The Vortex

The Vortex

Copyright 2013 by William L. Sullivan, from The Oregon Variations

“Visit the Oregon Vortex!” the billboard shouted. “Home of the House of Mystery!

Brian knew it was a tourist trap, but he pulled off Interstate 5 at the Gold Hill exit anyway, figuring he needed a chance to stretch his legs—and perhaps lighten his spirits after a stressful week in San Francisco. Did it matter that the corny Vortex billboard had a “For Sale” sign in the corner?

Following arrows, he drove through a yuppified gold mining town where ancient brick buildings housed beauty salons and wine tasting rooms. Then the signs sent him up a canyon past trailers and horse barns and slopes full of madrone trees. He pulled into a gravel parking lot and walked a narrow bridge across a creek to a gift shop.

“Welcome to the Vortex. Just one?” the girl behind the counter asked.

Brian checked the prices posted on the wall. “Sure.” He could afford ten bucks, even on a whim.

“You’d better hurry. The tour’s about to leave.” She slid him a ticket. On the front was a drawing of what looked like a glowing green basketball. Wavy text below the illustration explained, “The Oregon Vortex is a spherical field of force, a glimpse into a strange world where the improbable is commonplace and everyday physical facts are reversed.”

For the next forty minutes Brian and half a dozen other bemused tourists were herded by a vivacious teenage guide through the woods to a sagging wooden shed, where the sloping floor made people stagger to the left. A ball that rolled out the window on a plank miraculously rolled back, apparently uphill. An old broom stood up on its bristles, balancing at a weird angle. But people didn’t really look shorter or taller depending on where they stood, despite what the tour guide said.

Back at the gift shop Brian asked, “So this place is for sale?”

The girl at the register cocked her head. “Not the whole place. Just the Vortex.”

“And what exactly is the Vortex?” Brian asked.

“You know.” The girl shrugged, chewing gum. “A spherical field of force.”

Gert Samson, owner of Samson’s Book Bunker, had learned her business the hard way, through years of battle. When wounded, she retreated to strategize in the solitude of the rare book room, a windowless sanctum on the fourth floor. Amid leather spines, marbled endpapers, and gilt lettering she shoved aside her desk’s laptop computer and uncapped a Monteverde fountain pen. Some lists should be executed only in ink. Such was the secret archive of her war with Amazon, the giant that had laid waste to so many other Portland bookstores. So far the battle list had been a litany of strategic retreats:

Train Brian.

Don’t cut staff.

Sell pens, not iPads.

Host events with real, live authors.

Create a web page.

Cut hours, not staff.

Sell toys along with children’s books.

Post a blog of staff picks.

Don’t cut staff, but don’t replace those who leave.

Sell puzzles among the fiction.

Start selling the rare books on eBay.

Start cutting staff.

Gert tightened her lips. Employees were like family. The giant must think he was winning, sucking her into the black hole that had swallowed Murder By the Book, The Catbird Seat, and so many other stores. But Samson’s had bunkered in this old brick building for a century, and like every successful giantkiller, Gert had one last weapon in reserve. She touched the gold nib of her pen to the list, writing in careful longhand,

Give Brian the Box.

Gert remembered the day thirty-seven years ago when her father had suddenly retired, announcing that he wanted to write a novel about runaway missionaries in a vineyard. “You already know how to run the bookstore,” he had reassured her. “The rest is just good judgment.” Gert had asked, “But how do you get good judgment?” He had replied, “Experience.” “And how do you get experience?” Her father had laughed and said, “Bad judgment.”

Perhaps because of that memory, Gert hesitated a day and a half before calling in her son.

With his pants hanging low, Brian shambled into Gert’s rare book bunker sleepily, as if he still stayed up all night playing online Scrabble. Now that he no longer lived at home, Gert didn’t know how he spent his nights. The quiet young man became more of a mystery to her each year. But perhaps that is what you need in a secret weapon, she thought. Perhaps that was why her father had trusted her.

