I’d walked past Scully’s Bookstore every day on my way to work since moving to the South Side of Chicago a year ago. My job was adequate, nothing special, just as I perceived myself to be. And with few friends to count and lacking the social graces to evolve beyond the fiber of my religious upbringing, I kept my fantasies and disappointments to myself.
I usually glanced in at Scully’s, then crossed the street to catch the Q32 bus, which would snake its way along the outskirts of the famous Chicago Loop and spew me out a block away from the firm of Murphy & Morgan, one of the less notable accounting firms. It was easy, straightforward work, and I was glad to have it, with the flood of soldiers returning after the war.
Why I turned to reflect that brisk December morning upon the still darkened bookstore, in spite of the fact that my bus was approaching, I do not know.
I could make out movement in the back of the store. There were a few light bulbs dangling from the ceiling like nooses waiting to strangle spent fireflies. As the wind swept around me, there was a mustiness that increased in intensity as I came closer to the window. It was thick with the scent of the earth and all that crawled and wiggled below.
Again, there was movement. It flashed in the deepest recesses of the store. There were aisles and aisles of disjointed, teetering bookshelves stacked to the rafters. Ramshackle and decrepit, Scully’s looked like Charles Dickens had a hand in its design.
A grayish haze enveloped the center of the store. I half expected a bent and wizened wizard to shuffle out of the dimness and wave me away with a magic wand.
My hand clutched the brass doorknob. It was warm to the touch while all around was caught in the grip of another dismal, Chicago freeze. The knob turned freely in my hand. I pushed open the door a crack, then a few more inches, then a full foot toward the unknown.
“Hello,” I called out.
I closed the door and listened to the distant clock chime ring itself quiet. I announced myself again. The floor creaked beneath my feet. The air clung still. If there was a winter roaming the streets, you couldn’t tell it by the warmth in the store that lay as still as the dead.
Scully’s Bookstore was already what I had hoped it would be, and more. I stood entranced. I was curious and comforted at once.
At this moment I could not make a case for not having been here before, on a foreign shore of a strange and mysterious land beyond which lay the outline of destiny.
I moved past one of three large oak tables strewn with papers, stuffed envelopes, ledgers, and record books. Boxes sat unopened. Invoices, financial records, and correspondence were scattered like sagebrush in the wind. And dust had collected everywhere, a seal of authenticity and antiquity.
Standing in the middle of the confusion was a large cash register that might have been as old as the building in which it was housed. It was made of brass and exotic burnished woods and what had to be, to my disbelief, gold-capped register keys.
“Is someone there?” a faint echo sounded from a distant aisle.
“Stephen Connors,” I answered, but just barely.
The shuffle of tired feet against an older floor came closer until a small man framed into view. A cassock of unkempt white hair fell over his shoulders and onto a sweater that was as old as I was.
“Cold day out there,” he said with a grimace of a smile and wended his way behind the desk to a tall stool that he mounted with more dexterity. He patted down his trousers and glanced up. “What brings you to my shop so early, or do you have nothing better to do with your life than wander the streets?”
What engaged me first was his voice, clear and distinct and far younger than I had expected. “I was just passing by.”
“Looking for what?” the old man said, shuffling papers and stacks of books as if he was suddenly capable of instilling order to the confusion.
“I’m not sure.”
He glanced up without taking real notice of me. “A man needs to know where he is going if he ever expects to get there.”
“So your interest in my store is an accident?”
“I pass your store every day on my way to work.”
“Curiosity is good. Curiosity is how all things begin: inventions and explorations and adventures. Without that spark there is only a sullen tomorrow. Henley. Peter Christopher Henley, to be exact,” he said. His radiant blue eyes were encircled by the curse of age.
“You have a wonderful shop here, Peter Christopher Henley.”
“It serves the purpose.”
“Which is?” I asked, more out of politeness.
“Are you really interested?”
