Excerpt for Pick Quick Libraries ( Book 1 ) by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

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Pick Quick Libraries


Book One









Chapters




1: Silver Ticket


2: A Question of Time


3: Librarian


4: Liquid Pool


5: Prize


6: Friend in Need


7: Star


8: Teased


9: Request


10: Study in Astra


11: Girl at my Window


12: Revealed


13: Teachers and Students


14: Tea for Three


15: Another Visitor


Chapter 1


Silver Ticket



*

It’s not funny,’ I said, watching as my football cleared the road, reaching the green on the far side. 'You kicked it, go get it, or you're buying me a new one.'

Kyle rolled his eyes, he was my best friend, but sometimes he did stupid things. I guess after my team beat his in the juniors under fourteens match, this was his idea of payback. It didn't help I agreed to have a kick around with him, on Clapham Common.

'Thomas Baker, you're a baby.' Kyle laughed.

I didn't share his joke. 'Get the ball, or else,' I told him.

I was losing my patients, Kyle must've heard something in my voice, he stopped laughing. I met Kyle five years ago, when I was nine. Dad owned Frizz, the salon on Clapham Oldtown. Amanda, Kyle's mum, frequently visited, back then, she was a long-time customer. Sometimes she brought Kyle to the salon with her. Occasionally when I came to see dad for pocket money, Kyle was there. We both liked football, our friendship grew, it helped we supported the same team.

I watched Kyle, he sprinted away, I hoped he'd wait before crossing the road, a car was speeding his way. I was suddenly distracted by something in the corner of my eye. A flash of movement, a sudden splash. Quickly turning I saw a black and white cat, it had slipped into the pond nearby. It struggled to keep afloat. The poor animal, I couldn't let it drown.

'Wait, don't struggle, it will make things worse!' I called, feeling stupid, talking to animals wasn't cool.

Rushing to the paved embankment, I stretched out an arm, where the cat struggled, splashing about, it drifted out of reach. My fingers grabbed at the air. I had no choice, hoping it wasn't too deep, I slipped my legs into the water. This was a stupid idea. I wasn't a good swimmer. Using my elbows for support, slowly, I lowered myself. The water wasn't that deep. I splashed over to the cat. With both hands, I grabbed, snatching the poor, dripping wet animal from the water. Suddenly it dawned on me. Today I saved a life.

The cat didn't scratch me with its claws. This must have been because after its struggle it was weak and exhausted. It trembled in my arms as I made my way to the water’s edge.

'Thank you,' said a voice.

I looked up, surprised, there was a woman standing over me. She had a stern, kind face. She wore a green dress. Her eyes were green too, her hair was wavy and long. If I had a guardian angel this was what she'd look like.

'For what?' I asked, baffled.

'For rescuing Drew. He's very old. He has poor vision and can’t see beyond his whiskers. He has an inquiring mind, and a nose for trouble. Though his never strayed this far from home before.' The woman called out, leaping, the cat landed in her waiting arms. She ran a hand along his sleek fur, and as though by magic, it dried. 'He's grateful. We both are.'

'For what? I asked again, blinking, amazed by what I'd just seen.

'Saving Drew.' The woman gave a mischievous chuckle. 'If it weren't for you, he might've drowned.' With one arm cradling the cat to a shoulder, she offered me a outstretched hand.

'I'm wet,' I said, snappy, not meaning to be rude. 'I can manage, there’s no point us both getting wet.' There was something about the woman, a strange aura of beauty and innocence surrounded her. 'How did you do that?' I inquired.

At my question the woman raised an eyebrow.

'Drew, he's, dry.' I pondered.

'Oh.' The stranger appeared to have just noticed. She held out the cat, his back paws dangled, his tail flipped from side-to-side. She placed a kiss on his nose. 'He prefers to be dry. Cats do, they're fearful of water,' she told me.

I climbed from the pond.

Again, the woman offered me a hand. 'Thank you,' she said.

Hesitantly, I reached out, we exchanged a brief shake. It was amazing. I knew she appreciated what I'd done, saving Drew.

For a moment I stood, bewildered by the stranger. When reality returned, I noticed Kyle rushing over. He was bouncing my ball on the ground.

'You look like you've seen a ghost,' he said.

'I wonder what happened to her. The woman with the cat. She was here a moment ago,' I said in a daze.

'Who was?' asked Kyle.

'She didn't say her name. All I know is Drew, that's the name of her black and white cat. He's short sighted. He slipped into the pond, I rescued him. If I hadn't been here he would've drowned.'

'Sorry to break it to you. You haven't been near the water, you're dry.'

Hearing this, I cast a puzzled glance down, realizing Kyle was right. The chill water was gone. Not even my hair was wet. 'But I saw her.'

Kyle gave me a suspicious frown.

'I'm not joking,' I said, hastily.

'So say you.'

Kyle appeared to be more confused than I was.

'But the woman was standing where you are. She thanked me and shook my hand.' Glancing at my open palm, I noticed a folded piece of paper. 'What's this?' I hadn't realized it was there.

'Thomas, look at the silver edging, the writing,' said Kyle, as though amazed. 'I've seen silver tickets like that.'

For once my friend was ahead of me when it came to brains. Suddenly it dawned on me what the woman left behind. Her thanks went beyond words. It was a token of appreciation, far greater than anything I could wish for.

'Thomas Baker, your imaginary lady friend's given you a ticket to the Pick Quick Libraries.'

'But where is it?' I wondered.

'Check the ticket.' Kyle rolled his eyes.

It made sense, the location of the Pick Quick Libraries would be printed on it. Eagerly I unfolded the ticket.

'An invitation for two,' I hissed. My luck still hadn't registered, this was a dream come true. I'd always wanted this. 'The Pick Quick Libraries will be on Clapham Common, over there.' I glanced in the direction of the old Victorian bandstand. In the far distance behind trees, it was part visible. 'It should be on the green.' I was puzzled.

'There's nothing there,' said Kyle, scratching his head.

'The contractors might arrive later this afternoon,' I said. 'The tickets for tomorrow.'

'What kid doesn’t want an invite to the world-famous Pick Quick Libraries,' Kyle hissed, swinging an arm across my shoulders. 'I'm your best friend, plus one. You have to take me too.'

