by Justin Mulwee
Sanity is a most peculiar entity. It's an indefinable state of mind, impossible to properly express with words alone. Though it represents stability, one cannot deny its elusive nature and evanescent qualities. Some say that the greatest of men hover on the precarious border between genius and insanity, their thoughts dwelling on the very outskirts of reason, occasionally entering into the darker estates of the mind to forge some rare and wonderful treasure inconceivable within the confines of logic. It can be difficult to determine where eccentricities end and mental disorders truly begin. When does caution become paranoia? When does a bump in the night become a delusion of monsters? Sanity is a privilege and pleasure often taken for granted. It is a priceless possession that is realized by few, and fully cherished by fewer still. Nonetheless it is there, invisible, holding us up like a bridge over the stormy expanse of ocean that is madness. It is only truly appreciated by the few who look down to find that it has slipped away from beneath their feet: by he who must stare helplessly at his own mind as it plummets to the depths and is shattered like glass upon contact with reality. This is best illustrated in a tale that begins with two detectives and an up-scale cadaver.
- Pasta with a side of Murder -
“Well, at least the poor fellow went out with class,” said Detective Ben Myers as he leaned over the body of a well-dressed middle-aged man. The late Count Kasparov wore black slacks, a grey dress shirt with an appropriate tie, and a well-polished pair of shoes. Even in death, he managed to look professional. “I’m willing to bet the wife whacked him for the money.” He mused.
“Not every rich murder victim is killed by his wife, you know,” came the reply of his partner, Mackenzie. He shrugged.
“True, it’s just that in my experience, it does happen an inordinate amount of the time.” She was silent for a moment.
“Yeah, I think she probably did it too.” “He didn’t have a wife,” a voice broke in from behind them. They turned around to face a tall man with a bald head and an unusually large nose. From his attire and stance, he was obviously the servant of the home.
“Hmm. No wife.” Myers repeated as he glanced at his partner out of the corner of his eye. “Just a butler.” She subtly smirked, remembering a previous case about a month ago in which a man was murdered by his butler. She distinctly recalled the ride back to the office.
Ben was driving as usual, with one hand on the wheel and the other adjusting the mirror. A lit cigarette bobbed up and down in his mouth as he spoke. “I should have known, ‘Kenzie.” He nodded to himself slowly. “The butler always does it.” His somewhat aged, craggy face remained perfectly sober when joking, and a year ago when she first met him, she had a hard time knowing when to laugh.
Now the butler was a reasonably intelligent man capable of picking up on Detective Meyers’ subtle accusatory innuendo, but instead of defending himself, he simply raised a single eyebrow, then proceeded to explain how and when he found the master of the house in his current and final pose. While Myers continued to question the man, his partner decided to look around.
Detective Jesse Mackenzie was in her early twenties. She was average height, though she looked small next to her partner. She was slim and attractive with fair skin, long black hair, and deep brown eyes that held intelligence and a keen attention to detail. She carried herself with a quiet elegance that made her seem almost mysterious to those who didn't know her. Though she could be friendly and sociable, the majority of the time she did not speak much. She was much more adept at listening.
The home and everything in it was marvelous. Colored light streamed in through the stained-glass windows. The expansive living room was well furnished, though everything looked so new that she surmised it was rarely sat upon. She got the impression that the room, and perhaps the house in general, was more of a showpiece than a home. It was very clean and well kept, and aside from the dead body of the count himself, there was nothing on the floor. The interesting thing about the home was its array of exotic plants. The count obviously enjoyed collecting them, as they were everywhere. They sat on shelves and tables, hung from the ceiling, and lined the windowsills. They were heterogeneous in size and color, and most of them she did not recognize. One of them caught her eye in particular. A small plant bearing a single blossom sat on a desk at the far end of the room. She stepped over to it. The blossom was a deep lavender, and the light from the window behind it gave its diaphanous pedals a radiant glow. As she lifted the small porcelain pot, the top-heavy plant waved back and forth gently, and a stream of tiny white spores flowed out of the flower’s center and into her face. She quickly set it down and waved her hand in front of her face.
