by Jack Alcott
|Table of Contents|
Part 9 appeared
in issue 187.
“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.
One drink followed another, and he was ordering his third round, or maybe it was his fourth or fifth, when a couple of river rats burst into the shack with enough energy to set the flimsy walls shaking.
“One of them steamboats exploded on the river,” the older of the two said as he sat down on a rickety stool. “Just off Tarrytown. Went up like a goddamned powder keg.” Then, without hesitation, as if it was a natural progression: “I’ll have whiskey for lunch, and so will my partner here.”
The other man smiled broadly, revealing numerous gaps in his teeth. “That steamship just up and blew,” he said with a shake of his weathered head.
Yet another excuse for one of William’s rants about steam power, Edgar thought. “Anyone killed?” he asked.
The river rats regarded him like some foreigner from the ends of the earth. “Not far’s I’ve heard,” said the one with missing teeth. “Quite a few folk were hurt, though. A bloody miracle they’re still among the living.”
The bartender shook his head and put two whiskeys on the counter. “You’ll never see me on one of them things. Them boilers are always going sky high.”
“That’s the truth,” the first man said. “If there ain’t no sail or oars, I ain’t getting aboard.”
“Nothing but a floatin’ tea kettle,” said his partner.
Edgar went back to his pint and a few minutes later the shack shook again as several other rough-looking men came through its doors. The locals gathered around a fireplace at one end of the room and were soon drinking and talking about the ruined steamboat. From what Edgar overheard, they were mostly shad fishermen who had finished their morning catch and taken their haul to market. The consensus among them was that steamboats were never going to catch on because they were too dangerous.
“Come back in a hunnert years, and the river will still be aswarmin’ with sails,” one old fellow said.
At that point, Edgar stopped listening and ordered a whiskey. With the liquor soon coursing through his veins, the day took on a lovely dreamlike quality. Somebody threw dice and a few coins on the table and Edgar found himself calling out numbers and placing bets. He lost a few rolls and won a few more, and then someone started dealing cards. When he won, Edgar bought them all a round; when he lost, he just reached in his pocket for more of Henry’s money.
The afternoon passed in a blear of hardened faces shouting encouragement. This was a rough bunch, all right, but they were the real people, the working people, tough and unschooled. They carried the world on their shoulders and he was glad — no proud — to be among them. He felt a great upwelling of emotion for all of humanity: How he loved them.
Then he just felt sick and had to run outside and throw up. When the spasms stopped, he knelt at the river’s shore and splashed water on his face. It was ice-cold and almost brought him to his senses, and he was surprised to see the sky fading to twilight. Somehow he’d managed to spend the entire day in the tavern.
As he got to his feet, he slipped in the mud and heaved against a dock piling, catching himself before falling into the water. Up and down the Hudson, boat lanterns bobbed like so many fireflies in the gathering dusk, and on the other side of the river Storm King’s craggy silhouette cut into the sky. All was quiet except for laughter from the tavern and the plangent sound of waves against the shore.
Edgar dug back into his pocket and was gratified to find most of his money still there. He’d done just fine at cards and now that his head was clearing, he thought he’d go back inside and play a few more hands. Then maybe he’d get one of the fishermen to sail him back to the Point. If it all worked out, he could be back in his bunk by midnight.
* * *
On the other side of the river, Henry awoke with the day’s dying light fading in his window. His head throbbed and his throat was parched: his comeuppance for the good times at Douglas’ ball. He sat up and reached for the flask he always left on the table next to the bed. Past experience had taught him expediency when medicating hangovers.
He uncorked the bottle and threw his head back, gulping down two big swallows. The liquor went through him like a fork of lightning, melting away his aches and pains — good Kentucky bourbon was truly the best patent medicine around.
He swung his feet off the bed, stood up, and then massaged a crick at the back of his neck. Once again he’d slept the day away. Well, what of it? He hadn’t left Douglas’ till dawn. What a night. Coming back to Madam Hopkins’ wasn’t one of his smartest moves. He’d intended to flop at Eddy’s barracks, but he’d been too intoxicated to sneak onto the Point. Anyway, it was easier to get to his own room, which he still had a week’s rent down on.
He only hoped Edgar had made it home safely. He’d looked around Douglas’ mansion before leaving, but hadn’t found him among the guests scattered and slumbering in chairs and sofas. Oh well, maybe his little brother had found a whore. He was quite capable of taking care of himself.
Henry cleaned himself up at the room’s washstand, splashing water from the bowl on his face and neck. His ablutions helped clear his head, but a nagging nausea remained for which there was only one remedy. He found his opium and lit up a pipe.
The house was just coming to life as he slipped downstairs into the main parlor. Some of the girls were already there whispering joylessly among themselves. The murder had left them frightened and jittery, and although business went on as usual, there was a pall over the place, and they hardly acknowledged him as he went through the parlor and out onto the street, which was bustling with end-of-the-day activity.
