After dropping the books at the Reference Department, Matheus discovered that the Reference Department needed books delivered to the Children’s Department, which in turn required books to be sent to the Technology Department. While walking around the library, bringing the stacks back and forth, Matheus was roped into doing various odd jobs as they came up. Books needed to be taken to the shelves. Books needed to be taken from the shelves. A few patrons even asked him for their help, and he would guide them through the intricacies of the Dewey-Decimal system, or how to log into a computer.
It was usually quite rare for Matheus to be asked for help. If given the choice between speaking to someone as physically intimidating as Matheus or continuing to search on their own, most would choose to continue searching through the maze of shelves. Matheus wondered what was different about today that made people want to come up to him. His responses were always polite, but brisk. It was some time before the fog of emotions that his encounter with Tom had generated subsided.
Over the hour or so that Matheus spent walking between the different departments, his phone buzzed five more times, and each time he found himself growing more irritated with it. Technically, phone use was prohibited from library staff members, but it was a rule that was rarely enforced strictly. In reality, there were plenty of opportunities for him to check his phone while he was hidden between the shelves, but he didn’t. Matheus had no interest in communicating with anyone more than he had to.
He was in one of the staff-only corridors on his way back to the Technology Department, a stack of books held under one arm, when he felt the buzzing start up for a sixth time. This time it didn’t stop.
Breathing out heavily through his nose, Matheus repositioned the books in his arm, taking care not to drop them. There were more than he’d carried from the Technology Department, and though to him they weren’t noticeably heavy, their sizes and shapes were awkward, especially when held in one hand.
The books jostled and shifted as Matheus finally managed to tuck them under one arm before he removed his phone from his pocket.
For the second time that day, Matheus’s ungainly fingers were unable to form a strong grip, and the books flew out from under his arm in every direction.
He gritted his teeth, and managed to bite back a curse that was rising in his throat.
He breathed in and out again, and brought up his phone. Just in time to see the caller ID vanish as the call dropped. The screen cleared, he saw the previous five texts that had been sent to him, one after the other, all from the same person.
Matheus’s expression didn’t change as he saw the name, but his back stiffened. He read the messages.
Hands: hey mellow can you work tonight?
Hands: no staff and itll be busy – message back
Hands: are you ignoring me or something??? message back
Hands: message back
Hands: message back
The last notification was, unsurprisingly, a call from Hands.
Matheus looked at the phone for a few seconds, his eyes unmoving.
‘You okay there, big guy?’ said a voice.
Matheus’s head snapped up. One of the custodians that Matheus had not spoken to before was approaching him down the corridor. She was a young woman with a few colourful tattoos on her bare forearms and several piercings. She was frowning at the mess of books around him.
‘Yes, thank you,’ said Matheus, remembering himself. Crouching down, he began stacking the books, ‘I received an urgent phone call and…’ he half-smiled, ‘They seem to have gotten away from me.’
She bent down too to help. ‘Using your phone on shift? Not good.’
He had to glance at her face to see if she was being serious, but she was grinning back at him.
‘I throw myself entirely on your mercy,’ Matheus responded, taking the last of his books and returning to his feet.
‘Hey, as long as you don’t tell anyone I call by boyfriend in the stacks, we’re square,’ she walked past him and away down the corridor.
Matheus continued back to the Technology Department. He glanced up at Sandra as he reentered the room, but she was completely absorbed in her computer work. Before returning to the desk, Matheus glanced at the corner of the room where the twitchy young man had been sitting. The space was still empty.
He decided to detour to the spot, walking as softly as he could in the quiet room. Not only was the desk empty, but the coffee cup was still sat there, as full as it had been when he’d last seen it.
There was something else too. Matheus had noticed it before, but couldn’t place it then. There was a faint smell from around the spot where the man had been sitting. A chemical smell that would have been undetectable had it not been so harsh. It smelled almost like gasoline.
Filing away the thought as something he would have to think about later, Matheus continued to the desk, and sat down next to Sandra.
‘Feeling better?’ she asked without looking up.
Matheus felt irritated at the question. There was no way to answer it without admitting that he had been feeling bad.
‘Quite well,’ he said in the end. Before she could ask anything else, he said, ‘Did you notice if that young man sat on computer eleven returned for his coffee?’
Sandra looked confused at him for a moment. ‘I hadn’t even noticed he’d left.’
‘When I checked the computer, not only had he left his drink, he had not so much as turned the computer on.’