What could I say? I had already missed my bus, and the possibility of rushing out to make the next, or to think of an excuse for being so late, never entered my mind. “I am.”
At ease within his bones, and his store, Peter Christopher Henley offered an appreciative nod. “Then take off your jacket and I’ll show you around.”
It was only when he asked me to remove my jacket that I realized how really warm it was in the shop. I folded it respectfully and set it on the side of the desk and followed him into the belly of the beast. It was a large store. Much larger inside than might be assumed from the street.
Every step drew a sigh from the uneven wooden floor. As we inched through the aisles, he explained with measured gesture and great pride the expanse of his collections.
“Who was Scully?” I asked as we came to a flight of narrow stone stairs.
Henley braced himself for the descent. We moved slowly downward, taking cautious, deliberate steps down two flights. He stopped at the bottom. “He was the original owner. Nasty, cantankerous old man. Never liked him. He had bad habits, bad breath, and a worse disposition. Smoked nasty, short black cigars. Took a decade to get rid of the stink after he passed away.”
“Then how did you get here?”
“Quite by accident, much like you,” he said and switched on the overhead light as a bell chimed overhead. “Customer.”
“How can you tell?”
“The bell, didn’t you hear it?”
Of course I did, I just choose to ignore it. My tour was over. He switched off the basement light. We marched back upstairs and moved toward the front of the store. Henley wished me a good day and tended to the two librarians anxious with questions.
After making dutiful apologies to my manager, my day passed in fits and spurts and lingering doubt. By the time I got home that night, I was so tired it felt like I had been without sleep for a week. I fell into bed without supper, so consumed by the events of the morning that sleep and whatever followed only added to my fatigue.
I awoke the next morning too early for work, or for much else. I consumed two bowls of warm cereal, and coffee, and sifted through the sequence of questions that had sprung from my encounter with Peter Christopher Henley.
The day broke as cold as the one that preceded it, only a little less windy. However, in Chicago, less windy was a relative description. I buttoned up, left my apartment with gloves and cap this time, and made my way along with a few familiar faces toward the bus stop.
Scully’s was cloaked in familiar shades of gray, black and dismal. I checked my watch. It was exactly the same time I had approached the shop yesterday, and yet it seemed that more than a day had passed. The street and the shop looked older, more worn and weakened.
I crossed the street and stepped up onto the sidewalk. It was pitch black within. Darker than dark. I moved to the door, grasped the knob and turned it. There was no life within or movement to the fixture.
“Makes no sense,” I muttered. I repeated this mantra all the way to work and several times after dinner and through whatever dreams plagued me long into the next daybreak.
The shop was shuttered and dark the next day and the day after. I inquired at the butcher shop across the street, who confirmed that the “old man” was prone to not showing up every day at regular hours. “Nice enough. The guy keeps pretty much to himself,” the butcher said. “He doesn’t bother anybody. That’s the way it should be.”
I also learned that Henley came to the shop thirty-eight years ago, a week to the day before Scully passed away at ninety-three years old. Henley came from a small town in western Ohio. It was believed, if somewhat romantically I suppose, that he had been a poet.
I made my way to work and was greeted by a dyspeptic manager waiting at my unoccupied desk. I was put on notice that if I continued to disrespect the principles and routine of the firm, I would be dismissed.
Considering I was a hard worker and contributed to the success of several of our larger clients, the threat came as a surprise. What didn’t was my indifference to losing my job. Getting fired from a respected firm could permanently affect my career, especially if I decided to remain in Chicago. While it was hardly glamorous, it was secure and at times interesting. As one of my early mentors had said, metaphorically, “the books of a company reveal the lifeblood of their soul and spirit.”
Saturday came and, even for eager junior accountants, it was a prescribed day of rest and an opportunity to probe beyond the shell of my own fears and darkest suspicions, and to try to come to terms with why was I so driven with curiosity.
