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Four Past Midnight - 5 - The Library Policeman, Page 3

Stephen King

  'Anyway, I know she's what would be called an office temporary in a big city. I imagine that here in Junction City she's the whole secretarial pool. It seemed reasonable that she was the young woman of whom you spoke.'

  'Yes. She liked my speech - or so she said - but she thought it was a bit dry. She suggested - '

  'The Speaker's Companion, I'll bet!'

  'Well, she couldn't remember the exact title, but that sure sounds right.' He paused, then asked a little anxiously: 'Does it have jokes?'

  'Only three hundred pages of them,' she said. She reached out her right hand - it was as innocent of rings as her left - and tugged at his sleeve with it. 'Right this way.' She led him toward the door by the sleeve. 'I am going to solve all your problems, Sam. I only hope it won't take a crisis to bring you back to our library. It's small, but it's very fine. I think so, anyway, although of course I'm prejudiced.'

  They passed through the door into the frowning shadows of the Library's main room. Ms Lortz flicked three switches by the door, and the hanging globes lit up, casting a soft yellow glow that warmed and cheered the room considerably.

  'It gets so gloomy in here when it's overcast,' she said in a confidential we're-in-the-real-Library-now voice. She was still tugging firmly on Sam's sleeve. 'But of course you know how the Town Council complains about the electricity bill in a place like this or perhaps you don't, but I'll bet you can guess.'

  'I can,' Sam agreed, also dropping his voice to a near-whisper.

  'But that's a holiday compared to what they have to say about the heating expenses in the winter.' She rolled her eyes. 'Oil is so dear. It's the fault of those Arabs ... and now look what they are up to - hiring religious hit-men to try and kill writers.'

  'It does seem a little harsh,' Sam said, and for some reason he found himself thinking of the poster of the tall man again - the one with the odd star pinned to his ID case, the one whose shadow was falling so ominously over the upturned faces of the children. Falling over them like a stain.

  'And of course, I've been fussing in the Children's Library. I lose all track of time when I'm in there.'

  'That's an interesting place,' Sam said. He meant to go on, to ask her about the posters, but Ms Lortz forestalled him. It was clear to Sam exactly who was in charge of this peculiar little side-trip in an otherwise ordinary day.

  'You bet it is! Now, you just give me one minute.' She reached up and put her hands on his shoulders - she had to stand on tiptoe to do it - and for one moment Sam had the absurd idea that she meant to kiss him. Instead she pressed him down onto a wooden bench which ran along the far side of the seven-day bookshelf. 'I know right where to find the books you need, Sam. I don't even have to check the card catalogue.'

  'I could get them myself - '

  'I'm sure,' she said, 'but they're in the Special Reference section, and I don't like to let people in there if I can help it. I'm very bossy about that, but I always know where to put my hand right on the things I need ... back there, anyway. People are so messy, they have so little regard for order, you know. Children are the worst, but even adults get up to didos if you let them. Don't worry about a thing. I'll be back in two shakes.'

  Sam had no intention of protesting further, but he wouldn't have had time even if he had wanted to. She was gone. He sat on the bench, once more feeling like a fourth-grader ... like a fourth-grader who had done something wrong this time, who had gotten up to didos and so couldn't go out and play with the other children at recess.

  He could hear Ms Lortz moving about in the room behind the checkout desk, and he looked around thoughtfully. There was nothing to see except books -there was not even one old pensioner reading the paper or leafing through a magazine. It seemed odd. He wouldn't have expected a small-town library like this to be doing a booming business on a weekday afternoon, but no one at all?

  Well, there was Mr Peckham, he thought, but he finished the paper and went home. Dreadfully thin paper on Friday, you know. Thin dust, too. And then he realized he only had the word of Ms Lortz that a Mr Peckham had ever been here at all.

  True enough - but why would she lie?

  He didn't know, and doubted very much that she had, but the fact that he was questioning the honesty of a sweet-faced woman he had just met highlighted the central puzzling fact of this meeting: he didn't like her. Sweet face or not, he didn't like her one bit.

