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Special Collections

The job ad said NOTHING about canoes. Librarian needed, experience with cataloguing and customer service. I’d never heard of the research institute whose library I was taking over, but they offered a good salary and it wasn’t in Texas.

The problem was, most of the collection wasn’t books. I was curating an enormous collection of, well. Bottles. Packets. Mysterious containers of all sorts. They were all labeled, yes, but in faded, spidery, near-illegible handwriting. The founder of the institute, Ernest Albertine, well. He was eccentric, I suppose, because he was also ridiculously wealthy. Otherwise? Well.

  • Powdered unicorn horn: opaque cobalt jar, shelf 43, cupboard 8. (Rattles when shaken.)
  • Fragments of the True Cross: linen packet, shelf 1, cupboard 17. (Extensive provenance.)
  • Fragments of the fake cross: assorted linen packets, shelves 2 thru 8, cupboard 17. (Each packet with extensive provenance, and catalogued individually.)
  • Cephalosaur baculum: wooden box, shelf 12, cabinet 8.
  • Scent of extinct roses: set of six vials tied together with red silk ribbon, cabinet 11. (I did not open one, much as I wanted to.)

And so on, and on, and. I had all the equipment I needed: computer, camera, state-of-the-aat digital collections management software. Even a couple of student interns who came in several afternoons a week to photograph the packages and the labels. I was including both in the item metadata. Eventually the digital catalog would be made available to researchers, and then I’d need more of my reference desk skills than my cataloging chops.

I jammed a hat onto my head to keep the mosquitoes off of my buzzed hair, and crawled unsteadily into the front of the canoe, holding onto the sides. Dr. Eric Albertine, Ernest’s great-grandson and my boss, had the grace not to laugh as he pushed the boat away from the shore and climbed in the back. Stern. Whatever. Being that rich meant you had good manners and a perfect haircut, apparently. I wondered if his barber would cut my hair. Some barbers didn’t cut women’s hair, but I’d rather go to a barber than a stylist, unless I wanted color.

The canoe rocked a bit, snapping me out of my hair musings. I reflexively grabbed the sides, then relaxed when I realized it was just Dr. Albertine paddling. “Sorry, sir, I’ve never been in a canoe before.”

“Well, I’ll make sure you have some time to practice, then. You’ll be traveling back and forth to the island on your own in no time.”

I peered ahead of us, where a proper Victorian folly rose: a small island, with an attractively fake Classical ruin. “I still don’t understand why the collections are split into two parts. Why not store everything at the main institute building?”

Eric was silent for a minute or two. “We’ve always kept Special Collections on the island. It’s much safer this way. Despite the folly, there’s a quite solid building there, and the things in the collection can’t cross water.”

They’re paying me a lot. They’re paying me a lot. They’re paying me a lot. The institute could be as weird as it wanted, as long as it was solvent. I didn’t ask any more questions until we had walked up the path to the modern-looking concrete bunker roofed in solar panels. My institute badge unlocked the door, and the lights came on automatically as I followed Dr. Albertine inside.

The reception desk was empty, and we let ourselves in through a serious-looking security door. Instead of the mismatched wooden cabinets and odd steamer trunks of the main institute collection, this storage area had neat rows of drawers of different sizes, a few shelves of ancient-looking books behind glass, and actual typed labels on everything.

“This material will be much easier to catalog,” Dr. Albertine said as we walked up and down the rows, “but I wanted to start you on the oldest material right away, so I could find a replacement quickly if you were not suited to the job. But I am very pleased with your progress, and how quickly you’ve adjusted to working at the Institute.” When he said it, “institute” was always capitalized.

“Thank you, sir. I’m enjoying the challenge. This is nothing like the collections I’ve worked with previously.”

“No, nothing like this exists anywhere.” We stopped in front of a even more serious door, reinforced with a grid of iron bars. “You’ll need to take notes on paper and bring them back to your office. Despite the lights, computer equipment doesn’t work reliably on the island. We’re too close to the Doorway.” Like “institute,” “doorway” was clearly capitalized.

“You’re the boss,” I replied, distracted by something moving off to the side. “Oh, sorry, Dr. Albertine. I didn’t mean…”

“Of course you did – as long as I pay you, you’ll humor me.” I probably looked as sheepish as I felt, but he was right. Eric Albertine could be as eccentric as Ernest Albertine, and as long as I was getting paid and enjoying the work, I’d stay. Something was definitely moving in that corner, but every time I turned to look at it, there was nothing there.

Dr. Albertine glanced back. “Ignore it. As long as there’s no tentacles, it’s probably fine. But don’t take anything out of this room without permission. He turned to the iron door. “Your badge won’t let you into this door. Once you’re properly trained, you’ll be given access. Your duties will eventually include staffing the reference desk here at least two days a month.”

I looked around, wondering just who might need librarian assistance on an uninhabited island. Dr. Albertine pulled a sword from the umbrella stand by the door. I took a step back. Maybe this wasn’t such an interesting job after all.

He looked back at me, then down at the blade. “This is just precautionary. It’s a bad idea to go in unarmed, and a steel blade is the best choice.” He looked at me again, eyebrow raised. “I don’t suppose you’ve ever studied fencing?”

He pulled the door open, and I followed him through. It looked like a moderately nice hotel foyer, with comfortable chairs and small tables arranged around area rugs, even a reception desk. Where the hall into the hotel proper would be, though, was… nothing, a featureless black surface. Not a wall, not a window, not a door, just emptiness. I stopped short, staring. I’d never seen anything like that. Dr. Albertine watched me carefully, probably to see if I’d freak out or something. No, but I was intrigued. I walked closer, trying to figure out how the illusion was done. That light-absorbing paint, maybe.

Dr. Albertine kept a bit ahead of me as I walked, and a step to my right. An irridescent flash, and he shoved me back as a tentacle lashed out of the blackness. He slipped while dodging it himself, and it swung over his head, then came back the other way. I grabbed a vase off of the nearest table, silk flowers scattering, and hurled it at the base of the tentacle-thing. The vase bounced off the tentacle, then shattered on the floor, sending glass shards flying. The tentacle lurched and withdrew, scattering drops of greenish blood from where the shards had hit it. Or would that be ichor?

Dr. Albertine lifted himself off the floor. “Nicely done,” he said. “You’ll have to apologize later, but he really shouldn’t have been snooping around. I’m sure he will see that, certainly by the time you’re able to come back on your own. And it could have been something dangerous. That’s why we carry swords, after all. I’m pleased to see that you react well under pressure, even though this should have been a simple orientation.”

I mulled over what I’d seen as we walked to the canoe. How much of the collection was real? All of it, maybe. “So,” Dr. Albertine began. “Canoe practice, and fencing lessons. You’re an excellent librarian, but working the reference desk in fairyland requires some additional skills.” He looked down at me. “Unless you’re planning to quit now?”

“No, this is even more interesting a challenge than I expected. I’d like to continue.”

He smiled. “You’d better call me Eric.”


The game:

I solicit prompts on Twitter, then write a flash piece using all of them, as quickly as possible, and post it online immediately. Usually these are very short flash pieces; this time I got a bit carried away.

Prompts:

@schlowlibrary – a non-stereotypical librarian.
@evilrooster – the scent of extinct roses.
@MarissaLingen – a canoe.
@scribofelidae and @outseide – you know what you did.