The city was shrouded in the grey, misty drizzle of late October when Jack Carter stepped out of the main lecture hall on that fateful afternoon. The light was fading fast, and as Jack glanced up, the drizzle began to harden into rain. He cursed as the streetlamp across the road flared into life. He knew he shouldn’t have stayed so late, but that was the price he had to pay if he ever wanted to pass his undergraduate degree.
Resigning himself to fact that the weather wasn’t going to clear up any time soon, he stepped out of the doorway and began to walk briskly in the direction of home. He knew he should’ve brought an umbrella with him, but Elizabeth had snatched it away from him, saying that she needed it more as she was going out to lunch with a friend. Jack scowled. He knew exactly what kind of ‘lunch’ his girlfriend was having, and it wasn’t with any friend he’d ever heard of.
The rain started to come down harder. Jack turned up the collar of his coat, bowed his head and hurried on. He’d barely taken ten steps before a burst of raucous laughter reached his ears. Squinting through the rain, he saw a trio of men stepping out of a pub on the opposite pavement. As they began to cross the road, still bellowing with laughter and no doubt making some lewd comments, Jack studied the group harder. He could’ve sworn that he knew the tallest man who was strutting across the road as if he owned it, taking no notice of the cars that beeped angrily at him. As the group reached the pavement and started to walk towards Jack, he realised who the man was. It was Gerald, one of the students on the Business course, which Jack studied. Gerald was a tall, bulky-looking guy who preferred to bully people into agreeing with him – he called it ‘diplomatic negotiations’. Jack called it ‘thuggish violence’.
The trio were making their way towards Jack, striding confidently along and forcing other pedestrians to swerve out of their way. A short man on Gerald’s right was holding a large umbrella over them all, almost running as he attempted to keep up with Gerald’s long stride. The third man was almost as tall as Gerald, but he kept glancing at Gerald as though fascinated by everything he was saying. Jack stopped dead in the middle of the pavement, causing several other commuters to give him dirty looks as they bumped into him. Now that they were closer, he recognised the other two men too. The one holding the umbrella was another lecturer, who taught Jack on Thursday mornings, and the other was the Dean of the Business Faculty. No wonder Gerald was the best Business student the university had ever had, if he spent his nights buying senior members of staff drinks and laughing at their bad jokes.
They were coming closer, and Jack had no desire to make polite conversation with the guy who constantly clapped him on the back while saying ‘business is tough world, Jack-a-roo. Good to see you’re still hanging in there.’ Jack desperately glanced around for a way to escape and noticed a small alley on his right. Quickly, he darted into it and hastily stepped away from the pool of light that came from the streetlamp at the alley’s entrance. The little group passed by the alley without a glance, and Jack heard their loud voices fade into the noise of the city as they walked on.
Sighing in relief, Jack made to step back out into the main street, but at that moment, there was a rumble of thunder and the rain became a torrential downpour. Jack cursed again as he desperately looked around him for some form of shelter. Peering through the sheet of rain, he thought he saw a dim light further up the alleyway. Thinking it might be a cafe where he could shelter, he hurried towards it eagerly. He slowed down as he got closer and, despite the downpour, finally stopped right outside a shabby looking shop. The window was so dusty, it was hard to see inside clearly, but Jack thought he could make out the outline of several large, hardback books. The source of the light was coming from a single, bare light bulb designed to illuminate the window display, but the window was so grimy with dust that it barely made any difference. The paint was chipped around the window, and it was impossible to read the shop name above it, due to the lack of light and the state of the peeling letters. Jack looked around uncertainly, but seeing that every other building in the alley was shut up for the night, he decided that the shop would be his best bet for shelter. He placed his hand on the doorknob and pushed the door open.
The musty smell of old books and the faint odour of damp greeted Jack as he stepped inside. It was barely warmer in the shop than it was on the street, but at least it couldn’t rain inside. The walls were lined with shelves, and each shelf was crammed with old, tattered books. There were books everywhere, from teetering stacks which hid the very tables they were standing on, to piles and piles of books strewn in the corners and across the shop floor. Jack stared across the shop in amazement. It was a lot bigger on the inside than it had first appeared – he could just about make out a spiral staircase at the back of the shop behind a wooden counter, winding up into the gloom where a further balcony held yet more shelves and books. The only sources of light were the light bulb hanging in the window and another naked light bulb which flickered dimly at the back of the shop. The whole place had a sad, neglected feel to it. He glanced over the tomes of dusty titles with disdain, immediately wishing he’d found shelter in a slightly cooler place, such as a PC World or a Comet. At least there he would’ve had the chance to check out the new model of the computer he was hoping to buy, instead of being surrounded by ancient texts that looked as though they’d crumble the second someone touched them.
A faint prickling of unease began on the back of Jack’s neck as he carefully manoeuvred his way around the tables that stood in the centre of the floor. The shop appeared to be completely empty and silent. No, wait, it wasn’t quite silent. Jack stopped, his heart pounding in his chest. He could’ve sworn he heard a faint whispering, as though a light wind has disturbed the pages of the books around him. But there was no wind. The very air seemed to be stifled, as though a fresh breeze hadn’t entered the shop in years. Yet Jack definitely thought he had heard something. He looked around curiously, but there was no sign of another living thing anywhere. Mentally, he shook himself. He was being ridiculous.
Slowly, he made his way over to the window and peered out. He couldn’t see much, but the rain did seem to be easing off slightly. He sighed, turned round to face the shop again, and received a jolt of shock. There, standing not two feet away from him was a small, wizened old man. Jack stared at him, his heart pounding. Where had he come from? And how he had moved so silently across the shop without Jack noticing?
For a full minute, the two men simply stared at each other. The old man was wearing thick glasses which magnified his pale, watery eyes. He had thin, wispy white hair and his hands and face were peppered with liver spots. He didn’t speak; he merely peered up at Jack, as though he was surprised to see anyone in the shop at all. Unnerved by the man’s intense gaze, Jack looked up and got another unpleasant jolt in his stomach. Just visible in the dim light by the counter stood a young, rather dishevelled looking girl. Her dirty blonde hair hung limply to her waist and her eyes were cast downwards. Her dress was covered in dust and dirt marks, and her bare feet were filthy. Swallowing hard, Jack looked back at the old man, who hadn’t moved a muscle. Feeling as though he ought to say something, Jack opened his mouth to speak.
