The Celluloid Files: 5
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S. O. Teric’s housed a collection of books on everything from astrology to ghosts to UFOs to traditional healing methods – the usual fare for spirituality stores and new age enthusiasts. But as I wandered down the high rows of books all tucked snugly and untouched in their dusty spaces, I realized this was something more. Cozied in with small-press paperbacks and best-seller hard covers I found the odd leather-bound tome, the occasional unbound, typewritten manuscript. Nora had pulled together a variety of sources on exotic philosophies, ancient civilizations, and extinct belief systems. S. O. Teric’s wasn’t simply a new age store for lonely middle-aged cat ladies and young Goth mind-expansionists who thought the best way to shun the established adult regime was by falling in love with demons and gods. This was a trove of knowledge, collected in her travels around the world. If I sold it or closed it down, her life’s work would be scattered back to the far-flung corners from which she had rescued it. At the very least, I would have to box it up and take it with me, maybe donate it to some historical society somewhere.
The store held an upper level supported by silver-scrolled pillars. I wound my way up the iron circular stair and found myself surrounded by candles. Thankfully, they were all unlit. Sconces sat on display tables, staring at me with the faces of gargoyles and cherubs, cats and jackals and creatures I had no name for. Similar engravings and figurines clustered here and there, flickering in and out of shadow with the movement of a flame in a tall, slender oil lamp. The lamp sat on a table in the center of the floor, the black silk cloth beneath it shimmering faintly. I thought of myself here, surrounded by such images and effigies. I imagined whispers slipping from the book pages, creaks coming from the statues. Goosebumps were inevitable.
I couldn’t stay here, in this place that reminded me so much of Nora and yet also gave me the heebie-jeebies. Even if I toned down the décor, I still didn’t know how to run a business, even a small one with little income and a highly specific clientele. Just how much did I owe my aunt for being a horrible niece? For being her heir? Her blood? Her favorite?
The bell over the front door tinkled happily. I ignored the voices downstairs as I examined a deck of tarot cards on the table. I flipped the top card, revealing the Queen of Pentacles. To be fair and forthcoming, I do actually know how to read a basic tarot spread. I don’t claim the psychic powers that go along with it and I have to look up most of the meanings. Pentacles looked scary to modern Western society, so a lot of decks changed them to coins. Either way, the interpretation involved security and prosperity. Sometimes the “face” cards were interpreted as actual people. In this case, a woman granting prosperity.
I drew a second card, a little weirded out by the first. Death. Contrary to popular belief (and every paranormal-esque movie ever), the Death card doesn’t mean literal death. I suppose it might, once in a blue moon. Its true representation is of an ending that makes way for a beginning. Like the winter that culls the weeds and brush and makes way for spring revitalization. Death…but not without rebirth.
My hand hovered on the deck for a third, final card when the discussion downstairs grew into shouts.
“Get the hell out of my shop, Dark River!” the sales clerk shouted. She followed it up with several choice names and descriptions of the recipient’s mother.
A man answered, but I only heard the deep rumbling of his voice. The darkness seemed to absorb his words.
I stepped over to the railing to peer down from the loft. From there, I could tell the shelves were arranged in a star pattern with a reading table in the middle. That was one thing I shared with my aunt – we both found beauty in the details, even if no one else every saw them.
“Miss Ambray!” A tall man, half-shrouded in shadow, stepped out from under the overhang to raise his hand toward me. “I thought I saw you come in here. I would like a word, if I may?”
Cautiously, I descended the spiral staircase. Who or what made Ivy try to throw a person out?
The man met me at the bottom. He was at least a head taller than me, and, though the lighting stole away the exact facets of his face, he looked to be in his fifties. A black or maybe dark blue suit made him more difficult to make out in the dim interior. “My name is Albert Dark River, Miss Ambray,” he said in his deep voice, extending his hand to me to shake.
I took his hand, felt calluses against my skin. “How do you know who I am?” I asked. Small towns spread gossip, everyone knows that. But the only people who knew my identity were the Terminator cop and Vinny the bad pinball player at the diner. The first I didn’t take for a blabbermouth, and the second had been too busy taking a ribbing when I left.
“It’s my business to know things, Miss Ambray. I work for Majestic Vista Realty.” He handed me a business card that I couldn’t read in the dark.
Ivy appeared suddenly at my elbow. “I told you to get out!” she spat at him.