His first thought was to get something to eat, and he headed toward a nearby chophouse. He hadn’t walked two blocks, when he was brought up short by the sight of two men stepping out of a cab in front of The Highlands Hotel. He recognized them instantly as the thuggish brothers he’d fleeced at cards in Baltimore, Matt and Zack Griswald. Someone had whispered to him during the game that they were criminals and that maybe he’d better go a little easy. But that had only spurred him on and he’d taken all their money, nearly four thousand dollars. There was only one reason they’d followed him to New York; they wanted it back. And he doubted they were going to ask politely.
Henry ducked into a shop doorway and watched them go into the hotel. He’d already planned to leave town, and their arrival sealed it. He’d catch a boat to Cold Spring and stay there for the night. That would put some welcome distance between them and give him some time to figure out how to play his hand. These Griswald boys better watch out; he didn’t like to lose, either.
Ridley stepped out for a smoke on the third-floor veranda outside his Cold Spring hotel room. The porch overlooked the Hudson and had a spectacular view during the daytime, but all he could see now, near midnight, were boat lights up and down the river. He took a pull on what was left of his cigar and flicked the stub into the river, watching the ember arc through the night air. Then he went back in the room where a woman waited for him among the quilts and coverlets of the bed. She sat with a glass of claret in one hand and a book in the other, reading by lamplight. Her nightgown was opened at her throat, revealing a stretch of blush-colored skin and most of one coy breast. Ridley caught her eye and she boldly returned his appraisal, a smile stealing across her lips as he began to unbutton his tunic. He was stopped by a soft knocking at the door.
“Damn. I told them not to disturb us.”
“Don’t bother with it,” the woman said, moving just slightly so that her gown fell open. Ridley put a knee on the bed and leaned over to kiss her, but the knocking persisted. Annoyed, he pulled away.
“Goddamn it. I’ll get rid of them,” he said, crossing the room and disappearing into the small anteroom that served as an entrance to the suite.
She couldn’t see him, but heard the door open. “What do you want?” he said, emphasizing “you” as though he knew their visitor. There was a sliding sound, like someone slipping under silk sheets, followed by a whisper.
“Who is it, Arthur?” she called from bed, setting her wine glass on the night table and then nestling under the covers. “At least close the door, please. There’s a draft.”
The door shut and the lock clicked. To her relief, Arthur came back into sight, but then stopped at the threshold between the main room and the anteroom, his mouth open and his eyes blank, as though he’d received some terrible news. She sat up and was about to ask him if everything was all right, when she saw something flashing and fluttering about his chest. At first she thought a bird with ivory-colored plumage had somehow flown into the room and was hovering about him.
Then she realized it was the hilt of a saber buried deep in the middle of his chest, and a scream welled up in her throat ...
* * *
Edgar woke up on top of a table and it took a moment to remember where he was. Then it came back in an unpleasant wash: Cold Spring. He’d gone back in the tavern to drink and gamble.
Panic streaked through him as he sat up and dug his hand into his trousers’ pockets, unable to find his cash. After fumbling through his shirt and then his coat, he found the roll of bills in his vest. He counted thirty-seven dollars — which meant he’d lost, or someone had stolen, at least a hundred and sixty. Damn his drinking. Damn his insufferable weakness.
He slid off the table and onto his feet, squinting in the sunlight that slanted through a dirty window. Another man was snoring on a nearby table, and a third, whom he recognized as the bartender, was passed out on top of the bar, a heavy lambs-wool coat pulled up to his chin like a blanket.
With no hope of recovering his money, Edgar stumbled from the tavern into the noontide sun, where he stared dazedly at the masts that lined the river, unsure if he should bother to catch a boat back to West Point just yet. He was already late and there would definitely be hell to pay.
As he walked up Main Street reviewing his prospects, a group of boys scampered past. “Somebody’s got kilt,” one of them hollered at another. “A soldier.”
Edgar headed up the street after the boys, drawn almost against his will. They stopped in front of The Hudson House Hotel, where a constable shooed them away. The boy who’d announced the murder called the constable an obscene name and the officer chased after him as the others scattered. Edgar had just made up his mind to go into the hotel and investigate, when Lieutenant Gant and two other officers came out the front door and climbed into a waiting carriage.
Edgar hid himself behind a draught horse tied to a post and waited until he heard the carriage bounding away on the cobblestones. Then he ran up the wooden sidewalk and pushed through the hotel’s gilded doors, going straight to the front desk where a worried clerk asked him what he wanted.
“I’m from West Point,” he said, hoping his military greatcoat and posture made up for his otherwise unkempt appearance. The clerk pointed to the carpeted stairway. “Room 409,” he said, as though expecting him.
