E. Forbes Smiley III couldn’t stop coughing. No matter how much he tried to suppress it, the tickle in the back of his throat kept breaking out into a hacking cough, drawing glances from the patrons sitting around him. The glass fishbowl of a reading room at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University was quiet except for the low hum of the air-conditioning and the clicking of fingers on keyboards, making Smiley painfully aware of the noise he was making. At one point, he pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket to muffle the sound. As he did, an X-Acto knife blade wrapped inside fell softly onto the carpeted floor. He folded the cloth and put it back in his pocket, oblivious to what had just happened.
When people thought of Forbes Smiley — as he was universally known by friends, dealers, librarians and clients — a few words inevitably sprang to mind: gregarious; jolly; larger-than-life. He spoke with the resonance of an Italian tenor mangled by a nasally Waspish affectation. His voice, like Daisy Buchanan’s, was “full of money.” When he made phone calls, he made sure to announce that he was calling “from the Vineyard.” His upper-crust affectations, however, were tempered by a charming self-deprecation. He’d ingratiated himself with many a librarian by inquiring after her spouse or children, and reciprocated with entertaining stories of travels around the world or the progress of the new home he was building on the Vineyard.
Most of all, people thought of his laugh. For years, friends had reveled in Smiley’s laugh, which rolled up out of his belly and wracked his body in a cackle that only increased in volume the longer it went on. It was the kind of laugh that in college had earned him free tickets from theater producers, who sat him in the front row to egg on the audience. And it generally caused people to excuse the pretension that crept into his voice when he was expounding on any of his obsessions — architecture, New England history, the blues, and, of course, maps. Whether they liked him or not, his colleagues and rivals in the map business had all been seduced by his knowledge, which in certain areas exceeded that of anyone else in the world.
On the morning of June 8, 2005, however, none of the librarians at the Beinecke’s public services desk recognized him. Had they known him, they would have been shocked at the transformation he’d undergone. In addition to a cough that had developed overnight, he was suffering from a splitting headache left over from a night of drinking. Smiley had been drinking a lot these days — it was the only thing that took his thoughts away from the problems that multiplied in his mind whenever he was sober. As gifted as he was at remembering details about maps, he was abysmal at managing the details of the business through which he earned his livelihood. No matter how entertaining his stories, the truth was that he was overextended and hemorrhaging money.
As studious as he looked, he was feeling a fresh sense of desperation by the time he left to get lunch around eleven. While he sat pondering his predicament without reaching a conclusion, the situation in the reading room had changed radically in his absence. Smiley may have missed the X-Acto knife blade that fell from his pocket, but a librarian named Naomi Saito had not. The Beinecke’s librarians make regular sweeps of the room to ensure that materials are handled properly — and to subtly alert patrons they are being watched. As Saito had entered to make her check, she immediately spied the blade on the floor. Few objects could be more disturbing to someone who works in a building full of rare books than a tool that can separate the pages of a book from its binding. Saito picked up the blade in a tissue and walked back out of the room.
When her supervisor, Ellen Cordes, arrived shortly after noon, Saito showed her what she’d found. Cordes knew that custodians had cleaned the room in the morning — so whoever had dropped the blade was probably still there. She scanned through several dozen reader cards and immediately focused on Smiley, who had by now returned to examine more books. Looking up his website and seeing he was a dealer of rare maps made her even more nervous. Cordes called over to Sterling Memorial Library, which houses Yale’s main map collection, and wasn’t reassured. The head of the department told her that Smiley had recently looked at some folders later found to be missing several maps, but the matter had been dropped for lack of proof. Finally, Cordes contacted the Beinecke’s head of security, Ralph Mannarino, who kept watch over Smiley at the front desk while Cordes went into the back room to look at the materials Smiley had examined.
Smiley continued his research, oblivious to the attention he’d attracted. He requested more items, among them a dark brown leather case with raised ridges along the spine. He slid it open in the middle, a musty odor wafting from an olive-green cloth case inside. Smiley folded out the sides into an irregularly shaped cross, uncovering a sheaf of rough-cut manuscript pages inside.