“Er,” he said, “sorry to disturb you, but -”
The old man held up his hand to stop him. Jack fell silent.
“Interested in books, are you my boy?” The old man’s voice was thin and reedy. Jack shivered slightly as he heard it. There was something unpleasant about the man’s voice, but Jack couldn’t figure out what.
“Er,” he said again, “well, not particularly. I actually just came in because -”
“Don’t worry,” wheezed the old man, “I’m sure we’ll find something you’ll like. What kind of books are you interested in?”
As he was talking, the old man turned and began to shuffle across the floor, occasionally stopping to peer at a book on a table, as though he was looking for something. Jack watched him move around, feeling more and more uneasy.
“Well, I don’t read many books to be honest,” he said cautiously, “as I was going to say, I actually only came in here because of the rain. But it looks like it’s clearing up now, so I’ll just be on my way...”
Jack’s voice faded into silence as the old man stopped dead, and whirled back round to face him. Jack thought he looked as though he was about to have a seizure.
“Well, no,” Jack admitted, “I don’t have the time for it to be honest.”
“What, not even a small book on the history of England? Not even a biography on one of our most famous heroes? Not even a literary classic like Dickens?”
The old man looked as though he was going to have a heart-attack.
“I read newspapers,” Jack said hurriedly, hoping it would placate the man. He decided not to mention that by ‘read’, he meant that he skimmed the front and back pages before throwing the whole thing away.
The old man looked at him suspiciously. Jack fought the sudden overwhelming urge he had to run out of the shop and never look back. The old man was starting to unnerve him, and the girl at the back of the shop hadn’t moved an inch since he’d noticed her. Jack took a small step towards the door, but as soon as he did so, the old man made a kind of clucking sound, which made Jack jump.
“I know,” the old man said suddenly, “I know exactly which book would suit you.”
He turned and weaved his way through all the tables and books with surprising agility. He reached the counter, next to the impassive girl, and started sifting through volumes, muttering to himself. In spite of himself, Jack slowly made his way over to the counter too, curious to see what the old man was doing. He gave an edgy glance to the blonde girl, but she merely stood looking down at the floor.
“Damn it,” the man grumbled, “how am I supposed to see what I’m doing in this light? Izzy!” He suddenly exclaimed, turning to the girl, “Go and put the lights on.”
Izzy melted away into the gloom in such a way that made the back of Jack’s neck prickle in alarm. The old man continued to look around the counter and the till, grumbling under his breath. There was a sudden flare of light, as several lamps on the wall came to life. They didn’t add much to the overall atmosphere and if anything, Jack felt more uneasy that ever. It seemed as though something in the shop didn’t like the light and as a result, the air seemed to become closer and colder than ever.
“Here you go,” came the old man’s voice at his elbow. Jack turned and the old man was standing right behind him, holding a small, thin black book. He thrust it into Jack’s hands, who turned it over slowly to read the title. It read De Animae maledicti in slightly faded gold lettering. Jack couldn’t read Latin, but he had a feeling that whatever the title said it wasn’t good. Swallowing, Jack looked up to see the man staring at him intently.
“You should find what you’re looking for in there,” the old man said, “it should be of some help if you have been feeling a little lost and confused, but be warned, it is not to be used lightly.”
Jack glanced back down at the book in his hands. It seemed perfectly unremarkable to him. Then the old man’s words began to sink in.
“What do you mean, ‘it is not to be used’? Surely, you can’t use a book.” Jack stopped, as he looked up. Izzy was standing in front of him, staring straight at him. Her eyes were dark, almost black and she had a look of such intense longing and fear, than Jack took an involuntary step back. The old man threw a sharp glance at them both. With a gesture from his hand, Izzy lowered her gaze and stepped meekly behind the counter. Jack followed her movements as though mesmerised. He thought that Izzy had being trying to tell him something by her look, but he couldn’t figure out what.
“My granddaughter, Izzy,” he said in a firm tone, which brought Jack’s attention back to him, “she may be a mute, but she is helpful around the shop. Aren’t you, Izzy? But she doesn’t like strangers. Especially strangers who don’t read. Isn’t that right, Izzy?”
Izzy didn’t say anything, only continued to stare down at her feet. Jack sensed a warning in the man’s tone, and decided it was time to leave. He slipped the black book into his coat pocket and made to get out his wallet, when the old man spoke again.
“And you’d be surprised, Mr Carter, how many ways that books can be used and influence our lives. Oh yes, indeed...”
Jack’s head snapped up, his hand freezing inside his pocket.
“How did you -”
But the shop was empty. The old man, and Izzy, was nowhere to be seen. Swallowing hard, Jack walked as quickly as he could towards the door without knocking anything over or breaking into a run. As he passed the rows of shelves, once again he thought he heard a faint noise coming from the books, but he ignored it, his only intention now was to get out of the shop as quickly as possible. He wrenched the door open, and breathed a sigh of relief as a welcome autumn breeze hit him. He stepped out into the glistening street, breathing deeply and glad to feel the occasional drop of rain on his face. He walked briskly away without a backwards glance.
Jack let himself into the tiny council house, which he shared with his girlfriend, glad to be back in the warmth and out of the rain.
Elizabeth was home before him for a change, and he could hear her moving around in the kitchen. He took of his coat and hung it up, hoping it would dry before the morning.
“Liz?” he called out, “Lizzy, I’m home.”
Her only reply was a noncommittal kind of grunt. He quelled the flare of irritation that swelled up in him, and chose to go have a shower before facing her. No doubt she have something to complain about, and he’d rather have an argument with her when he was warm and dry, then when he was aching with cold.
When he returned downstairs twenty minutes later, Elizabeth was standing in the hall, preening into the hall mirror and applying blood red lipstick. She gave him a swift once over before returning to her reflection. Jack debated whether to ignore her, as they tended to do most nights now, or to try and make an effort with her. He decided to try and make an effort, even though he already knew how it was going to end.
