When people ask me why a young woman wants to work in a fusty old bookshop for peanuts, I tell them I chose it because I lack ambition. I have found my perfect career; feet up next to the cash register, lying back in an armchair and reading my way through the weird and wonderful stock while drinking tea. Bliss.
I think other people would understand it more if I at least owned the shop, but I don’t. It’s Mr Banes’s place. Not that he’s ever here.
We have a very low footfall here at Banes Books, that is to say, hardly anyone comes in. Most of our customers phone or browse our catalogue online. Today though, I’ve had two customers and, weirdly, they were both after the same book.
The first was a tall man with a long nose, in an extremely expensive coat. I normally don’t give a rat’s ass what customers think of me; as long as I give them efficient, helpful service I think that’s enough. But something about the way this man was staring at my crossed ankles, with my DMs dangling over the desk, made me stand up for him. That was annoying in itself and then he opened his mouth.
“I want this book.”
He put a sliver of paper down on the cashdesk. I looked at it, an odd title, and tapped it into our catalogue search.
“If you could move a little more slowly, that would be much appreciated. The longer I get to stand here breathing in the charming dust particles of this shithole, while my body slowly atrophies, the happier I will be.”
The catalogue found a match. Weirdly though, wasn’t on the shelves, or even in the stack, but marked as ‘BPNO4113’ which is a made up code that meant the book was locked away in Mr Banes’s private collection and absolutely couldn’t be sold without his permission. None of these books are listed in our online catalogue, so this supercilious twat had no way of knowing that we actually had a copy.
“We don’t have it.” I imitated his surly tone and held out the sliver of paper. He took it, reluctantly, his furious eyes not leaving my face. “Check again.”
“I’ve checked under title and author. There’s nothing else to check – we do not stock that book.”
He knew I was lying. But I didn’t care – and Mr Banes probably wouldn’t either, I’ve never known him to sell anything from his private collection. The man stepped away from the desk, glanced briefly at the door to the back office as though he’d like to hurdle over the desk, kick the door down and go looking for his book. Instead, he pulled out a business card that simply had three initials listed on it: D.L.B, and a mobile number. “Should it mysteriously enter your stock, call this number and leave a voicemail.”
I stared back at him, mulishly, and when I didn’t reach for the card, he placed it on the desk and turned on his heel. As I watched him leave the shop and start to walk down the street, he took the sliver of paper with the book details on it, put it into his mouth and chewed.
The man had not been gone an hour, when a woman came in. She was the typical academic sort we sometimes get; dark red hair with streaks of grey, a pretty, slightly lined face and the pallor of someone who spends a lot of time in libraries. She smiled nervously at me. “I’m wondering if you can help. I’m looking for this book.” She held out a spiral-bound notebook and, written in scrawling pencil, was the same title the rude man was looking for. Although she was smiley and polite and a good deal less demanding, I couldn’t tell her we had the book in case he’d sent her.
I dutifully searched the catalogue and shook my head ruefully. “I’m so sorry but we don’t have it. ”
For a second the woman looked like she wanted to grab me by my ears and bash my head against the till, but she hid it with a smile and puppydog eyes. “Are you sure? I really thought this was the kind of place that might have it – I’ve been trying all over.”
“Have you googled it? A lot of rare book specialists…”
“Yes!” She interrupted, then gathered herself. “Yes, I’ve trawled the net. You were my last hope actually. Do you mind if I take a look around? There’s a possibility, isn’t there, that if it’s been here for years, it might have been missed when the catalogue was put together?”
I was extremely reluctant, but could hardly say no. She set off with determination towards the back. She knows, I thought to myself, just like him, she knows it’s here.
She was still systematically searching the shelves when closing time arrived. I had a hard job kicking her out; she was polite when she asked me for just five more minutes, but there’s real steel underneath there – forged by desperation, I’d say. She and this man both wanted the book very badly.
After I kicked her out, I closed the shutters, switched off the lights and retreated into the back office to cash up and drink a glass of the good red Mr Banes keeps a crate of and insists I help myself to. His private collection was well hidden; there is a false back to one of the bookshelves and behind it, an alcove with a custom made safe. I dialled in the combination and when it swung open took out all of the books. It wasn’t tricky – there were only nine – and I found the right one straightaway. It was a slim volume, quite old, Edwardian at least, in a pale, musty cover. I put the others back and restored the safe.
I switched the lights off went through to the back staircase, up to my grace and favour flat.
I flicked through the book carefully, but was at a loss to see what the fuss was about. It must have been valuable or Mr Banes wouldn’t have had it in his collection, but I was damned if I could see why. A load of maps mostly, quite basic sketches and then some descriptions of the terrain and wildlife around a group of small islands.
Polishing off a second glass of red was a mistake because I found myself nodding off, the book on my lap, almost crushed by my sleepy hands. I didn’t fancy going downstairs in the dark so I wrapped the book in a chiffon scarf and hid it at the back of my wardrobe.
Around 3am I woke with an awful start. Then I heard it again – the sound of breaking glass downstairs. I was no longer alone.