Slowly I shook my head, reality was slowly returning. I rushed away, calling back as I did. 'Since dad was a kid, he's always wanted to visit the Pick Quick Libraries.'

'But you said he doesn't believe in magic,' said Kyle.

'When he sees the ticket, I think he'll change his mind!' I faced him, running backwards, almost tripping over my new trainers. 'I've got to take him, this tickets for us.'

Chapter 2

A Question of Time


*

Dad puffed out of breath, trying to keep up with me. ‘I admit, I find it hard to believe your story, how you got that ticket.’

‘I told you,’ I said, marching along the tree lined path.

Dad struggled to keep up. All I thought about was being first in. But there was no chance of that. At the speed dad was walking, we'd be lucky to make it through the gates, before they shut.

‘A woman gave me the ticket.’ I explained, for the sixth time today. ‘Drew, her cat, he slipped into the pond. I saved him from drowning. The woman was thankful. When I got out of the water, she took my hand. At first, I had no idea what the folded piece of silver paper in my palm was. I didn’t notice it was there. Then Kyle put the question in my head. When I unfolded the ticket, I couldn’t believe my luck. It was an invite for two to the Pick Quick Libraries…’

‘Son, why the long pause?’ asked dad.

‘I didn’t have time to thank the woman, she was gone.'

'Just like that?’

'I don't know where she went. It's like she wasn't there.' Squinting, I tried to make sense of the stranger’s sudden disappearance. ‘Kyle's sure he didn't see anyone. I was dry too. Strangely, there wasn’t a drop of water on me.’

‘That’s some story.'

'Kyle thought that too,' I told dad. 'I’ve heard a lot about the Pick Quick Libraries. Some say the people there are gifted, witches, wizards.'

'When I was your age I wanted to believe that too.' Dad pulled a doubtful face. Anything beyond his realm of understanding he found hard to grasp. 'Magic,' he said, his mood soured. 'You’d be mad to believe in it.'

'You once did,' I reminded him. 'There was a time when you wanted to visit the Pick Quick Libraries.'

'Not anymore.' Dad seemed to think he knew better than me.

I thought he was deliberately being over judgmental. 'Browsing the Pick Quick Libraries website, I’ve seen messages from all over the world. Those who’ve visited there, make their experience sound like great fun.'

'And there are those kids who bully and tease for the fun of it,' said dad. 'They've got nothing better to do, so they make up farfetched stories.'

'The Pick Quick Libraries isn’t just about stories. There’s magic there too,’ I told him.

‘They say that, but it doesn't mean it’s true.’ Dad puffed out his cheeks, clearly, he struggled to find my argument anything but credible.

I wondered whether I should have invited Kyle instead. Still. I had no regrets. Under his tough exterior, dad was a softy, he just needed to mellow out. I was sure once we were in the grounds of the Pick Quick Libraries, he'd soon change his mind. He would understand what all the fuss was about.

‘If there is magic in that place, this would explain what happened to the woman,' I said.

'The vanishing woman.' Dad looked at me like I was mad.

To me it made sense. 'She has to be a witch, an enchantress, a sorceress. That's how she slipped the ticket into my hand without me noticing. And she was gone without Kyle even knowing she was there.’

‘Since I can remember, you've always wanted to visit the Pick Quick Libraries,’ said dad, he sounded disgruntled by what I told him.

‘I’m not alone,’ I said. ‘I could have given my other invite to Kyle, he wanted to be my plus one.’

‘He’s not anymore, I am,’ said dad.

There was a lilt in his voice. It spoke volumes, I knew he found my story unbelievable. Not that I cared. I was sure he was thankful. For me, he always wanted to secure a ticket to the Pick Quick Libraries. On the website there were raffles. But a puzzling question too. No one knew where the Pick Quick Libraries would be next, it was a lottery, with a fantastic reward for the winners. For his countless effort, dad got to join an endless que of disappointed parents.

‘It’s alright dad, I know. You think I’m lying about the woman and her cat,’ I said. Sometimes it was hard getting him to believe anything.

‘As I said, that’s some story.’ Dad had regret on his face. He clearly wanted to believe me. ‘Put yourself in my shoes. A vanishing woman just doesn’t add up. But what do I know?’

‘Only what I’ve told you,’ I said warily.

‘Thanks to you we’ve a silver ticket with your name on it. Maybe you should save cats more often. Overnight you could turn it into a money-making business.’

I can’t say I gave dads suggestion much thought. To be realistic, in my lifetime, my chances of saving another cat on Clapham Common, in the pond, were next to nil. I suddenly turned my attention to the silky, bright coloured wall, which circled the grounds of the Pick Quick Libraries. Above the pointed peeks of a sea of colourful tent tops, was a big white tent with a flapping flag at its peak. In bold shimmering writing was written, (the Pick Quick Libraries)

Dad and I turned the corner of the barrier wall. The queue at the entrance was shorter than I expected. There was a woman with two boys at the front, and behind them a man with a girl. We hurried forward. Watching, I despaired as a guard drew the righthand gate shut, giving way to the visitors to enter by the remaining open gate. Clearly dad and I were the last of the late arrivals. I was hopeful to think we arrived in time. If we were moments later, the gates would both been closed, and our only chance gone. It was just as the guard went to the second gate, dad and I hurried up to the other tall guard, who had been inspecting tickets. Eagerly I handed him mine.

The guard said my name out loud. ‘Thomas Baker.’ He chuckled.

‘Not another one,’ said the guard standing at the other gate.

‘Thomas Baker,’ I said, eager with excitement. ‘That’s me.’

The guard shook his head. Slowly it dawned on me, along with my hopes, my heart sunk to a low ebb. I knew what he was about to say next but hoped by a small act of mercy I would be proven wrong.

‘Sorry, you’re out of time.' There was no sympathy in the guard’s gruff, East London accent. He seemed to be enjoying his job.

Dad quickly challenged the decision to refuse us entry. 'What do you mean out of time?' He was furious. ‘That gate’s still open!’

'In the righthand corner of your ticket, the time's printed. This is the Pick Quick Libraries. For security purposes all late arrivals must be refused entry,' explained the guard. 'Unfortunate for you, you and your son are half an hour late.'

'A moment ago, you let those people enter.' In protest, dad pointed in the guard’s face. ‘Just this once can’t you forget.’

