From the start he was an anomaly, a middle-aged Apache Indian in the cloistered realm of rare books. His name was Ricardo Joseph Martinez, "Rickie" to the dealers charmed by his eagerness to learn what might make a book a priceless artifact.

He landed a job in a shop owend by Amalya Reifsneider, the 89-year-old "dowager empress" of Washington book circles, who has been selling rare books in the capital since 1931. Martinez acquired books in Mrs. Reifsneider's name, and her prestige in the book world enhanced his standing. He got a Cadillac.

But several book dealers began to associate Martinez with the disappearance of books from their shops. Eventually some of them preferred paper-chewing silverfish to Martinez, and after a time, even Mrs. Reifsneider grew disillusioned. Though it has been years since she fired him, tears spring to her eyes as she swears from her wheelchair that Ricardo "didn't shake my faith in people because I never found anybody as rotten as him."

What a journey his was then -- from protege to pariah of Washington's rare book world. Ricardo Joseph Martinez, fiftyish, burly and black haired: He stands as the enigmatic figure in a sometimes farcical intrigue involving our dowager empress, FBI agents, book dealers, world famous astrologist jeane Dixon, best-selling author Larry McMurtry, and $10,000 worth of titles whose peculiar histories are stories in themselves.

Even in a gallery of characters whose idiosyncracies seem more a part of literature than life, Martinez leaps out. He has never been sued by his accusers or charged by law enforcement authorities, much less tried or convicted for book theft. But he has been banned from a number of the 50 used, rare and antiquarian book shops and dealerships in the area because of a series of suspicious coincidences involving book losses.

"If they say these things, I can nail them to the cross," say Martinez. I'll face my accusers in court. I have 5,000 receipts." His lawyer, Manny Velasquez, puts it this way: "There's no question they've been accusing him. But even if he didn't have receipts does that make him a thief? Can you prove you own everything in your house?"

Nonetheless, Martinezs name is whispered in a mixture of loathing and apprehension in parts of the book world. Dealer Allan Stypeck, looking at the bright side, says he is "the kind of person who makes novelists and society and keeps us from being clones."

Most dealers' experience with book theft is that "profit is a secondary motive," according to dealer Howard Wilcox, "Normally people steal because they can't stand not to have the book." Larry McMurtry, who leads a double life as Washington's top bookman and a ballyhooed novelist-Hollywood screenwriter, says that book people tend to be soft on theft because they think it "follows from a love of books."

Thus, book theft borne of base greed, not bibliophilia, mocks the book world faith that love of books leads to a life of virtue. But why do book lovers wring their hands for stolen titles as they might for kidnaped relatives? What about books make people dote so on them?

"More than any other objects, books provoke intense infatuation and intense pathologies," says Baltimore rare book dealer John Gach, whose specialty -- psychology texts -- partially explains his ready analysis. "Books are more complex than diamonds or paintings. They're like people. We bond to books the way we bond to living organic creatures."

It was in 1971 when Ricardo Martinez first made his way into this world where books seemed to take over the cozy, cluttered shops that housed them, spilling out of the dusty shelves, filling aisles and rooms with the musty meditative scent of vintage literature. It was a cerebral world, so closely knit that, as Bethesda dealer Pat Adhearn liked to say, "when somebody on the west coast sneezes, somebody over here says gesundheit."

Most of all it was a trade, passion and pastime whose secrets Martinez wanted to learn.Why, for instance, should a dropped "a" in the word "mountain" on page 41 of some 1922 editions of T.S. Eliot's "The Waste land" hike the price of the goods to $150? On such "points," as they were called, sometimes rested the difference between a book that cost $100 and the same title that went for $1,000.

Martinez found a peerless mentor, known in the book spheres as "Mrs. R." She had been born in June 1891 of German parents, and now she was sickly, had few teeth in her mouth and faded white hair. In outlook she was still trusting. In manners she had not swerved from old-fashioned ways. Even at 89 she possessed, according to a lifelong frined, "a mind like a steel trap, and the memory of 10 elephants."

Mrs. Reifsneider's late husband George had started her in the rare book business in New York the year the stock market crashed. In the intervening decades she amassed a prodigious knowledge of books. She was an almost regal figure at auctions -- holding court in her wheelchair, clutching her cane like a scepter, while dealers from all corners knelt before her the better to hear and be heard. Dealer Allan Stypeck once described her as the "dowager empress" of the trade, the grande dame who linked an old and all-but-extinguished generation of book collectors and dealers withthe growing number of new ones setting up shops and libraries in Washington environs.

In 1971 Ricardo Martinez dropped into her store, Park-Reifsneider's Antiquarian Book Gallery on F Street. He was friendly and gregarious. He told her he had been brought up in a Catholic orphanage on the west coast, and had joined the U.S. Army at 17. After 20 years, he said he had been discharged as a master seargeant. Day after day Martinez dropped by the store, and soon the dowagner empress was "my friend Mr. R."

