I was feeling increasingly nauseated and my skin was starting to crawl. I hurried down block after block, in as straight a general leftward direction as the streets would permit. Though it was only supper time, rain and fog had turned day to dusk and those few streetlamps that hadn’t been broken out years ago began to flicker and glow. Night was falling and soon it would be as dark as pitch in those long shadowed stretches between the weak and infrequent pools of light.
I picked up my pace to a sprint. On the verge of hysteria at the thought of being lost in this awful part of the city at night, I nearly sobbed with relief when I spied a brightly lit building a few blocks ahead, blazing like an oasis of light.
I broke into that run I’d been resisting.
As I drew nearer, I could see that all the windows were intact, and the tall brick building was impeccably restored, sporting a costly updated first-floor facade of dark cherry and brass. Large pillars framed an alcoved entrance inset with a handsome cherry door flanked by stained-glass sidelights and crowned by a matching transom. The tall windows down the side were framed by matching columns of lesser size, and covered with elaborate wrought-iron latticework. A late-model sedan was parked out front in the street beside an expensive motorcycle.
Beyond it, I could see storefronts with second-floor residences. There were people in the streets; perfectly normal-looking shoppers and diners and pub-goers.
Just like that, I was in a decent part of the city again! Thank God, I thought. Though later I wouldn’t be quite so certain about just who had saved me from danger that day, or if I’d been saved at all. We have a phrase back home in Georgia: Out of the frying pan and into the fire. The soles of my shoes should have been steaming.
Barrons Books and Baubles proclaimed the gaily-painted shingle that hung perpendicular to the building, suspended over the sidewalk by an elaborate brass pole bolted into the brick above the door. Alighted sign in the old-fashioned, green-tinted windows announced Open. It couldn’t have looked more like the perfect place to call a taxi to me if it had sported a sign that said Welcome Lost Tourists/Call Your Taxis Here.
I was done for the day. No more asking directions, no more walking. I was damp and cold. I wanted hot soup and a hotter shower. And I wanted it more than I wanted to pinch precious pennies.
Bells jangled as I pushed open the door.
I stepped inside and stopped, blinking in astonishment. From the exterior I’d expected a charming little book and curio shop with the inner dimensions of a university Starbucks. What I got was a cavernous interior that housed a display of books that made the library Disney’s Beast gave to Beauty on their wedding day look understocked.
I love books, by the way, way more than movies. Movies tell you what to think. A good book lets you choose a few thoughts for yourself. Movies show you the pink house. A good book tells you there’s a pink house and lets you paint some of the finishing touches, maybe choose the roof style, park your own car out front. My imagination has always topped anything a movie could come up with. Case in point, those darned Harry Potter movies. That was so not what that part-Veela-chick, Fleur Delacour, looked like.
Still, I’d never imagined a bookstore like this. The room was probably a hundred feet long and forty feet wide. The front half of the store opened all the way up to the roof, four stories or more. Though I couldn’t make out the details, a busy mural was painted on the domed ceiling. Bookcases lined each level, from floor to molding. Behind elegant banisters, platform walkways permitted catwalk access on the second, third, and fourth levels. Ladders slid on oiled rollers from one section to the next.
The first floor had freestanding shelves arranged in wide aisles to my left, two seating cozies, and a cashier station to my right. I couldn’t see what stretched beyond the rear balcony on the upper floors but I guessed more books and perhaps some of those baubles the sign mentioned.
There wasn’t a soul in sight.
“Hello!” I called, spinning in a circle, drinking it in. A bookstore like this was a fabulous find, a great end to an otherwise awful day. While I waited for my taxi, I’d browse for new reads. “Hello, is anyone here?”
“Be with you in a trice, dear,” a woman’s voice floated from the rear of the store.
I heard the soft murmur of voices, a woman’s and a man’s, then heels clacking across a hardwood floor.
The full-bosomed, elegant woman who came into view had once been stunning in the way of movie-star divas of old. In her early fifties now, her sleek dark hair was gathered back in a chignon from a pale-skinned, classic-boned face. Though time and gravity had traced the supple skin of youth with the lines of fine parchment and creased her brow, this woman would always be beautiful, right up to the day she died. She wore a long tailored gray skirt and a gauzy linen blouse that flattered her voluptuous figure and revealed a hint of a lacy bra beneath. Lustrous pearls glowed softly at her neck, wrist, and ears. “I’m Fiona. Is there something I can help you find, dear?”