A Rowan Oxford Adventure,
Guest-Starring Mitchell Carmichael and “Ricky”
Jonah’s Books is a nice old store, the kind that’s getting harder to find nowadays. The place used to be a house, and the layout hasn’t changed all that much, meaning a crowded maze of bookshelves that surprises you with one more room of books you haven’t noticed yet, big windows letting in natural light, and a scattering of worn armchairs to sit and read.
Even better, there’s a back room library for approved customers only, Jonah calls it “The Belly of the Whale.” He’s a funny guy. That room has the occult books – not fluffy self-help or snake oil, but the real deal. It took me months to convince him to let me use that room, and it’s a damned valuable resource, so when he told me the books back there were being mysteriously damaged, I broke my usual “don’t get involved” rule and offered to help.
What would cause chewed-up pages in books, but only in the occult books? I figured some form of supernatural vermin were at work. Gremlins? Blind Mice? Who the hell knew, but I figured it would be two, three hours work to ritually “fumigate” the place, tops.
I came down as soon as Jonah called me, in the evening just before closing time, and saw that Jonah wasn’t alone. The old man was pretty tolerant of street people coming in to get out of the rain, use the john, or even read, as long as they didn’t cause trouble, but this guy was causing trouble. He leaned over the register counter waving his hands and repeating things like “no-no-no! You don’t… you’re not listening…”
Jonah had one hand on the phone. “I asked you to leave Ricky, don’t make me call the police.”
My entrance was announced by a jingling bell and Ricky whirled on me, wild-eyed and smelling like maybe he and soap didn’t get along. “You! Tell him! It has to go back to the tuba!”
I held the door open behind me, mustering a smile instead of rolled eyes. “Sure, sure. Ricky, was it? I’ll handle it. You can go, don’t worry.”
He caught his breath and starting winding himself up again. “THE TUBA! Tell him about the tuba.”
I nodded convincingly (I hoped) and fished a $10 out of my pocket. “Oh yeah, the tuba. It’s all taken care of. Here, go buy yourself a sandwich… or maybe some deoderant.”
Ricky blinked a few times, seeming almost to snap out of something, then walked slowly past, giving me a skeptical look, but accepting the money and shuffling out into the evening drizzle.
Jonah sighed. “What was that all about, Rowan?”
“I have no idea.”
As soon as Ricky was out, Jonah flipped the “Closed” sign and handed me a battered hardback, titled “Lives of Famous Wizards.” The top of the cover had a row of little scraped bite marks down it, as if something had moved along the edge the way you’d eat corn on the cobb (if you eat it correctly.) When I flipped it open, the edges of some pages were chewed too, with the damage tunneling in to take a sizeable chunk out of the middle chapters.
As we walked toward the back, Jonah asked, “So what did that?”
I shrugged. “A very hungry caterpillar? I have no idea, but since you said on the phone that some of the damaged books were supposed to be warded, I assume we’re not dealing with mundane vermin. I figure a medium-sized banishing ritual should solve your problem regardless of what kind of little pests are in there.”
Jonah produced the keys and opened the door to the Belly of the Whale. At least a dozen books were knocked onto the floor and looked chewed-on, and the room had a salty smell I couldn’t quite place.
I cleared a spot in the middle of the floor and started chalking out a circle. “What this will do is temporarily make the room really uncomfortable for whatever’s doing the damage. It’ll probably just decide to run (or slither, or fly) and hopefully go back to wherever it came from.”
While I worked, Jonah set about picking up the damaged books and stacking them onto cart for repair. I’d prepared the notes at home, so the whole things took ten minutes, candles and all. Halfway through he was muttering something about finding books with bigger bites, but what he held up to show me didn’t look too much bigger than the other one, maybe the bites were an inch across instead of a quarter inch – still quite a small thing. I waved him off so he didn’t break my concentration.
I finished with a self-satisfied flourish, thinking about how it might not be bad to have Jonah owe me a favor for a change. I stood with spread arms and shouted, “[Begone!]”
For a moment nothing happened. The room had a high-ceiling that was mostly shadowed and as the power of the spell expanded out into the room, there was a creaking and rustling up there, and then a piercing shriek and an explosion of blurry-fast motion. Something pale circled the room faster than the eye could follow, streaked behind book-cases causing the contents of the top shelf to spill onto the floor, then it came to the end of the row of shelves and streaked across to the next row, passing wind-swift in front of me in the process. It didn’t register, until I saw the blood, that it had slashed a thin-but-deep cut across my upraised forearm, but then suddenly it stung like a bastard.
“Out!” I shouted at Jonah and herded him toward the door.
He gave me a confused look. “But the books…”
“Plan B, Jonah! Plan B is the plan we make outside this room.”
I heard another shriek and a thump. “Out! Out! out!”
The second round of shrieks seemed to convince him, and Jonah and I made our un-graceful retreat, charging out.
Then we barrelled into a strange man running toward us with a gun.
“What?” I said (or maybe I shouted) “What NOW?”
Jonah Lamely put his hands up, still holding a tattered book.
The gunman blinked at us and lowered the gun, still wary. “I heard screams and crashing.”
“I wasn’t screaming,” I said indignantly, “I was giving important instructions.”
Right on cue, the sound of a heavy book-case falling over boomed from behind the closed door, then another shriek.
Jonah cringed at another thud from the room, then seemed to recover.“What are you doing in my store?”
“I was shopping.”
“It was open when I came in”
“Jonah, did you lock this guy in here with us? We don’t have time…” A distinct paper-tearing sound made my point for me.
The newcomer looked concerned but fairly un-ruffled, and cut straight to the chase. “I’m Mitch. What’s going on in there?” He glanced at my bloodied arm.“Do you need help?”
