Derek collected all sorts of books. No single theme or genre determined his purchases. Broad and divergent, his collection astounded other booklovers not for its content but its immensity. By the time Derek refined his aims and focused on one mysterious ancient book he’d heard about, he’d gained quite a reputation for having collected thousands, in many cases all known copies and editions of certain titles.
Derek was a single young man whose personal wealth enabled him to travel in his search for hard-bound treasures. He lived his life in the pages of his books. His pulse always quickened when he opened the cover of his most recent find. Derek disdained new books, with their crisp covers and pristine pages. Rather, an old book, read and handled by who knew how many hands excited him.
The young man became obsessed with finding the only known copy of the volume, known as the “V” Codex. He’d heard he would find dark magic secrets hidden among its pages, hand-written by a monk in the 1400’s. Another collector he knew ridiculed his interest— “It’s a fake, you know”—but suggested a bookseller in the city of Q— might have a copy. Derek waved away the doubter. He’d never heard of the city of Q—.
Disappointment dampened the thrill of his hunt. He visited one city after another in his homeland without success. In each locale, he encountered more and more shuttered bookstores.Those still in business were not familiar with the book.
He mourned the lost sensory pleasure of hours he might have spent pulling dust-laden books from shelves in now-closed shops. To soothe his sense of loss, Derek set out for foreign lands where the tradition of small shops and specialty bookstores survived and prospered. He traveled to Budapest,Krakow, and Prague. There, he forgot the shrinking antiquarian book market at home. There, he inhaled the smell of paper decay with pleasure. He caressed peeling leather and canvas book covers in a state of bliss, but nowhere could he find the book he sought.
Derek returned to his own country for a last visit to the city of Q—. He arrived at the tiny airport and hailed a taxi. Before checking into an inn, he went directly to the recommended bookshop. An odor of dank basement and rotting walls excited Derek’s collector senses when he entered. His hand shook as he perused its dimly lit shelves and examined a row of dusty volumes.
A phlegmy cough drew Derek’s attention from a copy of Drake’s Physics of Monstrous Beasts. He saw an aged clerk standing behind the shop’s lone counter. He replaced the volume on its shelf and approached the counter. There it was, the ‘V’ Codex, in the vitrine. Derek’s eyes lost their gleam; the clerk refused to sell him the book.
He said, “You can’t have it. There’s a hold on it.”
“But I’ll pay you cash—more than anyone could offer you, I’m sure.” Derek insisted. “I must have it.”
The clerk ran his fingers through tangled gray hair that bordered his bald spot. After giving Derek a squinting look of appraisal, he shrugged and turned away.
“It’s still on hold,” the old man said on Derek’s second visit. He raised his bushy eyebrows in response to Derek’s stifled frustration. “Come back—maybe in a year.”
“I can’t wait that long. Sell me that book. I see no one else is interested. Has the person who put it on hold contacted you?”
The old man did not answer. Deaf to Derek’s pleas, he walked away, through a pair of heavy curtains in the rear of the shop. Derek called after him. Getting no response, he looked around. No other customers had come in. He spotted two dog-eared paperbacks—titles he’d been tracking. He snatched them—and left the shop.
Derek returned to Q__;three years had passed. He could not dismiss the ‘V’ Codex from his mind. He directed a taxi to the shop, tapped the driver’s shoulder and said, “Stop here. Don’t worry. Here’s half the fare. I want you to wait for me. I’ll pay the rest when I’ve finished here.”
The driver agreed to pick him up in a half hour. Derek slammed the taxi door and turned to face his challenge. This time he was determined to leave the shop with the codex in his hands. He opened the clouded glass entrance door. Familiar and now irresistible smells—brittle foxing pages, glue, and dust—greeted him as he searched for the clerk, but the old man was not in his usual place behind the counter.
A young woman parted the heavy curtains at the rear of the shop. Dressed in a black silken pajama set, she looked like a cold, marble statue. Her pale blue, almost colorless eyes stared at him. Long, straight red hair contrasted with her gloomy attire and bloodless skin. Clearing his own throat, he hurried to the counter and tapped the vitrine.
“That book, Miss,” he said, “I’ve been trying to buy it from your clerk for years.”
The woman offered a tight smile. “This? The ‘V’ Codex?” She laughed. “You can’t be serious.”
“Very serious. Is it still on hold?”
“On hold?” she whispered. “Alwin said it was on hold? Well, it was, in a way, but not now.” She shook her head slowly as she took a key from behind the counter,unlocked the glass top, and lifted it up.
