I peddled my bike furiously up Victoria Street, past the tables of early morning coffee drinkers, the conga line of mums and prams, and the rabble of school kids and their enormous bags. Keeping my eyes peeled for cars pulling away from the kerb, I turned into Charles Street. A pedestrian stepped out from between two cars, eyes glued to his mobile phone. I swerved just in time to miss him. Normally this would have triggered a burst of colourful insults but today I was above all that. Today was special and nothing was going to ruin it.
I steered my bike over Gamon Street and up onto the footpath, coming to a screeching halt in front of the library.
‘Those brakes need an oil.’ I looked over to where the voice had come from. An older man sat on a bench in the sun. He peered over his reading glasses at me, a newspaper scrunched in his lap.
‘Hi Ted. You’re up early,’ I said as I transferred all manner of stuff from my paniers to my shoulder bag. Lunch, glasses, books, tissues. I frowned and dug deeper. Where the hell was my phone?
‘Too nice to be inside,’ he said. He was right. Over our heads stretched a blue canvas, not a cloud in sight. We were well into March but the warm weather was hanging on by its fingertips. I located the phone and held it up in triumph.
‘Found it.’ Ted just rolled his eyes and resumed his reading. I put the treasure into the back pocket of my jeans. ‘See you a bit later then.’
Ted was a recently retired police officer. His wife was still happily working for the local hospital. We saw a lot of Ted at the library.
I pushed my bike down the side of the building, past the wheelie bins and some interesting odours to the staff entrance. I locked up the bike and swiped myself into the building. Near the inside of the door was a key pad. I jabbed in the code to disable the alarm and headed off to my office.
My office. Two words that had me smiling. The office and the library was mine for three whole months. Alice the branch manager was in Europe for her long service leave and I was now queen of the castle. The library service management had finally given me the opportunity to be acting branch manager for the Seddon Library. An opportunity that had only come after fifteen years’ experience. But, hey, better late than never and I intended to make the most of it. Alice wouldn’t know this place when she got back.
After stashing my bag behind my desk, I wandered out to check the state of the library. I loved being in here by myself. Just me and the books. I imagined the characters whispering to each other long after we’d left them for the night, discussing the likeability of the people who had just read them, questioning their authenticity. Each night, a cleaner came in to wipe away sticky little finger marks from table tops, and food crumbs from computer keyboards, throw drink bottles and tissues into the bins, and vacuum the dirt and specks trampled into the carpet from hundreds of pairs of feet.
The library was basically a large long rectangle. Built in the mid-80s, it was an example of function over form with a low roof and dark brown bricks. Little wonder it was referred to by the librarians as ‘the bunker’. The office and staff workroom took up a chunk of space in one corner so the public area was L-shaped. The information desk stood in front of the workroom. I journeyed anti clockwise from there. Past a line of the self-service kiosks; racks of magazines and newspapers; a couple of worn armchairs and coffee tables; a long row of computers; and the large print books, audio books and DVDs. Past the front doors and the overnight returns chute, into the teen and children’s area in the far corner. This far wall was covered by little silver plaques with the names of the people who’d been involved with getting the library built. It was hard to see the plaques these days with most of the area obscured by shelving and displays. In the middle of the plaques was a large, bold oil painting that had been created by a local artist. It was of three children with their noses in a book.
I walked past the fiction, and the language collection with its Vietnamese, Chinese and Macedonian titles, and around the corner to the non-fiction. In the corner was a glass door that led outside to a small grassed space with a couple of Japanese maple trees providing shade for wooden chairs and benches. This door was the only one in the library that we used a key to open rather than a swipe card. I gave the door a quick rattle to check that it had been locked the night before. Finally, I looped back to the start. This was the part I hated doing. Checking out the state of the toilets, especially the men’s. The pipes in this part of Seddon weren’t great and the smell could be nose-hair curling.
I scanned the women’s bathroom, over the sink and the mirror, and then the toilet itself. All shipshape. Now for the men’s. I took a deep breath and plunged into the stench. Ugh, what did men do in here? The acrid lemony smell of the toilet lollies stung my eyes. The sink wasn’t too bad. The tap dripped a steady beat. I tried to turning it off but had no luck. Time to ring council facilities. I glanced through one eye at the urinal. It’d spent much of last week clogged up but was now mercifully free of various flotsam and jetsam. I pushed the door to the toilet open, the orange panel opening in a slow arc.
‘Nurgghh.’ The strangled cry was out of my mouth before I could stop it. I pulled my fingers off the door like I’d burned them. The door swung shut, slamming in my face.
