Sofia has been breathing slowly as if the air around her was scarce. Her ears strained, searching for a noise signalling the presence of another soul. But the library was deader than before. There were no more human beings roaming the endless aisles of books that no one read anymore.
She’d gotten in just before closing time. And quickly made her way to the far end of the second floor, which housed books mostly about politics and history. The general public did not seem to have an interest in those anymore. The gateway to the past, the annals, the endless stories, they all seem…obsolete. Everyone went for ebooks or whatever information was available on the internet. Even if they were from shady, incomplete sources, and sometimes even made-up.
The rows of books had kept her well-hidden from the eyesight of the last stragglers. One of them was a man, in his mid-thirties, with his laptop. He’d snuck in with his re-usable tumbler of coffee. Sofia has seen him there a few times. She imagined that he was unemployed and probably spent all of his time on the free internet available at the library. Or maybe he was a freelancer. Or a research student. She’d never seen a book on his table though.
Then there was the teenage young couple who’d disappeared as soon as they stepped outside of the elevator. They had headed in her direction before swerving off to the other direction as soon as they noticed her sitting in the armchairs. In the last hour, she had heard whispers and giggles. They’d probably used the deserted library to their advantage to make out.
In the middle of the floor was a wrinkled lady with a flimsy shawl covering her shoulders against the cold air pushed out of the vents right above the rows of computers straight out of the late nineties. She’d seemed to be struggling. It seemed the computers were even slower than she was. Someone came in, took a walk, stopped to text on their phone then left. When the brightest lights of the library started going off – a warning that it was closing time – they had all gotten up and packed their bags and waited by the elevator to go down. The young couple had looked flushed. No one seemed to have paid her any attention. Of course, she sunk lower in the armchair to avoid detection.
She’d cased the place a few times, overstayed by about 10 to 15 minutes and realised that not only were the cameras only for show but there was no one who actually came in to check for strays. The 200-year-old library was seriously understaffed. She could have easily asked for their help, but she chose not to. She would rather no one found out the nature of her research. She did not want to arouse any suspicions or be denied access. So, she’d taken it upon herself to get to it.
She stayed in that position for another thirty minutes. The lights had completely gone out by then. The staff members were gone for the day. The last rays of the autumn sun filtered in through the large bay windows, illuminating the inside of the library. She knew from her precious incursions that there would be no one around. But she stayed quiet just in case someone has forgotten something and came back. As soon as the sky was awash in bright streaks of red and orange, she stood up on her wobbly legs. Of course, where she needed to go was definitely darker. She touched her backpack for her torch one more time. She’d brought extra batteries just in case.
This was a mission like no other. It was going to either make her future. Or break it. She had no intention of failing. Not after twenty-four years of trying so hard to fit in, find something worthy to do in life. This was the last night to prove her worth.
She needed to find this book. She had a rough idea of where it would be, but locked doors might cause a problem. That’s all right. She’s come prepared. When she’d requested access to the locked room, which she thought was operated like a bank vault for a library that was so low on funds, she’d been informed that she would need to fill out the forms before being allowed access.
“It’s a matter of record-keeping. They are very rare books, you see. And well-guarded because of their value,” the librarian had stated.
She’d nodded her head, thinking of ways to get in without detection.
“Oh, that’s too bad. I haven’t got my ID with me.”
The next day, she’d come in with the fake ID, hoping that the librarian would not photocopy it, otherwise, that would be another box to check during her mission. Retrieve any traces of her ever being present in this library. She breathed a sigh of relief when the burly librarian simply checked her ID, wrote the security number on the form and showed her to the controlled room. He’d left her there and asked her to call out to him when she was done.
The fifty or so books should have been temperature controlled, but lack of funds made it impossible to preserve them. She would have to be careful. Once she was inside, she took a good look at the room. She was not interested in those books. Right now, they had no value for her. The one she was looking for was most certainly hidden in those walls. Finding the hiding spot was going to be a laborious task.
Spending the night in the library had seemed like the most viable option. Asking for permission would be too much of a hassle. Besides, she did not want to leave any trace of her identity. That would defeat the purpose. Especially with him watching her every move. It was by sheer luck that she managed to shake off her tail last week. Ever since, she’d been careful. This time, she’d taken a few trains, went around the city, hopped on and off three buses, pulled on a hoodie in one of them, raced through a crowded flea market before making her way to the library, just in case. She also got rid of her smartphone and used an analogue one.
