Authors: D D Everest
t was beginning to get dark outside number three, Crabgate Cottages. Under the lamplight, Archie stared at the contents of the open wooden box in his lap. His nose was immediately overcome with a tickling sensation that exploded into a sneeze. Dust. The box was full of a talcum-powder-fine layer of white dust.
When the particles cleared Archie peered inside. The box did not contain any great treasure – no jewel encrusted dagger or gold coins or anything else exciting or dangerous.
‘What is it, Archie?’ Gran asked. She was still standing in the kitchen doorway.
‘It’s a book,’ he mumbled. ‘An old book.’
‘I thought it might be,’ she said, with a resigned look on her face. ‘Who did you say delivered it?’
‘Some law firm or other.’
Gran’s expression turned more anxious. ‘What law firm?’
‘I don’t know,’ Archie replied, distracted. ‘Just some law firm in London.’
Gran’s voice was sharp which meant she was worried. ‘What was the firm called?’
‘Oh, er, yeah. He said it was the oldest law firm in England. That’s right. Two names. Very
.’ Archie tried to recall his conversation on the doorstep. ‘Something and Catchpole.’
‘Folly! Folly & Catchpole.’
‘Yes, that sounds right,’ Archie nodded. ‘Why, do you know who it’s from?’
Gran looked thoughtful. ‘No,’ she said. ‘I thought I might but I don’t. I was half expecting a book, but not this one. If it came from Folly & Catchpole it could be very important and very serious. Did this man give you anything else? Like a … letter, for example?’
Archie shook his head. ‘Just the package.’
‘Hmmm,’ Gran muttered. ‘That’s strange. Oh well, I’m sure it will all make sense later. And of course, you’ve always loved books.’
It was true; Archie had always loved books. His gran said it was in his blood. But he had never seen a book quite like this one before. There was something very mysterious about it. It was as if it came from another time and place.
‘What sort of book is it?’ Gran asked.
Archie looked at the book’s cover and realised that he couldn’t read the title. He rubbed his eyes and looked again. The letters seemed vaguely familiar but every time he tried to put them together to make words, they became indistinct and blurred. It was almost as if they were moving – going in and out of focus so he could never quite see them clearly. It must be the dust in my eyes, he thought. He squeezed his eyes closed, and shook his head to clear it.
When he looked again, the letters appeared bright and clear for a moment but just as he began to decipher them, they faded once more into the background of the dark cover. He turned his head to read the book’s spine but it was blank.
The odd thing was that Archie had the feeling that the writing was somehow familiar, in a peculiar, just-out-of-reach way, like something he knew but couldn’t quite recall.
He reached forward and touched the book for the first time. As his fingers grazed the cover, a sharp pain shot up his arm. He pulled back his hand in surprise.
‘What is it?’ Gran asked.
‘Dunno,’ Archie said, staring at his hand. ‘It felt like an electric shock.’
Tentatively, he reached for the book again and wrapped his hand around the spine. Thankfully, this time there was no shock and he lifted it free from its wooden box. The book was surprisingly light, and bound in a dark leather cover that was stained with age. In one corner it had been scorched with fire, as if someone had tried to burn it and then thought better of it. This would explain the smell of wood smoke.
Archie tried to open the book. But its cover was locked with a silver clasp etched with a strange symbol. Archie thought it resembled a matchstick person wearing a crescent moon crown with talons for feet.
He dug his fingernails under the silver clasp and pulled with all his might, but the clasp was securely fastened. He peered at the lock. When he turned a dial, different icons appeared in a small window. It reminded Archie of the mechanism on an old-fashioned safe. The trouble was that he didn’t know the right combination. He turned the
dial clockwise until it made a loud click. A picture of a tree with a bolt of lightning appeared in the window, but the clasp was still shut tight. He turned it until it clicked again. This time a smiling skull appeared in the window, but the clasp would not budge.