At exactly 10:00 a.m. on the following Saturday, there was a steady light shining within the bookstore. Relieved and delighted, I opened the door and called out, “Henley?”
Clutter was an anathema to me, the confusion unacceptable and a clear disregard for order and sound managerial practices. Everything in the store was in a state of disarray. I called out again, refusing to accept that the lights went on and the front door was opened by magic, a word that had come to mind many times over the last few days.
“Stephen?” the soft whisper called out. “Is that you?”
I advanced along one of the aisles until I spotted Henley sitting on a short stool with a book clasped tightly in his hands. I knelt at his side. “Are you all right?”
“Better now,” he said as I helped him to his feet. “I can’t move as fast as I once did.”
“And still do,” I said with some affection.
“Sometimes, and not bad for a man a few years shy of a hundred.”
I stopped in my tracks. “A hundred?”
“Have most of my own teeth too,” he said, grinning from ear to ear. “And all of my own hair, white shambles as it is.”
I self-consciously touched my forehead. My father had gone bald early. My older baby brother, Charlie, over in Evanston, was not yet thirty and he was bald. It didn’t bother Charlie’s wife, though it did make him feel vulnerable.
“Shouldn’t you be thinking of retiring? Getting some rest?”
“This is not the time for rest,” he said, mounting the stool behind his desk.
I watched Henley catch his breath. A hundred years old? “Do you know why they throw rice at weddings when the marriage ceremony is concluded and the bride and groom are leaving the church?”
“No,” Henley said. From the look of him, it was difficult to tell if he was being polite or patient. “Hopefully you’re going to tell me.”
“I once read that it was an old English custom designed to distract the Devil from interfering with the happiness of the newly married couple. The rice is meant as food for the Devil, a distraction, so he’ll be preoccupied and leave the couple alone so they can escape his attention.”
“And do you believe that?”
“In the custom?”
“That, and the part about the Devil. Do you believe in the Devil? In a Satan?”
“I’m not a very religious man, so I suppose a part of me doesn’t believe in the existence of such a creature,” I answered, curious as to why he didn’t ask, why the riddle, and why about such an obvious subject.
“But is there a part of you that does?”
“The part of me that spent nearly a dozen years in Catholic school listening to tales of doom and damnation if you fail to do or say the right things. It was always about fear and the elusive reward of the afterlife.”
“Life is a little more complicated than how many ‘Hail Marys’ you chant.”
“Is that why there is no religion section in Scully’s?”
Henley nodded appreciatively. “Few people would take note of that.”
“And still fewer would get a tour like I did.”
“Most, in fact, don’t.”
I had hoped the old man would mention where he’d been for the last week but, instead, decided on a more direct approach. “This store and you are all I’ve thought about, Mister Henley, if I’m not being too forward.”
“You sound like I did, many years ago.”
“Thirty-eight years ago?”
“When I moved into the neighborhood with the intention of retiring.”
“What changed your mind?”
“We’re all searching for something that few of us understand. A reason to get up in the morning, a passion, an experience that will challenge our heart and soul. An opportunity to prove ourselves, and give greater meaning to our life. I came here to retire and met Scully much in the same way as you’ve met me, by accident or chance, though I do not believe in either. I walked by, came in, and disliked him from the beginning. I couldn’t help myself. I was as drawn to this place and, as you seem to be, equally unable to grasp why. Things like that happen. You see a woman across the street and know you’re going to spend the rest of your life with her. It happens.”
“Not to me,” I said. “At least not with women.”
“Women are a most wondrous experience. They make us so much better than who we are alone.”
“Then you’re married?”
“I was, a lifetime ago. To the most, dear, sweet person you could imagine. She passed away and I couldn’t stay in our home any longer. I came to Chicago, not around here at first, and tried to make a new life for myself. I was a carpenter many years ago. Built quite a few homes in my time. Hard to believe it, looking at me, more withered than most. Bent back and all, I’m quite good with my hands.”
“You’re a lucky man.”
