Collecting Mr. Epstein
The worst man is still a man, and one can flip the gender for Nannie Doss or Lucrezia Borgia. The reckoning makes that truth clear. Consider Adolf Hitler in his bunker, when he knew the Reich was truly gone. He died in terror, in pride of his achievements, in love with Eva Braun. Half rabid with fear, he still possessed shreds of that charisma that could have moved and aided millions, had he not chosen to burn millions instead. I heard it all in his voice. He was, to be clear, evil. Thoroughly so. Still, if one read his thoughts as he aimed the gun at himself (and I did), a little part of him imagined another life, painting landscapes along the Rhine. I’d ballpark that part at four percent of him.
I collect them: reckonings. Someone needs to.
That, of course, is why I sat on a 727 about to touch down in New Jersey on July 6, 2019: Jeffrey Epstein’s “Lolita Express.” He took me for a journalist profiling his philanthropic endeavors. They always explain me to themselves somehow; running from the Moscow mob, Rasputin believed me a woman he had “purified” a few nights before.
“You can’t pigeonhole the future,” Epstein said, clinking the ice in his tumbler. “It doesn’t belong to science, or architecture, or art, or technology – no matter what the Google crew would tell you. It’s the nexus.” He pointed his finger for emphasis, then noted the paltry level of liquid in his glass. He raised the finger upward, and the stewardess approached with more pomegranate juice. He never drank; he’d seen too often what drink would do, growing up near Coney Island.
“The future is in the nexus,” he said. “That’s why I’ve given so much to the MIT Media Lab. You have to believe in something. I believe in the future.” The stewardess dropped in more ice cubes. Epstein said, “Thank you, Stacey,” as she walked away.
“You’ve given elsewhere, too,” I prompted.
“I have. I have…” He watched the ice cubes swirl in the deep red. “I made my first donation to Harvard nearly thirty years ago. For Rosovsky Hall, the new Hillel building. My name’s on the plaque there.”
“Does that matter to you? The name on the plaque.”
“No. Sort of…” Another sip, another moment watching the cubes. “Everyone dies, you know. Someday I’ll die. Stacey there. The pilot. You.” Three out of four, I thought. “A man wants to leave something. Something that will last. Matter.”
Buildings rushed by quickly outside the window, but I waited. Questions channel thinking. To truly know a person, one must silently wait.
“We all need to balance the scales,” he said.
He turned to find me when the feds and the NYPD accosted him, but I was already gone, and already he had mostly forgotten me. I’d collected his reckoning; I knew who he was.
There was fear, as always, and anger. A little bit of regret, even on the flight. The question of legacy truly mattered to him; I felt it as he talked of the future. If one listened to his words very closely—and many people had—one could hear that genuine concern and zeal; so loudly that one might not realize how much Stacey’s backside preoccupied him, or recognize how viciously part of him wished to own her.
I’d ballpark that part at 88 percent of him.
Sappho’s Golden Shovel
you hooked me brought me in
to a world fish-eyed and how lovely the
brooks from beneath how sincere the crooks
of your fingers of your nose of
the rows of pews we tore up in your
church we ate the body
and didn’t mean it we drank the blood i
sipped you too what wrecks we find
next will be purple your flower my
sheets will make do as religion
Love’s Golden Shovel
As a child, I take my ache and we
spin around playgrounds real
fast. We trip but play cool
as if we didn’t fall, not like we
know better. Not like there are any men left
to hurt us, we think. Catholic school
priests teach us what to fear. We
start to hate our hair that lurk
-s beneath our pits, our hearts that want late
nights touching ourselves. We
love our best friend’s lips, wish they’d strike
ours. We dream of open strawberries straight
off the stem, things that look like what we
aren’t supposed to know. We sing
Katy Perry, mouths open sin
-kholes. We kiss girls. We
worry we’re women loving women but not the thin
ones we dream of. We want love that gin
-gerly holds us, what only woman can give. Spring: we
grow and scat through lovers like jazz.
