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All acts of pleasure

M. R. Sellars

Thursday, December 1 2:47 P.M.

New Orleans Public Library, Main Branch

Louisiana Division, Archives

New Orleans, Louisiana

PROLOGUE:

Steady rain was falling, relentlessly spattering the windows that looked out onto a small third floor courtyard.

Rain was probably the last thing this city needed at the moment. Especially when one considered that the floodwaters, which had invaded the streets and neighborhoods in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, had only recently been pumped back to from whence they came.

Of course, Mother Nature was on a roll, and she had every intention of hurling more water down upon the dampened city, whether it needed it or not. Fortunately, however, she also had a soft spot for this magickal place, so this go around the precipitation was merely a steady soaking instead of a violent downpour.

Inside the library the unmistakable funk of mildewed carpet, coupled with countless strains of mold, filled the air. The stagnant aroma relentlessly intermingled with the rich, “academic” smells of paper and ink, both old and new, decaying and preserved. Not one inch of the building was immune as the ventilation system pumped the malodorous air throughout.

Even upstairs where the archives resided on the third floor of the building, well above the highest point the floodwaters had managed to reach, the smell was still only of slightly lessened intensity. This fact was most likely due to its competition for dominance over the tang of oxidizing microfilm rolls and sporadic wafts of warm ozone.

The telltale whine of a laser printer whirred upward, increasing in pitch until barely audible, revealing the source of the second of the sharp olfactory notes that stood out against the pervasive, flat mustiness. With a series of clicks and a plastic rattle, it spit out a piece of paper then hummed back into idleness.

The piece of computer equipment occupied a low table next to a copier, located directly across from the main desk, all of which was just a short walk from the elevator. A few feet beyond the office equipment was the far corner of the information counter. There, the room made a sharp turn, wrapping around the rear of the empty courtyard.

Perpendicular to the wall opposite the windows, shelves stacked with genealogical records and census data stood at attention, lined outward in perfect formation. At the far end of that dogleg, which terminated the L-shaped room, a man was hunched over, barely visible behind the back-to-back rows of chest-high metal cabinets.

He straightened upward and gently placed a hand-sized, square box atop the cabinets then peered back downward over the rim of his eyeglasses. After a moment he began moving slowly to his right, fixed gaze scanning intently. A few seconds later he came to a halt and tugged at the front of the sheet metal cube before him.

A drawer rolled out on full suspension slides, the decrepit ball bearings rattling complaints into the relative quiet of the room. Stepping backward, he extended it fully and then began carefully running his index finger across the contents. It took only a few seconds before he selected yet another of the cardboard boxes and extracted it from the shallow bin. Then, elbowing the drawer shut once again, he gathered the first container along with a tattered steno pad and headed back toward the center of the dogleg where the microfilm readers were set up in short rows.

Activity had been minimal in the archives earlier in the day. Other than himself, there had only been what appeared to be a few students researching projects and an elderly couple who were obviously on a quest for a lost ancestor. What that had meant was that there were plenty of readers to go around.

But, that was earlier, and unfortunately, things had changed. The number of warm bodies occupying the third floor had increased dramatically over the past hour or so, and it was now becoming commonplace to need to wait your turn.

The man peered up and down the stubby ranks, checking the backside of the furthest stand of machines and found none free. With a tired sigh, he trudged over to a table and started to pull out a chair. The wait could be short, or it could be long. One could never tell.

“Excuse me…Sir?” A feminine voice came into his ears just as he’d edged the seat from beneath the table.

He turned to find a very blonde and very young-looking woman motioning to him with one hand as she spun a crank with the other in order to rewind the film she had been viewing.

“Yeah?” he grunted.

“I’m done here, if you need the machine,” she replied.

He took notice of the fact that her voice held none of the affectations of the area he’d grown accustomed to hearing since he’d arrived. In that sense, she seemed almost as out of place as he felt. Still, she was young, clad in blue jeans and a hooded sweatshirt, with a nylon backpack sitting on the floor next to her chair. His sluggish brain added up the evidence at hand and came to the conclusion that she was probably a college student from out-of- state.

“Yeah, thanks,” he replied with a shallow nod. His voice was a tired drone, which all but broadcast the fact that he was surviving on nothing more than coffee and very little sleep.

He nudged the chair back beneath the table then walked over to the side of the reader and waited patiently. The young woman removed the spool and stuffed it back into a box then gathered her notebook. Hefting her book bag from the floor, she slipped it onto one shoulder then stepped to the side and gave him a quick smile.

“You kind of have to coax it a bit sometimes,” she offered. “It sticks every now and then.”

“Yeah.” He nodded. “I had to use this one a little earlier. Thanks.”

“Soooo…Genealogy?” she asked.

He grunted, “Huh?”

He had already dropped a spool of aging film from the box into his hand and was pushing it onto the feed spindle when she asked the question, so he wasn’t really paying attention. In actuality, he was thinking about the fact that, until today, he hadn’t done research via microfilm since he was in college, and that had been longer ago than he cared to remember. He mentally “hmmphed” as the memory passed and mutely attributed the interaction with the young student as triggering it.

“I was just wondering if you were maybe doing genealogical research,” she continued, undaunted by his inattentive demeanor. “You know, investigating your roots. That sort of thing.”

“Yeah,” he glanced back at her and replied with a tired nod. “Yeah, I guess you could say it’s something like that.”

He returned his gaze to the front and pressed the plastic spool inward until he felt it snap into place then tugged at the free end of the celluloid. He could literally feel that the young woman was still standing behind him for some unknown reason. He briefly wondered if he should reach back and check for his wallet, however, what she was exuding definitely didn’t feel malicious. In fact, unless he missed his guess, it felt like a strange mix of curiosity and arousal. At any rate, since no hairs were rising on his neck and no alarms were going off inside his head, he mentally shook it off and tried to ignore her.

She didn’t let him.

“Yeah, I figured as much,” she finally said. “I’ve been watching you.”

He looked over his shoulder at her again. “Yeah? Why’s that?”

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