“Chinese Poetry” by Robert Pritchard
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Chinese has advantages; you cannot make an English poem out of only the 16 words you find most interesting.
– Hugh Kenner
Murder in the Villa Anzique: striding ahead, the Duchess’s obsidian locks bounced against pale shoulder-blades. Too quickly, we passed marble cupids and varnished Old Masters in gilt frames. Her perfume was imperious and technocratic, like burning magnesium. I was already intoxicated.
In the salon, the noted young novelist explained the rules of the “fair play mystery”:
“The criminal must be mentioned early, but not be someone whose thoughts the reader is allowed to know, nor can it be the detective himself. There may be no supernaturalism, nor appliance requiring a scientific explanation, nor twins or doubles in general without due preparation, nor may any accident or unaccountable intuition help the detective, nor any clue discovered unless it be immediately produced for the reader’s inspection.” He fitted a cigarette into a tortoiseshell holder. “Nor, needless to say, may there be any Chinamen in the story.”
“You know quite clearly what the solution is not,” I said forcefully, startling the circle, “but what is the solution?”
The Duchess made my introduction. I prowled about, their round eyes tracking me in unison like so many televisions. Mentally, I enumerated them. Lady Lucretia Boruvka — disgraced former mistress of the Prague Zoo, accompanied by her servant Patrice. Colonel Maurice Legba (Ret.) — factor of west Africa. Miss Elisabeta Morel — inventor of the Rotating Prisms. Leroy Maubaussin — American. And the aforementioned novelist, Henri Meurtrier.
The Duchess led me to the scene of the crime. The book-lined study was furnished with leather armchairs and blown-glass flowers under bell jars. Duke Faust von Lissixg was found dead last night, slumped across his mahogany desk. On first examination, there were no apparent wounds. Before expiring, he had composed a note in pencil on the manuscript page before him. He might have thereby closed the case before it began, except that someone had erased most of it. I peered at the ghostly blurs. Only a fragment was legible: “…mysterious wrecks…”
“Where you were at the time, Madame?”
“In my bedroom in the east wing.”
“Why don’t you tell me what happened.”
“I went to his study to say goodnight. After knocking but receiving no reply, I tried the knob. The door was locked from the inside, but fortunately we keep another key in the safe. When I entered, the Duke was in his chair, his head down on the desk. I tried to wake him but… I hurried to the telephone in my bedroom to call the police. My screams must have woken our guests, because when I returned, the five of them were in the study. Apparently they were all quite perplexed, or so they said, because the body had vanished. Not a trace of him has been seen since.”
“And the note?”
“Was already there, and already erased.”
A close inspection of the desk, chair, and carpet revealed no blood or other marks, nor the room any indication of a struggle. The single window was closed and unlatched, but the sheer stone wall fell away a hundred feet to jagged rocks lapped by the azure Mediterranean, and there were no windows nearby. The room’s only other aperture was the chimney and there I saw something unusual. Aside from a sturdy, hinged-top credenza about the length and width of a coffin but much taller, there were no spaces in the room large enough to hide a body.
I turned back to the desk. The manuscript lay in two neat piles, face up and face down. “What was he reading?”
“The latest work of that young man, Meurtrier. We invited him to stay while completing it — my husband was a great patron of the arts. He was quite taken with Henri’s previous book, but on this one they didn’t see eye to eye. I heard them quarreling yesterday.”
My eyes fell upon the typed page and, inexorably, I found myself drawn into the story…
Chapter 33: The Red Tape
“Ladies and gentlemen, it’s always the one you least expect.” Detective Charles King paced the room. “As I’ve talked, I’ve allowed suspicion to fall upon each of you in turn and, as each one of you felt the accusatory glares of your companions and the fear of prison, your minds have raced ahead to what you would do if you were backed against the wall. Would you go quietly, or reach for the pistol concealed in your boot or handbag? And then, as I revealed exonerating evidence, relief washed over you.
“Yet there was one of you who, during his or her turn under the microscope of logic, secretly longed to be caught, because then all the deceit could end and one could at last be righteously punished. All criminals yearn to be discovered, is the first thing I learned in detective school. Without a witness, without an audience, the criminal cannot truly enjoy his crime.” He lit a meerschaum pipe and for a few moments puffed contentedly. “Or her crime,” he added.
The room was deathly quiet.
