by Mel Waldman
part 1 of 2
On Sunday, December 10, 1983, at 9:34 a.m., Jacob Aaron Cohen, a massive middle-aged man, bereft of wife and family, double-locked his door. Hunched over and gazing at the floor, preoccupied as usual with a crucial existential question, he accidentally modified his stooped position and stood erect, thereby banging his head against the low hallway ceiling. But buried in the heavy snow of deep thoughts that covered his interior landscape, he seemed unaware of his surroundings or his physical pain.
Yet before leaving the fourth floor landing of his four-story walk-up apartment, he noticed Mrs. Redding, his gregarious neighbor, standing motionless in front of her door. Something was wrong, he surmised, for her little torso was hunched over, her round wrinkled face ensconced within her sunken chest. Since Mrs. Redding was the gossip of the building, her big mouth revealing all secrets in due time, Jacob was certainly surprised when she did not speak to him.
“Is anything the matter?” Jacob inquired with genuine concern.
“What happened?” Jacob asked, his rolling azure eyes sweeping down to the little woman.
“They stole my jewels!”
“The thieves who robbed my apartment!”
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear this, Mrs. Redding.”
“Be careful, Mr. Cohen! It’s just not safe anymore.”
“Did you call the police?”
“Oh, I see. Well, I guess...”
“And they did nothing! Just asked a few dumb questions and promised to send some detective over.”
“Did he come?”
“Never showed up.”
“That’s too bad.”
“Well, I’m gonna call them again and again until I see some action.”
“That’s the right attitude, Mrs. Redding.”
“And when John returns from his trip, he’ll give them hell.”
“He certainly will,” Jacob agreed.
“Oh, yes, the police did nothing. Nothing! But we’ll give them hell.”
“When was the apartment robbed?”
“Musta been yesterday when I was at my daughter’s.”
“I’m so sorry...”
“Did you double-lock your door, Mr. Cohen?”
“Not good enough. Get a third lock. You can’t trust anyone, especially the police. They promised to investigate but...”
“Things take time,” Jacob muttered as he scurried off to get the Sunday Times at the Kings Highway station.
Jacob sat at a booth in Dunkin’ Donuts. He read the New York Times Book Review section, the obituary column, and articles about the dead. A passionate reader and writer, he read the Book Review section every Sunday. And since he was a mystery writer, he scrutinized the obituary column and articles about the deceased, searching for interesting names and unusual deaths.
In the past year, Jacob had read articles about the passing of Arthur Koestler, Buckminster Fuller, Dame Rebecca West, Tennessee Williams, and Kenneth Millar. Jacob kept an album of the clipped articles entitled “Obituaries and Tales of Death.”
His favorite tale of the year was the one about the author Arthur Koestler who was found dead on March 3, 1983 in his London home with his wife, who apparently joined him in a suicide pact. Jacob was horrified and fascinated by the story.
Once, when Jacob found Mrs. Redding in the hallway, he asked her: “Why did the Koestlers end their lives?”
“I suppose for some, death seems more comforting than life.”
“Yes, Mr. Cohen. But not for me. And not for you.”
“Only for the few, I guess.”
“Yes, Mr. Cohen.”
Jacob gazed intently at Mrs. Redding’s green eyes and said: “I thought Koestler had a meaningful life. He was the author of thirty books and considered by some to be ‘the archetype of the activist Central European intellectual.’
“He wrote provocative things such as: ‘Like most people who suffer from chronic indignation — as others do from chronic indigestion — I can feel, during an attack, the infusion of adrenaline into the bloodstream, the craving of the muscles for violent action.’ So how could such a man take his own life?”
“Who knows?” Mrs. Redding said abruptly, before entering her apartment.
Jacob sat at a booth in Dunkin’ Donuts. The gargantuan man was disappointed that no one he knew appeared in the obituary column today. The articles about the dead were not particularly interesting, and there were no articles about his favorite authors in the book review section. So he wrote a short mystery entitled Bloody Mary.
Mary Jane Ellen was found dead in her Gramercy Park apartment. The police were baffled by the fact that the doorman had spoken to the victim about 1 a.m. Saturday morning. Yet according to the coroner’s report, the woman had been dead prior to 11 pm Friday night.
“Aha!” Joseph I. Cummings cried out. “There’s a double walking around the streets of New York City. And I’m gonna catch her!”
At the end of the mystery, Detective Cummings found Mary Jane Ellen’s sinister twin sister. So it went. And despite the fact that Bloody Mary was a silly mystery falling far below the standards of good, commercial trash, Jacob sold this ersatz work of art.
On Wednesday, January 5, 1984, Bloody Mary was published, appearing on newsstands throughout the USA. Jacob bought six copies of Bloody Mary and The New York Times at the Kings Highway station. Then he sauntered off to Dunkin’ Donuts.
