Books were going missing. Not the usual books either – it had been months since we had needed to order another copy of the Karma Sutra. Harry Potter, too, had been returned safely for over a year now. Wuthering Heights, however, had been walking out the door; as had Animal Farm.
I squinted over my glasses at a girl holding a copy of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. She looked the type – dressed very queer with all that black lipstick and nail varnish. She approached the loans desk and handed me the book, which I scanned.
“I hope you enjoy it” I said.
“What?” she yanked a small white earbud out of one ear. The tinny sound of a female vocal and electric guitars became audible.
“I said I hope you enjoy it!” I said a little louder, but not too loud. There was a computing for retirees class going on at the public access internet terminal.
“Oh I’ve read it before” she drolled. I squinted at her again over the top of my glasses and saw beneath the eyeshadow, Kate Wright. Kate had been using the library her whole life. Apparently her taste in clothes had undergone a change since her holiday to Canada. Terrible fashion sense, but a wonderfully well-read girl.
Kate left and did not set off the security system. Not that it was terribly effective anyway - more for show than actual theft control. The only thing it reliably alerted me to was the rapid uptake of mobile phones in Gungee despite the patchy reception. Actually I think Robert had it turned off half the time because of all the false alarms. I suppose I couldn’t blame him – it startled Esmé far too much for an 83 year old with a heart condition. She was the only sensible one who came here anymore anyway, sitting quietly in the corner like one should in a library.
I squinted around the library again looking for Robert. This book thief was blowing out our budget. Never before had I spent so much on modern classics; the Gungee Shire Council was getting on my case. Robert came sauntering along with an empty book trolley, just finished re-shelving a great pile.
“Robert!” I said to him in a stage whisper, “Robert come into the office for a cup of tea.” I snapped the office door shut. Now we could speak as loudly as we pleased. As Robert fetched a pair of mismatched mugs and busied himself with the tea (he said he could make it better than I) and I aired my concerns.
“Robert that copy of The Great Gatsby is more than six weeks overdue!”
Robert frowned. “Please Nola, call me Rob. I keep telling you…”
I huffed impatiently. Robert clinked the side of his mug with a stainless steel spoon.
“Who was it who borrowed the book?” he sighed.
“The card was stolen! The computer says that it was Russel Davis who borrowed it out but Russel only ever reads science fiction! Robert this is a very serious problem!” I waited for his reaction but was not rewarded by any visually discernible display of shock.
“People loose library cards from time to time. Someone probably just picked it up meaning to hand it in to us. They probably just confused it with their own.”
He had a point. Everyone in Gungee owned a library card. The library acted like a community centre for the small town. Still, the rate at which we were losing our Brontës was very concerning and more than out of the ordinary. Someone was (dare I say it?) overly fond of literature in this town, and I was going to find out who.
~ ~ ~
I sat as close to the door as possible, eyeing each person as they entered and departed. There were only ever about a dozen people in the library at any one time, so they were fairly easy to keep track of. Usually there was a gaggle of teenagers hanging around the magazines and I kept a very close eye on them. The library was vulnerable to whatever vandal was ransacking our collection. The shelves stood invitingly in rows – just tall enough to conceal a person of social malcontent.
Robert was busy reading Possum Magic to a group of all-too-noisy toddlers down in the children’s section. There were perambulators everywhere – you could make off with the entire library in those cavernous beasts. They were all pockets and compartments; too much Velcro in my opinion. Prams were simple back in my day. The mothers sat with their children, making oooing noises whenever Robert turned a page. Some of the older children skulked around looking disinterestedly at the books on display. There was always a mother and her children in here at some time or other. I usually didn’t mind, so long as they kept their kids from messing up the Dewy Decimal System.
The phone rang sharply at the other end of the desk, startling me. I got up to answer it.
“Gungee library” I said efficiently.
“Nola this is Dave” I shut my eyes at the name and silently drew in a quick breath.
“Really, it’s Dave” he said. “Look, I’ve been reading your latest budget and you bought seven copies of Day of the Triffids over the past five months.” He mispronounced ‘Triffids’, the cretin. “We’re just wondering here at the council if you’re, you know…” he trailed off.
“David, if you’re suggesting I’m getting old and senile then you are sadly mistaken!” I forgot myself for a second and the children momentarily lost interest in Robert. I smiled reassuringly at the dozen-or-so little faces craning to see where the noise was coming from. Someone, somewhere, coughed once.
“I was going to say ‘having trouble with theft’”
“I’ll bet you weren’t” I said in my stage whisper. The children returned to Possum Magic. There was a nervous laugh, then a sigh, at the other end of the phone.
“All the same, do you need any help?”
“I have Robert thank you very much and he is perfectly adequate”
“I see. Well, look, you’ve just got to watch your spending okay? If books really are going missing then you just can’t afford to replace them until next financial year”
“David, if this town is going to go without access to good literature it is going to be over my dead body!” David mumbled something at the other end, but I hung up on him. Mayors! What do they know anyway?
~ ~ ~
I must confess over the next few days I became what Robert would call ‘a little bit over the top’. The library became utterly silent as I prowled around the corridors shooshing even the slightest murmur. I also made a sign that read Thieves Will Be Prosecuted and stuck it near the front door. I put Robert on bag duty where he awkwardly checked disgruntled womens’ handbags for copies of A Confederacy of Dunces. I banned all schoolbags from the library, much to the annoyance of the local high school population. I even got old Esmé to help with the search for the book thief, even though it was quite likely she had cataracts. All the same she sat more alert than usual by the window and gasped whenever she heard someone flicking though a Jane Austin.
I sat at the front desk and perused a list Robert had kindly printed off for me from the computer. It was a list of the newest library members. Most of them were children who just turned ten, the age you can get a library card. There was one though, that had a post office box as a postal address. Nobody in Gungee had a P.O box unless they’re in business, and I don’t remember Arthur Pringle buying any local businesses. I decided to drop in for afternoon tea.
~ ~ ~
A mature looking man opened the door. He looked like he was just getting ready to go out. He had a neat but bristly grey moustache and was wearing a checked jacket. He invited me in and I had a furtive look around his modest apartment. There was worn, beige carpet on the floor and brown floral curtains hanging in a slightly neglected kitchenette. I suppressed a gasp when I saw a copy of The Grapes of Wrath sitting accusingly on his dining room table.
“How are you today? Is there anything the matter?” he asked.
“Heavens no!” I exclaimed a little too enthusiastically. There was a pause where he smiled vacantly at me, then cleared his throat. “I just wanted to welcome you to Gungee!” I said.
“Why thankyou, love, but you know I’ve been living here for six months now”
We made small talk and had a cuppa when he said he was just on his way to the library anyway and would I like a lift? I had a feeling he might be onto me, so I told him I needed the exercise. On my walk back I stopped at a public phone and called the police. I walked quickly, stopping only to say hello to one of the mothers from the day they were reading Possum Magic. When I arrived at the library I saw Joshua, the local officer standing at the front desk looking unsure of himself. Esmé was talking to him animatedly but none too coherently about Oscar Wilde. Arthur was down by the reference section, oblivious to the scene that was taking place at the front of the library.
“Oscar is gone!” Esmé said, “I took him!”
“Who? You took who?” asked Joshua.
“Don’t arrest me!”
I called Robert over to check Arthur’s borrowing history. The Grapes of Wrath were there, at the top of the list. Esmé!