The room was lit by a single lantern, so dimly that one could barely discern that it was sparsely furnished with a crude bed at one side, three straight-backed chairs at the other, surrounding a plain low table of dark wood upon which the lantern rested, and a small carpet, the color of dried blood and somewhat threadbare, folded up against the back wall. Its sole living occupant was a short, thin young man with long, wild, gray-brown hair who had obviously just finished tearing up three floorboards in the center of the room. Into the resulting hole he was now in the process of stuffing the wizened body of a tiny elderly man whose eyes appeared to be still open in death.
As the younger man laboriously twisted the body around to fit it into the gaping hole in the floor, the lantern light caught the livid face of the old man and it could be seen that one eye only was open and it was like that of a vulture--large, pale blue and filmed over with a fine mucus membrane. The younger man caught sight of that blindly staring eye and tried to close it with a gloved hand, but it snapped open again and he cursed softly under his breath. He passed his hand over the old man's long white hair so that this was drawn over the eye, grunted in satisfaction, and continued stuffing the body into the aperture in the floor.
The music began softly, almost imperceptibly, as he turned and began to replace the floorboards. It was mostly a gentle plucking of the lower strings of a double bass, like a soft heartbeat, almost more felt than heard.
Once he had replaced the floorboards and was satisfied they looked undisturbed, the gray-haired young man unfolded the carpet, putting it over the place where the floorboards had been replaced. Then he placed the table and chairs on the carpet in a conversational arrangement, as if he were expecting somebody. All the while, the music continued pulsating almost inaudibly, but well nigh tangibly, in the background.
There came a knock upon the door and the young man started, so that it was clear that he had not been expecting visitors, just at that moment. He ran a hand nervously through his tousled hair, only straightening it a little, and glanced fitfully from the floor to the door. Presently the knock came again.
"It's all right," the man told himself in a whisper. "Postman."
And a voice from the other side of the door replied, "Police. Is there anybody home?"
"His shriek," the young man whispered hoarsely. "The neighbors heard."
He peered around the room again.
"Still, there is no sign of anything amiss. No reason why they should suspect anything. Coming!" he said more loudly and, straightening his waistcoat, he stepped, quite calmly toward the door.
Of the two policemen who stood revealed by his opening of the door, one was clearly a woman, but the young man seemed not to notice.
"Yes, gentlemen?" he said. "What can I do for you?"
"Your neighbors reported hearing a shriek of agony," the older policeman, who was obviously a man, replied.
"They feared it was some harm come to you or to your foster father," the woman said, feigning a man's voice.
"No, sir," the young man answered the woman, "my foster father's gone away. He said to me he'd spend some days out in the country. He won't be back 'til Saturday."
It was evident now that the man and the two police persons were unconsciously aware of the soft, insistent music, for they were beginning to use its rhythms in their speech, not exactly reciting their lines, but uttering them with an unconscious sense of musicality.
"And what about the shriek?" the-woman-who-apparently-wasn't asked.
"Why that was me, a nightmare. You can see my bed's a mess."
"Why, yes. I guess we'd better go," the male-who-apparently-was suggested.
"Nonsense. Stay awhile and have some tea," the young murderer offered.
The man looked at the woman. "All right with you, Fred?" Didn't he notice either?
"Fine with me," the lady-cop named Fred answered.
They sat and the young man mimed pouring two cups of tea from a nonexistent teapot on the table. Neither cop seemed to notice that the teapot was missing ... and the cups. They took their nothings quite gratefully and sipped the air.
If the policeman did not notice that one of them was a woman named Fred and that she/he was drinking zilch from a cup of purest air, it should not have been surprising that they did not seem to notice the music either.
The young man was clearly noticing it now, however. It had risen to be perfectly audible above their conversation and its beat had become more definite and insistent. The double bass had been joined by soft tympani and the beat was as regular as a heartbeat.
