Title: Death Steals A Holy Book
Authors: Rosemary and Larry Mild
Release: September 2016
Publisher: Magic Island Literary Works
Available at Amazon
Husband-and-wife mystery novelists Rosemary and Larry Mild have created a tightly woven, cleverly plotted and supremely suspenseful tale in Death Steals A Holy Book. Resplendent with action, intrigue, wit, and a to-die-for cast of characters, Death Steals A Holy Book is bound to delight.
Reluctant sleuths Dan and Rivka Sherman yearn for a tranquil life as the owners of The Olde Victorian Bookstore in Annapolis, Maryland. But when the Shermans acquire a rare volume, they find themselves embroiled in a firestorm of deceit, thievery, and violence.
Israel Finestein, renowned restorer of old books in Baltimore, has just finished his work on the Menorat ha-maor, “The Candlestick of Light.”His life is brutally snuffed out and the book disappears. What makes this rare text so valuable that someone is compelled to kill for it? Two Baltimore detectives find a puzzling number of suspects. Is it the controversial woman whom Israel plans to marry? The rare book agent who overextended himself in the stock market? Israel’s busybody cousins who resent his changed lifestyle? Or the wayward lad who thinks a gun is the way to big bucks?
This case could be one for the books…
Loss of Innocence
Monday, January 8, 2007
A wooden sign over the door read “Fine Old Books Restored.” The tiny shop at 59 Beuller Street reeked of fermenting leather, neatsfoot oil, and musk—exuding from rare tomes and the noble attempt to resurrect them. Could such an unusual stench follow the dreadful journey of two rare manuscripts?
The shop’s small front room served to greet customers. Beyond it lay the inner sanctum, the artisan’s hallowed workroom. A man in a yarmulke, a black knit skullcap, sat hunched over his large work table, deep into the project before him: a rare ancient manuscript he had just restored. No longer any sign of mildew—the pages more pliable—their stains now barely perceptible—the cover and binding newly supple. With a tweezer-like tool, this fifty-two-year-old artisan carefully tugged at a frayed re-weave of the original stitching. His cotton-gloved hands and sinewy forearms moved with a deftness and assurance that only an experienced and loving craftsman might display. No ordinary shopkeeper or tradesman here. Nothing was bought or sold here. He simply provided a valuable, singular service.
A broad blue mask with thick binocular lenses hid the upper half of his angular face, while its strap disappeared behind his head into ridges of bristled, gray-black hair. The skullcap personified his belief in the ever-presence of God above him. Beneath a generous coffee-stained mustache, his thin lips exposed a hint of protruding pink tongue, a boyish gesture suggesting the deep intensity required by the task at hand. There, almost finished, he thought.
The tiny bell above the street door jingled, startling him. He’d flipped the OPEN sign to CLOSED several hours earlier at 5:30. He wasn’t expecting any customers this late. Ah, it’s probably my lovely Peggy schlepping my supper. He had left the shop’s door unlocked for her. She’s such a good woman, a friend like I’ve never had before. A little meshugge with all that Goth makeup and jewelry, but I’m in love with her anyway—God forgive me.
He heard footsteps in the dark front room, and wondered why she wasn’t calling to him. Pushing his chair back, he stood up, eager to receive her. But actually seeing who had entered was impossible with the magnifying aid in place. As he slipped the mask up his forehead, a gold-monogrammed briefcase caught his attention. It dropped to the floor near the table. Without warning, the business end of a Saturday Night Special loomed into his view from out of the darkness. Before he knew who or why, Israel Finestein heard a shot and looked down to see blood pouring out of his own chest. He never heard the second shot, nor the abandoned .38 caliber revolver falling with a thud on the vinyl floor. Israel slumped first into an awkward heap. Then gravity slowly leveled him out flat.
The killer picked up the tan leather briefcase, set it upright on a corner of the table, and undid the buckles on the two straps. Black-gloved hands removed a chamois cloth and spread it out on the table. The dark-clad figure gently closed the rare old text and laid it in the middle of the cloth, wrapping it securely before tucking it into the briefcase. After buckling the straps, the killer turned off the lone lamp and exited quickly to the faint sound of the doorbell jingle.
