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Mr. Penumbra s 24 Hour Bookstore 21


  For this new epistle, I select heavy archival-grade paper. I purchase a sharp-tipped rollerball pen. I carefully compose my message, first explaining all that transpired up on Google’s bright screens and then asking Edgar Deckle what he knows, if anything, about Clark Moffat’s audiobook editions. I crumple six sheets of the archival-grade paper in the process because I keep misspelling words or smashing them together. My handwriting is still terrible.

  Finally, I drop the letter into a bright blue mailbox and hope for the best.

  Three days later, an email appears. It’s from Edgar Deckle. He proposes that we video chat.

  Well, fine.

  It’s just past noon on a Sunday when I click the green camera icon. The feed comes to life and there is Deckle, peering down into his computer, his round nose slightly foreshortened. He’s sitting in a narrow, light-filled room with yellow walls; I think there’s a skylight somewhere up above him. Behind his fuzzy crown of hair, I can see copper cooking pots hanging from hooks, and the front of a gleaming black refrigerator festooned with bright magnets and faint drawings.

  “I liked your letter,” Deckle says, smiling, holding up the archival-grade paper folded into neat thirds.

  “Right, well. I figured. Anyway.”

  “I already knew what happened in California,” he says. “Word travels fast in the Unbroken Spine. You shook things up.”

  I expected him to be angry about all that, but he’s smiling. “Corvina took some heat. People were angry.”

  “Don’t worry, he did his best to stop it.”

  “Oh, no—no. They were angry we hadn’t tried it already ourselves. ‘This upstart Google shouldn’t have all the fun,’ they said.”

  That makes me smile. Maybe Corvina’s rule isn’t as absolute as it seems.

  “But you’re still at it?” I ask.

  “Even though Google’s mighty computers didn’t find anything?” Deckle says. “Sure. I mean, come on. I have a computer.” He flicks a finger against the lid of his laptop and it makes the camera wobble. “They’re not magic. They’re only as capable as their programmers, right?”

  Yeah, but those were some pretty capable programmers.

  “To tell you the truth,” Deckle says, “we did lose some people. A few of the younger folks, unbound, still just starting out. But that’s fine. It’s nothing compared to—”

  There’s a blur of motion behind Deckle, and a tiny face appears up over his shoulder, stretching to see the screen. It’s a little girl, and I am astonished to see that she is a miniature Deckle. She has sunny blond hair, long and tangled, and she has his nose. She looks about six years old.

  “Who’s that?” she says, pointing at the screen. So, Edgar Deckle is hedging his bets: immortality by book and immortality by blood. Do any of the others have kids?

  “That’s my friend Clay,” Deckle says, curling his arm around her waist. “He knows Uncle Ajax. He lives in San Francisco, too.”

  “I like San Francisco!” she says. “I like whales!”

  Deckle leans in close to his daughter and stage-whispers, “What sound does a whale make, sweetie?”

  The girl wriggles out of his grasp, stands up straight on tiptoe, and makes a sort of moo-meow sound while doing a slow pirouette. It’s her whale impression. I laugh, and she looks at the screen with bright eyes, enjoying the attention. She makes the whale-song again, this time spinning away, her feet slipping on the kitchen floor. The moo-meow fades into the next room.

  Deckle smiles and watches her go. “So, to get to the point,” he says, turning back to me, “no: I can’t help you. I saw Clark Moffat at the store, but after he solved the Founder’s Puzzle—in about three months—he headed straight for the Reading Room. I never saw him after that, and I definitely don’t know anything about his audiobook. To tell you the truth, I hate audiobooks.”

  But an audiobook is like a fuzzy knit cap pulled down over your—

  “You know who you should talk to, right?”

  Of course I do: “Penumbra.”

  Deckle nods. “He held the key to Moffat’s codex vitae—did you know that? They were close, at least for a while there.”

  “But I can’t find him,” I say dejectedly. “He’s like a ghost.” Then I realize I’m talking to the man’s favorite novice. “Wait—do you know where he lives?”

  “I do,” Deckle says. He looks straight into the camera. “But I’m not going to tell you.”

