The Restoration of Frost is, so far as I know, the only mystery to ever be written in the form of a terza rima. A terza rima is a kind of a poem that uses a rhyme in the pattern ABA BCB CDC DED, and so on. The form was made popular by an Italian, Dante Alighieri, who wrote a terza rima poem which included the seven circles of Hell. It was called The Divine Comedy.
My poem, The Restoration of Frost, tells the story of a cynical, hardboiled detective whose name is Frost. One day, the wife of a diamond merchant comes to Frost, and she tells him that her husband was murdered by the butler, that the diamonds have been stolen, and that the butler has disappeared. The police have proven powerless, and she believes that the hard-drinking Detective Frost is her last hope.
Illustrations by Amanda Güereca.
He sits up nights with whiskey, learning French,
in a lonely apartment amongst sirens,
squalling sounds, swindling, and a human stench.
“Alouette, je te plumerai … each pin,”
he mutters, “Fall naked from the sky, bird,
into men’s cold cities and thrice-damned dens.”
Outside the sun rises: pale, weak, obscured;
even as the man sets, sinks in his drink,
as the moon wanes, and the night is interred.
Sewers exhale their smoke; trashmen, their stink;
Madmen envision grey futures of death;
the sun shades the city sky orange and pink.
The rousted city draws its first morning breath.
It lifts itself from quotidian sleep,
aciers son esprit, et se déroule son fouet.
Yet the man, with his head on his hands, sleeps,
the unstoppered glass bottle beside him:
king of his castle, captive of his keep.
Then comes a knocking: hard and fast and grim.
“What?” mutters the man. “Who’s there? At this time?
I warn you, faults are thick where love is thin.”
“Open up! There’s been a terrible crime!
My husband’s lying dead, dead on our floor!
Ash and dust extracted from the sublime!
Are you Detective Frost?”
“But you once were? Detective Frost, that is?”
The man opens, just a crack, his front door.
“That was another life. What’s your name, Ms.?”
“Emily King. Can you investigate?”
She is a woman of puffy eyelids,
her mane of hair seems to be half her weight;
she wears short heels and a Desigual dress,
and sways like a pendulum oscillates.
“The police,” she says, “Have made no progress.
My love’ll be buried, to rest in peace;
his warm largesse became cool emptiness.
He is beyond the clergy and police;
he’s at the disposal of God’s great will.
And our lost wealth was in a worn valise,
but can be regained by a man with your skill.
I’ve heard you were once great. Almost divine.
So help me. Please. Come on, say that you will.
I’m in my hour of need—”
—“Stop,” he signs.
“I’m not the shadow of the man I was.
I’m a drunk now. I live like listless swine.
I’m not who you want, if I ever was.”
“Well for God’s sake, at least open the door.”
“You’ll just see straight whiskeys and neat vodkas.”
“Open the door! Damn it! Open the door!
All the way! Not just a crack! Look at me!”
He swings the door open halfway, then more.
There is a silence as he blinks and sees.
There she stands in the shabby corridor,
flickering like a candle in the breeze.
“Fine. Let me get my coat from off the floor.
It’s a bitter dawn, made worse by the cold,
and my intent to restart what I forswore.”
He mutters as he walks, “Where’s my billfold?
Where’s my coat and my hat and my resolve?
Time never brought wisdom, just made me old.”
“How long will this mystery take to solve?”
she calls, “How long till the criminal’s nicked?”
“Damn it,” he mutters, “I shouldn’t be involved.”
He calls back, “Impossible to predict.”
Silence. Then, “Can I call you Detective Frost?”
He mutters, “You can call me ‘Derelict.’
Or maybe even ‘Detective Well Sauced.’”
But he calls, “Yeah. Yeah, you can call me that.
Look, let’s go. I think my damn billfold’s lost.”
He walks out the door, putting on his hat,
leaving the front door unlocked behind him.
“You’re not locking up the door of your flat?”
“Lady, inside my place, pickings are slim.
Any robber is welcome to my trash.
Now, let’s go.” And he pulls down his hat brim.
The drive takes them past tall maples and ash,
along a quiet, winding road near cliffs
and views that overlook winter’s panache.
The houses in this part seem formal, stiff.
Quiet monsters that look down and glower,
giving the peons a conceited sniff.
“These places give fine looks to wealth’s power,”
says he. “I don’t like ’em.” There’s no reply.
They enter her drive, pass a stone tower.
Frost asks, “Why didn’t the guards raise a cry?”
