This story is based on today's A to Z Challenge post, "E is for Exotic Wood"
On the other side of the frosted glass, a man knocked at the door and waited. Inside the shop, the proprietor studied a monitor, artfully hidden from view beneath the countertop. After a moment, he pressed a button. The door buzzed and the customer stepped inside.
"Ah, Mr. Potemkin," the proprietor said, rising from his chair. "How good of you to be so punctual. I can see that Mr. Thompson was right to recommend you to us. I am Mr. Waterview."
"Mr. Thompson was too kind, Mr. Waterview. I appreciate your seeing me." They shook hands and Mr. Waterview stood back. The newcomer looked around the shop, his eyes finally coming to rest on the countertop. He glanced at the proprietor. "May I?"
"You wish to examine the grain? Please, I'd be honored if you would."
They stepped closer to the massive countertop. A single slab of wood, it was almost four feet across, at least eighteen feet long and three inches thick. Mr. Potemkin ran the flat of his palm along its length, bending down close to the surface. Though it appeared to be unvarnished, the wood had the mirror lustre of melted molassas caramel. The full length of the slab was unchecked and uncracked, with grain lines no thicker than a thumbnail.
"Well?" said Mr. Waterview. "What do you make of it?"
The other man didn't hesitate. "American black walnut, a solid piece of heartwood cut out of an old growth tree from a virgin stand. Judging by the uniformity of the grain line, it grew somewhere brutally cold and ugly, but sheltered from the wind." He tapped the surface with his knuckles, listening the to wood absorb his efforts. "Trees like this haven't been seen on this continent for two hundred years, but this surface doesn't show anything like that kind of wear. The slab is too thick to have been resurfaced, so you got it this way. There are no cracks in the wood, either, so it's been stored bark-on in a controlled environment. Therefore..."
"Therefore, this tree was grown in a high crevasse on the southern slope of Mount Washington in New Hampsire, elevation between 2500 and 3500 feet. Protected from the axe by its inhospitable location, it was eventually felled sometime in the 1830s or 40s and floated onto a sea barge. The ship carried it down the coast and around into New Orleans. It was being shipped upriver to St. Louis when the ship sank. The load of high-grade timber sank in the anaerobic mud of the alluvial plain. Your agents recovered the lumber in the early 1990s, then spent at least three years slowly drying it before milling."
"You're just guessing about St. Louis."
Potemkin shrugged. "But I'm right about the rest. Or at least I'm close enough that I think we can dispense with any further tests of my knowledge of exotic woods. I assume you cut this slab with a hand saw?"
"That's correct. A band saw would not have provided sufficient control."
"Mr. Waterview, my appointment is for sixty minutes. Now that we've spent eleven of those minutes establishing my bona fides, I would like to see the materials I came for."
"What exactly did Mr. Thompson tell you about our wares?"
"Mr. Thompson is a fellow enthusiast, Mr. Waterview. He told me that you had something... special."
"We have many things that are special, Mr. Potemkin. Rare and precious woods. Black-hearted bubinga, tiger maple, sparrowwood, purple mojanga, ironwood, Ainu fir..." Mr. Waterview trailed off as his customer held up a hand.
"Please. Any of these I could acquire on the open market. Mr. Thompson referred to, as he put it, 'the wood that sings and cries'. He was rather poetic in his phrasing, but I believe you know the material he's referring to."
Mr. Waterview's face darkened. "I will admit some surprise that Mr. Thompson was so free with his description. We pride ourselves on the... discretion of our clients."
"He was under some duress. I confess that I obtained the information from him as part of an exchange. He needed something from me and gave me the information as payment, along with the letter of introduction which you received."
"And what could Mr. Thompson have needed from you so badly that he was willing to break a confidence?"
"One of my kidneys. He was dying. Now he isn't. May I please see the wood that I came here for?"
Mr. Waterview studied Mr. Potemkin, his face contorted into a strange, scowling mixture of anger and admiration. "What do you intend to make with it?"
"That is not your concern."
"I believe that it is, Mr. Potemkin. This wood must be handled very, very carefully. Men have died through careless treatment of it."
"Careless men are incapable of learning the wood exists, Mr. Waterview. Twenty three minutes of my sixty have now passed. May I see the wood, please?"
"As you wish."
Mr. Waterview led the way through the shop, past display cases and wood racks, through a door at the far end. In an anteroom, he took a set of keys from his pocket and opened an intricately carved and inlaid chest made of a thousand glowing woods, each of the rarest and most precious kind. Within the large chest was a small box. To this, Mr. Waterview fitted a small brass key, taken from a chain around his neck.
Within the box, on a bed of red crushed velvet, was a piece of wood the size of a deck of playing cards. Deep, claret red-purple, the wood had an aroma of earth and hair and sadness.
Mr. Potemkin studied it, hands at his sides. After long minutes, he reached out and drew a finger along the wood. The room was filled with the whispers of children as they softly sang themselves to sleep. He looked up at Mr. Waterview. The proprieter reached down into the chest and picked up a curved drawkife. As he moved it close to the wood, the voices began to whimper.
When the blade touched it, they screamed in terror, begging voices frantically pleading for mercy from the cold, cold steel.
Mr. Waterview put the knife down and the screaming faded to a haunting whisper.
"Are you prepared to work this wood into whatever it is you plan to make, Mr. Potemkin? Are you truly prepared for this?"
Mr. Potemkin looked down into the box.
"How much can I get?"
This story continues with "On Bended Knee", based on next Friday's A to Z Challenge post, "K is for Kneepads"
Help keep the words flowing.