The Suitcase of Amontillado

That whirring sound you hear is Edgar Allan Poe spinning in his grave...

Photo by Quentin Hupin

Photo by Quentin Hupin

First and foremost, dear reader, be assured the fault for his end was not mine, but Fortunato’s. I am the most tolerant of nobles and thoroughly acquainted with the travails of modern travel; I well know the occasional loss of a bag to the random vagaries of moronic computerized airport luggage-tracking systems is only to be expected for one whose obsession requires him to travel widely, but Fortunato’s tracking system, Fortunato’s tracking system was the worst of them all, an obscene beast that couldn’t track a bald man through a crowd of beehive-hairdoed Sixties chanteuses, and I was forever forced into its vile clutches by the malign fact his airport was the only one in the Montresor family’s ancient seat.

Fortunato was its creator and chief programmer; nay, rather I should say it programmed him, for he was its eternally enraptured slave, perpetually at his terminal clacking away. The thousand incompetencies of his tracking system I bore as best I could as I traveled through his airport, but when he lost the wine, dear reader, the premier subject of my obsession, my eyes at last opened to his sadism, and I vowed dark revenge.

And what is my obsession, you ask? Why, the possession and consumption of the finer things in life, such things as my privileged station and the Montresor family name allow me to access: painting, sculpture, clothing, antiques, but my primary craving is cuisine—--ah, the meals I have had! Pheasant pale and trembling under glass in Paris, bratwurst seasoned by master chefs in Berlin, sushi fresh from the sea’s kiss in Tokyo, fettuccine warm under a light crust of bubbling Parmesan in Rome’s four-star restaurants, all these things require a connoisseur, an aristocrat of superior breeding such as I, to appreciate them, to consume them and relish their finer points the less well-bred unfortunates of this world cannot perceive.

And accompanying them all, the thing dearest to my heart, the object of my preoccupation night and day, wine. Wine, that rises above all other foods and radiates its glory on them like the Sun shines on the Earth. Wine, the drink of the gods themselves, whose very names ring with breeding and hauteur, Beaujolais and Zinfandel and Cabernet, a subject worthy of a lifetime of study and devotion even from one as noble as I. Wine, that purified essence of the grape, that divine nectar, that more than all the others demands a connoisseur’s best effort, the finest of all the fine things of this world.

So now you will understand, dear reader, how in the end the fault was entirely Fortunato’s, and not mine.

In the beginning, how I tried and tried, and continued trying for years! I covered with labels. I tagged. I spray-painted. I etched, working and sweating like the lowest commoner, crawling over every square inch scratching with a diamond-tipped stylus until my fingers were scraped raw and I spat blue plastic strings, all to no avail. After every effort, after months spent acquiring and shepherding my priceless purchases through half the world’s airports, I would stand at the luggage return and tensely wait on Fortunato’s beast, biting my lip bloody until the belt rattled into motion and carried my luggage into view, then in high anxiety take inventory, hoping against hope that this time I had found a method not even such a fool as Fortunato could bungle.

But nothing worked, nothing succeeded, always some article was missing, and no amount of typing in desperate search queries at the luggage return’s computer terminal ever resulted in the finding of a single item, but only in being crushed by the sight of the Blue Screen of Death bearing its single devastating error message. This continued for trip after trip, over and over and over, until finally returning to Fortunato’s airport was the sheerest Chinese water torture.

Drip—--a cosmetics case filled with delicate French perfumes from the best perfumeries on the Champs des Elysses, disappeared without a trace—--drip—---a suit bag containing elegantly tailored silk suits from London’s Saville Row, vanished like smoke—--drip—--a crate holding exquisite Chinese jade dragon statuary from Hong Kong, dissolved into airport aether—--drip—--an overnight case filled with fiery Thai pepper sauces from Bangkok’s best restaurants, gone, all gone, damned to endless wandering in the slimy clutches of Fortunato's luggage Sargasso.