  My dismay must be all over my face, because Deckle immediately holds up his hands and says: “Nope, I’m going to trade you. I broke every rule in the book—and it’s a very old book—and I gave you the key to the Reading Room when you needed it, right? Now I want you to do something for me. In exchange, I will happily tell you where to find our friend Mr. Ajax Penumbra.”

  This kind of calculation is not what I expected from friendly, smiling Edgar Deckle.

  “Do you remember the Gerritszoon type I showed you down in the print shop?”

  “Yeah, of course.” Down in the subterranean copy shop. “Not much left.”

  “Right. I think I told you this: the originals were stolen. It was a hundred years ago, just after we arrived in America. The Unbroken Spine went berserk. Hired a crew of detectives, paid off the police, caught the thief.”

  “Who was it?”

  “One of us—one of the bound. His name was Glencoe, and his book had been burned.”

  “Why?”

  “They caught him having sex in the library,” Deckle says matter-of-factly. Then he raises a finger and says, sotto voce, “Which, by the way, is still frowned upon, but would not get you burned today.”

  So the Unbroken Spine does make progress—slowly.

  “Anyway, he swiped a stack of codex vitae and some silver forks and spoons—we had a fancy dining room back then. And he scooped up the Gerritszoon punches. Some say it was revenge, but I think it was more like desperation. Latin fluency doesn’t get you far in New York City.”

  “You said they caught him.”

  “Yep. He couldn’t find anyone to buy the books, so we got those back. The spoons were long gone. And the Gerritszoon punches—they were gone, too. They’ve been lost ever since.”

  “Weird story. So?”

  “I want you to find them.”

  Um: “Seriously?”

  Deckle smiles. “Yes, seriously. I know they might be at the bottom of a dump somewhere. But it’s also possible”—his eyes glint—”that they’re hiding in plain sight.”

  Little bits of metal, lost a hundred years ago. It would probably be easier to go looking for Penumbra door-to-door.

  “I think you can do this,” Deckle says. “You seem very resourceful.”

  One more time: “Seriously?”

  “Drop me a line when you find them. Festina lente.” He smiles and the feed cuts to black.

  Okay, now I’m angry. I’d expected Deckle to help me. Instead, he’s giving me homework. Impossible homework.

  But: You seem very resourceful. That’s something I haven’t heard before. I think about the word. Resourceful: full of resources. When I think of resources, I think of Neel. But maybe Deckle is right. Everything I’ve done so far, I’ve done by calling in favors. I do know people with special skills, and I know how to put their skills together.

  And come to think of it, I have just the resource for this.

  To find something old and obscure, something strange and significant, I turn to Oliver Grone.

  When Penumbra disappeared and the store shut down, Oliver leapt so nimbly to a new job that I suspected he’d had it in his back pocket for a while. The job is at Pygmalion, one of the true-believer indies, a no-bullshit bookstore set up by Free Speech Movement alumni on Engels Street over in Berkeley. So now Oliver and I are sitting together in Pygmalion’s cramped café, tucked behind the sprawling FOOD POLITICS section. Oliver’s legs are too big for the tiny table, so he’s stretching them out to one side. I’m nibbling a scone made with raspberries and bean sprouts.


  Oliver seems happy working here. Pygmalion is huge, almost a whole city block stacked with books, and it is supremely well organized. Bright blocks of color on the ceiling mark out the sections and matching stripes run in tight patterns across the floor like a rainbow circuit board. When I arrived, Oliver was carrying an armload of heavy tomes toward the ANTHROPOLOGY shelves. Maybe his big build isn’t a linebacker’s after all; maybe it’s a librarian’s.

  “So what’s a punch?” Oliver says. His knowledge of obscure objects doesn’t run quite so deep after you get past the twelfth century, but I am undeterred.

  I explain that the system of movable type relies on tiny metal characters that can be slotted into rows that stack up to make pages. For hundreds of years, the characters were made individually, each one cast by hand. To cast the characters, you needed an original model, carved from hard metal. That model was called a punch, and there was a punch for each letter.

  Oliver is quiet for a moment, and his eyes have a distant look. Then he says, “So. I should tell you. There are really two kinds of objects in the world. This is going to sound sort of spacey, but … some things have an aura. Others don’t.”