OK, Jesse. She thought to herself. Back to work now. Her mind returned to the task at hand: investigating. She might as well start with the desk in front of her. The dark wood was solid and probably custom made. The finish was so lustrous as to permit her to see her own face in its wood. Next to the flower was a clock sitting face-down on the desk. As she picked it up, she noticed that it was broken. The hands were stuck right on twelve, and the second hand ticked back and forth between two adjacent positions without ever going anywhere. Odd. Maybe Kasparov was trying to fix it.
She proceeded to sift through the drawers. Most contained nothing of apparent importance. As she opened a drawer on the bottom left, she discovered a book. It was brown leather and had a strap holding it shut. It had no title or indication of its contents on it. She opened it to the first page. It read, “The Account of Theodore Kasparov, volume twenty four.” A journal. She thought. Who on earth has two dozen volumes of journal entries? Her slender and dexterous fingers flipped to the next page.
Second Monday of the third month of my thirty-fourth year:
Roberto brought in the groceries today. He forgot the puttanesca. No matter, I shall make the sauce myself. Roberto would gladly do it if I asked of course, but I would rather do it myself so that I can prepare it to my precise tastes. While Roberto is a refined man, he wouldn’t have an inkling of which wine would be proper to cook the dish with. He would almost certainly get the wrong vintage by a year or two. The cooking of proper pasta sauce is a delicate art, which can never be fully understood or communicated in human terms, for it is too divine in nature. It is this fact that makes me grateful he forgot to buy the sauce. Surely it is folly to buy pasta sauce. I don’t know what I was thinking when I wrote it on the grocery list. It’s impossible to determine if the sauce has indeed been prepared correctly. You have to look a man in the eyes to tell the quality of his sauce. I must get started now, for my mouth has begun to water.
“Find something?” Her partners voice, now suddenly right behind her, brought her out of her private world and into everyone else’s. She shrugged casually.
“Maybe. Looks like a journal. What did the butler say?”
“Not a whole lot. He found the guy dead around noon, at which point he called the police. He maintains that he saw nothing of the killer, and heard nothing unusual. However he also mentions that the Count had been acting a bit peculiar lately.” She folded her arms, holding the book to one side.
“In a word, paranoid. And he wouldn’t tell the butler why because he feared ‘he’ was listening.”
“Who’s he?” He shrugged.
“Your guess is as good as mine. Well, if he knew someone was out to get him, he may have written something about it in that journal. We’ll take it with us. It’s curious though, we’re not sure exactly what the cause of death is. No knife sticking out of him, no bullet holes in him, no signs of struggle at all. This may not be a homicide at all. Of course there is that matter of the victim’s recent paranoia, and more importantly, my gut. We’ll have to wait for the autopsy results. Anyway, let’s look around a bit more before we go.” After giving the rest of the floor a once-over and finding nothing of interest, they proceeded to the basement. The ancient wooden stairs creaked beneath their feet. The basement was oddly ill-kept considering the extravagant nature of the rest of the home. Dust and the faint smell of mildew made the air rank and stuffy. There was a rapid, insidious ticking sound coming from somewhere, but it was too dark to see much of anything. After the exceedingly unpleasant surprise of a spider web in the face, Detective Mackenzie found the chain that turned on the light bulb overhead. The bulb was weak and flickered constantly, making shadows dance about the room. The paint on the walls was peeling and the floor was bare cement.
“What do you make of this?” Myers said as he was met by his partner at the back wall. She stood intrigued but with no intelligent response. Lining the shelf was an array of old-fashioned clocks. She counted eleven of them. They all ticked audibly and out of sync with one another.
“Another collection?” she offered. Ben frowned.
“Maybe, but if you collected something, why would you keep them down here?” she only shrugged. Upon closer examination, the clocks all read different times. The second hands ticked back and forth in futility just like the clock upstairs. Each clock read a different hour, on the hour. They were arranged in chronological order, with the leftmost reading One O’clock and the one on the opposite end reading eleven.
“One for every hour,” Jesse commented, “and one upstairs reads twelve.”
“Well, God knows if this means anything,” said Myers as he put his hat on. “In any case, this can all wait ‘till tomorrow.” He glanced at his watch. “We’re off in a half hour, and I’m ready to get home and do nothing.”
