(toying with tones and things)
Gary Baker, November 2015
By the time my feet struck snow, I was bundled up in two dark sweaters under a beige p-coat, a pale wool-like cotton scarf cinched around much of my chin and neck, and a thick black beanie to upset the fedora-lovers who littered the streets even at this god-awful hour. I pushed my chin deeper into the scarf and exhaled to push some warmth where my skin could actually feel it, and trudged my way south down the main drag.
It was slow going because of all the Wangster men and Wapper women, wannabes the lot of them, meshed with all the decent folk who just didn't care for this resurgence into retro bygone-era fashions. They clogged the dark streets as bad as taxi's to the point that after walking one measly block I gave up and hailed a yellowcab.
"Where to, brother?" The driver asked. The cab was not-quite toasty, but it blew the hell out of the icebox I was expecting it to be.
"Comin right up." He thrummed the wheel to the tune of Avicci on the radio and flicked on the blinker. I relaxed a bit, seeing someone use one of those for once. Too often did I see them go all but out of fashion, to the point that driving in the big Apple was like taking a test to see if you were like Mama Santeria and could read the future. After he'd sufficiently gotten back into the flow of traffic, the cabbie glanced back through the mirror. "So the library, huh? Brother, tell me about that one: I thought they'd all gone extinct." We surged forward at the light. "Somethin' about them bein' obsolete and all, what with ebooks and shit."
As one who made my living trying to keep print alive and kicking, I wanted to take offense, but he was right. These days the establishments were kept around more for the aesthetic than anything of true use. The shelves had become less-than great, and books of any true reason to read by the masses were kept in a much smaller section of the building, where the most popular titles were arranged on the main floor for ease of access. Only true bibliophiles and tourists managed to venture beyond the first few steps toward the second floor, and even the tourists only made it up to the fifth floor simply to look down over the balustrade to take selfies with the feat of aged architecture looming behind them.
"Something I need to take care of," I responded. "Doing a bit of research for a client."
"Nice. So you a lawyer, then?"
I gave him a bit a smile. "Not quite."
"Alright, then: don't tell me, I wanna guess this one." Again he strummed the wheel to the tune on the radio, and turned to quickly look me over once we hit a red light. Facing forward again, he shook his head. "Well you aint much of a fashion man, so you aint a designer. And you dress nice, too, so you aint a detective. Not like the ones I seen, let me tell you, brother." He kept glancing at my reflection periodically for what I could only surmise as further intel. "TBH you remind me of some of them professors I used to know back in Vancouver."
This time I smiled for real. "Close enough."
The cabbie beamed with pleasure. "Harvey's still got it, brother."
He didn't, but I wasn't one to cut the moods of the man keeping me alive in the midst of Manhattan's play called 'Traffic on Ice'. We still had a good number of blocks to go, though, so I sat back and enjoyed the warm air of the heater while making small talk. While we talked I even brought out my phone and took notes on our conversation, for later use. It's not often you get a cabbie this talkative anymore. Most of them tend to keep to themselves or talk solely about the city as if they all figure anyone might be in need of a tour-guide for extra pay.
Eventually we arrived, though in more time than I would have preferred, and I gave him my card with the fare. "You ever feel like writing any of that down, you let me know."
He swung his arm over the seat and seemed a bit bummed despite my offer. "So you aint a professor, then?"
I laughed. "Almost. I could teach lessons if I wanted, but these days I'd rather help new voices reach the masses with their stories. You've got some good tales to regale for us all. If you ever feel like putting words to a page, hit me up first and I'll get you out there."
"For sure, brother." He shook my hand through the window, then made his way back onto the streets.
The wind had picked up since I'd gotten in the cab, that or the storm was just worse this far south on the island, and so I hurried my way up the steps with as careful footing as I could manage. Inside, I strode passed the reference desk with a wave at Helga, the librarian there who knew me by first name basis, and began the climb up to the fourth floor where the cultural studies existed. I kept thinking of Esteban and all this secrecy. I still couldn't fathom why nor how he'd used Lana to get me here, either. She made it seem all cloak and dagger, for what? A trip down memory lane?
Two flights up and I was getting winded. Suddenly my coats were too much and I peeled off a layer at a time until I was left with just my sweater-vest and beanie beyond my usual clothes. Carrying them all was the biggest burden, I found out right away, so I stopped again on the third floor to make my way to the coat-check in the back. I dropped a five into the tip jar for assurance that nothing would be messed with, and made sure to take the e-cig Lana had given me. With all this secrecy, she'd appreciate that extra security, I was sure.
"Here you go, Blank," Jason, the clerk who worked the coat check, handed me a green plastic square with the number 48 printed on it. "That will work fine for everything you gave me."
"But it's a tag per item, isn't it?"
He moved aside and motioned to the racks, all clear except for my things. "Trust me: at this point even the tag is just a formality."
Finally I made it to the fourth floor and began toward the Latin cultures wing. Esteban being what I presumed to be of Spanish origin, rather than how Olga would take me to northern Europe and the Swedish wing, or how Sakura would take me to the Asian cultures wing. It still amazed me that I knew all this after so many years. Part of me wondered if I was being led to this wing under the simple coincidence of Esteban being the only name he remembered from the whole list.