Oh no, no. no. Not today. Not on my first day as acting manager. I pushed the door open slightly and peered in.
Nope, I hadn’t imagined it. On the other side of the door was a body. An actual body in the library. A male body, I was pretty sure. A million questions whizzed through my mind. Who was this guy and how the hell had he gotten into the library? Most of all, was he dead or alive? I was going to have to check before ringing for an ambulance. Okay. I took a few quick breaths and pressed my palm against the door. The sound of the tap drips bounced over the tiles. I pushed.
Drip, drip. A man sat slumped on the toilet, his head flung back over the cistern, eyes closed and mouth open. He was dressed in a black hoodie and jeans. A black backpack sat by his feet. My mind raced. Maybe he’d overdosed. Drip, drip. I inched forward and gave him a closer look. His chest fluttered. Phew, not dead then. Drip, drip. I put a hand on his knee and gave it a shake. No response. Drip, drip. Damn tap. The noise was like fingernails down a blackboard. I leaned over to shout in the man’s ear. He twitched and drew in a deep breath through his nose, the snore reverberating around the bathroom. The sound woke him and sent me stumbling back out of the cubicle. His eyes snapped open, cloudy with confusion.
‘Where am I?’ he said, looking around him.
‘Library,’ I answered. I needed to get out. I didn’t want to be trapped in the toilet with this guy. I bolted and stood panicked in the middle of the library. A beat later, the man staggered out.
‘Sorry, sorry,’ he said, holding up his hands. ‘I fell asleep. I need to go.’ He was slightly taller than me with shaggy black hair and a wild look in his eyes. I backed away from him towards the main entrance.
‘Here’s the front door. Now get out,’ I said as I hit the green emergency button. The glass doors slid open. The man dashed out and almost crashed into Hieu, my stunned-looking co-worker. Hieu watched him run up Charles Street.
‘Who the hell was that?’ I shook my head, dumbfounded.
‘Dunno.’ I ushered him in and locked the doors. Someone tapped at the window. It was Ted. He mouthed at me, ‘Are you okay?’ I forced a smile and gave him the thumbs up but he wasn’t buying it. He frowned and then turned away. He reached into his pocket for his mobile. No need to call the police then.
‘So?’ prompted Hieu. My legs were jelly. I needed to sit. I led him to one of the front tables and gave him the rundown of what had just happened.
His mouth dropped. ‘You are kidding me. How did he get in?’
‘I have no idea. The backdoors are locked. The place was alarmed when I got here.’ I shook my head. ‘I didn’t notice anything out of order.’
I glanced up at the clock above the information desk. ‘Better get a move on and get the library ready for opening. Then we can do some more investigation.’ And call the library services manager to explain how my library had been broken into. Not a call I was looking forward to making. I dropped my head onto the table and groaned. First day of management and I was already in the middle of a fiasco.
‘Are you okay?’ asked Hieu. My response was muffled and not fit for print. I sat up again.
‘Are you going to call the police?’ asked Hieu.
‘I think Ted’s already done that for us.’
We went through the morning routine – balancing the cash register float, clearing and shelving the returned books from the overnight chute, stacking reserved books ready to be picked up, and refilling boxes of library cards and photocopy paper. The staff door clattered open. In walked Niamh, wearing a dress with a red and green floral print, her red hair piled on top of her head and pinned with colourful fake flowers.
‘Morning, comrades,’ she chimed in her thick Belfast accent.
‘Morning, Niamh. Could you do the overnight crates?’ I called out.
‘Sure.’ She disappeared into the workroom and I could hear her humming. I’d have shatter her good mood later with the morning events.
At 10 o’clock, I unlocked the front door. Ted was first in line. I nodded at Ted and he nodded back. Mrs Tang and her sister squeezed past followed by a couple of kids who I was certain should have been at school. I would deal with them later.
‘Come on in then,’ I said. I led him over to the quiet of the DVD section. Ted didn’t beat around the bush.
‘What happened in here this morning?’ I put my hands up. ‘You’re retired, Ted. You don’t have to do anything. I’ll call the local police and let them handle it.’
‘I already called them,’ said Ted. ‘A van will be around when they are free. In the meantime, Maggie, tell me what happened.’
‘Ted, I can…’ Ted gave his patented police death stare and I stopped mid-flow. I could see why crims had confessed all to him. I sighed and told him about the man in the toilet.
‘How did he get in?’ asked Ted.
