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Condor in the stacks, p.3
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       Condor in the Stacks, p.3

           James Grady
 
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  Shakes that had him walking back to work before dawn. His I.D. got him inside past cops and metal detectors, down the elevator to the subterranean glow around the corner from his office and into the unexpected rumble of rolling wheels.

  Condor hurried around the corner …

  … and coming towards him was a dolly of pinewood coffins pushed by a barbell-muscled man with military short blond hair and a narrow shaved face. The blond muscle man wore an I.D. lanyard and had deep blue eyes.

  “Wait!” yelled Condor.

  The coffin-heavy dolly shuddered to a jerked stop.

  “What are you doing?” said Condor. “These are my coffins—crates.”

  Couldn’t stop himself from whispering: “Nine.”

  Looked down the hall to where yesterday he’d stacked seven coffins.

  The barbell blond said: “You must be the new guy. I heard you were weird.”

  “My name is Vin, and you’re … ?”

  The blue-eyed barbell blond said: “Like, Jeremy.”

  “Jeremy, you got it right, I’m new, but I got an idea that, like, helps both of us.”

  Rush the grift so Jeremy doesn’t have time to, like, make a wrong reply.

  “I screwed up, sorry, stuck the wrong book in a crate, so what we need to do, what I need to do, is take them all back in my cave, open ’em up, and find the book that belongs on the rescue cart. Then you can take the crates away.”

  “I’m doing that now. That’s my job. And I say when.”

  “That’s why this works out for us. Because you’re who says when. And while I’m fixing the mistake, you go to the snack bar, get us both—I don’t know about you, but I need a cup of coffee. I buy, you bring, and by then I’ll be done with the crates.”

  “Snack bar isn’t open this early. Only vending machines.”

  Don’t say anything. Wait. Create space for the idea to fall into.

  “Needing coffee is weak,” said Jeremy.

  “When you get to my age, weak comes easy.”

  Jeremy smiled. “They might have hot chocolate.”

  “I think they do.” Vin fished the last few dollar bills from the release allowance out of his black jeans. “If they got a button for cream, push it for me, would you?”

  Jeremy took the money. Disappeared down the yellow cinderblock hall.

  Vin rolled the dolly into his cave. Unlatched the first coffin, found a frenzied jumble of books, one with ripped cover so the only words left above the author’s name were: “… LAY DYING”

  Remember that, I remember that.

  The second crate contained another jumble that felt familiar, all novels, some with stamps from some island, Paris Island. Yeah, this is another one I packed, one of the seven. So was the third crate he opened, and the fourth.

  But not number five.

  Neatly stacked books filled that pinewood box. Seventy or more books.

  But only three titles.

  Delta of Venus by Anais Nin. Never read it, maybe a third of this coffin’s books.

  The rest of the renegade coffin’s books were editions of The Carpetbaggers by Harold Robbins, many with the jacket painting of a blond woman in a lush pink gown and the grip of a fur stole draped round her shoulders as some man towered behind her.

  I remember it! A roman à clef about whacky billionaire Howard Hughes who bought Las Vegas from the Mob, but what Vin remembered most about the book was waiting until his parents were out of the house, then leafing to those pages.

  Now, that morning in his locked cave in a basement of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., Vin rifled through the coffin of discarded volumes of The Carpetbaggers and found nothing but those books, stamped properties of public libraries from New Mexico to New Jersey, nothing hidden in them, nothing hidden under them in the pinewood crates, nothing about them that …

  What smells?

  Like a bloodhound, Vin sniffed all through that coffin of doomed novels.

  Smells like … Almonds.

  He skidded a random copy of each book across the concrete floor to under his desk and closed the lid on the coffin from which they came.

  The sixth crate contained his chaos of crammed-in books, but crate number seven revealed the same precise packing as crate five, more copies of Anais Nin and The Carpetbaggers, plus copies of two other novels: The Caretakers that keyed more memories of furtive page turning and three copies of Call Me Sinner by Alan Marshall that Vin had never heard of. Plus the scent of almonds. He shut that crate. The last two coffins held books he’d sent to their doom and smelled only of pine.

