There WILL be a book of Holly stories, along with a reissue of FORCE OF HABIT, the science fiction comedy the Holly stories spun off of. Holly is lobbying for a book all her own, and I foresee some books of the FORCE OF HABIT characters with a featured role for Holly, co-equal with them. I’m afraid to give her a book all her own, because I enjoy writing the character so much I’m afraid she’d get away from me. Can’t have that. Characters, like drugs, should be controlled substances.
by Marian Allen
Head Librarian Holly Jahangiri treated herself to lunch out once a week. She both worked and lived in the Council City main branch of the Living Library of Books of Old Earth, and felt she was a better librarian by getting out onto the streets and rubbing elbows with patrons in their natural habitat.
Naturally, she never went to lunch without taking a good book. There were occasional volunteers.
One late morning, the squeaky tread of the stairs warned her of someone’s approaching her open door. A male head poked in and said, “How about lunch out today? I’ll drive.”
It was Some Buried Caesar by Rex Stout. The book’s narrator was detective Nero Wolfe’s right-hand-man, Archie Goodwin. He was impertinent and abrasive, but perceptive and amusing. He always knew good places to eat, although they weren’t always places Holly would have chosen.
“Yes, all right,” she said, hesitation morphing into interest. A lunch with Some Buried Caesar was never dull.
They took the tandem pedicar, both pedaling but Some Buried Caesar (or Archie, as he preferred to be called) steered, narrating himself over his shoulder as they went.
Holly was so engrossed in his story, she barely registered her surroundings until Archie broke off his story and announced, in an officious and somewhat tinny voice, “You have reached your destination.”
The neighborhood where they had stopped was one she, who had come to Council City from her native rural Meadow of Flowers district, had never seen but had known existed. She had meant to take a bus tour, but had settled in before she got around to it, and the natives of a city never toured it.
The buildings were each two or three stories high, the corners rounded, the doors cut to fit whatever off-true rectangular-ish shapes had been left for them. Old Town. This was the first part of Council City ever built, long before contact with other worlds. The aliens had obviously discovered Old Town, though; there were signs in just about every shop and restaurant window claiming that Allesesperanto, the universal trade language, was spoken there. Considering some of the spelling and punctuation, though, Holly suspected the statement was sometimes more hopeful than accurate.
“This way,” Archie said, taking Holly by the elbow. He guided her to a single-story building with JOCK’S EARTHY HOME COOKING REAL EARTH COOK painted over the door, the paint so faded it would probably be invisible within two years – one, if the weather was bad.
Holly’s salivary glands went into prep mode. She loved the exotic alien foods, especially those of Earth, but had never had any made by a genuine Earth chef.
Being a librarian, though, meant she was no fool. She said, “I rather doubt the food is made with genuine Earth ingredients.”
“It is, if you ask. Or if you know a guy.” He winked.
The smells issuing from the opened slats of the windows prepared her for what would greet her when Archie opened the door: air so filled with the aroma and particulates of hot grease it was almost a meal in itself.
Archie waved to the counter man. “How’s it going, Jock?”
“Arch!” The man waved back. He shouted over his shoulder at the wide opening in the wall behind him, through which a bustling kitchen could be seen, “Arch is here!”
“Got a friend today,” he said.
The man bellowed, “Two for Archie!”
They slid into a booth not far from the swinging door into the kitchen. While Some Buried Caesar resumed his self-narration, Holly inspected the initials carved into the top of the wooden table, hoping that carving the table wasn’t mandatory, as she had left her knife in her other purse.
The food, when it came, was exotic enough to please any gourmet. Chopped meat patties, between two pieces of soft, puffy bread, were garnished with what Holly knew from the library’s Earth garden, were lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, and onion. There was also a tangy red sauce and a pungent yellow sauce. It was impossible to resist lifting the top piece of bread to examine the layered construction and sample each sauce individually.
“It looks something like a prattyburger,” Holly said. “Interesting notion, putting it between pieces of bread.”
Some Buried Caesar waved his and said, “It’s a hamburger.”
“Made from ham?” She had heard of ham from one of the other books.
“Made beef. From cow.”
“Why isn’t it a beefburger? Or a cowburger?”
“That’s a question for a cookbook.” He took an enthusiastic bite of his hamburger and smiled as he chewed.
Holly had been prepared for an interesting taste experience, but her hamburger went beyond taste. Pratty meat had a perceptibly flowery taste, and this hamburger stuff didn’t. It was purely savory, rich with its own grease, salty, and very faintly sweet where its bits were brownest. What she had identified as sauces and garnish were, in fact, a part of the whole taste, as was the spongy bread, which sweetened in her mouth.
