Imagine opening a secondhand book and finding something inside, left by the previous owner. This was the stimulus for ‘The Dead Letterbox’.
The Dead Letterbox
The little bell over the door tinkled as I entered. I breathed in the smell of old books. I love second hand book shops. This one was on the outskirts of the city. I had discovered it soon after I came here as an undergraduate in 1975 about to start studying for my English Literature Degree at the university. Two years on, I felt at home in the ‘city of dreaming spires’.
Like most students, I didn’t have a lot of spare money, my grant didn’t go far, but I made sure I had enough left to buy the occasional book for my collection. It was all very well borrowing books from the library, but I wanted to own them. My dream was a house of my own with one room full of books, with a comfy chair. My interests were varied, but at the moment I was looking for authors of the early spy genre, such as Kipling, Bucchan and Conrad. I had been introduced to these during the History of English Spy Novels unit.
The sections I was interested in were always at the back of the shop, not exactly popular fiction. I nodded at Mike as he looked up from his book. Customers were a necessary nuisance as far as Mike was concerned, but he tolerated me as I was very quiet and happy to browse on my own. The shelves I wanted were in the darkest corner, stuffed full with dust covered books. Heaven! Time passed unnoticed as I perused the shelves.
Tingling with excitement I pulled out a copy of ‘Kim’, by Rudyard Kipling. I had read it, of course, but to have my own copy… Rudyard had travelled all over the world, living in India, the states and England. He had been a prolific writer of books for all ages. The copy was in relatively good condition, considering it was published in 1900, even a little less dusty than the others on the shelf. It was only £2! Very pleased with my purchase I opened the door and stepped back to let a customer in. He looked a bit of a ‘down and out’, as though he didn’t have enough money for a hot meal never mind a book, but I knew even if I was down on my luck I would still frequent book shops like this.
It was Saturday afternoon, the rest of the day was my own so I could spend it in my favourite way, in my digs with my new book. Coffee at my elbow, I sat in the only chair and sniffed my book. Ok, I might be a bit odd! I flicked through the pages, marvelling at the idea that these were the thoughts and words of a man who had died before I was born. These words would be around forever, there for anyone to share. It was my dream to be a published author, to be able to leave something of me to be enjoyed long after my death. Towards the back of the book I found a slip of paper that had been used as a book mark. Things were often left in second hand books, receipts, old letters etc. This was a small piece of paper torn from a spiral note book, with two word ands some numbers scribbled on it.
‘Gasworks Bridge 11 17/9/77’
It was today’s date, I knew Gasworks was a pedestrian bridge near the centre of Oxford. 11? That could be a time. How exciting! An assignation! A meeting of spies! How ridiculous. I had been reading too much spy fiction. It could be a meeting between lovers, how romantic. But I had the message. Not the intended recipient. The note must have been placed in this book for someone to find. Like a ‘dead letter box’. Had the recipient read it and put it back? Surely not. So the meeting would not take place, unless ….. perhaps I should go and explain to the writer of the note that I had accidentally removed it from the shop? Was that a silly idea? My imagination was running away with me. The writer of the note could be a married man, arranging a meeting with his lover. I needed to share this find and talk about the consequences of the note being in my hands. I went next door and knocked on Adam’s door. Adam was usually in. Like me, he preferred his own company and could usually be found in his room or in the library, studying.
“Door’s unlocked,” he called, probably guessing it would be me. We didn’t have many visitors in our digs. I entered the stuffy room. Adam, as expected was at his desk. “Oh, hi, Dave. What can I do for you?”
I sat on his unmade bed and told him how I had come into possession of the intriguing note. He perked up when I suggested that I should go to the meeting.
“How interesting. Pop in when you get back and let me know what happens.”
I arrived at the bridge just before 11 but stayed in the shadows of a building to see who turned up. Dead on 11 a guy walked out onto the bridge and stood looking over the side. He lit a cigarette and leaned against the bridge. He was obviously waiting for someone. Someone who would never arrive. I walked onto the bridge. I held out the book before I started talking.
