The Curse of the Wendigo
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He ignored my entreaty. His eyes had taken on that familiar backlit glow. He seemed both with us and very far away.
He pulled me aside as the men loaded their weapons with silver bullets and strapped the silver blades to their belts.
“Understand, Will Henry—my chief concern is protecting John from these madmen. I cannot be all places at once. I’ve spoken with Pelt, who has agreed to keep the overeager Torrance on a tight leash. I must rely on you to be my eyes with Gravois and Dobrogeanu. Gravois I have little concern about—the man hasn’t fired a weapon in his life and couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn if he did. And Dobrogeanu can’t see four inches past his own nose. But he is fierce, even if he is old. Do you still have the knife?”
I nodded. “Yes, sir.”
“It is nonsense, you know that.”
“John Chanler is a very sick man, Will Henry. I do not pretend to understand everything about his illness, but he himself would not argue that you have every right to defend yourself.”
I told him I understood. The monstrumologist was giving me permission to kill his best friend.
They were not so different in the end, the place where he was lost and the place where he was found. They differed only in their topography.
The wilderness and the slum were but two faces of the same desolation. The gray land of soul-crushing nothingness in the slum was as bereft of hope as the burned-out snow-packed brûlé of the forest. The denizens of the slums were stalked by the same hunger, preyed upon by predators no less savage than their woodland counterparts. The immigrants lived in squalid tenements, crowded into rooms not much larger than a closet, and their lives were mean and short. Only two of five children born into the ghetto could expect to see their eighteenth year. The rest succumbed to the ravenous hunger of typhoid and cholera, the insatiable appetites of malaria and diphtheria.
It was little wonder that the beast had chosen this for its hunting ground. Here was prey numbering in the hundreds of thousands, packed into a radius measured in blocks, not miles, prey more anonymous and powerless than the most isolated of Iyiniwok villagers, but just as familiar with the call that rode on the high wind, beckoning them in the universal language of desire.
By coming here, the beast had come home.
By lot my group had drawn the Bohemian ghetto, where a young girl named Anezka Nováková had vanished the day before, her disappearance not reported to the police but to the local priest, who in turn had told Riis.
Anezka, we learned, was not the sort of girl who would simply take off. She was extremely shy, and small for her age, a dutiful elder daughter who helped her parents roll cigars for $1.20 a day (to feed, clothe, and house a family of six). She was shut up in their tiny two-room flat for eighteen grueling hours each day, just one of the thousands of indentured slaves of the tobacco lords. Her family had discovered her missing that morning. Sometime in the night, while the family had slept, Anezka Nováková had vanished.
Dobrogeanu, who spoke passable Czech, obtained the address from the priest, who seemed to have some trouble understanding our interest in the case, but the name of Riis held great currency in his parish. The reformer’s involvement granted legitimacy to our cause, though the cleric retained his native distrust of outsiders.
“You are not detectives?” he asked Gravois. He seemed particularly suspicious of a Frenchman poking his Gallic snout into the neighborhood.
“We are scientists,” Gravois answered smoothly.
“Like detectives, Father, only better dressed.”
Anezka’s flat was within walking distance of the church, though the walk was more like a hike in the premature twilight of billowing snow. On every corner the fires of the ash barrels burned like beacons marking our descent into the teaming tenement, the smoke from which thickened the curtain of snow and obscured the landscape. We moved in a world of few contrasts, a purgatory of gray.
Midway down the block, Dobrogeanu slipped into a narrow space (it could hardly be called an alley) between two decrepit buildings, a passage so narrow we were forced to turn sideways and shuffle along, our backs to one wall, our noses only an inch or so from the other. We emerged into an open space no larger than von Helrung’s parlor.
We had arrived in the warren of the rear-houses—so called because of their location off the main thoroughfare. There were perhaps thirty to forty hastily constructed tenement buildings crammed three or four to a single lot, separated by winding passages as narrow as jungle footpaths, amid a labyrinth of weathered fences and clotheslines strung from posts and rickety stair rails, the lifeless ground packed as hard as concrete by the tread of a thousand ill-shod feet. I heard the bleating of goats and smelled the reek of the outdoor privies that sat astride shallow trenches brimming with human waste.
“Which one is it?” wondered Gravois nervously. His hand had vanished into his overcoat pocket, where he carried the gun loaded with silver bullets.
Dobrogeanu scowled. “I can’t see three feet in this hellish soup.”
A group of four ragamuffins materialized out of that soup—the oldest no more than ten—dressed alike in the filthiest of hand-me-downs, their baggy trousers held up with belts fashioned from rags. They crowded around the two monstrumologists, tugging on their coats and extending their palms, piping in a cacophonous chorus, “Dolar? Dolar, pane? Dolar, dolar?”
“Yes, yes,” Gravois said testily. “Ano, ano.”