And after every disaster, time and time again, I ran to Fortunato’s office and politely importuned; and time and time again, he would sigh at another bug, launch a search through his code, and I would learn a miscreant comma had seized my missing parcel and hurled it to the far ends of the globe.

Maybe China, Fortunato would mutter as he crawled through his insane hieroglyphics, maybe Estonia, maybe Labrador, maybe Mozambique.

Then, as I stood before him helpless and forlorn, Fortunato would lean back in his chair, put his hands behind his head, and blandly reassure me the next upgrade would see the problem fixed.

At least it was not the wine, I would repeat brokenly to myself as I staggered away from his office, at least it was not the wine, never the precious wine. Eerily, in all my years of travel my wine shipments had always come through untouched, as though underneath the personal protection of the great and potent god Bacchus himself.

But evil is ever tempted to its own destruction, and thus it was with Fortunato. His undoing was the accidental finding of a case of Lafitte-Rothschild ’53, one of the Holy Grails of wine. While grubbing through a dark, spider-webbed dungeon in search of rare mushrooms, I stumbled over a case hidden in shadow and heard the clinking of bottles. I looked down annoyed and saw a box of decaying wood. My foot had removed a rotten section, and to my sudden vast surprise I saw the famous Lafitte-Rothschild label peeking out from the hole. Scarcely daring to believe my luck, I examined my find and ascertained the entire case was the ’53 vintage! A case! An entire case! This was a connoisseur’s dream!

I relieved the owner of it for a trifle by telling him I was a collector of rare bottle labels. To make completely certain my prize would survive the trip back, it was the only piece of luggage I checked. I flew back home in a state of fevered anticipation, imagining the orgies of culinary ecstasy I would experience sparked by this exquisite wine.

Upon my arrival at Fortunato's airport, as was my usual custom, I disdained mixing with the locust-cloud of commoners as they jostled and shoved at the luggage return and stood back. When the last of them had departed, I stepped triumphantly forward to reclaim my richly deserved prize.

The shining steel belt stood empty.

I felt an iron spike drive into my heart. I flung myself at the computer terminal in high anxiety and entered an urgent query. The screen flashed azure and I was driven back in horror at the sight of the demonic error message that haunted my nightmares and turned my journeys into a living Hell, the dread GPF.

“General Package Fault 404,” the glowing blue screen said, “Luggage Not Found.”

The loss hit me like a lightning bolt. I knew with terrible clarity the wine would never be seen again. Instantly I went berserk and threw myself at the wall behind which Fortunato's beast crouched and with my bare hands beat on it howling and screaming, no, no, not the ’53! I imagined a faint sound of machine munching coming from the other side accompanied by maniacal laughter. Gibbering, I slid down the wall into unconsciousness, and collapsed into an insensate heap upon the cold polished floor.

I opened my eyes again with a firestorm of suspicion raging in my skull. I had thought Fortunato a mere incompetent, but this, this stretched the bounds of probability, and I sensed an incredibly evil mind behind it all, taking fiendish pleasure in playing me like a fisherman plays a hooked fish. An inferno burned in my disordered brain, the sudden conjecture the man I was dealing with was no mere petty bureaucrat, no simple low-born commoner, but a deranged, jealous genius capable of monstrously cruel torture, who was in fact devising all these trials just to hold a man of higher breeding than he completely in his power.

His malignant desire was to see me, one of Nature’s aristocrats, a being superior to him in every way, squirm and sweat and lose my cultured composure, a sight which I had never granted him through all my tribulations. To Fortunato, I had always been the superior nobleman, always sweetness and light, never giving the least hint of the cauldron that boiled beneath my urbane sophisticate exterior. I rose from the floor and determined to make one final test to settle the matter beyond doubt.

I made preparations and flew to Italy. Upon my return, I packed a nondescript suitcase with four bottles of hundred-year-old Amontillado, reasoning that another such rarity would surely tease his evil, if my hunch was true, into striking again.

