THE MORNINGSTAR STRATAGEM
© Jeffrey Michael Kauffman
“The blood of Christ, the cup of salvation–“
There was simply too much on his mind to be concentrating on this right now, and he knew that wasn’t right. The last thing he had needed was a stranger, somebody he had never even seen at the parish, begging for confession and communion, especially late on a Thursday night of all times. The old man had seemed so distraught that Father Bogart simply had acceded to his unorthodox request, even as he mulled the hundreds of details swarming in his mind. It hadn’t hurt that the man had proffered two hundred dollar bills which he said he wanted to donate to the church, so Bogart felt that if he was to finish his packing and get to the airport by midnight he should simply listen to the confession, give him a wafer and wine, bless him and send him on his way, adding the little windfall to his discretionary fund. The old man had also addressed the Priest as “Father Ed,” something only the regular parishioners did, so Bogart thought in passing that the man might be a friend of a congregant and was too ashamed to go to his own Parish Priest.
The confession had been troubling, to say the least. “I’ve been asked to kill somebody, Father,” the old man had stated through the confessional screen. Bogart calmly answered that there was a choice the man could make as a result of God’s gift of free will, and the fact that he was troubled enough to want to make confession was a good sign. After the Act of Contrition, Bogart told the man to make penance with the usual litany of Hail Marys and Our Fathers and left the confessional to prepare the communion table.
The priest felt his mind racing through innumerable details as he held the sacramental wine to the old man’s lips. The trip to Tel Aviv would be at least eight hours. Then the car trip north would be several more. But within a day he could be there and assess first hand whether this madness should be allowed to continue. And what if it shouldn’t—? He couldn’t bear to follow the thought through to its logical conclusion.
The old man was taking his time with the communion cup, and Father Bogart wondered momentarily if he had been taken in by an alcoholic street person looking for a quick fix. It wouldn’t have been the first time, not even with the attendant bribe this supplicant had thrust into his hand. He dismissed the thought as quickly as it entered his mind: this man was too nattily dressed and patrician in manner to be a street person. Finally after an extended moment the creased face appeared from behind the cup and Father Bogart was able to step back.
As he returned to the altar, the cup caught the reflection of the sanctuary behind him and the one lone petitioner still kneeling at the altar rail. Father Bogart had always loved the way the reflections in the cup cast a slightly surreal tint to his everyday surroundings, making it seem somehow filled with the Holy Spirit. In the strange twisted reflection from the cup, he thought he saw the old man reaching for something in his overcoat pocket and Bogart could have sworn he heard the old man whisper, “Father, forgive me,” as if he were beginning the confession all over again.
A brief noise startled Bogart and he began to turn. A car backfiring? A firecracker? So strangely muted. Out of the corner of his eye, Bogart saw a viscous spray exploding toward the communion cup. His brain was unable to complete processing the image before his visual cortex stopped working. His cognitive functions lasted long enough for Bogart to realize the old man had shot him in the head. But why? I’ve been asked to kill somebody, Father—the words seemed to echo out of a dark tunnel he felt himself falling into.
Ed Bogart’s last thought on this earth was that their plan had no obstacles now. He died wondering whether he should pray for it to succeed or fail.
* * *
Eli Parv scrutinized the village of St. Croix des Épines and thought that in the afternoon sunlight it resembled nothing more than a lost etching by Escher or, at the very least, some mad mathematician’s experiment in non-Euclidean geometry brought to life. Built atop and literally into the rolling hills of southern France, St. Croix, as its natives routinely called it, was just the sort of out of the way settlement Eli loved to explore—not found in any tour book, frequently absolutely medieval in amenities, but somehow more purely French than the bustle of Paris or the suavity of the Riviera. He tossed his head back, throwing his long brown curls away from his eyes, and quickly rubbed his hands together as an antidote to the brisk fall air.
The main square, such as it was, was a ragged bulging affair of cobblestone and decaying brick and wood, seemingly glued precariously on a steep slope. Around the square were several stone buildings, most of two stories and improbably shaped and, it occurred to Eli, most likely even stranger on the inside than out. And one of these was a bookstore. Eli felt his pulse quickening.
