Greetings and Salutations Extraordinary readers of the blog.
As promised last week, today we will hear another short story by yours truly. I do hope you enjoyed last weeks telling of Restoration of Sanity. If you were not here last week you are happily welcomed today, Restoration of Sanity will appear in its entirety on the web site in the stories section.
Because of the overwhelming response (one) to my question regarding releasing the story in sections I am going to post all of The Guardian today. This one’s for you C.J. thanks for leaving me a comment.
“I will have that book.”
From the back room, Syd heard the anger in the customer’s voice. She moved to the doorway to eavesdrop.
“Set your price.”
“It’s not for sale.” Scott’s ninety-two year old voice barely carried through the displays of books and dusty shelves.
“This is a book store, isn’t it?”
“I don’t know what you read in that book sir, but I assure you it’s not for sale, not at any price.”
“Have it your way.” The floor shook with a crash.
Syd’s mind jumped to dreadful scenarios as she bolted toward the source of the noise.
“I’m not leaving without it.” The customer’s voice lost its anger and now sounded strained.
“Syd!” Scott called.
Clearing the last of the tall shelves Syd saw the customer clutch his chest and crumple to the floor. Ignoring him, she turned to Scott. “Are you all right?”
Scott leaned on his walking stick amidst scattered books and an overturned cart. “Yes, I’m fine. See to him.” He gestured to the customer with his phone. “Yes, operator, I’m here.”
Syd felt for a pulse. Finding none, she began chest compressions.
“One moment,” Scott said. He pressed the phone to his chest. “Syd, do you know CPR? Yes, operator, my assistant apparently knows CPR. She’s either trying to save him or strangle him, hard to say from my position.”
Sweat trickled down Syd’s face from exertion. Keeping someone’s heart pumping was demanding. It looked so easy on television.
Distant sirens eventually drowned out Scott’s chatter with the 911 operator, and Syd renewed her efforts. Within minutes, the bell over the door announced the arrival of the Scottsdale Fire Department. Four men wearing traditional blue shorts and snug T-shirts hovered over Syd.
The first knelt across from her and nodded. “Count out loud for me,” he said.
Syd sang. “Staying alive, staying alive, uh uh uh uh, staying alive.”
The EMT smiled and took over.
She pushed back on her heels. Sweat rained from her brow, burning her eyes. She rubbed them with the back of her hand to clear her vision. Scott dropped into his desk chair.
He motioned her over. “Sit.” He pulled a bottle of Johnny Walker Black and two mason jars from his desk, poured liberally, and handed one to Syd.
The jar shook in her sweaty grip. She threw her head and the whiskey back, then banged the empty jar down on his desk. “Don’t you ever do that to me again.” Her voice quavered.
“What did I do?”
Her trembling hand pointed to the books all over the floor. “I thought you hit the floor.”
“But nothing. I thought you fell. God knows you won’t use your walker.”
“Just so we’re straight on this, you’re angry because I’m not hurt?”
“Don’t pull that logical bullshit on me when I’m mad.” She swiped her hand through her short hair. “Besides, who’s cleaning up that mess?”
Scott waggled his eyebrows.
“Me. That’s who.”
He flashed his most charming smile.
“Wipe that smirk off your face. I should leave it. Customers can search for titles on their hands and knees.”
A firefighter cleared his throat. “Excuse the interruption, I have a few questions.” He tapped a pen on a clipboard.
“How can I help you, young man?” Scott asked.
“Who called it in?”
“I did.” He handed over a business card with a flourish. “I’m the proprietor.”
“Do you know the patient?”
“Is he, he…?” Syd hesitated.
“He’s on his way to Osborn Medical Center.”
“I didn’t know him.” Scott continued. “He walked in about a half hour ago. Browsed a while then…”
The fireman turned to Syd. His appraising look walked over her. “And you are?”
Scott presented another business card. “My assistant, Sydney Steinert.”
He added Syd’s card to his clipboard. “Where did you learn to do chest compressions?”
