Holmes palmed the door of the archive, where a librarian stood talking on the phone with his back to the entrance. He moved the receiver to the other shoulder and pulled out a ledger, his desk empty save for pencils and a tea mug on an electric heating plate.
"I'll send it directly, ma'am," he said, writing down an address, "No, I'll have to translate it tomorrow. Well, your friend tried it out, and when he walked into the restaurant he wished for sirloin and got a pie-crust full of broken glass instead. I like the odds myself. Thank you, I'll do that."
He set the receiver in the cradle, waited, then lifted it to make another call. When nothing happened, he turned to find the phone jack empty, and Holmes on the sofa with the plug in his hand.
"Where's the book?"
"I just came from an estate sale, they said you have a copy of the Melek."
"It's not a book. It's a letter."
"May I see it?"
"How's your Middle German?"
Holmes drummed his fingers on his knee. The librarian was young, happy with his job, and spent too much money on his clothes. If that really had been the Queen in Black talking on the phone a minute ago, this man wasn't going to be frightened by a gun waved in his face.
"I spoke with your boss earlier."
He looked at Holmes over his glasses, then pushed them back up his nose. "That must have been expensive."
"She told me he's here. The Devil is here, in one of these rooms. That if I find him, I can get my hands on him," he said, leaning in, "I can kill him."
"If you can find him." he said, smiling politely.
"Do you know which room he's in?"
"You can't kill him."
"Have you tried?"
The librarian looked away and lifted his mug. It was just water, but the archive was always cold, and he liked the heat of it in his hands.
"Do you believe the paths of men are set?" he asked. The hot water fogged his glasses, and Holmes could no longer see himself in them.
"Predestination is for Calvinists."
"Our choices are easier to predict than you think, once you have enough data. And he has much to draw from."
"So he knows what room I'll pick before I even think it?"
"So why is everyone so interested in this magic letter?"
"Because it reduces the game to two moves. Either you're in the room you want, or the room you do not want."
"And let me guess, I only get one shot at it."
Holmes crossed his leg and studied the sole of his shoe. He didn't like eating broken glass any more than the next man.
"A coin flip's hardly better than picking at random."
"It's the best game in town."
"Then you're going to show me how it works."
The librarian pulled open a drawer and ran his finger along the card catalog, as if the Devil were a flower pressed between the leaves of a book. Holmes surveyed the room, pulling a new pack of smokes from his coat and smacking it against his palm.
"Must see some exciting characters in here." he said around the cigarette. He struck a match, and for an instant his eyes glowed yellow.
"It's quiet actually. Visitors come on the first bus and stay until the sidewalks roll up. It doesn't leave me much time outside," said the librarian, plucking it from Holmes' mouth and pinching the end, "I can't remember the last time I saw a tree."
The air was very close in that small space, the flame guttering pale blue. Then Holmes dropped the match and the librarian stooped to retrieve it.
The Devil is a very old gambler. He can't see the future, but he can make an intelligent guess, and there were twenty-six rooms down there, all connected together like an old-fashioned hotel. Holmes could sooner count all the atoms in his body than try every combination of places the Devil could be hiding, and whatever strategy he tried, his target would see it coming five, ten, perhaps twenty moves ahead of him. Even a random choice would not come as a surprise. The magic letter did him no good.
He never spent long on these decisions. Play the game too long and you'll end up beating yourself. The librarian stood straight, the match in his hand, and Holmes pressed the barrel of the gun to his ribs.
"Thanks, I'll take that."
The shot went thru the young man and bounced off two walls before burying itself in a table leg. He pressed a hand to his shirt and folded in at the waist. Blood pooled on the floor, and Holmes took a step back to avoid staining his shoes.
He stood over the librarian, very still except for his chest caving in and out, and Holmes' logic began to flake at the edges. Was this kid really it, the lake of fire, the temptation in the wilderness, the ubiquitous neighbor always turning up the volume on every bad idea you never tried? Or was it all a fairy tale and he just killed some poor schmo working the door at the basement of the world?
"Dammit." he said. Holmes gathered him up and kicked the front door in. Once he climbed the steps, he expected strangers to flock round, but the street was empty.
"Can I get some help?!" he shouted. He set the body down and reached inside a phone booth. "Hello, I got a gunshot wound here."
"Yes sir, are you the one shot sir?"
He opened his mouth to answer, then realized he must have left his gun in the archive. He'd have to get it before the ambulance arrived. Then he turned his head and saw the librarian pointing it at him thru the glass, his body turned sidelong with one arm raised.
Holmes dropped the phone. The ambulance came two minutes later, but by then he was alone. "What do you want?"
The Devil lifted the gun and thumbed back the hammer, a silver light burning far away in the back of his eyes. "I just wanted to see a tree."