There are many fine mysteries I have observed Malachi Norton solve over the many years I have known him. I chronicled several of those cases as you may recall; changing names and places with due respect to the wishes of those concerned, of course. Never a man have I encountered with more formidable mental powers than he, and he never ceased to astonish me with his skills of observation and deduction.
He maintained a practice as a private detective for over a decade, and quite successfully I might add. I, as his friend and colleague, accompanied him on many occasions in assisting the apprehension of some evil-doer or the appropriation of stolen goods which were then returned to their rightful owner. However, due to the unexpected popularity of my little narratives featuring his deductive prowess, he grew to be more sought after as a parlour act than as the great detective he was. Seeing as I was inadvertently the cause of such ill-fortune, it came as no shock to myself when he asked that I no longer accompany him in his travels. We retained a cordial relationship, but inevitably time, work and family obligations drew us apart, and the only times I heard tell of him of late were the random mentions of his exploits in the newspapers. Imagine my surprise when I got a knock upon the door early one Sunday morning, rousing me from a sound slumber.
"Coming," I called groggily, shuffling towards the door, hastily pulling a robe on over my pyjamas.
"Room service, sir," a young woman’s voice replied.
My brow furrowed as I picked my watch up from the nightstand, noting the time. "Room service? At twenty minutes past four? On a Sunday morning, no less," I grumbled as I threw open the door. A girl of about twenty years of age stood before me in the attire of a maid, her dirty-blond hair tucked smartly under her white bonnet.
"Yes, sir. Here to turn down the linens as requested." She stepped through the door and started bustling about, clearing the sheets from the bed.
"I requested no such thing," I rejoined, confounded at such a ridiculous statement. At this, the young woman’s countenance took on a perplexed look.
"But sir, I have your orders right here. I thought it peculiar at the time, sir, but you insisted."
"Poppycock," I muttered, snatching the proffered paper from her hand and looking it over. The words scribed upon it merely added to my confusion. It read:
NOT ALL IS AS IT APPEARS.
"What the devil is this supposed to mean?" I exclaimed, peering up from the paper only to see that the maid had mysteriously disappeared. I turned about, and found seated most comfortably in a chair my erstwhile companion, the great Mr. Malachi Norton.
"Malachi!" The shock was evident in my tone of voice, but I could not help but gape at the complete transformation of the young blond-haired girl to the tall middle-aged man with salt-and-pepper hair who I thought I knew as well as I knew myself.
He drew a cigarette case from his coat pocket (I daresay, not the dress he wore but seconds ago) and removed one before returning it and retrieving a lighter. His slender fingers held the cigarette to his lips as he lit it.
"I would offer you one, Johnson, but I believe you quit the habit some four months back," he said, casually drawing on the cigarette.
"Malachi, so good to see you! But how the devil did you deduce that? Surely, my attire could have nothing to do with it," I quipped, with a hint of sarcasm.
"Ah, but your attire has much to do with it. When I passed you in the doorway, for instance, I took note that there was no lingering cigarette odour on your clothing or person. I recalled that you used to have the habit of having a smoke on restless nights when you were plagued with insomnia, to relax your nerves as you would put it. As you have clearly had insomnia of late, by the way that large tome was dropped haphazard onto the bed signifying that you read it until you fell asleep, I can easily deduce that you have quit smoking and are trying to replace one habit with another."
"How can you tell that it is not simply an engrossing volume I found hard to put down? And you said four months. How could you possibly know that?" I leaned forward, intrigued.
"Come now, Johnson. I daresay even an ardent reader such as yourself would find that Noah Webster’s dictionary does not make for the most enthralling of reading material. And you moved in just over four months ago, according to the desk clerk. You were smoking at the time you moved in, as evidenced by the ashtray sitting on the nightstand and the small burn in the wood beside it, but you have oft quoted to me what a nasty vice it was and how one day you hoped to quit. The complete lack of cigarette odour in the room shows me that it was only shortly after moving in that you stopped."
I laughed. "You make it sound so simple, it’s a wonder I had not seen it myself."
"Correction. You see, but you do not observe." He took another long draw, and then slowly stood. "You must pack your things, Johnson. Not to sound crass, but your wife may have done you a good turn after all by putting you out; it leaves fewer complications. We are going to America."
"America? Good Lord. Have you gone mad? Why would we want to do a thing like that?"
"Because it appears, my dear Johnson," he said, turning out the light and cautiously moving to the side of the window facing the street below, "that some old enemies of my father have resurfaced, and would very much like to lay their hands on me. They are not beyond using you to get to me."