The first few moments of the car ride was accompanied by silence between the two detectives. Of course, silence was not something either of them found awkward. Jesse was fine with peace and quiet: it gave her solitude; time to be alone with her own thoughts. For Ben, silence meant that all was understood. If two people understand each other, there is no need to speak. However, Ben was much more likely to break silence on impulse than Jesse, who usually spoke only when prompted. Such an impulse occurred.
“We need to figure out who would have something against Kasparov.” He said. She looked a little confused.
“The dead guy.”
“So, what do you make of that butler?” Ben asked in his usual tone, which could be either humorous or serious.
“I thought he had an abnormally large nose, and was overall slightly unpleasant. Though it’s unfair to judge a man on a first impression.” Ben’s face remained serious.
“He didn’t seem too broken up about the count’s death.” He paused. “Although, I don’t really think he did it. It’s too obvious, and I have a feeling this one is going to be interesting.” To the average person, murder of any sort was invariably interesting by definition. To detective Myers, however, more than half of the murders committed on his watch were all paperwork and no intrigue. Although less desensitized to death, Detective Mackenzie also enjoyed a good mystery. A good challenge for her mind, which she received too few of on a regular basis. She would soon get more than she bargained for in that department.
-- The Dead Man’s Tale –
Miss Mackenzie’s apartment was a small one, but big enough to suit her needs.. Some might describe the abode as lonely, but its owner would rather describe it as cozy. Though the city wasn’t particularly quiet, her neighbors were, and thus she was able to receive her daily requirement of solitude. While she was away, her apartment remained silent and undisturbed.
Its first real introduction to sound was when Jesse arrived home that evening. After closing the door behind her and setting down her things, the first thing she did was change out of her professional-looking work clothes and into a more feminine silky pink shirt and a black pair of jeans, then removed her contacts in favor of the more comfortable substitute, her glasses. Her bare feet carried her across the thick, white carpet to the sofa. The warm fragrance of cinnamon that emanated from the potpourri dish on the coffee table touched her nose. She saw a small black mass out of the corner of her eye, and turned to find her cat sitting beside her, as if it had been waiting there for her all evening. It greeted her by rubbing against her and purring. She crossed her legs and caressed the cat’s lustrous fur with one hand as she sipped from a mug filled with her choice black tea. Glancing at the seldom-used television beyond the coffee table, she decided it would remain off for tonight. Aside from a rare occasion, there was little on it that was capable of interesting her of late.
She pondered instead upon which book to read. A small bookshelf against the east wall held a collection of books on a variety of subjects, mostly reference, but also held some of Shakespeare’s works and a few other classics including Pride and Prejudice and Moby Dick. While several of the books from her collection sounded satisfactory, her eyes returned to the count’s journal on the table in front of her. Maybe it was the worn look of leather that made it appear prematurely seasoned and ancient, maybe it was the fact that the case was still on her mind. A more likely explanation, however, is that the written recordings of anyone’s private thoughts are especially curious by simple virtue of their existence, and even more so, the recent writings of a dead man had a morbid curiosity about them—excuse the pun, for you may rest assured it was not intended—that was undeniably tantalizing. It was like a batch of fresh-baked cookies you know were meant for someone else, or a box kept under one’s bed that existed for no other reason than to be eventually found and opened. Giving into her inquisitive nature as usual, she took the book into her hands and opened it. She flipped to the page after the pasta-sauce-obsessed entry she had read earlier.
Something strange happened today. When I sat down at my desk this evening, I found a note on it with the words “I’m watching you,” scrawled on it. I have no idea where it came from or for what purpose it was written, but I can only assume it is meant for me. I am faced with a twofold mystery: the meaning of the note, and the person behind it. The stationary it is written on is mine, though this it not much help in narrowing suspects, because the stationary is kept in one of the drawers of the desk the note was left on. Though there was not much on the note, one can infer from the angle of the script that the culprit is most likely left-handed. This is slightly unnerving, as I have learned never to trust a left-handed person—aside from myself, that is. Although the man used my stationary, he must have used his own pen. I am reasonably certain I possess no pen that creates a stroke of the appropriate color and thickness as the strokes on this paper. He must be the sort to carry a pen in his pocket. I do usually trust the pen-carrying types, for they have usually proven to be courteous and agreeable people, but of course I cannot trust this one. The fact that he would sneak into my home and write curious notes overcomes any virtue he might have gained in my eyes by carrying a pen in his pocket. For now, I shall try not to let it worry me.
