Authors: Gillian Roberts
Adam stayed on the fringes of our group, now and then checking out what we were watching. I looked at him as he edged down the passageway, heading toward a chic—and possibly myopic—woman studying the contents of a display case. She bent over it so closely, her necklace was on the glass. When she became aware of Adam, she straightened up, looked at him, possibly caught a whiff of him, and backed off. Her fear seemed palpable. Her skin looked particularly pale against her black silk shirt, the black and gold scarf she wore dramatically slung over one shoulder—something I’ve always wanted to do, but can’t bring myself to dare. But before I could discreetly get to either one of them, she turned and made a rapid exit. I was sure she hadn’t been staff—she’d looked too elegant, with her hair pulled back like a Spanish dancer, and jewelry I immediately coveted—chunky gold earrings and the necklace that was intertwined with the scarf—a long gold chain interset with gold-edged black stones.
Adam had driven out a library patron. I sighed. I’d probably have run, too, if I’d seen him staring at me in his intense yet disoriented style.
He continued to hover at the fringes of the group as we went into a room lined with glass shelves and a few books on display on a table. Ms. Fisher showed us a stunning illuminated manuscript that royalty or an extremely wealthy family had owned.
Most of the class, except for the terminally bored, looked sufficiently intrigued, catching a sense of the history of a different time and place through the manuscript, perhaps even of how rare, valuable, and treasured books had once been.
Except for Adam, who stood apart, head tilted as if listening to a separate source of sound, frowning. It was hard not to think about Adam, yet thinking about him caused pain. I couldn’t help him and he couldn’t help me. Still, he seemed stranger than ever, dully agitated. I wondered if his parents
had compounded matters by overreacting to our meeting the day before.
“Young man!” Ms. Fisher’s voice was painfully sharp. “You!”
Adam didn’t respond.
“Adam,” I said softly. “Adam.” He turned.
“Please stay with your class! You’re not permitted to go off on your own.”
“That lady did,” he said. “That lady was alone.”
Our guide frowned. “I don’t know who you’re talking about, but if someone was alone, she had permission. You don’t.” She turned back to the group, thereby missing Adam’s furious scowl. She spoke again, missing as well Adam’s growled mutters.
From that point on he never strayed and never stopped glaring at her.
“Our holdings include a collection of over eight-hundred incunabula,” she told the group. “Anybody know what that means?”
“Demons,” somebody suggested.
Sounded right to me.
“Books printed before the year 1501.” She showed the class one that included ornate illustrations, mostly, it appeared, of naked young women politely covering their private parts. I didn’t have a chance to ask why they were naked in the first place or what the book was about. I was too preoccupied with willing myself away. From the Rare Book Department and Adam’s nonstop glower. From my students. From being their teacher.
Ms. Fisher introduced another librarian, a large, pleasantly shambling man whom it was easy to imagine hunkering down in a room filled with ancient volumes. He was bespectacled and well dressed but rumpled. I knew without looking that his tie would have a stain on it.
The new speaker, introduced as Mr. Labordeaux, thanked her, and as she tagged along behind him he launched into a description of the special room we were about to enter, William Elkins’ library. Not just its contents, but the library itself—walls, floor, ceiling, and furnishings—had been relocated to this place. I’d been here before and remembered the astounding paneled Georgian room.
It had, in fact, given me an idea for Mackenzie’s birthday gift. He was such an avid student of history that I thought I’d search for a (less) rare book of American history for him. Start his version of the Elkins Library, I suppose. The Mackenzie Library. So far it had turned out to be a bad idea, since I couldn’t find anything both aesthetically and financially acceptable. A price tag of a few thousand dollars was not in my league.
“This room is over sixty feet long,” he said, and once again I wondered what the rest of Elkins’ house had looked like if this enormous room was his library.
“About these books you’re showing us,” Linda Saylor said. She was one of our brighter students, although her forte was math and science, not books. I was momentarily delighted that she’d been sufficiently involved to ask a question. “Are they valuable?”
