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The Stacks, Secret Santa for Starpollen


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Happy Christmas and New Year Starpollen, I very much hope that you enjoy! I must admit, it was a daunting task writing for such a superb writer!

There are days when having to pull a 9 hour research shift down in the Chicago Globe archive, known colloquially among the staff as “The Stacks” was a positive advantage, James thought to himself, and today was one of those days. Outside it was an oppressively hot and muggy Chicago early-June day, the warm, heavy breeze oozing across the city from Lake Michigan bringing oppressive humidity and a sky-high pollen count along with the tangy fragrance of manicured grass instead of any relief from the heat. The fragility of historical newsprint and storage requirements of microfiche plates meant that this particular room had the best climate control in the building. The infuriating feeling like a nest of tiny insects crawling around the bridge of his nose that had been a constant companion for most of the summer, courtesy of his hay-fever had subsided to the point where all the attention that was required was an occasional, almost unconscious massage with thumb and forefinger, normally displacing the slightly smeared, wire framed glasses that sat there.

James Murtagh was one of the Globe's investigative journalism team, a graduate of the Masters in Information Science programme at nearby UI Urbana-Champaign, archive research was his speciality. A lot of his friends had joked he looked like a librarian even as a boy, with his Irish heritage obvious in his sandy-blonde hair and pale skin and a high-cheekboned, bookish face (how a face could be described as “bookish”, he never understood, but it was true, he just looked like someone who read a lot of books, in a totally indescribable way). He had added a neatly trimmed goatee, and his hair was now pulled into a neat, tight pony-tail, revealing a slight but growing “widow’s peak” but he still looked very much like someone you only half-glimpsed over a fan of pages or a cover illustration. The first impression deadline was approaching on a major piece in the team’s series on City Hall corruption (James had received the coveted team “gallows laugh” award for commenting in the last meeting that Chicago City Hall corruption stories would cease counting as “news” one day in the not too distant future), and the success of the recent “Spotlight” report over in Boston had made investigative journalism a hot commodity again.

The impending deadline explained the reason why he was currently sitting between tottering towers of hardbound ledgers and minutes, stacked like a written word version of a child’s pillow-fort, all obtained under Freedom of Information requests. To be honest James had been rather surprised to receive so much from City Hall, but then “bury them under minutiae” had always been a tried and true tactic to divert journalists asking awkward questions. Combining a yawn, a stretch and a reach into a single efficient motion, James grabbed the topmost book of the stack to his left and set it down in front of him. “Minutes of the Chicago City Council Subcommittee for Traffic control and legislation 1987 to 2003” was emblazoned on the dust-smeared cover in a gold leaf that the contents almost certainly did not deserve.


Unfortunately for James, however, while the efficiency of his motion almost certainly stopped the stack of files from toppling, it didn’t prevent the disturbance of the dust that was the legacy of most public-service filing systems. Motes filled the air, spreading like incandescent glitterdust under the fluorescent lighting of the archive. James slid his glasses back up onto the bridge of his nose with an exasperated click of his tongue and sighed with resignation at what was likely to be another wasted hour or two, if there was any part of the story jigsaw in here, it was likely to be the smallest piece of the overall picture possible.


There wasn’t much warning that the exaggerated breath had been a mistake, but then again James was already suffering from increased allergic sensitivity from several extended bouts of pollen-induced misery earlier. He could feel his nostrils start to flare and twitch, and he crinkled the bridge of his nose the feeling that it had become home to a colony of overly-excitable fire-ants returned and intensified rapidly. Nuggets of information about political corruption hidden away in obscure subcommittee minutes immediately assumed a much lesser importance than trying to soothe the urgent tickle in his nose before a full-blown attack ensued. It was a battle that James knew that he had very little chance of winning, so he quickly buried his face in the crook of his elbow in a desperate attempt to stifle the impending sneezes. It was an exercise in futility and shallow breaths and fluttering eyelids soon gave way to a series of half-muffled, violent sneezes.


James looked around with an embarrassed grimace, he had spent his entire life respecting the silence of archives and libraries as sacred, then muttered “Excuse me” under his breath to no-one in particular as he slid his glasses, which had become displaced during the fit, back into place with a somewhat exasperated jab of his thumb.


“Goddam hay-fever eh, Jim? Do you want me to grab you a Benadryl, I think I have one in my bag upstairs, it’s pretty horrible this time of year.” James’ grimaced again as he looked up and saw Liz Bannon leaning against one of the shelves near the door, he had been far too preoccupied with trying to fend off an allergy attack to hear her come in. Liz was also part of the investigative team, specializing in face-to-face interviews. She just had a natural talent for getting people talking. She was also one of James’ best friends on the team, always with hints, but nothing more than that, that there might be deeper feelings involved.

“No, that’s one of the advantages of this place, it’s one of the few places in Chicago that is pretty much pollen-proof. I was actually feeling..hahhh.. better, but it appears not everyone cleans their archives properly. Plus I’ve still got a fe-ih-ew of these to check and Benadryl knocks me straight out.” James responded, still trying to regain control of occasional hitches in his breathing.

“You and pretty much everyone else!” Liz replied, yawning as if in emphasis.  “Have you found anything interesting in all of those? It looked like City Hall was pulling the old “information deluge” trick again?”

“How much do you…ugh.. want to know about Chicago’s policy for the placement of traffic signals at major intersections?” James laughed, rolling his eyes.


“How about nothing and saying that I do, can we work with that?”


“I th…ihhhh…ESSHHHHHiooooo….bugger it, excuse me, think we can!”



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