They’d been driving around Greenwich Village for forty-five minutes at least, the meter on the taxi kept going up, up, up, and the cab driver clearly thought he was nuts. Sean mentally shrugged. He was used to people thinking he was nuts—he worked in the fashion industry, didn’t he? Besides, this was Cate Blanchett’s doing, not his. He was just along for the ride—both metaphorically and literally.
Cate, who occupied the taxi in front of Sean’s, was looking for someplace with ‘pizzazz’ to do a photo shoot, and she wouldn’t be satisfied until she found it. The editor-in-chief of Quality Magazine was always looking for places or people or things with ‘pizzazz’ and it was her unerring eye for that elusive property that was the reason for the magazine’s continued success at a time when keeping a fashion magazine afloat was no easy matter. It was also the reason for Sean’s steadfast devotion to a woman who could, under the best of circumstances, drive a saint to drink. And Sean was no saint.
Suddenly her taxi swerved into the curb and screeched to a halt. Pizzazz, it appeared, had been found at last in a store that proclaimed in all capital letters across the top of the display window PHILOSOPHY and LITERATURE. Bingo!
“Pull in here,” Sean directed the cab driver, who followed suit.
He paid the cabbie, wincing a little as he emptied his wallet of bills but rather looking forward to presenting Cate with the receipt for reimbursement, then gathered up his beloved 8x10 Deardorff camera that occupied the rest of the back seat—his love affair with the Deardorff was the most lasting and dependable he’d ever had—and climbed out of the cab. A flurry of activity swirled around him as the two other taxis disgorged their occupants—Cate, Sean’s assistants Dom and Billy, and the makeup artist Miranda—along with a panoply of equipment lights, props, makeup, wardrobe, and one gorgeous male model, Orlando Bloom, to be the focus of it all.
“Perfect, absolutely perfect,” Sean heard Cate’s distinctive smoky alto voice exclaim. “The place positively reeks with atmosphere. All right everyone, let’s get to work!”
Atmosphere? Well, that was one way to put it, Sean thought as he crossed the sidewalk and walked down a short flight of brick steps to the entrance of the shop, which was called, according to the large red letters stenciled at the bottom of the none-too-clean display window, Embryo Concepts. On the door to the shop in smaller black letters it said, New and Used Books Bought and Sold. An antique globe, a steel-engraved print of what looked like a Roman mausoleum, and several impressive leather-bound tomes with ornate typescript occupied the display area.
The store beyond, from what Sean could make out, was dark and dreary, meaning it would to be hell to light.
But what Cate wanted, Cate got, and Sean was expert at finding ways to make things work. You had to be if you were employed by Quality Magazine and wanted to keep your job. So he simply shrugged and to the cheerfully inapt tinkle of the doorbell followed Cate and the rest of the jostling, chattering crew inside the shop, which was precisely as stygian as it had appeared from the outside.
“It’s movingly dismal,” Cate declared with satisfaction. “We couldn’t have done better if we’d designed it ourselves.”
“Orlando looks smarter already,” Sean joked.
“Hey,” Orlando protested, and Sean bit back a grin. Orli was a nice guy and a hard worker, but about as dim a bulb as the ones in the shop, which was why Cate had suggested this outing to the Village in the first place. The presence on set at the magazine studio of an Itsabushi statue and a string quartet playing Beethoven hadn’t sufficed to make Orlando look the part that Cate intended for him—a guy wearing great clothes who wasn’t actually interested in great clothes but in the arts and culture, which was the theme for the next issue of the magazine.
Orlando’s attempts to relate to the Itsabushi had been painful to watch, and when Sean had asked him what he was thinking, Orli had replied that he was thinking the shoot was taking too long and he wouldn’t have time to stop at the gym and work out before his dinner date that evening. At which point Cate, who was utterly unflappable under any circumstances, had gotten the distant look that meant inspiration was at hand, and abruptly announced that they would go on location.
Embryo Concepts was the perfect name for the bookstore, Sean decided. There was something distinctly womb-like about the interior. The owner clearly didn’t believe in God’s abjuration to ‘let there be light’, because other than a low wattage chandelier and a few randomly placed equally low wattage wall sconces, that useful commodity was practically non-existent. Even the row of windows in the back wall had frosted panes.
