Michael fiddled with the button on his cardigan as he gazed out of the shop window into the narrow dusty alleyway. The few Denke Street traders were packing up for the day. Old Mrs Sampson had already closed and gone home, her vegetables long sold and bubbling away on customers’ stoves right now. Shivi yawned as he pulled the shutter down on his jewellers, Mr Bergen locked the door to his barbers and nodded his head at Michael, smiling briefly before turning and walking away. Mrs Klum hoisted up the awning over the cheese emporium while her daughter Freda smiled and waved at Michael. He half waved back, a hint of a smile flickered across his face as he retreated back from the window into the shadows of the shop.
Mother and daughter bustled away, Freda glancing over her shoulder toward Michaels’ direction, while winding her blonde ringlets absentmindedly around her fingers. Michael was about to turn away when the figure of a man came distantly into view. Dressed in a long billowing overcoat, topped with a fur hat with stray ear flaps, appearing to breathe smoke in the dusk autumn light, Michael recognised Mr Ingle. The dragon man.
As Mr Ingle grew larger Michael’s father entered the shop from the back workshop, wiping his hands on a tattered cloth. ‘Has everyone gone home Michael?’
‘Yes Papa.’ Michael turned to his father. ‘The Dra.., Mr Ingle is coming up the street.’
‘Ah, good. Go upstairs and wash up for supper, I won’t be long.’
Michael disappeared through the back door, closing it behind him as he always did when after-hours customers called. Before letting the latch slide into place he spied his father remove a wooden box from one of the cupboards and place it on the gleaming walnut counter. Michael knew that the wooden boxes were for the special books requested by the after-hours customers.
The regular books that were sold in the shop had hand stretched leather covers, binding together the palest of yellow parchment. Michael loved the comforting smell of leather and paper. He would watch for hours in silence as his father crafted the covers from pig or calf skin, whistling as he worked. The special books had soft leather pages as well as the leather covers, Michael’s father made those at night while Michael slept. But Michael always sought them out in their hiding cupboard to marvel at the workmanship.
The bell of the door jangled sharply as Mr Ingles entered. He looked directly to the crack in the door and through to Michael’s bones. Michael’s father turned his head, following Mr Ingles’ stare. Michael quickly closed the door.
‘No one else knows about my book Mr Jacobs?’ Mr Ingles said.
‘No, no.’ Mr Jacobs moved around the counter and locked the shop door, pulling the blind down before resuming his position behind the counter. ‘Just you and I.’ He slid the wooden box slightly towards Mr Ingles and removed the lid, placing it carefully on the counter. He gestured with open hands. ‘Your book.’
The stern expression dissolved from Mr Ingles and a greedy smile replaced it. His eyes devoured the book before he slowly reached in and picked it up. He held it to his face and inhaled deeply, closing his eyes as he exhaled. He then reopened his eyes and traced his fat fingers over the blank leather pages before placing the book back in the box and replacing the lid. Still smiling.
‘Excellent job Mr Jacobs.’
Mr Jacobs bowed his head a little, the light above him illuminating his new bald patch as he did. ‘Thank you.’
Mr Ingles removed a sealed brown envelope from inside his coat pocket and placed it on the counter. ‘As we agreed.’
‘Thank you. It was a pleasure.’ Mr Jacobs slid the envelope into his apron pocket and moved across to the door simultaneously with Mr Ingles.
‘Goodbye Mr Jacobs.’
‘Good night Sir.’ Mr Jacobs locked the door. ‘Come out Michael, I know you are still there.’
The door to the back slowly opened and Michael stepped into the shop. ‘I’m sorry Papa.’
His father sighed, then smiled. ‘That’s ok, it’s time I showed you the special orders. You’re a young man now. You’ll take over one day and need to know everything.’ He unlocked a display cabinet and took down an ornate carved leather book, placing it on the counter. ‘Here, come closer.’
Michael creaked across the floorboards.
His father fanned his hands out in a magician-like gesture. ‘Go ahead, touch, look.’
Michael gently let his fingertips trail over the embossed detailing on the cover, he opened the book and felt the silken texture of the blank pages, they felt comforting to him and as he turned the pages he rubbed them lightly between his fingers, like a child with the edge of a much loved blanket.
‘That Michael, is a special book. Our clients that order these are totally secret and expect privacy at all times. There is no paperwork, no records. You agree a price, in person, ask the details, remember it all, don’t write it down, and give them a date to come and collect.’
Michael continued to stroke the pages. ‘What details? What details do I need to ask and remember?’
‘Details such as where the carcass for the leather will be collected from, if we need to kill or are we just collecting. There will be a price difference of course for either options.’
‘So we don’t use Gwil’s butchers as usual then?’ Michael frowned slightly.
‘No son.’ Mr Jacobs smiled. ‘Specials are special due to what they are made from. Mr Ingles’ book was made from his wife.’
‘No, made from.’
Michael drew his hand back away from the book and took a couple of deep breaths. ‘Human leather?’ He stared at his father.
His father stared back. ‘Yes. Sometimes people don’t want to just bury their loved ones, alone and deep underground, they like to keep them closer by. On a bookshelf, on a table, by the bed. It’s the same way we use pig and calf, but with the specials we use all of the skin to make the pages too.’
‘You said ‘if we need to kill’. If peoples loved ones have died… I don’t understand.’ Michael ran his hands through his hair and then started to fiddle with his cardigan button again.
Mr Jacobs shrugged. ‘Sometimes someone wants a book made and the person they want to use hasn’t died yet. If they are too squeamish to do it themselves then I do it, for a much higher charge.’
The button fiddling stopped. ‘You murder people?’
‘I kill them humanely, just like the pigs and calves. It’s no different really. You use the captive bolt pistol into the head, then slit the throat to bleed out quickly before the stun wears off. I’ve only had two specials not bleed out and die before the stun wore off. I just stunned again. There was only a second or two of consciousness. I am a professional.’
‘I, I don’t, I can’t…’ Michael steadied himself on the counter with his trembling hands.
‘Of course you can my boy, it just takes time. That’s why we will start now. Build you up. It’s actually quite relaxing, watching someone die in front of you. Sometimes I even hold their hands, and more.’
Michael pushed his hair out of his eyes once more, the clammy sweat fixing it to the side.
Mr Jacobs laughed. ‘Don’t worry, you can work with me on the next one before doing your first solo one. You want your first one to be precious, memorable. And you want it to look exquisite, not shoddy.’ He cocked his head slightly to side. ‘I see the way you look at the young lady opposite. She would make a good first book. Soft pure pages.’
Michael stared down at the book on the counter. His face blank but his eyes tumultuously trying to process the unprocessable.
‘That is my first book. Beautiful isn’t it.’ The pride was clear in Mr Jacobs’ voice.
Michael continued to stare at the book. ‘Yes.’
After a small suffocating silence Mr Jacobs took off his apron. ‘It’s getting late, supper will be over cooked.’ He patted Michael on the shoulder as he walked past, heading towards the back. ‘Lock your Mother back up in the display cabinet and let’s go eat. I’m famished.’