“So how was your day?” Jack asked, keeping his voice pleasant. Elizabeth gave a shrug but didn’t turn away from the mirror. Jack started idly leafing through the letters on the hall table, waiting for the conversation to progress, but nothing happened.
“Are you going out tonight?”
Elizabeth sighed loudly, flicking her long blonde hair back behind her shoulder.
“What do you think, Jack? Of course I’m going out. I’m hardly going to get all dressed up if I was just staying in and watching the football with you now, would I?”
Jack clenched his teeth but didn’t react.
“Who are you going with?”
“For God’s sake!” Elizabeth suddenly rounded on him angrily. “Why do you always have to ask about every single little detail of my life? All you do is ask what I’m doing and who I’m with! Just back off, okay?”
And with that, she turned and stormed out of the house, slamming the door shut behind her. Jack rubbed his forehead wearily. It was always the same. He’d try and talk to her, she’d scream at him and storm out and then they wouldn’t talk for several days, before the whole thing started again.
Sighing, Jack went through to the lounge, opened a can of larger and switched on the TV. He wasn’t really paying attention to what he was watching, but the noise helped to distract him from the chattering thoughts in his head. He must’ve dozed off at some point, as he suddenly sat up with a jerk, convinced he’d heard a door bang. Stretching he glanced at the clock on the sideboard and realised it was nearly midnight. Yawning, he stood up and switched off the TV. As he went through into the hall, he noticed something on the carpet. It was the small black book that the old man had given him earlier. Puzzled, he bent down to pick it up, wondering how it had got onto the floor. He flicked through it idly but, stifling another yawn, he decided to look at it in more detail in the morning.
Jack trudged up the stairs, threw the book down on the bedside table, and he hardly managed to get undressed before collapsing onto the bed. Yet try as he might, his brain refused to switch off. The medicinal effects of the alcohol didn’t seem to be working as well as it usually did, and he lay awake staring up at the ceiling, unable to close his eyes. He turned over onto his side, and as he did so, he caught sight of the black book lying on the bedside table next to him. Frowning slightly, he sat up, switched on the lamp and reached over to pick up the book once more. This time he flicked through it more slowly.
The pages were old and tattered, and a faint musty smell arose every time he turned a page. The writing in it was difficult to read, it looked like it was handwritten in a small, cramped style, so that Jack had to squint and peer at the pages to try and decipher what was written there. He quickly concluded that it was not written in English. Instead it seemed to be a mixture of possibly Latin, and a strange language that he’d never seen before. There were few illustrations, some pages were bare, but on others, there were images of what appeared to be human faces. Jack looked down at the images, an uneasy feeling rising in his gut. The faces were sketches done in black ink, and some pages had more faces on than others. As Jack looked at them closer, the faces seemed to be extraordinarily life-like, as though the artist had captured each person’s essence of life and had somehow transferred it onto the page. The images circled the page then appeared to be drawn randomly wherever the artist felt like drawing them. It seemed to Jack that instead of the illustrations being made to fit around the text, the text had been altered so that it flowed around the images. Jack swallowed and hastily turned the page over. As he flicked through, the pages of the book fluttered through his fingers and seemed to stop at page entitled ‘Ultionem’. It had no pictures. Jack stared down at the page. There was a short paragraph in that strange language which Jack couldn’t identify, but underneath, there was a short sentence in Latin. He squinted at it and in attempt to decipher what was written there, he spoke the words out loud with a sense of foreboding.
“Nam qui peccavit Mihi - mehercule ultionem anima tua,” Jack said hesitantly and at once felt rather foolish. As expected, nothing happened.
“Stupid book,” he muttered, feeling rather annoyed. He snapped the book shut, threw it onto the floor and switched off the light. He lay on his back, still feeling irritated, though he couldn’t say what the source of his irritation was. His thoughts wandered back to the old man from the bookshop, and how shocked the man had been when he learnt Jack didn’t read. Well, Jack thought savagely, if all books are filled with such rubbish as that one, no wonder he didn’t want to read. What a stupid old man for giving him such a useless book. Jack reflected on the thought that if it hadn’t been for Gerald, he wouldn’t have had to go into the shop in the first place. At once he was filled with an irrational anger at Gerald. Gerald, who swaggered around as if he owned the whole university, and who always found a way to mock Jack whilst maintaining the image of being the Business department’s golden boy. Eventually, whilst thinking of retorts he could say to Gerald the next time they met, Jack felt his eyelids droop before he finally fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.
Jack woke up to the grey morning light filtering through the crack in the curtains. He sat up suddenly and glanced at his watch. He swore loudly when he saw the time, and jumped out of bed, hastily picking up his clothes from the floor and dressing as quickly as he could. He tore downstairs, shouting a hurried goodbye to Elizabeth who was in the kitchen, and ran out of the door.
He sprinted most of the way to the university, only stopping when he was outside the main lecture theatre, to take off his jacket and flatten his hair. He walked smoothly in trying to act as though he was on time and not an hour late. However, as he took walked into the lecture hall, he noticed that the lecture hadn’t started. In fact, the lecturer hadn’t even arrived yet, and there were a lot less people in the hall than there usually was. Feeling relieved, Jack found a space to sit in the middle of the rows of chairs and sat down, realising too late that he’d forgotten to bring a pen with him. He sat patiently for ten minutes, but when Mr Gables, their lecturer, didn’t appear, he took out his mobile phone and started playing on it idly. Two girls walked by his desk, one of them showing the other a text message on her mobile.
Jack heard one of them say, “...it’s such a shame...” He looked up, but they had already walked past. As he put his phone back into his pocket, Jack wondered what they were talking about. He glanced round, and saw that many people were talking earnestly in whispers; a few girls even looked as though they had been crying. Jack heard the door open, and he turned back to face the front. A guy with no hair and a ripped t-shirt walked in. Jack recognised him instantly as Mike Rivers, someone whom he’d worked with in a group a few weeks ago, and tried to catch his eye. Mike saw Jack staring at him, and made his way over to the desk next to Jack. He gave Jack a kind of grunt and a nod in greeting.
