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Dark Tales from Gent's Pens

JM Taylor: Et in Arcadia Ego

95_ym_etarcadiaego_dblanch.jpg
Art by Darren Blanch 2022

Et in Arcadia Ego

by

JM Taylor

 

The 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 the partition.

The 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.

“Wass 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 friendly overtures.

“The joint’s on fire,” he said. “Get moving.”

But 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 panic.

“All 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.

Still, 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.

Loafing 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.

He 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 nodded.

“We’re closing up early, boys,” Arthur said. “Seems the fire brigade’s getting called into action.”

The 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.

About 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?”

The 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.

He 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 Lucifers?”

A 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.

Closer 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.

With 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.

A 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.

By 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 fields.

***

In 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.

He 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.

The 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.

He 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.

***

It 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.

“It’s called Et in Arcadia Ego,” Eliza told him. “It’s Latin for ‘I was from Arcadia, too.’ ”

“Where’s that?” he asked, taking the palm-sized card in his hands. He couldn’t believe a housemaid knew anything about Latin.

“It 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?”

He 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.

It 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.

Instead, 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.

He 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.

He 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.

The 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.

***

The 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 fire escape?

The 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.

In 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.

Except 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.

The 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.

He 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.

“You did good work last night,” he said between bites. “You ain’t no goop. You want a job, you got it.”

He 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.”

“What’s your name?” Louie said, picking a piece of grizzle out of his teeth.

He 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 nice.”

So 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.

It 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.

Now 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.

But 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 home.

He’d 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.

But 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.

“I’m going to get what’s mine,” he told Eliza over dinner the next night. “What’s ours.”

She 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?”

He smiled back.

A 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.

He 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 employer.

He 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, today was clearly going to end their relationship.

***

There 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.

The 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.

His 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.

“Arcadia. 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.

And 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.

He 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.

The 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.

As 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.

One 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.

It 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 traitor.

“Whasisname went to Boston, didn’t he?”

She nodded, and ate a slice of buttered toast.

“Arcadia,” he said thoughtfully. “Say, isn’t that the name of that picture you like? What’s it mean again?”

Et in Arcadia Ego,” she said. “It’s supposed to be what Death says to his victims. It means, ‘Even in paradise, there I am.’ ”

“That’s what 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.”

JM Taylor’s work has previously been published in ThuglitYellow MamaTough Crime, and Wildside Black Cat. He has a story in the current issue of AHMM as well. His first novel, Night of the Furies, was published by New Pulp Press, and Genretarium has just released his second, Dark Heat.



Darren Blanch, Aussie creator of visions which tell you a tale long after first glimpses have teased your peepers. With early influence from America's Norman Rockwell to show life as life, Blanch has branched out mere art form to impact multi-dimensions of color and connotation. People as people, emotions speaking their greater glory. Visual illusions expanding the ways and means of any story.

Digital arts mastery provides what Darren wishes a reader or viewer to take away in how their own minds are moved. His evocative stylistics are an ongoing process which sync intrinsically to the expression of the nearby written or implied word he has been called upon to render.

View the vivid energy of IVSMA (Darren Blanch) works at: www.facebook.com/ivsma3Dart, YELLOW MAMA, Sympatico Studio - www.facebook.com/SympaticoStudio, DeviantArt - www.deviantart.com/ivsma and launching in 2019, as Art Director for suspense author / intrigue promoter Kate Pilarcik's line of books and publishing promotion - SeaHaven Intrigue Publishing-Promotion.



In Association with Black Petals & Fossil Publications 2022