The Willie Button Series
Albert J. Manachino
In a bedroom on the second floor of a luxurious mansion, three men stood in a circle about a wheelchair. Its occupant wore hospital type pajamas. Fluid drained into him from a long thin tube; he was being fed. He stared listlessly at the floor or at the ceiling or at the walls. Whatever position Dr. Cromwitch moved his head, the listless stare remained.
Cromwitch addressed Paul Guir, the young man's father. "Your son seems incapable of reacting." The customary reflex tests might as well have been administered to a cadaver. Nor, did the invalid react to sound, light, pain or shock. "Technically, he should be unconscious."
"Gordon still has involuntary reflexes," responded the father. "He breathes, he soils his linen,"
The condition of Gordon's pajamas made this obvious.
"Which is fortunate for him," commented the third man who was attired in the street garb of a Roman Catholic priest. "How 1ong has he been in this condition?"
"One week, Father Dunn."
"He was normal before that?"
"Yes, Father. Gordon was an exceptionally brilliant scholar which makes this contrast all the more horrible."
Saliva leaked from the corners of his son's mouth. Gordon gave no indication of hearing or understanding what was being said. He was oblivious to their presences. His mind focused inward on a hellish, twisted landscape never existing in a normal world ... on a world of endless night where sunlight had no reality ... where its dwellers slunk from graves to crypts to dank unsanitary dungeons piled high with bones and alchemical apparatus ... where the only light came from uttering candles and fires burning in metal braziers.
The door opened. An attendant carrying fresh bed linens and pajamas entered. Paul Guir led his visitors out of the room.
"You say this occurred overnight?" Cromwitch spoke as they walked along a seemingly endless corridor. "My examination seems to preclude narcotics."
"Gordon did not use drugs," Paul responded quietly. He didn't even smoke."
Guir paused before the library door. He preceded Dr. Cromwitch and Father Dunn into the room. They sat in comfortable leathered chairs. The library was a true book lover's paradise.
"What you observed," began their host, "was as sudden, as abrupt, as the drawing of a shade."
The doctor spoke. "Barring a great emotional shock, to become as your son has, from an active intelligent young man, to a vegetable almost instantaneously, is unheard of. Something must have happened."
Paul Guir agreed. "There were preliminary indications of a sort. Gordon became very nervous ... secretive, you might say. It was very much as if he had discovered something he did not wish me to know about."
"Was there reserve between you?" asked the priest.
"No, father, our relationship had always been a very open one. There were no secrets between us. Gordon was a scholar, his weakness was books -- an enthusiasm in which I shared."
"Then," commented the doctor, "whatever intruded must have come about as a result of his studies."
Paul nodded. "I greatly fear so." Their chairs faced a huge, sliding panoramic window through which the entire front of the estate could he seen without more than a turning of the head. "Gordon changed when he got the book.'
"A book? What kind of a book?"
Paul sensed the doctor's skepticism. "It was a very unusual book. He stopped as if realizing the inadequacy of his words. They waited. "Yes, a very unusual book ... which is why I requested the presence of a priest as well as a doctor."
"You feel, then, your son is a victim of possession?" Father Dunn asked gently.
"Yes ... in a way," Dr. Cromwitch listened silently. "It is not possession as we normally think of it ... by a demon or another of hell's species."
"Hell's species cover a wide interpretation," the priest remarked. "It need not be the familiar demon or imp. There are only two factions on our physical level that can possess -- heaven and hell. Heaven rarely utilizes the privilege in preference to freedom of choice."
"Possession by demon is usually quite boisterous," the doctor agreed. "The demon boasts of it, flaunts it in everyone's face. Whereas, your son, for all practical purposes is asleep. Did the book deal with occult subjects?"
"I don't know; I assume it did. Gordon always hid the book when I came upon him studying it. A bag of tarnished gold cloth came with it, something on the order of a pillow slip. He concealed the book with. this cloth during these interruptions. Once I received a peculiar impression the cloth slipped over the book by itself. But, of course, that cannot be."
"Can you describe the book?"
"To a limited degree; I caught only a glimpse of it. It was black with gilt lettering I did not understand ... about ten inches square, perhaps five wide. The pages struck me as being unusually thick."
"If you were unable to understand the lettering, how was it Gordon could?" asked the priest. "Was it in a foreign language?"
