Mr. Penumbra s 24 Hour Bookstore 16

  MANVTIVS is truly gigantic. Even if it wasn’t chained to the table, I don’t know how somebody would get one of these books out of here. I have to wrap both arms around it in an awkward embrace to haul it up onto the scanner. I’m afraid the cardboard won’t bear the load, but physics is on my side tonight. Grumble’s design holds strong.

  So I start scanning. Flip, flash, snap. The book is just like all the rest I’ve seen in the Waybacklist: a dense matrix of coded characters. Flip, flash, snap. The second page is the same as the first, and so is the third, and the seventh. I fall into a trance, turning the wide monotonous pages and taking their measure. Flip, flash, snap. The grim letters of MANVTIVS are all that exist in the universe; in between camera flashes, I see only flat buzzing darkness. I feel with my fingers to find the next page.

  There’s a shake. Is someone down here? Something just made the table shake.

  It shakes again. I try to say Who’s there? but it catches in my throat, which is parched, and I make a little croak instead.

  Another shake. Then, before I have time to formulate a terrifying theory about the Horned Guardian of the Reading Room—obviously Edgar Deckle’s werebeast form—there’s more shaking, and the cave rumbles and roars and I have to clutch the scanner to keep it upright. In a flood of relief, I realize it’s the subway, just the subway, cruising through bedrock next door. The noise echoes back into itself and becomes a low bellow in the darkness of the cave. Finally, it passes, and I start scanning again.

  Flip, flash, snap.

  Many minutes pass, or maybe more than minutes, and bleakness washes over me. Maybe it’s the fact that I didn’t have any dinner, so my blood sugar is bottoming out, or maybe it’s the fact that I’m standing alone in a freezing pitch-black subterranean vault. But whatever the cause, the effect is real: I feel keenly the stupidity of this entire enterprise, this absurd cult. Book of life? This is barely a book at all. The Dragon-Song Chronicles: Volume III is a better book than this.

  Flip, flash, snap.

  But of course: I can’t read it. Would I say the same thing about a book in Chinese or Korean or Hebrew? The big Torahs in Jewish temples look like this, right? Flip, flash, snap—heavy grids of inscrutable symbols. Maybe it’s my own limitation that’s getting to me. Maybe it’s the fact that I can’t understand what I’m scanning. Flip, flash, snap. What if I could read this? What if I could glance across the page and, you know, get the joke? Or gasp at the cliff-hanger?

  Flip, flash, snap.

  No. Turning the pages of this encoded codex, I realize that the books I love most are like open cities, with all sorts of ways to wander in. This thing is a fortress with no front gate. You’re meant to scale the walls, stone by stone.

  I’m cold and tired and hungry. I have no idea how much time has passed. It feels like maybe my entire life has been spent in this chamber, with the occasional dream of a sunny street. Flip flash snap, flip flash snap, flip flash snap. My hands are cold claws, curled and cramped as if I’ve been playing video games all day.

  Flip, flash, snap. This is a terrible video game.

  At last, I’m done.

  I lace my fingers together and bend them backward, pressing them out into space. I jump up and down, trying to restore my bones and muscles to some semblance of normal hominid configuration. It doesn’t work. My knees hurt. My back is cramped. There are jets of pain shooting out of my thumbs, up into my wrists. I hope it isn’t permanent.

  I shake my head. I’m feeling really dismal. I should have brought a granola bar. Suddenly I am sure that starving to death in a pitch-black cave is the very worst way to die. That makes me think of the codex vitae lining the walls, and suddenly I get the creeps. How many dead souls are sitting—waiting—on the shelves all around me?

  One soul matters more than the rest. It’s time to accomplish this mission’s second objective.

  Penumbra’s codex vitae is here. I’m cold, shivering, and I want to leave this place, but I came here to liberate not only Aldus Manutius, but Ajax Penumbra, too.

  To be clear: I don’t believe in this. I don’t believe any of these books can confer immortality. I just clawed my way through one of them; it’s moldy paper bound in moldier leather. It’s a hunk of dead tree and dead flesh. But if Penumbra’s codex vitae is the great work of his life—if he really did pour everything he learned, all his knowledge, into one book—then, you know, I think somebody ought to make a backup.

