By Jacqueline Seewald
His first day on the job, Harry Stevens looked with interest at his surroundings. He'd been hired to work in the Information Services area of Boston's small but prestigious special library, the Kensington. According to the Director, the library was "dedicated to the noble pursuit of scholarly learning in the humanities." From Harry's viewpoint, the Kensington was an anachronism, a stuffy, elitist club with admission available only to a well-heeled few. It oozed privilege and exclusivity.
Harry had stood in the Director's oak-paneled office in front of an elegant marble Louis the Fourteenth fireplace, surrounded by portraits of Shakespeare, Dryden and Shaw, and he’d thought of his pop. How the old man would have laughed to see him here. Pop didn’t suffer fools or snobs without hurling a few epithets. Pop was a hardy, old-time New Englander who knew how to cut through crap.
"Becoming accustomed to us?" Wolf Renning, Supervisor of Information Services, smiled through nicotine-stained teeth. He was a gaunt, unaesthetic figure, but his eyes betrayed a sharp intelligence.
"Quite a place," Harry acknowledged.
"We like to think so." Renning cleared his throat in a ponderous manner. "The public is just beginning to understand that information is a very valuable commodity which may be bought and sold. Knowledge is power, young man. Never forget that. Sara is going to teach you everything you need to know." Renning turned his attention to a very attractive woman.
Harry took in the woman’s shapely body and straight off decided he was going to be a terrific student.
"Ms. Manus, you'll be working with Mr. Stevens. You’re also now in charge of the Genesis Collection since Robert is no longer with us. Do not let anyone who isn't authorized near it." There was a severity to Renning’s tone of voice that caused Harry to give him a hard look.
Renning moved on with measured strides. Harry glanced over at Sara Manus. His eyes lingered on her. She was a honey blonde with soft features, but her mouth was set in a deep frown as if something were troubling her.
"How long you been working here?"
"What? Oh, long enough."
A good reference librarian being something of a detective, he reasoned, no one would think twice if he attempted to ferret out what lay behind Sara Manus's manner.
"So am I taking this Robert's place?"
"As a matter of fact, you are." She snapped like a turtle.
"Well, I hope you won't hold it against me." He gave her his most charming smile, hoping to disarm her hostility.
"Robert Weber was excellent at information services. If you're half as good, we'll get along just fine." With that, she walked quickly away. So much for charm.
He observed an assistant bring out a requested manuscript on a red velvet cushion and remembered what the Director had told him. Because the library was privately endowed, patrons had to make an appointment to use the facilities. If their requests were accepted, they were treated in kingly fashion--but not everyone was accepted.
When Sara Manus returned to the desk, she was still uncommunicative.
"So why did Robert Weber leave the library?"
"What?" Her eyelids fluttered like butterfly wings.
"Should I repeat the question?"
"I don’t think that’s any of your business."
"Sure it is. I’m his replacement, aren’t I?"
"Mr. Weber disappeared. Nobody knows where he is or what became of him." Her sky blue eyes met his squarely. But he saw a shadow in them, as if she were scared of something or someone.
Harry decided to do a little fishing. "Maybe he got a better offer and didn't want to tell anyone."
Her eyes became cold as a lake in winter. "No, he would have told me."
"Are you sure?"
"No one's heard from him, not even his sister. It's as though he walked off the face of the earth."
"Have you talked to the police, told them what you know?"
"There was a detective around. He promised to investigate."
Wolf Renning returned and Sara stopped talking. She seemed uneasy, not that Harry blamed her. There was something sinister about the man. Renning’s fine, black hair fringed a face that nearly came to a point. Bright eyes moved about restlessly under beetle brows. A scent of Turkish pipe tobacco clung to his Harris tweed jacket.
"Ms. Manus, there will be someone asking for the Genesis Collection later in the day. Make it available."
Did Harry imagine her shiver? He didn’t think so.
Harry watched Renning disappear into the murky depths of the room that served as his office. He tried to shake off the eerie aura of menace that Renning left in his wake.
"Just what could be in a library collection that would require a closed stack?" He tried to keep the sharpness out of his voice.
"This is a special library, not like any other. Have you looked around? Really looked?" Sara Manus swept her hand toward the glass display cases. "See those Medieval illuminated manuscripts? Their pages gleam as if new. Did you notice the rare books with jewel-encrusted covers, and those with ancient Near Eastern seals carved from serpentine and chalcedony?"
"Right, but anyone can see them. They’re in plain sight. What kind of volumes would be under lock and key?”
Sara didn't answer. She bit down on her lower lip, a shadow crossing her lovely face. "I have things to do," she said, "and so do you."
Later that afternoon, a man came to the reference desk and asked to see the Genesis Collection.
"I would be glad to show it to you," Harry assured the patron.
