BOOK OF SECRETS, by Chris Roberson
My brother and I once met at a bar, and fell to talking about family. Parents, kids, relatives, the whole sick crew. He took issue with the idea about children being some link to the future, our bid at immortality. Parents, he says, are our true link to eternity. In each of us is a little bit of each of our parents, literally and figuratively, and in each of our parents a bit of theirs, and so on and so forth. All the way back to the Garden of Eden or the Primordial Ooze, depending upon your politics. Looking at our parents reminds us of eternity, he went on, because in them we can see everything that came before.
Our parents remind us of the steaming piles of history it took to get to the present moment – in our case, the two of us into that bar on that night at that particular moment. Considering we hadn’t looked at our parents since my brother and I were both five years old, watching their caskets being lowered into the ground, shuffling our feet and wishing it would stop raining, it was somewhat surprising. But that’s my brother for you.
What that has to do with anything I’m not sure, except to say that it concerns family and eternity, two things which factor greatly into the events of the past week. It began in the bleary-eyed hours of the morning, with a phone in one hand and a telegram in the other, and ended with me watching the setting sun, the secret history of mankind clutched to my chest.
CHAPTER ONE: The First Day
The phone rang insistently, again and again, and as I struggled out of a restless sleep I stared in its direction, an unfrozen caveman trying unsuccessfully to fathom the purpose of this strange, clanging thing. Finally, inspiration struck and I seized up the receiver, maneuvering it with only a hint of difficulty to my ear. Listening to the faint buzz on the line, satisfied by the sudden cessation of the ringing, I stood dumbly for a long moment, trying to remember what to do next. Finally it came to me.
“Hullo?” I managed.
“Is this Spencer Finch?”
“Spencer Finch, the reporter?”
“Yeah.” I was slowly beginning to remember what this phone business was all about, and realized that under normal circumstances I usually had some idea who was on the other end of the line before launching into conversation.
Then I remembered that the landline seldom ever rang, and that hardly anyone had the number. I’d lost my cellphone the week before somewhere in a bender, and had been reduced to using payphones ever since.
“Am I to understand that you are still interested in pursuing your investigation of J. Nathan Pierce?” The voice, now that it occurred to me to notice, sounded cultured and refined, if somewhat breathy. An educated and somewhat fey man, or a slightly masculine woman.
“Who is this?”
“That is not important at the moment, Mr. Finch.” I caught a trace of an accent, and couldn’t place it. “I’ll repeat my question. Are you still pursuing your investigation of J. Nathan Pierce?”
“Possibly,” I answered, reserved. “What’s it to you, Mystery Caller?”
“I have some information that may be of use to you, should you be interested.”
“I’d simply like to suggest that you question one David Stiles of Houston. He is a private detective, and his services were recently retained by your Mr. Pierce.”
I grabbed a yellow slip of paper I’d pulled off the door as I’d stumbled in the night before, and scribbled down the name.
“And why would Pierce need to hire a detective?”
“I’m afraid I don’t know. I’ve told you all I can. Do with it what you will.” The voice paused for a beat, and then added, “My condolences on your loss.”
“Yeah, well…” I began, and then the line went dead.
“What loss?” I muttered, and then absently turned over the yellow paper in my hand. It was a telegram, signed for by my next door neighbor and dated two weeks before.
My grandfather was dead.
Unable to sleep again after that, I shrugged into my suit coat and drove over to Trudy’s North Star. The restaurant was farther away than I really needed to go, but the drive gave me a chance to wake up, and it’s one of the few places left in Austin where you can still smoke indoors. I found a parking spot near the door, and settled into a booth before the waitress even noticed I was there. She brought over a cup of coffee without question, and went back to a table in the far corner to finish her own cigarette. She knew me on sight. I’d shown up often enough early in the morning and ordered nothing more than a bottomless cup of coffee for her to give me any special attention.
Lighting my first cigarette of the day, I dumped half the contents of the jar of sugar into my coffee, and then pulled the telegram from my pocket. After glancing briefly at the name scrawled across the back, I turned it over and read the contents more closely. It mentioned a funeral, and an address and date. In San Antonio, at a church not far from my grandfather’s house, where my brother and I had lived from the age of five on. I’d missed the ceremony, and was disappointed only in that it would have marked the first time that I would have seen the old man in a church. It went on to request my attendance at the reading of the will at an attorney’s office in Houston. I’d missed that as well. There was some mention made of material inheritance, but I didn’t spend too much time on that.
