1. Geek Mythology
YOU CAN’T JUDGE A BOOK by its cover.
My name’s Florian Bates, and if you looked at me, you’d see a twelve-year-old boy and think, Seventh grader. And while that wouldn’t be wrong, it wouldn’t begin to tell you the whole story. For example, it wouldn’t tell you that, in addition to doing homework and mowing the lawn, my list of chores typically includes solving cases as a consulting detective with the FBI’s Special Projects Team.
And if you looked at the copy of Albert Einstein’s Relativity that was checked out from the Tenley-Friendship branch of the DC Public Library nine days ago, you’d think, Science book. (Okay, first you might look at the picture of
Einstein on the cover and wonder how he got his hair to look that way, but then you’d think, Science book.) However, you’d never guess that the book triggered an international incident involving a Russian spy ring, the theft of national treasures, a European crime syndicate, and a joint task force of the FBI, CIA, and National Security Agency.
And finally, if you looked at our plan to break into the Library of Congress, evade its state-of-the-art security system, and somehow find the single piece of information necessary to solve our case, you’d think my best friend—Margaret—and I were absolutely bonkers.
Okay, so sometimes you can judge a book by its cover.
The plan was totally nuts.
To be honest, it wasn’t so much a plan as it was a list of nearly impossible objectives with no idea how to accomplish them. We knew it was bad. We just couldn’t come up with anything better. We had to unmask a spy who’d spent decades as a deep-cover agent stealing US government secrets. But more important, we had to help Marcus.
Marcus Rivers was in charge of the Special Projects Team. But he wasn’t just our boss; he was family. He was also an amazing agent who never once hesitated to risk his life and his career to protect us. It was our turn to return the favor.
At some point during the case, we slipped up and the spy used our mistake to make it look like Marcus was guilty of theft, corruption, and espionage. Marcus who’d spent his entire career fighting criminals was now accused of being one.
Desperate times called for desperate measures.
“You’re the mastermind,” I said to Margaret as we approached the library. “What are we going to do?”
“Get inside, find the evidence, and prove Marcus is innocent,” she said.
I gave her a sideways glance. “You have any specific details about how we should do those things?”
She shrugged. “I figured we’d just make it up as we went along.”
Like I said, absolutely bonkers.
Crash the “It’s All About the Books” Gala at the Library of Congress
First, we had to get inside the library by crashing a gala reception in the Great Hall of the Thomas Jefferson Building. When we arrived, there were about fifty people in tuxedos and gowns waiting to pass through security.
“How are we going to do this?” I asked.
“Clothes and confidence,” Margaret answered as if that were a complete sentence.
“What are you talking about?”
“I looked up ‘crashing a formal party’ online, and it said the two most important things were clothes and confidence. You’ve got to dress like you belong and act like you belong.”
Between my tuxedo and Margaret’s dress, we had the clothes part covered. It was the confidence component that had me worried.
“Speaking of clothes,” she said. “Why do you have a tux?”
“Because it’s a formal event,” I answered, stating the obvious.
“No. Not why are you wearing it. Why do you have it in the first place? What twelve-year-old owns a tuxedo?”
I couldn’t believe it. “Let me get this straight. You’re giving me a hard time for having something we need?”
“I’m not giving you a hard time,” she said. “I just think it’s a little . . . unusual. Call me curious.”
“Both my parents work in museums,” I explained. “I’ve been dragged to more fund-raisers and exhibition openings than I can remember. They’re usually formal events like this one, so they bought me a tux.”
“Okay, that makes sense,” she said. “It’s also good news. Since you’ve been to a lot of these things, you should fit right in.”
“Well, there’s one big difference between those events and this one.”
“We had invitations.”
She gave me a conspiratorial smile and said, “You’re not going to let a little piece of paper stop us from solving the mystery and saving Marcus, are you?”
She always knew what to say to get me to go along with her schemes. “No, I’m not,” I answered. “Let’s do this.”
There were two lines with security guards manning metal detectors. At the head of each line was a woman with a computer tablet checking invitations. One of the women looked to be in her mid-twenties and wore a black cocktail dress and very high heels. The other wore a longer dress with shoes that were nice but more comfortable. She also had a wedding band on her ring finger.
“The odds are better that the one on the right is a mom,” I said. “That might mean she’s nicer to kids.”
