A cigarette flared to life between her fingers. Technically smoking wasn’t allowed anywhere on school grounds, not even on the loading dock. Then again, the rock keeping the battered door to the teachers’ lounge open wasn’t technically kosher either, and it had been placed there by the principal.

Gene lit his own coffin nail after Weatherby proffered her lighter. “Not exactly being a role model for all the kids, are we?” he said.

“You know damn well they’d smoke whether we did or not. It’s all they have to tide them over before dope and meth, after all,” Weatherby sighed.

“I can see that the beginning of a new school year has you nice and uplifted,” Gene countered.

“Seeing the new wave of children come in…all so young, all so beautiful,” said Weatherby. She coughed. “And then looking at myself–never beautiful, no longer young–frankly, I can’t think of anything so depressing. You’ll have to forgive me if I’m a little grumpy, Mr. Ulrich.”

Gene fiddled with his cigarette, unsure of how to respond. He’d been warned about Weatherby, but he also had to get along with her if he intended to continue smoking out back. “There’s always what you teach,” he said. “Advancing the state of knowledge ought to count for something.”

“You’re an art teacher, Mr. Ulrich,” said Weatherby. “You get to talk to the children about finding their inner voice, expressing themselves, following their dreams. I teach mathematics. I doubt even a Harvard statistician had youthful dreams of solving equations all day.”

“The kids still make mistakes, even in my class,” said Gene. He flicked his ashes into the football helmet-cum-ashtray provided by Hanretty in Phys Ed.

“When your children make mistakes, it’s cute. It may even be modern art. But when my children make mistakes, they’re just mistakes. I get to mark with red ink because no new school of mathematics was ever founded by someone who thought two plus two equals twenty-two.”

“It’s all about possibilities,” Gerald said. “Most people can’t see the possibilities in their daily lives. They’re acted upon instead of acting.”

“Sure, yeah,” Mindy said. “People who are acted on, they’re the real villains.” She wasn’t about to argue with the man who had a loaded gun.

“Take this book,” Gerald continued, sweeping a battered Harlequin off the table. “Dime a dozen at any garage sale. Hundreds come out every month. But think about it for a second.”

It was very pink–that’s all Mindy’s fear-addled mind could perceive. The pink of freshly-shed blood sinking into an immaculate white carpet…

“Imagine all the steps that they had to go through to get this terrible thing published. Someone had to write it. Someone had to proofread it. Someone had to sell if. Someone had to bind it. Almost anyone off the street could do the same, and better. But they don’t. ‘Priss McClachty’ is the one with the fat royalty check in her bank account. Why is that?”

“Because she acts,” Mindy whispered. “And isn’t acted upon.” Someone should have been there by now. Did they not get the message? Had her code been too subtle?

“Now you’re on the trolley,” Gerald said. “Let’s see what’s at the end of the track.”

Harry would have found something sinister or otherwise remarkable in what he saw; then again, Harry was the sort of man for whom a tattered Bazooka Joe comic could and often did hold a mystical status as a stegotext for a nationwide conspiracy.

From what I could see, the reality was almost painfully mundane. For all its fearsome reputation among conspiracy theorists, the Chalice and Cross society seemed little more than a secretive country club. They’d kept meticulous records, thoroughly indexed, of initiations, events, members, and dues. Three men who later became President of the United States were on the rolls, as the crazies were so quick to note, but two appeared to have dropped out shortly after initiation. A smattering of other luminaries filled the membership rolls, but most were not even members in good standing at the time of graduation–and I, for one, had grave doubts that an organization would orchestrate the appointment of a Supreme Court justice when he owed the Crossmen $250 in back membership dues!

In fact, the only thing of note was a ledger that appeared to be written in some kind of cipher. It was too brief to contain any of the things the one-world-government crazies like Harry would have expected; in fact, I was able to take a high resolution digital photograph of each page using the rig the university archivist had set up for me. Most ciphers rely on the reader not being able to decode them at their leisure; I was about to do just that.

I’d just finished taking the final shot when I heard footsteps. Not an archivist, either, but someone very keen on remaining unnoticed as they approached.

“How long has it been gone?”

Cecelia consulted her computer. “It was scanned on the twelfth. East desk, and just before closing according to the system.”

“Who would be there on Saturday night?”

“Gertrude, I think,” said Cecelia. “I can check the schedule if you’d like.”

