Madmen of a Harmless Nature

This selection is part of NonBinary Review #12: The Works of Edgar Allan Poe. Get NonBinary Review #12 from the Zoetic Press website. 

My friend the Chevalier C. Auguste Dupin had garnered a reputation for divining the truth in the most outre of crimes and yet he was most content in his current repose, velvet curtains drawn tight, slippered feet to the fire, nodding over a favored tome, drifting from our inner sanctum into some phantasmagoria within his mind. The adulation of the public was a nuisance to him, only the satisfaction of bringing his praeternatural acumen to bear upon some nefarious puzzle served as an inducement to action. Others had called him a diseased intelligence, but he was proud of his rare ability to intertwine ingenuity and intuition, and thread it through a rational analysis to discover the truth that eluded others.

That horrible orb that some call the Sun, but which Dupin and I referred to as the Agony Star, was at long last diving beneath the horizon, subjecting some other corner of the damned world to it’s Hellish emanations. We were free to roam the streets of Paris again. Dupin’s astral self settled back hard into his body, eliciting a long sigh. It had been raining that day, and so the fetid stench of the city enveloped us as we trod those glistening cobblestones. Everywhere we walked the eyes of the night were upon us. By day Dupin was the hero of Paris, a champion of justice in a cruel world. To the denizens of these lunar streets however, he was something different – a wraith haunting the back alleys. We would go everywhere and talk to no one. As we passed they would whisper amongst themselves, “is it truly him?” Little did they know that to Dupin they were much the same – temporal flickerings of other beings, perceived only at the very edges of his consciousness.

This evening had presented an uneventful promenade when, of a sudden, Dupin grasped at my breast to arrest me. He took his famous green-tinted spectacles between his fingers and moved them up and down the bridge of his nose, as if some small change in the angle might confirm or deny what he was seeing. He was staring down into a foreboding alley, and I feared that some awful thing might extrude itself from those inky depths. Worse than I had feared, Dupin stepped in, his feet trotting forward like a marionette inexpertly handled. I grabbed at his sleeve but he tossed my hand away. Working in a world of mental abstractions, Dupin, known for his unique perceptiveness, was often oblivious to the practical dangers of the world. It was times such as this that I felt the keen lack of martial leanings in our pairing. Indeed, should a situation ever come to fisticuffs or worse I was certain that we would be much the worse for it. That Dupin considered himself as separate from this world did not make him immune to it.

It was with these trepidacious thoughts that I followed him into this particular recess of Paris. Much to my relief the space was abandoned, but what then drew my friends particular interest? Finally, as we approached the terminus of the alley, I saw that which he had somehow seen from the avenue. Dupin and I delight in the lurid, the sordid, and the despicable. Such things were the very currency of our friendship, but what I read scrawled upon those forlorn bricks sickens me to this very day. Without a thought I made to wipe it away with my sleeve.

“Wait!” Dupin cried. “It must remain undisturbed.”

“This is too much!” I replied.

“This is an invitation to a game. Destroy it and we may miss the whole trick. There is so little of interest in Paris these days, let us not be so rash as to turn our noses up at this intrigue.”

“You say this is an invitation. Is it meant for you?”

“Most assuredly not, and the most enjoyable invitations are the ones that are misaddressed.”

“How did you discover it, then? I was at your elbow and would never had known it was there.”

“Man’s ability to observe is profound, and yet ultimately limited by our mortal frailties. An attentive man sees what is happening. An observant man looks for what is happening that has never happened before. In such a way is useful information derived.”

“What are we to do now?”

“I have committed the message to memory, an easy task, of course, since it would be difficult indeed to forget such a thing. We shall wait and see what happens.”

And so we did. I bought a handful of papers each day, hoping for a resolution to the travesty. It had made the front page, of course, on the first day. I was much chagrined to see that, in the rush to outdo each other for readers, only two of the papers had refrained from revealing the repugnant diatribe verbatim. Yet, in a city like Paris, the story quickly sank and disappeared beneath those ink-smeared pages.

“How could this have come to nothing?” I wondered aloud.

“We’ve not heard the last of it,” Dupin predicted.

At that very moment there was a pounding upon the door of our secluded maise in Faubourg St. Germain. I was not surprised to see that Dupin was not surprised. I threw back the great bolt securing the entrance, and it screeched in protest at the disturbance. Outside stood Monsieur G——-, Prefect of the Paris Police, as I had found him on a few occasions before. He pushed by me to confront Dupin, still ensconced in his club chair.

“This is a most serious business, M. Dupin,” he said, shaking his fist. “Another one of those horrible messages has been discovered, and more than a few people want me to arrest you.”

“Arrest Dupin?” I scoffed. “But why?”

“Who else could know these things? These blackest of secrets, buried deep under the pillars of Paris herself.”