“So far I haven’t said much about Lady Boruvka. After all, who could suspect a somewhat frail woman of forcibly asphyxiating a man in the prime of life? Yet we know that due to a scandal she was expelled from her long-time sinecure at the Prague Zoo, and her attempt to reinvent herself as an author was stillborn when her debut, Miss Teri’s Rejects, was a critical and commercial disaster. Though her costume and coiffure remain impeccable, she is on the brink of destitution. And according to the Duke’s eccentric will, his entire estate belongs to the man or women in possession of his corpse.”
Lucretia Boruvka settled on the settee. “But, as you say, I lack the physical strength to overpower the Duke.”
“Madam, what was the nature of the scandal that caused you to leave Prague?”
The old woman’s face grew waxy. “That is private,” she said in a strained voice.
“Chivalry disposes me to keep silent, but when a man is dead, the truth must be told. ‘Tis a love story, and who among us cannot say that love, that thaumaturgic flame, hath not driven us to defy law and custom?
“In Lady Boruvka’s case, years of close association led her to fall in love with a charge of the zoo: an Ourang-utang. When the illicit affair was discovered, she was expelled from her post; censure forced her to flee Prague. Not long afterward, the great ape vanished. Nobody has seen him since — until today.”
With that, King tore the beribboned bicorne from the head of Patrice, attired in his usual white and baby blue Napoleonic uniform, revealing him as an Ourang-utang.
“Patrice — properly trained by an expert in primate behavior — is the murder weapon. Agile and immensely strong, it was child’s play for him to scale the castle wall and strangle the Duke. When the Duchess knocked, he was startled and hid in the chimney until she left. This explains the unusual footprint I found in the ashes. Then he hoisted the Duke’s lifeless body and absconded out the window. Lady Boruvka planned to hide the body until she could plant it elsewhere and, later, pretend to discover it, thus entitling her to the fortune.”
“Yes, it’s true,” she sobbed. “I did those things.”
Somberly, the others departed until only the Duchess, Detective King, and Lady Boruvka remained.
“The police will arrive in a few moments.” The Duchess held out a glossy LeMat revolver, loaded with one bullet. “Perhaps you’d like to cut through the red tape?”
Soon afterward, they showed the gendarmes to the locked door of Lady Boruvka’s bedroom. A maid retrieved the spare key and, upon entering, they found the woman dead at the desk. Before her lay an open copy of her novel. King perused the page…
That morning, a large crate arrived at the Villa Anzique, postmarked Madrid, and labeled in charmingly incorrect English: MIXED ORE Y TECHS — the writer having accidentally substituted a Spanish “y” for its counterpart “and.” The crate went to an outbuilding on the boulder-strewn hillside, where famous inventor Elisabeta Morel had her laboratory.
The young woman’s rough leather and denim clothing was in striking contrast to her beauty — her alabaster skin, sable hair, and dark, flashing eyes.
Inside the crate she found black-market materials and forbidden technology. She soon added these to her invention.
Hours later, she stared fixedly at the machine. Two prisms eighteen inches in length were mounted on gimbals. The projector — two perpendicular brass cones, joined at the truncated apices — was connected to storage cylinders through an insulated evaporator and, behind that, to flickering green monitors and a chrome control box festooned with dials and toggles. The whole was crude, ad hoc, but only a prototype; in anticipation of its use, she ignored the ugliness of its construction.
A rap at the door: the Duke entered and viewed the eidolaturge, as she dubbed the machine, then invited her to dinner. As the other guests chatted amiably over lobster bisque and roast quail, Elisabeta’s mind raced like some wild mouse. Soon, she excused herself, returned to her laboratory, and waited. The Duke followed momentarily, as she knew he would.
“By now you know I can never allow that machine to exist.” A glossy LeMat revolver appeared in his hand. “Nor you to leave this estate.”
“That was why you invited me, yes?” she said. “To observe me and, if necessary…”
He nodded. “And so it has become.” He crossed to the machine. “The material world was created by the demiourgós and not by the true monadic divinity — the pleroma (totality) or bythos (profundity) — and thus is imperfect: an illusion, a prison. Therefore, to replicate aspects of this base physical world, to create simulacra of what is itself a simulacrum, as this machine does, is to further veil the soul’s knowledge of noös and delay its journey to enlightenment.” He brandished the gun. “Now you must show me how to dismantle this devilish device and, in return…”
She did not listen to his promises. “First, disconnect the condenser.”
Unfortunately for the Duke, doing so without preparation flooded the condenser — only slightly above absolute zero — with warm air. The effect manifested as frosty, tubular concretizations of ice, growing at impossible speed. The snow-like precipitate, expanding frothily from the unit, enveloped him almost instantaneously, and he cried out in pain.
