Fiction Issue: The Book Collector 


By Betsy Randolph

Blacked-out windows stared at me while I hiked through the dead jungle, fists clenched. Dried grass slapped at my knees. Snaking its way into my shoes, the red Oklahoma dust caked between my bare toes. I cursed aloud for having to be there. When I reached the porch, I brushed grass from my slacks. A peculiar smell permeated the air. Chemical. Inside the house, music blared. My tapping at the door produced no reply. Only a striped cat noticed my arrival. He glanced at me and then returned to sunning. He stared at the dog that cowered under the elm he was chained to. My knuckles rapped on the door again, harder this time. I beat on the door until my hand hurt and the music stopped. When the door swung open, a man of about 45 frowned at me. White foam caked the corners of his mouth. His clothes looked as if he had slept in them for years. And the smell was like something died and percolated in the heat.

I held my breath.

“Mister Thorn?”

His near toothless reply was somewhat expected.

“We don’t need nothing you’re selling.”

He started to slam the door shut, but I planted my shoe on the worn carpet. His protest included a knife. He held the blade toward me.

“Get out!”

His response came up short with a snub-nose .38 caliber Smith & Wesson in his face.

“Get back, and drop the knife.”

He took a couple of steps backward and dropped the Kershaw but opened his mouth. The pistol frame crashed into his greasy face. Whatever he was going to say was forgotten with the sight of bright, red blood. His blood.

“You broke my nose!”

The barrel of my revolver tapped his Adam’s apple, producing a garbled cough. He gagged, the cough caught in his throat. I pushed him farther inside the house and kicked the door closed behind me. I pointed at his ugly couch.


He obeyed. He held his nose while blood spilled between his fingers. I glanced around the room.

“Where are the books you checked out from the library?”

When he didn’t answer, I pulled the hammer back on the revolver.

“Are you for real?”

The whites of his eyes appeared yellow. Empty Corona bottles lined the shelf above the couch. His idea of decorations, I assumed. One exploded when I squeezed the trigger. Shards of clear glass drifted beautifully overhead. Sparkling like diamonds, his decor settled on the shag carpet. I looked back at him and smiled.

“Where are my books?”

He glanced toward the kitchen.

“Okay, okay. I’ll tell you.”

But he didn’t continue.

“Let’s not drag this out, shall we?”

My finger rested on the trigger. He nodded his head, his eyes bouncing from side to side.

“Which books you looking for?”

“You know which ones.” I stepped closer. “Don’t make me ask again.”

I aimed between his shit-brown eyes. They widened.

“Oh! You mean the chemistry books?”

“I knew you knew.”

“The kitchen. They’re in the kitchen.”

His pockmarked arm pointed across the room. With the gun, I motioned for him to get up.

“Lead the way.”

He slowly got to his feet, shuffling stocking-covered feet toward the kitchen, his sweatpants threatening to fall off his skeleton frame. A ’70s model swinging door separated us from the kitchen. He pushed the door open and rushed inside, slamming the door back toward me. The barrel of my gun pushed the door open. He stood at the sink. He grabbed a butcher knife and slung it my direction. A lead slug crossed mid-air with his knife. My round hit him just above his left eye, and he crumpled to the floor. His blade hit and glanced off my right shoulder. I stalked to the counter and grabbed fists full of paper towels.

“Figures you’d buy the cheapest brand.”

Needing something more substantial, I located two potholders, a semi-clean-looking dishrag and a plastic apron string, and my bleeding was staunched.

The books were open on the countertop. He was cooking. Looked like methamphetamine. I grabbed the three books and shoved them into a plastic baggy I pulled from my purse. As I made my way back through the maze of dirty clothes and trash, I listened for anyone else who might be in the house. Then I cracked the front door open and slipped out.

Traffic was insane. At a traffic light, the woman in front of me sat, her head lolled forward. Green, yellow, red, green. Should I blare my horn? I didn’t want to draw undue attention to myself. The lights cycled again, and still we sat. She was either asleep or looking at her phone. One of us needed a clean shirt. I jammed on my horn. Her head came up like I’d shot her, and her ancient truck lurched forward. On Classen, I took a left and then turned right on 30th. Another right and an immediate left and I parked under the carport of the house my mother willed to me. The red sandstone cottage needed updating. Smudged white sage lingered in the air when I pushed the front door open. I twisted the deadbolt and turned on a few lamps. Only then did I pull the books out of the bag for inspection. They would need to be cleaned and repaired. The card in the front pocket was missing in one of the books. I opened each book one by one, sticking my nose close to the gutter where the spine held each page. The faintest remnant of old library smell remained.

In a crystal goblet, I poured dry, red wine. Spinning the stemware, I noted the color clarity and sniffed before sipping. The Merlot greeted me with a tobacco, smoky flavor and departed my palate with a black cherry finale. It was only Wednesday, but I felt like celebrating. Three overdue lovies were back in my possession. The idiocy of my crimes might one day haunt me. But not today. Today, overdue books were successfully collected—with penalties. Others might criticize, saying my best intentions just went astray. But I would decline to comment, knowing only fools defend their actions. Two more days of “collecting” and then I would take a vacation. Five glorious days of reading, reading, and reading some more—a perfect getaway for a librarian.

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