I pried my right eyelid open as the annoying buzz sounded again. The gods only knew how long it had been going on, but it was just a dream. Or so I thought. Even in my worst nightmares, such things usually gave up after a while and I would get back to what I was doing. This time it didn’t end. I thumbed the activate button and croaked, “Yeah?”
“We know, Mr. Smith. We know you have it and we are coming to take it back. Fifteen years, Mr. Smith. Fifteen years worth of fines, but more importantly, fifteen years of THAT book in the wrong hands. It must have been one of the last ones remaining before that section of the library was outlawed. No matter. We will soon have both you and the book in our possession."
I panicked. Like the voice said, it was over. I rose and threw on some clothes, then bolted from my apartment. My only thought was to lose myself in the city, but if possible, I needed to find a library an hide my illicit volume among thousands of others. Best place to hide a book, but I cursed my sentimentality for not peeling off the cover and replacing it with something innocuous.
My heart pounded with fear as I sprinted down the sidewalk looking for a place to hide. Well, actually it was more like stumbling and reeling. I’m not young and athletic like I used to be. There! A lone bulb, suspended by a single wire, swayed like a pendulum in the night wind, partially illuminating a faded sign. The Second Story. I tittered as my shoulder crashed into the door. The name struck me as rather silly, but as they say, “Any port in a storm.” The unmistakable aromas of old paper, dust, and memories assaulted my nose as I fell heavily (as if there were any other way for me to fall…not as slim and trim as I used to be) and rolled over with a groan. A paperback slid out of the pocket of my black duster and spun a couple of feet away. In a panic, I reached, then yelped in pain as a boot thumped down, pinning my fingers to the floor mere inches from my spoils.
“Well, well, well, what have we here? ”The voice was cool and as smooth as old whisky. It chilled me to the bone. Manicured nails reached and long, slender fingers gently closed around my erstwhile possession. My heart skipped a beat and my stomach sank into the floor. It was the last. The very last one I had.
The pressure on my hand eased, and I yanked it out from under the woman’s boot and rolled to sit up, rubbing my fingers. I glared, “Why? Why take them all? What harm is there for one old man to have one old book?”
The woman squatted, long skirt swirling around her boots. Her face was young, but looked kind, not the sort of face one would expect to encounter in her line of work. She smiled, but the smile did not touch her eyes and another chill shook me. “Ideas, Mr. Smith. Ideas.” She turned the book over in her hands and grunted. “The Martian Chronicles,” she whispered reverently, “Oh, this one is simply filled with ideas.”
She slipped the contraband book into a bag that hung suspended from her shoulder and turned her full gaze on me. I wanted to run, but to where? There was nowhere to go. “It was the fines. You didn’t think about the fines. Personally, I would have stolen the book, then there would have been no way to track you.”
The woman shook her head, brown curly hair dancing with highlights from the few lights burning in the old library. ”But that is neither here nor there. What’s done is done. The book is back in our possession and you,” she grinned, “you will have to go back to you empty life in your empty flat and watch your empty stereo-screen shows and try to remember what it was like.” She paused with a smirk, "I am supposed to either kill you or turn you over to The Library to extract everything you know about such books. I have something more in mind."
She stood and offered me a hand, turning slightly to allow me a tantalizing glance into her bag. The book was clearly visible, but I saw the telltale blue light that told me she had set a ward. I could easily grab the book and make a run for it, but would leave behind my hand.
I sighed. “But why? Why only the science fiction and fantasy? What harm could they possibly present?”
She ignored me and slapped a button on her jacket. “I found him. He led me on a merry chase, but I have the book. Unfortunately, the circumstances were such that in order to retrieve it, I had to let the man escape. I recorded his face, so he will have a tough time ever accessing another library.”
My mouth fell open. What? Was she going to let me go? Or kill me? I took a tentative step backward. She chuckled deep in her throat and fished a small white card from her pocket and held it out. I took the card and glanced down. Kenz Bradbury. I took a deep breath. A proud name. If only. I slipped the card into my pocket and licked my dry lips. I could feel the beads of sweat pop out on my forehead. Why? Why had she done that? What did she want?
Ms. Bradbury stepped closer, eyes darting side to side. We were alone. “I need to know more,” she whispered, “will you teach me? What is it about those books that drive people to hoard them? Why are you willing to risk your freedom, your life, just to keep a hidden copy?” She stepped back and activated her communicator again to report that she was on her way back to The Library. At the door, she turned, “Call me. Tomorrow. Use the code word “Mars”. With that, she disappeared into the night, leaving me more puzzled but hopeful than I had been in years.