"None I'm familiar with," Paul responded. "I speak and write seven languages. I don't know how Gordon, was able to understand it. He was able to, of that, I'm sure. The book gave an impression of being very, very old."
Father Dunn shook his head. "It doesn't sound like any I've ever heard of -- the gold cloth is unique. Still, many books were privately printed and sewn together by the writers. I could not know of them all."
"How did it come into Gordon's possession?" Cromwitch asked.
"Again, I'm not sure. Charles tells me --."
"Charles is your butler?"
"Yes. He responded to the bell one night. A little man holding a blue handbag stood before the door. He knew my son was a book collector and he had a very old, rare volume he wished to dispose of."
"Didn't the butler think it unusual for a bookseller to be doing business at night in that manner?" spoke the priest.
"He thought so, yes. But, assumed the visit was by prearrangement. Gordon has neglected to inform us of some of his appointments in the past. Charles led the caller into the library where my son was still reading."
"Did the butler remain in the library?"
"No, Father. The visitor took something out of the canvas bag and showed it to Gordon. Gordon became visibly excited. He dismissed Charles."
"Can Charles describe the object?"
"No, the visitor stood between them. His back hid whatever he showed my son but Charles is certain it was a book. I've caught only a fleeting glimpse of it myself.
"Can you describe the bookseller?"
"Yes, Doctor. He was a little man, not much over five feet In height. His eyes were a washed-out blue and his hair unkempt ... a sort of lemon tinted blond. He needed a shave. Everything about him was shabby, down at the heels, as if he had been traveling afoot and sleeping in his clothes a very long time. Charles mentioned he looked incredibly weary."
"And Charles admitted this man into your home?" spoke the priest.
"Yes, there was something compelling about him. Charles was not able to refuse him admittance as was his inclination. Nor, was he able to tell him to wait outside the door while he checked. There is no doubt he would be recognized were he to be seen again."
"Was any money missing ... as if your son paid for an expensive and, no doubt, valuable book?"
"It did not occur to me to check, Father."
"Still, Gordon acquired the book."
"It was not paid for by check and we are not in the habit of keeping large sums in the library safe."
"A large sum is relative. From your description of the visitor, a few hundred dollars might have been a very large sum."
"If any money is missing, Father, it is not an appreciable amount."
Cromwitch reminded them, "There may have been no money exchanged at all. The visitor does not seem to have mentioned selling. That assumption came from Father Dunn."
Paul Guir appeared thoughtful. "Now that's absurd. Why would a shabby, nondescript person, obviously in need of money, give away a valuable property?"
"To get rid of it ... the passing of a burden. You say, Charles stated he looked incredibly weary."
Paul stood and went to the window. He looked out upon the spacious, well tended lawns before responding. You're right. I didn't think of that. The passing of a curse -- like the albatross around the neck of the Ancient Mariner."
The library was spacious and well lighted. Thousands of volumes displayed their spines in glass-fronted teakwood shelves. A happy combination of wealth and culture. A giant chessboard waited patiently for contestants in the middle of a long, highly finished reading table. A magnificent brick fireplace slept till the first chills of winter would awaken it to resume its accustomed function of providing heat and cheer.
"Whatever happened, happened here in this room," Paul continued. "You feel it, don't you?"
Despite the excellent ventilation and the brilliant sunlight, the library felt stuffy, as if a weight hung in the air. The priest particularly felt the unease.
"Yes, it's like a burial vault."
"I've felt the same way in a morgue," the doctor added.
"I'm afraid to come here at night, even in company. Whatever it is has turned this room into a chamber of fear. The book is here ... somewhere. Gordon hid it; I'm sure. But, where?"
"I take it, you've searched for it?"
Paul Guir studied the doctor with a subdued envy before responding.
The contrast between Cromwitch and the priest was almost startling. While the doctor combined all the best features of the classical Greek athlete, Father Dunn was very plain ... almost ugly.
The doctor began cautiously, "I would not ask this of anyone but a knowledgeable bibliophile or an occultist. Have you ever heard of the Book of Limbo?"
"Otherwise known as The Devil's Bible? . It's one of those legendary things like the phoenix or the dragon, spoken of but non-existent."
"And yet, Gordon displays all the symptoms of having been exposed to it."
