James wasn’t trying to look furtive, he really wasn’t. In fact, he was trying his best not to look furtive, but somehow he always seemed to exude furtiveness in whatever activity he was engaged in, which happened to be at the moment striding down the main avenue towards the park. His hands were stuffed deep into the pockets of his oversize jacket, the collar turned up to ward off the autumnal chill which had settled over the town this evening. His trousers were also oversized, but luckily he had a piece of string to hold them up, and the long black shirt covered that up nicely, so that really wasn’t a problem. His shoes were worn, but didn’t have too many holes in, and the whole setup was rounded off nicely by the aging beret crammed tightly over his thinning hair. It was probably the beard which led to his furtive appearance, but when you don’t have access so often to a bathroom, then you have to make do as best you can.
The night was drawing in as he made his way through the park, the light from the streetlamps casting eerie shadows of the swaying trees across the footpath. The wind picked up handfuls of fallen leaves and sent them scuttling over the tarmac in a drunken ballet. He watched as a young couple hurried across the park hand in hand, eager no doubt to get out of the cold wind and into the comfortable warmth of their own home.
He left the park, crossing under the tall archway which housed the wrought iron gates, and carried on up the gently sloping road till the destination for night’s foray loomed into view. The library dominated the surroundings, its high walls set with tall imposing windows, gothic towers creating a sense of mystery and unknown purpose. It was set back from the pavement, surrounded by a neatly kept green with short poplar trees placed at seemingly random intervals. A path ran from the pavement to an imposing front door, and the green itself was enclosed by a wrought iron fence, high enough to keep out casual passers-by, but no problem for someone intent on gaining access.
He avoided the front door of course – at this time the library would be locked up, so instead he quickly walked round to the back of the building, and down a staircase to the cellar level. The windows here were set at shoulder height, but the window sill was deep enough to sit on if you could get up there. Luckily an old drainpipe ran close to the window, and by shinning himself up he was able to reach the window sill fairly easily. This was the window with the loose catch, so a little twist with his knife was all it took to let the window swing open. As silently as possible he rolled himself onto his front, and let himself drop backwards through the window. Not exactly cat-like, but he was in.
He wasted no time, walking quickly though the basement area which stored the old files and catalogues, and up the staircase leading to the ground floor of the library. He had entered the area where the librarians during the day checked the books in and out. He paused to listen to make sure he really was alone, then turned on the borrowed torch, and made his way quietly out to the main library area. He paused when he came to the new arrivals trolley, and let the light sweep across the titles arranged haphazardly. Why couldn’t they at least order these books alphabetically? Suddenly he gasped and gave a little exclamation of triumph. He couldn’t believe his luck – the new Harold Töpfer book was there! It had only been released the day before, but here it was, in pristine condition, and he would be the first to read it! Eagerly he snatched up the book, then hurried around the room to reading area at the back. They had comfortable chairs there, and the light from his torch would be less visible from the outside. Once there, he chose a chair away from any windows and began to read.
He was so engrossed in the book that he almost didn’t notice the footsteps approaching from the outside, and the sound of the door knob being turned. At the last second he turned off the torch and flung himself behind one of the reading sofas. Once hidden, he tried to catch a glimpse of the intruder from the reflections in the window panes. He saw the light from a torch moving round the room. Damn! It was the library security guard – he didn’t come here very often, and you never knew when he was going to turn up. Often it seemed random on which days he was here, and sometimes he didn’t make an appearance for weeks. It was just his luck that he showed up tonight.
He remained frozen behind the sofa, hardly daring to breath, willing the man to leave soon so he could carry on reading in peace. But he wasn’t leaving! What was he doing? James tried to move noiselessly into a more comfortable position, stretching carefully to try and get rid of the increasing cramp he was starting to feel in his calf muscles. Cautiously he inched his way along behind the sofa till he was able to stick his head out slightly at ground level to see what was happening. He caught a glimpse of the security guard, and he could scarcely believe what he was seeing. The guy was sitting down at the table reading the book. His book! Silently fuming, he moved back out of sight, thinking furiously about how he could get rid of the security guard, and get his book back at the same time.
