The Mundane Adventures of Margaret Elisabeth du Pont, PhD, Freelance Genealogist
More curious and more curious still… I page through the most recent public census, fully aware that the information I am searching for would not be found within; lists of names, addresses, occupations and other seemingly unhelpful sundry personal data scrolled up the screen at a speed that most would find if not impossible then at least difficult to read. The rain rattling on the window pane, though growing increasingly more insistent, was failing to divert me. Like a seasoned concert pianist sight reading a musical score, years of practice allows me to speed-scan the document quicker than any bespoke search-engine; my own internal mental algorithms processing the stream of data, picking out relevant from irrelevant facts and more importantly, gaps in those publically declared details. The gaps are the clues; pieces of missing information either suppressed or withheld, clues that speak volumes to the trained eye. As with my earlier conversation with Mallow, it isn’t what is said that is of most interest to me, but of what isn’t said and Mallow is the past master of speaking volumes in an unvoiced pause. That rakish smile of his and those slate-grey eyes that would cause most women to swoon, every wrinkle and laughter-line on that not unattractive face wordlessly passing secret messages that he knows too well that I can read like a book.
Since our first encounter he has called me ‘Magpie’ and to begin with that overfamiliarity was disconcerting, that he should adopt an affectionate pet-name for me without any physical affection passing between us had shaken my otherwise professional demeanour. Whether this was a deliberate ploy on his part to unnerve me or to engender a friendlier working relationship was uncertain... Perhaps it was an indication of a different, more intimate intent, but over the years that casual familiarity had never extended beyond the four walls of this office. Possibly it was just his way – punning my name with my expertise for collecting bright, shiny jewels of data. I have long since given up hope of persuading him to use my preferred name so alas I have resigned myself that ‘Magpie’ is better than ‘Maggie’ or Margaret. I so detest my given first name that I seldom use it and even then only on official forms that require it, to everyone else I am Elisabeth and to a select few the diminutive ‘Liz’ or, should I so choose, the more homely ‘Lizbeth’.
To the casual observer, and not so casual eaves-dropper, our conversation would have appeared as a playful exchange between a woman and her client in which I too played my part, responding to the flattering signals with coy and teasing looks, glossing my lips with the tip of my tongue, coquettishly stroking a loose strand of hair from my face like a love-struck teenager. Each nuance of gesture a key to decipher the innocuous yet cryptic dialogue that passed between us. Not that I am immune to his probing flirtatious charms, for some of that controlled and measured response wasn’t as deliberate as I would have preferred it to be, professional detachment is fine in theory but provides little enjoyment in practice when faced with such unbridled charisma. The code was trivial – some of what people say is truthful and some of it a fabrication and often we can tell when someone is lying by closely observing the tell-tale micro-expressions that betrays them. Not so with Mallow, whose skilful control of his facial expressions can have you believe a lie and doubt an indisputable truth. The trick to unravelling his code is simply to be observant of the subtle glint in his eye or the twitch in the corner of his mouth during the pauses. The unspoken message was clear to read, Mallow was not as interested in finding the woman as he was in discovering who had hired him, and more importantly, why this woman was so difficult to find.
Difficult to find – that simple phrase has become the albatross hanging heavily around my neck, at times dragging me down into a pit of despondency and the mire of abject failure, yet it also drives me on, forcing me to push and dig, delving deeper into the genealogical records, the published archives and the web of data in the ether. That single-minded determination has made me a well-regarded expert in my profession who can attract the custom of people like Mallow and the lucrative clients that employ them without the need for expensive self-promotion. It also permits me to avoid the tiresome nausea of creating florid but ultimately fruitless family-trees for ever hopeful gold-diggers bent on proving that they are the sole-surviving descendants (and hence dependants) of some ancient nobility of royal heritage. Yet it has failed to trace the routes and roots of my own lineage – all my mother left me was my name and a well-worn deck of Tarot cards - and that failure continues to gnaw away at me. As any rebellious teenager would, I forsook the path of mysticism and Wicca-craft that my mother trod and immersed myself in the tangible world of science and reality; while she was driven by a deep-seated desire to know the unknowable future I set my sights on the seemingly reachable aim of knowing the past, even when that past appeared to move just beyond my grasp with each move I made towards it.
