The back of the book gave a short blurb describing the action to be found within, and Duggan read it in a slow series of words, his thick lips moving along with the syllables.
When Officer Misty Kein finds herself squaring off against the mob’s number one assassin, it will be her wits and not her badge that will be needed.
He grimaced and slid the volume back onto the shelf. Heavy fingers traced the spines of the other books.
“Can I help you find anything?”
The voice was calm and soft, and Duggan pivoted on a heel to see a cassowary female looking at him. Sharp eyes looked out at him from inside the bright blue colored head, tracking from his hideously scarred face to the obscenities carved into his plastron and tattooed on his flesh. He made no effort to cover himself, as he had made none since arriving on Z262. The uniform that marked him as ArCorp Security did nothing to hide some of his worse markings. Her beak separated to a narrow gap and she tilted her head toward the shelf.
“Ummm,” he said, “The uh, the –”
He waved in a vague motion toward the shelves.
“Books?” she prompted. He nodded.
“Yeah. Book. Lissa. Um, she’s my partner. She said to come here,” he stammered.
“Is there anything specific you are looking for?”
He turned away, looking at the rows of books. “Nah,” he finally muttered. He took a step to the bird’s right. “I ain’t…”
She made a show of looking around them before leaning in toward the enormous tortoise. “You’re not a big reader, right?” she asked. He chuckled.
“At least you didn’t say it like I had done something bad.”
“Not everyone is as addicted to the written word as I am,” she said. She swept a thin arm in a gesture that encompassed the entire building. “This is mostly mine.”
“All of these?” Duggan asked, his eyes widening. He looked back and forth at the shelves around him. They stood to just a hand’s span above his head and ran easily a meter wide. The room had dozens of them, all occupied with various books, magazines, and other reading material.
“I am an avid reader.”
She paused then and slapped her own forehead with a palm. “I am so sorry. My manners these days! I’m Jori. Jori Maleen.”
“Duggan,” he replied, automatically extending a massive hand. When she took it, her fingers were dwarfed. His hand was rough and leathery, with heavy calluses and prominent knuckles that were massive humps under the gray-green skin.
“No last name?” she asked. Her head was tilted again, looking at him from a sideways angle. He smiled and released her tiny hand.
“That is my last name,” he said. “I ain’t used my first name in years, except on legal papers.”
”My father was a Marine,” she said. “I’m familiar. He would have introduced himself with his last name first.”
Several seconds passed and he became aware that she was standing still, head remaining cocked ever so slightly to one side as she stared at him. He looked into her eyes. There was no reproach visible there, no hint that she somehow felt less of him since he did not read the way she did. He held the gaze for a moment, noticing for the first time the half-moon of white beneath her left eye. Her beak split in a smile.
“Cron,” he said. “My name is Cron.”
“Lovely to meet you, Cron. Now what kind of book were you looking for?”
He lowered his gaze. “I don’t really know,” he admitted. “I’m just trying to find something to occupy my time between patrols and on my off days, you know? All I read these days are the same six comic books and a couple of old field manuals. Pretty fu… It’s pretty boring,” he said, catching himself before the obscenity slipped out.
“Well, I’m certain there is something here that would catch your fancy,” Jori said. She turned on one thin leg, working her way down an aisle with a bobbing gait. Her sharp extended claws tapped on the floor with a rhythm. After a second, Duggan followed her. He had to turn a bit sideways to fit his bulk between the shelves. The butt of his sidearm bounced off the shelves with every shuffling step.
“Six comic books?” Jori asked, reaching up to the top row. She pulled out plastic containers with various brightly colored covers visible so that he could see them. “I have a few here as well. I don’t know what kind or titles you like best.”
“The ones I have now are mostly action, but I had a subscription to ElectroFox once. That was years back.”
“If you want, you could bring them here, and then others could read them as well,” she told him, pulling down a container. She opened the box.
“War Bear,” she said, reading the label. “Issues one-twenty through one-thirty-three. Got them from Zhen Darri over at the mercantile.”
Duggan did not hesitate to slip a massive hand into a pocket of his utility trousers.
“How much?” he asked around the stump of unlit cigar that occupied the corner of his mouth.
Jori turned to regard him, her head tilting once again.
“How much what?”
“For the comics,” he said. He pulled a wallet from his pocket and fanned it open to display a sheaf of corporate scrip.
A honking sound blew past her beak and she raised her left hand in his direction.
“Have you never been in a library?” she asked. Duggan stood for a moment, looking at his wallet in confusion.
“I don’t… No. I haven’t,” he said. “I mean, I’ve been by here and stuff, but not, like, inside.”
She gently pushed at the wallet, directing it back toward Duggan’s enormous form. Her voice was higher when she spoke, and her smile was back.
“You don’t buy these. You borrow them. You come here and you take a book. When you have read it, you bring it back. We put it back on the shelf for someone else to read, and you can take a different one. That’s why I suggested you bring your own comics here. Let others have the joy of reading them.”
