Books (Misc.), by Steven Prizeman

story_books_alteri

Art by Nikos Alteri – http://nikosalteri.blogspot.it – click to enlarge

Carson had always been strange when he was alive, so I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised he was strange dead. Dead two weeks and getting stranger – although strange in a very Carson way. Anyone who knew Carson would know what I meant by that.

We met at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. We’d been studying there more than three months before I was sure Carson was his first name, not his second. He was Carson James: some people called him Carson, some James. That was like Carson. Not secretive: enigmatic. It wasn’t a pose, it just seemed to come naturally to him. The way he dressed, spoke, looked at you – everything. He smoked cigars. Smoking was common enough among students back then, but smoking cigars wasn’t. That was odd. In anyone else, it would have seemed affected, but with Carson you’d just think: “Well, that’s Carson!” It was probably those cigars that killed him in the end. Throat cancer, metastasizing to the lungs: dead at 46. Anyone could join the dots.

He always smelt of cigars – stank, some said, unkindly (because he did rub some people the wrong way, Carson). It was part of his aura. Just like the books. The occult books. They added to the aura, no doubt. It was easy to get the wrong idea – most people did. But he wasn’t some whacked-out New Ager or a tormented soul on a spiritual quest – let alone a Satanist, Goth or would-be vampire. Those guys made him laugh. No, with Carson it was all about the books. Just the books. The alchemical diagrams, the engravings, the black letter text, the endpapers, the bindings. He loved all that. They got him a reputation, though, and not a good one. Sometimes he’d play up to it – he could be a joker, Carson. I guess that didn’t do him any favors either.

It was a Tuesday night when I got the call. It was well after ten, so I should have known it’d be bad news. It was Jeff – another old friend from Bowdoin I’d kept up with in touch-and-go fashion.

“Have you heard about Carson?”

“No.” I was already smiling. “What’s he done now?”

“Died.”

I was silent for a moment. “Well, that’s Carson!”

I got the full story, so far as Jeff knew it. Carson had been ill a couple of years. Not enough to slow him down; not enough to make him tell any friends. He wouldn’t have wanted to upset us – that was like Carson, too. About four months back it got a lot worse. By then, it was too late. He’d spent the last two weeks in hospital. At some point, he’d given the staff Jeff’s name – not because he was his best friend but because he was his only friend in Baltimore, so he was the man on the spot. That was it.

I saw Jeff at the funeral the following week, together with a couple of other Bowdoin alums. Also a sister Carson had never mentioned. Turns out his folks were Episcopalian. Nice service. That was in Marblehead, Massachusetts, where he came from. Marblehead seemed a very Carson place, just as Brunswick had. But Baltimore? Carson and his books were always out of place there. And he didn’t even live in a good part of Baltimore; his apartment was in a rough neighborhood. Rough. If I’d heard he’d been shot, I wouldn’t have been surprised.

“It’s not all like The Wire!” He said that last time I saw him, about six years ago. But that was exactly how it looked to me. He laughed right after he’d said it. Said it in a voice graveled down to a Tom Waits rasp, then coughed a thick, syrupy cough. A sign of what was coming, though neither of us saw it.

And now Carson was dead and buried. I was back home in Providence by nightfall.

Three days later, the books arrived.

The FedEx guy could hardly carry the box. I’ve never seen anyone so glad to get a signature. There was a brief note from Carson’s sister. She had drawn the short straw and was in Baltimore, putting her brother’s affairs in order. He’d made some preparations in his final weeks: a ramshackle but valid will and a lot of annotated wishes that were being honored, so far as they could be understood, given his dreadful handwriting. The books had been boxed up before she got there. His sis didn’t elaborate, but I gathered there were a lot of boxes. Before he left for the hospital, Carson had taped a list to the screen of his computer. I was on it and this was my box. That’s all she wrote and I knew I’d never hear from her again.

I wasn’t surprised he’d sent me some books. He was generous, Carson; I was a friend and the books were what he cared about most in the world. That was partly why we’d seen so much less of each other over the years than we ought. After we graduated from Bowdoin we both left Brunswick. I went to Harvard Business School, chasing an MBA and the license to print money it promised back then. (We needn’t go into how that turned out.) Carson went to Yale for his MA, then Bologna – for years – for his PhD on Aldus Manutius and Renaissance printing techniques. I guess neither of us got good career advice. I fetched a box-cutter.

