Autumn 2007 Volume One Issue Four
Pearl of Great Price - James Steimle
Three point two million dollars. Ask no questions. Hear no lies. Speak to no one about the book, or the deal is off. The note ended with a location and an hour for the purchase.
The rain had not let up since morning. Like infant snakes, runoff wiggled down the windowpane and glowed with pale afternoon luminescence. Staring through the dance of glass, water, and light, Matthew Beor held the old book tight in his hands. He looked at it, then pulled away white-faced as if he had stared too long at his friend's wife. Lifting the cushion beside him, he slipped the volume into the heart of the couch where coins, forgotten receipts, and french fries hid. He had already encased the book in plastic. As long as he didn't plop down on that side of the couch, everything would be fine until the hand-off.
But 3.2 million dollars? For a book?!
He folded his arms and remembered the purchase, which had happened that morning.
Just as he had done each Saturday, Matthew rose before the sun and ate like a starving man as he went over the newspaper once again. The night before, he had circled all the estate sales worth examining. With breakfast at an end, he saw the rain, grabbed his coat, and conjured a plan of attack while locking his apartment and heading down the hall.
After sun up, he met with Alexander Dumelon's forty-two-year-old niece in a baby-blue robe with white fringes. "I don't know if there is anything of worth in these shelves." She stood with her arms folded and a cup of steaming coffee on a table below the lamp. "My uncle was very protective about these things. Kept a lot of secrets and barked commands for everyone to stay away.
"Really?" Matthew found no books of value at first.
"Very secretive. He was all the family I had left. Rarely acknowledged me. Good riddance, I say."
Matthew looked at her, at the lines of divorce and other harsh experiences cut into her face. Aged more than she ought to have been, she still held a spark of beauty and certainly proved more intriguing than the volumes he had come to examine. "I'm sorry."
He turned back to the books to be polite, though he had already decided he should move to the next estate sale. That was when he found his pearl of great price. The woman shrugged, smiled a little at his interest in her, and said, "Take anything you want. You name the price. I don't really care. I think this hardwood table is worth more than all those books combined."
The spine crackled as his fingers pressed upon the book. "Leather," Matthew whispered. "Old." He pulled the book while the woman stepped beside him.
"Piece of junk, if you ask me. You like the dusty stuff do you?"
He nodded. "Beautiful cord up top. No writing on the cover." His fingers traced lines cut into the brown leather. "What is this?"
"An eye," said the woman. "Looks Egyptian."
Matthew opened the cover. The pages slipped from the grasp of his thumb and forefinger, fanning the air and filling the room with a scent as potent and delicious as cinnamon, though altogether more exotic, foreign -- the smell of a dream, the taste of lands forgotten in time, the sound of a song written in heaven before the world was.
He studied the letters, all handwritten long ago, printed with great care by one with many days or even years to do the chore.
"Is that German?"
"Germanic script," he said, noting the tight strokes of thick gothic lines in every word. The language though ... there was something wrong with the language. "How much did you say?"
"You tell me. Heck, I ought to let you have this one free. Don't mean to go Nazi on you, but all I see there is kindling."
His eyes went wide.
He had purchased the book for seventy-five dollars. The woman laughed as she accepted the check. She offered her phone number ... if he wanted to come around sometime. He took it and dropped it once outside her door.
The book would be worth a fortune. He knew just the man to see about it.
Wallace W. Pinpoor owned a three story personal library from whence he bought and sold books to the public. The third floor was off limits to all but the finest collectors. Even then, browsing incurred wrath. Pinpoor had purchased many small pieces from Matthew. What might he think of this volume?
Before reaching Pinpoor's library, Matthew had examined his find once again. The language, he was quite sure, was Latin. In the gothic lettering, the handwritten book had to be worth hundreds more than what he had paid. To the right individual -- the sort of antiquated man or studious woman Pinpoor might know -- the volume might fetch thousands. He wrapped the book in plastic and arrived at Pinpoor's library before it opened.
"Goodness gracious, man!" Pinpoor shouted behind the door as he came down the stairs. "Have you any idea what time it is?!"
Matthew continued banging until the door opened.
"Mr. Beor?" Pinpoor tilted his head back to see through his glasses. He too stood in his robe, but he wore a face of sagging disquiet. Matthew knew why. He had never brought Pinpoor anything of real significance. Pinpoor did not consider Matthew a professional book collector at all, but a persistent bibliophile working his way up while still having a long steep road ahead.
"I think I have found it." Matthew kept the book inside his coat as the rain spattered over his shoulders from the failing gutter above the door.
Pinpoor looked at the bulge in the coat and the unseen hand holding it. He shook his head and closed his eyes. "Mr. Beor -- "
"Will you look at it? A handwritten volume? At least 200 years old? Gothic script? Latin text?"
