Condor in the Stacks, p.2James Grady
That had to make it worth saving, right? He leafed through the novel. Noted only official stamps on the pages. Put that volume on the cart for the Preserve stacks.
Book number two was even easier to save: a ragged paperback. Blue ink cursive scrawl from a reader on the title page: “You never know where you really are.” That didn’t seem like a code and wasn’t a secret, so no security breach. The book was Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. Sure, gotta save that on the cart.
And so it went. He found a bathroom outside his cave, a trip he would have made more often if he’d also found coffee. Books he pulled out of shipping boxes got shaken, flipped through and skimmed until the Preserve cart could hold no more.
All seven pine wood crates were still empty, coffins waiting for their dead.
Can’t meet Kim without dooming—recycling—at least one book.
The black plastic bag yielded a hefty novel by an author who’d gone to a famous graduate school MFA program and been swooned over by critics. That book had bored Condor. He plunked it into a blond pine coffin. Told himself he was just doing his job.
Got out of there.
Stood in the yellow cinderblock hall outside his locked office.
If I were a spy, I’d have maps in my cell phone. I’d have a Plan with a Fallback Plan and some Get Out of Dodge go-to. If I were a spy, an agent, an operative, somebody’s asset, my activation would matter to someone who cared about me, someone besides the targets and the rip-you-ups and the oppo(sition), none of whom should know I’m real and alive and on them. If I were still a spy, I’d have a mission.
Feels like forty years since I was just me.
No wonder I’m crazy.
Outside where it would rain, the three castles of the Library of Congress rose across open streets from Congress’s Capitol dome and the pillars of the Supreme Court because knowledge is clearly vital to how we create laws and dispense justice.
And yes, the swooping art decco John Adams castle where Condor worked is magnificent with murals and bronze doors and owls as art everywhere.
And true, the high-tech concert hall James Madison LOC castle that looms across the street from the oldest fortress of the House of Representatives once barely kept its expensively-customized-for-LOC-use edifice out of the grasp of turf hungry Congressmen who tried to disguise their grab for office space as fiscally responsible.
But really, the gem of the LOC empire with its half-billion dollar global budget and 3,201 employees is the LOC’s Thomas Jefferson building: gray marble columns rising hundreds of feet into the air to where its green metal cupola holds the “Torch of Learning” copper statue and cups a mosaic sky over the castle full of grand marble staircases, wondrous murals and paintings, golden gilt and dark wood, chandeliers, a main reading room as glorious as a cathedral, and everywhere, everywhere, books, the words of men and women written on the ephemera of dead trees.
Down in the castles’ sub-basement of yellow tunnels, Condor walked beneath pipes and electrical conduits and wires, past locked doors and lockers. He rode the first elevator he found up until the steel cage dinged and left him in a cavern of stacks—row after row of shelves stuffed with books, books in boxes in the aisles, books everywhere.
He drifted through the musty stacks, books brushing the backs of both his hands, his eyes blurred by the lines of volumes, each with a number, each with a name, an identity, a purpose. He circled around one set of stacks and saw him standing there.
Tom Joad. Battered hat, sun-baked lean Okie face, shirt missing a button, stained pants, scruffy shoes covered with the sweat dust of decades.
“Where you been?” whispered Condor.
“Been looking. How ’bout you?”
“Been trying,” said Condor.
A black woman wearing a swirl of color blouse under a blue LOC smock stepped into the aisle where she saw only Condor and said: “Were you talking to me?”
The silver-haired man smiled something away. “Guess I was talking to myself.”
“Sugar,” she said, “everybody talks to somebody.”
He walked off like he knew what he was doing and where he was going, saw a door at the end of another aisle of books, stepped through it—
Collision hits Condor’s thighs, heavy runs over hurts his toes—Cart!
A metal steel cart loaded with books slams into Condor as it’s being pushed by.…
Brown bird Fran. Pushing a metal cart covered by a blue LOC smock.
