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MIRANDA CAME IN TO work and found the front door unlocked. That was very strange, since Hubert had always kept it locked and was invariably there at the door when it she showed up. Even though he had entrusted her with a key for the period of his trip to Europe and hadn’t taken it back, Miranda would have thought that he would have at least kept the door locked.
That wasn’t the only strange thing that morning. The store was dark and Hubert was no place to be found. She walked through the store, all the way to the back room, and still no Hubert. Where could he be? She called his name a few times, wondering if he might have fallen asleep sometime during his long night shift, perhaps back in the stacks. But after walking through the entire store, she couldn’t find him. Perhaps he was still in bed, she thought, and went to the back door that lead to the stairs up to his apartment. That door, too, was unlocked. She shuddered, thinking about how any lowlife could have come into the store, and then up the steps to his private apartment and maybe murder him in his bed.
Because that was right where she found him, snoring away like a busted chainsaw fit to rattle the windows.
“Hubert! Wake up!”
His eyes shot open and he stared around. Miranda had been leaning over him and recoiled, partly from the smell that wafted off him and partly from his eyes; they were so bloodshot that the whites were almost entirely red.
“Good morning, Miranda,” he said. “It is morning, isn’t it?”
“Yes, Hubert. It is. Are you feeling well?”
“Not too well, my dear. I feel rather under the weather, actually.”
Even in his illness he was still a master of understatement. Actually, he looked like hell. His skin, not normally very healthy, looked like parchment from one of his old books downstairs. And his thick white hair was now almost yellow, an old man’s hair, as if his age had finally caught up with him. And it was thinning, too, Miranda noticed. The smell, the odor that had caused her to recoil, was like that of a death bed.
“I think we should take you to the hospital, Hubert.”
“Nonsense. I’ve just caught a cold, or perhaps a bug in Europe. God knows that the Europeans are, by and large, an unhealthy lot.”
“Hubert, you look terrible.”
“I’ll just catch up on my sleep, Miranda, don’t worry now. Perhaps I’ve got a little jet leg, that’s all.”
“Do you want me to open up, then?”
“Yes, if you would. Do me a favor, would you?”
“There’s a book down at the front counter, underneath, near the register. A leather-bound book I brought back with me from Europe. Would you shelve it for me? It’s a religious tome.”
“Sure, Hubert. You sure you don’t want me to get you something? You sure you don’t want to go to the hospital?”
“A man of my age, Miranda, if I go to a hospital, they’re sure to find something wrong with me, and then where would I be? I have no insurance at all.”
“Okay, then. I’ll go down and open up.”
She went back downstairs and found the book he was speaking of, a very elderly book it was, too, larger than a modern hardcover but not by much, covered with worn black leather. Miranda recalled that Hubert told her it was a religious book, although there is nothing on the cover to indicate this. The book was slightly warm, and she figured it had been sitting near the cash register’s power supply. She took the book to the stacks, found the religious section, and stuck it away on a top shelf with all the other unauthored titles. Then she went to open the store.
As usual, there were only one or two customers during the morning, and at noon she locked the door and hung a sign in the window telling whomever might drop by that she would open again in ten minutes. Then she went up to check on Hubert, and a couple of minutes after that she was on the phone, calling 911 for the paramedics.
THE DOCTOR CAME IN to see her a couple of hours after the ambulance had dropped them off at the emergency ward at Good Samaritan Hospital. Miranda had been sitting in the waiting room watching the flickering TV, which had been displaying Rosie O’Donnell showing off her newest colostomy. The doctor was a tall, hirsute East Indian, dressed in a bloodstained white lab coat, sandals with no socks, and lime green golf pants that had little martini glasses criss-crossed on them.
“You are Mr. Hubert’s—daughter?” asked the doctor.
“No, Doctor. I’m his employee.”
“Mr. Hubert ha-ha-ha-ha...” the doctor struggled with a profound stutter; he rolled his eyes up to the ceiling and fought it all the harder. “Ha-ha-ha-ha-Has! He has no family around here?”
