The Testament of James, fifth excerpt

Added to the first four excerpts, posted this summer, the following takes the reader through the first 17,500 words of Vin’s new novel, “The Testament of James,” on sale now at www.abebooks.com/servlet/BookDetailsPL?bi=14453647811. This material is copyright c Vin Suprynowicz, 2014, all rights reserved.

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“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.”

As Chantal worked she asked Marian how she was doing with her day’s Internet research. Marian waited for the fancy Egyptian and his big chauffeur to leave before reporting on her progress.

“Seems that back in 1912, a British scholar visiting a desert monastery in the Sinai claims to have seen a copy of our missing Testament. He didn’t have time to copy it, he was just passing through. Naturally he assumed he’d be able to return the next season, but things came up. When he finally got back in 1921 no one could find the book. Naturally, the conspiracy theorists claim he talked too much, the Church heard about the book, bought or stole it, that it’s either destroyed now or buried in the deepest vaults of the Vatican.”

“We’re still assuming the original burned with the library in Alexandria?” Matthew asked.

“It’s unlikely any copies existed above ground after the Fourth Century, although these tantalizing reports do keep surfacing,” Marian replied. “The early Christians weren’t much easier on heretics than the Romans. So essentially we’re looking for a book that’s not just lost — assuming it ever existed — but actively suppressed.”

In the next room an eager pre-teen girl could be seen pulling books off the shelves in quick succession, carrying them over to show them to her dad, who was kneeling on the floor in front of 19th century adventure fiction — the case labeled “A Hit Before Your Mother Was Born.”

“No, not that one. No, not that one, honey.”

“Perhaps if you tell me what you’re looking for,” Matthew strolled over and suggested, pleasantly.

“Gold books.”

“Mining, or jewelry?”

“What?”

“Books on gold mining, or books with pictures of gold jewelry?”

“No, gold books. We’ve got a lot of red books, see, so we’re putting them on a shelf –”

“And you want to do the shelf in red and gold.”

“Yes. The more beat up the better. And of course they have to be cheap. That’s why we want used books.”

“You could also do red, black, and gold, unless you feel that’s excessively Teutonic.”

“What? No, but I’ve been thinking we could do red and green, if that’s easier.”

“A fine choice, and you’d have a head start on your Christmas decor. Unfortunately, ‘beat to hell’ is not a condition we generally stock.”

“Are all your books two dollars?”

“They’re marked individually.”

“Yeah, but I mean what’s the price? Some places they’re all two dollars, paperbacks fifty cents.”

“Not here. They’re all marked individually.”

“Like, how much for this green book?”

“The first printing of H. Rider Haggard’s She? I’m sure you’ll remember it as the one where Ursula Andress walks through the blue flame and comes out looking like Helen Gahagan Douglas. It’ll be marked in pencil on the first plain blank page.”

The man fumbled to find it. “Seven-fifty? Well, it is pretty.” The book had beveled edges and the gilt Egyptian goose scarab to upper left of the front board.

Matthew removed the volume from the character’s hands, a bit firmly. “This book is marked seven hundred fifty dollars, about 75 percent of its current market value. The gift inscription is dated the first day of issue.”

“That’s got to be more than the thing sold for when it was new!”

“I’m sure it is. Lone Ranger lunch boxes have gone up pretty well, too.”

“You’re charging more than when it was new?”

“We sell collectible books. I suggest you try the thrift stores. There was a Salvation Army out past Gano Street, last time I checked. You’ll find them right in your price range.”

The father and daughter team took a few minutes to do a bad job of putting books back on shelves, finally just leaving their selections in a pile on the floor. As they departed, the staff and a few other browsing customers eyed them as though they were a pair of wildebeests about to be pulled to their deaths by hungry crocodiles on the Animal Channel.

“Skeezix?”

“Yes, Matthew?”

“What’s the first edition of She doing out on the open shelves?”

“It was on the go-back table.”

“Check the prices, Skeezix, you know the cut-off. I’ll put it in on top of the safe for now.”

# # #

Marian was temporarily away from the front desk, helping a beaming, red-cheeked academic type who was buying several hundred dollars worth of Newport architecture. He always bought New England architecture. Matthew had been meaning to ask him if he taught the subject and if so where, but before he could mosey over, in the door came a bald guy with a cardboard box.

“You buy books?”

“Selectively, yes.”

“How much for these?” The balding gentleman asked, plunking down his burden.

“Did you have an asking price in mind?”

“No. You’re the expert, you tell me.”