Sean carefully leaned his camera attached to its tripod against a display case, and looked around him, already mentally gauging light levels and shooting angles and assessing the best locations to pose Orlando. He ignored the bustle as Dom and Billy started setting up the lights, and Miranda set down the large Vuitton makeup case and hung up the garment bag that held the other suits Orli would be wearing for the shoot. The model’s dark coloring, particularly his nearly black hair, would provide a definite challenge. But Sean happened to enjoy challenges, and they frequently resulted in the most spectacular photos.
The shop was long and narrow, with a circular staircase in the center that descended out of sight, presumably to a basement or store rooms below. Walnut floor-to-ceiling shelves crammed full of a motley assortment of books lined the walls; the bottom shelf was constructed deeper and taller to accommodate the oversized books, many of them with ornate leather bindings. Antique hand-colored horticultural prints covered what open wall space was available, along with some funky looking African masks. Four large rectangular refectory tables set at intervals around the room held more books neatly stacked, and two spinning metal display racks were filled with shabby paperbacks. An even shabbier but comfortable looking couch with fringed flower pattern fabric occupied the space beneath the frosted-glass windows. Beside it stood a tall gilt pedestal mirror. As far as Sean could tell, there wasn’t a computer in the place; an old-fashioned cash register that probably belonged in the Smithsonian held pride of place on the checkout counter.
It was the sort of shop that some might call quaint or charming, a throwback to the ‘good old days’; to Sean it was simply cluttered, and so gloomy that it was impossible to read the titles of the books from where he stood. Curious to know what subject matters were covered by a shop called Embryo Concepts, he walked to the nearest shelf. A wooden library ladder on wheels stood in his way. Putting out a hand, he absentmindedly shoved it, with unexpected results.
“Fuuuuuuuuck!” A startled voice cried out over the clatter of the ladder’s wheels as it rattled sideways, and books cascaded to the floor. Everyone stopped what they were doing and stared.
Oh shit. There was a person attached to the ladder.
Sean hurried after it. “Oh, I’m sorry,” he said remorsefully, grabbing the ladder to steady it. “I didn’t realize anyone was up there. Are you all right?”
“Um, yes, thanks. Can I help you?” The owner of the voice, a young man in faded denim jeans and an equally faded black tee shirt, hastily climbed down. “Would you like a book?” he asked.
“No, no, Orlando. Stand over here. No, here. Yes, that’s right. Perfect!”
Distracted, the young man forgot his question and stared past Sean, his already well-opened blue eyes opening wider with astonishment. Sean could hardly blame him under the circumstances. It was as if a flock of birds of paradise had invaded a crow’s nest.
Cate, in a form-fitting scarlet pants suit with lipstick and nail polish to match, had Orlando posed dramatically at the top of the spiral staircase. His superbly cut white Ian McKellen suit was set off by a carelessly draped teal silk scarf.
“Who are those…?” the young man began, and then, as he took in Dom and Billy, who were plugging in lights, pushed around Sean and rushed up to Cate, saying quickly, “May I help you?”
Cate looked him up and down in her inimitable fashion. She replied coolly, “Thank you, but we have everything we need,” and turned back to Orli. She adjusted the drape of his scarf, while Miranda fussed with his hair, artfully disarranging it.
The young man turned back to Sean. “Would you tell me what this is all about?” he asked.
“We’ll only be a minute,” Sean said, as he removed his sports coat and dropped it on the dusty floor. “We’re just going to take a few pictures.”
“Pictures? What sort of pictures?” A wary, even suspicious, note had entered the young man’s voice.
“Are you the owner?” Cate shot at him.
“No, my uncle Mr. Holm is the owner.” The young man drew himself up to his full height, which was unimpressive in the extreme. He was even shorter than Sean, and a good six inches shorter than Cate. “But I work here, and I’m in charge in his absence.”