“Oh, my Lord, I’m so sorry!” Fran hovered as Condor winced. “I didn’t see you there! I didn’t expect anybody!”
She blinked back to her balance, sank back to her core. Her eyes drilled his chest.
“Vin, isn’t it? Why aren’t you wearing your I.D.? LOC policy requires visible issued I.D. The DOSP will not be pleased.”
She leaned closer: “I won’t tell him we saw each other if you won’t.”
“Sure,” he said. And thus is a conspiracy born.
“That’s better.” She straightened the blue smock over the books it covered on her cart. “You should wear it anyway. If you’re showing your I.D., you can go anywhere and do darn near anything. For your job, I mean.”
He fished his I.D. from inside the blah blue sports jacket issued him by a CIA dust master who costumed America’s spies. Asked her how to get to the reading room.
“Oh, my: you’re a floor too high. There’s a gallery above that reading room back the direction I came. You can’t miss it.” She tried to hook him with a smile. “How soon will you out-process the next shipment of inventory?”
“You mean pack books in the coffins to be pulped? It’s only my second day.”
“Oh, dear. You really must keep on schedule and up to speed. There are needs to be met. The DOSP has expectations.”
“Must be nice,” said Condor. “Having expectations.”
He thanked her and headed the direction she said she’d come.
Went through the door labeled “Gallery.”
That door opened to a row of taller-than-him bookshelves he followed to one of six narrow slots for human passage to the guardrail circling above the reading room with its quaint twentieth century card catalog and research desks.
Nice spot for recon. Sneak down any slot. Charlie Sugar (Counter Surveillance) won’t know which slot you’ll use. Good optics. Target needs to crank his or her head to look up. Odds are, you spot that move in time to fade the half-step back to not be there.
Condor moved closer to the balcony guardrail. His view widened with each step.
Kim sat at a research desk taking notes with an iPad as she studied a tan book published before a man in goggles flew at Kitty Hawk. Kim wore a red cardigan sweater. Black glasses. Silver lip loop. A glow of purpose and focus. She raised her head to—
Condor eased back to where he could not see her and thus she did not see him. He walked behind bookshelves, found the top of a spiral steel staircase.
You gotta love a spiral steel staircase.
That steel rail slid through his hand as the world he saw turned around the axis of his spiraling descent. The reading room. Researchers at desks. Kim bent over her work. A street op named Quiller from a novel Condor’d saved loitered by the card catalog with a bespectacled mole hunter named Smiley. The stairs spiraled Condor toward a mural, circled him around, but those two Brits were gone when he stepped off the last stair.
Kim urged him close: “He’s here! I just felt him watching me!”
“That was me.”
“Are you sure?”
“Two tactical choices,” he answered. Her anxious face acquired a new curiosity at this silver-haired man’s choice of words. “Maintain status or initiate change.”
Condor felt the cool sun of Kabul envelop him, an outdoor marketplace cafe where what was supposed to happen hadn’t. Said: “We could move.”
Kim led him into the depths of the Adams building a
“Oh, my God,” whispered Kim. “That could be him!”
Walking into the snack bar came a man older and a whiff shorter than her, a stocky man with shaggy brown hair and a mustache, a sports jacket, and shined shoes.
“I don’t know his name,” whispered Kim. “I think he tried to ask me out once! And maybe he goes out of his way to walk past where I am! When I feel eyes on me, he’s not there, nobody is, but it could be, it must be him.”
The counterwoman poured hot coffee into a white paper cup for Mustache Man. He sat at an empty table facing the yogurt display case. At the angle he chose, the refrigerated case’s glass door reflected blurred images of Condor and Kim.
Life or luck or tradecraft?
Condor told her: “Walk out. Go to your office. Wait for my call.”
“What if something happens?”
“Something always happens. Don’t look back.”
Kim marched out of the snack nook.
