101 Bell Whistle
Chapter 5: Audra's Story
Copyright© 2010 by JimWar
"My father stole from the Andersons. I found out when I overheard them arguing about my father's plans on the night of my 17th birthday. It was late and I wasn't sleeping well because I had eaten too many sweet things. Then there was a late night summer storm and I was awakened by a loud clap of thunder. There was only a thin wall between my bedroom and my parents and I often overheard things that I wish I didn't ... you know sex things. At first I thought that was what I was hearing, I mean they usually whispered in bed except when they got excited during ... well, you know what I mean. Mom was almost yelling. I heard her say she was sure my father was going to get caught and then we'd be out on the street. That caught my attention. To hear the rest I had to put my ear close to the wall.
"Mom said something about books and I heard my father say that they hadn't been touched in years. I was puzzled. The only books of value I knew about were those in the den. Mr. Anderson, an avid reader himself, sometimes let me read those books over the summer break. Father couldn't mean those books because they were in constant use. I knew they were valuable as Mr. Anderson had told me to be careful of them. He explained that I needed to take care not to crease the pages or leave them lying about.
"I listened but never understood exactly what he was talking about. Father calmed mother by telling her he had a way that would never be found out. Their talk quieted down after that and I lay awake most of the night trying to figure out exactly what they were talking about. In the end I was more curious than afraid and decided to spy on my father to see if I could get to the bottom of things. I felt bad but what else could I do? It took me a long time to figure out what he was actually doing. For the most part he was doing nothing other than his regular duties. I never followed him out to the garage because I knew all the books were in the house. It didn't even dawn on me for a long time that there were books in the basement.
"One day mom sent me to fetch my father to help her move something for Mrs. Anderson. He had gone out to the garage to work on one of the cars; he did a bit of everything, including routine maintenance on the cars. The Andersons had two cars and father was supposed to be in the garage changing the oil in one of them. The garage was closed up when I got there and the door on the side was locked. I thought it was strange that father had the garage shut. It was a hot day and there's no air conditioning in the there. There was an old fan but to take advantage of that you have to have one of the doors open. I stood outside the garage and knocked on all of the doors. Finally father came to the side door and opened it up. He was really mad that he had been disturbed. He tried to tell me that he was working on the car and listening to the radio. I didn't hear the radio at all and was suspicious of what he was doing.
"After that I started hanging out around the garage, professing an interest in what my father was doing. It was strange that most of the time when he was in the garage the doors would be open but every once in a while everything would be locked up. When father came in after those times he was always dirty, as if he had been digging in the garden. I found out later that that was exactly what he had been doing.
"I figure it took him the better part of a year to dig the tunnel from the garage to where it connected to the old tunnel. I never figured out how he knew about the old tunnel. Mr. Anderson used to keep the basement locked..."
At that point I did interrupt Audra. "Audra, there's no key to the old lock on the basement door. That's why I had to prop a chair there to block off the door."
Audra grinned at me; one of those grins that teenagers give us older folks when they know something that we don't. She said, "I wondered why you did that because there is a key to the door. Mr. Anderson kept that key in a cubbyhole in the roll top desk in the den. He probably left it there. I'll show you if you want."
I smiled and answered, "First you'll have to show me where he keeps the key to the roll top desk. It's locked and I don't want to break it to get inside."
She said, "Oh. I don't know about that. He always had the key to that desk on his key ring in his pocket. He may have taken it with him."
We stopped at that point, as both of us were hungry. Audra cut each of us a piece of the cake. I got the milk which caused Mr. Whiskers to begin to rub on my leg. I put a saucer of milk down under the table. After that I had to attend to my bladder and so it was some time before we resumed our talk.
At that point, Audra began again. "Well, as I was saying, I'm not sure how my father knew about the tunnel in the basement. The only times that I know for sure that he was in the basement was when he was helping Mr. Anderson move furniture up and down the stairs. Mr. Anderson even cleaned the basement himself. My father must have spent some time down there though because he not only knew about the tunnel but knew that it turned sharply at the old well. He also obviously knew about the books in the basement.
"I have no idea where he put the dirt he took out of the tunnel or where he got the stuff he used to brace the tunnel roof. My father was a small man but he was strong for his size. Still, it must have been backbreaking work for him to dig that tunnel and carry those heavy timbers into the shaft. He would have had no one to blame but himself if the tunnel had caved in on him."
At that point I interrupted again. I said, "I'm just curious why he didn't just enter through the old well. There are enough rungs of the old iron ladder left for him to have climbed up and down. The job of adding new rungs or even using a temporary ladder would have been a lot easier."
