First published in April 2016. My original text is copyright The Invisible Moth.
“I seem to be having tremendous difficulty with my lifestyle.” — From The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams
Heidi St. Martins was having tremendous difficulty with her lifestyle. She really needed her brother, Joseph, to help out with the shop. His version of that was to spend all day in the office, his nose buried in one of the recent deliveries.
She really wanted the shop assistant, Oliver, to ask her out, but last night after closing, she’d seen him meet a pretty young lady in the street, and greet her in a definite non-platonic manner.
She truly, deeply hoped that her granddad would be back as scheduled from his holidays to Scotland. Then her time watching the book shop would be over, and these concerns no longer occupying her mind.
Now she was trying to avoid Oliver while minding the shop with him, which has rather difficult. And Joseph insisted on staying in the office, “conducting inventory,” when she knew he was really reading that latest bestseller he’d had his eye on. Mr. and Mrs. St. Martins had once said that Joseph was more comfortable with fictional people than real ones; Heidi reckoned this was true.
It was an average Tuesday for June; in other words, it was rainy and not quite as warm as it might be. So far they’d only had a handful of customers, but the schools weren’t out for the summer yet, and it wasn’t even lunchtime. Heidi was debating whether to send Oliver off early when the phone rang.
“St. Martins Books and Stationery, how may I help you?”
“Ahh, yes,” a timid, older gentleman’s voice said, “could I speak to Bill St. Martins, please?”
Her granddad. “I’m sorry, but he’s out of the shop until early next week. Could I take a message for him?”
Silence. Heidi was beginning to wonder if she’d lost the connection, when the voice said, “Er, there’s no message, thank you,” and the owner of the voice hung up.
“Well, that was a bit odd,” Heidi murmured aloud to herself, and turned her attention to greeting the postman.
No one else came into the shop for the next half hour. Oliver had dusted every open surface, hoovered the carpet, and straightened everything he could see that was even an inch off kilter.
“Go to lunch, Ollie,” Heidi said, looking up from the newspaper. “And feel free to take a good long time.”
“Cheers, Heidi.” Oliver set down the duster and went to the staff room to clock out.
The instant he was gone — of course — a short, middle-aged man in a trench coat and fedora, a wispy beard on his troubled face, hurried into the shop, carrying a briefcase, which he placed on the counter in front of Heidi. He was panting, as if just having run a long way.
“I need a copy of Tad Fallows and the Quarter Pints,” he announced.
Heidi had never heard of a publication with that title. That didn’t mean it wasn’t real, though. “I’m sorry?” she said. “Which medium is that in, sir?”
The gentleman blinked at her, confused. “What?”
“Is it a book, a magazine, a film…”
Now he frowned, obviously displeased. “Young lady, this is no time for jokes.”
She winced. “I’m sorry, sir, but I’m…”
Oliver came out of the staff room, and took in this scene at the register. “Need some help, Heidi?”
“None from you!” the man snapped, making Oliver turn red, and Heidi begin to consider throwing him out of the shop. “I need to speak with a St. Martin, and only a St. Martin.”
“Well, sir, that would be me,” Heidi tried again. “Myself, or my brother.”
“Bill said that you’d be watching the shop,” the curmudgeon grumbled. “But I didn’t think you’d be this incompetent.”
Now Heidi took offense. “Sir, you’ll kindly be seeing yourself out, please.”
“What?” He was startled. “No, you can’t…”
Joseph actually poked his head out of the office. “What’s going on, sis?”
Heidi glared at him. “Nothing, Joseph.”
“Hardly!” the man insisted. “The world’s about to end!”
Joseph looked from him to Heidi to Oliver, who shrugged, and made discreetly for the back door.
The man pressed his hands down on the countertop. “Young man, I need a copy of Tad Fallows and the Quarter Pints, and make it snappy.”
“Never heard of it,” Joseph said calmly.
“Me, either. It sounds like a 1960s pop band,” Heidi said.
“Hang on!” Oliver appeared at the register again. “Bill told me that’s a special collector’s item. We’re not supposed to give it out unless someone comes in asking specifically for it. It’s out of print. There are a few copies in the safe.”
“In the safe?” Heidi echoed, as the man threw his hands into the air and sighed dramatically. “Finally! Yes, young man, that’s exactly where it should be.”
“And because of that, only he or you two are allowed to get it,” Oliver explained. “What with the combination and all.”
“Oh, right,” Heidi said, “of course. Er, wait right here, please, sir,” and she hurried into the office, leaving Joseph and Oliver with the very strange customer.
She opened the safe and hesitated. Her granddad had given them the combination in case of an emergency. She wasn’t quite sure this qualified. After all, this odd bloke could be escaped from hospital or something. But it was just a book. Really, what was the harm in giving it to him?
Behind a file holding Bill’s deed and title to the shop, she found a stack of half a dozen worn leather-bound copies of Tad Fallows and the Quarter Pints. Glancing through it as she returned to the front counter, she thought it resembled a book of fairy tales from around the 1870s.
“Er, here you are, sir,” she offered the copy to the trench coat man.
“At last!” He snatched it out of her hands and tucked it into his briefcase. “Thank you very much, young lady. And here’s to all of us surviving the apocalypse.”
Heidi, Joseph, and Oliver watched him rush into the street and around the corner.
“What was that all about?” Joseph said.
“I have no idea,” Heidi answered.
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