The Sinner's Bible: A curse takes hold when faith and love falter

Chapter One

January 1632
Whitehall Palace, London

William Laud, the Bishop of London, clutched a small book to his chest. He spread his palms over the cover, as if he could blot out its existence by hiding it from view.

There was no fire in the grate.

He shivered as he stood before the double doors of the presence chamber. The men-at-arms on either side stared straight ahead, giving no indication of the king’s mood…or how willing they were to carry out an order to kill the bringer of bad tidings.

He closed his eyes and wondered how much longer Charles would make him wait.

How could this have happened? he wondered. How could so many people have seen it and said nothing? It had been a year. An entire bloody year, without a word from anyone. Either God had blinded them to it, or they had become estranged from Him, setting aside His word. No matter how he couched it in his mind, it boded ill for himself and for England.

God was testing them, and they had failed for an entire year.

But what threat was He warning them against? It had been twenty-six years since the Jesuit Treason. Digby, Wintour, Fawkes, and the lot of them were rotting in their nameless graves. Princess Elizabeth, the girl they would have made queen, had been shipped off to Bohemia. James I, the king they would have murdered, had instead brought the world the most holy translation of the Bible ever wrought by man.

That should have been the end of it.

But it was not.

Because King James’s son had married a Papist.

Since the death of Buckingham, she’d become Charles’s sole confidant and advisor. She, with her sloe eyes and soft voice, who could barely speak English seven years after her arrival. She who kept her own confessor and chapel and flaunted them before his eyes.

William sighed. Was this how it began? The slow slide into Papal dominion? First the queen, then the royal children, then perhaps the whole kingdom when her son, a second Charles, ascended the throne. All that Good Queen Bess had hoped to preserve by murdering her Catholic cousin Mary, Queen of Scots would be torn away from them again.

The gallows or the stake, he wondered. Which would it be for him?

The presence chamber’s doors flew open and the men-at-arms stamped their halberds as King Charles I passed into the antechamber. The queen followed him, swathed in pearls and a fox-fur wrap. William bowed low as the king and queen swept toward him. “Your Majesties,” he said.

“William,” Charles replied warmly. “What brings you here on such a cold day? I’d have thought the warmth of your hearth would suit you better than this drafty old place.”

The king spoke French, as he always did in the queen’s presence, requiring him to reply in kind. “My duty suits me in any weather, Your Majesty.”

“And what is your duty today?”

His hands shook as he held out the book. “The devil is at work in England, sire.”

Charles glanced at the book, with the words Holy Bible stamped on the cover. “Looks to be the opposite,” he said.

The dark-haired queen leaned over Charles’s shoulder. “Your father’s translation?”

Charles nodded. “A new printing, is it not, Laud?”

“Yes, Your Majesty, commissioned last year in the house of Barker and Lucas.”

“We placed the order, they printed it,” Charles said. “What do you wish me to do with it now?”

“Please take it, Your Majesty,” he begged. “Open to the page I have marked.”

Charles took the book from his shaking hand. A red ribbon marked a page near the beginning, and the king thumbed straight to it.

He watched the sovereign’s face as he read the small type. He could have done more to draw the king’s attention to the passage, but he wanted to see how it happened, how the awareness dawned on him.

The queen read over Charles’s shoulder. It was her eyes that fell upon the abomination first, proving she had a better grasp of their language than she had led anyone to believe. She gasped and held a hand to her mouth.

A moment later, Charles found it. His face, normally soft and expressive, hardened like the effigies in Westminster Abbey. “How many?”

“I do not know, Your Majesty.”

“How long?”

William blinked. This was the moment he revealed how far the devil had made inroads into their kingdom and their church. “A year,” he whispered.

“Unacceptable!” Charles thundered, tossing the book into the grate. “This is no Holy Bible! This is a jest, committed at my expense! How could they let this happen?”

“I do not—”

“Bring the printers to me, Laud. Escort them into the Star Chamber and let them tell me to my face why they have made a mockery of my father’s achievement.”

“Yes, Your Majesty,” he said, lowering his head and taking one step back. Best to take Charles’s command as a dismissal, lest there be a separate punishment in wait for him.

