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A Beth-Hill Novel: Karen Montgomery Series, Novella 1: Budget Cuts by Jennifer St. Clair (Fantasy)

A Beth-Hill Novel: Karen Montgomery Series, Novella 1: Budget Cuts by Jennifer St. Clair (Fantasy)
 
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Karen is used to taking care of the unpleasant jobs no one else wants to deal with. When a shortage of funds forces her to fire fifteen employees, she isn't happy, but the job must be done.

Or it would, if only she could track down Ivy Bedinghaus, a night clerk she has never met. When she finally does confront Ivy, she is thrust into a conflict centuries old, that make her previous troubles pale in comparison.

Also available in print (paperback) - as part of the Karen Montgomery Collection. Containing Karen Montgomery Series Books 1 - 4 PLUS Companion Novel Capture!

A bargain with the elves, worth its weight in gold...
A plague of ladybugs--and rogue vampire hunters...
A vampire hunter who turns a new leaf--with disastrous consequences...
A member of the Wild Hunt, who wishes for redemption...
And more, in the first Karen Montgomery Collection.

Print:
ISBN/EAN13: 1922066508 / 978-1922066503
Page Count: 480 pages
Trim Size: 5" x 8"

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A Beth-Hill Novel: Karen Montgomery Series, Novella 1: Budget Cuts by Jennifer St. Clair (Fantasy)
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Polly for Bitten by Books (http://bittenbybooks.com/?p=249)
"Assistant Directors had to be prepared to deal with almost everything, but they had not covered the supernatural in library school."

Tasked with laying off employees, Assistant Director Karen Montgomery of the Amington Library System comes face to face with the supernatural, in the form of Ivy, an evening clerk who just happens to be a vampire, and Charlie, the library's founder and resident ghost. At their insistence, Karen is charged with finding buried faery gold which the library can then use to take care of its financial needs. If it were only that easy. As the stalwart, clear-thinking Karen soon learns, nothing is easy or transparent when dealing with the supernatural, especially when it involves the Wild Hunt and a grief-stricken elven prince.

Whether classed as a short story or a novella, this introductory piece for the Karen Montgomery series is just too short. It leaves you lusting for more, for more delightful prose which is crisp without being abrupt; more delightful narrative which is neither intrusive nor flowery; more delightful characters who emerge developed with clarity and texture. Yet, despite its brevity, Budget Cuts makes an engaging and amusing debut for Assistant Director Karen Montgomery of the Amington Library.
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Sample Chapter

Chapter One

"I wish it didn't have to be this way, but we need all the extra money we can get." We were halfway through a year fraught with monetary concerns, and the library was feeling the pinch. Eliminating Sunday hours had been the first step. The second step had been to cut the pages' hours until most of them had quit in frustration. The third step had been to close the libraries earlier, which had incensed both teachers and parents, not to mention the students who now had no place to study. The fourth step... layoffs. I parroted the director's next words in my head--lord knows I'd heard them enough. "If the library is going to survive this, we have to cut down to the bone."

My job was safe. Even a skeleton crew needed an Assistant Director/Building Manager/Technology Supervisor, but I would have given almost anything to remove some of the names from the director's list.

"You want me to fire every single one of these people?" I waved the list under the director's nose. "All of them?"

The director's lips pursed into a frown. "It's kinder to say layoffs, Karen. And I have faith you'll handle this with your usual tact." She picked up a folder and opened it; a clear indication that our interview was at an end.

Of course I would. I'd call the sacrifices into my office--separately--and leave a box of tissues in plain view on my desk. I'd school my features to show utter sympathy, and tell them that their career at the library was over until further notice. And I'd feel like the worst sort of hypocrite, knowing that my job was safe.

There were fifteen names on the list. Of the fifteen, I knew five employees by sight. Seven were pages, the rest of our small system's minimum wage workers. Two were relatively new hires, traditionally the first to go. And one, Ivy Bedinghaus, was listed as a Night Clerk at the Beth-Hill Branch Library.

"A what?" I stopped in the middle of the hallway.

Penny, the receptionist, gave me a startled look. "Ms. Montgomery?"

"Do we have any... Night Clerks at any of the other branches?" I asked, still staring at my list. Penny's name was not present. Someone had to answer the irate calls about why the library couldn't afford to purchase the newest John Grisham.

"Night Clerks?" Penny tapped a few keys and stared at her computer. "No, ma'am. Just the one. In Beth-Hill."

She said the town's name as if I should have known some awful secret about it. I frowned at her. "What's so different about Beth-Hill?"

Penny hesitated, and a flush of red stained her cheeks. "Oh, ma'am, I don't like to gossip..."

Which was an outright lie. I'd caught her instant messaging her cousin in the next county over more than once. "Out with it. Why is there a Night Clerk in Beth-Hill and not anywhere else? What does a Night Clerk do?"

"Umm, clerk during the night?" was Penny's helpful suggestion. I glowered at her. "Oh, surely you've heard some of the stories..."

"Pretend I haven't." I kept a weather ear out for the click of the director's door, just in case, but I doubted she would emerge from her cave. Give her a pot of coffee and an internet connection and she might not show her face until spring... I forced my mind away from uncharitable thoughts.

Penny took a deep breath. "Oh, they're a bit... odd over there."

"Odd how?" Libraries were libraries, right? Granted, there were some strange librarians out there, but a whole town?

"Odd like..." Penny fluttered her hands through the air. "Like, there are stories."

I sighed. "What kind of stories?" Penny mumbled something I didn't catch. "What?"

"Witchcraft stories. Beth-Hill was the site of a witch trial back in the 1800s. They've never recovered from that." Penny shrugged. "You weren't born here, ma'am. I don't expect you to understand."

I didn't understand, but I had lived in the area for ten years. The residents of small-town Ohio mistrusted anyone who couldn't prove that their ancestors had been founding fathers. And I had no way of knowing where mine had been when Beth-Hill had conducted its witch trial.

"What happened to the witch?"

"Oh, she wasn't convicted. If you ask me, she should have..." The phone rang, saving me from Penny's observations of the nameless witch's faults. I heard indignant sounds from the receiver, and abandoned her to her fate.

By Tuesday of the next week, I had whittled my list down to the last two pages and Ivy Bedinghaus. The box of tissues on my desk looked rather worn around the edges, and I had to bite my tongue to keep from sending unkind thoughts in the director's direction. This budget crunch was not her fault. And it was in my job description to maintain the daily workings of the library system.

By Thursday, repeated calls to the Beth-Hill Branch Library had netted me with nothing to report. Ivy Bedinghaus couldn't come to the phone right now. Ivy who? Oh, Ivy never arrived before sunset, and the evening reference librarian would know how to reach her. Employee records left me with an out-of-order phone number and an address that seemed to belong to a cemetery.

I was beginning to doubt that Ivy Bedinghaus existed. Perhaps some enterprising embezzler had created an employee out of thin air to cover their crime. According to her employee record, Ivy had been working for the library since 1954, when the Beth-Hill branch opened. She was well-past retirement age. I pictured a doddering old librarian, bent and wrinkled, carefully arranging the shelves every night in anticipation for the next day's crowd. It was a nice image, but it couldn't continue. Ivy Bedinghaus had to go. And since she wouldn't return my calls, I would have to find her myself.

I waited until dusk, hopped in my car, and drove to Beth-Hill, determined to set things straight. The branch--a tiny little building badly in need of repair--sat in the middle of a strip of storefronts. I saw two pizza places, a bookstore, a cafe, and what looked to be a coin shop vying for space with a movie theater (one screen), a bank branch, and a small general store. Very picturesque.

I pulled up in front of the library an hour before closing and walked inside to dead silence. The library clerk's eyes were closed, the reference librarian was nowhere to be seen, and a tiny wisp of a page pushed a loaded book cart to the back of the room.

There were no patrons in evidence. The daily newspapers sat neat and folded on the reading table, the new books--what little there were, at least--shone with fresh polish. The carpet, although old and worn, did not have a single speck of dirt on it, and even the book drop at the circulation desk looked brand new.

"Oh!" Plump, bespectacled Marla Peterson hurried out of the stacks. "Ms. Assistant Director, ma'am! I'm so sorry... Janet's allergies are acting up and she's been on medicine..."

The clerk snored. I thought about firing her on the spot, but her name had not been on my list and I had fired enough people this week. "Call me Karen. I'm here to speak to Ivy Bedinghaus. Is she working tonight?"

"Who?" Over the phone, I could excuse this strange forgetfulness, but in person, it was frightening to behold. Marla smiled and shook her head. "Are you sure you have the right branch, Ms. Assistant Director?"

"Call me Karen." I held out Ivy's employee folder. "And I'm positive I have the right branch."

"Oh." I watched her gaze for a spark of recognition as she read the scanty notes of Ivy's long career.

"She has to be close to retirement age, wouldn't you think?" I asked. "I'm sure you've heard about the cutbacks..."