Soon as I opened the package, I got a waft of that old, familiar smell of cigars. It was pretty strong, even though I knew the books had been kept in glass-fronted cabinets to prevent them being impregnated with the odor. The scent cheered me up. That’s Carson! And then my heart sank when I saw what he’d bequeathed me. They were the worst books in his collection. The very worst. And when I say worst, I don’t mean shabby, dog-eared, falling apart. No, some of them were beautiful, damn them. By worst, I mean disgusting, unsettling, disturbing, perverse, degenerate, monstrous, blasphemous. Evil. Black masses? Sure. Spells to torment and kill. Absolutely. Invocations to summon up devils and demons? Natch! How to conduct yourself at a witches’ sabbat? You betcha. The sort of thing Carson laughed at, but unpleasant, all the same. They were a real mix: some in Latin, some medieval French. A couple in German; one Arabic. Some would fit in your pocket; some were as thick as the New York telephone directory. The bindings didn’t bear scrutiny either – there was a stain on one that looked like a tattoo. Five were in English: two bound manuscripts, three printed. I picked one up: scuffed leather covers, crackly, cream-colored pages and an unfriendly typeface. I opened it at random:

 …take thou a Corpse well rotted and drag it Foot first across the threshold of a Lychgate. Do thou thrice and no more than thrice, heedful that no part bigger than a Costard doth fall, else all is ruined. This must thou do on a night of a waning Moon. If thou hearest the cry of an Owl, cease and flee; if thou hearest it not, all shall be well. Do as thou pleasest with the Body thereafter: it mattereth not, for it hath served.

I closed the book, feeling I should wash my hands. Yes, that was one of Carson’s all right. He used to like reading me excerpts at Bowdoin, seeing if he could gross me out. He could, usually. Of course, Carson could pick up a newly purchased work and translate it on the fly – Latin, Greek, whatever. He could have been a tenured professor in any university in the world. Instead, he became a book dealer. Now that’s a great job for someone who loves books, but not for someone who loves them as much as Carson did. You see, it’s a high stakes game, book dealing at his level – he had to sell up to a dozen just to afford each of the ones he couldn’t bear to part with. He never got rich on it: all the money was locked into books he’d never sell. I guess that explained the apartment in Baltimore.

Books he would never sell.

My spirits started to rise again as I realized that Carson hadn’t just sent me the worst part of his collection, but the most valuable.

I emptied the box completely. The only note was at the bottom, underneath the last book – that was like Carson, too! It was a typewritten list of the titles, together with all the details booksellers care about: quarto, octavo or folio, pagination, where and when it was published, type of binding, etc. It ran to a couple of sheets, ending halfway down one. Only then did I find a scribbled message:

 We both know the sort of people who want these books and that they MUST NOT have access to them. I know I can trust you to guard them well. Wish I had time to say more, but time is leaving me behind.

Carson James

I had to laugh. That was like Carson. To leave his most precious possessions to a friend who didn’t want them and couldn’t appreciate them, with the implication that he mustn’t sell them. But I understood the warning all right. Even at Bowdoin, when he was just edging his way into collecting, we had the conversation. About the people he was buying from, selling to and bidding against.

“They don’t actually believe this shit, do they, Carson?”

“Some do, definitely.”

“And do they actually try and cast the spells and do the ceremonies?”

“I imagine some do, now and then.”

“But they’re horrible – and the things that are meant to happen if they work are even worse.”

He laughed.

“Well, I think we can rest assured that they don’t work. So it’s only the ceremonies you need worry about. They’re pretty demanding, all right. But I don’t think the alchemists and necromancers who wrote them down believed any of it either! They were making it up: charlatans preying on the gullibility of their peers and patrons. By concocting such bizarre and revolting ceremonies they were both deterring people from participating and building in a host of reasons why the magic wouldn’t work if anyone did try: the time was wrong, the light, the season, the ingredients. For the buyers, the books were aspirational: it gave them a sense of power to think they could do these terrible things, if they really had to.”

