Sunday, February 28, 2021

The Stranger in the Library

The Stranger in the Library

Seamus King

    Lightning flashed across the grey-clad heavens, the flash of white light piercing the rainy haze and illuminiating the ancient brick buildings of Mortlake University. Tucked on a small hill just beyond East Bay's urban sprawl, its neatly clipped lawns and small stands of venerable trees gave it a sense of belonging to different time and place than the smog-stained streets of the city. Thunder rolled in the lightning's wake, and deep within the walls and seas of books of the Edward Kelley Memorial Library a young woman looked up, adjusting her glasses, a surprised look on her face as she just now became aware of the weather. Erin Scriver's hands fell to the sides of the massive tome she had been studying as she peered toward the narrow window at the pounding rain. "Well," she murmed.  "Alright."  She glanced down at the book and sighed.  "Rain.  What a surprise."
    The library was not overrun with visitors late on a Saturday evening -- and none of those made it back here to the rare books section, set off in the far end of the library in its own chamber. The windows here were little more than long, narrow cross-like slits; enough to let in a little natural light, but not enough to disturb the books at their rest. Erin supposed, in an earlier time, they would have been been called murder holes, designed to allow beleagured defenders to defend themselves from stout cover. It was an odd feature for what had always been a place of higher learning, a library since the first stone of its foundation had been laid, but those had been stranger times.
    The thunder rumbled slowly away, and once more she sat in silence broken only by the falling rain and the staccato punctuation of the antique grandfather clock that stood between the two windows on the eastern wall. Her finger hovered over the page, never quite touching the yellowed paper as she studied the words and alchemical symbols there.  She turned and scribbled a note into her notebook.  "Newton," she murmured, a small smile tugging at the left corner of the young librarian's mouth. "You sly fox." She turned back down to the page and immersed herself in her reading once again. 
    The grandfather clock's long finger ticked to the top and its deep basso gong rang out nine times.  The woman's eyes widened as she tore them away from the book to look at the clock, then back towards the windows. The grey day had given way to night, though the pouring remained, unheedful of the passage of time. "Where did the time go?" She murmured, glancing down one more time, taking a moment to breathe deeply and take in the scent of old book once more before gently taking it by the front cover and closing it. She rose, her legs protesting the movement after sitting so long, and she scooped the book back into her arms and walked over into the stacks.
    Erin gently placed it back onto its shelf when she stopped; there had been movement, just at the edge of her vision, and she turned, but there was nothing there. "Hello?" She called. "Edith? Is that you?"
There was no answer, and she took a deep breath and ran her fingernails along her brow, pushing back the strand or two of hair that had escaped her tight bun. "It was nothing," she told herself. "It's just a shadow, or something." She walked back out from between the narrow rows of books and looked around again. The library was closed; the only lights that remained were the one near the desk where she had been working and one far across the floor at the entrance. "At least they left that on for me," she murmured crossly, still slightly dazed by her long stint in study, finding it hard to ground herself in the world again. She took her long perriwinkle blue coat from where it hung, shrugged into it and plucked up her matching cloche hat from the rack and settled it on her head.
    She picked up her notebook and straightened her coat, turning to walk toward the entrance.  Lightning forked outside, and a flash of white light passed through the room. Her eyes fell to the marble bust of the college's founder, an elderly man with inquisitive eyes and a long, pointed beard, and she briefly mused about how brilliantly the stone shone in the brief light.  Thunder cracked again, following fast on the lightning's footsteps. Erin turned back toward the entrance and froze.
    A lean, tall man stood in front of her, hands tucked underneath his long black coat, short dark hair only just spilling out from underneath his grey newsboy cap. His pale blue eyes gleamed, reflecting the yellow light cast by the electric lamps with twin golden points, and his full lips bent into an amicable smile. "Good evening, Miss," he said, his voice low and rumbly and kind.  
    "Good... good evening," she stammered, her cheeks heating as his mesmerizing, snake-like gaze held hers. "Um.  The library's closed, sir."  
    "Ah.  Closed, is it? What a dissappointment. I came a long way up the road to get here. I don't suppose you can let me have just a look see? As a favor."
    "I, uh..." she stammered again, losing her words as he continued to hold her gaze and her blush continued to spread, her cheeks now red-hot. 
    His eyes flicked past her. "Is that the rare books' section, there?" He asked.  
    She nodded.
    "Good," he said. "Thank you." He started to walk past her, then turned, catching her wrist in his hand. She looked down at it. It was strong hand, with long, clever fingers; the skin was an odd shade of red, but she imagined that was in a response to the cold March weather. "Excuse me. I'd hate to spend hours searching. I'm looking for an early translation of Ovid. Can you help me?"
    "Classical literature," she said, dragging her eyes from the hand wrapped around her wrist and back up to his pale gaze.  "Third row from your left as you enter. I think Ovid's toward the back."  
    "Thank you," he said.  "I couldn't have done it without you. Don't you worry about helping me further.  It's late, you should go home.  Don't forget an umbrella."
    Erin was about to say something else, a mild protest rising to her lips, but he lifted his other hand and put a finger on her chin and she stopped. His touch was electric and sending chills running all through her body. "Don't worry about the locking up, just give us the keys, I'll take care of it."
    She nodded again, lost in his gaze, and reaching into her pocket, retrieved the small key-ring and held it out to him.
    "Wonderful. Well done. Thank you," he said, patting her cheek and then taking the keys. "Now.  Go home, and don't worry about a thing.  Your keys will be on the desk in the morning."
    "My keys will be on my desk in the morning," she echoed.
    "Exactly," he replied, letting her wrist go, and followed her directions into the stacks. She watched him go until he was out of sight, and walked out the door, not forgetting to pick up her umbrella as she passed the bin near the door.
    Despite the rain and the hour, Erin made it home safely, setting about her evening tasks, and was just settling down into bed when she noticed her notebook lying open on her nightstand. Scrawled across a page, dated next Monday, was a note in her own handwriting:
Don't trust the man in the long black coat. 

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