He studied the small, nondescript man. The man's eyes looked at him askance from an egg-shaped head with a bald spot reminiscent of a medieval monk's pate.
"Do you happen to know where the key’s kept?"
"I have it," Sara said, approaching hurriedly. "Why don't you take care of a loan for now." She handed Harry a form, dismissing him the way a teacher would a pupil.
But he didn't leave, instead he watched and waited. With a set of keys she drew from her skirt pocket, Sara Manus opened a desk drawer and removed yet another key that she used to open the door of a small room separated from the reference area.
"Call when you finish," she told the patron as he entered the room. Then she discreetly shut the door. "Why are you still here?" She seemed agitated, possibly frightened.
"I'm supposed to be learning the routines."
"This is my responsibility."
"We could share it," he suggested. "I could close up after he finishes. Maybe take some of the pressure off you."
Her lower lip set in granite. "I have to do this, now that Robert is..." Her voice trailed off.
"What do you think happened to him?"
She shook her head but didn't answer.
"Did Robert Weber know what was in the Genesis Collection? Was he curious?"
"The day Robert disappeared, he was staying late. He said something wasn't quite right."
"About the Collection?"
Her eyes did not meet his.
"You think the Collection had something to do with his disappearance?"
"It's possible," she said in a barely audible voice. "You see why I don't think you should have any involvement with it?"
Actually, he saw all the more reason to find out what was contained in the collection, but he didn't say that to her. He edged closer and breathed in the soft scent of her perfume.
"Why are you looking at me that way?" Her cheeks were suddenly flushed and she pulled away from him.
"What about that policeman? Have you told him everything?"
"I didn't see the need." She seemed alarmed. "You’re being awfully pushy. Why do you want to know?"
"Just as one detective to another."
She laughed with a throaty sound. "You're a librarian, not a detective!"
"People are always asking librarians to solve mysteries for them, aren’t they?"
"That's just a matter of finding information."
"Good reference librarians fit pieces of a puzzle together until all the information makes a complete answer. It's detective work, kind of like what a P.I. does."
"All right, I won't argue with your logic." She lowered her lashes which were thick and gold-tipped.
Watching her, he felt a connection. Harry knew that he would help her, and she'd help him.
Later, he made certain to walk Sara out as they left work. "Can we have dinner together?"
She tried to refuse, but he knew how to be persistent. He hailed a cab and offered to take her wherever she chose.
"You’re a tough man to refuse."
"Worse things have been said about me." He took her hand and tucked it into his coat pocket.
She smiled at him for the first time. "I know exactly what you earn. If you don't mind something simple like an omelet, we can have dinner at my apartment."
He accepted with a wide grin. What could be better?
She left him in her small living room after they arrived at her apartment. He saw that it was a tastefully furnished place, although he barely glanced around before following her into the kitchen.
Dinner went very well, even if neither one of them was in reality concerned with the meal. Sara was a good cook. Harry impressed her, in turn, by doing an adequate job cutting and tossing the salad.
After they'd finished, he turned to her. "So were you and Robert a couple?"
"Just friends," she said.
"I can't imagine any man willing to just be friends with you," he said.
"Well, actually, Robert was gay, which you don't appear to be. In fact, you don't remind me very much of a librarian. You seem kind of dangerous. You have a formidable aura."
He smiled and didn't respond to her observation. Time to change the subject. "Don't you want to know what's in that collection?"
"Not that again!" She rolled her eyes.
"If you were Robert Weber's friend, you should want to find out if there's a connection."
"It could mean my job," she said.
He saw the fear in her eyes but did not relent. "Shouldn't we find out what happened to your friend?"
"Just tell me why you care."
He decided not to tell her that he was certain she was in danger as long as she was in charge of the Genesis Collection. It was time to take action and the sooner the better.
* * *
At eleven o'clock, the library was dark and deserted. Harry lurked in the shadows, shivering in the chill night air as Sara stealthily opened the doors with her keys. She was clumsy because her hands were shaking. He joined her silently as they entered the building.
Sara unlocked the special keys from the reference desk as he held a small flashlight for her. As she opened the door to the chamber that housed the Genesis Collection, a light flickered through.
Harry grabbed Sara down beside him as the beam of the night watchman's flashlight flickered over the desk. He wondered if the man could hear the hammer pounding in his chest. The footsteps receded down the corridor and to the staircase. He took Sara's cold, trembling hand and held it reassuringly in his own. The weird part was, he loved the danger, thrived on it.
Harry followed Sara into the small room. He observed a book collection. All the books had something to do with codes. Sara unlocked another large drawer. There was also equipment, state of the art technology. He removed a computer, a notebook, sat down at the computer terminal and booted up. His attempt to by-pass the access code was instantly denied. He glanced around, found a crumpled paper in the trash and studied it. The partially shredded e-mail message was in some sort of mathematical code. Who would use encryption? Spies maybe? Terrorists? Then the lights came on, momentarily blinding him.
