Nemesis by Sandy Schumann

Nemesis

By Sandy Schumann

Tito was struggling with the cigarette package. Maybe it was the half bottle of cheap scotch flowing through his veins or the adrenalin racing through him, but his fingers had been trembling from the moment he sat down in the dark and abandoned warehouse office.

The cigarettes were not his brand; he had found them tucked away inside the black jacket he wore. The package looked Turkish or something eastern, and with that knowledge, he had abandoned hope that they were filtered. The cigarettes were skinny brown sticks with an exotic spicy scent and gold ribbons. He coaxed one out, almost tipping out the entire set in the process, then tossed the package onto the dusty desk in front of him. It landed beside the open bottle of scotch, where most of the cigarettes spilled out and continued their journey with the bottle cap onto the dusty floor.

Tito paused, cigarette suspended under his nose, and glared at the desk in front of him and the thing that lay on it, and then cautiously continued his search for a match. He was sure there must be matches in the pockets somewhere to go with the cigarettes. The black jacket fit nicely across his lean shoulders; the black pants were too short but they were in better shape than his own clothes. He’d ditched the white clerical collar after his visit to the library, of course, though he’d been tempted to keep it for future entertainment.

The matches turned up in a pants pocket, but they slipped from his shaking fingers and skittered under the shelter of the old desk. He stooped down, peering under his chair, his feet, then the huge desk. Tito sighed, then scrunched his small, lean frame under the desk and began groping about the floor with his long sharp nails. It was a very old and solid desk, and barely made more than a muffled thump as the back of his head connected sharply with the bottom of the drawer as he retrieved the matches. The curses following this discovery blistered off the top layer of the dusty linoleum between his feet, igniting a few dust bunnies. The rest of the dust colony, hidden behind a desk foot, wisely migrated across the deserted floor to seek the protection of a filing cabinet.

The matches slipped out of his fingers in the brief blaze, falling out of sight again under the now-despised desk. The sulfur strike was important-it generally set the mood for Tito, but at this moment, with his eyes tearing from the bump on the back of his shaved head, a lighter seemed more efficient. His eyes glowed red with pain and frustration, as he once more bent carefully below the desk to retrieve the fugitive matches.

It was the book, of course. Every time he ran into it, something like this happened. He had been minding his own business when he first met his nemesis: his was the business of misspelled words, torn paper and flawed vellum, draughts of wind that stole precious gold leaf, spilled paint and careless candles. The book was striking, in that gaudy Christian style the monks preferred: embellishing everything with gold leaf until it became illegible. The smooth leather binding was nicely decorated, and the polished gems expensive, with a slightly kitschy air. The act of its creation had all the ingredients he usually required to make things go wrong: untrained apprentices, arrogant monks, status craving bishops, and an isolated monastery… It should have been an easy job. Oh sure, he’d heard Cuthbert of Lindisfarne was a saint but how was he supposed to have known? They said that about everyone who was a bishop in the ninth century.

He was Titivillus then, a terrible demon unleashed upon mankind who used their own words and actions against them in the final tally. The glories of church and scribe were his field of play: distracting weary monks with moments of stolen sleep, or apprentice scribes with warm summer breezes floating through narrow stone windows. Tito had been in his prime, his status downwardly mobile and heading into the inner circles of Hell, his name on the lips of all the worst people. Then he had taken the Lindisfarne job. To everyone’s amazement and amusement, he had botched it. Completely. It had been as humiliating as the Kells job what’s his name had screwed up. No one remembered that demon either.

Once he realized the monks were going to finish the book, Tito enlisted the help of a few dozen rowdy Danes. He’d had to bribe the Danes to ransack the monastary (can you believe it – what else did they do?) as they had been in a hurry to go home after weeks of looting the coast of Eire in heavy seas. While the Danes were causing panic in the monastery, he had walked down to the beach, and uncaulked a few seams in the monks’ boats…

Blessed thing had washed back up! The surviving monks had cleaned it up easily enough, and the gaudy folio had survived almost completely unscathed. The monks had taken it as a sign (it was, and a demon knew a challenge when it hit him square in the nose), and left Lindisfarne to wander over Eire and England for the next hundred years. It had been a very frustrating century. In hindsight he should have let it go, cut his losses, and moved on to the next job. Tito never imagined that a ragged group of monks could be so hard to trip up: a fire at the Abbey, a sudden mudslide in the hills, a precocious thief of much skill and few morals all failed in the attempts to reduce the greatest treasure of Lindisfarne to coloured kindling.

Mocked by his own, and then worst of all, by the humans he had spent years tormenting, he’d been reduced to lurking in the churches as the old fear was gone, replaced by derisive laughter. He had the chance to be down there, ranked with the worst lords of Hell, living the bad life, but his dreams faded into obscurity along with his name. His job these days consisted of trying to keep up with tag artists who decorated churches and graveyards with their unappreciated talents. They weren’t intimidated either-their lack of faith made them almost invincible to any of his powers. Tito had learned quickly that reciting the horrors of hell awaiting them generally got his head kicked in by older vandals. The younger kids merely avoided him, thinking he was an escaped mental patient.

Today was different. Today was Tito’s turn for revenge. He glanced around the dark office, inhaling the stale perfume of abandonment, while reveling in his victory. The old warehouse had caught his attention last week when he was chasing down a vandal named sklood (or whatever it was he scribbled on walls). He had paused in his chase, looked up at five stories of dust, shattered glass, moldy plaster, and asbestos, and thought it would be a fine place for a bonfire. All he needed was the kindling.

A box sat on the desk inches from his sharp grasp, the lid askew and contents revealed: the Lindisfarne Gospels. No monks stood to guard it, no abbey sheltered it, no uptight British Library curator blocked his access – it was finally his. The librarian had barely glanced at his identification this morning, the white clerical collar cementing his credibility over a piece of paper. The switch had been easy; he still had a few tricks up his sleeve, though the shopping bag from Marks and Spencer and oven mitts had helped. He couldn’t touch it bare handed without searing pain, and to be sure, the mitts were slightly scorched, but it was here. The final scene of his long awaited revenge was here and now.

Tito smiled happily. He had a little time to gloat, and then he was going to rob the British Library of one of its greatest treasures. Carefully he struck a match, inhaling its sharp stench as it flared, then cupped his hands around the cigarette and inhaled gently. He carelessly flicked the match away, and held the dark cigarette between the tips of his fingernails, his hand curving around the glowing tip. He could feel the burning heat on his palm, just a whisker away from his skin, while the faint light illuminated his face and tendrils of smoke wafted upwards. Tito suddenly felt nostalgic for the bad old days and wondered if times were changing again. Modern manifestations of faith tended to be either electronic or diminutive: television evangelists interrupted every ten minutes by commercials for luxury items to covet, and the Lord’s Prayer being engraved on grains of rice. He supposed mankind’s faith might not have diminished, but it was getting condensed. Both avenues were easy to deal with-technology was never intended to be divine, and the rice looked like all the others after five minutes with Uncle Ben. Yes, life was getting easier for demons as the centuries rolled by.

Tito stood up, a spike toothed grin spreading across his face as he blew smoke across the book’s cover. He picked up the bottle of scotch and began soaking the cover, the desk, and the floor then smashed the bottle against the wall. The dust bunnies behind the cabinet quivered. Tito took a deep breath and pulled out the matches, keeping a firm grip on the cover. He struck each match, watching them burn for a second, and flung them around the desk. Smoke rose up, filling the office. Tito inhaled deeply, grin still in place, walked to the doorway and turned around to survey the damage. The fire was licking around the edges of the desk, some of it chasing up the legs to reach the top while other flames raced across the floor. The Marks and Spencer bag was already melting at the edges. Tito closed the door and walked down the three flights of stairs, giggling madly to himself. He had already decided to watch the warehouse burn from the pub across the street; the few pints he could afford would make it a most perfect end to a job well done. Titivillus was back.

*********************

Two days later the Vatican and the British Library jointly released a statement on the recovery of the Linidsfarne Gospels. The local Fire Chief was quoted as saying that the serious deterioration of the abandoned warehouse structure had caused it to collapse upon itself like a house of cards, extinguishing most of the flames by the time the fire department had arrived on the scene. Arson investigators had found the book later that night, slightly smoke damaged and covered in dust, under a metal filing cabinet. An arrest had been made, but the name was being withheld until psychiatric observations could be completed.

The Vatican called it a miracle.

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