"Latin?" Pinpoor squinted through the thick glasses again. "Are you sure?"
"I think so."
"Do you read Latin?"
"I . . . no. There is an Egyptian eye etched into the cover. Good binding."
"A wadget eye, eh?" Color flooded into Pinpoor's face. Matthew thought he would now explode with rebuke and verbal disdain. Instead, the old man's breathing quickened. He looked up and down the street, his eyes stopping and focusing on some hazy point beyond the rain for a moment. His voice hissed grave and low from his throat. "You had better come in."
For an hour, Pinpoor sat at his desk. He did not speak. He refused to communicate at all as he examined the book under his bright light. He wore latex gloves and turned each page with great care, bringing his wide magnifying glass between his dying eyes and the tan pages.
At the end of the hour, Pinpoor closed the book and stood.
"Well?" Matthew said as Pinpoor took his elbow.
The old man led him to the door, put the volume back into his hands, opened the portal to the stormy world outside, then shook his head and smiled. "So sorry, Matthew. You are such a good lad. I see no value in the book. Now, please. I am off to see my sister in Paris today and have an early flight."
Matthew tried to nod but couldn't.
It was only after he made it home, and opened the book in despair and regret, that he found the note inside.
Three point two million dollars. Ask no questions. Hear no lies. Speak to no one about the book, or the deal is off.
Thunder banged four times, and much too quickly.
Sliding the book into the couch again, Matthew lifted his voice to the door. "I'm coming!"
Had Pinpoor followed him home? If so, why did the note specify a place they should meet tonight?
"Matthew Beor?" said the face as Matthew opened the door. It was a face, but a face without features. Eyes, yes. Nose, of course. And the man spoke, sure. His skin radiated moon white, and Matthew wasn't certain the fellow had eyebrows at all. He wore a black hat, drenched from the storm, and a long coat. A cane stabbed the floor between the man's feet. His eyes held no bloodlines, and the blue irises glowed with the color of a summer sky. "May I come in?"
"I'm not sure," Matthew said. "You work for Peter Smyth?" The landlord had hired help before -- plumbers, painters, carpenters -- but never a man like this. Was he an inspector of some sort?
Deaf to the lack of an invitation, the stranger entered the apartment and sat down on the couch. Water spilled from the brim of the man's hat, from the edges of his pockets and the cuffs of his overcoat, but the fellow did not notice and didn't seem to care anyway. "I am here about a book, Mr. Beor."
Matthew had left the door open as he came and sat in the chair facing his couch. Now he wished he had shut it. He closed his eyes to avoid looking at the cushion where his precious volume hid. "Well, I don't normally conduct business with men who barge into my place like this but . . . ." His voice trembled too much to sound angry.
"I will offer you money enough, if that is what you want." The man leaned forward and stabbed Matthew with those crystal blue eyes. "But you must do exactly as I tell you. You must give me your word. An oath. The penalty for breaking that promise would be death, of course."
Opening his mouth to speak, Matthew found no words. He sat with his hands on his knees and struggled between crazy laughter and all-out weeping, though he couldn't figure out why. The presence of this stranger filled the room with an energy so powerful, it almost hurt his eyes and eardrums.
"You collect books, don't you?" The stranger sat upright again.
"You know the volume I want. You purchased the book from the library of Alexander Dumelon, from his only living relative, Elizabeth Dumelon."
"Was that her name?" said Matthew.
The stranger drew a breath, held it, let it out. "Let me see the book."
Three point two million dollars. Ask no questions. Hear no lies. Speak to no one about the book, or the deal is off. Pinpoor offered the world without the freaky oath of death this stranger proposed.
"I . . . already sold it."
The stranger sat for a long time in silence. When he leaned forward again, his face grew hard and dry like a white plaster wall. "You do not tell the truth. Where is the book?"
Matthew swallowed. "I don't have it anymore."
The face turned into a mask, frozen and totally bloodless. It no longer looked like the face of a man at all, but the image of one, a drawing, a tribal ghost worn by unknown natives of a still-hidden land. "You are lying."
Matthew stood. Enough of this intruder. "I don't have it. I would not sell it to you if I did." His heart pounded as he glanced at the metal poker beside the fireplace and took hold of the cold steel handle. "Time for you to get out of my apartment."
The man rose. If he reached into his coat for anything, Matthew would wallop him with the fire poker. This was an oath he promised to keep. His eyes relayed the message.
Looking back from the open door as if to give one last chance, the stranger in the dark suit stared for a moment, then vanished into the hall.
Matthew locked the door and sagged into his couch, wondering what to do next.
At the appropriate hour, Matthew stole to the secret locale Pinpoor had indicated in his note. In the back of a Mexican restaurant, Pinpoor shut the door of a tiny room. "I know the owners. A good family. I have done deals for their rich grandfather before. Let's see the book."