“So,” I said. “Magic as a confidence trick? I’ll buy that. But what if you’re the guy some nut picks as his human sacrifice when he does try it out?”

Carson just exhaled some cigar smoke and shrugged.

“Best not to be around!”

Three o’clock in the afternoon, the day after the books arrived, I got the first phone call.

“Mr Rayner?”

“Yes.”

“Mr Curtis Rayner?”

“Yes.” I could tell from his tone that he already knew who I was.

“I understand you took delivery of a consignment of books yesterday?”

“Yes. Is this Federal Express?”

An amused chuckle.

“No, Mr Rayner, this isn’t Federal Express. The books you received: they were owned by the late Carson James, yes? A great loss – my condolences.”

“You seem to know a lot about Carson’s books.” Then, to draw a line in the sand, I added: “My books.”

“Ah, well, yes, you see, Mr Rayner, that’s just it. I’m afraid they’re not your books. There seems to have been a mix-up. My client has received the books intended for you and you have received the books intended for my client. Naturally, my client wants to correct the error as swiftly as possible and see you get the books Mr James wanted you to have. I trust you are agreeable?”

His old money, New England accent and lawyerly manner were already starting to grate.

“Who did you say your client was? Or you are, for that matter?”

“My name is Thomas Harington, of Harington, Neuberger, Harington. My client prefers to remain anonymous – I’m sure you understand.”

“No. You’ll need to say a whole lot more before I understand. If you think you’ve got the wrong package, I suggest you contact Ms James – she sent them.”

Another chuckle, slightly weary.

“Ah, yes. Ms James. A very strong-willed young woman. I was on the telephone to her much of yesterday, and again today. I explained very clearly how the error must have occurred: Mr James had rather challenging handwriting and he used a European-style crossed 7 that Ms James seems to have confused with a 4. The result: box 4 intended for my client and box 7 intended for you became transposed. Sadly, Ms James has washed her hands of this and says I must deal with you directly.”

“I’m surprised you didn’t threaten to sue her.”

“That remains an option, of course, Mr Rayner. And not just her. But my client is extremely desirous that this matter be resolved swiftly, amicably and discretely. I’m sure you understand.”

“My friend’s just died. He left me some mementoes he cared about. So tell your client the swiftest and most amicable solution is for me to keep my box and for him to keep his.”

I was putting down the phone when I heard him say: “You would be handsomely recompensed for the inconvenience, Mr Rayner. Very handsomely!”

The phone was back at my ear.

“How handsomely?”

“Very!”

“I hate to be crude, Mr Harington, but can you put a dollar value on ‘very’?”

“One hundred thousand.” And that was his opening bid. I was silent – who wouldn’t be? He misinterpreted my silence. “One hundred and fifty thousand.”

“Let me get this straight, Mr Harington: you’re offering me…”

“My client.”

“…your client is offering me one hundred and fifty thousand dollars for a box of books he says is his anyway?”

“Exactly. Very generous, you’ll agree. And all you have to do is say yes, Mr Rayner. We can collect the books this evening.”

“I’ll need to think about it, Mr Harington.”

“Or,” he said, “why don’t we forgo the delay caused by your thinking about it and settle on two hundred thousand, right now?”

“No. I really need to think about it. Call me tomorrow.”

“Will you have a definite answer for my client then, Mr Rayner?”

“You’ll know when you call me.”

“Very well, Mr Rayner, I’ll certainly call. But…” And now his voiced ratcheted up in severity. “My client has some conditions you must respect. You must not attempt to offer these books for sale, nor to have them valued. You must not acknowledge to anyone, either publicly or privately, that you are in possession of these books or have access to them. You must absolutely not allow anyone to see these books. You must, in short, deny all knowledge of these books if anyone other than me asks you about them. If you breach any of these terms, the deal is off. And, in the event that you receive a more lucrative offer from another party, I promise you that I shall not only injunct any sale you attempt, I shall drag you through every kind of slow and expensive litigation you can imagine until you are utterly destitute and wish you had simply given them away. I hope that is clear, Mr Rayner.”

