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Condor in the stacks, p.4
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       Condor in the Stacks, p.4

           James Grady
 
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  Two women working a table outside the Adams building reading room spotted a silver-haired man coming their way. They wore green sweaters. The younger one’s left cheek sported a painted-on green shamrock. She smiled herself into Condor’s path.

  “Happy St. Patrick’s Day! You need some holiday green. Want to donate a dollar to the Library and get a shamrock tattoo? Good luck and keeps you from getting pinched. How about one on your hand? Unless you want to go wild. Cheek or—”

  The silver-haired stranger pressed his trigger finger to the middle of his forehead.

  “Oh, cool! Like a third eye!”

  “Or a bullet hole.”

  Her smile wilted.

  He stalked into the reading room. Clerks behind the counter. Scholars at research desks. There, at her usual place, sat Kim.

  She kept her cool. Kept her eyes on an old book. Kept her cell phone visible on her desk, an easy grab and a no contact necessary signal. He kept a casual distance between where he walked and where she sat, headed to the bottom of a spiral staircase.

  Playing the old man let him take his time climbing those silver steel steps, a spiraling ascent that turned him through circles to the sky. His first curve toward the reading room let him surveil the head tops of strangers, any of whom could be the oppo. The stairs curved him toward the rear wall that disappeared into a black and white Alabama night where a six-year-old girl in a small town street turns to look back at her family home as a voice calls “Scout.” Condor’s steel stairs path to the sky curved …

  Fran.

  Standing on the far side of the reading room. Condor felt the crush of her fingers gripping the push handle of a blue smock covered cart. Saw her burning face.

  As she raged across the room at silver lip-ringed Kim.

  You know crazy when you see it. When crazy keeps being where crazy happened.

  Obsession. Call it lust that Fran dared not name. Call it fearful loathing of all that. Call it outrage at Kim’s silver lip loop and how Kim represented an effrontery to The Way Things Are Supposed to Be. Call it envy or anger because that damn still young woman with soft curves Fran would never be asked to touch got to do things Fran never did. Or could. Or would. Got to feel things, have things, be things. Lust, envy, hate: complications beyond calculation fused into raging obsession and made Fran not a twittering brown bird, made her a jackal drooling for flesh and blood.

  For Kim.

  Kim sat at her desk between where Fran seethed and where Condor stood on spiral silver stairs to the sky. Kim turned a page in her book.

  Fran’s eyes flicked from her obsession—spotted Vin. Saw him see the real her. Snarled, whirled the cart around and drove hard toward the reading room’s main doors.

  Cut her off! You got nothing! She’s got a knife!

  Condor clattered down the spiral steel stairs, hurried across the reading room. He had no proof. No justifiable right to scream “HALT!” or call the cops—and any cops would trigger jacket men to snatch him away to the secret Maine hospital’s padded cell or to that suburban Virginia crematorium where no honest soul would see or smell his smoke swirling away into the night sky.

  He caught his breath at Kim’s desk: “’Not a mustache, a her!”

  Kim looked to the main door where he’d pointed, but all she saw beyond Vin charging there was the shape of someone pushing a cart into the elevator.

  Vin ran to the elevator, saw its glowing arrow:

  ↓

  Over there, race down those stairs, hit the basement level—

  He heard rolling wheels from around that corner.

  Rammed at Condor came the blue smocked cart.

  That he caught with both hands—pulled more. Jerked Fran off balance. Pushed the book cart harder than he’d ever pushed the blocking sled in high school football. Slammed her spine against a yellow cinderblock wall. Pinned her there: Stalker had a knife and a woman like Fran with knife-tipped shoes once almost killed James Bond.

  Condor yelled: “Why Kim?”

  “She doesn’t get to be her! Me, should be her, have her, stop her!”

  The fought-over cart shook between them. Its covering blue smock slid off.

  Books tumbled off the cart. Books summoned from heartland libraries to our biggest cultural repository where they disappeared on official business. Condor registered a dozen versions of the same title banned in high schools across America because.

  “You filled the coffins! Tricked libraries all over the country into sending their copies of certain titles here to the mothership of libraries! You murdered those books!” Condor twisted the cart to keep Fran rammed against the wall. “You’re a purger, too!”

