November 2019 story: Bookstore Geek

 A Mudflat descendant tries to break the tie. His attempt opens some odd doors.

 A steep flight of cement stairs edged by a black iron rail led down from the sidewalk to the underground level landing containing only a display window and a shop door. The sign was barely readable beneath the layer of city dust.
 Zacklin Books. Usually open weekdays noon to 6.
 "Are you listening, Zack?"
 The sharpness in her tone caught his attention. He had been watching his fish tank, a really cool tank he had paid way too much for. It was small enough to set on the end of the counter in his bookstore, perfectly filtered and temperature controlled and the right size for the twelve assorted fish, all small, all exotic in shape and coloring.
 Marcia was frowning at him.
 As he had no idea what she had just said, he tried to cover by talking rapidly. "I spent hours discussing them with the guy in the pet shop. We looked them all up. I've got several species that are compatible."
 "What's that mean?"
 "It means they aren't supposed to eat each other. But yesterday I had fifteen and now all I've got is twelve."
 The woman sighed. "You weren't listening to me at all, were you? Zack, I am sorry but you and I aren't, uh, compatible, either. We have nothing in common."
 Now he did look at her, both with his eyes and with his full attention. She had a round-faced softness that he liked, and the first time she'd come down the steps to his basement level used bookstore, she really was that breath of fresh air in the dusty room. She smelled like a bouquet of flowers. And she so was normal, so wonderfully normal.
 He knew he lacked social skills. He was tall and plain and a whiz in college, but his own mother called him a geek. "Geek" from a wailing witch, and who would know better? His mother had a small house on a large lot, a house a room wide and four stories high topped by a flat roof edged in ornate wrought iron fencing. On stormy nights she stood on that roof and wailed along with the storm, never louder than the storm, her cries pitched to the roll of thunder and the crack of lightning, but mostly to the howling of the wind.
 He had spent his childhood hiding under the bed during the storms, terrified the wailing would anger the storm and send lightning crashing through the house. His mother insisted the reverse was true, that the storms strengthened her powers and protected their house.
 When this lovely woman, this Marcia, walked into his store to ask if he had any Regency romances in stock, he'd said, "Is that some kind of fiction? I don't have much fiction. A few classics. Would that be what you mean?"
 She'd laughed and said, "I have all the Jane Austins. I was hoping you had something newer."
 "Oh that Regency!" he'd exclaimed, lectures from history courses surfacing in his mind. And because she was already turning away toward the door and he didn't want her to leave, he started sputtering facts at her, explanations of Regents and the genealogy of the English monarchy. His excellent memory was cluttered with facts he'd learned once and never again thought about until someone mentioned a related subject.
 She had turned back that day and listened wide-eyed. Since then they'd gone out a few times and he thought he was making progress.
 Now he said, "I like being with you. That's something in common, isn't it?"
 She shook her head. "I'm sorry. I really am."
 After she left he wondered if she had met someone else and if he should have asked. Or perhaps there was something she liked to do that she hadn't mentioned. Maybe she wanted to be taken someplace like the ballet, but if so, why hadn't she said so, because he'd be happy to take her anyplace.
 Was it possible she knew he came from a background of magic? He had moved out of the old neighborhood when he opened his bookstore downtown. Now he only went back for brief visits. Inherited magic lived in all the houses, occasionally missing a generation but always popping up again. His own magic was as weak as a single raindrop compared to his mother's storm.
 None of which explained the three missing fish. He leaned against a bookshelf and stared at the miniature aquarium and tried not to think about Marcia. Instead he counted the fish again. Was it possible someone broke into the shop the previous night? Who could have done that? Had he left the door unlocked?
 Thinking carefully, starting from the moment he had turned his key in the lock that morning and entered the shop, he tried to remember. Facts popped up, facts he had noted and then put aside.
 He always activated the wards on the shop door before leaving for the night. A small room at the back of the shop contained the collected libraries of a mage, a sorcerer and a witch, bought from their estates and priceless to anyone who knew their use. None did, including the estate lawyers who sold him the books at normal scuffed and soiled leather-bound book prices, generally by shelf space in the range of ten dollars a foot.
 When he'd arrived, he had notice that a small pile of bookmarks he kept by the cash register were out of line and a few were lying scattered on the floor. Had he bumped them on his way out the previous evening? Possibly. And when he hung up his jacket on the hook in the washroom, the sliver of soap was in the sink rather than on the side. He'd never been a good housekeeper, so probably he'd done that, too.
 But there was something else. Right. When he picked up his receipt book off the counter, he'd noticed it felt damp and had set it back down without thinking any more about it, because he had a routine that always started with opening the cash register and putting the bills in the correct slots. It wasn't until he'd finished all the small opening chores that he stopped by the tank and looked down through the clear water at the beautiful little fish and realized three were missing.
