The Testament of James, fourth excerpt

Added to the first three excerpts, posted this summer, the following takes the reader through the first 14,000 words of Vin’s new novel, “The Testament of James,” published by Mountain Media on Dec. 16, 2014. This material is copyright c Vin Suprynowicz, 2014, all rights reserved.

Finding himself suspended in mid-air by this complete stranger, who apparently intended to slice him down the middle with a particularly nasty looking kitchen implement, Mr. Cuddles made a high nasal noise, very piercing. Then it was as though the bundle of fur simply exploded, with a racket like someone starting a chainsaw. Hakim’s smaller buddy started to shriek. Mr. Cuddles caromed off the refrigerator and the stove, actually running horizontally, before he hit the floor and headed for the back stairs in an orange blur. The smaller Arab’s fighting knife slid across the floor and stopped at Matthew’s feet.

The original set of black-clad burglars decided to make use of the moment of confusion to bolt through the outside door to the side yard. They made it out, though Hakim seemed to be considering launching his own knife at them, backhanded, carnival-style, when Matthew intervened.

“Let them go,” he said. “Getting the police involved isn’t likely to help Rashid.”

“Yes, run! Run, you Christian dogs!” Hakim responded, though he did lower his blade to his side. “You never did have stomach for a fight!”

Once his weapon was down Chantal moved warily past beak-nose, remaining half turned so Rashid’s newly arrived brother was never completely out of her sight. She checked the side yard, sweeping her extended revolver side-to-side till she was convinced the immediate threat had moved on.

Soon the four were seated at the kitchen table. Matthew had turned on the overhead light and come up with some hydrogen peroxide to pour on the bleeding cat tracks that Mr. Cuddles had left along the younger Egyptian’s arm. They frothed and bubbled nicely, at which point Chantal came up with a clean white towel he could hold against them. Even with his lost knife restored, the younger Egyptian looked suitably chastened.

“Hakim. Haven’t seen you in years. This is another brother?”

“Yes, my brother Patrick.”

“Um . . . Patrick?”

“Named for the priest who saved our mother,” Hakim explained. “A story for another time.” Patrick smiled but remained silent, possibly spoke no English. “Rashid never made it to you with the book? He came here because he said Mattieu was the one dealer we could trust, Mattieu always gives a fair price. A tough bargain sometimes, but he never lies to us. So where is he? He never arrived here? Have you seen the thousand-year-old book?”

Matthew brought the al-Adar brothers up-to-date on what little he knew. Hakim, the oldest brother, responded by providing some history of the book which the second brother, Rashid, had brought with him from Egypt, a leather-bound book, twice the size of a modern book. It started out a charming enough tale of the reclusive great-uncle who had sold lesser treasures over the years to support himself and a succession of wives in modest comfort, always keeping the most valuable family heirlooms squirreled away against some future time of need. A wise man avoided ostentation in such things, as Mattieu of course understood. Any object displayed in the dwelling place to tempt a thief to reveal himself would be a mere copy. No list of such valuable possessions was ever written down, or anything as foolish as that.

“Of course.”

The trustworthiness of the younger generation also had to be measured, which took time, always time. Certain family members showed a greed for quick profits, for the fancy city life, a scorning of the old traditions, as Mattieu would of course understand. Such disappointing offspring were bypassed. But Hakim and Rashid and their brothers, as Mattieu would remember, were found to show the proper patience and respect. They kept the old ways. Over time the family business, the contacts along the courier routes, where confidentiality and a man’s word could mean life or death, had been passed down to them.

Till finally, as his time neared an end, and again according to tradition, the old man had revealed the secret location of the most valuable family trove, including this leather-bound book, “the book which is a thousand years old.”

Hakim waited to see if anyone would scoff. No one did.

Naturally, he explained after a moment, certain of the objects carried curses of which the brothers had to be apprised. The brothers were used to that, and took certain measures to assure those curses were held in abeyance, did not come to rest on them, so that the shouf of the deceased owner, the shadow, would understand they were mere custodians. Hakim gave Matthew an appraising glance. Matthew nodded soberly. He knew a little of these rituals. More importantly, he knew such things were not to be taken lightly.

But the old man’s warning about the book was different, Hakim revealed.

“Not a curse?” Matthew asked.

“Different.”

“Because of who wants the book.”

“Yes.”

