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
The law offices of O’Connor, Riley, and Vasquez were located in a high rise in the heart of downtown, a glass and steel obelisk rising some thirty stories into the smog. I had visited the offices only once, during high school, when the venerable R.M. O’Connor represented me against charges of breaking and entering as a favor to my grandfather. I ended up with a suspended sentence from the court, a stony silence from my grandfather, and a two hour lecture on my failure to meet expectations from R.M. O’Connor. I had seen him only twice after that, when he had come to our house on business, and I learned quickly to be elsewhere when he was around.
O’Connor was the antithesis of my grandfather, and I was always amazed they had continued their association as long as they had. Crude where my grandfather was refined, loud where my grandfather was reserved, O’Connor was an old school Texan lawyer, who played the good old boy angle for all it was worth. I decided there must have been something in their past that bound the two old men together, some secret thing each saw in the other which earned their respect. For my part, I never saw it, and only and ever saw O’Connor as a swaggering old ass with a weakness for cheap scotch and western wear.
I arrived in the offices unannounced, and found everything just as I remembered it. The height of oil boom opulence, with over-stuffed chairs and cheap reproductions of Remington paintings hanging on the wall, the requisite bronze cowboy frozen forever in the saddle, and a pair of Longhorn steer horns mounted on the wall. The wizened old receptionist, for all I knew, had not moved since I had been marched into the office by my grandfather fifteen years before.
“Can I help you?” she drawled, looking at me over her oversized glasses.
“I’m here to see R.M. O’Connor,” I answered, stepping up to her desk.
“Is Mister O’Connor expecting you?” she asked. She gave me an appraising look and, apparently, I came up short.
“I wouldn’t hazard a guess, ma’am,” I said. “Could you just tell the old buzzard that Richmond Taylor’s grandson is here to see him?”
Her eyebrows shot up at the mention of my grandfather’s name, and her hand reached for the phone. I heard her repeat my message to someone on the other end, and then set the phone back down on its receiver.
“If you’d just have a seat, sir, he’ll be with you in a moment.”
I was still trying to get comfortable on the squeaking leather when O’Connor burst into the lobby a few minutes later.
“Patrick,” he boomed, advancing on me. “How the hell are you, son? Didn’t expect to see ya again so soon. You change your hair?”
He stuck out his hand, and I stood and took it. He held my hand in that over strong, overlong way that only lawyers and used car salesmen can.
“I’m not Patrick, O’Connor, I’m Spencer.”
He let my hand drop like he’d just seen roaches crawl out of my sleeve, and narrowed his eyes.
“Ah,” he said. “Ah. Spencer. Wasn’t expecting to see you.”
I leaned around him, and shouted to the old bat pretending to work on her computer.
“He wasn’t expecting me, Mabel. You were right.”
The old man turned and headed back towards his office.
“Come on, son,” he called over his shoulder. “Let’s get this over with.”
In O’Connor’s office, full of the expected law books and diplomas, I signed a stack of releases and waivers and statements of indemnity, all while listening to the old goat rattle on.
“I wasn’t expectin’ to see you at the funeral, mind, but you could have surprised me and showed up. You owed the man that much, at least, if you ask me. Just a little bit of respect, that wouldn’t a been too much to ask, now would it?”
“I didn’t,” I said, not looking up from the papers I was signing.
“What’s that?” O’Connor barked, losing his train of thought. “Didn’t what?”
“Well, that’s a hell of thing, I don’t mind tellin’ you. All that man did for you and your brother, and you ain’t even got the decency to see him be put in the ground. Not like your brother, now that he’s been mentioned. He was there for the whole show, dressed up all nice, a real gentleman, your brother.”
“Where is Patrick these days, anyway? I haven’t seen him in a while.”
“Oh, hell, I don’t know. Flew in from Africa or some such place, he said, and was flying off again after. But he was here, all the same.”
I finished with the signatures, and capping the pen tossed it across the desk at O’Connor. I stood, reaching into my pocket for a cigarette.
“Look, O’Connor,” I said, “I have an excuse, or a reason, or whatever you want to call it, but I’m not going to waste it on you. If I happen to run into the old man sometime, I’ll use it on him, but I’m not going to hold my breath.” I snapped open my zippo, and sucked the flame into the cigarette.
“The way I see it, the old man dying means that your business with him is done, and once you give me whatever the bastard wanted me to have, your business will be done with me, too. So if you could…” I waved my arm for him to proceed.
With a grunt and the creaking of his ancient bones, the lawyer lifted himself out of his chair and crossed the floor to a large wall safe. Shielding his right hand with his left, he spun the dial back and forth, and then with effort yanked open the door.
I had discovered, while looking over the papers, that the house at 217 Crescent Row, San Antonio had passed into the hands of Mrs. Maria Casares, our grandfather’s housekeeper in long standing, along with all the belongings contained within it, with the exception of the library, which went to my brother Patrick. Patrick also inherited a stamp collection, which I had never seen and which I learned had been the possession of my grandmother, a woman I had never met. All liquid assets, savings accounts, stocks and holdings, were divided equally and distributed amongst three charities of my grandfather’s choosing. All debts, public and private, past or pending, were to be handled by O’Connor’s firm, and paid as was appropriate out of a small fund held for that end. As for me?
I ended up with a cardboard box, full of magazines, books and type-written pages, and a locked wooden case about a foot square and six inches tall, weighing about ten pounds, for which no one could find the key.
“Here they are,” O’Connor explained, “just as Richmond left ’em. Appears he knew his time was up, and had everything boxed up and ready to go. We just had to roll in and pick ’em up.”
“That was thoughtful of him,” I answered, wondering idly how things would have been had the old man made that move twenty years before. “What is this shit?”
O’Connor shot me a glare, but kept his voice even.