Audra again flashed me a knowing smile. She continued, "I'm not sure, but I can think of a couple of possibilities. Mrs. Anderson spent a lot of time working out back. It was what she called her formal garden and gardening was her favorite pastime, aside from her antiques. She would have noticed if someone used the old well. I remember when I was younger Mr. Anderson wanted to get rid of the old well because of the danger of someone falling in and getting hurt. Mrs. Anderson had a fit, saying it was the centerpiece of her garden. They compromised and Mr. Anderson had father install a floor in the well as well as redoing the roof. Father did a lot of things like that."
Audra stopped as if she was thinking and I asked, "You said there were two reasons?"
Audra smiled and said, "Father did all the mowing, tilling and heavy lifting for Mrs. Anderson but didn't have a real reason other than that to be in the back yard. The large window in the master bedroom overlooks the garden. If father used the well he could never be sure that someone wasn't watching him from that window."
She continued, "As it was it took him a year and a half to construct the tunnel. At that point he finally was able to start stealing the rare first editions stored in the basement. He concealed what he was doing by replacing each book that he took with a cheaper copy of the same book. I overheard him telling mom that he had a partner in this, a rare book dealer. The dealer was paying him about a third of what the book was worth and that infuriated father. I never heard him mention a name but I figured he had to be someone local because the dealer supplied the books that he used as replacements."
At that point I had to interrupt again. "You mean that each of the book club editions down in the basement replaced a rare first edition? There must have been ten boxes of those when I went through them the other day. Surely he couldn't have remained undiscovered for that long."
Audra nodded, "I don't know how he did it, but he managed to keep from being found out for almost a year. That collection of books was Mr. Anderson's pride and joy but he only had limited shelf space in the den. He had most of those books when we first came to work here. He was still buying when he found a book that he wanted. When he bought one it was as if a treasure came into the house. He would read it and then spend some time deciding where to place it in his library. What I didn't know at the time was that for each book he placed in his library he would move one to the basement. Mrs. Anderson wouldn't let him build more shelves. She also wouldn't let him leave them lying about. After I knew father was stealing books I asked Mr. Anderson about the books in the basement. He then took me down and showed me the stacks in the basement. He told me he kept them lying flat in stacks and unboxed so that he could retrieve a book if he decided to read it. I don't think Mr. Anderson ever brought a book back up from the basement once he put it down there though. Father must have known that."
I interrupted once again and asked, "So how did your father get caught?"
"A pipe started leaking in the basement and Mr. Anderson was worried that his books would get too damp. When he went to move his books he discovered what father had done. Of course at the time he didn't know that father had done it. I remember that day for sure. We were all walking around on pins and needles. I never saw Mr. Anderson that angry before or since. He was so mad I was afraid he was going to have a stroke. It didn't take him long to find out that father was the one doing the stealing and when he did he fired father on the spot. Father was told that we could either leave by the end of the week or we would all go to jail."
I asked, "I wonder why he didn't take the rest of his books with him, seeing how they were so precious to him?"
Audra answered, "By the time we left they were already planning to move, although I didn't think it was going to be as soon as it was. Mr. Anderson had what they thought might be a particularly aggressive form of Alzheimer's. While he was going from one specialist to another to find out exactly what it was, Mrs. Anderson confided in mom that she was afraid they wouldn't find out exactly what it was until it was too late to get Mr. Anderson any help. They did find out what it was though.
"By the time Mr. Anderson discovered the theft of the books they knew that the disease was advancing more rapidly than they expected and they quickly moved to Arizona. Mrs. Anderson was upset that the only treatment center for this disease was so far away but that didn't stop her from making arrangements to go as soon as they could begin treatment.
"I heard her tell mom that there had been some reverses in their finances because of the stock market but that they were still quite well off. Mrs. Anderson told mom they had more than enough cash to buy the retirement house, pay for the treatment and live out the rest of their days in comfort. The rest of their estate was tied up in rare books, paintings and antiques. I heard Mrs. Anderson tell one of the neighbors that she couldn't bear to sell those things and I guess she just left them. I thought she was joking about leaving things but I think the progression of Mr. Anderson disease was such that it scared her. She knew he needed to start treatment immediately. So they used cash to make the move and left the rest. Mrs. Anderson had been planning on giving mother and father a large severance package until they discovered father's theft."
I said, "Still, you would think they could have hired a conservator or someone to put the house on the market. The value of all of this would have set Mrs. Anderson up quite nicely after Mr. Anderson passed."
Audra shrugged, "I dunno about that. All Mrs. Anderson was thinking of was Mr. Anderson at the time, and Mr. Anderson's memory was starting to go. I know Mr. Anderson was always the one who took care of the financial stuff and Mrs. Anderson was stressed with all the decisions she had to make. I don't thing they had any children or close relatives, or at least I never heard them speak of any."
I interrupted again to ask, "After they moved, what happened to your family? Why didn't you go with them?"