Archie turned the clasp once more and a crystal ball appeared. ‘Come on, open,’ he muttered under his breath.
With a dry click like snapping bone, the clasp sprang open. As it did Archie caught a whiff of something sweet, like vanilla, and he thought he heard something. It sounded like an intake of breath, the sort a swimmer might make on surfacing after being underwater for a long time. If he hadn’t known better, Archie might have thought it came from the book itself. He put his ear to the leather cover. Silence.
olding his breath, Horace Catchpole slowly unrolled the scroll, taking care not to tear it. The parchment was dry and brittle and he knew that it was very delicate. As he unwound it, his eyes were fixed on the writing that gradually came into view. Horace gave a start. It was written in the alphabet of the Magi, a language used by magicians and alchemists. There were few people left who could decipher it. Certainly the boy would not have been able to, but fortunately for Archie Greene, Horace Catchpole could: Folly & Catchpole specialised in rare languages.
Horace was feeling better about his decision already. His language skills may have been a bit rusty, but he was determined to right his wrong and give the boy the translation. Taking out the pen and notepad he kept in his breast pocket,
Horace began to translate a message that had not been seen for centuries. By the time he had finished it was very late.
Archie was just dozing off to sleep when he heard the commotion outside. It sounded as if someone had run into a dustbin in the dark at high speed – and that was because someone had. There was a howl of pain and a crash as the wheelie bin went over. Then a brief silence and a scraping sound as the bin was picked up again, followed by a loud knocking on the door.
By the time Archie had thrown on his dressing gown and raced downstairs, Gran was already at the front door and framed in the doorway was a very out of breath Horace Catchpole.
‘That’s him!’ Archie cried. ‘That’s the man who delivered the package!’
‘Yes … yes …’ wheezed Horace, bent double to catch his breath. ‘I have to … tell you … something … I have a message …’ he panted.
Gran looked from the man to her grandson.
‘I thought there was something missing,’ she said. ‘You’d better come in and explain what’s going on.’
At that moment, the grandfather clock in the corner struck midnight.
‘Oh dear, oh dear,’ muttered Horace. ‘I just hope it’s not too late.’
‘Too late for what?’ asked Gran.
‘When I delivered that parcel, I was supposed to give you a message that went with it. The instruction was very clear.’
‘This is exactly what I was worried about,’ sighed Gran. ‘Some packages have special conditions attached to them.’
‘That’s right,’ said Horace.
‘And this package is one of them,’ Gran continued.
‘Ye-es. And, well,’ Horace said, ‘the thing is, the message with this package is written in a very old language and it took me a while to translate …’
‘Really … ?’ said Archie, suddenly very interested. ‘What does it say?’
‘It says that you have to take the contents of the package to the Aisle of White. Immediately.’
‘The Isle of Wight?’ Archie asked hopefully. ‘Gran and I went there on holiday once.’
‘Er … no, not that Isle of Wight. This Aisle of White is a bookshop in Oxford,’ Horace interjected.
‘Oxford!’ Gran muttered. ‘I might have known.’
‘Might have known what?’ Archie asked. Gran definitely knew more than she was letting on.
Gran tutted. ‘Well, I suppose you’ll find out
sooner or later. The Foxes live in Oxford – your Aunt Loretta and her brood.’
This was news to Archie. He wasn’t aware that he had any relatives except Gran.
‘The Foxes?’ he said.
Gran’s face creased. ‘Yes, Loretta and Woodbine Foxe. Sorry, I should have told you before, but it’s been difficult. Loretta is your dad’s sister.’
Archie looked shocked. ‘So, you mean she’s …’
‘Yes,’ nodded Gran. ‘She’s my daughter.’ She shook her head sadly. ‘It’s a long story … but if you’re going to Oxford then you should meet them.’ She paused, and looked at Horace. ‘I suppose he will have to go to Oxford?’
