a dark, imperious hand
by
david england

The sequel to Devil's Due and Of Dresses And Dames...

 

Part I

Letter from a Dead Man

 

Fat drops pelt against the window unsteadily and I stare into the swirling green-grey fog that blankets everything.  Not an unusual noontime cityscape here on Venus.  A few of the nearer streetlamps manage to penetrate the murk, but they make little difference to the world outside or my mood.  I feel off-balance today and I don’t know why.

I don’t like not knowing why.  Pisses me off.  I give the scene beyond the glass another moment’s consideration, then slowly rotate my desk chair away from the window and back toward the bright interior of my two-bit office.   

“A Miss Eurette Primrose Pierce,” I say as I read the radio-telegram in my hand, “will be coming by at one o’clock today.”  Distaste must be evident in my voice because Mel glances up at me from her notepad with a questioning expression.  “A potential client,” I clarify.

Mel gives me that look, the one where I have a damn hard time telling if she’s being serious or smiling at me behind a polite mask.  “I’ll double-check your calendar, Nick, but I believe your schedule is open.”

“Terrific,” I reply, tossing the crisply folded piece of paper on my far too neat and tidy desk. My tone expresses a sentiment of a quite different nature.  It’s not that I don’t want clients--far from it, in fact.  For one thing, I still like eating on a regular basis and while Kim Soo’s a reasonable fellow, he still wants his rent payments on a regular basis, too.  Plus, I’ve got a secretary to pay for and Mel--

I cut that thought off and give my head an imperceptible shake.  Mel’s a whole nest of problems rolled up into one dangerous, nice-looking package.  I’ve been doing a deft little soft-shoe number these many weeks now since the case of Madame Deschamps’ dress, making a good show of looking for her brother’s killer while doing nothing of the sort.  Of course, I know exactly where that bastard is--everyone on the goddamn planet knows--but that’s also the last thing I’m going to tell her.

My luck has held so far and I’ve managed to dodge any hard questions about the apparent lack of progress in her case.  But that can’t go on forever, either.  This girl is hell-bent on her path of revenge and she has no problem with digging her own grave alongside that of her intended victim. 

I pull myself from my inner dialogue with a mental jerk.  “It’s almost noon already,” I observe with a glance at my office wall clock.  “Why don’t you take some of the petty cash, run down the block to Francesco’s bakery and grab us some sandwiches to carry us through midday.  We can go for an early dinner at Kim Soo’s later.  My treat.”

Mel considers me for another few seconds, then gives a quick nod and stands.  A moment later, she steps into the vestibule where her escritoire sits, slips on the light jacket over her simple dress, and exits the office.  I’m left alone with my thoughts, which immediately turn to this prospective client and the pending appointment.

I can’t complain about the work, or the d’argent that comes with it.  And having a steady trickle of clients certainly helps to give me more wiggle room in delaying Mel’s case.  You know, I practically had to force the girl to accept any wages at all.  We argued for what seemed like hours, but I won a small victory in the end when she relented.  Not that I’m doing it out of the kindness of my heart--and I’ve taken into account the fact that I’m giving her a room in my third-floor hole-in-the wall apartment, so they’re not market-rate wages, either--but a man’s got to live with himself and this eases my conscience just a bit.

But there are clients and there are clients.  Most of my trade is grunge work: tailing cheating spouses at the behest of the cheated spouse, hunting down lost items, sometimes recovering said items by whatever means necessary, and occasionally a dabble in the protection racket.  Bread and butter for a night crawler like me.

Miss Eurette Primrose Pierce, on the other hand, sounds like a socialite who’s lost her toy poodle.  I grit my teeth and light a cigarillo.  A long drag takes the rich smoke deep into my lungs.  I exhale and everything is fogged by the swirling vapor before materializing back into the grubby thing called my life.  Something about beggars and choosers plays in the back of my mind, but I ignore it.

Mel comes back with our sandwiches a short while later and we eat.  Mine’s a basic faux-Phillie cheesesteak, my go-to choice, with sautéed fungus of some kind standing in for the meat I remember from my youth.  Francesco makes a good copy of the original, though, so I can’t complain.  Mel has some spicy something or other that reminds her of home.  How she can taste anything is beyond me.

We eat without conversation and I keep one eye on the wall-clock.  I’m no Mr. Manners, but I don’t want to be caught with a mouthful of sandwich either.  We have plenty of time, however, and finish our sparse meal well before the hands show one o’clock.

Miss Eurette Primrose Pierce proves to be prompt and, to be frank, surprising.  Demurely, even conservatively dressed in muted colors of the current fashions, she contrasts starkly with my memory of Madame Deschamps’ more aggressive and flamboyant style.  It is a comparison that I could not help but appreciate.  She’s in that maturing-but-still-young phase of life, her mid-twenties by my guess, and has soft-looking blonde hair carefully braided in an elegant, but understated manner.  Her bright green eyes consider me openly as she sits in the plain wooden chair before my desk.  Mel sits in the other chair, now set slightly to one side, her notepad open and her pen poised.

“Mr. Philips,” she says with an accent that I take note of immediately.

“Miss Pierce,” I reply.  “Care for something to drink?  We have some chikrey left, if you would like a cup.”

“Thank you,” she says.  “But no.”

I give a wordless shrug, then fix my eyes on her.  “You are American,” I state directly.

She nods.  “As are you, I see.”  Her eyes narrow slightly.  “Mid-Atlantic?  Not New York.”

“Philadelphia,” I acknowledge.  “And you are Old South, most definitely.”

“Charleston,” she confirms, then shifts her focus to the meeting at hand.  “Thank you for seeing me on such short notice.”  Her face is composed and her posture quite proper, but I detect a hint of strong emotional currents churning beneath that presentation.

I nod in response, gesture blandly.  “It is difficult to feed oneself if one doesn’t take on clients.  I take it you have something you’d like me to handle for you?”

