Tales From the Black Chamber

BOOK: Tales From the Black Chamber
12.4Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Tales from the Black Chamber

A Supernatural Thriller

Bill Walsh

For Julie,

who hates untranslated Latin

sine quā non


Anne Wilkinson pressed the
button with a right middle digit whose confrères were mostly occupied with clutching a paper bag containing a hummus-and-sprouts bagel sandwich. She tucked her tall frame into the elevator's back corner without lifting her eyes from the paperback in her left hand. Unnoticed, the elevator filled in front of her. New Yorkers one and all, no one so much glanced at the attractive young woman, or they'd have noticed her eyes narrow, then widen in surprise, followed by her right eyebrow rising to Spockian heights as she shook with restrained laughter.

When the doors opened on the lobby of Hathaway & Edgecombe, Anne was alone again. She wiped some tears from her eyes, tucked the book under her arm, and stepped onto the broad oriental carpet.

“Hi, Lindsay,” said Anne to the reed-thin girl with trendy eyeglasses behind the mahogany Louis Quinze desk.

“Hi, Anne!” Lindsay replied with eager enthusiasm. “That was a fast lunch.”

“Takeout,” said Anne, lifting the bag for inspection.

“No messages for you. How's the book?”

“Oh my God. You know the premise?
Roman à clef
about Kate Warne, the first woman Pinkerton, and the Transcontinental Railroad?”

“Yep. I've been thinking about picking it up.”

“It's really well-written, good plot, etc., but I'm in the elevator and all of a sudden, I hit this.” She handed Lindsay the open book. Lindsay opened her mouth to read, and Anne whispered, “Not too loud.”

“Her corset, bustle, and crinolines crumpled in the corner, useless as a knight's armor after a joust, quintessence and symbol of the old, guarded maiden she'd be no more, the rough-hewn boards of the caboose floor vibrating beneath her back, she felt his thick piston head reciprocating in her cylinder, pulling its long connecting rod in and pushing it out again, acceleration and power growing imperceptibly with each mighty stroke.”

“Are you kidding me?” Lindsay laughed.

“Keep going,” said Anne.

“Their breaths came in syncopated heaves, chuffs from the engine of flesh they'd become. She felt the pressure in her smokebox growing and growing. It had to find a release.”

“Oh my God, this is—”

“Keep going.”

“No …”


“Then, as the shuddering wood and their frenzied bodies merged in an incandescent, pulsating explosion, she thought, no, felt, no, knew what it meant to have that golden spike pounded into Promontory Point: All became one. Union Pacific, Central Pacific. East, West. Atlantic, Pacific. Rancher, farmer. Cowboy, Indian. Crow, Sioux. Man, woman. Christian, Jew, heathen. America!”

Lindsay was laughing so hard she was crying, her sides aching from trying to be quiet.

“One more line,” said Anne.

“And by the trackside, a prairie dog cocked its ear at the unaccustomed scream of the train's new, throaty whistle.”

Lindsay had to grip the desktop to keep from falling off her chair.

Anne laughed. “Seriously, what the? I'm guessing her publisher made her stick in a sex scene.”

“That is priceless,” said Lindsay.

“You can have the book when I'm done.”

“Thank you!”

“Not at all, this place was built on books' changing hands.”

“Yeah,” grinned Lindsay, “though Dad was always smart enough to charge people for the privilege.”

When Anne arrived, still smiling, at her office—not a corner office, yet, but not too many doors down and with a big window overlooking Union Square—her heart gave a little leap at the brown-paper-wrapped box on her desk, covered with lurid foreign postage, lots of insurance paperwork, and an unintelligible customs declaration on which she could only make out the words
antik könyvek
, which was the sum total of her Hungarian, her consuming vocation, and the raison d'être of Hathaway & Edgecombe—antique books.

Without sitting down, Anne set her bagel bag and novel on a side table, opened her desk drawer for the very sharp scissors she kept for just such occasions, and went at the package like a demolitions expert defusing a time bomb—quickly, deftly, and expertly, with just enough caution to ensure that everything emerged unscathed.

Once the packing was dispensed with, she slipped on a pair of cotton gloves and removed the contents. She smiled unconsciously as she opened the first volume, a 1558 incunabulum of Giambattista della Porta's
, valuable in itself. As she turned the pages, a frisson ran up her spine as she noted the copious marginalia in a crisp, bold italic hand. These notes, in a mixture of German, Latin, and Greek, made the book priceless, as they showed it to be the personal copy of Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor, King of Hungary, King of Bohemia, Archduke of Austria, &c. &c. &c., famous patron of art, science, and alchemy, annotated by the man himself. Anne had tracked it down at no small expense and prized it loose from a collector in Székesfehérvár whose family had acquired it in the mid-nineteenth century.
Hello, beautiful
, she thought.
You're going to help make me a partner here
. Priceless it might be to her, but the market could value it very exactly. She planned to make it the centerpiece of H&E's next auction of occult and esoteric books, which was her bailiwick. The other volumes in the box were interesting but minor bits of Rudolfiana that would help fill out the catalog.

After a couple of hours of reading della Porta's book and trying to decipher Rudolf's comments, Anne decided that real work awaited, slipped the books into acid-free bags, and placed them in a wall safe hidden behind a hinged bookshelf. For the rest of the day, she plunged herself with the energy of the ambitious into drafting catalog descriptions and estimating values for the new arrivals and some of the other items for the Rudolf auction.

