A high school student finds a grimoire that shows how to make magical disguises.
|Previously: "The Fake Book"
The next day, after school, you return to Arnholms. You doubt they'll give you your two bucks back. They might not even take it off your hands if you paid them. But you want to get the book away from your house and person, and since the book thinks you have "claimed" it by trading money for it, you decide to try voiding that claim by selling it.
Ted Arnholm is at his usual work station when you go in, but he's not alone. He's being hectored by a paunchy, middle-aged man with a bad combover and a fleshy mouth framed by a scraggly moustache-goatee combination, and a very animated conversation it is, too. Arnholm's expression suggests his blood pressure is climbing by the second, and his interlocutor looks just as exasperated. Desperate, even.
"But it's for our mutual benefit," the man is pleading. "The gentleman who bought the book will get a handsome price for it, and I'll get a legacy back. How can you stand in the way of a fair trade like that?"
"I'm not standing in the way of anything," says Arnholm truculently. "I'm just protecting our customers' privacy."
"You're not going to try buying it off him yourself, are you?" the toher demands. "By God, sir, to take advantage of me to score an ill-got profit—"
Arnholm's lips peel back. "I don't care for your insinuations—"
"Please forgive me," the other man says, raising his hands. "I withdraw the word 'ill-got.' Indeed, if you wish to approach the gentleman yourself, by all means do so. I'll pay you—" He pauses and licks his lips. "Ten percent over what you pay him for it?"
Arnholm is about to reply when he catches sight of you. His face freezes. The other man's glance follows Arnholm's, and his expression changes to surprise and delight when he sees the book you've got clutched to your chest. Arnholm sighs. "Well, there's no point in arguing anymore, is there?"
You edge up slowly to the two of them. They were talking about you and the book?
"I see you've brought that ... thing ... with you," says Arnholm. "Change your mind about it?"
"Excuse us," the other man interrupts. "If I could just talk to the lad." He puts out his hand. "My name is Aubrey Blackwell."
"Will Prescott," you reply, taking his hand against every instinct. The man is cheerful but somehow odious; and he seems oddly reluctant to let go of your hand, and you have to jerk it back from him.
"Mr. Arnholm and I were just discussing that book you have there," he continues. "You see, I am a collector of rare manuscripts and antiques. That book was something I picked up in England a few months back. Unfortunately, as I was explaining to Mr. Arnholm, my assistant accidentally put it in a group of books that I was selling. I only discovered the error this morning and hurried over to retrieve it. But you had already bought it by then." He smiles, and there is something very desperate in his grin. "I should very much like to buy it back from you."
You study Mr. Blackwell before replying. His eyes are dark and his hair—what there is it of it trailing over a chalky white scalp—is lank and greasy. On closer inspection you see that the man is not just paunchy but quite stout. His talk of manuscripts and antiques somehow seems less than truthful; at least, you'd expect a wealthy collector to be dressed in something better than cheap polyester slacks and a black turtleneck. You also don't like the hungry look in his eye. It seems to you that, far from having an antiquary's interest in the book, the man is likely more drawn to its putative "magical" qualities.
"It's not much of a book, is it?" you reply, stalling for time. You show him how the pages won't flip. "I'm not even sure it is a real book."
Blackwell gives a short laugh. "Yes, it is a curiosity, isn't it? But I'm not much interested in the book itself. It came from a very old library in the north of England, and I've reason to believe that it belonged to a famous man. I collect such things."
"Huh." You open the book to the title page and study it. "You say it's valuable? I got it for two bucks."
Blackwell makes a choking noise, and you look up to see a strangled expression on his face. Arnholm turns very red when Blackwell shoots a furious glance in his direction. But Blackwell masters himself, and turns his choler into a forced laugh. "Then you struck a terrific bargain, my boy. I will pay you much more than two dollars for it."
"Really? How much?"
He gives you a cagey look. "A hundred?"
"Now hold on there," interjects Arnholm. "Don't try to cheat the kid. We had it marked as two hundred and twenty-five, and that's without knowing anything about it or its history." He peers narrowly at Blackwell, then turns a shrewd glance on you. "If it's so valuable, I might be interested—"
"Fair enough!" Blackwell exclaims, and throws his hands in the air. "But I've only got a hundred and a few extra bills on me at the moment. If you don't mind waiting, er, Will, for me to find a cash machine—"
"I can wait," you reply, your mouth watering at the prospect of picking up a few hundred bucks. You glance back down at the book. Maybe you can squeeze a little more out of the man if you let him know you have suspicions about the book's nature.
"It's an interesting book even if it's not a real one," you observe as Blackwell starts to turn away. He freezes and looks back at you. "It's in Latin," you continue, "but I did a little translating of what I read. Some of it seems to have been written in invisible ink. It was weird." You run your fingers over the inside cover. "This writing here, for instance, wasn't there when I bought it, and then suddenly it was."
Blackwell's eyes glitter. "Such an observant lad," he says softly in a way that makes a chill run up your spine. "What would you say to five hundred dollars for it?" Arnholm starts, but doesn't say anything.
"I'd say we have a deal," you reply, and congratulate yourself on your play for more money.
"Not so fast," Blackwell continues. "As I say, you're very observant. I had to fire my last assistant for being so careless with the book. In addition to the five hundred for the book, what would you say to taking a job assisting me with my collection? Ten dollars an hour? For a few hours of after school work?"
"What kind of work?" Ten dollars an hour is very tempting.
"Just cataloguing. Making notes. Have you ever done library work?"
"A little when I was in middle school. Just shelving, mostly."
Blackwell smiles. "That would be quite sufficient. It's not hard or complicated for someone who can keep their eyes open."
It sounds like a terrific offer. And yet there is something in the man's manner that sets off all the alarm bells in your head. In fact, maybe you don't want to see him getting the book ...
* To sell the book and take the job: "Prisoners Below"
* To sell the book but decline the job: "A Slippery Sale"
* To change your mind and keep the book: "Third Thoughts"