“No, no,” Quinn rubbed his temples. “It makes sense. She’s the most junior person the library’s got, so she gets the graveyard shift on the weekend. Low stress, get your feet wet, and all that. At least that’s what they told me when I used to work it.”

“If you want to talk to her about it-”

“No,” Quinn said. “You’d have already done that, at least if you’re half as professional as I’ve come to believe.”

Cecelia flushed a little. “Well, yes. She said that it was an average-looking man with a valid library card, and nothing seemed odd.”

“Not even the fact that it was called ‘On Symbologie’ with fancy letters and fancier spelling? Not even the fact that the book was stamped “do not circulate, do not remove from building?”

“She checked the inside cover, and said there were no stamps, and the edge was gilded; it wouldn’t hold ink.”

“I suppose he could have pasted in a fake page to cover the stamp,” Quinn mused. “Easy enough, I guess; we don’t exactly search people for glue sticks.”

“What makes you think that? That he’d use a fake page?”

“It just seems to fit in with the modus operandi. Fake library card; fake barcode, fake page. If you were determined enough, you could pull a barcode off another book or the desk when no one was looking, and stick it in. Library cards can be stolen.”

“This name, though,” Cecelia gestured at the card. “It’s not in our system. Instead of using someone else’s card, this guy made his own, and not with the sort of name I’d use if I wanted to remain inconspicuous.”

“Pierre Richat,” Quinn read. “Sounds Cajun. Should make tracking him down easy enough.”

This post is part of the August Blog Chain at Absolute Write. This month’s theme is color as a metaphor for an aspect of one’s writing.

Graham’s apartment was lit well enough from the streetlights below that Allison was able to find her way around without fumbling for a light switch. WJR was playing quietly in the dark, combining with the rain on the windows to generate a sheet of white noise.

“Nice place,” Allison muttered, glancing at the spare surroundings and the heap of dishes in the sink. Her gaze alighted on the overstuffed armchair in front of the radio. “What’s with the purple loveseat?”

“Purple’s my favorite color,” Graham said. “I’ve loved it ever since I had a little cast-iron toy truck that was that shade. Poor old girl was down to her last flecks when Mom melted her down for a scrap drive during the war.”

“Even so, purple doesn’t seem like your color,” Allison said, settling into the chair. “It wouldn’t strike most people as very manly, though it’s anyone’s guess how much raw masculinity matters to someone in your line of work.”

“Not just any purple,” replied Graham. “A very ancient and powerful hue they called ‘Tyrian purple.’ You could smell the sea-slugs they boiled in its manufacture for miles, and only emperors were allowed to wear it. Then, in time, people got to thinking it was a softer color, a pretty color, and now if you see purple at all it’s on a lady’s dress. Slumming in the fashion industry to pay the bills when once only the most powerful man in the world had the right to use it.”

“You think that’s a sad fate for a color that once represented absolutist oppression, huh? Some might say that purple’s gotten its poetic due.”

Graham shrugged. “I feel like purple and I both have a lot in common, in point of fact. Our best days are behind us, and we’re left to grind out what we can in a long, slow afterlife. Such potential, at the beginning, all wasted. So it’s livening up ladies’ dresses while I sit here with a job that can’t afford to pay me. Made into a handbag against your will or chasing down an overdue library book because you’ve got nothing better to do…I’d say there’s a kinship there, wouldn’t you?”

Graham gazed at his shoes as he spoke; Allison felt like she out to do something to lighten the mood, which the weather had already rendered depressing enough. “Being a handbag isn’t the worst thing in the world,” she said. “I know a few alligators that are dying to be just that.”

“Ostriches too,” Graham said, smiling a little. “And I could teach them a thing or two about putting your head in the sand.”

Check out this month’s other bloggers, all of whom have posted or will post an entry of their own about a colors as metaphors for aspects of writing:

Aheïla (direct link to the relevant post)
Ralph_Pines (direct link to the relevant post)
AuburnAssassin (direct link to the relevant post)
semmie (direct link to the relevant post)
Anarchicq (direct link to the relevant post)
CScottMorris (direct link to the relevant post)
PASeasholtz (direct link to the relevant post)
LadyMage (direct link to the relevant post)
DavidZahir (direct link to the relevant post)
aimeelaine (direct link to the relevant post)
FreshHell (direct link to the relevant post)
sbclark (direct link to the relevant post)
Bettedra (direct link to the relevant post)
Guardian (direct link to the relevant post)
M.R.J. Le Blanc (direct link to the relevant post)
laffarsmith (direct link to the relevant post)

Hollister had a Sphynx for a secretary; she was filing her long claws–red not from blood but from polish–with an emery board. She glanced up at me through heavy rouge and a delicately coiffed perm.