“Yes, I believe you said of ‘your’ store. But unless I’m mistaken, this store actually belongs to Miss Ambray here, does it not? My business is with her, not her petty employees.”
I didn’t need to see it to know Ivy balled her fists in preparation to unleash a small fury on the man. “He’s the devil, Annika, don’t listen to him. Tell him to get out.”
“What business would that be, Mr. Dark River?” I asked, ignoring her.
“I have a client very interested in purchasing this property,” he said. “Its location is excellent. With the passing of your aunt, for which I am sincerely sorry, I understand its fate is in your hands. A young woman from the city like yourself might not wish to be burdened with such a white elephant as this.” He flicked his hand in the direction of the books. I didn’t need a lot of light to see the distaste written clearly in the pursing of his lips.
“My aunt loved this store,” I said, stalling. “I haven’t yet decided what I’m going to do with it.” I directed the last part more toward Ivy than the man.
“Well, when you do, please give me a call. My client is anxious to begin developing a venue that would better benefit the town.”
I nodded at him, not sure what to say to that. My neck tingled at this oddly fortuitous meeting. My first day in town, having only recently learned of my strange fortune, and I was given an easy out. As much as I might decide I wanted to sell, I hesitated to actually make that decision. Too much spun far out of my control, and I couldn’t make any concrete decisions until my brain stopped whirring.
Mr. Dark River made like he was tipping his hat to me, except he wasn’t wearing one. “Good day, Miss Ambray. I hope to hear from you soon. Ivy.” He didn’t look at her, merely dropped her name like dirty handkerchief as he left.
“Let the door hit you on the way out,” Ivy shouted after him. Under her breath she added, “And crush your spine, ‘cause you don’t have any balls.” To me, she said, “When you sell this place, Annika, do me a favor and don’t sell it to that guy. He’s nuts. And an ass.”
Refraining from mentioning pots and kettles, I simply nodded. The business card felt heavy in my hand.
“I don’t suppose you’re interested in having a cup of tea with me?” Was she getting chummy because she imagined we now had a common enemy, or because she saw an angle she needed to play?
“Sorry, Ivy,” I said, listening to chimes in one window twinkle in the breeze. “I need to get my pizza home.”
“Sure.” I could hear the hurt in her voice. “Maybe next time.”
“Maybe,” I said. Secretly, I didn’t think there would be a next time.
I spent the rest of the day familiarizing myself with Nora’s home and went to bed early. She had two spare bedrooms. I picked the larger of the two, unable to make myself stay in the master bedroom. The queen-sized bed welcomed me like a cloud welcomes a fat baby cherub. I was asleep as soon as my face snuggled against the cool pillow.
I overslept. My plan had been to rise early and meet some of the older townspeople. They might be able to advise me in how to go about fixing the broken parts of the town. At the very least, they could tell me which parts were actually broken, and which belonged in the quirky, strange category. Unfortunately, the bedroom sported no alarm clock and I had forgotten to set my phone.
When I rolled out of the bed, my body aching faintly from the previous day’s drive, the sun streamed through the lace curtains with a cheerful glow. I made a face at it, my eyes kept to slits to ward off the light as well as the cheer. Of my possible choices for emotions to begin my day with, today did not include carefree glee.
I showered again to help me wake up, this time making an effort to look more than simply presentable. Makeup, hair, a dark blue sundress. I wanted to make a good impression. Though the swollen blue eyes staring back at me in the mirror denied my high hopes, I at least looked like I made an effort.
Without perishables in the kitchen, I settled for organic oatmeal and water for breakfast. Not the most pleasant way to start my day, but I supposed it could be worse.
I stepped out onto the porch to find a note tucked under the flower knocker. It had my name on it, making me frown. Opening it, I read, frowned, snorted, then tossed it on the front table before closing and locking the door.
If Ivy really wanted to help me, she should have made a better first impression. Maybe we could work up to being allies…eventually. After the irritation had worn off. Besides, I didn’t have time to meet her for a noon lunch; it was already five minutes past.
As I turned to take the stairs two at a time, I accidentally kicked the morning’s paper onto the lawn. Careful as I tread across the grass, I gingerly picked up the heavy roll and shook it open. The Goode County Gazette had served the area for ninety-seven years. It said so right there below the title. I intended only for a quick glance, to discover what this strange backwater found newsworthy.
It was me.