The Secret of Secrets
Love Is What You Have
a lit noir on the streets of the 32nd Century
T. Van Santana
I read the end of the book. You could too, you know. If you wanted to. If you were interested. Can’t say I’d recommend it, though.
I looked down at the chipped paint on my fingernails. I was just about the only person I knew who still painted their nails. I use they as a singular pronoun, by the way. It’s well known that the practice bugs the shit outta people, but hey … gender’s not accurate to language, you know? Trying to get it across clearly—that’s the whole idea. So that should tell you something about me.
“You?” they asked. Now I’m just being an ass.
“Me?” I pointed to myself.
“Yes,” they said. He said, if you’re happier with that. “Are you Teresa?”
“Why, yes I am.” I let on a smile and put one of those chipped polished hands out for a shake.
He looked from side to side, like we’re doing a drug deal or something. Not that anyone actually doing a drug deal does that. But you know the bit.
“Relax,” I said. “It’s easy around here.”
Around here was Café Tredici—that’s my favorite place to relax, talk shit with baristas, and conduct informal business. I guess it does sound a little bit like a drug deal.
He still had a twitchy look about him.
“Go on and sit there.” I pointed with my shaking hand—still unshaken—at the seat across from me.
He sat down.
“Gil?” I asked.
He nodded, tight in the lips and throat.
My eyes’re mostly synthetic, the flawed and broken bits having been replaced with spiffy enhancements that let me read what other people are feeling and thinking through subtle body language. I think they’re quite fancy. I could flip the features on and off at will. I was in the habit of having them off at Tredici. You know, so I could relax a little.
But this was business, and I just had to know what’s going on with this dude, so I flipped on the fancy.
He’s nervous that he’s going to be seen: seen by me, seen by his enemies, seen by anyone. It stems from a long held belief that to be seen is to be vulnerable and to be vulnerable is to be weak and if he’s weak, someone will pounce.
That belief’s not always wrong, by the by, but people like Gilford sitting across from me there tended to exaggerate the danger and, somewhat ironically, leave themselves open to other forms of predatory behavior.
“Why don’t you get some tea, Gil,” I said. “A nice chamomile.”
He squinted at me.
My eyes told me he thinks I’m talking in code. Again with the drug dealie business.
“It’s nothing special, Gil. I just think it’d help you relax.”
Gil’s shocked by that, and I motion to my friend, Warby, to please come over.
She does, right away.
“Hey, what’s up?” Warby asked.
“Could you bring us some chamomile tea, please?” I asked.
“Two’d be great,” I said.
Warby smiled at me, then at Gil and walked off for the tea.
“I’ve never done this before,” Gil said.
“Yeah, I was kind of getting that impression, Gil. How’d you find me?”
“My wife’s friend knows someone named Juice.”
I smiled and nodded.
“Right. Okay,” I said.
“I guess this Juice shares an office with you.”
“That she does,” I said. That would be The House of Secrets, two doors down from Tredici, where I—and a few other privatized secretists like Juicy—ply my trade. You didn’t think I did it in a coffee shop, did you? How scandalous.
“What exactly are we going to do?” Gil asked.
“Well, Gil, that would be telling. And I don’t tell. Ever.” Which’s a bit of an exaggeration. Sure, sure. You could call it a lie, but a lie carries with it some malice, some bad intent. I was just playing with Gil a bit.
“Oh,” Gil said. “Well, how will I know what to do?”
“That’s a practical question, Gil, and better than a lot of ‘em I hear. But just relax. Wait for the tea.”
Warby appeared, on cue, with the tea.
I made a little gesture with my hand.
Gil looked at it, like he’s looking down in a toilet and about to let it all go.
“Everything okay?” Warby asked.
I said yes by blinking my eyes.
Warby smiled and said, “Enjoy!” then she’s off.
“Now what?” Gil asked.
I thought it was obvious.
“Now we drink the tea, Gil.”
“To help you relax.”
“Oh. All right.” He picked up the cup and slurped back most of it. “Tastes weird.”
I shook my head and took a sip.
His second taste polished it off. “Now what?”
I sighed and let my tea sit there, knowing that’s the end of it.
“Let’s go,” I said.
“What? That’s it? I paid a lot of money for this …”
“Simmer down there, Gil. We’re just going next door.”
“To the secretist house?”
For a guy worried about being seen, he said it fucking loud enough. Maybe the tea’s working after all.
“Yeah, Gil. Wanna invite some people?”
He looked around, then back to me. “No?”
“So keep it down and follow me.”
I gave a little wave to Warby and then clicked on tall heels out of the shop and down the side street of Jurgey. That’s short for Jurgentown, which’s a trendy little part of the City of Rivers on the Ministry Homeworld. If you’ve never been, well, I can’t recommend it. But it’s where I was hanging my hat, and so that’s where my living happened.
