Little Aleppo hated laws, but loved rules. Gravity, or time, or not hitting someone with a sword: these were laws, and they had no ear for your stories. Laws are binary propositions, but a rule? Little Aleppians saw in rules a comfortable amount of wiggle. Rules were just sentences with the backing of punishment, written by men who may or may not have been drunk. A rule could be appended or amended; you could even bribe the guy who writes the rule to write it the way you want. If there were enough rules, you could set them against each other and get them to fighting.
Little Aleppo actually had so many regulations, stipulations, executive orders, dispensatory notices, and other sorts of rules that the neighborhood could be said to be simultaneously anarchist and fascist: everything was against the law, but the laws contradicted one another so much that everything was also legal. At times, reality depended on how good a lawyer you could afford. It wasn’t so much Hammurabi’s Code so much as it was Schrödinger’s.
All of these confusing rules were contained in the codicil to the Neighborhood Charter. It ran to thousands of pages, and took up three shelves in the basement of the bookstore with no title. Mr. Venable had borrowed them from Town Hall years ago, never intending to return them. He also did not tell anyone he was borrowing them, and did so in the middle of the night. Augusta O. Incandescente-Ponui, whom everyone called Gussy, came with him; she was thrilled.
“We’re stealing the Declaration of Independence!”
“We’re doing no such thing.”
“I feel like Nicolas Cage,” Gussy said.
“You look ridiculous.”
Her clothes were all black, including the wool cap she had tucked her hair into, and she was also wearing gloves. This was definitely a glove situation, but Gussy did not own any tactical gloves, so she wore fuzzy red ones. They had snowmen on them, and the fingertips were white.
Mr. Venable was wearing a dark suit that was at one time pinstriped, and an oxblood shirt with an open collar. This was his customary suit.
“We are not heisting. And that’s not a verb, anyway. Take care with the language, please.”
“Of course we’re heisting!”
They were walking north on the sidewalk along the Main Drag toward Town Hall, which is all the way past the Verdance. Everyone could hear their conversation.
“A heist is for financial gain, Gussy. Not every theft is a heist, just like every murder is not a hit. Can’t call it a heist if there’s no money.”
“We’re Venable’s 11.”
“There’s only two of us.”
“We should assemble a ragtag band of charmers. Like, a computer expert and a master of disguise.”
“A computer expert? So we’re doing the remake, not the Sinatra version?”
“You ever actually watched the Sinatra version?”
“Not the whole thing,” Mr. Venable said as the walked past the building that would one day be The Tahitian theater once more, but was at the moment a ruined husk that Gussy deliberately did not look at.
“Shitty flick. Boring and disjointed and amateurish and dated. Remake’s better.”
“And Bernie Mac is in it.”
“And Bernie Mac is in it, yes.
It had drizzled before, so their footsteps went SHPLAK SHPLAK against the sidewalk. Gussy did not step on cracks in the pavement; Mr. Venable didn’t either, but he was less obvious about it.
It was the middle of the night in Little Aleppo, and the stores were closed and the bars were open. All the way on the Downside, the printing presses–massive beasts from the last war–roared and shoved the news into the morning; there was genteel puking on the Upside. Mr. Venable and Gussy passed the Verdance, where everything grows: it is not empty at night. There are the Rambles, where men go to fuck strangers, and the Rumbles, where strangers go to fight men.
Outside the front door to Town Hall is a sign that says “No Fighting.” The building was a public works project during the Depression, and so it looks like every other town hall: brick and with a jutting porch surrounded by three columns. (Originally four, one was sent to a casino in Pahrump, Nevada, to settle up a Town Father’s gambling debt.) It was set back from the Main Drag forty feet; there is a lush lawn in between which has not needed to be mined for several years now
Up the steps they went, and Mr. Venable and Gussy stood at the locked doors of Town Hall.
“Do we have a plan?”
“No,” he said.
“Yes,” he said, and knocked on the glass door. A few moments passed, then from inside the darkened lobby was the sound of two feet shuffling, and four feet padding along. The latch unlocked KLATCK and the door opened.
“You have to be kidding me,” Gussy said.
“Oh, sorry. Hi, Argus.”
Gussy bent down and gave Argus a quick scritchy-scratch. Everyone knew you weren’t supposed to pet seeing-eye dogs, but it seemed rude not to greet Argus with a little head rub, mostly because if you didn’t he would give you the stink-eye for the rest of your conversation.
“Gussy? This is my Gussy?”
He extended his hand, and she took it, and then leaned in and kissed him on the cheek.
