It is off season in the old stone city of Illusia. The tourists have left for the year and things are slow in the way of serious crime when two friends, one a private investigator and one a Chief Inspector of Police, take on the most witless case either one of them has ever encountered in his entire career--tracking down the individual who vandalized a library book by cutting out one of the blank flyleaves. Well, Nod Bogardus needs the money. That's his excuse. But philisophical Chief Inspector Rene Titoque is just along to help a friend. And, after all, it is slightly odd that he recognizes two of the names on the library's check-out card. So begins the curious--if arguably pointless--case at the heart of The Street of Secrets, and C.A. Rodriguez's wickedly funny investigation of two investigators investigating something that neither one thinks is actually worth the trouble of finding out. But belligerently private detective Nodule Bogardus, if detect he must, is going to detect in his own way. And Titoque, in his way, of course. And as they doggedly prowl the steep and twisted streets of an old city rich with more secrets than any man can know, what they find out will, of course, have something to do with what each man tends to look for. While there's no guarantee that the culprit will ever be identified, it is certain that things will be learned. And--one way or another--the music librarian who began the whole silly business is going to get her money's worth. A noir splashed with sunlight and glowing with unexpected fires, THE STREET OF SECRETS is pure Rodriguez. Characters boldly outlined but subtly realized. A plot that never goes where it should. On the surface deftly and beautifully written. Underneath complex, impudent, and insightful. A vision you want to linger in, and carry away with you.
THE STREET OF SECRETS is the third novel of The Illusian Sequence [ih-LOOSE-ee-un]
The Illusian Sequence is a work consisting of four novels--RASHINGOR, ST. PETER'S WOOD, THE STREET OF SECRETS, and THE RETURN OF RAMON, looked upon like movements of a single piece of music.
"Ahhh, yes," Nodule Bogardus murmured huskily. Swirling the red-amber schmabin in his glass, he inhaled deeply once again, and then he sipped the schmabin--as it should be sipped--very slowly, savoring its fiery fruitiness and smoky overtones, the aftertaste of burnt autumn leaves, and a sweetness like the ache of memory.
He closed his eyes. All the infuriating frustration of the case he had taken on today receded for a sweet moment. Like something lost and long ago. Life was good.
Outside, an hour's rain had ceased, leaving the cobbled streets of the ancient stone city of Illusia black and glistening.
The city, like any city, was home to many souls and many stories. Some pretty, some less so. And some, of course, more interesting than others, even to the participants. But everyone's story is important, isn't it?
And through the window that his friend Chief Inspector Rene Titoque had insisted he open, the air of a warm fall evening drifted with delicate breath into the tiny office. Bogardus himself rather enjoyed the close smell of sausage and onions that lingered from the evening meal he had prepared for himself and his dog on the heating stove. But the Chief Inspector always preferred a crack of fresh air.
"Curious?" Bogardus repeated with a laughing snort, as the whole maddening business flung open the door of his mind once again. "Stupid. Bizarre. A complete waste of Nodule Bogardus's precious time on earth."
With some amusement, Chief Inspector Titoque wondered what the meeting must have been like. Female clients were a rarity. But this one... Well.
On the floor behind the stove and shapeless in its shadow, Bogardus's ugly dog, D'Artagnan, snored messily at intervals, and did so now, with a sound like the hollow shock of a deep ship ramming aground on gravel. Truth be told, it was D'Artagnan even more than the dinner of onions and sausage that made the opening of the window particularly desireable to a guest. The case. The stupid case. Why had he agreed to it? Bogardus's wide, fleshy lips widened still further across his toad-homely face, and his hooded eyes closed in what might have been either a grimace of disdain or a smile of ironic tolerance.
But this the Chief Inspector was compelled to infer from only the faintest visible suggestion, for Bogardus sat behind his desk with his back to the window (one knee up and his foot resting on the seat of his chair as was his habit in repose). And most of the light the room could boast--the light that made the forms of the two friends still visible and cast black shapes under the shabby furniture and aslant the walls--was bestowed by a streetlamp outside (only just now lit up to spill its wan candescence upon the intersection of Dray Hill Street and Stillichetorix).
Through the mica in the stove's square door a ruddy coal fire still flickered cheerfully as well, and its small, warming light traced the Chief Inspector's familiar profile in pale gold, and bronzed the fabric of Bogardus's woolen sleeve.
Titoque sipped his schmabin carefully. It was fine stuff. Not something he indulged in often.
He could imagine the woman's unfocused silhouette seen through the pebbled glass window of the office door as she paused to read the painted words: "N. BOGARDUS Private Investigator"...
