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Mr. Penumbra s 24 Hour Bookstore 13


  As we go step-by-step, I begin to hear sounds. Low murmurs; then a louder rumble; then echoing voices. The steps flatten out and there’s a frame of light up ahead. We step through. Kat gasps, and her breath comes out in a little cloud.

  This is no library. This is the Batcave.

  The Reading Room stretches out before us, long and low. The ceiling is crisscrossed with heavy wooden beams. Above and between them, mottled bedrock shows through, all slanted seams and jagged planes, all sparkling with some inner crystal. The beams run the whole length of the chamber, showing sharp perspective like a Cartesian grid. Where they cross, bright lamps hang down and light the space below.

  The floor is also bedrock, but polished smooth like glass. Square wooden tables are set up in orderly rows, two of them side by side, all the way back to the end of the chamber. They are simple but sturdy, and each one bears a single massive book. All of the books are black, and all of them are tethered to the tables with thick chains, also black.

  There are people around the tables, sitting and standing, men and women in black robes just like Deckle’s, talking, jabbering, arguing. There must be a dozen of them down here, and they make it feel like the floor of a very small stock exchange. The sounds all merge and overlap: the hiss of whispers, the scuffle of feet. The scratch of pen on paper, the squeak of chalk on slate. Coughs and sniffles. It feels more than anything else like a classroom, except the students are all adults, and I have no idea what they’re studying.

  Shelves line the chamber’s long perimeter. They are made from the same wood as the beams and the tables, and they are packed with books. Those books, unlike the tomes on the tables, are colorful: red and blue and gold, cloth and leather, some ragged, some neat. They are a ward against claustrophobia; without them, it would feel like a catacomb down here, but because they line the shelves and lend the chamber color and texture, it actually feels cosseted and comfortable.

  Neel makes an appreciative murmur.

  “What is this place?” Kat says, rubbing her arms, shivering. The colors might be warm but the air is freezing.

  “Follow me,” Penumbra says. He makes his way out onto the floor, weaving between squads of black-robes clustered around tables. I hear a snatch of conversation: “… Brito is the problem here,” a tall man with a blond beard is saying, poking down at the thick black book on the table. “He insisted all operations had to be reversible, when in fact …” I lose his voice, but pick up another one: “… too preoccupied with the page as a unit of analysis. Think of this book in a different way—it is a string of characters, correct? It has not two dimensions, but one. Therefore …” That’s the owl-faced man from the sidewalk this morning, the one with the wiry eyebrows. He’s still stooped over, still wearing his furry hat; along with his robe, it makes him look 100 percent like a warlock. He’s making sharp strokes with chalk on a small slate.

  A loop of chain catches Penumbra’s foot and makes a bright clink as he shakes it off. He grimaces and mutters, “Ridiculous.”

  We follow quietly behind him, a short line of black sheep. The shelves are broken in just a few places: twice by doors on either side of the long chamber, and once at the chamber’s terminus, where they give way to smooth bare rock and a wooden dais set up under a bright lamp. It’s tall and severe-looking. That must be where they do the ritual sacrifices.

  As we pass, a few of the black-robes glance up and stop short; their eyes widen. “Penumbra,” they exclaim, smiling, reaching out hands. Penumbra nods and smiles back and takes each hand in turn.

  He leads us to an uninhabited table close to the dais, in a soft-shadowed spot between two lamps.

  “You have come to a very special place,” he says, lowering himself into a chair. We sit, too, negotiating the folds of our new robes. His voice is very quiet, barely audible above the din: “You must never speak of it, or reveal its location, to anyone.”

  We all nod together. Neel whispers, “This is amazing.”

  “Oh, it is not the room that is special,” Penumbra says. “It is old, certainly. But any vault is the same: a sturdy chamber, built belowground, cold and dry. Unremarkable.” He pauses. “It is the room’s contents that are remarkable indeed.”

  We’ve only been in this book-lined cellar for three minutes and I’ve already forgotten that the rest of the world exists. I’ll bet this place is designed to survive a nuclear war. One of those doors must lead to the stockpile of canned beans.

