“Yes, the accommodations are very nice,” speaks the voice, and were it not for the small device in his ear with the tiny, blue light, it may seem he talks to no one.

He spares a moment for the screen of his laptop, the machine ensconced in a dark, metal traveling case, open now for his use as he sits in the expansive, very posh hotel room.

“I’ve thought about that quite a lot, even had some analyses of various kinds run on it,” he continues speaking after listening for a moment, “Yes, it appears most likely they were behind the attack. It’s just too overt, too lethal to have been the Malkuths,” and he pauses, nodding his head a bit, even as he listens and continues interfacing with his computer.

He gives a further moment to the monitor, eyes following the action on the screen. Then he rises, heading to the bar, dropping two ice cubes into a fine glass before adding even finer scotch into it.

“They could not have known it was one of the Three. They’d not risk destroying it. We all want them,” he says, swirling the glass, then taking a generous sip of the cooling liquid. A light perk of his eyebrows is all the commentary he gives to the taste.

“The trap is rather eloquent if you think about it.” Another pause as he listens, nodding, then, “They had to have known something unusual had been added to the library but not what it was, so they set the trap to lie in wait in case it was ever found, thus destroying the item and whomsoever else may have been unlucky enough to be caught in the fire,” then in a musing tone that implies compliment, “Like a very patient fisherman.’

“Well, I don’t know,” he adds after another pause, “If they had just blown up the library, they may not have gotten anyone in the blast. This way, they know at least one person is there. I do not know exactly how they think, Mother, but they do love to kill us if given the chance.”

“Yes, it is worrisome that they were able to set the trap at all, but the house is gutted, and it seems a poor idea to rebuild. Charleston is working to find us a suitable replacement. Just stay with Nicole until then. I’m sure you two will love to have more time together,” he says in a somewhat teasing tone, and the expression drops after a moment of listening, traded for something very serious, laden with emotion.

“It was him, Mother. I don’t know how to explain it, but it was him. Somehow, he was triggered to appear, but it … felt like Dad,” he explains, more emotion trickling into his voice. “He was eager to show me the book. I don’t know when or how or where he found it, but it had been in the library all this time. I suppose he was waiting until the right moment to tell me.”

“Well, I’m not sure,” after further waiting for his mother to talk, “You know him better than I do. You tell me why he did it,” and more time passes as she speaks, “I suppose it may well be related to the breakthrough regarding the second book. We’ll know more tomorrow after my appointment.”

He listens more, going back to the computer, more tastes taken of the liquid in the glass, and he pulls up files, looking at a photograph along with textual information.

“I do not believe in coincidence,” he says, “They must know, too, or they highly suspect. Still, this seems too careful, too … slow for them, so I figure their intelligence lags behind ours. If they knew the book was in the collection, they’d probably just steal it.’

“Well, yes, I suppose they know it is there and have discerned the security is too much for them to risk,” he speaks, a subtle cast of sarcasm to his voice, but it is easily detected by one who knows him so well. “Yes, Mother,” he says, exhaling, a short roll of his blue eyes, “I know the school is very wealthy and prestigious, so they may indeed have rather strong protection in place for their collection of rare books,” though his tone suggests he is humoring her.

“I’ll get as close as I am able tomorrow, and if it turns out it is one of the Three, then I will inquire through the proper channels, make an offer or try to buy or extensively borrow the book or some such,” then a pause as he listens, “Of course that is not normal, but if it is one of the Three, then we must do whatever is within our power. I’ll offer to give the school an endowment if I have to.’

“Hmmm,” he ponders after further listening, “That’s not a bad idea. Let me examine the book first, then if needed, Nicole can come here, but you know that means you’d have to take care of the grandchildren. I am sure you’d hate that,” and now the sarcasm is more evident, along with the teasing, and were anyone else in the room, they’d hear the laughter from his mother emerging through the device, only to dissolve into a normal tone of voice, as he gives ear. “Oh, he’s fine,” then in something of an aside aspect, “I wish he were enrolled at this school, but yes, well, we’ll see about motivating him to not wastes his gifts some other time, or you feel free to give him a call.”

He chuckles at his mother’s response.

“Yes, Mom, you sleep well, alright? Give my greetings to Nicole and everyone else. Yes, you, too. I love you, too. Good night.”

