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III. SECRETS OF THE IVORY TOWER


Chapter 4

Friday, 17 December 2004

From across campus, the oldest part of the Library called “the stacks” rose like a pale watchtower in the thin light of the quarter Moon. Few lights glowed yet except the uppermost floor of the tall square tower. Those shone both day and night, rarely noticeable save when the whole university went dark as it would again soon during Christmas break. Like a presence light in a church, the topmost floor, the Eleventh Stack, the Permanent Reserve of the Studiorum Scholasticum, stayed lit no matter what, as if honoring the mysterious treasures within.

They left Allie waiting in the car, not objecting for once. “I’m telling you; it’d be a piece of cake rappelling from the roof,” Skip said as they crossed the broad plaza.

“Maybe for you,” his brother replied. “Funny, I always thought you were off climbing mountains somewhere. I never realized you were actually a cat burglar.”

“It just looks easy, that’s all. By the way, you look ridiculous.”

“The windows may be barred. But you can’t risk it in any case; it’s too exposed. And don’t knock my cunning disguise; Allie did a terrific job,” he said, stroking his long white beard. “But don’t worry. I’ve enlisted help, and I do have a fiendishly clever plan,” he boasted. “One that depends on precise timing, and tonight’s our only chance. But don’t worry. It should all go well, assuming well, assuming I’ve identified the proper book, that is.”

“‘If’?” Skip asked in sudden alarm. “What ‘if?’”

“No ‘if,’ I’m sure. Kidding!” Clapping him on the back, Gus smiled with forced confidence. By now, they’d crossed the central square and arrived at the last place on campus open this late. With the few hours left, the campus was almost deserted.

The school would be closed Christmas Week and New Year’s. The University’s main library was one of the few place still remaining open until final exams were over. Already both sanctioned and unofficial parties were starting across campus.

As they entered the large, airy lobby, steps echoing in the emptiness, Gus bent over and slowed. But the few students still around didn’t glance in their direction.

Skip paused by the Christmas tree, squinting up at the grand central staircase and the four-storey-high wall behind it. The wall looked like a high stony cliff covered with graffiti: a heroic mural titled “The Ascent of Writing.” Words from various alphabets through the ages were carved or painted on rocky extrusions and in niches up to the top. An irresistible rite of passage to undergraduate free climbers, he’d scaled it in more than one inebriated late-night expedition.

“Hey,” Gus said, “don’t get too excited, Monkey-boy. Remember, that’s a last resort, if we need a big distraction and if you’re sure you can get away with it.”

“Just trying to recall the route. It’s been a while,” Skip said, following him.

Downstairs past hieroglyphics they went. By the time they reached the earliest crude pictograms and patterns, they found themselves in a sub-basement, the musty home of long-forgotten microfilmed newspapers and acres of unread moldering government publications.

“Time to meet our accomplice,” Gus explained. “You guys will get along great.”

Gus tapped on a wooden door through which heavy metal music throbbed. It opened a crack, then the rest of the way. A pale, somewhat chubby young man with a thin black goatee and thick ponytail peered out. He swallowed hard and wiped his face with the back of his hand. The rock music was low but pounded like a frenetic heartbeat. In the sudden quiet after he shut it off, whispers seemed appropriate.

“Orale, Professor MacLantis?” he asked, looking at them with suspicion. “What’s with the Santa Claus beard? You going to a party?”

“Ho ho ho, Reuben,” Gus asked. “It’s me; I just figured I should blend in.”

“He’s thinks it’s a cunning disguise,” Skip said straight-faced.

The younger man smiled in relief. “I’m glad you got here; I was beginning to wonder, ese. You cut it close. Come in.” He smeared his hand across his T-shirt which read “Pothunters Dig It” and thrust it forward. A mischievous grin played on his face.

“Everything set? Are we alone?”

“Aside from this guy. Who is this vato?” Reuben looked narrowly at Skip.

“I’m his brother Skip.” “Yeah, my older brother. Skip, this is Reuben Rael Sanchez de Morino, a friend. He’s not just a librarian but also a grad student in history, and member of one of the oldest Hispanic families in the state.”

