Cloak and Dagger
I leaned forward on the park bench, gray fedora on my head and a bag of bird seed in my hands. I smiled at the feathered crowd gathered in front of me. I loved watching the pigeons; enjoyed their antics as they competed for the food. I tossed the last handful a bit further away from the bench and leaned back. The morning sun shone warmly, but there was still a bite to the breeze. Spring came slowly this far north.
A few moments later I spotted Bradbury a block away, again wearing the black boots and cloak from the night before. Her uniform. I crossed my arms and leaned back with My eyes closed. Librarians had no need to go about incognito, and had one of the most recognizable looks in the city. Everyone knew of the Librarians. Partly disseminators of information, partly police of ideas. Entirely frightening. Today she wore a dark gray skirt and white blouse under a long sleeved bolero style jacket. For a second, I thought her outfit made her look like a character in one of my favorite books. If she were only been carrying a rifle with aluminum bullets…
I waited. She would approach in her own time, her own way. Unless she had changed her mind. My stomach churned and I clenched his hands. Had she changed her mind? Was it all a trap? Maybe she only wanted to know if I had any more contraband books hidden away at home. Please, I'm not that stupid.
I tilted his hat down a bit more to shade my eyes and slipped a small white card from my breast pocket. Kenz Bradbury. She must have some clout. A Librarian 1st class was important, trusted. I suddenly wished I had paid more attention to the woman, but I was distracted by my nerves and the loss of my precious copy of 1984. I cursed under his breath. So few left. I glanced up; she was ambling down the sidewalk as if she were one of the normal park denizens. Smith stifled a giggle as he though how ridiculous the situation was. Sitting in a park playing cloak and dagger games with a Librarian. I glanced up again and she was gone.
People continued to pass, some chattering with excited children, others in silence. I tried to recall Ms. Bradbury’s face in detail. I remembered that it was round, with a small nose that was just slightly off center. Her lips were thin, mouth wide. He could not remember her eyes. Were they dark? Light? I did recall that she was at least as tall as I am, not much less than six feet in her boots. And her hair. I remembered her long hair that looked like it was trying to escape from her head. I frowned; how old was she? I really couldn’t nail it down. The brown skin of her face didn’t seem to show age. She might have been twenty or fifty. I shrugged. More likely closer to fifty. Librarians usually didn’t attain 1st class status until they had been with The Library for quite a few years. I glanced around. Where was she?
A shadow crossed my face and I glanced up, only moving my eyes. It was Bradbury. She paused in front of me and bent to brush a leaf from the hem of her skirt. When she straightened, she walked on. I looked down and saw a scrap of white cardboard under the edge my right shoe. Ooh, she was good! I waited another minute or so, then bent to pick it up. “Main Street Library, courtyard, southwest corner by the fountain. One hour.”
I arrived on time and glanced around the courtyard. It was deserted save for one young mother who sat on a stone bench while her son played in the splashing water of the fountain. The boy appeared to be about four years old and he laughed as the water played over his small hands. I smiled and found another bench fifty feet or so from the mother. I steadied my breathing and waited, wondering. Why the whole spy routine? Was Bradbury toying with me? Was she trying to find out if I had more books? I was suddenly thankful that 1984 was the only one I had actually checked out. Damned fines. I should have known better. In fact, I had almost laughed when she had told me it would have been better to steal the book. That was exactly what I had learned to do. It was difficult, but once safely away, didn’t leave as much opportunity to track me.
“Mr. Smith?” the voice was a resonant alto, smooth and cool. He jumped. Bradbury chuckled, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you.”
I rose to meet her. She had her Library cloak draped around her shoulders. It lent her an air of authority. Purpose. I swallowed hard and nodded to her. “I was daydreaming, I’m afraid. I get completely lost in my thoughts and forget where I am.”
“I understand.” Bradbury smiled and her large, even teeth beamed from her brown face. I revised his estimate of her age. Late thirties or early forties. She proffered a stack of books which had been under her arm a moment before. “I found these. I think your granddaughter will like them.” She casually touched her fingertips to a button on her lapel. She opened one of the books and pointed to the printing. “I can only leave my Zone of Silence activated for a moment or two here on the Library grounds.” She kept her eyes averted, staring at the book, “Why are you willing to risk your freedom or your life to hoard science fiction?”
I flinched. Was this a test? Or was she on the level? Did she really want to understand? I cleared his throat, “One of my favorite writers once said, ’Stories of imagination tend to upset those without one.” I paused. “Terry Pratchett said that. I’m not sure if any of his books yet survive. Pity.”
Bradbury knelt down next to me, still pretending to read. She closed the first book and opened another. A faint scent of flowers drifted to me nose and me heart rate sped up. She spoke again, “but if such stories of imagination were allowed to proliferate, there would be no innovation. Our society would stagnate.”
I snorted and shook his head. “That is indeed the official line of thinking. I have seen it in newspaper articles and heard it from the lips of politicians.” I looked directly into Bradbury’s eyes. Light brown with a hint of gold. “They want you to think that science fiction and fantasy are worthless escapism. They are escapism, but far from worthless. Another author once wrote that if we as a society value intellectual freedom, it is our duty to escape and take as many people with us as possible. You will find that the truth is quite the opposite. It is the ones who write and read such ‘worthless escapism’ that have always been the driving forces behind advances in society. They are the rebels from the status quo, the fearless innovators.”
“But if people are lost in daydreams and fantasies, they will lose their productivity and value. Nothing would change, growth would cease.”
There was a hint of doubt in Bradbury’s eyes and I felt a glimmer of hope. I had to be careful. I dropped the level of my voice to almost a whisper, “I know that histories are still allowed, but only to a point. I have a suggestion for you, if you are really serious about knowing.”
Bradbury returned his gaze, eye to eye. Her voice was intense, “I am serious. If they have been lying to me all my life, I want to know. I demand to know.”
The corners of my lips twitched, but my eyes danced with hope, “Dig into the history of innovation. Go back as far as you can, back at least until the mid 1800s. Farther. Compare what was being published to the technological innovations in society.” I paused, “Uh, is that even possible? Are there any records of science fiction that was published in those days?”
Bradbury nodded, then rose to her feet, “The records exist.” She lightly touched the button that would cancel their privacy but did not activate it. “Much more exists than you would imagine. I will do as you say, but will not believe you until I see it for myself. Don’t contact me. When I have satisfied myself, I will be in touch.”
Bradbury canceled the Zone of Silence and shoved the books into my hands as I rose from the bench. She spoke out loud, “When your granddaughter finishes these, please return and I will help you find more she will enjoy. Thank you for visiting The Library.” She spun on her heel and click-clacked across the courtyard, boot heels tapping the rhythm of my heart. I watched her disappear into The Library and wondered if I had just screwed the pooch.