Gus waved the fob before the lock and held his breath. But it worked; with a beep, the red light flashed a welcoming green and the door sighed open. They stepped inside. The air within was slightly chill, and they felt compelled to talk in low voices. As they passed the packed bookcases, it appeared to Gus that this font must be devoted to regional history. They passed irreplaceable colonial documents, maps, and letters from missionaries, territorial land settlements, reports from the Indian Wars to secret projects during the Second World War.
He was startled by a few titles. In one notable, sinister-looking locked glass case full of documents and bloody artwork of the local sect of Penitentes, there was a large black-leather book. He read aloud the gold letters down its spine: “Codex de Arcanorum Diaboli – good grief, they have everything here but the Necronomicon,” Gus muttered.
Mithers gestured at another font opposite where strange, foreboding forms and disturbing shapes could be discerned poking around velvet drapes. “I imagine it must be there.”
“What is this place, anyway? What are you doing here?” Gus wondered aloud.
“This, my lad, is one of the world’s memory holes, or where they keep the good stuff stashed. Either way, the Studiorum is the ultimate ivory tower, an unmatched storehouse of forbidden and rejected knowledge. Truths too disturbing for the masses but too important to the elite to be totally forgotten are filed away here. As for what we’re doing, who knows? They feed us crumbs. We’re given slivers of topics, and we know not for whom we labor nor why. That’s why they pass notes; it’s the only way to discover anything.” He sighed.
“I’ve tried meeting the people behind this, attended several of those ‘Donors Dinners.’ But they’re just fund-raising exercises: they question us, not the other way around.”
He waved his hand. “Look at this fascinating material – how else could you get your hands on something truly interesting?” He plucked a volume at random from a shelf. “Imagine trying to seriously study or publish on, say, this one here, ‘South American Giants: A Guide to the Restricted Collections, Volume 3,’ no less, in today’s scholarly environment.”
Mithers reshelved the book, and Gus looked at it with yearning.
“Laughed off the lectern,” he sighed. “God, Doc must’ve dreamed about this place.”
“The Atlantean collection would have driven him crazy, then. Just a tiny sample of it here, of course, but they rotate artifacts. Now you see why an intellectual rogue like your father had to be forbidden access, for silence is the heavy price we pay. It is by far the hardest part.
“Otherwise, once you get used to the rules and pass probation, it’s not too bad here.” Mithers said as they continued forward. “It’s so much easier now I’m finally off the graveyard shift. And they recently let us use paper instead of writing on those god-awful tablets.”
“Sounds like a step backwards. How’s that an improvement?”
“Oh, not new-fangled electric gadgets,” Mithers snorted. “These were the original kind, ones made from slate. They switched because of the chalk dust we left on the books, despite gloves. The sheets are numbered, signed, and collected every day, though.”
They came to a bookcase marked “MACLANTIS” and Gus halted, mouth open. “My God, there’s Holy Tub, Holy Pail – and my book.” His tourist guide was tucked in neatly beside the old best seller, followed by a row of more recent booklets. He quickly flipped through one. “Holy crap, they’ve been spying on us! For decades.”
“Really? Is it what you were looking for?”
“No, I’m just surprised.” Gus tore himself away from the shelf.
“It’s not here!” Gus exclaimed in despair after looking around. “Did I memorize the wrong number? This is where it should be, here on this shelf.”
“Just what is it you’re looking for, anyway?”
“Oh, merely the most valuable thing here, the founding first document of this place. Why didn’t you say so? It’s on display at the front. We passed when we came in.”
At the front, a row of bookstands stood facing the glass with open volumes. “They put some of the more intriguing works here and occasionally turn a page,” Mithers said. “I think just to tease us. But several fellows have been taking notes on Beauregarde during breaks for a couple of years now.”
Gus broke into a smile. “Here we are!” At the base of one of the stands was a manuscript box labeled with the proper accession number.
He turned the stand around. It held a brownish hand-written manuscript, tattered, and very old. Each sheet was encased in a clear plastic sleeve framed in white. On the first page, “Betrayers of the Red Cap”, was lettered in bold swirls, underneath, “M. Jean-Baptiste Beauregarde.”
He grinned. “Paydirt, as Doc used to say.”
His mentor was already examining another tome. Gus shook his shoulder. “Sorry, Doctor Mithers, I found what I came for. I’m leaving.”
“Good idea, MacLantis,” the scholar emeritus said, decisively closing the book and reluctantly setting it down. “Yes, it wouldn’t do to be caught with our hands in the cookie jar. Let’s go. Say, you’re not taking that, are you?”
“Just to make a copy,” Gus assured him. “I’m borrowing, not stealing. I promise, the original won’t leave the building.”
“Wait; nothing can be withdrawn from the Permanent Reserve!”
Gus’ pocket buzzed.
“You brought in a phone?” Mithers marveled.
By now curious greybeards surrounded the glass portal, tapping anxiously. Gus swung the door of the font open and stepped aside. “Merry Christmas, ladies and gentlemen! Party’s in here!” he said magnanimously. They eagerly crowded in as he slipped out.
As planned, Skip stationed himself far below on the first floor. He hid near the front office behind some reference shelves. A few moments earlier, he’d noticed a thin grey wisp of a woman march out in a crisp modern navy blue nun’s frock, heels sharply clicking.
“Ah, esteemed friend, at last,” she said in a sharp, thin voice. “Se�or Rodriguez, how delightful to see you again. How’s Count Roland?”
“Sister Bailey, I’m so pleased to see you, too,” a man in a black suit greeted her, doffing his fedora to kiss her hand. “His Excellency is well and in good spirits, although of course, saddened the he could not attend in person this year,” he said in with a Castilian lisp. “Do we have time to talk before the dinner? Is the report completed?”
“Yes,” she replied, “we pushed to have it finished before tonight’s festivities. Our team of top researchers reviewed the latest MacLantis material as you requested –”
She closed the door for only a moment, for a squat woman plodded quickly from the elevator, rapped sharply, and flung it open without waiting for permission. Behind her a group of scholars in black robes milled, whispering among themselves.
“Ma’am, he’s here –” she began.
“Sister Gertrude, please, I’m in an important meeting concerning the MacLantis matter,” Bailey snapped, but the other overrode her. Skip quickly dialed his phone.
“I’m sorry ma’am, but that’s just it, sister. Professor MacLantis is here now, upstairs, wearing a beard, believe it or not. I’m sure of it.”
“Oh, dear Lord, no. You left him there? In the Studiorum?”
“Ma’am, I had to: the proctors are at the staff party. I left the chief senior watching him.” Skip ducked behind shelves. “You fool. Call security!” the old lady barked. “Now!”