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Innocence

Innocence

Innocence 3


  If my death could have brought her back to life, I would have died there in the yard.

  I thought that I ought to go inside. She might be only wounded, and in need of help.

  But I didn’t return to the house. I knew my mother well. When it was important to her that some task be done, she put all her mind and heart into it, and she accomplished what she set out to do. She neither made mistakes nor took half measures.

  How long I stood in the yard, in the dark, in the after-shotgun quiet, I do not know.

  Later, I discovered that I was on my knees.

  I don’t recall leaving. I realized that I was walking along the dirt lane only a minute before it led me to the blacktop county road.

  Shortly after dawn, I took refuge in a dilapidated barn on an abandoned farm, where the house had burned down and had never been rebuilt. Mice were the rightful tenants of the barn, but they were not too frightened of me, and I assured them that I meant to stay only a few hours.

  Mother had included the essentials in the backpack, but also a half dozen chocolate-pecan cookies that she had made herself and that were my favorite.

  7

  ON FOOT BENEATH THE CITY, I ARRIVED AT AN INTERSECTION where abruptly a rumble rose, the underground thunder of a train, which was the only utility routed deeper than the storm drains. On the rare occasions when a section of the subway flooded, water was pumped up to these tunnels. Before the turn of the millennium, they had pumped it to the sewer lines; but a calamitous backflow once gushed filth through two miles of the subway, requiring weeks of decontamination by hazmat teams, and the existing design was reconsidered.

  A city is half beast and half machine, with arteries of fresh water and veins of foul, nerves of telephone and electrical cables, sewer lines for bowels, pipes full of pressurized steam and others carrying gas, valves and fans and filters and meters and motors and transformers and tens of thousands of interlinked computers, and though its people sleep, the city never does.

  The city nurtured me and provided me with a secret haven for which I was grateful, but I continued to be a little distrustful of it, and sometimes afraid. Logic insisted that, in spite of its intricacy, the city was only an accumulation of things, buildings and machines and systems, that could not develop an awareness or intent. Yet often it seemed that, though I remained unknown to the people of this place, I was known by the city itself, and watched.

  If a city had a life separate from its citizens, then it must have a capacity for both kindness and cruelty. As a creation of men and women, it surely shared their evils as well as their virtues.

  The rumble of the train passed away beneath my feet, and beyond the intersection of enormous drains, I turned left into a tributary that sloped upward more than the main tunnel. The passageway lacked elevated service walks, and its dimensions required me to proceed a considerable distance with shoulders hunched and head bowed.

  I was so familiar with these subterranean avenues and alleys, I might have found my way without the flashlight. But although I ventured out only at night and lived days in the depths, I was born for light and yearned for more of it than my circumstances allowed.

  I came to an open cove in the right-hand drain wall, like half of a cylinder, made of curved concrete blocks. It was five feet in diameter, seven feet high, rather like what you’d find if you took the cover off a manhole, except that a manhole was deeper, wasn’t open on one side, and remained accessible only through the top.

  Overhead, a heavy iron lid featured a recessed nut along the perimeter. From my backpack, I removed the one tool it contained: a foot-long iron rod with a T handle at one end and something like a socket wrench at the other. When this gate key engaged the nut and turned it, a rim latch in the lid retracted from the manhole frame, allowing me to push upward, swinging that cover open on its hinges.

  My father’s father had appropriated that tool from a street-department truck years before his death. That gate key was the most precious thing I owned. Most of the freedom of movement I enjoyed, such as it was, would be lost if that tool was lost.

  After returning the gate key to a zippered compartment of my backpack, I held the flashlight in my teeth, grabbed the frame of the manhole, and drew myself through the open lid and into the basement of the city’s central library. All was silent, as should be the case in such a place, the air dry but not arid, cool but not cold.

  In this first hour of a Sunday morning, no one would be in the great building. The cleaning crew had gone. The library remained closed on Sundays. I should have the place to myself until Monday morning. I intended to pass only a few hours within those walls, however, before going elsewhere to resupply the larder in my bunker.

  The climate-controlled basement was enormous, a single space with rows of massive columns fanning out toward their tops to create graceful limestone vaults. Between the columns, metal cabinets stood on foot-high concrete plinths. Some of the drawers held ordinary files, but others were wide and shallow to accommodate blueprints as well as small stacks of publications that, brittle with age, couldn’t bear their own weight and would rapidly deteriorate if piled high.

  These were the archives of the city’s history, which explained the entrance to the storm drain that was built into the floor. There were other drain caps that, in the unlikely event of a burst water line or other catastrophe, could be opened to ensure that no flood would rise higher than the plinths on which the metal cabinets stood.

  I liked that immense space, the colonnades and the curved vaults overhead, which reminded me of photos of the extensive reservoirs constructed by Francois d’Orbay beneath the Water Terrace and gardens of the palace at Versailles. In the moving beam of my flashlight, the shadows of the columns swung aside like great black doors.

  A regular elevator and one for freight served the basement, but I never used them. Stairs were silent, safer. Having a choice of enclosed stairwells, I took the one in the southeast corner.