Labordeaux took on a grave expression, and Ms. Fisher watched him intently. Their reverential air made it clear these books were obviously worth a fortune. I could see my students’ collective interest level rise.
“All our holdings are valuable in one way or another, because they are rare and unusual. And of course they vary, depending on just how rare they are, their condition, the fame of their authors, whether they are inscribed, if they have historical significance—lots of factors.”
“Like what? Like what are they worth?” Linda had been born with a twenty-first-century mind, and high tech was as natural to her as breathing. I could imagine her deciding how best to sell off the contents of the room and replace them with on-line versions.
“These books aren’t for sale,” Ms. Fisher said sharply.
Labordeaux was silent a beat too long, as if waiting to see if she was going to interrupt again, then he took a deep breath and continued. “They’re not for sale, so all this is hypothetical,” he said, “but currently, in the auction market, a single volume of Poe can sell for a hundred thousand dollars. And in fact, one page of the Gutenberg Bible—one single page— sells for fifteen thousand. If that doesn’t impress you enough, then consider this: There is a copy of Chaucer’s tales published by Caxon that is for sale now for three to four million
dollars. In short, you are surrounded by irreplaceable works of artistic or historical significance.”
My kids nodded approval. At least they understood that somebody somewhere valued these books. Imagine the worth of these rooms!
Ms. Fisher, on the other hand, scowled. She and Adam could pair up and become the inappropriate-expression twins. I had theories about what was wrong with Adam, but why was that woman miserable looking? So sharp in her responses, so tense? Was she jealous that Labordeaux had taken the reins as they entered the room most likely to engage visitors? How petty that seemed.
But of course she’d looked stressed by the man in the flannel shirt and by Adam, who hadn’t been all that much out of line. Even with the man on the staircase, who’d done nothing whatsoever. The woman had problems.
“… collection of Dickens’ works, some in their original serial form, plus about a thousand letters of his.” Labordeaux took a box out of a glass-fronted cabinet and withdrew pamphlets from its back. The original
I was impressed. I don’t think I can say the same for the kids, although they did perk up at the sight of the manuscript of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” Maybe they were Poe fans, or more likely they remembered that Labordeaux had mentioned Poe’s very high worth. As for me, the Luddite, I thrilled at the sight of a handwritten anything in this computer era. What would future collectors save—printouts? Floppy backup disks?
Once we were out of the Elkins Library, the baton passed back to Ms. Fisher, who resumed her rundown of the collections, with reliable names like Shakespeare and the Magna Carta and George Bernard Shaw and Mark Twain and even an enormous stuffed raven that had been Dickens’, in its pre-stuffed incarnation, and which may have inspired Poe’s famous poem.
So far so good. I speculated about what might emerge from this. Perhaps the cuneiform tablets would have struck a spark and we’d be pitched a film about a Babylonian shepherd. Someone would be fired up by the children’s book where the frontispiece that had been printed with
GOD BLESS GEORGE HI
had been edited by a patriotic young hand to read, instead,
GOD BLESS GEORGE WASHINGTON
And cows—aside from those on my wall at home—might fly.
We regrouped outside the Rare Book Department, on the balcony. Troy Bloester—of course his classmates called him Blister—declaimed Juliet’s speech from the balcony until I shushed him, mainly because he hadn’t even gotten the words right. Not that anyone was on the balcony across from us, although it held desks and looked as if it was often occupied. And not that I thought anyone below would hear us. They couldn’t see us, either.
It looked to be two or three normal stories till the next landing, and I saw only a statue of a reader nestled in an impressionistic tree. No annoyed living readers. I remembered coming here when I was small, when the area below was a smoking lounge, and the big kids—the ones in high school— took study breaks in clouds of blue exhalations. Today the area was pristine.
