incidental music

As no check is so unique that the average billing clerk does not see it a dozen times a day, not Scooby Doo nor babies in flowerpots nor the endangered Alaskan salmon, William learned quickly to gut an envelope in a few deft strokes: a surgical slit down the left side, gentle pressure on the top and bottom edges, a tap or two with the letter opener if necessary to shake out the check. After a week or so of dull efficiency, however, he slowed down, remarking to himself that after all he had no quota of payments to file and was not rewarded for more checks photocopied. Instead he turned his curiosity toward the other things that might be lurking inside the hundreds, possibly thousands, of envelopes he opened each day. Most checks came sensibly wrapped in sheets of paper, to make the act of mailing money less conspicuous, William supposed, and most of the time those sheets were blank. But sometimes they had messages, cursory ones, as though the sender had thought it crude to send a white page through the post without first inscribing it “enclosed please find my payment for April,” and it was with such well-meant but ultimately meaningless correspondence that William amused himself for his first few months in the accounts receivable office.

In March he spent a week considering signatures, noting practiced strokes and unintelligible lowercases, eventually losing interest in all but instances of remarkable clarity or flourish. When those lost their insight, William finally allowed himself to focus on the sheets with one printed side between envelope and check. These were mostly disembodied legalese, twice- or thrice-copied snippets of contracts, clauses and bylaws with justified margins and words like escrow, but he had sensed that they would be more rewarding, and he was right. His self-denial up to that point was perhaps a bit extreme, but he dutifully waited until all other arenas of excitement were empty, under the pretext that he needed to make any magic in his job last as long as possible.

William learned to sift through the sheets nearly as automatically as he opened envelopes, remaining just attentive enough to catch the telling and the thought-provoking. Colored paper was likely to be at least more exciting than black-and-white paperwork, although fliers for yard sales and charity outings at the community center (more often than not in the hated Comic Sans font) cropped up frequently; lined paper usually meant social studies homework, which begged the question of what kind of parent used his or her fourth grader’s biography of Rutherford B. Hayes, effusive red-inked praise and all, for scrap paper; those who wrapped checks in newspaper almost always did so in partially completed crossword puzzles from three months ago, which tended to be worth a glance for new or questionable vocabulary (there simply had to be a more satisfying five-letter word for “misanthrope” than “hater”), but usually left behind more newsprint than amusement.

William came to a handful of conclusions about the clientele of Amity Credit, most of them as uninteresting as they were predictable: people rarely used typewriters anymore; black was the most popular ink color for business correspondence, with blue as a distant second; between January and March people were most likely to date their letters with the previous year, but by April everybody had learned. Such revelations afforded him a day or two of sociological self-importance at a time, but he invariably stopped caring before long. What stuck with him instead were the small, quiet inclusions of uncensored personal life that would come across his desk a few times a day: to-do lists, lists of party guests, aborted drafts of love letters, departure letters, letters explaining and bemoaning sensitive family affairs. It wasn’t Carl, for instance: it was that Miranda Blanning of Danville needed someone who could do or possibly be something which had been crossed out and abandoned. Ingrid Metzler of Mercer had been making fretful (William projected this, anyway, based on the five different points where the pencil lead had broken) calculations regarding the comparative costs of nursing homes. Gene Thomas’s shopping lists called for an astonishing amount of frozen dinners and three different kinds of imported vodka, while Carl Grady (perhaps the same!) hadn’t even bothered to keep his newsletter from the Maker’s Mark “ambassador’s club.” Such glimpses made William feel a bit uneasy and voyeuristic from time to time, but the fact of it was that there really just wasn’t much else to do.

The marginalia of the financial world had occupied William’s day-to-day imagination for nearly seven months when the first genuinely intriguing check arrived. It had been long enough that even personal letters and the occasional crude ink doodle failed to rouse more than passing interest from the lull of open-pile-copy-file motion; by now William presumed to have exhausted the subtle revelations that could be drawn from other people’s unintended mail. So at first he barely noticed that this particular payment for August was folded neatly in a sheet of music, seven stretches of five lines dotted with notes and accents, dynamics and articulations (a diminuendo between measures 54 and 57, a staccato starting at 62). In fact he had dropped the sheet in the recycling bin at his foot, and moved on three or four envelopes, before it struck him that he had finally seen something as yet unseen. He put down Sylvia Diego’s check, which had come in some bland snippet of arbitration, and dug through the top of the bin until he found it. When he inspected it closer he wondered how he had ignored it at all: the music was hand-drawn in gentle pencil with faint erasures everywhere, and the artistry of the meticulously even staves and perfect treble clefs was so conspicuous that, frankly, it hardly mattered whether the sound they denoted made any sense.

