Aubrey turned the book over, running his finger along its spine. It seemed to be bound in leather, but there was something not quite right about it.

“Is this…” Aubrey started to ask. Joel nodded, cutting him off.

“Human skin,” said the book dealer in a conspiratorial whisper.

“Whose?” Aubrey asked, dropping the book on the counter and wiping his hands on his coat.

“Don’t be so squeamish,” Joel laughed. “I doubt if it’s even real. It came from the collection of Lord Glosover, who I’m sure you are aware was a notorious charlatan. He used this book as a prop in his seances.”

“Oh!” Aubrey squealed, scooping the book back up and hugging it to his chest. “Ghostly Glosover! That would make a nice addition to my collection. I have a set of manacles once owned by Houdini, you know. This would make a fantastic companion piece. Imagine, a book owned by Glosover displayed next to the manacles of the man who exposed him as a fraud!”

“It could be yours for 600 pounds,” Joel said a bit too eagerly.

Aubrey wrote a check and hurried back to his Notting Hill flat with his prize. Glosover, who had been a sensation before being vanquished by the famous American, ended up a pariah, destitute and friendless. With his creditors nipping at his heels, he fled England, never to be seen or heard from again. His property was liquidated and dispersed to those he’d bilked with his spook show scam, but no one saw much value in his collection of props, and nobody wanted to retain a reminder of their foolishness. As a consequence, it was, like Glosover’s reputation, consigned to the rubbish heap, making artifacts connected to Glosover exceedingly rare.

Aubrey photographed the book and occupied himself for the next few hours posting the pictures on social media and bragging about his find in emails to fellow collectors. The response was overwhelmingly congratulatory, though Aubrey suspected many had never heard of Glosover and had no idea of the value of his find. Not so with Professor Morrison. Morrison was a renowned expert on the occult and something of a legend. Aubrey was alarmed by the professor’s terse response to his email.

“Burn it?” Aubrey said aloud, reading the words on his screen. He decided to ring the Professor up to see what had provoked such a response from the old scholar.

“I was expecting you to call,” Morrison said. “I have nothing to add to my original statement. Burn that book.”

“But why?” Aubrey stammered. “It’s just a prop. Glosover was a fraud.”

“Glosover was a fraud up until the point where he was exposed,” Morrison said. “I suppose you aren’t familiar with the details of his life after that.”

“I was under the impression no one was,” Aubrey said. “The man fell off the face of the Earth. He vanished.”

“He vanished into the world of occult studies,” Morrison said. “Returning under another name. You’ve heard of the Heretic?”

“Of course I have,” Aubrey said, “but he was just a myth.”

“He was not a myth,” Morrison responded sternly. “He was Glosover. The man was consumed with a thirst for vengeance after his ruination. He spent the remainder of his life tracking down the most arcane knowledge and was willing to perform the most blasphemous rites to achieve his goal. There was no crime, no sin he was unwilling to commit in his quest for retribution. That book you purchased is bound in the hides of unbaptized babes, and the spells it contains are written in the blood of murdered clergy.”

Aubrey hung up and sat staring at the book on the table before him, unwilling to touch it. If he had heard it from anyone other than Morrison, he would have dismissed it all as a fairytale. The Heretic was considered a fantasy, owing to a large degree to the fantastical exploits attributed to him. It was said he was responsible for hundreds, if not thousands of murders, and that he was so evil the devil gave him his own level of Hell to preside over. Of course, if he were real, much of what was said of him had to be hyperbole, but if even a fraction were true, the man had been a monster. That such a fiend originated as a common con man made it all seem even more unlikely.

Using a pencil to lift the cover, Aubrey was greeted by a drawing of a man being pulled apart by creatures of an especially repulsive design, resembling rotting pigs with anthropoid limbs. The following pages were filled with incantations in Latin, interspersed with illustrations of corpses frolicking with the pig creatures and other monstrosities, performing the most degraded and vile acts imaginable. He was glad he had limited what he’d posted online to pictures of the cover. When he had paged through the book at the shop, he’d thought them an amusing example of overkill, a sideshow barker trying too hard to frighten the rubes. Now they took on a more sinister significance.

He hadn’t bothered to translate any of the Latin verses, thinking them mere hokum. Now, as he read the blasphemy on the yellowed pages, he came to fully believe the words were written in blood. One passage in particular caused him to slam shut the book and retreat to the restroom, his stomach churning.

