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THE GREEN JADE HAND

 

CHAPTER I

 

In Which Old Amos Carrington, Millionaire Curio Collector, Evolves a Brilliant Scheme!

 

It was just past noon on a cloudy, gloomy Saturday in September, the year of our Lord 1931, that old Amos Carrington, eccentric collector of precious odds and ends from all over the world, spender of a fortune on his fad, and with a fortune yet to spend, sat in his curio room in his big residence on Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive, tapping the floor nervously with his foot. It was evident that he waited for someone; several times the old man in his skullcap, with cavernous eyes rimmed in silver spectacles below it, pulled from his velvet vest a massive gold watch and glanced at its face. Presently there came a long ring at the bell; then James, his servant, appeared in the doorway of the curio room.

“Mr. Jech has arrived, sir.”

“Show him in,” said the old eccentric in a quavering voice. A few seconds later a sallow-looking man of undoubted foreign extraction stepped into the room. He was clad in a shiny black suit; his shoes needed polishing; his nose was long; and his gray hair was rumpled up on his head like the quills of a porcupine. Yet about him was a pronounced air which told that, careless as he was in his personal appearance, he had a deep knowledge of some branch of art, strangely blended with business instinct. Such was the appearance of Casimer Jech, proprietor of an inconspicuous little curio store on East Twenty-second Street, and agent for a dozen of the city’s foremost collectors.

Old man Carrington was the first to speak. “Sit down, Jech,” he ordered in a shaking voice. “But close the door behind you first.”

Jech did so and, with a cursory glance around the huge room, full of suits of armor, ancient books in their cases, bric-a-brac and strange articles from every corner of the earth and from every age of man, including a skeleton of an ancient animal that must have roamed the plains in prehistoric days, plumped down in a chair close to old Carrington.

“I’ll just sit here,” he said, “Where the light will fall on your lips. The deafness is getting worse each year, and I’m beginning now to help it out by lip reading.” He paused. “Well, I got your telephone message from your man. And what can I do for you to-day, Mr. Carrington?”

Carrington looked about him as though he feared that somewhere in the corners of the room, among the dusty relics and curios, some eavesdropper might be lurking. Then he arose, tottering, from his chair and with difficulty dragged it over close to where the curio-shop owner sat, still acceding to the other’s request that the light play on his own lips. He lowered his voice into a hoarse whisper in which the wavering that characterized it was still detectable.

“Jech, how—how would you like to make a commission of—of five—five thousand dollars on a—a deal in curios?”

The curio-shop owner looked up, surprised. “Splendid commission!” he commented with a dry smile. “But what’s the deal?”

“Jech,” went on the quavering old voice, “I’d—I’d—I’d have carried the thing through myself if—” He held up his wrinkled hand, and his white waxy fingers trembled as though he had the ague. It was plain that his days were numbered. “But I’m too—too—old and shaky, Jech—” He stopped. “Jech, I—I can put you into a way of making five thousand dollars—but you must give me your promise—and I know that what Jech says is ironbound—that if you do not touch the deal you will not use it to your own advantage. It—it belongs to me. It’s my information. Jech—you will promise?”

“Certainly,” said the curio agent, puzzled, his eyes riveted on the old man’s lips, his ear turned slightly toward the source of the sound waves. “You and I, Mr. Carrington, have been in too many negotiations not to be friends, and closely allied. I’ve saved you thousands of dollars that you would have been mulcted of if it had been known that old Amos Carrington, the millionaire, was after them; and I admit at the same time that I’ve made a good few pennies myself from you. Be assured, Mr. Carrington, that whatever you say is secret between us. And if I—well, what were you going to tell me?”

Old Amos Carrington stared at the other from his silver-rimmed, blood-shot caverns, his black skullcap now tilted oddly on the side of his bald head. At last he heaved a long reluctant sigh and again began in quavering tones: “There is—is no way out of it,” he said, “for I—I am too old to do it myself.” He leaned forward. “Jech,” what would you say if I should tell you that another ‘Vindelinus de Spira’ has shown up?”

