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I posted on along these lines last year at BDWF, called Recital In Ninevah, found here: http://bdwf.net/forum/showthread.php?t=79507
This one I decided to publish at Watchforums for two reasons—I hope that, by linking it to a couple of other fora I belong to, I can bring in some extra members, and also because this is a pretty lurid story, and I doubt that I could tone it down enough for BDWF and still make it as horrifying as I’d like to think it should be.
So, I hope you enjoy this humble work.
“IS THE POSITION STILL open?”
“Well, yes,” said the bookseller. “Yes, it is. Quite open, you see.” He spoke with the harried, rather absurd air of a professional academic, which fit in very well with the dusty confines of his store. Miranda, looking for a job for the last several weeks, tried not to show her disdain for the bookseller’s shop. When one needed a job, anything could be overlooked.
“So,” said the bookseller, whose name he had muttered but Miranda hadn’t caught, “you’re interested in the position, then?”
“Very much so,” she said.
“You have experience in books?”
“I used to work for Borders.”
The bookseller nodded his head slowly and sadly. He was a very old man, obviously well past the normal retirement age, but he had a full head of very thick, very white hair. Andy Warhol hair, Miranda thought. “It’s a shame about Borders.”
“Yes,” said Miranda. “It is.”
“Not really my sort of book buying environment,” said the bookseller, still nodding his head, as if he had forgotten something not very important. “Killed by the computer sort of thing, right?”
“That and other things,” said Miranda.
“Unfortunate. Very unfortunate. Like I said, not the sort of place I would shop, but still, it is always a sad event when a bookstore closes its doors. There are so few of us left, you see.”
“I know,” said Miranda, for she had been looking for a book selling job for nearly a month, and this dusty, rummage sale of a place was one of the last three or four left in the city. She had happened by it completely by chance; she had been strolling along, in this West Side neighborhood, coming home from lunch with one of her friends, and nearly walked past the front door without bothering to look in.
It was a little store front place, with two large picture windows on either side of the heavy plate glass front door. The windows were so grimy that you could hardly see inside. An old fashioned painted sign hung over the door, reading ALL NATIONS BOOKS. Another sign, advertising HELP WANTED, hung inside the door. Miranda paused and stared inside, realizing after a moment that this was, indeed, a book shop. She had called and stopped in every other store that she knew about, that had been listed in the telephone book, and she knew that this place, All Nations Books, wasn’t listed. Nor had she ever even heard about it, which was in itself strange.
“So,” said the bookseller, “when do you think you’d be able to start?”
“Well, I suppose you want the job, as you were asking about it. So I thought I should offer it to you.”
“Don’t you want to ask me any other questions?”
“I already asked you if you have experience in books, didn’t I?”
“Yes you did.”
“And you said that you worked where, at Borders?”
“Well, that’s good enough for me. When do you wish to start?”
“Any time you’d like me to.”
“Tomorrow too early?”
“Not at all.”
“Very good. Shall we say, ten o’clock?”
“That would be wonderful,” said Miranda, not quite believing her good fortune but still somewhat skeptical at the same time. “What sort of hours do you want me to work?”
“Well, we open at ten. Ten to six? At least now in the summer. That should give you plenty of time to make it home before it gets dark.”
“And what days?”
“Well, Monday through Friday, I should think. Would that be agreeable to you?”
“You’re not open on the weekends?”
“Oh, no, not at all. Weekends are my free time. I would never work on days I consider my free time.”
“What about the pay?”
“How much were you making at Borders?” the bookseller asked, and Miranda told him.
“Well, I don’t think I could pay that much. My business is rather marginal, as you might be able to tell.” The old man walked up and down the worn wooden floor, his wingtips whispering through the dust, his finger held up to his bottom lip. Finally he paused and named her a salary that was about eighty percent of what she made in her last job. Miranda jumped at it, and the deal was settled.
NIGHT FELL ON THE city, by which time Miranda was safely home to her apartment, about a mile and a half away from her new place of employment. She had triple-locked the door and drawn the heavy curtains, drapes that reminded her of those in an old Hollywood movie about World War Two London, blackout curtains, they used to call them. She made a light dinner and opened one of her last bottles of wine to celebrate her new job, and sat there, in the dim apartment, listening to her neighbors in the building around her settle down for the evening.