“Not that I know of, Doctor.”
“Well, this is a fine fucking thing!” The doctor threw his hands in the air, which was unfortunate, for he was carrying a clipboard full of papers. The papers flew through the air, scattering, and a short, fat Hispanic orderly came to his rescue, bending over to scramble after them. “I was told that Mr. Hubert had fa-fa-fa-fa-family here! What do you have to say to that, hey?”
For the past two hours Miranda had been waiting in the emergency ward, watching with horror as a precession of critical cases had been trundled in by overworked paramedics and policemen, each case more bloody and ghastly than the last. She wasn’t in much of a mood to play games with this supercilious medico.
“I’m sorry, Doctor. I don’t really know what you were told, now can I?”
“This is all very irregular. Oh no no no. Who will the hospital count on to make important decisions for Mr. Hubert? Can you answer me that? No! I didn’t think that you could! Perhaps you think this is some big fucking joke! Pick up those fucking papers, Manny!” This was directed at the scrambling orderly, who was doing his damnedest to comply. The doctor stood there for a long moment, hyperventilating, then reached into the pocket of his lab coat and took out a bottle of prescription pills, dry- swallowing several, which really only served to make matters worse, for he began to strangle on one.
Miranda stood there, not knowing what to do; the doctor’s eyes were starting frighteningly out of his skull, his skin was turning alarmingly blue. Manny paused with his frantic dash for the papers and rushed over, beating the doctor on the back, yelling at him in Spanish. Miranda took a couple of steps back and the doctor finally brought up the offending pill, spitting it majestically across the hallway. He coughed and retched several times, his eyes still bulging in his face, then hacked up some phlegm, a great gob of phlegm, which he also propelled across the hall.
“Fuck!” he shouted, once he had found use of his voice again. “Fuck! Thank you, Manny. That was ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-To close!”
“What’s wrong with him, Doctor?” said Miranda, determined to get the conversation back on track.
“Oh, he is in a very bad way. Oh yes yes yes. That is why I wanted a member of his family to be here, as if that was too goddamn much to ask. How will I make Tee time? I ask you that!”
“What’s wrong with him?”
“Oh, very many things. Until I have the tests back, I cannot naturally tell. I would have to hazard a guess that he has a very advanced case of carcinoma of the digestive tract.”
“He has cancer?”
“Is there an echo in here? Yes! Cancer! He is riddled with it, I would say.”
“Can I see him?”
“I suppose,” said the Doctor, as if this was the most outlandish request he had heard all day.
Manny the life-saving orderly took her back into a ward set up for the emergency cases, a room straight out of a Crimean War field hospital, only without Florence Nightingale. Soiled dressings littered the floor, people screamed in their beds, and nurses with stern looks on their faces and blood on their scrubs circulated, back and forth, back and forth, as if they couldn’t decide which were the worst cases. Hubert was in a bed at the far end, and compared to some of the worse-off patients, such as those with mutiple gunshot trauma, he didn’t appear to be that badly off. He was, at the very least, awake and lucid. As Miranda got closer, however, she noticed how pale his skin was, how sunken his eyes.
“Ah, there you are, Miranda,” he said, as if he’d been expecting her all along. “It’s so nice to see you. A ray of sunshine in this horrible place.”
“How are you feeling, Hubert?”
“Better, at least, than most of these poor devils.”
“Did you talk to the doctor?”
“The Indian? A total imbecile. I questioned his prognosis, and he told me to suck his Caduceus staff.”
“I’m sorry, Hubert. I really am.”
“I did ask you not to bring me to the hospital. Now look at the state I’m in.”
“I was afraid you were going to die, Hubert.”
“Well, there’s nothing for it now. I suppose I’ll have to wait on what the quack has to say.”
“Is there anybody you want me to call? Somebody in your family?”
“I’m afraid I have no family left, Miranda.”
She felt like crying, and turned her face away so he wouldn’t be able to read her stricken expression.
