XXII: Last Stand of the Librarians

There was a time when Rae would have quailed at going out by herself after nightfall, but not anymore. Her quest blazed in her mind like a torch in a dark room, making everything else unimportant. She knew the answers she had been seeking were waiting for her, and nothing would stand in her way.

Rather than take the subway, she walked the forty-plus blocks to midtown. Despite the humid summer night, she wore a black hoodie, sunglasses, a filter mask and gloves. By the time she got to her destination, she was dripping with sweat, but she felt energized, her limbs hot and loose, as if she had warmed up for a workout.

The golden towers of Billionaires' Row were like a fireworks display to the northwest, but she had come to another section of Manhattan that had fallen into disrepair. This part of midtown had been a business district, but the economic decay that had been confined to the city's outskirts was creeping inward like blood poisoning.

Many of the towers were dark, their windows broken or boarded up, their walls scribbled with graffiti. Even one of the omnipresent billboards, on a skyscraper with an unusual facade that curved downward towards the ground, showed a blank screen that flickered sporadically like heat lightning.

Just for an instant, the billboard glitched and displayed an image: an abstract shape that looked like two curvy, curlicue-tipped lines set against each other, the crude image of a tree. Beneath, in shimmering green, there were words: "SEEK THE GARDEN." It flickered to blankness when Rae glanced in its direction.

Rae walked along Fifth Avenue. She steered clear of Bryant Park, which had become a squatters' camp - a densely packed warren of crude shacks of sheet metal, scrap wood and plastic. Fires burned in metal trash cans, and shadowy figures moved behind the light. She had no desire to meet anyone from that lawless place; she had heard it was under the thumb of gangs.

Her destination was nearby. In the midst of the city, there was a void where no towers rose. Along that block ran a construction fence, a barricade of plywood boards and plastic netting, plastered with "PRIVATE PROPERTY - NO TRESPASSING - ENTRY STRICTLY FORBIDDEN" signs. Coils of barbed wire were strung along the top.

But the fence was old and weatherbeaten. In some places, the boards slanted drunkenly, leaving gaps a person could fit through.

Rae was studying one of those gaps when she heard the rumble of an approaching engine. She recognized one of the black-and-white cars of the Metropolitan Police Corporation, and ducked behind a stray sheet of plywood just as a pair of headlights speared the wall where she had been standing.

The car slowed down as it passed. Rae crouched in her hiding place, not daring to breathe, wondering if she had been spotted.

After an agonizingly long moment, the police car sped up and drove off.

Rae looked up and down the block, making sure no one else was watching. When she saw no observers, she squeezed through the gap in the fence.

Her plan had been to get inside as quickly as possible, to minimize the chance of being spotted. But as soon as she was past the fence, she forgot about that. She stood motionless, frozen with awe, as she looked up at the magnificent desolation of the New York Public Library.

In its heyday, it had been one of the most recognizable landmarks in the city. A broad staircase led to a grand three-arched entrance. Soaring Corinthian columns supported a frieze where six statues represented the muses of philosophy, romance, religion, poetry, drama and history. Tall arched windows looked in on sun-shot reading rooms.

Now the library was a ruin, laid low by years of neglect. Its white Vermont marble facade was shot through with cracks and grimy with pollution. Its sculptures were crumbling like sugar, softened by acid rain. Weeds sprouted from cracks in the marble steps. Pigeons roosted on chandeliers, flying freely in and out of windows that had been broken by wind and storms. The building seemed sunken and shriveled, like a desiccated corpse.

On either side of the staircase, the two stone lions Patience and Fortitude were entwined in leafy vines that enveloped their pedestals. Only their sad, solemn faces were visible.

It's hard to believe they never demolished this place, Rae thought. Unless they left it like this deliberately, to send a message.

After the privatization of the schools, the public libraries had been next on the chopping block. Congress had passed a resolution stating that it was "offensive to the spirit of capitalism" to lend anything for free, and under newly strengthened perpetual-copyright laws, publishers had sued libraries as an infringement on their right to profit.