  Well, I’m banking on aura. “We’re talking about one of the key assets of a centuries-old cult here.”

  He nods. “That’s good. Everyday objects … household objects? They’re gone.” He snaps his fingers: poof. “We’re really lucky when we find, like, an awesome salad bowl. But religious objects? You would not believe how many ceremonial urns are still hanging around. Nobody wants to be the guy to throw away the urn.”

  “So if I’m lucky, nobody wanted to be the guy to throw away Gerritszoon, either.”

  “Yep, and if somebody stole it, that’s a good sign. Getting stolen is one of the best things that can happen to an object. Stolen stuff recirculates. Stays out of the ground.” Then he presses his lips tight. “But don’t get your hopes up.”

  Too late, Oliver. I swallow the last of my scone and ask, “So if you’ve got an aura, where does that get you?”

  “If these punches exist anywhere in my world,” Oliver says, “there’s one place you’re going to find them. You need a seat at the Accession Table.”

  FIRST GRADE

  TABITHA TRUDEAU IS OLIVER’S BEST FRIEND from Berkeley. She is short and solid, with curly brown hair and big intimidating eyebrows behind thick black glasses. She is now the deputy director of the most obscure museum in the whole Bay Area, a tiny place in Emeryville called the California Museum of Knitting Arts and Embroidery Sciences.

  Oliver introduced us with an email and explained to Tabitha that I am on a special mission that he looks kindly upon. He also relayed to me the tactical advice that a donation wouldn’t hurt. Unfortunately, any reasonable donation would constitute at least 20 percent of my worldly wealth, but I still have a patron, so I replied to Tabitha and told her I might have a thousand dollars to pass along (courtesy of the Neel Shah Foundation for Women in the Arts)—if she can help me out.

  When I meet her at the museum—it’s just Cal Knit to those in the know—I feel an immediate kinship, because Cal Knit is almost as weird as Penumbra’s. It’s just one big room, a converted schoolhouse now lined with bright displays and kid-sized activity stations. In a wide bucket next to the door, knitting needles are lined up like an armory: fat ones, skinny ones, some made of bright plastic, some made of wood carved into anthropomorphic shapes. The room smells overwhelmingly of wool.

  “How many visitors do you get here?” I ask, inspecting one of the wooden needles. It’s like a very slender totem pole.

  “Oh, a lot,” she says, hitching up her glasses. “Mostly students. There’s a bus on its way right now, so we’d better get you set up.”

  She’s sitting at the museum’s front desk, where a small sign says FREE ADMISSION WITH YARN DONATION. I find Neel’s check in my pocket and smooth it out on the desk. Tabitha takes it with a grin.

  “Have you ever used one of these before?” she says, clicking a key on a blue computer terminal. It beeps brightly.

  “Never,” I say. “I didn’t even know it was a thing until two days ago.”

  Tabitha looks up, and I follow her gaze: a school bus is rounding the corner into the museum’s tiny parking lot. “Well,” she says, “it’s a thing. You’ll figure it out. Just don’t, like, give our stuff away to some other museum.”

  I nod and scootch in behind the desk, trading places with her. Tabitha buzzes around the museum, straightening chairs and swabbing plastic tables with antiseptic wipes. As for me: the Accession Table is set.

  The Accession Table, I learned from Oliver, is an enormous database that tracks all artifacts in all museums, everywhere. It’s been around since the middle of the twentieth century. Back then it ran on punch cards passed around, copied, kept in catalogs. In a world where artifacts are always on the move—from a museum’s third subbasement, up to the exhibition hall, over to another museum (which is in Boston or Belgium)—it is a necessity.

  Every museum in the world uses the Accession Table, from the humblest community history co-op to the most opulent national collection, and every museum has an identical monitor. It’s the Bloomberg terminal of antiquity. When any artifact is found or purchased, it gets a new record in this museological matrix. If it’s ever sold or burned to a crisp, the record is dropped. But as long as any scrap of canvas or sliver of stone remains in any collection anywhere, it’s still on the books.

  The Accession Table helps catch forgeries: each museum sets up its terminal to watch for new records bearing suspicious similarities to artifacts already in its collection. When the Accession Table sounds its alarm, it means that somewhere, someone has just been duped.

