by Jack Alcott
|Table of Contents|
Part 10 appears
in this issue.
He thrust the fragment of poem at Henry. “‘Angel sobs, vermin fangs’ — does that sound familiar? It’s one of mine. One you worked on with me.”
The blood went out of Henry’s face and his eyes shrank to black holes as he drew himself up to his full height, a good two inches taller than Edgar.
“Don’t touch me, little brother,” he said in a voice devoid of brotherly love. It was a warning from a man capable of anything, even fratricide. Then he backed away and smoothed out his suit. “I’m going now. It’s really been a nice visit. And filled with so many friendly folk.”
Despite his mocking tone, there was something honest and hurt in Henry’s voice, something that gave Edgar pause and made him regret his accusations. After all, he didn’t have any real evidence that his brother was connected to the murders, or that he was capable of such mindless, wallowing blood lust. Edgar was confused and his head ached from yesterday’s indulgence. Nothing made sense.
“Henry, stop... I’m sorry. I’m hung over, sick. I wasn’t thinking.”
Henry regarded him coolly. “There’s a bloodthirsty killer out there, Eddy,” he said. “Someone who knows you well. But it’s not me. I don’t know you any more at all.”
Without waiting for Edgar’s reply, he dodged across the cobbled street and vanished down an alleyway, leaving Edgar alone with an old, familiar desolation creeping into his soul. He had terribly wronged his only brother, the one person on earth who was truly close to him: his kin by blood and temperament.
* * *
Edgar caught a boat back to the Point and the short sail on choppy water had worsened his hangover. When he let himself in his room, he collapsed on his bunk, exhausted.
Thomas woke him several hours later when he came back from afternoon classes.
“Where’ve you been? Gant’s looking for you,” he said breathlessly. And then without waiting for an answer he relayed Edgar all the latest news as fast as he could form words. “Ridley’s dead. At least that’s the rumor around the Point. They found him cut up with some whore on the other side of the river. And Dupin hanged hisself after the ball, too.”
Edgar swung his legs off the bunk. He was still wearing the rumpled fatigues he’d had on yesterday.
“God, man, you’re a mess,” Thomas said, and Edgar thought he detected some suspicion. “Where were you?”
“Cold Spring. Drinking, mostly.”
“Why didn’t you tell me? I’d a joined you.”
Edgar just sat on the bed, his head in his hands, trying to shake off the remnants of his hangover.
“It’s true about Ridley,” he said after a while. He was going to tell Thomas that he’d seen Ridley’s body, but thought better of it. He wasn’t going to enlighten him about Dupin, either.
“Was he cut up like they said?” Thomas pushed for details. Edgar was almost glad to hear a knock at the door, though he feared it was Gant.
Thomas was closest to the entrance and when he opened it, two cadets barged in. They saluted and the taller one looked at Edgar and spoke in the usual clipped way of the military: “Lieutenant Gant to see Cadet Poe. Immediately.”
Gant was waiting for him in his office in the Academy Building. He dismissed the cadets who’d marched Edgar over, and then sat down at his desk glaring from red-rimmed eyes. Edgar avoided them and looked around the office at his various military souvenirs.
There was a workmanlike painting of Wellington’s victory at Waterloo; a couple of burnished flintlocks on a mantle; a pair of crossed cavalry sabers on a wall; and most interestingly, an Indian headdress draped in one corner. All in all, however, Edgar found the collection pathetically predictable, the mementos of a desk-bound but still vainglorious ex-warrior.
“Ridley was murdered,” Gant said.
Edgar looked into his hate-filled eyes. “I’m sorry, sir. I know he was close to you.”
“Why is it, once again, that your name comes up when there is a murder?” It was more an accusation than a question. “Can you answer me that?”
“I don’t understand, sir.”
“You know all too well what I’m saying. We’ve had this conversation before. Old Ben, Dupin, and now Ridley.”
“Sir, with all due repect, you are off the mark here. I don’t know anything about Ridley’s death, or anyone else’s. I can see you suspect me, but you are wrong. Someone else is doing this, some scheming madman who has contrived to connect me to these killings. If anything, I need your help, not your persecution, sir.”
Gant leapt to his feet and came around the desk. Edgar was sure he was going to smash him one. Instead, he brought his face within an inch of Edgar’s. His breath stank of rotgut whiskey.
“You are at the center of this because you’re the madman,” he said.
Edgar’s whole body tensed for a fight. Court-martial be damned, he was not going to be manhandled by anyone, least of all this washed-up, drunken excuse for a military officer. Let him accuse him of these crimes, let him jump to conclusions. But if he dared lay a hand on him, he would pay.
