Tamika stared at the man behind the desk and tried not to fidget. Really she was trying not to do the bad kind of staring too, but just make normal eye contact, or whatever kind of eye contact you were supposed to make with billionaires.
The man behind the desk was Marcus Vansten. He was the richest man in Night Vale – maybe even in the whole state. He was so rich he didn't have to wear clothes, and he wasn't wearing any now, as far as she knew. She was trying to listen, and not think about seeing his doodle this close. Everyone had already seen his doodle, really – he liked to stand in front of the big glass windows of the Night Vale Private Library and pretend to read naked, but it was different when the doodle was across the street and behind thick glass, and maybe the sun was shining and there was some glare... and when all that was between you and the doodle was a big fancy desk.
Fortunately, he seemed to be happy sitting down. He was staring back at her now, and seemed to be expecting some kind of answer, so she nodded.
"That's good... good," he said, but he frowned thoughtfully. "You know how things go, I suppose, you hear things in town and you can never be sure." Marcus Vansten leaned forward across his desk a little more. "Now the real question is... could you do it again?"
He was asking about the librarians. Tamika felt a cold sweat break out on the back of her neck, and she forgot about doodles completely. It was true then. She'd felt something on the way up here. She'd felt it. The Night Vale Private Library wasn't supposed to have librarians, but it was all happening anyway, just like her Gran had said it would. But could she do it again?
Tamika stared – really stared – at the man behind the desk and tried not to panic. She still had bad dreams about the Summer Reading Program, dreams that made her feel more deeply afraid than she'd felt during the time she'd been trapped in the library with the others. She didn't like to go there now, even though that was the only place she could get new books. But was it the librarians, afterall, that she was so scared of? And did it matter? The man behind the desk was Marcus Vansten. He was the richest man in Night Vale, and he could buy whatever he wanted, even Tamika Flynn. There was no sense pretending otherwise.
Tamika nodded again. "I could do it," she said. The surge of panic actually made her feel a little more bold, and she held up her hand when he smiled, before he could answer. "I could do it, but."
Marcus Vansten settled back down in his chair, shifting a bit in his seat, and it made her think of his doodle again, flopping around in his lap, and the whole thing was so silly that she almost had to clap a hand on her mouth not to laugh, or maybe cry. But Tamika had hunted librarians, and she knew how to be quiet when she had to. She also knew how to make herself understood, even when she was scared. "Go ahead, dear," he said, and he was still smiling.
"If you have a librarian in here, if I kill it... It's not gonna matter. They'll just keep coming. You can't have this many books, and not have librarians."
"You seem to know a lot about it, little miss – how old are you again?"
Marcus Vansten was right and he was used to getting what he wanted. Tamika had read about people like him, and she heard all about him in the news, but this was her first real experience. It felt like he was trying to make her feel stupid, or not important, so that she would stop trying to point out things he didn't want to hear. But Marcus Vansten didn't know what to do about librarians, and he had sent for her, and she wasn't going to be afraid of him even if he was so rich he didn't have to wear clothes. She sat up in her chair a little straighter, like her Gran was always telling her to do.
"I'm thirteen now," she said, hoping she sounded proud, or defiant, and not just petulant. She might be young, but she didn't feel like a little girl anymore. "I was twelve when I killed the librarian. I know about them – My Gran told me. And I know about books too. You can't just have that many books all together in the same place and not get librarians. They just come – to keep things in order. To keep things in check. Books are dangerous, and powerful."
Tamika's Gran knew all about books, and all about librarians, but she'd never told her about it until after the Summer Reading ordeal. She'd been very proud, and had told her that it was just in her blood to get mixed up with books the way she had. "You're such an avid reader, dear," she'd said. "There's only two ways that can go. You hunt librarians, or you become one." Her Gran, it turned out, had skirted that line, running a bookmobile out of a VW Bus back in the 60's. The trick, she'd explained, was not to have too many books, and to keep them moving.
Marcus Vansten didn't seem to care about what she was saying, though, so Tamika didn't explain any of that. She guessed that he must be so rich he didn't have to wear any thoughts in his head either, if he didn't like them. "I have a book permit from the city council," he answered dismissively. "I’m not worried about that. I just want the librarians taken care of. I can pay you quite well, of course." He leaned forward again. "Or maybe a bright girl like you might be more interested in something else – a scholarship, say?"