A former jazz studies professor but also a longtime bibliophile, Eli loved haunting old provincial bookstores and curio shops hunting for unusual editions of famous works. He of course had a keen eye for spotting collectible scores; he had once found what he believed to be a Richard Wagner orchestration of a theme by Brahms that he had written about extensively in several academic publications, but he had not been able to get it authenticated, mostly due to both the Bayreuth and Brahms camps’ reluctance to admit that the composers would have had anything to do with each other. But he did not limit his searches only to music. His hobby turned unexpectedly profitable several years ago when he had stumbled across a rare portfolio of original and previously unknown Albrecht Dürer sketches tucked inside a hanging file of otherwise forgettable art in a small canton in Switzerland. In the two years since the well-publicized and extremely lucrative Sotheby’s auction, Eli had been able to take a sabbatical (he hoped permanently), opened an antique store that he let his Uncle Pierre man during his absences, and devote himself to his true passion, travel and research. Eli had spent the bulk of the last two years traveling the backroads of the continent attempting to make lightning strike again.
A rustic sign hand lettered Magasin des Livres swung in the slight afternoon breeze as Eli approached. The gabled door swung uneasily inward as Eli entered the small chamber and tried to readjust his eyes to the darkness.
“Alo?” an ancient voice intoned from somewhere in the shadows.
“Bonjour,” Eli offered, knowing it was really closer to bonsoir. “Avez-vous de vieux livres?”
“Oh, oui, oui,” the disembodied, and thus far androgynous, voice responded. “Rien que des vieux livres.” Nothing but old books!
Eli’s eyes slowly were making the most of the remaining light—he was sure there was some illumination coming from the small room, but he couldn’t define where—and he became suddenly aware that he was in a room filled from floor to ceiling with nothing but bookshelves stuffed full of books, books stacked on tables and even the floor, books literally everywhere. It was then that Eli noticed a wizened old woman standing behind a counter which was, of course, covered with books.
“Recherchez-vous quelques chose en particulier?” the woman croaked.
“No, nothing in particular,” Eli answered, almost by rote, in English.
“Oh, you are American?” the crone asked in a thick accent, smiling. “Your French is excellent.”
“Thank you very much. My father was French and I was evidently bilingual as a child—“ He stopped in mid-sentence, deciding this was neither the time nor place for his colorful family history. “If you speak English, though, that would be easier for me.”
“Un peu,” the woman replied. “A little. Have a look around.”
Eli was able to see quite clearly now and the task at hand was truly amazing. Literally thousands of books were contained in a room probably no bigger than fifteen by twenty feet.
“There are more….how do you say, upstairs,” the woman offered, pointing to a lopsided carved stone staircase Eli hadn’t noticed at the back of the room.
“Oh, my, no, this floor could keep me busy for a month. What sorts of things do you have?” Eli asked, picking up the nearest volume to examine. Some sort of 18th century treatise on anatomy.
“This and that—isn’t that how you put it in English? My family has had this little shop for centuries. Most of these books have been here since I was a little girl, since my mother before me was a little girl, and on and on—“ her voice trailed off in a mist of reverie.
“Well if it’s all right, I’ll just poke around for a while.”
Her confused look indicated Eli’s slang hadn’t translated well. “I’ll just look if that’s OK,” he amended, and she nodded. He knew his afternoon and possibly full day tomorrow were spoken for.
* * *
Unbelievably, he found a treasure within his first hour of searching. Deciding to attack the room rationally (which made him chuckle to himself a bit), he had brought over a rickety chair and started on the top shelf of the first bookshelf. Several of the volumes were actually decaying from age—flecks of paper would wing across the room with the dust that Eli would blow off each book as he took it off the shelf.
The first few he looked at were fascinating, but nothing that really grabbed him—an early French translation of Little Women, more promisingly an early Verne edition, but one which had had some of its artwork removed, no doubt by a child long since deceased. But suddenly he saw on the second shelf a faint glint of gold lettering attempting to shine beneath decades of accumulated grit—all that could be discerned were an “M” and “R” on separate lines. Eli pulled the book off the shelf and was instantly surprised at how big the volume was—in the increasing darkness he had thought that he had been looking at two books of the same color, and now realized this was one rather large work.
