My guest and I had finished a delicious dinner, and were enjoying our cigars and a fine bottle of wine. He held his glass up to the light and remarked, “This sherry certainly has a unique, deep-amber color and an exceptional bouquet.”
“Yes, it’s a favorite here in Jeréz de la Frontera. I hoped its nutty flavor would tantalize you.”
He smiled and sat back in his chair. “It is your intention then to tantalize me? I must admit that the meal, and most assuredly the wine, have certainly succeeded in that regard. But I feel there are more ominous undertones to the evening yet to come. Am I not correct?”
“You are obviously as perceptive as your reputation suggests.” I answered. “And yes, the subject of our evening’s conversation is someone familiar to both of us.”
He took another sip of the vin d’or and asked, “Proceed, sir. You have my complete attention. Just whom are we dissecting?”
I raised my hand. “Not so quickly. It actually all began nearly three years ago. . . October, 1843 to be exact. At that time I was a detective in the little known Department of Unsolved Crimes in New York City. I had spent the afternoon going over the news clippings and police reports from a file pertaining to a crime committed three months before. I found that a team of the constabulary were alerted by calls from neighbors who claimed to have heard a woman’s cries on an evening three nights previous. A thorough investigation was conducted, during which the sole resident, by his insistence his wife had gone to live with her mother, had absolved himself of their suspicions. They were about to depart when they decided to re-inspect the cellar.
“As they again made their way down the dank stairway, the man’s speech rose in volume and he began to brag about the quality of his home’s construction. Once inside the ill-lit chamber, he rapped heavily with his cane on a portion of the wall. No sooner had the reverberations from his blow subsided than the officers heard a muffled, inhuman howling coming from behind that same partition.”
“Sounds ominous,” my companion observed.
I refilled our glasses and continued, “With no small effort, using whatever tools were at hand, the officers succeeded in opening a section of the wall. There, in the musty cavity they discovered a partially decayed corpse, later determined to be that of the wife of the man. The house-owner cowered in the darkest corner and pointed into the dark opening. He screamed about a demon in the shape of a one-eyed, black cat. The man, obviously mad, confessed.”
My guest relit his cigar and muttered, “Hmmph.”
“Not entirely satisfied with the findings of the police, I obtained a key to the premises and conducted my own investigation of the cellar. All appeared as had been reported until the beam of my lantern fell on a broken piece of the wall’s inner face. On closer scrutiny I could make out the letters: eidd. They were of a brownish color and irregular in size and shape, the final letter being smaller and more faint than the others.”
I took my pencil and sketched the letters on my napkin for my guest to see. “A visit to the coroner confirmed my suspicions. . . the tip of the right index finger of the cadaver was scraped and bloody. I was certain the wife, in her last breaths, had attempted to give some clue as to the identity of her real killer.”
“You dismissed her husband as the perpetrator, even though he’d confessed?”
“Yes, I was convinced he was a dupe, because his name did not contain that combination of letters. But it did bring to mind a finding I had made seven months before on a similar routine investigation of neighbors having heard a shriek in the night. The officers had confronted a man in a disturbed mental state pounding on the floor and screaming for a heart to stop beating. He confessed he had killed an elderly boarder in his lodgings and placed the body under the wooden planks.
“The body, when removed, was found to have one eye covered with a bluish film or membrane. I had never been satisfied with the findings in that case either, since it was never proved the accused had any motive. In that instance I had discovered letters, also uneven, scratched into the wallpaper next to the heavy bed which had turned over to crush the old man: RAGDE. I was not able to discover any reason for, or make any sense out of, that series of letters any more than I was out of the other four.”
I stopped. My companion, had not spoken for minutes and had both eyes closed. “Am I boring you?” I asked. “I guess it’s possibly not as interesting a narrative as I had imagined.”
He sat upright, eyes fully open. “Heavens no. I was listening to every word. Carry on.”
Encouraged, I continued. “I had nearly forgotten the incident when a few months later I had lunch with a friend who is an officer in another precinct, and the subject of the letters scratched into the wall came up. He remembered a crime of six months before — in November of forty-two. A young woman named Mary Rogers had disappeared under mysterious circumstances. Days later, a body found floating in the Hudson River had been identified by the tearful parents as that of their daughter and investigation into the matter ceased. He had found that actually, due to the much-decayed condition of the corpse, the substantiation of identity was based mostly on remnants of clothing and a handkerchief bearing the girl’s name found on the river-bank at the alleged scene of her death. The discovery of an abandoned boat in the same area had been given little importance by the press. He gave me one other bit of information which at the time meant nothing but ultimately led to my solution of the crimes. . .at least to my satisfaction.”
My dinner guest crushed out his cigar and sat erect. “Might we get to the point.”
I sighed. “Please forgive my apparently obvious theatrics, but have you not found the anticipation of an event is often more rewarding than the ultimate event itself? I shall, however, ‘get to the point’ as you say.”
“As I said, my associate gave me a crucial bit of information . . . he mentioned the name of a man who had been an acquaintance of the Rogers girl, a name I had read in the reports of the murders involving the black cat and the man who buried his victim beneath the floor.”
My guest laughed, “Aha! We are getting to the heart of the matter.”
