It was an odd store, no address, the storefront not much wider than its ancient door. Dirt streaks spread across the little window, and Mason Fairfax couldn’t see inside. A card at the base of the window read Curios in hand-drawn letters.
Squinting in the high June sun, he couldn’t recall ever seeing this place, but it was easy to miss. There were hundreds of anonymous doors on the north side of Chicago.
Mason grabbed the brass doorknob and pushed open the heavy wood door. Cool air and a musty smell greeted him, the aroma of old things and the promise of interesting finds. He closed the door and paused. A meager shaft of light angled through the front window and it took a few moments for his eyes to adjust in the dim surroundings.
The place was wider than it had appeared from outside. He couldn’t tell how far back it went; the room receded into thick darkness. Furniture appeared from the shadows, along with items arranged on shelves, hanging on the walls, mounded in peculiar ramparts leaning in every direction. Mason recognized a violin, a clock, mirrors, and a telephone switchboard.
An old cash register sat on an ancient desk. Boxes of rolled papers, perhaps posters or maps, covered the top of an upright piano. And there were hundreds of books, stacked on everything, standing on shelves, piled in cartons.
He picked one from the closest box: The Space Between Thoughts by Augustus Martelle. He looked at the title page and saw the date 1209. Shaking his head, he took another: Patterns of Planetary Influence by Sibelia Van Nitak. The book had been published in 1050.
For printed and bound books, neither date was possible, as far as Mason knew. Gutenberg had perfected the printing press in 1454, so these books had to be reprints or reproductions of some kind, even though both claimed to be first editions. He replaced the books and stepped to a nearby case loaded with things. A stuffed raven gazed down at him from the top shelf.
Mason grasped a metal cup, tarnished and worn from use. It had no markings, but it seemed to emanate energy. As he studied the cup, a voice came from across the shop. “It was kind of you to stop in. Can I help you with anything?”
Mason turned and met the eyes of a smiling, white-haired man. Mason said, “Good afternoon. I’m just browsing at the moment.” He set the cup back on the shelf.
“Quite an interesting piece, that one,” the old man said. “It’s from the Middle East and about two thousand years old.”
A flash of recognition went through Mason’s mind and he glanced again at the vessel. A holy cup? He dismissed the thought. Returning his gaze to the proprietor, he said, “I’ve never noticed this shop. How long has it been here?”
“I couldn’t say. I wasn’t at the opening.”
Mason studied the man. Despite the full head of white hair, he didn’t look old. But he was not a young man, either. Tall and thin, he had blue eyes that sparkled even in the dim light of the shop.
“You certainly have an amazing selection of items, especially books.”
The old man smiled. “Without books, there is no life.” As Mason contemplated those words, the proprietor reached across a stack of books and switched on a desk lamp. He looked up at Mason and his smile faded. He stared at Mason and said, “I couldn’t see your face. My apologies. I’ve been expecting you. Follow me.”
The old man beckoned and started toward the back of the store. Stunned, Mason did not move. “Expecting me? Why would . . .”
The proprietor stopped and turned. “I’ll explain. Please, come with me.”
The old man began walking again and Mason went after him, hurrying to catch up. The proprietor moved with agility belying his years, a sense of urgency in his steps. They followed a twisting path through the store, passing unrecognizable things, ancient contraptions, crates of strange gadgets fading into the shadows. The shop was much larger than it had looked from outside. They seemed to cover a distance of tens of yards as they turned corners and wended their way into the depths of the store. Mason glimpsed a pair of eyes in the shadows, glowing like emeralds. A cat?
After several minutes, they stopped at a door in a concrete wall. A solitary light shone down on it from an ornate fixture. The old man produced keys from his pocket, selected one and unlocked the door. He opened it slowly and they went through, encountering a stairway dropping into a sea of gloom.
Without hesitating, the old man started down the steps. Mason paused at the top of the stairs. When the door closed behind him, it made him jump and he followed the old man down. Their footsteps echoed off the walls.
The stairway turned twice as they descended, first to the left, then right. Small light fixtures on the concrete walls threw feeble illumination on the steps. Mason gripped the railing to keep his balance. After going down what seemed like two floors, there was another door. The proprietor unlocked it and they emerged into a large, dim space. Mason heard distant mechanical sounds and what might have been water flowing. The air was cold and he shivered.
“This way.” The old man gestured to the right and they walked along a brick wall, proceeding about thirty yards, where they reached another door. Mason glanced down and realized they’d been walking along a railroad track, embedded in the concrete floor. The old man opened the door and went in. Mason stopped, a sudden wash of fear rippling through his gut. I shouldn’t have come down here.
The old man said, “There is no reason to be afraid. Please come in.”
Mason glanced around. The rails in the floor vanished into the shadows. And still, he heard the faraway thrumming of machines. He eased through the door, and the old man turned on a light at the same time.
