Chapter 4, 6: A Great Big Pile of Building
The exit from the expressway to the library led through a gap in the concrete wall through which the expressway’s trench ran. Overhead, elevated roads swooped and looped. The concrete buttresses that held them up were too smooth and graceful to be real, as though the engineers who designed them had been more worried about the beauty of the pattern they made with their crossings than with the amount of grey mass required to hold wide roads up in the air.
The effect was to render the library invisible. Through graceful arches and colonnades, the world beyond the expressway cloverleaf could be seen, swathes of greenbelt and five-story, long buildings all of glass.
The bus pulled into a swooping exit curve that plunged, it first seemed, underground. In reality, it turned out that the solid concrete trough in which their eight lane road had run was also on a viaduct.
“This would be an awesome Mario Kart track,” Bruce muttered beside her. Charlotte was too wrapped up in trying to spot the Library between the columns to find something to say, but she nodded to show that she’d heard. It would make an awesome Mario Kart track.
Then the bus pulled out again, onto a ramp that curved around as it descended, showing a parking lot full of cars ranging from Archie’s jalopy to a pink SUV limo stretched half-a-block long. In the midst of the parking lot ran what looked like a small forest of stately trees on a long planter, and, in the far distance, a greenbelt marched along the edge of the lot, with the glint of a lake or river showing between the trees.
But of the library, at least from this vista, there as no sign. Finally, the bus pulled smoothly to a stop in front of a covered, glassed-in bus stop. Brushed aluminum walls, shiny and new, faced the far side of the terminal, and a big sign over a double wide, open door said, “City Library.” But, from her viewpoint on the window seat of the second level of the articulated, double-decker Number 42 bus, Charlotte could see nothing.
Naturally, Charlotte hurried down to the pavement. Swinging her “umbrella” on its shoulder strap, she hurried to the door. And collided with Brian’s back.
Charlotte had a moment. A moment to notice Brian’s perfect, black hair, which fell in a tangle all the way to his shoulders in the hockey player cut –long in the back, clipped short on the sides, and, she knew, although she could not see, teased into bangs that fell over his deep, grey eyes in the front. A moment to notice his dark green, woollen trenchcoat, which hung to his knees and smelled, somehow, both clean and smoky at once, like caravan tea. A moment, then, to notice the other smells of the street, the delicious scent of cooking.
But only a moment, because then her gaze rose to eye level, well over Brian’s shoulder. Charlotte had a moment to throttle the helpless sense of being too tall, too gawky. But only a moment. Because, at last, she saw the Library.
What to say about a building that sprawls and turns and spires into the sky like a staircase built in stages over tens of thousands of years in every architectural style ever, and which yet manages to look like a single building? In front of her, was a wide plaza of solid-packed, glazed soil, fronted with a pickup/drop-off road paved in brand-new asphalt and lined with food trucks. Through an arcade of timber arches, she could see a vast, tumbling set of steps built of enormous bricks baked in a subdued, orangey-red, a city block wide, lined with a balustrade at either end with great stone platforms in the middle of the climb on which stone lions the size of a three story house faced in, as though guarding the library gate.
Looming above the stairs, visible at only half its height because of them, was a stern building of gray stone five stories high, presenting aches and balustrades. Above that was the piled, angular, lifting forest of roofs of a pagoda tower, from which a culminating bell tower finally sprouted, overlooking everything.
Everything in the centre, that is, because curving out to either side were massive, semi-circular glass-and-steel towers that looked like a cross between the Colosseum in Rome and the wings of a Tie-Fighter. And, towering at their top, two gauzy bridges of spun metal linked the two wings, with a structure suspended in mid-air between them, behind but on line with the bell tower. Of pink-tinted glass and green-brushed metal, it looked as though some capricious sorcerer had turned a spider in its web into an emormous jewel.
“And that’s just the part we can see.”
Charlotte looked to her side. Rose was standing there, looking impressed, but not lost for words. Only one thing could take Rose’s words away. Well, guy, actually. “I tried to run around it, but had to quit part way.”
Charlotte looked over at her friend, and arched her eyes. The library must be big. “One of the exits off the expressway goes right into the side of the building four city blocks that way.” Rose continued, gesturing to her left. “They’re not even slowing down as they go through the wall.
“Maybe the expressway goes under the library?” Charlotte asked.
“Probably,” Rose conceded. “But that still means that there’s a lot of …space down there.”
Charlotte held her friend’s gaze. Rose had a thing about vast, unknown underground tunnels. The kind that both she and Michael Snow had grown up in.
“Okay, everybody,” Eldritch said, from the front of the line. “We haven’t got all day. We’ve got visiting to do!”
Eldritch was serious about making a good impression today. Not serious enough to dress like a university professor, mind you, but serious enough to have put on an apricot leisure suit and a multi-coloured ascot, into which his long beard incongruously dipped. Charlotte had been reminded, when she first saw it, of Mr. Furley on Three’s Company. She had also made the mistake of mentioning it to Dora, getting a blank look, making her feel awkward again.
