This story is by James Andrew Dickman and was part of our 2021 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The evening’s grey ghost of the sea had shrouded everything with dripping wreaths of cool mist that lent the garden a melancholy air. Isidore Samuels and Maggie Dickinson walked astride on the gravel pathway, her gardenia perfume keen in his nose. They ventured deeper into the Palace garden, searching for the missing French Foreign Minister, Pierre Lévêque, who had stepped away from the masquerade ball.
Isidore believed in the eternal struggle of good and evil. He was mentored by a surgeon who was part of a Patriot spy ring. When his mentor was caught and hung by the British for treason against the Crown, Isidore’s prospects were reduced to shambles. With a promise of profits and part ownership, Isidore was persuaded to sail to the French colony of Martinique with his charming, but vengeful former lover, Maggie, to help her ailing aunt’s plantation run profitably again.
But another woman had caught Isidore’s fancy. Her name was Emma Potts, and they were betrothed to be married in Newport. She was the one that made his heart sing. Emma’s anguished look upon her face haunted Isidore when he told her he must leave to help an old friend. Isidore vowed to write Emma this evening.
Isidore remembered their last dance, the waltz. He pulled Emma closer. Every step they took to the rhythms of the dance, every touch of her hand upon his body, made his senses tingle. All thoughts had drained from his mind, lost in the sea of dancers around them. He held her closer. He felt her cheek, as soft and fragrant as a wild rose blossom caressing his skin.
As Isidore’s stomach twisted in knots, he wondered if his friend, Lévêque, who having been intrigued by the statue garden’s collection of oddities, had perchance fallen victim to some mischief.
They rounded the pathway and came astride a lily pond, illuminated by flickering flambeaus. Here the pathway diverged, and Isidore collected his thoughts. He recoiled, recalling Lévêque’s words, “Beware, Monsieur, Mademoiselle Dickinson is what we French call a femme fatale.” Isidore had scoffed at this remark.
Up ahead in the gloom he saw shimmering torch lamps. The statue garden. Only their footsteps now breaking the silence. Lining the pathway, shadows of tree limbs reached out, ready to ensnare them. Arbors embraced by rambling white roses stood as sentries guarding the entrance to the statues.
Isidore creaked open a black wrought-iron gate heralded by large friezes of ravens. The acrid smell of fire and brimstone was strong in the air, and suffused light seemed to awaken the terrors of the night. This was no ordinary garden of classical statues, but rather one of strange proclivities.
Rivulets of cold sweat pooled on the nape of Isidore’s neck. As Isidore peered around, someone had curiously placed masqueraders’ masks on several of the statues. There were jesters, harlots, and one face resembled a cadaver.
But no sight of Lévêque. Up ahead, flames licked on torch wicks, casting grotesque shadows on four fearsome horse riders. Isidore’s mind turned…where had he seen this image? Was this from Antiquity? No…this was from the Old Testament’s Prophecies—it was the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse!
Isidore circled the four horsemen, recalling each. One caught his eye though… curiously it had two riders astride the steed. He moved in closer. Isidore took a torch, hands trembling…and looked upon the visage of Death which sat upon the pale green horse.
Looking back to Maggie, her face held the satisfaction of a cat that’s spotted its prey delighting in the sport of the chase. Isidore now withdrew his torch to the second rider. There was blood splattered on the rider’s boots and cloak. When Isidore brought the torch higher, he shuddered. The face bore Lévêque’s masquerade mask.
Lévêque’s countenance was ghastly pallid, and his scarlet-stained throat was severed at the carotid artery. There was a dreadful lingering smile on his lips and his once sparkling sea-blue eyes were now dull and dark as bituminous coal.
Isidore lifted the body and with care, laid it down at the base of the statues. Lévêque had bled out quickly. The murderer knew what he was doing.
“This is no random murder.” Isidore said, darkness crossing his face.
“Perhaps it is this sullen atmosphere of dread, or those buffoons entertaining the masqueraders that have laid your spirits low.” Maggie’s eyes rolled in the torchlight and her teeth flashed white.
Three gendarmes rushed over to them. “Are we too late?” The mustached gendarme asked.
