by Jack Alcott
|Table of Contents|
Part 1 appears
in this issue.
“I hope Mr. Poe didn’t cause you too much embarrassment in the tavern. He really doesn’t know what he’s saying half the time. And nobody knows what he’s saying the other half, especially after he’s had a few.”
He winked at Eleanor.
“I was just explaining myself to the lady,” Edgar said, and gave him an almost imperceptible nod to get moving. But William was having too much fun to take any hints.
“Explaining yourself? Good luck.”
Eleanor laughed and William joined in as Edgar smoldered.
“Let me show you the proper way to apologize to a lady,” William said. With an actor’s practiced grace, he took Eleanor’s hand and kissed it softly, letting his lips linger. When he raised his head, he looked boldly into her eyes.
“That, Mr. Poe, is how you apologize to a lady.”
“What do you know about ladies?” Edgar said. “You’ve wasted your time with every tart and trollop within a hundred miles.”
“Now come on, Eddy,” William started to protest. As he spoke, a stream of curses came from the tavern and they all turned to see a man come flying through the doorway. He sprawled on his back in the dirt and Old Ben came charging after him, the door wide open behind him and lamplight streaming into the yard.
“Another crack about my daughter and you’ll wish you were dead,” he bellowed.
The young man tried to get to his feet but slipped in the mud. Ben ran over and kicked him in the backside. “Son of a bitch,” the old giant yelled and tried to boot him again, but the dazed drunk was already scrambling away on his hands and knees.
“That’s Jed Van Wyck,” Eleanor said, wide-eyed.
When Jed had retreated a safe distance from Old Ben, he spun around. “Yer a dead man, you ol’ bastard. I’m goin’ carve you like a pig,” he threatened, his face demonic in the orange light from the doorway.
“Mind your mouth boy, ’fore I stave your teeth in,” Ben hurled back.
A couple of Jed’s friends appeared in the doorway behind Old Ben, but it was obvious they had no intention of intervening. Instead, they scurried around him.
One of them, a gangly youth with greasy brown hair to his shoulders, took Jed by the arm and tried to lead him away. “C’mon, let’s get on home.”
Jed shook him off, but the other fellow, short and pugnacious, got in front of him. “He won’t let us back if you keep on like this,” he said.
“I don’t give a good goddamn. You seen what he done?”
“Let’s go,” said the gangly youth as he grabbed Jed’s arm again, calling to Ben as he tugged the drunk along. “I never see’d him so soused. He’ll feel real bad about this tomorrow.”
“He’ll feel a whole lot worse if I catch him round here.”
Jed kept up his drunken swearing and yawping in the dark as his friends dragged him down the wheel-rutted road. Old Ben glowered after them, listening to their noise as they faded into the night. Then, satisfied they were gone, he tossed a furious glance at Edgar, Eleanor and William in the front yard of his home, and stomped back in the tavern.
“I thought he was coming over here to take me apart,” Edgar said. “I’m no coward, Ellie, but it could be a hazard knowing you.”
“Don’t be so insolent and maybe he’ll start to like you,” she said.
“Edgar insolent?” said William. “That’s not possible.”
Edgar bristled, but then Eleanor gave him a quick peck on the cheek and hurried up the porch steps.
“Good-bye,” she said curtly, holding her skirts above her ankles. The front door opened and closed before Edgar, the kiss still hot on his cheek, could say another word.
* * *
Stacks of copper and silver coins glittered in the lamplight on the table before him as Old Ben sipped from a glass of ale and toted up the night’s earnings. It had been a good night for making money. God Bless the West Point Military Academy! The tavern was popular with cadets and he’d heard that this year’s class was the largest and hardest-drinking ever. Sooner or later, they all found their way to his place; he smiled at the piles of money.
The cadets were by and large a well-behaved bunch. It was the local boys that were trouble. They’d come in strutting and bragging and trying to prove they were better than the cadets. Take tonight, for instance. Jed Van Wyck wasn’t a bad feller when he was sober. A butcher’s apprentice, he was a hard worker from all reports. But with a couple of pints in him, he turned into a downright idiot — calling people foul names, starting fights, saying filthy things about Eleanor, for God sakes. He didn’t tolerate them kind of outbursts and Jed was lucky he didn’t bust his head. All in all, though, Jed wasn’t a bad feller and he always paid for his drinks; maybe he’d let the lad come back if he apologized.
It was that Poe character that worried him. He was a mangy sort, with nothing to recommend him that he could see. But that didn’t stop his daughter, oh no. She’d always loved stray dogs and took in whatever injured wildlife wandered into the yard as well. It was just her nature. Now she was sweet on this forlorn excuse for a man for whatever hare-brained reason. Gold and good business was what he understood; women baffled him.
Ben sighed and drank some more ale, setting the glass on the bar when he was through. He was counting his coins again when he heard footsteps behind him. Twisting around in his chair, he sensed someone in the shadows at the back of the room.
