by John Clark
Past Due is a never before published mystery suspense short story.
I tried not to roll my eyes as Delia handed me the phone and gave me one of her half stressed, half ashamed looks before bolting out the door. She hadn’t bothered to explain her abrupt departure. There was no need. We had been through this same scenario at least once every other week since the local employment coach had referred her to me.
She was a hell of a worker and a quick study, even though her thirty-going on fifty-five appearance gave the world a different impression. She was rough around the edges, but in our library, that wasn’t necessarily a liability, as we were getting more and more patrons who fit that description. Besides, I was getting a bit burned out trying to manage the increase in circulation and everything associated with it, so I wasn’t about to look a gift horse in the mouth. Free help was free help and when that help could handle everything from crying babies to cataloging, so much the better.
Delia wasn’t the problem, Herb was. He was a piece of work all right, three hundred pounds of rotten-toothed crudeness with a penchant for twelve-packs, under-aged girls and a complete aversion to personal hygiene and gainful employment. Delia had been one of his early conquests. When she got pregnant at fifteen, her father gave Herb a choice; marry his daughter, or have his balls removed with a blast from a twelve gauge. Even an idiot like Herb could figure out which was the better choice real quick.
Dear old dad thought he was doing the right thing. In reality, he had sentenced his daughter to legalized slavery. By the time Delia was twenty, she had three kids, was living in a drafty double-wide trailer with a leaky roof and was missing three teeth thanks to her loving husband. To make matters worse, Herb had lost his license after a second felony DUI and had impregnated at least two more gullible teens. Court-imposed child support ate up anything the lazy swine brought in, plus most of the AFDC checks the state sent on the first of the month which were intended to feed and clothe Delia and her three toddlers.
When she had been referred to the library under the state retraining program, my initial impulse was to say no, but I grudgingly agreed to interview her. To my surprise, there was a capable, intelligent and pretty resilient person underneath her beaten-down exterior. I decided to give her a try.
If we could have buried Herb in Simmons Swamp on the first day she came to work, I doubt we would’ve had any on the job difficulties, nor would have anyone been terribly upset. Unfortunately, I must have been out sick when they covered doing away with redneck assholes in library school, so the idea never occurred to me.
Delia not only learned fast, she wasn’t afraid to ask when she wasn’t sure what to do next. Granted, her idea of work attire made me cringe, but I took her on an after hour trip to the local goodwill store that remedied things in a hurry. Too bad we couldn’t remedy her Herb problem as easily.
On her third day on the job, the fat pig showed up at the library, smelling like a brewery and itching to show God and everyone who was the boss. The minute I saw him waddling across the parking lot from the grocery store, I called the boys down at the treatment plant. Ever since I started lending country music CDs, they’ve had my back. About the time Lardo Boy was turning the knob on the library door, Evan Tingsbury and a couple of his beefier crew members were pulling up in front of the library. I have to say, Evan can swing a shovel in a way that makes even dim-wits like Herb catch on quick. Two swipes and he was waddling back the way he came as fast as his three hundred pound bulk would take him.
We had no more library visits from Herb after that experience, but he managed to get drunk enough every couple weeks to create a crisis that had Delia in tears and running home to protect the kids. I tried reasoning with her the first couple times, but her fear that Herb might injure one of the children was stronger than my logic, so I dropped the whole thing.
It was the week after I taught Delia how and why I weeded certain books that a miracle happened. When Herb made his late Friday afternoon phone call, Delia didn’t leave immediately. She set the phone down carefully, rearranged things on the circulation desk and used the staff bathroom before excusing herself and hurrying off. I shrugged and went back to removing books from the reference shelves in preparation for deletion from the library catalog.
Delia was late for work on Tuesday and I had visions of one of the local law enforcement officers coming into the library and announcing that Herb had finally done something more lethal than stupid. When she did arrive around noon, I could sense a change, but couldn’t pinpoint what it was.
“I’m sorry I’m late, but it isn’t gonna happen again.”
There was a new look of confidence on her face and I couldn’t remember ever seeing her smile that broadly. She fumbled in her purse before pulling something out and handing it to me.
“Well, that explains why I couldn’t find it when I went to stamp that stack of discards this morning.” I held up the now thoroughly battered discard stamp she’d just handed me. “What did you use it on to mess it up so bad?”
Delia handed me the morning paper which I hadn’t had a chance to read yet. “Look at page three.”
I didn’t know whether to laugh or hug her, so I did both. There on the front steps of the county sheriff’s office was Herb, wearing filthy boxers and trussed up like a Christmas goose thanks to what looked like a couple rolls of duct tape. Every inch of exposed flesh was stamped ‘discarded.’
“Evan said he’d help me out if I ever decided it was time to get shut of Herb. On Sunday afternoon, he was so hung over and foul-mouthed, I lost it and gave Evan a call. I started thinking about this when you taught me about weeding, so I stole the stamp on Friday, just in case. I got Judge Perkins to give me an order that will keep Herb away from me for a year. If he even thinks about giving me and the kids a hard time, I have a bunch of pictures like the one in the paper I can post on that Facebook account you taught me how to set up and I’m not afraid to put his name and address on it either. I’m sorry about the stamp. If you will order a new one, I’ll pay for it.”
“You’ll do no such thing, my dear. We’re going to frame this one and hang it on the wall behind the circulation desk right beside a big photo of Herb, just in case someone else in a similar situation needs inspiration down the road.”
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