The Grimoire of the Lamb by Kevin Hearne, now you can read online.
People today think ancient Egypt was ineffably cool. I blame this misconception on hieroglyphics and (to a lesser extent) on the Bangles.
The truth is that the ancient Egyptians regarded most people as chattel for the ruling class and practiced some of the blackest magic history has ever seen—or, rather, hasn’t seen, because they were deadly serious about keeping their secrets. But they wrote such happy tomes as The Book of the Dead and illustrated joyful kids’ books like Little Scarab Shat Blood and Anubis Eats the Hearts of the Disobedient. I’m not kidding; I saw them before the Library of Alexandria was ruined by Emperor Aurelian.
I saw plenty at Alexandria in its heyday. In fact, I saw quite a few things I never should have seen, which is why I now avoid the country when I can. My logic, if it could be called that, suggests that if I never think about the country again, the old deities of Egypt will forget that I once snaffled their sex rituals and necromantic tomes. Calls from Cairo, therefore, automatically excite more than their fair share of suspicion. When I picked up the phone in my shop and the voice in my ear identified himself as “Nkosi Elkhashab from Egypt,” I toyed briefly with the idea of hanging up before he could even state his business.
The problem was this: Long ago—in what I suppose I must now call my “youth,” even though I was already a couple of hundred years old at the time—I raided an extremely restricted section at Alexandria. It was at the behest of Ogma, one of the Tuatha Dé Danann, so to please that particular god I wound up vexing several others in the Egyptian pantheon. Not so much that they would take the trouble to hunt me down, but neither am I precisely welcome in their territory anymore. Bast, in particular, has several bones to pick with me, aside from the fact that I’m not a cat person. I have a book of hers—or, rather, a book that belonged to her cult—that contains some fairly lurid descriptions of her “mysteries.” It is physical evidence of the old saying that there is more than one way to skin a cat: The parchment itself is made of catskin—a fine quality bordering on vellum—and the cover is a thicker, tanned catskin leather to protect the contents from minor water damage. I’d thwarted a couple of attempts by her agents to steal it back or assassinate me, but I could also say the same for most of my Egyptian collection. Almost all of it had been cursed or enchanted in some fashion and had given me more trouble than it was worth. I held on to it now just to be stubborn, to say “Neener neener!” to all those ancient mages and gods who thought they could scare a Druid into giving away his hard-earned (if ill-gotten) library. I tended to hoard magical tomes the way dragons hoarded treasure—and protected them with the same ferocity.
Mr. Elkhashab, however, wanted what amounted to a cookbook. “If you are the rare-book dealer Atticus O’Sullivan …?”
“Then I am told you have a collection of extremely rare works from Egypt,” he said, his voice rich with the lilt of an Arabic accent. I could easily speak Arabic with him, but it was better for now to let him assume I was an American and, therefore, statistically speaking, limited to English and two years of another language in high school.
“Are you from the Ministry of Antiquities?” I asked. These days, admitting you had old stuff from Egypt would earn you a visit from men with mirrored sunglasses.
“No, Mr. O’Sullivan,” he chuckled in surprise. “My relationship with them is rather strained. In any case, I doubt they even know of the existence of the particular work I’m looking for. Nor are they likely to care, since it has nothing to do with the pharaohs. It’s simply a book written in Coptic, either first or perhaps second century, and it contains a collection of recipes for cooking lamb. Might you have anything remotely resembling such a book?”
I did indeed. Privately I called it the Grimoire of the Lamb, because it was otherwise untitled. It had somehow been shelved incongruously amongst some darker works at Alexandria—including Bast’s catskin collection of sexercises, which I now called Nice Kitty! This was the first time anyone had ever asked about the grimoire, however. The number of people who could speak Coptic today, including myself, was probably only a few hundred. I’d kept the book as a curiosity, but this man’s inquiry raised a whole new line of questioning.
“I might,” I said, and fished for more information. “Can you give me any more clues about what this might look like?”
“I have never seen it or read any descriptions of its physical appearance. But it was thought to have been in the Library of Alexandria at one time.”
Affecting my best clueless-American tone, I said, “Didn’t that burn down?”
“Yes, but the book I seek was removed prior to that.”
“It’s pretty old, then. Papyrus or parchment?”
“Parchment of unusual quality.” He’d nailed it. What was his source?
“It’s probably severely degraded by now; might be unreadable. Would that be a deal-breaker for you?”
“No, not at all, sir,” he said.
I walked out from behind the tea station to the rare-book case on the north wall of my shop; the sale of something like this could ensure a profit for the year and maybe the next one as well, recession or no. Not that I couldn’t afford to take a loss. The sale of rare books and antiquities was just one of many get-rich-slow schemes I’d come up with throughout my very long life. The slow part was living until pop culture aged long enough to take on the luster of dignity and the physical product deteriorated to the point where it could whisper of a halcyon epoch before the buyer’s time.
My rare books were heavily secured for both the mundane and the magical world. I didn’t need to unlock the bindings and disable the wards just to check on the grimoire—I could look through the bulletproof glass. It was still there, sitting amongst my Egyptian goodies.
“All right, I have it. Thirteen recipes for lamb.”
“Excellent!” The excitement in his voice carried across the Atlantic very well. “How much? I can wire you the money immediately.”
“No, you’ll need to purchase it in person.”
A pause on the other end of the line. “Can you not ship internationally?”
“I can, but I won’t. This is a magical text. I don’t trust them to the mail.”
“Magical? It is an ancient cookbook.”
I couldn’t believe he was trying to play dumb now. I had that market cornered. “Mr. Elkhashab. Where did you hear of this book and where did you hear that I might have it?”
“Your store is world famous for antiquities,” he said, not answering either question. “I’m simply contacting as many rare-book dealers as I can.” I gave up trying to be patient. Normal customers don’t look for ancient Coptic texts that should have been burned long ago.
“Please do not insult my intelligence. Earlier you said you had heard that I might have it. So you were either lying then or you are lying now. I do not need to sell this book, Mr. Elkhashab. I am quite content to keep it, because I think we both know it is the only copy in existence. If you wish to purchase it, you will need to make a trip to the United States and negotiate with me in person. I will not deal with representatives, lawyers, or even familiars.”
He didn’t splutter or feign ignorance of familiars. He merely said in a stiff voice, “It will take me some time to get there.”