"Come now, Severus," she had said in her best Head of House voice. "A solid month surrounded by books. What more could you wish for?"
"Muggle books," he snorted. "I hardly think—"
His pique had left her annoyingly unmoved. "You'd be surprised how many excellent Muggle books there are. Think of this as a golden opportunity to expand your literary horizons. Not to mention brush up on your customer service."
"My 'customer service' is precisely as I want it to be," he retorted. "And no magic! That is adding insult to injury, don't you think?"
At that she had laughed outright. "Well, perhaps this will teach you not to make foolish Quidditch wagers when Gryffindor and Slytherin are playing..."
Severus sighed. The sooner he started, the sooner the month would be over. A printed notice propped against the inside of the window gave the shop's hours as ten to five daily. It was only half nine, but that was the time Severus had been given, so he pushed gently on the door and it swung open, causing a small bell to tinkle above him.
He stepped inside, his eyes taking in the packed shelves, the narrow aisles, the squashy chairs scattered here and there, the neatly-written cards ("ROMANCE," "HISTORY") tacked to the endcaps. In the center of the room was a small L-shaped counter with an antique cash register occupying pride of place.
Before the bell's chimes had fairly died away, a head popped up from behind the counter. "Severus Snape, I presume?"
Severus inclined his head. "And you must be Robert Vetiver."
That's my name." The man came round the end of the counter, revealing himself to be small and somewhat stout, with a cheerful look and sharp blue eyes. "Good to meet you, my boy. My regular assistant is off to Yorkshire – family crisis of some sort. You losing a wager to Minerva comes in very handy for me, I must say. Though I'd have thought you'd know better," he added with a grin.
Severus grimaced. "Indeed I should, after four years teaching with her. But it was the last match of the year, and Professor McGonagall can be...persuasive."
Vetiver laughed. "She's a sharp one, Min is. Never seen her on the losing side yet." He held out a hand. "I'll take your wand, now."
"Surely you jest." Severus folded his arms over his chest, bestowing his best Slytherin glare on the little man.
Vetiver sighed. "Come now, Minerva told me the terms of your wager. One month working at a Muggle bookshop, no magic whilst on duty. You can have it back at the end of each day."
"Oh, very well." Severus withdrew his wand from his sleeve and handed it to Vetiver, trying to ignore the uneasy sensation as it left his fingers. It wasn't as if he needed it for most spells – he was making good progress on wandless magic – but his wand had become very much a part of him. Giving it up was like suddenly losing an arm or leg.
Vetiver eyed it appreciatively. "Ollivander's?" he asked. At Snape's nod, he went on in a regretful tone. "I remember when my parents took me there to get my wand. I'd never shown the slightest sign of magical talent, but they couldn't quite believe their firstborn was a Squib. It took Ollivander himself to convince them. Ah, well." He bent to place the wand carefully in a box on a shelf below the cash register. "There you are, safe as houses." He straightened up, dusted his hands, and said "Well, let's get you acquainted with things, shall we?"
The shop was small and every square inch was crammed with books – tall ones, short ones, thin ones, fat ones, old ones, new... well no, there were no new ones. Newer, he supposed. The floor space between the counter and the entrance was filled with several mismatched tables laden with volumes in wildly varied sizes, shapes, colors and genres. The walls were lined with shelves that ran all the way to the ceiling; scattered here and there were round rubber-topped stools to allow a customer (at least a customer of a certain height) to reach the top. Regularly-spaced wooden shelves ran from front to back all along the width of the room, so heavily laden that they sagged in the middle; fortunately these were only chest-high, preventing the place from being completely claustrophobic. At the short end of the L squatted a small mahogany case bearing a card that read "COLLECTIBLES – PRICE ON REQUEST"; through its glass doors could be seen leather bindings, gilt-stamped cloth, even a few unbound manuscripts.
Despite the surface chaos there was an organization to the place, and in the half hour before the shop opened Vetiver walked Severus rapidly through the different sections, each with a neatly lettered label tacked to it. Some, like CHILDREN'S and HISTORY, were familiar but others were puzzling (SCIENCE FICTION, for example – how could something be both science and fiction?), while the section labeled MAGIC was simply...baffling.
"Don't worry if you can't remember where something is," Vetiver said as they finished up back at the desk. "Most of my customers are regulars and don't need much help finding what they're after." He looked at his watch. "Goodness, it's five past ten! I'll do most of the work today, you just watch and learn," he said over his shoulder as he went to flip the sign on the door from CLOSED to OPEN. "Friday's aren't bad, so we should have plenty of time to ease you into things."
