Finding himself in a large room liked with hanging robes, Gus circled the walls away from the elevator. He paused behind boxes to check the layout. Putting on a plain blue academic robe from a rack along with a mortarboard, he spotted a row of lockers against the wall. He was in luck: a fold of red fabric stuck in the door of one provided easy access.
As he tucked the key fob beneath the blue robe, he noticed a long list of rules hanging from the door. Looking them over, he took white cotton gloves from a nearby box. Then with a deep breath, Gus entered the unknown.
He found himself in an elegant, high-ceilinged, immaculately-carpeted lobby, much different from the basement. Instead of musty metal shelves and carts heaped high with books there stood several polished mahogany tables. Indirect lighting around the edges evenly illuminated the wood paneled walls. The overall effect of monastic austerity and tradition extended even to the muted ornaments on the Christmas tree in the far corner of the room.
Before the professor, above a massive locked double wooden door hung the logo of the Studiorum Scholasticum, the initial letters S replaced by the linked double spirals. Not knowing what to do, he knocked. Someone peered through the carved gargoyle in the center of the door, and the door opened with a hiss of escaping air.
A squat woman in red glared at him with narrowed eyes. “Yes?” she said. He noticed her nametag: “G. KOOMS, Supervisor.”
Gus’ heart sank; he hadn’t waited quite long enough.
“Ah, Sister Kooms, sorry to disturb you. I need to check something right away.”
“Now? Before the Donors Dinner? Most unusual, the proctors have already left.” She began to push the door closed.
Gus stuck his foot in the gap. “This can’t wait, ma’am. Sorry, but my employer is considering increasing his endowment. He asked me to check certain of your needs.”
She paused, so Gus pushed forward. “I need to see the catalog.” He presented the Count’s card. “I was told this would be sufficient.”
He held his breath as she examined the card, flipping it to squint at his scrawl of the symbol from the sign. Giving him a peculiar look, she opened the door wider.
“There’s always one,” she muttered. “Very well, but be quick; you have until the juniors’ party starts. This way.” She turned and waddled into the Studiorum.
Gus found himself in an octagonal room around which were set seven separate archival fonts, enclosed and separated by ceiling-high glass walls. Within the central space were several rows of polished oak tables with high wooden dividers between each seat and individual reading lights. Many of the cubicles were occupied by hunched scholars in black, scribbling on pads.
She pointed to a stall on the end row near the door. “Here is where you’ll sit.”
Handing him a clipboard with an attached pencil, she said, “These are the materials you can use while here.”
“Okay,” Gus said, confused. “Where’s the index? Is there a copier?”
Her eyes widened, and Gus sensed work stopped as everybody else listened. “Haven’t you read the manual?” she hissed. “There’s no photocopier on this floor, nor are you visiting scholars,” she spat the words, “or juniors allowed to search the index on your own. Can you not read the sign: ‘SENIOR STAFF ONLY’?”
Sure enough, the card catalog at the other end bore a prominent brass plate.
“But if the proctors–”
She snapped her fingers, “Mithers, here, at once, please!”
“Yes, ma’am, what can I do for you?” A spry old man in a gown with gold piping and a tassel hurried over. “This person needs to consult the index. Please help him with the card catalog but keep an eye on him.
“And on the rest, too,” she demanded. “Collect the juniors’ work before the party. The donors might want to visit later, so don’t leave a mess. I’ll be back later to check.”
She turned, strode to a podium, and rang the bell sitting there. “Seniors, it’s time. Turn in your work; I will collect it now.”
One by one, elderly academics with gold piping and tassels on their black academic gowns, submissively queued to present their pads, sign out, and exit without conversation.
With a final glare, Sister Kooms flounced out of the glass chamber. As soon as the door to the Robing Room closed behind her, a bearded old man scuttled over, and looked through the peephole. The atmosphere became instantly more relaxed. Around Gus there was a sudden hubbub as notes and whispers were exchanged among the remaining intellectuals, a few of whom regarded him like a suspect of an unknown crime.
Gus glanced around. Surrounding the chamber were seven other locked, giant climate-controlled clear boxes. These were the fonts, chambers containing the precious archives of the Permanent Reserve divided into separate collections and filed into stately bookcases. Their dark wooden shelves held a wide variety of yellowed volumes and folios; a few with map drawers and globes, others in lawyers’ glass-fronted bookcases or hidden within massive cabinets.
“What can I get for you? Quickly, we don’t have much time.” Gus turned. Frowning at him was an older man with a thin silver ponytail hanging next to his tassel.
“Doctor Mithers!” Gus exclaimed. “It’s me, Gus MacLantis. I thought you retired.”
“Gus!” The old man stepped forward for a better look. “I’ll be – what are you doing with the beard? Why are you here? You didn’t have tenure last I knew.”
“No, and I probably won’t ever get it after this.” Gus lifted the fake whiskers. “I’m here to research a question involved with my father’s death.”
“Sorry to hear that,” Mithers said, shaking his head. “A publicity-hound like him would never be admitted, but you might have stood a much better chance, once you proved your discretion. Which you have just ruined in rather spectacular fashion.”
“Too late to worry now. I need to find a book before the Supervisor returns. I’m not sure where it is. Can you help?”
“How?” His former mentor asked. “I’m not allowed inside, either.”
Gus smiled and pulled out the electronic fob dangling around his neck.
The professor emeritus broke into a grin. “Oh ho! Do you know which font it’s in?”
“Number Four, I believe; the Beauregarde collection.”
Mithers whistled softly. “The crown jewels? You’re nothing if not ambitious, MacLantis. This way.”
Others watched whispering as they neared the thick glass wall of the font marked “IV”.
“Here we are. Secretly, I’ve always wanted to get inside one of these,” Mithers said, chuckling.