A novel by Rich Novotney
About four decades ago a quip arrowed over a tabletop in a ragtag speakeasy in the rundown college town of Valparaiso, Indiana, in the kind of place Poe himself might’ve slummed. My old friend Jim Hale prided himself on trivia of the literary sort, and often reeled off anecdotes, tales, yarns and often outright lies, tall-tales spun from whole cloth, born of his prodigious and baroque imagination. Fabrications like a tale-teller might weave, yes, like Poe might’ve. We’d been drinking again, and so the talk had turned to Art. Hale’s tidbit that day struck my ignorant ears as an absolute falsehood:
“You know what, Novotney? We don’t even know how Poe died. His bizarre death is a mystery wrapped in an enigma cloaked in a conundrum. The Father of the Modern Mystery left behind the single greatest goddamned mystery of American Letters.”
That was it: my idea for a novel. Decades years later, after trips retracing Poe’s final footsteps, innumerable plots, many missteps, a dozen rewrites, piles of advice both good and bad, the novel’s finished, the mystery’s solved. But it took more than a humble novelist to solve Poe’s mystery. It took chrononauts:
In 1849 Baltimore, time traveler Ellie Lynn must save the life of the man she loves. That man is Edgar Allan Poe, and history says in eight days he must die.
Please enjoy the first chapter of my novel below. I’m currently working with my amazing agent to give the tome its final polish. Wish me luck!
Chapter I: To the River–
Excerpted from the Journal of Edgar A. Poe
The Steamer Pocahontas, Chesapeake Bay. Early Morning, Thursday, September 27, 1849
The visage of an unearthly goddess enthralls me. But is she lost to me forever?
The sight of her befell me after I secured passage and boarded the ferry. Near to 4 o’clock in the morning, I stood on the port guard, two decks above the wharf, outside my own cabin at such a vantage that I could watch, and thus monitor, the boarding of every other passenger. Of course I was looking for the Royster thugs. Fear of those cretins–who certainly plotted to murder me here, at sea or at landfall–sharpened my senses. My wary eye, honed under the desperate reality of my plight, granted what seems to me preternatural sight: the Roysters never appeared;–ah, but what I did see!
Shortly before the last passenger boarded, a trio emerged from the fog: two men and a luminescent lady. As if these strangers had inhaled the stuff of my own dreams and tales, inking themselves into things dark and fancied–and incontrovertibly out of place–they instantly caught, then held rapt my eye.
The dark: the men, an alien oddity if ever I beheld such, one a specimen of perfect physique mismatched to an imp of homely aspect. And lo–the fancy: betwixt them she stood, whose sublime countenance arrested my breath. Her face embodied an utterly clear and unblemished sheen–as if I gazed not on flesh, but marble, the bust of something classic, unreal, unaged.
They virtually dragged her. Why they carried her so I could not ascertain. Was she ill? Drunk? Drugged? They had to hold her erect so she could walk. But some measure–some posture in her–hinted at resistance. I noticed in the sallow lamp-lights the blue brocade of a fine dress. Aye, she is a lady.
As they negotiated the gangway, she halted them, seeming to summon strength. Uncrooking her arms from the men to stand on her own, her face rose into the dim lights of the Pocahontas; those eyes were dark, dark as a starless firmament. Her hair–a few locks had escaped from their pinnings–was loose; beneath the grim blanket of night and fog her curls shone–her hair is saffron silk! Then, momentarily released from their clutches, this lady led them up the gangway.
I could espy no more.
When the Pocahontas cast off her mooring, I retired, but never slept. The lady’s otherworldly visage haunts my mind’s eye. I blush, I tremble. In fear of the Royster thugs; in anger at the rogues who hold this lady;–at how this siren has stricken my heart.
One birth, one accident and one murder spurred six years of single-minded focus, culminating in a dank fog of stink. Edgar A. Poe–in the flesh. Did Mr. Poe sense two chrononauts studied him from the dark? Midnight mist shadowed him, shadowed us. Beneath a lamppost Poe paused in the middle of four stairsteps. Paused, resumed. Black-garbed, black-haired, he dragged a suitcase down the steps–thump, thump.
For a breath the lamp silhouetted him: Tall, eerily thin. With the case he carried a cane, tapped it on the stones, then dashed away. As he did, for an instant the murky lamp framed his profile. Not a single daguerreotype of Poe’s profile exists, only his portrait, but the glimpse left little doubt. Down the street toward Rockett’s Landing he hurried.
