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Chapter 19

On the way back to Dod, I shuffle through Katie's pictures of Princeton Battlefield. In shot after shot I've caught her in midmotion, running toward me, hair streaking behind, mouth half open, her words caught somewhere in the registers of experience beyond the camera's range. The pleasure of imagining her voice in them is the joy of these pictures. In another twelve hours I'll see her at Ivy, escorting her to the ball she's been anticipating almost since we met, and I know what she'll be waiting for me to say. That I've made a choice I can stick to; that I've learned. That I won't be returning to the Hypnerotomachia.

When I get back to the room, I expect to find Paul at his desk, but his bunk is still empty, and now the books on his dresser are gone. Taped to the top of the door frame is a note, this one in large red letters.

Tom

Where are you? Came back looking for you. Figured out 4S-10E-2N-6W! Gone to pick up topo atlas at Firestone, then down to McCosh. Vincent says he has the blueprint. 10:15.

P.

I read the message again, piecing it together. The basement of McCosh Hall is the location of Taft's office on campus. But the last line leaves me cold: Vincent says he has the blueprint. I pick up the phone and call the squad house. Charlie's on the line in a matter of seconds.

What's up, Tom?

Paul went to see Taft.

What? I thought he was going to talk to the dean about Stein.

We need to find him. Can you get someone to cover for y-

Before I can even finish, a muffled sound interrupts the call, and I hear Charlie talking to someone on the other end.

When did Paul leave? he says, returning to the line.

Ten minutes ago.

I'm on my way. We'll catch up to him.

Charlie's 1973 Volkswagen Karmann Ghia pulls up in back of Dod more than fifteen minutes later. The old car looks like a metal toad rusted in mid-hop. Before I've even lowered myself into the passenger seat, Charlie's got it in reverse.

What took you so long? I ask.

A reporter showed up at the squad room when I was leaving, he said. She wanted to talk to me about last night.

So?

Someone at the police department told her what Taft said in his interrogation. We pull onto Elm Drive, where little crests of slush give the asphalt a choppy surface, like ocean water at night. Didn't you tell me Taft knew Richard Curry a long time ago?

Yeah. Why?

Because he told the cops he only knew Curry through Paul.

Just as we enter north campus, I spot Paul in the courtyard between the library and the history department, walking toward McCosh.

Paul! I call out the window.

What are you doing? Charlie snaps at him, pulling up to the curb.

I solved it! Paul says, surprised to see us. The whole thing. I just need the blueprint. Tom, you're not going to believe this. It's the most amaz-

What? Tell me.

But Charlie isn't hearing any of it. You're not going to Taft's, he says.

You don't understand. It's done

Charlie leans on the car horn, filling the courtyard with noise.

Listen to me, Charlie interrupts. Paul, get in the car. We're going home.

He's right, I say. You shouldn't have come out here alone.

I'm going to Vincent's, Paul says quietly, and begins walking in the direction of Taft's office. I know what I'm doing.

Charlie forces the car into reverse, keeping up with Paul. You think he's just going to give you what you want?

He called me, Charlie. That's what he said he was going to do.

He admitted he stole it from Curry? I ask. Why would he give you the blueprint now?

Paul, Charlie says, stopping the car. He's not giving you anything.

The way he says it, Paul stops.

Charlie lowers his voice and explains what he learned from the reporter. When the police asked Taft last night if he could think of anyone who might've done something like this to Stein, Taft said he could think of two people.

The expression on Paul's face starts to fade, the excitement of his discovery waning.

The first was Curry, Charlie says. The second was you. He pauses, letting the emphasis stand. So I don't care what the man told you over the phone. You need to stay away from him.

An old white pickup truck rumbles down the road past us, snow crunching beneath its tires.

Then help me, Paul says.

''We will. Charlie opens the door. We'll drive you home.

Paul tightens his coat around him. Help me by coming with me. After I get the blueprint from Vincent, I don't need him anymore.

Charlie stares. Are you even hearing us?

But there are sides to this that Charlie doesn't understand. He doesn't know what it means that Taft has been hiding the blueprint all along.

I'm this close to having it in my hands, Charlie, Paul says. All I have to do is stand up for what I've found. And you're telling me to go home?

