No, not that kind of room.
During a business trip to Oslo, Theresa had visited the Deichman Library and been delighted to find that they had actually preserved the entire original book collection that the library started with all those years ago. They were kept in a dimly lit gallery with no direct access for the common man or woman, but at least they could be seen and appreciated. (For more information go to www.deichman.no and click the English flag if you don't understand Norwegian.)
The room she came into now was smaller, but fully accessible to at least the owner and those he personally invited. And the walls, albeit shorter and lower, were full of book shelves. She stopped inside the door and just stood there breathing in the faint smell of old paper and ink... and fresh musk. Oh, that was her! She had been attacked by some ruffians on her way to the meeting, and no matter how much she had spread her buttcheeks and raised her tail while spraying them, she had not been able to avoid spilling a few drops of the pungent secretion on herself.
The collector noticed too. He sniffed discretely a couple of times, then he pulled out a chair from the reading table in the middle of the room, and offered it to her after covering it with a newspaper. As she was about to sit, he noticed her tail and turned the chair sideways so the backrest would not get in her way.
"Tea?" he asked politely.
"Yes please." She did feel a bit parched, and it occured to her that she had lost a bit of liquid spraying the hoodlums. As her host turned to the small kitchenette in the corner, Theresa smiled at the realisation that this human stranger seemed to know more about the proper treatment of skunkettes than she did herself - and she was one! Well, since this afternoon anyway.
After going through the usual ritual, the man returned to the table with two steaming cups that attracted an odd glance from his visitor. "Oh, I use kid mugs to avoid spillage," he explained as he put down one of the mugs in front of her. "I'll get the book."
Excellent idea, she thought as he shuffled away between the shelves. Actually it did not seem like such a good idea when she tried to drink, only to find that her V-shaped lips were unable to close around the mouthpiece. She shrugged, pulled the lid off and started lapping up the tea with her tongue. Ouch. A bit hot that way. She put the cup down, holding it firmly with both hands, and blew on it to cool it down a bit.
The tea had cooled enough for her to start lapping when she noticed that her host had returned and stood regarding her with an enigmatic smile. "What?" she asked.
"There is a cinema and convention center around the corner," he explained. "I have seen Star Wars fans in Jedi robes or stormtrooper armor, Tolkien fans in chainmail and many others. Even a couple of ladies in yellow jumpsuits, but I have no idea who they were supposed to be. But never before have I seen a book collector dress up to buy a first edition."
He turned over the book he had brought, and showed her the cover. In addition to the short title, it was adorned with a picture of a skunk lady like herself. And more than just that - they looked almost exactly the same!
Of course there was a rational explanation, Theresa thought. She had been after that book for years, and seen that picture in catalogs several times. Apparently she had not only chosen to be a generic skunkette for the night, she had subconsciously picked the spitting (or was that spraying) image of the book's heroine.
The collector paused as he was about to hand her the book. She noticed that he was wearing gloves to avoid staining the cover, and figured he was expecting her to do the same. Then again, if he still thought she was wearing a costume, he must think she was wearing gloves...
Apparently her hand fur looked dry and clean enough to satisfy his requirements, and after a brief inspection he handed over the book. She took it carefully and held it up in front of her.
"There's something you don't see every day," she said in a voice filled with awe. "A near mint first edition of La Moufette!"
"And more than that," he remarked with a wry smile.
"You mean - "
"Yes," he nodded. "That is the first edition of..." He paused for effect. "the original banned version."
In spite of her thick fur, Theresa felt a chill run down her spine. This was more than the oldest and most valuable book she had ever had the privilege of handling. It was a special item with only a very few copies still in existence.
She turned it over in her hands, carefully inspecting it from all angles, before she finally put it down with a sigh. "I am sorry to have wasted your time then. I have saved up for ages to afford a first edition of the regular version. This one is way out of my budget. But I feel privileged just to have been allowed to see and handle it." She pushed back her chair and started to rise.
