It all started one quiet evening after a busy day. Roy, a man in his mid-thirties, bid farewell to the last customer and fumbled at the lock, weary after so much work. As he casually flicked the sign around, displaying to all the world his shop was closed, there came a resounding knock that nearly skinned him on the spot.
“Who the devils…” He rounded on the door, whip-taut, to see the visage of a pale man standing outside, lips stretched in a placid smile. “We’re Closed!” Roy shouted, gesturing at the sign in the window.
“I’ll only be a moment.” Came the muffled reply, the man’s countenance shifting to that of someone starving, hungry eyes poring over the books in the window with predatory glee.
Roy’s eyes shot up and around, and he chewed at his lip. One more, but that’s it. “Alright, alright.” He unlatched the door and strolled back to the counter, not bothering to let the man in.
Barely making a sound, the man strode in purposefully, and Roy finally got a good look. He was of medium height, a little on the scrawny side, but he wore it well. Despite this, his hair and clothing looked like he had tumbled out of last century, though he noted they were immaculate – not easy in this part of town.
“Anything in particular you’re looking for?” Roy was idly flipping through a magazine, the rough paper almost deafening in the empty shop. A stylist, maybe? His lips split into a sly grin.
“Yes, and I’m sure it’s just about…Ah!” His hands darted out, snatching a worn volume with surprising grace. “Yes…yes…” He continued, muttering as his long fingers gingerly paged through it. Suddenly, he locked eyes with Roy, as though he’d just realized something.
Roy was awash with an awkward sweat. Did I say that out loud? He was sure he hadn’t; he wouldn’t have grinned like a fool if he’d dared insult this stranger. But why was he looking at him that way? The man made him feel guilty, clutching that book to his breast as if it had been stolen and only recently found again.
“Where did you get this book?” His tone was accusatory, but polite.
“It was, uh, donated to me, I believe?” Roy made an effort to pull out his register, leafing across reams of paper and sending up dust. “What was the – achoo! – er, the title?” He sniffed unceremoniously.
The man held the book out to Roy, walking to the desk with a stride of intensity. The title read In the Garden Walls of Amlan; it was at least three centuries old, by the looks of it, especially if it detailed anything about Amlan. Barely anything survived that calamity.
“Ah, right, yes. I believe…here we go, yes, donated by one Herschel Path, about three years ago.” He jabbed a finger triumphantly at the page and looked back at the man, then staggered back slightly at the dark look he now wore.
Where once the man had looked out of place but harmless, he now bore a profile of intense malice and fiery rage. Roy backed up until he bumped the back wall, hands held in front of himself to ward off what could be his undoing.
“Do you know where this Herschel Path lives.” The man’s voice had taken on an earthy, hot timbre.
It wasn’t a question, yet it wasn’t a demand, either; regardless, Roy felt compelled to answer it against his better judgement. “Uh, yes, u-uh,” he stammered, reaching underneath the desk for another hefty ledger and navigating to the label P. “He lives, ah, or, at least, he lived here,” Roy pointed at the address under Herschel’s name with a quivering finger, “when he, uh, that is, when he donated t-the book.”
The man’s features softened almost imperceptibly, and Roy’s agitation lessened. “Thank you. I’d like you to keep this book on reserve for me until I return.” His finger were now darker and had an unnatural sheen to them as he set the book lovingly on the counter. “I will return here tomorn, and will pay a fair price.“
Roy was stuck to the spot, torn between sheer incredulity at the polite request from this otherworldly figure before him, and baffled to the point of fear regarding what the hell was transpiring in his shop at twelve-past-nine.
“I…agree to the, er, the terms…?” Roy offered, then hastily turned his register to a new listing. “And who may I say is, um, reserving this book?” He leaned over the book, quill poised, not daring to meet the man’s gaze for more than a moment at a time.
The silence felt as if it might go well into the night when the strange thing’s voice broke through. “Mr. Felix. Yes, that will do.” It nodded to itself, now barely resembling the pale, tall man Roy had let in barely fifteen minutes ago. Its face contorted as though viewed through water, the features shifting whenever they weren’t focused on. It all made Roy a little nauseous.
