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She ended up knee-deep in slick rotting garbage with one hell of a shiner and a stitch gripping her side, holding a glowing-blue knife while something with tentacles thrashed toward her in the foul stinking water.
How the bloody blue hell do I get into these situations? Oh, yeah. Bond issues and politics. Sure.
While the good citizens of Jericho City would pay thousands yearly for plastic surgery and to pad the pockets of the mayor's friends, they simply would not vote a couple of measly bucks onto their property taxes to take care of her library. Lovely. Remind me to spit in a city councilman's coffee cup the first chance I get.
The thing scrabbled for her, throwing up great gouts of stinking water to splash the brick insides of the tunnel, and Chess hoped her college Latin was up to snuff. Let's hope the gingko's working for my memory too, shall we? She drew a deep breath, gagged, and choked out, "Fiat lux aeternis, in nominae Enomae!" in a voice that had more Minnie-Mouse squeak than kickass confidence to it. Her hand stabbed forward, full of the knife, force bleeding out through the blade in a hot wire of strength that seemed to come from her solar plexus. It was getting easier each time she practiced, but the draining sensation was also getting scarier. Much scarier, and much stronger.
Gunpowder flash-blast of blue light, deathlike scream, and she ended up on her back in two feet of stinking water and filth while the thing rained gobbets of already-decaying flesh into the water. The little plips and plops of reeking meat slapping the greasy water made her retch again, her stomach doing its best to engineer amutiny. I don't blame it one bit. Stomachs weren't meant for this kind of abuse.
Just another day in the life of a librarian. My boots are probably ruined. Great.
She coughed and gagged again, trying not to lose everything she'd ever thought of eating in the last week. The books always make this stuff sound so goddamn easy. They don't mention the smell. Or the way getting hit in the face with a tentacle as big around as your thigh hurts. Her eye was puffing closed, she could feel it throbbing and swelling to almost the size of a baseball.
Chess swallowed dryly, pleading with her stomach to stay down. The smell of garbage coated the back of her throat, and she probably had gotten some of the slimy water in her mouth. I don't think it's good for my image to blow chunks all over a ... what's this thing called again? Either a skornac or just plain Demon-With-Many-Arms. Particularly allergic to a fire-consecrated demon-hunter's knife. One more case where an ounce of research is worth a pound of "oh fuck."
Dripping, greasy, and filthy, she struggled up to mostly-vertical. Her bag was soaked, hanging wetly by her side; thank God for Ziploc bags. Everything in there likely to be damaged by water was safely in its own baggie. Ziploc was probably the best thing to happen in the last fifty years, along with computerized inventory and truly comfortable shoes.
The muscles in her thighs shook. If she hadn't been suddenly cold from the air hitting her now wet clothes and skin, she might have been--call the newspapers--sweating. Adrenaline lay thin and copper against her tongue and the roof of her mouth; her heart thudded.
"Any more of you assholes out there?" There weren't, of course--the knife's blade had dimmed to a dull punky-blue glow, meaning nothing demonic was near. She wanted to try breathing through her mouth, but the idea that she might taste the smell in the air made her gag again.
Christ, Chessie, get a hold of yourself!
As usual, she took refuge in literature. "But soft, what stink through yonder sewer reeks?" Her voice broke, echoing as she waded back through the tunnel, ducking under a pipe right at head-banging level. The water running through here--full of trash and ick as it was, it was still water, and a good friend--would cleanse any lingering foulness from the demon away. Smart little fucker, going underground. I was stupid to have followed it. But in the heat of the moment, even a starchy little librarian like Francesca Barnes could get a little impulsive.
"It is the sewer, and the librarian is really happy this is all over." A thin, unsteady, hiccupping laugh, and she felt almost ready to face the rest of the screwed-up situation.
She checked her watch in the rippling light bouncing off the scummy water. Half-past ten. Good. I might even get some sleep tonight. I'm only a couple blocks from home. Go figure, the first ever demon I kill is right around my humble abode.
If it hadn't been for the bond issue failing and the loss of the full-time maintenance man--though Stephenson often came around on his days off to do some repairs and heavy lifting, going above and beyond in return for Chess fixing him cups of tea and scolding him about his smoking--she wouldn't have been stumbling around in the basement looking for a spare box of light bulbs. And if she hadn't been stumbling around in the basement, she never would have found the little door and put her hand on the lock.