Gant saw the defiance in his eyes and backed off. Jaw clenched, he went over to the Indian headdress and began petting its feathers. Then he reached underneath the beaded crown and withdrew what looked at first like an animal hide — until Edgar realized with revulsion that it was several Indian scalps bound together with rough twine.
Gant casually tossed the scalps on his desk so that strips of leathery human skin, like rawhide, were clearly visible under the clumps of glossy black hair.
“I know what it is to kill,” he said, his back to Edgar as he toyed with the grisly keepsakes, using them to brush the dust from his desktop. “I know some take an unholy pleasure in it. They like spilling blood. They enjoy the power it confers. For once in their paltry, insignificant lives, they are somebody. Their life is better somehow, worth more than the life they took, no matter how accomplished or brave or honorable the dead man. The life that survives, the life that wins is the one that counts in this world.”
He turned around. “And you are not a winner. You are a weakling, a freakish little man with a fevered mind. You will lose, like your kind always does.”
“Sir, I object to your accusations,” Edgar said, raising his voice. “I am innocent. You are wrong about me.”
Gant wasn’t listening and there was violence in his eyes as he tried to muzzle his feelings.
“I will get you, Mr. Poe,” he said. “Ridley had his flaws, God knows. But he didn’t deserve to be butchered like that.”
“I didn’t kill him, I tell you.”
“You were missing overnight, Mr. Poe. You skipped classes as well as parade drill. Everything points to you.”
Edgar started to protest but Gant cut him off.
“From now on, I’m watching your every move. I’m going to hound you until you’re brought to justice.”
He paused and picked up a ceremonial tomahawk near the Indian headdress. For a moment, Edgar thought he was going to split his skull with it, but then he put the trophy back down.
“Now get the hell out of here,” he said. “You’re dismissed.”
Snow fell from a slate sky as Edgar tramped back to the barracks. In the distance he heard drumbeats and the blare of bugles and out on The Plain he saw the gray ranks of cadets marching back and forth, going nowhere.
The barracks was cold and lonely when he entered, and his footsteps echoed on the stone floor. No one was around; they were either in class or out on the parade ground. He started toward his room, but changed his mind and headed up to William’s on the second floor, taking the stairs two at a time. He had a half-formed plan to wait for him there, to see if he’d heard anything more about Ridley.
No one answered when he knocked and the door was ajar, so he let himself in. He wasn’t sure why he’d come up until he saw William’s Oriental cabinet. He crossed over and opened its enameled doors. Inside, there were several more intricately carved doors and drawers, each with a tiny ebony handle. He opened one and found a gold signet ring and several musket balls. He closed it and opened another that held a packet of letters tied with a black ribbon. They smelled of dust and wood and lilac. He closed that drawer, too. A larger drawer contained a wig, a fake mustache, resin, and a pair of spectacles along with some other theatrical props that indicated William still hadn’t given up his dream of acting.
Edgar rifled through other drawers until, finally, there it was: the little jade jewelry box where William kept the opium. Trembling slightly, he opened it to find the black lozenge on a bed of red velvet. He nipped off a piece of the finger-sized chunk and put the tidbit in his shirt pocket, closing the box when he was done.
After putting the box back in its proper compartment, he opened one of the cupboard’s narrow interior doors. There was nothing inside, but something about the compartment struck him as unusual. After studying it, he realized it wasn’t the full depth of the cabinet. It was a subtle difference and anyone going through the cabinet in a hurry would probably have missed it. But he had a keen eye for such discrepancies.
Unable to keep himself from prying further, he felt around inside the three-inch-wide compartment and discovered another knob on the back panel. He tugged it open, revealing a shelf containing a parchment scroll, which he pulled out and unrolled on a nearby desk.
A second scroll was wound inside the first, and he set it aside. The first one surprised him; it was a detailed diagram of a steamboat, with all its technical specifications and dimensions. He thought it unusual that William should secrete away something so mundane, the likely product of one of those tedious drafting classes cadets were required to take.
But on closer scrutiny, he saw the rendering was too professional to be the work of most students — even William, who was a fair artist, but did not excel at mechanical draftsmanship. He tended more toward the fanciful — ferocious griffins, dragons, mythical beasts and such. Only the best students, like the exceptional few now designing a series of canals from Lake Erie to the Hudson, could come close to this level of skill.
As he examined the drawing, he noticed that the steamboat’s name was penciled on its bow, The Kinderhook. The name registered with a shock: it was the same boat that had been seriously damaged in yesterday’s explosion.
A strange coincidence, to be sure, but not an impossible one, since such drawings were readily available as models to cadets. Still, he thought it queer that William should have it in his possession, and a subtle anxiety prickled the hair at the back of his neck.
Picking up the second scroll, he started to unroll it only to have yet another tube nested within slip to the floor. He snatched it up and opened it on the desk. It was another diagram, also the work of a professional. But this drawing depicted a locomotive, The Best Friend of Charleston, the very steam engine now being created at the foundry.
