Wednesday, October 29, 2008

30 minutes, unedited

I'm going to write for 30 minutes and see what comes out. I had an idea on the way over to the coffee shop, and we'll see what I can make of it.

"Hello Margaret."

"It's Maggie. I've told you that a hundred times. Honestly, professor, I think you do it just to piss me off."

"Margaret, I would never do anything to anger you!" He replied with a rye smile.

"The usual?" She asked. I guess I should have said a dry smile. He'll have a rye smile after that shot. And the next. Honestly, I don't know why he buys the cheap stuff. It's not like money's an issue.

I've seen this guy in here every Friday night for the past year. Well, almost a year. I only moved here ten months ago. Whatever. I got nothing against regulars. If I did, I'd be a hypocrite, wouldn't I? Now, I don't fault the guy for ordering the same thing every time, either. I just don't see why a guy who comes in wearing a brand new several-hundred-dollar suit orders the cheap stuff.

"So, how's things, professor?" She leans over the bar, her ample frame causing the old wood to sag imperceptibly.

"Well damn it Margaret, I need a good librarian and I can't find one anywhere!"

My ears perk up as if someone lit a Q-tip on fire. Maggie knows I'm studying to become a librarian. She also knows I'm out of a job. She's got to point him my way, but I don't know if I want her to. I mean, I'm only half a pint away from being soused. Shit. I try to straighten my collar, but he's already headed over to my lonely corner table.

"Excuse me, sir, but are you Aaron?" The 'professor's' breath reeks of cheap rye whiskey. He's got a low-ball glass of the stuff filled to the brim with one thin token ice chip in it so he can call it "on the rocks."

"Yes. I am." I respond, trying not to look like I've been slouching over beer after beer for the past three hours.

"I uh... Well... Let me introduce myself. My name is Professor Charles Wade." I lift my hand to shake his extended wrinkled hand. I feel like there's a lead weight on the end of my wrist and his grip is like the blacksmith's forge. I pull back sharply, then force a chuckle, hoping I didn't offend him.

"Well, in any case, it's a pleasure to meet you." He continued. "Margaret kindly directed me to you in response to an inquiry I have. You see..."

He's still talking, but I can barely hear him. The beer is roaring between my ears, and the juke box just kicked in, blaring god knows what over the speakers. The background din slowly fades as the professor leans in and talks at me, inches from my face.

"...for a book that no other librarian seems to recognize. But Margaret said you are a little more familiar with things that others are not. That is, your expertise lies in areas not usually pursued by those in the library profession."

Oh geez. What did Maggie tell this weirdo? I pulled over a chair from the next table and offered the professor a seat.

"Look, uh..."

"You can call me Charles."

"Look, Charles, I don't know what Maggie told you, but I'm not a librarian. I'm still in school studying librarianship. I've got two years left of school before I can get a job just putting books back on the shelf. If you're looking for a lib--"

When he pulled out that drawing it was like he sucker-punched me in the gut. All my breath left me. My vision narrowed. All I could see was his crumpled napkin stained with spilled whiskey and feathering, bleeding, black ink. He read my reaction like a book.

"You understand now why I need you and not any other librarian."

"No. No I don't understand. You don't need me. You need someone who specializes in tracking down rare and out of print books. Have you tried the web? No wait. You don't need that. What you need is someone who can find books that don't exist. That and a good shrink."

I slammed the rest of my beer and instantly regretted it. The bolus, too large for my throat, made me ache for minutes afterward.

"No. Wait." I lurched forward, snatching the napkin from him. "I'll... I'll see what I can do."

He smiled. Yellow. That was his smile. All yellow. Gums: yellow. Teeth: yellow. Dear god even his tongue looked yellow. Maybe it was the light. Maybe it was the booze. Maybe I should've called it quits an hour ago. Gone home before this guy ever walked in.

He handed me a small card. Printed in embossed black ink on an ivory stock was written "Professor Charles Wade, esoteric philosophy, antiquarian. 10 West Road."

Shit. I looked up from his card as I fumbled it into my pocket. Shit. Why was I letting this deranged old man fill my head with wacky ideas. He didn't know me. I didn't know him. Why should I listen to anything he had to say? He reached for the napkin on the table again.

"Wait. Ok. So you want me to look for some weird book. What am I supposed to be looking for?"

"It's a journal. A diary. You are familiar with Honoré Fragonard?"

I nodded. "The erotic painter or his... "artistic" cousin, the anatomist?"

"The latter. You see, no one has ever been able to exactly duplicate his methods. Certainly we have more efficient and easier ways of preserving specimens now. But there is a certain... how shall I put this? There is a certain charm to his methods that is lost in the cold science of today."

"So you want me to dig up this guy's scientific journals so you can recreate what he did?"

"Exactly!" He took a victorious swig of whiskey as if I had just handed him the diaries he wanted.

"Well, it's not that easy, friend. First off, this guy lived in, what, the 18th century? Next, there are historians, scientists, biographers, and god knows who else, with access to inexhaustible resources, who haven't found these papers yet. What makes you think I stand a chance at finding what hundreds of other people, better trained people, haven't been able to find in over 200 years?"

"This." He slipped a well-worn manilla envelope across the table.

I eyed him suspiciously. He clearly didn't think this was any sort of clandestine operation. I mean, he just handed me his trump card in the middle of a crowded, if poorly-lit, bar in Uptown. I lifted the flap, watching him for a reaction. I didn't get one.

"Look. At least buy me a beer, man."

He stood up and walked off to the bar. No doubt to buy me the cheapest swill on tap. I quickly snatched the napkin and jammed it into my pocket. No way I was letting that out of my sight.

Bastard probably had another one or the original copy. He was probably stupid enough to have it with him. Probably in one of the pockets of that tweed jacket. I could get friendly, offer to walk him out of the bar, lead him quietly to the back alley and jump him. Take whatever he had with him. Drawings, sketches, money. I needed money, but not that bad. And whatever this guy had on him wasn't going to be anything I could sell. Even if there were a buyer, I'd never trust anyone who'd want to buy... this.

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