Life is a mystery and these are the clues: a woman (thirty-five) seated at a desk opposite an empty chair; a ticking clock.
Then the clues change. Or stay the same but rearrange themselves around a new clue: approaching footsteps on creaking stairs. Male by the sound. Heavy, dense steps with little of the tapping that comes from most women’s footwear, though I’m guessing. The interval between steps could probably be used to estimate height.
More steps, more clues. Will they stop at the door? Will they continue to the left, as most do, to the modeling agency? Or to the right to the empty office where the accountant used to be. The steps stop. A silhouette (male, almost certain now) through the frosted, dimpled glass. Then a knock.
Life is a mystery, these are the clues: a man in his forties wearing khaki pants, a black polo shirt (tucked in) and black sneakers walks into a detective agency with a book in his hand.
It’s a Saturday so he hasn’t come from work and this is, presumably, the way he thinks you should dress when you see a private detective on our your own time.
We exchange hellos and I gesture to the empty seat in front of me. He has short, dark brown hair that is graying above the ears. Blue eyes gaze out from behind little round, brown, tortoise-shell glasses. His expression is almost cartoonishly neutral: his lips flatlining across the bottom of his face.
I smile and ask how I can be of service.
He leans forward slightly and places the book on the desk between us.
“I’d like you to find the previous owner of this book,” he says and nods at the book.
I lean forward. Life is a mystery and this is a clue: a slender hardbound book without a dustjacket. I am not familiar with the title or its author: Peter Bunton Fulmerford, Out of Tomorrow’s Darkness. I open it, flip through the pages. Quality paper, the last numbered page is 153, the first page has a price written lightly in soft pencil: “15—”.
“There isn’t an ex libris stamp or anything like that,” he says and I worry that he thinks I’ve assumed he hasn’t checked for the obvious. But his voice is as neutral as his expression.
Taking care not to sound defensive, I say: “I assume that if you are serious enough to come to a detective you would have thought to inspect the book for any obvious indications of the previous owner.”
He nods and says, “No ex-libris stamp, no business card for a bookmark, no inscription, no marginalia. Unless there’s something written in invisible ink.”
“So,” I asked, “may I ask why you’re interested in locating the previous owner if he or she left no noticeable markings on this book?”
“Well, there actually is a kind of marking—to use your word. Press your nose to its pages.”
“Do you smell it?”
I did. It wasn’t necessary press my nose to the pages, though I did for a few seconds. The aroma was strong but difficult to describe or comprehend. A hint of vanilla, perhaps. Or honeysuckle. Something citrusy, too. Lemon? Lime? Orange zest? The scents dovetailed into each other and drifted in and out as I tried to identify them. Compared to the eyes, the nose is an imprecise instrument.
Nevertheless, I chastised myself. Detection is the business of observation and observation is the business of all five senses. Six, some would argue. I had perceived the scent, momentarily, but I had not observed it. I had not, in truth, really noticed it. Clues are not merely pieces of the puzzle, they are puzzles in themselves. This clue contained smaller clues just as every mystery, once solved, becomes a clue in the larger mystery: Life.