"The Devil's Bookseller," Part 7

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"The Devil's Bookseller," Part 7

Post by conjurer on 2012-10-29, 11:59

NINE

HUBERT WAS PISSED OFF. His first day back from his buying trip, and already things had started off badly. He had driven Miranda home from his apartment, telling her to take a couple of days off. It looked to him that she needed it. He could tell she had lost weight and probably hadn’t been sleeping well. When he got back to All Nations and got ready to open the store he was surprised, after looking over the past weeks receipts, at how much she had taken in. He’d been afraid that she would have quit after the first night, but it appeared that she had hung in there and taken decent care of his business.

Anyway, all those good feelings evaporated when he had opened the doors that morning. A yuppie came dashing in as soon as Hubert had unlocked the door, and the one thing that Hubert hated more than yuppies were early-bird customers. The yuppie, a Gen-Xer who’d apparently done well for himself, dressed as he was in a sharp suit and nice shoes, stopped dead in the middle of the sales floor, stymied by the long shelves of books. He scanned the store for perhaps five seconds before turning and demanding help from Hubert, which was actually about four seconds longer than Hubert had expected him to take.

“Yo, clerk!” the yuppie said, too loud, as was usual for his breed.

“I beg your pardon,” said Hubert, looking down his nose at the man.

“I said, ‘Yo, clerk.’”

“I heard what you said, sir,” said Hubert with a sniff. “I am not, however, a clerk. I am a bookseller.”

“Well, whatever the hell you are, I’m looking for that last book by that real he-man author—what’s his name...”

“I really wouldn’t know,” said Hubert.

“You know the one, he just died, fell into a tree-chipper...”

“Norman Mailer?”

“That’s the dude. I want his last book.”

“I’m sorry, I don’t have that one.”

“What kind of book store is this, anyway?” The yuppie spun on his heel and stalked out. Hubert sat there, fuming. Apart from his late-night customers, nobody really appreciated him or his kind anymore. And why should they? he thought bitterly. What did he sell anymore that wasn’t available off the world wide web, in the form of an electronic book? And who really read anymore, anyway? What had the world come to, when the average attention span of a well educated adult precluded reading anything longer than a celebrity bio in People magazine? And why did people insist on referring to him as a lowly clerk? A clerk was a nobody, a shlep who sold shoes and lady’s undergarments. He was a bookseller, one of the oldest occupations known to civilization. Booksellers were around when doctors still relied on cutting hair for the majority of their income. Booksellers were the last line of defense to the onset of cultural degeneracy. Even the shabbiest Goth knew that Hubert was important. Why couldn’t these goddamn yuppies realize it as well? Was that asking too much?

To make his morning a little more dismal than it already was, the front door opened and a large woman came ambling through, followed by a pack of her snotty offspring. The youngest was perhaps three, the eldest six. They went dashing so quickly past their mother that Hubert had trouble counting how many of them there were.

“Good morning, madam,” he said.

“Hiya,” said the woman, gasping from the heat outside, out of breath, no doubt from ministering to her puling brood. “Where’s the kid’s section?”

“Regrettably, I don’t sell children’s literature in this store, madam.”

The woman glared at him for perhaps ten full seconds, as if trying to think up something cutting to say to him. But the effort was too much for her, so she sighed heavily and went back into the stacks while her children went dashing about, knocking over books, behaving like illiterate Crusaders sacking the library of Seville. To cut back on the noise, Hubert plugged in a MiniDisk of Khachaturian’s Piano Concerto, turning the volume up high.


Hubert had never married, had no brothers or sisters, and as a result had a natural loathing of children that bordered on the pathological. The fact that the large woman allowed her kids to run riot through his store didn’t help matters. He watched them trash his store like they were the spawn of hell. She stood in the stacks, just visible from where Hubert sat, leafing through some second-hand romance novels that he had bought for a quarter and sold for a dollar and a half. Meanwhile her children continued to race about the store, and she hardly bothered to glance up.

“Brittney,” she said, in a voice so quiet there was no way the kids could even hear her, “Cameron. Tristen. Settle down or it’ll be a time out once we’re home.”