She heard the couple in 4A above her start their nightly fight. They always got into it around nine or nine-thirty, and went at it tooth and nail for about a half an hour, until it seemed both were too worn out to continue. In the apartment across the hall from her, in 3B, she heard the big fat fellow start singing at the top of his lungs, blasting out an aria from Lohengrin. He had not too bad a voice, she thought. In 3C, directly to the right of her, she could hear one of the young couple who occupied that unit put on an old rap music recording.
They all make so much noise, Miranda thought. Of course they do. Making a lot of noise was the idea. All across the city, all across the country–-and the world, for all she knew–-people were going about their lives as loudly as possible, because they wanted to drown out the sounds from outside their homes. Their homes were safe, or as safe as they could make them; to be outside was to court death. And since they were inside and safe, they wanted to keep up the illusion of safety, for people want that illusion more than anything.
Over all the sounds of the apartment building, loud as they were, she suddenly heard, from somewhere outside on the street, a high-pitched shriek. It went on and on, much longer, for instance, than the big fat Wagner freak in 3B could hold a note, and she suspected he was classically trained. The shriek continued for an absurdly long while, rising and falling all over the register, and then was abruptly cut off. And when the shriek died, all the other noises in the building stopped with it, even the young couple in 3C put their DVD player on pause; and an unearthly silence fell over the neighborhood. Everyone held their breath, waiting, waiting.
Then it came, the terrible, revolting laughter.
“Got another one, didn’t you, you sons of bitches!” shouted the big fat guy from across the hall, his voice indignant. The laughter outside increased. Miranda dumped the rest of the glass of wine down her throat, even though it was a very expensive Merlot and she had wanted to make it last. Suddenly it seemed that everybody in the building went back to what they had been doing; singing, listening to rap music, fighting. Miranda grabbed up the remote control and switched on the television. She started to surf the channels, over a hundred of them, desperately searching for the loudest thing she could find. Finally she ended up on the Bob Saget Channel; on the screen Bob Saget was getting punched in the groin by one of the Olsen twins. He pulled a face and doubled over, the canned laughter uproarious. Miranda turned the sound up as high as it would go, but she still thought she could heard the laughter outside.
The TV station went to a commercial, showing a card that said THE BOB SAGET CHANNEL! ALL SAGET, ALL THE TIME!
Thank God for the five hundred digital channel future, she thought.
After about ten minutes she thought it was safe to turn the sound on the tube back down. She hit the button on the remote and listened; nothing. Then, far away, a few gunshots. The gangbangers were sharing the night with the skells again. In her opinion, there wasn’t a lot to choose between them, although gangbangers, being living human beings, were probably a little better. And if they got you, all that happened was that you died. You wouldn’t become one of them.
She drank the rest of the bottle of Merlot and went to bed, pleasantly buzzed. Let the night take care of itself, she told herself. I have a job now, and I have to worry about tomorrow.
SHE GOT TO THE store at ten minutes to ten the next morning and waited outside. The door was locked, and the big picture windows on either side were still so filthy that she couldn’t see any movement inside. She was a little surprised that the bookseller--whatever his name was—didn’t see fit to put up an iron gate in front of his shop. There were a few other businesses along the street, mainly pawn shops, and each of them had a gate locking out the skells and gangbangers. She checked her watch. It was a hot summer morning, the sun was shining, and for the moment she was happy just to stand there, waiting for the bookseller to show up.
Finally, at ten o’clock precisely, the bookseller unlocked the door from the inside. Miranda wasn’t sure if he lived in the building or if he had come in some back way.
“Good morning, Miranda,” he said.
“You haven’t been waiting too long, I hope.”
“Not at all, sir.”
“Please, call me Hubert, if you would be so kind.”
“Certainly, Hubert,” said Miranda, glad to finally know his name.
“Do come in. Would you care for some tea? Or coffee? I can make either.”
“Some coffee would be nice.”
She followed him into the store as the heavy glass door swung shut behind her. The door closer wasn’t working correctly and the door made a loud bang. She jumped, but Hubert didn’t see her as he walked towards the back of the shop. Miranda followed him, walking between very tall metal shelves overflowing with books. The shelves reminded Miranda of small towns in France, back when she and her ex-husband had gone there on vacation, the tiny medieval villages with narrow streets, the houses on either side jutting out farther and farther with each higher storey. It didn’t look very safe to her. She thought again about her years working for Borders before they went out of business, the shelves correctly stocked, each section alphabetized, everything in its place.
