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Original fiction from Weird Tales #356: “Secretario” by Catherynne M. Valente

The City is a harsh cauldron. Everyone exists to serve the detectives. Every diner, every office, every laundromat, every priest…The detectives, or the devils.

“Secretario” by Catherynne M. Valente

© 2010. Catherynne M. Valente. All rights reserved.

In the City, there are three kinds of people: the dead, the devils, and the detectives.

The dead are women; the devils are men. Have you ever noticed that? The detectives, by law, can go either way, but look around: you won’t see too many skirts.

So begins the diary of Mala Orrin, my superior in all the ways that count. She smelled of leather, not the black, soldierly kind, but the warm, beaten brown leather of a briefcase often oiled and well loved, or of a journal often thumbed. She wore long trenchcoats; a hat the color of wheat. Sensible shoes, the kind of shoes you wear to run after people. After devils.

I never saw her face. Her hat, cocked at the same angle, cast its shadow on her face like a knight’s visor. A woman, obscured.

And I never noticed. I should have. Everything she ever wrote down, I read. I sat at a desk and took her dictation,  requisitioned her pistols, had her coats cleaned when the blood-spray got too noticeable. But every time she looked down at a body, impassive as a god, her cigarette Hephaestean, her mind Athene, she could see the pattern, and I saw only her.

Every case begins with a body. To be more precise, it begins with a detective observing a body. How it lies, how it tells the truth.

This is what a dead body looks like:

It is female. Its natural habitat is a dark alley, full of rain-puddles. It is only recently dead-no corruption has set in, not yet. Her skin is perfect, two and a half shades paler than in life. Her hair fans out around her head, floating in the rainwater like a mermaid. She is wearing something that shows her thighs, her breasts, black silk, or red. The fabric folds suggestively, not quite showing her nude, but nearly there. Her lips are scarlet; her shoes are black. Her name is something simple and anonymous: Anna, or Sarah, or Claire. Because it doesn’t really matter who she is. She is waiting for the detective; she’s already met the devil. She lays like a lover for the detective to use, her legs open, her mouth open, her eyes open, her wounds open, everything about her open, inviting the gaze of the detective, that death enthusiast. The detective is a libertine—he has eyes for all of them. They bleed for him, so that he will know her. So that someone will know her.

But I don’t see a lover. I look down as the rain sluices off the brim of my hat and her blood is running into the gutters and I see a mirror. I am she and she is me and we are going to go into the dark together.

This is why the other detectives are men. It’s so ugly, the other way round.

I don’t believe she was the only one. Surely, in the history of the City, there was another woman detective. There must be a feminine noun, in the language of the City. Detectiva. Something. But to be honest I can’t think of one. I was her secretary, her understudy, her second. She never consulted me. The girls in the steno pool never asked me to tea. It was a lonely life, and I had to fetch my own coffee. Mala Orrin and I ate together in a diner across the street from the office. She always had steak, rare as a gunshot wound, scotch with two ice cubes, and a slice of cherry pie with kiss of ice cream. I always had salad. Toast. Coffee—black. I don’t like to eat anything red. If there are only three sorts, then the steno pool is only the waiting dead, and I a waiting devil, for I was never any kind of detective. Either way, red reminds me of these things, and I don’t want to be reminded.

There must be a word, in the language of the City, for a male secretary. Secretario. Something. It was decided by the higher-ups that if we were to suffer a woman detective, she must have a male secretary. The natural order must be maintained. The doorman leaned out into the street and whistled—I turned my head. That’s how I was chosen. I turned my head at a sharp, high sound, and they offered me ten dollars a day to keep her notes in order. Good money. And there’s never any shortage of bodies in the City. Detectives do a brisk business here. You could say it’s our primary industry.