 He had rented this space four years ago and never had the locks changed. Possibly someone who used to work in the space in the past still had a key.
 A key would not help them past his wards.
 Besides, the money was still is the cash register. None of his leather books was missing. Why would anyone steal fish? They were nice fish, several dollars apiece. In value they were nothing compared to the books.
 Throughout the day Marcia would pop into his mind, the sound of her voice when he phoned to ask her out, the softness of her fingertips when he handed her a menu in the Chinese restaurant, the scent of flowers when he sat beside her on her couch the one evening she invited him in for coffee.
 He pushed each memory away by thinking about the fish, recounting them, and then walking slowly through the store to see if anything else was missing.
 His mother phoned at noon to say hello and invite him over to her house for supper. "And Zack, dear, could you bring my scarf? It's a white silk one. I think I must have left it when I was in last week."
 "You did, Mom. I put it away for you and I'll bring it next time I come over, but I can't come tonight."
 "Why not?"
 If he went to supper she would know he was upset. She always did. And she would ask and he would end up telling her about Marcia and then she would do a lot of fussing and sympathizing and he didn't want to have to handle it.
 "Umm, I have some things here I have to finish up tonight. Can I come another night?"
 She said of course, she was busy tomorrow but maybe Sunday dinner? "And don't forget to bring my scarf, dear. It was a gift from my friend Nicotiana and I'll be lunching with her next week. I'd like to wear it."
 "All right."
 "It is very special. It keeps me warm."
 He didn't ask if it was magic. Of course it was. Nicotiana was clever with spells.
 He hung up and went straight to the washroom, where he remembered seeing the scarf on the floor and remembered picking it up and hanging it on the towel rack by the sink and thinking he should call his mother to tell her, in case she was wondering where she'd left it. And then he'd forgotten about it.
 Standing in the doorway he stared at the empty rack. He peered under the sink and behind the door and even in the corners. The room was the size of a closet. Inspecting it thoroughly took thirty seconds.
 So after all, there was something missing in addition to the three fish.
 And Marcia. Wasn't life unfair enough? Losing the chance to work toward a relationship with a really lovely, normal, nonmagic woman was awful. Adding a break-in was that proverbial straw that broke the camel's back. He wasn't a person who angered easily, in fact, almost never, but now he could feel his anger rising. The more he thought about it, the angrier he felt.
 He went through the motions, managed to look calm with the few customers who came in even though his hands were shaking, checked his email and packed several mail orders, the primary source of his income, but by closing time he knew he absolutely could not bear to lose one more thing. If someone trespassed tonight and took another fish, it would be too much.
 After closing up for a half hour and running to a nearby deli to buy supper, he returned to the shop, closed the door, turned out the lights and sat down behind the counter in the shadow of a bookcase where he wouldn't be visible from the front window. He clipped a booklight to the top of a book and began reading about the origin of the use of the metric system.
 An hour later he realized he had forgotten to eat his supper. Reluctantly he stopped reading, noticed the sky outside was black and the streetlights on, stood in the dark shop at the counter and ate half of his sandwich and drank his lukewarm coffee and then returned to his book because it really was fascinating.
 He was so intent on reading he didn't notice a thing until he heard a small splash. He went dead still, unsure of the sound, and slowly raised his eyes without moving his head.
 It took him a moment to accept what he was seeing.
 Balanced on the rim of the fish tank was a thin black cat, its head down, its nose almost touching the surface of the water. A paw shot through the surface, making another small splash.
 Before Zack could stand up the cat leaped from the rim to the countertop to the floor, leaving a trail of bookmarks in its wake, and was gone.
 He had no clue where it went. It didn't leave footprints. Systematically he thought it through, took an empty cardboard mailing box from the space below the counter, placed it lightly on top of the tank so as not to completely seal it and disturb the balanced ecology, and then went searching. As soon as he had the time he would check through his back room collection for instructions on how to ward a fish tank.
 Tonight he needed to find the cat. It had probably come in yesterday when the door was open. Wherever it was now, if he didn't find it and evict it, it would continue to cause mischief, possibly flexing its claws on a valuable book. Zack turned on the overhead lights and did a search.
 He went up and down the aisles, peered in any spaces between the books and the shelves, got down on all fours to look under furniture, pulled boxes away from walls, ran his hands along the tops of cases, until he was sure he had examined every inch of the shop. He even checked the washroom.
 No cat.
 He spun around in the small back hallway that opened to the washroom door on one side and the storeroom on the other and noticed, for the first time, that the storeroom door was open a few inches and how had he not noticed it earlier? He must not have closed the door tightly enough to click the latch yesterday. Not that the storeroom held anything of value. Mainly he used it to hold his shipping supplies. Could a determined cat nudge the door open?
 "All right, you've had your fun, now it's back outside with you," he muttered as he walked in and flipped on the light.