"It's a fable," Paul insisted. "Such a thing could never be, could not possibly ever have existed ... a book that absorbs its reader's knowledge."
And eventually leaves its victim a complete idiot," the doctor finished.
"Charles did not mention the visitor appeared to be abnormally dull or retarded," their host reminded them.
"He need never have opened it, Cromwitch argued. "His purpose is to pass it on."
"And, after that?"
"After that, to someone else. I'm sure the book will return to him. You may be in great danger. You may come upon it unexpectedly. If you do, do not, under any circumstance, open it ... especially if you are alone."
There was a vivid mood change in the atmosphere of the room. They sensed frustration mingled with anger.
"It will attempt to seduce you," Cromwitch warned, "with promises of limitless knowledge. You must not listen. All it wishes is to destroy you."
"Can we be sure it's here?" Paul asked. "Remember, I've searched every inch of this room without finding it."
"Are you sure it's here?" the priest repeated. "After all, impressions are based on expectancy, what you expect to find where you expect to find it."
"No, I'm not sure of anything. But, it is the most probable place. Gordon studied here. It would have been more convenient to him to have left it where he had ready access to lt. You mustn't reject impressions. To a person who is psychically sensitive ... well, doesn't the atmosphere impress you? Doesn't it tell you something evil is lurking in the background, something capable of generating great fear?"
"It is very depressing," Paul agreed. "It was never like that."
"We must learn something of the book before we can make plans."
"How, Doctor? You said whoever opened it was destroyed ... it absorbed all they knew leaving them no better than robots."
"This room is saturated with its presence. One of us must remain here to gather impressions ... at night when it is strongest."
"How can that help my son?"
"I don't know. If we can find it, find a way to destroy it, his soul may be released."
"I'll sleep here," the priest volunteered. "It is my duty to combat the devil."
"No, I'll spend the night here :" Paul insisted, "if you think it will help my son."
"We could all stay here," Father Dunn suggested. "Multiple impressions may be doubly helpful."
"I don't think the book will manifest itself under those conditions," Cromwitch rejected the suggestion. "I sense it needs to be alone with its prospective victim. Our volunteer must be asleep to remove protective barriers ... it seems capable of dealing with only one person at a time in the initial stages of exercising dominance. I base this on Paul's description of his son's sudden secretiveness and evasiveness. If the relationship between them was as stated, Gordon's natural inclination would have been to share his discovery. Instead, he tried to hide it. Obviously, he was being influenced. I think Paul would be the best choice as he was closer to his son."
"Under those circumstances, I would say sleep was impossible, the priest objected.
"I will have to hypnotize Paul."
"I don't want to sound like a coward," Paul remarked, "but will there be any safeguards for me?"
"Such psychic safeguards as I command will be incorporated in the hypnosis. Physically, all Father Dunn and I can do is wait outside the library door. If we hear anything, we'll come to your aid immediately. I'm almost certain you don't have to worry about this kind of danger.'
"But the psychological peril?" Father Dunn protested.
"I think there is no real danger to anyone who has not opened the book. Paul will experience nightmares and horrible visions. It is from these I hope to gather information on which to base our reaction. Paul's function will be somewhat similar to that of a medium's. We must see and hear through him."
There was a rap on the door. Charles entered pushing the freshly cleaned Gordon in the wheelchair before him. The young man wore yellow pajamas.
"Place him by the window," Paul directed.
"Very good, Sir." The butler did as he was bid. Gordon stared sightlessly onto the great estate he might never again enjoy. "Will that be all, Sir?"
"Very good, Sir." Charles bowed and turned to leave. Cromwitch stopped him. "Charles, did you escort the visitor to the door on his way out?"
"No, Sir. Master Gordon said it was not necessary." "Did anyone see him leave?"
"Not to my knowledge, Sir."
"Do you think he could still be on the premises?
Charles thought. "Not without the aide of at least one of the household staff, Sir."
"That's absurd, Cromwitch," Paul Guir protested. "They've all been with me for years ... long before this started."
"I was not impugning their loyalty. I was thinking, if he has to return for the book when it has finished, he must remain somewhere near."
"If we find him, we can make him reveal where it is." The doctor shook his head. "I doubt he would know. The book would command him."
