Condor in the Stacks, p.1James Grady
Condor in the Stacks
… for Ron Mardigian
“Are you trouble?” asked the man in a blue pinstripe suit sitting at his D.C. desk on a March Monday morning in the second decade of America’s first war in Afghanistan.
“Let’s hope not,” answered the silver-haired man in the visitor’s chair.
They faced each other in the sumptuous office of the Director of Special Projects (DOSP) for the Library of Congress (LOC). Mahogany bookcases filled the walls.
The DOSP fidgeted with a fountain pen.
Watch me stab that pen through your eye, thought his silver-haired visitor.
Such normal thoughts did not worry that silver-haired man in a blue sports jacket, a new maroon shirt and well-worn black jeans.
What worried him was feeling trapped in a gray fog tunnel of numb.
Must be the new pill, the green pill they gave him as they drove him away from CIA headquarters, along the George Washington Parkway and beneath the route flown by 9/11 hijackers who slammed a jetliner into the Pentagon.
The CIA car ferried him over the Potomac. Past the Lincoln Memorial. Up “the Hill” past three marble fortresses for Congress’s House of Representatives where in 1975, he’d tracked a spy from U.S. ally South Korea who was working deep cover penetration of America by posing as a mere member of the messianic Korean cult that provided the last cheerleaders for impeached President Nixon.
The ivory U.S. Capitol glistened across the street from where the CIA car delivered Settlement Specialist Emma and silver-haired him to the Library of Congress.
Whose DOSP told him: “I don’t care how ‘classified’ you are. Do this job and don’t make trouble or you’ll answer to me.”
The DOSP set the fountain pen on the desk.
Put his hands on his keyboard: “What’s your name?”
“Vin,” said the silver-haired stranger.
Vin told him that lie.
The DOSP typed it. A printer hummed out warm paper forms. He used the fountain pen to sign all the correct lines.
“Come on,” he told Vin, tossing that writing technology of the previous century onto his desk. “Let’s deliver you to your hole.”
He marched toward the office’s mahogany door.
Didn’t see his pen vanish into Vin’s hand.
That mahogany door swung open as the twenty-something receptionist yawned, oblivious to the pistol under her outer office visitor Emma’s spring jacket. Emma stood as the door opened, confident she wouldn’t need to engage her weapon but with a readiness to let it fill her hand she couldn’t shake no matter how long it had been since.
The DOSP marched these disruptions from another agency through two tunnel-connected, city block-sized library castles to a yellow cinderblock walled basement and a green metal door with a keypad lock guarded by a middle-aged brown bird of a woman.
“This is Miss Doyle,” the DOSP told Vin. “One of ours. She’s been performing your just-assigned functions with optimal results, plus excelling in all her other work.”
Brown bird woman told Vin: “Call me Fran.”
Fran held up the plastic laminated library staff I.D. card dangling from a lanyard looped around her neck. “We’ll use mine to log you in.”
She swiped her I.D. card through the lock. Tapped the keypad screen.
“Now enter your password,” said Fran.
“First,” CIA Emma told the library-only staffers, “you two: please face me.”
The DOSP and Fran turned their backs to the man at the green metal door.
Vin tapped six letters into the keypad. Hit ENTER.
The green metal door clicked. Let him push it open.
Pale light flooded the heavy-aired room. A government-issue standard metal desk from 1984 waited opposite the open door. An almost as ancient computer monitor filled the desk in front of a wheeled chair. Rough pine boxes big enough to hold a sleeping child were stacked against the back wall.
“Empty crates in,” said Fran, “full crates out. Picked up and dropped off in the hall. It’s your job to get them to and from there. Use that flatbed dolly.”
She computer clicked to a spreadsheet listing crates dropped off, crates filled, crates taken away: perfectly balanced numbers.
“Maintenance Operations handles data entry, except for when you log a pick-up notice. They drop off the Review Inventory outside in the hall.” Fran pointed to a heap of cardboard boxes. “From closing military bases. Embassies. Other … secure locations.
“Unpack the books,” said Fran. “Check them for security breaches. Like if some Air Force officer down in one of our missile silos forgot and stuck some secret plan in a book from the base library. Or wrote secret notes they weren’t supposed to.”
Vin said: “What difference would it make? You burn the books anyway.”
“Pulp them,” said the DOSP. “We are in compliance with recycling regulations.”
CIA Emma said: “Vin, this is one of those eyeballs-needed, gotta-do jobs.”
“Sure,” said Vin. “And you’ll know right where I am while I’m doing it.”
The DOSP snapped: “Just do it right. The books go into crates, the crates get hauled away, the books get pulped.”
Vin said: “Except for the ones we save.”
“Rescuer is not in your job description,” said the DOSP. “You can send no more than one cart of material per week to the Preserve stacks. You’re only processing fiction.”
The DOSP checked his watch. “A new employee folder is on your desk. We printed it out. Your computer isn’t printer or Internet enabled.”
“Security policy,” said CIA Emma. “Not just for you.”
