Mr. Penumbra s 24 Hour Bookstore 12

  That makes me smile. Go get ‘em, Mr. Penumbra. “Where do we meet you?”

  “The Dolphin and Anchor,” he says. “Bring your friends. You can find it on your own—am I right? Use your computers.” He winks, then turns and pushes through the dark doorway into the secret library of the Unbroken Spine.

  Kat’s phone guides us to our destination. The sky is opening up, so we run most of the way.

  When we find it, the Dolphin and Anchor is the perfect refuge, all dark heavy wood and low brassy light. We sit at a round table next to a window flecked with raindrops. Our waiter arrives, and he, too, is perfect: tall and barrel-chested, with a thick red beard and a disposition that warms us all up. We order mugs of beer; he brings those along with a plate of bread and cheese. “Strength in the storm,” he says with a wink.

  “What if Mr. P doesn’t show?” Neel says.

  “He’ll show,” I say. “This isn’t what I expected. He’s got a plan. I mean—he brought e-readers.”

  Kat smiles at that but she doesn’t look up. She’s glued to her phone again. She’s like a candidate on election day.

  There’s a stack of books on the table and a metal cup with pointy pencils that smell fresh and sharp. In the stack, there are copies of Moby-Dick, Ulysses, The Invisible Man—this is a bar for bibliophiles.

  There’s a pale beer stain on the back cover of The Invisible Man, and inside, the margins are mobbed with pencil marks. It’s so dense you can barely see the paper behind it—there are dozens of different people’s marginalia jostling for space here. I flip through the book; it’s jam-packed. Some of the notes are about the text, but more are directed at one another. The margins tend to devolve into arguments, but there are other interactions, too. Some are inscrutable: just numbers back and forth. There’s encrypted graffiti:

  6HV8SQ was here

  I nurse my beer and nibble the cheese and try to follow the conversations through the pages.

  Then Kat gives a quiet sigh. I look up across the table, and see her face crumpled into a deep frown. She sets her phone down on the table and covers it with one of the Dolphin and Anchor’s thick blue napkins.

  “What is it?”

  “They emailed out the new PM.” She shakes her head. “Not this time.” Then she forces a smile and reaches to pick a battered book from the stack. “It’s no big deal,” she says, flipping pages, making herself busy. “It’s like winning the lottery anyway. It was a long shot.”

  I’m not an entrepreneur, not a business guy, but in that moment I want nothing more than to start a company and grow it to Google size, just so I can put Kat Potente in charge.

  There’s a gust of wet wind. I look up from The Invisible Man to see Penumbra framed in the doorway, the tufts of hair over his ears matted down, turned a shade darker by the rain. His teeth are gritted.

  Neel jumps up to usher him toward the table. Kat takes his coat. Penumbra is shivering and saying quietly, “Thank you, dear girl, thank you.” He walks stiffly to the table, gripping chair backs for support.

  “Mr. P, good to meet you,” Neel says, extending a hand. “Love your store.” Penumbra gives it a solid shake. Kat waves hello.

  “So these are your friends,” Penumbra says. “It is good to meet you, both of you.” He sits and exhales sharply. “I have not sat across from such young faces in this place since—well, since my own face was so young.”

  I’m desperate to know what happened in the library.

  “Where to begin?” he says. He wipes the dome of his head with one of the napkins. He’s frowning, agitated. “I told Corvina what has happened. I told him about the logbook, about your ingenuity.”

  He’s calling it ingenuity; that’s a good sign. Our red-bearded waiter arrives bearing another mug of beer and sets it down in front of Penumbra, who waves a hand and says, “Charge this to the Festina Lente Company, Timothy. All of it.”

  He’s in his element. He speaks again: “Corvina’s conservatism has deepened, though I barely thought such a thing was possible. He has done so much damage. I had no idea.” He shakes his head. “Corvina says California has infected me.” He spits it out: infected. “Ridiculous. I told him what you did, my boy—I told him what was possible. But he will not budge.”

  Penumbra lifts his beer to his lips and takes a long sip. Then he looks from Kat to Neel to me, and he speaks again, slowly:

  “My friends, I have a proposal for you. But you will need to understand something of this fellowship first. You have followed me to its home, but you do not know anything of its purpose—or have your computers told you that, too?”

