It being a list of names, locations, and symbols of a clearly scandalous nature, found in a hotel at the turn of the century, when the rooms and occupants were emptied out by the police for unholy acts. They sought the owner of the book for questioning, but no one could say who was staying in that particular room. It was believed that they had made a hasty, and successful, exit out the window when the raid occurred.
A curious detective brought the book home, meaning to research the names of the women listed there. Other cases soon caught his attention, and he promptly forgot the book existed at all. It was eventually found in his study by his bookish daughter. Both embarrassed and fascinated by the symbols marked next to each name, for which there was a key at the back of the book which indicated that every symbol represented one of a dozen perverse, unspeakable acts, the rather bold young woman searched the names and locations until she found one within traveling distance of her home. Thus she set out to find the woman listed at that location, and ultimately to find the owner of the little black book.
When she reached the establishment in question, she thought at first that she'd gotten it wrong, for she met there a very old woman who informed the girl that she lived alone. The detective's daughter pulled out the book to double-check the information, finding that she was at the correct address. The old woman's eyes widened at the sight of the book.
"You know it?" the girl asked.
The woman's face grew flush. "I remember it like yesterday."
"You know the owner?" the girl dared.
"You're too young to hear the answer to that," the woman replied.
But it didn't take the stubborn youth long to draw the story out of the old woman, who claimed that she had encountered the owner of the book when she was quite young, barely of the age to be married. The girl did not quite believe her, as she had already decided in her own mind that the book's owner must be quite young and handsome (devilishly so), but she chose to be polite and listen to the story anyway.
Each of the symbols marked next to the old woman's name -- or rather, each of the acts they represented, came into play in the course of the story. By the end of it, the detective's daughter was thoroughly delighted, and properly appalled, by what the old woman claimed to have done in dark alleys and at secret rendezvous in the park the week before her wedding. The man she claimed to have been so dramatically deflowered by was most definitely the handsome rascal type, but the woman's sketchy description of a figure she mostly encountered in the dark left her listener wanting more.
Though the man in the story must have been dead and buried by now, as he was older than the elderly lady who was herself so close to the grave, the young woman persisted in her efforts to find the owner of the little black book. She began to weave an explanation in her head which would allow the owner to be no more than ten years her elder -- perhaps he'd inherited the book from his father and continued to jot notes in it, or if that was too bizarre a thought, perhaps it had been passed down from a playboy uncle to his restless nephew. No matter, he had to be young and that was that.
She could not pursue the next closest location without taking a trip to the nearest city. As she had a birthday coming up, she begged her father to take her to the city for the day as a present so that she could browse bookstores and spend time reading at the library. Her father consented, dropping her off at the first in a row of bookshops and then heading out to spend the day visiting friends of his.
The girl took to the street at once, seeking out the narrow alley with the address in the book. There was only one occupant at that address who bore the name listed by the address; she was a girl of only eleven years old. The determined young lady asked if the little girl's mother had the same name. It turned out that no one else in the family did, and that the family had lived in that place for generations. Not knowing what else to do, she then showed the little girl the book and asked if it seemed familiar. The child's reaction was one of furtive surprise. She glanced round quickly for her mother, and seeing her nowhere near, begged the visitor to bend down so she could whisper in her ear. "Was a man," she said, "come by here to rent a room and ask me, should I like to be in a book and I say no, Mama says I already has a head full of stories. He laughs and says to me, 'Your Mama is correct, and I have firsthand knowledge that someday those stories will make an adventuress out of you. Let nothing your Mama says deter you from such adventures and you shall meet me again, on the day that I last saw you.' He then says in a very un-gentlemanlike voice, 'That day is one of my most delectable memories.' The very next morning, he was off again, but he left me a penny with which to buy any book I wanted. Don't tell Mama as I said so, but..." She blushed. "...if you know him, tell him I been waiting for that day."
Uncertain of what to make of the child's strange tale—possibly nothing more than mere fancy—the detective's daughter turned to the next address in the book, which was on the other side of the city. She took a fine cab, spending half the money she'd saved for her birthday on the trip. When she disembarked, she found herself in an extravagant neighborhood with gated houses and beautiful lawns. She made her way to a large estate barred by an impressively tall iron gate. A boy was playing on the other side of it. She called him to her and asked if anyone by the name in her book lived there.
"My sister," he replied.
The detective's daughter sighed, thinking she was about to run into another child, a thought that greatly disturbed her. "How old is your sister?"
"Twenty," the boy replied, and then returned to the game he'd been playing. "Mother says she's an old maid because no one wants to marry her."
With a tremendous sense of relief, the young woman sat down under the shade of a tree and waited for a woman of twenty to either enter or leave the stately home. Not ten minutes later, a carriage pulled up with just such a young woman in it. The girl ran up to the window and waved the book. "Please excuse me," she said politely, "but I'm looking for the owner of this book, which was...let's say it was left in my father's care."
The woman's eyes widened. She invited the girl into the carriage and then instructed her driver to take them to a discreet cafe for tea. Once they were properly settled in a corner where no one would overhear or notice them, the young woman said wistfully, "This is where he met me every day."
