Chapter 4

The first thing Natasha noticed as she entered the dark shop was the extremely strong smell of old books. It was the smell of bookshops and libraries; the smell that had first drawn her into her father's old classics on the shelf, the smell that Natasha liked so much. She looked around and nearly gave a shout of surprise. The walls, about four metres high, were hidden behind old, strangely decorated wooden shelves so full of books that there seemed to be no space for anything else. Some books had been piled on the floor because there was too little space for them.

In the few shelves not holding books, the shopkeeper had displayed ink bottles, notebooks and quill pens. There were all kinds of quills: normal goose quills, some crow quills, and other very plain ones, but also rooster, parrot and even peacock quills. Some were big, some small, some were striped, some spotted; some stood in empty ink bottles or small glasses (a few even in an old jam jar from the 1950s), others lay decoratively on the open pages of hand-bound notebooks.

Natasha couldn't help but stare at all the unusual things displayed in this tiny, dark little shop. She looked up at the high ceiling to see a terribly dusty chandelier, its candles looking as though they hadn't been lit for centuries. Light filtering in from a small, dirty window half hidden between two of the enormous bookshelves was reflected in the crystal prisms decorating the chandelier.

She turned to the other side of the shop to see a flight of stairs leading up to the second floor. Its steps were also piled with books, sheets of paper or parchment and a few extra quill pens.

"She should come any minute now," a voice said. Natasha recognised it at once as the voice from the telephone.

A little old man was sitting in front of the counter, just below the stairs. He had a big bald patch in the middle of his white-haired head, and was wearing a medieval-looking grey coat. He was talking to a plump, middle-aged lady wearing very old-fashioned clothes. (Lou would have thrown up at the sight of them.)

"Let's hope she comes at all!" the lady, probably the shopkeeper, said. "The children here aren't at all like the ones you know from Bukwerald! I'm sure she's just another one of those stubborn, uncooperative, disobedient children…"

All of a sudden, Natasha was hit with a pang of fear. What was it that he wanted of her, this little old man? What was the faraway place that needed help so urgently? Where was Bukwerald, if that was the place's name? What did he want her to do, what? Why had she come here at all, Louis could phone her any moment now and she hadn't brought her mobile phone along…

Surrounded by these many books, silent story-tellers and teachers, Natasha was suddenly filled with that indescribable feeling, that mixture of surprise, joy, fear and disbelief, as she imagined that perhaps she was going to be sent on a quest in some distant land, or going to be told that she was in fact princess of a fairy tale world, or any other unusual thing that always happens to someone in the beginning of a Fantasy story. But that feeling soon left her. Such things didn't happen in the real world. She had read a lot, but she still knew that all those things didn't exist and never would exist. Anyway, she was Natasha, no one else than Natasha… plain, normal Natasha who went to school and lived a normal life in a normal city. Even if magic existed and stories came true, she knew that her life never would be strange and exciting. Her life wasn't like a story, and it never would be.

Or would it?

All of a sudden, just as she wanted to slip back outside and run home, away from all these opportunities before her, a gust of wind blew in from the dirty little window in the corner and the door banged shut. The shopkeeper quickly turned around and noticed her.

For the next few seconds, no one said anything. Natasha didn't know what to say or do. What if she had come to the wrong place? What if someone had played a trick on her and just sent her here for fun?

The old man stood up and walked up to her. "Buchwitz from the Book World, pleased to meet you," he introduced himself, vigorously shaking her hand. "And you must be Natasha." He smiled.

"Um… yes," she replied.

"Come, sit down," Buchwitz said, pulling a stool from between two tall stacks of books. "Eileen will make us some tea."

Natasha sat down and noticed that she was nervous. Why? She wasn't usually nervous when talking to people. She wasn't being interviewed by the school headmaster, she wasn't about to do a test and she wasn't going to make a speech in front of the whole class. She was only talking to a little old man, for goodness' sake! What could possibly be making her nervous?

Was it because she felt that this was not a normal old man, that this was not the type of person one randomly met on the streets each day?

The shopkeeper, Eileen, brought them their tea. "Um… what… what was it you were going to tell me?" Natasha stammered.

"Oh. Yes." The old man sighed. "Look," he said then, "what I am about to tell you is top secret. You must promise me not to tell anyone, not even those you trust most, what you will hear now. Understand?"

Natasha nodded quickly. She saw Eileen close the little window and lock the door, and wondered what this secret might be if absolutely no one except for her was supposed to hear it. Her mad quest-idea came back into her mind. What could this secret be?

"I have told you already that I come from a faraway land," Buchwitz said. "It's a country wholly unknown to all of your people, an island in the middle of unexplored seas, and surrounded by mountains no one has been able to climb before. Only once was our country on your maps, and that was in the ninth century before our forefathers first moved there. They destroyed the maps so that no one could follow them, and, despite the increase in your peoples' curiosity, none of them has ever found it again. We call it Bukwerald or the Book World, because all of us over there are… well… book-crazy. There's writers, Booklings - normal Book World people like me - and now we also have quite a lot of story characters. I can't go into details yet; it'll take too long and waste our time.

"Anyway, what I really came for is to ask your help." He sighed, then went on, "Our Book World is in danger. We aren't sure why, and we aren't sure what that danger is. We only suspect that someone is trying to destroy it. Such a thing has never happened there before, so we're all very inexperienced. There's been a sudden outbreak of Inkdeath, the worst disease in the Book World, which I know that you can't do anything about. The problem is, the only cure against it, the Stream of Ideas, has disappeared. We urgently need some professional help in these matters, and a detective to solve this mystery about the disappeared stream. That's all you have to do."

The shop was silent for some seconds as Natasha took everything in. Then she asked, "Wait… do you mean to say you need a… a detective?"

Buchwitz nodded. "And I know you're just the right person!"

"But… this must be a mistake!" Natasha exclaimed. "I mean… I'm not a detective! You're looking for a police officer or something, not… not a fourteen-year-old! You must have made a mistake!"

Buchwitz said nothing to that. He only dug in his pockets for a while and then extracted a terribly dirty, folded sheet of paper from one of them. He unfolded it slowly and carefully, as if he was afraid that it would crumble into dust if he rushed, and handed it to Natasha.

She could hardly believe her eyes. Wasn't this exactly the same sheet of paper her teacher had handed out in the last lesson the day before? Wasn't this exactly the same sheet of paper over which her pen had flowed, forming the words and sentences of a short story? Wasn't this exactly the same sheet of paper the teacher had collected at the end of the lesson? How then had it come into Buchwitz's hands?

"I… met your teacher," Buchwitz explained. "She lost it, and when I found it I had no chance of returning it to her. So I read it, and I must admit, it's one of the best mystery stories I've ever read until now! You are not only a girl with perfect understanding of detective work, as one can see from this short story, but you're also a very talented writer! And that makes you a person we Booklings can trust!"

Natasha stared at her short story. "I… I still don't understand," she said. "Why… why me? Why not some famous mystery writer out there? Why not some grown-up? I mean… I have no idea how to help you, I'm too young, I…"

"To tell you the truth," Buchwitz said, "I don't think any grown-up would do this as well as a child. They have excuses! They'll say they don't have time, they'll say all kinds of things, but I know that children are always more ready than them for such things. But we must hurry. Every second we spend talking, the Book World comes closer to a great disaster… you must come, now."

"The train leaves in two minutes," Eileen said.

"What? Already? Then we must go at once!" the old man exclaimed. And before Natasha knew what was happening, he was pulling her down a trapdoor behind the counter, leading her into the darkness and obscurity below… into the shadows of what lay ahead.