It was a serious threat, but I could sense desperation behind it. I took my chance.

“Now they’ll cost you at least two hundred and fifty thousand. Good day, Mr Harington.” When I put down the phone, my hand was shaking. Goddamn! I sat – slumped – and looked at the books with a new-found respect. Goddamn, Carson!

I know: some people would have been mindful of their late friend’s wishes, firmly resolved never to part with the books entrusted to their care. Indignant that anyone should even attempt to buy them. Me? I was thinking that I could get Harington up to at least three hundred grand next time we spoke. These books were getting sold. Sorry, Carson. I repacked them, trying not to mark the covers with my sweating hands. I was halfway through when it occurred to me that I ought to know who I was dealing with. I went to the laptop and Googled Harington, Neuberger, Harington. They existed all right – a mid-size Boston firm. They did the usual run of work, but specialized in high-value personal clients. I took that to mean that if you were rich you could get them to hide your assets and shield you from tax. Fair enough! All the partners and associates were profiled on their website. I figured that my Harington was the senior partner (the other Harington was his younger brother). He looked much as I’d imagined him: gray, fifties, a little more hatchet-faced. Whatever he was doing with his fees, he wasn’t spending them in restaurants.

I found something else when I went back to the search results: Harington, Neuberger, Harington had a proven track record of injuncting book sales. Three cases in the past five years. They’d won two: proving that one book had been stolen from an old Kingsport family, and that another was burgled from an antique dealer in New Orleans. The third they lost – but they strung it out for years, at no doubt ruinous cost. These book dealers seemed to enjoy playing beggar-my-neighbor – only they knew which cards they all held. They knew what was in Carson’s collection, and that he was dead. Now they were circling, like vultures around a zebra carcass. Hell, I was smiling: far as I could see, I could raise my price to anything less than the cost of a year-long court case and Harington’s client would pay.

But what were the books actually worth? A lot more than I’d been offered, that was obvious. I got the list of titles in front of me and started searching book-selling websites – the fancy ones. I didn’t learn much. Only that none of the books was for sale anywhere – not even in reprint or facsimile editions. Whoever had owned them in the past – Carson included – had guarded them jealously.

Then I tried searching more widely. The results were better. Three types of website cropped up: museums and universities that held copies; occult sites, which discussed them at length – apparently based on sightings of the university editions; and auctioneers – who sometimes sold copies to museums and dealers like Carson. That was what I needed. Within an hour of concentrating on the auction sites I found I could backtrack through Carson’s own purchases of the books sitting in my house – what he’d paid for them three years ago, five, ten.

“Holy shit!” I said it out loud. We were into millions. The Arabic book alone had cost him nearly nine hundred thousand. No wonder Harington had been so quick to fling a hundred k at me. Right now, he was looking cheap.

That was about as much as I could handle for one day, so I went to bed. Eventually, I fell asleep. I woke at about a quarter to four in the morning, the red glow of the clock-radio in my eye, and faint mumbling and whooshing in my ear. Someone was outside. I ran to the window and looked down. He was just stepping back from the front door, dressed in black, his face obscured by both a cap and a ski mask. He must have heard me move the curtains, because he looked up and we stared straight at each other for a moment. He had something in his right hand. I wasn’t sure what, but the moment I saw it I ducked back out of sight. When I heard thick-soled sneakers slapping against asphalt I went back to the window. By then, I couldn’t have caught him if I’d wanted to. I watched him run past my neighbor’s house, then disappear behind the trees screening the next property. A car door slammed and an engine revved immediately – someone had been waiting for him. There was a throaty roar and tires squealed. I could hear the engine for almost a minute, lingering in the pre-dawn air.

A couple of minutes later I was outside, pepper-spray in hand, hoping the neighbors were all still asleep. I wished I had a nine-millimeter, like I considered buying a year ago, the day after I was robbed. Too late, now. I did a quick circuit of the yard, but nothing looked amiss. Until I turned round. Spray-painted above the front door was a sketch of an eye inside a five-pointed star. As occult symbols go, it was pretty on-the-nose. Presumably this was Harington’s way of saying he was watching me. Seems he – or his nameless client – was a player, rather than just a dealer. Or maybe they thought I was a believer and could be intimidated by trick-or-treat antics. But this symbol was exactly the sort of thing I’d seen in Carson’s books, so I wasn’t surprised. Pissed, obviously, but not surprised. With the money I was going to make, I could afford to clean up a hell of a lot of paint. I went back inside, knowing I’d raise the price another fifty k.