  It might be a long shot, but I’ll never have this chance again. So I start along the perimeter, doubled over, trying to read the spines sideways. One look confirms that they are not shelved alphabetically. No, of course they’re not. They’re probably grouped according to some supersecret intra-cult rank, or favorite prime number, or inseam, or something. So I just go shelf by shelf, deeper and deeper into the darkness.

  The variation between books is incredible. Some are fat, some are skinny; some are tall like atlases, some squat like paperbacks. I wonder if there’s a logic to that, too; is some sort of status encoded into each book’s format? Some are bound in cloth, others in leather, and many in materials that I don’t recognize. One shines bright in the light of my headlamp; it’s clad in thin aluminum.

  Thirteen shelves in, there’s still no sign of PENVMBRA, and I’m afraid I might have missed him. The headlamp casts a narrow cone of light, and I’m not seeing every spine, especially the ones down by the floor—

  There’s a blank space in the shelves. No: upon closer inspection, it’s not blank, but black. It’s a blackened husk of a book, with the name still faintly visible on the spine:


  It can’t be … Clark Moffat, author of The Dragon-Song Chronicles? No, it can’t.

  I paw at the spine and pull it out, and as I do, the book disintegrates. The covers hold together, but a sheaf of blackened pages comes loose inside and falls onto the floor. I hiss, “Shit!” and shove what remains of the book back onto the shelf. This must be what they mean by burning. The book is ruined, just a blackened placeholder. Maybe it’s a warning.

  My hands are blackened now, too, slick with soot. I clap them together and bits of MOFFAT float to the floor. Maybe it’s an ancestor or a second cousin. There’s more than one Moffat in the world.

  I reach down to scoop up the charred remains and my headlamp catches a book, tall and skinny, with golden letters spaced out along the spine:


  It’s him. I almost can’t bring myself to touch it. It’s right there—I found it—but suddenly it feels too intimate, like I’m about to look through Penumbra’s tax returns or his underwear drawer. What’s inside? What story does it tell?

  I hook a finger into the top of the binding and angle it slowly away from the shelf. This book is beautiful. It’s taller and skinnier than its neighbors, with super-stiff binding boards. Its dimensions remind me more of an oversized children’s book than an occult diary. The cover is pale blue, exactly the color of Penumbra’s eyes, and with some of the same luminescence, too: the color shifts and glimmers in the glare of the headlamp. It’s soft under my fingers.

  The remains of MOFFAT are a dark smear at my feet, and I won’t let the same thing happen to this book, no matter what. I will scan PENVMBRA.

  I carry my erstwhile employer’s codex vitae back over to the GrumbleGear and—why am I so nervous?—I open to the first page. It’s the same jumble of characters as all the rest, of course. Penumbra’s codex vitae is no more readable than any of the others.

  Because it’s so slender—a mere fraction of MANVTIVS—it shouldn’t take long, but I find myself flipping more slowly, trying to glean something, anything, from the pages. I relax my eyes, defocus them, so the letters become a dappling of shadows. I want so badly to see something in this mess—honestly, I want something magical to happen. But no: if I really want to read my weird old friend’s opus, I’ll need to join his cult. There are no free stories in the secret library of the Unbroken Spine.

  It takes longer than it s
hould, but at last I’m finished and the pages of PENVMBRA are safe on the hard drive. More so than with MANVTIVS, I feel like I just accomplished something important. I snap my laptop shut, shuffle over to the place where I found the book—marked by MOFFAT’S remains on the floor—and slot the glimmering blue codex vitae back into place.

  I give it a pat on the spine and say, “Sleep well, Mr. Penumbra.”

  Then the lights come on.

  I’m blinded and stricken, blinking and panicking. What just happened? Did I set off an alarm? Did I trigger some trap laid for overreaching rogues?

  I claw my phone out of my pocket and swipe madly at the screen, bringing it back to life. It’s almost eight in the morning. How did this happen? How long was I circumnavigating the shelves here? How long was I scanning PENVMBRA?

  The lights are on, and now I hear a voice.