They had been speaking quietly long enough that the cats decided the visitors must be OK. Serafina had crept down the stairs and -– just as silently -– up into Chantal’s lap. Chantal stroked her reassuringly. Only the black cat’s green eyes showed occasionally above the rim of the table, glowing emeralds. Now Tyrone, an orange giant to match Mr. Cuddles, also leapt up, landing light as a feather on four feet, then flopping on the table in front of her, though whether to protect her, or trusting in her ability to protect him, was not immediately clear.

The younger Arab shifted his chair back and eyed the big orange cat cautiously. Few outsiders could tell Tyrone and Mr. Cuddles apart. Chantal did not fuss over the cats. She kept her eyes on their visitors. The cats were just there.

Hakim looked at Chantal appraisingly. Up till now he’d barely seemed to acknowledge her presence. Having a woman at the table was evidently not part of the traditional way, though he understood things could be different here in the West. After all, Mattieu obviously trusted this woman as his bodyguard. And she did wear around her neck not the Christian cross, but rather the ankh.

“You know the tale of the princess Khawlah bint al-Azwar?” asked Matthew, who could take on the appearance of a mind-reader on such occasions.

“The woman warrior of the Bani Assad,” Hakim nodded. “It is said she killed five men with a tent pole.”

Matthew smiled.

Hakim had seen the authority with which Chantal handled a revolver. So now, for the first time, he spoke to her. “There are two types of buyers, as our friend Mattieu well knows. The buyer who wishes to re-sell is the easiest to find and the quickest to offer, but his price is always low, since he keeps in mind his own profit. The buyer who buys for himself will take longer to decide, but will pay the most. Unless, of course, he can steal what he wants.”

“Yes,” said Chantal. This was obvious.

“But this book is different. You must be careful even in naming this book, because those who most want this book want not to possess it, but to destroy it. This makes those who seek the book more dangerous, more unpredictable. You know the book of which I speak?”

“We do,” said Chantal.

Hakim nodded. She had not named the book. Good. “My brother Rashid is no fool. He merely asked in a few places what such a book might be worth. He was advised not even to mention the name of this book. But by then it was too late. Strange things began to happen. We were not contacted directly. Rather it was like a whisper carried on the wind, warning us that powerful forces wanted this book. The first to arrive was not a buyer, but an assassin.”

“He failed,” Matthew noted.

“Of course,” said Hakim, his hand dropping briefly to the comforting firmness of the scabbard hidden beneath his loosely billowing shirt. “But such things can draw attention. We decided to get the book out of the country.”

“You called me.”

“If we’ve brought trouble on your house, my friend, you will let us know how to make amends. We are at your service. But your associate was interested. He spoke of a buyer, he even offered to pay Rashid’s airfare. We would have preferred to speak with you, directly, of course, but . . .” The man with the hawk beak and the large mustache spread his hands, palms up.

“What’s done is done” Matthew said. “I’m glad you came to me. Sooner might have been better, since now other forces are in play. But I understand Rashid’s thinking. I do not have this book, but the black priests are still looking for it, as well, so all is not lost. The most important thing is to find Rashid. Your brother is more important than any book, even this book. If you will look for your brother, we will look for the book. Somewhere, our trails will cross.”

When the al-Adar brothers took their leave they’d agreed to spend the next day trying to track down Rashid’s cell phone and his missing rental car.

“Matthew?” Matthew was just finishing nailing a piece of scrap wood across the broken pane of glass where the burglars had made their entry.

“Yes, babe?”

“A little while ago, did you say, ‘Identify yourselves, you motherfuckers’?”

“Did I?”

“You did.”

“Was that wrong?”

“It was excellent. I didn’t know you had it in you.”

“I’ve been watching too much TV, probably.”

“You watch hardly any TV.”

“I must have heard a policeman yell that, once. It seemed appropriate.”

“Were we just rescued by a couple of Islamic terrorists?”

“No no. Who actually got rescued is another question, though I’m sure Hakim meant well. But Rashid’s family aren’t terrorists. They’re capitalists.”

“Oh. I guess that’s all right, then.” Chantal had come down off the adrenalin rush enough to start finding the whole thing a bit ridiculous.

“It’s fine. Makes sense the family would send someone if Rashid has been out of touch since last Thursday.”

“I think I’d better not leave you alone tonight.”

