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Mr. Penumbra s 24 Hour Bookstore 18


  Now it sounds more like a reality show. This waffle is terrible.

  “There’s an engineer named Alex, he’s a big deal, he built most of Google Maps, and I think he likes me—he delegated his vote to me once already, which is pretty crazy, I’m brand-new—”

  I think I’d like to delegate my fist to Alex’s face.

  “—and there are tons of designers, more designers than usual. Somebody said they tweaked the selection algorithm. I think maybe that’s why I got in, because I’m a designer and a programmer. It’s an optimal combination. Anyway.” She finally takes a breath. “I made a presentation. Which, I guess, you’re not really supposed to do at your first PM. But I asked Raj and he said it might be okay. Maybe even a good idea. Make an impression. Whatever.” Another breath. “I told them about Manutius.”

  She did it.

  “How it’s this amazing ancient book, totally a historical treasure, totally old knowledge, OK—”

  She actually did it.

  “—and then I explained how there’s this nonprofit that’s trying to break the code—”

  “Nonprofit?”

  “It sounds better than, like, secret society. Anyway, I said they’re trying to break the code, and of course people perked up at that, because everybody at Google likes codes—”

  Books: boring. Codes: awesome. These are the people who are running the internet.

  “—and I said, maybe we should spend some time on this, because it could be the start of a whole new thing, like some sort of public service code-breaking thing—”

  This is a girl who knows her audience.

  “—and everybody thought that sounded like a great idea. We voted on it.”

  Amazing. No more sneaking around. Thanks to Kat, we now have Google’s official backing. It’s surreal. I wonder when the code-breaking will commence.

  “Well, I’m supposed to organize it.” She ticks through the tasks on her fingers: “I’ll round up some volunteers. Then we’ll get the systems configured, and make sure the text all looks okay—Jad can help with that. We need to talk to Mr. Penumbra, for sure. Maybe he can come to Mountain View? Anyway. I think we can be ready in, like … two weeks. Say, two weeks from today.” She nods sharply.

  A fellowship of secret scholars spent five hundred years on this task. Now we’re penciling it in for a Friday morning.

  THE ULTIMATE OK

  PENUMBRA AGREES to keep the bookstore open until the bank account runs dry, so I go back to work, and I go back with a mission. I order a book distributor’s catalog. I run another Google ad campaign, a bigger one. I email the organizer of San Francisco’s big literary festival, which runs for a whole week and draws freespending readers from as far away as Fresno. It’s a long shot, but I think we can do it. I think we can get some real customers. Maybe we don’t need the Festina Lente Company. Maybe we can turn this place into a real business.

  Twenty-four hours after the start of the ad campaign, eleven lonely souls have wandered in, which is pretty exciting, because before, there was only one lonely soul—me. These new customers nod when I ask about the ads, and then four of them actually buy something. Three of those four pick up a copy of the new Murakami, which I’ve set up in a neat little stack next to a card that explains how awesome it is. The card is signed Mr. Penumbra in a simulation of his spidery script because I think that’s probably what people want to see.

  Past midnight, I spot North Face from Booty’s out on the sidewalk, walking with her head down, headed for the bus stop. I run to the front door.

  “Albert Einstein!” I shout, leaning out into the sidewalk.

  “What?” she says. “My name is Daphne—”

  “We’ve got the Einstein biography,” I say, “by Isaacson. The guy who did Steve Jobs. Still want it?”

  She smiles and turns on her heels—which are very high—and that makes five books for the night, a new record.

  There are new books coming in every day. When I arrive to start my shift, Oliver shows me the boxes in a pile, his eyes wide and slightly suspicious. He’s been a bit unsettled ever since I returned and told him everything I’d learned in New York.

  “I thought there was something strange going on,” he said quietly, “but I always figured it was drugs.”

  “Holy shit, Oliver! What?”

  “Well, yeah,” he said. “I thought maybe some of those books were full of cocaine.”

  “And you never bothered to mention this?”

  “It was just a theory.”

  Oliver thinks I am being too liberal with our dwindling funds: “Don’t you think we should try to make the money last as long as we can?”

