The pages of every book I’d ever read fluttered like bats in and out of my dreams, ripping and rewrapping silver screen into sidewalk scum. I’d drawn the chalk outline round at least two years of cases, but it was all small potatoes – petty crime rings, small-time con artists – all textbook stuff. The toughest mysteries I’d had to solve were why wedding dresses were so goddamn expensive, and how come I was making less cash putting crooks behind bars at the county jail than my sweetheart was pouring drinks behind bars downtown…
I felt duped. I guess I’d always been an imaginative kid – Hell, I’d read every detective story there was – but I knew I couldn’t carry on if this was all there was behind the illusion. Even the gifts she’d got for my first day as a bona fide private eye were wearing a little thin, both figuratively and literally. The vintage fedora was crumpled beyond even the most expensive laundering, and that genuine trenchcoat had more loose stitches than a back-alley doctor’s waiting room on a Saturday night.
But I was out of the office one dismal evening in the Fall when a call came in. The call. It was the real deal – I was positive of it. I could feel a new energy revitalising the blood in my veins, as though some force had taken hold of me that very moment. By the time she’d read out the whole message, I knew that we’d be going. We could scrape together enough lucre for the trip, and the fee mentioned on the phone was more than a crack dealer’s retirement fund. There was only one contact, but I finally had a case worth my days and nights.
There was always a scene like this in all those old stories, I remember thinking. But now I know it’s not like the stories – those images, black and white, that still plague my dreams. For those guys who lived between the lines on the page, their first real case was always the proving ground, and it would either make or break them. But it’s never that black and white, that open-and-shut, that ‘either-or’… Make or break? Try make and break.
* * *
It was a city rebuilt out of a story long past but ever present. When Angeline and I stepped onto those streets, they seemed to shift and shape beneath our feet as though the construction crews were performing some kind of magic every time they moved a paving stone across the road. We met with our source – a youthful ‘fine arts dealer’ who would only give us the alias ‘Joachim Nachtigall’ – and discovered a little more about the plot which was unfolding from out of his history and into the very fabric of this reconstituted cityscape.
Among the leather and linen lines of his collection, there were the signs and portents of something – I couldn’t deny it – but what exactly? All I could make out were swirls and ciphers on a page, but Nachtigall here had decoded it word by word and somehow traced those lines back to a half dozen individuals scattered seemingly randomly throughout the world, and – God knows why – had decided that he should contact me first. It seemed that I was the ‘typical’ private investigator in myth, if not in fact. I guess you figured I could use a mystery.
These strange books, at once concealing and revealing different strands of different stories, all came back to one publishing firm which, though seemingly located in downtown Hamburg, was nowhere to be found. The only thing we had was a name: Lichttrager Verlag. Now all that was left was to work out why – and how – an unknown, shady little company had encoded these blurry, bleary messages into their publications. Easy said. Harder done. As we were all about to find out.
Angeline stayed here with Nachtigall, whose usual enigmatic mutterings suggested that he may have known more about the founders of Lichttrager than he’d let on, while I checked out the barren warehouse where the small press was apparently located. After a half hour of nothing more than damp wooden floors and a vague stench of harbour-side industry, I decided that this particular line of inquiry was likely to shed as much light on the case as a flashlight shone into a black hole.
* * *
As he drew the curtain across the back of the outer door, Nachtigall’s face ceased to be illuminated by the moon which was creeping onto the open books lying on his desk. But without flicking a hand toward the light switch, his grim expression greeted me from the dark corner of his study like a skeletal apparition preparing to haunt. He turned, pushed open another door which led to what passed for his bedroom, and held it open as I stepped through. I realised then that I was in no way prepared for the story which had suddenly enveloped my life and led me half way around the world – and for what? Some barely decipherable words on a page.
“I tell her thät I know them… Thät I want to stop them.” I remember his crowing like it was yesterday. “I giff her the names of the contacts I haff, but she wants to find them straightway, and she runs out to get to you.” He paused, forcing out the words. “They tried to make me work wiz them, but I could not do it. I want only to stop them… And when I follow, I find her on the street corner. Please, Mr Delaney…”
But my eyes were transfixed. Transfixed, as though I was hypnotised, on the figure lying breathless and dishevelled on the edge of the bed, the damp of a city street still visible on the side of her sheer black dress. As incomprehension spread through my still-youthful frame, all I could do was watch as she shimmered and swam before my eyes, an image burnt into the back of my head, forever peripherally visible through a stream of distorting tears.
* * *
So I lost myself, delved and dived further into my work, a new vigour engulfing me, letting me live out all those stories from my childhood as though they gave me a sense of purpose – some kind of meaning to what I was doing.
After a few months, Nachtigall and I tried to talk more about what had happened, but the trail had dried up, and neither of us wanted to reopen a case full of old wounds if there was nothing we could do to change it. But then the Blog came into the frame – seemingly an open and shut case, black and white – until, that is, I find this book has landed on my desk dragging two corpses and more than a few attacks behind it. A book full of strange ciphers and swirls and folds. A book with a hidden message, Joachim. I only knew one man for the job, and I couldn’t help but wonder if he was willing to open an old and dust-covered case to have just one more shot.
Ray lifted his glass of Scotch.