“So,” Jack said, trying to sound nonchalant, “Mr Gable’s a no-show today, huh?”
Mike looked at Jack oddly.
“Yeah,” he said in his deep voice, “I guess you could say that.”
“But then again, if I spend the night drinking my students under the table, I guess I wouldn’t want to come in to work either,” Jack said.
Frowning slightly, Mike turned to face Jack.
“Jack,” he said slowly, “what the hell are you talking about?” Jack looked at Mike, confused.
“Well,” he started then stopped. Clearly something wasn’t right here. “What are you talking about?”
“Didn’t you hear,” Mike said in disbelief, “last night, Gerald McAnderson – you know Gerald?”
Jack nodded, his teeth clenching involuntarily at the sound of the name.
“Well,” Mike continued, “last night Gerald had been out for a few drinks with a couple of students and lecturers, and he took a taxi home. Apparently as he stepped out of the taxi, he slipped and hit his head on the pavement. He’s in the county hospital now in intensive care. Apparently he might have brain damage or a haemorrhage or something.”
Jack stood, frozen. He couldn’t say why, but for some reason, this piece of news which would usually have him secretly celebrating, made him go cold with fear.
“Oh,” was all he could say. Mike was nodding and saying something else, whilst getting his laptop out of his bag. With an effort, Jack pulled his attention back to Mike.
“Yeah,” Mike was saying, “you wanna know what the weird thing is though? Mr Gables was in the taxi with him, and he swears that it was only when Gerald was fully standing outside the cab that he fell. He didn’t slip in a puddle, or lose his footing or anything. This guy swears it was as though someone just pushed him over. But,” Mike gave a rough guffaw, “poor bloke was pretty drunk. My guess is he didn’t see the accident at all and was just making stuff up to tell the paramedics.”
Jack forced a smile as Mike turned his attention away and began typing on his laptop. Jack began to feel a sense of panic wash over him. Was he responsible for Gerald’s terrible accident? Maybe if he hadn’t hidden from him last night and had plucked up the courage to face him, Gerald would’ve gone home earlier or decided to walk instead of taking a taxi. You never knew how fate was going to work.
Mentally, Jack shook himself. Stop it, he said to himself sternly, how could you have possibly have known what would happen to Gerald? You’re being paranoid. But unbidden, an image of the small black book that he had read from yesterday, rose to the front of his mind. He shook his head physically. The book had nothing to do with it – it was just a stupid, useless book. Forcing himself to put both the book and Gerald out of his mind, Jack attempted to make small talk with Mike for the rest of lecture, during which, Mr Gables never showed up, and the rest of the class eventually left. Seeing that it was useless to stay any longer, Jack stood up and said goodbye to Mike. He made his way across the campus towards the library, where he attempted to work on his dissertation for the rest of the day. As the clock struck six, Jack eventually turned off the computer he’d been working at, made his way through the now nearly empty building and stepped out into the cold evening. He crossed the road to take a longer route home, determinedly not glancing towards a certain alley with a glowing streetlight at its entrance.
Jack opened the front door and was immediately greeted by an extremely irate Elizabeth.
“Why didn’t you tell me you were going to be so late home,” she complained, “I wouldn’t have bothered to make tea. It’s all shrivelled and ruined.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Jack said tiredly. He shrugged off his jacket and kicked off his trainers. Elizabeth followed him into the kitchen, as though determined to have an argument.
“Well why are you so late? It’s well past seven. You know I normally go out with the girls on Tuesdays. It’s girl’s night at the SU. Why couldn’t you think of me for once and come home early and make supper? It’s not as if you do anything else around here. I’m going to be late now and Josie will be so cross, especially since I was late last week too. You never consider what my plans are, you just expect to come home and for tea to be on the table before sneaking off to watch the damn football, so that I’m left to clear everything up.”
“I’m sure I’ll survive if you wanted to go out sooner,” Jack meant the words to be mild, but they came out a little too sharp. Elizabeth seemed to physically puff herself up, as though squaring for a fight.
“Well,” she said in a horribly shrill voice, “if that’s the way you feel, then maybe I won’t bother cooking for you at all now. You can damn well look after yourself if that’s all the thanks I’m going to get for basically being your slave.”
Jack had had enough.
“Fine,” he said angrily, “if that’s how you feel then go on. Leave. At least with you gone I’ll be able to have a moment’s peace.”
“Fine,” Elizabeth shrieked, “I’m going. This is the last you’ll see of me, Jack Carter!”
And with that, she turned on her heel and stormed out of the kitchen. Jack heard her muttering as she put her coat on, before opening the door and slamming it shut behind her. Jack sighed. He felt angry at her unjust words, but at the same time, he wished she wouldn’t just storm out every time they crossed swords. It was incredibly frustrating to never win an argument.
He bent down and opened the oven door. A cloud of black smoke greeted him. Coughing, Jack reached for a tea towel and retrieved a plate with a piece of blackened meat, a wrinkled pile of peas, two shrivelled potatoes and a dollop of gravy on it.
“Urgh,” he muttered. He opened the bin and threw the lot in. Then he dug a readymade shepherd’s pie out of the freezer and stuck it in the microwave. While he was waiting for the meal to cook, Jack poured himself a drink of water and went to put the TV on. But he couldn’t settle. Something was nagging at the back of mind. He got up off the sofa and, glass in hand, went upstairs. He put his glass down on the bedside table and knelt down on the floor. He searched on the floor around the bed and even underneath it, but all he could find was a few odd socks and an old tie he thought he’d lost. He sat up and looked around frowning slightly, before spotting what he was looking for. The tattered black book was on the floor by the window, next to a pile of washing. Jack could’ve sworn that he hadn’t thrown it that far, but he went and picked it up and sat down on the bed. He wondered what the strange language was that it was written in and whether there was more to it than met the eye. Slowly, he opened the volume again, intending to search for the page that he had read from last night, but instead the book fell open on a page which had a man’s face on. The face stared out Jack, looking almost sorrowful, as though he had been caught doing wrong. The man’s eyes seemed to burn into Jack’s. They seemed to be alive, as thought he man could see Jack as clearly as Jack could see him.