I took a deep breath. “OK Mitch, I’m Rowan. this is Jonah. there’s a… an animal in there destroying some priceless books. Ordinarily if I wanted to get rid of such an animal, I’d go do some research on it but all the useful books are in there, being eaten or something.”
“Have you called animal control?”
“Right now, I AM animal control.
I’m doing a great job.”
Mitch tilted his head, “Hey, it sounds like it’s calmed down.”
Jonah, I now noticed, was busy ignoring us and muttering over the book he had carried out when we made our tactical retreat. “This is very interesting, very interesting.”
I grasped at the straw. “Interesting-interesting, or interesting-useful?”
“Maybe both. I’m not sure yet.” Jonah walked briskly toward the better lighting of the front counter, with Mitch and I in his wake. I looked for the gun, but Mitch had put it back away wherever he kept it.
Jonah laid the book out on the counter. “First of all, I see no chewing here.”
“So, it hadn’t gotten to this one yet?”
“I don’t think so. While I was cleaning up I found something like a nest on a lower shelf, made with torn paper and a sticky substance, but this book was under all that, yet completely intact.”
I eyed the slim hardback. “Doesn’t look so intact to me. The cover is falling off.”
“Ah, but that cover is a false one. It seems to me that someone wrapped an unrelated dust-jacket on the book, then bound it closed with twine, maybe ten or twelve strands.”
“Thirteen?” I blurted. “Are there thirteen turnings before the knots were made?”
Jonah fiddled with the cord and nodded. “The cord and the paper jacket are damaged. Inferior materials can become dry and brittle with age.”
He opened the book gently. “I don’t remember this one at all. It must have been mis-shelved. It’s quite old, but it’s a children’s book. Hand-lettered with watercolor illustrations.” He peered at the bindings. This may be a one-of-a-kind vanity project made by a wealthy parent for their child. See the dedication?"
“Someone wanted that book to stay hidden and to stay closed.” I interrupted again. “What’s it about?”
Jonah, untroubled by my haste, read the title page “Jack and the Dragon’s Nest. Some sort of fairy tale?” He flipped through a few pages until a loose piece of paper fell out, containing hand-scrawled notes. I unfolded it and skimmed the fading ink.
“… somebody was opening, no, summoning!” I looked again from the crumbled twine to the notes. “They called something, then they bound the book up to keep it in. This can’t be good”
“Clearly not good!” agreed Mitchell. I had forgotten he was there, but he seemed to be taking this remarkably well.
I paced the front of the store a bit. “OK, Think. think…” I stopped at Mitchell. “You still want to help? It might be dangerous.”
His hesitation spoke less of fear and more of calculating how much of a pain in the ass this might be. I sympathised. “Sure, OK. I like this store.”
The three of us tiptoed back into the room and I re-cleared the ritual circle, adjusting the glyphs based on what I thought the old notes were talking about. My arm was bandaged and we had a bag of items hastily gathered from Jonah’s office, including incense, a gold ring, and a can of Spam (why not?). I figured the best plan would be to lure the dragon (because by now what else could we call it) back into the book.
“OK, Jonah, you keep reading through the book until I need it, and see if you can find anything else useful, and I’ll set up an impromptu spell. More time to prep would be best, but at the rate it seems to be growing and eating books, “best” is not an option.”
“What do I do?” asked Mitchell.
“Um.. If it starts moving around again, see if you can distract it.” I said
He did not seem thrilled with this job.
As I drew glyphs into the circle, there were rustlings in the corner, and a faint whining growl that didn’t sound happy to see us. Jonah was oblivious, muttering over the book. Increasingly distracted and nervous, he began to read aloud.
“Little Jack was a very very special boy. The other children didn’t like him much because he thought of things they never thought and saw things they could never see. Only his mummy really knew how special he was.”
“Oh that’s really awful,” I groaned. “Who writes like that?”
“SHHH!” Mitch gestured toward the corner. “Keep reading.”
Jonah read on, about Little Jack’s long walks on the rocky shoreline, and we all noticed now that the whining growl had turned to more of a purr. The book, with excruciating sickly-sweetness, told of how Jack saw a nest with a single egg laid by a dragon, and vowed to protect it. He would sing songs to the egg and promise to take it on adventures.
When the story mentioned a “boat with a billowed sail,” I smacked myself on the forehead. “Wait! I’m doing this wrong! New Plan! Plan B!”
Jonah hesitated, “I thought this WAS Plan B.”
“OK, then plan C. Jonah can help me. Mitch, you take the book and keep reading.”
“That book is really awful,” Mitch deadpanned. “Can I just distract if it attacks?”
Jonah piped up “Well, its value as an antique is not so much to do with the quality of the story as the history behind it, and the lovely watercolors…”
A restless stirring could be heard from the corner.
He looked unhappily at the decaying cover on the book. “What the hell, at least it’s not a 6’ snakeman with a bad Aussie accent. How bad could this be?” he muttered, cringing back from the mildly frustrated look I shot his way.
He picked up the book where Jonah had left off, the part where a terrible old grumpy stormcloud causes the egg to roll out of the nest and Jack has to rescue it. “Oh my sweet Jackie, said his poor mummy, why would you go out in this fearsome weather?”
“Jonah, do you have sealing wax in the office?”
“OK, I also need string, sand, and what else… was there a cabbage? I don’t remember but bring me one anyway.”
“I have shoelaces, cat litter and arugula.”
“That’s fine, I might be wrong about the cabbage anyway. Do you have any marijuana?”
“Never mind, that might just be an urban legend, but definitely the strings and sealing wax!”
[Just a littl bit more coming soon – Paul and Sam, feel free to make or suggest changes]