The following are the first 3,600 words of Vin’s new novel, “The Testament of James,” set for publication by Mountain Media in late 2014. If having to wait some months to read the rest of the story will bother you, please don’t start.
This material is copyright c Vin Suprynowicz, 2014.
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The Testament of James
From the case files of Matthew Hunter and Chantal Stevens
By Vin Suprynowicz
copyright c Vin Suprynowicz, 2014
PART ONE, CHAPTER ONE, TUESDAY AFTERNOON
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Matthew heard the front door to the shop open behind him, though he could have sworn he’d locked it. A gust of cool air swirled in, followed by an imposing figure in a black cape. He wasn’t more than six-foot-four, which meant technically he shouldn’t have had to duck his head to get in. But he did.
Matthew didn’t know the face, long and square-jawed, though he felt maybe he should. In fact, the first thing that occurred to him was that the Theatre Department had brought in a ringer, some professional curtain-chewer past his prime to play the lead in the latest student production of “Dracula,” since the casting of some pimply undergraduate with a voice not yet settled was the standard Achilles heel of such offerings.
“I’m sorry, we’re closed today,” Matthew said. “There’s been a death.”
“Your unfortunate employee. You have my condolences. Natural causes, I believe?”
The giant had the deep, resonant voice to match his stature, and spoke precise British English — upper class British English, though he was actually Mediterranean. The family had retained the best of tutors.
“Perhaps?” asked the big guy.
“There was some kind of event here a few evenings ago. I don’t know all the details myself, Mr. …”
“Penitente. Dominic Penitente.”
“So if you’d be willing to come back tomorrow …”
“You have a certain book, Mr. Hunter.” He really did have that James Earl Jones kind of voice, would probably have sounded just as great reading “Green Eggs and Ham,” or the advertising copy off the back of some cereal box. “Your employee took delivery of this book several days ago, perhaps even the day he died, which I do regret. I represent a buyer who is willing to pay a substantial price for this book. Discreetly, of course. Whatever the Californian with his mail-order Divinity degree is offering, I assure you my employer can do better.”
“What book are we talking about?”
“It’s not necessary to be coy, Mr. Hunter. You understand my employer is willing to deal in cash, if you prefer. Reporting transactions to your revenue authorities, that sort of detail, is of no interest to him. Nor can we be made to answer any questions about such a transaction. Diplomatic immunity, you understand. …”
“You have the advantage of me, Mr. . . . Penitente? I’ve been away for more than a week. If this book arrived here in the meantime, I’m not aware of it. You’ll have to give us a week or so to get back up to speed, At that point, we’ll see if Robert left us any record, although I have to tell you books that come in get priced and put on the shelves, they don’t go in the computer unless we’re listing them for sale online, which depends om value and a few other factors. The easiest way to find out if we have it is to just leave me the author and title. . . .”
“You’ve dealt in the past, I believe, with Mr. Rashid al-Adar.”
“Look, sir, I don’t want to be impolite, but we’re closed. I have people coming from the funeral. So unless you can tell me exactly what it is you want, I’ll have to ask you to come back when we’re open.”
“Mr. al-Adar brought a book here. He brought it to your late associate. He wanted you to sell the book for him. I want to buy it.”
“In that case, if such a book turns up, I’ll get in touch with Mr. al-Adar to find out his instructions for a sale. Then I’d be glad to contact you. You have a card, something with a phone number or an e-mail address?”
“I do.” The dapper giant produced a glossy white business card, in raised type so it felt like braille when you rubbed your thumb across it, mysterious for the absence of the usual corporate name and logo, but elegant.
It said “Dominic Penitente / rare manuscripts,” under which was centered a 10-digit phone number.
“Boston,” Matthew noted.
“A cellular telephone,” Penitente explained. “I’ll be staying here in your fair city for a few days. You may call at any hour.”
“I’ll keep it handy.”
“Thank you, Mr. Hunter.”
They shook hands. The big guy looked almost sad, as though he regretted whatever he’d have to do next. His hand was dry but at least he didn’t try to apply one of those Vulcan death grips like the characters who spent too much time at the gym, guzzling protein shakes. Dominic Penitente looked around the store briefly, sizing it up. Matthew almost expected him to ask if he could browse for a minute, hunt for the Chronicles of Narnia or the Malleus Maleficarum. But instead the big Dracula look-alike left after nodding briefly, whatever that meant.
