After putting on her oldest looking jacket in a pitiful attempt to hide the newness of her clothes, Erica looked in the mirror and frowned. Even without having bathed that morning she would still stand out by a mile. It was only a mercy it was cold anyway so the jacket wouldn’t seem out of place. She briefly considered sunglasses, but decided that looked too much like she was trying to look inconspicuous and left them on her dresser. With a last breath to steel her nerves, she slipped a messenger bag over her shoulder and caught the 717 bus to Riverside for fifty cents. Small price for the risk.
No street sweepers came here; litter clogged the culverts and dirty water ran in streams along the sidewalk and a generally foul stench hung over all. It was dangerous to visit this part of town; more-so for those who so obviously did not belong. Her clothing was a little too clean, her pace a little too quick, the way her eyes darted, drawn to movement or sudden sounds, gave her away as an intruder into this burrow.
When she reached the sign marking Front Street she turned right and slipped her hand into her pocket where she felt for the tiny scrap of cloth, onto which the numbers 317 and 11 had been written. Her gaze passed down the street lined with old buildings in various states of disrepair, each with signs and plaques hinting at what might be found inside, but when her eyes fell on the weathered wooden sign that was painted with two vertical lines, she knew that must be it.
Four steps up from the street was where a door should have been but wasn’t, instead just an opening onto a small lobby filled with people sitting in various kinds of shabby old furnishings. The smell of smoke clung to everything and assaulted her nose as she felt the gaze of everyone inside on her wondering if she was lost or just very stupid. They watched her as she made her way through the lobby, legs of those seated closest drawing in reluctantly to let her pass.
A whisper between watchers caused a ripple of laughs at her expense, but she pushed on, making the shelter of the unlit hallway across from the entrance. The building must have been an old hotel back in the day, doors were situated at regular intervals down both sides of the hall, each with a number and a keyhole. She found the staircase about half way down the hall, the treads creaking under her feet as she ascended two flights before coming out onto a small landing.
The hall branched in three directions from there and she strained to see which might contain the elusive room she was after. A man shuffled down one, coughing, and she could smell him as he passed. That must be the place, she thought, as she headed down the way he had come.
As she approached the door marked 317, she could hear shouts rising from the other side. With hardly a moment to reconsider, the door flew open and a squat man with a red beard and black vest came into view. She backed away, bumping into the wall behind her as he looked her up and down with a scowl, then pushed past, muttering something she couldn’t catch.
From inside the room, a man standing at a cluttered counter saw her and waved her in. She hesitated, but that seemed to only make him angry.
“Get in here and shut that door, you miserable rag!”
Eyes going wide, she looked around, then pointed at herself. “Me?”
“Who else, stupid girl?” he cried, waving furiously. “Get in, get in!”
She gave a startled leap through the door and shut it behind her and the man at the counter relaxed at last. He took his glasses off and cleaned them, then gave her a closer look. “And what might you be doing here? This ain’t your place.”
“I-if you please, sir-”
“Bah! Sir, indeed! Get off with ya!”
“I can pay,” she said, pulling a wad of bills from her pocket and holding them out in a ridiculous manner which said she had never done anything like this in the whole of her life. The sight of the money swayed him and he waved her closer.
“What you be wanting, then? First time hit? We can give you a bag of rolls. Ten pages rolled with grass and herbs to throw a scent-”
“N-no. No I want a full book.”
“Full book? Ha! Take the rolls, they pass as smokes, none’ll know if you’re careful ’bout it.”
She shook her head firmly. She had not braved her way here for a few scant pages. She wanted a full book. He stroked his chin, thinking, which gave her a few moments to look around the room she found herself in.
It wasn’t as dark as the hall had been, but was dark enough. There were a dozen workers bent over tables poorly lit with dribbled candles. The ceiling above the tables was as black as soot from years of it. To one side were a couple of children, rolling small pages stuffed with the grass and herbs the man had mentioned, packing them by tens into little baggies.
But what really caught her eye was the inch-thick stack of papers on one of the desks. The man sitting there had a fine pen in one ink-stained hand, the forefinger of his other hand resting on an open book as he penned each letter, one by one, with meticulous care. That must be a whole novel. She’d never seen one before.
Her attention was drawn abruptly back when the man at the counter snatched the money from her hand and began to count it.
“A whole book you say. A whole book. Hmm, yes we might be able to do that.” He eyed her again and gave a mean-spirited smirk. “I don’t suppose you’ll be knowing which book you want, do you? No, just anything, I suppose. Just any old book will do, will it?”
She didn’t say anything, not knowing what she should say because he was right. She had no idea, she just wanted a book. He chuckled and pulled out a ledger, his finger sliding down the page until it came to rest on an entry he seemed to like. She didn’t catch what it was before he snapped it shut and cried, “Gizzen!”
One of the men from the writing tables got up and shuffled over to the counter where the man handed him what looked like a ticket stub.
“Get the package for our customer lady.”
“Aye, Boss,” the man said and went into another room. A minute later he returned carrying a small parcel, wrapped in brown paper and tied with twine. He handed it to the “boss” who in turn held it out with a toothy grin to Erica, who took it with all the reverence of a holy relic. That was met with a laugh.
“In your sack, girly! Quick, and out you go! You’ve no more business here.”
She felt for the doorknob behind her, pulling it open and slipping back into the hallway as fast as she could. She just stood for a moment, trying to wrap her head around what she’d just done, then realizing the book was still in her hand, she opened her messenger bag and pulled out an old vintage laptop. The insides had been hollowed out and the keyboard lifted to reveal a secret compartment. It was thankfully just large enough to slip the book inside, then she shut it all up and put the laptop back into her bag.
The whole way home she could feel the weight of it around her neck like a noose; feeling as if every person who saw her somehow knew what she had and that at any moment the police would come and arrest her. But she made it home and shut the door behind her, then ran up to her room and locked the door and crawled under her bed before she dared to open her treasure.
With a small flashlight between her teeth, she pulled off the twine and unwrapped the brown paper to see what it was the man had given her. There was no cover or art; it was not an original of course, just another scribed copy, precious and dangerous as cursed gold.
She let her fingers move across the title, tracing the numbers one, nine, eight, and four. Then she turned the first page and began to read.