I turned the slip of paper back over. I hadn’t seen my grandfather in a decade, and was somewhat surprised he hadn’t died years before. The name I’d written on the reverse, though, was sufficiently curious.
I’d been working on the piece about Pierce on and off for a while now, in between paying gigs. Since Wide Open, the left-leaning magazine that had kept me on staff for three years, went under, I’d returned to Austin and started doing freelance work. Wired, Rolling Stone, Spin. Mindless fluff to fill up the spaces between pictures and ads. I’d been getting regular work from Logion, an online magazine based in Austin, and they had commissioned me to do a piece on Texas millionaire and philanthropist J. Nathan Pierce. The money wasn’t much, but I had a thing for the lady publisher, and if done right the story might give me a much needed sense of self-esteem. The was only one problem: There was no story.
J. Nathan Pierce, “Nez” to his friends, retired colonel USMC, successful businessman and millionaire benefactor of the University of Texas. This withered old nut was stuck in more pies than he had fingers, but the ones that interested Logion were some shady land deals he’d rigged in South Texas. The backstory of his generous donations to the University was rumored to involve the extortion, harassment, and perhaps outright murder of Mexican farmers, but I had yet to come up with a single bit of verifiable evidence. The Logion piece was intended to coincide with Pierce’s official recognition for his humanitarian efforts by the University and the state of Texas. There was to be a gala ceremony in his honor on his seventieth birthday, and ground broken at a new university library that was to bear his name. If I wanted to cast a long enough shadow to sour the birthday carnival, I’d need something more than rumors and allegations. I needed proof.
But after a few months spent digging, both in Austin and around Pierce’s home offices in Houston, I’d come up with exactly nothing. He had covered his tracks well, or at least his friends had, and I was left without a story. Pierce was well connected enough that his people in the Justice Department, the Texas Land Office, and the state and federal governments could simply make any evidence disappear. All of which made the name written on the back of the telegram so curious.
If Pierce had hired a private detective – and I stressed the “if,” not ready to trust an anonymous call in the middle of the night; that sort of spirit in the machine only came out of the woodwork in mystery novels and bad TV, and I wasn’t hanging any kind of hope on it – if Pierce had hired a detective, the question was why? Any business he needed taken care of, any bit of information he needed or person he wanted found, his friends with the badges and the government pensions could have handled easily. Unless – and this was the big flashing sign – he didn’t want them to know about it.
The only reason someone like Pierce would step outside the good old boy club was if he had done something, or found something, that he didn’t want being passed around the clubhouse. And something like that, just maybe, could mean a story.
Leaving Magnolia and my bottomless coffee behind, I was home by sunrise, and saw my place in daylight for the first time in a month. I’d been away in Chicago working on a story for Rolling Stone, and hadn’t returned until late the night before. After two too many drinks on the plane and in airport bars, I barely looked at the place as I stumbled up the drive. A little two bedroom house, with sagging wooden floors and wide gaps in the walls, it probably looked a hell of a lot better during World War II than it did now. But it was cheap, and large enough for all my crap, and I could come and go as I liked.
Once inside, I fired up my ancient computer and pulled down David Stiles’ home and office number. There was no answer at his home, and I caught a machine at his office, so I sat at my desk, working my way through a pack of cigarettes and thinking it over. By the time the ashtray was full I had it worked out. I put in a call to the publisher of Logion, leaving a message that I might have a story for her after all, and started shoving a few things in a suitcase. By the time my neighbors were up and on their way to work, I was back in the car, heading to Houston.
The drive to Houston was three hours, down a straight and wide road, and since the radio in the car was only picking up Christian Country, Christian Contemporary, and Christian Classical, I shut it off. I began thinking in that roaming, everywhere-at-once way that you do on long car trips, and eventually, without meaning to, began to remember my grandfather.
He had always been old, as long as I could remember, but I didn’t ever notice him aging. He was simply an ancient old man in the beginning, and stayed that way, untouched further by the passage of time. Towering over us, smelling of cigar smoke and bourbon, always immaculately dressed and expertly shaved. He spoke seldom, in a loud booming voice, but when angry would spit out his words in a barely audible hiss. We first saw him, my brother and I, at our parents’ funeral. He simply walked over to us, where we stood next to the twin open graves, a moving wall in a black wool suit, and announced that we were going to live with him from now on. Then he turned around and walked away to his car. We weren’t sure for a long time just who he was, and it wasn’t until we actually reached San Antonio that we were sure.
