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Simon studied the binding on the book he held and sighed. Shredded beyond repair on the spine and the cover was spotted with damp. He opened it carefully and ran a gloved finger down one badly foxed page, smiling as he caught a familiar sentence or two. Kidnapped had been one of his favourite books as a child.
With a final, friendly pat, he set the book aside and took out another from the box on the floor, enjoying the flash of anticipation. He'd bought the box the day before at an auction sale, contents unseen. Lot 399, assorted children's books. They could have been dog-eared copies of abridged Enid Blyton paperbacks—they might have been something collectable by Brent-Dyer or Oxenham, tales of girls at boarding schools, not to his own taste, but they'd be greeted eagerly by some people he knew.
Or they might have been much older as was the case here, much-loved, often-read, but stored in appalling conditions and really, virtually worthless.
It didn't matter. He treated himself to one of these grab bags from time to time after the serious bidding was over; his reward for a tiring day making small talk with fellow book collectors. His work at the British Library, one of the team dealing with keeping the books in as perfect condition as possible, meant that his professional life and his hobby flowed into each other. Sometimes it got a little too much and he needed to remind himself that collecting books was something he enjoyed.
He put the book he held back into the box without identifying it, suddenly restless. Spring had come to London in a flurry of flowers and rain and the air smelled faintly of something other than exhaust fumes and the exhaled breath of too many people.
Simon found his thoughts turning to Mole, who had felt a similar distaste for the mundane and left his home to find the river and Ratty. The river didn't appeal, but going out for a drink did, even if it was Monday and most places would be dead. And if he ended the night in a hotel room somewhere, smiling at a stranger whose name he wouldn't bother to remember in the morning, well, that was another form of treat and it had been too long since he'd indulged himself.
He was twenty-eight, but sometimes he felt as if the numbers that made up his age had been flipped. Shaking off his unsettled mood, he went to take a quick shower and was about to unbutton his shirt when he heard a knock at the front door. His house was a high, narrow one, sandwiched between two others that had been converted into offices—which meant that it was quiet in the evenings, but parking was impossible. Visitors were usually looking for his neighbours. He tugged at the front door, which had a tendency to stick in the damp, and pushed the tails of his shirt back inside his trousers with his other hand.
"Yes?" The man on the doorstep was young enough to be one of the office workers, who all seemed to be in their early twenties, a phone permanently clamped to their ears, but he lacked their brittle polish and the piercings in his left ear, three of them, jagged-edged heavy hoops, were a world away from a discreetly fashionable statement.
All swagger and spit. Simon eyed him coolly, noting the muscles under the leather jacket and the short, bright gold of his hair, unabashedly artificial. It would feel stiff against his hand, and dry, and he'd let his hands wander in search of where it grew darker, softer, crisply curling. My type? Oh, fuck, yes, but somehow I doubt he's here to offer me a complimentary blow job.