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All-Time Legend

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"How old are you, dear?" Gertrude asked, setting a cup of cocoa in front of her newest subject.

"Ten. Eleven in two months," he added, after a brief pause.

"Are you from nearby?" she asked. "You live in London?"

"No, Bournemouth."

"That's quite a journey for a young man. Does anyone know you're here?"

"No."

"Is there anyone to worry about you? Will anyone miss you?"

"Not for ages. If I catch the afternoon train I'll be home before I'm missed," the boy said, very self-possessed for his age and clearly a little impatient.

Gertrude considered the weedy, bright-faced boy across the table from her. Someone in the Institute had let him come all the way down to the Archives alone and she'd find out who and take it out of their hide, later. Imagine letting this child wander around unsupervised. He looked just the sort to stick his fingers in a light socket to see what it would do. Anyway, Gertrude had little time for children, but she had an image to maintain.

"And you came to give a statement, did you?" she asked.

"My friend Bill's got a cousin who's seeing a girl who knows someone who works here and he says you come and tell a ghost story and they have to listen to you," the boy said.

"We do. Have you got a ghost story to tell?"

"Not really. Sort of. It's about a book."

She paused. The boy looked up at her, all radiant innocence and sharp shadows.

"Did you ever hear of a book about Mr. Spider?" he asked, genuinely curious.

"I never have," she said, which was true. "I'd love to have your story. Why don't you sit here and write it down and I'll -- "

"Aren't you going to record it?" the boy asked. Gertrude blinked. "My friend Bill's cousin's girlfriend's friend says you sometimes record them, and it's much faster than writing."

"And less work on your part, eh?" she asked knowingly. He just nodded, solemn.

"All right then," she said, taking a cassette recorder out of a drawer in her desk and setting it down in front of him. If the boy had found one of Leitner's books, she'd probably better get it on tape anyway; they were starting to turn up here and there, after the library's destruction, and if she was going to secure them again she'd need every bit of data on where and how. She checked that there was a new tape in the player, then pressed Record.

"Tell me your name again, for the recording," she said.

"Jonathan Sims," the boy announced.

"Statement of Jonathan Sims, regarding a book about Mr. Spider. Statement taken direct from subject, December 19th, 1994. Statement begins."

Jonathan, who hardly needed to be compelled, began to speak. He rambled a few times, and Gertrude rather thought his grandmother must be a patient woman, but in the end he got the whole thing out and it was very interesting indeed. It was possible the book had fallen into the boy's hands by accident; Leitner said the books could sometimes find the people they were meant for, or at any rate those they meant to target, but sometimes they just....turned up.

She hoped that was the case here, but she couldn't take any chances. The idea that the Web might be pursuing a child so young was both worrying on a grand scale and disconcerting regarding Jonathan in particular.

When he was done, Gertrude was the one who felt exhausted; Jonathan Sims, eleven-in-two-months, looked cheerful, invigorated.

"It feels awfully good to have got that off my chest," he informed her.

"I imagine it does," she said quietly.

She walked the boy back up to the reception lobby, recruiting one of the library pages along the way to escort him to the train station. She watched until they were out of sight, and then backtracked to the library, still quiet but as bustling as it ever got, this time of day.

The research library, the most public space in the Institute after the lobby, was beautiful, a big airy chamber with a stained-glass cupola at the center. She stopped under the cupola and gazed up at the round, dark iris around the rim of the glass, the lash-like dentals in the plasterwork at the edge, the image of an enormous eye. It never blinked, of course. Well, except in her nightmares.

There were people at the desks -- fellows, researchers, one of her own assistants, and a handful of local students studying the paranormal. Unhurriedly, but also without hesitating, all of them closed their books and stood up, rambling their way to the door in a disorganized crowd, as if they'd all suddenly realized it was lunch time (it nearly was, so they wouldn't really find anything amiss). And then she was alone with the single, illuminated pupil, the sky faintly showing through it.

"You ought to take him," she said, and the stained glass didn't move, but she felt the Beholding twitch. "The Web's already trying. Either it's recruiting a child army or the boy has a special destiny. Or both. Whichever it is, he's better off in your hands than in theirs. At least one hopes," she added. The Beholding didn't behave like humans did, but if it had pride, she'd like to sting it a little. Perhaps if it felt she thought it couldn't protect the boy, it would.

"Sorry, Jonathan," she murmured, as she left the library. "You'll understand, maybe, when you're older."

***

"Ah yes, Mr. Sims," Mr. Bouchard said, looking at Jonathan over the rims of his glasses. Jonathan wasn't exactly sure why an entry-level research position merited an interview with the head of the Magnus Institute, but there he was, behind a very impressive desk, studying Jon's CV and Jon himself, alternatingly. "You have quite a decent academic pedigree, I see, and of course you come highly recommended by a member of the Institute."