“Laud,” Charles snapped.

He gulped. “Y—yes, Your Majesty?”

“Burn them,” Charles said, his dark eyes alight with fury. “Burn them all.”

Chapter Two

January 2014
San Francisco, California

Avi Druckman slipped on a respirator and a pair of vinyl gloves. The book in front of him wasn’t particularly old or valuable in a scholarly sense, but the university had rules for this kind of thing. The book had been purchased at auction. They had only the seller’s word that it had never been in a flood. Until he inspected it for himself, he’d have no idea what kind of mold might be present inside it. Once he made an assessment of its condition for the insurance paperwork, he was supposed to make a video of it for the library’s Facebook page.

Avi sighed.

He’d earned bachelor’s degrees in cultural anthropology and Jewish studies, and a master’s in library science, but his main duty as Associate Librarian of the Rosemont University Rare Book & Manuscript Collection was to post stuff to Facebook. We’d really like you to be more active on Twitter, the library’s executive director had said. Erik Kwakkel has ten times as many followers as we do. And what about Snapchat? I hear all the kids are on Snapchat.

He made a mental note to dust off his resume after work.

Maybe Berkeley was hiring.

All his favorite Indian restaurants were in Berkeley.

His stomach growled and he envisioned a plate of murgh korma.

“Why couldn’t you have been a Gutenberg?” he said, glaring at the small, brown Bible in front of him.

Most old books were comforting. He loved the musty smell of dried calfskin and the tang of mildew. He found pleasure in the smoothness of vellum or the textured weave of rag-cotton linen. Nothing in real life shone as brightly as the carmine and malachite in Rabbi Kantrowitz’s illuminated Bible, produced in medieval Spain decades before the Expulsion. Other kids hurried home from school, ready to pop another CD into the computer for ten free hours on AOL. He’d gone to Rabbi Kantrowitz’s to run his fingers along the gilded spines of the old man’s books.

But this book was different.

Its plainness was almost oppressive.

The cracked leather cover had peeled away from the boards. The spine and pages were in decent condition, with no visible water damage. He took notes on their appearance, then lifted the cover carefully.

He shivered as soon as he touched it.

There was nothing comforting about this particular book.

Plus, it was all that stood between him and a plate of samosas.

He took hurried notes on the condition of the endbands and lifted the back cover. A few chips of desiccated leather fell onto the last page.

He squinted at them.

There was something on the page beneath them.

Handwriting, he thought. His eyes followed the loops and swirls of a fanciful script in faded black ink. “What do we have here?” he said, reaching for his magnifying glass.

Every librarian dreamed of finding something historically significant in the scholarly equivalent of a dumpster. Was this his moment? He licked his lips and held the magnifying glass over the faint cursive script.

“Show me what you got,” he muttered, bending close over the page.

It was a list—a column of names.

His heart sank when he realized what it was.

An ordinary family had used what they thought was an ordinary Bible to record their births and deaths. They hadn’t even done a good job. In fact, they’d sucked royally at it. There were no dates, so you couldn’t even tell which was a birth and which was a death.

He put down the magnifying glass and sighed. What had he expected to find? An inscription from Ben Jonson? A dirty limerick from Milton?

It was useless.

Avi closed the book.

The Facebook video would have to wait until after lunch. His stomach was growling so loud that his phone’s camera would capture his malnutrition for all posterity. He slid the book back onto one of the storage room’s rolling metal shelves and stripped off his gloves.

Rajah’s All-You-Can-Eat Indian Buffet was calling his name.

Chapter Three

January 2014
Crows Landing, California

Ezra Hawkins cut the crust from his last slice of bread. He picked up the spatula and scraped the peanut butter jar as if he were giving it a clean, close shave. The bread tore as he spread the peanut butter onto it.

There was one banana left on the counter.

Spots covered its peel like a Rorschach test.

Every goddamn one looked like the amorphous blue splotches on Jacob’s fMRI.

He sliced the banana and cut each slice into quarters. He chose the biggest piece and pushed it into the center of the peanut butter, representing an atom’s nucleus. Sodium, he thought. One valence electron on top, one on the bottom. He pushed more banana pieces into the peanut butter to represent the second orbital—two electrons on top, two on bottom, two on the left, and two on the right.

