By Matt Holgate, author of ‘The Dim Realm’ and ‘Unforgotten’
Melvin Shanks approached the pawn shop on Thirteenth Avenue. Luck wasn’t his problem, but he failed to appreciate the irony. He was focused quite intently on the sign atop the shop’s front door, which read
BLACK CAT EMPORIUM
CARATS!!! & CASH!!! & CIGARS!!!
in large black letters painted on a pristine white board. One might think the letters were tombstones in a field, assuming they were over the irony of the street number, and they were possessed of sufficient imagination.
Imagination was not Melvin Shanks’ problem either. Quite the contrary. Had you suggested it, he probably would have thought it a quaint notion. Some nights, he lay awake at night, wishing that it was.
Melvin looked up at the sign for a long time. Took a deep breath. Stopped his hands from shaking. He looked like a plain, ordinary man of about forty, although maybe he was wearing his clothes a second day in a row, and he was sweating as if nervous or about to get sick. He was thin and fidgety, the kind of person who always needs one more sweater and keeps losing his keys, and his hair was thinning admirably. And was that the hint of a comb-over?
Slowly, deliberately, the disheveled, otherwise unremarkable man took a step towards the Black Cat Emporium. He did not step on a crack, did not break his mother’s back. Although his mother was the least of his concerns at the moment.
His heard skipped a beat when he thought he heard a sound
behind him, but he would not look back. Wouldn’t, couldn’t, shouldn’t. His very own Dr. Seuss rhyme.
Didn’t Seuss say ‘Don’t be sad that it’s over, be happy that it happened’? Melvin wondered, taking another measured step.
Looking backwards was bad. Just ask Lot. But so was dashing for the finish line.
Some animals like to play with you, let you think you’ve almost – almost! – made it, and then claw you in at the last possible second. Hope you enjoyed the run, the animal thinks.
Animals… and monsters.
Don’t be sad that it’s over, the monster would say of your near escape. Be happy that it happened.
The laugh that Melvin gave was abrupt, a watery thing left soaking for too long. He quickly put it away. It didn’t belong outside. When people heard it, it seemed to unsettle them.
He finally reached the door of the pawnshop, and
(…it is you KNOW it is…)
a bell rang as he opened the door, interrupting his thoughts, announcing his presence to the world. It was shrill and he didn’t like it. Not one bit, not one spit.
Nevertheless, Melvin did like what he found inside the Black Cat Emporium.
It was a long low room, not unlike a solitary bowling lane, filled with rows of shelves, some patiently gathering their dust, others more recently scavenged. A hardware store for the nearly broken, a museum for the utmost forgotten, some with hearts that ached for a train to come crashing through this tunnel. But alas, they were safe here, precious junk like movie stars of a departed era, waiting for adoption at the orphanage, knowing there were younger, pretty starlets out there.
Swords hung on the walls only slightly askew, like a straight painting of a crooked house, while others were locked in scabbards on shelves that promised their blades weren’t rusted, even if they wouldn’t give you a peek at the show for a penny. Velvety oil paintings of pink ladies who did not or would not realize their days of royalty were bygone and faded to near alabaster. Old stereo parts sat with open mouths and rusty dials, plastic hats with lightning-shaped cracks where they sat protectively over turntables, wires hanging gamely over the sides, ready
(let us play!)
for another go. Sewing machines stared up from white cases or deep within wood tables, their wrought iron legs spindly, sometimes bent, sometimes missing entirely, only made to stand level by folding cards of discarded birthdays slipped underneath. Glass goblets the size of monster heads were filled with matchbooks of long closed restaurants from now-smokeless towns that wondered where the passion went. Wooden radios with faces like voodoo masks and tubes that might not light waited to give raspy voice
(let us play!)
(let us feel!)
to the crackle before the silky smooth crept in and the dial stopped, winded and breathless and so thankful for the music of Elvis Presley and the steady march of troubadours since. All hail the king.