He ends the call, going back to studying information on his screen, drinking more deeply of the dwindling contents in the glass. He pulls up a photograph of the Curator of the library’s rare book collection, reading the dossier attached. He is surprised at the bright red coloring of her long hair, not having expected something so unconventional. Judging from the information about her, they have someone very serious about such tomes in charge, but he has no clue as to any security measures. Still, he is more curious to keep others out. He does not plan to skirt the law in this, so long as he is able.

*****

The black Kawasaki Ninja ZX-6R follows the semi-trailer truck at a decent distance along the gently curving roads here outside the city. It is night, and no normally discernable lights emit from the motorcycle, for it is in stealth mode. The customized resonator muffler gives forth little more than a minimal purring as the bike pursues in the wake of the large truck. Its driver’s goggles allow enhanced modes of vision that dispel the usual impediment of driving in the dark without the benefit of conventional illumination. The twin headlamps at the fore of the vehicle are there, but it is obvious they have also been customized. A small device beneath the trailer emits an electronic signal in case sight of the truck is lost.

The tailing proves easy enough as they finally enter the city. The driver dares to follow closer, though the size of the semi-trailer keeps it from making any sudden turns, even if it were engaged in pro-active efforts of evasion. From what has been discerned prior to this transport trip, little caution has been employed.

The truck eventually makes it way to the warehouse, still here on the outskirts of the metropolis, driving through the entrance. The metal gates slide closed once the carrier is through, rolling and jiggling, ending in a loud report of the locking mechanism activating.

“Do you see anything?” emerges a voice over a comlink.

Two men hold position atop the main building, garbed in dark clothing, looking out over the direction from which the semi-trailer has arrived. One holds a pair of large binoculars, the other peers through a sophisticated scope attached to a suppressed sniper rifle. “Nothing,” replies the man with the binoculars after taking a moment to scan and looking at his comrade for verification, “Anything from the cameras?”

“Negative,” replies the voice, “We’re monitoring. If anything comes up, we’ll sound the alarm.”

“So will we. Out,” answers the spotter, then mumbling to the sniper, “Do they think we’re stupid?”

“Shut up.”

The motorcycle that had lately been in pursuit of the transport stands now quietly on the other side of a block of buildings across from the warehouse, its theft-deterrent measures engaged. The rider is atop a three story structure, moving low and slow, nearing the edge. Once there, observation is made through quite small binoculars, different modes of view engaged with the touch of a button. Cameras are noticed. They have been seen before, but their increased numbers are evident. The team atop the building is also made, despite being somewhat well hidden. The spotter is too eager, rising up and sweeping with the reflective binoculars too openly. They must be anticipating an arrival.

An alternate plan is quickly devised, along with considering abandoning the mission. There is doubt that this is merely increased security measures for its own sake. They have finally figured out they are being targeted, despite their time of success and the continued bribes to local law enforcement.

A frontal assault had also been considered – take out the sniper team and a few cameras, then scale the gate and engage. There is worry, though, for the safety of those inside who are innocent. The risk is too great.

The motorcycle is left where it is, the rider moving back along the ground, keeping to shadows, though it seems no one is about. The jika-tabi make very little sound on the concrete as the driver sprints across an area of potential exposure, continuing obliquely from the warehouse, moving along the street to gain a different angle of approach.

It appears that the occupants of the warehouse have placed their expectation on an approach from the front. The number of cameras from this angle is fewer, the wall about the rear transitioning from metal to concrete, visually estimated at around four meters high. Some time is spared for surveillance, taking note that the team on top of the building appears content to only observe a limited field from the forward vantage.

The rider moves toward the wall with an even, medium speed stride, having chosen an approach that holds in a generous blind spot of the cameras. The left foot finds high purchase, the other coming up as well from the momentum, propulsion carrying as hands work in tandem until they find the top of the wall.  The figure crouches low, holding still and quiet, observing for any sign that presence has been detected.