He decided perhaps Morrison was right. The book was an abomination. Still, the notion of destroying it ran counter to his instincts. Despite its unsavory origin, indeed because of it, the book was even more valuable than he had thought. Unwilling to look at it any longer, he threw a towel over it and went off to sleep, hopeful he would have a better perspective on it in the morning.

Having emptied almost an entire decanter of sherry, he had little trouble falling asleep, but that sleep was fitful and plagued by nightmares. Once, he woke up screaming and attempted to leap from his bed, only to fall back down onto his pillow to be dragged back into the same dream. He saw a bald man in a tattered crimson robe standing over a vast charnel pit with outstretched arms. The man pointed at the pit, directing Aubrey’s attention toward the undulating mass of seared and decaying flesh it contained, thousands of bodies writhing in unison to the sound of a distant piping.

“One is missing,” said the hooded man. “Erik Weisz thought to use death to cheat me of my vengeance. Through you, I will call him back and add the soul of Houdini to the pit. You will use the manacles to call him back. You will find the spell in the book. Once he has returned, I will claim him. Henceforth, I will see through your eyes and your hands will be my hands. You shall have no will other than the one I impose upon you.”

Aubrey awoke the next morning to find himself seated before the open book, the words on the pages partially obscured by the bars of light sifted through the window blinds. The wall clock told him it was a little past dawn, filling him with an unaccountable sense of urgency. There was something he had to do before the sun set again, but he couldn’t say what it was. He stretched the collar of his pajamas away from his neck and ran his sleeve across his forehead, leaving a wet stain on the fabric.

The night had added weight to his feet, making each step an effort as he stomped to the shower and twisted the knob to make the water flow. His pajamas clung to him as he peeled them off and landed with a wet thud on the tiled floor. Bracing himself with a hand on the wall, he lifted his feet over the edge of the tub without bothering to test the temperature of the water. It was cold enough to cause his heart to skip a beat as it hit him full on, but he didn’t notice. Mechanically, he ran his fingers through his hair, coming away with a handful of black strands. The water washed it from his grasp and down the drain as he watched without comprehension. He rubbed at his scalp with both hands until his head was smooth and bare.

The water swelled up around his ankles as the hair clogged the drain. Aubrey stared down, remembering some trouble he’d had with a plumber a few months before. It was mundane enough to snap him back, reminding him of who he was and the life he’d led up to that point.

“I am Aubrey Lewellen,” he said aloud. He said it three more times before wondering why he’d found it necessary to assert it. This renewed self-awareness didn’t leave the shower with him. By the time he reached for the towel, he was completely bald and his usual tan complexion had faded to a pasty gray, yet the reflection in his mirror elicited no alarm. As far as he was concerned, nothing had changed. He dressed and then rang up Darcy.

“Aubrey?” the voice on the phone asked, obviously amazed to hear from the man who had ended their relationship two months before. “How are you?”

“Not good,” Aubrey replied. “I’ve been a fool. These past few weeks without you have shown me I’m no good without you. I realize I don’t deserve it, and you’ve probably moved on, but I’d like you to give me another chance. Can I see you tonight?”

“I’d like to, but I couldn’t possibly make it this evening. I have…” Aubrey hung up the phone cutting her off. It had to be tonight. He scrolled down the list of contacts in his phone until he came to the number for Amanda Wyman.

“Amanda!” he shouted into the phone as soon as he heard her voice. “I’ve been a fool. These past few weeks have shown me I’m no good without you. I realize I don’t deserve it, and you’ve probably moved on, but I’d like you to give me another chance. Can I see you tonight?” Amanda hesitated only a second before telling him she would be at his flat at five.

Relieved, Aubrey hung up the phone. I should have called Amanda first, he thought. She was always more hung up on me. It was maddening the way she wouldn’t leave me alone for a second. For a brief moment, he questioned why he had called her, but his concerns were quickly edged out by awareness of the looming hour. He had preparations to make.

Amanda showed up ten minutes early, wearing the dress she wore when Aubrey had first asked her out.

“What have you done to your beautiful hair?” she asked as Aubrey answered the door, nearly dropping the bottle of wine she held out to him.

“I’ve gone through some difficult times since I lost you, Amanda,” he said, taking the bottle and ushering her in.

“What have you got going on here?” she asked, staring at the furniture pushed against the wall to accommodate the two large circles drawn on the floor.