There was no name or title at the top of the sheet, nor was a page number given at the bottom; just measures 48 through 81, for an unaccompanied and unspecified instrument. It seemed only logical to William that it would be an original piece, for surely anyone who could pay off a credit card must be aware by now that the technology existed to reproduce old scores without nearly so much care and effort; yet it bewildered him that anyone should part so carelessly with a page of such painstaking perfection, original or no. Setting the sheet aside, William returned to the recycling bin to find the envelope it had come in, but it had passed through his field of focus too long ago, and he could not pick it out. He managed to narrow it between two clients whose envelopes were identical down to the commemorative Enola Gay stamp, but decided it was ultimately of little consequence, folded the page back to letter size and in half again to fit in his breast pocket, and worked the rest of the day wondering what the music sounded like.

William had dropped out of a modestly illustrious performing arts program at an otherwise insignificant midwestern college three years before. He had cited financial constraints as the reason then (a glorified version of events which pointedly omitted that he had spent most of the finances in question on obscure jazz records and dusty marijuana), and he cited his dropping out now as the indirect reason he was working at the accounts receivable desk of Amity Credit in the first place. But his ear was good, and he had been a prodigious sight-reader, so this unexpected and unexplained breath of an unknown score filled him with eager curiosity. When he got home that evening he removed the page from his pocket, with exaggerated care not to muss the fragile lead, and set it out before him to examine it. It was in D minor, and three-four time, but this was as much as he could glean without hearing it. A piano would have made the most sense for these purposes, but William had only a tenor saxophone in his closet, untouched since his last days of school and no doubt hopelessly unplayable. He went to the bedroom to get it out, to dust it off and intone this stranger’s opus in tentative, reedy squeaks, but then thought better of it: Lenore had a piano.

William, who had never been much for socializing with the neighbors, was only half surprised at the resolve with which he descended the stairs, folded score in hand, and knocked on the door of 4C. Under most circumstances he would sooner wait until the weekend and plunk it out on a department store piano, or maybe copy it to a notation program on the computer, but there was an urgency to this handwritten page that demanded immediate, and human, rendering. So much he explained when Lenore, a librarian he had befriended over walks to and from the supermarket (as well as the inevitable elevator rides and fire drills), opened the door. “I need to borrow your piano,” he said.

Lenore looked at him with coy irritation. “Can it wait until I’ve finished dinner?”

“No,” he said. “Absolutely not.”

“Well, so be it,” she narrowed her eyes in a smile. “Come in.”

William told her the circumstances of his discovery while she cleared away dinner for one and haphazardly loaded her dishwasher. Little back story was needed, since this was not the first time he had shared with her some telling gem never meant to be found—her interest in the hypothetical lives of Amity customers had endeared her to him immediately. “It’s beautiful,” she murmured, looking closely at the sheet. “Such discipline. Look, you can juuust see where he replaced measure 70 and had to redraw the staff lines.”

“Or she,” William pointed out.

“Women aren’t this obsessive,” she said absently, still scrutinizing. “This is the work of a supremely dedicated, and batshit insane, gentleman.”

“And it must be heard,” William cut in, seizing the paper from her and walking with an imperious stride to the piano. “I should be the one playing it, you realize,” she said. “I’m a better pianist than you are.”

“Maybe so, but I found it,” William said dramatically, then paused. “How do you know you’re a better pianist?”

“Well, I have a piano. Granted, I don’t practice, but at least I could if I felt the need.”

“Touché,” he said.

For effect as much as to have the final word in the banter, William started playing as soon as he said this. Measure 48 was not as dramatic a starting point as he might have liked, but it seemed to do the trick; Lenore said nothing, just padded over to the piano while he played, listening to him sound out the music slowly but confidently. “Nicely done,” she said when he came to its abrupt halt. “My turn.”

Lenore played essentially the same thing but, true to her word, her diminuendo was more convincing and her posture was better. As a piece, or a one-page snatch of a piece, it was not particularly good: it seemed too sprawling and disparate, such that William could not imagine it resolving all the themes it proposed in any less than sixty pages and three or four movements, nor could he think of a way the 47 preceding measures could form a sensible context to accommodate this excerpt. Yet something in it spoke to him, to his intellect rather than his ear. The notes were assembled in such meticulous disarray, jarred against each other with such conviction, that he knew there had to be some overarching motif at work that he was not grasping, that he perhaps could not grasp without access to the piece’s entirety.