  Well, I know it involves libraries and novices and people getting bound and books getting burned, but none of it makes any sense. Kat and Neel only know what they’ve seen on my laptop screen: a sequence of lights making their way through the shelves of a strange bookstore. When you search for “unbroken spine,” Google replies: Did you mean: unicorn sprinkle? So the correct answer is: “No. Nothing.”

  “Then we will do two things,” Penumbra says, nodding. “First, I will tell you just a little of our history. Then, to understand, you must see the Reading Room. There, my proposal will become clear, and I dearly hope you will accept it.”

  Of course we’ll accept it. That’s what you do on a quest. You listen to the old wizard’s problem and then you promise to help him.

  Penumbra steeples his fingers. “Do you know the name Aldus Manutius?”

  Kat and Neel shake their heads, but I nod yes. Maybe art school was good for something after all: “Manutius was one of the first publishers,” I say, “right after Gutenberg. His books are still famous. They’re beautiful.” I’ve seen slides.

  “Yes.” Penumbra nods. “It was the end of the fifteenth century. Aldus Manutius gathered scribes and scholars at his printing house in Venice, and there he manufactured the first editions of the classics. Sophocles, Aristotle, and Plato. Virgil, Horace, and Ovid.”

  I chime in, “Yeah, he printed them using a brand-new typeface, made by a designer named Griffo Gerritszoon. It was awesome. Nobody had ever seen anything like it, and it’s still basically the most famous typeface ever. Every Mac comes preinstalled with Gerritszoon.” But not Gerritszoon Display. That, you have to steal.

  Penumbra nods. “This much is well known to historians and, it appears”—he raises an eyebrow—”to bookstore clerks. It might also be of interest to know that Griffo Gerritszoon’s work is the wellspring of our fellowship’s wealth. Even today, when publishers buy that typeface, they buy it from us.” He goes sotto voce: “And we do not sell it cheap.”

  I feel the sharp snap of connection: FLC Type Foundry is the Festina Lente Company. Penumbra’s cult runs on egregious licensing fees.

  “But here is the crux of it,” he says. “Aldus Manutius was more than a publisher. He was a philosopher and a teacher. He was the first of us. He was the founder of the Unbroken Spine.”

  Okay, they definitely did not teach that in my typography course.

  “Manutius believed there were deep truths hidden in the writing of the ancients—among them, the answer to our greatest question.”

  There’s a pregnant pause. I clear my throat. “What’s … our greatest question?”

  Kat breathes: “How do you live forever?”

  Penumbra turns and levels his gaze on her. His eyes are big and bright and he nods yes. “When Aldus Manutius died,” he says quietly, “his friends and students filled his tomb with books—copies of everything he had ever printed.”

  The wind outside blows hard against the door and makes it rattle.

  “They did this because the tomb was empty. When Aldus Manutius died, no body remained.”

  So Penumbra’s cult has a messiah.

  “He left behind a book he called CODEX VITAE—book of life. The book was encrypted, and Manutius gave the key to only one person: his great friend and partner, Griffo Gerritszoon.”

  Amendment: his cult has a messiah and a first disciple. But at least the disci
ple is a designer. That’s cool. And codex vitae … I’ve heard that before. But Rosemary Lapin said the books on the Waybacklist were codex vitae. I’m confused—

  “We, the students of Manutius, have worked for centuries to unlock his codex vitae. We believe it contains all the secrets he discovered in his study of the ancients—first among them, the secret to eternal life.”

  Rain spatters on the window. Penumbra takes a deep breath.

  “We believe that when this secret is finally unlocked, every member of the Unbroken Spine who ever lived … will live again.”

  A messiah, a first disciple, and a rapture. Check, check, and double-check. Penumbra is, right now, teetering right on the boundary between charmingly weird old guy and disturbingly weird old guy. Two things tip the scales toward charm: First, his wry smile, which is not the smile of the disturbed, and micromuscles don’t lie. Second, the look in Kat’s eyes. She’s enthralled. I guess people believe weirder things than this, right? Presidents and popes believe weirder things than this.

