The Demon's LibrarianLilith Saintcrow
The Demon’s Librarian
E-Book ISBN: 978-1-61026-008-4
For librarians everywhere
Other Books by Lilith Saintcrow
The Society Series
She ended up knee-deep in slick rotting garbage with one hell of a shiner and a stitch gripping her side, holding a glowing-blue knife while something with tentacles thrashed toward her in the foul stinking water.
How the bloody blue hell do I get into these situations? Oh, yeah. Bond issues and politics. Sure.
While the good citizens of Jericho City would pay thousands yearly for plastic surgery and to pad the pockets of the mayor’s friends, they simply would not vote a couple of measly bucks onto their property taxes to take care of her library. Lovely. Remind me to spit in a city councilman’s coffee cup the first chance I get.
The thing scrabbled for her, throwing up great gouts of stinking water to splash the brick insides of the tunnel, and Chess hoped her college Latin was up to snuff. Let’s hope the gingko’s working for my memory too, shall we? She drew a deep breath, gagged, and choked out, “Fiat lux aeternis, in nominae Enomae!” in a voice that had more Minnie Mouse squeak than kickass confidence to it. Her hand stabbed forward, full of the knife, force bleeding out through the blade in a hot wire of strength that seemed to come from her solar plexus. It was getting easier each time she practiced, but the draining sensation was also getting scarier. Much scarier, and much stronger.
Gunpowder flash-blast of blue light, deathlike scream, and she ended up on her back in two feet of stinking water and filth while the thing rained gobbets of already-decaying flesh into the water. The little plips and plops of reeking meat slapping the greasy water made her retch again, her stomach doing its best to engineer a mutiny. I don’t blame it one bit. Stomachs weren’t meant for this kind of abuse.
Just another day in the life of a librarian. My boots are probably ruined. Great.
She coughed and gagged again, trying not to lose everything she’d ever thought of eating in the last week. The books always make this stuff sound so goddamn easy. They don’t mention the smell. Or the way getting hit in the face with a tentacle as big around as your thigh hurts. Her eye was puffing closed, she could feel it throbbing and swelling to almost the size of a baseball.
Chess swallowed dryly, pleading with her stomach to stay down. The smell of garbage coated the back of her throat, and she probably had gotten some of the slimy water in her mouth. I don’t think it’s good for my image to blow chunks all over a . . . what’s this thing called again? Either a skornac or just plain Demon-With-Many-Arms. Particularly allergic to a fire-consecrated demon-hunter’s knife. One more case where an ounce of research is worth a pound of “oh fuck.”
Dripping, greasy, and filthy, she struggled up to mostly-vertical. Her bag was soaked, hanging wetly by her side; thank God for Ziploc bags. Everything in there likely to be damaged by water was safely in its own baggie. Ziploc was probably the best thing to happen in the last fifty years, along with computerized inventory and truly comfortable shoes.
The muscles in her thighs shook. If she hadn’t been suddenly cold from the air hitting her now wet clothes and skin, she might have been—call the newspapers—sweating. Adrenaline lay thin and copper against her tongue and the roof of her mouth; her heart thudded.
“Any more of you assholes out there?” There weren’t, of course—the knife’s blade had dimmed to a dull punky-blue glow, meaning nothing demonic was near. She wanted to try breathing through her mouth, but the idea that she might taste the smell in the air made her gag again.
Christ, Chessie, get a hold of yourself!
As usual, she took refuge in literature. “But soft, what stink through yonder sewer reeks?” Her voice broke, echoing as she waded back through the tunnel, ducking under a pipe right at head-banging level. The water running through here—full of trash and ick as it was, it was still water, and a good friend—would cleanse any lingering foulness from the demon away. Smart little fucker, going underground. I was stupid to have followed it. But in the heat of the moment, even a starchy little librarian like Francesca Barnes could get a little impulsive.
“It is the sewer, and the librarian is really happy this is all over.” A thin, unsteady, hiccupping laugh, and she felt almost ready to face the rest of the screwed-up situation.