And there is the semi-trailer, backed into an open bay, its cargo already emptied. Bright lights illuminate that area, even as the large, rolling garage door remains open. A person is spied outside, smoking, a Vz. 61 Skorpion strapped over his right shoulder. The infiltrator atop the wall does not move, merely watching as further drags are taken on the cigarette by the sentry. The man’s eyes scan about somewhat, even coming close to peering at the intruder until the smoke break is done, and with a toss of the butt, he turns and heads back inside through the docking bay, ignoring the adjacent door. Voices are heard from within, and then the cacophony of metal erupts onto the night quiet as the garage door is closed.

Time to move.

The figure scurries atop the wall, keeping low, then shifts left with an effortless smoothness, dropping to the inside of the wall, landing upon bent knees, rocking forward a bit to balance with hands, holding place now in an area of shadow. There are other lights here, but they are not as radiant, and a quick scan shows one method of ingress along the warehouse’s brick back wall – a single door positioned in the center, above which hangs a lamp and a camera.

The FN P90 submachine gun strapped tight to the figure’s torso is taken in both gloved hands, aimed at the camera, the red dot and infrared sight clearly showing the way. A coughing sound is produced by the subsonic ammunition fired through a suppressor, and the camera is rendered ineffective.

The reaction is somewhat quick, though it does belie the level of readiness and training on the part of the defense here. The team atop the building rushes over, making far too much noise, peering down over the rear of the building, both looking near and far for any sign of an intruder. They see nothing, for the shooter has moved back, staying close to the wall, returning to the loading dock area.

Two doors then open in quick unison. The rear spills forth two guards, both armed with Skorpions, and one must assume the team on the roof has given some sort of a clear sign to them from their observation above. The two men swing their barrels about, searching somewhat erratically, seeming little concerned with protecting one another or even themselves and blindly hopeful of spotting an intruder.

The door leading into the garage area gives passage to the one who had just been outside on smoke break, but before he may do much searching, he is surprised from behind by an expert choke hold applied along with full body weight upon his back. He instinctively reaches, hands clasping at the arm about his throat, releasing his hold on the SMG. It dangles there by its shoulder strap. His reactionary struggles are miniscule, ineffective, and within seconds, he is unconscious. Zip-ties are quickly applied to his wrists and ankles just as the other guards begin to realize something is going on.

Tactical lights shine over the supine body of the guard, moving about as the two on the ground rush over to investigate even as the sniper team atop the building adds their own bright spotlight to the scene. No one else is there.

“Yuri’s down, tied up,” the spotter speaks into his comlink, “Someone’s on the premises.”

“We’re going into lockdown, sounding the alarm,” replies the voice on the other end. “Get the intruder, alive if possible.”

And then a noise permeates the area, not too loud, but loud enough to effectively do its job. Lights also snap on where most of the building had been held in darkness, but there are still areas where one may remain hidden. The two men on the ground rush inside the open door leading to the bay, while those on the roof claim duty over the outside area. They pause once inside, angling weapons up to the noise of approaching footsteps, though it proves to be another guard coming in on the second floor, looking down from a catwalk. They trade rudimentary acknowledgement and hand signals, then get back to business.

It takes a moment for the one to realize he is alone, and he begins another sort of search here in the large area.

“Clay?” he calls out, looking around, jerking the barrel of his gun about. “Clay!” he tries more insistently, and then he sees something back in the dark distance, behind a long, tall shelf baring of various items and boxes.

The form moves, moaning.

“Clay?”

He flicks on his tactical beam, shining it to see the his colleague, held at the wrists and ankles by zip-ties, obvious signs of having just regained consciousness and experiencing trouble grasping it.

“Shit!” comes the adequate assessment, and he turns just as his ears pick up the sounds of approaching feet.

His finger goes to the trigger of his weapon, and then the gun is knocked from his hands, flying free and scraping across the concrete floor. He barely registers the black-garbed figure, moving so quickly. He tries to strike out, and his attempt is easily dodged. He turns in the direction the blurry intruder has moved only to feel a sharp pain in his side, followed all too quickly by a bloom of pain in his sternum, then his left knee. He crumbles, and the hit to his temple helps him complete his journey to the ground. He is quickly tied and left.

He cries out, a mixture of pain, frustration, and anger, but no one responds.

A couple of guards later, and the intruder creeps slowly down a hallway on the second floor. There are openings to either side, no doors, and within most of the cramped rooms are girls and women of various ages, though none look to be older than their twenties, despite the condition of their appearance, and many seem frighteningly young. Some of them lull in the apparent stupor of drugs, others are alert, eyes open wide, watchful, fearful, but all of them are bound in one way or another.