“So what’s up, Mom?” Brian shook stringy hair out of his eyes. “Trying to hack into Amazon’s high command again?”

For a moment Gert considered changing her mind. “No, we can’t attack the giant head-on. Instead I want you to drive to San Francisco.”

Brian blinked. “Why?”

“To open a branch. I’m tired of retrenching, and to be honest, we’re up against a wall.”

“You’re mixing metaphors, Mom.”

“Don’t talk back. We need to turn our nest egg into a cash cow.”

Brian bit his lip. He had investigated the bookstore’s cash flow. There was no reserve. All he had found was a slow cash leak. When he found out which employee was pilfering from the till, they’d be able to cut one salary. That might be enough to buy the store another few months before the lights went out.

Gert unlocked a desk drawer. She lifted out a stack of ancient check registers. Then, to Brian’s surprise, she removed a wooden panel that served as a false bottom. From the space underneath she withdrew an old-fashioned Roi-Tan cigar box. Gert set the box on the desk and flipped back the lid.

Bundles of hundred-dollar bills lay packed inside like Monopoly money.

Brian opened his mouth. But then he closed it again. Suddenly he was struck by the suspicion that he had found the embezzler. Could his own mother have been dipping into the till?

“I know how surprised you must be,” Gert said. “Every week for twenty years I’ve managed to set aside two hundred-dollar bills. When times were tough it was hard to keep my resolve. But I knew times could get tougher, and that’s when we would need an emergency fund most.”

“So you’ve—“ Brian wanted to say stolen, but that wasn’t true. She owned the store. “You’ve collected a million dollars in a cigar box?”

“Use your head.” Gert marveled that a knack for numbers could skip generations. Her grandfather Friedrich, the founder of the Book Bunker, had been as cagey a businessperson as herself, but her father and her son seemed to only understand words. “It isn’t a million dollars. Twenty years times fifty-two weeks times two hundred dollars is a little over $200,000.”

“Whatever. And now you want me to use it for some kind of investment?”

“Someday soon I’ll have to retire, and then the whole business will be out of my hands.” Gert pushed the cigar box toward him. Her eyes dampened as she added, “You already know how to run the bookstore. The rest is just good judgment.”

She had been hoping that Brian would ask how to get good judgment.

Instead her son cast a strangely distant look at the cigar box. “Wallace Stevens once said that money is a kind of poetry.”

“Wallace Stevens?” Gert asked. “The poet?”

“Yeah, he sold poetry, so he knew what he was talking about. But Stevens was smart enough to keep his day job. He worked at an insurance agency in Connecticut.”

“Brian, I need you to focus. The fate of the Bunker is in your hands.”

“I know, Mom.” Brian tucked the cigar box under his arm.

Brian’s trip to San Francisco had not gone well. He found a dozen bookstores that had closed or were about to close. He could make a down payment on one that was small, or buy a large warehouse in an out-of-the-way district, or rent a large space at a good location for eighteen months. None of these seemed like a good option. He went to Berkeley and talked to the former owners of Cody’s Books. They said the only things they had sold before going under had been video games and toys. Bookstores were dying. People bought from Amazon, the evil giant. “You’ll need a miracle to keep Samson’s alive.”

Brian was driving back to Portland when he saw the sign for the Oregon Vortex. This was exactly the kind of frivolous detour his mother had never allowed on road trips. Perhaps that’s why it was irresistible.

“How can you sell a force field?” Brian asked.

The girl at the gift shop shrugged. “Let me get the owner. I think she’s in back.”

Five minutes later a wrinkled old woman in a green paisley bathrobe hobbled up to the ticket desk. “You? A long-haired kid wants to buy the Vortex?”

Brian laughed uneasily. “No, I was just curious. If the Vortex is so important, how could you sell it?”

The old woman eyed him darkly. “The Vortex is an ancient spirit. But like you, it is curious. It discovered gold here in 1853. Since then it has grown tired of the House of Mystery. The Vortex is looking for a new home.”

