Everything you’re about to read is a lie.
The identity thief read the tiny pen inscription slowly. The handwriting was neat, with a burst of unruliness beneath the surface. Below it was a round blot. Most people would have ignored it; taken it for a smudge of ink left by the writer’s hand. But the identity thief recognized it at once. He knew exactly what it meant.
The identity thief turned to the next page of the book. There were no extra messages there; just the title. RHETORIC. He flicked through the other pages. There were no handwritten additions to the dense columns of printed text.
“So. What’s this got to do with me?” he asked, as if he didn’t know the answer already.
“I was hoping you’d be able to tell me,” replied the book dealer, sitting opposite him. For someone sitting in the largest and plushest armchair in the identity thief’s large drawing room, he looked very uncomfortable. “He was sure you’d recognize it.”
The dealer was right, of course. The identity thief did recognize the book. And the smudged thumbprint on the title page. The author’s name was missing, but the identity thief didn’t need to be told that this was one of the Philosopher’s few surviving works. Even though it was a forgery, the Philosopher’s writing filled its pages. Who could tell how many dark minds had pored over these words, in the centuries connecting the Philosopher’s time to the present? How many minds had been perverted, how many lives had been taken by virtue of the crafts detailed in these pages? The identity thief would never be so foolish as to join those ranks, of course; he couldn’t read the Ancient Greek that this edition was written in. The identity thief appreciated books like this not for their content but for the artistry of their creation, which is why he’d got rid of this particular volume years ago. But now, inexplicably, it had come crashing down into his life once again, freshly adorned with a message that didn’t make things the slightest bit clearer.
The identity thief leaned forward, his back clicking like an orchestra, and dropped the book firmly on the coffee table.
“Try one of your other…clients,” said the identity thief. “I’ve never seen this book before in my life.”
“Funny. That’s not what he seems to think.”
The identity thief’s well-fed armchair let out a snort as he squeezed himself back into it. “He can think whatever he likes. It’s none of my concern.” He glanced upwards. The ceilings in this wing of his house had always been too low for his liking. The ornate rose in the centre of the drawing room ceiling no longer held a chandelier like it used to, but nevertheless seemed to be dangling something else right over the bald patch on his head. Something invisible, but no less heavy.
“When was the last time you saw him?”
“Years ago. I used to visit his shop. Siskos Books. Not too often, of course, it wouldn’t have done to be seen hanging around that part of town.”
“You’ve met him, haven’t you? You must know the place.”
The book dealer stared thoughtfully at the identity thief. Or maybe he was wearing another expression. It was impossible to know, because he was wearing a sculpted mask, contorted into a howl of anguish. Though its eye and mouth holes were large, no trace of the book dealer’s face could be seen. Only darkness.
The identity thief didn’t let the mask concern him. He’d dealt with many other people just like the book dealer, wearing masks just like that, before. It was a sensible precaution for people like them to take. Though there was something unbearably familiar about this man, despite the mask. Something about the way he sat, heavily, in the armchair. Or perhaps in his well-spoken and nasal voice.
The identity thief himself saw no reason to hide his face. It was grey and lined with a lifetime of hard work; not a face that attracted attention. He was too old and too rich to be investigated. He had more lawyers looking after his personal affairs than the SID had detectives.
“If you do meet him again – if he does coming looking for you – you may find that he’s…not the man you remember.”
“What are you getting at?”
“People change, Mr Foley. Blackthumb has changed.”
At the sound of Blackthumb’s name, the identity thief felt a shadow pass over his head. The lights in the drawing room were too dim too, he realized. The whole room was just too dark, too heavy for his tastes. He felt crushed beneath it. He’d need to have the whole place redone as soon as he could. But first, he needed to get this book dealer out of his house, along with his unwanted gift from the past.
“I heard that something terrible had happened to him,” the identity thief admitted. “That he’d been arrested. Or killed by the Lyceum. Or gone insane.”
“All true,” the book dealer replied, nodding gravely.
“But the last time I checked, his bookshop was still in the same place, so he can’t be doing that badly.”
“I’m sure you know what they say about Blackthumb,” the book dealer whispered. “He doesn’t need to wear a mask like the rest of us. He’s better than that. Some say he’s the most talented sorcerer alive. The most talented who’s lived since the Philosopher himself.”
The book dealer sounded awed, excited. Though his mask wore the same pained grimace as ever, its three lightless apertures giving nothing away.
“I’ve never believed it myself. Have you?” asked the identity thief.
“I didn’t. I do know.”
“But I’ve got nothing to do with…your people. I’m not Lyceum. I’m not even a sorcerer. Just a collector. I’ve never had an interest in putting those books you sell me to any kind of use.”
“Still. Birds of a feather are shot together.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” The identity thief glanced down at that hateful book again. The thumbprint, and the message above it, seemed blacker than before. Larger, too.