‘I don’t know yet,’ I said. ‘We were going to investigate after we opened.’ Ted pulled up his shorts.
‘Let’s get going then.’
I led Ted around the library. We checked windows, we checked the doors and we checked the workroom. Ted looked up at the ceiling for potential openings. Nothing. After half an hour, we still had no idea how the mystery man had broken in. We went back over to the information desk.
‘Could he have hidden and got locked in?’ asked Ted. I’d already considered this. The place was too small for someone to hide and not be found by staff and I said so.
‘Is it possible that he had a key or a swipe card?’ asked Ted, rubbing a hand over his chin.
‘I don’t think so,’ I said. ‘I can’t imagine how he could have gotten a key.’
‘But it’s possible, right?’ said Ted. ‘Because that’s the only answer. He either has a key for that back door or he has a swipe card.’
I thought about what Ted had just said. ‘He didn’t set off any alarms so if he has a swipe key, he knows the alarm code. Which isn’t likely. Even if he had a back door key, he still should have set off the alarm.’
Ted crossed his arms over his chest and thrust out his chin. The universal sign for ‘police thinking things over’.
‘He could have found a way to switch off the alarm, I guess. Either way, you’d better get the locks changed.’ He looked over his shoulder.
‘Can I have a look at the toilet?’
I shrugged. ‘Knock yourself out.’ Ted went into the bathroom and poked his head into the cubicle. I stood behind him. The tap was still dripping. I gritted my teeth.
‘So you found him in here?’ asked Ted, his voice echoing off the tiles.
‘Yes, asleep on the toilet,’ I said, remembering the sight that had greeted me. We both checked the floor and behind the toilet but there was nothing of interest to be found.
Back in the library, Hieu was setting up to take toddler storytime, putting out craft activities on the tables in the children’s area, and Niamh was busy with a couple of patrons. I’d have to wrap up this conversation. Ted was staring off into the distance.
‘He might have been a local homeless person, lucky enough to find a way in,’ said Ted. I thought back to the man I’d encountered in the bathroom.
‘No, he wasn’t homeless.’
‘How do you know?’ asked Ted.
‘Few reasons,’ I said. ‘He was too clean for a start. He didn’t have the homeless smell.’ Ted nodded. Sleeping rough usually meant not being able to shower or launder clothes as often as someone might want to.
‘He was clean shaven too,’ I said, absently stroking my chin. ‘And if he was here just to sleep, why would he pick the most uncomfortable place in the library?’ I pointed at the colourful bean bags in the children’s area.
‘He could have dragged one of those into the non-fiction section and had a great kip without anyone seeing him through the windows.’
Ted considered what I’d said. ‘Yep, I agree.’ He gave me a warm smile.
‘Well done, Detective Bliss.’
‘Thanks, Sarg,’ I said. I looked over at Hieu and Niamh. ‘I’d better get back to work.’
‘Hang on.’ Ted pulled out his wallet and gave me a white business card that simply had his name - Ted Durrell – and his mobile number in black lettering. ‘Feel free to ring me anytime if you need help.’ I arched an eyebrow.
‘You in the private detecting business now?’
This time his smile was mysterious and he wandered over to his favourite armchair to read the papers. Ted still looked like a copper. Still had his hair short back and sides. I couldn’t imagine him doing undercover private detective work without anyone guessing what he was.
By the time I managed to get Niamh alone, she’d already been updated by Hieu. The news had unleashed her inner hardarse from its hippy shell.
‘I cannot believe someone has done this,’ she said, speaking so fast that her accent had morphed into a series of strange sounds. ‘Our sacred space has been violated.’
‘I’m not sure I’d go that far,’ I started to say. She cut me off with a swing of her arm and a pointed finger.
‘No, it has. And I will not have it!’ Such was her vehemence that I almost expected her to raise a pike and rally the troops. A couple of people looked up from their computers. I flapped a hand.
‘Lower your voice, Niamh.’
‘Sorry, I’m just so outraged,’ she said, thumping books onto a trolley. ‘What are we going to do about it?’
‘We’ve got our team meeting this afternoon so we can discuss it then.’
The morning unravelled the same as it always did on a Monday. Toddler storytime and rampaging three year olds; mothers’ groups and banana mashed into the carpet, queries about obscure books that people couldn’t remember the name of but knew the cover was blue; and assistance with photocopying. All of which kept me busy and delayed my phone call to Judy, the library services manager. I couldn’t put it off any longer. I left the information desk to Hieu and went into my office.
I took a deep breath and dialled Judy’s number.