The apricot-clad figure led them briskly towards a point on at the bottom of the monumental staircase where people were filing and somehow disappearing. Somehow not surprisingly, the route led by a food truck, wafting a peppery smell mingled with roasting beef and frying onion. Even in her hurry to follow Eldritch, Charlotte could not help glancing over at it.
“The Shackman,” the sign read. “Soul Food on the Street.” A tall, muscular Black man leaned stood in the window. He was wearing the classic white chef’s jacket with folded lapels, like an old-timey navy uniform, but, instead of a chef’s hat, he wore a black baseball cap turned around backwards so that the visor shaded his neck. He had a nose piercing, and Charlotte had a moment to wonder if that was sanitary before he handed a paper plate, half folded around something, to a customer and then looked up directly at her.
“Hey, girl!” He whispered. And, somehow, the whisper travelled across the twenty feet that separated them, even in the crowd of people and her friends. Charlotte ignored him.
Or tried to. “Yo, Wong!” Charlotte looked up, slit-eyed, she thought. Well, with her eyes clenched a little, she thought. You know what I mean, she thought to herself some more. How did he know her name?
The cook put both his hands down at waist level, wrists crossed and index and ring fingers crossed to make a horn that converged low and to his right.
Instinctively, Charlotte looked to her right. A boy, Black, had somehow materialised in the crowd. He held up a plate, with a stack of bright gold balls on a white paper napkin.
“On the house,” the mysteriously carrying voice said in ear. “Just save one for later.”
Charlotte took the plate. Her grip was a little off the crease, and for a moment she was afraid she would dump it, and had to focus on the plate. In that moment of inattention, the boy disappeared, and the cook disappeared from the window of the Shackman truck.
“Hurry up, Sister Wong!” Came Eldritch’s impatient voice from the front. Well, as close to impatient as Charlotte had ever heard him.
She hurried after the voice, only to come up on yet another architectural surprise. Somehow, invisible from just down the plaza at the bus stop door, was a tier of glass revolving doors. Charlotte came at them gingerly, not exactly used to the revolving gadgets, fussing over her “umbrella” and her plate so that they would not get caught in the door. But she need not have worried, and, in a moment, she was dumped on a blockwide vestibule of shiny, transparent-topped stone, facing a long line of turnstiles. Guards, sitting in decidedly unofficial looking chairs, balancing on one leg or another as though only chair-obatics kept them sane through a boring work day, lined the edge of the turnstiles.
Charlotte wondered what, exactly, they were guarding. They were almost half-a-block away, so enormous was the great vestibule.
Eldritch led them briskly in that direction. Charlotte held back, nervously. She was not used to just walking into official buildings like this. When her Uncle had taken her to the PRIMUS headquarters to register, she hadn’t even thought of.. But here she was, being just led right through.
Well, okay, Charlotte thought, it must not be against the rules. But it was. As soon as she entered the turnstile, the metal bar stuck fast, and it began to beep.
Charlotte’s face blushed as everyone in the whole vast entranceway seemed to stare at her. Above her, she finally noticed a half-suspended floor a story-and-a-half above, fronted with glass. People were standing at those windows, looking down, and they were staring, too.
Charlotte was so embarrassed that she wanted to crawl into the floor and die. Only the thought of yelling at Eldritch later kept her going.
A guard, somehow, materialised at her side. “I’m sorry, Miss. You can’t take that inside the Library.” He reached out for Charlotte’s “umbrella.” Numbly, she put the Pearl Harmony Sword, its blade concealed within the folds of the black-and-pearl fabric, in his hands.
Charlotte didn’t like being separated from the Pearl Harmony. That was when werewolves tended to show up. Sure, she’d finally learned to do the Eight Spirit Dragon Fist in her last adventure, so she had some way of fighting back. Her Cousin Henry said that you could kill a werewolf with a single solid Eight Spirit Dragon punch (not always with the best of results in the long run, he also said), but Charlotte’s magic sword had a pretty solid track record, too.
The guard pulled on what seemed to be the handle of the umbrella. An inch’s length of the Pearl Harmony Sword’s blade was exposed, and the guard’s face was briefly suffused with its perlescent light.
“I’m sorry, Ma’am,” the guard said. “I didn’t realise. Please.” He handed the sword back to Charlotte, and reached down to push a button on the turnstile. The metal bar folded into the side of the turnstile. “I hope you enjoy your visit today, ma’am.”
Charlotte hurried through the turnstile to Eldritch before anyone could change their mind. People were still staring at her, she could tell, and she wasn’t feeling any less embarrassed. Only now it was in a different way. Also, “Ma’am?” What was she? An old lady?
“What happened?” Brian asked as she came up to the group.”
“The Man recognises his own,” Eldritch said, sounding cross.
“Oh, pooh,” Rose answered. “Of course security guards are going to let a paladin bearing one of the Seven Against Gorgashtar through. They know Charlotte doesn’t have a bad bone in her body.”