Like a retreating army, libraries had closed down across the nation. The NYPL's Main Branch had been the last one standing, and when it too came under threat, the librarians staged an epic sit-in strike. They occupied the building for months, even after the city shut off the power and heat. Declaring it a "library for the people," they ran it as if nothing had changed, welcoming all comers to browse or study by candlelight, lending out books and keeping track of who borrowed what in handwritten ledgers.

It was a proud act of defiance, but ultimately futile. One bitterly cold day, the emergency manager sent in the riot police. The librarians were hauled out in handcuffs and brought up on charges of felony copyright infringement and economic treason. New York City, like a battered boxer exhausted by repeated blows, barely found the will to muster a token protest.

Most of the branch libraries had been bulldozed. A few, like this one, had been padlocked and left to molder. But the old periodical archives, Rae was sure, were still within.

The great bronze doors had been chained shut, but she wasn't about to let that stop her. She walked along the facade until she came to a ground-floor window, crudely boarded up - whether by the police who had shut down the building, or the librarians trying to keep the police out in the final days of their protest, she wasn't sure.

Rae had brought her toolbox, and she popped it open and selected a small pry bar. She wedged it between the window frame and the boards, and in a quick jerk, ripped off the offending wood. She brushed broken shards of glass away from the frame and climbed through.

The interior of the library was pitch-black, but Rae had expected that. She strapped her headlamp on and kindled the light.

It was an eerie scene. The wide staircases with their sweeping balustrades, the ornate lamps that hung from the ceilings of the vaulted hallways on brass chains, the ceiling murals of mythological figures and angels - except for the broken windows, everything was intact, as if the caretakers had departed only yesterday. But the building smelled of mildew and damp rot, and fallen leaves littered the corridors in decaying drifts.

Her footsteps echoed in that silent place. As she walked, shadows shifted and moved, herded by the beam of her headlamp. In alcoves along the walls, marble busts of artists and civic figures watched her with sightless eyes. As she passed each one, the light threw their profiles in silhouette on the wall, as if the old ghosts had stirred to see who disturbed their slumber.

Unable to help herself, Rae peeked into the main reading room. Once, it had been a grand gallery where rows of stately mahogany tables invited patrons to sit in peace. Now it resembled an indoor swamp. The high shelves along the walls had once held books, but water had dripped in through broken windows, and the dry paper had wicked it up like a sponge and bloomed with mold. Priceless antique volumes had decayed into mounds of soil. Moss and crawling vines grew on the shelves as if on tree trunks. Toadstools sprouted in fairy rings from the water-warped floorboards, and spindly trees pushed their way up and through, shouldering aside corroded chairs and tables.

Regretfully, she moved on. There were signs on the walls that pointed the way to various rooms, one of which was what she wanted.

She followed the signs down a long hall, up a flight of stairs, and past a row of offices.

To the Microfilm Reading Room.

Nothing digital. Real hardcopy versions of the old periodicals. If what I want still exists, it will be here.

She had been prepared to smash the door glass and turn the knob from within. But the glass was already broken, and the door hung ajar.

Cautiously, Rae edged in. She swept the beam of her headlamp from one side of the room to the other.

There was a rustle in the corner, and when her headlamp flashed in that direction, it threw back two tiny, gleaming spots - two eyes.

Rae almost shrieked, but kept control for the split-second she needed to realize it was a rat. The animal chittered angrily at her and scurried off.

The microfilm reading machines were intact. They stood like statues guarding the tomb of an emperor. Along the other wall was a reference desk, behind which were long rows of heavy gunmetal-gray cabinets.

She was less relieved to see that someone had been living there. The floor was scattered with trash: a stained blanket, moldy food containers, shards of glass, a broken syringe. But the garbage was old, and there were no signs of current habitation.