The phone rang at a little after four o'clock. Lindsay announced with her crisp, perfect, prep-school enunciation, “Mildred Garrett is here.”

“Great, send her back, Linds.”

“I'll make some tea.”


Mildred Garrett was a tiny woman somewhere in her eighties who wore her hair in an old-fashioned coif and peered out at the world through cat-eye glasses with tiny, tasteful rhinestones in the corners that must have been the height of matronly fashion in the '60s. Anne had come to learn, however, that the eyes behind the glasses missed nothing. Mrs. Garrett was the head of some sort of private library foundation in Washington, D.C., and she regularly made trips to New York to check out auction lots she might be interested in bidding on. An odd mix of vinegar and charm, Mrs. Garrett had become such an enjoyable visitor that Anne found herself inviting her to stop by H&E's offices to check out books before they went up for sale—sometimes even before they were announced for sale. Mrs. Garrett always looked them over with an enthusiasm that seemed to belie a methodical examination. However, when she was done, she'd invariably make a comment or two that were profoundly informed and shrewdly figured. Anne had never come away unenlightened, and Mrs. Garrett's comments frequently ended up making her substantial amounts of money for what they added to the eventual sale prices.

Over the course of their acquaintance, Anne had slowly figured out that the sharp-tongued little old lady knew more about rare books on the occult than she did—more, in fact, than anyone she'd ever met. Mrs. Garrett rarely bought books, though when she did they were a collection of excellent classics and some very off-the-wall bits that were either valuable on some level that no one else had perceived, or that specifically fit whatever her foundation was interested in. Mrs. Garrett was a bit cagey on what exactly that was, saying that she was merely doing the bidding of its trustees, and Anne never pressed.

Anne went to her safe, brought out all the books it held, and arranged them on the long mahogany table in the conference room across the hall. Mrs. Garrett was seated in her office when she returned, clutching a white beaded purse with lines of tiny artificial pearls snaking around its snap-clasp and handle. She did not rise but removed her gloves and offered her hand to Anne.

“How are you, dear girl?”

“Very well, Mrs. Garrett, and you?” Anne had never been tempted to call her “Mildred,” and “Millie” was unthinkable.

“Fine, thank you. I could regale you with the horrors of Amtrak these days, but I shan't.”

“Have you tried the Acela? I hear it's much nicer.”

“I have, thank you. It is better, but it's one of the tragedies of being old that oftentimes, nostalgia aside, you remember when certain things were unquestionably better. And rail travel, my dear, was once much, much better. So was air travel, for that matter. People dressed for it, however shocking that may sound to your tender young ears.”

“Well, I can't say I remember that myself, but my parents have mentioned it.”

“Well, enough small talk, dear. You're a busy woman, and you shouldn't waste your time exchanging pleasantries with elderly people without enough to do.”

“I never think it's a waste of time to talk to you, Mrs. Garrett. You're too kind to drop by when you're in town. Let me show you some of our new books.”

Ordinarily, leaving a person off the street unaccompanied with tens of thousands of dollars worth of antique books was, to put it mildly,
streng verboten
by H&E. However, Anne had over the years become persuaded of Mrs. Garrett's absolute honesty and had received permission from the partners to allow her to spend time examining books. And, in fact, far from cutting out pages and stuffing them in her socks, Mrs. Garrett had on occasion brought to Anne's attention a document or other valuable item that had been slipped between the pages of a book, sometimes hundreds of years before, that might have gone unnoticed before auction.

Anne returned to work at the computer, looking up in surprise twenty minutes later when Mrs. Garrett's voice said, “Anne, dear?”

“Yes, Mrs. Garrett?”

The petite woman made her way to a chair and sat down. Anne noticed that, contrary to custom, she'd carried a book in with her.

“First of all, congratulations on finding Rudolf's
. That's a coup of the first order. It was an honor to be able to look at it.”

“I thought you might like that, Mrs. Garrett.”
Oh, thank God
, Anne thought.
If she recognizes it's the real deal, it's the real deal
. The terror of forgeries haunted dealers unremittingly. “If I'm remembering right,” she continued, “you've bought some things from his court before.”

“I have.” While she paused, Anne's mind went back. Some documents belonging to the great British magus John Dee she remembered, and even an oddball “Enochian” text in the hand of Dee's con-man assistant, Edward Kelley.
Those were some cool pieces. And man, did they help me establish myself. There's nothing better than a smart customer to make a dealer look good.
“However,” Mrs. Garrett spoke up, “I had a question about this book.”

She handed Anne a small book, a half-
-format Latin breviary from Aldus Manutius's press, primarily of interest to collectors of Aldine works and of Catholiciana, as it contained a number of rites, like exorcisms, not ordinarily included in a breviary, and which had endowed it with its name, the
Breviarium dæmonologicum
, the sex appeal of which added a few dollars to the price of a fairly dull, common book.

Anne's brow furrowed; it was not a particularly interesting or valuable book, as far as she knew. It was a filler lot for some neophyte collector and a vaguely spooky name for the catalog. “What can I tell you?”

BOOK: Tales From the Black Chamber
12.4Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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