Telescopes craned with creaks in their necks to look at stars no more, except for the dusty brass or blue globes that tilted downwards nearby, abandoned by gravity and the spin of the universe. No more lonely journeys through the endless black, but you could dream. Copper plates all for the hanging, etched with loons, foxes and wolves, northland wonders locked neatly in step, blackened on their edges where wizened old hands had pressed their shapes in. Spoons lay in coffins, neat in a row, tucked into bed, and lamp posts carved like totem poles of tribes that never existed guarded their slumber. Plastic owls that had never gone hunting with dogs howling and guns blazing kept the peace, while magazines that would as soon start a fire than tell secrets from a score of years ago teetered distrustfully. Maybe today was the day that they’d fall.
And books! So many books! Piles of them, mostly paperbacks, or hardcovers with jackets bent and faded, but never dusty. No, never that. Romances a quiver with page ends tinted purple or pink, many yellowed by use, or stained from being dropped in the tub one night, daren’t ask any questions. Hardboiled detectives named Harvey, Frank or Mike, leaning for support against adventurers named Dirk and his kin. Rough and tumble, ready to rumble. Pulp science fiction covers of planets that were almost ready to discover disco, found in ships that looked more like modern sex toys than transportation, yet they were wondrous and perfect, so perfect. Fantasy books where the women wore almost nothing except the sword that would cleave you in two, unless their loincloth lover was carrying them against the oncoming horde, ready to die in her name. And the horror books? They just watched. Waited from the shadows. Black books with hints of color, making you remember the glow of the eyes of monsters in the cellar.
Oh yes, most especially books. The paperback novels you would pick up unexpectedly on a lazy summer day and become mesmerized by. Melvin liked to see that, although it made him run his fingers under his collar, hoping the sweat wasn’t showing through yet.
So many things. Please adopt us, take us home, let us show you we still care. Each one proud, yet each one wept. The nearly discarded. The almost wanted.
Like me, thought Melvin, itching to be free yet hoping never to leave. Like me…
He wished he could see them better, but the light wasn’t what he thought it would be. Repeated from the outside, was
CARATS!!! & CASH!!! & CIGARS!!!
only now it wasn’t silent like a graveyard, but hissing. These were neon tubes bright red in the dusty darkness, but they did little to diminish the shadows of the pawn shop. They were selfish that way, calling attention only to themselves, and buzzed like insects you wanted to swat but couldn’t quite see. This low room really was like a train tunnel, an endless corridor, and if you wanted real light, you either had to back away slowly, or make it to the end, hoping that some carnival clown didn’t drag you into the depths at the last moment, caressing you fondly but smelling of stale sweat.
And all around him, Melvin Shanks could hear the objects of the Black Cat Emporium sing:
Let us play!
Let us feel!
You know in your secret heart that you want us to…
This was their home, after all.
Waiting at the back desk was Mick Anders. The ‘Gilded Mick’ was the moniker he was known by, and if you didn’t know that already, yet another fluorescent sign – this one the green of new money and cheap plastic Christmas trees – would remind you from behind him. He wore a crisp new black t-shirt with 80s silver lettering that proudly proclaimed ‘The Hoodoo That You Do’ and wondered if anyone got the joke. Mick was a fat man with thick grey hair pulled back in a ponytail, and he wouldn’t have it any other way.
A 50s era kid’s Coke delivery truck sat with its trailer parked in a permanent state of jackknife beside an old school cash register (bing!) while guitars were strung along the wall behind him strategically around his namesake sign, from plush cherry red axes to old spruce box-tops. To the side hung a brassy old saxophone gone copper at the edges, like a lonely ole’ Mac the Knife crescent moon waiting to make his introduction, stepping onstage with flare, with style, with pizzazz, taking his spot in the limelight. A stack of old records lay beneath, the top of which was a King Crimson face that could only be meant to scare out what little bejesus you had left in you. All hail a new kind of king!