Naturally the children didn’t pay her any attention whatsoever. In fact, as Hubert watched with a certain amount of alarm, the two boys had gotten into some sort of a fistfight down the aisle from their mother. Hubert looked away and turned the sound up on the MiniDisk player. When he looked back, from the corner of his eye, it appeared that Tristen–-or was it Cameron?—was throttling his sibling, which Hubert thought was a capital idea.

Meanwhile Brittney was climbing a bookcase like a pint-sized alpinist.

“Oh, my God,” whispered Hubert. “Madam—“ he called out.

Brittney was nearing the top of the bookcase, which was a steel shelving unit overloaded with books, and it was starting to sway, off balance from its unexpected new burden.

“Madam!” Hubert shouted. The woman glared at him, saw where he was pointing, and marched over, none too fast, to pluck Brittney from the shelves. Brittney didn’t give up her high ground easily, however, and brought a half dozen large format coffee table books cascading to the floor after her. She giggled in delight, and the mother laughed with her, like it was the funniest thing she had ever seen. Hubert ground his teeth as the entire phalanx departed. He went over to survey the damage. Several of the coffee table books were now, in the jargon of the trade, shopworn. They had been new merchandise and now he’d have to mark them down.

The next person through the door was the UPS delivery man, and one of the packages he dropped was, lo and behold, the new—and probably final—Norman Mailer book, an autobiography called I Wish I Could Still Get a Boner. Priced at $40 FPT, Hubert ground his teeth once more, thinking of the sale he had lost because UPS was running late.


The UPS man departed, leaving the store vacant except for Hubert. He suddenly had the urge to use the bathroom, something that he normally didn’t get so early in the day, and hastened to the front door to lock it. He hurried to the back room, his bowels turning to water. The last fifty feet or so he literally dashed for the toilet, and he was panting, unused to such speed, as he got to the bathroom and relieved himself. After wiping, he found that the toilet paper came away drenched with blood. He glanced into the bowl and saw it crimson. That was certainly strange, he thought. Nothing like that had ever happened before. He flushed and washed his hands, staring at his reflection in the mirror over the basin. His hair looked like it was thinning, another strange thing. He had kept his hair his whole life, and although it had turned white in his later years, it had remained thick and luxuriant. He wasn’t the sort of man who took a lot of pride in his appearance anyway, but for some reason his thinning hair bothered him.

He went back to the front of the store and unlocked the door. The next man through was well dressed, albeit in a rather shabby suit that he wore more like a uniform than as any kind of sartorial statement, a man after Hubert’s own heart. He was short and dumpy, getting on in years, and Hubert imagined him to be a traveling salesman, perhaps one of those from a smaller publisher who wanted him to stock his wares. The man stood in the middle of the sales floor, just like the yuppie had, and listened to the piano concerto for a short moment. Then he opened the briefcase he was carrying, took out a thick sheaf of papers and flicked through it. Then he turned and walked up to the counter, hunting in his pockets for something. Hubert steeled himself for the salesman’s attack. Normally he never ordered anything except from the three major publishers, but he always had trouble saying no to these poor fellows.

“Good morning, sir,” he said.

“Morning, sir,” said the salesman. He finally found what he was looking for, a business card that he presented to Hubert.

“I have no use for anything today, I’m afraid,” said Hubert.

“Oh, I’m not selling anything,” said the salesman—or whatever he was. Hubert looked at the card and saw the fellow’s name was Jacob Weir, and worked for an organization called ASCAP. “Are you the owner of this establishment, sir?”

“Yes.”

“I’m Jacob Weir, sir. I work for ASCAP, Licensing Infractions Division.”

“I’m sorry, I don’t know what that is.”

“The acronym stands for the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers.”

“I generally order all my stock right from the publishers, actually.”

“I’m not in sales, sir. Are you aware that you are using a performance of this particular piece of music on your sound system without authorization?”

“I bought the MiniDisk.”

“Very good sir, however, the sale of the MiniDisk doesn’t authorize you to play the said MiniDisk in public. It is for your personal use, sir.”

“That’s what I’m doing, listening to it,” said Hubert, now completely confused.

