Maud turned up her hearing aid to eavesdrop on the blazing row.
Raised voices blasted through the second-hand bookshop. Insults poisoned the morning air. Maud cherished each stinging word, her eyes sparkling with mischief. I sense an opportunity, she thought, but where?
A man with broken spectacles leaned over the counter. “Do you sell any American Classics?”
From behind the till, a youth shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t know, sir.”
The man glared at him. “Why not?”
“I’m new here.”
“What is your name?”
The man sneered at him. “Why can’t you find out?”
“I’m not supposed to leave the till.”
Maud shuffled closer, a dowager’s hump stinting her pace. Scalding arthritic pain burnt her fingers, knuckles bulging as she gripped her walking stick. She peered at the customer, putting his age at fifty. Twitching like a tortured demon, he muttered curses at the floor. Saliva dribbled down his chin. I’ll avoid him, thought Maud. He’ll cause trouble.
Hobbling away, she clutched her empty shopping bag. Her tiny pension only stretched to bargain biscuits and cut-price tea bags.
At the back of the shop, lost among coaching manuals on gridiron, Maud found a copy of Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely. Hardback, possibly a first edition, the dust jacket looked in good condition. Maud smiled to herself. It could be worth something…
The row continued. Flushed with rage, the man snatched up a copy of The Maltese Falcon, hurling it onto the floor. “What a terrible bookshop,” he yelled. “Where is the manager?”
Tom tried to be polite. “It’s his day off…”
Exploiting the situation, Maud glanced around, checking there were no other customers in the shop. Shivers of excitement raced through her spine. Be careful, she told herself. Don’t get caught.
She propped her walking stick against the wall.
Standing beside the trestle table, she draped her cardigan over Farewell, My Lovely.
Hardly daring to breathe, she lifted the book, hidden by the cardigan, dropping both into her shopping bag.
Neither Tom nor the customer noticed. They were still arguing.
Shuddering and dribbling, the man bawled across the shop. “This is the worst bookstore in America!”
“I’m sorry, sir.”
Tom looked pale. “Perhaps you should try a different bookshop?”
Maud hobbled away from the table, hiding her prize behind tall, well-stocked shelves. I don’t think they saw me, she thought. Whoopie!
She adjusted the book, wrapping it in her moth-eaten cardigan like a tramp’s birthday present. Nobody could see the book, and the soft cloth saved the dust jacket from getting torn. Giggling like a neurotic harpy, she shuffled towards books on moonshine liquor.
“What a dreadful shop,” yelled the man, scratching at boils on his neck. “What is wrong with America?”
Stumbling and lurching, he suddenly raced through the shop, shouldering into Maud, shoving her into shelves marked Crime Fiction. “You withered hag,” he roared. “Get out of my way!”
Storming out, he slammed the door behind him.
Dazed and trembling, Maud’s vision blurred into a swirling mist of Penguin paperbacks. Her knees started to buckle. Please God, she prayed. I don’t need another hip operation.
Tom rushed over to help her. “Come and sit down,” he said, guiding her to a chair. “Wasn’t that man horrible?”
She sat down to catch her breath. I wish this boy would stop fussing, she thought, her mind rambling. What if he finds the book? Will I go to jail? Do they shoot elderly shoplifters?
Tom fiddled about behind the till, rinsing two mugs in a dirty sink. “I’m really sorry about that man’s behaviour,” he said. “Would some hot coffee help you recover?”
She nodded, regaining her composure. “Milk and two sugars, please.”
“I’d love to show you a special book that came in,” said Tom, making their drinks. “It was published in 1940.”
“What is it called?”
“Farewell, My Lovely.”
Maud froze. Does he know I’ve pinched it? Is he toying with me?
“It was here yesterday,” said Tom, searching the shelves. “My boss says it’s quite valuable.”
Slipping her bag out of sight behind the chair, Maud pretended to help him look for it. “I can’t see a thing,” she said, lying through her dentures. “I haven’t got my bifocals with me. What does it look like?”
“It’s got a brownish cover.”
Maud grabbed A Field Guide to Groundhogs, shoving it under Tom’s nose. “Is this it, dearie?”
Tom scrambled about, rummaging through boxes, peering on top of shelves. “I’m sure it’s here somewhere,” he said. “It can’t just disappear, can it?”
Eyes narrowed, Maud gave him a sideways look. He doesn’t know I’ve stolen it. Perhaps I’ll get away with it?
She beamed as if struck by a bright idea. “Maybe that strange customer pinched it?”
“It’s the only explanation,” said Tom, scratching his head. “I should have kept it locked in the rare books cabinet. It was a first edition.”
“Oh dear,” said Maud, feigning sympathy. “It must be worth a fortune?”
“About ten thousand dollars.”
Maud sipped her free coffee. “You can’t trust anyone these days, can you?”
Stephen Duffin lives in a tiny garret flat which he shares with a theatrical mouse that likes to dance along the skirting boards. When not reading books he either watches films or eats extra-hot curries.