Authors: Vin Suprynowicz
Tags: #International Mystery & Crime, #mystery, #Private investigators, #Thriller & Suspense
“And how many of ’em can tell an outgoing mortar round from an incoming 88? There was a day when knowing the difference meant you lived or died. Three shots, not far off, right here in the neighborhood. Sounded like a Browning Hi-Power.”
Skeezix returned with a cold bottled water, which Clarence sipped appreciatively.
“Good,” he said.
“You were in the war, Clarence?” Matthew asked.
“Not many of us left. Feels like I’ve buried ’em all. I’m the last of ’em and it won’t be long now.”
“And you could tell it was a Browning?”
“Didn’t say it
a Browning Hi-Power; said it
a Browning Hi-Power. Three rounds from one of those cracking little nine millimeters, they make all kinds, now. Coppers carried Berettas, for awhile. Could have maybe been a thirty-eight, but I doubt it. Pistol sounds a little different.”
Matthew looked at Chantal, tilted his head.
“Did you carry a Garand overseas, Clarence?” Chantal asked the old man.
“Huh! We was mighty happy when we finally got the Garands. That was some firepower. When we started out all they had for us was the old ought-three Springfields, which was a great rifle, actually the A-3, which was better, it had a better rear sight. A little slower, though.”
Matthew looked at Chantal again, gave a slight shrug.
“And what would happen if you put a round of eight millimeter in that rifle?” she asked the old-timer.
“Kill yourself, unless you were damned lucky. The German cartridge was shorter, so the bolt would close, but when that cap tries to shove a 7.98 bullet through a 7.62 steel barrel, bad things can happen, young lady. You never carried the two rounds together, ’cause you could make that mistake, in the dark.”
“And the same if you tried it with a round of .303?”
“The British bullet is a little bigger than ours, too. I think it’s actually a .311, the way we measure the barrel, so it’s just big enough to cause the same problem, unless you got lucky and your barrel was all shot out. But that’s mainly a problem for re-loaders, people who re-load their own brass. If you used to re-load .303 and you’re going to switch to .308 you gotta make sure you’ve got every old bullet out of the house, let me tell you. But it was never a problem in the field.
“Because . . .?”
“The British cartridge won’t fit in an American rifle, child; it’s a rimmed round.”
“Do I pass the test, or does the old man need to show he can still pull on his pants?”
“You check out fine, Clarence,” said Matthew, “No offense.”
“None taken. Lots of old people are crazy, you don’t need to tell me.”
“If you say three rounds of 9 millimeter, that’s what it was, and we appreciate your coming by,” Matthew nodded. “Anything we can do to return the favor? Need some reading matter?”
“Can’t hardly read no more, with my eyes the way they are. That’s why you young folks never see me in here, any more. I’m reduced to watching
Thomas the Tank Engine
Thomas and Friends
, on PBS, can you believe it? Don’t suppose you’ve got a map of the Island of Sodor?”
“We’ll get you one. Can Skeezix drop it by?”
“Don’t know where. I haven’t been able to find one, and I’ve asked around.
“It’s the miracle of the Internet, Clarence. With any luck we’ll have one for you in a week or so. Marian?”
“Fictional island south of the Isle of Man. The Reverend Awdry got it from the medieval name of the diocese of the islands. A-W-D-R-Y.”
“Sure, Skeezix can bring it by,” Clarence agreed. “Everyone in the neighborhood knows Skeezix. I’ll pay for it, though.”
“If you insist. But let’s wait till it comes in.”
“I used to come in here all the time, when the old guy ran it. He could get a little testy. But I got most of my collection of Walter Edmonds here, if you know who he was.”
Drums Along the Mohawk
“That’s right. Henry Fonda and Claudette Colbert, now that was a movie. That fella could run, hunh? And also
They Fought With What They Had
. That was a good book, but nobody remembers him anymore. All signed. My Elmer Keiths are signed, too, he was quite a character. Do you know that man put down a rifle-wounded deer at 600 yards with a Smith Model 29? Hit it
. Called one of his books
Hell, I Was There
. But nobody cares any more. I’ve tried to get my nieces and nephews and their kids interested in those stories, all based on real history, but if it’s not electronic, if you can’t put a battery in it and stick it in your ear, they couldn’t care less. I wish there was a way to get some money out of those old books and find new homes for ’em where they’d be appreciated, ’cause I know what’ll happen when I’m gone: Those books will all go out on the sidewalk with the trash.”
