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Silver Bullet -- Ras Iskinder

You may remember that way back at the beginning of Lost Things, Lewis mentioned that he'd seen Alma and Gil's wedding certificate from the hospital in Italy, with two witnesses -- Mitch and someone named Iskinder Yonas Negasi. And that later in the book it's mentioned that Iskinder bought Alma's wedding ring, the one she doesn't pawn in Paris.

So who is Iskinder? In Silver Bullet we'll meet him. This is one of Melissa's opening sections with Jerry.

The flags were flying outside the doorway of New York’s Harvard Club to honor Armistice Day, the stars and stripes to the left of the door, the scarlet banner with its plain white H to the right, the fabric vivid against the faded brick and gray stone of the faux Georgian facade. The lights were warm behind the long windows on the second floor, bright in the gathering dusk. Iskinder Yonas Negasi paid off his driver and made his way carefully across the sidewalk, avoiding the people hurrying away from work. The doorman saw him coming, hesitated for an instant, assessing the sober correct suit and the poppy in the buttonhole, weighing that against brown skin and African features, then recognized him and swung the door wide.

“Ras Iskinder.” He touched his hat, and Iskinder nodded.

“Thank you, George.” He left his hat and coat with the neatly-dressed coatcheck girl, careful not to notice her excellent legs, and made his way into the hall. He was staying at the Astoria this trip, as befitted his current role as unofficial representative of various important persons, but he had been a member of the Club for twenty years and still preferred its comforts. It was one of the few places he could entertain guests without fear of awkwardness.

Jerry Ballard was sitting in one of the armchairs by the fireplace, the evening paper discarded on the table at his elbow, and Iskinder couldn’t repress a smile. It was good to see his old roommate — especially good to see him here, in New York, with a job in his proper field. The war had cost him too much, his leg and his dearest friend; it was a relief to see him almost happy again.

“Jerry! So good to see you.”

“Iskinder.” Jerry struggled to his feet, holding out his hand. And that was Jerry, too, so careful of propriety, and Iskinder gathered him into an exuberant embrace. For a second, Jerry’s shoulders were stiff, and then he relaxed, returning the embrace with fervor. “How was the trip down?”

“Uneventful.” It had been pleasant enough, first class from Springfield; a brief delay at New Haven, but nothing worth mentioning.

“And Mikael?”

As always when his son was mentioned, Iskinder felt a surge of pride mixed with dread. He’d brought Mikael to the States in August to see him settled into his first year at Phillips Exeter, four years of boarding school that should ease his entrance to Harvard, and from Harvard to the wider world. He wanted his son to have all the education he himself had had, and an elite school in America was safer by far than tutors at home, especially for an only child. And his sister Miriam was right, he should think of a second marriage, but after Tenagne — He put that familiar grief aside, concentrating on the question. “He seems to be settling in.”

“What are his roommates like?” Jerry asked.

Iskinder smirked. It was an old joke between them. Jerry Ballard, scholarship boy from St. Vincent’s Male Orphan Asylum, had been assigned to share his freshman room because Jerry could hardly object to rooming with anyone, never mind an African — and Iskinder Yonas Negasi, whose father had insisted that his son should be treated like any other student, could hardly object to sharing a room with a scholarship boy. “One is a Persian prince and the other is a Vanderbilt.”

“A much better class of roommate,” Jerry said solemnly.

Iskinder chuckled. “Join me for a drink? Our table’s at seven.”

Jerry nodded, collecting his cane, and let himself be steered toward the elevator. “How does Mikael like this new system Exeter’s adopted? I hear good and bad about it.”

“Mikael likes it, but he’s never been afraid to speak up. I don’t know how I would have done — we were raised on the principle that children might occasionally be seen, but never heard.”

Jerry smiled at that, and Iskinder claimed a corner table, pretending not to notice how long it took Jerry to settle himself. The white-jacketed waiter appeared at once — the usual, Ras Iskinder? And you, sir? — and returned in short order with their drinks in crystal tumblers. Iskinder took a careful sip of his cocktail, and nodded approval of the whiskey.

“I’m amazed that this is permitted.”

“Technically, assuming that none of the liquor was purchased after 1920, it’s not illegal to serve it in a private club,” Jerry answered. He took a long swallow of his own drink. “And if it’s not itemized on the tab, you can’t prove they’re selling it. Mind you, I’m sure the membership pays off all the relevant people, so I doubt it matters.”