  “How many members are we talking about here?” Neel asks.

  “Not so many,” Penumbra says, scooting his chair back and lifting himself up, “that they cannot still fit in a single chamber. Come, my friends. The Reading Room awaits.”


  WE WALK THROUGH THE RAIN, all sharing a broad black umbrella borrowed from the Dolphin and Anchor. Neel holds it up above us—the warrior always holds the umbrella—with Penumbra in the middle and Kat and I hugging in close on either side of him. Penumbra doesn’t take up much space.

  We come to the dark doorway. This place could not possibly be more different from the bookstore in San Francisco: where Penumbra’s has a wall of windows and warm light spilling out from inside, this place has blank stone and two dim lamps. Penumbra’s invites you inside. This place says: Nah, you’re probably better off out there.

  Kat pulls the door open. I’m the last one through, and I give her wrist a squeeze as I step inside.

  I am unprepared for the banality that confronts us. I was expecting gargoyles. Instead, two low couches and a square glass table form a small waiting area. Gossip magazines fan out across the table. Directly ahead, there’s a narrow front desk, and behind it sits the young man with the shaved head who I saw on the sidewalk this morning. He’s wearing a blue cardigan. Above him, on the wall, square sans-serif capitals announce:

  F L C

  “We are back to see Mr. Deckle,” Penumbra says to the receptionist, who barely looks up. There’s a door of frosted glass and Penumbra leads us through it. I’m still holding my breath for gargoyles, but no: it’s a gray-green still life, a cool savanna of wide monitors and low dividers and curving black desk chairs. It’s an office. It looks just like NewBagel.

  Fluorescent lights buzz behind ceiling panels. Desks are set up in clusters, and they are manned by the people I saw through the Stormtrooper binoculars this morning. Most of them are wearing headphones; none of them look up from their monitors. Over slumped shoulders, I see a spreadsheet and an inbox and a Facebook page.

  I’m confused. This place seems to have plenty of computers.

  We weave a path through the pods. All the totems of office ennui have been erected here: the instant coffee machine, the humming half-sized refrigerator, the huge multipurpose laser printer flashing PAPER JAM in red. There’s a whiteboard showing faded generations of brainstorms. Right now, in bright blue strokes, it says:


  I keep expecting someone to look up and notice our little procession, but they all seem intent on their work. The quiet clatter of keys sounds just like the rain outside. There’s a chuckle from the far corner; I look over, and it’s the man in the green sweater, smirking into his screen. He’s eating yogurt out of a plastic cup. I think he’s watching a video.

  There are private offices and conference rooms around the perimeter, all with frosted glass doors and tiny nameplates. The one we’re vectoring for is at the farthest end of the room and the nameplate reads:


  Penumbra clasps a thin hand around the knob, raps once on the glass, and pushes the door open.

  The office is tiny, but totally different from the space outside. My eyes stretch to adjust to the new color balance: here, the walls are dark and rich, papered in whirls of gold on green. Here, the floor is made of wood; it springs and whines under my shoes, and Penumbra’s heels make light clicks as he moves to close the door behind us. Here, the light is different, because it comes from warm lamps, not overhead fluorescents. And when the door closes, the ambient buzz is banished, replaced by a sweet, heavy silence.

  There’s a heavy desk here—perfect twin to the one in Penumbra’s store—and behind it sits the very first man I spotted on the sidewalk this morning: Round Nose. Here, he’s wearing a black robe over his street clothes. It gathers loosely in the front, where it’s clasped with a silver pin—two hands, open like a book.

  Now we’re on to something.

  Here, the air smells different. It smells like books. Behind the desk, behind Round Nose, they’re packed into shelves set up against the wall, reaching up to the ceiling. But this office isn’t that big. The secret library of the Unbroken Spine appears to have approximately the capacity of a regional airport bookstore.

  Round Nose is smiling.

  “Sir! Welcome back,” he says, standing. Penumbra raises his hands, motioning him to sit. Round Nose turns his attention to me and Kat and Neel: “Who are your friends?”

  “They are unbound, Edgar,” Penumbra says quickly. He turns to us: “My students, this is Edgar Deckle. He has guarded the door to the Reading Room for—what, Edgar? Eleven years now?”