May: my ache starts to disappear. June:
I miss when the two of us would we
-ather vane change clothes together. My ache die
-s so quickly it hurts. It feels too soon.
Is this the end for us all?
Why did the group create such a catastrophe?
They had a so~called vision!
To bring humanity to a much greater height,
but now it’s just a disaster—
Humans have surely changed- -
One whiff of the toxic substance in the air~
& wham—- their cells mutate into varying forms of something that is no longer human..
There is no vaccine, or cure for anyone who turns into these human mutants/scary beings.
So—my main task ever since the problem started—is to try to take these things out...before they outnumber the somewhat healthy humans left on the planet.
What ensued after the confession was hyserics from Mrs. Bellingham, as one could have expected. Unfortunately, none of them had prepared for it, so she, too, had to be restrained for a while.
Adah refused to say anything more, and she stood in Marfleet’s grasp, looking helpless. Eventually, Mrs. Bellingham calmed down. And, with the sky’s light quickly fading, Cordelia convinced everyone that they should leave the forest before it became too dark to see.
Marfleet left first, leading the tight-mouthed Adah by one arm. Though she confessed, it was still hard for Cordelia to picture the young thing as a murderer. She had to be but sixteen, or close to it.
Mrs. Bellingham, however, refused to leave her husband, whom she hoped to be redeemable. Blackburn fully outlined the irreversibility of Mr. Bellingham’s dead-but-not-fully-dead state, and, all things considered, she took it all rather well. There was only one occasion of loud and unintelligible wailing. Though it did last an extended period of time.
At last, Blackburn convinced the widow that she should leave the golem behind. Mr. Bellingham’s mind was gone, but his body could remain, doing the bidding of the nymphs to repair their forest. It was a noble death in a way. Well, noble after-death.
Cordelia and Mrs. Bellingham headed out of the forest, both tired and sick of standing in the midst of so many trees. Blackburn stayed behind to ‘decharge’ the circle, thereby releasing the golem, an event Cordelia did not want to be present for.
“I do apologize, Miss Green, for my rudeness earlier,” said Mrs. Bellingham wearily.
Cordelia looked at the other woman side-long. “It is forgotten, Madam. Tempers run wild in the midst of tragedy. I must make an apology as well. I truly am sorry for your loss.”
The woman sniffed, but thankfully did not start to cry again. “Yes. Thank you.”
* * *
Two days had passed, and Cordelia stepped into the police office, remembering the first time she’d visited. While it was only a couple of days prior, it seemed to feel like an eternity.
A burly officer greeted her.
“Is Mr. Marfleet in?” she inquired, glancing briefly down at the newspaper in her hand.
“Is this an urgent matter, ma’am? I could—”
“No, no, I’m just here to see Mr. Marfleet. Directly.”
The man fiddled with his mustache a moment. “I believe him to be occupied. Perhaps—”
“It’s quite fine, Reuben. Send her back,” came Marfleet’s voice from just down the hall.
Cordelia gave Reuben her most pleasant smile and made her way to Marfleet’s office.
He was reclined in his chair, eyes closed despite her already knowing full well he was awake.
“Causing more trouble? I’m going to have to arrest you if you keep this up,” he said rather seriously without opening his eyes.
Cordelia scoffed and positioned herself in front of his desk. “Do you have an explanation for this?” she asked, lobbing the newspaper into his chest.
He opened his eyes with a start and picked up the paper. “What’s the matter?” he asked, skimming it.
“The story is completely false! ‘Madman of Dulwich, Lyman Notley: Killer of Mr. Samuel Bellingham’,” Cordelia quoted angrily, snatching the paper back.
Marfleet shrugged a shoulder. “I don’t think you understand my work here.”
Cordelia sighed. “Why was Adah not named? Did you not get a confession out of her?”