“So I ain’t gotta pay for these?”
“Not at all. Just keep them in good condition and bring them back when you have finished. Then we can find you something new to try. They will be around should you wish to revisit them.”
“That’s… I…I can do that,” he said, hesitating as he thought through the process. “I’ll bring you mine when I come back, if that’s okay.”
“Of course it is,” Jori told him. “I look forward to reading them myself.”
“You wanna read my old comics?”
Her eyes rolled back and she made a noise that bordered on ecstatic. A long shudder rolled down her back and her feathers ruffled.
“Oh, my, yes. Something I have not experienced before? A chance to step outside reality and be part of a story for a while? I am a voracious reader, Cron. Nothing makes me as happy.”
“Well, all right, then,” he said. “As long as you’re not gonna tackle me or start screamin’ that I stole your stuff.”
She made the honking noise again, and he realized it was laughter. Her tiny hand came up to touch his muscular upper arm and she leaned against him as she laughed.
“Trust me,” she said. “You’re fine. Let me get you a bag to carry them in.”
“Oh, now, I can take ‘em like this.”
“Not on your life. I’m going to make sure you get something nice,” Jori said, strutting to a long counter and bending down as she reached behind it. “Tackle you,” she said, bursting into laughter again at the thought.
“What made you decide to do this?” he asked. His gesture at the shelves of books was lost on her, unable as she was to see it.
“You mean the library?”
“Yeah. I mean, you’ve got a job, but if you ain’t sellin’ the books, then you ain’t gettin’ paid. How’s that gonna work?”
Her head popped up and she smiled again at him before ducking below the counter once again. “I had a few dozen crates of books in my home, so I told the recruiters that I wanted to open a library. Let the other colonists have a place of refuge, as it were. As to money? ArCorp actually subsidized the idea. They provided me with additional material and allowed me a substantial purchase amount to add even further.”
She emerged a moment later with a bright blue bag of heavy woven material. Thick rope loops made up handles for the bag. She extended it to Duggan, who took it gingerly between his fingers.
“Next time you come, you’ll have a bag to carry books in,” she said. “From now on, as often as you want.”
He slipped the issues of War Bear into the bag in as cautious a manner as he was able.
“I’ll bring you those others tomorrow,” he said in a solemn tone.
“There’s no rush,” she assured him. “Take your time. Bring them when you return the ones you have. I’ll be here. Well, as long as you come during office hours,” she added.
His lips split into a smile, which took the edge off of his fierce countenance for a moment.
“I’ll do that,” he said. He turned for the door, but Jori was a step ahead of him, her arm flashing up to a shelf and holding out a thin book. Duggan recognized it as the one about the cop and the assassin.
“You were looking at this one?” she asked.
“Uhh, yeah. How did you…”
“You left it sticking out past the others. Lucky guess on my part.”
“Oh. I wasn’t sure if it was… I didn’t…”
“Lots of violence in it,” she said, taking the pressure off of him. “I don’t know if you’re ready to handle that.”
“Jori, I’m –” he began, looking at her for the moment it took for him to realize she had been joking. He chuckled then, a deep rumbling within his chest.
“You got me,” he said.
She winked in reply and tipped the novel into his bag. “I think you should try this one,” she said. “Let me know what you think. It was very nice to meet you, Cron.”
“You too, Jori. I’ll see ya when I come back,” Duggan told her as he stepped out of her shop and into the heat of the early afternoon. His eyes rebelled against the glare of the brilliant yellow sun that hammered down onto the baked ground.
“I look forward to it. Have fun!” she called.
The door closed behind him and Duggan took off down the street, the blue bag swinging in his hand. He waved at a pair of calico-patterned cats in mining outfits, sending a happy grin their way.
When he opened the door to his home, Lissa was there. The mongoose was reclined on his couch, stuffing something crunchy into her mouth and washing it down with one of his beers.
“Where ya been?” she asked, swallowing.
“Book place,” he said. She had known him long enough to catch the excitement in his tone.
“You went? Good on ya!” Lissa said, sitting up. She necked the bottle and swallowed three times before setting it onto his coffee table.
“I did,” he said. He pulled out the comics and the novel, holding them with a gentleness that bordered on reverence. He looked at them for a moment and then up at his partner.
“Jori’s nice,” he said.
“She works there. Runs the place. Cassowary female.”
“Oh. I never got her name,” Lissa admitted.
“I did. She’s nice,” he repeated. He turned a stare on Lissa, silently daring her to make fun of him. She shook her head, knowing it was what he expected.
“Thanks for telling me where to go.”
She laughed a quick bark of a laugh. “I’m good at telling you where to go,” she said. “Tell you what though: You start reading more than manuals on machine guns, and we’ll be even.”
He held up the novel, displaying the picture of the sleek Shepherd cop pointing a handgun at a duster-clad Doberman.
“I know just where to start.”