'No Mr Baker. The tickets of those visitors were valid, their entry time, three-thirty, they weren’t late.' The guard seemed smug as he announced this. 'But you are,' he quickly added.

'Oh no,’ I said, suddenly realizing my one chance had slipped away. ‘Dad, they won't let us in.’

Chapter 3

Librarian



*

Good to see you’ve arrived, not a moment too late,’ said the woman, suddenly stepping from behind the bars of the second gate, that was partway closed. ‘Thomas Baker. I've brought along a friend to see you.’ She stroked the head of the black and white cat, cradled to her chest.

‘Drew.’ I reached up and ran a finger behind his large, pointed left ear, tickling him. Suddenly luck was smiling on me. Whoever the mysterious woman was, I knew she had influence in the Pick Quick Libraries, and if anyone could help, she would. ‘Good to see you too,’ I said.

The guard protested. ‘Mam,’ he said to the tall woman. ‘You know how it is, late is late. For security reasons they can't be permitted entry. This rule applies to everyone.’

I looked up at the badge pinned to the guards bright, white shirt. His name was Mike.

‘There’s just my son and I,’ dad pleaded. ‘You don’t know what this means to him. Refuse us entry, you’ll shatter a boy’s dreams.’

‘Mr Baker, is your son interested in reading books?’ asked the woman, bluntly.

‘Yes Mam, he’s a natural.’

She seemed pleased with the reply. Tilting her head, she squinted against the sun. ‘That’s good enough for me. At the Pick Quick Libraries there's a book on every subject, for everyone. You might even pick one up yourself.’

‘I hope too,' said dad. 'I’d hate to leave empty handed.’

The other guard, James, who stood at the half open gate, signalled me forward. ‘I shouldn’t do this,’ he said, with reluctance. Then he pressed a stamp with a five-pointed star, on the back of my hand. After that, he did the same to dad. ‘Young man, go right in,’ he told me, in an Est London ascent, like Mike’s. 'Happy reading.'

Dad and I walked beyond the gate that squeaked shut behind us. At once I was drawn to the sights and sounds all around. There were stalls everywhere, some sold drinks, snacks, toys and games. And to match the number of stalls, there were just as many tents, big and small. They were all shades of red, blue, orange, green, mauve, and yellow. Some had stripes, squares, dots, and others were covered in strange writing. There was also a poster board outside each tent, which gave any passers by a clue to what books were inside.

Eagerly, I searched for the shortest queue, and with dad following, rushed towards the Second-hand Library. Amidst the surrounding colour, this tent seemed out of place. It was anything but special. It didn’t have an eye-catching colour like the others. It was crooked, tattered, and blown by the slight wind, pieces of dusty cloth, flapped around it. Also, as it swayed back and forth, it looked unsafe, like at any moment it would collapse. This had to be why no one seemed to notice or show the slightest bit of interest in the tent.

An old man sat on a stool outside the Second-hand Library. Bushy white eyebrows hid his small, grey eyes. His hair was long and white. The grimy robe wrapped round his thin frame was dark red. In a skeletal, frail hand, he held a thin, twisted, wooden staff. It was crowned by a yellow star, no bigger than a grape.

At first appearance, he appeared to be asleep, or in some far-off trance. He didn't blink. Neither did he make any attempt to acknowledge dad and I.

'We should try another tent.' Dad waved a hand before the wizened man’s face. 'It’s no good, son, he's out of it.'

'But I want to go inside,' I told him.

'Poor man, the heat.' Dad stepped back. 'Its zapped the life out of him.'

'Well. Since we're here we could look inside?' I reached for the tent flap. Suddenly the wizened man’s staff shot out, guiding my arm away.

‘My name is Ayden.’ He gave me a curious look and sighed. ‘I’m the owner of the Second-hand Library. Who might you be?'

'Thomas Baker,' I replied, unsure what to say next.

The wizened man clutched his staff in both hands. 'As librarian, my duty I uphold with great esteem. None can entre without first requesting my permission. To those whom have never venture within the Second-hand Library, I say this to you. Young man, spare a thought. You're in for a treat.'

'Really.' Pondering, I tilted my head, squinting, trying to peek inside the tent, through the small gap in the flap.

'That's some boast.' Dad gave a slight chuckle, not directly at the librarian, but as though trying to make sense of everything.

Dad ran his fingers through his hair, puffing out his cheeks. He did this when he was in doubt, yet on this occasion he was likely just as curious as I was.

Compared to the surrounding tents, the Second-hand Library was small, no taller than seven feet tall. What was inside it baffled me. Not that I was put off by second-hand books, some of the best titles were out of print. I only imagined, minus Ayden's vision of grandeur, there wasn't much inside the tent. On my entry I'd probably encounter a few stacks of dusty books. It wouldn't take long to find a title I liked.

The wizened man ignored dads mocking chuckle. 'Young man,' he said. His frail thin fingers, spread across his thin, quivering knees. 'It might please you to know you're privileged. You're my first visitors this afternoon.'

'Great,' I said. 'Hopefully you won't be the last.'

'You just might be,' said dad under his breath. He seemed impatient.

Ayden gave him a beady-eye squint. 'I must inform you you'll have to wait a while longer.' He stiffly directed his attention back to me. 'Within the Second-hand Library, you’ll find the most popular, donated books.’

‘I don’t mind how many hands a book’s been in, as long as it’s a good read,’ I admitted, my excitement mounting all the while.

‘Might I add. My books are archived in order, according to the alphabet,' added the wizened man. 'Do not misplace a single book. Or on your way out, when you collect purchased books, you'll discover an added fee. As librarian, it's most annoying having to go around replacing misplaced books.'

'I'm tidy,' I said, eager to venture inside the tent. 'When I'm finished you won't know I've been in there.'

'Very well, so be it on your head. The penalty fine does add up.' The librarian grinned, and a pondering, far off gaze came to his face, then was quickly gone. 'Before entering the Second-hand Library, there's one last detail. I must ask you to wear one of these.’ Putting aside his wood staff, Ayden dug around in the bucket to his left, and took a bright, orange, rubber band from it. ‘Raise your wrist,’ he told me.

I screwed up my face.

'Come along,' he chided. 'You could try harder. Any will do.'

