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0 Comments | Jan 29, 2018

The Antique Shop

unnamedA couple of blocks east of Jackson Square, in New Orleans’ French Quarter, wedged into a narrow alley abutting St. Louis Cathedral, stood a small single-story antique emporium called The Alcove. The building, viewed head-on, appeared a bit twisted and of dubious structural integrity, in the same manner as certain ancient pubs in remote English townships. You had to push hard on the front door to get it to open. On the rare occasions when someone did so, a small bell affixed to the top of the door would tinkle brightly, conveying positivity that a subsequent look about the place would promptly cast doubt upon. Mere words could not do justice to the interior of The Alcove, but if they could, they would include words like hodgepodge, mayhem, and, almost certainly, fire hazard. But, as it happens, this is precisely the sort of environment that antique shoppers the world over expect and, indeed, thrive in.

Aaron Pitts, in town for a weeklong business trip, had a free afternoon and had opted to spend it indulging his one and only hobby, rare book collecting. He had spent the preceding few hours exploring a few of the French Quarter’s more notable antiquarian bookshops, but had thus far come away empty handed. His collection back home in Houston was already copious from long years of searching, and so the list of titles he now sought was relatively small and arcane. On a few occasions in his life he had found obscure titles in antique shops that did not specialize in books, and this had been his hope upon entering The Alcove. His expectations were much diminished by what he saw once he had forced the door open.

Being mid-afternoon on a Wednesday, Pitts was the only client in the shop, and the proprietor the only other individual, so that the two quickly fell into desultory conversation, commencing with banal observations about the entirely ordinary late spring Gulf coast weather (warm and oppressively humid), then meandering into topics as diverse as the Saints’ prospects for the coming season, the recent controversies concerning removal of Confederate statues, and eventually to items of interest in the shop itself.

“Now, Mister Pitts … on yonder table there is a weapon of some consequence. It may look like an ordinary pistol, but in fact it was formerly the property of General P. G. T. Beauregard hisself. What’s more, I have it on the authority of my own grandfather—God rest his eternal soul—that Beauregard employed that very weapon to send no fewer than six Yankees to their final reward.”

Both men looked toward the weapon under discussion, the antique shop proprietor directly and with no little reverence, Pitts a bit more askance and with a hefty measure of skepticism. The only sound for that few seconds was the creak of an overhead ceiling fan as it spun in a desperate and ultimately futile attempt to circulate the hot humid New Orleans air.

“I reckon you’re asking yourself right about now,” the proprietor continued, “‘How can I determine the veracity of what this fella is asserting?’ He is, after all, a salesman, and salesmen are widely reputed to be willing to say near anything in pursuit of the next sale.”

Pitts pursed his lips and scratched at the side of his head for a moment, as if to corroborate exactly what the shop owner had said.

“Why, friend, you might even imagine that I have an entire stockroom in back just filled with identical pistols, and that I spin this sort of yarn for every customer who darkens my door. And I could not fault you if that’s precisely what you’re thinking.”

“To be frank, Mister … why, I’m sorry, but I’ve forgotten your name already,” Pitts finally said. “Horrible character flaw of mine, I’m afraid.”

“No matter, Mister Pitts, father time has his way with us all, does he not? Ulysses S. Favreau it is, and I hope you won’t hold it against me that my mother named me for a Yankee general. She is a misguided old soul in many respects, though I love her like an only son should.”

“Well, Mister Favreau, it’s actually books I’m on the hunt for and not weapons, though your piece there is, I confess, an intriguing item. Assuming that what you say is true—and, mind you, I’m not one to question another man’s word, unless I have cause—how did it come into your possession … if you don’t mind my asking? I mean, with the sort of provenance you describe, seems as though it ought to be on display in a museum someplace, wouldn’t you say?”

“It’s a fair point, friend, a fair point indeed. The short answer is that it came into my hands from that self-same grandfather who I referenced earlier. He was born back in 1895 or thereabouts, by which time the war was, of course, thirty years in the rear-view. But there were, naturally, plenty of war veterans still alive well into the twentieth century, and my grandfather, having taken a shine to the antique business even as a young man, knew more than his fair share of those veterans, what with them being excellent sources of weapons, flags, manuscripts, and other wartime memorabilia. It was he who erected this very establishment in which you stand today. Built it before he’d even celebrated his twenty-fifth birthday. And it was he who gave the general’s pistol to my father, and so on down it came over the years to me. You look there next to it, there’s a letter signed by the adjutant that served with Beauregard, attesting to it having been the property of the great general hisself and used to the effect that I described earlier. Why, there’s even a photograph of the general there next to the letter. It was taken just after Shiloh and shows the very weapon itself affixed to his hip.”

