Mr. Penumbra s 24 Hour Bookstore 17

  “Festina lente,” the black-robes all murmur in return.

  “I have gathered you here to speak of two things,” Corvina says, “and this is the first.” He lifts one of the blue-bound books and holds it up for everyone to see. “After many years of work, your brother Zaid has presented his codex vitae.”

  Corvina nods, and one of the black-robes steps forward and turns to face the crowd. The man is in his fifties, thickset under his robe. He has a face like a boxer, with a smooshed-down nose and splotchy cheeks. This must be Zaid. He’s standing straight, his hands clasped behind his back. His face is pinched; he’s trying hard for fortitude.

  “Deckle has validated Zaid’s work and I have read his book,” Corvina says. “I have read it as closely as I know how.” He really is a charismatic dude—his voice has a quiet but irresistible confidence. There’s a pause, and the Reading Room is silent. Everyone is waiting for the First Reader’s judgment.

  Finally, Corvina says simply, “It is masterful.”

  The black-robes whoop and rush forward to embrace Zaid and shake his hands two at a time. Three scholars near me start belting out a song, which sounds like a for-he’s-a-jolly-good-fellow sort of tune, but I’m not sure because it’s in Latin. I clap my hands to fit in. Corvina raises a hand to quiet the crowd. They move back and settle down. Zaid is still standing up in front, and now he raises a hand to cover his eyes. He’s crying.

  “Today, Zaid is bound,” Corvina says. “His codex vitae has been encrypted. Now it will be shelved, and the key will remain secret until his death. Just as Manutius chose Gerritszoon, Zaid has chosen a trusted brother to carry his key.” Corvina pauses. “It is Eric.”

  Scattered cheers again. I know Eric. There he is in the front row, a pale face under a splotchy black beard: Corvina’s courier to the store in San Francisco. Black-robes are clapping him on the shoulders, too, and I can see him smiling, a bloom of color on his cheeks. Maybe he’s not so bad. That’s quite a responsibility, keeping Zaid’s key. Is he allowed to write it down somewhere?

  “Eric will also be one of Zaid’s couriers, along with Darius,” Corvina says. “Brothers, come forward.”

  Eric takes three sure steps forward. So does another black-robe, this one with golden skin like Kat’s and a tight cap of brown curls. They both unbutton their robes. Underneath, Eric is wearing his slate-gray slacks below a crisp white shirt. Darius is in jeans and a sweater.

  Edgar Deckle also steps out of the crowd, carrying two wide sheets of thick brown paper. One at a time, he hoists a book from the dais, wraps it crisply, and hands the package off to a courier: first Eric, then Darius.

  “Three copies,” Corvina says. “One for the library”—he lifts the blue-bound book again—”and two for safekeeping. Buenos Aires and Rome. We entrust Zaid to you, brothers. Take his codex vitae and do not sleep until you have seen it shelved.”

  So I understand Eric’s visit better now. He came from here. He was carrying a fresh codex vitae, delivering it for safekeeping. And, of course, being a jerk about it.

  “Zaid adds to our burden,” Corvina says gravely, “just as all the bound before him have added to it. Year by year, book by book, our responsibility grows heavier.” He swivels his gaze to take in all of the black-robes. I suck in my breath and scrunch in my shoulders and try to disappear behind the tall blond-haired scholar. “We must not falter. We must unlock the Founder’s secret, so that Zaid and all who came before him can live on.”

  There’s a deep murmur from the crowd. Up in front, Zaid is no longer crying. He’s composed himself, and now his face looks proud and severe.

  Corvina is silent for a moment. Then he says, “There is something else we must speak of.”

  He gives a little wave with his hand and Zaid returns to the crowd. Eric and Darius head for the steps. I think for a moment about following them, but quickly reconsider. Right now my only hope is to blend in completely—to crouch in this shadow, not of normalcy, but of deep strangeness.

  “I have spoken recently with Penumbra,” Corvina says. “He has friends in this fellowship. I count myself among them. So, I feel compelled to tell you about our conversation.”

  There are whispers all around.

  “Penumbra is responsible for a great transgression—one of the greatest imaginable. Thanks to his negligence, one of our volumes was stolen.”

  Murmurs and groans.

