The Request

The librarian folded his arms and frowned. “Are you sure you want to?”

The Request
Photo by Gabriel Sollmann / Unsplash

by Jeff King

Doug was tired of waiting in line but could tell the ordeal he had been witnessing was nearly over. The person in front of him, whose smartphone was in a constant state of moving towards and away from her face so that she appeared to be ever on the cusp of suspending or continuing a conversation, was nearly done talking to the patient librarian at the circulation desk.

“So, you can’t just recall the book is what you’re saying?” she said.

“No, I’m afraid not,” the librarian said for the fifth time. “The person who has signed it out gets to have it for the full lending period, and, as I already mentioned, there are four people who have placed holds on it, which means that it won’t be available for — let’s see — at least 13 weeks. Would you like me to add your name to the queue?”

The woman stood there for a long moment and then, instead of answering, just turned away from the librarian, raised her device to her face and immediately resumed the conversation.

“You heard that? Uh, yeah. I know. I know. What. The. Fuuuuu…”

Doug did not hear her complete the long, exasperated obscenity, as she had stepped outside before uttering the final voiceless velar plosive. Instead, he moved forward timidly in the line, trying hard to compose a face communicating both deep sympathy and a disinterested encouragement. He knew that he would encounter patrons like that too once he’d finished his studies and found work. 

“Hi,” the librarian said with a sigh, more relieved than exhausted. “How can I help you?”

“I had a super quick question. I’m trying to find an ebook, and I know that it’s available through some kind of subscription database called ‘Brouha,’ but I can’t seem to find that service through the VPL website?”

The librarian smiled sadly and said, “Well, I’m afraid we don’t have that service here. That’s why it’s not available.”

Doug laughed, confused, and said, “Oh, my brother in Edmonton said that they have Brouha through their library.”

The librarian nodded. “Yes, that’s true.”

He smiled and then waited. Doug also waited — or tried to — before saying: “Is there a reason we don’t have access to it? It’s got great selection.”

The librarian didn’t respond at first and then gestured to the wide space beyond the circulation desk, where rows and rows of tall shelves filled with every colour of book one could imagine formed an enticing, prismatic labyrinth.

“We’ve got a great selection here.”

Doug laughed again. He shook his head and said, “Ok, well, is there some sort of form I can fill in to request that we — I don’t know — purchase a subscription to Brouha?”

At this, the librarian folded his arms and frowned. “Are you sure you want to?”

Doug looked around to see if someone was filming them. “Uh, yes. Of course. It’s a really great service! My brother —”

“Does he have mountains?”

“Well, no—”

“Majestic forests? The sun-kissed ocean?”

“I’m not sure what that has to do with this.”

“Vancouver Island? Stanley Park?”

“They’ve got a mall — and I’m told the river valley is nice at this time of year,” Doug leaned in conspiratorially as he said this, imagining he and the librarian were playing some sort of game.

An infuriatingly blank face told him otherwise. Doug threw up his hands.

“Fine! Whatever.” He turned to walk away.

“Hey,” the librarian's voice had softened. “Listen. If you want to fill out a request, you’re welcome to. I just wanted to make sure you were sure.” He paused. “It can be a bit of a process.”

Doug turned back, bewildered, but nodded. “I’m sure.”

The librarian withdrew a sheet of white paper with text and several fields printed on it. He handed Doug a pen and motioned for him to fill it out elsewhere on the circulation desk. A small queue had formed. 

Doug jotted down his contact details and described what he was looking for:

Brouha: It is a wonderful library database with ebooks and audiobooks and other media that my brother in Edmonton uses regularly. Surely Vancouver can do just as well as Edmonton!

He scribbled a happy face after this line and then handed the form back to the librarian. The latter took it back once he’d finished helping the next person in line. He glanced it over — not even the happy face would crack the slightest smile on his solemn visage — and then lay it on the desk. He reached down into a drawer, somewhere near the back of it, and withdrew an abnormally large stamp. The top of the handle had a kind of large bird carved into it. After pressing it into ink, he slammed it down on the page with all the force of someone swinging a rock across the pate of their enemy’s skull. He looked at Doug silently and didn’t move or even blink as he watched him leave.

