by Jack Alcott
|Table of Contents|
Part 10 and part 11
appear in this issue.
He did not sleep well that night — nor on any the following week. He attended morning drills and classes in a fog-bound trance, going through the motions of marching and exercises and rote recitations. No one seemed to notice, and indeed, many of his comrades seemed as glazed and inward dwelling as he did.
In class, William sometimes gave him a dirty look and then ignored him. On the morning of November 13th, Edgar went through all the usual routines. But when the cadets went to mess hall for lunch, he broke ranks and went back to his room. From a tin he kept in his desk, he withdrew the last of the money Henry had given him, sixty-seven dollars, and put it in the pocket of his greatcoat. After he tucked the tin back in the desk, he left the barracks, ever alert for tactical officers.
Within minutes, he was on the footpath behind the quartermaster’s office with the mossy ruins of old Fort Clinton up ahead. Behind him, he could hear cadets laughing and carrying on as they left the mess hall. He walked faster, and closer to the tree line so as not to attract attention. The dock was only a short way, and a steamboat was due to leave for New York within the hour. He’d be on Beach Street within a few hours, and if he was lucky — and stealthy — maybe he’d catch these Helvetian rogues at their dirty business. It was his plan to get the drop on them and learn their scheme, hopefully without revealing himself.
Of course, he’d made a mistake admitting to any knowledge of the society when William caught him with the scrolls, and it was more than possible that Will had alerted his fellow conspirators and they’d canceled their clandestine meeting this night. But he was betting that William hadn’t said a word to anyone, that he was afraid of looking like a fool for having let an outsider find the scrolls. Maybe he’d even face some kind of punishment for letting the secret out. Edgar speculated that William, also a betting man, was guessing that he was not so intrepid as to take his investigation to New York City.
He’d only been to the city once before, and it had been a spectacular thrill, although he’d tried not to show his excitement. He hadn’t wanted his comrades, Tim and Thomas, to think he was from the boonies. After all, he’d grown up in Richmond, one of the South’s most elegant and sophisticated cities, and he knew Baltimore well. So he was no rube. But New York was different. It was so immense and crowded with humanity that it was inhumane. At every step you felt your life was nothing. And then, as you looked about at the multitudes, you realized that in this city, in this world, anything was possible; you could take your life to the heights or discard it in the depths.
The sun was sinking behind the New Jersey palisades when the steamboat bumped up against a pier on the West Side. Manhattan was already aglow, its million windows a lattice of light. Five- and six-story buildings lined the thronging streets that stretched as far as the eye could see, and every shape and form of mankind was represented. Edgar hurried down the gangplank with dozens of other passenger and navigated his way through the crowds and crates, trunks and pallets that littered the docks. He hailed a cab and when the overloaded coach groaned to a stop, he squeezed in next to an obese man who smelled of fish and the sea.
“Beach Street,” Edgar called up to the hack.
“Be a while, mate,” the driver said in an Irish accent that rendered his words nearly unintelligible. The immigrant then urged his nag on with a quick flick of the reins.
Edgar buttoned up his overcoat and stared out the open window at the city’s passing spectacle. Within a few minutes, he hardly noticed the briny odor of his fellow passenger. Outside the cab the sounds of the city came together in an oceanic roar. But if one concentrated, individual notes emerged, and he soon picked out the solitary scuff of shoe leather on pavement, the whir of carriage wheels and the clack and clop of hooves against the cobbles. When he leaned back in the cab, the sounds merged again with the babble of a hundred thousand voices.
The crowds were everywhere and there were so many wagons, carts, gigs, carriages and omnibuses jamming the streets that they moved at a crawl. Street-corner vendors hawked everything from sea bass to cheap vellum-bound books in an atmosphere redolent with the odors of roasting meat, horse dung and brewery vapors from public houses and grocery stores along the way. A herd of feral, emaciated pigs ran down the street, thrusting their snouts into offal at every opportunity, afraid of only the dogs that occasionally gave chase.
He turned away from the scene and thought about the engine he’d seen at the foundry and the diagram in William’s room. If the future belonged to such machines, they would surely change the world for the better. In his mind’s eye he tried to see the metropolis as it might look a hundred years hence, in the far distance of 1930.
Certainly the buildings would be taller, maybe twice as high, and he saw the canyons formed by ten- and twelve-story buildings all around him. Everyone would no doubt travel in steam-powered locomotives, which would replace the horse and carriage and would run on ladder-like tracks up every major thoroughfare. He could see the shining machines pulling open-air cars full of passengers.