  “Books put filth in people’s heads! Ideas!”

  “Our heads can have any ideas they want!”

  “Not in my world!” Fran twisted and leveraged the cart up and out from under Condor’s push. The cart crashed on its side. He flopped off his feet, fell over it.

  Wild punches hit him and he whirled to his feet, knocked her away.

  Yelled: “Where are the coffins?! Where’s the C4?!”

  “I see you!” She yelled as the book she threw hit his nose.

  Pain flash! He sensed her kick, closed his thighs but her shoe still slammed his groin. He staggered, hit the stone wall, hands snapping up to thwart her attack—

  That didn’t come.

  Gone. Jackal Fran was gone, running down the basement tunnel.

  Cell phone, pull out your cell phone.

  “Kim!” he gasped to the woman who answered his call. “Watch out, woman my age Fran and she’s not a brown bird, she’s the jackal after you!

  “Don’t talk! Reading room, right? Stay in plain sight but get to the check-out counter … Yes … The library computer … Search employee data base—No, not Fran anybody, search for Jeremy somebody!”

  A ghost of Fran whispered: “I used to have your job working with him.”

  Over the phone came intel: an office/shop door number, some castle hole.

  The DOSP’s pen tattooed that number on the back of his left hand.

  He hung up and staggered through the underground tunnel.

  Scan the numbers on the closed doors, looking for numbers with an SB prefix whatever that—Sub-basement! Like my office! One more level down.

  At a stairwell, he flipped open his ancient phone and dialed another number: “Rich it’s Vin, you gotta go help somebody right now! Protect her. Tell her I sent you. In Adams Reading Room, named Kim, silver lip loop … I thought you’d noticed her! And that’s all right, you just … OK, but when you couldn’t find the right words you walked on, right? Go now! … Don’t worry, nobody knows everything. Play it with what you’ve got.”

  He jogged through yellow tunnels like he was a rat running a maze, I’m too old for this, staggering to a closed brown metal door, its top half fogged glass.

  Condor caught his breath outside that door. The door handle wouldn’t turn. He saw a doorbell, trigger-fingered its button, heard it buzz.

  The click of a magnetic lock. The door swings open.

  Come on in.

  Jeremy stands ten steps into this underground lair beside a workbench and holding a remote control wand. The door slams shut behind Condor.

  “What do you want?” said a caretaker of this government castle.

  Caretaker, like in the novel Fran tried to murder, some story about sex and an insane asylum and who was crazy. Stick to what’s sane. Condor said: “The coffins.”

  “They’re here already?”

  Scan the workshop: no sign of the two missing coffins. A refrigerator. Wall sink. Trash tub of empty plastic water bottles. The back of an open laptop faced Condor from the workbench where the tech wizard of this cave stood. Jeremy tossed the remote control beside an iPhone cabled to the laptop.

  “Oh,” said Jeremy. “You meant the crates for the books.”

  He took a step closer. “Why do you care?”

  “There’s something you don’t know you kno
w.”

  “I know enough.”

  Off to Jeremy’s left waited the clear plastic roller tub holding half a dozen cell phones and its color printer sign proclaiming OLD TELEPHONES FOR CHARITY!

  One heartbeat. Two.

  “I didn’t know you were the one collecting charity phones.”

  “What do you know?” Jeremy eased another step closer.

  Sometimes crazy is the way to go.

  Jeremy’s blue eyes narrowed, his hands were fists.

  Feel the vibe. See the movie.

  Sunny blue sky behind the white dome of the U.S. Capitol. Across the street rises a castle with a green metal top and giant gray concrete walls of columns and grand staircases, windows behind which people work, a fountain out front where bronze green statues of Greek gods flirt and pose their indomitable will.

  Tremble/rumble! The Library of Congress’s Jefferson building shudders sprays out exploded concrete dust like 9/11, like Oklahoma City. Fireballs nova through castle rooms of wood panels, wood shelves, books that no one would see again. Those walls crumble to rubble. The last moment of the castle’s cohesion is a cacophony of screams.

  You’ll never make it to the door. Locked anyway. And he’s between you and its remote control on the workbench by the computer umbilical chorded to an ultra phone.

