Care and Feeding
by Tim Pratt
"Most people can't even see this place." The alley librarian leaned against a five-foot-high stack of wooden pallets like a makeshift counter. He wore a lumpy no-color knit cap pulled low on his forehead, and he had the sallow skin of a meth addict and bloodshot eyes the color of weak tea, but when he grinned, he showed off a headful of shiny white teeth. "They just walk right by."
I stood dazzled, gazing at the books filling the trash bins and piled on the ground all around us, stacked sideways on makeshift shelves constructed from crushed beer cans and empty milk cartons. The volumes were all different sizes, but otherwise had much in common: greasy-looking black covers and titles written in lines of fire that writhed. "So... why can I see it, then?"
The librarian shrugged and spat something black and wriggling onto the pavement. For some reason that didn't bother me at all. Neither did the fact that the sky had changed from midday lunch-break blue to deep black with cold blue stars, or the way the piss reek of the alley I liked to shortcut through on the way back to work had transformed into a deeper stench, like burning hair and tires.
"I'm not sure," the librarian said. "Some people see me, most don't. There are lots of reasons. Maybe you're really stupid."
I crouched and looked at a row of books crowding a busted plastic milk crate. None of the titles on the spines were comprehensible, though some, at least, looked a bit like actual letters. "Uh. No, I don't think I'm especially stupid."
"Hmm. Have you had any recent head trauma? Do you have a history of psychotic breaks, or hallucinations without obvious cause? Were you born with a caul over your face?"
"No... I work part-time in an occult and New Age bookstore, so maybe I've just developed a special--"
"Nah, that's not it. Any recent emotional trauma? What? I'm curious. It's good to know what I'm dealing with."
I stood, shoved my hands deep in the pockets of my jacket, and frowned. "Not trauma exactly... I mean... I think I might be falling in love--"
"That would do it," the librarian said, nodding. "We're talking the stay-up-all-night sort of love, yeah? The cold sweats kind of love. The kind of love where, if the person doesn't love you back, you start to look like a stalker. Restraining order type love."
"It's not like that. We're friends, I mean, I want us to be more, but--"
He waved a hand clad in a filthy fingerless glove. "Whatever, I don't care, I know what I'm dealing with now. So you're here. What do you want?"
"Can I.... borrow a book? You said it's a library, right?"
"I never said that. You just knew it. It is a library, but we're not as trusting as some places are. You can borrow a book, but only one at a time, and we require collateral."
"What kind? Like a credit card?"
"More like a finger. Maybe a foot. Sometimes an eye. Don't worry. I'll give it back when you return the book."
That weirdness, at least, penetrated the strange numb veil that seemed to cover me, and I took a step back. "I don't... I'm not gonna get disfigured--"
"We can take things that don't leave a mark."
I shivered. "You mean... my soul?"
"What's a soul? Show me where the soul is on an anatomical diagram. Point to the part of the brain that controls the soul. No, I mean something real. Your sense of smell, that's popular--a lot of people hardly even miss it."
"I guess, if it was only temporary..."
"What kind of book do you want?"
I almost ran my finger along the row of books heaped on the pallet in front of him, then thought better of it. "Something to impress a girl."
"You want a love spell?"
"No! No, I want her to like me for me. We're almost there, I think. She just doesn't take me seriously. But if I could do something to really impress her..."
"Tell me more about this girl. I have to help you find the right book--it's part of the job--but I need more information than 'a girl.' What would impress her? Do you want to take her flying through the air? Go back in time with her to see Elvis live in concert? Give her a unicorn ride? Some of them aren't too particular about whether the girl's a virgin or not, though the forgiving ones are more like goats than horses. Or--"
"Is there a book," I said, "that will let me summon the Devil?"