Author : Z. J. Woods

There seemed nothing wrong with the guy when he backed through the door. A little nervous, maybe. A little too long since he’d shaven. But otherwise? And for whom were such descriptions untrue?

Sloan produced glasses from a breast pocket and fingered them up the bridge of his nose. He put a fist over his mouth, cleared his throat. He said, “What can I do for you?”

The guy swung a denim sack up onto the counter. He untied it, reached in, produced books. Four books. Four hardcovers bound in honest-to-god cardboard and paper. Sloan pressed his glasses against his face, hard, for a moment. He watched as the guy arranged the books beside one another. Carefully.

The guy said, “I wanna — I need to, to sell these.”

“Well.” Sloan took up the rightmost, navy blue, thin, maybe two hundred pages, maybe less. He opened to the title page. It’d been torn out — not an unexpected defect. “Well,” Sloan said, “this is a lot of books,” and in fact he hoped he could endure the expense. “I could give you more if there were dust jackets. But, still –”

He brought the blue book close. On the front cover, near the spine — a dark rectangle, maybe damp. He pressed a thumb into it, pulled away and met resistance. Pressed thumb and forefinger together once, twice.

He set the book down.

He said, “You stole these from a library.”

“No — no,” the guy said. “They were — in a library — before. Before before.”

“That’s relatively new glue,” Sloan said, pointing. “There was a barcode there.” He eyed the rightmost corner of the counter, the telephone. “I can’t take these.”

The guy did not look up. Had not made eye contact since entering. He set about stowing his books. “Then — I guess — I’ll take these somewhere else.”

“No,” Sloan said. He reached for the phone.

The guy contemplated for a moment. For a moment Sloan was still, three fingers on the plastic handset, wondering if he’d misjudged, if the guy had a weapon after all. He began to withdraw.

The guy turned and ran.

He was halfway to the door when the shotgun pump stopped him.

Every time Sloan looked down that foreshortened barrel he became convinced that it had rusted more since the previous time. But what did it matter? The nice thing about a shotgun was that it could do enough from five paces mostly regardless of its general state of repair.

The guy turned, slowly. He held the denim sack to his chest. Now he made eye contact with Sloan, or with the cycloptic weapon; it didn’t seem to matter. He said, “Fucking — readers. Goddamn fucking readers.”

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