The wonderful thing about vineyards was that they, more often than not, had wine cellars. And the wonderful thing about wine cellars was that their temperature and humidity levels were quite conducive to storing ancient books. And for someone who made their living restoring rare and antiquarian tomes, there wasn’t a more ideal location.
It was for this reason that Kim Kibum found himself standing on the uneven cobblestone walkway of a bucolic vineyard nestled deep in the mountains of Ardennes, France.
It was a two-story structure with two chimneys and three upper windows. Deep green ivy had ensnared most of the home, covering the walls like a thick blanket and hiding the fact that the home had been built of gray stone the same color as the path he had just walked and the bridge that stood fifteen feet behind him above a shallow stream.
He glanced down at the scrap piece of paper held between leather-clad fingers and then at the lopsided mailbox that was quickly falling victim to the same dilapidating ivy as the house behind it. He could barely make out the faded numbers along its wooden post that confirmed that the address was the same.
He stuffed the already crumpled paper into his coat pocket and lifted his large suitcase off of the ground, walking the last few steps to the front door. It was black, and with the overhanging vines felt like the shadowed entryway of an abandoned burrow. He reached out his hand and knocked three times.
He heard rustling inside before the door creaked open and the person at the other end looked him up and down with a glance that bordered on lascivious. “Kim Kibum, I presume?” He spoke in perfect Korean, although there was a hint of an accent that came from disuse. Kibum couldn’t place the dialect.
“You must be Kim Heechul-ssi.” Kibum nodded, and did his own once-over of his new landlord.
Kim Heechul was shorter than he was, but his willowy frame made him seem taller. His hair appeared to be the color of mahogany in the faint light and was pulled back in a small ponytail. His face was thin, angular, and feminine; if Kibum hadn’t known beforehand that his landlord was a man he would have suspected the person in front of him to be a woman. He wore a loose-fitting cotton sweater and designer skinny jeans. A pair of neon-pink and green leopard print socks peeked out from his black house shoes.
“Is that your only luggage?” Heechul looked over the large leather suitcase the younger man toted.
Kibum shook his head. “My supplies should be arriving tomorrow, as well as my other bags.”
Heechul nodded absently and held the door open enough for Kibum to walk inside. He was already walking down the hallway and turned his head only to call back, “Shoes stay at the doorway. There’s an extra pair of slippers.”
Kibum closed the door behind him, awkwardly maneuvering his suitcase in the tiny space. He placed his shoes next to a pair that he assumed were Heechul’s and slipped on the gray house slippers next to them. Then he followed Heechul down the small hallway into the foyer.
“Your room is upstairs.” Heechul was saying, “The third room on the left. Put your suitcase up and come down to the kitchen. Do you like coffee or tea?”
“Coffee.” Kibum replied without thinking. There was something comfortable about Heechul. His tone wasn’t friendly; he spoke his words almost mechanically, as if he were doing it for the sake of propriety but was making a show of the fact that he didn’t mean it. It was nice to know that Heechul wasn’t going to be overbearing and overly friendly. He would mind his own business and leave Kibum to his and that was just how Kibum liked it.
Kibum located the wooden stairwell on the other side of the foyer and walked over to it, winding around expensive chairs and a teak side table with an antique oil lamp sitting atop it.
The stairs were small and they creaked under his weight. They opened up into a larger hallway; on both sides of the hallway were three doors. He went to the third room on the left and turned the discolored brass knob. It opened with the soft scrape of wood against wood and he eyed the wide arc that had been dug into the floorboards.
He placed his suitcase on the bed and listened to springs whine. The room was small, with the same stone walls that made up the rest of the house. There was space enough for a bed, an armoire, and a desk stuffed under the only window.
He didn’t bother unpacking because he knew that downstairs Heechul was making him a complimentary cup of coffee that he probably didn’t even want to make.
In the well-lit kitchen Kibum saw that Heechul’s hair was not mahogany, but rather the color of rust. He was standing behind a table that looked like it was made of old wooden planks. The kitchen was just as rustic as the bedroom, although there was a modern oven and fridge that both stuck out oddly against the vintage backdrop.
Heechul turned away from the counter holding two coffee mugs. He placed one on the table nearest to where Kibum stood, which he assumed was his seat. He pulled out the rickety old chair and swore that paint chipped off on his hand.
He sat down and waited for Heechul to do the same, his gaze trained on the white curtain clad window above the sink, watching the last bit of sunlight dip behind the tree line.
