A Matter of Principle
by Brian Biswas
A single thought raced through Peter’s mind: Get out! In a flash, he was rushing down the steps to the first floor. He was white as a ghost and shaking uncontrollably. The police would have to be notified at once, of course. But he didn’t dare stay in the house a moment longer. Jason might return at any moment — the madman who had murdered his best friend and done who knows what with Marie. He shuddered.
He opened the front door, had one foot out the door, when he heard it again: a low, quivering wail, like that of a ghost.
And it was coming from the basement.
Oh, my God, Peter thought.,something’s down there. He was as terrified as ever but there was no question of leaving now. The steps that led to the basement were located off of the kitchen. He turned on the light and started down.
The steps creaked ominously. There was a wooden railing he held tightly as he descended. Peter had been afraid of basements ever since he was a child. The darkness and the musty air. Rodents that lurked in the shadows.
But now he had to put those fears behind him. There was a child’s rocking horse at the foot of the stairs. A bookcase against the wall behind it. Even though the light was on it seemed dim. The air was musty. There was an oil furnace which cast grotesque shadows on the wall. A deer’s head was mounted on the wall facing him. Beside it a gun cabinet that housed several weapons. He didn’t like the looks of things at all.
He saw a door that led to another room. And before he realized what was happening the doorknob was in his hand and he opened the door.
He had come upon Marie. She was bound and gagged and her eyes were filled with terror.
Peter pulled out his pocketknife and cut away her bonds. She threw her arms around him and began sobbing hysterically. Her face was pale. There were cuts on her arms and neck and her clothes were filthy.
“Let’s get out of here,” Peter said. “There’s no time to lose.” He took her hands and pulled her back through the door.
It was pitch dark. That was odd. He could have sworn he hadn’t touched the light switch. Just then he thought he heard something moving in the darkness. Something large and ominous. His heart was beating uncontrollably. He felt his hands beginning to sweat.
He held Marie’s hand tightly and pulled her closer to him. Suddenly the lights came on and Peter found himself staring into the lunatic eyes of Jason Lewd. The crazy man threw his head back and laughed.
“My husband,” Marie sobbed.
Jason’s laughter slowly dissolved into a maniacal fury. His eyes darted back and forth between Peter and Marie. “Ha! Ha!” he cried. “And here we have another one!” A gun flashed in his hands and he began waving it around. Marie was hysterical. Peter didn’t know what to do. He was confronted by a madman and there appeared to be no way out. And so—
He lunged towards Jason and the gun went off.
“No!” It was Marie. “For God’s sake, Jason, stop!”
Peter lay wounded at Jason’s feet. He looked up into the eyes of a man who was no longer human, a man who had been destroyed by jealousy and fear.
Jason emptied the gun into the dying man. Then his hand fell to his side and he dropped the gun on the floor. It made a clattering sound and was still. He stared at the dead man, glassy-eyed, watched in fascination as blood flowed from the wounds and pooled on the floor. There were beads of sweat on Jason’s forehead and his face was pale.
He turned to face Marie. The color had drained from her face and she was trembling. Jason’s blue eyes seemed to glow in the pale light of the room. Every muscle in his body was tense.
Marie backed up against the gun cabinet. “Jason,” she said. “Jason, please. My God, Jason.” His hands were upraised; he would strangle her in moments, she knew. “Jason! Jason!”
She turned the handle of the cabinet and — luckily — it opened, making a creaking sound as it did so. Thank God he did not notice.
Marie knew he always kept his weapons loaded. He was paranoid about that. He always had to be ready, he had told her, but for what she never knew. She called out to him again as she groped for a weapon and finding one held it tightly, her fingers on cold steel.
She hissed, “Jason, Jason.”
Three shots at point-blank range into the body of her husband who uttered a cry and collapsed onto the floor. He was writhing in pain and his face registered astonishment. “Jason! Jason!” Two more shots and he moved no more.
* * *
It took thirty minutes for the police to find her, curled up on the floor in the fetal position. They had been alerted to the disturbance by a neighbor who had heard shots.
