A Christmas ghost story, by me, kindly published by the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association in their newsletter.
It was a dark and stormy night when Mark sat at his computer to bid on a first edition of Paul Clifford. The lamps outside, later than Bulwer-Lytton’s, illuminated only themselves as the windows on that small street of shops began to darken one by one.
Mark rose to draw the iron gates across his doorway. The Christmas shoppers had gone and the shouts of office parties began to drift through the damp December air. The merry multitude rarely troubled booksellers in the daytime, but as they moved from pub to tube they often stopped to look in at the windows, calling questions with beer-soaked hilarity. How do you make a living selling old books? In darker moments, Mark thought he could profitably start up a sideline in supplying these people to universities and hospitals. Let them figure out how it was possible for a human being to live with so little imagination. One swift shove down the stairs and a lot of bubble wrap and packing tape – a resurrection man’s toolkit wasn’t so different from a bookseller’s.
He locked the door and went downstairs to brew coffee. The bright bindings and mellow oak shelves of the shop found their negative reflection down here, amid dusty piles of boxes and cold melamine board. Mark had begun to carve out a space for himself – he wondered at the mysterious body chemistry of some of his colleagues, who turned wine into life and never needed food, much less the toilet – but most of it was still taken up with the things John Fairfax had left behind.
John had apprenticed Mark into the trade only a year ago, had joked about repainting his sign to say ‘Fairfax & Son’, but had abruptly left the business in October. His bewildered young colleague had been put in sole charge with no explanation beyond a card to tell him goodbye and good luck. John took only a modest payment for the remaining stock, was a voice on the phone when the weight of all he had still to learn overwhelmed Mark, but otherwise lived like a ghost. There were demonstrable traces of John, he even submitted anecdotes to the ABA newsletter, but it was no real proof of existence.
The kettle, which had begun to steam, shuddered to a stop just as the overhead striplight snapped into blackness. Upstairs, the blank computer screen stared dumbly at the back wall. Miles away, in his mother’s spare room, spinecrakker88 smirked as his bidding opponent vanished and he took his first steps to becoming a poorly-described nuisance on ABE. He would never know what mysterious interference had led to his triumph that night…
Nothing moved in that cold kitchen as Mark, silently cursing the bones of the Victorian madman responsible for the building’s wiring, let his eyes adjust to the gloom. Reaching into the cupboard above the sink, he pulled out the tin of candles and matches John always kept there and struck a light, sticking the candle carefully into a lamp. He used his mobile to call Ian, a reliable man whose sore trial it was to keep the idiosyncrasies of these shops from killing their owners. It would take him a while to get here, but Mark couldn’t risk leaving – the ancient electrics might spark, or even flame, back into life.
He moved toward the foot of the stairs. The shadows whirled and spun as the lamp flew through the air and he fell, prone and painfully, onto something that was sitting in the middle of the floor. Mark carefully set himself and the lamp to rights, and looked at what had tripped him. It was nothing more sinister than an open box of books, remnants of John’s last trip to a provincial auction just before he had disappeared. It was a mixed lot – the property of a gentleman – nothing inside but a jumble of rubbish once John had moved the few items he’d really wanted onto the shelves upstairs. Mark was about to shove the box back into a less lethal position when something caught his eye. The candlelight gleamed strangely on the cover of a small octavo. He picked it up – it was bound in what felt like an unusual vellum, with no bumps or scuffing, looking largely untouched since it had been made in… 1824. He closed the lid of the box and sat down, carefully turning the pages. With a mounting sense of excitement – here was something really special, the bookseller’s dream of a profit at no cost, the book everyone else had missed – he began to read.
It was the account of a murder. The lineaments of the crime, soaked in blood and screaming for justice, were smoothed bland by language imposed after the fact. No sir, the gentleman had never before visited the inn. Yes sir, the gentleman had asked me to ready the horses to start for London before dawn. The gentleman had been witnessed for most of his stay in the small town, but into a gap in time a young girl fell.
The murder wasn’t widely reported. The circumstances of the crime, the stench of depravity that could be traced even in the sinful city, were ordinary enough. The girl had not captured the public imagination as poor Maria Marten was fated to a few years later. Mark closed the book. It had been issued privately, not by one of the big London publishers, but as a final act of punishment, an attempt to tear apart and contain the evil that had devastated a quiet community. Mark understood now what he held, why John had left it in the box, away from the kind of ghoul who would pay well for a souvenir.
But he did not understand. He could not know that, in the days before the execution, money – the gentleman did not lack for money – had changed hands. So had paper, a blade, promises made and secreted. They had taunted him with the knowledge of what would happen once his body was taken off the gallows, and he had used that knowledge to exact his own revenge.
Mark did not understand, for he was never to see the slip of paper that John had seen and quietly replaced through a fine slit in the pastedown after reading a curse written in blood:
Revertam Cui Mei
A scrabbling at the gates startled Mark out of the past and he hurriedly climbed the stairs to let Ian in. He heard the door opening, though he was sure he had locked it. And so he had, but brass and wood are no more barriers to some people – some things – than death and the years. Something was here now, come to reclaim the property of a gentleman.