No matter how many times I visited the Book Haven, I always had trouble believing it was a hub of supernatural knowledge. It just seemed so unassuming. A book lover’s paradise sure. With thirty two rooms crammed full of books, it was a maze that any Columbus dwelling book nerd would be overjoyed to disappear inside.
It was even popular with the out-of-town crowd since it was also one of the largest independent bookstores in the U.S. still in business. It didn’t hurt that it had that old world charm that made German Village popular with tourists and hipsters. The building started life as a saloon before at some point being taken over by word loving entrepreneurs. Since then it had grown and assimilated the neighboring general store and cinema to become the unnavigable monstrosity that it was.
I nearly tripped on the uneven brick path leading to the alleyway entrance. The path was lined by bushes and trees. Spring had come early this year and some of the plants were already beginning to bloom way ahead of schedule. Daft things didn’t realize in a day or two the weather would flip, as it always did in Ohio, and the frost would kill everything but the hardiest.
“Welcome to the Book Haven,” a man greeted me as I stepped into the tiny nook serving as the store’s entrance.
I waited as he checked out a woman and her two kids. Then I suppressed a sigh as a tall man in t-shirt and shorts stepped into the already cramped space. The guy looked like his frat days weren’t far behind him.
The greeter looked at me expectantly as the woman and her horde filed past me. I gestured to the other man and said, “You can help him first.”
“Are you sure?” the frat boy asked. He had blond hair, muscles bulging out of his body like they were trying to multiply, and towered over me by a foot.
No, I just said it because it’s the exact opposite of what I want. I fought to keep the snarkiness off my face and nodded. Why do people always ask that? I wouldn’t have offered if I wasn’t sure.
I waited, semi impatiently as the man checked out, and stepped up to the counter as soon as he left. The cashier pushed a map toward me. I glanced at it briefly and smiled. Wasn’t that cute? Not what I was here for but ok.
“I’m looking for the section on feline behavior,” I said with the politest smile I could muster.
The man paused and looked me up and down, his thin face a little skeptical at what he saw.
At five feet seven inches, I was just above average height. My grayish, blue eyes, while not a common color, were not memorable enough to stand out. If a group of people tried to describe me later, half would say my eyes were blue and the other half gray. Dark brown hair with red undertones framed a face full of angles and hard edges. The uncertain description worked in my favor as I was trying to get into somewhere I wasn’t exactly supposed to be.
I waited, hoping the code was still good from the last time I was here. Technically, I didn’t have the credentials to get into the hidden sections of the bookstore. The parts the normal public didn’t know about. The ones where people like me could find answers to their every question.
I knew I didn’t fit the profile of someone who normally requested that room. For one thing, to most of the supernatural world, my aura was too closely aligned to that of a human’s. Baby vamps barely registered on the power scale, and I was so new to the fanged ranks that I was practically in diapers.
I’d made sure to dress casually in jeans and a fitted blue t-shirt I’d gotten at a Colorado beer festival. My one nod to the slightly chilly weather was the rust colored leather jacket.
I arched one eyebrow at the man, letting him know I wasn’t pleased with the delay. He gave me a sidelong, suspicious look even as he drew a map from under the counter and handed it to me.
Some of the tension gathering at the base of my neck leaked away.
I snatched the map and turned away, not bothering to thank him. People in this world rarely said thank you, and I didn’t want to give him one more reason to think I didn’t belong.
It worked. I couldn’t believe it, but it worked.
I headed up the rickety, wooden steps and waited on the next landing until the couple descending had passed before heading up the next set of steps.
Despite the cool factor inherent in having a bookstore in a bunch of old buildings, it was a pain in the ass maneuvering through this place. I felt like an elephant in a china shop. The place was narrow, and in many spots you had to wait until oncoming traffic passed before proceeding.
Forget trying to sit in an aisle while you read. You’d be buffeted by the continuous coming and goings of every person tramping through this place.
A chain bookstore this was not. There were no comfy chairs to sit and peruse. No fancy coffee shop connected. And it smelled faintly of unfinished wood, mold and paper.