Marfleet’s released a long breath, then stood. “My job, Miss Green, is to solve crimes and keep the people of London safe and happy. A large part of ‘safe and happy’ includes not inducing mass panic.” As he spoke, he came out from behind his desk. At first, Cordelia thought it an intimidation tactic, but really he was just shutting his office door.
He turned back to her. “Magic incites panic. Proof of magic incites panic. I said what I needed to say,” he told her quietly.
Though that made sense logically, Cordelia still found herself scrunching up her nose in distaste. “You’re lying. What of Adah, then? Did you even get the full story?”
Marfleet nodded and put his hands into his pockets, walking near to her and leaning casually against his desk. “Have a seat, and I’ll tell you.”
Cordelia gave him a look, but sat herself down.
“Adah told me her mother’s name, and from there it wasn’t difficult to track down proof of the affair. It was years ago, when Samuel was young. Not wanting to support a child, he fled, telling no one about it.
“Apparently the mother was the one keen on magical spells. She sparked Bellingham’s interest in magic, and taught Adah some tricks as she grew. In recent years, the mother got sick and told Adah of Samuel before she died. That was when Adah sought him out and convinced him to hire her as maid. She says Bellingham agreed out of guilt.
“Then, as we learned, Samuel became keen on children, and Adah got upset. She heard he was going to Dulwich wood, followed him, and set a trap. She claimed her magic was more powerful than she believed it would be. Now, she is relocated. I found a nunnery that agreed to take her in.” Marfleet finished with a look to Cordelia, clearly expecting questions.
“Do you know what happened to Mr. Notley?” she asked.
Marfleet tilted his head, a few brown curls falling across his forehead. “Likely the same thing that happened to Mr. Bellingham; the conjuring circle killed him. Adah said she never ‘turned it off’.”
Cordelia nodded slowly. “It’s strange to hear magic spoken about as fact.”
Marfleet but laughed. “And you work for Mr. Blackburn.”
She allowed herself a tight-lipped smile. “I expect it of him.”
Marfleet removed his hands from his pockets, and rubbed his nose thoughtfully. “A question for you, Miss Green. I believe I understand how golems work, after doing some more research. However, they never seem to be malicious, not the healing ones, anyway. Why, then, would they attack you?”
Cordelia’s eyes wandered about the room. “Hm. I don’t know the workings of golems. And I don’t think—”
Her thought was cut off, thankfully, by the abrupt opening of the office door. It slammed into the wall with incredible force, shaking the few decorations mounted to it.
Blackburn all but flew into the room. “Cordelia! I’m quite glad I tracked you down. I’ve got quite an exciting new case! Up, up, up!” He looked rather disheveled, not unlike a madman.
Cordelia blinked at him.
“Sorry, Harvey,” called a voice from behind Blackburn, which Cordelia saw to be the other policeman, Reuben. “He just ran right by,” he said dejectedly, as if it happened all of the time. Perhaps it did.
Blackburn waved his hands emphatically. “Come, Cordelia! I wouldn’t want to miss anything!”
“What kind of—?” Cordelia began, standing.
“Oh, and you. Please don’t come,” Blackburn said flatly, addressing Marfleet, who was putting on his coat.
“I’m the police; I’m coming,” he replied harshly.
“One of these days, the two of you will tell me why you hate each other,” Cordelia said.
Both men gave her equally dubious looks. “No, I don’t think we will,” said Blackburn, leaving the room.
Cordelia made a rather unladylike ‘ugh’ sound, and followed him. She heard Marfleet at her heels.
Just like that, they were embarking on another case.
Previous chapter: https://theprose.com/post/329145/16-a-murderer-is-revealed
16. A Murderer is Revealed
Cordelia heard movement in the underbrush, and both her and Blackburn turned. Cordelia expected some foul-looking forest nymph, but instead a man weaved his way through the trees, followed by two figures struggling to keep up.
Marfleet burst through the branches, eyebrows bunched. They only bunched further when he spotted Cordelia and Blackburn simply standing.
