Even though Charles loathed people using "I must have a genetic predisposition for X, Y, or Z" as an excuse for personal shortcomings and peccadillos – he was a professor at Columbia and a well-respected researcher in the field, he couldn't not get riled about scientific inaccuracy – he suspected the Xavier family had a strong expression of the gene responsible for squirreling away every random object that came across their paths. Or, rather, his sister Raven – adopted sister, Charles should clarify – suspected this, and Charles, in the face of overwhelming evidence, had to agree.
His great-great-great grandfather, who had built the ancestral home, had loaded it down with European art. Great-great Grandfather Xavier had introduced his menagerie of taxidermied animal specimens, some captured on safari, some on scientific expeditions, and others – according to legend – pilfered from the Natural History Museum in London. By Charles's day, they'd become mangy enough to be moved to a very, very distant attic. Great-grandpère Xavier had amassed a collection of certain objects Charles hadn't been allowed to see until he'd turned eighteen, and that one time had been more than enough. Ma-mère had owned a legion of cats; Charles's first memories of the mansion, before his father had inherited, were fuzzy, punctuated here and there by sharp stabs of pain and bouts of sneezing.
Charles's father, a researcher himself, had collected old medical instruments, the sort that looked more like torture devices than anything meant to save a life. Raven, despite the relationship she'd had with her adopted parent, had been drawn to the grisly arrangement of steel forceps, extractors, syringes, clamps, and amputation saws. It explained many things about her, Charles thought.
And as for himself… "You should be glad I collect only books," Charles told her, whenever he came home from the bookstore or an estate sale. "At least it's not nineteenth-century enema apparatuses, or whatever."
"At least you can talk about nineteenth-century enema apparatuses with people," Raven would say. By people she usually meant her friends, all of whom were younger than Charles could ever remember being, and none of whom were capable of appreciating the sublime happiness of finding an overlooked author, or a diamond in the rough first edition in someone's bargain bin.
"I don't know what the fuss is about buying old things only to clutter up your house," Charles would say, to illustrate how he had more in common with Raven than his somewhat unstable ancestors. This required him to ignore the ten stacks of books waiting to be catalogued, and the twenty stacks he'd not yet read, but Charles was quite good at ignoring things he preferred not to acknowledge. "Honestly, enema apparatuses, stuffed dodos, or otherwise, it's all rather silly."
For Charles, the first few days of summer break usually meant an uncomfortable hiatus after running the gauntlet of finals, several days of loose ends and restlessness before hitting his research stride. This year, it meant a month (a vacation, Raven insisted, look on the bright side), with his lab building shut for upgrades, and something about proper ventilation to prevent explosions. Hank – research assistant, brilliant young man, reminded Charles of himself in many ways – had gone morose and silent when told how long their lab would be closed, and somewhat pitifully asked if there was anything he could do. Charles knew how he felt, and vented his frustration by being unable to concentrate on the literature for the next round of experiments and staring moodily out the window at the garden.
"Honestly!" Raven barked after five days of Charles milling aimlessly around the house. It was a big house, and purely by coincidence Charles had done most of his aimless milling in Raven's presence. "Honestly," Raven said again, "I know you love my company, but I need to get some writing done, and you need to get in the car and go somewhere else. Go somewhere else before I kill you."
Charles went. Raven's one concession to unrestrained bookbuying was true crime books, and by this point, she could probably plan and execute the perfect murder herself. With, Charles thought unhappily, an antique enema apparatus.
Going somewhere in the middle of a Saturday afternoon meant going into town and joining the throngs of rich, bored people who had come up to North Salem to count their money and the tourists who had come to gawk. Charles quite liked people, although usually not en masse, and certainly not when they came in slow-moving shoals that stopped dead on the sidewalk to gawk at something in a shop window or hold conversations on their cell phones. He endured the crowds long enough to nip into his favorite bookstore and buy one or two things (or four; one of them was on Jack the Ripper, as atonement for driving Raven around the bend), and then into a coffee shop.