Jon blinked at this. "I...do?" he asked carefully. Mr. Bouchard raised his eyebrows. "I'm, I'm sorry, I wasn't aware I knew anyone at the Institute. Pleased to have made an impression, of course," he added hastily.

"Quite," Mr. Bouchard said, managing to infuse the word with a weight of doubt and disapproval. "And almost no experience in parapsychology, I see."

"That's not entirely true," Jon protested. "I've done extensive work on debunking spiritualism and the history of skeptical inquiry. And I think you'll find I have a reputation for extreme rigor in my research -- "

"Are you familiar with the Magnus Institute's mandate?" Mr. Bouchard asked.

"Of course. Spiritualism and the supernatural is what the Institute is designed to study. But exceptional claims demand exceptional proof. The best possible thing for an organization dedicated to the scientific study of the paranormal is rigorous and ethical inquiry -- it proves one is serious about finding real evidence. No allowance should be made in the search for replicable, reliable scientific evidence."

"Harry Houdini meets the Board of Ethics, eh?"

"He hardly had to. He was interested mainly in protecting people from swindlers," Jon replied. "Jonah Magnus notwithstanding, it's honestly difficult to find a more dedicated man in the history of parapsychology than Houdini."

"Or one more capable of wriggling out of a straitjacket. Well, all of this seems to be in order and you are qualified for the job, so I suppose all that's left is the background check and drug test," Mr. Bouchard finished, setting Jon's CV aside.

"Pardon?" Jon asked.

"Welcome to the Magnus Institute," Mr. Bouchard said, rising and offering his hand. Jon scrambled to his feet and shook it, fighting down a wide grin.

"Thank you, Mr. Bouchard. I hope to be a credit to the organization."

"I suppose we'll know soon enough," Mr. Bouchard replied.

As Jon was leaving his office, he swore he heard Mr. Bouchard mutter Satisfied, now? to someone, but there hadn't been anyone else in the office.

***

On his first day of work, he offhandedly mentioned to one of the other new staff how terrifying Mr. Bouchard was.

"You've met Elias Bouchard?" she asked, eyes wide.

"Sure. Didn't you, for your interview?"

"No, I interviewed with the Associate Director of Libraries," she said. "Who do you know to get an interview with the Director himself?"

It occurred to Jonathan, though only briefly, that he still didn't know who had recommended him from within the Institute.

"I suppose someone was out sick that day," he said weakly.

***

Despite his excuses and protests, word spread amongst the staff in the way these things do that Jon Sims had a secret patron at the Institute. Few believed it, really; nearly everyone treated it as a little in-joke, a way of ribbing the otherwise perhaps over-serious new guy. In some there was some real bitterness, especially after he was promoted to assistant director in two years instead of the traditional four, but most of it was good-natured.

"I can't believe you made AD before me," Brandon moaned, at the "party" to celebrate Jon's promotion, which was really just a couple of drinks down the pub with the other senior researchers. "I did twice the number of cases in my first year as you did! Most of us did."

"Yes, but you weren't -- "

"Rigorous," everyone chorused over top of Jon, who looked slightly embarrassed at his own predictability.

"Volume doesn't matter if the research isn't complete," Jon insisted. "Half the country already thinks we're fringe kooks. The only way to contradict that is to be meticulous in our work. That way, if we ever do get...results, they'll be replicable. Or at least well-documented."

"I think it's just because your pet project is Leitners," Fatima said. "Everyone knows Elias is hot on Leitners."

"That's barely a funded project," Brandon insisted. "It's not even a government grant. There's no use to it."

"There's use to all knowledge, as long as it's real knowledge," Jonathan replied. "Anyway, Leitners barely take any of my time. If a real one pops up I just send one of the Artifacts Retrieval people after it with very thick gloves, and they bop it on the head and send it straight to storage. But we've had ten fakes in two years, it's outrageous. Someone has to do provenance."

"Yeah, documenting spooky ookies who've read a Leitner and sleep with a light on now," Kyle said.

"Didn't you do a paper on Leitner before coming to the Institute?" Fatima asked. "Maybe that's why you're blue-flaming so hard. Maybe your secret patron is Elias himself."

"Nonsense," Jon protested. "It wasn't a paper, it was a section in a larger study on communal mythopoesis in University settings, which he couldn't possibly have read. And I'd never met the man before our interview."

"You sure about that?" Fatima asked. "You didn't pull him in a club the week before or something?"

"What!"

