Milo through-the-looking-glass

It was unseasonably warm for mid-April, at least for Chicago. The evening was crisp and calm and had there been a Moon she would have been mist-shrouded, tranforming that portion of the night sky into a shimmering bauble from some ancient Persian pillowtime tale.

Tucked in Milo's briefcase was a stainless steel thermos bottle. He was flat broke, as usual, and the vacuum flask was filled with the last potable substance he could find in his kitchen that morning, lime jello mixed with tapwater. He had intended to drink it at some point to sustain him. But after running out his door, Milo had completely forgotten the flask in the day's rush, so the lukewarm, sick-sweet liquid was still topped up.

Swept by the inner velocity of a new idea, he mounted the stairs to the library.

Milo had spent the last few days reproducing Brownian motion in the flesh, drifting, back and forth, apparently randomly, between Heinrich Kannenberg’s supposedly-abandoned lab full of tubing and flasks and the Kevatron installation at the Enrico Fermi Institute. Tonight, though, he strode with quick purpose past the hole in the ground that would be the Serle Chemistry Lab, headed for the library reading room in the George Herbert Jones Building. Milo needed to find something that he remembered seeing among the reams of monographs he had been researching for weeks. He took an unconscious sideways glance at his wrist. He had twenty minutes to spare before he met Alphonse for their usual semi-weekly rendezvous at the Institute.

"I miss that old grand piano they used to have here," he thought. "Shame they took it out to make room for a lousy table and chairs."

Milo had spent a dozen or so odd late nights napping under the instrument, after being buried for days on end in one journal or another, so felt sentimental about it. Nobody had ever played it, but there were tantalizing rumours that on its impeccable ebony top, several apparently meek lady librarians had lost their virginity over the past decade. Strangely, most were still single. The university employed them to wrangle the endless heaps of scientific papers, treatises and other research literature that mounted daily. The finished Serle Lab would, everybody knew, inevitably create room for these squadrons of ladies to squirrel away even more damn paper into the nooks and crannies of the Jones Building.

Sometimes, looking up blearily from his reading, Milo would sight a middle-aged spinster, shelving books. He would always wonder if she was one who held a torrid memory of a secret night, hearing and feeling the piano's burnished, resonant harmonics answer her own moans, among the dim aisles of books. Each, invariably, as if reading his mind, would turn and regard him -- over horn rimmed glasses with chains dangling down from her temples (they all wore them) -- with an unknowable gaze. Always, he would jerk his eyes back to his reading in the same guilty way. Always, the librarians would then turn back to their shelving, sometimes with what might have been wisps of knowing smiles.

Tonight, Milo wasn't fantasizing about librarians. He topped the stairs, turned right and briskly entered the library. Somewhere in the reading room was a thin sheaf of papers. On them was a sketchy set of technical drawings, of a thing that wasn’t supposed to exist. Yet Milo felt sure he had half-glimpsed a crudely-built, half-finished-and-torn-apart-again apparatus matching exactly that description at the Fermi Institute, behind an unmarked door that was always supposed to be locked. One quick glance. A post-grad intern with top clearance happened to be in the hallway when Milo had opened the door by mistake, and politely but firmly directed him away, and toward the door Milo had obviously meant to open.

An obscure researcher named Dr. Kannenberg had assembled the lab in the fifties to estimate temperatures of ancient oceans, by studying fossilized sea shells' chemical breakdowns. It was still intact, and Milo, never one to miss a chance, had a week later snagged a spare key that shouldn't have been left lying around by that self-same intern. He told himself it was karmic payback for the intern's snottiness. Ever since, he'd been playing around in it, during rare spare moments after hours. These moments had become even rarer since he had taken a hardship waiter job at the Faculty Club to earn a few spare bucks, but he liked the idea of keeping a secret clubhouse under the department administrations' unknowing noses.

Mostly, he used pieces of Kannenberg's abandoned apparatus to determine if the advertised ages and compositions of the Faculty Club's selection of allegedly rare old scotches were correct. They weren't. Somebody was subbing in lab ethyl with caramel colouring, and a few loose flavor esters, and charging the faculty through the nose for it. Milo approved of this scam, so kept quiet.

And once he'd used the lab to determine if one of his brief flames, a second-year assistant who claimed to be monogamous, was telling the truth. She wasn’t. Milo had approved of this, too.