I machine-gunned the titles. Shrank listened and almost cringed back at my recitation of joy. He let me run down.
“How about the Savonarola Joke Book or The Funny Sayings of Jack the Ripper…” I stopped.
A. L. Shrank was all shadow and ice, turning away.
“Sorry,” I said, and I was. “What I’d really like to do some day is come by to browse. That is, if you’ll let me.”
A. L. Shrank weighed this, decided I was repentant, and moved to touch his shop-front door. It whined softly open. He turned to examine me with his tiny, bright amber eyes, his thin fingers twitching at his sides.
“Why not now?” he said.
“I can’t. Later, Mr. …”
“Shrank. A. L. Shrank. Consulting psychologist. No, not Shrink, as you might be thinking, as in psychiatrist. Just plain Shrank, meadow doctor to lost creatures.”
He was imitating my banter. His thin smile was a weak-tea duplicate of my own. I felt it would vanish if I, in turn, shut my mouth. I glanced above him.
“How come you’ve left that old tarot card sign in place? And what about phrenology and hypnotism…”
“You forgot to mention my handwriting analysis sign. And the one mentioning numerology is just inside the door. Be my guest.”
I moved, but stopped.
“Come along,” said A. L. Shrank. “Come on,” he said, really smiling now, the smile of a fish, however, not of a dog. “Step in.”
At each gentle command, I inched forward, my eyes touching with all too obvious irony on the hypnotism sign above the tiny man’s head. His eyes did not blink.
“Come,” said A. L. Shrank, nodding at his library without looking at it.
I found the invitation irresistible, in spite of the car crashes, dirigible burnings, mine explosions, and mental delapidations I knew each book contained.
“Well,” I said.
At which moment the entire pier shook. Far out at the end, in the fog, a great creature had struck the pier. It was like a whale brunting a ship, or the Queen Mary plowing into the ancient pilings. The big iron brutes out there, hidden, were beginning to tear the planks apart.
The vibrations knocked the planks and came up through my body and Shrank’s body, with jolts of mortality and doom. Our bones shook in our blood. We both jerked our heads to try to stare through the fog at the devastation somewhere beyond. The mighty blows jarred me a modicum away from the door. The titanic buffeting trembled and shivered and inched A. L. Shrank on his sill like a lost toy. A paleness bloomed within the paleness of his face. He looked like a man panicked by an earthquake or a tidal wave rushing at the pier. Again and again the great machines hammered and pounded in the fog a hundred yards away, and invisible cracks seemed to appear in A. L. Shrank’s milk-glass brow and cheeks. The war had begun! Soon the dark tanks would lumber along the pier, destroying as they came, a flood of carnival émigrés running before them toward land, A. L. Shrank soon to be among them as his house of dark tarot cards fell.
It was my chance to escape, but I failed.
Shrank’s gaze had returned to me, as if I could save him from that invasion just beyond. In a moment he might seize my elbow for support.
The pier shook. I shut my eyes.
I thought I heard my secret office telephone ring. I almost cried out, my phone! it’s for me!
But I was saved from that by a tide of men and women, and a few children, hurrying the other way, not toward land but rushing toward the sea end of the pier, a large man in a dark cloak and a floppy G. K. Chesterton hat leading the way.
“Last ride, last day, last time!” he yelled. “Last chance! Come on!”
“Shapeshade,” whispered A. L. Shrank.
And that’s who it was. Shapeshade, the sole owner and proprietor of the old Venice Cinema at the foot of the pier, which would be ground underfoot and turned to celluloid mulch within the week,
“This way!” called Shapeshade’s voice from the mist.
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