A quirky holiday romance about Faith, Hope, and...er...glow-in-the-dark condoms!
Three years ago, a scandal cost antiquarian "book hunter" James Winter everything that mattered to him: his job, his lover and his self-respect. But now the rich and unscrupulous Mr. Stephanopoulos has a proposition. A previously unpublished Christmas book by Charles Dickens has turned up in the hands of an English chemistry professor by the name of Sedgwick Crisparkle. Mr. S. wants that book at any price, and he needs James to get it for him. There's just one catch. James can't tell the nutty professor who the buyer is.
Actually, two catches. The nutty Professor Crisparkle turns out to be totally gorgeous--and on the prowl. Faster than you can say, "Old Saint Nick," James is mixing business with pleasure...and in real danger of forgetting that this is just a holiday romance.
Just as they're well on the way to having their peppermint sticks and eating them too, Sedgwick discovers the truth. James has been a very bad boy. And any chance Santa will bring him what he wants most is disappearing quicker than the Jolly Old Elf's sleigh.
Warning: This book contains an ocelot, songs by America, Stardust martinis, tinsel, long-lost manuscripts, Faith, Hope and...Love.
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December 01, 2009
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Excerpt from The Dickens With Love by Josh Lanyon
"Anything you have to do," Mr. Stephanopoulos said, pouring sherry. "I must have that book."
"Anything?" I repeated carefully.
We stood in the spacious living room of his Century City penthouse. The Palladian windows looked out over a city alight and twinkling on this rainy afternoon four days before Christmas. In one corner of the room was a large and particularly vulgar Christmas tree that managed to convey all the holiday charm of a sequined dildo. In the other was a plasma television set, sound muted. It's a Wonderful Life--the scene where Clarence explains to George Bailey how angels get their wings--played a silent background to our conversation.
Stephanopoulos smiled, handing me the fragile amber glass of sherry. "Short of murder, of course."
"Of course." Was that supposed to be funny? What a prick he was. What a godawful, odious prick.
"I don't want to know details. I want results."
I sipped the sherry. It was probably excellent sherry, if you liked sherry. I prefer brandy, but Mr. Stephanopoulos hadn't asked. The Mr. Stephanopouloses of the world don't.
"Well?" Mr. S. demanded when I didn't immediately answer.
I said lightly--although the mockery was more for me than him, "Have I ever failed you?"
"No. You have not. And no one knows his Dickens like you do, James."
He managed to make it sound lascivious. That was unlikely his intent; Stephanopoulos was staunchly heterosexual. One more reason to be glad I was born gay.
I watched him savor the sherry, wet glistening on his plump red lips. He looked like a Tim Burton version of Father Christmas.
"Crisparkle. That can't be this professor's real name."
"Why do you say so?"
I quoted, "'Mr. Crisparkle, Minor Canon, early riser, musical, classical, cheerful, kind, good-natured, social, contented, and boy-like.' Canon Crisparkle is a character in The Mystery of Edwin Drood. He helps Neville Landless escape to London when he's suspected of killing Edwin Drood."
"That's right. How could I forget?"
How? Beside the fact that Mr. S. had never read The Mystery of Edwin Drood? Actually, I doubted if Mr. S. had read much of any Dickens. I don't suppose he even liked Dickens. He thought Boz was a smart acquisition. And he was right. The previous week an 1859 first edition of A Tale of Two Cities--illustrated by H.K. Browne and bound by Birdsall & Son from the original seven monthly serial installments--went for $6,950 on the Advanced Book Exchange.
Though Mr. S. ruthlessly and relentlessly collected Dickens for investment purposes, his personal preferences ran to 1920s erotica. Primarily naughty pictures and, ideally, French. Hey, c'est la vie.
"I believe it's his real name, though," Mr. S. said. "Sedgwick Crisparkle. He's a Professor of Chemistry at the University of London."
"Sedgwick? He's having you on." As in totally yanking the fat man's chain. Still, what did it matter to me? I would be paid for my expertise whether the article in question was genuine or not.
"And how did this professor of chemistry get hold of a lost Dickens manuscript?"
Mr. S. said vaguely, "That's all part of the mystery. Not that I give a damn how he got hold of it so long as I get first crack at it--assuming it's the real thing."
I smiled politely. When it came to ethics, Mr. S. made the House of Medici look like the Waltons. Say goodnight, John Boy. Only I couldn't say goodnight. If I didn't want to live in a cardboard box under Los Angeles River Bridge come the New Year, I had to have this commission.
"You'll have to be discreet, though. If Crisparkle knows you're acting as my agent he won't sell the book to you. Regardless of the money involved."
I said only, "Discretion is my middle name."
