MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
That woman was back again. Raymond Ambler delivered the file boxes to her as she sat waiting at the library table in the crime fiction reading room of the 42nd Street Library. She stood out for him for a couple of reasons, one of them because she’d broken his glasses a few nights earlier in the Library Tavern under somewhat peculiar circumstances. He took a moment to take off the glasses and look at them. They were reading glasses, prescribed for him for the first time the day before she broke them, the circular lenses in dark red frames, the two broken halves fused together now with black electrician’s tape.
Ambler had stopped at the Library Tavern—the after-work watering hole for the staff at the 42nd Street Library presided over by everyone’s favorite bartender Brian McNulty—as he often did, although a bit later than usual on this Wednesday evening, and found his friend Adele Morgan sitting at the bar sipping a beer and watching intently a small drama unfold a few barstools away.
A woman who looked to be of Adele’s age—a late thirtysomething—was surrounded by a half-dozen men, resembling nothing so much as a pack of wolves circling in on its prey. The woman apparently had a good deal to drink, as she spoke too loudly and appeared to be losing ground in an argument with the man sitting beside her. The men standing around them appeared to wait impatiently their turn to harangue her. Ambler settled onto his barstool and took out his new glasses to show Adele.
At that moment, a voice rang out loud enough to be heard across the bar, “That’s an absurd thing to say.”
“That poor woman,” Adele said to Ambler. “Look at how they’re treating her.”
Ambler glanced over to see that the woman in question was besieged, the half-dozen men sniping at her at once. She sat back, a look of confusion bordering on panic replacing the intent expression she’d worn a minute before.
Adele grasped Ambler’s arm. Her touch surprised him; it had been such a long time. He turned to her questioningly and saw such emotion in her face, as if she herself was besieged by those men, that he reached toward her with his free hand. “She was in the library today,” Adele said. The expression in her eyes said something else. She was afraid for the woman under attack, and she wanted Ambler to help her.
Ambler stood. As he prepared to walk over to the woman hoping to rescue her, he caught McNulty’s eye to tip off the bartender, who missed nothing that happened in his bar, as to what he intended to do. McNulty made a small gesture with his head—a nod by McNulty worth a thousand words—that told Ambler to not worry; McNulty would handle the situation.
Ambler sat back down and watched McNulty saunter over to that section of the bar. The bartender leaned toward the woman and said something. As soon as he did, she turned her full attention on him, and the men around her quieted. A moment later, when Ambler saw McNulty pick up the woman’s drink and nod toward him and Adele, he moved over, leaving an empty seat between him and Adele. The woman, a bit tipsy, tottered toward them, squinting slightly, wearing a crooked smile.
She remembered Adele from the library and was inordinately happy to see her. Speaking to Adele, and glancing disdainfully toward the group of men behind her, she put one hand onto the bar to hoist herself onto the barstool. As she made her little jump onto the stool, Ambler heard an unmistakable crackling and saw his glasses flatten beneath her hand.
Perched on the barstool after all that, she watched the broken glasses curiously.
“Where did those come from?” Adele asked no one in particular.
Ambler picked up the glasses, now split into two sections at the nose bridge. “They’re mine.” He made a dismissive gesture with his hand to stop any further questions.
McNulty, who’d caught the mishap, handed Ambler a roll of electrician’s tape from a drawer behind the bar, so Ambler taped his reading glasses back together. As this took place, the woman who introduced herself as Shannon Darling, talked animatedly with Adele, not ignoring Ambler so much as being so pleased to see Adele that she wasn’t aware he was there.
This state of things changed slightly when Adele told Shannon who Ambler was, and told Ambler that Shannon would be the latest reader to make use of the crime fiction collection. Adele had done the screening interview that afternoon while Ambler was away from the library.
A few minutes later, Adele and Shannon headed to the ladies’ room—something women did in pairs quite often. Ambler didn’t recall ever asking another man to accompany him to the men’s room. He was about to ask McNulty, who was now standing in front of him on the other side of the bar, about this phenomenon, when McNulty’s expression as he watched Shannon Darling walk away stopped him. For a moment unguarded, it was almost reverent.
“I’d like another drink,” Shannon said to McNulty when she and Adele returned.
“You have one on the bar,” McNulty said. Their eyes met and held for a moment. “You probably don’t want any more after this one.”
“I can go somewhere else.” Her tone was petulant.
“You could.” McNulty spoke softly. “You asked me to tell you.”
“I’m not arguing anymore. Those guys are jerks. One of them propositioned me.”
“You say things…” He shook his head.
She turned from McNulty to look Ambler in the eye. “My husband doesn’t have sex with me. I think it’s been—” She paused, perhaps counting off some period of time—weeks, months, years? Was she asking him for an explanation? In a few minutes again, she’d forgotten about Ambler and Adele and was whispering with McNulty. But she was fading. When she wasn’t speaking, she bowed, her chin drifting toward the bar like a junkie nod.
McNulty called to one of the servers. When the server came behind the bar, he told Ambler, “Gail here will watch the bar. I’m taking Shannon to her hotel. I won’t be long.” He left, walking beside Shannon, his arm under her elbow. She leaned against him, talking. Ambler imagined that the three or four men from the earlier group who remained at the bar watching the bartender and the tipsy woman leave didn’t expect to see the bartender back for a good while.
Less than twenty minutes later, McNulty was back, contemptuous of the smirks and knowing glances of the men who’d watched him leave, coming behind the bar to stand in front of Ambler and Adele. “This one may do me in,” he said. “I told her she had to save me from myself … to stay the fuck out of here.”
* * *
Ambler had paid particular attention to Shannon Darling for a couple of days now since that evening. She’d told Adele in the Special Collections screening interview that she was writing a book on women mystery writers and would be in the city for a few days. Adele had approved her application but had misgivings about her because a few of the things she said in the interview seemed odd. “It was as if she made up her answers on the spot. When I asked about her academic affiliation, she didn’t know what I meant. I asked if she was a freelance writer. She didn’t know. I said independent scholar, and she jumped at the answer like she wished she’d thought of it.”
Her appearance was curious also, Adele said. “She doesn’t dress like a researcher. The suit she wore was straight out of Neiman Marcus or Saks Fifth Avenue. Not what most readers wear to the library.”
After observing her, Ambler saw that Shannon Darling was indeed amateurish, not aware of the protocols of research, not knowing for instance the procedure for calling up research materials. You’d think this was her first time using a library special collection. Still, she had an appealing way about her. On the young side of middle age, with blonde hair, large brown eyes, little makeup, and a pretty mouth, she was attractive and pleasant to be around. Her direct gaze and an air of expectancy in the way she looked at him when he spoke to her surprised him. He found it difficult to look away from her. That openness lasted only a moment each time, until she registered that he had nothing interesting to tell her so turned back to her work.
The file boxes he’d delivered on this morning were from the collection of Jayne Galloway, a mystery writer who’d recently donated her papers to the 42nd Street Library’s crime fiction collection. Ambler stood for a moment more or less looking over the woman’s shoulder as she opened the file box. “She’s a much underappreciated writer,” he said.
The reader glanced up at him with that air of expectation and then quickly back to her work as if she realized he might not be talking to her.
Copyright © 2019 by Con Lehane