“Gussy, your father was an asshole.”
“I know, sweetie.”
“What are you doing here?”
“A blind man can’t be a night watchman?”
“No, he can’t.”
Mr. Venable clucked his tongue at her. “Very discriminatory, Gus.”
“The word ‘watch’ is in the job title.”
“Argus does the watching,” Omar said.
“So Argus is the watchman.”
“Argus can’t be the watchman. He’s a dog.”
Mr. Venable clucked his tongue at him. “Very discriminatory, Omar.”
“Shut up, you.”
“How did you get this job? Gussy asked.
“Remember how the last night watchman saw the Town Fathers taking all those bribes?”
“I haven’t seen one bribe.”
“What are you doing here?”
Mr Venable answered, “We’re taking the codicil to the Town Charter.”
“You’re not going to sell it?”
“I suppose there’s a number that could change my mind.”
“You’re only human, Venable.”
“You, too, Omar.”
The men smiled at each other; Gussy was pulling her gloves off with her teeth.
“Do you know where it is?”
“I own a magic bookstore: I can find it.”
“If you get caught, I never saw you.”
Omar and Argus walked back into the darkness they had come out of. Mr. Venable set off down the main corridor of Town Hall towards the back where the stairs to the basements were.
“Are you coming?”
Gussy jogged to catch up to him; she had a half-smile.
“It’s a wonder everything doesn’t burn down.”
Mr. Venable stopped, worn heels squeaking on the checkerboard tile floor.
“It does burn down, Gussy. Little Aleppo has burned down a dozen damn times. This system–if there even is one–doesn’t work. It just refuses to break down entirely, so we patch it up until the next time. Nothing around here works! Little Aleppo fails with forward momentum, lurching from one catastrophe to the next and sometimes that catastrophe is fire. Little Aleppo has burned before, Gussy, and it will burn again.”
His voice echoed off the vaulted ceiling, and the checkerboard tiles on the floor, and the mural that took up the whole north wall depicting Victory Over The Turtlemonsters.
“Okay,” Gussy said.
“Some of our history is in stories, but some of it is made out of things. Both should be cared for.”
“Sorry to yell.”
They walked the rest of the way in silence, and when they got to the doors to the stairs Gussy said, “How big is this particular thing?”
“So how are we getting it back to the store?”
“I was going to call a cab.”
“This is the worst heist I’ve ever been on.”
The codicil was indeed quite large: 23 foot-thick volumes, and most of them had loose sheets of paper and parchment and post-it notes cascading out of them. Mr. Venable tsked over the state of the bindings while Gussy found a cart. It took them an hour to get everything out to the curb, and then loaded into the taxi; they sat in the back with the books that did not fit in the trunk and the passenger seat on their laps.
“I meant to tell you: the bookworms are acting up again.”
“I’ll pick up some ammo on the way in tomorrow,” Gussy said.
“It might be too late for that. They’ve gotten loose.”
“Yes. And they’re fighting with the earworms from the record shop.”
“Not good for business.”
“Oh, no. Could be worse, though.”
“They could stop fighting and start breeding.”
“What does that make?”
“Do you know how to walk without rhythm?”
On their left was the ruin that would one day be The Tahitian again, and beyond that were the Segovian Hills, and beyond that was east the dawn, the sun coming up and they could hear the Salt Wharf working. Whether it was still last night or tomorrow morning depended on your point of view.
By the time Mr. Venable and Gussy got the codicil installed into the bookstore with no title’s basement (one of at least several), it was inarguably the next day outside. A mile off the coast, illuminated by the sleepy sun, turbines spun like windmills always have.
“Safest place in the neighborhood,” Mr. Venable said as they walked up the steps.
“There’s a copy, right?”
“Many. It’s all on computers now. The law form of Holly, Wood, and Vine has created a loophole-bot to spider its way through the codicil to get their clients off.”
“They’re the best.”
“That’s what their commercials say.”
Gussy opened the front door of the bookstore. It went TINKadink and then Gussy was part of the morning Main Drag traffic; dust dancers caught the light, shimmying and juking, and some came to rest on dictionaries.
Mr. Venable made fresh coffee, standing over the machine until just enough was in the pot to make himself a cup; he took it black, and walked to his customary chair, which was occupied by a tortoiseshell cat who looked very comfortable.
“Oh, plep yourself,” Mr. Venable said, but he made no move to dislodge the cat, who had no name. The front door of the shop was flanked on either side by bay windows, and he stood at the one on the right drinking his coffee and watching the Main Drag, which runs through the center of Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.