CHAPTER ONE: NOMAD (3/3)

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The sun had long since withdrawn its colour from the clouds by the time Sol returned to the streets. He felt a lot better for having had a hot meal but he knew the cold would do its work fast and he was keen to get through it quickly. Fortunately, he didn't have far to go.

Within a couple of minutes, he'd travelled back the way he'd come to Fourth Avenue, but instead of retracing his footsteps along Book Row, he turned down a side-street until he came to a short alleyway that led behind the buildings.

A short distance along, he was stopped by a black iron gate sealed with a padlock as big as his fist. After making sure he was alone, Sol slipped his saxophone case between the bars and jumped up and grabbed the top of the gate. He pulled himself over, landing as quietly as he could manage before retrieving his case and proceeding along the alley, staying close to the side of the building for cover.

Although the shops on the Row mostly sold common second-hand books, a few also kept rare and antique editions, and the padlocks on their rear doors were almost as thick as the bars in the windows.

Sol approached a door with cracked green paint and a particularly large padlock, but unlike the other shops which needed keys to unlock them, this one required a combination. It took Sol all of ten seconds to input the three numbers required for the lock to pop open. He unhooked it and slipped into the back of the store before pulling the door closed behind him.

Sol crept silently through a small and dark storage room before arriving in the rear of the main shop. While the Alexandria Bookstore was narrow, it was just as long as its neighbours and there was a maze of aisles for Sol to lose himself amongst. The deeper he ventured, the more potent the fragrance of the old books became. It was a smell that had always comforted Sol, as though the air itself was thick with knowledge.

He browsed the aisles like a day shopper with all the time in the world, inevitably ending exactly where he always did—in the shelves of fiction. His fingers brushed lightly over the spines of the books until at last Sol came to the place where his two favourite authors were.

He studied the collection of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells in the hope there might be something new, but there were only the same stories that were always there, unsold and apparently unloved by anyone but him.

On his second scan of the books, his gaze stopped on one title in particular. Gently, he plucked the chosen book from its place and turned it over in his hands. The cover was blood red and in the centre was an illustration of a man sitting in a chair wearing a long warm coat, though his head, hands and ankles were missing. Like Wells' name at the bottom, the title at the top was spelt out in shiny gold letters.

The Invisible Man.

Sol sat down on the floor and leaned his back against the bookcase, making himself as comfortable as he could manage. He then opened the book to the beginning.

He'd read The Invisible Man numerous times, but it was a story he never seemed to grow tired of: a bad-tempered scientist who had managed to turn himself invisible but could not find a way to change himself back. To Sol, it was a story about madness, regret and loneliness—all things to which he could easily relate.

Sol read almost non-stop throughout the night, pausing only occasionally to nibble at his rye bread or to get up and stretch his legs. He would walk along the aisles, keeping an eye out for any new books that he might like to read in the future, though he was careful to keep to the rear of the store well away from any windows in case somebody should happen to look in and think he was a burglar. Then it was back to his reading.

*   *   *

The night was at its darkest and quietest when Sol screamed.

He was sitting on the floor with the book lying open on his lap. His breathing was heavy and his heart was beating loud enough that he could hear it under his coat.

He rubbed his eyes to try and erase the dying image of his nightmare, but he felt like he'd left part of himself behind and it took him several minutes to return entirely to the waking world. Once he had, he would pick up his book again and continue reading until morning.

That would be all the sleep he got that night.

*   *   *

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