September. Z. Fell and Co., London.
Inside a dusty little bookshop in Soho, a bookseller and a medium were unpacking a box of books when the ground shifted. For one of them, at least.
“Are you all right, dear?”
Zira opened his eyes in confusion, looked down to find both hands braced against a bookshelf. It was the third time it had happened in as many weeks. “Yes. Yes, sorry. Light-headed.”
The medium, who was also the bookshop’s most loyal patron, Madame Tracy, squeezed his arm, kind face relaxing into a smile as she saw him come back to himself. “Thought I’d lost you for a minute. Are you eating enough? Breakfast. Most important meal of the day.”
“I’m quite all right.” Zira shook his head, blinked away the vision of roaring fire, of a discarded ice cream melting on the ground. “Just tired. What were you saying?”
“Pass me that box, love.” Tracy held out her hands for Zira to deposit the next box into. Running a boxcutter through the seam of tape, she peeled it open to reveal a shipment of battered old books. Grinning, she pulled one free and brandished it next to her face. “You don’t mind if I…do you?”
Zira smiled, took it from her and added it neatly to the stack that was piled up near the cash register. Single-handedly keeping me in business, he thought.
“I was just saying, you said business has been a little slow this summer, it might be time to think about going digital.”
“Digital?” Zira hissed the word as if it was covered in mud, something dirty he could hardly stand to be in his mouth.
“Yes, dear, online.” Next to him, Tracy was busily alphabetising the New In shelf. She never could visit the shop without bustling about neatening the organised chaos. “If you want to stay relevant you need to be online.”
“This shop has stood here proudly for over two hundred years and I’ll be damned if I’ll let it go to rack and ruin in favour of a fleeting online venture.” If there was anything that could get Zira to raise his voice it was the idea of bricks and mortar fading away to be replaced with screens and keyboards. Well, that and bureaucracy. And lateness.
“Oh, I know just who you need! Our dog walker, he’s very good at that sort of thing…emails, websites. Fixed my phone for me that time it all turned into Spanish. Charming fellow, devilishly handsome.” She paused to give Zira a sideways glance, noticed the brief pursing of his lips. “I’ll give him a ring right now, shall I?”
Zira waved his arms between them as panic bloomed in his chest. “No! Absolutely not. I’m not interested. Not in the website, not in anything else.”
Tracy raised both eyebrows, sighed as she gave him a quick look up and down. “Well, let’s be honest, dear, you don’t exactly have prospects knocking your door down, do you?”
Actually, Zira wanted to say, I met quite the charmer myself just the other week, went away with his telephone number and everything, thank you very much. He didn’t say that, though, just stared up at a cobweb that blew airily in the far corner of the shop. He thought back to that night, all the surprise and magic it had held, sitting side by side with a stranger and speaking things into existence he hadn’t even realised he thought until the words flowed out of his own mouth. It had scared him when he’d woken up the next morning and remembered how it had felt, how much he had felt so suddenly. It wasn’t his style, to lose control. No, life was best lived within carefully drawn boundaries. No unpleasant surprises, no little shocks to the system, everything in its correct place. That was why, when he discovered he’d misplaced the scrap of paper with the stranger’s phone number on it, he had tried to put the entire evening out of his mind. Just the cherry on top of an odd day. Still, it had been a spark in the darkness, hadn’t it, for those few short hours?
“I have…prospects. I don’t need to be set up by the likes of a…stargazer, thank you very much, my dear friend.” He nodded primly, broke into a smile as they fell back into their old faux-argument about the stars. Zira was a man of absolutes and logic, had grown weary of Tracy’s proclivity for all things astrological years ago. My moon sign does not pre-determine my perfect partner, my good woman, honestly now.
“I was talking about prospective customers but it’s a relief to know you’re putting yourself out there. Loneliness is a killer, so they say.”
“Right, well, you can settle up for these another day, so…” He trailed off, clapped his hands together and gently ushered Tracy towards the door, hanging a canvas bag of books over her wrist as he did so. “See you soon, mind how you go.”
“I’ll tell him to come by the shop and have a chat about the website, shall I? Thursday all right for you?”
“No! I’ll be closed on Thursday. At an auction down in Essex.” A lie. A complete and utter lie. Where had that sprung from so quickly? The fear of digitisation had struck again.
“Friday then. You’re always open on Fridays. Bye for now, love.”