  “Spoken like a true preservationist,” I cluck. “Money isn’t like terra-cotta. We can make more of it if we try. We have to try.”

  So now we’ve got teenage wizards. We’ve got vampire police. We’ve got a journalist’s memoir, a designer’s manifesto, a celebrity chef’s graphic novel. In a nostalgic gesture—maybe a slightly defiant one, too—we’ve got the new edition of The Dragon-Song Chronicles, all three volumes. I also ordered the old audiobook edition for Neel. He doesn’t really read books anymore, but maybe he can listen while he lifts weights.

  I try to get Penumbra excited about all of this—our nightly receipts are still just double digits, but that’s a whole digit more than we used to have—but he’s preoccupied with the Great Decoding. One cold Tuesday morning, he strolls into the store with a cup of coffee in one hand and his mystery e-reader in the other, and I show him what I’ve added to the shelves:

  “Stephenson, Murakami, the latest Gibson, The Information, House of Leaves, fresh editions of Moffat”—I point them out as I go. Each one has a little shelf talker, and they’re all signed Mr. Penumbra. I was worried he might feel protective of his imprimatur, but he doesn’t even notice.

  “Very good, my boy,” he says with a nod, still looking down at the e-reader. He doesn’t have any idea what I just said. His shelves are getting away from him. He nods and makes a quick swipe across the e-reader’s screen, then looks up. “There will be a meeting later today,” he says. “The Googlers are visiting the store”—he makes it three syllables, Goo-gull-urz—“to meet us and discuss our techniques.” He pauses. “I believe you should attend as well.”

  So that afternoon, just after lunchtime, there is a great convening of the old guard and the new at Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. The most senior of Penumbra’s students are present: white-bearded Fedorov and a woman named Muriel with short-cropped silver hair. I’ve never seen her before; she must visit during the day. Fedorov and Muriel are following their teacher. They’re going rogue.

  There’s a contingent from Google, selected and sent over by Kat. They are Prakesh and Amy, both even younger than me, and Jad from the book scanner. He looks up and down the short shelves admiringly. Maybe I can sell him something later.

  Neel is at a Google developer conference downtown—he wants to meet more of Kat’s colleagues and sow the seeds of an Anatomix acquisition—but he sent Igor, who is brand-new to these proceedings but seems to grasp everything instantly. Actually, he might be the smartest person in the store.

  All together, young and old, we stand around the front desk with volumes from the Waybacklist opened wide for inspection. It’s a crash course on the centuries-old work of the Unbroken Spine.

  “Dese are books,” Fedorov says, “not simply strings of letters.” He traces his fingers across the page. “So ve must celculate not only letter-vise, but also page-vise. Some of de most cemplicated encryption schemes rely on dis page-vise cemposition.”

  The Googlers nod and take notes on their laptops. Amy has her iPad set up with a little keyboard.

  The bell above the door tinkles, and a rangy man with black-rimmed glasses and a long ponytail comes hustling into the store.

  “Sorry I’m late,” he heaves, out of breath.

  “Hello, Greg,” says Penumbra.

  “Hey, Greg,” says Prakesh at the same
time.

  They look at each other, then across to Greg.

  “Yep,” Greg says. “This is weird.”

  It turns out that Greg—the source of Penumbra’s mystery e-reader!—is both a hardware engineer at Google and a novice in the San Francisco chapter of the Unbroken Spine. It also turns out that he is invaluable. He translates between Penumbra’s bookstore crew and the Googlers, explaining parallel processing to one group and folio sizes to the other.

  Jad from the book scanner is also crucial, because he’s actually done this before. “There will be OCR errors,” he explains. “For instance, a lowercase f will come through as an s.” He types them on his laptop so we can see them side by side. “Lowercase rn looks like m. Sometimes A becomes 4, and there’s so much stuff like that. We’ll have to compensate for all those possible errors.”

  Fedorov nods and interjects, “End for de optical eigenvectors of de text, as vell.”

  The Googlers stare blankly at him.