She takes a deep breath, exhales.  “Yes.”  Her green eyes examine me.  “Yes, I do.”

I wait for her to continue, which she does a moment later.  “Would you happen to recall a news story some short time ago,” she asks carefully, “of a man found hanging from a roof beam in his apartments?”

I pause, flipping through my mental files.  “Yes,” I reply slowly.  “I remember that story.  As I recall, the authorities ruled it a suicide.”

“Guy-Pierre Montagne did not kill himself,” she retorts angrily.  She closes her eyes, then opens them again.  “Forgive me,” she says more calmly now.  “It is an emotional subject for me.”

“Perhaps you should start at the beginning,” I suggest.  “And then tell me what it is you would like me to do.”

Her head quirks ever so slightly to one side.  “Very well,” she says.

 

###

 

“My family is descended from an old southern line, though we are what you might call a minor cadet branch.  Some generations back, my great-great-grandfather, being the youngest of several sons and having few prospects in the more socially-accepted life as a planter, embarked on a career in business: shipping, to be precise.  This was about the time of the dawning of the space age.”

I nod.  Like the discovery of the New World back in the day, the new frontiers opened by James Henry and his aether engine created opportunities for lots of people as the worlds were colonized.  Particularly after the Treaty of Geneva ended the major wars in 1832 and parceled out the chunks of the inner system to the various Great Powers.

“Two generations later, my grandfather established himself here on Venus, first as a representative of the family trading house, then breaking from his brothers and building his own firm.  He prospered and married well.  Of three children, however, only my father survived childhood, my aunt dying from an illness as an infant and my uncle from injuries sustained in a carriage accident as a boy.  So my father inherited my grandfather’s business, married in his own time, and brought my brother Eric and me into these worlds.

“Our mother passed away after a sudden illness when I was seventeen and Eric was eighteen.  Our father never recovered from that loss, though he lingered on for several years.  Then one day, shortly after Eric’s twenty-second birthday, he went into the study and shot himself.”

All too common a tale.  “Not to be rude, Miss Pierce,” I interject.  “But how does this pertain to your case?”

“Eric took over the family business, having reached his majority already.  As I was not yet twenty-five, I was considered to be under my brother’s guidance by law and while I was granted a certain allowance, I had no control over my own affairs.”

“I see,” I say.  Also a common tale.  Might have been mine.

“Our family estate is in the British Concession,” she segues without explanation.  “In Alberton.”

I nod in understanding.  The Americans had no formal concession on Venus, having come into the Great Power game well after the Treaty of Geneva had carved up the inner system in 1832, but often had substantial presences in various territories.  Alberton lay in the central region of the British Venusian Concession, a good day’s train ride past Adonopolis.

“It is not a large estate,” Miss Pierce continues, “but boasts several guest houses.  My brother is very keen, you understand, to project himself into the upper crust of society.  As such, he has had a habit of hosting various cultural figures--writers, artists, philosophers--from whose glow he might borrow.  As a patron, of sorts.”  She shakes her head at my grimace.  “Do not judge Eric too harshly, Mr. Philips.  He is a product of his upbringing.”

I wave a hand vaguely and she continues.  “Guy was one such figure and became a tenant of ours a number of years ago.  He was a kind man, not at all like most of the self-absorbed creatures my brother supported, and brilliant.  Absolutely brilliant.”

“But…” I prompt.

“Fifteen months ago, my brother expelled Guy from the guesthouse and ordered him never to come back, threatening legal action if he did.  Guy departed for Aphrodite and that was the last I ever saw of him.”

Something that’s been nagging me from the beginning of this visit finally surfaces.  “There’s more to your story,” I say, keeping my gaze level.  “And I’d like to know what that something more is, Miss Pierce.”  I pause, making my point.  “I have an aversion to taking on clients who hand me only a half-deck of cards to play with.”  I bring my cigarillo to my mouth, inhale, and exhale a cloud of rich smoke.  “Poor past experiences.”

Miss Pierce says nothing, her expression flat and unreadable.  After a moment of quiet, she answers my implied question with an explicit one.

“Have you ever loved, Mr. Philips?”

In the corner of my vision, I see Mel’s head snap up from her note-taking.  This is territory I have no intention of entering, thank you.

“And what would that matter,” I answer blandly, “one way or the other?”

My prospective client gives me an assessing look.  “It matters, sir,” she responds flatly, “in that you might understand the motivation for my actions.”

“Your motivations are not my concern, Miss Pierce,” I reply.  “Nor my understanding of them.”  I return her assessing look with one of my own.  “What concerns me is having all of the relevant facts pertaining to your case.  It helps keep a body alive longer, a condition I prefer to the alternative.”

She regards me a minute longer, then gives a brief nod of acknowledgement.  “That is fair, Mr. Philips.”

I lean back in my chair and wait.  She sits up a bit straighter.

“I loved Guy-Pierre Montagne.”

Even though I was already expecting an answer along those lines, my eyebrows rise anyway.  “My understanding from the newspapers is that Monsieur Montagne was a man of some years.”

Her eyes remain defiant.  “He was.”

“And when you say that you loved him…”  I trail off into a question.

“I mean precisely that, Mr. Philips.”  Her eyes flash.  “I loved Guy as a woman loves a man.  And I make no apologies for it.”

I wave one hand in a dismissive gesture.  “I am not judging you, Miss Pierce, though you have to admit that the particulars of such relations are unusual.”

She does not respond, so I keep going.  “I assume from your earlier statements that your brother did not look kindly on this affair?”

The young woman barks a curt, hollow laugh.  “Eric most certainly did not,” she affirms.  “When he discovered us, he was aghast and appalled.  Terminated Guy’s lease immediately and enforced my effective imprisonment until I finally came of age and was able to take control of my own affairs.”  She frowned.  “My brother fought my decision to depart his household, but finally realized that his power over me had evaporated once I was able to claim my modest inheritance outright.  I was forced, however, to endure one final lecture on the dire consequences to my reputation and that of the family...and certain thinly-veiled threats regarding action he would be compelled to take were I to embarrass him or the family in any significant way.”