And it was making the young man nervous. At first, as the officers chatted along rhythmically but inaudibly, smiling and nodding in their unnoticing innocence, he only tugged at his shirt collar as if it were too tight and fiddled with the buttons on his waistcoat. However, as the pulse continued to grow louder and more hypnotically insistent, he began to sing softly to himself,
"They cannot say that I am mad
I smile, for what have I to fear
To be so calm; that is not mad
Yet what is this attacks my ear?
"I answered them with all good cheer
My manner--calm--convinced them, so
Why all this feigning not to hear
That beating, beating from below?"
His voice rose slightly in volume and in mounting panic with each line and the music followed suit, so that the effect was like a protracted and ghoulish Bolero. But the officers ignored his singing as they ignored the increasing instrumentation that threatened to drown it out.
Now, however, the officers at least appeared to be noticing each other. They were leaning forward across the low table and staring at each other. At first, it was each other's eyes. Then the obviously male officer's eyes dropped to the rise of his partner's breasts; her gaze dropped still lower. Amazingly, they seemed to sense the sinuous, sensuous rhythm of the music without hearing it and, at last, they rose as if in a trance and began, slowly and rhythmically, to undress each other.
When they were both down to black, formfitting satiny leotards that left nothing of their sexes to the imagination, they kicked the table off the carpet and knocked over the chairs, except for the one just to the right of the rug on which the young singer was sitting. The male policeman stooped, grasped the edge of the carpet and flung it in one motion across the room where it fell into a dark corner.
And as the young man's singing rose almost to a shriek--which they still did not seem to hear--the two almost naked policemen/women began to dance together ... a bumping, grinding dance of sexual pleasure.
Except it was not quite right. Oh, the man was appropriately earthy, his movements seething with undulating lasciviousness. But the woman, somehow, had it all wrong. Oh, she had all the moves and expressions, but her pout was more petulant than seductive, the tilt of her head looked like she needed a chiropractor more than a lover, and the grinding of her hips suggested a binding in the crotch more than a fire in the loins.
Still, seeming now to hear only the beat of the frenetic music, the young man babbled on in a mounting hysteria of song,
"No doubt I now grow very pale
And still the sound increases.
Yet they pretend that all is well
Though the beating never ceases!
"They know! They mock me in my fright!
They snigger as I tremble.
The sound is drowning out the night,
And yet they still dissemble!
"I can stand the noise no more!
I can't bear how they mock me!
It blasts now louder than before,
Each ghastly pulsing shocks me..."
And here the young man flung himself upon the dancing couple, who seemed to notice and hear him for the first time since they had risen ... and at the same time the pounding music abruptly ceased and the young man screeched a cappella,
"Villains! I admit my part!
Here! Here! Tear up the floor!
The beating of his hideous heart
I can abide no more!"
And the young man fell sobbing on the breast of the startled female police person as the male stooped to lift the trapdoor in the stage, and the lights went out.
And five people clapped, somewhat perfunctorily.
"Fine, fine," said a voice, unenthusiastically. "Set up to do it again from the scene with Graham and his wife. Polly, get a teapot and cups, for Godsake!"
"Yes, Mr. Rangoon," said an androgynous voice from the darkness.
"Take five, everybody," the first voice continued. "And get the house up, Arthur!"
"Bien sűr!" Another voice from blackness.
"Is that minutes or seconds, this time?" the young man asked, wiping away his nonexistent tears as the house lights came up.
"Minutes this time. I have somebody I have to talk to," said the tall, scrawny man with the shock of black hair who had spoken first. "And, Faith, darling, why don't you use that five minutes to get laid? It might help the sincerity of your dance to have had some small experience."
"Are you suggesting..." The gawky young dancer's mouth fell open.
"He's not suggesting anything, sweetheart ... just like your dancing," said her erstwhile dancing partner.
"And, Redman, why don't you spend the five minutes not getting laid?" the scrawny man continued. "All that sack time is making you flaccid and the rest of the cast could use a break."
The tall man with the shock of black hair turned to an equally tall, but thinner man with graying locks.