Mustache Man didn’t follow her.
Call him Vin. Call him Condor.
He thumb-popped the plastic lid loose on his cup of hot coffee.
Slowed time as he inhaled from his heels. Exhaled a fine line. Unfolded his legs to rise away from the table without a sound, without his chair scooting on the tiled floor.
Condor carried the loose-lid cup of hot coffee out in front of him like a pistol.
Mustache Man was five, four, three steps away, his head bent over a book.
Condor “lurched”—jostled the coffee cup he held.
The loose lid popped off the cup. Hot coffee flew out to splash Mustache Man.
He and the stranger who splashed him yelped like startled dogs. Mustache Man jumped to his feet, reached to help some older gentleman who’d obviously tripped.
“Are you all right?” said Mustache Man as the silver-haired stranger stood steady with his right hand lightly resting on the ribs over Mustache Man’s startled heart.
“I’m sorry!” lied Condor.
“No, no: it was probably my fault.”
Vin blinked: “Just sitting there and it was your fault?”
“I probably moved and threw you off or something.”
“Or something.” The man’s face matched the I.D. card dangling around his neck.
Mustache Man used a napkin to sponge dark splotches on his book. “It’s OK. It’s mine, not the library’s.”
“You bring your own book to where you can get any book in the world?”
“I don’t want to bother Circulation.”
Vin turned the book so he could read the title.
Mustache Man let this total stranger take such control without a blink, said: “Li Po is my absolute favorite Chinese poet.”
“I wonder if they read him in Nebraska.”
Now came a blink: “Why Nebraska?”
“Why not?” said Condor.
The other man shrugged. “I’m from Missouri.”
“There are two kinds of people,” said Condor. “Those who want to tell you their story and those who never will.”
“No,” said Vin. “We’re all our own kind. I didn’t get your name.”
“I’m Rich Bechtel.”
Condor told Mustache Man/Rich Bechtel—same name on his I.D.—that he was new, didn’t know the way back to his office.
“Let me show you,” volunteered Rich, right on cue.
They went outside the snack nook where long corridors ran left and right.
“Either way,” Rich told the silver-haired man whose name he still hadn’t asked.
“Your choice,” said Condor.
“Sorry, I work at CRS.” CRS: the Congressional Research Service that is and does as it’s named. “I’m used to finding options, letting someone else decide.”
“This is one of those times you’re in charge,” lied Condor.
He controlled their pace through subterranean tunnels. By the time they reached Condor’s office, he knew where Rich said he lived, how long he’d been in Washington, that he loved biking. Loved his work, too, though as a supervisor of environmental specialists, “seeing what they deal with can make it hard to keep your good mood.”
“Is it rough on your wife and kids?” asked Condor.
“Not married. No family.” He shrugged. “She said no.”
“Does that make you mad?”
“I’m still looking, if that’s what you mean. But mad: How would that work?”
“You tell me.” He stuck out his right hand. Got a return grip with strength Rich didn’t try to prove. “My name is Vin. Just in case, could I have one of your cards?”
That card went into Vin’s shirt pocket to nestle beside Kim’s that Condor fished out as soon as he was inside his soundproof cave. He cell-phoned her office.
Heard the click of answered call. No human voice.
Said: “This is—”
“Please!” Kim’s voice: “Please, please come here, see what—Help me!”
Condor snapped the old phone shut. Grabbed the building map off his desk.
Couldn’t help himself: counted the stacked coffins.
Still seven where there should be nine.
Time compressed. Blurred. Rushing through tunnels and hallways. Stairs. An elevator. Her office in a corridor of research lairs. Don’t try the doorknob: that’ll spook her more. Should be locked anyway. His knock rattled her door’s clouded glass.
Kim clacked the locks and opened the door, reached to pull him in but grabbed only air as he slid past, put his back against the wall while he scanned her office.
