Wednesday, November 11, 2009

THE FICTOGNOSTICS WANT THEIR BOOKSHOP BACK (Fifteen-Sixteen)

FIFTEEN

“Go on,” said Vic the Jester. “You may as well. At least this way – this way, you’ll have a chance.”

Two weeks had passed in the kingdom of Cardanea. For thirteen days out of fourteen Justin had feasted, every morning, upon Cardanean pancakes, topped with Cardanean syrup. The syrup, he was told, boosted the body’s regenerative rate, and this seemed true enough; his leg was still stiff, but the gaping wounds had stopped gaping – they had healed.

He’d spent the entire first week resting and reading borrowed books from the Cardanean public library – non-fiction, all of it. Cardanean anthropology, sociology, archaeology, geography, ecology, psychology… it was all truly fascinating. An entire new world! One with different laws and customs, a different sphere of reality, a different paradigm of existence…

The beast that had shot him, Justin read, was known as a mechanea. Far, far to the north there was a deep pit known as Mogthandamechanea - the spawning place of the strange beasts made of rust and rage. It was a sacred site to most Cardaneans. Their entire concept of ‘hell’, such as it was, was tied to the place… in less civilized times, Justin read, prisoners and dissidents were thrown into the pit to be eaten alive by the mechanea.

This was before the arrival of a prophesied sorcerer-king and master scientist known as Archival King Reed. Justin felt an electric surge run through his gut when he read the name… there was a definite link to the bookshop, to the mysterious bookseller Reed.

Reed came and unified the warring tribal clans of Cardanea through reason, justice, philosophy, religion and charisma. He ruled with reason – he taught many of the chiefs and craftsmen how to read, how to use numbers, how to write, the things typically reserved for shamans and seers… he taught them how to think clearly, and to act with such clarity in mind; he ruled with justice – there was to be no rape and no torture within his military force, or within those who served under him, and he punished such crimes with severity.

Reed ruled with philosophy and with religion – he spoke to them of honour, and of objective and subjective truth, and of the divide between materialism and spiritualism, of existentialism and pragmatism and skepticism and rationalism and many more… of mythical proto-peoples, such as the ‘Greeks’ – this philosophy caught the Cardaneans by storm, and they delighted in theorizing and refining as best they could, reveling in their glorious rationality. The animism and astrology of the clans were soon assimilated by a fast-growing religious movement - the cult of Reed – and he was claimed to be a living, immortal god.

(At this, Justin was surprised – not at the supposition, which was almost expected, but at the claim of immortality… according to the Archival City histories, Reed had been ruling for just over a thousand years, which verified the immortality claim. Justin was disquieted a little at the idea of Reed being more than ten decades in age…)

Finally, Reed ruled with charisma – there was no doubt about that. Followers flocked to him like sheep to the shepherd, like bees to pollen, and he soon amassed enough followers to crush any who opposed him, as rare as violence was needed. Soon, his followers were eager to march on to Mogthandamechanea, which Reed objected to – it was too dangerous even for them, he claimed. A few days later and he claimed that the pit was sacred ground, their ancient mechanical enemies demons sent to test their vigilance, and that they should instead engage in something more productive – the building of a proper city, perhaps.

And so Archival City was born.

The printing press came soon, under Reed’s knowing guidance, and not long after that their was a complete revolution – gunpowder, advanced agriculture, artistic and literary booms, humanism as a goal, the pursuit of physics, chemistry, astronomy, mathematics, biology… and so it was that Archival City became a true archival city, both in purpose and name. Book-burning was an offence punishable by forced pilgrimage to Mogthandamechanea, and every citizen was required to learn how to read, write, and know numbers. Literatures abound…

Justin knew there was more, of course. He’d read enough about Cardanean psychology to realize that they held the idea that both sexual and violent release were needed for a well-adjusted individual, and that the weeping trees of the southern forests held saps of many different pseudo-mystical properties. There was much more to learn…

Justin knew that he was to see Archival King Reed on the fourteenth day, and was looking forward to the meeting. He’d read as much as his mind could handle without exploding – he had a million (or more) questions for Reed about the place and of his exact involvement in it.

On the fourteenth day, his leg almost fully healed, Justin was dressed in heavy white cloth and given a single snow flower – a gift for Archival King Reed. He was escorted by two soldiers, each heavily armed, and led through silver doors into the King’s grand chambers.

And then there was judgment; swords; a friend returned; and escape.

“Go on,” said Vic the Jester. “You may as well. At least this way – this way, you’ll have a chance.”


SIXTEEN

It took very little work, but was still considered by most of the magical underground to be one of the deadliest forms of sorcery; the hubris conjured simply in employing had staggered many a naïve magician in the past.

Still, at one point or another in their lives every fictional-sorcerer would, if they took the craft seriously, be forced to use it. Many natural-born occultists fell into the trap of abusing the magic before they even became aware of the greater delights involved in the manipulation of sorcery – a trap which very few escape.

It was, to put it very mildly, a highly addictive practice.

“Patterning, it’s called,” said Reed. “It’s nothing at all major, very little chance of anything going wrong…”

He was lying.

When it became obvious that Michael Hardaes, as unreal as he might be, had no idea how to properly use a semi-automatic weapon, Reed had to think fast. He’d already exhausted much of his inner reservoir of power while building a fictional replacement for Justin. It wouldn’t be wise to tap into a Babilu shard for something so petty…

Patterning: the science of creating fictional patterns – expressed through history, memory, experience, conditioning – and forcing them upon a persona. The typical result is that the individual feels as if they’ve truly lived out that experience, and gains all of the associated baggage that comes with such an experience. It is not easy to live a life filled with events that you know for certain did not occur.

Patterning is dangerous. Addictive, a narcotic of the mind – it is easy to fall into the trap of believing that fabricated knowledge matches the truthful equivalent – easy to spend all of one’s time assimilating information, gathering skills, learning languages, becoming a master in a dozen – more – different crafts…

The mind can only take so much strain before it is overwhelmed; the story of the soul is a precious thing, and should not be polluted casually. For every lie the magician makes real, he is enforcing another pattern upon the tapestry of his spirit.
“Very easy process,” said Reed. “Okay. Okay – close your eyes, Michael.”

Imposing a fictional pattern upon a creature made solely of fictional patterns was even riskier than attempting it on an individual that contained some truth – luckily, they were also a little more expendable.

Michael closed his eyes.

“Do you feel the gun? The rifle – in your hands?”

“Yes, lord.”

Reed knew that the weapon was not loaded. He still felt uneasy.

There was a wave of the hands…

… And Michael Hadriguez had spent five years serving his country in the Australian Defence Force. Training had been during summer and had occurred in the Australian Capital Territory – he was a qualified engineer, and had qualified for a higher-rung technician job, but they saw officer material… saw an officer in the way he held himself, in his reserved loyalty, in his rational eyes, in his unflinching discipline. He remembered a hot day – easily forty-five degrees Celsius – where he and his squad had dressed in heavy fatigues and practiced with the automatic weapons – the Steyr was his favourite. It was sleek, felt natural – almost sexy in his hands. He had a girlfriend at home, and…

“Enough,” said Reed.

… And two nights before that, Lieutenant Hadriguez had learnt that she’d been fucking Garry. Garry was a mechanic from Melbourne, once Michael’s best mate – Mike and Garry they were known ha ha ha – and they’d have a few beers together, maybe watch the cricket, maybe go to a car show, catch up down at the pub and he was fucking her, performing the sacred alchemical rite upon his girlfriend – his fiancée, fiancée, she’d accepted and she was his fiancée – and oh yes Michael was very good with the weapons great with an assault rifle but not so bad with a handgun and it was relatively simple to…

“Enough!” roared Reed.

… Relatively simple to get the handgun and load it six little bullets very nice yes he told them he liked to shoot targets yes they thought ceramics but no flesh targets are good to him and Gary best mates yes and he shot him shot Garry twice, thrice, four times and shot him again and again and she screamed no I love you and he laughed and shot her and then himself and…

And Michael Hardaes had the Steyr in his hand and was slamming his head against the rifle. His eyes were wild, unfocused, and drool flowed freely from his mouth, surrounded his teeth, fangs, visible and glinting as he tried to gnaw at the weapon and smash his own brains out at the same time.

Reed wasted no time – he knew the word that would not be written, and said it.

As he said the word it was if a thousand moths had flown into the room. The air shimmered with unseen flight. There was a gnawing at the place, a gathering around the lights, that snuffed all sound and plunged the room into a state of stillness and silence. Reed felt bile rise in his throat, a bitter taste on the tip of his tongue. Every time the word was spoken aloud it lost a little of its power – still, there was enough there.

A clatter broke the silence – steel on tiles. The rifle had fallen, hit the tiles. Michael Hardaes was gone, the fiction unraveled, the creature destroyed.

Reed felt sick. He needed something, needed to sate some addiction, something that him in its grip… he knew what it was, but as was usual his mind went through the motions. Caffeine? This morning – coffee. Nicotine? Not for over a decade, since he’d given them up. Sex? Too long – not since the oath of abstinence, twenty, twenty-five years ago…

Magic.

Real magic.

He had just ruined a life.

It was insubstantial, more a semblance of a life – a photograph of a life – but he’d crushed it and it had felt good.

He’d said the word. Worked the pattern.

Reed slumped in his chair. His body went limp and his eyes rolled back as he savored the taste of black magic.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

THE FICTOGNOSTICS WANT THEIR BOOKSHOP BACK (Eleven-Thirteen)

ELEVEN

Snow slashed at the skies of Cardanea like an orchestra of white knives. Accompanying the snow, as was often the case, was the bitter, biting cold; as disoriented as Justin was, his cognitive abilities had recovered enough to scold him for not wearing a heavier jacket. His jeans were soaked, his hands rubbed raw.

When Justin breathed, steam rose from his mouth – as if he were a dragon. This did not make Justin feel better. He did not feel like a dragon.

Justin couldn’t stop shaking.

That didn’t seem much like something a dragon would suffer from.

Still, he was exhausted, and found it difficult summoning the willpower just to raise his head, let alone standing up. His head throbbed. It hurt to move his lips, they were so cold. Justin didn’t know how long he’d lain there, or even how long he’d been conscious.

There was, in the distance, a great creaking sound – like an avalanche born of steel and rust. Justin felt a little panicked, but remained where he was – very still. A sharp tang hit his nostrils – he saw smoke through the trees.

Fire…?

No. Still there was the groaning, the shrill screaming of metal, the broken sounds of something mechanical moving through the snow. Something heavy. Justin heard the clankclankclank of gears against gears, felt the hit of adrenaline warm his body. Adrenaline spiked with fear.

The smell got stronger. The sounds got louder. Justin coughed weakly, not bothering to cover with his hand. In a surge of bravery, he sat up suddenly. Less than half a kilometer in front of him rumbled the beast, edging closer and closer…

He hadn’t gotten more than a glimpse of it, but what he did see inspired enough terror. Easily twelve feet tall – a giant – and made, as assumed, of battered iron or steel. Pipes, like the horns of the devil, spat black smog into the clear sky. A giant made of frosted grey, its face marked by a red and orange war-mask, eyes leering, watching, tracking… it was more demon than machine, and it was edging closer.

Closer.

It had arms, yes, but Justin had read enough trashy science fiction to realize that they functioned as some kind of automatic chain-gun; he felt, rather than heard, the whirring, the clicking, of bullets and bullets and bullets –

“Oh,” said Justin.

He scrambled. He ran. It was a deeply courageous act. As he ran, he saw white, stumbled, ran as fast as he could. It was snowing in Cardanea. That did not help. He slipped, slid, fell, chased by the creature of the mask…

“Jade,” said Justin.

He knew he’d be safe if he could reach the trees. If only it wasn’t so damn cold! If only his head didn’t hurt, if only he was fitter, if only he’d worn something more suitable… the trees were close.

Closer.

He heard the whirring, knew it for real, heard it with his goddamn ears. There was a flash of nothing, and dark red fell upon the pure white. Stumbled, fell, and couldn’t get up. He saw his leg, mangled by blazing iron; a misshapen thing burst right open by the bullets. There was a little pain – like stubbing your toe – but nothing else. Despair, perhaps, but the pain was minimal…

Oh, he hurt. He screamed. He wept and he begged. But there was no pain.

“RETAIL RECOMMENDED PRICE US$16.99 (CAN $18.75) AU$29.95,” said the machine,
hovering over Justin. He knew the beast would enjoy this, would savor it…

There was a crack – it split the air like a gunshot.

Like a gunshot.

Justin saw the men rise, dressed in heavy white, from the snow. They were once invisible – still only blurs upon the landscape, silver firearms the only giveaway. Another crack. Another. The machine whirred.

ClankclankBOOMclankBOOMBOOMclunkclunk –

Saved by the Cardanean knights, bullets whirring through the iron – a considerable lack of ricochets which Justin was quite thankful for – Justin tried to pull his meager body away from the machine. He failed. Soon, however, the masked beast toppled, falling to the side with a marvelous crash.

A pallid soldier moved towards Justin. “Blasted leg,” said the man, nodding to another. “You’re going to be alright, I think, not that you deserve it – stupid, isn’t it, messing around out here? We’ll take you home, fix you up…” Justin could only see her eyes, the face covered with the white mask. It reminded him of surgical attire – he was bleeding…

“Got a name?” asked another soldier, moving to pick Justin up by the arms.

“I’m – I’m Reed’s assistant, Justin, I work, at the bookshop, I mean I work at the bookshop,” said Justin, very aware that he was raving. Still, he knew he couldn’t stop. “Can you get me back – back to the shop? Reed’ll be, he’ll be angry, dock my pay…”

“Reed?” he saw the medic raise an eyebrow. “Wouldn’t be talking about Archivist King Reed, would it, Mike?”

“Wouldn’t have an idea,” replied the soldier named Mike. “Charlene, don’t think he’s from around here, though. Seems unlikely. Clothing wasn’t made for snow. If he’s a visitor, he’ll need to go through the Lord Archivist regardless…”

“Yeah,” said Charlene. “Tssk. Denim. Impractical.”

“Justin,” said Justin. “My name is Justin!”

The soldiers exchanged glances. Mike gave orders to the half-dozen others; they were to continue the patrol.

“You hungry, Justin?” he asked, kindly. “We’ve got the finest pancakes you’ll ever taste.”

“So hungry pancakes yes,” said Justin.

TWELVE

Soror Twist passed the fictional Reed the Bookseller as if he wasn’t there at all. She found the real Reed sitting in the kitchen, shaking, sipping black coffee. Twist knew that he wanted her to think that he was reading the newspaper, but they both know that he couldn’t. He was too frazzled.

A mop and bucket sat next to him. The bucket read PROPERTY OF REED’S BOOKS but if it was alive, it kept silent. Reed had mopped up the fictoplasm as best he could, but it would take months of reweaving the reality of the place before the black would fully fade. The blood of sorcerers was sticky stuff indeed.

“Twist,” said Reed, managing a smile. “Good of you to come. Cherry with you…?”

“She’s being massaged, pampered and given very thorough counseling in one of Sunsorta’s finest health resorts,” said Twist. “That’s why I’m late, sorry. I’ve liquidated everything Vic owned, too. We’ve got a million or so in worthless,” she said, meaning cash, “And a Babilu shard and a half otherwise. Don’t know what he did with those blasting rods you set him up with, but they’re gone. All his other talismanic gear has gone. It’s all vanished.”

Reed nodded, staring into his coffee. They knew what that meant.

“They didn’t know what the real stuff is,” said Reed. “Left the worthless books. Good for us, I suppose… what do you mean, ‘half a Babilu’?”

Twist sighed. Her magnificent red hair shimmered accordingly. “He’d had a thing for composing, apparently,” she said, “Music. We’ve got a Babilu shard, but it’s written in notes and staves. I can’t understand it.”

“Ah,” said Reed. “Always the tricky bastard, wasn’t he…?”

“Yeah,” said Twist.

There was a silence in the kitchen.

“Should I try and get the body to Blackwater? Did he mention anything about wanting to be buried with the world? Tradition and so forth?”

“No,” said Twist. “He was adamant about that. He wanted a traditional funeral, in the normal sense. Buried – tombstone - the lot. Apparently his Mum doesn’t know that he was into all the scary fiction shit… hah, oh, we had a laugh about that one.”
Twist took Frater Vic’s body and five Babilu shards – more wealth than most sorcerers would own in their lifetime - leaving Vic’s musical piece with Reed. Before she left, she asked to see Justin.

“Ah,” said Twist. “Got a fictional backup?”

“Not yet,” sighed Reed. “There’s a lot to do today. Maybe he’ll be easy enough to find. Still not sure what exactly triggered the escape…”

“Might’ve been the pancakes,” said Twist wryly, having noticed that the kitchen was full of empty bottles labeled CARDANEAN SYRUP COMPANY.

“Maybe,” said Reed, but he didn’t elaborate.

THIRTEEN

It had taken an hour for the two soldiers to carry Justin back to Archival City. They’d cleansed his wound as best they could, removed the bullets, and fed Justin the clear sap that would plunge him into a deep sleep.

Before Justin met a second unconsciousness, he saw the outskirts of Archival City. It seemed as if most things in Cardanea could be seen only in half-taken glimpses or rushed glances – Justin saw the great gun-towers, made of rusting iron, defending the city. There were at least half a dozen of them, built upon the tall stone and metal walls, and they surrounded the entire capital.

The clouds above Archival City were a dark grey, the colour of gravel, and it soon began to rain. Justin remembered feeling the lashes of freezing rain before the sap took hold and he fell into sleep.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

THE FICTOGNOSTICS WANT THEIR BOOKSHOP BACK (Nine-Ten)

NINE

There was an explosion of the soul.

Justin felt his incorporeal existence be cut in twain. It wasn’t a painful experience, but it was disconcerting. Whatever spirit he had was shook wildly and there was a moment where he felt a deep, scarring sense of terror at the great unknown – was he dying? Was he dead? He remembered falling down – and then –

He remembered how good those pancakes tasted.

He was the second soul, the active soul, the soul with a goddamn personality – it was that part which would rise to unknown heavens. It was this strange and uncertain thing that had lied to Jade, that considered itself a talented writer, that had an interest in mythology and science fiction, that had lied to Jade, that would make up stories just to feel good about himself – perhaps it was his grandmother falling terribly ill, or him having watched a completely mythical movie – and it was him who wanted to believe, but couldn’t, but needed to believe in UFO’s and the possibility of a hollow earth and the truth behind the eleventh of September, that had lied to Jade…

The other Justin remained.

This was the creature who understood that he needed to work much harder if he hoped to succeed, that had sunk many hours reading the philosophical texts, that had read the autobiographies of Oppenheimer, Thompson, Tolkien, that kept a passing interest in biology and accepted the theory of evolution, that knew enough about mathematics to understand that it was a system for understanding the world, that knew that he loved Jade, that was carefully learning Portuguese, perhaps successfully, that was able to understand how currency and Australian politics worked, that knew that Collins Street was before Bourke…

Even the facts were uncertain; but still, they remained. Only the fiction of the soul, the story – of sorts – was given life, given personality.

Justin looked down and saw his own fallen body, and the broken corpse of Vic. He felt every conceivable emotion at the death of the bastard sorcerer – rage, melancholy, sorrow, anxiety, joy, many more – in a single moment.

Suddenly, he was swimming, flailing, drowning, suffocating in a lake that was not a lake – the deepest lake. He felt the dark, cold waters take him, at once still and alive, and struggled not to sink.

There were no waves, and yet water crashed upon his head as he was pulled down by unseen hands. The breath was thrown from his lungs, and he knew he was going to die.
This was not a place to know.

Suddenly she was there, naked. He, too, was there – naked. She was sitting on the gap between his legs, his penis in her soft hands. Panting, a small giggle. It felt good – really good. He didn’t know what to say, so he kept it simple. A groan. Whispered, “Fuck.” Stroking.

He’d open his eyes. She’d smile. He’d look up, into her eyes.

Her eyes.

Her eyes her eyes her eyes her eyes her eyes her eyes her eyes her eyes her eyes her eyes her eyes her eyes her eyes were spiders and the spiders dropped down her face (she was weeping, crying spiders, arachnotears) and they dropped down upon his throbbing, wilting member and bit and bit and bit…

And he was drowning in a shallow lake. The lake was a bookstore, and he’d just put in his resume. Robertson’s in Frankston was the name of the place, and the manager appraised his meager qualifications with a cutting eye. He was old, thought Justin, with the eyes of a lion…

“Writer, huh?” said the manager. Not too old, actually – maybe a grey forty?

“Y-yes,” said Justin.

“What’ve you written, then?”

“Uh…”

“Come on, come out with it. The RECENT PUBLICATIONS area of this form is blank. What’ve you written? Anything we can stock? ISBN’s, maybe?”

Justin knew he hadn’t written anything. He liked putting ‘writer’ on his resume – made him feel a little qualified, a little special, maybe even legitimate. He couldn’t help putting down RECENT PUBLICATIONS, either, because what did a writer do except publish…?

They looked at him with empty eyes.

No spiders, but…

Black water rushed up to meet him. The ship was sinking. He’d be better off stacking shelves at Coles; maybe he could apply for the dole. Maybe, maybe, maybe…

He wanted pancakes!

They watched.

Justin screamed and fell –

“Are you ill?” asked the passerby. He was bald, with round – not chubby – features, eyes that twinkled like the stars… and he was wearing a dress. A nice dress. It was pink and rather conservative; didn’t show too much leg and was fairly acceptable around the bust. It had frills. The subtlety of the outfit was ruined by a combination of two elaborate gold earrings and garish makeup (lipstick of the blood, foundation of the flesh, eyeliner the colour of rot…).

“I said, are you ill?”

The man looked familiar. Something about the eyes. His naked head looked like it had been designed for funny Eastern hats… the kind of hats that magicians and snake-charmers wore. Indians – yoga – mysticism…

Justin had seen him before – on the back of one of his books. MOONCHILD… his name was Aleister Crowley, and he was in drag. Justin was too shaken to reply, and he was certainly in no condition to spot the raging erection that had caused the bottom of Crowley’s dress to go the way of a tent.

“Fine, fine, fine, th-thank you,” said Justin, nodding his head much too enthusiastically.

“I bet you are,” said the transsexual thaumaturgist, as he licked his lips. “I bet.”

Justin felt fear. Suddenly, Crowley was upon him, screaming all manner of obscenities: “Every man and woman is a star!”, “Love is the law, love under will!, “I am divided for love’s sake, for the chance of union!”, “Sit still! Stop thinking! Shut up! Get out!”, and, “I will fuck you in the arse, little boy!”

Crowley the rapist in drag tore at Justin’s clothes, and they fell away like fine silk. Crowley was there, then, the wand freed, held in his left hand – the hand of the destroyer – and he slapped Justin’s buttocks and giggled manically. The lipstick was smeared.

“Aha!”

There was a short moment of sodomy, and Justin was falling, crying, weeping – he needed the pancakes bad and he needed them now so hungry -

He awoke in Cardanea.

TEN

There were things to be done.

Reed had crashed into the kitchen only moments after Justin had left for his journey to Cardanea. When he saw the two sprawling bodies he dropped what he was holding and swore. Three heavy books, bound in the skin of Reed’s enemies, dropped to the floor. They were Babilu shards, expressions of power written by those sorcerers who had heard, in a moment of supreme gnosis, the first and final language of Babel…

Each was untitled, as was the tradition, named by he who owned them – a different interpretation for each possessor. Reed had named the first THE SECRET VOCAB OF SECRET MELBOURNE, the second ENOCHIA LOST, and the third AND GOD WAS GOOD ON HIS PROMISE. They might have been horrible titles, but hey were very good identities of power, and the shards themselves were happy.

They’d been written by Frater Vic himself, and thus the best possible sources to draw the required sorcery from to heal the wounded bastard sorcerer. Vic had sold the lot for two million dollars in cash, safe haven in the shop, and two perfectly crafted blasted rods. He was, as usual, rather desperate.

“No,” said Reed. “No, no – come on, Vic – damn it – come…”

There was enough of the sticky ink-like substance – the fictoplasm – for Reed to know. Vic was dead. The boy had gone into shock. It was a combination, probably, of the pancakes and the temporal mind-fuck. He’d expected this. Vic had come back, chased by Lovecraft’s damned angle-hounds, simply to warn him – and to deal with business in the hazy present.

The books would be fine were they were. The fictoplasm was still, now, killed by the harsh reality of oxygen and methane and everything else that freely composed the network mesh most referred to as ‘air’. There was no fiction in chemicals. Not yet.

But Justin was fine. Shocked, but fine. Reed knew he’d probably find him wandering around an eternal labyrinth – chased by mustached cutlery, perhaps, or something even more sinister – or maybe, if the kid was lucky, stuck somewhere in the Outer Thoughts, chased by a bomb-throwing Marx or having conversation with the darkly romantic Poe…

Reed almost went to fetch the books on summoning the soul and reanimating the dead – on the resurrection and the story – before he realized it was hopeless. Even if he burnt out the three Babilu shards, used everything he had, too much of Vic’s fiction lay on the floor, staining the kitchen tiles, pitch on white. Everything of Vic that wasn’t solid, that wasn’t nailed down – and that was a lot – had been ruined, twisted beyond repair. Perhaps something was salvageable…

Reed shook his head. There would be nothing. He knew how they worked. Attacks upon the story of a soul was a vicious, heinous crime, even amongst the lawfully challenged fictomagicians, but something irreparable – something so terrible – were loathed and feared in equal parts…

Either the Queenslander was back in town, or this was the work of the Inquisition of the Strangest Truth. Reed knew Vic’s history, knew his vendetta, and was secure in the assumption that it was the latter. The cold war had turned hot. Soon, fiction would fly, and the whole occult landscape of Melbourne would be warped irrevocably…
But that was the future.

Reed shuddered, fear stinging his gut, and concentrated on the now.

The phone rang thrice.

“He’s fucking dead.”

Her tone was reserved, deadbeat, the tone of someone who had felt the crushing gears of fate.

“Soror Twist – I’m sorry. I tried to call him, but they’d messed with his story, and, I’m sorry, damn it, I’m really sorry,” said Reed. He was crying. Madly, he hoped that a customer wouldn’t stroll in to catch him like this.

“It’s – he knew it was coming, right? Kid had a knack for the cards. I’ve got to get out, Daniel. I can’t stay here. I was his partner… they’d get me and do worse. I’m just glad – just glad,” she said, and Reed heard sobbing. “I’m glad they didn’t get him. He was always good at escaping, but now – if the bastards haven’t, haven’t already – they’ll take Cherry. Can’t let that happen…”

“No, no, you can’t,” said Reed. His voice sounded lame, weak. Wounded. “Look, where are you going to go? Blackwater’ll be going down within hours. It won’t survive, not a death like that.”

“No,” said Twist. Reed could imagine her dark red hair, her eyes – stained with eyeliner, broken with grief. “Sunsorta’s safe, for now. I’ve got the thing protected – recently installed my entire mortgage details, right into the landscape. It won’t fall easily. Maybe, later, I’ll get him to Cardanea… but I don’t know. Got to get Cherry out.”

“Yeah. You know Cardanea’s always open to you… look, Twist, I know you’ve got to act now, but why don’t you come by the shop? Take a few shards. Take them all, for all I fucking care! Just make sure Cherry’s safe. Spend a shard on an untraceable, fictional personality – make her a Sunsortan princess. Somewhere on the beach. She’ll like that…”

“Yeah, she would,” said Twist. They both tried to smile. “I’ll be around, Daniel. Thank you – thank you. You’re a miserable old bastard, but you’ve always been good to us.”

“Don’t, uh, mention it. Good business and all. See you in a bit. Get Cherry first.”

“Yeah.”

She clicked off. Reed was left listening to the silence of the receiver for a few moments, and continued the work.

The signs were all very excited. EFTPOS ACCEPTED $10 MINIMUM assaulted Reed with questions when he reentered the bookstore. “What happened, boss? Will the bastard be okay? He’s hurt up bad… some bad people do this?”

Reed silenced him with a gesture. He felt exhausted. Didn’t get much sleep the night before, and now this…

“Little fact,” he said, speaking to EFTPOS ACCEPTED $10 MINIMUM quietly. “I’m going to have to put you for sleep. Just for a while. Just a little bit… your energies are needed elsewhere. Is that okay, little fact? I really need it.”

EFTPOS ACCEPTED $10 MINIMUM was shocked. He hadn’t been around that long, true – Reed had stubbornly refused to install an electronic transaction system for as long as he rationally could – but he hadn’t heard the master like this before. He knew what Reed needed, and felt a wild terror within him at the idea of being transformed, but knew enough not to argue.

“Anything you need, boss,” said EFTPOS ACCEPTED $10 MINIMUM. “Shall I ready the others?”

“Please…”

It was done. Reed let himself grin. EFTPOS ACCEPTED $10 MINIMUM was a strong little sign; one of his better creations. He knew what the thing must be feeling.

Reed unstuck the sign – the little being shrieked in pain – and removed the sacred blutack. He turned the sign over. It now read DANIEL REED HAS AN ELEVEN INCH PENIS. He placed the blutack on the original side, and replaced the scandalous sign upon the desk.

This was done for each of the signs. Reed knew none of the non-fictional people who wandered by the bookshop would notice.

PLEASE FEEL FREE TO HAVE A BROWSE :) became REED’S BOOKSHOP IS WHERE THE HEADQUARTERS OF THE INQUISITION ARE LOCATED.

TECHNICAL MANUALS AND EDUCATION BOOKS SECOND HAND became SOMETIMES I WONDER WHAT MAGIC IS REALLY ALL ABOUT.

CLOSED became DANGEROUSLY OPEN.

REED’S BOOKSHOP became REED’S BARBER.

PART-TIME STAFF WANTED APPLY WITHIN became nothing. It was dead.

The signs were few – as many as Reed could handle – but they were powerful, facts reversed, and they were enough. To the old bookseller’s satisfaction, he saw the space behind the counter blur, grow out of shape, and slowly – the full process would take an hour – become an identical physical copy of himself. This was Reed the Bookseller; a fictional creation that could be relied on to watch the shop while the real Reed was busy, say, cleaning up after a dead friend.

The customers – those wise enough to realise – would be insulted when they learnt that they were being served by a fictional character.

Fuck the customers.

Reed spent the hour watching the blur slowly take form and pondering over what to do with Vic’s body. He’d cleaned up the fictoplasm as best he could – stories tend to tarnish everything they come into contact with – and resolved to wait for the arrival of Twist before making a decision.

He checked Justin’s pulse again – just to make sure – and, satisfied with that, pulled the kid’s body out of kitchen, through the corridor and carried it Upstairs, with the exotic books. Later, he’d probably need to make a fictional copy to replace Justin for a smile while, but he had all day for that.

It was getting warm outside. The day, Reed realized with a sigh, had just begun.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

THE FICTOGNOSTICS WANT THEIR BOOKSHOP BACK (Seven-Eight)

SEVEN

How you have fallen from heaven,

O star of the morning, son of the dawn!

You have been cut down to the earth,

You who have weakened the nations!


ISAIAH 14:12

He’d gotten it from a little book of stories named THE BIBLE.

EIGHT

The spell was broken by the slamming of the front door.

“It is the return of the bastard sorcerer,” announced EFTOS ACCEPTED $10 MINUMUM.

“The fat one with bad teeth,” added PLEASE FEEL FREE TO HAVE A BROWSE :), a little nastier than was necessary.

Justin did not hear the heralding; neither did the magician. Reed, however, returned from Shaitan to Daniel to simply Reed the Bookseller. There was no brimstone in the air… Justin considered the possibility that he’d smelled someone cooking eggs. There were no horns. He wasn’t harmed in any way – it was the crazy man. The crazy scary man had hit him (but not too painfully) and he might have had a panic attack or maybe he was tired enough to experience sleight of eyes…

Justin picked himself up. He hadn’t exactly been blinded by the sight of the obscured sun, but had had enough regardless. And there was a customer – at quarter to seven in the morning.

He saw the bastard sorcerer.

In one of those half-epiphanies which are either entirely meaningless or the keys that will one day unlock the universe, Justin saw the sorcerer and recognized himself – only for a moment. It was a fleeting thing. Almost certainly meaningless.

It was the sorcerer’s grin that captured his attention – the grin of a bastard. There was the craziness in that grin, the manic power of personality which also defined Reed – albeit a little more subtly – the grin that disclosed, to the entire world and less than discreetly, that the guy could do anything.

Occasionally an individual might be gifted with one of those dreams that will involve the dreamer brutally chopping up a spouse (or similar loved) one and then hungrily devouring their flesh. It is that grin which defines the serial killer, the cannibal, and the sorcerer.

The man was unshaven. Stubble tried to hide from the smirk and failed. His teeth weren’t bad, per se, but a little yellow – Justin wondered, idly and without fully processing the thought, whether or not raw human flesh could harm the teeth like that. His hair was like the best beaches – sandy and clean. He might’ve been thirty.

There were conventional Adidas shoes, a long black trench-coat, dark t-shirt. Plain, functional. Battered dog-tags and silver rings. The man was pale – shaking?

“Frater,” said Reed, smile lighting his face. “Brother. It is early. How can I help you? I must say, I never expect you until past midday…”

“Jesus, Daniel,” gasped the man, grin slipping. Justin realized he was sick… felt a twang of fear as he considered the possibility that the man might be dying. “Cut the shit. I need a fucking, what’s the thing, that word that we’re meant to know…”

Softness came into Reed’s eyes. He cared for his clients – and the bastard sorcerer was one of his prized customers.

“Babilu, Babilu… shhh,” he said, grabbing the sorcerer under the shoulders, lending his support. Justin rushed to meet the other arm. “Vic… what’d you do? What’ve you done? You’re dying, Vic…”

Justin stumbled as the man – Vic – staggered, fell, collapsed. He was heavy, but Reed, despite giving an air of frailty, easily took more weight then Justin could have managed.

They dragged Vic to the kitchen. Vic coughed, and it was a hacking thing, as if he were exorcising his lungs. Black goop fell from his mouth. When it hit the floor, it writhed as if alive, and then fell completely still.

“A – does he, uh, smoke?” asked Justin.

“Fictoplasm,” said Reed. “Quiet. Just – just stand back, watch. Please.” He turned back to the broken bastard sorcerer. “Vic, Vic, Vic… come on, Vicci, Vicci…”

His voice cracked a little. Justin did as he was told. Reed slapped Vic thrice with his hands. There was a stirring…

“Vic, how’s Cherry? Come on, mate, it’s been ages since you took her round. Ages. You should – you should bring her over. We’ll have dinner. I liked it when we had dinner… bloody hell, she makes a grand pavlova! You can taste it, can’t you? Cream and meringue… peaches, no, it was strawberries… we all laughed when you asked if it was named after a Russian tsar, remember?”

Vic groaned a little – maybe in affirmation.

“Damn it, Vic, you remember?”

The frown was turned upside down, and Vic smiled a little.