Sofia stretched her legs, and her arms. Her eyes had gotten used to the fading light now. She made her way to the book vault, in the underground floor. An old poster of Frodo by the elevator nearly made her jump out of her skin. For a moment, it almost felt like he was about to talk to her, but she laughed at the idea. She quickly descended the stairs, grabbing the rail, careful about every step that she makes. The walls were filled with inspirational framed quotes. The one that caught her eye and made her pause momentarily was,
Every accomplishment starts with the decision to try.
“For sure, for sure,” she’d replied to the framed inspirational artwork. Her nerves were frayed. Trespassing was the least of her concerns. It’s a good thing darkness didn’t scare her. She walked down the long corridors, her steps echoing softly in the dead library.
She was now on the first floor of Bibliothèque de la Fontaine des Érudits. The library, originally a government building, was raised sometime in the late 1800s by the French, and then was taken over by the locals. After a few decades, it was repurposed by the government and ceremoniously given its name in honour of the savants that frequented the library. At one time, it brimmed with scholars, avid readers, researchers, writers, and just general onlookers. With time, technology took over the lives of the populace, but the library failed to keep up with the technological advances.
Her phone was set to silent mode. She could not be distracted by any sounds. She was by herself. Yet, there was this lingering feeling that any sounds she made would alert the authorities. She continued down the old, carpeted staircase. The carpet was ingenuous, it muffled the sounds of footsteps. And right now, it certainly served her purpose. She pushed the door to the backward rooms. It was all dark now. The books all stood quietly on their stands, complicit in her actions. Even if they weren’t, they could only tell what they were dictated to. In only so many words.
Sofia had been looking for that book for so long now. She’d spent years trying to find it. She could barely contain her surprise when she realised that the book must have been hidden by her Granddad. She wondered what must have made him do it. Was it the lingering suspicious, further amplified by old age and insanity?
To a random person, it was a simple book detailing the everyday life of the Beauregard family. But for her, it held the key. The key to her future. It would either confirm her suspicions or prove her wrong. In either case, maybe her heart would rest once she knew the truth. Whatever the case, she had a long hard fight ahead of her.
If he found out, he probably would unleash his wrath. He was looking towards taking over the mansion. Mansion was an understatement for sure, with its multiple floors, endless corridors, thirty of so room, it felt like a small palace. But Sofia was determined not to let her Grandfather’s mansion fall into the hands of the business mogul. He had no feelings for architecture, nor for history. He’d made his fortune buying under-priced properties, ripping them off the lands, only to build cheaper ones in their place. And slowly, he was erasing history from the face of the country.
Not about to let that happen. She’d never cared much for family history, until her mother called her to inform that Damon Crowe, known for his tenacity, wanted to tear down the mansion. The worst part? He laid claims to her Grandfather’s property stating that he was the heir of Arthur Beauregard, the second son of Alexander Beauregard. Her grandfather’s great-uncle.
The family was in shambles. Sure, the mansion was in a sorry state, but it was what they could still call home. They would never dream of selling it, nor pulling down such a beautiful piece of architecture. Also, Crowe was a complete stranger. It felt weird and awkward.
Sofia has now reached the book vault, a strong word to call a room secured by two heavy doors, locked with a set of antique keys that the librarians kept by their station. The room must have served as a basement back in the day. The walls were still in their original state. Archways adorned the corridors she took. Ornate chandeliers now stood on the side of the corridors, remnants of the past. Next to them, flickering phosphorescent tubes were drilled into the cold rock walls.
She pushed open the first set of doors, then took out her own set of antique keys. Somehow, she knew that they would work. The doors were similar to the ones of the mansion. The mansion where she had spent her childhood in, and her teenage years exploring with her siblings. They had gone their separate ways now, but if her memories served well, and since it seemed to be the same architect that built the two buildings, she would find the book behind one of the walls.
She fumbled with the keys for a few minutes. She’d gone on a whim thinking that they would work. But if the key didn’t fit in… her next option would be to break the door down. She tried the next key. Click. Yes, it worked! Her doubts were confirmed. Same architect. Sneaky bastard.