And, oh, dear reader! It happened! The suitcase did not turn up, and I knew, finally I knew, that now I could take rightful revenge! I hurried at once at Fortunato’s office and found him alone, for it was only an hour from closing time and all of his toadies had left. He was sitting in front of his terminal, contemplating lines of code and swilling from a can of cheap peasant cola.

“Ah, Fortunato, my esteemed acquaintance,” I said, “it seems we have once again a trifling matter of missing luggage to discuss.”

"Montresor, my good man," Fortunato said, "you bring me news of another bug?"

“I have a small extra favor to ask this time, Fortunato, my friend,” I said. “I wish to venture into the abyss and seek my missing articles myself.”

“Yourself? Such things are not allowed,” he said.

“Just this once,” I begged. “The suitcase contained four bottles of an extremely rare vintage wine from Italy, called Amontillado."

"It is regrettable," Fortunato said, "but it is against airport regulations."

"Perhaps if I went accompanied?” I said, "perhaps if I went with Luchesi?", mentioning the name of an underling known to have designs on Fortunato's job.

Hearing the name, Fortunato became wary, for his airport was a ruthless, savage place, filled with sly intrigues and vicious backstabbings.

"Luchesi?” he said. "A fine worker, an excellent worker, but there is no fire, no flash, in his code. At heart he is a flunky, nothing more.” He heaved himself from his chair. "Perhaps we shall ignore the rules just this once, for a customer of your long standing. I myself shall accompany you."

"Are you certain, friend Fortunato?” I said. "After all, you are a little advanced in years, and perhaps a man like Luchesi who has the advantage of, shall we say, a bit more youth---"

"No, no," Fortunato said hastily. "I shall brook no argument. Let us begin our expedition."

We left his office and descended into the bowels of the airport, I bowing Fortunato through each doorway until we arrived at a single massive door bound with a heavy chain and secured with a large, rusty lock. Fortunato produced a key and, with the air of a man about to show me wonders, unlocked the lock, pulled the chain off with an ominous rattle and opened the door with a mighty heave.

A vision of mechanical Gehenna spread out before our eyes. The lair of Fortunato’s beast was a vast, poorly lighted cavern deep beneath the surface. Giant rows of luggage stacked to great heights sprawled into the distance as far as the eye could see, the spoor of Fortunato's beast, which after years of operation had resulted in the creation of a labyrinthine maze composed entirely of luggage, dotted here and there with imposing mounds rising in the dim light like Mayan pyramids from tropical jungle. Above us, the growling of Fortunato’s beast shook the air, the sound of chains clanking and infernal engines rumbling as it ferried packages to and fro through a mind-twisting conglomeration of conveyor belts to confound Escher himself. The air in the cavern was dank, heavy, carrying an overtone of psychic misery, the almost-heard cries of generations of airline passengers newly bereaved of their luggage.

The effluvium of stale plastic and rotting leather poured through the open door and engulfed us. Fortunato put his hand to his mouth to cover a cough. I halted.

“Perhaps we should return to your office,” I said. “My conscience troubles me with the thought that I may be exacerbating the aging process in one who can ill afford it. Perhaps a younger man like Luchesi---"

"Bah!” Fortunato exclaimed. He dismissed Luchesi with a wave of his hand. "Luchesi is a peon! Let us hear no more talk of Luchesi! Lead on, dear Montresor!"

"Very well, Fortunato, my friend, it shall be as you desire," I said. Producing a small flashlight, I boldly marched down into the maze of luggage.

Fortunato reluctantly followed me into the catacombs, casting doubtful glances at the unsteady walls around us. We proceeded apace into the belly of Fortunato’s beast, I striding with confidence through the maze with Fortunato close behind.