"Your father? My good man, I find it hard to believe that dear old Godfrey Norton had an enemy in the world. I find the entire scenario quite inconceivable. You have been overworking yourself again, have you not?" While I had never met the Norton family patriarch, he having died long before I made Malachi Norton’s acquaintance, I had heard many a story from Malachi’s mother, the late Mrs. Irene Norton, touting his goodness and virtues. Malachi himself never spoke much of his family. He gave no indication that he heard me. His pale, gaunt features, made even paler in the moonlight, attested to the fact that he was pressing himself too hard. He cautiously moved the curtain at the window aside, peering through into the street below.
"I think that you must know me well enough to understand that I am not of a fanciful disposition. I deal in facts and hard logic. For instance, that man standing under the lamppost at the street corner has been watching your rooms intently for some time now. Observe, he has already smoked several cigarettes, evidenced by the butts strewn about his feet, and he regularly shifts his weight from one foot to the other, showing he is tiring of his watch and is anxious to soon be relieved. It was quite easy to sneak past him; I do believe I may have gotten by with no disguise whatsoever," he said with a smile. "Please do make haste with your packing. It would be best if we leave before the shift changes. Would say, ten minutes do the trick?"
"But Malachi," I blustered, as I began preparing my luggage, "what does all this mean?"
"It means, my dear Johnson, that London has ceased to be safe for us. I have taken the liberty of getting us tickets, and we shall soon be staying at the quaint Red Lion Inn of Quakertown, Pennsylvania. I have made all the arrangements."
"What do these people want?"
"Revenge, Johnson, for a perceived wrong at the hand of my father many years ago. They are afraid that I will finish what my father started. They’d like nothing better than to see me dead."
"Who are they?"
"The offspring of a well-organized syndicate of criminals, once thought dead and still thought so to all but myself. I have known of their re-emergence for some time, but without proof the knowledge was futile. The head of this venomous snake calls himself Mr. Jameson Martiroy, though I daresay that is but a rather unimaginative alias for a name of much greater renown. I may go so far as to say this group represents the epitome of evil in the country to-day. Martiroy may have inherited his father’s position; however, if he has inherited the uncanny mental powers his father possessed has yet to be seen. My identity was revealed to him gradually through the popularity of your journalistic endeavours. For which, Johnson, I owe you a great apology. For although gaining me much unwanted attention elsewhere, if it were not for your writings I may never have been given the opportunity to force his hand, as I am now about to do."
As I hurriedly packed the last of my possessions, I took note of the sag to his shoulders, the droop to his eyelids, and several other tells that I had previously failed to notice. "You look utterly exhausted! May I suggest staying the night and getting some much-needed rest? Surely our departure can wait till the morrow."
"I am afraid not. We must leave now, Johnson. The game is afoot!"
After finally making our way to Quakertown, Pennsylvania via a very roundabout and convoluted manner, I sat myself down in our new accommodations, tired and sore. After catching some rest as we travelled, Malachi Norton was in quite the opposite state, filled with seemingly boundless energy as he paced the floor, his long fingers laced together and his sharp eyes distant in contemplation.
"What are you worried about? They could not possibly know where we are. I’m not even sure that I know quite where we are."
"Never underestimate your opponents. Behind his sunken eyes I have reason to believe, lies a great, albeit twisted mind. Unum idem sentient, mentibus magna*, as the saying goes, and if I came to the conclusion that this is the best place to be, then so may he."
Despite my good friend’s warning, the days that passed in the quaint but thriving town remained without incident. Malachi seemed quite at home (his mother was, after all, an American from neighbouring New Jersey), and I was just starting to orient myself and get used to my unfamiliar surroundings. I was seated in a local eatery, considering summing up the courage to try some of the more peculiar regional foods, when out of nowhere Malachi appeared, breathless and quivering with excitement.
"Take a seat, my good man," I offered, motioning to a chair. "Did you know that they serve a pastry here made from treacle, of all things? I don’t think I shall be trying that. It sounds too sweet for my taste. And what an unappetizing name, too: shoofly pie. Let the flies have it, I say. Ha!"
Malachi offered no idle banter. "They have found us, Johnson. I spotted Samuel Ridgewell, Martiroy’s right-hand man, asking questions about town. It won’t be long before they discover our lodgings; returning to our rooms would become a very dangerous endeavour. Make haste. Mr. Roberts, from the inn, insisted we go site-seeing, and now the chance is upon us. We are going to the countryside."
We hired a cab to convey us to nearby Nockamixon, a rocky, heavily wooded area through which Lake Nockamixon ran. There, we disembarked. Setting off afoot, we followed the contours of the beautiful lake through the trees via a well-worn foot-path. It was mid-November, and the air was chill. The wet leaves covering the upward slope made for slippery footing, hiding rocks and holes lying beneath. Malachi was impatient with my slow progress, and went on ahead of me. It was easy enough for him to carry on; with his hiking stick, it was quicker for him to find firm purchase. Besides, he had obviously remained in excellent condition, whereas I admitted to myself, I had been woefully slacking when it came to exercise. I persisted, regardless.
