2017-08-28 17:56 fiction historical-fiction pym Benjamin Brood

A.G. Pym • Chapter Three

The Investigator

Edward Johnson stepped out of his apartment on Lexington Avenue and turned up his collar against the cold drizzle. He'd spent the better part of the last two weeks traveling between New York and Boston doing interviews for Mr Pym. He'd tracked down a dozen sailors on the list Pym had given him. A couple of these, he discovered, were deceased. He didn't claim these as successes, but it did mean he could strike the names.

Today he'd walk down to the office despite the weather, the solitude of walking let him think properly. The last man he interviewed, Mr Samuel Winter, had certainly been the most interesting, that story was on his mind and it had given him bad dreams last night. Many of the other sailors he'd interviewed over the years were cantankerous, drunk, criminal, bald-faced liars by disposition — but Winter's story had shaken him. He didn't know which client wanted Winter interviewed, however he also couldn't discount him. He'd heard about Winter's ship over the years, the Theseus, and there was an air of suppression about what had actually happened.

Edward worked for "AG PYM INVESTIGATIONS" almost three years. All the investigators had regular contact with Mr Pym. Pym liked to keep on top of the work load and the progress, or the lack of progress. Sometimes that couldn't be helped, sometimes you just didn't go down the right path, or the path suddenly ended. Pym had a number of theories around these divergences. He'd worked up an admirable number of practices to apply to the trade, something he'd done for many years in regards to shipping insurances and the often sordid machinations of the actors involved in that lucrative business. Pym was respected and driven. However, Edward always had a nagging sense of discrepancy. A subversive purpose in the occasionally peculiar lines Pym pursued, sometimes very circuitous lines of investigation, as if Pym were seeking out other undeclared elements on the landscape.

But it was a good job. Edward enjoyed it. He couldn't imagine going back to work for the Municipals, especially not now after the Metropolitan police had showed up. Everything used to be clear cut. You cracked some heads, you made sure the right people paid up. But now with two police forces, everything sounded much more complicated and a lot less profitable.

The drizzle turned to rain and he watched umbrellas pop open, like a sea of black lilies. He could hail a carriage, God knows Pym paid him enough for the luxury, but he actually liked the self punishment of being in the open rain. So many more people in the city these days, rushing to where ever and whatever they were doing, he enjoyed the feeling of social camouflage, the anonymity.

Soon though the rain became a deluge and he decided to stop in a café and wait it out. He stopped in one he went to regularly and they knew him. He didn't have to say much and they brought him coffee and pastry. It wasn't as good as it was in Paris, but almost. He wondered what the city would look like in a hundred years, with the amount of commerce and invention happening now it might soon rival Paris or London. Although the dark corners, those seedy places he'd spent time in, were closer in nature to London, those criminal endeavors were woven into the fabric of this city. Wall Street was not so different either, but the nature of it was wrapped in gilt. The theft and violence may not be as obvious, but below the gold leaf it was as vicious as any thug in Five Points or in London's East End.

And his thoughts, he noted to himself, once again gravitated to the habits and patterns of crime.

He took out his notebook and arranged his observations for his report to Pym. These reports usually followed the same routine. As he worked down a list, point by point, Pym would tease out a couple of specifics for sake of clarity, then at the end iterate a sort of summary as well as he'd understood it, which was generally very well, being able to locate the smallest hole in the net of deductions.

But presenting the story of Mr Winter? He wondered if he should add cautionary declarations and not legitimize the story in any way. A tall tale. Except he didn't feel that way about it, he felt like it was indeed legitimate, however fantastical seeming. Not that Pym wasn't familiar with the fantastical, however he never spoke of it or in any way led his investigators to believe he was convinced of it. And yet, there was that book. Pym had never mentioned it, but another investigator had told Edward about a volume by one Edgar Allen Poe, a briefly popular writer who drowned in his own moral bankruptcy.

Edward's curiosity got the better of him, as it usually did, and he spent time looking into it. The writer was a shambles of a human, as decaying as his subject matter, who would've written anything for money. The book was ridiculous and poorly executed fiction. Then why, and how, had Pym become associated with him? This wasn't something he could determine, and he wasn't going to ask Pym that question directly. While it did all read like dreadful trash, there were several things that had not been created from thin air.

Pym had once indeed been a sailor, and sailed in extreme latitudes. The creation and successes of his company proved this. This first point he felt incontrovertible.

As well, in the note Mr Poe added to the hastily ended book, a book started under confusing pretenses of authorship and authenticity, Pym was said to have died and his companion in the last and strangest part of the story, a Mr Peters, was alive somewhere in Illinois. Mr Peters, "Dirk Peters", had in fact existed. He was not imagined on the part of Mr Poe, although how accurate a depiction was made of his character was very questionable.

