Authors: Lev Grossman
“Here it is,” came her voice in the darkness. There was the plastic snap of a switch being turned, but nothing happened.
“Is there anything I canâ?”
Edward let his voice trail off. He put out his hand and touched wood, coarse and splintery.
He was suddenly struck by a sense of the size of the room. The far wall was beginning to resolve itself out of the darkness into one enormous window, a hundred feet away and at least two full stories high.
“For Christ's sake,” he said under his breath.
The light that would have been coming through it was almost completely stanched by masses of thick, dark curtains, so that only a ghostly rectangular glow showed through.
Finally the light snapped on. It was a standing lamp with a brown shade, and it gave out a cozy yellow living-room light. The room was indeed hugeâit could have doubled as a ballroom. It was much longer than it was wideâit must have run the full depth of the buildingâand there were cubical wooden crates piled up here and there, mostly at the far end, in head-high stacks of two and three. An aluminum dolly was still parked next to one of them.
She had brought him to the library. Bookshelves ran along one wall, mostly empty. On one of them, at the end of a long, kinky black cord as thick as a garter snake, was the promised telephone, a squat black artifact from the rotary era.
“I thought you would want to see,” she said. “Before you called.”
He did see. He folded his arms. It had dawned on Edward that this dotty English woman, this rich woman's lackey, actually thought he would go through with it. Even now she was watching him expectantly.
He looked around, composing a speech in his mind to express his righteous indignation. It was a brilliant speech, couched in terms of the most magnificently nuanced diplomacy, but at the same time mined with slights and insults almost too devastatingly subtle to be perceived; she would only realize decades later, as she sat rocking on the porch of the old lackeys' home, how crushingly he had snubbed her. The speech rose up and hung there, poised for delivery, to be accompanied by a slow, steady backing away towards the door, but he hesitated.
“Nothing's been touched,” she said. “If you can wait another minute I'll bring you up a few more things.”
The speech was ready, but he still didn't deliver it. He hesitated. What was he waiting for? What was the smart play here? He didn't dare offend the Wents, even if it was by proxy. It was already midafternoon. He could kill the rest of the day, a couple of hours at most, then call Dan in the morning and have them send over a first-year associate or one of the more vigorous assistants. Dan had gotten him into this, he'd get him out. Wouldn't that be the safest escape route? And for that matter, what else did he have to do today?
Laura stepped past him again, and he turned to watch her as she walked out the door.
When she was gone he kicked one of the wooden crates, and it boomed hollowly in the silence. Dust floated off it and settled to the floor. He tried his cell phone again. No signalâthe whole apartment was in the grip of an evil enchantment.
“Fuck it,” he said out loud. He sighed.
Edward felt his irritation seeping away. He walked the length of the room. He could clean up the mess tomorrow. And it was just a bunch of booksâdidn't he, in his sensitive, idealistic youth, used to read books? The floor was a fine, expensive-looking parquet with long narrow boards. The weak, angled light brought out tiny imperfections in the finish. A solid old wooden table stood along one wall, and he brushed his hand along it. His fingertips came away dusty. The table had one drawer, with one old screwdriver rattling around in it.
It was the weirdest thing, but he actually felt almost glad to be here. There was something about this grand, romantic old room that made him want to stay in itâsome invisible body was asserting its gravitational force over him, an undetectable black hole gently drawing him into its orbit. Walking up to the window, he pushed back the curtain a little and looked out. The windows went all the way down to the floor, so he could look straight down at the gray asphalt of Madison Avenue. From this height all the traffic lines and crosswalks looked very neat and precisely drawn. Sunflower-yellow cabs veered and swooped through the intersection, always managing to miss each other at the last possible moment. The building across the street was a hive of activity. He had a perfect god's-eye view: Each window held a desk covered with paper, a blue pulsing computer monitor, generic modern art, dying ficus plants, men and women talking on the phone, earnestly confiding in and consulting with one another, comically unaware of what was happening in the windows all around them. It was a hall of mirrors, the same scene endlessly replicated. That used to be him. He glanced at his watch. It was almost three thirty, the middle of what would have been his work day.
It was the oddest, most uncanny feeling, not working. He never realized how complicated his own life was until he had to get out of it. It had taken Edward six months to plan for the move to London, delegating projects, handing off contacts, transitioning key clients to the stewardship of his colleagues in an endless series of lunches, dinners, meetings, e-mails, conference calls, brain-dumps, and mind-melds. The sheer number of threads from which he had to delicately disentangle himself one at a time was staggering, and every time he pulled one out he found more threads attached to it.
“Please keep the curtains closed. For the books.” Laura's prim, expressionless voice came from the doorway, where she had silently reappeared like the hoary old housekeeper in a horror movie. He stepped back guiltily. “We keep the temperature artificially low for the same reason.”
She went over to the table and laid down a black binder and a laptop in a carrying case.
“These should help you with the cataloging. There are some guidelines in this notebook, and you can keep the records on the computer for now. We had Albertoâhe takes care of our computersâinstall a cataloging program that might be of some help to you. If you have any questions, just ask Margot, she'll tell you where to find me. Oh, and keep an eye out for anything by an author named Gervase of Langford. These would be very early books, I'm told, very old. If you see anything by him, do let me know right away.”
“Okay,” he said. “Gervase of Langford.”
There was a moment of silence.
“I'm sure I'll be seeing you later on,” she said.
“I'm sure you will.”
Now he just wanted her to leave.
“Good to meet you, then.” She obviously had no desire to stay, either.
“Bye.” Edward felt like he should have asked her something else, but nothing came to mind. He listened to the sound of her footsteps as she descended the metal staircase. He was alone.
