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In the Basement

suspense by D. J. Barber

Melrose sat in one of those sand bar huts on the beach, watching an orange sun melt into the crimson sea.

A soft breeze lifted the palm fronds, making them appear as waving hands. He polished off the remains of his drink in a single swig, ice chinking. A few young girls bolted by; their bouncing bikinis caught his eye, if for only a moment.

His dear old friend and boss, Walter Cummins, had commanded: “A week away from the toils of the library, Melrose—that’s what you need, old boy.” And Melrose took him up on it.

It was an old place along the shores of the Caribbean. Walter had suggested the place, although it surprised Melrose that it wasn’t some lush and prime resort; but it was a comfortable, secluded spot, with few guests.

His little cabin sat by the beach, rather past its prime. Once inside, he stripped and crawled into bed, but left a light on for those now too-often trips to the bathroom. As he lay there, he remembered his first years at the library, and Charlotte Webster, his eager boss, the young woman who refilled the stacks with returns. She was the first.

Melrose graduated thirteenth in his class, in English, and found himself working part-time at the city library. The then Librarian, Lloyd Bertram Louis, had just began the arduous task of changing over from the Dewey Decimal System to the more efficient Library of Congress. Melrose’s first job was to peel the labels off book edges and replace them with the new codes, then move the books to different locations. It was work that took over two years to complete.

Charlotte trained him and also worked with him on that original monumental task. About a month before they would have completed the changeover, Charlotte, poor girl, went missing.

Back in the day, Walter and Charlotte had been quite the number; Walter had even given her a most expensive necklace. Naturally, the police took an interest in him but nothing ever came of it. As far as anyone ever knew, Charlotte just up and left.

But, there was a time, just then, when the shelving unit against the back wall of the basement workroom stood empty, and it was years before that long and dusty shelving was again full with books.

Two years ago, Walter was promoted to the job of Librarian, replacing Gertrude Rupp. Ms. Rupp retired after many years in that post, since the day Lloyd Bertram Louis was murdered in an apparent robbery—in an unsavory part of the city. For some it was tragic; for others—what with union seniority in the civil service, such as Melrose—proved an opportune occurrence. Why poor Lloyd was even in that part of town remained a mystery.

“Good old Melrose.” That’s what they always said, that bunch at the library. And why shouldn’t they? He was diligent in his work—often accepting overtime if a co-worker was sick or on vacation. Even so, Thaddeus Clovis-Brown, a library trustee, saw to it that Walter was given the promotion to Librarian—overlooking Melrose for Walter, who just smiled and nodded when Melrose begged off social functions, such as the annual Christmas or Halloween parties.

So why not have a grand old time here in paradise; even if this offer of a vacation was a bit of a surprise. Last week, when Walter sent him off to Culver City to collect some old reference journals on loan there, Melrose had thought something amiss. After all, any of the staff could have gone on that task and it seemed a bit beneath the call for an Assistant Librarian. However, Good Old Melrose always took on the extras.

Still, it was a tad curious, since Walter made it sound like an emergency—and the folks at Culver City hadn’t even been expecting Melrose. Gone two days, and no sooner come through the doors than Walter steered Melrose into his office to give “a week away from your toils, old boy.”

Melrose did worry so about Walter, though, things like that wild goose chase for the reference books just one example. So busy in his work—much as old Lloyd Bertram Louis had been. A time might soon come for Walter to take his rest, too.

A creaking snap drew Melrose’s attention and suddenly there’s a young man at the foot of the bed—some local, no doubt, looking for some easy cash.

“There are traveler’s checks in the top drawer there, young man,” Melrose said. “You’ll find little cash since I’ve only just arrived.”

The intruder smiled. “Don’ wan you money, man.”

“If you’ve come to provide some service—”

“Yes. But fo’ sum’body else, not you.”

“What is it you want?”

The fellow drew out a gun. It was not a rifle, but pointed at him, all Melrose saw was the barrel.

“I got stuff to say to you,” the fellow said. “Lemme see, oh yeah, Mr. Thaddeus Clovis-Brown, some bigshot wit your li’bry—”

“Mr. Clovis-Brown is a library trustee.”

“Shaddup and listen! Walter sez to tell you dat he gonna s’prise you. Dis Clovis person give money to fix up de’ basement, yeah? Whas ‘sposed to be doin’ dat when you here, huh? A — how you say? — a reward.”

“The basement?”

“I tole you already’s to shaddup! Din tearin’ it all out to fix, dere’s a body — a skeleton, yeah? Walter sez ever’body dere sees dis awful stuff!”

“B-basement?”

The barrel of the gun looked like a cannon.

“Dis fum Walter fo’ Charlotte,” the intruder whispered. “He sez it too bad, old boy, you fo’got to take da necklace.”

Copyright 2009 by D. J. Barber

D.J. Barber lives in Oregon. He blogs about writing at Canyons of Gray.

[Return to the July 2009 stories]

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9 Responses

  1. […] In the Basement […]

  2. Good story, D.J.

  3. Thanks, Erin

  4. […] Room” by Jordan Lapp, “The Dangers of Kafka in Cairo” by Megan Arkenberg, and “In the Basement” by D.J. […]

  5. Great revenge story, DJ.

  6. Ah…revenge. I like it.

  7. It was an interesting story but the last bit, puzzled me, because unless this story was written about the 1800’s before there was means of identifying a body, eventually they would have known the identity of the skeleton, and it wouldn’t matter that the necklace was still around her neck, but everything else was very solid.

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