“You know my interests run to the esoteric,” Aubrey said returning from the kitchen with two glasses. “I’ve recently made a discovery that could elevate me to the top of my field. I should know for certain tonight. I wanted you to be here, either to share the moment of my triumph—or console me if it falls flat.”

“I’m honored,” she said, accepting the glass and raising it in a toast. “To success!” They both emptied their glasses, and Aubrey filled them again. “What is that in the small circle?”

“That is the means by which I shall summon the shade of Houdini,” Aubrey said. “Those restraints belonged to him. The larger circle is for me to perform the sacrifice that will trap him.”

Amanda scowled. “Sacrifice? You’re not going to make me watch you chop the head off a bunny are you?”

“I’m afraid it will get bloody,” Aubrey said, “but don’t worry. You won’t have to watch.”

Amanda didn’t hear his last sentence. By then, she was already preoccupied with the spots dancing before her eyes. Everything went black. Aubrey let her lie where she fell, but picked up her glass, carrying it to the kitchen where he had his knives laid out. The spell required the sacrifice be flayed, so he would require several different blades, though he had no idea how he knew that. He wrapped the knives in the towel they rested on and carried them to the living room, where he arranged them in the larger of the two circles. Next, he slid a large metal tub into the circle, placing it directly under the rope he’d tied to the rafters. Amanda hadn’t noticed that, but if she had, he was sure he would have come up with a suitable excuse for its presence. Once everything was in place, and the rope had been secured around the unconscious woman’s ankles, he hoisted her up so her long blonde hair dangled into the tub. It was time!

As Aubrey recited the incantation and saw the manacles in the adjoining circle levitate, he felt a sense of triumph he was only vaguely aware was not his own. He felt Glosover’s hate for the great escape artist wash over him, sharing in the memory of Glosover’s shame as Houdini appeared, his wrists ensnared by the manacles. Briefly, Aubrey felt a twinge of elation, even hope, at the sight of his hero, but Glosover crushed it out. He finally had Houdini where he wanted him. He glared at the man’s smirk, remembering Houdini had worn that same expression when he flipped over the table at the séance, exposing the pedals and knobs Glosover had used to create his specters. He would relish tearing Houdini’s flesh from his bones, over and over again, for all eternity. All that remained was to make the sacrifice and consign the hated one’s soul to Hell. Aubrey pressed the blade against the flesh of Amanda’s throat—and froze.

Aubrey had always been a womanizer, collecting girlfriends in much the same way he collected books and occult trinkets. Perhaps for the first time, seeing Amanda trussed up like a hog at the slaughter, he realized how dehumanizing his actions had been. He started to break through, to assert control over the body Glosover had usurped. He could feel the muscles in his arm tear as each consciousness tried to push it in different directions. Blood flowed from his nostrils and the corners of his eyes.

Despite his efforts, the Heretic was too powerful. Aubrey watched in horror as the blade started to trace a red line in Amanda’s flesh. Then he stopped. Both man and demon had been so intent on their struggle, they had failed to notice Houdini had escaped the trap they had laid for him. He stood outside between both circles pointing down at the rim of the one enclosing Aubrey and his victim. Aubrey saw a portion of the circle meant to contain Houdini had been wiped away, probably when Aubrey was dragging Amanda past it.

It didn’t matter, screamed the voice in his head. For whatever reason, Houdini had not fled back to the land of the dead. As long as he was still there, the sacrifice must continue.

“Help me!” Aubrey said in a half-choked-off whisper. Houdini glanced at the floor in response while continuing to point at the line. Letting out a scream, Aubrey forced his foot to slide across the floor, erasing a section of the circle. Immediately, Houdini entered it. He raised his arms above his head and brought them back down to his waist with a quick jerk that dislodged his hands from their shackles. As they clanged to the floor, Houdini gestured, first to the manacles, then to Aubrey. Inside him, Glosover was in turmoil, raging against this unforeseen development. Aubrey took advantage of his captor’s distraction to bend and scoop up the manacles and clasp them around his own wrists. Glosover screamed inside his head.

When Aubrey awoke, he found Amanda, still unconscious, lying on the floor beside him. Choking on the pungent smoke streaming from his hearth, he raised an arm to cover his face and discovered he was no longer bound by the manacles. Stumbling over to the fireplace, he waved away the smoke to see the last of the book catch and crumble into ash. The great escape artist had performed one final trick.