Life, Charles told himself, when it involved a book and a cup of tea, was very good. The day was a day for being outside, the air the clear, cool air of an early New York summer day, with the strongest of the sun's warmth spilling on the concrete outside the coffee shop awning and nothing but comfort under the shade. He sipped his tea, offered a quick smile to a young lady rushing by – she returned the smile absently before eeling around two shambling tourists to run across the street – and, Vintner's Luck opened to page one, watched the town move on around him.
After a few minutes, he noticed that much of the activity clustered around one particular storefront, one of the innumerable antiques places that cluttered the main street – and, for that matter, most of upstate New York. A handwritten sign announcing its re-opening, a half-deflated cluster of balloons anchored to it by ribbon, explained why Charles had never once noticed it before. If memory served (Charles had not been to town in a while, and rarely paid attention outside of the few stores he visited), the antiques shop had always been one of those moribund stores that hung on despite having no visible reason to do so.
Re-opening or not – and the storefront, with Antiques decaled into the window (scraped, here and there, to look appropriately aged), was hardly prepossessing – a sizable crowd had gathered in front of it, a few people emerging now and then with brown paper shopping bags and relieved expressions.
For the most part, as far as Charles could tell, antiques stores fell into two categories: those that specialized in selling things the Xaviers had spent almost two hundred years accumulating, and those that specialized in selling scraps of wood masquerading as eighteenth-century weathervanes and chipped porcelain, the sorts of things people put away for good reason, because they were broken or tacky, and better off collecting dust somewhere. However – and this was what had Charles swallowing the rest of his tea and darting across the street with purpose – some of them chanced to have a decent collection of old books, even if those books were only meant to take up space on a beaten-up bookcase or armoire. Some even had, as a tragic afterthought, boxes of old books stashed somewhere, usually off in a corner as if unfit to socialize with the detritus dug up from other people's cellars and attics.
He had to fight the hipsters and trophy wives to get to the door. In the windows reposed some motley assortments of objects: in one, porcelain cats clustered around an urn painted with a florid, fleshy lady in a turban and immense dress, and in the other (which indicated the name of the shop was "Old Things"), wooden children's toys and a rocking chair upon which sat a truly terrifying rag doll. Charles had some time to study the cats, trapped as he was behind a wall of Gucci and thrift-store shirts.
Once through, and once his eyes adjusted to the dimness, he saw the reason for the crowd, and it was not the random collection of oddments and furniture scattered across the shop's dim interior.
The man behind the counter did not at all fit the description of an antiques dealer, or at least the description Charles had formulated. Antiques dealers wore button-downs and fusty cardigans and corduroys, not white t-shirts that skimmed an abdomen straight enough to rule lines with, or battered jeans that suggested a life spent outside doing rugged activities like wrestling steers or climbing mountains. Charles absently straightened his cardigan and ducked behind a battered curio before the man behind the counter could catch him staring, and resumed his observation from behind the screen of some vintage pepper grinders.
A young man in jeans so close-fitting Charles wondered if his blood supply had been cut off past his hips was hovering indecisively at the front of the line. The man behind the counter scowled, said "I don't know anything about it" when the young man inquired after the provenance of a copper teapot, and settled into a menacing silence while the skinny be-jeansed young man dithered.
"Buy it or not, I don't care." The man's voice, with more than a thread of steel in it, suggested that only an immediate decision either way would prevent bloodshed. Wordlessly, the young man pushed the teapot across the counter, along with his credit card. The man ran the card through with a vicious efficiency, collected the young man's signature, and offered him the tea pot again.
"I don't suppose I could get a shopping – " A blond woman moved between Charles and the counter, so Charles couldn't see whatever was on the other man's face, but whatever it was had the young man collecting his new-old teapot and hustling out.
The crowd pressed him inexorably back, into a room that smelled as though it hadn't been aired since the middle of the previous century, possibly the century before. It was also, Charles observed with delight and despair, where the books were kept. (Delight because, books, despair because a room like this was made to rot paper.) He fought against the urge to buy the entire collection just to save it from a musty, water-stained doom, and instead settled himself in to peruse the selection.
It wasn't… bad. Not "good used bookstore" level but certainly above an old fruit crate stuffed with paperbacks. In a few minutes of searching he found a turn-of-the-century illustrated guide to the birds of the Hudson River Valley, in excellent condition. On the next shelf he found a copy of Ulysses covered over with the scribblings of a frustrated student. Under that he found something called The X-Men, which was pulpy and thin and, in the subtitle, asked enticingly They were enemies in the battlefield, but what about…? He tucked that one safely against his chest.