Sitting in the middle booth, Jacob spread the six books across the table. Grinning sardonically, he moved the books around until he formed a large triangle. In the center of the triangle, he placed The New York Times. Momentarily, Jacob’s face glowed triumphantly and he wanted to announce that he was Jacob Aaron Cohen, the greatest living mystery writer. But instead, he reverently lifted The New York Times as if it contained the sacred scriptures and turned to the obituary column.
Jacob’s searching eyes darted across the page. He whispered: “No. Don’t know this one, and not that one, and not this one.” His mustang eyes galloped across the page until he found the name — her name. Mary Jane Ellen.
Yes! It was Mary Jane Ellen! The familiar name leaped off the page. Mary Jane Ellen loomed before him. Why? How? Mary Jane Ellen — a name among many names of the dead. And where did she live? “Oh, my God, it’s she!” Jacob cried out. “She’s dead! Really dead! Mary Jane Ellen of Gramercy Park — dead! Today, on publication day — she’s dead!”
On Wednesday, January 5, 1984, Bloody Mary was published, Mary Jane Ellen of Gramercy Park died, and Jacob Aaron Cohen’s nightmare began.
For two weeks, Jacob was afraid to write. Was he responsible in some way for the death of Mary Jane Ellen of Gramercy Park? Of course not, Jacob thought. It was a bizarre coincidence and nothing more.
Yet, on the other hand, there were incomprehensible forces, perhaps, operating in the universe. Although Jacob was a skeptic, he could not dismiss the possibility of supernatural powers. What should he do? In the midst of his existential crisis, he wrote another mystery.
Jacob wrote Murder on Ocean Parkway about a guy named Johnny O. Walker who was found dead on a bench on Ocean Parkway between Avenue M and Avenue N. Detective Joe MacDonald solved the crime. In the story, Johnny O. Walker’s address was 1221 Quentin Road.
Before writing the mystery, Jacob had checked the Brooklyn telephone book. There was no Johnny O. Walker living at 1221 Quentin Road or anywhere else in Brooklyn. And Jacob cried out: “Johnny O. Walker, whoever you are and wherever you live in real life, you’re safe!” But then he thought: What if the guy has an unlisted number?
Later, Jacob went to 1221 Quentin Road, rang the doorbell, and discovered there was no Johnny O. Walker living there. Afterwards, he mailed the manuscript to Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.
On Wednesday, February 9, 1984, Jacob received a rejection slip from the magazine. “Well, at least Johnny O. Walker is safe,” Jacob announced defiantly. Then he sauntered off to the Kings Highway station, bought The New York Times, strolled into Dunkin’ Donuts, ordered a cup of coffee, and turned to the obituary column. His eyes swept down the page. And there it was! The name exploded in his face. Detective Joe MacDonald!
No it can’t be, he thought, his severed mind struggling to be sane. Of course, it was some mistake — an optical illusion, perhaps, or a misprint. Jacob put the paper down and drank his coffee. But the coffee cup was rattling and his heart was beating rapidly.
Once more, he lifted the paper and turned to the obituary column. Slowly, he scrutinized the page. He read each name several times. He did not jump to any conclusions. Yet there it was! Detective Joe MacDonald! He studied the name — Detective Joe MacDonald. He reread the name — Detective Joe MacDonald.
He speculated, hypothesized, pondered and reread the name — Detective Joe MacDonald — Detective Joe MacDonald — Detective Joe MacDonald. Suddenly, Jacob’s massive body twitched violently as his trembling hands dropped the paper. Speaking to no one, he muttered: “Is this a cosmic joke?”
The following week, Jacob met Mrs. Redding on the 4th floor landing. Mrs. Redding complained that there had been another robbery in the building. Jacob listened perfunctorily, for he was obsessed with the supernatural.
Later, in the eldritch privacy of his apartment, he made a pact with himself: “From this moment on I will not be terrified. I will defy all frightening forces of the universe. I will conduct an experiment which will prove or disprove that there are supernatural forces operating in my life and mysteries.
“And to accomplish this task, I will write another mystery in which my detective is entirely fictitious and my victim real. In other words, if there are incomprehensible powers at work, I will kill two birds with one stone. I will prove the existence of the supernatural and I will kill one of my enemies. Now, whom shall I kill?”
Jacob Aaron Cohen made a list of his major enemies. The small list included the following six people: Samuel Cohen, his father; Rose Cohen, his stepmother; Valerie E. Diamond, his ex-mother-in-law; Jennifer L. Diamond, his ex-wife; Dr. Andrew F. Diamond, his ex-father-in-law; and Joseph A. Thomas, his former agent.
Samuel Cohen, his rejecting father, had condemned him to a life of failure. “You’ll never amount to nothin’,” the primitive pants salesman announced. “Just good in da books but nothin’ else. Never make it in da real world. Never!”
Copyright © 2007 by Mel Waldman