She checked her watch in the rippling light bouncing off the scummy water. Half-past ten. Good. I might even get some sleep tonight. I’m only a couple blocks from home. Go figure, the first ever demon I kill is right around my humble abode.
If it hadn’t been for the bond issue failing and the loss of the full-time maintenance man—though Stephenson often came around on his days off to do some repairs and heavy lifting, going above and beyond in return for Chess fixing him cups of tea and scolding him about his smoking—she wouldn’t have been stumbling around in the basement looking for a spare box of light bulbs. And if she hadn’t been stumbling around in the basement, she never would have found the little door and put her hand on the lock.
And I might never have known what was making kids disappear, or been able to stop it. Chess bit back a strained giggle at the very unfunny thought. The urge to laugh was damn near overwhelming. Probably some type of compensation or weird mental crack-up under the strain of facing down her very first demon.
From a dusty library basement to a sewer in six months. I only have a shiner and an almost dislocated shoulder to show for it. And that was a demon the books called small potatoes. I never want to meet a bigger one.
She’d reached the end of the tunnel before she felt brave enough to slip the knife back into its sheath and get out a waterproof flashlight, checking her compass repeatedly. The boys at the army surplus store are getting mighty curious about me, aren’t they? Well, I get a discount, I suppose I can’t complain. Chess blew out between her lips. The smell actually wasn’t that bad now that she was far enough away from the rotting tentacles. The thing had been living on stray cats and rats—and the occasional schoolchild.
While I don’t mind a demon that eats rats—that would actually be pretty useful in Jericho—I draw the line at kitties, even feral ones. And schoolkids. Even feral ones. Call me a softhearted sucker. I suppose if I wasn’t, I wouldn’t be pulling down forty thousand a year with two college degrees to my name.
After a long time of slogging she found the ladder, sighing in shaky relief. The rusted metal was rough and greasy, and she was glad of the grab in her hiking boots’ soles. The maintenance hatch was still open, she rolled out onto the chilly slick pavement of a Jericho City night, blessed city stink taking the place of the thick roil of sewer-stench. For a moment she lay on her back on the concrete, gasping, then it got too cold. Her shoulder throbbed as she pushed herself up to her feet. The alley was small, filthy, and dim, just the sort of place no reasonable woman should ever find herself in after dark.
It didn’t take her too long to get home. She made it up the outside fire escape to her fifth-story window, blessing the fact that the little bit of WD-40 had worked wonders on the squeaking, creaking metal. No need to advertise to the whole neighborhood what she was up to.
Chess laid her hand on the window sash and murmured the password. “Nevermore.”
She was rewarded with the sound of the lock chucking open. Two weeks of figuring out that little trick; two weeks of freezing your ass off on y
our own fire escape is bad for anyone’s mood.
The plastic garbage bag she’d laid right under the window crackled as she closed the window and began struggling out of her stinking clothes, glad she’d left the lights off. It took about ten minutes, but at the end of those ten minutes she was able to dump everything in the stackable washer and dryer in her laundry closet. I am endlessly happy that I don’t have to wash my panties in a Laundromat. Never mind that I have to pay a little extra in rent. It’s worth it.
The red eye of her answering machine blinked balefully. Chess pressed the button, then hobbled into the bathroom to pee. Yet another thing the demon-hunting manuals don’t tell you: getting close to death makes your bladder shrink. Maybe it’s something to do with electrolyte balances messing up renal function. I’ll look it up in the morning. Just one more odd fact to add to my steadily growing store of trivia.
The answering machine beeped as she sat on the toilet, elbows braced on knees and head hanging. Her hair was wet and filthy. Gooseflesh stood up all over her skin, hard sharp prickles. I think I’m dealing with this rather remarkably well, all things considered.
“Chess, it’s your mother. Listen, Uncle Bill is in town. Do you want to come over on Saturday for lunch and a hot game of Scrabble? I’ll make a pitcher of margaritas. Also, your sister wants her Death Cab For Cutie CD back, and I’d like my Nine Inch Nails collection too. Give me a call, sweetie, I miss hearing your voice. Bye!” Mom sounded, as usual, unremittingly perky. My mother, the original Pollyanna.