But maybe all was not so rosy; black smoke and steam drifted everywhere in this city, and a gentle ash rained down upon the masses. Now, in this strange future world, he saw a vast gray place of soot and sallow faces where not a horse was to be seen except for the occasional nag hauling a dray of wood or coal for the ever-burning furnaces. Up in the sky, a flashing beacon signaled that something new soared above the soiled city — brilliant balloons of all colors. And dangling from them were wicker compartments for people, like omnibuses in the air, flying free above the roiling masses.
He was on the verge of seeing the future as lucidly as the present, when the hack called out in his coarse accent: “Beach!”
They were on a deserted corner of Beach and Hudson in front of an enormous four-story brick building, the West Point foundry’s assembly plant, which squatted on an entire city block. Darkness was falling and there were no lights in the arched windows that lined the building’s upper floors. He wondered why it appeared so empty and then remembered it was the Sabbath.
He climbed down from the now empty coach and paid the driver. Without so much as a “thank you,” the hack slapped the reins against his exhausted nag and the vehicle jounced away over the cobblestones.
The only light on the abandoned street came from a tavern doorway at the far end of the block, across from the warehouse, and the neighborhood was silent except for the echoing voices and occasional laughter from the place. Edgar was tempted to go in and throw back a few before proceeding any further, but resisted. Instead, he inspected the warehouse, one of those gargantuan storehouses for the tide of goods that swept in and out of the country aboard fleets of tall-masted ships. Other, smaller buildings of similar construction surrounded it, but it was the largest and grandest of its kind in the neighborhood.
He walked around the building’s south side, where he saw a faint light in some of the windows. Either people were still working, or there was a night watchman on duty. As he stood in the shadows unnoticed, someone hurried up to the plant and slipped in through a side door. The entrance was about as far from the lighted part of the building as one could get, and the figure was too indistinct for him to make out any features. Edgar assumed it was the watchman or a worker on the nightshift.
He went over for a closer look and was midway down the block when a buggy came clattering pell-mell around the corner and halted abruptly in front of the door. Edgar stepped back into the shadows again as the driver hitched the horses to a post and went inside.
While he couldn’t quite see the second man’s face, there was something familiar about him and Edgar thought it might have been William. He waited a few heartbeats, not wanting to be surprised by yet another arrival, and went over to the entrance. The rust-eaten iron door didn’t groan when he tugged it open, and he was silently thankful. Inside, it was murky, but he could sense the yawning space around him.
As his eyes adjusted to the lack of light, he saw that the warehouse was one colossal room, with the ceiling three stories overhead. Mounds of darkness were stacked around him, but oil lamps burned dimly at the far end of the building, no doubt the light he’d seen from outside. The air was permeated with an oily, metallic odor and the room was filled with all manner of machinery, including lathes, drills, saws and a host of other devices he didn’t recognize.
From the halo of light at the other end of the building he could hear voices and a constant clanging, as though someone was whacking a metal plate with a hammer. There followed a continuous hissing, like a thousand serpents and he recognized it as the seeping, pressurized sound of escaping steam.
Cautiously, he began to make his way toward the light down an aisle as wide as a road. The hulking shapes of great wheels, chains and piles of lumber were everywhere. All around him were work areas for an army of blacksmiths and carpenters whose tools were scattered on workbenches or thrown haphazardly on the sawdust-covered floor.
He crept up the aisle until he was just outside the circle of light, but the bulky machinery still blocked his view.
The hissing was louder now, and he’d long since guessed The Best Friend was the source. Straining for a better look, he tripped over some contraption covered in canvas and lost his balance. Flailing in the dark, he smacked into a workbench and sent several tools skittering noisily to the floor. He held his breath and waited for the echoes to subside. When they did, the room was quiet except for the incessant hissing.
Then the lamps went out and a scream of anguished metal tore through the cavernous dark, followed by a flash of fire as a monster roared out of the murk, spewing cinders and rushing at him like Cerberus unleashed.
The engine was almost upon him before he leapt out of its path and hit the stone floor fully expecting to be crushed, burned and mangled. But the machine pounded past with a spasmodic lunge and sped headlong into the building’s east wall with a tremendous crash. Brick and mortar exploded in every direction as the metal hulk punched its way through to the street.
Dazedly getting to his feet, he saw the overturned locomotive gasping on its side, its iron wheels spinning crazily amid wreaths of steam, fragmented bricks and tongues of fire. The humid air was dense with the smell of scorched wood and burning oil.