He knew Peters existed because one of his first tasks when he was employed as a junior was to assist another investigator discover everything he could about a certain "Dirk Peters", current occupation and whereabouts and so on.

In that investigation they discovered that Peters did live for many years in Vandalia Illinois. But by the time of their inquiries he had taken to sea again. The reason didn't appear to be financial, Peters went to sea abruptly, leaving his affairs incomplete and the people he'd come to know in Illinois uninformed. At this point their avenues of investigation dwindled. They tracked down a sailor who'd boarded a ship for the Falklands and said that the man believed to be Peters was also aboard under an assumed name, "Hunt". But in the Falklands the men were separated. "Hunt", the sailor said, went aboard a ship called the Halbrane, which was bound for the Kerguelen Islands, ostensibly for nature studies and exploration. Of the Halbrane all they'd known at the time of the investigation was that disaster struck somewhere in deep southern waters and a handful of crew, perhaps a dozen, were rescued and brought to Australia.

Over the years when he had the opportunity Edward dug in where he could. It was not entirely a waste of time, he learned a couple of things. The most interesting being the relationship of captains — the captain of the Halbrane, Len Guy, was the brother of William Guy, the captain of the Jane — the very same ship described in Mr Poe's book about Mr Pym. He also confirmed the Jane had actually existed.

So there was a mysterious irrefutable connection between Peters, Pym, the Jane, and journeys into remote waters. The reports, scant, of the rescued men from the Halbrane mentioned no "Hunt" or "Peters". All his inquiries to survivors resulted in nothing but silence. Without any information to the contrary, he assumed Peters was dead.

The whole affair was weird. Lit from below by a connective force that snared anyone brain addled enough to look at it for too long. And the very same sense he gleaned from this, that light, that thing which tickled whatever instincts he had for this new profession, was absolutely the same light that surrounded Pym, the same feeling he got from Pym, that there were perhaps horrible and preternatural elements he pulled around with him like rusty chains.

The story of Mr Winter was exactly the same story in nature.

Edward looked out into the street where the halos of falling rain spread in the puddles, violent when he'd come in, now were occasional drips. His cup was still almost full, he'd been caught up in his investigational reverie. He looked back down at his notes. He licked the end of his pencil and added a final line: "TSALAL".

He was cautious and covert about anything relating to that story of Pym, but his latest encounter with Mr Winter made him believe it was impossible to remain quietly courteous. If there was anything substantial to Mr Winter's story, and to the events in the book by Mr Poe, his mentioning the island of Tsalal should at least surface a definable reaction.

Finishing his coffee quickly with a gulp and eager to get into the office, he headed out onto the streets where the rain had created its predictable swamp of horse shit which would, as the sun returned, create a suitable bouquet for the afternoon city.

He smacked his shoes against the side of the office building, dislodging the manure. The building housed a number of insurance and shipping related businesses, some more successful than others. He walked up the long tall stairway to the frosted glass door that had no ostentatious label. Just a simple declaration. Given the number and quality of clients Mr Pym had acquired over the years he certainly could afford a better door and a better office. But Pym claimed he liked the hardscrabble businesses around him, the building, he said, gave the impression of industry not politics. "What if", he once asked, "one client of a certain circle was given signs that we allied or had allegiance to another circle? Like a stone around our necks in turbulent waters. We must be nimble and give the appearance of absolute thoroughness and independence."

Edward stepped into the office, walked to his desk which sat in a row with others, closely, much like an office of accountancy. Since they kept irregular hours and often needed to travel, these desks were never fully occupied. They were statistical placeholders for the investigators retained. There was one person there, Lewis Mills, who was an employee just over a year and had proven to be gifted and intelligent. Pym had recruited him from a law firm where he was being "underutilized".

"Damp morning Johnson?" Lewis asked, looking up from a series of papers he'd organized into several neat stacks.

"Downright wet. Pym in?"

"He is. And he told me that when you get in you should go up front."

The closed office at the front, the only closed space on the floor, was where Pym had his desk in front of two large windows that looked out into the street.

"Thanks." Edward threw his jacket on his chair knowing that it probably irked Lewis who was fastidious about all things. He took his notebook, made a short clearing of his throat for his voice, walked to the office door and rapped his knuckles on it three times quickly.

"Come in", said Pym. Edward entered and Pym was already working, glasses on, some disarray in papers and ledgers before him, and the morning news folded up in a way that indicated he'd probably read the front page and then the notices and obituaries. "Johnson, good. What business do we have today?" Edward knew very well Pym knew exactly what business they had.