Severus looked round and inhaled deeply. Muggle they might be, but books were still books: they had the same rich, dusty, enticing smell that he had loved since childhood.
"A man after my own heart," Vetiver chuckled, looking pleased. He gestured towards a teetering stack beside the counter. "You can start by shelving those, it will help you learn the layout. If you're not sure where something goes, just ask. And once that's done, feel free to browse away," he added. "Read all you like. A bookshop is the one sort of business where the staff are not only allowed but encouraged to sample the product."
Hmph. Perhaps this would be tolerable after all.
During a mid-afternoon lull he was flipping through a particularly egregious example of the latter (vampires, in his experience, assuredly did not sparkle, nor would they have had the remotest interest in attending a Muggle school) when a whispered conversation caught his ear. He glanced up. Two boys, one perhaps twelve or thirteen and the other a few years younger, were huddled over a stack of books in a nearby section which Severus had not yet explored, talking in low but intense voices.
"I did so!" the younger was saying in a fierce whisper.
"Did not," the older one scoffed.
"You can't have, Oliver," the older one said dismissively. "You're nowhere near experienced enough yet."
"I'm telling you, James, I did!" the younger boy insisted. "I killed a troll last week! All on my own, too!"
Severus started, stared, then leaned over to where Vetiver was counting out the drawer in preparation for the afternoon deposit. "Vetiver!" he hissed. "Vetiver!! That boy said he killed a troll last week! What's a troll doing in Caithness?? We must notify the Ministry at once!"
"A troll?" Vetiver turned round, saw Severus was pointing and gave a soft chuckle. "No worries, my boy. Look where they are." Severus looked at the sign above the boys' heads, but the string of letters "D&D/RPG" meant nothing to him. "It's all a game," Vetiver added, seeing that he was still confused.
"Game? What sort of game?" Severus said, his anxiety turning to irritation. "You're telling me Muggles play with trolls? I find that hard to believe."
"Oh, not real ones," Vetiver assured him. "It's all pretend. The players pretend to be wizards, elves, and so on, and they explore dungeons and kill monsters together. It's all done with dice and pencil and paper."
Severus snorted. "You can't kill a troll by rolling dice at it. You'd be lucky to kill it with an Incendio."
Vetiver laughed. "I don't really understand the game myself but it’s very popular. Mostly with the boys, though my granddaughter's been playing for a couple of years now. It's called Dungeons and Dragons."
"Dragons don't live in dungeons," Severus objected.
"Not Dungeons with Dragons," Vetiver corrected him patiently. "Dungeons and dragons. And all sort of other things, from what I hear."
"Hmph," Severus said, feeling rather foolish at his overreaction. "Silly sort of game, if you ask me. Exploring my dungeon would take all of six and a half minutes. And that's including the supply closet."
On this particular morning the shop was empty but for a small boy looking at dinosaur books and a tired-looking but well-dressed woman browsing the FINANCIAL/BUSINESS section. Severus, ignoring them both, was deep in an engrossing mystery involving a medieval library, a theological dispute over laughter, and several bizarre murders, when a piercing female voice broke the peaceful silence.
"Well now, what 'ave we here?"
Severus looked up, placing a thumb in the book to hold his place. One of the benefits of being in a service occupation, he had discovered, was that when there was no one to serve, he was free to amuse himself. He had no idea if other service positions were like this -- Rosmerta, for example, no doubt had plenty to do at the Three Broomsticks even when the place was entirely empty -- but the freedom to read at will suited him to a T. Apart from being interrupted by customers, of course.
"May I help you, madam?" he said politely to the elderly woman on the other side of the counter. She was stout and red-faced, with a spotted scarf tied over greying hair and a cardigan in a peculiar shade of green. One hand gripped an umbrella, the other a bulging string bag. Poking through one side of the bag was a large and rather over-ripe banana.
"You're new, then, luv." She eyed him up and down, with the coquettish eye of a much (much) younger woman.
He stifled a sigh. The woman couldn't be a day under sixty-five, even allowing for the rapid aging of Muggles compared to wizardkind. "Yes. I am...filling in while Mr Vetiver's assistant is on leave."
"And 'andsome, too." She gave him a knowing wink.
