Ravenna, 1421:

“I would speak with you, my lord, of Ovidius Amello,” said the Chamberlain.

Obizzo da Polenta, Lord of Ravenna, gave a disinterested sigh. “Do you think,” he said, “that the affairs of a court scribe even merit a mention? I am balancing on a knife’s edge between Venice and Ferrara, seeking to placate them both and secure the seigniory of Ravenna for my son. What do I care of Amello, so long as he continues to write what I command him to write?”

“That is just the issue, my lord,” the Chamberlain said. “Amello has become…disturbed. He claims that he is writing what he has been commanded to, but the parchments are covered in gibberish that only vaguely resemble what you or I would call language. His illustrations, too, have taken on strange forms, though when I can understand him he says that they are the same portraits of men and kings that he has always painted.”

“When you can understand him?” snorted da Polenta. “Speak not in riddles.”

“Amello’s habit of speech has become…disorganized…of late, my lord. He will often slip into and out of speaking in tongues in the midst of his speech, and seems to note no distinction therebetween. I fear he may be possessed.”

“Possessed? Bah, what use have I for the useless meddling of the Church that accusation brings? Trump up a charge against Amello, have him executed, and be done with it.”

The chamberlain tented his fingers nervously. “As you recall, my lord, though Amello be officially of low birth, he is actually the illegitimate bastard of-”

Da Polenta rolled his eyes. “A pox on that old wretch! May his signet ring saw his bony finger from his lecherous old hand. Very well, take Amello out of the scribal pool and quietly isolate him. See to it that he is supplied with parchment, vellum, and ink, and let him scribe and babble what he will.”

“By your command, my lord,” said the chamberlain.

And so it was that the scribe Ovidius Amello’s disorganized schizophrenia, which would not even be named (let alone understood) for 500 years, was allowed to develop unchecked. Though the scribe himself thought that the volumes he prepared were routine pharmacopoeias, bestiaries, and astrological treatises of the sort that most scribes of his station wrote, instead be produced and lovingly bound volumes of bizarre symbols and illustrations. The disorganized nature of his schizophrenia meant that none but Amello himself could link his scratchings to any meaningful concepts, as the internal links between language, concept, and expression had broken down.

On Amello’s death in 1431–ironically, not long after that of Obizzo da Polenta–all but one of his books were burned, that last volume being saved as a curiosity by Ostasio III, Obizzo’s son and successor. When Venice took Ravenna in 1441, the book was looted along with the entire da Polenta library. The Holy Wars that followed saw that library sold to Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II for 600 gold ducats; perplexed, he gave Amello’s book to his botanist to try and decipher the many plantlike illustrations therein.

Finding its way from that botanist to an alchemist, a university rector, a Jesuit scholar, a religious library, and finally a book collector. That collector’s name would become affixed to the text and the mystery of its contents–described by one owner as a “sphynx taking up space uselessly in my library.” That last owner’s name?

Wilfrid Michael Voynich.

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He remembered, all right. Dr. Carlsson had left a garageful of books to the library, but his illness meant that the only living things that’d set foot in there for five years were rats and roaches. Half the books had to be thrown out—including some more than 200 years old—because they’d been chewed to pieces for rat nests or smeared with droppings and mold. Even so, the donation had been a treasure trove, with books dating back as far as 1697 in excellent readable condition.

“He took it out with a community user card. The card was real enough—we issued it—but the address is bogus. This street only goes up to 750 and the address is a 902.”

“Those kids at circulation dropping the ball again?”

“Don’t be so hard on them. This guy obviously went to a lot of trouble to get his hands on the thing; you can’t be prepared for that sort of thing.”

“No, I guess not.”

“So where does that leave us? ‘On Symbologie’ has walked off with this Mr. Richat.”

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Detective Stevens had seen the book among the deceased’s personal effects, and had been sufficiently intrigued to gingerly open it with gloved hands. There, in ink that had been wet enough to blot the opposite page when closed, the young woman with her head in the gas oven had written a meticulous account of how she planned to end her life and the silly, petty (in Stevens’ mind) reasons behind it.

He’d listed it as evidence at the inquest, but the volume had vanished before it could be consulted again–most likely taken by a family member worried about the poor young thing’s posthumous reputation, Stevens reasoned.

Fifteen years later, arriving at the house of someone who had dissolved a bottle full of sleeping pills in sparkling water, Detective Stevens saw the book again. The last page bore, in the dead woman’s own hand, her research on the dissolution of sedatives in carbonated waters and the personal and professional failings she felt had driven her to such.

How could he be sure it was the same volume? For one, leafing through the myriad and Bible-thin pages brought up that long-ago death by natural gas. For another, the dark leather binding and embossed writing were unmistakable.

The title? The Book of Ending Softly.

