The Black Book Copyright ÂŠ 2011 by AJ Kirby All rights reserved. No part of this story (eBook) may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without written permission of the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or book reviews. This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidences are either a product of the authorâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to any actual person, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. Published by TWB Press Edited by Terry Wright Cover Art by Terry Wright ISBN 978-1-96991-28-0
By AJ Kirby
The postman always squeaks twice. Once as he grumbles and pushes open the gate at the top of the path, which winds down to the front door while he struggles under the weight of his sack; the second time a more light on its feet kind of squeak after he’s deposited the heavy parcels in the metal box by the side of my door. The second squeak is usually the one loud enough to tug me out of my reverie and bring me downstairs from my eyrie at the top of the house. I suppose it is a primitive form of communication. I’m in no hurry, giving the postman enough time to get himself fully away from my property in order that there is no chance we’ll have
to engage in conversation other than the simple squeaking of gates and my slippered tread on the winding stairs by way of a response. Because mornings are my reading time, I’m generally wearing my silk dressing gown, which led to a few awkward exchanges when the postman first took on this route, and he’d persisted in hammering away at the door until I came down, whereupon he’d give my apparent state of undress the critical eye as he passed over to me the parcels of the day. If I were to critically appraise his performance, I’d say that the dirty-orange waist-coated man became obsessed with discovering what form of work I might undertake, which allowed me to work from home, in informal dress, seven days a week, fifty two weeks a year. Or in putting his grubby finger on the answer to the question of whether I was a common or garden sponger, on the long-term sick, or a more refined sort, independently wealthy. Given the fact he’d seen my house, I’m sure he’d have opted for the latter. Still, he asked me all sorts of leading questions such as “not in the office again?” or “off sick, is it, sir?” or “I’d love to be able to work from home. How do you find it?” And I’d have to respond, by saying something like, “oh, it’s not all it’s cracked up to be,” or “I’ve not had a sick day in thirty years,” or “my home is my office.” One day he dropped my name, Oliver Capstick, into the conversation, and that was the day I knew I had to put an end to his
prying. Hence the metal box I installed by the door. Hence my loitering as I reach the first floor landing. That surreptitious look out through the curtains, just to check he’d really gone. My pause at the foot of the second stairs to give my cat, Milton, a little tickle behind the ears. The slow struggle with the gaoler’s set of keys as I open the front door. Used to be that this was a real struggle. My fingers would be sticky-hot with anticipation of the treats which would be in store for me when I finally worked the lock and checked the box outside. Used to be I’d barely be able to contain myself. Now the struggle’s as much for habit’s sake as anything else. Milton, I fear, knows this, and he snakes in and out of my legs, hankering after another stroke of my hand. I won’t give him one though. I won’t spoil him. And besides, bending my body so that I can reach down as far as his fur is becoming something of a feat these days, given my paunch, and to do so twice in so quick succession after my ‘foot of the stairs ear-tickle’ causes my head to become bloody and blurry. One of these days, I’ll reach down for Milton and I won’t be able to get back up again. I’ll tumble head-first into hell. Once I’ve unlocked the front door, I tug it back and this always causes Milton to scurry away behind the large spider plant. He’s an outdoor cat, but he’s remarkably afraid of the outdoors. It makes him jumpy, growly. Back when I used to wait for the postman, Milton used to greet his arrival with a real guard dog growl, despite being a tabby
cat. I’m inclined to psychoanalyse Milton’s response to visitors, any visitors, as a kind of aping of mine, which makes me a little sad because of what it says about me, but there’s no changing him now. It’s become his nature. Outside it is April, which vaguely surprises me. Funny how time flies. Seems like only a few days ago, I’d feel the bite of frost on my bare legs, feel it icing through my dressing gown. How everything looked sharp and crisp. Now it’s grey and showery and uneven around the edges. Generally, I have no hope for the contents of the parcels on days like this. Still, I shuffle off the front step and make for the metal box because it’s what I do. I produce the tiny key on the lanyard round my neck, and I perform the merry dance of tickling it into the keyhole. My postman is the only other human being in the world who has a key to this box. He’s been very diligent about locking it after I left him that terse note a few weeks back. After a few false starts, key fits lock, and I hear a satisfying clunk as the internal mechanism releases the clasp. I prise the box open and take a deep breath, look inside. Today, there are six...no, seven parcels, in a variety of sizes, though all are roughly similar. Most are packaged in those chubby postpacks, though I smell blood when I see a couple have been shoved inside simple brown envelopes and have no bubble wrap with which to protect their contents.