"Will that be all, Sir?"
"Yes, Charles, thank you."
The butler left.
Paul Guir stood a moment by his son and then sadly moved away. He glanced at the late afternoon sun outside the window. "This was our favorite time of day. An hour or two of chess and then to our favorite books."
Gordon moved. The three froze as he spun the wheelchair around. Paul gasped. Cromwitch gripped his arm.
The rosary moved through Father Dunn's fingers. His lips recited a silent prayer. Gordon stopped the wheelchair before the chessboard. He waited.
"Go to him," the doctor urged, "he wants to play."
Paul Guir sat opposite his son. The tableau was ghastly. Gordon's features were waxen ... immobile. He looked like an embalmed corpse. Paul made the opening move. His arm shook. Gordon remained motionless. He made no response.
"I don't think he wants to play me, Cromwitch. He wants to play you."
"Chess is not one of my accomplishments," Cromwitch addressed the words to Gordon. "Can you hear me? Do you understand what I say?"
The young man threw his head back and laughed horribly.
Paul blanched. "That's not my son." He spoke in a whisper. "No, it's the book."
Gordon stood. His eyes, previously glazed now burned ferociously. He leaned forward across the table for a heavy brass lamp. Cromwitch brought him to the floor with a flying lunge. His arms closed about Gordon like bands of steel. He raised the young man to his feet and carried him out of the room.
Outside the library, Gordon became limp and passive again. His father brought the wheelchair outside. Cromwitch placed the young man back in it.
"The Book isn't able to control him outside the library otherwise he would still be trying to kill me. Its power seems limited."
Paul Guir was still pale. "It might make me attack you with a ... there's a gun in the drawer of the reading table."
"Did your son know of it?"
"No, I put it there after the possession."
"It proves what Gordon didn't know, the book doesn't know. However, it would be best to remove it lest you be tempted to suicide."
Dr. Cromwitch and the priest stood a restless vigil outside the library. Neither smoked but they consumed large quantities of hot, black coffee and conversed in whispers. Paul's moanings and thrashings could be heard through the closed door.
"Even under hypnosis," the priest whispered.
"It must be ghastly," the doctor admitted. We mustn't interfere unless physical danger threatens."
Occasionally they opened the door and looked in. Paul lay on a cot. The moonlight revealed he had thrown off the sheets. His hands were clenched. His body arched stiffly and his eyes stared vacantly at the ceiling.
"He's asleep and he's not asleep," Cromwitch observed. "He's in hell."
"I greatly fear so." Cromwitch closed the door gently. "I think he's strong enough to withstand the strain,"
The vigil ended at one o'clock. A crash brought Father Dunn and the doctor to their feet. Father Dunn tested the door. "It's locked."
"It wasn't ten minutes ago. I removed the key to prevent this." Cromwitch produced the key, it refused to fit. "There's another inside the lock."
Cromwitch drew back and lunged. The door splintered and fell apart.
Paul Guir had slid back one of the halves of the panoramic window. He stood on the ledge. The doctor captured him just before he jumped, Cromwitch brought Gordon's helplessly struggling father back into the library. Father Dunn turned on the light. Rage and frustration again beat at them from all corners of the room.
The priest gasped. "It's never been this strong."
"That was too close. I didn't foresee a second key. My advice was very poor." Cromwitch carried the somnambulist out of the library and placed him in a chair in the corridor. "Paul! Do you hear me?"
There was a faint, faraway response. "Yes, I hear you."
"Tell me what you see."
"In the name of mercy, bring him back first."
"He may not remember anything then. Speak to me, Paul, what do you see?"
Guir's mouth worked loosely. Froth and saliva mingled on his chin. He whimpered like a beaten dog. His features were contorted almost to the point of being unrecognizable.
Cromwitch ignored the priest. "Talk to me, Paul. Tell me what is happening."
"I'm confused. I'm in the library ... many years ago. I'm in bed. Our old. Collie, Lady, who died long ago is with me." He stopped.
"Go on, Paul, go on. Don't stop."
"A terrible man enters the room. He is dressed like a butler but I've never seen him before. He looks like a toad."
"What does he want?"
