I held up the book. “I’m so sorry. I think my friend stole this the other day.”
He scowled. His face was so old, his wrinkles magnified every expression. “Yes. She did.” He had a faint European accent.
“I’d like to pay for it, if that’s okay.”
He walked over to a wood phone stand at the back of the room, next to the last bookcase. He tapped the fat buttons of a calculator. “That will be two hundred and five dollars and nineteen cents.”
Leave it to Kell to steal the most expensive damned book in the store.
It wasn’t really, but that’s what it felt like.
I handed him two hundred and ten.
“I don’t have change,” he said.
“What?” I started to object. I took a breath. “Fine. Whatever.” Call it a theft tax.
He put the money in a drawer and headed for the back.
“I don’t suppose you could help me.”
“Dude. Can you at least pretend to be helpful?”
He squinted at me. “It wouldn’t be very convincing.”
I held up The Sacred Marriage. “This is like a history book.”
“It’s not ‘like’ a history book,” he said. “It is a history book.”
“Yeah. Fine. That’s what I said. Do you have any books on alchemy? And—” I stopped. I was going to say ‘like’ again. “The sacred marriage that aren’t history? Something more like a how-to guide.”
“Alchemy isn’t a programming language,” he chided. “There are treatises. Monographs. There are not, as far as I know, any ‘how-to’ guides.”
I waited. I hate people like that.
“Through there.” He pointed to the open archway to his left. “Turn right. Go through the parlor. Turn right again.”
I took a step. I looked to the front of the house. “Won’t that take me right back here?”
He repeated the instructions, louder. “Through there. Turn right. Go through the parlor. Turn right again.”
I sighed. “Fine.” I did as he said, careful to avoid the stacks of books on the floor. The wood slats creaked a few times. And in moments, I was back in the living area.
And there he was. Waiting.
“Go on,” he urged.
I turned my palms up. “Go on with what? Was the room supposed to look different or something?”
“Ah.” He scowled. Deeply. And shuffled back into the kitchen.
I sighed. Jerk. I spun slowly in a circle, glancing over all the books, shelved and not. I sighed and started going through them, one at a time. There had to be something.
After awhile, I heard him step back into the room. I didn’t look. I was squatting next to the bottom shelf, which is where all the large books were. I was hoping for something like an alchemical encyclopedia, maybe with references.
He cleared his throat. “This is a bookstore. NOT a library.”
“I know that. Can’t I just—” I was turning my head to argue my case when my eye caught the title, in between all the others: The Long Vacant Cupboard.
I replaced the big book in my hand and pulled it out.
“Should have done that the first time,” he said.
He squinted at me for some sign of recognition. “You really don’t know anything? You’re not even a Wiccan or one of those girls who cut themselves to feed the vamps?”
I shook my head.
He harumphed. “A book, young lady, is the most magical thing there is. It is the only spell”—he lifted a faded hardbound from the shelf—“that’s patent.” He slapped the cover as if to show it was real. “A spell you can touch.” He shook it.
“Yes. A spell. You know what that is, don’t you?”
I rolled my eyes.
“Words,” he said, “that make magic.”
“I know what a spell is.”
“They’re about the only magic left. That regular folks can touch anyway.” He looked at the shelves. “But even they’re going away.” He reshelved the tome in his hand.
“If a book is magic, then how is magic different than anything else?”
“Who said it was?”
He started to speak again but I interrupted him. “She stole the book when you were giving the speech, didn’t she? Turned your back and she was gone.”
He shuffled over and snatched The Long Vacant Cupboard from my hands. “The books are for sale.” He turned to put it back on the shelf.
“Fine. How much is it?”
He checked. “Eighty-nine ninety-nine. Plus tax.” Then he shelved it.
“Jeez, dude. I need to eat.”
“So do I,” he objected. “We buy books as well.”
I looked at the one by my feet. The Sacred Marriage. The one I’d just bought. I handed it to him.
He took it and examined it thoroughly. Like he’d never seen it before. “I’ll give you forty dollars for it.”