  “There are two treasures here,” Penumbra continues. “One is a collection of many books and the other is a single volume.” He lifts a bony hand to rest on the black-bound volume chained to our table, identical to all the others. On the cover it says, in tall silver letters: MANVTIVS.

  “This is the volume,” Penumbra says. “It is the codex vitae of Aldus Manutius. It does not exist anywhere outside of this library.”

  Wait: “Not even in your store?”

  Penumbra shakes his head. “No novices read this book. Only the full members of this fellowship—the bound and the unbound. There are not many of us, and we read Manutius only here.”

  That’s what we’re seeing all around us—all of this intense study. Although I’ve noticed more than a few of the black-robes tipping their noses our way. Maybe not so intense.

  Penumbra turns in his chair and waves a hand to indicate the shelves lining the walls. “And this is the other treasure. Following in the Founder’s footsteps, every member of this fellowship produces his or her own codex vitae, or book of life. It is the task of the unbound. Fedorov, for example, who you know”—he nods to me—”is one of these. When he is finished, he will have poured everything he has learned, all his knowledge, into a book like these.”

  I think of Fedorov and his snowy-white beard. Yeah, he’s probably learned some things.

  “We use our logbook,” he says to me, “to be sure that Fedorov has earned his knowledge.” Penumbra cocks an eyebrow. “We must be sure he understands what he has accomplished.”

  Right. They have to be sure he didn’t just feed a bunch of books into a scanner.

  “When Fedorov’s codex vitae is validated by me, and then accepted by the First Reader, he will become one of the bound. And then, finally, he will make the ultimate sacrifice.”

  Uh-oh: a dark ritual down at the Dais of True Evil. I knew it. I like Fedorov.

  “Fedorov’s book will be encrypted, copied, and shelved,” Penumbra says flatly. “It will not be read by anyone until after his death.”

  “That sucks,” Neel hisses. I narrow my eyes at him, but Penumbra smiles and raises an open hand.

  “We make this sacrifice out of deep faith,” he says. “I speak now with utter seriousness. When we unlock Manutius’s codex vitae, every member of our fellowship who has followed in his footsteps—who has created his own book of life and stored it for safekeeping—will live again.”

  I struggle to hold back the skepticism that wants so badly to twist across my face.

  “What,” Neel asks, “like zombies?” He says it a little too loud, and some of the black-robes swivel to look our way.

  Penumbra shakes his head. “The nature of immortality is a mystery,” he says, speaking so softly that we have to lean closer to hear. “But everything I know of writing and reading tells me that this is true. I have felt it in these shelves and in others.”

  I don’t believe the immortality part, but I do know the feeling that Penumbra is talking about. Walking the stacks in a library, dragging your fingers across the spines—it’s hard not to feel the presence of sleeping spirits. That’s just a feeling, not a fact, but remember (I repeat): people believe weirder things than this.

  “But why can’t you decode Manutius’s book?” Kat says. This is in her wheelhouse: “What happened to the key?”

  “Ah,” Penumbra says. “What, indeed.” He pauses and takes a breath. Then: “Gerritszoon was as remarkable as Manutius, in his own way. He chose not to pass on the key. For five hundred years … we have discussed his
decision.”

  The way he says it makes me think those discussions might have involved the occasional gun or dagger.

  “Without it, we have tried every method we can imagine to unlock Manutius’s codex vitae. We have used geometry. We have searched for hidden shapes. That is the origin of the Founder’s Puzzle.”

  The face in the visualization—of course. I feel another little whirl of dislocation. That was Aldus Manutius staring out of my MacBook.

  “We have turned to algebra, logic, linguistics, cryptography … we have counted great mathematicians among our number,” Penumbra says. “Men and women who won prizes in the world above.”

  Kat is leaning in so intently she’s almost up on top of the table. This is catnip: a code to be cracked and the key to immortality, all in one. I feel a little thrill of pride: I’m the one who brought her here. Google is a disappointment today. The real action is down here with the Unbroken Spine.

