The Grand Manuscript

THE SECOND PART OF THE PAPYRUS TRILOGY

An empty apartment, locked from the inside: this is the mystery that literature-loving police inspector Dejan Lukić, hero of Zoran Živković’s The Last Book, is called in to solve. What has become of the woman who lives there, bestselling detective fiction writer Jelena Jakovljević? And, perhaps more importantly still, what has happened to the manuscript of her newly-completed novel, Find Me? As Inspector Lukić becomes ever more entangled in the growing mystery, a highly-strung literary agent, a blind painter, a virtuoso lock-picker and various cutthroat publishers all have their part to play in an elaborate game of misdirection and pursuit. Not to mention the dark powers of the National Security Agency and a secret cult seeking the key to immortality. Once again, Inspector Lukić stands at the heart of a literary conundrum only he can solve and through which he stands to gain—or lose—everything.

Editions:

  • Zavod (Serbian, 2012)
  • TEA (Italian, 2013)
  • Cavalo de ferro (Portuguese, 2015)
  • Cadmus Press (English, Japan, 2016, as a part of The Papyrus Trilogy)
  • Cadmus Press (English, Japan, 2017)
  • Zavod (Serbian, 2017, as a part of The Papyrus Trilogy)

  The Grand Manuscript_Italian The Grand Manuscript_Portuguese The Papyrus Trilogy  


An excerpt, translated from the Serbian by Alice Copple-Tosic:

1.

I parked the car in a free spot in the small parking area in front of the building at 12 Oak Street. The name had been chosen by someone with a sense of humor. There were three trees on the short street: two lindens and a chestnut. When I got out of the car, my head was filled with the fragrance of a nearby flowering linden, its crown bathing in the glow of the streetlights. Warm wind rustled its broad leaves.

I headed toward the entrance to a five-story building with a flat roof and large windows. Since it was not even nine-thirty, most of them were lighted. Indoor lighting mixed periodically with the grayish, flickering radiance of television screens. Little eddies of dust and scraps whirled about the asphalt.

When I got near the entrance, a light went on in the foyer behind the glass door and a short, plump woman appeared. Since the light came from behind her, I was unable to get a good look at her face.

“Inspector…?” she asked, opening the door a crack.

“Inspector Dejan Lukić,” I replied. “Good evening.”

The door opened wide and the woman moved aside to let me in. Now I could see her better. Although she had a youthful look, she was certainly over forty. Wisps of short red hair curled down her neck, reaching her prominent double chin. Large thin-framed glasses and full bright-red lips filled her round face. She was wearing what seemed like a colorful poncho over her beige blouse. Her dark skirt reached below mid-calf, and her plain black shoes had low heels, although one would have expected them to be high. A large leather briefcase hung from her left shoulder.

“Good evening,” she said after closing the door behind me quickly. She held out her hand. “Miss Ljubica Aksentijević. Literary agent.”

I did not expect such a firm handshake from a woman of her size.

“So we are colleagues,” I said with a grin.

She raised her eyebrows. “Colleagues?”

“Agents.”

“Oh, that. I never liked that title. It sounds too…”—she pondered briefly as though looking for the right word—“inaccurate. There’s nothing police-like in my work. Quite the contrary.”

“Nevertheless, our paths have crossed.”
She seemed to hesitate about replying to this and then let it drop.

“Excuse me for not waiting for you outside. The wind shatters my nerves.”

I nodded my head. “It does that to lots of people. Even when they are inside. On windy days people act more strangely than usual.”

“It has no effect on you?”

“Not much.”

“Now I feel a bit better. If the wind bothered you like it does me, I would feel bad if it turns out I’ve called you in this weather needlessly.”

“Don’t you worry about that. It’s always best for everyone when the police turn out to have been called needlessly.”

The corners of her mouth turned up briefly. “I hope that’s the case here too. Although…”

If she had intended to finish the sentence, she was interrupted when the lights in the entrance suddenly went off. Had I not moved or looked for the switch on the left wall, nothing would have happened. But I automatically turned to the right—and the collision was inevitable.