Severus flushed. "Really, I hardly think—"
"We'll 'ave to keep our Deirdre away until you're gone, she'd 'ave a right go at you, she would. That's if she could get away from Kevin, 'e's proper jealous, as you might expect, Deirdre being such a looker, with that red 'air an' all. I told me sister Moira – that's Deirdre's mum, Deirdre's her youngest – I told Moira she shouldn't ought to let Deirdre marry 'im but it was either that or raise the babe on 'er own, and we know 'ow much work that is, don't we? Well, you know 'ow girls are, they 'ave to 'ave their fun same as the boys, although in my day it'd 'ave been as much as me skin was worth to be'ave the way they do these days, me old man would've 'ad summat to say about that, no fear. Course it's not 'ow it was then, nothing is, more's the pity, what with the Red Chinese and the Communists wanting everyone to wear dungarees and blow up Parliament – or was that the anarchists?"
"I'm not sure I—"
She put a cardigan-clad elbow on the counter and leaned in confidentially. "I never can keep 'em straight, but it's all nonsense anyroad, I mean 'oo wants to 'ave a president instead of a queen? There's no romance to it, that's why American girls is always coming over 'ere wanting to marry a duke or an earl or what 'ave you, though they 'aven't two pennies to rub together, most of them – the dukes an' earls, I mean, not the American girls. They read too many novels, that's the problem – the American girls, I mean, not the lords – which I think is where they get the idea, you know 'ow in the romances the girls is always poor and the lords is always rich, am I right?"
"Not at all the way things really are, as anyone with 'alf a brain knows, but why trouble yourself over it, that's what I say, after all if it weren't for all them Yankee dollars there's not a lord in England that wouldn't be down the dole office – not that I mind, even Sir Winston's mum was a Yank – but 'ow would that look to the rest of the world, I ask you?" She fixed Severus with a stern glare.
"Er...not good?" Severus hazarded, casting a desperate glance towards the back of the shop in the vain hope that Vetiver would appear and rescue him.
"Not good! I should bloody well think not, it's like I said to me sister Kit, ever since we lost the Empire the rest of the world is always lookin' for a reason to laugh at us, especially them Frenchies, what with losing Agincourt, they've never really forgiven us for that, though the French do make very good lovers, very inventive. 'Ave you got one of those?" She looked at him expectantly.
"A... French lover?" Severus stammered, utterly at sea.
"Yes, in the books there, the romance novels," the woman said impatiently, as though it should have been obvious. "Twice a week for five years I been comin' 'ere, and Mr Vetiver, nice man that 'e is, always points me to the ones with the French lovers, though I don't want one set in France, I don't want to read about eatin' frogs legs and such, much nicer to have it all 'appening in England, or maybe America as long as there's no cowboys as I don't care for them hats, and it's best if the girl ain't French neither, what with an oo-la-la 'ere and a kick there, most of 'em are no better than they should be, I prefer a nice English girl and a virgin, too, don't you?"
Had anyone told Severus a week ago that an old Muggle woman would have him on the verge of insanity in less than ten minutes he would have scoffed at the very idea. Had she really just asked him if he preferred virgins? Surely not... He grasped at the single straw in the flood of words. "Romance novels, yes, those are in the back corner."
"Oh, I know where they are." She giggled. "But Mr Vetiver, 'e always picks out a nice one for me." She looked at him hopefully. "Maybe 'e's in the back?"
Severus rose abruptly from his seat, feeling suddenly challenged. If Vetiver could pick out a romance novel twice a week for this old biddy, surely he could do it too. "I'm sure I can find something for you, Mrs...?"
"Shufflebottom. And no jokes about me name," she shook a warning finger, "or I'll..."
Tuning out the ceaseless flow of words, he strode towards the back corner where ROMANCE was shelved. He was about to do a quick wandless spell to locate the nearest novel with a Pierre, Philippe, or Jean-Claude in it when he remembered that magic wasn't an option. Swearing internally, he ran his eyes quickly over the spines, most of which relied heavily on the color pink. A dark green one caught his eye and he pulled it out. The cover featured a busty redhead wearing a low-cut emerald-green dress and a sultry expression. Behind her were artistically arranged a madwoman with a dagger, a swarthy pirate, and a sailing ship, aflame and sinking.
"...she was right chuffed, but of course she 'ad no way of knowin' 'e was mental, did she?"
He turned around just as Mrs Shufflebottom came puffing up behind him. "I believe this one will suit," he said smoothly, handing it to her.
"Ooh, yes, this looks just the thing," she said. "Why, that girl there—"
"And if it does not contain a Frenchman, I can only say that French lovers are overrated. A good English one often does just as well, if not better, and doesn't expect croissants at breakfast."
"Aren't you a one?" Mrs Shufflebottom cackled, elbowing him in the ribs.