Even before I open these packages, I know they’ll be from the smaller type of publishing house, the type which doesn’t deserve my critical attention. It’s an instinct I’ve honed over the years. These days I’ve gone beyond judging a book by its cover; I judge it by its brown wrapping paper. I’ll carry all of the packages inside, but those two packs, from the publishing houses which couldn’t even be bothered to shell out the requisite cash to ensure their product reaches me in tip-top condition, will be straight for the cardboard and paper trash bin in the kitchen. I won’t even bother unwrapping them. Hands laden, overflowing with the parcels, as though I’m a grumpy Santa Claus four months past his sell-by date, I head back into the house. Dump them all on the breakfast bar in the centre of the kitchen. What I do next is I let them find their own kind of order on the bar, while I make busy with the percolator and chopping up some of the steak I’d fried earlier, and which has now cooled enough so that Milton’ll be able to eat it without thinking that its warmth suggests it is alive. Only once the coffee has brewed and Milton’s sniffed out that the steak is actually edible, do I deign to pull up a stool, and even then, I don’t start unwrapping. Not yet. First I check the postmarks. Items marked New York, London, Berlin are automatically placed on one pile. The definites pile. Items marked Edinburgh, Paris, Chicago go in the maybes pile. Today, there
are two definites and one maybe, which leave five packages, two of which can immediately be discounted due to the pathetic nature of their packaging. Of the others, one is from Glasgow, one from Leeds, UK, and the other from Johannesburg, South Africa. The Johannesburg one intrigues me. The Glasgow and Leeds ones don’t. I drop them on top of the pile of the nevers. Later, I’ll deposit them straight in the trash. I’m aware that this may seem a heartless, almost arbitrary way of deciding which new books I’ll review, but believe you-me, it is not. It is calculated. It has to be done. There are only so many books one man can read, no matter how many mornings I devote to the task. And to have my critical eye exhausted by something which does not befit it is simply wastage. I’ve learned this to my cost. I used to try to read everything. The stuff from the global behemoth companies which produced Pulitzer Prize-winners, Nobel Prize-winners, the stuff from the challenging regional publishing houses, from places like Glasgow and Leeds, and the stuff which came in crappy brown envelopes with no bubble wrap, which was sent from the real independent publishers, the ones who couldn’t afford to employ proper editors. I spent countless hours, hours I’d never get back, poring over the new releases from companies such as Ravenscar Press and Frontline Publishing, wading through spelling mistakes, grammatical errors, plot-holes one could fly a jumbo through, and in the end, I could barely see the wood for the trees, even when it came to the quality fiction. And so, I must have a filter. It’s only fair.
I slurp my coffee—today I’d appraise it as deliciously bitter, gritty, peculiar—and then reach into my dressing gown pocket for my letter opener. The letter opener is vintage, ornate, has a handle decorated with the Capstick family crest, a leaping stag. The blade is sharp, and so I house it in a plastic sheath which was tailor-made for me by a very reputable publishing house in New York. The knife itself was presented to me by a London author whose novel I praised so highly, so widely, it crept up from nowhere to grab the Bookman Prize back in the early noughties. The packages from the definites pile, which I scythe open first, are not in the Bookman Prize class. They are turnips, I see, despite their high production costs. Used to be these pre-launch copies we reviewers would get would be nothing more than bound galleys, but now they are as much product as what’ll eventually end up on the shelves. One of the books has attempted to be wilfully difficult with its ‘challenging’ front cover design, another has edged the title pages of each of the chapters with a bold black boundary that shows up on the edge of the book, a third has a photograph of what looks like a real dead body on the front, contorted into a wholly unnatural angle. I sigh, tossing the books aside. For a moment, the only sound in the kitchen is Milton chewing, tearing, and ripping at the steak in his bowl. I will soon be doing something very similar when it comes to these books. I’ll devour them.