"You're a book whore," Raven had said one of the last times she'd gone through his library. "Seriously, it's like you just look at them on the shelf and are like 'Take me, I'm yours' and then your wallet's open… Wait, that metaphor's backwards. You're like the book equivalent of a sex addict, you can't control yourself. You need help. You need an intervention. There's a TV show about it."
"And you're overdramatic," Charles had replied. "And I can stop any time I want."
He left the book room before temptation grew too great, and added himself to a line that snaked by a few end tables and a preserved elephant-foot umbrella stand (from which Charles recoiled). The man behind the counter dealt with the line much as he had the unwitting boy and his teapot, with no sense of customer service whatsoever, and so it was that in very short order Charles found himself depositing his books on the counter, with The X-Men and the two ridiculously costumed figures on its cover on top.
A corner of the long, angular mouth drew up, and its silence was as eloquent as if the man had spoken words. Charles felt his face heat, because jesus what the hell had he been thinking, from the way the men on the cover were looking at each other it might as well be The XXX-Men, and the guy behind the counter knew it.
There was nothing for it, Charles supposed. He looked the cashier square in the eye and said, "I've always found the classics are worth re-reading."
That earned him a huff of laughter and a sidelong look.
"You seem to be doing well," Charles said calmly.
"Yes." Fingers – long, dexterous fingers, graceful Charles thought with a distant helplessness – tapped out numbers on the register. "Unfortunately." The half-smile grew, from something private into something that invited Charles to share in the amusement, and Charles found himself smiling back.
"I've never really noticed this place before," he said as the cashier bent to hunt around under the counter top. His spine traced an elegant curve under the t-shirt, broad shoulders and narrow hips, and Charles swallowed roughly. "Did you buy it or something?"
"Or something." The paper bag opened with a flick of a wrist, the books deposited inside. The cashier – owner? Charles wondered how someone in an utterly ordinary shop could be so mysterious – handed Charles his books, with an expression that seemed to search Charles's face for something.
What it might have been, Charles had no idea and no time to parse it out. The blond woman from earlier poked him in the back with a manicured claw and a "Do you mind, sugar? Some of us would like to do other things today," and Charles, abruptly apologetic and very British about it all, muttered his excuses (I'm so terribly sorry, I do apologize) and darted out.
Six o'clock took its sweet time coming, but come it did. He shut the front door emphatically behind the last customer (who had dawdled until he had almost been too distracted by lurid revenge fantasies to ring her out) and, leaning against it, breathed a sigh of relief.
"Well," Moira said as she sidled out from the back room, "you survived it."
"Thank you for that." He flipped the lock shut. "I don't suppose you have a line on more worthless crap in the area I can sell."
"Don't you mean valuable antiques and objets d'art?" Moira smirked. ""I'll take care of it."
"Like you've taken care of everything else?"
The answering silence was dangerous, Moira's good humor withering in the heat of temper. "You know I had no choice in the matter Eisenhardt," she said, leaning on the name until it threatened to snap under the pressure. "You knew what you were in for, coming here." She sighed and redirected her displeasure to the shop, empty now except for the two of them and the damned, dust-collecting antiques. "If only I'd known what a pain in the ass you were going to be about it, I probably never would have agreed to help you."
"You're always welcome to leave," he said. "I never asked for your help in the first place."
"You needed my help in the first place," Moira said baldly, and the hell of it was, he knew she knew he knew he'd needed her, and still would, until all was said and done. He'd moved from Oklahoma because the temptation – the opportunity – had been too great to resist, and Moira, who'd long ago learned she could get what she wanted if she gave him what he wanted, had given in, and had been clever enough to hide the stinger buried in a list of conditions as long as his arm.
"Moving here was risky enough," Moira said, like she was reading his mind; they'd worked together long enough (if "working" was the term) that she probably could. "I won't have you screwing everything up now."
"I won't risk it," he said with a calmness he didn't feel. "Now help me sort this place out. It's a fucking disaster."