‘The past!’ She had shouted at me, casting her eyes to the heavens in exasperation when I told her of my plan to go to university to study Ancient History, ‘You can’t change the past Margret Elisabeth du Pont.’ She always used my full name when she was angry with me. I stood my ground, just as stubborn as she but fuelled with raging teenage hormones and the pent-up frustration of claustrophobia from living within her fantasy world of faeries and angels, tarot cards and magic incantations, and from the constricting circle of her weird friends and acquaintances, many of whom would congregate in our living room on every pagan feast night. While I loved and adored her more than words can say, we were polar opposites, forever pulling each other apart and constantly bickering and fighting.
‘And you cannot change the future Mother!’ I shouted back, balling my fists while fighting the desire to stamp my foot in petulant rage. I ran from the room and locked myself in my bedroom, a haven of encyclopaedias, popular science books and a sizable collection of history books and historical novels, my sanctuary. The room and its contents my mother simply did not understand, not that she ever tried - the past to her was a closed book and, it has to be said, so was the present and the modern world it contained, to her they were a completely befuddling mystery. If she could not see it in the stars or in the turn of a gaudily coloured a paste card it was of no interest to her. Least understood by her was my most prized of all amid this trove of factual knowledge, my laptop computer with its fibre-optic lifeline to the real world beyond the four walls of my room, her only concession to technology and then only because it was a necessity for my home-schooling, drew me towards it in a bid for knowledge, understanding, and more importantly escapism. I would spend hours poring over the bottomless depth of information that the laptop accessed, teaching myself all the discoveries that Mother would dismiss with a contemptuous flick of her hand.
‘There are things in this world you cannot begin to understand’, she had confided with me one dark evening so long ago, ‘and there are worlds you can only imagine. Gods and angels walk among us, unseen and unobserved, guiding fate and manipulating destiny. We must be watchful and ever vigilant.’ She was passioned and earnest, her eyes imploring me to understand, to see the world as she sees it.
‘Mother,’ I chided, ‘this is the twenty first century and those things are myth and fable, stories to scare children and dupe the gullible.’ She winced as I said that, her face showing anger and hurt, my words were more than just a challenge to her beliefs, they were a threat to our livelihood. Those gullible dupes bought her self-published pamphlets and attended her covens and séances, they paid for our home, our food and put clothes on our backs, and for that I resented and despised them. I also begrudged having to play my part in the charade, the dutiful daughter and the reluctant acolyte. As my adolescence bloomed so did my desire for independence and the need to have beliefs of my own. A gulf had opened up between us and I strove to push it wider with logic and reason for I had never experienced any of the mystical things she spoke of. If angels exist then I had never met one, if gods guided the hand of man then they were doing a damn poor job of it, science was my magic and her magick was a fantasy.
The bridge that was our family name crumbled and fell.
During the final year of my master’s degree she passed away. She never visited me while I was away and my visits home grew more infrequent as time passed as each became more stressful and more strained. I miss her beyond words, I wear the silver pentagram she had given me for my fourteenth birthday concealed beneath my clothes, the only tangible connection I have with her and my childhood.
She would never talk of her life before I was born, never mentioned grandparents or any other relatives we may have had – there were no photographs or family documents and I never did find birth certificates, neither hers’ nor mine, among the clutter of belongings in the family home. It was as if she had arrived on this planet fully grown and fully matured, without a past or a history to support her. Nor was there mention or trace of a husband or a lover, or any other male who I could call father, or dad or euphemistically, ‘uncle’. For a while we lived with a woman who I would call ‘aunt’ though we were not related, I suspect now that she was my mother’s lover but was too young to know of such things, they were companions with all the devotion that implied. Then one day when I was five years old Aunt Maud was gone, the following day we went to an ancient stone church to sing songs that no one knew the words to and had to read them from books. In later life I learnt that it was a funeral service, the first of only two that I have ever attended.
I know I had an older adopted brother but do not remember much about him, his Asian features and darker skin contrasted with our own pale complexions and shock of unmanageable flame-red hair. He was already a sullen youth by the time I was born, strange and withdrawn he didn’t say very much and seldom played with me. As he grew older he became even more distant and uncommunicative, he moved out when I was still very young and I have not seen him since though I many times I have tried to find him. As a child I thought he was broken, like one of the discarded dolls that lay at the bottom of the toy box, and as I grew older I came to realise that was probably how my mother had found him and why she had taken him into our home and family and under her protective wing, but her magik spells and herbal teas could not fix whatever was troubling him. When I’d asked her where he had gone, she sighed a deep sigh of sadness and simply answered with ‘Nepal’ and would say no more.