Pitts walked slowly toward the large round table in the center of which lay the pistol and its associated documentation. He stood looking down at the weapon for a moment, uncertain whether touching it was appropriate or not. The patina of the steel and the finely oiled texture of the wooden grip certainly looked authentic to Pitts’ untrained eye. He owned not a single firearm and knew virtually nothing about them, but there was no denying it was a beautiful thing.

“Help yourself, friend,” Favreau said, gesturing for him to pick it up. “What you got there is a LeMat forty-two caliber black powder revolver, and its uniqueness arises not just from its history, but also from the design. You look close, you’ll see there’s two barrels, one below the other. It’s a nine-shot revolver that doubles as a shotgun, if you can believe that. You choose which barrel you prefer to discharge with a simple flip of a switch on the hammer there.”

Pitts turned the heavy weapon in his hand a couple of times before laying it carefully back onto the table. Knowing nothing at all about firearms, antique or otherwise, he was in no position to have an opinion as to the authenticity of the item. The photo, tinted a copperish color and protected in a thin plastic sleeve, was as Favreau had said. The great Confederate general, bearing the grim mien of a man only just finished fighting a battle of several gruesome days, stood adjacent a couple of other southern officers, his hip bulging with a pistol that could, in truth, have been any weapon at all, what with the resolution of the image being of minimal quality.

“You’ll forgive me asking,” Pitts said, “but why on earth would you want to sell such a thing if it’s been, as you say, in your family nearly a hundred years?”

Favreau did not answer immediately. He walked instead to the front door and peered for a moment out through the dinghy widow and into the street. The mid-afternoon sun bore through the shop windows, illuminating the dust motes that swirled around the ceaselessly spinning ceiling fan.

“Mister Pitts, I expect you’ll have noticed by now that folks ain’t exactly rioting outside my door to get in and shop for antiques. There’s whole days I sit here doing nothing but listening to that ceiling fan and the radio. Shoot, just the fact that you and I are engaged in this here conversation makes this a banner day for me. You’ll know as well as anyone that there’s times when a man finds hisself in a situation not much to his liking. I reckon this is one of those times. I ain’t at all keen to be quit of that weapon, what with it being an heirloom and all, but when you’re fighting to keep the lights on and your belly full, you’ll do near anything, I expect. Truth be told, push come to shove, I’d prefer losing an heirloom to losing the family business.”

Pitts pondered this seemingly heartfelt response for a moment. He’d walked in looking for old novels—specifically old southern novels of the sort one might find tucked away in the back of a sleepy antique store that didn’t even specialize in books. He was a serious collector of Faulkner, Cather, O’Connor—writers he much admired and aspired to emulate in his own occasional efforts, though he’d never gotten beyond a couple of self-published titles—just enough to impress his friends who didn’t know enough about how publishing worked to know the difference. And there was no shortage of used bookstores here in New Orleans. Problem was that in good used bookstores they knew the value of what they had, so odds of finding a secret undiscovered treasure at a bargain basement price were slim. You wouldn’t find that unknown first printing of The Sound and the Fury without also having to pay the many thousands that such a volume commanded on the open market. But sometimes—once in the proverbial blue moon—someone would unwittingly employ a valuable volume as filler on a bookshelf in a shop where the main objective was to sell the bookshelf. He’d found a first printing of a Steinbeck novel that way once in Baton Rouge—three dollars for a book easily worth five hundred at any reputable bookstore.

“You’ve not mentioned the price,” Pitts said, still standing next to the table. “Though I’m sure it’s miles beyond anything I could manage, even if I was in the market.”

“Mister Pitts, I learned long ago that everything in life is for sale, and that every price is negotiable. I confess, though, that I’ve never quite worked up the nerve to assign an actual price to the pistol, out of fear perhaps that doing so would bring the selling of it that much closer to reality.”

“So then you’re saying it’s not actually for sale,” Pitts said.

