EPIGRAPH

"Ye who read are still among the living, but I who write shall have long since gone my way into the region of shadows. For indeed strange things shall happen, and many secret things be known, and many centuries shall pass away, ere these memorials be seen of men. And, when seen, there will be some to disbelieve, and some to doubt, and yet a few who will find much to ponder upon in the characters here graven with a stylus of iron."

(Edgar Allan Poe, “Shadow: A Parable”)

 

"Books always speak of other books."

(Umberto Eco, Postscript to The Name of the Rose)

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 1

Wednesday, 3 October 1849

It began with a cat. I was walking along the High Street in Baltimore and a brisk wind stirred up the street’s detritus, which whirled around my ankles, sent grit into my eyes. Despite the leaden sky, the foliage gleamed with unnatural color, and beams of light jumped from one pane of window glass to another until the street echoed with their harsh brightness.

As I wandered, the glare made my head ache and my legs were unsteady. My throat felt strangely tight and I tugged at my neckcloth, tipped down the brim of my hat to shade my eyes. First, I heard her, a mewling call, then she appeared from nowhere and crossed in front of me so that I almost stumbled. She was a tortoiseshell, a common enough breed, but there was something in the shape of her, in that gentle but insistent cry, that recalled my own cat, who was hundreds of miles away, safely at home in New York. I watched as the tortoiseshell trotted daintily along the footpath, then paused to look back over her shoulder, entreating me to trail after her. This continued for a time, the little cat weaving along, disappearing into shadow and coming forth again. I simply followed. Reason told me it could not be our Catterina, but the more I studied the creature, the more I felt in my heart that it could not be any other.

And then she was gone. I surveyed the street intently, searching for her, and my gaze was captured by a woman approaching from a side street. Catterina was prancing along next to her. Immediately my head began to pound. I squeezed my eyes shut and opened them again, but she was still in plain view. I tried to run toward her, but my legs buckled.

“Virginia!” I called out, but the silence remained undisturbed. “Sissy, my darling,” I tried again, but my voice was turned to dust by joy mixed with fear and disbelief. Even so, my wife—my darling Sissy—looked up from Catterina, where her attention had been fixed, and gazed directly into my eyes; but rather than run to me and enfold me in her embrace, she turned away and commenced walking, with Catterina as her shadow. A wave of biliousness roared over me and the sunlight blazed in my eyes. When the glare finally diminished, she had vanished.

I dashed to the end of the road, thinking she could not have gone far. The street was curiously empty and I was distracted by the glint of golden letters painted across a window: Apothecary. Displayed in the window were two sizable carboys, one filled with a violet-colored liquid, the other with a citrine fluid. The dimly lit shop was fitted out with elegant wooden counters and cabinets upon the walls, each drawer neatly labeled in Latin: Artemisia absinthium, Chininum hydrobromicum, Oxymel scillae, Oleum pini pumilionis, Opio en polvo, Calomel, Syrupus sennae, Papaverine and Tolu. A cabinet of gruesome curiosities was on display, with large glass jars holding malformed creatures preserved in brine and oddities of nature, all presided over by a small stuffed crocodile with razor teeth. It was a strange place, yet oddly familiar. My skin prickled.

The apothecary, a man with thin gray hair and pale blue eyes, was busy at his counter, decanting medicines into vials and packets. A woman emerged from the shadows and I pressed my face closer to the glass, for it was Sissy. She stood there quietly, watching the apothecary work, yet he did not seem to notice her presence at all. His concentration was focused on a sheet of paper that he consulted as he prepared his concoctions. I observed his eyes narrow as he reread the script, brows knitted, then he turned and selected the apothecary jar labeled Atropa belladonna.

The apothecary mixed a tincture from the belladonna and as I watched I was certain that I had seen him do this very thing before—had it been in a dream or was I within one now? He poured the medicine—the poison—into a small, cobalt-blue bottle and slid it across the counter.

At that moment, I was overcome once more with nausea and my breath fogged the window. When the discomfort subsided, I rubbed at the glass with my coat sleeve and peered through, only to meet the frightened gaze of a young woman stationed behind the counter of quite a different shop. I stepped back, bewildered—I was on Lombard Street, somewhere else entirely, very near the tavern I had been in earlier, a suffocating place so fraught with menace I had escaped to the street.

Filled with confusion, I struggled to breathe as the air became warmer and thicker, as the light sizzled and shadows darted all around me, until I crouched down to alleviate the dizziness. There was a nudge against my leg and Catterina tiptoed about my feet and sat down, her green eyes fixed on mine as if she were a mesmerist. As my vision began to ebb away, I realized where I had seen the apothecary shop before and when I had witnessed the very same scenario that had just played before me. And I prayed that I would find a way to tell my most honorable friend, the Chevalier C. Auguste Dupin, the truth about how I had finally been murdered and by whom.

© 2016 by Karen Lee Street