  Roll the dolly piled high with coffins back out to the hall.

  This is what you know:

  Unlike the books that filled seven of the there-all-along coffins, the volumes in where’d-they-come-from two coffins were precisely packed, alphabetically and thus systematically clustered C and D titles, and all, well, erotic.

  And smelled like almonds.

  Remember, I can’t remember what that means.

  Jeremy handed Condor a cup of vending machine coffee. “You find what you were looking for?”

  “Yeah,” said Condor, a truth full of lies.

  Jeremy crumpled his chocolate stained paper cup, tossed it on top of the crates.

  “I’ll come with you.” Vin fell in step beside the man pushing the heavy dolly.

  “You are weird. Push the button for that elevator.”

  A metal cage slowly carried the two men and the coffin dolly up, up.

  “Do you see many weird people down here?” asked Condor.

  “Some people use this way as a shortcut out to get lunch or better coffee.”

  Rolling wheels made the only sounds for the rest of their journey to the loading dock. Jeremy keyed his code into the dock’s doors, rolled the dolly outside onto a loading dock near a parked pickup truck.

  An LOC cop with a cyber tablet came over, glanced at the crates, opened one and saw the bodies of books, as specified on the manifest. He looked at Condor.

  “The old guy’s with me,” said Jeremy.

  The cop nodded, walked away.

  The sky pinked. Jeremy lifted nine crates—nine, not seven—dropped them into the pickup truck’s rear end cargo box for the drive to the recycling dump.

  “This is as far as you go,” Jeremy told the weird older guy.

  Condor walked back inside through the loading dock door.

  The rattling metal grate lowered its wall of steel.

  Luminous hands on his black Navy SEAL watch ticked past seven a.m. Condor stalked back the way he’d come, as if retracing geography would let him remake time, go back to when and do it right. When got to the stacks where he’d been lost before, down the gap between two book-packed rows, he spotted a mouse named Stuart driving a tiny motorcar away in search of the north that would lead him to true love.

  Condor whispered: “Good luck, man.”

  Voice behind you! “Are—”

  Whirl hands up and out sensing guard stacks spinning—

  Woman brown clothes eyes widening—

  Fran, sputtering: “I was just going to say ‘Are you talking to yourself?’”

  Condor let his arms float down as he faded out of a combat stance.

  “Something like that.”

  “Sorry to have interrupted.” She smiled like a woman at a Methodist church social his mother once took him to. Or like the shaved-head, maroon-robed Buddhist nun he’d seen in Saigon after that city changed its name. “But nice to see you.”

  Condor frowned. “Wherever I go, there you are.”

  “Oh, my goodness,” twittered Fran. “Doesn’t that just seem so? And good for you being here now. The early bird gets the worm. Believe you me, there are worms. Worms everywhere.”

  Flick—a flick of motion, something—somebody ducking back behind a shelf in an aisle between those stacks way down where Stuart drove.

  “By the way,” he heard Fran say: “Good job. The DOSP will be pleased.”

 
; “What?”

  “Your first clearance transfer.”

  “How did you know I was sending out a load of coffins?”

  Her smile widened. “Must have been Jeremy.”

  Amidst the canyons of shelves crammed with books, Condor strained to hear creeping feet beyond the twittering brown bird of a woman.

  “Just walking by his shop in the basement, door must have been open, I mean, I used to have your job working with him.”

  Prickling skin: Something—someone—hidden from their eyes in the canyons of stacks moved the air.

  “Vin, are you feeling OK?”

  “’Just distracted.”

  “Ah.” Fran marched away, exited through a door alone.

  Alone, Condor telepathed to whoever hid in this cavern of canyons made by rows of shelved books. Just you and me now. All alone.

  Somewhere waited a knife.

  Walk between close walls of bookshelves crammed with volumes of transcribed RAF radio transmissions, 1939-1941. He could hear the call signs, airmen’s chatter, planes’ throbbing engines, bombs, and the clattering machineguns of yesterday.

  Today is what you got. And what’s got you.