"Off?" Severus inquired, casting his eyes over Vetiver's natty grey waistcoat and pale-blue tie.
"Lunching with a lady friend," Vetiver said with a smirk. "I may be late. You'll be all right on your own? Sorted out how to make change and all that?"
Severus shrugged. "After Knuts, Sickles, and Galleons it's not precisely challenging, is it?"
"You're lucky we've moved away from thruppence, farthings, and shillings," Vetiver said. "Now there's something that would break your brain. Oh, before I forget..." He handed Severus a book whose glossy cover bore, in screaming bright-red capitals, the legend Make Money with Your Memoirs: Buffing Your Bio for Fun and Profit!!!
"What's this?" Severus asked, looking at it with distaste. In his brief time at the shop he had already learned that titles with exclamation points were rarely worth reading. This one, he noted, had three.
"Special order," Vetiver said, putting on his hat. "Customer's coming in to pick it up straight away. Cheerio!" and with a nod he was gone.
A note clipped to the front of the book had the customer's name, G. Lockhart – along with a rather pithy instruction from Vetiver regarding payment. The name sounded vaguely familiar to Severus. Hadn't there been a seventh-year by that name at Hogwarts during his first year of teaching? Lots of blond hair, vain as a peacock?
He flipped the book open. Chapter 1: Creating a Curious Childhood, Chapter 2: Adapting an Adventurous Adolescence, Chapter 3: Simulating Stunning Schooldays...Chapter 6: Inventing Impressive Incidents. He snorted and slammed it shut.
Three or four customers wandered in over the next hour but happily none of them had questions. Severus was making good progress on his book, wondering when the author would reveal what exactly the speckled band was, when a loud and rather theatrical voice broke in.
"I say, have you got my book?"
Severus raised his eyes to inspect the voice's owner. He was a man of medium height, with rather too much wavy golden hair and rather too many very white teeth. The vague recollection Severus had had earlier solidified. Ah yes: Gilderoy Lockhart. Ravenclaw. Given to exaggeration, if memory served.
The man leaned one elbow on the counter, crossed his right foot over his left, and planted his other fist on his cocked hip with a flourish. "Vetiver dropped me a note, said it was in. Lockhart's the name," he added with a broad smile that clearly invited -- and expected -- admiration.
Severus gazed at him impassively. If Lockhart didn't recognize him as a Hogwarts professor, he certainly wasn't going to enlighten the man. "I believe this is your item," he said, placing the book on the counter. "That will be eight pounds six."
"Already paid for, dear boy, already paid for," Lockhart said pleasantly, reaching for the book.
Severus laid a possessive hand on it. "This note here says not."
Lockhart looked momentarily startled but recovered quickly. "I assure you, it's paid for," he said. His fingers moved in a subtle gesture that did not escape Severus. "Now just you double check that note. Perhaps you read it wrong. What does it say?"
Severus gave him a wintry smile. "It says, 'Special order, G. Lockhart. Make sure you get the bugger's money.'"
Lockhart flushed. "Of course, of course." He took a crumpled piece of paper from his pocket and tossed it towards Severus. "Keep the change, I'm feeling generous today." He grinned and winked at an elderly lady in COOKBOOKS, who giggled and blushed like a schoolgirl.
Severus smoothed out the paper. "This," he said, "is a Cadbury's Dairy Milk wrapper."
Lockhart's bright blue eyes fixed themselves on Severus' black ones in an intense gaze. "Look again, dear boy," he said through clenched teeth. "That's a twenty-pound note."
Severus slid it back towards Lockhart with the tips of two fingers. "It is a wrapper for a Cadbury's Dairy Milk. With fruit and nut," he added, for the sake of accuracy.
"Ah, er, yes, so it is. Sorry." Lockhart gave a charming smile as he took the candy wrapper and stuffed it in his pocket, but he was obviously flustered. "Well then..." He slid a hand inside his jacket and his lips moved silently as he fiddled briefly with something shaped suspiciously like a wand.
Severus sighed. "Give it up, Lockhart," he said in a low voice. "Those kind of spells won't work on an accomplished Occlumens."
Lockhart froze, his eyes wide. "You're a—" He broke off and glanced warily around. "A wizard?" he finished in a whisper.
"Obviously." Severus narrowed his eyes and tapped the cover of the book thoughtfully. "Writing your memoirs?" he inquired silkily. "Or should I say buffing your bio?"
"Ahahaha," Lockhart said in forced merriment. "Not at all, not at all. Just adding a bit of, er, flair here and there, you know."