Imminent death stalked us at every twist and turn. Often Fortunato’s beast would belch far above us, and a package would come cleaving down from the darkness to smash into the stacks, setting them to swaying limply back and forth like seaweed in a current, all the while issuing horribly sepulchral moans, each sway just a hair’s-breadth away from disintegrating into a roaring landslide that would entomb us forever in carryalls and overnight bags. At each crash, Fortunato would blanch and look up wide-eyed with his mouth open, until he was spending all his time gaping skyward like a tremulous baby bird.

At length we proceeded down one passage that terminated at the base of one of the massive mounds. A small cove had been carved into the mound's base, of depth three feet, of width four, and of height, about six or seven. The material removed lay scattered on the cove's right. I stopped. Fortunato, in his preoccupation with the peril above, did not see me stop and proceeded past me into the cove, where his progress was brought to an abrupt end by his colliding with a wall of luggage. Bewildered, he turned around and raised his hands in baffled consternation. I shone my light up at the cove’s arched ceiling.

“I believe I see it!” I cried. “Look! Up there! Can you reach it, Fortunato?”

Fortunato reached, and in a twinkling I had his arms and legs attached to the shackles I had constructed previously. To each piece of luggage in the alcove I had connected a small line, then wound them all together into four ropes and attached a shackle to their respective ends, one for each limb. Fortunato struggled like a fly caught in a web for a moment, then ceased his futile efforts and fixed me with a surprised glance.

"A fine jest, Montresor," he said uneasily. "A fine jest indeed."

"Yes, my good friend," I said as I pocketed the flashlight, "my thought exactly.”

I bent to the detritus lying to the cove's right and, throwing aside a number of small items, revealed a large suitcase.

"That contains the Amontillado!” Fortunato cried.

"Perhaps it does," I said, and opened the suitcase. "Alas, no, dear Fortunato, it contains only a trowel and a large bucket of glue."

Fortunato stood, momentarily shocked into speechlessness as I began laying down the first layer of suitcases. I selected a fine sturdy brand that sealed air-tight with the application of the glue. The work went quickly. I had reached the third layer, the height of his chest, before he spoke.

"We shall laugh about this when we are back in my office, won't we?” he said, a quaver in his voice. "Perhaps over a glass of one of your fine wines, shall we not?"

"Over a glass of fine wine?” I said. "Of course we shall."

I continued to the fifth layer. Only the arch at the top of the cove remained. Sealing it required precise work, which only a connoisseur of the finest such as I was capable of doing. I scrabbled once more in the detritus, extracted a rubber hammer, and examined the arch with an artist’s care. Saks Fifth Avenue cosmetics cases, I decided, then Gucci ladies' hand bags to fill the gaps. In the space of minutes I was coating the hand bags with glue and tapping them into place with the rubber hammer. They sealed the spaces as solidly as a cork in a bottle.

I came down to the last gap. It was smallish and irregular in shape and therefore difficult to fit properly. I examined and rejected a number of hand bags before finding the perfect last piece, a clutch purse made of the finest Corinthian leather. I slid the purse into the gap to check the fit before applying the glue. The butter-soft leather molded to the hole without the slightest opening. I withdrew the purse and layered on glue.

Fortunato chose this moment to emit a loud scream.

I leaned back against the wall I had constructed and merrily joined in. Together Fortunato and I screamed and listened to the echoes bounce around the boundless cavern and vanish, absorbed by the immense mounds of discarded luggage. I became so lost in lusty screaming I failed to notice when Fortunato fell silent. I quieted to give him a chance, but no screams were forthcoming.

Curious, I drew my flashlight and sent the beam probing through the gap into the alcove’s interior. The beam found Fortunato hanging dejected from his shackles with his head down. At the touch of the light, he raised his head and stared back at me, white-faced with panic.

"For the love of God, Montresor!"

"Yes," I said, "for the love of God."

I hammered the purse into the gap and left, and no man has been down there for years now.

In Samsonite requiescat!

END

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