  What got him, he never knew—a sound, a tingling, a corner-of-his-eye motion, whatever: he whirled left to that wall of shelved books, slammed his palms against half a dozen volumes so they shot back off their shelf and knocked away the books shelved in the next aisle, a gap blasted in walls of books through which he saw …

  Mustached and eyes startled wide Rich Bechtel.

  “Oops!” yelled Condor. “Guess I stumbled again.”

  He flowed around the shelf, a combat ballet swooped into the aisle where Rich—suit, tie, mustache—stood by a jumble of pushed-to-the-floor books.

  Condor smiled: “Surprised to see me here?”

  “Surprised, why … ?”

  “Yes, why are you here?”

  The mustached man shrugged. “It’s a cut-through to go get good coffee.”

  “Did you cut through past the balcony of the reading room?”

  “Well, sure, that’s a door you can take.”

  “So why were you hiding back here?” said Condor.

  Rich shrugged. “I was avoiding call me Fran.”

  Confession without challenge: As if we were friends, thought Condor.

  “A while back,” continued Rich, “I was over here in Adams working on a Congressional study of public policy management approaches. One of the books I had on my desk was a rare early translation of the Dao De Jing, you know, the …”

  “The Chinese Machiavelli.”

  “More than that, but yes, a how power works manual that Ronald Reagan quoted. Fran mistook it for something like the Koran. She walked by my research desk, spotted the title and went off on me about how dare I foster such thought. Things got out of hand. She might have pushed my books off the desk, could have been an accident, but …”

  “But what?”

  “I walked away. When I see her now, I keep walking. Or try not to be seen.”

  Condor said: “Nobody could make up that story.”

  The caught man frowned. “Why would I make up any story?”

  “We all make up stories. And sometimes we put real people in the stories in our heads. That can be … confusing.”

  “I’m already confused enough.” Rich laughed. “What are you doing?”

  “Leaving. Which way are you headed?”

  Rich pointed the way Condor’d come, left with a wave and a smile.

  The chug chug chug of a train.

  One aisle over, between walls of books, railroad tracks ran through a lush green somewhere east of Eden, steel rails under a coming this way freight train and sitting huddled on top of one metal car rode troubled James Dean.

  Condor left that cavern of stacks, walked to the Gallery where he could see the empty researchers’ desks on the floor of the reading room below. Checked his watch. Hoped he wouldn’t need to pee. Some surveillances mean no milk cartons.

  What does it mean when you smell almonds?

  Don’t think about that. Fade into the stacks. Be part of what people never notice.

  On schedule, Kim with her silver lip loop and a woman wearing a boring professional suit walked in to the reading room. The roommate left. Kim settled at her desk. He gave the counter-surveillance twenty more minutes, went to his office. No coffins waited outside against the yellow wall from a delivery by Jeremy: Watch for that.

  So Condor left his office door open.

  Sank into his desk chair.

  Footsteps: outside the open door in the hall, hard shoes on the concrete floor of the yellow underground tunnel. Footsteps clacking louder as they came closer, closer …

  She glides past his open door in three firm strides, strong legs and a royal blue coat. Silver-lined dyed blond hair floats on her shoulders, lush mouth, high cheekbones. Cosmic gravity pulls his bones and then she’s gone, her click click click of high heels turning the basement corner, maybe to the elevator and out for mid-morning coffee.

  Don’t write some random wondrous woman into your story.

  Don’t be a stalker.

  But he wasn’t, wouldn’t, he only looked, ached to look more, had no time to think about her, about how maybe her name was Lulu, how maybe she wore musk—

  Almonds.

  Up from behind his desk, out the lock-it door and gone, up the stairs two at a time, past the guards on the door to outside, in the street, dialing that number with the CIA cell phone. A neutral voice answered, waltzed Condor to the hang-up. He made it into his blue townhouse, stared at his closed turquoise door for nineteen minutes until that soft knock.

  Opened his door to three bullet-eyed jacket men.

  Emma showed up an hour later, dismissed them.

  Sat on a chair across from where Condor slumped on the couch.

