Kurt’s expression was one of triumph, a triumph he carefully avoided giving voice to, however much he felt like shouting. It wouldn’t do to give away his secret. He had only half-believed the stories about Grantville and its hoard of knowledge. But here it was—this book, this blessed book, told him where to find the riches he had always dreamed of finding.
And this treasure wasn’t one of the common ilk, that could be found with the aid of the encyclopedias. Indeed, Kurt believed that the key information was available only in this single library book. Kurt had begrudged the time he had spent in the “library skills and etiquette” class, but no more. The skills had helped him find the book.
Soon, he would leave behind the noise of Grantville, and make his fortune.
But wait a moment. Everyone knew that Grantville was the Mecca of spies. That’s why Kurt had done his own research, and not hired one of the “licensed researchers.” They were all spies, of course. One of them was probably watching him right now. Kurt turned his head ever so slightly, and looked out of the corner of his eye, hoping to catch one in the act.
No one looking his way, huh? Well, that was suspicious. All those people sitting at that long table and not one of them was looking his way. Clearly, they were all spies, and had caught his movement just in time to evade detection.
Or were they? No matter. He already knew what he needed to know, and so it would do them no good to watch him further. It would take a few days to buy all the tools and maps he needed, and then he could forget the library.
Or could he? That book, that damn book. It could be a year before someone else read it. Or a month. Or even a day. Who knew what rivals he had for the treasure, or how many or few steps, they were behind him.
But if he took the book with him . . . . No, he couldn’t. The library staff searched everyone before they left the building, and you couldn’t take any books, or packages, or even a coat into the bathroom. Apparently, the library had suffered some losses before.
So he couldn’t remove the book from the game. But there were only a few critical pages. If he found an isolated place in the stacks, one hidden from general view, and waited for the right moment, surely he could rip those pages out, and either effectively hide them on his person, or conceal them in some obvious trash and toss them into the library garbage can. It wasn’t as though anyone searched the garbage!
He moved through the stacks, looking back to the reading area from time to time, to check the sight lines. Finally, he chose a strategic location. With his body hiding his actions as best as possible, he opened the book, and ever so slowly, to minimize the noise, started to make the tear . . . .
“May I help you?”
Kurt reacted as calmly as a cat whose tail has been stepped on. “Acch!” he cried. Once his pulse had slowed, he responded, still with his back turned to his tormentor. “No, I am fine.”
But he sensed that he was still being watched. Finally, reluctantly, he turned. It was a middle-aged man; almost certainly, judging from his bad teeth, a down-timer.
“Do you need help? Perhaps in finding where to shelve that book? Its proper place is given by the Dewey decimal call—”
“No, no. See, I do it myself.” Kurt shoved the book into a gap in the volumes. “Happy? Leave me alone.” Kurt stalked off, thinking he would deal with the book another day.
Thomas Hobbes watched him go. Then he studied the bookcase, reached for the volume in question, paged through it carefully, and found the telltale rip. He closed the book abruptly, like a crocodile snapping its jaws on its prey.
Kurt was angry, with the damned interloper, and with himself. Finally, he calmed down. It wasn’t as though the fool knew which book Kurt had shelved, Kurt was sure of that. Kurt would deal with the book tomorrow. And if he ever came upon the damn busybody alone, at night, well, he’d help him into a ditch somewhere.
For now, it seemed a good time to celebrate his find, with a little bit of drinking.
Kurt was a bit woozy when he reached his own street, and fumbled for the keys. It was a moment before he realized that he was in the center of a rough circle formed by six men.
Kurt was shocked. Grantville was a safe town, even at night, at least in this quiet neighborhood. He relaxed fractionally when he recognized the men, they were researchers from the library. Young scholars, not muggers.
“So, Kurt, did you have a good day at the library?” said a blond man with a small scar above his left eyebrow.
“Good enough. I will need to go back tomorrow.”
“No need,” said Scarface. “You’re leaving town tomorrow. At the crack of dawn, I predict.”
Kurt started to reach for his cudgel. The six produced theirs, faster, and Kurt thought better of initiating violence.
“That wasn’t my plan.”
The shortest of the six chuckled. “You know, Kurt, the SOTF Library is the greatest repository of knowledge in the history of the world. Greater even than the Library of Alexandria.”
“And it is the making of our livelihood,” added a third.
“It is more than that,” said a fourth. “Its very presence is a miracle.”
“So we take its desecration very seriously,” said Scarface.
“The Library at Alexandria was lost in a day, to fire, but a library can be lost little by little,” said Shortie.
Scarface hefted his cudgel. “Say, by ingrates who take the library research and etiquette course and then have the audacity to rip pages out of books, denying them to fellow researchers.”
“Like us,” the six said in chorus.
Kurt tried to back toward his door, but the two nearest it blocked him. “I am sure we can come to an understanding . . . .” he said, rather nervously.
“Indeed we can,” said Scarface. “Do you know the Dewey System?”
The question took Kurt completely by surprise. His fear evaporated for a moment, as he mechanically considered the question on its merits. “Yes, of course. 100 is philosophy and psychology, 200 is religion, 300 is—”
“Neh, not that system,” said Shortie. “That’s the American Dewey System. I mean the German Dewey System. Which is . . . .
“Are you going to leave town tomorrow morning, without coming within a mile of the library, or . . . ‘Doo-wey’ beat you to a pulp?”
Kurt looked at Shortie, Scarface and the others, and gulped. “I’ll leave.”
Scarface snickered. “Oh, by the way, Kurt. Just to make sure that the crime of desecrating books doesn’t pay, a certain passage from a certain book you started to rip is going to be published in the newspaper, day after tomorrow. One of the editors owes me a favor. So you better get out of town fast, before you have competition.”
Kurt deflated further, if that were possible. “I will.”
The six library vigilantes watched him slink into his lair.
“Well, that’s that, I hope,” said Shortie.
“I’m disappointed,” said Scarface. “I was looking forward to smashing his face in.”
“Shall we celebrate our defense of the Printed Word . . . .”
“Thuringen Gardens is still open,” one of the vigilantes volunteered.
Some minutes later, they were at a table. The waitress filled their mugs, and left behind the pitcher.
“Shall we have a toast?” asked Shortie. The others nodded. “To the Dewey System!” They clicked their mugs, and drank.