  “Ve must also cempensate for de optical eigenvectors,” he repeats, as if stating the obvious.

  The Googlers look across to Greg. He’s staring blankly, too.

  Igor raises a skinny hand and says neatly, “I tink ve could make a tree-dimensional metrix of ink-saturation values?”

  Fedorov’s white beard splits into a grin.

  I’m not sure what will happen when Google cracks MANVTIVS. Of course, there are things that I know will not happen: Penumbra’s passed-away brothers and sisters will not rise. They will not reappear. They will not even make spectral blue cameos, Jedi-style. Real life is not like The Dragon-Song Chronicles.

  But it might still be big news. I mean, a secret book from the first great publisher, digitized, decoded, and made public? The New York Times might blog about that.

  We decide we ought to invite the whole San Francisco fellowship down to Mountain View to watch it happen. Penumbra gives me the task of telling the members I know best.

  I begin with Rosemary Lapin. I take the steep hike up to her hillside hobbit-hole and knock three times on her door. It opens just a crack, and a single wide Lapin-eye blinks out at me.

  “Oh!” she squeaks, and opens the door the rest of the way. “It’s you! Did you—that is, have you—that is—what happened?”

  She brings me in, opening windows and waving her hands in the air to clear away the smell of pot, and I tell her the tale over tea. Her eyes are wide, devouring; I can sense she wants to go immediately to the Reading Room and don one of those black robes. I tell her she might not have to. I tell her the Unbroken Spine’s great secret might be unlocked in just a few days.

  Her face is blank. “Well, that’s something,” she says finally.

  Honestly, I expected a little more excitement.

  I tell Tyndall, and his reaction is better than Lapin’s, but I’m not sure if he’s excited about the pending revelation or if this is just how he responds to everything. Maybe if I told him that Starbucks was introducing a new latte that smelled like books he’d say the same thing:

  “Fabulous! Euphoric! Essential!” His hands are up on his head, working their way into tangles of curly gray. He’s walking around his apartment—a tiny one-room studio out near the ocean, where you can hear the foghorns murmuring to one another—going in quick circles, his elbows brushing the walls and knocking framed photos into odd angles. One of them clatters to the floor, and I reach down to pick it up.

  It shows a cable car at a crazy angle, completely packed with passengers, and up at the front, in a neat blue uniform, it’s Tyndall himself: younger and skinnier, with hair that’s black instead of gray. He’s wearing a broad grin, hanging half-out of the car, waving at the camera with his free arm. Tyndall the cable car conductor; yes, I can see it. He must have been—

  “Magnificent!” He’s still orbiting. “Unspeakable! When? Where?”

  “Friday morning, Mr. Tyndall,” I tell him. Friday morning, at the bright glowing center of the internet.

  ———

  I don’t see Kat for almost two weeks. She’s busy organizing everything for the Great Decoding, and busy with other Google projects, too. The Product Management is an all-you-can-eat buffet, and she’s hungry. She hasn’t replied to any of my flirty emails, and when she texts me, her messages are two words long.

  Finally, we meet on Thursday night for a desultory date over sushi. It’s cold, and she’s wearing a heavy houndstooth blazer over a thin gray sweater and a shiny blouse. There’s no sign of her red T-shirt anymore.

  Kat gushes about Google’s projects, all revealed to her now. They are making a 3-D web browser. They are making a car that drives itself. They are making a sushi search engine—here she pokes a chopstick down at our dinner—to help people find fish that is sustainable and mercury-free. They are building a time machine. They are developing a form of renewable energy that runs on hubris.

  With each new mega-project she describes, I feel myself shrink smaller and smaller. How can you stay interested in anything—or anyone—for long when the whole world is your canvas?

  “But what I’m really interested in,” Kat says, “is Google Forever.” Right: life extension. She nods. “They need more resources. I’m going to be their ally on the PM—really try to make their case. It might be the most important work we can do, in the long run.”

  “I don’t know, the car sounds pretty awesome—”

  “Maybe we’ll give them something to work with tomorrow,” Kat continues. “What if we find something crazy in this book? Like, a DNA sequence? Or the formula for some new drug?” Her eyes are shining. I have to hand it to her: she has a real imagination for immortality.