“Yes, sir,” said Jacob Weir, very patiently. “But you are also using the performance for background music, without paying the fee to our society for the public use of the material. That puts you in a difficult position, I’m afraid. I will have to ask you to cease and desist, sir.”

Hubert was a little slow that morning, what with the lingering jet lag and his mounting concern about shitting out about a gallon of blood, but he was beginning to get the picture. And he was beginning to get very upset too.


“Just what the hell is it to you what I listen to, Mr. Weir?”

“Absolutely nothing, sir. However, it is my job to go about and find business establishments like yours that are using music in an unauthorized fashion.”

“How do you know that ASCII—“

”That’s ASCAP, sir.”

“Whatever. How do you know that what I’m listening to is covered by your organization?”

“That’s simple, sir. Because we control all music not in the public domain.”

“And you’ve got nothing better to do than come in here and harass me.”

“That’s my job, sir. Not that I would consider this harassment. Oh no, that is too strong a word entirely. I’m merely telling you that you are in violation of the licensing agreements, and asking you to cease and desist, without bringing in our legal department. I shall make a note of this visit, and come back at a later date to make sure you are in full compliance. I’m staying at the Days Inn on the West Side, should you need to contact me for further information. I shall be there all the rest of this week. Good day to you, sir.”

And with that, Jacob Weir left the store. Hubert ejected the MiniDisk from the player. That’s all he needed, he thought, another goddamn lawsuit.

LATER THAT EVENING SKODA came into the bookstore and found a dejected Hubert behind the counter. A few Goths and a couple of gangsters were browsing the shelves, and Skoda stood there for a moment, trying to figure out what was wrong. Something was different in the store, but he couldn’t put a finger on it. He walked up to the counter.

“Good evening, Mr. Hubert.”

“Good evening, Mr. Skoda.”

“I see that you’re back from your travels.”

“Yes, early this morning.”

“Where did you go?”

“Europe. Venice, then Berlin, finally England.”

“Ah, Venice! A most beautiful city. And how does it fare? I regret that I haven’t been there in some years.”

“Sinking.”

“A shame. Leave it to the Italians to allow their most wonderful city to disappear below the waves. Are you feeling well, Mr. Hubert? You look a bit drawn.”

“Just the jet lag, Mr. Skoda.”

“Ah. I met your wonderful new assistant while you were away. Miranda?”

“I hope she was able to satisfy your needs, Mr. Skoda.”

“She was very attentive.”

“Yes, she is a valued asset to the shop,” said Hubert, suddenly very tired, he sat down on the stool behind the counter.

Skoda described to him the unpleasant encounter she had with the mentally ill fellow, playing down his own involvement in defusing the situation.

“Strange,” said Hubert. “She hadn’t told me about that.”

“She is very brave, Mr. Hubert. The next night, there she was, behind the counter, the shop open, and she was selling books again. Like nothing had happened. I was very afraid that she might decide to quit, and leave the store closed.”

“She’s one in a million, is Miranda,” agreed Hubert.

Skoda suddenly blinked, as if he had just realized something. “Is there something wrong with your music system, Mr. Hubert? I don’t hear any of your music! You normally have such exquisite taste.”

Hubert let out a low moan, for he too had been missing his music most terribly, and told Skoda about his encounter with the little wretch from ASCAP. He showed Skoda the man’s card.

“Coming in here, acting like some kind of big shot, telling me how to run my business!”

“It is an infamy, Mr. Hubert.”

“Then tells me to call him at the Days Inn if I have any questions! Do we live in Russia?”

“In Russia, I fear, one would have more civil rights.”

“I suppose I’ll have to either pay his ridiculous fee or stop listening to music altogether. I’m sure that I wouldn’t be able to afford the fee, anyway. I’m just a little man, with a small shop that operates on the margin. How can I pay his fee?” Hubert had neglected to ask about the fee, which, for his size store, would have been very cheap anyway, probably less than a dollar a day, but he was of the class and age to think that any money paid to any organization, no matter what the service, was too high. Especially if the fee was obligatory. Skoda examined the man’s card and then handed it back to Hubert.

“I’m very sorry to hear of this, Mr. Hubert.”

“Oh, I suppose that I’ll get by, somehow...”