It was the raccoons that saved him. Luckily he was able to stifle the cry before it escaped his lips as the raccoon family scampered past. How the heck did they get in here? Then of course he remembered the window he had left open in the basement. He didn’t know that raccoons could climb drainpipes, but he gave silent thanks now for their astounding dextrousness, and waited with bated breath to see what would happen next.
It didn’t take long for the security guard to notice the raccoons. With a cry he leapt up and swung his torch wildly to and fro, trying to follow the racoons, which were now scampering around madly, trying to get out of the torchlight. Now they found an escape route, darting out of the door the guard had left open when he came in. He gave chase, and finally James was alone again. He seized his chance, and jumped out from behind the sofa. Time to get out of here. As he passed the table though he paused, torn between the desire not to be caught here, and the desire to carry on reading the book. If he took the book the guard would of course know that someone was there, but maybe if he found a good enough hiding place? After a brief internal struggle, he sighed resignedly and snatched the book up from the table. He made his way now to the staircase leading to the upper levels of the library. Hopefully he could find a hiding place where he wouldn’t be disturbed.
This time he was going to be more careful. He climbed the three flights of stairs to the antique and rare book section, small rooms crammed full of old leather-bound tomes that hadn’t been touched for years, let alone opened and read. He doubted even whether the cleaner came up here; the air hung thick with the musty scent of old books, and he could sense the dust, even though he couldn’t see it from the weak light which filtered through the small windows. He chose the room with the rare book cabinets. They lined the wall on one side of the room, and he traced his fingers along the cool glass of the cabinet doors as he moved past.
There were other open bookshelves in the room; some were set at right-angles to the wall, breaking up the room into natural alcoves. He chose one of these alcoves now. He sat down in one of the chairs, and settled back into the story.
The security guard was exhausted. He had taken some large draw-string cloth sacks he had found in the storeroom, and had spent the last hour chasing the mischievous creatures round and round the lower level of the library. He had tried to work strategically, focussing on one raccoon after the other, trying to force it into a corner so he could grab it and stuff in into one of the sacks. Even wearing gloves, which he had also found in the storeroom, it was hard work getting one into a sack without being scratched and bitten. The last one had been especially difficult as it had taken to the high ground, scampering along the tops of the bookshelves out of reach. In the end he had resorted to throwing hardcovers from the young adult section at the miscreant until he finally scored a lucky hit, and he was able to handle the creature into the sack whilst it lay dazed on the floor. The library was a shambles of course, not only because of all the books he had thrown, but the last raccoon had also knocked down countless books in its efforts to escape capture.
Now the battle was over and he had vanquished the foe. He took a long, satisfied look at the four snarling writhing sacks which now lay on the floor of the storeroom. He would have to release them somewhere, of course – he couldn’t bring himself to kill them even though they had caused him so much trouble. He would pack them in his van, and let them go somewhere a long way from here. He sighed when he thought of the work he still had to do – he also had to find out how the creatures had got in in the first place. He wouldn’t be doing any more reading tonight, that was for sure. First things first though, now he had earned a break. He knew it was forbidden, but these were special circumstances and no-one would find out. He took out his pack of cigarettes and lit one up, drawing on it for several seconds before exhaling a plume of smoke with a long, satisfied sigh.
James was back into his book, and was again almost too late to switch off the torch. He had just caught the sound of the doorknob being turned, and had extinguished the light in the nick of time. Now he sat there frozen again in the chair. This time there was no escape, as the only door in the room was the one he had entered, and the one that someone else was now entering. He held his breath and waited for light to shine on his face. He was partially obscured by a bookcase standing perpendicular to the wall, but he could still observe the door and the person who now entered. It was immediately clear that it wasn’t the security guard. The figure was smaller, for a start, and James was fairly certain it was a woman. She was dressed all in black, and it was the black mask obscuring her face which led James to suspect that his situation had taken another bizarre turn.
