The fire was piled high, spitting ash and embers up into the canopy. Precious few stars glimmered through the roof of pine needles, ruffled by a light summer breeze. Around the fire, a gaggle of children sat around, the stickiness of toasted marshmallows coating their fingers and warm cocoa on their breaths. The younger ones were starting to grow sleepy. Older siblings started to take their younger brothers and sisters back to their tents, bidding their friends quiet goodnights, until only the oldest of the troop were left behind.
Their scout leader, a middle-aged lady with thinning hair and a warm smile, clapped her hands together, leaning forward on the tree stump that served as her seat of honour. "Okay, now the little ones are in bed, who's up for scary stories?" she said. There was a mixed response. Some cried "no, don't!", others groaned, and others suddenly sat bolt upright in their blanket cocoons.
"What? You don't like scary stories?" she said, looking around at the assembled faces in disbelief. "And I here I thought you were a brave scout troop!"
"We are, but campfire stories aren't scary," Jo, the oldest of the group, spoke up. "Not unless they're true."
Someone cleared their throat over the sound of the cracking fire. "Uh... I know a true story," said Pippa. She was the new girl, who was very new to the outdoorsy lifestyle that the others were accustomed to. She was mostly quiet, bookish, and nervy; not your typical scout, but the others had been trying to make her feel welcome nonetheless.
"Well there you go!" the scout leader said, gesturing to the girl. "We have our storyteller."
Pippa's eyes widened. "O- oh, right," she said, clearing her throat. She gathered her blanket tighter around her shoulders as all eyes turned to her. "It's only a bit spooky..."
"It's okay, Pip," said the boy sat beside Jo. "We're listening. Go ahead."
She nodded, a shy smile on her face. "Okay, so... I used to live in London, near Soho," she said, the roaring fire casting deep shadows around her face. "There's a lot of ghost stories about the old buildings in London, but I never believed any of them. Someone's died in just about every building in the city, and I read once that there are mass graves all over the place from the Black Death. They actually had to build the London undergound around them, there's so many."
Jo shuddered, and reached for his camp mug. "That's so weird."
Pippa shrugged. "It's normal," she said nonchalantly. "Anyway, I don't really believe in ghosts, but there was this really old bookshop near my house. It's been there forever, and I used to like going in there after school. The place smelled kind of mouldy, but I stopped noticing it after a while. There are more books in there than I've ever seen in my life, stacked high like roman pillars, and there's such a thick layer of dust over everything that you'd think no one had been inside in decades."
Kyle, a friend of hers, winced. "And you liked going in there because...?"
"I'll get to that," she said, a confident twinkle in her eye that no one had seen before. As she got into her stride, she sat up straighter, her whole persona becoming more outgoing and engaging. The scouts found themselves leaning forward, eagerly drinking in her words. "Everyone told stories about that shop. It was called AZ Fell & Co's, and there was a rumour that it had never sold a single book, but always turned a profit."
The scout leader winced, wondering if she ought to step in at some point. She liked Pippa, and it was great to see her coming out of her shell like this, but if she was going to start talking about organised crime... She may have to intervene. Deciding to see how this would play out, she leaned back against a pine tree, the shadows and cool breeze enveloping her as the story continued.
"Late at night, there were footsteps and voices all through the shop, and they never stopped. The owner claimed he never heard them, but everyone else on the street always did," she said, sweeping her gaze across the assembled faces, illuminated by flickering firelight. "Some people say there were strange lights coming out of the windows after hours."
"Bookshop rave," Jo snickered to the person next to him. They elbowed him in the ribs, silencing him as Pippa told the story.
"There was one girl who went into the shop, just before closing time, and she was just browsing the shelves. She said that the bookshelves were so tall in there, you felt lost as soon as you stepped behind one," she said, an air of mystery overtaking her voice. She began to gesture with her hands, casting huge twisted shadows onto the tree trunks behind her. "She was just about to call it quits and give in, but that's when she saw an antique copy of Jekyll and Hyde. She'd wanted one for years, so she pulled it off the shelf... and there was a huge yellow eye staring through the gap in the books, burning like the sun with a dark slit down the middle, like a snake!"
Some people gasped, gripping their blankets tighter, or holding on to the person beside them. Others scoffed, rolled their eyes and shared knowing glances with their fellow sceptics. A cold breeze rushed through them, before vanishing again into the pitch blackness of the forest.
"It's true. I know the girl who saw it," Pippa insisted, seeing the doubtful faces. "She bolted right out of the shop as soon as she saw it, and she refused to ever go back in. She was a brave girl, too, a lot older than us. She said that looking into that eye was like the moment that jolts you awake from a nightmare, and leaves you in a cold sweat."
A few people rolled their eyes, but for the most part, the scouts were still wrapped up in the story. "Anyway, that brings me to Mr Fell. He was the shop owner," she said. "He was always happy to see me when I came in, saying how lovely it is to see young people reading. He had bright white hair, and he always wore old-fashioned white clothes with a little tartan bow tie. He had these little reading glasses he always used, and he had a very prim, fussy kind of personality."
The scout leader smiled lightly. Privately, she thought it would probably have been easier to just say that old Mr Fell was a bit camp and leave it at that. Still, a more long-winded description made for a better story, she supposed.
