Edmund was not his real name.
The young man was a librarian by trade, although one wouldn’t know it by looking at him. He wore a double-breasted gray suit, his neck swathed in a long black scarf. In his hand he held an elaborate pocket watch, which he was studying closely. He was standing outside a wrought-iron gate in a slum of Paris in the middle of the night.
He watched as two drunkards across the street stumbled out of what was casually known as a “night cafe.” He eyed them nervously, gripping his walking stick tightly as they walked away.
‘Edmund’ gulped and wiped his brow with a clean handkerchief before checking his pocketwatch again.
The young man was tantalized by the night cafe: the fact that on one side of the street was a deep soul-slavery, while on his side - under a flickering yellow lamp - was freedom... at least for those who could find it.
12 o’clock midnight.
Edmund heard the click from the wrought iron gate, and then began to fiddle with a difficult-to-see combination lock.
He quickly scrambled with the lock, his fingers sweating, and inputted 6, 15, 24, and pushed. As expediently as he had entered, Edmund closed the gate fast behind him, giving it a few tugs to make sure the lock was engaged.
Under the night sky, the garden had both a threatening and romantic feel to it. Several large trees lent their hanging leaves and fruits to the few who could find them as little lightning bugs darted between the tall grasses that lined the slowly churning stream that ran through the secret garden.
Edmund bent down to examine the cobblestones in front of him and put on his specially-made spectacles.
“Good,” he murmured to himself after an examination. “No sign of them.”
He found himself wishing that the gate would allow itself to be opened at twelve-noon instead of midnight as he walked among the lush greenery. How beautiful it would be, Edmund thought before reminding himself why he was there. He stepped over a bridge spanning the little stream and was presented with the shop he had been searching for for years.
Amidst the verdant foliage, a quaint and charming shop emerged like a hidden gem. Its façade was adorned with creeping vines and ivy, a sign that it was much, much older than he had been led to believe. A sign above the entrance read, "Exquisitely Rare Books," inviting the curious and the curiouser to step inside and explore the wonders within.
Edmund carefully opened the front door of the strange little shop, stopping the bell above from announcing his arrival. In spite of that, he heard an old-sounding voice from deeper within.
“Hello! I am so glad someone had found my clues. It has been such a long... long time since I have had any customers.”
The interior of the shop was warm, but the little electrical lights were just a little too faint. Edmund looked around for the source of the voice, but could not discover its origin.
“Yes, delighted,” Edmund said, glad to hear that no one else had been in the store for ‘a long time.’
“Help yourself, lad,” the voice responded. Edmund looked over the bookshelves to see if he could see where the shopkeep was, but could not. “If you need any assistance, please don’t hesitate to ask.”
Edmund put on his spectacles again and lit a match. The voice again pervaded the store.
“No flames, please!” The clerk’s voice said calmly yet commandingly. Edmund blew out his match and put it in a convenient ash tray.
The book Edmund was looking for was definitely worth all the fuss. He passed by several first editions and original manuscripts of books that lesser librarians could only have dreamed of seeing as he walked further and further into the shelves. There was an original Leonardo diagram of some device that the young man couldn’t reckon, followed by a translation of a chapter of the Codex Seraphim and the Chronicles of the Starless Abyss.
Books that lesser book collectors would have leapt at without searching deeper.
Farther back, farther back, into the recesses of the place. He found a spiral iron staircase and began to ascend. The Atlas Obscura was there at the landing, along with The Lost Apocrypha and the only known copy of the Crystal Codex, made completely out of diamond.
The lights were dimmer back here than on the first floor, and even Edmund’s special glasses were not helping him.
“Excuse me?” He called out to the ever-darkening gloom. “Is there any chance of making this place brighter?”
The clerk responded with Edmund’s true name and a little speech about the ‘romantic promise of darkness.’ That phrase stuck in Edmund’s mind - part of a poem from the book he was in search of.
The young librarian sighed. “Nevermind,” Edmund called out to the gloom. I’ve gotten this far, he thought. Even if I have to camp out here until daybreak to see what I’m doing, it’ll be worth it. He clutched his walking stick. Perhaps I could even stave off the clerk until morning as well.
“I think you’ll find that daylight won’t help you here,” the clerk suddenly said, somewhere in the dark. Edmund didn’t respond, but instead intensified his focus in order to read the names on the spines of the ever-twisting rows of books. That’s what struck Edmund the most about the place: it was becoming less and less organized as he went forward with priceless books and tomes spilling onto the floor.
Picking one up, he saw that it had a title that shocked him so much that it caused him - a man of many meticulous and despicable crimes - to throw it to the ground in disgust. Another book sent a river of tremulous thoughts through his brain. Yet another title seemed to throw the entire worldview of a major religion into question.
Focus, focus, he said to himself as he walked deeper and deeper into the bookstore... or whatever it was. The darkness was now intense, but somehow Edmund could read the titles on the various slumping bookshelves.
What Edmund was looking for was far more disturbing than these, however.
He stepped over a pile of parchment and squeezed between two bookshelves at the very back of the second floor when he saw it: A knee-high gap in the wall with red light pouring out of it. Getting on his knees and pushing the piles of papers away, he peered into the gap. A few more books fell in his way as he crawled forward - scrolls and even a few pages of forgotten minuets by Mozart began to fall in front of him, but he was not deterred.
At the end of the crawlspace, he could see a lone book in the distance. Continually pushing the books and pages that were falling in front of his path away, he crawled forward. The space itself narrowed and narrowed, the source of the red light not able to be determined, the book seemingly retreating.
He pulled himself by the carpet of the infernal space along with the forward motion of his knees to finally claw his way to the large, eight-hundred-or-so leatherbound tome and brought it close.
Edmund’s black hair was now in complete disarray as he stood, kicking the other things away from his feet. A few were scrolls of ancient papyrus, their pages singed by a great fire from long ago.
“Did you find what you were searching for?” The voice of the clerk behind him asked. Edmund continued forward.
“Yes I did,” Edmund said carefully. “Thank you v-very much.”
Clomp, clomp, shuffle, shuffle. Edmund was still struggling to hold onto the tome as more and more books and parchments fell at his feet from unseen shelves.
“Very interesting work,” the voice behind him said, growing fainter.
“Yes, yes it is,” Edmund said.
“I notice that you were not enticed by the other works you passed by on your way to that one.”
Edmund gulped, being careful to be polite and yet not looking behind him. “They are wonderful books as-as well,” he said. Up ahead was the faint orange glow coming from the candles on the first floor. He reached the guard rail of the spiral staircase and gripped it tightly.
“You are a special customer, that is for sure,” the voice said again.
Edmund made his way to the first floor, still clutching his find in his arms.
“You a-are too kind,” he said, calling up the stairs, still not looking behind him. “H-how much?” He asked as he trundled across the much brighter, much more comforting first floor.
There was no answer at first.
“You know the price,” the voice called down in a sly tone.
Edmund pushed the door open, not caring this time if the bell made a noise.
After a moment, the forgotten and concealed bookstore returned to its state of hush and silence. Every once in a while there was a shuffling noise upstairs, but otherwise there was no movement. When the sun came up, the trees outside blocked the light from entering fully.
The shadows from the branches of the willows outside danced strange dances on the floor within.