As the oldest part of the Library, the public stacks filled ten floors of the massive tower. The ceilings were claustrophobically low with narrow aisles between overflowing metal bookshelves. Cramped booths for graduate students were tucked around the edges and under the stairs. The mazes of the old fire trap provided opportunities for all kinds of mischief. With winter break looming, the tower was still busy but precious little studying went on.
As Gus figured, any cops on their tails would encounter plenty of other things to keep them busy. Twice he tip-toed around sounds of amorous passion and once the distraction saved him from discovery. A little later, he wandered into a furious crossfire of rubber darts in a tag game. Meanwhile, Skip was invited to join in by laughing partiers on another floor. He gave the cap to a drunken blonde co-ed in exchange for a sloppy kiss as he left.
The cat and mouse game continued. Gus and Skip crept along, hiding behind book carts and shelves, tiptoeing on the stairs, always aiming at a rendezvous. Just the scrape of a chair pushing back or the static crackle from a distant police radio halted them in their tracks.
Eventually, guided by whispers over their mobiles, the brothers met. Finding an isolated nook in a far corner of the biology section, they stopped to examine their prize. The flickering desk lamp showed a number of faded paper folios covered with delicate calligraphy turned brown with age, and pages of curious diagrams, few they recognized.
Behind the folder was a pile of other sheets of antique paper found in Beauregarde’s study, each encased in sturdy archival framed envelopes. They included maps of the area, correspondence in French and English, and finally a singular small piece of parchment. One side was covered with brownish cramped, barely-legible jottings.
“Look at this!” Gus nudged Skip. The other side of the scrap held a crudely-drawn circle with symbols including a tiny heart and labels in a tortuous scrawl. But Skip just shook his head. “Dude, we don’t have time now. Let’s go.”
“Not yet,” Gus said. “We dare not take any of this with us, remember? Without the copystand, we’ve no alternative but to find a xerox. Got any change?”
They soon located the floor’s antique but still functioning photocopier. Together they scarcely had enough coins for the whole job. It seemed to take forever. Gus cranked out the pages one by one, surrounded by surreal pin-ups of dead-eyed sharks and smiling barracudas, eerily reminiscent of Raimondo.
Meanwhile, Skip paced, keeping watch. Finally, Gus said, “Jeez, calm down. One would think you’d never looted a library before.”
“Who’s that Reuben guy, anyway?” Skip asked. “Talked my ear off. Oh, did you know the Sacred Basin holds the Elixirs of Life and Death? Like magically forgiving the sins of those who see it isn’t enough,” he scoffed.
“Sorry to tear you away. Reuben’s a nipterologist of the old school, a true blue tubby, but he’s proven consistently helpful,” Gus said. “Even once wrote a letter of support for me to the school paper. But now you know why I was so eager to get on with it.”
With the job done, they made it to the ground floor without further incident. Soon the pair crouched near the spot from which Skip had started. Gus peeked across the wide lobby. It seemed clear, but he spotted motion outside where police lurked. Between them and the doors, the nun and Jes�s still chatted.
Skip cursed, but Gus shushed him so he could listen. The woman said, “So he made off with the Studiorum’s foundation and greatest treasure. It would be a tragedy to lose it and a worse shame if it were lost to MacLantis. The man is worse than his father, a continuing embarrassment to this institution.”
“And you worried they didn’t appreciate you.” Skip whispered. Gus shushed him again.
“We should call the city police,” the librarian continued, “not rely on these bumbling kids. I also dislike my library being used as a playground. I’m embarrassed you witnessed these sophomoric shenanigans, Se�or Rodriguez, and I apologize.”
Jes�s dismissed her anxiety. “Merely youth’s high spirits, dear lady. As for the manuscript, the leverage this brings maybe more valuable to the Count. I’m sure he would be less concerned with damage he may do than the publicity. Of greater interest is why he would want it. In any event, Professor MacLantis is of no use to the Triple Knot rotting in custody, Sister Bailey, but perhaps, feeling like a hunted fugitive, he will more likely welcome assistance later.”
