Heart set on winning the Northwell History Prize, Henry despairs when he discovers that the book he needs for his essay is in the Elizabethan gallery of the school library, out of bounds to pupils. But help comes from fellow student Ralph Adoney, who offers to distract the fierce librarian, Mrs D’Arcy, so Henry can ‘borrow’ the book.
Ralph entered first. Striding down the long room, one hand in his pocket, he looked completely at ease, as if he did this kind of thing every day of his life. While Henry, heart beating in his ears, squatted up against the stone mouldings behind the half-open door, hastily pulling off his shoes. On a sudden thought he drew his marble bag from his pocket and placed it on top of them.
‘Hallo, Mrs D’Arcy. How are you?’
A creak as the librarian relaxed into her chair. ‘Very well, thank you, Ralph. How kind of you to ask.’
Ralph was clearly working his charm. From the sound of her voice, Mrs D’Arcy had tilted her head to look straight up at him, and with luck he could hold her there for a moment. Keeping the tall figure directly between him and the librarian, Henry crept through the door to the bottom of the right-hand staircase and crouched behind it. So far, so good.
‘And what can I do for you, Ralph?’
‘Well, Mrs D’Arcy, I know how busy you are, but – '
Careful, Ralph, thought Henry. Don’t overdo it.
‘– could you show me the local history section? It’s for the Northwell Prize.’
‘Of course.’ The gracious tone broadened into a smile marked by the sound of lipstick cracking. ‘It’s just over there.’
‘Oh, thank you, Mrs D’Arcy, you’re such a help.’
‘Don’t mention it. My pleasure.’
On second thoughts, don’t worry. Overdoing it is not possible.
Ralph walked over to the left-hand of the two book stacks occupying the floor in that end of the room. Henry held his breath.
‘Mrs D’Arcy, I’m really sorry but I can’t seem to find anything.’
‘Oh, you boys,’ the librarian heaved a sigh. ‘Wait, I’ll show you.’
Henry’s heart thumped. This was his moment. Chair legs scraped, followed by the click click of stilettos and then the sound of a stiff dress creaking as Mrs D’Arcy crouched down behind the book stack. Now. Now. Round the bottom of the stairs, a few steps up – he hesitated. At the top the recess lay swathed in darkness. Well, so what? Why couldn’t he rid himself of the feeling that something lay concealed there, watching, waiting… He gripped the step above him with both hands. Don’t be an idiot, he told himself. There’s nothing – no one – there. Setting his teeth, he pushed himself to the top of the staircase, into the recess and sank to his knees.
‘Look, Ralph, down here. See? Now this one would be perfect.’
Cold. Like ice hanging in the air. And such sadness – where did that come from? The darkness seemed to gather round him, pressing him on all sides, weighing him down so that he huddled on the floorboards, palms flat, shoulders hunched, unable to move. What had happened in this place? More to the point – what was happening to him? This was crazy! He was there to get a book. Was that so hard? He forced his gaze up to look along the shelves. Rectangular shapes, grey, faded yellow, black... Black, that was it! The tall, slim volume with gold lettering on the spine, less faded and battered than the others, near the right-hand corner of the recess. All he had to do was reach towards it, ease it out…
He snatched his hand back. What was that – an electric shock? It couldn’t be. Pins and needles, probably, from crouching down in this cramped space. He tried again, pressing hard through the sparky feeling until he’d drawn the book out and tucked it under his sweatshirt, vaguely aware of something odd about its shape. It felt thicker than it should, and uneven.
From the book stack below came the sound of Ralph rising to his feet. ‘Thanks, Mrs D’Arcy. It’s just what I need.’
‘You’re very welcome, Ralph.’
Cold sweat ran down Henry’s back. He’d got what he wanted; now for the staircase down. At the first step he glanced behind him and stifled a scream.
Eyes, red as fire, stared at him from the darkness of the gallery.
He launched himself at the stairs. Half slipping, half sliding, he reached the bottom and knelt there, heart bursting in his chest, awaiting Mrs D’Arcy’s cry of outrage. At that moment he didn’t care who saw or heard him, all that mattered was to get the hell out of there and never come back.
The cry didn’t come. Instead, the calm clicking of stilettos in the opposite direction told him the librarian was returning to her desk. Pausing just long enough for his breathing to die down, Henry crept across the floor and out of the library.