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 entirely 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 stood at the curb of an unknown but posh city district. 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 dressed impeccably in a charcoal suit with wide peak lapels, black calf leather double monk shoes, and a 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. The sender had printed it on what could only be hand-made paper dyed a deep, rich red. Golden foil lettering rose to meet his finger as it brushed 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
Friday, October 13th
Tea and presentation at 7:00 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 façade of the bookstore. It mirrored the richness of the paper. The narrow storefront stood apart regally from its neighbors. Rich mahogany trim bordered the deep red paneling of the storefront. A large leaded glass window 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, the early evening was strangely deserted. Adrien shrugged off any misgivings, flicked the remains of his cigarillo away, and stepped to the door. He was acting like a weak-minded fool. His time was far too valuable. Refusing to waste any more time than necessary, he extended his hand, turned 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 exterior had suggested, and the scent of an unfamiliar wood permeated the air. Flickering white votives burned in ornate wall sconces, revealing themselves as the source of candlelight he’d observed through the window. 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 was two floor-to-ceiling bookcases extending the length of the store, ending in a wall of rich dark paneling with a red door. The bookshelves, encased in intricate scrolled trimwork, were filled with rows of leatherbound books. Each book had the same dark red leather with the outer pages gilded 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 clawed feet. Atop each table sat a single red rose in a white vase.
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 was closely cropped to his skull, and his large nose protruded in sharp contrast to his small, narrow, bright green eyes. He carried a small gold tray with a steaming cup of tea.
Adrien didn’t know what to make of any of it. If the atmosphere weren’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 typical temperament returned. It was early evening and time for martinis and shots. Tea? He was now greatly regretting not throwing the invitation in the trash. What had compelled him to honor it?
“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 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 tome.”
“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 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 and because I coincidentally have some 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. Only a select few ever receive the honor which is my job to bestow.”
Somewhat mollified, Adrien grunted and looked closer at the nearest bookshelf. He could read some of the titles of the first few books. Someone had set one of the larger books on the shelf as a face-out display. He could read the 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 with a formal and well-prepared address.
“Mr. Adrien Hamilton,” he said. “The tomes collected here comprise the last millennium’s most influential and powerful moguls, aristocrats, and Brahmans. Only those who satisfy very specific 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 why. Regardless, he wished the man would get to the point. Soon, his car would return 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 about his real affairs. 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 tremble. But the little man only smiled and performed an odd sweeping gesture.
“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 asked. He spat, removed his suit jacket, and slammed it on the chair.
Yalden’s smile had disappeared entirely. He tilted his head, and Adrien noted the man’s small green eyes were distant. Yalden 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 the gold cufflinks on his shirt and yanked up the sleeves. What he saw there was so unbelievable he momentarily forgot his pain and 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 from his burning limbs. Worse, the burning had now spread to his legs, neck, back, and face.
Yalden indicated the wall behind him, nonplussed and seemingly unsurprised about the unfolding situation.
Adrien turned wildly and saw a gilded mirror. A feature he failed to notice when he first entered. 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 muscles 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 that flowed gracefully around the new tome that was now nearly assembled.
A cover attached itself over neatly compressed pages. Gold stitching appeared, and golden ink applied itself to the spine and cover. The edges of the pages riffled almost silently, then flashed in gold. 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 book:
His Desire to See Them Debased
The little man brushed the 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-sixteen. 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.