“I’d like you to do me a favor, though, Miranda.”
“I need you to open the store tonight.”
”Yes, I know you had a difficult time of it when I was overseas. That fellow Skoda told me all about it. But still, if I’m to be laid up here, I need you to watch the store. We both need the money, I’m afraid.”
“I suppose I could do that.”
“Just do the same as we did before. You have my keys? Good. Then stay at my apartment while I’m in here. My car keys are with the others. If you need anything, go ahead and use the car. One more thing...”
“You’re the closest person I have in the world to family. If something happens to me—which I’m afraid is going to be the case—I want you to have the store.”
“I couldn’t do that, Hubert.”
“Of course you can, and you shall. I’ll call my lawyer as soon as you’re gone and set up the papers for it. I have nobody else to leave the store to, so you might as well take it. Don’t worry, its all paid for. I have no outstanding debts. It would be yours, free and clear.”
“I’ll take care of it until you’re better.”
“I know. Miranda, it’s very important that All Nations stays in business. I know you don’t approve of how I run the store, not at nights, anyway. But I have to do it, to keep it afloat. There’s no other way. If All Nations closes its doors, what will our customers do? It’s not just a job, or a business. It’s the last thing around keeping the barbarians from the gates. One day you might see that.”
NIGHT FELL ON THE city. The usual dregs started showing up to All Nations bookstore with the coming of that night, and they found the door open, Miranda sitting unhappily behind the counter, eyeing them as they trooped through the door. A few of them, the less mentally and morally destroyed, asked where Hubert was, and she told them. More came up to buy books, and she took their money. At around three in the morning she found herself alone in the store, and locked the place up. Then she trudged up the steps to Hubert’s apartment and fell into a deep sleep, hounded by strange nightmares.
And so it went for the next four days. Miranda found herself as the caretaker of All Nations, and as the caretaker of Hubert himself, a man she barely knew and didn’t overly like, either. She would go and see him in the hospital in the early afternoon, sitting with him as he got progressively more and more ill. They had moved him to a regular room upstairs from the emergency ward that he shared with an elderly man who slept the entire time Miranda was ever there; Hubert had a new doctor as well, another East Indian who was more attentive, less argumentative, and at least didn’t wear atrocious golf pants.
There were other doctors too, men who came and went, who stood there and stared at poor Hubert’s charts, shook their heads, and mumbled to each other and put on false smiles for their patient and his only guest. The thing was nobody could figure out what was wrong with him. The oncology department informed him that he didn’t have cancer. Other tests were run, and came up negative.
Hubert shouldn’t be dying. But he was, and there seemed nothing that medicine could do to help him. At night they gave him pills to help him sleep, and pumped him full of plasma and saline, and monitored him, but there was no therapy, no treatment that they could think of, to arrest his descent towards the grave.
But he remained lucid, and talked to Miranda gratefully every time she showed up, in the early afternoon, to see him. He spoke the way the elderly do when they know they don’t have much time left, of things they did when they were young, of minor achievements and minor defeats, not really caring if the younger person by their bedside is listening or not.
“Nobody really reads anymore, Miranda,” said Hubert, with a surprisingly strong voice, incongruous with all the tubes leading into and out of his body. “That’s the real problem. At the beginning of the twentieth century, a leading British scholar came to America on a trip, and he was amazed at how well read, how intelligent, even the lowliest blue-collar worker was in the United States. He traveled far and wide, always commenting on how the American school system, the wonder of the world at that time, was so successful. Nowadays, people don’t read any longer, and are therefore dolts.
“Oh, of course not everybody’s an illiterate. Far from it. They read magazines. They read listings on the Internet. They read their bills and balance their checkbooks. But they don’t really read, if you get my point. They don’t pick up a book for enjoyment or edification. The libraries of the nation have fallen into decay, and the only time people use them at all is to work on their resumes on the computers there. We educate our young on computers. To them, picking up a dusty old book to find knowledge is as alien to them as picking up an abacus would be to us.
