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Mr. Penumbra s 24 Hour Bookstore 22


  It’s so simple. Of course, of course. The first-grader is right. It’s easy to find a needle in a haystack! Ask the hays to find it!

  The accession form is long and complicated, but I race through it:

  CREATOR: Griffo Gerritszoon

  YEAR: 1500 (approx.)

  DESCRIPTION: Metal type. Gerritszoon punches. Full font.

  PROVENANCE: Lost ca. 1900. Recovered via anonymous gift.

  I leave the rest of the fields empty and thwack the return key to submit this new artifact, entirely made-up, to the Accession Table. If I understand this right, it’s now scrolling across all the other terminals, just like this one, in every museum in the world. Curators are checking it out, cross-referencing it—thousands of them.

  A minute ticks past. Another. A slouchy first-grader with a dark mop of hair slinks up to the desk, stands on tiptoe, and leans in conspiratorially. “Do you have any games?” he whispers, pointing to the terminal. I shake my head sadly. Sorry, kid, but maybe—

  The Accession Table goes whoop whoop. It’s a high, rising sound, like a fire alarm: whoop whoop. The slouchy kid jumps, and the first-graders all turn my way. Tabitha does, too, with one of her big eyebrows arched up.

  “Everything okay over there?”

  I nod, too excited to speak. A message in fat red letters blinks angrily at the bottom of the screen:

  ACCESSION DENIED

  Yes!

  ARTIFACT EXISTS

  Yes yes yes!

  PLEASE CONTACT: CONSOLIDATED UNIVERSAL LONG- TERM STORAGE LLC

  The Accession Table rings—wait, it can ring? I peer around the side of the terminal and see a bright blue telephone handset clipped into place there. Is this the museum emergency hotline? Help, King Tut’s tomb is empty! It rings again.

  “Hey, dude, what are you doing over there?” Tabitha calls across the room.

  I wave brightly—everything is just fine—then snatch up the handset, clutch it close, and whisper, “Hello. Cal Knit.”

  “This is Consolidated Universal Long-Term Storage calling,” says the voice on the other end of the line. It’s a woman, and she speaks with just the tiniest twang. “Put me through to accessions, could you please?”

  I look across the room: Tabitha is pulling two first-graders out of a cocoon of green and yellow yarn. One of them is a little red in the face, like she’s been suffocating. On the phone I say, “Accessions? That’s me, ma’am.”

  “Oh, you are so polite! Well, listen darlin’, somebody’s taking you for a ride,” she says. “The—let’s see—ceremonial artifact you just submitted is already on file over here. Had it for years. You always need to check first, hon.”

  It’s all I can do not to jump up and start dancing behind the desk. I compose myself and say into the phone, “Gosh, thanks for the heads-up. I’ll get this guy out of here. He’s totally sketchy, says he’s part of a secret society, they’ve had it for hundreds of years—you know, the usual.”

  The woman sighs sympathetically. “Story of my life, hon.”

  “Listen,” I say lightly, “what’s your name?”

  “Cheryl, hon. I’m real sorry about this. Nobody likes a call from Con-U.”

  “That’s not true! I appreciate your diligence, Cheryl.” I’m playing the part: “But we’re pretty small. I’ve actually never heard of Con-U …”

  “Darlin’, are you serious? We are only the largest and most advanced off-site storage facility serving the historical entertainment sector anywhere west of the Mississippi,” she says in one breath. “Over here in Nevada. You ever been to Vegas?”

  “Well, no—”

  “Driest place in the whole United States, hon.”

  Perfect for stone tablets. Okay, this is it. I make the pitch: “Listen, Cheryl, maybe you can help me out. Here at Cal Knit, we just got a big grant from, uh, the Neel Shah Foundation—”

  “That sounds nice.”

  “Well, it’s big by our standards, which isn’t that big at all. But we’re putting together a new exhibition, and … you’ve got the real Gerritszoon punches, right?”

  “I don’t know what those are, hon, but it says here we’ve got ‘em.”

  “Then we’d like to borrow them.”

  I get the details from Cheryl, say thanks and goodbye, and fit the blue handset back into place. A ball of green yarn comes arcing through the air and lands on the front desk, then rolls into my lap, unraveling as it goes. I look up, and it’s the redheaded first-grader again, standing on one foot, sticking her tongue out at me.

