HORLA FICTION (May 2019)

 

THE BOOKWORM

by EDWARD AHERN

 

 

GEORGE had arrived outside the house two hours before the estate sale opened so he could gain a few minutes on his competitors. Once through the door and given a number he’d rushed to the mansion’s library and began scanning titles. The Truro Bear by Mary Oliver was signed and inscribed, and George stuck it in his cloth bag before the other book-vultures could claw it.

‘Large assortment of collectable books’ the ad had specified. It was a half-lie, thousands of books, yes, but most could be found for a dollar at a church sale. George slithered through the thickening crowd in front of the bookshelves, finding five more saleable books before giving up and moving on to the study.

He noticed a two-shelf bookcase behind the desk and pulled out a large book whose dust jacket proclaimed The Codebreakers. But George saw that the dust jacket hid a plain, leather-bound tome whose text was all strange characters.

“That’s mine!”

George turned and saw a red-faced, thick-set man who yelled again. “I saw it first.”

“You may have seen it but I’m holding it. It’s mine now.” George dropped the book into his bag and turned away. The large man scowled but backed off. George prowled through several more rooms and decided to leave.

The pro-forma smile of the woman at the check-out table disappeared when she saw that the dust jacket hid a different book. “What’s this?”

“Dunno. I found it that way.”

“I’ll have to charge you more.”

“How much?”

Her expression said she suspected thievery. “Forty dollars.”

“That’s outrageous.” George started to give her the book, but noticed that the large man had followed him out and could overhear them. If another vulture wanted the book it must be worth something. “Okay,” he said and paid for the seven books.

Once home, George logged in his acquisitions. The autographed Mary Oliver book, given her recent death, could be resold on ebay for ten times what he’d paid for it, the five other books from the library shelves for perhaps three times their cost. And that left the leather volume.

He picked it up and removed the camouflaging dust jacket. The soft leather cover had a complex mandala embossed on the front, but no markings or words. The inside text looked at a guess like Sanskrit, but the title page was in English: The Pathway, no author listed. The preface, also in English, was written in large script:

‘This volume is the tantric path of dark enrichment. You who now read this are not competent to witness the journey, much less to undertake it. You should greatly fear even this touch. Hide this book beyond your memory, or better still burn it before reading it so it will not re-exist until after your lifetime.’

George set the book down and considered options. The preface was the usual pretentious “Violate this tomb and die” warning. Volumes on the occult commanded a premium, and if this book had a provable history it might be worth five figures. He fired up his laptop and plugged in the name of the recently deceased woman whose estate had housed the book. Lovina Willman. 

Married to Edward, no children. Reclusive. Charitable in that minimal way the wealthy have. Educated at some school called Enlightenment College, which had gone under forty-five years before. Committed to an asylum where she died. Nothing significant.

But before giving up George looked her up using her maiden name, Thoth. And there she was in full pre-marital intrigue. Founding member of the Hellfire Club in Connecticut. Accused by neighbors of lighting illegal fires at degenerate parties every spring and fall. Arrested but released in the disappearance of several neighborhood pets. Excommunicated from the Catholic church. Bad girl, George thought, but the Pathway didn’t prevent her death.

He wandered through the internet a bit longer. Tantric mysticism entries were listed by the thousands, but ‘Pathway’ just showed him addiction recovery programs. On the off chance the book was really valuable, George stashed it in a disguised stairwell cubby before photographing and posting his other acquisitions for sale. As he was cleaning up his desk his land line phone rang.

Customers called using that phone. George didn’t recognize the caller ID number, but picked up anyway. “Diogenes Rare Books.”

“We encountered each other at the estate sale today. You have a book I want. I’ll give you eighty dollars, twice what you paid. I can stop by your house this evening to pick it up.”

“Who is this? How do you know my address?”

“John Arachsmith. Don’t worry, you were easy to find. Very few people would be interested in a book like The Pathway, you’d have a really hard time reselling it. I can give you cash right now, no fussing with posting it on line. And you’re not the type to be able to take a personal interest in the book.”

“How would you know that? Wait, how did you know the title? It was concealed.”

