A Tall Ship Tale #47: Checkout Time

The series from Paul DeAnguera continues.

From a discrete distance, the H.M.S. Legume followed the U.S.S. Goober out of the Nile and west to Alexandria. The Legume entered the ancient harbor unobtrusively after dark. Then Quid summoned the First Mate to his cabin.

“Our last link to Cilantro is the letter stolen by the escaped prisoners on that brig!” he said. “But we can’t attack the Goober in a neutral port. I need you to befriend some crewman of theirs and persuade him to steal the letter back for us.” Then Quid armed his lieutenant with a thousand pieces of money and sent him ashore.

The First Mate haunted the waterfront dramshops. It was not very hard to find a bartender who was angry about the tab which some “Goobers” had run up. Through this intermediary, he invited a particularly indebted Goober to perform a small service for a generous fee.

“Where do you want to meet him?” the bartender asked. “Not here!” he hastily added. “I don’t want trouble.”

“How about the library? This town does have a library, doesn’t it?” The bartender gave him a strange look, but nodded and gave the First Mate directions. These led him to the top of a grassy knoll. Here, surrounded by a low wall and boxwood hedges, sat a neat brick building. The peak of its roof bristled with decorative ironwork, and it had leaded windows and a little pyramid of steps up to its front door. Engraved in the lintel were the words:

Andrew Carnegie, 381 B.C.

The First Mate stepped into the foyer. “Hello! Are you returning any books?” the librarian asked. She gazed hopefully at him from dark, somehow tragic eyes.

“No, but I’m looking for an American sailor.”

She consulted a card file and said, “How about ‘Twenty Years Before The Mast,’ by Charles Erskine?” As he was about to speak she added “But it’s checked out. Then there’s ‘The Making Of A Sailor,’ by Frederick Pease Harlow.” He smiled and started to nod, just as she said “But it’s checked out too!”

“Well, perhaps I’ll just take a look around then,” he decided. He walked through the foyer to the reading room. Every rack, table and display was completely bare of books. He walked past empty rows; silently she joined him. “Every book has been checked out?” he asked in a hushed voice. She nodded mutely. “When?”

“323,” she said in a trembling voice. He glanced at his watch, and she added “A.D. When they became overdue, we reported the matter to Emperor Aurelian. But, so far, we have not heard any more about it.” While she peered hopefully into the bookdrop, he glanced at some signs on the ends of the racks they were passing:


He stopped when he noticed that a pallet had been made up inside this rack. “Do you sleep here?” he asked in disbelief.

“When all those books come back, I’m going to need every minute to get them arranged before the customers want them again! So I stay here in case they show up at night.”

“How sad! Don’t you ever sleep in a different section — Career Development, or Romance, or Women’s Studies — just for variety?” he asked. But she shook her head firmly and said,

“To thine own shelf be true!”

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