# # #
Skeezix stepped aside to let Dominic Penitente, if that really was his name, sweep down the front walk. His black cape flared out behind him as he turned the corner. Skeezix immediately disliked the guy, found himself growling softly. As the man in the cape turned down the sidewalk, he also passed Chantal, who seemed to be hesitating about coming up the walk. Skeezix smiled at her; she gave him a thumbs-up.
Then Skeezix turned to peer in the glass panels of the front door, past the hand-lettered sign that read “CLOSED: DEATH IN THE FAMILY.”
He rapped quietly, cracked the door, tilted his head inside. “Is it OK?” he asked.
“Come on in, Skeezix. Drinks are in the cooler; you could help set out the food on the table.”
It never would have occurred to Skeezix to be a fashionable 10 minutes late. But since he was family, it really wasn’t necessary for him to knock, either.
The bookstore had been a private home, long ago. The front dining room was now lined with bookshelves, but they’d kept the good-sized dark wooden table and a motley assemblage of user-friendly armchairs, not to mention a few of the traditional overstuffed red leather variety over by the fireplace. During the day customers were welcome to sit and read, but it had long been the custom for some of the town’s small bookish fraternity to gather there at closing, 6 o’clock of a Sunday, to share take-out food.
“She’s outside,” Skeezix said.
“She’s walking back and forth.”
“I’ll go out. Do me a favor and lay out the food, Skeezix. Some’s still in the fridge in the kitchen. Including the vegetable stuff. Ask the cats to please not walk in it.”
She was indeed hesitating on the sidewalk. Slightly below medium height, Chantal was one of those unusually pretty brunettes with blue eyes. She was self-conscious about her lower body, though, which was not as slim as called for by the current arbiters of emaciated cadaver fashion. Not that Chantal carried extra body fat, at least not anywhere that men tended to find it unattractive. Chantal’s problem was that she favored strenuous outdoor pastimes, including hiking, running, and actual mountain-climbing, with the result that her calves, thighs, and butt were muscular and prominent. The problem — if anyone other than Chantal actually considered it a problem -– wasn’t much helped by her favoring short plaid pleated skirts, which had the effect of making her look like she was late for some high school field-hockey scrum. She got carded when ordering wine in restaurants with tedious frequency.
“I wasn’t sure if I was welcome.”
“Come in out of the wind.”
“It was such a shock about Robert. You must have had to drop things to come back. We probably could have handled things for you, here.”
He took both her hands. “Your friends have missed you,” he said. “Come in.”
Others who had known Bob, either booksellers or librarians or members of one English Department or another, were putting in an appearance now, some of them puffing from the steep walk up the hill from the memorial service. There was genuine warmth in the welcomes for Chantal, the circumstances of whose absence had generated much speculation. Serafina, she of the green eyes and the long black fur, seemed particularly anxious to renew Chantal’s acquaintance, though the cat’s nervousness increased as more and more people arrived, till finally she scampered for the sanctuary of the back stairs.
Books On Benefit occupied the street level of a late 19th century brick structure in the Second Empire style, which is to say it was a big block of a multi-colored thing with gables and bay windows and fairly ornate trim. Since the structure was built into the western side of College Hill, said hill dropping away steeply behind the house toward the modern downtown to the west, it appeared from the eastern or “street” entrance to be your standard old three-story house. A relatively small sign, illuminated by a couple of small white spotlights in the evening hours or on a rainy day, announced “Books on Benefit / Fine & Collectible / Books Bought & Sold.”
But from the steeply ascending side street up which Matthew’s late afternoon visitors were now puffing their way, the house clearly had two more “basement” stories with partial western exposures below. It was a mostly residential neighborhood, so parking was along the streets, except for two precariously perched spaces nestled around the windows that peeked out from the building’s second basement, reachable from the side street if you knew they were there.
At the front of the house, facing historic Benefit Street with its Federalist and Greek revival captains’ houses, there were manicured rectangles of neatly trimmed grass to either side of the front walk. In a larger, fenced side yard, well shielded from the street and shaded by several trees, one an ancient maple, grew a plethora of tall plants popular during the warmer months with butterflies and hummingbirds, including hollyhocks, foxglove, and giant poppies, though most were only beginning to bud, this early in the year.
Inside, in the bay windows of the bookstore at street level, slept several cats of unusual size.
Skeezix was methodically opening the tuna fish sandwiches, eating out the filling, and neatly stacking the leftover slices of bread on a plate. Matthew gave him the evil eye but he appeared oblivious.
With Bob gone, and excepting Matthew, whose absences were unpredictable, Skeezix along with Marian the Mouse was what was left of the staff of Books on Benefit.