A furious knocking woke Doug from a dream he was having about a smartphone that had just learned to speak and had begun to shout expletives at the most awkward moments possible.

“Not at Grandma’s birthday!” Doug heard himself cry out as he passed from sleep into the gray morning light.

The knocking continued unabated.

Doug got up and shuffled over to the door, looking through the peephole just in time to see a large sledgehammer swinging towards him. He jumped out of the way as the door exploded into a shower of splintered wood and metal.

Two large men, dressed in dark suits, stood filling the doorway. The slightly smaller member of the two held the sledgehammer.

“Did you not hear us knocking?” he shouted, pointing the sledgehammer towards him menacingly.

“I’m sorry, I was sleeping! Do you have any idea what time it is? My door!”

The men both grunted something between apathy and a laugh. They stepped back into the hallway to make room for a third person who was slowly making his way up the staircase.

“Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.” The third man, who was wearing beige slacks and a sweater vest over a pale blue dress shirt, approached. “Boys, did you have to make such a mess?” His hands were on his cheeks, evidently — but possibly also ironically — aghast at the destruction. He turned to face Doug and shook his head.

“I’m so sorry, sir. We will find a way…” He bent down to pick up one half of the door knob that had exploded across the hall a moment before. “Ah, yes. That was too much, boys.”

Doug had some of the boldness of sleep still in him and felt it stirring as he gazed upon this ridiculous figure. He took a step forward. “Now what’s the big idea? It’s 5 in the frigging morning. My door is in shambles. You’re lucky my wife and daughter are out of town this weekend. I could sue!”

The man in the sweater vest stood up with a somewhat hurt and bewildered look on his face. “But you asked us to come here. Don’t you remember?”

Doug stared at him blankly for a long moment. Nothing was coming to mind.

A flash of teeth and then the sweater vest began to move gently towards him. “You did submit a form at the library, didn’t you?”

Doug’s mind was still blank. A form?

“The request you made at the library recently?”

Oh yes! The request for Brouha! That had been — at least a month ago, Doug thought. He murmured a yes.

“I thought so. And on that form you checked that you wanted us to follow-up with you.”

Doug could feel his brow furrow. Glancing from the disintegrating door frame back to the toothy grin of the man in front of him, he said: “I thought you’d call, I guess. Or text me?”

“Oh no. I’m afraid not us.” He extended his hand, “My name is Errol Salamander, I’m a representative of the provincial government.”

Doug took Errol’s hand in a daze and mumbled, “What department?”

“Oh, that would be the Department of Culture, Media, and Transpersonal Communications. I’m sure you’ve heard of us —”

“No, I’m afraid I —”

Errol didn’t pause. “There was that new wing for the museum we funded in Kamloops? No? No matter. At any rate, we are here because you asked us to come here.”

Doug shook his head: “But I didn’t! I just wanted the library to get a subscription to Brouha.”

Errol’s smile faded at this. He stood up to his full height, revealing him to be nearly as tall as the two “boys” who had moved forward to frame him like a glowering human sandwich.

“Yes. Brooou-ha,” the man said, his voice straining over the digraph. Coincidentally or not, the wider of the large men who had broken his door spat when Errol said this. The thick gob shone on the hallway floor like a pale, polished stone.

“You’re going to need to come with us, I’m afraid,” Errol whispered.

Doug took a step backwards but was not fast enough. The man who had spat just before rushed towards him, reaching for his neck. For a split second, Doug noticed how the man’s bottom lip still glistened with a thin sheen of saliva, and then he knew no more.

“For the last time. Are you working for the Russians? The Chinese? Lichtenstein?”

A stranger was shouting at Doug. She’d been shouting at him for hours. 