"What are you doing here?" The voice resonated ominously.
Wolf Renning viewed them through hooded eyes. "I like to be able to trust the people who work here."
"We'll be leaving."
"You're both fired," Renning said. "Hand me your keys, Ms. Manus."
"It's my fault, not hers," Harry said. "I talked her into it." He wondered if Renning had caught Weber here. Had he been fired too? Or was the punishment more serious–and permanent?
"I don't understand the need for secrecy," Sara said in a tremulous voice. "If you have scholars who require privacy, that's hardly reason to..."
Sara lifted her head, eyes blazing blue light. "You killed Robert, didn't you? You actually murdered him because he found out what your stupid collection was about." Her anger went beyond indignation. "How senseless and obscene!"
"It wasn't quite that simple. The man had the audacity to suggest that he was going to report me. I would have been arrested for treason. The government doesn’t approve of abetting the transmission of classified information to foreign powers.”
"Damn narrow-minded of them," Harry said sarcastically. "So, just out of curiosity, what exactly is in the Genesis Collection?"
"Only some useful books on coding, plus this special computer notebook that's untraceable. And naturally as a professional librarian I do keep thorough records on those who use it."
"Let me guess: Robert happened to see those records. Did he threaten to blackmail you?"
"I don’t think that's any of your business." Renning really was an ugly character, especially when he sneered. "And now that you know, I regret that you will have to disappear like Robert." Renning held up a shiny revolver and pointed it directly at them. Light careened crazily off the black, snub-nosed barrel.
"You really don't think we'd come here without telling the police first, do you?" he said to Renning in a calm but strong voice.
Renning laughed loudly. "Of course, you told the police that you were going to break into the library tonight."
"No, I said that we'd be searching for evidence that would disclose how and why Weber disappeared. They're outside by now. I phoned before we left and told them to be here ll:30."
Renning motioned with the weapon. "We're leaving," he said. "If you try to alert the guard, I'll shoot you on the spot."
Harry took Sara's hand and led her out. He hoped Renning would lock the door to the collection as a reflex action. As the older man turned, he lunged at Renning, threw him off-balance and managed to knock him to the floor. As they wrestled, the revolver discharged toward the ceiling. The sound brought the watchman, followed by two police detectives with drawn guns.
Harry straightened up and tossed the pistol across the desk at the two cops. "I'm here to serve. My job is providing information." He spoke with a straight face.
In spite of the gravity of the situation, both policemen laughed. The older and heavier of the two slapped Harry on the back.
"Harry, if I didn't know you were a detective, I'd swear you really were a librarian."
Sara Manus stared at him in open-mouthed surprise. "Is it true? You're a detective?"
"The private kind. Your friend's sister came to me after filing a missing person's report with these guys. She told me Weber said he was frightened for his life because of something he'd found out at his job. I used to work undercover for the department until I got blown. So I figured I could nose around here."
He wouldn't tell her the rest about his background until he knew her better. Near fatal gunshot wounds weren't meant for casual conversation. "I figured I could find out more by working here. Ms. Weber had some influence, and so the director was willing to go along with us. That’s how I became a librarian."
"Actually, a rather good one," Ms. Manus said with a smile. "You did discover what the Genesis Collection was about. We are definitely going to have to discuss that at some length later."
"I'm more a man of action than words."
As Harry took Sara Manus's arm, he decided that if he ever stopped being a private dick and chose a third career; reference work might not be half bad.
Multiple award-winning author, Jacqueline Seewald, has taught creative, expository and technical writing at Rutgers University as well as high school English. She also worked as both an academic librarian and an educational media specialist. Seventeen of her books of fiction have been published including books for adults, teens and children. Her short stories, poems, essays, reviews and articles have appeared in hundreds of diverse publications and numerous anthologies such as: THE WRITER, L.A. TIMES, READER’S DIGEST, AD ASTRA, PEDESTAL, SHERLOCK HOLMES MYSTERY MAGAZINE, OVER MY DEAD BODY!, GUMSHOE REVIEW, THE MYSTERY MEGAPACK, LIBRARY JOURNAL, THE CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR and PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
Her writer’s blog can be found at: http://jacquelineseewald.blogspot.comHer short story, “The Heir Hunt” appeared in omdb! in October, 2015. “Murder and Money” (April, 2014) and “The Hotel Room Murder” (June, 2012) have also appeared in omdb! Online.
Copyright © 2016 Jacqueline Seewald. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited. OMDB! and OMDB! logos are trademarks of Over My Dead Body!
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