“What the hell are you doing?”
“I’m sorry Mr Munro,” Jacob said. “I was just taking a little look at -”
Munro grabbed the book from him and slammed it closed, putting it back on the shelf. He turned back to Jacob, his expression a hard-to-read mix of anger, scorn and perhaps even fear.
“I’m sorry, really, I was just…”
Munro waved him away, took a handkerchief form his pocket and wiped his brow.
“It’s all right, dear boy,” he said. “Really. It’s just… that book, particularly. If you know the things of which that book is capable, you wouldn’t touch it.”
Jacob smiled. “It’s just a book – I can’t read it anyway, it’s all in Latin.”
Munro stared at him, hard. Jacob didn’t like the stare. Munro was probably the easiest going boss he’d ever worked for – it was one of the reasons he still worked here, as the pay wasn’t all that great – but this was… out of character was the phrase Jacob wanted.
“What time is it?” Munro asked. As if on cue, a clock behind them struck the hour and Munro turned round to look at it.
“Five,” Jacob said.
Munro turned back to look at Jacob. “Do you want to take a walk?” he asked. “Or are you busy?”
Jacob shook his head. “No, just me at home with a frozen dinner, as usual.”
Munro stroked his upper lip. He still wasn’t himself, Jacob thought.
“Look,” Munro said. “I trust you to open up here, don’t I”?
“And close up, and cash up, and serve customers, and go get us coffee. I mean, you’re my right hand man – you’re the Watson to my Holmes, you’re all three angels to my Charlie?”
Jacob smiled. “That’s an old one, Mr Munro.”
“We’re in an antique shop, Jacob,” Munro replied. “It fits.”
Jacob nodded. Munro was coming back to himself again.
“So I trust you. But do you trust me?”
“Of course,” Jacob said.
“Let’s lock up,” he said. “Then I’ll take you to meet a friend.”
Munro was still skittish while locking up. He didn’t take his umbrella, as he usually would, but a small cap. Jacob mused that he looked almost like a movie version of Scrooge – the one at the end, in the nice bathrobe and slippers, who kept the spirit of Christmas all year round.
“You have to trust me,” Munro said, breaking the silence.
“OK,” Jacob said.
“And you must tell nobody.”
“What? Tell nobody? Why?”
Munro stopped, and looked at him, the rain dripping off the wool cap down the sides of his head. He put his hands out and grasped Jacob’s shoulders.
“Promise me,” Munro said. “It’s important.”
Jacob thought for a moment. The man looked so earnest it was almost impossible to refuse.
“All right,” he said. “I promise.”
Munro smiled. “Good man. You’ll understand, I’m sure, once you’ve met my friend.”
The shopkeeper turned and started walking again. They walked three, perhaps four blocks. Jacob was beginning to wonder why they hadn’t taken the underground when they arrived. Munro stood under the large porch, took off his wool cap, wrung it out and put it in a pocket. Finally, he pressed one of the buttons. A few moments later, a woman answered and buzzed them upstairs.
The apartment block was an impressive one. Marble floors and stair cases with brass banisters, all shining brightly. Thick oak doors for every apartment. Clearly, the boss’s friend was rich. You would have to be to live here.
A woman in her mid forties opened the door. She was wearing sports clothes, the cheap kind found at discount stores. It jarred with Jacob somewhat.
“Hello Phyllis,” Munro said.
“Come on in, Mr er -”
“He’s Jacob,” Munro said. “We’ve come to see Elkwood.”
“That’s you, is it?” came a voice from another room. “You’re here again.”
“Hello,” Munro said. “I’ve brought a visitor. I’ve brought Jacob to visit you.”
He nudged Jacob in the ribs. “Hey yeah,” he said. “We seem to have walked half the city to come see you.”
The other two flinched in unison. Phyllis took him by the arm, beckoned to come on and led him into the back room.
In the room an old man sat bolt upright in a green leather armchair. He wore dark glasses, and was reading a book in Braille.
“Oh,” said Jacob. “Man I am sorry, I never thought…”
The old man waved a hand. “Don’t mention it,” he said. “It’s just a word. Some words have power intrinsically, and some only have power because you let them. If I choose not to let a word have power over me, I can do so. I have at least that remaining to me.”
Phyllis waved at two chairs and the two men sat down. She left the room again.
“So what brings you and your young friend here, you scourge, hmm? Your foul pestilence is clear.”
