Adrien stepped away from the Bentley to marvel at the small but elegant bookshop as his driver shut the door.
“Shall I wait, sir?” asked the driver, a young man completely defined by his oversized chauffeur’s uniform. He could have been anyone.
“No,” replied Adrien, fingering the invitation in his left hand. “Pick up my dry cleaning and return by seven thirty. We’re expected uptown by eight.”
The driver nodded, already forgotten by his charge as he quickly re-entered the dark gray Mulsanne and sped off.
The man remained standing at the curb of an unknown but posh district of the city. He’d never been here before, even though he’d grown up in the exclusive penthouses overlooking the waters and parks of the metropolis.
He was impeccably dressed in a charcoal suit with wide peak lapels, black calf leather double monk shoes and burgundy tie. In his right hand dangled a forgotten cigarillo as he pondered the situation, an ash worm slowly bending toward the sidewalk in despair.
How had he never known about this place?
He raised the invitation to a pale, clean shaven face with hazel eyes. It was printed on what could only be hand-made paper, dyed a deep rich red. Golden foil lettering raised up to meet his finger as it brushed across the rough but pleasant surface. The single-sided invitation had a short, simple message:
Requests the pleasure of your company
For the presentation of your personal tome
Thursday, April 13th
Tea and presentation at 7 p.m.
622A Stormwater Blvd.
He’d never heard of the place. When he shared the invite with his social circle, nearly all pleaded ignorance and feigned disinterest as envy attempted to hide on their faces. Only Jude claimed he’d heard rumors of an exclusive affair that catered to the elite.
Then again, Jude was a liar.
He returned to the invitation. The wording was so odd. A personal tome? In appreciation? Appreciation of what?
Adrien looked up from the invite to the facade of the bookstore. It mirrored the richness of the paper. The narrow storefront stood apart regally from its neighbors. The deep red paneling of the storefront was bordered by rich mahogany trim. A large window of leaded glass with gold lettering stated “Ceartas” in arched gothic lettering. The entrance was a single ornate gilded door with an old fashioned crystal knob. Above an open transom were the gold numbers 622A.
He stepped closer to the large window. The glass had a mirroring effect. The reflection of his dark hair created a hole in which he could see flickering candlelight.
He turned to look up and down the block. Aside from a cab waiting at the curb some ways uptown, it was strangely deserted for the early evening. Adrien shrugged off any misgivings, flicked the remains of his cigarillo away and stepped to the door. He was acting the weak-minded fool. He was here and his time was valuable. He refused to waste any more time here than necessary.
He extended his hand to turn the knob and entered the shop.
Immediately the scent of an unfamiliar spice acquainted itself. It was not unpleasant. The interior was narrow, as the outer facade suggested, and the undersmell of wood permeated the air. The candlelight he’d observed through the window resolved itself as flickering white candles in ornate sconces on the walls. Surprisingly there was no front desk or checkout terminal. Two red leather chairs, heavily grained and studded with gold sat at angles to the front door like door wardens watching for visitors.
But the dominating feature were two floor to ceiling bookcases extending the length of of the store, ending in a wall of rich dark paneling with a red door. Each bookshelf bore intricate scrolled trimwork and was filled with rows of leather bound books. Each book was made of the same dark red leather lettered and trimmed in gold. He wasn’t yet close enough to read the titles.
Down the aisle between the two bookcases hung dim candelabra, and below each was a small round table with three legs ending in carven clawed feet. A single red rose in a white vase sat atop each table.
Just as he began to look for a bell or some means of calling for help, the red door in the far wall opened and out walked a short, brownish man in a white tuxedo. His gray hair ws cropped close to his skull and his large nose protruded in sharp contrast to his small, narrow bright green eyes. He carried a small gold tray on which sat a steaming cup of tea.
Adrien didn’t know what to make of any of it. If the atmosphere wasn’t so refined (you don’t see a man in a white tuxedo with a gold serving tray every day) he’d likely be up in arms about the strangeness of it all. Hell, he’d fired executives for less. But he had no more time to consider, as the small man approached and made the slightest of bows.
“Mr. Hamilton,” said the man with a smile. “Six fifty-eight! Thank you for being punctual. Tea?”
It was at this point that Adrien’s normal temperament returned. It was early evening and time for martinis and shots. Tea? This was starting to look to be a waste of his precious time.
“I don’t want tea, thank you very much. And I am not used to people playing games with my ti…”
“Apologies,” said the yet unnamed man. He set the platter on a small side table near one of the red chairs that Adrien would have sworn was not there a moment ago. “I can assure you this is no game. I am Mr. Yalden. I will be happy to bestow upon you the honor of your t—”
“Yalden?” interrupted Adrien. “You’re not Ceartas?”
The man tilted his head and smiled. “An easy assumption to make. No, that is the store itself,” he said as he gestured around to the narrow space.
Adrien’s watch chimed. He glanced down then tilted his wrist to dismiss the message.
“I’m a busy man,” replied Adrien. “I accepted the invitation out of curiosity, especially since I have errands to run in the area. But I don’t like having my time wasted. What’s all this about a tome?”
The small man performed an obsequious bow. “I completely understand, Mr. Hamilton. I was merely following protocol, but I can get straight to the point.” He gestured to one of the red chairs with a smile. “Please have a seat. Our arrangement shall take up no more than a quarter hour, and I think you’ll be pleased. The honor that is mine to bestow is only given to a select few.”