Now she had found something interesting. Perhaps the note was left by his murderer. If so, he or she must have entered his home at some point before killing him just to leave the note. Most intriguing. She was also amused by the count’s distrust of left-handed people, as she happened to be left-handed and apparently, so was Kasparov himself. It was becoming quickly apparent that the count was more than a bit eccentric. It made her wish she could have met him before his unfortunate death. Observing interesting people was one of her favorite pastimes. She read the next entry.
Another clock just came for me. This time I nearly yelled at the delivery boy. But he is only doing his job. I’m growing quite a collection now, and every one of them is broken!! Where are they coming from??? This is the third one I’ve gotten today. Since when does the mail come three times a day, anyway? As usual, there was no return address. It occurs to me the possibility that they are all sent from him—the one who left the note. The Watcher. If so, this makes the man more interesting and thus more frightening. I do wish the odd fellow would simply knock on my door and get to the heart of the matter like two men should, whether bearing words and intentions of good or ill.
Another entry was directly below it. The script was a little messier than the last entry, as if it had been written more quickly.
It has begun to drive me mad. The incessant ticking, the monotonous clicking, the incandescent glow of the fading light bulb reflected upon the smirking face of the clocks, mocking my ignorance of the solution to this riddle, mocking the slovenly processes of my mind which prove incapable of unraveling the ominous mystery presented before me like a delicate dish sprinkled with sugar or poison. I cannot think clearly. But the hour grows very late and I must get to sleep. I will think on this in the morning.
Though this entry was short, it stood out. Jesse found its level of description and its tone odd. She could feel the man’s tension mounting entry by entry. He had apparently assigned his stalker a name: “The Watcher.” She rubbed her arms. A cold draft seemed to have invaded the room, and the tea in her hand had lost its power to warm her. She stood up and made her way to the window on the far side of the room, but found it to be already closed. She then unsuccessfully searched her apartment for the source of the draft. Puzzled, she returned to the sofa and covered herself with a blanket. If this kept up, she would make sure to call the landlord about it—though this was something she wanted to avoid if she could help it, for the landlord had the habit of flirting with her. That is to say, he made somewhat subtle but nonetheless sad attempts at hitting on her. At first it was innocent flattery, but grew exponentially irritating upon each encounter, and the thought of having to ask something of him that could be misconstrued as a personal favor was none too appealing. She pulled the blanket around her snugly and kept reading.
My heater is broken. It’s been growing increasingly cold the past two days, and the thermostat on the wall maintains that it is warm. Roberto does not think it is cold in the home, but he’s Italian. Italians never get cold, which I believe to be a trait that has arisen over many generations of consuming well-prepared pasta. Pasta protects us from the elements.
It was interesting that both she and Kasparov apparently had malfunctioning heaters. She decided to think no more of the coincidence. Once again, Kasparov seemed to acknowledge the divinity of pasta.
Second Tuesday of the third month of my thirty-fourth year:
At this point she realized that all of the previous entries had been written on the same day. Apparently the count lived his life in brief segments, then returned to his journal to document each one.
I cut my finger today. It was the index finger of my left hand. It happened this morning when I was reading. Page 119 of The Count of Monte Cristo sliced me as I turned the page. So grievous was the wound that it dripped blood, and I had to bandage it. The upside is that blood is a very beautiful color, one which I don’t see often. It’s a perfectly beautiful shade of red, a dark and lovely hue. It represents life and death in a single entity, and it would be a wonderful sight to behold if injury were not such a disagreeable thing. Especially my own injury. The odd thing was that after I tended my injuries, I sat back down in the chair—and noticed something. The fire in the fireplace was down to embers, and when I had cut myself, it was blazing. Either I purchased an irregular batch of wood, or I was tending the wound for much longer than I would have estimated. I don’t quite understand it. have the feeling this sort of thing has happened before, now that I think about it. The most disturbing part was the note… I found another note on the table right next to the book I had just set down! It was a direct threat on my life! It said I would die at midnight. I don’t think I shall be getting much sleep tonight. At least, not until midnight. I shall be wide and wary at midnight.
