The Curse of the Wendigo
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For some reason the wound beneath the bandage began to itch terribly. It took everything in me not to dig into it with my nails.
“It’s not altogether a lie,” said Lilly. “For here I am—keeping you company! You’re not angry at me, are you? I didn’t mean for it to happen, you know. I’m not wicked. I honestly didn’t know until Adolphus told me they couldn’t be sexed. He killed it, you know. Not Adolphus—your doctor. Adolphus got it off you and Dr. Warthrop tore it to pieces with his bare hands—as if he were angry at it, as if it had attacked him. I don’t think that’s right, do you? I mean, it wasn’t the Death Worm’s fault. It was just being what it was.”
“What?” I asked. As usual with Lilly Bates, I was having some trouble keeping up.
“A Death Worm! All he had to do was put it back into its crate, but instead he killed it. It’s not like Dr. Chanler. They have to kill him, because if they don’t, he’ll just keep feeding. Uncle says there’s no prison on earth that can hold a Wendigo.”
“He’s not a Wendigo,” I countered, ever Warthrop’s loyal servant. “Wendigos aren’t real.”
“Tell that to Muriel Chanler.”
My cheeks burned. I had a sudden, nearly overwhelming urge to strike her.
“She never stopped loving him,” she went on. “That’s something you don’t understand, Will, because you are a boy. Dr. Chanler knew it and he couldn’t stand it, and so he went off to Canada, and I don’t think he ever really believed he was coming back. His heart was broken. The woman he loved had never stopped loving his best friend. Can you imagine anything more tragic than that? And then his best friend rescues him and brings him back to her, only now he’s not even human anymore—”
“Stop it!” I cried. “Please stop it!”
I pushed away from the table and stumbled toward the door. She followed, saying, “What’s the matter, Will? Where are you going?”
“Leave me alone!”
“Some apprentice monstrumologist you are!” she called after me. “What did you suppose it was all about when he accepted you, William James Henry? What did you suppose it was all about?”
I remained in the room beside the doctor’s, restlessly turning this way and that upon the bed, until the clock struck ten and the monstrumologists began to arrive. I heard their voices below, low-pitched and somber like mourners in a death house, and that made me angry, for them to behave as if the doctor were already lost. My distress motivated me to abandon my desperate need for rest. I peeked into his room on the way downstairs and found him fast asleep. I decided not to wake him. I would risk another encounter with Lilly and join their strategy session, if for no other reason than to represent the doctor. He would want to know what was being plotted in his absence.
I found them in the library—von Helrung, the diminutive Frenchman Damien Gravois, Dr. Pelt, and two other monstrumologists whom I had not met, whose names I came to learn were Torrance and Dobrogeanu. The library had been converted to their budding operation’s command center. A large map of the island had been plastered to one wall. Bright red pins dotted its surface, marking the places where Chanler’s victims had fallen; I counted eight in all, three more than I knew of. The beast had been busier than I’d realized. It will not stop hunting, von Helrung had said. It will kill and feed until someone kills it.
Beside the map were newspaper clippings with blaring headlines: MADMAN STALKS CITY. MASSIVE MANHUNT UNDERWAY FOR AMERICAN “RIPPER.” And this poignant one, from an early edition: POLICE DENY RUMORS OF MISSING WOMAN/WHERE IS MRS. JOHN CHANLER?
“Where is Warthrop?” asked Dr. Pelt. “We shouldn’t decide anything without him.”
“He rests from his ordeal at the hands of our esteemed Inspector Byrnes,” answered von Helrung. “May God in his mercy grant Pellinore succor from his woes—and may God in his divine justice send a plague upon the Metropolitan Police!”
“We can always apprise him of our plans later,” said Gravois. “Or Monsieur Henry, who lurks in the shadows over there by the door. Come, come. Veuillez entrer, Monsieur Henry. You may serve as scribe for our proceedings!”
Von Helrung thought it an excellent idea. He seated me at the table and procured some paper and a pen for me to record, in his words, the minutes of the first official inquiry into the species Lepto lurconis in the history of monstrumology.
“It is a seminal moment, mein Freund, Will. We are like the first explorers stepping onto the shores of a new continent. This shall ever be remembered as the hour when our science met the grandest mystery of all—the intersection of ignorance and knowledge, light and dark. Ah, if only Pellinore were well enough to be here!”
“If he were, I think he’d pop you in the nose for what you just said,” opined Pelt dryly.
“He can deny it for only so long,” huffed von Helrung with a wave of his pudgy hand. “For seven thousand years the wise believed the earth was flat, and men were murdered for claiming otherwise. Change is always resisted, even by—or especially by!—men of Pellinore’s caliber. It is the way of things.”
He clapped his hands and said, “So we begin, ja? Herr Doctor Pelt has read my paper, so he knows already much of what I am about to tell you. He will forgive me, I pray, for plowing familiar ground, but it must be broken, else no seed may germinate that will yield the fruit of success in this, our most grave undertaking.