“These messages are telling the truth then?” Dupin failed to hide a smile behind steepled fingers.

“It is not for me to say,” M. G——- replied.

“And yet you are here.”

“You were seen at the site of the first message, and before that no one had seen anything usual there. Worse yet you were nowhere to be seen when the second message appeared.”

“So both my presence and my absence are proof of my guilt?”

“Do not attempt to twist me around with your clever words, Monsieur. At the moment I am your only friend. I have known you to be a just, if strange, man who has seen justice done in the past. More so, while Parisian society knows you to have a depraved sense of humor, I know you to be a man of no especial modesty. Thus, while I concede these disgusting epigraphs might appeal to your macabre whimsy, you would never allow the infamy of their authorship to escape you, if indeed you could claim it.”

“This second message, what was it?”

M. G——— hemmed and stuttered before finally repeating it in hushed tones. If I thought the first message was the worst thing I had ever read, I was quite sure this message was the worst thing anyone had ever heard. Dupin chuckled and his gaze drifted off into our fireplace.

“I will be hard pressed to save you from a firing squad if that is your only reaction, M. Dupin.”

My friend rose and extracted a map of Paris from his bureau. Gesturing for us to follow he took the map to the dining room and spread it out upon the table. With a pencil he marked the spot of the first message, and inscribed it below. In consultation with the Prefect, he then marked the location of the second message and transcribed that as well.

“What is the meaning of this, M. Dupin?”

“The meaning remains obscure but the method comes into focus.” Measuring against his sleeve Dupin compared the existing points, and then proposed a new one. “Leave this place unobserved until well after midnight, then have your men examine it. Let me know of the results at once.”

“This is where the villain will strike next?”

“Most assuredly.”

“What of the messages?”

“It is a poor blackmailer who gives away his wares like this. I suspect the messages contain a kind of code, but I have not deciphered it yet. I shall give it my full attention, but I expect the third, fourth, and fifth messages will help greatly. The more information we have the easier it will be to see the pattern.”

“Mon Dieu, M. Dupin, you expect three more messages?”

“And in short order. The first was a call to action, I think, and time was allowed for it to disseminate to the interested parties. The endeavor will proceed in earnest now.”

The Prefect left and Dupin delved into his books now, disappearing into a crowd of Euclid, Pythagoras, and Archimedes. These fellows were later joined by Dee, Andreæ, and Alhazred. I tried to decipher his line of inquiry from the pages left open all about the place, but his thoughts were too eccentric for me to follow. Finally he sat back with a great look of satisfaction upon his face.

“Have you solved it?”

“The whole thing has happened within my mind already. It is now incumbent upon the material world to meet up with me.”

“If you can put a stop to some infamy is it not your moral duty to do so?”

“That which is taking place is only a crime in the sense of conventional morality.”

“That sounds as if it will be of little use as a defence if we end up in the docket.”

“There is an understanding between gentlemen of a certain sort, a memorandum of non-interference. For if we can not accommodate each other what hope of fulfillment do we have in this mundane world?”

The more my friend Dupin explained his reticence the more anxious my heart became. We took our supper at home, and sat playing at that infernal Oriental game Dupin so favored, biding our time until we heard of the results of the Prefect’s efforts. The first hateful fingers of dawn were probing the edges of the curtains by the time M. G——- returned.

“You are either an anarchist or a warlock, M. Dupin, and the Mayor little cares which.”

“I take it there was a new message.”

“It was the damndest thing, I was there myself to see it. Not a disreputable character on the street!”

“But the street was not vacant.”

“In proximity to the incident there was but one occupant, but it was M. L———, a respectable surgeon well known to me. Not to be indiscreet, but when the Emperor has some small malady, this is the physician he summons.”

“And yet, this was the only person seen, the only possible perpetrator?”

“I tell you it is impossible, men such as him do not scrawl things such as these in dark alleys in the dead of night.”

“What fresh missive do we have?”

The Prefect’s face turned grey, and with but two fingers he placed a file upon the table before Dupin, and then turned away before it was opened.

Dupin’s mouth turned up in a smile, and he added the message to his map.

“Can you tell me nothing, M. Dupin?”

“I could tell you everything, M. D——-, but I choose not to.”

The Prefect sputtered, “Why not?”

“There is a kind of justice at work here, a kind as good as any other in my estimation. Besides, my incarceration will but prove my innocence.”

“Your incarceration?” I said in disbelief.

“As M. D——- has indicated, it is inescapable that I must be considered a suspect in this most distasteful episode.”

“Only you could know these things, M. Dupin.”

“Only I could prise these black truths free, perhaps,” my friend conceded. “However, clearly these things are known to those involved.”

“It is treason to the Crown to even think so.”

“It is treason to analytics to think otherwise. I stand ready to surrender myself as an act of cooperation with the police.”