“I went to the second hand bookshop earlier and bought this copy of ‘Kim’. It wasn’t until I got home that I realised there was a message inside. I felt a little guilty, so I came to tell you that your friend won’t be coming this evening.” The guy blew out some smoke as he looked me up and down. He was dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt, perhaps a bit older than me.
“That’s very nice of you to bother. Come and have a coffee and I’ll explain. I expect you are curious.” I wondered what would be open at this time of night, but he knew of a little place not far from the bridge. It was full of smoke but quite warm. The guy insisted on buying me a coffee.
“It’s the least I could do. I would have still been waiting in the cold if not for you. The message was for an acquaintance of mine. We set up this way of contacting each other about things that we would rather not be overheard on the phone. My ‘friend’ moves around a bit and is not always easy to contact. I expect he was surprised to find that the book had been sold.”
“How will you get in touch with him now?”
“Oh I’ll bump into him somewhere I expect. Doesn’t matter. I just need to find someone else to help me. Are you free tomorrow evening? I pay well.” The conversation had taken a surprising turn. As a ‘poor’ student I was definitely keen to earn a bit of money.
“What does the job entail?”
“Nothing much. It’ll take less than an hour and I’ll give you fifty quid. I was only going to give my mate twenty, but you look like you’ve got a bit more about you. This could be good for both of us.”
‘Peter’ wouldn’t give me any more details, just tapped the side of his nose, so I agreed to meet him, same time, same place, the next evening.
So that is how Adam and I came to be sat here in the snug of the ‘Queens Head’, in the city centre at 10pm on a Sunday night. He had been very excited when I arrived home the previous evening, arriving at my door the same time as I did as he had been listening out for my return. We agreed the whole thing sounded a bit ‘iffy’. But we also agreed that £50 was a lot of money. What could go wrong? Adam had insisted on accompanying me, just in case, but would keep out of sight. If Peter had a car I don’t know what he was going to do.
I walked half way across the bridge to meet Peter, as I had done the previous evening. He shook my hand without a word and we set off across the bridge. After a few twists and turns we ended up outside a substantial, Victorian, detached house. It was set back off the road with a high wall, and a short drive. We stopped by the closed, iron gate. To my surprise, Adam proceeded to climb over the gate.
“Come on,” he whispered, “it’s easy.” I looked around before following him. There was no-one to be seen, not even Adam, but I was hoping he had managed to stick with us. We crept up the drive to the side of the house.
“What’s going on?” I hissed.
“Shhhh. You don’t need to know. Just stay there, keep a lookout. If you see anyone coming hoot loudly like an owl. That’s it. Easiest fifty quid you’ll ever earn.” He disappeared round the back before I had time to process what was happening. My heart was racing. The next few minutes seemed like an eternity. Whatever was I doing? I could get chucked out of Uni. My parents would be devastated. Should I just leave while I had the chance?
Unfortunately I left it a little too late to make the right decision. Suddenly torchlight appeared at the front and the back of the house.
“Police! Stay where you are! We have a dog.” In seconds my arms were behind my back and Peter was being dragged around the side of the house. We were put into different police cars and taken to the station. In the back of the car I fought rising panic as I could see my future ruined for the sake of fifty measly quid.
‘Peter’, not his real name apparently, was booked in and taken to the cell first. I waited my turn with my head hanging low, so I didn’t see Adam coming through the door. I noticed him as the police officer gently removed my handcuffs.
“Well done you two. We’ve been after this rogue for a while. Caught in the act! Hope I didn’t hurt you sir. We had to take you in along with our man, so he wouldn’t know that you were involved in his capture. After you’ve given us a statement you are free to go.” Good old Adam. He had followed us and phoned the police as soon as he saw what was happening. After several burglaries of similar houses in the area the police were happy to respond quickly.
I still visit that second hand bookshop, but I always check that my purchases are empty before I leave the shop.