Jury Duty, Ugh!
Jury duty, John Fairchild decided, was the pits.
Normally, twenty-six-year-old John had a cushy deal. He lived in Suburba, he worked at ApexSoft in Suburba, and his favorite restaurants were in Suburba. “Rush-hour traffic” was something that John normally had to put up with for thirty minutes a day, maximum. When the weather forecast was nice, John sometimes even walked to and from work.
Ah, but that was normally, when John didn’t have a jury summons to deal with. This morning he’d had to fight traffic to get to downtown Expenso City, the county seat, and John had been forced to park his car in expensive daily parking, just so he would be in the county courthouse by eight o’clock.
Now it was lunchtime, and John still didn’t know whether he would be picked for jury duty or not.
John was holding a fast-food sack in his left hand, and a tiny fraction of a hamburger in his right hand, when he pushed open the door of the bookstore.
John had never seen this bookstore before, because it was in downtown Expenso City, and he figured he’d never see the bookstore again, so he decided to check it out.
When John opened the bookstore door, a bell tinkled.
The sales clerk was an old man with a big smile. “Welcome to David’s Books, oldest bookstore in Expenso City. Can I help you find something?”
John asked, “What do you carry that isn’t in a Barnes & Noble?”
The old man’s smile became a grin. “Old books, out-of-print books, forgotten books. You want trashy Fifties paperbacks? We’ve got ’em. Nineteen-teens how-to books about how to build a crystal radio set? We’ve got those. Dracula and Frankenstein in nineteenth-century covers, ditto. And cardboard boxes full of books for a dollar a box, we have a fine selection.”
“Really, a dollar for an entire box?” John replied. “Even the Friends Of The Library doesn’t sell books that cheap.”
The old man walked John over to a display. The boxes were, judging from their markings, former liquor- and wine-shipping boxes. They were not as big as John was expecting; still, there were enough books in each box to make one dollar per box be a real bargain.
John jammed the last of his hamburger in his mouth, set down his fast-food bag, and reached into the nearest box. He grabbed a book with mildewed cover, and turned yellowed pages till he was at the beginning of the story—
Mildred Collins, a nice girl from good family, looked at the clock on the mantle and tried to contain her excitement. Ten minutes from now would bring in not only a new year, but also a new century!
John flipped forward to the very front of the book. Sure enough, the book he was reading said “copyright MCM.”
John dug out a dollar and a dime and handed them to the clerk. “I’ll take this box here. I’m curious whether Mildred likes the twentieth century.”
It wasn’t till 4:30 that afternoon that John learned he was not selected for jury duty. What a waste of a day! he thought.
The only good news in his day: One of the books in his box was—
Or more accurately, one of his books claimed to be—
A grimoire. A book of magic spells.
That evening, in the living room of John’s house, he opened the supposed “magic book.”
The title page read, in calligraphied text—
YE OLDE BOOK OF MAGIC by VULPES COMITATI
To read what here be written, thou must needs write the three questions on a virgin sheet of paper, whilst writing with a virgin pen. Harken, whilst touching this book with thy left hand, thou must needs read each question aloud, then answer each correctly.
Thou art let but once to correctly speak thine answers. After one error, this book shall be forever deaf to thy speech.
This and the text of the three questions were the only writing in the book. The supposed-grimoire was two inches thick, had hundreds of pages and was enclosed in leather binding; and yet every page but the title page was blank.
The only reason that John bothered with all this was because of something else that was written on the title page. Not in the calligraphied original printing, but written in fountain pen in a modern cursive—
This book is the real McCoy! But I missed that third question. Maybe I should’ve answered as a homosexual?
John walked to the drugstore then, and bought a package of ten ballpoint pens. As soon as John returned home, he pulled out the paper tray for his inkjet printer, and removed a clean sheet of 20-pound, letter-sized paper.
John cut open the bag of pens, removed a pen, uncapped it, and began writing.
John put down the pen, capped it, and closed the supposed-grimoire. John put his left hand on the book, and picked up the paper with his right hand.
John read aloud:
Where on Earth do midwinter and midsummer have the same count of daytime hours?
John knew that midwinter used to mean the winter solstice; and that midsummer used to mean the summer solstice. There was only one place on Earth where the longest day of the year was the same as the shortest day of the year: twelve hours out of twenty-four.
John spoke up and said, “Anywhere on the equator.”
John heard a church bell ring inside the room. Meanwhile, the book trembled under John’s left hand for three seconds, then the book became still again.
What number doth come next? One, two, ten, eleven, twelve, twenty, twenty-one, twenty-two, and then?
John saw the trick. The book-writer was counting in base 3—1, 2, 10, 11, 12, 20, 21, 22—but was calling the numbers by their base-10 names. After 22 in base 3 (which is 8 in base 10) comes 100 in base 3 (a.k.a. 9 in base 10).
John said aloud, “One hundred.”
The book again vibrated under John’s left hand for several heartbeats; but now John also heard a three-note blast from a hunting horn.
Next came the question that had tripped up the other would‑be wizard. John took a deep breath.
Wouldst thou lie with the comeliest wench or youth in England, or wouldst thou own a barrel fillt with Spanish doubloons?
John thought he saw another trick. The previous reader probably thought that he was being asked,Which would you like: Sex with a hot babe, sex with a studly hunk, or lots and lots of gold coins? But it didn’t matter which way the other guy answered, because all three answers were wrong.
For all the convolutions in the sentence, it looked to John like that sentence was a simple yes-or-no question.
So when John spoke again, he said only “Yes.”
Now John heard an extended three-trumpet fanfare, and the book under his hand glowed for five seconds like a fluorescent light.
When the white glow faded, John opened the book.
John saw writing on every page.
Except for the last four pages; these were still blank.
Buy Ye Olde Book Of Magic now! You know you want to!