When Lenore finished she looked up from the score at William. “So that’s what it sounds like,” she said. “Cello, maybe?”

He smiled softly, if deliberately. “That’s kind of what I thought, except it’s a treble clef. It could be violin, but I doubt it for some reason.” He paused and looked at her mischievously. “I think it’s for marimba.”

“Marimba? You’re mad.”

“Oboe, then.”

“French horn.”

“English horn.”



Silence. They looked at each other for a moment. William wasn’t out of instruments, and doubted that Lenore was either, but some plateau had been reached, and he couldn’t be sure what was supposed to happen next. She was still looking at him, eyes friendly but oddly challenging. He had no next move, so he broke eye contact and looked out the window. “Well,” he said, “thanks for your help. I should be going…”

“Wait,” she called as he turned toward the door. “At least take the mystery piece. Wouldn’t want you to be without the object of your obsession.”

“Thanks,” he said dully, accepting the sheet, which she had folded back into envelope size. “I’ll, uh, be back next month, I guess.”

“Lovely,” she said, leaning through the doorframe. “Anytime before then too.”

He turned back, intending to leave her with a compelling exit line excusing his awkwardness and hinting that, yes, maybe he would be back before the pretext allowed, but she had already shut the door.

The puzzlement of the piece lasted for a few more days, but William soon realized that there was little he could do without at least the name of the sender, so he waited. The incident had gently rekindled his interest in the wrappings of checks, however, so the month-long interval before the composer (or copyist) paid off his charge debt again passed quicker than most recent month-long intervals had. When, one Tuesday in October, William realized that it had been 28 days since the last sheet of music had arrived, he began to leave each envelope on his desk until he was sure its contents were expendable. It did dawn on him that the sheet music might be a fluke, and that he might well be reducing the efficiency of his operations in search of a follow-up non-letter that would never come, but it was a chance he found no compelling reason not to take; besides, his days tended to pass faster in active pursuit of one letter rather than passive and unthinking reception of each.

Sure enough, his vigilance was rewarded on Thursday, shortly after lunch, when he slit open an innocuous envelope, squeezed and shook out the paper and check, and unfolded the former enough to get a look at it. He almost passed it by again before he realized that he held in his hands what he had been waiting for for just over a month, another orphan page teeming with black and white notes in exquisite graphite detail. Having set the sheet and its envelope aside for later perusal, William felt a twinge of disappointment the rest of the day, as though his purpose had been served and he was now relegated to the dull, automatonic ins and outs of his job for the rest of his life. There was no doubt now that the music was coming from Nicolas Sovey of lower Erie, as even the angular handwriting on the return address matched the poco ritard beneath measure 271, but this newfound certainty irked William instead of comforting him: all that remained to the mystery was to find out who this Sovey was, what was up with his music, maybe what was keeping him from using pre-lined staff paper. The exciting detective work was over, and in its place remained a menial job with little to no interest and an inquiry that verged uncomfortably on client-stalking.

There was, however, the plus that Sovey’s new mailing gave him ample reason to appear at Lenore’s door again, perhaps this time ready to handle his own awkwardness or her disarming lack thereof. His berating himself for not responding to her nearly unveiled invitation to stay and get to know her had lasted much longer than his fascination with the piece itself. Every time the elevator stopped on the fourth floor he cringed at the prospect of being face to face with her cool demeanor and collected beauty—he had since decided that she was fairly beautiful—and sighed with relief every time someone else got on.

That evening she answered her door in a sundress, which did not strike him as odd until a few weeks later, and welcomed him in with a sort of dignified curiosity. He silently showed her the new segment with one hand and the envelope with the other, to which she responded with a wry smile, opening the door all the way and motioning him inside. “Same piece?” she said as she followed him to her piano.

“That’s what I’m here to find out,” he said, sitting down and placing the new sheet on the piano stand with elaborate ceremony. She said something quietly—which he later realized was probably “is that all?”—but when he looked up at her as if to ask her to repeat she was focused intently on the envelope.

Like the last time, William played the excerpt carefully, from the mid-progression pattern at measure 260 past the treacherous bank of slurred triplets starting at 268, to the beginning of a simple, theme-driven rumination that cut off at 285. And like the last time Lenore teased him aside and played back a neater and slightly more expressive repetition, meeting his eyes mysteriously at the jarring ending. This time he stayed behind, though, and they discussed what was to be made of what they had heard. The key and time signatures were the same, but they agreed that they could not quite say if this page belonged to the same piece as the first or not. “They just don’t sound alike,” said Lenore, who had been arguing that they were two separate works since William had proposed that they were the same.