Skeezix was a small fellow, who favored mid-twentieth-century tortoiseshell eyeglasses he picked up at the garage sales. His most unusual feature was his short multi-colored hair, a subtle but symmetrical tabby pattern of gray, white, gold and tawny brown, seldom combed and therefore rising up in unpredictable tufts and peaks, mostly above his ears. If it was a dye job it was either the most masterful or the most awful Matthew had ever seen. The cats loved him. He ran errands and reshelved books and generally helped out around the place, though his habit of napping away the afternoons curled up with one of the cats in some out-of-the-way corner did tend to reinforce the rumor that he had no actual permanent place of residence.
His unusual hours worked out well in one respect, though. While Skeezix was often prompt during the early days of the week, his absences on Friday and Saturday mornings were understood to be on account of his haunting the weekend garage and estate sales at an hour of gray and misty dawn when civilized folk hadn’t even started brewing their first cup of hot, let alone finished it. He was trusted with a weekly wad of company cash, starter money which he accounted for and replenished early each Saturday afternoon, usually arriving with a box of his garage sale finds.
Marian slipped in. Robert had dubbed the computer gal “Mouse,” a pun on her constant umbilical attachment to the computer, though also a bit unkind, really. Mouse usually dressed in gray or beige, with occasional matching crocheted scarf and beret. Hair in a bun, though on closer inspection she didn’t really appear to be much over 30. Skirts a couple of inches too long, sensible flat-soled shoes. She ran incoming merchandise against other copies offered online to set prices, handled incoming online orders, and had also mastered Matthew’s fairly complex internet buying programs, grabbing underpriced books placed online by ignorant sellers world-wide, an enterprise demanding considerable intuition, since books being sold by incompetent dolts were, of course, also described by incompetent dolts, and you couldn’t very well e-mail them to ask “Does your six-dollar book have the following First Edition points which actually make it worth four hundred dollars?”
Chantal spotted Les hanging back at the door.
“Come on in, Les.”
“Thank You Chantal, but Matthew has to ask me in.”
“Matthew, can you ask Les to come in?”
From the other side of the old dining room, where he was worrying a wine cork, Matthew shouted for Les to come in.
“Thank You.” Les was well-liked. He helped out from time to time at the store, which made his reluctance to come in until asked by a resident occasionally inconvenient. A tall, slim man with a large forehead and a thin mustache, he was the author of a series of horror novels, though royalties from the publisher always seemed inexplicably thin.
The place was soon packed, with the usual bustle of conversation. Bob had had his detractors, truth be told — he could be a bit of a drama queen and that had launched a few feuds. But tonight only the happy tales were re-told.
The sun set and the evening was cool, so Matthew started a fire in the fireplace, which crackled cheerfully. In fact, the more casual visitors and acquaintances had already wolfed down their share of the food, expressed their condolences primarily to Matthew and Marian, and taken their leave, reducing the company to the dozen or so bookmen who were more accustomed to gathering there of a Sunday evening, when a latecomer in bleached white cotton slacks and a brightly colored shirt arrived.
“Hi, Matthew. Been awhile.”
The new arrival embracing Matthew showed a nice tan, a mustache, sun-bleached hair curling over his collar, gold neck chain, and turquoise Hawaiian shirt decorated with red parrots. The obvious interest of both Chantal and Marian seemed to confirm he was a bit of a hunk. In fact, he looked a lot like that old “Magnum, P.I.” guy on TV.
“Great to see you, Lance. I don’t know if you heard, but our manager died last week. Most of us just came from the funeral.”
“I did hear. And I wouldn’t have busted in uninvited, but right away I thought of the book he contacted me about. In fact, I was surprised when I couldn’t reach him; it was supposed to get here last Thursday or Friday.”
“Bob died Thursday. He found a book on your list?”
“He told me you were away. He didn’t contact you at all? It wasn’t just A book, Matthew; it was THE book. How did he die? There wasn’t a robbery? Should I come back and talk to you later?”
“Everyone here is a friend, Lance. There was some kind of incident that evening. He dialed 9-1-1, said he was having a heart attack, but he also said there was some kind of fight going on outside. Gunshots.”
“And the book is gone?”
“What book, Lance? Where from?”
“A seller he said you’d dealt with before. I wired him enough earnest money for an air fare. Actually, I bought the ticket for the seller.”
“Must have sounded good.”
“Bob was cautious, but he said this seller had come up with some legitimate finds in the past, one-of-a-kind stuff. He warned me it was a risk, but the seller seemed nervous, he was in a hurry, which made sense, given the book he was talking about.”
