The Compendium of the Dead

THE THIRD PART OF THE PAPYRUS TRILOGY

When certain mysterious events involving books occur, it seems that Inspector Dejan Lukić is always the man for the job. This time, however, things are a little different. Inspector Lukić himself is at the heart of the mystery, lured by the appearance of a number of packages addressed to him in person and left at several highly unlikely locations. The contents of these packages – a set of books known as The Compendium of the Dead – a series of bizarre disappearances and a succession of strange encounters keep the baffled Inspector on his toes right up until the extraordinary dénouement, in which the finality of death itself is challenged. In this, the final part of the trilogy that began with The Last Book and The Grand Manuscript, Zoran Živković demonstrates beyond contradiction the magical and ultimately benevolent power of literature.

Editions:

  • Zavod (Serbian, 2015)
  • Cadmus Press (English, Japan, 2016, as a part of The Papyrus Trilogy)
  • Cadmus Press (English, Japan, softcover, forthcoming)

The Compendium of the Dead_Serbian The Papyrus Trilogy The Compendium of the Dead_softcover

An excerpt, translated from the Serbian by Vuk Tošić:

1.

It was just past nine as I drew up in front of the entrance to the City Cemeteries Administration Building. I had not expected to find a free space so easily. Having passed from time to time, I remembered that it was rather busy with people trying to park their cars nearby. The rush was understandable bearing in mind that on average around a hundred people died every day in the city, and that in the majority of cases funerals were scheduled here. However, it seemed too early still for the business of death.

The squat bungalow was surrounded by a narrow garden full of well-tended greenery, and separated from the street by a cast-iron fence. The old-fashioned building was likely a private villa originally. Its façade did not provide any hint as to which department was housed there. The mosaic of bright yellow and red bricks and the tall windows would have better suited the services related to entrance into the world, rather than departure from it.

As I got out of my car, it occurred to me that I had never set foot in this house, even though death was an integral part of my job as an inspector. There had not yet been any reason for me to come. Now there was a reason, although I had not quite understood what was the matter. It was also unclear to my colleague Bumbaković, who had called me from the switchboard just as I was headed towards my office at the Police Headquarters, twenty minutes earlier.

 

“You should go over to the City Cemeteries Administration, on…”

“I know where it is,” I said, interrupting him. “What’s happened?”

There was a short pause.

“I’m not sure. The woman who called was excited and mixed up. She said something about some books…that they were amiss…”

I sighed. Why did everyone on the police force immediately think of me the minute anybody mentioned books?

“If it isn’t anything more serious than something being wrong with some books, just send the nearest patrol. Let them see what exactly it’s about. The City Cemeteries Administration isn’t on my way. It might take me as much as half an hour to get there in this traffic.”

There was another pause. Bumbaković coughed before continuing.

“I would have sent a patrol already, but the woman asked for you specifically.”

“Me?” I asked, slowing down a bit. “Why?”

“I didn’t understand that either. Do you want me to play back the recording of our conversation?”

“There’s no need. I’m on my way.”

I returned my cell phone to my jacket pocket and stepped on the gas.

 

I had to push quite hard in order to budge the gate in the cast-iron fence. The short gravel path led up to three wide steps at the entrance to the former villa. The doors were tall, as were the windows. Above the upper left corner a small camera blended into the yellow brick background like a chameleon.

I reached for the door handle, but someone on the inside beat me to it. The door opened towards me half-way and the space was filled by the figure of a short, bald, stumpy man with watery eyes. He looked like he was well into his fifties. His dark blue guard’s uniform was rather wrinkled. Blinking, he began speaking rapidly before I had even had a chance to introduce myself.

“I didn’t close an eye all night, I swear. They just keep on accusing me of sleeping on the job. And that I drink. No one came in. You can check the recording.” He glanced up towards the camera. “It’s all a frame-up, so I…”

“Mr. Rabrenović!” A sharp female voice from within interrupted him.

Flinching as though caught in the act, he hastily opened the door wide, and scampered into his glass booth across from the entrance.

The broad corridor was covered with thick red and yellow carpeting. A tall woman dressed in a dark gray suit and a lighter blouse of the same color approached me from the left. She was closer to fifty than forty. Her shoulder-length dark hair, with ends curling toward her chin, framed her long sunken face. Large glasses hung on a dark cord around her neck, resting on a mere hint of a bosom. She wore almost no makeup, and had on low-heeled shoes.

She raised her eyebrows slightly as she stood in front of me.