“Oh no,” Favreau replied, “I said nothing of the kind. Only that the prospect of doing so frightens me a bit. Surely, Mister Pitts, you have an item or two in your possession that you regard as priceless, but which you would nonetheless grudgingly part with if your situation were suitably dire.”

“No doubt, Mister Favreau. No doubt. But I think the more important question for a man is what, if any, item do you possess that is truly beyond price. What would you burn down this store rather than part with? I can truthfully say that I own only one such thing, and would you believe it comprises but a single sheet of paper?”

“Why, friend, it must be something remarkable indeed to hold such sway over you.”

“The briefest of letters. Just three simple paragraphs, handwritten by FDR himself to my grandfather, congratulating him on what I am assured was his humble contribution to the Manhattan Project and his small role in bringing the Second World War to an end. He was a mechanical engineer—designed the casing for the bomb’s fuse, I believe.”

“A consequential thing indeed! And a good deal more so than General Beauregard shooting Yankees with a pistol.”

“And yet both men were, in their own way, working to bring about the end of their respective hostilities, were they not?”

“I expect you’re right about that, Mister Pitts, though I imagine your grandfather’s weapon made a bit more of a bang than the general’s pistol there.”

“Tell me this, Mister Favreau. Has the pistol ever been fired? I mean aside from by Beauregard himself, of course.”

“No, leastways not as long as it’s been in my family. Indeed, neither I nor any of my progenitors have so much as disassembled or cleaned the weapon, aside from polishing up the outside from time to time. I guess I like to imagine that whatever powder residue remains in the barrel was left there by the general hisself. Course I can’t swear to that, you understand, but it adds a bit to the mystique, if you take my meaning.”

As Favreau offered this assertion, Pitts noticed for the first time the lengthening shadows of the afternoon as they ploughed their way through the dusty humid air and across the floor of the shop. He concluded that if there was to be any hope of locating one of the books on his short but precisely defined shopping list, he would need to determine what, if anything, there was to be had here in The Alcove, and if nothing, then move on to other prospects. Still, even in the face of this incontrovertible realization, he was forced to concede that Favreau was a genuinely interesting character, and it wasn’t every day that one encountered a genuinely interesting character.

“Sadly, Mister Favreau, I am forced to confess that I will not be relieving you of your invaluable family heirloom.” He nodded with what he supposed was respect toward the pistol on the table. “But I’m keen to know if you have any noteworthy books—novels specifically—in your … collection.” Pitts threw his hands outward so as to encompass the totality of Favreau’s amassed antiquities.

“There is, Mister Pitts, as you are doubtless aware, a good deal of competition in the Quarter for antiquarian books—at least thirty-seven shops at last count, and so I normally leave that trade to my more erudite colleagues.”

“Well then,” replied Pitts, “If that is the case, I will thank you sincerely for your—”

“However,” Favreau interrupted, “you, my friend have chosen an auspicious day indeed to—as the great John Cleese once intoned in a classic Python skit—‘infiltrate my place of purveyance.”

“Oh, and how is that exactly,” said Pitts, stealing a glance at his wristwatch.


In lieu of a response, Favreau raised a knowing forefinger, spun on the ball of one foot, and exited the room through a back door, following which there arose from the other side of the door a protracted din comprised of much shuffling, rustling, and low-level cursing, as well as at least one crash. After two long minutes, Favreau emerged, his hair a bit the worse for wear and a discernible bead of sweat upon his forehead. In his hands was a single thin volume that caused Pitts’ heart to sink a bit, what with the reward to all appearances not commensurate with the obvious effort that had been expended to obtain it.

“One of these days I’m really going to have to get this place organized,” Favreau, smiling wanly, offered in response to Pitts’ concerned look. “Either that,” he continued with a smile, “or one day they shall find me buried beneath an avalanche of detritus.”

Favreau was still too far away for Pitts to discern the specifics of the volume that had been freed from the chaos of the back room, though he couldn’t help but be struck by the seeming reverence with which the proprietor laid it on the counter. At Favreau’s subtle bidding, Pitts moved toward the glass counter to have a closer look.