Shuddering, Jack made to turn the page, but something stopped him. ‘Pro proditione cor’ read the underlined title. The hairs on Jacks neck stood up as he swiftly glanced through the incomprehensible paragraph which followed the heading. Again, set slightly apart from the main text was a simple sentence. As Jack read through it, he felt a powerful urge to say the sentence out loud.
“Enim Tu calumniatus contra cor - iuro ultionem anima tua,” Jack’s voice sounded unnaturally loud in the sudden hush that seemed to descend upon the room. His heart hammered madly in the silence.
The sudden ping of the microwave made Jack jump. Coming to his senses, he cautiously placed the book back on the bedside table, drained the rest of his water and clattered back downstairs, in an effort to make as much noise as possible.
Jack woke to the sound of his alarm. Groaning, he pushed the snooze button and rolled over onto his other side. Almost immediately, he opened his eyes properly and sat up. He looked at what was Elizabeth’s side of the bed only to notice that it hadn’t been slept in at all. The pillow was still plumped up from when she’d made the bed yesterday and her pyjamas were still neatly folded on top of the bedcovers. Jack got up and located his mobile in his trouser pocket. He tried ringing Elizabeth’s mobile, but it was switched off. Ignoring the slight panic he was feeling, Jack showered and dressed. He sent Elizabeth a text and tried calling her mobile again but to no avail. He left a voicemail message asking her to call him, and then left for his lecture.
This time, Jack noticed straight away that something was wrong. Everyone he passed on his way to his lecture room looked drawn and sad. A few of the girls even appeared to have been crying. Looking round, he saw Mike sitting in a corner and waved to him. Mike nodded back and Jack went over to talk to him.
“Hey,” he said,” what’s up with everyone?”
Mike’s usually open, friendly face was drawn and he had dark circles under his eyes. He hesitated before answering.
“It’s Gerald,” Mike said quietly, “he died last night.”
Jack felt a jolt of shock go through him.
“What?” he gasped.
“Yeah,” Mike said sadly, “apparently when he fell, he did suffer from a brain haemorrhage. It was only a matter of time before it happened. There was nothing they could do.”
“Blimey,” was all Jack could think to say. Mike nodded solemnly.
“Yeah, really makes you think doesn’t it? It could’ve been anyone of us. Thing is though,” Mike lowered his voice conspiratorially so Jack had to lean in to hear him, “I overheard Mr Gables talking to Gerald’s girlfriend in his office and apparently the fall had made Gerald go a bit funny anyway. When she was visiting him in hospital yesterday, all Gerald could talk about was these figures that he could see. When she got up to leave, he was begging her to stay ‘cos he was so afraid of these things. He kept talking about one in particular – a girl with blonde hair and dark eyes. He kept screaming at her to leave him alone. Like he was scared she was going to kill him or something.”
Jack was utterly paralysed by horror. Mike stared up at him curiously.
“Jack? What’s up?”
Jack could feel his heart beginning to pound. He mumbled some sort of a reply to Mike, turned on his heel and blindly walked out of the room. He could sense people staring at him as he passed, but he didn’t care. He made his way outside the building, and hailed a taxi to take him home. Although he didn’t live so far away from campus, the roads would be quiet now and a taxi would be faster than walking. For once, he hoped with all his heart that Elizabeth would be there. He was horrified by what he had heard. If what Mike said was true, then that meant that Jack had been responsible for Gerald’s death. But, he tried to reason with himself, Gerald had had a bad fall. So long as Elizabeth was at home and safe, everything would be ok. He tried calling Elizabeth’s mobile again, but there was no answer, which did nothing to decrease Jack’s anxiety.
The taxi pulled up outside the house. Jack threw some notes at the driver and got out. He ran up the front steps and threw the door open, calling out Elizabeth’s name.
“Elizabeth? Elizabeth, are you there?” he shouted as he ran up the stairs. The bedroom and bathroom were empty. He was halfway down the stairs, still shouting, when she appeared out of the kitchen. A huge wave of relief swept over Jack. He suddenly felt rather weak and sat down on the stairs, with his head in his hands.
“Jack?” she looked puzzled, “what are you doing home at this time? Don’t you have a lecture?”
“It was just –“ Jack paused. He couldn’t explain the irrational panic that had seized him so suddenly, “Nothing,” he finished. Elizabeth didn’t say a word. Jack raised his head at looked at her and gasped.
“Lizzy, what happened to your face?”
There was an ugly smudge of a bruise forming along the length of Elizabeth’s left cheek. Her eyes were dark and she looked as though she had barely slept all night. Jack made to get up, but Elizabeth held up her hands to stop him.
“Jack,” she said in an exhausted voice, “there’s something I need to tell you.”
Slowly, Jack sat back down on the stairs, his eyes never leaving her face, although his heart suddenly started to beat faster again. He stayed silent, waiting for her to speak. She stood nervously, twisting her hands and biting her lip. When she finally started to talk, she kept her gaze on the carpet.
“Last night when I left the house, I felt as though something or someone was following me. I couldn’t see anything but I couldn’t get rid of the sense that someone was watching my every move. I tried walking faster, but I knew someone was still there. So, I turned down Strawberry Walk, but as I did so, I saw,” here, Elizabeth’s voice faltered, “I-I saw a girl standing at the end of the street. It was awful, Jack, I’ve never seen a girl like this in my life. Her eyes –“
Elizabeth stopped, obviously struggling to speak. Jack remained silent. A sense of understanding was starting to creep up on him as he began to realise what Elizabeth was saying. Elizabeth took a deep breath and continued.
“This girl – she didn’t do anything. She just stood there watching me. But the look she was giving me...it was like she was waiting for me. She looked so...hungry. I don’t know why she scared me so much, but I turned and ran. That’s how I got this,” she made a gesture towards the bruise on her face, “I hit a lamppost as I was running. I barely slept last night. I could sense that girl’s presence near me, in fact, I looked out of the window at one point and I could swear I saw her standing by the bushes in the front garden. And when I was lying down in bed, I thought I could hear voices whispering to me and that I could see figures standing at the bottom of the bed. Jack, I’m so scared, what’s happening to me? Who is this girl? And what does she want with me?”