“Call it intuition. Shall I come over?”

George’s tone became shrill. “No, and don’t call again. If you’re willing to pay eighty I’m sure I can find someone else who’ll pay a couple hundred.”

“Mr. Shelton, I am obliged to tell you that the book is dangerous. Its knowledge is… not to be absorbed safely… despite what it offers. I’ll pay you the two hundred.”

“Thank you, no. Please don’t call again.”

“Ah. As you think best, of course. Goodbye, Mr. Shelton.” The words expressed disappointment, but their tone seemed almost happy.

George hung up and went upstairs to bed. His wife had divorced him some years before, and he’d discovered that he preferred living alone. When the occasional urge struck him, he would call one of two women friends for dinner, good conversation, relaxed sex and departure without entanglements.

Despite taking his nightly dose of valium, George’s sleep was restless, waking several times with anxiety twinges. In the morning he went downstairs to discover chaos. Books had been pulled from shelves and tossed randomly around the den. Dust jackets, the most expensive part of a collectable book, had been pulled off and sometimes torn. George rushed over to the stairwell and pulled out the fake wood panel. The books inside were undisturbed, the leather Pathway resting on top of the pile like a brown grave marker.

Fear held onto him as he was calling the police. He’d heard nothing during the ransacking, and the intruder could have easily killed him. The cops promised a prowl car would arrive quickly. It took a half-hour, and George spilled his coffee when they called to him from inside the house.

“Mr. Shelton?”

“Who? How did you get in?”

“It’s officers Sinclair and Rogers. Your locks had been cut out and then the wood section stuck back on. We need to see some ID.”

Once George proved he was George, the cops went through the house, snapping a few pictures of the trashed downstairs rooms.

“What was taken, Mr. Shelton?”

“Ah, nothing so far as I can tell.”

“Are there any disagreements with your neighbors? Maybe some teenage boys that you reported?”

“No, nothing like that. It’s a quiet neighborhood. The only thing I can think of is a disagreement I had yesterday with a guy named Arachsmith about a book. I can give you his phone number, but that’s all I know about him.”

George could tell from the cop’s body language that they considered the incident to have deflated from home invasion to nuisance vandalism. The two policemen made polite noises, took some notes, and quickly excused themselves.

The cutout panel lay next to the front door. George found some heavy-duty glue and stuck it back into place. It would have to do until he could get the door replaced. He did a rough clean up of the downstairs and sat down to think.

If the break in was about the book it must be something really special. He retrieved it from the cubby, opened it up, and almost dropped it. The first page of the first chapter had a serrated edge that cut into his thumb, leaving blood on the page. George reflexively licked his thumb and tasted something bitter. He dug a bandage out of the medicine cabinet, wrapped his thumb, and returned to the book. He almost dropped it again.

 The text, which had been in angular, unreadable characters, was now in handwritten English.

You were cautioned, George Shelton, but have entered. So be it. The way holds darkness and pain, the end is for now indescribable. The study is arduous, the learning is great. You must commit in ignorance to a vow which is not breakable. This is the stepping off. The last place to turn around. Close the book and be merely scarred by unanswered questions. Read further and be bound.’

It’s a book, for Christ’s sake, just a book. George put it down on his desk and considered. Nobody he knew would have bothered to set up something like this. Maybe he was delusional. He reopened the book to the first page, squinted, and saw the same words. Okay, time for help.

George made a quick call, dropped the book into his travel bag, walked out of his house, and drove to the home of his least unfriendly competitor, Philip Keeler.

“This better be good, George, you’ve interrupted my time trials for the crossword puzzle contest in Stamford.”

“Thanks for seeing me.”

Once inside the house, George pulled out the volume and handed it over to Phil, who whistled. “Feels like a calf skin cover.” He riffled the pages and nodded appreciatively. “Linen paper, the best. Looks like a dialect of Sanskrit, would have to ask a linguist to verify which one.

“What about the English on the first page, with the blood stain?”

Phil riffled back through the book. “What English? What blood stain? It’s all in that squiggle.”