  When I was a kid, I had a pet hamster. He always seemed to be afraid of absolutely everything—permanently trapped and trembling. This made hamster ownership pretty much totally unpleasant for the whole eighteen months that it lasted.

  Now, for the first time in my life, I empathize 100 percent with Fluff McFly. My heart is beating at hamster-speed and I am throwing my eyes around the room, looking for some way out. The bright lamps are like prison-yard spotlights. I can see my own hands, and I can see the pile of charred paper at my feet, and I can see the table with my laptop and the skeletal scanner set up on top of it.

  I can also see the dark shape of a door directly across the chamber.

  I sprint to my laptop, scoop it up, then grab the scanner, too—crushing the cardboard under my arms—and make for the door. I have no idea what it is or where it leads—to the canned beans?—but now I hear voices, plural.

  My fingers are on the door handle. I hold my breath—please, please be unlocked—and I push it down. Poor tormented Fluff McFly never felt anything like the relief of that door giving way. I slide through and close it behind me.

  On the other side, it’s all darkness again. I stand frozen for a moment, cradling my awkward cargo in my arms, my back pressed up against the door. I force myself to take shallow breaths; I ask my hamster-heart to please, please slow down.

  There is the sound of motion and conversation behind me. The door is not set tightly into its frame of rock; it’s like one of those bathroom stalls that feels way too see-through. But it does give me the chance to set the scanner aside and flatten myself down on the cold, smooth floor and peek through the half inch of empty space beneath it:

  Black-robes are flooding into the Reading Room. There are a dozen here already, and more coming down the steps. What’s going on? Did Deckle forget to check the calendar? Did he betray us? Is today the annual convention?

  I sit up straight and do the first thing a person is supposed to do in an emergency, which is send a text message. No such luck. My phone flashes NO SERVICE, even if I stand on tiptoe and wave it up near the ceiling.

  I need to hide. I’ll find a little spot, curl up in a ball, and wait until tomorrow night to slink out. There will be the issue of hunger and thirst, and maybe going to the bathroom … but one thing at a time. My eyes are adjusting to the darkness again, and if I beam my headlamp around in a wide circle, I can make out the shape of the space around me. It’s a small, low-ceilinged chamber packed with dark shapes, all interconnected and overlapping. In the gloom, it looks like something from a science fiction movie: there are sharp-edged metal ribs and long tubes that reach up into the ceiling.

  I am still feeling my way forward when there’s a soft click from the door, which sends me back into hamster mode. I scuttle forward and crouch down behind one of the dark shapes. Something pokes me in the back and wobbles there, so I reach around to steady it—it’s an iron rod, painfully cold and slippery with dust. Can I whack the black-robe with this rod? Where will I whack him? In the face? I’m not sure I can whack somebody in the face. I’m a rogue, not a warrior.

  Warm light falls into the chamber, and I see a figure framed in the doorway. It is a round figure. It’s Edgar Deckle.

  He shuffles through, and there’s a sloshing sound. He’s carrying a mop and bucket, which he holds awkwardly with one hand while he feels along the wall. There’s a low buzz, and the room is bathed in orange light. I grimace and squint.

  Deckle makes a sharp gasp when he sees me crouched in the corner, iron rod raised like some Gothic baseball bat. His eyes go wide. “You were supposed to be gone by now!” he hisses.

  I decide not to reveal that I got distracted by MOFFAT and PENVMBRA. “It was really dark,” I say.

  Deckle sets aside his mop and bucket with a clack and a plop. He sighs and wipes a black sleeve across his forehead. I lower the rod. I can see now that I’m crouched next to a huge furnace; the rod is an iron poker.

  I survey the scene, and it’s not science fiction anymore. I’m surrounded by printing machines. There are refugees from many eras: an old Monotype bristling with knobs and levers; a wide, heavy cylinder set on a long track; and something straight out of Gutenberg’s garage—a heavy whorled block of wood with an enormous corkscrew poking out at the top.

  There are cases and cabinets. There are tools of the printing trade laid out on a wide, weathered table: fat book blocks and tall spools of heavy thread. Under the table, there are lengths of chain piled up in wide loops. The stove next to me has a wide, smiling grille, and at the top, it sprouts a fat pipe that disappears into the chamber’s ceiling.