Matthew sat across the short table with questions spinning through his head. A knock at the door prompted Pinpoor to shout something in Spanish. The door didn't open and remained silent until the interview ended. Standing while Pinpoor's face shifted from calm to excited to confused, Matthew began to pace three steps forward, three steps back.
Pinpoor sat up with a jolt. "Stay away from the window, man!"
"You want the book, do you? Your note surprised me. Especially after you rushed me to your door and brushed me off." Matthew glided away from the window and the storm blaring outside. The sun had gone, but a yellow street light lit the water on the glass, creating neon streams of alien life.
"Of course I -- " Pinpoor started, a little too thrilled. He drew calm. "I think I can get something for it."
"More than 3.2 mill?" said Matthew, still standing.
Growing dark, Pinpoor leaned against the table. "Look. That offer is more than fair. I give you my word you will never find another man on the planet who will give you more!"
"And you will?" Matthew smiled, though he felt far from confident. "I had a visitor today."
Pinpoor cursed the sun, the sky, and the storm outside. "What did he offer you, money? Life? You're lucky he didn't just kill you and take it."
"Who was he. A competitor?"
Pinpoor scowled for a moment. A few seconds later, he relaxed, but did not look happy. "I told you: No questions. Tell no one about the book." He stood and turned to the door. "Our meeting here is finished."
Matthew sat in his chair. "Oh. So you don't want the book then? That is fine. If you were going to purchase this mystery for 3.2 million . . . in secret . . . I am sure I can find someone who will buy it for more, no matter what you say."
Growling as he spun around, Pinpoor slapped both hands on the table and pushed his face into Matthew's. "This isn't a copy of Arabian Nights or King Arthur or Tertullian you have here!"
"Really?" said Matthew, shoving his face into Pinpoor's as if to kiss him. Pinpoor withdrew. "Then tell me what this is!"
Falling back into his chair, Pinpoor removed his glasses and pinched his fingers into his eyes. The smell of tortillas and beans warmed the air and reminded Matthew of his hunger. But he couldn't think of his stomach. He longed now for something more. The money was only part of it. Knowledge was the rest. "Who was the man who came to my apartment. He knew my name. Did you tell him I had the book?"
"I would never do such a thing." Pinpoor eased his glasses back on, but kept his eyes shut. "Only one, you said?"
"One what? One man, yes. How did he know about the book?"
Smiling, his bloodshot eyes soft and open at last, the old man said, "Do you believe in prophets, Mr. Beor?"
Matthew said nothing.
"Do you believe in angels?" said Pinpoor. "What about scripture? What about the Hidden Mysteries? You remember the story of Lot in the Bible? The visitors who came to his house before the burning of Sodom and Gomorrah?"
After a moment of long silence, Matthew forced words out of his mouth. "What are you saying?"
Pinpoor laughed to himself, a sound of pain and loneliness. "You should know none of this. It is really for the best, you see. The more you know, the more you will want to know. Then you start digging. Then you become one of us, book collectors who really aren't in it for the money or the true love of books. We need to know more. See more . . . May I ask you something?"
"As a boy, hearing about Heaven and all that, did you ever want to see an angel?" Pinpoor's face shined with openness and honesty.
This shift of emotion in the old man caused Matthew to tremble. "I . . . of course. If it's real."
"It? Heaven?" Laughing again, Pinpoor rubbed his head, making a mess of his grayed hair. "We really should stop at that, then."
Pinpoor lowered his brow. "Because there are more things unseen and very real than you would want to know about. What is reality, say the philosophers, but our perception of the world around us. We may see it wrong, but so long as we see it wrong together, we are unified and find the means -- emotional, psychological, social -- to live together in one giant delusion."
"Tell me. Tell me what is real."
The answer came slow. "They are. The sign on the book that you showed me? The wadget eye? It is one of their symbols. They are the Cognosci. They are the Illuminati. The knowing ones, the enlightened ones, the secret keepers, protectors of the all-seeing eye. Trust me, Mr. Beor . . . you do not want to know any more."
Matthew rose and paced the tiny room again.
"Now. Let me have the book." Pinpoor sighed into his chair.
"I didn't bring it."
"What?" said Pinpoor, shooting upright again. "You left it. You don't know how to protect it! To keep it hidden! What have you done?!"
With eyes wide and skin growing cold, Matthew stared at Pinpoor and thought about the book back in his apartment. He imagined the place tossed, everything destroyed. He turned to the window and leaned his head against the glass.
Through the streams of water, through rain, and blasts of lightning, Matthew saw a line of black shadows and white faces standing under the yellow lamp across the street. "They followed me!" he whispered.