The back room wasn’t much better. Boxes of books were stacked everywhere, overflowing, bursting at their seams. When she had come in the day before Miranda had figured that the shop sold nothing but out-of-print and used books, but she saw a large carton containing the dump for the new Rush Limbaugh hardcover, Look Where We Are Now You Stupid Bastards. Interestingly she remembered that title coming into her old store just before they closed their doors forever. Hubert was puttering around with the coffee maker, his back still towards her.
“You sell new books here?” she asked.
“I thought all you sold were used books.”
“Oh, we sell a little bit of everything,” said Hubert vaguely.
“That’s a bestseller there,” she said, pointing at the box full of Rush Limbaugh.
“New York Times list for the last month.”
“Really?” said Hubert, as if the NYT bestseller list was something he had never heard of. “How very interesting. I suppose we should put it out on display, then. Couldn’t hurt sales, right?”
Miranda nodded, trying to place his accent. He spoke like an Englishman, but his accent was the pure Midwestern dialect of news anchors.
“The coffee shall be ready in a few minutes. Let me show you where you can put your purse and things.”
Hubert took her farther back into the stockroom and pointed out some old metal lockers. “I don’t have any locks, I’m afraid. Perhaps you might want to bring one next time you work. I shouldn’t worry about it, however. We have very little theft in this store.”
Miranda stashed her purse in one of the lockers. “I would have thought it would be pretty bad, in this kind of neighborhood.”
“Oh, we have a bit of it,” said Hubert, turning on his heel and heading back to the front of the store. He moved very quickly for a man of his age, and Miranda, who was forty and taller, had to run to keep up. “Overall, however, most of my customers tend to pay for their books.”
Just before he went out onto the sales floor, Hubert took an old beige shop coat off a hanger and slipped it on over his sweater. It was warm in the store but he wore the coat and the sweater, both over a dress shirt and a perfectly knotted necktie. His pants were corduroy and since he was slightly bowlegged they made a faint whispering sound as he walked.
IF HUBERT’S CUSTOMERS WERE honest, Miranda wasn’t able to say, because nobody came into the store at all that morning save the UPS delivery man, dropping off a few more boxes to clutter up the back room. Hubert showed her the single cash register up at the front counter. It was an old mechanical register, something that Miranda hadn’t seen in a long time and had certainly never used before in her life. He showed her how to ring purchases up, not that there was any call for that until about one that afternoon. The bell over the front door jangled and a young Latin man walked in. At that moment Miranda was sitting behind the counter, waiting for something to happen, waiting for Hubert to show her something to do, so she stood to greet the man.
“Good afternoon,” she said.
“Where’s the old man?”
It took her a moment to realize that the young fellow was dressed in a black track suit, with snow-white basketball shoes and a red bandana tied around his neck. He was a gangbanger, that was for sure, although Miranda wasn’t about to distinguish what gang he might be a member of.
“He’s in the back.”
“Get him up here for me.”
“Certainly,” she said, her cheeks flushed both from the sudden appearance of the gangster and his offhanded manner with her. She hurried into the back room, where Hubert was sitting at a desk, sipping a cup of coffee, staring at the wall doing, as far as she could tell, nothing else at all. Apart from the cup of coffee, there was nothing on the desk. He looked up, surprised.
“Yes, Miranda? Is there something I can help you with?”
“There’s a man out front.”
“Very good. Perhaps you might sell him something.”
“He’s a gangbanger.”
“All the better. They’re about the only people who seem to have money anymore.”
“He was asking for you, Hubert.”
“Oh, I see. We’d better see what he wants, then, shall we?”
They walked back up front, Hubert leading the way, Miranda following, wondering all the way what was up. Was it a shakedown payment? Had Hubert in some way offended the young man, and was now going to get a beating? Innocent people were beaten every day in the city, and many were even more roughly handled. That very morning Miranda had the radio on as she was getting ready to come to her new job and had heard that seventeen bodies were recovered the night before, and only ten of them were victims of skells.
“Almondo!” said Hubert, sounding like he was actually pleased. “Good afternoon to you, sir. How are you this fine day?”
“All right,” said Almondo, like it was an effort to admit to it.
“Miss Miranda here said that you wished to see me. Was there a request that you had?”
“City of God. Who the fuck wrote that?”
“That was St. Augustine, Mr. Almondo.”
“That’s what I thought. You got a copy of that?”
“I suppose that I do. But you could have asked Miss Miranda if you had such a simple request.”
