The withered old man speaks into a tape recorder. This is not a confession, he explains, but a presentation. He is Charles Witter Kirwan, a former academic who has lived his whole life in the same house and watched his childhood neighborhood turn from white to black. Now, stricken with terminal cancer, Kirwan has decided to fight back against his neighbors. His may be the ravings of a lunatic racist, but the dynamite in his basement is real. He is going to blow up the apartment building next door—and take some sixty African Americans with it.
Private investigator John Milano is on the trail of a stolen painting when he catches wind of Kirwan’s mad plan. He has forty-eight hours to stop the bombing, and to keep those innocents from following this twisted, hateful man into death.
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The Dark Fantastic
By Stanley Ellin
MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 1983 Stanley Ellin
All rights reserved.
Charles Witter Kirwan
Sit back, light up, the text is yet to come.
A professional joke. A professorial joke. Harmless. Not even worth wincing at.
The fact is that I'm not all that easy with this microphone and tape-recorder thing. Dependent on it, so it seems, but made uncomfortable by it. With pen in hand, I can instantly muster my thoughts into neat ranks and march them right along in close order. With microphone or whatever it's called in hand, I find these thoughts as disorderly as a crowd of torch-bearing villagers in a Frankenstein movie. Tumultuous, incendiary, and not quite identifiable. Hard to pick the right one out of the crowd and start it on its way. So my little professorial joke was intended to get the phlegm loosened and the words coming.
They appear to be coming now.
Whoever you are – curiosity-seeker, sensation-seeker, or seeker after truth – and that's a rare bird, isn't it? – what you are now hearing.
What you are now reading.
Because hearing will apply only to the police, who will, of course, be holding a private audition of these tapes before they're converted into print.
And having gotten their astounding earful, they will then pass it along to our lord mayor in Gracie Mansion so that he can appear before assembled television cameras to explain and passionately denounce the grand event – oh, the horror and madness of it! – while in his palpitating, panicky, white middle-class heart of hearts he revels in it.
You doubt that? I mean the secret revelry? But hath not our mayor eyes? Hath he not hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? And granting him these attributes, which he shares with you and me, is it possible that never in his troubled mind he happily imagined just such a grand event?
Rest assured he did.
Only wondering, no doubt, who would emerge from nowhere to finally set it off.
Well, he won't have to wonder any longer.
Nor will you.
Because by my precise instructions – signed, and in the possession of my attorney – every one of these tapes is to be transcribed uncensored and in full for the benefit of the public.
The paying public.
I don't even have to ask in communications jargon, "Do you read me?" Obviously you are reading me.
Now for a troublesome aspect of this presentation. The grand event I address myself to has not yet taken place – about three more weeks are needed to lay its entire groundwork – so I am speaking these words into this machine well before the event, and you are reading them God knows how long after it. As you read, bear in mind that you actually know more about its results than I do – or ever will – and that hindsight, despite its favorable press, has a curiously distorting effect on one's view of any great event. Why? Because it so easily confers a sense of omniscience on the otherwise well-balanced mind and thus turns one from human understanding to godlike judgment.
Don't play God in my case, friends. Just try as well as you can to play Charles Witter Kirwan.
A presentation. This is what you're getting.
Not a confession. Not at all. There's a sour smell of mea culpa about that word "confession," and believe me there is no mea culpa here. Not in me, not in this marvelous package I'm handing you. A rejoicing, yes. Samson knew that rejoicing when he suddenly found the pillars of the temple yielding to his reborn strength. When, in that instant before the temple crashed down on him and his doomed tormenters, he saw the incredulity and terror in their faces. Let us, as they say, hear it for Samson.
But if you want guilt, friends, if you expect any beating of the breast, you'll have to shop elsewhere. Because what you'll find here is no more or less than a setting forth of precise facts. Yes. Adding up to a text which I imagine will be rich in history, anthropology, and tribal lore, sociology and psychology.
Oh yes, and sex. A whole colorful, perverted sexual adventure – already initiated – to be recounted in detail.
And will an account of this adventure have redeeming social value? Will it really be necessary to this presentation?
Yes. Since I am moved to set forth the unvarnished truth, it has and does.
Incidentally, it's a heterosexual adventure. Sorry to disappoint our ever-increasing faggot populace, but that's the way this twig was early inclined. To those who ask my credentials, I will confide that during my service in the Second World War, during the Anzio campaign, I shared blankets one night with an importunate captain of the artillery, highly symbolic that, and discovered that while he did provide almost instant relief he also provided an embarrassment so intense that it curled the intestines into a deep knot for days and weeks to come, and ever afterward I clearly understood my sexual preferences.
But I digress and I must not. There isn't time for it. Or strength. I ride euphoria and must always keep an ear cocked to the sound of air starting to escape from its tires.