"Yes, well, have to keep the pages turning you know. Publish or perish. Now if you'll just..." He tried to take the book but Severus maintained an iron grip.
"I wonder if your publishers would be interested in this. They might very much like to know just how far your...embellishments go."
Lockhart licked his lips and glanced around nervously. Suddenly, pointing behind Severus, he shouted, "Good God, is that a rat?!"
Two nearby customers started and stared. Severus had half-turned to look when, out of the corner of his eye, he saw Lockhart take his wand from his pocket. He lunged to one side, knocking over his stool, and Lockhart's muttered "Obliviate!" shot past his ear and over his shoulder, striking a young man who was perusing the SELF HELP section.
"What in Merlin's name do you think you're doing?" Severus hissed, righting the stool and glancing hastily round to see if any of the customers had noticed. "You're not in Diagon Alley, you nitwit!" He thrust the book at Lockhart. "Here. Get out. And don't let me catch you in here again. Go cheat some other bookseller!"
With great satisfaction Severus watched Lockhart vanish out the door, blond hair and coattails flying. He'd have to keep an eye on that young man. Nothing good could come of all-consuming vanity paired with a highly flexible relationship with the truth...
"Excuse me?" The young man from the SELF HELP section was plucking at his sleeve. "I, er, can't seem to remember why I came in here." He looked around vaguely, his eyes slightly unfocused. "Odd sort of place, isn't it? Are all these books yours?"
It was an unholy mess once again this afternoon: books on the floor, shoved behind one another, tilted this way and that like standing stones in marshy ground. Severus couldn't understand why – it was all nonsense. None of it would work, even with a wand. "Why do Muggles insist on buying this twaddle?" he muttered, squatting down to straighten up the titles, most of which came from the same Welsh-sounding publisher. Hope? Escapism? The wish to exercise some control over their lives, their environment, their world? He sniffed. From what he had seen, they'd be better off spending their time in HISTORY or POLITICS.
Having restored order to the shelves, Severus glanced around the shop. Saturday afternoons brought the younger clientele, the children out of school, and there were a number of them in the shop today including the two young Dungeons and Dragons fans. They piqued Severus' interest. In part it was the younger boy's thick Scottish accent, which reminded him of Minerva after a couple of butterbeers. In part it was a certain sympathy for him, constantly derided by his older comrade. And in part, he had to admit, it was due to the enjoyable peculiarity of hearing Muggles casually discussing dragons and giants, healing spells and hexes, just as one might hear on any afternoon in the Hogwarts common rooms. So familiar did it feel that he'd nearly slipped up last Saturday and corrected them when they were arguing over the usefulness of ogres as mercenaries (none, in Severus' opinion).
Severus kept a close eye on them while pretending to be occupied with his current book. This was made easier by the fact that the book was failing spectacularly to hold his interest – the story, about two young men who, aided by a wizard, an elf, and a dwarf, go hunting a magical artifact to help them defeat a sort of Voldemort, had been blatantly and inartfully lifted from the much better one he'd read the week before, a trilogy about hobbits.
"Maybe I could be Dungeon Master next weekend," the younger boy said, trying to sound offhand.
The older boy hooted derisively. "You're nowhere near ready for that! You wait til you've done a few more, Oliver, then we'll see."
The boy flushed and scuffed his feet on the carpet, clearly irritated by his friend's patronizing tone. "Saved your arse from that Umber Hulk last week," he muttered sullenly, but James ignored him.
"I've got all these," he said finally. "Gonna go see if they've got that Dragonlance book Dan was talking about." He ambled off towards SCIENCE FICTION / FANTASY.
The younger boy stood indecisively for a moment, then picked up an oversize hardcover and brought it up to the counter. "Can I have this one?" he asked, laying it before Severus.
Severus looked at the cover, which showed a unicorn, a centaur, and (presumably) a dragon on a pale blue background; underneath them, on a brown background, were several unidentifiable subterranean creatures including something green and skeletal with a nose like a house elf.
"You are quite sure you want this?" he asked, wondering where in Merlin's name the artist had gotten his references. He'd obviously never actually seen any of the magical beings he was attempting to portray – the dragon was particularly unfortunate, resembling a dyspeptic wombat onto which someone had grafted a pair of batwings.
The boy nodded. "I know it's not the latest, but I haven't got a lot of money and..." He trailed off. "But James already has the Fiend Folio and the Monster Manual II, so now we'll have all of them between us."