“How’d you get in here?” he bawled. The intruder didn’t move or answer, but hung back in the darkness a lurking, menacing presence. Ben waited a few heartbeats and lunged for the pistol he’d carelessly left at the other end of the bar. His hand was almost on the gun when he heard the soft, unmistakable whisper of a sword sliding from its scabbard.
The reveille cannon rattled the barracks windows, startling Edgar from a fitful sleep. Almost immediately, the tactical officer was pounding on doors and shouting for cadets to get moving. Edgar’s head throbbed and his muscles ached from his drinking bout the night before, but he willed himself to sit up in bed. Across the room, Thomas moaned and burrowed deeper under his blankets.
There was a sudden commotion in the hallway and someone else was hammering at the door. Edgar staggered off the bunk clutching his head as he undid the latch.
William pushed inside. “Old Ben’s dead,” he said, his voice almost a wail.
“The old man. Somebody killed him last night, butchered him.”
Edgar sat back down on his bunk, stunned.
Thomas popped up from under his covers. “What’s that about Ben?”
“Somebody broke into his place last night and killed him,” William said. “There’s blood everywhere.”
“Where’d you hear this?” Edgar asked.
“I slipped off to the tavern this morning for my usual breakfast, but there was a crowd outside, and constables.”
William looked at Edgar. “Eleanor was there, and her mother. They’re in a terrible state.”
Edgar was already reaching for the uniform crumpled at the foot of his bed, clumsily pulling on his trousers. To hell with formation this morning, he’d face the consequences later. He had to see Eleanor.
A crowd was milling outside the tavern when Edgar and Thomas arrived. Eleanor and her mother were there, weeping in each other’s arms. He rushed to Eleanor’s side and she flung her arms around him, her slender body convulsing against him, stirring his emotions and something else, some deep and unwelcome eros, a response to her closeness that shamed him not a little.
“There, there,” he numbly repeated, feeling inadequate and vaguely hopeless in the face of her grief.
“Who would kill my father, Eddy?” she asked, peering up into his face, her blue eyes wide in disbelief.
“I’m sorry, Ellie. I’m so sorry,” he said, kissing her forehead. “I’ll find the animal that did this, I promise.”
He gave her another long embrace, wanting with all of his heart to relieve her suffering, to draw it from her like poison from a wound. He pulled her closer, until he felt her trembling diminish. Then he looked into her eyes and asked her to wait. Abruptly, he broke away and plowed his way through the crowded doorway.
Inside, he found several men gathered around a table at the rear of the room, near the bar, where he could see Ben’s rough boots and legs splayed on the floor. His view of the old man’s upper torso was blocked and he crossed the room for a better look, knowing full well that death was never pleasant to behold. As he approached the body, his stomach knotted and he felt strange, as though sleepwalking in a weird and frightening dream.
“Who let him in here?” barked a grizzled local.
Only then did Edgar see the full savagery of the attack. Old Ben’s decapitated body lay sprawled in a halo of blackening blood on the floor, his head planted on the bar several feet away, eyes open and imploring.
The scene eerily echoed Edgar’s prank in the barracks the night before, and panic twisted in his gut.
“Get moving, soldier boy,” a younger constable growled as he took him by the arm. Edgar shook him off and started walking toward the body, but a couple of the policemen came up behind him and seized him.
“What do you want here, lad?” the older constable demanded.
“I was a policeman in the Army, sir,” Edgar lied.
“That don’t mean shit to me, boy.”
“Maybe I can help.”
The old constable gave a derisive snort. But just then a man standing guard over the body bolted for the door, one hand covering his mouth as he started to retch. While the constables holding Edgar were momentarily distracted, he pulled free and knelt beside Ben’s body.
“What do you think you’re doing?” the old constable said. “Get out of here before we arrest you.”
“I can help, I tell you,” Edgar said, inspecting the corpse. He forced himself to look at the stump where Old Ben’s head once rested, and his gut roiled again.
“A pretty sight, ain’t it?” the constable said, waving off the other men as they tried to yank Edgar to his feet. Edgar fought back his nausea, and leaned over the desecrated body for a closer examination. How fragile even the most stalwart of men are, he thought, simultaneously taking note of the straight, clean lines where the head had been severed from the body. The floor was sticky with blood, and he shifted his feet to avoid stepping in it.
“What’s this?” he asked, pointing to a stain in the center of Old Ben’s woolen blouse.
“Dunno,” the old constable grumbled, squatting down beside him, oblivious to the fact that his boots were in the gore. “A stab wound, I reckon.”
“Lift up his shirt,” Edgar said, standing up again.
The constable peeled back the soaking garment to reveal blood-matted hair.
“Higher,” Edgar said as the other men gathered around. The soggy cloth was pulled back to reveal a fist-sized crater in Ben’s chest. The old constable’s face drained of its usual florid coloring.
