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THE SKY WAS TWO O’CLOCK BLUE, cloudless on a Wednesday afternoon. The weather had forgotten it was winter: the air was almost sweet and the breeze had manners. Jack Susko lit a cigarette and began walking down the hill. He could not remember the last time he was in Double Bay. Nobody he knew earned the sort of money needed to live here. It was the kind of place where old women noticed your shoes, where lawns were green year-round, and the streets were clean and wide and lined with big old trees. A place where money had always done the talking and everything else the listening — even the pollution had been slipped a roll and asked to go west. Parks and playgrounds and plenty in the bank: the kind of place to consider having kids.
Jack put his sunglasses on. Having a child was not a priority, though if you asked him what was he might take a while to answer. For the moment, it was a package he was delivering to 32 Cumberland Gardens. The streets were so nice around here, they were gardens.
Over the rooftops on his right, Jack caught glimpses of water in the bay. On his left, houses and apartment blocks stepped up the slope of Bellevue Hill, straining against each other for a better view, their windows whitewashed by the sun. Jack had a vision of himself in one of those double-glazed sunrooms: cognac in hand, looking out at the city’s skyline, the phone warm on his ear as he gave calm instruction to a banker on the Bahnhof Strasse in Zurich. It was the kind of job he could settle for, part-time even. Pity they never came up in the employment pages.
No, Jack Susko would not be retiring at the age of thirty-four. His view would remain the dusty shelves and battered paperbacks of the last year or so. Instead of up, he would climb down the steps into his basement shop in York Street in the city, where he spent the day making sure delinquent kids did not lift the stock. At least he was his own boss. Though sometimes it would have been nice to boss somebody around.
The guy’s name was Hammond Kasprowicz. He had called Jack two days ago, asking for copies of four books: The Machine, Entropy House, The Cull and Simply Even. Every copy you have, he said. And it’s poetry, he added, as if Jack might not know what that was. Did Susko Books have a poetry section? His voice was cantankerous. At one point he coughed violently down the line for about a minute and Jack had to hold the phone away from his ear. When he stopped, Kasprowicz wheezed and his voice was tight. He would pay fifty dollars for every copy and an extra fifty if they were personally delivered. He gave his address, stated a time and day, and hung up.
Afterwards, Jack wondered why Kasprowicz was willing to pay so much for very little. But he did not think about it for too long. He remembered a piece of advice he had been given many years ago: when someone wants to give you money, the least you can do is dress nice and take it. Jack could do that.
Unlike a lot of second-hand bookshops, Susko Books was an alphabetised affair. There were two copies of The Cull in the poetry section. After checking through a few boxes of the latest, unsorted stock, Jack made some calls. He managed to locate one more copy of The Cull and two copies of Entropy House. But it was late and most places around town were already closed. The next day he went to King Street in Newtown and scoured second-hand bookshops for an hour or two. That was all he could handle amid the mess and choked shelves and the floor littered with old orange Penguins, fallen like ticket stubs at the races. It was nauseating, like walking around in somebody else’s headache. No copies of Simply Even that he could see, just one of The Machine, missing a few pages, but that was not his problem. Three hundred dollars plus another fifty dollars delivery. It did not happen every day. It had never happened before.
The poet was Edward Kass: the serious kind, treated to a capital P. Numerous awards, commendations, even a mention in the Queen’s birthday honours list for 1981. The biographical details went on to say that his critically acclaimed work was: innovative, dark, enigmatic and entertainingly idiosyncratic. Jack had heard of him but not had the pleasure. He read a few poems on the bus and decided the style was overwrought; Edward Kass would probably have seen death in a bowl of cornflakes. Jack still could not help wondering why Kasprowicz was willing to pay so much for them. The editions themselves were nothing special — the usual pretentious covers and cheap paper, a few big publishers, a few small, a couple of overseas imprints. Nobody famous had signed or dedicated them to anyone. Fifty bucks? To Jack they were just another pile of forgotten books that nobody had the heart to send to the crematorium. He called them in-between books, the kind the second-hand dealer liked least: not classics and not recent releases. Sometimes the second-hand bookshop was like an old people’s home.
Kasprowicz had said 2.30 p.m. Jack was going to be right on time. He turned into another street and admired the houses, the cars and the front gardens. As he picked his favourites, a couple of joggers thumped towards him: a bald middle-aged man wearing all the gear and breathing like a broken hand-pump, and a fat girl in her late twenties who would have looked uncomfortable walking. Approaching, they straightened up for Jack’s benefit. Twenty metres down the road they slumped forward again, as though they were running through mud. So money could not buy everything after all.
From the street, 32 Cumberland Gardens was not much to look at, unless you had a thing for high sandstone walls and even higher pine trees. Jack stood and admired the barrier: thirty metres of it, simple and impenetrable like a cliff. You would not want to lock yourself out. The sandstone sat heavy and contented and did not reveal anything, except that here were people who liked privacy and could afford it. He pressed the buzzer on an intercom set between a door and a solid timber gate. After a while, a voice finally crackled back at him.