Aside from the paperbacks, most of which he rejected out of hand based on condition and general potboilerhood, Matthew opened each book to the copyright page, flipped a few to look for a book-club deboss on the back, then formed them into two stacks.

“These books we don’t need,” he said, indicating the pile he’d set gently back into the seller’s cardboard box with the well-creased paperbacks, topped by a fading starlet’s diet and exercise regime. “You could donate them to a charity thrift shop for the tax deduction. For this stack over here, even though we generally pay a dollar apiece for hardbacks, I could give you forty dollars. Some of them would be worth more if they had their dust jackets.”

“Forty dollars for all of them?”

“Cash. Other people will offer you trade, we pay cash.”

“But this book right here is worth a hundred dollars! I looked it up on eBay!”

Matthew gave a tired smile. “You may have found a book with the same title asking that price, possibly a first printing in a fine first state jacket, which this is not. Assuming your eBay seller had any idea what he was doing, of course. But more to the point, it sounds like you did have an asking price, didn’t you? Even though you told me you didn’t. So congratulations and good luck.” Matthew slid both stacks back towards the irate fellow. “You’re now an eBay seller.”

“Well, no, I don’t want to go to all the trouble of doing that. I was just saying that’s what the book is worth.”

“And I hope it gives you years of pleasure.”

“Could you go fifty?”

“I can take my first offer off the table, if you like, and make you another offer.”

“Yeah, OK.”

“Thirty.”

“What?”

“I’ll give you thirty dollars for these books.”

“That’s less than forty!”

“Teacher would be proud.”

“Alright, OK, I’ll take the forty. Can’t blame a guy for trying.”

“The forty is off the table. The offer is now thirty. Or did you want me to take that offer off the table and make you a third offer?”

“Why, you’re nothing but a thief!”

“Leave now, please. Take your leftover yard sale trash with you.”

“You’ll be hearing from my lawyers!” shouted the weasel, piling his books back into his old cat-food box.

Matthew produced one of his black aluminum baseball bats from below the counter, resting the fat end gently on the counter.

“Leave more quickly, please.”

A muffled cheer from Chantal as the goofus struggled unsuccessfully to slam the door behind him while holding a box of books in his arms.

“Watch out, or you’ll win that award for customer relations,” she smiled.

“Have you ever seen him buy anything here?” asked Matthew.

“No.”

“Then that wasn’t a customer, was it?”

# # #

Skeezix had been ambling around the store in what he thought was an unobtrusive manner. When he reached the back of one of the book bays and thought he wasn’t under direct observation, he would gesture mightily, like Gandalf standing outside the doors of Moria, intoning “Open, Gallinules!”

“Skeezer, I don’t think there’s a secret doorway,” said Matthew, quietly.

“Really? Les says this building is full of secret rooms.”

“He may have said there are several basements.”

“Including the actual room that Lovecraft wrote about in ‘Pickman’s Model.’”

“He told you that?”

“On condition I would never breathe a word, so don’t tell anyone.”

“Les knows perfectly well ‘Pickman’s Model’ was set in North Boston. Not that there aren’t some tunnels under College Hill, that’s true enough.”

“See?”

“But no magic doorways, I’m pretty sure.”

“Really? So how old is this building?” Skeezix asked, slyly.

“Eighteen seventies.”

“And you’re not even half that old, right?”

“You’re discovered my secret, Skeezix. I am not yet even eighty years old, I admit it.”

“So there could be all kinds of things about this building you don’t know,” he smiled, case proven.

“Skeezix, have we talked to all the neighbors, yet? Does anyone remember any details about what happened the night Bob died?”

“I could ask around.”

“I’d appreciate it.”

“The gallinule is a marsh bird,” Marian offered as Matthew came back out to the front of the store.

“Yes,” Matthew confirmed, “basically a red-faced duck. They winter in Florida and Guatemala.”

“So when would we ever be in a position of wanting to open a gallinule?”

“I dread to think of it.”

Joey came in as Skeezix left.

“Hi, Matthew.”

“Hi, Joey.”

“Can you talk?”

“Everyone here is OK. This is Chantal, Joey.”

“OK, that’s fine. Hi, Chantal, no offense.”

“None taken, Joey.”

“So you asked me to check around on this guy calls himself Penitente.”

“I appreciate your taking the time, Joey.”

“Hey, we’re friends. You done me some favors.”

“I just introduced you to some people, Joey.”

“Yeah, some people who normally wouldn’t of given me the time of day. I don’t forget that, and neither does my mom. So anyway, when the boys first heard there might have been some gunshots over here, they thought ‘No big deal, just a couple of schwartzes letting off steam,’ right?”