“Well,” he huffed. “I thought there was some sort of an emergency,” he said, throwing up his hands.
“Hm. I cannot imagine where you got that idea,” Blackburn replied, brushing by Cordelia and sidestepping Marfleet to take a look at the women behind him.
Mrs. Bellingham was staring slack-jawed at what was once her husband. Cordelia supposed it was a normal reaction, considering the circumstances. Her maid, Adah, looked on in horror as well, her face nearly as pale as Cordelia’s.
“Hand me my pistol. Now,” Marfleet said, unamused.
Blackburn but waved a hand. “Cordelia’s pocket.”
“My…?” Cordelia met eyes with Marfleet as she reached into her dress’s pocket and drew out the pistol. With a sigh, she returned it to Marfleet.
“He put it there, didn’t he?” he said, leaning over to speak quietly to Cordelia only.
“Yes. I would not be so foolish as to shoot that thing,” she replied, eyeing Blackburn. He was watching Mrs. Bellingham and her maid rather closely.
As if noticing all eyes were on her, Mrs. Bellingham drew herself up and dabbed at her eyes with a handkerchief. “What is… that?” she inquired, pointing a shaky finger in the direction of the conjuring circle.
Blackburn nodded slowly, as if expecting this response. What he did not expect was Cordelia’s interjection. “Why don’t you tell us,” Cordelia said steadily, taking a step forward.
Mrs. Bellingham blinked at her, her hand flying to her breast. Blackburn but made a noise sounding like ‘hmm’.
“Are you accusing Mrs. Bellingham of something, Miss Green?” Marfleet said icily. “I believe the one who should be explaining here is Mr. Blackburn.”
“Settle down, Marfleet. Cordelia’s a budding detective. Let her have a go,” Blackburn said, wandering towards the circle.
Cordelia straightened and caught Mrs. Bellingham’s eye. “Look closely now, Madam. Five candles, all lit, set up just like the table in your house. Can you explain that?”
The woman’s blonde hair nearly fell out its pins, she shook her head so vigorously. “I—I don’t know what you mean. They’re just candles!”
“What are you getting at?” interjected Marfleet. He had his hands on his hips.
“You know what? Let’s give Mrs. Bellingham a moment to think. Dear Adah, though, you look like you have something to say,” Blackburn said smoothly, waving his cane through the air until it pointed to the maid.
For a moment, Adah’s mouth just opened and shut like a fish. Cordelia pursed her lips; she really thought she had been getting somewhere.
“Um, I was just…” It was beginning to look like poor Adah was going to be sick. She regained her composure enough to say quietly, “Is he... alive?” She still stared at Mr. Bellingham’s figure, her eyes never straying. Cordelia forgot that Adah knew none of the story about the forest nymphs or the golem that her employer had become.
“At the moment, Mr. Bellingham is… suspended in time, let’s say. If need be, I will un-suspend him.” Adah’s eyes widened to an extent that looked worrisomely painful.
“That’s it. While you lot chatter on, I’m going to continue the investigation,” Marfleet said, making as if to leave.
“Everything you need to investigate is right here,” replied Blackburn quite smugly. “Now, Cordelia, I apologize. Do go on.”
Marfleet clenched his jaw, but stayed put.
“Um,” Cordelia began, “there was a table in your morning room. Dark oak, and set with candles; tell me, was it Mr. Bellingham’s?”
A crease formed between Mrs. Bellingham’s brows. “Well, yes. He had a table of the sort.”
“What did he use it for?”
“What does this have to—” Marfleet started, before he was shushed by both Cordelia and Blackburn.
“He, um, well. He was into all of this mystic nonsense. It’s why I knew about you, Mr. Blackburn,” Mrs. Bellingham said was a nod of her head. “I always thought it was preposterous, but he said the table was for protection, I believe? I couldn’t say for certain. I don’t remember.”