“Lévêque’s been murdered. Have you apprehended anyone?”
“It is not safe for you or Miss Dickinson to remain any longer than you must. Go now to your chambers.”
“This is the work of a cold-blooded killer, with a penchant for the macabre,” Isidore said.
“We found this near the crime scene.” The gendarme produced from his coat pocket a dagger with blood smeared on the jagged blade.
“Earlier in the ballroom, I crossed paths with three men dressed as blind paupers. There was something about their manner that made my skin crawl,” Isidore said.
“Return to your chambers, we will find this killer.”
“Perhaps the devil himself was here, right under our noses,” Isidore said, face contrite.
“Isidore, there is nothing to be done.” Maggie said, tossing him one of her sugary veiled glances.
Too anxious to sleep, Isidore sat at the mahogany desk and puzzled out the evening’s events. Picking up the quill, he dipped it into the indigo ink and composed a letter to Emma. Disgusted with his first attempt, he crumpled up the paper and tossed it towards a wooden wastebasket.
He rose and walked over to the liquor cabinet. He poured a Cognac, smelled the bright apricot-like aroma, then tossed it back, feeling the warm glow as he swallowed the spirit. That makes twice today that Death has shadowed me. He sat the glass upon the desk and started afresh to write.
It has been far too long since we’ve shared felicity and the effusions of the heart. Please excuse the ramblings of a man who holds you with the deepest fervor within his heart.
Strange events—unexplainable events have occurred whilst we were at Le Coq Rouge Tavern for lunch; a French Minister who befriended us and invited us to the Governor’s Masquerade Ball, saved me from a poisoned dish.
My confession is not complete…later whilst accompanying Miss Dickinson to the Ball, the Minister was murdered in the Palace statue garden. The mask of death has stalked me whilst here in Martinique.
I will not tarry here any longer than I must. I hope my stint at the plantation is brief. Let the eyes of the Lord sustain me with fortitude from the shocks and terrors of the times.
My warmest measure of affection,
Isidore Samuels, 31st October 1775, Martinique, French Caribbean.
Isidore folded the letter into the envelope and dripped candle wax to seal it. Feeling a renewed lightness within, he’d hand it to the chambermaid in the morning.
He removed his clothing and laid it over the desk chair. Isidore blew out the chamber light and fell to slumber. But his mind, so overwrought, turned over the day’s strange events.
The images of the masquerade ball tormented him. There was a heaviness pervading the ballroom, like a dance in the underworld. Even the music was somber, colored by notes that screamed out decay and morbidity.
Isidore set his pride aside and reconsidered if Lévêque’s pronouncement had gravitas: “A femme fatale…luring you to your doom.”
A tingling, almost imperceptible sensation by Isidore’s feet sent his mind scurrying to paroxysms of terror. Was he asleep? Was he dreaming? A nagging feeling of imminent dread gripped him in the pit of his stomach, sickening him, and impressed upon his brain that Death’s timepiece ticked only moments away.
A movement, cool to the touch, slithered upon his leg. Isidore’s face burned with the realization that this was Maggie’s ploy all along. He couldn’t believe her duplicity.
Isidore’s breathing came shallow and rapid. The sour scent of his sweat was strong in his nose. The chamber was dark and dead silent, except for the maddening sound of Isidore’s heartbeat pounding through his chest walls.
Using great restraint, he raised his head off the pillow and perceived a shadow rising and falling, and then it paused. At this exact moment his chamber door opened and Isidore smelled Maggie’s gardenia perfume, and this chilled him to the bone.
“Nevermore shall you embrace your beloved Emma. The venom will paralyze you, perhaps drive you mad…a living hell.” Malicious laughter echoed throughout the chamber. Then… “Nevermore shall you spurn me.”
Isidore fought the twitching in his hands as he pealed back the covers. No movement. Dead silence. Then the snake reared up, hissed, then hissed again. Isidore’s mind exploded with the horror. The viper tasted the air, flicking its tongue, as its malevolent eyes, glowing in the darkened chamber, watched Isidore. The chamber door softly closed.