“We think,” she says, “It was an inside job.
“William is missing with no alibi.
William is the butler and is macabre.
His sense of humor always disturbed me,
But he seemed cleaner than the pope’s façade.
His bad humor was the sole fault to see.
So we kept him… To my endless regret!”
“Hm. Tell each detail of last night to me,”
says Frost. “Any trifle may be an asset.
I must know the times, the places, all things.
Don’t withhold anything from your vignette.”
“My husband was known as a diamond king:
Michael was the CEO of DeBeers,
a job which brought us wealth and its trappings.
Last night, he got a shipment from Algiers,
a shipment worth fourteen million dollars,
which were to be bought by Dubai’s emirs.
Maintenance, by the company installer,
on the office safe, made that place unfit
for even the care of a prize much smaller.
Needless to say, Michael abandoned it.
He brought the diamonds home in a valise:
a small, innocuous, brown leather kit.
He told no one of the stones in the piece.”
“Then how did you know what was in the bag?”
“Well, he told me, of course, to keep the peace.”
“To keep the peace?”
—“I asked about the bag.
I thought it might be linked with a tryst.”
“Geld a stallion and you’re left with a nag.”
“Oh please! Men are pigs! True men don’t exist.
Some men are true to infidelity,
but that’s all. The honest man is like a mist:
looks white, but he’s gone with day’s clarity.
So Michael showed me diamonds in the purse,
diamonds of unusual rarity.
He said to me in a voice quite terse,
‘Don’t say a word of this to anyone;
Its loss would be too great to reimburse.
I’m revealing this out of affection,
trust in our partnership, and profound love.’
These words must have caught William’s attention.
He was passing on a small walkway above,
one used for that room’s second floor of books.
He’d been, I fear, overhead like a dove.
‘What’d you see with your stealthy, furtive looks?’
—‘Nothing, just sorting the shelves.’
‘That little lie puts me on tenterhooks,’
Michael whispered to me. ‘Between ourselves
let’s not let that valise out of our sight.’
Then, ‘Will! Em and I want the house to ourselves!
Go on home, my man, and have a nice night!’
Then, in a whisper, ‘Better if he’s gone.’
Then, louder, ‘And see that your mouth’s zipped tight!’
Will came down from the walkway he was on,
gave us a little bow, and left the room.”
“Did he leave the house, not just the salon?”
“I can’t be sure. I can only assume.
I assume that he left; we did not check.
Then I guess he returned, through the sunroom.
The door was ajar, accessing the deck.”
“Tell me where your husband’s body was found.
In the sunroom? In the study? On the deck?”
“I found him in the hall, dead on the ground.
I had heard a scream, rushed out; a door closed.
It clicked softly shut with a fatal sound.
Mike was just unconscious, I first supposed.
I ran to him, neglecting the thief’s escape.
I saw piano wire, his neck exposed,
long lacerations across that landscape
of innocent flesh and beloved skin.
His mouth was lying horribly agape;
his lips were purple, his face white and thin.
His eyes stared into a world beyond ours.
All that was left was what might have been.
I screamed for what seemed to be hours
I then rushed to the door and found it locked,
but heard the window of that damned tower
pushed open hard by the one being stalked.
Then I saw diamonds scattered on the floor.
Then clearly as sun shines I could concoct
the whole scene as if I’d seen it before:
Mike was garroted by piano wire;
the killer had hid behind the hall door,
and when Michael had tried to retire,
the craven killer sprang out, strangled him,
and stole the valise that he did desire.
Michael’s screams—telling, bloodcurdling, grim—
brought me running from my chamber too late
with just time to hold him to my bosom,
to see my man forever insensate,
and the door of the study being locked,
and to feel on my heart a doleful weight.
Oh heaven, Detective Frost! I’ve been mocked
by a cruel fate and damned to lonely life:
all paths were open, now they are all blocked.
The servants entered, and, sharp as a knife,
the maid called the police, and the driver,
who kept his mind calm in this bloody strife,
ordered the grounds closed to that conniver.
‘The window!’ I cried, ‘I heard it opened!’
Bless the soul of the quick-thinking driver,
he said, ‘Will cannot get out! He happened
in his dark escape into a high room
in which he is now surely imprisoned:
to leap from that place would spell certain doom.
No, he must still be inside that study;
his quickest refuge shall be his fastest tomb.’
We waited in that place of perfidy,
like a hunter waits for dangerous prey,
near to the body, lifeless and bloody.