The woman hadn’t seen him, and now had her back to him and was shining her torch into the rare book cabinets on the far wall. She paused, then crouched down and pulled out what looked like a crowbar from the small backpack she had slung over her shoulder. With a loud crack one of the cabinet doors was split open, and she quickly grabbed some of the books and stuffed them into the backpack.
James was horrified, but was uncertain what to do. If he stayed quiet, the woman would certainly just leave, and he would be alone again. But he couldn’t just ignore this – this woman was a thief, and he was the only person here to witness this and maybe even stop her. This really wasn’t his night – by acting now he was going to give himself away, and who knew what the consequences of that would be. With another resigned sigh, he switched on his torch and shone it at the woman. Incredibly, at the same moment the stillness of the library was pierced with shrill siren. The effect was pretty impressive, and James wondered bemusedly whether by some strange power he had summoned this cacophony to his aid. The woman was quick to react. With a gasp she spun round, but she didn’t waste any time. She grabbed her bag and ran for the door. With a yell, James leapt up and took up the pursuit. The woman was making for a back door but James was right behind her. She must have miscalculated, as the door was locked, and she was forced to turn around. She sprung nimbly to one side and tried to rush past, but James was able to stick a foot out sending the woman tumbling and crashing into a book case. She scrambled up and carried on running, left, right, around the rooms and bookcases, trying to shake off James and make for the exit. James wasn’t about to give up though, and he remained in close pursuit.
The fire brigade was the first to arrive, followed shortly by the police. Of course, the security guard had forgotten about the smoke alarm in the store room, which, like all the alarms in the library, was directly linked to the alarm system of the fire station. The guard stood there now, attempting to explain to the chief fire officer and the police sergeant about the raccoons and the chase around the library, pointing to the turmoil in the library as evidence of his heroic actions.
The front door opened now, and the chief librarian entered the library, staring in astonishment both at the chaos in his library, and the people gathered there. Living nearby, he had obviously been woken up by the noise and had come straight away, as he was still dressed in his purple silk dressing gown and fluffy slippers. The fire officer went over to the control desk and reset the alarm, and an eerie silence fell over the scene.
The silence was quickly broken as a door burst open, and a woman dressed all in black and carrying a rucksack ran into the room. She seemed to be momentarily blinded by entering a brightly lit room, then tried to turn back the way she had come. James was directly behind her though, and he was able to grab her and hold her tightly as they tumbled into one another, and they ended up in a sprawled heap on the floor at the feet of the police sergeant and chief fire officer, James pinning the woman down on the ground.
James tried to explain the situation again as he sat drinking a cup of tea with the chief librarian in his office. The woman had been arrested and taken away. It turned out she was a librarian who had joined the library just recently, but was also a known book thief. That was how she had been able to enter the library in the first place – she hadn’t had to resort to the tricks James had got up to.
James explained to the librarian about his love of books, but how, being homeless, he wasn’t able to qualify for library membership, and so he had to resort to his night-time excursions. He didn’t dare to enter the library during the daytime, as he thought that people would look down on him and send him away.
The librarian smiled, and nodded sympathetically. He told James to come by the library in the afternoon, and he would personally issue James with library membership, and he was welcome to borrow books anytime. The library would be closed in the morning of course, to clear up current chaos.
James smiled to himself as he walked back through the park. It was early morning, and the chill air invigorated him has he strode towards the homeless shelter where he would get a bit of breakfast. He would tell his friends there all about last night. They wouldn’t believe him, of course, but that didn’t matter, he would have fun telling the story. And maybe also embellishing it a bit – it must have been at least twenty raccoons, and the woman was a ninja master. Yes, that sounded about right.
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What an active library! I absolutely LOVED your opening line - in fact, the whole opening paragraph. I was really touched by the image of a homeless man skulking around the library late at night just to read....and I loved how you wrapped it up. Your writing is clear and everything flowed well - easy to read and follow, which is so important to me when I am getting lost in a story. Fantastic writing!
Thanks very much for your kind comments! I wanted to make James a sympathetic character, so I'm pleased that that worked. This is my first stab at writing in a more humourous style, so I'm glad you liked it :-)