As far as hangars went, this wasn’t a large one. An array of lights hung from the interior’s four steel crossbeams, and every surface, including the cement floor, gleamed with the white sterility of a surgical operating theater. The place smelled of fresh paint. Except for the Gulfstream, a navy blue Mercedes sedan, and the dozen or so long brown boxes piled against one wall, the hangar stood completely empty. Beyond the hangar doors, the late morning shone brilliant blue, with only a few idle clouds and a soft breeze blowing over the endless acres of airport tarmac.
Bledsoe stepped onto the glossy hangar floor and wobbled slightly. His head still buzzed from only having slept a couple of hours on the plane. Apart from that, he’d worked through the night making preparations. At some point soon, his adrenaline and excitement would bleed off and he’d need some rest.
He shook Smith’s hand, then Lynch’s.
“Thank you for helping on this case,” Bledsoe said to Lynch, clearly the more dominant of the two men. “What’s the latest?”
“Sir,” said Lynch with just a bit too much eagerness. “I made a sweep of every prepaid cellular retail outlet this morning, and—”
“After you lost the boys.”
Lynch swallowed. That knocked a little wind out of his sails. “Yes, sir. But I sorted the options based on proximity to the boys’ last known location and filtered again by the businesses’ opening times.”
“Short version,” said Bledsoe.
“I found the Radio Shack where the boys bought new phones.”
Bledsoe nodded and gave the man a hint of smile. Maybe this guy wasn’t only dumb muscle, after all. “Good. And you got the tracking info?”
“Yes, sir. About ten minutes ago.”
“The boys are together,” offered Smith. “They’re at the Central Library downtown. Or they were. We lost their signals as you were taxiing in.”
Bledsoe fought down his anger and forced himself to think.
“So either they disabled the phones, suspecting they were being traced, or they went somewhere there’s no signal.”
Lynch gestured toward the waiting Town Car. “Either way, we have police in the building as we speak. A library security guard who saw the boys is talking to them now. We’ll know shortly.”
Bledsoe stretched before ducking into the vehicle’s back seat. At least this ride wouldn’t be as long as the last.
Lynch got behind the wheel. Smith walked around the car and reached for the passenger door, but Bledsoe called to him, “Smith, hand me one of those boxes, will you?” He pointed to the pile against the wall. After a moment’s hesitation, Smith fetched one and set it across Bledsoe’s lap.
“What’s in the boxes?” Lynch asked.
“Radiation sensors,” said Bledsoe without elaborating. He opened the box and set a hand on the dark display screen mounted at the end of its long, double-pronged sensor rod. “Actually, Smith, put three more in the trunk. The rest are safe here?”
“Yes, sir,” said Smith flatly as he moved to obey. “The Bureau owns this hangar.”
Once finished, Smith settled into his seat up front as Lynch drove them out. The building’s single large door slid down behind them. “The library, sir?”
Bledsoe stifled a yawn as he powered up the radiation scanner and started navigating through the options and menus he’d studied in the documentation during his flight.
“No,” he said. “The police can handle that end for now. And you, Smith, I need you to grab another car.”
The younger man’s eyes narrowed as he realized he was being pulled from the main action.
“May I ask why, sir?”
“Because I want to make sure we check out the Tagaloa boy before anyone else does. Question the family and check out the boy’s stuff.”
Agent Smith turned away before Bledsoe could read his face, but the younger man’s stillness as he answered “yes, sir” spoke plenty about his displeasure. Bledsoe didn’t care. Smith’s type couldn’t help asking lots of questions. Fine — go ask them out in the suburbs. Maybe he would even find something useful.
“Out you go,” said Bledsoe. “Double quick, and let me know what you find. Meanwhile, I have another stop to make.”
The elevator doors parted before Winston and Shade to reveal a cement basement filled with rank after rank of bookshelves, a place library employees called “the stacks.” The air was dry and cool, and the smell of countless thousands of aging volumes was so thick Winston could almost taste the paper dust on the back of his tongue.