Chess’s older sister was the bright one in the family, having gone to law school and taken a punishing corporate-law job that would make her filthy rich before long. She was already a partner. Librarian was an honorable avocation; their grandmother had been a schoolteacher and education was highly regarded in the Barnes family. But still, Chess didn’t earn nearly enough.
I wish I could get paid for hunting down demons. But really, how much do you get paid for almost being strangled and drowned in garbage water before you can consider it worth it?
Next message. “Hey Chess, it’s Charlie. Come rescue me Saturday. Mom and Uncle Bill want to murder me with Scrabble. And Mom wants to borrow my Death Cab For Cutie CD. Can I borrow your Charlie Feathers box set? I’ll let you hold my Johnny Cash in return. Give me a call at work tomorrow. I’ll tell the secretary to put you right through.” Her sister chuckled and hung up. Chess made a face at her dirty scraped knees in the dark.
Next message. “Francesca.” A piercing childish giggle. “Frannncessssssca . . . “
Damn phone. It had been doing that a lot lately. Well, what do you expect when you find a clutch of priceless sorcerous books in a dusty boiler-room basement of a building built in 1906, since the damn city was too cheap to buy a new one?
Still, Chess loved the old library; its mellow wooden floors, its cranky heat, its moldering shelves and groaning ceilings. Its antique Art Deco elevators—in the twenties, apparently, the citizens of Jericho still cared about their library. She even loved her crammed little nook of an office—as head librarian, she was accorded that one luxury, the office that had been the head librarian’s since 1922.
“Frannnnncessssssca . . .” The voice turned even sweeter, more piping. “Frrraaaannnnncesssscaaaaa . . .”
“You know, as a prank caller, you really suck,” she muttered. The message ended with a squawk of feedback. Her hair dripped. I think I’m still alive. God. Really dealing with this well. Chalk one up for me. I’m not in a straitjacket or clawing my own eyes out. This is fantastic.
Next message. “Hey, girl! It’s Bobby.”
Chess groaned into her knees. Oh, please. No.
“I didn’t catch you at work today,” Robert continued pleasantly, “and you’re not home now. Wow, you’ve gotten busy. Can you give me a call? I think I have to cancel our date on Saturday and I want to talk it over with you.”
Meaning you want to gauge whether or not I feel bad about it. Meaning you want to know whether I know you’ve been seeing that Cuban piece of trash on the side. Meaning you want to see just how long you can string me along before I get tired of it, wondering if you can drop me first but you’re unwilling to give up the sex. Christ I’m glad I made you wear a condom. “Loss of sensitivity” my ass.
Robert made a few more meaningless remarks. She covered them up with the sound of the flush and hobbled out into the living room, wondering just how many messages there were. Then again, she wasn’t home in the evenings much anymore, too busy spreading out in a search pattern with a dowsing pendulum to track down the skornac.
Another beep. “Chessie! It’s Al. Didn’t see you at practice today, was worried about you. Give me a call.”
End of messages. Chess sighed. Al Brown was the kickboxing teacher at Grant’s Gym. He was also a big cuddly giant of a man who seemed to have taken it as a personal quest in life to make Chess the best asskicker she could be. It was kind of sweet; after all, she’d picked him because he looked the meanest out of all the teachers. Unfortunately, he’s so goddamn nice I feel guilty every time I sock him one. Another case of no truth in advertising.
A long, hot shower helped. Chess emerged in a pink fuzzy bathrobe, her hair wrapped in a pink towel; she carried a small jar that gleamed faintly blue, looking like Brylcreem with glitter. She plopped down on the faded rose-patterned couch and turned the TV on, unscrewing the jar lid. The smell of mint and bitter wormwood exhaled into the apartment, and she took a thick glop of the goo and pushed her robe down, applying it to the spreading red-black bruise beginning to rise to the surface of her shoulder. It tingled and went numb.
“Ah.” The sound of her voice, a hurt little cry, bounced off the wall. She sucked in a long breath, flinching as she massaged her shoulder. Oh, ouch. Ouchie.