The book was a hardback. That much was apparent. And there was a dust jacket with a good deal of damage to the upper and lower extremities, as befits a jacket that has spent decades doing its job, i.e., protecting the enclosed volume. Indeed, this was why, with most older first editions, the jacket, if it was in any sort of condition at all, tended to be far more valuable than the book itself. The volume was no more than half an inch thick and the first somewhat startling thing Pitts noticed was that he did not recognize it at all. This was surprising because he had spent a very significant portion of his adult life researching and purchasing first editions, and he had an excellent eye for all of the well-known classics. This suggested the plausible explanation that the book was of no particular renown and hence of little value. The book lay facedown on the counter and it was unclear whether this was pure happenstance or whether perhaps Favreau had placed it thus with the specific purpose of creating an enhanced sense of drama. Pitts looked questioningly in Favreau’s direction, and the proprietor gestured toward the volume encouragingly. Pitts reached out, lifted the book carefully, turned it over, and stopped breathing for a moment.

He said nothing at first, only looked up at Favreau, then back down at the book. He carefully removed the jacket and studied the boards of the volume itself, which were in reasonable condition. He replaced the jacket and opened to the title page, then turned it over to the copyright page. He flipped carefully between these two pages repeatedly for over a minute. He then flipped gingerly through the book’s pages, each of which was lightly foxed around the edges, the slightly darker shade of brown highlighting the volume’s age, and, so it seemed, its authenticity. Then he did something he had learned years ago, which still struck the uninitiated as odd. He opened the book to roughly the middle, closed his eyes, raised the book to his face, and inhaled deeply. From decades of testing rare books in this way, he could tell immediately that it was a volume from the nineteen twenties, which is precisely what was stated on the copyright page, nineteen twenty-one to be specific. He placed the book back onto the glass, face-up this time, then lifted his gaze to meet Favreau’s.

“This is a joke, right?” he said at last. “An elaborate hoax of some kind.”

“My reaction was much like yours, Mister Pitts. And the honest answer is that I do not know.”

“You know, of course, there is no such book,” Pitts said.

“I do indeed,” Favreau replied, smiling. “And yet, there it lies.”

The jacket was a uniform dun color, difficult to say how much of that was the original hue and how much was the product of aging. The title, previously unknown to Pitts was simply ‘At the Lake.’ The copyright page contained the usual assortment of information such pages contain—publication date (first printing, August, 1921), and a publisher name and colophon Pitts did not recognize—yet another oddity, since he felt he had seen all of the publishers there were to know about from the twentieth century. This one simply said Higgins & Co., Chicago, IL, followed by a stylized capital ‘H’ colophon. All these details were unusual and unfamiliar, but not in any particular way alarming. What was alarming was the author name on the book’s jacket and title page—Ernest Hemingway.

“He wrote no such book,” Pitts said quietly, trying to reinforce his earlier assertion.

“I cannot disagree with you.” Again Favreau made no effort to defend the volume’s veracity.

“But … how …” Pitts said. He lifted the book once more from the counter.

“There’s the truly odd thing. I cannot even say with certainty where I got it from or how long I’ve had it. I occasionally purchase boxes of random antiquities from people on the off chance of finding something interesting. More often than not, they go into my storage room until one day I get so bored that I sort through them, often months later. It…” he nodded to the book that Pitts was once more leafing through, “was in the bottom of one such box. I’ve had it for perhaps ten years, maybe twelve.”

“Did you read it?” Pitts asked.

“Oh yes, of course. Several times. And I’m no expert, but in my view it certainly reads like his work.”

“And you know that this copyright date places your book three full years before Three Stories and Ten Poems and the Three Mountains edition of In Our Time, which everyone in the literary world believes were his first couple of books. He would have been just twenty-two years old.”

“I was not aware that another volume preceded In Our Time,” Favreau said.

“Only by a fluke of the publishing industry, and only by a few months. In Our Time was contracted first, but the publisher at Contact in Paris was a bit more zealous than the Three Mountains folks about getting his out first.”

“You’ve spent some effort looking into the history.”

“It’s true,” Pitts acknowledged. “You have shown this to others?”

“Maybe half a dozen or so,” Favreau said. “Just random visitors like yourself. Most either didn’t know enough about Hemingway to appreciate the mystery, or they knew too much about him and dismissed it as a deranged forgery of some kind. You clearly lean toward the latter.”

“But no expert has seen it.”


“And you’ve taken it around to none of the other antiquarian bookshops here in the city?”

“I have not.”


“And you’re … what? Offering to sell this to me?”