“And now I have all these friends,” he said looking down the rows of shelves, “who need my care.”
I’d never embraced literature, instead doing as little as possible to pass related courses in high school and college. I suddenly realized they might have made me think and inquire, making me a better, more fulfilled person.
“It’s cold outside.”
“I’ve never gotten used to these winters,” the old man said.
“And yet, the doorknob on the street side of your door is warm in the coldest weather.”
The old man let the phone ring itself back to silence and slipped off of the stool. “Not really.”
“And do most not realize that the back of your shop is warmer than the front and that your basement is uncomfortably warm in the middle of winter in a store that has no radiators?”
“You’re a very observant young man.”
“Where are you going?”
“I have to set up for a book club, pay my bills, get out some correspondence, and place my orders. It never stops.”
“Can I help?” I asked, unable to accept that the old man decided my time in the store had ended.
Before he disappeared down one of the aisles, he pointed to a broom and suggested that I take a turn. I bounded off the stool, grabbed the broom, and began sweeping.
When I finished, Henley asked me to log in an order of books from one of the publishers and to set the books on the shelves, which I did, mentioning that his system of record keeping and posting to his account ledger could use some updating. To my delight the old man welcomed my advice.
By noon, Scully’s Bookstore was busy with the curious and the collector. The phone was ringing. Questions popped from all directions. For the first time in my life, I felt a real purpose, of being a part of something special. It amused me to be so helpful, taking orders and figuring out how the cash register worked and guiding people to places in the recesses of the shop as though I had spent a lifetime here.
I made Henley an offer to work there on Saturdays for next to nothing, which, if my business instincts were any good, was probably all the shop could afford to pay. Henley beamed agreement.
If Sunday was supposed to be a day of reflection and religious consideration, a respite where you set aside time to communicate with your spiritual inner voice, I was instilled with a sense of energy and rebirth in ways I could not reconcile.
At Murphy & Morgan I was more diligent and dedicated to my daily tasks. Even my manager, who was more likely to be the Devil incarnate than anything brooding in Scully’s basement, cautiously praised the results of my heightened efforts.
The next Saturday, my second as a part-time employee, Scully’s was even more frenetic. There was a morning book club reading and one scheduled for early afternoon, in addition to a large shipment, which had to be recorded and the volumes set on the shelves after they were priced out.
I quickly mastered the cash register and was even recognized by a few of the neighborhood locals, as well as scholars from the state university who themselves enjoyed spending part of their Saturdays shuffling around Scully’s wonderfully antediluvian maze.
The day rushed by quickly, and on more than one occasion I was praised by the old man, grateful for help. He couldn’t imagine how the shop had been managed on weekends with only one man for as long as it had. At the end of the day, we sat and considered what we’d accomplished.
“We did well today,” Henley concluded, taking in the chaos that lay everywhere in spite of my noblest efforts.
“We’re a good team,” I said.
“Good. Yes, good.”
“Scully’s is the second oldest book shop in Chicago. I’ve been to Burlington & Brown. It’s nothing special. I think there may be opportunities to get more business.”
“More business? Stephen, we can’t manage what we have.”
“I think we can.”
“Three Saturdays and already you’re an expert?”
“I thought you wanted more business,” I said, disappointed at the disapproval in Henley’s tone. I had so many suggestions and ideas I wanted to share with him. However, one of us was almost a hundred years old and probably not so eager to work even harder.
Henley tightened the sweater across his chest and sat back, pressing down the folds of his pants, which always looked two or three sizes bigger than his frame called for.
“I appreciate what you’ve done for me, Stephen. It’s made a great difference. And I like what you said about how to keep the books and records. I think that would be very helpful. But, really, and this may come as a disappointment to you, I don’t want any new business.”
For no reason that I could think of, I asked Henley, “Does it have anything to do with what’s going on in the basement?”
“My basement is my business.”