Her blood-red fingernail tip hovered over the book’s gold-embossed title. “Why do you want to buy it? Poor Alwin. I apologize. He was a little soft in the head.” Her nail traced the edges of the stiff goatskin cover.
“Excuse me, but who was Alwin?” Derek could feel his temples pulse with his impatient heartbeat. The woman looked at him, and his breathing became difficult.
“Alwin was a clerk here. He was the man who told you the codex was on hold. He used to‘borrow’ the codex, worked on this part trying to make sense of it.” She slipped on a pair of gloves and, with both hands, opened the tome to a place marked with a length of red ribbon.Her fingers grazed the image of unidentifiable herbs. “Perhaps he succeeded. A very quiet man. Feel free to examine the book. I don’t believe he damaged it.” She removed the gloves and placed them on the book.
“And why is he not here today?” Derek’s fingers ached to hold the book. He pushed his hands into the tight gloves.
“Four months ago, he finished his work for the day, returned the codex, then left the shop. We haven’t heard from him since.” The woman spun on her heel and left through the heavy curtains at the back of the shop.
Trembling, Derek ran his forefinger over the painted herbs. Perhaps it’s a pharmacopoeia, he thought. He turned page after page, some bearing odd images of fruits and green plants he’d never seen, others with drawings of goats or dragons. The text alternating with or accompanying images went on in some strange, totally unrecognizable script. None of the words made sense. He did appreciate, however, the many hand-drawn illustrations, some of small, nude women wearing crowns. Perhaps he would attempt a translation.
The woman returned and asked him if he cared to purchase the book. If he was just looking, she had more important business to attend. Derek frowned at her impudence. He cleared his throat and asked the price. A bargain, he thought when she named a figure. He bought the book and left the shop.
* * *
Booksellers began to miss their favorite customer. Several months after Derek purchased the codex, they grew aware of his absence. They sent emails about discoveries they were saving just for him, but their messages went unanswered.
The booksellers contacted Derek’s sister. Perhaps he had moved? They inquired about a change of address. No, his sister answered them, my brother still lives at the same address, but he does travel a lot. She grew suspicious and sent her adult son to visit Derek’s apartment. Derek’s silence was not unexpected, since he rarely communicated with any family member; but it had gone on far too long.
The nephew used Derek’s spare key, left long ago with his mother—just in case. He entered the apartment. All the shades were drawn and the stale odor permeating Derek’s three-room flat induced a coughing fit. Something smelled off, like dust and mold. To his relief, the young man found no body. Nevertheless, no note, unfinished work, nor any other clue revealed the cause of his uncle’s disappearance. Derek simply was absent.
The kitchen was clean and tidy. No food in the fridge. No cans or boxes on the shelves. Only books. Bookshelves filled with volumes lined the walls of Derek’s empty rooms. Stacks of books crowded the floor. An armchair and a reading lamp provided evidence that someone had used the space for more than storage.
He phoned his mother and brought her up to date. Suspecting foul play, she contacted the police. Nothing came of the investigation.
A year passed. The family decided to lease the apartment and empty the shelves. Derek’s nephew was about to take his uncle’s jacket to the cleaners when he found a bookstore receipt. He gave it to his mother and suggested the shop might want to buy Derek’s books. The bookseller answered their inquiry with enthusiasm. She would be delighted to take the entire collection.
They traveled to Q— to settle accounts. Entering the musty shop, Derek’s sister and nephew exchanged anxious glances. The bookseller greeted them from behind the counter. Noting she’d compiled the inventory, the woman pressed her well-manicured red fingernail to her cheek and asked Derek’s sister, “I did not see the ‘V’ Codex in any of the crates.”
“Codex? I don’t understand. What is that?”
“Oh,“she shrugged, “It’s a book made of vellum sheets, with hand-written contents. I heard that he’d added it to his collection. You know how news gets around in our little world. Was he translating it?”
“No, I have no idea,” his sister replied. “We didn’t talk much. I can’t account for it. Sorry.”
“Ah, of course. Perhaps it will turn up. This sort of odd item often does.”
About a year after his sister leased his apartment, Derek reappeared at the bookshop in the city of Q— with a large bundle wrapped in brown paper and twine under one arm. He regretted spending most of his fortune on travel and translators, none of which or whom brought him insights into the codex. As he stood at the door, he gave his stained and ragged tweed overcoat a futile brush. Mindless of the frayed cuffs of his once expensive trousers and his scuffed shoes, he turned the doorknob and entered.