“I like the trees down here,” Gil said. “Are they real?”
“Some of them,” I said. “Most are holographic.”
The 32nd Century’s not an environmentally conscious time. You’d think people would have learned that shit like using caustic chemicals and tearing the fucking world up for manufacturing wasn’t at all smart. But they hadn’t because why would they? No one was thinking much beyond what they’re doing that moment, much less about the future.
And, jeez, the fucking future. It’s this whole thing with me, okay? I could travel forward and backward in time, true, but I hadn’t grown up like that. I’d grown up like most everyone else—expecting the future to be this impressive fucking spectacle of awesomeness. Instead, it’s a few cool things and shitloads of meh.
Bubble, is not one of those things, nor Swiggle—not as far as I was concerned, anyhow, but you’d never fucking know it by how ever-present and all-consuming these services had become. Everywhere you looked, people had their faces lit up, their head surrounded by a fucking Bubble, so they can stay constantly connected to everyone, everywhere—except of course their immediate physical surroundings and whoever might be unlucky enough to be standing there. Bubble’s handy if you need to reach somebody, though. No arguing that.
Swiggle’s more or less the same thing, but with less emphasis on connecting and more on gawking. Did I mention I had a Swiggle spew with many, many watchers of my swagger? No? Well, I don’t like to brag.
“Here we are,” I said. “My very own little House of Secrets.”
“That’s where we’re gonna do … whatever it is we’re gonna do?”
I let my lips be wide. “It is indeed.”
“What if I don’t like it?” Gil asked.
“You may not,” I said.
His confusion at my response gave me a natural pause to turn and open the door. It’s nothing for me, but anyone not skilled in ghosting would be shit out of luck trying to get into this place. What’s ghosting? Simply not being seen. That’s it. Just jargon, so you can relax, okay? Sip your tea.
The door’s ancient creak disturbed Gil.
“Uh, I dunno,” Gil said. “Maybe we should reschedule.”
“We can if you want,” I said, “but you’re looking at least a month.”
Gil wrung his hands out. Poor guy. I could have said something to put him at ease, I guess …
“Okay,” he said. “Let’s go.”
He took a big step forward, then two more up the steep steps, and a final one into the dark maw of my office.
Then I trotted right up behind him and closed the door.
That’s the end of chapter one. You’re still reading, so that’s good. It’s been a long winter. My show’s been canceled. I gotta sell some books. More on that in chapter two. Maybe. I’ve been known to change my mind.
“Well, not just what, but who,” Lila said.
I took a breath before answering.
“Jill, for one.”
Lila pushed back some curls and showed me her face. I’m sure mine was looking like that too.
“Did they say anything to you?” she asked.
“No,” I said. “But they looked all right. Well, alive anyway.”
Lila nodded, then walked past me and started prepping food.
“Want some help with that?” I asked.
“Anything else?” she asked.
“The whole place’s a shitshow,” I said. “Horace was supposed to go down there with me, but he got called away.”
“Work?” Lila asked.
“Oh. So it was a bust then?”
I wasn’t sure why I was evading the point. Nerves, I guess. I’d reworked my nerves several times over the years, but you can never get nerves quite right, can you?
“I saw Roxy,” I said.
Lila paused, then kept cutting carrots. “Really?”
“Yeah. So, you know, she’s alive too, I guess.”
My chest started to loosen up some.
“Did you talk to her?”
“No. I don’t think she recognized me. I have no idea what she’s doin’ here. Can’t go back to the Jungle, obviously.”
“Do you ever miss it?” I asked.
“What? The Jung?” Lila asked.
“Sometimes. Not really.”
I waited for her to ask me about, but she didn’t. So I said, “It was my home, you know? For, like, fourteen years.”
Something about the way I said it caught her attention because she stopped cutting and reached a hand out for me.
“Yeah it was,” she said.
I let her hand be on mine for a moment, then I pulled back and went for some tea. Trying to drink less coffee and more tea. I wasn’t loving it.
“So do you think you’ll try to talk to her?” Lila asked.
“Yeah, I guess. Not sure how to get in touch with her.”
“Sean would probably know, right?”
I let out a little laugh. “Yes, Sean would probably know. But I don’t like doing favors for Sean. They’re the kind of favors I feel obligated to pay back. And, as you know, they often involve a downward spiral into violence.”
Lila shrugged. “You might be exaggerating.”
I might have been exaggerating, that’s true.
“Yeah, maybe,” I said. “I’ll reach out to them and see.”
“Or not,” Lila said. “I just know you’re happier when you’re connected to your friends. Even ones like Roxy.”
I let my mind wander over some of my time with Roxy. There’s loads of green and red, smoke and alcohol on the breath. Firelight on wild eyes and crooked teeth.
“Slip off again?” Lila asked.
