Two of the people in Noah’s group of friends took off running across the street in front of Alex and Harold. Noah and two others started running to the left.
Alex let off the brake and started accelerating. He planned to chase after Noah, although he didn’t exactly know what he and Harold would do with Noah once they had caught him. He had a vague idea that he and Harold would be able to make Noah lead them to the artifacts, though he wasn’t certain how they would do it, exactly. There was a good chance that Harold would know how to persuade Noah, however.
They had nearly reached the intersection, and Alex was getting ready to turn left and catch up with Noah and the two others, when Harold said, “Go straight.”
“What?” Alex said. He hoped Harold had a plan, and drove straight through the intersection.
“Relax and drive casually, too,” Harold said.
“OK, we’re now driving slowly in the wrong direction,” Alex said. “How is this strategy going to play out? Because right now it seems like we’re letting them run off.”
“That’s because we’re letting them run off, Mr. Minor,” Harold said.
“And why are we letting them do that?” Alex said.
“Because, we didn’t hurry away after they saw us, and we didn’t chase after them. They’re going to regroup and laugh about getting spooked by something that turned out to be nothing at all, and go right back to being careless. I don’t think we’re going to be able to catch them in this neighborhood – there’s too many ways they can run to evade us before we can get turned around again. Besides, we’re not trying to catch Noah, we’re trying to get the artifacts he stole back. All we need is to figure out where they are,” Harold said.
Alex had to admit Harold’s idea made a certain sense. He hoped Harold was right.
“OK, I guess we’ll find out how that’s going to work out. I think we’re out of occult bookstores, what should we try next?” Alex said.
“We’re not out of bookstores yet. We never went in the last one,” Harold said.
Harold was right, Alex realized. They’d just waited outside while Noah and his friends had been in Books of Shadows.
“Do you think they’re likely to give us any info? And what if Noah and his friends just high-tailed it back to safety at that shop? It’ll probably freak them out a bit when we walk in, and they’ll bolt again,” Alex said.
“Well, they might do that,” Harold said. “But I think the chances are pretty slim that they’ll recognize us. And as you mentioned earlier, it’ll probably be for the best if I just wait in the car and avoid possibly causing a scene. We can just park some ways down the street, or around the corner, from the shop and then they won’t see this car parked out front, either. You should be able to discreetly go in to the shop, ask a few questions, and do it without them getting suspicious in the least.”
“I guess it’s worth a shot,” Alex said. “With any luck the people working in this shop will have some idea of where Noah is headed next. He was in there long enough to have told them his life story, after all.”
They took a roundabout route to get back to Books of Shadows, and Alex parked about two blocks down the road, and around the corner. It briefly occurred to him, as he was walking to the shop, that if he needed to make a run for it, it would be a bit of a jaunt back to the car. On the other hand, these folks might be a bit eccentric, but didn’t seem particularly dangerous. He doubted he would need to escape.
It only took him a couple of minutes to reach the shop. The smell of incense was nearly overpowering when Alex stepped inside. The walls and shelving inside were black, and Alex thought it seemed more like a record store than a bookshop. Loud gothic music was playing, and there were a few other customers in the store. The woman working behind the counter had black hair, black lipstick, and was wearing a floor length black dress.
Alex wandered through the shelves a little bit. A man came out of the back of the store carrying an armload of books. He put them down on the counter, picked up an antique looking pricing gun, and started sticking prices on the books he’d just brought out. He had long, dark brown hair, and was wearing a long sleeved t-shirt (black, of course) for a band Alex had never heard of, along with black jeans and combat boots.
By now, Alex kind of knew which section of the store he ought to be looking in if he was interested in Thomas Smith and whatever ritual magick was. He found a shelf of books labelled “Ritual Magick” (the label was black tape, with white gothic lettering). There was a direct line of sight between him and the front counter, so Alex did his best to look appropriately bewildered, in hopes of getting one of the employees to come over and offer to help him. At the moment, they weren’t looking at him, so he picked up one of the books in front of him and random and flipped through it. He was mildly shocked when the book opened to a photo of five naked women laying on the floor, arranged into the shape of a star.
Alex jumped when he heard a woman’s voice next to him say, “Can I help you find anything?”
The woman who had been working behind the counter was now standing next to him. She looked mildly amused.
Alex closed the book quickly and put it back on the shelf.
“Yes, well, uh, I’m interested in Thomas Smith, so I’m looking for anything you might have related to him,” Alex said.
The shopkeeper said, “Thomas Smith? Interesting. We had some people in here earlier today who were very interested in him too. I don’t suppose you know them?”
Alex shook his head. “No, I can’t say that I do,” he said.
“Well, that’s OK,” she said. “One of them seemed really intent on convincing me he is a leading expert on Thomas Smith. An English guy. I asked him what had brought him to Arcata, of all places, and he just said he was on holiday. Anyway, I’ve got a couple of things here with some information about Thomas Smith in them.”
“Great,” Alex said. So Noah had just been in here talking at them for a couple of hours. He was suddenly kind of glad they hadn’t tried to catch Noah himself. Chances were they’d end up having to gag him if they wanted to be able to hear themselves think.
The shopkeeper handed him a book.
“This one is good,” she said, “though it’s a little on the experimental side. They haven’t stayed one hundred percent true to Thomas Smith’s writings, but if you’re looking for an effective resource, this one will do the job.”
