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History & Fiction
Thrillers & Crime
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Mystery & Detective
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Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore
Mr. Penumbra s 24 Hour Bookstore 9
The bell tinkles and he walks into the store trailed by a long coil of fog. I’m tongue-tied, with no idea how to begin. I’m faced with two Penumbras at once: one, a mute staring wire-frame on my laptop screen, and the other, an old man in the doorway just starting to smile.
“Good morning, my boy,” he says cheerily. “Did anything of note transpire in the night?”
For a moment, I strongly consider closing my laptop’s lid and never speaking of this again. But no: I’m too curious. I can’t just sit at my desk and let this web of weirdness spin out around me. (That describes a lot of jobs, I realize, but this is potentially a special kind of magick-with-a-K weirdness.)
“What do you have there?” he asks. “Have you begun work on our website?”
I swivel my laptop around to show him. “Not exactly.”
Half-smiling, he holds his glasses at an angle and peers down at the screen. His face goes slack, and then he says, quietly: “The Founder.” He turns to me. “You solved it.” He claps a hand to his forehead and his face splits into a giddy smile. “You solved it already! Look at him! Right there on the screen!”
Look at him? Isn’t this— Oh. I realize now, with Penumbra leaning in close, that I have made the common mistake of assuming that all old people look the same. The wire-frame portrait on the screen has Penumbra’s nose, but its mouth is a tiny curving bow. Penumbra’s is flat and wide, built for grinning.
“How did you do it?” he continues. He’s so proud, like I’m his grandson and I just hit a home run, or cured cancer. “I must see your notes! Did you use Euler’s method? Or the Brito inversion? There is no shame in that, it clears away much of the confusion early on …”
“Mr. Penumbra,” I say, triumph in my voice, “I scanned an old logbook—” Then I realize this carries a larger implication, so I stutter and confess, “Well, I took an old logbook. Borrowed it. Temporarily.”
Penumbra crinkles his eyes. “Oh, I know, my boy,” he says, not unkindly. He pauses. “Your simulacrum smelled strongly of coffee.”
Right, so: “I borrowed an old logbook, and we scanned it”—his face changes and suddenly he’s concerned, like instead of curing cancer, maybe I have it—”because Google has this machine, it’s superfast, and Hadoop, it just goes—I mean, a thousand computers, like that!” I snap for emphasis. I don’t think he has any idea what I’m talking about. “Anyway, the point is, we just pulled out the data. Automatically.”
There’s a tremor in Penumbra’s micromuscles. Close-up like this, I’m reminded that he is, in fact, very old.
“Google,” he breathes. There’s a long pause. “How curious.” He straightens. He has the strangest expression on his face—the emotive equivalent of 404 PAGE NOT FOUND. Talking mostly to himself, he says, “I will have to make a report.”
Wait, what kind of report? Are we talking about a police report? Grand theft codex? “Mr. Penumbra, is there a problem? I don’t understand why—”
“Oh, yes, I know,” he says sharply, and his eyes flash at me. “I see it now. You cheated—would that be fair to say? And as a result, you have no idea what you have accomplished.”
I look down at the desk. That would be fair to say.
When I look back up at Penumbra, his gaze has softened. “And yet … you did it all the same.” He turns and wanders into the Waybacklist. “How curious.”
“Who is it?” I ask suddenly. “Whose face?”
“It is the Founder,” Penumbra says, running a long hand up along one of the shelves. “The one who waits, hiding. He vexes novices for years. Years! And yet you revealed him in—what? A single month?”
Not quite: “Just one day.”
Penumbra takes a sharp breath. His eyes flash again. They are pulled wide and, reflecting the light from the windows, they crackle electric blue in a way I’ve never seen. He gasps, “Incredible.” He takes a breath, a deeper one. He looks rattled and exhilarated; actually, he looks a little crazy. “I have work to do,” he says. “I must make plans. Go home, my boy.”
“Go home. Whether you understand it or not, you have done something important today.”
He turns and walks deeper into the dark and dusty shelves, talking quietly to himself. I gather up my laptop and my messenger bag and I slip out the front door. The bell makes just the barest tinkle. I glance back through the tall windows, and, behind the curving golden type, Penumbra has disappeared.