The infiltrator holds a black-gloved finger over the place where a mouth would be behind the obscuring mask, an easily understood sign. There is no real noise from the women, other than the whimpering cries of some. None of these are probably the recently unloaded “cargo”.

The space at the end of the hallway turns out to be some sort of break room, with the worn drip coffee maker, Styrofoam cups, small television, and other such common accoutrements for killing time. The unarmed man in here looks as though he is probably the driver of the truck. Once his threat potential has been assessed, the intruder moves into view, looking about.

The driver cries out, startled, then pushes back against a countertop, trying to increase the distance between himself and the other. He then pulls a knife from a set nearby, brandishing the piece of cutlery. The intruder looks at him briefly, the distance far too great for the man to do any real damage with the impromptu weapon, even had he the training. The man stares, head tilting, brow furrow beneath the cap on his head.

“You …” he speaks, gesturing with the knife, “You … you’re … what the-?”

And a black object is suddenly in the intruder’s hands, aimed, a button pressed and the prongs shoot out on wires, delivering a debilitating shock. The man is taut, held like a bow string, teeth and jaw clenched as the other walks nearer. The button is released, and he slumps, incapacitated. The zip-ties are quickly applied, prongs removed, and the stunner reset.

A few more minutes pass before it seems all that may be left is the sniper team and those behind the locked door. A door which presumably leads to the command center of the warehouse. Cameras have been disabled along the way, just like the tied up guards.

“Who is it!” a voice from within demands to the gentle rapping on the door.

Yes, someone is indeed inside, and moments later, a loud crack of noise indicates the locking mechanism being breached, the controlled force of which thrusts the door open. Gunfire responds almost immediately, and a small object is slid inside the room, exploding with a loud flash of blinding light. The intruder then rolls on the ground from the perpendicular hallway some three meters distant, firing the suppressed P90, wounding the two men in the legs.

They cry out, falling, still randomly firing their SMG’s, but the attacker has rolled back out of view, simply waiting until they have quickly expended their magazines.

“He’s here!” a pained voice speaks, “Control room … gaaah,” more outbursts of pain, coupled with the cluttering noise of rushed panic as at least one of the men tries to reload.

The steady sound of jika-tabi announces the arrival of the intruder, and the one trying to reload sucks in a breath through parted lips and gritted teeth, reeling back as much as he is able until he is struck with the butt of the gun, lapsing into unconsciousness. The SMG is quickly aimed at the other, who greets this with hands raised.

“I surrender! I surrender!”

“Turn around; hands behind your back,” emerges a powerful command from behind the mask, the words clear, strong, and confident, delivered from deep within the chest.

The man nods, feebly, but he displays some confusion. His hands are jerked down sharply, and he grunts in pain as his wrists are tied. A cell phone is retrieved from one of many pockets on the infiltrator’s black, non-reflective suit, buttons pressed, then it is set down on the counter near the man.

“The police are on their way,” comes the whispered announcement, the man cringing, for the assailant has leaned near, no doubt to also transmit this to the sniper team.

The intruder stays crouched somewhat low, looking out over the impressive windows to the north and east side of the command room. One can view a good portion of the large warehouse from here, but not all of it. Of course, the cameras were meant to make up for that.

Is the sniper team waiting, approaching, or did they flee? Exfiltration must occur before the arrival of law enforcement. They would not treat the intruder kindly, for vigilantism is against the law.

Once outside, it seems the sniper team did make their escape. They were not so stupid after all. The finely tuned engine of the motorcycle fires up, and the rider is off. Mission accomplished.

*****

He has deliberately arrived early for the appointment, but he does not announce himself. It may be seen nearly as rude to show up premature as to cause undue delay beyond an expected time, and besides, he wishes to take advantage of this for some reconnaissance. He drew some notice from the young man behind the counter when he entered, a bit of a study of him within a sidelong look cast briefly from whatever reading material took his attention. He takes it that this young man feels somewhat comfortable with his knowledge of people here at this small, acclaimed private school, and the visitor certainly shows age beyond that of a standard student and is not a member of the faculty.

