What, will you thus oppose me, luckless stars...
That I may vanish o'er the earth in air,
And leave no memory that e'er I was?
No, I will live...
-- BARABAS, in Marlowe's The Jew of Malta
SOUTHWARK, ENGLAND -- DUSK, MAY 1593
His rendezvous was set for nightfall and the sun was sinking quickly. The young man had no time to spare. But as he neared London Bridge, the familiar sounds along that particular stretch of the Thames were hard to resist. His pace slowed. His ears perked up. The clamor of the bear-baiting arena beckoned -- a chained bear howling as canine jaws tore at its flesh, frenzied dogs shrieking with every swipe of the bear's claws, groundlings hollering out bets and cheering wildly.
Halting midstride, with one tall black boot hovering a few inches above the ground, he tested his resolve. It failed.
He veered off the riverside path and headed toward the arena. En route, a swath of bold colors drew his attention -- the canopy of an unfamiliar booth. Curious, he approached. Long scarlet tresses came into view, then the gnarled face of an old woman, smiling with red-stained lips that matched her shiny wig. At first she appeared to be selling decks of playing cards, but after looking him over, she lifted a small sign advertising her forbidden trade: Grizel's Tarot. With his rakish clothing and brown hair hanging loose, it was clear he was no prim city official.
Slapping a few pennies on her table, the young man asked, "Should I put my money on the bear?"
"You would rather hear the bear's fortune than your own?"
He looked away for a moment, as if thoughtful, then turned back with a mischievous smile. "Yes."
"It would be more worth your while to attend to yourself."
"Well, that is a subject I'm fond of." He took a seat.
She laid her battered cards out slowly, several ill-fitting rings sliding along her shriveled fingers. When the tenth card had been carefully placed facedown upon the table, the woman looked up.
"May we skip to the end? I haven't much time."
"Why don't you let Grizel be the judge of that? First, I must know who you are." Near her left hand, five cards were arranged in the shape of a Celtic cross. She picked up the central card. "Your soul." Turning it over, she gazed reverently at the faded image of a man in a red cloak and cap. "The Magician. Manipulator of the natural world...loves tricks and illusions. Has a powerful imagination. A master of language, he is most nimble with words."
Raising a gray brow at his inarticulate response, she double-checked the card. With a shrug, she set it down, then selected the bottommost card of the cross. "The card of the present moment. Oh, my, the Page of Swords. You have a passionate mind, don't you, my friend? Always searching, seeking to uncover the hidden truth. Indeed, you begin such a quest today."
The young man leaned forward with interest. "Sweet lady, you're good."
Flattered, she began flipping over the cards that formed the remainder of the cross. "The Ten of Coins -- in reverse. You like gambling. And risk, grave risk. Toeing the edge of a precipice."
"Keeps life interesting, and my pockets full."
"Outside influences...let me see. The Three of Swords -- a dangerous triangle, a fierce conflict. Two powerful forces threaten you." Looking up, she noticed that his expression remained calm. "You'd best take heed," she declared sternly. "Danger discovered in this position is real, but it can be survived."
"Threats, conflicts...such things are everyday occurrences." He waved his hand dismissively. "If you please, my last card?"
Grumpily she turned to the second formation of cards on her table: a column five cards high. Lifting the top one, she peered at the image for a moment, hesitated, then showed it to him -- a hand-painted skeleton, skull on the ground, toe bones in the air. "How could this be? Upside down, the Death card signifies an impending brush with danger, but one that will be survived. Here, in the afterlife position, it seems to mean you will live after your death..."
Puzzled, she tilted her head and studied his face.
"Does seem odd, I admit," he said. "Though some have called my looks otherworldly, perhaps -- "
She scowled, then broke into a toothless grin. "Ah, of course. I forgot who you are, Magician. Now I understand. It is your magic that is to survive. Long after you take your last breath."
The young man bowed his head bashfully. Though Grizel didn't know it, she was talking to London's most popular playmaker, a writer whose deft pen had worked magic upon the theatrical stage. He marveled at her insight. Then his jaw muscle twitched. A pox on it! The cursed thought had wormed its way back into his head -- the very one he had been chasing away for months. Would he make such magic again? Of course he would. When the time was right, he told himself.
