From the author: You can find arcane and dangerous tomes in unlikely places... but if you take such a book home, be careful how you treat it!
Squamous turned right on Second. The Pinto squealed a bit, but it usually did that on sharp turns, and there was probably nothing supernatural about the sound. The car was just getting old; there was nearly as much rust as blue paint on its chassis. He had to be close, now. He peered out of the dusty windshield at the house numbers he was passing by.
4217. The address on the next house was impossible to read. Ah! That had to be 4227 up ahead – there was a neon pink Yard Sale sign out front. Squamous parked along the curb and swung his bulk out of the car.
The car had been hot, and brown strings of Squamous’ hair lay plastered against his scalp. Why did people always have their yard sales in the summer, anyway? The perversely warm breezes were probably rife with melanomas and worse. Well, he was here, and it shouldn’t take him long to find the book. If it hadn’t already been sold. He hurried toward the house, wheezing.
In the yard was a clothing rack, hung with children’s dresses, some patched jeans, and an enormous women’s swimsuit, purple with yellow starfish. There were a few foldout card tables on the other side of the yard. One was loaded down with Dora the Explorer plastic toys, videocassettes, a stuffed dinosaur (not an actual carcass, Squamous noted with regret – and badly proportioned, at that), some old electric lamps, a soap dish shaped like a shell. The second table featured a variety of small planters and gardening tools, a few gardening magazines (none rare or valuable), some unused candles, and a single dumbbell.
Under the tables were boxes of CDs and videogames, more toys, a pair of cheaply framed Monet paintings (neither authentic), and other detritus of modern life. No books, however.
Squamous sighed and looked around. There were several other shoppers present: an old couple pawing through the dresses, a father watching his young daughter picking up and discarding dismembered Barbies and glass dogs. A woman shouldered the girl aside to examine a lamp. The woman, was, perhaps, suntanned – but what kind of alien sun, wondered Squamous, what collection of chemicals or abuse, could produce that unnatural shade of russet?
An overweight bearded man in a wheelchair had stationed himself under the garage door, flanked by the rack of clothes on one side and the card tables on the other, and seemed to be the one taking people’s money in exchange for his junk. Squamous decided to approach him.
“Pardon me,” he said.
The man looked up and raised his eyebrows. “Yes! Can I help you?”
“I was just wondering if you had any books for sale.”
“Books?” The word seemed foreign to him, and Squamous briefly wondered if he had been sent to the wrong place. Could the Oracle have been wrong? And if so – the implications sent a chill down Squamous’ warm back.
But then the man continued. “Oh, wait a second,” he said. “Yeah, there were a couple of books around here somewhere. I think they might be in that box with all the CDs.” He pointed.
The box in question was no longer on the ground; the suntanned(?) woman had picked it up and put it on one of the tables, and was looking through its contents.
“Thank you.” Squamous waddled over to the box and peered inside, bumping up against the woman as he did so.
“Excuse me,” she said impolitely.
Squamous did not answer. He had seen his objective: the book. Just over nine inches by seven and a half, a red leather (he supposed the ignorant would want to call it) cover, marked by three intersecting pentagrams – one, the notoriously rare six-sided pentagram. The title, of course, was not visible in the daylight. Three raised bands on the spine. Signs of light wear, but in splendid condition, considering its age and history. The whole thing dripping with evil, of course. And the box, he saw now, was labeled “2 bucks each.”
In a rare moment of complete happiness and satisfaction, Squamous lifted his face skyward, eyes closed. What a moment! What a triumph! He very nearly laughed. And why shouldn’t he? Eldritch wasn’t around to mock him if he did.
Then he opened his eyes again and reached for the box.
The book was gone.
Squamous brought his face closer. He pawed through the contents of the box – only CDs and videocassettes!
He looked up in sudden comprehension. Yes! The suntanned woman was there, walking away with the book tucked under an arm!
The woman set the book down before the man in the wheelchair. “Just this,” she said. “Though I got to say, two dollars just for a book. It doesn’t even look new.”
“Yeah, well, it’s a hardback though, right? We had a couple of paperbacks, but maybe they’re all gone now. They were fifty cents each. Guess you missed your chance for those.”
