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SKODA HAD JUST FED, and was feeling pretty good that night, thank you very much.
He was short, only about five foot six, and his pale blond hair hung down on the sides of his head and flopped like the wings of a tired bird. He disdained the Goth styles that most of his kind embraced, and instead looked somewhat like a tourist on vacation, wearing baggy khaki shorts with numerous pockets and an absurd Hawaiian shirt that hung loosely on his thin frame. The shirt was very loud, covered with multicolored parrots, and the gaudy design partially hid the drying spots of blood that ran down his front.
It was still very hot, and very humid too, but Skoda didn’t feel the heat or the humidity either. He was dressed lightly simply because he didn’t like the tightness of constricting clothes. And his casual dress helped him blend in with his surroundings, like the Motel 6 where he was staying at the moment. Apart from the fact that he never came out of his room in daylight, or that he sometimes came back from feeding with splotches of gore on his Hawaiian shirts, he might have been any one of several dozen vacationers who were checked in the cheap hotel.
Some vampires drew attention to themselves, outlandishly dressed like marchers in a Gay Pride parade, but not Skoda. He drew as little attention to himself as he could, especially in large cities, where the policemen were as likely to carry machetes as nightsticks or pepper spray. It didn’t pay to advertise one’s predilections. Walking down the street that night Skoda had passed a lone vampire like himself, a tall, rather portly man, well past middle age, who was tricked up in full white tie and tails, like he was Bela Lagosi or something. They had passed each other, each knowing that the other was a vampire, for all vampires can tell such things, and they moved to opposite sides of the sidewalk to give each other room, for vampires tend to very territorial. Skoda wondered what the Dracula wannabe’s story was; he had a round, open Scandinavian face with blue eyes and short blond hair. The fellow could have been an accountant or middle-level manager of some large corporation, on his way to a fancy dress ball. Why had he Become? Skoda couldn’t say, nor did he really care either. Why did Americans do anything? The Dracula would certainly end up with his head struck off by the police, or stomped into the dust by skinheads, or some other terrible way of departing this best of all possible worlds. He might as well try to feed on the president of the United States as dress like that; Skoda was pretty certain that the fellow had Become not too long ago, and could smell the desperation on him, for the vampire hadn’t fed in a long while, perhaps as long as a week or more. Skoda himself could feed once a week and still stay healthy and active.
He thought about the child he had murdered a scant half hour before. He was a young black boy–-or as the Americans liked to say, an African American. Whatever handle the boy liked to go by, he was sure good eating. Skoda had found him playing in a vacant lot in the slum district of the city. What were his parents thinking, allowing the little boy out after dark? Skoda, who had needed to feed and had resigned himself to draining some stinking old wino or bindlestiff had laughed out loud at this windfall, and quickly dispatched the child with a blow to the back of his neck, then drank him dry. It was the work of less than a few minutes to sup on the wonderful young blood, and now he felt fit, ready for action, ready to do some more living. Children’s blood was the best.
At that moment he felt about thirty years old, the same age as he appeared now, the way he looked when he Became, one hundred and thirty years before.
He turned a corner and headed up another street. This part of town was dead at night, lined with warehouses and shuttered factories. Skoda had heard that there was an economic downturn going on in America. This was capital, as far as he was concerned. The more people out of work, the better, for that meant that there were more people living on the streets. Families, people with toothsome children running about and playing in the middle of the night. Skoda wondered if the boy he had just killed was one of those. He drifted along the street, watching, his senses alert, his eyes flashing this way and that, his ears open. He saw very few people out and about, mostly other vampires and a few carloads of skinheads. He avoided the skinheads especially. They didn’t care who they attacked. Jews, Catholics, vampires, blacks, all were the same to the skinheads. They were just more targets as far as they were concerned. Skoda wondered why the police didn’t do more to control them.
