The Last Book Collector – Michael Grant Smith

Canvas billowed anew. The rain’s hiss abated. I hoped signal strength would improve.

“Hello?” I said, louder. “Is anyone there?”

“You’re not funny,” interrupted my fare. “I didn’t pay for theater. Concentrate on landing me safely.”

“Madam, with my good eye closed I can navigate the entire Colorado Archipelago. Oftener than the tides have risen I’ve sailed thusly. Relax, let me skipper my boat.”

“Such a mariner, oh dear!” She studied the reflection in her own long-inert cellphone; plucked a rogue chin hair; spat overboard into salt water. “I suspect I’ve hired a fool to convey me to the Denver Islands.”

* * *

The sky’s weight presses the sea, prevents its escape.

I stroked the barely-visible implant scar on the nape of my neck. The snores of my angel complemented a symphony of wind and breakers.

“Wake up,” I said as I prodded her with my toe. “You commanded my silence for the duration of our passage, but we’ve reached our destination.”

She wiped slumber-sand from her eyes.

“So bold, you are,” she snarled. “To suggest one could sleep aboard this deathtrap of a cockleshell! I was deep in meditation.”

Like an anchor, my gaze dropped upon her.

“Your appraisal of this vessel may be correct, madam, yet thanks to your courage and perseverance you’ve arrived at the Denver Islands. I bid you farewell!”

“Again with the humor! Have I not demanded you cease your foolishness? We are nowhere close to shore!”

“My ‘cockleshell’ draws deep and we dare not risk the rocks. You and I, our voyage together ends here. Your contract is recorded on my device.” I held up my blank phone as evidence.

“Bah! Bring me in, pirate. I will double your fee.”

“My counter-proposal: I’ll eject you into the brine forthwith, and at no additional charge.”

“Carry me,” she said, and with a trembling hand drew her hood. “I cannot swim.”

I furled the reefed sail and set fast my oars. Across the railing slithered an anchor chain. I slipped over the side and waves caressed my ribs, welcoming me.

“Your taxi awaits,” I said, and extended my arms to her.

* * *

I eased my burden onto dry slabs of slate. She withdrew payment from her satchel. I hefted the gold coins — my luck was on the mend. Soon, I’d clear all debts and greet my future.

“Thank you and goodbye, madam.” I kept my eye mostly on the buildings and stone outcroppings far above us. She wrapped her cloak tighter against the breeze.

“Bunghole,” she said.

“I beg your pardon?”

“As well you should, and often! Bunghole, yes. The opening at the bottom of a boat.”

“No, you are mistaken. A bunghole is the means by which we fill or empty a barrel.”

“Well, you’re the expert. No matter what you call this, you may want to put it back.” She turned and began her upward trek.

In one hand I clutched my wages; in the other, a bronze drain-plug.

I splashed into the surf. My boat’s keel settled onto sand four feet below swirls of ripples and bubbles. Sunlight pierced overcast. Atop the mast a gull preened.

* * *

To raise my scuttled boat and refit it would cost all I’d earned from the trip. My first night ashore was cold — I catnapped in a ramshackle toolshed — although my rage kept me warm enough. How would I avenge myself on the Harpy who sank me?

In the chilliest hour before dawn I checked my phone for messages. As usual, there were none. I massaged my aching joints and set out on a prowl. These island-neighborhoods enforced curfews and I had to be sharp. I snuffled the bones of an abandoned commercial district until I found a prospect.

Some would encounter Sunnyside Booksellers and believe it a rind stripped of anything edible, combustible, or otherwise valuable.

Crafty me, I discovered a trap door. I wound my flashlight’s crank and spelunked the tomb-scented cellar.

Books in mounds, monoliths; volumes stacked like cordwood. Ink on paper! Bindings — every color and size! I’d outlast winter if I kept this jackpot a secret. Inside a stove, all words burn the same.

My implant chirped a warning. Above and outside, someone approached. Overburdened I fumbled ladder rungs and hauled a bundle of creative non-fiction, whatever that was. Three more nights and I’d empty this cellar of all the fuel I could stow.

* * *

By day I serviced my refloated boat: dried, cleaned, greased, re-stitched, nailed, and tied. After dark I lugged loads of books and hid them onboard underneath oilcloth tarpaulins. Planks creaked as the hull hunkered low in the water.

At last, my pre-dawn departure. Ribbons of purple and red glowed between the forsaken towers of Old Denver’s skyline. I set the oars into their rowlocks and there she was, the Harpy, not thirty paces away and jogging along the stone quay. She hailed me via a trumpet formed by her hands.

“Ahoy, as your type is fond of saying. Is this where I buy a ticket?”

I almost snapped an oar over my knee; instead, I smiled.

“It would please me to accommodate a repeat customer. Come aboard and you can disembark anywhere except dry land.”

“Always with the jokes. The seafaring comedian. Let us agree to allow bygones be whatever, and enter into a new contract. Will you take me home?”

“I’d rather use the butt-end of this oar to put out my remaining eye. No! My services are unavailable.”

Panting, she gave her satchel a shake and the effort nearly tipped her over. Coins were her orchestra, she the conductor.

“Five times the outbound rate is my offer. Paid when we arrive at Port Rainier.”

“Stay where you are, I’ll pick you up.”

* * *

Loathing runs as deep as oceans, and early in our journey my passenger’s unkind behavior caused me to take constant soundings. However, I possess the wisdom to forgive offences as long as revenge is inconvenient or unprofitable.

By the third week she laughed more and criticized less, followed by her unprompted vow to prepare the evening meals. Our conversations grew cordial and she seldom scolded me when I looked at my phone.

“You have regrets,” she said on the brightest and bluest morning since we’d left. “You miss connecting with people and things.”

Hood thrown back, her iron-gray curls gleamed. Outlying Cascade Isles, lumps of brown and black, blistered the horizon. I rubbed my implant scar and rummaged for a response. Despite the day’s brilliance my thoughts were blobs of mercury.

“I suppose I’ve spent too much time on this cockleshell — yes, I remember you named it so. Anyway, solitude is my preferred companion.”

“Oh, a man of action, yet stoic! In my field of work I’ve never chanced upon someone so deliciously complex.”

She grinned at me and I mustered one for her. I’d come to find her aquiline nose and dusky eyes quite fetching. My implant throbbed in an unfamiliar manner.

I labored to push a reply out of my word-hole. “Who are we but water-spiders, skimming the surface, racing from one adventure to the next?”

“Yes, my captain, you’re the sailor-poet-philosopher, the burglar who talks in his sleep. I’m the librarian who won’t allow you to burn your precious cargo.”

Image via Pixabay

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