Neither she nor the book spoke while they ate, savoring each bite in appreciative silence.
When they were done, Holly wiped her hands and mouth on the quaint paper napkin provided with the meal and said, “Thank you. I’ve never had anything like it.”
“I just found this place last week,” Some Buried Caesar said. “I knew I needed to bring you here.”
That was an odd way of putting it, but the books of old Earth often spoke oddly.
She turned to catch the counterman’s eye, only to find him staring at her. Perhaps he was hoping for an endorsement quote.
“My compliments to the chef,” she said.
“I’ll call him out,” the counterman said. He stuck his hand through the opening between the counter and the kitchen, snapped his fingers, and said, “Hey, Bueller! Customer wants to see you.”
Some Buried Caesar said, “This is why I brought you here.”
“To meet the fry cook?”
He nodded. “When I lucked onto this place last week, I sat at the counter, joking with Jock. The kitchen door opened, and my past walked out. The man who taught me my text. The man who was Some Buried Caesar before me, before the living library was founded, back before memorizing alien books was a profession, when people just did it for the love.”
If living books were paper books, the man who came out of the kitchen could only be described as foxed and dog-eared. His hair was over-long and his face unshaven. His muscles had seen better days, as had his clothes.
“Hiya, Arch,” the man said.
Some Buried Caesar – the one Holly had come with – moved over to give the dog-eared man room to join them. “This is my old mentor. He’s in a fix, and I told him I’d see if you can help him.”
The old Some Buried Caesar said, “I used to be a personal chef, but everybody’s gone to buying convenience food, and I can’t get work. I was lucky to get this job. I love it, but Jock’s retiring, which means I’m out of a job again, and no money to bid high at the employment auction.”
Holly’s book said, “I wondered if we might have a place for him.”
“You know your circulation isn’t the highest in our collection,” Holly said reproachfully, unwilling to discuss library business in front of an outsider. “We really don’t need two copies. In fact, we’re pretty much full capacity. If we tried to squeeze another bed into the dormitory, we’d be in violation of the housing, health, fire, and employment codes.”
“He can cook,” Some Buried Caesar wheedled. “He could cook for us instead of our taking turns at it. I hate to bad-mouth another book, but some of us aren’t the finest cooks on Llannon. Everything Three Men In A Boat makes tastes like paraffin.”
That was certainly true. Still, it would be an expense, and most of the books cooked well enough.
Some Buried Caesar continued, “Even if we couldn’t hire him, could we give him a place to stay, just until he finds another job? He can have my bed, and I’ll sleep on the floor. I owe him.”
Holly was touched. “I’m afraid the codes wouldn’t permit the crowding.”
“I understand,” the old book said. “Thanks, Arch. You were always a good kid. I appreciate the try, I really do.”
Desperately, Some Buried Caesar said, “What about that empty building next to the library?”
“That’s for a projected expansion.”
“At least three years from now. Until then, it’s just standing there, empty!”
“The owner was selling and the price was right. But it’s still zoned domestic, so we can’t use it.”
“Pfui,” said Some Buried Caesar. Flummery. He would be living in it, so it would be domestic.”
“Yes, but ….” Holly trailed off as an idea hit.
There were several books in their collections who were no longer in the best of shape. They were tired of the work, their voices were going, their stamina was flagging. They really needed to train replacements and be phased out, but there wasn’t room for the trainees to live at the library. Why couldn’t they use the empty building as a used book facility? Patrons could check out “discarded” books for an unlimited time at greatly reduced prices, and house them while they trained replacements or even indefinitely. It would be a status symbol. Books that weren’t taken in by patrons could stay in the used book facility until their replacements were ready to move into the library proper, then could transition to the outside world, a paying job outside library work, or to a retirement home.
“It would be expensive,” she said.
“I’ll bet the Friends would finance it.”
The Friends! The Friends of the Living Library were a fan club made up of book groupies who were infected with what the news outlets called Libremania: crazy about books. They had regular meetings where they collected dues to provide the books with holidays and treats, each vying with the others for the books’ attention. Yes, this would be something they would live for, and it would siphon off some of their somewhat embarrassing enthusiasm.
“I’ll talk to the board,” she said, which made it as good as done.
They hooked thumbs all around in agreement. The old book said and repeated, “Danke schoen,” which was, he said, thank you in an old Earth language.
Back at the library, Holly put Some Buried Caesar on hold, so she could hear his ending, and scheduled calls to the board members for after business hours. This project would take a lot of work, but all she needed to do was get the ball rolling; the Friends would take it from there.
A solid day’s work, a worthwhile project, a good book, and a delicious lunch. Life was good.
MY PROMPTS TODAY: travel, reunion, exotic foods, mermayd, adventure, dog-eared