“I’m not a paladin, and I can be bad! I’m just waiting for the right moment.” But even as she said it, Charlotte realised that what she wanted to remind her friend was that people were not “good,” or “bad.” They did good or bad things; and that telling yourself that you were a good person was the shortest way to doing bad things. Which she didn’t say, because that’s what a paladin would say. And she wasn’t a paladin.
She hadn’t even had a boyfriend yet!
Eldritch led them left through the vestibule. In no time, the polished marble pavement vanished beneath their feet, to be replaced by thin carpet of the kind of artificial fabric and not-really-a-colour colour that you found in the parts of an official building where visitors weren’t supposed to be. The spacy openness of the vestibule gave way to a stone corridor that ran through arches where doors might be supposed to be, but weren’t. It felt like part of the old building that Charlotte had seen at the top of the stairs, but, obviously, they were far beneath it.
Then, they came to a stone wall, with an old-fashioned steam radiator set in a little niche just to their left, and a wide stone staircase finished in cream paint, leading down, back in the direction of the entrance, and further into the bowels of the building.
And, in front of them was a door of polished, black wood, with a glazed window at the top. For some reason, instead of regular glass, it was set with coloured glass, and sunlight shone through it. Eldritch reached down, and opened the door, ushering them through.
The kids walked through, single file, Twelve’s bulky frame in the lead and Dora taking up the rear. They were in the middle of a vast office space, ranks and ranks of open desks, all with contraptions on them: not computers, but boxes with sliding shelves filled with interleaved record files, the kind that lay flat until you pulled at one, and then they lifted out like a deck of cards, or heavy square machines, almost like lathes in the woodshop, painted Army green, that flicked thousands of manila yellow computer cards past a window before spitting one out, or things that looked like old-fashioned manual typewriters, only with folds of metal on either side fed by hoppers full of typing paper, and more keys on the front than a typewriter and a calculator put together.
And at every desk, there was a clerk, some men, some women, of every different race and wearing all kinds of religious-y hat and outfit here and there, and all of them staring at the kids.
Charlotte blushed again, and did not stop blushing until Eldritch had led them across the front of the great room and into an office in the corner, with a door exactly like the one they had just entered, except that instead of being confined to the top, the panels of coloured glass extended in two long strips the length of the door. On the polished black wood between the strips, a brass plate identified this as the office of the “Assistant Vice-Provost for Borrowing Services.” Eldritch’s hand fell on the wide, brass knob of the door, and opened it.
Charlotte filed in in her turn. A woman was sitting at a wide desk of beautiful, deep red wood, in a giant office, with beautiful Persian rugs and floor-to-ceiling windows looking out on a quadrangle of green grass with a walkway down which people moved slowly, as though preoccupied with their thoughts, between fine old trees.
Charlotte, by now, was completely lost about where they were supposed to be in the Library, but she could not argue with the mellow, yet somehow heatless and indirect sunlight that filled the office. Wherever it was, it was a very nice, and very large office, marred only by book trucks here and there, piled up with giant volumes bound in brown and green, slick-covered paperbacks almost too thin to be books, ancient-looking floppy discs in all sizes and shapes, thumb drives and manuscripts folded into thick, white covers and closed with those strings that wrap around metal studs.
The librarian wore a triumphantly purple pant suit that did not at all work with her bright red lipstick or her hair, so thick and black and high that it had to be a wig, and the bright yellow pencil that dangled from her neck on a thick, braided gold rope.
“Ah, Mr. Eldritch,” the colour-blind Assistant Vice-Librarian-type-person said. “I am so pleased to see you again.” She did not look pleased. She looked like someone who had expected to bite into a lemon and got a chili pepper instead. If you didn’t like chilip peppers, Charlotte added to herself. Or lemons. She had a friend in Grade5 who liked biting into lemons. Or said she did, anyway.
“And these are the young students to whom you referred in your recent communication?”
Eldritch nodded. “Yes they are.”
“You are aware that one of them is a chronally displaced person? And that one of them bears one of the Seven? The Pearl Harmony, I am told? And that one of them is…”
Eldritch put his finger in front of his mouth, gesturing for silence.
“Ah.” The librarian pursed her lips even more. “I see. Well, word to the wise. A very interesting lot. You are also aware that it is most unlikely that their arrival in the city has gone undetected by forces that wish them ill?”
“Such,” Eldritch said, with an expansive lift of his shoulders, “Is the way of things. I doubt that those forces know what they are going to be messing with, though.”
“You have confidence in your charges? You think that they should be allowed Orange-Level Visitor’s Privileges? Because, technically, they should start at Infrared.”
“They are bearers of the Age of Aquarius,” Eldritch answered.
It was good, Charlotte thought, to be reminded that although Eldritch had faith in their ability to handle the Paradigm Pirates, or whoever, that Eldritch was a goofball hippy.. Then, at last, she said, “Very well, then. They can pick up their orange lanyards on the way out.” Then the librarian glanced at Charlotte, as if she could hear that thought, which, you know, maybe she could, and arched her eyebrow to express her own skepticism.
Yeah. So there was that.