Cate, having elicited from his answer that he was (in her opinion) a Person of Little or No Importance, returned her attention to Orlando. “Miranda, I want a little more powder on Orli’s chin. It’s too shiny.”
“I’m Elijah Wood. Can you help me?” he asked Sean, who had picked up one of the lights to move it to the far side of the spiral staircase. His blue eyes were beseeching, but Sean had spent too many years resisting beseeching looks from aspiring models, male and female, to be affected even by eyes as large and blue and appealing as Elijah Wood’s.
He set down the light. “How do you do? I’m Sean Astin,” he said, and smiled, turning on the charm. He frequently had to undertake the role of feather-smoother in Cate’s wake. Tact and finesse were, alas, foreign words to her. There was a very good reason she was known throughout the fashion world as ‘Bulldozer Cate’.
“What about these pictures?” he persisted.
“Well, we’re using the shop as a background for some fashion pictures for Quality Magazine,” Sean replied easily. If you acted like something was no big deal then others did, too.
But at Sean’s reply, the smile instantaneously vanished and was replaced by a frown of distaste. Uh-oh, Sean thought. He’d encountered people like this before, to whom the words ‘fashion’ and ‘models’ were equivalent with ‘degenerate’ and ‘pond scum’.
“I’m sorry, but I can’t let you,” Elijah said. “My uncle doesn’t approve of fashion magazines. He says they’re chichi and an unrealistic approach to self-impressions as well as economics.”
“We’re going to have trouble,” remarked Cate, coming over to where he and Elijah stood. “He’s a thinker.”
“He’s also a talker,” Sean said dryly, moving away, but Elijah followed him, and went on in a firm, no nonsense voice, “I must ask you to leave, you have no right...”
Sean took a seat on the edge of the closest bookshelf and picked up a book. He started flipping through it. It appeared to be about something called ‘categorical syllogism’.
Cate flung her arms wide. “We throw ourselves at your mercy,” she said dramatically. “Haven’t poor helpless people like us a right to make a living?”
Elijah’s gaze touched on Orli, who was engrossed in reading a comic book he’d pulled from his back pocket. Minute Men from Mars, it said above a lurid illustration of a creepy looking alien looming over a busty red-head in a ripped blouse that showed a lot of cleavage, and a skin-tight skirt with a slit up the back. Sean didn’t have to be psychic to know what conclusions Elijah was drawing from that inspiring sight.
“I’ve asked you to leave,” he said. “That is my right. If the rights of the individual are not respected by the group, the group itself cannot exist for long.”
“What the hell does that mean?” Cate demanded of Sean.
Sean shrugged. “Something like ‘do unto others as you would have others do unto you’?” he ventured, closing the book.
“Well, we’re only going to do unto you for a moment,” Cate said, “and you have my word for it that it’s no more than we would do unto ourselves.” She gazed around the shop, clearly considering the debate at an end, and then clapped her hands briskly. “Dom, Billy, I want you to rearrange these books. They look too much alike. They’re too pat. Mix them up.”
Dom and Billy hopped to it, abandoning what they’d been doing to tackle the project. Like a pair of hyperactive squirrels, they started pulling books randomly from one shelf and sticking them on another, or dumping them on the tables and sofa.
Elijah stared in appalled horror, his eyes wider than ever. “No, don’t mix them up!” he cried, his voice elevating several registers as he ran up behind Dom and Billy, who ignored him. “The books on that shelf deal with empiricism, the ones on the shelf below it with materialism, and those over there with psychopiscoparalysm!”
He clutched at his already spiky hair. “Oh look, put them back!” He turned desperate eyes to Sean. “Please talk to her. It’ll take me hours to re-shelve everything.”
“One never talks to Cate Blanchett,” Sean said. “One only listens.” He wasn’t unsympathetic to Elijah’s plight, but one might as well try to stop an incoming tidal wave.
Miranda had finished touching up Orli’s face, and he’d reluctantly put away his comic and resumed his pose, leaning insouciantly against the balustrade with his chin tilted up. Amazingly, he did look smarter in the intellectual ambience of the bookstore. Cate as always was spot on with her judgment.