“So you were working in London,” Heechul leaned back in his chair and laced his fingers around his mug. “And you decided to come here, of all places.” He glanced surreptitiously around his own kitchen. “Obviously you’ve been inhaling too much binding glue.”
His words were clearly statements but they almost seemed to be questions. As if Kibum were compelled to give some kind of explanation, which he did. “Dr. Propokosicz from the museum suggested I come here for a change of pace. He also said that you have acquired several rare books over your travels.”
He was still unsure how Dr. Propokosicz knew Heechul. The two did not seem like they traveled in the same social circles, or even shared similar interests. Dr. Propokosicz was dry and rather dull and his only interest lay in the restoration of ancient books. How the two had even met was something Kibum couldn’t begin to imagine.
Heechul waved him off with a flippant shrug. “Collecting old things is a hobby of mine, I’m sure that there are some books mixed in with everything else.” He leaned forward, bony elbows braced on the rough wooden surface. “I tend to look at the rest of the world the same way I do wine.” His serious expression morphed into an almost mocking smile. “Everything, you see, is better with age.”
Kibum took a sip of his own coffee and winced. Too sweet.
Heechul sighed. “Speaking of wine, would you like to see the cellar?”
The wine cellar was like a time capsule. The walls were lined with stacked barrels covered in dust. Past the initial large chamber was a small hallway that split in two directions. To the right he could see another room lined with wooden wine racks. To the left was a wooden door.
Heechul pulled out a key and unlocked it. “This is one of the smaller storage rooms. I’ve cleared out everything you won’t need. There’s an outlet under the desk. This is the only room in the basement with electricity.” He slid the key carefully off of the large iron key ring. “You can go wherever you want in this house unless the door is locked.”
“Also, don’t let the cat into the basement. He always makes a mess of things.”
That was the last Kibum saw of Heechul until dinner.
He slept surprisingly well that night. Kibum didn’t take to new places well, and he had a hard enough time sleeping in his own home. It had taken months for him to get in a solid five hours when he’d moved into his flat in London.
He woke up to sunlight in his face and a gray cat atop his chest. It stared at him with large green eyes and let out a soft meow. He groaned and reached up to push the cat off but it leapt off and darted out the door before he could comprehend that it had even moved.
He assumed this was the cat that Heechul had mentioned.
As he rubbed the sleep from his eyes he got a whiff of the telltale aroma of coffee. He stumbled down the stairs in his sweatpants, too lazy and not really caring about Heechul’s opinion enough to change.
The older man was slicing a baguette when he entered. He placed it on the table and sat down before he spread his arms out, “I hope you like bread and cheese.” There was also a bowl of yogurt and some fresh berries. Kibum grabbed a piece of bread and some brie. It was a surprisingly pleasant breakfast, even if he wasn’t used to it. Even in London he tended to eat rice in the mornings by himself or, every once and a while, a bowl of cereal.
This time he poured his own coffee before Heechul could ruin it with several overzealous spoonfuls of sugar.
A honking from outside nearly made him drop his mug. Heechul raised an eyebrow, “I think that’s the rest of your supplies.” Then he went back to reading the newspaper. Kibum hadn’t expected Heechul to lend a hand, but it was still awkward to excuse himself from the table to open the front door.
The truck was parked on the other side of the bridge as it was too small for a vehicle to cross. A man was unloading several boxes and another large suitcase. He looked up as Kibum walked over. “Etes vous le proprietaire?”
Kibum blinked as he tried to recall the introductory French that had got him here from the airport. “Eh, que?” He managed.
The man pointed at the boxes. “Les boites. Sont-ils les votres boites?”
He opened his mouth to reply when another voice came from behind him. “Oui. Ils sont ses bagages. Merci monsieur.”
The man nodded gruffly before closing the back of his truck. Kibum turned to see Heechul standing behind him, holding the gray cat that had been lying on his chest earlier. Kibum went back to his boxes and paused. “One of them is missing.” He looked back at the driver. “Hey, one of my boxes is missing.”
Heechul rolled his eyes. “Monsieur. L’une des boites est manquante.”
The man waved his hands. “Ce sont les seules boites. Peut-etre qu’il viendra demain. Peut-etre qu’il a ete perdu.”
Kibum glanced at Heechul. “What did he say?”
Heechul turned back toward the house and began walking. “It will probably come tomorrow.”
He spent the rest of the day unpacking.
His clothing fit snuggly in the armoire and the battered trunk that stood at the foot of his bed. An unfinished bookcase held his books, and his laptop sat on the desk. He’d forgotten to charge his phone the night before and was now crouched next to the bed to get to the outlet behind it.