Not at all a common thing, a private investigator. Not even, necessarily, a respectable thing. No matter that Bogardus's business card insisted with a royal plural "You may rely upon our discretion." The woman would have hesitated. And then, summoning up her determination and the memory of her mission, she would have placed her hand upon the knob, turned it, opened the door, and come in...
The last of the evening shift of cabs now emerging from the stable around the corner, at this moment the quiet was rudely punctured by a great rattle of wheels and harness and a multiplicated clopping of ringing hooves. Tiny stars shot up from the stones as hooves and wheels tore open the puddles, and then the street shimmered back again into placid wetness and deep gleaming. The cab noisily descended the steep, narrow course, disappearing into a misty, violet-black distance that was sentinaled at diminishing intervals by other lamps in slow sequence lighting up.
The policeman stretched his legs and placed a sturdy, frequently re-soled, boot carefully upon the rim of a metal wastebasket, crossing one ankle over the other. Long and happily married, his children grown or growing, Titoque was a man who had once been considered by many women to be extremely handsome. An interesting man, some would say thoughtfully to their trusted friends. Now, with his black hair salted, his long blue cheeks set off by a softness around the jaw, and his deep-set eyes sunk a little deeper under his thick brows that slanted downward at the outsides, he was still a man who, with no particular expenditure of effort, remained, as women still not infrequently remarked, "interesting."
"Not a complete waste, Nod," Titoque observed encouragingly. "A paying client, after all. You can always use those."
"Well, I can, yes. Of course I can always use money. And that is, my deer Rene, the sole, singular, and only reason I agreed to undertake an investigation so patently idiotic."
What a disappointment for both parties, thought Titoque. His friend to behold the entrance of a mousy middle-aged woman in a brown felt coat; the client at the signt of the office, the man and--oh yes-- the dog. Titoque tried not to smile, for he was aware that while the street lamp shadowed his friend's face, his own might be less obscure.
"You think it's funny," said Bogardus.
"I do," Titoque was forced to admit. "Oh, you know it is, Nodule. A sleazy old reptile like you sent off to investigate the vandalization of a library book. It's penance for your sins. Add fasting and abstinence and you'll emerge a new man."
"Hoosh! I'd have to be a pretty damned new man already to do that! Bogardus snorted a laugh again and swirled his glass gently to raise the aroma. Bogardus took another sip of schmabin and sighed, savoring the dark, descending fire, experiencing again that pang of perfect happiness, soaked in the rich light of old afternoons that had never really happened. Gone. Thus to be desired again.
Titoque chuckled and put his feet on the floor, the better to lean forward and extend his glass for refilling.
"But it's not just any library book, I have been informed," Bogardus went on, decanting carefully into his friend's glass. "It's a seventy-five-year-old edition of Brosius van der Plink's Complete String Quartets!" "First Edition?" "No, no, no. Then it would be valuable. This is just a cheap edition the great genius put out when he was old and needed money."
Bogardus did not particularly wish to spend time discussing the case. It was too stupid. But it was on his mind.
"Then what is it that's so important about this particular book?" The Chief Inspector settled back into his comfortable position with his drink.
"To my mind nothing," retorted Bogardus in disgust. "Absolutely and immaculately not an infernal damned thing. But to the mind of Mistress Efemera Cavell, senior librarian of the central library's music archives, it is extremely important, because the library has--now see if you follow this--the library has two..." (he held up that number of fingers) "...copies of this particular book. And while one of the copies has a blank flyleaf at the back of the book, the other.... How's your heart, old fellow? Because this may do you in entirely if you're not strong.... The second copy has no blank flyleaf!
"The mind reels! The senses swim! The stomach turns over and it's all you can do not to scream!
"That's it, Rene. The last blank flyleaf appears to have been most delicately and carefully removed, Cut out, in fact. No other mischief done. Just that.
"Mistress Cavell is, you must understand, sleepless with distress and bewilderment. Perhaps mixed in equal parts with my-life-is-so-thunderously-dull-I-could-die-and-not-notice curiosity. I should have recommended some form of sexual release, but I'm not a doctor."
"Some mishap masked by removal?" suggested Titoque, bemused. "Coffee spilt, pet leaping into lap...unsupervised child with wax crayon? Perhaps an address or notation scribbled in haste? Care might suggest a certain amount of contrition. Or just conscientiousness, perhaps. A tidying up."