“Just my luck. Anyway, I have a niece that plays Dungeons and Dragons, and she might like this, all in a weird fake language, and with pictures of monsters and everything. Do you know that game?”
The man made change from the woman’s five and gave it to her. “I don’t think so,” he said. “Your niece, huh? Yeah, girls play all kinds of games nowadays, don’t they? I mean, not just soccer anymore.”
“And my nephew, well, he showed quite a bit of disrespect to yours truly, here, the last time I visited, so I figured if he sees his sister get a little gift from me, and not him, he just might rethink his ways.” The man nodded, frowning, and the woman took the book and started for a large black vehicle, a Chevrolet Suburban. Squamous took three hasty steps to catch up with her.
“Pardon me, ma’am,” he said.
She turned a skeptical eye on him. “Yeah? What do you want?”
Squamous gestured. “That book,” he said. “I am quite interested in acquiring it.”
“I already bought it,” she said, fishing in a pocket. “See it right here in my hand? That’s how you would know.” She brought out a keychain.
“I understand that you have already purchased the item,” Squamous said. “That you have expended some money on its acquisition. However, I—”
“Two bucks!” the woman said, shaking the tome. “For just a book, if you can imagine that. I guess you were too slow, if you wanted it, too.”
As she placed her hand on the door handle, Squamous touched her shoulder. “Perhaps I could buy it off you,” he said. “I can pay more than two dollars.”
“Oh, yeah? Like how much more?”
Squamous emptied his own pockets. “Well, let’s see,” he said. “I have fifty dollars.”
The woman looked at the other things Squamous had pulled out of his pocket: bits of orange paper, yellow discs, ragged twists of a blue metal, several limp black worms, and bills that looked like Monopoly money. “I don’t know,” she said. “You seem to want this book pretty bad. Look at you, sweating and puffing. And it looks like you got more than fifty.”
“Yes, yes, I do,” Squamous said. “If I may just count – yes. I have five Spanish doubloons, three hundred baht, almost a thousand yen, twelve and half skrotskreels (but dating back to the former Empress, I’m sorry to say), twenty-three hellbucks, and six Rigellian aihstlaas.”
“I don’t know what any of those are,” the woman said. “You some kind of scam artist or something?”
“No, no! I assure you, I am a legitimate business owner.” Squamous reached into a shirt pocket. “Here – my card.”
The woman took it as if it were a known vector of Ebola and squinted at it. “Arcane and Obscure Books, Inc. Squamous and Eldritch, Proprietors,” she read. “Like a used book store?”
“Used, sometimes more than once, but certainly unusual or rare,” Squamous said. He put a hand up to shade his eyes. The sunlight was too bright. He couldn’t wait to get back to the dimness of the shop.
“Well, if this book is all so rare, maybe I’ll sell it myself on Ebay,” the woman said. “Probably get a lot more than fifty bucks for it.”
“That would be a mistake,” Squamous said. “Few Ebay shoppers would recognize its worth, and those who might do so would prove a considerable nuisance. Also, that book is quite dangerous. And as the new owner, you would be especially susceptible to its hazards, if certain intricate and painful steps are not taken. You see, each time a book like that is sold, it devises—”
“Yeah, right. It’s dangerous. Sure. Nice try.” The woman opened the car door and threw the book in before climbing in herself. Squamous flinched, but the book just lay there in the seat. “I wasn’t born yesterday, you know,” the woman said as she got into the car herself.
Squamous watched her start her car and sighed. Then he hurried to his own vehicle.
Fortunately, the light at the end of the block was red, and Squamous had time to catch up to the Chevrolet. He followed her for two more blocks, and then parked across the street and watched her get out of her car and head into a house, book in hand.
Then he reached for his phone – an iPhone 13, a birthday gift from a customer, and it still smelled of sulfur – and called Eldritch.
“Well, I’m here,” said Eldritch, leaning over to tap on Squamous’ car window.
Squamous got out of the car. “And you brought money? Current United States currency? That seems to be all she’s interested in.” The top of his head didn’t even come up to his brother’s shoulder, and Squamous took a step back so he wouldn’t have to crane his neck so severely.
“Yes, yes,” Eldritch said. “About seven hundred dollars. All that was in the store. If you were a better negotiator, I wouldn’t have had to become involved in this mess.”