"I don't know. He doesn't speak and he won't leave the room when I order him to. He sticks his tongue out ... a long, hideous tongue like a serpent and grasps it in his hands. He pulls and more and more of the tongue comes out of his mouth. Lady is huddled against me for protection. The tongue coils on the floor. Soon it becomes his intestines. He continues to pull. His stature is diminishing as the pile grows higher. At the end, nothing is left but the intestines
"They stir and begin to move. The heart, liver and other organs develop eyes. The light is also diminishing. Soon it is completely dark. A single candle burns somewhere."
Paul Guir began to sob. He trembled convulsively. Father Dunn listened in horror as his voice changed into the whining and crying of a terrified dog.
"God protect you, Paul." The rosary trembled in his hands.
"Paul, you must be brave. Father Dunn and I will protect you. This is only a dream. Gordon's life and sanity depend on you."
"I hear you, Doctor. The bed has vanished. Lady and I remain on the mattress. She huddles as close to me as she can get. For protection?" Paul laughed derisively. "I cannot protect anything."
"She seeks companionship in peril."
"The floor around us is alive with thousands of squirming rodents. They burrow under the mattress. Soonl we move. A hole appears in the wall. The rodents carry us through the hole into a pitch black tunnel. A terrible wind is coming from below. It carries the stench of a million burials and other things impossible to describe. We are moving downward gradually. Lady is frothing and uttering piteous cries. She must know I can't protect her ...or myself.
"The tunnel is behind us. The landscape is lighted by an awful, rotted moon. And still, the rodents carry us onward. We come to an abandoned cemetery. The mausoleums are as large as mansions. It is into the cellar of one of these the rats take us.
"Cages imprisoning vaporous forms hang suspended from the ceiling. I recognize Gordon, he is in one of the cages. I am unable to cry out.
"Two hideous parodies of humanity are huddled over a stone slab. On it are the remains of a third. They have evidently just finished dissecting him and one of them puts the pieces, one at a time, into a fire burning in a brazier while the other recites incantations from some dreadful book ... no, not our book.
"Other things are going into the brazier also. I am forced to watch silently, I cannot speak and no one notices me. Lady is still and rigid by my side.
"The flames consume the last of the pieces. He did not burn like flesh ... more like rotted wood. The flames die. The ashes are carried to a simmering pot suspended from a metal tripod. They are carefully stirred in with the contents. The second figure, I think he is a sorcerer, continues to recite incantations in a language I do not understand and makes revolting motions over the pot.
"In time, the contents of the pot are poured onto a fine screen and pressed thin with a roller. The fluids are drained away. The screening is in a frame. More of the contents are poured onto other frames which are then set to dry. I don't know what they're doing.
"They're making paper, Cromwitch whispers to the priest. "The ashes of a wizard went into the making of the paper of the book."
Paul continued to speak as if from an unimaginable distance.
"The material is dry. They are removing it from the frames and cutting it into smaller pieces about ten inches square. One of them is transcr ibing material from loose folios onto the smaller squares ... that's what they are -- pages.
"I don't understand the alphabet. It's asymmetric and makes me ill to look at it. The letters are living but convey no intelligence. They're sick ... idiots...hungry idiots. One of the wizards is holding a page for me to see..." Paul screamed.
Cromwitch delivered a stinging slap. "Come back, Paul! Don't look; you've seen enough." He slapped Paul again.
Paul reacted like a swimmer under water too long. His rise to the surface seemed dangerously long.
"Too slow," Cromwitch thought.
The doctor wiped Paul's face with a pungent, aromatic cloth and held it under his nose.
"Don't dream any more,. Paul. You're entering your own home, you're safe."
"Lady! Where are you? I want to bring Lady with me." Father Dunn recited a silent litany. "The rope ... the rope ... must climb it. Ah! I got it. Climb ... climb..."
Paul Guir struggled to open his eyes.
"I think he sees your rosary, Father. Give it to him." Father Dunn pressed the beads into Paul's hands. He was making motions as if climbing a rope. His eyes opened.
"Where am Cromwitch?" Paul recognized them. He pushed the aromatic cloth away.
Cromwitch exhaled a deep sigh of relief. "Twice I've exposed you to deadly peril through my ignorance. You're home. Do you remember anything?"
"No, I had an awful nightmare. I'm afraid to remember it."
"I thought that might happen. That is why I didn't bring you back at once."
"Will you have some coffee, Paul?"
