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Four Past Midnight - 5 - The Library Policeman, Page 2

Stephen King

  He didn't like it; it made him uneasy; he didn't know why. It was, after all, just a library, not the dungeons of the Inquisition. just the same, another acidic burp rose up through his chest as he made his way along the flagstone walk. There was a funny sweet undertaste to the burp that reminded him of something ... something from a long time ago, perhaps. He put a Turn in his mouth, began to crunch it up, and came to an abrupt decision. His speech was good enough as it stood. Not great, but good enough. After all, they were talking Rotary Club here, not the United Nations. It was time to stop playing with it. He was going to go back to the office and do some of the correspondence he had neglected that morning.

  He started to turn, then thought: That's dumb. Really dumb. You want to be dumb? Okay. But you agreed to give the goddam speech; why not give a good one?

  He stood on the Library walk, frowning and undecided. He liked to make fun of Rotary. Craig did, too. And Frank Stephens. Most of the young business types in Junction City laughed about the meetings. But they rarely missed one, and Sam supposed he knew why: it was a place where connections could be made. A place where a fellow like him could meet some of the not-so-young business types in Junction City. Guys like Elmer Baskin, whose bank had helped float a strip shopping center in Beaverton two years ago. Guys like George Candy - who, it was said, could produce three million dollars in development money with one phone call ... if he chose to make it.

  These were small-town fellows, high-school basketball fans, guys who got their hair cut at Jimmy's, guys who wore boxer shorts and strappy tee-shirts to bed instead of pajamas, guys who still drank their beer from the bottle, guys who didn't feel comfortable about a night on the town in Cedar Rapids unless they were turned out in Full Cleveland. They were also Junction City's movers and shakers, and when you came right down to it, wasn't that why Sam kept going on Friday nights? When you came right down to it, wasn't that why Craig had called in such a sweat after the stupid acrobat broke his stupid neck? You wanted to get noticed by the movers and shakers ... but not because you had fucked up. They'll all be drunk, Craig had said, and Naomi had seconded the motion, but it now occurred to Sam that he had never seen Elmer Baskin take anything stronger than coffee. Not once. And he probably wasn't the only one. Some of them might be drunk ... but not all of them. And the ones who weren't might well be the ones who really mattered.

  Handle this right, Sam, and you might do yourself some good. It's not impossible.

  No. It wasn't. Unlikely, of course, but not impossible. And there was something else, quite aside from the shadow politics which might or might not attend a Friday-night Rotary Club speaker's meeting: he had always prided himself on doing the best job possible. So it was just a dumb little speech. So what?

  Also, it's just a dumb little small-town library. What's the big deal? There aren't even any bushes growing along the sides.

  Sam had started up the walk again, but now he stopped with a frown creasing his forehead. That was a strange thought to have; it seemed to have come right out of nowhere. So there were no bushes growing along the sides of the Library -what difference did that make? He didn't know ... but he did know it had an almost magical effect on him. His uncharacteristic hesitation fell away and he began to move forward once more. He climbed the four stone steps and paused for a moment. The place felt deserted, somehow. He grasped the door-handle and thought, I bet it's locked. I bet the place is closed Friday afternoons. There was something strangely comforting in this thought.

  But the old-fashioned latch-plate depressed under his thumb, and the heavy door swung noiselessly inward. Sam stepped into a small foyer with a marble floor in checkerboard black and white squares. An easel stood in the center of this antechamber. There was a sign propped on the easel; the message consisted of one word in very large letters.


  it read. Not




  but just that one staring, glaring word:


  'You bet,' Sam said. He only murmured the words, but the acoustics of the place were very good, and his low murmur was magnified into a grouchy grumble that made him cringe. It actually seemed to bounce back at him from the high ceiling. At that moment he felt as if he was in the fourth grade again, and about to be called to task by Mrs Glasters for cutting up rough at exactly the wrong moment. He looked around uneasily, half-expecting an ill-natured librarian to come swooping out of the main room to see who had dared profane the silence.

