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A short story by Marshall Riggan

James Norris lived alone in a rambling Victorian on Caroline Street, a block from Key West Bight and the harbor. He had purchased the historic old house when he was a better artist than he was now, when his work seemed more natural and elegant, and was much in demand. He had lived in the house with Captain Jonathan O’Hara, a sea captain and his partner of nearly thirty years. After retirement from the Merchant Marines, Captain O’Hara had accepted a position as skipper of the schooner Allegory carrying tourists on moonlight cruises from the Key West schooner wharf. When he wasn’t aboard Allegory, he could usually be found in his tropical garden surrounding the house. Beneath the Buttonwood trees and Gumbo Limbo was a glorious natural bouquet of hibiscus, frangipani, Bougainvillea, trumpet flower, plumeria and other garden glories, all tended with loving care by the aging captain. The blossoms in his garden had been the subject of James’s art, magnificent prints produced from engravings he created in his upstairs studio. It had been a labor of love for both of them, a microcosm for their greater partnership.
The Captain had died unexpectedly the year before. Now James rarely found the inspiration to paint or create the engraved prints for which he was famous. He spent much of his mornings in his upstairs studio, laying out his art supplies, searching for his muse, but finding behind his eyes only an empty landscape, or an image that he had rendered a thousand times before. Then defeated and lonely, he would sit in the chair before his window, looking out at the gardens his companion had
maintained so beautifully and which now began to show the signs of neglect.
In the afternoons, James continued with the seemingly endless chore of sorting through Captain O’Hara’s belongings, considering what to keep, what to discard and what to sell. The task was made more difficult because the captain, although he was not a hoarder, had amassed an enormous
and eclectic collection of art and marine antiques and oddities of great and little value, gathered during his years sailing the oceans of the world. His collection of charts and ancient navigation instruments filled one entire room, his flintlock pistol collection, including one reported to have belonged to the French pirate Jean Lafitte, filled a second room. His stamp collection overflowed into another. James managed to donate many of these treasures to museums. Others he stored away in the attic. But each time he considered selling or donating the stamp collection, or
consigning it to the oblivion of the attic, he recalled how many hours his companion had spent enjoying his stamps, studying the individual engravings as if each was a mystery to be solved, a story to be told. James could not bring himself to discard the collection his lover had so loved.
Tentatively, at first, James began to explore the stamp collection, marveling at the artistry of
the tiny engravings. His own engravings were for prints destined to be hung in museums or in galleries, but these engraved stamps were often less than an inch square and the designs were complex, sometimes filled with dozens of people or ships under full sail or battles between armies. To carve these images into a diminutive bronze plate seemed next to impossible. But here they were, the detail often only appreciated under a magnifying glass.
Although the old sea captain had been an avid collector, he was terribly disorganized and
thousands upon thousands of his postage stamps remained in large envelopes and in cardboard boxes and in the drawers of his antique roll-top desk. Many were in musty old albums purchased at estate sales.
James determined he would honor his friend’s memory by creating order in the collection. He would organize the stamps according to country of issue, then place them in albums, with notations below each stamp with date of issue and any other information he could glean from research or from the image on the stamp. In time, he became so intrigued by the collection, the precision of the engravings, the stories the stamps told about history and geopolitics, that he no longer mourned his diminished talent as an artist, and he devoted most of his waking hours working with the collection at the old roll-top desk. Many of the stamps were difficult to identify and so he paged through the captain’s catalogues, he joined specialized philatelic societies and subscribed to their journals and newsletters.
It never occurred to James to purchase more stamps, he was drowning in the old schooner captain’s collection as it was. Yet he loved searching through the boxes and drawers and old albums.
One day, as he was looking through a drawer filled with envelopes of stamps, he found a frail yellow stamp that looked especially old. Carefully, with tongs, James removed the stamp and studied it under a magnifying lens. Now he could read that it was from Sweden. Although the image was severely faded, it appeared to feature the country’s coat of arms. As he studied the stamp for more clues to its origin, he began to sense it might be valuable.
Enlivened by an excitement he had not felt in years, he immediately took the stamp to Percival
Frizby, owner of a coin and stamp shop on Duval Street. He was a man in his seventies, with silvery hair, a Patrician manner, and a passion for philately, the collection and study of postage stamps. The old man examined the stamp carefully and then he placed his hand on James’s shoulder. “I’m sorry, James, but this is certainly a forgery.”
“What gives it away?” James asked.
“What gives it away is that there is only one 1855 Treskilling Yellow known to exist. In 2010
it was sold at auction for $2 million.”