If the attendant feels so inclined to question him or raise any alarm, that moment passes as he confidently walks further into the building. He has learned that appearance and attitude may shirk suspicion, and his finely tailored suit and smooth stride seem to have allayed any doubt that may be kindling in the young man.

He wanders about, eventually moving up the stairs to the second floor. There are four to this building, and what he hopes to see resides on the lower one, below ground. He bides his time, examining the books, glancing over spines for hints of tales to be told. There is a decent-sized bank of computers on the uppermost story available for the use of students. He has heard that the machines are quite top notch, though he suspects most of the members of the learning body here have arrived with their own expensive, sleek laptops. It is not easy to get into this school, and though they do offer scholarships and grants, most of those attending come from money.

He loses his thoughts again to wondering why his own son is not a student here, but he shan’t give himself over to too much regret. There are many avenues to excellence, and sometimes a formal education of this caliber may have no place in that journey.

He glances at the dark gray face of his Vacheron Constantin Patrimony Contemporaine watch, noting that the time shows near enough that he may make his presence known without seeming untoward. He returns to the young man at the front, doing just that, heading over to wait in one of the comfortable leather chairs here in the foyer as the attendant uses the phone.

He has picked up a pamphlet in his short explorations, something about the collections of books and art held by the university, and he is perusing its slim contents when he hears the approach of heels.

“Mr. Felcraft?”

He looks up, smiling warmly, and he is greeted with a vision. He had, of course, seen her staff photograph before coming here, and though it had proved rather complimentary, it was still a work picture. She is not wearing the glasses from the image, and her hair is out, natural and long, that vibrant red catching his eye. He notes that her clothes are rather smart and well fitted, even if nowhere in the league of cost of his own. Still, price tags only determine one form of worth, and they may not always be very precise at that. He rises smoothly, extending his hand to meet her own. A firm shake is given, though warm in the greeting, much less guarded. “Ms. Perhonen, is it?” he replies, pronouncing the name with a short, slipped roll of the ‘r’.

She gives a slight, surprised, but pleased smile at hearing the enunciation. “I hope you’ve not been waiting too long,” she speaks, her accent rather unexpected and refined. “Marcel mentioned you’d been here a while.”

“Marcel?” he asks, brow furrowing, face moving a touch to the right in the inquisitive expression.

“Oh, the volunteer there at the front desk,” she informs, turning and indicating with a relaxed gesture of her hand, and she finally smiles, emitting a short, nearly silent chuckle as though a bit embarrassed to have imparted the information this way.

He finds it utterly charming.

“Ahhh, did he now?” he plays along, smiling further, then gives a glance over, dipping his head once when he notices Marcel watching them. “I arrived early for our engagement, so I killed some time. Your library is quite remarkable.”

She smiles further, “Thank you, but it’s not mine.”

Ah, is she teasing, making a joke?

“Of course not,” he adds, “But it may seem as much the property of those who care for it as those who pay for it … if not more so. Spending money may be easier than taking the time to embrace real responsibility over something.”

He notes the shadow of a smirk on her lips, though the expression does not fully resolve.

“Well, then, follow me, if you please,” she invites, and with a smoothly murmured, ‘thank you’, he does just that.

“I know of you, Mr. Felcraft,” she speaks into the short silence as they make their way to the separate staircase that leads to the lower level.

“You do?”

She nods, “Your family’s collection is well known amongst those like me.”

“And what might that be?” he pitches the question with a touch of playfulness.

She pauses at a locked set of double doors, peering back at him, one hand poised near the keypad, a card held in the embrace of slender digits tipped with a daring red polish.

“Librarians,” she answers flatly, then slides her card, punching in a code with the quick ease of familiarity, causing the lock to disengage, and they enter.

He follows her ingress, though his attention is temporarily taken with the environ, glancing about at the bookcases, most of which are fronted with locked, glass doors. A few books lie open on pedestals, which he suspects is not normal and may perhaps have even been done on his account. This room may act as a museum but it is more often controlled, secure storage.