“Andalusian, to be precise. Sorry I didn’t recognize you, Mr. MacLantis. I imagine you probably don’t recall me from the party or the funeral. It’s Charles, isn’t it?” Reuben grasped Skip’s hand with enthusiasm.

“Yeah, but I usually go by Skip.”

“Of course. Come in.” Reuben stepped back, admitting them to a small cluttered room. Closing the door, he explained. “Here’s the deal: tonight’s the big night: the Annual Donors Dinner. Most bigwigs, the senior members, should be leaving for it any time now.

“The proctors, who will be busy during the break shelving new material, will also be off at their Christmas party. The remaining juniors will hold their own in the lobby. So now’s the best time to try this.” Reuben led them through another door and a maze of bookshelves to the tower’s base. Next to the old gated elevator was a steel hatch for a large dumbwaiter.

Though the place appeared deserted, Reuben looked anxiously at each noise. His keys rattled enough to echo as he unlocked the metal door. “Okay, as you know, Professor MacLantis, the regular elevator requires a key to get into the Eleventh Stack,” he whispered. “But like I said, this book lift goes there too – and that door’s not locked.

“It’s pretty cramped and can’t stop along the way, so I hope you’re not claustrophobic, Professor. Don’t worry, though, it will carry your weight – we’ve sent up a bunch of heavy crates this week with no problem.” He nodded at Skip. “What about him?”

“Not to worry,” Gus said. “Skip’s here to serve as my lookout.”

Reuben looked disappointed, but said nothing. “Hey, you’ve done enough,” Gus said. “I don’t want you to risk any more. But, thanks dude, I appreciate this.” Gus dug in a pocket and handed him a wad of folded bills.

“Grac´┐Żas, but be careful.” Reuben crammed the cash into a pocket. “Now you’ll find yourself in what they call the ‘Robing Room.’ Both elevators go there. Wait until it’s empty – there should be a stack of boxes you can hide behind if somebody comes in. Take a blue robe: that’s what visitors wear.” He checked his watch. “The proctors should leave their electronic passkeys in their robes, which are red. However, they’ll be in lockers, so good luck.”

“Hope your safe-cracking skills from high school are intact,” Skip said.

“You’ll have to hurry before the Dinner’s finished. Now, what lies beyond the Robing Room, I don’t know; never gotten any further,” he continued. “But not all the old guys go to the dinner, so stick to your cover story,” he said, opening the panel, hinges screeching. He grinned. “Buena suerte, I can’t wait to hear what you find there.”

Reuben clasped his arm. “‘I plunge into Hell to find the key to Heaven,’” he quoted with a big grin. “That’s from Don Yago, you know.”

“Ah, yes, of course.” It was an awkward fit but Gus climbed in. He halted, a thought having struck him. “Wait – are there cameras?”

“There’s just one in the Robing Room I’ve seen, pointed at the passenger elevator door, so avoid that if you can. Within the Studiorum itself, who knows?”

“Do try not to blow it,” Skip added, as if helpful. “Pretend it’s a prank if you do.”

“Best not get caught, compadre,” Reuben said. He started to swing the door shut and hesitated. “Be careful, Prof; I’ve heard they don’t take well to intruders. It sure couldn’t help your career.”

“Yeah, I understand. I’ll be careful.” The door clicked shut with a sobering finality.

The dark metal box rose with a rumble, light flashing through the cracks as it passed each floor. But finally it jerked to a halt. Gus waited in the dark silence, the ghost stories he’d heard concerning this level flitting through his mind. After a few minutes, he opened the door a crack.

The cloakroom was deserted. He pulled out his phone.

“Skip?” he whispered. “I’m here.” Skip assured him he’d be in place soon, too.

 


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“The contrast between the humble Holy Footbath
– a plain, broken, graceless vessel that is a living fountain of grace
– and its ark of royal opulence, proudly encrusted with jewels yet of far less worth without its holy cargo, could not be more vivid.”

– Br. Eadward of York, Inventory of Imperial Treasures, 801

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