I’d been down there retrieving books for customers several times over the last two Saturdays. The heat down there was stifling. And the basement ran further than the full length of the shop.
“Doesn’t the heat damage the books?”
“Stephen, I am very grateful for your time and effort, but can we leave it at that for now?”
I wanted to protect what little beachhead of friendship and confidence I had established with Henley and erase any doubt in the man’s mind. “Yes, yes, of course. Let’s get things in order and close up.”
“Yes. To the task at hand,” he said, his voice ringing with resolve.
I walked through the hours and days of the next week as if I’d been given medication that wouldn’t let me think or feel. The haze of my greatest fear was populated by craven images of naked, screaming men and women being slowly lowered by chains into cauldrons of boiling oil, of flesh being pierced and torn by jagged metal teeth and the floor of the basement covered in a wash of human blood and twisted organs, and of Peter Christopher Henley holding back the evil torrent waiting to breach through the basement floor of Scully’s Bookstore.
It sounded all too fanciful. It took me back to a time when teachers threatened and words like damnation, hell, and retribution terrified me, a world populated by evil and forces well beyond human control. It forced me to reflect on how I had spent the early years of my life, as though I were afraid of the rest of the days of my life.
The following Friday may have been the worst I can recall. I couldn’t concentrate on work, read, or rest, or think straight. I got home, had dinner, and went out for a walk, a distraction to keep my mind off the obvious, that I’d been right all along about the fact that the basement of Scully’s Bookstore was harboring an evil spirit.
I made my way around the neighborhood, drifting past restaurants and saloons, and when I was two blocks away from the store, I caught a glow in the window. A faint yellow light was coming from deep within the shop. Henley lived in a small room in the rear and often boasted he had to be in bed by 9:00 p.m., if only to maintain his “youthful” appearance.
It was well past 10:00 p.m. As I crossed the street to the shop, the light grew dimmer, shifted position for a moment, then faded out of sight. I mounted the curb and paused. I grasped and pushed against the warm doorknob and continued toward the rear of the store and the glow that was coming from the stairwell leading down into the basement. The air grew warmer and was ripe with a thick, damp odor I couldn’t identify.
I heard voices, muted and distant, rising up and swarming with intensity. The closer I got, the more uncertain and fearful I became.
Visions of devils and goblins being belched up from the earth, cloaked in a film of red and orange flames, pitchforks in hand, all surrounding a withered Peter Christopher Henley, would not relent.
As I approached the opening, lights danced against shadows and were thrown up to the ceiling and splattered across bookshelves at my side. Deep, guttural tones raced up from below. A foul smell choked me, squeezing out the air in the center of my chest. I coughed, knowing I had just compromised any element of surprise. I held fast to the frail banister and moved into the torrid glow and heat rushing up from the steps below.
The rows of bookshelves and the few battered tables laden with books and manuscripts were gone, vanished, as was everything else I had seen on my few visits. This was a different world. A glowing and transformed landscape.
The once smooth dirt floor was misshapen and felt unstable beneath me. The walls were not physical in any conventional sense, but rather darkened shadows that surrounded the perimeter where the floor should have ended.
Toward the far end, Henley had apparently fallen and he too was retching from the stench. If I was having a hard time breathing and holding on to my senses, I couldn’t imagine how a man so old and infirm could still be conscious, or how long either of us would survive.
Crouched over him was the dark shape of something, a creature. The animal—I didn’t know what else to call it—had a head and a shape that held only a vague resemblance to even the most disfigured human form I’d ever seen.
Where there should have been eyes and mouth, there was an irregular opening from which burned a red and yellow fire. It was making a horrible, deep sound, somewhere between a growl and a groan. It was holding something at the end of what looked like an arm, though it was two or three times the normal thickness and proportionally longer. Another similar apparition was raised threateningly over Henley’s huddled frame.
“And now…,” the beast wailed.
The words cut through the heat and light and sank like a dagger into my heart.