 Her eyes glowed in the reflected light as she looked up at him. She didn't try to run away, stayed put in the corner and made a small hiss. He knew she was a she the minute he took a step toward her. The cat was small and scruffy, but she stood bravely glaring at him, putting herself between Zack and two tiny new kittens.
 "Oh my God," he said softly and then he apologized. Her ribs stuck out under her thin fur. "I didn't mean to scare you. All right, you stay there."
 He hurried out to the shop, found his half sandwich, broke it into bits in the cardboard deli tray and carried it back and set it down next to her. He doubted she would move more than a step away from the kittens as long as he was in the room and he was right about that. Next he went back and tore away the sides of his cardboard coffee cup until he had a little dish with a rim about two inches high. He rinsed it out and filled it with clean water and took it in to her.
 She stopped eating for a minute, gave him a careful look. Food won. She returned to eating. When he peered past her without actually moving any closer, he saw his mother's silk scarf under the kittens. He didn't have to touch the scarf to know it was giving off a low heat. It was soiled, probably irredeemable. He filled a shallow box with shredded paper from his supply of packing materials and left it near her.
 Zack slid down with his back pressed to the wall. He didn't want his height to intimidate her. And then he spent the next hour talking very softly, explaining that the fish were his but the storeroom was hers as long as she wanted it, and saying whatever else came to mind because in many ways the cat was easier to talk to than a person.
 His last act, before he locked up and went home, was to hold out his hand and wait. She approached cautiously. After standing and staring at him for several minutes, she stretched out her head and licked his hand. He didn't try to pet her. Tomorrow would be soon enough. Maybe that had been his mistake with Marcia. Had he rushed the relationship, phoning her the same day he first met her?
 In the morning when he opened the door he heard a small sound, looked up, and saw the cat sitting on top of the books on the upper shelf of the case behind the counter. The cardboard was still in place on the fish tank. He had forgotten about it. Had the cat understood when he explained the fish were his?
 "Good for you," he said to her. Today he would set a ward.
 He propped the door open, went to the washroom to hang up his coat, took a quick peek in the storeroom and saw the two little fluff balls sleeping on the silk scarf, went out and set up his cash register and turned on his computer.
 "I'm sorry to bother you again, but I needed to bring you this." From that first phone call, he'd loved the tone of Marcia's voice. Now she walked toward him, his green cardigan sweater in her hand. "You left it at my place."
 "You could have phoned. I would have picked it up."
 She didn't meet his eyes. "No bother. I was downtown anyway."
 He knew, from the way she looked around the shop at everything but him that she had brought the sweater because she didn't want him coming to her home again. There was nothing to say and so he didn't try.
 She looked above his head at the bookcase behind the counter and gave a small gasp. "I didn't know you had a cat."
 "Neither did I until yesterday."
 "But whose is it?"
 "I guess it's mine now," he said, and when she looked straight at him he told her about the cat and the kittens.
 "Are you going to keep them?"
 "I can't very well toss them in the street. They'd get run over."
 "But I mean, you could take them to an animal shelter or something."
 He restacked the bookmarks to have something to do with his hands. "No. She's just a skinny black cat. Nobody'd want her. She'd get euthanized. She might as well stay here."
 "What about the kittens?"
 "What about them?" he snapped. He hadn't slept well and last night had been so strange, and if she didn't like him, he couldn't help it. He had no idea what he could do. He understood wards but he had no knowledge of love spells and even if he did, he would never use one. "I'm not tossing them out, either."
 Her voice went very soft. "No. Of course not. I had no idea you liked cats. I adore them, but the last two men I dated, well, they turned out to be cat haters and I could never, I mean, oh." She stopped and stared at him.
 "At least I know what happened to my fish. She ate them."
 "But you're keeping her, anyway. You'll need cat food and dishes and a litter box and you'll have to take them to a vet for shots. Can I see the kittens?"
 He led her silently into the storeroom. As soon as he pushed the door wide open so Marcia could see them, the mother cat dashed past his ankles and planted herself in front of the kittens.
 "It's all right. We aren't coming in," he told the cat. Putting his hand on Marcia's shoulder, he turned her back toward the shop. "I have several books on cat care. I know what they need. Thanks for bringing my sweater."
 Marcia stopped in the little hallway outside the storeroom and looked up at him. He looked down into the soft roundness of her face and remembered the touch of her fingertips. He could smell her flowery cologne, or maybe it was Marcia herself who smelled like flowers.
 "Zack, if you can forget what I said yesterday, I would like to invite you over. I owe you supper. And an apology. If you aren't busy, that is."
 He didn't know what he should say and so he just grinned.


Copyright (c) Phoebe Matthews
This story was first published in the Wicked Good Stories collection.

This page contains a short story each month for Phoebe's Newsletter readers.
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