Better if I move directly to my pedigree and my thesis.
I am Charles Witter Kirwan, age sixty-eight, white, male, retired associate professor of history, and a widower.
My address is 407 Witter Street in the East Flatbush section of Brooklyn. I was born in this house, have spent my entire life in it, and for the next three weeks will continue to do so. After that, by my instructions, my ashes will be added to my grandfather's already in that bronze urn – identified by his name – in this house, and thus I will continue, so to speak, in residence.
Here I hasten to clear up a possible confusion. My middle name was not taken from the street on which I was born, as one might suppose. Quite the contrary. When my forebear, Jan Uitter – that name starts with a proper Dutch U – carved farmland and an estate out of the Flatbush wilderness some 350 years ago, a wilderness then known as 't Vlackbos, the lane that ran through the property was, of course, Uittersveg, and that, in time, became Witter Street. And because the name Kirwan is an adoptive name, my natural father having been Henry Witter, lineal descendant of Jan, I am, in fact, the last surviving Witter of Witter Street.
As for this community, Flatbush Avenue is of course its main thoroughfare, and for landmarks hereabouts it offers the old Dutch Reformed Church and Erasmus Hall High School. The graveyard of the church across from the school is generally open to visitors during daylight hours, and among its most ancient gravemarkers there you will find three bearing the name Uitter with appropriate descriptions in Dutch. Church Avenue, incidentally, was so named after that church.
But, as noted, the 400 block of Witter Street, once Uitter farmland, is the setting for this presentation. I am owner and sole resident of Number 407. I am also landlord of Number 409 next door, a four-story walk-up apartment building with twenty-four rental units. The building has a tax valuation of one hundred thousand dollars and an actual cash value of somewhat less than zero.
I trust you're put off by these dull facts and figures, but they are vital to an understanding of the grand event. There may be a way of enlivening such details, but, as I've discovered just now, old habits aren't easily changed. I lectured on history for almost thirty years, and as I sit here speaking into this machine I sometimes find myself the lecturer again – Herr Professor Kirwan? – rather than the Charles Witter Kirwan that I am.
I am also under considerable physical stress at this moment. The familiar recurrent pains. Considerable.
However, I'll continue this session a bit longer. No martyrdom involved. This opening up of myself – this unveiling of the soul – is as therapeutic in its way as any medication.
Not to mince words, I have a terminal cancer of the lungs, a cancer which has already metasticized wildly. For excellent reasons, I have refused surgery or any other futile treatment which might prolong my life even one excruciating day beyond the very few months allotted me by the medical profession.
In fact, I am going to reduce those few months to a very few weeks. About three weeks.
No question about that. No doubts.
Because, as I found, however one may first respond to the announcement of his impending death, it can come to him that this news makes him a totally free man.
A miraculous condition. And I am living witness to that miracle. First the shock and fear, then the bitter resentment, then, miraculously, the awareness of freedom. The savoring of it.
Yes. Let's put it this way.
Therefore, I, Charles Witter Kirwan, being of sound and disposing mind, am going to blow up that structure – that apartment building at 409 Witter Street – three weeks from this day.
Blow it, in the fine old phrase, to hell and gone.
For the information of the police, the materials making the grand event will consist of seventy-two sticks of dynamite described as containing thirty percent nitroglycerin and fifty percent sodium nitrate, in addition to essential carbonaceous fuels and absorbents. The blasting caps are mercury fulminate, standard commercial. The detonator is electric spark, hand-held.
By my close calculations the building walls will fall inward. The one unknown concerns explosions due to the instant ripping apart of gas mains. The volatility of natural gas makes this seem likely, as does resultant widespread fire through the rubble.
Which, as I've remarked, is police business. My own concern in it, of course, ends the instant I press the detonator switch.
There is intended to be – there should be – a heavy loss of life. At least sixty people reside in the building; I am choosing a time for the explosion when most will be right there to share it with me. Destruction of the building alone would be mere entertainment.
Destruction of life on any such scale will be a lesson burned deep into the public consciousness. An instantaneous, raging, fiery course of study in the social history of this time and this place.
Oh yes indeed.CHAPTER 2
"But then, myfriends, that mighty hand – that infinite and eternal and all-powerful hand! – shall reach down from heaven and rest on the ground before you. And with your faith in your Savior you will step right up on that hand—"
Eyes closed, Milano fumbled for the button of the radio-alarm, found it and pressed it. Silence prevailed. Next to him, Betty stirred. "What was that?"
"Sunday morning come to Jesus."
