Authors: Vin Suprynowicz
Tags: #International Mystery & Crime, #mystery, #Private investigators, #Thriller & Suspense
It said “Dominic Penitente / rare manuscripts,” under which was centered a 10-digit phone number.
“Boston,” Matthew noted.
“A cellular telephone,” Penitente explained. “I’ll be staying here in your fair city for a few days. You may call at any hour.”
“I’ll keep it handy.”
“Thank you, Mr. Hunter.”
They shook hands. The big guy looked almost sad, as though he regretted whatever he’d have to do next. His hand was dry but at least he didn’t try to apply one of those Vulcan death grips like the characters who spent too much time at the gym, guzzling protein shakes. Dominic Penitente looked around the store briefly, sizing it up. Matthew almost expected him to ask if he could browse for a minute, hunt for
The Chronicles of Narnia
. But instead the big Dracula look-alike left after nodding briefly, whatever that meant.
* * *
Skeezix stepped aside to let Dominic Penitente, if that really was his name, sweep down the front walk. His black cape flared behind him as he turned the corner. Skeezix immediately disliked the guy, found himself growling softly. As the man in the cape turned down the sidewalk, he also passed Chantal, who seemed to be hesitating about coming up the walk. Skeezix smiled at her; she gave him a thumbs-up.
Then Skeezix turned to peer in the glass panels of the front door, past the hand-lettered sign that read “Closed: Death in the Family.”
He rapped quietly, cracked the door, tilted his head inside. “Is it OK?” he asked.
“Come on in, Skeezix. Drinks are in the cooler; you could help set out the food on the table.”
It never would have occurred to Skeezix to be a fashionable 10 minutes late. But since he was family, it really wasn’t necessary for him to knock, either.
The bookstore had been a private home, long ago. The front dining room was now lined with bookshelves, but they’d kept the good-sized dark wooden table and a motley assemblage of user-friendly armchairs, not to mention a few of the traditional overstuffed red leather variety over by the fireplace. During the day customers were welcome to sit and read, but it had long been the custom for some of the town’s small bookish fraternity to gather there at closing, 6 o’clock of a Sunday, to share take-out food.
“She’s outside,” Skeezix said.
“She’s walking back and forth.”
“I’ll go out. Do me a favor and lay out the food, Skeezix. Some’s still in the fridge in the kitchen. Including the vegetable stuff. Ask the cats to please not walk in it.”
She was indeed hesitating on the sidewalk. Slightly below medium height, Chantal was one of those unusually pretty brunettes with blue eyes. She was self-conscious about her lower body, though, which was not as slim as called for by the current arbiters of emaciated cadaver fashion. Not that Chantal carried extra body fat, at least not anywhere that men tended to find it unattractive. Chantal’s problem was that she favored strenuous outdoor pastimes, including hiking, running, and actual mountain-climbing, with the result that her calves, thighs, and butt were muscular and prominent. The problem — if anyone other than Chantal actually considered it a problem — wasn’t much helped by her favoring short plaid pleated skirts, which had the effect of making her look like she was late for some high school field-hockey scrum. She got carded when ordering wine in restaurants with tedious frequency.
“I wasn’t sure if I was welcome.”
“Come in out of the wind.”
“It was such a shock about Robert. You must have had to drop things to come back. We probably could have handled things for you, here.”
He took both her hands. “Your friends have missed you,” he said. “Come in.”
Others who had known Bob, either booksellers or librarians or members of one English Department or another, were putting in an appearance now, some of them puffing from the steep walk up the hill from the memorial service. There was genuine warmth in the welcomes for Chantal, the circumstances of whose absence had generated much speculation. Serafina, she of the green eyes and the long black fur, seemed particularly anxious to renew Chantal’s acquaintance, though the cat’s nervousness increased as more and more people arrived, till finally she scampered for the sanctuary of the back stairs.