“True,” answered Margaret. “But the one on the left is more likely to think all kids are stupid.”
“Good point,” I said as we got into the line on the left.
During an FBI training session called Outsmarting Your
Opponent, we were taught that the biggest advantage you can have is for the other side to underestimate your abilities.
“When she asks for our invitations, we’ll tell her our moms have them but are already inside.”
“If our mothers are inside, then why are we out here?” I asked.
“That’s where the stupid comes in.” Margaret suddenly adopted the voice of an airheaded middle schooler who spoke in endless run-on sentences. “I was texting my friend Maddie about the party but I had trouble getting good reception so I started walking around trying to get more bars but it just got worse and worse so I went through a door and accidentally got locked outside. OMG, my mom’s going to kill me if she finds out.”
“Do people really think kids talk that way?” I asked.
“I’m counting on it,” Margaret said.
“And why am I outside if you were the one on the phone?” I asked.
“You’re my best friend. You go wherever I go.”
“So we’re both stupid.”
“That’s the plan unless you’ve got a better one,” she said.
I exhaled slowly. “Tragically, I don’t.”
We were about halfway through the line when she realized we had a potential problem. “Uh-oh.”
“What?” I asked nervously.
“She’ll probably want a name to check against the guest list. We’ll need some TOAST help on that.”
TOAST stands for the Theory of All Small Things. It is the method we use to read people and situations in order to solve cases. The idea is that if you look for little details, you can add them up to discover otherwise hidden pieces of information. At the moment we needed the names of two potential “mothers” who were already inside the gala.
“I got it covered,” I said.
I pulled out my phone and started searching.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“Looking on social media for any pictures tagged with that.” I pointed to a banner that read, #ITSALLABOUTTHEBOOKS.
“Oh, that’s kind of brilliant,” she said as she did likewise.
Even though the party was barely an hour old, there were already dozens of photos to scroll through of people inside having fun.
“Find one posted by someone with an unusual name,” I said. “It’ll seem less likely that we made it up. Also, find out where they work in case that’s included on the guest list.”
By the time we reached the front of the line, we were ready to go. Margaret’s airhead act worked like a charm, and when asked, I became the son of a kids’ book publisher
named Mara Anastas. I even spelled it out for her so that she could find it on her tablet.
“See what I mean,” Margaret said as we walked through the entrance. “Clothes and confidence.”
Avoid Detection While Sneaking into the Library’s Secure Area
It was amazing how different the Great Hall looked compared to when we’d come during normal hours. Multicolored lights gave it a party feel, and giant reproductions of famous book covers were hung as decorations. People mingled in clusters while a jazz quartet played on a stage.
A waiter walked past us carrying a tray of finger food, which caught Margaret’s attention. “Ooh, those look delicious.”
“We’re working a case,” I reminded her, “not going to a party.”
She gave me that Margaret smirk. “Actually, we’re blending in at a party so that we can work the case. Besides, if I pass out from starvation, that will attract even more attention.”
She chased after the waiter, and I scanned the room. Now that we were inside, we needed to find the computer
server. The library had an automated system that kept detailed records of its secure areas. If we could access them, we thought we could prove Marcus’s innocence.
Margaret returned carrying a little plate with two toothpick skewers of beef. “The waiter said it’s called bulgogi, and it’s amazing,” she said as she tasted one. “I think it’s Korean.”
“Is that one for me?” I asked, pointing to the untouched skewer.
“I thought you said we weren’t at a party.”
“Well, now I’m worried about passing out due to starvation.”
She reluctantly held up the second skewer, and I snatched it before she could change her mind. It was delicious.
“You’re right,” I said between chews. “We’ve got to track him down and get more.”
“No, no, no,” she said. “This is not good.”
“What do you mean? It tastes great.”
“Not the food,” she replied. “Him.”
She nodded over my shoulder, and I turned to see one of our suspects about fifteen feet from us. It was Alistair Toombs, the director of the library’s Rare Book and Special Collections Division. Luckily, he was facing the other way. We had a run-in with him earlier during the case and couldn’t risk being seen.
We worked our way to the opposite side of the room and tried to disappear into the crowd of people milling around chitchatting.