“That was Poe!” I might’ve bolted out of the shadows after Poe if my fellow chrononaut hadn’t caught my arm. For what did I know? In terms of travel into the past, I was a tenderfoot. The man who grabbed me, Jon Phillips, was a time-traveling trailblazer. As such, he knew about Spacetime. Did he know about Poe? Not as much as I.
“No, Ellie, we can’t–” I tried to pull free, he wouldn’t let go. “We can’t go gallivanting off into the fog just on a guess.”
“Jon, it’s more than a guess. His height, the forehead, the hair, it’s–”
“Just a second. Your own proposal describes Poe leaving the cane he borrowed from his friend behind. He never took it to the ferry.”
“Reading my proposal doesn’t make you an expert.”
“But an expert wrote it. And that expert says he didn’t take the cane.”
“Jon, you can’t simultaneously flatter me and disagree with me. Truth is, that proposal bases all its assumptions on circumstantial evidence, evidence three hundred years old. What we just saw, we saw with our own eyes.”
Jon peered about us, as if confirming we stood alone in the dark. “We saw a man with a cane, yes. Did we see Poe? Uncertain.”
“As your mission expert on Poe, standing in the here and now of Antebellum Richmond–breathing its glorious fumes first-hand–I say we follow. We’re going to Rockett’s Landing anyhow.” I tried to read Jon’s expression, but all I caught in the gloom were glints off his glasses and the silver of his big beard, his hand stroking it.
“Point to consider: It’s after three a.m. By this time wasn’t Poe long gone?”
Indeed, Jon had read my proposal, remembered it. Good for him, not good enough. “According to so-called experts who never had the chance to see Poe with their own eyes.”
“Again, based on a glimpse–”
“No, Jon, this has got me thinking. Why would Poe come here to dine, then walk blocks out of his way to pick up his baggage at his hotel, only to double-back on his way to the ferry? Nope. Makes more sense to pack his suitcase and bring it here. This is an all-night establishment. It’s evident he came here to dine well after midnight.”
“Didn’t Poe’s friends say he’d dined here earlier?”
“Of course they did. Why admit to a late hour to wives and families? Especially right before Poe’s infamous disappearance. Ten o’clock sounds a hell lot better than carousing after midnight with the notorious Raven.”
“I understand your enthusiasm, Ellie. You’ve planned for so long, got ignored for so long, then suddenly–here. But don’t mistake a quick glance for evidence. We have to be scientific, not ghost-hunting phantoms–”
Ghost hunting? He had no idea what I was hunting. I’d had enough, gave Jon my back, followed my phantom. Jon fell in behind me–I gave him little choice. We tromped through the lowlands of Richmond, into an even denser fog, into a cold swelter, the kind of humidity that bleeds sweat on steel, to soon lose all trace of our quarry. My phantom moved too fast, and we, strangers, plodded with caution.
The thickening reek constricted my throat, staggering me to a halt. I coughed. After all this, was I going to throw up? Deep breaths. Steady.
Jon took my elbow. “You okay?”
“I’m no blossom.”
“I know that. But you’re new to this kind of mission, strange sights, strange smells–”
“New. Yes, why is that?”
“Why is what?”
“Why is this so ‘new’? Because I haven’t gotten the training I should’ve–” I stopped myself, but wanted to tear into him. Their rushing me into this trip exemplified the central problem of this whole journey to uncover the mystery of Poe’s death. I knew damn well why I was here. But why were they here? I bit my tongue, only because I was about to throw up.
Jon didn’t respond.
More steady breaths. In that reeking Richmond fog, the incongruity of it all came to a head. The urge to gag, my struggle to resist it, were an apropos end to my first two weeks with these people. The need to puke receded, but its nausea remained, reducing any inclination to give a damn what they thought, or what I said. Now that I stood in this 1849 Virginia stink, I was no longer in danger of them changing their minds and not bringing me along.
When Jon still didn’t answer, I spat out the question I’d asked before, this time as blunt as a slap: “How are you justifying this trip? We’ve soldiered three hundred years into the past with no warning and little preparation. All without your giving me a convincing reason as to why. Chrononaut teams–historians, engineers, physicists–at an insane cost in spaceships, brainscans, palmtops, don’t go around chasing poets, of all things.”
Jon fiddled with his glasses, buying time it seemed, rubbing them on his sleeve before resetting them on his nose, as if that might help him see through this fog, or perhaps see through me–so he could play me. The thing was, he had no idea what motivated me. Could he possibly believe what I wrote in my proposal?–that I was willing to endure spacetime displacements, inoculations, this damn dress, this foul air, purely out of literary curiosity? No, my guess was he thought I was a moon-eyed idiot.