I smiled. “No. I’m here.”
The thing was, I had to watch that shit. I could spend hours or days in the past and not even realize I’d been gone. I’d written a few books about it, then picked up a deal for a show. When I say picked up, it was really more of a steal. The CoDex Corporation—who I’d known for years as my dad’s employer—hired a thief to steal my memories and my dreams. Then wrapped all that up into a deal. I’d taken it, and then kind of blown it all up. Anyway, I wasn’t really talking to them at the time. But I didn’t want to piss them off either, so I was trying to start something new, not just more of the same.
The future’s totally different. I could see the future and go there, I guess you could call it, and—like dreams—while I’m there, it’s not so different from present life, but when I come back, it’s hazy and seems unreal. I tried not to look into the future too much. Bad habits make for a miserable fucking life.
I pushed it all aside and walked over to Lila.
She looked up at me and smiled.
I put my arms around her and hugged her.
She reacted with some surprise, but put all her attention there and hugged me.
“I love you, Lila,” I said.
“I love you,” she said.
Like the future, or dreams, or anything that isn’t ordinary walkin’ around time, my mind melted into that moment like it’s all there is or every was. And then it’s over, and it’s only a memory. A short hug with my wife in the kitchen.
She went back to making our dinner, I to my tea.
I stared at a spot in the kitchen—the newly renovated kitchen, seeing as how it’d been blown apart only a few weeks earlier by events that may or may not have been related to some fucking favor for Sean—and thought I saw something. Well, someone, really.
My head’s full of fucking visitors. I’d shaken my long term resident, a real motherfucker of pissed of chi named D. But that’s not all. There’s always someone else trying to get into my life or my head.
“Hey,” Lila said.
I looked from the spot to her.
“That was nice,” she said.
I smiled. Took a sip of tea.
“I’m going to step outside for a minute,” I said.
“Okay,” she said. “I’ll get you when it’s ready.”
“What time do we have to go pick up Mason?” I asked.
“Five,” she said.
I nodded. “Cool.”
I kissed her, then went out through the living room, into the backyard.
The air’s warming up from winter, but it’s still a bit chilly. And there’s an odd and ancient smell in the air.
“I thought I saw you,” I said.
“Where, darling?” they asked.
“In the kitchen. You know, like last summer.”
“Oh please. I try not to repeat myself.”
I let a breathy laugh. “Don’t we all. Good luck with that.”
Knot walked around the edge of the deck, giving me a better view of them.
“New clothes, huh? The wizard’s hood chic look not working for you anymore?”
“I see you have updated your look as well, darling.”
I looked down at my dress, then back to Knot. “Not really.”
Knot extended a dry finger toward my eyes.
“Oh. Right. They got burned out. Nothing quite like the smell of your own eyes burning. It’s lovely.”
“You speak as if I don’t know, dear.”
“I guess I didn’t know you knew,” I said.
It was weird having them here again—and in the broad light of day, on my porch. I took a moment to reflect on how many of my life’s moments happened in the same places. Maybe those’re just the ones I remembered best.
“Or you should get out more,” Knot said.
“Right. My quotient of telepathic associates needs to go down,” I said.
“Is that what we are now, Teresa? Associates?”
“I’ve never really known what we are, Knot.”
“That’s not entirely true, dear. I’ve watched you, and read you. I know what you think of me.”
I didn’t want to ask, but I knew I would. It wouldn’t matter if I didn’t. I’d already thought it.
“Have you seen D?”
“No,” Knot said.
“Would you tell me if you had?”
Knot let a thin smile onto their old lips. “Of course, darling. Why wouldn’t I?”
“I dunno. Because you’re wearing suits and spats now? And you’ve got a fucking brim on, I just can’t believe that …”
“You wear hats, too, darling. Just because we wear a brim, doesn’t mean we are a Brim.”
“And you need to move on, my lovely. You’ve spent too much of your life worrying about the Ministry and its affairs. You don’t work for them anymore, and they don’t own you. You’re free. Which is what you wanted. Right?”
Of course it was. Sure life’s harder in the private sector, but the freedom.
“Was it really supposed to be easy, Teresa?”
I flicked my fancy eyes on Knot. They were totally useless, of course. Fancy though they might be, there weren’t any eye enhancements that let you read a master secretist from the future. Which reminded me …
“I am here, Teresa, just as you are,” Knot said, being rude as fuck by continuing to read my mind.
“How is that possible?” I asked.
They offered a hand to me, palm turned up. “Thanks to you.”
“The Book?” I asked. I meant the Book of Life. It’s this whole thing. Not very interesting and would take, like, a hundred thousand words to explain.
“Oh I find the Book of Life and Death quite interesting,” Knot said.
“I bet you would, you scheming old bastard.”