She moves in further, not bothering to give him any sort of introductory spiel about the collection. He is here for a specific reason, and she knows it. He moves in her wake, eyes still casting about, until they reach a rear area. An imposing wood and glass cabinet holds a half dozen books in two rows, each displayed forward, each behind their own glass window. She retrieves an electronic key from a small collection on her person and places the tip against the unobtrusive receptacle at one portal. A light shifts position, a small click is heard, and she opens the window, retrieving the book.

She presents it to him in both hands, and he bends forward a touch from the waist, peering at it. He moves his eyes from the cover to hers, noting the piercing gaze, and he brings his hands forward, fingers extended in a relaxed fashion.

“May I?”

“Yes,” she says, a curl just touching the edge of her lips, “I am sure you noticed the tables and chairs in here. Feel free to use them as you wish to examine the book, but it mustn’t leave this room.”

“Of course,” he moves his head forward once in acquiescence, “I presume you’ll be remaining in here to chaperone me.”

She gives a polite smile, nodding her head. He then takes the tome, but he does not move. He allows himself to experience its heft. It is a decent sized one, roughly six by ten inches, most closely to octavo, adhering to the golden mean ratio, somewhat thick, baring of approximately six hundred pages. He looks at the spine, delicately running his fingers down it, feeling the five ridges. It is bound in dark, Moroccan leather, the gilding silver. He opens it, flipping to the back, examining the colophon, noting the information presented as well as the small sigil. The names and dates match the first book. Everything seems in order. He tries to remain calm, as though he were examining a common rare book of immense value and not one that may hold secrets capable of protecting or destroying this planet’s very way of life.

He glances up at her after losing himself to this scrutiny. She is merely watching him, standing quite patiently.

“What do you think?” she asks.

“Exquisite,” he replies, then gives her a brief moment of his smile before heading over to the large, circular wooden table near the entrance.

He takes a seat in one of the chairs, the fine upholstery offering comfort as well as aesthetic. He sets the book down with some delicacy, though the fortitude is evident in the robust and pristine appearance at its age. He flips it open to a random page, looking over the words, not really reading, just drifting, moving to another leaf, then another, noting the impressive woodcut images, the sophistication and artistry quite breathtaking.

“I’m surprised you did not bring anything on which to take notes. I could fetch a pad and pen, if you like,” she offers.

“Oh,” he looks up, smiling, “No, thank you. Frankly, I was not sure if this was the book I am seeking. I had planned to just make a cursory examination.”

“Ah,” she nods, her hands held before herself, at her lower belly, her right hand lightly grasping the index finger of her left, “I can assure you of its authenticity.”

He notices she wears no rings of any kind. “I do not doubt you at all, Ms. Perhonen,” he says. “I am seeking a particular book, very rare, and I was not sure this would be the one, but it seems to be.”

She tilts her head a bit, pale brow knitting, and she moves a half-step closer. “That is … curious. I cannot say I’ve ever known of that sort of motivation for visiting our collection.”

He glances back at her, offering a short smile, one that could be placating or even awkward, but its intent is not entirely clear. His attention returns to the book, and he holds his hands over the open pages.

“Mr. Felcraft? Are you alright?” she asks, moving closer, concern taking her features.

“Oh, yes,” another smile emerges, this one more controlled, “It is just rather monumental for me to have found it.”

Some more time passes as he looks at the book, and she spends that time observing him.

“I am sure, in your line of work, you may appreciate rare, important things, and as you have chosen the Library Sciences, I presume you are aware of the power of knowledge. We have so many ways now to share information, but older times were not so fortunate,” he slowly flips through a few more pages as he speaks in this musing tone, hands occasionally moving the paper in a delicate stroke, as though he were imbibing the information through his fingertips.

She watches silently, noting the slender length of his digits, the obvious manicure, the nails longer than may be conventionally expected on a man.

“One may posit that due to the cost and limitations on books, especially prior to the sixteenth century, the knowledge placed in them was carefully chosen. This could be political, religious, academic, and that may say something in and of itself. Books may well be the purveyors of secrets.” He closes the tome, looking up at her, “How much do you know of this one, Ms. Perhonen?”

She blinks, perhaps having been lost in her observation and his speech. Her eyes widen a bit, eyebrows rising, the blue catching light like shards of ice. “I was not very much involved in its identification and authentication. I am just a curator.”

He turns to fully face her, catching her eyes, “Is that so?”