  Make it real: “You and Fran.”

  “She’s just a woman,” said Jeremy. “More useful than a donkey, not as trainable. Like, deluded. Like all women in this Babylon where they don’t know their place.”

  “Oh, I like all the places they will go,” said Condor, quoting the book he’d heard read a million billion times to a frightened child traveling beside his mother on a bus through a dark Texas night. “Where’d Fran take those two coffins—crates that you and her use to smuggle in C4?”

  “Somewhere for her stupid crusade.”

  For her stupid crusade. Not our.

  A lot of roads run through Crazytown.

  Jeremy took a step closer.

  Condor flowed to walk a martial arts Bagua circle around him.

  Almonds, a strong whiff in the air of what had been stockpiled down here.

  “She even bribed you,” guessed Condor as Jeremy turned to keep the silver-haired man from circling behind him.

  “She funded the will of God.”

  “Fran thought the only God she was funding was hers. Didn’t know about yours.”

  “My God is the only God.”

  “That’s what all you people say.”

  Why is there a floppy flat empty red rubber water bottle on the floor?

  Condor feinted. Jeremy flinched: he’s a puncher, maybe from a shopping mall dojo or hours watching YouTubes of Jihad stars showing their wannabe homegrown brothers out there the throat-cutting ways of Holy warriors.

  “Slats!” said Condor. “On the inside bottom of the crates. Reinforcing slats, they make a narrow trough. Somewhere outside, after you dump the books, you mold C4 into those slats—cream color, looks like glue on the wood if the guard outside checks. Odds are the guard won’t check all the crates every time, you only use two, and even if somebody checks, nobody notices.

  “Fran paid you to cut her out a couple crates before you delivered them. That gave you time with the crates in here to peel out what you hid, pass them on to her, she gives them back full of what you don’t care about to fold back into the coffin count.”

  “Way to go, cowboy.” Jeremy had that flat accent born in Ohio near the river. “You get to witness the destruction of the Great Satan’s temple of heretical thought.”

  “Wow, did they email you a script?”

  “You think I’d be so careless as to let the NSA catch me contacting my true brothers in the Middle East before I proved myself—”

  Lunge, Jeremy lunged and Condor whirled left—whirled right—snake-struck in a three-beat Hsing-i counter-charge to—

  Pepper spray burned Condor’s face.

  Breathe can’t breathe eyes on fire!

  The Holy warrior slammed his other fist into the silver-haired man’s guts.

  Condor was already gasping for air and flooding tears because of pepper spray. The barbell muscled punch buckled and bent him over, knocked him toward the workbench, teetering, stumbling—crashing to the floor.

  Get up! Get up! Get to your knees—

  The blue-eyed fanatic slapped Vin, a blow more for disrespect than destruction.

  Condor saw himself flopping in slow motion. Kneeling gasping on the hard floor. His arms waving at his sides couldn’t fly him away or fight his killer.

  White cable connects the laptop to iPhone: Jeremy rips that chord free.

  Whips its garrote around the kneeling man’s neck.

  Gurgling clawing at the chord cutting off blood to brain air to lungs, pepper-sprayed eyes blurring, a roar, a whooshing in his ears, can’t—

  BZZZZ!

  That doorbell buzz startles the strangler, loosens his pull.

  Blood rush to the brain, air!

  BZZZZ!

  Strangler jerks his garrote tight.

  GLASS RATTLES as someone outside bangs on that door.

  Can’t scream gagging here in here help me in here get in here!

  Jeremy spun Condor around and slammed him chest-first into the workbench.

  Hands, your hands on the workbench, claw at—

  Seven seconds before blackout, he saw.

  The remote for the door. Wobbling on the workbench. Flop reach grab—

  The jihad warrior whirled the gurgling apostate away from the high tech gear.

  Thumb the remote.

  The door buzzes—springs open.

  Fran.

  Screaming charging rushing IN!

  Jeremy knees Condor, throws him to the floor and the garrote—

  The garrote goes loose around Condor’s neck but won’t unwrap itself from the strangler’s hands, holds his arms trapped low.