There were places in the city where life was still going on as it had before, when the economy was good, when skinheads cowered in their basements and read tattered copies of Soldier of Fortune, before everybody and his brother had Become vampires. There were places where the smart set still gathered for the theater and went out for nice meals in fine restaurants. Where the conversation was witty and politics and religion were not discussed. Places where Skoda, in one of his fine Versace suits and Brioni neckties, would have fit in perfectly. But this part of town wasn’t where the action was, this was where the lower depths met and went about their business, such as it was. The truth be told, Skoda rather missed the high life.
He turned another corner and saw the glow coming from the front windows of a small shop in the middle of the block. What was this? he wondered. Some workingman’s bar, a dive filled with society’s derelicts? He continued on until he was standing in from of the place, and read the sign over the door. A bookstore! Here, in the middle of this barren urban wasteland! And it seemed open for business, because even though the CLOSED sign hung in the doorway, the door itself was unlocked and Skoda could see a few people milling about inside. He pushed the door open and went in.
And paused, there on the threshold, listening.
It was one of his favorite pieces. At the moment the second movement, the story of the Kalendar Prince, was issuing from hidden speakers somewhere in the high ceiling. The first time Skoda had heard it was in St. Petersburg, just before the Great War. He was on the main floor, in the center about ten rows back from the stage, a little closer than he preferred but that was the best seat that he could get. Tsar Nicholas was in the Imperial box, high overhead, like a Sun God peering down on his subjects. Skoda remembered that everyone around him, the cream of Russian society, was talking during the performance. Rarely had he encountered a worse audience than the one that White Night in Petersburg, on the eve of the worst war mankind was ever to experience, at least up until that point. In his native Hungary Skoda recalled how audiences would sit in total silence, transfixed by the music, paying homage to it, getting caught up in it; there wasn’t a lot that Hungarians did very well, but performing music was near the top of that short list, and the audiences knew it, and so kept their mouths shut. Even the Tsar was talking, to one of his daughters, Skoda could see. The Empress wasn’t there, of course. She seldom went out in public, being painfully shy, usually mistaken as aloof by the boors who made up the Russian Smart Set. The year was 1914, in April, just at the end of the symphony season, and shortly many of these Russian men would be heading for the front, to die in the swamps of Tannenberg. The Tsar himself wouldn’t be living a lot longer, either; he was due to die in a cellar of some wine merchant in a drab provincial town. And his daughters would die with him, along with his hemophilic son and his shy Germanic wife.
Unlike most vampires, Skoda could remember just about everything from his long un-life. Most vampires suffered from a strange form of memory loss, but not Skoda. His mind was like an encyclopedia, filled to the top with information and stories and lies and other things, the books he read, the people he had known, the music he listened to.
He stood there, listening. It was almost perfectly quiet in the bookshop, more like a library than a place of business. A wonderfully silent place, where the customers knew not to yammer on and on like so many Americas seemed forced to do, as if by an act of Congress. Somebody coughed softly in the stacks, out of sight. Skoda stood there, allowing the luscious music to wash over him, thinking back, back, to Russia and the doomed Tsar, in his Imperial box, waiting for revolution and death. He even remembered there being another vampire in the audience that night, some fat old bastard with cavalry whiskers and a red sash under his evening coat. Skoda had Become less than twenty years before that, and often had difficulty in seeing others of his kind, especially since there were so few of them, back then, before every parvenu decided to join the ranks of the undead.
The second movement petered off to an end, and a short silence followed. Then the third movement came from the speakers, the story of the young Prince and the young Princess. Skoda thought it a good idea to go up to the clerk behind the counter and commend him on his choice of music.
There was an older man there, behind the counter, not a vampire, ringing up a young Goth boy, who wasn’t a vampire either. The boy was buying a tattered paperback titled Marilyn Manson, God of Fuck. He was having problems counting out exact change, like he was brain damaged, which he very well might have been. Finally, with the help of the old clerk the boy got it right, and wandered out of the store, clutching his precious biography of a deranged rock star to his chest.
“Good evening, sir,” said the bookseller.
“Good evening, my man. Or should I say, good morning.”
“Yes, it is getting to be that, isn’t it?”