In the maybes pile, I reach for the one from Johannesburg first, in the perhaps pointless hope that this will be something different, something good. It isn’t. Soon as I read the blurb, and the comparisons it draws with a number of writers who’ve recently been put to my sword, I feel like throwing the thing in the nevers pile. When I flip open the back cover and read the sickly-sweet last line, that seals the deal, and I do exactly that. I drain the rest of my coffee and slipper over to the sink to wash up my mug and the steak knife. Over email, one of my reviewing colleagues asked me why I never bothered investing in a dishwasher. Problem is, I never have enough to wash up to warrant a dishwasher. I could leave my daily plate, knife, fork, spoon, coffee mug for a week on the side, and I’d still never have enough. I don’t even have enough to wash up manually most of the time. Still, I run the faucet, splash in some Fairy Liquid, and as the Belfast sink fills with warm, soapy suds, and as the steam rises about my face, I look out of the window, up my path. Reflecting. Critically appraising my life. I decide yet again that I am happy this way, on my own. Before, when I was married to Deborah, there were always the interruptions. Like my postman, she couldn’t understand that even though I was wearing a dressing gown and was flopped over my chair reading, the Do Not Disturb sign meant exactly that. And though I pretended I was
mortally wounded when she left the room, that was merely for appearances sake. When she left me for good, I breathed a sigh of relief, bought Milton from the Animal Shelter, and promptly forgot everything about her. Once I’ve finished washing up, leaving the two items to drain on the stainless steel ‘X’ at the side of the sink, I swing back round to confront my work for the day, the three books I’ve marked to read. Only, for once, there is something different about the scene. It takes me a while to work out what it is, perhaps because of the steam from the sink getting into my eyes, something like that, but when I do, I gasp incredulously at the cheek of the damned cat. Milton. He’s jumped up on the surface, despite my express demands that he not do that. He’s jumped up on the surface, and he’s clawing at one of the unopened packages, one from the nevers pile. “Get down at once!” I roar. And he looks up from his beasting of the package and he growls. At me. It is the first time he’s ever growled at me, and for a moment, I don’t think I can handle it. This is my companion, the one to whom I feed steak, whole milk, roast chicken, poached herring. This is my Milton, the only one who shares my view of the world, from my castle. For a moment, our eyes lock. His are saucers, a putrid yellow surrounding big black holes. There is nothing human, nothing understanding in them. I once read that humans are the only species with
whites in their eyes, with everything else, it’s all yoke. All instinct. “Milton?” I say, softly now, “please come down, puss.” I step forward, ch-ch-ching, rubbing my thumb and forefinger together in a gesture which I vaguely realise is identical to the one which is used when we’re signing money. Frankly, at that moment, its quite an apt metaphor, as cats are out for what they can get most of the time, and I’d be as well bribing him to get down off the breakfast bar with money as I would steak, but this is my Milton. My companion. I never considered getting a dog because of all the demands on my time that would mean, but at least with a cat, I thought there’d be some kind of loyalty. “Milton?” I step forward again, and this time the cat curls back his lips, arches his back, and hisses at me. He’s never done anything like this before. It’s as though the parcel is some treasure he’s found, and he’s warning me off it. Not because he fears it’ll be dangerous to me, but because he doesn’t want to share. As though he’s hissing the word mine. “No. Bad cat.” He hisses again, then bites the edge of the parcel. He’s worked a tiny strip of the brown packaging loose now and is tugging at it. I hear a soft rip as he exposes the book inside. And I don’t know what to do. This scene has never played itself out before. I’ve never had to wrestle one of my packets from an obsessed cat before, never felt so defeated in
my own kitchen. In the end, I do the only thing man can do when confronted with nature, red in tooth and claw. I fall back on technology. I sidle over to the pantry, push open the lock. Milton’s body snaps to attention. He stares at me as if daring me to open the door. After a moment’s hesitation, I do, and I reach inside for the vacuum cleaner. A big, unweildly thing. With a practiced cowboy’s skill with ropes, I untangle the coil of cable and find the plug end, head for the socket on the wall. Now Milton’s ears are pricked, the tabby fur on his back has formed a spine, his tail has bushed into foxiness. He hisses once more, but now I manage to stick the plug in the damned socket, slam my slippered foot down onto the on/off button, and the vacuum cleaner coughs into life. Milton immediately darts off the breakfast bar, almost slips on the shiny tiles as he tries desperately to escape the kitchen before he has to hear any more of the infernal racket. When it comes to a battle between man and nature, technology always wins out, and Milton’s always been scared of the vacuum cleaner. Heaving a sigh of relief, I slam my foot back down onto the on/off button, and then slip over to the breakfast bar to see what the fuss was all about, already thinking that perhaps the small, independent publisher had read an interview with me—God knows where—and heard about
my feline companion, and thought they could win me over into writing a good review by placing some cat-nip inside the envelope, something like that. But when I find the package, which Milton has so badly mauled, I find there is nothing inside but a simple book. I even remove it from the envelope and shake it, just to check. When I touch the book, something strange happens. It is as though the book has been charged with static electricity. Immediately I drop it, and it falls open onto the kitchen floor, face down. I eye it with some trepidation. I’m now thinking that perhaps said small, independent publisher has already had some dealings with me, like perhaps I’ve massacred one of their titles in the past, and now they’ve sent me some kind of booby-trap by way of revenge. Perhaps Milton was trying to protect me.
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About the Author
A J, Andy, Kirby is the award-winning published author of three novels and over forty short stories. He is a sportswriter for the Professional Footballer's Association and a reviewer for The New York Journal of Books and The Short Review. Andy's work has been described as “vivid and intense,” “deeply disturbing,” and “intriguing.” He writes about the darker side of the street: that place people hurry past without quite knowing why. He revels in creating unease in the reader. After entering his world, “you may want to run up and down stairs just to calm down,” as one reviewer put it. He lives in Leeds, UK with his girlfriend, Heidi, and his incredibly noisy, but lucky cat, Eric. A season ticket holder at Manchester United Football Club, he follows the Red Devils across Europe when he's flush. Otherwise he is an avid reader. He enjoys travel, film and theatre, and he would love to be better at chess. He'd also like to learn about palaeontology and dreams of a perfect world when he no longer has to work at a day-job. To find out more, visit Andy's website: www.andykirbythewriter.20m.com.
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