THE lack of customers who had visited his shop during the day left Fable unperturbed. He conducted most of his trade in occult books online. The shop was useful only because it gave him a place to store his merchandise. Moreover, in this neglected town in south-west Scotland, the rent was low.
Fable pulled the shop’s metal shutters down, locked them and began the short walk to his flat. He enjoyed the empty streets of a December evening. Their sense of gloom, enhanced by the dilapidated Victorian buildings that lined them, contributed to a satisfying feeling of isolation and timelessness.
He considered the book that had arrived by the afternoon post. It was a volume he’d sought for months and which he’d acquired by luck from the private library of a recently dead businessman. The latter’s relative, unaware of the book’s true worth, had sold it for a song. Dated 1906, it recounted the activities of a European group of sorcerers named die Schatten: the Shadows. Collectors worldwide would pay well for such a work.
A gust of freezing wind interrupted Fable’s musings about his good fortune. He hunched forward and heard someone call his name. The voice pronounced the syllables with a melodic hiss. Stopping by a street light, Fable looked over his shoulder. Nobody was there. He frowned and was about to moe on when he saw his shadow cast by the light. It was the silhouette of a figure in a cloak and trilby.
Even though he knew what he was wearing, Fable glanced at his clothes and confirmed that he had on his usual jeans and parka. Bewildered, he peered at the shadow. It adjusted the angle of its head to display a prominent nose and chin, both of which contradicted Fable’s rounded profile. Then two hands emerged from the cloak, the fingers curled like claws poised to grab their prey.
Fable ran. He pounded along the pavement, fumbling in a pocket for his key. Reaching his flat, he thrust open the door and banged it behind him. He slumped, panting, in the hallway.
In his haste, Fable hadn’t turned on the hallway’s bare bulb. But he wasn’t in the dark. A street light outside the flat shone into his lounge. The radiance passed through the room’s open door and across his slouched body, and created a shadow in a cloak and trilby alongside him.
Prickling with sweat, Fable scrambled into the lounge and headed for the window. He thought he would draw the curtains, shut out the street light and dispel the shadow. The coffee table thwarted him. He caught the toe of his shoe on its leg, tripped and fell face down across the sofa. He immediately felt the ice-cold fingers of the shadow clench the back of his neck.
Fable struggled to stand, his legs and arms thrashing around. The shadow’s fingers exerted greater pressure. A nearby standard lamp fell over. The impact jarred the switch and the lamp came on. The shadow’s grip loosened. In that instant, Fable realised he didn’t need an absence of light: he required the opposite. With a violent twist, he fell from the sofa and shook the hands from his neck.
Springing to his feet, Fable rushed through the flat, putting on the lights. Finally, he entered the kitchen. He pressed the switch and every bulb in the flat went out. A fuse had blown. He’d forgotten how easy it was to overburden the antiquated electrics.
The kitchen was dark and shadowless. Its window, which had no curtain or blind, overlooked a brick wall a metre away. At this time of evening, light never penetrated. Fable leaned on a counter to catch his breath. The moment he did so, a blaze of illumination filled the room. It came from beyond the window. Squinting against the glare, Fable saw candles burning fiercely from inside a human skull.
Groaning, Fable turned away, knowing what to expect. He stared at the shadow’s cloaked bulk and the sharp features topped by the trilby. Last of all, he gazed at the fingers extending towards him.
“Wait,” Fable said. “The book that came today: Die Schatten are punishing me for treating it like a commodity rather than a hallowed text. I’m right, aren’t I?”
The shadow responded by clutching Fable’s throat and squeezing. Accepting the inevitable, Fable almost shrugged. He no longer had the strength or will to resist.