[A titbit taste of the work in progress A Republic of Books]

In fact, all of this was the very subject of a couple of the novels and a play in the past few years. And it does seem now that my entire life is just a series of imagined events—the small stuff of what I had actually lived as a mere bookseller, all of it book dust really, mixed with my own hemoglobin, laid thin like handmade paper is done and then racked up to dry on the bones of some plot or another that is really only something I have observed in the lives of others and stolen for my own purposes. It seemed that I never found the time to live the adventures I wanted to write about. Or found the courage to. Though some of those stories offered more solace, I think—especially in retrospect—than others; even those that took place in a world that had not yet been. The future imperfect was a useful tense for writing.


            ‘MBP07042073: 8:45’ James Michael MacCarthy’s entire name and history appeared on the screen, as well as the particulars of his current existence—even to the fact that he liked to be called ‘Jim.’ This same screen automatically came up with an attachment to any new case he had taken. It was part of the ‘quick’ Gateskeeper review, ostensibly to mark any conflicts of interest. He was 45—unmarried—graduated from the University of Massachusetts in 2041—had joined the force in 2042—made lieutenant five years later—made Detective with the Boston Metropolitan Police a year after that and Chief Detective in the five years following. Now, after nearly twenty-five years, he was a veteran and would receive some deference for this. He usually got the cases he requested, and there was no conflict with this particular one that any Gateskeeper, or any other AI, would see.

            Ten yards away through the glass partition, Jim could see Captain Emily Russo looking at her own screen. He guessed she would be looking at this same page. He could also see her full figure sitting at her desk, right down to the cross of her ankles. That was no accident. He was pretty sure she had moved her desk around to make that possible. For his part, he had just maneuvered his time to get a case where a wife had murdered her husband, over a book. Emily was his direct superior, and should be concerned about his request, but he also knew she was interested in him personally and would be wondering why he had taken on this particular and relatively unintriguing file. Her frequent criticism was that he had no ambition—too much of that being her own admitted failing. His only apparent fascination was in the points of whatever investigation he had taken on. And this was true enough, he did enjoy the puzzle of human actions.

            Jim typed a note in the gray-field for ‘marital status,’ adding the word ‘happily’ to the word ‘single,’ and then confirmed the change. Emily’s head jerked immediately and turned to glare at him through the glass partitions. He liked that she had a sense of humor. The Gateskeeper erased his annotation within seconds.

            Emily was seven years his junior. Too young for him now. The problem was, she would want a child. She deserved a child, if she wanted that. But he did not want that for himself. He had other responsibilities. Over twenty-thousand of them.

            Above the edge of his screen Jim saw Captain Russo stand, straighten herself to some advantage—she looked good to him any way—and walk in his direction. He pretended not to look at her saunter.

            She stopped directly in front of him and leaned on the metal case of hard files, making a fine indentation in the curve of her hip.

            “So, explain. What is it about this one? You keep doing this to me. I get you good cases and you knock them off and then go take things like this. What is it about this one?”

            “It looks peaceful. After the nursing home killings, I needed something quiet.”

            “Why didn’t you just take a simple felony?”

            “It’d be over in a week or two with a plea bargain and I’d be right back in the blood. I need something like this. The wife is going to fight this case in court. She says it was self-defence. Maybe it was. I got myself over there last night when the call came in—“

            “I saw that.”

            “—and did the due diligence. I spoke with her. And she’s going to fight. This’ll take weeks. Maybe months. Besides, it’ll give me a chance to clean up the paperwork on that bunch of elders who were killing themselves for sport. The hopelessness of all that kind of got to me and I’m behind. I know you haven’t said anything, but you already know, we’re all behind . . . And I need the breather.”

            Captain Russo sniffed.

            “Is she good looking?”

            No way to prevaricate that.


            “But it’s about the book, isn’t it? She killed him over a damned book. You always pay more interest to that sort of detail. I’ve noticed. Why?”

            He shrugged before he realized it would go down better if he actually answered the question.

            “They’re dangerous. Books make people sick. They get people killed.”

            “But that’s a myth! You know that!”

            “Sick in the head. There was a reason for all that hysteria back during the plague. It wasn’t that books carried the germs. They carried the dreams. The nightmares. It’s the ideas in them that are dangerous. Once they’re printed, they can’t be changed. They have to be destroyed.”

            Whatever was heard of the conversation, his own dislike for books would be understood.

            “Now you’re sounding like the nut who blew up the Library of Congress.”

            “You see, beneath this calm exterior, there is a nut.”

            “There’s likely some truth in that.”

            But she didn’t turn to leave.

            “Why does this case interest you in particular?”

            She was looking for something. He took a good breath to steady his voice. A little truth might go a long way.

            “That’s what killed my mother, they said.”

            “What? A book?” Russo straightened, her concern plain to see. “How?”

            “She got sick. She died during the plague. When I was eleven.”

            Emily Russo blew her own breath into the air in a near whistle before voicing her thought aloud.

            “Even if it wasn’t so, that might have left a mark. Did she think it was true at the time?”

            That was a lie he could tell without revealing anything else.

            “I don’t know.”

            The Captain stared off across room, where half a dozen other detectives worked at their own desks, and a dozen other desks behind empty chairs were cluttered.

            “What book would be so important that she would risk her own life, . . . or the life of her child?”

            It was not a question he expected and Jim answered reflexively, Gone With the Wind,“ and stopped himself at that.

            This was too much information. The AI had certainly heard him. Russo would be getting a query within moments and she would look it up in the hard files for confirmation.

            He had stolen that book the night his mother died, and before the police could take it away. He had replaced it with another. His mother had managed to accumulate half a dozen different books on her own at the time and he knew where they were hidden. But he had, in fact, been infected on that night—though not by plague. And he still had that book his mother was reading then. It was hidden now with all the others he had found through the years.

            Captain Russo looked down at him, but with the face of his boss. “But I don’t suppose that would disqualify you from the case. The Gateskeeper would have already highlighted the request.”

            He had to be aggressive about answering this.“Does it bother you?”

            She shrugged the question off. “No.”

            “Good. Because I can really use the rest.”

            “Take some vacation time.”

            “And go where?”

            Her official face dissembled. She could do that, almost instantly. It disquieted him.

            Her voice lowered. “I know of a little house on the Cape.”

            “It’s a nice little house. I know. But it’s yours. You take your own vacation.”

            She frowned and turned to leave, before pirouetting back.

            “What’s for dinner, Jimmy?”

            “Hot dogs.”

            “I’m having lasagna.”

            “I could use some lasagna too, but—“

            “No buts. Come get some lasagna. It’s my mother’s and she’ll be there. You’ll be safe.”

            It would not end until she scored some sort of victory. She was that persistent.

            “Yes, ma’am.”

            She turned again, took a step, but then came back once more.

            “By the way. What was the book this woman killed her husband over? It doesn’t say in the initial report.”

            “The sergeant was likely avoiding that, I think. It’s a long title. It was an Essay on the Nature and Conduct of the Passions and Affections and Illustrations upon the Moral Sense by Thomas Hutcheson.”

            “Never heard of it. I’ll look it up.”

            She turned her hips as she retreated. From the corner of his eye he could see that others in the office noticed this as well.

            He saw her reading her screen again as soon as she sat down. She would probably wait to ask him about the title of his mother’s book this evening, at some relaxed moment. What would he answer. That he misremembered? It was a long time ago and somehow that title had always stuck in his head? Or just, ‘I really don’t remember what it was.’

            She would believe that because she wanted to.