With a start, Jack realised that she had stopped talking and was looking at him imploringly, as though he would have some explanation for what was going on. And even though the horrible feeling that deep down he knew exactly what was going on was back, there was something else he needed to know about first.
“What front garden?” he said, almost pleasantly. Elizabeth’s eyes darted nervously.
“Wh-what are you talking about, Jack?”
The fear in her voice immediately confirmed his suspicions.
“I mean,” Jack’s voice was still pleasant, although inside he was suddenly furious, “we don’t have a front garden, as you well know. And, if you don’t mind me asking, what where you doing around Strawberry Walk? As I recall, your friend Josie’s house, is in precisely the opposite direction to that particular part of town. Oh,” he added almost as an afterthought, “and unless you got up and made the bed and folded your pyjamas before I woke up, I don’t think it was our bed you were sleeping in, was it?”
Elizabeth’s face had gone very pale. Her hands shook slightly and she bit her lip anxiously. Jack remained on the stairs, looking at her coolly. For a long moment, nobody spoke. Then, without warning, Elizabeth burst into tears.
“Oh Jack, I’m so sorry, I don’t know what came over me, I never meant for anything to happen or for it to get so far, it’s just that you’re always at the university and then when you do come home you’re too tired to talk to me, and I just got so lonely, but I swear it doesn’t mean anything, I still love you, of course I do, but -”
Jack had heard enough. He stood up and walked down the rest of the stairs. Elizabeth watched him anxiously, tears streaming down her cheeks, but he deliberately ignored her. He picked up his keys and his mobile from where he’d thrown them onto the hall table when he ran in, and made to go out of the door.
“Wait,” Elizabeth called out in alarm, “Jack, where are you going? Don’t you want to talk about this?”
“Not really,” Jack fought to keep the anger out of his voice. He had just placed his hand on the door handle when Elizabeth grabbed his arm.
“But what about the girl I saw, Jack? What if she comes back? What will I do? You can’t leave me here alone!”
He voice had started to rise hysterically. Jack turned to face her and shrugged off her hand.
“It sounds to me as though you had a glass of wine too many, my dear. But if this so-called phantom does show her face again, don’t worry, I assume your new lover will be able to take care of it.”
Elizabeth’s cheeks burned. Jack flashed her a smile, stepped out into the midmorning air, and slammed the door behind him.
Jack had half expected her to open the door and run shrieking after him, but it remained shut and the street was quiet as he set off walking. He didn’t know where he was going; all he knew was that he had to get away from Elizabeth and from the house. A burning, furious feeling erupted in his gut as he thought about all that his girlfriends had said and what she had admitted to. He’d had his suspicions for awhile, but hadn’t made it any easier to hear her confession.
It was all he could do to keep putting one foot in front of the other. He couldn’t go back to the university while everyone was still gossiping about Gerald’s death, and he couldn’t go home in case he said something he might regret to Elizabeth. Instead, he walked along in a kind of daze, hardly knowing where he was going or what he was doing. Eventually, he looked up and noticed a pub, not far from where he was standing. He crossed the road and opened the pub door, breathing in the smell of stale tobacco and alcohol. Jack could already feel his emotions calming slightly as he ordered a pint from the surly barman.
Jack paid for his drink and sat down in a corner beside the fireplace and away from the other mid-morning patrons. He took a long, slow sip and sat back in his chair, closing his eyes.
The thought of the book and the blonde girl which Gerald and Elizabeth had both spoken about, kept returning. Jack couldn’t stop the awful feeling that the book, whatever it was, was responsible for Gerald’s death. And now, apparently, Elizabeth was suffering from the same apparition. But was she, Jack wondered. Was there any way she could have been making it up so instead of being angry over her affair he’d be concerned about her instead? No, Jack decided, Elizabeth might have done a lot of things over the years but she wasn’t a manipulative person. And the stories were too similar for Jack’s taste for them not to be related. The thoughts circled round and round in Jack’s mind until he felt almost sick with it all.
He opened his eyes and signalled for the barmaid to bring him another drink. Although he wasn’t normally that keen on alcohol, the beer seemed to calm his thoughts and stopped him dwelling too much on any one thing. He took no notice of the pub filling up around him, as lunchtime approached, and he ignored the barmaid’s increasingly frequent visits to see if ‘there was anything else she could get him’. He merely sat in a kind of stupor, his thoughts wavering from the work he still had to do on his dissertation, to whether the woman on the far side of the room was cuddling up to her husband, or her lover. Occasionally, he noticed the amount of beer in his glass was getting dangerously low, and he would again signal for another, to the irritation of the barman. After his fifth drink, he looked up, his head swimming slightly, and jumped as he noticed the barmaid standing right in front of him.
“’Ere,” she said in a very grating tone, “me boss says it’s time you left. ‘E don’t want no drunken men in ‘ere this time o’ day. We get plenty of that later on, innit. So’s unless you’s gonna have sumfink to eat with that pint o’ yours, you’s gotta go, you ‘ear me?”
“Yeah, yeah, I hear you,” Jack muttered. He stood up, not bothering to leave a tip, and made his way outside. He looked up as he stepped out onto the street. The sky had started to darken and the sun’s feeble rays were lighting up the underneath of the ominous looking clouds, so they reflected blood red against the paling sky. Jack glanced at his watch. Although he couldn’t face the thought of her getting hysterical on him again, he knew that he should really go home and talk things over with Elizabeth. Sighing, he set off in the direction of home, his vision swaying slightly from the effects of the alcohol.
He deliberately walked as slowly as he could, reluctant to reach his destination. It wasn’t until he turned onto the street where he lived that his head jerked up at a movement up ahead. Out of the corner of his eye, he could’ve sworn he saw someone small coming out of his house. Someone small with blonde hair. Jack’s mouth went dry. With his heart pounding, he quickened his pace and ran the last few steps to the front door. Whirling round, he looked around wildly. There was no one in sight. The street was empty except for him and a stray cat on the other side of the road. Overhead, the streetlights flared into life as the sky darkened towards twilight.
