Prologue

PHILADELPHIA

FRIDAY, 12 JANUARY 1844

 

It had been left by the front door after night had fallen. I was working on a tale by the kitchen fire when I heard a soft noise— the wind or perhaps sleet upon the glass. The sound was almost imperceptible, yet something in its nature disturbed me and I peered from the window. The darkness was too complete, so I made my way to the door and eased it open. Cold air charged in like an angry spirit, but there was no one to be seen or heard, no footprints in the soft white snow to mark an intruder’s pres- ence. Yet on the step was a box, round in shape, wrapped up tidily in brown paper, its folded edges sealed with wax and tied with string. My skin prickled with unease as I brought it inside and placed it on the kitchen table.

I held the lamp above it. My name and “Philadelphia” were written upon the parcel in ink that had bled into the paper. I cut the string, broke the wax seals and discovered a tin hatbox. Disquietude gave way to pleasure. My hat was increasingly shabby, an embarrassment on close inspection, and my wife and her mother must have contrived to buy me a new one. How like them!

It was a full week before my birthday, and yet I could not resist—the wrappings were undone after all. My fingers greedily unlatched the lid. But when I looked inside, several pairs of obsidian eyes stared up at me—demon eyes. I leapt back, hands protecting my face, for crouched in that hatbox were three crows, beaks agape in their desire for flesh. I grabbed the fire iron to fend off the explosion of wings, yet the room remained silent except for the ragged sound of my own breath. Cautiously I approached the box again and held the lamp over it. There was no doubt—the birds were dead.

My relief was fleeting, though, for as I lifted one of the creatures from its peculiar tomb, I found its head was severed from its body, as were its wings and legs. What cruelty was this? So gruesome was the effect, I near retched as I placed the parts of all three birds onto the brown paper, searching in vain for some message. Oddly there was no smell of death or decay—the creatures had surely been mummified, like favored pets of an Egyptian pharaoh or perhaps the Emperor of Death himself. These wild fancies subsided, but my horror did not, for I knew with absolute certainty who had delivered the trio of ebony birds. It was my foe, my nemesis, the man who wished me dead:  George Rhynwick Williams had returned to torment me.

© 2016 by Karen Lee Street