Her neck and face blossomed with heat. “The Office.”
“You were trained here?” He looked at Scott. “I wish more shop keepers would train their employees for medical emergencies.”
“Not here. The Office, on TV. You know, with Steve Carell.”
He erupted with laughter. “And they say there’s nothing good on television.” His smile reached his eyes.
“Captain.” A young guy yelled. “The patient’s en route and we’re cleaned up.” Then he flipped open That Book.
“Be careful with that volume please. It is irreplaceable,” Scott said.
“Hey, Cap. Look here,” he said.
“Here we go again,” Scott, muttered loud enough for Syd to hear accompanied by a touch to her knee and a tilt of his head.
She stood. “I got it.” She joined the young firefighter.
“I—I just flipped it open and…” He gestured. “I’m getting married in a couple of weeks you see, and my fiancée wants us to write our own vows.”
Syd saw only a blank page.
“This is perfect. Can I copy this down? I mean, do you mind?”
She retrieved a legal pad and pen for him from the desk. “Here you go. Close the book when you’ve finished.”
“Yeah, sure, and thanks.” He bent to the task, pen scratching away.
She went back to Scott’s desk and poured more Johnny Walker into her glass.
“Are we through here?” Scott asked.
“Just one more question for the young lady.”
Syd sipped her drink and waited.
“You’ve got some really great ink.” He nodded at her tattoos.
“Is there a question in there? One I missed?”
“Can I call you? Maybe for a drink or something?”
“Number’s on the card.” She pointed to his clipboard. “Office and personal cell.”
He glanced down at the card. Then back at her. “You don’t mind?”
“You’re not planning a new career as a serial murderer, are you?”
“Not today.” He gave her his own card. “I’m Ken, if you have any questions.”
She so wanted to make a crack about him two-timing Barbie, but decided to let it go. She extended her hand. “Pleasure.”
“I’ll be in touch.” He clicked his pen. “Come on, Gopher, let’s get back to the house.”
“Coming Cap.” The soon-to-be-married Gopher brought the pen and pad back, and handed it to Scott. “Thanks a lot.”
When the door closed, Syd glanced around the store to make sure they were alone. “That Fucking Book again. What’s it going to take before you get rid of it? It might have killed that guy.”
“I believe it’s done far worse than give one contemptible individual a heart attack.” He poured himself a second drink. “One day soon we’ll have that talk about The Harbinger, or That Fucking Book, as you so gleefully refer to it.”
“You keep threatening me with that talk.”
“A promise, not a threat. Right now, I’m going home for a nap.” He handed her his glass. “I probably shouldn’t finish this.”
“Don’t be surprised if it mysteriously disappears in your absence.”
He paused at the door giving her that look, the one that reduced her to a little girl being scolded by an indulgent parent. Not the she remembered being scolded. She’d left home at thirteen and never looked back.
The Bourbon warmed her throat. She circled the lectern, where the book perched. The tooled burgundy leather cover and silk in-boards told only part of the story. The hand stitched binding and the gilded edged pages all led one to believe it was a volume of great wisdom. The workmanship was comparable to the hand crafted books copied by monks prior to the invention of the printing press.
However, that’s where it fell short. The pages were blank. Every, last one. Syd had leafed through it with delicate care the first time Scott left her alone to mind the store. Not so much as a blemish from cover to cover. Unless, according to Scott, it had something to say to you. Then, and only then, would words appear, and only to the person meant to read them.
She circled. Evaluating the opponent. Calculating her attack. Seeking out weaknesses. Finally, she flipped open the cover. Blank pages stared back at her. “Damn it.” She slammed the cover down.
Her boots shook the shelves as she strode to the back. The busy work of packing up books for shipping freed her mind to consider That Fucking Book.
Late nights spent drinking coffee, while researching its origins yielded nothing. There were innumerable legends about books with magical powers—Grimoires, Bibles, Pagan texts, and Occultism. Some warned of dire consequences if opened with the wrong intentions. Others could not be opened at all unless specific conditions were met. Still others were bound with human skin. Not one was said to be blank, whimsically revealing itself only to chosen individuals.