WHY DO YOU LOVE BOOKS SO MUCH?
WHEN I RETURN THE NEXT NIGHT, I see something I’ve never seen before, something that makes me gasp and stop in my tracks:
Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is dark.
It looks all wrong. The store is always open, always awake, like a little lighthouse on this seedy stretch of Broadway. But now the lamps are doused and there is a tidy square of paper stuck to the inside of the front door. In Penumbra’s spidery script, it says:
CLOSED (AD LIBRIS)
I don’t have a key to the store, because I’ve never needed one. It’s always been a handoff—Penumbra to Oliver, Oliver to me, me to Penumbra. For a moment I am furious, full of selfish rage. What the hell? When will it open again? Wasn’t I supposed to get an email or something? This is a pretty irresponsible thing for an employer to do.
But then I get worried. This morning’s encounter was well beyond the pale. What if it got Penumbra so worked up that he suffered a tiny heart attack? Or a massive heart attack? What if he’s dead? Or what if he’s weeping to himself in a lonely apartment somewhere, where his family never visits him because Grandpa Penumbra is weird and smells like books? A flood of shame washes through my blood and mixes with the anger and they swirl together into a heavy soup that makes me feel sick.
I walk to the liquor store on the corner to get some chips.
For the next twenty minutes, I stand on the curb, dumbly munching Fritos and wiping my hand on my pants leg, not sure what to do next. Should I go home and come back tomorrow? Should I look Penumbra up in the phone book and try to call him? Scratch that. I know without checking that Penumbra will not be in the phone book, and besides, I don’t actually know where to find one of those.
I’m standing there, trying to imagine some clever course of action, when I see a familiar figure come gliding up the street. It’s not Penumbra; he doesn’t glide. This is—it’s Ms. Lapin. I duck behind a trash can (why did I just duck behind a trash can?) and watch her scoot toward the store, gasp when she reaches a range at which she can detect its dereliction, then swoop in close to the front door, where she stretches up on tiptoe to inspect the CLOSED (AD LIBRIS) sign, nose pressed to the glass, no doubt auguring deep meaning in those three words.
Then she glances furtively up and down the street, and when the pale oval of her face swivels this way, I see a look of tight-drawn fear. She turns and glides back the way she came.
I drop my Fritos in the trash can and follow her.
Lapin breaks away from Broadway and picks a path toward Telegraph Hill. Her velocity is steady, even as the landscape rises underneath her; she’s the little eccentric that could. I’m huffing and puffing, quick-stepping a block behind her, struggling to keep up. The nozzle head of Coit Tower rises on the hill high above us, a spindly gray cutout against the deeper darkness of the sky. Midway along a narrow street that curves up around the contour of the hill, Lapin disappears.
I sprint to the spot where she last stood and there I find a skinny stone staircase set into the hillside, running like an alleyway between the houses, cutting steeply upward under a scrim of branches. Lapin is somehow already halfway up.
I try to call out after her—”Ms. Lapin!”—but I’m too winded and it comes out as a wheeze. So I cough and grunt and lean into the hill and follow her up.
It’s quiet on the staircase. The only light comes from tiny windows set high in the houses on either side; it spills out into the branches above, heavy with dark plums. Up ahead,
there’s a loud rustle and a chorus of squawks. In another moment a flock of wild parrots, roused from their perches, comes barnstorming down the tree-lined tube into the open night air. Wingtips brush the top of my head.
Up ahead, there’s a sharp click and a creak and then a crack of light widens into a square. My quarry’s shadow passes through it, and then it closes tight. Rosemary Lapin is home.
I make it to the landing and sit on a step to catch my breath. This lady has serious stamina. Maybe she’s light, with bones like a bird. Maybe she’s slightly buoyant. I look back down the way we came, and through the lace of black branches I can see the lights of the city far below.
Dishes clink and clatter inside. I knock on Ms. Lapin’s door.
There’s a long conspicuous silence. “Ms. Lapin?” I call. “It’s Clay, from, uh, from the bookstore. The clerk. I just wanted to ask you about something.” Or maybe about everything.