“Has Skeezix seen your books?”
“Some of ’em, I suppose.”
Skeezix nodded his head up and down, slowly.
Matthew reached into his wallet and pulled out five twenties. “Here’s a hundred dollars down, Clarence, for any you’re willing to part with. Skeezix will see you home, or wherever else you’re going now. When you’re ready, you show him which ones you’re willing to part with. Once Skeezix has boxed ’em up, one of us, Marian or I, will drop by to make you a cash offer, you can take it or not. Or, if you’ll trust us, Skeezix can bring us one box at a time, we’ll price them and send him back with the cash before he brings the next box.”
“You think they’re worth more than the hundred?”
“Can’t say for sure till we see them, but assuming you’ve kept them in good shape, we can probably pay more than what they cost you in the first place.”
“What’s your name, young man?”
“I’m Matthew Hunter. I own the place, now. This is Chantal Stevens, that’s Marian Evans behind the desk.”
“Well, it’s a pleasure to meet you all. There is one more thing.”
“Got a place I can pee?”
Skeezix helped the old warrior down the hall.
And now Dominic Penitente was back, still doing his Dracula imitation in his big black cape. Penitente looked uncomfortable talking in front of the others, said he’d prefer speaking with Matthew alone in the office. Matthew complied.
“I was concerned we might have gotten off on the wrong footing, yesterday. You understand I’m a book lover, myself.”
“I am. And I must say, in doing a little research on your own career, I’m impressed with your work in your own field. I didn’t mean to imply, yesterday, that price, profit, were your only concerns, naturally. I’ve read a few of your papers on the literature of ethnobotany, of the entheogens. I had not realized, I admit, that you actually lecture on these topics at the university.”
“I mainly do it to pick up the girls.”
“You are too modest, Mr. Hunter. The point I wanted to make is that, if you can arrange to allow me, my employer, to place a bid for
The Testament of James the Just
, my employer is in a position to make his gratitude known by using you as his commissioned agent in future transactions, as well. He can also make it possible for you to acquire some books, some very old books, which do not commonly come on the market, at highly favorable arrangements. Today he asked me to bring along, for instance, this small token of his esteem. Just a little bonus for your private collection, in addition to whatever standard commission you see fit to charge once the current transaction is complete.”
The big guy gently set a book down in front of Matthew. It was a pristine copy of
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
, Random House 1971, in a shiny new dust jacket protector. Matthew pretty much knew what to expect even before he opened to the half-title. Though what he found there went a bit further than expected.
“Inscribed, as you can see, directly to the page by the author and by the illustrator.”
“Yes. To their good friend, Timothy Leary.”
“Mr. Penitente, I’m sure you know that — especially now that Tim and Hunter are both gone — this book is worth the price of a new car.”
The big Italian smiled slightly, cocked his head to one side, moved his hands apart in the “What can I say?” gesture.
“Brother Dominic, if I had the
in hand — assuming for the moment it exists — then I couldn’t accept this book, as generous as your gesture is, since then I’d have to tell the other parties about it, and that would make it hard for them to believe I was still acting as an honest broker. But since I don’t have the book you hope to acquire, and even if it turns up I’d have to track down Mr. al-Adar to get his instructions for a sale, accepting this today would really be acting under false pretenses. It would imply I can help you, when I can’t. It’s a lovely thing. I do appreciate being allowed to see it. I hope you’ll treat it well.”
“There is no obligation, Mr. Hunter. Please accept it, merely a token of our esteem. You’re a man of business, do you really doubt that every attorney in this city occasionally accepts commissions, performance bonuses, from more than one side in the same transaction? It’s not considered unethical, in the slightest. And the amounts can make the value even of a popular artifact like this pale in comparison.”
“You impress me, Mr. Penitente, as intended. I’m impressed not only with your employer’s wealth, but also by his ability to make such a book materialize here today, on such short notice.”