‘People are strange,’ she said, turning back to her machine.
Matheus had completed his tasks for the day. Normally, after doing so, he would either find some more work that needed doing from his supervisor, or he would continue to read his book. He would have preferred to do either, but he knew that in a few minutes Hands would be calling him again.
Matheus was under no illusions about how stealthy he was, but his large frame could at least block what he was doing. From the opposite side that Sandra was sitting, he reached into his pocket and removed his phone. Smoothly, he placed the phone into the depression on the desk where the keyboard was set so that it would be difficult for Sandra to see it.
Matheus unclipped a small stylus from the side of the phone and opened up his messages. Carefully pecking out the letters with the stylus, he wrote:
Seconds after the message had been sent, the word ‘Read’ appeared next to it. Matheus kept the phone open, waiting for the response that he knew would be quick to arrive.
After less than two minutes, it did.
Matheus ground his teeth slightly. He wrote:
I have plans. Already working today.
This time the message arrived almost instantly.
cmon mellow im desperate here
Matheus tapped the stylus on the desk a few times. Then he typed another message.
Can’t. Sorry Hands.
Matheus was putting the phone away, when he felt the buzz of another message coming through. He sighed and removed it again.
can you do friday?
Clipping out the stylus, Matheus paused a long moment before he began to write. The image of Luis and the small bar momentarily floated across his mind.
I may have something on. I’ll get back to you soon.
The response came back right away.
do it asap need answer by end of day
Matheus slotted the phone into his pocket and turned back to the computer screen, ready to check his emails for what must have been the tenth time that day.
His phone began buzzing, and didn’t stop. He reached for it, ready to send Hands a terse message explaining that he was at work and that if he didn’t stop contacting him he’d be turning off his phone. But it wasn’t hands. It was an unknown number, though one that did seem oddly familiar.
He turned apologetically to Sandra.
‘I’m terribly sorry about this, Sandra, but I am afraid I may need to take this call. Would you mind if I took my fifteen minute break now in order to answer?’
Sandra barely looked up from her computer. ‘You’re a popular one today, aren’t you Matheus?’
Matheus’s cheeks were unable to redden, but he felt embarrassment, nevertheless.
‘Sure, I’ll try hold down the fort here while you’re gone,’ she said, indicating the room where a dozen or so people quietly tapped away at their computers.
Matheus moved to the corridor as quickly as he could, while still trying to tread lightly. He was painfully aware that he looked like a man desperately trying to reach a washroom in time, but that couldn’t be helped.
By the time he’d reached the corridor again, the phone had stopped ringing. Using the stylus, he managed to bring up the number once more.
It had barely rung, when someone picked up.
‘Hello, Mr Costa!’ said the voice on the other end of the line.
From it’s over the top cheerfulness and the fact that the number knew his name, Matheus almost assumed it was a spam call and hung up. Then the voice clicked.
‘Hello, Agent Sandy. How have you been?’ Matheus said, automatically.
‘Ugh, busy. So much paperwork with this case. Looking forward to the weekend, am I right?’
‘Likewise,’ Matheus responded. He didn’t want to embarrass Sandy by letting him know that he had shifts on the weekend as well.
‘Speaking of which, sorry for contacting you during work hours, but do you have a minute to talk? Won’t take long, trust me.’
‘I have elected to take my break, Agent Sandy,’ said Matheus, ‘I can spare a few minutes.’
‘Terrific! Now, so, so sorry about being a pain here, but I’m afraid that the first thing I need to ask is whether or not it would be possible to take up even more of your time. I know that last time you agreed to see us, I said that it would probably be a few days when next we met. Well, things have been accelerating somewhat with our investigations, and, if you were free, we would love the opportunity to speak to you again today. Would that be possible?’
While Sandy had been talking, Matheus had seen where the conversation had been going. In fact from the moment that he realised it was Sandy, he knew that he would be asked to come in to the the Parma Station that day. Even with the foreknowledge, Matheus hadn’t thought of a concrete answer. Apprehension and suspicion blended together within him into an unpleasant malaise.
‘I… Well, I’m not certain, Agent Sandy,’ he said, ‘I am not entirely sure that I have the time. And it has been an eventful and long shift today.’
‘Hey, no pressure!’ responded Sandy, quick and cheerful, ‘I understand that you can’t be spending all your time coming in and out of our offices. However, we really do have some important things to go over and it would be very helpful to the investigation. Also, it will likely only be forty minutes – an hour tops.’