"He was very polite," recalls Mrs. Reifsneider, sitting in a wheelchair in her apartment where the whiff of Tiger and Sandy, her beloved cats, is unmistakable. "He said he was a reseacher for Indian books. He came in everyday. He fell in love with the store."

To Mrs. Reifsneider and others in his new realm Martinez did not seem to be a man of great means. In December 1969 he met an antique dealer and Georgetown University professor named Edward Haddad. "He had no money of any kind," Haddad remembered; and Mrs. Reifsneider said, "He told me he had no money."

(Never amicable, Haddad's and Martinez's relationship quickly degenerated after their first meeting. Haddad accused Martinez of stealing $30,000 in stamps. Martinez was indicted by a Montgomery County grand jury in November 1972 on five counts of larceny. The charges were dropped a year later because prosecutors felt that Haddad, who had been convicted of a misdemeanor for possessing stolen gold coins, would not make a credible witness. In March 1977 Martinez filed a $1.15 million suit against Haddad, now 73, for malicious prosecution and misappropriation of property. One of the witnesses deposed in the protracted and still unresolved case was Amalya Reifsneider.)

In the Park Gallery Martinez overheard Mrs. Reifsneider on the phone placing a help wanted ad for a book salesman. "He said 'Why don't you hire me?' So I hired him." He started at $100 a week.

Martinez worked for nearly five years at the Park Gallery, a store whose customers once included the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Franklin Roosevelt. In 1973 Mrs. Reifsneider lost her downtown address to urban renewal. Martinez supervised the move. 100,000 books were boxed and hauled to a new location on 19th Street near Dupont Circle.

Thousands of the books were inscribed in black fountain pen ink on the back fly leaf with the name of a man called DeWitt Miller. Around the turn of the century DeWitt Miller was one of the most prominent book collectors in the United States, a man of extravagance who would buy every copy he could find of books that made him swoon, many of which he then showered on friends.

The Reifsneiders acquired 30,000 DeWitt Miller volumes -- including a superb catalogue of art books on painters, tapestry, silver plate and furniture -- in a coup that is still the envy of rare book traders. For the last 35 years the names of Miller and Reifsneider have been entwined, and Mrs. Reifsneider has lived off the fruits of the great collector's stupendous passion.

After the move to 19th Street Martinez was in control of the Park bookshop. Mrs. Reifsneider had been hospitalized several times. She lived in an apartment above the shop. Her edemic legs kept her confined to a wheelchair and she depended on others to push her around. "I was always asking Ricardo to take me to see my art books [which were located in the most cluttered corner of the shop]," she remembers. "I said, 'Ricardo, let me see my art books.' He would always give me an excuse. 'I'll take you there when you feel better,' he'd say. I don't know why I didn't ask anyone else to take me. I had confidence in him. I really thought I was lucky."

Mrs. Reifsnieder's next-door neighbor, the executor of her will and her friend for almost 40 years, is Jeanne Dixon, the renowned seer and astrologist who once amazed Eisenhower by reading his golf scores in a crystal ball, and picked up cosmic vibrations that prompted her to dub Nixon "one of God's chosen people." Dixon says she had a "sixth sense" about Martinez the first time they met, a few months before the move in 1973.

"I told Mrs. R. right off I didn't trust him," Dixon recalled recently. "He went to her and said 'Jeanne Dixon's not gonna put the whammy on me.' She was a completely different person with him around. It was as though she was hypnotized. He brought her roses and flowers. Ricardo was running her life and her business."

Mrs. Reifsneider brushed Dixon's misgivings aside. Martinez, who was interested in books about Indians, acquainted himself with other dealers. In 1975 he met Dean (Doc) DesRoches, whose Connecticut Avenue store, The Old Printed Word, was then located in Kensington, Md. "The first time I met him we talked about Indians," DesRoches recalled. "We agreed how badly Geronimo was treated. Our relationship was positive and casual."

Other dealers concurred. "He was scholarly. He had a lot of charm," said Howard Wilcox, owner of Estate Book Sales in Washington. William Hale of William Hale Books met Martinez in 1974 at the Park Gallery. "He was always eager," Hale said. "He bubbled over with enthusiasm. He acted as if he could help me with Mrs. R." Martinez also scored high marks with Larry McMurtry and his partner Marsha Carter when one day he showed up with Mrs. Reifsneider in tow at their Georgetown store, Booked Up. A visit from her was almost unheard of.

Life was great, except for one thing; books were vanishing.