Her companion begged for a description of the man.
And so the woman gave her a description, and much more besides, at first shy and hesitant about sharing her story, but eventually becoming so eager to relive the passionate embraces she had experienced that she began to go into minute detail. Her audience of one listened with rapt attention.
When she finished, she set down her tea cup and gathered her wrap.
"But what happened to him?" the detective's daughter asked, feeling as if there had been no proper end -- only an abrupt disappearance -- to their romance.
The woman shook her head. "I only wish I knew." Her shoulders became heavier, her head a little bent and the girl walked her out to the carriage. When they arrived at the house, the woman kindly offered, "If there is somewhere my driver can take you, he shall do so. Thank you for listening to the foolish memories of someone no one cares to notice anymore."
And thus they parted, the girl letting the sadness of a lonely woman's life weigh on her as the carriage whisked her back to the bookstore.
By the end of the day, she had spent the rest of her money on high adventures and a chapbook about the next town she intended to visit; she had decided to skip to the end of the mysterious little book of names, to the last entry on the list. This one was a bit peculiar, as there was a location with quite a few symbols next to it, but no lady's name. Only the single word, "Denouement."
It was a bit of a chore getting there. The journey would take three days on horseback and she had no excuse to make it, not even a neglected relative to visit in that direction. She discovered in the course of her research a girl's school of reasonable repute a half day's trip from where she wished to go and begged her father to send her there in the fall. Being a widower who had ceased to understand his daughter years ago, the father decided that since the school was reasonably priced, this would be his chance to get some peace and quiet for part of the year, and so he agreed to board her there on the condition that they first take a brief trip to inspect the premises. Off they went, with the girl arranging it so that they would arrive in the town nearest the school—and very near the place she truly wished to go—at dark, forcing them to take lodgings there for the night. The next day being Sunday, there was no means of travel available to take them the last leg of the journey until Monday. The girl's father settled down at the local pub, and the girl set out to explore her surroundings.
The final address in the little book took her to a small cottage with smoke rising from the chimney. She knocked on the door. There was no answer. She threw propriety to the wind and walked in.
A man sat by the front window, staring at the little garden just outside.
It had to be him, she was sure of it the moment their eyes met, as all the requirements for dashing, reckless, handsome, and even devilish were met in his appearance, which was, she guessed, a reasonable fifteen years beyond her own age.
The book was hidden behind her back. She felt no need to draw it out immediately, for there was the possibility that once she presented it, he would merely thank her and send her on her way.
However, without the book as a subject for conversation, she didn't know exactly what to say.
The man smiled at her, inclining his head in a slight nod. "Good morning."
"Good morning," she replied, shifting from foot to foot. She noticed a pile of papers scattered on the desk before him, and a quill in one hand. "What are you doing?"
"Someone suggested to me that I might write the story of my life," he replied, "though it is of questionable value to anyone except myself."
"I should like to read a life's story," the girl said cheerfully, "if it is not too short. You seem too young to fill many pages!" It was a test; she wanted to know for sure that he was not one of those elderly fellows who looked deceptively dapper under the right lighting conditions.
He chuckled. "I have thirty chapters already."
The young lady's eyes widened. There were thirty-one names in the little black book. She'd counted them a hundred times, just in case the information would be useful to her.
"Is it done?" she asked tentatively.
His eyes sparkled as he assessed her in a way that a man would be slapped for in public. "All that's left is my denouement."
There was a clatter as the little black book slipped from the fingers of the detective's daughter. She scooped it off the floor, but it was too late to hide it, so she held it tightly to her chest as his gaze rested on it. Or on her chest, she wasn't sure which.
"By any chance," she said, finding her voice raspy as she struggled to breath adequately, "is this yours?"
He abandoned his chair for a closer look. When he was close enough to see the freckles on her collar bone, he stopped. "What does it say?"
She opened to the first page and began to read the names. The symbols, of course, could not be read aloud as they were not words, and the words they did stand for were too offensive to tender ears be read aloud.
"It sounds familiar," he said softly, his words close to her ear. "How does it end?"
She turned to the last page and read three names. Then she came to the last, at which point it was all she could do to whisper, "Denouement."
He shut the book as he took it from her hands, slipping it into the pocket of the coat he wore. He glanced down at her still-blossoming figure, which retained some of the soft edges of childhood. "I seem to be a little early."
"I don't think so," she replied.
"Then it hardly matters if we meet to-day," he said, his breath now hot against her neck, "or two years from now. Either way, you were meant to stop by this cottage on your journey home from school--"
"Journey to school," she corrected.
He laughed. "And I was meant to be here waiting for you." His lips pressed against the curve of her jaw, at which point her breathing stopped entirely, her mind rapidly sorting through the symbols that had been drawn next to that final entry, their order and meaning taking on a new and thrilling light in the present circumstances.
"Then we'd better begin," she said, turning her lips to his, "writing the finish to your story, for I am dying to read it."
And thus it was that the detective's daughter solved the mystery of the little black book, and became the most fondly remembered entry within it.