2836 words (11 minute read)

Chapter 3

MEETING MS. WHITMORE

Owen turned. The words had been spoken in a melodious, German-accented voice that projected authority and intelligence. It belonged to the elegant, grey-haired woman who, two months earlier, had chastised a young sorceress in the square of St. Petersburg. Today she wore a tasteful red blouse and tartan skirt. Her silver spectacles glinted mysteriously. The overall impression was of a slightly more attractive Grace Kelly.

[ENCHANTING DETAILS: For my readers under 30, Grace Kelly was a prominent and gorgeous film actress of the mid-20th century, who starred in the films Rear Window, Dial M For Murder, and High Noon. She later became a princess. They no longer make women of her ilk.]

[A WOODCUT-STYLE ILLUSTRATION OF E. WHITMORE]

“Speak up,” the enchantress said. “And tell me why you’re here. Or has the education system in this country grown so poor they’ve ceased teaching language altogether?”

“I’m, uh … hiding?” said Owen, unable to think of a lie.

“Hiding,” nodded the woman. “Well, you’ve chosen a most excellent spot. People avoid this place as if I was selling plague.”

Owen inspected his surroundings for the first time. The store was filled floor to ceiling with bookshelves. They rose several stories into the dark, upper reaches of the interior. The crooked pathways between them were barely wider than three feet. Their volume absorbed both light and sound, making the building as quiet and dim as a tomb. And the smell … well, if you’ve ever inhaled the woodsy perfume of an antique text, I don’t need to describe the majestic aroma that was traipsing through Owen’s nostrils.

“What is this place?” the boy said. A stupid question, but we must remember he had just been running for his life.

“Don’t tell you’ve never been inside a bookstore! I knew it. At long last, I have lived to see the end of human culture.” The woman shut her eyes, giving every impression she was experiencing heart failure.

“Of course I’ve been in a bookstore,” said Owen, offended that she thought him so ignorant. “Just not one so … crowded.”

“Ah. Well. Here at Codex Arcanum, we favor quality over décor. And I,” she said, extending a pale hand, “Am the proprietor. Ms. Euphemia Whitmore.”

“Owen Macready,” said the boy, shaking her hand. Her skin had the feel of cool, delicate paper, but the fingers were surprisingly strong. She held his hand tightly as her sharp, ice-blue eyes looked into his. Her pupils appeared to grow larger and larger in the murky light of the store. It was as if two black whirlpools were swirling all about him, tugging and teasing out the deepest thoughts from inside his head –

And then his hand was released. Owen blinked. Had the sun outside changed position? The shadows certainly seemed longer.

[SORCERY FOR BEGINNERS: The spell used by Ms. Whitmore is Menno’s Mental Manipulation. As it requires looking deep within a human mind to determine its intentions, it can only be cast by a very high-level sorcerer. I explain it here not only to illustrate what happened to Owen, but also to show the impressive breadth of the woman’s skill.]

The bookseller beckoned him deeper into the store. “The volumes you see here cannot be found at Barnes and Noble or Amazon dot com,” she said. “We have out-of-print books, illuminated manuscripts, and signed first editions of all seven Harry Potters. We pride ourselves on the rare and unusual.”

She turned a corner. Owen followed, but the older woman had vanished.

A LITERARY LABYRINTH

“Hello?” Owen said. His voice was absorbed almost immediately by the books. “Ms. Whitmore?”

“Our books cannot be read on a computer screen,” she said from several aisles over. Owen followed her voice, taking one turn, then another. “The pages possess energy. You must feel the weight of them in your hands, turn them with your own fingertips. You must inhale their scent.”

There she was, turning down the end of a long aisle. Owen jogged toward her, the tomes looming over his head. Whitmore rounded the corner –

And again, she was gone. The store must have secret passageways, Owen decided. That, or the old lady was some sort of magician.

“Books are magic,” came her voice from far behind him. Had he spoken aloud just now? He jogged deeper into the store. “They whisk us out of the world, transporting our minds to far-flung places and illuminating the dark caverns of knowledge with but a few well-chosen words.”

The aisles were becoming more precarious now, twisting sharply this way and that. The ground seemed to undulate under his feet, like swells on an ocean of concrete. Strange titles leapt off the shelves: The Book of Kells … The Greater Key of Solomon… The Book of Abramelin … Several times he had to hop over piles of bound texts.

[THE CODEX ARCANUM: One of the most famous books of magic in history, the Greater Key of Solomon was not actually written by the well-known Biblical king. It dates back to the 14th or 15th century, and represents a rather pedestrian example of Renaissance-era magic. The use of the name ‘Solomon’ was most likely used for marketing purposes, just like modern-day athletes are used to sell shoes.]