On the desk lay a huge leather-bound volume: the master catalog. Thankfully, the squatters hadn't been interested in it. She opened it with a thump, raising a cloud of dust that made her sneeze.

She paged through the book until she found a reference number for the cabinet she wanted. The drawer was locked, but she resorted to her pry bar again, and the lock groaned and yielded. Inside were glossy rolls of microfilm wound on wooden spindles. To her relief, the locked cabinets had kept them dry and unharmed.

Okay. Moment of truth.

This was the part of the plan that Rae hadn't fleshed out. She had entertained vague thoughts of lugging the heavy microfilm roll home and keeping it until she found a way to read it. But since she was here, there was nothing to lose by trying the reading machines.

The first machine she tried was dead and unresponsive, as was the second.

But miraculously, when she pressed the on switch, the third one hummed to life.

Probably a pirate electric hookup. The librarians had a few of those.

Rae fed in the microfilm, and the screen began to glow.

She had selected a five-year archive of the Westchester Herald, covering the year of her college graduation and the founding of Will Anton's company. She paged back and forth until she found the article, which had the headline: "Anton Dynamics Goes Public In Blockbuster IPO; CEO Takes Questions."

Halfway down the page was the exchange she remembered.

A reporter had asked: "Who are you most grateful to for getting you to this point?"

Will Anton had answered: "For that, I have to thank my friends at the Rose Fund. They were the first to believe in me. Bread and roses - and they say you can't have both!"

The Rose Fund. Hmm...

Rae snapped a picture of the page, then went back to consult the catalog's index. There were more references to the Rose Fund, and she pulled rolls of microfilm from the cabinet, determined to track down each one.

Two hours later, Rae sat back in the chair. She was dripping with sweat, her back aching, but she was too focused on the task to notice. She had gathered a handful of puzzle pieces, and she could see how some of them fit together - but she was more baffled than ever about what picture they were adding up to.

The Rose Fund was a private investment firm. There was nothing unusual about that - there were thousands of them, from small family offices to gargantuan multinationals, all devoted to finding places where the rich could invest their money to turn it into even more money. This one had given Will Anton the startup capital he'd needed to launch the company that had become Anton Aerospace.

What seemed unusual was that, as far as Rae could tell, Anton Dynamics had been the Rose Fund's only investment. Its name only ever came up in articles about Will and his company: gossip columns about lavish Anton Aerospace company galas; news coverage of glitzy $10,000-a-plate charity dinners to raise money for the Anton Foundation's work to "rehabilitate" the Pacific Northwest anarchy zone; triumphant press conferences where Will Anton had announced some prestigious hire or revolutionary new invention.

Even more unusual was its investment strategy. Rae didn't understand it at all.

In return for its seed capital, the Rose Fund had gotten a special class of voting shares that made it the majority shareholder of Anton Aerospace. Over the years, it had been a silent partner, backing up Will Anton's choices for the other board members, reinforcing his control of the company.

But the Rose Fund's special voting shares paid no dividends. This had made Anton Aerospace a very attractive investment, since the company's hefty profits would be distributed among the remaining shareholders.

The market had noticed, and investors had piled in, bidding up Anton Aerospace stock to stratospheric prices. By strategically issuing new shares in response to the demand, the company had raised huge sums of money, enough to acquire most of its competitors in hostile takeovers. In a little more than ten years, they had gained a monopoly in the aerospace and defense-contracting industries.

What the Rose Fund got for its money, Rae mused, was control of one of the biggest and most powerful corporations in the world. What they never got out of it was a penny of profit. So was that a good investment, or a bad one?

She took out her phone, pulled up a search window and typed in "Rose Fund." The first response was from a corporate registry database:

Well, I should've expected that, Rae thought. Good old anti-sunlight laws. Corporations don't have to disclose anything any more, so they don't. I'll have to find another way to figure out who Will's backers are.

She felt a tinge of irony, realizing the lengths she had gone to when there was a much simpler solution.

Of course, I do have Will's private number. I could call and ask him... if I had any reason to believe he'd tell me the truth.