“It’s gone,” he said. “His heart — it’s not there.”
“What in hell?” said another officer.
“Not there? Where is it then, Mr. Grey?” someone else asked. They all cast about now, as if expecting to find the organ hanging like an ornament somewhere in the room.
Only Edgar was looking at the floor, his eyes following an all but invisible trail along the scuffed oak planks. Halfway across the room, he fixed on a point near a post.
“There’s blood here,” he said walking over to an area ten feet from where the body lay. “And here, and here... not much, though. It might have dripped from his sword.”
“Sword?” said Grey. “He used a hatchet.”
“The cuts are too long, too clean for a hatchet,” Edgar said. “More likely a cavalry saber.” He took two more steps and went down on one knee. The other men were standing over him now.
“Don’t walk in it,” Edgar said.
Grey stepped back. “More blood — so what? It’s probably all over the room. There’s certainly not much left in him. Anyways, we know who did it. Ben got in a skirmish last night with the Van Wyck boy. He’s a butcher’s apprentice, a bad-tempered cuss, too. We’re ’bout to go collect him.”
Edgar took out a jackknife, opened it up and inserted the blade between two floorboards, jimmying it back and forth. A section of plank about six inches in length came loose and he lifted it up.
“What’s that?” asked Grey.
“A hiding place.”
But Edgar already had his hand in the hole under the floor. “Here,” he said grimly as he withdrew a bloody mass of paper. He set the lump on the floor and took a handkerchief from his pocket to wipe his red-stained palm.
“Lord help us,” Grey said when he realized the paper held Ben’s heart. “What kind of creature would do this?”
“Get something to put it in,” said another man, whom Edgar recognized as the village mayor. One of the constables scrambled to find a jar, but in his haste toppled several bottles, setting off a cascade of broken glass behind the bar.
“What the bejesus are you doing?” Grey yelled, hurrying over. While they were busy picking up the glass and looking for a container, Edgar inspected the gruesome find. Something about the sodden paper bunched around the heart caught his eye. They were printed pages, not from a newspaper but from a book.
He wiped away blood so he could better read the text. With a start, he saw it was the front-plate of his own volume of poetry published two years earlier: Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane, and Minor Poems. And now here it was crumpled around a dead man’s heart. How was it possible? He rose slowly to his feet, his own heart racing with fear, gooseflesh prickling along his arms and at the back of his neck.
Did the killer take his prank, that stupid fake decapitation, and make it real? Why? Who was this perverse monster? The nausea returned and the room blurred, but he quickly regained his senses and stuffed the pages in his coat pocket.
Grey came over with a thick-walled fruit jar of blue glass and a large spoon to scoop up the heart. Edgar turned away, his thoughts on the bloody pages in his pocket. There weren’t many copies of his book available, mainly because he’d paid to print them himself and couldn’t afford more than a couple of hundred on cheap paper. The slight volume had received some favorable reviews in the literary magazines, but he doubted that anyone outside his circle of friends had read it. He’d given a copy to Eleanor, and maybe that was how it got here; she’d left it at the tavern where the killer found it, using whatever was handy to sop up blood. Maybe. But he couldn’t get the uncanny coincidence out of his head.
“What a goddamn mess,” he heard Grey say as he set the jar on the counter. He wiped his hands with a damp towel and it came away pink with watery blood.
“We’re wasting our time here, boys,” Grey said. “Van Wyck’s our man.”
“He’s a sum-a-bitch,” somebody said. “I always said he was gonna kill somebody.”
“Let’s git ’im,” someone else said as the group started for the door.
“Now just hold on and wait for the law,” Grey shouted, but they were already outside. “Shit. You can have the body now, Marcus,” he said to the undertaker who had stayed behind with an assistant. “Don’t let his womenfolk see him like this.”
He took Edgar by the arm and ushered him to the door.
“You better get goin’, soldier boy.”
Edgar’s first thoughts as he left the tavern were of Eleanor, who was no longer in the crowd. The loss of a loved one was always devastating, but to have them taken in such a monstrous fashion was beyond comprehension. She needed him now and he wanted to console her — but he also wanted to know whether she’d left his book in the tavern.
He walked the short distance to her house in a daze. A small cluster of family friends and relatives were on the porch, gloomily standing about. They told him to come back later, that this was a bad time, and he was too shaken to object.
He was soon hurrying back the way he came on the wheel-rutted road, lost in melancholy thought. In the aftermath of Ben’s murder, he was no longer the same person who’d once dreamed of becoming a West Point officer. That notion now seemed trivial and irrelevant, a boy’s romance of toy soldiers. The more he thought about it, the more a squall of half-formed emotions welled up in him, and he felt depressed and disoriented. The day ahead seemed impossibly long and he wasn’t sure how he’d make it through. Already late for his mathematics class, he decided to skip it entirely and report to the infirmary.
Copyright © 2006 by Jack Alcott