“I don’t know her. I know you.”
“Miss Miranda works here now.”
“Since this morning.”
Almondo turned and stared at Miranda, sweeping his eyes over her. But as she was neither very young or very pretty, he seemed to have little interest.
“What the fuck for?” he demanded.
“Well, Mr. Almondo, as you have no doubt realized, I’m not as young as I used to be. And since I’m out of town so often, I thought it would be a good idea if I hired somebody on to help me out, you see.”
This surprised Miranda, for she had heard nothing at all from Hubert about him traveling or, more importantly, him presumably leaving her here to watch the store.
“Yeah, whatever,” said Almondo, like he was sorry that he asked. “Anyway, you got that book or what?”
“I’m sure I do. Would you look for it, please, Miss Miranda?”
“Of course, Hubert,” she said, unsure of where to start. She had taken most of the morning walking through the store, looking as shelves and the books piled on them, trying to make sense of the layout. She was still pretty much at sea as to how Hubert organized his store, if indeed there was any organization at all.
“While she’s looking for that one, I got another one I want you to find,” said Almondo.
“Yes?” said Hubert, bending over the counter as Almondo wrote down his request for him, like he didn’t want Miranda to hear. She wandered away into the stacks, peering around her, thinking, with more than fifty thousand books published a year, and how many years since St. Augustine wrote City of God, her chances of finding that one single volume were pretty remote. She walked all the way to the back wall of the front room, surrounded by books, old books, new books, books in tatters, books falling apart, mass market paperbacks, trade paperbacks, hard covers, books as far as the eye could see, and not a hint of St. Augustine, or the works of any other saint, for that matter. She heard footsteps and glanced over her shoulder, seeing Hubert puttering about, presumably looking for the other book that Mr. Almondo wanted. And why did a gangbanger want a copy of City of God for, anyway? What was the sense in that? In Miranda’s opinion, most gangsters were barely literate, probably only able to scrawl their names on their bail-bonds sheets.
She turned another corner and slid to a stop in front of a large set of Modern Library editions, nicely bound hard covers, all matching, each with a clear plastic dust jacket. There might be something here, she thought, and almost whimpered in rage when she realized that even this set wasn’t in alphabetical order. Could the silly old fool do nothing right? She was about to give up when she saw a copy of St. Augustine in the middle of the set of Modern Library editions, grabbed it, and hurried back to the front of the store.
“I found one,” she said, very happy with herself, even though she had discovered her quarry by simple chance.
“Ah, very good, Miranda. I knew you could do it. Would you ring Mr. Almondo’s purchases up for him, please?”
“Of course.” She sidled up to the register and picked up the two books, City of God and the other one that Hubert must have found. It was a strange looking trade paperback, with a cheap brown cover and second-rate glue binding; it looked like a Government Printing Office publication, which was just what it was. It bore the title Comparisons Between C-4 and Semtex Plastic Explosives. Miranda felt her mouth dry up.
“Will that be all today, sir?” she asked.
“Yup,” said Almondo, looking unconcerned at the wall behind Miranda, acting like a businessman on his lunch hour buying a girly magazine. He took out a platinum American Express card and handed it to her. Miranda rang up the two books and turned to look for the card reader to swipe the card.
“No need for that, Miranda,” said Hubert. “Mr. Almondo is a long and valued customer here.”
“Oh,” she said. “Okay.”
She ran the card through the old-fashioned manual imprinter, not able not to notice that the card was in the name of one Jeffrey Longhurst. She handed Almondo the charge document and the gangster scrawled a signature across it. She was about to check the signature against the one on the back of the car, then thought, why bother? She bagged the books and gave Almondo the AMEX card and his receipts.
“Later, dude,” said Almondo, and left the store.
“Ah, yes,” said Hubert. “That was a good sale to start the day.” He turned and wandered back into the rear of the store.
BUT IF HUBERT WAS courtly and professional with people like Almondo, a gangboy if Miranda had ever seen one (and she had seen plenty) then, as if showing the reverse of the coin of his personality, Hubert was curt and disdainful, and often downright rude with the regular customers. Several ordinary people, that is to say, people who didn’t use stolen credit cards and probably didn’t have long police rap sheets, came into the store that afternoon, browsing and killing time, most of them.
One was a very large lady who came banging into the front door, her chest heaving with exertion, sweat running down her face, lugging a large shopping bag filled with groceries. This was just after two that afternoon, right as Miranda was coming back from lunch.
