the book seller’s secret excerpt

Mason Barry

January 2013

 

Conspiracies, in my opinion, have truth. Lies and truth are woven together like a fine tapestry no one dares to touch. Except me.

I investigated a police cover-up and received deaththreats for over a year. An interpreter and I traveled withU.S. troops in Afghanistan, and the vehicle in front of us hit an IED. I recently escaped Mexico, barely, while doing a story on the Mexican cartel. My traveling photographer was

murdered, and the cartel has a price on my head. The only articles I’ve written that meant anything have scared the shit out of me. Reporting real stories is worth every risk. I don’t do it just for the rush, or the accolades. I report and whistle-blow for readers; the people deserve to know.

While online one morning, I dove into the deep web, looking for something to peek my interest for the next story. Surface web is for novices. Google, Bing? About 96 percent of the surface web can’t be accessed by search engines because of firewalls, pages not being linked to other pages, which prevents web crawling, and stuff with non-HTML/text content. The deep web is five hundred

times larger and growing exponentially. It’s where the information is, but beware all ye who enter. There’s some disturbing shit down there.

I read about a South African missionary who called Africa a breeding ground for the devil due to witchcraft, the continent’s fastest growing religion. Priests, he wrote, were employed in hospitals to perform several exorcisms a day.

Television, the Internet, and billboards advertise the services of exorcists. Religious organizations are ready to take full advantage of the demonic phenomena. They charge expensive fees for their healing and soul-cleansing exorcisms. I researched possession and exorcisms, and I found it

important to note in some cases of possession, the possessed saw their demon as another entity outside their body, like an imaginary friend. Few possessed persons ever realize they were possessed, because the invasion was subtle and clever.

We live in a world where demons and devils have turned into theatrical “camp” entertainment. Possession has become a popular spoof in America, but it seems all too real in South Africa.

The missionary bought a magic book at a South African spaza shop—a small convenience store usually found in townships—that led him to the author, a witch who claimed to be the anti-Christ. The book contained spells that controlled the weather, turned metal into gold, destroyed enemies, and forced love. The missionary met the author, knew her for all of one week, then encased his feet and the book in cement, intending to drown himself in the sea. The police found him on the beach and brought him in. Ritual markings were tattooed up and down both arms. He supposedly had been roped into a satanic ring and had taken part in ritual killings for muti—magic potions made from human body parts. He wanted to die in the sea, where the witch would never be able to reach his soul.

After reading about witchcraft, sangomas, muti, and ritual-killings, I discovered a special police force in Pretoria, the only one in the world dedicated to ritual killings, called the Unit. A sangoma is similar to a witch doctor. They are traditional South African ritualistic healers. Most are well intentioned and respected, but there are some nasty ones out there who practice black magic, and are considered dark sangomas. Dark sangomas kill people or animals in cruel and torturous, ritualistic manners for magical purposes. South Africa paints a different picture of witchcraft; one of violence and horror. Child abuse, human trafficking, harvesting of body parts, corpse mutilation, and ritual killings are covered by the international news and online articles.

I wanted to write something new and different, so I set off for South Africa to find this woman, to flesh her out. A blogger told me where to find her book. I must read it, meet her, and report the greatest fiction ever told. She is nothing more than another charlatan stealing money from the ignorant. Inspired by the gathering of Mary Shelly, Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, and John Polidori challenging themselves to write a scary story, I figured I could do the same; challenge myself to report a unique account. I was tired of the same old bylines, the reporters’ clichés. Instead of a mass murderer, I would show people the face behind the enabler no one fears, yet.

There are monsters everywhere, but the bogeyman is boring. Frankenstein has run his flaming course and Vampyres really should stay dead. I’m not sure where my adventure will take me. Thank you for visiting my blog. Please come back, follow me on Twitter, and visit me on Facebook.

 

When the humans disbelieve in our existence, we lose all the pleasing results of direct terrorism and we make no

magicians.  —C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters

 

1—Mason, the Reporter

Surprisingly, the magic shop was in a nice section of Cape Town, situated among upscale stores. A tall, formidable bank was across the street. A family restaurant, The Albert, stood on the corner by the bank. No sign hung over the sangoma’s awning-covered door, but the storefront window was filled with sexless voodoo dolls, male and female candle figures, incense sticks arranged in color-coordinated piles, prayer beads, and faceted candles hanging from strings.