  If the Gerritszoon punches exist in any museum in the world, they’ll be listed in the Accession Table. All I need is a minute on the terminal. But, to be clear, a curator at any legitimate museum would be appalled at this request. These terminals constitute the secret knowledge of this particular cult. So Oliver proposed that we find a back door: a small museum with a guardian friendly to our cause.

  The chair behind the front desk creaks under my weight. I expected the Accession Table to be a little more high-tech, but in fact it looks like an artifact itself. It’s a bright blue monitor, not of recent vintage; the pixels peek out through thick glass. New acquisitions all over the world scroll up the side of the screen. There are Mediterranean ceramic plates and Japanese samurai swords and Mughal fertility statues—pretty hot Mughal statues, all hips, totally yakshini—and more, lots more, there are old stopwatches and crumbling muskets and even books, nice old books bound in blue with fat golden crosses on their covers.

  How do curators not just stare at this terminal all day long?

  First-graders are streaming into Cal Knit, yelping and shrieking. Two boys grab knitting needles out of the bucket by the front door and start dueling, making buzzing light-saber noises accompanied by sprays of saliva. Tabitha shepherds them to the activity stations and starts her spiel. There’s a poster on the wall behind her that says KNITTING IS NEAT.

  Back to the Accession Table. On the other side of the terminal, there are graphs, obviously configured by Tabitha. They track accession activity in different areas of interest, areas such as TEXTILES and CALIFORNIA and NO ENDOWMENT. TEXTILES is a spiky little mountain range of activity; CALIFORNIA has a clear upward slope; NO ENDOWMENT is flatlined.

  Okay. Where’s the search box?

  Over by Tabitha, the yarn has come out. First-graders are digging through wide plastic containers, looking for their favorite colors. One of them falls in and shrieks, and her two friends start poking her with needles.

  There is no search box.

  I jab random keys until the word DIRECTORY lights up at the top of the screen. (It was F5 that did it.) Now a rich, detailed taxonomy unfurls before me. Someone somewhere has categorized everything everywhere:

  METAL, WOOD, CERAMIC.

  15TH CENTURY, I6TH CENTURY, 17TH CENTURY.
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  POLITICAL, RELIGIOUS, CEREMONIAL.

  But wait—what’s the difference between RELIGIOUS and CEREMONIAL? There’s a sinking feeling in my stomach. I start exploring METAL but there are only coins and bracelets and fishing hooks. No swords—I think those are filed under WEAPONS. Maybe WAR. Maybe POINTY THINGS.

  Tabitha is leaning in close with one of the first-graders, helping him cross two knitting needles together to make his first loop. His brow is furrowed with utter concentration—I saw that look in the Reading Room—and then he gets it, the loop forms, and he breaks into a wide giggling grin.

  Tabitha looks back my way. “Found it yet?”

  I shake my head. No, I have not found it yet. It’s not in 15TH CENTURY. Well, maybe it is in 15TH CENTURY, but everything else is in 15TH CENTURY, too—that’s the problem. I’m still stuck looking for a needle in a haystack. Probably an ancient Song Dynasty haystack that the Mongols burned along with everything else.

  I slump forward with my face in my hands, staring into the blue terminal, which is showing me a picture of some lumpy green coins salvaged from an old Spanish galleon. Did I just waste a thousand of Neel’s dollars? What am I supposed to do with this thing? Why hasn’t Google indexed museums yet?

  A first-grader with bright red hair runs up to the front desk, giggling and choking herself with a tangle of green yarn. Um—nice scarf? She grins and jumps up and down.

  “Hi there,” I say. “Let me ask you a question.” She giggles and nods. “How would you find a needle in a haystack?”

  The first-grader pauses, pensive, tugging on the green yarn around her neck. She’s really thinking this over. Tiny gears are turning; she’s twisting her fingers together, pondering. It’s cute. Finally, she looks up and says gravely, “I would ask the hays to find it.” Then she makes a quiet banshee whine and bounces away on one foot.

  An ancient Song Dynasty gong thunders in my head. Yes, of course. She’s a genius! Giggling to myself, I pound the escape key until I’m free of the terminal’s awful taxonomy. Instead, I choose the command that says, simply, ACCESSION.