Derek coughed. At the sound, the manager parted draperies and approached the counter. Dressed in the same black outfit, she eyed his disarray with a sneer. “You came back. What’s this?”
Derek said nothing. He laid the package on the vitrine, undid its knotted twine, and slipped off the paper wrapping.
“You know very well,” he answered in a hoarse voice.
“I don’t want it,” the young woman sniffed.
When Derek insisted, she asked, “I bought your collection, you know, from your sister. The codex wasn’t part of it. What have you been doing with it?”
The man shook his head. “Nothing. Buy it back.” He named the price he wanted for it.The woman laughed. She tapped her sharp fingernail on the counter, then repeated her questions.
Derek screamed, “I couldn’t do anything with it. This book is a fake. I want my money back, I tell you.” He held out his hand.
She opened the rusty cash register and counted out some bills. Without checking the amount, Derek stuffed the cash into his coat pocket and bolted from the shop.
“Wait,you’re wrong. It’s not a fake. You have to give it time,” she shouted after him as she leaned out the door, but Derek kept walking. With a twisted smile, she carried the volume through the curtains behind her just as a well-dressed older man entered the shop and drummed his fingers impatiently on the glass pane of the vitrine.
“Hello? Is anybody working here?” he called out. Stroking his neat little beard, he looked around the room with distaste. He shook his head at the sight of books ranging higgledy-piggledy on overflowing shelves or stacked in messy piles on the floor. Straightening his lapels, he was about to leave when a red-haired woman walked through curtains covering the back of the shop.
“Finally,”he huffed, “I was about to go. I’m looking for a very special book, written by a scribe on parchment. I heard your shop has the only one.”
“The‘V’ Codex?” she said from behind the counter. “Yes, we do happen to have what I think is the one remaining copy extant. Would you like to see it?”
The man’s eyes lit up. He most certainly would like to see it.
The young woman left for a moment, then returned with a heavy parchment book in her arms. Slipping on cotton gloves, she opened it to a page filled with text and illustrations. She asked, “It looks like this on almost every page. Do you want to buy it?”
“If I may ask, why? Translation? Research?”
He sighed with impatience. “If you must know, I am a doctor and I want to add it to my collection of medical texts. I suspect it’s a book of arcana appealing to some of my colleagues.”
“Are you also a sorcerer?” she asked with an odd glint in her eyes.
“No, most certainly not,” he huffed. “I am merely a collector, but of very particular works. Shall we proceed?”
She took the cash he offered after she named a price. The man tucked the wrapped volume under his arm and left the shop without another word.
The woman shook her head. “That was easy,” she muttered while dimming the shop’s lights. She placed a yellowed sign in the window. “CLOSED INDEFINITELY.”
Another year passed. Derek once more was knocking on the door of that bookshop in the city of Q—. The codex haunted him. He dreamed about it the rare nights he slept. He had to see it again.
Where was she, that icy woman? He waited, then rapped harder on the door’s thin glass window pane. A light came on in the back of the shop, glowing yellow between drawn curtains. He blinked as the curtains parted and the light grew brighter.
He recognized her, the keeper of the codex, he decided. Pressing a pointed red fingernail to her lips, she leaned close to the pane fogged by Derek’s breath.
“Yes?” she asked, a furrow marring the otherwise smooth skin between her dark brows.
“I need to see my codex again, if it’s still here,” said Derek.
“Of course you do.” With a crooked smile, she unlatched the door and invited him to enter.
Derek shivered as the shop’s damp heat enveloped him.
“Are you able to purchase it again?”
“Well, then, I’ll show it to you only if you work for me.”
“I didn’t come to ask for a job, just to see the codex.”
“Work here and you can see the codex as much as you like.”
“But I live…out of town.”
“You can stay in the shop, but you’ll have to work quickly and carefully.” She disappeared through the curtains, then returned with the codex in her arms. “Take these gloves…and this. You know how it goes, Alwin.” She placed the codex on the counter near the dust-encrusted cash register. “Wait a moment.” She passed through the curtains.
Derek brushed a shaking finger across the codex’s rigid goatskin cover. He looked up only when he heard her voice again, behind the counter. “Here, take these materials. You know what to do.”
“No, I do not know what to do.”
“Copy the codex, any page you like, but it must be perfect. And remember, the original stays here. No ‘borrowing.’ That door over there—” she pointed to a dark corner of the shop, “just to remind you, that’s the toilet. And the teakettle’s on the table.” She turned abruptly, tossing her last words to him over her shoulder, “Make yourself useful, Alwin. You’ve been a disappointment,you know.” She stopped at the curtains partitioning the rear of the shop from the storefront. “Go on, get to work.”