“True enough.” Iskinder lifted his glass, suddenly serious. “Absent friends.”

A shadow crossed Jerry’s face, and he nodded. “Absent friends.”

They touched glasses and drank, and Jerry shook his head. “Fourteen years.”

“It doesn’t seem that long.” He hadn’t actually been supposed to volunteer, no matter how much he wanted to follow his classmates’ example: Ethiopia was neutral, or leaned to the Central Powers, not the Allies. And he’d been newly married, Tenagne just pregnant with their child. Perhaps if he’d stayed with her, not gone to war… But at the time it had seemed more important to prove that he could and would fight for his ideals, and he’d signed up along with the rest of them. And he had gained the Lodge, and those friendships, which he wouldn’t trade for anything.

“Long enough,” Jerry said. “How many poppies do you see here?”

“People have enough to worry about these days without dwelling on the past,” Iskinder answered. And that was undeniably true, with unemployment claiming one man in five — the year before, Jerry had been teaching high school in Colorado, making less in a year than Iskinder had just spent on his son’s tuition. If it hadn’t been for that mad race, who knew if Jerry could have afforded to take this job? “Did you know that the Great Passenger Derby made the papers in Cairo?”

As he’d hoped, Jerry’s expression lightened again. “No, really?”

“Indeed, it’s true.”

“Why in the world?”

“Maybe because it offered a chance to bet,” Iskinder said, with a grin of his own. “But the papers did in fact post the results every day. It was exciting to follow.”

“A little too exciting to be in,” Jerry said. There was a note in his voice that Iskinder recognized, and he wasn’t surprised when Jerry turned the subject. “What brings you to New York?”

“Well, first of all I want to be sure Mikael is going to be all right,” Iskinder said, “but I don’t want to hover. That would do him no favors. And I’d like to see him over the Christmas holidays. And in the meantime —“ He lowered his voice in spite of himself. “Given our troubles with Italy, certain persons in the government have asked me to arrange the sale of a handful of artifacts, and possibly negotiate the loan of a few others.”

“Loan?” Jerry looked over the top of his glasses.

“We’d like to stash them in a nice safe American museum for safe-keeping,” Iskinder answered. “Only we’d like to get them back when things are settled.”

“That’s always the trick, isn’t it?” Jerry said. “Look, I might know some people, depending on the artifact.”

“That’s one of the reasons I wanted to look you up,” Iskinder said. “I trust your recommendations more than many.” He hesitated, wondering if he could get away with offering a broker’s fee, but decided that it was too early to try.

“Give me the details,” Jerry said, “and I’ll be glad to help.” He shook his head. “You’re not going to get the price you might have five years ago, I’ll tell you that for free. Too many people are selling off their collections right now.”

“The Depression?”

“And politics.” Jerry’s mouth tightened for an instant. “I don’t remember how much I wrote you about this job, but basically I’ve been asked to put a value on Lothar Rosenthal’s Ptolemaic collection.”

“He’s selling?” Iskinder began, and then shook his head. “To get out of Germany.”

“Yeah.” Jerry turned his glass in his hands, not meeting Iskinder’s eyes. “The Met is interested, but not at the price asked. They’ve hired me to give an independent valuation.”

Which would be expected to shade in favor of the Met, Iskinder thought, assuming Jerry wanted more jobs like this. And Jerry needed work. But there was nothing he could say to that, not now, not yet, and he raised a hand to signal the waiter for another round. “Which is why I very much want to talk to someone I trust,” he said, and hoped it was the right answer.


( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 20th, 2013 02:36 pm (UTC)
Ooooooo, intriguing!
Jun. 20th, 2013 03:06 pm (UTC)
I'm glad you think so. I love Iskinder.
Jun. 20th, 2013 03:07 pm (UTC)
I have LOVED the first two books in this series and am really looking forward to the next.
Jun. 20th, 2013 03:09 pm (UTC)
I'm so glad! We're working on the fourth one now, Wind Raker. This series is so much fun it could go on and on. Well, and we know where a bunch of things are going!
Jun. 20th, 2013 03:10 pm (UTC)
*does happy dance* \o/\o/
Jun. 22nd, 2013 12:13 pm (UTC)
I like him, he seems cool.
Jun. 24th, 2013 08:58 pm (UTC)
I love Iskinder. So far Melissa's mainly written him, but that will change when we get to Oath Bound.
( 7 comments — Leave a comment )