‘My name’s Susko. I’ve got a delivery for a Mr Kasprowicz.’
There was no reply, just the click of a button being released. Then the door buzzed and Jack pushed it. As he walked through, he slipped the package under his arm and pulled at the cuffs of his cream shirt. He adjusted his chocolate-brown mohair scarf and re-buttoned his tan jacket. Ran a hand through his dark hair. He was looking good. Just then the gate behind him began to open. It shuddered as it slid along the length of the sandstone wall. Jack watched a metallic blue Audi A6 drive through. The windows were tinted blue-black and reflected his face. More privacy. He followed the car into the Kasprowicz property.
Surprisingly, the front yard was shabby and in need of a trim. Maybe the gardener was on holidays. Tufts of green weeds grew between the hexagonal blocks of the driveway. Casa Kasprowicz was a large Federation-style homestead with lichen-stained redbrick walls and sandstone corners. Big and sprawling but not as grand as Jack had expected. A verandah stretched across the front and continued around both sides. Dormer windows protruded from the tiled roof. Off the right-hand side there was a low, flat-roofed garage extension, to which the carport was attached. From there Jack heard the Audi’s door slam. He waited for somebody to appear.
Four sandstone steps led up to the verandah. The front door was painted dark green, with a leadlight window above it: three small ovals contained within a larger half-circle. Cumberland House was written across the stained glass in old-fashioned gold lettering. Fancy stuff. Jack imagined what Susko House might look like up there.
‘Can I help you?’
A woman approached him. There was a subtle swing to her hips. She wore sunglasses, a short, fitted, beige leather jacket, and a baby blue cashmere scarf draped over a matching silk camisole. Downstairs, dark brown tailored pants with a pale blue pinstripe, and cream suede mules. Easy style, all class. Long chestnut hair with plenty of volume. She got closer and Jack saw that she was tall, five foot seven or eight at least, and on the curvy side of womanhood. Enough to make a poor boy blush.
‘I’m here to see a Mr Kasprowicz,’ said Jack. ‘The name’s Susko.’
She removed her sunglasses and looked him over. ‘Nice scarf.’ With her little finger she pulled a stray hair out of the corner of her mouth. Then she flicked her hair back and it fell all over the place, perfectly. Jack guessed forty: a fit, sophisticated, no expenses spared kind of forty. He took his sunglasses off for a better view.
‘Mr Kasprowicz, eh?’ she said. ‘Lucky you.’ She looked Jack over some more but did not say if she liked anything else. Seemed as if the scarf was it.
He followed her up onto the verandah and through the front door. They entered a long, wide hallway, lit by skylights. There was a large antique sideboard near the entrance, with a carved wooden headboard and rectangular mirror inset. The walls were maroon and hung with paintings and some black-and-white photographs. A long Turkish runner covered the floor: the polished timber boards underneath creaked with age and history and money.
The woman stopped to flip through a small stack of mail. Jack put his hands in his pockets.
‘Nice place,’ he said.
‘Do you think?’ Her voice was uninterested. She tossed the mail and some car keys onto the sideboard. ‘I’ll get my father for you. You can wait in there.’ She pointed ahead and then disappeared through a door on her left.
Jack walked to the end of the hallway and took two steps down. He entered a square lounge room with a high ceiling and moulded cornices. It was dark and on the stuffy side: somebody needed to open a window. There were three Chesterfields facing each other in the centre of the room, separated by two red leather armchairs, some rugs, tables and lamps. An upright piano in the far corner. On the walls, a couple of round mirrors and more paintings: portraits mainly, also three large nineteenth-century landscapes in gilt frames. Jack gave the nearer one some attention. It was unattractive, no doubt worth a packet: soggy green English hills, a soggy blue sky, a couple of soggy oak trees, a soggy grey Georgian-style country house, and a soggy red fox getting the hell out of there.
‘I said two o’clock, Mr Susko.’
Jack turned around and watched Kasprowicz walk over to the couches. He was tall and broad, but age had dropped most of his bulk to his gut and thighs: all bottom-end now, like an old beanbag. He was dressed in brown corduroy pants and a black cardigan, buttoned up to the collar of a white shirt. Thick grey hair with streaks of nicotine-yellow, combed back over a square head. Close-set eyes hidden behind eyebrows you could lose a pencil in. Pale skin and a nose that looked like it had a walnut buried in the end of it. Not an attractive man. He lowered himself into one of the armchairs and exhaled loudly. The leather creaked around him like an old boat ready to sink.
‘It’s now two-thirty. I don’t like it when I’m kept waiting.’
‘Maybe I should leave?’ In Jack’s experience, the customer was always wrong.
Kasprowicz cough-laughed. He put his fist to his mouth and leaned forward. A little time passed before he resumed talking.
‘Very quick,’ he said. ‘I presume you’ve got my books?’
Jack held up the package and Kasprowicz motioned for it. Jack passed it to him and sat down in one of the Chesterfields opposite.
