A Twist at the End: A Novel of O. Henryby Steven Saylor
Austin, Texas, in 1885 is a place of dust and dreams, quick riches, and wild desires. But "the Servant girl Annihilators" are also making it a city of fear. The first victim, a mulatto housekeeper, is torn from her bed and murdered. Six more women will die, including pretty blond Eula Phillips, who is bank clerk's Will Porter's lover. Over a decade later, living in
Austin, Texas, in 1885 is a place of dust and dreams, quick riches, and wild desires. But "the Servant girl Annihilators" are also making it a city of fear. The first victim, a mulatto housekeeper, is torn from her bed and murdered. Six more women will die, including pretty blond Eula Phillips, who is bank clerk's Will Porter's lover. Over a decade later, living in New York as O. Henry, Will cannot escape his memoriesor a blackmailer's merciless demands. Then a mysterious letter invites him back to Texas to follow the dark path of a sadistic killer and make a stunning discover as he is forced to confront the demons of his own tormented mind...
The New York Times Book Review
- St. Martin's Press
- Publication date:
- Edition description:
- First Edition
- Product dimensions:
- 4.20(w) x 6.72(h) x 1.28(d)
Read an Excerpt
William Pendleton Gaines, publisher and editor of the Austin Statesman, took a sip of scalding coffee and stepped onto his balcony.
The Statesman's editorial offices were located a block west of Congress Avenue in a grand, three-storied structure that might have passed for a Venetian palazzo. Gaines's penthouse office had tall windows on three sides and a door that opened onto a long, south-facing balcony. On days when the weather permitted -- and Tuesday, December 30, 1884, was such a day, chilly but windless, with a clear blue sky -- he liked to step outside and peer over the stone balustrade at the traffic down on Pecan Street. In summer, the dust and the smell of dung could be oppressive, notwithstanding the regular rounds of the mule-drawn street sprinklers. But on a still midwinter day such as this, the balcony was his favorite spot, as long as he had a steaming cup of coffee to keep him warm.
He stepped to the eastern end of the balcony and surveyed the skyline formed by the two- and three-story buildings along Congress Avenue. To the north, six blocks away at the head of the Avenue, rose the hill where construction of the new capitol building was set to commence in the spring. To the south, another six blocks away, he could just glimpse the topmost girders of the steel-canopied bridge across the Colorado River.
Midway between the capitol grounds and the river, Pecan Street crossed Congress Avenue at the busiest intersection in Texas. Both streets were lined with banks, hotels, tailors, stables, business offices, restaurants, and shops. Mule-drawn streetcars ran on glittering steel tracks laid into the packed earth, clanging their bells at each intersection. Horse-drawn hackney cabs and wagons clopped back and forth in a constant parade. Men in hats and coats and women in dresses with long skirts, cinched waists, and exaggerated shoulders strolled along the cement sidewalks elevated above the muck of the open street.
From his coign of vantage, Gaines viewed this vibrant prospect with a newspaperman's sense of possession. This was his town. He was its chronicler. He took a sip of scalding black coffee and felt the kind of deep satisfaction that other men got from looking at a favorite child, or a beautiful mistress, or a painting they had just purchased. This moment was a sort of apogee, he thought. Or was apotheosis the proper word? Whichever, life could scarcely get better than this.
His life had always been one of privilege. His father, who was now in his seventies, had been a great antebellum planter, growing sugarcane and cotton on vast tracts of the finest bottom land in Brazoria County. Gaines Senior had been a military hero as well, of both the Texas War for Independence and the Mexican War. When the Civil War began, Gaines Senior had been too old to serve and Gaines Junior too young. After the war, young Gaines was sent North, to a college in Pennsylvania for an expensive education in the classics. The students at Lafayette, reading the Bellum Civilae, argued almost as passionately about Pompey and Caesar as their fathers did about Grant and Lee, and Actium sometimes seemed as close to Gaines as Appomattox. "Unlike Father, I was born to be a wordsman, not a swordsman," he would say. He delighted in anagrams and could still, every now and then, pull off a sharp pun in Latin.
William Pendleton Gaines had been born to wealth without ever working a day. He had been raised in the reflected glow of his father's military glory without ever firing a shot. He had glimpsed the death throes of a society based on slavery and been educated in the values of another slave society dead for two thousand years. His was an elitist's upbringing, through and through. He had an elitist's means as well, being the sole heir (by right of surviving four siblings) to the family fortune.
