𝗧𝗵𝗲 𝗢𝗹𝗱 𝗠𝗼𝗿𝗿𝗶𝘀 𝗦𝘁𝗮𝗺𝗽 𝗦𝗵𝗼𝗽
𝘣𝘺 𝘔𝘢𝘳𝘬 𝘗𝘦𝘢𝘳𝘤𝘦
The frosted glass of the front door bore the name of the shop in an arch of large, gothic letters: THE OLD MORRIS STAMP SHOP.
Below, in smaller print, it read—L.Q. Obadiah, proprietor.
A tiny bell tinkled as Martin Bascomb entered. He stood for a moment and looked around. The room was filled with glass display cases exhibiting stamps from all over the world. Further examples of philatelic variety were hung in frames on the walls. A curtain at the back led to another room. Mr. Obadiah was busy with a customer and did not look up as Martin entered.
“Perhaps you might be interested in the 1847 Ben Franklin,” said Obadiah. “It is a very beautiful stamp. Note the skill of engraving.”
Martin waited patiently while the two men discussed the stamp. The customer finally made his purchase and left.
Martin stepped up to the counter. It was a long, glass display case with a cash register at one end. The aging shopkeeper looked up at Martin and smiled. He was a small man somewhere in his mid-sixties to mid-seventies, with curly gray hair and smooth, feline movements. At first glance he appeared normal, but there was something disquieting about the shrewd eyes and cynical smile. It was almost, but not quite, a smile of familiarity; almost, but not quite, as if he had been expecting Martin.
“Good afternoon, sir,” he said. “How may I be of service to you?”
“Are you Mr. Obadiah?”
“I’m Martin Bascomb. A friend suggested I come see you.”
“Very good,” said Obadiah. “I’m sure we can find something to interest you. Is this for a personal collection, or are you primarily interested in stamps as an investment?”
“Neither,” said Martin; he glanced around. “I’m more interested in what you’ve got in the back room.”
“Ah,” said Mr. Obadiah, his face suddenly alert. “You want a real value.”
He went to the front door, locked it, and pulled the shade.
“Come with me,” he said.
He led Martin into the back. It was a small, cramped room, filled with filing cabinets. The only illumination came from a single bare bulb in the middle of the ceiling. Martin noticed that each drawer had the name of a different country on it.
“I have so many treasures from so many beautiful places,” said the ancient proprietor. “Greece, Spain, China. Perhaps you have a favorite?”
“The Mediterranean? . . . South America? . . . France, perhaps?”
He opened the drawer marked FRANCE and took out a small envelope with a clear, plastic front. It contained a single stamp.
“Yes,” he said, enthusiastically. “I believe this is the one for you.”
He motioned Martin back to the main room of the shop. Martin went to the front of the counter as Mr. Obadiah walked behind it. He handed Martin the envelope.
“That will be two hundred dollars.”
Martin was startled. “Two hundred dollars for a stamp?”
“That’s the price,” said Mr. Obadiah. “I won’t bargain. I’m not a salesman, I’m a proprietor. If you are not interested in my wares, I’m certain you can find other novelties in other establishments.”
“No, no. That’s okay,” said Martin. He pulled the money from his pocket and handed it to him. “It just better be worth it.”
Mr. Obadiah looked deeply at him. “I’ve never had any complaints.”
Martin exited the shop. He walked down the street, looking at the stamp.
• • •
The Philatelic Appraisals office was on the second floor of a modern building on Colfax. Martin did not have to wait long for his answer.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Bascomb,” said the man. “There’s nothing remarkable about this stamp. It’s a common French issue, worth about a quarter.”
Martin grumbled a quick “thank you” and left the office.
• • •
At a little after ten-thirty that morning, shouting could be heard from the apartment of Lenny Hudson.
“You set me up!” shouted Martin, grabbing Lenny by his shirt and shoving him against the wall. “You and that old man set me up!”
“No, Martin, wait. Let me explain.”
“That’s not an ordinary stamp.”
Martin pulled Lenny away from the wall, then slammed him back into it. “You’re lying. I had it examined by an expert.”
“You don’t understand. First you have to put it on an envelope. Here, let me show you.” He got an envelope from his bureau. “Give me the stamp.”
Martin handed it to him. Lenny licked it and pressed it onto the envelope.
“Now write your name on it,” he said.
Martin growled: “What is all this?”
“Please, Martin, just do it.”
Martin wrote his name. “Now what?”
“Now we mail it.”
Martin grabbed him.
“No, Martin, no!”
Martin slammed him against the wall. “You think I spent two hundred bucks to mail a letter to myself?!”
“No, wait! You’ve got to mail it. It’s the only way it’ll work.”
“It’s the only way what’ll work?”
“I can’t explain it. You just have to see for yourself.”
“All I see is, I’m out two hundred bucks.”
“Listen, Martin, let’s go out right now and mail the envelope. If you’re still mad afterwards, I’ll pay you the two hundred.”
“All right,” said Martin. He shoved Lenny out the door. They descended the stairs, Martin holding tightly onto Lenny’s arm. They exited the building. Martin forced him along the street until they came to a mailbox; they stopped.
“So what do I do now?”