‘That bands not my favourite colour,’ I confessed, noticing it was the same sickly colour as my T-shirt. The present dad gave me, last week, for my thirteenth birthday. I wore it because he pestered me, earlier today, saying he hadn’t seen me wear it. ‘Do I have to put that on?’ I asked the librarian.

‘Consider this a simple procedure. No visitor is exempt,' replied Ayden. ‘You’re entering the Second-hand Library. I know what you’re thinking. From outside it doesn’t look like much. Yet, it’s safe to enter, and is far bigger inside than on the outside. Be my guest, see for yourself. But first I insist you slip on this band.'

'For good luck?' I asked, mockingly.

'Not at all. To prevent you from being lost.' The wizened man raised a bushy eyebrow at me. 'As long as you wear it, I’ll know where you are. There are arrows pointing the way, and alphabetical signs to follow, but with so many letters, and pathways to take, the way back isn't easy to find.’

‘I don’t mean to sound rude it’s just.’ I tried hard not to laugh at Ayden. But a smile dimpled my cheeks. ‘Your tent's a bit small. If it has an inside, it’s hard to believe I could lose my way. I’ll be in and out in the blink of an eye.’

Dad nudged my shoulder. ‘Go on,’ he whispered in my ear. ‘Humour the old fellow. Play along with him.’

'I can't.' The idea was dumb.

'You can,' dad hissed back. 'I would come along too.'

'There isn't enough space,' I told him.

'If you find a book you know I'd like, get it for me,' dad said.

I gave a low moan, razed an arm, and allowed the wizened librarian to secure the band to my wrist.

‘There, that wasn’t so bad, was it?’ asked Ayden. As his bushy, right eyebrow lifted, an inquiring expression spread across his, deep set, lined face. His small grey eye blinked at me. ‘You too must’ve noticed its bright orange. The same colour as your T-shirt. And I see, you’re left handed.’ He quickly noticed. ‘Let me think, your dad. Is he by chance, right handed?’

‘Yes,’ replied dad, he looked puzzled because the librarian was correct.

‘I’m often good at guessing,’ said the wizened man.

‘No thanks,’ he said, as Ayden went to take another rubber band from the bucket.

‘Really, as librarian of the Second-hand Library, I must insist,’ he told dad.

‘I’ll wait,’ said dad to Ayden. ‘Son, find yourself a book or two. And don’t be hurrying back. I’ll be here waiting.’

Straight away I guessed dad didn't show on the outside, what he thought, but inside he was likely laughing at Ayden’s grand vision of the Second-hand Library. And to be honest, I couldn’t blame him. There was no denying the tent was small. In the whole of the Pick Quick Libraries, it was likely the smallest tent around. I held the flap aside, before entering, I peered inside, and gave a loud cough. The air was thick with dust. It was dark, I saw nothing, but I wasn’t scared.

Chapter 4

Liquid Pool



*

The Second-hand Library was lit by dim lanterns that hung overhead. There were rows of shelves everywhere, and at random, books of all sizes and topics filled them. There were three desks of dark polished, mahogany wood, with matching, calved chairs to my right. Turning in all directions I attempted to get my bearings. There were tall, long mirrors, they were all around. These reflected the dark wood bookcases. The illusion was the Second-hand Library appeared to be an endless maze. Counting the turnings, I walked up and down many isles, searching, hoping to find at least two or three books. And I couldn't forget dad. There had to be a book for him too. With many titles to choose from, this wasn’t an easy task. It wasn’t long till the reason why Ayden wanted me to wear a band, became obvious. The tent was much larger than I thought possible.

By the time I’d chosen three books, I was ready to leave. And it was on the way to the entrance, I was distracted. To my left, on the floor, was something odd. It looked like a round shaped mirror. Approaching it, I gasped. What I saw wasn’t a mirror, but a pool of rippling, liquid light. There was an image at its centre, it grew, filling the surface of the circle.

I found myself gazing down at a boy, sat at a desk. He had a slight chubby build, spotty nose, and brown, shoulder length hair. He looked my age, thirteen. At once it dawned on me who he was. The boy was me. A bright object flashed in the palm of my hand. And in the shadows, like a stone statue watching over me, stood a tall woman. Through the gloom I couldn’t see her face. But I had a feeling we'd already met.

‘Who are you?’ I wanted to know what was going on. Hurrying to my knees, I dropped my books at the poolside, peering closer. ‘Why am I there? Say something, tell me what’s going on.’

As if they were both about to answer my question, the two reflections in the liquid pool, looked in my direction. The woman came closer to the boy at the desk. She was the owner of Drew, the black and white cat. The cat was cradled in her arms. Their piercing eyes peered at me, this scared me, causing me to jump back with sudden fright.

Do they see me? I wondered, as a sudden surge of panic, whittled away my bravery. I hope not.

I tried hard to deny what I saw yet wondered, as I saw them, did they see me too? Then it occurred to me they weren't looking at me, but something else. And it was here, in the Second-hand Library. I shot a quick glance over my left shoulder. Before it faded, I saw it in a mirror. The monster was large, with a hairy round body, clawed, spider like legs, and a long snout. Suddenly I turned back to the liquid pool, it was gone.

Chapter 5

Prize


*

Witch Raina told the villagers of Elm Forest, she'd find a way to lift Wizard Troxell’s curse from Elm Town, some doubted her.' Lady Quillington, the storyteller, added a hint of mystery to her subtle voice. ‘And others had faith in Raina... Magic warmed the hearts of those that believed in the witch. While those who did not trust her, their lack of trust left them afraid. It was on the morning after the full moon, of the twelfth month, the day of his sons passing, Wizard Troxell’s curse waned just for that day. He took stock of his spells. And Witch Raina sent forth her challenge, a snake. When early evening dawned over Elm Town, the thick fog, which turned any townsfolk who ventured into it, to trees, shrubs, or blades of grass, never returned. The victorious Witch Raina sat on the windowsill of her thatched roof cottage. She watched as the townsfolk trampled along the pathway, through the trees. The snake she held wrapped itself, twice around her arm. She guided its head close to her own.’ Lady Quillington paused, with the large storybook balanced across her knees.

Sat in the front row, I was glued to my seat. Peering up at the stage, I couldn’t take my eyes off her. Lady Quillington was a talented storyteller. I only wished she wouldn't stop so often, hesitantly, leaving me and those in the tent waiting on hooks. As though she might have read my thoughts, with the flick of a page, she continued.

