It all started at a book sale at the Dale City Public Library with a box marked “for incineration” in a neat felt-tipped hand. The box itself wasn’t what interested me, it was the handwriting on the box. When I asked at the desk, the man there sent me a floor down to where the rented cubicles were and where they housed the county docs. It was usually in the county or state archives that you found a box marked for incineration. I knew this because I’d worked in state docs in Charlottesville, Virginia, for twelve years.

John Finnegew had a ginger-colored mustache he was treating for dandruff. He was in the motor vehicular deaths by year shelves doing his job: tracking down outdated issues and multiple copies. I knew Finnegew was the same man who had marked the box upstairs because the box he was working on in the basement bore the same neat red letters. Finnegew actually shook my hand when I introduced myself. Most librarians I’d known wouldn’t have. His hands smelled vaguely of what I assumed was Selsun Blue.

Earlier, I’d said that the label on the box upstairs had triggered my interest in finding Finnegew. That isn’t entirely true. I recognized the hand from another library book sale in Blountsville, Indiana, three years ago, also bound for incineration. Same red color, same letter spacing, same uniform slant. The red letters on this box and that box also bore a bizarre flourish on the lowercase ‘g' that I found intriguing. That that box and this box had been labeled by the same hand was obvious. How this had happened was anything but.

To put this into perspective, it just wasn’t normal to burn any library books that weren’t outdated government documents, let alone a box of them. I knew this because my job is books. I make a living bidding on estate sales libraries and bulk book lots. When business is slow, I occasionally end up at places like the Dale City Public Library, where a box just like the one Finnegew had marked for destruction might yield something of value that can then be resold to an antiquarian in Chicago.

In my line of work, I don’t frequently admit to impossibility. I’d once found a manuscript of For Whom the Bell Tolls in a walk-up on the South Side of Chicago that Hemingway himself had vomited on. The MS eventually sold at auction for a cool forty grand. But the chances of finding two boxes slated for incineration at two public libraries in two different states within three years of each other, both marked by the same elegant hand, were borderline nil. Finnegew was obviously a person of interest.

It turns out I’d misjudged Finnegew. He wasn’t suffering from moustache dandruff. He was suffering from jangled nerves. It was the way he always felt when he’d marked a box of books for incineration. It just wasn’t in his nature to burn words, he said.

Finnegew took an early lunch break and led me down the street to a greasy spoon called Maurice’s. Neither of us spoke on the way over.

Finnegew grew garrulous once we’d sat at our window booth. Over two bowls of Maurice’s piping hot potato cream soup, Finnegew told a tale so outrageous, and yet so captivating, I could have slapped myself for not having gotten any of it on tape.

It was at that lunch that I first heard the name Paul Daforte. If this is your first time hearing the name, then you, too, may be guilty of not knowing America’s most prolific, unknown author.

If you have any truck with the written word, you can also understand my disbelief, and mounting rage, when Finnegew next explained that he’d been crisscrossing the country——an itinerant librarian (or angel of death, depending on how you view this)——tracking down and exterminating every single one of Daforte’s estimated 3,700 titles. Why he would want to do this and how he went about it would occupy me for the next 27 years of my life.

Jadwin, Missouri 1984