in Arcadia Ego
shouts of nameless men billowed up the darkened spiral stairway. If he’d still
had a watch, he would have seen it was just past two in the morning, but he’d
pawned it at one of the train depots on the journey East. He shook off the fog
that was as close as he’d gotten to sleep—it was impossible to do more than
doze in this place. A pair of dimes and a nickels bought him the upper bunk in
what amounted to a wooden cell, inches away from the guy on the other side of
shouting grew louder as more voices chimed in, and the stench of smoke stung
his nose. He hopped to the floor, twisting his ankle in the fall. Already the
smoke had increased, and he coughed as he fumbled at the lockbox that held his
clothes and shoes. The key was somewhere in his bed, but a quick frisk of the
thin mattress revealed nothing.
the ruckus?” moaned his bunkmate. They’d nodded at each other before lights
out, but he’d never gotten his name. A wall of vile liquor breath prevented any
joint’s on fire,” he said. “Get moving.”
no answer came from the dark bunk, and he didn’t have time to investigate.
Giving up on the lockbox, he decided to take his chances in his union suit. The
thick smoke had already enveloped the tiny room, pressing in from above the
partitions like a thundercloud. Gasping, he wrenched open the door, only to be
met with a wall of naked and almost naked bodies pushing through the dark in
this smoke, but no fire,” he thought. He wondered if he had time to go back and
break the lock. But experience had taught him that in this kind of situation,
life and death were measured in seconds, not minutes, and he guessed this blaze
had started five minutes or more ago. He needed out, and now.
the locker called to him. He’d never forgive himself if he lost the miniature
Eliza had given him.
He’d started working for the
Martin gang not long after he’d
given up on school and his father’s smithing shop. He walked the bridge over
the Big Blue River into the tiny city of Beatrice. Drifting along the streets,
he’d been on the lookout for excitement, and he found it in the back alley of a
saloon, where a craps game proved fatal for a louse who’d tried to skip without
handing over his losings.
in the shadows, he watched as Arthur Martin and his brother Louie pummeled the guy. Louie
yanked at his
suspenders, choking him half to death with them, while Arthur punched him in
the gut, once, twice, ten times without stopping. The other players stood back,
too afraid to step in, especially when Arthur pulled a stiletto knife from a
band on his shin. He carved a trench down one cheek and up the other, then they
shoved him out into the street.
thought that was the end of it, and so did the other players, who hitched up
their pants cuffs to kneel and shoot dice again. But Louie cocked his head
toward the welsher and wiggled one eyebrow. Arthur caught the signal and
closing up early, boys,” Arthur said. “Seems the fire brigade’s getting called
nervous laughter that floated over the abandoned craps game told him that
something worth trying was at hand. He unstuck himself from the wall and
followed the ragged group out of the alley. He found a spot on the back of one
of the wagons loaded with grim-faced gamblers and rode with them to the eastern
edge of town.
a hundred yards from an old farmhouse, the drivers pulled the horses to a stop,
and the Martin brothers jumped to the
ground. They ambled to the onlookers and Louie said, “I don’t want to get my
suit dirty. Any of you a firebug?”
crew suddenly seemed to shrink back. It was one thing to watch the Martins in action,
quite another to do their
dirty work. Whatever they’d been drinking was starting to wear off, and more
than one had lost his nerve and was wondering how long it would take to walk
back to town.
never knew why, but he spoke up. “I’ll do it,” he said. “I worked at my old
man’s forge long enough that a few sparks don’t bother me. Anyone got a box of
dozen hands patted down pockets, and someone thrust a half empty box on him.
Suddenly feeling the attention on him, he swaggered a bit, and pulled a bottle
from the coat pocket of someone who didn’t look like he’d put up much of a
fight. He took a swig, then started up the dirt track to the farm house. An
unsteady light shone in the front window, guiding his way.
to the house, he crouched out of the window’s light and crept onto the porch.
