John Henry Collier
1 Alan Austen, as nervous as a kitten, went up certain dark and creaky stairs in the neighborhood of Pell Street, and peered about for a long time on the dim hallway before he found the name he wanted written obscurely on one of the doors.
2 He pushed open this door, as he had been told to do, and found himself in a tiny room, which contained no furniture but a plain kitchen table, a rocking-chair, and an ordinary chair. On one of the dirty buff-coloured walls were a couple of shelves, containing in all perhaps a dozen bottles and jars.
3 An old man sat in the rocking-chair, reading a newspaper. Alan, without a word, handed him the card he had been given. “Sit down, Mr. Austen,” said the old man very politely. “I am glad to make your acquaintance.”
4 “Is it true,” asked Alan, “that you have a certain mixture that has … er … quite extraordinary effects?”
5 “My dear sir,” replied the old man, “my stock in trade is not very large — I don’t deal in laxatives and teething mixtures — but such as it is, it is varied. I think nothing I sell has effects which could be precisely described as ordinary.”
6 “Well, the fact is …” began Alan.
7 “Here, for example,” interrupted the old man, reaching for a bottle from the shelf. “Here is a liquid as colourless as water, almost tasteless, quite imperceptible in coffee, wine, or any other beverage. It is also quite imperceptible to any known method of autopsy.”
8 “Do you mean it is a poison?” cried Alan, very much horrified.
9 “Call it a glove-cleaner if you like,” said the old man indifferently. “Maybe it will clean gloves. I have never tried. One might call it a life-cleaner. Lives need cleaning sometimes.”
10 “I want nothing of that sort,” said Alan.
11 “Probably it is just as well,” said the old man. “Do you know the price of this? For one teaspoonful, which is sufficient, I ask five thousand dollars. Never less. Not a penny less.”
12 “I hope all your mixtures are not as expensive,” said Alan apprehensively.
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