Soon a faint sound projected itself into my hearing, an indistinguishable rushing noise. As I continued, the sound grew gradually louder, until its roar pervaded the air around me. Rounding a bend, the quickly flowing lake reappeared from the woods that had hidden it for the last small portion of my journey, and as I stepped to its edge I could see further on the cause of the commotion. Far upstream, the mighty torrent, swollen by frequent rains, plunged down over a jagged edge and crashed with fury into the abyss below. The spray rolled upward in spectral wisps, like malevolent ghosts from the past. My eyes drifted past the waterfall to the rocky overhang jutting out above it, and I gasped. There, two silhouettes stood, engaged in mortal combat, viciously attacking each other, neither giving, neither relenting. With sickening certainty, I knew that one of those men was Malachi Norton.
Fatigue forgotten, I rushed up the trail. Soon, the figures could no longer be discerned through the woods. The last I saw, they were grappling precariously at the very edge. That image, though briefly glimpsed and then gone, would forever be emblazoned on my mind. It spurred me forward like a heated brand. I fingered the revolver Malachi had insisted I carry as a precaution. I should have never left his side. Had I been with him, I may have come to his aid. Now, I may be too late.
The thundering boom grew to a deafening roar, but I welcomed the unholy noise, as each step brought me closer to my dear friend. A shout, not quite human, joined the cacophony, as though the roaring water was crying out. At last, the path split, one way continuing forward, the other coming to an end at the cliff I had spied from afar. The cliff was bare. In vain I shouted, my only reply the water’s cry as it cascaded into the abyss. I futilely scouted the overhang, but the only trace of Malachi Norton were marks of a scuffle on the wet ground, the rocks disturbed and the grass turned to mud. To one side lay his hiking stick, broken and shattered, and as I looked down at the lake hurling itself onto the black rocks lining the boiling chasm below, I could not help but picture my friend in the same broken and shattered state. I stood on the cliff’s edge, trying to collect myself. In shock from the horror of it, I felt cold and sick inside. I reached for the hiking stick, the only thing remaining of my friend, when my foot slipped on the mud, and I vaulted towards the edge. My fingers dug into the wet ground, as rocks and clumps of sod came off in my face. I could not hold on, and I found myself falling to certain death.
Suddenly, a strong hand reached out, lithe fingers tightening around my flailing arm.
"Grab a-hold," a familiar voice shouted, and unthinking, I did. With a heave and a scramble, I was dragged to safety, into a small crevasse barely able to fit two men. I looked up into the eyes of my saviour, and the smiling face of my friend peered back in worry.
"So kind of you to drop in, Johnson," he said, as I attempted to catch my breath and calm my beating heart.
"Malachi, is it really you?" I gasped.
"Alive and in the flesh," he replied, "although how long I remain that way has yet to be seen. Get down, Johnson!" This, he exclaimed as he pushed me even lower. I followed his gaze across the lake. Outlined in the dimming light was a man; cradled in his arms was what appeared to be a rifle.
"Have you the revolver?" Malachi asked. I passed it to him. A shot rang out; it went high, sprinkling us with shards of rock. "Samuel Ridgewell has shown himself an excellent shot in two wars. I highly doubt he will make the same mistake twice," he said dryly, aiming the revolver with infinite care, accounting for height and wind.
"You’ll never make that shot. It’s too far!"
"I never miss."
He pulled the trigger a split second before Ridgewell could. Ridgewell staggered forward and fell, his limbs flung outward as he spiraled down. The torrent swept him away, and he disappeared over the falls, his screams lingering like the fine mist hanging in the air.
It was a slow, arduous climb back to the trail, but we both made it. Breathless, we collapsed to the ground, sweat dripping from our bodies and mud caking our clothes. The sun was setting, pink and purple and gold colliding, weaving a brilliant tapestry in the sky.
"We have done the world a great service, Johnson. Without a head, the snake shall whither and die," my friend said, catching his breath.
Malachi Norton pulled out his watch, which had somehow remained intact. The sovereign attached to the watch-chain danced in the reflected light. After checking the time, his eyes yet remained fixated upon it. "This watch belonged to my father," he said, the softness to his voice unfamiliar. "It is high time you knew, Johnson, that Godfrey Norton died one year and nine months before I was born. When I speak of my father, it is not he that I speak of."
"But then, who…"
His eyes twinkled. "There are some things that even dear Dr. Watson did not know."
*Latin phrase, meaning "Great minds thing alike."