It was dusty, a thin film that meant that Heechul probably didn’t clean here very often. He gave a grunt and shimmied underneath, charger chord in hand, along with the international power strip he’d brought with him from his flat in England. When he’d first arrived it had been a nuisance not being able to plug his electronics directly into the wall, but now it had become habit.
The power strip slid in neatly and his charger followed. He fed the chord up the back of the metal bed frame between two brass bars and crawled out from under the bed. He took a few breaths of fresh air and then sneezed, dust floating off of his clothes as his body shuddered.
His cell phone screen blinked to life as he plugged it in, and he enjoyed the silence that had been destroyed by his phone’s perpetual security alarm that rang every two seconds once his phone reached its limit.
It had seemed even louder in this house. The countryside was a quiet place on its own, but this home seemed to eat up noise and then spit it back out at ten times the volume just because noise was so rare here. Kibum was convinced that Heechul floated from room to room because he never heard his footsteps but his own sounded like he’d strapped metal weights to his heels.
He closed his eyes and took a few more breaths. There, he could just make out the creak of footsteps. Heechul was upstairs walking around. Kibum opened his door and paused. There was no one there, and all the doors were firmly closed.
But it had sounded like someone had been walking right outside his bedroom door…
This house was too old. The wood and stone groaned at night. It was probably just the frame of the house shifting which, although not comforting on its own, was a valid explanation. Houses like this in Europe were older and louder than the houses in Korea, much older than his mother and father’s apartment or his flat in London.
He let out a sigh and headed downstairs. He’d placed all of the boxes for his supplies at the basement door and looked mournfully at the amount that he’d have to heft down the stairs. Heechul was sitting in the living room with a book and his cat sitting calmly on his lap. The cat watched Kibum with interest as he picked up one of the boxes and managed to turn the doorknob.
Heechul looked up from his book. “Don’t forget to close the door behind you.”
Kibum grunted and headed down into the darkness.
The last package that hadn’t arrived had been his book press and bookbinders needles, two things essential to repairing anything that needed to be repaired. It was because of this that he spent two days staring at the box of books that Heechul had found for him and was unable to open it.
In those two days he looked around the house while Heechul was out—presumably to the actual vineyard a few miles away to check on the grapes—and found that all of the rooms were unlocked except for the other bedrooms on the second floor. One of them was probably Heechul’s, but he didn’t understand why the others were also locked. He didn’t care enough to give it more than a passing thought, however.
The downstairs consisted of the foyer, kitchen, bathroom, and a small library where Heechul spent his evenings next to the fireplace—which was never lit. Behind the house was a yard that was quickly falling ruin to the forest surrounding it.
There were the remains of an old garden that lined the back of the house with a water-stained birdbath full of rainwater. In the distance he could just make out the edge of an old greenhouse hidden by foliage. If there was a path that led from the garden to the greenhouse it was long gone.
The cat, which he learned was named Heebum, liked to sun himself in the grass. He was too lazy to catch birds, but he would swat at Kibum’s ankles if he walked too close.
But Kibum could only spend so much time wandering aimlessly before he became bored and so he found himself setting up the rest of his equipment in his newly furnished “workroom”. He sat on the edge of his chair and leaned over to grab the last few items out of a box: three metal weights, two sewing frames, his collection of tacking irons, and an assortment of awls.
The light from the overhead lamp was dim and he could barely see past the edges of the desk. He turned toward the box of books that Heechul had given him. He had yet to open it, but he’d been dying to see what was inside.
The first book was an original copy of Anne of Green Gables, with the chocolate cover variant that was the rarest of the three colors that the original had come with. He held the book in awe for a moment before he placed it back. Next came a first edition of Charles Dickens’ The Cricket on the Hearth, A Fairy Tale of Home. Then an Original Manuscript Sketchbook of the H.M.S. Challenger Expedition. He felt like a kid in a candy store. Several more volumes followed, several in languages he didn’t recognize.
The language didn’t matter, however. He was holding, in his rubber glove encased hands, some of the oldest books he’d ever seen. He was rather certain that one of them was a bible from the Dark Ages.
Kibum nearly dropped the bible in his hands at the shout. Heechul stood at the top of the stairs and continued to yell down, “Your box is at the door. I’m going to town.” There was no, “do you need anything?” attached to the end, but Kibum hadn’t expected Heechul to offer anyway.
He merely placed the book back in the box it had come from and headed up the stairs. He opened the basement door just as the front door closed. He glanced out the parlor window to see Heechul throwing on a stylish jacket, a pair of car keys in his left hand.