“Actions?”

She shrugs.  “Disowning me.  As head of the family, he has certain power to cut me off from the family assets from which I am able to draw an income.  I would be left to depend solely on my own investments and my wits.  Not that I care about his approval.”  Her chin lifts a fraction.  “I make my own path.”   

I take that all in.  Miss Pierce looks at me levelly, her green gaze steady.  “Okay,” I respond after another moment.  “So, something happened that prompted you to action, I take it.”

“Yes,” she replies and reaches into her small hand purse, withdrawing a folded document.  “I received this letter.”  She hands the paper to me.  I unfold the typewritten note.

 

                                                                                                Le Journal des Femmes

                                                                                                2221 Fibonacci Way

                                                                                                Adonopolis, BC

                                                                                                23 Avril 1901

 

Ms. Pierce:

 

Today’s Journal strives for certain values--familia, hearth, home, and few others.  It is our mission to uphold these sovereign traditions.  We must therefore reject your submission.  Though eloquent, a tale of murder does not suit our publication’s nature.  We wish you success elsewhere.

 

                                                                                                Respectfully,

                                                                                                M. Bordeaux, Editor

 

“It looks like a typical rejection letter,” I reply, looking up.  “What about it did you find significant?”

“I submitted no story,” she says carefully, “of murder or any other theme, to any publication by the name of Les Journal des Femmes.  In fact, I am fairly certain that such a publication does not exist.  Moreover, there is no Fibonacci Way in Adonopolis.”

My eyebrows rise at this.  “I see.  And from that you conclude...what?”

“Guy knew that my brother would intercept and examine my mail so long as I was living under his roof,” she explains, “so he wrote in code.”

“That seems a bit of a leap,” I counter.  “How do you know this was from your...friend?”

“As I said,” she replies, “I submitted no such story, which alerted me to the fact that this letter was something other than the polite rejection it purported to be.  As I considered the possibilities, Guy seemed the most likely prospect.”

“Why?”

“Among many other interests, he loved puzzles and codes.  So I looked for clues.”  She gestures at the letter in my hand.  “The address for example.”

I look down.  “2221 Fibonacci Way,” I read aloud.

“Exactly,” Miss Pierce nods, as if I’m supposed to understand.  When I still say nothing, she repeats.  “Exactly, Mr. Philips.  Fibonacci Way.”

Still nothing.  I shrug.  “And?”

“Have you ever heard of the Fibonacci sequence?” she asks.

“No,” I admit.

“It is a numerical pattern,” she says, “that begins with the numbers one and one.  Each number in the pattern afterwards is the sum of the two preceding numbers.”

“Okay,” I shrug again.  “So what?”

“One, one,” she explains, “then two, then three, then five, and so on.”

“A code?” I ask.  “How does that work?”

“Look at the letter again, Mr. Philips,” she says, “but take each word according to that sequence.”

I examine the letter more carefully now, seeing the light pencil marks I’d dismissed before now in a different light.  The first two words of the body of the letter were marked, then the second word after that.  Then the third word after that.  Three more words were marked further along at ever-increasing intervals, seven words in all.

Today’s Journal for familia others sovereign murder.

“Hardly a clear message,” I point out.

“But enough to put me on the scent,” she replies.  “I believe he was pointing me to another clue.  Something that would make more sense of what he wrote here.”

“And what other clue is that?”

“Guy was a prolific writer and encouraged my aspirations in that field.  More to the point, he kept a regular journal of his own, recording his thoughts and observations on a daily basis.  I have no doubt he continued that habit after his departure from our estate.  I believe the next clue lies in his journal.”

Today’s Journal.  “And what is it you would like me to do, Miss Pierce?” I ask.

“He had no living relatives, as I understand,” she answers, “and his possessions have been collected by the authorities.  I cannot access them--I’ve already written for permission and been denied.  But a private investigator might be able to go where I cannot.”

“That may be possible,” I admit.  “If I’m able to concoct a suitable story.”  I look at her.  “But this will change nothing of what happened, you understand.”

“Guy is dead,” she states flatly.  “And part of me died with him.  But this last message of his to me directed me to something in his journals.  I need to know what Guy was trying to tell me.  It is for that purpose that I wish to hire you.”

“He will still be dead.”

“Yes,” she agrees.  “Perhaps I will be able to...move on...if I could close this last remaining chapter.  I ask you directly, Mr. Philips: will you help me?”

I must be a sucker for dames in distress.  Not to mention the small fact that I need more work as cover to keep Mel at bay for a little while longer while I figure out what I’m going to do to pull my bacon out of that particular fire.

“Of course, Miss Pierce,” I reply.  “I will take your case.”

 

###

 

We settle on the details: my daily rate, plus expenses.  At six dollars a day, you might think I’m moving up in the worlds, but as I said, I’ve got Mel’s wages to cover, too.

“I’ll need time to make some initial inquiries, Miss Pierce,” I tell her.  “And to see if I can gain access to Mr. Montagne’s effects.  If that is satisfactory to you, then I can report on my findings within the next two or three days.”

“That is perfectly satisfactory, Mr. Philips.”

I nod at that.  “In that case, where can I contact you?”

“I am staying at the hostel run by the Sisters of Divine Mercy here in Aphrodite,” she replies.  “You may reach me there.”

In the corner of my vision, I see Mel flinch visibly at the mention of the Sisters.  Can’t say that I blame her, since she had only just escaped being shut up in a convent herself.  But she makes no comment and notes Miss Pierce’s accommodations on the notepad.

“Works for me,” I say.  We stand.  Mel follows suit a few seconds later.  “I will be in touch with you.”