“I’m glad to hear it. You can have the big bed; I’ll sleep in the front bedroom.”

“Matthew, don’t be an idiot.”

“Hm?”

“No one is sleeping in the front bedroom.”

“No?”

“No.”

“OK.”

# # #

PART TWO

CHAPTER THREE

WEDNESDAY MORNING

Chantal was becatted by the lovely Serafina, so Matthew gave the larger brunette a kiss and carried his mug of hot tea down the stairs to the shop. Marian had already opened up and there were a few early customers in; the general rule was that if there were two staff members washed up and straight enough to work, no would-be customer was left pressing his or her nose to a locked front door.

“Skeezix has done well today,” Marian smiled in greeting. She was wearing a fetching hand-crocheted wool cap to go with her gray sweater and skirt -– gray on gray. Bob had joked more than once that Marian’s mother must have once been frightened by a brightly colored clown. She’d stacked the contents of the diminutive scout’s morning pasteboard boxes on the front counter and was tallying up his pay.

“Cleaning out a house?”

“The lady calls me first because I’m willing to haul away so much. She thought a buck a book was fine.”

“Look what he found,” Marian held up a couple of 12mos from the box — 12mos being books the size of a Hardy Boys mystery, slightly smaller than your standard octavo, “duodecimos” if you wanted to get technical, so named because they were originally printed by folding a full sheet of printer’s paper into 12 sections, instead of eight.

“Edgar Rice Burroughs in jackets? Good work, Skeezer. How early?”

“Fighting Man of Mars is Metropolitan, a first,” Marian answered, proudly.

Marian would probably pay the Skeezer close to a hundred bucks for that one alone, confident it would bring four or five times that, online. Assuming it wasn’t dampstained. If you wanted people to stay eager in their work, you saw they were properly compensated when they got something right. As long as you could still make your four-bagger, of course. A triple had once been enough, but no more. Regulatory costs and other government extractions were up across the board, at the very time people were doing more of their shopping online. Modern retail overhead was murder; somebody had to make sure the lights stayed lit, even on days when you didn’t bring in enough to buy lunch. Which meant on occasion Skeezix would pay three bucks for a book that would only sell for six, and he’d have to keep it or eat the buck-and-a-half. The store was not a charitable enterprise.

But knowledge was the real wealth, and once the Skeezer had learned the authors, the topics, the grading standards that made it worthwhile to gamble a few bucks, he’d have knowledge that would last him all his life, from the auction rooms to a barn sale in Chepachet.

Most of the books that had ever been manufactured weren’t worth the cost of hauling away, especially with the corners chewed by mice or silverfish; it was easy to end up with an apartment full of boxes of crumbling junk with the covers falling off. No sense spending a week’s grocery money to have a book rebound if you knew that when you got done it would barely buy you lunch.

So how did anyone learn which ones were worth grabbing? Over in the corner of the store this morning a scannerboy was sliding books out from the shelf and running his little electronic gizmo over the bar codes on the dust jacket rear panels, scan scan scan, waiting for his mindless toy to beep and tell him he’d hit one of the thousand best-selling books on Amazon this week, or whatever it was supposed to do. They thought this allowed them to avoid the drudgery of actually reading, studying the bibliographies, learning anything. In the thrift shops where Niven & Pournelle’s “Mote in God’s Eye” was shelved under “Religion” and illiterates marked everything at a fixed price they undoubtedly did find the occasional Maclehose first of “Dragon Tattoo” for a couple bucks, but there were no bar codes before 1980, and a scanner couldn’t tell you whether a book had been signed on the title page to the author’s good pal Ernest Hemingway. A real book scout — and Skeezix was quickly becoming one — could spot value across the room, sometimes just from the way books had been treated and shelved.

“Excuse me.”

“Yes?” Marian being tied up with Skeezix, Matthew had remained on the floor to help out.

“Why is one of these Hardy Boys priced at eight dollars, and the other at twenty-four?”

The stout matron seemed legitimately curious. “Because one of them has a dust jacket,” Matthew explained.

“Three times as much, just because it has a paper wrapper?” The fragile jacket had actually been encased in a removable clear polyester protector, though Matthew saw no point in mentioning the obvious.

“Yes, ma’am. Young people could be pretty rough with those juveniles. After 70 years, it’s the collectible jackets people look for.”

“Isn’t that a bit ridiculous?”