  Stop it, for Christ's sake. You're forty years old. Fourth grade was a long time ago, buddy.

  Except it didn't seem like a long time ago. Not in here. In here, fourth grade seemed almost close enough to reach out and touch.

  He crossed the marble floor to the left of the easel, unconsciously walking with his weight thrown forward so the heels of his loafers would not click, and entered the main lobby of the Junction City Library.

  There were a number of glass globes hanging down from the ceiling (which was at least twenty feet higher than the ceiling of the foyer), but none of them were on. The light was provided by two large, angled skylights. On a sunny day these would have been quite enough to light the room; they might even have rendered it cheery and welcoming. But this Friday was overcast and dreary, and the light was dim. The corners of the lobby were filled with gloomy webs of shadow.

  What Sam Peebles felt was a sense of wrongness. It was as if he had done more than step through a door and cross a foyer; he felt as if he had entered another world, one which bore absolutely no resemblance to the small Iowa town that he sometimes liked, sometimes hated, but mostly just took for granted. The air in here seemed heavier than normal air, and did not seem to conduct light as well as normal air did. The silence was thick as a blanket, as cold as snow.

  The library was deserted.

  Shelves of books stretched above him on every side. Looking up toward the skylights with their crisscrosses of reinforcing wire made Sam a little dizzy, and he had a momentary illusion: he felt that he was upside down, that he had been hung by his heels over a deep square pit lined with books.

  Ladders leaned against the walls here and there, the kind that were mounted on tracks and rolled along the floor on rubber wheels. Two wooden islands broke the lake of space between the place where he stood and the checkout desk on the far side of the large, high room. One was a long oak magazine rack. Periodicals, each encased in a clear plastic cover, hung from this rack on wooden dowels. They looked like the hides of strange animals which had been left to cure in this silent room. A sign mounted on top of the rack commanded:


  To the left of the magazine rack was a shelf of brand-new novels and nonfiction books. The sign mounted on top of the shelf proclaimed them to be seven-day rentals.

  Sam passed down the wide aisle between the magazines and the seven-day bookshelf, his heels rapping and echoing in spite of his effort to move quietly. He found himself wishing he had heeded his original impulse to just turn around and go back to the office. This place was spooky. Although there was a small, hooded microfilm camera alight and humming on the desk, there was no one manning - or womaning - it. A small plaque reading


  stood on the desk, but there was no sign of A. Lortz or anyone else.

  Probably taking a dump and checking out the new issue of Library journal.

  Sam felt a crazy desire to open his mouth and yell, 'Everything coming out all right, A. Lortz?' It passed quickly. The Junction City Public Library was not the sort of place that encouraged amusing sallies.

  Sam's thoughts suddenly spun back to a little rhyme from his childhood. NO more laughing, no more fun; Quaker meeting has begun. If you show your teeth or tongue, you must pay a forfeit.

  If you show your teeth or tongue in here, does A. Lortz make you pay a forfeit?

  he wondered. He looked around again, let his nerve-endings feel the fr
owning quality of the silence, and thought you could make book on it.

  No longer interested in obtaining a joke-book or Best Loved Poems of the American People, but fascinated by the library's suspended, dreamy atmosphere in spite of himself, Sam walked toward a door to the right of the seven-day books. A sign over the door said this was the Children's Library. Had he used the Children's Library when he had been growing up in St Louis? He thought so, but those memories were hazy, distant, and hard to hold. All the same, approaching the door of the Children's Library gave him an odd and haunting feeling. It was almost like coming home.

  The door was closed. On it was a picture of Little Red Riding Hood, looking down at the wolf in Grandma's bed. The wolf was wearing Grandma's nightgown and Grandma's nightcap. It was snarling. Foam dripped from between its bared fangs. An expression of almost exquisite horror had transfixed Little Red Riding Hood's face, and the poster seemed not just to suggest but to actually proclaim that the happy ending of this story - of all fairy tales - was a convenient lie. Parents might believe such guff, Red Riding Hood's ghastly-sick face said, but the little ones knew better, didn't they?