‘Hey, Maggie, how’s it going at the bunker?’ The voice that answered was rough from years of cigarette smoke and a lifetime of barracking for the Western Bulldogs.
‘Ah well, Judy, wouldn’t be a normal day without a bit of drama,’ I said and then, with great reluctance, repeated my tale for the umpteenth time.
‘Hell’s bells, Maggs. Are you okay?’
‘Yeah, yeah, I was a bit shaky but I’m fine now.’
‘How the hell did he get in?’ she asked.
‘I don’t know,’ I said and then gave her a rundown of our investigations. I let her know the police were going to drop in.
‘Well, we can’t have this sort of stuff going on. I’ll ring the council and organise someone to come over to check the alarm system and change the locks. Make sure you talk to the evening staff about ensuring the library is empty before locking up, okay.’
‘Okay,’ I said. I waited for some sort of telling off.
‘How are you? You okay? If you or Hieu or Niamh need some support, we can organise counselling,’ said Judy. Not what I’d expected. My shoulders felt infinitely lighter.
‘We’re okay but I think Niamh’s about to raise a rebel army to protect the library.’ Judy laughed.
‘Hopefully it won’t come to that.’ We said our goodbyes and hung up. I was still the acting manager but the day hadn’t ended yet.
Two casuals arrived for the 1pm shift so that Hieu, Niamh and I could have our team meeting. I’d hoped this would be our chance to bond as a temporary team; and discuss ideas and tasks for the next three months. I knew though that this meeting would be dominated by the morning’s events. My intention was to keep that conversation as short as possible so we could talk about other things.
Hieu, Niamh and I settled around the lunch table. Niamh and I had worked together in this library for the past two years and knew each other well. Hieu had come across from Footscray Library to do my usual job while I was manager.
‘Welcome to Seddon Library, Hieu. Niamh and I are very happy you are here.’ Hieu cleared his throat and blushed, looking like an accountant in his buttoned shirt and cardigan.
‘Thank you, Maggie. Thank you, Niamh. I’m very glad to be here.’
Now,’ I said. ‘I don’t want to dwell on what happened this morning. I’ve spoken to Judy and she’s organising for locks to be changed and the alarm system to be checked. We also need to be very aware at night when we are closing that we check all the nooks and crannies. Especially out in the courtyard.’ I paused to see how Hieu and Niamh were taking all of this. Niamh was nodding in furious agreement.
‘Judy also said that if we want to talk to anyone about how we are feeling, she can organise a counsellor,’ I added. Niamh snorted.
‘Counsellor? All we need is a bit of vigilante justice.’ Hieu and I looked at each other, our eyes wide. Niamh laughed.
‘Look at you two. I’m joking.’ I gave her an uncertain smile. There was always truth in humour, wasn’t there?
We talked about various operational issues and concerns before I launched into an idea I’d had.
‘I was thinking we should put up a poster letting patrons know what our specialities are in terms of books,’ I said. ‘So they know who to come to for recommendations and help.’
‘Great idea,’ said Niamh. ‘I’m happy to put a poster together.’ When she wasn’t working in the library, Niamh was studying art. I’d seen posters she’d done for library programs and they were always bright and eye-catching. Niamh picked up her pen and turned to Hieu.
‘So, Hieu, what do you read?’
‘I’m a typical nerd. I read science fiction. Real science fiction though. None of this airy fairy fantasy stuff. Hard core sci fi.’
He sounded so much like my brother. I smiled and asked, ‘Favourite authors?’
‘What about special interests?’
He blushed again. ‘I knit.’
‘Bullshit,’ I said. Niamh laughed at my reaction. Hieu plucked at his cardigan.
‘Nope, no shit. This is one of mine.’ I examined the precise stitching of his work. It was amazing. This guy. He could be so predictable, yet so full of surprises.
‘Hieu, I bow before you. This is fantastic.’ Niamh looked at me. ‘Maggie? As If I didn’t know.’
‘Ah well, you know I read a lot of modern Australian writers. I’m quite fond of Tim Winton and Geraldine Brooks.’
As she wrote, Niamh decorated the page with quick sketches – caricatures of our faces, visual representations of our favourite topics.
‘I’m also into true crime, specifically Melbourne true crime,’ I said.
‘No way,’ said Niamh, looking up. ‘I didn’t know that. I hate that stuff. Why do you like it?’ I had been asked this so many times. What’s a nice girl like you doing reading books like that? I gave them my usual answer, the one that kept people happy and stopped further questions.