Brian shook his head. “I’ve done the tour. It’s claptrap hokum. Nobody’s going to buy a cutover forest with a crooked shed.”

“The forest and the shed are not for sale,” the old woman replied.

“Then what are you actually selling?”

The old woman crooked her finger toward a window overlooking the creek canyon. “Hope. Magic. The Vortex is a power that can bring down giants.”

For once Brian found himself at a loss. “Giants? And where is this Vortex of yours?”

The old woman unlocked a drawer beneath the counter. She withdrew a Roi-Tan cigar box. “The treasure temporarily lives in here. With it I will sell the rights to the name of the Oregon Vortex. We will rededicate our tourist destination as the Ranch of Mystery. The only true and original Oregon Vortex will be yours.”

Brain swallowed. “At what price?”

The old woman smiled. “Two hundred thousand dollars. In cash.”

How could she have known that Brian had exactly that much in a similar cigar box in his Subaru? The coincidence was uncanny. Brian reached for the lid of her box.

“No.” She pulled the box back. “You must not open the box until you are safely in the Vortex’s new home.”

“You won’t even let me look? How do I know the box isn’t empty?”

She tilted the box slightly. Something rattled, as if it were rolling to one side. “The power of the Vortex is spherical. You can choose its new center. But I warn you: Once you lift the lid, a century may pass before the spirit will be willing to go back into a box.”

Even Brian couldn’t explain why he suddenly wanted so badly to possess this box. Perhaps because he would be embarrassed to return from San Francisco without an investment. Perhaps because it seemed like an even trade, one cigar box for another. But there was something more, something he couldn’t explain.

The old woman had caught him with the word Hope.

Back in Portland, Brian’s doubts multiplied. Rain pelted the dark streets. The bookstore had closed for the evening but the windows were lit, so he knew his mother must be working late. As he walked up the stairs to the rare book room the cigar box seemed less valuable with each step. Instead of $200,000, he now had a box that rattled mysteriously. He was beginning to suspect that his mother might not be pleased.

When Brian opened the door of the rare book room, his mother looked up from her computer screen with a smile of relief. “Thank God you’ve brought it back.”

She had always reminded Brian of a bulldog, with her gruff manner and stocky frame. But now Brian realized how much she looked like a bird. Age and worry had made her fragile. The bones stood out on her face. Her neck seemed to have shrunk to wrinkles of skin. His mother had grown old.

This realization was so overwhelming that it took Brian a moment to register what she had said.

“Brought it back? You mean the box?”

“Of course. You didn’t open a branch in San Francisco.”

“Yeah, I decided not to.” Brian frowned. “All the bookstores are closing down there too. So I was driving back, and—“

“Stop!” Gert’s bulldog voice had not aged. “You did the right thing. And to think I’ve been lying awake worrying. The Samson blood runs strong.”

“Actually,” Brian began, his long hair hanging over his face.

But Gert was unstoppable now, her old strength returned. “You are the great-grandson of Friedrich Samson, the silent partner of Arnold Blitz and Henry Weinhard.”

Brian had heard the story before. His mother repeated it whenever she was battling back from another Amazon setback. He knew not to interrupt.

“Friedrich was a business genius, a teetotaler who owned a brewery.” Gert reached for a black-and-white photograph at the back of her desk. A broad face with a handlebar mustache stared sternly into the camera’s eye.

“When Oregon introduced Prohibition in 1916 he was smart enough to sell his share of Blitz-Weinhard. While the brewery struggled, bottling root beer and sodas, Friedrich opened a bookstore in a warehouse across the street. It was an instant success. The man understood Portland.”

Gert sighed. Brian disliked the next part of her monologue, but he waited for it anyway.

“Grandpa Friedrich died before I was born, and my father took over the bookstore.” Gert set the photograph back, her voice cold. ”Before I was old enough to know better, he had squandered our fortune remodeling the building. Ever since, it’s been an uphill struggle to balance the books and keep the store afloat.”