  “A logbook containing details of the Unbroken Spine, its work in San Francisco for years, unencrypted, laid out for anyone to read.”

  My back is sweating under the robe and my eyes feel itchy. The hard drive in its Bicycle box is a lump of lead in my pocket. I try to appear as unconcerned and uninvolved as possible. Mostly this involves looking at my shoes.

  “It was a grave mistake, and not the first that Penumbra has made.”

  More groans from the black-robes. Corvina’s disappointment, his disdain, is feeding into them, circling back, amplifying. The tall dark shapes have all drawn together into one big sulking shadow. It’s a massacre of crows. I’ve already picked out a path toward the steps. I’m ready to run for it.

  “Note this well,” Corvina says, his voice rising just a little. “Penumbra is one of the bound. His codex vitae sits on these shelves, just as Zaid’s will. Yet his destiny is not assured.” His voice is swift and sure, and it carries through the chamber: “Brothers and sisters, let me be clear: when a burden is this heavy and a purpose this serious, friendship is no shield. Another mistake, and Penumbra will be burned.”

  There are gasps at this, followed by quick whispered exchanges. Glancing around, I see expressions of shock and surprise. The First Reader might have gone too far just then.

  “Do not take your work for granted,” he says more gently, “whether you are bound or unbound. We must be disciplined. We must be determined. We cannot allow ourselves to be”—he pauses here—”distracted.” He takes a breath. He could be a presidential candidate—a good one—stumping with total conviction and sincerity. “It is the text that matters, brothers and sisters. Remember this. Everything we need is already here in the text. As long as we have that, and as long as we have our minds”—he raises a finger and taps his sleek forehead—”we don’t need anything else.”

  After that, the crows take flight. Black-robes swirl around Zaid, congratulating him, asking him questions. Above his rough red cheeks, his eyes are still wet.

  The Unbroken Spine is returning to its labors. Black-robes are bending down over black books and pulling the chains tight. Near the dais, Corvina confers with a middle-aged woman. She’s making broad gestures, explaining something as he gazes down and nods. Deckle is hovering just behind them. His eyes meet mine. He makes a sharp motion with his chin, and the message is clear: Go.

  I keep my head down and my bag tucked in tight and I march the length of the chamber, keeping close to the shelves. But halfway to the steps, I trip on a chain and stumble down onto one knee. My palm smacks the floor and a black-robe cocks an eye at me. He’s tall, with a beard that juts out from his jaw like a bullet.

  I say softly: “Festina lente.”

  Then I look straight down and shuffle fast toward the steps. I take them two at a time all the way back up to the surface of planet earth.

  I meet Kat, Neel, and Penumbra in the Northbridge lobby. They are sitting, waiting, on massive gray couches with coffee and breakfast set up in front of them; the scene is an oasis of sanity and modernity. Penumbra is frowning.

  “My boy!” he says, rising to his feet. He looks me up and down and raises an eyebrow. I realize I’m still wearing the black robe. I shrug my bag onto the floor and peel it off. It’s smooth in my hands, shiny in the lobby’s half-light.

  “You had us worried,” Penumbra says. “What took you so long?”

  I explain what happened. I tell them Grumble’s scanner worked, and then I dump the contraption’s crumpled remains out onto the low table. I tell them about Zaid’s ceremony.

  “A binding,” Pen
umbra says. “They are few and far between. Unlucky that it would happen today.” He tilts his chin. “Or lucky, perhaps. Now you know more of the patience that the Unbroken Spine demands.”

  I wave down a Northbridge waiter and desperately order a bowl of oatmeal and a Blue Screen of Death. It’s still early in the morning but I need a drink.

  Then I tell them what Corvina said about Penumbra.

  My erstwhile employer waves a bony hand: “His words do not matter. Not anymore. What matters is what is on those pages. I cannot believe it worked. I cannot believe we have in our possession the codex vitae of Aldus Manutius!”

  Kat nods, grinning. “Let’s get started,” she says. “We can OCR the book and make sure everything works.”

  She hauls out her MacBook and brings it to life. I plug in the tiny hard drive and copy its contents—most of them. I drag MANVTIVS over to Kat’s laptop, but I keep PENVMBRA for myself. I’m not going to tell Penumbra, or anyone, that I scanned his book. That can wait—with luck, maybe forever. Manutius’s codex vitae is a project. Penumbra’s is just an insurance policy.