Winston pulled Shade along with him out of the elevator and alongside the wall next to the stack room entrance. He peeked his head around the corner and saw no one, but that could change at any moment. He knew that library staff did the lion’s share of their sorting down here. Most of the requests he made for old or rare texts with information unlikely to be found online nearly always ended up down here.
Winston tried to recall the library’s layout. He was fairly sure that there was an exit on the far side of the stacks room. It would be way in the back, off to the left, and it would come out at a little recessed door most people didn’t even know existed. The door wasn’t hidden, but it probably hadn’t been used in decades, and the library’s landscaping had grown up around it.
Elsewhere in the library, someone called the elevator. The doors slid shut, and the boys heard the whir of its car climbing.
“What about the elevator shaft?” Shade whispered.
Winston cocked his head at Shade, curling his upper lip in an expression that asked, “Are you insane?”
Shade’s shrug retorted that the elevator shaft was no crazier than anything else happening today.
Winston tightened his grip on Shade’s sleeve. “Come on.”
They hurried into the open space of the stacks room, resisting the urge to crouch. If they were spotted, Winston could always try to play the “we’re lost” card.
Once through the room’s open space and into the cover of tall bookshelves, Winston slowed, listening. Straight ahead, at the end of the aisle, a box fan hummed on a low table blowing air back toward the entrance. Off to their right, someone gave a short laugh.
“I know…saw…too,” said a female speaker. In the basement’s confines, with the sound broken up by all the shelving, it was hard to judge her distance. Twenty feet away? Thirty?
Behind them, the elevator door chimed and panic spiked through Winston’s body. Now at the end of the aisle, he turned to look over his shoulder. As he did so, his backpack bumped into the box fan. It slid on the tabletop and tottered at the edge.
Winston couldn’t see the fan, but he felt what he’d done and threw a hand back to try and stop the disaster. Through blind luck, his palm landed atop the fan with a soft clang. Winston cringed at the noise, but at least the fan remained upright.
The elevator doors started to open just as a man’s voice to the right asked, “What was that?”
Winston tried to lunge forward, but he was twisted and off balance. Then Shade collided with his backpack, propelling him forward and almost off his feet. He had just enough time to register a figure wearing dark blue slacks and a light blue short-sleeved shirt with a patch on the arm before he and Shade were behind the cover of the nearby shelving.
They ran, and Winston was glad for the fan’s constant hum covering the slap of their footsteps. The stack room’s far wall took a little dogleg jog to the right, further hiding them from view. That wouldn’t last long, though.
“Portland Police!” boomed a man’s voice. “Anybody here?”
“Here!” said both library workers in unison.
Right in front of Winston stood the wood and glass double doors of the back exit. A fire alarm pull handle was mounted in the wall beside it. In the top-right corner of the door frame, Winston saw a wire emerge from the molding and dip into the wall’s sheetrock. An alarm. If he forced open the door, the alarm would go off. That might be all right. They could run for it, but Shade was a slower runner. Beyond the doors waited a bare anteroom containing only two stacks of boxes, some used cans of paint, and a single folding chair. At the far end of this room, the real exit to outside waited, and it might be tightly locked. Winston couldn’t gamble on getting them out in only a few seconds.
They ran past the door and another three or four bookshelves until they reached the corner of the stack room.
“Is it just you two down here?” asked another voice, lower than the others.
Great, so there were at least two cops. More footsteps indicated that the employees were rushing to meet the police near the room’s entrance.
“I don’t know,” said the library guy. “We were at the desk over there, prepping carts. There was a noise over that way right when you showed up, but it could be nothing.”
“Any co-workers down here with you?” asked the first policeman.
“You mean clerks or pages? Sue and Jim left for break, but that was like five minutes ago.”
“I heard the elevator,” said the woman. “Maybe a minute ago, but we didn’t hear anyone come in. Sometimes people push the wrong button.”
“We’ll check it out,” said the officer.
They heard hard-soled shoes tap across the concrete, heading to their left. That put them near the back wall, not far from the exit Winston wanted.
Shade glared frantically at Winston, hands open, pleading for an idea on what to do next.
