There’s something comforting about the smell of books. Many a customer has been scared away by me picking up a book, rifling the pages, and just inhaling the lovely scent of parchment-like paper. They always leave with a hesitant look back, torn between calling the police and calling an ambulance.
Doesn’t bother me, personally. I’ve gotten used to my status in this little town: ‘The Eccentric Book Shop Owner Who Occasionally Plays Piano and Annoys Us But Is Mostly Harmless Although That Said Don’t Let Him Near Your Children'. Everyone has a status here. Everyone knows everyone. The young woman who owns the flower shop across the road is ‘The Suspiciously Pretty Young Woman Without a Husband Probably Dodgy'. The elderly couple who live next door and are the only people who don’t seem put off by me are dubbed ‘The Hags and Their Cats', which is half right, I suppose. They do like cats a lot. My favourite one though is ‘The Boss'. That’s Joan. And she’s boss.
I suppose every little town needs its leader, and this one has Joan. She’s in her eighties; but spruce and spry and wiry and, frankly, probably able to lift heavier weights than I can. And she knows everything. Nothing happens in this town without Joan poking her knobbly, tiny nose into it. She hates me, of course. I’m the only one she doesn’t know everything about. She knows what brand of toilet paper I use, the fact I don’t like coffee, and that I’m terrified of bouncy castles, but she still doesn’t know anything about my past—well, not the details anyway.
Not that there’s much to tell. I am, quite literally, the most boring person you would ever encounter. If you ever entered my little bookshop (which I highly doubt—I try to keep it as uninviting looking as possible, so people won’t come in) and tried to start a conversation with me, you’d soon find that talking to me is about as stimulating as talking to a small sea cucumber.
So, as I sat on my chair that Tuesday, a book in one hand, tea in the other, desperately hoping that no one would come in and begin the awkward eye contact thing, I expected another perfectly normal day.
A day when nothing unexpected would happen at all.
That’s when the assassin dashed into my store, clapped a hand across my mouth and crawled under my desk to huddle near my feet, boot pressing against my ankle.
I was, to say the least, slightly discombobulated.
So when what looked like an entire fleet of CIA vehicles roared past the window, sirens blaring, I was even more so.
I just wanted to drink my tea.
Why did these ridiculously threatening cars choose today to chase an assassin into my store? I hadn’t even put the rubbish out yet. I needed to do that before the bin lorries came round.
The sirens faded into the distance, and I felt a stirring near my feet. I stood up and backed into Science Fiction.
The assassin straightened his black jacket. His face was covered by a headscarf, and a leather jacket was fitted rakishly to his form.
I gulped, and pointed towards the door, silent.
The assassin followed my shaking finger with his piercing gaze, then looked back to me and shook his head. I felt my stomach roil. He gestured towards his throat with his hand, making a death sign. I kept pointing.
He ignored me, and began to take off his gear and dump it on my desk.
I feel like I should take a step back now. It’s a lot to take in. Me, a slightly supercilious, thirty-three point five percent insane book shop owner was disturbed by an assassin and a car chase, and now I was standing watching him take off his gear?
Yep. If you’re dubious, just ask yourself—what would you have done? Thrown something? Shouted?
I just stared at the hand that was now being presented to me and blinked slightly as a voice sounded in my tiny shop. “Oliver Smith. Actor. Thanks for the help.” American. Oh God.
“?!?” I replied.
Oliver Smith peeled his helmet away from his face and tucked it under his arm. “I need a place to hide out, dude. Think I could crash here? Bodyguards on my tail.”
I blinked. So not CIA. Thank you kindly, God. “Bodyguards? In England? Devon?”
Oliver Smith ran a hand through his hair. “They’re goddamn determined to get me, I guess. Sorta… complicated. Hey, anyway.” He rifled through a pouch on his belt. “What say you I hide here for the night for…” Flicking through a wad of notes. “Two hundred bucks?” He held out the package to me. I stared at it suspiciously. Never accept money from strangers. Never accept anything from strangers, and especially never accept anything from American strangers. Probably laced with some vile American thing like… coffee. I shook my head and slid along Science Fiction towards Action.
Oliver Smith looked a little dejected. “Come on, dude. I’m already here. It can’t get worse. And besides, they won’t shoot you— ‘cause, you know, world famous movie star and everything—even if they do find me. Well, probably. You could hide and I’d distract them. It’s unlikely they’d think you kidnapped me.”
I didn’t move. He seemed to take this as a good sign, and glanced around the shop casually. “Hey, nice shop. Books are…cool.” He dumped his helmet in a corner, and began stripping off the thick leather that hugged his body.
I blinked, coming to my senses. The curtains were open—too open—so I stalked over, drawing them closed. That done, I locked the door, pulled a bookcase in front of it, and leant against it, heart beating as though a car chase had happened outside my shop, chasing an actor, who had taken up unwelcome residence in my store.
Wait a second.
I closed my eyes, listening to the sound of blood pumping through my veins. It was worryingly loud.
I sensed a presence next to me.
I made a valiant effort to scoff disdainfully, but I get the feeling it may have failed. An arthritic hippo could have sounded more supercilious than I did in that moment.
“Well, I’ll just get comfy.”
I hate that word. It’s so…squishy. I watched from half-lidded eyes as Oliver Smith—honestly, Smith—settled himself in a corner, spreading his stuff around my floor. I winced unconsciously. Honestly. That thought felt satisfying in my mind, so I thought it again, this time with more venom. Honestly.
I was perfectly happy in my more normal than average life, running a non-descript bookshop in a generally regular town in an ordinary part of England. I wanted Oliver Smith to go away, and I wanted him to go away now.
Unfortunately, wanting things doesn't make them happen. I still had an actor—a famous one, by the sound of it, though it wasn’t surprising a social recluse like me had never heard of him—in the corner of my shop, now flicking through—oh no. No.
I stalked over to him, snatching the book out of his hands. He looked up at me, affronted, but I ignored him, cradling the book to my chest like a little wounded bird, stroking its abused spine gently. “There, there, little book. Ignore the nasty rude American actor who won’t even give me his real name. There, there.”
I tucked it back on the shelf where it belonged and glared at Oliver Smith as threateningly as a weedy bookshop owner can.
He looked put off.
I pursed my lips, feeling empowered. “How come you’re here, anyway? Actor as famous as you should surely be fiiiilming.” Why did I sound so bitter? I ran a tongue across my teeth and decided to address my propensity for inappropriate sarcasm later.
Oliver Smith still looked slightly put off, and answered hesitantly, “We’re doing a bit of filming in Devon, and I wanted to experience a bit of the real Devon life, so…” He gestured around vaguely.
“Oliver Smith your real name?”
“Never heard of you.”
I relished the shock on his face. “World War X? Planet of the Monkeys? Anti-gravity? Outerstellar?”
“Nope.” I turned away and busied myself with some books. There wasn’t really much else I could do. I’d fallen down the rabbit hole and was stranded in Wonderland—awful book, by the way, never read it—and there was no way out except to wait. If Oliver Smith stayed in his corner of the shop like he’d promised, and left tomorrow…yes. This could definitely work. Even if he was as famous as he apparently thought.
As I settled back at my desk, slightly cooler tea in my hand, and pushed a motorcycle helmet to the floor, I glanced vaguely at Oliver Smith once more. He looked serene, sitting, taking up space on my floor. I considered offering him tea, but thought the better of it.
I wasn't that nice.