By Midnight Rose
The revered halls and reading rooms of the New York City Library were empty of human intrusion, dark and silent. The shelves of books lay in quiet repose, anticipating a new dawn when a searching soul would come seeking them. All was cast in shadow and dark shades of gray, except for eternal pools of light cast by small table lamps along the length of the endless maze of hallways. The streetlights peering in from high-placed windows played six-pane hopscotch on the foot-worn gray carpet in the center of each of the many reading rooms. This was the twilight world of the library spirits.
In the dimly lit library grand hall of polished marble and echoing space, Charlie, the night security guard locked the glass doors behind the last of the janitors. Charlie was a short stocky man; his weathered face etched by time and sagging jowls. His graying hair was reduced to a grizzled silver crown of laurel around the dome of his head. He was sixty-three and sporting the typical round middle of a nighttime watchman grown fat from all the years of coffee, donuts and little activity.
Charlie walked slowly to his desk in the only lit corner of the vast hall, the click of his heels on the marble tiles echoing in the vaulted space. The small portable TV on top of the security desk was turned off; the old time clock repositioned, and a fresh cup of coffee poured from a large beat-up thermos. As he sat down in the squeaky office chair, Charlie turned his attention to the well-worn mahogany book that lay on the oak desk. He picked it up and ran his chubby hand dispassionately over the embossed binding with Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet printed in gold letters. The old man looked up and around the familiar dimly lit grand entrance, his eyes following one elegant curve of the double staircase oak banister up to the second floor, where it disappeared into the gloom. "Well, it's just you and me, Shakespeare," Charlie announced to the air.
At this cue, a dark form moved in the air duct hidden behind the large stone latticework high on the two-story marble facade of the hall where he had been crouched, patiently waiting. In his mind's eye, the moving shadow could see the portly security guard lean back in his chair and prop his feet up on the corner of the desk. From the blue uniform left breast pocket were plucked a pair of reading glasses, the treasured classic was opened, and then licking an index finger, pages began to turn and Charlie began to read. Romeo and Juliet was one of Charlie's favorite books; he had read it every couple of months for nearly twenty years or at least as long as Vincent had known Charlie. The secretive lion man had prowled these library halls for almost the same length of time.
Taking the familiar branch of the second floor original ductwork, Vincent walked bent over in the four foot square space to a hinged grate at his feet. With an instinct as common to him as breathing, Vincent stopped and listened, then quietly pulled open the checkerboard square. He dropped lightly to a short hallway floor without a sound. Vincent listened again for any movement from Charlie downstairs before closing the grate above him and stepping around a corner into the meagerly lit main corridor. His soft boots made no sound on the gray carpet runner; his vast black mantle barely a rustle.
The sparely furnished reading rooms lined the exterior walls of the library on the second floor, while the inner rooms were filled row upon row with shelves filled with uncountable volumes on every subject imaginable. Books were Vincent's window to a forbidden world, a world of faraway lands and a world as close as Manhattan. The discoveries of science, space and technology, medical breakthroughs, world history, biographies, fiction and literature were his to experience through the written word. The reference room labeled European Literature was a room devoted totally to Vincent's first love. He would gladly lose himself forever within these four laden walls if life should ever deal him such a wish. He must settle for stolen nights in darkened rooms and rely on his night-sighted eyes to sample the varied choices. Vincent deftly moved among the neat tiers of novels, poetry, fables, myths, and timeless classics of drama where the great authors were honored with their own sections marked with engraved brass plates.
Swallowed by the enclosing shadows, Vincent replaced an extremely rare German edition of Ivanhoe he had borrowed two nights before. He often took books home to read in leisure and return them before they were missed. Father's cast-off library Below was vast and varied but it lacked and the New York City Library was the storehouse to fill in the gaps.
Downstairs, Charlie began his hourly rounds, the click of his heels betraying his whereabouts. The elderly security guard was of no concern to Vincent because he had easily avoided Charlie for years. Only once had Vincent almost been discovered.
One night, Vincent had been prowling the Shakespearean section when he found a rare and early edition of Richard III, Father's literary favorite, on a topmost shelf. He had become engrossed with his find and forgotten all about Charlie's hourly rounds until the security guard was standing in the doorway of the room. Vincent could not remember what exactly happened--he must have turned a page because Charlie's casually swinging flashlight beam froze in the night reader’s direction.
"Who's there?" A younger Charlie had asked with a tremor in his voice.
Vincent froze. There were four rows of books between him and the only exit to the dark room. Slowly and silently, he closed the book and reached up to return it to its proper place on the top shelf as Charlie moved steadily toward him using the flashlight to search each parallel aisle. Even on tiptoe, before he reached his full adult height, Vincent could not quite place the book back in position so it would not fall. He was being squeezed for time. Charlie's flashlight swept the third aisle as a loud thud echoed from the forth. The guard moved swiftly to the end row. His light swept up and down the aisle, to the fallen book, and then back down the side row he had traveled. Silence.
