The Costa Rican Dagger
I, Nelson Powers, write this report—some will no doubt call it a confession—as I sit in this cell awaiting my fate. I put this on paper so that people—including my wife—will understand my behavior, and perhaps not think too harshly of me. Whoever reads this document, please excuse the handwriting; my hand trembles as I write.
I recently had a highly unusual experience. A life-changing experience. Literally. And that’s putting it mildly. My wife, Helen, and I were visiting her relatives in her home town of Inwood, Indiana. On our third morning, I took a break from her boring family and strolled through the streets of this drab little town. Helen chose to sleep in and later drive down to Indianapolis. We planned to meet in the evening at a popular watering hole: a trendy bar called Hoosier Daddy Cocktail Lounge.
I wandered along the practically deserted streets, fascinated by the dearth of people in this strange little burg at 10:00 on a Monday morning. The light breeze carried the scent of flowers unknown to me. The unfamiliar fragrance was heavy and, for reasons I couldn’t comprehend, unsettling. A few stores on what seemed to be the main street were open for business. I noticed that there were one or two people in each store just sitting, apparently waiting for customers. Some of the storekeepers sat and read newspapers or a book. I must confess that my wife’s home town seemed highly…unusual to me. This feeling, no doubt, was the result of a state of heightened consciousness brought on by my previous night’s overindulgence in my father-in-law’s home-made alcohol. The man had a still in the basement! I only had four drinks during the whole evening, urged on by Helen’s father. Well, why not call a spade a spade: I had a hangover. But it was a weird hangover. That day in the bright July sun, my feet felt as though they floated just above the surface of the sidewalk, and the whole panorama through which I passed had a dream-like quality. I don’t think I’m explaining this very clearly. But it doesn’t really matter; it can’t possibly have any bearing on this report.
At the edges of town, I had noticed the fields, as far as the horizon, of corn, tomatoes, and cucumber. But most of the houses of the residential streets, while having regular lawns in the front yard, had some other vegetation in the back yard. That vegetation, at the time about five feet tall, had purple stalks, purplish-black leaves and blood-red flowers the size of sunflowers. The heavy, and I would even say hypnotic, fragrance of those plants hung in the brutally hot and humid air. As I drifted somewhat dreamily along the street, a little man in a suit—on this oppressively hot day—appeared and was heading toward me. He had a tape measure hanging from his neck. I was somewhat alarmed when he came right up to me and started taking my measurements. I stopped dead in my tracks.
“What are you doing?” I stammered.
Rather than answer my question, he ran his fingers through my hair. I was petrified. He commented, “You have nice hair, starting to go silver, but not enough hair to do any good.” He clucked his tongue, turned and disappeared around the next corner.
Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed something that glinted in the display window of a shop with the name SHARPE & CUTTER CUTLERY emblazoned in black Old English script. I felt as though that object had something about it that I needed to see. I entered the store.
Inside, there were tables bearing knives of all descriptions and applications. One item, a hand-made dagger, drew my attention. The double-edged blade gleamed icily, yet at the same time emitted a warm, alluring glow. I know this seems contradictory, but that’s how it struck me at the time. As my eyes lingered on it, it seemed to whisper, “I am beautiful. Come and see.” Of course, that was just my imagination playing tricks on me. I wondered if someone – my father-in-law? – had adulterated my drinks last night.
The dagger’s highly-polished bone handle had rounded indentations to accommodate one’s fingers, thus affording a more secure grip. Imprinted in small black letters on the handle was the name Costa Rica. It seemed to invite me, to urge me, to clasp it. I gazed at this beauty of a knife, couldn’t keep my eyes off it. A strong desire to possess it took root within me, sprouted, and grew. I imagined, could practically feel, the smooth handle caressing my palm, my fingers fitting snugly into the indentations. I yearned to grasp it, needed to grip it firmly, tightly. For what purpose, I could not say. Perhaps it was merely that the dagger was a beautiful work of native artisanship and would find a place of honor among my trophies.
And I do have many trophies ensconced in my Beverly Hills mansion: some for tennis, others for golf, yet others for winning regattas. I’ve even overheard people classifying Helen, my third wife, as my trophy. She is a lovely woman and twenty-five years younger than I. Be that as it may, I knew I simply had to own that dagger. And I always get what I want, no matter the cost.
At that moment, a beautiful and extremely curvaceous, young woman entered the shop. She wore a miniskirt. Without uttering a word, she came toward me. Ridiculous, I know, but my heart started to beat faster and I began to perspire more copiously. She stopped when she was a foot away from me, fixed her big brown eyes on mine, looked me up and down and then turned to look at the dagger that fascinated me. She shifted her weight to her left foot. This swung her hip against me. Then she turned toward the door and sashayed down the aisle, exiting in a swaying kind of walk.