Books On Benefit occupied the street level of a late 19th century brick structure in the Second Empire style, which is to say it was a big block of a multi-colored thing with gables and bay windows and fairly ornate trim. Since the structure was built into the western side of College Hill, said hill dropping away steeply behind the house toward the modern downtown to the west, it appeared from the eastern or “street” entrance to be your standard old three-story house. A relatively small sign, illuminated by a couple of small white spotlights in the evening hours or on a rainy day, announced
But from the steeply ascending side street up which Matthew’s late afternoon visitors were now puffing their way, the house clearly had two more “basement” stories with partial western exposures below. It was a mostly residential neighborhood, so parking was along the streets, except for two precariously perched spaces nestled around the windows that peeked out from the building’s second basement, reachable from the side street if you knew they were there.
At the front of the house, facing historic Benefit Street with its Federalist and Greek revival captains’ houses, there were manicured rectangles of neatly trimmed grass to either side of the front walk. In a larger, fenced side yard, well shielded from the street and shaded by several trees, one an ancient maple, grew a plethora of tall plants popular during the warmer months with butterflies and hummingbirds, including hollyhocks, foxglove, and giant poppies, though most were only beginning to bud, this early in the year.
Inside, in the bay windows of the bookstore at street level, several cats of unusual size were yawning and stretching as they heard noises in the kitchen.
Skeezix, having set out most of the trays as requested, was now methodically opening the tuna fish sandwiches, eating out the filling, and neatly stacking the leftover slices of bread on a plate. Tabbyhunter came trotting up, and Skeezix shared one with him. Matthew gave him the evil eye, but he appeared oblivious.
With Bob gone, and excepting Matthew, whose absences were unpredictable, Skeezix along with Marian the Mouse was what was left of the staff of Books on Benefit.
Skeezix was a small fellow, who favored mid-twentieth-century tortoiseshell eyeglasses he picked up at the garage sales. His most unusual feature was his short multi-colored hair, a subtle but symmetrical tabby pattern of gray, white, gold and tawny brown, seldom combed and therefore rising up in unpredictable tufts and peaks, mostly above his ears. If it was a dye job it was either the most masterful or the most awful Matthew had ever seen. The cats loved him. He ran errands and reshelved books and generally helped out around the place, though his habit of napping away the afternoons curled up with one of the cats in some out-of-the-way corner did tend to reinforce the rumor that he had no actual permanent place of residence.
His unusual hours worked out well in one respect, though. While Skeezix usually put in an early appearance from Monday through Wednesday, his absences on Friday and Saturday mornings were understood to be on account of his haunting the weekend garage and estate sales at an hour of gray and misty dawn when civilized folk hadn’t even started brewing their first cup of hot, let alone finished it. He was trusted with a weekly wad of company cash, starter money which he accounted for and replenished early each Saturday afternoon, usually arriving with a box of his garage sale finds.
Marian slipped in. Bob had dubbed the computer gal “Mouse,” a pun on her constant umbilical attachment to the computer, though also a bit unkind, really. Marian the Mouse usually dressed in gray or beige, with occasional matching crocheted scarf and beret. Hair in a bun, though on closer inspection she didn’t really appear to be much over 30. Skirts a couple of inches too long, sensible flat-soled shoes. She ran incoming merchandise against other copies offered online to set prices, handled incoming online orders, and had also mastered Matthew’s fairly complex internet buying programs, grabbing underpriced books placed online by ignorant sellers world-wide, an enterprise demanding considerable intuition, since books being sold by the lazy and incompetent were, of course, also described by the lazy and incompetent, and you couldn’t very well e-mail them to ask “Does your six-dollar book have the following first edition points which actually make it worth four hundred dollars?”
Chantal spotted Les hanging back at the door.
“Come on in, Les.”
“Thank you, Chantal, but Matthew has to ask me in.”
“Matthew, can you ask Les to come in?”
From the other side of the old dining room, where he was worrying a wine cork, Matthew shouted for Les to come in.
“Thank You.” Les was well-liked. He helped out from time to time at the store, which made his reluctance to come in on days when he hadn’t been asked by a resident occasionally inconvenient. A tall, slim man with a large forehead and a thin mustache, he was the author of a series of horror novels, though royalties from the publisher always seemed scandalously thin.
