I am a ghost, Scudder reminded himself, as he slipped the lone copy of Seven Pillars of Wisdom into the pocket of his jacket.
He was convinced not a person in the library saw what he did, not even the imperious crone at the circulation desk. He could swipe any book he wanted this afternoon, but he only had enough room in his jacket for one volume, which is why he took the Lawrence book. Usually, when he paid a visit to a library, he wore his bulky Army surplus overcoat which had plenty of pockets so he was able to take three or four books at a time. Today, because it was so warm out, he only had on a lightweight windbreaker.
Later that evening, after dinner, he sat at his desk, lit a Camel cigarette, and carefully examined the Lawrence memoir. Stamped across the top pages of the book was "Chapman County Library" and on the spine was a sticker that also identified it as belonging to the library. He had sold many books with a stamp on the pages and that wasn't a problem because, early in the fall, the central library set aside one weekend to sell books from their collection. The sticker had to be removed, though, so after taking a drag on his cigarette, he took a small penknife from the bottom drawer of his desk and switched on the gooseneck study lamp. Trying not to make any unnecessary incisions, he slipped the knife under a corner of the sticker and gently tried to lift it off, but it wouldn't budge. So he lit his cigarette lighter and held the blade above the flickering flame for a good minute then again tried to slip the blade under the sticker and this time it came off with hardly any pressure.
After taking another drag on his cigarette, he leaned back and looked at his hands, impressed, as ever, by their strength and agility which he knew was because of all the handball he played throughout the week.
* * *
Half a mile from his apartment building was a vacant warehouse that had been for sale for as long as Scudder had lived in the area, which was close to three years. Four or five times a week, sometimes more, he walked over to the lot to practice hitting a handball against the blank north wall of the tumbledown warehouse. There were only a couple of guys he played with anymore. Most of the time all he did at the wall was practice hitting various shots with both his hands. These days people preferred to use racquets rather than their hands to strike a hard rubber ball because it was much less painful, but his hands were so accustomed to the pain that he scarcely noticed it when he struck a ball.
Crouching a little, he bounced the ball three times then served it near a corner of the filthy wall. Immediately he then charged after it, and just before it bounced a second time, he returned it against the bottom of the wall. He competed against himself for almost twenty minutes, hitting different areas of the wall, until he paused for a drink of water. Sweat streamed down his face and neck, and his tennis shirt was so soaked it stuck to his skin.
"You look like you just crossed a desert," an older woman in a striped headdress remarked as she approached him. He had seen her out walking before in the industrial park, usually gripping the leash of an Irish setter, but today her hands were in her pockets.
He grinned. "I feel like it, all right."
"You keep up that pace you well might have a heart attack."
He disagreed. "If I don't, it's more likely I'll have one."
"You're probably right. You're too young to have heart trouble."
Nodding, he picked up the rubber ball and resumed striking it against the wall with his bare hands.
* * *
Surprisingly, within a few days after he advertised Seven Pillars of Wisdom on the internet, he received six bids and sold it for $65. He wished the branch where he got it had some more copies he could take. It didn't, though, so he would have to look for some at another branch. He knew he couldn't look for any at the central branch downtown because a month ago an electronic screen was installed at the front entrance that buzzed furiously whenever someone tried to leave without checking out their materials.
He knew what he was doing was wrong, but after getting laid off by the library four months ago because of budget cuts, he didn't feel any remorse at all. He figured they owed him for letting him go and he intended to collect as much as he could until they called him back to work. For more than five years, he drove one of their delivery trucks, and still could not understand why he was let go when other drivers who were not there half as long were kept.
Politics, he figured, pure and simple.
He never received any complaints as a driver, always was punctual and polite, never was issued a single traffic ticket in all the time he drove for the library. But he didn't have much to do with the other drivers, few of whom spoke English. He was regarded as the alien, the one who didn't belong in the motor pool, and so he was expendable.
* * *
Currently books about the Founding Fathers were popular with buyers on the internet so the first place Scudder went to at a library were the biography shelves. Today he didn't have anyone in particular in mind, just wanted a book that was not too big because he only had one deep pocket in his windbreaker. He picked up a couple biographies of Benjamin Franklin but they were a little too large to fit in his pocket, as were the biographies of John Adams and Alexander Hamilton. He was about to move on to another non-fiction section when a condensed biography of Thomas Paine caught his eye. It was a paperback and some of the pages were a little ragged but he was sure it would fit easily in his pocket, and indeed it did.
"Oh, hello there," a pallid man with a sparse beard greeted him as he turned down the biography aisle.
"You certainly must read a lot."
Scudder, who didn't know the person, said, "Not that much, really."
"It seems like every time I come to this branch I see you here so I assumed you must be an avid reader."
He smiled nervously, realizing he was not as anonymous as he thought he was and knew he better find another branch to do his business.
"Like you, I'm here three or four times a week," he informed him. "I write stories and because it is quiet most of the time I come here to write them."
"I thought writing would be hard, and believe me, it is, but getting published is even harder."
"It's not that hard," a book shelver said after overhearing his remark. "Not for some folks, anyway. Be a Jew, know a Jew, and you'll get published."
The writer, taken back by the comment, rolled his eyes as Scudder stepped past him and hurried out the door, clutching the Paine biography.
* * *
"Dead center," Scudder told himself, striking the ball with his dominant hand.
It hit a fraction to the left, however, and disappointed, he retrieved the ball and tried again to hit the center of the wall but missed again.
"Come on!" he shouted in frustration.
He seldom missed where he was aiming at twice in a row so he thought he better rest for a couple of minutes before he tried again. As he picked up his bottle of water, he noticed a guy in a dark blue hooded sweatshirt appear from around a corner of the warehouse. He saw him two days ago here and thought he was watching him and wondered if he might be interested in playing a game. He didn't say anything at the time but now he decided to ask him if he wanted to have a game.
"Hey there, fella!" he called out, raising his right hand.
For a split instant, the guy looked over at him then started to run down the street. Scudder was surprised, thought he would at least come over to see what he wanted.
In another minute, as he stretched his arms above his head, he saw some smoke pouring out of two of the broken windows on the top floor of the warehouse. Soon smoke was coming out of more windows, and he realized then something was burning inside the building and immediately called 911 on his cell phone.
Two fire trucks arrived ten minutes later but, by then, the entire warehouse was engulfed in flames and he knew he would have to find somewhere else to practice.
He didn't have any direct evidence but he suspected the guy in the hooded sweatshirt set the fire and wondered if he also was motivated by revenge. What he did was much more serious than stealing some library books, but Scudder knew both acts were indefensible however much their anger might be justified in their eyes.
That evening, after a couple of beers, he boxed the nearly two dozen stolen books he intended to sell on the internet that week and got in his car and drove to the nearest library in his neighborhood. Then, after making sure no one was watching him, he set the box under the deposit chute and got back in his car and drove away toward what was left of the warehouse.