The Curse of the Wendigo
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Warthrop snorted. His lip curled up into a derisive snarl. I spoke up to snuff out the fuse of his temper.
“It couldn’t have been Dr. Chanler, sir. Larose left him—that’s what Dr. Chanler said—left him with Jack Fiddler. He couldn’t have been the one who killed Larose.”
“John did say he was abandoned,” admitted my master. “But we do not know if Fiddler had him when Larose was murdered. He may have wandered into the Sucker encampment after the crime.”
He sighed and ran his gore-flecked fingers through his hair. “Well. We can speculate till dawn and still be no closer to the truth. Some answers only John can provide. Let us keep to our purpose, gentlemen!” He stepped over to the other body procured from the Bellevue morgue. “I’ll take that knife now, Gravois.” He pressed the button. The blade whipped from its compartment and glittered wickedly under the bright lights. “How long did von Helrung say that John had? Seven minutes? Damien, keep the time, please. Upon my mark.”
Warthrop plunged the blade into the middle of the dead man’s chest.
“The blow strikes true,” the monstrumologist said. “Puncturing the right ventricle. Thirty to sixty seconds for the victim to lose consciousness, and Skala collapses to the floor.” He pulled the blade free and thrust it in my direction. “Here! You must do the rest, Will Henry. We should approximate John’s weakened condition.”
“Me, sir?” I was appalled.
“Quickly; the clock is ticking!” He pressed the switchblade into my hand and forced me to the table.
“Six minutes,” Gravois announced.
“The eyes first,” Warthrop instructed. “Based on the amount of blood in the ocular cavities, Skala’s heart was most likely still beating when John removed them.”
“You want me to cut out his eyes?” I was having some difficulty grasping it. Surely the doctor didn’t expect me, of all people, to do such a thing.
The doctor misread my horror at the prospect as a question over procedure.
“Well, he didn’t gouge or pry them out with his bare hands. You saw the scoring as well as I did, Will Henry. He must have used the knife. Snap to now!”
“May I point out that a two-year-old could remove someone’s eyes?” asked Gravois. “Strength has very little to do with it, Warthrop.”
“Very well,” the doctor snapped. He grabbed the knife from my hand, pulled back the upper lid, and inserted the knife into the spot above the corpse’s right eye. He rotated the blade around, severing the optical nerve, and unceremoniously pulled the eye free with his bare fingers. He turned to me and I instinctively raised my cupped hands to catch the prize, which he dropped into them. I looked around desperately for somewhere to put it. The doctor stood between me and the table, and dropping it onto the floor seemed disrespectful, even sacrilegious. Warthrop leaned over the table and removed the left eye in the same manner. That one too he dropped into my hands. I willed myself not to look, lest I find those lifeless eyes looking back at me.
“Time!” called Warthrop.
“Five minutes, forty-five seconds,” answered Gravois.
The monstrumologist grimly proceeded to hack open the alabaster chest, widening the initial wound with quick, savage strokes, mimicking the viciousness of the attack. He flung the knife upon the table and turned back to me.
“Now, this part you must do, Will Henry.”
“Which part?” I squeaked.
“His hands are full,” Gravois pointed out.
Warthrop scooped up the eyes and absently dropped them into his coat pocket. He pushed me toward the table. “Reach inside and grab the heart.”
My stomach rolled. I burned and shivered as if with fever. I blinked back hot tears, and stared beseechingly at him.
“Quickly, Will Henry! These two ribs, here and here, were broken from the sternum. Can you do it?”
I nodded. I shook my head.
“This is monstrumology, Will Henry,” the doctor whispered fiercely. “This is what we do.”
I nodded a second time, took a deep breath, and, willing my eyes to remain open, plunged my hands into the chest. The cavity was surprisingly cold—colder than the surrounding air of the auditorium. The ribs were slippery with their covering of periosteum, but once I had a good grip, they broke off easily; it required no more effort than snapping a stick in two.
“Do you see the heart?”
“Good. Now, with both hands. It’s slippery. Pull it straight toward you. That’s it! Stop. Here, take the knife now. No, no. Keep your left hand beneath the heart to support it; John is right-handed. Now chop—carefully for God’s sake! Don’t bring the blade so high or you will slice open your wrist! Vary the angle . . . more. Deeper! What, are you afraid of hurting him?”
“Enough!” cried Warthrop. He pushed me back and snapped his fingers at me. “The knife! Stand back. If you’re going to be sick, kindly use the drain, Will Henry.”
The monstrumologist then proceeded to remove the face—an incision just below the hairline, then sliding the thin blade between the dermis and the underlying musculature. It was not easy work. There are many delicate muscles in our faces, the authors of a myriad different expressions—joy, sorrow, anger, love. Removing the facial mask while leaving what lay beneath unmolested required the fine touch of an accomplished student of anatomy—a monstrumologist, in other words.