  It's the posters. You were prepared not to like ANYBODY that would put up posters like that in a children's reading room. But it doesn't matter, because a side-trip is all it is. Get the books and get out.

  He shifted on the bench, looked up, and saw a motto on the wall:

  If you would know how a man treats his wife and his children, see how he treats his books.

  Ralph Waldo Emerson

  Sam didn't care much for that little homily, either. He didn't know exactly why . . . except that maybe he thought a man, even a bookworm, might be expected to treat his family a little better than his reading matter. The motto, painted in gold leaf on a length of varnished oak, glared down at him nevertheless, seeming to suggest he better think again.

  Before he could, Ms Lortz returned, lifting a gate in the checkout desk, stepping through it, and lowering it neatly behind her again.

  'I think I've got what you need,' she said cheerfuly. 'I hope you'll agree.'

  She handed him two books. One was The Speaker's Companion, edited by Kent Adelmen, and the other was Best Loved Poems of the American People. The contents of this latter book, according to the jacket (which was, in its turn, protected by a tough plastic overjacket), had not been edited, exactly, but selected by one Hazel Felleman. 'Poems of life!' the jacket promised. 'Poems of home and mother! Poems of laughter and whimsey! The poems most frequently asked for by the readers of the New York Times Book Review!' It further advised that Hazel Felleman 'has been able to keep her finger on the poetry pulse of the American people.'

  Sam looked at her with some doubt, and she read his mind effortlessly.

  'Yes, I know, they look old-fashioned,' she said. 'Especially nowadays, when self-help books are all the rage. I imagine if you went to one of the chain bookstores in the Cedar Rapids mall, you could find a dozen books designed to help the beginning public speaker. But none of them would be as good as these, Sam. I really believe these are the best helps there are for men and women who are new to the art of public speaking.'

  'Amateurs, in other words,' Sam said, grinning.

  'Well, yes. Take Best Loved Poems, for instance. The second section of the book - it begins on page sixty-five, if memory serves - is called "Inspiration". You can almost surely find something there which will make a suitable climax to your little talk, Sam. And you're apt to find that your listeners will remember a well-chosen verse even if they forget everything else. Especially if they're a little-'

  'Drunk,' he said.

  'Tight was the word I would have used,' she said with gentle reproof, 'although I suppose you know them better than I do.' But the gaze she shot at him suggested that she was only saying this because she was polite.

  She held up The Speaker's Companion. The jacket was a cartoonist's drawing of a bunting-draped hall. Small groups of men in old-fashioned evening dress were seated at tables with drinks in front of them. They were all yucking it up. The man behind the podium - also in evening dress and clearly the after-dinner speaker - was grinning triumphantly down at them. It was clear he was a roaring success.

  'There's a section at the beginning on the theory of after-dinner speeches,' said Ms Lortz, 'but since you don't strike me as the sort of man who wants to make a career out of this - '

  'You've got that right,' Sam agreed fervently.

  '- I suggest you go directly to the middle section, which is called "Lively Speaking." There you will find jokes and stories divided into three categories: "Easing Them In," "Softening Them Up," and "Finishing Them Off."

  Sounds like a manual for gigolos, Sam thought but did not say.

  She r
ead his mind again. 'A little suggestive, I suppose - but these books were published in a simpler, more innocent time. The late thirties, to be exact.'

  'Much more innocent, right,' Sam said, thinking of deserted dust-bowl farms, little girls in flour-sack dresses, and rusty, thrown-together Hoovervilles surrounded by police wielding truncheons.

  'But both books still work,' she said, tapping them for emphasis, 'and that's the important thing in business, isn't it, Sam? Results?'

  'Yes ... I guess it is.'

  He looked at her thoughtfully, and Ms Lortz raised her eyebrows - a trifle defensively, perhaps. 'A penny for your thoughts,' she said.

  'I was thinking that this has been a fairly rare occurrence in my adult life,' he said. 'Not unheard-of, nothing like that, but rare. I came in here to get a couple of books to liven up my speech, and you seem to have given me exactly what I came for. How often does something like that happen in a world where you usually can't even get a couple of good lambchops at the grocery store when you've got your face fixed for them?'