Skoda nodded understandingly and left the store. Hubert watched him leave and thought, there goes the first customer made upset by the lack of music.

SKODA CAUGHT A TAXI to the West Side and found the Days Inn, a squat square building possessing no charm at all, much like the extended stay hotel where Skoda himself was now residing. It was close to midnight, and most of the windows were dark. The parking lot was filled with late model Ford and Chevy sedans that had the look of company cars to them. Loud music was issuing from the top floor.

Skoda had no plan. He figured he’d make it up as he went along.

He went in the front door and saw, to his left, the hotel bar, crowded with out-of-town businessmen, most dressed like he was, in loud Hawaiian shirts and khaki trousers. He was a little surprised that he fit in so well with the hotel’s guests. He went up to the reception desk and waited for the night clerk to stop reading the Racing Form and turn around to notice him.

“Good evening, sir. May I help you?”

“Yes, an old friend of mine is staying here, I think.”

“His name, sir?”

“Mr. Jacob Weir.”

The clerk tapped at his computer keyboard and waited for a moment while the machine buzzed away like a bad coffee grinder. “Ah, yes, Mr. Weir is listed here. He seems to have turned in for the night.”

“Not Jacob! He’s a real night owl.”

“He’s left a message for a wake-up call at six.”

“I see. What room is he in?”

“I’m sorry, sir, I can’t give out that information.”

Skoda looked away, puffed up his lips, and blew some air out of his mouth. He reached into his pants pocket and took out a money clip. He peeled off a hundred dollar bill and put it on the counter.

“You’d really be doing me a favor.”

“I’m sorry, sir, but the policy of the hotel—“

Skoda peeled off another hundred. The two bills disappeared into the clerk’s pocket.

“Room 412, sir. Do you want me to call up to Mr. Weir—“

”No, thank you. I’d rather surprise him.”

“Very good, then.”

Skoda took the service stairs rather than the elevator. He didn’t like elevators much, they made him feel too boxed in. When he got to the fourth floor he opened the fire door and the music from somewhere along the hall nearly blasted him backwards. A couple of middle aged men, wearing stupid fez hats, were standing just inside the door, urinating against the wall.

“Howya doing, pally?” one of them said to Skoda.

“Doing real fucking good, homes.”

The men laughed and continued with their copious urination. Skoda walked past them, grimacing at the way the soles of his shoes squished in the carpet. The sound of the party blasted around him. He was surprised that the police hadn’t been called yet. He fished out his lockpicks. He was very good at picking locks, a talent he had acquired along the way of his long life. He went down the hall, looking for 412; he found it around a corner, in a short dogleg corridor. He looked down at the doorknob and saw, to his chagrin, that it was one of those pain-in-the-neck card-reader locks, the ones where the hotel guest is issued a credit card-looking thing that he swipes through the lock, rather than a normal key. Picks certainly wouldn’t work on this infernal thing. Things just weren’t going his way. He glanced around in frustration, then kicked the door in.

He jumped into the pitch dark room, although he could see perfectly. To his eyes, everything was done up in a palate of various shades of greens and grays. He grabbed a chair and shut the door with his foot, sticking the chair under the knob. It wasn’t very secure, but Skoda didn’t think the noise of the door busting in could have been heard much over the sounds of the party. He turned and his vision suddenly blossomed into full color as the room’s resident turned on the light.

The man Weir was sitting up in bed, wearing floral pyjamas and a pair of absurdly large ear protectors, the kind that look like old-fashioned stereo headphones that service people wear at airports. His bland face was lit with terror, and he was trying to free a small handgun from a holster. Skoda strode across the room and grabbed the pistol from his hands before he had even gotten the safety off.

“Give me that damned gun,” Skoda snarled. Weir scooted up towards the headboard in fear. Skoda slapped him, just to show him who was boss, then yanked the ear protectors off his head, Weir squealed in pain.

“Shut the fuck up!” said Skoda.

“What do you want? I have some money!”

“I said shut up!”

Weir cowered as Skoda stuck the pistol into his pocket and quickly scanned the room. One set of windows on the far wall, covered with thick drapes. A bathroom off to the side. He glanced inside the bathroom, not expecting to find anything, but he didn’t believe in taking risks that weren’t necessary. No door connecting to another room. The only way into the room was by the door he had kicked in. He sat down on the bed, and Weir tried to push himself further away. Skoda grabbed him by the nose and Weir yelped.