Ms. Fisher led us back onto the elevators up to the fourth floor, although not yet for lunch in the cafeteria. At this point we were allowed a quick peek at the theater collection, squirreled away in a narrow vertical space, and then we rode down again to the collections on the second, first, and ground floors. I straggled along, trying to make small talk with Ms. Fisher. It seemed what civilized women did in this situation. “Must be a pleasure to work here,” I said.
She nodded. “Mostly. Of course, I’m new. Fairly new. And only part-time so far, but I do love working in the Rare Book Department.”
“Oh,” I said. “I thought perhaps you were a docent.”
She shook her head. “No docent program yet, but they’re hoping to. But not me.”
“So then, your title is …?”
“Library assistant. I have my degree, but they didn’t have a full-time opening or a librarian’s opening. Someday. I’m taking courses, starting with one on computers. A lot has changed, moved forward.”
She was good enough about answering questions, but each answer was a closed end with nowhere else to go, and she didn’t offer anything on her own. Didn’t ask me anything, either.
“So, ah, what kind of things do you do up there?” Maybe library science would be my next field.
“Whatever they need. Like this. Help with inventorying— a lot of the collection hasn’t been inventoried yet, help with the special exhibits, things like that.”
“Must be hard caring for such old books. I guess there’s lots of work for the bindery.”
She stopped in midstride and looked at me as if I’d crawled out from a rare book I’d chewed. “We do not rebind rare books,” she said. “They are
, you see. We don’t
anything about them.”
As soon as she began her answer I realized how dim my question had been. Of course you wouldn’t repackage an illuminated manuscript. Not even a leather-bound book from the last century. You wouldn’t remake a historical object. But she didn’t have to have brimstone coming out of her nostrils. I’d been trying to make conversation.
our books,” she said, resuming her brisk pace. “Special, highly trained people who know all sorts of things about paper chemistry work to
what is there, not to replace it.”
Damned if I’d try any further communication. She was a boorish woman who didn’t understand the social norm. As in normal.
That word was appearing in my vocabulary too often lately. I was defining it too often as well. For me, this was not at all normal.
In any case, from then on the two of us made neither large nor small talk. She retreated inside herself and left me to resume my personal and varied worries.
I bided my time until after lunch, when the students would be let loose and I would skim Lia’s annotations on Henry James, then find out what I could about grad schools. It wouldn’t hurt to browse, to check out requirements—even though I still didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up.
Ultimately my students, from whom I could almost physically feel myself dissociating, were wandering and burrowing all over the building in a fine imitation of scholars, and I was on my own, too, in the Education, Philosophy and Religion Department, browsing through the ultimate smorgasbord—a guide to 1,600 institutions with graduate programs.
“What are you interested in studying?” the librarian had asked when I made inquiries about finding information.
“Well, that’s just it,” I’d whispered, ashamed of myself. “I don’t know. Is there anything that lists everything?”
There was, so I speculated and dreamed my way through programs in the humanities, and, in another volume, business, information science, law, social work … I also periodically checked up on Adam, who was across the room.
Libraries being no longer silent, I sat cocooned in the soft buzz of voices. Time blurred pleasantly, grew soft around the edges; and I wandered in my future.
Until all daydreams and sense of security were shattered by a shrieking—an electronic, intense alarm that pierced the skull and left shrapnel in the brain. I looked around at the other people looking around, as if we were all searching for a leader.
Finding none, and no explanation, deafened by the screaming alarm, we stood, scraping chairs and feet, and headed for the exit.
Adam was no longer among us. I had no idea when he’d left.
I broke into a run, trying not to imagine what had caused the alarm to ring. What had happened. To whom. And I hoped—I hoped so desperately I could taste it—that I didn’t know, couldn’t name, whoever’d caused this outrage.
RAN DOWN A WIDE HALLWAY, AROUND A CORNER, PAST A
bank of computers, and joined the crush of people converging outside the social sciences room, at the top of the broad, divided stairway. Voices blurred, piled one on the other, all asking what was going on and what we were supposed to do.