“Yes it is,” said Skoda, who spoke in this conversation with a Midwestern American accent, impossible to place. Skoda could speak several different languages fluently. “I was wondering why you were open so late?”
“Just filling a need in the market, sir,” said the old man.
“I’ve heard of all night diners, and Seven Elevens and whatnot, but never an all night bookstore.”
“Oh, I’ll be shutting up the shop pretty soon. I can’t stay open all night, not at my age.”
“Do I have time to look around before you close?”
“Certainly, sir. I won’t be locking up for another hour or so yet.”
Skoda nodded, then shut his eyes and tilted his head back as a particularly beautiful bit of the third movement of Scheherazade drifted through the air.
“Are you interested in music, sir?”
“Yes indeed. Very much so, Master Bookseller. What recording is this?”
“Scheherazade, by Rimsky-Korsakov.”
“Yes, I know that. I was wondering which recording it was?”
“The Chicago Symphony—“
”Conducted by Fritz Reiner?”
“That’s right. A very old recording,” said the bookseller.
“Recorded in 1960, as I recall. RCA Victor.”
“Exactly, sir. You know your classical music.”
“There is so little in life that gives real pleasure,” said Skoda. “Music is one of those things.”
“That and books, sir.”
“That goes without saying.”
“Of course. Was there something I could interest you in tonight?”
“I thought I would just browse, if that’s all right.”
“Naturally. The main floor holds my more mainstream titles. Then, towards the back, you’ll find a short staircase leading to a separate room, where I keep my more esoteric books. Gentlemen like yourself seem to find what they are looking for more often in the separate room.”
“Gentlemen like me? You know what I am, then?”
“Of course, sir.”
“But you’re not one of us yourself. I can tell.”
“No, sir, I’m not.”
“Don’t you feel—well, uncomfortable around people like me?”
“I have nothing to fear, sir. All Nations is the only place of its kind in the city. Actually, in the entire region. I have people that look out for me, as it were.”
“A very good idea, Master Bookseller. I think I shall take a turn around your establishment, then.”
“Feel free, sir. If you have any questions, let me know.”
Skoda walked away from the counter, passing all the worthless modern books jamming the shelves, to the back of the store, finding the short staircase the bookseller told him about. He walked up the steps and opened the heavy door, using a good part of his enormous strength to pull it open; then he walked in, nearly getting slammed in the back as the door flew closed.
He stood there for a moment, now not transfixed by the music, which wasn’t audible in here, there being no speakers in the special room. No, now he breathed in, smelling the unmistakable odor of very, very old books. A friendly smell that many would call musty and nasty, but Skoda found it more pleasing than just about any scent he could imagine, save the iron smell of blood. It was the smell of old paper, old glue and leather, and there was even the animal odor of parchment, too.
“I’m home,” he said out loud.
Another vampire, a young teen lout who was still dressed in his Goth regalia, looked up, curling his lips into a snarl. The youth was looking at a very old manuscript bound in a leather jacket, a typescript of some unpublished work.
“You mind shutting the fuck up, motherfucker?” the youth said.
“Blow me,” said Skoda.
For a moment they measured each other up. Skoda knew enough not to push another vampire into combat, it was a worthless waste of time and energy, but he rarely backed down, either. Being freshly fed on the murdered child’s blood, he felt full of vigor and life, and besides, he didn’t like Goths, living or undead. For the kid’s part, he knew he was totally outclassed by Skoda. The fight-or-flee response was very well honed in vampires, and the Goth decided to flee. He slammed the book shut and crammed it back into place on the metal shelf, then quickly retreated towards the exit, muttering to himself.
But Skoda wasn’t about to allow the Goth punk to flee so easily. He reached out and caught the boy by the throat, stopping him dead, as if were, in his tracks.
“Get your fucking hand offa me, dickweed!”
“That’s no way to treat a book, son.”
“Go fuck yourself!”
“No, you will go back and take the book back down, close it gently, and then put it back on the shelf properly.”
