The Final Descent
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“Enough!” cried von Helrung, striking his breast in consternation. “This bickering, these childish insults—they accomplish nothing. We are all friends here, or at least colleagues, and I, for one, would stake my reputation—indeed my very life—upon the honor of the men gathered in this room. With all due respect, Pellinore, it is not why or who or how, but where that must concern us. The rest can wait until we have recovered what we have lost.”
“And that we’d better get to, and quick,” Pelt admonished. “The scoundrels could be halfway to Roanoke by now.”
“Roanoke?” Warthrop asked.
“Just an expression.”
“Odd, I’ve never heard it,” Acosta-Rojas said.
“Well, you’re from Argentina; I’m not surprised.”
“It struck me as odd too,” Walker said suspiciously. “Why Roanoke, of all places?”
“So I picked a random city!” Pelt exclaimed. “What of it?”
“Expressions are not random,” Acosta-Rojas said. “Otherwise they would not be expressions.”
Even Warthrop had had his fill. He realized, I think, the fruitlessness of pointing fingers at this crucial hour. “Von Helrung, I suppose there’s no avoiding it,” he said briskly, turning to his old master. “A few discreet inquiries in the appropriate quarters of New York officialdom are in order.”
Meister Abram nodded gravely as he rolled the gnawed end of his expired stogie across his lower lip. “I know just the man—discreet, though not overly inquisitive. He recently was promoted to detective.”
Warthrop barked a laugh. “Of course he was!”
“A moment.” Acosta-Rojas seemed aghast. “You intend to bring the matter to the police?”
The monstrumologist ignored him. He said to von Helrung, “A murder investigation would be . . . awkward.”
“It would, mein Freund, if I were idiotic enough to report one!”
The monstrumologist and I returned to the Plaza to change out of our evening wear while von Helrung left for police headquarters, Lilly in tow; he was seeing her off to her house on Riverside before heading downtown. Though she hadn’t slept in nearly twenty-four hours, Lilly was brimming with energy—her endurance rivaled Warthrop’s when the hunt was on.
“And now let’s send the little female off to bed with a warm pat and a gentle kiss!” she grumbled to me at the door. Her dress was stained with the grime of the Monstrumarium, her coiffure wilted, the ringlets exhausted loops of raven-black. But her eyes burned with an eerily familiar backlit glow. I tapped her gently on the shoulder and kissed her cheek. She failed to see the humor of my response, and answered it with a sharp jab of her heel upon my foot.
“You had much more charm when you completely lacked any,” she observed.
“Get some rest, Lilly,” I said. “I’ll try to come by later if I can.”
She looked up into my face and said, “Why?”
If I’d had an answer ready—which I did not—I wasn’t able to give it: Samuel appeared at that moment, still dapper in his coat and tails, despite his horribly swollen jaw.
“You still owe me a dance, Miss Bates. I have not forgotten,” he said, slightly slurring the words. He lifted her hand to his lips, and then turned to me. His damaged mouth twisted in an obscene parody of a smile.
“Don’t believe we’ve been properly introduced, old man.” He seemed incapable of opening his mouth more than half an inch. “The name is Isaacson.”
I did not see the blow coming. He drove with his hips, pivoting neatly into the punch; perhaps he had studied some boxing. The von Helrung vestibule spun round; I collapsed onto the Persian rug, clutching my stomach. The world had been emptied of all oxygen. He loomed over me, white and black and pumpkin-headed.
“Warthrop’s attack dog.” He sneered down at me. “His personal assassin. I’ve heard about you and Aden—the Russians at the Tour du Silence—and the Englishman in the mountains of Socotra. How many others have you murdered at his behest?”
“About one short,” I gasped. “But it wouldn’t be at his behest.”
It is exceedingly difficult to laugh heartily without opening your mouth, but somehow Isaacson managed it.
“I hope you like the Beastie Bin, Henry. You’ll be an exhibit there one day.”
He stepped lightly over me and swept out the front door to hail a cab. Lilly helped me to my feet; I couldn’t tell if she was about to laugh or cry. Clearly she was fighting back something.
“Do you still think he’s a mediocrity?” she asked.
“It is not how he sucker punched me,” I informed her. “But how I fell.”
“Oh, you fell splendidly”—and now she did laugh. “It was the most impressive collapse I think I’ve ever seen.”
I don’t know why, perhaps it was her laughter, the pleasing jingle of coins tossed upon a silver tray, but I kissed her, still heaving for air, a pleasant suffocation.
“I’m a bit troubled, Mr. Henry,” she breathed in my ear, “by this curious association you have of violence with affection.”
I was grateful, in a way, that I had no breath with which to answer.
“It’s Walker,” I told Warthrop on the way to the Plaza.
“The obvious choice,” he acknowledged. “The man’s taste for the finer things exceeds his ability to obtain them—one of the reasons why I’ve always wondered at his choice of profession. Monstrumology is not the shortest route to riches.”
