Peter Astrakhan and the Pyramid of Zan’ai, Part IV
By Craig Marx
PARIS, FEBRUARY 1891
The Man from Hong Kong never existed again from that moment on the pier in Hong Kong Harbor until now at the doorstep of the unbeliever. It was as if someone non-proficient yet still eager to play piano struck a series of dissonant chords, each one louder than the previous. Peter Astrakhan knew exactly what had happened. An old man, senile and megalomaniacal, knew exactly what had occurred, word for word, in the worst nightmare of his life. The bibliotechque mentioned in the scrap was quite a distance down the Rue du Tours, especially in the somber downpour than enveloped the world outside. The overcast eclipsed the potentially auburn twilight, making the appearance of the drenched cobblestones outside an even more saturnine shade of grey. There was nothing that would come well to a man on this particular evening.
Saint Martin de Tours’ library was approximately a half kilometer down the roadway, a street that was somehow bustling in the sunlight yet vacant after nightfall. The Rue de Tours ran the circumference of the Seine River’s East Bank, and the river did quite well to dissect the city’s artisans and bohemians from the more bourgeois Parisians across the now dangerously high waterway. The Monsieur had chosen his apartment’s location based on secrecy and quaintness, his time in Zandasar having humbled his lust for palatial domiciles.
Peter Astrakhan enjoyed his small flat immensely. On evenings as such, it was the perfect home from which to tackle an arduous work of literature and an equally unforgiving amount of brandy, each going hand in hand until the latter caused the Monsieur’s strained eyes to succumb to a headache from squinting at the former. Peter had always enjoyed leisurely reading, but university studies, though informative, had caused his perception of literature in the world of academe to sour. Books were meant to be read as little or as long as one wished. Mister Astrakhan enjoyed the more lengthy sessions in front of a roaring fireplace, where the French winters made him reclusive and ponderous, and sampled greatly in the art of drunken comprehension. Perhaps it was the fire that was most important to Peter, for the warmth and light it provided was better than any women or lantern he had had in his home before. The fireplace required nurturing and took time and capital in the form of wood to entertain, but its flame would leave him softly as he went to sleep and be there no longer when he awoke. It was up to the Monsieur himself to decide when he wanted it to return, and in all the literary discussions and romantic rants Peter Astrakhan subjugated the fire into listening to, it never spoke a cold or piercing word back to him. His musty book and his musty blanket, the fireplace that desperately needed to be swept, and the decanter tipped on end atop his now-broken writing desk were the harlots that gave the aging Monsieur his recent pleasures.
A caretaker oversaw the library during the closed, evening hours. He had let Peter inside late at night before, in exchange for a few francs, so as to allow the Monsieur to peruse the bibliotechque’s voluminous shelves without the din of the mumbling elderly or the scoffs of disdainful librarians. The older man, with his ridiculously bushy moustache and grease-marked cap, the hat that typically donned the head of a rail worker, met Peter’s rapping upon the door with a pencil-thin smile and ominously bright oil lamp.
“I need some time alone, Monsieur Valais,” Mister Astrakhan said, trying gracefully to shrug off the aftermath of the heavy rain outside from his overcoat. He removed twenty, one-franc notes from his left pocket and handed them gingerly to the caretaker.
Henri Valais was a true blooded Parisian. Some said he was almost ninety years old, though he looked no more than sixty. His greasy cap did little to cover the solitary tuff of cloud-white hair that protruded from his widow’s peak, and the wiry pince-nez that rested on the bridge of his nose reflected the orange glow of the oil lamp back upon his perfectly circular, pale blue eyes. He wore overalls, in the same condition as his cap, and he looked as though he had just arrived from stoking coal in the Paris Central Station, a job he actually once did. He felt it unnecessary to purchase new clothing, for in his boredom of retirement he found odd jobs such as the late night cleaning of the library or helping cobblers mend boots or even disposing of communal waste latrines.
