‘Connect the Clues!’ said the library sign.
“What’s that about?” I asked a female librarian, middle-aged and plain-looking, with a grey bob of greasy hair. She didn’t look up from her screen, instead pushing a flyer across the desk at me.
“Thank you so much,” I said, my sarcasm seemingly falling on deaf ears.
Hmm. It sounded quite interesting. There were ten clues to things in the library. You filled in your answers to be entered for a draw to win a £100 book token. When was the last time I had one of those I wondered. Probably at least forty years ago!
I read, ‘Clue no. 1. Downstairs, there’s a painting, in a hidden place. If you find it then you’ll gaze upon a famous face.’ I trotted down some stairs labelled ‘To Public Archives’ and walked to an area with racks of newspapers and some stands to read at. Beyond was a corridor lined with shelves full of magazine holders. At the far end lay what looked like an alcove. Ah-ha!
Many of the strip lights down here weren’t working and the light was poor. The magazines seemed to grow increasingly old as I headed down the narrow corridor. I read a label. ‘Cycling Monthly Jan-Dec 1928’. No-one about. I was the only one down here. Disappointingly, a green-cushioned chair sat in the alcove, no painting. Behind it was a door with a push-button lock. Well it did say a ‘hidden place’ but surely that was private? I looked around nervously, then moved the chair and tried the door. It was locked. On impulse I punched 1-2-3-4 and bingo! it opened. Someone should change that code!
Inside lay an ancient brick stairway with an old iron railing. I pressed a switch and small light bulbs, curving down and out of sight, illuminated the way.
In for a penny… Closing the door behind me, I started down a spiral staircase. Down and round and down and round I went. There was wiring along the wall and the little lights continued, although the further down I went, the lower the roof became, until it was scarcely above my head. Finally the staircase opened onto a small dank cave-like space with an earthen floor. In the centre was a plinth with a book chained to it. Light came from a single dim bulb in the ceiling. The covers of the book were vellum, smooth cream calf leather. I opened it and my heart thudded at the image of a hideous demon.
Suddenly all the lights went out. In the total darkness I started to feel panic rising. Then I felt fetid breath in my face and the hot touch of a scaly hand on mine.
Mr. Smith, Mr. Smith!
I opened my eyes to find myself in a hospital bed, a pretty young Indian nurse gently shaking my arm.
“What happened?” I asked, groggily as the room came into focus.
“You fell down some stairs in the library. They thought you might be concussed. We’ll do some tests, it won’t take long,” she said.
“Oh, I had a strange dream.”
I caught sight of my right hand. Across the back were four faint parallel red streaks. “Oh, nothing…”
Featured in the book, To Cut a Short Story Short: 111 Little Stories
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