Mrs. Audrey Lambert adjusted her steel-gray bun and nudged her glasses a little bit farther up her nose as she unlocked the library doors and marched resolutely inside to begin the day. As she arrived at her desk and stowed her purse in its designated drawer, her gaze lingered for a moment on the nameplate sitting on the edge of her desktop:
She made an almost-imperceptible tsk noise.
Mrs. Lambert headed over to the overnight book return slot and began sorting through the books. Overhead, the beating of very large wings thundered across the rafters, followed shortly by something heavy landing powerfully on the second-floor balcony.
Mrs. Lambert paid no mind.
After a half-hour or so, as Mrs. Lambert was busying herself reshelving all the returned books, she could hear the sound of preschoolers beginning to arrive with their parents for Family Storytime. She smiled as a little boy passed, pulling his mother excitedly toward the children's section.
A little girl, perhaps three or four years old, came skidding around the corner, knocking into the bookshelf and jostling it, then giggling to herself. In one hand, she held a half-eaten lollipop, the bright-red juices staining her face, hands, and shirt. The little girl reached out and grabbed the shelf to steady herself, and Mrs. Lambert winced at the soft sticking nose as the child peeled her slightly tacky fingers from the surface again.
"Where are your parents, sweetie?" Mrs. Lambert asked in as gentle a voice as she could muster.
The little girl stared at Mrs. Lambert for a moment, and then giggled and bolted toward the children's section.
Frowning, Mrs. Lambert scanned the library for an adult who might be attached to the little girl. She found her target a few moments later when a woman sauntered past the aisle, fully engrossed in something on her phone, but glancing up in the direction in which the little girl had run. "Coco, slow down, you have to stay with Mommy," the woman called disinterestedly after the child.
"Was that your little girl, hon?" Mrs. Lambert asked politely.
The woman stopped walking and looked slightly annoyed. "Mhm," she replied.
"There's no food allowed in the library," Mrs. Lambert continued.
"It's just a piece of candy," the mother replied irritably. "It's not really food."
"Well, I don't think the head librarian will like it," Mrs. Lambert said mildly. "She's reading for Family Storytime today, you know."
The woman glanced over her shoulder. "Coco, I said come back here!" She called across the library, walking away from Mrs. Lambert without even a backward glance.
Mrs. Lambert shrugged and went back to reshelving.
She could tell when Mrs. Fiamma, the head librarian, arrived in the children's section for story time. Mrs. Fiamma's arrivals were not subtle. More telling than that, though, was the sudden outcry of shocked noises from the parents that quickly settled into uneasy silence.
Mrs. Lambert tensed.
She felt the slow buildup of reverberations as a booming roar, deafening for anyone in close range, shook the very foundations of the building. A couple of piercing screams joined it, creating strange harmonies.
The echoes had not yet ceased when Coco's mother, her sobbing toddler bundled in her arms, hurried out of the children's section and found Mrs. Lambert, haunted eyes pleading at the assistant librarian from a face drained of all color as she held out a half-eaten lollipop, her lips trying to form words that her brain wasn't quite supplying.
Mrs. Lambert nodded serenely. "The trash can is by the restrooms, hon." As the chastened toddler mom rushed off in that direction, Mrs. Lambert couldn't help clucking her tongue admonishingly.
From the children's section, she could hear the low rumble of Mrs. Fiamma's voice as she began today's story, The Very Hungry Caterpillar.
Mornings were usually rather slow once Family Storytime ended and the parents, glancing cautiously back over their shoulders, rushed away from the children's section without trying to make it look like they were rushing away. The children, Mrs. Lambert had observed, were a mixed bag when it came to Mrs. Fiamma—some of them found her fascinating, and others (usually the unfortunate offspring of overly permissive parents) saw her again in their nightmares later. Mrs. Lambert liked to watch them leave and pick out the ones who wouldn't be returning the next week.
Mrs. Fiamma always manned the front desk when Mrs. Lambert took lunch; Mrs. Lambert was therefore accustomed to taking lunch from her desk, sitting at an angle from which she could keep a careful eye. As the subordinate librarian, Mrs. Lambert couldn't countermand Mrs. Fiamma, per se, but she found that her superior could usually be talked down from a tirade with a little bit of firm reasoning. Mrs. Lambert had become quite a practiced hand at it, in fact.
There seemed to be no need for it today, however. Mrs. Fiamma was in a rather good mood. While newer patrons were often terrified of her, several regulars had learned to approach her with cautious cordiality, and some were even brave enough to risk conversation with her if it proved necessary. One such patron was at the checkout desk right now, though Mrs. Lambert could only hear Mrs. Fiamma's side of the conversation at this distance (her voice carried better).
"I can't say I've ever heard of that series. Nope, it doesn't appear to be in our collection. Cozy mysteries, you say? One of my favorite genres. Well, I'll see if I can order the first few; never any problem adding to our hoard, if you ask me. What's your name, young lady? I can put you on a wait list when it comes in."
Mrs. Lambert smiled. Mrs. Fiamma was making great strides at being hospitable. Their heart-to-hearts appeared to be working.
Things always picked up at the library after school, and, of course, at the busiest time of day, Mrs. Fiamma was usually nowhere to be found. Mrs. Lambert tried her best to keep up with the return pile in between checking out people's books and answering the students' questions.
"Excuse me?" A girl wearing a hoodie with the logo of the local junior high approached the desk. Mrs. Lambert tried not to cringe as the girl ended every sentence with an upward inflection, as if asking a series of questions. "I have to write a paper about Abraham Lincoln? For social studies class? And my teacher says I have to have at least three print sources and three electronic sources? So I found the electronic ones? But I don't know how to find these?" The girl handed Mrs. Lambert a sheet of printer paper with several books listed.