Slowly, Jack turned back towards the house. All the lights were off and the curtains were still open, contrasting to the twinkling lights that filtered through the blinds in the neighbour’s windows. There didn’t seem to be anyone home. As though in a dream, Jack reached out to unlock the door. As he did so, a faint prickling feeling crept over the back of his neck. He glanced back at the street, but there was no one in sight. Taking a deep breath, he unlocked the door and pushed it open.
The hall was in darkness. Swallowing hard, Jack reached out and flicked the light switch. Light flooded in and what Jack saw made his blood run cold with horror.
Elizabeth was lying at the bottom of the stairs. Her body was crumpled and it was obvious from the way her neck was angled that it was broken. Her eyes stared straight into Jack’s, her lips slightly parted, as though she was still in the act of crying out for help.
“No,” Jack’s voice came out as a hoarse whisper, “No.”
He stumbled to his knees and reached out for Elizabeth’s hand. It was still ever so slightly warm.
“No,” his voice was stronger now, although it cracked slightly, “No. Elizabeth. Elizabeth, wake up. Lizzy, please, wake up.”
Jack could feel the utter horror of the situation starting to penetrate through the icy numbness which had taken hold of his heart. Swallowing the bile in his throat, he clung onto Elizabeth’s arm, fruitlessly trying to shake her awake through the stream of tears which were blurring his vision. His vision was already slightly fuzzy from the alcohol he had consumed, but now his head swam so that the room appeared to be spinning.
“Elizabeth, wake up, Lizzy-“ No matter how hard he squeezed her arm, or how loudly he called her name, she didn’t stir. She simply lay still, her eyes dull. Jack broke down and cast himself over her body, sobbing uncontrollably. His brain couldn’t seem to process what had happened, and through his pain the bitter realisation that he could have prevented this terrible accident made him feel physically sick.
Gerald had begged his girlfriend not to leave him at the mercy of the girl which haunted him. Elizabeth had told him how scared she had been of a blonde haired girl. And yet Jack had ignored her pleas, determined to spite her for her infidelity. And this was the result. Jack’s head reeled and he felt sicker than ever. But through his grief, a vision of the small black book with a faded gold title swam in front of Jack’s eyes. A sudden, fierce desire for vengeance took hold of him. If that old man had never given him the book, none of this would ever have happened. Gerald and Elizabeth would still be alive, and Jack’s world wouldn’t have been torn apart.
Drawing in deep, shaky breaths, Jack stood up and stepped over Elizabeth’s body. He stumbled up the stairs, his head spinning, furiously wiping away the tears which still insisted on falling. In the bedroom, Jack stared wildly around, and when he couldn’t spot it immediately, he gave out a roar of frustration. Desperate and beyond reason, Jack tore the whole room apart. He ransacked the chest of drawers, ripped the pillows and duvet off the bed and threw everything off the windowsill in his urgency to find the thing responsible for Elizabeth’s death. Eventually, he stopped for breath and out of the corner of his eye he saw a glimpse of a black book on the floor where it had fallen down behind the bedside table. Jack flung the table out of the way, so that the lamp and Elizabeth’s glasses fell and smashed on the carpet. Jack barely heard it. He picked up the book and, clinging onto it as though it was a prized possession, Jack turned and made his way through the chaos back down stairs.
At the sight of Elizabeth’s body again, Jack’s head swam alarmingly. With a shaky hand, he pulled out his mobile and called for an ambulance. He already knew in his heart that it was hopeless, but he felt it was something he had to do before he left. He asked for an ambulance, gave the operator his address and then hung up, without bothering to answer any more of her questions. He couldn’t stay there any longer. He had to get back to the bookshop. He had to see the old man again. And when he met him, he was going to kill him.
With these dark thoughts in his mind, Jack stepped over Elizabeth and ran out of the house, without bothering to close or lock the door behind him. Blindly, he started walking in the vague direction of his workplace where he knew the alley lay. People stared at him as he stumbled past them, his clothes rumpled, eyes red rimmed but with a wild, savage look in them. He pushed past businessmen and women, taking no notice of the angry calls which followed him. His sole aim now was to reach the bookshop and cause the old man as much pain and misery as he had caused Jack.
Finally, Jack reached the alley. The streetlamp gave out its orange glow cheerfully, but behind it was darkness. Jack staggered up it, but when he reached where the bookshop should be, there was nothing there. Just a boarded up house which looked as though it had been abandoned for years. Jack stared up at it in disbelief. This was the alley, he was sure of it. He peered through the cracks in the boards which covered the windows, but there was nothing in there, except some pieces of furniture covered over with white cloth. Jack stood back and looked up, but there was no sign that there had ever been a shop there. Slowly Jack turned around and took in the rest of the street. Opposite him was a bakery, brightly lit, with a middle-aged woman taking loaves of bread out of a large oven. Jack’s eyes wandered farther up the road. Next to the bakery stood a music store and beyond that, there were several clothing boutiques, now closed for the night.
With a bitter taste filling his mouth, it gradually dawned on Jack that this was not the alley he was looking for. Confused, he turned back to the old house, but it did not miraculously change into a bookshop. Slowly, Jack made his way back to the main road and stood underneath the streetlight, his thoughts disjointed and confused, his head heavy with the effects of the alcohol. He began to walk again, this time looking up every alley and side street that he passed, but none of them was the one he was looking for. A sense of urgency and desperation began to fuel his movements and he began to half walk, half run up any random street that he saw. Soon, he was lost in the maze of back streets and alleys which made up a majority of the roads in the city. He did not know how long he wandered for, stumbling along, half mad with shock and grief, his vision constantly coming in and out of focus. Subconsciously he noted that the crowds of commuters were thinning and there were fewer cars passing by, but he did not stop. He had to keep walking. He had to reach his destination.