  She smiled. It appeared to be a smile of genuine pleasure . . . except Sam noticed once again that her eyes did not smile. He didn't think they had changed expression since he had first come upon her - or she upon him - in the Children's Library. They just went on watching. 'I think I've just been paid a compliment!'

  'Yes, ma'am. You have.'

  'I thank you, Sam. I thank you very kindly. They say flattery will get you everywhere, but I'm afraid I'm still going to have to ask you for two dollars.'

  'You are?'

  'That's the charge for issuing an adult library card,' she said, 'but it's good for three years, and renewal is only fifty cents. Now, is that a deal, or what?'

  'It sounds fine to me.'

  'Then step right this way,' she said, and Sam followed her to the checkout desk.


  She gave him a card to fill out - on it he wrote his name, address, telephone numbers, and place of business.

  'I see you live on Kelton Avenue. Nice!'

  'Well, I like it.'

  'The houses are lovely and big - you should be married.'

  He started a little. 'How did you know I wasn't married?'

  'The same way you knew I wasn't,' she said. Her smile had become a trifle sly, a trifle catlike. 'Nothing on the third left.'

  'Oh,' he said lamely, and smiled. He didn't think it was his usual sparkly smile, and his cheeks felt warm.

  'Two dollars, please.'

  He gave her two singles. She went over to a small desk where an aged, skeletal typewriter stood, and typed briefly on a bright-orange card. She brought it back to the checkout desk, signed her name at the bottom with a flourish, and then pushed it across to him.

  'Check and make sure all the information's correct, please.'

  Sam did so. 'It's all fine.' Her first name, he noted, was Ardelia. A pretty name, and rather unusual.

  She took his new library card back - the first one he'd owned since college, now that he thought about it, and he had used that one precious little - and placed it under the microfilm recorder beside a card she took from the pocket of each book. 'You can only keep these out for a week, because they're from Special Reference. That's a category I invented myself for books which are in great demand.'

  'Helps for the beginning speaker are in great demand?'

  'Those, and books on things like plumbing repair, simple magic tricks, social etiquette ... you'd be surprised what books people call for in a pinch. But I know.'

  'I'll bet you do.'

  'I've been in the business a long, long time, Sam. And they're not renewable, so be sure to get them back by April sixth.' She raised her head, and the light caught in her eyes. Sam almost dismissed what he saw there as a twinkle . . . but that wasn't what it was. It was a shine. A flat, hard shine. For just a moment Ardelia Lortz looked as if she had a nickel in each eye.

  'Or?' he asked, and his smile suddenly didn't feel like a smile - it felt like a mask.

  'Or else I'll have to send the Library Policeman after you,' she said.


  For a moment their gazes locked, and Sam thought he saw the real Ardelia Lortz, and there was nothing charming or soft or spinster-librarian about that woman at all.

  This woman might actually be dangerous, he thought, and then dismissed it, a little embarrassed. The gloomy day - and perhaps the pressure of the impending speech - was getting to him. She's about as dangerous as a canned peach . . . and It isn't the gloomy day or the Rotarians tonight, either. It's those goddam posters.

  He had The Speaker's Companion and Best Loved Poems of the American People under his arm and they were almost to the door before he realized she was showing him out. He planted his feet firmly and stopped. She looked at him, surprised.

  'Can I ask you something, Ms Lortz?'

  'Of course, Sam. That's what I'm here for - to answer questions.'

  'It's about the Children's Library,' he said, 'and the posters. Some of them surprised me. Shocked me, almost.' He expected that to come out sounding like something a Baptist preacher might say about an issue of Playboy glimpsed beneath the other magazines on a parishioner's coffee table, but it didn't come out that way at all. Because, he thought, it's not just a conventional sentiment. I really was shocked. No almost about it.

  'Posters?' she asked, frowning, and then her brow cleared. She laughed. 'Oh! You must mean the Library Policeman ... and Simple Simon, of course.'

  'Simple Simon?'

