Read The Testament of James (Case Files of Matthew Hunter and Chantal Stevens) Online

Authors: Vin Suprynowicz

Tags: #International Mystery & Crime, #mystery, #Private investigators, #Thriller & Suspense

The Testament of James (Case Files of Matthew Hunter and Chantal Stevens) (6 page)

BOOK: The Testament of James (Case Files of Matthew Hunter and Chantal Stevens)
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“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.”

P
ART
T
WO
C
HAPTER
T
HREE
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 leaves, 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.”

BOOK: The Testament of James (Case Files of Matthew Hunter and Chantal Stevens)
7.5Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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