“You’re sure that’s the place?”
Ethan leaned out from the doorway, then nodded. “Biggest collection of magical books anywhere, they said. Heard the Watchers’ council got their knickers in a knot when they realised they were missing some of them.”
Ripper grinned. “And in a dump like that.” He looked out across the street again. The shop stuck out like a sore thumb between all the flashy lights and tarts in mini-skirts out on the game. Pillars and old books in the window and a peeling sign that he couldn’t quite read. “You ever been in?”
“Nah.” Ethan made a face. “Bloody hard to catch it open. Heard the shopkeeper can be a bit of a grumpy arsehole as well. Doesn’t like people touching anything. Or buying anything. Or breathing from the sounds of things.”
“Just as well we’re not going to bother him.” Ripper hefted his backpack off his shoulder. “You know where the back door is?”
“Ah. That might be the problem.”
Ripper gave him a look. “One way in and out?”
Ethan nodded. “I can cast an obscuring. Should cover us from anyone on the street.”
“Not like they’d notice,” Ripper said with a wry look at the very distracted and happy punters getting hustled off for a quickie. He checked his watch. “Can you hold it for five minutes? Gives me time to get the lock open and in.”
Ethan snorted. “Easy. Want me to come in after?”
Ripper shook his head, pulling his lockpicks out of his pocket. “Keep an eye out. If the bill come by, distract them, yeah?”
The feral grin on Ethan’s face told him his mate was going to enjoy the chance. “Quick as you can then, Rupert, old boy.”
“Piss off.” Ripper stepped out of the side street. “When I hit the pavement, cover me.”
He felt the whisper of the enchantment as soon as he stepped up off the road. Ethan was bloody good at charms like that and it was only all those years of practise at home that stopped him getting distracted by it.
Lock was easy enough. Basic simple, triple tumbler. Took him half a minute and it clicked open, then he twisted the handle and slipped in the door.
Compared to the street, the shop was dark and quiet. Flashes of coloured light gleamed through gaps in the wooden shutters that looked about two hundred years out of date. It smelled like the library at home, dry paper, old leather and dust.
Ripper reached into his backpack and pulled out his torch, turning it downwards as he switched it on.
Okay, yeah, he knew there were going to be a lot of books, but he almost swore under his breath, stunned. They were everywhere, stacked almost to the ceiling on shelves and in piles and on tables. This didn’t feel like a library. It felt like someone’s massive collection, stacked up everywhere until they had time to read it.
He took a cautious step forward, testing the floorboards. They barely made a sound, so he moved towards the nearest set of shelves. Classics. Next set of shelves. Science? Then music? That made no sense. There was no order to it, at least not any that he could see.
It took him a good ten minutes of searching to find what he was looking for, scanning the torch along each shelf. His heart thundered when he recognised a familiar occult symbol on one of the spines, and hurried closer. The shelf was thick with old books, some of the covers blackened leather and curled pages. They were stacked haphazardly, but there could be no mistaking the subject matter.
Ripper pulled off his backpack, unzipping it and reached out to grab one of the books.
“Oh my dear boy.” A voice spoke softly, close to his ear, and he whipped around, lashing out with the torch. There was no one there.
Ripper stared around wildly, then turned back to the shelves. Get the stuff and get the hell out.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”
Ripper spun around, crashing back against the shelves, the beam of his torch slashing around the empty shop. It flashed across a pale face and golden curls.
A man was standing in front of the closed door, hands folded in front of him. He looked like something out of some daft period drama, but there was something off about him. Even though the shop was dark, he almost looked like he was glowing.
“What the hell–?” Ripper’s hand was shaking, the torchlight bobbing unsteadily.
The man smiled pleasantly, eyes invisible behind small, shining, round glasses. “Quite the opposite, my dear.” His voice was mild, but there was something in it that felt like it was turning Ripper’s bones to water. “Oh dear, Rupert. Your father will be so… disappointed in you.”
“H-how do you know my name?” Ripper croaked.
The man stepped closer, the torch caught between them, casting terrifying shadows across his face. “Because I know you,” he said, still smiling. “You’ve been a very naughty boy, haven’t you?”
It was bloody stupid to throw his torch at the bastard.
Really bloody stupid.
He’d been in there more than half an hour.
Ethan rocked from one foot to the other. He was only meant to be on lookout duty. Wasn’t meant to go in. But then Ripper was meant to be in and out in ten minutes, give or take. He wasn’t someone who’d hang around and get himself caught.
He gave it another ten minutes, then slunk across the street, glancing around. No one really noticed him. Useful thing about being a skinny average kid. No one ever looked.
He bent to peek through the letterbox, but the handle twisted and he jumped back, groping in his pocket for a cigarette and acting as if he’d been using the doorway to shelter himself so he could light it.
Ripper stepped out, staring blankly ahead. He didn’t even notice Ethan, which sent every alarm bell ringing. Ethan glanced at the door, which swung closed behind Ripper. And then he heard the click of the lock being turned.
Oh. Oh, shit.
He darted after Ripper, who looked like he was sleepwalking, his feet dragging, his face as grey as three-week-old milk.
Green eyes rolled towards him and he almost stopped dead. “That place,” Ripper said hoarsely – and he sounded like he’d been screaming, “is a no-go.”
“Yeah?” Ethan glanced back warily. “They– he was– was he in? What happened?”
Ripper shuddered, shaking his head. “Don’t.”
“Magic?” Ethan couldn’t help poking the wound. “Was it magic?”
Ripper didn’t reply.
“But did you get the books?” Ethan continued. “You were meant to–”
Ripper swung around, grabbing him by the shirt and propelling him hard against the nearest wall. “You go there, you die,” he said. Not a threat, Ethan realised, staring wildly at him. A fact. Ripper let him go. “Don’t go there.”
“Right.” Ethan nodded shakily. “Yeah. Okay. Don’t go there. Fair enough.”
He looked back at the dull little bookshop.
Ripper wasn’t easy to scare. Whatever was in there had to be terrifying.