Edward ran down his list. He started with the demises. As he ticked them off Pym would occasionally let slip a clucking of his tongue registering disappointment with the outcome. Then Edward went through the activities of some of the other sailors. One had spent a lot of money here, one had been on a binge there, another had shipped out to avoid debts, another was observed going into the offices of a competing firm and so on.

"Fairly standard stuff. Top notch Johnson, make sure it's written up well for our client. Now, there's one more isn't there? A Mr Winter?"

"Yes, sir. He was omitted from the general report because of the ah… abnormalities in the events gathered."

"Abnormalities?"

"Unusual. Fantastical even. I would recommend leaving it off the client's report and making a special file."

"Oh really?" Pym's interest was piqued, special file? Pym took off his glasses and put his arms on the desk, eyebrows raised.

"What do you know of an island called Tsalal?" There, he'd said it, one way or another he'd opened the conversation.

Pym appeared frozen in time. Edward observed no physiognomic changes at all, in fact the total lack of response was telling. The pause drew on, uncomfortably. Edward coughed.

"How long have you worked for this company under my direction Johnson?" Pym asked.

"Almost four years sir."

"You're the best senior investigator we have. I believe I can place an amount, if not total, trust in you. Trust that has been earned."

"Thank you sir." Edward had no idea where this complimentary tack was going.

"Sometime within the next year I will be going away." Pym said.

"Oh? Going where?"

"Tsalal. Returning to Tsalal. I've been there once before, a long time ago." Pym had cupped his hands, leaned back slightly, the former expression had dissolved into something Edward hadn't noticed before — it was if the young man Pym, an eighteen year old man excited for the adventures of the world was there just under the crow's feet and gray hair, that if you placed a portrait of one directly next to the other you would feel like the second younger Pym was merely the first in a disguise. Pym continued, "I would like you to direct this company when the time comes. I've thought a lot about this. You're the man to do it. You know the industry now, you get along with the other investigators, you motivate them. You would be a director and a partner, and in the condition that I did not return, sole proprietor."

"If… you don't return?"

"There are many unknowns and dangers in this type of trip. And I barely survived the first journey. I suspect the kind of story Mr Winter told you reflects this."

"It does. There are things hard to believe, but I have no measurable reason to doubt it. As far as your own story, how much of that written down by Mr Poe is doubtful?" Edward felt that there was no longer anything to hide here, it was clear he was aware of the book and aware of the contents.

"I'd assumed you and some of the other investigators would've read it, or heard of it, since fortunately not many copies survive. I refrained from making any comments about it because that was a long time ago. More so the work of a hack that can't be believed except by the gullible. However…" Pym shifted in his seat, facing sideways, his eyes glancing out the large window to the buildings outside. "…to answer your question, more events in it are true that you may have assumed. More than the violence, mutiny, storms — which are not uncommon occurrences as you've learned in your time here — but the peculiarities of the Antarctic are something our world hasn't been unable to fully comprehend yet. There is a terrible ancient aspect of the unexplored parts of that region which do in fact defy modern belief. But, I tell you, they are real."

It was Edward's turn to pause, digesting what he was hearing. Pym's character was unassailable. This was not some madness, Pym had knowledge of things and events Edward was raised to believe were distant or discounted, part of an era gone in the face of unrelenting productivity and science.

Pym went on. "It is my intention to return and put the matter to rest. There must be a categorize-able explanation for the things I'd seen there in light of all the knowledge and advances in the last 30 years. At least, this is my hope. How much more we know now than then. And I proceeded at that time with the mind of a youth, without the intellectual rigor that we tend to employ here at this company. I consider this to be my last and greatest investigation. One way or the other, I will find out."

Edward told Pym he had his full support and that anything said between them was strictly confidential.

"One more thing," asked Pym, "knowing these things now, how many factors of Mr Winter's story overlap my own?"

"Many. Given that there is more than twenty years between them there may have been some changes regarding Tsalal itself, but the overall scope and conclusion is the same."

"Noted. Please write a detailed report for the special file on Mr Winter. Of course consider it restricted to you and I, so leave nothing out. Be explicit. And as to the other matter, I will be drawing up the correct legal papers making you a partner. On my departure I will assure everyone here that you are prepared as director."

Edward, the greater part of his mind running over images of lost worlds and unknown civilizations hidden in treacherous and impossible to navigate waters, told Pym he would gladly accept the responsibility and assured Pym that his decision for it would not be taken lightly or in any way be abused.

"Until your return." Edward said.

And Pym, delaying a little too long, with another word about to be formed and hanging on his tongue, composed himself and said "Of course. Until my return."