“Honestly,” Favreau said, “I’m not sure what I’m doing. You just seemed like the sort of fellow who would appreciate the wonder of the thing.”

“And how does one go about placing a value on a thing that is either priceless or worthless, but nowhere in between?”

“There’s the rub, eh?” Favreau said. He was clearly savoring the drama of the moment.

“No offence intended, Mister Favreau, but it seems to me that in such a potentially extraordinary circumstance, a man—particularly a man in your line of work—would have left no stone unturned getting to the bottom of the thing.”

“You would think so, wouldn’t you?”

“It only makes sense,” Pitts said, “if perhaps you’re the sort of fellow who relishes the mystery more than you do the certainty of knowing, one way or the other.”

To this Favreau did not respond.

“Because,” Pitts continued, free associating at this point, “if you learn that it truly is a fake, then the game is up and it’s back to life as normal. Whereas if you learn that the book is authentic, you cause a literary furor and have to deal with everything that goes along with that. Never mind the fact that the book would, if proven to be genuine, in all likelihood be worth more than everything else in your entire store, including,” he turned toward the round table, “dare I say it, even General Beauregard’s sidearm.”

“Nothing you say can be denied,” Favreau replied.

“Which leaves you … us … precisely where? If I may be so bold as to include myself in this unexpected and somewhat frightening conundrum.”

“It leaves me with a book that may—may—be the only extant copy of a novel—the first novel in fact—written by the most famous American author of the twentieth century, which no one on earth even knows was written. And it leaves you wondering how exactly you fit into this bizarre picture.”

“If it’s genuine, then you know, of course, that there are Hemingway scholars and collectors out there who would happily sell their children into slavery simply to have a look at it.”

“I don’t doubt it,” Favreau replied. “But they are not here.”

“Serendipity is a cruel mistress.”

“She is indeed,” Favreau agreed, smiling. “And yet we still lack a resolution.”

The two men stared at one another for a long moment, neither certain quite how to proceed.

“Tell me, Mister Favreau, do you count yourself a religious man?”

“Well,” Favreau said, “I won’t lie and tell you that I make my way to church regularly, but if you’re asking me if I believe in the good Lord, then I will acknowledge that I do. I confess, though, that your question strikes me as a bit of a non sequitur, given the situation.”

“I understand, and apologies if I seem to be sowing confusion. I myself do not count myself a believer, at least not in the formal sorts of belief systems that humanity has conjured up over the years. Only here’s the thing …”

Pitts paused for a moment and rubbed at his chin with his hand.

“Please, Mister Pitts, do continue,” Favreau exhorted. “I’m keen to hear how your metaphysical view of the world impinges on our humble situation.”

“You see, Mister Favreau, I was raised in a religious household—Baptist to be specific—but I strayed from it in my teens. I concluded there were questions that faith alone couldn’t answer. And I guess I concluded that if a belief system is incapable of delivering answers to life’s big questions, then what’s the point of it?”

“I sympathize with your point of view,” Favreau said, “but what does your loss of faith have to do with you and I in this moment?”

“Well, you see, despite my rejection of a formal belief system, I nevertheless cannot help but accept that there are many aspects of everyday life that defy our understanding, and that likely always will. And that makes me wonder if, indeed, there isn’t some sort of—pardon the expression—puppet master out there steering us in a certain direction, a direction designed to ensure that we never quite obtain those answers we all so desperately long for.”

“Mister Pitts, I confess you have me utterly at a loss.”

“My apologies,” Pitts said. “I’m rambling. My wife says I do that when I find myself in difficult situations. All I’m saying is have you considered the possibility that someone—something—whatever it is that created us—you and I—has, as well, created this exact situation, a situation that admits no possible satisfactory outcome. And that this—someone—is sitting back even now having a good laugh at our expense.”

“Mister Pitts, you have certainly steered this conversation off into a realm that is beyond me. But if I understand you correctly, you are suggesting that what has transpired here, in my shop, these past few moments—our conversation about the pistol, the book—is all part of some … story conjured up by an omniscient author who’s … up there someplace?”

Favreau gestured with both arms in a generally upward direction, and Pitts couldn’t tell whether the proprietor was confused by his hypothesis, or perhaps annoyed. Even to himself it sounded bizarre once he’d actually said it out loud. He’d voiced this theory of authorial omniscience to his wife and to a few close friends over the years, but never before to a complete stranger. In every previous case, the reaction had been some variation of the same incredulity that Favreau was now expressing.

