"Helen, where the hell are you?" The creep used the intercom, so everyone heard.
"I'm in the back, stripping," she said. Now they all heard her reply.
"I don't care what you're doing, get out here," he said. "Now."
Helen Hawthorne quit stripping, and wished she could start ripping.
She wanted to rip out the black heart of Page Turner III with her bare hands. He knew where she was. He also knew she couldn't complain when he played his little games. He was Page Turner, literary light and owner of Page Turners, the book chain with his name.
Page was a multimillionaire, but not because of the three bookstores. The real family fortune came from mundane moneymakers such as pancake houses and muffler shops.
Page ran the bookstores because he had the same name as the founder. That was all Page had in common with his book-loving grandfather. The current Page Turner couldn't sell a book to a boatload of bibliophiles.
Helen flung open the stockroom door, expecting to see Page Turner. Instead, she collided with Mr. Davies, the store's oldest inhabitant. Mr. Davies showed up every morning at nine, when the store opened, and stayed until it closed at midnight. He brought two peanut butter sandwiches, one for lunch and one for dinner, and drank the free ice water in the cafe. All day long, he read books. He bought one paperback a month, when his Social Security check arrived.
Helen liked him. He was as much a fixture as the shelves and chairs. Mr. Davies was a small gray squirrel of a man, with big yellow teeth and inquisitive brown eyes. Now those eyes were bright with disappointment.
"You're dressed," the old man said.
"Of course I'm dressed," Helen said. "What did you think I was doing in there?"
"Stripping," he said, hopefully.
"I was stripping the covers off paperbacks," she said.
Mr. Davies was more shocked than if she'd been stark naked.
"That's terrible, a pretty girl like you mutilating books," he said.
"I agree, sir," Helen said.
Mr. Davies scurried off to his favorite reading chair, holding his book protectively, as if Helen might strip it, too.
Helen couldn't tell Mr. Davies why she'd been stripping. She'd been dealing with yet another of Page's mistakes. He'd bagged Jann Hickory Munn, the hot fiction writer, to sign at Page Turners on his national tour. But Page did no advertising, so six people came to Munn's signing. Page was stuck with cases of books.
The unsold hardcovers were sent back. But most publishers didn't want paperbacks returned. The shipping would cost more than the books.
Instead, their covers were stripped and counted like scalps. The author paid for Page's miscalculation in lost royalties. Someone else always paid for Page's mistakes.