Before he could protest she had gone, swinging the door closed behind her and leaving Zira alone, grumbling to himself about forced change. Everything is perfect exactly as it is, he thought to himself, as he paced the shop and wondered if he could get away with an unexpected closure on Friday. Better not, he decided, things had been far too quiet lately.
Since when did Soho have so many sushi restaurants? Crowley wrinkled his nose as he passed the third restaurant on the street that promised half price temaki every Friday night. London was getting stranger by the day. He shook his head, burying his hands in his pockets and striding down towards Greek Street, guitar case slung over one shoulder.
He was too tired for this, to be on in front of a potential client. All he really wanted to do was retreat back to the flat, to be greeted by four paws that would welcome him home after a long day. Still, there was money in rare books, wasn’t there? Estate sales and auctions and eye-watering amounts paid for a single first edition. Might actually be a job with some budget behind it, for once.
“Go on, love.” Tracy had urged him when he’d picked up the dogs for their afternoon constitutional around the park earlier that week. “It’ll pay well and he’s a lovely chap, face of an angel. You could do with some company, might make you smile once in a while.”
He’d protested initially, said Friday wouldn’t work, it would be too late by the time he was free.
“Nonsense, he keeps all sorts of unconventional hours in the shop. He only lives upstairs, he’ll soon pop down if the shop is closed. I told him you’ll be stopping by. Just see how it goes.”
He left it then, rolled his eyes and said he might go, if he had time. He ignored the comments about needing some company, let them fall away to the side like all the other pointed observations he’d received over the years. They were borne out of concern, of kindness, he knew that. Even so. He’d been tempted to mention the almost, sort of, date from the other week, if it could be called that. Though, that had gone down about as quickly as a lead balloon in the end. Conversation had flown like they’d known each other for eternity, he’d felt the reassuring warmth of another thigh resting softly against his, had walked home with the start of a smile on his face. It was, it felt like, the beginning of something.
And then…nothing. Not a call. Not a text. Like it had never happened.
Zira pulled the door of the shop closed with a slam, glowering out into the night as he swung the Closed sign into view and twisted the key in the lock.
Absolute waste of time, he seethed, clicking off the lights and stamping up each and every step that led up to his little flat on the top floor. Nine o’clock in the morning, on the dot, he had settled himself behind his desk and waited for Tracy’s dog walker (of all things) to arrive for their meeting. Time had ticked on and on, as time is inclined to do, and he jumped up every time the door swung open, impatiently waiting to tick the meeting off of his to do list so he could politely decline any further correspondence and move on with his life.
It was near enough twelve hours later, the sun had set hours ago, and this renegade dog walker/website whisperer hybrid was nowhere to be found. Well, he thought to himself indignantly, as he tugged his jumper over his head and replaced it with a soft cotton pyjama top, that’s what you get from the online world. Disappointment.
His bad mood had failed to subside by the time he slid into bed, neatly running both hands over the duvet on either side of his body until it cascaded smoothly across the mattress. He had pulled a book from the stack on the bedside table and reread the same sentence four times before he gave up, switched off the lamp and settled back against the pillow for a good, long, uninterrupted sleep. Tomorrow would be a new day.
He sat up in one fluid movement, eyes snapping open at the sound of a crash against glass. Oh no, oh no no no. It was happening. Everybody had always told him to install an alarm, have shutters added to the doors of the shop. Some rare books you’ve got here, they would say, taking in the dusty tomes with a low whistle, very valuable. He had thought about it but alarms came with cables and passwords and apps, all the things he couldn’t tolerate. They’d been right, though, he should have installed something. He didn’t listen. And now he was being burgled. Oh, the books! They’ll take all the books.
For the first time since that night almost three weeks ago when he’d thrown caution to the wind and sent a very ridiculous drink to a very handsome stranger, Zira did something reckless. He swung his legs out of bed, grabbed the heaviest book he could find and tip-toed downstairs to confront the late night attacker.
You can pry my books from my cold, dead hands, he thought menacingly, as he prowled through the dark rooms, quietly poised to fight back.
The shop was empty. Not a book out of place, not that the books tended to ever be in their correct place but, still. He turned back to the staircase, lowering the book in his hands as he felt his heart begin to slow. Imagining things, you old silly.
And then, like a spectre in the gloom, a silhouetted figure raised a fist and pounded ominously against the door.
Bang. Bang. Bang.