It meant sitting between Tarkovsky and Miller, and life offers few choices more dismal than that.

Now, one naturally assumes people who work in bookstores to have a natural love of learning and language, much the same as one expects this of librarians or professors. While there were numerous counterexamples littering the store (gum-popping Sherry or chain-clad Günther, for instance), Tarkovsky and Miller fit the assumption to a tee. Both were intelligent and articulate and made no secret of how delighted they were to inflict both on an unsuspecting world.

How, then, was the word ‘dismal’ to be associated with them?

Tarkovsky (not his real name, but nevertheless what everybody called him) was a pedantic formalist, delighting in the rules, structure, and grammar that suffuse written and spoken communications. He savored pointing out and bitterly mocking any perceived infractions, from split infinitives to dangling participles to unnecessary vowels (a passionate follower of Noah Webster, he disdained foreign spellings). Miller, for his part, was a linguistic freethinker, fascinated by finding convoluted and unusual ways to express himself. He verbed nouns, dangled participles, and engaged in Spoonerism as a parlor game. If a sentence couldn’t be twisted into an avant-garde puzzle for a listener to riddle out, he wasn’t interested in it.

So, needless to say, fierce battle would soon be joined.

“How long has it been gone?”

Cecelia consulted her computer. “It was scanned on the twelfth. East desk, and just before closing according to the system.”

“Who would be there on Saturday night?”

“Gertrude, I think,” said Cecelia. “I can check the schedule if you’d like.”

“No, no,” Quinn rubbed his temples. “It makes sense. She’s the most junior person the library’s got, so she gets the graveyard shift on the weekend. Low stress, get your feet wet, and all that. At least that’s what they told me when I used to work it.”

“If you want to talk to her about it-”

“No,” Quinn said. “You’d have already done that, at least if you’re half as professional as I’ve come to believe.”

Cecelia flushed a little. “Well, yes. She said that it was an average-looking man with a valid library card, and nothing seemed odd.”

“Not even the fact that it was called ‘On Symbologie’ with fancy letters and fancier spelling? Not even the fact that the book was stamped “do not circulate, do not remove from building?”

“She checked the inside cover, and said there were no stamps, and the edge was gilded; it wouldn’t hold ink.”

“I suppose he could have pasted in a fake page to cover the stamp,” Quinn mused. “Easy enough, I guess; we don’t exactly search people for glue sticks.”

“What makes you think that? That he’d use a fake page?”

“It just seems to fit in with the modus operandi. Fake library card; fake barcode, fake page. If you were determined enough, you could pull a barcode off another book or the desk when no one was looking, and stick it in. Library cards can be stolen.”

“This name, though,” Cecelia gestured at the card. “It’s not in our system. Instead of using someone else’s card, this guy made his own, and not with the sort of name I’d use if I wanted to remain inconspicuous.”

“Pierre Richat,” Quinn read. “Sounds Cajun. Should make tracking him down easy enough.”

This post is part of the August Blog Chain at Absolute Write. This month’s theme is color as a metaphor for an aspect of one’s writing.

Graham’s apartment was lit well enough from the streetlights below that Allison was able to find her way around without fumbling for a light switch. WJR was playing quietly in the dark, combining with the rain on the windows to generate a sheet of white noise.

“Nice place,” Allison muttered, glancing at the spare surroundings and the heap of dishes in the sink. Her gaze alighted on the overstuffed armchair in front of the radio. “What’s with the purple loveseat?”

“Purple’s my favorite color,” Graham said. “I’ve loved it ever since I had a little cast-iron toy truck that was that shade. Poor old girl was down to her last flecks when Mom melted her down for a scrap drive during the war.”

“Even so, purple doesn’t seem like your color,” Allison said, settling into the chair. “It wouldn’t strike most people as very manly, though it’s anyone’s guess how much raw masculinity matters to someone in your line of work.”

“Not just any purple,” replied Graham. “A very ancient and powerful hue they called ‘Tyrian purple.’ You could smell the sea-slugs they boiled in its manufacture for miles, and only emperors were allowed to wear it. Then, in time, people got to thinking it was a softer color, a pretty color, and now if you see purple at all it’s on a lady’s dress. Slumming in the fashion industry to pay the bills when once only the most powerful man in the world had the right to use it.”

“You think that’s a sad fate for a color that once represented absolutist oppression, huh? Some might say that purple’s gotten its poetic due.”

Graham shrugged. “I feel like purple and I both have a lot in common, in point of fact. Our best days are behind us, and we’re left to grind out what we can in a long, slow afterlife. Such potential, at the beginning, all wasted. So it’s livening up ladies’ dresses while I sit here with a job that can’t afford to pay me. Made into a handbag against your will or chasing down an overdue library book because you’ve got nothing better to do…I’d say there’s a kinship there, wouldn’t you?”