“I just hope it’s enough,” Squamous said. He looked at the house the woman had entered.
“The rent will soon be due, and then there’s the electric bill,” Eldritch said, poking Squamous in the chest with a long, thin finger. “This expenditure is not in our budget. And I had to close the store to come here, you realize. So we lose more money from walk-ins. We might have to let the Shakespeare superhero comic go for what Smoke was offering after all. A shameful pittance, even considering the damage that occurred to one page as it was ripped out of the First Folio.”
“This is a deal we can’t pass up,” Squamous said. “The Imp of the Perverse has been looking for this item for an eternity.”
“Nearly two, now,” Eldritch said.
“I was sure she would go for fifty,” Squamous said, shrugging.
“You just don’t know how to bargain,” Eldritch said. “But let’s be clear. Is she a dabbler? A collector? Or has she sealed an unholy pact?”
“No, no. She’s just got hold of the thing by accident.”
“Then if we are not successful in getting it away from her—”
“I know, I know. I told her. She’ll be the one to suffer the consequences. She’s very annoying, even irksome, but hardly the kind of fiend we could allow that to happen to.”
“Fine, then. Let’s go.”
They crossed the street and approached the house. Squamous rang the doorbell.
The woman answered the door, then stood back in surprise. “Hey! What’d you do, follow me or something? I told you the book isn’t for sale.”
“My apologies for disturbing you, ma’am,” Eldritch said. “If we could have but a moment of your time, I am sure we can reach an agreement that would benefit us both.”
The woman looked doubtful.
“We have more money,” Squamous said.
“You only had fifty bucks at the yard sale. Or did you call up your old great-grandpa, there, and ask him for more?”
“Yes, I did contact my twin brother, here, and ask him to bring more funds. May we come in?”
“Well, I guess so. I could snap the old guy like a twig if he causes any trouble, and you, tubby, look like you’d get winded just tying a shoelace. Ha! Come on in.”
The woman led them into a small living room. A ratty, greenish couch and a couple of mismatched armchairs were placed in front of a television and a coffee table. The carpet had seen better days, and there was a single sock and a half-full bag of potato chips on the couch, but neither brother minded a mess in a good cause. Eldritch perched on one chair, and Squamous lowered himself into the other. “Thank you for seeing us, ma’am,” Eldritch said.
“Davina Stump,” the woman said.
“Pleased to meet you,” Eldritch said. “I am Eldritch, and I believe you have already spoken to Squamous, here.”
“The little tubby guy said you were his twin brother,” Davina said. “Only you’re about four feet taller, a couple hundred pounds lighter, and fifty years older.”
“We are not identicaltwins, no,” Eldritch admitted. “Ms. Stump, I would like to re-open negotiations regarding the little book you bought today. A collector we are in contact with is hoping to get his talons – er, hands – on this particular book. If fifty dollars is not an acceptable offer, may I propose one hundred? Certainly a fine markup, a nice little profit that you can congratulate yourself for making this afternoon.”
Eldritch took five twenty-dollar bills out of a pocket and laid them, one by one, on the coffee table. Ms. Stump’s gaze followed every movement of his hands. Then Eldritch straightened up and placed his hands on his knees. “What do you think of that proposition, Ms. Stump?”
Ms. Stump managed to tear her gaze away from the money on the table. “I don’t know,” she said, biting her lower lip. Then a hard glint entered her eye. “But I guess if you’re willing to pay me a hundred, you can pay more, too. Maybe a lot more.”
“You don’t understand!” Squamous blurted out. Eldritch laid a hand on his shoulder, but Squamous shook it off. “Books like these are not – not just things,” Squamous said. “They have purposes and cravings, effects and needs. They are extremely resentful of perceived mistreatment. Some of them can bring about very serious consequences for an ignorant owner!”
“What do you mean, ‘ignorant,’ you greasy little toad?”
“I mean you are dabbling in domains of which you have no inkling,” Squamous said. “Many of the books we deal with curse their unprotected owners. They can cause nightmares, ill-luck, or possession! They can burn hands or eyes, inflict their owners with earworms – the same stupid song for months, sometimes even smooth jazz. Explosions and floods and tornadoes and stubbed toes and earthquakes. They can attract monstrous forms from other realms, and even cause perpetual constipation! The book you have there, for example—”
“Constipation? What are you talking about?” Ms. Stump asked, brow furrowed.