"A scholarship – you mean to the community college?"
He laughed, and it made his body shake, and she had to not think about his doodle again. It was getting easier, though, the longer she was up here with him. As long as he didn't stand up, anyway. "Oh darlin', I could send you anywhere you wanted to go in this great country of ours. God bless America."
Marcus Vansten was a billionaire. He didn't have to wear clothes and everyone thought he was better than them, just because he had so much money. Maybe it was true, and she could go anywhere she wanted... "When I'm done school here," she said. There wasn't any way she could really refuse, after all. "Then I get to decide when I'll go."
He grinned again. She held up her hand.
"And." She waited until he nodded until he kept going. "If I don't finish school, because something happens to me, say, then you have to send my little brother instead. And if something happens to him..." She considered quickly. Bad things happened all the time, and she didn't want him to get out of this for free. "Then you have to take the money, and give it to the Public Library here instead." There. That was good, and she'd bet he wouldn't want to do it enough that maybe he would try and keep anything bad from happening to her, just in case.
He considered for a moment, then nodded. "Alright, then – it’s a deal. You kill the librarian for me, and I'll send you wherever you want to go for further schooling once you graduate here, or your brother, or give the money to the public library." Marcus Vansten said the words 'public' like it was distasteful, and maybe to him it was. "With just one further caveat."
He waited for a minute, as if maybe he wasn't sure she would understand what that meant. "I can't tell anyone about it."
"That's right. You understand of course..."
Tamika understood perfectly. Marcus Vansten was supposed to get whatever he wanted. He wasn't supposed to get librarians. She nodded. "I won't tell." Probably she should have tried to make another kind of deal, but she wasn't sure what to ask for, and she worried that if she was too pushy, he might try to get one of the other survivors to do it instead. She didn't really want to do this, not alone, but she wanted that even less.
"Excellent." He sat back, looking more relaxed – one hand disappeared behind the desk for a moment and she tried not to wonder if he might be rearranging himself. Maybe she should have made a deal that she wouldn't even have to see him nude any closer than through the library windows, like everyone else, or that she would never have to talk to him unless he was at least wearing pants. "Is there anything you need first?"
"An axe." She'd thought about it a lot – what would be the perfect weapon for killing librarians. Guns were too loud, and she wasn't a very good shot anyway. Even if she was technically a member of the Junior NRA, she'd always spend more time with books than on the range. "Guns don't kill people," she'd scoffed at one of her schoolmates who'd teased her about reading so much, "ideas kill people." Ideas were great defenses too, especially against librarians, but really, a nice sharp axe was what she was going to want here. Axes were great in close quarters, like if you got caught in the stacks, and they could be used for lots of other practical things besides.
"An axe? You'll have the sharpest, nicest axe that the world government will authorize, Miss Flynn."
She nodded. "Then I'll come back tomorrow, after school." Tamika showed herself out, following the directions she'd been given to come through the library to Marcus Vansten's office. Now that she knew there was a librarian, she went a little more carefully. So far as he knew, there was only the one...
She'd promised not to tell anyone, which meant she didn't have any answers for friends who asked her what was wrong. Some of them – the ones who knew, who'd been there and survived, asked her if she was having bad dreams again. But dreams implied sleeping, and Tamika hadn't gotten a wink the night before. She alternated from being confident to being terrified, and kept trying to convince herself that this was different. There was only one librarian, and she wasn't going to be trapped. If she needed to leave the library, she could do it. The librarian, she hoped, had no idea she was coming for it. When she realized she couldn't sleep, she read – she might as well try and sharpen her mind as much as possible.
She did talk to her Gran, briefly, at the breakfast table.
"Is there any way to have a library without a librarian?"
"Not a real one, sweetie. They're linked." Gran smiled gently.
"Is the Private Library a real library?"
"Oh, I wouldn't think so – no one reads any of the books there. It's more like a big collection. Or a hoard maybe – just something to have because you can and someone else can't."
Tamika nodded – that had been her impression too. "But the books still have power, right? Like you said before?"