  Nice, Sam thought. With a poster like that on the door, I bet lots of kids use the Children's Library. I bet the little ones are especially fond of it.

  He opened the door and poked his head in.

  His sense of unease left him; he was charmed at once. The poster on the door was all wrong, of course, but what was behind it seemed perfectly right. Of course he had used the library as a child; it only took one look into this scale-model world to refresh those memories. His father had died young; Sam had been an only child raised by a working mother he rarely saw except on Sundays and holidays. When he could not promote money for a movie after school - and that was often - the library had to do, and the room he saw now brought those days back in a sudden wave of nostalgia that was sweet and painful and obscurely frightening.

  It had been a small world, and this was a small world; it had been a well-lighted world, even on the grimmest, rainiest days, and so was this one. No hanging glass globes for this room; there were shadow-banishing fluorescent lights behind frosted panels in the suspended ceiling, and all of them were on. The tops of the tables were only two feet from the floor; the seats of the chairs were even closer. In this world the adults would be the interlopers, the uncomfortable aliens. They would balance the tables on their knees if they tried to sit at them, and they would be apt to crack their skulls bending to drink from the water fountain which was mounted on the far wall.

  Here the shelves did not stretch up in an unkind trick of perspective which made one giddy if one looked up too long; the ceiling was low enough to be cozy, but not low enough to make a child feel cramped. Here were no rows of gloomy bindings but books which fairly shouted with raucous primary colors: bright blues, reds, yellows. In this world Dr Seuss was king, Judy Blume was queen, and all the princes and princesses attended Sweet Valley High. Here Sam felt all that old sense of benevolent after-school welcome, a place where the books did all but beg to be touched, handled, looked at, explored. Yet these feelings had their own dark undertaste.

  His clearest sense, however, was one of almost wistful pleasure. On one wall was a photograph of a puppy with large, thoughtful eyes. Written beneath the puppy's anxious-hopeful face was one of the world's great truths: IT IS HARD TO BE GOOD. On another wall was a drawing of mallards making their way down a riverbank to the reedy verge of the water. MAKE WAY FOR DUCKLINGS! the poster trumpeted.

  Sam looked to his left, and the faint smile on his lips first faltered and then died. Here was a poster which showed a large, dark car speeding away from what he supposed was a school building. A little boy was looking out of the passenger window. His hands were plastered against the glass and his mouth was open in a scream. In the background, a man - only a vague, ominous shape - was hunched over the wheel, driving hell for leather. The words beneath this picture read:


  Sam recognized that this poster and the Little Red Riding Hood picture on the door of the Children's Library both appealed to the same primitive emotions of dread, but he found this one much more disturbing. Of course children shouldn't accept rides from strangers, and of course they had to be taught not to do so, but was this the right way to make the point?

  How many kids, he wondered, have had a week's worth of nightmares thanks to that little public service announcement?

  And there was another one, posted right on the front of the checkout desk, that struck a chill as deep as January down Sam's back. It showed a dismayed boy and girl, surely no older than eight, cringing back from a man in a trenchcoat and gray hat. The man looked at least eleven feet tall; his shadow fell on the upturned faces of the children. The brim of his 1940s-style fedora threw its own shadow, and the eyes of the man in the trenchcoat gleamed relentlessly from its black depths. They looked like chips of ice as they studied the children, marking them with the grim gaze of Authority. He was holding out an ID folder with a star pinned to it - an odd sort of star, with at least nine points on it. Maybe as many as a dozen. The message beneath read:



  That taste was in his mouth again. That sweet, unpleasant taste. And a queer. frightening thought occurred to him: I have seen this man before. But that was ridiculous, of course. Wasn't it?