Eventually, after what seemed like hours, he stumbled to the end of another side street and found that he was back at the main road, near to the university. Still clinging onto the little black book for dear life, Jack paused for a moment, and looking up, his heart stopped still. The alley was right opposite him. He could feel it. Without bothering to check for traffic, Jack stepped out into the road, and immediately a car screeched to a halt. He took no notice of the shouts from the driver, but kept his eyes on the streetlight at the alley’s entrance, as though afraid it would suddenly disappear.
He passed by the streetlight and sure enough, there, just slightly ahead of him, was the dim glow of the bare light bulb in a dusty shop window. He strode purposefully towards it, only having eyes for the shop ahead of him.
He kicked the door open and stepped inside, an odd roar suddenly filling his ears. The bookshop was just as dark and dank as the last time he saw it. But this time, Jack wasn’t prepared to wait for the old man to find him.
“Where are you?” Jack’s furious shout fell curiously short inside the shop, as though the air inside did not like being disturbed in such a harsh manner. Jack staggered further in, paying no attention to the piles of books he knocked off the tables in the process. The shop remained silent.
“I know you’re in here,” Jack shouted, “come out and tell me what the hell is going on.”
He pushed past piles of books and kicked them over if they were in his way. When he reached the counter, he whirled around, but there was still no sign of any living thing anywhere.
“WHERE ARE YOU?” Jack screamed. His patience had been pushed to the absolute limit and he turned, determined to bring down the whole shop if he had to. But as he did so, there was a faint rustling noise and Jack’s head snapped round. The old man and the blonde haired girl, Izzy, had appeared not three feet away from him. Unable to stop the rage that rose up inside him at the sight of the pair, Jack gave out an inarticulate roar, and dived towards the old man.
But the man held up his right hand and, as though he had been turned to stone, Jack stopped still. There was a moment of silence while both men eyed each other up.
“Now,” said the old man in a firm voice, “what is the meaning of this?”
“What,” Jack was so angry, he could barely speak, “what the hell did you do?”
The old man raised an eyebrow.
“Me? I didn’t do anything my boy. I think you’ll find that you are the one responsible for your actions.”
“But I didn’t do anything,” Jack almost screamed, “all I did was look at this -”
He hurled the book across the room at the old man. It missed and hit the shelves behind him. The bookkeeper did not move a muscle.
“I did warn you,” the old man said almost reprovingly, “I did tell you to be wary of the power of books. But you didn’t listen. Now, you must accept the consequences.”
“But two people are dead because of me! How was I supposed to know what would happen?” Jack cried.
“You were warned,” the old man repeated.
It took all of Jack’s restraint to stop himself from attacking the old man. Fighting the urge to hit him, Jack took a deep breath.
“But you don’t understand. I didn’t want them dead. Gerald wasn’t supposed to die. And Elizabeth -” Jack’s voice failed him at the sound of her name. Angrily, he wiped his eyes so they wouldn’t see the tears that had suddenly welled up.
“My dear boy,” the old man said kindly, which seemed odd considering the circumstances, “Gerald and Elizabeth haven’t left you. Look.”
He gestured towards Izzy, who silently picked up the black book and passed it to her grandfather. The old man licked his index finger and slowly turned the pages until he found what he was looking for. Jack watched him in silence. He thought he could feel Izzy’s eyes on him again, but he looked up at her she didn’t catch his eye and instead, she merely shook her head rather sadly before returning her gaze to the floor. It was almost as though she was reproachful for what had happened, but Jack didn’t believe that – she didn’t have to stalk Elizabeth or Gerald until they died.
“Ah,” said the old man eventually, “here we are.”
He turned the book towards Jack, who craned forward to see it.
“I think,” the old man said softly, “this is the first page you read from, is it not?”
Jack couldn’t speak.
There, on the page which had been completely blank before, there was now a sketch of Gerald’s face. It looked so lifelike, that Jack half expected it to start moving. Gerald’s eyes stared up at Jack accusingly, as though he knew that he had been responsible for his death.
“And this,” the old man was saying, “I believe this is the second page.”
He turned a few pages and Jack gasped. Elizabeth’s face stared up at him from the page, her eyes burning into his. There was such fire in her eyes that Jack’s breath was taken away. It was almost as if she was about to spring out of the page at him. The room started spinning and the nauseous feeling came back to Jack with a vengeance.
“No,” Jack whispered hoarsely, “no, it’s not true.”
“There’s one more thing,” the old man’s quavering voice seemed to come from a distance. As though in a dream, Jack saw him turn to the very back of the book, to a page headed ‘In incantatores praeuaricatores’. It was covered with drawings of human faces. The old man turned a few more pages, before finally stopping at one that was half full. His heart hammering, Jack once again forced himself to look upon the sickening images. There, halfway down the page, the very last face stared up at him. He stared back, unable to move or speak.
His own face was looking up at him from the pages of the book. It had the same wavy brown hair, the same cleft in the chin, but again it was the eyes that drew Jack’s attention. They were so sad and mournful, with a slight impression of shock and disbelief, as though they were reflecting the exact emotions which Jack was feeling at that exact moment.
The roaring in Jack’s ears had died away and in the silence, Jack once again heard the strange whispering sounds he had heard on his first visit. Slowly, he raised his eyes to the balcony above him.
Scores of grey figures stood around the balcony, all looking down at him. Whenever one of them moved, the faint rustling noise occurred, giving the impression that there was an everlasting light breeze in the shop. Their features had been softened and blurred, but Jack knew without a doubt that he was looking at the people whose faces lay in the very back of the book.
Dazed, Jack turned and slowly walked back across the shop, drifting past the piles of books he had so recently disturbed. He stepped out of the open door in the cold night air, but he did not feel the wind on his face. Already knowing what he would see, he turned his head towards the alleyway’s entrance. Beyond the beam of light thrown out by the streetlight, a car had stopped in the road. Several pedestrians were gathered round the car, and Jack could hear the wail of an approaching ambulance. His eyes were drawn to the small, dark huddle lying on the road in front of the car. It was not moving.
“Come in now, my boy,” the old man was suddenly beside him, speaking softly, “come back inside with me and Izzy. We have plenty of books for you to read...and we have all the time in the world...”
Gently, he laid his hand on Jack’s shoulder and led him back into the softly lit bookshop.