Winston had no idea. Filled bookshelves took up the entire wall behind them, and a room-length shelf stood before them. If they went left, they’d run into the police, and to the right, there was nothing but more shelving and a large canvas bin half-filled with books sitting below a large, square opening in the wall. As he watched, Winston heard the muffled bang of someone closing a metal door high above the square opening. A second later, a couple of paperbacks whisked down a slide and landed atop the bin’s pile.
“What was that?” asked the higher-voiced officer.
“Book drop,” called the woman employee.
Winston stepped closer to the book drop and tried to peer into the opening. The angle up the metal slide was impossibly steep, and, skinny as he was, not even Winston could hope to climb through a book drop door.
The elevator bell chimed again.
“Babits,” said the deeper-voiced officer. “Wait by the elevator there, will ya? Just for a minute. I’m not sure we’re alone down here.”
“OK,” answered a new voice, sounding just around the corner of the room’s entrance.
They were trapped and had only seconds left until being discovered. Could they hide? Could they burrow like worms into the canvas book bin and hide under the surface? No, not enough time.
Winston gripped his hair, wanting to scream in frustration as he looked from side to side, to the ceiling — anywhere.
All they had were shadows, but it wouldn’t be enough.
Winston pointed at the book drop opening and mouthed the word “climb.” Shade looked from Winston’s face to the opening and back again, clearly finding the request impossible.
Winston stepped behind Shade and shoved him toward the book drop. “Try!” Winston hissed next to his friend’s ear.
Shade gingerly approached the canvas book bin and put one leg over its side. The thing was stained and stitched in a dozen visible places, and it seemed likely to split. Miraculously, though, the fabric held. Winston held the bin from rolling as Shade’s weight shifted. The springs under the bin’s platform creaked, but Winston was able to dampen most of the noise by supporting the platform’s edge with his foot.
Shade pressed his hands to the inside of the metal slide, brought up his other leg, then got one knee over the lip of the chute.
Winston looked over his shoulder. Still no one in sight. He put both hands under Shade’s butt and pushed. Shade wriggled into the chute, looking for a handhold and a way to let the rubber of his tennis shoes help with climbing the slick surface. The sides of the little tunnel were barely wider than Shade himself, and his backpack rubbed on the chute’s top, making the effort even more cramped.
Winston came up right behind him. He got one leg into the book bin, then the other, trying not to let the bin roll or creak. He glanced up, hoping that Shade would offer a helping hand, but no such luck. Shade was scrambling for his own ways to get farther and higher in the chute without making any noise.
“It looks like this back door is still locked,” called one officer. “Is there any way through here?”
“No,” said the woman. “It would trigger an alarm if it was opened. No one ever uses that.”
“Right.” Short pause. “Tony, you go check that side. I’ve got this.”
Multiple sets of footsteps.
Winston got one knee over the chute’s lip. He pushed against the sides of the metal slide as Shade had, trying to use the pressure to help pull himself up, but he didn’t have Shade’s upper body strength. Even worse, his palms were slick with sweat. As he tried to heave himself up, his left palm suddenly slipped free and squeaked loudly along the smooth sheet metal. Winston completely lost any hold he’d had and dropped.
Something clamped over his wrist.
As his legs dangled over the canvas bin, Winston looked up and found Shade’s top half hovering over him. His bottom half had somehow vanished into the shadows.
“I heard—” one officer said.
“Check it,” answered the other.
The walking turned into jogging. Thud-thud-thud-thud.
Stifling his grunts, face turning purple in the shadows, Shade heaved Winston up.
Winston got both feet over the chute’s bottom edge. Shade shifted and got a hand under Winston’s armpit and continued pulling. Winston braced both feet against the left wall of the chute and tried carefully walking upward as Shade yanked on him. Neither boy dared to breathe.
Suddenly, a rectangular light appeared high above them. Silhouetted shapes shifted across the tiny opening. Something slid toward Winston, and he barely had time to lift his butt off the slide before the first of four books slid under him and plopped into the canvas bin below. High above, someone sneezed, and the metal flap of the 11th Avenue drop box slammed shut.
Winston froze. Shade’s arms trembled with exertion, but he stopped trying to pull Winston up and only held him steady. Looking down past his shoulder, Winston saw an arm reach into the book bin and grab the top title.