His breath dislodged an unusually large amount of debris, so much so that the old woman actually began sneezing at the other side of the room. Eli turned the spine into the last glints of light breaking through the ancient glass of the door. His heart raced. Morte d’Arthur in beautiful large flowing gold script adorned the spine, along with the remnants of some smaller letters underneath which had evidently decayed long ago. Eli wasted no time in opening the book about halfway through.
And that’s when the first strange thing struck him—the text was in German, or, more properly, some form of German he couldn’t quite recognize, something pre-Grimm shift, which placed it centuries ago. Why would Malory’s Morte d’Arthur be in German? And then he noticed the small obviously handset type heading each page of this section—“von Eschenbach.” He almost fell off his stool. Hurriedly leafing through the rest of the book, he discovered that the first several hundred pages were, indeed, Malory’s epic poem, or at least parts of it, followed by Wolfram von Eschenbach’s equally epic Parzival, long thought to have been a major inspiration for Malory’s work. And then, as if to complete some sort of literary holy trinity, was another section headed “Chrétien de Troyes,” another early author of the Arthurian and Grail legends. All in one volume, obviously hundreds of years old, and, even better, containing stunning line drawings throughout. Eli knew he had found at least one purchase.
It was already early evening and he thought this was a good time to end the day’s scavenger hunt. He approached the old woman who was drinking a rather smelly bowl of potion she had retrieved from her upstairs living area a few moments before.
“I’d like to get this,” he said as nonchalantly as possible. “How much?”
The woman picked up the volume and gave it a cursory look. “Five euros.”
Eli, biting his lip at his incredible good fortune, fumbled in his pocket and retrieved the money. This might not be the find the Dürer drawings were, but it was a rare, rare volume, of that he was sure.
“Thank you so much for letting me stay into the evening—I may be back tomorrow.”
“Je suis une vieille femme qui n’a rien d’autre à faire.” Eli thought for a moment he should refute her comment—“You’re not old, you have plenty to do,” he thought of offering, but, in looking at her again, decided she was probably right and wise to say so.
* * *
A short drive through the countryside revealed a small hotel where Eli could spend the night. After checking in, and enduring the predictable joke about his surname (“Vous êtes, comment dites-vous, neutral?” the clerk had asked with an obsequious air and barely masked anti-Semitism), he hurriedly hauled his luggage and newfound treasure to his small utilitarian room and sat at a rickety table with a gooseneck lamp that had seen better days. Now was the time for a more exhaustive examination.
His pulse quickened as soon as he opened the front cover—something was bulging between the sewn on frontispiece and the cover itself’ he hadn’t noticed in his initial perusal of the volume. Someone long ago must have secreted something there.
Eli fought his urge to rip the cover from the book then and there in order to loosen the frontispiece. After considering his options for a moment, he calmly stood and went to his suitcase and retrieved his Swiss Army knife. Carefully cutting around only one edge of the cover’s inside stitching, he was able to gingerly peel the frontispiece back far enough to dislodge an ancient sheaf of folded papers.
Perhaps because of having been kept in a relatively airtight enclosure for so long, the papers were in amazingly good condition. Nevertheless, Eli carefully unfolded them using the blunt backside of his knife blade rather than touching them himself—though not an expert in such matters, he knew enough to know the oils of his skin could start a chemical process that would ultimately destroy his unexpected find.
The papers—probably 10 to 15 handmade sheets of quite thick stock—were handwritten and in French, or, again, some form of French that would take a linguistic expert to positively identify. But there was no mistaking what he held, and Eli felt intuitively at once that, even without knowing for certain what he was staring at, if it should be verified as authentic, it would certainly dwarf his Dürer find.
There in an elegant and hardly faded script was the title: Parsifal par Guiot de Provence. And, incredibly on the second page, was one of the most stunning illuminations Eli had ever seen of one of the most unlikely subjects he could have expected: a cracked and ancient bowl, covered with ruddy stains, underneath which the scribe had written Sangraal.