Stephanopoulos smirked. I resisted the temptation to dash my drink in his face. Desperation makes ugly bedfellows. Anyway, a thimbleful of sherry was a ridiculous gesture. He'd probably just lick it off.
Stephanopoulos handed me a slip of paper with a phone number. "He's staying at the Hotel Del Monte. It's crucial that you get a look at the book and, assuming it's genuine, that I'm able to make an offer before LAABF on Saturday."
LAABF was the Los Angeles Antiquarian Book Fair. The fair was held every other year. It was neither the largest nor the most prestigious of such book fairs--not in the state and not in the country--and I wondered why Professor Crisparkle had decided to auction his valuable manuscript here. It seemed one more indication that all was not kosher. Not my problem.
"Hotel Del Monte. He must be expecting to make a killing," I remarked, examining the phone number.
"With good reason."
I made a noncommittal reply. Well, however things went down, I'd treat myself to a few hours in the Hotel Del Monte's legendary Champagne Bar. It was one of my favorite places in Los Angeles though generally right out of my price range. The good thing about working for Mr. S. was that he paid promptly and well.
Mr. S. said jovially, "To Dickens' Christmas books. God bless 'em every one!"
We clinked the crystal glasses. They made a brittle chime. Somewhere a disheartened angel tumbled off a Christmas tree.
This is for all the lonely people...
America's The Complete Greatest Hits was blasting from the apartment next door to mine. Darcy, my neighbor, was--in her own words--a HUGE fan of the English-American folk rock band. Actually the greatest hits album was an improvement over Holiday Harmony, the group's Christmas album. I'd heard that album at least twice every single day for the past month. Now I understood why so many suicides happened around this time of year.
Darcy's door flew open as I was quietly inserting my key into my door lock.
"Hey." I smiled distractedly and turned the lock.
Darcy was a few years older than me. She was a chubby, dishwater blonde with a fondness for baggy jeans, plaid flannel shirts and animal-shaped barrettes. I liked Darcy. She was a good neighbor and a kind and conscientious person. But despite the fact that I had broken it to her early on that I was gay, I was uncomfortably aware that she still, as they used to say, entertained hopes. I did my best not to encourage her.
"Did you decide if you're spending Christmas day here?" Her expression was studiedly casual.
I'd known the question was coming, so I'm not sure why I didn't have an answer for her. I did have an answer; only I didn't want to deliver it. Nobody should have to be alone at Christmas.
And Darcy knew I didn't have anyone to spend it with, so to refuse was just...personal.
Thinking that love has left them dry...
She was lonely and God knew I was lonely. What did it matter if she was a little dull, a little desperate? The same could be said about me.
Darcy swallowed, met my eyes, and found a cheerful smile with which to meet my impending rejection.
"Yes," I heard myself say. "Christmas. Christmas would be... Thank you. Yes."
Darcy's face lit up. "Really?"
I nodded. "What do I--? Should I bring something?"
"I can do that. That I can do." I was nodding encouragingly--encouraging myself--like one of those bobble-headed dogs.
She was still beaming at me and I was still nodding as I let myself in my apartment. I waved, she waved, and I shut the door, leaning against it.
"Is that supposed to be your idea of a good deed?" I asked aloud. It was rhetorical. I had no answer and there was no one else to answer--and hadn't been since Corey kicked me out of our Laurel Canyon home nearly three years ago to the day.
I really didn't want to start thinking about Corey Navona. It was only the time of year, and Stephanopoulos's crack about the Louis Strauss debacle--but that was all ancient history. I had a job. A real job instead of the usual slinging books at "barnsonovels". Things were looking good.
I shoved off the door and opened the mini fridge that served as an end table to the room's only comfortable chair. I scanned its contents. That took approximately one and one half seconds. I had the choice of two eggs, a jar of raspberry preserves, a jar of possibly moldy Hoisin sauce and a bottle of white grape juice.
I finished the white grape juice and sat down to phone Professor Crisparkle at his hotel. I was astonished to find that my palms were perspiring. Was I afraid the mysterious professor wasn't going to agree to see me? No. Because I wouldn't accept his refusal. I was more resourceful than that. If he turned me down, I'd go to the hotel and find his room and camp outside it until he let me have a peek at that manuscript.
Or was I afraid he would let me see the manuscript? That once I saw it I'd know it wasn't genuine?
Wouldn't it be worse to know that it was genuine and I was purchasing it for Stephanopoulos?
I couldn't afford to start thinking like that.
I asked for Professor Crisparkle's room feeling like an idiot. That couldn't be his real name. Was this some elaborate hoax? Yes, I could believe that more easily than I could believe in this lost Christmas manuscript.