Somewhat mollified, Adrien grunted and looked closer at the nearest bookshelf. He could read some of the titles of the first few books. One that stood out had a longish title:
Her Proclivity to Revel in the Reduction of Humanity
What kind of book was that? There was no publisher imprint or author name that he could see.
Might as well get this over with, he thought. He unbuttoned his suit jacket, turned and slowly sat in the regal chair. It was quite comfortable.
Yalden put his hands together and moved to the center of the aisle to face Adrien. He began a formal and well prepared address.
“Mr. Adrien Hamilton,” he said. “The tomes collected here are made up of the most influential and powerful moguls, aristocrats and Brahmans of the last millenium. Only those who satisfy very certain requirements are invited to participate in Ceartas.”
The wording of the little speech felt sort of odd, but Adrien couldn’t quite put his finger on what. Regardless, he wished the man would get to the point. Soon his car would be back with his dry cleaning, and he had important business tonight. Dark business. In fact this place had just the right sort of character for his clandestine evening dealings. He ought to look into buying the building.
He returned his attention to Yalden, who carried on. “Your affairs became known to the board of regents, who after due consideration of your exploits deemed it only appropriate to extend our invitation to have you honored for posterity.”
More odd phrasing. What kind of place was this?
“What affairs?” asked Adrien, becoming suspicious. “And what do you mean by exploits?” He was sure nobody affiliated with this odd little place knew anything of his real affairs. In fact, it would likely be disastrous for them if they had. “I’m not sure I like the tone of your speech little man,” he said as he moved forward to the edge of the seat, fixing a keen eye on Yalden—a look that generally sent men and women to trembling. But the little man only smiled and performed an odd sweeping gesture in return.
“We do not mean to offend in any manner,” replied Yalden. “Please wait,” he said raising a hand as Adrien frowned and was about to stand. “Your moment is now at hand. Come, let us begin the presentation of your tome.”
The little man stood back and uttered a short phrase:
As soon as the words left the man’s mouth, Adrien felt a warmth in his arms that quickly became a strong irritant. It was like a lingering severe sunburn. He attempted to scratch his arms through his suit jacket but it had little effect. He quickly stood, alarmed and angry.
“What are you up to you foolish little man?” he spat as he took off his suit jacket and tossed it on the chair.
Yalden’s smile had disappeared entirely. His head was tilted and his small green eyes were distant. He shook his head slowly. “One might have asked you the same question, Mr. Hamilton.”
The irritation on Adrien’s arms had become unbearable, and suddenly he had no attention to spare. He undid gold cufflinks and yanked up his sleeves. What he saw there was so unbelievable he momentarily forgot his pain and had wondered if he’d suffered a mental breakdown.
His skin had begun to peel in large sheets. Jagged fragments flipped up like wet pages that had dried in the sun and were disturbed when he’d pulled up his sleeves. On each fragment were words etched in red ink.
Avarice. Oppression. Extortion.
Before his eyes, sheets of skin began to layer upon one other as more and more words surfaced.
Hater. Inveigler. Ingrate.
The pain returned and became excruciating. He wanted to scratch, but feared the sheets of skin would detach themselves from his burning limbs. Worse, the burning had now spread to his legs, his neck, his back—his face.
Yalden indicated the wall behind him, nonplussed and seemingly unsurprised about the unfolding situation.
Adrien turned wildly and saw a gilded mirror. Another item he failed to notice. He stumbled to the wall, tearing at his shirt, exposing sheets of skin between broken buttons while his collar obstinately remained closed and secured by his tie.
In the mirror he saw great sheets of skin hanging off his neck. If that weren’t alarming enough, his cheeks had curled and raised, exposing his now open mouth to the air. Words appeared on the slats of his cheek and face.
Liar. Contemptuous. Sneering.
He couldn’t scream. His voice was trapped in his throat as the flesh of his body swelled and peeled. Hair fell in clumps to the floor.
Yalden moved toward him, pity on his face. “It won’t be long now,” he murmured.
Adrien’s clothing disintegrated off his body and his muscle became exposed as great sheets of skin fell to the ground. The muscle quickly dried and mimicked the process of peeling off as red sheets of fine leather. Adrien fell to the ground, no longer resembling the man he was moments before. The items that had fallen off his body were now assembling themselves on the floor, as if they had a mind of their own.
Exposed bone disintegrated and formed a fine golden powder, spiraling in the current of local mayhem. Adrien’s eyes were the last piece of his exterior consciousness to witness the awful truth before they liquefied.
A breeze gently picked up, flowing down the center aisle and rattling the fine chandeliers. The sheets and red leather continued to self-organize, stacking and assembling in quick succession. The fine golden bone powder mixed with the gelatin of the man’s eyes to form a golden ink which flowed gracefully around the new tome that was now nearly assembled.
The cover attached itself and pages compressed neatly. Gold stitching appeared and the golden ink applied itself to the spine and cover. In a moment, the wind had ceased and the tome sat silently on the carpeted floor below the mirror.
Yalden sighed, stooped and picked up the tome. He walked down the aisle and arrived at the “H” section where he found an open slot and carefully slid the new tome into place. He stepped back and read the title of the new tome:
His Desire to See Them Debased
The little man brushed dust off his suit and walked back to the front of the store to look down at the pile of clothing. He made a small, circular gesture and the clothing folded in upon itself, disappearing.
Satisfied, Yalden looked up at the clock. It was seven fifteen. He nodded to himself. He knew the driver would return to find the store vacant and the city block returned to its more ordinary state of hustle and bustle.
He stepped outside and looked down an entirely different street in a city nearly halfway across the world.
She was due to arrive in fourteen minutes.