“You said you had money. Give it to me now.”

“It’s in my wallet—“

Skoda let go of the man’s nose and found his wallet on the bedside table next to a copy of a magazine called Low-Level Bureaucrats Who Like To Eat Teen Pussy. He went through it quickly. He found a few credit cards, no doubt maxed out, a California State driver’s licence, and about forty dollars in cash. He checked the names on the cards and licence to make sure he had the right fellow. He had.

“You call that money?”

“It’s all I’ve got with me!”

“Shut up.” Skoda stuck the wallet into his pocket. “You are Jacob Weir, of the organization known as ASCAP?”

“What?”

“Tell me, and don’t you lie.”

“Yes.”

“You go about and tell people what to listen to and what not to listen to. Is this correct?”

“Well, not exactly—“

”Say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ or I’ll pull your throat out.”

“Yes!”

“Keep your voice down.”

“Yes, sir.” It came out almost as a whisper.

“You are nothing but a petty bureaucrat. Something I wouldn’t even deign to scrape off the bottom of my shoe.”

“If you say so.”

“Shut the fuck up!” Skoda shouted. Normally he disliked using foul language, but he did it this time to keep the odious fellow in line. “You go about and, wrapped in the protection of your lawyers and contractual hocus-pocus, you chip away at everything that is fine and good about mankind. Do you understand me?”

“No, I’m sorry if I’ve offended you—“

”But you were only doing your job. Is that what you were going to say? That last refuge of a mediocrity like you. You don’t have to say it. The very likes of you make me wish to vomit. Don’t you realize that one of the only things that is worth while in life is the beauty of music? And yet you go into some small business and flash your business card and your torts and your legal bullshit and terrorize small businessmen into doing what you want. And for what? So some scum rock star can buy himself more smack? Another limousine?”

“Please, don’t hurt me.”

“You think that you have some sort of monopoly on beauty, on what can make this revolting existence bearable? No, I think not. I don’t give a damn about your copyright nonsense. Where is the report that you wrote up today?”

“Which one?”

“For All Nations bookstore.”

“In my briefcase.”

“Get it for me. Now.”

Skoda allowed Weir to get out of bed and wobble over to the closet to find his case. He opened the locks and took out some papers. “It’s in here, with some others—“

Skoda grabbed the papers from his hands and scanned through them. It appeared that Weir had made several dozen visits that day, strong-arming the little people like Mr. Hubert into not playing music without a kickback to ASCAP. He stuffed the papers back into the briefcase and closed the locks.

“I’ll be taking this with me,” he said.

“Okay,” said Weir, rather happily.

“Into the bathroom,” ordered Skoda. He pushed Weir into the bathroom, then into the bathtub.

“What’re you—“ Weir managed to say just before Skoda reached down and plucked out his jugular. He made a moaning sound as the ballistic spray arched up against the tiled walls. The blood gushed for a couple of moments, then slowed radically and nearly stopped. Weir’s eyes rolled up in his head as he began to die. Skoda hadn’t fed in a while. He bent down and started to drink.

TAFFY WAS SOMETHING OF a voyeur. He was well aware of this habit, and sometimes he thought this was why he enjoyed television so much. After all, what was TV other than an electronic portal into other people’s lives? It didn’t matter much to him if these lives were fictional or not; it was the act of watching people go through the motions that interested him.

At that moment he was indeed watching television in his room at the Days Inn, a particularly asinine sitcom called Your Dad’s a Faggot—No He’s Not! starring David Caruso as a single-father-hairdresser trying to raise two precocious pubescent daughters in San Francisco. Taffy was laughing uproariously as Caruso was trying to shave Justin Beiber's head with a weedwhacker.

But Taffy wasn’t all there. Part of him was drifting, drifting, through the hotel, watching, watching.

He floated through the hallways and public spaces of the hotel, stopping off in room after room. Most of the action, predictably, was occurring inside the rooms, but humankind’s sordid little sexual couplings had about as much attraction to Taffy as the sitcom the other half was watching. He didn’t care, that was all there was to it.