‘The snakes forked tongue licked Witch Raina's cheek. She felt no fear. If anything, the snake’s affection tickled her. The snake hissed. Its work was done.’ Lady Quillington stopped reading.

There was a long silence. She paused at the right place. Everyone seated in the Storyteller's Library, must’ve been eager to know what happened next. The snake was sent by Witch Raina, as a challenge to Wizard Troxell. But for its mischievous encounters on its return journey, now its work was done, what fate would the serpent endure?

‘Witch Raina, assured the townsfolk, the snake was harmless.’ Lady Quillington glanced up from the book. 'It didn’t mean to bite, Mildred, the farmer’s wife, on the bottom. She nearly sat on the snake as it perched, coiled on her rocking chair. And it never wanted to scare the children in Mr Hedley’s school. Neither did it mean to bring life for the villagers of Elm Town, as they searched for it, to a complete halt. All the while the snake was trying to find its way home. Then Witch Raina removed her tussled, cone shaped hat, and slipped the snake inside, sending it back to where it came from.’ Slowly, Lady Quillington closed the book of stories.

To my back, the crowd clapped, whistled, and cheered. Wrapped in a Starry, black robe of shimmering silk, again Lady Quillington watched me from her seat on the stage. All through the stories, I’d noticed her eyelids flicked up, constantly fixing on me. At first, she made me nervous. But not anymore. When she turned her head, looking at dad, I sighed with relief. I thought she'd forgotten about him.

In a deep trance like sleep, he lay stiff like a plank, hovering behind her, above the stage. Dad never did like magic, he didn’t believe in it. He was only here because I wanted to hear the storytellers’ tales. An hour in, near the end of her reading, she requested the assistance of a volunteer, a parent. I was shocked when Lady Quillington chose dad to take part in her closing magic act. I had no idea why he agreed, I protested, I warned him it was a bad idea. I was wasting my breath. Dad, I might’ve guessed, he wouldn’t listen to me.

‘Sadly, that’s all,’ said Lady Quillington. With her robe rustling, she rose from her chair. ‘I’ve come to the end of my stories, and tonight’s show. It has been a pleasure having you. But before I say goodnight, let’s not forget. Our star guest… Ladies and gentlemen, girls and boys, time has come to return Mr Baker, back to his normal state...’ She gave a long pause. ‘Whatever that may be?’

The crowd laughed. Acting like she didn’t hear them, the witch put a hand to an ear. The kids liked being teased. With raised voices, they giggled, yelling back at Lady Quillington. And soon the parents joined in too.

Suddenly I couldn’t control my anger any longer. ‘I want my dad!’ I yelled up at the stage.

With a sudden wave of her hand, Lady Quillington, silenced the crowd.

‘Dad,’ I said, humbly, as everyone looked in my direction. ‘I want him back.’

‘It’s funny you should request this.’ Lady Quillington smiled down. ‘I haven't overlooked him.'

'I'm not sure about that.' I frowned up at her. 'He seems to be in the same state you left him in.'

Lady Quillington waved a dismissive hand. 'Young man, there's no cause for alarm. I intend to return him to you.’

From her head of long, white hair, she removed her cone shaped hat. The white star at its tip shone bright, and from its brim, glittering dust showered over dad.

‘Mr Baker,’ she said, with a clear voice. ‘It’s time you woke up.’

Pressing my knuckles to my cheeks, I cringed. Dad stirred back to life and plunged from the air. If Lady Quillington hadn’t caught him, it would have been a horrible end, to what was an amazing show. She held dad and helped him find his feet. At first, he seemed dazed, his mouth gaped open. Then he realised where he was, standing beside Lady Quillington, in front of a hundred spectators, upon the stage. Hand in hand with the Lady, he began bowing to the clapping, cheering audience. His face turned a bright red, I wondered if dad liked the sudden attention thrust upon him.

‘Mr Baker, this round of applause is for you,’ said the witch, stepping aside, as she clapped her hands too. A moment later she signalled for silence and raised her voice. ‘I hope you all enjoyed this evening’s show! Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for coming! Girls and boys, none of this would be worthwhile without you!’

Again, the stripy yellow tent was filled with cheers and even louder whistles.

‘Am I free to go?’ Above the noise, I heard dad ask the Lady.

‘Mr Baker… Wait. There’s one last thing. It’s my pleasure to inform you about the secret raffle. The names of every child at the Pick Quick Libraries this evening, was entered. I believe, Thomas Baker’s name has been selected. If it’s no trouble, later, before you leave, I’d like to hand your son his prize.’

Dad gave me an excited thumb up sign. ‘I'm sure when I give him the good news, Thomas will be pleased to accept it,’ he said.

Soon after that, dad and I left the Storytellers Library, when we heard singing. It came from the tent of Tulia, the Singing Mermaid. Despite dad bantering on about how ridiculous I was, to believe there was a real mermaid inside the large tent. I had my own opinion. Whoever sang, did with flawless harmony, and a tone that was utterly bewitching. We crossed to the entrance and stepped inside. Beneath the shade of the purple cloth, out of the heat, it was cooler.

In front of us was a glass tank, full of murky, green colour water, with threads of seaweed floating around in it. The glass tank nearly filled the whole tent. There was a platform above, it could be reached by the ladders either side of it. Dad and I walked up the steps to the high platform, and saw a girl, she was standing by the rim of the glass tank. She looked thirteen, my age. Though her silky, long white hair, gave her a slightly older appearance. She wore a flowing lace, lavender colour dress and was alone. Happily, unaware she was being watched, she sang along to the mermaid’s song.

'The voice of a mermaid,' I hissed to dad, in wonderment, not wanting to disturb the girl.

Dad shook his head, he clearly didn't agree with me. 'No,' he objected. 'Sound speakers.'

'Where,' I hissed back, casting my gaze up, around the cone shape, roof of the tent. 'There aren't any. No matter what you think, I know that's the song of a real mermaid.'

Dad and I peered at the girl, her hands were pressed to the glass tank. The water inside it was calm. Then the seaweed began to sway, faster and faster, and a figure swiftly passed in front of the girl.

Dad bent to my ear. 'A large fish,' he hissed.