The silence stretches out. “Ms. Lapin?”
I watch a shadow break the bar of light below the door. It hovers there—then the lock rattles and Ms. Lapin peeks out. “Hello,” she says sweetly.
Her home is the burrow of a bibliophile hobbit—low-ceilinged, close-walled, and brimming over with books. It is small but not uncomfortable; the air smells strongly of cinnamon and weakly of pot. There is a high-backed chair that faces a tidy fireplace.
Lapin is not sitting in the chair. She is instead backed into the corner of her ship’s-galley kitchen, as far as she can get from me while still being in the same room. I think she would climb out the window if she could reach it.
“Ms. Lapin,” I say, “I need to get in touch with Mr. Penumbra.”
“How about some tea?” she says. “Yes, some tea, and then you’ll be on your way.” She fiddles with a heavy brass teapot. “Busy night for a young one, I suppose, plenty of places to go, people to see—”
“Actually, I’m supposed to be working.”
Her hands shake on the stovetop. “Of course, well, plenty of jobs to be had, don’t fret—”
“I don’t need a job!” More gently, I say, “Ms. Lapin, really. I just need to get in touch with Mr. Penumbra.”
Lapin pauses, but only barely. “There are so many professions. You could be a baker, a taxidermist, a ferryboat captain …” Then she turns, and I think it’s the first time she’s ever looked straight at me. Her eyes are gray-green. “Mr. Penumbra has gone away.”
“So when is he coming back?”
Lapin says nothing, just looks at me, then slowly turns to tend the teapot, which has started to shudder and hiss on top of her tiny stove. A glittering compound of curiosity and dread oozes into my brain. Time to go for broke.
I pull out my laptop, which is probably the most advanced piece of technology that has ever crossed the threshold of Lapin’s lair, and set it up on a stack of heavy books, all from the Waybacklist. The shiny MacBook looks like a hapless alien trying to blend in with the quiet stalwarts of human civilization. I crack it open—glowing alien guts revealed!—and cue the visualization as Lapin crosses the room with two cups in two saucers.
When her eye catches the screen and she recognizes the bookstore in 3-D, she crash-lands the saucers onto the table with a clatter. Clasping her hands together beneath her chin, she bends in low and watches the wire-frame face take shape.
She squeaks, “You found him!”
Lapin spreads a wide scroll of thin, almost translucent paper on the table, now cleared of books. It’s my turn to gape: it is a view of the bookstore, rendered in gray pencil, and it, too, shows a web of lines connecting spaces on the shelves. But it’s incomplete; in fact, it’s barely started. You can see the curve of a chin and the hook of a nose, but nothing else. Those lines, dark and sure, are surrounded by the fuzz of eraser marks—a layered history of ghost lines that have been drawn and removed many times.
How long, I wonder, has Lapin been working on this?
Her face tells the tale. Her cheeks are trembling, like she’s on the verge of tears. “That is why,” she says, glancing back at my laptop. “That is why Mr. Penumbra went. Oh, what have you done? How did you do that?”
“Computers,” I tell her. “Big ones.”
Lapin makes a sigh and finally surrenders to her chair. “This is terrible,” she says. “After all that work.”
“Ms. Lapin,” I say, “what were you working on? What is this all about?”
Lapin closes her eyes and says, “I am forbidden to speak of it.” She sneaks a peek with one eye. I am quiet, open-faced, trying to look as harmless as possible. She sighs again. “But Mr. Penumbra did like you. He liked you a great deal.”
I don’t like the sound of the past tense here. Lapin stretches for her tea but can’t quite reach it, so I lift the cup and saucer and hand them to her.
“And it feels good to talk about it,” she continues, “after so many years of reading, reading, reading.” She pauses and sips her tea. “You will speak of this to no one?”
I shake my head. No one.
“Very well,” she says. She takes a deep breath. “I am a novice in a fellowship known as the Unbroken Spine. It is more than five hundred years old.” Then, primly: “As old as books themselves.”
Wow. Lapin, just a novice? She must be eighty years old.
“How did you get started?” I venture.