I couldn’t take my eyes off her retreating figure. A voice broke into my reverie, making me jump. “May I help you sir?”
“I was looking at this dagger…”
“Oh, I thought you were looking at Chastity.”
“Never mind. Not important.”
The glittering steel blade was about six inches long. The dagger rested on a bed of black plush in a glass case identified by a small bronze plate inscribed with this message: Ezekiel Lyvers loved this knife/It only leads to trouble and strife. The shopkeeper said it was made in Costa Rica, and some sailor passing through town sold it to Ezekiel Lyvers, Glenn Lyvers’s great grandfather. “Now, Glenn, who lives with his folks in the biggest house over on Hawthorne Road, sold it to me and warned me not to take it home or carry it. He explained that it was cursed, that his grandfather, a kindly, gentle man, had slit his best friend’s throat with it. His grandfather had said his friend was in an adulterous relationship with his wife. At the trial he had been asked how he knew this. His answer, ‘I felt it in my bones.’ He was hanged.”
Intrigued, I asked, “Why was he jealous? And how can you be sure it was unjustified?”
The shopkeeper looked at me, shook his head and said, “Ezekiel Lyvers wouldn’t hurt a fly. Besides, the man he named as the one who was having an affair with Clara, his wife, was his best, dearest friend. Everyone knew that Clara loved her husband. Neither Clara nor Jacob Slabaughn, Ezekiel’s best friend, the granddaddy of Cassandra Slabaughn, was capable of betraying Ezekiel.”
“Well, what made Ezekiel think the worst of them?”
The storekeeper clicked his tongue, looked at the dark wooden floor, and shook his head before he answered. “Who knows? His wife was the most beautiful girl in town. All the men envied Ezekiel, which made old Ezekiel suspicious of all men, even of his best friend.” He shrugged. “And, I suppose the fact that his friend, Jacob Slabaughn, was a very good-looking man did not help the situation. One evening, Ezekiel and his wife were strolling around the main square, right out there,” he pointed through the plate glass window to the square beyond. “Now, it happened that Ezekiel and his wife chanced to run into his friend Jacob, who was walking with his own wife.” The cutlery man stopped talking, held his chin in his hand, and stared at the dark wooden floor.
“Go on,” I said. “Surely there’s more to it than that.”
“Not much more, really. Eye witnesses swore that Clara stumbled on some object on the ground and fell against Jacob, who naturally caught her, you know, to stop her from hitting the ground.”
“So, Ezekiel misinterpreted that?”
The shopkeeper emitted a short laugh. “Yeah, you could say that. Yes sir, he misinterpreted it, against all logic and against simply seeing what actually happened.”
“Go on,” I said.
“Well, jealousy is a terrible and powerful thing. Ezekiel Lyvers burst out with, ‘So, Jacob Slabaughn, my so-called best friend, not satisfied with going behind my back to betray me, now you even put your dirty hands all over my wife in the public square, for the whole town to know about it!’ Saying this, he pulled this knife, this very knife, from its sheath, and thrust it into his friend’s throat.”
I just stared at the exquisite dagger, trying to picture the violent scene in which it played so prominent a part. Then, for a short moment, a very short but intense moment, my heart contracted with the ache of jealousy that Ezekiel must have felt. Another emotion immediately followed the feeling of jealousy; I experienced the intense excitement of viciously thrusting a dagger against a foe. Strange. Inexplicable. I had no reason to be jealous, and the nearest thing I had to enemies were merely some mild-mannered associates who envied my wealth.
The shopkeeper continued, “But the really shocking thing happened immediately after Jacob dropped to the ground, lifeless. Ezekiel seemed to snap out of some kind of spell. He stared, eyes wide with horror, at his dear friend lying on the ground in a pool of blood. Then he studied the dagger in his bloody hand, this very dagger you see right here, as though he couldn’t identify this object or its purpose. After the briefest moment, he flung it away and fell to his knees beside Jacob. He raised the dead man to a sitting position and embraced him, rocking back and forth with him, all the time sobbing and repeating, ‘Oh my dear friend, my dear, dear friend. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.’ My grandfather said that, according to his grandfather, it was a horrendous, pitiful scene to witness.”
I just stood there, mesmerized by the man’s emotional recounting of the story, giving the cutlery man my rapt attention. I broke the silence by saying, “Yes, it is a tragic story.” I shrugged. “Okay, so a man was killed with this dagger ages ago. That has nothing to do with me.”
The store owner shook his head, frowned in a way that made him seem to pity me. He sighed and said, “It’s not that simple. Everyone agreed that this was an act impossible for Ezekiel to commit.”
“Yeah, but he did, didn’t he, and everyone witnessed it,” I said. I was becoming impatient. At this point I just wanted to pay for the damned dagger and get out of that store.
“Yes, everyone witnessed it,” the shopkeeper agreed. “They saw it and could not believe it. They said Ezekiel’s reaction was not normal for anyone in town…” The cutlery man abruptly stopped speaking and scratched his head. “Of course, who knows what’s normal here in Inwood. Anyhow, in this case it would be ten times more impossible. The two men were the dearest friends from childhood on. They were like brothers, closer than brothers, since some brothers don’t get along with each other. For example, Cain and Abel. After all, you have your relatives forced on you, so to speak, but you choose your friends.”
“Okay, okay,” I said. I was getting weary of his tangents. “So why did it happen?”
The knife seller’s eyes shifted to land on the dagger in question. He shrugged. “There’s only one explanation.”
“The word is that this dagger, before Ezekiel Lyvers owned it, once belonged to an infamous hired killer, whose name no one today remembers. That man was reputed to have killed many men, until he himself came out second best in a knife fight. At that time, you see, firearms were forbidden within the village limits of Inwood. But there was another man whom the knife fighter hated and wanted to fight. The feeling was mutual, but they never happened to be in the same place at the same time.”
“Okay. So what?”
“Isn’t it obvious, sir? The knife was frustrated at not shedding the blood of its master’s hated enemy.”
“What?!” I said. “You say the knife was frustrated?!”
He shrugged and mumbled, “Well, yeah. What else could it be?”
I said, “Come on! You think daggers have a will of their own?”
He frowned. “I think this one does,” he said. “Or maybe it retains the will of its deceased owner.” He shrugged. “I don’t know, mister. I’m not an educated man, never got past eighth grade. I’m just a lowly shopkeeper. What do I know?” He sounded as though I had offended him. He added, “But I know that truth is often stranger than fiction.”
I chuckled. “Well, that was a fascinating story, but I’m not superstitious. How much do you want for it?”
He stared at me for about five seconds, then stammered, “You want to buy it?! Oh no, no, no, mister, this knife is not for sale. It attracts a whole lot of people to the shop who want to see it and listen to my telling its history.” He paused, narrowed his eyes, and in a confidential tone advised, “Besides, you really do not want to buy it. It will only bring you trouble, bad trouble. Really.”
“You folks think the knife itself is responsible for murder? Really?”
The shop owner shrugged. “Of course. It’s as plain as day. Look, I’ve read a lot of Sherlock Holmes. Somewhere that detective said something like, ‘When you eliminate what is totally impossible, whatever remains is the solution.’ Well, these two men were best friends. And because of something as irrational as one man thinking the other man had illicit relations with his wife, just because she stumbled and fell into his friend’s arms… Well, that’s just impossible. And remember, after shoving this knife into his friend’s throat, Ezekiel dropped to his knees, held his dead friend in his arms, and wept bitterly. No, no, mister, it was not Ezekiel’s will that was responsible.” The storekeeper punched his right fist into the palm of his left hand. “It was the damned dagger.”
Completely fed up with all this nonsense by now, I shrugged and said, “Okay, you’ve warned me. I’ll give you five hundred dollars for it.”
Long story short, the shopkeeper said he’d let me have it, plus the hand-tooled leather sheath, for eight hundred dollars. I ended up paying him six hundred fifty dollars. Why not? I’m a wealthy man. But he stared at me, with what looked like pity in his eyes. He clicked his tongue, slowly shook his head, and sighed, “Okay, mister, it’s yours now.” The look on his face, his body language, and the tone of his voice all gave the unmistakable impression that he mentally added, “It’s your funeral, you poor fool.”
I am sure that the depiction of the events I’ve just provided, as well those I offer below, will justify my actions to some extent, or at least provide extenuating circumstances. I need to be understood, if not by everyone, at least by my wife, Helen.