“Just drop it in.”
Martin frowned. “Don’t you think you’ve carried this con far enough?”
“Please, Martin, just drop it in.”
Martin turned to the box and inserted the envelope.
A feeling of vertigo seized him as the scene abruptly changed. He was on a platform, very high, and his dizziness made him sick. He clutched onto a metal railing in front of him. It was some time before he realized that he was on the observation deck atop the Eiffel Tower. His face was pale. It was impossible to tell if it was from the height, the trip, or both. The city of Paris stretched out far below him.
Martin looked at his hand. He was holding the envelope. He felt his way to the elevator. The other tourists believed him to be drunk and moved out of his way. He gripped the wooden handrail as the compartment descended. His eyes were closed tight.
“It’s got to be a dream,” he kept telling himself. “It’s got to be a dream.”
The elevator hit bottom. If it was a dream, Martin thought, it showed no signs of ending soon. He got off the elevator and walked along, holding the envelope.
“Maybe it’s hypnosis,” he said. “Maybe that crazy old man is a hypnotist. Or drugs. Maybe there was a drug on the stamp.”
He sat on a wooden bench on the boulevard.
“The thing of it is,” he moaned, “how do I get home?”
Early that evening, his forlorn figure could still be seen wandering the streets of Paris. Pedestrians moved aside for the strange man who muttered to himself and glowered at the piece of paper in his hand.
Early the next morning, Martin awakened on a bench along the Left Bank of the Seine. He needed a shave and his clothes were wrinkled. He was suddenly struck by an idea. He wondered why it had not occurred to him before. He pulled out his cell phone and punched out a number. His only hope was that reality still existed, and that Lenny would answer his phone.
“Lenny!” he shouted when the voice answered at the other end.
“What did you do to me? I’m in France!”
“Calm down, Martin,” said Lenny.
“Calm down?! I’m in France, you—” He used a phrase which even Lenny had seldom heard.
“It’s all right, Martin,” he said. “I just forgot to tell you how to get back.”
“That’s an important part to forget, Len!”
“Don’t worry. It’s very simple. All you have to do is write RETURN TO SENDER on the envelope and drop it in any mailbox.”
“Return to Sender,” Martin repeated. “Any mailbox. This had better work.”
He shut off the phone.
He wandered around until he found a hotel, then borrowed a pen from the desk clerk and wrote RETURN TO SENDER on the envelope. There was a mailbox just outside. Martin stood in front of it, holding the envelope in his hand. He looked at the sky as if muttering a silent prayer, then dropped it in.
The same feeling of dizziness engulfed him. A moment later, he found himself back at the box where he had originally mailed the letter. This time it did not reappear in his hand. Apparently it was only good for a single round trip.
Lenny was not surprised when Martin banged on the door of his apartment.
“Talk to me,” said Martin after Lenny let him in.
“I don’t know how to explain it,” said Lenny. “I only know that it works. I’ve taken trips to Spain, Switzerland, Greece.”
Martin began to pace. “This is incredible. I was actually in France. Ten minutes ago, I was in France. This guy runs his funny little shop selling stamps in the front room, and in the back, he hands out miracles at two hundred bucks a pop. Do you know that this means? Do you know what you can do with a gimmick like this?”
“Sure,” said Lenny. “You can travel anywhere in the world for a few hundred bucks and see anything you want.”
Martin glowered at Lenny contemptuously. “That’s why you’ll never be anything more than small time,” he said. “You’ve got no imagination. I’m not talking trips, I’m talking Taj Mahal. You can make a fortune off a thing like this.”
“Never mind how.” He headed for the door. “Next time you see me, I’ll be a wealthy man.”
• • •
Mr. Obadiah was dusting off some display cases when Martin entered.
“Back so soon?” he said with a twinkle in his eye. “I trust you were satisfied with your stamp?”
“More than satisfied.” Martin went over to him. He leaned across the counter and lowered his voice. “How do you do it, old man? Is it magic, or what?”
Mr. Obadiah smiled. “That’s a trade secret.”
“Never mind,” said Martin. “Just give me another. I’ve got the cash right here.”
Obadiah frowned in thought. “I seldom have a client purchase another stamp so soon.”
“But it’s okay, isn’t it? I mean, it’ll still work, won’t it?”
“Yes, it will still work.”
“Then you’ll sell me one?”
The old man hesitated. He looked long and hard at Martin. “I suppose it will be all right.”
He went to the door, locked it, pulled the shade, and led Martin into the back.
“What will it be this time?” he said. “Morocco? Tibet?”
“England,” said Martin.
“Very well. England.”
He pulled out the stamp and motioned Martin back to the front of the store. Martin paid for the stamp and left.
Two days later, Martin stood in front of a mailbox. He had already applied the stamp to an envelope and written his name on it. He hesitated, then dropped it in.
The inevitable vertigo seized him, and he found himself standing in the heart of London. Double decker buses, bobbies, the Tower of London. Martin looked around to get his bearings, then placed the envelope into his pocket and started to walk. It was a beautiful day, and he was in no hurry. He eventually stopped into a quaint little shop and bought a large canvas satchel. He pulled out the envelope and wrote RETURN TO SENDER across its face.