When his father retired, Gaines delegated the day-to-day operations of the sugar and cotton plantations to his various foremen. With the profits, he pursued his own interests. He practiced law for a while, but his real desire was to own a newspaper. In 1882, at the age of thirty, he acquired the Statesman. After two years of successful operation, he felt he had already put his mark on the city, and was destined to make an even greater mark.
The year 1884 had been especially good for William Pendleton Gaines. As befitted his rising social stature, he had moved into one of the finest houses in Austin, a stone aerie perched on a steep hillside just a short stroll west of his office. The house was named Bellevue, for its sweeping views south toward the river. There Gaines and his new bride, Augusta, had entertained Governor Ireland and Mayor Robertson, railroad builders and cattlemen, society ladies and professors from the new university. As editor of the leading newspaper in Austin, arguably the leading paper in the state, he was sought after by people from every walk of life, from glamorous actresses in touring plays to aspiring politicians, from local saloonkeepers eager to keep his office stocked with the finest whiskey, to temperance preachers eager to see their eloquent denunciations of liquor quoted in his columns.
Amid all this richness had come a gift that eclipsed them all. Four days ago, on Christmas morning, Augusta had given him the glorious news that she was expecting a child. From his office balcony above Pecan Street, Gaines looked out over the city of twenty thousand souls whose stories were his to tell, the city where his first child would be born, and felt a satisfaction that was surely as complete as any man could feel.
All this, and he was only thirty-three!
Gaines sipped the last of the coffee from his cup, then set it down on the wide balustrade and clapped his hands together, partly to keep them warm, but chiefly in anticipation. He pulled the gold pocket watch from his waistcoat, glanced for an instant at the beautifully engraved hunting scene on the cover, then flipped it open. The time was three minutes to eleven. His new business partners would be arriving at any moment.
He snapped the watch cover shut. The clicking seemed almost to act as a cue, for at that moment there was a sharp knock at the door to his office. He stepped from the balcony into the high, wood-paneled room suffused with winter light and elegantly furnished with an enormous mahogany desk, Chippendale chairs, and a cretonne sofa.
"Enter!" he called.
The door swung open, catching a bit on the deeply piled oriental carpet. It was one of the printer's devils, as apprentices were called in the publishing business, a red-haired boy named Tommy. Gaines had nicknamed him Mephistopheles. "Mr. Gaines, there's a couple of men to see you."
Gaines caught a glimpse of them in the anteroom beyond. "Dr. Terry! Dr. Fry! Come in! There's a stand by the door for your hats and overcoats. Would you care for coffee, gentlemen? I take it sweet -- the sugar comes from cane grown on one of my own plantations on the Brazos River. No coffee, for either of you? Then run along, Mephistopheles, and get back to work! Now tell me, gentlemen, how have you enjoyed spending Christmas week here in Austin? Rather a milder climate than New Jersey, I'll wager!"
The two visitors made a curious pair. Dr. Terry was a thickly built man of about forty. He had big, meaty hands and quite possibly the largest head of any man Gaines had ever met. He wore pince-nez glasses and had a wide, bristling mustache. In the flesh, he looked exactly like his portrait on the labels of Dr. Terry's Liver Tonic and Ginger Aperient.
His companion, Dr. Fry, was a tall, narrow man with bony fingers and a long face. His jaw was clean-shaven but he wore large sideburns, which were more salted with gray than the flowing locks swept back from his high forehead. He reminded Gaines of the professor at Lafayette who had taught him Latin, but there was also something about the man that suggested an undertaker. In fact, Dr. Fry was neither a mortician nor a scholar, nor strictly speaking, so far as Gaines could ascertain, a medical man -- imagine being treated by a blind doctor! In deference to this handicap, Fry concealed his eyes behind rectangular, cobalt-blue spectacles and carried a long thin cane for tapping his way. Like Dr. Terry, he looked in the flesh exactly like the image of himself which appeared in familiar newspaper advertisements for Dr. Fry, the Blind Phrenologist.
"Dr. Fry and myself have had a delightful week," said Dr. Terry. "We can only hope that the weather will continue to be as outstanding for the remaining week of our stay here. I shudder to think of what the snowstorms must be like back in New Jersey."
"Indeed, gentlemen, Austin is famous for its mild climate, as all the brochures will tell you." Gaines tried not to smile at Terry's outrageous Yankee accent; Gaines had not heard vowels so cruelly truncated since his college days up North. Dr. Fry, he had noticed, almost never spoke, but when he did there was a hint of a foreign accent.