She went back to looking at the shelf. Alex tried to think of a way to bring the conversation back to Noah, and if he’d revealed anything at all about what he was doing or where he was doing it while he was in town.
“This is a good practical book too,” the shopkeeper said, handing him another heavy tome.
“Great,” Alex said. He started to hope he wasn’t going to have to drop another hundred dollars on magic books. Of course, if he did, there was a good chance Harold would appreciate them. He was probably sitting with his nose buried in one of them now, out in the car.
“Oh, and if you don’t have this one already, you really need it,” the shopkeeper said, handing him yet another heavy book. Alex hadn’t had any idea that doing magic would involve carrying so much heavy stuff around.
“There, I think that should get you going in the right direction,” the shopkeeper said, handing him one last book. “Is there anything else you need while you’re here?”
“No, I think this should be enough for one day, thanks,” Alex said. He followed as the shopkeeper turned and led him to the cash register. Alex noticed that the guy who had been working at the counter had vanished again.
“So,” Alex said, “there are some other folks in town who are into Thomas Smith?” Alex said.
The shopkeeper started ringing him up.
“Apparently,” she said. “At least, they came in here for a while today.”
“Did they say if they were going to stick around for a while?” Alex said.
“Not really. The English guy said that he was here in California for a couple of days, meeting up with some of his friends from a forum they’re all on,” she said. “That’ll be one hundred fifty four dollars and eighty seven cents.”
God damn it, Alex thought. I’ve spent like two hundred and fifty bucks on magic books I’ll never read on this trip.
He said, “OK, great,” and handed her one hundred sixty dollars in twenty dollar bills.
“It’d be cool to meet up with some other folks who are into Thomas Smith. And it’d be really neat to meet up with someone who’s an expert,” Alex continued. “Can you think of anywhere I might be likely to run in to them?”
The shopkeeper handed Alex a black plastic bag with the books he’d just bought in it.
“Not really,” she said. “There’s a group that meets at a coffee shop in Eureka on Tuesday nights. I guess it’s possible that they’ll show up there. There might be some other folks who are into Thomas Smith there, too. I probably wouldn’t count on that, though.”
She turned and called in to the back room, “Hey, Brian, you got a minute?”
A voice from the back said, “Yeah, Crystal, be right there!”
Crystal? Alex thought. Her name is Crystal?
A couple of seconds later, Brian came out of the back room and joined Crystal behind the counter.
“What’s up?” he said.
“Did you catch if that English guy said anything about what he and his friends were going to get up to while he’s in town?” Crystal said.
Brian looked a little surprised, or confused, and said, “No, I didn’t hear them say anything about their plans. Why?”
“This gentleman is interested in Thomas Smith too, so he was hoping to catch up with them,” Crystal said.
“Really?” Brian said. He looked Alex over.
“Yeah, it’s be great to get to talk with some people who are experts on the subject. I’m pretty new to this,” Alex said. He didn’t like the way Brian was looking at him.
“I bet,” Brian said. He started picking at one of his fingernails. “Did you hear about that robbery in London?”
Alex blinked a couple of times. That wasn’t where he expected the conversation to go.
“Robbery?” Alex said.
“Yeah,” Brian said. “Some stuff that had belonged to Thomas Smith was stolen from a museum over there just recently. Kind of a weird coincidence.”
“What coincidence is that?” Alex said.
“Well, there was a robbery in London. And then some English dude shows up here claiming to be an expert on Thomas Smith. Claiming, who am I kidding? He was boasting. And now, just a little while after that guy and his friends left here, you show up, interested in Thomas Smith. Seems kind of funny to me,” Brian said.
“I guess that is a coincidence,” Alex said. “Small world.”
“Yeah, real small world,” Brian said. “If you ask me, you guys are all up to something. Now, maybe that English guy is the one who stole that stuff. I’d expect two kind of people to be looking for him if that’s the case: cops, and other crooks. And you don’t look like a cop to me.”
This isn’t going anywhere good, Alex thought.
“Look, this is just a weird case of, uh, synchronicity,” Alex said.
“I’m not buying it,” Brian said. “What can you tell me about Thomas Smith, if you’re actually interested in him?”
“Well, he was an alchemist and a mathematician,” Alex said. “I don’t know, I’m still learning. What do you want to know?”
“What was the deal with him and angels? If you’ve even looked him up on Wikipedia you’ll know about that,” Brian said.
“Uh, well, he, uh, thought he was talking to angels,” Alex said.
It is time to go now, Alex thought. This is going to keep getting worse.
“He thought he was talking to angels?” Brian said.
He suddenly produced a shotgun from behind the counter, and pointed it at Alex.
Holy crap! Alex thought. Time to go. It’s time to go right now. Just run.
“What are you playing at, fella?” Brian said. “Do you know where the Thomas Smith artifacts are?”
Alex put his free hand (that wasn’t weighed down with a forty pound bag of books) up, and started backing away.
This really went in a weird direction. So is this guy after that stuff too? Alex thought.
“Well, you see, uh, the thing about that is, um… Bye!” Alex said. He turned and ran out of the bookstore. He half-expected to hear the BOOM of the shotgun, but it didn’t come. Suddenly, parking two blocks away seemed like it really had been a spectacularly dumb idea.
Alex saw Harold get out of the passenger side of the car and hop in to the driver’s seat.
At least he saw me coming, Alex thought.
Harold had the car running, and started driving the minute Alex was seated.
“So, how did it go, Mr. Minor?” Harold said.