  The first-graders jostle and fidget on their way back out into the parking lot. Tabitha closes the front door, locks it, and limps back to the front desk. She has a faint red scratch across her cheek.

  I start spooling up the green yarn. “Rough class?”

  “They’re quick with those needles,” she says, sighing. “What about you?”

  I’ve written the name of the storage facility and its Nevada address on a Cal Knit memo pad. I spin it around to show her.

  “Yeah, that’s not surprising,” she says. “Probably ninety percent of everything on that screen is in storage. Did you know the Library of Congress keeps most of its books outside of D.C.? They have, like, seven hundred miles of shelves. All warehouses.”

  “Ugh.” I hate the sound of that. “What’s the point, if nobody ever gets to see it?”

  “It’s a museum’s job to keep things for posterity,” Tabitha sniffs. “We have a temperature-controlled storage unit full of Christmas sweaters.”

  Of course. You know, I’m really starting to think the whole world is just a patchwork quilt of crazy little cults, all with their own secret spaces, their own records, their own rules.

  On the train back to San Francisco, I type three short messages into my phone.

  One is to Deckle, and it says: I’m on to something.

  Another is to Neel, and it says: Can I borrow your car?

  The last is to Kat, and it says simply: Hello.

  THE STORM

  CONSOLIDATED UNIVERSAL Long-Term Storage is a long, low span of gray that squats on the side of the highway just outside of Enterprise, Nevada. As I pull into the long parking lot, I can feel its blank mass pressing down on my spirit. It is industrial-park desolation given shape and form, but at least it holds the promise of treasures within. The Applebee’s three miles up the highway is also depressing, but there you know exactly what’s waiting inside.

  To get into Con-U, I pass through two metal detectors and an X-ray machine and then I am patted down by a security guard named Barry. My bag, jacket, wallet, and pocket change are all confiscated. Barry checks for knives, scalpels, picks, awls, scissors, brushes, and cotton swabs. He checks the length of my nails, then makes me pull on pink latex gloves. Finally, he puts me in a white Tyvek jumpsuit with elastic at the wrists and built-in booties for my shoes. When I emerge into the dry, immaculate air of the storage facility, I am a man made perfectly inert: I cannot chip, scratch, fade, corrode, or react with any physical substance in the known universe. I guess I could still lick something. I’m surprised Barry didn’t tape my mouth shut.

  Cheryl meets me in a narrow hallway, harshly lit by overhead fluorescents, in front of a door with the words ACCESSION/DE-ACCESSION stenciled on it in tall black letters. They look like they want to say REACTOR CORE.

  “Welcome to Nevada, hon!” She waves and smiles a wide smile that makes her cheeks bunch up. “Awful nice to see a new face out here.” Cheryl is a middle-aged woman with frizzy black hair. She’s wearing a green cardigan with a neat zigzag pattern and dusty blue mom-jeans—no Tyvek suit for her. Her Con-U badge hangs on a lanyard around her neck, and the photo on the badge looks ten years younger.

  “Okay, hon. The intermuseum loan form is here.” She hands me a crinkly sheet of pale green paper. “And this is the checkout manifest.” Another paper, this one yellow. “And you’ll have to sign this one.” It’s pink. Cheryl takes a long breath. Her brow furrows, and she says, “Now, listen,
hon. Your institution isn’t nationally accredited, so we can’t do the pick and pack for you. Against the rules.”

  “Pick and pack?”

  “Sorry about that.” She hands me a previous-generation iPad wrapped in a tire-tread rubber casing. “But here’s a map. We have these neat pads now.” She smiles.

  The iPad shows a tiny hallway (she pokes at it with her finger—”See, we’re right here”) that runs out into a gigantic rectangle, which is blank. “And that’s the facility, through there.” She lifts her arm, which jangles with bracelets, and points down the hallway toward wide double doors.

  One of the forms—the yellow one—tells me the Gerritszoon punches are on shelf zuLu-2591. “So where do I find that?”

  “Honestly, hon, it’s hard to say,” Cheryl says. “You’ll see.”