It was my turn to disagree. 'Wait and see,' I hissed, believing there was more to this sudden occurrence, and I would be proven right.

Suddenly dad sneezed, the girl stopped singing, saw us, turned away, and ran. Before I had time to apologize for dad scaring her, she was gone down the other ladder. At the same time, the song of Tulia, the mermaid, came to a sudden end. All that could be heard was the water sloshing around in the glass tank. Dad and I saw the webbed tail of a fish, slap back into the water, creating a turbulent splash. Water showered briefly over us. But thankfully not enough to drench us through.

After that, dad and I visited some of the other libraries. There were many to choose from. In fact, there wasn’t time to see everything the Pick Quick Libraries had to offer. When the evening came to an end, I was pleased. I had the most unforgettable time. And before dad and I went to the main entrance, to collect our books, there was one last thing that needed to be done. I had a prize to collect.


**


Dad and I entered the secretary’s caravan. In bold black writing, the plaque on her desk had, (Sadie Deep) printed on it. She was seated at a desk, busy sealing envelopes, and hadn’t seen us arrive. Only when dad sneezed, she peered over the rim of her, tinted, orange glasses at him.

‘Sorry if I startled you,’ he apologized. ‘It’s hayfever season.’

Sadie looked at me, and her face lit up. I knew she knew who I was.

She pressed a digit on her desktop phone. ‘Lady Quillington,’ she said with excitement.

‘That was quick,’ replied a voice.

‘Lady Quillington. They’ve just this second arrived.’

‘Good, show the Baker’s through to my office, thank you.’

Standing, Sadie said. ‘This way please.’

She led dad and me to a door, and into Lady Quillington’s office. The caravan was much larger than I thought. From outside it looked as if only the reception area could fit into it. I was wrong. This joining office was much larger. On the wall facing me, I saw a gold framed painting of Lady Quillington. The witch was wearing her black, Starry robe, and pointed, tasselled hat.

Also, along the slightly curved walls, books lined shelves that reached from ceiling to floor. At the floors centre was a colourful wool rug. And in the right corner, near a wide window, was a coat stand. And near to it was a large comfy chair. To one side of the office, there was also a long wooden table, it was polished with a waxen shine, and around it, a group of high backed chairs, with a slightly larger, single chair, at the head of the table.

‘Lady Quillington will soon be here. She would come sooner but work's her priority. She has a few loose ends to tie up.’ Sadie gave a hesitant sigh. ‘All afternoon and evening she tells stories and performs magic.’

‘Lady Quillington could do with a rest,’ said dad.

‘She’s devoted her life to the Pick Quick Libraries,' the secretary informed him. 'To the Lady, this isn’t work. When she enjoys giving so much. It never will be.’

‘I enjoyed her stories,’ I admitted. ‘As for the magic show, dad made a fool of himself, but it was great.’

‘And no performance is ever the same.' Sadie gave me a warm smile. She wrung her hands, delight brightened her round face. 'If only Lady Quillington was here to hear you say that. I agree, she's a true performer. And likes nothing more than sharing her talent. It gives her release...'

'From what?' inquired dad, squinting as though with concern.

'The pain.'

'Pain,' I thought out loud.

'She's...' Again, Sadie wrung her hands. She gave me a humbling look. 'Dying, but don’t tell her I told you. Forget I even mentioned it.’

‘Lady Quillington, dying.’ A shocked look came over dad’s face. ‘Son, we should go. We’ll come back tomorrow.’

As she shook her head defiantly, Sadie’s mood changed. On her kind face grew a puzzled frown. 'Lady Quillington wouldn’t think of it. She promised Thomas Baker his prize, and no matter what, he’ll get it. While you’re waiting, would either of you like something to drink?'

At the same time, dad and I shook our heads.

‘Okay, I’ll see you both on the way out,’ said Sadie, as she left the office.

I sat on a chair and impatiently, drummed my fingers on the desktop. ‘It’s ten- thirty,’ I said.

‘Sadie informed Lady Quillington we've arrived,’ said dad. ‘She's aware we’re waiting, she won’t be long.’

‘I hope not. On our way here, I noticed, the libraries are closing,’ I reminded dad.

‘I don’t think they’d lock us in,' he said. 'On our way out, we have books to collect. What concerns me is, because your off school for the summer, it doesn’t mean I want you up all hours. Not that I’m nit-picking. You’ve waited long enough to visit the Pick Quick Libraries. I’m glad you had a good time.’

‘Thanks for bringing me. Dad, you’re the best.’ As he went to sit on the chair next to me, I smiled up at him. ‘I’ve enjoyed this evening. I’ll never forget it.’

‘I have a secret to tell you too, neither will I,’ he said.

Lady Quillington stepped from the door behind the desk. Her long white hair was tied back in a bun. Her dark olive skin glistened, there was a taint of red on her lips, and a shade of brown on her eyelids. She wore a silken red dress, and high strapped sandals on her feet. In a hand she held a small silver box. She wiped a tear from the corner of her eye.

‘I seem to be soppy. What you both said about the Pick Quick Libraries. Pleasant remarks are what make my lifetimes work worthwhile.’ She sat across the desk facing us. ‘I hope I haven’t kept you waiting?’

‘Thomas and I were just getting ourselves comfy,’ said dad.

Lady Quillington waited until I stopped drumming my fingers on the desktop. ‘Thomas Baker.’ She gave me a sudden, merry smile. ‘I needn’t go into details about the nature of this visit. I’m sure your dad informed you why you’re here.’

‘He has,’ I said, sitting up straight. I couldn’t believe my luck. For years I had dreamt about visiting the Pick Quick Libraries. And here I was facing the owner. Things couldn’t get better than this. Even now, I was very much in wonder of Lady Quillington. ‘Dad says, it has something to do with a prize I’ve won,’ I told her.

‘It does.' She tapped a slender nail on the silver box. 'I have it here.’

I glanced at the small object with eagerness. 'I'm easily pleased.' I said, wondering what smaller object would fit inside it.

‘Good, I know you’ll like it. Not many children have sat where you are.' She shifted the box, rotating it on the tips of her nails. 'Thomas. It gives me great pleasure to give you your prize.’

I leaned forward, watching, almost hypnotised by the glistening, polished box. ‘I like surprises.’ I was unable to stop myself grinning.