“Inspector Lukić?” Her voice had become softer, but was still brusque.

“Dejan Lukić,” I responded with a nod, holding out my hand. “Good morning.”

Before accepting it, she sized me up me once more, as though in slight disbelief; she must have imagined police inspectors differently. Her grip was firm.

“Good morning. Hristina Leleković, Head of the City Cemeteries Administration. We have been waiting for you, Inspector. The police should arrive faster in such extraordinary cases.”

“The police are always fast, except when a specific inspector is requested. Then it inevitably takes a little time.”

“Well, let’s not go into that now. Before we proceed any further, I have to tell you that your investigation must not jeopardize the normal functioning of our service. Any interruption or obstruction is out of the question. The City Cemeteries Administration does not suspend its operations even in times of war. Other affairs can be postponed, but not burials. Nothing is more important. I hope this is clear to you.”

“Absolutely. However, I still don’t know what I’m supposed to be investigating.”

“Didn’t your colleague inform you? I explained everything to him clearly.”

“From what he conveyed to me, I only understood that something unusual had happened, involving some books. Could you please explain it to me too?”

She sighed, shook her head, and motioned me towards the stairs next to the guard’s booth. “Please follow me,” she said as she passed me by. I thought she would be taking me upstairs, but instead she headed into the basement.

The downstairs corridor was covered with the same red and yellow carpeting, but it seemed shabbier, perhaps because of the slightly weaker lighting. We headed right. Large black and white photos of cemeteries hung on the walls between the office doors. The inscriptions on the plates beneath the black frames were too small to read in passing.

The administrator stopped in front of the last door on the left. Before knocking, she glanced past me down the corridor. As though waiting right inside the door, someone instantly unlocked and opened it.

A thin middle-aged man, slightly hunchbacked, moved aside to let us enter, then closed and locked the door again. He wore a dark suit and vest with a gray striped tie. He had a high forehead, thick sideburns and glasses with round metal frames. Without saying a word, he walked to the large desk in the middle of the room and remained standing next to the chair.

I looked around the room. Even though it was not small, it seemed cramped because the walls were covered with bookcases filled with large volumes of equal height and thickness. They were almost the identical dark gray color as the administrator’s suit. Walking up the gravel path I had noticed barred basement windows along the entire width of the building. They were not visible here, which meant that the bookcases covered them. Someone considered storing books to be more important than daylight. The only lighting in the room was provided by a square ceiling light.

A large volume lay open on the desk, and alongside it a bundle of documents. In front of the book was something that I hadn’t seen in a long time—an inkwell. The bottle stood on a black metal stand with arched supports, the pen shaft sticking out. A round vase with a single yellow flower had been placed behind the writing set.

The administrator moved away from the door a little and gestured vaguely to the bookcases.

“This is perhaps the most important office in our Administration. The Archive. And this is precisely where someone chose to harm us.”

“Are the archives still kept the old-fashioned way?” I asked. “I thought that all departments had gone digital long ago.”

“This one has too, of course. Modernization cannot be avoided, although our experiences with it have been rather traumatic. On two occasions we almost lost our entire database. Computers might speed things up, but they are not at all as reliable as is generally believed. Can you imagine what a disaster it would be if we were to lose what is kept here?”

She looked at me questioningly, as though expecting me to answer, but as I did not say anything, she continued.

“We keep the only trace that most people even existed—information on where and when they were buried. Everything else has been forgotten, lost. As though they

had never even lived. We cannot surrender such a treasure to the imperfections of digital storage alone. That is why, in addition to computer archiving, we have also resorted to the old-fashioned system. We keep records of burials as has been done since ancient times. Here it cannot happen that someone mistakenly or intentionally presses a few keys on the keyboard—and destroys everything. The dead are safe this way.”

“It seems that in fact they are not. Why else would you have called the police? What happened?”

The administrator looked briefly at the clerk before answering. Her voice became more subdued.

“Last night someone broke in here and scoured through the books. We discovered it this morning.”

“Scoured?”

“Moved them. As you will see, the books are arranged neatly. By number. In the first bookcase,” she pointed at the first bookcase on the wall across from the door, “we discovered as many as seven volumes in the wrong place.”

I walked up to the bookcase and looked it over from top to bottom. There were twelve books in each of the five rows. The only inscription on the spines was a gold-embossed Arabic numeral at the bottom. The volumes were moved around in all the rows, at first glance—randomly. I tried to open the glass doors, but they were locked.

“Who has the keys to this room and the bookcases?” I asked.

