by Jack Alcott
|Table of Contents|
Part 3 appeared
in issue 185.
“Alas! The grim legion of sepulchral terrors cannot be regarded as altogether fanciful ... they must sleep or they will devour us — they must be suffered to slumber, or we perish.” — Edgar Allan Poe
It’s a little-known fact that Edgar Allan Poe was expelled from the military academy at West Point in 1831 after only six months as a cadet. To this day, the reasons for the 21-year old’s court-martial are sketchy. This historical suspense novel fills in the missing pieces.
They each received a quarter-pound of stringy beef and some mushy potatoes and sat down at one of the long tables that filled the mess. Despite complaints about the food, the room was filled with cadets who ate greedily. The morning maneuvers always left them with a healthy appetite, and Edgar guessed they would have eaten their boots if they were boiled long enough. He cut a steaming square of meat from the hunk on his plate, and stuffed it in his mouth. It was tasteless but filling and he carved another, washing it down with a gulp of water.
“I still can’t quite get it in my head that someone murdered Old Ben,” William said quietly so as not to be overheard by the mess hall’s tactical officers.
“A bloody fockin’ horror,” Thomas muttered between bites.
“I hope they catch the villain soon,” said Tim, adjusting his spectacles. He had the attentive attitude of a lawyer, and when he spoke others tended to pay attention. “He’ll hang for his crime.”
“Hanging’s too merciful,” said Charlie.
“Burn him at the stake, I say,” said Thomas. “I’d gladly put him to the torch.”
“Draw and quarter him,” Lucian suggested. “Tear the bastard apart. That’d be entertaining.”
They all jumped when Edgar slammed his fist on the table.
“Wrong,” he said, his gray eyes as cold as musket barrels.
A tac officer on the other side of the mess scowled at them.
“Keep it down, will you,” Lucian said through clenched teeth. “Have you taken leave of your senses?”
“Look what this creature did to Old Ben,” Charlie threw in. “We’re talking justice, here.”
“I saw what happened to Ben,” Edgar said. “I stood in his blood, for Christ’s sakes. But torture his murderer? No. Kill him and be done with it. Then bury him in an unmarked grave for all time. There should be no pleasure in the taking of a human life.”
The others were taken aback. He’d actually seen the killer’s bloody aftermath and they’d assumed he’d want revenge.
Everyone also knew that Edgar had a ghoulish streak, so his reaction seemed out of character. How many nights had he kept them in thrall around the fireplace telling weird tales, many of which involved bloodshed and vengeance? So why this turnabout? Lucian’s voice insinuated itself into the silence.
“I think it’s more than passing strange that the murder was prefigured in your little skit at the barracks last night. The beheading of Old Ben, and all.”
“You think I did it then, is that it?” Edgar said. “I’m the one with all those insane stories, right, so why shouldn’t I be the killer?”
“No one’s saying that,” Tim said.
“Speak for yourself,” Lucian said. “He’s sure got me wondering.”
The table was quiet as Edgar stared at his plate.
“I know how it looks,” he said. “And I don’t know what to make of it. I’m as confounded as the rest of you. Did the killer know about my prank and decide to reenact it, or was it just coincidence?”
“Of course it was coincidence,” said William, putting a reassuring hand on his arm. “We’re the only ones who knew about your little act last night, and surely none of us is capable of such an atrocity. Ben got in an argument with that local hothead, Van Wyck. Everybody knows he’s a dangerous man. After Ben closed up, he came back and killed him. That’s all — it was that simpleton’s retaliation.”
“William’s right,” Tim said. “Let’s look to the future and try to honor Ben as much as we can.”
“We’ll all go to his funeral,” Thomas said.
But Edgar had stopped listening. “I won’t rest till they’ve got the killer,” he said. “And it’s not Van Wyck.”
“What do you mean?” William asked.
“I mean,” said Edgar, “that he’s not the killer.”
“Who is, then?”
Edgar pushed his plate aside. “I don’t know. But the constables aren’t a very able lot. They guessed he was killed with a hatchet when it was clear he was slashed with a sword. Probably a military saber.”
“Now how do you reckon that?” Thomas said.
“His wounds were long and clean, not short, deep and ragged. It was a saber. Once you realize that, the rest is simple. Where are you most likely to find sabers? Where is swordplay an art?”
“Are you saying a cadet killed him?” Tim asked. His spectacles had slipped to the tip of his nose, and he pushed them back.
“Most of Ben’s customers were cadets,” Edgar said.
“West Pointers are too civilized to ever do anything so barbaric,” William put in. “This was the work of some low-class animal.”
“I’ve got to agree with him on that,” said Thomas.
“What if I told you our killer is an educated, literate man?” Edgar said.
“By thunder,” said Tim, “how did you arrive at that conclusion?”
“Do you know his favorite book, too?’’ cut in Lucian. “Does he prefer Washington Irving to, say, Defoe?”
The others had a chuckle at this, but Edgar ignored them.
“I’m guessing he left a note,” William said.
“Not a note; a message.”
“You’re talking in riddles; be more candid.”