He distributed the begged-for coins into the clawing hands, and then withdrew a five-dollar note from his purse, holding it before their startled faces. Suddenly they were as quiet as church mice.
“Znáš Nováková?” asked Dobrogeanu. “Kde ije Naváková?”
At the mention of the name the little group grew very grave, their avariciousness replaced by trepidation. They quickly crossed themselves, and two made a sign to ward off the evil eye, muttering, “Upír. Upír!”
“Kdo je statený?” Dobrogeanu asked in a stern voice. “Kdo m vezme dom?”
While three of the boys shuffled their feet and cast their eyes upon the ground, a lad—by no means the oldest or the largest of the lot—stepped forward. His face was drawn, the cheekbones large, the eyes dominant. He tried his best to speak bravely, but the tremor in his voice betrayed him.
“Nebojím se,” he said. “Vezmu vás.”
He snatched the note from Gravois’s hand. It disappeared into some secret pocket in his filthy attire. His comrades melted back into the shadows, leaving the four of us stranded on that little island of bald earth, ringed on all sides by the crumbling edifices of the rear-houses.
Our newfound guide navigated the serpentine course through the bewildering snarl of clotheslines and fences with unerring step. This was his universe, and no doubt, if every particle of light had been sucked from our atmosphere, he could have found his way through the utter blackness left behind.
He stopped at the rear of a building indistinguishable from the rest—the same sagging stairs masquerading as a fire escape, zigzagging four stories up to the roof; the same warped platforms that passed for balconies, framed in by broken rails.
“Nováková,” the boy whispered, pointing at the tenement.
“Which floor?” Dobrogeanu asked. “Jaký patro? What flat? Který byt?”
The urchin’s reply was silent. He merely presented his palm. Gravois sighed heavily and gave him another five-dollar note.
“Ve tvrtém pate. Poslední dvee vlevo.” His expression became very serious. “Nikdo tam není.”
Dobrogeanu frowned. “Nikdo tam není? What do you mean?”
“What does he mean?” echoed Gravois.
The boy jabbed his finger at the brooding tenement. “Upír.” He clawed the air and bared his teeth. “To mu ted’ patí.”
“He says it belongs to the upír now.”
The urchin nodded vigorously. “Upír! Upír!”
“‘Upír’?” asked Gravois. “What is this upír he’s talking about?”
“Vampire,” answered Dobrogeanu.
“Ah! Well, now we are getting somewhere!”
“The building is empty,” the other monstrumologist said. “He says it belongs to upír now.”
“Does he? Then, we are wasting our time. I suggest we return to von Helrung and make a full report—tout de suite, before night falls.”
Dobrogeanu turned to ask the boy another question and was astonished to find him gone. He had disappeared into the icy mist as abruptly as he had appeared. For a moment no one spoke. Gravois’s mind was already made up, but the elderly monstrumologist teetered between charging forward and sounding the retreat. It was a tantalizing lead—an abandoned building that now belonged to the upír, the closest the lexicon could come to Lepto lurconis. Yet he suspected our guide may have been merely giving us our money’s worth. For five dollars more he might have gladly informed us that in the basement we might find a stairway to hell.
“He could be lying,” he mused. “It may not be abandoned at all.”
“Do you see any lights inside?” asked Gravois. “I do not see any. Monsieur Henry, your eyes are young. Do you see lights?”
I did not. Only dark panes dimly reflecting the glow from the ash barrels in the courtyard.
“And we have none,” pointed out Gravois. “What good will it do, stumbling about in the dark?”
“It isn’t dark yet,” countered Dobrogeanu. “We have a few hours still.”
“Perhaps our definitions of ‘dark’ differ. I say we let Monsieur Henry break the tie. What is your opinion, Will?”
So rarely was I asked for one, I did not realize I even had an opinion until it came out of my mouth. “We should go in. We have to know.”
Up the rickety back stairs we climbed, Dobrogeanu leading the way, one hand hidden in his cloak, no doubt gripping his revolver. I followed next, fingering the hilt of the knife to steady my nerves. Gravois brought up the rear, muttering in French what sounded like curses. Once or twice I caught the word ‘Pellinore.’
The stairs were alarmingly insubstantial, swaying with each step of our slow ascent, the old boards crying tremulant squeaks and protesting groans. We reached the fourth-story landing, whereupon our leader pulled the revolver from his pocket and pushed open the door, and we followed him.
A narrow, poorly lit hallway ran the length of the building, its walls coated with decades of accumulated grime, the floor speckled with water stains and darker blemishes of unknown origin, perhaps urine or excrement, for the passage reeked of both—and of boiled cabbage, tobacco, wood smoke, and that peculiar funk of human desperation.
It was very cold and deathly quiet. We stood for a moment without moving, hardly breathing, straining our ears for any sound that might give proof of life. There was nothing. Dobrogeanu whispered, “End of the hall, last door on the left.”