Kasprowicz began tearing the brown paper wrapping. His face brightened. ‘Ah, The Cull,’ he said. ‘And no fewer than three copies!’ He flicked through the pages with his soft, wrinkled fingers. The nails were long and yellow and Jack did not like looking at them. ‘What else have we got here, eh?’
Just then his daughter appeared in a doorway behind him. ‘Where’s Louisa?’ she asked. A cigarette burnt in her right hand. Her tone held the fresh menace of a first-round jab.
Kasprowicz stiffened. ‘Her father came for her.’
‘Fuck,’ she whispered, and left.
The old man looked at Jack. ‘Have you met my daughter, Annabelle? Wonderful girl.’ He went back to the books on his lap. ‘You’ve done well, Mr Susko. Three hundred dollars.’
The old man screwed up his face, like he had stepped on a snail. His eyes narrowed and pushed out his awful eyebrows. ‘Would you be interested in more work?’
‘Sure. Depends what it is.’
‘I wouldn’t offer you anything too complicated. I’d just like you to find as many Edward Kass books for me as you possibly can.’ He clasped his ugly fingers over the books in his lap.
‘How many are there?’
‘Only the four titles I’ve requested. He was not prolific.’
‘No, I mean how many are there in the world?’
‘Not as many as you might think. You should know editions of poetry are never very large. But it would add up for you. I’m sure you need the money.’
Jack smiled and removed his scarf. He leaned forward and held it between his legs. ‘The world’s a big place, Mr Kasprowicz. Who knows where they’ve all ended up.’ But Jack was doing the sums in his head.
‘I doubt the world has seen them.’ Kasprowicz sat up and put the books and wrapping paper on a glass table beside him. ‘I’ve got all the publishing details, how many books were printed, where, when, all that. From memory, it’s only about four thousand copies.’
‘And you want all of them?’ asked Jack, raising an eyebrow. He was going to ask if the old man expected him to steal copies from the library.
Kasprowicz frowned. ‘Isn’t fifty dollars a copy worth it, Mr Susko? I can always find someone else, if you prefer.’
‘No, it’s worth it.’
‘Good. Cash okay?’ The old man gave a wry grin.
‘Eight days a week.’
Kasprowicz grabbed the arms of the chair and hauled himself up. A phone began to ring on a small desk. ‘Let’s do an advance,’ he said over the ringing. ‘To inspire application. I already owe you three-fifty so … let’s say a nice clean thousand to start.’ He walked over to the phone. ‘Cash.’ Hammond Kasprowicz smiled and put the receiver to his ear. ‘Hello?’
A thousand bucks. Not bad for a Wednesday afternoon. Jack was starting to like the old guy.
Kasprowicz raised his voice into the telephone. ‘Tony, we can’t have this. No. No … Oh, come on … That’s not a reason … I’m putting the phone down, Tony … Listen to me, Tony, I’m going to put the phone down …’
Annabelle walked in. She stood in a thin shaft of light from one of the windows. Jack could see dust somersault through the air around her, full of glee.
‘Would you like a drink, Mr Susko? My father has worked hard over the years to forget his manners.’
Kasprowicz slammed the receiver down, making Jack jump. The old man ignored his daughter as he walked past and out of the room. He paid even less attention to Jack.
Annabelle glared at her father. Jack heard a few knives whisper death through the air. Then she turned and smiled.
‘Scotch? Gin? I think I might have a G & T.’
‘Scotch, thanks. Neat.’
Excerpted from Death by the Book by Lenny Bartulin.
Copyright © 2008 by Lenny Bartulin.
Published in January 2010 by Minotaur Books.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.
Posted March 7, 2010
Mr. Bartulin has written a formula mystery that is light on the creativity and heavy on the tried and true. All but one of the characters are shallow. There are a couple of decent twists and turns, but mostly it remains a convoluted plot. Not worth full price; buy it used.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 11, 2009
With the economy still in recession, in Sydney, Australia, used-book dealer Jack Susko is concerned about surviving. So when affluent businessman, Hammond Kasprowicz asks him to retrieve all the works of a poet he never heard of at $50 for each book retrieved; repeat copies of the same poetry book is acceptable. Strapped for money, Jack jumps at the deal.
Susko searches for copies of the works of Edward Kass; he ignores his own curiosity as to why the client wants them. Although he knows not to get involved personally, he cannot resist the lure of Kasprowicz's daughter, Annabelle. However, the case turns nasty when instead of just the required tomes, corpses begin to surface. With a cop watching his every move as the prime suspect in the homicides especially in light of his background, Susko decides to uncover the real killer before the police arrest him on shaky circumstantial evidence or he becomes the next victim.
This is a terrific Australian hard-boiled amateur sleuth as Susko adapts from searching for books to searching for a killer; his chutzpah assumption is there is no difference between death by the Book or death by a murderer. His asides and commentary are amusing and acerbic as he investigates the killings before the cops throw the book at him.