The Bank of London was a large, imposing structure of classic design. Martin paused in an alley across the street. He took a gun from his pocket and checked to make sure it was loaded. He slipped it into his coat pocket, crossed the street, and entered the bank.
He ran out a few minutes later, his satchel filled with money.
He ran around the side of the building. He could hear shouts and the patter of feet behind him. A mailbox was just ahead. Martin rushed up and inserted the envelope.
A flash of vertigo, and he was back in the United States. He opened the bag of money. It had successfully made the trip. Martin closed the bag, stood still a moment, then looked around and laughed.
He was safe.
He smiled and sauntered off.
• • •
Lenny looked up when he heard a knock at his door. “Come in,” he said.
Martin entered. He wore an expensive, tailored pearl gray suit and carried a walking cane.
“Martin!” Lenny exclaimed. “You look great.”
Martin lifted his arms and turned. “Like it?”
“I told you next time you saw me I’d be a wealthy man.”
“How did you do it?”
“That’s my secret.” He pulled a wad of bills from his pocket and tossed it up and down. “Have you ever seen so much money in all your life?”
“And there’s plenty more where this came from.”
“Say, Martin,” Lenny wheedled. “Why not cut me in? We’ve been friends a long time.”
“No chance,” said Martin. “This is my own, private gold mine. I just came in to show off my new suit and tell you I probably won’t be seeing you much anymore. I quit my job today. I’m moving uptown. A couple more trips like the one I made yesterday, and I’ll be able to live like a king the rest of my life.”
He bowed his head by way of valediction and walked out.
He found Mr. Obadiah sitting behind the counter, going over his books.
“We’re closed,” said Obadiah.
Martin smiled. “This won’t take long. I just came for one of your specials.”
“I told you we’re closed. You’re going to have to leave.”
“What is this?” said Martin. “I’m one of your best customers. Look here, I’ve got my two hundred bucks all ready.”
“I’m not going to sell you any more stamps,” said Obadiah. “I know what you did in England.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Mr. Obadiah did not respond. Martin reached across the counter and grabbed him by the shirt.
“Listen, old man, you’re going to give me one of your specials, or I’m going to tear you apart.”
“My foot is on the alarm,” said Obadiah. “If you do not leave my shop immediately, I will have the police here in a matter of moments.”
Martin let him go. “I’ll be back.”
He exited the shop.
• • •
Late that night, Martin waited across the street. The stamp shop was the only business still open on the block. The lights went out, and Mr. Obadiah came out of the building. He locked the door and walked away.
Martin crossed the street. He carried a rock which he had wrapped in a hand towel. He knocked a hole in the frosted glass, reached through, unlocked the door, and entered.
He moved quickly through the room. It was dark. He tripped on something but did not fall. He went into the back room, opened a drawer, and grabbed one of the stamps. A sound on the street outside caused him to panic, and he ran out the back. A moment later, he was hurrying toward his apartment.
He did not recognize the writing on the stamp when he examined it later, but no matter. He loaded his gun, addressed the envelope, and set out.
• • •
The hole in the window of the Old Morris Stamp Shop was quite noticeable. Three policemen were with Mr. Obadiah. Two were examining the premises, the third was questioning him and taking notes.
“You say you first noticed the burglary when you came to open up this morning?”
The officer made a notation in his book. “What time was that?”
“Any idea who might have done it?”
“It could have been anyone,” said Mr. Obadiah. “Stamps are a valuable commodity.”
“Have you had a chance to estimate the loss?”
“Yes,” said Obadiah. “I’m only missing one item.”
“Yes, but it’s very valuable. Very rare. A Signum Tabula.”
“Signum Tabula,” he said. “It was a stamp used to seal documents in ancient Rome.”
• • •
Martin walked the grimy, dirt road, totally baffled by the people he saw around him. They spoke strangely and stared at him as he passed. He nervously fingered the gun in his pocket. The envelope was clutched tightly in his hand.
• • •
“If it’s really that rare,” said the officer, “we shouldn’t have any trouble locating the culprit. We’ll catch him as soon as he tries to fence it.”
• • •
Two Roman centurions approached Martin. Their expressions were hard.
“Tu quis es?” the first said. “Dic nobis quis es.”
“I’m sorry,” said Martin. “I don’t know what you’re saying.”
The soldier became severe. “Dic nobis quis es!”
“I don’t know what you want,” Martin moaned.
They grabbed Martin by his arms. He drew his gun.
“Let me go!” he shouted.
In the struggle to pull himself free, he dropped the gun in the dirt.
“You can’t do this to me!” he cried. “Obadiah! What have you done to me?!”
The centurions dragged him off. He waved the envelope in the air.
“I’ve got to mail a letter!” he screamed. “There’s got to be someplace I can mail a letter!”
The envelope blew from his hand. It was crushed beneath the sandal of a centurion who trod indifferently across it.
• • •
“No, officer,” said Mr. Obadiah. “I’m afraid I’m just going to have to take the loss. I seriously doubt we will ever hear from that thief again.”
• • •
A last plaintive cry could be heard from Martin Bascomb as he was dragged away. ✦