Again, Edgar wondered what on earth William, who professed to hate such machines, was doing with it. The engine was certainly an ugly duckling: its boiler stood upright at the back of a flatbed wagon with enormous iron wheels, making it an ungainly monster.
Notations on the page put the iron beast’s length at fourteen feet, nine inches, and its weight at more than four tons. There were other notes about axle load, cylinders and traction that might as well have been in Greek, although Edgar knew more of that ancient language than he did of machine terminology.
He’d started to roll the scroll up, when he noticed some marginalia. The sloppy note was hard to read, but he was able to decipher “Helvetian Society” and “Beach Street, New York, Nov. 13th, midnight.”
William had mentioned Beach Street when they were at the West Point Foundry; that’s where the Best Friend was to be assembled.
And the 13th was only a week away, if the intended year was 1830. But of course the locomotive was so new, the date had to be for the current year.
So why, then, was the scroll in William’s possession, and what was this meeting in New York all about? Most confounding of all was the reference to the Helvetian Society. The so-called society, which took its name from an ancient tribe of Celts so ferocious they were never conquered by the Romans, was just a bunch of rabble-rousing cadets who had staged a drunken revolt at the Point a few years ago. Some officers had tried to take their rum-spiked eggnog away from them on Christmas Day 1826, and the cadets, led by a Southerner named Jefferson Davis, fought back. One boy with a saber chased an officer out of the barracks. Another pointed a pistol at a sergeant and pulled the trigger; fortunately, the powder had been wet and the gun misfired.
Then the rebels barricaded themselves in the barracks and broke up chairs and beds and whatever else they could hurl out the windows at the Army Regulars who’d gathered outside for an all-out assault. Someone inside the barracks even organized a musket brigade, but they never fired a shot, thank God. Eventually the riot was put down and several cadets were arrested and faced court martial, although young Jeff Davis escaped retribution and was never heard from again.
Every plebe knew that the Helvetian Society formed and dissolved in that single, infamous night. So why was its name scrawled on the back of a drawing in William’s room four years later?
He picked up the third and last scroll, which turned out to be the intricate, maze-like floor plan for the foundry.
Now this made sense. William needed the plan because he was assigned to guard the building and had to know its layout. But his possession of the other drawings was peculiar, unless he just found them interesting. Which wasn’t in character because he despised anything to do with engineering, mathematics and practical drawing.
Edgar was rolling up the scrolls to put away, when he sensed someone come into the room. He spun around to find William standing right behind him, eying him with barely disguised rage. There was no hope of any pretense; he was caught red-handed.
Without a word, William took the scrolls and laid them on the desk, unrolling one and appraising it with apparent amusement. It was the locomotive, The Best Friend.
“Nice work, don’t you think?” he asked.
“I’m sorry William. I shouldn’t have pried into your things, it’s just that I was up here looking for you.”
“I bet you were.”
Edgar studied the arabesques in the Persian rug. “So, what’s this about the Helvetian Society? Is that a joke?”
Vexed, William flipped the paper over to see what Edgar was referring to.
“It’s your handwriting, isn’t it?” Edgar said, knowing full well it was. They sat next to each other in French, and he’d recognize William’s scrawl no matter what language it was in.
William seemed to reflect briefly on this, and then rolled the paper back into a tube. “So it is. Some idle nonsense. You know the story, don’t you?”
“The legend grows larger every year and it fascinates me the way my cabinet interests you,” he said, tossing the scrolls into the closet and closing the carved doors.
The jibe hit its mark, but Edgar wasn’t going to be so easily deflected. “I’ve never heard you say anything good about machines,” he said hotly. “And here you have two detailed drawings, one of them The Kinderhook, which blew up. How do you explain that?”
William’s answer came hard and fast. “How is it that I find you trespassing and digging about in my cupboards, and now I’m the one under suspicion? What are you thinking? That I’m responsible for blowing up that absurd machine? Do you know how ridiculous you sound?”
“Something’s not right,” Edgar said. “You loathe anything mechanical, and yet you have these drawings. Then there’s the Helvetians.”
“Some kind of dread conspiracy, is it? Your mind is muddled with swill and opium, Eddy. Come see me when you’re sane again, if that day ever comes.”
William took him roughly by the arm and led him into the hallway. “Good-bye, sir,” he said, and closed the door. Edgar thought about going back in the room and knocking the stuffing out of him, but stopped himself. After all, he really didn’t know why William had the drawings or if they were connected to the explosion, or anything else for that matter. All he knew was that there was a pattern shaping up, a design that hinted at something skulking and malevolent at West Point.
Copyright © 2006 by Jack Alcott