The Curse of the Wendigo
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“The slums,” Dr. Pelt said. “The tenement neighborhoods.”
Von Helrung was nodding. “I fear so. Thousands upon thousands crammed twelve to a room, the poorest of the poor, most of them recent immigrants who do not speak the language and who are distrustful of the police. And who, in turn, are despised even as they are exploited by the so-called genteel class. What does it matter if one or a hundred go missing or are found mutilated beyond recognition? There are so many, and so many thousands more arrive every day from every corner of the civilized world.”
He had a sickened look on his florid face. “It is the perfect hunting ground.”
“And quite large,” said Dobrogeanu. “Even for five monstrumologists—six, counting Pellinore—two of which are well past their prime, if you’ll forgive me for saying so, Abram. If this indeed is its chosen hunting ground, how do you propose we box in our prey?”
“We can’t. But we can enlist the aid of someone who knows those grounds better than anyone else on this island. I have taken the liberty of inviting him to join us in our expedition—”
He was interrupted by the ringing of the front bell. Von Helrung glanced at his pocket watch. “Ah, and speak of the devil—right on time! Will, be a dear and escort Mr. Jacob Riis into our assemblage.”
“His Only Hope”
Jacob Riis was a short man on the cusp of middle age, and a study in geometry. Everything about his physique, from his small feet to his large head, suggested the rectangle, offset only by his round spectacles, through which he now glared at me.
“I am seeking a Dr. Abram von Helrung,” he growled in a thick Scandinavian accent.
“Yes, sir, Mr. Riis. He’s expecting you. Right this way, sir.”
“Ah, Riis! Good, good, now you are here. Thank you!” Von Helrung pumped his guest’s hand vigorously and quickly introduced the Dane to the rest of the hunting party. They knew Riis, of course, if only by reputation. For ten years Riis had been unrelenting in his demands for social reform, his calls heard but largely ignored until 1890, with the publication of his book, How the Other Half Lives, a scathing indictment in words and pictures of the evils of tenement life. The book exposed the open dirty secret of New York’s slums in the midst of Gilded Age excess and rocked the city to its self-satisfied core. Like those whose wretched lives he’d immortalized in his work, Riis was an immigrant, a journalist by trade, who maintained an office for the New-York Tribune directly across the street from police headquarters on Mulberry Street, where I had just recently enjoyed—and still suffered from—Chief Inspector Byrnes’s particular brand of hospitality.
Riis was immediately drawn to the clippings hanging on the wall.
“Blackwood!” he muttered, reading the byline. “Algernon Henry Blackwood. And now my editors are asking me to cover it. Do you know what I tell them? ‘Ask Blackwood! Blackwood knows everything!’ That’s what I tell them.”
Von Helrung smiled easily, placed a convivial hand upon his guest’s arm, and turned to the others. “I have given Mr. Riis full confidence in our little trouble. He knows all that you know and can be trusted completely.”
Riis grunted. “Well, I can’t say I put much stock in this monstrumology business. Seems to me like an excuse for grown men to act like boys hunting frogs in the forest, but this latest business concerns me very much.” He nodded at the map. “Von Helrung’s theory makes good sense, regardless of what may be behind it, man or monster. I will do all that I can, but I am unclear as to what that might be. What do you wish me to do?”
“We need a man who knows the territory,” explained von Helrung. “Better than anyone else, better even than the thing we hunt. You have been there. For years you have wandered every side street and alleyway; we have not. You’ve been in their homes, their churches and synagogues, their speakeasies and penny beer dives and opium dens. They will not speak to us—or to the police—but they will speak to you. They trust you. And it is that very trust that will save them from the beast.”
Riis stared at him for a moment. Then he looked at the other monstrumologists, who were nodding gravely. For a moment I actually thought he might burst out laughing. But he did not. He turned back to von Helrung and said, “When do we start?”
“We must wait for tomorrow. Though my heart breaks for those who will surely perish this night, it would be foolhardy to hunt it now. We must attack in the daylight hours, for the night belongs to the beast.”
I returned upstairs after the hunting party—or cabal, depending upon one’s perspective—had left for the night. I crept past the doctor’s room, lest I wake him and be forced to answer questions I’d rather not until absolutely necessary. The hour was late and I was more tired than I ever remembered being, even during that interminable march in the wilderness. My prayer for a peaceful night with only a downy pillow and feather mattress for companionship was to be denied, however. He called to me the moment I passed his door.
“Did you call, sir?” I asked, hovering, quite purposefully, with one foot remaining in the hall.
“I thought I heard voices downstairs.”
I cocked my head, pretending to listen. “I don’t hear anything, sir.”
“Not now, Will Henry. Earlier. Why do you insist on treating me this way? I’m not entirely imbecilic, you know.”
“No, sir. I was confused, sir. I’m sorry.”
