Like every business in the small highland town of Invertary, the newsagent served more than one function. In this case, it didn’t just sell newspapers and magazines, it also took in dry cleaning, developed photos (although why anyone still used film in a camera, Josh McInnes had no idea), and ran the post office.
The premises themselves were nothing special. Like most businesses on the high street, the newsagent was an ancient, whitewashed terrace house with low ceilings and large front windows that had clearly been added decades after it was built because their proportions were off for the small building. This shop was slightly different, though, in that the window wasn’t just one sheet of glass but was instead made up of a grid of smaller panes. The sight always reminded Josh of Dickens’ Scrooge.
As he pushed through the crooked door, the old metal bell above it clanged to sound his arrival. The shop was long and narrow, with the counter right against its back wall. The previous owners had divided the counter into three sections with corresponding signs hanging above them: Post Office, Dry Cleaning & Photo Processing, Purchases. The sight made Josh grin, as there was rarely more than one person serving anyway.
While sauntering past the wall-mounted racks of magazines, he couldn’t help but check to see if any featured his face on their cover. As usual, he wasn’t disappointed. One of the gossip mags had a picture of him with a pregnant singer he’d done a duet with, and the headline asked if he was the father of her baby. Josh winced and hoped her husband, who was also her very beefy bodyguard, didn’t take the story seriously.
He headed for the post office section of the counter, picking up some candy from the shelves that ran down the center of the shop along the way. If he was lucky, he’d be able to eat at least two Mars Bars before anyone spotted him and told his wife he was stuffing his face with sugar. Caroline worried about his diet. It was how she cared for him.
Josh’s steps faltered when he caught sight of the new owner. Not because there was anything particularly out of the ordinary about him, but because he was wearing an old straw sunhat—indoors.
The hat was at odds with the rest of him. He was a tall man, at least six foot four, who appeared to be in his late fifties. His pale gray pallor made it clear he rarely saw daylight, and there didn’t appear to be an ounce of muscle or fat on his bones. An image of Halloween decorations popped into Josh’s head. The dude would have made the perfect skeleton scarecrow. Only, instead of rags, this scarecrow wore pressed beige trousers with a neat crease down the front, and a short-sleeved white pinstripe shirt that had clearly been overstarched.
And a battered straw hat.
Each to their own, Josh thought as he leaned against the counter under the post office sign. He’d seen stranger things in Invertary than an old straw hat.
“Morning,” Josh called to the man.
The owner didn’t look up from the paperwork he was completing. Instead, he held up one long finger, telling Josh to wait. Okay…
Glancing around the shop, Josh spotted a new sign in a polished silver frame hanging in the middle of the back wall.
Proprietor: Mr. Lesley S. Dougherty
“Is it Lesley or Les?” Josh asked, thinking it should have been Leslie, seeing as the guy was a dude.
“One moment,” came the toneless reply. “And it’s always Lesley. Never Les.”
Just as Josh was wondering if he should eat a Mars Bar while he waited, Lesley cleared his throat and moved along the counter to stand in front of him.
“How may I help you?” he said with absolutely no enthusiasm.
Josh tried flashing his award-winning smile. It had no effect.
He cleared his throat. “I’m here to pick up a package.”
“Very well, sir. Could I see some identification, please?”
“I’m Josh McInnes,” he said as though that explained everything. It had been years since someone didn’t know who he was. His albums sold worldwide, and his face was plastered everywhere.
“And I’m Lesley Sutton Dougherty. I need to see some ID.”
“I’m a singer. World famous,” he clarified, aware he was starting to sound like he was totally full of himself. “Surely you know who I am?” Yeah, that question had him wincing.
“What I know is irrelevant. The rules state that you must present photo identification to retrieve any packages we’re holding for you. Do you have any ID on you?”
Dumbstruck, Josh shook his head.
“Then you’ll have to return when you do. Good day.” The scarecrow man turned away.
That was when a bright idea struck Josh. “Wait,” he said, before rushing back to the magazine racks and returning with the gossip mag featuring him on the cover. He slapped it on the counter and stabbed a finger at it. “That’s me.”
Lesley reached under the counter and pulled out a laminated sheet of paper. He stabbed his finger at that. “And this is a list of requirements set out by Royal Mail stating what does and doesn’t constitute official identification.” He ran his finger down the list. “No. There is nothing on here about magazine covers. Please return when you have either a driver’s license, passport, or birth certificate accompanied by an official bill showing your name and address.”