“Theodore Rex,” said the officer. Winston could see the hand flip the book over to expose the back cover.
“My wife just said I should read that,” said the other cop, farther away.
The hand tossed the book back into the bin. Footsteps walked away from the chute opening.
“I’ve got nothing over here,” said the nearby officer. “You?”
“What are you looking for?” asked the woman.
“We can’t really say. I’m sure it’s nothing. If we actually found what we’re looking for here, in a library, I’d eat my badge.”
The footsteps continued to grow fainter. Shade carefully reached down and got a hand under Winston’s other armpit. He let out a quiet sigh of relief as he was better able to support Winston’s weight in his awkward position.
“Having three of us down here is stupid. Lee, how about the stairs? I’ll check the sub-basement. Babits, keep an eye on the elevator.”
The two other officers mumbled agreement and the formerly purposeful footsteps turned into shuffling. Winston waited until it sounded like no one was nearby, then he whispered, “Up.”
Shade resumed lifting Winston’s torso and Winston walked his feet up the wall. Winston got about level with Shade and felt the upright side of the chute under is forward foot stop, giving him a blunted edge on which to rest some of his weight.
“Scoot over the edge like me.,” breathed Shade near Winston’s ear.
Winston did so, first getting the backs of his knees over the edge, then his thighs. When his hips were balanced on the ledge, he turned over and took his own weight.
“This is really uncomfortable,” whispered Shade. “I don’t know how long I can stay up here.”
“How far down is the drop?” asked Winston.
Winston figured it would only be six or seven feet. It made sense that there would be an empty space behind the slanting chute, just like the storage area under most stairs.
“Try to hold on for a bit. Can you find a foothold?”
“No! I’m trying to—”
Shade’s foot banged into the side of the chute. The thing rang out with a loud bonggg that must have been audible throughout the basement.
In the dimness, Winston saw Shade’s eyes grow wide with fright. Both of them froze.
Suddenly, Winston reached out, grabbed one of the straps on Shade’s backpack, and yanked him forward. Without waiting to explain, Winston reached over Shade’s head, pulled across the top zipper of his pack, and reached inside the bag. A second later, he drew out the hardback copy of Algebra and Trigonometry: Structure and Method. Winston set the book flat on the slide. Using both hands, he let go of the book and pushed himself up and back. The book slid downward as his body fell free from the chute.
Winston’s feet hit hard dirt. Shade landed a few feet away, and Winston heard the textbook smack into the canvas book bin, causing several volumes to shift around.
Distant footsteps approached. Winston reached out for Shade and found him in the nearly total blackness under the chute.
“Not a sound,” he breathed.
The footsteps grew louder, and an officer called out, “Quite a racket from this thing.”
“Yeah,” said the male library worker, sounding much farther off. “Sometimes people just chuck stuff. Every so often, people shout down to us, looking for hobbits or whatever. We don’t reply.”
Winston heard the footsteps stop and a shuffling sound that had to be the officer moving around books in the bin. He heard a click, and then a flashlight beam appeared on the chute ceiling above them. It provided enough light for Winston to see that they were in a triangular, sloping space, just as he’d suspected. A thick layer of dust coated the cement floor. The walls near the chute slide were painted black, but otherwise the place was blank gray concrete that apparently hadn’t been touched in many years. Winston wondered if even the librarians knew about this spot.
The light moved about for a few seconds before clicking off. Officer Babits walked away to resume his post by the stacks room entrance.
The boys remained motionless for what felt like an eternity, but after what was probably three or four minutes, the other two officers returned.
“Nothing,” one said.
“Same,” said another.
“Alright,” sighed the deeper-voiced policeman. “Babits, stick around for a while, just to be sure. We’ll probably be out of here within the hour, soon as whoever called this shows up and figures out it was a wild goose chase.”
The officers called the elevator and were gone.
“We can’t stay here,” whispered Shade, pulling Winston close.
“I know.” Winston looked up and around but could see nothing. He had no idea how to get out of this hidey-hole, much less out of the library. “Believe me, I know.”