Yes, Jesse thought, the notes were definitely left by the killer. But the way the notes were left, especially this last one, made his account highly suspicious. How could some one sneak in again and leave another note without being noticed? What of the count’s odd segment of missing time? The only logical explanation for all this, if logical is the right word, was that Kasparov was completely insane. That wasn’t too hard for her to believe considering all of the madness in his previous journal entries. Nevertheless he was dead in the end. And that much, at least, was reality. She read the next.
Last night midnight came and went, and he didn’t come. Is thought he was just toying with me, until I received a call from a clock store asking me when I would like the final clock delivered. I told them I didn’t care. I had no idea why the person was calling me. The Watcher is the one who must have bought them all and paid someone to deliver one every time. Anyway, I finally realized that the clocks have come in order by hour. I have eleven, and when the twelfth comes, It will read 12:00. That is my midnight, and that is my demise. I am somewhat calmer with this idea now, because last night an angel-goat came to me and told me that after death is the afterlife, in which all men get all the pasta they desire, prepared to perfection.
She blew in her cupped hands, all the more aware of how cold she was. It was just a coincidence that the Count’s heater also seemed to be malfunctioning, right? Wait. When she and Ben were at his home earlier, it felt perfectly warm. She quickly stood up, and upon doing so felt a little light headed momentarily. Shaking off the sudden spell, she stepped to the thermostat. It read a cozy 73 degrees. “Ok,” she said to herself aloud, “This is getting weird.” She clasped her frigid hands together and realized they were shaking.
A few hours later, Detective Myers stood in line at a quiet Chinese take-out restaurant, pondering the possible implications of what Count Kasparov’s butler had said to him earlier. “Count Kasparov hasn’t quite been himself the past couple of days,” he had said. “He’s seemed very distracted, and extremely forgetful. He was more high-strung than usual. Seemed to be afraid of something or someone, but didn’t volunteer the reason. I didn’t think much of it, for the Count is—was—a most eccentric man. I have learned not to question his behaviors. He’s asked nothing of me the past few days, save to borrow my pen.” What stood out to Ben was that the Count had been very forgetful. He was reminded of when he was in the car with Jesse earlier and she had forgotten the name of the murder victim, Kasparov. He didn’t think anything of it at the time, for a normal person forgetting such a thing wouldn’t be too out of the ordinary, especially near the end of a long work day where one’s brain may be slightly fried. But Jesse’s brief lapse in memory was very uncharacteristic of her—her memory was not just good, it was perfect. A face became a photograph in her brain. A person’s words became an audio recording. It was inhuman. He had once joked that he suspected she was really an android.
“Can I help you sir?” he realized he was now the only one in line. The short, blue-eyed girl attending the register had prompted him.
“Yes, I’ll take one Hunan Chicken and Rice. To go.”
“Sure,” the girl said pleasantly as she punched some keys on the register. He thought for a second.
“On second thought, make that two.”
Jesse turned on the faucet in the bathroom and splashed water in her face. She looked up into the mirror and stared at her reflection. Her skin was as pale as a corpse, and though she was freezing, she was sweating visibly. Her hair was tumbled over her face sloppily. Stray, wet strands of black were plastered against a sea of white. Her eyes were red and weary as if she hadn’t slept in days. She was terrified by the lack of humanity she saw in them. She felt that a great shadow was quickly enveloping her, and if she did not escape it soon she would be gone. There would be no more Jesse Mackenzie, only darkness.
While Ben was in the car making his way toward Jesse’s house, his cell phone rang. “Hello?”
“I did the autopsy.” It was the voice of the coroner they usually worked with.
“Already?” The man’s unnecessary eagerness for cutting into dead bodies and running mind-numbing tests never ceased to amaze Ben.