Evidently, it had nothing to say to her. She dusted it, shielded it from sunlight, and intercepted customers who tried to photograph it. Yet, it remained mute whenever she ventured a foray into its pages.
She moved with swift efficiency, packing, and labeling boxes. Each one received rougher handling until the banging brought a shower of dust upon her head. She looked up in disgust. “My bike and I are collecting dust when we should be cruising. Maybe I should blow this town.”
She carried the packages to the front of the store and then shelved Scott’s most recent acquisitions. The bell sounded, a couple stepped inside and removed their sunglasses. Syd waited while their eyes adjusted to the comparative darkness.
The blonde smiled. She’d had some work done, but not too much. “You’ll be here, I assume.”
“Have fun, dear.” The brunette kissed her partner on the cheek. “Remember, we’re about out of space for shoes.”
“And books,” the blonde called before the door closed.
“Can I help you find anything?” Syd asked.
The brunette, looked every bit her age, but was well preserved. She smelled of old money. “Nothing specific. I’m mostly interested in biographies and historical non-fiction.”
“If you prefer to browse, take all the time you like. We have a vast collection of Napoleon’s writings back there.” Syd gestured with a dust cloth. “Some have been translated, but most are in French. Early American presidents are on your left. Religious writings are back there on the right.”
The customer held up her hand. “I get the picture.”
Syd resumed shelving and dusting.
Sometime later, the blonde returned schlepping elegantly wrapped bundles from the local boutiques. Her gaze fell on the pyramid of books piled on the counter and the women laughed at one another.
Scott walked in behind her, looking refreshed, and a little confused. “Good afternoon, ladies. Have I missed a well told joke?”
Syd tossed the dust cloth at him. “You slept right through it.”
“You must be the owner of this wonderful book store,” the brunette said. “Janet.” She reached out her left hand allowing Scott to keep his right hand on the walking stick.
“It is my oasis in an otherwise literary desert.” Scott bowed his head. “Are these all for you?”
“I don’t think she’s done,” the pretty blonde said.
“I’ve half a mind to ship your entire establishment to Connecticut.” Janet said.
“Oh, dear. That would leave nothing for Syd to do. We can’t have that. She’ll get into trouble. I’m sure of it.” Scott chuckled.
“Speaking of trouble, I need to clear my head.” Syd chimed in. “Do you want me to bring you something back?”
“No, I prefer my sustenance without wind burn.”
“Suit yourself. Be back in an hour or so.”
She withdrew her helmet, painted to resemble a fierce bird, out from behind the counter, and sprang for the door. Minutes later she broke free of the city traffic riding Phoenix down a little used two-lane road. The bike howled between her legs as she unwound the speedometer.
Wind rushed by and her thoughts turned to That Fucking Book. It hadn’t interested the gay woman, a serious collector. She walked passed it dozens of times, never sparing it a glance. The soon-to-be-married Gopher, on the other hand, probably hadn’t read anything other than menus in years. Nevertheless, it spoke to him.
“I don’t believe in mumbo jumbo.” In spite of that, she was at a loss to explain her observations over the last two years. “I have to put this shit out of my head?”
Halfway through a tight turn she spotted a layer of sand blown across the road. Her muscles bunched. She backed off the accelerator and straightened the bike. The tires slewed to the side, and Syd fought for balance. It was all up to Phoenix now. Syd gave her the lead. Over controlling the skid would spell disaster.
Phoenix crossed the centerline, and Syd prepared to lay her down. The soft shoulder approached as the sand tapered away. Changing her plan, Syd leaned hard to her right, downshifted, and rolled the accelerator. Phoenix responded with a guttural roar. They could still make this.