The mixed metaphors made Brian wince. “I’m not like those people, Mom.“

“Yes you are.” Gert took the cigar box from him and set it on her desk. “You brought back our fortune. Now we can do what we should have done all along. Instead of shooting from the hip, we’ll double down on what worked for Grandpa Friedrich: selling books.”

Gert opened the cigar box.

Inside was a single, round pine cone. In the darkness of the otherwise empty box, its bristles glowed a faint green.

“What the hell?” Gert muttered.

“I traded the money for an investment, like you said,” Brian said.

“You traded $200,000 for a pine cone?”

Brian shrugged. “The old woman who sold it said it was magic.”

Gert’s voice rose threateningly. “A magic pine cone?”

“It’s the Oregon Vortex, Mom. A spherical field of force.” Without much conviction he added, “See? It’s glowing.”

“It’s glowing because somebody has sprayed it with glow-in-the-dark paint.” Gert’s face had turned red. She lifted the pine cone in her shaking hand. “Did you really trade our fortune for this?”

Brian nodded fearfully.

“Idiot!”Gert hurled the pine cone against the bookshelves on the wall. Then she pounded her computer keyboard with her fist. “That’s it. I’m out of here.”

“What do you mean?”

“Quitting, leaving, giving up. I’m retiring.”

“But Mom!”

“You threw our money down a rat hole. Now you can try digging out on your own.” Gert looked about the room, as if checking to see if she had left behind anything she really needed.

“But what will you do, Mom?” Brian asked.

She took a long breath. “I’ll move to our cabin in Cannon Beach. Maybe I’ll start writing that history book I’ve always talked about.”

This was the moment when Brian might have changed her mind. He could have apologized for a stupid mistake and begged her to stay on. Instead he stood there silently, his eyes lowered.

Gert put the photograph of Friedrich Samson in her purse. Then she walked to the door and paused, looking back at her son. “You’re not an idiot, Brian.”

“You don’t think so?”

She tightened her lips. “You’re a mystery. A dreamer. I’ll never understand what makes you tick. But as of this moment, you are the sole owner of Samson’s Book Bunker.”

Her voice was thick as she added, “Good luck, son.” Then she closed the door and strode past the bookshelves of the art & architecture section. She clomped down the stairs, turning off the lights on each floor as she went.

Perhaps the lights in the rare book room had been left on a timer, or perhaps they were somehow wired to the electrical system in the foyer, because all of the lights went out when Gert left the building.

Brian found himself alone in dark. Even the ghostly shimmer of the laptop screen did little to dispel the gloom. His mother had left the computer running on a page from Amazon.

Amazon was the giant lurking in the room, the bane of independent bookstores. The Samsons had held out for years. But now it looked as if the giant had finally won.

Brian sank into a chair, buried his face in his hands, and cried. How, he wondered, had he managed to ruin everything so thoroughly? If he wasn’t an idiot, then he was surely a heartless wretch for disappointing his mother. He was a fool for wasting a last chance to save the family business. And he was a sucker for letting a crazy old lady in a tourist trap con him into buying a pine cone for $200,000.

For a long time he sat there, alone in the dark, doubting everything he had done.

But Brian was young enough, and resilient enough, that he eventually sat up, wiped his eyes, and looked around. He owned the store. The rare book room was now his office. Even if he had squandered a fortune and lost the aid of a seasoned businesswoman, he was not entirely without resources. The bookstore had no debts. The cash leak had been stopped. He had a loyal staff, although their numbers would necessarily decline as the store withered.

And of course he had a pine cone.

Where was the damned thing, anyway?

His mother had thrown the pine cone so hard that it had knocked a book or two off the shelf. Apparently the cone had fallen back between the bookcase and the wall. Now that Brian’s eyes had adapted to the dark, he could vaguely see a greenish glow behind the books.

