It was the first time that Harper had gone to visit Lydia without someone calling ahead, and she felt strangely intrusive as she pushed open the door to Cherry Lane Books. Of course, that didn’t make sense since it was a bookstore, and people were free to come and go as long as the OPEN sign was up.
In fact, this was about the least intrusive she’d been since it was only the second time she’d come here when the store was actually open. That meant that there were customers here this time, including a girl from Harper’s biology class who was perusing the bestseller section.
Harper was starting to think that this might not be the best time. The things she wanted to talk about with Lydia wouldn’t be good with an audience.
Unfortunately, the bell chimed whenever anyone opened the door, and it must’ve alerted Lydia. She appeared around an aisle from the back of the store before Harper could back out.
“Oh, hey there.” Lydia smiled and appeared genuinely happy to see her. “I’m glad you came by because I wanted to show you something.”
Then Lydia turned toward the store and, speaking loudly so her small voice would carry, she said, “Attention, everyone. I need to run downstairs to my office for a few minutes. If you need anything, push the buzzer by the cash register at the front desk, and I’ll be up in a jiff. Okay?”
Her customers murmured agreement and understanding, so Lydia turned back to Harper, grinning. Lydia’s outfit seemed a bit more sedate today, just a pair of skinny jeans and a purple tank top, but she wore glittery pink lip gloss that sparkled when she smiled.
“Shall we?” Lydia asked, but before Harper could reply, she started escorting her to the back of the store.
They went down the most dimly lit aisle of the store, where Lydia kept tarot cards, sensing stones, and all the really old books. And it wasn’t like first editions of Charles Dickens old. Harper had once discovered one that appeared to be written in ancient Sumerian, but many of them were nearly falling apart from age.
Past that, in the back corner, Lydia pushed open a door that seemed too heavy for her. The wood had a marble grain unlike anything Harper had seen before, and as she walked past it, she ran her fingers along the glossy surface. It felt smooth and cool, like glass, under her fingertips.
“It’s snakewood,” Lydia said when she noticed Harper admiring the door. “It helps keep intruders out.”
On the other side of the door was a small landing in front of a narrow concrete staircase. Lydia seemed to be struggling with the door, so Harper helped her push it closed, and it surprised her just how heavy it truly was.
“This is where I keep all the really old books,” Lydia explained as she led the way down the steps.
“As opposed to those brand-new ones we just walked by?” Harper asked.
Lydia laughed, the tinkling sound echoing in the small space of the stairwell. “Well, the really important old books, then.”
The bottom of the stairs opened into a surprisingly warm and dry basement, filled with bookshelves. It smelled distinctly of burning leaves, so much so that Harper began to fear that something was on fire.
“What’s that burning smell?” she asked.
“It’s just the potions,” Lydia replied, as if Harper would know what that meant. “They keep the books safe.”
While the books took up the majority of the basement, there was a small room to the left of the stairs. Lydia opened the door and gestured inside. “Won’t you join me in my office?”
Harper went inside, and it was what she’d expected Lydia’s office to look like. Three of the walls were painted pale pink, but the one behind her desk was wallpapered with a black-and-white fleur-de-lis pattern. Posters of book covers for J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, Roald Dahl’s The Witches, and Ralph Manheim’s translation of The Neverending Story were hung around the room.
A computer and a framed photo sat on the simple black desk, but other than that, and the two office chairs, nearly everything else in the room was books. Books stacked in piles on the floor, on the desk, on overburdened shelves that were slouching on the walls. Three boxes sat on the floor behind the desk, and Harper couldn’t see their contents, but she assumed they were more books.
“Are you sure it’s okay that we’re down here?” Harper asked as she sat down. “I mean, because of the customers. I don’t want to take you away from your job.”
“This is my job, too,” Lydia explained as she moved the towers of books from her desk to the floor so she’d be able to see Harper when she sat down. “As much as I love uniting readers with their new favorite books, the reason I opened the bookstore is to help people like you. Selling books is a front for my real work.”
“What do you mean?” Harper asked.
Lydia sat down and gave her a knowing smile. “There are just some problems that you can’t go to the police for. There’s no one you can call to help if you’re a troll or a witch. It’s not like the Ghostbusters are real, and even if they were, sometimes the ghosts need help, too.”
“Do I owe you anything for all of this?” Harper asked. “You’re doing so much work for us, and I’m so appreciative, and I feel like I should compensate you or something.”
Lydia had never made mention of any form of payment, but now that she had referred to this as a job, Harper began to worry that she was taking advantage of her.
“No, no, don’t be ridiculous.” Lydia waved it off. “Nana always said that if we did the things we had to do and help those that needed it, then everything else would fall into place. And she was right.”
“Thank you,” Harper said emphatically. “I don’t know what my sister or I would do if we didn’t have you helping us.”
“You’re very welcome.” Lydia smiled. “Now on to what I wanted to show you.” She reached over to pull the lid off one of the boxes, then she stopped. “But you came here. Is there something you wanted to tell me?”
“Mostly just to ask you about your progress,” Harper said. “And to tell you something about the scroll.”
“What about it?” Lydia let go of the box lid and sat back in her chair.
“I brought the scroll to school yesterday to show a teacher, Professor Pine. He said he knew you.”
“Oh, yeah. Kipling.” Lydia smirked. “We go way back. He’s a good guy.”
“While I was talking to him about the scroll—I had it with me, so he could look at it—he accidentally spilled Red Bull all over it,” Harper explained. “It didn’t damage the scroll, of course, because nothing seems to be able to. But the ink began to glow, like a real vibrant crimson wherever the liquid touched.”