EVERYTHING STARTS FROM a need. If anyone were to ask Laura Nye what she needed on this overcast day in April, not quite spring but no longer winter either, she would probably just say next month’s rent. Next month’s rent was plenty, she figured. Today she stood at the end of a long hallway of office doors fronting offices mostly vacant in the lull between end-of-term and spring finals. Laura knocked on one that announced, PROFESSOR ALLAN FINLEY. A moment later, Professor Finley himself—Al to her—was answering it.
“Scanner in hand, no doubt.”
“No doubt,” said Laura.
They'd performed this little ritual before as, in the course of her book-scanning circuit, Laura worked this and other departments on campus—and anywhere else resale books were to be had. At least Finley opened his door to her. Others weren’t so kind.
“Bumper crop this spring. Desk copies galore!” he said.
“Ah, but are they what I need? Only the scanner knows.” Laura wheeled her little book cart into Finley’s office.
While not quite shady, book scanning was close to it in the eyes of some. Laura Nye’s reasons for pursuing a living this way were complicated, but the immediate appeal lay in its simplicity.
The mechanics of book scanning were very simple indeed. To scan a book—that is, to scan a book's barcode—required very little in the way of equipment or expertise. Laura used an obsolete PDA fitted up with a laser scanner, both of which she’d purchased on eBay. Information contained in a book’s barcode was scanned into the PDA, which held in memory a database containing book prices downloaded from a daily subscription service. Pre-set price parameters resulted in one of two words flashing on the screen—BUY or REJECT. This way a book could be instantly appraised and either bought, with a view to quickly reselling it online, or thrown back in the pile. If a book was too old to have a barcode, the decision was easy. Laura passed.
There are many ways to appraise a book, some of them requiring a great deal of knowledge and time. Laura’s way was to turn a quick profit, however nominal. To a few of her grad-school friends this sudden entry into the bargain-basement end of the book trade suggested caprice, while to others it was evidence of some kind of breakdown. From Laura’s perspective, it was definitely not a step forward.
Allan Finley’s office occupied a third-floor corner of Hathaway Hall, the superfluously stark building housing the university’s English Department. Unlike the few buildings original to the university, their neo-gothic facades gravely redolent of a time when Southern Ontario was called Upper Canada, Hathaway Hall was mid-century brutalist, ugly and old beyond its years. Laura was a frequent visitor to Allan Finley's office, both in her present role and in an earlier but still recent life as a PhD candidate in this very department. She’d sat before, too, in the very chair in which she currently seated herself, gazing at the very same book-lined walls, then with studious interest and idealistic longing, now with the hard level eye of appraisal.
But first the small talk, which Laura knew was expected. After the usual preliminaries—classes over (good), grading (bad), time for research and writing (good and bad)—Allan Finley said, “See the news this morning?”
She had indeed. They’d had this particular discussion before, when the story had first broken. Then it was a ‘suspicious death’ with a grainy photograph from better days, which Laura had let slip she recognized. Just a nameless acquaintance encountered while scanning books in flea markets, used bookstores and the like—elderly, refined, strange, someone whose very otherness still failed to make him anything but invisible, a cipher.
“You said you knew him?”
“I saw him around, I didn’t know him. He seemed nice.”
“How does a suspicious death become death by misadventure? Erotic asphyxiation—that’s some misadventure.”