“We’ve got to find the server room fast,” I said as I studied the building’s layout, trying to logically deduce where it should be. “It has to be cool and dry, which means it won’t have any exterior walls. Humidity can seep through those. They’d also stay away from the lower basement to avoid potential flooding. As far as wiring . . .”
“I hate to interrupt your little Sherlock moment,” Margaret said. “But it might be quicker if we just follow him.”
Next to the stage a computer tech was making adjustments to the audio and lighting boards. He looked like he was just out of college. As soon as he was done, he took his tool kit and left.
“Change of plans,” I said. “Let’s follow him.”
The guy led us back across the room before he got into an elevator labeled STAFF ONLY. After the doors closed, we rushed over to watch the display to see where he got off.
“Two floors down,” said Margaret. “Now we’re getting somewhere.”
“Yeah, except we’re not getting anywhere on that elevator. At least, not without a key card.”
The call button was attached to a card reader.
“Not a problem,” she said. “We’ll just hang around here until somebody gets off the elevator. Then we’ll slip in before the doors shut.”
It was a good plan. At least until Alistair Toombs spotted us. Because we’d followed the computer tech, we were no longer hidden in the crowd. I could tell by Toombs’s expression that he recognized us. He looked angry and was headed our way.
Luckily, at that moment the elevator dinged, and the door opened. We had to wait for a man as he struggled to push an oversized catering cart. We helped him by giving it a tug, and by the time he was finally gone, Toombs had almost reached us. We jumped into the elevator and pushed the buttons as quickly as we could.
“Wait one moment!” Toombs called out as the doors finally closed and we began to descend.
“We’re not going to have much time before he takes the next elevator down and starts chasing us,” said Margaret.
When the doors opened, we hurried out into the hallway. We didn’t want to run because it might attract attention, but we did our best speed walking.
“What are we looking for?” Margaret asked in a hurried whisper.
“Any place we can hide,” I said.
Down here the building showed its age. Over the course of 120 years, it had been built and rebuilt so many times the hallways and storage rooms were mazelike in their complexity. The good part was that that would make it harder for Alistair to find us. The bad part was that it meant it would be difficult for us to find our way around.
When we heard the ding announcing the elevator’s return, we picked up the pace even more. We just kept making turn after turn until we ran into a dead end. Behind us we could hear Alistair’s footsteps in the distance. We had three doors to choose from. Amazingly, one was marked COMPUTERS.
Margaret and I shared a smile. Fate had shined on us.
“Better lucky than smart,” she whispered.
We slipped into the darkened room as quietly as we could and closed the door tightly behind us. We didn’t dare turn on the lights for fear he’d be able to see the glow under the door.
We could hear him getting closer.
More frightening, we could tell that he was trying each door along the way. Most of them were locked, and we heard the rattle of the handles.
“What do we do?” I asked. “Hide?”
Next to the door was a small electronic display that had a keypad and a glowing red button marked LOCK.
I pressed it, and we heard a click.
I cringed at the sound, hoping it wasn’t too loud.
We stood silently in the darkness. Through the space underneath the door, we could see a pair of shoes come to a stop. On the other side, Toombs jiggled the handle, but it didn’t budge. He tried again, but it still didn’t open. Finally he went on his way.
We remained motionless for at least two minutes, and all I heard were Margaret’s slow, measured breaths.
“You think it’s safe to turn on the lights?” she whispered.
“Yes,” I said tentatively.
I found the switch and flipped it. As the lights turned on and my eyes adjusted, I realized that our “lucky” find wasn’t so lucky after all. We weren’t in a computer room. We were in a room full of books about computers. This was, after all, the world’s largest library. Books were everywhere.
“Maybe it’s better to be smart than lucky,” I joked.
“It’s okay,” she said. “At least he didn’t catch us.”
“Should we keep trying to find the server?”
Margaret shook her head. “No. He’s not going to stop looking. Or worse, he’ll alert security. I think we’ve got to get out of the building before someone catches us. We’re not going to be able to help Marcus if we get arrested.”
We waited another minute to make sure he was gone, and then I opened the door.
Or rather, I turned the handle to open the door, but nothing happened.
“Stop messing around. It’s not funny.”
“I’m not trying to be funny,” I said. “It’s locked.”
“Duh,” she said, shaking her head. “Because we locked it.”
She reached over to the keypad and pressed a green button marked OPEN. But it didn’t respond. She tried again but had the same result. I jiggled the handle some more. Nothing happened.