"Come with me, Mr. Knox," he said, and the two men rose, walked up the aisle to the back of the empty theater and into the lobby.
"So, Hunter, what do you think of it?"
"From what I've seen?"
"I realize it's not much to go on."
"So, Alfie, fill me in on the general idea for the show," Hunter Knox asked, following the other one up the stairs that led to the mezzanine. "Then maybe I'll understand where that scene fits in."
"Actually, it's part of Act Two, Scene Four, but it's one of the few scenes where book, lyrics, and music are all finished to our satisfaction. The rest of the show is still in a state of flux."
"Meaning some of it doesn't even exist yet?"
"Everything's in note form ... except for a couple of scenes that are still only a gleam in my and Wolfman's eyes. But it'll come. Wolf's got a score for about two-thirds, and I'm pretty happy with Act One."
"But what I just saw is in the best shape?"
"How long have you and Podrous been working on this?"
"Three years, off and on."
"And when do you hope to open?"
"In six months, God willing."
"Then it's my guess that you're in trouble. But I still don't know the whole idea ... or where I fit in."
"All right. Come into my office and I'll tell you everything."
The two men had reached the mezzanine and Alfie pushed open the door marked "Ladies." Hunter held back.
"I've turned this into an office for now." Alfie reacted to his companion's hesitation. "It's private. Nobody who isn't in the show looks for me here."
"So your only interruptions are pleasant ones from surprised female strangers."
"The best kind," Alfie said, strangely, for Hunter knew he had little time for women. He closed the door behind him and slid a deadbolt shut. "We don't need even the best kind now," he explained.
There was a desk and two chairs in the center of the room, flanked by some twenty-two cubicles with stacks of paper piled on each of their toilets.
"One cubicle for each scene," Alfie pointed out, as he sat down at the desk.
"There are twenty-two scenes?" Hunter Knox gasped, sitting opposite him.
"Actually only twenty, now. The other two stalls are for discarded notes and otherwise operational."
"No shortage of toilet paper," Hunter observed. "Of course, that means, after all your gut-wrenching work, one good flush and you've got no show. Well, so be it. I see now what you meant by a state of flux. So fill me in--if that's the appropriate phrase--on this wondrous Alfie Rangoon-Podrous Wolfman production."
"Actually, it's a Rangoon-Wolfman-Pinkus production, right now, and we need it to be more than that. But you want to know what the show's about."
"Bingo! We finally made alien contact, Mr. Spock."
"Well, you've undoubtedly noticed that the musical theater has been going for more and more unlikely vehicles these days."
"If you mean it's no longer musical comedy? That started with Carousel, I suppose." Knox mused, "And Les MisÚrables set a new course."
Alfie smiled. "And Sunset Boulevard ... not obvious musical theater sources. That's when Wolf and I started to look around for an unlikely subject to base a musical on. And we came up with--"
"Edgar Allan Poe."
"You got it."
"Poe's pretty American. Why him for a Canadian original?"
"We know where the money is, Hunter. We're only opening in Canada because it's where we can afford to open."
"So I shouldn't be getting all chauvinistic about this?"
"That's by-the-by. Besides, what would you suggest?"
"I dunno ... Atwood--the Musical?" Hunter mused.
"Get a life!" Alfie snorted.
"Okay, then, more of an extravaganza--The Great Canadian Novel."
"Contradiction in terms." Alfie shook his head. "But I thought you wanted to know this show's idea."
"That's right. I got distracted ... go on."
"All right. As most people ... that is most people who know ... know, Poe had a pretty dismal and dissolute life. He was a drunk, an opium user--in imitation of his literary hero, Coleridge--and always an incurable womanizer. His wife, Virginia, was thirteen years younger than he was--she was only fourteen when they married--and she died, two years before he did, of tuberculosis, whereupon he went on an almost continual binge, dying alone of a violent delirium tremens in Washington College Hospital."
