“Thursday!” panted Matey as several stockinged feet ran across her. “A complete set of Josephine Bettany novels in a walnut display case – run!”
And run I did. Bettany was so prolific and popular she had a bookshelf all to herself and her recent boxed sets were fast becoming collector’s items – it was not surprising there was a battle in progress. I entered the fight behind the Abbess and was instantly punched on the nose. I reeled with the shock and was pushed heavily from behind while some else – an accomplice, I assumed – thrust a walking stick between my shins. I lost my footing and fell with a thud on the hard wooden floor. This was not a safe place to be.
I turned and crawled rapidly across the carpet, climbed over the Schoolgirl Detective section to just beyond the registers, where the sales assistants rang in the bargains with a fervour bordering on messianic. I crept past them through the empty returns department, and dived under the Sea-Ranger section to emerge a scant two yards from the Josephine Bettany display; by a miracle no one had yet grabbed the boxed set – and it was very discounted: down from £300 to only £50.
I looked to my left and could see the Abbess fighting her way through the crowd. She caught my eye and dared me to try to beat her. I took a deep breath and waded into the swirling maelstrom of popular prose-induced violence. Almost instantly I was punched on the jaw and thumped in the kidneys; I cried out in pain and quickly withdrew. I met a woman next to the Angela Brazil section who had a nasty cut above her eye; she told me in a concussed manner that the Mavis and Merle Ramsay characters appeared in both A Fortunate Term and Monitress Merle.
I glanced over to where the Abbess was cutting a swathe through the crowd, knocking people aside in her bid to beat me. She smiled triumphantly as she head-butted a woman who had tried to poke her in the eye with a silver-plated bookmark. On the floor below a brief burst of machine-gun fire sounded. I took a step forward to join the fray, then stopped, considered my condition for a moment and decided that perhaps pregnant women shouldn’t get involved in bookshop brawls. So instead, I took a deep breath and yelled.
“Josephine Bettany is signing copies of her book in the basement!”
There was a moment’s silence, then a mass exodus towards the stairs and escalators. The Abbess, caught up in the crowd, was dragged unceremoniously away; in a few seconds the room was empty.
Josephine Bettany was notoriously scatty – I didn’t think there was a fan of hers anywhere who wouldn’t jump at the chance of actually pinning her down somewhere definite.
I walked calmly up to the boxed set, picked it up and took it to the counter, paid and rejoined Matey behind the discounted Fairlie-Bruces, where she was idly flicking through a copy of The Senior Prefect. I showed her the books.
“Not bad,” she said grudgingly. “Did you get a receipt?”
“And the Abbess?”
“Lost somewhere between here and the basement,” I replied simply.
A thin smile crossed Matey’s lips and I helped her to her feet.