* * *
Dr. Curt Morhep hung up the phone and smiled ever so slightly to himself. Bogart was dead, and with him a major threat. He would need to let the others know, but for now, he wanted to watch his brainchild.
He turned in his swivel chair away from the gargantuan desk and faced what looked to be a solid wall of mahogany. Short and compact, he was dwarfed by his surroundings and looked like nothing less than a slightly overgrown child whose feet barely reached the floor and whose arms could barely extend the length of the chair sides. He quickly flicked a button on the right arm of his tufted chair, and immediately the wall seemed to miraculously part and disappear. “I am Moses, and this is my Red Sea,” Morhep had joked more than once to astonished visitors to his penthouse office suite.
Behind the now vanished paneling was an array of televisions and they all flickered to life simultaneously. With a deft maneuvering of several more buttons on his chair arm, Morhep muted all but one, the largest in the middle.
A portentous bass voice announced, “This is Morpheus News, where we pledge to tell you the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help us God.”
Morhep was curious to see if his top-rated 24 hour news channel would already have report of the death of one of New York’s most beloved priests.
* * *
Eli had always been self-conscious about his heritage, and he seemed to be more aware of it in Europe for some ill-defined reason he could only guess about. Having been raised in the United States, where assimilation and conformity was the rule of the day, the unpleasant (to him, anyway) facts of his breeding had been at most an interior dialogue. He had had to put up with lifelong jokes from his Jewish friends about his last name (which, indeed, sprang from some long lost paternal ancestor, a fruit farmer who had somehow gotten saddled along the way with the descriptive patronymic which had stuck, with a slightly off-kilter spelling, to subsequent generations). Especially cruel were the jokes about being “neutered”, which cut Eli to the core for personal reasons when he was among his Jewish friends.
Few of them knew his mother wasn’t Jewish, and was actually a rather devout Catholic. Her love for her husband, whom she had met shortly after World War II when he had emigrated to the U.S., had caused her to reluctantly not force her beliefs on her family, though she had surreptitiously kept Eli enthralled as a child with stories from the New Testament. His father had survived occupied France and, later, Bergen-Belsen by negating his Jewish heritage (whether consciously or unconsciously Eli never knew and knew better than to ask—the subject was strictly off limits in family discussions), and he was certainly in no rush to embrace it again in his adopted American homeland, though he did insist that Eli have some perfunctory Jewish education and a bar mitzvah, which was really more of a social than a religious occasion for Eli.
And so Eli had grown up with the strange, unspoken dialectic between his parents, and indeed even within each parent’s relationship with their own religious history. His mother’s one insistence on passing her heritage to her only child was, like her, subtly passive aggressive: she had bestowed upon him the middle name Christian, which of course he either felt guilty not using or using, depending on which set of relatives he was around at any given moment.
He had signed all his professional research papers as an adult with what he considered an apt compromise: Elijah C. Parv.
Compromise—even his name seemed to reek of it. Neither fish nor fowl, meat or dairy. Something in between. Beige, amorphous.
He couldn’t stop tossing and turning in the hotel bed, and it wasn’t because of the book and its hidden papers. The clerk’s offhand comment had started a whole messy dissociative ride through his psyche, and he knew he wouldn’t sleep that night.
He got up, pulled his wireless laptop from his suitcase, and logged on to the internet.
* * *
Bedouins with cell phones are commonplace nowadays, he thought with no trace of irony as he peered at a passing caravan through the dust raised by the bus. The desert shimmered in the stifling heat and he half expected a mirage to suddenly materialize before him. What would it be of?, he asked himself silently. And then, as if welling up from his subconscious, If they find out what I’ve done, they’ll kill me for sure. He shook the thought from his mind as he peered out the grimy bus window.
Anne would be preparing Shabbos dinner about now. His son would probably be tinkering with the new kitchen cabinets he was helping to install.
Am I mad to be doing this?, he wondered, hoping that some higher power would hear and provide an answer.