"Sounds like lots of cues for really snappy songs," Hunter commented.
"But that's just it. It sounds like nothing of the sort ... and that's what we were counting on." Alfie Rangoon's eyes brightened as the old excitement was rekindled. "People would say ... 'How the hell can they make a musical out of that?' And then there was the matter of his writings."
"Yeah. Pretty grisly stuff."
"We discovered early on that Poe did write some humor and satire ... and, frankly, that bothered us. It didn't fit in with our ideas for the show. But it turned out that his satirical pieces were by far the grisliest things he wrote--too grisly even for our musical--so that was all right."
"But how could you hope to use, for instance, The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar, as a musical number?" Hunter Knox asked.
"We have," Rangoon said smugly.
"But isn't that the one where a dead man keeps communicating with the living as long as he is in a hypnotic trance, but when he is awakened he turns into--"
"'A nearly liquid mass of loathsome--of detestable putridity.' That's the one."
"And you propose to make a hit song out of that?"
"I don't know why you scoff." Alfie Rangoon sat back, smiling a faintly supercilious smile and folding his hands on his totally imaginary paunch. "You listened to pop music lately? It's full of necrophilia. And you've just seen a musical rendition of The Tell-Tale Heart."
"That's right, I have," Hunter Knox acknowledged. "But how do you make them fit into the narrative line of the show? I presume the focus is still on Poe's life?"
"Of course." Rangoon nodded and sat forward again. "And the rationale comes from the fact that Poe was a drinker, a heavy drinker who drank himself into delirious states. And he did this whenever there was a crisis in his life. So ... to begin with--"
"Just explain how you worked The Tell-Tale Heart in. We've only got five."
"Right. Besides, you'll hear more tonight, if you accept my offer--"
"The Tell-Tale Heart appears in the show in Act Two, Scene Four." Rangoon ignored Hunter's question. "Poe has just been rebuked by George Graham, his publisher, for his lascivious ways. He has also been having an affair with Graham's wife. So, when he gets his usual load into him, he goes to their house and seduces her. Here, they are caught by Graham who promptly fires Poe as editor of The Gentlemen's Magazine. Poe has been fired by a publisher once before, Thomas White of the Southern Literary Messenger, and he has borne a grudge against White ever since. Accordingly, when he falls down in a drunken stupor, he dreams he has killed White, who becomes the dead old man of the story, and George and Eulalie Graham become the police officers who find him out."
"So, The Tell-Tale Heart was written around that time?"
"It doesn't matter." Alfie shrugged.
"I see," said Hunter, not seeing.
"You will. We work quite a number of the tales in that way. And, of course, he wrote so much love poetry."
"And poetry about lost love," Hunter added.
"It was easy to work the poetry in."
"Even The Bells?" Hunter chuckled.
"Certainly. At Edgar and Virginia's wedding."
"But the poem ends so gloomily."
"So does their marriage."
"I see what you mean." Hunter now sat forward. "All right, then, how do I fit into this? What is this offer you are going to make me? I hope it doesn't involve money."
"Because if it does, I shall have to take it."
"Well, it does. But not--at least at first--the way you're probably thinking."
"You always could arouse my curiosity, Alfie ... if nothing else."
"It wasn't for want of trying," Alfie protested.
"Never mind. That's water under the sink. Go on."
"You've already noticed that this show has taken a long time to get to this stage," Alfie began. "Well, that hasn't all been creative block or wrangling between the writer and composer ... though, of course, there's been some of that ... but nothing unusual."
"No blood spilled?"
"Anyway, the problem has been we've been held up while we fought some lawsuits."
"'Some?' How many?"
"Three, from apparently two people."
"The first two, one against me and one against Wolf, were definitely brought by the same man ... or whatever ... somebody named Frederick Grate."
"Sounds like a pseudonym," Knox commented.
"Does, doesn't it? And I've never laid eyes on the man. He never appeared in court. The third suit was brought by Brandenburg Enterprises, which I figure was Fred again. It was the same lawyer. And they were all about the same thing."
