I was in the back of the bookstore, browsing something on one of the lower shelves. It was cold in that lonely corner where the sunlight didn't quite reach, and when the hairs on the back of my neck started picking up, that was when I knew that I was being watched.
I turned slowly. Two people now stood at the end of the aisle, glancing in my direction. The man was tall and bespectacled, and he wore a loose green shirt against crisp blue jeans. The woman wore a dominating black blouse on top of formal black slacks. They both looked young, lean and hungry, and I instinctively clutched at the book I was holding with greedy fingers.
"We know who you are, Sean Uy," the man said.
I only clutched harder at the book, in case I needed to use it as a weapon. "How do you know my name?" I asked.
"We've been watching you for some time," the man said.
"Do tell," I answered, cautiously standing up. "What business do you have with me?"
"We have a proposition for you."
It had come to this, I realized. I had spent too much time in the bargain bookstores, too many moments perusing dusty shelves and ancient stock, all for the want of new reading material. It was only a matter of time before my presence would have been observed and recorded. It was only a matter of time before they came for me.
I tucked the book under my arm. "There are thirteen more shelves in this establishment that I haven't yet visited," I said. "If you have a proposition for me, you'd better name it right now, or else stop wasting my time."
"We represent a consortium, Mr. Uy," the man said, removing his glasses. "A small consortium with powerful members."
"And what would this consortium want with me?"
"You are a man of developing skills, Mr. Uy. You know the correct price for a rare back issue, the scarcity of a long-forgotten series, and the volatility of the collectibles market. You can spot a single relevant title from a stack of three thousand covers about five meters away."
"What does that have to do with you?"
"We are hunters," the man said. "Simple lovers of good books, and ruthless hunters of the same. Each of us has a different set of interests, Mr. Uy, and we employ a great deal of talent with skills similar to yours."
"And you want me to be part of your talent pool?" I asked. "Is this the meaning of the entire black charade?"
The woman started forward. "Why, you insolent little ass," she said. "Do you know just who you're talking to?"
The man laughed at this, and I wasn't sure if he was amused by my response or her reaction. He drew a soft white cloth from his pocket, and began wiping his glasses in the silence of the aisle.
"Our operation is quite simple, Mr. Uy. Each of us is a bibliophile, much like you are turning out to be. Each of us scours the magazine racks, the bargain outlets, and the garage sales for many an elusive volume to read. But we're only human, and we can't be in more than one place at a time. We're each mostly confined to our own little areas."
I smiled. "I know this," I told him. "You can't get rid of that nagging feeling, can't you? That crawling sensation that you have when you imagine that there's a valuable book sometime, somewhere far away you can't find or reach. Maybe you're at work when the store gets its new shipment. Maybe you're three hundred miles to the north, wondering about that convention in the south. Maybe you lie awake at night, concerned about how many books out there you've missed, all of them sitting somewhere beyond your long, dark reach."
The man stopped cold. The woman snarled silently at me, and I knew I had them all figured out.
"What we ask is simplicity itself, Mr. Uy. Each of us has a list of wants and needs. All that we require each of our members to do is to keep such a list in mind whenever they browse the shelves in their own spare time."
"What, then," I growled, "if it means that I'm doing your shopping for you?"
"Oh, you won't be doing our shopping for us, Mr. Uy. You'll just be... canvassing for us, in a way. If one of us seeks a Diana Wynne Jones novel that you should find, then you drop us a line. Should one of us demand a second-edition Crichton manuscript, then you shall reserve a copy if you ever manage to locate one."
"And what do I get out of it?"
"The same, Mr. Uy. That lost Steve Jackson volume that you're been looking for? Should one of our contacts finds it, then you can be notified within minutes. That rare interactive Escape series that you've been seeking for the past ten years? We can have you on the site within an hour, if one of our operatives sees fit to make a call."
My mouth felt dry and heavy. I raised an eyebrow in swift anticipation, but lowered it a second later when I realized the consequences.
"No deal," I said.
"No deal?" the woman answered.
A smile played at the corner of the man's mouth. "Fascinating," he said. "I suppose you would care to enlighten us as to your reasoning?"
"You've got a good idea there," I said. "It looks good on the paper you've scribbled on. But reality has a way of tilting things out of whack, and it's reality — and more than a bit of human behavior, mind you — that will cause it to collapse like a house of cards."
The woman glared at me as though I was throwing away a golden opportunity. The smile never left her companion's lips, and I wondered if he somehow knew something that I didn't.
"People don't always visit the bookstores just to look for books," I said. "That's an unrealistic way of looking at things. Since when was the last time you passed by a place to buy that one exact volume that happens to be on your mind? People browse — and it's only when their sense of curiosity is sated do they actually bring their choices to the cashier's post."
"You say that as though you truly believe in it," the man said. "But we know better. Each of us has a list in our own minds, a true idea of wants that we constantly seek in the literary receptacles. And we're always looking for those."
"Take a close look at those 'lists' sometime," I said. "It's easy to say that you want a first-edition copy of The Tales of Beedle the Bard, for example. But how specific are your requests? How sure can you get when there are tons of variants and endless minutiae out there?"
"Perhaps the tables have turned, Mr. Uy. One of us now seems to be wasting the other's time."
"Stephen King is on my list, you imbecile. But I neither look for just any Stephen King work, nor do I search for select volumes. I look for Stephen King works that I find interesting, something that I believe will be worth the time they take to read.
"I can entrust the responsibility of specific titles to another person, but I can't entrust the impression that comes from my heart and mind. I want to leaf through my books, find something good enough to read, and then take it home. And I am the sole arbitrator of such personal standards.
"I don't want thirty people telling me that they've found a Stephen King novel in such-and-such a store, because Stephen King is in practically every sale. I want to find him myself, and I don't want to be beholden to you all just because you're looking for something that I may or may not be able to find."
The man drew himself up, his glasses reflecting the cold glint of silicon and wire across the sparse light. He seemed to grow across the shadows of the empty aisle, and his companion shrunk against the chill of his long gaze.
"You are a fool, Mr. Uy. We seek to do a service across those... collectors... who only wish to fulfill their literary desires."
"Then you're talking to the wrong person," I said. "I'm not one of your so-called 'collectors'. I'm just a plain old reader, looking for new books."
For a moment, I thought that the man was going to do something rash and regrettable. For a moment I imagined thunder and lightning to emerge from his form. But the shadows held back at that point, and the light resumed its march, enough for him to lean back against the shelves and fix me with nothing more than his companion's cold glare.
"You will understand in time, Mr. Uy," he said. "I hope that, by the time you realize just what you have denied this day, then you shall still be able to find all of what you seek."
And in an instant, both the man and the woman were gone.
I turned back to the shelf, feeling the brittle pages of the paperback book under my arm and wondering if, perhaps, the wisdom was there. We all had certain items on our watch list, after all, certain items to look for in the darkest recesses of the bargain bins and the rotten corners of forgotten warehouses. To the collectors, ignorance may have been bliss, and knowledge divine.
Then I found another title that looked as though it might have provided some interesting midnight reading, and I settled down to browse.