For a moment, they stared at each other in a battle of wills.
Josh caved first. “The couple who owned this shop before you handed out parcels to the people they knew.”
Lesley’s lip curled. “That isn’t how it’s done. Rule books exist for a reason. Things turn to chaos if you don’t follow procedure.”
“Great.” Josh gritted his teeth before conceding defeat and smacking the Mars Bars down in front of Lesley. “I’ll take these now and come back later with ID.”
“Very well.” Lesley inclined his head but didn’t move to pick up the bars.
“Are you going to scan them?” Josh finally asked.
Lesley raised a hand and pointed a finger above his head. “This is the post office counter, not the purchases counter.”
Josh ran a hand over his face. “You have got to be kidding me.”
“Oh, I never joke about procedure. If a job is worth doing, it’s worth doing well. If you would like to bring your items to the purchases counter, I would be happy to ring them up for you.”
Jaw clenched, Josh scooped up his candy, took three steps to the right, and slammed them back down on the counter.
“Is that all, sir?” Lesley said as he scanned the barcodes.
“If I’m not getting my package, then I guess so.”
Lesley pointed to the magazine Josh had left on the post office section of the counter. “You don’t want your magazine?”
Josh snorted his derision. “I’d rather buy a novel. Same amount of fiction, but better plotting.”
Lesley froze, his hand poised above the register. “The story on the cover isn’t true?”
“Are you telling me that you presented false information in an attempt to retrieve a package? Because I would have to tell you, Mr. McInnes, that such behavior is against the code of the Royal Mail and against the law.”
Try as he might, Josh couldn’t see one flicker of humor or irony in the shopkeeper’s face. “You said it wasn’t valid anyway.”
“That was before I knew you were trying to defraud me by deliberately passing off falsified information as true.”
“Fraud? What are you talking about? What falsified information?” Josh stomped back over to pick up the magazine. He held it up and pointed at the cover again. “All I wanted was for you to see my face above my name.”
“But, as you yourself have pointed out, the magazine only prints lies.”
Josh shook his head, but it didn’t make anything clearer. “It’s my face, above my name,” he repeated.
“On a false document, sir. I’m afraid I will have to report this.” Lesley reached for the phone.
“Who to?” Josh demanded. “Royal Mail?”
“Yes, I’ll call them next.” Lesley frowned at him. “Please don’t try to escape—it will only make things worse for you.”
“Escape?” His voice rose to a screech.
Lesley kept his eyes glued to Josh as he spoke into the phone. “Hello, Officer Donaldson, I’d like to report a crime. I have a customer who is trying to pass off false identification in order to obtain a package.” He lowered his voice. “He’s becoming agitated, and I’d appreciate it if you would get here as soon as possible.”
“Agitated?” Josh’s eyebrows shot so far up his head it felt like they were trying to escape. “Matt,” he shouted at the phone, “it’s me—Josh. This guy is a lunatic.”
“Mr. McInnes, there is no need for personal insults. Please calm down and wait for the officer.” Lesley hung up the phone, then folded his arms and stared at Josh.
“I just wanted my package.” Josh glared at him.
“Sir, I must inform you that you are now harassing me. I’ve very clearly stated the guidelines for collecting packages. Guidelines you’ve flaunted by providing fake and inappropriate information. I’ve explained exactly how this will go, now please calm down and wait for Officer Donaldson.”
“Calm down?” Was this guy for real? “You want me to calm down?”
“And please put down the magazine.” Lesley took two steps back from the counter. “Violence of any sort will not be tolerated, and you will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”
Josh had turned into a demented parrot. One so pissed at being locked in a cage that all it could think about was getting past the bars and pecking out its owner’s eyes. He looked down at his hands, only to realize he’d rolled the magazine into a tube and was smacking it against his palm. Okay, that might look a bit threatening, but how much damage could a cheap tabloid cause?
His eye twitched and he rubbed at it, hoping that would help. It didn’t. The bell over the front door rang, and Josh glanced back to see Matt approaching them, dressed in his police uniform.
A wave of relief swept through Josh. “Matt, dude, you need to do something here. I don’t even know what the hell’s going on anymore.”
Matt heaved a sigh. “Mr. Dougherty, what’s the problem this time?”
Lesley stepped back to the counter and rested his skeletal hands in front of him. “Mr. McInnes here has been harassing me in an attempt to coerce me into bypassing Royal Mail procedure to hand over a package he insists is for him. He presented false identification and became threatening when I pointed out his actions were illegal.” He took a deep breath before continuing, “I will not tolerate being threatened and harassed in my workplace.”
