Friday, July 3, 2015

#190 Bookseller

“I’m gonna be straight with you, man.” My throat nearly choked me, but I forced the words out. “These books, one of them has got to be bugged.”

I checked back over my shoulder, a quick, unintentional flinch. No reason to do it down here. There had to be half a mile of concrete and steel between this sewer pipe and the surface. No bug could transmit through that. We were safe, for the moment.

The buyer’s scraggly gray eyebrows went up, slow, sarcastic, unconcerned. “How do you know?”

“They keep chasing me,” I said. “They find me, whenever I go to the surface.”

“And you keep getting away?” there’s some respect in his voice.

I expect him to close the ragged backpack full of old books and hand it back to me, but instead he slips something from the pocket of his tattered suit coat. A small, flat rectangle, an old-fashioned cell phone.

My breathing quickens. “You’ve got a scanner?”

He gives me a look that asks me if I really think he’s an idiot. Then he juts out his chin and takes out a book.

Water trickles by at the bottom of the pipe. The dim electric lantern at our feet splashes strange, upside-down shadows on his face. The worn plastic covering on the book glints in the light. This one had once lived in a library. Alice in Wonderland. He passes the scanner over it, checking the spine twice, opening the cover and flipping the pages. The cell phone screen stays a passive blue.

“This one’s clean,” he sets it aside on the tunnel floor, careful to keep it out of the stream of water, leaned up against the curve of the wall.

Another book comes out, and another. Jane Eyre, Around the World in Eighty Days, The Grapes of Wrath, Harry Potter. “You like the classics, do you?” he asks.

“More valuable,” I shrug, not wanting to admit how much the books draw me. That I’m not just a mercenary, trading in black market goods, but I have a passion that drives me to preserve these ancient words. There’s a power in them that goes beyond anything I know.

A heavy volume comes out, The Complete Works of Shakespeare.

“That one’s not for sale,” I said, just as the cell phone screen flashes red.

“I wouldn’t buy this one from you anyway,” the man said, his voice a grim joke. “Better burn it, right here.” He pulls a lighter from his pocket.

I stare at the stained cardboard cover, a faded portrait of the bard stares back at me, his eyes boring into mine.

I take the book quickly from the man’s leathery hands and stuff it back in my pack. “No. I’ll keep running.”