"Hmph." Severus took note of the boy's threadbare jacket and thin face and surreptitiously knocked a pound off the price. "Your friend – James, is it? He seems to have quite a high opinion of himself."
The boy shrugged, embarrassed. "Aw, James is alright. He taught me how to play last year, and he lets me play with him and his friends even though they're a lot older." He glanced around to make sure James was out of earshot, then added confidentially, "He just doesn't like it that I'm getting better than him."
"An astute observation," Severus said, putting the book into a bag and handing it to the boy. "I knew a James once," he went on in a conversational tone. "He was a total prat, and a bullying, arrogant toerag to boot."
The boy stared at him open-mouthed, then let out a delighted guffaw. "Well...sometimes he is," he allowed with a grin.
Severus surprised himself by grinning back.
Severus looked up from pricing the pile of paperbacks Vetiver had bought that morning. The man was about fifty, with a neat little moustache, a neat little nose and mouth, and every hair on his head was neatly in place, as if the breeze had not dared to lift a strand. His tie was precisely knotted and his hat was precisely situated, tilted neither to left nor right.
The man tapped briskly on the counter. "I am in a bit of a rush this morning, therefore I should like you to please di-rect me to it, if you would be so kind." He looked confidently at Severus, as if expecting him to spring into action like a pointer. "It is green," he added.
Severus groaned inwardly. Requests for a book by color never ended well. "And what type of book would this be?"
The man blinked at him in astonishment. "Type? Type? What do you mean by that, my lad? It is a book, it has covers and pages. How many types are there?"
"Is it history, fiction, literature, science…?"
"Oh, I see, I see. Science, I would assume or infer. It concerns ornithology. Birds. Our flighty feathered friends."
"The BIRDS section is just over there." Severus gestured towards the far right corner of the shop. "Books are arranged alphabetically by author." He turned back to the pile of paperbacks awaiting his pencil.
The man vanished in the direction Severus had pointed, but was soon back. "It's not there," he said.
"Perhaps we sold it."
"Sold it?!" the man said, his voice outraged. "What do you mean sold it?"
"This is a bookshop," Severus pointed out acidly. "We do sell books."
"Hmph." The man's moustache quivered. "Have you sold any bird books this morning?"
Severus gritted his teeth. "No."
"Then it must still be here, because I saw it on your website this very morning, just before I came in. I was having my breakfast – a half cup of organic granola with soy milk and a teaspoon of flaxseed – as I perused the description." He nodded towards the computer. "Perhaps you might be willing to look or search or query or whatever it is you do?"
Severus had initially regarded the shop's website with the same distaste and suspicion with which a house elf regarded clothes, but he had come to appreciate it – and indeed, the internet in general. One spoke, or in this case typed, the name of an author or a few relevant words, and one received in return a list of possible titles. Muggles had, in a very real sense, created their own kind of magic. Most of them had no idea how or why it worked (Severus had tried to investigate and, as best he could understand, it had something to do with allegorical rhythms), but then again most wizards had no idea how or why "Alohomora" worked, either. Were the words he typed into the search box not a kind of spell? Was a fictional online persona any less magical than Polyjuice Potion? Was not an Amazon order for broomsticks plus overnight delivery akin to "Accio Firebolt" ?
He had been reluctant to become too dependent on it, however, mindful of the maxim "Never trust anything that thinks for itself if you can't see where it keeps its brain." A good thing, too, given that it had an irritating tendency to come and go at random moments, making it about as reliable as Trelawney's tea leaves.
"I regret to say our website is down at the moment," he said. "However, if you can give me some details about the book, I am sure we can locate it for you."
"Well," said the man, pursing his lips. "As I said, the author or writer of this particular tome or volume is a person by the name of Lee Harper."
"And you looked under H in the BIRDS section, did you?"
"Indeed I did, and not a Harper did I find, my lad, which is strange since as I stated previously, your website assured me that you have it!"
Severus put down his pencil with a sigh and rose to go see for himself, the man following so close behind him Severus could hear him breathing. He even breathed in neat little puffs.
"Hamilton, Hamish, Hapgood…" Severus muttered, running a finger along the titles. "Harper." He pulled the book out. "Here you are -- 28 Birds by Harper." He held it out.
The man glanced at it and shook his head vigorously. "Oh no, no, no, no, no. This is by Charley Harper. The book I want is by Lee Harper."
"Lee and Charley are quite similar," Severus pointed out, only just managing not to add 'you idiot.' "You are sure about the author's name?"
"Oh yes. Definitely. Lee Harper. No question. I have an excellent memory for names. It was green," he added helpfully.