“A rideau table, which translates as ‘curtain table’. The French created them years ago to conjure barriers,” Blackburn said. “Traditionally, lighting five candles and saying a couple of fancy words is said to keep the evil out. And, in this case, yourself in.” He gestured at the golem.
“However,” he continued, strolling closer to the other four, “a circle of stones, some candles, possibly some… tea? And you have all the makings of quite the opposite ritual: removing barriers. Letting evil,” he leaned in close to the women, “in.”
“Tea?” asked Marfleet, clearly dubious.
Tea. Cordelia’s eyes widened. Did Blackburn mean to imply… “Someone else knew how to use the rideau table.”
“I’ve never touched it! I only had it moved downstairs; I needed all the protection I could get, so fearful I was after Samuel went missing,” Mrs. Bellingham said, her lip quivering.
“Not you, Mrs. Bellingham.” Cordelia felt quite clever as she shifted her eyes to Adah.
The girl had slunk into the shelter of the nearby trees, her earth-toned clothes blending in with the mid-evening shadows. Luckily, Marfleet was one step ahead. He had snuck around behind the girl, and, as she lurched sideways to run, he grabbed her arms.
“She knows magic?!” Mrs. Bellingham said in a horrified high-pitched screech. “Witch!”
“I guess it runs in the family,” Adah spat back, her eyes welling with tears. She struggled fruitlessly against Marfleet’s grasp.
“What?” Mrs. Bellingham hissed, her teeth clenched together.
Blackburn stepped in between the maid and mistress, setting his hand on Mrs. Bellingham’s shoulder. His eyes swung to Adah. “A motive. So kind of you to provide. And quickly too.”
“Are you saying she murdered Mr. Bellingham? A full grown gentleman?” scoffed Marfleet.
“Are you holding her here for some other reason? You’re free to let her go. But, the guilty do tend to run.” Blackburn grinned at Marfleet without any warmth.
Cordelia stepped in between them, as well. “Mr. Blackburn, please.”
Blackburn shrugged and stepped back. Marfleet shook his head, but held Adah steadfast.
“Mrs. Bellingham. Your husband came here to look for fortune tellers. Did anyone know he was coming?” Marfleet asked.
The woman was looking at her maid suspiciously. “I didn’t know he was actually going!”
“But you did,” Cordelia said, looking at Adah. The young girl refused to meet anyone’s eye. “She told me so, that she saw him leave.”
“And she followed him here,” Blackburn said. “Care to tell us the rest?” he probed.
The maid shook in Marfleet’s grasp. “I didn’t do anything,” she said unconvincingly.
“But you’re related to Mr. Bellingham? His daughter, perhaps?” continued Blackburn.
“No!” Mrs. Bellingham yelped, outraged.
Cordelia jumped in. “A daughter, living under her father’s roof, yet he begs his wife to have children? That must’ve been crushing, wasn’t it?”
Blackburn raised a brow.
“He barely acknowledged me, ever! He wanted children, and I was there all along…” Adah’s voice was soft and cracked, and tears rolled down her face.
“Did you kill him?” Marfleet asked.
The girl’s cheeks shimmered with tears. “I—I didn’t—I didn’t think it would work,” she whispered.
Previous chapter: https://theprose.com/post/327815/15-the-rustling-of-the-trees
Next chapter: https://theprose.com/post/329418/17-epilogue
When Love Takes Root
Winter was slow to give up the ghost as Spring quietly emerged with each lengthened day. Buds, once held in the grip of frigid temperatures, were beginning to stipple color on the young tree planted outside the east facing window of the small one-room home in the wooded mountains. Morning’s coral sunbeams slowly stepped across the mountaintop and punctuated each slice of key-lime green that decorated the tree branches. The crown of the tree, stretching heavenward, was made home by a cooing dove watching guard over the nest being crafted in a crevice of the trunk, below. Soon, Summer would paint fire in the sky and babies would leave that nest and fly.