This is what a devil looks like:

It is male. It wears black. He skulks—that is his primary means of locomotion. His face is broad and craggy, his eyes dark. Everything about him is closed: his lips, his heart, his coat. He hunches-over a weapon, an erection, a deformity, a secret. His hands are big; there is a lot of meat on him. His name is something simple and anonymous: John, Jim, Nick. Because it doesn’t really matter who he is, either. He is not quiet when he hunts the dead girl-already dead, from the moment he saw her. He killed her with looking, with wanting. All that’s left is the denouement.

He never uses a gun. It’s a knife, or garroting-sometimes, if he loves her especially, he will beat her to death. It has to be intimate, or it is no good. A woman has two lovers in her life: her murderer, and her avenger. First she lies down beneath the devil as he cuts her, blood trickles beautifully, delicately from her mouth, cinematically, as though anyone but the devil could see how perfect the trickle truly is. It is all for him. He is careful not to rip her clothes; he is courteous to the detective, who will come after. He does not want to spoil the scene for him.

Every time my office takes a call, hears a name, an address, I think: this time the body will be a man. He will be laid out for me, so thoughtfully, his angelic face in a rictus of foreknowledge. Death will have worn a woman’s face, and opened him up, passing this body from herself to me. I will reach out into the shadows and touch that devil, and she will take my hand, and we will understand each other.

All detectives ever do is summon devils. Out of the night, out of blood ritual. Logic is a lie. Deduction is a fell rite.

It’s not hard for a secretary to pick a desk-lock. They aren’t sturdy things. I took her diary. She’s gone; she won’t mind. And the diary of a great detective—surely I could open it to any page and solve a crime, read from it as from a book of spells and reveal the depths of the shadows, the glint of truth in the grime. If I had a deftness at deduction, even a drop, I’d have gone to the College, and have my own secretary by now. Someone nice, in a pale blue wool suit, with her hair done up just so, and her coffee would be perfect, every time, black as the bottom line. But the College takes them young. Children who sleep with magnifying glasses and suckle at churchwarden pipes, who conduct inquiries among their toys. Demand for detectives is high—the City is a harsh cauldron. Sometimes we see them die. Sometimes we see them running away from a crumpled form. We could interfere, but we understand it’s not our place. Once she’s dead—and yes, Mala is right, I can’t remember the last time a man died here—she belongs to the detective, like a father passing the bride to her groom.

Everyone exists to serve the detectives. Every diner, every office, every laundromat, every priest.

The detectives, or the devils.

For a long time I didn’t know which way I would go. I loved lipstick as a child; I stole my mother’s beautiful crimson shades and applied then with a delicacy beyond my age. She wept when she saw me, for she thought she knew then how I’d end up. The question is always how long can you last in the queue. The devils are hungry but not insatiable. It can take time for them to get around to you. Like taking a number at the butcher. He’ll get around, eventually.

But then, she’d named me Mala. Not Anna, not Sarah, not Claire.

My mother died when I was thirteen. That’s what mothers do, of course. And I found her, her seamed hose spattered with rain and blood, her heels gleaming, her blue eyes staring. I was wearing my father’s long coat, and I was always tall. The detectives who came to the scene left immediately-they assumed I was one of them, that I was already on the case. Detectives are territorial. Monogamous. You just don’t barge in on another man’s girl.

They all want to know how I solved it. Still-over cigars and brandy in the executive offices one of them will always lean in, boozily, and slur:

“C’mon, Orrin, tell us how you solved yer ma.”

I keep my mystery. It’s safer that way. The three parts of the City’s soul are in a delicate balance, and even a detective can turn on you.

The truth is: I went out into the rain and drew a circle in the earth with her blood. I put her dress in one quadrant, a bottle of her perfume in another, her dress in a third, and her lipstick in the last. I waited.

I wasn’t really surprised when my father came around the corner, sniffing like a bloodhound.

I remember the last case we worked together, before she disappeared. I carried a silver thermos full of coffee, like a bullet, and drove her to the scene. I glanced into the rear view mirror; her hat shadowed her face, all I saw was the slightest curve of a full lip, as red as meat. I turned the radio dial—a horn played, low and sad, and she lit her cigarette with a golden lighter.