Eldritch managed to produce a thin smile. He once again put his hand on his brother’s shoulder. “My brother eats entirely too much macaroni and cheese,” he said. “But the dangers are very real. If you accept our offer, you would make money while at the same time avoiding an unpleasant fate. We would not wish to see anything horrible or ghastly happen to you, Ms. Stump.”
“Horrible?” Ms. Stump was finally looking doubtful; whether it was because she was beginning to wonder if her new acquisition might harbor unholy powers, or if she were pondering the mental health of her visitors, would be hard to say. “I tell you what,” she finally said. “Five hundred. Final offer. Five hundred bucks, or you can just go home empty-handed.”
Eldritch looked at this brother, who slowly nodded. “Very well,” Eldritch said, his mouth in a grim line.
“I put the book in the other room,” Ms. Stump said. “I’ll go get it.” She nearly danced as she left the living room.
Eldritch looked at his brother from under unkempt eyebrows. “We really cannot afford this,” he said. “This is a very awkward position you’ve put us in.”
“I told you before, we could save some money on garbage pickup if we just shoved our junk in the neighbor’s bin,” Squamous said.
“They’re not equipped for hazardous materials!” Eldritch said.
Then Davina Stump was back in the room. “Here you go,” she said, plopping the book down on the table.
Out of the direct sunlight, the pentagrams on the cover glowed gently red, like lava seen between rocks.
Eldritch picked the book up. He brought it close to his nose and took a deep sniff, then nodded. He examined the front cover, spine, and back cover, then gently turned some pages.
“A mix of rag and linen paper,” Eldritch murmured.
“Look at the fine, wide margins!” Squamous breathed. “Beautiful!”
“The ink is still dark,” Eldritch continued. “Magnificent. The burn imprint on page 23 is quite distinct, as is the infamous and infectious doodle on page 31. The charts, the diagrams, all clear and without significant wear. Considering some of the previous owners, a miracle indeed.” He turned another page and gasped. “What is this?” he said.
Squamous made an odd sound deep in his throat, like a frog might make if it were swallowing a larger frog.
“What?” Ms. Stump leaned in for a look.
“This page, here – it’s been recently folded!”
“Oh, yeah,” Ms. Stump said. “When I got the book home I had a look through it, trying to see what was so special about it. When you rang the bell, I folded that page there to save my place because I didn’t have a bookmark.”
Eldritch looked at her, aghast. Squamous had allowed his mouth to drop open.
“You did what?” Eldritch asked.
“Folded the page to mark my place,” Ms. Stump said. “Jeez, a couple of book dealers, and you don’t know that little trick?”
“It’s defaced, damaged,” said Squamous.
“And more importantly, disrespected,” Eldritch said. He looked at his brother, and their gazes met. Eldritch gently laid the book back down on the table. He gathered the money there and returned it to his pocket.
“What – hey! What are you doing? We had a deal!” Ms. Stump said.
“No longer, I am afraid,” Eldritch said. “The book has been insulted. Consequences will follow.” He got up out of the chair and lent an arm to Squamous so the portly man could do the same.
“Hold on! You’re not leaving, are you?” Ms. Stump said. “Tell you what. I’ll let it go for three hundred. How’s that?”
“I’m sorry, Ms. Stump, I really am,” Eldritch said. He opened the door.
“All right! One hundred!” Ms. Stump followed them outside. “Fifty – fifty, like you first said!”
“Goodbye,” Eldritch said. He and Squamous crossed the street to Squamous’ car.
“A shame,” Squamous said to his brother, looking back at the house. Ms. Stump made a rude gesture, then went inside and slammed the door.
“Not much,” Eldritch said. “Folding a page to mark one’s place, indeed!”
“Well, at least this way we save a little money,” Squamous said. “And we can easily locate the book in the smoldering crater in the morning. It’ll be the only thing left.”
“Don’t look so smug,” Eldritch said. “What with that folded page, we’ll have to sell it at a discount.”
This story originally appeared in Asimov's.