“I – remember… and we sent her… the tsar – and she laughed, and thought he was real… women – don’t get magic… ha – ha – ha…”

“Hah! Don’t let Twist hear that, or she’ll shoot you in the legs – hell, I still remember her letting go at you for, what was it…?”

“Beat up… her boyfriend…”

“Boyfriend? He was a whore!”

“Ha – ha… yes! Yes… maybe the other one... but I beat him… for being an arse – assault, huh? Assault… get away with assault… fuck, I can do anything, I’m a – I’m a – I’m a fucking conjure man. Anything. I almost, almost killed the guy…”

“Broke a few ribs. Come on, be honest…”

“Ha! Ha! Honest… from you? Ha! No, I put him – in hospital – I swear…”

“Bullshit.”

“Come - off it…”

The colour was returning, however slightly, to Vic’s face. The smile had turned to a smirk, and that smirk almost became a furious grin. He sat up, a little, in Reed’s lap. Once he saw Justin, trying to keep inconspicuous in the corner of the kitchen, the grin went the way of the phoenix – the smile almost reached each ear.

“Hey,” he said, quietly. “You got a kid, Dan. You got a new one… ha… ha…”

Reed’s face went pale. His smile turned thin.

“Leave him alone, Vic. You remember what we said…”

“This – that is – that fat shit?”

The insult apparently didn’t register, because Justin only blinked. He knew the man was speaking to him, but his words were slurred and this crazy it was seven o’clock in the morning and some gangster comes in and they talk about his girlfriend and…

“Jesus,” said Vic. He laughed – hard and full – but stopped after a short moment, his body wracked with pain. “Thank God for me, huh? Ha! Abra-ha-fucking-dabra! Oh - God – where’re, where’re those fucking Babyshards, Daniel? I’m good for the – I’m good. Do you… do you want my fucking, my fucking – card? Credit card? Numbers’n all…”

“Ahm, yes,” said Reed. He looked over to Justin, and then back to the kitchen’s exit. “Justin, talk to him. Make sure he keeps talking. Vic – Vic, I’ll get you the Babilu, don’t worry about it. Get me a bottle or something, we’re even. Make sure you talk to him, Justin, for the love of them all… just keep him talking.”
He rushed out of the room, a blur of brown and grey.

“See you, Frater,” said Vic, waving half-heartedly after Reed. “Good-bye…”

“Um. How’s it going, Mister Vic, I’m Justin. Good to, uh…”

“Justin, yeah? How the – how the fuck do you think I’m, how do you think – I’m going?”

“Sorry.”

“Stop – fucking apologizing. Christ. Toughen up. I’m – here I am fucking dying, yes, yes, look at me like that, it’s fucking obvious but I am, you know, probably – actually – might very well die, and here you are… apologizing! Did you kill – ha – kill me?”

“N-no.”

“Ha! Ha! Oh, that’s – fucking – great! Great. Work here now…?”

“I started this morning, um, Vic. Not used to the early starts – I should still be in bed, even.”

“Yes, I agree. Agree. Too – early. Where’re those fucking shards? I need the fucking…”

“What Reed’s gone to get?”

“Yeah, yeah, they might be able - to heal me up… listen, kid. Justin. You need – while he’s out, out of the room – you need to know, I mean, you’ve got, uh, um… a girlfriend, don’t you?”

There was only a moment’s awkward silence. There was a lie.

“Yes,” said Justin.

“What’s – don’t just say ‘yes’ and nod, nod fucking dumbly – no – ha – what’s her name? C’mon, I’m fucking dying – don’t be, uh, what’s that word, shy…”

“Jade,” said Justin.

“Jade? Jade… such a …” He stopped for a moment. Tears streamed down his face. “Forgive a dying – dying man tears. We can cry, you know, we… can cry. You can’t – ha! – but we can, yes. Dying. Look. You – you go home, tonight, and you call her and – and – fuck, you tell her you love her. Jesus. Make sure she knows…”

Justin jumped as he hacked again, this time curling over. Justin could only manage a weak, “Are you okay…?” before Vic had curled over and was retching, vomiting, throwing up the black stuff, the spidery stuff, and as it fell there was something…

Something.

Justin went pale, tried to hold Justin, tried to save him, tried to do something, anything…

Vic was shaking. He was throwing himself about the room. He might have been in agony. His body was caught in seizures. He vomited more of the stuff. As it fell, the Grandfather of Time won, and a sorcerer saw his demise.

“Can’t – fucking – I will… will escape the judgment,” Vic cried softly, as he died.
Justin had flung himself against the pantry. He’d thrown himself into the pantry to begin with, but came out soon enough, his head buzzing with panic, his hands moving to no affect, his mouth caught in the grimace that was the harbinger of honest, straight, human bile…

He fell, expunged the bile, tried to look at the dead man and failed. His fingers hurt, and they were red with blood – his own. He’d been clawing against the brick wall. Tried to wipe the bile from his mouth and failed. Tried to save the man and failed.

Justin collapsed, everything going grey then blue then black, and he’d left the waking world. He did not get a chance to call his pseudo-girlfriend, and he did not get a chance to tell her he loved her.

THE FICTOGNOSTICS WANT THEIR BOOKSHOP BACK (Four-Six)

FOUR

“Pancakes,” said Reed. “D’you eat pancakes?”

Justin could only nod numbly. It was five-twenty, ante meridiem, and he’d gotten up at four-thirty just to make it there. He’d gotten a full six hours sleep – but felt like he needed another six. A mug of billowing coffee sat in front of him. He knew he couldn’t stomach it, let alone pancakes – what kind of maniac cooked pancakes at five-thirty in the morning?

“Maple syrup, of course,” said Reed. “None of that chemical shit, no… we’ve got real Cardanean maple syrup, here…”

“Mmmn,” said Justin.

“Canadian maple syrup, all the way from Canada, ever tried it before, boy?”

“Hrhmm.”

“Sorry?”

“Hmn - no, sir…”

“Daniel. Reed. Reed.”

“Reed, sorry, sorry – no, never had Canadian maple syrup, sorry…”

“Stop apologizing. You’re in for a treat. Big boy – three? Four?”

“Um, one…”

“With all that meat? Yeah, three’ll do. Eat. At six we’ve got work. Come on, drink the coffee.”

“Sorry.”

“There’s a good man, there we are…”

A lone thought ran through Justin’s mind, as barren as it was at that moment.
These pancakes are fucking delicious.

The pancakes melted in Justin’s mouth. It was a cacophony of sweet tastes, at the perfect temperature, the perfect thickness. The syrup was fantastic. Orgasmic, even.

“These are, they’re very good,” said Justin, munching through his third pancake. Reed smiled wickedly and placed two more searing pancakes on his plate. Justin finished them both, and washed the meal down with the remaining lukewarm coffee.

He was wide awake.

“Good?”

“Great!”

“Want some more?”

“I – I’m pretty full, actually, but…”

“It’s okay. I’ll make them again tomorrow. I’ll just deduct it from your pay.”

“Ah.”

“I kid, boy, I kid. Now, it’s getting close to dawn. Well-read?”

“I think so. Milton, Pynchon, Dunsany, Asimov, Lovecraft…”

Reed nodded approvingly at the mention of Lovecraft. His eyebrows curled affectionately. He was a completely different man in the morning…

“Lovecraft, good. Good. Respect that one. I was thinking more Crowley? Blavatsky? Gurdjieff?”