“Stand aside,” the creature threatened, raising both arms and a dark object like a disc, a blackened piece of metal the size of a large serving platter, overhead.
I couldn’t understand why the beast hesitated from striking the final blow. When it made the demand again, two dark slots opened up on the front of its head. Blackened eyes stared down at Henley. They seemed expectant, fearless, weighed with fury.
Henley kept his balance. His shirt and pants were torn and dirt-stained. There was a spattering of blood on his shoulder. Sweat covered his pale white frame. They were a dozen paces away. The blazing hot space was open, filled with coiling, dark smoke. I didn’t know how long I could remain here.
The creature turned toward me and bellowed, angry and contemptuous. Henley turned, startled, and waved me away. His face looked different, determined not to break under the weight that was closing in around him.
The animal let the heavy metal disc fall at its side. Now, fully exposed, it was half again the size of the largest man I had ever seen. Its body was covered with a brown, uneven skin whose surface seemed to be undulating like a life within a life.
The creature growled; its gestures and threats were perfectly clear.
I considered prayer, though only briefly.
The beast turned toward me.
I didn’t understand how Henley could withstand the onslaught, and judging from his condition, the tale of his courage was going to die with him.
I had to get Henley back up to safety, if such a place still existed. The idea of this monster getting to the surface, as I had believed for so many weeks was a real possibility that cursed me day and night, was difficult to imagine.
All these years, first Scully then Henley, and whoever had come before them in the guise of another simple shopkeeper, had been able to keep this thing at bay. And why here in this unremarkable place? Whether or not this was the incarnation of the Devil was secondary to rescuing the embattled old man.
Suddenly Henley reached for something in the dirt. The creature turned and was upon him before he could grasp it. I couldn’t make it out in the smoke and heat. The monster swept down on the old man and grabbed the shining object. It crushed it in its paw, raised it overhead, and slammed it into the center of the metal plate.
At once, a flash of sparks filled the room. I turned away, but was stung by the red embers that flew in all directions. The crack of the impact of the shining object with the plate left me dazed and trembling. I saw that where there had once been two objects, there was now only the circular plate, but it was now considerably larger, and alive in the creature’s hands.
“It’s done!” it bellowed triumphantly.
“It is not done,” Henley said, his voice hoarse with resolve. “It will never be done.”
The creature looked down at the frail figure, its eyes now small and black like lumps of coal. “You’re a fool.”
Henley climbed to his feet, stood up as erect as I had ever seen, and uttered something unrecognizable, though not to the beast. There was a brief exchange, and then the creature dropped the plate and turned and moved toward me.
“Stephen, go. Run. Save yourself.”
The closer it got to the stairs where I stood, the slower it moved, as though fighting through some invisible force. Again and again it growled and flung out its arms in my direction as Henley raised his arms toward the beast.
The beast stopped no more than a few meters from the base of the steps. It heaved its massive body forward again but could go no further. It railed in frustration, raising its arms overhead, echoing some terrible, primal scream. It strained again and again but seemed to grow weaker with every effort.
“It’s no use,” Henley said and reached down and plucked out a small golden object embedded in the core of the plate, the one the beast had taken from Henley’s grasp. He flicked a crust of dirt off the small medallion.
“I will have my way,” the creature snarled.
“Not as long as I am alive you won’t,” the old man growled back.
Before he could finish the sentence, the animal turned and charged Henley, then just as quickly pivoted to attack me. The old man tried to close the distance between us, but his age was against him, and me.
The beast swung its massive arm, catching me across the chest and sending me flying backward. Before I landed, I knew that I been badly injured. The last thing I saw was the old man standing with the medallion in his hand as the animal turned on him.
* * *
There was a time in my life when I was filled with imagination frothed with fantasy. I dreamed the dream of heroes, of dragons and kingdoms, and in my dreams knew I’d created this fiction to satisfy hidden needs.