"Gentlemen, if you have no desire for coffee, then can I offer you a stronger refreshment? It's a bit early in the day, but we do have something to celebrate." Gaines led them to a sideboard stocked with various liquors. He was especially proud of the whiskey, which was imported from Ireland. Gaines handed an empty glass to Terry, then hesitated, not sure how to offer one to Fry. Terry did it for him, taking the second glass and gently pressing it into his companion's hand. Gaines poured each of them a splash of whiskey, then offered a toast. "To the continuing success of Dr. Terry's miraculous tonic."
"And to the health of the people of Austin," responded Dr. Terry. "May they never suffer from catarrh of the bladder, weak spots in the liver, or derangement of the kidneys. May they avoid the torments of female inflammation, manhood failure, stinging urination, spastic flatulence..." There followed a long litany of human ills, until Dr. Terry finally concluded, "May the good people of Austin be delivered from all these plagues -- by which I mean to say, may they have the good sense to treat themselves and their loved ones at the first signs of distress to a course of treatment with Dr. Terry's Liver Tonic and Ginger Aperient."
"Here, here!" said Gaines, and the three men emptied their glasses in unison.
"And now, gentlemen," said Gaines, "to business. I presume you've had time to read the final draft of the contract I sent to your hotel room yesterday?"
"Yes, Mr. Gaines. Dr. Fry and myself have reviewed all the stipulations, and we see no further impediments."
The agreement was fairly straightforward. The Statesman would supply free advertising space for Dr. Terry's tonic. Persons interested in purchasing the tonic would be advised to mail or deliver their prepaid orders to the Statesman office. Gaines in turn would send batches of orders (and a portion of the payments, retaining his share up front) to the tonic manufactory in New Jersey, which would fulfill the orders and ship crates of bottled medicine to the Statesman for disbursement to the individual buyers. The Statesman would also publish free announcements whenever Dr. Terry or Dr. Fry happened to be traveling in the region and available for private consultations. Besides questions of advertising space and guarantees of delivery, the chief point to be negotiated had been the percentage of gross receipts to be claimed by each party.
Terry and the taciturn Fry had been traveling by train for the last three months, going from city to city and newspaper to newspaper setting up similar arrangements for the distribution of their tonic across the South. Publishers, they had found, were not always shrewd businessmen. Gaines, despite a bit of haggling, had finally been willing to accept what they considered a minimal share of receipts.
"Well, then," said Gaines, "if we're ready to proceed, I'll send for a notary."
"Actually, there is one more point," said Terry, his tone almost apologetic.
"A small point, but one which Dr. Fry insists upon. He has required it of all the partners we have acquired across the country in our little enterprise."
Gaines raised an eyebrow. "If you're looking for a secret handshake, I should tell you right now that I'm neither a Mason, a Knight of Honor, nor an Odd Fellow."
"Oh, no, Mr. Gaines, it's nothing like that. Dr. Fry would simply like to examine your head."
Gaines looked from Terry to the blind phrenologist, who still had not said a word. Behind his dark blue glasses, the man's face betrayed no expression. "Examine my head? Ah, I see. Well, I suppose..."
Fry spoke at last. "Do you know very much about phrenology, Mr. Gaines?"
Gaines smiled. "Not much more than I've read in your own advertisements, I'm sorry to say."
"Phrenology is the science of reading a man's character by studying the shape of his head," said Fry. What was the faint trace of an accent in his voice? German, Gaines thought, and wondered if the name Fry had originally been Frei-something.
"How does a man judge the character of a new acquaintance?" continued Fry. "How do you judge whether to trust a fellow or not, Mr. Gaines? By looking into his eyes! The eyes are the window of the soul, the philosophers say. But I, alas, am at a certain disadvantage. I am unable to see you, Mr. Gaines; I cannot look into your eyes. Still, as a businessman, I should like -- how to put it? -- to take your measure. The best way for me to do that is to call upon my phrenological skills." As he spoke he flexed his hands and pulled at each of his fingers in turn, to limber them.
"Well, of course, when you put it that way," said Gaines, though he was not entirely comfortable with the idea. His first impulse was to decline such an odd request, but Terry had stated the stipulation quite emphatically. He thought of all the money to be made from sales of Dr. Terry's tonic, and shrugged. "What exactly does the examination require? How shall we proceed?"
"Just take a seat, wherever you are most comfortable," said Dr. Fry.