"He's a fine-looking man and would be an ornament to any institution," Brandon intoned, in a pretty good imitation of Elias.

"You insult us both with your slanderous insinuations," Jon announced.

"Imagine Sir Galahad here pulling a stranger at a club," Kyle said, elbowing Jon gently.

"I do date, you know."

"No, I don't know! Half the staff have strategically dropped pencils in front of you, myself included, and you barely look up from your book," Kyle said.

"Well, I don't believe in workplace relationships, and anyway I'm not interested in pencil-dropping," Jon said.

"As we have rigorous scientific proof," Kyle pouted.

"Leave him alone," Brandon said. "Go chase the new boy, wossisname, Tim. I hear he likes a good time."

"Maybe I will," Kyle said. "Anyway. This won't help the rumors about your mysterious higher-up friend at the Institute, Jon. Are you sure you don't have one?"

"I can't imagine. Elias said when he interviewed me I came highly recommended by a member of the Institute, but I don't know who it could have been. It's possible he mixed me up with someone else. If so, hard luck to them," Jon added. "But I probably just met someone in a seminar and gave a good impression."

"A member of the Institute?" Brandon asked. "Did he say that exactly?"

"As far as I recall. I wasn't having my best moment, to be honest."

"Members aren't staff or administration. A member is like, a donor or a patron. You don't know any of the Lukases, do you?"

"Not that I'm aware of. Aren't the Lukases all shipping billionaires? Not really a scene I belong to."

"Not really a scene the Magnus Institute in general belongs to," Kyle said. "Don't know why we get so much funding from them."

"They've always had a weird streak. Peter Lukas still goes out with his own boat -- wears three-piece suits to the Institute and then puts on wellies and goes to sea on a barge full of shipping containers," Fatima said.

"Picture Peter Lukas in a three-piece and wellies," Brandon laughed. "You about ready for a smoke, Jon?"

"Could do with one, yeah," Jonathan said, following Brandon outside and down the sidewalk a little, to the ashtray at the mouth of the alley. "Have you got a -- "

Brandon passed him the lighter. "Someday I'm going to buy you a lighter and chain it to your belt," he said.

"I don't know why, they just seem to keep disappearing," Jon replied.

"You need a nice expensive one, like a Zippo. You'll look after it better."

"Well, maybe," Jon agreed, lighting the tip and taking a drag as he passed the lighter back.

"Not to impugn your work ethic, Jon, but it is a little weird you got AD when the rest of us only made Senior," Brandon said. "Fatima's been here longer than you, even."

"I know," Jon said, because he did know, and while he thought he'd mostly earned it, it was still troubling.

"You really don't know who could be looking out for you at the Institute?"

Jon shook his head. "Sometimes...it's ridiculous, but sometimes I feel like I'm being watched. I chalk it up to the surveillance cameras, I mean we are being watched, but...I dunno."

"Elias watches you, when he's around."

"Does he?" Jon asked, though he was pleased, secretly, that someone else had noticed.

"I wasn't kidding when I said he's probably interested in you."

"Lord. That's the last thing I need."

"You don't think he's good-looking?"

"That's irrelevant. I don't think it's a good idea for a researcher to be sleeping with the head of the Institute. Besides, you know I don't do that."

"To Kyle's everlasting despair."

"He just wants to check me off his list," Jon said moodily.

"Well, you're keeping him from getting a Bingo."

Jon snorted laughter and smoke together.

"Don't drink, don't smoke, what do you do?" Brandon sang, shimmying at Jon, who batted him away, laughing harder. Brandon insisted, pressing in, Jon's hand on his chest. "Don't drink, don't smoke, what do you do? Subtle innuendos follow, must be something inside..."

A woman muttered students despairingly as she walked past, and Brandon leaned against the wall, laughing.

"Well, fortunately I do drink and smoke. You've got to have a vice or two in this life, anyhow," Jon said, humming a few bars. "No one's gonna tell me what's wrong or what's right -- "

"Tell me who to eat with, sleep with, or that I've won the big fight, big fight," Brandon joined in. "Gotcha, Jonnyboy. Let's have another round and then we'll send you home to get a good night's sleep. Think of us fondly when you're head of the Institute."

Brandon actually left the Institute the year after, off to Edinburgh on a prestigious fellowship of some kind. Jon had the dim sense that Kyle and Fatima had tied the knot, but by the time he was made Head Archivist he'd more or less lost track of them as they'd gone on to other sections of the Institute. On his latest promotion the most celebrating he'd done was to take Tim out for lunch and ask if he'd come with him to the Archives.

No one cracked jokes about his secret patron anymore. Though he did find himself humming Goody Two-Shoes as he packed up his desk to take his stuff down to the Archives, without really knowing why.