‘I like the history aspect of it, I guess. The people and the events that have made Melbourne. Usually we focus on the positive achievements but it’s also the darker moments that have made Melbourne. Russell street, Easey street, the Faraday kidnappings, Eloise Worledge. All these things are part of our collective consciousness.’
Hieu and Niamh sat, staring at me like two stunned owls for a moment. I realised they were reassessing me in their minds. Maybe they were deciding whether I was dangerous.
‘Niamh, your turn,’ I said.
‘I love the classics. Shakespeare, Dickens, Wilde. I also like fantasy and young adult fiction.’ She reeled off a few authors’ names.
‘And, of course, you know I love art so my special focus would be on all the art books.’ She examined what she’d done and nodded. ‘I’ll finish this up tonight.’
We packed up and went back out onto the floor for the 2.30pm desk shift. Before long, it was 3.30pm and the invasion of the school kids started. In the children’s section, two boys were belting each other with the bean bags.
‘Oi, you two, knock it off.’ I marched over the corner and into the fray.
At 5.30pm, I handed over the reins to another librarian with strict instructions about closing procedures before straddling my bike and heading off home to West Footscray.
Luke was already home, stretched out on the lounge couch with a book. He peered over his glasses at me, his dark blond hair flopping into his eyes, ready to ask me his usual question. I could hear rattling in the kitchen. Gracie was home too. Our daughter had just started doing Arts at Monash. I called out to her.
‘So how would you describe your day, acting branch manager?’ I tilted my head and pretended to give it great thought. I already had my answer.
‘Agatha Christie.’ Luke sat up.
‘Put the kettle on and I’ll tell you all about it,’ I said. I changed in our bedroom and came out again to a steaming hot mug of black tea. Gracie and Luke sat at the table, waiting. They were carbon copies of each other. Gracie seemed not have inherited any of my DNA. They were both fair skinned with dark blond hair and hazel eyes. Luke raised an eyebrow at me.
‘Come on then, tell me all about it. Why was your day Agatha Christie?’
I sipped my tea. ‘I had a body in the library.’ Whatever he’d been expecting, it wasn’t that piece of news.
‘What?’ He put down his cup. ‘A real one?’
‘Yes, but not a dead one. A live one.’ I launched into my story. When I got to the part where the man woke up, Luke’s face drained white.
‘Bloody hell, Maggie, he could have been dangerous,’ Luke jumped up and walked around the kitchen. ‘You should have left him alone.’
‘What was I supposed to do? I couldn’t tell whether he was breathing or not. Whether he needed CPR.’ He stopped his pacing and sat back down to rub his face.
‘I know,’ he said eventually. ‘I just don’t like to think about what could have happened.’ I reached out and put my hand on his arm. He smiled. I continued with my tale, telling them about the look on Hieu’s face when a strange man bolted out of the library and about Ted’s involvement.
‘Once a policeman, always a policeman,’ said Luke. ‘I suppose he couldn’t help himself.’
‘He really lit up too when he was doing his thing,’ I said, remembering Ted’s keen eyes. ‘He must really miss his old job.’
‘Why did he retire so early?’ asked Luke as he stood to put the kettle on again. ‘I mean, he’d only be late 50s, wouldn’t he?’ I shrugged. I had no idea.
‘So did the local police turn up?’ asked Luke over his shoulder.
‘Yeah, about two o’clock. I just gave them a quick rundown and a description and they basically said the same thing as Ted, change the locks.’
Gracie hadn’t said much during my story. She’d been shocked into an unusual silence. As Luke sat down with fresh cups of tea, she asked, ‘So if you don’t think he was homeless, why was he there?’ I had been racking my brains about this question all day and I didn’t have an answer that satisfied me.
‘He could have been hiding for some reason,’ I said, giving them my best guess. Luke grunted.
‘Could he have been looking for something?’
‘Maybe but I can’t imagine what that could be. If it was a book, he could have just come during the day.’
‘He might not want to have been seen,’ said Gracie. I gave this some thought. ‘Maybe.’
We discussed my adventure a little longer before Gracie announced she was starving and just had to eat. I put on a pot of water for pasta while Gracie went out to our little courtyard garden to pick basil to make pesto.
Ignoring decades of wisdom, I stood watching for the water to boil, mesmerised by the tiny bubbles forming beneath the surface. It was oddly relaxing. I let the rising steam curl up over my chin and cheeks. Okay, day one of my new role hadn’t gone as planned. But tomorrow was another day. Right, Scarlett?