“Unless one stumbles across a species whose venom is more valuable than diamonds.”
He nodded and grunted noncommittally. “We cannot count out Acosta-Rojas. No one has hunted more diligently for a living T. cerrejonensis.”
“Precisely the reason we should count him out. He’d have no reason or need to send one to you.”
“Well, it may be one of them or none at all,” he said, growing testy. “Von Helrung is notorious for running his mouth. And I’m afraid he might not remember to whom he let it slip or even that he let it slip.” He sighed. “Irish gangs! But equally foolish to assume that Maeterlinck or his client—if one exists at all—is responsible.”
He was drumming his fingers upon his knee, looking out the window. Carriage dodged automobile and both dodged the occasional bicycle and wayward pedestrian. The early-morning sun glinted off the buildings along Fifth Avenue and burnished the granite pavement a shimmering gold.
“Why did you go there?” he asked suddenly. “Why were you and Lilly Bates in the Monstrumarium?”
My face grew warm. “I wanted to say hello to Adolphus.” Then I sighed. Oh, what was the use? “To show her T. cerrejonensis.”
“To show her . . . ?” He clearly didn’t believe me.
“She has a certain . . . fascination for such things.”
“And you? Where do your fascinations lie?”
I knew what he meant. “I thought we had exhausted this topic at the dance.”
“At which point you proceeded to break her dance partner’s jaw.” For some reason he found my remark amusing. “Anyway, the topic, as I understand it, is nearly inexhaustible.”
“You exhausted it,” I reminded him.
“After it drove me into the Danube.”
I might have told him it wasn’t love that hurled him over that bridge in Vienna—or at least not love for another person. Despair is a wholly selfish response to fortune’s slings and arrows.
“Well, it was a propitious arrival into the monstrumological pit,” Warthrop observed dryly. “In the nick of time and yet too late! Not unlike my friend pulling me from the water before the current carried me down.”
“‘’Tis better to have loved and lost . . .’”
His temper flared. “And now you are quoting poetry to me?” he demanded, the failed poet. “What is the purpose—to mock me? Who is more pitiful, Will Henry, the man who loved and lost or his companion, who must never allow himself to love at all?”
I turned away, fists clenching spasmodically in my lap. “Go to hell,” I muttered.
“You may comfort yourself that is better to love and lose in the end, but don’t forget that even the most chaste of kisses carries an unacceptable risk to your beloved. No one knows how Biminius arawakus is transmitted from host to host. Your passion carries the seeds of damnation, not deliverance.”
“Don’t preach to me about damnation!” I cried. “I know its face better than anyone—and certainly better than you!”
And now he quoted from the Satyricon to one-up me—and, I think, to mock me: “‘And then, there’s the Sibyl: With my own eyes I saw her, at Cumae, hanging up in a jar, and whenever the boys would say to her, “Sibyl, Sibyl, what would you?” she would answer, “I would die.”’”
The boy in the tattered hat and the man in the dingy coat and the thing hanging in the jar.
I kept my face away from him, but he had turned to speak earnestly to me, close enough that I felt his breath upon my neck.
“Ignore all other advice I give you, Will, but engrave this upon the avenues of your heart: You cannot choose not to fall in love, but you can choose for the sake of love to let love go. Let it go. Resolve never to see this girl again, her or anyone, for the gods are not wise, and nature herself abhors perfection.”
I laughed bitterly. “When I was a boy, I mistook these opaque pronouncements of yours as impenetrable profundities. Now I’m beginning to think that you’re merely full of shit.”
I tensed, preparing for the explosion. None came. Instead, the monstrumologist laughed.
Back in our rooms, the doctor washed off the dried blood and Monstrumarial grit, changed his clothes, and then ordered up a hearty breakfast, which he did not touch but left to the prodigious appetite of his teenage companion: I was famished.
“I would suggest getting some sleep if you can,” he advised me. “You’ve a long night ahead of you.”
“You should rest too,” I said, falling into the old habit of his minder. “Your wound . . .”
“It’s fairly clean as gunshot wounds go,” he carelessly replied. “And I didn’t lose much blood, thanks to the ministrations of your paramour.”
“She isn’t my paramour.”
“Well, whatever she is.”
“She annoys the hell out of me.”
“So you’ve said more than once. And what is this with the expletives lately? Cursing is the crutch of an unimaginative mind.”
“I like that,” I said. “One day I intend to gather all your pithy sayings into a volume for mass consumption: The Wit and Wisdom of Dr. Pellinore Warthrop, Scientist, Poet, Philosopher.”
His eyes lit up. He thought I was serious. Perhaps he’d already forgotten my shitty remark in the taxi. “Wouldn’t that be extraordinary! You flatter me, Mr. Henry.”