"Yes, yes." Eagerly he accepted the priest's offer. "Anything warm."
Father Dunn held the steaming coffee to his lips. After a couple of sips, Paul was able to hold the cup. He shivered as he drank.
"I think I was in hell. Did we learn anything?"
"Yes, the book is made of physical materials and as such, it is subject to physical destruction. All that remains is to find it."
"I'll burn this house down to destroy it. Is there any hope for my son?"
"There is a possibility. Once the book is destroyed, the hold it exercises over its victims may vanish."
"Shall I reinstitute a search?"
"No, you failed once. I'm sure you'll fail again -- as long it does not wish itself found. As a test of nerve, do you think you can reenter the library -- in our company, of course."
"I'll try. God! I'll try."
Hatred and menace beat at them as they entered. Paul held the priest's beads before him.
"This room is alive," Cromwitch spoke. "Somewhere here, among all these fine books, is a terrible, rotten heart and a diseased mind."
The menace seemed to single him out.
"It hears you. The filthy thing hears you ... and is afraid of you."
"Yes, it has reason to fear." He faced Paul Guir. "We will not be able to find it while it does not wish us to. Are you really willing to burn this house down to destroy it?"
"At once. The sooner the better."
Charles detected fire. He sniffed and bounded up the stairs. Smoke poured out from under the library door.
"Fire!" he shouted. The butler raced back down the steps shouting for help. "Fire! Fire!" He encountered his master on the first floor. "Sir," he gasped, "there is a fire in the library."
"Evacuate the staff and Master Gordon to safety," Paul instructed the butler quietly.
Father Dunn picked up the telephone. "It's dead. I can't call the fire department."
"Carry out your orders, Charles. Dr. Cromwitch and I will see how much headway the fire has made."
Hurriedly the butler left.
Cromwitch scented the air. "It seems confined to the second floor."
"As it should be," remarked the priest.
They turned to face the speaker. A little man with unkempt blond hair confronted them. He held a blue canvas bag.
"You've come for the book," Paul stated flatly.
He started up the steps. Father Dunn stood before him holding a crucifix.
"You cannot pass. The book must die."
The stranger winced as at some invisible light emanating from the crucifix. He looked first at Dr. Cromwitch and then at Paul.
"Your son will die with it."
"If God wills, so be it."
"Do you have a name, Sir?" asked the doctor.
"I'm William Button."
"Do you have a soul, William Button?" asked the priest.
"I had one but now, I must obey the book." An impression so strong, it was almost a scream came from the library. "Quickly!" he addressed Paul again. "A bargain."
"What kind of a bargain?"
"One just between you and I. These others cannot enter Into it."
Paul Guir looked at them helplessly.
"It will have to be entirely up to you, Paul," spoke the doctor.
Father Dunn nodded.
"Your son will be returned to you -- as if this had never happened if you let me remove the book."
"But it will go on destroying other minds."
"That is no concern of yours, Your son for the book."
Paul lowered his head. "How do I know you will keep your word?"
"I will swear on your rosary."
Paul held the beads out to him.
William Button took them in his hands. "If I do not honor my promise, may I be swallowed into hell at once." He returned the beads.
Dr. Cromwitch led the file up the stairs. They reentered the library. He went to the fireplace and opened the flue. Smoke immediately began to escape up the chimney instead of into the room.
"You're clever, Doctor."
"Not really, Mr. Button. I borrowed that one from. Sherlock Holmes."
Again rage and frustration beat at them. The three men smiled. William Button went to the reading table. The book, in its tarnished cloth cover, lay beside the chessboard.
"I hold you to our bargain, Mr, Button."
"My word is good, Mr. Guir." He picked the book up and put it back into the blue canvas bag. Tiredly, he turned and left the room.
"I feel sorry for him," spoke the priest. "I have a feeling he has many more miles to travel."
"Perhaps forever," agreed the doctor.
Paul held his head in a listening attitude. "The room, is calm, something has left."
They reached the first floor and went to the door. Paul beckoned to Charles standing on the lawn with the other servants.
"You may tell the staff they can return. The danger is over."
A tall, young man had
accompanied the butler. He went directly to Paul. "Father, I've had a
Albert J. Manachino
Kevin D. Duncan
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Willie Button Series