Justin hesitated for a moment. He thought a little.

“The first one sounds familiar…”

“He damn well should. Tonight you’ll be taking home a copy of Crowley’s finer works…” Reed wandered away, muttering to himself, out of his dingy little kitchen and into the bookshop proper.

He returned with several heavy books, each looking at least fifty years old. The paper had turned the dark yellow shade that defines the large community of bibliogeriatrics. The covers were faded, and simple.

Reed smiled.

MOONCHILD. Read that first. Vitally important. DIARY OF A DRUG-FIEND, too, though I doubt you’d get the point… and then there’s some nonfiction… MAGICK IV, BOOK OF LIES, BOOK OF THE LAW… ah, yes, MAGICK WITHOUT TEARS, THE GOETIA…”

“Magic…? Nonfiction?”

A politely dubious look had been conjured upon Justin’s face, as if by magic. Reed understood his skepticism, but argued against it, using the medium of a heavy book being slapped, hard, against Justin’s fragile little face.

“If you’re going to be working here for, uh, whatever it was, then you’re going to be open-minded and you’re going to read whatever I goddamn tell you. Right?”

“Sorry. Yes, right.”

Justin took the pile of books. The stack was easily the height of his forearm. It was true; he enjoyed reading, but the job that came with homework…

Forty-five dollars an hour.

Justin resolved to read the books.

FIVE

She’d called the night before. Or he’d called. He didn’t remember, but knew – deep down – that it was probably him who’d dialed the numbers. He was a little scared. They’d spoken online, but… call her? That was a little rough. What if she hated him? What if…

The clock gave a show of light: 3:20 ante meridiem.

AM.

Morning.

When she’d picked up, her words were slurred, her voice blurred – sleeping had occurred. He was not deterred.

“Jade, I’m sorry, I don’t know what…”

She silenced him with her own apology; she told him she missed him. He was silent for a moment. What to say? What was right to say? He told her he missed her as well. She told him she loved him.

They went on to more mundane things. He mentioned the job. She honestly congratulated him. He asked about university, about studying education… and she told him. He told her about how the holistic medicine thing was going, and she was very impressed.

She told him she loved him.

He apologized, explained that he didn’t know why he’d called… he wasn’t that lonely, but sometimes – sometimes he missed her. She was crying by the end of it. He hung up and tried to go to sleep.

SIX

At six o’clock ante meridiem, with less then two hours sleep and a stomach filled with Cardanean pancakes, Justin found himself fully prostrated towards the eastern direction. The style immediately reminded him of the Islamic prayers.

Much to the disappointment of several of the more vulgar books, Justin was not naked, and Reed had no intention of taking a sexual relationship. It was a purely ascetic position. “Practice,” Reed had said. “Adorations to the sun are very good for a boy your age.”

Justin knew the man was crazy. It was obvious by the way he spoke – manically, dryly, and sometimes wryly – and obvious by the way he looked. The tiger’s eyes glinted with a madness that Justin imagined would consume the bookseller.

Reed watched as Justin adored the sun that he could not see. Between him and the great ball of gas and flame: roughly two hundred books, an ancient-looking wooden bookcase, plaster, ten centimeters of paper mached textbooks – the stuff of Newton, Einstein, Oppenheimer, Darwin – filled with theoretical half-truth, bricks, mortar, and a sign.

The sign read PLEASE FEEL FREE TO HAVE A BROWSE :), hand-written. Created by Reed’s own hand – as opposed to Cold Mother Typewriter or the Machine of the Windows – gave it a sort of power that not a lot of other signs had. As such it had an inflated opinion of itself, perhaps justified. PLEASE FEEL FREE TO HAVE A BROWSE :) could speak every language of man, understood the whispers of the Machine, and destroy any book-thief with a single word of power.

That word will not be written.

PLEASE FEEL FREE TO HAVE A BROWSE :) watched Justin curiously, and said in the hushed tongue of all informative papers: “There’s nothing to you, kid, nothing at all, and there’s nothing he’ll find. The sun’s a test. To make sure you won’t die. Make sure you won’t wither. Disappear. Don’t think you’ll equate to too much :).”

Justin didn’t hear him, of course. Even though PLEASE FEEL FREE TO HAVE A BROWSE :) could speak English better than most native-born Australians, he knew better than to warn Justin of his presence.

“Do you see the sun?” asked Reed, hovering frighteningly over his newest part-timer.

“I don’t – there are books there,” said Justin.

It was true. All he could see where books. MATHEMATIC EXCERCISES FOR THE AUTISTIC!, NOW YOU CAN DRINK ABSITHE AND WRITE POETRY and similar titles obscured his vision. If Justin had got a little more sleep he might have been curious as to why the books were named so cheekily, but he hadn’t and he wasn’t.

Therrr-whoack is the sound of one book slapping. The book was seminal countercultural novel ILLUMINATUS!, and it loved to slap - and other things besides.

“Christ!” spat Justin, as he toppled sideways. The assault had caught him by surprise. Reed watched him, thunder in the eyes. He held the book in his left hand – the hand of the destroyer. Sammael, Lightbringer, Shaitan… the Adversary.

Justin swore he could almost see the horns.

Brimstone…?

“Oldest trick in the book,” said PLEASE FEEL FREE TO HAVE A BROWSE :), a little disdainfully.

EFTOS ACCEPTED $10 MINUMUM agreed, nodded sagely, and went back to sleep.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

THE FICTOGNOSTICS WANT THEIR BOOKSHOP BACK (One-Three)

ONE

She knew he was lying.

“I just – I mean, I just don’t think that I love you. We’ve changed. I moved – moved to the city, went to a new school – and I changed. Anyone would change. It’s just natural and – I mean, the distance hasn’t exactly helped, has it? I don’t know… I don’t know what to say. I don’t love you anymore.”

She was right. He was lying. He did still love her. But school was finished, and it was November: November was the time when his biological clock shook him by the shoulders and told him he needed a new mate, lest his precious seed go to waste. Sometimes, most Novembers, this would manifest via him developing an extremely small adoration for another girl.

He never courted them. He barely spoke to them. That was irrelevant.
After, bathed in guilt and dressed in self-hate, he would remain mentally chaste for the next eleven months, and then the cycle would continue once more. But sometimes – sometimes he made mistakes.

This particular spring, he’d brainwashed himself into thinking that this particular girl wasn’t good enough for him. It was deceit of the greatest quality – not only did it fool others, it fooled himself.

Five years – high school sweethearts – thrown away.

“I just don’t understand why,” she said, through the sobs. “I just don’t – you were fine yesterday! I know we were fine. We were happy. We’ve fought a little lately, yeah, but I – I – I don’t really know, why? What made you feel like this? Why?”

She stopped trying to hide it. Tears streamed down her face, but he couldn’t see that. He’d broken up with her over the phone. He could tell, though, that her body was being wracked as she wept. He knew that wracked was the right word: most dictionaries defined it as ‘a state of intense anguish’.

She truly loved him.