“Thank you, Mr. Philips,” my client replies.  Then she turns and Mel escorts her to the outer office door.  I hear the soft click as the door shuts again, but my mind is already going back to the original story, trying to recall the details.  I sense Mel approaching and I look up.

“Mel,” I begin, “find me the paper for--” I stop short as a folded newspaper is dropped on my desk.

“The Venusian Observer from the twelfth of May,” she says, a hint of a smile on her face.  “With the story of Señor Montagne’s death.”  Damn that girl.  I’ve kept a file of old newspapers for years now--nothing better for picking up leads in my line of work than in the gossip columns--but that “file” had always been a bunch of piles shoved in a corner.  Mel’s arrival, however, ushered in a new era of organization, complete with cataloguing and a cross-reference index.  I shouldn’t be surprised that she already has the paper I’m about to ask for--she’s been reading my mind since Adonopolis, a fact which is beginning to concern me and for more than one reason.

But I plant a grateful expression on my face and say “Thank you” as I unfold the newspaper and locate the story in the bottom right corner of the first page.  There were bigger things grabbing headlines, but the discovery of a body dangling from the rafters is still front page stuff.

I review the story, refreshing my memory of the details.  A reclusive old man, of quiet demeanor, had not been seen by his neighbors for some time.  While his behavior had been generally withdrawn, a total absence of activity was remarked upon and eventually the gendarme notified.  When the locked apartments were opened, the man’s body--now well into the early stages of decomposition--had been found dangling from a roof beam by a stout rope tied into a rudimentary noose.  The toppled chair on the floor beneath the body had provided the evidence suggesting suicide.

It’s an oft-told story, one of loneliness and despair.  Aside from the drama of discovery, nothing that I haven’t seen a hundred times before.  I give a quiet grunt.  Hell, it’s nothing I haven’t thought about myself at times.

The story makes mention of the date of the inquest and I ask Mel to bring me the papers for the days right around that time.  She complies, moving with her usual annoying efficiency, and then goes back to her secretarial tasks of organizing my life.  I hear her leave a few moments later on an errand--restocking our office supplies, I think--but I’m busy leafing through the papers to find what I’m looking for.

The third paper holds the prize and I scan the terse legalese.  A summary of the inquest’s findings and other official mumbo-jumbo are condensed to several dense paragraphs.  As expected, the verdict of self-slaughter was given and notice posted for surviving family to make claim to the man’s possessions.  I make note of the date, some seven weeks ago.  I’m going to need to move quickly: the holding period for unclaimed effects is two months, at which point they would be destroyed.  If I’m going to find out what Montagne wrote in his journal for Miss Pierce to find, I need to do it soon.  Tomorrow’s going to be a busy day.

I take a few more notes, fold the papers back up for Mel to refile later, and lean back in my chair, contemplating the ceiling through a thin veil of cigarillo smoke.  There’s still something else about this case that bothers me, I realize.  Like a danger hovering overhead, an axe about to fall.  I frown, hard.  Hard to dodge something you can’t see.

Mel returns a while later, placing the small package she’s carrying on her desk before retrieving the newspapers from mine.  As she puts everything back into its place, I look at the wall clock.  It’s coming up on five o’clock now.  Close enough, I decide.

“Let’s call it a night,” I tell her.  “And head downstairs for some grub.”

 

###

 

“Tell me about her,” Mel says out of nowhere before taking a bite of her bulgogi.  The leaf-wrap isn’t the traditional lettuce, but a watery broad-leafed Venusian equivalent that Kim Soo has incorporated into his people’s cuisine.  Richly marinated fungus, grilled with garlic and onions, layered with a thick red paste.  I can smell the mouth-searing spices from the other side of the table.

Kim Soo runs a nice joint.  The tables are clean and the food tasty.  He’s also my landlord, so I make a point to eat here periodically.  Bringing Mel is just a little bonus.  She’s a good-looking dame, for a hot-blooded chica dead set on self-destructive revenge, and giving my landlord a bit of eye-candy doesn’t hurt any when it comes to my lease.

“Who?” I reply absently, looking down at my own plate.  I’ve opted for the “open” version of my dish, rather than the wrap.  I don’t care for lettuce to begin with and eating a Venusian plant pretending to be a plant I don’t like doesn’t do much for this man’s appetite.  The grilled strips of belly-meat rest on a bed of garlic, green onion slices, and a small amount of mild kimchi.  Mel can have her infernal spices.  I like to taste my lunch.  And my breakfast the next day.

“Señora Florence and I,” she says with an enigmatic look, “have had occasion to talk.”

Terrific.  When a guy’s got a dame in his life, in whatever capacity, he’s got to watch his step.  When a guy’s got two dames in his life, he’s juggling knives.  When those dames start chatting with one another, God help him.

“Why?”  I’m being really talkative this evening.

“Nick.”  Mel shakes her head slowly, like I’m some kind of child who just doesn’t understand what he’s being told.  “I’m not blind.  I saw the look she gave you that next time we ate at her diner.  I wanted to clear the air between us, as you say, so that she did not misunderstand.”  She takes another bite and puts her wrap back on the plate.  An expression of bliss flutters across her face as she chews.  She takes another moment, savoring the food, and then swallows.  I don’t know how she can possibly enjoy that stuff, but she obviously does. 

“How very kind of you,” I say with only a hint of sarcasm.  There--I’m able to put a whole sentence together now.  “When did this little chat occur, exactly?”  A man needs to know what’s going on in his life, you know.

Mel settles back in her booth seat.  “Last week,” she replies.  “I was out on an errand and I stopped in.  We had a pleasant talk.”

I nod, lifting a forkful of my own food.

“So tell me about her.”

I take a moment to finish chewing.  “There’s not much to tell,” I say.  “Flo’s a friend.  We get together on occasion.  It helps each of us in our own way.”

Mel shakes her head sharply.  “No, Nick.” She gives me that look again.  “Not Señora Flo.  The other woman.”  She leans toward me just a bit, her expression intense.  “The one who broke your heart.”