“Natural conclusion.”

“Yeah. Then we find out a friend of yours is dead, even if it’s maybe a heart attack, and it gets connected to this guy Penitente, and that’s more of a concern.”

“Yes?”

“See, it’s not quite the old days, things have changed, but if someone comes in from out of town planning some rough stuff, there’s still certain, uh …”

“Protocols?”

“Yeah, I like that, protocols. Guys from New York or Chicago, they’re supposed to check in, explain how they’re just tying up some loose ends from back where they come from, make sure nobody gets the wrong idea that they’re planning to set up in business here, make sure they got a clean field of fire, so to speak. It avoids confusion. Also, if there’s gonna be a mess and the local cops are gonna get pressure to round up the usual suspects, it’s possible this might be a bad time, there might be other ways to work things out. They’re supposed to check, or maybe someone here decides the best way to avoid any trouble is just to, you know, send them home.”

“Very sensible,” said Matthew, who seemed to recall that when the New York families had once intercepted a couple of Capone’s boys arriving on the train from Chicago, they had “sent them home” as mismatched body parts in a couple of trunks.

“Sure. And even though times have changed, this still goes double when somebody shows up here from the Old Country.”

“Dominic Penitente.”

“Party of three, staying in a nice suite at the Renaissance.”

“Not the Providence.”

“No accounting for taste. And they never checked in with anyone on the Hill, like we don’t exist. Which is fine depending on their business, of course.”

College Hill was the oldest part of Providence, but Joey referred to Federal Hill, further northwest, the city’s primarily Italian enclave.

“Except your friend Penitente did call at one place first thing,” Joey added, “and word is when he sent in his card, he got seen lickity-split, let us know if there’s anything we can do.”

“And that was?”

“What they’re now calling Cathedral Square, down off Broad Street.”

“The diocese.”

“Yeah. And these guys aren’t here from Palermo, or Salerno, or even Reggio de Calabria. What do you suppose?”

“From Rome.”

“So I’m telling you stuff you already know.”

“Not at all, Joey. This is a big help. It just figures, if this guy is connected to the church. But maybe . . .”

“He’s got no authorization from anybody I talked to. In fact, the boys are now kind of interested in Mr. Penitente. Assuming these were indeed the parties which caused the little dust-up in your front yard last Thursday, one cannot help but note it’s pretty hard to fly in to Logan with a gun, and it don’t seem like they bought them here. Can you give us any more to go on, Matthew?”

“They were following an Egyptian, name of Rashid al-Adar. He was in a rental car, I figure, picked it up either at Logan or at T.F. Green last Thursday, Warwick more likely. They were after something Rashid was bringing here. I haven’t been able to reach him since, so either he’s hurt or he’s laying low or maybe they’ve got him.”

“Friend of yours?”

“Business associate.”

“Gotcha. Are the cops looking for him, or this car?”

“Not that I know of. Once they decided Bob died of a heart attack, they moved on to more important matters.”

“Like making sure there’s no lawsuit from the mayor’s girlfriend’s husband.”

“That sort of thing.”

“Now maybe you can’t tell me, and that would be fine, but this thing Mr. Rashid was bringing you, that these gentlemen seem to want …”

“A book.”

“Like, a ledger, with names, amounts of money paid?”

“No. An old book, Joey, a valuable old book.”

“Seriously?”

“I haven’t seen it, sometimes these things turn out to be fakes, but this particular thousand-year-old book is about Jesus, it would be either in Greek or in Hebrew, and if it’s what the seller claims, it would buy somebody a really nice house.”

“One book?”

“In Barrington.”

Joey was suitably impressed. “OK, I got it.”

“A nice young man,” Chantal decided after Joey had taken his leave. “You helped him out, once?”

“He got into a little trouble when he was younger. He needed a lawyer who could convince the judge it was just a case of youthful hi-jinks, which it was.”

“Stole a car?”

“A truck. The week before Thanksgiving, actually. Driver went into a diner, left the diesel running, so Joey drove off with a semi trailer load of frozen turkeys.”

“Where do you put a trailer load of frozen turkeys?”

“This question occurred to Joey, as well, but not quite soon enough to keep him from getting into a bind. So he had to break into Pegnataro’s Market during the night to hide the turkeys in the walk-in freezer.”

“He must have worked all night. He’d cleared this with the owner?”

“Of course not. Old man Pegnataro shows up for work the next morning, and he’s informed his walk-in freezer is so full of frozen turkeys no one can even get in there. So he picks up the phone.”

“Not to call the police?”

“This is Providence, honey.”