Still, it had been in business for a long time. Even longer if you took into account the hidden face of the bookstore. The one that served people like me. Or rather, people like who I was pretending to be. Powerful, connected, dangerous.
I took a look at the map and followed the blue line through one section after another until I stood in front of a roped off staircase. It had an exit sign that said “In case of emergency.”
Got to hand it to these guys. They had a sense of humor.
I tucked the map into my back pocket and glanced both ways to make sure I wouldn’t freak any unsuspecting normal out when I disappeared down the staircase.
Coast was clear. I threw one leg over the chain and stepped onto the top stair. Or at least that was my intention.
Instead I ended up tripping and falling when my foot landed much sooner than I expected. I ended up on all fours on the other side of the chain, staring down at red carpet with gold and cream detailing.
I climbed to my feet and looked around the cavernous room. It certainly wasn’t the Book Haven, or maybe it was and the other place was just a pale imitation of this.
The ceiling towered several stories above me, so high that its depths were shrouded in shadow. Every wall was lined with row after row of book cases. So many and so high that there were ladders climbing the walls.
Unlike the normal store where the book shelves were fairly worn, thin scraps of wood only one step up from plywood, these shelves had the deep red gleam of high quality oak that had been cared for by overworked apprentices who’d no doubt spent most of their lives shining it until you could see your reflection in the wood’s depths.
It wasn’t my first time visiting this place, but I’d never been in this room.
Normally someone like me, someone low on the totem pole wouldn’t have even known this place existed, but Hermes, the courier service I worked for, had sent me on several deliveries for the hidden bookstore.
The entrance to this place changed constantly. As far as I could tell this place existed in some kind of pocket realm. That’s why I needed the map. It was the only way I could find a way inside.
The only thing I hadn’t been sure of was the code phrase. It seemed to change every time I came here. My last delivery to the caretaker was four days ago so I figured it would be good still. And I was right.
My footsteps were muted as I moved into the depths of the bookstore. It was like walking through a tomb and reminded me of some of the battlefields I’d visited with my parents as a child. It had that same quiet that seemed to shout without ever making a sound. The kind that said you were risking life and limb bringing the noise of the living into a place where only the dead should walk.
I rubbed my arms, suddenly freezing. This place hadn’t had this kind of unsettling feeling the last time I was here, or any of the times before that. It was like it knew I wasn’t supposed to be here. I pushed forward, telling myself that I was letting my imagination run away with me.
The only thing this place seemed to have in common with the human side was the maze like labyrinth that its rooms formed. The passageways twisted and turned, narrowing unexpectedly before opening up into great rooms full of books and other items.
I paused by a table with a gold shield displayed on it. There was a great oak tree embossed on the metal, the fine detailing catching and sending the light rippling along the branches.
I drew closer, wondering what type of tools the maker used to give it such a lifelike look. I reached out to touch, almost anticipating the feel of live wood under my fingers.
“I wouldn’t,” a voice said next to my ear.
I jumped and snatched my hand back, straightening from where I’d bent closer to examine the shield. I hadn’t realized I’d crossed an entire room to examine it until now.
“That thing has a habit of bespelling people. It’s quite dangerous. If it likes you, it’ll draw you into its internal world. If it doesn’t, you’ll just stand there and starve yourself to death. End result is the same either way. You die.”
A man with curly brown hair and skin the color of walnut gave me a friendly smile as if he told people about the dangers of the homicidal shield all the time.
I stepped back from the item in question, not wanting to test my luck.
The man watched me with a bland gaze. Friendly, but not too friendly, as if he had all the time in the world to wait for me to do whatever it was I was going to do.
“Do you work here?” I asked. “I’ve never seen you before.”
“Nor I you.”
There was an awkward pause. Awkward on my side at least. The silence didn’t seem to bother him in the least. It was like being watched by a cat, one that was utterly disinterested in your future or past because your actions had no bearing on its feline superiority.
“Um, I’m looking for something. Perhaps you could help me.”
The man waited.
This guy was definitely a little weird, but then I was in a supernatural library with a moving entrance. I couldn’t really expect anything less.