Mick smiled at Melvin as he stepped up, like a rookie coming to the plate for his first at-bat, and the Gilded Mick was the pitcher. Sealed cigars below the glass countertop didn’t dare deign to give him the time of day. Cubans made the best cigars and the best baseball players. Just ask any Cuban. They might be right, though.
“Welcome to the Black Cat,” said the Gilded Mick charismatically, eyeing his latest mark.
Mick had seen Melvin lurking around before. This wasn’t the first time he’d passed by. Oh, no sir, the cat came back the very next day. And the next. And the next. However, this was the first time he’d worked up the courage to come inside. Courage… or maybe desperation?
Mick knew Melvin’s type. Someone who didn’t want to sell, but had to nonetheless.
And I don’t really care why, thought the Gilded Mick. Others of his profession had more scruples (so they said) than he did. Morons. Losers all.
You couldn’t care, not in this business. Still, you had to listen to the stories, let them tell you, on and on, so that you could get what they had. It was the price you paid in this line of work. And sometimes you were rewarded not only with good merchandise to sell, but a good story to use later. By God, they came in all shapes and sizes, and just when you thought you’d heard ’em all, in came another, somehow more grandiose and romantic than the last.
It’s not like they can’t come back and reclaim their treasure before it’s sold. I hold them true to my word. Yet they almost never do. And don’t tell me it’s because none of them can ever come up with the cash.
“My name’s Melvin,” said the prospective customer. He had that shine of clammy perspiration. “Are you the owner of this establishment?”
“If the sign’s lyin’, I’m dyin’,” said Mick with his big ole’ gilded smile. Truth to tell, he was a rather happy guy. He didn’t have to force it.
Surprisingly, Mick saw the other man grow paler, if that was somehow possible. The days of humidity were long over for the season, but not to look at Melvin.
“Christ, man, it’s just an expression! Do you have something for me to sell, or are you buying? We’ve got loads of good stuff here in the Back Cat. What’re you into, Mel? Saw you looking at the books. Lots of good ones in the pile if you want to dig. And digging’s the fun, am I right?”
“You called me Mel. It’s not Mel. It’s Melvin.” He sounded neither proper nor angry so much as unable to let a small inconsistency go. Like it was a tick. One of many, probably. A bed full of the critters.
“Okay, Melvin,” Mick said, hands up like he was held hostage, in that practiced way he had that didn’t make him sound condescending when that’s exactly what he was. “You like what you see?”
“I do. I hear them.”
Melvin saw that he had to explain, since saying nothing or saying too much might get him kicked out of the Black Cat altogether.
“I feel the nostalgia. I’ve always heard the voices of old things cast aside.”
“Me, too,” the Gilded Mick said, relaxing slightly, figuring that maybe this Melvin guy wasn’t so bad – just weird, not crazy. Time would tell if he was right or wrong about that.
“I heard them even as a little boy,” Melvin continued. In a surprising way, it felt good to admit at least a little of it. “Sometimes, it was like they were voices from around the corner. Until I learned how to think around those corners. And there was no going back.”
Melvin paused, mumbling something like ‘There was no banishing them,’ but said no more about it.
“Well, okay, if you’ve got something you want to buy or trade, now’s the time,” said Mick, who suddenly wasn’t completely sold on not being creeped out, even if he’d almost been lulled. One way or another, he wanted to conclude this transaction.
“I have something for you,” Melvin said …
… and then did nothing. Just a pause growing ever more pregnant. Like he was considering some alien fact. Something he wasn’t ready to look at yet. Steeling himself, maybe.
Maybe hearing one of those voices, Mick wanted to laugh, but it landed with a thud, where it promptly curled up and died.
“And that is…?” Mick eventually prodded. Jesus liftin’, he thought solemnly, as if truly believing the Bible had ever said that.