“I heard a shout, Ms. Pepper. A weird noise.” I turned and saw a subdued Troy Bloester. “I was near the computers, I mean, I was doing my project and all—”
“Yes,” I said, encouraging him. “Speak up. That alarm—”
“I heard this noise,” he said, his cheeks reddening with the effort to out-decibel the alarm. “Before the alarm.”
“Where? Where did the sound come from?”
He shook his head. “Hard to tell. Maybe … upstairs? But I don’t know.”
“What was shouted?”
He shook his head. “Nothing. No words. It was like a horror-movie sound. Like a monster. It didn’t sound human.”
“It was, Troy,” I said. “That much I’ll guarantee.”
He actually looked relieved. I wished such a simple truth could ease my rising anxiety, but it didn’t. Human wasn’t enough. Or rather, human was enough. Enough trouble.
The library was busy with people, but all I cared about was finding my charges, and finding them safe—the selfsame group of young people I’d been trying to purge from my mind and heart. All I could imagine was one of them hurting, in terrible
distress, if indeed alive. So much for pulling away and not caring.
What had happened while I studied grad schools in the hopes of escaping from the kids? It felt tawdry, shameful—like having a secret tryst while your mate was in danger. I couldn’t handle the guilt. Even though I knew I couldn’t have monitored the whereabouts of eighteen high-school seniors doing independent research, I also knew I could have done more of it had I not been busy looking for my own private exit.
The alarm stopped. The sudden silence was almost painful, and then it was filled with overlying voices, questions, statements—everyone, including me, milling, looking up and down, finding nothing and no one to say what had happened.
I finally spotted some of my students in a protective huddle and headed toward them, beginning a head count. Sam and Melody and Tara and Nikki were safe. And over there was sweet, dim Cassie, and with her, four others.
Counting my flock took a while, but after some time I reached sixteen. Two Adamses missing—Adam Evans and Sarah Adams.
Only then did I notice the sculpture of the reader in the tree. It sat where it had been, the stylized branches like hands, reaching. But one of the “hands” had caught something. A blotch. A dark bird that had alighted there. Or something else, familiar.
Fabric, bunched, dangling. Woolly and fringed. Black. A winter scarf on an unseasonably warm day.
It looked as ominous as a corpse would have. Full-throttle fear possessed me.
Had it been tossed up onto the sculpture or dropped from above? And where was the boy who was never separated from the scarf? Why wasn’t he retrieving it?
I looked up, heart racing so hard I could barely catch my breath, but the balcony wall was too high. I could see nothing above except the pink reflection of light on its curved ceiling. But I could see the scarf, and something bad must have happened—or why the alarm, and why this mark of Adam here, now?
My pressure-locked fear broke loose. I overreacted. I behaved inappropriately, unwisely, out of panic and protective
Where was he?
“Adam!” I screamed. “Adam, where are you?
I don’t know what I’d expected, if I’d expected anything— besides having people stare and back off from me. I turned toward the Philly Prep students. “Have you seen Adam?” I asked. “Do you know where he is? What topic did he choose? Maybe if I knew that, I’d know …”
They shook their heads and shrugged, as well they might. As the ability to think slowly returned to me, I realized how stupid my assumptions had been. Why would I imagine he’d consult with or inform his classmates of his whereabouts? Why would I imagine he’d do the assignment? Do sick people suffer sudden bursts of wellness? Would Adam have had a siege of rational behavior?
I’d asked him what he wanted to do for his project. “About an actor,” he’d said. “An actor maybe in Shakespeare’s time, maybe. Yeah, that’s it—an actor. Maybe. Or Jack the Ripper.” And then he’d sat in a department that had nothing to do with any of his ideas.
Not helpful. But I had to unfixate on him. Sarah Adams, a tiny, vulnerable-looking creature, was also not accounted for. Why not fear for her? Why think of Adam at all? Talking myself down was impossible. Months of worry had etched Adam tracks in my brain. I couldn’t unthink him, unimagine him.