Charlie moved cautiously back toward the doorway, keeping one eye on the doorway and sweeping each row of towering shelves with his flashlight. He backed across the wider center threshold to shine his light down the back wall, before returning to the front aisle and checking the aisles on the other side of the room. No movement. No sound.
The guard went back to the fallen book and picked it up. "Richard the Third," he spoke aloud; then chuckled. "A Shakespearean ghost are you?"
Charlie headed for the door with Richard III tucked beneath his arm. He stopped in the doorway to sweep the flashlight over the room once more before heading down the corridor spouting, "Throwing books around is not a very good practice, Shakespeare. Let me tell you about the proper way to treat Classics…"
Vincent was left undetected and clinging breathless to the tomes' shadows; his wildly beating heart pounded in his chest and seemed to echo loudly through the room. The encounter scared him so much that he did not return to the library for two months.
Thus, Shakespeare, Charlie's ghost, was born and a mutual friendship was formed between the mortal and immortal worlds. Charlie talked constantly to his unseen nighttime companion and whether he believed there was really someone listening or not, Vincent did not mind lending a silent ear when he was lurking in the shadows.
The elderly gentleman was a loner and the overnight work hours suited him. Charlie had seen action in the Vietnam War as an army sergeant and had suffered nightmares for years. He had been married ten years before his wife divorced him and moved to Arizona with his two sons. Charlie had made his living doing odd jobs before becoming the night security guard at the library. Despite the decades of nightly solitude, Charlie was a jolly, friendly soul, quick to help anyone in need. The lonely hours were wisely spent with his literary friends and Charlie could quote long passages from memory nearly as well as did Vincent.
Vincent shared in Charlie’s good times and low times and just when the guard was sure he was the only man on earth, his ghostly visitor would let him know he was not alone. There would be a heavy footstep; a jostling of books, a book out of place on a table or on the floor where Charlie would find it. Always, just a hint of someone who had been there---or perhaps not.
The European Literature room was the last stop on Charlie’s hourly rounds and, like his shadowy companion, was his favorite haunt. When the steady clicks paused in the doorway of the room and the swinging flashlight bit through the darkness like a beacon, Vincent did not move from where he stood in the fourth aisle. He calmly refocused his attention, from his book, to Charlie. There was little danger of the security guard coming into the room because Charlie had chosen his book in the earlier hours of his watch; however, Vincent remained ever vigilant.
The tired sigh from Charlie as he turned away from the doorway concerned Vincent. He sensed in his elderly friend an overwhelming sadness that was breaking the old man’s heart. What had transpired in Charlie’s life? The softhearted lion man wished he could ease the pain in his friend’s soul. Charlie would have normally continued on his way down the wide corridor to the grand staircase and back to his tiny desk, but the sadness was crushing him. He melted into a dark red velvet-backed armchair sitting beside a small table and reading lamp across from the gaping black doorway of the European Literature room.
Vincent slowly slipped Shakespeare’s Macbeth back on the shelf and waited for Charlie’s next move. He was trapped in the reference room until Charlie continued on his rounds.
No sound came from Charlie for many long minutes, until his soft voice asked, "Are you here, tonight, Shakespeare?"
The enclosing silence of a quiet library was his only answer.
"I hope you are," Charlie continued, addressing the empty air. "Tonight is our last night together." The old guard’s next words were edged with bitterness. "I have been retired!"
Charlie’s anger set in. "They say I am too old to guard these ancient halls any longer. They want a young whippersnapper, who can shoot holes through a set of encyclopedia!" Charlie laughed, his round belly shaking, but his joke was not heartfelt and soon faded into sadness once more.
In the concealing shadows, Vincent silently mourned the loss of his gentle companion and thanked Charlie for this bit of information so that his ghost would be prepared for the change. Charlie’s friendly attitude toward his ghost had enabled the elusive lion man to prowl the halls of the library without the constant fear that Charlie would act on his suspicions about the "supernatural" library occurrences.
"Are you around tonight, Shakespeare? If you are, would you let me know…somehow?"
Charlie listened to the silence surrounding him, almost wishing a response, but knowing that there would not be one. "You know, Shakespeare, I have a confession to make," Charlie’s voice betrayed an inner smile. "I know that you are not a ghost."
Charlie had Vincent’s undivided attention. He would be at a disadvantage if Charlie tried to prove his theory tonight.
"I hope my confession does not upset you …I want you to know, Shakespeare, that I have kept my suspicions a secret." The old guard chuckled, "A ghost who loves the great authors of literature could not be a danger to me or to the library. Besides, I think this library needs a ghost. It keeps the mystic air alive." Charlie paused and sighed. "And…you have been a welcome presence for this lonely night owl. I know I have talked your ear off. Sometimes, I get the feeling that you really understand all that I have been through."
Vincent relaxed his guard a little. It was nice to know that Charlie welcomed his unseen company and that in some small way he had encouraged this solitary man from beyond his own confines of the protecting darkness.