“I told you already. I just wanted the library to look into an Brouha subscription. It’s a perfectly simple request!”

“Yeah, like it was a simple request for Castro in ’63 too.” The woman laughed scoffingly. “Errol was right about you.”


“You’re obsessed with Brouha, aren’t you?”

“No! It was just a request!” Doug strained against his seat. His hands and feet had been handcuffed to the chair. “You can’t hold me here! I have rights!”

“You should have thought of that before you asked for Brouha! You disgust me, you traitor!”

There was a knock at the door. It opened and a man entered. Doug recognized him. It was the librarian he’d given the form to. 

“You! You did this!” Doug shook against the chair more forcefully. “Why didn’t you warn me?”

Following close behind, still dressed in slacks and a sweater vest, was Errol. The librarian looked Doug over solemnly. He glanced back at Errol and said, “Yeah, this is him.”

Errol smiled broadly and turned to whisper something to the woman. The librarian looked at Doug once more, though without making eye contact.

“Can I go now, Mr. Salamander?” the librarian said.

“Yes, my friend. And with my thanks.”

The librarian turned and walked out the door, which clanged shut behind him. For the first time since the ordeal began, Doug felt the first intimations of real fear creep up his spine. The chilling smile of his enemy, bright with teeth, seemed to float before him in the darkness of the room.

“You recognized my friend?”

Doug did not respond.

“It’s alright. He remembered you. Remembered how you forced him to give you the request form. Remembered how you filled out that form with nary a thought or regret in the world. Remembered how he was forced to stamp it with what they call in the business: ‘the sign of the albatross’. Most librarians go their whole careers without having to do that.”

Doug cleared his throat. “I’ve told you a million times. I was just wanting the library to sign up for a database — my brother says Brouha is great.”

Errol threw out his arm to stop the woman who, filled with a sudden rage, had rushed towards Doug as though to strike him.

“Now, now, Ms. Drudd. We may have all sorts of powers in the CMTC Department, but hitting our interrogation subjects is not one of them.”

He came close and squatted so that his face was on level with Doug’s.

“I hear you, sir. ‘Brouha is so great.’ ‘My brother says it’s so great.’ ‘Brouha, Brouha, Brouha-ha-ha-haa.’ You sound like a fanatic.” 

“Or a horse,” Ms. Drudd ventured grimly.

Errol’s smile faded at this. “Yes. Or a horse.” He looked down at a closed manila folder he was holding. There was a paper clip gleaming on the edge holding a small photo. “I've seen your file. I’ll be honest — you don’t look like terrorist material.” He held the photo out: it was a screenshot of Doug waiting in line at the library with his hand resting absently on his stomach.

Doug cried out, “I’m not! How many times do I have to say it? What does Brouha have to do with anything?”

“I believe you,” Errol whispered solemnly. “The librarian didn’t think you were that kind of person either.”

Without another word, Errol reached forward and undid the cuffs restraining Doug. He stood up and walked over to the door. He opened it.

“You’re free to go.”

Doug didn’t move. “I don’t understand.”

“You got caught up in something larger than yourself, my friend. We’ll be keeping a close eye on you, though.”

Doug looked over at Ms. Drudd, whose arms were folded and face still burnt flushed with fury, and then back at Errol. The ironic smile had reappeared on his face, and he laughed.

“Honest mistake, right? Honest mistake.”

Doug nodded and shuffled out of the room.

“Did I send you that essay?” Doug’s brother asked, his voice crackling into the two buds that sprouted from Doug’s ears. “Žižek’s got a great joke in it.”

Doug’s mind was elsewhere. He’d been home for 24 hours. His wife and daughter were due to arrive back from their trip early the next morning so he was trying to clean the house — and replace the door — before he went to bed. The work was helping to distract him from processing his adventure prematurely. Talking with his brother was helping as well.

“Oh, actually, I just realized that the essay was in a book I got out from the library through —”

“Don’t!” Doug shouted, at the same time knocking over a vase he’d just filled with water with the vacuum cleaner. “Don’t say it.”

“What? Brou—,” his brother started.

“Please!” Doug said again. “Please don’t. I’ve had such a time.”

Doug proceeded to tell him everything that had happened. 

“Geez, man. I’m so sorry,” Doug’s brother whispered. “I didn’t know.”

They were quiet for a long time.

“I’m not going to put up with it,” Doug suddenly said.


“No. It’s insane. The whole thing shouldn’t have happened, but when I think about it: why can’t we have Brou– why can’t we have the subscription?”

His brother warmed to the subject: “I mean, it’s really quite remarkable what resources are available. Books, movies, music. Did I tell you about the audiobooks?”

“Yeah, yeah.” Doug sighed. “You’ve told me lots of times.”

“Right. So, what’s the plan?”

“I’m signing us up. I’m signing all of us up.”

“For Brouha?”

Doug smiled as he picked up the vase and stuffed the flowers that had fallen out back in. He set the vase down gently, so that it caught the late afternoon sunlight through the window. The bouquet burst with colour.

“You know it.” 

Errol and his team were waiting for Doug when he arrived at the Central branch of the Vancouver Public Library. The road had been blocked by half a dozen unmarked vehicles as well as an ostentatious black Dodge Viper GT2 with red stripes that Errol had obviously rented for the operation. Nevertheless, Doug was walking towards them so confidently that several of the team did not realize it was him. Errol noticed right away, though.

“You didn’t think we wouldn’t know, did you? We’ve been listening to everything you’ve been saying since the second you left the interrogation room.”

Doug smiled and nodded, “I knew.”

“We may not be allowed to hit you during an interrogation, but bugging your phone? That’s for sure on the table – as is hitting you if you keep pushing for the library to sign up for your beloved Brouha.”

Doug stopped moving forwards. “So you’re going to arrest me?”

Errol laughed as he looked around at the others with him. They started to laugh as well. The only one who didn’t was Ms. Drudd, Doug’s fierce interrogator: she just stood there, cracking her knuckles.

“I think the rest of the group here are planning to chalk what’s about to happen to you up to ‘resisting arrest’ – whether you do or not is your call.”

Errol laughed again and then nodded to his team to move in. Seven or eight men with thick necks and nondescript uniforms that looked like they were about to burst began walking towards him. Ms. Drudd was close behind. Although Doug couldn’t see her through the massive bodies, he could hear her knuckles crackling ever closer.

Abruptly, Doug raised his phone high above his head. The group stopped.

“Don’t move any closer or I’ll do it.”

“Do what?” Errol mocked, “Call your brother so he can gloat about all of the academic volumes Brouha has available?”

“No,” Doug said in a low voice. “If you take another step, I’ll submit my application for a Brouha subscription.”

Errol, who had been leaning against the Viper up to this point, suddenly sat up. “Wait. Wait, all of you.”

“Good, I’ve got your attention,” Doug said a bit more loudly now. “I’ve filled in the Brouha institutional subscription form on my phone here. Your librarian friend was nice enough when he came by the interrogation room to be wearing his name tag, so I put the request in his name. All I’ve got to do is press this button and the Vancouver Public Library as represented by Mr. --” He glanced at the phone’s screen. “– Mr. Valentine Di Angelo, Head Librarian, will be the grateful owner of a year’s subscription to Brouha for use by the people of this fine city.”

At this, Errol rushed forward, pushing his way through his henchmen, who were looking like so many apes in the presence of a monolith. 

“Listen,” he said, his voice for the first time strained with terror. “You cannot press that button. I don’t know how you hacked the system. How could you possibly--?”

“I’m a library science student, motherfucker,” Doug said crisply.

“Oh shit. But your file didn’t say anything.” All of Errol’s irony was gone now. His face was the colour of stale tea. 

“I’m starting in the fall, Errol. You should’ve checked my LinkedIn.”

He reached a trembling hand forward. “Please,” he whispered.

“I want answers,” Doug said.

Errol nodded. He motioned for his team to stand down. Ms. Drudd swore and stomped back towards the vehicles, getting into the Viper’s passenger seat with a loud huff.

“We can’t subscribe to Brouha.”

“I know. Your friend Valentine told me as much back when I first asked him to sign up.”

“No, you don’t understand. We can’t subscribe to it. If we do, terrible things will happen.”

Doug lowered his phone slowly and moved his finger away from the large blue “Submit” button on the screen.

“It happened under the previous government.” Errol’s voice was low; his face, pale and serious. “It never made the news, but there was – how do I put it? An event. Something so unparalleled you won’t believe me.”

“Try me,” Doug said, putting on his bravest possible voice.

“We were visited by three spirits. They descended from the air into the centre of the Parliament Building in Victoria. I was there – just an eager young page at the time. The room filled with a warm, orange light and the sound of birds. The Speaker had to stop the proceedings and everything. It’s where the ‘Transpersonal Communications’ part of our department’s mandate comes in.”

“Are you pulling my leg?”

“I wish I was – I mean, not literally, but I do wish this was just a joke.” Errol sighed. “They interrupted the third reading of a bill to increase funding for libraries.”

“They didn’t!”

“Yeah, they did.” Errol paused. “They told us that they were the spirits of BC’s mountains, forests, and waters. We didn’t believe them, of course, until they sprayed half the ministers with water and made a tree appear under the Speaker’s Chair. It raised him up four or five feet, I’m told.”

“What did they want?”

“They informed the Legislative Assembly that the province was overdue to make its centennial sacrifice.”

“A sacrifice? What do you mean?”

“If you think about it for half a minute you’ll understand. How could it be possible for one place to contain so much beauty and vibrancy and life? ‘Beautiful British Columbia’: it was in our frigging tagline. Haven’t you asked yourself: at what cost this glory? At what price this bliss?”

Doug’s face fell when he heard this. “Sun-kissed ocean. Stanley Park.” He understood. “So, Brouha. That’s the sacrifice.”

Errol nodded. His eyes welled with tears. “I’ll be honest. Hearing your brother over the wiretap go on and on about the selection that Brouha had almost made me crazy. Of course, Edmonton has Brouha! The spirits probably don’t even know where Edmonton is! Drudd will tell you – where’d she go? It doesn’t matter. I was a basket case. Audiobooks too? It’s so unfair!”

Doug closed his eyes and took a long, deep breath. The air was warm on his face, despite being late fall. He opened his eyes and looked up from the bottom of the steps where he stood towards the beautiful stone library. The leaves of the trees were mostly still green, but from time to time splashes of red and fiery orange would interrupt the streetscape. All around was the sound of a city filled with life, of small shops and bicycles and laughing people walking slowly along or just sitting on benches.

“Ok. I’ll leave it alone.” He opened his phone and cancelled the subscription and then closed the browser. He slipped the phone back into his pocket. “For the mountains and trees and waters, I’ll just leave it.”

Errol and Doug did not speak much more after this, although Errol did give him his direct line and told him to look him up once he’d finished his studies. Doug said goodbye and waved at Ms. Drudd who was still glowering at him from the Viper. The sun’s last rays were tripping along West Georgia as Doug made his way towards Granville Station, deep in thought.

His phone rang just as he was about to go into the station. It was his brother. Doug put the phone to his ear, eager to share what he had learned. Before he could say anything, though, his brother blurted out:

“I’ve come up with the perfect solution! You can just borrow my password!”

Doug felt a smile widen on his face and almost thought for a moment that he could hear a chuckling on the breeze. He stepped into the station and immediately was lost in the milling, glorious crowd.

Jeff King lives in Edmonton, Alberta with his family, which includes (perhaps ominously) six children, six chickens, and six rabbits.