“But neither of them really sounds like anything,” he countered. “They’re off—sort of atonal, maybe just weird—in a compatible way. I’m not saying they belong to a very user-friendly piece, I just think they just… work together.” Lenore shot him an almost certainly meaningful look, but he again found himself without anything particularly charming to say or do, and so did not acknowledge it. “So now we find out who Mr. Sovey is, I guess,” he said with what he thought a suitably subject-changing vigor.

“Fair enough. Have we at least procured an Erie phone book?”

“I hadn’t even thought of that,” he said. “I was just going to look him up online, I’m sorry to say.”

“Oh, William,” she clucked. “Your sleuthing sense is absolutely pitiful.”

As it happened, Lenore’s sleuthing sense was not much better, and after a rather un-date-like trip to the library to find Sovey in the Erie phone listings revealed no new information, since they already had his address and Amity no doubt had his phone number on file, they found themselves out of inspiration. William looked up his file in the company’s computer the next day—client since 1996, married, no occupation or other information listed—and then caved and searched the internet, which yielded nothing at all. With no revelations to report, he took to sheepishly avoiding Lenore again, repeating to himself that if the spark between them were not in fact imaginary, she could make a move just as easily as he could; probably much more easily.

For all the unspoken angst of their last two meetings over one page of Sovey’s work, it was during their third that they finally, somehow, first kissed. It happened quicker and more smoothly than William had imagined it would (although his projections of the moment mostly entailed his apologizing at length for all the awkwardness and some degree of drunken charm, neither of which turned out to be necessary): he was at her piano, feeling his way through a meditative sonata that was clearly unrelated to the first two pages, and by the time he had finished, her proximity and expression said everything. They kissed casually at first, like it was the logical and harmless extension of their playful banter, but then with a passion that seemed to surprise both of them. He shuffled upstairs later that night with a weary smile and, at last, the acceptance that he was not at the mercy of the postal service for excuses to enjoy her company.

Checks continued to pass with boring regularity through William’s periphery, wrapped in all manner of other people’s lives, but he took less note of them than ever before, happily reflecting on closer things—a book Lenore had recommended, or what they should do that weekend, or the validity of her claim that Amity Mutual’s letterhead was self-consciously ugly (“like a man who tucks his work pants into his tube socks,” she explained)—his own things. His heart still fluttered every month when Sovey’s payments appeared before him, and he dutifully brought each page to Lenore, but the music itself had ceased to captivate him like it once did. It no longer mattered so much whether August and September belonged to the same work, or what instrument was meant to breathe life into their meticulous symbols; it was as though Sovey had changed William’s world for the better, if through no action of his own, and was now just waiting to step faithfully aside.

But his installments kept coming, each more exquisite than the last, and had William or Lenore still felt the need to study them as mysterious surrogates for each other they would have been awed by the scope and variety of his oeuvre. December brought a trio, very probably for strings, with an unspeakably lovely counterpoint between the two lower parts at measure 54; February was the very end of a tango which, at two staves for two instruments, barely filled half the page; in March came measures 82 through 117 of the first piece they had seen. Each of these they played to each other the night William received them, with a giddy faith not so far from superstition, but especially as time wore on they paid more attention to one another than to what they were playing or hearing.

Before long William and Lenore’s romance had grown altogether independent of Nicolas Sovey. Of course his name and work were fixed in their collective lexicon, resurfacing at the intervals when a new piece came and from time to time in between, but they had begun to take him for granted; they had no children to amuse at bedtime with fantastical tales of the mystery composer, nor did they do much socializing with friends who didn’t already know how they had started dating. So, consciously or not, William did not think it necessary to alarm Lenore by telling her when Sovey’s check did not appear in April, and because she did not mention it he said nothing in May either.

It was not until early June that Lenore thought to bring it up, as the two of them were leaving a Finnish film whose closing credits were accompanied by some dubious but familiarly dissonant music. “Hey, what’s happened to our pal Nicolas?” she asked, tugging at his elbow gently. “Has he taken his business elsewhere, or are you keeping his genius from me?”

“I don’t know,” said William thoughtfully. “I haven’t seen anything from him in a couple months.”

“You should’ve said something,” she said. “Maybe he’s broke, or in trouble. Or dead. What if he’s dead, Will?” She gripped his arm in mock terror.