First her “Oh!” was heard in the dark after she hit her head on my shoulder and then my “Excuse me,” accompanied by a brief groan when her heel smashed the toes on my left foot (she would have made a hole in the casual shoe if she’d been wearing high heels), followed by her “Sorry.” Finally, the lights came back on.

We stood there for several moments in silence, filled with unease, avoiding each other’s eyes. She rubbed her right temple with the tips of her short fingers and I barely held back from looking at my trampled foot.

“Let’s go,” she proposed at last. Without waiting for my agreement, she went around me and headed for the elevator at the bottom of the foyer. To the left and right were other glass doors leading to apartments on the ground floor.

Owing to mirrors on three walls and the ceiling, the elevator looked considerably more spacious than it actually was. When she raised a finger to press the button for the fifth floor, I was disconcerted when the same movement was multiplied all around me. For a moment I couldn’t tell which was the real person among all the likenesses. I wasn’t even sure which one of me was real.

The confusion must have shown on my face because she smiled.

“It’s even more unpleasant when you ride alone. I avoid this elevator when I’m not with someone else. I prefer the stairs even though I’m in no shape to climb them. I’m all out of breath after forty-eight stairs. But that’s how it is with smokers. You don’t smoke?”

“No.”

“Of course. A police inspector has to be in excellent shape.”

“Most of my colleagues smoke. Some are even chain-smokers.”

“Then how do they handle stairs?”

“They use elevators whenever possible. Not even psychedelic ones hold them back.”

She opened her mouth to reply, but there was no time. The elevator stopped smoothly and the door opened behind my back almost without a sound. I hesitated briefly and then stepped out backwards. Had I tried to turn around in the cramped quarters, we might easily have collided again.

She came out after me and gestured toward the right. “This way.”

Before I followed, I glanced the other way. The elevator was in the middle of the corridor. Two doors faced each other at the end. The opposite side was the same. The floor was covered with thick dark-red carpeting and there were tall rubber plants in large white flower pots next to each of the four apartment doors on the floor. Each wall had four red drawings on a white background at regular intervals; at a fleeting glance they did not seem to show anything specific.

Miss Aksentijević stopped at the left door. There was a peephole between two plaques. The upper one was small and plastic and bore the number 15, and the lower one was large and made of metal and had nothing written on it because there was no need. The shape of the plaque was sufficiently articulate. Would anyone but a writer have chosen the trademark of a stylized goose quill dipped in an ink pot?

It took a while for Miss Aksentijević to dig a set of keys out of her briefcase. It had at least fifteen keys of various shapes and sizes. And then a full minute passed before she found the one she was looking for.

“Here it is,” she said contritely, handing it to me. The set jingled under the key. “See for yourself.”

I slid the key into the lock. It went in about halfway. I pushed harder but it could go no further. I tried to turn it left and right, also with no result. I took it out and inspected it. It seemed all right to me.

“Are you sure it’s the right one?” I asked.

“Quite so. I always remember where I keep each key. It’s seventh from the end.”

I looked at the key ring that held the set together.

“From which end?”

“From the left,” replied Miss Aksentijević self-confidently.

I turned the ring over in my hand. What had been on the left side was now on the right. I waited for her to say something and when she remained silent, I asked:

“Would you mind if I tried a few more keys?”

“Go ahead, but I’m certain…”

She didn’t finish her sentence because we plunged into darkness for a second time. It was darker than in the entrance. Down below a bit of street light poured in through the glass door. Even though the window on this end of the corridor was large, it looked onto an unlighted side and was not much use.

Both of us might have reached for the nearby switch on the wall, but after the embarrassment we’d experienced five floors below, we stood stock-still, waiting for the other one to turn on the lights. One of us would have done it in the end if something hadn’t snapped behind our backs. Then a deep, menacing growl filled the corridor.

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