“Only Mr. Trpimirović, the archivist.” She turned her head toward the clerk for a moment. “No one else has access here.”

“Is there a spare key? With the guard, for example?”

“There are no spares. And even if there were—the guard would certainly not have them.” She just waved me away, without adding anything, as though everything was clear.

“These are not exactly locks used to protect treasures,” I said, pointing at the door and the first bookcase. “Anyone with any skill at all could open them even without a key.”

“They were quite all right until now. Nothing like this has ever happened before. At least, not in the twelve and a half years that I have been administrator.” She sighed. “All right, we’ll change them. We’ll install better ones. We cannot allow this to happen again.”

“You should probably upgrade this old-fashioned archive a bit. Install video surveillance. Cameras would be more useful here than in front of the entrance. Had you had them, we would have identified instantly the prankster who decided to play a joke on you.”

“Prankster?” she said, the pitch of her voice rising. “This is no prank. It must be taken quite seriously…”

“As far as I can see, no harm has been done. Nothing was stolen or destroyed. Several volumes were just moved. Return them to their places—and everything will be as it was. There is no work here for the police.”

“I insist that you conduct an investigation. You have to determine who did this.”

Now I sighed. First she had made me come over in the worst morning rush-hour traffic, and now she was insisting that I carry out an investigation into someone’s juvenile behavior. That is not how you treat a police inspector, no matter how important all this seemed to her.

I walked up to the desk, slightly raised the volume that lay open and read the number on the spine: 3584.

“Perhaps you wouldn’t like what an investigation could uncover.”

“What do you mean?”

“You see, in investigations we rely on one rule, which has almost no exceptions: the simplest solution is the most likely one. We can imagine that behind all this is someone from the outside, who crept into the building in the dead of night, past the sleeping or intoxicated guard, while remaining invisible to the video surveillance; or that it was someone on the inside who is adept at burglary. However, why should we resort to such complex explanations when we have at our disposal a significantly simper one?”

“A simpler one?” she repeated questioningly.

“Yes. There is someone who could very easily pull this off without any nighttime sneaking around and breaking in; someone who could have unlocked both the door and the bookcase without any difficulty, because he is the only one who has the keys to them.”

It took her several moments to understand who I was talking about. She opened her mouth to protest, but I beat her to the punch by turning to the archivist.

“Mr. Trpimirović, you discovered that the books had been moved, right?”

“Yes,” he answered evenly.

“How did that happen? What led you to pay attention precisely to the first bookcase? The volume that you are working on was not in it. Judging by the number, it is from a completely different part of the room. And if you were not standing in front of the bookcase and staring right at it, you could not have noticed that the books had been rearranged.”

For a moment we fell into silence. The administrator’s gaze slipped from me to the archivist. His face remained expressionless. He cleared his throat before finally speaking.

“I would like to ask you something, Inspector Lukić.”

“How do you know my name? The administrator did not introduce me.”

“No, she didn’t. But she insisted that you come in particular. And since we waited for a long time for the police to arrive, then it had to be you. What do you think, why did she ask specifically for you?”

I shrugged. “I have no idea. I was leaving that question for the end. I am very interested in why out of all the inspectors she chose me.”

“You will get your answer right away.”

He leaned over, opened a drawer on the left side of the desk and took out a large yellow envelope. It contained something firm, with a regular shape. He approached the first bookcase, removed a small bunch of keys from his jacket pocket, searched through them briefly, set one aside, and unlocked the glass door. He placed the envelope upright in front of the books in the middle row, then closed the door, without locking it. He left the key in the lock.

“This is how I found it when I came in at eight o’clock. Is it conspicuous enough to attract your attention?”

The yellow rectangle stood out prominently on the dark gray background. One could not overlook it if one’s gaze were to rest there for even a brief moment.

“What is it?” I asked, realizing that same instant what a stupid question it was.

A smile passed across the archivist’s lips.

“An envelope,” he answered matter-of-factly, just as my question merited. He opened the bookcase again and took it out; he then closed and locked the door, and returned the bunch of keys to his pocket. He came up to me and handed me the envelope. “It is addressed to you. That is why we asked for you specifically.”

I hesitated a little before accepting it. I turned it right-side up and was presented with four words written across the middle in red pencil “For Inspector Dejan Lukić.” I didn’t recognize the handwriting.

My eyes moved from the administrator to the archivist. Then I slowly removed the two brass clips from one end, spread out the stuck edges, and peered into the envelope.