“There’s something missing…” Cate mused. Then her face lit up. “Ah! I have it. I think we should use him in the shot, Sean,” she said, grabbing the hapless Elijah and steering him toward the staircase.
“Me?” Elijah appeared flabbergasted.
“Okay.” Sean got up. He picked up a few random books and carried them over to Elijah, who was now standing several steps down so that he was forced to look up at Orlando.
“Just for atmosphere,” he reassured him. “You’re selling these to Orlando,” he added, handing the books to Elijah.
“To him?” he said, with such patent disbelief in his voice that Sean was hard-pressed not to laugh.
“It’s very simple; just pretend that he can read,” Cate advised him.
“Hey, listen,” Orli protested.
“All right, Orli,” Sean said, going behind the camera and taking a seat on the stool Dom had put there for him, “let’s go. Billy, hit the lights.”
In seconds, the shop was more brightly illuminated than it had probably ever been in its entire glum existence, and Orli struck a pose. Elijah kept talking.
“But this would be a violation of all my principles,” he said, his eyes trained on Orli, who was assuming a series of different poses, each more dramatic than the last. “It would be hypocrisy for me to lend myself to this sort of idealism. I’m sorry, but I can’t…” He started to turn away.
“Oh hush,” Cate said in exasperation, pulling him back into position. “Now tell Orlando about the books so we can get out of here.”
Grudgingly, Elijah did. “This book deals with epiphenomenalism, which has to do with consciousness as a mere accessory of physiological processes whose presence or absence makes… no… difference…” His voice trailed off as he stared in a species of horrified fascination at Orlando’s contortions. “What the fuck are you doing?”
“All right, hold it!” Sean ordered, as Orli finally hit exactly the right pose.
Everybody froze, including, amazingly enough, Elijah—or perhaps he was simply too mesmerized by Orlando’s behavior to talk.
Sean hit the remote release for the shutter. The camera clicked.
“Good!” he said, and hopped down from the stool.
“Get Orlando into another suit,” Cate said to Miranda, “and Dom, for god’s sake put on some music. It’s like a morgue in here.”
Elijah set down the books on the step with a thump that got everyone’s attention. His color was high and it was clear that he’d reached the end of his tether.
“None of you seems to realize you’re trespassing on private property. You all run around here in sublime ignorance of the fact that I can have you put in jail.” He gesticulated wildly. “Now for the last time…”
“You’re getting very tiresome,” Cate said, and took hold of his arm again. She dragged him across the shop toward the door.
“What are you doing?” Elijah exclaimed indignantly. “Let go! Let go of my arm!”
Cate flung open the door and pushed Elijah through it. “I know you don’t mean any harm, child, but you are in everyone’s way,” she said, beginning to close the door.
“Now, we won’t be a moment.” Despite Elijah’s attempts to stop her, she shut and locked it, and ignoring Elijah’s raps on the glass and demands to be let back in, pulled down the shade.
She turned around and winked at Sean. “The air will do him good; he was very pale.”
After banging on the door a few more times and peering through the display window while mouthing ‘let me in’, Elijah appeared to give up. But Sean had no time to worry about the young man outside the shop and how he was amusing himself. Orli was hustled into another McKellen suit, the lights and camera were moved to the opposite end of the shop and Dom set up his iPod and the portable speakers. Soon Miles Davis filled the room. Billy adjusted the lights and Dom managed the film holders while Sean roamed back and forth with the remote shutter release in his right hand and gave Orlando instructions.
“All right, hit it. Hold it. Good. One more please,” Sean said over and over, his demanding perfectionist nature turning him into a taskmaster even Cate didn’t venture to interfere with. Orli was a trooper, though, and Billy and Dom had been with Sean long enough now almost to anticipate his every need. They worked together like a well-oiled machine.
Even so, it was far more than the promised ‘moment’ before the last shot was taken to Sean’s satisfaction and they finally started packing up. With their usual efficiency, Dom, Billy and Miranda had everything squared away in no time. Cate unlocked and reopened the door and Orli, cellphone glued to his ear, hustled out, anxious to get to his gym.