No ambusher. Window too small for any ninja. Posters on the walls: a National Gallery print of French countryside, a Smithsonian photo of blue globed earth, a full-face wispy color portrait of Marilyn Monroe with a crimson lipped smile and honesty in her eyes. Kim’s computer glowed. A framed black & white photo of a Marine patrolling some jungle stood on her desk: Father? Grandfather? Vietnam?
“Thought I was safe,” babbled Kim. “Everything cool, you out there dealing with it and I unlocked the office door. It was locked—swear it was locked! Looked around and … My middle desk drawer was open. Just a smidge.”
Kim’s white finger aimed like a lance at a now wide-open desk drawer.
Where inside on its flat-bottomed wood, Condor saw:
Red lipstick smeared, gouged-out letters in a scrawl bigger than his hand.
Kim whispered: “How did he get in here? Do that? Weren’t you with him?”
“Not before. And you weren’t here then either.”
A tube of lipstick lay in desk drawer near the graffiti, fake gold metal polished and showing no fingerprints. Condor pointed to the tube: “Yours?”
She looked straight into his eyes. “Who I am sometimes wears lipstick.”
“So he didn’t bring it and he didn’t take it. But that’s not what matters.
“Look under the lipstick,” he said. “Carved letters. Library rules don’t let anybody bring in a knife, so somebody who does is serious about his blade.”
“I’m going to throw up.”
But she didn’t.
“Call the cops,” said Condor.
“And tell them what? Somebody I don’t know, can’t be sure it’s him, he somehow got into my locked office and … and did that? They’ll think I’m crazy!”
“Could be worse. Call the cops.”
“OK, they’ll come, they’ll care, they’ll keep an eye on me until there’s no more nothing they’ll have the time to see and they’ll go and then what? Then more of this?”
She shook her head. “I’m an analytic researcher. That’s what I do. First we need to find more to verify what we say for the cops to show we’re not crazy!”
“First call the cops. Then worry about verifying. Crazy doesn’t
“What else you got?” Her look scanned his scars.
“Grab what you need,” he said. “Work where I found you, the reading room, in public, not alone. I don’t know about afterwards when you go home.”
“Nothing’s ever … felt wrong there. Plus I’ve got a roommate.”
“So did the heroine in Terminator.”
“Life isn’t science fiction.”
“Really?” Condor rapped his knuckles on her computer monitor.
Made her take cell phone pictures of HARLOT and email them to herself before he shut that desk drawer. “Got a boyfriend or husband or any kind of ex?”
“The last somebody I had was in San Francisco and he dumped me. No husband, ever. Probably won’t be. Evidently all I attract are psycho creeps. Or maybe that’s all that’s out there. Why can’t I find a nice guy who doesn’t know that’s special?”
“Do you like mustaches?”
“Hey, I wear a lip ring.”
“Have you ever mentioned mustaches to anybody?”
She shook her head no.
“Then maybe he’s had it for a long time.”
He escorted her back to the same reading room desk.
Left her there where her fellow LOC employees could hear her scream.
Took the spiral steel staircase up and went out the Gallery door, walked back the way he first came, through the stacks, row after row of shelved books. Down one aisle, he spotted a shamus wearing a Dashiell Hammett trenchcoat and looking like Humphrey Bogart before he knew his dream was Lauren Bacall.
Condor called out: “What’s my move?”
The shamus gave him the long look. Said: “You got a job, you do a job.”
Back in the sub-basement cave. Alone with the still only seven coffins. Alone with the cart piled high with the few books he could save from the DOSP’s expectations.
Anger gripped him. Frenzy. Cramming books into the coffins. Filling all seven pine crates, plopping them on the dolly, wheeling it out of his office, stacking the coffins against the yellow cinderblock wall, pushing the empty dolly back into his cave, logging PICK UP in the computer, snapping off the lights, locking the door, home before five with a day’s job done and the shakes of not knowing what to do.
Condor in the Stacks by James Grady / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes