“OK—answer me this: why would anyone want to wear an overcoat in San Francisco in the middle of summer?” Sophie Newman pressed her fingers against the Bluetooth earpiece as she spoke.
On the other side of the continent, her fashion-conscious friend Elle inquired matter-of-factly, “What sort of coat?”
Wiping her hands on the cloth tucked into her apron strings, Sophie moved out from behind the counter of the empty coffee shop and stepped up to the window, watching men emerge from the car across the street. “Heavy black wool overcoats. They’re even wearing black gloves and hats. And sunglasses.” She pressed her face against the glass. “Even for this city, that’s just a little too weird.”
“Maybe they’re undertakers?” Elle suggested, her voice popping and clicking on the cell phone. Sophie could hear something loud and dismal playing in the background— Lacrimosa maybe, or Amorphis. Elle had never quite got over her Goth phase.
“Maybe,” Sophie answered, sounding unconvinced. She’d been chatting on the phone with her friend when, a few moments earlier, she’d spotted the unusual-looking car. It was long and sleek and looked as if it belonged in an old black-and-white movie. As it drove past the window, sunlight reflected off the blacked-out windows, briefly illuminating the interior of the coffee shop in warm yellow-gold light, blinding Sophie. Blinking away the black spots dancing before her eyes, she watched as the car turned at the bottom of the hill and slowly returned. Without signaling, it pulled over directly in front of The Small Book Shop, right across the street.
“Maybe they’re Mafia,” Elle suggested dramatically. “My dad knows someone in the Mafia. But he drives a Prius,” she added.
“This is most definitely not a Prius,” Sophie said, looking again at the car and the two large men standing on the street bundled up in their heavy overcoats, gloves and hats, their eyes hidden behind overlarge sunglasses.
“Maybe they’re just cold,” Elle suggested. “Doesn’t it get cool in San Francisco?”
Sophie Newman glanced at the clock and thermometer on the wall over the counter behind her. “It’s two-fifteen here . . . and eighty-one degrees,” she said. “Trust me, they’re not cold. They must be dying. Wait,” she said, interrupting herself, “something’s happening.”
The rear door opened and another man, even larger than the first two, climbed stiffly out of the car. As he closed the door, sunlight briefly touched his face and Sophie caught a glimpse of pale, unhealthy-looking gray-white skin. She adjusted the volume on the earpiece. “OK. You should see what just climbed out of the car. A huge guy with gray skin. Gray. That might explain it; maybe they have some type of skin condition.”
“I saw a National Geographic documentary about people who can’t go out in the sun . . . ,” Elle began, but Sophie was no longer listening to her.
A fourth figure stepped out of the car.
He was a small, rather dapper-looking man, dressed in a neat charcoal-gray three-piece suit that looked vaguely old-fashioned but that she could tell had been tailor-made for him. His iron gray hair was pulled back from an angular face into a tight ponytail, while a neat triangular beard, mostly black but flecked with gray, concealed his mouth and chin. He moved away from the car and stepped under the striped awning that covered the trays of books outside the shop. When he picked up a brightly colored paperback and turned it over in his hands, Sophie noticed that he was wearing gray gloves. A pearl button at the wrist winked in the light.
“They’re going into the bookshop,” she said into her earpiece.
“Is Josh still working there?” Elle immediately asked.
Sophie ignored the sudden interest in her friend’s voice. The fact that her best friend liked her twin brother was just a little too weird. “Yeah. I’m going to call him to see what’s up. I’ll call you right back.” She hung up, pulled out the earpiece and absently rubbed her hot ear as she stared, fascinated, at the small man. There was something about him . . . something odd. Maybe he was a fashion designer, she thought, or a movie producer, or maybe he was an author—she’d noticed that some authors liked to dress up in peculiar outfits. She’d give him a few minutes to get into the shop, then she’d call her twin for a report.
Sophie was about to turn away when the gray man suddenly spun around and seemed to stare directly at her. As he stood under the awning, his face was in shadow, and yet for just the briefest instant, his eyes looked as if they were glowing.
Sophie knew—just knew—that there was no possible way for the small gray man to see her: she was standing on the opposite side of the street behind a pane of glass that was bright with reflected early-afternoon sunlight. She would be invisible in the gloom behind the glass.
And yet . . .
And yet in that single moment when their eyes met, Sophie felt the tiny hairs on the back of her hands and along her forearms tingle and felt a puff of cold air touch the back of her neck. She rolled her shoulders, turning her head slightly from side to side, strands of her long blond hair curling across her cheek. The contact lasted only a second before the small man looked away, but Sophie got the impression that he had looked directly at her.
In the instant before the gray man and his three overdressed companions disappeared into the bookshop, Sophie decided that she did not like him.
G G G
And rotten eggs.
“That is just vile.” Josh Newman stood in the center of the bookstore’s cellar and breathed deeply. Where were those smells coming from? He looked around at the shelves stacked high with books and wondered if something had crawled in behind them and died. What else would account for such a foul stink? The tiny cramped cellar always smelled dry and musty, the air heavy with the odors of parched curling paper, mingled with the richer aroma of old leather bindings and dusty cobwebs. He loved the smell; he always thought it was warm and comforting, like the scents of cinnamon and spices that he associated with Christmas.
Sharp and clean, the smell cut through the close cellar atmosphere. It was the odor of new toothpaste or those herbal teas his sister served in the coffee shop across the road. It sliced though the heavier smells of leather and paper, and was so strong that it made his sinuses tingle; he felt as if he was going to sneeze at any moment. He quickly pulled out his iPod earbuds. Sneezing with headphones on was not a good idea: made your ears pop.
Foul and stinking—he recognized the sulfurous odor of rotten eggs. It blanketed the clear odor of mint . . . and it was disgusting. He could feel the stench coating his tongue and lips, and his scalp began to itch as if something were crawling through it. Josh ran his fingers through his shaggy blond hair and shuddered. The drains must be backing up.
Leaving the earbuds dangling over his shoulders, he checked the book list in his hand, then looked at the shelves again: The Complete Works of Charles Dickens, twenty-seven volumes, red leather binding. Now where was he going to find that?
Josh had been working in the bookshop for nearly two months and still didn’t have the faintest idea where anything was. There was no filing system . . . or rather, there was a system, but it was known only to Nick and Perry Fleming, the owners of The Small Book Shop. Nick or his wife could put their hands on any book in either the shop upstairs or the cellar in a matter of minutes.
A wave of peppermint, immediately followed by rotten eggs, filled the air again; Josh coughed and felt his eyes water. This was impossible! Stuffing the book list into one pocket of his jeans and the headphones into the other, he maneuvered his way through the piled books and stacks of boxes, heading for the stairs. He couldn’t spend another minute down there with the smell. He rubbed the heels of his palms against his eyes, which were now stinging furiously. Grabbing the stair rail, he pulled himself up. He needed a breath of fresh air or he was going to throw up—but, strangely, the closer he came to the top of the stairs, the stronger the odors became.
He popped his head out of the cellar door and looked around.
And in that instant, Josh Newman realized that the world would never be the same again.