The place was soon packed, with the usual bustle of conversation. Bob had had his detractors, truth be told — he could be a bit of a drama queen and that had launched a few feuds. But tonight only the happy tales were re-told.
The sun set and the evening was cool, so Matthew started a fire in the fireplace, which crackled cheerfully. In fact, the more casual visitors and acquaintances had already wolfed down their share of the food, expressed their condolences primarily to Matthew and Marian, and taken their leave, reducing the company to the dozen or so bookmen who were more accustomed to gathering there of a Sunday evening, when a latecomer in bleached white cotton slacks and a brightly colored shirt arrived.
“Hi, Matthew. Been awhile.”
The new arrival embracing Matthew showed a nice tan, a mustache, sun-bleached hair curling over his collar, gold neck chain, and turquoise Hawaiian shirt decorated with red parrots. The obvious interest of both Chantal and Marian seemed to confirm he was a bit of a hunk. In fact, he looked a lot like that old
guy on TV.
“Great to see you, Lance. I don’t know if you heard, but our manager died last week. Most of us just came from the funeral.”
“I did hear. And I wouldn’t have busted in uninvited, but right away I thought of the book he contacted me about. In fact, I was surprised when I couldn’t reach him; it was supposed to get here last Thursday or Friday.”
“Bob died Thursday. He found a book on your list?”
“He told me you were away. He didn’t contact you at all? It wasn’t just
book, Matthew; it was
book. How did he die? There wasn’t a robbery? Should I come back and talk to you later?”
“Everyone here is a friend, Lance. There was some kind of incident that evening. He dialed 9-1-1, said he was having a heart attack, but he also said there was some kind of fight going on outside. Gunshots.”
“And the book is gone?”
“What book, Lance? Where from?”
“A seller he said you’d dealt with before. I offered enough earnest money for an airfare. Actually, I bought the ticket for the seller.”
“Must have sounded good.”
“Bob was cautious, but he said this seller had come up with some legitimate finds in the past, one-of-a-kind stuff. He warned me it was a risk, but the seller seemed nervous, he was in a hurry, which made sense, given the book he was talking about.”
“The name of the book?”
“Bob said the man had a tenth century codex, a true copy of
The Testament of James
Everyone who had been pretending not to listen fell silent. At the far side of the room, by the fireplace, one of the bookmen turned and slowly banged his forehead into a door jamb, several times. Otherwise it was so quiet they actually heard a cat jump to the floor in the back and go out through the kitchen cat door. Down the hill, the church clock chimed 8.
“Not the Epistle of James?”
“The Epistle of James is in the Gideon Bible in my hotel room, Matthew, a nice little four-page letter. By works a man is justified, and not by faith alone. Speak not evil one of another, brethren, can’t we all just get along. We all know the Epistle, which despite being mildly critical of Paul and the ‘faith alone’ gang was either heavily trimmed or ginned up out of whole cloth, probably about as authentic as most of your signed Harry Potters for sale online these days. I’m talking about the big one,
The Testament of James the Just
“Lance, I’m sure Bob wouldn’t have purposely misled you . . .”
“You’re asking, and I appreciate your tactfulness,” said the man with the big biceps in the parrot shirt, “if I’ve turned into such an idiot that I don’t know
The Testament of James
is supposed to be the greatest book never written.”
Matthew sat down wearily.
“Lance, Lance.” He actually lowered his forehead into his hands. “The Testament ranks right up there with your hand-written Shakespeare, the lost first book of Homer, the Book of Mormon on gold plates. An original Testament of James wouldn’t even be a book.”
“A first century original would be a scroll, obviously, but Bob’s seller said he had a later copy.”
“I have the resources now, Matthew, assuming a price within reason. You haven’t found such a book, or any message from Bob about it? Do the police think there was a robbery?”
“Once the coroner ruled it was a heart attack, police interest seems to have waned. Other fish to fry. A few neighbors did hear something out front, but it was getting dark. Gunshots? A car backfiring? A TV turned up too loud? We’re going to do some asking around.”