Finally, this Melvin character reached into his jacket, and slowly produced what looked like an old, leather-bound journal. He placed it down carefully on the glass countertop, and held his fingertips atop it like he was a druid communing with its inner nature, stroking the leather cover like it was a pet, until slowly pulling his hands away, all his fingers at once, an orchestra heeding its conductor. He then promptly stuck his hands in his pockets like he didn’t know what to do with him … or was afraid he would snatch the old book right back up. Like it had told him
(let me play, Melvin…)
not to. Mustn’t. Daren’t. You bad little boy.
“I can’t read it anymore,” Melvin gave by way of explanation. He wouldn’t even look at the journal now. Just at Mick. “It won’t let me. And so I want to know if it interests you, Gilded Mick. This shop, this Black Cat, might be the perfect place. Will you accept it into your home?”
And he just kept staring at Mick. And staring.
But Mick Anders barely noticed Melvin’s odd attention. He was staring intently at the old leather book. It was … strange. The leather, for one, was a peculiar pale color. Creased like old driving gloves that couldn’t take one more winter and wanted to cry as the blood bled out the cracks and crevices. It wasn’t flat either, as if the pages inside had fallen in a tub like those paperbacks up front and had bloated – the fate of many an ill-held novel – or as if the pages inside were made of a similar material as the cover. Leathery. Crinkly. And there wasn’t any traditional binding on the book’s bumpy, raggedy spine, nor was there glue. Instead, it was a haphazard configuration of reddish twine and some thin curling material, twisting around and around like some morbid school-day workbook, as if it was a literal spine. Made of skin and bone.
That’s just stupid… Mick thought, licking dry lips.
The configuration holding the book together was like something had leapt from point to point, following a path that made complete sense to it, but would only make sense to others later. How could you understand the journey without the destination? And besides, the book had no title. It was all about the journey.
“Where are you going?” Mick mumbled distractedly, enchanted, and when something fell from a shelf in his suddenly eerily quiet shop, only then did he realize he’d been reaching for the book.
Mick laughed, only partially forced. Can’t afford another heart attack! Three times would probably be the charm!
“Interesting looking book,” he finally said, regaining some composure. “Sure to get some attention, at least. Maybe I could even find it a prime shelf up front, if sunlight through the window won’t degrade it. Very interesting, its appearance. Very interesting. Reminds me of a Halloween gag my mom played on me.”
At the same time, Mick opened up the journal to a random page, a page that was indeed the same sort of material as the cover, not unlike papyrus. Or skin, yeah, he had to admit that.
Written on the page was
…reminds me of a Halloween gag my mom played on me…
in thick red letters.
It felt surreal to see that, and in a sudden panic, Mick flipped back to another page,
(…if the sign’s lyin’, I’m dyin’…)
and then another,
(…it was like they were voices from around the corner…)
(…I want to know if it interests you…)
he was sure had just been said in this room. But that was impossible!
Mick realized that, for some reason, he couldn’t stop touching the book. He wasn’t even sure when he’d started! There was no more patented ‘Gilded Mick smile’ on his face, no matter what the sign behind him might say. And it felt like all the merchandise in the Black Cat Emporium was starting at him! Faces hidden in the debris. Eyes in the darkness pleading to shine. In the shadows under wan evil moons and the faded stars of long ago. They sat patiently while waiting for something momentous to happen. Something monstrous.
“You have to keep her for now,” Melvin told him solemnly, “unless you can find her a new home. I don’t think you’ll have the time… or the desire. I’m not sure she likes you, but she hasn’t quite made up her mind. And she’s very particular.”
At the same time, Mick looked down at a once blank page, and he saw in progress a passage being written by an elegant, invisible hand…
…and Mick realized that the leather of the book was cat skin, had to be, and the words were written in blood by the same manner of feline bone that wound through her sinewy spine, and even though he was scared, deep down he fancied himself a pharaoh, the same type who long ago had wanted to take his kindred spirit with him into the next world, even if he knew the blood of the writings wasn’t feline, that it was his…
…which was actually what Mick Anders was thinking at that exact time!
It was remarkable! He could actually see the words being written! And they were true!