The dead woman was so beautiful she stopped my heart. I almost thought she was still alive, her face was flushed, her breasts full and high under her spangled dress. A singer, I’d seen her in one of the detectives’ clubs. Fridays are secretaries’ night. The woman sang old jazz tunes. Her hair was black; her eyes were blue. The wound was at the back of her head-I’d missed it entirely. But her blood seeped from her skull in medusa-curls, and Mala Orrin looked at her without saying a word. Turned to stone.

I wanted to stand where she stood. I wanted to stand over that woman, that radiant dead seraph. I wanted to be so full of power I didn’t even have to speak for everyone to know I owned her. I felt that desire in me, red as meat. I wanted a hat to shadow my face, to flex my invisibility as she did.

I poured her coffee. It steamed in the dark. She didn’t even look at me.

In an hour, I drove her back to the office. She passed a note up the pneumatic tubes, up to the executive floors.

John Brown, bartender. Number 5, A Street. Icepick.

And that was the end of it. They brought him in, screaming, his shoulders huge, covered in the singer’s blood like a victor’s cape.

A sorcerer’s methods are easier to guess.

Sometimes I think about leaving the City. Surely, there is somewhere else to go, though I’ll be damned if I can think of any place. When I try to imagine other cities, my mind fills up with the faces of dead girls. Most of the time I figure other Cities are just like this one. But on the occasional night when there are no deaths, or at least none assigned to me, I drive out to the City limits and look at the black whip of road, disappearing off into nothing, into the dark, and I shiver because I am not safe. I thought the coat and the hat and the secretary and the dinner drinks[a1] would make me safe, make me not like them, make me part of a tribe that is immune to the devil and his tricks. But I’m never safe.

We live to die. When I see them in the street they have never been realer than in that moment, never brighter, never more beautiful. Persephone with Hades’ hand at her throat, dancing, dancing in the evening light.

The essence of detection is causation: because of this, that. Because he loved her and she didn’t love him back. Because he leaves iron filings in his footprints, we’ll find him in the factory where he works to make silver thermoses. Because he’s a devil, she’s dead. Because that’s all she ever saw, sometimes she dreams about being dead, being that beautiful, being fawned over, adored, her face on posters, her potential mourned. She dreams a detective with a lantern jaw falls in love with her as she lies bleeding out, and devotes himself, a knight, to avenging her death. To remembering her. In her dreams she is dead and she feels so alive. Because of her dreams, she wakes up sick, half-faint, her hands shaking until she can get the cork out of the bottle and smell the dirt-scent of scotch wafting out, like a grave.

Because she was good at her job, she escaped the devil for years.

But nothing lasts forever.

I admit it—I loved her. It’s all love. I didn’t need her diary to understand that. Love on both sides of death. I wanted to see her face, that’s all. So badly. Cherries on her breath. Ice cream. The black silk of her blouse. If this were a better place, if the City weren’t a devil in its own right, that would have been so simple. But you live in the world you’re given. You may feel contempt for it, even as you do your living, but you can’t escape your nature. She’s gone, and she’ll be missed. There will be a memorial, I’m sure. Her face in stone, perfect, completed. The natural life cycle of the detective.

Her handwriting is long and lanky, like a man’s. She speaks to me, out of the pages, and teaches me the devil’s due. I’ll be promoted soon. Secretaries get the news first, after all. I’ll be passing brandy from glass to glass on the executive floor by mid-month. I bought a hat last week-grey felt, with a black band and a wisp of ptarmigan feather tucked in. I’d hoped the diary would help me, but the dead can’t speak to the devil. So I come to the office early. I pour my own coffee, and watch the sun come up, the first steno pool girls coming in like morning birds.

They are so beautiful.

The essence of detection is cyclical. Around and around, chasing each other, footfalls sounding on black pavement, and the rain pouring down forever.

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