When the police came before the break of day,
they forced the door. But the room was empty!
The detectives checked for another way
that the criminal might have gotten free.
There is a drainpipe along the house wall,
but it is connected only weakly,
and any climber would certainly fall;
the frail pipe would tear away from the house,
and gravity would wrap him in his pall.
And the ground is soft. Not even a mouse
could escape without leaving a footprint.
Yet no impressions were without the house.
Further inquiry yielded not a hint.
The detectives left for other business.
And that is why I’ve asked you to represent
my side in this perplexing and anxious
matter, which seems so simple but is not.
The man, William, killed my husband, backless
in his fell execution. Then he sought
refuge in a room without an escape
except for a window whose height cannot
be negotiated by man or ape,
and yet when the door, locked on the inside,
was forced, there was within no living shape.
But there was not a single place to hide!
Where’s William? Murderer of my husband?
Thief, assassin, evil personified!”
“One thing’s sure,” says Frost, “Nothing will be banned
from the net of inquiry. All’s open.
Your account’s been near all I could demand.
Yet some questions remain. When all seemed done,
did the cops lock the door before leaving?
Could William have escaped from his bastion?”
“The detectives locked the door, perceiving
that if Will were inside, he could well flee.”
“And yet, while the cops were conceiving
that such a bold escape could come to be,
still they departed the scene of the crime?
Such actions seem, to be frank, unseemly.”
“Further inquiry was a waste of time,
was what the shrugging detectives told me.”
“Well, they’ve left us the work of muck and grime;
we’ll be on our own,” Frost replies blithely.
“Ah,” says Ms. King, “We have arrived at last.”
The mansion looms behind a copse of trees,
its wings spread, like a dark bat’s, wide and vast.
Great windows look, from behind the old copse,
inward: shared wine and spilled blood, dry at last.
The great home stands on a cliff’s rocky tops;
grey granite underlays its foundation.
Their car crunches gravel up to the door, stops.
Frost gets out. “I’d like an examination.”
“Certainly, my late husband is inside.
He has not been moved from his location.”
“Ms. King, I’ll begin my research outside.”
“Uhhh, as you wish. But the detectives said—”
“Ma’am, seasoned sailors trust but wind and tide;
they pay no mind to what the lubbers said.
This William left us with the silent dead,
So I’ll go where my thoughts will have me led.
I’ll see the clues, and ensure they’re well read.
Now, the wildest fires may start with sparks,
so keep vigilant; there’s danger ahead.
This scene could become the darkest of darks—
Yet still I’ll tell you, ‘Stay hopeful, Ms. King’:
even the softest killers leave their marks.
I’ll find the thief, the killer, the cruel thing.”
“In a time when everything has gone cold,
you’ve made winter’s white death show signs of spring.
Thanks. Some kind words are more precious than gold.
There’s in brave substances a common core:
invisible to the eye, lovely to behold,
in those that cast not their shadows before,
those who walk with their faces to the sun,
like heroes who stand ready at the fore.”
“I ain’t all that. I’m just a mother’s son.
Now go inside, stand your guard with the rest,
and I’ll work. Sooner began, sooner done.”
Detective Frost watches her leave, “What’s guessed
at in the darkness, without facts,” he states,
“Is a surmise which must be reassessed.
I won’t give her story an ounce of weight,
till I’ve confirmed the empirical facts:
the fox won’t tell of the chickens he ate,
and the stuff of greed is what honesty lacks.
I’ll take her story with a grain of salt,
til I see the grounds and scene of attack.”
Walking over wet leaves, puddles, and gault,
his eyes wandering over the edifice,
walking fast at times, now making a halt,
Frost strolls the grounds: solemn, thoughtful, cheerless.
He ambles to the foot of the mansion
where a drainpipe of uncommon thinness
descends from the rooftop then does run
past a window large enough for a man.
Frost shakes the pipe, which almost comes undone,
for the pipe is affixed by no more than
three rusting brackets of uncertain strength
from where Frost stands to where the pipe begins.
“Hm,” says Frost, “And most certainly the length
of the drop from the window to the ground
supports an extent of her narrative’s length.
Nor are there strange indentures to be found.
The ground is too soft not to be impressed;
the mud testifies: Ms. King’s account’s sound.
Now, let’s see what eggs the bird has in her nest.
In a woman’s home is her façade found,
and in her unreadable heart: the rest.
Detective Frost strolls quietly around
to the massive front door, which he enters.