Troy had said he’d heard a monster’s roar. Whatever it might have been, it wasn’t a sound a ninety-pound girl was likely to make. But her attacker might.
I pushed through the crowd, heading for the elevator, wishing there were stairs to the next floor up, the way there were from the ground floor to this level. The elevator doors finally opened, but a man stepped out. “Please,” he said to the ten or so of us who were waiting. “Access denied to the third and fourth floors right now. If you’ll stay where you were, please. There’s been an—” He cleared his throat. “There’s a woman awaiting medical attention upstairs, and we want to keep entry open. The police will need your cooperation,” he continued in a louder voice, “so please return to whatever part of the library you were in and remain there.”
His words were relayed back, across the landing, down the stairs, and into the great solemn rooms ringing us. Echoes
and questions came from everywhere—“Who is it? What happened? Police? Why police? Did he say an accident?”
But a woman! How politically correct was he—would he use that term for a diminutive high-school senior? “Excuse me,” I said. The man looked distinctly uncomfortable with his role as traffic cop. “The person up there who needs attention— I’m here with my high-school students, and I can’t account for one of my girls. Is she a redhead? A teenager? Her name is Sarah.”
He was shaking his head before I had finished the question. “No, no,” he said. “Relax. Not yours. Ours. We know the woman.”
All right, then. Not Sarah. No reason for me to feel anything but impersonal sympathy. But my pulse did not agree. What had happened to the woman? Who’d sounded like a monster? I had to find him.
And Sarah, too, of course.
I couldn’t go upstairs, but I figured that if Adam were on that off-limits turf, they’d know it and have him safely somewhere. So I went downstairs, to the circulating library, usually my idea of heaven—thousands of novels mine for the asking. But today real-life stories had taken precedence over made-up ones.
Neither Adam nor Sarah was in there. Nor were they in the music room.
Finally I found Sarah on the ground floor, in the relatively peaceful children’s section, where a happy accident of floor plan had protected the youngest readers from hearing the ruckus above. The alarm must have been located at the other end of the building, because nobody seemed aware that anything might be seriously out of the ordinary.
The table in front of Sarah was covered with books. “I’m writing about an artist—an illustrator,” she said. “Like a hundred years ago. A woman illustrator. That’s what I want to be, too. The librarian said if I called ahead next time, she’d have lots more to show me. And then I thought I’d go to the print room and see what maybe it looked like—I think I’d like mine to be an American lady.”
Sarah had been snagged. Hooked. “You have a bit more time,” I said.
“My mom’s picking me up at five, so I have a lot of time. I’m staying later.”
Joy surged and flared in me—so I poured emotional ice water on it. Wouldn’t do to get reinvolved in teaching-lust. I was about to amputate that part of me. It was dead and gangrenous and I no longer cared about it. Still and all, the thought of Sarah’s enthusiasm made my walk back upstairs less hopeless.
But there was still the heavy knowledge that Adam was missing.
I stood on the second-floor landing near the statue of the reader, looking down at William Pepper’s head, watching for who might ascend those stairs after I had. I’d heard sirens while I was with Sarah. Medical personnel, probably.
A man walked up the first half of the stairs, approaching Dr. Pepper’s statue. I knew that back.
I felt a voyeuristic thrill secretly observing him. But the thrill was accompanied by the chilly realization that his presence meant that woman hadn’t really needed medical attention. Whatever had happened to her had been fatal. And not necessarily of her own making.
If he was here, there was suspicion of a murder in the library, where it seemed especially sickening and grotesque— not only a crime against humanity, but a crime against what civilization hopes for.
In short, insane.
I told myself Adam had nothing to do with this, that it was likely that he’d left the building before anything began. He was mixed up, but a mixed-up good kid, not a killer.
Mackenzie reached the landing with the statue and walked to the side to climb the remaining stairs, facing me.
He stopped in midstride and did a classic double take, once again demonstrating that he didn’t listen to me anymore. I’d told him where I’d be.
His rating plummeted into the danger zone.