The light from the street glowed softly behind Bogardus's elevated knee and one side of his big, neckless head and rounded shoulder. He shrugged impatiently. "Plausible. Perfectly plausible theory," he agreed, shifting with a slight restlessness as he adjusted his knee. "Another is, of course--and here's where it gets really thrilling--that there was something already on the page that the vandal discovered. And--be still my heart--desired. An inscription. A signature. An inscription and a signature! 'To my dearest muffin in memory of the beautiful music we have made together--Your own, Napoleon.'
"Dead some time, I believe."
"I could envy him. Really, Rene, have you ever heard of anything so stupid?"
"Well. Does Mistress Cavell herself, does anyone, remember anything at all about the missing flyleaf before it was missing? Was there indeed anything on it?"
"If only there was even that much sanity in it. No, of course not. The book was catalogued by Mistress Cavell's predecessor, and she herself has not previously had occasion to inspect it until now, as the felicitous consequence of inventory. She thinks, although she cannot be absolutely sure (since there are two identical copies, and, therefore, well, you can readily understand how one might, in casual handling, be mistaken for the other), she thinks that the missing flyleaf when last observed was blank. On both sides."
"Curious." "Imbecilic. Oh save me, gentle God. Invisible ink, then? A treasure map with fiendish ingenuity devised to resemble the last page of music smudged backwards? So what? What does it matter?! The book's function, even its aesthetic--in-sofar as it has one--unaltered in any way whatever." Both men were silent for a few moments, too used to one another's company to perceive the silence as a lapse in the conversation. Titoque closed his eyes briefly, enjoying the cool air from the window and the dusky bouquet of the schmabin.
Bogardus took up his impatient thought again: "Lord, love a lunatic, the blank page could have contained coded blasphemies in Chaldean copied with lemon juice backwards for reasons no reason could fathom, we'll simply never know. How could anyone lacking supernatural assistance be expected to find that out? Believe me, I've considered summoning up the devil recently, but to learn who took the blank flyleaf from a library book is not worth even my deeply devalued immortal soul."
Titoque smiled. "Well, but it's interesting in a way, Nod. On the face of it, so trivial. And yet, what if it isn't?"
"What if chewing my socks is the secret of eternal youth?" "Not worth the price." "My point exactly."
"And in the end unlikely."
"Though I say so myself."
"You're not wrong, of course."
"That is ever my comfort."
"But approaching from the other direction, it--something--about this whole business, either the page itself, or maybe about the mere action of the removal of the page--is apparently of some importance to this woman who has consulted you. And that's all that matters, isn't it? You don't normally feel obliged to have a personal investment in whether of not some client's lawful is stepping out with the butcher in order to take the job of finding out. Caring isn't your job. Finding out is what you're paid for. And actually--what exactly does she want you to do, if I may ask? Or more to the point, what exactly have you agreed to do in order to get paid?"
"She wants me to find the villain most foul who perpetrated the act and to wring out his reasons by guile, by cruelty, or by public shame--or perhaps to locate the accursed Holy Grail, I'm not altogether sure. But what I agreed to do--after negotiations that would have made any compassionate observer chew doorknobs--I agreed to observe and report upon five suspects." With a testy blowing sound through his teeth, Bogardus reached into an untied folder and plucked out a paper. He shoved it across the desk to the Chief Inspector.
"A list of every single person who has signed out Copy 2 of The Complete String Quartets of Brosius van der Plink in the past twenty years. 'And why twenty years?' you may be moved to wonder. Because that is how old the current signing-out card is."
He silently reread the paper with undisguised disgust: "Lettice Glorion, Lugo Parsifalt, Edwold Petoy, Gardenia deLasenec, Alan Truelowe."
"Do you suppose I should go armed when I make my inquiries?"
Chief Inspector Titoque smiled as he glanced over the list. Then raised his expressive eyebrows and tapped the paper with his index finger. "Actually...."
"Oh, you're joking."
"No, actually I recognize two of these names. Lugo Parsifalt is a violinist, whom I have not met, but whose name I know because a, ah, friend, who is also a musician, plays with him from time to time. Musical evenings, that sort of thing."
"Now wait," interrupted Bogardus. "That name."
"You're guessing. But yes, Lugo Parsifalt is the man who...."
"Yes! The man who found van der Plink's Lost Sonata."
"Quite by accident."
"Hymn book. Here in Illusia."
"Yes, well it was to my family, I can tell you."
"I remember when it happened. Dimly. They still call it's The Lost Sonata'? It's been found, after all." "They do. Sentimental reasons. But one more name."
"Yes, this one, Edwold Petoy...." Titoque's voice drifted off and he tapped the paper again thoughtfully.