“And whom” – the creature put extra emphasis on the word and gave what passed for a grin – “am I entrusting its safety to?“
Roy blinked, then flushed with embarrassment; he hated giving his full name. “Er, Corduroy.” He hastily added, “Mr. Corduroy, sir.”
“Then I will see you in the morning, Mr. Corduroy. See to it my book is kept somewhere safe.” And Mr. Felix, or the thing that had once been a Mr. Anything, half-floated through the store, the door closing behind it without any force. Even the deadbolt slid back into place.
It was then that Roy felt the warmth seeping back into his body, and realized there was hoarfrost on the windows – on the inside. He rubbed at his arms and shivered despite the warmth it provided. Then, as if he were hiding from someone, he shuttered the windows, scampering from window to window and peeking out like a wanted man. Almost without thinking, he snatched the book up from the counter and bounded up the stairs two at a time, secreting the tome in his bedside dresser and locking it tightly.
Then he double-checked it, to be sure.
His bed provided no comfort, and by morning he awoke in a heap of blanket and pillow to the sound of someone’s fist rapping on glass.
Sheer panic welled up in his throat, but Roy stifled it and made for the door, shedding his nightclothes and slipping into last night’s garb as he trundled down the steps to the store proper. There, just as he had been last night, stood Mr. Felix, the same nonchalant face, the same century-old hairdo perched atop his pale head. Maybe even Two centuries, Roy thought as he unbolted the door and ushered him in.
“Good morning, Mr. Corduroy.” Mr. Felix said cheerfully, gazing around the shop. “I do hope I didn’t frighten you last night. My temper can certainly get my goat, as the saying goes.” His smile was infectious, in many ways.
“O-oh, of course not, Mr. Felix. No, I’ve had many a rowdy customer, you certainly weren’t the worst.” The words tumbled out before he could think what he was saying, and he fumbled over more as he staggered back to the stairs. “I’ll just grab your book for you, sir, and we can deal with- I mean, we can sort out the, uh, fee. I’ll be right back.”
As he returned downstairs, composure returned with a tonic of whiskey and a slap to the cheek, Roy proffered the book to its new owner across the counter. The ledger, left open and askew from last night, sat open to Mr. Felix’s entry, the jittery scrawl evident against the neater handwriting around it.
“Eh, so! Mr. Felix. That tome has been here quite some time, and since you seem so smitten with it, i’d be happy to part with it for a mere four shillings.” Please just take the deal and leave, Roy begged him silently. His quiet happiness was almost as bad as his other look.
“A deal it is, then.” Mr. Felix smiled, fingers deftly slinking into a shallow pocket and returning with four shillings, shining so bright they almost looked fake. Roy turned them over in his hand idly, trying to weigh the possibility of it being a scam versus the reality of last night’s events.
“I hope it finds you well, Mr. Felix. That book must be at least three centuries old by now, so i’d be careful with the binding. If it ever falls into disrepair, I can replace it for a minor fee.” The rhetoric was so natural now he barely had to force it, his mind racing to different outcomes of this transaction – most involved a measure of pain he wasn’t prepared for.
Thankfully, Mr. Felix simply nodded, and pocketed the leather book, turning towards the door as he began whistling a mournful tune. “Thank you kindly, Mr. Corduroy. I expect I shall call on you again soon.” He called back as the door chimed behind him. The morning sun was just pouring into the dim alleyway under the bridge, illuminating the man more clearly. He looked…almost angelic, a near complete contrast to the dark figure that had graced his shop last night.
Roy rubbed at his eyes, hoping it was merely a sleep deprived mirage – but no, his skin almost glowed in the light, and his hair was more brilliantly black in the sun, the air around him shimmering as if he were aflame.
Roy slumped over the desk and heaved a sigh, sending more dust catapulting into the air. As he coughed and sneezed, waving it away, he returned to the shillings Mr. Felix had paid with. They had seemed odd at first glance, but he hadn’t wanted to make a show of inspecting them; now, he noticed they bore the wrong image on them. One side wore a cloaked figure surrounded by crows in front of a grove of three tall trees. The other, a short-haired woman, resplendent in a battle cloak and wielding some kind of magical force. One thought barged into the forefront of his mind:
Where the hells did he get Amlani coins?