But to continue, it was nine o’clock in the evening. I had just arrived in Indianapolis and parked my car. It was still hot and muggy. The dagger in its tooled-leather sheath was attached to my belt. It felt good having it, feeling it at my side. Like a trusted friend. I opened the door to the Hoosier Daddy Cocktail Lounge, and immediately felt the air conditioning smack against my face and then engulf my entire body. It was like a plunge into a cold lake on a hot day, shock followed by comfort. But the sense of comfort immediately disappeared. My ears were assailed by high-decibel punk rock. Some of the bar patrons strained their vocal cords to the breaking point in a valiant struggle to be heard by their companions over the infernal music. Others, dispirited, dejected, and defeated by the inhuman, blaring amplifiers, simply sat in sullen silence, steadily sipping their cups of comfort, and pawing, or attempting to paw, their neighbor. Waves of incompatible perfumes overwhelmed my olfactory nerves with a nauseating chemical warfare assault.
It took a few moments for my eyes to adjust to the very dim lighting. And there she was, Helen, my gorgeous wife. She was seated at the bar, her sparkling eyes wide with attentiveness, scarlet lips spread in a gigantic smile as she listened to the man seated beside her. When she was the one who spoke, she gesticulated wildly. She was engaged in conversation with a very handsome young man, one who resembled a youthful Anthony Quinn. (I know that my younger relatives and friends won’t know who Anthony Quinn was. But they’re internet-savvy and can look him up.) His abundant black hair was slicked back with some kind of product. Slicked back, that is, except for one vagrant curl on his forehead. I decided that he actually cultivated that “careless” look. Ironic. Surely, he took pains with comb, product, and mirror to ensure that the mischievous curl, that lock of black hair, remained on his forehead in order to achieve that casual, wild, devil-may-care, bad-boy look. A fop in macho’s clothing. Or would it be a macho in fop’s clothing? No matter.
Helen hadn’t noticed me, so I stood by the door and observed the two of them. I reached under the hem of my shirt and caressed the smooth bone handle of my magnificent knife. I felt vibrations emanating from the handle, as though it were massaging my hand. At the same time, I noted that as my wife and the overly-familiar young man conversed, lover boy’s dark eyes moved up and down her body. This annoyed me. I had to consciously unclench my fists.
Helen was wearing an orange tank top and white short shorts. Orange ice over vanilla cream. Her tanned legs glowed with good health and vitality, even in the semi-darkness of the bar. She really should have dressed more modestly. Really! Her new companion smiled often, exhibiting extremely white teeth, of a whiteness accentuated by the contrast with his black moustache. Lover boy seemed to be in the habit of stroking her upper arm as he spoke. Helen was chatting very animatedly, too animatedly. She was gushing. She was making a fool of herself, making a fool of me. Damn her!
As I watched, my face felt feverish. I saw them through a reddish mist. My heart pounded against my ribcage. The dagger seemed to vibrate under my fingers, seemed to want me to grasp it more tightly. I did so, and it felt right, felt good, comfortable. The vibrations were communicated to my fingers, and traveled the length of my arm to my shoulder. My arm muscles contracted, twitched, producing an urge to move, to take action. With great physical effort, I clenched my teeth and restrained myself.
Helen playfully swiveled back and forth on the bar stool as she spoke, oblivious of the squeaks this produced. At one point, she playfully swung in a wider arc, at the end of which her eyes alighted on the door and caught sight of me. Her lascivious smile vanished for the briefest moment as she stopped turning. But she immediately smiled again, more modestly, however, and waved me over. I removed my hand from the dagger handle, and let my shirt tail fall over the weapon once more, concealing it. I forced myself to practically beam goodwill as I sauntered toward them, attempting to project self-confidence.
Helen looked at the young man and introduced me. “Simon, I’d like you to meet my husband, Nelson.”
I thought, Yeah, right. For just the briefest moment, I could swear his brow wrinkled and his eyes narrowed in anger. Now, I didn’t actually see him scowling—my eyes were still on Helen—but I’m sure he did. I could feel it at the back of my head. I’m sensitive to these things. But by the time I looked at him, Simon was smiling – clever boy, devious boy – fairly blinding me with the flash of light glinting off those snow-white teeth of his. He extended his hand and, with an annoying British accent, unctuously enunciated, “How do you do, old fellow?”
For a brief moment, I was taken aback. I thought he had called me Othello, of all things. But no, he had actually said, “old fellow.” But what did he mean by calling me old? Right to my face. In front of Helen. What the hell?! I gritted my teeth, briefly took his hand, and muttered, “Glad to know you.”
I stared at that supposedly stray-lock of black hair on his forehead and felt a mounting revulsion, no, a rage build in me. My hand involuntarily grasped the knife handle and tightened around it.
I’m afraid I cannot complete this report, a report which would justify my behavior to a certain extent. I hope that my friends and relatives will understand. I hear the guards’ clumsy shoes clomping along the cement passageway on their way to take me to the place I don’t want to see.