“Really.” The DOSP’s smile curved like a scimitar. “Well, as your Agency insisted, this is the only library computer that accepts his access code. A bit isolating, I would think, but as long as that’s ‘security policy’ and not personal.”
He and brown bird Fran adjourned down the underground yellow hall.
Vin stood by the steel desk.
Emma stood near the door. Scanned her Reinsertion Subject. “Are you OK?”
“That green pill wiped out whatever OK means.”
“I’ll report that, but hey: you’ve only been out of the Facility in Maine for—”
“The insane asylum,” he interrupted. “The CIA’s secret insane asylum.”
“Give yourself a break. You’ve only been released for eleven days, and after what happened in New Jersey while they were driving you down here …
“Look,” she said, “it’s your new job, first day. Late lunch. Let’s walk to one of those cafes we saw when we moved you into your house. Remember how to get home?”
“Do you have kids?”
Her stare told him no.
“This is like dropping your kid off for kindergarten,” said Vin. “Go.”
Emma said: “You set the door lock to your codename?”
“Yeah,” he said. “Condor.”
His smile was wistful: “Can’t ever get away from that.”
“Call you Vin, call you Condor, at least you have a name. Got my number?”
He held up his outdated flip-phone programmed by an Agency tech.
She left him alone in that subterranean cave.
Call him Vin. Call him Condor.
Ugly light. The toad of an old computer squatting on a gray steel desk. A heap of sagging cardboard boxes. The wall behind him stacked with wooden crates—coffins.
Thick heavy air smelled like … basement rot, paper, stones, old insulation, cardboard, tired metal, steam heat. A whiff of the coffins’ unvarnished pine.
Only dust waited in the drawers on each side of the desk’s well. The employee manual urged library staffers to hide in their desk wells during terrorist or psycho attacks. Like the atom bomb doomsday drills when I was a—
And he remembered! His CIA-prescribed handful of daily pills didn’t work perfectly: he could kind of remember!
Tell no one.
He slid open the middle desk drawer. Found three paperclips and one penny.
From the side pocket of the blue sports jacket he fetched the stolen fountain pen.
Sometimes you gotta do what you do just to be you.
He stashed the stolen pen in his middle desk drawer.
Noticed the monitor’s reflection of seven coffins.
Am I crazy?
YES was the truth but not the answer.
He turned around and counted the coffins stacked against the back wall: Seven.
Clicked open the computer’s spreadsheet to check the inventory delivery: Nine.
Why are two coffins missing?
The CIA’s cell phone sat on his desk.
This is your job now. No job, no freedom.
Condor put the cell phone in his shirt pocket over his heart.
Suddenly he didn’t want to be there because there was where they brought him, transporting him like a boxcar of doomed books. He counted the coffins: still seven. Walked out the door, pulling it shut with a click as he switched out the light.
The wide yellow-bricked hall telescoped away into distant darkness to his left. To his right, the tunnel ran about thirty steps until it T’ed at a brick wall.
He turned left, the longest route that let him look back and see where he’d been. Floated each stepping foot out in front of him empty of weight like Victor’d taught him in the insane asylum: aesthetically correct T’ai chi plus a martial arts technique that foiled foot-sweeping ninjas and saved you if the floor beneath your stepping shoe vanished.
Footsteps! Walking down that intersecting tunnel.
He hurried after those sounds of someone to ask for directions.
The footsteps quickened.
Don’t scare anybody: cough so they know you’re here.
The footsteps ran.
Pulled Condor into running, his heart jack hammering his chest.
Go right—no left, twenty steps until the next juncture of tunnels.
Whirr of sliding-open doors.
Dashing around a yellow brick walled corner—
Elevator—doors closing! He thrust his left arm into the doors’ chomp—they bounced open and tumbled him into the bright metal cage.
Without thought, with the awareness of ten thousand practices, his right forearm met the fist’s arm, not to block but to blend with that force and divert it from its target.
The fist belonged to a woman.
And in the instant she struggled to recover her diverted balance, the palm of Condor’s left hand rocketed her up and back so she bounced off the rear wall of the elevator as those metal doors closed behind him.
The cage groaned toward the surface.
“Leave me alone!” she yelled.
“You punched me!”
His attacker glared at him through black-framed glasses. Short dark hair. A thin silver loop pierced the right corner of her lower lip. Black coat. Hands clenched at her sides, not up in an on-guard position. She had the guts to fight but not the know-how.
“You chased me in here!” she yelled. “Don’t deny it! I finally caught you! Stop it! You keep watching me! Doing things!”
“I don’t do things!”
“Always lurking. Hiding. Sneaking. Straightening my reading room desk. KNOCK IT OFF! Weeks you’ve been at this, not gonna take it next time I’ll punch—”
“Weeks?” he interrupted. “I’ve been doing whatever for weeks? Here?”
The elevator jerked to a stop.
Doors behind Condor slid open.
He loomed between the glaring woman and the only way out of this cage.
The elevator doors whirred shut.
The cage rumbled upwards.
He sent his right hand inside his sports jacket and she let it go there, confirming she was no trained killer. Pulled out his Library of Congress I.D. Showed it to her.