  Books, of course, were what drew me to this library. Although Father and his father before him had collected volumes that had been thrown away by those who lived in the open, although I could borrow reading material from thrift stores in which I shopped after hours, many books were not easily found other than in the central library.

  The stairs brought me to the walnut-paneled periodical room, where newspapers and magazines could be enjoyed. A short hallway led to the main reading room, a sixteen-thousand-square-foot architectural masterpiece rising from a sea of dark-caramel marble flooring. This immense chamber housed part of the book collection and, beyond that maze of shelves, provided seating for at least five hundred readers at wooden refectory-style tables.

  Always before, at this late hour, the reading room had been brightened only by the eerie, ambient light of the city seeping through its high, arched windows. This time, numerous lamps glowed.

  I almost retreated, but intuition counseled me to wait, to see, to know.

  Decades earlier, night watchmen patrolled the many rooms and corridors of the central library. But in a nation that had nearly spent its way into bankruptcy, sturdy locks and a perimeter alarm were the preferred form of security, because they didn’t require salaries, health care, and pensions.

  Through the eight-foot-high rows of shelves, which librarians called stacks, aisles led east-west and north-south. As I approached an entrance to the labyrinth, I heard footsteps that were almost inaudible even in this quietude, footsteps so light and quick that they might have been those of a child ghost desperately fleeing from the recognition of his early death.

  In the opening before me, crossing an intersection of aisles, a slender teenage girl appeared from the left, which was the north, gazelle-fast, running with balletic grace and landing on her toes. Her shoes were silver, like the winged feet of Mercury, and otherwise she wore black. Her long hair appeared black, too, lustrous in the lamplight, as a pool of moonlit water lies glossy in the night. One moment there, the next moment gone, she seemed to be running for h
er life.

  I heard no pursuer, though her evident alarm suggested that one must be close on her trail. If she was the prey, I didn’t know—and couldn’t imagine—any predator stealthier than she.

  Warily, I entered the stacks. The big chandeliers, hung from the fifty-foot-high ceiling, were not alight. The aisle that the girl had run through lay deserted for its considerable length, illuminated by brushed-steel sconces trimmed with polished brass, like small lamps, fixed high on the six-inch-wide stiles that separated sections of shelving.

  These shelves had backs, so that I couldn’t look over the tops of the books into the next aisle. Stepping softly, I continued east, into the next north-south passage that paralleled the first, but the girl wasn’t there.

  The stacks were arranged in a large grid, not as mazelike as the board for that old video game Ms. Pac-Man. Yet it seemed far more baffling than a grid as I cautiously made my way through it, spying around corners, turning this way and that as intuition guided me.

  I was heading south, approaching a corner, intending to turn left, when I must have heard something, perhaps the faintest squeak of a rubber-soled shoe. I froze between the last two sconces, not in shadow but not brightly lighted.

  A tall, sinewy man hurried through the intersection in front of me, from right to left, apparently so sure of his quarry’s location that he didn’t glance in either direction as he crossed my aisle and disappeared. I thought that he must have registered my presence peripherally and that he would startle back for a more direct look, but he kept moving.

  He’d been dressed in a suit and tie, minus the coat, the sleeves of his white shirt rolled up, which suggested that he belonged here, worked here in a position of authority. But something about him—perhaps his intensity, his grimly set mouth, his hands clenched in big bony fists—convinced me that his intentions were suspect if not even dishonorable.

  I dared to follow him, but by the time I turned the corner, he had vanished. Even as familiar as I had become with the library, this might be his labyrinth more than mine. If his role was the Minotaur of legend and if my role was Theseus, who destroyed such beasts, this might end badly for the good guys, considering that I’d never killed anything, monsters or otherwise.

  The girl cried out and the man shouted, “Bitch, you little bitch, I’ll kill you,” and the girl cried out again. The clump-and-thud of avalanching books suggested that someone must be using the weapon of knowledge in an unconventional fashion.

  The acoustics of the enormous room were deceiving. The ornate and gilded ceiling coffers, the limestone walls, the marble floor, the endless partitions of muffling books alternately absorbed and ricocheted sounds until it seemed that the brief battle was being waged in every aisle of the stacks, to all sides of me. Then sudden silence.

  I stood in an intersection, head cocked, turning in a circle, my heart racing, fearful that something had happened to her. I recalled that the Minotaur, in the caverns under Crete, ate human flesh.

  8

  HOOD UP, HEAD DOWN AS BEST I COULD KEEP IT AND still find my way, I turned left, right, left, this way, that way, around and back again, through History with all its wars, through Natural Sciences with all its discoveries and mysteries. Several times I heard sly movement, the light quick breathing of the girl, a muttered curse in a low male voice. I glimpsed him ahead of me twice, turning a corner. I didn’t see her, but that was good, excellent, better than finding her corpse.

