The Willie Button Series



Escape Clause


by

Albert J. Manachino


Willie Button paused in front of the little book shop and attempted to peer through the dirty glass window. Behind the glass glowed a dim bulb that cast more shadows than light. He could discern an indistinct shape suggestive of a man huddled behind a counter over what he assumed was a book. Twelve o'clock; this was the only shop on the entire block that was not absolutely black and abandoned to the desolation of night.

A single lamp on a distant corner served the entire street. On dark nights it provided barely enough illumination to serve as a beacon to those who wished to find their way out. However, at the moment, the moon was full and Willie had no difficulty in deciphering a sign over the entrance, "W. W. Book Exchange" and directly under it in smaller letters, "Used books sold and traded."

"Used books?" Willie forced a not too hopeful smile. "Perhaps. Perhaps."

He shifted a blue canvas bag to his left hand. A bell tinkled archaically as he pushed the door open. Proximity confirmed that the form behind the counter was indeed a man and he was huddled over a book as Willie had surmised. Further, the man was very old and quite shaggy. He barely looked up as Willie entered and asked the traditional question,

"May I browse?"

"Of course."

He pushed an invisible switch and three bulbs responded to provide a dubious illumination between the disorderly shelves, then he retired back into the private world that existed for him between the pages of his book.

Timidly, Willie ventured into the narrow tome-lined alleys and, not too surprisingly, was soon lost in the jungle of titles that beckoned inveterate bibliophiles the world over. A far cry from his early days when a closed book was a mystery and an open one an indecipherable riddle.

Willie had no awareness of how much time had elapsed before he again stood in front of the counter with three dusty volumes. An obscure Dickens, A Mark Twain, and strangely, "My Life and Loves" by Frank Harris.

"There is no accounting for tastes the proprietor commented as he examined the titles. "Cash or trade?"

"I would prefer to trade." Willie indicated the blue canvas bag. "I have a very old and valuable book here."

He noticed that the shopkeeper's eyes were yellow and that his face was abnormally hairy. There were hairs on both sides of his hands.

"Age is no criteria of value. I'm very old and still I'm considered one of Satan's most valueless creatures."

Willie coughed delicately. "You mean, one of God's most valueless creatures, do you not, Sir?"

The proprietor sighed. "No, one of the Devil's, I fear. I signed a pact with him many years ago when I was young and naive. He granted me what I asked for. I will say that he kept his word but I've never been able to derive any enjoyment from the bargain. In fact, I'm the most miserable being on earth."

"Indeed? What did you ask for?"

"Immortality. Satan is extremely wily and his lures are as attractive as they are treacherous. I was granted everlasting life only on the condition that I kill. Each killing brings me greater despair but I'm unable to control myself. The contract stipulates at least one victim every full moon. Minimum requirement that. Actually it's preferable to kill three or four."

"If killing makes you so wretched, why don't you end it all?"

"Absolutely impossible. There is an extremely severe suicide penalty written into the contract. I'm very much afraid that I'm going to have to slay and then devour you. I'm a werewolf, you know. Compulsion and all that."

"You absolutely must?"

"Absolutely!" He paused. "There is an escape clause if you think it would be of interest to you."

"An escape clause?"

"Yes. You must prove to me that you're even more wretched and miserable than I am. Then I'll permit you to proceed on your way unharmed for Satan hates to destroy unhappiness. You're taking this very well, by the way. Most people behave abominably when confronted with this exigency." His compliment to Willie was sincere.

Willie modestly held up a hand to disclaim what he felt to be undeserved praise. "Not really. My actions or reactions are governed by circumstances which are not entirely apparent. You see, I'd consider my termination and consumption a very great kindness for I am one of those even more unfortunate than you."

The shopkeeper looked at him with skepticism. "Ah, you've struck a bargain with the Prince of Darkness also?"

"No. I've been cursed by God and that is even more dreadful than the curse conferred by the Devil. I've been doomed to walk the earth forever or until I rid myself of one of your master's possessions. I don't have to kill to bring unhappiness into the lives of others or my own. All I have to do is exist."

"And you feel that your burden is heavier than mine?"

"Very much so. So heavy that often I am crushed to the ground and I must rise to continue my hopeless quest for redemption. It is within your professional capacity to remove my burden."

"My professional capacity? Really, I have no idea of what you are speaking."

"You are a book dealer, are you not, M...Mr....Werewolf?"

The proprietor waved a furry hand at his stock in trade, "Of course."

"And you sell or exchange books?"

"Naturally; my sign says so. What is it that you wish to exchange?"

"It's your Master's bible. While I have it in my possession, I can never he admitted to heaven. I would like to trade it to you for these three books." Willie reached into the blue canvas bag and brought out what was obviously a very old, brass bound volume. So old that it gave an impression of antedating mankind. The very atmosphere in the tiny shop darkened with an evil so intense that it threatened to coalesce like an early morning fog.

Evil that was alive filled every nook and cranny. It searched for victims between the rows of books. It reached into darkened corners and groped blindly around book-filled cartons. It seeped into the very walls and ceiling.

"Put it backā€¦please," the werewolf begged. He held his hands out in front of him as if to ward off the deadly miasma.

A great weariness descended over Willie and he returned the unholy bible to the blue canvas bag. Failed again. "You won't accept it in exchange for these three books?"

"No, Sir. Under no circumstances."

"Will you take it from me as a gift?"

"No. I'm very sorry for you. You are indeed even more accursed than I. Please leave."

Sadly, Willie picked up the blue canvas bag. The bell tinkled behind him as the door closed. A tear ran down the werewolf's face as he watched Willie depart into the night.

- To Be Continued -

Copyright by
Albert J. Manachino

Illustration
Copyright by
Kevin D. Duncan

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