Horace nodded. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘You see it’s a Special Instruction so there’s no getting out of it. It means that whatever was in the package has to be brought on a given day …’
‘I thought so,’ said Gran, shaking her head. ‘And in this case, it is when?’
Horace gulped. ‘Er … that’s the problem, you see. This Special Instruction was for today.’
Horace glanced guiltily at the clock, which now showed just after midnight. ‘Or rather, it was for yesterday,’ he added, apologetically.
Archie took a moment to let Horace’s words sink in. ‘So, you mean we’ve missed it by a day?’ he asked. ‘Does it matter?’
‘It might matter a lot,’ Gran said, gravely.
Horace looked at the two worried faces in front of him. ‘There’s just one other thing,’ he said. ‘You didn’t open it, did you … ?’
rchie caught a bus to Oxford to find the Aisle of White. Gran had packed him off early that morning with a flask of tea and a bacon sandwich. She’d also given him a bag of clothes and suggested he might want to stay with his newfound cousins. Archie had been surprised that his usually cautious grandmother was sending him off on his own, but she had just told him that she ‘couldn’t wrap him up in cottonwool forever’.
‘And besides,’ she’d added, planting a peck on his cheek, ‘there’s something I need to take care of and it will be easier without you under my feet. Now off you go … and remember your manners.’
Gran seemed to know the Aisle of White bookshop well and had given him directions, along with the Foxes’ address and a letter of introduction
for his aunt. She’d also told him a bit about his cousins – unusual names, she said. Archie wished he could remember what they were. They sounded like something from the woods – Hedge and Ditch or something like that. Archie had wanted to ask more questions but there hadn’t been time.
It was just after noon when Archie arrived. Compared with West Wittering, Oxford felt big and full of importance. There were lots of people on bicycles whizzing around in a hurry. He walked down the high street and turned left into a large cobbled square. His directions said the Aisle of White was across the square and down some narrow lanes.
He found the old bookshop in a small courtyard, wedged between a shop selling crystals and one that hired out fancy dress costumes. It was much smaller and shabbier than either of its two neighbours.
Above the green front door, in faded white and gold paint, a sign read ‘The Aisle of White: Purveyor of Rare Books. Proprietor: Geoffrey Screech.’ Archie felt a tingle of excitement. This was definitely the place! Another sign in the shop window, written in a spidery hand, declared: ‘We Buy Rare Books. Enquire Within.’
Encouraged, Archie pushed on the green door. As it opened an old-fashioned bell clanged loudly,
announcing his arrival. He felt as though he was stepping back in time. The shop was bigger on the inside than it appeared on the outside, but it was by no means large. Dark wooden bookcases stood in columns dividing the shop into a series of passages.
Archie couldn’t imagine many people being interested in old books, so he was surprised to find three other customers queuing in front of him – a man, a woman and a girl about his own age.
The shopkeeper facing them from behind a counter was a short, rather plump woman, deep in conversation with the man at the front of the queue. The shopkeeper regarded the man, who was tall and stooped, through a pair of spectacles with lenses as thick as the bottom of beer bottles. They seemed to be having a disagreement.
The woman in the queue was fussing around the girl at her side and Archie thought from the way they were behaving that they must be mother and daughter. Not having a mother of his own, Archie tended to notice such things. The mother was tall, with jet-black hair underneath a wide-brimmed hat. The girl wore an expensive-looking green waxed-cotton coat that came to her knees and her hair was pulled back into a severe ponytail. In her hands, she was holding an old book with a cover almost as battered as Archie’s own.
No one noticed Archie because the stooping man and the shopkeeper had started to argue loudly.
‘Don’t tell me you haven’t seen it,’ the man said. ‘I tell you it’s here somewhere! We’ve been waiting a long time for that book.’
‘Well, Dr Rusp, I can only repeat what I have told you already,’ said the shopkeeper apologetically. ‘I have no idea what book you are referring to. I will talk to Geoffrey – Mr Screech, that is – when he returns and see what he says, but I can assure you that no books arrived yesterday.’
