I sat at the kitchen table while the storm raged outside like wild wolves, biting and tearing at the plains. Through the scalding steam of my tea I could see Christoph staring out the window of the den. He smoothed his white beard and puffed on his pipe in disconnected thought. The aroma of cinnamon tobacco drifted across the flitting flames of the fireplace behind him. Morality. Immorality. Resolution. Indecision.
Erratic self-contemptuous reflections crawled their way through the corrugated folds of the pulsing mound of pregnable flesh lodged within his skull. His health was failing beyond measurable means, and as of late he had taken to referring to me simply as: “The American.” He had forgotten my name entirely, but there were some things that he could never forget. I knew more of him than he believed he knew of himself; I watched him always, like a hawk to a snake. He was reading that damned book again: ‘The Premature Burial of Dr. Matteucci’ or something along those lines. I had seen the book many times; the cover was tattered and the edges badly worn. Mould crept along the inside crease: a blue vein.
Christoph pondered through few pages with his mind wandering from the yellowing paper to the scorching lashes of lightning, and he learned of a young physician of Naples who found misfortune and death. As the story goes, he and his partner were accused of medical malpractice that resulted in the death of a well-to-do fiancé of a prominent lawyer. Matteucci disappeared, but he was found hiding in an abandoned barn. His location was presumably given for the lawyer’s money.
Before trial a band of besotted peasants tossed Matteucci into a coffin and buried him alive. The second doctor fled as well, but like a wraith, disappearing amidst the city’s mortar. Christoph believed that he may have encountered the text before, but when he sought to discover the result of the man’s fate he realized that the final page was absent. It was erased like a memory conceived in the darkness of sin. Christoph looked behind the laden bookshelf and under his chair. He crawled along the floor like a benighted infant, but he could not spot the page. It was missing.
He approached the front door in a stupor, his hand clutching his jewelled cane. He weakly yelled for the American, but I was naturally there. I must admit, his behaviour was mildly alarming. He had never acted as such even in his most profound delusions. He professed the urgency to apprehend Phillip, his confidant, who was travelling to Linz to deliver a medical analysis for Mr. Flint’s practice. His worry was that Phillip would become stranded in the storm, but I had reason to believe that he had reached his destination many hours before his master’s coaxed concern. Nonetheless, I had no choice but to oblige, and without a moment’s hesitation two horses and a cart were prepared. The aging man drove himself down the cobbled path of the estate through the shrieking wind.
Upon later questioning, he claimed he hadn’t travelled two miles before he saw Philipp trying to push his cart out of the mud. One of his horses veered off the road out of fright and the cart became stuck just inside a thicket of foliage. Philipp’s hair hung in his eyes and his tunic was stuck to his cold, wet skin. He gave a hesitant wave to the arrival of Christoph as his heart beat quickly with the fear of reprimand.
Christoph tipped his hat and beckoned with a large hand for the page to come forward. “Gather the supplies from the cart and come with me. Someone will be along for the horses,” he said.
Philipp grabbed some quilts from the cart and draped them over the backs of the hulking beasts. They breathed reams of hot air from their noses and nodded in approval as Philipp retrieved an armload of hay and placed it under the cart so that it wouldn’t get wet but they could still reach it. The horses wouldn’t be alone for long and he didn’t want to leave them, but Christoph waited impatiently with nothing more than a pipe and its fumes to keep him company in the cold. His impatience was accelerated by his belief in his good hospitality.
The duo reached the estate shortly after midnight. I observed Christoph’s hulking gait from the upstairs bathroom window; I knew where he had been. Phillip was not with him. Phillip had arrived in Linz long ago. Christoph’s delusions of grandeur allowed him a façade of heroism and a fabricated narrative of rescue. The thinning rain revealed a burlap sack carried in two shaking arms made frail with age and regret.
The loud cracks of thunder were softening with distance. The night grew still blacker, making the foreign land comforting to me in its universal darkness. I had finished drawing a hot bath upstairs when I heard the door open. It was a slow creak, a hesitant entrance. I slowly descended to the lobby, the overhead chandelier casting a soft glow in the otherwise dim house. In the den I could hear Christoph conversing.
“Will you be having drinks?” I inquired in the doorway.
“Dark rum will be fine,” Christoph muttered without looking in my eyes.
Sitting in the chair opposite he was the corpse of the missing accomplice, albeit not the one that had travelled to Linz. Matteucci stared slack-jawed into the dripping eyes of his companion, his mutilated arms draped neatly on each side of the leather chair. Christoph fingered his muddied shovel nervously, sweat and rain mingling affectionately in the crevices of his forehead.
I went to gather drinks. On the kitchen table next to my cold tea there sat a single page with ripped edges, long ago removed from its text by the man who traded friendship for bounty.