Matt turned to Josh. “What did you do?”
“Nothing!” He held up the magazine. “I don’t carry ID, so I showed him this cover with my photo and name on it to prove I’m me.”
Matt’s lips twitched when he read the headline. “Does Caroline know you knocked up Sasha Wright?”
“Funny.” Josh rolled his eyes. “You know they never print the truth in these things. They make it all up.”
“Exactly,” Lesley said. “By his own admission, he tried to pressure me into bypassing procedure by using a falsified document. I would like you to arrest him, please.”
“What the hell?” Josh shouted.
A firm hand clapped on his shoulder as Matt stared at the shop owner. “I don’t think we need to go that far, Lesley. I think, in this case, a strong warning should do the trick. Mr. McInnes is American and may not fully understand that British businesses adhere to strict guidelines.”
“I’ve lived here for years,” Josh protested. “This has got nothing to do with not understanding how things work. I just wanted my package and a couple of Mars Bars. Is that too much to ask?”
Before Matt could answer, Lesley spoke. “Your behavior might seem like nothing to you, Mr. McInnes, but you don’t appreciate the stress that workers such as myself are forced to endure because of the public. You aren’t the first person to try to force me into bypassing the rules to suit yourself, and I’ll have you know that if you make an exception and bend the rules once, anarchy ensues. You people, working far away from the public, don’t understand the stresses of the retail sector.”
Now Josh was seriously affronted. “I work with the public. Without an audience, I wouldn’t have a job.”
“That may be so, but it isn’t quite the same as working in the retail world. I’m on the coalface of customer interaction, and I won’t tolerate being harassed for doing my job to the best of my ability. There are standards to uphold.”
Josh looked at Matt. “I don’t understand a word that guy says.”
“Let me take care of this,” Matt said to the owner as he took the magazine from Josh and tossed it on the counter. “I’ll make sure he doesn’t bother you again.”
“A man has a right to feel safe on his own premises,” Lesley said.
“I couldn’t agree more.” Matt grabbed Josh’s arm and dragged him toward the door.
“What the hell?” Josh said. “You’re seriously gonna manhandle me out of here?”
“Thank you, Officer,” Lesley called.
Josh glared over his shoulder at the owner. “Your name’s spelled like you’re a girl. Be a man and change it to I E or shorten it to Les. On top of that, your initials spell LSD! And what the hell is with that hat, dude?”
“Really mature,” Matt said as he shoved Josh out onto the sidewalk and then stood, feet apart and arms folded, in front of the door.
“I was thinking on my feet. It was the best I could do.” He took in Matt’s stance. “Do you think I’m gonna rush you? No, thanks. That dude is nuts. I wouldn’t go back in there if they were offering free bacon. What the hell just happened? I don’t understand any of it. One minute, I’m asking for a parcel, and the next, I’m being accused of fraud and harassment and being dragged out by the law. I need a beer.”
“It’s ten in the morning,” Matt said.
“Two beers,” Josh said as they headed down the high street toward the pub facing the loch. “Seriously, you need to explain what just happened to me.”
Matt patted his back. “There’s no explaining the coalface. You need to experience it to get it.”
“Asshole,” Josh grumbled when he saw Matt’s grin.
“I hope there was nothing important in that package because you won’t be getting it anytime soon. You know that, right?”
As Josh watched the morning sun dance on the surface of the loch, he slowly smiled. “Oh, I’ll get the package.” He pulled out his phone.
“You’re calling Caroline?” Matt shook his head. “And what? You’re going to tell your wife that the new owner of the newsagent was mean to you?”
Josh returned the phone to his jeans pocket. “Good point.”
“If it’s any consolation, that’s my third call to the newsagent this week.”
“Aye.” Matt grinned. “And the best part? Lesley hasn’t even met Betty yet.”
Josh burst out laughing at the thought of ‘by the book’ Dougherty going head-to-head with Invertary’s own evil genius. The octogenarian would kick his ass.
“Feeling better?” Matt said.
“Yeah, but I still need a beer. And chocolate.” Josh paused. “Probably bacon too.” He rubbed his flat stomach, right where Cookie Monster’s mouth sat on his T-shirt. “Don’t suppose you could confiscate my package in the name of the law then hand it over to me on the sly?” he asked hopefully.
Matt just laughed.
Don’t forget to order your copy of my new Invertary book – Come Fly With me!