They had the sophistication to know what would tempt Matthew, far more than a wad of cash. But most impressive was the fact they’d gotten it here overnight. It was a message gently delivered, but it meant these guys could probably deliver you to the bottom of the bay with your feet in a bucket of concrete, just as easily.
“I’ll promise you what I would have promised you, in any case,” Matthew continued. “If this
Testament of James
turns up, and if Mr. al-Adar is selling, I’ll make sure your offer is conveyed to him fairly and accurately. That service I will perform, even though I must regretfully reject this gift. It’s simply too much, on a first date. Flowers would have sufficed.”
“As you wish, Mr. Hunter.” Penitente pulled the book back toward himself. “But the book will be a small bonus if you make sure our offer is fairly heard, that we are allowed the opportunity to top any other legitimate bid, regardless of the outcome. Have you, by any chance, heard from the owner, Mr. al-Adar? Has he telephoned you, perhaps?”
“No. There was a letter, delivered by courier. I’ve shown the letter to Rashid al-Adar’s brother, Hakim, who arrived in town last evening, as you may know. I’m afraid you just missed him. Hakim believes the mark, the signature, is indeed his brother’s, though as to the instructions, he deems them obviously composed by someone else, since Rashid lacks the skill to construct such a letter in English.”
He had to give Brother Dominic credit, the lanky guy remained cool and raised no protest.
“I’m afraid I’ll still have to wait to speak to the owner,” Matthew continued. “Though at least the letter is a good sign that the brother is still alive.”
“Yes, that’s happy news, indeed. But I understood the manuscript was a family possession. Perhaps this brother, Hakim, could authorize the sale?”
“I’ll ask him for you, if the book appears, though I believe his first priority is to find his brother, which would solve both problems.”
“Assuming the Testament really exists, of course.”
“Let me be clear, Mr. Hunter,” confided the monk Penitente, leaning forward. And given his size and the deep voice, it was intimidating when he leaned down toward you, whether he meant it to be or not. The guy could actually appear larger than life — the Darth Vader effect. Matthew resisted the urge to slide his own chair backwards.
“The book is an obvious forgery, an amusing assemblage of mismatched libels. It appears it was first cobbled together by frustrated Egyptian heretics in the fourth or fifth century, misguided hermits who were upset when the church fathers standardized the books to be allowed in our Christian Bible, rejecting many of the fanciful Coptic texts as non-historical. Seeking revenge, one of these desert monks concocted this fictitious testament, supposedly from the pen of the half-brother of Jesus, claiming to expose the Saviour as a charlatan who had faked his miracles, a Jewish drug dealer of all things, pretending to reveal the secrets of how he had fooled both the Sanhedrin and the Romans and survived the crucifixion. It was meant to provoke outrage and division, nothing more.
“No, there is no thought that the book is authentic. My sponsors merely wish the book for study, especially if it appears to be an early copy, so its contents can be properly evaluated and explained by legitimate scholars, placed in their proper context. In such studies, you understand, older copies can be quite valuable to trace how the lies, the fantastic claims of these heretics have been altered and adapted, down through the years.”
“At which point you would publish.”
“Of course. With the addition of appropriate analysis and commentaries, of course.”
“Yet you’ve never done that with any of the other copies you’ve acquired.”
“I’m unfamiliar with these ‘other copies’ you speak of.”
“Brother Dominic.” The Dominican took no exception to Matthew’s mode of address, obviously finding it natural. “Humor me for a moment. Womankind has long been charged with dragging man down into sin. What was the original sin?”
“Eating of the forbidden fruit in paradise, as you know.”
“The fruit of knowledge.”
“From the blissful ignorance of the Garden, mankind now faces trials and tribulations because he has gained knowledge of other things: shame at his nakedness, sometimes knowledge of things which he is as yet unprepared to properly control.”
“I see you’re better schooled in these things than I, Brother Matthew.”
“I doubt that. But my question is, if man fell into sin because he gained knowledge, and if one’s goal is to once again bring man closer to God, aren’t there times when it would be better achieved by keeping him in ignorance?”