I didn’t really sleep after that and was up a couple of hours later. The phone rang while I was eating breakfast. Harington. He got straight to the point.

“I thought we agreed, Mr Rayner, that you would not attempt to value my client’s books.”

My books. They haven’t left the house – and no one’s been in. Not even that guy last night. Was he one of yours?”

“Let me stop you there, Mr Rayner, before you make an unfounded and potentially actionable accusation. The books! My client tells me that someone told him – someone with access to sophisticated software for tracking search terms – that there was an alarming surge in references to titles in the late Mr James’s collection last night.”

“Well…” I was playing it cool. “I guess word’s got around that they’re on the market. And they are on the market, Mr Harington, unless you want them for, let’s say, seven hundred and fifty thousand dollars.” That figure just came to me, but I meant to stick to it.

“Now you look here, Mr Rayner. That is a quite outrageous sum. I think you are abusing my client’s generosity – of both money and goodwill. Neither of which is boundless.”

“What can I say? It’s a seller’s market. Anyway…” I deployed some of my research. “… a copy of the Grammateous Codex alone sold for nearly six hundred thousand at Sotheby’s in 2008. I dare say it’ll go for a lot more today. Your client can make back his money soon enough, if he wants to. Imagine what it’d cost him to buy them all separately? Or what he’d have to pay you to stop me selling them? Seven hundred and fifty k and you’ve got a deal. Have we got a deal, Mr Harington?

He managed to convey a great deal of annoyance in the silence that followed.

“I’ll have a word with my client, Mr Rayner.”

It was a pretty quick word. Harington was back on the line in three minutes.

“It seems you have a deal, Mr Rayner. Seven hundred and fifty thousand dollars it is.”

“I want half transferred to my bank account and half in cash.” He’d as good as told me his client could hack computers – I wasn’t about to trust it all to virtual money.

“Cash might be a problem, Mr Rayner. My client cannot possibly access such a large sum before tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow? For a second you had me worried, Mr Harington. I don’t mind waiting till tomorrow. You take your time.”

“I’m afraid time is a factor, Mr Rayner. One that is against us. My client is keen to secure the books before hostile parties take an interest. If you were to be robbed before the books could be collected… well, that wouldn’t benefit you or my client. Not at all.”

“I think I can take care of myself for one night, Mr Harington.”

“But this will be the third night you’ve had the books in your home, Mr Rayner. Some might consider you lucky not to have attracted unwanted attention already.”

“The guy who sprayed my house was unwanted. Was he with you, Mr Harington?

“Let us not obsess about that, Mr Rayner. I’m starting to think you do not fully appreciate the interest these books have generated. Or the sort of people who want them.”

“Oh, I’ve a pretty good idea, Mr Harington.” Nuts with money, that was who. “Tomorrow morning, I’m going to check my bank account is three hundred and seventy-five k heavier. If it is, call round at three in the afternoon – with the rest in cash. It’s meant to be a nice day. Maybe I’ll wait outside watching all the moms pass by as they collect their kids from school – the road’s good and busy that time of day.”

Harington sighed, but he accepted it all the same and we ironed out the details. Before hanging up, he said: “See you tomorrow, Mr Rayner. If you’re still around tomorrow.” It seemed an odd point in the conversation at which to threaten me, but the jerk with the spraycan showed Harington (or his client) wasn’t averse to applying a little pressure. I think he’d just told me I’d pushed them as far as was wise. I could live with that. I hunkered down and waited.