The bibliotechque was the part-time employment he enjoyed the best, for his only responsibilities were the filing of late afternoon or evening returns from the library’s front drop slot, the mopping of the already pristine marble flooring, and the dusting of the numerous lamps and chandeliers that hung above the century-old oak bookshelves. For some reason a fire always worried Monsieur Valais, for lurking about the library at the wee hours of the morning alone, at 88 years of age, was not in the primary keepers’ best legal liability; but, Henri would come around eleven in the evening, let himself in and go about his work immediately.
After roughly three hours, the now tired man would adjourn to the cartographic room, where the oil lamps provided the best light of any of the reading rooms in the entire library, and begin to read a work he had picked at random while filing away the late returns. Sometimes the topic was as innocent as botany but most recently it was a brief history of Byzantium. Other times it was more recent history such as Franco-Prussian hostilities. Once it was ornithology even though Monsieur Valais did not enjoy birds. It mattered not to the caretaker, for he could read and intermittently slumber as he pleased.
He was more than halfway asleep when Peter Astrakhan rapped upon the door. Groggy and still with the sacking of Constantinople on his mind, he replaced the pince-nez to the bridge of his nose as they had fallen to the floor as the result of his slumber. He lit a portable lamp and walked hurriedly to the colossal doorway where it took him nearly a minute to undo the night bolt apparatus. Henri Valais almost sensed it was the Monsieur. He had been long overdue for a late night, literary escapade for quite some time.
Peter spoke as Valais regained his senses. He placed the twenty francs into his pocket and grinned more so than he had when greeting the Monsieur. “And to what are we in the mood for this evening, Monsieur Richard?”
“I already have the reference number, thank you. If you wouldn’t mind, I’d like to look about the upper floor in complete solitude. Complete solitude, monsieur,” Peter said, handing the caretaker another ten francs as he followed the lamp of Valais from the entryway to the main hall.
“I see.” Henri seemed slightly perturbed but grabbed another portable lamp on the library’s front desk, lit it with a match, and handed it to Peter. “Then I’ll be getting back to Byzantium if you don’t mind.”
The Monsieur ran up the right side of the main hall’s opulent double-sided staircase. He started checking the second story’s reference numbers almost immediately, scuffing along the floor as he thrashed about the bookshelves. He was amongst the historical and geographic reference books. Peter stopped abruptly at the end of one of the shelves and squinted at the sign in front of him: No. 1100 – 1249: CENTRAL ASIA AND PERSIA.
Peter walked more slowly now, as if something were lurking amongst the reference books of this section of the bibliotechque, scanning left to right with every pace until he had finally found the book the Slavic man had recommended, No. 1117. He removed it from the shelf and was instantly astonished at how light it was.
“Hollowed,” Mister Astrakhan quietly muttered to himself as he brought the light of the lamp up to the front cover of the book. It read: ANCIENT KINGDOMS OF TURKESTAN, Volume I. When he opened the cover, the book was indeed hollowed out from the first page to the last, so as only the wordless margins were intact. In the center of the hollow, however, was something that caught both the glimmer of the oil lamp and the twinkle in the eye of the Monsieur.
A somewhat triangular sliver of gold enscripted with a calligraphic writing unfamiliar to Peter rested in the now useless book. It reflected the glow of the lamp seemingly tenfold about this particular corridor of bookshelves, and brought the now-captivated criminal to his knees as his cupped palms engulfed it. Peter had thought his heart was about to stop with the same tremor that had suddenly come over The Man from Hong Kong, so much so that his temples ached and his eyes began to water.
Perhaps youth had saved Mister Astrakhan or maybe it was truly not his time yet. He dropped the sliver of gold upon the marbled floor and the echoic eruption startled even Monsieur Valais, who had begun to doze off once again. It resonated throughout the bibliotechque like a wolf’s howl in the bowels of a deep thicket. A now trembling Peter brought the lamp down to the floor and gazed upon the golden relic without daring to place his fingers upon it once more.
A segment of geometry, Peter thought to himself as he gazed downward. One half of a pyramid.