It had started out as a Very Good Day. Her eyeliner went in without smudging, the cats had not puked on anything in the night, her coffee brewed perfectly dark and perfectly hot and the walk to the bus stop, although bitingly cold, was under a sky so blue and a sun so bright she couldn’t help but smile.
She was the first one in the store. The open sign banged against the glass door and the little bell dingled a hello at her as she entered. She locked the door once she was inside and began the happy process of opening the little shop before actually opening it. A combination book store and antique store and thrift store and art store, the shop was owned by a friend of friend’s father who traveled quite often, bringing back strange collections of dusty books, weathered and smelling of dust and adventure. There was the faint scent of paint and turpenoid; the old man was restoring a painting he’d discovered on his latest trip to Florida. It was leaning against the wall behind the long counter that defined the area for customers and the area that said “maybe you should stay out of this area unless you like sharp things poking you or oil paint on your very nice clothes.”
Promptly at 10:00 she flipped the little sign so it read “closed” on her side, unlatched the deadbolt and stood with her hands on her hips, hopeful that a customer would come in soon. The day was so good that surely her customers today would be interesting and eager to buy and she would be saved a day of restocking toilet paper, dusting and reshelving books and, of course, inventory. January meant inventory and while she relished the idea of counting and sorting and touching each of the neatly bound tomes, she didn’t actually want to do all of the scribbling and counting. That part led to achy wrists and a hunched back and made her eyes burn.
She made a quick sweep of the main floor, tucking a few loose books back in place and adjusting the pink, silk, fringed shade on a brass lamp that was overpriced or undervalued or maybe a litlte of both because it had been in the store since she’d been working it and the closest anyone had ever come to buying it was a little old lady who had misread the decimal and when she realized the actual price of the lamp had limped away muttering under her breath and swiping TWO extra cookies from the snack cart before attempting to slam the very heavy door behind her.
She heard the ding ding that meant someone had entered the store. She looked up and saw a small man in a very heavy coat wander in. Hands in pockets, ridiculous hat drawn down low over his face. The kind of hat a hunter would wear sitting in his hide. Flannel and fur and bright red plaid. Combined wiht a heavy canvas coat and boots that made a significant clomping noise as he walked, he looked more like an overdressed child than a man, but he had an enviable beard, and a heavy pronounced brow that clearly indicated more age than youth. She gave him a quick wave and a “can I help you find anything” but he only nodded and touched his fingers to his brow in a sort of “thanks but no” gesture and set to work at the coffee cart. She was used to strange customers, it was a smallish town and it was a strangeish shop. She went back to work and let the man be. She did notice that he’d dropped a dollar in the Styrofoam cup that said “help us help you caffeinate” under the poster that was a reproduction book cover that read “The Spice Must Flow” only someone had crossed out spice and scribbled “coffee” in it’s place. He gulped down the hot coffee, threw away the cup rubbed his hands together and disappeared into the nearby stacks.
She decided it might be best to start her inventory in the locked glass cabinets in the annex, and since the little man didn’t seem to be in a hurry to complete whatever shopping he’d come in for, she grabbed the small key ring from the desk drawer, made her way up the stairs and across the balcony and began unlockign a series of dramatic, glass cases that held some of the more interesting, or valuable, books in the store. She’d been doing inventory in the store for nearly six years and each year the book count on this floor was the same. THe owner said it was unlucky to keep more than 13 books in the case at a time and that it was equally unlocky to keep less than 13 books int he case at a time so ever year she knew she would find 13 books in the case. However, she never knew which 13 books she would discover. She was not allowed to handle sales from this case. In fact, she was technically not allowed to inventory the books in this case. It was a pleasure she allowed herself once a year; the unlocking and handling of the strange, rare, deliciously mysterious books kept in the case.
She looked around a bit nervously. If the little man with the enviable beard from downstairs shoudl wander up while she had the case open, he might request to handle or even purchase one of teh books she was quite forbidden to touch. But he seemed pleasantly distracted in the used paperback section and had currently plopped into an overstuffed chair to read what looked like an old pulp sci-fi novel. She turned back to the task at hand.
The little keys each matched on of seven locks across the front of the chest, which reminded her more of a coffin than an actual display case. The top and sides were glass, and it was lined iwht a deep, burgundy velvet. The kind of fabric you’d expect to find lining the case of a very fine cello. She could see each of the 13 books, arranged in no particular order according to size or obvious age, staring a bit accusingly at her as she lifted the lid and set it to the side. She was a bit disappointed. In previous years she’d found as amny as 12 had been replaced by Something New, but this year it looked as though only one had found it’s way into the case. That one, however, was fasciniting for several reasons before she even touched it. First, it was very, very big. It was taking up so much space that the other 12 books were lined up nearly touching. It had to be at least 2 feet wide and half again as tall and it was so fat, so full of thick, yellowing pages, that it didn’t sit closed quite flush. In fact, there was a buckle holding the whole thing shut, possibly together. Second, it appeared, and this was the part that nearly made her stop her whole endeavor, replace the case lid and go back downstairs to Pretend This Had Not Happened, it appeared as though the whole thing was bound in a piece of skin. Not leather, not vellum, and not animal. There was a distinct tattoo wrapping around the upper portion of the book, something quite human in it’s design. Yes. It was. The book was bound in human skin.
The day suddenly seemed to be Not As Good and a queasy sensation in her gut mingled with an insatiable curiosity and although she was more than a little terrified that at some point in time someone had decided that the hide of a human being would make a good book cover, she began to reach for it, an overwhelming desire to touch the thing mingling with that instinct that all sane and smart humans have that scratches at the base of our skulls and tell us with no uncertain hesitancy to RUN and run fast. She had her hands just inside the case and was about to embrace the hideous thing when a voice behind her made her jump so high she nearly hit her head on the low hanging ceiling.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”