“Margaret,” I said nervously. “I think we may be trapped in here.”
Access Information in the Computer Server Room
Not surprisingly, we had to change our third objective. We were locked in a storage area half the size of a classroom. It was filled with books about the history of computers, manuals that explained how to build computers, and biographies of famous people in computer history. (If only we’d stumbled
into the room with the books about lock picking and prison escapes.)
We tried not to panic.
“Maybe we should call our parents,” said Margaret. “They can come get us.”
It almost certainly meant getting grounded for life, but she was right. That’s when we realized being trapped in the basement of a massive marble building filled with metal bookcases totally disrupts your cell service. No matter where we stood in the room or how much we waved our phones in the air, we couldn’t get any sort of connection.
“Remember when we were pretending to be so stupid that we got locked out of a building?” I said.
“It turns out we are that stupid. Only, even stupider because we got locked in.”
It was becoming harder and harder to keep calm.
“It’s Friday night,” Margaret said, panicked. “What if no one comes back here until Monday?”
And harder still.
“Let’s not think that way. Let’s stay positive.”
“You’re right,” she said with only slight believability. “We can figure this out.”
I tried to flip the lock like they do in movies by sliding
my school ID through the slot between the door and the jamb. After about ten tries, the lock remained completely unchanged, but my ID was mangled beyond repair.
Margaret began typing codes into the keypad. She started with 0000 and then tried 0001, 0002, 0003 . . . well, you get the picture.
“You realize there are ten thousand different potential combinations,” I said.
She gave me the evil eye and asked, “Is that you staying positive?”
“Sorry,” I replied sheepishly as I backed away. “Keep up the good work.”
I started scanning shelves looking for anything about electronic locks or keypads, but I couldn’t make sense of how the books were organized.
“Margaret, can you look at this?”
“I’m kind of busy over here,” she said, focusing on the keypad and trying to make sure she didn’t skip a number.
I took a book off the shelf and brought it over to her.
“I don’t understand this,” I said, holding up the spine for her to see.
She stopped and read the title. “Geek Mythology: The Real-Life Legends and Gods of Computer History.” She looked up. “What about it?”
“I’m not confused by the title. I don’t understand the call number.”
“Exactly,” I replied. “I’ve never seen anything like that in a library before. Shouldn’t it be something like 791.43?”
Margaret smiled when she realized why I was confused.
“You’d think so,” she said. “But that’s because most libraries use the Dewey decimal system. The Library of Congress has its own classification system. We learned about it last year in English.”
“Seriously? That’s so confusing. Why would they do that?”
“I think the Librarian of Congress is upstairs at that gala,” she said. “As soon as I crack this code, we can go ask her.”
I stared at the book, and my mind started piecing together the puzzle. I must have had a far-off look because Margaret reached over and touched my shoulder.
“Are you okay?” she asked.
“Let me see your phone,” I said urgently.
“I’m pretty sure there still isn’t any cell service down here.”
“I don’t want to make a call. I need to check your photo gallery.”
She handed it to me, and I quickly swiped through all the pictures she’d taken during the case, their colors streaming by in a blur. There were two in particular I was looking for, and when I found them, I switched back and forth between them to make sure I was right. Even though I was, I didn’t know what it all meant.
I closed my eyes, and the pieces of the case flooded through my mind. FBI, CIA, NSA, Russian spies, Library of Congress, Albert Einstein, Alistair Toombs, and then . . . books. There were so many books throughout the case. Rare books. Science books. Children’s books. Massive volumes of Shakespeare’s works. A book that belonged to Thomas Jefferson. And now Geek Mythology. Maybe the hashtag was right. Maybe it was “all about the books.” I remembered my mother once telling me, “No matter what you’re searching for, you can always find the answer in the library. The secrets of the world are hidden in books,” she’d said. “All you’ve got to do is look for them.”
And then everything went dark, and I saw the answer right in front of me. I opened my eyes and looked at Margaret.
“We’ve got to get out of here!” I exclaimed.
“Yeah, I realized that a while ago. That’s why I’m typing ten thousand different codes.”
“No, I mean, we’ve got to get out of here because I may have just solved the case.”
“It’s hard to explain,” I said. “But the first thing you have to understand is that Geek Mythology changes everything.”