“Yes,” she nods.

“You are the Lead Curator and Archivist for a rather special collection, well on your way to becoming Director of the entire library, and at your age,” he continues, still wearing that pleasant smile on his lips, “You are obviously accomplished, and I suspect you care for the books here, even as such may be a reflection of your professional performance. We learn in many ways, do we not, Ms. Perhonen?”

She blinks, eyes still on him, but she does not move further or nearer to where he sits. “You seem to have done some checking up on me before coming here,” she finally speaks, “Is there a particular reason for this?”

“I care about books,” he replies, pushing back a tad from the table, turning his chair toward her as he does, folding his hands in his lap, “And not just about books, but many things which may be considered art or treasure, and I do not just mean in the literal sense, for what is ‘treasure’ but that upon which we ascribe some subjective value? I suspect you know this, and that you have done some checking up of your own.’ “This book,” he slowly reaches out his right hand, placing it atop the cover of said treatise, “is one of particular importance to me, and if it were possible, I would acquire it for my private collection. In the stead of that, I’d feel more comfortable if I knew it were secure and well cared for.”

“With all due respect, Mr. Felcraft, and I do appreciate your status as a collector, but I work for the university, and though we obviously afford some opportunities to those outside the school, my primary duty is to the institution, not to you.”

“I’d have thought your primary duty might be to the books,” he retorts, the gentle smile on his lips blunting any potential edge to the words.

And there it is again, that shadow of a smirk trying to have its way with her lips.

“What good is a book without someone to read it?” she pitches.

He grins more openly, a quiet chuckle passing through his throat. He then raises the index finger of his right hand. “Exactly,” he agrees.

“So,” she looks more serious after sharing a brief smile, eyes moving to the valuable folio, “What is so special about this book, then?”

“Ah, yes, well,” he replies, eyebrows perking for a moment as his own gaze travels to the item in question, “It … hmmm …”

And her eyes glide back to his in that moment of hesitation, and she shifts more toward him in a barely discernable manner.

“This book is under some of our tightest security, and it receives the utmost care. Such is warranted for one of this value. It would be welcome to know more of it. I would welcome it,” she says.

And he looks up to see a pleasant smile on her lips. He may have more experience, but neither of them are without some skill at diplomacy. “Perhaps it would be better if I completed some study of it first,” he offers, turning it into the suggestion of a question at the end, “I should be certain.”

She looks at him, obviously evaluating his words, but she dips her head once, “Of course. How much time would you like? I can get you materials you may need, even refreshments?”

“Thank you, you are very kind and accommodating. Is there a way to set up an extended loan of the book?”

Her brow furrows, “I am afraid the book is not allowed to leave this room except for under the most special of circumstances, and that would not include examination and study by a private collector, no matter how reputable or prestigious that person may be.”

He smiles at this offering, nodding slowly, “I completely understand,” and he slides his chair back, rising, “I was not sure if this would be the book, so I fear I did not allot enough time on my schedule. I am still not one hundred percent certain, but this initial check gives me reason to warrant further examination, if you do not mind, of course?”

She smiles politely in return, “Of course not. You will not mind if I am here during that time, will you?”

“I’d prefer no other chaperone,” he is quick to say, and they both share a similar twist to their grins and short, quiet chuckle at his words.

“I am not the security, Mr. Felcraft, but perhaps I may aid you in your study, if you need it.”

Something in the way she says this gives him a brief pause, and he moves his head ever-so-slightly to the left, peering. The moment passes quickly enough to not intrude on the conversation. He extends his hand, which she takes.

“Thank you, Ms. Perhonen, I do appreciate it. If it is not too much trouble, I’d like to return tomorrow, and I’d also like to bring some of my materials.”

“Of course, though I’ll need to look over them before they are used.”

“I do understand. Thank you again. I can see that this collection is in very capable hands. Good day to you.”

“Good day to you, Mr. Felcraft.”

This handshake does not last through all of their talking, but it did hold a bit longer than the introductory one.

He turns to leave, walking out calmly, his mind not only preoccupied with the book. He knows it is the second of the Three, but further study is warranted. Still, he’d prefer to have it in his collection. He does not expect that to happen easily, and the more difficult it would prove, the more others may take notice. He thinks more on the curator, Lilja Perhonen, mulling over many options involving her.