  “Eleven exactly,” Deckle says, smiling. We’re all smiling, too, I realize. He and his chamber are a warm tonic after the cold sidewalk and the colder cubicles.

  Penumbra looks at me, his eyes crinkling: “Edgar was a clerk in San Francisco just like you, my boy.”

  I feel a little whirl of dislocation—the trademark sensation of the world being more closely knit together than you expected. Have I read Deckle’s slanty handwriting in the logbook? Did he work the late shift?

  Deckle brightens, too, then goes mock-serious: “Piece of advice. One night, you’re going to get curious and wonder if maybe you should check out the club next door.” He pauses. “Don’t do it.”

  Yes, he definitely worked the late shift.

  There’s a chair set up opposite the desk—high-backed, made of polished wood—and Deckle motions for Penumbra to sit.

  Neel leans in conspiratorially and jerks a thumb over his shoulder, back toward the office: “So is that all just a front?”

  “Oh, no, no,” Deckle says. “The Festina Lente Company is a real business. Very real. They license the typeface Gerritszoon”—Kat, Neel, and I all nod sagely, like novices in the know—”and many more. They do other things, too. Like the new e-book project.”

  “What’s that?” I ask. This operation seems a lot more savvy than Penumbra made it out to be.

  “I don’t understand it completely,” Deckle says, “but somehow we identify e-book piracy for publishers.” My nostrils flare at that; I’ve heard the stories of college students sued for millions of dollars. Deckle explains: “It’s a new business. Corvina’s baby. Apparently it’s very lucrative.”

  Penumbra nods. “It is thanks to the labors of those people out there that our store exists.”

  Well, that’s just great. My salary is paid by font licensing fees and copyright infringement cases.

  “Edgar, these three have solved the Founder’s Puzzle,” Penumbra says—Kat and Neel both raise their eyebrows at that—”and the time has come for them to see the Reading Room.” The way he says it, I can hear the capital letters.

  Deckle grins. “That’s terrific. Congratulations and welcome.” He nods to a line of hooks on the wall, half of them holding regular jackets and sweaters, the other half hung with dark rob
es just like his. “So, change into those, for starters.”

  We shrug out of our wet jackets. As we’re pulling on the robes, Deckle explains: “We need to keep things clean down below. I know they look goofy, but they’re actually very well designed. They’re cut at the sides here so you can move freely”—Deckle swings his arms back and forth—”and they have pockets inside for paper, pencil, ruler, and compass.” He pulls his robe wide to show us. “We have writing supplies down below, but you’ll have to bring your own tools.”

  That’s almost cute: Don’t forget your ruler on your first day of cult! But where is “down below”?

  “One last thing,” Deckle says. “Your phones.”

  Penumbra holds up empty palms and wiggles his fingers, but the rest of us all surrender our dark trembling companions. Deckle drops them into a shallow wooden bin on the desk. There are three iPhones in there already, along with a black Neo and a battered beige Nokia.

  Deckle stands, straightens his robe, braces himself, and gives the shelves behind the desk a sharp shove. They swivel smoothly and silently—it’s as if they’re weightless, drifting in space—and as they draw apart, they reveal a shadowed space beyond, where wide steps curl down into darkness. Deckle stretches an arm to invite us forward. “Festina lente,” he says matter-of-factly.

  Neel takes a sharp breath and I know exactly what it means. It means: I have waited my whole life to walk through a secret passage built into a bookshelf. Penumbra hoists himself up and we follow him forward.

  “Sir,” Deckle says to Penumbra, standing to one side of the parted shelves, “if you’re free later, I’d love to buy you a cup of coffee. There’s a lot to talk about.”

  “So it shall be,” Penumbra says with a smile. He claps Deckle on the shoulder as we pass. “Thank you, Edgar.”

  Penumbra leads us down onto the steps. He goes carefully, clutching the railing, a wide ribbon of wood on heavy metal brackets. Neel hovers close, ready to catch him if he stumbles. The steps are wide and made of pale stone; they curve sharply, a spiral leading us down into the earth, the way barely lit by arc lamps in old wall sconces set at wide intervals.