However, what looked like a kick-ass party was going on in the floor above him. A bunch of drunken louts wearing drip-dry suits and dumb-ass fezzes on their heads were tearing the joint up like the Rolling Stones on a concert tour–-assuming that the Rolling Stones were mostly bald and had love handles and big floppy stomachs hanging over their belts. Taffy enjoyed watching humans making assholes of themselves. He found it extremely diverting. The invisible part of him was bellowing with laughter as a couple of the overweight party-hounds held a third’s head down in a toilet bowl and continuously flushed it. Taffy wondered how long they would continue the torture as he watched the wretched fellow squirm and fight. Finally his pals allowed him some air, and when the victim’s head appeared from the rim of the can Taffy saw he was still wearing his fez; Taffy thought he might suffer an aneurysm he was laughing so hard.

But even such high jinks hard started to wear on Taffy, so he moved along, down the hall and into another bedroom. He paused there because it was very dark and he could hear the snores of the occupant. But he knew there was somebody else in the room, and the lights went on and saw things clearly. A third person was there, a squat man with a loud Hawaiian shirt on, and the guy in the bed was trying to get a pistol out of its holster. The squat man in the dumb shirt grabbed the gun away.

Taffy knew at once that the man in the Hawaiian shirt was a vampire. To him it was as clear as crystal. This looked good, he thought, and settled down to watch.

WHEN SKODA WAS DONE feeding he cleaned himself up in the washbasin and turned to leave the bathroom.

A man was sitting on the edge of the bed. A tall man, dressed in a suit and a perfectly knotted tie.

“How-do,” said the man.

A thrill of terror swept through Skoda’s body. He stiffened like a man getting the juice in the electric chair.

“Sorry to bother you, pal, but I like your work,” the man said.

Skoda thought his heart might have skipped a beat. He felt the same horror coursing through his veins as the other night, after saving the life of the woman Miranda, when he knew he was in the presence of pure, absolute evil.

“Thank you,” said Skoda, not knowing what else to say.

“Have a seat, pal. I’d like to talk.”

Skoda knew he was powerless in the force of such energy. He sat down on the edge of the chair he had pulled up to secure the door. The chair was still in place; he had no idea how this man had gotten into the room.

“What’s your name?” the man asked.

“Skoda. And yours?”

“They call me—Taffy.”

“Taffy? What sort of name is that?”

“It’s a name that pleases me. That’s enough for the likes of you.”

Skoda nodded. He found he couldn’t look directly into Taffy’s eyes, it was like staring into the sun, something he hadn’t tried to do in a long, long time.

“You sure fucked up that guy but good,” said Taffy.

“Yes.”

“How come? You couldn’t find somebody easier to feed off? What made you want to whack that little loser? You a faggot? No you’re not!” Taffy rocked his head back and laughed hard.

Skoda sat there on the edge of his chair, wondering if he had gone mad.

“No, you haven’t,” said Taffy.

“Haven’t what?”

“Gone mad. Sometimes I can read minds, you see. Especially vampires. Piece of cake, really.”

“Who are you?”

“Don’t you know?”

“You’re Satan,” said Skoda.

“Yeah, pretty much. Near as dammit.”

“What’re you doing here?”

“Just hanging out. Seeing if this is a hot town or not.”

“I’ve done nothing to you.”

“And I haven’t done anything to you, either. Like you think I’ve got a hard-on over what you did to that piece of shit there in the bathroom? It’s nothing to me. It’d be like a regular guy getting mad at his neighbor for stepping on a bug while he was mowing his lawn. What am I, going to go to the cops about it?” Taffy seemed to think this was very rich, for he bellowed with laughter again. “Fuck it. To hell with him, pardon the pun. Besides, like I said, I like your style.”

“Thank you again.”

“And I’ll ask you again. Why him? He look at you wrong out in the street?”

“No. It’s rather complicated.”

“I got all the time in the world, pally.”

“I think we should leave here,” said Skoda. “I think the party’s dying down out there. Besides, somebody might call the police, then where would we be?”

