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The town was a little different from the other sleepy and unpretentious coastal communities you pass by on a train—a little larger and more prosperous due to the number of now-defunct sardine and squid canning factories now a fashionable shopping precinct, brimming full with restaurants, mariner souvenir shops, and antique stores. However, far from the historic district frequented by tourists, there were isolated side streets untouched by the forces of gentrification and commercialization. One such place sat squeezed between two clapboard shops-- a tall, narrow, slate-roofed building, lichened and weather-stained, with its windows heavily coated with grime. A sun-bleached signboard swayed slowly above the front door. It was carved in the shape of a smiling sea serpent bearing a banner in its mouth that read in faded rainbow-colored letters: THE CHEERFUL DRAGON’S ANTIQUES AND BOOKS.
The proprietor of this establishment was a lean, middle-aged gnomus, no taller than the knee of the out-of-towner. He was dressed in a long sleeved, white shirt with blue-bibbed overalls. His long, mousy hair was tied in a ponytail, while his long beard was intricately braided with different-colored ribbons. His face reminded her of some cave-dwelling rodent; it was long and thin with sickly pebble-gray skin and large, thin-lidded eyes that were as colorless as pure glass marbles. Offering a small gray hand, the odd-looking man smiled a snaggletooth grin. “Van Henderson, at your service.”
The teenage visitor heralded from the quaint little hamlet of WrenChester. Had she lived in the Outer Mortal Territories, she would have been regarded just as strange, even freakish as the gnomus. On the magically charged Territories of the Table Woods, however she was simply regarded as cute and pretty, with her nut-brown, beaky-nosed face, long pointed ears, and black feathery hair.
Gingerly, Tullugaq shook hands, all the while casting a worried eye towards the bookshelves.
“I’m Twhistle Tullugaq,” she said, nervously. “Uh…Say, do all these other books do that, the pictures jumping out and biting people?”
“Oh, don’t worry about them?” chuckled Henderson. All of these are harmless. They wouldn’t even harm a herkle. I put the more dangerous ones in a special case in back. It’s also where I put the special stuff. Would you like to see?”
“Sure,” said Tullugaq, and eagerly felt for her wallet. Who knows? She thought, perhaps you’ll find a map to some lost treasure hoard, or a key to some ancient temple, or better yet, something to complete your Weird Wonders of the World Collection.
Henderson nodded and took a small kerosene lantern down from its hook on the wall. Fishing out a matchbox from his shirt pocket, he managed to light the stubby wick, producing a flickering glow about as bright as a firefly.
He then led Tullugaq to an enormous tapestry cunningly hidden behind some shelves. It showed several pipe-smoking dogs having a friendly game of poker. The heavy fabric rippled slightly as though stirred by a slight breeze.
“Through here,” he said, raising one of the corners to reveal a narrow drafty passageway.
The sinister pattering of feet dogged them through several more dark corridors, and then abruptly halted when they entered another vast, book-lined room. Tullugaq gaped at how all the towering shelves were all arranged, instead of just going in straight uniform lines; they twisted and turned in sharp, crazy, claustrophobic angles. Wedged in the shadowy, cobwebbed corners were piles of rubbish, presumably deposited by nesting grankle birds or by a sloppy team of janitors.
Tullugaq paused to study one of the piles. It was a large, filthy mess of miscellaneous junk: crumpled paper, soiled, greasy rags, bits of multicolored yarn, twigs, pieces of pottery, and gnawed fragments of bones.
She nudged it curiously with her foot. Instantly, two huge, flame-red eyes blinked into existence, followed shortly by a wide, gash like mouth, filled with jagged, slab like teeth.
“Do you mind?” said a harsh, grating voice.
“Sorry,” squeaked Tullugaq, backing hastily away. “I…I thought you were just a rubbish heap.” Shivering, she turned and hurried after Henderson. She could still feel those burning eyes boring into her back. No wonder the Kluge rats avoided this place.
“You shouldn’t bother my janitors,” he explained somberly, the moment she caught up. “They get really irate when they’re prematurely awakened.”
“I see what you mean,” gasped Tullugaq, as she moved quickly to his side. “Say, how big is this building anyway?”
“Oh, it depends,” replied Henderson, waving his hand vaguely.
Tullugaq stared at him. “Depends?”
“Sometimes the house stretches up nearly to the sky, and sometimes it sinks nearly to the center of the earth. On some days, it just shrinks in on itself…”
“Sheesh!” exclaimed Tullugaq loudly. “That’s really inconvenient! I have a hard enough time finding my socks in an ordinary house, without trying to find them in one without trying to find them in one where the rooms are always changing and moving around.”
“Just remember to stay close to me,” Henderson whispered, as they picked their way among the great shelves, “and remember keep your eye on the lantern.”
“Don’t worry,” she stammered, shivering a little, “I’m not a complete and utter lamebrain.” The further on they went, the more icy and drafty the atmosphere became. Soon their breath was streaming out in white clouds.
Tullugaq was utterly dumbfounded. By the way the air felt this was more like a cave than a bookstore. She half-expected to see masses of bats and stalactites hanging from the ceiling. “Hey Henderson!” she exclaimed. “What’s up with the temperature? It’s like a freezer in here!”
“Central heating’s down,” he replied gravely.
“Yeah sure,” muttered Tullugaq under her breath.
