It has been my habit, when telling this story, to begin by saying “It was the first time I saw a man murdered.” My good friend Dr. Sarpedon has been kind enough to remind me that of the loathsome crime, I saw, in fact, nothing at all. I am therefore left without an introduction.
Be that as it may,
I was living in Brownsville, Texas, in a run-down mansion about a mile from the border. I was working on a translation of Poe, learning to shoot skeet, and spending my inheritance on Grand Annee. Elaine had been living with me for three weeks.
I did not really know Elaine, but she had arrived with a letter of introduction from Victoria Orpington. Victoria is one of my oldest and dearest friends, and I dared not turn one of her acquaintances from my door. Elaine told me she was a stand-up comedienne, but I never heard her tell a joke. I suspected that was part of her act, but I never laughed, in case I was mistaken. I gave her a room and the use of a car and left her well enough alone.
Osvaldo, if that was his real name, arrived around nine o’clock the night in question. He said he had come for Victoria’s surprise birthday party. I did not believe it was Victoria’s birthday, but Elaine said she had invited him, so I did not object. He was tall and bird-like and seemed very impatient.
Francis arrived soon after Osvaldo. I did not know him either, but I knew of him. His family owned a shipping company and a refinery in Houston and had been instrumental in getting Ann Richards elected governor. Francis had degrees in anatomy, botany, Chinese, design, and engineering. He said he was hoping to get through the alphabet before he turned 60. I imagine forensics was next on his list, or possibly French.
Victoria stopped by after we four had spent a few hours of awkward silence. She was in an odd mood and picked at her cuticles with an intensity bordering on obsession. Of course, no one said a thing about her birthday.
Victoria, I should mention, is a direct descendant of J. W. “Cannonball” Orpington, who fought with Sam Houston at the battle of San Jacinto. Her family was once the wealthiest in Texas, but all the good blood was washed out to sea in the great Galveston hurricane of 1900. The Orpington fortune was gambled and lost in the century which followed that infamous storm, and poor Victoria was left with nothing but a name. She makes her living now as a tattoo artist, but never quite manages to make ends meet. She gives free tattoos to her friends, you see, and everyone is Victoria’s friend.
Time passed slowly that night. Everyone was tense, with the possible exception of Francis. I began to wonder what they had planned for the evening. The silence, nervous energy, and odd mix of characters all marked the occasion as having been arranged by Victoria. She has a taste for the sinister and unexplained, and rarely goes a day without somehow indulging herself. She once spent a year with a suicide cult in Guadalajara, a heretic sect of the Catholic Church to which she handed over the last dregs of the pitiful Orpington fortune. I’m told the cult vanished under mysterious circumstances about the same time Victoria returned to the States.
Though I have known Victoria since childhood and have always maintained contact with her, never once in our conversations had I heard a reference to these acquaintances—Elaine, Osvaldo, and Francis. Unknown though they were to me, they seemed very familiar with one another. Familiar, not only in the sense that they knew each other well, but that they seemed to share that hostility and mutual contempt which develops only among those who have spent a great deal of time together and cannot break ties even if they should wish to do so.
I felt greater unease with each passing moment.
The final guest arrived just before midnight. His name, apparently, was Danny. The others had been expecting him. That is to say, Victoria, Osvaldo, and Elaine had been expecting him. Francis most certainly had not.
I do not know why they wanted Francis killed. I did not ask at the time and I have no intention of doing so in the future. Neither do I know whether Danny had a personal stake in the affair, or was simply a hired hand. I can tell you that he seemed to enjoy the work.
I cannot even describe for you what Danny did to poor Francis, whether he used a knife or blunt instrument or just his brutish hands. I turned my eyes to the window and tried to concentrate on the lights of a nearby hotel. It was useless. The sound alone of the unspeakable deed was enough to overwhelm my sensibilities. My head swam, and at last I lost consciousness.
The body was gone when I came to my senses, and I could hear the party leaving through the front gate. I rushed to the window and watched them go. Oddly, the feeling of horror which had overcome me moments before did not remain, and to this day it has not resurfaced. A brief consultation with my daily planner revealed that it was indeed Victoria’s birthday, and I sent a messenger at once to deliver my hastily scribbled best wishes.
Devin McCrate is a writer in Chicago.