A puzzled, doubting frown passed over the face of the curio specialist from East Twenty-second Street. “Of course you don’t mean the ‘De Devinis Institutionibus’—the one that’s in the British Museum? Surely—”

“The same!” murmured the old millionaire ecstatically. “The same! Has the Greek words all written in by hand in scarlet ink, between the black-letter text. It’s as genuine as genuine ever was, Jech. It has the indisputable earmarks and passes the test of the old Venetian bookmakers’ products, and even has the date 1472 in the cryptogram on page ninety-one.” He leaned forward. “And Jech—in the one in the British Museum the Nepithomon is missing. And in this copy which has shown up, the whole Nepithomon is present, Jech—what is it worth?”

The curio specialist shook his tousled gray head gravely.

“Worth a tremendous piece of money. Where is this Vindelinus? If you’ve proved its genuineness by the tests, then you’ve already seen it. And what’s the price on it? Are you sure that it’s a Venetian product and not spurious?”

Carrington raised his waxy hand. “Jech, was ever in all these years old man Carrington hoodwinked on a spurious antique? Has old man Carrington’s life been spent in vain that he does not know the genuine from the imitation?”

Jech shook his head admiringly. “No; you’re a fox, all right, Mr. Carrington. I pride myself that I’m pretty keen in the field, but you’re far better than I am.”

There was a long pause. At last the old man in the skullcap spoke again: “Jech, I—I tremble at speaking of this. But I—I have your promise—and I know you to be a man of your word. While you will have me by the throat—I—I shall have you the same way. So—so—here goes: Jech, have you received the usual circular concerning the book auction Monday morning at nine at Snodgrass’ auction rooms on Wabash Avenue?”

Jech wrinkled up his face. “Yes; I got the circular. I’m on their mailing list. Bunch of stuff from an old library up in Evanaton to go under the hammer. I meant to run down early Monday, glance over the titles, and if there was anything worth while I might—” He stopped suddenly and a slight gasp escaped him. “You—you don’t mean that the Vindelinus is among that Hoggenheimer collection?”

Old man Carrington cackled shrilly. “It is!” he exclaimed triumphantly. “It is, Jech! And the poor fools don’t yet know that there’s a book in that collection worth twenty times more than they’ll get for the whole shebang. It’s there, Jech. It’s got the break in the type on page seventy-eight, the eleven-color monogram, and the pin spots in the leather. It’s the second-known Vindelinus on earth with that title, Jech. And Snodgrass & Co., auctioneers of furniture, crockery, rugs, and such commercial trash, don’t even guess what’s lying in their shelves waiting for Monday. I handled that book with my old palsied hands that shook so badly when I discovered the truth that I could hardly hold the volume. The ignoramus who originally owned it, when he found no title on it, wrote one across the leather binding in ink.”

Old Carrington cackled shrilly again. “The poor fool wrote: ‘The Book of Genesis.’ Must have seen the word ‘Gentes’ inside. And I discovered the truth only by glancing inside by accident. It has No. 122 pasted on it. That and no more. Jech, do you see what our next move is?”

The curio dealer, tense in his chair, was frankly puzzled. “No; I don’t. How soon will it be discovered, do you suppose, that another Vindelinus has shown up? These people don’t know anything about books, but some shark looking over the volumes may accidentally stumble on the fact. So it’s listed simply as ‘The Book of Genesis’? That’s rich.! There’s thousands of old copies of Genesis in existence. Every monk in the Middle Ages turned one out before he died.”

Old man Carrington leaned forward. “Jech, I—I would have walked out of there with that precious book under my coat, but it—it could not be done. It could not be done. My—my old hands shook too much. And there were too many clerks scurrying around. I—I handed it back to be placed on the long shelf back of the counter, and I asked the chief clerk if any advance purchases could be made. He—he frigidly informed me that nothing could go except at auction, on account of the legal status of the Hoggenheimer estate.”

