The Book Assassin

This week’s challenge over at Chuck Wendig’s Terrible Minds blog is to randomly choose three things from three different lists and create a 1,000 word story with them.

I got a library, an assassin, and a bomb. It’s nice when things work out.

The Book Assassin

Some books were never meant to be written.

Quarto reflected on this as he tightened his cloak around his shoulders. The rain was steady, but his hat and cloak were thick and waterproof. Rainwater filled the gaps in the cobblestone streets, and darkened the facades of the ancient buildings which grew ever more ancient as Quarto made his way deeper into the narrow alleyways. Finally he stood before a door. He knocked firmly with a gloved hand.

The man who answered appeared elderly, but opened the heavy door with little effort. He regarded Quarto for only a moment, then stepped back to allow him to pass through the doorway.

“Greetings,” said Quarto. “A pleasant evening.”

“Indeed,” said the man who had opened the door. “May I take your things?”

Quarto removed his dripping hat and cloak, and handed them to the man.

“Your boots and bag as well,” he said.

“My boots?” said Quarto.

“Our collections here are quite precious,” said the man. “Priceless, and irreplaceable, and quite delicate. We do what we can to keep out the mud and rain.”

“I understand,” said Quarto. He placed his boots by the entrance and, removing his notebook from his leather satchel, handed that over as well. The man took them, then disappeared into an adjoining cloakroom. As he turned Quarto noted the brief flash of steel beneath his formal jacket.

“This way,” the man said when he returned.

He led Quarto down a narrow corridor. It was longer than seemed possible from outside, and although they were sloping beneath the level of the streets, the passage was warm and dry.

They reached another heavy door, and the man knocked twice. There was the sound of heavy bolts being drawn, and this door, too, swung open for him. The man who escorted him down the hallway gestured for him to enter, but did not enter with him.

Instead, when the door had closed behind him, a young woman approached. “Welcome to our reading room,” she said. “I trust you had no trouble finding us.”

“The instructions were quite clear,” said Quarto. “And I thank you for the invitation.”

“It is not every day we get a request from a professor as distinguished as yourself,” she said.

“You flatter me,” said Quarto.

“You flatter us by your request,” said the woman. “Although, your request is rare, even for us.”

“I imagine that is quite the statement,” said Quarto.

“I do not make it lightly,” said the woman.

Quarto followed her to a small private room. “You will be here,” she said. “We keep our most precious items separate from the main reading room, to better protect them from harm.”

“I understand,” said Quarto.

“Please take a seat,” said the woman. “I will bring you the book you have requested shortly.”

“Thank you,” said Quarto. The woman nodded, then disappeared.

She returned a few minutes later, wearing white gloves and carrying the book carefully before her.

“Please,” she said, nodding towards a similar pair of gloves on the table. He put them on, and she placed the book on the table.

“Take all the time you need,” she said. “Do not leave this book unattended. If you require something, please press the button,” she pointed to a black button set in a brass plate, “and I will be here.” She stepped back from the table. “I hope you find what you’re looking for,” she said.

Quarto nodded, and she was gone. He turned to the book that had been placed before him.

He examined the cover and the binding, ancient leather stiffened with age and drawn tight at the corners. Quarto suspected he knew what kind of leather it was, but no matter. It was not the first time he had seen a volume bound in human skin.

It was old, of that he had no doubt. Maybe even old enough.

He turned to the title page, printed by press 2,000 years before Gutenberg, on a different continent. He read only enough to ensure he had the right book, then quickly closed it.

He was careful never to read the books he was hired to kill.

He sat quietly for an hour, occasionally turning the pages in his notebook, just in case someone was listening, which was quite possible in this most secret of libraries. Another hour.

Then from seemingly nowhere he drew a razor blade, and made a tiny incision in the book’s endpaper.

From his notebook he took a small piece of folded paper, careful not to spill the powder inside.

He removed his glove and licked a fingertip. Wetting the piece of folded paper, he took a small vial from his shirt pocket. From it he sprinkled a different powder on the paper, then refolded it and carefully slid it into the space created by his incision. He wetted his finger again and pressed the slit closed, uncomfortable touching the book directly but having little choice. Then he closed it, picked it up, and shook it gently.

He waited another hour, then pressed the bell. Instantaneously the woman appeared at his shoulder.

“You are finished?” she said.

“I am.”

“Did you find what you needed?”

Quarto stood up. “Time will tell,” he said.

She took the book away, and his escort reappeared. He led Quarto back down the corridor to the foyer, where he returned his hat, cloak, his boots and his bag. In a few moments he was once again on the cobblestone streets, walking in the rain.

Quarto thought for a moment about the book he had condemned to death. It would take months, if not years, for the chemical bomb he had triggered to complete its reaction and turn the vellum pages to dust. But libraries were nothing if not places where time ticked steadily on, where tomes waited patiently for years, centuries perhaps, for the right reader to pull them from the shelves.

By then he would be long gone, too.

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