“I sincerely doubt he’s dead,” he said. “Deadbeat, perhaps, but not dead.”


“Mm-hmm. I’ll see what I can find out tomorrow.”

“You’d better,” she said grimly. “Without him our happiness is meaningless.”

The last check from Sovey had come enclosed in page one of a piece called Dialogue, for flute and cello. Although it was the first time they had seen a title in his slender, ornate hand, and although it seemed worth noting that his name was written there as Nikolai Sovei, they had thought little of it after sitting down to play it together. William, tempted to read the title as a sort of omniscient reflection of the romance Sovey’s work had created, had concluded that it all read as it should: he had made a duet of them from a couple of solo pieces, and then disappeared because they no longer needed him. But Lenore’s ultimatum, though he knew her well enough by now to know she was only teasing, brought everything into question again. As long as he was ascribing an inflated significance to the title, and to Sovey’s role as a mysterious force of fate, he couldn’t afford to risk being wrong, could he?

On Monday at work he went upstairs to the customer service department, where George Fenton, probably his closest friend at Amity, worked, and asked for all there was to know about Nicolas Sovey.

“Sovey?” said George. “With an A?”

“No, V-E-Y. He’s been with us since ’96, apparently, but I haven’t seen his checks in a couple months. Just wondering what’s up.”

George wrinkled his brow at William for a moment. “Please tell me you don’t pay that close attention to every check that comes in, Will.”

“No, of course not. It’s a little weird to explain, but, um, he wraps his checks in really nice sheet music, and I’ve gotten kind of attached to it. To him, I guess, in a weird never-met-the-guy kind of way.”

“Huh,” said George. He paused. “Yes, that is frankly a little weird, but it’s not like I’m unsympathetic to the lengths a man has to go to to keep from gouging his eyes out from boredom around here.”

“Glad you understand,” said William. “So I’m just wondering if he stopped his account, or if something happened, or what.”

“Of course you were,” said George, eyes fixed on his computer. “Nicolas Sovey of Erie, client since, yes, 1996—” He stopped to meet William’s glance and smiled. “Weirdo.”

“Yeah, yeah. So?”

“Well, it doesn’t say anything about him being delinquent or in debt. Looks like we did receive payment for his last balance, although apparently he hasn’t had any new charges since April. I’d say either he moved to a different state and didn’t bother to tell us, or he died and somebody else hasn’t bothered to tell us. Neither would surprise me very much, really.”

“Okay, that’s pretty much what I suspected,” said William, turning to leave. “Thanks a lot.”

“Good luck finding him,” George called after him. “Anything to keep things interesting.”

It was neither romantic desperation nor boredom that impelled William to drive to Erie after work that day, but curiosity, low-key adventurousness, something along the lines of what George had said about keeping things interesting. It was a simple and generally inconsequential mission, he figured, but its result had to have some bearing on things as they stood, though in what manner he had no real idea. He had considered calling Lenore and asking that she come with him, or even waiting until the weekend to make a trip of it, but he decided it was best done alone, with a minimum of meditation.

Erie was only about 45 minutes away on 479, and he found Sovey’s address with almost no trouble, having looked it up online shortly before leaving the office. It was an old dull apartment building in red brick, morose and low to the ground. A woman with a shopping cart held the door open for him and he thanked her, following her into a dim lobby with large mirrors on each wall. There was a pleasingly unnatural smell in the air that made William think of new cars and old flowers in vases, low ceilings and sofas wrapped in plastic. The woman with the cart had disappeared into a bank of mailboxes, so he didn’t bother to hold the elevator for her, pressing the 5 button after checking the return address on Sovey’s last envelope though he had long since memorized it.

The fifth floor was a subdued version of the lobby, a long and carelessly lit corridor lined with doors on both sides. He took a left, followed the ascending apartment numbers to 522, and stopped. All the other doors in sight had welcome mats on the faded evergreen carpet, and many of them had painted wooden doorknockers, but 522 had nothing. William took a breath and knocked. Nothing happened.

He knocked, louder, twice more, checked the envelope again once, and was preparing to admit defeat when the woman with the shopping cart appeared, barreling slowly toward him. “You’re not looking for Nicolas, are you, dear?” she called from three or four doors away.

“I am, yes,” he said eagerly. “I have the right place, then?”

“Well, you could say that,” she said, stopping the cart just before his foot. “But he passed away nearly three months ago.”

“Oh dear,” said William. “I didn’t realize.”