He strides up the staircase that’s marble bound
with red and white tiles like blood in winter.
On the second floor, Frost finds the servants
and Ms. King waiting. “Not to the sprinter
will go this race, but to the observants,”
Frost says, nodding approvingly, “Patience
can be more opportunistic than chance.”
“We have stayed at our proper assignments,”
says one man tiredly. “It’s been a long night.”
“I believe Ms. King said you had good sense,”
says Frost, “You’re the driver, if I am right?”
“That’s right, I am. And my name is Michael.
We’ve been waiting outside this room all night.
We’ve been sleepless and angry and watchful.
The door of this study has not opened;
It’s not admitted nor dismissed a soul.”
“I’ll do my best to bring this to an end,”
Frost replies. “And see your care rewarded.
I must now see Mr. King’s tragic end.
Ms. King? Could you lead me to the blest dead?”
Ms. King wordlessly points to a sheet
that covers the corpse like a sad shroud’s spread.
Detective Frost walks to the corpse’s feet,
then steps forward, and he pulls back the cloth.
Mr. King’s face is placid, his look neat.
“Is there much to see?” Ms. King, her voice wroth.
Frost examines the neck’s lacerations,
“No, but with little meat we must make much broth.”
Then he says gently, “My consolations.”
He tenderly covers the departed.
Frost stands. “Another examination
of this puzzling study must be started.
Who has the key? Please, let’s open the door;
we’ll see if the law has been outsmarted.”
Ms. King produces the key, “Yes, let’s explore
the interior of this baffling room;
time’s come: we won’t find what we don’t search for.”
Ms. King inserts the key of the room,
turns the lock, then she enters the chamber.
Detective Frost follows into the gloom,
flicks the lights, says, “Let’s see what did occur.”
The illuminated room contains books,
a desk, a globe, a humidor of fir,
liquor bottles, paintings, knick-knacks, and nooks.
“All these things,” Frost says, “That I now see, were
in their same place before? Anything look
out of the ordinary? Or disturbed?”
“No,” she says, “Everything is in its place.”
“Well, all right,” says Frost, not a bit perturbed.
He examines the walls, books, and shelf space.
He walks to the window, gauges the drop,
pulls the pane on its hinges, steps back a pace.
Then he pauses to consider the chase.
He looks from the door to the room’s window,
passes his eyes over a standing vase,
mutters, “Where, indeed, could this killer go?”
reviews the room again, opens desk drawers,
and does, on Ms. King, a doubtful glance throw.
“Ms. King, if you’ll permit, I’ll step outdoors.”
“Do you have any clues, Detective Frost?”
“I have hopes. Michael and maids, guard the doors.
Don’t open or close them at any cost.”
With those words, Frost sweeps out of the study.
He heard the doors being shut as he crossed
the hall, past the shroud and body bloody,
then down the marble stair, and out the door.
“Not sure how to clear a case so muddy,”
he mutters, “Or which line to next explore.”
Frost pulls from his coat a Haitian cigar,
sits on a bench, brings his thoughts to the fore.
“What dark things were illumed ’neath night’s dark star?”
he wonders aloud, as he considers
the night’s events, and lights up his cigar.
“And those diamonds—sweet smelling, but bitter!
How’d the lady play her game? Fair or foul?
was it the sparkling stones that undid her?
Or… is her tale true as the hoot of an owl?
I shall just take time to review the facts…”
He sits; the smoke wreathes his head like a cowl.
He puffs and puffs: the cigar glows, reacts.
The smoke swirls in thick clouds around his head,
then wafts, by a breeze laden with bees-wax,
through brisk air, where it then dissipated.
Frost frowns. He stares thoughtfully at the smoke.
He looks at his cigar, wrinkles his forehead.
He looks again at the slow, drifting smoke.
He purses his lips, uncrosses his legs;
overhead rustle the leaves of an oak,
“I’m deep in the bottle, but not the dregs,”
says Frost, “I have one creative idea.
Shipwrecked sailors can still feel their sea legs,
just as I, a ruined hound, can still smell a
scent. I will smoke my coffin nail indoors,
and I will test the strength of my idea.”
Frost strides inside along the marble floors.
He ascends posthaste up the spacious stairs,
enters the hall, makes for the study doors,
past Michael, Ms. King, and the maids’ stares,
all while puffing madly on the cigar.
He shuts the room’s windows against the air.
“Leave the door open and stay where you are!”
he commands, sitting at Mr. King’s desk,
raising his chin, sending smoke near and far.