“Aren’t you coming, Sean?” Dom asked.
“No, I’ll stay and help Elijah,” he said. The room looked like a bomb had gone off; he couldn’t in good conscience leave the young man to tackle a mess like this alone, not when it was none of his making. “See you back at the ranch.”
“Okay.” Dom gave a wave, and followed after Billy.
“Are you quite done?” Sean heard Elijah ask sarcastically.
“Thank you, you’ve been wonderful,” Cate replied. “We’ll mention the store in the magazine.”
“Don’t you dare,” Elijah exclaimed, sounding totally outraged, and Sean chuckled under his breath as he squatted to pick up some of the books that littered the floor.
The bell tinkled. Sean glanced over his shoulder and saw Elijah sagging against the closed door, a stunned expression on his face as he took in the extent of the disaster. “Oh no!” he moaned, his hand going to the back of his neck and rubbing at it as if he had a sudden pain. “Oh fuck.”
Sean’s conscience smote him again as he stood, half a dozen books in his hands.
“Hello there,” he said, and Elijah gave him a sour, unfriendly look—understandable under the circumstances. “I stayed to help you put things back. I’m sorry; I didn’t realize we’d made such a mess.” He consulted the book on the top of his stack. “Um, which shelf for materialism?”
Elijah sighed. “Oh, just hand them to me,” he said, and Sean did. “Oh fuck,” Elijah repeated as he looked for clear spot on a table. Giving up, he set the books down on top of the others. “You should be ashamed of yourself,” he said accusingly.
“We don’t usually barge in that way,” Sean said, which was true—more or less. More if Cate wasn’t along, less if she was.
“I don’t mean that,” Elijah replied, coming to Sean’s side. “I mean, a man of your ability wasting his time photographing ridiculous suits on ridiculous men.”
“I don’t know, most people think they’re beautiful suits on beautiful men.” Sean spoke lightly, but the accusation stung. He handed another pile of books he’d picked up to Elijah.
“At most it’s a synthetic beauty.” Elijah dumped the books on the table, and shrugged in resignation as half of them fell back to the floor. “Trees are beautiful. Why don’t you photograph trees?”
Sean almost rolled his eyes at the naiveté Elijah’s comment revealed, but at the same time, he felt stung again. Funny, he’d thought he was immune after all these years. Seemed he was wrong about that.
“I do what I do for a living,” he said, an edge to his voice. “It has to do with supply and demand. You’d be amazed how small the demand is for pictures of trees.” He gathered up more books. “My work is very pleasant, the pay is excellent, and I get an all expenses paid trip to Paris every year.”
That caught Elijah’s attention. “Paris?” he repeated. “Man, I sure envy you that. I’d be in Paris right now if I could afford it.” He headed to the shelves.
“You’d have a blast, Elijah,” Sean said, following him. “You’d go to a different party every night, drink champagne until it’s coming out your ears and have a new love affair every hour on the hour.”
Elijah gave him a sidelong look, and shook his head slightly, as if in disbelief. “If I went to Paris, it would be to go to Viggo Mortensen’s lectures, not a bunch of stupid parties.”
What was it about this kid that got under his skin, wondered Sean, feeling that sting a third time. He rarely gave a flying fuck what anyone thought about him, but it rankled, Elijah’s undisguised low opinion of him and his profession.
“Who goes to Paris for lectures?” Sean shot back, although he himself had in fact done exactly that—maybe not lectures on whatever high falutin’ topic Elijah was about to reveal to him, but on photography and art.
“Professor Mortensen is the world’s greatest living philosopher,” Elijah said with the utmost reverence, “and the father of Empathicalism.”
“Oh? What’s Empathicalism?” Sean asked curiously. It was a new one on him.
“The most sensible approach to true understanding and peace of mind.” Elijah’s voice and expression grew dreamy, and his hands stilled on the books he was straightening.
“Sounds great, but what is it?”
“It’s based on empathy.” Elijah took hold of the library ladder. “Do you know what the word ‘empathy’ means?” he asked as he climbed the first few rungs.