“True or not,” said Favreau, “you must admit that it’s terribly depressing theory you’ve espoused. Because if it’s true, then it calls into stark question the very notion of free will. Why, every word that you or I say—this very sentence now—is nothing more than my speaking the words put into my mouth by … well, damn it, who knows whom?”

“You have to admit,” said Pitts, “it’s a mind bending thing to contemplate.”

“For the love of God, I’ll likely not sleep for a week!” Favreau said. “If I take your theory to its logical horrible conclusion, then your author—God help me, our author—would have to have put that book into the cardboard box all those years ago in anticipation of this precise moment. That author knew—knew ten years ago, mind you—that you would walk into this store on this very day, and that I would engage you in precisely this conversation.”

He paused for a long moment until his face took on an almost frightened look. Was he expressing genuine emotion, or was he merely toying with Pitts?

“And here’s the worst of it,” he continued. “That author would have to have known not only that you and I would have this exact conversation, but also that we would come to this very point, the point where we contemplate the existence of the author himself.”

Favreau stepped backward and nearly fell onto an antique maple dining room chair. It creaked beneath his weight and Pitts wondered for a moment whether the piece was up to the sudden weight.

“Please, Mister Favreau, I never meant to disturb you with my ranting. It’s just that I was struck by the intractability of the situation created by your book. I mean, you and I here, on this day, in this situation. You just happen to have an inexplicably rare volume that I just as inexplicably happen to know a thing or two about. Seriously—what are the odds of that?”

“Only now,” continued Favreau, picking up the thread, “it’s almost as though your author, though clever enough to conjure up the situation, was not quite clever enough to write his way out of it in a plausible manner.”

“Yes, yes, it’s as though he’s written himself into a corner. And we’re the innocent victims of his ineptitude.”

“When you think about it—really think about it—it’s not even that great of a plot device. I mean, how many thousands of Hemingway scholars have studied his work over the past seventy-five years? What are the odds that they all missed a secret early book? It makes no earthly sense.”

Pitts smiled a sudden knowing smile. “It’s no more plausible than me picking up your pistol there, pointing it at you, and pulling the trigger. Neither of us even know whether there’s a round in there. You said yourself you’ve never taken it apart.”

“So,” said Favreau, “you believe that whatever you and I do in the next few moments is preordained and we have no choice whatsoever in the matter.”


The proprietor considered this for a moment in silence.

“But,” he then continued, “suppose we’ve got it backwards? What if instead of your author controlling us, it’s really you and I who control him? What if we are the ones free to do as we like, say whatever we please, and his story, or book, or whatever the hell this is, has no choice but to proceed along in the way that we decide?”

Pitts pursed his lips in response to this unexpected hypothesis.

“Why then we’d be in a position to totally mess with him and his story,” said Pitts.

“Now there’s a thought,” said Favreau with a smile. “Why we could bring the whole senseless affair to a halt right this very second. And there wouldn’t be a blessed thing he could do about it.”

“He’ll have only considered two logical options,” said Pitts. “Either you will or you will not choose to sell me your book.”

“And you,” replied Favreau, “will either agree to purchase it or you will not.”

The two men looked intently at one another for a long moment, and then, as though arriving at the same outlandish conclusion simultaneously, lunged for the volume. In a blur of hands and fingers and pages, amid shouts of delirious laughter, they tore the small volume to the tiniest of shreds, flinging the pages about the shop with wild abandon. They then stood silently for another long moment, staring in delight at one another as a last few pages drifted to the floor.

“Well, he certainly never saw that coming,” said Pitts.

“I’ll wager you’re right,” agreed Favreau.


Pitts bent down and picked up a few random fragments from the floor. “Looks as though we’ve ruined the whole thing, Mister Favreau!”

“We have indeed, Mister Pitts!”

“Then I’ll bid you good day, Mister Favreau. And best of luck selling the general’s pistol.”

“Thanks for dropping by, Mister Pitts, and for making my day a truly interesting one.”

And with that, Pitts walked to the front of the store, tugged a couple of times on the front door, jarred it free, and stepped out onto the sidewalk, the tiny bell tinkling in his wake.





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