"Thing is, he's the strangest thing about that shop, nevermind the giant lizard-monster living in there. I thought he was just old-fashioned at first, even though he didn't really look that old, but then I started talking to my grandpa," she said. "Grandpa's lived in Soho all his life, and he had no idea that I visited AZ Fell's so often. I mentioned it once, and he leaned in real close, and he said to me... Pippa, is it still Mr Fell running the book shop? I told him that it was. He went all quiet, and he had this look on his face, like he'd seen his life flash before his eyes. He told me that Mr Fell had been living in the shop for over eighty years, and he's never aged a day."
"I didn't believe him at first. He told me to go to the library, and look at some old newspapers. He gave me a few dates, and page numbers, so I went to have a look," she said, hugging her arms tightly. "There are pictures of Mr Fell in his shop going all the way back to the nineteenth century. He's always exactly the same. I would never have believed it unless I'd seen the photographs for myself."
More people scoffed this time. "A vampire?" someone guessed out loud. Pippa shook her head.
"I don't think so. I did some reading for a school project once, and the kind of clothes he wears are from the 1800s, and I've never seen him wear anything else," she said, dropping her voice low and suddenly very somber. "It's like he can't change them. As if... he's stuck, somehow."
A log in the fire cracked, splitting under the intense heat. The pile of wood shifted, a puff of sparks billowing out over Pippa's head. "I think," she said, very quietly. "That Mr Fell is a ghost who's trapped in his bookshop for over two hundred years. I've never seen him leave it, and I've never seen anyone touch him. Maybe if someone did, their hand would go right through him."
Someone put a hand over their mouth. "How did he die, Pip?" they said.
She shuffled on her log bench, looking genuinely uncomfortable for a moment. "Well... That's where it gets really strange," she said. "Just before I moved out of London, when all those mass hallucinations happened, there was a horrific fire in AZ Fell's. The firefighters couldn't put it out, no matter how hard they tried, and some people said they could hear a man screaming from inside. They said it sounded like the most grief-stricken noise they'd ever heard."
The scout leader cringed, sitting up slightly. This was getting a little too vivid, too morbid, and too real. "Pippa, don't you think that - "
"But the day after, the bookshop was totally fine," the girl continued quickly, as if the leader had never even opened her mouth. She blinked, frowning slightly, but let it go. It was just a story, she reminded herself. Just because Pippa claimed it was true, doesn't mean it really happened. "Honestly, I saw it myself, there wasn't a scratch on the place. There were no burns, no scorch marks, not even the smell of any smoke."
"And Mr Fell?" Jo asked, having been finally taken in by the story himself.
"Still there, same as he ever was," she replied, finishing off her cocoa. She licked her lips. "People asked him about the fire, but he said it was nonsense. As far as he was concerned, there hadn't been a fire."
"So... what really happened?" Kyle asked.
"No one knows for sure, but what I think..." she said, leaning closer to the centre. "Is that the fire was an echo of Mr Fell's death. He doesn't seem to know that he's dead at all. If he did, he'd have moved on, wouldn't he?"
There were nods of general agreement. Pippa gave a sad sigh. "Thing is... I don't think it was a happy story," she said, pawing at the pine needles on the ground with her foot. "It's not a secret to anyone that Mr Fell is probably gay."
"Isn't that stereotyping?" said a girl from the other side of the circle.
Pippa gave her a derisive look. "Trust me, if you'd seen the way he looks at this one guy who hangs around in the shop... You'd know. He has a thing for bad boys, I think," she said with absolute certainty.
"A ghost has a crush on a living person?" Jo said, raising an eyebrow incredulously.
"I don't think they had skinny jeans in 1800. Can you blame him?" she shot back. She shook her head, remembering the spooky atmosphere and got back on track. "Anyway... Back when he was alive, being gay obviously wasn't allowed. I think that someone might have found out that he was gay, and set fire to his book shop to get rid of him."
"That's terrible!" someone cried, and was met with a general murmur of agreement.
"It's hate crime. It still happens today," Pippa said very seriously. "Mr Fell died in the fire, but I don't think he ever left his shop. Maybe if he moved on, the whole place would fall apart, as if it had burnt down all over again. Or maybe not, I don't know. I always kind of got the sense that he was the heart and soul of that building."
"Have you ever told him?" Kyle asked curiously. "That he's dead?"
She scoffed, shaking her head. "Of course not!" she cried. "What if it made him go away? I know they say moving on is supposed to be a good thing for ghosts, but... He seems happy, haunting the shop. He doesn't even know he's doing it. He loves his books so much, and he has an absolute monster of a crush on that skinny redhead guy I mentioned earlier, so I really don't think he'd enjoy Heaven more than he'd enjoy earth."
Jo shook his head, gathering his blanket around him and standing up. "It's a good story, Pip, but I don't think it's all true," he said, with a wry smile. "You'd make a good storyteller, though. I might tell that one again sometime."
She was just about to thank him, when someone cleared their throat. "Well, I believe her," said Adam Young, who had been silent up until now. He'd been listening with intense amusement to the tall tale about his godfathers. "There's got to be something supernatural going on there."
Adam brushed past them, a tiny smile clinging to his face as he made his way back to his tent. Aziraphale had asked him to send at least one postcard back from scout camp, and he had a feeling that he and Crowley were going to love hearing about Pippa's spooky campfire tale...