Look, Charlie begins, I'm just saying we need to-

But I interrupt. Paul, we'll come with you.

What? Charlie says.

Come on. I open the passenger door.

Paul turns, not expecting this.

If he's going with or without us, I say to Charlie under my breath, leaning back into the car, then I'm going too.

Paul begins walking toward McCosh as Charlie considers his position.

Taft can't do anything if there are three of us, I say. You know that.

Charlie exhales slowly, sending a cloud of steam into the air. Finally he makes a space for the car in the snow and pulls the keys from the ignition.

The walk to Taft's office takes an eternity, pacing up to the gray edifice in the snow. The room lies in the bowels of McCosh, where the hallways are so cramped and the stairs are so steep, we have to descend single file. It's hard to believe Vincent Taft can breathe in here, let alone move. Even I get the sensation of being too big for the place. Charlie must feel like he's trapped.

I look back, just to make sure he's still there. The sight of him behind us, filling the doorways and covering our backs, gives me enough confidence to keep moving. I realize now what I was too bluff to admit before: if Charlie hadn't come with us, I couldn't have gone through with this.

Paul leads us down a final hallway, toward the single room at the end. Because of the weekend and the holiday, every other office is locked up and dark. Only beneath the white door bearing the placard of Taft's name do I see the rich glow of light. The paint on the door is chipped, curling over itself near the edge, where it closes into the jamb. On the bottom of the panel is a faint line of discoloration, the high-water mark of an old flood from the steam tunnels coiled just beneath the basement floor, a stain un-painted since Taft's arrival in the time before time.

Paul raises his hand to knock, when a voice comes from inside. You're late, Taft growls.

The knob squeaks when Paul turns it. I feel Charlie bump up against my back.

Go on, he whispers, pushing me forward.

Taft is sitting alone behind a great antique desk, sunken into a leather chair. He has thrown his tweed coat over the back of the chair, and with shirtsleeves rolled up to his forearms, he is proofing manuscript pages with a red pen that looks tiny in his fist.

Why are they here? he demands.

Give me the blueprint, Paul says, coming right to the point.

Taft looks at Charlie, then at me. Sit down, he says, pointing toward a pair of chairs with two thick fingers.

I glance around, trying to ignore him. Wooden bookshelves line the tiny office on all sides, covering the white walls. Trails run through the dust on their surfaces where volumes have been dragged off to be read. There is a path worn in the carpet where Taft walks from the door to his desk.

Sit, Taft repeats.

Paul is about to refuse, when Charlie nudges him into the chair, wanting to get this over with.

Taft balls a rag in his hand and wipes his mouth with it. Tom Sullivan, he says, the resemblance finally occurring to him.

I nod, but say nothing. There's an old pillory on the wall above his head, mounted with its jaws open. The only hint of light or color in the room is the red morocco of book bindings and the gold of gilt pages.

Leave him alone, Paul says, sitting forward. Where's the blueprint?

I'm surprised how strong he sounds.

Taft tuts, bringing a cup of tea to his mouth. There's an unpleasant look in his eyes, as if he's waiting for one of us to put up a fight. Finally, he rises from the leather chair, forces the sleeves of his shirt up higher, and plods over to a space in the bookshelves where a safe has been built into the wall.

He spins the combination with a hairy hand, then pulls the lever and swings the door on its hinges. Reaching inside, he produces a leather notebook.

Is that it? Paul says faintly.

When Taft opens it and hands something to Paul, though, it's only a typed piece of Institute stationery, dated two weeks ago.

I want you to know where things stand, Taft says. Read it.

When I see the effect the paper has on Paul, I lean over to read it as well.

Dean Meadows:

Pursuant to our conversation of 12 March regarding Paul Harris, herewith the additional information you requested. As you know, Mr. Harris petitioned for several extensions, and has been highly secretive concerning the content of his work. Only when, at my insistence, he submitted a final progress report last week, did I understand why. Enclosed phase find a copy of my upcoming article, Unveiling the Mystery: Francesco Colonna and the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, tentatively scheduled for fall publication in Renaissance Quarterly. Also enclosed is a copy of Mr. Harris's progress report, for the purposes of comparison. Please contact me with any further inquiries.

