The Final Descent
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It would hatch before dawn, and like any good mother the monstrumologist knew his newborn would be hungry.
“With the proper diet, we should expect exponential growth,” he goes on. “One foot a week—it will be longer than you are tall by the time I present it to the Society.”
“And how large at full maturity?”
His eyes glitter in the glow of the heat lamp. His face shines with perspiration—and monstrumological exultation.
“Well now, that is one of the great unanswered questions of aberrant biology. The largest specimen ever recorded measured fifty-four feet long and weighed close to two tons, and it was determined to be only a year old! There are some who have seriously argued that there is no maximum length to which T. cerrejonensis grows. It continues to grow throughout its life span, and so, if not for predators and constrictions of habitat and food supply, it could conceivably dwarf every living thing on earth, including the blue whale.”
“Predators? What preys on something that size?”
He rolls his eyes. “Homo sapiens. Us.”
Plop. Thwack! Like blowing out a candle with your fist.
“Thus, if unchecked, our new arrival could grow large enough to consume the world itself?”
He chuckles. “It may come down to that—to who consumes it, us or them or some other species, I mean. That something will consume it one day I have little doubt. It must have occurred to you by this point that life is a self-defeating proposition.
And the monstrumologist, with quick, sure hands, warm in the glow of the artificial sun, quotes from one of his favorite books:
“‘Because thou hast done this, thou art cursed above every beast of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life.’”
He laughs. “Not to mention your fill of mice and men!”
And the carapace split apart, a thick yellowish liquid oozed from the crack, then the ruby red mouth and the round black head the size of my knuckle emerged, and then teeth the colorless white of bleached-out bone: life inexorable and self-defeating, ends contained in beginnings, and the pungent odor like fresh-tilled earth and the amber eye unblinking.
Beside me the monstrumologist let out a long-held breath.
“Behold: the awful grace of God, from which wisdom comes!”
Behold the awful grace of God.
The lambs in the old stable bleated plaintively, and their blank black eyes twinkled in the washed-out winter light. It wasn’t hunger that drove their cries; they were well fed, flawlessly plump; each head appeared too small for its round body. They weren’t hungry; they were frightened. I was a stranger. An interloper. Their nostrils flared, offended by my foreign scent. I wasn’t the thin, stoop-shouldered man in the dingy white coat who brought the fresh hay and oats and water. The one who cleaned the stall and spread the warm straw. The one who cared for them, protected them, fed them until their sides were sore.
I grabbed the shovel from the hook and went back outside.
The ground was hard; my hands were soft. I was unaccustomed to physical labor. My shoulders ached; my palms burned. My feet and heart were numb.
What awful grace drove you, Warthrop? Was Beatrice a lamb like the ones in the stable or did she see too much? The mercy of monstrumologists is as cold as God’s—did you kill her to spare her a more unspeakable end?
The dry wind swirled in the smoldering ashes, and a loose shutter knocked against the peeling siding, and I still had nearly two cans of kerosene, stacks of lumber and nails, and it could be done: Board up the doors, seal him inside; the rotten old house would be engulfed in minutes.
Run, Willy, run! from the fire my mother cried.
There is no room for pity or grief or any sentimental human thing, but justice is not sentimental. Justice is as cold and immutable as the ice of Judecca.
Tell me, Father; tell me what you have seen.
Abram von Helrung sighed deeply around his cigar, stocky legs spread wide, pudgy hands worrying behind his back, as he stared out the window of his Fifth Avenue brownstone to the early-morning bustle below. The light cut deep shadows into the craggy landscape of his face. His eyes, normally so bright and birdlike, were the washed-out blue of a winter sky.
“Calamity,” he murmured. “Calamity!”
“Calamity implies an unforeseen disaster,” Hiram Walker piped up from the sofa behind him. “I, for one, have said from the beginning that housing the T. cerrejonensis in the Monstrumarium was—”
“Walker,” the monstrumologist said through gritted teeth. He was standing by the mantel, a study in barely contained fury. “Shut up.”
The Englishman sniffed noisily. Beside him his apprentice, Samuel the mediocrity, was glaring at me. The entire left side of his face was swollen. Perhaps I had broken his jaw; I hoped so. There are some we cannot help but take an instant dislike to. I think I would have hated him even if he hadn’t refused to yield on the dance floor.
“Pointing fingers won’t accomplish anything at this point,” Dr. Pelt said. He had draped his lanky frame upon a settee and was sipping black coffee from a cup that looked toy-size in his large hand. Brown droplets clung to his enormous handlebar mustache.
“True,” Sir Hiram allowed. “We can address repercussions at the conclusion of the affair.”
“Repercussions? What do you mean?” Warthrop demanded. “I did nothing wrong.”
“You brought it here. You decided to stash it in the Monstrumarium. It is your ‘prize,’ is it not?”
Warthrop’s face drained of all color. The doctors who had treated him at Bellevue had cautioned him to avoid strenuous activity—in fact had strongly urged bed rest—or he might have bashed the man’s head in with the bust of Darwin by his elbow.