“So he calls the boys.”

“He calls the boys, to ask if they know what’s going on, or if he should call the police.”

“They gave the turkeys back?”

“Not much choice, at that point.”

“They couldn’t get the driver to drop the charges?”

“He would have been happy to, he tried, but he’d called it in to his company, which had called it in to the police. So a lawyer was needed who knew the judge.”

“Joey is not the sharpest knife in the drawer?”

“He shows great loyalty. He looks after his mother. And at least he tried to show some initiative. It was just youthful hijinks, long before he found his proper role in life.”

“Which is?”

“Joey is now a banker.”

“You mean, like a loan shark.”

“For Aldrich Bank, downtown. Mostly mortgages, though, so I won’t quibble with your description.”

“Oh.”

# # #

“For a book that supposedly doesn’t exist, this thing sure turns up often enough.” Marian was finally taking a break from her online searches, handing Matthew the nice sheaf of stuff she’d printed out for him to peruse in his off time, if there was such a thing.

“The last report I can find was a guy from the British Museum traveling in the Sinai back in the 1930s. He stopped over at some monastery deep in the desert. The monks gave him the run of the place, he sat on a stone bench in a little library that had old books in a jumble. I mean old — vellum and parchment, leather bindings, hand-copied stuff. He says some of them were multiple old books that had been re-bound together, so he’s paging through some old book on alchemy and suddenly there it is, The Testament of James the Just. Of course the monks wouldn’t let him take anything away.”

“Let me guess,” Chantal chimed in. “He had other commitments. . . .”

“He had other commitments, of course, planned to go back the next year to copy the thing if he couldn’t actually buy it, but then the war started, followed by more years of political unrest; he doesn’t get back for 14 years. And when he does . . .”

“The old abbot had died, and no one had any idea what book he was talking about.”

“How did you guess?”

Matthew shook his head. “They might as well start these accounts with ‘Once upon a time . . .’”

“He swears he saw it, says he couldn’t very well have forgotten the first page, which he quotes as a variant of what we’ve heard before.”

“This is starting to sound like a tape loop or something, like Groundhog Day.”

“Exactly.” Marian was getting unusually animated. “All the accounts of the sightings of the Testament share these extremely coincidental details. There’s never time or opportunity to translate or even copy more than a line or two. The monks are wary, the traveler doesn’t want to give offense. He assumes he can return in a fairly short time with a proper letter of introduction to get down to work properly. But something always comes up. He falls ill, war breaks out, the Turks or the Germans are always up to something, travel in the region is impossible. When he finally gets back, 10 or 12 years later, the old abbot is dead, the book has vanished, no one even knows what book he’s talking about. I can see where after a few centuries people start to get a little cynical. ‘I found the rarest book in the world but my dog ate it.’ It’s like claiming they’ve seen a copy of The Pillars of the Universe, by Paul Muad’Dib, or the original manuscript of ‘The Giant Rat of Sumatra.’”

“Or a complete set of the Chums of Chance,” Matthew agreed, “including the hard-to-find Chums of Chance and the Evil Halfwit. But they do all agree on how the book begins?”

“Oh, yes, everyone knows the beginning. Call me Ishmael. I was born in a house my father built. Or, in this case, ‘This is The Testament of James the Just, brother of Yeshua Ben-Joseph, known to the Romans as Jesus, who was crucified by Pilate the prefect in the something-or-other year of the reign of the Emperor Tiberius, and who survived.’”

# # #

While they’d been talking a pale young man dressed all in black had sauntered in, glanced through the dollar books by the front door, then oh-so-casually placed a 10-by-12 manila envelope on the front counter and left. Marian walked over, opened it, gave it a quick look and handed it to Matthew.

“A letter from the missing Rashid al-Adar, or at least supposedly,” Matthew explained as he scanned it. “Instructions to sell The Testament of James to the first person who offers more than $100,000, but only for cash.” He handed the document to Chantal, who read it and then handed it back to Marian.

“Legitimate?” Chantal asked.

“Letters from people who have disappeared are inherently suspicious,” Matthew replied. “It’s also not a way Rashid and I have ever done business. Keep it in a drawer up here, if Rashid’s brother Hakim calls, which I expect he will, ask him to drop by and give us his opinion of the signature.”

# # #

This concludes the first three chapters of “The Testament of James,” by Vin Suprynowicz, copyright c Vin Suprynowicz, 2014, all rights reserved. Read the sixth excerpt — the final excerpt currently posted — at https://www.vinsuprynowicz.com/?p=2229 . Amazon Kindle edition now also available here.

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