Archie gripped his book and wondered if it was the one the stooping man was expecting. He was on the point of saying something, when Dr Rusp spoke again.
‘I will have words with Screech about this!’ he growled. ‘Where is the wretched man?’
‘He … is … er … temporarily unavailable,’ the shopkeeper stammered.
‘Pah!’ spat Rusp. ‘He better have a good explanation for this outrage, or he will be permanently unavailable!’
As Dr Rusp turned abruptly and swept out of the shop, Archie hid his book behind his back. He didn’t want to hand it over to this
man. He noticed that the shopkeeper’s hands were shaking, although she tried to regain
some composure by pushing her curly hair back into the confines of its bun and attempting a smile at the mother and daughter waiting for her attention.
‘Good afternoon,’ she said.
‘We have come to see Screech,’ the other woman said forcefully. ‘He is expecting us.’ The girl didn’t look in the least bit interested and turned sulkily away from the counter, looking at Archie suspiciously as she did so.
‘As I just explained to Dr Rusp, Mr Screech is not here at the moment,’ the shopkeeper said. ‘Can I help?’
‘And who might you be?’ the girl’s mother asked with no effort to disguise her irritation.
The woman behind the counter made another attempt at a smile, but it was less convincing than the last one. ‘I am Marjorie Gudge, senior assistant to Mr Screech,’ she declared. ‘I am in charge in his absence.’
The girl’s mother frowned. ‘Well, this is most unsatisfactory. We were told that Screech would be here in person to meet us. We came yesterday but the shop was closed. It is a very important matter. I am Veronica Ripley and this is my daughter Arabella.’
Marjorie Gudge blinked nervously. ‘Oh, yes, of course I know who you are Mrs Ripley. May
I say what an honour it is to meet you and your charming daughter,’ she simpered. ‘It’s so rare that I work in the front of the shop.’
‘Yes, yes,’ said Veronica Ripley dismissively. ‘We’ve brought the book!’
Marjorie Gudge looked mystified.
‘The b-o-o-k,’ Veronica said, spelling out the letters for effect and nudging her daughter forward.
Arabella placed her book on the counter and gave a bored sigh. Marjorie Gudge picked it up and peered at it. ‘Gracious me,’ she said. ‘I wonder if that’s the book Dr Rusp was asking about?’
‘Certainly not!’ Veronica raised her voice. ‘It is for Screech. It’s a Special Instruction.’
Marjorie regarded her over the rims of her glasses. ‘I don’t know anything about that. Mr Screech keeps a log of all his appointments. Perhaps it’s in there on another day?’
She opened a leather-bound book on the counter and thumbed through the pages.
‘Ah, here is this week’s entry.’ Marjorie held the book up to her face. ‘Yes, you are correct. There’s her name, Arabella Ripley, right on yesterday’s date.’ She turned the book around so the girl and her mother could see. ‘And there’s a star next to it. Good for you!’
‘But what does that little scribble in the margin
say?’ Veronica Ripley asked. ‘Maybe it was your meeting time, darling. Arabella, can you see?’
Arabella peered at the page again. ‘It’s all crossed out,’ she whined. ‘But it looks like it says “Archie Greene”.’
Archie looked up sharply at the sound of his name.
‘Well,’ said Marjorie, shaking her head. ‘I do apologise. I will ask Mr Screech to contact you on his return, but I will have to take this book for safekeeping. It is a Special Instruction after all.’
‘This is most unsatisfactory!’ Veronica Ripley declared. ‘Have Screech call us the moment he returns. Come on Arabella,’ she sniffed. ‘We know where we’re not appreciated!’
The Ripleys stormed out, with Arabella giving Archie an evil look as she barged past.
Marjorie Gudge picked up the book on the counter and examined it. ‘It’s an almanac from 1603,’ she said to herself. ‘Well I never.’
Archie’s ears pricked up. He wondered if his book was as old as the almanac.