  ———

  The Con-U storage facility is the most amazing space I have ever seen. Keep in mind that I recently worked at a vertical bookstore and have even more recently visited a secret subterranean library. Keep in mind, also, that I saw the Sistine Chapel when I was a kid, and, as part of science camp, I got to visit a particle accelerator. This warehouse has them all beat.

  The ceiling hangs high above, ribbed like an airplane hangar. The floor is a maze of tall metal shelves loaded with boxes, canisters, containers, and bins. Simple enough. But the shelves—the shelves are all moving.

  For a moment I feel sick, because my vision is swimming. The whole facility is writhing like a bucket of worms; it’s that same overlapping, hard-to-follow motion. The shelves are all mounted on fat rubber tires, and they know how to use them. They move in tight, controlled bursts, then break into smooth sprints through channels of open floor. They pause and politely wait for one another; they team up and form long caravans. It’s uncanny. It’s totally “Sorcerer’s Apprentice.”

  So the iPad’s map is blank because the facility is rearranging itself in real-time.

  The space is dark, with no lights overhead, but each shelf has a small orange lamp mounted on top, flashing and rotating. The lamps cast strange spinning shadows as the shelves make their complex migrations. The air is dry—really dry. I lick my lips.

  A shelf carrying a rack of tall spears and lances comes whizzing past me. Then it takes a sharp turn—the lances rattle—and I see that it’s bound for wide doors on the far wall. There, cool blue light spills into the darkness, and a team in Tyvek lifts boxes off the shelves, checks them against clipboards, then carries them out of sight. Shelves line up like schoolchildren, fidgeting and jostling; then, when the white-suits are done, they scoot away and merge back into the maze.

  Here, in the most advanced off-site storage facility serving the historical entertainment sector anywhere west of the Mississippi, you don’t find the artifacts. The artifacts find you.

  The iPad blinks at me, now showing a blue dot labeled ZULU-2591 near the center of the floor. Okay, that’s helpful. It must be a transponder tag. Or a magic spell.

  There’s a thick yellow line painted on the floor in front of me. I edge one toe across, and the shelves nearby all swerve and recoil. That’s good. They know I’m here.

  So then I push slowly into the maelstrom. Some shelves don’t slow down, but bend their trajectories to coast just behind or just ahead of me. I walk evenly, taking slow, deliberate steps. As they migrate around me, the shelves make a parade of wonders. There are huge urns glazed in blue and gold, strapped down and packed with foam; wide glass cylinders full of brown formaldehyde, tentacles inside dimly visible and undulating; slabs of crystal poking out of rough black rock glowing green in the darkness. One shelf holds a single oil painting, six feet tall: a portrait of a scowling merchant prince with a skinny mustache. His eyes seem to follow me as the painting curves out of sight.

  I wonder if Mat’s miniature city—well, now Mat and Ashley’s—will end up on shelves like these one day. Will they strap it in sideways? Or will they carefully dismantle it and store all the buildings separately, each one wrapped in gauze? Will the shelves drift apart and go their separate ways? Will Matropolis spread out through the facility like so much stardust? So many people dream of getting something into a museum … is this what they have in mind?

  The outer perimeter of the facility is like a highway; this must be where all the popular artifacts hang out. But as I follow the iPad and make my way toward the center of the floor, things slow down. Here, there are racks of wicker masks, tea sets packed in foam peanuts, thick metal panels crusted with dry barnacles. Here, there’s an airplane propeller and a three-piece suit. Here, things are weirder.

  It’s not all shelves, either. There are rolling vaults—huge metal boxes set up on tank treads. Some of them crawl slowly forward; some sit in place. All of them have complicated locks and glinting black cameras perched on top. One has a bright biohazard warning splashed across the front; I make a wide path around it.

  Suddenly there’s a hydraulic snap and one of the vaults heaves to life. It jerks forward, orange lamps flashing. I jump out of the way, and it trundles through the spot where I just stood. The shelves all move and make room as the vault begins its journey, slowly, toward the wide doors.

  It occurs to me that if I’m flattened here, no one will find me for a while.

  There’s a flicker of motion. The part of my brain that is devoted to the detection of other human beings (and especially muggers, murderers, and enemy ninjas) lights up like one of the orange lamps. There’s a person coming through the darkness. Hamster-mode: engage. Somebody’s running right at me, coming fast, and he looks like Corvina. I whirl to face him, put my hands up in front of me, and yell: “Ah!”