Sincerely,

Dr. Vincent Taft

We're speechless.

The ogre turns to Charlie and me. I've worked on this for thirty years, he says, a strange evenness in his voice. Now the results don't even bear my name. You have never been grateful to me, Paul. Not when I introduced you to Steven Gelbman. Not when you received special access to the Rare Books Room. Not even when I granted you multiple extensions on your ineffectual work. Never.

Paul is too stunned to respond.

I won't have you take this from me, Taft continues. I've waited too long.

They have my other progress reports, Paul stutters. They have Bill's records.

They've never seen a progress report from you, Taft says, opening a drawer and pulling out a sheaf of forms. And they certainly don't have Bill's records.

They'll know it wasn't yours. You haven't published anything on Francesco in twenty-five years. You don't even work on the Hypnerotomachia anymore.

Taft pulls at his beard. Renaissance Quarterly has seen three preliminary drafts of my article. And I've received several calls of congratulation on my lecture last night.

Remembering the dates on Stein's letters, I see the long provenance of this idea, the months of suspicion between Stein and Taft over who would steal Paul's research first.

But he has his conclusions, I say, when it doesn't seem to dawn on Paul. He hasn't told anyone.

I expect Taft to react badly, but he seems amused. Conclusions so soon, Paul? he says. To what do we attribute this sudden success? He knows about the diary. You let Bill find it, Paul says. You still don't know what he found, I insist.

And you, Taft says, turning to me, are as deluded as your father was. If a boy can puzzle out the meaning of that diary, you think I can't? Paul is dazed, eyes darting around the room. My father thought you were a fool, I say.

Your father died waiting for a Muse to whisper in his ear. He laughs. Scholarship is rigor, not inspiration. He never listened to me, and he suffered for it.

He was right about that book. You were wrong.

Hatred dances in Taft's eyes. I know what he did, boy. You shouldn't be so proud.

I glance over at Paul, not understanding, but he's taken several steps away from the desk, toward the bookshelf.

Taft leans forward. Can you blame him? Failed, disgraced. The rejection of his book was the coup de grace. I turn back, thunderstruck.

And he did it with his own son in the car, Taft continues. How pregnant.

It was an accident I say.

Taft smiles, and there are a thousand teeth in it.

I step toward him. Charlie puts a hand against my chest, but I shake it off. Taft slowly rises from his chair.

You did it to him, I say, vaguely aware that I'm shouting. Charlie's hand is on me again, but I pull away, stepping forward until the edge of the desk is knifing into my scar.

Taft turns the corner, bringing himself into reach.

He's goading you, Tom, Paul says quietly, from across the room.

He did it to himself, Taft says.

And the last thing I remember, before pushing him as hard as I can, is the smile on his face. He falls, the weight of him collapsing onto itself, and there is a thunder I feel in the floorboards. Everything seems to splinter, voices shouting, sights blurring, and Charlie's hands are on me again, yanking me back.

Come on, he says.

I try to jerk free, but Charlie's grip is stronger.

Come on, he repeats to Paul, who's still staring at Taft on the floor.

But it's too late. Taft staggers to his feet, then lumbers toward me.

Stay away from him, Charlie says, extending a hand in Taft's direction.

Taft glares at me from across the span of Charlie's arms. Paul is looking around the room, oblivious to them, searching for something. Finally, Taft's senses return and he reaches for the phone.

A stab of fear registers on Charlie's face. Let's go, he says, stepping back.''Now.

Taft punches three numbers, ones Charlie has seen too often to mistake. Police, he says, staring directly at me. Please come immediately. Pm being attacked in my office.

Charlie is pushing me out the door. Go, he says.

Just then, Paul darts over to the open safe and pulls out the balance of what remains inside. Then he starts pulling papers and books from the shelves, uprooting bookends, turning over everything in his reach. When he's got a pile of Taft's papers in hand, he backs away and dashes out the door, without so much as a glance at Charlie or me.

We bolt after him. The last thing I hear from the office is the sound of Taft on the phone, announcing our names to the police. His voice carries through the open door, echoing down the hallway.