  Here, deep beneath the streets of Manhattan, I have discovered the world’s weirdest print shop.

  “But you got it?” Deckle whispers.

  I show him the hard drive in its Bicycle box.

  “You got it,” he breathes. The shock doesn’t last long; Edgar Deckle is quickly recomposing himself. “Okay. I think we can make this work. I think—yes.” He nods to himself. “Let me just take these”—he lifts three heavy books, all identical, up off the table—”and I’ll be right back. Stay quiet.”

  He balances the books against his chest and goes back the way he came, leaving the light on behind him.

  I wait and inspect the print shop. The floor is beautiful: a mosaic of characters, each in its own tile, each deeply etched. The alphabet at my feet.

  There’s one metal case much larger than the rest. The top has a familiar symbol: two hands, open like a book. Why do organizations need to mark everything with their insignia? It’s like a dog peeing on every tree. Google is the same way. So was NewBagel.

  Using both hands, I grunt and lift the case’s lid. Inside, it’s divided into compartments—some long, some wide, some perfectly square. They all hold shallow piles of metal type: stubby little 3-D letters, the kind you line up on a printing press to make words and paragraphs and pages and books. And suddenly I know what this is.

  This is Gerritszoon.

  The door clicks again and I whirl to look: Deckle stands there with his hand tucked into his cloak. I am briefly gripped with the certainty that he’s been playing dumb, that he’s betrayed us after all, that he’s been sent back to kill me now. He will do Corvina’s handiwork—maybe flatten my skull with the Gutenberg press. But if he’s bent on clerkicide, he’s putting on a good show: his face is open, friendly, conspiring.

  “That’s the inheritance,” Deckle says, nodding to the Gerritszoon case. “Pretty great, huh?”

  He strolls over as if we’re just hanging out here, deep beneath the surface of the earth, and reaches down to run round pink fingers through the type. He picks up a tiny e and holds it up to his eye. “The most-used letter in the alphabet,” he says, turning it around, inspecting it. He frowns. “It’s really worn down.”

  The subway rumbles through bedrock nearby and it makes the whole room clatter. The Gerritszoon type clinks and shifts; there’s a tiny avalanche of a’s.

  “There’s not very much of it,” I say.

  “It wears out,” Deckle says, tossing the e back into its compartment. “We break letters but we can’t make n
ew ones. We lost the originals. One of the great tragedies of the fellowship.” He looks up at me. “Some people think if we change typefaces, new codex vitae won’t be valid. They think we’re stuck with Gerritszoon forever.”

  “Could be worse,” I say. “It’s probably the best—”

  There’s a noise from the Reading Room; a bright bell clangs and makes a long, lingering echo. Deckle’s eyes flash. “That’s him. Time to go.” He gently closes the case, reaches around to the back of his waistband, and pulls out a folded square of black fabric. It’s another robe.

  “Put this on,” he says. “Stay quiet. Stay in the shadows.”


  THERE’S A CROWD of black-robes at the end of the chamber, down by the wooden dais—dozens of them. Is this everybody? They’re talking and whispering, pushing the tables and chairs back. They’re setting things up for a show.

  “Guys, guys!” Deckle calls out. The black-robes part and make way for him. “Who’s got mud on their shoes? I see those prints. I just mopped yesterday.”

  It’s true: the floor shines like glass, reflecting the colors on the shelves, beaming them back as pale pastels. It’s beautiful. The bell clangs again, echoing in the cave and making a harsh chorus with itself. The black-robes are forming up in front of the dais, facing a single figure, who is of course Corvina. I position myself directly behind a tall blond-haired scholar. My laptop and the crumpled carcass of the GrumbleGear are stuffed back into my bag, which is slung over my shoulder and concealed under my brand-new black robe. I pull my head down toward my shoulders. These robes should really have hoods.

  The First Reader has a stack of books in front of him on the dais, and he taps them with sturdy fingers. They’re the books Deckle retrieved from the print shop moments ago.

  “Brothers and sisters of the Unbroken Spine,” Corvina calls out. “Good morning. Festina lente.”