TWO

Justin wandered into the eccentric little bookshop – the sign claimed that it sold TECHNICAL MANUALS AND EDUCATIONAL BOOKS SECOND HAND. He tried to suppress the thought that next sprung to life within his mind, but didn’t quite succeed. Did the bookshop sell technical books and educational manuals as well…?

Another sign: REED’S BOOKSHOP.

And another: PART-TIME STAFF WANTED APPLY WITHIN.

Justin had shown up, resume in hand. He’d written it himself. He was a little proud.

The shop didn’t look successful enough to hire a part-timer, and the man behind the cluttered desk looked a little ill. Perhaps terminally. His eyes were shot with the red scars of the habitually under-slept. The little hair that the man had left was grey and caught in the process of withering away. His clothes were eccentric. Brown on brown - with a matching brown tie. Highly peculiar in the dullest of ways.

The man didn’t look up as Justin wandered through the bookshop, feigning interest in the encyclopedias, atlases, and text-books; he didn’t have much time for non-fiction books, himself. Work was work, though, and a bookshop was a bookshop - and he was very much in love with the smell of old books…

“What do you want?” asked the man, almost conversationally. It sounded very much like, “How might I help you?”

“I, uh, well,” said Justin. “I’m just having a look, thanks. Actually – um – actually, I saw your sign, and I’m wondering if you’re still accepting applications…”

“Is the sign still up?”

“Well, yes, and I…”

“Splendid. Give me your resume.”

He said ‘splendid’ the same way most people would say ‘funeral’ – dry, flat, as if he himself were locked, without chance of release, within a coffin.

Justin stumbled a little, fumbled a little, mumbled a little as he searched through his backpack, but he soon had the stapled sheets out. He passed them to the man.

“I’m Reed,” said the man, through grunts of acknowledgment, as he flipped through Justin’s unimpressive resume. “You can call me Reed. Or Daniel. Resume’s… a little interesting. You say you can write?”

“I’d like to, um, study journalism or editing or something. I’m hoping Melbourne University. Don’t know if I got the marks, though – journalism’s hard to get into… need a score of ninety, I think.”

An eyebrow rose accusingly.

“Says here you write short stories,” said Reed.

“Yeah… mostly short stories. Finished a novel last year.”

There was a smirk.

“You wrote here that you graduated this month from Northcote High. That’s quite clever.”

“Oh? Is it -?”

“Yeah. Didn’t realise Northington was out already. What’re you messing about with journalism for? There’s a whole world out there, maybe a few for someone with clever eyes, like you. Clever words, too, but you’re a bit of a fool with them. You don’t need the job. Go get crazy, like the rest of them, and go make something.”

Justin felt himself be taken upon a strong current of confusion. He knew that he would soon drown within bewilderment if he didn’t say something soon.

“Um.”

“Well?”

“I’m sorry, Mister Reed -”

“Reed.”

“Reed – I’m sorry, but I don’t quite get what you mean. I mean, thank you, but… I’m just a guy who graduated from Northcote and is looking for some part-time work. I write – I mean, that’s what I make, if that’s what you mean.”

Reed’s eyebrows – archetypically wizardly – fell suspiciously. His thin mouth, caught in stubble, frowned. He looked - long and hard - at Justin.

“You’re not from Northington.”

“No, I went to Northcote – inner city -”

“You’re in my store, and you’re clever, but nothing special.”

“Sorry.”

“Hmmm,” said Reed. A smile broke his face. “You know what? It’ll probably kill me, but you’ve got it. You work to my schedule, right?”

“Of course.”

“Okay. Two or three shifts a week?”

“Um, fine, thank you.”

“Forty-five dollars an hour?”

Forty-five dollars an hour?

“That – sorry?”

“I can pay forty-five dollars an hour. Fifty, even. Is fifty enough…?”

“Thanks. Thank you. That’d be great, thanks. Um.”

Reed looked at him. The brown suddenly looked a very menacing auburn. Justin felt that the man had eyes like a tiger – but he’d never seen a tiger that close, and had no special inkling of what their eyes might look like. The analogy, however, stuck.

“You can come in tomorrow. Five-thirty till, say, three.”

“In the morning?”

“Yes, damn it, in the morning!”

“Okay, um. Okay. Until three in the afternoon.”

“Yes. That would be around five hundred dollars. That should be fine.”

“It is, um, thanks. It’s fine. Thank you.”

Reed smiled once more. It was a librarian’s smile, bitter and thin but genuine.

“Now get out of my shop. We’re closed.”

“Yes, right, thank you…”

“Five-thirty.”

“Right.”

By the time Justin made it home, it was dark, and the moon was slowly rising in the night.

THREE

In the late afternoon, Daniel Reed closed the curtains and emptied the cash register – he’d made fifteen dollars, which wasn’t so bad considering most people couldn’t even find the place. He usually strived to eat dinner and be in bed by seven, in order to get enough sleep for the second round of customers, who typically popped in just past one in the morning.

Reed was determined, however – he had personal business to attend to. He would suffer Chinese for dinner and deal with an hour’s less sleep.

There was a fourth sign upon the shop window: CLOSED.

“There’s a new one coming,” said CLOSED, rather quietly and in a language most cannot understand, to his brothers.

“That was the chubby-looking boy?” said REED’S BOOKSHOP eagerly.

“Can’t be,” said PART-TIME STAFF WANTED APPLY WITHIN.

“What would you know?” TECHNICAL MANUALS AND EDUCATIONAL BOOKS SECOND HAND snarled.

“Haven’t been here long,” said CLOSED, feeling rather hurt.

“Certainly not long enough to be making comments like that.”

There was muttering and arguing amongst the four. The consensus was this: it was highly unlikely, yes, that the boy was the part-timer, but CLOSED wasn’t a liar or an idiot, and he knew what he heard. The boy wasn’t fictional, no, not in the Gnostic sense, but…

“Found the shop, I guess,” said PART-TIME STAFF WANTED APPLY WITHIN, defeated. “Definitely counts for something.”

There was a rustling from inside, and a creak as the door was opened from the inside. Reed stepped outside, still in his brown coat, and whispered grumpily to the signs.

“It’s nighttime, little facts, and time for your master to go to sleep. So be quiet. Quieter. What if a passerby heard you? What would they think then? Go to sleep, little facts! You may talk in the busy day!”

“Is it true that you’ve got a new assistant? I don’t think it can be true, because he was very real, and couldn’t be a very good assistant, boss, but CLOSED thinks that you have, and I told him he was an idiot, because -”

PART-TIME STAFF WANTED APPLY WITHIN stopped talking. Reed was watching him with the tiger’s eyes, a silent growl caught within his throat. TECHNICAL MANUALS AND EDUCATIONAL BOOKS SECOND HAND whimpered.

“Don’t need you anymore,” said Reed, tearing PART-TIME STAFF WANTED APPLY WITHIN from the window. PART-TIME squirmed invisibly, squealed silently. Reed crumpled the sign into a ball, ducked back into the shop. The other, more permanent signs could hear PART-TIME’s screams. There was a whirring sound. They knew what that meant. That meant the shredder.

CLOSED shuddered.

The screams stopped. Reed stepped back out.

“Sleep, my little facts,” he said, and the remaining signs went quiet.
They were all very scared of Master Reed.