To get his point across, Skoda squeezed the kid’s throat in his immensely strong grip, shutting off blood to the brain and breath to the lungs.
“You will do as I say,” said Skoda.
“Let goah me, you fucking bohee!” the boy sputtered, an unfortunate thing, for it used up the last of the air he should have been using to breathe; as a result, his eyes started to turn up in his head, and Skoda released his grip, shoving the lad forward towards the corner, where he collapsed in a heap. He lay there, panting, rubbing his neck, and Skoda walked over and squatted down next to him.
“You won’t diss me, young man,” he said gently.
“Take it easy, dude!”
“I’ll take it easy when you stand up, pick the book up from the shelf, and put it back properly. It’s the least we can do, to show respect for things that will outlive even ourselves.”
This time the boy did as he was told. Then he quickly left, not even bothering to look over his shoulder.
Youngsters, Skoda thought. They were the same for every species.
THE SUMMER WORE ON, a very hot summer, with the temperature during the long days soaring up and up, well into the nineties, and the nights didn’t offer much respite either. Sometimes the humidity was so great that it felt as though one were walking through damp bed sheets.
Miranda’s days started to blend together, even her days off tended to be very similar.
She would wake around seven-thirty in the morning and get ready for work, then catch the bus to make it in by ten; once there, she would greet Hubert and go about her job without much interference from him. She had started trying to order the store into some sort of rational sense. At the moment she was simply trying to get all the fiction together, and then catagorize the nonfiction. She figured that if she kept at it all through the summer, by early fall she might be able to start to alphabetize the collection. Hubert stood aside and allowed her to do as she wished, remarking that, yes, it was about time that things were put into order.
Miranda started contacting some of the publishers, trying to get authors in to do book signings, and one day she scored something of a coup when she landed the once great John Grisham to stop in one morning to autograph some of his works. She called the newspapers and had a notice put in the Sunday edition about the event, and as it turned out, it was one of the busiest days that All Nations had seen in quite a long time.
Almost twenty people showed up that morning, many of them buying Grisham’s newest novel, Torts of Death. Grisham was his otherworldly self, as usual, spending most of his time chatting about little league baseball, while Hubert stood off to the side, tut-tutting about the lower class of customers such popular fiction brought in.
“Not the type of clientele that I would like at all, Miranda,” sniffed Hubert as he watched the large men and women, dressed in their warm-weather gear, all of it seemingly designed to show off as much cellulite as possible, line up to have their books signed by the Great One.
“But they’re buying books, Hubert.”
“Nonsense. Half of them have brought old copies they doubtless purchased somewhere else.”
Miranda had to admit that this was true, noting that several of the customers were lugging large piles of very thick, dog-eared paperbacks under their sweaty arms.
While they watched, Hubert coughed distractedly into his fist, acting as if he wanted to speak with her on some subject he would be uncomfortable with.
“I thought perhaps we might get some lunch together after this dog-and-pony show is over,” he said.
Miranda frowned a little. Was the silly old man coming on to her? She hoped not. Apart from all the work she had to do, arranging the store, it was a pretty good job.
“Who’ll watch the store?” she asked.
“Oh, I suppose being closed an hour or so won’t make much difference.”
“Sure,” she said. “All right.”
“There’s something I wanted to discuss with you.”
Over at the signing table, a yuppie in a sharp suit was forcing Grisham to dance a soft shoe routine before the yuppie would lay out money for the new book.
“How the mighty have fallen,” said Hubert.
Grisham tripped over his feet and fell down, knocking over a pile of Torts.
“What did you want to talk about?” said Miranda.
“Later,” said Hubert. “Over lunch.”
A few people gave Grisham a small round of applause for his effort, although it didn’t seem to cut much ice with the yuppie, who turned and left the store without buying anything.
THEY ATE LUNCH AT a small café around the corner from the bookstore.
Hubert sat there, playing with the plastic salt and pepper containers, stalling for time. Even though it was nearly one o’clock in the afternoon, very few people were there in the diner, and only one waitress was needed to serve the entire place. Hubert cleared his throat, mumbled something, then decided the better of it. For her part, Miranda didn’t have much to say, either. She waited patiently for Hubert to make the first move while at the same dreading what that move might be.