"Who is that? Edwold Petoy."
"Another musician. But not, when I knew him, a string player. And now...well...not someone I would have associated with classical quartets. He owns a small night cafe on the North Shelf, called The...um...yes. The Teetering Nephew."
"The Teetering Nephew! You don't say. Really? On the corner across from Madame's?"
Titoque nodded, opening his eyes wide for a significant moment.
"Oh!" caroled Bogardus in delight, putting both feet down on the floor and lifting up his hands in jubilation. A light had appeared where hope itself might least have looked for it. "My dear and irreplaceable friend Chief Inspector Titoque of the renowned Illusia-by-the-Sea Department of Police! I would run around this desk and kiss you if I were not otherwise inclined. And does that incomparable woman still sing there? What is her beautiful name?"
"Sindrice," articulated Titoque carefully. "Is that the person you mean?"
"Sindrice! Yes, Sindrice. Naked-voiced Sindrice. Not a person, no, no. A goddess. More than a goddess. An agony. An elemental hunger. A truth. A cosmos. Cold, voluptuous Sindrice. Beautiful, sullen sorceress. Oh, heaven has been kind to this old reptile after all. I will indeed do a most thorough, meticulous and deeply professional investigative report on Mr. Edwold Petoy of The Teetering Nephew."
"You've heard her sing, then?"
"Oh, no. Reputation only. But such a reputation!"
"In North Shelf circles, yes. Quite a remarkable reputation. But I'd exercise some discretion at The Teetering Nephew if I were you, Nodule. At least as regards enthusiasm for Sindrice. Edwold James Petoy--called Edge, by the way, and not just because of his first two names--spent several years under the state's hospitality, and the incident that sent him there had to do with a rival for that lady's affections, a dark night, and an alley."
"A man may dream."
"He certainly may. And no doubt will. But if I were you, just to make a suggestion, I would put Edge Petoy at the end of your list. As a kind of reward. Check off the less interesting subjects first. Or perhaps not less interesting. There are two women here, after all: Gardenia deLasenec and Lettice Glorion. I can ask my friend--Peter Reason, his name is--I can ask him a few questions about Parsifalt, if you like. Very discreetly. And you can begin with the Alan Truelowe, who signed out The Complete String Quartets four years ago last April."
Titoque flipped the list back on the desk and Bogardus took it up again with qualified interest, rubbing the tip of his middle finger back and forth over the nail of his thumb in a way that suggerted a thought process beginning to pick up. "Lettice Glorion, Lugo Parsifalt, Edwold Petoy, Gardenia deLasenec, Alan Truelowe."
"Why don't we team up," suggested Titoque. "It's slow season for me now that the tourists are gone. Who knows, this may prove to be the most interesting puzzle the city has seen since that old woman jumped out of her wheel chair and into the sea and was never seen again."
"Only her shoes. Well, I'm fairly certain that the shoes are all we're going to be left with at the end of this thing as well. But even if our results disappoint Mistress Cavell, they'll bring some satisfaction to my landlord and that is, in the end, all I ask. For myself, of course, I seek nothing." "Of course," Titoque averred, finishing off his schmabin.
* * *
The thing most needful and most lacking to the walled life, I find, is air for the mind. The resources of quite a little space, after all, may provide for the body passably well, augmented now and again by a few staples brought in from outside. But the mind! Oh, the mind needs air and space! Wonder and newness and surprise! The mind hungers for the life-giving nourishment of not-this and not-self. Life grows so stale and morbid when one's thought is forever tramping heavily round in the deep-worn tracks of habit, round and round.
Therefore, the cloister will provide its denizens with a vast and mysterious God to contemplate, the university with great libraries of books by distant thinkers long since dead. Where want cannot be so slaked, as in the harem or the close, there will be opiates and intrigue, gin and resentment, vice and violence, symptoms of many things, of course, but among them surely--simple boredom.
Another woman asked me once, "Aren't you afraid, living alone?" And I was puzzled at that time. Afraid? I could not think what I should be afraid of in my own house. In the end there is only one thing to be afraid of, after all, and that is helplessness. All my experience has lead me to this conclusion. You may think my experience is little, that there are urchins living in the street now who have known more of life than I. But I must remind you that the old always have more experience than the young, because they have experienced time itself, that ultimate mystery the young both fear and long for, hate and trust and squander, knowing dimly that in the end time is what makes us alive. Ah, now the cat is pestering me for attention, and I cannot write when she is here butting her head against my hand for petting.
I shall try to write more tomorrow.
Respectfully yours as always,