Well, perhaps it had been misshelved. Severus suppressed the urge to solve the problem with a quick "Accio" and began to scan the BIRDS section, starting with A. Thank Merlin it occupied only four or five shelves… "Well, it does not appear to be here," he said finally.
"And yet I saw it on your website—"
"This very morning, yes," Severus interrupted, resisting the urge to bang his head on the wall. "The book is entirely about birds? Not, perhaps, a general science book with a chapter on birds?"
"Yes, yes, all about birds, yes," the man confirmed. "I have a very good memory for such things."
"You are quite sure? No other category it might possibly fall into, such as MEMOIR?"
"I cannot imagine so, no."
"Can you recall any portion of the title?"
"It is about birds, as I told you. And something about a murder."
"About a murder." Severus stared at him, cataloging mentally the various hexes he'd like to use on the little man. "And birds."
"The title most definitely had a bird in it. I have a very good memory for titles."
"Do you," Severus said coldly.
Thirty minutes later they had checked SCIENCE, MEMOIR, TRUE CRIME, and even (despite the little man's protestations) MUSIC, as Severus recalled running across mention of a band called The Byrds earlier that week. But there was no sign of the alleged bird/murder book. On the plus side, the man was still alive despite the variety of homicidal thoughts Severus was directing at him.
"I must say, this is a shabby sort of way to treat your customers," the man complained. "Making it look like you have a book when you don't. I've a mind to report you to the Trading Standards Office." He turned in a huff and then stopped dead, staring at a display on the front table which they had passed at least three times already.
"Why, there it is!" he said delightedly, reaching out to pick up the top book. "To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. Right in front of us all the time." He tsk'ed disapprovingly at Severus. "And you said you didn't have it, my lad."
"Yes, well, I'll just ring that up for you, shall I?" Severus said in a slightly strangled voice, snatching it from him. He totted up the cost, resisting the temptation to up the price by a tenner just for the aggravation. "That will be two pounds fifty."
"Two pounds fifty?" The man set the book down. "That seems a rather steep price for a second-hand book, not to mention all that valuable time wasted by watching you trot round and round the place when the book was here in plain sight all along. I should think I deserve a discount, shall we say ten percent off?"
"A discount." Severus' wand hand twitched. "For me wasting your time?!"
"Yes, and what's more I don't much like your attitude, my lad. There is a sharpish tone to your voice that I do not care for at all. I don't appreciate being spoken to in this rude manner."
"You. Don't. Appreciate…" Was steam coming out of his ears? It certainly felt like it. "YOU don't appreciate… Why, you insufferable flobberworm! You idiotic, vexatious, time-wasting, DUNDERHEAD!" The last word came out in a full-throated shout as Severus let go all restraint.
"Well!" The man turned on his heel and marched towards the door, announcing over his shoulder, "I shall certainly not patronize this shop again, I can assure you, and I shall tell all my friends as well!" Nose in the air, he pushed past Mr Vetiver who was just coming in.
"Sorry about that," Severus muttered, but Vetiver only laughed in delight and clapped him on the shoulder.
"I've been trying to get rid of that man for months, my boy. I think you just might have done it!"
"I believe a copy came in earlier this week. Yes, here it is."
"Thank you," she said, running her fingers gently over the green-and-white cover, lost in some pleasant memory. "I loved this book so. Any book about magic, really. I used to hope that something like that would happen to me, that I'd be walking home from school one day and find a magic lamp, or wake up one morning and be able to do spells. Didn't you?"
"Oh yes," Severus said, handing over her change. "I suppose most children do."
She gave him a small smile. "Her father says it's all nonsense, and that I’m a fool to let her read such things." She raised her chin defiantly and Severus saw the hint of a fading bruise on her cheek. "But I don't think so. I think it's a great gift to...to believe in magic."
She turned to leave but he put out a hand to stop her, caught by memories of his mother, of his own childhood. "Don't," he said, then stopped. Was it any of his business?
"Don't let him hit you again."
Her grey eyes went wide. "How did you---" She flushed and her eyes fell. "He's a good man. He just…"
"…makes mistakes," Severus finished quietly. "And he's always sorry afterwards."
"Yes," she whispered. She looked away, clutching the book to her like a talisman. After a long moment, she said in a low voice, "Is it bad, do you think, to let her believe in magic?"
"No," he said gently. "Sometimes that's the only way to survive."
"He's in trouble with his mum. Smoking." Oliver shook his head with all the wisdom of his nine years. "He doesn't even like smoking, he just does it to be cheeky."