In 1976 Martinez regularly stopped by Booked Up, the paragon of rare book shops in Washington. As the motives of rare book shopkeepers often run to sanctuary as much as commerce, McMurtry actually looks bothered sometimes when ignorant customers wander in. With Martinez, though, he would talk books, pulling out a new acquisition as a proud father might invite kin to ooh and aah over a new baby.

McMurtry says he began to discover vexing vacancies on shelves where very expensive books had been. Once it was a first edition of William Faulkner's second novel "Mosquitoes," another time it was a 19th century title, inimitably distinguished by a binding accident in which plates depicting vignettes of Chinese life had been sewn into a travel book on Peru. Over a period of several months Booked Up was lightened by six books worth $3,500.

Meanwhile Harold Wilcox had learned that Martinez was coming into Estate Book Sales when Wilcox wasn't there on Saturdays. On some occasions he stayed until closing time and offered to watch the front of the shop while Wilcox's employe turned off the lights upstairs. During this period, books vanished, including Lakeside Classics, a series of 19th Century travel books, each marked on the bottom with Wilcox's identifying price code. From 1975 to late 1976, Wilcox says he lost 100 books worth about $2,000.

"It's not that upsetting if ordinary books get stolen," says the 67-year-old Wilcox. "But you give your heart's blood for a rare book. You have to know the book, study the book, search and gamble for the book. It's an emotional thing."

Other dealers were discovering that books were missing. At Mrs. Reifsneider's books left in droves, yet so plentiful was the stock of the shop that the lemming-like exodus went unnoticed at the time.

"You could move a lot of books out of there and never know it," said Louis Riendeau, who worked for Mrs. Reifsneider from 1975 to 1977. Riendeau regularly knocked off around 3 in the afternoon, leaving Martinez, who was acting as the shop's manager, to close up.

A few months later Mrs. Reifsneider discovered that 15 of her most expensive books were missing from a shelf inside her apartment on the fourth floor above the book shop, books worth $500 and up. Those who worked at the Park had to help Mrs. Reifsneider down to the shop in the morning and back up in late afternoon and had keys to the fourth floor apartment.

Jeane Dixon found nothing supernatural to the mysterious happenings at the Park. "My husband and I would see Martinez take two and three boxes a night," Dixon said. "He would load them into his Cadillac. When we told her [Mrs. Reifsnieder] about it, she said, 'Oh he's delivering books to Goodwill.' He couldn't be delivering that many books. I told her again and again. Rarely a day went by that I didn't see him take books."

While he prefers that his lawyer speak for him Martinez states that he was not stealing the books. "If they saw me taking why didn't they come up to me?" he says. "I was bringing those books to Goodwill, and delivering them to customers. I've got witnesses and receipts. I admire Mrs. Reifsneider for her knowledge of books, and she gave me an education, but she's very difficult to work with. Dixon and the people in the book world are very prejudiced against Indians. We're not supposed to drive Cadillacs. We're not supposed to dress up well. We're still in the old stereotype."

A few days later, as he stood in the doorway of his red brick home in Falls Church, wearing a CPO jacket, a purple shirt, jeans and black moccasins, Martinez vowed again, "I'll face my accusers in court."

"I don't care if it cost $100,000," he said. "They 're some of the greediest people in the world. I know how they work."

By late summer 1976, McMurtry had connected the appearance of Martinez in his shop with the books missing from his shop. He went to broach his fears about Martinez to Mrs. Reifsneider, only to find that she had, in July, fired him for a trifling piece of insubordination. A man had dumped some old law books in the Park hallway after Mrs. Reifsneider said she wasn't interested in buying them. She told Martinez to leave them there. When he began loading them into the trunk of a car, Mrs. Reifsneider shouted "Throw me up my keys!"

Martinez lobbed her keys at her, and that was the end.

Mrs. Reifsneider's friends feel she had long suspected Marinez of the worst but chose to ignore her suspicions. For so long, Martinez had brought her roses and chocolate, and vegetables from his Virginia garden, and Mrs. Reifsneider in turn had reserved for him what Jeane Dixon called "a special smile."

Two weeks after he was fired, in August, Martinex departed for a three-month trip to Europe. Just before he left, he strolled back into the Park Gallery, kissed Mrs. Reifsneider on the forehead, and asked if he could have $200 vacation money, and if he could come back to work when he returned from Europe.

In the aftermath, according to Mrs. Reifsneider, the magnitude of her loss sank in. "I think I lost about 5,000 books," she said. Today they would be worth upwards of $100,000. Of all the books she could no longer put her hands on -- the art books, DeWitt Miler's American novels, the two-volume biography of General Pershing -- the one whose disappearance pained her the most was a small prayer book that once belonged to Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The poet had scribbled on its fly leaf in Greek. The book was a family keepsake, and Mrs. Reifsneider had planned to be buried with it.