The wooden house hadn’t been painted since before his own birth, and was tinder
dry. He chanced a look through the limp curtain, and saw the doomed soul in a
half-faint on a horsehair couch. He held a dripping rag to his bleeding face. A
kerosene lamp stood on a low table by his knee.
one more swallow from the bottle, he poured the rest on the dry porch, letting
it puddle by the front door. He lit one of the Lucifers. The flare went
unnoticed, and he touched it to the others in the box. When the fireball got
too hot to hold, he let it fall to the floor. He leapt back at the same time to
avoid the flash that lit up the whole front yard. He expected to just burn the
porch, not thinking the Martins
wanted anything except to scare the guy. But the wood was even drier than he
expected, and the flame held, clawing its way up the weathered shingles. They
shriveled like autumn leaves.
terrified scream erupted from inside the farmhouse. As the man struggled to
feet, he knocked over the kerosene lamp, sparking a second fire that blocked
his way to the back room. Trapped, he let out a howl of pain that echoed all
the way back to the road.
the time he rejoined the Martins,
the whole house was engulfed, drowning out any remaining screams. One horse
wagon had already driven off, leaving only the brothers, who clapped him on the
back, and stuffed fifty dollars in his palm. They drove him back to town using
a circuitous route that led far from the burning wreck, letting it seem as
though they were coming in from across the Big Blue. That night, he slept in a
feather bed in the Beatrice Hotel, a recently-converted Victorian manor. It had
been sold by its original builder after only a year, when he found out the wife
he’d built it for had never been true in the first place. From a third floor
room, he watched the dying embers of the farmhouse illuminate the surrounding
this crowded corridor,
though, he saw nothing. The smoke was almost a solid object, and it swirled
into clumps that became bodies scrambling past him in both directions.
struggled to remember the way to the front of the building, but he’d been
turned around too many times for it to matter. He had climbed up the spiral
staircase from the office and reading room on the second floor, and marveled at
how he could look down into the passing cars on the elevated railway that
passed in front of the building, but those front corridor windows would be covered by
soot by now, and anyhow it was too late for the trolleys to be running. They
would be no beacon for him.
heat grew, and he tripped on the body of someone who had already succumbed to
the smoke. His twisted ankle betrayed him, and he crashed to the ground,
landing on another body. But he determined he wouldn’t join them. Even as he
got slammed down by another panicked transient, he forced himself into the
choking cloud. Desperate to gain his bearings, he leaned against the wall,
already hot to the touch. There were no lights for the hallway, but a single
red lamp above his head cut through the gloom, and he made out a sign that read
FIRE ESCAPE. A double-headed arrow pointed in each direction. He grinned.
Salvation no matter which way he turned. All he had to do was keep his feet.
thought again of the miniature from Eliza, a copy of a painting from England,
she said. She hoped someday to go and see it in person. Maybe with him.
was printed on card
stock, with cheap garish colors. The scene depicted three shepherds clambering
over a tomb in the woods. Meanwhile, a woman leaned in to watch. She had cheeks
as red as flame (he should know), showed her naked breast, and held her dress
so her whole leg shone like a river at sunset.
called Et in Arcadia Ego,” Eliza told him. “It’s Latin for ‘I was from
Arcadia, too.’ ”
that?” he asked, taking the palm-sized card in his hands. He couldn’t believe a
housemaid knew anything about Latin.
means paradise,” she said, and he knew that he would always remember her
looking exactly like the woman in the painting, even though Eliza’s hair was
gold, not brown like the picture. “It’s where you and I will always be
together. Do you really have to leave?”
did. After five years with the Martin brothers,
things had soured. He could stay with Eliza, and get them both killed, or he
could head East, reenacting his entrance to Beatrice in a larger scale by
crossing the Mississippi and then disappearing into the canyons of New York or
Boston, wherever the next train took him.