“John Chanler is dead. What has arisen in his place—what animates his lifeless form—is a spirit older than the oldest bedrock. It has many names in many cultures. Wendigo or Outiko are just two of them; there are more—hundreds more. For the sake of clarity I shall refer to it simply as the beast, for that word describes its nature best. There is no humanity in the thing that was John Chanler.”
The monstrumologist Dobrogeanu raised his hand and said, “I would dispute that claim, Herr Doctor. While his actions have been abhorrent, there is a method to them, a diabolical method—to be sure, but certainly some humanity remains, if we include the darker angels of our nature. No beast plays pranks or acts out motives of jealousy and revenge. If so, then we all are beasts.”
“Some vestiges of his personality linger,” acknowledged von Helrung. “That is undeniable. But these we may think of as distant echoes of his evolutionary past. It is no more human than a display in Madame Tussauds museum. It is the hunger that drives it. The rest is like ripples upon the water or the aftershocks of an earthquake. You will note I do not refer to it as ‘John.’ I purposely do not, and I suggest you do not, for if we wish to destroy it, we must first destroy any impressions we have of its humanity. I could not exterminate the man—nor could any of us, I think—but I can—and I will, if God allows—destroy it. I will repeat, gentlemen: John Chanler is dead. It is the beast that remains.”
“I think we’re all agreed upon that goal, Dr. von Helrung,” said Torrance. He was the youngest of von Helrung’s recruits, possessing a powerful physique and a commanding baritone. “I am not altogether convinced that we are dealing with a creature of supernatural origin, but I concur that where the police have failed to capture him, it is our duty as Chanler’s friends and colleagues to bring the matter to a satisfactory conclusion.”
“I pray the police do not try to apprehend him, Dr. Torrance,” replied von Helrung. “For success in that regard would ultimately be a tragic failure. They do not understand that which they hunt. It cannot be captured, and it cannot be killed. Although I have told them how to destroy it, they do not listen.”
“Well, I’m listening,” said Pelt. “How do we destroy it?”
“Silver—by bullet or knife—to the heart. Only the heart! Then it must be cut from its chest and burned. The head we must remove and inter in running water. Though it is not absolutely required, the rest should be dismembered and scattered, a portion entrusted to each one of us, and none may tell the others where he has buried that portion.”
Pelt squinted at him dubiously. “You understand this is quite a mouthful to swallow, Dr. von Helrung.”
“Will Henry was there,” von Helrung replied. “He saw the Yellow Eye. Did you not, Will?”
All eyes turned to me. I squirmed uncomfortably in my chair.
“What did you see?” demanded Gravois.
It was the same question Byrnes had asked. I had an answer, but it was no answer, really. I cleared my throat.
Torrance snorted. “Well, I might still go along with it—sort of like hedging a bet—though we could be prosecuted for desecrating a corpse.”
“Desecration!” cried Gravois. “Gentlemen, we are conspiring tonight to commit murder.”
“No, no!” von Helrung insisted heatedly. “No, not murder, Damien. It is an act of mercy.”
“Only if you’re right, Abram,” said Dobrogeanu. He was von Helrung’s age, but, like the stocky Austrian, in excellent physical condition for a man of advanced years. “If you’re not, may God grant us more mercy than we show John!”
“Assuming we are even given an opportunity,” put in Torrance. “Murder or mercy killing—it’s an interesting philosophical argument but wholly academic if we can’t find him—Sorry, it.”
“Yes,” agreed Dr. Pelt. He nodded to the clippings on the wall. “The entire city has been alerted—I won’t say ‘panicked.’ Every able-bodied man on the force is searching every back alleyway and beating down every door. Four million pairs of eyes are looking for it. Where do you suggest we direct ours?”
“Forgive me, dear Dr. Pelt, but you forget who you are,” returned von Helrung. “We shall succeed where others fail because we are monstrumologists. We have devoted our lives to the study and eradication of aberrant species such as Lepto lurconis. Where do we look? Where do we begin? We begin with what it is to discern where it might be. So the question is not where is it, but what is it. And what is it?”
He paused, and then answered his own question. “It is a predator. More ruthless than any in our catalogue, and far more cunning. It is wounded in a way, in that it perpetually lingers on the edge of starvation, which forces it to keep moving in search of its prey. Thus the hunger that drives it is also its greatest weakness. The hunger governs everything it does. And like any other predator, it will go where its victims are most plentiful and most vulnerable. It will choose to attack those the herd is willing to sacrifice. The weak. The unprotected. The easily discarded.”
He pointed out the locations of the pins on the map.
“Disregard for the moment the hospital and the Chanler residence, which are merely aberrations of the more general pattern. Where do we have verified victims of our quarry?”
His colleagues crowded around the map.
“Five Points,” said Dobrogeanu, squinting through his pince-nez.
“Hell’s Kitchen,” read Torrance. “Blindman’s Alley. Bandit’s Roost.”