Brian turned on the room’s overhead lights—which now seemed to be functioning fine—and inspected the gap in the bookshelf. Standing akilter on the left of the hole was an autographed first edition of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. To the right was Bernard Malamud’s The Magic Barrel. He took these volumes carefully off the shelf so he could reach his arm down behind the bookcase for the pine cone.

Brian was expecting to find A Wizard of Earthsea. Ursula LeGuin’s fantasy trilogy seemed the most likely thing to have been shelved between Kesey’s K and Malamud’s M. And so he was puzzled when his hand bumped into something hard and round, apparently attached to the wall.

A doorknob?

Brian sat back, thinking. The room on the other side of the wall held the military history collection. It was not supposed to have a door on this side.

Curious now, he began emptying the bookcase, stacking the volumes beside the desk. Even then the wooden shelves proved tough to budge. The bookcase had been nailed to the wall in three places. At this point he would normally have hesitated. But now that he owned the store, he simply braced his foot against the wall, gripped the bookcase with both hands, and yanked it loose. Plaster flew as the nails ripped out.

Behind the shelf an antique ceramic doorknob protruded absurdly from a smooth wall. On the floor below it lay the pine cone, along with the Wizard of Earthsea, a rubber ball, and a Twinkies wrapper.

Brian tossed the pine cone into its cigar box and stacked the LeGuin books with the others by the desk. Then he put his hand on the doorknob. It turned with a click, but opened nothing. He thought about this a moment. He tried rattling and jerking the doorknob. When this had no effect he kicked the wall. A hairline crack appeared in the plaster—a large, rectangular crack that suggested a door.

At once Brian thought of his grandfather, the man who had wasted the family’s fortune remodeling the building before his mother was born. What had his grandfather changed that proved so expensive? Was there something he had wanted to hide? Obviously Brian’s mother had never discovered this door.

Brian fetched a hammer and a screwdriver from a broom closet. Then he set to work chiseling plaster. Slowly he revealed an old-fashioned, five-panel wooden door. He used the hammer’s claw to pry loose a long strip of baseboard molding that had been nailed across the bottom of the door.

Finally he tried turning the doorknob once more. This time the door swung toward him, squeaking painfully. Behind was a brick-lined shaft with a small metal landing. A chimney? No, when Brian looked down the narrow shaft he could see a wrought-iron staircase spiraling into the void. Above him a pyramidal glass skylight glowed with the lights of the city. He knew that similar antique skylights graced ceilings throughout the fourth floor. Brian remembered counting a dozen of them as a boy, on the day he had sneaked up the back fire escape to the roof. He had never thought to count the skylights from below. Were there otherwise only eleven?

The brick shaft had no obvious light switch, and he didn’t have a flashlight, so he unplugged the laptop computer and used its glowing screen as a light. Spiderwebs spanned the iron railings of the spiral staircase. The musk of old books and earth rose from the depths. To his surprise there was no door on the third floor, nor on the second. The iron stair kept spiraling down.

At the bottom of the shaft the steps ended beside an arched brick portal. Cobwebs and dust obscured a sign across the top. Brian brushed it clean with his sleeve. Then he held up the laptop for light. Art Deco lettering spelled out the words, Fred Samson’s Book Bunker.

Why would his great-grandfather Friedrich have built an entrance to the bookstore at the bottom of a shaft?

Brian opened the metal door beneath the arch. Beyond was a broad hallway, its tiled floor strewn with rubble. As far as Brian knew, the building did not have a basement. But the musty air and the vaulted brick ceiling told him he was underground.

Glass-doored bookcases lined the hall. Brian opened one at random and took out a dusty hardback. The blue eyes of a beautiful woman gazed from the sky above a Coney Island carnival. It was F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. But this was a first edition from 1925, apparently new. The next book Brian pulled out was a paperback, its cheap brown cover seemingly fashioned from a grocery bag. The old German lettering inside a red frame read, “Franz Kafka—Das Schloss.” But this wasn’t a reprint. It was the original Prague press run from 1926.

