The Red Book

-Dedicated to Wally O’Neill, owner of Red Books, Wexford Town, who found this:

Wally wrote: “In the 1830s a Barcelona Bookseller named Don Vincente engaged in a murderous serial spree. His victims were customers who had purchased rare books from Vincentes shop.

When finally arrested, the authorities asked why Vincente had left the victims money behind when he had taken the books. Vincente is said to have answered, “Take money? Me? Am I a thief?”

Commenting on why he committed these monstrosities, he answered calmly “Men are mortal. Sooner or later, God calls them back to him. But good books need to be conserved.” Don Vincente was condemned to death.”

The Red Book: Chapter One of the Killer Serial

Don Vincente followed the black carriage as it swayed slowly up the steep and rutted road that wound amongst the hills above Barcelona. He halted his donkey with a click of his tongue, and looped its halter to a tree as the carriage turned, and almost at a standstill, ground its way between gateposts of ancient stone, from which rusty iron gates had set in broken angles. A lizard dashed away into a dark crevice. Across the road a precipice descended, revealing a panoramic view of the city, beyond which the Mediterranean glittered in blue. He waited until all was silent and then advanced into the gateway to see where the vehicle had gone. Ahead of him a stony track, almost overgrown, led up the hill.

He shared his water bottle with the donkey and waited until it was nearly dusk and long shadows of the pines streaked across the road. Crickets hissed everywhere and mosquitoes started to gather beneath the branches. He had not eaten that day, but knew he needed nothing. There was only one hunger that drew him on. The Red Book, bound in red Morocco leather and tooled in pure gold by Greek craftsmen, and with endpapers delicately printed in the blood of the publisher, was the rarest book in the world, so rare that it almost did not exist.

Fitting from shadow to shadow he made his way up to the mansion. The grounds were deserted and nobody noticed his approach. The many windows were shuttered except for a pair of French windows open on to a terrace, from which a length of muslin curtain shifted in the soft evening breeze. The room within was almost dark. Deep in its shadows a single lantern glowed, moths dashing themselves against its glass.

He drew a breath and his hand went to check the hilt of the dagger at his waist. Softly he entered the room.

It was a long library with a narrow runner of red Persian carpet down a central aisle. On either side stood row after row of bookcases in dark wood, their shelves secured by brass bars, padlocked as though they held dangerous words. The long runner led like a trail of blood to where she sat beneath the window at the far end, with a book in her hand. It was the Red Book.

Dona Allegra.

He dared to hope that she was alone and cautiously advanced, his footsteps muffled by the softness of the Persian carpet. As he passed the first bookcase he glimpsed the gleam of black eyes, of something that sat upon a chair in the gloom. He shuddered and felt his sweat run cold beneath his shirt. Then he realised that they were merely the button eyes of a stuffed animal, a toy perhaps. He calmed himself and continued to creep forward. There was a dead silence. The hissing of the crickets and the wing-beats of the moths against the lantern had stopped. She still had not noticed him approach, so deeply engrossed was she in the secrets of the Red Book.

This was the only copy in the world of the private memoirs of Lord Byron. It was a sacrilege: that woman, whose money and social position derived from nothing more than the cruel exploitation of the New World, saw the Red Book as some kind of investment, as a chattel to be traded. It was true that the value of the book had increased a thousand-fold. Thomas Moore, the Irish poet, had been entrusted with the original folio and had taken it to John Murray, Byron’s publisher. On reading its contents Murray and Byron’s other executors had torn it up page by page, and put every fragment into the fire. Yet in it Lord Byron had written with such spirit and beauty of the political aspirations which would one day impel him to assist the patriots of Greece in their heroic struggle for independence.

It made Don Vincente hate the woman all the more that she still seemed unaware of his approach: her full lips curved and a little giggle escaped her throat as she turned a leaf of the book. She did not look up. Indeed, within those closely printed pages of prose and verse were also the ignoble anecdotes of the various amours and titillations which had diverted the noble Lord, and which would have ruined John Murray.

Now Don Vincente was almost upon her, the dagger only half hidden by a fold of his coat. And yet, it was a shame to take the life of someone so beautiful. Her faintly olive skin was set off by the dazzling white of her simple dress, its folds like sculptured marble. Gazing at the precious book, huge hazel eyes fringed by the longest eyelashes he had ever seen were overarched by silky black eyebrows. Her hair coiled up on her head was braided with diamonds and pearls. He smelt attar of roses, and as he gazed at her a line of Lord Byron’s came into his head: She walks in beauty like the night. He lingered for a moment too long. Both Dona Augusta and the Red Book had him in thrall.

It seemed that she had barely moved. Yet the pistol that had lain on the windowsill at her side was now in her hands and pointing directly at his heart. He heard a click. He was at close range.

‘Don Vincente,’ she murmured, ‘you are under arrest.’