“Oh, stop it. Come in here and close that door. . . . Now tell me what von Helrung’s been up to while I’ve been trapped in this room—the walls of which, by the way, close in by the minute.”
I told him everything. He listened without comment or question, until I concluded with von Helrung’s closing remarks: We pray for the dead, but our duty is to the living. We are no match for it—no mortal man is—but with courage and fortitude, life may conquer death, and all this loss, this unbearable sorrow, will not have been in vain. We cannot bring peace to John. He is past all peace; he is beyond all redemption. Remember that when the test comes! It knows nothing but the hunger. But we know more. Nothing but the hunger drives it. But more than that drives us. We are more than what is reflected in the Yellow Eye. Remember that always! In the hours to come we may fall into temptation. We may come ourselves to envy the dead, for they are past all suffering, while our suffering, like Judas’s in the pit, goes on and on. And if it should take you, if it should call your name upon the high wind, do not despair. Do not give in to fear as John did. His fate reflects the wages of fear! Have pity upon it as you rip out its heart. It is nothing less than the wreckage of God’s temple, forlorn and abandoned, the final, fleeting echo of Adam’s sin.
Wearily the monstrumologist said, “Well, there you have it. He is nothing but marvelously consistent in his madness. ‘The wreckage of God’s temple!’ I’m not surprised about Gravois—he’s always been a little bootlicker. Von Helrung could tell him that the sun rose in the west and that little men lived like monkeys in the hairs of his nose, and Gravois would believe him, or say that he did. Dobrogeanu is no surprise either. He and von Helrung cut their monstrumological teeth together; they are quite close. Torrance is somewhat of a surprise. He always struck me as levelheaded, a fine scientist when he wasn’t chasing skirts, but he did study under von Helrung for a time. It could be he’s giving his old master the benefit of the doubt. But the presence of Pelt is a bit of a shock. It was Pelt, after all, who alerted me to von Helrung’s ridiculous proposal in the first place.”
He sighed. “We shall see, won’t we, Will Henry? God bless Henry Blackwood anyway! You must remind me to thank him when all this is finished. I still owe him the tale of our journey through the wilderness.”
“Are you going to join them in the hunt?” I asked.
“What choice do I have? I am his only hope now. If the police find him, I’m not so sure they’ll be interested in holding him over for trial. If von Helrung—Well, he’s made it clear what he intends to do, hasn’t he? The irony of the situation is not lost upon you, I hope.”
No, I assured him. It was not.
I walked slowly to my room, wondering what sort of man was this monstrumologist, who saw his mission as one to save a friend—not to bring to justice a brutal killer who had slaughtered (“desecrated” had been his word for it) the woman he loved. Ah, the human heart is darker than the darkest pit, with more winding paths and confusing turns than a Monstrumarium! The more I learned about him, the less I knew. The more I knew, the less I understood.
I started when I opened my bedroom door, for sitting on the bed was Lilly Bates, wearing a pink dressing gown, an open book lying on the bed next to her.
“I’m sorry.” I started to back out of the room.
“Where are you going?” she demanded.
“I am in the wrong room. . . .”
“Don’t be silly. This is your room. You should sleep with me tonight.” She patted the spot next to her. “Unless you’re afraid,” she teased.
“I’m not afraid,” I said with as much firmness as I could muster. “I’m just used to sleeping alone.”
“So am I, but you are my guest. At least you are my uncle’s guest, which makes you my guest, once removed. I promise I do not snore and I do not bite, and I only drool a little bit.” She smiled gaily at me and patted the covers again. “Don’t you want to be close to the doctor’s room, in case he needs you?”
That argument I had difficulty refuting, and for a moment I considered returning to him and asking if I could share his bed. But then I would have had to explain why, and the cost of that answer would have been very high. He might have never shut up and let me sleep. With a sigh I dragged myself over to the bed and sat upon the very edge.
“You’re not on,” she pointed out.
“I am on.”
“You’re barely on.”
“Barely on is still on.”
“How are you going to sleep like that? And you haven’t even put on your nightshirt.”
“I’m going to sleep in my clothes. In case of an emergency.”
“What kind of an emergency?”
“The kind of emergency where you can’t be wearing a nightshirt.”
“You could curl up on the rug there and sleep at my feet like a faithful dog.”
“But I’m not a dog.”
“But you’re very faithful like a dog.”
Inwardly I groaned. What god had I offended to deserve this?
“I think you will make a fine husband one day, William Henry,” she decided. “For a woman who likes husbands fearful but faithful. You’re not the kind at all I am going to marry. My husband will be brave and very strong and tall, and he will be musically inclined. He will write poetry, and he will be smarter than my uncle or even your doctor. He will be smarter than Mr. Thomas Alva Edison.”
“Too bad he already has a wife.”