“Excuse me, sir! Excuse me, sir!” the lady said, walking up to the counter, where Hubert was sitting, unconcerned, reading the newspaper. He looked over the top of the paper at her like she was something loathsome.
“I’m looking for a book.”
“Very good, ma’am.”
“I thought I’d ask you if you had it, rather than looking around for myself.”
Hubert’s expression seemed to indicate that he would rather she turned and left the store altogether, but he set down his paper with a sigh and turned to face her.
“I don’t know the title,” the lady said.
Hubert pursed his lips and nodded slightly, as if he had thought as much. “I see, ma’am. Do you happen to know the author?”
“I don’t know the author, either.” She pronounced it arthur.
“Ah, well, that makes it particularly difficult, then, ma’am.”
“A friend told me about it.”
“Hmmm. Did this friend happen to mention to you want the book was about?”
“She said it was about codependancy.”
“Ma’am, there are very many books about codependancy. I happen to have many dozens here in this store alone. And I understand there are many hundreds available, perhaps numbering into the thousands. Did your friend happen to mention, perchance, what color the book was? How many pages? Did she happen to say it was clothbound or paperback?”
“She did say that it was a hardcopy.”
“Ah, a hardcopy,” said Hubert, his voice fairly dripping with condescension. “Now we are narrowing it down a bit.” He still hadn’t moved a foot from behind the counter and Miranda stood there, watching him, her mouth gaping. She had learned at Borders that, when confronted with a customer who had no idea what it the world they were looking for, it was always a good idea to move out onto the floor, as if to help them. At the very least, it removed the counter from in between the salesperson and the customer, brought them level, so to speak. She certainly had never spoken to a customer with as much bile as Hubert was now.
“Show me where the section with the codependancy books is, I’ll look myself,” the lady said. She had obviously realized that Hubert was making fun of her.
“Of course, ma’am. This way, please.”
They walked back into the stacks as Miranda took Hubert’s place behind the counter, wondering just what sort of bastard the old man was.
He was back in less than a minute, surely no longer than it took to wave the large lady into the section and dump her there.
“She’s in here quite a bit, actually,” he said.
“Oh yes. She’s quite a fan of different books on pop psychology. I gather she has too much time on her hands. Rather than, say, going to a health club and working off some of her weight, so that she might meet a man and put her troubles behind her, she tends to sit at home, watching all the absurd daytime TV talk shows and eat Miracle Whip out of the tub with her fingers.”
“That’s hardly the proper way to talk about a customer, Hubert,” said Miranda, lowering her voice in an unconscious attempt to force Hubert to lower his, for he was speaking pretty loudly, and noises seemed to carry in the large front room.
“Perhaps I misspoke, Miranda. I do apologize. I’m sure the good lady uses a spoon.”
Whether she used a spoon or not, the good lady didn’t see fit to make a purchase that afternoon, and left in something of a huff.
About a half an hour later another customer came into the store and caught the sharp edge of Hubert’s tongue. This customer was a youngish man, a dyed-in-the-wool yuppie, wearing a sharp suit and an expensive tie. He had a conservative haircut and a pair of black horn-rimmed glasses perched on his aristocratic nose, and Miranda was sure this was just the type of person that Hubert would have welcomed into his store; but no, unfortunately Hubert must have caught something about the fellow’s character or bearing that Miranda had missed, and as soon as the man walked up to the counter, Hubert’s eyes seemed to darken and a furrow crossed his brow. Miranda wasn’t standing at the counter at that moment, but was across the store near the front display window, wondering if she should wash the glass, so she wasn’t able to tell exactly what they were talking about, but it was obvious that the yuppie wasn’t going to take Hubert’s disdain the way the large woman did. An argument quickly flared up between them.
“So you going to help me or not?” demanded the yuppie.
“I’m doing my best here, pal.”
Pal? Miranda thought. That wasn’t like the Hubert she had come to know and slightly detest.
“Bullshit you’re trying to help me!” the yuppie shouted.
“I’d thank you not to raise your voice to me, sir. Or use foul language. There is, unless you haven’t noticed, a lady present.”
“I wish I could treat my customers the way you treat yours, you goddamn jerk.”
“Oh, but if you did that, you wouldn’t be able to sell them as many shoes, I would think.”
“Perhaps you can find someplace else to buy your books, sir. Good day to you.”