“I’m looking for a book.”
The man smiled, his light brown eyes warming with laughter. “Well, we are in a bookstore.”
Ah. That’s right. Stupid statement.
Looked like the guy had a sense of humor. It was a relief actually. Made him seem slightly more human, which when standing in a supernatural bookstore next to a shield that ate people was surprisingly reassuring.
I gave him a strained smile. “I’m not really sure what I’m looking for. I mean I don’t have a name or anything to give you.”
This was a lot harder than I thought. For some reason, I thought I could just waltz in, find what I was looking for and then waltz out. No interaction with other people necessary and no one would be the wiser about my visit.
That hadn’t happened and now I was awkwardly explaining myself to the man with the enigmatic gaze.
I took another step away from the shield. You could never be too careful with magical artifacts that might eat you. I meandered toward another table, taking the time to get my bravado back.
This plan would work or it wouldn’t. If it didn’t, they’d throw me out of the store. Probably ban me for life, which would affect any runs that might end here. They’d probably let my boss, Jerry, at Hermes know, in effect guaranteeing my subsequent firing.
I needed to stop thinking about everything that could go wrong. It was too late to turn back, and I didn’t have time to have a panic attack now.
I met the man’s eyes again, aware that they hadn’t budged from me during my whole internal motivational speech. That was alright. It was creepy, but who wasn’t a little creepy among the spooks.
“I’m hoping you can point me to a book that might have a rundown of who’s who on the supernatural side of things. If it has anything to say about the inner politics of the different factions that would be great too.”
“That’s a big request.”
Hence the reason I was essentially breaking into this place. I’d looked everywhere else. No one had anything that could act as a primer of the different species and factions making up this magically fucked up world. Or at least no one who was willing to deal with me, the no-power baby vamp who was marked by a sorcerer and at odds with the vampires.
He finally looked away, his focus turning inward as he sank into thought.
“There might be something.”
Really? Hell yes. Maybe this hadn’t been such a bad plan after all.
“That’s great. Where is it? How much will it cost?”
I didn’t have much money, but perhaps I could put it on a layaway plan or something.
His lips took on a sly quirk.
I paused, not liking the way he suddenly looked like the cat who caught the canary.
“The where is simple enough, you just have to find it. As for the cost, that’s another matter. Some might say it will cost you nothing. And everything.”
Was that a riddle? It certainly sounded like it. I hated riddles. My thought patterns were too linear, and I rarely guessed the correct answer. Maybe I should start looking for this thing on my own. No way did I want to accidentally promise my first born and be stuck in a Rumpelstiltskin situation. Not that, as a vampire, I could even have a first born, let alone a second.
“What would I do with a first born?” the man asked in a bemused voice.
I narrowed my eyes at him. A mind reader. Must be pretty powerful to get through my internal defenses. I’d thought they were pretty secure after the incident with the draugr. The one that landed me in my current situation.
In my distraction, had I dropped some of the layers?
The man gave no visual reaction at my reinforcing my mental defenses. Had what I done worked? I couldn’t tell. I couldn’t slam shut a door, effectively kicking the mental peeping tom out. The defenses were more organic and relied on confusion and misdirection as they created a mazelike forest in my mental landscape.
Aiden, a vampire I had met briefly during the incident, told me it was rare for someone to create a fortress based on nature. He said it like my mental forest made me rare, the kind of rare that might be referred to as a freak in ruder company. But I might have been reading into that.
“Maybe this book isn’t for me,” I said.
His smile was sweet and innocent, not the sly one of before. No way was I buying what he was selling. This had devil’s bargain written all over it. The last thing I needed was to get sucked into another situation that was well over my head. I was barely treading water as it was.
“It’d be a pity if you walked away. The piece I have in mind would be perfect for your purposes.”
I gave him a tight smile. “Somehow I think the price is a little steeper than I want to pay.”
“Hm,” he said, his eyes blank.