"Oh, yes... of course. Ivy." Marla tried to smile. "I've been working too many nights, I think. Ivy's a wonderful employee, Ms... Karen."

"I'm sure she is," I said gently, "but the library's budget has been slashed again. The other branches don't have Night Clerks..."

"I don't expect they do." Marla pursed her lips and stared down at the folder. "I don't expect they do."

"Can I see her?" I prompted. Overtime had been cut as well, and I'd been at work since seven. "I promise it won't take long."

Marla sighed. "If you must." She stayed silent until we reached the children's section. "Ms. Karen, I..."

But I had already spied the workroom door. I opened it and gave her my best professional smile. "I'll only be a minute." I stepped inside.

The room was dark, but a small light burned behind a set of metal shelving near the back of the room. I heard the unmistakable sound of books being put into order, and saw a shadow behind the shelves, hard at work.

"Ivy Bedinghaus?"

The sounds stopped.

"I'm Karen Montgomery, the assistant director. I've been trying to get hold of you..."

"Yes, I know." The voice wasn't old or feeble, but young and firm. I frowned and walked up to the edge of the shelving. The shadow didn't move.

"I'm sure you're aware that the library has experienced some terrible budget cuts."

Silence.

"We've done our best not to come to this point, but we have no choice. We're being forced to lay off some employees to save..."

When I stepped around the shelving, I saw the same young page I'd seen before. Her pale, wispy hair made her look even younger than she seemed at first glance. But when she met my gaze, I saw something old in her eyes, something I did not wish to examine fully. I stepped back.

"Where's Ivy Bedinghaus?" My voice sounded more frightened than firm.

The girl smiled. "I'm Ivy Bedinghaus."

"You can't be." I held out the employee folder. "Ivy Bedinghaus has been an employee of the library since..."

"February 13, 1954."

I narrowed my eyes. "You can't be more than sixteen."

Ivy tucked a strand of white-blond hair behind her ear. "Seventeen."

"If you're seventeen, then how can you..." I shook my head. "I don't know what kind of scam you're trying to run here, but..."

Ivy held up her hand. "Wait. I'll explain."

I folded my arms. "Please do."

"I've worked in this branch since it opened." For the first time, I saw something other than humor in Ivy's blue eyes. "I'm the one who rescued New Johnstown's books from the flood in '87. I've guarded the rare book room in the main library when Charlie needed a break. I've..."

"Wait a second. You've already said that you're only seventeen. Don't lie to me. And who's Charlie?" The only Charlie I knew of was the founder of the library itself, and he had been dead for fifteen years. And the flood had been before my time, but I did remember an odd story about it. Perhaps Penny would know.

Ivy bit her lip. "I'm sure he'll vouch for me."

"There isn't any vouching to be done," I said. "I have no choice but to let you go, Ivy. I hope you understand."

"But I'm the library's oldest employee!"

At the moment, I could have cared less if she was the library's last employee. "I'm sorry, Ivy. I have no choice. The library just doesn't have enough money."

"I'll work for half of what I make now," Ivy said, desperate.

"You only make minimum wage. Any less than that would be illegal." Although if she truly had worked since 1954, she should have been making a lot more than minimum wage. Yet another odd thing about her employee file. No raises. No reviews. I wondered what minimum wage had been in 1954. Two dollars an hour? Less?

Ivy's chin began to wobble. I glanced around for a box of tissues, but the battered desk was bare, save for the lamp.

"Do you realize how hard it is to find a job in this town?" Ivy wiped her eyes and turned away. The desk lamp threw her shadow against the wall and made it into a monstrous shape, dark and foreboding.

"The fast food restaurants are always hiring," I suggested. "And I'm sure they pay better than the library ever did."

"You don't understand," Ivy whispered.

"I wish I had better news, budget-wise," I said. "But it's only going to get worse. If this keeps up... I'm sorry."

Ivy's shoulders shook. And although I wanted to pat her back and tell her everything would be okay, that wasn't the professional thing to do. So I left her alone, and avoided Marla's accusing gaze as I walked back to my car and drove away.

That night, a howling storm swept into town and left three thousand inhabitants without power. The library's security system went haywire, and the security company called--you guessed it--me.

I grumbled something into the phone, pulled on a sweatshirt, jeans, and sneakers, and dashed through the pounding rain to my car.

The drive to the main library took over an hour. By the time I pulled into my designated parking spot, it was well-past the witching hour.