  “You’re giving a medieval publisher a lot of credit,” I say.

  “They figured out the circumference of the earth a thousand years before they invented printing,” she sniffs. Then she pokes a chopstick at me: “Could you figure out the circumference of the earth?”

  “Well—no.” I pause for a moment. “Wait, could you?”

  She nods. “Yeah, it’s actually pretty easy. The point is, they knew their stuff back then. And there’s stuff they knew that we still haven’t rediscovered. OK and TK, remember? Old knowledge. This might be the ultimate OK.”

  After dinner, Kat won’t come back to the apartment with me. She says she has email to read, prototypes to review, wiki pages to edit. Did I really just lose out to a wiki on a Thursday night?

  I walk alone in the darkness and wonder how a person would begin to determine the circumference of the earth. I have no idea. I’d probably just google it.

  THE CALL

  IT is THE NIGHT before the morning on which Kat Potente has scheduled an all-out assault on the centuries-old codex vitae of Aldus Manutius. Her Googler platoon is assembled. Penumbra’s posse is invited. It’s exciting—I have to admit, it’s really exciting—but it’s also unnerving, because I have no idea what’s next for Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. The man himself hasn’t said a word, but I feel like Penumbra might be winding this place down. Because, I mean, sure: Who needs the burden of an old bookstore when eternal life is imminent?

  We’ll see what tomorrow holds. It’s going to be a good show, whatever happens. Maybe afterward he’ll be ready to talk about the future. I still want to buy a billboard on that bus shelter.

  It’s a quiet night, with only two customers so far. I browse the shelves, straightening my new acquisitions. I promote The Dragon-Song Chronicles to a higher shelf, then idly flip the first volume over in my hands. The back cover bears a small black-and-white portrait of Clark Moffat in his thirties. He has shaggy blond hair and a bushy beard, and he’s wearing a plain white T-shirt, grinning a toothy grin. Below the portrait, it says:

  Clark Moffat (1952–1999) was a writer who lived in Bolinas, California. He is best known for the bestselling The Dragon-Song Chronicles, as well as Further Tales of Fernwen, a book for children. He graduated from the United States Naval Academy and served as a communications specialist aboard the nu
clear submarine U.S.S. West Virginia.

  Something occurs to me. It’s something I’ve never done before—something I’ve never thought to do, not in all the time I’ve worked here. I’m going to search for someone in the logbooks.

  It’s logbook VII I want, the one I smuggled down to Google, because it runs through the mid-eighties and early nineties. I find the raw text on my laptop and command-F a particular description: someone with shaggy blond hair and a beard.

  It takes a while, trying different keywords, skimming through false positives. (There are a lot of beards in here, it turns out.) I’m looking at OCR’d text, not handwriting, so I can’t tell who wrote what here, but I know some of these must be Edgar Deckle’s notes. It would be nice if he was the one who— There.

  Member number 6HV8SQ:

  The novice takes possession of KINGSLAKE with thanks and good cheer. Wears a white T-shirt celebrating the bicentennial. Levi 501 jeans and heavy work boots. Voice rough with smoke; package of cigarettes, approximately half-empty, visible in pocket. Pale blond hair is longer than has ever been recorded by this clerk. Upon remark, the novice explains: “I want it wizard-length.” Monday the 23rd of September, 1:19 in the morning. Clear skies and the smell of the ocean.

  That’s Clark Moffat. It’s got to be. The note is after midnight, which means the late shift, which means “this clerk” is indeed Edgar Deckle. There’s another one:

  The novice is moving quickly through the Founder’s Puzzle. But even more than his speed, it is his confidence that is striking. There is none of the hesitation or frustration that has characterized other novices (this clerk included). It is as if he is playing a familiar song or dancing a familiar dance. Blue T-shirt, Levi 501s, work boots. Hair is longer still. Receives BRITO. Friday the 11th of October, 2:31 in the morning. A foghorn sounds.