The effect was fleeting; already, the uncanny crystals were sublimating but, before the Duke could again wield the frozen gun cemented to his frost-burned hand, Morel leapt forward and, grabbing a knife, dealt him a mortal blow. As the remaining ice vanished, the Duke gradually slumped to the floor.
Morel was breathing hard. What can I do, she thought, as I can’t plead self-defense, since nobody knew of the Duke’s Gnosticism or would accept he meant to kill me? She turned to the machine.
That evening, everybody saw the Duke enter his study. When the Duchess entered later, there he was, apparently dead, and when her screams woke her guests, Elisabeta hurried there with the others, pretending to be as surprised as they.
By then the eidolaturge wound down and the simulacrum of the man — convincing to sight, sound, and touch — had faded away. She only regretted the machine had not been able to project a more legible image of the text she’d prepared, casting blame on another guest of the house…
read the sign on Jermyn Street. A good egg once said, if one was Africa-bound, one could do worse than dropping in on old Ussreck. And indeed it proved to be so. Once I was properly kitted out, I boarded my steamer, and in a thrice we hove to off the sweltering shore of Dahomey.
For three years I bought and sold diamonds, spices, ivory, animal pelts, thallium, and muskets. An acquaintance acquired a quantity of quartz and quintupled its value selling it upcountry. He said the natives valued the mineral as an infallible lure for a bird called the Misty Rhea, due to its white coloration. It furnished an essential component in certain voodoo rites. He displayed a miniature doll, an effigy of wood and hemp.
Aware of a European vogue for primitive artifacts, I resolved to journey to the interior.
In the trackless wilderness, I queried after magicians. Charlatans were many, but the tales of true sorcerers piqued my curiosity. I traveled further from the coast. Finally, in a hut beyond the Nngoma River, I saw a man raised from the dead.
The elderly wizard agreed I would become his apprentice. I abandoned European clothing and put on the coarse tunic of the Africans. My tongue grew unaccustomed to English. One day some villagers came who, menaced by bandits, requested protection, and the wizard said it was time for the most potent medicine.
In a quiet thicket, we laid a trap: two quartz oblongs in a shallow depression. We returned each night until fate blessed us. An achromatic bird sat atop the trap, as pleased as the rooster who makes the sun rise. It believed it incubated its eggs, which are clear and hard as rock crystal. With its powdered bones, we concocted the hex.
I asked, “Why, with such powers at your command, did Africa fall prey to Europe? Surely he who knows these secrets could make himself master of the world.”
He replied, “The journey to such knowledge is long and few complete it, and he who does no longer wishes, at the end, to use it in the ways he did at the beginning.”
That night I stole away from his hut. Taking a portion of the potion, I returned to London and finagled an invitation to the Duke von Lissixg’s villa on the Côte d’Azur. During postprandial conversation, I dosed the Duke’s burgundy with a minute measure of the Misty Rhea’s Hex. When he retired, I went to my guest-room and, meditating over a fetish, made psychic contact. We wrestled for control, and he collapsed into a deathly trance, and through my inner eye I saw his wife attempt to revive him. After she left, I temporarily possessed the Duke’s body and walked him zombie-like from his study.
With the enchanted Duke safely in my room, I took from him the sheaf of typed papers and began to read…
Detective King gathered us in the parlor. “There is no solution,” he said, “because there is no problem.” His peremptory glare quelled our antic susurrus. “A man enters a room; later he is found dead and subsequently vanishes. This is regarded as unusual behavior. But what is a man? Is he flesh and blood, or something less concrete? If his existence was of another kind of reality, he might easily die and disappear from a locked room several times before breakfast.”
“Now see here, King,” said rubicund Colonel Legba, “when a corpse goes AWOL, we don’t expect the bloke what’s hired to find him to tell us he never existed.”
“I didn’t say he never existed,” the detective replied. “Au contraire, the Duke was as real as you or me. What I believe we are dealing with here is a category error.”
“What is that?” asked Lady Boruvka.
Elisabeta Morel interjected: “A visitor tours a university: he views dormitories, classrooms, libraries, offices, laboratories, a stadium, etc., and then says, ‘Yes, those are very nice, but where is the university?’ He has treated things of one category as if they belonged to another.”
“Precisely,” the detective said. “The late Duke was, in the end, only a linguistic construct or, more bluntly, an illusion. His reality was only realism — i.e., a semblance of reality created by an arrangement of language. If someone were to write of him that he entered a room, or, later, was no longer there, or that he died or lived, all these would be equally true from the perspective of the writer.”