“Ma’am, we don’t make up the prices. We check online, especially knowledgeable dealers, then we price at about 60 percent of market, so collectors know they can do better here. And that’s before you consider how many online sellers can’t properly identify what they’re selling, in the first place, letting their computers list every paperback reprint of Frankenstein as ”published 1818.” But it’s the collectors who decide how much they’re willing to pay. With the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drews and Ted Scotts, it’s the pre-1950 jacket art that’s in demand. If we priced much lower, the re-sellers would be in here with shopping carts; they’d strip us bare.”

The woman actually snorted.

“The juveniles are actually pretty reasonable, ma’am. A nice first printing of ‘The Great Gatsby’ is going for a few thousand now without the dust jacket. With the original jacket, much more.”

“You’re telling me the paper jacket is worth as much as the whole book?”

“Actually, ma’am, an original Gatsby jacket in decent shape is now selling for as much as your house.”

“I’ll just take the eight dollar book, please.”

“Sure thing.”

He rang the woman up and watched her let herself out, nose held high. Matthew placed the jacketed “Clue in the Embers” on the go-back shelf. It had a Rudy Nappi jacket from the mid-fifties, not one of the great Grettas from the early ‘30s which were finally starting to seriously climb in price, but still a classic. It showed the boys trapped by a lava flow, dressed in short leather jackets and hunting caps and bizarre red-and-white striped clown socks, looking for all the world like the backwater offspring of Johnny Carson’s Floyd R. Turbo.

“She actually went for the worthless copy without the jacket?” Skeezix asked.

“I assume it showed up in some box, we shouldn’t be buying ‘em without the jackets.”

“I wouldn’t.”

“Unless they’re red or maroon.”

“Otherwise they’re not collectible.”

“I told her that.”

New trouble now arrived in the form of two guys in shiny black shoes and dark gray business suits. The tall one with the big shoulders and the little gold lapel pin kept looking all around; Matthew figured him for the bodyguard. In fact, except for the absence of the little earphone, he could have been Secret Service. But it was the shorter, stocky guy, the scented guy with the wavy, neatly coiffed salt-and-pepper hair and the powder-blue silk pocket handkerchief, who did the talking.

“You are the proprietor?” he asked. The accent could have been from anywhere along the arc from Turkey to Morocco.

“I am.”

“So you’re Matthew Hunter.”

“And you are?”

“I’m interested in a book.”

“We have quite a few.”

“I’ll be frank.”

“I’ll be Joe.”

“What?”

“The book you’re looking for has a name?”

“Pardon me, I am Muhammad Mubarak, Deputy Minister of Culture and Antiquities for the Islamic Republic of Egypt.” The guy produced a fancy embossed card with a tiny Egyptian flag in full color like it was some kind of sleight-of-hand trick, must have stood in front of a mirror practicing that move for hours. “And this is my escort, Mister Charles Petrocelli, of your own U.S. State Department.”

Mister Charles Petrocelli gave a half smile and a nod but kept his hands behind his back.

“We know our national, Mr. Rashid al-Adar, was supposed to deliver a manuscript copy of the book he describes as ‘The Testament of James’ here one evening last week,” smiled the dapper Egyptian functionary. “Although we have not been able to trace his whereabouts since then, it appears he did arrive here. That would indicate your associate must have ended with the book, in which case the book is almost certainly still here.”

“I was away last week.”

“Yes. We heard about your unfortunate associate’s death. You have my deepest condolences. Natural causes, we were told.”

“That would depend.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Heart attacks are a natural cause of death unless they’re brought about by the criminal actions of another party, so it could depend on the circumstances. A police officer told me that.”

“Mr. Hunter, I hope I can be frank.”

“Only if I can be the impulsive younger brother with the lighter hair.”

“What?”

“Joe.”

“What?”

“Many people are interested in this mysterious book. Unfortunately, I don’t have it, Mr … Mubarak?”

“Interesting. Interesting.” The Egyptian peered around, as though he expected to find thousand-year-old manuscripts flopped on top of the science fiction paperbacks in their Ziplocs or wedged in with the Show Biz biographies.

“If this book turns up, Mr. Hunter, I must put you on notice that it’s a valuable part of the cultural heritage of the Islamic Republic of Egypt. No permission was ever granted for its removal from our shores, no duties have been paid, and it will have to be repatriated. You understand ‘repatriated’?”