Part II

Dangerous Territory

 

My fork freezes in mid-air and hovers there, motionless.  A few seconds pass, then I put it down again, very carefully, and look at Mel hard.  “What,” I say, my voice low, “are you talking about exactly?”

“A woman hurt you,” Mel tells me.  Her head quirks to the side just a bit and she examines me for a moment.  “It was a long time ago, yes.”  She nods slowly. “I can see that.  But you loved her.  I can see that, too.”

“And how, exactly, did you come up with this bit of brilliant deduction?”

“The expression on your face when Señorita Pierce asked her question,” Mel answers casually.  “I saw it, before you buried it again.”

Damn girl’s too perceptive for her own good.  It’s going to get her, maybe both of us, into a world of trouble one of these days.

“Señora Flo told me of your shoulder,” Mel continues.  “About your scar.” 

“Flo talks too much,” I reply gruffly.

“She cares for you,” Mel observes, settling back in the booth again.  “She does not love you, I do not think.  But she does care in her own way.”

  I give a derisive snort.  “Mel,” I say.  “Look.  I like you.  You’re smart, you’ve got spunk, and you’ve saved my ass more than once now.  But you’re just a kid.  What can you possibly know about love?”

I see my mistake right away.  Her dark eyes flare with that familiar fire.  “I know enough,” she counters.  “I know what love is.”  I wise up and keep my mouth shut this time.  She gives me a glare.  “You do not believe me.”

“I believe that you think you know,” I allow with a nod.  On the other hand, this sucker knows all too well what love is.  Love is pain.  Love is hell.

“Love is a fire that burns you from inside, a relentless fire that never ends.”  Mel’s voice deepens a bit, her passion controlled but not by much.  “It is being willing to die for another, just as I am willing to die for Andrés’ memory.  It is willing to defy the world to do what you think to be right.”  Her chin lifts.  “I love my brother and I am willing to die so that he might be avenged.  I defy my father’s will for me because I know my course to be just.”  She looks at me, her gaze defiant.  “That,” she says flatly, “is love.”

That’s closer to obsession, I tell myself, but the girl’s got a vivid way of describing things.  “Okay,” I admit, somewhat reluctantly.  “So you have an idea of love.”

“Who was this woman you loved?” she asks again.  She’s persistent that way.

“What makes you think that I have ever felt for someone like that?” I ask.

“Your shoulder,” Mel replies.  “You took a bullet because of a woman.  That is love.”

I scowl inwardly and think of a witless sap who’s too damn weak to keep his trap shut in the bedroom.  Flo’s not the only one who talks too much.

“It was a long time ago,” I reply dismissively, picking my fork back up.  “Doesn’t matter anymore.” 

“Nick.”  Mel’s voice is surprisingly soft.  ”I…”  Her voice falters and her eyes drop to her plate for a few brief moments before lifting to find mine again.  “I would like to know.  Please.”

No dodging this, I realize.  I stab at the food on my plate.  Damn, damn, damn.  I take the bite and chew slowly, trying to buy time to pull my wits together.  The gods only grant me those few seconds though and I eventually have to swallow.

“It was a long time ago,” I repeat.  “And yours truly was young and stupid.”

“And in love,” Mel says.

“Young and stupid and in love.”  I put my fork back down again.  “It was back on Earth, in the States.  In the city of Philadelphia.”  The memories rise up in my mind even as I ruthlessly edit them before they leave my mouth.  “It was back in ‘76--we Americans had just celebrated the centennial of our declaration of independence from Great Britain--and the mood in the country was high.  The future was wide open and anything seemed possible.  I was twenty-three years old and had just made detective sergeant in the city police department.”

“And the woman?” Mel asks quietly.  “Was she beautiful?”

“Like the sunrise on a clear spring morning,” I reply.  I can feel myself slipping into the shadows of the past and fight to keep a grip on myself.  “Long golden hair, light blue eyes like cornflowers, and skin the color of cream.”  I let out a slow breath.  “Christiana Beatrice Allouez was the daughter of a prominent family and I had begun to make a name for myself in the city on account of some recent busts that had gone down, catching more than one big-time figure up net of the law.”

Mel’s eyes narrow.  “So you were acceptable to her family because of this?”

“Not really,” I shrug.  “They had other plans for their only daughter.  But Christina was ambitious in her own way and the two of us had something.”  I pause.  “Or at least I thought we did.”

“What happened?”

“It was early July,” I reply.  “As I said, the Independence Day celebrations that year were more energetic than usual, at the hundred-year mark, and so the festivities were still going on even after the fourth.  It was a cloudless summer day, with a cool breeze to buffer the usual warmth.  Christiana and I had become engaged the week before, with the begrudging approval of her parents, and were planning to wed the following March.  I had called on her that we might discuss some of the plans and suggested a stroll.”  I grimace.  “So we headed for Lafayette Park, not too terribly far from her family’s townhouse in the city.”

I fall silent.  My eyes have slid off of Mel and I’m staring into the past somewhere over her right shoulder.  “The park?” she prods gently. 

“The park,” I echo, almost in a whisper.  I close my eyes for a moment against the memory.  That damn park.  I give my head a shake to clear it and open my eyes again.  “Yes, the park,” I repeat looking right at Mel now.  “We went for our stroll along the promenade, one of several couples, old and young, out enjoying the day.  That was when we met him.”

“Who?”

I’m trying hard to keep hold of myself, but the wellspring of the past is relentless.  The memories are coming hard and fast.  “Diego Antonín Michel Laurent,” I reply without thinking.  I blink at the mistake, but Mel shows no signs of recognition.  I’m lucky that in many ways she’s still a young peasant-girl from Neuvo Espagña.  “He approached us as we were making our way along the promenade, politely begging apology for the intrusion and asking for directions to Independence Hall.  Christiana laughed lightly, like the sound of song birds.  ‘Good sir,’ I remembered her saying.  ‘How can you not know where Independence Hall is?’