  “What you must understand, my friends,” Penumbra says, “is that this fellowship has operated in almost exactly the same way since its formation five hundred years ago.” He pokes a finger over to indicate the bustling black-robes: “We use chalk and slate, ink and paper.” Here, his tone shifts. “Corvina believes we must adhere to these techniques exactly. He believes that if we change anything at all, we will forfeit our prize.”

  “And you,” I say—you, the man with the Mac Plus—”you disagree.”

  In reply, Penumbra turns to Kat, and now his voice really is just a breath: “We come now to my proposal. If I am not mistaken, dear girl, your company has shepherded a great number of books”—he pauses, searching for words—”onto digital shelves.”

  She nods and her reply is a sharp whisper: “Sixty-one percent of everything ever published.”

  “But you do not have the Founder’s codex vitae,” Penumbra says. “No one does.” A pause. “Perhaps you should.”

  I get it in a flash: Penumbra is proposing bibliographic burglary.

  One of the black-robes shuffles past our table carrying a fat green book from the shelves. She’s tall and lean, in her forties, with sleepy eyes and black hair chopped short. Beneath her robe, I see a blue floral print. We stay quiet, waiting for her to pass.

  “I believe we must break with tradition,” Penumbra continues. “I am old, and if it is possible, I would see this work completed before all that is left of me is a book on these shelves.”

  Another flash: Penumbra is one of the bound, so his own codex vitae must be here, in this cave. The thought makes my head spin a little. What’s inside? What story does it tell?

  Kat’s eyes are shining. “We can scan this,” she says, patting the book on the table. “And if there’s a code, we can break it. We have machines that are so powerful—you have no idea.”

  There’s a murmur in the Reading Room and a ripple of awareness passes through the black-robes. They all sit up straight and make whispers and whistles of attention and warning.

  At the far end of the chamber, where the wide steps come down from above, a tall figure has emerged. His robe is different from the rest; it’s more elaborate, with extra folds of black fabric around the neck and slashes of red down the sleeves. It’s hanging from his shoulders as if he’s just thrown it on; underneath, a gleaming gray suit peeks out.

  He’s heading straight for us.

  “Mr. Penumbra,” I whisper, “I think maybe—”

  “Penumbra,” the figure intones. His voice isn’t loud, but it comes from down low and it carries through the chamber. “Penumbra,” he says again, striding fast. He’s old—not as old as Penumbra, but close. He’s much more solid, though. He doesn’t stoop or totter, and I think he might be hiding pectoral muscles under that suit. His head is shaved starkly bald and he has a dark, neat mustache. He’s Nosferatu as a Marine Corps sergeant.

  And now I recognize him. This is the man from the photo with young Penumbra, the strong young man giving a thumbs-up in front of the Golden Gate Bridge. This is Penumbra’s boss, the one who keeps the lights on at the bookstore, the CEO of the generous Festina Lente Company. This is Corvina.

  Penumbra lifts himself up out of his chair. “Please, meet three unbound of San Francisco,” he says. To us: “This is the First Reader, and our patron.” Suddenly he’s playing the solicitous subordinate. He’s acting.

  Corvina appraises us coldly. His eyes are dark and glinting—there’s a fierce, chomping intelligence there. He looks straight at Neel, considering, then says, “Tell me: Which of Aristotle’s works did the Founder print first?” The question is soft but implacable, each word a bullet from a silenced pistol.

  Neel’s face is blank. There’s an uncomfortable pause.

  Corvina folds his arms and turns to Kat: “Well, what about you? Any idea?”

  Kat’s fingers twitch like she wants to look it up on her phone.

  “Ajax, you have work to do,” Corvina says, rounding on Penumbra. Still quiet. “They should be reciting the whole corpus. They should be saying it backwards in the original Greek.”

  I would frown at that if my head wasn’t spinning with the revelation that Penumbra possesses a first name, and that it is—

  “They are new to their work,” Ajax Penumbra says with a sigh. He’s a few inches shorter than Corvina and he’s stretching to stand up straight, wobbling slightly. He sweeps his big blue eyes around the room and makes a skeptical face. “I was hoping to inspire them with a visit here, but the chains are a bit much. I am not sure they are in keeping with the spirit—”

  “We are not so careless with our books here, Ajax,” Corvina cuts in. “Here, we don’t lose them.”