“I can’t. But I sense the killer will reveal more of himself. He is a showman. Ben’s murder was only the first act in his macabre play.”
William was about to press him when two cadets sauntered over from a nearby table.
“You boys going to the ball tonight?’’ one asked.
“With all the mayhem, I’d completely forgotten about it,” said William, turning to the others for an answer.
The ball in question was at the mansion of Richard Henry Douglas, a wealthy merchant who’d made his fortune shipping iron ore up and down the Hudson, much of it bound for the West Point Foundry.
“Somehow, it doesn’t seem appropriate after what happened to Ben,” Tim said.
“The death of a local saloon keeper isn’t going to change my social calendar,” Lucian said.
William looked at him with disapproval, but Lucian was unmoved.
“Come on, you know you want to go, too,” Lucian needled him. “It’s a masked ball. You can get in costume and play Macduff.” He switched to a plummy actor’s voice: “Hail, King. For so thou art. Behold, where stands the usurper’s cursed head.”
The intentionally bad performance was aimed in jest at William and his acting aspirations. He’d played Macduff in a recent amateur performance of Macbeth at the Academy, and his acting had brought guffaws and catcalls from the assembled cadets. It was not something he liked to remember, but Lucian relished sticking it to him.
“Thank you, Lucian, you rotten little son of a whore,” William said.
While no one had ever seen William and Lucian come to blows, they always seemed on the brink even though they were roommates and often together. Now everyone watched the pair, waiting for fists to fly.
“It’s agreed then, we’re all going tonight, right?” Charlie boomed in a transparent effort to avoid the dispute.
“Damn right,” Thomas threw in.
Everyone but William said they should go, at the very least to dispel the gloom that had followed Ben’s death. And the ball would be a welcome departure from the numbing routine of study, drill and marching. Douglas spared no expense on his parties, and there’d be an orchestra and all the dancing and champagne a cadet could possibly want. Most importantly, young women from the best families in the region would be there. For men who spent far too much time in the company of other men, it was a godsend.
And as he did every year, Douglas had extended an open invitation to West Point cadets knowing full well that only a few, if any, would be able to get permission to attend. The rest would break regulations to get there. Douglas was an old friend of Captain Alden Partridge, the former superintendent who’d been ousted by Thayer, and he thoroughly enjoyed putting Thayer on the spot.
The cadets were aware of this old rivalry, but nonetheless made plans to sneak off the Point, which was something they had experience with thanks to their late night jaunts to Old Ben’s. Edgar, especially, was known for his stealth when it came to getting past the guards. It was a good use of his wits, and tonight the ball would take his mind off death, if only for a few hours.
Henry stood in the second-floor bay window of Madam Hopkins’ brothel, drinking absinthe and watching the street below. The sun had dropped behind the rooftops and the sepia figures of men, horses and wagons were fading into the dusk. Someone lit an oil lamp in the room and Henry turned to see one of the house’s prettier whores smiling at him as she bent over another lamp, daintily holding a finger-like candle. He returned the smile and went back to the window in time to see lights spring to life in shops and apartments all along the thoroughfare. How he loved the twilight after smoking opium and imbibing absinthe. He took another swallow of the green liqueur and the girl pressed against him so he felt every soft curve.
Someone was hesitantly playing a piano in the next room, and Henry recognized the chilly notes of a Mozart sonata in C minor. Perfect. The girl pressed closer and offered her lips. He kissed her and slid his free arm around her waist. The tip of her tongue darted into his mouth.
“Wait, I need to finish my drink,” he said, and downed the rest in a gulp.
“What is that nasty stuff?”
“A French liqueur distilled from wormwood. It leaves the mind pleasantly deranged.”
“You’re deranged enough,” she said with a laugh.
“Now, now, my feisty Mary. You promised not to tell my naughty secrets.” Henry smothered his words in the nape of her neck and then gently eased her onto a chaise lounge, conveniently available for just such a rendezvous.
As they sank into the cushions and each other arms, a scream shattered their reverie. Although blunted by the brocade and tapestries that hung everywhere, it was clearly a cry of terror from somewhere in the house. Henry propped himself up on his elbow, his desire quickly ebbing as the sound of running feet and frantic shouts rang through the old mansion. The Mozart ceased and there were more screams.
“Oh my God,” Mary said as Henry swung his legs off the chaise and tucked in his shirt, checking a small derringer he kept in his waistcoat.
He went to the door, Mary right behind him, and stepped into the hallway as several ladies of the house came stumbling down a staircase in the adjacent parlor. They were crying and shrieking and Henry grabbed one by her wrist to stop her from running. She was weeping hysterically and he saw blood on her gown.
“What happened?” he demanded.
“Clara’s dead,” the girl wailed. “She’s stabbed.”
Henry let her go and then sprinted across the parlor and up the stairs, only vaguely aware that Mary was following. Other prostitutes, all of them crying or with faces contorted with emotion, ran past him as he hurried along a dark corridor on the top floor.