“Diego smiled.  He was our age, slightly younger than me as it turned out, and dressed in an elegantly-cut suit of very high quality.  ‘Mademoiselle,’ he replied, ‘I have only recently arrived in your noble country and I am still learning my way.’  Naive as I was, the interplay between the two of them was lost on me.  I provided him the directions he sought, for which he thanked us and turned to depart.

“But then he stopped, as if a thought had just come to him, and he turned back to us.  ‘If you would permit me to repay your kindness,’ he said, ‘please accept my invitation to a social gathering my father is hosting this coming Friday evening.  These affairs can be rather tedious and I would be delighted to have guests of my own age with whom to converse.’

“‘And where might this gathering be?’ Christiana asked.

“‘Oh,’ Diego replied.  ‘Did I not mention?  My father is the Franco-Spanish ambassador.  The dinner is at the embassy.’  He smiled again.  ‘I look forward to seeing you both.’”

Mel frowns and I see her beginning to get a sense of where my story is heading.  “What happened at the dinner?” she asks.

“Nothing obvious,” I admit.  “Then again, I wasn’t looking for anything to happen.”  I shrug.  “I was a bit out of place, but Diego was a gracious host.  Christiana, of course, was in her element, being much more used to moving in such circles because of her family’s prominence.”

“But…” Mel trails off.

“But a week later,” I acknowledge, “Christiana broke off our engagement.”  I pause.  “And a week after that, I was reading about her betrothal to Diego in the newspaper.”

“Pretenciosa!” Mel practically spits.

“As I said,” I reply, “Christiana was ambitious in her own way.  It just so happened that in this case, her thoughts and those of her family agreed.  He was the eldest son of a duke.”  I pick my fork back up, skewer a bit of meat.  “I was a streetwise copper who’d made a few lucky busts.”

“Cazafortunas,” Mel growls.  I’m admittedly caught a little off-guard at the intensity of her anger.  But then again, I don’t know that Mel is capable of anything but intense emotion.

I start eating again and Mel waits for a short while as I chew.  When I move to take another bite, she speaks up.

“And then what?”

“What do you mean?” I counter.

“There’s more to the story,” she insists.  “Your shoulder.”

I grunt.  “I told you that this all happened when I was young and stupid.”

She nods.  “You did.”

“Well, the shoulder,” I tell her evenly, “was me being stupid.”

I take another bite.  Mel waits for a moment, then prods.  “Tell me.”

“I was still in shock after Christiana’s breaking of our engagement when I saw the announcement in the paper.”  I stare at my plate, then let out a breath.  “I lost it.  Just straight up lost it.  Went right down to the ambassador’s residence, pushed my way in past the snooty French butler.  I was barely into the foyer when the guards seized me.  They were about to haul my carcass out the door and throw me into the street when Diego appeared.”  My lip curls just a bit.  “Christiana was with him, of course.”

“And?”

“He told the guards to let me go.  Or rather, he waved one hand in that casual manner of his and said ‘Release him.’  So they did.”

“What did you do?” she asks quietly.

“I called him every foul, low-down, insulting name I could think of,” I reply.  “I marched right up to the bastard and got into his face.  He never flinched.  Not once.  Just looked at me with a kind of bemused half-smile, like I was a mild entertainment.  Pissed me off.”

“Did you strike him?”

“No,” I shook my head.  “I kept my wits about me enough to avoid that.  But after I ran out of words and stood there fuming, he cocked his head and said, ‘I should demand satisfaction from you, sir, for the insult you have given me.’  Just as calm as could be.  And despite my rage, it sent a cold chill right through me, I tell you.”

“A duel?” Mel asks.

I nod.  “I told him I wasn’t fool enough to cross blades with someone who’d been trained from childhood.  He just waved a hand again.  ‘No matter,’ he replied.  ‘I will accept pistols.’  He turned to the butler and gestured.  ‘Fetch my set.’  And the man disappeared down the hall, returning a short while later with an elegant wooden box which opened to display a pair of dueling pistols.  Diego indicated the box.  ‘You may examine them and select your weapon.’”

Mel says nothing.  Just looks at me with an odd expression I can’t decipher.

“I knew my way around a gun, even an old-style dueling pistol.  I spotted no funny business with either of the pistols’ mechanisms, spent a bit hefting each one in my hand, and picked the one that felt better.  Then we went out onto the residence lawn and paced off the distance.  Christiana was all a bundle of nerves at this point, but Diego was cool and unflustered.  The butler recited the traditional formula, then counted.  At three, we brought our weapons up and fired.”  It felt strange, summarizing those moments so blandly.  “I missed.  Diego didn’t.”  Not quite true, but that’s as close as I’m going to get at this point.

“You’re still alive,” Mel points out.  “So he must have missed.”

I snort.  “Diego struck me precisely where he intended.  I’ve heard of him dropping a man at twice the distance with a clean shot between the eyes. Believe me, if he’d have wanted me dead, I’d have been dead.” 

“So he meant to wound you, but let you live.”

“Yes,” I reply.  “To teach me a lesson, I’m sure.  But also to show off to Christiana.”

Mel takes all that in for a moment.  “What happened after that?”

“Dueling was illegal in the States by then, so I found myself in a bit of trouble,” I explain.  “I couldn’t be prosecuted, as the duel had occurred on the property of the Franco-Spanish ambassador’s residence, which was, technically speaking, Francho-Spanish territory and outside the laws of the United States.  But Christiana’s family made sure that I lost my job with the police department and pulled enough strings that I couldn’t get references worth a hill of beans.  Diego and Christiana left for Venus to get married and like a broken dog I followed her here, because I needed to pour salt into my wound and rub it in real good.”  I give one more shrug.  “Set myself up as a private detective and have been doing that since.”  I exhale, gesture with my fork, and lean back against the booth.  “And there you go, Mel.  That’s my sad tale in a nutshell.”