“And then?”

“And then I left, Jech, realizing that all these years there has reposed in that ignorant ex-brewer’s library what to the owner was just an old book he had picked up in his European travels some place, but which is now a brother to one of the most famous books in the world, the Vindelinus de Spira. And so I sent for you, Jech, for you are only about forty-nine or fifty years old—so you are young and cool and steady. Jech—”

“Yes. Go on.”

“Jech, you must do what I couldn’t do. You must get that Vindelinus. And for that book I shall pay you the splendid sum of five thousand dollars cash.”

Jech leaned forward, an avaricious gleam in his old fish-like business eyes. And at the same time they radiated a strange sort of admiration. “What do you suggest?” he asked with a forced calmness.

Old man Carrington smiled and laughed delightedly, childishly. “Jech, any one is allowed to consult the table of titles and to ask for any of the books to examine it; to take it over to the window if need be. And before to-day is over some bibliophile who really has studied the game is going to try to pick up a cheap Middle Age copy of ‘Genesis,’ and ten seconds later will announce to the world the great news that another Vindelinus de Spira has been found. And then—good night! They’ll—they’ll realize fifty thousand dollars for it. Any museum in this country, if not the British Museum itself, will pay that sum.

“So what we do must be done quickly. And that—that is up to you. Jech, you must leave here and go straight to Snodgrass’ auction rooms. You—you must casually ask to see Book No. 122. You must carefully note its size, color, binding, and weight. You—you must go back to your shop, get a book—an old volume exactly like it in appearance. You must paste on it a sticker marked No, 122, and write in ink on its cover what is written on the original volume 122. Then you must return a second time to Snodgrass’ with that book under your coat.

“You are young and steady, Jech. You must ask in turn for several of the volumes again, and hand them each back after examining them. You must then get No. 122, from a different clerk this time if possible, and take it over to the window or any place out of the line of view. You—you must change the books and hand them back the volume you have brought. You must get out of there in a hurry, lock that precious Vindelinus in your safe, and send me a special delivery telling me that everything—everything is completed. As soon as the auction is over, and everything is calm—say by Monday noon—I will hand you five thousand in cash, and you will turn the Vindelinus over to me. Jech, is—is my offer fair?”

The curio agent sat for a long time reflecting. A shred of greediness in him made him opposed to stealing a book worth fifty thousand dollars and selling it for five thousand. Yet his common sense at the same time told him that his bread was buttered on the same side as that of the old millionaire, for if he, Jech, proved recalcitrant or unfaithful to his trust, old Carrington could easily cheat him out of the volume by proclaiming the truth to the world. And Jech knew that in the eccentric old man lurked a fighting, revengeful devil.

Only for a few more seconds did he reflect before he realized that both he and Carrington were in for a good profit. He looked up and smiled sourly. “Suits me,” he returned. “I can do it. And I need that money—all the money I can get in the world. I’ve set my mark for a hundred thousand before I quit and retire. ’Nough said.

“Then if I’m to put this deal through,” he went on, “I’d better be on the job. This book might not be discovered at all—and on the other hand it might be discovered any minute.” He rose abruptly. “No. 122, is it?”

Old man Carrington also rose, supporting his tottering aged frame by his cttair. His voice was now more cracked and quavering than ever with eagerness. “I—I knew you would not fail me, Jech,” he declared. “Oh—if you only knew how I want that Vindelinus. It’s a gem. It’s a gem, Jech. Let me know by special delivery the minute you’ve turned the trick. I’ll pay you the five thousand for it the minute the auction is over—and nothing develops.”

“Good enough, then!” said Jech. “I’ll get it out of there. Leave it to me. I’ll be off on the job now. Time is precious.”

He bowed himself out to the door and was escorted to the outer hallway by the servant who appeared when he stepped from the curio room.

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