“I don’t believe this,” he said. “Why are you here? What is it with you and crime scenes?”
“I told you my seniors—”
He fanned me off. Once upon a time he’d listened. Really listened, with such intensity it was sensual, like a stroke on the
soul, and a prime component of his charm. Now it was obvious that the honeymoon was over and we hadn’t ever married.
“The body’s upstairs,” I said.
He nodded. “Not goin’ anywhere, either. You been here the whole time?”
“Out here? No. I was back there.” I waved in the general direction of all the collections, not wanting to say where I’d been or what I was doing. I hadn’t yet mentioned my mother’s offer. I was letting the ideas simmer until I knew what I wanted to say. What I wanted. “An alarm went off. I thought there might be a fire.” In this most fireproof of buildings—but Mackenzie hadn’t heard the spiel.
“I came out here, along with everybody else, and nobody knew what was going on. One of my students who’d been nearer said he heard a sound like in a monster movie, whatever that means.”
A woman in a suit with a jacket a tad too tight and a skirt a tad too short, a closed book in her hand, walked by us, then doubled around and hovered, openly eavesdropping. Checking out the man who didn’t listen. “Are you a police officer?” she asked after Mackenzie had said something that suggested his role there. Her voice nearly choked with adulation trying to utter the words
. “I could help you.”
I noticed that she didn’t say in what way. I couldn’t tell if Mackenzie noticed. Or cared. I didn’t blame her for butting in. He’s gorgeous in an unflashy way. I am not living with him as a public service. You have to give him a second look to catch the shock of the blue eyes, the good lines time had etched, the total effect with the salt-and-pepper hair, his lanky rightness. Some of his charm is built into his features. The rest takes time to discover, but the invitation to the trip is all over him.
Or maybe that’s just my take on it. More likely the woman in the business suit had a thing for cops. For whatever reasons, she was enraptured by his existence, and when he nodded that yes, he was an officer, she looked on the verge of a swoon.
“I was a witness,” she said.
“Ah’m to take it you saw the event firsthand?” He purposely intensified his Louisiana drawl. It should make him sound less
professional, but it doesn’t. It makes his listener want to provide information just to hear more of that honeyed voice. Particularly in a city with as unmelodic an accent as Philadelphia, where ears get tired and in need of a smooth infusion.
“Yes!” she said, nodding so hard her hair quivered. Then she pursed her mouth and shook her head sideways, again rearranging her do. “No!” she said just as emphatically. “But I heard the worst sound before the alarm went off!”
“Ma’am, where precisely were you at the time?”
… each given at least three syllables. Assaulting an officer was a crime, so I controlled myself.
“I was walking right about here—where you’re standing— and this
! Like a jungle sound—a shout, but
“You see or hear anythin’ else that could be relevant?”
“Just that … I was pretty much alone out here for a minute. Scared.” Her eyes threatened to take over her entire face as she searched her memory bins for something more relevant than her emotions at the time, then sadly shook her head.
“Then I thank you kindly for—”
“Don’t you want my name? In case you need to follow up? Or need more clarification?”
Or need a date? A life companion? A love slave?
“Ma’am, I believe that when you leave the library, they’ll be askin’ for a name and number where we could contact you if necessary.”
She looked saddened by this, but only momentarily. “Wait!” she said. “There was something else. I remember now. After—After the alarm went off, everybody came out here, just about everybody in the entire library was looking around and nobody knew what was going on, if there was a fire, or a robbery, and that’s what everybody was saying, not all that loudly, except one person, some woman, who screamed ‘Adam’ over and over. I remember because at first I thought she was saying ‘at him,’ but then I realized it was the name.”
Let him not make the connection, I
begged the curlicued plaster ceiling. But the gods in charge of granting me wishes had as little talent for listening to me as did Mackenzie of late. Besides, it was a ridiculous request. Even in his worst non-listening, Mackenzie hears incessant griping, complaining,
and reiteration of a name. I speak as the complainer, griper, and as the one who reiterates.