Now Gran smiled more proudly. "That's right – they have power. But it's more of a potential power, for the most part. If no one is reading them… It's a bit like having, oh, a television say. You need something to plug it into to get it to work. Books, at least most books, need minds."
"So, if no one is reading the books... it's not a real library, and there won't be any librarians?" Tamika wondered if Gran might guess where this was going, but she reached her hand out and gave Tamika's shoulder a reassuring squeeze.
"You don't have to worry about that, Tamika! If there are any librarians over there, they're Marcus Vansten's problem. They wouldn't want to leave the place even if they could. I'm sure the place is perfectly well warded too – the City Council would have made sure. They wouldn't want anything to happen to their premier citizen, afterall. Who else would pay for the elections? I heard he's even footing the bill for the HBO out at the abandoned mine shaft."
Tamika nodded, but she wasn't willing to give up the line of questioning just yet. "So even if he did read some of the books, it would be okay? And if he never put them away?"
"Oh, they'd be trying to get in, I'm sure, but it would take something bigger than that to let them slip through."
She wanted to ask some more questions, but her father popped his head in the kitchen to let her know it was almost time to go catch the bus, and a moment later her brother ran through, stopping just long enough to grab a few slices of toast. Any other answers were for her to figure out alone.
After school, she made her way up to Marcus Vansten's office. There was an axe on his desk waiting for her, with a silvery handle and a very sharp looking curved blade. Marcus Vansten wasn't there, but she knew what she needed to do. The axe, her axe now, was very light, and she felt a little better for having it.
There was no point in going out to the wall with all the windows – no one had seen the librarian from outside, and she wasn't supposed to let anyone know she was there. During the Summer Reading Program, she'd learned all the best places to avoid librarians. Once she'd gotten tired of hiding, she'd learned the best places to find them as well. That had been a special event, but she'd learned since that some of her observations were generally accurate.
She started with a pass through the children's section – not, she told herself, just because she wanted to see if it really was shaped like a pirate ship. It was. There was a spiral staircase running up around the mainmast and couches shaped like cannon. There weren't any librarians in sight, so she moved on, consoling herself with the thought that her reading level was way beyond the books in that area, and trying not to pay too much attention to the little voice that said that a good story was a good story, no matter what age it was written for.
Tamika had already passed by the circulation desk on her way in and hadn’t seen anything there either – her next best bet, before venturing into what would be the library's private areas (if the whole thing wasn't private) was the reference section. She moved quietly, stalking through the stacks, axe at the ready, avoiding the main hallways. It helped that the library seemed to be on more or less the same plan as the Public Library, so she didn't feel completely lost.
She felt the echos of its terrible presence well before she saw it, and took the time to move even more slowly. The cold sweat she'd felt the day before was back, and it was hard to keep herself focused on what was happening now, and not get lost in remembering everything that had happened back in August. At least she was alone, she told herself – there was no one else to worry about.
The librarian was sorting books from one of the nearby shelves, occasionally turning to set up something in a half-made made display on one of the cases close to the desks. It seemed pretty involved it what it was doing, which was good, but the librarian's keen hearing might still ruin her chance to take it by surprise. Her heart was pounding so loudly in her chest that she was sure it would turn to her at any moment. No – the longer she waited, the worse her chances.
The librarian turned back to the shelf, gathering a stack of books. It was facing away from her. Tamika pushed back the panic and all her other thoughts along with it and acted.
Tamika's worn gym shoes made almost no sound as she sprinted from her hiding spot in the reference stacks. The librarian whirled at the last moment, the axe striking deep in its chest. It still managed to lash out, sending Tamika flying across the room and its pile of books scattering to the ground. The librarian, wounded though it was, lunged after her. Tamika's axe skittered across the floor in the opposite direction. The creature loomed above her for a moment, all hideous bared teeth, twisted claws, and tatters of tweed....
"I’m looking for a book exploring the political contexts of nineteenth century travelogues written by European travellers in Asia!" She blurted out the first thing that came to mind. As hoped, it gave the creature pause – she took advantage of its hesitation, plunging her fist into, through, its wounded chest, grabbing, pulling back. Its howl turned piercing, then strangled. It collapsed on top of her, and she shoved it aside. Her own chest was pounding and it was hard to breathe. She scrambled for her axe, gripping it tight even though the librarian showed no signs of moving. A pool of blackish red spread across the floor from where it lay, but Tamika still didn't feel safe until she gathered her courage, wiped the ichor off her hands, tightened her grip on her axe and swung down hard towards its neck...