And I might never have known what was making kids disappear, or been able to stop it. Chess bit back a strained giggle at the very unfunny thought. The urge to laugh was damn near overwhelming. Probably some type of compensation or weird mental crack-up under the strain of facing down her very first demon.
From a dusty library basement to a sewer in six months. I only have a shiner and an almost dislocated shoulder to show for it. And that was a demon the books called small potatoes. I never want to meet a bigger one.
She'd reached the end of the tunnel before she felt brave enough to slip the knife back into its sheath and get out a waterproof flashlight, checking her compass repeatedly. The boys at the army surplus store are getting mighty curious about me, aren't they? Well, I get a discount, I suppose I can't complain. Chess blew out between her lips. The smell actually wasn't that bad now that she was far enough away from the rotting tentacles. The thing had been living on stray cats and rats--and the occasional schoolchild.
While I don't mind a demon that eats rats--that would actually be pretty useful in Jericho--I draw the line at kitties, even feral ones. And schoolkids. Even feral ones. Call me a softhearted sucker. I suppose if I wasn't, I wouldn't be pulling down forty thousand a year with two college degrees to my name.
After a long time of slogging she found the ladder, sighing in shaky relief. The rusted metal was rough and greasy, and she was glad of the grab in her hiking boots' soles. The maintenance-hatch was still open, she rolled out onto the chilly slick pavement of a Jericho City night, blessed city stink taking the place of the thick roil of sewer-stench. For a moment she lay on her back on the concrete, gasping, then it got too cold. Her shoulder throbbed as she pushed herself up to her feet. The alley was small, filthy, and dim, just the sort of place no reasonable woman should ever find herself in after dark.
It didn't take her too long to get home. She made it up the outside fire escape to her fifth-story window, blessing the fact that the little bit of WD-40 had worked wonders on the squeaking, creaking metal. No need to advertise to the whole neighborhood what she was up to.
Chess laid her hand on the window sash and murmured the password. "Nevermore."
She was rewarded with the sound of the lock chucking open. Two weeks of figuring out that little trick; two weeks of freezing your ass off on your own fire escape is bad for anyone's mood.
The plastic garbage bag she'd laid right under the window crackled as she closed the window and began struggling out of her stinking clothes, glad she'd left the lights off. It took about ten minutes, but at the end of those ten minutes she was able to dump everything in the stackable washer and dryer in her laundry closet. I am endlessly happy that I don't have to wash my panties in a Laundromat. Never mind that I have to pay a little extra in rent. It's worth it.
The red eye of her answering machine blinked balefully. Chess pressed the button, then hobbled into the bathroom to pee. Yet another thing the demon-hunting manuals don't tell you: getting close to death makes your bladder shrink. Maybe it's something to do with electrolyte balances messing up renal function. I'll look it up in the morning. Just one more odd fact to add to my steadily growing store of trivia.
The answering machine beeped as she sat on the toilet, elbows braced on knees and head hanging. Her hair was wet and filthy. Gooseflesh stood up all over her skin, hard sharp prickles. I think I'm dealing with this rather remarkably well, all things considered.
"Chess, it's your mother. Listen, Uncle Bill is in town. Do you want to come over on Saturday for lunch and a hot game of Scrabble? I'll make a pitcher of margaritas. Also, your sister wants her Death Cab For Cutie CD back, and I'd like my Nine Inch Nails collection too. Give me a call, sweetie, I miss hearing your voice. Bye!" Mom sounded, as usual, unremittingly perky. My mother, the original Pollyanna.
Chess's older sister was the bright one in the family, having gone to law school and taken a punishing corporate-law job that would make her filthy rich before long. She was already a partner. Librarian was an honorable avocation; their grandmother had been a schoolteacher and education was highly regarded in the Barnes family. But still, Chess didn't earn nearly enough.
I wish I could get paid for hunting down demons. But really, how much do you get paid for almost being strangled and drowned in garbage water before you can consider it worth it?
Next message. "Hey Chess, it's Charlie. Come rescue me Saturday. Mom and Uncle Bill want to murder me with Scrabble. And Mom wants to borrow my Death Cab For Cutie CD. Can I borrow your Charlie Feathers box set? I'll let you hold my Johnny Cash in return. Give me a call at work tomorrow. I'll tell the secretary to put you right through." Her sister chuckled and hung up. Chess made a face at her dirty scraped knees in the dark.
Next message. "Francesca." A piercing childish giggle. "Franncessssssca..."
Damn phone. It had been doing that a lot lately. Well, what do you expect when you find a clutch of priceless sorcerous books in a dusty boiler-room basement of a building built in 1906, since the damn city was too cheap to buy a new one?
Still, Chess loved the old library; its mellow wooden floors, its cranky heat, its moldering shelves and groaning ceilings. Its antique Art Deco elevators--in the twenties, apparently, the citizens of Jericho still cared about their library. She even loved her crammed little nook of an office--as head librarian, she was accorded that one luxury, the office that had been the head librarian's since 1922.
"Franncessssssca..." The voice turned even sweeter, more piping. "Frrraaaanncesssscaaaaa..."
"You know, as a prank caller, you really suck," she muttered. The message ended with a squawk of feedback. Her hair dripped. I think I'm still alive. God. Really dealing with this well. Chalk one up for me. I'm not in a straitjacket or clawing my own eyes out. This is fantastic.
Next message. "Hey, girl! It's Bobby."
Chess groaned into her knees. Oh, please. No.
"I didn't catch you at work today," Robert continued pleasantly, "and you're not home now. Wow, you've gotten busy. Can you give me a call? I think I have to cancel our date on Saturday and I want to talk it over with you."
Meaning you want to gauge whether or not I feel bad about it. Meaning you want to know whether I know you've been seeing that Cuban piece of trash on the side. Meaning you want to see just how long you can string me along before I get tired of it, wondering if you can drop me first but you're unwilling to give up the sex. Christ I'm glad I made you wear a condom. "Loss of sensitivity" my ass.
Robert made a few more meaningless remarks. She covered them up with the sound of the flush and hobbled out into the living room, wondering just how many messages there were. Then again, she wasn't home in the evenings much anymore, too busy spreading out in a search pattern with a dowsing-pendulum to track down the skornac.
Another beep. "Chessie! It's Al. Didn't see you at practice today, was worried about you. Give me a call."
End of messages. Chess sighed. Al Brown was the kickboxing teacher at Grant's Gym. He was also a big cuddly giant of a man who seemed to have taken it as a personal quest in life to make Chess the best asskicker she could be. It was kind of sweet; after all, she'd picked him because he looked the meanest out of all the teachers. Unfortunately, he's so goddamn nice I feel guilty every time I sock him one. Another case of no truth in advertising.
A long, hot shower helped. Chess emerged in a pink fuzzy bathrobe, her hair wrapped in a pink towel; she carried a small jar that gleamed faintly blue, looking like Brylcreem with glitter. She plopped down on the faded rose-patterned couch and turned the TV on, unscrewing the jar lid. The smell of mint and bitter wormwood exhaled into the apartment, and she took a thick glop of the goo and pushed her robe down, applying it to the spreading red-black bruise beginning to rise to the surface of her shoulder. It tingled and went numb.
"Ah." The sound of her voice, a hurt little cry, bounced off the wall. She sucked in a long breath, flinching as she massaged her shoulder. Oh, ouch. Ouchie.
Abbot & Costello was on the comedy channel. Chess turned it up and dabbed the ointment gingerly around her bruised eye, blinking furiously as tears trickled down her cheeks. The smell was so strong it coated the back of her throat, but the numb tingling was much better than the throbbing pain. Hallelujah, I'll no longer look like the poster child for domestic violence in the morning. There would be a little puffiness and soreness, but the shiner would be mostly gone. Tears trickled down her cheeks.
Wish I could market this stuff. It'd be worth millions. Chess stared at the television. Maybe they'd do Who's On First? one more time. The tears stopped eventually, she breathed deeply and felt her stomach settle. She'd survived her first brush with a demon and come out alive and only bruised.
She yawned, digging her toes into the rug, and barely lasted another half-hour before dragging herself to bed. That's another thing they don't tell you about demon hunting: how damn exhausted it makes you. She fell into her messy, unmade bed surrounded by its stacks of books and piled with blue and green pillows, staring at the framed print of Buster Keaton on the bedroom wall for a full thirty seconds before she passed out. The nightmares, when they came, were expected ... but that didn't make them easier to handle.
The next few days went as well as could be expected, except for a slight lingering headache. The tenuous peace went on, actually, for a whole week and a half.
Chess decided to do some paperwork at the Reference desk. They were shorthanded as usual and she could keep an eye on the checkout counter while she worked. Really dealing with this well, she told herself over and over again as she initialed, collated, read, and tried to ignore the way her stomach kept flipping. There was nothing in it; she hadn't managed to eat her toast this morning. It was still sitting on her kitchen counter, precisely placed on a blue porcelain plate.
"Good afternoon, Miss Barnes." Emmylou Pembroke's watery blue eyes glared through her steel-rimmed bifocals. Her graying hair was scraped back in its familiar no-nonsense bun. "I have something very important to speak with you about."
Chess set her pen down, her face frozen into the accommodating smile learned in third grade as a defense against bullies. Oh, good God, what is it now? She set aside the stack of papers and folded her hands, refusing to look up at Pembroke. Instead, she stared at the old woman's midriff. The Indignant was wearing the blue cardigan and tweed skirt today, and her liver-spotted hands trembled against her tartan bag.
"Won't you sit down, Mrs. Pembroke?" Chess inquired sweetly. "It's so good to see you. May I offer you a cup of tea?" Or a face-to-face with a tentacled demon in the sewers? I think that would be just up your alley, Pem.
Pembroke clutched her small purse to her solar plexus as if strangling a small pet dog against her cardigan. "No ... no tea." She sounded shocked. Relations between Chess and the Indignant had been icily polite ever since the great Barbara Cartland fiasco, with no détente in sight.
After dealing with an octopus-looking demon, Pembroke the Indignant didn't rattle Chess nearly as much. Her shoulder still throbbed a little bit when she reached up over her head, and her face was in good shape despite the tendency of one eyelid to twinge every once in a while, when she forgot and rubbed at it. Her hair didn't smell like filthy garbage water, for which she was extremely grateful. Her clothes had lost the smell of sewer after a good two-day soaking in laundry detergent.
Around them, the library dozed in its usual midweek rustles and dust. Chess glanced over, seeing sleek-haired Sharon behind the circulation desk, checking out a stack of romances for a fluffy-haired teenage girl who was methodically placing each paperback in a plastic bag to take home. Sharon's dark, immaculate eyebrows rose as she watched Pembroke sink down in one of the two chairs across from the Reference desk. The message was clear. Need some help?
I'll call if I need backup, Share. Chess's wry smile acknowledged her concern. Pembroke, as usual, got right to the point.
"I checked this out yesterday," she began, digging in her purse. Her cheap gold watch flashed, and her earrings, shaped like big plastic cherries, bobbed. Her beaky nose was having trouble holding her bifocals perched on the end, and Chess wished suddenly, vengefully, for them to fall off.
Oh, stop it. She's just a harmless old woman. This is the only happiness she gets from the drudgery of daily life.
Then Pembroke held up a Mylar-coated book. It was a copy of Huckleberry Finn.
Chess braced herself. The desire to bray with laughter rose, was suppressed with a violence that tickled her throat and stung her eyes. Oh, Lord, forgive me. What now?
Pembroke took a deep breath. "What is this smut doing in my library?" she huffed. "Do you know what's in this book?" Her voice dropped theatrically. "The "N" word, Miss Barnes! On almost every page! It's indecent, it's filthy, and I wish this book taken off the shelves immediately."
Oh, Christ, help me. I'm about to strangle a crazy old woman who scrubs the floor down at St. Ignatius's. Chess's fingers tightened against each other, she could almost feel her knuckles creaking. The urge to laugh and the urge to throw a paperweight rose hand-in-hand, and she suddenly felt much better. Almost normal. "I've explained to you before that I can't take books off the shelves, Mrs. Pembroke. My job as a librarian is to keep them on the shelves."
Her cheeks flushed angrily. "But think of the children, Miss Barnes! This--this filth was in the Young Adult section!"
What were you doing in the Young Adult section, Mrs. Pembroke? Inspiration struck. "Have you spoken to Father Bruce about this, ma'am?"
The Indignant blinked her watery eyes.
Chess persisted. "You might want to see what he says. I know Father Bruce personally, and would love to hear from him after you talk. We can't take Huckleberry Finn off the shelf, but maybe Father Bruce and I can work together to find a list of books you would like better."
Pem was not mollified. "I certainly don't want to bring this filth to the good Father's attention!" she hissed, her eyes bulging.
It was official. The urge to throw a paperweight at the old biddy's head was winning. Not only that, but Pembroke the Indignant was actually swelling like a poison toad.
Sharon was now done with the teenager and her romance novels, and was watching the scene play out with a worried line between her eyebrows. She seemed even more worried when Chess gave her a tight smile.
That is officially it. I have had enough. Francesca took a deep breath. "Mrs. Pembroke, not a week goes by without you coming to my office or bothering my staff about something you feel is indecent. If this library is such a sinkhole of filth and corruption, why don't you patronize the parish library on Twelfth Street? I'm sure they will have texts more to your taste." Chess gained her feet in one motion. She could feel the little betraying tic in her cheek that meant she was wearing her mother's patentedYou-Are-Aware-I-Am-Potentially-Deadly? expression, the one Mom sharpened to perfection on Principal Bonhoffer when Chess was in tenth grade. Pembroke leaned back in her chair, her face suddenly going cheesy-pale. But Chess simply leaned over the desk and snatched the Mylar-jacketed book from her bony claws. "I will take care of checking this back in for you. I expect your other books will be returned in a timely fashion, and if you are unhappy with our library we will be more than happy to cancel your card. Good day, ma'am."
"But I'm not finished--" Pembroke began, too late.
Oh, yes, you are. It wasn't politic to annoy the old biddy, she would probably start a letter-writing campaign to get the Head Librarian fired. It was just the sort of crusade that could fill her time effectively.
She's probably just lonely and unhappy, really. But dammit, nobody insults Mark Twain on my watch. Chess marched back to the circulation desk. Sharon stared, leaning against the counter; her dark hair pulled back under a white headband that complimented her tartan skirt and crisp white blouse. She had a green pashmina draped over her shoulders; she was the only person who could wear a pashmina without looking ridiculous. Of course, it could have been because she was a little under six foot tall and model-willowy, with large doelike eyes and a cherry mouth. Despite her obvious physical attributes, she was a good coworker, intelligent, punctual, cheerful, and just occasionally sarcastic enough to be interesting.
Chess carefully didn't slam the little thigh-high swinging door that was more a psychological deterrent than a barrier. It clicked shut, and she crossed to one of the computer terminals. She could feel the French twist she'd trapped her hair in this morning beginning to loosen, and wanted to lock herself in the bathroom to secure it. She also wanted a bacon cheeseburger, with an intensity that surprised her. Of course, she'd skipped breakfast. Again.
"What was that?" Sharon peered over Chess's shoulder.
Pembroke was gathering herself, it seemed. I hope she doesn't want a rematch. I don't think I'd be able to restrain myself. "She had a problem with Mark Twain's use of the Southern vernacular," Chess whispered back. "I told her we could cancel her card any time she wants. Suggested she go to the parish library."
Sharon's cheeks flushed and her mouth twitched. "She's looking." It was a good jailyard whisper, her lips barely moved. "Dear God."
"I know." Chess keyed her code into the computer terminal and checked the book back in, her fingers lingering gently on the cover. Poor Mark Twain, having to put up with her. Of course, he probably would have withered her with jolly sarcasm without her ever suspecting. "I have officially defended Sam Clemens's honor. Just call me a white knight."
Sharon's cheeks were pink with repressed laughter. Her eyes sparkled. "Looks like she's hobbling for the front door. Congratulations, Saint George."
Chess made a face at the computer screen, taking a deep calming breath. Sharon snickered and retreated, stepping through into the room behind the circulation desk. The room held a desk and a few filing cabinets as well as the carts of to-be-shelved and a cabinet of circulation-desk supplies, with a coffeemaker and a cabinet full of coffee, coffee filters, tea, and packets of sugar. Share was due for her afternoon cup of herbal tea, and Chess couldn't wait for her to finish. It would be lunchtime when Share finished making her tea, as always. A bacon cheeseburger with lots of drippy, melted cheese sounded good.
The library purred in its afternoon drowse. The smell of paper and quiet hum of computers mixed with the occasional page-turning and murmuring calm voices. One of the library volunteers, Antoine, pushed his cart into the Biography section, white hair gleaming under the lights. He was a retired naval officer, and a good library worker. Another volunteer, Grady, was over in the Fiction section, peering at Chess through his thick horn-rim glasses before he looked back down at his cart. If it wasn't for volunteers the whole place would sink like a ship. Of course, with the way the maintenance is going, it probably is going to sink like a ship. Right into the sewers. And the Head Librarian might go down with it.
Other than Antoine, Grady, and a few other volunteers, there weren't many people. There were a few teenagers, whether skipping school or off for the day, who knew? Of course, who would skip school in a library?
Well, other than me. I'm probably looking at some future class of library-science degree-holders. Yet more bodies to feed the maw of the library system, working for little pay and putting up with budget cuts and Pembrokes. "Lo I have slain dragons," Chess muttered, leaning against the counter as she struggled with the temptation to open the book and lose herself in it. "And lo have I rescued maidens. But lo, oh lo, I can't for the life of me conquer all the idiocy in the world."
Something tingled against her nape, and she glanced up. Paranoid. I thought I'd start getting paranoid. Of course, the kind of things she'd been doing lately, including hunting down an octopus demon, were almost guaranteed to give one a fair dose of healthy paranoia as well as intuition. It was a side-effect often warned about in the books, a strengthening of the psychic muscles. As well as the inherent risk of thinking everyone was out to get you.
Of course, thinking everyone is out to get you is a good way to stay cautious and undiscovered. You are, after all, hunting demons, Chess.
Her eyes traveled along the familiar counter, down the long strip of polished hardwood floor leading to the steps and the high narrow foyer, the short blue carpet stretching away on either side into the stacks. Globe lights descended from the ceiling, there was a slice of rainy sunlight falling into the foyer. And someone was coming up the stairs, a sandy-haired man in a sports jacket and jeans, with a backpack. His hair glowed mellow under the lights as he mounted the steps. The steps were hard, having been remodeled more than once, and everyone's shoes made noise on them.
Everyone's, apparently, except his. He moved very quietly, striding along, looking around like he'd never been in a library before. Tall, nice wide shoulders under the jacket, a crisp, blue button-down shirt, and a pair of wire-rim glasses. Chess set Huckleberry Finn on the closest cart, sighing when she thought of the extra work it would take to actually walk over and shelve it, and turned back to the rest of the library to find that Mr. Maybe-Hunk had done a Speedy Gonzales and was now right in front of the desk.
Well, hello. What do we have here? Nice, slightly curly sandy-brown hair, check. Good cheekbones, dark eyes behind the wire-rims, a long nose, check. Shoulders nice and wide, waist nice and trim, a little over six feet tall, check. Clean-shaven, check.
Initial hypothesis verified. He was a hunk. He looked like every girl's wet dream of an English professor.
Of course, I'm not crazy about sport jackets. But I could make an exception for shoulders like that, I like a man who works out. Hel-lo stranger. Come to get your library card?
His eyes flicked over her, and Chess restrained the urge to push her shoulders back and raise her chin. She wore a perfectly respectable blue sweater over a white dress-up shirt and navy slacks today, along with pearl earrings. It wasn't dowdy--no daughter of Chess's mother would ever dare to be frumpy--but it wasn't exactly a cocktail dress either. The way he looked at her seemed to imply he found her a little less than professional.
"Welcome to the Jericho City Library." Chess gave him a wide, bright smile. "May I help you?"
Then her right hip began to prickle.
He gave her a long, considering look, then answered the smile with one of his own. It was a white-toothed, fierce, supermodel-wide grin that actually pushed her back a step, the tingling against her hip intensifying as if she had the knife strapped under her slacks.
As a matter of fact, she did. Paranoid? Maybe. But facing down a tentacled demon that your entire upbringing says doesn't exist kind of makes you paranoid. Not to mention owning a knife that glows blue whenever anything demonic approaches. The knife was strapped against her hip, the bulge of the hilt hidden under the length of the sweater. And it had never, ever done this before.
"Hi there." He had a nice voice, an even tenor, but those teeth were too white. "I'm looking for a copy of Delmonico's Demons and Hellspawn."
Her heart started to pound, her palms were getting slippery. "Really? Well, is it fiction or nonfiction?" It's nonfiction, and I don't think I'm going to take you down into the basement, sir. Who the hell are you?
He didn't seem to expect that. He blinked, and he didn't lean forward to rest his elbows on the counter. The rare person that didn't lean against Chess's counter was usually too short to reach it. Kids went to the checkout counter in the children's section unless they were lost or precocious.
Silence ticked through the library. Someone coughed over in Biography. Chess tried her best to look interested, disingenuous, and innocent all at once. She could almost feel her cheeks freeze in what Charlie called the Dealing-With-Idiots-Smile. It almost hurt. "Fiction, or nonfiction?" she asked again.
A thin trickle of sweat slid down her back. Please don't let me be sweating on my forehead, he can see that. I should have practiced this in front of the mirror. Having a mother who could almost freeze boiling water with a raised eyebrow was far from the worst training for something like this, but how could anyone have found out so soon? She should have practiced more.
