Alex and Harold were still in the car. Alex had found a McDonald’s and pulled in to the drive-thru to grab some lunch.
“What do you want to eat?” Alex asked Harold.
“Nothing, thank you,” Harold said. He was paging through one of the books Alex had just bought.
“Are you sure? You’ve got to be starving by now,” Alex said.
“I’m not hungry, thank you, Mr. Minor,” Harold said. His tone, still completely polite, made it clear that the matter was closed.
“OK,” Alex said, and dropped it. He ordered for himself, and found a place to park and eat.
After he’d finished, Alex dug out his phone and started looking to see what he could find that might get them closer to finding Noah.
Alex was surprised to discover that there was more than one occult bookstore in the surrounding area. There were two more in Arcata, one called Painted Leaf and the other named Books of Shadows. He hoped the folks working in those shops might be able to give him some more useful information than the guy at Tree of Life had.
There hadn’t been anything new posted to the Guild of Smiths forum, unfortunately. Alex hoped Noah and his friends would post a photo that would give him a concrete idea of where they could be found. No such luck.
While Alex was busy with that, Harold had kept his nose deep in the new books. Alex was a little surprised that Harold was at all interested in them. He didn’t think it was likely that there would be any kind of hint about where to find Noah (and the artifacts) in there. However, he also thought that it would be best to just let Harold read them, if that’s what he wanted to do. A Harold engrossed in a book was a Harold not bothering him. It was a nice change of pace since they were travelling together for the time being, whether he liked it or not.
“Well, unless you’ve got a better idea, I think we might as well go check these other bookstores and see if anyone else can help us out,” Alex said.
“I think that’s an excellent idea, Mr. Minor,” Harold said.
It was a quick drive to Arcata. The first bookstore they tried was The Painted Leaf.
The Painted Leaf looked more like a conventional bookstore than the Tree Of Life had. The walls were painted a warm beige, and all of the bookshelves looked like they’d been purchased at the same time. It was kind of bland in comparison.
It did smell like incense, and they were playing some kind of new age-y music that was easy to ignore.
There was a woman working behind the counter, and she looked up and smiled as Alex walked in. Her smile fell, however, when Harold walked in behind him.
“I’m going to have to ask you to leave,” she said in a cold voice.
“What?” Alex said. He couldn’t believe this.
“Not you,” she said.
“I’m sorry, have I done something wrong?” Harold said.
“I need you to leave, now,” she said.
“Fine, fine, I don’t want to cause any trouble,” Harold said. He turned around and left the store.
Alex suspected someone was pulling his leg. This was all too weird. Harold hadn’t even had a chance to do something to deserve getting thrown out.
“What on Earth was that about?” Alex asked. He noticed she was wearing a nametag that read, “Ann.”
Ann looked at him as if she was trying to decide if he was joking or if he was particularly simple minded, then composed herself and said, “Is there anything I can help you find?”
“Well, I’m trying to learn more about Thomas Smith. Are you familiar with him?” Alex said.
“Oh, you must be friends with the group of folks who came in earlier asking about him. They bought a bunch of books already, I’m not sure how much on that topic I’ll have left on the shelf,” Ann said.
“Really, there were some other people who came in today asking about him?” Alex said.
“Oh, so you don’t know them? I guess Thomas Smith is just a hot topic, then. Or it’s synchronicity. Yeah, there were some other people who came in. You just missed them, really. They left here about fifteen minutes ago,” Ann said.
“Cool,” Alex said. “You didn’t happen to overhear where they were headed next, did you?”
Ann looked at him suspiciously, “Why would you want to know?”
Alex wasn’t exactly sure how to answer that, and stumbled over himself as he tried to reply.
“Well, you know, it’d just be… interesting, to meet some other people with the same interest. Maybe we could compare notes,” he said.
“Right,” Ann said.
She’s not buying it, Alex thought. Shit.
“Sorry, they didn’t mention where they were off to next. But if you’re looking for folks with similar interests, you could always try looking on the internet. There’s a forum for just about everything now,” Ann said.
“Right, that’s a good idea,” Alex said.
“Well, feel free to have a look around the shop,” Ann said. “I’ve got to finish putting together an order.”
“OK, thanks,” Alex said.
He wandered through the shelves for a couple of minutes before heading back outside. Once again, Harold was waiting just to one side of the door.
“Damn it, we just missed them, apparently,” Alex said. “According to her, they left here about fifteen minutes ago.”
“Interesting. It sounds like we might be on the right track then,” Harold said.
“I guess so,” Alex said. “I’ve got one more bookstore here on the list, let’s go check it out and hope that it is on their list of places to visit too.”
Moments later they were back in the car and on their way to Books of Shadows. Alex hoped they’d be able to spot the group, or at least Noah, and follow them back to where ever it was they had the artifacts.
“So what have you been doing to piss off all these shopkeepers, Harold?” Alex said as they were driving across town.
“I haven’t got the foggiest idea,” Harold said.
“Pretty weird coincidence,” Alex said.
“Indeed, Mr. Minor,” Harold said. “I hope the reason why will become apparent to us.”