“WHAT? I just gave you two hundred!”
“Depreciation,” he said.
What. An. Asshole. “A hundred,” I said.
I held out my hand. “Then give it back.”
He looked at it in his. “Fifty.”
“Eighty or I walk.”
He scowled. Then he turned for the back. “Criminal,” he muttered.
“Dude. What. Ever.” I took money out of my purse, added it to what he handed me, and grabbed The Long Vacant Cupboard from the shelf. “I’d like to buy this book,” I said all innocently.
He tapped on the calculator on the phone stand. The wood was old and scuffed. “That will be ninety-seven dollars and twenty cents, please.”
I counted out a hundred dollars in fives and twenties and handed it to him.
He recounted them in front of me. “I don’t have change,” he said.
I rolled my eyes. “Fine. Whatever. Just give me the damned book.”
He scowled again. “Language.” He handed it to me.
“Manners,” I retorted with bug eyes. “Can I sit?” I pointed toward the dining room. “Or are you gonna charge me for that, too?”
“You can use the chair.”
“The chair is covered—” I stopped. The books had been set on the floor.
I looked around. I didn’t see or hear anyone.
“Thank you, Charles,” the old man called. “Always did have a thing for young girls,” he muttered. He turned for his workshop, then snapped back to me. “We close promptly at 5:00,” he said. He looked at his watch. “That’s one hour and forty-seven minutes.”
I flashed the clock on my phone. I waggled it and pursed my lips like ‘Oooooooo, a magic lighted timepiece!’
So, the book pretty much said the same thing the old man did—that there was a time when magic was part of the world, same as anything else, which is why everyone in every pre-modern culture everywhere believed in it, but that there are only bits and pieces left, like books, and that everything else has been obscured by The Masters, also sometimes called the High Arcane. Near as I can tell, they were like a council of the most powerful practitioners of the time. They’re the ones who said no one could talk about magic and stuff directly. Like, it was forbidden. You could write about magic, but you had to use ‘keys and ciphers.’ Alchemy, for example, wasn’t actually about turning lead into gold, even though that’s what everyone thinks. It’s really about the deep structure of creation. Not like atoms and stuff, but below that. Resolving the conundrums of existence. The whole thing with lead and gold was a cipher. Those who were too stupid to realize it, who got bewitched by the lure of wealth, got hung up there and wasted their lives chasing after a fiction.
The truth was simple. As it usually is. Gold is bright, right? Like sunshine. It’s a light metal that’s easily made into different things. Lead is heavy. Dull. Dark. Impenetrable. Not even Superman could see through it. In the symbolism of turning lead into gold, gold represents wealth of knowledge and all that. And lead is ignorance. So, alchemy is the transmutation of ignorance into knowledge. That’s what it was all about—the search for ultimate truth.
But that wasn’t what they were trying to do. There were lots of different alchemical “investigations,” but the big thing everyone wanted to produce was the lapis philosophorum, the ‘stone of knowledge.’ But not like a rock—more like an opal or a gem, like how all the old sutras refer to the teachings of the Buddha as a jewel. That’s what the lapis is, the “jewel” of ultimate knowledge—namely, how to be like God. A return to the divine state pretty much every religion says existed way back at the beginning.
The old man shuffled into the room. At first I thought he was coming to shoo me out. But when I raised my head to defend myself, I saw he had a teacup and saucer in his hand.
He set it on the little side table next to me. “Charles thought you might like some tea.”
I looked at the time on my phone. It was after six. And no messages from Kell.
I looked at the tea. It was hot.
“Ceylon,” he said, turning toward the back. “It’s all I have.”
“I thought you closed at five.”
“We do.” He nodded to the front door.
It was shut.
I scrunched my brow. I hadn’t even noticed.
“It seemed a shame to break the spell,” he said without facing me.
rough cut from the revisions to Curse of the Red Dagger, second course of my forthcoming five-course occult mystery, A FEAST OF SHADOWS