Edgar hurried up the stairs to the fourth floor, where a thick-bodied police officer was stationed outside the room. Without faltering, Edgar approached him. “Lieutenant Gant wants me to examine the victim again,” he said.
The constable hardly even looked at him. “Go on in, but see you don’t puke your lunch out. Coroner’s doing his nasty work.”
In fact, Edgar wasn’t prepared for the horror that awaited him, and he froze as soon as he stepped inside, unable to speak. The elderly coroner, a white-haired gentleman of a singular and cadaverous aspect, was kneeling on the bed, where he busied himself with a woman’s body. Blood was everywhere, soaking the mattress and sprayed across the floor, the walls and even the ceiling. Sick to and stomach, Edgar clutched the doorjamb and forced himself to stand fast. The gory scene was beyond comprehension.
What was left of the “soldier” was on the floor in a pool of congealed blood. He would have been face down, if he’d had a face — or a head, for that matter. Edgar scanned the room for the missing head and found it sitting on top of a bureau, its blue-gray eyes wide and imploring.
He gagged again when he recognized Ridley, and it took all of his willpower to keep from throwing up. The coroner, an efficient practitioner of his craft, had obviously spent his life among the dead and mutilated, and he appeared unfazed. His scalpel flashed brightly above the woman’s body.
Edgar was unable to speak for a moment. Finally he stammered, “The lieutenant...”
The coroner gave him a cursory glance, then set aside his scalpel and began to sew. After a few ragged stitches, he stopped and squinched over his spectacles. “Well what is it, young man?”
Edgar summoned his strength and snapped to attention, careful to keep his eyes on the river and Storm King Mountain outside the window. “The lieutenant wanted to know if you found any notes, sir. Lines of verse, or anything of that nature.”
The words hovered in the room like the nonsense of a child or a deranged person. They had no reason to be spoken in this place of red death. But the coroner only chuckled to himself, amused.
“He wants verses, does he?” he said without slowing his rhythmic sewing. “There’s nothing poetic about this, is there young man?” He pointed at the carnage with his red-stained scalpel. “No verse or sweet poesy here, I’m afraid.”
“Yes, sir, I’m sorry, sir,” Edgar gulped.
The coroner picked up a sanguine lump from the bed and handed it to him. “There was this, however. I haven’t opened it yet.”
Edgar took it, his hands quaking, for he already saw it was a page from his book.
“It was between that one’s teeth,” the coroner said, with a nod toward Ridley’s head. The old physician went back to his cutting and stitching, and Edgar unfolded the paper to the first line: And the angels sob at vermin fangs in human gore imbued.
He felt his knees going out from under him as he read, but somehow he managed to stay on his feet. When he’d regained his equilibrium, he stuffed the page in his coat and bolted from the room. The coroner barely looked up from his handiwork.
Outside in the hall, he pushed past the constable and ran, almost falling down the red-carpeted stairs in his haste. He slowed his pace just before entering the lobby so as not to alarm the nervous clerk. But he wasn’t there anyway, and a familiar form leaned against the front desk reading a newspaper. When the man looked up, Edgar found himself face to face with his brother.
“What’re you doing here?” he blurted.
“Trying to get a hotel room, of course, if the damned boy will ever show up,” said Henry, tapping a brass bell at the counter. Edgar stopped him from ringing it again.
“Come with me,” he said, taking Henry by the arm.
When they were out on the street, Edgar still hadn’t let go of his brother’s arm and Henry shook it off.
“Easy, brother,” he said. “You’re messing my good suit.”
“C’mon, then,” Edgar said tersely.
Edgar walked quickly up the street’s steep slope away from the river, and Henry followed. The thoroughfare was noisy with wagons and buggies and people going about their noonday affairs. A section of the river was visible at the foot of the wide avenue, and the wharves swarmed with tilting masts and billowing sails.
“Why all the secrecy?” asked Henry as they neared the top of the hill.
“There’s another murder,” Edgar said, halting his headlong ascent and turning to scrutinize his brother’s face.
“Someone else was killed?” Henry said, and he seemed genuinely baffled, although Edgar reminded himself that his brother was a good actor, even better than he was; but then, Henry was better at just about everything.
“An officer from the Point was hacked to pieces last night in the hotel we just came from. A woman, evidently his mistress, was also murdered.”
Henry opened his mouth in uncharacteristic bewilderment and words for once seemed to fail him.
Edgar grabbed a fistful of his frockcoat. “You were there when the girl was killed in Buttermilk Falls. Now you’re here and two more are dead. Tell me you have nothing to do with this!”
“I told you. Someone is conspiring against us,” Henry said.
“I don’t believe it,” Edgar said, releasing him and reaching into his pocket. “I found this.”
Copyright © 2006 by Jack Alcott