Such books might have been commonplace in the roaring twenties, but they were treasures now. Brian ventured onward, holding the laptop ahead of him as a dim torch. To his disappointment, the bookcases soon ended. Instead the hall opened up into a large room where clusters of tables and chairs retreated into the darkness amid pillars. Cobwebbed chandeliers hung in each arch of the vaulted ceiling. Had it been a meeting room, Brian wondered?

He explored to the right, scouting the perimeter. Framed on the brick wall were old photographs of German marching bands, horse-drawn fire brigades, and leather-helmeted football teams.

After fifty feet he discovered another hallway, a sort of tunnel, faintly lit by rows of small purple squares in the ceiling. He puzzled a moment about the purple lights. When a shadow passed across them, he realized they must be embedded in the sidewalk beside the bookstore. He had walked over these purple squares countless times on his way to work. Now that it was night, they were lit from above by streetlamps. Pedestrians overhead darkened them in passing.

He was in a forgotten basement of the bookstore building. And judging from the position of the sidewalk squares, the tunnel extended underneath the street toward the Blitz-Weinhard block. He ventured farther into the tunnel, but it ended after a few yards, blocked by barrels, bottles, and debris.

Suddenly Brian realized what the tunnel meant. He turned around and strode to the center of the large room. A huge crystal chandelier hung above a wooden dance floor. Behind it rose the carved woodwork, beveled mirrors, and dusty bottles of a gigantic, ornate bar. And framed on the wall above the middle of the bar was an oil portrait of a stern, broad-faced man with a handlebar mustache.

Friedrich Samson had obviously been a cleverer businessman than the family stories suggested. When Prohibition arrived, he had opened a speakeasy in a basement across the street from the brewery, delivering illegal barrels through a tunnel. The bookstore above ground had primarily been a decoy. Thirsty clients would have climbed to the rare book room on the fourth floor, opened a hidden door, and descended a spiral staircase to Samson’s real Book Bunker. Friedrich had obviously understood Portland.

Friedrich’s son, however, had abandoned the old tavern. He had plastered over the entry door. He had lost the goose that laid golden eggs.

Brian set the laptop on the bar and looked out into the dark arches of the old speakeasy, already considering options. He would change as little as possible. “Fred’s Book Bunker” was the perfect name for a pub beneath the bookstore. He might even be able to reopen the tunnel, adding a wheelchair-accessible entrance to the condos and shops of the old brewery block.

But would it be enough? Brian glanced at the laptop. The screen was still lit with a page showing Amazon’s logo, a curving arrow that resembled a crooked half-smile. The giant may not yet have won, but he was smirking. And he was coming.

Brian noticed that his mother had been trying to hack into Amazon’s high command yet again, a hopeless attempt by a desperate woman. A row of black dots showed that she had even tried typing something into a password box.

Or no—now that Brian thought about it, the last thing his mother had done was to pound the keyboard. She had been in a such a rage after opening the Vortex box that she had thrown a pine cone at a bookshelf, inadvertently revealing a doorknob that led to the family’s lost treasure. Only then had she hit the computer with her fist.

Who knew what gibberish she might have typed with her balled hand in that moment of anger? The password screen hid the actual characters, displaying only black dots.

An eerie presentiment made Brian’s skin prickle.

He lifted a finger over the keyboard.

Carefully, he pressed “Enter.”

Instantly Amazon’s smirk vanished, replaced by the greeting, “Welcome, Jeff Bezos.” A moment later the entire hierarchy of Amazon’s internal system began scrolling onto the screen.

Brian’s mind raced. It was 11:43 p.m. In a few hours the real Jeff Bezos would walk into his palatial Seattle headquarters and regain control of his empire.

Until then, however, an ancient, curious spirit had taken over as CEO of the world’s largest virtual bookstore. They were entering a strange world where the improbable is commonplace and everyday physical facts are reversed.

The Oregon Vortex had hacked into Amazon’s mainframe.

And Brian had a feeling the giant was going down.

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