Despite how deep it was in March, winds battered the tree with fury as snowflakes, speckled by the sunlight, swirled in the chaos of the ominous, gray clouds set on eclipsing the dawn’s warming light. It was late in the season for snow, but moisture was a welcomed sight considering the tree was putting down roots and needed all the watering that Mother Nature would supply.
Like an unwelcome guest, the crisp, chilly air crawled beneath the weathered, wooden door of the hovel in the holler. It was a howl that wouldn’t abate and its unrelenting whistle screamed like a tea-kettle, boiling-hot. Snowfall called for a fire and the woodpile beside the hearth was always stocked with fresh cut wood and kindling from the thicket across the way.
Set mostly in the shadows, sunlight fell for but a few short hours on the regrowth at the base of the mountain. The land was just as unkept as Marla who’d let nature take it’s course after the devastation left behind from the summer wildfires years ago. Whatever happened to grow there in the remnants did serve a purpose being split by the iron of the axe to keep her humble shack warm enough during the long winter seasons that she strove to endure. She dwelt there with sadness for her only company, but she was a survivor and would see to it that she lived to mark another year and watch her Maple tree flourish.
Hours passed as did the storm and the snowfall melted under the shimmering sun. The ground drank in the nourishment left behind as condensation spilled upon the rough wood of the window sill where
its beaded pools slowly slipped down the broken, single-pane glass like tears.
With a shuffle in her footsteps, Marla gathered her tattered flannel beneath her palm and wiped the frosted window with her sleeve. She peered through the small oval frame of weeping optics to watch the splintered rays of the slipping sunlight kiss the freckled leaves upon her tree. The ashen hues of the colorless sky broke her reflective gaze and she rose from the rocking chair to place another log on the fire.
The flames crackled and cawed like crows, even as the voices inside her head had long mocked her. For she cared for the tiny maple bud from its small inception, but cared not for herself for so long. She stabbed at the fire with the poker, fighting to silence the inferno that grew in her mind.
She’d see to it that her tree grew, rooted and strong with resilience to weather any storm, despite how marred and sullied her past and present reminded her that she once was. And, someday, when her daughter returned home, like the prodigal son, they’d dwell in its shade from the heat of the sun.
She sat back down in her rocker and hummed to herself as the creaking wood brought a subtle solace to her soul. She closed her eyes and the images of her daugther’s struggles shuddered against the second of peace she’d felt. She closed her eyes again and remembered the days that she’d rocked her baby girl in that chair. She feared to contemplate what it would take to finally bring her daughter home, alive.
Like every night before, she whispered her plea out loud and held to the hope that was tangible in the air — like spring awakening from winter, fire yielding warmth, and like love, deeply rooted:
“The fire may rage
the winters will come,
we’ll drink in
the tears of the sun.
Replanting our love
where the thickets and thorns
find the blade of the axe
shame and the scorn”
Believe Me When I Say It
When I first met you, it felt like fate. I loved everything about you and couldn’t wait to spend every moment together. Your laugh was infectious and you were so enthusiastic and excited about everything this world has to offer. Everything about you was absolutely sincere and you had the biggest heart of anyone I have ever known.
Then, it seemed as if the world changed without telling you what it had it mind. You kept getting caught off guard by the cruelty of others and, over time, it begin chipping away at you. I always tried to be there, to reassure you that everything would be ok in the end, but could never quite convince you. You still laugh, only more weakly. You still get excited but it always seems like you temper it so you don’t come across as overeager. You have edited yourself to fit among everyone around you and they don’t notice, nor do they care, which only makes you continue to shrink against their presence.
I still love you. I still know you have that big heart that only wants the best for everyone else. When you share your meeker laugh now, I still hear your boisterous giggles. When you hold something that clearly amazes you and simply appreciate it, I still see the wonder exploding in your eyes. I still love you more than anything else in this world - It’s just that now I’m not sure you believe me when I say it.