Mel looks at me for several quiet moments, then shakes her head slowly.  “You are much too hard on yourself, Nick,” she says, her face soft somehow.  “All of that only means that you’re human.  Like the rest of us.”

I grunt, not quite sure how to answer that, and become very interested in my plate again.

“Where is she now?” Mel asks quietly.  “This woman.”

I close my eyes, allow the flash of pain to fade, then open them again.  “She’s still here,” I reply with a casualness I don’t feel.  “I visit her every now and then.”

“Visit?”  Mel sounds puzzled.  “What about her husband?”

“Oh, Diego doesn’t mind,” I answer, skewing another bit of meat.  “He’s long since moved on.” Another breath in, another breath out.  “Christiana’s buried in his family crypt in the churchyard of Saint Denis on the north side of Aphrodite.  She died in childbirth a little more than a year after her marriage, both her and Diego’s heir.”  I pause.  “He married again.  After a suitable mourning period, of course.”

“I’m sorry, Nick.”

“So am I, Mel,” I answer.  “So am I.”  I reach for my glass of water, wishing to a God I don’t believe in that it was something stronger.  “She tore my heart right out of my chest and I still can’t let her go.”

Mel nods.  “Some wounds take a long time to heal.”

“And some wounds never do.”

Mel doesn’t reply to that, contemplates her own dinner, and takes a bite.  There’s a quiet between us, something I can’t describe, that feels almost comforting in a way.  I’m not sure how to feel about that.

“What do you think of Señorita Pierce’s case?” Mel asks, breaking that silence.

I shrug, grateful for the shift in topic.  “It’s a job,” I reply noncommittally.  “I’ve had worse.”

“So you don’t think she’s right?” Mel presses gently.  “About Señor Montagne writing that letter, sending her a coded message?”

“It’s a possibility,” I allow.  “But what she’s got is a jumble of words that may or may not mean something.  Montagne might have written that letter, or he might not.  Those words might be a code, or they might not.  She’s employed me--us--to follow up on her guess about the man’s journals, a guess which might be right or might not.  We get paid either way.”

“And if it is a code?”

“If it is a code,” I echo, “then that message might still be the final ravings of a lonely, old man on the verge of taking his own life.”  I shake my head.  “In any event, not my problem.  We’ll look into the journal, like she asked, and tell her what we find.  Where she goes from there isn’t my business.”

“Do you have a plan for dealing with the policía?”

I smile tightly.  “I have an idea that ought to get us in the door.”

 

###

 

We have a pleasant-enough breakfast at Flo’s the next morning.  I give the woman a pointed look when we enter but she just waves us to our seats as though nothing’s happened.  I see the glances she and Mel exchange, however, and wonder what else there is that I don’t know.  The meal is good and the chikrey hot, so I don’t complain.  A short time later, Mel and I are in a cab heading to the headquarters of the gendarme.  Traffic is still light and the journey is quick.  The cab drops us off curbside.

“So what’s this plan of yours?” Mel asks as we exit the cab and begin climbing the short flight of steps toward the bureau’s entrance.

“When it comes to dealing with the gendarme,” I reply, “I find that it is usually better to employ something of the truth.  It tends to come back to bite one in the ass less frequently.”

Through the glass doors, we approach the high front desk.  A sergeant of some kind looks down on us as we near, a bored expression on his clean-shaven mug.

“Monsieur,” he says to me blandly.  “ Veuillez indiquer vos affaires.”

“My business,” I reply, “is with the unclaimed effects of one Guy-Pierre Montagne.” 

The sergeant’s face shows the first sign of life since Mel and I had come through the door.  “Oh?” he responds in moderately-accented English.  “Is that so?  And why would you be asking about those effects?”

I pull out my wallet and show my credentials  Most of the time, a PI license isn’t worth spit, but every now and then it turns out to be a handy prop.  The man’s desktop is about chest high on me.  After my wallet’s gone back into my pocket, I put an elbow on the edge of the desk and lean in just a bit, dropping my voice slightly.  “There is a certain American family of some prominence, you see, with whom Monsieur Montagne boarded some time ago.  And the family involved included a daughter with whom Monsieur Montagne may have had, shall we say, a form of relationship not countenanced by the head of that family.”  The sergeant’s expression shows he’s following along.

“And you have been asked to…?” he trails off.

I nod.  “I have been asked to verify what, if any, references to that...relationship...might be in Monsieur Montagne’s papers.”

“You understand that no one has made any claims on those effects to date,” the sergeant explains.

“And I am making no claim on them today,” I reply.  “Nor is my client.”

“The effects in question are scheduled to be destroyed shortly,” the man counters.  “In a fews days, as a matter of fact.  What purpose would it serve to see them now?”

I shrug.  “I’m just a private detective doing a job.  Perhaps my client will simply sleep better at night knowing what went into the incinerator.  Who knows?”

The sergeant considers me for a moment.  “Wait here,” he says before stepping down from the desk and disappearing into the offices behind.

“Liar,” Mel hisses softly.

“Hey,” I whisper back.  “Everything I said was true.  If they misinterpret it, not my fault.”

Mel smiles in that way of hers.  “You have to be watched,” she says.  “Very carefully.”

The desk sergeant returns with another yet sergeant.  This one looks much more awake than his compatriot.  We’re taken down a hall and shown into a small, windowless room.  Unlike the cozy space where I’d had my interview with the Chief Inspector those months ago, the table in this room was rectangular rather than square and shoved against the far wall longways rather than set in the middle of the floor.  Three chairs were scattered along its length, two pushed in, one partially pulled back.

“Wait here,” the sergeant orders us, stepping back into the hall and letting the door close behind him.  Mel looks at me, one eyebrow raised slightly.  I shrug and move over to the table.  I pull out one of the chairs for her then plant my carcass in another.  I’ve been to this rodeo before.  We might as well get comfortable.