Graham gazed at his shoes as he spoke; Allison felt like she out to do something to lighten the mood, which the weather had already rendered depressing enough. “Being a handbag isn’t the worst thing in the world,” she said. “I know a few alligators that are dying to be just that.”

“Ostriches too,” Graham said, smiling a little. “And I could teach them a thing or two about putting your head in the sand.”

Check out this month’s other bloggers, all of whom have posted or will post an entry of their own about a colors as metaphors for aspects of writing:

Aheïla (direct link to the relevant post)
Ralph_Pines (direct link to the relevant post)
AuburnAssassin (direct link to the relevant post)
semmie (direct link to the relevant post)
Anarchicq (direct link to the relevant post)
CScottMorris (direct link to the relevant post)
PASeasholtz (direct link to the relevant post)
LadyMage (direct link to the relevant post)
DavidZahir (direct link to the relevant post)
aimeelaine (direct link to the relevant post)
FreshHell (direct link to the relevant post)
sbclark (direct link to the relevant post)
Bettedra (direct link to the relevant post)
Guardian (direct link to the relevant post)
M.R.J. Le Blanc (direct link to the relevant post)
laffarsmith (direct link to the relevant post)

“I call them ‘Foods from the Public Domain.'” Percy said. “We can trade on terms with excellent market penetration without having to pay royalties of any kind!”

With a flourish, he unveiled the placards at the head of the board room.

“Don Quixote’s Darn Quick Oaties: Nourishing microwavable whole oat cereal for the all-day energy to take on any windmill!”

“Daniel Dafoe’s Robinson Croutons: A fresh Caribbean island paradise salad, good for every day of the week, not just Friday!”

“Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peas: Heart-healthy legumes with a generous helping of spice to ward off the bite of General Winter!”

The veneer was cast aside almost instantly, and I saw Cela’s bright eyes harden to slate gray.

“You insolent pup!” she shrieked. Wreathes of white-hot fire burst from her fingertips, blazing a path across the room towards me.

My sword stuck in its scabbard as I tried to pull it free, forcing a quick duck and roll that left the bench I’d been sitting on a smoldering cinder.

“Don’t do this!” I cried.

“You had your chance to be sensible,” hissed Cela. “Now you’ll see how the Crimson Order swats down troublesome flies!” Her hands were ablaze again, directing rivulets of living flame toward me as everything flammable in the manse’s anteroom began to blacken and curl.

Finally, the stubborn blade was loosed, and I held it in front of me, cruciform-style, with the point on the ground.

“How quaint! The little boy thinks he can scratch the grown-up with his toy!”

Cela’s cackle turned to sputtering rage as she saw my blade do its work, sucking up the energies she’d unleashed as they approached. It glowed and sparked but remained cool to the touch.

“A saugendolch!” she exclaimed. “Clever, perhaps, but not clever enough!”

The support beams above began to twist and crack apart.

Lewis jerked back like a puppet on a string. “No! Please! I’ll tell you what you want to know.”

“Start singing. What do you know about the book?” I’d known from the first that he had a little bit of a songbird in him, but hadn’t been expecting Handel’s Messiah.

“He came by here the other day, looking to pawn it. Said it’d be worth a lot of scratch to the right buyer.” Lewis stared straight ahead as he talked, like a deer in the headlights of a ’32 Cadillac. The truth always was a little blinding for his type, though the fact that he was staring down the headlight of my .32 Winchester probably helped.

“And what’d you say?” I asked, though I already knew the answer. A rube like him was happy enough to buy a heater fresh from intensive recruitment for the local undertaking parlors, but didn’t have any use for a book aside from a doorstop. Lewis would’ve torn up a Gutenberg Bible to pack the pages around a 4-cylinder that leaked more than his roof.

“I told him to hit the bricks,” Lewis said. “No money in books.” Clearly, he’d never seen the hollowed-out Tolstoy in my office full of liquor futures.

“Where was he going after you told him to get on the trolley?”

“No idea.” Lewis glanced nervously at the shooting iron in my mitt like it was going to jump on the counter and do a dance. “A…are you a detective?”

I put my hat back on and pulled my collar up. “I’m a librarian,” I said. “And Mr. Salvatori’s book is very overdue.”

The book had obviously been well-used; it was worn and tattered, so much so that Kim could barely make out the title: “Collected Rhymes and Verse, 5th ed. 1919. Brylhard Faberhart, editor.”

She ran her hand over the cover, feeling the decaying cloth that held the volume together. Gingerly, Kim made her way to the attic window. Carefully, she opened the book and held it up to the light. Written in ink on the first page were the words “To Francine, with love and hope, from John. Dec. 24, 1920.”

“He gave this to her,” Kim murmured. “He gave this to her less than a week before he died.”