  'You know the poster that says NEVER TAKE RIDES FROM STRANGERS? That's what the kids call the little boy in the picture. The one who is yelling. They call him Simple Simon - I suppose they feel contempt for him because he did such a foolish thing. I think that's very healthy, don't you?'

  'He's not yelling,' Sam said slowly. 'He's screaming.'

  She shrugged. 'Yelling, screaming, what's the difference? We don't hear much of either in here. The children are very good - very respectful.'

  'I'll bet,' Sam said. They were back in the foyer again now, and he glanced at the sign on the easel, the sign which didn't say




  but just offered that one inarguable imperative:


  'Besides - it's all a matter of interpretation, isn't it?'

  'I suppose,' Sam said. He felt that he was being maneuvered - and very efficiently - into a place where he would not have a moral leg to stand on, and the field of dialectic would belong to Ardelia Lortz. She gave him the impression that she was used to doing this, and that made him feel stubborn. 'But they struck me as extreme, those posters.'

  'Did they?' she asked politely. They had halted by the outer door now.

  'Yes. Scary.' He gathered himself and said what he really believed. 'Not appropriate to a place where small children gather.'

  He found he still did not sound prissy or self-righteous, at least to himself, and this was a relief.

  She was smiling, and the smile irritated him. 'You're not the first person who ever expressed that opinion, Sam. Childless adults aren't frequent visitors to the Children's Library, but they do come in from time to time - uncles, aunts, some single mother's boyfriend who got stuck with pick-up duty . . . or people like you, Sam, who are looking for me.'

  People in a pinch, her cool blue-gray eyes said. People who come for help and then, once they HAVE been helped, stay to criticize the way we run things here at the Junction City Public Library. The way I run things at the Junction City Public Library.

  'I guess you think I was wrong to put my two cents in,' Sam said good-naturedly. He didn't feel good-natured, all of a sudden he didn't feel good-natured at all, but it was another trick of the trade, one he now wrapped around himself like a protective cloak.

  'Not at all. It's just that you don't understand. We had a poll last summer, Sam -it was part of the annual Summer Reading Program. We call our program Junction City's Summer Sizzlers, and ea
ch child gets one vote for every book he or she read. It's one of the strategies we've developed over the years to encourage children to read. That is one of our most important responsibilities, you see.'

  We know what we're doing, her steady gaze told him. And I'm being very polite, aren't I? Considering that you, who have never been here in your life before, have presumed to poke your head in once and start shotgunning criticisms.

  Sam began to feel very much in the wrong. That dialectical battlefield did not belong to the Lortz woman yet - at least not entirely - but he recognized the fact that he was in retreat.

  'According to the poll, last summer's favorite movie among the children was A Nightmare on Elm Street, Part 5. Their favorite rock group is called Guns n Roses - the runner-up was something named Ozzy Osbourne, who, I understand, has a reputation for biting the heads off live animals during his concerts. Their favorite novel was a paperback original called Swan Song. It's a horror novel by a man named Robert McCammon. We can't keep it in stock, Sam. They read each new copy to rags in weeks. I had a copy put in Vinabind, but of course it was stolen. By one of the bad children.'

  Her lips pursed in a thin line.

  'Runner-up was a horror novel about incest and infanticide called Flowers in the Attic. That one was the champ for five years running. Several of them even mentioned Peyton Place!'

  She looked at him sternly.

  'I myself have never seen any of the Nightmare on Elm Street movies. I have never heard an Ozzy Osbourne record and have no desire to do so, nor to read a novel by Robert McCammon, Stephen King, or V. C. Andrews. Do you see what I'm getting at, Sam?'

  'I suppose. You're saying it wouldn't be fair to . He needed a word, groped for it, and found it. ' . . . to usurp the children's tastes.'

  She smiled radiantly - everything but the eyes, which seemed to have nickels in them again.

  'That's part of it, but that's not all of it. The posters in the Children's Library -both the nice, uncontroversial ones and the ones which put you off - came to us from the Iowa Library Association. The ILA is a member of the Midwest Library Association, and that is, in turn, a member of The National Library Association, which gets the majority of its funding from tax money. From John Q. Public -which is to say from me. And you.'