Munro coughed. “He was reading, my old friend.”
The old man raised a liver spotted hand and scratched at his chin.
“He was reading,” he said slowly.
“Is that such a problem?” Jacob asked. “Not that I understood it.”
The old man wheeled around to face Jacob. “It matters what you were reading, young man,” he snapped. “It matters a great deal.”
“He was reading… that book.” Munro said. “The one you remember.”
The old man coughed, and settled back.
“That book is a danger,” he said. “You should destroy it.”
Munro shook his head. “You know I cannot do that.”
“You can,” the old man said. “Burn it..”
“The risk is too great… the book is too powerful.”
The old man laughed. “Then that is your curse.”
Munro shrugged. “So be it.”
“I’m sorry,” Jacob interrupted. “I get that the book is dangerous, but what does this have to do with me? I was just taking a look is all.”
The old man turned to face Jacob and began to speak.
“The book has many tricks. It draws you in, beguiles you, entices you. It treats you like a friend, and then…
“It started with me many years ago. I found the book at his shop, and I bought it.”
Munro shook his head. “I should never have sold it.”
“Be that as it may,” the old man went on. “I read through. Some I understood from my schoolboy Latin. Some was so deep I couldn’t make head or tail of it.
“Eventually I happened upon a ritual. A dark, Satanic ritual. A ritual to promise eternal life.”
Jacob whistled. “Wow. That would be something.”
The old man nodded. “It would, my boy, it would. The secret a hundred alchemists wasted their lives and their fortunes trying to find, right under my nose.
“But it was a ritual with a price. There was a sacrifice to be made. Nothing strange about that, most rituals require a sacrifice of something or other. A goat, or a chicken perhaps.”
“Or virgin’s blood,” Jacob enthused.
“A common misconception,” Munro said. “Usually that means virgin in the olive oil sense – blood that is untainted and hasn’t been used in any other ritual before. So a simple syringe and you have your virgin blood, even if you’re Casanova.”
“Oh,” Jacob said, disappointed.
“Well,” the old man said. “This ritual came with a price. Something precious. My two friends and I decided we would pool our resources and buy something rare, and expensive to sacrifice. So we bought a carving. A wooden carving of the three wise monkeys. I dread to think how much it cost, I really do.”
“I know very well how much it cost,” Munro said. “I probably still have the sales ledger somewhere.”
The old man chuckled. “You would have, you viper. You would have.”
“So what happened?” Jacob asked.
“You want to know whether it made me blind, don’t you?” The old man asked, sternly. “Don’t you?”
Jacob swallowed. “I do, I’m afraid.”
“I only wish it had,” the man said. “Our sacrifice was deemed unfit, though it burned ever so brightly.
“One of my friends could only speak in screeched obscenities – such things as even the sailors at the docks would blush to hear. The other could hear nothing but screaming. Eternal, endless screaming.”
Munro, Jacob noticed, was bowing his head, almost as if praying.
“As for me,” the old man continued. “I could only see the worst. Every person sneered at me, exposed themselves to me. They were hallucinations, I knew, but harsh ones. I could not read. Words jumbled on the page in front of me, contorting into expressions of filth. The walls ran with blood or vomit or mucus – everywhere I looked I saw only the worst things possible.”
The old man took off his glasses, revealing empty eye sockets. He held up one hand, nerves and sinews taut, turned the fingers towards his face and hissed, dragging the fingers down his cheeks.
“The pain,” the old man said, “was intolerable. The suffering endless. But the relief undeniable.”
They sat in silence for a while.
The old man chuckled.
“Off you go then,” he said. “Don’t let me keep you. You’ve had your lesson, no doubt. But keep an eye on this one.”
“On Mr Munro?” Jacob asked.
The old man smiled. Munro looked up.
“It took me twenty two years to translate the book fully,” he said. “Enough that I could understand what had happened, anyway. I had no chance of reversing things by now, of course, but I did what I could.”
“You did nothing,” the old man said. “That was all you could do, of course, for there was nothing to be done.”
“I did what I could, father,” Munro replied. “That’s all.”
“And now you run our shop.”
“The shop we founded together.”
Jacob was nonplussed. Munro seemed crushed.
“You haven’t told him, have you?”
“Told me what?” Jacob asked.
Munro silently handed Jacob a business card.
“E Munro and son,” it read. “Established 1807.”
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