He hauled himself out of bed and tilted a slat of the Venetian blind to squint at the world outside. Over the East River the sky showed pink; over the Hudson it was dark with some pale stars speckling it. In Central Park far below, glowing street lamps made a spider web tracery. A party of joggers – there must have been two dozen of them – flowed across the emptiness of Columbus Circle and into the spider web.
Milano made his way to the bathroom, showered, shaved while at it under an almost scalding jet of water, and reflectively toweled himself dry. He wiped mist from the mirror over the sink and studied the face in it. As sometimes happened lately, it was not an altogether familiar face. With a little concentration – a few seconds' controlled schizophrenia – he could view it as the face of an utter stranger. He passed up that opportunity now. Instead, he held up the hand mirror to reflect by way of the sink mirror an unsteady view of his scalp. The last time he had done this a few weeks before he had detected an almost naked patch of skin there about the size of a half-dollar. There was no almost about it now.
"Sheesh," Milano said tiredly.
Betty came in, naked, tousle-haired, sleepy-eyed. Her jaws opened wide in a yawn and shut with a click. "What's all this about?"
"Sunday morning at dawn? What business?"
"Private investigator business. Somebody's landing here from the Coast just about now.
I'm meeting him in the office in half an hour."
"Don't worry, I'm not trying to pry business secrets out of you. Hey, I almost forgot. Happy birthday."
"Oh come on," Betty said. "It isn't really the end of the world, is it? So far you're still only one year more than thirty-nine."
"Which adds up to forty. Four-oh. Hell, I don't even remember making thirty. Fact is, I sometimes get the feeling I'm stuck around twenty and faking all the rest of it, know what I mean?"
He knew as he asked it half-seriously that she didn't. Imagination was not her strong point. Pretty was her strong point. And amiable. And competence at her job. She worked for the Intercontinental Credit Bureau, and after a couple of dates she had finally paid off by regularly providing on request the kind of confidential information from Intercontinental's computer bank otherwise obtainable only through subpoena, if that. In her late twenties, living with her people on Staten Island, she had become for the past couple of months a constant in his life, attractive, amiable, unimaginative, and a little desperate. The desperation had been sharpened by her introduction to the Central Park South co-op; she hadn't suspected he really lived on that scale. And it manifested itself in outbreaks of domesticity, the small adjustments she began to make in the arrangement of the furniture, the small additions she made to the kitchen equipment. Pretty good in bed, too, but always holding to the Staten Island rules, so that there was never anything rightfully disorganized and wanton about those sessions.
Hell, when the time came it would be like shipping a spaniel puppy off to the pound.
Meanwhile, she was endlessly amiable and she did have a key to those Intercontinental computer banks.
Now, faced with his question which, however hypothetical, inched past her bounds of imagination, she took her usual course of steering around the question. She said, "How long'll you be with this whoever from the Coast? All day?"
"No, couple of hours at the most. But then I'm supposed to get over to Brooklyn. Bath Beach. Kind of a family thing for my birthday."
Betty looked downcast. "Oh. I thought with the weather so nice—"
"Well, if you want to join the party—" He regretted it as soon as it was out. It was certainly a stupid way of trying to loosen the ties that bind. But he was given no time to reverse course. Betty said happily, "That's even better than I planned, getting together with the family and all."
"Remember, you hardly know any of them."
"I met your mother and sister. And you saw how we got along."
In fact, they had gotten along almost too well. From his mother's angle, since her forty-five-year-old maiden daughter Angie, the bigshot lawyer, was never going to produce grandchildren, it was all up to sonny. And here was this Betty he seemed to be keeping company with, a nice Catholic girl obviously made to turn out small Milanos. And from sister Angie's angle, it was not only time for her to have some nieces and nephews to fuss over, but definitely time for the kid brother, now forty and showing a bald spot and at least the suggestion of a thickening waistline, to get off the merry-go-round and settle down with some loving helpmeet. Angie, rabid for female rights, female dignity, female self-sufficiency, exercised the old double standard when it came to Betty. She didn't think much of Betty's brain power but rated her high in the loving helpmeet department. "That's what she's made for," Angie informed the aging kid brother in so many words, "and that's what you need."
He went into the bedroom, Betty trailing along. Getting into his clothes, he said to her, "Another thing. I'm not sure what the atmosphere there'll be like. Angie already sent up storm signals."
"The usual. Outside working hours she's stuck in the house with Mama – her choice – but she thinks I ought to share her misery. Do a lot more visiting and handholding."
"If that's all it comes to—"
"What it comes to is that I pay my dues in cash. For the rest of it, Mama is a miserable, troublemaking old witch. When she reforms, I'll reform. But that won't stop Angie when I get there. So if you want to stay clear of it—"
Excerpted from The Dark Fantastic by Stanley Ellin. Copyright © 1983 Stanley Ellin. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
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