“Yeah. I wouldn’t normally call you since you’re off duty by now, but there’s something you should know. The cause of death is poison. It comes from a plant, Zigadenus veneosus to be precise. There was a fatal dose of it in his stomach, along with a fine dinner. It was probably in the pasta or the wine.
“Poisoned eh? Ok, but why couldn’t this wait until tomorrow?” Ben inquired, slightly annoyed but not hostile.
“That’s not the interesting part. There was something else in his system. His blood was swimming with a rare bacteria. I’ll spare you its unpronounceable name. It also resides a in a plant…in Australia. Since you said the guy collected exotic plants, he probably brought it in accidentally when he imported something.”
“Are we getting to the point some time soon?”
“Sorry. There have been a few isolated cases in Australia…this bacteria has an interesting effect on humans. While the details vary greatly from person to person, the basic idea is the same. Anyone infected will sooner or later… well they’ll go insane. So I want you to come in as soon as possible—bring you partner too—just in case you were exposed to it. It’s easily curable, but come in ASAP before either of you start acting strangely.”
“Ok, doc, whatever you say. I’m on my way to see her anyway. We’ll be there soon.” He hung up. Bacteria that makes you go insane. How about that.
Jesse laid curled up in the blanket like a scared little girl hiding from monsters. She heard a knock at the door. She got up slowly, leaving the warmth of the couch. Who could it be? She wasn’t expecting anyone, and it was getting late. Another knock. No, it couldn’t be anyone friendly. Only someone of ill intent would neglect to call before dropping by. If she opened the door, she would probably be killed. It wasn’t safe. Knock, Knock, Knock. She looked out the peephole and adjusted it to see the face of her visitor. The lighting was poor, but she was pretty sure it was Ben. What did he want? Maybe it wasn’t really him. She opened the door as far as the chain would allow. “Hunan Chicken, with extra MSG. Hope you haven’t eaten yet,” he said, holding up two Chinese takeout boxes. She closed the door and undid the chain, then let him in with a blind leap of faith that trusted he wasn’t going to get her right then and there. They sat down on opposite ends of the couch, and she stayed as far to one side as she could, staring at him as if he might have leprosy.
“Are you okay?” he asked in a tone people generally use when asking that question if they know that the answer is no.
“Mhm,” she said uneasily as she reached for the box of food closest to her. She opened it as though it might contain a live snake or a spring-loaded knife. Finding it contained only food, a bit of her tension left her. She slid into the couch more comfortably and started eating.
“Listen,” Ben said, “I think you got something in you when we were at Kasparov’s place. It’s making you sick. We need to go to the doctor.” She stopped eating suddenly.
“No…” she said softly. He was watching her eating. Why was he doing that? Poison. “No!! You poisoned me, didn’t you?! I should have known!” He just wanted all of the credit for the investigation. Incapacitating her would be the perfect way to do it. And with Chinese food, how clever. How devious. She would probably fall unconscious at any minute from the drugs.
“You need help.” Ben said, and put a hand on her shoulder. “We’re going.” She stepped back violently.
“Don’t touch me!” She knew what she had to do. She ran to the kitchen and opened a drawer, searching for the largest butcher knife. After finding it she held it out straight in front of her with both hands. “Don’t come any closer!” He stood a few feet in front of her, unmoving.
“I’m not gonna hurt you. Put the knife down.” He was trying to brainwash her! “You’re sick,” he continued. She mustn’t listen. He slowly pulled a frying pan out of the sink. “I’m really sorry.” She wasn’t sure what he meant. Then, in the blink of the eye, he grabbed her wrist and twisted it painfully. Just as she was about to scream, she felt something blunt and hard strike her in the back of the head. Everything went black.
Two days later, Ben filled and carried two mugs of coffee across the room and sat down next to his partner. He handed her one. “Two creams, one sugar.” She smiled.
“You know me too well.”
“So how’s the head?”
“Better.” She took a sip.
“Good to hear. I’m sorry about that.”
“Yeah. Sorry about the whole… knife… thing.” He shrugged.
“No harm done. At least you didn’t plot your own murder or anything.” They sipped their coffee in unison and prepared for another day and another murder.