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The Tenth Gate

~ Part One

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Corso had always liked old libraries, and this one was just perfect, honey coloured stone and mullioned windows set almost delicately between the power and the folly of an ancient cathedral built as a saint’s shrine and a castle to hold back the Scots. The atmosphere of the place calmed him, seeped inside him, reminding him of the time when he wasn’t so cynical, when he would use books with joy and pleasure instead of just the means to hard cash.

In the reading room, nine pictures spread on the desk, he read up on the history of demonic appearances linked to the ancient saint. An oppressive and dusty silence was mercilessly enforced. That pleased him. Verbal communication had never been one of his strengths. He could talk up a deal, of course, he could smile to increase a price when he sold, or look saddened as he offered less than a book’s worth to a seller. But he liked this wordless atmosphere. He could watch the snapshots of lives as they passed, lives laid out in frames of a storyboard, and not have to comment, and sidestep involvement behind polite and circumspect rules. He could glance up from his desk and see what people didn’t think he could see- what they’re really like.

He liked watching people, guessing the subjects that they studied, but he preferred to do it from afar. Today, Dean thought, there are plenty here like me. He knew he was a book geek, and he recognised it in others-the dishevelled clothes, the style that had passed, and in his case the first signs of middle age’s decline. He wondered if he should warn them that it would lead nowhere. The older you get, he told himself, the worse it becomes. Being no good at interactions didn’t mean that you didn’t miss them. It was hard to admit, even to yourself, that you were lonely.

He watched as a few late readers, the few students who were still here chasing deadlines, scoured the shelves. Most of them seemed to be in friendly groups, whispered arrangements to meet were being made, eye contact and smiles exchanged. He felt oddly envious. A few women were amongst them, dressed messily in what appeared to be well used and none too clean clothes. But even these had a way of moving, he realised.

How long had it been since Green Eyes? He sighed to himself. Far too long. But sometimes a movement of a hip or the swell of a breast against thin fabric reminded him. He thought of soft hair and yielding skin, and the scent of female desire. He remembered the touch of soft fingers. He looked at the women around him, and faded into a daydream of lithe bodies and soft kisses. There was nothing, he thought, nothing as attractive as the barely concealed. His imagination worked pleasurably, stripping away the layers on the women he saw, his imagined touches moving below, beneath, and between, into a haze of hidden delights.

Jolting back to reality, he realized how dreadful his expression must look. Wake up, he told himself. What was happening to him? He couldn’t go on like this.

He grabbed his old green coat, threw his books into his bag, and, threading his way through the musty corridors headed out past the desk into the foggy winter night as the sodium lights started to glow harsh and yellow. Get a grip, he told himself. Life has changed. This won’t happen to you. Not again, never.

There were times when he despaired of himself.

He stopped in the entrance lobby as he realised his nicotine habit was screaming at him. Fumbling through his bag and coat pockets, he drew out a crumpled pack of Lucky Strikes. He’d been trying to cut back, realising replacements would be hard to find here, but it looked like he’d have to get to like the native brands. He flicked his lighter and inhaled deeply and hungrily, holding the smoke deep in his lungs for as long as he could, feeling his head start to swim as the hit reached him. He started to exhale luxuriously.

“Oh God,” a woman’s voice sounded behind him, and he turned to see a clatter of falling books and a bag upended. She was bundled against the cold, the collar of a long black coat allowing wisps of dirty blonde hair to stray over her thin mascara blackened eyes. “Sorry, sorry” she was saying to the leaving readers as they dodged round her. “Can’t find my cigarettes.”

Dean was not a sympathetic person. Empathy was not one of his strengths. But, his first nicotine for hours fresh in his veins, he knew how she felt.

“Here.” He passed her a cigarette, and flicked the lighter again. She had brown eyes with a golden cast, tiger-like. Her wrist shook as she steadied the flame, and he cupped his hands around hers. There was a split second’s eye contact.

“Thank you.”

Dean realised that he’d have to reply. God, he hated small talk of any sort. “That’s OK. At least we social lepers can still smoke in the street around here.”

“Yeah, but enjoy it while you can. Soon they’ll ban that too. Bloody government.”

“It’s worse where I come from.”

She looked at him again. “American, yeah? You studying here?”

How could he explain an afternoon spent chasing references to local witches and the devil being the closest he got to relaxation? He was realising that she was the first person he’d spoken to all day as she gathered her things and made to walk into the street. The little contact intensified the dread of another evening’s isolation.

“Come for a drink with me.” He couldn’t believe he’d said it. His voice sounded wrong, harsh, tense. Or desperate.

There was an awkward pause. Time ran slowly as she looked him up and down, considering her answer. He took a breath to anticipate the brush off that he expected. He knew how this would look to her.

“Ok, but I choose where. Not your tourist bars.”

A little later, introductions made, he found himself in the smoky public bar of the sort of English pub that he imagined only existed on the film sets of Dickens adaptations. A weak fire burned against the increasing December cold, and its smoke added to the tobacco and beer fumes that hung in flat sheets in the stale air. The uncarpeted floor was sticky with spilt drink and dirt from the sleety street. They sat on hard chairs at a grubby table, coats still on. A few people looked curiously at them. Some greeted the woman, she seemed well known amongst charity-shop clothed, and strangely accented drinkers. She reached into her bag for her cigarettes and pulled out a few books. Dean was interested to see that the spine of one read A Local History of Witchcraft.