Looking back up, he flashed his mischievous smile once more. "My lady, could you tell me just one thing I do not yet know?"
Grizel tried to frown, but the twinkle in his eye was contagious. Lifting the second highest card in the column on her right, she glanced at it, then slammed it down as if it burned her fingertips.
"What is it?"
Sadly she placed a hand over his. "Barring angelic intervention, you'll not live to see the next moon."
Vaguely startled, he slid his right hand into the pocket of his close-fitting silk doublet. "There's nothing like a second opinion. Particularly when the first suggests your end is nigh. Do not mistake me, you've been a delight, but there's another lady I always consult when it comes to matters of fate." He produced a silver coin. "If it's her face that greets me, I've nothing to worry about."
He tossed the coin up in the air. Glinting now and again, it flipped over a few times before falling into his left palm, landing face up. "Ah, not to worry, Grizel. The queen here says all will be well. And as her dutiful subject, I am honor-bound to take her word over yours."
With a blown kiss and a smile, the young man left the Tarot booth and hurried once more on his way to London Bridge. Tilting his coin to catch the setting sun's orange glow, he looked closely at the metallic image of Queen Elizabeth's face. He winked at her, and as always, she winked back; he'd scratched off a fragment of the silver over her left eye, revealing just a speck of the darker metal beneath. The trick coin, which had more silver plate on one side than the other, was a counterfeit English shilling he'd fashioned with an associate while on a clandestine mission in the Netherlands the previous year. The fates are fickle. Better to manufacture your luck, than hope for it.
Luck of any kind was a precious commodity to him. After all, he was not just a writer in search of his muse. Young Christopher Marlowe was a spy in the queen's secret service...a spy with no idea that the old crone was right.
Copyright © 2004 by Leslie Silbert
In sixteenth-century London, Marlowe embarks on his final intelligence assignment, hoping to find his missing muse, as well as the culprits behind a high-stakes smuggling scheme.
In present-day New York, grad student turned private eye Kate Morgan is called in on an urgent matter. One of her firm's top clients, a London-based financier, has chanced upon a mysterious manuscript that had been buried for centuries -- one that someone, somewhere is desperate to steal. What secret lurks in those yellowed, ciphered pages? And how, so many years later, could it drive someone to kill?
As Kate sets off for England, she receives a second assignment. An enigmatic art dealer has made an eleven-million-dollar purchase from an Iranian intelligence officer. Is it a black-market antiquities deal, or something far more sinister? Like Marlowe, Kate moonlights as a spy -- her P.I. firm doubles as an off-the-books U.S. intelligence unit -- and she is soon caught like a pawn in a deadly international game. As The Intelligencer's interlocking narratives race toward a stunning collision, and Kate closes in on the truth behind Marlowe's sudden death, it becomes clear that she may have sealed a similar fate for herself.
Propelling us from the shadows of the sixteenth-century underworld to the glitter of Queen Elizabeth's court, from the dark corridors of a clandestine American op-center to the cliffs of Capri, The Intelligencer is at once a murder mystery, a tale of poetic inspiration, and a richly detailed foray into parallel worlds of espionage and political intrigue separated by centuries.
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Reading Group Guide
1) The action in this novel moves rapidly between Elizabethan England and modern times, shifting centuries with each chapter. How did this atypical structure affect your reading of the story? What does the juxtaposition of two time periods offer that novels confined to one period do not?
2) Christopher Marlowe is presented as a complex man: poet, spy, patriot, friend, and enemy. And while he doesn't follow many rules, his ultimate commitment to doing what he thinks is right never wavers. This becomes clear in chapter six: "It was a delicate balance to maintain-satisfying his handlers while operating according to his own set of principles-but somehow, he was managing it." What do you think of this policy? Given that Marlowe knows his delicate balancing act is "doomed to an unpleasant end," why does he persist? Would you?
3) Kate admits that she has always admired "the Cat," the burglar who initially tried to steal the manuscript. The Cat was described as a modern-day Robin Hood, stealing from the rich and giving the proceeds to charity. Do you think Kate would ever change teams and become a thief herself? She seems to relish the thrill of thwarting the bad guys; do you see her getting involved in other, perhaps not so legal, work? Do the connections between her character and the character of Marlowe help to answer this question?
4) Talk about the way that human nature is portrayed in this novel. Does see more