M. G——- looked to be as befuddled as I. At long last he rolled up the map and tucked it under his arm and escorted Dupin away. I was left alone in our parlor wondering what I was to do. Dupin left no notes, indeed I had never seen him personally put words to paper. I could recall the books he had submerged himself in but I had no means of divining what he had plundered from their depths. The next day I presented myself at the jailhouse but was turned away. M. G—— appeared briefly to scowl at me, and, between curses, to explain that Dupin sat smugly in his cell, refusing to divulge anything until after midnight two days hence.

“My plan was to starve him out,” the Prefect complained. “But this morning there was a silver tray in his cell, laden with the finest omelette from Le Grand Vefour, and fruit and champagne besides. None of my officers will admit to passing it through. It looks quite bad for your friend, I would not expect to see him walk free again.”

Thus, like the rest of Paris I was left with little recourse but to wait to see what would happen. I trusted Dupin’s assessment over that of M. G——, and yet sorrow began to ache in my heart. The next day the papers reported on a fourth message, emblazoning it in large type on the front of every paper. The very Empire now teetered on the edge of collapse, and as a nation we trembled before whatever final blow the fifth message might strike. I re-plotted the sites of the messages on a fresh map. Replicating Dupin’s method I connected them and then measured the angles and the length of each segment, thereby placing a fifth mark. Connecting those revealed a pentagon, but one that covered a not inconsiderable portion of the city. Turning back to Dupin’s books I searched for the meaning of the shape. It was quickly revealed to me that, in occult writing, pentagons are often embellished by connecting the points internally to form a star. Doing this to the map created a new, smaller, pentagon, but one that still encircled several blocks. I almost felt the breath of Dupin upon my ear as I had the sudden inspiration to repeat the procedure three more times. A tiny pentagon was now directly over a certain royal garden I was familiar with, although it pointed to some obscure section, far removed from the hedge mazes and flower beds I had frequented.

I was awoken on the fifth day by a pounding upon the front door. A surreptitious peep out the upper window of my bedchamber revealed the Prefect and a dozen other men. In a panic I threw on my clothes, retrieved my map from the table, and slipped out the old servant’s passage in the larder, just as the police had battered their way in the front. I heard them ransacking our maise as I slipped through the dirty forsaken crevices of the neighborhood. Once at a safe distance I took the first opportunity to return to the traditional thoroughfares of Paris. I stopped for a quick breakfast of croissant, nuts, and cheese to calm myself. Feeling much more civilized, I combed my hair and proceeded to the garden in question. Casually I paid the entrance fee and, in no particular hurry, wandered the grounds like any other visitor. I knew that I had until midnight, and my problem would in fact be whiling away the excess time, rather than making it up. I wandered the hedge maze until at last I found myself alone. With some small force I pressed myself back into the shrubbery and through, out into the wild grounds. While still imminently picturesque, they were not immaculately groomed like the area on display. Purposefully I strode into the trees opposite. I loaded my pockets with apples, pears, and nectarines, reluctantly admitting on some subconscious level that I was stealing from the Emperor’s orchard, and that alone would be enough to see me hang. Those were archaic laws, and would certainly never be enforced in modern day, I assured myself.

Looking at the map and the walls of the garden I pressed onward, deeper into the forest. After a brief patch of wilderness I was surprised to find evidence of civilization again. Old Roman paving stones protruded from the ground. Odd bits of statuary were intertwined with the bushes and brambles. Finally, ahead under a deep canopy of old trees I found a circle of columns around an ancient tomb, pocked with time and smooth with weather. To my untrained I could not decipher if the decorations on the large slab were Grecian or Egyptian, or perhaps the depiction of some other lost society entirely. It was cold to the touch and the stone lid far too heavy for me to move. I looked at my pocketwatch, despairing at the hours until midnight. My exhausted form was quite unused to being about at such a respectable hour, and so I found some nook just away from the clearing that was padded with moss and clover and I laid down in it, listening to the leaves rustle and the insects chirp. My eyes grew heavy and I let them slip closed, to rest them for a moment.

Then there was the sound of bodies tromping through the wood. I feared I must have been discovered, and again felt that hangman’s noose about my neck as I made to discard the fruit from my pockets. However, when I opened my eyes it was dark, with just a trickle of moonlight making its way down through the treetops. The sounds had kept on moving, the people oblivious to my presence.

I watched from the darkness as the men carried a shrouded figure upon a litre, one man at each corner like pallbearers, and the final leading the way with a lantern. They propped one side of the conveyance up against the tomb and moved the body over, so it lay directly on the stone table. The lantern bearer hung the light from the crenulated swirls of one of the columns, and then began a strange invocation. The men stepped around the body, unwrapping it as they went. At intervals the wrappings revealed some trinket, unrecognizable to me in the darkness, The man who uncovered it would hang it about his neck or wrist, or place it atop his head, as the item dictated. By the time the body was unwrapped they were each dressed like kings in a pantomime. The last item was a golden dagger, and it was revealed by the lantern bearer. He shouted some savage gibberish into the heavens as he raised it above his head. I thought it to be more theatrics but he plunged it down into the chest of the body. The chanting of the others continued unabated.