“You’ve done wonders with the store, Miranda,” he said finally.
“I’m sure that you know by now that I don’t make idle complements. I really do think you’ve done very well. I have a lot more people coming in during the day.”
That came out by mistake, for Hubert hadn’t yet told Miranda about his late-night business, and was hoping to ease into it. But if Miranda had noticed the slip, she gave no indication of it. Instead she merely pushed her salad around the bowl in front of her with her fork.
“I’m sure, as a reasonably intelligent person,” Hubert began again, pausing to cough into his fist. The cough turned into a protracted hack, like he’d swallowed something wrong, even though he’d hardly touched his lunch.
“Are you all right, Hubert?”
“Yes, yes. Thank you. Fine. Now, Miranda, as I was saying, as an intelligent person, I’m sure you’ve been wondering how I make enough money at the store to keep you on the payroll.”
“I’ve wondered that, yes.”
“Well, you see, I stay open rather later than normal business hours.”
“Really?” was all Miranda can find to say. Most businesses, after all, shut down as close to nightfall these days as possible, for obvious reasons.
“Yes. You see, I have two very different types of customers. The ones who come in during the day, and then those who come in at night.”
“How late at night?”
“Oh, very late. I usually stay open until at least four in the morning.”
“When do you sleep?”
“I can get by on very little sleep. Always have.”
“And what sort of customers do you have in at night?”
“Oh, what you’d expect. Vampires. Goths. Some gangbangers and skinheads. Rather the lower depths of society.”
“I’m not sure that you do. Let me explain–-“
”Aren’t you afraid of them?”
“Oh, they wouldn’t lift a finger to harm me, I assure you.”
Miranda sat there, clearly dubious.
“It’s true, Miranda dear. I am the only person who fills their needs. I have a collection of books that they can’t find anywhere else.”
“Half the books you carry they can find in any all-night mega-supermarket.”
“Yes, perhaps that’s true. But they certainly can’t find the other half.”
“What other half?”
“In the special room. The one towards the back.”
“The one you keep locked?”
“That’s right. I unlock it at night, after you leave.”
“What’s in there? I’ve wondered.”
“It would be easier to show you.”
They ate for a short while in silence.
“The reason I asked you to have lunch with me,” said Hubert, launching directly into it, the best way he knew to get it over with, “is I wished to ask you a favor.”
“Okay,” said Miranda carefully.
“I’ve got to go overseas next week.”
“Overseas? What for?”
“A buying trip. For the store.”
“And you want me to watch the store for you?”
“That’s basically the favor I needed, yes.”
“That’s no problem, Hubert. If you trust me.”
“Certainly I trust you, Miranda. You’ve shown yourself to be a very trustworthy person. But I need you to watch the store, at night.”
She had just been scooping up some salad to her mouth as the other shoe drops. Her hand pauses in front of her mouth, the fork doing a little dance.
“Oh, dear,” said Hubert. “I see I’ve disconcerted you.”
“At night?” she said.
“That’s right, Miranda.”
“Why at night?”
“That’s when all my business falls, you see. I stay open during the day for—shall we say, cover? To make sure the police and other authorities stay away.”
“You want me to work at night? With the skells?”
“Oh, Miranda, knowing these people as I do, you’d know they don’t like to be call skells.”
“They’re not people. They’re vampires.”
“Do you have some sort of problem with them? Is it a racial thing?”
“There’s nothing racial about it, Hubert. They aren’t people, they’re monsters. If you choose to do business with them, place yourself at risk, that’s your problem. At sunset, I lock myself into my apartment, draw the shades, and cower until sunrise.”
“Like I said before, there’s no real danger, at least for me. Nor for you, as you’d act as my agent.”
“Only if I agree.”
“Well, of course. I’d never ask you to do something you wouldn’t want to do.”
“You just did ask me.”