There was one chair in the room, an antique rolling desk chair standing in the pool of light cast by the one lamp. He brushed it off and sat down; it was hard, but the back flexed very comfortably on an intricate array of springs. Edward rolled himself over to the window and cheated open the crack in the curtains a little wider, then he rolled himself back with a sound like a gutter ball in an empty bowling alley. The three-ring binder on the table was covered in black leather, and inside were twenty or thirty sheets of onionskin paper closely covered with single-spaced typing. They were old, and the hard keystrokes of a manual typewriter had embossed the words into the paper:
It is my intention that the books in this collection be described according to the Principles of the Science of Bibliography. These Principles are simple and precise, although the variety of the objects with which they are concerned can give rise to scenarios of considerable complexity....
Edward rolled his eyes. He already regretted his impulse decision. He seemed to be developing a dangerous habit of helping strange women in distressâfirst that woman on the sidewalk, now Laura Crowlyk. He flipped through the pages. They were full of diagrams and definitions and descriptions of different kinds of bookbindings, catalogs of various papers and parchments and leathers, examples of assorted handwritings and scripts and typefaces, lists of ornaments, colophons, imperfections, irregularities, printings, editions, watermarks, and so on and so on and so forth.
At the bottom of the last page was a faded blue signature, absurdly elaborate. It was almost illegible, but the author had typed his name below it:
And then a title:
After the final
came a long series of flourishes, meaningless loops and curls and rosettes that stretched all the way down to the bottom of the page.
OWMRY,” HE SAID.
His voice sounded very small in the vast, empty room. “Where the hell is Bowmry?”
Edward set the binder back down on the table and unzipped the laptop case. Of course, that must have been them out on the street, he thought. Mr. and Mrs. Wentâthe Duke and Duchess, presumably. He should have known. He supposed they must be on their way back there now, wherever there was. What an odd couple of birds. Prying up the screen with one hand, gently, he felt with the other for the rocker switch on the back. The computer chimed softly in the silence. While it whirred and clicked into life he opened the drawer and took out the screwdriver.
It was a satisfyingly hefty screwdriver, the kind with a fat clear-plastic handle with sparkles floating in it. Edward shrugged out of his jacket and draped it over the back of the chair, then walked over to the nearest stack of crates. His cell phone rangâit had mysteriously returned to life. It was one of his lesser lieutenants from the office, a first-year analyst. He listened for a minute or two before he interrupted.
“Slow down. Loosen your tie. All right. Are you sitting down? Tie loose?”
He leaned down to examine the crates. They were made of rough white pine boards that still smelled like Christmas trees. The original shipping labels were still attached, addressed to someone named Cruttenden and stamped with heraldic-looking governmental seals from both sides of the Atlantic. A few stray beads of clear yellow sap had oozed out of the wood and hardened into place. A few thousand years and they'd be amber.
“Put the money in French insurance company bonds. Yeah, I know there's a drought in France. No, the insurance companies aren't exposed. French insurance companies don't cover drought. No, they don't. French farmers have their own federal fund. Federal. Entirely separate.”
The first screw resisted as the metal threads bit into the soft wood, but soon it was out, and he set it carefully aside, point up, on the edge of the table. The next one came more quickly, and he went along the top edge of the crate methodically, the cell phone clamped under his ear, until there were ten or twelve freshly liberated screws lined up in a row. Scratchy wisps of dry straw were starting to poke out from under the top, and the edge of a crumpled, yellowed newspaper that had been used as stuffing.
He was annoyed at himself for having kowtowed to Laura Crowlyk. He took it out on the assistant, whose name was Andre.
“I'm not interested in Farsheed's problems, Andre. Farsheed's problems happen somewhere very far below me. understand? If Farsheed has problems, don't tell me about them, solve them. Then he won't have any problems, and you won't have any problems either, and neither will I, and the world will be a wonderful place with rainbows and happy flowers and birds singing.”
That seemed like a good note to end on. He hung up the phone and turned it off.
Edward's wrist ached by the time he got the last screw out. He set the screwdriver aside. The top of the crate was hinged, and it squealed as he opened it, then banged down loudly against the side. He peered down into the dimness. Inside were rows of dark packages, firmly nestled in a mixture of straw and newspaper and wrapped in a brown paper. They were all different shapes and sizes. In spite of himself he felt a prickle of excitement in his palms. He felt like a successful smuggler triumphantly unpacking his cargo in the safety of his hideout.
He leaned in and took out one of the parcels at random. It was heavy, about the size and weight of a phone book, and the wrapping paper was folded and sealed with extreme precision, like a box of expensive candy. It was unmarked. He put it down on the table and took out his keys; one of them had a sharp set of teeth, and he used it to part the tape along the seams. Opening packages was something he'd missed doing since he'd acquired his first assistant at work. Densely packed wads of newspaper bulged out as he slit the paper. He uncrumpled one. It turned out to be from a daily paper in London:
HISTORIC CHURCH DESTROYED
. Inside were two dense, heavy sub-packages stacked on top of each other, each one individually wrapped in thick sea-green paper.
It took him a minute to unwrap the first oneâthere was still another layer underneathâbut when he was done a small, red, leather-bound book lay in front of him in the middle of a huge blossom of wrapping paper.
He picked it up, handling it with involuntary tenderness. The cover was blank, with only a faint thread of gilt tracery around the edges. The word
was printed on the spine in golden letters. The book gave off a faint breath of dampness in the chilly air.
He laid it flat on the paper and opened it to the title page:
Of the Author's
REMOTE NATIONS OF THE WORLD,