Abbot & Costello was on the comedy channel. Chess turned it up and dabbed the ointment gingerly around her bruised eye, blinking furiously as tears trickled down her cheeks. The smell was so strong it coated the back of her throat, but the numb tingling was much better than the throbbing pain. Hallelujah, I’ll no longer look like the poster child for domestic violence in the morning. There would be a little puffiness and soreness, but the shiner would be mostly gone. Tears trickled down her cheeks.
Wish I could market this stuff. It’d be worth millions. Chess stared at the television. Maybe they’d do Who’s On First? one more time. The tears stopped eventually, she breathed deeply and felt her stomach settle. She’d survived her first brush with a demon and come out alive and only bruised.
She yawned, digging her toes into the rug, and barely lasted another half-hour before dragging herself to bed. That’s another thing they don’t tell you about demon hunting: how damn exhausted it makes you. She fell into her messy, unmade bed surrounded by its stacks of books and piled with blue and green pillows, staring at the framed print of Buster Keaton on the bedroom wall for a full thirty seconds before she passed out. The nightmares, when they came, were expected . . . but that didn’t make them easier to handle.
* * * *
The next few days went as well as could be expected, except for a slight lingering headache. The tenuous peace went on, actually, for a whole week and a half.
Chess decided to do some paperwork at the Reference desk. They were shorthanded as usual and she could keep an eye on the checkout counter while she worked. Really dealing with this well, she told herself over and over again as she initialed, collated, read, and tried to ignore the way her stomach kept flipping. There was nothing in it; she hadn’t managed to eat her toast this morning. It was still sitting on her kitchen counter, precisely placed on a blue porcelain plate.
“Good afternoon, Miss Barnes.” Emmylou Pembroke’s watery blue eyes glared through her steel-rimmed bifocals. Her graying hair was scraped back in its familiar no-nonsense bun. “I have something very important to speak with you about.”
Chess set her pen down, her face frozen into the accommodating smile learned in third grade as a defense against bullie
s. Oh, good God, what is it now? She set aside the stack of papers and folded her hands, refusing to look up at Pembroke. Instead, she stared at the old woman’s midriff. The Indignant was wearing the blue cardigan and tweed skirt today, and her liver-spotted hands trembled against her tartan bag.
“Won’t you sit down, Mrs. Pembroke?” Chess inquired sweetly. “It’s so good to see you. May I offer you a cup of tea?” Or a face-to-face with a tentacled demon in the sewers? I think that would be just up your alley, Pem.
Pembroke clutched her small purse to her solar plexus as if strangling a small pet dog against her cardigan. “No . . . no tea.” She sounded shocked. Relations between Chess and the Indignant had been icily polite ever since the great Barbara Cartland fiasco, with no détente in sight.
After dealing with an octopus-looking demon, Pembroke the Indignant didn’t rattle Chess nearly as much. Her shoulder still throbbed a little bit when she reached up over her head, and her face was in good shape despite the tendency of one eyelid to twinge every once in a while, when she forgot and rubbed at it. Her hair didn’t smell like filthy garbage water, for which she was extremely grateful. Her clothes had lost the smell of sewer after a good two-day soaking in laundry detergent.
Around them, the library dozed in its usual midweek rustles and dust. Chess glanced over, seeing sleek-haired Sharon behind the circulation desk, checking out a stack of romances for a fluffy-haired teenage girl who was methodically placing each paperback in a plastic bag to take home. Sharon’s dark, immaculate eyebrows rose as she watched Pembroke sink down in one of the two chairs across from the Reference desk. The message was clear. Need some help?
I’ll call if I need backup, Share. Chess’s wry smile acknowledged her concern. Pembroke, as usual, got right to the point.
“I checked this out yesterday,” she began, digging in her purse. Her cheap gold watch flashed, and her earrings, shaped like big plastic cherries, bobbed. Her beaky nose was having trouble holding her bifocals perched on the end, and Chess wished suddenly, vengefully, for them to fall off.