He was not a friendly man, and had little time for social niceties, either with company or with family, and I think that neither my brother nor myself received anything resembling affection from him in all our years there. We were raised, such as we were, by his housekeeper, Maria, who was the closest thing either of us had to a parent after the death of our own.
I thought then, and still do, that the old man resented having to take us in, but as he was the only living relative available… our father’s brother being the only other candidate, and at that time living in Europe… he had no choice. To turn us over to the state to be raised or adopted out would simply be bad form, and an insult to the few pleasant feelings he had left for his departed daughter. Besides, he trusted the authorities, “No farther than I could draw a bead on them,” he always said, and didn’t want his only descendants entrusted to their care.
I remember talking to my grandfather very seldom, if at all. I remember him talking to me, vividly, or rather issuing orders, but he had no time for the customary conversations which go on between children and adults in a family household. He left that to Maria, and spent his waking hours in his study. He had been involved in some sort of business, years before I was born, but for as long as I can remember had been retired. His energies were devoted solely to his researches, or writings, or whatever it was he did in that large room.
Once, when we were twelve, my brother dared me to sneak into the study, to see what was inside. Neither of us had ever been in there, and had only caught glimpses through the half-open door as our grandfather came in and out. He was upstairs in the bath, and we had scant moments until he would be back downstairs and at work. I don’t think my brother expected that I would take the dare, but I was simply too curious not to. Stealing a quick peek up the stairs to make sure he wasn’t coming, I slipped down the hallway to the study door, and then inside.
It was dark and cool, even in the middle of the summer, and as my eyes adjusted to the gloom I began to make out my surroundings. There was a wide Persian rug on the hardwood floor, and dark wood paneling on the walls, a stone fireplace built into one side. Other than a broad wooden desk and a high-backed chair upholstered in leather, the only furniture in the room consisted of bookshelves and glassed-in cases. There were framed paintings and prints on the wall, knights on crusades and pirates on windblown ships, and several posters that were advertisements for adventure serial films of the forties. There was a long glass case along one wall filled with what looked like thick, glossy comic books, but which I later decided were pulp magazines. Strewn over the desk, and laying in heaping piles on the tops of bookshelf and on the floor, were papers and books. A cartographer’s nightmare of mountains and valleys, all mapped out in type-written pages and hard-cover volumes. Moving further into the room, stepping gingerly around the piles, I saw a case set on the mantle of the fireplace. In it was a pair of jet black Colt .45s, mounted on a field of black velvet. I stood looking at them a long moment, entranced in that strange spell weapons hold over boys, and almost too late heard the heavy footsteps in the hallway.
I wheeled around, sure that at that very moment the old man was regarding me evilly from the doorway, but he hadn’t yet reached the door. I looked around in a panic, desperate for someplace to hide, but saw nothing, only books and paper. Standing there by the fireplace, I was sure it was all over. Then a fit of inspiration struck, and I turned and ducked into the fireplace. My back against one of the stone walls, my feet on the other, I pushed myself up off the ground like a rock climber in a tight crevasse, and by the time I heard the door swing wide was just out of sight, jammed into the narrow chimney a few feet above the ground.
I heard the footsteps enter the room, and walk across the floor to the desk. I groaned slightly under the strain, and counted the heartbeats until my muscles would buckle and I would fall out onto the floor. I hadn’t got to ten when the footsteps sounded again, heading back towards the door. I heard them pass to the hallway, and then the heavy door closed shut behind them. With a grunt I let my feet slip from the chimney wall, and collapsed onto the fireplace’s base, shoulders first. Staggering to my feet, I dusted myself off, and limped towards the door. I leaned into the wood and listened, but could hear no one on the other side. Pulling it open cautiously, I edged my way out and into the hall.
Not even bothering to glance around, I bolted for the stairs and bounded up the flight to my bedroom. I was through the door and inside before I’d even drawn a breath. I slid down the floor and landed with a thud on the thick carpet, surrounded by my toys and comics. I closed my eyes, feeling the pain in my every muscle, and smiled. At that moment, I knew just wanted to do with my life, just what I wanted to be.
A cat burglar.