I’m not wrong.  It’s a good half-hour later before the door opens again.  A pair of officers who look more like bored clerks than anything else roll in a dolley stacked with several cardboard boxes.  The sergeant is right behind them, directing their efforts with clipped orders and curt gestures.  The boxes end up on the table and the bored clerks depart, leaving the dolley to one side of the door.  The sergeant pauses at the doorway.

“The items in those boxes have been catalogued,” he observes pointedly.  “It would be noticeable were anything to be discovered missing, Mr. Philips.”

“Of course,” I reply blandly.  “We will make certain to return everything to its proper place when we are done.”  He looks at me for another moment, then nods.  The door closes.

Punctilious prick.  Montagne’s possessions are destined for the incinerator in something like three days and he’s worried that I might get sticky fingers.  I grunt and turn to the table.

On the other hand, each of us has his role to play in the farce we call life--for some, it’s about getting what we can get while we can get it; for others, it’s about making sure the right boxes are checked on some goddamn form.  Who am I to judge?

“This is it?” Mel asks, as she surveys the boxes on the table, with their neat labeling and precise inventories taped to the outside.  Some five boxes, perhaps a foot and a half on a side.  All a man’s life condensed into such a small space.

“Looks like it,” I respond.  “Let’s get to it.  Do you see anything listing journals?”

“This one is clothes,” she says, pushing one box back against the wall.  “And this one looks to be miscellaneous housewares.”  A second box joins the first.

“Books,” I announce, examining the inventory sheet on the box in front of me.  “But this looks like published works, not journals.”

“Same,” Mel observes after looking over the fourth box.  “This one?”  She points to the remaining candidate. 

“Process of elimination,” I reply and open the box.  The inventory sheet refers to ‘notes’ in addition to yet more books, which seems promising.  And beneath several volumes were indeed a collection of leatherbound journals.  Miss Pierce hadn’t been kidding when she’d said Montagne was a prolific writer.

I pull the books out and set them to the side.  The journals come out next and get stacked between Mel and me.  “We’re looking for the most recent one, I’d wager.”  I look at Mel.  “Top or bottom?”  No idea what possesses me to say that.

Her eyes glint.  “Top,” she replies, a small smile appearing on her mouth.  I kick myself mentally.  Dance too close to the fire and you’re going to get burned.  I glance back to the stack of journals and take the uppermost one.

“Good call,” I say, keeping my eyes firmly on the pages as I open the book and survey the dates of the initial entries.  “This looks to be the most recent one.”  I flip to the back and my guess is confirmed by the section of blank sheets.  I go back to the beginning and skim over the pages.  There’s an entry for practically every damn day.  I start jumping ahead several pages at a time.

“The entry for April 23rd,” Mel reminds me.   “That was the date on the letter.”

I nod and keep flipping.  And then stop.

“There isn’t one,” I announce.

“What do you mean?”

“An entry from that date,” I reply, looking up from the journal.  “There is no entry for April 23rd.”  I look back down and flip back a page.  “There’s one for the 22nd--” I turn the page.  “And for the 24th.”  I turn the next page.  “And that’s the last entry, period.  Nothing after that.”  I hand her the journal for her to see for herself.

Mel frowns as she examines the neat script.  The dates are easily translated into her native Spanish so she has no difficulty seeing my point.  “Was Señorita Pierce wrong?  About the letter?”

I cross my arms and stare past Mel at a spot on the far wall of the room.  My gut tells me something’s going on here.  Something we’re missing.  “Let me see that again.”  I hold out my hand.

Mel gives the journal back and I find those last two entries that bracket the missing date.  Given that there’s an entry for every single day for the several months prior, the fact that this particular date is missing seems to me to be a message in and of itself.  Like Montagne had considered the possibility that the letter would be interpreted as Miss Pierce had done and so he’d made a point to show that to be an error.  But if he wasn’t directing her to his journal, then what did his coded message mean?

As I’m thinking, my eyes fall to the final entry, a marked contrast to the rest of the journal by virtue of its brevity.  My French is rusty, but I manage:

 

Vingt quatre avril dix-neuf cents un

Un main, sombre et impérieux, se lève contre les royaumes.  Les complots maléfiques menacent.  Que Dieu nous protège.

 

A dark, imperious hand is raised against the kingdoms, I translate.  Evil plots threaten.  May God protect us.  Deluded ravings of a suicidal old man who hung himself from the rafter.

Or not, my gut responds.  I scowl.  What the hell is going on here?  I close the journal and glare at its blank cover.  If not deluded ravings, then what could Montagne have meant?  And why would he be writing in riddles? 

Then my eyes widen.

Journal.  Not “Today’s journal,” but “Today’s Journal.

“What was the address on the letter?” I ask Mel suddenly, whose brow furrows at my question.  “The one in Adonopolis?”

Mel doesn’t reach for her notes.  “2221,” she replies.  “2221 Fibonacci Way.”

I pull out my notepad and look at the coded message again.  Seven words.  I take a pencil and make quick slashes between them.  Two, two, two, and one.  Seven.

Today’s Journal.  For familia.  Others sovereign.  Murder.

I look at Mel.  “Miss Pierce was right about the code, but wrong about where it was directing her,” I say firmly.  “We’ve been looking in the wrong place.”

We leave the offices of the gendarme after notifying the officer at the front desk that we were finished with Montagne’s effects.  I move through the door and down the front steps with a purposeful stride.  Mel scrambles a bit to keep up.

“Where are we going?” she demands as she comes up alongside, slightly out of breath.

“La bibliothèque publique d’Aphrodité,” I say, my eyes firmly ahead.  “The library.”

“Why?”

“Because I have a hunch,” I reply.  I’m good with hunches. They’ve kept me alive on more than one occasion.  This time though, I can only pray that I’m wrong. 

 

TO BE CONTINUED