turned out to be Boston. After two days of crossing half a continent, always
looking over his shoulder for familiar faces, he stepped off the train at Back
Bay Station, one stop short of making the whole journey. He was superstitious
about riding a train all the way to the end of the line. Besides, he’d never
seen the ocean, and he was eager to cast his view on this bay.
he found himself on the edge, not of a bay, but a stinking swamp and vast
filthy train yards. One the other side, a putrid sea of tenements. He put his
hands in his pockets, where he found a few coins, just enough to buy a sandwich
and a beer and then find a flophouse for the night.
thought he’d seen the city before, but Lincoln and Omaha had nothing on Boston.
Back where he came from, you were able to stroll along the sidewalk without
tripping over the next person. Here, he was buffeted by waves of grimy bodies,
mostly sad sacks looking for a job or a handout. The tenements leaned against
each other, and leered at the crowded streets. Even when he’d left the train
yards behind him, he found one long railway bridge elevated over the street,
with trolleys trundling back and forth every three minutes. His ears pounded
with the noise, and the stench was overwhelming.
even noticed some derelict shadowing him along Washington Street, in the
zebra-striped shadows of the elevated train. He wondered if it was one of Martin’s
men, but the joe was too beat to be a
hired man. Still, he picked up his pace. When he saw the sign that read Hotel
Arcadia, it was like a sign that Eliza was still with him. He knew he’d found
his paradise, at least the one he could best afford. The entrance was between a
saloon and a shooting gallery, each one deafening, even more than the clamor of
the trains overhead. He paid his twenty-five cents and signed the book with a
fake name. The bum tried to follow him inside, but the manager got rid of him
with a quick nod to the janitor.
next day he would hit the pavements, looking for a job, preferably something
that had nothing to do with gambling, or protection rackets, or fire. He’d had
enough of all of them. He’d had enough of life with the Martins. He’d made one
wrong choice in his
life, but now he could go in the other direction, just like the fire escape
sign. And when it was safe, he’d send Eliza a train ticket, and they’d book
passage together and go across the ocean.
fire had been burning
for seven minutes now, and the flames reached the wooden partitions, igniting
the mattresses and bedding. The hellish light glowed on the edges of the
billowing smoke, like the coal in his father’s forge. Every breath burned
straight down into his lungs. Where were the damned windows? Where was that
flickering light, the choking struggle for just a tiny bit of air, the screams
of dying men, all disoriented him, but he lumbered all the way to the end of
the corridor, his ankle sending jolts of pain up his leg. The arrow said there
would be a fire escape here, but he found only a solid wall, with three bodies
tumbled against it. There was no window, no door, just a fire extinguisher
still hanging from its hook. The dying men hadn’t even thought to use it.
agony, he reeled around. The fire escape had to be in the other direction,
clear across the length of the building. His thoughts became jumbled, and he
wondered if he had been caught in one of his own fires.
the corridor wasn’t clear. It was as choked as his searing throat with the
unnamed dead. Dimly, he heard the clanging bell of approaching fire engines. He
was going to survive, he had to, so he would meet his Eliza again, and restart
his life. His clouded mind vaguely recollected that there was also a fire
escape promised in the other direction, and so with the last of his
consciousness, he made his way towards it.
fire had been burning in the Hotel Arcadia for eight minutes.
After that first night with
the Martins, he had made a name for
himself. The next morning, he ate a breakfast of steak and eggs and a whole
loaf of toast on a dainty rack. He didn’t know how to hold his fork, and didn’t
realize he was the only patron with his napkin jammed into the collar of his
shirt. He didn’t care.
was sopping up the egg yolks with a slice of toast when Louie Martin sat across from him
and helped himself
to the rest of the steak, sliding the plate deftly away.
did good work last night,” he said between bites. “You ain’t no goop. You want
a job, you got it.”
eyed Louie Martin, and the remains of the
steak. He hadn’t considered making a life of taking them, but he had nothing
better in the offing, so he said, “Yeah, sure.”