It seemed that my family tree had a single root, a single branch and a single bud – I did not need academic degrees or a doctorate in genealogy to draw it, just a pen and a ruler.
Mallow himself is a another puzzle that for all my skills and training I have been unable to solve – a human matryoshka doll, every time I peel away one layer of that carefully constructed exterior it only reveals another identical layer beneath. As with all my clients, before I trace the genealogy they are requesting I run a brief background on the client themselves. [Purely as insurance of course, or rather reassurance that the information I provide does not cause unnecessary harm to either party… or myself come to that]. And long ago that initial cursory check on Mallow unearthed nothing to cause concern, which was strange in itself for a man in his profession. So with each visit and each new case he brings me I delve deeper than I normally would and disappointedly find even more “nothing”. That alone should raise enough alarm bells to have me backing cautiously away from his business as fast as I can, yet the intrigue fascinated me more, and his undeniable charms are of course hard to resist. We worked the same game from different directions, he searches the here and now while I search the past and since both of us are employed to find people it is inevitable that we would investigate each other beforehand. The only surprise I had mined from the records was he had a wife called Abbie… why does this disappoint me so?… less surprising was she was the babushka to his matryoshka. Layers within layers, neatly arranged and concealing an infinity of layers within. Each backward step through history revealed each of them frozen in time, unchanged and unchanging, and that wasn’t possible. Somehow it was as if they had inserted themselves into a myriad of official, public and private databases, some of them dating back several decades and some of those even predating electronic data processing. My mind span at the enormity of what that entailed and reeled at the gravity of what that meant. It was a dizzying puzzle indeed and a captivating one for someone of my calling.
This was in stark contrast to the client who had been waiting in the outer-office. “Difficult to find” did not enter into it for I barely needed to touch the keyboard to discover that Franklin Patrick Nesmith the Third (written as ‘III’ on his card) was not who he claimed to be.
‘That’s odd.’ Mallow had observed during our meeting, looking past me to the window behind. I twisted awkwardly in my seat to see the parking enforcement officer ticket the sleek black executive car parked in the street opposite. I turned back to Mallow and raised a quizzical brow. Mallow grinned in self-congratulatory satisfaction, ‘Your next client entered your offices only a few minutes ago, yet his car has exceeded the permitted parking period. Evidently he has been watching and waiting far longer than just a few minutes.’ Mallow exuded an uncharacteristic and frankly disagreeable smugness with his deductions. I instantly translated that as another masked signal, my next client was clearly someone that he thought both of us would have little time or liking for. Mallow had measured the man and found him lacking.
‘Waiting for you?’ I asked. Mallow shrugged, thought for a moment and then shook his head. Anomaly noted we returned back to our conversation, but there was no question that Mallow had filed away the newfound information for later use, just as I had done. As he left my office I saw him nod to the client waiting in my anteroom, no doubt to confirm his snap assessment with another single glance.
For me Nesmith was also far from a puzzle, an American with a blatantly faked identity that displayed the typical insouciant arrogance of his country’s secret services, an arrogance that carried over into his personality. It could be viewed as insulting that they put such little effort in concealing themselves, but that too is measured complacency and contrived subterfuge. I didn’t need to know which branch I was dealing with for they were all the same to me, a three letter mnemonic with the last one being “A for Agency”. Whether CIA, NSA, DIA, DEA or NHA it mattered not, I dislike working with them but they pay well and I have bills to settle and a lifestyle to maintain. Not for the first time Mallow’s instinctive knack for instant character profiling was proven to be accurate, I did not like Nesmith and that was not entirely due to his chosen profession. The name of the person he had asked me to trace was different to the two Mallow had given me but after the short, almost perfunctory interview was concluded and he had left my office, it didn’t take a data-mining genius to quickly confirm my suspicion they were all the same person. Fenyw O’Taranau … woman of thunder in a Brittonic language. Oh great… my heart sank. Perhaps Mallow would pay me for that extra piece of information, but somehow I suspect he already knows.