  I eat my oatmeal and watch the progress bar grow. It finishes copying with a quiet plink and then Kat’s fingers fly across the keyboard. “All right,” she says. “It’s on its way. We’re going to need help back in Mountain View to actually crack the code … but we can at least kick off the Hadoop job to turn the pages into plain text. Ready?”

  I smile. This is exciting. Kat’s cheeks are glowing; she’s in digital empress mode. Also, I think the Blue Screen of Death is going to my head. I hoist my blinking glass: “Long live Aldus Manutius!”

  Kat thunks a finger down on her keyboard. Pictures of pages start flying to far-off computers, where they will become strings of symbols that can be copied and, soon, decoded. No chains can hold them now.

  While Kat’s computer goes to work, I ask Penumbra about the burned book marked MOFFAT. Neel is listening, too.

  “Was it him?” I ask.

  “Yes, of course,” Penumbra says. “Clark Moffat. He did his work here, in New York. But before that, my boy—he was our customer.” He grins and winks. He thinks this will impress me, and he’s right. I’m retroactively starstruck.

  “But that was not a codex vitae you held,” Penumbra says, shaking his head. “Not anymore.”

  Obviously. It was a book of ashes. “What happened?”

  “He published it, of course.”

  Wait, I’m confused: “The only books Moffat ever published were The Dragon-Song Chronicles.”

  “Yes.” Penumbra nods. “His codex vitae was the third and final volume of the saga he started before he joined us. It was a tremendous profession of faith to finish this work, then surrender it to the fellowship’s shelves. He presented it to the First Reader—this was Nivean, before Corvina—and it was accepted.”

  “But he took it back.”

  Penumbra nods. “He could not make the sacrifice. He could not leave his final volume unpublished.”

  So Moffat couldn’t remain part of the Unbroken Spine because Neel and I and countless other nerdy sixth-graders all had our minds blown by the third and final volume of The Dragon-Song Chronicles.

  “Man,” Neel says, “this explains a lot.”

  He’s right. The third volume blows middle-school minds because it’s a total curveball. The tone shifts. The characters change. The plot goes off the rails and begins to obey some hidden logic. People always assumed it was because Clark Moffat started doing psychedelic drugs, but the truth is even stranger.

  Penumbra frowns. “I believe Clark made a tragic mistake.”

  Mistake or not, what a world-bending decision. If The Dragon-Song Chronicles were never completed, I’d never have been friends with Neel. He wouldn’t be sitting here. Maybe I wouldn’t be sitting here. Maybe I’d be surfing in Costa Rica with some bizarro-universe best friend. Maybe I’d be sitting in a gray-green office.

  Thank you, Clark Moffat. Thank you for your mistake.


  BACK IN SAN FRANCISCO, I find Mat and Ashley together in the kitchen, both scarfing complicated salads, both wearing stretchy bright-colored athletic gear. Mat has a carabiner clipped at his waist.

  “Jannon!” he exclaims. “Have you ever been rock-climbing?”

  I concede that I have not. As a rogue, I prefer athletic activities that require agility, not strength.

  “See, that’s what I thought, too,” Mat says, nodding, “but it’s not strength. It’s strategy.” Ashley eyes him proudly. He continues, waving a forkful of greens, “You have to learn each course as you go—come up with a plan, try it out, adjust. Seriously, my brain is more tired than my arms right now.”

  “How was New York?” Ashley asks politely.

  I’m not sure how to respond. Something like: Well, the mustachioed master of the secret library is going to be pissed that I copied the entirety of his ancient codebook and delivered it to Google, but at least I got to stay at a nice hotel?

  Instead, I say, “New York was good.”

  “They’ve got some great climbing gyms.” She shakes her head. “Nothing out here even compares.”

  “Yeah, the interior design at Frisco Rock City definitely … leaves something to be desired,” Mat says.

  “That purple wall …” Ashley shudders. “I think they just bought whatever paint was on sale.”