your name?” Louie said, picking a piece of grizzle out of his teeth.
told him, and that sealed the deal. “Stay where we can find you,” Louie told
him. He looked around the dining room, which had once been a parlor. “Here’s
he did. About every couple of weeks, Louie or one of his pals stopped by, gave
him an address, a name, something. Arthur never appeared, not once. Sometimes
the address was here in Beatrice, other times he had to travel, maybe north to
Lincoln, a couple times to Omaha. He learned to use different tools,
knuckledusters and the cosh and even tried his hand on a revolver, but he found
that he had bad aim. Besides, there was no point if you didn’t get right up
close. He liked the rush. But to the Martins, he’d always be the firebug, and that’s
what they liked most
about him. He was taking in twenty percent of whatever they made on the deal,
and that was plenty for him.
wasn’t always that the mark had to die. He burned down a lot of empty
buildings, sometimes even with the help of the owners, who took in the payment
from the insurance company, and passed a chunk of it to his employers. There
was always money in his account, even if he didn’t do a job for a month or
more. “It’s called bein’ on retainer,” Louie explained.
he had money for fancy clothes and ate in restaurants every night, not that
there were too many in this town. He took home show girls from the burlesque
house, turned them out in the morning with a handful of cash. The hotel manager
started giving him suspicious looks every time he strode across the carpeted
foyer that passed for a lobby. Usually that was at lunchtime, and he would have
a blonde on one arm, a brunette on the other, when decent men were at work. So
he moved out. “The bed’s too hard anyhow,” he said, as the bellhop took trip
after trip to load his trunks onto a wagon. When he gave the kid a five dollar
tip, the manager knew he’d made a mistake, but it was too late. The river of
cash had run dry.
leaving was exactly the right move for him. He took a room in the new
Florentine Hotel, with its arched windows and balconies that took up an entire
block. He demanded a suite of rooms on the fifth floor, the very top. A week
later he met a new housekeeper—Eliza. Her fresh face, without the hint of rouge
or anything, put the showgirls to shame. He paid extra so that she became his
exclusive housekeeper, and he stopped bringing the showgirls back to his room.
He didn’t want Eliza to see them, so he did his catting around anywhere but at
been working for the Martins
for five years at this point, and though the money was good, he found out it
wasn’t anywhere near what he could be earning. The liquor warehouse up in
Lincoln changed everything. When Louie Martin gave him the job, he was looking
forward to watching the barrels and kegs go off like bombs. It was one of those
insurance deals, so no one would get hurt. To get the details, the warehouse
owner, arranged to meet him at a restaurant in Crete, about twenty miles from
both Beatrice and Lincoln. Both of them knew the value of anonymity.
the liquor merchant didn’t know his own limit. He was supposed to be explaining
the layout of the warehouse, and when the beat cop made his rounds, but the
client had too much of his own product, and let it slip that the Martins were getting
more than double what
they’d led him to believe. All this time, he thought he was getting twenty percent
on a contract, but in fact it was half that. Thinking back, he realized he’d
been cheated on job after job, and it didn’t sit well.
going to get what’s mine,” he told Eliza over dinner the next night. “What’s
smiled, reached across the table and put a hand over his. She had grown bold in
her time with him. “What are you going to do?”
week later, he burned the warehouse because he said he would, and because he
wanted to see those barrels explode. And the fireworks display was worth it,
though he wished he’d gotten a bit further away when the booze started to
explode. Even at a hundred yards, the cinders fell hard enough that he had to
brush them off like hot snow.