“There is no more time in people’s lives to read. All the time they have is taken up, quantified as leisure time, or family time, or work time. There isn’t any time anymore. Everything is too fast. Cars are fast, computers are fast. People live out their lives at a hundred miles an hour and then, on their death beds, they can’t figure where their time had gone.”
Here Hubert paused to talk a sip of water from the cup that Miranda held up for him.
“If you walk into three quarters of the homes in this country,” he continued, “you’d be hard pressed to find a single book. What is the point? Books take up too much space. They collect dust. They’re hard to keep clean. A person, even if he is a reader, can download a thousand books into a palm-sized computer, and have all of them, any of them, at the touch of a button. But these are not books, Miranda. Not really. They are nothing but smoke and mirrors, not the real thing. They are virtual books. They are no more books than those cassettes and compact disks that some bookstores sell. There is no beauty in them, there is no workmanship. That’s why All Nations has to stay in business, Miranda, because we don’t just sell simple books, we sell ideas, we sell art. We sell the finest that the craftsmen of the world, be they wordsmiths or bookbinders, can produce. Even the parvenus who come in during the day, who want to buy a big fat history book or tome on philosophy that they have no intention of actually reading, they need us as much as the night people do, because we supply them with at least the chance to gain knowledge. And the night people, the people you so detest—no, don’t say they don’t, I know better, and I don’t blame you a bit, because I rather detest them too—at least the night people are honest about what they want. They don’t put on airs. They need what we sell, and therefore they are valued customers, more so than the imbeciles who darken our door during the day. We need them, the night people, and they need us. It is a perfect capitalist solution to a problem of supply and demand. But it is more than that. We are above them, yes, but not so above them that we should look down our noses at them.”
Miranda would let him ramble, on and on, until he was too tired to speak anymore, then she would leave him and return to the store, open it in the late afternoon, and await the arrival of night, and with setting of the sun, the arrival of the night people. She would remain at the counter, smelling the smells of the bookstore, the scent of dust and glue, of mold and sometimes the body odor of the night people. For the last few days she also sensed the fragrance of smoke, although it was very subtle, and didn’t call attention to itself.
“CAN I SPEAK TO you?” Skoda asked Miranda, on the fourth night of Hubert’s hospitalization. It was the first time Miranda had seen the vampire since he had saved her from the lunatic who had nearly cut her throat.
“What do you want to talk about?”
“It is private. Can we talk alone?”
“You know better than that.”
“I mean you no harm. You should know that by now.”
“I don’t trust you,” she said. “You’re a vampire. I don’t trust vampires.”
Skoda made a strangled sound deep in his throat, a sound of anguish. He turned and looked around and saw the same gangbanger who’d been there the night Miranda was attacked, the young Spanish man who’d been reading Emily Dickinson. At the moment he was the only other person in the store, and was thumbing through a book by Robert Graves about the Greek myths.
“Young man,” Skoda said.
“You remember me?”
“Yeah, dude’s the skell saved the lady a while back from that crazy sonbitch.”
“That’s right. Would you like to step out with us for some coffee?”
“Coffee’d be fine with me, dude.”
“I need to talk to this lady. It would be a private discussion. You could sit close by, out of earshot. If I did anything to hurt this woman, what would you do?”
“I’d bust out your bitch ass, dude.”
Skoda turned to Miranda. “There. I doubt you would find a better bodyguard than this young fellow.”
Miranda thought it over for a few moments. “I suppose I could use a cup of coffee,” she said.
“Fine. Let’s all go, then. You can walk with the young gentleman, and I’ll lead the way.”
Skoda stepped out of the store and walked a few paces ahead while Miranda and the gangster stood by the door as she locked up. Then they walked up the street, around the corner, and over to the Denny’s.