Dad grinned back at me. Then playfully ruffled my hair with his grabbing fingers.

‘I give you this,’ said Lady Quillington, as she slowly opened the box, and slid it across the desktop. ‘I hope you like what you see. Whatever happens, keep it, safe,’ she said.

I peered into the box, and was dazzled by the Star, no larger than a grape, glowing back at me.


***


At home, in the lounge, I couldn’t stop looking at the Star. ‘Cool,’ I whispered, grinning from ear to ear, so much, my jaw began aching. ‘But what do I do with you?’

All too soon, I realized I knew nothing about the Star, which shone with a mystical beauty. But I felt as if I held something precious. Like in my palm was a piece of the night sky. I ran a finger gently across the Star. Its points flickered, swayed, then followed the direction of my fingertip. I had no way of knowing why it did this. If it was meant to happen, it must’ve been for a reason. When leaving Lady Quillington’s office, I should’ve asked her how the Star worked. Now it was left to me to find out by myself.

As I played with the Star, stroking it a second, third and fourth time, I saw its points of light come alive. Then it became warmer, and a ghostly feeling crept through my finger. I dropped the Star into the box and raised a hand to my mouth.

‘What was that,’ I hissed, both shocked and afraid. ‘It felt alive.’

‘Thomas!’ dad’s voice came from the kitchen. ‘I said no television, read a book instead! Or find a use for that stone, you know, the one Lady Quillington gave you!’

I realized I had been talking out loud. Warily, I picked up the Star once more. I wondered if this was the right thing to do. A voice echoed in my head, it warned me not to touch the object. I should’ve listened and left it in the box. But I couldn’t help myself. I was captured by the beauty of the Star and could think of nothing else.

I didn’t see the thick fog, until my mind was already cloudy. Suddenly it seemed I was in another place. And I wasn’t alone. I was sure someone else was here too. I called out. There was no reply. The silence was creepy, the fog became colder, and a smell like rot, filled my nostrils.

Thomas Baker.

I jumped, my heart skipped a beat. I wished I’d never set eyes on the Star.

‘Son.’ Dad shook me by the arm. ‘Are you alright?’ he asked.

As the fog cleared, I was glad to be home and safe. I had no idea how long dad was watching me. It was just now I noticed him, standing there, frowning at the Star.

‘What’s wrong?’ I wanted to know if he saw what I had.

‘Nothing, it’s just. I hope you’re not upset with the prize Lady Quillington gave you,’ he said. There was a puzzled look on his face. ‘It’s a stone. I thought it would be more than that. Well, if anything comes of it. You can always start a collection.’ Dad handed me a hot cup. ‘I made you your favourite chocolate. Drink up before it gets cold.’

It dawned on me; dad couldn’t see the Star for what it was. He knew nothing about the thick fog, he never felt the ghostly warmth that crept through my finger or smelt the rot. And he never heard the strange, terrible voice, as it whispered my name.

Thomas Baker…

Chapter 6

Friend in Need



*

The following morning, shortly after dad left for work, I picked up my mobile and phoned Kyle.

'Lucky, you,' he said in my ear, in tell-tale tones of jealousy. 'Calling to gloat, are we?'

'If only,' I replied. My experience at the Pick Quick Libraries was unforgettable. But it wasn't that I wanted to talk to Kyle about. The Star shadowed everything that went before it. 'There's something I need to ask. Kyle, we're friends, right?'

'Last time I checked we were,' he sounded curious.

'There is an object, it was given to me by Lady Quillington.'

Kyle gasped out loud. 'You've met her, the owner of the Pick Quick Libraries. I told you, you should've brought me along too.'

'She gave me a silver box. She said it was a prize, its what's inside the box that scares me.'

'A pouncing lion, a gorilla or bear.' Kyle chuckled. 'Come on, Thomas, get real. It's a box with a trinket inside. If you don't want it, I'll have it.'

I thought about this, and concluded, perhaps Kyle would make better use of the Star. I didn't want it, but he did. Knowing Kyle, he'd probably put it on the internet, with a bid, and beside it a caption. A token prize from the Pick Quick Libraries. I'm sure the thing in the silver box would sell at a high bid. Not that I cared what happened to the Star.

'That's a done deal,' I said down the phone. 'Dads just left for work, you free?'

'Yeah, come around,' replied Kyle, excitedly. 'And don't be long I'm waiting.' He put the phone down.

Rushing from the lounge, into the passage, I checked the right pocket of my shorts. The front door keys were there. I hurried up the flight of steps to my bedroom. The door was partway open, on my chest-of-draws was the silver box. At the sight of it, sudden dread came over me. With a wary stride I entered the room. Pausing over the box. Soon it would be gone. Quickly I stuffed it inside my rucksack, turned and hurried out.


**


Kyle's house wasn't far, Old Town was in walking distance from The Chase, where I lived. When I rang the doorbell Amanda, Kyle's mum, answered the door. As usual she was scruffy. A shadow of her former self. She was once well kempt, wore smart clothes and pretty makeup. Back in the day she visited Frizz, mum and dad’s salon at least twice or three times a month. Sometimes to have her hair dyed, permed, trimmed, or a facial, or nail or hair extensions.

I once had a schoolboy crush on her, not that I ever told anyone, and certainly not Kyle, he'd kill me. The first thing I noticed about Amanda. Her hair was a mess, and the thick black eyeliner under her eyes was smeared. I knew she was going through a hard patch in life. Divorced, two years, form a wayward, cheating husband, she struggled, coping with five children, all under my age. It didn't help she was now a heavy drinker too. When she said hallo, the pungent smell of alcohol lingered on her breath.

'Hi,' I said back. 'Is Kyle home?'

'That's a question.' She looked me up and down as if I was joking. 'I heard you talking on the phone. Can't say he's gone further than his bedroom since.' With a hand on the doorframe, she stood aside, and I walked under the bridge of her arm.

Kyle shared his bedroom with Patrick, his little brother, as always it was a mess. There were unwashed clothes, sweet wrappers, drink cans, and comics on the floor. And toys scattered everywhere.

'Hey,' I said, standing in the doorway, seeing Kyle alone, sat on the floor, playing a game on his computer console. 'It looks like world war three's gone on in here.'

'Not quite, it's Patrick,' said Kyle, his eyes were glued to the television screen, and the game. 'I can't help it if he's a little mess maker.'

