.
We hated to do it, but there was nothing else we could do. The sheriff came out, along with a couple of deputies, and found the late Mr. Torulfson sitting in the chair, where he’d been for ten years, ever since Mrs. Torulfson had come up behind him with a small axe and killed him.
No one really knows why she did it. Nobody even knew he was dead, which was the part that amazed Jackie, who’s not from around here. But I understood: Torfinn Torulfson was the sort of old Norwegian farmer who only went to town three or four times a year, and when he did, fought with everyone there. At one point he’d fought with everyone in Brant, so he took all his business to Earlin, Minnesota. Soon he’d fought with everyone there, too, and had just announced that he was going to take all his business elsewhere when he was killed. And that’s how no one noticed that he was gone.
Mrs. Torulfson was taken down to the state mental hospital in Yankton, and I think she’s going to stay there the rest of her life. There’s a trial coming up in a few weeks, but I don’t think it’ll make any difference.
There was only one relative, a nephew, Joseph Torulfson, who’s taken over the farm. He’s a much friendlier man than his uncle, so everyone’s learning a whole lot more about the Torulfson’s than they’d ever known before. For example, the fact that Mrs. Torulfson had inherited about ten thousand dollars from a great-aunt, and Mr. Torulfson wouldn’t let her spend it on anything. He wouldn’t let her spend anything on anything. Anyway, the money’s supposed to be hidden somewhere in the house, which has really increased the number of people who are willing to help young Torulfson clean the place out.
And as for the books… Well, about a week ago, Jackie came home and said, “I’m transferring to Lincoln.”
“What? Now?”
“You know that ad, that first tipped me off to Mrs. Torulfson’s?”
“Yeah.”
“Dr. Tower gave that to me. Said he knew I liked old books, thought this might interest me, being so close to Laskin and all.” I sipped some coffee and waited. “I just found out that some of her books are going to the university library.” I sipped some more coffee. “The rest… Dr. Tower is purchasing them. Dirt cheap. The nephew doesn’t know what he has, so Tower’s practically buying them by the pound.” We sat there for a while, quiet.
“You sure you want to transfer?”
“Not really. But I know I sure as hell don’t want to take any more classes under Houdini.”


THE END