She had a feeling that the gnomus was lying. There was something more disturbing going on here than just a simple broken-down furnace, whether it had anything to do with the house changing shape, Tullugaq didn’t know. Whatever the cause, it was making her feel creepy and uncomfortable. She long desperately to change into a formidable animal with a thick fur coat, but she wasn’t too sure how Henderson was going to react should he find himself being followed by an enormous polar bear. She didn’t want him running off and leaving her alone in a huge, ever-changing maze of a house. So she hurried along as herself, keeping her eye fixed anxiously on the feeble light of Henderson’s lantern.
After what seemed like hours of walking through dank and musty rooms and corridors, they finally stopped outside a small green door in an archway. Henderson twisted the porcelain knob, and pushed. With a loud, grating squeak the door swung opened. A sudden rush of freezing air met them from the opening. Tullugaq shrank back, feeling her hair stand on end. She wanted to turn around and go back the way she came. But she knew she wouldn’t be able to make it back without Henderson’s help.
Slowly and cautiously Tullugaq moved forward. Although she wasn’t tall, she had to stoop low to keep from bumping her head on the doorway.
The room was small and square with a really low ceiling and no windows. It was cold as underground crypt, and contained only a footstool and a massive display case with a domed glass top and bronze Griffin's feet. Henderson pushed the stool up to the case and stood on it. After hanging up his lantern on a hook embedded in the ceiling, he reached inside his pants’ pocket and pulled out a ring of keys. Selecting a tiny gold key shaped like a grasping hand, he used it to open the case.
Tullugaq momentarily forgot about the cold, and stared fascinated at all the weird assortment of things jumbled inside. A Dragon’s skull propped up books with curious titles like, The Old Gypsy’s Almanac, The Mad Laughter of Alvarado, Lich Stew and Other Graveyard Dishes, Worst Things Waiting in the Cellar, and Unhallowed Places to Avoid. Various magical thingamajigs from strange potions to shrunken heads crammed the far corners of the display case. Her eyes soon alighted on a grimy cylindrical mirror, underneath it was a red leather-bound volume wrapped in a white silk ribbon secured in place by a large silver seal. Looking closely, Tullugaq noticed that the seal was imprinted with the image of a coiled centipede.
“Hey Henderson?” she said, pointing. “How much do you want for those things?”
Henderson glanced over the book and mirror.
“Oh, those things,” he said, looking vague. He stroked his braided beard thoughtfully. “How about a drixal a piece?”
“All righty,” she said, opening her wallet. She gave him two silver pieces.
“Wait,” said Henderson, as she was reaching into the case. “I’ll wrap this stuff up for you.”
Soon they were tramping back along the wildly zigzagging path through the deep gloom. When they reached the front of the shop, the owner packed both objects into the hatbox along with wads of old newspaper.
“Thanks,” she said, eagerly. She looked down the box, and then looked questionably back at Henderson.
“Ahh…Say, these don’t happen to come with a curse?” asked Tullugaq uncertainly.
Henderson shook his head vigorously, causing his bow-bedecked beard to fly about.
“Ever since I got those things at an estate sale ten years ago,” he replied, “I suffered no misfortune or mishap.”
“Oh,” said Tullugaq, somewhat disappointed.
“Come to think of it,” mused Henderson, “I don’t know why I got those things in the first place. Maybe it was the idea of them being in the same room with a dead man. It sounds loathsome…”
Tullugaq’s eyes widened. “Did you say dead man?”
“Yes, Jules Simeon Gurkle,” he replied. “That’s some of his stuff you are holding. You may have heard of him. He was that somewhat eccentric millionaire artist who devoted much of his work to the grotesque and the macabre. He died suddenly, under peculiar circumstances, downright suspicious circumstances if you ask me.”
Tullugaq stared. “Oh, why do you say that?”
“Well, from what I heard they had the problem of identifying the body. It was so hideously shriveled that they had to consult dental records just to be sure it was really Jules Gurkle. There was lots of publicity surrounding the case, and the Gurkle family wanted it all hushed up.”
Tullugaq was stunned. “Shriveled? You mean he was mummified?”
Henderson nodded. “Yep, the man was just dried skin and bones, literally. It was Gurkle’s butler who discovered the body. He was bringing his master his morning breakfast like he always done—“
Tullugaq’s eyes lit up.
“Hey, it’s just like an old fashioned murder mystery!” she exclaimed, interrupting. “The butler knocks on his master’s chamber and gets no reply. So he opens the door and finds poor ole Mr. Gurkle on the bedroom floor, dead and drier than a jerky stick. Sheesh! That’s freaky!”
“Yes,” said Henderson, staring intensely at her. “But do you want to know what was even more freaky?”
“Uhh…well…sure,” said Tullugaq nervously, wondering if perhaps the gnomus was a bit touched in the head.
“They said, Mr. Gurkle had this grisly smile on his face,” he said, lowering his voice to a whisper, “it was as if he enjoyed having the life sucked right out of him.”
At this point, Tullugaq decided to say so long, and thanks for the curiosities. As the shop door closed behind her, she breathed a sigh of relief. She felt really glad to be out of that dismal place and back in the warm sunshine again. Now that guy was definitely weird, she thought, shaking her head, wonder if he got that way by working in that weird joint? Wait what was that?
She turned toward the shop door, frowning. Did I just hear a sudden whoop of joy?
She listened, pricking her ears, but all she heard was a raucous chittering as a cloud of blackbirds rose off the roof and headed out over the town.
Nothing, just my imagination. With a shrug, she turned around and started walking away.
This pasta has received a rating of 6/10 or higher and has moved on to the finals of the 2015 freestyle pasta challenge.