The book dealer stood up, twitching like he’d discovered a rogue jellyfish in his linen suit, and stared at the wall behind the identity thief. The identity thief swivelled round in alarm, clutching the back of his armchair. But there was nothing there. Nothing but his Purdey over-and-under 1913 shotgun, hanging over the mantelpiece.
The book dealer’s eyes swept from the shotgun to the grand piano blotting out the corner of the drawing room. He paced nervously towards it. “He seems to think you’ve stolen something from him,” he said.
“Stolen something? From Blackthumb? What could I possibly have stolen from Blackthumb?”
“His identity,” replied the book dealer, not looking around.
“What are you trying to say? That I’m some kind of…identity thief?” said the identity thief. “That’s ridiculous.” He let out what was supposed to be a snort of incredulous laughter, but got diverted the wrong way through his sinuses and became a terrified wheeze.
The book dealer played an ominous chord on the identity thief’s piano. “Blackthumb doesn’t seem to think so. In fact, he’s extremely upset. His identity is extremely valuable to him. He hates it when people take it.”
“Look, why don’t you go back and talk to him?” suggested the identity thief, reaching into his velvet jacket for his well-used chequebook. “I’ll make it worth your while. You know I’m not any kind of identity thief. Explain it to him. Make him see reason.”
“It’s impossible to make Blackthumb see reason. Speaking of which, this is a lovely piano.” The book dealer accompanied his words with an unbearably sinister chord progression.
“It’s a 1901 Steinway Model A. Extended keyboard. Solid rock-maple rim,” the identity thief replied automatically. “Then what does Blackthumb want? Money? I’m sure I can cut him a deal that will make us both happy.”
“He doesn’t want money. He wants his identity back.”
“What? That’s…that’s insane.”
“So is he. You said it yourself.” The book dealer’s black eye holes seemed to pulse with uiet amusement.
“Tell him to come here and talk to me himself, then!” the identity thief demanded, wondering if he was convincing even his rosewood sideboard that he was unafraid.
“I don’t have to. He told me he was coming here next.”
The identity thief gripped his armchair like it was trying to escape from underneath him and twisted around to face the book dealer, who was standing unnervingly right behind him.
The book dealer leant on the back of the armchair, a gesture that seemed strangely familiar to the identity thief. “To take back what you stole from him.” Even his hands, with their dusting of black and grey hair, reminded the identity thief of someone he couldn’t quite place.
“I’ve not stolen anything!”
The book dealer said nothing. His mask screamed silently.
“Everything in my collection, I bought fair and square. Including…”
The identity thief broke off, flustered, and stared at the book dealer. The book dealer, presumably, stared back.
“But perhaps not everything in your collection was intended for sale.”
The identity thief stood up and hurried to the other side of the room. Anything to get away from the book dealer and his frozen expression.
“So Blackthumb thinks I owe him something? Fine,” said the identity thief, reaching again for his chequebook. “I’m sure I can work something out with him…”
“No, no, no. I don’t think you understand who Blackthumb is. Or what he’s capable of. In fact, he may be close to finding his way into your collection as we speak.”
“Impossible. Completely impossible. Not even Blackthumb could find my collection. The only way he could hope to destroy it is by demolishing the entire house and picking through the rubble piece by piece.”
“So it’s in your house, is it?” The book dealer nodded. “That’s just what he thinks.”
The identity thief’s eyes flitted through the glass doors of the drawing room, into the central atrium of his house. He’d had the space completely remodelled a couple of years ago, when he’d retired. He’d knocked through both floors down the centre, and built an extravagant cupola over the top. The space was now an enormous cylinder, lined with precisely 112 bookshelves. The crown jewel of the atrium was the fountain in its centre. It consisted of a series of thick granite slabs, cut to crystal perfection straight out of the Alps and stacked into a gracefully tottering tower. The designer had claimed he was inspired by the natural rock formations of his native Switzerland, but in the identity thief’s eyes, they resembled nothing more than a pile of old books. The surface of each was gently concave, allowing water hewn from Alpine glaciers to collect, trickling from pool to pool in a haphazard-looking but carefully controlled way.
“If you must know, I can see my collection from here, and I can tell nothing’s amiss.”
“Really?” The book dealer looked more interested than was polite. “When was the last time you checked?”
“This is absurd. But just to prove you wrong, why don’t we take a look right now?”
The identity thief snapped through the glass door, wincing in the sharp light of the atrium. He pulled an especially thick book, bound in green leather the exact shade of his own jacket, off one of the 112 bookshelves lining the walls, and threw it grumpily at the book dealer’s feet.
“The Fountainhead. Why would he be interested in this?”
“Of course he’s not interested in that. Although it happens to be a first edition hardcover.” The identity thief’s hand flopped around thirstily in the space where the book had been, until it clamped down on a switch. Despite his nervousness, the identity thief allowed himself to turn around and admire the effect.