Matheus caught the sigh before it left his mouth. ‘Very well, Agent Sandy, I suppose that I can spare an hour.’
‘Matheus, you are the best!’ said Sandy. Matheus was surprised to hear the sincerity in his voice. ‘Just so you won’t be surprised, we are hoping to see Dr Pretorius and Mrs Hashiji. And, of course, Monica Jansen will be present.’
Matheus considered this. On the one hand, he wanted to limit interaction with the other eight as much as possible. On the other, it was a relief to know he hadn’t been singled out by Parma.
‘Will the meeting take the form of another interview as it did on the previous occasion?’
‘No,’ said Sandy. Matheus caught a fraction of a second’s hesitation in his voice before he continued. ‘Today we’ll be running some tests, actually.’
Any relief that Matheus might have felt was washed away in an instant. ‘I thought that we had completed all necessary tests on the day of the attack? Your people said that the results were still being processed.’
‘There’s a specialist that we’ve only just managed to arrange a meeting with. We believe that she’ll be able to figure things that might have eluded us during our initial testing period.’
Matheus paused, his discomfort growing.
‘If you’d be uncomfortable doing it today, we can always try to reschedule?’ Sandy said.
‘No. No, it’s quite alright, Agent Sandy,’ Matheus lied, ‘I would be happy to complete any tests that you require.’
‘Excellent! Would three thirty be alright for you?’
Matheus glanced at his watch. It was two fifteen. ‘That should be fine, my shift will be concluding in forty-five minutes or so.’
‘And would you like a lift? I can send somebody out?’
‘No,’ said Matheus, too quickly, he realised, ‘No, I shall make my own way to the station. Taking into account the subway, it is really not terribly far from where I work.’
‘Great! Good speaking to you Mr Costa, and I shall see you soon.’
‘Likewise, Agent Sandy,’ said Matheus.
He hung up, and pushed the phone and stylus back into his pocket.
‘“Agent Sandy,”’ said a voice behind him, ‘How mysterious.’
Turning, he saw the tattooed and pierced custodian who’d seen him on the phone earlier. She was pushing a mop and bucket, and wearing the largest grin that Matheus had ever seen.
‘I bet he’s a secret agent, like you, right?’ she said, still smiling.
Rage consumed Matheus’s mind for a split second, but he let it go. ‘You’ve uncovered me,’ he said instead, raising his hands up like a criminal coming clean, ‘I am a secret agent. I mean,’ he let some sarcasm creep into his expression and spread his arms a little, presenting his body, ‘I am so terribly inconspicuous.’
She laughed. Against his will, Matheus found himself warming to her.
‘But seriously, who do you call Agent Sandy?’
‘Agent Sandy is,’ he paused for a moment, ‘Investigating the accident that happened a little over a week ago.’
The woman tilted her head, ‘The gang thing?’
‘That is correct,’ said Matheus, carefully.
‘Were you involved in that?’
‘I am afraid so. Not a participant, of course,’ he said, catching the change in her expression, ‘Just the wrong place at the wrong time.’
‘Shit!’ she said, incredulously, ‘Are you alright?’
Matheus smiled as well as he could. ‘I will survive.’
‘You do that,’ she said, continuing to push her mop and bucket, ‘Take care of yourself, big fella.’
Matheus still had a little over five minutes of his break left, so he went to the washroom. The staff washrooms of the library were like staff washrooms everywhere. They were grey, bland, and permanently in a state of disrepair not quite severe enough to warrant serious attention.
After finishing up, Matheus went to the sink. Delicately, he reached out two enormous fingers and tried to turn the faucet. It took him several seconds to coordinate his fingers around the painfully small handle, to turn it without breaking it. Getting soap was easier, requiring only a few short presses from the wall-mounted dispenser. After throughly washing his hands, he managed to tear off three squares of hand towels one after the other, each on the first try.
Matheus grinned to himself as he dried his hands. He had managed to negotiate using the sink without breaking anything or becoming frustrated.
When he became aware of how proud he was, and why, his mood altered. The joy faded to nothing in an instant, like a record scratch interrupting a song. Then loathing, hot and boiling, washed over Matheus. Like a dark, red sea sweeping through his insides.
Matheus restored his face to a neutral expression, carefully avoiding looking into the mirror. After compressing the hand towels into a small, dense ball, he deposited it into the trash, and left the washroom.