Excited voices came from the street and he scrabbled toward the breach in the wall, afraid of the machine but more afraid of being caught in the building. Up close, The Best Friend was graceless and repellent. Steam poured from its boiler, a black chimney-like affair that, when it was upright, stood like a cannon pointed at the heavens. Fully five feet across and fifteen tall, it tapered at the top exactly like the muzzle of a big gun. One of the seams had popped its rivets and steam whistled from the crack so that it seemed entirely possible it might blow to smithereens. With renewed vigor, he climbed over the broken, blasted bricks and through a spray of hot water. As soon as he hit the sidewalk he gulped the fresh night air.
“Stay back,” he warned the half dozen drunks who’d piled out of the nearby tavern to see what caused the explosion. They were clearly in awe of the fantastic machine that stuck out of the wrecked wall, and they were too plastered to even think of impeding his escape. He was four blocks away, near the docks, before he stopped.
It was nine in the evening, and the waterfront was still very much alive. The great masts of a hundred ships stood out against the moon-bright sky and everywhere he looked men were loading or unloading cargo. Busy as it was, there was little hope of catching a boat up the Hudson at this hour. He had to find a cheap room for the night, or better yet, a tavern. He still had plenty of Henry’s money in his pocket and the thought of warm brandy was almost overpowering. He saw several places he could get a drink and probably stay till morning. It would give him time to think about William and this Helvetian Society, which was no doubt behind the sabotage he’d witnessed tonight.
He buttoned up his greatcoat against the chill and headed for the nearest taphouse.
Henry sat deep in a wingback armchair smoking opium and enjoying the nighttime view from his Cold Spring hotel window. He took one last draw on the pipe and the tar-like pellet bubbled and burned out. That was it, all he had; he’d have to go down to the docks today and find a fellow aficionado.
He smiled languidly at the starry sky and stared across the Hudson at the moonlit terrestrial rock the locals charmingly called Storm King Mountain. The presence of such an indifferent work of nature made him wistful and prompted thoughts of his own worthlessness. He was one of the damned, and so was Edgar, like their parents before them. But at least he had the opium to ease his way. And now so did his brother. He hoped Edgar appreciated the favor.
Ah, poor confused Edgar. How could he accuse his own flesh and blood of murder? True, the poems on the bodies were a nice touch, something he might have hatched himself. But they were brothers, and Edgar should have known better. Even though they’d grown up in different foster families, they’d managed to see each other as often as possible. And although they’d lived apart, they were uncannily similar in personality and even looked alike and spoke in the same rich baritone.
From an early age, they’d also shared the same literary sensibilities, and both had been writing since they were twelve. Henry was positive their souls were somehow intertwined, much like the verses they’d composed together. And yet, if his hand had found the knife in his pocket when Eddy accused him of murder, he might have slain him right there on the street.
And while he felt justified for abandoning Edgar, he hated the thought that someone, even a demented killer, would try to get the better of a Poe. He didn’t like anyone toying with his brother. In addition, the whole thing had a gamesmanship about it, a ‘who’s more clever?’ quality that he found immensely attractive. No, he couldn’t let his brother go it alone on this one; he had to get in on the fun.
In his mind he reviewed all the poems found on the victims, searching for a clue. First off, death was the topic of every one of them, which wasn’t really surprising, since they’d been left on corpses. And as far as he knew, Edgar had never written a poem that wasn’t about death in some way or another. So what was our maniac trying to tell us? His opiated brain was quick to picture the murders in all their bloody, saber-flashing fury, a scrap of poetry stuffed, rammed or driven into every victim.
A quiet tapping at the door interrupted his sanguinary musings. “Who’s there?” he called out, absently hoping it was a whore eager to earn her pay.
That’s all it took for the door to splinter off its hinges and come crashing into the room; the Griswald brothers were on him before he was even out of his chair. Matt Griswald, a heavyset man in need of a neck, backhanded him with a pistol he held in his fist, knocking him to the floor where both men set upon him with savage kicks.
The pain was startling but he forced himself to laugh perversely, for the joy of making them think they were having little effect. Then he lashed out and caught Zack’s ankle in mid-kick, toppling him on his ass, at the same time grabbing his own pretty knife and sticking it in the meat just above the other brother, Matt’s, kneecap.
The big man yelped and dropped his pistol as he went down. Henry reached for the wayward gun but Zack saw it too, and gave it a kick.
To be continued...
Copyright © 2006 by Jack Alcott