"That the idea of making a musical of Poe's life was Frederick's idea. Or Brandenberg Enterprises'."
"The notion of an enterprise having an idea is a virtual oxymoron. So I presume you won."
"All of them. But it cost us a pile of money ... or rather it cost Ephraim Pinkus, our sole angel, a bundle. So, without a large infusion of more ready cash and a new line of credit, we'll have to cease production of the show altogether."
"That'd be a pity, now you've almost got it written," Knox muttered, with gentle sarcasm.
"And that's where you come in."
"It may well be where I pull out," Hunter cautioned, "but go ahead."
"We're having a get-together for a few potential backers tonight at the theater. We're going to do a couple of scenes, give an outline of the show."
"Give them everything you've got, in other words."
"It's not as bad as that. What we need is someone to start the ball rolling."
"Me? What? How?" Knox gagged inarticulately.
"If you could come tonight as my guest, a rich investor from, say, Alberta, and offer us, say, a million."
"You want me to be a stooge, a come-on for a shell game?" Knox said unbelievingly.
"I guess you could put it that way." Rangoon's voice was disappointed.
"That's illegal," Hunter huffed.
"Probably," Rangoon mumbled.
"And yet you presume on our friendship?" The disbelief oozed from every syllable.
"I ... I guess so." Rangoon slumped in his chair.
"Good. What are friends for? I'll do it. Let's go back to rehearsal. Your five minutes is up. And I guess, by now, no one should remember me from earlier."
"They won't." Rangoon nodded assuredly. "I recollect nobody could remember what you look like five minutes after you'd left a room."
"I keep hoping advancing years will, somehow, make me more distinctive ... memorable. But I guess forty-three still isn't old enough."
"All I know is, I didn't recognize you this aft, until you'd introduced yourself," Alfie said. "And I was expecting you."
"So much for that worry ... or hope," Hunter said glumly.
The rehearsal began the minute Alfie and Hunter had taken their seats in the fifth row of the theater. It was the same scene as before, except that it began earlier than Hunter had originally observed.
The young man playing Poe--who, Alfie whispered, was a fine young tenor named Jess Fletcher--staggered onto the stage in a credible imitation of drunkenness and roughly embraced the rigid young girl--Faith?--whom Hunter had seen as the policeman/woman. She was startled at first but then softened--almost--and returned his embrace, supposedly with mounting passion. As her emotional thermometer was about to soar from cool to tepid, however, the actor, whom Alfie had called Redman, burst onto the scene and bellowed,
"Mis-ter Poe! Unhand my wife and quit my sight! If I lay eyes on you again, it will be in jail!"
Thereupon, Poe staggered downstage onto the apron and into a spotlight, as the scene went dark behind him. Dreamily he began to tell the story of The Tell-Tale Heart, as fog issued from the stage jets, and barely-seen stagehands set up the bedroom at center stage. Then, as Poe reached the place where the protagonist decides to do in his ancient benefactor, the lights came up dimly again, revealing the bedroom with the old man--played, Hunter now recognized, by Finley Heimrat, a fine character actor whom he knew vaguely--tossing restlessly in bed.
The old man was duly smothered--to the heartbeat music, which ceased as he died--and Poe tossed the pillow on the bed. He looked around for a moment, saw the rug, got the idea and proceeded to begin to hide his crime. He dragged the chairs and the carpet away and, seeming to find what he knew to be there, a place where the floorboards could be lifted, he pulled up three of them together--actually the hinged door on the stage trap--and began to stuff the body into the hole.
Then he did something Hunter could not remember him doing at the first run-through.
Jess Fletcher stopped ... and stared down into the aperture in the stage.
"Mr. Rangoon?" he said in a small, weak voice.
Alfie Rangoon rose, almost as if he knew what was the matter.
"What is it, Jess?" he breathed.
"There's somebody already down there," Jess said softly, "And ... he doesn't look ... at all well."