Besides, the disappearance of her friends had given her a chill of fear. There was something wrong about this, something sinister and strange - and she was afraid of what Will would do if he found out about her snooping.

Suddenly, she became aware of a bright light in her peripheral vision.

In the hall outside the microfilm archive, there was a cone of light, bobbing and narrowing. A flashlight beam.

Rae heard steps echoing on the tiled floor.

Shit! I should've known there'd be a night watchman!

The glow of the microfilm reader would be visible. In a panic, Rae switched it off, doused her headlamp, shoved back the chair - wincing as its legs scraped on the floor - and crouched behind the heavy machine to hide. She hoped the guard would pass by the room without investigating.

No such luck. The footsteps drew nearer, then paused.

The cone of light became a bright circle. Behind it, a silhouette was visible in the broken glass of the door's window.

Rae huddled against the wall as the flashlight beam swept over the darkened room, passing just over her head.

The watchman had noticed that the door was ajar. A hand pushed, and it creaked open the rest of the way.

Footsteps approached down the aisle between the reader machines and the desk, toward where she was hiding. The flashlight beam moved over the cabinets.

"H—hello?" called a voice.

It wasn't the gruff demand she had been dreading. The voice sounded young, weedy. Frightened.

While the flashlight was pointing away from her, Rae edged out from behind the machine to peek.

The watchman was standing in the aisle, looking around - thankfully, not in her direction. She doubted he could be more than eighteen. He had large, protruding ears and a nervous face. He wore an ill-fitting uniform. But what captured her attention was the holstered gun at his hip.

Glass crunched as the watchman stepped on the debris. She peeked out again to see him inspecting the broken syringe.

"Hello?" he called again. "Is anyone there?"

He seemed unsatisfied by the lack of an answer.

"This building is off limits," he said haltingly, as if reciting a poorly memorized lesson. "Protecting private property is the proper function of government. Your trespass constitutes an initiation of force for which I am authorized to retaliate!"

Rae cringed as he walked past her hiding place, close enough that she could have reached out and touched his leg, but he didn't spot her crouching in the shadows.

Then she saw what had captured his attention. She had left the cabinet gaping open and several rolls of microfilm on the reference desk. His flashlight beam narrowed to illuminate the desk as he looked at them suspiciously.

He was facing away from her, and she was now closer to the door than he was. If she ran for it, she might get away. But he'd hear her as soon as she moved, and she'd have only an instant's head start. What she needed was a distraction.

Trying not to breathe, she popped the latch on her toolbox and silently eased it open. Her hands knew the tools by feel, and they selected the smallest, most delicate wrench.

Feeling an absurd sense of guilt to the tool, she rubbed the wrench against her shirt to remove any fingerprints. Then she hurled it as fast and as hard as she could.

The wrench caromed off the far wall and rang on the ground with a loud, metallic clatter. In the silence of the library, the sound was thunderous.

The watchman's head whipped around. He charged toward the noise, drawing his gun.

Rae burst from her hiding spot and ran for the door. She prayed that the commotion would cover her escape, or at least distract him until it was too late to catch her.

Not daring to use her light, she sprinted through the dark, winding corridors of the library. Shadows danced and capered wildly as she skidded around corners and leaped down a staircase three steps at a time, moving by memory and feel. She thought she heard running footsteps behind her, but couldn't be sure.

Luck was with her, and she found her way back to the main hall and the broken window she had climbed through. Panting, she paused to catch her breath and listen. She heard distant footsteps, but in the stir of echoes, she couldn't tell if they were heading in her direction.

Time for me to be gone.

She glanced around once more at the empty halls and shadowy statues of the abandoned library. She felt a sense of gratitude.

You did your job one last time, she thought. Thank you.

She climbed out through the window, reached in to snatch up her toolbox, and was gone. The night closed around her like a lover's blanket as she lost herself in the neon-and-shadow streets of New York City.

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