* * * *
Peggy Fraume was on a happy mission: to bring her lover his supper. In her left arm she cradled a tuna-noodle casserole inside an insulated bag. Under the streetlights, she began walking to his shop only a few blocks away. Izzy had entrusted her with the keys to his apartment. It was his supper she carried—in his yellow crockery bowl, prepared by him in his kosher kitchen, and merely reheated by Peggy in his oven.
Peggy worried about him. He often skipped meals or ate them unheated, so a few times each week she took his own hot food to him at his shop, enough for a couple of days, knowing that he sometimes slept in that old schleppy recliner in a corner of his workroom. This woman with short, punk, black hair and wild gypsy eyes felt far more than compassion for her friend. Peggy and Izzy lived in adjacent apartments on the eighth floor of a quiet Baltimore City neighborhood. They had immediately connected when they discovered they both played chess. After several months of casual dating and hours-long chess games, fondness had bloomed into passion to the point where they were planning a most unlikely marriage. They had even sent out save-the-date notices without considering all the contrasting consequences. They were blindly in love.
As Peggy approached the first-floor shop, she hesitated. Why is it so dark inside? Could he have left early without letting me know? She looked at the illuminated dials of her watch: eleven minutes past eight. The hairs at the nape of her neck bristled. She tried the door. Surprisingly, it wasn’t locked. She stepped inside and flipped on the front room light switch next to the door. Without looking about, she lifted the yellow crockery bowl out of its insulated bag and set it, along with her purse, atop the nearest display case. Only then did she venture into the darkness of the workroom.
Peggy moved cautiously. This is so strange. Where’s Izzy? Is he okay? She fumbled for the overhead light switch on the wall to her right, and while she adjusted to it, she heard a muffled moan. It came from behind the massive work table. She followed the source of the faint uttering. Izzy was sprawled out on his stomach, with the left side of his head on the floor and his face turned toward her. She knelt beside him. He wasn’t moving, but his mouth whispered what sounded like the Sh’ma, the prayer at the heart of Judaism, a pronouncement of the Oneness and Greatness of God. Then he mumbled something she couldn’t quite discern. The letters M-P-S or N-T-S maybe. Peggy knelt closer. Did he say “briefcase”? Then she thought he was asking for the police. As soon as the pitiful mumblings ended, her Izzy died.
As the pool of blood rapidly expanded, Peggy, still on her knees, backed away until she encountered something hard under her left shin. Reaching down, she grabbed the uncomfortable object—and screamed. She had retrieved the murder weapon. Realizing she’d left her fingerprints all over the grip, she gathered up the hem of her long skirt with the intention of wiping away those prints.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” said a booming voice behind her. “Just lay the damn gun on the floor and get up. Slowly now, woman! Keep your hands where I can see them. It’s murder all right, and I’ve caught you red-handed.” A stocky, red-faced, uniformed police officer stood over Peggy with his service weapon pointed directly at her.
“But…But I found him this way!” Peggy screeched. “Izzy was already dying.”
“His name was Izzy?”
“Israel. Israel Finestein, but I called him Izzy. Officer, I didn’t do anything. I didn’t kill him. He was my fiancé! I loved him. Why would I kill him?”
“Put both your hands on the arms of that recliner,” the officer commanded. “You have the right to remain silent…,” he recited while frisking her one-handed, clumsily, near her breasts and down her hips and legs. Satisfied with the search, finding no additional weapons, and having finished with her Miranda rights, he seized and cuffed each of her wrists behind her back and pushed her into the front room. The officer followed so closely she could smell his cheap aftershave.
Nodding toward the yellow crock on the display case, she decried her innocence once more. “I was just bringing my fiancé his supper. See there on the counter? It’s a tuna-noodle casserole. I just heated it up for him. Doesn’t that make sense to you?”