The chair squeaked hard against the floor when Pinpoor rose. "Fast now! You've got to get the book! Meet me on the third floor of my library! Quick as you can! The door is always locked. I hide a key above the jam on the left side. Go!"
Matthew ran from the room and fled the Mexican restaurant into the rain. Almost immediately, he hit a puddle of muddy water. His footing lost, his head spun until he was looking straight up into the falling night rain. A shout escaped his lips when he landed on the cement, rapping his head against the concrete. With legs in the air, he toppled into a roaring gutter. Thoroughly washed in filth, he stood and ran with slippery shoes until he made it home.
The apartment door leaned into the hall when he arrived. The couch lay upside down, one cushion against the television, another lost. The room had been thrown in every direction. Matthew pulled off his overcoat and dropped it in the kitchen.
With one hand on the oven, he pulled on the handle to the broiler beneath it. It screamed like a wounded animal, then revealed the book inside.
What book collector, he remembered thinking before he had left for his meeting, would hide a 3.2 million dollar volume in the broiler of an oven?
Stuffing the book into his shirt, he took a windbreaker out of the closet and put it on as he fled once more into the heavy downpour.
Before reaching Pinpoor's library, he saw the line of strangers again. They stood in the shadows this time, across the street from the library, but they watched with vampire-white faces. They did not move. Matthew tried to ignore them. Then he saw the library door. Someone had ripped out both the knob and the lock.
The doorway was a hole in the side of the building, a pit of hell daring him to enter. No lights showed life on the first floor or the second.
Matthew held his breath. He hoped he would find Pinpoor upstairs packing in a hurry to visit Paris, even if he had been lying about his trip that morning. Perhaps Pinpoor, in his great hurry, had left the door ajar.
None of the books in the library had been disturbed so far as Matthew could tell. The second floor told the same story.
Up the old spiraled staircase, Matthew could see a dim light glowing on the third floor. He took a deep breath and climbed the stairs two at a time. The small lamp on Pinpoor's desk revealed the old man's forgotten magnifying glass and a number of notepads with pages torn out.
"Mr. Pinpoor?" said Matthew. His voice echoed through the stacks. Holes in the shelves indicated books that had been pulled and never replaced. He called through the bookcases in a whisper. Nothing moved. Nothing answered.
When he made for the stairs to escape the building and regroup his thoughts from this insanity that had interrupted his world since the morning, he saw a marble statue dressed in black standing in the doorway. "Hello, Mr. Beor. You have the book with you now, I presume."
It could have been a different man than the stranger who had wandered into his apartment. How many of these Cognosci existed? Matthew wondered if they all looked alike -- exactly alike. It didn't really matter. He wasn't getting out by way of the door. And unless he wanted to tempt a three-story drop, the window would provide no help at all. "Where is he?"
"Mr. Pinpoor has gone to ... a better place. Do you have it?" said the stranger with a voice sounding so much like the rain, Matthew had the vague impression that a hot sun might have the strength to drive him away.
"What did you do to Pinpoor?!" Matthew tried to keep the old bookseller's desk between them, but that meant not being able to reach the stairs. Somehow, he had to get past this mannequin in a midnight suit.
"Mr. Beor . . . we are not pursuing you. I personally don't think there is a need. You will forget what you have seen here. You shall become all the happier for it. Consider our payment for the book" -- here, the stranger withdrew a large check from his breast pocket -- "an inheritance you did not realize you were receiving."
"I can't just pretend none of this has happened," said Matthew.
The man shrugged. "But what has happened? Take this, Mr. Beor." He lifted his chin. "Go live . . . a good life."
After a long moment of internal debate -- fear of dying, fear of knowing, fear of remembering this day -- Matthew pulled the book from his dripping windbreaker and set it on the table. He nudged it forward.
The white face of the stranger relaxed and looked, for the first time, human. He handed Matthew the check, took the ancient volume, traced with one finger along the eye etched into the cover, then smiled and left the room.
Matthew purchased a home in Miami. Favoring movies over books, he never read anything more than the newspaper. Early to bed to avoid the dark and late to rise each morning, he always met the sun with a smile. In time, he really did come to believe he had inherited the four million dollars in his bank account. Certainly that was a realistic possibility. When drunk friends forgot their manners and pressed for more information, he looked into the summer sky and said with a sigh, "The angels have blessed me."
- END -
James Steimle scrawls peculiar tales on papyrus rolls while entertaining with mumbling lips the bodies of teachers long dead: sad Poe, pretty Austen, even Greek-tongued Homer and Latin-mouthed Virgilius. Steimle’s work lingers in the pages of The Kit-Kat Review, Ancient Paths,and Dark Horizons. Watch for his first book, The Ghost People. The curious are welcome at Steimle.us for links and updates.