  “Oh, a logbook is hardly the Founder’s codex vitae, and it was not lost. You grab at any excuse—”

  “Because you offer them,” Corvina says flatly. His voice is matter-of-fact, but it rings in the chamber. The Reading Room has grown silent now. None of the black-robes are talking, or moving, or possibly even breathing.

  Corvina clasps his hands behind his back—a teacher’s pose. “Ajax. I’m glad you returned, because I’ve made my decision, and I wanted to tell you myself.” A pause, then a solicitous tilt of the head. “It’s time you came back to New York.”

  Penumbra squints. “I have a store to run.”

  “No. It cannot continue,” Corvina says, shaking his head. “Not filled with books that have nothing to do with our work. Not overflowing with people who know nothing about our responsibility.”

  Well, I wouldn’t say overflowing, exactly.

  Penumbra is quiet, eyes downcast, brow deeply wrinkled. His gray hair rises up around his head like a cloud of stray thoughts. If he shaved it off, he might look as sleek and impressive as Corvina. But probably not.

  “Yes, I do stock other books,” Penumbra says finally. “Just as I have for decades. Just as our teacher did before me. I know you remember that. You know that half my novices come to us because—”

  “Because your standards are so low,” Corvina interrupts. His gaze strafes across Kat, Neel, and me. “What good are unbound who don’t take the work seriously? They make us weaker, not stronger. They put everything at risk.”

  Kat frowns. Neel’s biceps pulse.

  “You’ve spent too long in the wilderness, Ajax. Come back to us. Spend what time remains among your brothers and sisters.”

  Penumbra’s face is a grimace now. “There are novices in San Francisco, and unbound. Many of them.” His voice is suddenly husky, and his eyes catch mine. I see a flash of pain, and I know he’s thinking of Tyndall and Lapin and the rest, and of me and Oliver Grone, too.

  “There are novices everywhere,” Corvina says, waving a hand as if to dismiss them. “The unbound will follow you here. Or they will not. But, Ajax, let me be perfectly clear. The Festina Lente Company’s support for your store has ended. You will receive nothing more from us.”

  The Reading Room is utterly silent: no rustle, no clink. The black-robes are all staring down at their books, and they are all listen
ing.

  “You have a choice, my friend,” the First Reader says gently, “and I am trying to help you see it clearly. We are not so young, Ajax. If you rededicate yourself to our task, there is still time for you to do great work. If not”—his eyes angle up—”well, then you can squander what time remains out there.” He gives Penumbra a hard gaze—it’s a look of concern, but the really patronizing kind—and repeats, finally: “Come back to us.”

  Then he spins away and stalks back toward the wide steps, his red-slashed robe fluttering behind him. There’s a roar of scratching and scuffling as his subjects all throw themselves into the imitation of study.

  ———

  When we flee the Reading Room, Deckle asks again about coffee.

  “We will need something stronger than that, my boy,” Penumbra says, attempting a smile, and almost—but not quite—succeeding. “I would very much like to speak with you tonight … Where?” Penumbra turns to me and makes it a question.

  “The Northbridge,” Neel cuts in. “West Twenty-ninth and Broadway.” That’s where we’re staying, because that’s where Neel knows the owner.

  We leave our robes and take our phones and wade back out through the gray-green shallows of the Festina Lente Company. As my sneakers scuff the brindled corporate floor-covering material, it occurs to me that we must be directly above the Reading Room—basically walking on its ceiling. I can’t decide how far down it is. Twenty feet? Forty?

  Penumbra’s own codex vitae is down there. I didn’t see it—it was somewhere on those shelves, one spine among many—but it looms larger in my mind than the black-bound MANVTIVS. We’re scurrying away under the shadow of an ultimatum, and it seems to me that Penumbra might be leaving something precious behind.

  One of the offices along the wall is larger than the others, its frosted-glass door set apart from the rest. I can see the nameplate clearly now:

  MARCUS CORVINA / EXECUTIVE CHAIRMAN