I don’t know when I fell asleep at the kitchen table, but I sure as hell know when I woke. There was a thunderous roar that just kept growing and the house shook as if sideswiped by an eighteen-wheeler. Crockery was tumbling inside cupboards, glasses shattering, the room filling with a fine, dry mist as the ceiling cracked and plaster crumbled. Then the screeching began: a painful, high-pitched metal-on-metal grating. I tried to stand but the floor undulated beneath me. The screeching rose in pitch even as the roaring grew deeper. My ears popped like I was in an express elevator and the windows cracked, every one turning in an instant to frosted glass as a thousand fractures snaked across them. Yet not one shard fell from the frames – the shattered panes just gazed blankly, each a milky cataract. A second later, a wave of silence crashed upon me, reverberating until the ambient sound level returned to normal. Outside, my car alarm yelped.

I staggered to the front door, vaguely aware of the ozone smell of subway rails. I had to wrench the door, the frame was so distorted – and went outside. The stench was worse in the drive. Much worse. I fell to my knees, retching onto the tarmac. After a minute of dry heaving, I managed to stand. Everything was still, except for my car and a dog barking frantically somewhere. I saw a couple of curtains twitch, but that was it: the power was on everywhere – streetlights and houses both – and no sign of damage anywhere other than my property. A couple of dozen slates had left my roof and shattered across the drive. Had I been pipe bombed? I fetched a flashlight and checked under the car, then studied the locks until I was sure they hadn’t been tampered with. Then I shut off the alarm. I spent several minutes scouting the yard – bushes, flowerbeds, trashcans, everything – till I was sure nothing had been planted. There was no new graffiti, but the old symbol looked pale and obvious in the light of the lopsided moon directly above. I was keen to be rid of it – but there was no time to worry about that now.

When I went back inside and forced the door shut, a couple of the shattered window panes finally slumped from their frames, avalanching countless tiny fragments across sills and floor. I knew how they felt. I had a couple of coffee-and-whiskies and stayed awake till dawn. What I didn’t do was call the cops. I didn’t want anything getting in the way of the deal.

At six, tired, angry and more than a little scared, I started sweeping up broken glass and cautiously pushing out the remaining windows before they fell. I didn’t feel better till a few minutes after nine, when I checked my bank account and found three hundred and seventy-five thousand dollars that hadn’t been there last night. I felt good enough to eat some breakfast. I needed a shower, but I didn’t want to be caught with my pants down if anyone turned up unexpectedly, so I settled for a change of shirt. I made sure it was a loose one to cover the pepper-spray, tucked into the waist at the small of my back. Then I went downstairs to wait.

Just before three, I heard an engine approaching – an engine loud enough to dominate the rest of the afternoon traffic. It pulled into the driveway a minute later: black 1973 Mustang, good restoration job. There were three men inside – two young ones in the front, an older guy in the back. I watched them from the doorway as they parked and got out, my right hand resting behind my back.

The older man was in his sixties, gray-bearded and grizzled, with lines etched into his forehead above his wire-framed glasses. He wore a tweed jacket and jeans that didn’t suit him. The younger men were dressed like any kids you might meet on a campus or in a mall: one was pale, the other a shade more athletic, almost muscular. I couldn’t help glancing at his sneakers and thinking they would sound familiar if he ran down the street. The younger pair walked to the back of the Mustang and popped the trunk. The old guy came toward me.

“Mr Rayner? You’ve had a visitor, I see.”

“Where’s Harington?”

“He should be here any minute. He was caught at the last stoplight. We don’t really need him to conclude our deal, Mr Rayner – but that’s what you wanted.” He had a dry, weary tone. He offered me his hand. I took it reluctantly and he held tight, staring me in the eye. “You don’t seem to realize how lucky you are, Mr Rayner – and I don’t just mean this money you don’t deserve. That could have been better spent elsewhere. You realize we’re paying you to save your life? If it were just your life, I’d leave you to it… but it isn’t, of course.”

He slackened his grip and I dragged my hand free. He didn’t have the manner of a crazy old man, but he definitely had the eyes. I didn’t want to get into a debate with him and, anyway, I was focusing on the two young men, returning from the back of the Mustang. One was carrying a box – same size and style as mine. Scrawled on the side, in Carson’s writing, was a 7 that could easily have been a 4. The jock set it down a couple of yards behind the old guy. While he did that, a silver Mercedes pulled up, Harington at the wheel. As he got out, my eyes slid from him to the briefcase he carried.