arranged to meet Louie Martin for
the payoff clear over in Pawnee City, where no one would connect them to
anything. He hired a green tin Lizzie from a service and motored his way out,
feeling the dusty breeze in his hair. But instead of waiting for Louie at the
lunch counter as they’d discussed, he scouted out the area and figured out
which nearby alley Louie would have to pass to get to the lunch counter. Ten
minutes later, he nabbed his prey. Dragging Louie to the dark narrow space, he
used his knuckledusters until there was nothing recognizable about his former
dumped the body behind a row of garbage cans, where it looked like someone
hosted their own crap games. Searching the pockets of the corpse, he came up
empty. If he wasn’t going to pay, what was Martin planning? No matter what,
clearly going to end their relationship.
was less shouting now,
but the heat rippled in unbearable waves. He felt his hair sizzling, and though
his lungs demanded more air, he tried to hold what little breath he had left,
to avoid swallowing another mouthful of burning soot. His muscles cramped and
screamed and when he tripped on another body, he couldn’t bring himself to get
upright again. He crawled, then dragged himself to the other end of the
corridor, where the fire escape and fresh air awaited. He passed a bathroom,
and considered dousing a towel and trying to breathe through it, but he
couldn’t gather his thoughts enough to put the plan in action.
fire had been burning now for nine minutes, and the Boston firefighters were
already on their ladders, carrying out men and directing hoses on the fire,
which licked out of the fifth floor windows and melted the tar of the mansard
roof. Some of the water was dripping through the ceiling onto his back, but it
only scalded him, and screaming hurt even more.
last tangled thought turned to Eliza again, and the last time he saw her. After
killing Louie Marin, he didn’t dare go back to his room at the Florentine, so
he hid out at the train depot, and used the office telephone to call Eliza at
work. She arrived a few minutes later with enough money for him to buy a
ticket, and to eat a couple of meals. She also gave him the miniature, which
she had kept in a book she always kept by her.
It means ‘paradise’,” she told him. Then she kissed him on the cheek, and he
scurried onto the train. He swore to himself he’d always remember her as she
stood on that station platform, in her blue calico dress. He tried to watch her
as the train chugged away, but by the time he got to his seat, she had disappeared.
so when he got off that train in Boston and discovered the Hotel Arcadia he
knew there was only one place for him to spend the night. He splurged and spent
twenty-five cents for a two-man room, instead of 15 cents for the top floor
dormitory. He’d come down in the world, but the new year of 1914, only weeks
away, promised him a glorious return.
climbed the staircase that led from the street up to the second floor office.
His shadow, the bum that crept along behind, tried to follow, but he paid for
his night’s lodging and mounted the spiral staircase to his room. He only heard
some of the ruckus as they tossed the weisenheimer back to the street.
smoke tasted bitter and granular on his tongue. It was the last coherent
thought that flitted through his brain. He collapsed gasping outside the
bathroom, never knowing that the floor’s only access to the fire escape was
through its window.
the sun rose on a cold December in Boston, rescue workers laid out a row of 28
bodies on the sidewalk. Families or coworkers numbly scanned the blackened
faces. Only ten of them were claimed. Meanwhile fire horses stamped and snorted
and the trolley clattered overhead, the passengers straining to see into the
still-smoking interior of the hotel.
man lingered over a body clad in a partially burned union suit. He knelt to get
a closer look at the face. But he said nothing, and that body, along with the
nine others that lay unclaimed, was carted away to a pauper’s grave.
took three days for the news to reach Lincoln, where the Star ran a
small item about the Hotel Arcadia inferno back east in Boston. Over his
breakfast, Arthur Martin
read the story to his girlfriend, a maid at the Florentine who had earned a few
extra dimes a week keeping an eye on Arthur’s best enforcer, before he turned
went to Boston, didn’t he?”
nodded, and ate a slice of buttered toast.
he said thoughtfully. “Say, isn’t that the name of that picture you like?
What’s it mean again?”
in Arcadia Ego,” she said. “It’s supposed to be what Death says to his
victims. It means, ‘Even in paradise, there I am.’ ”
I thought,” Arthur said, folding
the paper. He wore a black band on his left arm, since his brother had been
found murdered just a few days ago. “That’s what I thought.”