Melvin Shanks, hovering like a ghost, removed his hands from his pocket, and backed away slowly. He was crying. Mostly happy tears, but they were also sad, too. Forlorn and wistful.
Said Melvin as he faded back towards the door, “I’m not doing this willingly. You have to know that.”
“Gotta live with it. Could still be here if you come back with cash,” Mick mumbled, not even sure what he was saying, just wanting the other man to go away.
“When I come back, you’re going to be surprised.”
He sounded melancholy, but Mick knew why. Only the dreamers came back, and this Melvin guy was no dreamer. In a sense, that was his problem. He had nothing else.
And now I have everything!
“I don’t deal in dead wood, so it eases my troubled heart,” Mick said by way of explanation, knowing the poor mark wouldn’t understand, since it was romantic, but right now, he hardly cared a whit for Melvin Shanks, even if, in retrospect, they hadn’t sounded much like his words at all.
The book actually flipped on its own to a new blank page, and the Gilded Mick marveled, even as he held his breath, felt a nausea born of excitement and fear, rising and falling like time and tide. New words were written, darker and larger than before, almost dripping he would swear, and they made Mick want to both giggle and scream:
I’M NOT DOING THIS WILLINGLY.
GOTTA LIVE WITH IT. COULD STILL BE HERE IF YOU COME BACK WITH CASH.
WHEN I COME BACK, YOU’RE GOING TO BE SURPRISED.
I DON’T DEAL IN DEAD WOOD, SO IT EASES MY TROUBLED HEART.
Melvin had departed, and Mick could barely contain his excitement. Even if it was just his imagination, brought on by the perfect sales pitch, if he could pull the same trick on the rubes that came in, why-
The Gilded Mick suddenly yipped. Something had clawed his hand! In the green fluorescent light, he saw a number of long black scratches down his hand, and knew it was the red of blood he was seeing.
When he looked back down at the book, a long series of scratches had torn up the most recent page, and only a few of the words remained:
“What in the…” Mick mumbled. There was a look of confusion on his face.
The page flipped again, and he read new words by that same invisible hand, horrified:
…he would die with that look of confusion on his face…
And then Mick Anders, the Gilded Mick, knew what he had missed. It was simple, really. Someone who knew his shop as well as he did – every nook, cranny and sound – it should have been obvious to. Unless they had learned to tune it all out. Unless they didn’t deserve all of the Emporium’s precious, hidden treasures anymore.
Unless they had been distracted. On the sly, as it were.
He realized he’d never heard the door’s bell ring.
Melvin had never left, and from behind the distracted pawnshop owner, he emerged from the shadows and struck him down with a baseball bat. Mick fell instantly dead in a pool of his own blood, completely out of sight of anyone who might enter the store today.
“Sorry,” Melvin answered, pushing back what stringy remaining hair he had left away from his sweaty brow, “but she said it was you or me. And she’s very particular.”
Slowly, reverently, Melvin picked up the leathery book, standing over Mick’s dead body like he was the new pawnshop owner. Which, as far as he was concerned, he was. He had to be. He was crying at their good fortune, especially for the mistress he held in his hands. It was the body and soul of an ancient being, deserving of worship, and he had seen in Mick Anders’ eyes that he’d understood, at the end. As much as poor mortals like them could ever possibly understand.
“I hope this is a good home for you. I tried to find the best one. So much history, a place you’ll be comfortable in. Where you’ll meet new people.”
Melvin knew she would have to stretch, circle her new bed, but he was pretty sure they were home. It felt like a homecoming. And as for the rest?
She’ll take care of it. She’ll tell me how.
This was only her second life.
Melvin took another deep breath, filled his lungs with antique air and the smells of pooling blood like bursts of copper. Too quick and the deed had been done, but that was the truth of things. Don’t be sad that it’s over, be happy that it happened. They had a new home.
Sometimes you choose your pet. Sometimes your pet chooses you.
And sometimes there’s no difference at all.