‘Hello,’ he said, offering a smile and holding up his book. ‘I was told to bring this here.’
Marjorie Gudge paid him no attention. The Aisle of White’s senior assistant was far more concerned with the book in her hands.
Archie cast his eyes around the bookshop.
It really was odd. The shop was lit by flickering candlelight – very atmospheric but not very helpful for reading. How anyone could possibly find what they were looking for was a mystery to Archie. There were no signs either, so he couldn’t tell where non-fiction stopped and fiction began. The shelves that formed the aisles were packed with books of all shapes and sizes, but unlike most modern books, which were designed to grab the browser’s attention, these looked like they wanted to be anonymous. Their spines all seemed the same. The titles and the names of their authors were faded.
The shop had the same aroma as his book – wood smoke, cobwebs and candle wax. Leaving Marjorie to the almanac, he was wandering down an aisle when he thought he heard something. It sounded like voices whispering, and it seemed to be coming from behind a black velvet curtain to one side of the counter. Archie leaned in closer. There it was again!
Archie peered behind the curtain. ‘Hello?’ he said. ‘Is there someone there?’
‘What’s that, dear?’ Marjorie Gudge said, noticing him for the first time.
‘I thought I heard something,’ he mumbled. ‘Never mind.’
‘Right then, what can I do for you?’
‘Er, I was told to bring this book here,’ Archie said, proudly producing his book.
‘Put it there with the other new arrivals,’ she said, indicating a cardboard box on the counter.
She slid the ledger across the counter. ‘Write down your details and Mr Screech will be in touch. Now I’d better get these down to the workshop,’ she added, picking up a pile of books.
Archie reluctantly put his book in the box just as Marjorie Gudge dropped what she’d just picked up.
‘Let me help you,’ said Archie, bending down.
‘They’ve got to go downstairs to be mended,’ Marjorie said.
‘I can carry them if you want?’ Archie offered.
‘That’s very kind, dear,’ she replied. ‘It’s nice to meet a kind customer for a change.’ She tugged the velvet curtain to one side, and bustled through the opening.
‘This way,’ she called over her shoulder.
Archie scooped up as many of the tatty books as he could carry and followed Marjorie down a dark passage lit by flickering candlelight. Her ringlets cast bobbing shadows on the wall.
When they reached the end of the passage, Marjorie took a lantern from a shelf and balanced it on top of the pile of books in his arms.
‘Careful,’ she cautioned, pointing to a long spiral
staircase leading downwards. ‘It’s a bit steep.’
‘Thanks,’ Archie said, peering around the lantern and down the stairs.
‘Take the books to Old Zeb – third door on the right,’ she said, giving him a meaningful look. ‘Remember that – it’s important. You don’t want to be getting lost down there.’
‘Third door on the right,’ Archie repeated. ‘Old Zeb. Got it.’
At the bottom of the stairs, Archie found himself in another long and even dimmer corridor. The air smelled earthy and damp, and by the light of his lantern he could see three tall, arched
doors like the ones he’d expect to find in a castle. Each door was a different colour. The first door was green. The second door was blue. The third door was red. Outside each door a flaming torch was set in an iron bracket mounted on the wall, giving off the pungent aroma of burning asphalt.
Archie was beginning to have second thoughts. He felt butterflies in his stomach and his mouth was dry but his curiosity was increasing with every step. He wondered where Marjorie Gudge was sending him.
‘The third door,’ he said to himself under his breath. He began to count as he passed them. ‘One, two …’ He was about to move down the
corridor when he thought he heard a deep cracking noise, like ice breaking on a frozen lake. It seemed to be coming from behind the blue door. The air gusting from under the door felt like an arctic chill, but when he put his ear to it there was only silence.
Archie quickly walked on. The third door was slightly ajar. Archie eased it open with his elbow. ‘Uh … Old Zeb?’ he called.
‘Yeeees?’ said a wheezy, high-pitched voice.