“I need to see Mr. Hollister at once,” I said, withdrawing the Smith & Wesson from my shoulder holster. “Here’s my heater.”

“I talk, but I do not speak my mind,” she said with a nasal twang–a Brooklyn sphynx. “I hear words, but I do not listen to thoughts. When I wake, all see me. When I sleep, all hear me. Many heads are on my shoulders. Many hands are at my feet. The strongest steel cannot break my visage. But the softest whisper can destroy me. What am I?”

I sighed. Sphynxes love their riddling talk–it’s a cultural thing, I suppose–which is why they’re in such demand as bouncers and secretaries. Easy enough for someone who doesn’t want to be disturbed to have their sphynx riddle all comers, even though it’s technically illegal. These days they’ll just turn you away for a wrong answer, mostly. But in the old days, and in some dark alleys now as the scuttlebutt has it, they’d strangle and eat you. Hell, their name comes from the old Greek word for ‘strangler.’ Same root as ‘sphincter,’ too; appropriate, since I’d yet to meet a sphynx who wasn’t an asshole.

“An actor,” I said. “Can I go in now?” Teddy Roosevelt loved that one, and a lot of the dimmer or less imaginative sphynxes used it. But you don’t get to be where–or what–I am without knowing all the old sphynxy standbys.

A red claw descended on the intercom. “Someone to see you, Mr. Hollister.”

“What you don’t understand, my friend, is that the veneer of civility is paper-thin. Easily torn, easily mended, easily discarded.”

Logain squirmed in his chair. “Enough with the ten-dollar words, flatfoot,” he said. “I got rights. I said I’m not tellin’ you nothin’, and you can’t keep me here ‘less I get a lawyer or you get a judge.”

“My, my, we have a constitutional scholar on our hands here, boys!” Detective Richat cried to his fellows, who responded with low chuckles. Richat removed his hat and overcoat; their brass accouterments clanked on the steel table as he laid them down.

“Yeah, not all us west side boys are complete rubes,” Logain said. “Let me go; you can be surprised later.”

One of the officers handed Richat a box from Dulley’s Floral Shoppe on State, which he cradled.

“It may be the thought that counts, but I don’t think you’re my type, detective,” Logain said, batting his lashes.

“I’m going to give you one last chance, my friend, before the veneer is discarded,” said Richat. “What did you do with Mr. Berkeley’s book?”

Logain, in response, slowly and deliberately raised his middle finger.

Richat whipped an M1913 cavalry saber out of the box and severed Logain’s outstretched finger in a single fluid stroke. A dirty rag served to muffle the prisoner’s screams.

Lewis jerked back like a puppet on a string. “No! Please! I’ll tell you what you want to know.”

“Start singing. What do you know about the book?” I’d known from the first that he had a little bit of a songbird in him, but hadn’t been expecting Handel’s Messiah.

“He came by here the other day, looking to pawn it. Said it’d be worth a lot of scratch to the right buyer.” Lewis stared straight ahead as he talked, like a deer in the headlights of a ’32 Cadillac. The truth always was a little blinding for his type, though the fact that he was staring down the headlight of my .32 Winchester probably helped.

“And what’d you say?” I asked, though I already knew the answer. A rube like him was happy enough to buy a heater fresh from intensive recruitment for the local undertaking parlors, but didn’t have any use for a book aside from a doorstop. Lewis would’ve torn up a Gutenberg Bible to pack the pages around a 4-cylinder that leaked more than his roof.

“I told him to hit the bricks,” Lewis said. “No money in books.” Clearly, he’d never seen the hollowed-out Tolstoy in my office full of liquor futures.

“Where was he going after you told him to get on the trolley?”

“No idea.” Lewis glanced nervously at the shooting iron in my mitt like it was going to jump on the counter and do a dance. “A…are you a detective?”

I put my hat back on and pulled my collar up. “I’m a librarian,” I said. “And Mr. Salvatori’s book is very overdue.”