“Not we, doofus. You. You think I’d have to spend a night in the can? No, you’d be the schelp in the big house. Assuming the local bulls don’t whack your head off with a machete like a pistolero down Mexico way.”

But Taffy stood and lead the way out of the room. They took the fire stairs down a floor and went into another room. The TV was playing some banal situation comedy.

“Welcome to my home away from home,” said Taffy.

“What do you want of me?” asked Skoda. His terror had subsided a little, but he was still very much on his guard.

“I need some help.”

“Help? What sort of help can I give you?”

Taffy told him the story of his being wounded by the federal agent, how he had assumed the agent’s identity and body, and how he was still unable to perform all his functions. “Don’t get me wrong, pally, I can still yank your heart out of your chest faster than you can say Jackie Stewart. Don’t do anything to piss me off. I’m a little on edge right now.”

“So you’ve been wounded. How can I help you?”

“I need—instruction. Instruction,” he repeated, as if he had hit on just the right word. “To regain my powers, see.”

“I understand,” said Skoda carefully.

“That’s where you come in.”

“Okay.”

“You’re an old vampire, aren’t you? It’s been a long time since you’ve Become, isn’t it?”

“A very long time.”

“So you know things. You’re well read.”

“I suppose you could say that.”

“I am saying that. I can look into your mind. I can see all that useless knowledge stored up in there like cordwood.”

“There is no such thing as useless knowledge.”

Taffy sat there for a long moment, a smile frozen on his face. “You dare contradict me?”

“No, sir,” said Skoda.

“What are you? Nothing. A little turd I can flush into hell the moment I feel like it. And that moment seems to be getting close, pally.”

“I’m sorry,” said Skoda, looking down at the floor.

“You never answered my question, Skoda,” said Taffy, letting the matter drop. “Why did you kill that bastard upstairs?”

“I needed his blood.”

“Crap. You could have whacked some bum out on the street. Why him?”

Skoda thought that maybe Satan wasn’t able to read his mind as well as he claimed. Perhaps he was right about being wounded, having some of his powers taken away from him. “He was going to file a report,” he said.

“A report? What report?”

Skoda explained about ASCAP and his feeling of loss, not being able to hear the music at the All Nations bookstore. When he was done, he realized that he had left the ASCAP man’s briefcase up in his room. Had he killed the fellow for nothing?

“That seems a pretty poor reason for offing some prick,” said Taffy.

“Nevertheless, that’s why.”

“You must be a big fan of music, pally.”

“I am.”

“I myself don’t see what the attraction is. A lot of banging and scraping bows over strings. It’s enough to set my teeth on edge. And what about this store, All Nations? What sort of bookstore caters to the likes of you?”

“It’s not an ordinary bookstore. It’s open almost all night. The owner caters to the night people, like me.”

“There’s a new biography of Rosanne Barr I’d like. You think they carry that there?”

“Most of Mr. Hubert’s books deal with the occult.”

Taffy’s eyes grew large. “The occult? Like tarot cards and Ouiji boards and all that shit?”

“Somewhat. But also more esoteric things, too.” Skoda felt that he ought to shut his mouth, stay silent about Mr. Hubert and All Nations, but the words kept spilling out. Stop talking, he thought. If this son of a whore, be he Satan (pretty much) or some other demon thinks he can read your mind, then let him read it. Don’t tell him any more.

“This sounds like a fascinating sort of place. Where is it?”

“It’s in a pretty bad part of town. I don’t think you should go there.”

“Don’t fight me, Skoda. I’ll send you straight to hell, motherfucker.”

Skoda told him where it was. Taffy nodded slowly.

“Go now,” he said, dismissing him. Skoda left the room quickly and stood out in the over-bright hallway, wondering if he should go back to Jacob Weir’s room and grab his briefcase. He was afraid of being caught by the police, and he was ten times as afraid of being in the same building as Taffy. He left the hotel, taking the service stairs and heading out into the night through the kitchen and loading dock.

All of Mr. Hubert’s troubles with ASCAP seemed very minor now. With Satan stalking the world, looking for knowledge and knowing about the poor man’s bookstore, the least of Hubert’s worries would be getting a visit from a lawyer from a music copyright agency.

© 2012, John Steven Anderson

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