The emergency lights cast dim glows across the silent stacks. As I entered the foyer and disabled the alarm, I thought I saw a shadow slip past the nearest display of bestsellers, but the lights from a passing car dispelled any notion of an intruder. Still, it wouldn't hurt to check. The library needed good publicity for the next election cycle, if the levy were to succeed. After-hours intruders would not endear the library in the hearts of the public.

Empty libraries hold a certain mystique. The books loom in the darkness, both strange and surreal. In daylight, they're only books, nothing more. In darkness, they hold the keys to every impossible dream.

I ignored shifting shadows and half-imagined movement and tried to flip on the overhead lights. Nothing happened, of course. A faint thrill of unease crept up my back and made me shiver; I put that down to the chill in the air and began my rounds.

As I approached the Rare Book room, I thought I heard a whisper of sound. I stopped, straining to hear through the layers of insulating books, and heard the sound again. It was a voice, low and indistinct.

I stood and listened for a minute, trying to make out the words, but I couldn't hear clearly through the leaded glass doors that led to the Rare Book room. The leaded glass doors that should have been locked. I tried the handle. They weren't.

I glanced up at the portrait of Our Founder as I tiptoed into the room. He looked rather ghostly in the gloom, staring down at me from the top of his princely domain. If one of the librarians' had left a radio playing overnight, I'd feel like an idiot for creeping around in the dark, but it was my duty to investigate. I marked up another job position to my list. Assistant Director/Building Manager/Technology Guru/Security Guard. It was a shame that none of my jobs paid enough for me to spare the library its budget woes.

But when I saw who sat at the Reference Desk, I forgot all about feeling stupid. "You!"

Ivy Bedinghaus spun the chair around to face me. "I smelled you as soon as you walked in the door."

"You... you what?" I stared at her.

"I set off the alarm. I knew they would call you."

"But..." I valiantly tried to collect my thoughts. "No. I don't even want to hear it. Stay right there. I'm calling the police."

Ivy stood. "You're making a mistake, Ms. Montgomery."

I picked up the phone. "The only mistake I've made is..." My voice trailed away when I saw the elderly gentleman standing underneath Our Founder's portrait. "Who's that?" My mind didn't want to accept the resemblance between the man in the portrait and the slightly transparent man standing in front of the display case.

Ivy gently removed the handset from my grip. "Why don't you sit down, Ms. Montgomery? Charlie and I will explain everything."

"Charlie?" I croaked.

The man bowed. "At your service."

I think that was when I fainted.

I awoke some time later to find I lay on the lounge in the staff break room. The comforting smell of coffee rumbled from the ancient percolator on the counter, and Ivy Bedinghaus stood in front of it, frowning.

I sat up and instantly wished I hadn't. The room swung around my head, and suddenly the smell of coffee wasn't so pleasant anymore. "What did you do to me?"

"You hit your head when you fainted," Ivy said without turning around. "I'm trying to make coffee, but..."

"Shake the pot a little. It sticks." That added yet another job to my list. Head Coffee Maker. Lord, yes. I leaned back against the wall and closed my eyes. Memory returned in slow trickles, aggravating what had to be a concussion. Perhaps I had hallucinated the transparent man standing in front of the display case. But I'd seen him before I fainted and hit my head.

And he had borne a marked resemblance to our late Founder.

"What's going on?" I demanded as Ivy poured me a cup of coffee. I had to sit up to accept it, but the room stayed put. "Do you realize I could have you arrested for breaking and entering?"

"I didn't break anything," Ivy said. "Charlie let me in." She sat down at the battered break table and clasped her hands together. "You have to listen to me, Ms. Montgomery."

"I can't do anything about your job," I said. "I wish I could. I wish..."

"Oh, but you can." I wondered if she knew how brightly her eyes glowed in the fluorescent lights.

"No, I can't." I set the untasted coffee on the table and stood. My legs wobbled a bit, but I thought they would hold me as far as my office. I needed to find a phone. "I'm sorry, Ivy, but I'm going to have to ask you to leave. If you're not out of the building in five minutes, I'm calling the police."

I must have been woozier than I thought. Ivy beat me to the door, and I didn't even see her move.

I gaped at her.

"Please, Ms. Montgomery." She had a stubborn set to her jaw now and a steely glint in her eyes. "Hear me out."

I stumbled back as she approached. "You can't..."

"One hour. That's all I ask." Ivy stayed in front of me, as if she expected me to rush to the door.

"This is... kidnapping," I squeaked, unnerved by the look in her eye.