I finally placed what it was about him that was making me uneasy. His expressions were only surface deep. As if someone had taken clay and begun to make the facial expression that matched the feeling but forgot to make the rest of the features reflect that feeling. His lips smiled but the skin around them stayed still, no dimples or wrinkles. The skin around his eyes and on his forehead remained smooth and unmarked.
Yeah. I didn’t know what this guy was, but he definitely wasn’t human.
Time to carefully extricate myself from this conversation and make my way towards the exit.
“The cost is not high.”
I stuffed my hands in my pockets, fingering the silver knife hidden there. “You know what they say, ‘beware things that sound too good to be true.’”
His expression registered only slight surprise, as if he was no longer making the effort to appear human.
He could definitely still read my mind, or else he was really good at reading the situation.
“I have never heard that saying before.”
I bet he hadn’t heard a lot of sayings.
“Not true,” he said. “I’ve heard this one – ‘There are more things in heaven and earth.’”
Shakespeare. Lovely. I hated reading that play in high school.
I opened my mouth to respond and stopped, studying his inquisitive expression. He seemed awfully invested in me taking whatever it was he was trying to sell. It put me even more on guard.
I wanted knowledge but not at the expense of my life.
“You’re right. You do know human expressions, but I’m afraid I’m just not interested in this amazing book of yours.” I pointed behind me as I backed up. “I think I’ll just be going now.”
I started for the door.
“But you haven’t found what you were looking for yet.”
This guy just wasn’t giving up.
I gave him a strained smile, not pausing as I headed for room’s exit. “Thanks, but that’s life.”
His lips frowned. I say his lips because the rest of his face didn’t move. This was really starting to creep me out. I was beginning to realize why only certain people were allowed into this place. Only the powerful and dangerous could make it in and out without death stalking every move.
I tried not to think of the weapons I was carrying on me, not certain that I could fight him off if he attacked.
He started forward as I neared the door and I bolted, darting over the threshold and down one twisting hallway after another. I shot a glance behind me, cursing when I saw him keeping pace with me, not getting closer but also not falling further behind.
I had no idea where I was or how to get back to the entrance. This was bad.
I rounded the corner and stumbled over a book lying in the middle of the floor. I barely caught myself from falling.
“What are you doing here?” a querulous voice asked. The tone said the owner wouldn’t accept any half ass excuses either.
I looked up to find a pair of bright blue eyes looking out at me from a face so lined with wrinkles that it was hard to believe the owner had ever been anything but ancient. He looked like a sharpei. Even his wrinkles had wrinkles.
“I’m not talking to hear myself speak,” he snapped.
“Uh.” I glanced over my shoulder to find the other man had disappeared.
“Oh, good lord, it’s like talking to a brick wall. No, I take that back. A brick wall would have a more intelligent conversation.”
My stomach sank. I recognized him. He was the shop keeper I usually dealt with when making my deliveries. Talk about out of the pan and into the fire.
“I was just trying to find the exit,” I said. Maybe he wouldn’t recognize me. It’s not like we’d had a lot of conversations in the past. He’d barely deigned to acknowledge me on the rare occasions I stopped by. “Your other shop keeper was showing me the way.”
“Other shopkeeper? What shopkeeper? I’m the only one who carries that title.” The man’s eyes narrowed. “Wait a minute. I recognize you. You work for that upstart Jerry.”
Damn. Guess he’d paid more attention than I thought.
“Yeah. You work for his little company. What was it called?” He looked around as if the name was just lingering in the air, waiting for him to see it.
“Hermes,” I said. No point denying it now. If he knew Jerry’s name, he’d eventually be able to tie it back to me.
“That’s it.” He pointed at me. “It still doesn’t explain why you’re inside the store.”
I shrugged, feigning nonchalance. “I was looking for a book. Why else would I be here?”
His laugh was a cackle suited to any movie villain. “There are more reasons than there are stars in the galaxy. How did you even get in?”
“Same way most do.”
“Be more specific. There are a million ways to gain entrance.”
I’d really hoped to keep that part secret.
His eyebrows, two white caterpillars perching just above his sunken in eyes, rose in question as if to say ‘today’.
“I asked the cashier at The Book Haven for a map to the feline behavior department,” I admitted.