They arrived at Books of Shadows a couple of minutes later, and were able to park directly across the street from the entrance to the shop. Alex shut off the car, and sat back in his seat. The shop was in a tidy little bungalow, painted purple with black trim. There was a painted sign in the front yard announcing the name of the shop in a gothic looking font.
“You know,” Alex said. “Maybe you should wait here this time. Drawing attention to ourselves in all of the occult bookstores in the area probably isn’t going to make our job any easier.”
Alex was surprised when Harold agreed with him, and surprised again by what he said next.
“Yes, I suppose you’re right, Mr. Minor,” Harold said. Then, “Oh, look, there he is.”
Harold pointed across the street. Walking down the sidewalk towards Books of Shadows was Noah Tipton, along with a group of people Alex recognized from the photos posted to the Guild of Smiths forum.
“Holy crap!” Alex said. For a second, he wasn’t sure what to do. Part of him, a big part, wanted to charge across the street and tackle Noah. A calmer, more rational, part of him realized that doing so would probably do nothing more that scare Noah and his friends in to hiding the artifacts and being careful to keep themselves and their activities under wraps.
“Stay calm, Mr. Minor,” Harold said. Alex realized his excitement was probably showing more than he realized. “We’ll be able to follow them when they come back out.”
“Right,” Alex said. He did his best to relax. It didn’t quite work, but at least he managed to get his urge to make a flying leap for Noah back under control.
Alex and Harold watched as Noah and his friends walked into the Book of Shadows. Alex felt an icy shard of panic slip into his chest when the door closed behind them, hiding them from view.
OK, they’ll come back out. They have to come back out. We haven’t lost them yet, Alex thought.
He began to drum nervously on the steering wheel. Harold, for his part, waited quietly and patiently.
Five minutes passed, then ten.
“You know, maybe I should go in there and see what I can overhear,” Alex said.
“I think you should stay put, Mr. Minor,” Harold said. “They’ll come back out. They have to leave the store again at some point. If you go in there, you’ll just risk exposing us before we’ve recovered the artifacts, and that will just make our job that much harder.”
Alex had to admit Harold was right. It was kind of maddening.
It was also becoming apparent to Alex that he wasn’t cut out for stakeouts.
They waited. An hour passed. Harold had gone back to reading the books Alex had bought earlier, while Alex watched the shop.
“Where the hell are they?” Alex said. He was starting to feel self-conscious sitting there in a parked car for so long, just hanging out. Someone was going to notice them and get curious sooner or later, he felt. He didn’t want to watch as Noah and his friends walked away again, unable to follow them because he was busy explaining what they were doing there to the local Officer Friendly.
“They’re shopping, Mr. Minor. Be patient,” Harold said.
“Patient my ass. How can they be taking so long in a bookstore? If they’re experts on this, like they’ve apparently been telling everyone, how many books of interest can the shop possibly have?” Alex said.
“They might be showing off their knowledge to a fresh audience, Mr. Minor. It does happen,” Harold said.
“Ugh, so we’re follow a guy who’s a thief and a bore,” Alex said.
“An unforgiveable combination, I agree,” Harold said. “One should never have more than one vice at a time.”
Alex laughed, in spite of himself.
Another half hour passed. Alex had finished drinking the last of his soda from lunch some time ago, and he was starting to wish he’d thought to bring a bottle of water along with them that day.
A group of college-aged men and women wearing black dusters and cloaks came down the sidewalk, and went into the book shop.
“Looks like it’s going to be a party in there,” Alex said.
The front door to the shop opened again, and Alex said, “Or maybe not.”
Noah and his friends came out of the shop again, chatting and laughing. Alex noticed that none of them were carrying a new bag of books. So they had just been in there talking. The jerks.
“Here they come,” Alex said.
Harold put down the book he was reading, and turned to look.
“Excellent,” Harold said. “Let’s follow them.”
Alex started the car and put it in gear. He and Harold watched as the group made their way down the street. They didn’t seem to be in a particular hurry. Alex pulled away from the curb and drove a little further down the street before pulling over and stopping again. He didn’t think that it would be easy to disguise the fact that they were following Noah and his friends if he and Harold were blatantly crawling along in their car at one mile per hour, in broad daylight, on a street without much traffic.
When the group got to the corner, they turned left and quickly vanished from sight. Alex pulled away from the curb again, and rolled up to the intersection. The group was now standing and looking in the window of a bicycle shop. Alex turned left, pulled over just a little ahead of the group (on the far side of the road from them) and stopped.
The five of them walked by again after a couple of minutes. Alex saw one of them glance over at the car he and Harold were in, then look away again at something else.
Good, they didn’t think anything of it, Alex thought.
When the group had gotten about halfway down the street again, Alex crept the car a little further along to keep up with them. He repeated this process for a few blocks. He felt extremely obvious, but so far it seemed like they hadn’t noticed that they were being followed. At some point, they were going to have to either get in a car, or go into a house. Either possibility would work fine for Alex, he just hoped they would hurry up and do one or the other.
Alex noticed one of the group turn and take a quick look back at him, over her shoulder. Harold noticed it too.
“I think they’ve spotted us, Mr. Minor,” Harold said.
“Could be,” Alex said. “Let’s see what they do.”
Noah and his friends got to the end of the block, and the group suddenly split in two, sprinting off in opposite directions.
“Oh, shit!” Alex said.