“Did you know him, then? I guess you can’t have been too close if you came by thinking he was still here.”

“Well, no, we’d never met, but I was hoping to talk to him. I work at Amity Credit, and—” The kindly look on the woman’s face hardened. “It’s not about business, though. I wanted to talk to him about… about his music.”

The woman regarded him slowly for a moment. “His wife lives downstairs now,” she said finally. “While they’re clearing out the apartment. She’s in 423.”

William thanked the woman profusely and, stepping clumsily around her shopping cart, went back toward the elevator. “The elevator takes forever,” the woman called. “Take the stairs. Just past the elevator on your right.” William did not turn around, but waved a hand in thanks as he opened the door to the staircase. He went left at the bottom of the stairs as he would to go to Lenore’s apartment, but realized the numbers were going the wrong way and turned around. 423 had no welcome mat either.

He knocked softly and a dark, greying woman with deep circles under her eyes answered the door. It occurred to William while staring her in the face that explaining himself to her would be even harder than it would have been to Sovey himself, so he said nothing, just looked at her. “Yes?” she said finally.

“Forgive me,” he said, “I take it you’re Mrs. Sovey?”

“Yes, Irma,” she said. “May I ask what this is about?”

He sighed. “Well, first I’m terribly sorry to hear about your husband. I had come to speak with him about— because—” He stopped. “He had been sending me his music, you might say.”

Her eyes widened, then narrowed. “And you are?”

“Sorry, sorry, my name is William Schmidt. I work at Amity Credit.”

She looked at him searchingly. “You’ll have to excuse me, I don’t understand. Is this about the account? I sent in a check for his last bill and wrote to the customer service department explaining what happened a month ago, and—” She stopped. “He’d been sending you his music?”

“Well, maybe not intentionally. He wrapped his payment checks in pages of scores—drafts, possibly.” He took the envelope from his pocket and showed her the first page of Dialogue. She gasped and seized it from him, staring at it in disbelief. “Excuse me,” she said after a silent interval, “that was rude of me. Please come in.”

Irma Sovey poured William a cup of tea and explained to him that Nicolas had succumbed, two months and three weeks ago tomorrow, to a long battle with prostate cancer, and had become increasingly despondent in its late stages. “Composing was just a hobby of his, of course—he was an accountant—but he regretted never making a name for himself with his music,” she said, pacing the room while William watched her from the couch. “He told me maybe a year ago that he wanted me to destroy his scores when he died. Of course I refused—I suppose I should have just lied and told him I would—but he became cross and told me he would scatter them to the corners of the earth, page by page. He only told me a week before he died that he had actually done it, but he wouldn’t say how or where. I’ve got a little more than half here, pages he never got around to and ones I’ve found around the house used as scratch paper, but I’ve been going mad trying to think of how to find the others.”

William, who had finished his tea, could think of nothing to say or do. Mutely he set the envelope on the coffee table and pushed it toward her, and stood up with a sympathetic look. “I really am sorry, Mrs. Sovey,” he said quietly. “Your husband’s music was beautiful, aesthetically and… uh, musically.”

Her eyes brightened. “You’ve played it?”

“Well, a page here and there, yes, whatever I got in the mail. Only on the piano, though. Not for whatever instruments he wrote for.”

“No matter,” she beamed. “Nikolai would have been delighted.” Her smile faded slightly. “I didn’t like all of his pieces, you understand. Most of his early work was shit, really.” A moment passed and her cheer seemed to return. “But it’s wonderful that it reached someone, even in such a… a curious way. But I’m afraid I must ask you one last favor, after all you’ve already done…”

“Of course, you’d like the pages back.”

“Please. I’m sorry to demand it of you after you were so kind to come here, but I’m sure you can understand my wanting to keep them.”

“No, no, of course,” he said, putting a hand haltingly on her shoulder. “I’ll send you all the ones I have. It’s not very many, but I hope it will help.”

“Oh, it will,” she said, “thank you. Let me just write down the address for you.”

“Thanks,” he said. “I know it.”

When the elevator doors parted to leave William in the lobby he found himself facing an immense, impassive mirror. He searched his reflection for something changed, some conclusion visible from the mystery solved—to the extent that it could be, to the extent that there had ever been any mystery at all—but nothing appeared different. His footfalls made no sound on the carpet as he walked past the mailboxes and out the double doors. The evening sky was expressionless above him, so he took little notice of that too, humming lightly to himself as he got in his car and drove off into the gathering darkness.