I pulled into Houston just before noon, and with only a bit of trouble found the address of Stiles’ office. It was in a squat, three story building just off of downtown, in what once must have been a fashionable neighborhood. The sprawl and urban flight had left it behind like an abandoned toy in a warzone, though, and I thought twice about leaving my car parked on the street. Figuring Logion would pick up the tab for any incidental damage, I walked in the front door.
In the small main lobby, there was an elevator with an out-of-order sign on it older than I was, an open door to a stairway, and a directory with little plastic letters spelling out the names of bail bondsmen and repo services on black felt. I found Stiles’ name near the bottom, misspelled, and a room number on the third floor. Putting on my game face, I made for the stairs and headed up.
Stiles’ office was at the end of a long hallway, most of the lightbulbs along the way burned out and the tiles on the floor warped and ill-fitting. There was a light on inside the office, visible through the pebbled glass of the doorway, and I pushed my way in without knocking.
I’m not sure what I expected to find inside, but an attractive black woman in her late twenties packing things up in a cardboard box was not high on the list of possibilities. Aside from her and the box, and a few sad pieces of furniture, the room was empty.
“Yeah,” she asked, obviously not pleased by the company, “can I help you?”
“Yes, I’m looking for David Stiles.”
She straightened, and put her hands on her hips.
“You’re a bit late, honey.” She said the word as a reflex, without any warmth, like a waitress who just got a lousy tip. “He’s dead.”
“But…” I stuttered, taken aback. “When…”
“Night before last,” she answered. “Stupid son of a bitch fell out of his bedroom window, down six stories.” She paused, shaking her head. “Wasn’t just a whole lot an ambulance coulda done for him, even if they hadn’t taken thirty minutes to get there.”
I glanced around the room, taking a quick inventory.
“And you would be?” I asked.
“Funny, I don’t remember hearing your name when you came in,” she said, her eyes narrowed.
“My name is Spencer Finch,” I answered, remembering to smile. I offered my hand. “I’m a reporter, and I’m working on a story I thought Mr. Stiles could help me with.”
Warily, she took my hand, her long nails grazing the back of my wrist.
“Talitha Cummings,” she said. “I worked for Stiles these past couple of years. He didn’t pay much, but then he wasn’t really around all that much either.”
“I see,” I answered, but didn’t really. “So you were his… secretary.”
Talitha yanked her hand back like it had been burned, and glared at me.
“I am not a goddamned secretary.” She straightened, her chin up. “I’m a research assistant. I did go to college, you know.”
I didn’t, but nodded all the same.
“Then maybe you could help me,” I went on. “Would you happen to know what cases Mr. Stiles was working on before he… well…”
“Went pavement diving?” she asked. “Yeah, I suppose I would know at that.” She crossed her arms, and looked hard at me. “Why should I tell you?”
I smiled broadly, and gestured towards the door.
“Ms. Cummings, could we discuss this over lunch?”
Without a word she grabbed her purse and was out in the hallway. As she headed towards the stairs, she called back over her shoulder.
“You can spend all the money on me you want,” she said, “but that doesn’t mean I’ve got to tell you anything.”
Talitha directed me to a Thai place on the north side of downtown, and once there worked her way through two helpings of some sort of chicken and noodle dish, while I picked my way through a plate of ground beef and rice. While eating we talked, or rather she talked and I listened. I had overheard enough conversations between women to know what they are like, and women tend to bring the same rules to bear when talking to men. By the time we had finished the main course, I knew where she had grown up, where she had gone to school, how many siblings she had, and just what her relationship with her parents was like. That, and the fact that she found me “very easy to talk to,” which I accepted as a compliment. I hear it from people a lot, women especially for some reason, but in my line of work I could hardly complain.
From me she had got my name, the name of my magazine, and the fact that I seldom, if ever, ate Thai food. If she was expecting any girl-talk out of me, I’m sorry to say she was disappointed. Men play by different rules. Women talk about themselves, men talk about stuff.
Once the check came, and we finished off our drinks, I diverted the conversation to the proper order of business.
“So,” I asked, clinking the last ice cubes around in my now empty glass, “do you think you can tell me about the cases Stiles was working on?”
Talitha daubed at the corners of her mouth with a broad cloth napkin, and regarded me with an amused look.
“Well,” she said, “since you asked so nicely…” She leaned forward, conspiratorially. “David had closed most of his cases in the last month. The usual, run of the mill stuff. Following some guy’s wife, tracking down a runaway kid, shit like that. The only case still open when he died was a new one that came into the office last week. Some kinda snoop job for a high roller.”