“I assure you, Miranda, you would be safer in the store at night than you would be in your own apartment.”
“I doubt that very much, Hubert.”
“Well, that’s too bad,” said Hubert, looking down at his plate, still filled with food.
“I’m sorry, Hubert. I just can’t.”
“I’ve already purchased my ticket, you see. I can’t get out of this trip.”
Miranda said nothing. She, too, stared down at her plate.
“I’ll have to shut the store up for the week,” said Hubert.
“I’ll have to let you go, Miranda.”
She looked up.
“That’s the way things have to be, you see,” he continued. “The daytime sales of the store barely cover my utility bills, much less your salary. The night shift, that’s where I make all my money. If I have to close the store for a period of time, so be it. My sales will recover. But I won’t make enough to keep you on the payroll. I’m sorry, Miranda.”
“I can’t do it, Hubert. I’d be frightened to death.”
“Please reconsider, Miranda. You’ve been an exceptional employee. I’d hate to have to let you go.”
SHE NEEDED THE JOB. There was no way around it, she thought as she rode the bus home that evening. If she didn’t agree to Hubert’s horrible request, she’d be out of work. And she was already over a month late with her rent; if she put off her landlord one more week she’d be out on the streets, and that meant certain death. But, the way she looked at it, working nights, selling to skells and gangbangers and Goths, that was almost certain death as well.
I can find another job, she thought, staring out the grimy windows of the bus, watching the world go by. I’ll find a regular job, working in an office, maybe, work nine-to-five, get a health plan, a retirement account, the whole thing. Even as she thought of all this she almost laughed at her own stupidity. There were no jobs out there; she had lucked into the one with Hubert. All across the country people were going without meals, without a roof over their heads, dodging bullets and vampires. To think that she was somehow special was absurd. Ever since her husband divorced her for his twenty-five-year-old secretary she had to admit to herself that she had become one of America’s working poor, and since losing her job when Borders went belly up, she had moved even farther down the ladder.
She stared out the window, watching what was left of the world, and realized she had no options.
When she got home to her apartment she dialed the store and got Hubert on the second ring.
“All Nations,” he said simply, as if any caller would know that it was a book store.
“Oh, hello, Miranda.”
“I’ll do it.”
“I’m glad to hear it. I’ll show you the ropes tomorrow.”
She hung up and wondered if she should call her son, Bradley, who was in his first year away at college, very generously paid for by her ex-husband. She didn’t want to worry Bradley, so she didn’t. She opened a bottle of wine, the last one she had, and poured a large glass of it. The building was starting to come awake around her, the couple fighting in 4A, the big fat man in 3C singing another aria. She drank down her wine and poured some more, then got a pad of yellow paper and started to write out her will. Not that she had very much to give away.
THE NEXT MORNING SHE went in to work, as usual, at ten. As usual Hubert was waiting there for her, already having made the coffee for her, sitting at the cash register, reading the morning paper.
“Good morning, Miranda,” said Hubert, as if he hadn’t tried to strong-arm her.
“Morning,” she said, still very bitter.
“Since we have a few minutes before we have to open, I thought I’d show you the special room.”
He got a key from under the counter and motioned for her to follow him towards the back of the room. She had of course seen the short staircase that lead to the heavy metal door, but since Hubert had never brought it up she hadn’t thought to ask about it. She had just figured it was unused space. Hubert unlocked the door and pulled it open, using a lot of effort, it seemed to her.
“Come on, then,” he said. “Mind the door. It closes pretty sharply.”
They walked into the room, and the first thing that Miranda noticed was the smell. It wasn’t the musty, rather pleasing odors of old books that got her attention, but the stink of rotting beets, the smell that vampires sometimes gave off. She had smelled it some mornings leaving her building, coming from alleys that she wouldn’t go into in the daylight. Some people said that it was the smell of vampire’s blood.
“I suppose I should air the room out one of these days,” said Hubert. Then he shrugged. “Of course, I haven’t had a lot of complaints from my nighttime customers.”