'I picked up a magazine from the floor. 'Fast cars.' I dropped it. I couldn't imagine a boy of five reading this stuff.

Kyle gave a sigh and set pause on his game. 'You’re not here to lecture me on domestic duties, mum does that. I'm interested in the thing you’re eager to get rid of.' He jumped to his feet.

'Firstly,' I said, not wanting to reveal my true motives for getting rid of the Star. 'I'm not eager about anything.'

'That's what you think.' The left corner of Kyle's mouth turned up. 'We are friends, have been for a long time. Buddy, you're oozing desperation.'

This drilling had gone on long enough. My best friend was fast becoming a pain. Quickly, from my shoulder, I unslung my rucksack, and from it took the silver box.

'Here.' I offered it to him. 'Take it.'

'A pretty tin box you've got there. What's inside it, jewellery?'

At this question I halted, drawn between right and wrong. The object within the box scared me. But it hadn't scared dad, and it might be the same for Kyle. When I touched the Star, it was possible, what I experienced was confined to me alone. Slowly opening the box, I noticed Kyle standing beside me. There was a keen expression on his face. He wanted the Star. I turned my gaze away from it.

'Go on, take it, the box too,' I said.

Kyle became suddenly stern faced. 'You're joking.' He seemed none to impressed by what he saw. 'Wasting my time as usual. You should've brought your football, we could've had a kick around on Clapham Common.'

'Kyle, what're you saying. The Star is yours. Sell it for all I care. Just do me a favour and get rid of it,' I said, bluntly, noticing my friend seemed uninterested. 'You don't see it, do you?'

'A stone is a stone mate.' Kyle gave me a glum face.

'Dad said the same thing, but I'm telling the truth, it's a star.' I was becoming desperate. 'Take it and sell it,' I told Kyle.

'Thomas Baker, whatever you think's inside that box, it's definitely not a star. In value I'd say, on line, the stone's worth nothing. And the tin box less.' Kyle shook his head at me. 'There isn’t any proof it came from the Pick Quick Libraries.'

I resigned, I wasn't getting help from Kyle. Putting the silver box in my rucksack, I retrieved my football.


***


At the football pitch on Clapham Common, in view of the Pick Quick Libraries, Kyle and I had a kick around with the ball. It was fun. We kept score, this was Kyle's lucky day, he was winning. Half an hour in, we rested. sitting between the poles of the goal I rummaged through my rucksack.

'A cheese and pickled sandwich, a packet of salted crisp, and an apple.' I gave them to Kyle. His face lit up. 'We can share the water,' I said, plonking the two-litre bottle on the grass between us.

'Here.' Kyle gave me back the apple, 'Haven't you got a sweet in there?' he asked.

'Dad says they're no good. He doesn’t want me to eat too much sugar.'

'He’s a hairstylist.' Kyle rolled his eyes. 'Not a dietitian.'

I delved back into my rucksack. 'Your lucks in.' I said, pulling out the half melted, chocolate bar. 'Don't say I never give you anything.'

'Fair exchange,' said Kyle.

We swapped the apple for the chocolate bar. I took a gulp of water from the bottle, and Kyle removed the foil from his sandwich and bit into it.

'What's it like in there?' he asked, nodding his head in the direction of the Pick Quick Libraries.

'Big.' This was the first thing that came to mind. 'There are souvenir stools, food stools, and tents. A whole city of them. And special ones, there's a Storyteller’s Library, a Library of Change, a Second-hand Library, and a Library of Knowledge. And the librarians are truly gifted people.'

'Magic.' Kyle sighed. 'I said I should've been your plus one. Your dad's too old for all that stuff.'

I agreed. 'He is.' I nodded, biting into my sandwich. 'It was a struggle getting him there. And when we were inside even harder getting him to believe. He had an answer for everything neither of us could explain.' I thought back to his levitating on the stage performance and told Kyle.

'Cool,' he said. 'After that he couldn't refuse to believe in the Pick Quick Libraries.'

'I think Lady Quillington softened him up a bit. But I know dad, forever in denial. He only believes what he wants too.' I finished my sandwich and bit into my apple.

'Adults do that,' said Kyle.

'Believe what they want to?'

'Mate, I think it’s called growing up.'

'And we're just the kids,' I said, somewhat disappointed.

After finishing our pack lunch, Kyle and I headed off. I was walking Kyle part way home. As we strolled across Clapham Common, we passed the Pick Quick Libraries. Mike and James were each side of the gate. There was a que slowly entering, they were too busy checking tickets to acknowledge me.

'I should've been your plus one,' said Kyle, snatching my ball from between my arm and running off.

'Come back!' I called, running after him.

'You'll have to catch me first!' he called over his shoulder.

Kyle sprinted off into the distance, to the left was the basketball and skateboard park. And he headed for the large pond. He stopped suddenly, and I wondered why. Then I saw five boys leave the seating area at the pondside and approach him. It was Trevor Marsh and his gang. Karl, he was tall and thin like a weed. Stephen, was a poseur, dressed in the latest sports gear. Greg, he was round and overweight. And Dell, he was the shortest of the gang.

I had no idea what Trevor Marsh was doing here. None of his gang lived local, they lived in the Clapham North, Stockwell area. Before they muscled in on Kyle, I had to do something. But how to handle the only bullies in my school, I had no idea. I had been picked on numerous times before by Trevor Marsh and his gang. They were older than Kyle and I, their ages ranged from fourteen to sixteen. Still, I had to do something.

'Hey!' I called out, seeing Greg push Kyle in the chest. I ran toward them.

'Hero of the day to the rescue,' laughed Dell, pointing a finger at me.

'More like squirt number one,' said Stephen. 'And number two.' He pushed Kyle. 'This just gets better.'

'Is it true you've visited the Pick Quick Libraries?' asked Karl, he seemed excited. 'What was it like?'

Trevor Marsh thumped Karl's shoulder. 'Dummy,' he called him. 'We've two minors who haven't paid their dues, and I trust you to ask a dumb question like that.'

'Sorry Trev.' Karl massaged his shoulder.

Trevor Marsh turned to Kyle. 'I like the ball,' he said, teasingly.

'You can't have it,' said Kyle.

'You guys hear that?' asked Trevor Marsh.


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