James was astonished that a stamp could be worth $2 million and visibly disappointed that his was apparently a forgery.
“Maybe there’s another one,” James said.
“There were a few others printed, but they were accidently printed in the wrong color, yellow instead of blue, so they immediately stopped printing the yellow ones.”
“So maybe there are more. Maybe this is one of those few.”
“James, my friend, if there was another, surely it would have turned up in the last 150
years. The story goes it was discovered by a young boy in his grandmother’s attic. He sold it to a collector and since then it has travelled around the world, from collector to collector, increasing in value with each sale.” Frizby went to his desk and removed a file
of the postage stamps of Sweden. He opened the file to a photograph of the stamp James had found. “This is what the real thing looks like.”
James placed his stamp next to the $2 million stamp in the file. “But they are identical in every way. How can you say mine isn’t real as well? Could we have it examined by an expert, just to make sure?”
For a long moment, Frizby continued to stare at the two stamps. Then he sighed and said: “In memory of my old friend Captain O’Hara, leave the stamp with me and I’ll have it appraised. But don’t get your hopes up too high. I’m certain this is a forgery. A very good one, but a forgery just the same.”
James returned to the old house on Caroline Street. Each morning, he got out his easel and paints and when he reached for his prodigal muse, he was astounded that it came leaping willingly into his mind and he found himself, for the first time in a long time, eager to work. He was sketching a trumpet flower from the captain’s garden on a plate of bronze when he wondered if he had the skill to engrave an image the size of a postage stamp. He decided to try. He sketched
the image of the Treskilling Yellow onto a tiny bronze plate. Because of the extremely small size and the complexity of the design, it took him a full week of days and many nights, staring through a magnifying glass, and working with miniature blades, to carve the image. Next he bleached the image from a Swedish stamp printed the same year as the Tresskilling stamp. Then he applied the yellow ink and printed the engraving on the reclaimed paper. After the new image dried, he aged the stamp by soaking it in tea and the application of heat. Finally, when he compared his stamp to the picture of the existing Treskilling Yellow, even under the magnifying glass, they were identical.
James was immensely proud of what he had accomplished. It was apparent he had the skills to create excellent forgeries, not that he wanted to be a forger, but still. He Googled famous postage stamp forgers, such masters as the Spiro Brothers of Germany, Angelo Panelli of Italy, Francois Fournier of France, and others. Most, like Fournier, had no criminal intent. Fournier believed he was simply a creator of art objects, facsimiles, that collectors could obtain for a fraction of the price of the real thing. It was only unscrupulous dealers who passed off his facsimiles as the real thing. James studied the work of the famous forgers and realized his Treskilling Yellow was every bit as good as theirs.
As he was looking through catalogues for other famous stamps to copy, Percival Frizby appeared at his door. Once inside the house, he passed James a document. “It’s a Certificate of Authenticity,” he said. “Your Treskilling Yellow is genuine.”
Wordlessly, James moved into the parlor and fell into a chair. He closed his eyes and thought about the captain and how he wished his companion could have heard this news. It was his stamp, after all, from his beloved collection. James found himself conflicted between excitement and sorrow. Although it was still morning, James poured them each a drink. “Do you have the stamp?” James asked.
“Yes.”He handed James a leather case.
“Will the appraiser reveal its existence?”
“I don’t know. He promised to be discrete. But I don’t know. There’s a lot of money involved.”
“Then what?”
“Then you will probably have visitors. Agents intent on either stealing or denigrating the value of your stamp or maybe with intentions to destroy it.”
“What should I do?”
“As soon as you can, put it in your bank deposit box.”
“I have a bank here. An old Wells Fargo floor safe.” James took Frizby to examine the safe. It was cast iron and probably weighed several tons.
“I guess this will do. It was good enough for Wells Fargo. But that doesn’t protect you. They can still get to you. If they want in the safe they’ll just break into the house and force you to give them the combination. If I were you, I’d consider hiring a security firm.”
As Frizby was about to leave, James thanked him for getting the appraisal.
The old man shook his head and said, “I just hope I haven’t done you a terrible disservice.”
When Frizby was gone, James took one last look at the Treskilling Yellow and then locked it in the Wells Fargo safe.
For the next few days, he wandered the rooms and corridors of the old house, feeling terribly alone and vulnerable. The house had always been his refuge, a place where he felt safe, protected from the unpleasantness and dangers of the outside world, by the strength of his beloved companion and by the encircling walls of the great old mansion. The Gumbo Limbo and Buttonwood trees and palms surrounding the house made it practically invisible from the street. Now that the captain was dead, visitors rarely came. But now it seemed his seclusion might be breached all because of a tiny piece of paper less that 2-centimeters square.