He picked up the last piece of banana.

If he set it in the third orbital, he’d be depicting sodium’s elemental form, a highly unstable metal. If that metal touched water, the last electron would cause a violent explosion. But if he ate that piece instead, he’d be left with a stable and harmless sodium ion.

Ezra looked out the window.

Drought had killed their corn and alfalfa. Relentless pumping of the aquifer had dropped their elevation by a foot in thirteen months. Now there was no more water to pump.

He pushed the banana into the peanut butter.

“Boom,” he said.

He heard Jacob’s truck before he saw it. The heater was making a weird noise that neither of them could fix. The irregular thumping sounded like a heartbeat, audible over the hum of the old Chevy’s V-8 engine.

The heater, Ezra thought. He’s cold.

He reached into the fridge for their last piece of ginger. It was cheaper at the Asian market, which meant he’d have to make another stop next time he went out. He grated a few thin shavings onto the sandwich. Probably not enough for thermogenesis, but it was the best he could do at the moment.

He set the sandwich on a plate.

The doctor had warned him about the things Jacob would start to lose: balance, appetite, memory, feeling in his arms and legs. But his brother still looked like the All-County linebacker who’d gone to the state quarterfinals a decade ago—thick neck, big arms, and thighs like tree trunks. The changes would happen fast, the doctor had said, like watching corn grow.

I don’t remember what that looks like, he thought. Without water, cancer was the only thing that grew.

His brother opened the door to the double-wide.

“Boots off,” Ezra said, sliding the plated sandwich down the counter. “I just swept.”

Jacob ignored him, tossing a canvas bag onto the table. Then he peeled up the top slice of bread and frowned at the banana bits. “What’s this one? A Picasso?”

“Electron diagram.”

Jacob sat down and took a bite of the sandwich. “This tastes weird. What’d you do to it?”

“It’s ginger. Supposed to make you warm.”

Jacob chewed and swallowed. “There’s a Stanford catalog in there.”

“That’s not what the money’s for.”

“It could be.”

“No,” he growled. “It couldn’t.” He picked up the canvas bag and shook its contents onto the table: letters, magazines, small parcels, and anything else the good mail carriers of Crows Landing had delivered to their intended recipients. “Did you switch license plates?”

“Give me a break.”

“It was just a question.”

“It’s done,” Jacob said, tilting his chair onto two legs. “I used the last one.”

“Good thing license plates are a renewable resource.” He plucked a long manila envelope from the pile and held it up. He’d started stealing mail to pay for groceries, but soon learned it was good for a hell of a lot more than that. A padded envelope full of cocaine had kept them afloat for three months. If he’d known the cartels were using the U.S. postal service to move product, he’d have started stealing mail years ago.

He began sorting the day’s haul into piles: burn, cash, sell, keep. When he held up an issue of Car and Driver, Jacob reached for it immediately.

It took so little to make his brother happy, but it would take a lot more for him. The property tax on their land was four and a half years overdue. In six months, the tax collector could sell the farm at auction. He’d put everything they had into a new well, just in time for it to run dry. There had been nothing left when Jacob needed surgery. He’d paid for that by stealing cars, but even that wasn’t enough anymore.

Genetic abnormality, the doctor had said. Epidermal growth factor.

The tumor had reappeared almost immediately after surgery. Jacob would be dead before summer unless he found a doctor willing to try a second operation on a stage 4 glioblastoma.

Where the hell was he supposed to find that doctor? Or get that kind of money?

Ezra pushed his hair out of his eyes. He had to think.

“You look like a surfer,” Jacob said. “That dude in Point Break.”

“He’s dead.”

“You gonna read that Stanford catalog?”


“Why not? You got something better to do today?”

“You’re looking at it,” he said, dropping a mail-in-rebate check into the keep pile.

Jacob finished the sandwich and licked his fingers. “Where to next, little brother?”

“The sink. Wash that plate.”

“Can it sit?”

“I just did the goddamn dishes. I want an empty sink.”

“The water’s cold. I can’t get warm after.”