Look out or they'll tell you you're a superstar;
Two weeks and you're an all-time legend,
I think the games have gone much too far...

***

"I didn't know you'd ever done a Statement yourself, Jon," Martin said one afternoon, not long after Jonathan returned to the Archives following Leitner's death.

A little eletric prickle of panic ran over his skin, but he knew the statement he'd given about the book, while he was hiding out at Georgie's, was safely locked in a box on a shelf in the Discredited section of the Archives. He'd learned a few filing tricks from Gertrude, by now. It would be there if he died and someone needed the information, but otherwise it was nobody's business.

He told himself sternly not to fret, and looked up from his desk with a calm he didn't feel.

"I haven't given a statement," he said. "I didn't even do one for Prentiss, because I was recording myself the whole time."

"Really? Maybe it's another Jonathan Sims," Martin said, studying the file. "I suppose it's not really all that uncommon a name."

The file was one of Gertrude's, the folder that horrible puce color some of them were for no reason he could fathom even now, knowing what he did about her filing system and her motivations. The corners were worn, and stapled to the back was a little brown envelope of the kind that held casette recordings.

"Besides, you'd have been like....eleven, when it was taken," Martin said thoughtfully. He waggled the folder at Jonathan with a grin. "Ever heard of the book A Guest For Mr. Spider?"

He didn't vault the desk, though he wanted to. He flexed his bandaged hand, feeling the sting where Jude Perry had scalded him. "What?"

"It's apparently a statement about a Leitner. Already on tape, at least, so that saves us some time -- "

"Give me the file," Jon ordered.

"Did you want to listen -- "

"Martin, give me the file."

"A-alright," Martin agreed, looking startled. He handed the file across Jon's desk, eyes wide and curious. "Is it..."

Jonathan studied the cover page, written in Gertrude's handwriting. There was his name, and the date the statement was apparently taken: December 19, 1994. And the notation code that he'd learned indicated a statement about a Leitner. A Leitner named A Guest For Mr. Spider.

Inside there was a drawing, in a childish style, of the cover. He wanted to touch it and very much didn't at the same time.

"Jon?" Martin prompted anxiously.

There was a page beneath the cover drawing, a few notes Gertrude had taken, including his grandmother's address and a report about the disappearance of one --

Richard! That had been his name. Richard. He'd disappeared and the police assumed he'd run away.

According to the notes, his dessicated body, with its organs removed, had washed up on a beach on Brownsea Island a year later. Jonathan hadn't heard, but he'd been nine at the time, and not exactly keen on current affairs.

And at the bottom of her notes, Gertrude had written, The Web should not have this boy.

"Martin, I'd like a minute alone, if you don't mind," Jon said.

"Sure. Sure. I'll just -- " Martin began, inching towards the door. "Find a different report to file...."

When he was gone, Jonathan took the tape out, spinning it between his fingers. Eleven -- that was about when his grandmother had simply given up on keeping him from wandering. She stopped even bothering calling the police, trusting he'd make his own way home. Or perhaps she was just too exhausted to put any more energy into worrying. She wouldn't have noticed, or if she had she wouldn't have cared, that he'd taken the train to London for the day.

He didn't remember coming to the Institute, giving a Statement. He'd suspect supernatural foul play, but honestly, who remembered what they were doing at age eleven anyway? It was clearly him on the tape. And it didn't feel like it had somehow been removed from him, the memory of giving his Statement. It felt like something he had simply...forgotten. Something unmemorable, at the time.

The account he'd given at eleven barely digressed from the account he'd given at thirty-one. It was shocking how similar they were, other than some vocabulary, and the timbre of his voice. He still listed off each page of the book in detail; he still aired the grievances of a boy who felt his intelligence was disrespected. The only significant difference was at the end, when the boy he'd been said, with the typical narcissism of childhood, "I'm glad he's gone. He was mean to me."

As the recording ended, his laptop beeped. There was an email notification from Elias. A single sentence:

Gertrude asked a mutual friend to keep an Eye on you.

He looked back at the tape. Surely not. Surely....

He turned the sheet of Gertrude's notes over. There was one more note, dated years later, the week after he'd joined the Institute.

It's the better of two fates, dear. Not that that's much consolation.

Good luck.

Martin brought him tea.

He wanted to say, I've been sworn to our master since I was eleven. He wanted to say, No wonder Elias hired me; my letter of recommendation came from a god.

Instead he just said, "Thank you, Martin," and that night in the alley behind the Institute, where he sometimes went to smoke, he touched the end of his cigarette to the file until it burned, slowly feeding the cellophane of the tape into the flame as well.