We dart through the corridor to the dark cellar stairs, when a rush of cold descends from overhead. Two campus police officers have arrived at the foot of the steps on the ground floor above us.

Stay right there! one of them calls down the narrow staircase.

We stop short.

Campus police! Don 'f move!

Paul is looking over my shoulder toward the far end of the hall, clutching the papers in his left hand.

Do what they say, Charlie tells him.

But I know what's caught Paul's eye. There's a janitor's closet down there. Inside is an entrance to the tunnels.

It's not safe down there, Charlie says under his breath, edging toward Paul to keep him from running. They're doing construct

The proctors mistake the movement for flight, and one comes barreling down the stairs, just as Paul makes for the door.

Stop! the proctor cries. Don't go in there!

But Paul is already at the entrance, pulling the wood panel open. He disappears inside.

Charlie doesn't hesitate. Before either of the cops knows it, he's two steps ahead, moving fast toward the door. I hear a thud as he jumps to the tunnel floor, trying to stop Paul. Then his voice, shouting Paul's name, echoes up from below.

Come out! the proctor booms, nudging me forward.

The officer leans in and calls again, but only silence follows.

Call it in the first one begins to say, when a thunderous noise conies roaring up from the tunnels, and the boiler room beside us begins to hiss. Immediately I know what's happened: a steam pipe has burst. And now I can hear Charlie screaming.

In an instant, I'm at the threshold of the janitor's closet. The manhole is pure darkness, so I take a wild leap. When I hit the ground, adrenaline is forking through me, live as lightning, and the pain from landing fades before it spreads. I force myself up. Charlie is moaning in the distance, leading me toward him, even as the proctor yells overhead. One of the officers has the sense to realize what's going on.

We're calling an ambulance, he calls into the tunnel. Can you hear me?

I'm moving through a soupy mist. The heat intensifies, but the only thing on my mind is Charlie. For seconds at a time the hiss of the pipe drowns out everything else.

Charlie's groans are clearer now. I push forward, trying to get to him. Finally, at a turn in the pipes, I find him. He's buckled over himself, motionless. His clothes are ragged, and his hair is matted to his head. In the distance, as my eyes adjust, I can see a gaping hole in a barrel-size pipe near the floor.

Hum, Charlie groans.

I don't understand.

Hum

I realize he's trying to say my name. His chest is soaked. The steam hit him right in the gut. Can you stand? I ask, trying to put his arm around my shoulder. Hum he mumbles, losing consciousness.

Clenching my teeth, I try lifting him, but it's like trying to move a mountain.

Come on, Charlie, I plead, jerking him up a little. Don't fade on me.

But I sense I'm talking to less and less of him. There's more and more dead weight.

Help! I bark into the distance. Please help me!

There are gashes in his shirt where the pressure shredded the fabric, soaking him to the skin. I can hardly feel him breathing.

Mmm he gurgles, trying to curl a finger around my hand.

I grab his shoulders and shake him again. Finally I hear footsteps. A beam of light knifes through the fog and I can see a medic-two of them rushing toward me.

In a second they're close enough for me to see their faces. But when the beams of their flashlights finally cross Charlie's body, I can hear one of them say, Oh, Jesus.

Are you hurt? the other says to me, padding at my chest with his hands.

I stare back at him, uncomprehending. Then, as I look down at the circle of my stomach lit by his flashlight, I understand. The water sprayed across Charlie's chest wasn't water at all. I'm covered in his blood.

Both of the EMTs are with him now, trying to raise him up. A third medic arrives and tries to move me, but I fight him off, trying to stay at Charlie's side. Slowly I feel myself beginning to slip away. In the heat and the darkness, I'm losing my hold on reality. A pair of hands guides me out of the tunnels, and I see the two officers, with two other policemen behind them now, all watching as the ambulance team drags me above ground.

The last thing I remember is the look on the proctor's face as he stands there, watching me rise from the darkness, bloody from my face to the tips of my fingers. At first he looks relieved, to see me stumble out of the wreckage. Then his expression changes, and the relief disappears from his eyes, as he realizes the blood isn't mine.


Chapter 18 | The Rule of Four | Chapter 20