The lantern bearer sawed at the corpse, causing the thing to heave and jerk. At last he wrenched the chest open and then attacked the inside. The man’s hands and face, now drenched in blood, had disappeared into the blackness of night. Yet I still saw when he at last relented and then held something aloft – the heart of the deceased, I realized with a shock. For a moment I feared he might eat it, but instead he produced a cylinder from under his coat. He open it and slid the heart inside before resealing it. He then seemed to wave it towards the four cardinal directions before pressing the container to his lips and whispering something to it. He stepped back and the next man stepped forward. With his bare hands he fished about the gruesome cavity, finally holding aloft some veiny sac in victory. He produced his own jar and repeated the ceremony. This continued until all five men had claimed some repugnant prize.

They then paraded about the body in the opposite direction, wrapping it up again as they went. When it was once again enshrouded the lantern bearer retrieved his burden and opened a valve. Solemnly he poured the fuel out over the deceased, until the reserve appeared to be exhausted. The men all stepped back and the lantern was thrown, shattering upon the tomb and igniting, quickly flaring into an azure inferno. The strange party hurried away into the night and I was once again left alone to wonder in abject confusion. Unsure of the way in the dark I allowed myself to be mesmerized by the morbid pyre. When the last tendrils of flame had lapsed the lid of the tomb was clean, as if untouched. What strange rite was this, I thought, and how many bodies had been surrendered to the infinite upon these grounds? Most importantly, what did it have to do with the horrible messages written all around Paris?

The answer was to be revealed the following day when my friend came strolling in through our splintered door as if nothing was amiss. He plucked the gloves from his fingers and poured a generous brandy before settling into his chair.

“What was the truth of it?” I wondered.

“A simple case of revenge.”

“Simple? I saw them cleave the man’s guts free before immolation.”

“Did you really?” Dupin gazed proudly upon me. “You are one up on our friend the Prefect then. He had half the Paris Police encamped on the Rue B———.”

“The fifth point of the star?”

“Indeed, and a clever trick that was. At the hands on the clocktower turned they wound up a rope attached to a shuttered window across the street. Just as the clock struck midnight the rope yanked the shutters open, and upon the windowpanes behind was the final message painted. The room within was lit so that none present could miss it.”

“So it was set in advance?”

“The length of the rope will be conclusive, but I expect the trick was set several hour ahead of time. The perpetrator would want to be sure of getting away before any police arrived, but also certain his contraption would not be disturbed prematurely.”

“What was the final message?”

Dupin’s whole face was contorted in a smile. “I will say only that the Prefect shot the windows out immediately and made the men present swear a blood oath to secrecy.”

“Will it hold?”

“Of course not, but there are always these kind of rumors flying about. I expect no reaction at all from the Imperial family, thus ensuring it remains but one more whisper carried upon the breath of Paris.”

“So this man was killed for sharing these secrets?”

“To the contrary, this man shared these secrets because he was dying. There is a brief respite before death when an ailing man is untouchable by this mortal world. Most who find themselves there are already thinking of the next life. This man, instead, made one last strike from this life.”

“Why not simply send a statement to the papers?”

“This was not an expose meant for the masses, this was a game being played between kings. The departing man was invoking an ancient rite, he simply found a way to lash out at the same time. A man with but days to live can develop a certain strain of ingenuity. He tells his mundane secrets while invoking the divine. You see, the strange meter of the messages can be explained in that there is a simple cipher represented by the arrangement of the words. Convert those to numbers like this,” Dupin scribbled some figures on my map, “and then change those back to letters simply by counting and the meaning is apparent.”

Dupin had reduced the messages to a single, most surprising name.

“You must never tell M. D——-, or indeed anyone else. You are protected by certain understandings I have in place, but they are tenuous at best.”

The following day the Prefect announced that the case was closed as he had arrested a degenerate for the hateful, treasonous, sacrilegious writings. A besotted unfortunate who wandered the streets, overhearing just enough to make plausible, but entirely false, accusations, the Prefect declared. He was a danger to the very fabric of France, according to M G——-. We had seen the man often in our travels. He feed stray cats from the meagre scraps he scrounged and tipped his hat to light poles. He was one of us, a fellow wanderer of the night, just another of Paris’ madmen of a harmless nature.

Robert Perret is a writer, librarian and Sherlockian living on the Palouse. He has previously published “How Hope Learned the Trick” in NonBinary Review. More of his writing can be found via