I passed aisle after aisle until at last I crossed in front of the map of the Spanish peninsula. At first glance there was no one to be seen, and it seemed I was the only soul up this way. Then a book shifted on a rack to my right on the side furthest from the windows. I glanced over just in time to see Mauricio Freitas start walking away from me on the other side of the shelf.
"You didn't take as long as I thought you would," he said with all the hushed volume of a regular library-patron.
"That a good thing?" I shoved my hands into my pockets and paced along with him, the black metal shelf of books between us. "And what's with all the cloak and dagger? What the hell, man?"
He shushed me twice, then stopped walking and made it appear as though he were looking at a book he pulled at random. "Look, Blank, I need you to work for me. We'll claim it's a play that I'm commissioning, if the right people ask."
"Work for you how? What could I possibly do that you would need all this secrecy for?"
He seemed to think it over for a long moment, then set the book back on the shelf and resumed walking. "You own a publishing house. You print a regular periodical. I need that access to send out some intel to people I know are listening out for it."
Wait. What? "You want me to print stories in code? So you can get some private shit -- probably illegal, by the sounds of it -- out to clients of yours?!"
Mauricio slapped a book in place and glared at me through the open spaces between shelves. "Damnit, Blank, keep it down!" He took a deep breath and calmed himself. "What you said? It's not entirely true."
"Oh yeah? What part?"
He shrugged. "The fact that it'd be stories, mostly." We hit the end of the aisle and he motioned for me to wait while he switched to the next one away from me, so I could then go to where he'd just been. "I work in a firm, these days. My theater background got me nada, alright? I had to make way with some dark folks just to make ends meet. They took my acting skills as a gift, though. Started to use me as their fake leader and shit."
I slowed my pace, seeing where this was going. "Sonofa-"
"Exactly." He pulled another tome from the shelf. "Now I'm in too deep, but my skills are wearing thin. They've got me posing as a CEO for a company that don't exist, and the FBI is closing in."
"No," I stated firmly. "I'm not doing this for you. I don't care what you got yourself into I-"
"Fucking shit man!" He exhaled through grit teeth. "Don't make me do this, not to you, man." For a brief moment I was confused. When I followed the direction his eyes were motioning to, however, I caught the gleam of a pistol nose hidden under a face-down book on Italian architecture. "Don't test me, Blank."
I almost threw up my hands in exasperation, but thought otherwise seeing the mood Mauricio was in. He could snap at any sudden movement, thinking I was about to bolt. "Fuck me," I breathed aloud instead.
A smile lit upon his cheeks just then, and he carefully tucked the weapon away again. "Right. So the details will come in snippets from here on. Lana will-"
"Why did you bring her in on this?" I asked suddenly. "You know she and I have history. You know I'd give my damned left nut to keep her out of this. So why? Answer that and we might just have a deal."
The grin he flashed was just like the old days: all-knowing with a brotherly mocking tone to it. "You just said it, man: you've got history, and you'd still do anything to save her." He started walking again. "Know this, though: Lana? She's off limits."
"Like hell she is." I recomposed myself and shoved my hands into my pockets defiantly. "I'll do whatever the hell I want with her." I looked away to hide my sheepish grimace, "provided she gives me the chance to ask her."
"Do you want to die, Blank? Cuz messing with her is a sure way of getting that to happen." He sighed and set his back against the shelf, his face away from me. "She's in deeper than I am, man. Like: 'fucking the big guy' deep. You get caught so much as smiling at her too often and I'll have to find another way to get these guys their data."
Defeated, though not willing to show it, not to him, I set my face with determined anger. Let him see my temper hadn't faded in all these years. "What's the data for, anyways?"
"Simply stated: nunya."
"I won't publish coded information that I don't understand the meaning for. Doesn't matter how many rounds you got in there, I won't budge on that one."
He heaved a sigh of frustration. "Fine. You goddamned temperamental shit." The grin seemed to make it a compliment. "Since the FBI is closing in, we need a way to feed out the financials and the codes for them that I am covering for. Only those in the upper reaches are in the know on this, and even then only a select undisclosed few know the planned cypher." With finality, he turned to face me. "You publish the next issue in a week. I know this and more as you can guess. Well the first stream of it gets published with this coming issue. Just the basics for now. That play, BTW? That's where we will hide the code. Use formatting to hide it, I guess: I know how much you liked to mess the lines of that shit."
For the first time, he came around the aisle and met me with a firm handshake. He looked older than I expected, somehow. Like he'd been so stressed that it took years off his life for him. Or maybe it added to the years his body felt. We hugged like age-old buddies, that one armed hug with a slap to the shoulder. "Expect to see Lana in two days with the first run of code, then work it into a play somehow and get it published as some sort of exclusive expose of your work or something. Doesn't matter how, just make it your own shit, and make it obvious to those who know to look for it."
We parted and he backed away a pace. "Don't make me remind you about what happens if you do anything rash. And do not fraternize with Lana, let me make that clear as hundred, man."
With that, he stepped aside and briskly made his way to the stairs and began his climb to the main floor. I watched him go, then leaned over the balustrades to watch him leave. Once alone, I turned my back against the nearest pillar and let my legs collapse beneath me.
What the literal fuck had I just gotten myself into?