“Charles, you’re saying Faust von Lissixg was essentially a fictional character,” Elisabeta said. “But if that was true of him…”
Detective King nodded. “He felt real to us, because we are the same as he. This whole reality — the Villa Anzique, this room, the unusual thing I found in the hearth — is no more substantial than ink on paper.”
“Then there was no murder,” Leroy Maubaussin mumbled.
“Au contraire again, good sir.” The detective circumambulated the yellow-papered room. “Just because the Duke was only a series of words, doesn’t mean he couldn’t be killed.” He removed a glossy LeMat revolver from his tan raincoat. “This story began as a search for a murderer. It ends as a search for an author.” He was then standing before me, staring into my eyes. “Have you anything to add, Henri?”
I pointed to his gun. “It’s just — I’d be careful with that.” But in place of the gun he held a single long-stemmed red rose, the bloom leveled in my direction.
He pricked himself: “Ouch!”
Their baleful eyes fixed upon me. “But I had to do it,” I exclaimed. “What’s a story without conflict? Why, if it wasn’t for me, none of you would exist. You’re nothing without.
I set down the perplexing manuscript. Meurtrier clearly had limited commercial prospects as an author. I couldn’t help but think, readers want a ripping good yarn, not a metafictional Ouroboros eating its own tail.
The Duchess, resplendent in her black evening gown, looked at me expectantly. Perhaps mistakenly seeing in her face ardor to match mine, I could no longer refrain from sharing my feelings.
“I don’t know if now is the appropriate time to say this, but I am madly in love with you.”
She rolled her eyes. “Oh, don’t be so self-righteous.” Turning away, she gathered up the papers. When she faced me again, I gazed into her eyes, like polished disks of onyx, and was seized by a sudden unaccountable intuition.
“There was no murder.”
“It is true,” she said with a Gallic shrug.
“The Duke and you were the same person.”
She nodded. “Since you have seen the essential truth, I might as well tell you the rest. I created the persona of Faust in order to win a raffle for which I was otherwise ineligible. It became necessary to continue the deception, and seemed easiest to marry him. But the stress of maintaining a separate fictional existence was wearying, and so I staged his murder.”
“That explains what I found in the fireplace: a man’s ring,” I said. “You burned the rest of your disguise, but the ring survived.”
“But we still need a solution to the Duke’s disappearance.”
“Fine,” I said peevishly. “I’ll do it.” I mused for a moment, then announced: “The key lies in the partially erased note: ‘mysterious wrecks.’ The word wrecks is a homophone with the Latin rex, meaning king. Translating into French produces le roi, or — ”
“Leroy!” she cried. “It’s Leroy Maubaussin!”
Perhaps hearing his name, the young man stepped quickly through the door. To his ill fortune, because my reflexes, honed in a thousand gunfights, reacted automatically. A whiff of cordite filled the air. Surprised, he touched his chest, where welled up a daub of blood, before collapsing to the carpet.
Before I had scarcely assimilated what happened, the Duchess was smothering my face with kisses, thanking me for defending her against the violent assailant even as she took a glossy LeMat revolver from a drawer and fitted it into Maubaussin’s limp hand, carefully wrapping his finger around the trigger. Then she lifted the telephone and dialed.
“Hello, police? Yes, this is Faustine von Lissixg. Please come at once. We’ve discovered the identity of my husband’s murderer.” A pause. “No, that will not be necessary. Send a hearse.”
I gestured at the body. “How did he do it?”
“The Duke was never in the study last night. Leroy, together with the Duke’s estranged twin brother Franz, bludgeoned him earlier and dropped him in the sea. Franz, whose resemblance to the Duke is uncannily close, impersonated him so everyone would believe the murder took place later that evening and in another place, when they had alibis.”
“Motive?” I asked.
“My mother Maria was a historian who, in her researches in the monastic libraries of Italy, discovered a number of hitherto-thought-lost texts by the Roman theologian Arius, father of the Arian heresy. Mitzi, as everyone called her, bequeathed these very valuable medieval manuscripts to me. Clearly, Leroy intended to steal the Mitzi Arius Texts.”
And that was how I, Chaoling Qing, mandarin of the Celestial Empire, solved the case of the disappearing cadaver.
|Robert Pritchard grew up in California, attended Whitman College and Massey University, and today is taking a break from nursing school in Colorado to perform manual labor in Spain. His fiction has appeared in Betwixt, Plasma Frequency, and Interstellar. Visit him online at weird-proof.org for celebrity gossip, interior decorating tips, and delicious low-cal recipes that will wow your family! Actually, no, it doesn’t have any of that stuff.|