As he tore through the wet streets of Baton Rouge, tears of anger streamed down his face. Jack Claire had hoped to authenticate the Shakespeare manuscripts before he died. But now? Now that the documents had caused Maggie's death, he wanted nothing to do with them. If only he'd taken the stranger's first calls more seriously, Maggie might still be alive. He slammed the palm of his hand against the steering wheel. The surge of anger caused his heart to pound fiercely and brought a sharp pain to his chest.
Calm down, old boy.
Even at sixty-six, he had been in remarkable shape, tall and fit and feeling well. Until now. Now the image of the slender stranger he'd first seen at Maggie's funeral made him regret ever finding the manuscripts in the office of an old friend, Phil Owens, who had been a visiting professor from Wales.
Years earlier, Jack had taken Phil under his wing at LSU, so when Phil died, he left his books and papers to Jack. Jack arranged one more sabbatical to England, ostensibly to interview new Shakespearean scholars at Oxford University, but in reality to visit his old friend's widow.
Buried among stacks of loose papers inside a massive wooden bookcase in Phil's dark, musty office at Swansea University, as if hidden decades ago, was a metal box, the size of a file cabinet drawer. Jack hauled it out and lifted it onto Phil's desk. Inside was a cache of handwritten manuscripts, written on sturdy cotton stock he recognized as the type of paper used in the sixteenth century, and, in superior condition, a leather-bound copy of Jaggard and Blount's First Folio. How many copies of the first collection of William Shakespeare's plays had Isaac Jaggard printed? Five hundred? This copy had all the hallmarks of an original 1623 volume!
Staring at the manuscripts, Jack instantly recognized their value. A good copy of the First Folio was worth over $500,000. But the handwritten manuscripts? As literary artifacts, they'd be worth a fortune, equivalent to an undiscovered Van Gogh painting.
Sitting in his dead friend's office, Jack had stared in awe at the neat, uniform penmanship --it was not the same as William Shakespeare's. Could this be the proof that Will Shakespeare was not the author of the plays after all? If so, why hadn't Phil Owens exposed the manuscripts? Afraid he'd become a laughing stock if the papers were fakes?
Jack remembered leaning back in Phil's old chair, wondering why Phil hadn't given them to the world?
What if you had proof Melville hadn't written Moby Dick? Or Milton wasn't the author of Paradise Lost? Should he expose such a truth?
No. Not without absolute proof.
Now with the Louisiana rain slapping the windshield, Jack parked on the street, looking behind the car to see if the other man had followed. Seeing no one out of the ordinary, he hurried into the post office, carrying the heavy box, only the second person in line.
A simple cardboard box filled with four-hundred-year-old documents recording history's greatest achievements and most profound tragedies. The irony of it stabbed his heart like the memory of his wife's death.
A heavy-set Postal worker waved Jack to his window.
"What's in the box?” the clerk asked.
"Books,” Jack answered.
"You want to send it book rate or priority mail?”
"You can send it priority and have it tracked,” said the clerk. “Cost a little extra, but you'll be able to check its progress.”
Jack considered the suggestion. If I can track it, then maybe the killer could, too.
"No, just book rate will do. I'm in no rush now.” Jack looked over his shoulder.
The clerk put the postage tag on the box and pulled it from Jack's hands.
Jack couldn't believe it. In the time it took to glance over his shoulder, the box of Shakespeare's manuscripts had been taken from him --papers that could change the world of literature, now in the hands of postal workers.
What have I done?
"Sir,” the clerk said. “Anything else?”
Jack turned and reluctantly walked out of the Post Office building. When he stepped outside, nearly blown down by gusts of wind, he pushed through the slanting rain toward his car and threw open the door. As he backed up, he saw the lean stranger, dressed in black, dashing toward him. The man stopped in his tracks. Under the rim of a dripping wet, black baseball cap, the man's sharp eyes peered through the fogged windshield at Jack. For a few seconds, the two men just stared at each other.
Then Jack peeled out of the parking space so quickly that the driver behind him laid on the horn. He drove around the corner and headed to the capitol.
He and Maggie had taken visitors to the Huey P. Long state capitol on many occasions, showing them the observation deck at the top of the tower. The thirty-four story limestone-clad building, a shining example of neo-classical architecture with quirky Art Deco details, looked like a phallic symbol to him --with the two lower chambers, the House and the Senate, on either side of the tower. It was the tallest state capitol in the U.S. The observation deck on the twenty-seventh floor encircled the rest of the tower and, on clear days, offered impressive views. Louisiana lay out flat, green and lush in all directions. You felt as if you could see New Orleans to the southeast, and Jackson, Mississippi, to the northeast.
He pulled into a space directly in front of the building and walked as quickly as he could through the downpour.
Lightning exploded nearby, followed by the kettledrums of thunder. Jack shook off the rain as he scurried through the ornate Memorial Hall to the elevators. The large bronze relief map of Louisiana looked dim and unimpressive in the dark lobby, as did the two large oil paintings that served as murals depicting idealized scenes of life in Louisiana. A couple of security guards stopped talking long enough to watch Jack cross the empty lobby. When the doors of one elevator opened, Jack immediately stepped inside.
He got off at the highest floor the elevator reached in order to walk up two more narrow flights of stairs to the observation deck on the twenty-seventh floor. A maintenance man was unlocking a door to the janitor's closet when Jack, out of breath, finally reached the last step. The man watched as Jack tried the handle of the door that led outside.
"Why is this door locked?” Jack asked, looking at the door.
"Ain't nobody goin' out in this storm,” the worker answered.
Jack turned to look at the man. “But I must get outside. I won't be long.”
The worker shook his head. “It's a damn hurricane out there, mister.”
Jack studied the janitor's face. “You don't understand. I'm a meteorologist at LSU,” he said. “I've been appointed by the Governor to study this storm. We've got to be prepared for another Katrina, don't we?”
The worker cocked his head and gave Jack a skeptical look.
"You got identification?”
"Of course.” He retrieved his wallet, which fell open to reveal both his driver's license and his LSU faculty ID card. He placed his thumb over the “lish” in “Department of English” and showed the ID to the worker. “See? Just as I said. Dr. John Claire, Department of