As I drifted back up from what I believed was all a bad dream, attempting to contain the sensation of foreboding, familiar images came into view. I was lying on the desk in the front of the store. The desk was empty of all clutter as well as the books, records, and the cash register. Henley was standing over me, his clothes torn and tattered, just as I recalled.
I was afraid to take a deep breath, or to accept the fact that I’d survived the assault. Slowly, regaining my strength, I asked, “What happened?”
“We won, for now.”
“I will tell you later.”
“I don’t understand.”
Ragged and torn, the old man made himself comfortable against the side of the desk. “You will in time. Right now, you’ve been hurt. You need to heal. Then we’ll talk.”
Every breath was anguish. My chest felt as if someone had stepped on it. The back of my head and right shoulder were badly bruised. “About that thing?”
“What about me?”
“Whether or not you want to remain here when I am gone.”
Shadows now moved about on the street outside the store windows. I had no idea what time it was or how long I’d been unconscious, or by what marvel of physics I’d been carried up from the basement and laid on the desk. “I’ll do whatever it takes.”
“Don’t be too quick, my son. Even I was hesitant when Jonathan Scully put this same question to me. You must give it some thought. Much depends on your answer.”
“I want to do this. I think I have to do this.”
“Do you understand what you’re asking of yourself? Of the true measure of an eternity of sacrifice?”
I wanted to believe, but had no real idea. I couldn’t possibly grasp what I was about to give up, or what lay ahead. I only knew that I’d never felt such resolve. “You have to show me everything. You have to train me.”
“I can only teach you what Scully and experience have taught me. The rest you must do for yourself.”
I seized the old man’s hand and shook it.
* * *
The next morning I woke to find myself coiled in a cocoon of damp sheets, my blanket crumpled on the floor. I was consumed by a terrible sense of urgency. I strained through the wrenching pain in my chest and back, washed some of the blood from the back of my head, and slowly, all too slowly, slipped on a pair of work pants, shirt, and sweater and rushed into the street. I hobbled the few blocks and paused across the street from Scully’s.
A middle-aged man exited the shop with two volumes clutched under his arm. He noticed me on the sidewalk and nodded respectfully.
Getting me from the basement to the desk that once held the cash register was itself a feat of magic, or sorcery, but transporting me into my bed blocks away seemed more like a work of the improbable. Henley was hunched over his desk making notes in a ledger.
“Good morning,” I said, somewhat relieved, and pushed open the door.
“And a good morning to you,” he said, lifting himself up from the chair and turning full face toward me. “Welcome back to Scully’s.”
I stumbled back, as though struck by a gust of hot, soiled air. The figure rising before me was a foot taller than Henley and noticeably thicker in the chest and neck and longer in the arms and legs. It had familiar, riveting, jet-black eyes. The face bore no resemblance to Peter Christopher Henley, though I was certain I had seen it before.
“Please, close the door and come in.”
I couldn’t move. “Where’s Henley? What have you done to him?”
“He’s at rest. He deserves at least that, don’t you think? I mean, as his friend, you would have to agree.”
“You killed him.”
“Actually, that’s only a half truth,” he said, spreading his arms out toward me in a welcoming fashion. “Please, don’t stand there, come into my shop.”
“You’ve killed him and taken over his body.”
I glanced around the store. Everything was in order. Too much order. Books were stacked in well-mannered piles. Receipts and invoices lay in neat piles. Correspondence and other scraps that weeks ago might have littered the floor were now arranged in more reliable sequences.
“I’ve taken over nothing of the kind. That sort of thing only happens in bad novels, not reality.”
“You’ll fool nobody.”
He shook his head a few times. “Stephen, I don’t have to fool anybody. I’ve taken over the shop as Henley took it over from Scully. It’s the natural progression of life, though I should announce his untimely passing, and of course, more importantly, I do need new business cards. I think a sign in the front window announcing Devlin Mercy as the new proprietor, who will continue the dedicated work of his beloved friend and predecessor.”