Kibum had never seen the mysterious vehicle that Heechul drove, since the garage on the other side of the bridge was always closed. He slipped off his house slippers at the door and put on a pair of loafers he’d left nearby before opening the door.
It was chilly, and he regretted not wearing something with sleeves. He ran a hand through his hair and peered up at the sky that was much too bright. His eyes hadn’t adjusted to the brightness of the world outside of his little cellar workroom. He looked down to the large box resting a few feet away. He gave a small curse as he noticed that a corner was sinking into the mud. Dammit, he thought, can’t they be a little more professional?
He wiped the corner off and lifted the box up with a bit of difficulty. It contained his book press, which wasn’t a light piece of equipment. As he made to turn back inside he heard an engine start and looked back just in time to see Heechul pull out of the garage in a 1929 Ford Coupe.
He figured he shouldn’t have expected any differently from someone who collected antiques.
He walked back into the house and switched his shoes, barely keeping upright. He leaned the box on the edge of the coffee table in the parlor, taking a few deep breaths. The cast iron book press itself weighed 75 pounds, not to mention the miscellaneous other items he had stuffed inside.
He looked at the basement door a few feet away and sighed. He reached over and opened it, holding it open with his foot as he turned back toward the box and hefted it up. He wedged his body into the space between the door and the door-frame and managed to keep his balance before he started down in the murky half-light.
Something darted down behind him before the door closed and he cursed as he nearly tripped over Heebum as he ran between his legs and disappeared into the darkness. “Stupid cat.” He muttered. He vaguely remembered Heechul telling him that Heebum wasn’t allowed in the basement and made a mental note to get the cat after he set up his book press.
He made it to his workroom and sat the box on the chair. He opened it and looked over the press carefully. If something had broken during shipping…no, it looked like everything was in place. He placed his bookbinder needles and the small box of miscellaneous tools on the desk beside the box of books that Heechul had given him and then hefted the book press onto the empty table next to it.
He placed the empty box in the corner where he could get to it later and pulled a flashlight out of one of the desk drawers. Heechul had given it to him after saying that the power had a habit of going out for no reason. Besides, the rest of the basement was dark, and he had to go find the damn cat.
He flicked the flashlight on and headed back out into the rest of the cellar. He spent a good ten minutes looking behind dust-laden barrels before a distinct meow led him to the room filled with the wine racks. He looked around with the light before the golden beam landed on the cat. Heebum looked back at him, eyes reflecting the beam, before he turned back to the door in front of him and meowed.
Kibum hadn’t noticed this door before. Then again, he’d had no reason to enter the other sections of the wine cellar. Heebum meowed again and began scratching at the wood. Kibum tried to reach down to grab him—the last thing he needed was for Heechul to find out the cat had scratched up the door and make Kibum pay for the damages—but Heebum darted between his legs, still yowling.
Kibum reached for the handle, just for the heck of it. Maybe there was a mouse or something on the other side that the cat smelled. He tried the knob, but it wouldn’t budge.
It was locked.
He looked behind him to where he suspected that Heebum was hiding. “It’s locked, so there’s nothing I can help you with.” He felt foolish talking to a cat. “Go upstairs before I get in trouble.” But the cat merely stared at him for a few minutes before he turned toward the door and began meowing loudly.
Kibum sighed, stuffing his hands into his pockets. His fingers brushed against cool metal and he pulled out the key that Heechul had given him for the small storage room. He looked at the door. They seemed to be the same model, and Heechul had said he was only prohibited from doors that were locked. Well, it wouldn’t be locked if his key opened it, right?
Of course, the last thing he needed was to open the door and have his flashlight die. This was the time in horror movies when the batteries died and the victim was killed in the darkness, right? But he was curious now. He slid the key into the keyhole and blinked. It fit perfectly. He turned it slowly and the door unlocked with a quaint click.
It pulled open and Kibum took a step back, pointing the flashlight at Heebum. “Well, it’s open. Didn’t you want in?” But the cat merely stared at him silently.
Kibum shrugged and flashed the light around the room. He almost dropped it.
The room was lined with antiques. A wooden and glass case held a multitude of old scrolls. Several chests glittered with gold leaf designs. He felt like he’d just walked into a pirate treasure cove. What kind of place was this, and why did Heechul have all of these things?
…was Heechul a grave robber? Did he loot ancient tombs? Was that the reason he had so many antiques? He swore there was a sarcophagus in the corner, but he wasn’t going to get any closer to inspect it.