Derek scarcely heard her. Placing inks and parchment sheets she gave him next to the codex, he opened the tome to a familiar page and studied the text. Hours went by as Derek dug into the strange words and traced images of dancers among odd foliage with his swathed fingertip before copying them onto the fresh parchment. He did not notice the waxing and waning of daylight, nor the light footsteps of the woman when she brought him a sandwich or a cup of tea now and then.
The tea often turned cold; sandwiches went stale. Derek’s journey through the codex absorbed all his attention. The woman tapped him on the shoulder.
“That’s enough for now. Would you like to freshen up, Alwin?”
“I guess…but, my name is Derek. ”
“Follow me, Alwin.”
She did not correct herself and led him through the curtains into a space splendid with summer sunlight pouring through a skylight. Looking through the glazing that took up most of the ceiling, Derek felt as if he were seeing blue skies and passing clouds for the first time.
The woman led him across a colorful carpeted floor, past a broad mahogany table laden with immense volumes, to an adjacent room, tiled and fitted with fine porcelain fixtures, including a shower enclosure. A long, thick towel and a black robe hung on pegs next to the enclosure.
Odd, he thought, shouldn’t a bathroom have a mirror?
“While you’re bathing, Alwin, I’ll tidy your clothes. Leave them in this basket, just outside the door.”
“M yname is Derek.”
Without acknowledging the correction, the pale woman left him and closed the door.
After Derek finished his shower, dried off, and put on the soft, long robe, he knocked on the door and called out, “I’m done.”
He heard her voice, at some distance, perhaps up front. “Hurry up. Your clean clothes are in the basket, Alwin.”
Derek shook his head. When would she cease her delusional behavior? He opened the door and found his clothes cleaned, pressed, and mended. He dressed. Back in what he assumed was the woman’s apartment, he waited for her return. Minutes ticked by. Hearing nothing, he strolled around the room, noting the absence of a bed, a stove, even cupboards. Odd. Maybe she doesn’t live here. Then he remembered the big table laden with handwritten books. Of course, this part of the shop served as her office.
Derek lingered by the table. With a sharp intake of breath, he stared at the books.They were, indeed, familiar. Each one was another “V” Codex, identical to each other and to the book he’d been working on. He felt heat rise to his face. He banged his clenched fist on the table. How dare she do this to him, after all the work he’d done on… He paused, took a deep breath, and opened one of the volumes, to his favorite page. Empty. Only the first few pages were filled with text and images. He opened the next volume, and the next. All nearly the same,partially inscribed and illustrated to various extents.
Counterfeit! He’d been working on a counterfeit. The woman had deceived him. Derek fumed and paced around the room. No, he railed to himself, he had deceived himself, blinded by his foolish quest. He stormed into the storefront.
No one was there. His “V” Codex was locked in the vitrine and the “Closed” sign hung from a nail on the door.
“Hello, Miss? Are you there?”
No answer. The lights were off and a thin layer of dust covered the vitrine’s top pane. How could that be, he wondered. He’d been working on the codex and left it out only a short while ago. He noted a musty smell in the air and shrugged, realizing he was so engrossed he hadn’t notice the decay around him.
Derek decided to leave. Why not use the nice toilet in the office before he gave up on this place? He parted the curtains. A grimy, blank wall stood behind them. Confused, Derek stepped back, then turned to the door hiding the old toilet closet. He opened the door and pulled a cord to turn on the light. Click. Dim light from a small bulb high in the ceiling helped him locate a toilet. On the wall over the toilet tank hung a mirror. He peered in, to tidy his hair. He screamed.
An old man stared back at him. Alwin. Derek tapped the mirror. His finger met that of the reflected image. Alwin. Panicked, Derek smashed the mirror with his fist and ran bleeding from the closet. Reaching the front door, he twisted the knob,but the door held fast. He was locked in.
Looking around, his eyes fell once more on the fake codex. Removing his shoe, Derek smashed the vitrine, then grabbed the codex with his bloody hand. With his other hand, he opened the cash register, took a fistful of bills, and turned to leave. Heedless of the stains spreading across its cover, he slammed the book into the door until, weakened by repeated blows, it swung open.
Derek ran out into the street, the codex under one arm. A taxi pulled up. He slid in and gave the driver directions.
The pale woman stood under a lamppost twirling a set of keys around her thin wrist.A vague smile twisted her lips as she watched Derek run unseeing past her and heading, she assumed, far from the city of Q—. “He’ll be back,” she sighed.