“Activation Date is today, my first day here. I can’t be the one who’s been stalking you.”
The elevator jerked to a stop.
The doors behind Condor slid open.
“Oh.” She nodded to the open elevator doors. He backed out the cage. She followed him into a smooth walled hall as the elevator doors closed. “Um, sorry.”
“No. You did what you could to be not sorry. Smart.”
“Why were you chasing me?”
“I’m trying to find an exit.”
“This is a way out,” she said and led him through the castle. “I’m Kim.”
He told her he was Vin.
“You must think I’m nuts.”
“We all have our own roads through Crazytown.”
She laughed at what she thought was a joke, but couldn’t hold on to happy.
“I don’t know what to do,” said Kim. “Sometimes I think I’m imagining it all. I feel somebody watching me, but when I whirl around, nobody’s there.”
“Chinese martial arts say eyes have weight,” Vin told her.
“I’m from Nebraska,” she said. “Not China.”
Kim looked at him, really looked at him.
“You’re probably a great father.” She sighed. “I miss my dad and back home, though I wouldn’t want to live there.”
“But why live here?”
“Are you kidding? Here I get to be part of what people can use to make things better, have better lives, be more than who they were stuck being born.
She frowned: “Why do you live here?”
“I’m not ready die,” he said. “Here or anywhere.”
“You’re a funny guy, Vin. Not funny ha-ha, but not uh-oh funny either.”
They walked past a blue-shirted cop at the metal detector arch by the entrance. The cop wore a holstered pistol of a make Vin knew he once knew.
Just past the security line waited a plastic tub beneath an earnest hand-inked sign:
OLD CELLPHONES FOR CHARITY!
Funny guy Vin pictured himself tossing the CIA’s flip-phone into that plastic bin. A glance at the dozen cellphones awaiting charitable recycling told him that would be cruel: His flip-phone was so uncool ancient that all the other phones would pick on it.
Condor and not his daughter stepped out into March’s blue sky chill.
She buttoned her black cloth coat. “Would you do me a favor? You’re new, so you can’t be whoever it is. Come by my desk in the Adams reading room around noon tomorrow. Go with me to my office. See what I’m talking about, even if it’s not there.”
Standing in that chilly sunshine on a Capital Hill street, Condor heard an echo from the DOSP: “Rescuer is not in your job description.”
Sometimes you gotta do what you do just to be you.
“OK,” said Condor.
Kim gave him her LOC business card, thanked him and said goodbye, walked away into the D.C. streets full of people headed somewhere they seemed to want to go.
“Remember how to get home?” Emma’d said.
An eleven-minute walk past the red brick Eastern Market barn where J. Edgar Hoover worked as a delivery boy a century before. Condor strolled past stalls selling fresh fruit and aged cheese, slabs of fish and red meat, flowers. He found himself in line at the market grill, got a crab cake sandwich and a lemonade, ate at one of the tall tables and watched the flow of mid-day shoppers, stay-home parents and nann
Where he lived was a blue brick townhouse on Eleventh Street, N.E., a narrow five rooms, one-and-a-half baths rental. No one ambushed him when he stepped into the living room. No one had broken the dental floss he’d strung across the stairs leading up to the bed he surfed in dreams. A flat screen TV reflected him as he plopped on the couch, caught his breath in this new life where nothing, nothing was wrong.
At 8:57 the next morning, he snapped on the lights in his work cave.
Counted the coffins: Seven.
Checked the computer’s spreadsheet: Nine.
Crazy or not, that’s still the count.
Sometimes crazy is the way to go.
Or so he told himself when he’d flushed the green pills down the blue townhouse’s toilet at dawn. Emma’d report his adverse reaction, so probably there’d be no Code Two Alert when that medication wasn’t seen in Condor’s next urine test.
His thirteen other pills lined up on his kitchen counter like soldiers.
Condor held his cooking knife that looked like the legend Jim Bowie carried at the Alamo. Felt himself drop into a deep stance, his arms curving in front of his chest. The Bowie knife twirled until the spine of the blade pressed against the inside of his right forearm and the razor sharp cutting edge leered out like he’d been taught decades before by a Navy SEAL in a lower East Side of Manhattan black site.
Condor exhaled into his here-and-now, used the knife to shave powder off five pills prescribed to protect him from himself, from seeing or feeling or thinking that isn’t part of officially approved sensible reality. Told himself that a shade of unapproved crazy might be the smart way to go, because standing in his office cave on the second morning of work, it didn’t make sense that the approved coffin count was (still) off by two.
He muscled a cardboard box full of books onto a waist-high, brown metal cart, rolled the burdened cart over to the seven empty coffins and lost his virginity.
His very first one. The first book he pulled from that box bulging with books recycled from a closed U.S. air base near a city once decimated by Nazi purification squads and then shattered by Allied bombers. The first volume whose fate he decided: The List of Adrian Messenger by Philip MacDonald.
Frank Sinatra played a gypsy in the black and white movie.
Condor in the Stacks by James Grady / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes