What time Is this supposed to be? He seems hardly to have slept but already there’s the travel alarm. No, it’s the cordless phone that comes with the house and is forever wandering off. The muffled shrilling makes him feel jet-lagged all over again, though it’s months since he moved to England. He sprawls out from under the quilt that’s meant to protect him from the northern English weather, only to find he’s left the phone downstairs. A robe would be welcome, but the tag is twisted around the hook on the door and the phone may not wait Maybe it’s Gina thinking it’s daytime this side of the ocean. Maybe she’s decided to give his bookstore a chance after all.
He slaps the switch for the barely shaded light and tramps fast out of the room and down the stairs that aren’t quite as wide as a telephone booth. Banisters slick with chilly paint the colour of old teeth creak a warning not to lean on them too hard. The globe over the stairs spends most of its energy just being yellow. He wouldn’t have thought, until he walked on it barefoot, that a carpet could be so cold, but it can’t compete with the linoleum in the kitchen. The phone isn’t in there either. At least renting a house so small nobody except Brits would want to own it means there aren’t many places for a phone to hide.
It’s in the front room, by the chair facing the television that has so few channels it doesn’t even need a TV Guide. The stale chocolate curtains are drawn, and he switches on the pink-shaded light on the way to the chair. The phone isn’t by it, it’s down the side, and what else is he dredging up? A candy wrapper decorated with hair and fluff, a greenish coin so old he doubts it’s legal. He turns on the phone with his other hand. “Woody Blake.”
“Is that Mr Blake?”
Did he dream he just told the man that? “You got me, sure enough.”
“Mr Blake the manager of Texts?”
By now Woody has shaken the sticky paper off his fingers into the dented wastebasket embellished with the same florid paper as the walls. He risks perching his unprotected rear on the edge of the prickly armchair. “That’s what I am.”
“It’s Ronnie on patrol at Fenny Meadows Retail Park. We’ve got an alarm at your shop.”
Woody’s on his feet. “What kind?”
“Could be false. We need someone to check.”
“I’m on my way.”
He’s already past the shadows a flight of plaster ducks left on the stairway wall. Half a minute in the bathroom takes some of the pressure off, and then he’s back into clothes that have borrowed a chill from the building. He adds the overcoat that was heavy enough for the Minnesota winter and slams the lumbering front door behind him as he steps onto the sidewalk, which is all of six feet wide. Two strides take him to the car he rented, an orange Honda, though it would be white except for the streetlights that make everything look steeped in pumpkin juice from last week’s Halloween. The street—what the Brits call a terrace, houses squeezed together like a red brick concertina with their front windows bulging out—is silent except for him and his orange-tinted breath. The car marks its space with an ochreous cloud before turning one hundred and eighty degrees, past the Flibberty Gibbet pub that apparently used to be called the Hangman and the premises where half the local men seem to spend their days betting on horses. Half a mile of terraces and traffic signals showing him red lights on nobody’s behalf takes him out beyond the houses and the sidewalks, past lush verges where dandelions are flowering late in the year and streetlamps colour evergreens autumnal. Two miles of highway bring him to the motorway, the freeway between Liverpool and Manchester. He’s hardly topped the speed limit when he has to brake for the exit to the retail park.
He’s sure the bookstore has the best position of any business in the half-mile oval. As soon as he drives onto the exit ramp he sees the giant elongated letters spelling TEXTS along the two-storey concrete wall. Fog surrounds the store with a whitish aura. He drives around the outside of the development, past several uncompleted buildings, and through the entrance between the Stack o’ Steak diner and the Frugo supermarket. Trios of saplings planted in strips of grass decorate the blacktop of the parking area. They net Woody’s car with shadows cast by floodlights standing guard over the stores—the Stay in Touch mobile phone showroom, Baby Bunting next to Teenstuff, TVid with its window full of televisions, the Happy Holidays travel agency sharing an alley with his bookstore. An incessant chirping like the cry of a huge maddened nightbird fills his ears as he parks across three spaces in front of the entrance to Texts.
A heavyweight in uniform with a clipboard under his arm plods to meet him. “Mr Blake?” he shouts in a voice as flat as his crew cut and an accent as broad as his earnest humourless face.
“And you have to be Ronnie. Not too long, was I?”
It takes a consultation of his fat black wristwatch and a good scratch of the scalp to let the guard say “Nearly seventeen minutes.”
He’s shouting louder than ever, which together with the squalling of the alarm feels capable of crowding all the intelligence out of Woody’s head. “Let me just …” Woody yells, gesturing at Texts, and types on the keypad between the handles of the glass doors. Two twelve one eleven admits him to the mat that says READ ON! between the security pillars. He taps another code on the alarm panel, which is showing a red light for the sales floor, and then there’s an aching silence except for a tiny shrill buzz he would blame on a mosquito if he were still working in the New Orleans branch. He hasn’t identified the source when Ronnie says “You’ll need to sign my board.”
“Happy to when I’ve checked the store. Will you help?”
The guard is clearly daunted by the sight of half a million books, beginning with the table heaped with Tempting Texts beyond the mat. Woody switches on all the lights in the ceiling tiles and turns left past the counter with the cash registers and the Information terminal. “You could take the other side,” he suggests.