“There are some books,” Whitmore continued in the distance, “That are more magical still. Grimoires that gauge the reader. Stories that diverge based upon your desires. Manuscripts with a mind of their own.”

[SORCERY FOR BEGINNERS: Books about magic, or grimoires, date back to a time before, technically speaking, there were even books. The first collections of sorcery and spells were recorded on tablets, scrolls, even the occasional stone pillar. As much as I dislike the current trend of e-readers, they do have one advantage over a 9 –foot column -- they’re easier to carry in one’s backpack.]

Her voice was practically gone now. Owen increased his speed, ducking underneath a low overhang –

And he nearly collided with Whitmore. She stood straight and tall, as if she’d been waiting for him the entire time.

“Of course, the term ‘book’ is a bit pejorative,” she said. “Most of the magic texts that surround us have been copied from other sources and bound for ease of transport.” She traced a finger down the spine of a wide, red leather tome, then fixed him with her piercing gaze. “Would you like to see one?”

A TOME TO REMEMBER

It was dark back here, the boy realized. He had left the sun far behind, and the only illumination came from a dusty yellow bulb high overhead. Whitmore stared down at him, the light making hollows of her eyes and cheeks.

“A … magic book?” Owen said.

“There’s one just down there.” She pointed a long finger at the shelf near the boy’s feet. “I believe you’ll find its contents rather … intriguing.”

His eyes followed the imaginary line of her finger. One spine on the shelf stood out to him. Unlike the surrounding volumes, it was bound in bright yellow, plastic-coated paper. Owen crouched, tilting his head to read the title. The letters squirmed as if he had water in his eyes, but when he blinked, they were in clear English.

Sorcery for Beginners?” he read, looking up at Whitmore. “What is it, like a how-to guide for magic tricks?”

“Tricks, young man, are for charlatans and All Hallow’s Eve. That book teaches the art of real magic. An art, thanks to the Euclideans, that is little practiced any more.”

[BEWARE OF EUCLIDEANS: Notice how the word ‘Euclidean’ barely registered with Owen? Such is the nature of the world’s true villains – most people don’t even realize they exist.]

Dubious, Owen slid the book off the shelf. It was done in the style of a help guide, with a cartoon wizard gesticulating on the cover. He flipped through the first few pages, glimpsing figures of hand positions and diagrams bordered by strange symbols.

“No wands?” he said jokingly.

The bookseller scoffed. “True magical energy is harnessed through somatic components -- the physical, practiced movements of a human body. Wands are for stage magicians and fans of Harry Potter.”

[SORCERY FOR BEGINNERS: The ‘somatic components’ of which Whitmore speaks are most often finger and hand positions, but can include dance steps, facial expressions, even the specific motions of a sorcerer’s hair follicles.]

“Neat,” Owen said, unenthusiastically.

“You’re not the adventurous sort. Very well,” she said, holding out a hand. “Best hand it back and return to your video games, then.”

The boy hung on to the book. “It’s just, you know it’s not real. Magic, I mean. It only exists in, like, books and movies.”

“Oh, its presence may have decreased in the world,” she agreed, “But that does not mean it’s gone.”

Owen was unconvinced. The older woman tapped the book’s cover. “You don’t believe me? Read the dedication page.”

Grudgingly, Owen opened the book to the second page. It was blank, save for the following words:

For Owen, who does not believe in magic.

He looked up at Whitmore, surprised and impressed. “How’d you do that?”

Her smile could have eclipsed the Mona Lisa’s in the mystery department. “I told you, books are magic. And that one more than most.”

[ENCHANTING DETAILS: The Mona Lisa was painted on poplar wood by Leonardo Da Vinci sometime between 1503 and 1506. It endures today because of the subject’s mysterious and chaste expression, which modern teenagers would do well to emulate.]

“Prove it,” Owen said. “Make it do another trick.”

She frowned. “You know what dealt magic its greatest death blow? The so-called ‘Scientific Method’. Simply being unable to replicate an extraordinary phenomenon doesn’t mean it did not occur. One could argue, in fact, that’s what made it extra-ordinary in the first place. But without such proof,” she lamented, “Learned men and women have discredited entire schools of thought. And so now, young people like yourself do not look inward for answers, but to Wikipedia.”

Owen shrugged, putting the book back on the shelf. “O-kay. Good luck with all your codexes arcanum. And maybe think about adding a few windows in here.”

He started back down the aisle, in the direction of what he hoped was the front door. He was just about turn the corner, when an object dropped at his feet with a heavy thwack.

It was Sorcery for Beginners.

He turned to look at Whitmore. She appeared not to have moved from her position.