“No, I’ll have to have the beginner’s course on that one,” Sean said with a huff of laughter. He boosted himself up onto the bookshelf and started standing a row of lopsided books straight up. “Empathy.” He thought about it for a moment. “Is it something like sympathy?”
“Oh no, it goes beyond sympathy,” Elijah said earnestly. “Sympathy is to understand what someone is feeling. Empathy is to project your feelings so that you actually feel what the other person is feeling. You put yourself in the other person’s place.” He cocked his head to one side. “Does that make sense?”
Sean wasn’t certain what impulse moved him then, but thinking about it later, he decided it was perhaps less empathy than wanting to get his own back a little for those several stings and the scorn they revealed. But whatever the reason, he reached out and pulled the ladder toward him. Then he leaned in and kissed Elijah full on the lips, lips that were soft and warm and tempted him to linger. He didn’t, though, but drew back after a couple of seconds and resumed his straightening.
Elijah remained stock-still on the ladder; his hands gripped the wood so hard the knuckles showed white. His expression was somber as he said in subdued voice, “Why did you do that?”
“Empathy,” Sean said. “I put myself in your place, and felt that you wanted to be kissed.”
“You put yourself in the wrong place,” Elijah said tightly. “I have no desire to be kissed—by you or anyone else.”
“Don’t be absurd. Everyone wants to be kissed, even philosophers.”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Astin, we don’t stock what you’re looking for. I-I’ll let you out.” He started to climb down, but Sean beat him to it.
“Don’t bother,” he said, jumping to the floor. “I’ll throw myself out.” He picked up his camera and his discarded sports coat, and gave Elijah a little wave. “Goodbye.”
Despite himself, there was more than a hint of bitterness in his voice. Elijah couldn’t have made it clearer from beginning to end what he thought of him.
No wonder his Deardorff was the love of his life.
The tinkle of the doorbell faded. Elijah stood on the ladder unmoving, then he slowly rested his forehead against the smooth worn wood. The taste and feel of Sean Astin lingered on his mouth. Unconsciously he touched the tips of his fingers to his tingling lips. Why had he done it? A man like that couldn’t empathize with someone like Elijah—could he? And why would he think Elijah wanted to be kissed anyway?
He climbed down from the ladder and wandered aimlessly through the store, too rattled by what had happened to care about the mess. That kiss had done something to him. It had penetrated his defenses, defenses that he’d painstakingly constructed, brick by brick, since the death of his parents when he was twelve.
Uncle Ian had encouraged him to construct those defenses after he’d taken Elijah in. Encouraged him to pursue the scholar’s life that he himself had led, a life of intellect not emotions. Since he was twelve the bookshop had always been Elijah’s refuge, his escape. Until today. Until Sean and that gaggle of frivolous, vain, self-absorbed and totally un-empathetic people had invaded it and turned it upside down. For a moment, he almost hated them, especially Sean, for a part of him yearned toward the light and color and emotion that they represented.
A puddle of bright blue on the sofa caught Elijah’s attention. It was the teal silk scarf that the model had been wearing. Almost against his will, Elijah went to the sofa and picked it up. The material flowed through his fingers like water—cool and liquid. He wondered what something like this cost. Probably more than he made in a week working in the shop. How typical of such people that they would leave something so costly behind, he thought, forget it as if it were of no worth at all.
On impulse, he draped the scarf loosely around his neck and regarded his reflection in the mirror. The vivid color emphasized the pallor of his skin and made his eyes, his weird buggy eyes that he’d never liked, appear unnaturally blue. He thought of Orlando, the model, so tall and well built. With his dark eyes and warm skin tone, he could carry off a scarf like this. On Elijah it merely looked ridiculous.
He unwound the scarf, folded it carefully and set it back down on the sofa. He’d have to return it, of course; he didn’t want to be accused of stealing. He’d look up the address of the magazine’s offices on the Internet when he got back to the Brooklyn brownstone where he lived with his uncle. He could hire a messenger to deliver it tomorrow.
But right now he had work to do, and plenty of it. Elijah turned his back on mirror and scarf and bent to pick up an armload of books, steadfastly ignoring a small tug of regret.