Gaines sat in the swivel chair behind his desk. Led by Terry, Fry circled behind him. A moment later, Gaines felt cold fingertips on the bald spot at the crown of his head. He shivered a little. "I'll try not to squirm. Rather like sitting for a shave at the barber's. Or being stuck in a dentist's chair!"
"Oh, not as bad as that, I assure you," said Dr. Fry soothingly. Dr. Terry remained behind the desk, out of sight. Gaines felt slightly ridiculous, sitting stock-still and staring at the tall windows across the room while a man he hardly knew commenced to knead the plains and ridges of his skull. Having a phrenologist run his cold, bony fingers over your head was a bit like disrobing before the steady gaze of a physician, he decided -- it made a man feel rather naked, despite the professional decorum. Gaines actually felt himself blush, and wondered if Fry could feel the heat from his bald spot; the blind were said to have wondrous sensitivities in their fingertips.
The whole procedure was a little insulting, Gaines decided, as if his new business partners suspected him of some terrible character flaw and intended to discover it. Gaines was a gentleman, a Southern gentleman, and above all a Texan; what right had a Yankee doctor and a foreign head-reader to ask him to submit to a character examination?
As Fry's searching fingers crept down his forehead, tracing the ridge of his eyebrows with a butterfly touch, Gaines gave an involuntary shudder. He tried to calm his fidgeting by telling himself that the man's excuse for wanting the examination was perfectly reasonable, under the circumstances. Gaines had no faith in phrenology, but he was not particularly skeptical, either. If it was nothing but balderdash, like palmistry, then there was no harm in humoring the fellow. If it was a genuine science, what could it reveal about Gaines that he was not perfectly willing for his partners to know? He had nothing to hide. Even so, it was rather disconcerting to think that another man, a virtual stranger, might be able to read his character, which was practically the same as reading his thoughts, simply by laying hands on his skull.
Dr. Fry lifted his fingers away, and Gaines thought he was done. Then he felt the man close behind him, breathing on his bald spot, and felt the man's open hands cover his face, including his eyes, as if Fry were a sculptor and Gaines were made of clay.
At that moment there was a sharp rap at the office door. Tommy, the printer's devil, not waiting for an answer, stepped inside. "Mr. Gaines! The typesetter says -- " Tommy stopped short, startled by the sight of his boss being handled in such a curious fashion by the strange man in cobalt glasses.
"Mephistopheles? What? Confound it!" Gaines shook his head and started forward in his chair, swiveling free of Dr. Fry, who snapped his hands away. Gaines blinked and scowled.
Tommy covered his mouth, suppressing an urge to laugh. Gaines's short, pomaded hair, kneaded by Dr. Fry, stood up in raggedy points.
"Get out, young man! Don't you know better than to bother me when I'm in a meeting?"
"But Mr. Gaines," said Dr. Terry, leading Dr. Fry to the center of the room, "surely you'll be wanting the young man to go fetch the notary for us?"
"So that we can sign the contract."
"The contract? Yes, well, if Dr. Fry is satisfied..."
Dr. Fry, inscrutable behind his dark glasses, simply nodded.
"Yes, well then -- don't just stand there gawking, Mephistopheles! Go fetch a notary!"
Gaines ran a hand over his head, smoothing his disarrayed hair into place. His head felt perfectly normal to him. He noticed no unusual bumps or ridges, nothing that could be called an irregularity. What could a phrenologist's hand detect that his could not? "You are satisfied, then, Dr. Fry?"
Dr. Fry nodded again. Gaines stared at him, then realized the futility of doing so.
"Did you find anything...unusual?" said Gaines at last.
"No," said Fry.
"Not at all."
The situation was exasperating. Having submitted to the man's examination, surely Gaines deserved to be told the results, yet Fry seemed disinclined to elaborate.
"Well, then," said Gaines, trying to make light of it, "I've got a good head on my shoulders, have I?"
Once again, Dr. Fry merely nodded.
At length the notary arrived. The copies of the contract were laid out on Gaines's desk. A pen and inkwell were produced, and one by one the document was signed with the names William Pendleton Gaines, Ephraim Ebenezer Terry, M.D., and Frederick Augustus Fry, Ph.D.
Copyright © 2000 by Steven Saylor
Meet the Author
Steven Saylor is the author of the internationally popular Roma Sub Rosa mysteries, set in the Rome of Cicero and Caesar. The most recent in the series is Rubican. A native of Texas, he divides his time between Berkeley, California, and Austin, Texas. His web address is www.stevensaylor.com.
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