Ivy shook her head. "No. If you decide not to help or believe me, then I'll let you go and never darken your door again."

"And if I decide otherwise?"

"Then you might be able to save the library and its budget and never have to worry about money again."

That was a nice thought, even if she was crazy. I sat down. "Okay. One hour."

For the first time that evening, Ivy looked a bit nervous. She took a deep breath. "First, you have to meet Charlie."

I followed her back to the Rare Book Room, clutching the cup of coffee like a life preserver. During library hours, of course, food and drink were forbidden in the public parts of the building, but I thought I might need something strengthening in my stomach, since I was about to formally meet a ghost.

A ghost. Just the thought made me wish I had stayed up to watch the Halloween special on the Discovery Channel last month instead of reading Jane Eyre for the fortieth time.

Ivy led the way into the Rare Book Room. I followed after a moment's hesitation. One hour.

"I have to admit that the afterlife isn't what I expected," a voice said near my ear. "Ms. Karen Montgomery. Assistant Director, Building Manager, Technology Supervisor, Jack-of-all-trades..." The voice sighed. "I remember those days fondly."

I came very close to dumping hot coffee down the front of my sweatshirt. "Damn it!"

Ivy giggled. "Charlie, that wasn't nice."

A wavery form appeared ten feet away, slowly coalescing into a dapper old man wearing a three-piece suit and carrying a straight black cane. He smiled at me. I gritted my teeth and hung onto consciousness with the rest of my strength.

"Charles Dalton, I presume?"

He bowed. "In the spirit. I'm very pleased to finally make your acquaintance. And I do apologize for frightening you earlier."

He frightened me now, but I wasn't about to admit that. "Apology accepted."

"Won't you sit down?"

My knees wanted to pretend they were made out of rubber, but I stood firm. "No thanks. I'd rather stand."

Charles Dalton favored me with a slightly incredulous look, then nodded and turned away. "As you wish. Are you at all familiar with the history of the library?"

I narrowed my eyes and tried to think. I remembered vague references, but my job had been to keep the library running, not to investigate things past. "I'm afraid not."

"My family used to be quite prominent in this town."

"Hence Dalton Street, Dalton Way, Dalton Park," I murmured under my breath.

Ivy glanced at me. I thought I saw a hint of amusement in her eyes.

Dalton continued as if he hadn't heard. "We helped build this town into what it is now, and some of us--a scant handful nowadays--decided to stick around to make sure Beth-Hill remained something to be proud of."

"If you were such prominent members of the community, why isn't the town named after you?" I asked.

"When Beth-Hill was founded, my great-great-great grandfather named the village Daltonsville." Dalton ran one shimmering finger down the spine of a battered book. "After his eighteen-year-old daughter was kidnapped by the fairies..."

"What?" But after that one shocked second, who was I to doubt his word? I was in the library talking to a ghost, after all. Why couldn't there be fairies? I waved my hand and sank down into a chair. "Never mind."

"Bethany Dalton was returned seven years after she vanished, but she never recovered," Dalton said. "My ancestor was so bereft by her disappearance that he changed the town's name three years before she returned."

I will admit to have wondered once or twice about the origin of the town's name. But I'd never asked anyone. If I had asked Penny, would she have told me the fairy story? Or would she have some mundane reason for the unusual name. Like Revenge, Ohio. I'd always wondered about Revenge, Ohio...

I wrenched my mind back to current events. "What does this have to do with saving the library?"

Dalton huffed into his moustache. "A little history never hurt a soul. And you need history if you want to understand what I'm going to tell you next."

I took a sip of lukewarm coffee and nodded for him to continue.

"After Bethany returned, my ancestor claimed the fairies owed him seven years of payment for taking his daughter from him." Dalton shook his head. "You can imagine what the fairies had to say about that."

I tried to smile. "I'm not sure I believe in fairies, but I'll suspend my disbelief for the time being."

Ivy sighed behind me. "Ms. Montgomery..."

"Ivy." The humor faded from Dalton's voice. "We discussed this."

"She has to know eventually." Ivy stood and crossed her arms. "I can't hide forever, Charlie."

"Don't tell me you're a fairy," I snapped. "This is a bit much. I can handle ghosts. I can even handle breaking and entering. But I can't..."

"I'm not a fairy." Ivy squirmed under my gaze. "I'm a vampire."

For the first time in my life, I couldn't think of a thing to say, except to repeat her words. "A vampire." I wanted to protest that she had to be delusional, but I was sitting in the Rare Book room talking to a ghost.

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