I stabbing at the keyboard and the scrolling text froze on the screen as the expected gap in the data stream caught my eye and triggered the reflex response. More curious and more curious still… I study the data more closely and need one more piece of missing information to complete the picture. I unlock and open the top drawer in my desk and pull out what to all appearances looked a bulky 1980s personal organiser and on the outside at least that is what it once was; its internals long since having been replaced by custom hardware of my own design – a secure database that was completely isolated from the outside world, detached from the prying spybots of the world wide web and the sticky finger-tips of the keyboard data-burglars and freedom of information rebels. The dull grey screen snaps into life as I key-in my access code and wipe my finger over the concealed biometric scanner. Flipping through the indexes and directories I collate more gaps in the data stream. Not quite the confirmation I am looking for, but a damn fine approximation. One pair of names stands out by their omission, glaringly so… Fitzgrabbit and Peabody.
Some say that Messrs Fitzgrabbit and Peabody were the most incompetent investigators in the field of missing persons, and an in-depth review of their extensive casebook revealed that their success rate was precisely zero – of over 400 missing persons cases they had investigated not one single person was ever found. Moreover, trace of (and reference to) those missing persons within their files was extremely scant; basic information that even an amateur genealogist could find with ease on even the most hard to find missing person was conspicuous by its absence. What made these cases most perplexing was that archivists, genealogists and private investigators, neither amateur nor professional, could find any information on any of the names previously investigated by them anywhere in the official records. The apparently unsolvable mystery was that private investigators of their remarkable inability should not have remained in employment for very long, yet their casebook was one of the largest in the profession. Equally as enigmatic was that no one had ever seen sight or sound of either of them and no one knew where there offices were or even which city they were located in. Their casebook was discovered filed away in the annals of the Athenaeum Archive and was for many years thought to be a work of pure fiction, though no one could explain why such a volume would exist in the Archive or where it had originally come from. It was Mallow who first suggested to me that there was more to their apparent ineptitude than met the eye.
‘I suspect that they are Shepherds, or Conductors to be more accurate.’ Mallow had said one evening as we tried to locate a misfit youth of some seventeen years whose name had appeared in one of the Fitzgrabbit and Peabody files. Rather than second-guess what he was alluding to, I let him continue, ‘Back in mid-19th century America a network of safe houses were connected by secret routes to allow escaped slaves passage to Canada that was known as the Underground Railroad. What if a similar network exists today to aid people who don’t want to be found?’
‘Why would so many people not want to be found?’ I had asked, quickly assessing the magnitude of what Mallow had implied. He shrugged and stuck out his bottom lip. Such a pantomime gesture was uncharacteristic for Mallow and far from subtle. ‘The people here,’ I continued, waiving towards the Fitzgrabbit and Peabody indexes in an equally overdramatic gesticulation, ‘are not slaves, nor are they fugitives, dissidents or criminals. They’re just ordinary people, just normal nobodies.’ Mallow smiled and leant forward.
Of course. Mallow, you sneaky bastard… What is normal? I have the feeling Mallow had been systematically spoon-feeding me morsels of data rather than employing me to obtain them for him. I was also forming the notion that Fitzgrabbit and Peabody were not two real people at all, or even a secretive network operating under a guise. When each of the billions of people on this planet have their own personal idiosyncrasies that marks them as being individual and different then someone who blends in to the background of normality is, by inference, not normal; when idiosyncrasy becomes synchronicity then perhaps there was a band of pipers who call the tune, but maybe not. What if Fitzgrabbit and Peabody’s caseload of missing persons where not 400 lost souls this possibly fictitious duo had failed to locate, but 400 individuals had managed to successfully lose themselves in the background static of plain-sight?
I reach for the antiquated Rolodex, cross-referencing the index number with the speed dial on my telephone address book. The number rings for two complete rings before being curtly answered.
‘Athenaeum Library Archives, Archivist Bartholomew speaking, how may I be of service?’ His voice is as crisp and precise as an automated recording, the epitome of organizational efficiency.
‘Freddie sweetie, it’s Lizbeth.’ I purr down the ‘phone, I too knew how to turn on the charm and had no qualms in using it. Business is business after all is said and done.