“Is History your subject? I’d guessed at Politics.” What a pointless comment. He was dreadful at this sort of situation. He ought to take classes or something. Interaction for the socially challenged, maybe.

“No, more a kind of hobby. Similar to you, I saw what you were reading in the library. The local tradition of demonology. Many of us here have found that topic interesting." So much easier, he thought as he listened to her, to believe in the Devil than in God. "Not that I was watching you or anything.” There was something sly about how she said it, but her eyes remained fixed on his. She was drawing something on the table with a few drops of spilt wine. A circle, a star within it. A few sweeps and swirls that could have been a foreign script. She whispered something which didn’t sound like English, but he couldn’t quite hear it above the conversations in the increasingly busy bar.

Perhaps the drink was kicking in too quickly. He hadn’t eaten for hours, and the atmosphere was getting thicker. Feeling slightly sick and light-headed he heard her say “Come back to my flat. It’s not so far, and you can see the rest of my books.”

He found himself following her out into the dripping cold, the wet pavements beginning to be muffled with snow. The streets were empty now, and she took his hand as they turned down an ancient terrace of poorly kept houses and found a paint-peeled door. Something was happening to him, and he shivered as he realised that he was no longer entirely in control. He was in a strange town, he didn’t know where, and he wasn’t sure about with whom. Perhaps he should run? But something about he compelled him to stay, held him with a unspoken promise.

Inside, she threw a few logs expertly onto the dying fire. Sparks flew, and they crackled and hissed with blue and scarlet flame. The smell of woodsmoke welled into the room and mixed with his tobacco. The room was dim in the firelight, and she lit some half burned candles which lay about the grate. Dean relaxed a little in the warmth. This seemed a fairly normal place, as far as he could tell.

“Take off your coat, and I’ll go and get us a drink” Her voice was honeyed, but it seemed more a command than a request. His unease crept back, but he did so and, pushing away a resident sleeping cat, lay back on the threadbare sofa and watched the fire grow. A pile of books lay scattered on the couch, and through habit or nerves, he leafed though one. The text was old, and described the lives of witches. The old woodcut prints showed a face he thought was familiar. The reddish firelight suffused the room, and the yellow eyed cat coiled itself about his feet. This was a place where witchcraft still lives, he realised. The crack of the wood, the incense smells, the books, the strange and organic atmosphere were part of a world he’d come across in his books, but until now had never experienced. The sound of glasses and of a cork withdrawn brought him to his senses. He turned to see her return.

She had taken off the coat, and he saw that she was both slimmer and more curvaceous than he’d imagined. A long black skirt of dusty velvet swayed as she moved closer. The wine that she had tasted had reddened her lips, and her tongue licked their corner. Again, the half-smile. He suddenly knew that he was lost. A miasma of desire hung in the very air about her.

As she slid down next to him, she handed him a glass, and he took an anxious mouthful. He was about to make some comment about the books. He wasn’t ready for such closeness, even though every part of his being wanted her. The fear of making some clumsy mistake, of clutching and grabbing, of not being able satisfy either himself or her paralysed his mind. As she leaned forward, opening the deep cleft of her unbuttoned shirt, he tensed and leant back. Her hand slid snakelike, relentless, along the seat and onto his knee. Her mouth was nearer, and he could feel her breath, smell her perfume, the cloying scent of want. He could only surrender. He felt, with a gasp of relief, the tension leave his muscles, and knew that she had somehow given him the power to respond….

Night crept onwards, but neither of them noticed.


The cat watched silently from the hearth, as they lay, satiated, exhausted, in the dying, flickering light.St ill holding him, she opened her eyes. Her glass was on the floor beside them, and she dipped her finger in the wine. Drawing on his chest, she whispered

“Some religions think that wine can turn to blood. They took that from the witches.” Her finger shaped a damp pentagram on his chest, her sharp nail drawing a tiny drop on blood, and she kissed the centre. There were a few muted words, again in a tongue he didn’t know. He felt elated. Her words made him feel different, satisfied. He knew he was changed now. She had given him a confidence, a belief in himself that had been lacking. A counterpoint to his cynicism, a belief in the sensuous.

As she curled close to him, he lay dazed in the dying firelight. There was a smile on his face, This time his pleasure had been real.

“You understand, Dean, this act is a spell: It forges the ties that bind”

Somehow he did. He knew that he would meet her again, and that the witch in the black dress would be both his saviour and his downfall. He looked closely into her yellow-brown eyes, and ran his hand over her face, and into her dirty blonde hair.

“Yes. And I know that when you call, I’ll come. But not how or why.”

He also knew that in the morning they would part. He would rejoin his murky realty, and she would fade into the strange mix of truth and legend that her history sprang from. Satiated, they lay back on the old sofa, his hands continuing their languid journey over her skin. She drew a cover around them and, as the embers died and the familiar cat watched, they slept, until the grey dawn light with both its promise of the future and its curse of leavings crept across the room.


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