The long blast from an air horn shattered her focus. The chrome grill of a Peterbilt bore down on her, and she had to choose—death or desert. She changed the direction of the bike again, passing the right front fender of the truck close enough to kiss. The hot rush of the passing truck nudged her off the blacktop. Phoenix shot into the desert, and her front tire sunk into the soft sand. Syd flew over the handlebars and braced for the inevitable rush of pain.
Sudden silence struck her when she stopped bouncing. Sitting up with care, she glanced at a particularly nasty cactus on her left. “Could’ve been worse.”
Slowly she stood, taking inventory. “Two legs check. Two arms check. Pulling head out of my ass, check, check. The gang’s all here. Nice of the truck driver to hang around. What a dick.”
Gingerly, she walked back to Phoenix and surveyed the damage. Mostly cosmetic. If a little touchup was the worst of it, she’d log this one in the win column. They’d both risen from the ashes of real wrecks in the past, which she documented in ink on her skin. A couple bruises and some paint didn’t amount to much.
Phoenix roared to life. When she finally got back on the road, saguaros cast long shadows and the sun angled toward the horizon. Hot air dried her sweat-drenched body as she leaned into the last of the turns. Soon she’d be negotiating the city traffic.
By now, Scott would be worrying. She’d wandered into Alcuin Books to absorb the air-conditioning after futilely beating the bricks looking for temporary work.
An intense argument erupted between them over the role of religion and government in society. He baited her, then pulled volumes off the shelves to defend his position.
Furious, she returned the following day with data of her own. He unofficially adopted her that day. Two years later, she was still here.
A horn blew and she realized she’d been sitting through a green light. She turned onto Scottsdale road.
For eleven years, she lived on her own and kept the world at bay. Trusted no one. Vowed never to fall prey to the miserable wretches that inhabited the planet. In the course of a couple hours, one old man accomplished what no one had done since she left home. He disarmed her. Wore down her shields. Sneaking in under her radar, he built a room in her heart.
She loved the old, incorrigible, reprobate. It pained her to know she was causing him concern. Her stomach growled as she turned into the small parking lot. With Phoenix tucked in next to Scott’s old Subaru, Syd shut her down. Pulling her helmet off, she brushed away a tear. She was home at last. A real home. Her home. “Besides, who would take care of the old grump if something happened to me?”
“Are you going to sit out there all night?” Scott asked from the doorway.
“Don’t get your panties in a bunch, I’m coming.” She cleared emotion from her voice then threw her aching leg over the bike.
“One hour? You better get a watch, woman.” He smiled and stepped aside to let her pass, then locked the door behind her. “Aside from the missing paint on poor Phoenix you don’t look any worse for wear.”
“Just a zigging problem.” Syd waited for him to get back to his chair.
“I can only presume you were zagging at the time.” He wheezed taking his seat.
“Yeah, that’s the gist of it.”
“Did you eat?”
“Not since lunch with Johnny Walker.”
“That’s fine. Good nutrition in alcohol.” He picked up the phone and dialed. “Yes Tony, can you send over a Sydney for me… Thank you.”
Syd stowed her helmet. “I’m perfectly capable of ordering my own dinner, you know.”
“Why do you bristle when I do something thoughtful for you?”
She shrugged. The too close call had flattened her defenses “I still have a hard time accepting that people will do anything, without an ulterior motive.”
“It will please you no doubt to know I too, have covert reasons for being nice to you. Our coffers are running over thanks to the Janet, who gushed over how wonderful you were.”
“That’s the job. Not that it pays much.” She smiled. He compensated her well, but she had an obligation to bitch about her pay. It was the universal responsibility of employees everywhere.
“The current trend is to reduce wages and benefits. Would you like to open a formal negotiation?” He smiled.
“Nah, it’s late. Maybe tomorrow, if you don’t give anyone else a heart attack.” She grabbed a bottle of water from the mini fridge.
He gestured to the seat across from him. “I thought we might talk about something we can disagree on.”
She laughed. “You want to narrow that down a little?”
“Specifically the existence of agencies not easily explained away.”
Her empty stomach did a flip. “That Fucking Book?” A knock at the door interrupted her.