“Jail is where he should be,” the old nun sniffed. “But as you wish: I’ll call them off.” “He can always be apprehended if necessary. Best keep him anxious, prone to error –”
The voices were muffled by the shutting door, but the laughter which followed did not sound nice. Skip looked wide-eyed at his little brother. “Holy cats, bro, you didn’t exaggerate anything, did you?”
Gus’ brown eyes narrowed. “When we’re done; I want the pompous messianic bastard.”
“You sure?” Skip asked. “It might take more than just you – and me, too, for that matter, by the looks of him. But we’ve a more immediate problem. How do we get out?”
Gus peeked again. “I think we can avoid running into anyone if we can slip out through Acquisitions. Grab the cart, keep your head low and follow me, slowly.”
Pushing a book cart also, Gus headed into the lobby. He led them around the main desk into the processing area at the rear of the building. Here too, most of the staff was absent, at holiday parties or snuck home early. Holding their breath, they rolled past the administrative offices and turned a corner towards the back.
Gus relaxed and slowed, preparing to slide the manuscript case into the Book Return slot when suddenly a low voice spoke behind him. “I’ll take that now, Professor, please.”
Reuben stepped out from behind a pillar, one hand ominously poking at them in his jacket pocket. He looked both embarrassed and determined at the same time.
“Oh come now, Reuben. What are you doing? See, I’m returning it just like I said. You’re not threatening to shoot us, are you?”
“Sorry, Professor, I worked hard to warn you, but I must have it now,” he said. He beckoned with his other hand. “Hand it over, por favor.”
“What do you mean, ‘worked so hard’?” Skip asked. “What warning?”
“Who the hell do you think put those clues on the Discovery Ranch sign, hombre? I did everything I could to warn you stupid pendejos but sign my name; you just didn’t get it.” Reuben said, shaking his head. “The box, now, Professor.”
“Why do you want the Manuscript?”
“I don’t,” Reuben said. “Put it down, step back, please, and keep your hands open and at your sides.”
Gus placed the box on the cart. Reuben opened it, ignoring Beauregarde’s text. Flicking through the framed pages to the rear, he reached the last one with the smudged parchment. “This,” he said, excitedly holding up the envelope, “this is what I came for. Why I stuck it out down there for years: Brother Tobias’ own map to the Maundy Grail. His last priceless words that the treacherous Beauregarde stole from the thieving Reliquarian. Ironically, this is at least the third time it’s been lifted. I hope that makes it the charm.”
“What use is it? You can’t sell it but to a small handful of collectors, and Tobias never found the Holy Tub either,” Gus objected.
“So you say, gringo,” Reuben smirked, giving the transparent sleeve a kiss before thrusting it into his jacket pocket. “He had visions of his own, you know, powerful ones. But that might not even matter, for this parchment will open doors you can’t imagine. Just like you don’t have a clue about what your amazing climb means, Skip.”
Gus and Skip shared puzzled glances. “Thanks, I guess. Now what?” Skip said.
“I got what I need; you can return the box now if you want, Professor. As for leaving, you were headed the right way: go on, ese,” Reuben said. “Keep quiet and we’ll be fine.”
Gus slid the manuscript box into the slot and they continued. They threaded their way through a maze of desks piled high with rickety towers of publications. As expected, the few workers still at it were solely concerned with finishing. Nobody glanced their way.
“The loading dock?” Reuben asked, shaking his head. “Bad idea, dude: there are both cameras and an alarm. There’s a better way out.” He led them to an alcove adjacent to the rear where Gus threw away the gloves and fake beard.
The small back door which smokers usually left open was still unlocked. Reuben opened it, took his hand from his pocket and waved farewell with a toy pistol. “Grac�as, amigos. Feliz Navidad! Ad�os caballeros!” He took off running.
The brothers were right behind him but the grad student was nowhere to be seen. They hurried off beneath the darkening sky to where Allie waited for the getaway. In a bright ring shining through thin clouds, the setting crescent Moon grinned above them.