"Don't go," the man said softly. "La Moufette is my favourite too. Having you here is like... like Therése come to life."
She smiled. "I only look like her I'm afraid."
"Don't be too sure. You know the story, don't you?"
"I do indeed. La Moufette (the Skunkette) is the story of Therése, a French madame de la nuit (lady of the night, a prostitute) (Don't ask me, I never studied French.) who dresses up as a skunkette to attract more kinky clients. During the story she keeps making her costume more authentic, until people start believing she's for real. She enjoys her role so much that she starts wearing the costume even when she's not working, until finally she only removes it to clean herself (and it). In the end she has an identity crisis, and the book ends with a very confusing final chapter which most scholars interpret as a description of her final descent into madness."
"How do you interpret it?"
Theresa smiled sheepishly. "I was very young the first time I read it. My first impression was that she..." She hesitated. Nine of ten people she had told this to, had laughed at her. But this man seemed not only serious, but genuinely interested. She took a deep breath. "My impression was, and still is, that she turned into a moufette for real!"
He nodded gravely. "That is my impression too. But then I have read the banned version."
"That one's different?"
"It certainly is." He pointed to the book on the table. "In that version there is no costume. Therése studies black magic and uses it to actually transform herself. The cryptic last chapter of the regular version is actually a pale echo of the last half of the banned version, which ends with Therése deciding to take the final step of making the spell permanent and become a moufette for good."
Theresa pondered for a moment. "But if Therése wasn't human..."
"No, she wasn't."
"Then the men who slept with her..."
"Indeed. You're fast, lady. It took me a week to figure that one out. That, and the black magic, was why the original version got banned."
He paused, and added: "There's another reason. It's true."
"I beg your pardon?"
"Some say the banned version is a true story. Do you, Madame Moufette, say you don't believe in magic? And then there's this." He handed her a photo.
She looked at it. "An unmarked grave?"
"Not quite unmarked. In wet weather you can make out an ornament that looks like a skunk's tail, and the letter T. Experts date the stone to about the time she must have died. And what you don't see in the picture is the peculiar location of the grave - a hundred yards downwind from the rest of the cemetery, in the village where she was born. Makes you think, doesn't it?"
"I only know one thing."
"I have to read this book."
"I heartily agree. How much time have you got?"
"Well, I can call in sick tomorrow, and my sister can take care of the kids. I just need to make a couple of phone calls - after I read the first chapter."
"Let's get started then. I've got tea and sandwiches, and better chairs than that one. The restroom is over there."
"What's in it for you?"
"I'm old. When my time comes, I shall go peacefully, knowing I once saw Therése reading her own story."
Theresa looked at the book in front of her and took a deep breath. There was a tinny little snippet of music playing in her head. It had started when her budget keeled over and died. She knew it well - it was not only from a film about a book, it was the theme of the Book itself.
It was the Auryn theme from The Neverending Story. In the movie it played briefly each time Bastian saw the book, and culminated in a crescendo when he stole the book and ran off with it.
The music grew stronger and faster while she thought about it. Did someone or something want her to steal this book? Had to be the accountant and the collector in her head then.
It would be easy, she thought as the collector got to his feet and went over to the kitchenette to refill his teacup. Her musk glands must be pretty full again by now, so she could take him out even more easily than those three hoodlums. Then again, spraying him in here would pretty much ruin all his books - including the one she was after! On the other paw, she could just pick up the book and run with her tail up, threatening to spray him if he followed her...
She shook her head. Where did those crazy thoughts come from? She didn't want to steal the book, just read it - and she had the owner's permission to do just that. Sure, Bastian had stolen the book in the movie, but he was just a kid!
The music grew stronger as she opened the cover, and she noticed the old man was still looking in the other direction, as if daring her. This was the moment of truth, or at least final decision. Steal the book or read it?
Sat Nov 13 11:59:26 2004