It was a small office, almost military in appearance: a desk and two chairs in the center of the room. The old man went around the desk and sat, gesturing that Mason should occupy the other chair on the near side of the desk. He lowered himself into the chair and peered around the room.
Filing cabinets lined the walls. Mason noticed that most of the cabinets were metal, brown or dark green, but there were several in one corner made of wood, clearly older than the others. Every cabinet was secured with a heavy padlock. He stared at the old man.
The white-haired gentleman made a pleasant smile and extended his hand. “I’m the Storekeeper, Dr. Fairfax.”
Mason shook his hand. The old man’s grip was solid.
“How do you know my name?”
“I’ve been expecting you, but you’re late.”
Mason frowned. “What is this about?”
“I have something for you.” The old man opened a drawer in the desk and produced a small wooden box which he placed on the desk between them. The box had brass hinges and corners, and there was a round combination lock on its face.
Mason said, “You must have me confused with someone else. I didn’t even know this place was here until today, and I decided to come in only a minute beforehand.” He shrugged. “I like old things. I’m only looking for something I might add to my collection.”
Again, the grandfatherly smile as the Storekeeper pushed the box toward Mason. “You must take this with you.”
Gazing at the box, Mason said, “What’s in it?”
“I didn’t place the contents there.”
Mason shook his head. “I don’t understand. What am I supposed to do?”
The old man’s face darkened. “Matters of serious concern are involved.”
At that, Mason was even more mystified. “I can see that a numerical combination is required to open this box. Do you have the combination?”
“You will have to find the combination yourself.”
“What? How in the world . . .”
The old man nodded. “That’s correct, Dr. Fairfax. How in the world, indeed.”
Mason gazed at him. The Storekeeper’s glittering blue eyes were calm, devoid of guile or malice. Mason studied the box as thoughts rolled through his mind. He had to know more.
He picked up the box, gingerly, as if it might spring open. It was not heavy, and he turned it around in his hands, noting the old, dark wood and its wriggling grain. The brass hardware was tarnished, but otherwise unremarkable. The combination lock on the front dial had digits from zero through twenty. He spun the dial and shook the box. Something rustled inside. Placing the box back on the desk, Mason said, “This is very strange. Surely you can understand why I would say that.”
The Storekeeper nodded, and for several moments he said nothing. A look of resignation, almost sadness, passed over his face and he said, “Events are moving rapidly. Time is short. I must know that you will do what is necessary.”
“Tell me more.”
“Everything you need to know is inside the box.” The Storekeeper pointed at Mason with a steady hand. “You must take it from here, open it, and proceed.”
Mason frowned and the old man continued. “Dr. Fairfax, you teach history at a university, you’ve written dozens of papers upsetting the paradigms of established thought, you’ve traveled the planet on numerous expeditions.”
He paused, seemingly searching for the right words. The blue sparkle of his eyes turned to steel. “And, you are needed.” The Storekeeper placed his hand gently on the box. “Right now, nothing could be more important.”
“Who are you?” Mason’s eyes narrowed. “I mean, who really are you?”
The old man waved his hand upward in the general direction of the shop. “I run the store.”
As if that explained it. “Ambiguity reigns.”
The old man smiled. “Yes it does, Dr. Fairfax. I’m pleased that you finally understand.”
He didn’t understand. If anything, he was more confused than ever as he lifted the box once again. At this, the Storekeeper seemed to relax. He stood and motioned for Mason to do likewise.
They left the office, walked along the rails, and went through a door which Mason thought would bring them to the stairway. Instead, they emerged directly into the store. He went after the Storekeeper, and in only a few moments they were at the front of the shop. Mason looked around in disbelief.
Eyes twinkling, the old man smiled. “Things are rarely what they seem.”
Mason could only shake his head as he glanced at the heaps of fantastic items. In the shadows, a pair of little green eyes held his gaze for a moment. He had a thousand questions. “The books,” was all he could manage to say.
“Oh yes, it’s quite a collection,” said the Storekeeper. “Nothing but first editions.”
“But, what about . . .”
“Gutenberg?” The old man seemed to be reading his mind. “He was a gentleman in every sense of the word. But not the first to print.” Mason peered at the old man and the impossible library scattered around the shop. He looked down at the wooden box. The Storekeeper opened the front door and said, “Thank you, Dr. Fairfax. Please remember that time is short.”
Before he could respond, Mason found himself on the city sidewalk, the mysterious box in hand. Afternoon light painted the little storefront, numberless and ambiguous, in a golden glow. Mason saw the Storekeeper watching him through the dusty glass.
A black cat appeared in the window and climbed into the Storekeeper’s arms. The two of them seemed to converse. As Mason was about to leave, the cat nodded at him. A second later, the old man turned and disappeared into the shadows.
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