Doors on both sides of the hall had been thrown open, revealing unmade beds and clothing strewn about the floor. Two terrified girls emerged from a doorway near the end of the hall. One made the sign of the cross as Henry rushed past her into the room where he was brought up short by the sight of a naked girl flung across the bed. She was on her back, her open eyes fixed on the ceiling, her lips parted as though in ecstasy. A dark halo of blood soaked the bedding around her, illumined by a squat red candle that pulsed like a beating heart on the night table.
Henry immediately recognized her as a girl he’d lain with only an hour before. He’d been drinking absinthe all afternoon and he remembered falling onto this same bed and making love. Then he must have passed out, because when he awakened, he was in the parlor downstairs with the other girl, Mary, cooing in his ear.
What happened in this room, then? His mind was a vortex of black thoughts as he tried, in vain, to jog his memory. But there was nothing, a dull blankness and a welling fear driven by all the murderous tales he’d heard about the depravity of absinthe drinkers.
He pitched weakly against the doorjamb and stared at the poor girl. One of her arms hung limply from the bed and he noticed something wadded in her blood-streaked hand. It looked like a note, although this surely was no suicide. He crossed the room and tugged the paper loose. When he opened it, he found it was a page of printed verse torn from a book, a poem he’d written with Edgar.
Behind him, Mary let go with a keening wail, and behind her Madam Hopkins cursed and clutched at the crucifix she wore at her ample bosom. “What devil did this?” the older woman croaked in a dissolute, whiskey-etched voice nearer a man’s than a woman’s. “I’ll kill him, I swear I’ll kill the fucker.”
She aimed an old flintlock pistol at Henry.
“Not him,” cried Mary. “He was with me.”
“Who was it, then? I’ll blow his brains out his ass,” the harridan rasped again as Mary ran from the room in tears.
Dizzy from the absinthe and the heavy scent of blood, Henry fought to keep from vomiting. Then he was out of the room and in the hall, his head swimming as he gasped for air, his sickly lungs wheezing like old leather bellows. “There’s nothing we can do for her,” he called to Mary, catching his breath between coughing fits. “Get a constable.”
The lights were extinguished in most of the barracks at nine. Fifteen minutes later a group of cadets assembled quietly behind North Barracks. If anyone had spotted them, they would have appeared a suspicious bunch, huddled and murmuring in the shadows. Just as odd was the fact that they were all in full dress uniform, sabers at their belts. Some even wore their black-plumed helmets, the ones with the garish brass plate derisively known as a “fried egg” on the visor.
Sneaking out of the barracks was almost too easy; and leaving the grounds wasn’t much harder. There were sentries at all the entrances, but with so many unguarded places in between, a cautious cadet could usually slip away unnoticed. Getting past the guards out by the road, even on a night like tonight when a nearly full moon illuminated the landscape, would present little difficulty. At least twenty or thirty cadets slipped off Academy grounds every night, by Edgar’s reckoning. And despite the threat of demerits, it was worth it.
Old Ben, bless his departed soul, had always served excellent vittles, from his broiled ham slices to his hot flip, a savory beer, egg and sugar concoction stirred with a red-hot poker. Yes, Ben was going to be missed.
“Where’s William?” Thomas whispered.
“I don’t know, but he’d better hurry,” Edgar answered. They couldn’t wait much longer; the guard might start on his rounds any minute.
Edgar really wasn’t worried about William; he could take care of himself. It was Eleanor who filled his thoughts. She’d suffered a terrible loss and he longed to console her, to put his arms around her. She needed him now, and he would not let her down. Nothing would stop him. While the others were going straight to Douglas’ ball, he was going to go see her. He’d catch up with his companions later, assuming he was still in the mood for a rowdy evening.
The cadets stayed in the shadow of the barracks’ east wall, watching the sentry box near the road fifty yards away. Edgar’s eyes were the sharpest of the bunch, and he kept them on the guard’s silhouette. He waited for just the right opportunity and was about to urge his friends to cross when the sound of running feet came up behind them. For a second, he was sure they were caught and would be sent ignominiously back to the barracks to await their punishment; but it was only William, thank God.
“Sorry I’m late, boys,” he whispered. “Had a little dalliance I couldn’t miss.”
Edgar ignored him and watched the sentry turn away.
“Now,” he said, signaling them to go. Together they scrambled across the road, their white duck trousers and brass buttons glimmering in the moonlight, dead leaves crunching underfoot. If the sentry had turned around, he would have seen them. But the guard didn’t move and they were soon across the road and into the woods. Edgar found the path to the lower road and in a few minutes they were safe.
“Nobody creeps around in the dark better than you,” said Charlie.
“What a high compliment,” Edgar said to laughter from the others.
The autumn air was crisp in the Hudson highlands, and swaths of stars blazed in the icy night sky as the cadets made their way through the woods, taking care to step over roots and rocks in their path. Somewhere nearby a deer fled, its hooves rapping against the hard-packed earth.
They were soon on a hillside sloping down to the river, its waters blacker than the night. Even now, single-masted sloops, skiffs and barges followed the river’s course, the light from their oil lamps floating in the dark. The village of Cold Spring was not visible from this vantage, but the cadets could see the lights from homes sprinkled along the opposite riverbank.
Copyright © 2006 by Jack Alcott