“Mr Rayner.” His handshake was brief and formal – for him, this was just business. “Your money.”

“Show me.” Maybe I was getting paranoid, but I wanted that case opened while they were beside it – to be sure there were no nasty surprises inside. Harington braced it against his body and raised the lid. So that’s what three hundred and seventy-five k looks like. It really didn’t need a whole briefcase – the money looked lost in there, diminished. I dismissed the thought.

“Thank you, Mr Harington. Now open the box, please.”

One of the kids looked to the old guy for a nod of assent before stripping back a length of duct tape. I stepped closer and peered inside before cautiously pawing through the contents. Mad Princes of Renaissance Germany. The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals. The Encyclopedia of Heresies and Heretics. Carson’s usual light reading. All modern books – the sort of thing he’d had on his shelves at Bowdoin. In fact, I realized, these were the very books he’d had at Bowdoin. That’s why he wanted me to have them – so I could relive those days of fun and hope and friendship. I felt something hard in my throat but swallowed it down – I wasn’t going to tear-up in front of those four creeps.

“They’re all there, Mr Rayner.” The old guy edged nearer and tapped the side of the box with his foot. “We put them back exactly as they were, as soon as we realized Mr James intended that you have them. Not for a moment did we think of attempting to profit from them.”

“Good for you.” I straightened up. “Are they worth as much as the ones I’ve got?”

“No.”

“Thought not.”

He gave me an irritated smile to match his glare.

“Charming though this is, Mr Rayner, we have a long drive ahead of us. So may we now, please, have our books?”

“They’re inside.”

I stepped toward the house and they all moved as if to go with me.

“Whoa!” My hand was at the small of my back. “You! Spraycan guy.” I pointed at the jock. “You can fetch them. The rest of you wait out here.”

I made sure the jock walked ahead of me going inside, and followed him as he struggled back out with the box. He took it straight to the back of the Mustang and opened it up as the old guy and the nerd peered over his shoulder. I could hear them checking off the titles against the list. Harington remained by the doorway, near me.

“What did you say you do for a living, Mr Rayner?”

“Based on percentage of income, I guess you’d have to say I’m a book dealer.”

“Quite so!” He produced a pen and papers from his jacket. “Please sign here, here and here. Just to acknowledge your receipt of the money and to renounce any claim of ownership on the items listed.”

I wasn’t about to get stiffed at the last minute, so I made them wait while I read it through: Harington patiently; the old guy – not so much, pacing the drive.

I signed the papers and gave them to Harington.

“Thank you, Mr Rayner. Well played… I hope.” He walked back to his Mercedes.

Before returning to the already-revving Mustang, the old guy paused long enough to thrust an envelope at me.

“Here! It was in the box.” I saw my name in Carson’s handwriting. I stared at the letter for a moment before turning it over. It hadn’t been opened.

The Mustang’s door slammed and I looked up in time to see it reverse into the street at speed and muscle its way out of town. I took the briefcase inside, then the new box of books, and shut the door. After counting the money again, I slit open the envelope and took out the single, closely scrawled, cigar-scented sheet.

Dear Curtis,

By the time you read this, I’ll be dead.

I always wanted to start a letter like that, although I had hoped to put it off another thirty years or so.

I’m sorry I didn’t stay in touch more – I got too wrapped up in the books. And it’s the books I need to talk to you about – you know the ones I mean. As soon as I’m dead, there’ll be a lot of interest in my collection. A lot!

That’s not as good as it sounds. It’s only recently that I began to appreciate just how determined, just how ruthless, some occultists can be. THEY REALLY BELIEVE THIS STUFF! They would certainly attempt some of the foulest spells, given the chance – and you heard enough at Bowdoin to know what components and sacrifices that might entail. It doesn’t bear thinking about.