“Mr. Frost!” says Ms. King, “This is grotesque!
Get it together—don’t smoke in my place!
This is a somber scene, not a burlesque!”
“This smoke is needed for solving the case!”
Indeed, as Ms. King, Detective Frost, Mike,
and the others watch, the smoke slowly traces
to the wall, then drifts through a crack, ghost-like.
“My God,” Ms. King whispers.
—“Shh!” orders Frost.
“Don’t let the mouse see what the cat looks like!”
Frost motions to Mike and the maids, “No cost
is too high to pay for the man within;
he’ll readily ensure your lives are lost.
Between careless and care, let caution win!
The butler’s hidden in a secret space;
he’s behind the wall where the smoke got in.
The smoke was drafted to that hidden place.
His secret was betrayed by air currents;
so little reveals such a huge disgrace.
But I suspect he has no deterrent
to forced entry; his weapon was wire,
swiftly snatched in a mood black and fervent.
But come danger, we shall fight fire with fire.
Had he shown restraint, so would we now.
Both crooked and straight wood burn alike in fire,
so beware: righteousness earns no golden crown.
We shall take him by surprise, Mike and I,
but we may need you all to take him down.
Are you set? If so, stay. If no: Goodbye.”
“We’re set,” whisper the maids.
—“And I,” says Mike.
“All’s well if he’s in hell, so says I,”
says Ms. King. “While the iron’s hot—we strike!”
“All for one, one for all,” says Detective Frost.
“We’ll break through the wall as a hammer’s like,
fight him till he’s taken or we’re all lost;
we’ll never quit, never capitulate,
until that sinister arachnid’s lost!
On the count of three, no one hesitate,
we’ll put our shoulders to the dummy wall,
then wed the devil to his absent mate.
Ready? One, two, three! Shoulders to the wall!”
Ms. King, Mike, Detective Frost, and the maids
throw themselves against the study’s false wall.
The wall collapses beneath their combined weights,
as they crash into a dim compartment,
where dust thickens like fog in humid glades.
Cringing at the force of their bombardment,
is William the butler, valise in hand,
whose blood-stained hands tell of his dark event.
The five raiders untangle, try to stand,
as William beats at them with the valise,
and deals them blows with his bloody free hand.
Detective Frost, shouting, “Death makes good peace!”
launches himself at his deadly opponent
and begins beating him into pieces.
“Stop! Stop!” cries William, quailing, curled, and bent.
“Never!” roars Detective Frost, “I’m feeling good!
My life is becoming your punishment!”
“Stop! Stop! I’d take it back, if I could!
I’d have left the wire, forgot the rocks,
I’d have gone on home, as I knew I should!”
“The past is only a number on clocks!”
cries Ms. King, “You can’t bring my husband back!
What’s done is done, now our judgment talks!”
“Enough!” shouts Michael, “We’ve won the attack.”
He pulls Frost off of William, as Frost shouts,
“I haven’t had enough man! Hold me back!”
So Mike stands between Frost and the mad rout,
and Frost, a moment later, breathes deeply.
Mike says, “Stand up, Will; we’re taking you out.”
“That poisonous cobra got off cheaply!”
exclaims Ms. King.
—“There’s more to come,” Mike states.
“The judicial fangs will sink more deeply.
But come on, Will, you’re going to Hell’s gates.”
Detective Frost and Mike tug Will to his feet,
as Ms. King phones the police’s heavyweights.
They wait calmly for the police fleet,
resting in the study, hardly speaking,
till Ms. King asks, “How’d you solve it so neat?”
“While outside, I saw the cigar smoke drifting,
and I thought that result would happen as well,
if something was here to do the drafting,
such as a small crack from a secret cell.
I didn’t think the killer had left the house,
but he’d hidden himself so very well
that it was like catching the squeak of a mouse.
I feel like William probably observed
Michael use this hidden room in the house,
and, though the butler, himself he served
more truly than members of this sad place.”
“Take these three clear diamonds, richly deserved,
as my thanks for solving this opaque case.
I believe that you redeemed your name as well:
stumbling out the blocks, but winning the race.
Although I’m shocked to hear the tale you tell.”
As to my reputation’s return, only time will tell.
Frost replies. “But I’m not surprised, my green clientele:
I’ve seen worse in the past, more malevolent and fell.
Greed’s a terrible driver, if released from its cell;
it’s a cold-blooded killer, if it’s not thwarted well.
Better a closet in heaven than a kingdom in Hell.”