“What are all these?” Miranda asked, looking at the long rows of metal shelves, stacked fairly thickly with all sorts of books and bound manuscripts.
“This is my special collection, Miranda.”
“The stuff you sell to the people at night?”
“That’s right. Mainly the nighttime customers want what I have stored in here. Although many of them like to browse in the main room as well.”
“But what is all of this?”
“Well, to be quite honest, Miranda, I really couldn’t tell you for absolute certain. I have many things in here. Mainly very rare, very antique books and manuscripts. Most dealing with–-well, shall I say, rather unwholesome subjects.”
Miranda walked tentatively into the room, up to one of the shelves.
“No need to be afraid, Miranda. The room is quite empty.”
She reached out and pulled down a heavy, quarto-sized volume. It was bound in thick leather, faded and dried and cracked with age, and must have weighed ten pounds. There was no title inscribed on the cover, nor any author or publishing colophon, or anything else for that matter. She opened it and saw the pages were densely filled with Gothic German text. The paper was heavy and slightly oily to the touch, and she realized that it wasn’t paper at all, but rather parchment.
“What’s this one?” she asked.
Hubert peered over her shoulder and glanced at the title page. “Afraid my German’s not very good anymore. I think I remember buying this particular book in Mexico City a few years back. As I recall, it’s a treatise on methods of torture. If you look farther in, you’ll see that it’s illustrated with some rather extraordinary woodcuts.”
Guided by the same instinct that causes one to look at their car window while passing a particularly grisly auto accident, Miranda flipped back through the book and was confronted with a ponderous woodcut picture of a man suspended in a stappado.
“I see what you mean,” she said, and replaced the book on the shelf.
“I paid a lot of money for that one,” Hubert said, his voice betraying a small amount of pride of ownership.
“You bought all these books?”
“Naturally,” he said.
“All over the world. I used to travel three or four times a year to different places, mainly in Europe, but to Asia and Latin America too. I generally buy at what you might call estate sales, since most of these books are not generally available. But, when I wished to round out a certain part of my collection, I would sometimes visit one of the less known dealers in antiquarian books.”
“And there’s a market for these things?”
“Sometimes. Sometimes not. Most of what I found I bought simply because it pleased me to own it. Before the recent days, back before the vampire outbreak, for instance, I sold very few of these. My collection was nowhere near as vast as it is today. I sold most of them on the Internet, to scholars who couldn’t find them anywhere else. Of course, I still do sell over the computer, but now, with the harsh times we live in today, I find I’m getting far more walk in customers.”
“The nighttime customers,” said Miranda.
“That’s right. Do I note a certain air of disdain in your voice, Miranda?”
”It’s just like this, my dear. These books you see, ungodly though they might be, are nothing more than books. I don’t force people to come in to look at them. I don’t put a gun to their heads and make them buy them. And by the same token, I don’t tell them what use to put them to once they walk out of the store with these books under their arms.”
“So you sell a lot of these?”
“Oh, about a dozen a night on average.”
“That doesn’t sound like a lot.”
“That book on torture you so quickly put back on the shelve is priced at $1500, Miranda.”
“Yes. Of course, I’m happy to entertain offers.”
They went back to the main room and opened for business. During the morning Hubert showed Miranda where he kept his pistol–-“just for insurance, you can be sure. Never had to use it”—and gave her a set of keys. He told her that the store would be closed this coming weekend, and then the following Monday he would be flying to Italy on one of his now rare buying trips. He would be gone all the next week, and during that time she was to keep the store closed during the day and open only at night. To make it easier on her, he would allow her to stay in his own apartment, in the floor above the store.
“I have to tell you, Hubert, I’m really very uncomfortable doing this.”
“There’s really nothing to be afraid of, Miranda. You simply have to stay on your toes, and remember, don’t ever come out from behind the counter. Remember, most of the nighttime customers are highly territorial. If you don’t crowd them, they’ll leave you alone.”
That bit of information didn’t make her feel any better at all.
© 2012, John Steven Anderson