I should burn them, of course, but that would be going against everything I value in life. I have therefore decided to take them out of circulation by bequeathing every volume that might be of interest to ‘the nuts’ (as you rightly called them) to the library of Miskatonic University. They have an excellent collection of restricted material and are well used to keeping it under lock and key. If anything, they take an even dimmer view of the people who seek out this knowledge than we do – they even maintain a fund specifically for buying up this sort of thing whenever it comes onto the market. It’s a good thing they have some well-heeled patrons! I won’t put them to that trouble or expense, of course – it’ll be a weight off my mind to know they’ll take care of things. I’ve already sounded them out – they were horrified to hear just what I’ve got!

It’s a shame my friends and family can’t benefit from these books – they’re worth a hell of a lot – but it just wouldn’t be right to release them into the world to cause havoc. In any case, my more mainstream collection has grown like Topsy and I am dividing this pretty widely. In your box, you will find a lot of things I hope you will enjoy reading, plus something rather special tucked away among them: a medieval book of hours. French, fourteenth century. It’s probably worth nearly $200,000 – maybe a quarter of a million, if you can find a Russian oligarch in a good mood. It really is quite beautiful. I know you always wanted to make it big, and things didn’t quite work out – I hope this will help you.

But going back to the other books…

Some people might think they have gone to you rather than Miskatonic. Dangerous people. I apologize if any of them end up on your doorstep. But there is one way you can protect yourself: by using their own mad credulity against them. There is a symbol they consider possessed of great power. I strongly advise you to follow the directions on the reverse of this note and paint it prominently on your house. Several, ideally, but one, at the very least, above the main entrance. If they see that, they’ll take you seriously and – hopefully – back off. (I don’t expect you to recite the incantations, of course, but I include them for your amusement.)

Well, I guess that’s it, old sport!

Carson

That final Fitzgeraldian flourish – that was very Carson. I turned over the sheet and wasn’t surprised to see the symbol that stared from the front of my house, complete with notes on the correct proportions, ideal ink, time of night to make the sign, outlandish words to recite – the whole nine yards. There was even a list of the demons against which it would be proof: every name unpronounceable. Carson had clearly enjoyed himself. I guess Harington’s client, thinking along the same lines, thought it would scare off a rival. (Although it hadn’t stopped whoever came round to screw with me last night, of course.)

It was a long note. I felt touched that Carson had taken the time and trouble to write it in his last days before that final trip to the hospital. As farewells go, it was brave, moving, decent, sincere – and kind of cool. Well, that’s Carson! I snapped out of it then, had another coffee-and-whiskey, and called a glazier.

That was almost a month ago. I haven’t heard from Harington, Miskatonic or anyone else – so I seem to have come out of it pretty well. It was unsettling, though. Stressful. So I guess the bad dreams aren’t surprising – I’ll be glad when they stop. Can’t be long now. Then I can start enjoying the good things in life. That little book of hours Carson left me is definitely one of those. I take it off the shelf sometimes and just study the pictures of castles and peasants and knights and their ladies – the colors as sharp as the day they were drawn. And the pin-sharp calligraphy, the illuminated capitals, and the flowers and swashes and strange beasts decorating every page, dancing through the text. Now that really is a thing of beauty. It’s a great temptation, too, knowing it’s worth a quarter of a million – I do like money, there’s no denying it. It’s a very great temptation. But every now and then, as I turn those pages, I catch the smell of cigars. And I smile.

steven prizemanSteven Prizeman is a freelance writer, graphic designer and copy editor – working mostly on corporate publications, rather than fun stuff, and mainly in the charming world of print, rather than the newfangled online one, which confuses and frightens him. He lives in the small town of Amersham, Buckinghamshire, southern England – the last home and final resting place of Arthur Machen, who, like HP Lovecraft, is a strong influence on his work.

He has published three novels, all available from Amazon.

  • Arise, Black Vengeance: a blood-soaked Renaissance-set Young Adult epic.
  • Huck: a reworking of the adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, based on the premise that all the ghosts and superstitions they believed in were true.
  • Nietzsche Against Dracula: this delivers exactly what the title promises.

Follow him online at stevenprizeman.com, where sample chapters and several Arthur Machen-inspired short stories may be downloaded free of charge.

If you enjoyed this story, let Steven know know by commenting — and please use the Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus buttons below to spread the word.

Story illustration by Nikos Alteri.

Return to the table of contents

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s