"A shocking habit," Severus agreed solemnly. The boy's accent really did evoke Minerva when she was off-duty. "It's just as well, really. I have something rather... special to show you."
Oliver shook his head regretfully. "Can't afford to buy anything today. Just came in to look."
Severus waved a negligent hand. "This particular item doesn't belong to the shop. It's something of my own. If you like it, I'm sure we can agree on a price."
The boy stepped closer, his curiosity piqued. "What is it then?"
Severus leaned in conspiratorially. "I seem to recall that you are interested in books about monsters, yes?"
"Well yeah!" Oliver's tone implied that anyone thinking otherwise must be daft. "They're the best part of the game, aren't they?"
"Indeed," Severus said with a half-smile. "How would you like to have a very special monster manual, one that would be unique amongst your fellow, er, dungeoneers?"
Oliver frowned. "What's... youneek?"
"Unusual. Different. Something no one else has."
The boy's eyes lit up. "Wouldn't I just! What is it?"
Severus reached for a bag beneath his chair and took from it a vaguely book-shaped object covered in mangy brownish-grey fur. Two beady black eyes glittered on the cover, and it appeared to be straining hard against the leather strap held it closed. Protruding from the edges were sharp white things that looked very much like teeth. "This, Oliver, is The Monster Book of Monsters."
"Blimey!" Oliver breathed, his eyes shining. The book edged towards him, grinding its teeth, and emitted a muffled snarl.
"It is very rare, very hard to find," Severus went on. (In point of fact he'd simply bought it the week before in Diagon Alley, but since Diagon Alley was impossible for Muggles to find, his statement was technically correct). "It is also highly...dangerous in the wrong hands." He lowered his voice, holding Oliver's fascinated eyes with his own. "This is not just a book of monsters. The book itself is a monster."
"That's brilliant, that is!" The boy reached for the leather strap that held the book shut.
Severus smacked his hand sharply and Oliver snatched it back, abashed. "Don't unleash things you don't understand, boy," he said. "Watch." Gently, he began to tickle the spine with a forefinger. The book twitched violently then visibly relaxed, and began to make a noise like a kettle boiling.
"Is it...purring?" Oliver said in awe.
"Yes indeed. This is how you calm it, to open it." Never ceasing the tickling of the spine with one hand, Severus unclasped the leather strap with the other, opened the book, and leafed through the pages, showing Oliver a tantalizing glimpse of hippogriffs, sphinxes, nazzle mumphs, and the Alizor of Westacottus. "Remember, now." He closed the book, buckled the strap, and ceased stroking the spine, upon which the book let out a snarl, began to bounce vigorously, and attempted to gnaw through the strap.
"Here." He handed the agitated volume to Oliver. "It's yours."
"What?" Oliver's face was a mixture of delight, trepidation, and confusion. "But I—"
"Yours. Just remember what I showed you."
Oliver hugged the book to his chest, oblivious to the wriggling and rhythmic growling. "I will, I will!" His face fell a bit. "James will want to borrow it, though."
"It is your book, and I suggest you tell your friends that you must be the one to use it. If someone were to insist on borrowing it, however," he added, "and if perhaps it were to...slip your mind to tell them how to manage it, well..." He shrugged. "Bullying arrogant toerags like that deserve whatever they get, don't you think?"
Severus swirled the liquid in his cup thoughtfully. "It was...surprisingly satisfying," he admitted. "You were right about Muggle literature – some of it is very good indeed." He took a sip. "Though it was odd to see so many stories about our world shelved as FANTASY."
She laughed and pushed a plate towards him. "Biscuit?"
"Thank you." He took a bourbon cream. "And despite your anticipation that I would fail miserably, I believe Mr Vetiver was happy with my work," he said smugly.
Oh yes," Minerva said with a gleam in her eye. "I know."
Severus paused in mid-chew and gave her a sharp look. "What do you mean by that?"
Minerva took a folded sheet of parchment from her pocket. "I received an owl from Robert yesterday."
Severus swallowed his biscuit. "And?"
"He says that Mrs Shufflebottom is reading Jane Austen, and therefore he now believes in miracles." Severus offered a smug smile. "He also says that he has received five requests to order something called The Monster Book of Monsters." She gave him a sharp look over her glasses. "You wouldn't know anything about that, would you, Severus?"
"Nothing at all," Severus said blandly.
He finished his bourbon cream. "I see that Gryffindor is playing Slytherin in the first match of the season. Would you care to make a little wager?"