“I’ve got nothing against your particular government, Mr. Mubarak, as long as you don’t decide to reconquer Spain.” Neither of his visitors smiled. “But I have to tell you this notion that the politicians in Cairo or wherever can claim title to anything that happens to turn up anywhere within the boundaries of your feudal fiefdom is pernicious. You understand ‘pernicious’? I don’t deal in stolen goods, I try to keep up on the news of any big museum or library thefts, and if anyone has snatched a rare medieval Egyptian codex recently it’s escaped my attention. The missing Mr. al-Adar told my associate the book has been in his family for decades, for generations, and I’ve seen no evidence to the contrary. You’re not allowed to just seize stuff in this country.”

“Of course any ‘seizing’ would be done by your own State Department under the appropriate international treaties, Mr. Hunter. I think you’ll agree it’s the Anglo-Saxon powers that seem to have ended up with a curious monopoly on all those statues from the Parthenon. I hope we can agree that cultural treasures belong in their proper context, in the locales where they were created, available for scholarly study, displayed for the pride and edification of the populace.”

“It would have been nice if the Caliph Omar had felt the same way back when the Moslems took Alexandria and the caliph told Amir Ibn Alas to burn the library, since if what was in the library agreed with the Koran it was redundant, and if the books didn’t agree with the Koran they were heretical.”

“That may or may not have happened, Mr. Hunter … fifteen hundred years ago. I fear the Christians burned many books, as well. And much more recently.”

“I’ll give you the benefit of assuming you just haven’t spent a lot of time in the museum game, Mr. Mubarak. Most of them have got five times more stuff in their basements than they can ever display; their biggest problem is how to get rid of the surplus without taking political heat. They lose shit all the time. And that’s without taking into account the frequency with which Christian churches have been looted and burned in your fine Islamic republic, lately.”

“We won’t be misplacing the Testament of James, Mr. Hunter.”

“Actually, there are worse places it could end up than safely outside Christendom. I just stick to this old-fashioned idea that people who want things should actually pay for them. That makes it a little harder to lock them up in a vault, promising someone will get around to translating and publishing in 50 years or so, like the Dead Sea Scrolls.”

“I couldn’t agree more about locking things away, Mr. Hunter. Although I believe in the case of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the culprits were those other guys. As to whether there might be a modest reward for someone who has to go to some expense to help us recover this book, I’m sure you would find my government accommodating.”

Yeah. Matthew really looked forward to filling out those forms. And now the big stick to follow the carrot?

“As long as you understand that concealing stolen property could cause problems with the authorities right here in your own country.””

Matthew and the Egyptian both smiled with their mouths, snakes not ready to put things to the test, just yet. The big State Department guy, on the other hand, was watching Chantal, who’d put in an appearance and was now pitching in to put polyester dust jacket protectors on most of the acquisitions Skeezix had hauled in that morning. Everyone in the trade called them “Mylar,” but that was just a Dupont trademark for their particular brand of polyethylene film; most of the manufacturers had switched to generic polyesters years ago.

Chantal was pretty, of course, but it was likely she’d drawn the big guy’s attention for another reason. Chantal did not avert her eyes. If someone stared at her, she tended to stare back, death rays, till they backed off. It made her stand out.

“Times have changed, Mr. Hunter, even in Washington,” said the scented Egyptian. “Eventually, the codex will return to Egypt.”

“Assuming it exists, that is.”

“Assuming it exists.”

The above takes the reader through the first 14,000 words of “The Testament of James,” by Vin Suprynowicz, copyright c Vin Suprynowicz, 2014, all rights reserved. Read the next excerpt, continuing Chapter Three, at https://www.vinsuprynowicz.com/?p=2098 . Buy a signed, numbered hardcover copy, from the limited first edition of 650, at http://www.abebooks.com/servlet/BookDetailsPL?bi=14453647811 .

2 Comments to “The Testament of James, fourth excerpt”

  1. Jesse Says:

    Sorry if you’ve already posted earlier, but how do I pre-order this book?

  2. Vin Says:

    Vin responds: Hi, Jesse — Those who leave brief messages via e-mail at curiouscats@wavedirect.us will be contacted when hardbound copies are printed & signed (probably around Thanksgiving) and provided a URL for ordering. An E-book version will be released shortly thereafter.

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