  Said: “What did you do?”

  “I called the cops,” answered the silver-haired man who was her responsibility.

  “Your old CIA Panic Line number. Because you say you found C4 plastic explosives. But you don’t know where. You just smelled it, the almond smell.”

  “In the Library of Congress.”

  “That’s a lot of where. And C4’s not as popular as it used to be.”

  “Still works. Big time boom. Hell of a kill zone.”

  “If you know how to get it or make it and what you’re doing.”

  “You ever hear of this thing called the Internet?”

  She threw him a change-up: “Tell me about the dirty books.”

  “You know everything I know because I told those jacket men, they told you. Sounds crazy, right? And since I’m crazy, that’s just about right. Or am I wrong?”

  Emma watched his face.

  “They aren’t going to do anything, are they? CIA. Homeland Security.”

  “Oh, they’re going to do something,” said Emma. “No more Level Five, they’re going to monitor you Level Three. Increase your surprise random home visits. Watch me watching you in case I mess up and go soft and don’t recommend a Recommit in time to avoid any embarrassments.”

  “How did you keep them from taking me away now?”

  “I told them you might have imbibed early and contra-indicated with your meds.”

  “Imbibed?”

  “Tomorrow’s St. Patrick’s day.” She shook her head. “I believe you believe. But you’re trying to be who you were then. And that guy’s gone into who you are now.”

  “Vin,” he said. “Not Condor.”

  “Both, but in the right perspective.”

  “Ah,” said Condor. “Perspective.”

  “What’s yours? You’ve been free for a while now. How is it out here?”

  “Full of answers and afraid of questions.”

  She softened. “How are the hallucinations?”

  “They don’t interfere with—”

  “— with you functioning in the real world?”

  “The real world.” He smiled
. “I’ll watch for it. What about Kim’s stalker?”

  “If there’s a stalker, you’re right. She should call the cops.”

  “Yeah. Just like I did. That’ll solve everything.”

  “This is what we got,” said Emma.

  “One more thing we got,” said Vin. “At work, I can’t take it, packing coffins.”

  “Is it your back?” said Emma. “Do you need—”

  “I need more carts to go to Preserve. I need to be able to save more books.”

  Emma probed. Therapist. Monitor. Maybe friend. “Those aren’t just books to you. The ones at work. The novels.”

  Condor shrugged. “Short stories, too.”

  “They’re things going to the end they would go to without you. You act like you’re a Nazi working a book-burning bonfire. You’re not. Why do you care so much?”

  “We sell our souls to the stories we know,” said Condor. “The more kinds of stories, the bigger we are. The better or truer or cooler the story …”

  His shrug played out the logic in her skull.

  “I’ll see what I can do,” said Emma. “About the cart.”

  “Carts,” corrected Condor.

  “Only if we’re lucky.”

  She walked out of his rented house.

  Left him sitting there.

  Alone.

  Sometimes you gotta do what you do just to be you.

  Next morning, he dressed for war.

  Black shoes good for running. Loose black jeans not likely to bind a kick. His Oxford blue shirt might rip if grabbed. He ditched the dust master’s sports coat for the black leather zip-up jacket he bought back when an ex-CIA cocaine cowboy shot him in Kentucky. The black leather jacket let him move, plus it gave the illusion of protection from a slashing knife or exploding bomb.

  Besides, he thought when he saw his rock-and-roll reflection walking in the glass of the Adams building door, if I’m going down, I’m going down looking like me.

  Seven pine wood crates waited stacked against the yellow wall outside his cave.

  Condor caressed the coffins like a vampire. Inhaled their essence. Lifted their lids to reveal their big box of empty: smooth walls, carpentered bottoms of reinforcing slats making a bed of rectangular grooves for books to lay on and die. His face hoovered each of those seven empty coffins, but only in one caught a whiff of almonds.

  He tore through his office. The computer said nine coffins waited outside against his wall. Desk drawers: still empty, no weapons. The DOSP’s fountain pen filled his eyes. Use what you got. He stuck the pen in his black leather jacket.

 
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