Crypt Girls

1923. Saint Louis, Missouri


Rose drifted up the central stairs of the library, carrying the dusty tomes in her charge. She and Lily were “Crypt Girls,” sorting and re-shelving books in the main stacks in the sub-basements. Rose was occasionally charged with helping people in the public research rooms, while Lily usually stayed in the stack down in the “The Crypt.” The pay wasn’t great, but with both her and Lily bringing in small paychecks as library assistants, they were able to keep up with the rent and have enough to live on, although sometimes a bit sparsely.

They’d graduated St. Tristan’s after rooming together for four years there, and they’d gotten a lot closer than they’d ever have expected. Not long after they left the University, Lily had hired on at the library in Saint Louis and then sent Rose a letter asking if she was interested in working at the library as well. Rose was more than a little relieved; her mother was pressuring her to consider marrying a suitable well off man. Perhaps sensing the kind of relationship Lily and she had fallen into, her mother didn’t really seem to care which man. Rose had happily moved in with Lily, and they’d easily resumed their relationship, a very easy-going “Boston Marriage.” Very occasionally, they would accept a double date invitation to a club or dancing, but neither she nor Lily had any real desire for a serious long-term male companionship. They’d both tried that, and had some fun, but found each other much better company.

Even if they’d been inclined, dating men was problematic, the library did have a morals clause, even if it was nowhere near as strict or seriously enforced as some of the ones she had seen; an occasional date would be acceptable, but any hint of real impropriety, or even a long term relationship, would cost them their jobs.

The public library research room was usually empty during the day, with the exception of the “quiet man,” Ken Stanton, who spent Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays researching almost from open to close. Rose figured he must be a professor, or, perhaps, a writer, although his broad shoulders seemed rather more designed for longshoreman duty. The conservatively dressed man was always intensely focused on his wide ranging research, but was invariably courteous and distantly friendly to Rose, who found usually herself searching for a bizarre variety of obscure texts on his behalf. He usually wore a nice linen suit, occasionally removing his jacket while he sorted through the Crypt of books Invariably, he would quietly ask for her permission to doff his jacket – and it wasn’t in a perfunctory manner; she got the feeling he was actually concerned that he might offend her. She considered him something of a reliable fixture and, to be honest, a pleasant diversion. He was certainly better than the standard run of Frat boys she always had propositioning her, and he certainly had far better manners.

He’d been coming here since before even Lily started working at the library and knew the holdings well. A ragged scar ran down the left side of his face – Lily irreverently insisted that it was a dueling scar, but Rose harbored a suspicion that it was more serious, since his hands were heavily scarred as well. Perhaps, she mused, they were remnants of an early life hard-lived – or, she figured, he was of an age that he could well have served in the War. On anyone else, those scars might have been menacing, but he was so quiet and unassuming, they just didn’t have any impact, at least on her. His rather broad and heavily muscled shoulders, however, did attract her attention, although not in a negative way. Lily teased her about him, telling her that she was dreaming of being carried off over one of his shoulders, and, perhaps she was, just a little bit. Of course Lily didn’t seem too put off with the prospect of it herself – pointing out that he did, after all, have two shoulders well-suited for transporting fair maidens.

Today, Mr. Stanton was already in his shirtsleeves and linen vest – it was hotter than usual, even for mid August, and, while the tall ceilings and ceiling fans helped a lot, the heat was everywhere. The man seemed to be focused on the limestone caverns that dotted the central Missouri landscape -Rose had brought up a dozen books ranging from geology books to land grants, as well as recent newspapers from the area.

She shifted the final books onto the table next to him.

He glanced up at her. “Did you have any luck finding them all?”

She smiled. “Every one, although there were two different land grant volumes covering the time period you are looking at, so I brought them both.”

His gaze focused on her more directly for a few seconds. “Oh? Well thank you, Rose, that will save some time.” Distractedly he added. “I don’t think I’ll need anything else for a couple of hours, so you can retreat to the Crypt – it’s a lot cooler down there. Beautiful flowers shouldn’t be left to wilt in the heat.” He said it in such an off-hand way that it was more a statement of fact than anything else.

Rose blushed, thanked him, and headed back down to the Crypt, first informing Mrs. Crenshaw of her whereabouts then working her way down to help Lily; as it turned out, Lily was as deep in the Crypt as it was possible to get – the 3rd subbasement, where the walls were carved from the living limestone. Lily was working just outside the restricted stacks- the area closed off to all but a few employees. The restricted stacks were for particularly rare and expensive books, city records, and those books that might be deemed of “morally corrosive nature.” If a book in that zone were requested, Mrs. Crenshaw would have to get approval from at least two Library Board members, then, if the request was approved, the patron would have to do his or her research in the zone with a library assistant present at all times.

Lily was sliding books neatly into their places on the shelves from her huge wooden rolling cart, but once she saw Rose was alone she stopped and plopped herself onto a clear spot on the cart, leaning against the shelves.

“Have a seat, Rose,” she gestured to another conspicuously open spot on the cart. Lily had a great memory, so she could shelve books many times faster than the next fastest attendant – a fact she occasionally took advantage of by getting way ahead, then sitting and reading for long periods of time. She still managed to get more far work done in the Crypt than anyone else. Mrs. Crenshaw certainly knew about Lily’s long breaks, but overlooked it since the work got done. Besides, Lily could be a distraction if she were in the public areas. Lily’s tall, lean form and white-blonde hair were just as notable as Rose’s curly red locks and shorter, fuller figure, but Lily lacked Rose’s ability to avoid confrontations. More than one college frat boy had been given a ringing slap before Lily was eventually sentenced to the Crypt.

Rose pulled her sweater off the cart, put it on and slid up onto the cart next to Lily.

Lily smiled and raised one eyebrow. “So how’s our man?”

Rose told her about his comment on flowers and wilting.

Lily giggled. “Think he’d want to come down here and do a little gardening?”

For the next hour they shelved a few books and Lily quietly kept up a stream of endless sharp patter, full of gardening innuendos; she was especially interested in plowing and fertilizing. Both of them were in pretty silly moods when they heard the heavy door at the top of the stairs. Footsteps echoed as someone came down from the second subbasement.

Much to Rose’s surprise, Mrs. Crenshaw came around the corner, leading Ken Stanton and carrying her heavy key ring. He had his jacket back on, which Rose felt sure would disappoint Lily, but the lower Crypt was quite cool.

“Rose. Lily. Mr. Stanton requires access to the restricted stack. So, given that we don’t have a male assistant available today, I am going to require both of you to stay in the area. There are some books that require re-shelving in the restricted stacks any case.”

Rose was puzzled, since any book pulled from the restricted stacks was always immediately re-shelved. After she let them in, however, Rose could see a large stack of volumes next to one of the large chairs in the research area in the center; clearly not everything had been put up. As they signed in, she noted that the previous research entry had been signed by Mrs. Garrison, the wife of the Library Board President. The research entry said, “various.” Mrs. Crenshaw handed Rose a card with the authorized material listed, and stepped out in odd haste, leaving Lily and Rose trading puzzled looks.

Rose gestured to the chairs and tables. “Please, Mr. Stanton, take a seat and I’ll find these records for you.”

He smiled pleasantly and moved to a large green chair with a fairly large table in front of it. “Thank you, Rose, I’m looking at older land surveys and maps, so the large table is probably for the best.”

Past him she could see Lily moving toward the large stack of un-shelved books left behind by Mrs. Garrison, pause and arch her eyebrows and mouth, “Rose?” silently. She jerked her attention back to Ken – er, Mr. Stanton – and nodded. “I’ll be back.”

The surveys and maps were side by side, so it was easy to round them up. When she returned Ken was seated in the chair writing in his notebooks while Lily sorted through the un-shelved books. After she laid the maps and surveys out she realized Lily hadn’t moved – she seemed frozen, staring at an open book in her hand. Rose moved to her side and realized Lily’s face was beet red.

“Are you okay?” she hissed.

Lily shook her head for second “I, um, I just…” her voice trailed off.

Rose had never seen Lily so out of sorts – she reached up to take the books from her, but it dropped from Lily’s apparently nerveless fingers and slid right to Ken’s foot. As he reached down and picked it up, Lily’s flushed face paled and assumed a look of absolute horror.

Rose spun and stepped over to him, shooting a look back at Lily.

Ken flipped open the cover, glanced at the bookplate and gave a light chuckle, then extended it out to her.

“Generally not, I can assume, what Lily is used to sorting?”

Still confused Rose plucked the book from his hand and flipped it open to see just what was going on. She almost dropped the book herself. Rose was hardly inexperienced, but the stunningly graphic series of illustrations of people – from India to all appearances – engaged in a rather complicated and very acrobatic sexual coupling almost made her drop the book as well.

“Oh. Dear Heavens.” She stopped, flushed from head to toe, and looked at Ken, seeing the amusement in his eyes.

He broke the awkward moment as smoothly as it was possible to do, all things considered.

“That is the Kama Sutra – it is technically a Tantric religious text, although that is not usually the reason copies are brought here from India. The binding looks new, but the plates are probably original to India judging by the paper. Probably cut from a series of scrolls. It’s an extremely valuable work.”

“I… I…”

“Libraries have to keep all sorts of material Rose, that’s what they are for. You and Lily are hardly accountable for Mrs. Garrison’s choice of… research material.”

Lily stared at the pile – there were several more books – she started looking through them, placing each somewhat gingerly on the table again. Despite her overtly brash behavior, she was actually naturally shy – her brassy quips and comments were a shield of sorts.

“I think they’re all, kind of… like that.” She held up one with an ornate lacquered wood cover while she glanced at the bindings. “These aren’t classed by subject first like the rest – they are classed by country of origin, then subject. And all the subjects are different.”

Ken nodded absently. “Since that’s a Japanese ‘marriage manual’ or ‘pillow book’ you’re holding, that makes sense. The Indian book is theology, the Japanese book would be considered an instructional book, an Arab version, if you have one, would be anatomy or physiology and that British ‘Pearl Magazine’ would be fiction.” He seemed to be sinking deeper into poring over a particular map.

Rose decided to help Lily shelve the volumes while he continued research. It turned out to be quite a slow process, which wasn’t exactly sped up by Lily’s insistence on pointing our particularly interesting illustrations to her. Or, to be honest, her own interest in those illustrations. Lily was terrible; she kept showing Rose the most lewd illustrations, especially ones with two woman and one man in them – making doe eyes, fluttering her lashes at her and asking if she thought they could find a man who could, perhaps, assist them in studying this complex and fascinating subject -all the while looking in the direction of the reading room and winking. When Rose threatened to tie her up to make her behave, all Lily said was, “Great Britain, aisle two, shelf three, the whole shelf.” Which turned out to be accurate. Caning and spanking, she helpfully pointed out, were on shelf four. And five.

Ken appeared to be oblivious to their quiet back and forth – for which Rose was grateful.

By the end of the day, the atmosphere was congenial, although not so “overly familiar” to where Mrs. Crenshaw would have any complaints, and they’d learned that the reason for Ken’s knowledge was that he’d been an attendant at a library “not unlike this one” when he was younger. Although whatever it was he did now was still unspoken. Unlike most men, he didn’t press the forced familiarity of the situation. That seemed to disappoint Lily a little, even if it was a relief to Rose. She liked working at the Library and really didn’t want to end up unemployed. When Mrs. Crenshaw popped down quietly, probably with an eye to seeing what they were up to, she found them re-ordering the map section correctly, since Lily had noticed many of the maps were misfiled. After Ken finished his research, commenting that he’d be back the next day with tracing paper, he departed, and Mrs. Crenshaw returned to lock the iron grate, letting them head out for the day through the back entrance, nearest to their apartment block.

Lily and Rose stopped on the walk home for a quick meal at the Blue Star tea room, then headed home.

Once Rose latched the door, she felt Lily’s arms around her.

“I’ve been absolutely starving for you all day!”

Rose turned and kissed her deeply, then, while Lily struggled with her clothing, “Me too. I can’t believe you were so bad down there!”

Earlier in the day, Rose had planned on getting some reading done, but that was out the window tonight; perusing explicit books from ten countries had left both her and Lily with some creative new ideas.

Ken Stanton walked into the lushly appointed restaurant, keeping his hands in sight and sliding into the chair that Giovanni “Johnny” Gambini gestured to. Johnny’s son Vittorio – or Vic – sat to his left with a thinly disguised look of contempt.

Ken accepted a glass of red wine from a concerned looking waiter.

Vic focused directly on his father. “Pops, look, I told you I can handle this – it’s just those Green boys again. A good knocking and they’ll back down.”

Johnny looked at Ken. “Please forgive my son his lack of manners. One tries, but his Mamma spoiled him way too much.”

Ken smiled, the flat, humorless smile of a true predator, although “Vic” didn’t recognize it for what it was. Ken could sense the four nervous bodyguards checked their spacing – they didn’t have the comfort of Vic’s lack of familiarity.

“Sir, I think I understand your son’s hesitance at taking in outside assistance. Caution with outsiders is a form of wisdom all its own.”

Johnny smiled, recognizing the thin effort at civility, “Still, the police are paying all too close attention to this matter and something about it smells… rotten. My boys are loyal, experienced, and well meaning, but I’d rather have a professional clean this up.” Johnny glared at Vic as he said it, a not too subtle message to shut up.

Ken pretended not to notice. “I’ll do this at the offered price, but I need a reliable delivery truck, nothing new. An old grocery truck would be best, I think. I don’t know if I can recover the shipment, but I’ll hunt down the ones who did it.”

Johnny nodded. “Do you need any other equipment?” his slight pause made it clear “equipment” meant weapons.

“No, I have everything else I need.” Ken paused. “I’m pretty sure your driver and the other man are dead. I can’t think of any reason for them to be held this long without contact, and I think we’d know if they showed up anywhere. I doubt if your shipment is still around, but if I recover it, I’ll take the finder’s fee.”

Johnny nodded. “That’s fair. I feel bad about Tony and his brothers. I’ll have to make that right with his family. As right as I can. Nothing will make up for the loss of three boys.”

Ken simply stood up and shook hands with Johnny solemnly, then walked out.

Vic stared at his father, but before he could say anything, the old man heaved a sigh of relief, suddenly looking far more aged.

“Still breathing. I know he doesn’t take those kind of jobs, but… what if he decided to?” Looking at Vic he went on: “If I have a heart attack or get hit by a truck or whatever, when that man shows up and asks for his pay, you just pay it. Capelli tried to cheat him, that’s why the Capelli family moved back to Sicily.”

“He can’t be that tough.”

“Don’t be a fool. If he wasn’t, he’d be dead by now.”

Vic started to respond, but Johnny staved him off with an upheld palm. “Don’t argue. This is no game. This man? He doesn’t bluff or threaten, he just does what he does.”

Vic noted the concern in his father’s voice. “Why do they call him Silence?”

“All I’ve ever heard is rumors. They say during the war he led a team of trench raiders. They’d creep across No Man’s Land and kill enemy sentries and soldiers using garrotes, knives, clubs and axes. Prepare for the big assaults. I don’t know that it is true, but that’s the story.”


Rose untangled herself from Lily as gently as possible and slid off the bed, as she did every morning. She always told herself – and Lily – that it was because she wanted to give Lily a few minutes extra sleep. When she was completely honest with herself, she admitted that with only the one washstand, she wanted to be cleaned up before Lily started her frantic preparations.

She just finished washing her face when she noticed in the mirror that Lily was up on one elbow watching her get ready.

“Good Morning, Sunshine.”

“Good morning to you. Are you going to just lay in bed all day? Would you like me to bring your cart of books here to work on?”

“Oh, would you? Mrs. Crenshaw would certainly understand, just tell her you kept me up all night with your lascivious and insatiable appetites. You wore my poor, frail self so thin you can see a candle through me.”

Rose threw her powder puff at Lily, hitting her shoulder, resulting in a delicate cloud.