Friday, 30 September 2011

The book of miracles

Isabella Bonfontaine half-smiled.  That is, half of her face smiled, but the other half remained fixed, immobile.  The effect was slightly disconcerting, at first I thought she was mocking me.  Then I wondered if perhaps she only half-agreed with what I'd asked her for.
"I had a stroke when I was younger," she said, her voice deep and soft like a nineteen-twenties film star.  "I lost some muscle control in the side of my face.  It doesn't bother me."
The unspoken question, does it bother you? hung in the air for a few moments and then evaporated as I decided it didn't.
"I had a cat when I was younger," I said.  "It got run over by a truck.  On the whole, I'd say you did better."
She half-smiled again, and I smiled back, and although it was clearly just my imagination, the room seemed a little lighter for the rest of our conversation.  Isabella leaned back, nestling her shoulders comfortably into the padded cushion of the banquette and laid both her hands on the table.  I looked at them; they were short, spatulate, functional hands, engineer's hands as my mother would have dismissively described them.  (Though for all her obsession with hands, seeking out long, elegant, musician's hands, the woman who strangled her had the ugliest, wartiest, hairiest hands I'd ever seen.)  She was wearing rings on two fingers on each hand, each ring a simple metallic band with a different intaglioed design.
"You're looking for a book," she said.  I nodded.  My satchel, a hopelessly fashionable courier's bag made of pre-aged brown leather that I'd hoped would impress her, was next to me on the seat, and I opened it to remove a piece of A4 paper onto which I'd written what I knew of the book.  Isabella said nothing, watching me with bird-bright eyes, and accepted the page when I offered it to her.  While she read it, I closed the satchel up again and hid it under the table.
"The book of miracles," she said a few moments later, and I looked at her, puzzled.  "It's what you've described here," she said.  I noticed that only three-quarters of her lips moved when she spoke, and she slurred, very slightly, a few words here and there.  "This is the – well, a to be precise, book of miracles."
"You know this book then?" I was genuinely surprised now, as the antiquariats I'd consulted had all shaken their heads, laughed, and told me I was being deceived.
"I know of several books of this general form," she said.  "They list miracles that have happened, and give precise instructions on how to repeat them.  They're usually quite interesting, and of course, quite valuable to the people who own them."
"Can you get me one?" I said, leaning forward now, my arms on the table and my stomach tensed.  Isabella laid the paper back in front of me, forcing me to sit back a little to make space, and suddenly I realised I could smell my own sweat.  I sat back further, now embarrassed.
"I can pay.  I can pay well," I said, mentally wondering how many life insurance policies I could cash out in a hurry.
"You misunderstand," said Isabella, that half-smile playing around her lips again.  "I can't get you a book of miracles because they're no use except in the places they're kept.  One of those instructions for recreating miracles is invariably that the miracle happen where it happened the first time."
"Oh." I waited, she seemed to suggest there was more to say.
"I can, however, take you to one of these books, and what you choose to do then is up to you."
"When can we leave?"

Part 2

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