But Officer James Francis O’Mera wasn’t listening. He was busy reporting a crime, speaking into his shoulder microphone. “Yes, sir! A woman yelled out a second-floor window at me. Said she heard shots in the shop downstairs, and I responded….No, sir! I didn’t get any names yet. Found a woman perp hovering over the male victim with a recently fired gun in her hand. Yeah, she’s in custody. Got ’er cuffed. Sure I read ’er her rights….No, I didn’t touch anything….Okay. I’ll wait for the detectives and transportation.”
Letting go of the transmitting button, Officer O’Mera turned to his prisoner. “What’s your name, lady?”
“Fraume, F-R-A-U-M-E, Margaret Fraume. But I tell you I’m innocent. You’re letting the real killer get away.”
“Sure, sure, I got it all wrong. That’s what they all say. I got you dead to rights, ma’am. You got any ID, Fraume?”
“My purse,” she said, tilting her head toward the counter and indicating the black cloth shoulder bag sitting there. She watched him upend the purse contents onto the countertop: lipstick, compact, cell phone, keys, handkerchief, a Kleenex mini-pack, and a vinyl wallet. He flipped open the snap and spread the wallet until he saw her driver’s license in its compartment window.
“Ah, Margaret Fraume it is. Age forty-eight. You don’t look it, lady.”
“Thanks, but I—”
“So who’s the poor slob on the floor in the other room?” Officer O’Mera began to write in a small notebook he’d taken from his breast pocket.
“His real name is Israel Finestein, but everybody calls him Izzy. And don’t you dare call him a poor slob. I love him. He’s a wonderful, hard-working mensch, and the proprietor of this shop.”
“Does he own the joint?”
“He rents from some lady upstairs. I don’t know her name.” Peggy shuddered. She suddenly realized she was talking about her beloved as if he were still alive.
Vehicles screeched to a halt out front and car doors slammed shut. “Homicide!” the first man through the door said. “Officer, I’m Detective Sergeant Shap and this here is Detective Sullivan. He’s assisting me in this investigation. Anything appear to be missing from the shop? Cash or something else valuable?”
“Nothing obvious, sir. I haven’t had much of a chance to look around yet.”
“Good thing,” said Shap. “Wouldn’t want you lousing up my crime scene now, would I?”
“Yes, sir. I mean no, sir. Didn’t touch a thing.”
The two detectives perused the crime scene room for about fifteen minutes before calling in the lab people. Then Shap called Peggy into the workroom and sat her down in the recliner. He stood before her in a leather jacket and black pants, almost six feet tall, with a clean-shaven, handsome face and wavy walnut-brown hair brushed back with no part.
“Ma’am, I’m Detective Sergeant Shap. Did you know Mr. Finestein well?”
“Very well. We are—I mean, we were—neighbors and best friends. More than that. He was my fiancé, for heaven’s sake.” A sob caught in her throat. “The only reason I’m here is that I brought Izzy his supper, in that yellow crock in the front room on the counter. I didn’t kill him. I couldn’t do anything to harm that lovable man. Did you know we were engaged?”
“No, I didn’t know?” he responded sarcastically. “How could I?” Shap circled behind her, and examined her cuffed hands. He saw two rings on her right hand, one a carved silver rose, the other a black onyx stone. “So where’s the diamond ring if you’re engaged?”
“We hadn’t gotten around to that yet.”
“I see,” said Shap. “And if you were engaged, why would Officer O’Mera believe you murdered your lover? Was it a lover’s quarrel?”
“No, no, no!” Peggy, near tears now, said, “I’ll explain everything, but can’t you take off these horrible cuffs? They’re cutting into my wrists and my shoulders are getting sore.”
It occurred to her that the detective was enjoying her misery. She had no choice but to relate her whole story, beginning with finding the shop dark and ending with the attempt to wipe her fingerprints from the murder weapon. At several junctures she proclaimed her innocence. She was so despairing, so distraught that Izzy’s final utterings had completely slipped her mind. She offered them now.
Shap said, “You say you found the room dark. Why would Finestein be working late in the dark?”