I was placed briefly on hold. Doris Day whispered fuzzily in my ear about the joys of Toyland, Toyland, Little Girl and Boy Land.
Then Doris vanished and a male voice, deep and definitely English, inquired, "Yes?"
"Yes?" A trace of impatience.
"My name is James Winter. I'm an antiquarian book appraiser representing a collector who wishes at this time to remain anonymous. He's requested that I be allowed to examine the Dickens manuscript you'll be putting up for auction on Saturday at the LAABF."
"The book has already been authenticated by Angela Nixon and Ford Standish. I believe their credentials are impeccable." He wasn't haughty so much as...unequivocal.
"Yes. My client is aware of that fact. If it's all right, he'd like me to take a look as well."
He drawled, "And just who might you be when you're at home, Mr. Winter?"
"Why exactly should I permit you to examine this book?"
I said patiently, "Because if it's what you believe it to be, my client will make you an offer for it immediately."
"The book is already going to auction on Saturday."
"This would be in the nature of a preemptive bid."
"Surely that defeats the purpose of going to auction," Professor Crisparkle said at last.
I said carefully, because he seemed irascible enough to cut me off and hang up, "If you're choosing to auction the manuscript, you're hoping to get the highest possible price for it. My client is in a position to pay above and beyond what you could get at auction."
"Then why doesn't he simply come to auction and bid on the book?"
Because he's an arrogant, unprincipled asshole.
I said pleasantly, "For security reasons and others, my client is very careful about his privacy. He rarely makes public appearances." Not when he can outflank his rivals with an end run.
I coaxed, "If the manuscript is genuine, you've nothing to lose by letting me take a look. You can always decline my client's offer if you ultimately believe you can get more at auction."
"Very well," he said curtly. "When did you wish to examine the book?"
"What about this afternoon? I could be there in, say, an hour?"
Crisparkle didn't exactly sigh, but I could feel his irritation. "Very well. I'm in room number 103. One hour." He hung up.
It was clear to me that if I was late, I was out of luck. I pulled off my shirt--I tended to perspire a lot around Mr. S.--shrugged into a fresh one, doing up the buttons hurriedly.
I didn't expect the manuscript to be the genuine thing, of course. I knew it couldn't be. All the same as I changed clothes I had that funny tingle in my chest. I mentally reviewed what I knew about the Christmas books. From a literary standpoint, with the exception of A Christmas Carol, they're not considered Dickens' best work, but I had an illogical affection for them. Granted, I had an illogical affection for Christmas itself. Used to anyway. Now days I hated this time of year.
All told, Dickens wrote five Christmas books starting in 1843 with A Christmas Carol in Prose, Being a Ghost Story of Christmas. That's the holiday classic commonly known as A Christmas Carol. CC was followed by The Chimes in 1844, The Cricket on the Hearth in 1845, The Battle of Life in 1846, and The Haunted Man and the Ghost's Bargain in 1848.
There had been no Christmas story in 1847. Dickens was losing interest in the books, and The Battle of Life had not been very well-received by critics or his public. But the mysterious Professor Crisparkle claimed that there had been a Christmas story--and that he possessed the missing manuscript.
Even knowing better it was hard to rein my imagination in, daydreaming about what might be contained in such a manuscript.
Why wouldn't Dickens have released it? Was the manuscript unfinished?
I frowned at my reflection in the white and gold framed mirror over the waist-high bookshelves lining the west wall. My eyes were shining, my cheeks were flushed. For all my vaunted cynicism, I had the collector's bug as bad as anyone. I wanted to believe this manuscript was the real thing.
This is the first and most important step toward getting ripped off.
If anyone should have learned that lesson, it was me. I shook my head at my reflection, and the glint of the tiny black star in my earlobe caught my eye. I stared at it. Stared at my reflection as though running into an old acquaintance after many years. It seemed odd to me that I didn't look any different. True, three years wasn't exactly a lifetime, but I'd traveled metaphysical leagues in that time. The marks of that journey should have been on my face and threaded through my hair, but I looked the same as always. A tall and slender man with green eyes and chestnut hair. Granted, I needed a hair cut. The rain was making my hair curl. Three years ago I'd been getting my hair trimmed at The Green Room. Three years ago I would not have been heading out on an appraisal job in jeans. I'd have been wearing Kenneth Cole--right down to a tie. But then three years ago I wouldn't have considered taking a job from Mr. Stephanopoulos.
Not that there was anything wrong with this job. Very straightforward from the sound of it. Nor was there anything wrong with jeans--or the way I looked. I was clean, shaven, and presentable enough. Maybe the real change was on the inside.
Safe to say, it wasn't a change for the better.