Reporter Spencer Finch is embroiled in the hunt for a missing book, encountering along the way cat burglars and mobsters, hackers and monks. At the same time, he’s trying to make sense of the legacy left him by his late grandfather, a chest of what appear to be magazines from the golden age of pulp fiction, and even earlier.
Following his nose, Finch gradually uncovers a mystery involving a lost Greek play, secret societies, generations of masked vigilantes…and an entire secret history of mankind.
by Chris Roberson
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 war-zone, 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 light bulbs 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.