What finally caught his attention, however, was a leather bound book lying on a table near a stack of old paintings. He slowly walked over. It didn’t look too remarkable from the outside, but if Heechul had kept it locked away here with the rest of this stuff it had to be rare. Kibum picked it up, afraid that he’d contaminate it with his ungloved hands.
That was when he heard movement from upstairs. He grabbed the book and hurried out of the room, locking it behind him. He stuffed the book under the rest in his work room before he grabbed Heebum. The cat let out an annoyed yowl as he headed upstairs.
Heechul walked into the living room just as Kibum closed the basement door behind him. “I grabbed him as he was coming down.”
Heechul eyed him for a moment. “I see.” He didn’t look convinced at all. He merely grabbed the cat from Kibum’s arms and headed toward the library.
There was something entirely creepy about restoring an original copy of Edgar Allen Poe’s A Cask of Amontillado in a wine cellar.
Kibum heard the basement door creak open and paused, needles held in midair.
“I’m heading out.” Heechul called down. He’d announced the day before that he’d be gone for the weekend to a wine-tasting conference. Kibum assumed this was an excuse to get drunk and say it was his job, but he didn’t mind. The house wouldn’t seem much different without him there in the first place.
“Don’t forget to feed Heebum.”
“Alright,” Kibum called up, not looking away from his work. Only a few more stitches and the binding would be good as new…how had it gotten so badly damaged in the first place? Dr. Propokosicz had given him the copy before he’d left London and he’d promised to begin working on it as soon as possible.
The door to the basement closed, the sound echoing off the wide stone walls. Kibum went back to sewing, letting out a low, heavy groan as he finished and placed his tools on the table beside him.
He rolled his shoulders, enjoying the satisfying pop that followed. He glanced at the digital clock he’d brought down the day before. 7:05pm. He’d work a bit more on fixing the original cover’s spine and then get some dinner. After that he’d come back down and finish stiffening the spine and see if it was ready to be joined back with the pages.
Four hours later he hadn’t left his work space.
The only reason he even glanced up from his work was because the light bulb in his desk lamp began flickering dangerously, threatening to blow out if he didn’t change. He reached for his flashlight just as the lamp went out, plunging him into momentary darkness.
He flicked the flashlight on and blinked away the spots that danced in front of his eyes, imprinting odd shapes into his eyelids of what had lain before him before the light had gone out. He cocked his head to the side. A book…
It had seemed so prominent a few seconds ago, but as he looked at the stack where it had seemed to come from, there were no books there that jumped out, certainly not enough to have made the color different against his eyelids so visible.
Maybe it was because the flashlight wasn’t very strong.
He turned to the supply cabinet against the wall and began rummaging through it for more light bulbs. He found a carton of them on the bottom shelf, hidden behind a box of extension cords. It took a few minutes to switch out the light bulb and as it flickered on he realized he hadn’t turned it off and could have electrocuted himself. That would have ended badly, because Heechul wouldn’t return for a few days so he’d have been stuck down there without anyone to help. Not that Heechul would have noticed if he’d been there…
With the lighting a little better, Kibum turned his attention back to the pile of books. The latex gloves itched, his skin not used to being in them for so long, but he ignored it as he ran a finger down the spine of a faded volume.
He stopped hallway down the stack, because the book had no title. It was leather bound, brown, and altogether conventional. He took it out of the stack and frowned. Recognition slowly donned. He’d taken this from Heechul’s back storeroom. He’d completely forgotten about it.
He’d half convinced himself that he’d dreamed the entire ordeal up.
The book was closed with a small brass clasp in the shaped of a gauntlet covered hand with a crescent moon design. It wasn’t locked, the hand releasing its grasp on the cover easily. Kibum swallowed, then opened the book.
The first page was blank. No title, no hastily scribbled author’s name or dedication. The next page was blank as well, except for a small Roman numeral one in the top right hand corner. That was certainly odd. The next page followed just like the first, and he frowned.
He continued flipping, and halfway through the book he realized that it was empty and his vision was blurring. He felt oddly lightheaded, and as he turned the next page he froze. The pages were black, and he found himself falling forward, eyes rolling back in his head.
Something whispered past his cheek and that was the last thing he was aware of as he fell unconscious.
He woke up to the distant meow of Heebum and a knot on the side of his head from where he’d smacked it into the edge of the table. He was lying on the workroom floor, breathing in dust. It coated his nostrils and he sneezed, sitting up. His vision swam and his head throbbed.
He must have fallen asleep sometime during the night. He glanced at the table and made sure that everyone was in order before he slowly made his way out of the room and up the stairs.
He hadn’t even noticed that the leather bound book was gone.