“The name of the book?”
“Bob said the man had a tenth century codex, a true copy of the Testament of James.”
Everyone who had been pretending not to listen fell silent. At the far side of the room, by the fireplace, one of the bookmen turned and slowly banged his forehead into the wall. Otherwise it was so quiet they actually heard a cat jump to the floor in the back and go out through the kitchen cat door. Down the hill, the church clock chimed 8.
“Not the Epistle of James?”
“The Epistle of James is in the Gideon Bible in my hotel room, Matthew, a nice little four-page letter. By works a man is justified, and not by faith alone. Speak not evil one of another, brethren, can’t we all just get along. We all know the Epistle, which is probably about as authentic as most of your signed Harry Potters for sale online these days. I’m talking about the Testament of James the Just.”
“Lance, I’m sure Bob wouldn’t have purposely misled you . . .”
“You’re asking, and I appreciate your discretion,” said the man with the big biceps in the parrot shirt, “if I’ve turned into such an idiot that I don’t know the Testament of James is supposed to be the greatest book never written.”
Matthew sat down wearily.
“Lance, Lance.” He actually lowered his head into his hands. “The Testament ranks right up there with your hand-written Shakespeare, the lost first book of Homer, the Book of Mormon on gold plates. An original Testament of James wouldn’t even be a book.”
“A first century original would be a scroll, obviously, but Bob’s seller said he had a later copy.”
“I have the resources now, Matthew, assuming a price within reason. You haven’t found such a book, or any message from Bob about it? Do the police think there was a robbery?”
“Once the coroner ruled it was a heart attack, police interest seems to have waned. Other fish to fry. A few neighbors did hear something out front, but it was getting dark. Gunshots? A car backfiring? A TV turned up too loud? We’re going to do some asking around.”
“Do cars still backfire?”
“Here in the backwaters of New England we still tolerate poor people with jalopies. As for a message, there was a Post-It note on the computer screen, no way to tell if Bob wrote it before or after he called for the ambulance.”
“And are you willing to share?”
“Opens to gallinules.”
“Three words on the Post-It note: ‘Opens to gallinules.’”
“Gallinules are birds.”
“Mean anything to you?”
“Not a thing.”
In addition to the note stuck to the computer screen, Marian and Skeezix had found a torn-open pasteboard box on the front desk. Whatever had been inside was missing, though it had been padded with pages from a week-old edition of a Cairo newspaper. The Cairo in Egypt.
Lance White set his jaw. “There are parties who might go to great lengths to keep a copy of the book we’re talking about from ever seeing the light of day, Matthew. Any chance your assistant’s death was not by natural causes? Could he have been killed for this book?”
“Just outbidding you would seem simpler.”
A lull came in the conversation.
“OK, I’m used to being the one who asks the dumb question,” Chantal smiled. “What’s the big deal about this ‘Testament of James’?”
“Richard?” Matthew craned his head to address the old timer who’d been sitting quietly in one of the red leather chairs by the fire, now reduced to something more like a glowing bed of coals.
“So?” asked Professor Richard St. Vincent, who may have been dozing. “What question has you so stumped you have to turn again to the Old Jew, that I’m again welcome at your table?”
“You’re always welcome here, Richard. We even let you eat the pineapple off the Hawaiian pizza. Stop whining.”
Richard made a dismissive gesture.
“Chantal asks for a run-down on the Testament of James.”
“How long do you have?”
“Give us the medium version.”
“If someone should bring me a nice glass tonic water.”
Skeezix was dispatched.
“With ice, please.”
The house was 150 years old, on a tree-shadowed street in the oldest part of a town that was much older still. Outside, the small pools of light from the street lights were never quite enough to push back the darkness that had heard the footsteps of Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe. The trees rustled, the old house creaked as the temperature dropped on a crisp spring night. It was a company accustomed to tales of half-forgotten lore, and none better at summoning them up than Professor Richard St. Vincent, rare books and special collections.
“So again it rears its head, this story of the lost book, the Testament of James the Just, not to be confused with the Epistle of James the Just, a so-called book in your New Testament so slight my granddaughter, who teaches kindergarten, God bless her for her patience, could have written it — a little letter of uncertain parentage designed to convince everyone James was still part of the team, the brother of Jesus telling everybody to be nice, to play well with others.”
“James was the brother of Jesus?” Chantal asked.
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The above are the first 3,600 words of “The Testament of James,” by Vin Suprynowicz, copyright c Vin Suprynowicz, 2014. The next excerpt will be posted in early August.