Mrs. Lambert sighed. She was about to launch her wistful speech about how they just don't teach the Dewey Decimal System in schools nowadays when she realized that there was another, perfectly valid reason that the girl couldn't locate the books. "These are on the second floor," she explained. "I'll have to get them for you, sweetie."
Gritting her teeth a little bit, she headed toward the staircase, but was stopped on her way by a teenage boy. "Uh, excuse me, ma'am? I was, um…" he gestured toward the library's craft section, which provided sewing machines, 3D printers, and other creative equipment for patrons to use. "I was gonna use the vinyl cutting machine to make some decals, but…could you, um, come and look?"
Mrs. Lambert nodded and followed him toward the craft room, where the problem was obvious: the vinyl cutting machine was completely obliterated, a black, blasted scorch mark pocking the place where it once sat.
"I didn't do it," the boy said hastily.
Mrs. Lambert quickly put up a hand. "I'm sure you didn't," she said. "I'll…go speak to the head librarian about replacing it. My apologies that it's…out of order at the moment."
Frowning, she marched toward the staircase to the second floor, which was cordoned off with an 'employees only' sign in front of it.
The reason patrons weren't allowed on the library's upper floor was immediately apparent upon arrival: the shelves had been cleared from a huge section and several of the couches had been pushed together in their place, the curtains from the windows removed and piled up on top of them, to create a massive nest; in the center sat three basketball-sized eggs, gleaming with a pearlescent sheen. Mrs. Fiamma lounged with her body curled around the eggs, a small laptop perched in front of her, and delicately tapped the keys with a single claw as she ordered a new set of cozy mysteries for the library's collection.
She gave a curt nod in Mrs. Lambert's direction as the subordinate librarian began moving through the crowded shelves to grab the history books. "Are you running the writer's circle later, Mrs. Lambert, or is it my turn?" She asked.
"It's my turn, but you can do it if you like," Mrs. Lambert replied. A little more cautiously, she continued, "Do you know what happened to the vinyl cutter?"
A rumbling grunt of displeasure resonated from Mrs. Fiamma's throat. "Someone tried to cut cake fondant with it. The insides got all gummed up. I tried to clean it out, but I suppose I…" the rest of the words faded to a low, rumbling grumble once again. "If I ever catch who did that, I'll…"
"I see," Mrs. Lambert continued, choosing her words carefully. "I think we've talked about this."
"We have," Mrs. Fiamma conceded moodily.
"We want the patrons to keep coming here, or the township will cut our funding. It doesn't help to scare them."
"Yes, yes," Mrs. Fiamma cut her off. "And if they cut our funding, we can't add to the hoard any more."
"Precisely," Mrs. Lambert finished.
"But they make me so angry sometimes—" A thin plume of smoke curled from Mrs. Fiamma's nostril.
"I know, hon. Just try to take a deep breath, and remember you're doing it for the sake of the hoard."
Mrs. Fiamma nodded, and curled protectively around the eggs.
By early evening, Mrs. Lambert was doing busywork at the checkout desk. She could see Mrs. Fiamma leading the writing circle from this vantage point. Another thin plume of smoke was lazily drifting out of her mouth, but Mrs. Lambert could tell the excited smoke from the angry smoke by now. Must be a fantasy manuscript tonight, she thought to herself.
A woman in overly-tight leggings approached the desk and plopped a book on the counter. "I need to renew this."
Mrs. Lambert looked at the cover of the book, 1001 Great Cake Ideas. It was splattered with batter, stained with food coloring, and had clearly been dropped in butter at some point.
Oh dear, she thought.
"Well," she said, glancing cautiously at the writing circle and dropped her voice to almost a whisper, "I see some damage on the book…"
When she scanned it in, it got worse. "This is several weeks overdue already, I'm afraid."
"Yeah, well, if I renew it that goes away, right?" The woman said, too loudly for Mrs. Lambert's comfort.
"That's not how it works," she replied, quietly, willing herself not to look in Mrs. Fiamma's direction.
"What difference does it make?" The woman sneered, raising her voice even louder. "If I'd renewed it back then, I wouldn't have late fees now, so why don't you just do it for me now?"
Mrs. Lambert held up a hand to quiet her, but it was too late. Across the library, Mrs. Fiamma's reptilian head snapped in the direction of the checkout desk, and before Mrs. Lambert could blink, the head librarian had launched herself into the air, gusts of wind from the beating of her mighty wings buffeting the shelves and threatening to topple them, and landed with a thunderous thud mere steps away from the library patron. Acrid smoke plumed from both Mrs. Fiamma's nostrils. The extra-long scales along her spine, which were normally flattened down along her back, were standing on edge, a razor-sharp line of glinting metallic green.
The patron, so arrogant moments before, was now a stuttering, blubbering mess.
"You." Mrs. Fiamma growled. "You're the one who broke the vinyl cutter. And—" the book on the counter caught her eye. "You ruined one of my books." Mrs. Fiamma reared up on her hind legs, her long, thin neck snaking backwards in preparation, as even more smoke seeped out from between her teeth. "You will pay the price for defiling my hoard!" She opened her mouth wide, and Mrs. Lambert could see the faint red glow growing at the back of her colleague's throat.
"Oh dear," Mrs. Lambert muttered, ducking behind the desk.
As the blast of heat radiated toward her over the top of the desk, accompanied by the roar of flames, Mrs. Lambert reflected that, although she was sometimes rather irked to be a mere assistant after all her years of experience, Mrs. Fiamma really was the best choice for head librarian.