“Go pound sand, jagoff.”
“The same to you pal,” Hubert suddenly snarled, again, disturbingly out of character. The yuppie actually recoiled a step. “Yeah, go drink a big glass of milk. Go across the street and find a warm place to beat yourself off. Go do some goddamn thing.”
The man left quickly, as if he knew he was outclassed. Miranda walked up to the counter, where Hubert had settled himself down to read the rest of the newspaper.
”Oh, just Hubert, if you please, Miranda.”
“I don’t think I can work here any longer.”
“Oh, dear, why is that?”
“I’m not sure of the way you do business, Hubert.”
“My store has been here for nearly twenty years, Miranda. I would say that I’m doing a fine business. Oh, I understand that today has been particularly slow–“
”That’s not what I meant, Hubert. First, a gangbanger comes in here and you treat him like royalty, even though he’s obviously a criminal. He even paid with a stolen credit card–“
”Ah, that’s right, you mean Almondo.”
“That wasn’t the name on the credit card, Hubert.”
“I should doubt that it was. Thank God for floor limits.”
“Then, this afternoon, we have two people, from what I could tell good people, and you treat them like garbage. I don’t know if I want to be associated with a store where business is conducted in that way.”
“Now then, Miranda, I’m sorry if I’ve offended you. I certainly didn’t want that to happen. Is there something I can do–“
”It wasn’t me that you offended, Hubert. It was two customers.”
“You see, Miranda, I don’t suffer fools well. That’s always been a problem that I’ve had to deal with. Come now, I’m sure that we can come to some understanding.”
In the end, when it was time for Miranda to go, she was still employed at the All Nations bookstore, after Hubert increased her pay ten percent.
AFTER SHE HAD GONE Hubert put up the CLOSED sign but left the door unlocked. He had made a strong pot of tea and locked up the back room, stationing himself at the counter. He made sure all the lights were on, and as the sky outside the filthy windows started to darken, he unlocked a drawer under the cash register and took out a pistol, a Heckler & Koch MotherFucker II automatic, .40 caliber. He drew back on the slide slightly to make sure that the chamber was filled with a round, then stuck it back in the drawer, leaving it unlocked. He doubted that he would need the weapon. He never had before, but there was always such a thing as a first time.
They would be coming out soon, and it was always a good idea to be prepared. It hurt nothing to be on guard with the vampires.
AND SO THEY COME, not just vampires but all the other denizens of the night. The Goths, the homeless, the skinheads, the radicals of every fringe. They come trudging into the All Nations Bookstore singly, in pairs and sometimes in small groups. The only thing they have in common was their need to embrace the protective shroud of darkness, that and their need for books.
Hubert stays behind the counter, refusing to come out, as if the two and a half feet of laminated wood could somehow protect him from attack. The night people know of his reluctance to venture forth into the store to help them in their quest for books, so they don’t bother to ask. A few of the night people come up and ask a few questions, their words muted and mumbled, as if they are embarrassed. Sometimes Hubert has to strain to hear them. He’ll direct them where they need to go, but he won’t leave the counter. Only those who have never been to the All Nations ask the questions; the regulars know, more or less, where to find what they need.
Just before nightfall Hubert had mounted a small flight of wooden steps and unlocked a heavy iron door. This door leads to a room that he hasn’t yet told his new employee Miranda about, and he isn’t sure he will tell her in the future, for he still has some doubts about her. The door has a heavy-duty closer on it that is powerful enough to slam into the unwary’s rear-end as they walk through. Some of the night people prowl around on the main floor, the others mount the steps and enter the other room. What goes on in the other room is none of Hubert’s affair; anything can happen there, what with the dangerous mix of his night-time customers, but he wants to know nothing about it. Hence the door-closer, which he had installed not long after he went to extended hours.
And the customer mix is indeed eclectic, to say the least. If these night people were to meet anywhere else but in All Nations there would certainly be murder done. The skinhead Neo-Nazis hate the homeless, the homeless hate the Goths, the Goths hate just about everyone. And everyone, without a doubt, hate the vampires, and vice versa. Many of these night people are packing weapons, some more dangerous than Hubert’s own pistol, within easy reach in the unlocked drawer. But this place, this strange, unlikely bookstore with its grimy windows and misspelled books, is a place of cease-fire. It is a DMZ, like the line between the two Koreas, where people can mix and do their business and slink away in the night. It is an unspoken agreement between the night people and Hubert that, as long as he stays open, as long as he stocks the books they want and need, there will be no trouble. The Metropolitan Police know all about the All Nations, and they leave it alone. Hubert has never seen a policeman come into the store at night, at least in uniform, although he has no doubt that they have come in wearing plain clothes from time to time. The cops know that this is a place of business, and that nothing so far has happened here that is illegal, so they leave the place alone. Besides, they have other things to keep them busy at night.