“If anyone’s up to no good I’ll fix them.”
Ronnie sounds eager to manhandle someone. He sets off fast into and out of Travel and History, where Woody noticed through the right-hand window that the shelf-end promotions are due for renewal—he’ll remind Agnes, Anyes as she calls herself, that customers deserve to see something new every time they visit Texts. He’s quickly through Jill’s Fiction and Literature aisles in front of the left window. There’s no hiding place by the side wall full of video cassettes and DVDs and compact discs, and the shelves in the middle of the floor are no taller than his shoulders. Wilf’s section is so tidy you might think nobody had time for Beliefs any more, religions or the occult either, but every book has its reader—that’s another Texts motto that is international now. Meanwhile, Ronnie’s head is dodging back and forth in Jake’s Genre Fiction aisles. “Nothing,” he says as Woody catches his eye, “just books.”
Woody can’t help taking this personally. Nobody should be so unenthusiastic when Texts has a world of books to offer—it bothers him more than the possibility of an intruder. “What kind do you read?” he calls.
Ronnie is in Erotica before he admits “Funny stuff.”
“Humour’s on the side wall.”
Though Woody was playing safe, Ronnie looks as if he’s struggling to the conclusion that it was a joke at his expense, and so Woody turns his attention to the back wall, the children’s section. Some of the alcoves look as if monkeys had been let loose on the shelves. That isn’t how they should be left at the end of the day; he’ll need to have a word with Madeleine. Nobody is lurking behind the chairs in any of the alcoves—it would take a dwarf to do that—but a book is sprawled on its face on the carpet in Tiny Texts. It’s a first reading book with a single-syllable word opposite a picture on each of the pairs of board pages. Surely Madeleine wouldn’t have left it there; perhaps its fall triggered the alarm. Woody checks that it hasn’t been damaged and returns it to its shelf. He has found nothing else unshelved by the time he meets Ronnie beside Tempting Texts.
The guard is poking out his lips at them. Some bestseller appears to have captured his fancy. Woody is about to encourage him when Ronnie slams the clipboard on top of the pile of Ringo by Jingo. “That’s for you, you little pisser.”
However much he hates the Beatles or just the drummer, there’s never an excuse for damaging a book—and then Woody sees what the assault accomplished. A mosquito is twitching its last on the famous nose. Ronnie scrapes the insect off with a thumbnail he wipes on his trousers, leaving a snotty trail under Starr’s left nostril. “It’s all this global warming,” Ronnie mutters. “Weather doesn’t know where it is any more.”
Woody cleans the cover with his handkerchief until there’s no trace of the incident. He’s watching the guard pore over inking a letter on the clipboard sheet when the overhead speakers burst into song. “Goshwow, gee and whee, keen-o-peachy …” It’s the first track on the compact disc that head office provides to liven up the staff when they’re fitting out and stocking a new branch. Woody has to admit it’s one of the few things that make him ashamed to be American, and why has it started up? Perhaps a similar glitch in the power supply tripped the alarm. As he turns off the player behind the counter, Ronnie frowns at it “I liked that,” he complains.
Woody ignores the implicit request while the guard labours over writing and at last passes him the clipboard and a ballpoint fractured by his grasp. FALS ALARM TEXT’S BOOKSHOP 00.28—00.49, says the whole of the inscription, followed by an inkspot. “Thanks for looking after my store,” Woody says as he tries to incorporate the inkspot in the first of his vowels, though this lends it a resemblance to the less blind of a pair of eyes.
“That’s my job.”
He sounds as if he thinks Woody said too much. Maybe he thinks the manager oughtn’t to be so proprietorial. Woody is tempted to reveal this is the first branch he’s managed after working his way up through New Orleans and Minneapolis, but if that didn’t mean enough to Gina, why should it to the guard? It was bad enough that she took a dislike to Fenny Meadows, far worse that she couldn’t say why. Impressions are no use if you can’t or won’t put them into words. No doubt Mississippi is where she ought to stay—this wouldn’t be her kind of weather. “Okay, I guess we’re through for the night,” says Woody, realising too late that Ronnie is nothing of the kind.
Ronnie drags his shadows past the stores and unoccupied properties towards the guards’ hut next to Frugo as Woody resets the alarm. The floodlights sting his eyes until he climbs into the Honda, but he’ll save feeling tired for when his head returns to the pillow. As he speeds onto the slip road, graffiti on the concrete pillars under the motorway meet the headlamp beams, short crude words in primitive letters as giant as the mind behind them is small, he suspects. That’s one breed of customer Texts can manage without, and Woody hopes Ronnie and his colleagues will keep them clear until the store has its own guard. Otherwise he’s sure his staff are up to any challenge, including the Christmas season, however much more experience they would have brought to it if the store had opened in September. He couldn’t have brought that about; the builders overran their schedule. Now he can do everything that’s required, though, and he needn’t expect less of the staff. It doesn’t matter where he lives until he’s happy with the store. Maybe that’s really why Gina decided against working there: she didn’t like sharing his narrow bed, though it didn’t stay cold for long. The possibility brings a wry smile to his lips as he drives onto the motorway and the fog sinks into the glow of the retail park.
Copyright © 2005 by Ramsey Campbell Teaser copyright © 2006 by Ramsey Campbell