*****

“Mind if I join you?”

She looks up from the book held in her lap, taking some time here in the school’s Commons for a snack and some coffee before heading back to work. Her initial default mode of polite, yet firm refusal dissolves instantly when she sees who it is.

“Oh, Billy,” she offers a little smile, “Sure,” she nods toward the open chairs at the table, and the campus security guard sits at the one across from her, setting down his tray which holds a full meal.

“Hi, Miss Perhonen,” he grins somewhat bashfully, trying to get comfortable in the metal chair, “How are you doing?”

“I’m fine, thanks, and you can call me Lilja,” she offers, her smile becoming warmer.

She’d have preferred to not be interrupted, but at least this is someone she sort of knows. She ought to make efforts to be more sociable, at least according to the indelicate reminders from her mother.

“Uh, right,” he shifts his eyes to her then back to his food, “Lilja … right,” then shoves a forkful into his mouth, chewing and talking, “So, you’re okay since the attack?”

“Yes,” she grins, showing her nice teeth, “I think he fared worse than I did.”

He laughs more openly, following with a slurp of his tea, as he resolves into a short cough, swallowing, “You got that right. Poor guy is expelled and facing criminal charges … what am I saying ‘poor guy’?” he glances at her, his expression changed to one of concern, “Sorry about that. He deserves what he gets. No telling what he planned to do to you.”

She gives another conciliatory grin, lips pressed together, “It’s okay, Billy. I’m glad he is in custody, and that he didn’t choose a less prepared target.”

“Yeah, how was he supposed to know you are a ninja in training?” he beams a grin at her, chewing more of his food.

She gives a good-natured roll of her eyes, “I study karate and jujutsu. I am not a ninja.”

“Heheh,” he offers an awkward chuckle, “I know, just teasing. Don’t knock me out!”

She shakes her head a bit, having more of her strong coffee.

“So, what’re you reading?” he asks, motioning his head up to indicate the material in her lap, slipping another fork-load into his mouth.

“Oh, something riveting,” and she holds up the magazine, which appears to be a publication on book collecting.

He narrows his eyes, leaning forward to peer at it, then he smirks, shrugging, “Not my sort of thing.” Then he has more of his food, chewing exuberantly, setting back in the chair as he drinks of his tea, eyes on Lilja even as she goes back to the article which before held her attention.

“It’s yours, though, yeah,” he says, and she glances over at him, looking over the thin metal frames of her somewhat narrow glasses. “Why doesn’t a pretty lady like you date?” he bluntly asks, wiping his mouth with his napkin.

She is somewhat aghast at the question, but she says nothing. He even asked her out once some time ago, and he seems to have taken her negative reply in good enough stride.

“I’m married to my work,” she offers a shrug, deciding to not take offense and just answer the question as plainly as she will.

“Yeah, I figured,” he nods, making this statement with no judgment, going back to his quite rapidly disappearing meal, “You do a good job, though, I know that, and you still have time to learn how to drop a ninety-five kilo guy like he’s nothing.”

“I can’t say as I’ve had the best luck with relationships, anyway,” she says, and she immediately wonders why she has offered this.

“Oh, yeah? Well, if some guy hurt you in the past, then he was an idiot. A lady like you deserves to be treated right.”

She gives a genuine smile, “Thanks, Billy.”

“You’re welcome.” He smiles back, scraping up the remnants of his food, following it with the rest of his tea. “I’ve gotta run. We don’t get long for our breaks. I’ll see you around.”

He gets up, holding his tray, offering a departing smile and little wave. She waves back, watching as he leaves, getting lost in her own thoughts.

It has been a few years since she’s been involved, having tried one date with one person after the unpleasant ending of the only serious relationship in which she has ever been. Now it just seems that the idea of a romantic relationship never enters her mind. She certainly garners her share of attention, but it just doesn’t seem an option. She doesn’t want to be hurt, and she doesn’t want others to get hurt.

She glances back at the open magazine, the one she pulled from storage at the library. It is over two years old, and it will need to be digitized and disposed of soon. She wanted it for the article on noted collectors, having a little read-up on Mr. Skothiam Felcraft.

©2016 Scott Carruba

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