The sound that loosed itself from Zira’s mouth was halfway between a whoop and a scream. It was not, in any universe, a noise he was proud of making. He spun around, book raised aloft like a deadly weapon, and found himself uttering a single word as he took in the stranger standing outside, miming typing on an invisible keyboard and gesturing towards the locked door. “You…”
“Well, this is unconventional.” Crowley smiled brightly and stepped over the threshold as Zira tugged the door open, slack-jawed in disbelief. He slid the guitar case off of his back and deposited it on the floor, turning in a slow circle to take in all the artfully dishevelled chaos that the shop contained.
“What are you doing here?” Zira hissed, locking the door behind them, before frowning down at the guitar case that now resided on his shop floor. “I never told you where I…”
“Nice PJs. Very classic. Didn’t realise this was a sleepover, I’d have brought snacks.” Crowley gave him a once over, his eyes lingering for far longer than Zira was comfortable with. He nodded over to a bookshelf next to the door, a smirk winding its way across his lips. “Ought to move those before someone knocks them off. Hot date in the bookshop was it? Very seductive.”
Zira turned to follow his eye line, found himself looking at an empty wine glass and a white mug standing side by side on the edge of a shelf. He took one juddering step forward, felt a swell of unease in his chest. How in the world had these…?
“What were you going to do with that?” Crowley had paced towards him, taken the book out of his arms and begun to flick through it. “Bore me to death?”
“Give me that.” Zira snatched it out of his hands and tucked it safely under his armpit. “It’s Tolstoy. Might have done some damage. I thought you were a…I thought you were trying to break in.”
“What… No, I’m here about the website. Book sales. E-commerce. Digital cataloguing. Tracy told you I was coming, right? Oh, she didn’t, did she? This is the last time she talks me into…”
“No, no, she did. I didn’t know it was going to be you and I certainly didn’t know it was going to be ten o’clock at night.” Zira gave a little huff to punctuate his sentence, raised his chin as if daring Crowley to argue back.
He didn’t, to Zira’s slight disappointment, just gave a small shrug as he traced a finger slowly along the edge of a bookshelf, a little mound of dust gathering against his fingertip. “I didn’t think I’d be seeing you again either, not after the radio silence.”
“Yes, well, I lost your number. I’m sorry about that. I didn’t mean to be rude.”
“You buy me a drink, you use the world’s most tired chat up line that, for whatever insane reason, actually endeared you to me. We talk all night, you drunkenly tell me you think we might be soulmates…”
Zira cut him off, shaking his head and closing his eyes in shame at the memories that came flooding back in a series of increasingly humiliating tableaus. “Don’t, please. That was a…strange day all round. Best we don’t speak of it ever again. What sort of time do you call this anyway?”
Crowley looked at him blankly. “I just finished work.”
“And they say the devil works hard.” Zira raised an eyebrow, looking from Crowley to the guitar case and back again.
“Well, it would appear I work harder.” Crowley sighed, shifted his weight onto one hip. “Look, are we doing this or not?”
“I, er, I don’t know. I mean…” Zira looked at him properly for the first time since he’d burst into the shop. The bar had been dimly lit on the night they’d met, atmospheric, they called it. He’d only been able to remember snatches of his face, vague poetic descriptions that had lodged in his mind and unfurled like wings if he let it wander too far: melancholy in his eyes and fire dancing in his hair. “I don’t usually do this sort of thing. It’s all so sudden.”
“Not that I’m not enamoured by the idea of another magical evening followed up with absolutely nothing at all but I meant the website. The job. You know, you paying me to bring…this into the twenty first century.” Crowley looked around at the mass of receipts wadded up next to the cash register, the ink and paper book catalogues forming a tiny tower under the desk.
For the second time in five minutes, Zira closed his eyes in the face of excruciating embarrassment. Oh…god. He needed this raffish night time caller out of his shop, he needed this entire humiliating exchange to be wiped from his memory, and he very much needed the quiet solitude of his personal space back. “No, no I’m sorry. I must ask you to leave. Thank you for coming all the way here but I’m afraid I’ve quite wasted your time.”
Crowley let his eyes roll slowly around in their sockets, exhaling heavily as he did so. Of course. Of course. Absolutely bloody pointless. “Suit yourself. Give me a call if you change your mind. Try not to lose it this time.”
He pulled a business card out of his back pocket, placed it black side up on the desk and strode past Zira without a second glance, pausing only to swing the battered guitar case back up onto his shoulder.
Zira hovered in the doorway and watched him leave, an angular outline disappearing further and further into the night until he was nothing but a shadow. He pulled the shop door closed behind him for the third time that evening, relished the satisfying thunk of the key twisting in the lock.
Safe. Sound. Alone.
Just the way it should be.