The fountain in the middle of the atrium began to delicately unfurl. Each granite slab, carefully hollowed out, swung out in sequence, emptying their pools of water in a sudden rush. Through the middle of the cascading water rose the 113th bookshelf in the atrium, its books emerging from behind their liquid curtain without getting wet.
It was like magic.
“See?” the identity thief said triumphantly. “Nothing missing. Blackthumb hasn’t come here.”
The book dealer whistled, standing over the collection. “You were right. He would never have been able to find your collection without your help.” He reached in and picked up the first book he touched. The identity thief recognised it without having to read the spine; On Becoming and Unbecoming, in a nineteenth century English translation. With the instinct of a connoisseur, the book dealer had chosen the most expensive book in the collection. He flipped it open to its front page, where he found a small, neat fingerprint. He shook his head sadly.
“Nice. Very nice,” said the book dealer, with the first traces of could be friendliness in his voice.
“Worth £10,000, you know. Of course, I managed to pick it up for half that. Been in this game a long time.”
“Not long enough to recognize a fake, I see.”
The book dealer waggled the book at the identity thief. “This. Forged. Nothing to do with Blackthumb, I’m afraid. Probably not worth the leather it’s bound in.”
“Not true,” said the identity thief. “I acquired that from someone who knows Blackthumb personally.” The rational part of his mind knew that this was some kind of trick, that the book dealer was just trying to get a reaction out of him. But the rational part of his mind had been crushed underneath black fear.
“Nobody knows Blackthumb personally,” said the book dealer, dropping On Tragedy into the fountain pool.
A scream came from either the drowning book or the identity thief. The book dealer ignored it and pulled another book, On the Properties of Wildflowers, from the shelf. A seventeenth century first edition in its original leather binding, containing errata amended by an unknown eighteenth century sorcerer, and –
“Completely fake,” the book dealer said regretfully, drowning the book.
The identity thief’s bones snapped under the weight of his misery as he watched another jewel of his collection destroyed. An urge to charge at the book dealer, to knock him into the fountain pool, to rip his mask off and pummel his face with his fists, gripped the identity thief. But it was impossible to guess what strength lay beneath the book dealer’s linen jacket. Nor what other tricks he might have up its sleeves.
“Who are you?”
“I am nobody. Nobody at all,” replied the book dealer, ripping more books out of the secret bookcase.
“Blackthumb, stop!” the identity thief pleaded. “What do you need? Money?”
“I need my identity back,” said the book dealer, dropping another book into the fountain.
The identity thief turned and ran back into his drawing room. The creamy wallpaper wrapped itself around him, squeezing his life away. His eyes flicked across his expensive furnishings and decoration. Mounted discreetly in the doorway was a panic button that would bring the police. But that was suicide now, with his collection of illegal material displayed for the world to see. He had to salvage this situation without destroying himself. There had to be another way…
When the identity thief returned to the atrium, half of his prize collection lay at the bottom of the pool. The book dealer had found a small wooden box, inlaid with dark jewels. He was turning it over lecherously in his hands.
“You’ve had your fun, Blackthumb,” snarled the identity thief, in an almost passable display of confidence. “And now it’s time to put that box down and take off your mask.”
The book dealer ignored him, so absorbed was he by the jewelled box. His fingers found the two concealed buttons on either side, and the lid swung open.
Unfortunately, the box had been upside-down, so it immediately deposited its contents with a little plip into the pool. The book dealer gazed after it, turned back to the box, and after a moment of reflection dropped the box in after it. Then he looked up to see what the identity thief had brought back with him.
“This is another collector’s piece of mine,” the identity thief said. “The Purdey over-and-under shotgun. 1913. Customised three-inch magnum chambers. Very rare.”
The identity thief raised his antique shotgun to his eye and stared down its sight, wishing he had decided to collect some bullets as well. Surely, the book dealer would see through this trick. But miraculously, he seemed to listen. Without another word, the book dealer carefully pulled his mask off his face.
Underneath the mask –
Underneath the mask was the identity thief’s own face, staring with terror back at the identity thief.
A dark shadow fell over the identity thief. The world became shrouded, silent. Against his better judgement, the identity thief glanced upwards and found the cupola, directly above him, had been blotted out by a polished black monstrosity. Its shape was familiar, yet so out of context that it took a heartbeat for the identity thief to recognize it.
“The Steinway Model A grand piano. 1901. Extended keyboard. Solid rock-maple rim. Even rarer,” said the book dealer, his hands raised towards the hovering shape. The terror on his face was replaced by a gleeful grin.
“No,” the identity thief whispered.
“Yes,” the book dealer pointed out.
“You’re insane!” the identity thief gasped.
“I know.” The book dealer lowered his hands sharply.
A groan. A rush. The identity thief’s world turned black.