He harrumphed. “That shouldn’t have gotten you inside. The code changed about five minutes after you dropped my package off last time.”
I blinked. On one hand, his response shouldn’t have been surprising. It was only good security to change passwords and codes once an unknown entity or hired errand girl was gone. I just hadn’t expected it to be so instantaneous.
It did bring up the question of why the password had worked for me.
He shuffled over to a book case and pulled down a red leather bound book and flipped through its pages as he grumbled to himself.
He ran his finger down the page, pausing at one entry.
“Ah ha, I was right. The code changed three minutes after you left.”
He peered back up at me, his eyes a bright spot of blue amidst his wrinkles.
I shrugged, not knowing what response he wanted from me. I couldn’t change the truth.
“I don’t know what to tell you. That’s the code I used with the cashier. Maybe your system’s broken.”
“Impossible,” he snapped. “It’s never once had even a hiccup in all the years I’ve been the shopkeeper.”
Judging by his wrinkles, that’d been a long, long time.
His eyes sharpened on the book at my feet. “What’s that?” his voice deepened to nearly a growl. If I hadn’t been staring at the old man in front of me, I would have sworn his voice was that of a young man.
I looked down at the book he was trying to incinerate with his gaze. Its cover was plain leather with the title embossed in it. It was a deep brown and the pages cream colored.
I bent down and picked it up. Out loud I read the words on the spine, “A study of the unexplained. The uninitiated’s guide to the supernatural.”
“Let me see it.” He shuffled forward.
I held it out to him, but he didn’t touch it, just peered at it like it was a snake preparing to strike.
“Well, that explains that,” he murmured.
He gave me a gimlet glare. “Everything.”
He turned around and shuffled away.
Well, that wasn’t dire or anything.
“Are you going to follow me so I can show you to the exit, or are you going to stand there looking like a great lump of clay? If it’s the second, you won’t last long. Things roam these shelves looking for an easy target like you to consume.”
I looked down at the book in my arms. “What do you want me to do with the book?”
“Bring it with you,” he snapped. Under his breath, he mumbled, “It’s not like it’d stay put anyway.”
Pretending I hadn’t heard that second part, I hurried after him, book in tow. Staying off the dinner menu worked well for my long term goals. The sooner I could put this place behind me the better. I never wanted to be this deep in the bookstore again.
He was mostly silent as he led me through the maze-like stacks of books. In contrast to the wide open rooms I’d wandered through before, he led me through hallway after small hallway of claustrophobia inducing spaces.
“Tell me about the other shopkeeper,” he said abruptly. He sounded grim. Like he expected me to tell him the world was ending soon.
Seeing no harm in telling him about the creepy man I’d met, I said, “He had curly brown hair, brown eyes.”
“Not that, you half-wit. I don’t care what he looked like. Tell me what he said.”
I pulled a face behind him.
“I can see you.”
I paused, giving him a suspicious look. He hadn’t turned, so unless he had eyes in the back of his head, I doubted that. Unless he was another mind reader.
I visualized burning the book in my hands, frowning when it pulsed with warmth against my fingers. If warmth was capable of giving off a feeling, this would have felt like indignation. I put that thought aside.
The old man failed to respond to my visualization, which meant he probably was not a mind reader. Good. Those guys always unsettled me. I don’t like anybody knowing my most private thoughts. It’s like having a peeping tom with x-ray vision spying on you in your most intimate moments.
The old man stopped and fixed a cranky stare on me.
“Right.” What had the other man said? “He wanted to sell me a book.”
“What kind of book?”
I debated how much to tell him. Couldn’t hurt now. I was already in enough trouble. “A rundown of all the supernaturals and an insider’s guide to the politics between the different factions.”
He harrumphed again. “You wouldn’t need such a thing if you would simply allow a clan to claim you. They would teach you everything you need to know.”
Or only what they wanted me to know.
“Yes, yes. I’ve already been over this with the vampires. I don’t need to go over it with a grumpy bookseller too.”
He snorted. “Cocky and arrogant. What’s wrong? Afraid of losing control of your life?”
