'Do you require assistance, or are you happy to browse?'
When I dispatch him he returns to his seat and resumes his work at a huge oak desk. As I enter the bowels of the shop, I notice that he keeps watching me, always intent on what I am doing. As I walk this way and that, his grey head pivots toward me, then pivots away, as if he was watching me through the bones of his head.
Every so often he makes a circuit of the shop, floating away, miraculously reappearing at his desk, quick as a shadow, in the most complete and unsettling silence. There is not a footfall or the slightest swish of clothing to announce his progress and I start to feel as if he existed in two places at once.
My thoughts leave the antiques dealer and I gradually become aware of the sound of a ticking clock. The sound gets louder and I hear a cog start to whir inside the oak casing. The clock holds its breath for an instant, then it gasps out the hour like the last breath of a dying man. The unbearable sound splits my skull and echoes around the stone vault of the basement shop. Then the clock falls instantly silent and there is no other sound to be heard. The effect is unaccountably disturbing.
I move through the rooms until I enter a dark part of the shop. Some of the lightbulbs are missing and the blackness starts to envelop me. I turn a blind corner at the end of a large cupboard with griffins twisting around its pillars. The dealer! He is standing right in front of me, inches away. I wince and close my eyes, expecting a blow and when I open them he is gone. I compose myself, but the image of his bloodless face remains inprinted on me.
With some difficulty, due to the objects intervening, I position myself to gain a view the dealer's desk: he is writing and his cheek is resting on his hand. Then his hand slips, and he makes the plunging start of a man who catches himself falling asleep. When I look again he has disappeared and the seatcushion, bereft of his weight, slowly rises.
A sense of unease starts to descend upon me. I begin to feel that something is terribly wrong. I roll my neck across my shoulders and I suddenly feel dizzy. The vertigo takes hold and I swoon helplessly like a reed in the wind. The shop has gotten hot and the air is heavy with the scent of ether or some kind of solvent, maybe something used for the furniture.
I stand in front of a huge cupboard and run my finger down the door. The ancient glass has turned wavy and as I shift to and fro, navigating its waves, my mind starts to wander. The effect is hypnotic. My focus deepens from the surface to the space behind my back. The dealer! He is standing right behind me! I turn on my heel and brace myself for a fight. Nothing!
Suddenly, the air turns cold and my breath leaves a vanishing tail of mist on the glass. Inexplicably, the cold disappears, replaced by an oppressive heat--a turn of events which no rational thought can explain. The sudden change is sinister, but I think about it no more.
With some effort, due to the lack of concealing objects, I contrive to place myself out of view of the dealer, determined to inspect the bookshelf which I have come to see.
The tall, narrow etagere reaches to the vaulted stone ceiling. It fits my space perfectly and will hold all of the books, even leaving space for more. But something--I am at a loss to say what--is amiss. Antique furniture should emit a creak, or make some worthy show of time. I stand behind a pillar, hidden from sight, hidden from him, and give the shelf a mighty heave. Silence! The thing is rooted to the ground like a tree.
Behind me I feel the whisper of a breath. I turn quickly. The dealer!
'Are you quite all right, sir? You seem unwell. Perhaps you would care to sit down' ?
His composure is ruffled and his clothes seem to settle after a start and his lowered hand is holding something behind his back. I know that it defies logic, but I think that he was going to stab me to death.
Just as I start to gather my thoughts, a strange thing takes place. There is a swish and a man, carrying an iron ball in the crook of his left shoulder, emerges from a hidden panel, and I hear the scuff of his shoes as he disappears quickly up the steps. Though the footfalls are quick, one foot is heavier, like he suffered some deformity. The halting rhythm builds, when suddenly, it is broken by a fall, and a terrible groan breaks the still air. The cannon ball bashes its way down the stairs and then the shop falls silent. As I approach, I hear something being dragged, the swish of a panel, and a sound like a melon splitting open on the ground. I look on the ground expecting the crumpled man but he has gone.
There is a feint sound of metal, almost like a chain striking something. I seem to hear another moan, one altogether different from the first. With some difficulty, I try to order my thoughts among the thickening stench of ether, which hangs in a cloud.
Minutes before, I distinctly recall the presence of another customer in the shop but suddenly his footfalls died out and I never heard him leave.
I look again at the bookshelf and make a troubling discovery. The nicks of time, repeating like a signature, look like a giant made them by beating the bookshelf with a length of chain. It is an old trick of the trade. The piece is a reproduction. I turn over the tag. 'Regency Style Bookshelf'.
My strong desire to leave is overcome by dizziness.
An irrisistible object hangs suspended in the air: a waisted wooden pillar, with staring brass handles like two eyes. The piece holds me like a magnet. I must have it! I turn over the tag. SOLD TO MR CHANG.
'I'm afraid it sold yesterday, sir.'
That voice! How changed it is. He traverses the room in a blur. Pellets of livid sweat run down his bloodless face. He raises his arm with inhuman speed and something flashes in his hand.
My face burns and the blood beats through my head. I turn to run out of the shop. I run up the stone steps in pairs, trip and tumble backward to the bottom of the stairs and as the white lights twinkle behind my eyelids I feel a pair of bony hands close around my ankles while another pair of hands smother my face. Chloroform! The pinpoints of light start to swirl and the darkness starts to fall around me.
Suddenly I am half-wake. I am dimly aware that the wall panel is open. A huge figure, stripped to the waist, sways to and fro, breaking the light. Behind him, rows upon rows of gibbeted forms writhe and struggle against the walls and utter unearthly moans.
Miraculously, I break free, propel myself up the stairs and run out into the cold, pure air of the street. I run--through clots of people, in front of protesting cars--until I am far from that sinister place of death.