Inside was like most of the other sangoma shops I’d wandered into: old and a little run down. It seemed tacky and clichéd; exactly what I expected. Strong patchouli and clove scented the air.

An old man reclined on a yellow couch in the middle of the room. He was clothed in a full-length,

white robe. His feet were bare, yet remarkably clean. The couch looked like something discarded and rescued. His long, gray, beaded hair hung in braids across his shoulders and past his chest. I assumed him to be the bookseller I was looking for, the sangoma. I felt his eyes on me while I quickly toured the room.

Glass display cases lined the walls. Price stickers asked enough money to be afforded by tourists and suckers. All kinds of thoughts bounced inside my head, and each bizarre thing reminded me of another. Tarot cards made me think of a magician’s pack I played with as a child, performing card tricks for friends, spreading them out to show a normal deck, then flipping through the deck to

reveal all aces. Dried herbs reminded me of my potsmoking, college days. Crystal necklaces brought to mind a necklace I had bought for a girlfriend. Muti—wet guck contained in various glass jars with handwritten “medicine” labels—looked like plasma from a science fiction movie I once saw called The Blob.

The blogger warned the book would be authenticated by its odor when opened, and I would need the key to unlock it. “Excuse me,” I said to the old man on the couch. “I’m looking for a book.”

“I have books,” he said. “Over there.” He pointed toward a curtained-off room.

“Can I go in and look? It’s a magic book, written by a local woman. It’s banned, so I don’t know if you’ll have it.”

The sangoma raised his brow.

“The book is supposed to have weather spells and alchemy,” I said.

He stood, more quickly and agile than I thought he was capable of doing.

“Waza nami,” the sangoma said. “Follow me.”

His bare feet slapped across the floor, and I followed him. He swept his hand through a part in the curtain, revealing a room filled with shelves of books.

“Must be heavy,” I said as the sangoma struggled to pull the thick, leather volume off the shelf, his hands lost in his robe’s billowy sleeves. The beads in his hair clicked every time he moved.

“Not for me,” the sangoma said. “Books are heavy for the ignorant, for the strangers, never for their loving owners. And this is my book.”

I screwed my forehead into a frown. “I’m a book collector,” I said a little too defensive and loud for even my ears.

“Do you read all the books you acquire?” he asked.

“Some aren’t meant to be read,” I said. “They’re to be admired.”

“Do you ever wonder what secrets lay between those covers?” the sangoma asked, one eyebrow cocked as he gave a hint of a smile. “What omniscience is inside and what benefit will be conveyed upon you?”

“No,” I said. “They look nice on my shelf. I appreciate them for their value.”

He lowered his eyebrow and widened his smile. “Value is what you are after? Then this book is for you,” the sangoma said, making the next approach, asking for the open offer, the old, tricky, Mesopotamian way to trade, hiding the price, testing the customer’s desire. “If you really want it.”

I reached out.

The sangoma turned slightly to avoid my hand. He caressed the book in the most sensual way and seemed to be in love.

“It is signed,” said the sangoma. “Inside by the author,

Eva van Hollinsworth.”

I hadn’t been able to find much information about the author. The book itself was so clouded in mystery, I began to wonder if she even existed. At best, I figured she was some sort of a scientist who attempted to transform the alchemist’s dreams into reality. But according to the missionary who tried to kill himself, she was more than that—a witch.

“And the book is out of print.”

“I understand why it’s valuable to you, but I wondered if I might buy this one. Maybe there will be

another printing. I can write an article about this book. I’m a reporter, you see, and a collector,” I quickly added, remembering my lie. “My article could increase the book’s popularity.”

The sangoma pressed the book into my chest. “Take it,” he said. “Since you have an affair with books.”

I touched the hardback. Its warm cover became cold and heavy as cast iron. My writing muscles were mightier than the heavy sword, but too weak to hold the book with one hand as it became heavier by each passing second.

I tried to open the green, rippled cover—no longer brown, but green—while the book sagged in my arms. I almost dropped the thing. An attached key dangled from the back cover and brushed against my thigh.

“The book is heavy with your conscious,” the sangoma said. “You are concerned with many things. Otherwise, you would not be seeking such a book. Read. It will change your life. You will become stronger when filled with the knowledge inside. Like me. Use the key. It is yours now.”