“That’s just it,” she replied. “He wouldn’t be in the dark. He’d be working late to finish the rare holy book for Rivka and Dan Sherman. They’re supposed to pick it up the day after tomorrow. The book is gone! It should have been on the work table with the light over it. That’s why I became so concerned.”
“Who are these people, the Shermans?”
“They own The Olde Victorian Bookstore in Annapolis and they’re good friends of mine as well.”
“So where’s this so-called holy book now?” asked Shap.
“I just told you—it should have been on the work table. Otherwise, it would be stored in the locked cabinet for safekeeping.”
“In there?” he pointed. The steel cabinet’s door was slightly ajar, indicating that it had been left unlocked. Shap swung both doors open wide and saw two books and a rolled papyrus parchment. “One of these?” He gestured with his open hand.
“No!” Peggy said. “The Shermans’ rare book was at least twice the size of either one of those. And much older.”
“Just how holy was this book?” Shap pressed on. “It’s obviously not the Bible or the Torah or Haftarah.”
Peggy eyed him with curiosity. “How would you know? Are you Jewish?”
“Yeah,” he said. “Shap was once Shapiro. My father’s idea entirely.”
She’d never met a Jewish cop before. “Well, Detective, it’s the Sefer Menorat ha-maor.”
“Never heard of it.”
“Sefer means book. Menorat ha-maor means The Candlestick of Light. The way Izzy explained it to me, it’s a precious book of religious truths and ethics. This copy is in Yiddish and there are other translations, too. It was the most popular book in Jewish households in the Middle Ages. How the righteous should live their lives.” She steadied her voice, praying that she was appealing to his more rational side. “So you see, robbery is the real motive here, and I don’t have the book. Ergo I am innocent.”
“Not so fast, lady. You could have had an accomplice. Mrs. Fraume, I—”
“It’s Ms. now since my divorce and I don’t have any accomplice.”
“Ms. Fraume, while your version of what transpired here may well be plausible, there are circumstantial facts sufficient to cast doubt on your explanation. Enough for you to remain in custody, at least for the time being. The question of your guilt or innocence may well rest with the courts. You may be able to get bail fixed at your arraignment.”
In the front room, Officer O’Mera shifted from foot to foot. He was alone and had nothing to do. He’d worked with Detective Shap before, arrogant SOB, and right now O’Mera’s stomach grumbled, reminding him that he hadn’t eaten anything since two doughnuts on his morning coffee break. He lifted the lid of the yellow crock, plus a corner of the Saran wrap, and sniffed. Mmm! Smells good and it’s still warm. It’ll go to waste if it just sits there. Besides, it can’t be evidence. Who’s gonna miss a coupla mouthfuls anyway? He took another sniff and checked to be sure nobody could see him. Using three fingers, he scooped up a small bundle of tuna and noodles covered with cream of mushroom soup, and popped it into his wide-open mouth. Delicious. He faced the door so no one would see him chew and swallow. With nobody watching, he repeated the procedure until only a quarter of the casserole remained.
Just as Peggy and the two detectives emerged from the workroom, the crime scene investigators arrived in a long white van. At the door, gloves and cloth footies were distributed to the team. Soon both rooms were taped off, leaving only a narrow passage from the entrance to the workroom. They even covered that with heavy brown paper. A crime-scene announcement prohibiting entry to unauthorized persons was posted on the window next to the shop’s front door.
No one noticed Shap lifting the cover off the yellow crock. He peeked under the Saran wrap, smiled, and nodded. Just as I thought. “Let’s get out of their way so they can dig up some more juicy evidence,” he said to Sullivan. His sidekick shrugged. Blue-eyed, with a crew cut, he tended to be an obliging sort.
“What about my purse?” Peggy blurted out as Shap guided her toward the black unmarked cruiser.
“Your purse is now inventoried evidence. It will be returned to you as soon as the lab people have cleared it.”
“But it’s my whole identity,” she protested.
“Sorry, miss,” replied Shap, his voice hard and not at all sorry. He pushed down on her head as she reluctantly entered the rear seat of the unmarked police car.