She didn't feel ready to go report back to Marcus Vansten right away. Even after she'd calmed down, though, she decided not to clean up. She did a little looking around, got a drink of water from the fountain, and made her way upstairs as she was.
Tamika didn't knock, either, and it was a little satisfying to see his eyes widen when the door opened. She realized the flaw in her 'shock and awe' strategy when he sat down quickly. After dealing with another librarian, the quick flash of doodle seemed much less traumatic than it might have otherwise.
She gestured at the desk with her bloody axe. "Next time we talk... you're wearing pants."
"I will take that under advisement, Miss Flynn." He seemed to have recovered from the surprise, but then, children wielding weapons wasn't really such an uncommon sight these days with the militia recruitment drives. Children were considered to be suitable opponents for the miniature city because they were a little closer in size, and equally matched in bloodthirstiness. "I take it my little problem has been resolved."
"Well, it has for now. But." This time he nodded instead of trying to interject. "You can't have all those banned books together like that. That's why it was here. Books like that – librarians are attracted to them. It was taking them off the shelf and making a display. I think it was even getting other ones from the stacks." There had been a whole shelf already – Tamika had recognized some titles from lists she'd seen on the internet, along with others from lists distributed by the city council. The most shocking one in the collection had been a copy of 1984, even if the words had mostly been blacked out. Apparently Marcus Vansten really could have anything. "If you don't spread them out, others will come."
He nodded, but she wasn't sure he was really listening – he'd gotten what he wanted, after all, so what more did he have to gain? He leaned forward, though.
"Well, Miss Flynn, this is a private library, and no one else is supposed to be allowed inside. I'm far too rich and important to spend my time reshelving books, so I'm afraid the solution that you're suggesting isn't going to be precisely feasible."
"Then you'll just get more librarians, and eventually, someone else will see them."
"I'm afraid that's not acceptable either." He leaned back in his chair all the way, stretching his arms and linking his hands behind his head. Tamika thought he looked like a smug cat. "Fortunately, I am, as noted, rich and important. The city council knows who butters their bread – yes, even theirs. And if I want to let someone else into my library, well, that's private enterprise. It's not the government's place to interfere with the private enterprises of their most upstanding citizen."
"Let someone else in...to do what, exactly?" Tamika was conscious of the axe in her hand still. Was this her life, then?
"Well, whatever they like. I'm a firm believer in personal liberties, you know. If they want to avail themselves of the books in my little collections, that'd be their choice. If they want to make sure they can do so at their leisure and in safety... that'd be their choice too."
"What if they want to let the librarians come, so they can have more practice taking them out?"
That gave him pause, but after a moment he shrugged his shoulders. "I can't say I think that would be a wise choice, and it would of course be polite to let a man know if that kind of shenanigan were taking place on his private property, but that would be their free choice."
Tamika considered. She should go home and talk to her Gran, but she didn't think this was the kind of offer that would wait. If it turned out to be a mistake, hopefully she could get out of it later. It would surely be her choice not to come to the library if she didn't want to... well, she would see. One person reading the books wasn't enough to make it into a library, was it? And just rearranging a few books, that couldn't hurt either. And there was that pirate ship, with the spiral stair case... Even better, it was all of that in an environment where she hadn't been abducted and forced to fight to survive, and there would be as few – or as many – librarians as she felt she could handle. "Okay," she said, shifting her grip on her axe again, "but I was serious about the pants."
"A report from the Sheriff's Secret Police reminds us all that there are not, and have never been, any librarians in the Night Vale Private Library. 'That place is pretty sweet,' a representative claimed. 'But seriously, would we lie about that? It's not even a real library. I mean, of course it is, it's whatever Marcus Vansten wants it to be, but there are totally no librarians there. None whatsoever. Anyone who thinks otherwise ought to be putting the kettle on for tea, because visitors, by which I mean 'we', will be arriving shortly to get things straightened out.'"