“I’m not sure. He didn’t rightly say, only that this was the only product of his life’s work, and he wanted you to have it.”
I was taken aback.
“His life’s work? Why would he want me to have it?”
O’Connor leaned into me, and I could smell the cheap scotch on his breath.
“I have no idea in hell, you little bastard. If you ask me, which you didn’t, you are and always have been an ungrateful sack of shit, and I told your granddaddy as much whenever the subject came up. But for some reason this box was important to him, and he wanted you to have it. So if you don’t want me to throw out my back chucking you out of that there window, you’re going to pick this stuff up, walk out of here, and try your damnedest to show a little respect to the dead.”
I met O’Connor’s eye, and didn’t look away, but saved the quips and comebacks bubbling up for another time. For some reason, they didn’t seem appropriate. I hefted the cardboard box under one arm, and the wooden case under the other. Without another word, the old lawyer turned away and walked back to his desk.
I headed for the door, the sharp edge of the wooden case cutting into my side, the dust off the ancient cardboard box drifting up and into my nose and eyes. When O’Connor spoke, my eyes were watering.
“It was the damnedest thing, Spencer, and I never knew just why, but that old man loved you.”
I didn’t turn around, didn’t say anything, just kept walking out the door.
I decided to put in some time in a bar after all, but even after making friends with a half-dozen screwdrivers managed not only to remember my appointment, but to get there on time. Talitha was still up in the office when I arrived, with the case notes ready to go.
Great, I thought, another cardboard box.
I had expected to go over Stiles’ notes there in the office, but instead Talitha just handed it to me.
“Go on,” she said, “you take them. They’re not doing anyone any good here.”
“Are you worried that if somebody went after Stiles, they might come after you too?”
“Not with that shit out of here, they won’t,” she answered. “Besides, I’m not going to stick around long enough to find out. This is my last day on the job, and then I’m leaving town.”
“Eventually, but right now I think it’s a good time to take a vacation.” She smiled at me, and leaned on the desk in a way that made me think of a mechanic’s wall calendar.
“Not a bad idea.” I peeled open the top of the box, and began rummaging inside. There was a large stack of black-and-white and color photos, handwritten pages by the dozen, and a large sheet of paper, yellowed with age and sealed in an enormous Ziploc bag. This last I held up, looking at it in the light. It was covered front and back with tiny little characters, in what might have been Hebrew, or maybe Arabic.
“What’s this?” I asked.
“Not sure,” Talitha answered, “and neither was David. He said he copped it from Pierce’s place when the old cracker wasn’t looking. It had fallen under a desk or table or something… it’s all there in his notes.”
“Why did he take it? Was it a clue?”
“A clue?” Talitha snorted. “What are you, Encyclopedia Brown? Evidence, honey, ev-i-dence. That’s what it is. From the way it was laying there, David figured it must have been part of whatever got swiped, so he figured he’d have a closer look.”
“He find out what it was?”
“Nah, didn’t have a chance.”
I dropped the plastic bag back into the cardboard box, and sealed it up again. I picked up the box again, and started slowly towards the door.
“Thanks for all this, Ms. Cummings,” I began. “If there’s anything I can ever do for you…”
“Not so fast, baby,” she interrupted, grabbing her purse. “I’m not helping you just because you’re so cute. You owe me a dinner.”
She breezed past me into the hallway.
“I am not,” she called back, “I repeat, not above taking a bribe.”
We ate at the most expensive Italian restaurant Talitha could think of, and once we’d both had enough wine the atmosphere of the evening was like a fair first date. Talitha told me more about herself, and I was loose enough to tell her a little about me. I told her about the times I ran away from home, and about my three years as a cat burglar, subjects I rarely get into with strangers. Still, she seemed sympathetic, and maybe a little impressed, so I went on longer and farther than I normally would have. I could tell she didn’t exactly believe me when I told her about breaking into the Federal Reserve Bank in San Francisco, so I let the conversation drift in other directions.
When we were done, and the check paid, I drove her back to her place. I let her invitation to come upstairs fly right past, knowing that she didn’t really mean it, even if she thought she did. It would only complicate what had been a pretty good night. I left her on the curb, and pulled away into the night.
It was too late to head back to Austin, much less go anywhere else, so I found a cheap motel on the interstate and checked in for the night. I pulled the box of Stiles’ notes out of the trunk, and in a moment of drunken curiosity pulled the top stack of papers and magazines out of my grandfather’s box as well. My bag over my shoulder, and a pack of cigarettes in each of my pockets, I staggered up to my room and inside.
In the room, decorated in early denim, I laid on the vibrating bed and gave the photographs Stiles had taken of the Pierce home a cursory inspection. Wide shots of the yard, endless views of the interior rooms, tight close-ups of the motion detectors and infrared webs that had been disabled during the break in. Then pages and pages of notes in a scrawl only slightly more legible than my own, detailing Stiles’ theories on how the burglar entered the grounds, crossed to the house, got inside, and on and on and on. The sheet in the Ziploc bag was last, and made no more sense to me than it had before. I left them all piled up on the other side of the bed, and spent a while staring up at the acoustic ceiling tiles. By the time the timer in the vibrating bed ran out, I was starting to sober up, and climbed off the bed to find something else to entertain me.
The television in the room only picked up four stations, and with only two infomercials, Sheriff Lobo and a Chevy Chase movie to pick from, didn’t take up too much of my time. I lit a cigarette, and sat down on the edge of the bed, the stack from my grandfather’s box in my hand. There were a few typewritten pages I couldn’t quite get the meaning of, genealogies or time-lines or some such, and a couple of magazines. The one on top was one of the pulp magazines I remembered seeing in my grandfather’s study all those years before. The Black Hand Mysteries. With nothing better to do, I dragged an ashtray onto the bed, and started to read.