By Sabina Malik
Rupi spun the iron wheel and opened the vault door to The Library of False Histories. Moonlight flooding in through the mile-high glass walls illuminated the millions of volumes housed inside. Upon entering, she sealed the vault and took a deep breath. Stealing from the archive was a capital offense, and Rupi wasn’t in the mood to be hanged.
Rupi’s cloudy breath colored the refrigerated air. The government abolished all books during the deadly Misinformation Wars, but they’d preserved one copy of each book within a climate-controlled archive.
A thin layer of fog concealed the upper section of the bookcase ladder. The library’s founders placed the most notorious books, such as the thick volume she needed, at the top of the stacks nearly 5000 feet up.
She stroked the books’ forbidden spines—some broken, others faded, sporting divisive titles. For the fifteen-million the book mafia had offered to pay her, she’d risk her life burgling a dozen bookshelves.
Rupi needed to steal the book. Her pitiful librarian’s salary barely covered Viraj’s school fees, let alone rent. After today, her son would have a life filled with pony rides and sailboats.
As she climbed the ladder, the cold numbed her limbs; her thoughts muddled in the oxygen-sparse air.
The ping-pong of voices echoed throughout the library.
Rupi froze. Shit.
The librarians had arrived two hours early. There must be a last-minute Congressional visit scheduled, necessitating a security sweep.
Rupi flattened herself ninja-like against the ladder and adjusted her hip pistol. She’d really hoped to avoid a firefight tonight.
A dozen AK-47 toting librarians patrolled the aisles, scouring the literary paradise for intruders.
Legend had it that librarians actually read books before the war. Now they were little more than glorified security guards, chosen for their devotion to the country’s conservative literary laws.
Rupi’s frozen palms slid, projecting her backwards off the ladder. She frantically grabbed at the air, and her fingers hit the steel rung.
The two librarians in crimson parkas walking below stopped abruptly. They skimmed their UV flashlights up and down the bookshelves, just missing Rupi in her wannabe cat burglar jumpsuit.
Rupi licked her sandpaper lips. Her heart was a wild bird in her chest.
This was all that snake Anil’s fault.
One month ago, when the book trafficker approached Rupi in the botanical park, she’d been at a life crossroads, a metaphorical fork in the road. Her husband Anil had run off with his mistress, and she faced raising their son alone on a librarian’s salary. She’d chalked the man’s fifteen mil offer up to dumb luck, but there was no such thing. Book mafias always found the black sheep in the librarian herd.
The librarians switched off their flashlights and exited the building.
Rupi resumed climbing, inhaling the musty paper smell of aging books. The twinkling stars above the glass ceiling lit her vertical path. The dust-coated shelves tickled her nostrils. Centuries had passed since anyone had touched these manuscripts.
A mile up, at the top, Rupi skimmed the books’ spines: Ball, Beta, Bhag… Holy shit. She’d found the book! A criminal thrill ran up her spine, and her heart skipped a million beats of rebellious excitement.
She slid the heavy book off the shelf, and it smelled of grass and apples. She slipped the tome into her crossbody bag and took a deep, satisfying breath.
Someday she’d tell Viraj about the wicked thing Mommy had done to secure his future. Too bad that morality couldn’t pay their rent.
Having made it back down the ladder, Rupi ran to the vault door with cramped and aching legs. She entered the twenty-three digit access code she’d “borrowed” from her supervisor.
The keypad flashed red.
Rupi entered the code again, but the vault remained sealed. If someone had alerted security to her presence, they would have changed the code.
Her palms sweating, she tried again.
A green light.
Rupi did a silent happy dance.
She spun the iron wheel and left the Library of False Histories.
Incessant crickets chirped in the darkness, while Rupi waited amidst the tropical foliage. The trafficker was thirty minutes late to their rendezvous in the botanical park.
Rupi’s heart sank.
She and Viraj couldn’t miss their early morning flight. She’d called in sick tonight; if she missed another shift, her supervisor would report it, and Viraj could end up in foster care.
The dark tree leaves rustled, and the trafficker appeared.
Rupi handed him the book.
He took the volume in his gnarled fingers, carefully opening it to the first page. A puff of dust escaped, spritzing his silver beard. He read a few passages and closed the book with a smile.
“Well done, Ms. Sharma.” He revealed an envelope.
Rupi grasped the envelope, but the man kept it in his firm grip.
Her eyes widened.
“Could I tempt you with another job?” He gave her a sly smile. “Double your money?”
“Not a chance.” She laughed, emboldened by the evening’s adventure.
“Very well then.”
He handed her an envelope containing two Swiss passports and transferred the fifteen million to Rupi’s offshore account on his device. Switzerland was the only country which didn’t extradite for literary crimes.
Viraj was heavy in Rupi’s arms as they waited in the serpentine airport security line.
“Why’s your hair red?” Viraj tugged on her curly department store wig.
“Shh, baby.” She kissed his soft cheek. “Tell you later.”
After wheels up, Rupi sipped her first-class bubbly while Viraj drank apple juice and watched cartoons. Anil used to call her “boring and predictable.” If he could just see her now.
Only after she and Viraj cleared customs at Geneva airport did Rupi think to herself, fifteen mil for a book called the Bible? Jeez, that must be some goddamn interesting book.