The clock struck seven. She had exactly twelve hours to find what she needed. She took a good long look around the room as soon as she hit the switch. The light would not alert anyone. Besides, the security team only took rounds at about eight, and then twelve, and then four in the morning. And that too, only around the building. She was safe for the night. The room consisted of old books, limited first editions, a few were defaced, mostly by opportunists who would steal a page or two to add to an existing work and make an easy quick buck.
Sofia took out her work gloves and started checking out for cracks in the walls. Just the way Grandaddy had shown her when he was teaching her the history of the mansion and its many secret hiding places. Once, they came across the diary of a nanny. It held accounts of the day-to-day events, including the ongoing affairs between the colourful staff members (Sabrina, the housekeeper recently married, had her eyes on the handsome footman, who was in love with the cheerful daughter of the baker), the scandals that could have shamed the Beauregard family if they ever came to light, the advances made by guests on the housemaids, and the petty revenges of the kitchen staff on the mean butler by adding too much salt to his food, or serving him his eggs undercooked – apparently they made him gag every time.
By one in the morning, Sofia had checked every nook and cranny of the room. The task had proved to be quite laborious. With Grandaddy, they would spend days searching for a new spot. The architect must have loved secrets. Sometimes, the stash they found were empty. Sometimes, they were filled with the odd trinkets or books. It was never easy to spot once, unlike in the movies.
She must have covered half of the room when Sofia finally came across the rock. “This must be it,” thought Sofia, excitedly. It moved when nudged. Yes! She carefully removed it from its holding. It was heavy but Sofia had prepared for this her whole life. She then lowered the rock onto the piece of cloth she had put down – she did not want any dust or debris left behind. She took a deep breath before shining her torch inside, her heart pounding loudly against her chest. Her weak knees nearly brought her down, but this was not the time. She put her hand inside the wall to retrieve the meticulously wrapped item.
“This must be the book.” She closed her eyes, praying hard that it contained the answers to her questions. She checked the time; it was now nearly three in the morning. She still had time to put everything back together. But first, she needed to find out the truth. She sat down and carefully unwrapped the cloth. It was the book! In fact, it was more of chronology of events, family lineage, and major historical events. And if her memory was correct, it contained the lineage of the family in details. In his later years, Grandaddy had thought it wise to hide the book. Was it because of the man who tried to rob him? That had remained a mystery.
Sofia quickly flipped through the pages, looking for the answer she had been seeking for months now. Her eyes scanned the pages until they finally rested on the one that seemed to hold the key. Her heart skipped a beat. She has found it.
The judge banged his gavel, called the court to order. The excitement in the courtroom was palpable. Somehow, this judicial fight had attracted the attention of the media, blog writers, the curious housewives, and so on. The courtroom fell silent, with everybody sitting on the edge of their seats, waiting for the final verdict. It was a curious case for many. A real estate mogul versus the few meek heirs that remained from the Beauregard family.
The judge looked down at the paper. He’d made his decision. It was only right. He took a look at his courtroom, looked at the defendant, and then at the plaintiff.
“It is without doubt that this was a… lengthy trial, but it shouldn’t have. Based on the insufficient amount of evidence presented by the plaintiff, Mr Damon Crowe, I hereby deny his claim to the property. The mansion will remain in the family of Ms Sofia Reid, the defendant, who has demonstrated with authenticated documentary evidence that the property rightfully belongs to her and her mother, as stated in the will of the late Mr Alphonse Beauregard.”
The courtroom erupted in excited chatter. Sofia turned to her lawyer, “Thank you so much!”
“Well, you did most of the legwork. Are you ever going to tell me where you found the book?”
“I found it in the exact place my Grandad buried it.” She’d refrained from telling her lawyer how she’d found it. The means wasn’t exactly legal. But after the stunt that the impostor had pulled, she couldn’t really trust anyone. Thankfully, she’d found an expert who verified the authenticity of the book and she was able to enter his appraisal in court.
It was a huge blowback to Damon Crowe, who’d used shady methods to lay claims to various properties. He had not seen it coming. And when the evidence was entered that Arthur Beauregard was deceased in infancy, he’d had no response. And from there on, the tables have turned in her favour. Damon Crowe had picked the wrong person to underestimate.