  Sam thought of how such a poster would have intimidated him as a child - of how much simple, unalloyed pleasure it would have stolen from the safe haven of the library - and felt indignation rise in his chest. He took a step toward the poster to examine the odd star more closely, taking his roll of Tums out of his pocket at the same time.

  He was putting one of them into his mouth when a voice spoke up from behind him. 'Well, hello there!'

  He jumped and turned around, ready to do battle with the library dragon, now that it had finally disclosed itself.


  No dragon presented itself. There was only a plump, white-haired woman of about fifty-five, pushing a trolley of books on silent rubber tires. Her white hair fell around her pleasant, unlined face in neat beauty-shop curls.

  'I suppose you were looking for me,' she said. 'Did Mr Peckham direct you in here?'

  'I didn't see anybody at all.'

  'No? Then he's gone along home,' she said. 'I'm not really surprised, since it's Friday. Mr Peckham comes in to dust and read the paper every morning around eleven. He's the janitor - only part-time, of course. Sometimes he stays until one -one-thirty on most Mondays, because that's the day when both the dust and the paper are thickest - but you know how thin Friday's paper is.'

  Sam smiled. 'I take it you're the librarian?'

  'I am she,' Mrs Lortz said, and smiled at him. But Sam didn't think her eyes were smiling; her eyes seemed to be watching him carefully, almost coldly. 'And you are ... ?'

  'Sam Peebles.'

  'Oh yes! Real estate and insurance! That's your game!'

  'Guilty as charged.'

  'I'm sorry you found the main section of the library deserted - you must have thought we were closed and someone left the door open by mistake.'

  'Actually,' he said, 'the idea did cross my mind.'

  'From two until seven there are three of us on duty,' said Mrs Lortz. 'Two is when the schools begin to let out, you know - the grammar school at two, the middle school at two-thirty, the high school at two-forty-five. The children are our most faithful clients, and the most welcome, as far as I am concerned. I love the little ones. I used to have an all-day assistant, but last year the Town Council cut our budget by eight hundred dollars and . . .' Mrs Lortz put her hands together and mimed a bird flying away. It was an amusing, charming gesture.

  So why, Sam wondered, aren't I charmed or amused?

  The posters, he supposed. He was still trying to make Red Riding Hood, the screaming child in the car, and the grim-eyed Library Policeman jibe with this smili
ng small-town librarian.

  She put her left hand out - a small hand, as plump and round as the rest of her -with perfect unstudied confidence. He looked at the third finger and saw it was ringless; she wasn't Mrs Lortz after all. The fact of her spinsterhood struck him as utterly typical, utterly small-town. Almost a caricature, really. Sam shook it.

  'You haven't been to our library before, have you, Mr Peebles?'

  'No, I'm afraid not. And please make it Sam.' He did not know if he really wanted to be Sam to this woman or not, but he was a businessman in a small town - a salesman, when you got right down to it - and the offer of his first name was automatic.

  'Why, thank you, Sam.'

  He waited for her to respond by offering her own first name, but she only looked at him expectantly.

  'I've gotten myself into a bit of a bind,' he said. 'Our scheduled speaker tonight at Rotary Club had an accident, and -'

  'Oh, that's too bad!'

  'For me as well as him. I got drafted to take his place.'

  'Oh-oh!' Ms Lortz said. Her tone was alarmed, but her eyes crinkled with amusement. And still Sam did not find himself warming to her, although he was a person who warmed up to other people quickly (if superficially) as a rule; the kind of man who had few close friends but felt compelled nonetheless to start conversations with strangers in elevators.

  'I wrote a speech last night and this morning I read it to the young woman who takes dictation and types up my correspondence -'

  'Naomi Higgins, I'll bet.'

  'Yes - how did you know that?'

  'Naomi is a regular. She borrows a great many romance novels - Jennifer Blake, Rosemary Rogers, Paul Sheldon, people like that.' She lowered her voice and said, 'She says they're for her mother, but actually I think she reads them herself.'

  Sam laughed. Naomi did have the dreamy eyes of a closet romance reader.