Knot smiled. “You think so much and so little of me all at once. It’s breathtaking.”
“Don’t take this the wrong way, because you know we’re associates and all …”
“How lucky for me to be an associate of T Van Santana …”
“Yeah, but what the fuck are you doing here?”
“Language, sweet one.”
“Yeah, I’m not doin’ that anymore. If you want to be around me, you’re gonna have to fucking deal with language, okay? It is, after all, language. That’s the fucking idea, you know, getting your point across.”
Knot sighed. “It’s just the death of civility, I suppose.”
“Please,” I said. “I watched you tear two people apart and send their souls across time and space like you’re blowing out a birthday candle. So don’t moralize to me about language choice and civil fucking attitudes.”
Knot smiled. “So you did see that. I thought you couldn’t.”
Interesting that they didn’t know, I thought.
“But I do now,” Knot said.
Fuck. Lousy unblockable mind readers.
“I’m here for the same reason I always am, Teresa.”
“To annoy the bejeezus outta me?”
Knot’s smile remained, but the corners of their mouth dipped some. “I’m lonely. There aren’t any others like me left.”
I had to confess that it got me. It’s hard seeing this sad old bird alone in the field of time.
“So what? You’re gonna start coming to my barbeques?”
“I thought we could meet. Like before perhaps, or some other arrangement.”
“As much as I loved spending a month having you randomly appear in my writing room and walk with me down memory lane, murmuring about the secret of secrets and all that …”
“I never murmur, dear.”
“Debatable. And as much as I love knowing the secret of time—you know, having to watch out for a time slip as I might a goddam pothole, it’s so fucking cherry, so lush—I think I’m gonna take a pass.”
“Yeah. It’s film jargon. It means fuck off.”
“Ah yes, your dignified epic of personal struggle broadcast through the heavens. In your underwear.”
“Hey,” I said. “That’s expensive underwear. And lots of time I wasn’t wearing anything at all.”
Knot put one hand in the other. “All right. I know you, though, Teresa. When you can’t figure something out and you need a friend—oh, pardon me … and associate—I am always near.”
“See that’s just creepy,” I said. “It sounds like you’re lurking in the bushes or something.”
Knot smiled. “Who says I’m not?”
“If it would make you more comfortable my dear, you can blow me.”
My jaw went slack. “Seriously? You’re on Bubble?”
“It’s the time we live in, darling. If you’re not on Bubble, you’re not alive. And despite whatever euphemism you may make for my appearance, I am most certainly alive.”
The door opened.
“Food ready, baby,” Lila said. “Oh, hey.”
I looked over to Knot.
Still there. Huh, I thought. That’s new. At least, I thought so.
“Lila, this is …”
“Canute,” Knot said. “Canute Capello.”
“Okay …” I said.
Lila and Knot shook hands.
“I’m terribly sorry I didn’t come to the front door. Please forgive my poor manners,” Knot said. “I saw Teresa here from the alleyway behind your lovely garden there, and just jaunted on over to say hello.”
Lila smiled. I knew the one.
“Oh please!” Lila said. “You’re totally fine.”
“That’s quite gracious of you, dear,” Knot said.
“Would you like to stay for dinner?”
I slid my eyes over to Knot.
“Oh I couldn’t possibly,” Knot said.
“Yeah,” I said. “Knot’s um …” Fuck. Recover, recover. “It’s not summer, right? No wild barbeques for us.” Nice one, Teresa. Slick as fucking gravel.
Lila looked at me, showing her understating. I knew she didn’t understand the why, but my awkward cover had told her something else, something more important.
She looked at Knot. “Maybe some other time, then.”
“That would be lovely,” Knot said. “And thank you, dear, for the gracious invitation.”
“Of course!” Lila said. She put on awkward eyes and gave a little wave. “It was nice to meet you.”
“Likewise, darling,” Knot said.
“I’ll be right in,” I said.
Lila nodded and closed the door.
“We done here?” I asked. “I’m hungry.”
“Perhaps that’s why you’re so testy,” Knot said.
Yeah, maybe. Or maybe it’s you.
Knot let their head nod, almost like a little puppy.
“Oh get the fuck out of here,” I said. “I’m sorry, Knot, but I can’t feel sorry for someone like you.”
“And what’s that someone like, darling?”
“You’re a murderer and a thief. And a fucking liar. I’m sorry you’re alone—that sucks if it hurts and probably means you’re not a total psychopath, not anymore anyhow—but I just can’t muster a lot more than that, okay?”
Knot nodded. “All right. Let me know when you need me.”
“Don’t hold your breath.”
“I never do, darling. That’s a good way to pass out.”
“Enjoy your supper, dear. When you need someone to make yourself feel better about your life, blow me.”
And they’re gone.
I took in a breath, held it, then let it out slowly.
“My fucking life,” I said to no one.