By Lily Mulholland
Fran ran her white-gloved right hand along the smooth spine of the book she held carefully in her left. She couldn’t believe she was holding a very rare first edition imprint of a Henry James. She loved his work and had coveted The Two Magics but knew she couldn’t afford the asking price for a first.
‘May I open it?’ she asked its owner.
‘If you wish. My interest is in the covers. I don’t much care for the contents.’
Fran paused for a moment, taking in the man’s expression. He was looking at her quite strangely, with a faraway look in his eyes. She remembered to keep her face impassive, recalling the feedback she’d had at work recently. They’d had to undergo the torturous process of a three-sixty degree review and several of her co-workers at the library had commented – anonymously of course – that they felt Fran looked down on them. That she often wore a look of contempt on her face when they were talking to her. Fran’s cheeks burned with embarrassment at the recollection. She didn’t think badly of her colleagues. She just often couldn’t hear them properly and had to concentrate extra hard to understand what they were saying.
When she realised she was blushing, she felt even more uncomfortable, knowing the man would think she was blushing because of what he’d said to her.
‘Get a grip, Fran.’ And now she was talking to herself. And all the while the man was watching her. She carefully opened the book and quickly read a few lines of her favourite James story, The Turn of the Screw. She closed the book and placed it carefully back on the stand.
‘It’s in wonderful condition,’ she said to the man, avoiding his inscrutable gaze, as she removed the cotton gloves.
‘To the untrained eye, perhaps. When I purchased it the cover had been water damaged. If you look closely you will see that the leather is perishing and beyond repair. Refinishing my collection is my greatest passion.’
At the word ‘passion’ Fran looked up at the man. His face had taken on a different appearance. A new visage. He looked entirely different. Younger.
‘Would you like to see some of the other books I’ve refinished?’
‘Oh, yes please.’
He beckoned to her to follow. She did as she was bid and walked through a series of interconnected rooms. Her eyes opened wider as she was transported through each room, for every wall was lined floor to ceiling with shelving – each filled with books. When they reached the farthest room, Fran gasped audibly. Before was a room whose four walls were full of rare books, each covered in creamy leather embossed with gold. The effect was almost overwhelming.
The man turned and looked at her.
‘You have a good appreciation of beauty. These books form the heart of my collection. I keep them in this special room which was built especially to house them. It is climate controlled, moisture controlled and sound proofed.’
‘Sound proofed?’ Fran thought to herself.
‘I like to read in peace. I do not like interruptions,’ he said.
It was as though the man could read her mind. A chill ran from her head to her toes and back again.
‘Are you cold, my dear?’ asked the man.
‘Come, let us have something to drink and get down to business.’
‘When will the others be here?’
‘Others?’ His response to her question trailed off as he led the way back through the series of rooms and down the stairs to what she supposed would be called the parlour. It was that kind of house.
‘Here, have a sherry.’ The man offered a small cut crystal glass to Fran which she took obediently.
‘And you must try this panforte. I had it imported from Siena. I discovered it on one of my book buying visits.’ Again, Fran took the plate that was offered to her without demurring. He spoke with an authority she did not question.
‘So,’ she tried again, ‘Who else is coming this evening?’
‘Yes,’ she said, a whisper of exasperation entwining itself around her words, ‘to the book club meeting?’
‘You’re it, my dear.’
‘Oh. I thought...’
‘Drink your sherry.’
Fran was starting to feel a little light-headed. ‘I really don’t think I should.’
‘Drink.’ It was more a command than an entreaty.
‘I don’t ...’ Fran’s voice faded as she slumped back in the couch, her plate and glass tumbling towards the hand-cut silk rug that spread across the room like freshly spilled blood.
Fran awoke. She was cold. She tried to move but her head felt heavy and her body was leaden. Unconsciousness reclaimed her.
‘And now, my dear, let us get down to business.’
Vincent turned the girl over onto her back and slit her shirt open from hem to neck. He parted the fabric and ran his hand over the skin of the girl’s ample back. He was pleased. The girl’s back was unblemished. He had chosen wisely, a librarian devoting her life to books and reading. No freckled flesh, no tattoos. Young women these days were often disappointing.
Holding his scalpel aloft for a moment, Vincent took the time to ensure he made his first incision in exactly the right place. The new leather for his precious Joyce had to be absolutely perfect.