When the first telephone calls came, he refused to answer. What if it were some dealer asking to buy the Treskilling Yellow, or the anonymous owner or his agent checking on the truth of the rumored duplicate? What would he say? But soon the strident ringing of the bells set his nerves on edge and he picked up the receiver and in a soft voice answered: “Hello.”
“Is this James Norris?” the voice said. James detected an accent he thought to be Germanic.
“Yes. To whom am I speaking?”
“My name is Frederick Hamm. I am a postage stamp dealer. I have heard you are a collector and I wondered if you might have some interesting recent acquisitions.”
“No. I’m sorry. How did you get my name?”
“The Philatelic world, as you must know, is a very tight-knit society. What one knows, all know.”
“I’m sorry that you called for nothing.”
“I didn’t call for nothing. I called about the Treskilling Yellow.”
“What’s that?”
“Don’t be stupid, Norris. I will be on the next flight to Miami and then a charter to Key West. Don’t try to leave the house, my associates are watching. They can see you now through the window. When I get there, we will have a chat and then I will possess the stamp, one way or another.”
His heart thundering, James hung up the phone. He thought to call the police, but the line was now dead, probably cut by the unseen associates.
His first thought was to check all the locks on the windows and doors. The mansion had about
fifty windows and a dozen doors. All their fames were old and on many of the windows the locks had rusted away years ago. It was apparent that anyone who wanted to break into the house could do so easily. His next thought was the roomful of weapons his partner had collected. He hurried to the captain’s small armory and realized that most of the weapons were over one-hundred years old. Flintlocks mostly, muskets and pistols. They were beautifully made and he was once again reminded how such magnificent works of art and engineering were created for the express purpose of killing human beings.
Only one of the weapons had his companion taught him to load and fire, the flintlock of the pirate Jean LaFitte. With trembling hands, James lifted the heavy gun, half-cocked the hammer, shook some black powder from a flask into the barrel, oiled a patch of pillow ticking, placed a round iron ball on top and rammed it all down into the barrel firmly against the gunpowder.
He sat in a high-backed chair in the entrance hall. It was night now and the flintlock lay on a table by his chair, now fully cocked. He waited, listening. He could hear the sound of revelers outside on Duval Street. Within, there was only the creaking of the bones and sinews of the old house. As the time passed, James felt a strange peace settle around him like an answered prayer as an idea began to form in his mind. It was obvious what he must do. He placed the flintlock in a drawer in the table by his side. Then he went upstairs, was gone for a few minutes and then returned to his chair in the entrance hall. As he continued to wait for Frederick Hamm, he couldn’t help smiling.
The men came just before midnight. James heard them walking up onto the veranda. And since he had left the front door open, he could see there were three of them. First came a tall man, whom he assumed was Frederick Hamm, followed by two rather rough-looking characters, one holding a
pistol at his side. They hesitated at the open door, as if expecting a trap. James called to them to come in.
“Well, James, you’re making it rather easy for us,” Hamm said. Now that they were in the light, James could see Frederick Hamm was almost cadaverous. His suit, although obviously expensive, hungfrom his narrow shoulders, as if borrowed from a more rotund person. His face was little more than an animated skull. The other two men were obviously hoodlums and their suits, unlike their leader’s, appeared too small for their muscular bodies. James thought they looked like characters from an Elmore Leonard novel.
“You have the stamp?” Hamm asked.
“Of course. It’s here.” He indicated a small leather case on the table by his side.
Hamm reached for the case, opened it, and removed the stamp from its protective envelope. With a head-mounted light, he examined the stamp under a powerful magnifying glass. Apparently satisfied, he returned the stamp to the leather case. “I don’t understand,” he said. “You don’t want money? I have been authorized to buy it for a rather generous sum.”
“No. Just take it.”
“Why not take the money?”
“I want it out of my life. And I don’t need the money. I’m an old man and I have what I need here.”
Hamm put the leather case in his coat pocket. The ruffian with the gun put his weapon back in its shoulder holster. “Have it your way, Mr. Norris.” And with that the three men turned and moved through the door into the night.
When he was sure they were gone, James closed the door and moved upstairs. He knelt down by the Wells Fargo safe and dialed in the combination. He opened the safe and removed a leather case much like the one Hamm had taken. He opened the case, smiled, thrilled to be in possession of the real Treskilling Yellow. James had switched the stamps and Hamm had taken the perfect forgery.
For the next several weeks, James began to make perfect forgeries of the most valuable and
beautiful stamps in the world. Not for the money, but just because he could.