George looked over Phil’s shoulder at the book and clutched his arm.

“Ow! What the hell, George. It looks like an okay south Asian religious text, but unless you can find a Tibetan monk with lots of money it’s just going to be a shelf-weight.”

George’s stomach hurt from nervous fear. “Two hundred dollars and it’s yours. Phil.”

“What? I don’t go anywhere near this kind of stuff. Fiction first editions, that’s where the money is. Here, take it back.”

George took the book in both hands and slid it back into his bag. After a few minutes of gossip about who’d scored big with which books he left Phil’s house and got back in his Tercel. Before he started up he pulled the book back out, opened it, and stared at the English script.  He slammed the book shut, tossed it on the passenger seat and muttered to himself most of the way home.

Once inside his unlockable front door he hit the call log, found Arachsmith and redialled.

“The number you have reached is no longer in service.”

Damn it to hell. There goes my chance to unload it for two hundred.

George set the book up against his photo screen and snapped pictures of the cover and a sample page, then posted it on ebay for twenty-five dollars or best offer. The description was laughable.

‘Arcane manual, one of a kind, about three hundred pages, no illustrations. Text appears to be an early variant of Sanskrit. Of great historical and/or magical significance for the right reader.’

And that’s not me. If I never read it, it can’t harm me.

He writhed that night in nightmare after nightmare – long, sharp fingernails poking through his eyeballs and into his brain, a dream of whipping small children into obedience, then a ritual murder of his ex-wife.

George shuddered himself awake at four am, double stepped downstairs, lit a fire in the fireplace, and tossed in the book. The kindling, paper and branches in contact with the book smoldered and turned black. After fifteen minutes, when George pulled it back off the grate, the book felt cold to his touch.

His lip quivered in panic, and George felt a trickle of drool run down the side of his chin. He threw on pants, shirt and shoes, grabbed the book and went out into the predawn dark. He drove much too fast to the city library, ran up to the outside book return chute and threw the book in. Get lost in there, you son-of-a-bitch!

George drove home slowly. As he walked up to the house he noticed that the front door, which couldn’t latch properly after the break-in, was ajar, as if something had pushed it open. In the sideways dawn light that came through his windows George saw the book resting on his desk, open to the first chapter. He cried.

After ten minutes George told himself to toughen up. He made a pot of coffee to help him think, but couldn’t keep the coffee down, and ran several times into the bathroom to vomit. His last upchuck was bloody.

Damned if I do, dead if I don’t. I didn’t do anything wrong, I don’t deserve this. He felt like crying again but no tears came. If I kill myself, will it haunt me?

The stomach cramps crippled him up again, and when they subsided, George sat down in front of the book and began to read. As his eyes shifted from one page to the next the text on each page swirled from Sanskrit to English and then back again once his focus changed.

The words were an obscene, endless prose poem; ever on-rolling description waves of evil costumed as good, of seemingly noble actions riddled with moral decay, of ethical discipline ridden by sadists, of apparently unselfish toil serving as self-flagellation, of love as the dark reflection of self-lust. The ever-blacker poem carried George along for its hundreds of pages, two days of constant reading, at the end of which the remnants of his being wanted only departure.

George staggered up from the desk, unaware that he had soiled himself hours before, and weaved into the kitchen. He yanked open a drawer, took out a dull butcher knife, and began to saw through the underside of his forearms. He felt no pain. George stood in the kitchen losing blood until he passed out and dropped to the floor, where he died without thought.

A half-hour later the front door swung outward. A thick set man, not florid but unusually red faced, entered the house. He walked over to George’s desk and gently closed and picked up The Pathway. He took a dustjacket out from the folder he carried and encased the tome. The dustjacket spine read Understanding Ourselves. He carefully slid the book into George’s bookcase and, without glancing at George, turned to go. He had several other errands.

 

 

 

***

 

 

Ed Ahern, of Connecticut, USA, resumed writing after forty odd years in foreign intelligence and international sales. He’s had over two hundred stories and poems published so far, and four books. Ed works the other side of writing at Bewildering Stories, where he sits on the review board and manages a posse of five review editors.