Authors: Vin Suprynowicz
Tags: #International Mystery & Crime, #mystery, #Private investigators, #Thriller & Suspense
“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
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.”
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
. 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.
“Mining, or jewelry?”
“Books on gold mining, or books with pictures of gold jewelry?”
. 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
? 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.
“What’s the first edition of
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?”
“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
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.”
“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.
“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.”
“But no magic doorways, I’m pretty sure.”
“Really? So how old
this building?” Skeezix asked, slyly.
“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.
“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
letting off steam,’ right?”
“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.”
“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 . . .”
“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.”