  It’s that painting again—the mustachioed merchant prince. It’s come back around for another look. Is it following me? No—of course not. My heart is racing. Calm down, Fluff McFly.

  In the very center of the facility, nothing moves. It’s hard to see in here; the shelves have shut off their lamps, maybe to save battery power or maybe just out of despair. It’s quiet—the eye of the storm. Bars of light from the busy perimeter poke through and briefly illuminate dented brown boxes, stacks of newsprint, slabs of stone. I check the iPad and find the blinking blue dot. I think it’s close, so I start checking the shelves.

  They all have a thick layer of dust. Shelf by shelf, I wipe them off and check the labels. In tall black digits on shiny yellow, they read: BRAVO-3877. GAMMA-6173. I keep checking, using my phone as a flashlight. TANGO-5179. ULTRA-4549. Then: ZULU-2591.

  I’m expecting a heavy case, some finely wrought ark for Gerritszoon’s great creation. Instead, it’s a cardboard box with the flaps folded in. Inside, each punch is wrapped in its own plastic bag with a rubber band to hold it tight. They look like old car parts.

  But then I lift one out—it’s the X, and it’s heavy—and a bright wash of triumph floods through me. I can’t believe I’m holding this in my hand. I can’t believe I found them. I feel like Telemach Half-Blood with the Golden Horn of Griffo. I feel like the hero.

  Nobody’s looking. I hoist the X high in the air like a mythic sword. I imagine lightning streaking down through the ceiling. I imagine the Wyrm Queen’s dark legion falling silent. I make a quiet energy-overload noise: pshowww!

  Then I wrap both arms around the box, heave it up off the shelf, and wobble back out into the storm.

  THE DRAGON-SONG CHRONICLES, VOLUME III

  BACK IN CHERYL’S OFFICE, I fill out my paperwork and wait patiently while she updates the Accession Table. The terminal on her desk is just like the one at Cal Knit: blue plastic, thick glass, built-in handset. Next to it, she has a page-a-day calendar with pictures of cats dressed up as famous figures. Today’s is a fuzzy white Julius Caesar.

  I wonder if Cheryl realizes how historically significant the contents of this cardboard box are.

  “Oh, honey,” she says, waving her hand, “everything in there is a treasure to somebody.” She leans in close to the terminal, double-checking her work.

  Huh. Right. W
hat else is slumbering in the eye of the storm, waiting for the right person to come along and pick it up?

  “You want to set that down, hon?” Cheryl asks, tipping her chin at the box between my arms. “Looks heavy.”

  I shake my head. No, I do not want to set it down. I’m afraid it might vanish. It still seems impossible that I’m holding the punches. Five hundred years ago, a man named Griffo Gerritszoon carved these shapes—these ones exactly. Centuries passed, and millions, maybe billions, of people saw the impressions they made, although most didn’t realize it. Now I’m cradling them like a newborn. A really heavy newborn.

  Cheryl taps a key and the printer next to her terminal starts to purr. “Almost done, hon.”

  For objects of deep aesthetic value, the punches don’t look like much. They’re just skinny sticks of dark alloy, raw and scratched, and only at the very ends do they become beautiful, the glyphs emerging from the metal like mountaintops in the fog.

  I suddenly think to ask, “Who owns these?”

  “Oh, nobody does,” Cheryl says. “Not anymore. If somebody owned ‘em you’d be talkin’ to them, not me!”

  “So … what are they doing here?”

  “Gosh, we’re like an orphanage for a lot of things,” she says. “Let’s see here.” She tilts her glasses and scratches at her mouse’s scroll wheel. “The Flint Museum of Modern Industry sent ‘em over, but of course they went under in ‘88. Real cute place. Real nice curator, Dick Saunders.”

  “And he just left everything here?”

  “Well, he came and picked up some old cars and took ‘em away on a flatbed truck, but the rest, he just signed it over to the Con-U collection.”

  Maybe Con-U should put on an exhibit of its own: Anonymous Artifacts of the Ages.

  “We try to auction things off,” Cheryl says, “but some of it …” She shrugs. “Like I said, everything’s a treasure to somebody. But a lot of times, you can’t find that somebody.”