  “Stop it!” Fran screams at the treasonous pawn who’s trying to steal her destiny. “He’s mine to kill!”

  Down from heaven stabs her gray metal spring-blade knife confiscated from a tourist, salvaged from storage by an LOC staffer who could steal any of the castles’ keys.

  Fran drove her stolen blade into Jeremy’s throat.

  Gasping grabbing his hands to his neck/what sticks out of there.

  Wide eyed, his hands grab GOT HER weakness percolates up from his feet by the prone Vin, up Jeremy’s legs, he’s falling holding on to Fran, death grips her blouse that rips open as the force of his pull multiplied by his fall jerks her forward—

  Fran trips over sprawled Condor.

  Swan dives through the air over the crumpling man she stabbed.

  Crashes cracks her skull on the workbench’s sharp corner.

  Spasms falls flat across the man she stabbed whose body pins Condor to the floor.

  Silence. Silence.

  Crawl out from under the dead.

  Hands, elbows and knees pushing on the concrete floor, straining, pulling …

  Free. Alive. Face down on the floor, gasping scents of cement and dust, sweat and the warm ham and cabbage smell of savaged flesh. A whiff of almonds.

  Jackhammer in his chest:

  No heart attack, not after all this. Come on: a little justice.

  Condor flopped over onto his back.

  Saw only the castle’s flat ceiling.

  Propped himself up on his elbows. Sat. Dizzy. Sore from punches, getting kneed, strangled. Pepper-spray, tears, floor dirt, sweat: his face was caked. Must look like hell.

  Nobody will let you walk away from this.

  Almonds, C4: where’s the C4?

  The workbench, the laptop, glowing screen full of …

  A floor plan. The LOC jewel, the main castle Jefferson Building.

  A pop-ad flashed over the map, a smiling salesman above a flow of words:

  “CONGRATULATIONS ON YOUR NEW CELL PHONE BASIC BUSINESS PLAN. NOW CONSIDER MOVING BEYOND MERE NETWORKED TELECONFERE
NCING TO—”

  The white computer chord garrote lay on the floor like a dead snake.

  A snake that once connected the laptop computer to an iPhone.

  An iPhone capable of activating all cell phones on its conferenced network.

  A for charity tub that gobbles up donated old cell phones from our better souls.

  The iPhone screen glowed with the LOC castle map and its user-entered red dots.

  Dizzy: he staggered toward the wall sink, splashed water on his face, empty plastic water bottles in a tub right by that weird red rubber bag that doesn’t belong here.

  Vision: Jeremy smiling his Ohio smile, walking through the metal detectors with the baggy crotch of his pants hiding a red rubber bottle full of goo that’s not water.

  Grab the roller tub for donated cell phones. Close the laptop, put it in the tub beside the iPhone. The phone glowed the map of the castle.

  The crisscrossed corpses on the floor kept still.

  How long before anyone finds you?

  Thumb the remote, the door swings open. Push the plastic tub on wheels into the hall. Condor pulled his blue shirt out of his waistband, used it to polish his fingerprints off the remote, then toss it back through the closing door into the basement shop, plastic skidding along the concrete floor to where the dead lay.

  Go!

  Race the rumbling plastic tub on wheels through the tunnels of the Adams building to the main castle of Jefferson, down into its bowels and follow the map on the iPhone screen to a mammoth water pipe. Gray duct taped on the inflow water pipe’s far side: a cellphone wired as a detonator into a tan book-sized gob of goo.

  Boom and no water for automatic sprinklers to fight fire.

  Boom and water floods an American castle.

  Pull the wires out of the gob of C4. Pull them from the phone. Pull the phone’s battery. Toss the dead electronics into the tub.

  What do you do with a handful of C4?

  A shot bullet won’t set it off. And C4 burns. Only electricity makes it go Boom!

  Squeeze the C4 into a goo ball, shove it into your black jacket’s pocket.

  Condor charged the plastic tub on wheels to the next map number on the iPhone: bomb against a concrete weight-bearing wall. The iPhone led him to three more bombs. Each time he ripped away the electronics and squeezed the goo into a shape he could hide in his jacket pockets, and when they were full, he stuffed C4 goo inside his underpants.

 
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