Don't be an idiot, Chess. You're dealing with sorcery here. It stands to reason opening the door in the basement, making your tools, learning a few spells, and going out to kill demons is going to get you some damn attention. You screwed up somewhere. Or he's just fishing.
"Nonfiction," he said, finally. His eyes moved over her face, an appraisal not nearly as hard to meet than Mom's eagle eyes. "Delmonico is the author." He spelled, too. Nice of him.
She made her fingers work, woodenly. Tapped to the "author" field, put the name in. Hit the return key. "What's it about?" Tried to sound bright and interested. Her throat seemed coated with cotton fuzz.
"It's a study of the techniques and methods used in classifying and identifying demons," he returned, with an absolutely straight face. His hands were under the edge of the counter, and her nape prickled again. So did her hip. And her stomach was leaping like Lassie on speed.
"Wow." And it's useful if you cross-reference it with Amandine's The Four Gates of the Unspeakable, but you've got to watch out for Delmonico's tendency to give you useless minutiae. Myself, I prefer Gilbert d'Arras, he's far more practical and forward-thinking. Plus he's a better writer. And those diaries I found aren't bad either, even if they are a slow read. "I'm not seeing it here. When was it published?" Act normal, Chess. For God's sake act normal.
"1604. The latest edition was brought out and bound in 1861." His smile widened.
"Ah." Chess nodded sagely. "Sounds like it's a bit too early for our collection. Have you tried some of the rare book dealers?" I am doing really well with this. Don't get cocky. The knife now seemed to be vibrating inside its sheath, pressed against her hip and causing a prickling burn against her skin. How is it doing that? Why is it doing that? For doing so well with research I'm woefully short on practical experience.
"No. It's a library book." He accented the word library slightly, his smile more like a grimace of pain now. The light glittered off the rims of his glasses, a sharp dart that threatened to jab right through her temples and set off a headache.
"Well, it's not in our library. You might want to try the university." Her smile felt like a grimace now, too. "They're very helpful, very nice." Shut up, Chessie. You're babbling.
That sparked a long, searching look. Those dark eyes behind the glasses suddenly seemed not so friendly.
"Is there anything else you're looking for?" Keep a light tone. You do this all day. Don't screw up now.
His smile widened. "No, guess not. Thanks, Miss..."
My God, he's actually asking my name. "Ms.," she said, frostily. "Ms. Barnes. Head librarian. And you are?"
"Charmed," he said promptly, his eyes dropping to her chest. "And Paul. Paul Harrison."
You bag of sleaze. Abruptly she was feeling much less charitable, no matter how hunkadelic he was. "I hope the university library can help you, Mr. Harrison." Her tone was now perceptibly unimpressed. Her scalp tingled with unease. He looked very much like Robert, who practically oozed charm when he was trying to get into someone's pants.
Then, mercifully, Sharon appeared. "Chess, I've got my tea, if you want to ... oh. Hello."
The man's eyes slid from Chess to Sharon. Immediately, assumptions were slid into place and the charm intensified. "Hello yourself," he said cheerfully, changing direction like a champion stunt-car driver. "I was looking for a book."
"Well, you're in the right place." Share did all but bat her long sweeping lashes at him.
Time for a graceful retreat, Chess thought, and took two steps back. "I'm popping out for lunch," she said, to nobody in particular. The scary hunkadelic didn't look away from Sharon, who waved languidly, cupping her mug of steaming tea in one pale, slim hand.
"See you soon," her assistant said, and Chess escaped gratefully. That was close. That was very very close.
So someone knows about my library. She forced herself to walk slowly away, her shoes firm and businesslike against the short blue carpet. I'm going to have to be very careful. But I can't see stopping.
Not with demons around.
She made it to the door to the stairwell, unlocked it, and opened it calmly. Stepped inside, and began the climb to her office to fetch her coat. She had to stop halfway because her knees were shaking so badly, which was why she hadn't taken the balky old lift.
Someone knows about my library, but I can't stop. Who will keep the other people in the city safe? I can't stop. That thing was taking children. Eating children, for God's sake. It's my job to do something about it.
Maybe I need a few recruits. But who do I know that I can say "Hello, would you like to hunt a few demons" to?
It was a puzzle, and one she suspected would keep her company all through lunch. Who knew? And how could she keep the library a secret and keep hunting demons?