Jon Phillips, second member of our hastily assembled trio–scientist, historian and, as I’d soon learn, propagandist extraordinaire–answered: “Ellie, you’re absolutely right. Repeatedly we’ve put you off.”
“And?” I held him in a long unwavering stare.
“Look, we’re slogging blind through a predawn fog in a virtually lawless society. So I’m going to put you off a bit longer. Right now we need to get to the ferry, get out on the Bay. Then we’ll have all day today. When I’m certain we’re secure, and can’t be overheard, I promise I’ll answer all your questions.”
Anger gave way to nausea and, for now I gave up. I’m dead certain he, knowing I was almost ill, took advantage of that. In answer, I resorted to the comfort of bravado and a quick quip: “So what is that smell?
“In the river, right?”
“Lovely.” I gritted my teeth, swallowed, shrugged off his hand. “Okay, fine. Let’s find our phantom.”
“And Captain Reynolds.”
Captain Raymond Reynolds, third member of our little ad hoc adventurer’s group. A glib and cocky bastard–our leader. In this fog I wondered if I’d even recognize him. “Same difference. The Captain and our phantom–otherwise known as Mr. Poe–will both be at the ferry.”
A few blocks later the muddy road ended. Rockett’s Landing, I presumed. I couldn’t see a thing, but I heard voices. Somewhere beyond a curtain of featureless gray, men bustled.
Captain Raymond Reynolds stepped out of the blackness. So I did recognize him: strapping, tall, probably too tall for the era. “You two certainly took your time.”
“Raymond.” I swallowed hard to hide the urge to gag. “You see a tall, thin man dressed in black–with a suitcase?”
“I’ve seen many men. Who knows?”
I snapped back, “Who knows? What have you been doing?”
“Ellie thinks she saw our subject. At the restaurant.”
“Does it matter? We know he’s on the ferry.”
“We think he’s on the ferry–”
“I hate to agree with Raymond, but yes, we know he’s on the ferry. Let’s talk on the on board. Gentlemen?”
Raymond fell in beside me. We stepped onto a wooden wharf. On the timbers I tried to scrape the mud from my boots, but tripped. Jon and Raymond each grabbed an elbow, held me up, ushering me forward. I sucked in a deep breath, coughed.
Goddammit. My corseted dress, heeled boots and retreat into a patriarchal past had sucked out every ounce of spunk. And had girdled my guts so I could barely hold down my dinner. I’d like to say a dogged focus on a promise uttered years ago kept me together, but more likely simmering anger and blind stubbornness put one foot in front of the other. Jon and Raymond nudged me along.
I peered up. A pocket opened in the fog.
About six meters ahead of us floated the ferry, five decks high. Bales of cotton stacked the bottom deck. Two decks higher mist-haloed lamps lit a walkway. Another deck capped the walkway. Shadows shrouded the passengers. The whole vessel looked ridiculously top-heavy. This would cross the Chesapeake Bay?
Behind the ferry, fog crept like Spanish moss. Jon and Raymond marched me along, by the elbows. Just before a rickety gangway I halted us. “This thing seaworthy?”
“History reports our subject made it alive. So will we.”
I sucked in another breath of putrid air, clenched my teeth, yanked free my arms. “Ease off, gentlemen.”
One heeled boot in front of the other, I led them up the gangway. Into history.
Journal of Edgar A. Poe
Steamer Pocahontas, Chesapeake Bay. Early dawn, Thursday, September 27, 1849
Dawn. Ragged talons of crimson claw into the dimming blackness of night, and I know not whether to welcome or loathe it. For I cannot sleep.
The image of this unnamed siren haunts me, for it occurs to me she and I are alike. Two unknown villains forced her aboard;–and three villains, Elmira’s brothers, dog me! For despite my certainty that my pursuers, the Royster boys, did not board this ferry, I expect they will greet me at landfall in Baltimore.
Thus it is I cannot sleep.
Fear of what injuries Elmira’s brutish brothers might inflict unsettles me. However, that dread subordinates itself, amazingly so, into something almost circumspect. Indeed, what plagues me?
She plagues me, she of the wan visage and lustrous eyes.
I do not give truck to the protestations of Bible-rousers, or those who profess that their Heavenly God protects them. Did this deity protect my brother?–Did this deity protect my dear, innocent wife? No, this deity abandons us to ourselves. Thus we must protect those we choose to love.
I choose to love this unnamed Aphrodite. Perhaps I shall exchange one deity for another.
So I pledge to this lady the hand of my deliverance. If finally, once and for all–God help me–I put the Royster brothers at bay, I will acquiesce to what my heart already proclaims.
Ah, I cannot sleep.
Copyright 2020 by Rich Novotney