“I was one of his customers,” she says. “I had been going to the store for, oh, six or seven years. I was paying for a book one day—I remember this so clearly—when Mr. Penumbra looked me in the eye and said, ‘Rosemary’ “—she does a good Penumbra impression—” ‘Rosemary, why do you love books so much?’
“And I said, ‘Well, I don’t know.’ ” She’s animated, almost girlish now: “ ‘I suppose I love them because they’re quiet, and I can take them to the park.’ ” She narrows her eyes. “He watched me, and he didn’t say a word. So then I said, ‘Well, actually, I love books because books are my best friends.’ Then he smiled—he has a wonderful smile—and he walked over and got on that ladder, and climbed higher than I’d ever seen him climb.”
Of course. I get it: “He gave you a book from the Waybacklist.”
“What did you call it?”
“Oh, the—you know, the shelves in back. The code books.”
“They are codex vitae,” she says, pronouncing it precisely. “Yes, Mr. Penumbra gave me one, and he gave me the key to decode it. But he said it was the only key he would ever give me. I would have to find the next on my own, and the next after that.” Lapin frowns a little. “He said it wouldn’t take long to become one of the unbound, but it’s been very difficult for me.”
Wait: “The unbound?”
“There are three orders,” Lapin says, and ticks them off on thin fingers: “Novice, unbound, and bound. To become one of the unbound, you solve the Founder’s Puzzle. It’s the store, you see. You go from one book to another, decoding each one, finding the key to the next. They’re all shelved in a particular way. It’s like a tangle of string.”
I get it: “That’s the puzzle I solved.”
She nods once, frowns, and sips her tea. Then, as if suddenly remembering: “You know, I was a computer programmer once.”
“Back when they were big and gray, like elephants. Oh, it was hard work. We were the first to do it.”
Amazing. “Where was this?”
“Pacific Bell, just down on Sutter Street”—she waves a finger toward downtown—”back when the telephone was still very high-tech.” She grins and flutters her eyelashes theatrically. “I was a very modern young woman, you know.”
Oh, I believe it.
“But it’s been such a long time since I used a machine like that. It never even crossed my mind to do what you did. Oh, even though this”—she waves a hand at the heap of books and papers—”has been such a chore. Struggling from one book to the next. Some of the stories are good, but others …” She sighs.
There’s a clatter of footfalls outside,
a bright chorus of squawks, and then a fast knocking at the door. Lapin’s eyes go wide. The knocking doesn’t stop. The door is vibrating.
Lapin pushes herself up out of her chair and turns the knob and there is Tyndall, eyes wide, hair wild, standing with one hand on his head, the other poised in mid-knock.
“He’s gone!” he cries, careening into the room. “Called to the library! How can it be?” He’s pacing in quick circles, repeating himself, a coil of nervous energy coming unspun. His eyes glance over to me, but he doesn’t stop or slow down. “He’s gone! Penumbra is gone!”
“Maurice, Maurice, calm down,” Lapin says. She steers him into her chair, where he collapses, squirming and fidgeting.
“What will we do? What can we do? What must we do? With Penumbra gone …” Tyndall trails off, then cocks his head toward me: “Can you run the store?”
“Wait, hold on,” I say. “He’s not dead. He’s just—didn’t you just say he’s visiting a library?”
The look on Tyndall’s face tells a different tale. “He’s not coming back,” he says, shaking his head. “Not coming back, not coming back.”
That compound—more dread than curiosity now—is spreading into my stomach. It’s a bad feeling.
“Heard it from Imbert, who heard it from Monsef. Corvina is angry. Penumbra will be burned. Burned! This is the end for me! The end for you!” He waves a finger at Rosemary Lapin. Now her cheeks are trembling.
I don’t understand this at all. “What do you mean, Mr. Penumbra will be burned?”
Tyndall says, “Not the man, the book—his book! Just as bad, even worse. Better flesh than page. They will burn his book, just like Saunders, Moffat, Don Alejandro, the enemies of the Unbroken Spine. He, him, Glencoe, the worst—he had a dozen novices! All of them abandoned, lost.” He looks at me with damp, desperate eyes, and blurts, “I was almost finished!”