"I still have not figured out how you get in the building, Shakespeare." Charlie scratched his balding head.
There were many ways to enter a building if you were a scholar of the underbelly of a city made of steal, stone, and concrete. There were many "doors." An old building, such as the library, was easy to enter and the old roomy ductwork was convenient for accessing the different floors by way of the heating registers. Vincent’s keen hearing and cat burglar quality of movement enabled him to avoid detection. He was curious to how Charlie had concluded that he was dealing with a ghost of mortal flesh.
"I had the shaky suspicion you were not a ghost for about ten years," Charlie offered in answer to Vincent's musings. "One night, I caught the briefest glimpse of a moving shadow and captured the corner of a coat in the beam of my flashlight before it disappeared around a corner."
That particular night had been a very close call, the one and only night Vincent had agreed to take one of the other tunnel dwellers with him. His friend had slipped on the polished floor as they eluded Charlie and he had considered himself lucky to have escaped clean, not so as Charlie recounted the incident. " I raced down the hall and around the corner into a dead-end hallway with three doors. I found them all securely locked…You just disappeared into thin air and to this day I do not know how you get in here."
Charlie became silent as he reflected upon all the nights that he had kept vigil over his beloved library. After twenty years, he would be lost at night without the familiar walls surrounding him.
Vincent weighted the possibility of revealing himself to Charlie, but wondered if the elderly guard could survive the shock of meeting his elusive ghost in all his unique, golden flesh. He was a playwright’s nightmare come to life and the reality of his over six foot, massive, leonine form could stop Charlie's aging heart. Vincent could see the headlines in the morning papers: ‘Retired Security Guard Slain by Scare from Library Ghost’.
"Are you there, Shakespeare?" Charlie's emotional voice held a plead. He needed to know that there was someone in the shadows listening to an elderly man facing the uncertain years of a forced retirement. He knew that society no longer had use for an old man. "Let me know you are here…"
Vincent could almost hear the debate going on in his own mind in the silence of the dark room. He looked up and in the dimness quickly found a particular Classic on the topmost shelf. In the hall, Charlie, in a cloud of despair, rose slowly from the fancy chair and began the long walk down the marble corridor. The click of his heels was suddenly halted when deep in the bowels of the European Literature room there was heard a loud thud.
Charlie moved cautiously back to the doorway and swung his flashlight beam into the piercing darkness of the room. The guard walked deliberately to the last aisle, his roving beam landing on the leather bound book on the worn gray carpet. "Richard the Third," Charlie breathed as he retrieved the renowned volume. A smile lit up his weathered features as he realized what this gesture meant. He looked about him, his flashlight rechecking the aisle he had come down and the one he stood in, the light dancing off the bookbindings. "Shakespeare?!" Charlie whispered.
Silence. Stillness from the veiling shadows. Charlie moved back to the doorway and waited…hoped. As the silent moments passed, he looked down at the chosen book and smiled as he reconsidered his conclusion. Shakespeare was only a ghost after all.
Charlie shut off his flashlight and looked back into the darkness of the room. He held the book up and gestured it toward the shadows. "Thank you, Shakespeare," he said, then turned to walk back down the corridor.
"You are most welcome, Charlie." A low, deep voice of the softest, blackest velvet returned from the shadows.
Charlie's eyes widened. "Shakespeare?!" He had never expected Shakespeare to ever answer.
"It is I, my friend," Vincent said from the opposite end of the first row of bookcases. What little light came from the table lamp in the hall behind Charlie, illuminated him as a featureless black form. "Do not be afraid. Please, do not be afraid."
As the cold grays of night gave way to the warm glow of morning's glorious reds and golds, a retiring library security guard and his scholarly ghost parted company forever friends. At seven a.m. sharp, the daytime guard let himself in the double set of glass doors.
"Good morning, Charlie."
"Good morning, Dave."
Charlie barely looked up as he gathered his few belongings and thermos. The contented smile on the old watchman's face as he gazed happily around the grand hall caught Dave off guard. Charlie had not been too happy when he found out that he had to retire. "Looking forward to retirement?" Dave asked awkwardly.
"No." Charlie admitted, "But I go knowing that this place will be well looked after when I go."
Dave nodded in agreement and offered the aged gentleman his hand to shake. "We will miss you, Charlie. The library will not be the same without you on the beat. Don't worry, we'll take good care of this place for you."
"Thanks, Dave." His hand released, Charlie let it stray to the leather bound Richard III lying on the desk between the two men. He could not help but smile as he remembered a promise from Shakespeare---his new friend, Vincent. "If you are ever in want of anything, anytime, leave a note in Richard III and I will come to your aid."
"Do you have any advice for the new youngster tonight?" Dave asked, settling into the hinged chair.
Charlie's face lit up with a big secret-keeping grin as he handed the worn book to Dave, "Tell him to make friends with Shakespeare." With a jolly wink, Charlie was gone leaving a bewildered Dave to watch him go.