“I like it. I hope you do too. It has a kind, benevolent ring to it, though I couldn’t come up with a middle name, lord knows why.”
“They’ll find you out.”
“And who will tell them? You? And what is it that you’ll tell them? And who do you think they will listen to, an obviously unstable and increasingly unreliable young man? Even your supervisor has come to see you as less suitable for a position of responsibility.”
“I’ll make them listen,” I said, trying to quickly figure out if I was in immediate danger and if there was a chance Henley was still alive.
“You will achieve nothing. And, if you will, consider I will sue for defamation if you speak poorly of me in public. Your legal remedies cut both ways, Mr. Connors, and I am not afraid of using every law and instrument I need. Scully’s will go on and prosper as it always has.”
“I want you out of the store. Now.”
Devlin shook his head, an expression of exasperation replacing the previous calm. “As if you have the right to make such demands.”
“Henley left the store to me. It’s mine to protect against the likes of you.”
“Excellent. Bravado in the face of failure. Quite touching, really, though a bit belated considering you left the old man to die.”
“What do you mean, I left the old man to die?”
“Why can’t you admit the dismal truth about yourself.”
I moved forward. “What do you mean, I left the old man to die?”
“You ran! You scuttled up the stairs and into the street like a frightened insect. The old man’s concentration was broken by his concern for your welfare. His concentration had always protected him. His absolute resolve and focus were the gatekeepers I couldn’t break through until, of course, you came to his aid. In that one fatal moment he turned to defend you. He could no longer protect you and the portal from my passage. I took the beat from his heart as easily as I could take the breath out of you right now.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“You asked me if I killed the dear man and I said that it was a half-truth, if you were listening. Now, hopefully, you see you were my partner in his unfortunate demise.”
This had to be a lie. “The plate?”
“What does it matter? Henley is dead. You left him to die. And now I am here.”
Then, suddenly, I felt an even greater horror. “How did I get back to my apartment?”
“Now that you know the truth, shouldn’t you at least say ‘Thank you’? Isn’t that what a man of greater morality and dignity would say, ‘Thank you for saving my life, and getting me home safely’?”
Then it was true. I had failed Henley, the old man’s cause, and his trust. I had failed myself. This was who I was, not the fantasy hero ready to assume the mantle of ultimate courage and sacrifice.
The only fantasy, and my last, was the encounter I’d created after the confrontation in the basement, the one I created where a battered, but victorious, Peter Christopher Henley sanctified his confidence in his protégé, in the man who he would leave to do battle with the Devil.
“Why indeed, sir. I can always use a man of your character. It made no sense to take your life. You were merely in my way. Think of my gesture as a reward for your helpful intervention and timely withdrawal.”
Two women came through the door behind me. I didn’t get a clear image of either as I tumbled past them and out into the street.
* * *
Years later, decades really, I was better able to piece together the details of what had happened and what I had so urgently and continuously denied. But that was long after I left Chicago to start another life.
No, to not start anything. To leave behind. To deny what had happened, who I really was and what I had let happen, and the curse I had let loose on humankind.
Finally, when I was so enfeebled I was no longer able to walk without help, when the cool New Mexico nights allowed me the safety and space to remember in full, I cursed who I was and vowed to return to Scully’s, if only to say what had been left unsaid.
I needed to somehow justify what I’d done, if only to convince myself of my own innocence, and maybe to find out the fate that had befallen the legacy of Peter Christopher Henley.
This story previously appeared in The Literary Hatchet #14.
Edited by Marie Ginga
Arthur Davis is a management consultant who has been quoted in The New York Times and in Crain’s New York Business, He has been published in a collection, nominated for a Pushcart Prize, received the 2018 Write Well Award, received Honorable Mention in The Best American Mystery Stories 2017. Additional background at Arthur Davis at Amazon.com, Poets and Writers, and Tales of Our Times.com.