“That will be Tony with your dinner.”
When she returned with her sandwich, she noticed a serious demeanor had settled on Scott’s face.
“You eat, whilst I pontificate. You will agree that knowledge is power.”
She nodded with a mouth full of sausage and peppers and wiped at a string of cheese dangling from her chin.
“Responsibility also accompanies knowledge.” Scott opened a file drawer. “With great knowledge comes—”
“Great responsibility. Get on with it.” Syd took another bite.
Scott laid a thick file on his desk. “This comprises everything I know about the volume in question. It also contains many things I suspect, but can’t prove. I have more than one working theory regarding the mysteries surrounding The Harbinger.”
“Why do you call it that?”
“It’s not lady-like to talk with your mouth full.”
She swallowed. “You’ll be relieved to know, I’m no lady. Continue.”
He patted the file. “What isn’t in here is my deference, to the power The Harbinger wields. Nor, the trepidation I have over the abuses it could be put to. In short, I fear it may fall into the wrong hands. I have become the unfortunate guardian of this vile artifact.”
“First of all, I can’t begin to believe—”
“I’m not asking you to believe in anything right now. I’m asking you to keep an open mind as you read my notes.” He handed the file over. “Don’t let this out of your sight.”
She hefted it to her lap and opened it. Knowing Scott’s penchant for organization, the table of contents didn’t surprise her. “I don’t know quite what to say. Should I be pissed because you’ve kept this from me for two years, or honored you trust me with it?”
“Neither. If you understood what you’re getting yourself into, you’d hop on Phoenix and never look back.” The effort he exerted to stand came out in the form of a groan. “Try not to stay up all night reading. I’ll see you in the morning.”
She followed him to the door. “You be careful driving home.”
“It’s two blocks, I’ll manage.” He ruffled her hair. “I know how much you dislike that, but humor an old man.”
She locked him out, turned off the lights, and took the file to the back room. She read while preparing the coffee maker. She cleared her desk and she read. Fragrant coffee blossomed into the air and she read. On a legal pad, she scribbled notes she wanted to fact check, and she read.
She woke with a stiff neck and something she never thought possible, her ass had fallen asleep. The clutter in residence on her desk stood witness to her night’s endeavors. “Coffee. Must have strong coffee now.”
Six a.m. and the ridiculously cheerful baristas at Starbucks would be unlocking the doors about now.
The cool, early morning air felt good as she walked the one block to Starbucks. She thought of the book as The Harbinger now, and for good reason. Scott believed if The Harbinger spoke to you, your life was about to change. Whether for good or bad, was up to you. Scott had recorded events that went both ways. Some were legends handed down over time, some he had witnessed.
“Hey, Syd. The usual?”
“Make it two, Karen.”
“Two, venti five shot Americanos, Charlie.” Karen rang the order. “Rough night?”
“Nah, just reading.” Syd ran a hand through her hair. “Requirement of the job. You know, bookstore and all.”
“Any time you want to switch, let me know.”
Syd thought about the events she’d witnessed. The soon-to-be-married Gopher had received wedding vows. How could that go bad? She shuddered thinking of her own mother’s relationship with men. Then there was the heart attack guy. What had the book said to him?
Karen slid the carrier over. “See you later?”
“Yeah, later.” Syd hurried back. She would have to call Ken and get Heart Attack’s name. She wanted to interview him. Fumbling with the key, she opened the door, and then locked herself in. Standing at the pedestal she stared at The Harbinger. If half of what she’d read last night was true, this book should be feared.
She flipped open the cover. The carrier dropped from her hand and two Americanos exploded upon impact.
I, Scott Hendrickson, being of sound mind and body do bequeath all my worldly possessions to Sydney Steinert…
I hope you enjoyed The Guardian. Writers are notoriously insecure. With that in mind your comments are very much appreciated.
This weeks quote comes from Lou Reed.
“There’s a bit of magic in everything, and some loss to even things out.”
Thanks for tuning in,