I gave his back a searching look, not liking how closely he’d guessed my motivations. Even Liam hadn’t hit the nail on the head so aptly.
Liam was a vampire I’d met last fall. The first vampire I’d met. Well, if you didn’t count the bastard who turned me. I didn’t. I tended to call him Jackass in my head. Liam was also the vampire who said he would teach me a little more about this world, and more importantly, a little more about what it meant to be vampire.
I hadn’t heard much from him since that promise, which me to breaking into a restricted bookstore trying to bluff my way towards obtaining more knowledge.
“Sure, I guess you could say that.” There was no point in denying it.
He gave me a gap toothed smile. “Good for you. Maybe you’re smarter than you look.”
We turned a corner and suddenly we were back in the cavern I started in. The man’s head swiveled as he took in the expanse of books.
He cackled. “I haven’t seen this section in a while.”
How big was this place? Never mind. I didn’t think my mind could handle the answer.
I tried to hand the book I’d been carrying to him. He waved me off and took a step back.
“What was the price you agreed to?” he asked.
“We didn’t,” I said. “He tried to tell me it was nothing and everything, but it sounded like it was too good to be true so I refused.”
Well that and he had seriously creeped me out by that point.
I tried to hand it back to the shop keeper again. He refused to take it, his old man face frowning at me.
“Keep it. You’ve already paid the price, and it wouldn’t stay with me anyway.”
My hands hung in the air, holding out the book, while I processed what he said.
“No, I haven’t paid anything or agreed to any payment.”
He shrugged. “Doesn’t mean it hasn’t already been paid. Look, the price really is nothing.”
“And everything,” I protested. I remembered that part. It was the part that had tripped my internal alarms.
He waved my protest away. “That means nothing. No worries. The book is yours.”
“But I don’t want the damn book.”
“Too late now.” He waved his hand at the door to the human side. “Out you go.”
“Wait a minute. You can’t make me pay for something if I never agreed to the deal.” I’d learned this much from the sorcerer at least.
My phone rang before the shop keeper could respond. I glanced down and pulled it out of my pocket. It said ‘Hermes Calling.’
I looked up to find myself alone in the stacks of books. I spun around. Damn it, where’d he go?
The phone rang again.
I answered, “What?”
The person on the other end sucked in a breath. “Is that how you answer when representing the company?”
It is when they have possibly caused me to agree to a deal I had no intention of agreeing to.
“What do you want, Janice?”
“You know my name isn’t Janice,” Beatrix snapped.
I did, but she looked like a Janice so that’s what I called her. It didn’t hurt that I knew she hated it, which is why I did it.
“What do you want?”
“You need to come into the office.”
“It’s my night off. I have plans.” I glanced around the empty book cases. Or at least I had before the book keeper left me standing holding a book I didn’t pay for.
“Too bad. Jerry needs all hands on deck.”
“Can’t this wait until tomorrow?”
Even if my excursion hadn’t gone as planned, I still wanted the rest of the night to figure out what to do next.
“It can. If you want to be fired.” Beatrix’s voice was smug over the phone. She knew I wouldn’t risk that.
“Fine,” I gritted out. “I’ll be there in an hour.”
“Make it twenty minutes.”
“Twenty minutes? Are you crazy? I have to go home first and grab my shit before heading to the office. No way can I get there in twenty minutes.”
“I don’t want to hear your excuses; just get your ass here in twenty.”
There was a click and then silence. I looked at my phone screen. That harpy had hung up on me.
Guess I shouldn’t be too surprised. She had made no secret from the moment we met that she didn’t like me.
I took one last glance around the empty stacks before glancing down at the book in my hands. It looked so harmless with its leather cover and simple design, but then I think most books had that in common.
What should I do with it? Leave it behind or take it with me? The shopkeeper seemed adamant that I take it, even going so far to say that whatever its price was had already been paid.
Might as well keep it for now seeing as there was no one to hand it off to. I could always come back later to try to return it.
I headed to the exit for the normal side of the bookstore. Making the meeting was not going to be easy.