By midnight the store is full, much fuller than Hubert can ever hope for during the daytime. Vampires and Goths and skinheads brush past each other as they skulk between the high shelves, looking, looking, and sometimes finding what they want. When they do they come to the counter and place the books they want on the counter, and Hubert rings them up, just like in any bookstore anywhere in the world. After dark he only accepts cash, no credit cards and certainly no checks. He has a small scanner next to the old cash register that he uses to check the larger denomination bills, to make sure they are not counterfeit. At any rate, he almost never gets bogus bills from his night customers.
By two the store is starting to clear out. The vampires are heading out to feed again, the skinheads to crash, the Goths to attend some rave or another. Hubert is finally getting tired, the hours he has been up are dragging at his brain, pulling him down towards sleep. He has always been a man who needs little sleep. Even when he was younger, during his college days at Oxford, he could get by with only two or three hours a night. As he has gotten older he finds he needs a little more than that, but still he sleeps only about four hours a night. This is the reason he stays open so long, since he cannot sleep anyway, he figures he should go ahead and make a little money.
And the money sure does flow in at night. That day, when Miranda was working with him, he had only taken in about thirty dollars, not even enough to pay his power bill, let alone his new assistant. That night he takes in over a thousand dollars, all cash, all of it going into his own pocket. His trade books, at the front of the store, like the new Tom Clancy, All Chink Commies Must Die, retails for a FPT price of $35.95, but he discounts fifty percent to keep up with Amazon. But the books that come from the secret room at the top of the stairs, books so dark they can make a strong man like Clancy’s hero Jack Ryan wet his pants, well, there are no discounts on these. Some of them don’t even have titles. Some are bound in expensive antique leather, others are no more than photostats stapled together between plain paper covers, but these books are where Hubert makes all his money. These are definitely sold full boat. Some cost fifty dollars, some a hundred, a few for much, much more. There are a couple on the shelves in the secret room that sell for many thousands of dollars. There is no complaining about the price when one is brought out by one of the night people to buy, for most of these books are not available anyplace else. This is why so many people of the lower depths come to shop at the All Nations.
Hubert watches his customers come and go. Not everyone buys something, less than one in ten in fact actually leave with a purchase. That is okay with Hubert. He knows they’ll be back, and more importantly, they’ll tell their friends–-if such low-lifes actually have friends. And those people will, one day, perhaps stop in at the All Nations. Hubert doesn’t advertise. All his business is word-of-mouth. He watches them all, saying very little. He sits on his stool behind his counter, somehow aloof from the swirl around him, like Rick Blane in a latter-day Casablanca. His senses are alert, even as he begins to feel more and more fatigued. Nothing escapes his attention. He is very helpful to the night people as they come in to make their purchases. There is nothing condescending about the way he addresses them, indeed he is almost courtly about his dealings with them, the way a fine tailor in a good London shop, a shop that deals with royalty, is courtly, firm and businesslike and just a tad obsequious. His contempt is saved for the day customers, the fat women looking for diet books and men in sharp expensive suits searching for the newest management how-to.
At three in the morning Hubert is very tired, but it is still too early to close. Perhaps a dozen people, nearly all of them vampires, mill about in the main room, and there are some others in the private room at the top of the steps, Hubert doesn’t know how many. His normal practice is to either wait for four in the morning or until there are only a few people left in the store before he locks up. To keep himself from drifting off he plugs a recording of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade into the MiniDisc player under the counter. Many of his night people enjoy classical music, and not just the vampires. He’s had gangbangers leave the store humming a few bars of Bach. The music will keep him awake far better than caffeine; it gets into his head and settles like a cat that’s found a comfortable place to sit, purring and making his soul a little lighter. He is still a exhausted, but he can go on for another hour.
And so there he sits, listening to a Russian composer’s take on the 1001 Nights, in the middle of the night himself, in the middle of a great metropolis, surrounded by the living and the not so alive.
© 2012, John Steven Anderson