A Shot in the Alley
Kenz Bradbury punched the number for Smith’s phone. Silence. She shrugged. It was to be expected considering that he was on book drop duty this morning. He would not risk a call coming in while he was in a book store. Especially since he was also planning to investigate the disappearance of the teens. She paced her office, often pausing in front of the big poster of her namesake and the reason she had become a Librarian in the first place. Ray Bradbury seemed to smile directly at her and she felt a moment of shame for having spent so many years trying to suppress his work and his ideas. “I’m sorry. I’ll make it up to you,” she whispered to the photo.
Kenz strode to the coat rack by the door and donned her cloak, proudly fastening it around her neck. She checked her reflection and smiled; she was every inch the image of a Librarian 1st Class. Dignified, regal, and confident. Except right now she didn’t feel much like any of those things. Kids were disappearing and she was partly to blame. She had to find them. The clues she found via the Shadow Web would help, she hoped.
One last glance in the mirror and Kenz emerged from her office. “Kayla, I am going out for a while. I should return after lunch. Please forward any calls that seem important and tell the others to call back or leave a message.”
“Yes ma’am, I will,” the tall blonde secretary answered. Kenz smiled and flowed out of the office. Kayla Reese waited ten minutes, then set the telephone to forward office calls to her cell and slipped out the door, locking it behind her. She glanced at her screen and smiled; the tracker she slipped into her boss’ cloak was sending a loud, clear signal to her phone. She hurried to the elevator and down to the basement level.
Bradbury parked her official car in a space reserved for law enforcement and set a placard on the dash with her Librarian 1st Class logo on it. She strolled down the block and entered The Second Story. The place was quiet, with only a couple of old people browsing the stacks. She looked around carefully while making her scrutiny look casual. No teens. A slow circuit of the shop led her to a set of swinging doors in the back. She peeked. Behind the doors lay a store room. She pushed through, confident that her clothing would be all the credential she needed.
The room was crowded with tables, all of them stacked deep with books and boxes of books. Most were used. Kenz tiptoed around carefully, noting everything. She stifled a sneeze, her eyes watering as she pinched her nose. Dust was thick in the air and on the floor as if the room was seldom visited by the workers.
“Hello, can I help you?” a voice spoke softly, startling her.
Kenz whirled, cloak throwing up a trail of dust. The young woman who had spoken gasped, “Oh, I’m sorry, ma’am. I didn’t mean to disturb you.”
Kenz smiled, “Quite all right.” She flipped out her badge, but the girl was staring at the logo on her cloak. The young woman was short and had full, fluffy brown hair. Her eyes were blue and Kenz noticed that she wore a pair of the latest fashion books. Dark brown.
“A 1st Class! A real 1st Class!” Her eyes were wide, “I’m, uh, I’m Jordan. I’ve never met a Librarian 1st Class before. Not personally. I’ve only seen photos on video streaming. Never ever in the store!” She blushed deeply and fell silent.
Kenz laughed, “We are just like anyone else, Jordan.” She extended her hand, “I’m Kenz Bradbury. I was out in town today and saw your store. I love old books. They smell so good, sort of like memories.” She winked, “I hope I’m not where I should not be.” She paused, “I love your boots. I’ve been wanting to get a pair for myself.”
Jordan grinned, “Thank you. I like them a lot.” She inhaled, “Bradbury like the old writer? I wish we could sell his books.” She suddenly turned pale, “Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that. He’s, he’s on the banned list, isn’t he?”
“Yes, and yes, he is,” Kenz replied casually. What did this girl know about banned books? She was much too young to have read Bradbury unless she had found a forbidden copy. Kenz pointed at a door, “Where does that lead?”
“Outside. Our trash receptacles are out there. Not that Mr. Flores ever throws much away,” Jordan answered, then quickly added, “And you are perfectly welcome back here if you want. Customers aren’t, but a Librarian 1st Class can go anywhere she pleases.”
“Well, not exactly anywhere,” Kenz chuckled, “but certainly most places.” She crossed to the back door and drew the bolt. It opened easily, flooding the dim room with sunlight. Kenz halted in the doorway and scanned the floor. Was the dust disturbed? It wasn’t clear. She stepped into the alley and stood with her hands on her hips, slowly searching back and forth with her eyes.
“Miss Bradbury? Take all the time you need, but I must go back to the store. I an honored to meet you.”
Jordan disappeared back into the store as Kenz absently waved her away and moved forward. The alley was a mess, trash piled haphazardly on the ground around the dumpsters. Stacks of old pallets shared space with empty barrels and broken crates. Kenz wrinkled her nose at the smell, but kept moving. Those kids had to have been brought out that door and into the alley, but then where did they go?
Kenz stood thinking, arms crossed. Something touched her ankle and she jumped. A black cat bumped its head into her leg, so she bent to scratch its neck. “Did you see anyone come out here last night, little one? Were any of them wearing uniforms?” she chuckled.
The cat stood up and meowed, sniffing Kenz’s fingers. Kenz grinned, “Well, you certainly aren’t afraid.” The little black feline continued to nuzzled her hand as if looking for something to eat. Kenz raised an eyebrow. Had someone been feeding the little guy? She took a couple of steps toward a stack of pallets and the cat zoomed past her, tail high. He ducked behind the stack with Kenz following. She saw a small dish on the ground beside a bowl of water. The cat planted himself beside the dish like a king and meowed again. “So someone has been taking care of you,” Kenz whispered, “I wish you could tell me who.”
Kenz patted her pockets and smiled as she pulled out a nutrition bar. She broke it into pieces and put them in the cat’s dish. “Probably not what you are accustomed to, but at least it is edible. Barely.” The cat didn’t reply. He was too busy scarfing down the food.
Kenz straightened and started to turn away, but something caught her eye. Tracks. Tire tracks in the damp dirt of the alley. She took out her Shadow Web tablet and scanned them. The readout told her they were only a few hours old, probably left the day before. A candy wrapper lay on the ground, partially crushed when the vehicle moved, but Kenz could tell it was new. She examined it. The candy was a well known brand, but not really popular. She thought. Someone she knew liked that kind. Wait. It was Kristen. Had she been here in the alley? Was she part of the group that took the teens? Kenz shook her head. No she wouldn’t be. She would have found a way to let the kids get away.
The readout on Kenz’s tablet told her that the vehicle had then driven away, heading for the alley exit to her left. She looked around, then walked slowly that direction, examining the ground carefully. She was determined not to miss anything that would help her find the kids.
Lost in her task, Kenz did not hear the door of The Second Story open. She suddenly pitched forward and landed with a thump on the ground as something struck her hard in the shoulder. She heard a loud bang, but was hurting too badly to think about it. She tried to scream, but could not inhale. She closed her eyes, suddenly as tired as she had ever been in her life.
“I sure wish you had not come snooping around, Ms. Bradbury. You should have stayed out of that back room.” She knew that voice, but who? It was so hard to think. So hard.
Kenz tried to comprehend the statement, but failed. She could not think past the pain in her shoulder, which had spread down her arm and back until she felt like her whole body was on fire. Who? She thought. What happened? A pair of dark brown boots appeared in front of her eyes just as another bang sounded, louder and closer, and everything went dark.