“Hiram,” he said levelly, “you are a spineless, chinless, mutated sponge of a man, possessing the mental acumen of a sea slug, but I forgive you for that. A man cannot choose his own mother, after all.”
Walker’s beady eyes grew still beadier and his mouth moved soundlessly, revealing the upper row of yellow, uneven teeth. Beside me Lilly bit back a laugh. I let mine out.
“Mock me while you can, Warthrop. Let’s see how far your laughter will carry from Blackwell’s Island!”
“I blame you for this, von Helrung,” said the monstrumologist, turning to the old Austrian.
“Me? But how am I to blame?”
“You invited him.”
“Oh, I thought you meant—”
“The man is as useless as . . .” Warthrop searched for the proper metaphor.
Pelt drawled a suggestion: “Teats on a bull.”
“Gentlemen, gentlemen,” von Helrung admonished gently. “We have not gathered here to discuss Dr. Walker’s teats.”
Lilly’s shoulders were shaking violently. She was having some trouble controlling herself. I gave her hand a reassuring pat.
“What’s done is done,” said the Argentine monstrumologist seated next to Pelt, whose name—Santiago Luis Moreno Acosta-Rojas—seemed longer than the man was tall. He was, according to Warthrop, senselessly argumentative and hopelessly stubborn, but even the doctor acknowledged Acosta-Rojas’s expertise in all things T. cerrejonensis. “Pointing fingers, assigning blame, these are the true teats upon our hypothetical bull. These do not serve to retrieve what has been lost. And retrieve it we must, and quickly! We stare into the abyss of two separate, equally disturbing possibilities: the failure of these blackguards to secure the creature—or their success! If it escapes, many will die. If it does not, many will be ensnared by its potent venom.”
“You are leaving out the worst possibility of all,” Warthrop said. “That someone may kill it.”
“Well, we know why they took it,” Pelt said. “The question is who they is. Or are, I mean.”
“Elements of the criminal underworld.” Walker sniffed, as if the answer were obvious. “The Dead Rabbits, I would say, based on the Irish accents Warthrop described.”
“Ach!” von Helrung snorted. “There haven’t been Rabbits since the seventies.”
“The Gophers,” Pelt suggested. “That’s my guess. Pellinore?”
The monstrumologist stiffened; his face darkened as if Pelt had insulted him. “I never guess. There may be a gang involved—or two, given that one of the thieves was shot in the back of the head by another. However, the fact remains that with twenty dollars and ten minutes in Five Points, I could find a dozen eager hoodlums with no connection whatsoever to organized crime.” He wasn’t looking at us. He was staring thoughtfully into the blank eyes of Darwin, running his finger up and down his hero’s marble nose. “The salient issue is not why or who but how. How did these ill-educated ruffians know of the hidden treasure in the sanctum sanctorum of the Locked Room?”
His question hung heavy in the air. Von Helrung understood at once, and the barrel chest expanded, straining the buttons of his vest. He pursed his thick lips and held his tongue while Warthrop went on:
“Dr. von Helrung will correct me if my count is off, but to my knowledge only six men knew of my special presentation to this year’s colloquium. One is dead. The rest are in this room.”
Acosta-Rojas rocketed to his feet; his chair clattered to the floor. “I am deeply offended that you even suggest such a thing!”
“What is more offensive?” Warthrop shot back. “The betrayal of a sacred trust or the suggestion of it?”
“Now, now, we mustn’t leap to conclusions, mein Freund,” von Helrung protested, waving his pudgy hands before him. “We are honorable men. Scientists all, not profiteers.”
“I am not surprised,” Walker announced blandly. “Contemplating the worst of nature has perverted his perception of men.”
“Oh, spare us the banalities, Walker!” the doctor exclaimed. “We are students of the best that nature offers, but that is beside the point. Reason is neither good nor bad; why do you think so few people are reasonable? I think we can safely rule out Adolphus as the traitor. He had no motive. For sixty years he’s had access to treasures great and small and never once tried to profit by them.”
“To me the most likely suspect is obvious,” Pelt said. “This Maeterlinck fellow—or the mysterious client who commissioned him. Neither could have been very happy about the resolution of his offer. It wouldn’t be too difficult to follow you here to New York and ascertain the whereabouts of T. cerrejonensis.”
I spoke up: “Impossible. Maeterlinck is in London.”
“And how do you know where he is?” Acosta-Rojas demanded with narrowed eyes.
“There is nowhere else he would go,” I answered carefully.
“How odd,” Walker said, “that Warthrop’s apprentice would know the whereabouts of the mysterious Mr. Maeterlinck. I wonder what other intelligence he may be privy to.”
“Walker, I don’t know what I find more offensive,” growled Warthrop. “The insinuation that Mr. Henry is a turncoat or the incongruousness of the word ‘intelligence’ issuing from your lips.”