“The plural of ‘codex’,” she said, “Is codices.”

“Nice toss,” he said back to her. “But I’m still not buying.”

He stepped over the book, continuing on his way –

Thwack. There it was at his feet again. The cartoon wizard on the cover smiled cryptically.

Owen looked back at the old woman. She still hadn’t moved, but the Mona Lisa smile had returned. “It appears you are meant for each other,” she said mildly.

“I don’t like to read,” Owen replied, kicking the book back down the aisle. It slid several meters, stopped, then rebounded as if tied to an invisible rubber band. It bounced off the toe of Owen’s sneaker, falling open to a page toward the back.

[SORCERY FOR BEGINNERS: Clearly, Ms. Whitmore cast A Spell of Attraction to link Owen and the book. This medium-level charm magically binds two objects together, and is frequently used by sorcerers to avoid losing their wallets and car keys. But take caution – the charmed objects will do anything to come back together, even burrow through the earth itself. This is why the bookseller removed the spell once it served its purpose.]

“Okay, that was pretty good,” he admitted. He bent to pick up the book, his eyes drifting to the text. Again, the words squirmed in a funny manner, but when he blinked, they were in plain English:

A Spell To Rewrite History.

Beneath the title was a description of the spell and an accompanying list of instructions. But the bottom of the page was what made the breath catch in his throat.

A series of three illustrations demonstrated how the spell should work. Instead of generic drawings like the one on the cover, though, the first panel showed a young boy being pushed into a metal ice chest by three older boys.

The boy bore a striking resemblance to Owen.

This was no trick. Even if Whitmore had known he was coming, there had been no one else outside the convenience store. There was no way she could have known what happened, much less printed a drawing of it, bound it in a book, and placed it at the back of her store on the off chance he’d come in here to hide.

The old lady seemed to understand what he was thinking, gently nodding for him to continue to the next panel. It depicted a close-up of Owen reading the spell from a book. In the third panel the bullies were gone, and Owen was sitting with his mom and dad on the shores of Lake Erie, watching a sunset. They were back in Rocky River, his parents were no longer separated, and it appeared as if the move to Las Vegas had never occurred at all. It was what the boy had wished for every day since his father had driven him into the Nevada desert.

[SORCERY FOR BEGINNERS: Next to love spells, enchantments to affect time are among the most sought-after. But novices must be wary – fiddling with time can spoil the endings of anticipated films, unexpectedly alter history, or even erase one’s whole existence.]

He looked at Whitmore, astonishment and desire battling for dominance on his face. “How much?”

THE PRICE IS WRIT

“$19.95,” the bookseller said, ejecting the drawer on an old-fashioned cash register. Their walk back to the front had been surprisingly short. Owen supposed that with all the twists and turns, the store only appeared to be larger than it was. Or it could be the whole place was enchanted. He wasn’t confident of much at the moment. He took the emergency twenty dollar bill from his canvas wallet and handed it to Whitmore.

“Five cents your change, and –“ She held up a bookmark. The Codex Arcanum logo was embossed upon it, letterpress-style. “In case you need to find us again,” she said, slipping it inside his purchase. “All sales are perfectly tailored to each customer and therefore final, but sometimes people have … questions. Remember, we’re here to help.”

[ENCHANTING DETAILS: The first printed book in the West, the Gutenberg Bible, was accomplished using the letterpress technique in 1450 C.E. The invention of this technology led to the manufacturing of books on a massive scale.]

She handed him the book. The boy reached for it, but she pulled it back with quicker reflexes than he would have expected. “You swear you are not a Euclidean?”

Owen blinked. “I don’t even know what that is.”

“Then you promise not to give this to any Euclideans?” The boy nodded, eager to leave. “Because if this were to fall into their hands, well … the consequences would be severe.”

[BEWARE OF EUCLIDEANS: One sure-fire way to spot a Euclidean is to look for their initiation tattoo. Every new member is required to have the order’s insignia, seen above, permanently inked somewhere on his or her body.]

“It won’t fall anywhere,” Owen assured her. He was beginning to think the old lady was a bit batty.

“Very well. ‘The right book for the right person’, we always say. But the right book for the wrong person? Disaster.”

Owen dropped the bookmark into his backpack. “Got it.”

“By purchasing that volume, you are taking an oath,” she said. “An oath to not only respect its contents, but also be responsible for them. You are now the custodian of a sacred art which dates back 3,000 years.”

“Great,” the boy said, more than ready to end the conversation and return home, where he could inspect his purchase in private.

“It is done, then,” she said cheerfully. “I wish you luck, Owen Macready.”

He was confident he had not told her his last name.