Ezra looked out the window to the propane tank. Their account had been delinquent so many times that the propane company wouldn’t come unless he pre-paid for the fill-up. Every morning for two weeks now, he’d boiled a pot of water and dragged the bath mat next to the electric stove. They were out of propane. Out of food. After Jacob’s last scan, he was almost out of hope.

“Shit.” His fingers clutched the edge of the table. A splinter pierced the webbing of his right hand. “Shit, shit, shit, shit!”

He swept the pile of mail off the table.

“It’s fine,” Jacob said, setting his plate in the sink. “I’ll do it.”

“No. Go put my coat on.” Jacob changed directions and plucked his puffer coat from the sofa. The sleeves hit two inches above his brother’s wrists. “Hey princess,” he said. “Don’t forget the matching gloves.”

Jacob reached out to ruffle his hair.

He ducked and batted his brother’s hand away. “I hate it when you do that.”

“I know.”

“I mean I really hate it when you do that.”

“I know.” Jacob ran one hand over his shaved head, resting it on the back of his neck. “Just be glad you have hair, man. You don’t miss it until it’s gone.”

“You want me to shave my head to prove you wrong? I will.”

“Hey Ezra,” Jacob said softly. “Thank you.”

“Don’t you say that. Not now.”

“You rather I waited?”

He held his breath. The trailer was shrinking, closing in on him. Everywhere he looked, he saw reminders of the time his brother didn’t have. The bills, the calendar, the magazine subscriptions with expiration dates further away than the doctors’ best-case scenario. “Don’t you thank me. All I did was make a sandwich.” He braced himself against the sink, turning his face to the floor. “All I did was make a fucking sandwich!”

Jacob rested one hand on his shoulder.

The cold leached through him, and he threw off his brother’s arm. “Why aren’t you angry?” he yelled. His eyes began to burn, and he pushed everything that made them burn into the black pit under his heart. “I’d be so goddamn angry.”

Jacob smiled. “Even after this big bad thing, I get the only thing I ever wanted. You’ll still be here when I’m gone.”

The blackness consumed him. He picked up a glass on the counter and hurled it to the floor. Shards hit the baseboards ricocheted like bumper cars. He wanted one of them to hit him, maybe even nick an artery. Serve him right if I went first, he thought. Make him see what it’s like.

Jacob squatted and picked up the mail he’d swept onto the floor, dropping it on the table. “We got work to do. You going to help or not?”

Ezra sighed. He knew there’d be a day when he forgot what his brother looked like, when he’d give anything to be staring into Jacob’s near-lashless blue eyes. But in that moment, seeing the placid acceptance on his brother’s face, he wished he were in Timbuktu. “At least shake the glass out first, you dumbass.”

He snatched the pile of mail and shook it over the floor, then resumed sorting. He tossed the car and health insurance bills back onto the floor. Then he pulled out a flyer printed on a glossy half-sheet. He scanned it once, then twice, wondering if he’d missed something. “This is it.”

“What is?”

He held it up for Jacob to see.

His brother narrowed his eyes as he read the thick block type.

Come see the Sinners’ Bible, the flyer said. You’re invited to an informal Q&A session with Associate Librarian Avi Druckman. Our copy is one of only eleven in the world! See this priceless historical document and hear about its place in history from Professor Elizabeth Brandon. Join us in the Rare Book & Manuscript Room at Ford Library – 6 pm on March 15.

“I don’t get it.” Jacob frowned. “A book?”

“A priceless book.” He shook his head. The only people who used that word were the ones with money. The rest of them knew everything had a price. “This is it. We can do this.”

A university would be much easier to hit than a bank. Banks had security guards who carried guns. A handful of professors would never see it coming.

He glanced at the Farm Bureau calendar on the wall.

The presentation was a month and a half away. Plenty of time to plan.

The flyer showed a big gray building in the background, ugly and modern with tiny Lego windows that probably didn’t open. Two people were in the foreground—a skinny white guy with glasses and an afro, and a smiling blonde who looked more like a movie star than a professor.

“She’s hot,” Jacob said, pointing at the blonde.

“Want to meet her?” he asked. “I think I can arrange it.”

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The Sinner’s Bible

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