I smiled as he again filled his glass. “It was more than two years later, in December of forty-five, that news reached me about a friend from my youth, Ernest Valdemar, I believe you knew Ernie?”
My guest shook his head.
I continued.”He reportedly had met an untimely end during a questionable undertaking in mesmerism. I cancelled all appointments and hurried by coach to his home in Harlem, New York. After I had conversed with the investigating police and scrutinized reports, I could see no reason to Doubt the findings of the authorities — death by natural causes. . .until I came upon the name of a man who had been among the group of guests.”
“Our mysterious Mr. X?”
“Yes. The same man who had been linked to each of the other crimes. It was then I remembered Ernie’s habit of keeping a daily record. I searched and soon found a small note book. It was then, staring at those notes in his book, I remembered the reading problems my friend had since childhood. I dug through my notes of the prior crimes and quickly understood the letters left by the dying victims. I then knew the motive for the crimes and had a good idea who had committed them.
“I embarked upon an exhaustive search for the man I believed the miserable victims had tried to name as their real killer. Success did not elude me, I found he had fled to a small city in Spain.”
“A brilliant move on his part.”
I nodded. “I took lodgings in the same town and found he had assumed another name, but descriptions I had obtained left me no doubt as to his true identity. He was diminutive in stature, still wore a small mustache and was known locally as a poet. He lived in a small run-down cottage with an attractive woman some ten years his junior.
“Having found this villain, what did you do?”
“I lost no time. I invited him to dinner, and over a delicious plate of paella a la Valenciana and an especially memorable bottle of wine. . .much as we have enjoyed this evening. . .I set about explaining my reasoning to him. I felt that of all others, he, who has been called the master of deduction, would most appreciate the analytical skills required to have brought me to my final conclusions.”
My companion smiled.
“I will begin my summation by stating I was certain the first of his crimes was also a cleverly contrived and executed hoax to fool the police.”
The smile had left his lips. He said, “You continue to astound me.”
“In the summer of forty-two, the scoundrel had met the young Mary Rogers, and wanted her for himself. But he knew her parents would never agree to the wedding due to the difference in their ages, so the two lovers contrived to have her disappear under mysterious circumstances.
“Our Mr. X murdered a prostitute of his acquaintance in a reed patch, but due to his slight frame, found he could not carry his victim to the boat he had stolen. He, therefore, tore a strip from Mary’s petticoat, tied it around the neck of the corpse and thus dragged her from the reedy area in which the crime was committed. That gave him the idea to further identify the cadaver by leaving Mary’s handkerchief and other garments as well —too many, in my opinion.”
My dinner guest let his gaze drift around the uncrowded cafe and said. “But, when the body was discovered, the parents did identify it as their daughter, did they not?”
Leaning forward, he softly said, “A stroke of genius, what? And if accounts I read are true, it even fooled his friend, Dupin.”
“Yes, but Dupin was not in possession of the information I have since uncovered. If he had been, perhaps Mr. X, as you called him, would not have been so fortunate.”
As this conjecture was met with a shrug of the shoulders, I continued, “By the way, you are a man of learning, have you heard of the disorder that causes some to read or write letters or words backwards or upside down?”
He smiled and nodded his head, “Yes, and I find it loathsome. I am able to abide almost any affliction in my fellow man, but to myself. . .a writer of no little talent, as I am sure you will concede. . .the thought that anyone might be reading my timeless poetry or prose in reverse or upside down is intolerable.”
“I thought you might find it so. But it is hardly a rational reason for murder.”
“But when I remembered my friend Valdemar was so afflicted, everything fit into place. I again looked at the groups of letters left by the victims. They made sense immediately. The first combination, eibb, formed in blood on the wall, was clear when I found out from neighbors the victim had difficulty reading.
My guest stared at me in silence while he again enjoyed the wine’s bouquet. Then he said, “I do congratulate you. I admire your perseverance and deductive skills.”
“I an honored by such a compliment from you. . .that, in part, is why I have asked you here this evening.”
“Yes, but also to evaluate the legal aspects of my findings.”
“Ah! Well in that matter, I can tell you you have no conclusive evidence against this man. Nothing that would even tickle a magistrate’s interest.” He pursed his lips and stroked his mustache. Looking into my eyes, he said, “But I think you already knew that.”
After perhaps a minute he again broke the silence. “Are you, as you have described Mr. X, also an egotist? Forgive me, but you do not seem the type. As you know, I fancy myself to be a keen judge of character, and I see you as a man who is pleased to have solved the unsolvable, and having done so, will move on to other challenges. Am I correct?”
“Very neatly summed up,” I agreed.
He dabbed at his mustache with his napkin. “Then, if you will excuse me, I shall beg my leave. I have perhaps had a modicum too much of this excellent amontillado. However, it has given me an idea for a tale of the macabre. If I complete it, you shall know that it is dedicated to you. And, let me see. . .yes, in my story I shall call you Fortunato. Rather appropriate wouldn’t you say? And I predict you shall meet a less-than-pleasant demise . . .only in print, of course. In that way I can exact my own form of revenge for your cleverness.”
I smiled and raised my glass to him. As he walked away, his jaunty stride restored, I called out, “Please give my best to your lovely Mary.”