Two dead men and a woman who wouldn’t speak for days. The truth came out in the end, as it usually does in these sorts of cases. It turns out that Jason had been unable to allay his suspicions and had confronted Marie over her alleged infidelities. She denied everything, but he did not believe her. He forced her to leave Creekside — Marie said he threatened to kill her if she did not do so.
Jason began drinking and at times became violent. Without Marie’s income money became tight. Jason tried to alleviate their financial woes by embezzling small amounts of cash from work. When this was discovered, he was forced to resign. Then he started gambling. Marie found out about it one day, and Jason realized she knew. And then he locked her away.
There was an investigation, but it was determined that Marie had acted in self-defense and she was not charged. She moved to California and eventually remarried.
“That’s a pretty sad story,” I said. “However, I don’t see how it proves your point.”
“Let me put it to you bluntly: would you say Marie was justified in shooting her husband?”
I bolted from my chair. “Of course she was justified! He was going to murder her just as he had—”
“There was nothing between them, you said so quite clearly.”
“Yes, but Jason thought there was.”
“And that justifies his actions?”
“Perhaps not. But it does explain them.”
“Surely you aren’t saying Jason was justified in murdering two innocent people? If so... why, then, you are as mad as he!”
“But don’t you see?” Charles said and his eyes glowed like two orbs of fire. “Jason was led to imprison his wife by his belief that she was having an affair. Rob was led to search for Marie by his concern for her. Peter was led to investigate Rob’s disappearance by his devotion to his friend. And Marie was led by the cumulative weight of all to pull the trigger on the gun that sealed her fate.
“We may call Jason’s deed evil, or Marie’s for that matter, but it was no more evil than the drawing of your next breath. It was preordained. Fixed. Immutable.”
“Preposterous. There is quite a difference between Jason’s actions and Marie’s. On the one hand you are talking about a normal human reaction — self-defense — on the other you are talking about cold-blooded murder.”
“It is only a matter of degree.”
I frowned. “That I can never accept.”
“Let us agree then to disagree.”
“Oh, there was one other thing,” Charles said. “During the investigation, Marie was asked why she had resigned her position at Creekside instead of simply informing the police she was being hounded by her husband. She was a strong woman and by all accounts she loved her job. Was it possible something else was going on, some activity of a criminal nature — gambling perhaps? — that they were both involved in and that had gone sour.”
“That’s preposterous!” I cried. “The woman was scared, that’s all. But let’s assume — for the sake of argument — that something else was going on. Even so, it is quite clear Marie acted in self-defense on that dreadful day.”
“You mean she said she did.”
I paused. “Hmm,” I said. “I see your point.”
“My only point is that life’s a muddle,” Charles concluded.
We said our good-byes then and he went outside into the cold October night.
I brewed myself a cup of lapsong tea and sat before the roaring fire, thinking about what Charles had said. I was troubled, to be sure. I knew the man did not speak lightly, that he meant every word he said. Even so, I could not accept his argument. To do so meant a world in disarray. Chaos. And what arises out of chaos but anarchy?
“Everything is relative,” Charles had intoned, “as the great Einstein once said. Many events happen by chance. The man who is a saint could just as easily be a sinner — and may in fact be one when looked at in this light instead of that one. Look!” — he had fairly shouted the word — ”Look at your own hand. Tomorrow will it deliver a loving caress or will it choke the life from—”
I imagine a world with no rules, with no laws, where everything is simultaneously permissible and forbidden. A world where nothing is black and white, where everything is gray. Perhaps Charles was right. Perhaps that was the world in which I found myself.
“It’s a matter of principle,” I had insisted. “There are eternal truths.”
Now, as I stare into the flames that rise higher and higher, I wonder: what if I am wrong? But then I realize that if I am wrong — and Charles is right — I may as well be right and Charles wrong; that is, the question has no meaning. Oh, bother. Charles is right about one thing: this is a town without pity.
Copyright © 2012 by Brian Biswas