“What high roller?”
“I dunno, some big-money, land-and-oil, ten-gallon-hat cracker. Name of Price, something like that.”
“J. Nathan Pierce?” I asked.
She straightened, and looked at me with a grudging respect. I got the impression she had been playing dumb, and wasn’t expecting me to know even that much.
“Yeah, that’s the one. He called the office early last week… himself, mind you, not some flunky… and asked to speak to David. The next thing I know David’s bustin’ out of the office trying to slick his hair back and put on a tie all at once, and didn’t come back ‘till late in the afternoon. From then on he was working on the case, day and night, weekends too, until…”
She paused, in what I took to be an uncharacteristic display of emotion.
“Until he fell,” I finished for her.
“What was the case, if you don’t mind me asking.”
“I’m not sure if I should,” she said. “Mind, that is. But I’ll tell you anyway. Don’t see as it can make any difference now.” She lowered her voice slightly and continued. “There was a break-in at Pierce’s place over in River Oaks a while back, and something pretty valuable got stolen. Some papers, or a book, something like that. David was supposed to find it and bring it back, and the fee was going to be enough to keep him in bad haircuts and cheap cologne for a year.”
“Why hire Stiles? No offense, I’m sure he was a fine detective…”
“No, he wasn’t,” she interrupted. “He was a shitty detective. But he was a kind man, and people liked him.”
“Well, there you go. Why would someone like Pierce, a) hire a detective, and b) hire a shitty one. It doesn’t make sense.”
“Honey,” she said, with more warmth now, “you are asking the wrong woman. I asked David that when he came back with the case, and he looked at me like I’d just shit in his yard. You see, David was always sure he was a great detective, and just ain’t never had the chance.”
“But you knew better.”
“Shit yeah. But I didn’t want to hurt his feelings, so I let it go.”
I sat quietly for a moment, rolling a bad thought around in my head for a while before letting it out. Finally, I had no choice.
“Talitha, do you think there’s any chance that Stiles didn’t just fall out of that window? Do you think maybe he was pushed?”
“Mr. Finch, since we’re being all open and honest here…” She paused slightly, and drew a breath. “Yes, that is exactly what I think.”
Talitha agreed to let me take a look at Stiles’ notes on the case, but explained that they were already boxed up, and it would take her a little while to find them. With a sly grin she suggested she could probably have them together by, say, dinner time. I swung back by the office, and dropped her off outside, arranging to pick her up there at about six. Without another word, she walked off and disappeared into the building.
The car idling, I glanced at my watch. It was only one o’clock, which left me with five hours to kill before I knew anything more. I figured I could do a drive by of Pierce’s place in town, to see what I could see, but would still have ample opportunity to get stunningly bored. I would have to think of something.
Stopping at a Texaco, I picked up a couple of packs of Camels, a liter of Pepsi, and an enormous bag of CornNuts. I decided that if the opportunity to stake out Pierce’s house presented itself, I wanted to be prepared. As it turned out, I needn’t have bothered.
The house wasn’t all that far from Stiles’ office, but it might as well have been on another planet. Contrasted with the cramped streets and urban blight of that area of downtown, River Oaks was like a national park, with mansions airlifted in. The streets were wide and winding, and the houses positioned artfully on plots of land the size of football fields. Pierce’s was on Lazy Lane, where the largest and most opulent of the houses could be found. They were so far above the rest that you couldn’t even see them, perfectly hidden by high walls, or by hedges taller than the entire line-up of the Houston Rockets combined.
There was a manned security guard-post at the entrance to Pierce’s place, making it looking even more like a fortress than it already did. Cruising by slowly, I got a glimpse of a manicured lawn and white pillars in the distance, but nothing else. The security guard caught my eye, and in the subtlest of body language let me know it would be a good idea to move along. I eyed the pistol at his hip, and dropped my foot on the accelerator.
Following the winding roads out of the neighborhood and back to civilization, I wondered just what I would do with the rest of the afternoon. I could find a bar and hold up somewhere, but then I would risk forgetting about my appointment all together. I could check into a hotel and catch up on some much needed rest, but then I might sleep straight through the night. As I drove, I fished around in my coat pocket for my lighter, and came up with a crumpled piece of paper. Glancing at the telegram, I figured what the hell? There were worse ways to spend the time than picking up my inheritance, though at that moment I was having trouble deciding just what they were.