  “And a climbing wall is such an opportunity,” Mat says. He’s getting excited. “What a canvas! Three stories to cover with anything you want. Like a matte painting. There’s a guy at ILM …”

  I leave them chattering happily together about all the details.

  At this point, the best option is sleep, but I dozed on the plane and now I’m restless, like something in my brain is still circling the runway, refusing to come in for a landing.

  I find Clark Moffat (unburned and intact) on my own short shelves. I’m still making my way through the series again slowly, and now I’m on Volume II, near the end. I flop down on my bed and try to see it with new eyes. I mean: this book was written by a man who walked the same streets as me, who looked up at the same shadowed shelves. He joined the Unbroken Spine and he left the Unbroken Spine. What did he learn along the way?

  I flip to where I left off.

  The heroes, a scholarly dwarf and a dethroned prince, are making their way through a deadly swamp to the Citadel of the First Wizard. I know what’s going to happen next, of course, because I’ve read this book three times before: the First Wizard is going to betray them and hand them over to the Wyrm Queen.

  I always know it’s coming, and I know it needs to happen (because how else are they going to get into the Wyrm Queen’s tower and ultimately defeat her?) but it always kills me to read this part. Why can’t things just work out? Why can’t the First Wizard just give them a mug of coffee and a safe place to stay for a while?

  Even with all my new knowledge, the story seems about the same as before. Moffat’s prose is fine: clear and steady, with just enough sweeping statements about destiny and dragons to keep things well inflated. The characters are appealing archetypes: Fernwen the scholarly dwarf is the everynerd, doing his best to live through the adventure. Telemach Half-Blood is the hero you wish you could be. He always has a plan, always has a solution, always has secret allies that he can call upon—pirates and sorcerers whose allegiance he earned with long-ago sacrifices. In fact, I’m just getting to the part where Telemach is going to blow the Golden Horn of Griffo to raise the dead elves of the Pinake Forest, who are all bound to him because he liberated their—

  The Golden Horn of Griffo.


  Griffo, like Griffo Gerritszoon.

  I open my laptop and start taking notes. The passage continues:

  “The Golden Horn of Griffo is finely wrought,” Zenodotus said, tracing his finger along the curve of Telemach’s treasure. “And the magic is in its making alone. Do you understand? There is no sorcery here—none that I can dete

  Fernwen’s eyes widened at that. Hadn’t they just braved a swamp of horrors to reclaim this enchanted trumpet? And now the First Wizard claimed it carried no real power at all?

  “Magic is not the only power in this world,” the old mage said gently, handing the horn back to its royal owner. “Griffo made an instrument so perfect that even the dead must rise to hear its call. He made it with his hands, without spells or dragon-songs. I wish that I could do the same.”

  I don’t know what that means—but I think it means something.

  From there, the plot is familiar: while Fernwen and Telemach slumber (at last) in richly furnished chambers, the First Wizard steals the horn. Then he lights a red lantern and sends it dancing aloft, a signal to the Wyrm Queen’s dark marauders in the Pinake Forest. They are busy there among the trees—hunting down old elf graves, digging up bones, grinding them to dust—but they know what that signal means. They descend on the citadel, and when Telemach Half-Blood startles awake in his chamber, he is surrounded by tall shadows. They howl and strike.

  And that’s where the second book ends.

  “It was amazing,” Kat says. We’re sharing a gluten-free waffle in the Gourmet Grotto and she’s telling me about the inaugural gathering of the new Product Management. She’s wearing a cream-colored blouse with a daggerlike collar; underneath, her T-shirt winks red at her throat.

  “Totally amazing,” she continues. “Best meeting ever. Completely … structured. You know exactly what’s happening all the time. Everybody brings a laptop—”

  “Do people even look at one another?”

  “Not really. Everything that matters is on your screen. There’s an agenda that rearranges itself. There’s a back-channel chat. And there’s fact-checking! If you get up to speak, there are people cross-referencing your claims, supporting and refuting you—”

  It sounds like an engineer’s Athens.

  “—and the meeting is really long, like six hours, but it feels like no time, because you’re thinking so hard. You get totally wrung out. There’s so much information to absorb and it comes so fast. And they—we—make decisions really fast, too. After somebody calls for a vote, it happens live, and you have to cast yours right away, or delegate it to someone else …”