“One minute!” cried Gravois. “The nurse is coming down the hall!”
Warthrop cursed softly. He had only cut down to the mandible. He twisted the loosed slick flesh of the face into his fist and ripped the rest free.
“Done!” he cried. “Now out the window and up—or down—the drainpipe! He doesn’t have to make it to the ally or the rooftop—as long as he is out of sight when she opens the door.”
He was gasping for breath, the skin of the anonymous corpse protruding from his clenched fist, congealed blood quivering on his stained knuckles like the morning dew upon rose petals.
“What about the face?” wondered Gravois. “And the eyes? They were not found in the room. What did he do with them?”
“He took them, obviously.”
“Took them? How? He was dressed in a hospital gown.”
“He dropped them outside and retrieved them once he had descended.”
“This scenario leaves very little room for error,” Gravois observed. “And you weren’t able to finish the job properly. John was.”
“He was always better with the knife than I,” countered Warthrop.
“But in a maddened, weakened state?”
Warthrop waved the objection away. He was completely satisfied with the demonstration.
“The wounds approximate Skala’s,” he insisted. “The scoring of the eye sockets, the triangular cuts of the heart resembling those made by fangs or teeth . . . all proving superhuman strength and speed aren’t required to inflict the damage suffered. Von Helrung is wrong.”
“There is one obvious objection to your little demonstration, Pellinore,” Gravois said. “The knife. How did a man in Chanler’s condition manage to wrest it from a man twice his size?”
“He merely had to wait for him to fall asleep.”
“But Skala was awake when the night nurse looked in at the end of her shift.”
“Then he took it earlier in the evening while he slept, before she checked on him!” barked Warthrop. “Or he lured Skala to his bedside under some pretense and picked his pocket. He knew where it was kept.”
Gravois looked dubious but did not press the issue. He simply said, “Perhaps so, but do you think this is enough to disprove von Helrung’s theory?”
The monstrumologist sighed and slowly shook his head. “Do you know why I think he clings to it with all his heart and soul, Gravois? For the same reason our race clings to the irrational belief in Wendigos and the vampires and all their supernatural cousins. It is very difficult to accept that the world is righteous, ruled by a just and loving God, when mere mortals are capable of such unthinkable crimes.” He nodded toward the desecrated corpse upon the gleaming stainless steel table. “The monstrous act by definition demands a monster.”
It was well past midnight when we returned to our rooms at the Plaza. The doctor seemed on the verge of collapse, and I urged him to rest. He resisted at first, and then saw the reasonableness of it, relenting only after he barricaded us inside. He pushed the divan against the bedroom door and, after contemplating the eight stories between us and the ground, pulled the large dresser over to block the window.
He laughed mirthlessly. “Madness . . . madness!” he muttered.
“Dr. Warthrop, may I ask a question, sir? In the wilderness you told me perhaps there might be some creature like the Wendigo. . . . Could it be that Dr. Chanler was attacked by one and . . . perhaps infected with something like I am? Something that gives him great strength and speed and—”
He surprised me by taking the suggestion seriously. “It has occurred to me, of course. Certainly some rather mundane organisms can cause madness and homicidal rage—jungle fever and other maladies that fall well outside the purview of monstrumology. But I reject von Helrung’s interpretation for a simple reason, Will Henry. It spits in the face of everything to which I have dedicated my life, the reason I turned my back upon . . .” He let the thought die unfinished. “We are doomed, Will Henry, if we do not set the past aside. Superstition is not science. And science will save us in the end. Though some might say it damned John—and not only John.” The words caught in his throat. He looked away and added softly, “My faith in it has cost much, but true faith always does.”
I waited for him to go on. There seemed to be something he was leaving unsaid. I can only guess what it was, but with great age comes perspective and, if we are lucky, a dollop of wisdom. The monstrumologist would not—could not—would never have admitted to the transformation of his friend into a supernatural beast. To do so would have been an acknowledgment that the woman he loved was doomed. He had to believe John Chanler was human, for if he wasn’t, the woman they both loved was already dead.
“I Should Have Known”
The venom of the khorkhoi, the doctor had warned me, was slow-acting. A victim might feel perfectly fine one day—and plunge into complete delirium the next. It may have been the Death Worm’s poison. It may have been that I had not slept more than four hours in total that night—or that those hours had been devoted to a twilight sleep adrift in a horizonless sea. Whatever the cause, I must confess my memory of the next few hours is vague—perhaps mercifully so.
I remember the bell ringing just before dawn and the doctor stumbling around in the dark. Snap to, Will Henry, snap to!
I remember Connolly standing in the lobby, and the dizzying sense of déjà vu at seeing him. Dr. Warthrop, you must come with me.