  I discovered the aisle where books were scattered on the floor, perhaps thrown by the girl or pulled off the shelves to foil her pursuer. It pained me to see books treated that way. But she was maybe sixteen, all of a hundred pounds, if that. The man with his sleeves rolled up stood about six two, weighed nearly twice what she did, clearly couldn’t control his anger, and threatened to kill her. If she had to destroy the entire library to save herself, she would be in the right. Each book is a mind alive, a life revealed, a world awaiting exploration, but living people are all those things, as well—and more, because their stories haven’t yet been completely told.

  Then something changed, and for a moment I thought it was just that the small sounds of search and evasion had given way again to utter silence. But the faintest susurration rose, vaguely liquid in character, as though a thousand thin threads of water were gently spilling from bowl to bowl of a tiered fountain that stood almost beyond the limits of hearing.

  With that ghost of a sound came a smell that was not native to the library, that was neither the paper of three centuries aging with as many subtly different fragrances as were produced by an array of cheeses, nor the faintest citrus scent of limestone walls, certainly not wood polish or marble wax. This was the half-fresh smell of a half-washed street, and with it came a cool draft not quite strong enough to flutter the pages of the tumbled books on the floor.

  Alert to the risk of being discovered, I sought the source of the draft, walking into it, to the south end of the stacks, where I hesitated to move into the open. The book-return station stood to the left, the main desk to the right, and between them a wide swath of glistening dark-caramel marble led to the circular grand foyer with its domed ceiling. At the farther end of the foyer, one of the four main doors, an ornately decorated slab of bronze, stood open to the night.

  From out of sight, elsewhere in the stacks, came the sounds of someone running. As I shrank back into my aisle and the threadbare weave of shadows that dressed it, the angry man appeared, angling from the east, past the book-return desk. His attention was so focused on the foyer and the open door that he might not have seen me if I had been spotlighted on a pedestal.

  The incident, still unfolding, excited me for reasons that I could not define, and I found myself behaving recklessly, as I had never done before. Certain that the man would exit through the open door and descend the two long flights of exterior stairs to see if he could spot the fugitive girl, I boldly followed him, so that he needed only to glance back to discover me.

  Indeed, he rushed through the open door, and I arrived at its threshold in time to see him dashing across the landing and down the lower flight to the public sidewalk, where he looked left and right, searching for his silver-shoed quarry. The broad street had recently been half washed by a street-cleaning truck, which explained why the smell was less fresh than it would have been if rain had done the job, and the susurration arose from the light post-midnight traffic passing over the wet pavement.

  As the man stepped off the curb, the better to see farther along the avenue, I realized that the alarm had not gone off when the girl had escaped. And then I noticed that the heavy door, which featured an automatic closer, was held open by the long L-shaped drop bolt that she must have extracted from the hole in the floor where it would have been inserted. She hadn’t taken the time to swivel the bolt into its retainer, and now the end of it was caught in a void in the granite of the upper landing of the exterior steps, propping open the door.

  The likelihood of the bolt finding that—apparently single—void in the otherwise smooth stone seemed small. I suspected that she had wedged it there to make sure the door remained open wide to admit a draft that would be noticed.

  As the frustrated man in the street began to turn back toward the library, I retreated before I might be seen. I raced across the foyer with the intention of returning to the labyrinth of books.

  At the sight of the girl in black, I faltered. She hurried through the half-light in the reading area that lay past the stacks, heading toward an interior door at the distant northeast corner of the immense room.

  She had faked her escape, which meant she must know a secret haven in the building where she felt safe. And it meant more than that, though I couldn’t quite imagine what.

  I heard the man cursing loudly even before he reached the top of the exterior steps. I didn’t have enough time to reach the stacks across what seemed to be an acre of marble. The moment he arrived at the open door, he’d see me. I darted to the left and vaulted the wraparound count
er at the main desk, which was not simply a desk but instead a spacious librarian station appointed with exquisite mahogany moldings, at which patrons could be served from four sides. I crouched below the counter, hopeful that I had not been spotted.

  I listened as the bronze door boomed shut, as the primary deadbolts were engaged, and as the drop bolt rang softly as it was seated in the bronze-rimmed hole in the floor. His footsteps seemed to approach my hiding place directly, but then he walked past, so close that I could smell his spicy cologne. In passing, he snarled “bitch” and worse, alternating vicious epithets, as if in fact he hated her enough to kill her. He faded into silence. A door closed in the distance.

  After a while, the lights went off.

  I got to my feet but didn’t leave the shelter of the main desk.

  The thirty-foot-tall windows in the south wall began above ten feet of bookshelves and arched to a keystone within ten feet of the deeply coffered ceiling. One of the charms of the city is its night glow, which is never less than romantic, sometimes magical. On this occasion in December, the metropolis shone into the library not with an eerie milkiness, as earlier, but with a convincing imitation of snow light, like a Christmas moon reflecting from a landscape cloaked by a recent blizzard. The EXIT signs above the doors were as red as clusters of holly berries, though I marveled at myself for thinking such a thing and wondered what had possessed me that I should be so light of spirit only minutes after cowering in fear.

  Of course, it was the girl. Her gracefulness, her fleetness, her balletic sprint, and the sheer mystery of her presence in the library inspired in me the pleasant expectation that I might be witness to—if not a party to—an exciting adventure.