The normal assortment of night people—the gangbangers, bindlestiffs and living impaired—were gathered there. The young Hispanic took a table close to Miranda’s and Skoda’s booth. The waitress came to their table with menus and Skoda waved her away. The gangster ordered something and sat there, waiting for his food, staring out into the middle distance.
“All right,” said Miranda. “You’ve gotten me here. What did you want to talk about?”
“The devil walks among us.”
“What I say is true,” said Skoda. “I’m completely serious. I don’t mean it metaphorically, either. The actual devil. Here, in this city.”
“I talked with him. I saw him, with my own eyes.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“You have to believe me. We have to fight him.”
“What is the devil to me? I can look out my bedroom window at night and see any number of devils out on the street, killing innocent people, killing each other. The world’s gone to hell. What does it have to do with me?”
“Listen to me—“
”Why should I listen? All I’m trying to do is survive. That’s it. I have no interest in the devil or in anything else. I wake up and I go see Hubert, who seems to be dying by inches. Then I come back to the store and open the doors and sell books to the dregs of the Earth, like yourself. Every night I sit behind the counter and try to convince myself its worthwhile going on. You know what scares me?”
“I don’t know.”
“What scares me is the fact that sometimes I can’t come up with a good reason. I’ve become a night person like you and your gangbanger friend over there.”
Skoda grabbed her arm to get her attention. They both heard a thump at the table where the Hispanic youth was sitting and glanced over. The gangster had pulled his pistol and laid it on the table; he was watching Skoda with hard eyes. Skoda nodded to him and let go of Miranda’s arm. The gangster nodded back, but he left the pistol on the table.
“Don’t ever touch me again,” said Miranda.
“I’m sorry. Just listen to me, will you? Give me a few moments of your time, because what I have to say is important. It is life and death.”
The waitress came out of the kitchen and set down an absurdly large ice cream sundae in front of the gangster. He thanked her and started to tuck in with relish.
“I’m listening,” said Miranda.
“The devil exists. He is evil incarnate. He has taken human form, why I don’t know, but he has, and he’s here, in town. He was wounded—or damaged, I don’t know what you would call it, but he needs something.”
“He needs to learn his old ways again. He needs to relearn his magic.”
“I’ve never heard anything so—“
”I told him about the bookstore.”
Miranda suddenly seemed to get the picture. She sat there, silent, for a long time, staring at Skoda.
“I told him about the bookstore,” he repeated.
“I heard you the first time.”
“Why? Why did you tell him?”
“Because I was afraid. I thought he might kill me.”
“I thought skells didn’t have any fear.”
“You’re looking at one who has.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
“To warn you.”
“What am I supposed to do? Ask every customer who walks in the door if he’s Satan?”
“Perhaps you can keep the store closed for a while—“
”I can’t do that,” she said. “I promised Hubert that I’d keep it open. We need the money.”
“If the devil can’t find what he needs at the store, perhaps he’ll go away.”
“This is all bullshit,” said Miranda. She looked at her watch.
“We might be able to destroy him,” said Skoda.
“I thought you were afraid of him.”
“I am. But there might be no other way—“ his voice trailed off.
“No other way for what?”
“To save mankind.”
“What do you care about mankind, other than it being your meal ticket?”
“I told you before, I love mankind. Yes, I do kill people, I take their blood, but there’s a difference between people and mankind.”
Miranda pushed herself away from the table and started to leave. The gangster, only half done with his elephantine sundae, said, “oh, man!” and got to his feet to follow her. Skoda jumped to his feet and was right behind Miranda as she left the diner.
“Listen to me, Miranda, you have to listen!”
“You go and fight devils if you want to,” she said, not breaking her stride. “I’ve got a bookstore to run.”
She left Skoda standing there, and followed by her bodyguard, walked quickly back to All Nations.
HUBERT DIED EARLY THE next morning before Miranda could get out of bed to come and visit him. She got the call from the hospital just after nine o’clock, and she told the doctor that she would be in later that day to make the arrangements. Then, feeling slightly disgusted with herself, she returned to bed.
© 2012, John Steven Anderson