The Final Descent
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“I live alone now, as you know,” he said pointedly. “And my enemies are many, as you also know. . . .”
“Who, Warthrop? Name them. Name one ‘enemy.’”
He flung the remnants of his pastry upon the table, “How dare you! I’ve no obligation to explain myself to you or to anyone! What I do or choose not to do is my business and mine alone. I didn’t ask for her company any more than I asked for yours—either today or twenty-four years ago!”
I slipped the flask into my pocket and folded my hands upon the tabletop. “What is in the basement, Warthrop?”
His mouth moved soundlessly for a moment. He arched his eyebrows and looked down his patrician nose at my face, as if by his glare he could strip away the years and return me to the eleven-year-old body I once occupied.
“Nothing,” he finally said.
“A wise man once told me that lying is the worst kind of buffoonery.”
“And all men are buffoons. Finish the syllogism.”
“I will find out in any case. Better to tell me now.”
“Why should I tell you something that you already know?”
“I know that it is; I don’t know what it is.”
“Do you not? You really have not progressed very far in your education, Mr. Henry.”
“Your life’s work, you called it, but all manner of things have consumed you over the years. You—and countless others.”
“Yes.” He was nodding gravely, and now I detected a hint of fear in his eyes. “There are victims in my wake—more than most men’s, but hardly more than yours, I would guess.”
“We aren’t talking about my victims, Doctor.” I picked up the knife by his hand and proceeded to clean the filth from beneath my nails. He flinched, as if the tiny scraping sound hurt his ears.
“Beatrice left me,” he whispered.
“Beatrice? Who said anything about her? We were talking about your victims.”
“Oh, what do you know about anything?”
“I know about the lambs,” I said. “And I know what you cut up and stuffed into an ash barrel. I know they both have something to do with the lock upon that door and your deplorable condition—and I know you will show it to me, because you cannot help yourself, because you know with whom your salvation lies. You have always known.”
He fell forward, burying his head in his folded arms, and the monstrumologist cried. His shoulders shook with the force of his tears. I watched impassively.
“Warthrop, give me the key or I shall break it down.”
He raised his head, and I saw the tears were not faked: His face was twisted in agony, as if some dark nameless thing were unwinding in him.
“Leave,” he whispered. “You were right to leave before. Right to leave, wrong to ever come back. Leave us, leave us. It is too late for us, but not for you.”
He recoiled at my reply, the last thing he expected me to say, or perhaps the opposite: He knew to the bottom of that secret place hidden in all hearts what I would say. “Oh, Pellinore, I fell off the edge of the plate years ago.”
In Egypt, they called him Mihos, the guardian of the horizon.
It is a very thin line, Will Henry, he told me when I was a boy. For most, it is like that line where the sea meets the sky. It cannot be crossed; though you chase it for a thousand years, it will forever stay beyond your grasp. Do you realize it took our species more than ten millennia to realize that simple fact? That we live on a ball and not on a plate?
A letter was waiting for me at the front desk of the Plaza when I returned from my evening labors. The envelope was sealed in the old-fashioned way, with a thick glob of red wax. Inside was a crudely printed message on a single sheet of paper that smelled faintly of dead fish:
Most Gentle Mr. Henry:
Hoping this finds you well, you will be so good as to send me $10,000.00 if the life of Doctor Pellinor Warthrop is dear to you. So I beg you warmly to leave them here with the clerk by five tonight. If you do, he lives. If you don’t, he dies. With regards, believe me to be your friends.
The letter was not signed. Instead there was a crude drawing of a human hand colored black and another of a dagger dripping what I took to be blood.
I left the hotel and made straight for the brownstone on Fifth Avenue.
The owner of the house received me wearing a purple robe and matching slippers, his cottony white hair amassed in wondrous confusion atop his blocky head. He read the letter with red-rimmed eyes, sighing often and loudly, shooing away the servant who appeared bearing coffee and a plate of Apfelstrudel.
“What did the clerk say?” he asked finally.
“A short man who spoke with a thick Italian accent. Dropped off the letter around one this morning, while I was occupied with the Irish cargo on the bridge.”
He fished a cigar from the humidor. It slipped from his gnarled fingers and rolled across the Persian carpet. I scooped it up and handed it to him.
“The Black Hand!” he said. “Ah, Pellinore, did not your old master warn you not to go?”
“What is the Black Hand?”
“Did you not read the letter?” He stabbed his finger upon the drawing. “Ach, the villains! Not to be trusted. I warned him.”
“Why would an Italian be delivering a ransom letter for an Irish gang?”
“It is not the Irish; it is the Sicilians—the Camorra has taken him, that blackguard Francesco Competello. He is a dangerous man and I told him so.”
“I don’t understand, Meister Abram. Why would Dr. Warthrop . . . ?”
“Because ours is a dark and dirty business—like its ugly cousin, politics—and so it makes for strange bedfellows! It was his idea to enlist the aid of the Irish’s sworn enemies in discovering the whereabouts of T. cerrejonensis.”
“In exchange for what?”
His eyes narrowed above his hooked nose. “What do you mean?”
“I mean that criminals aren’t known for their good deeds, Meister Abram,” I answered the old fellow gently. “Dr. Warthrop must have been prepared to offer the Camorra something for their assistance.”
He waved his pudgy hand. The cigar was gripped in the other, unlit.
“He said Competello owed him for a service performed years ago in Naples, when many of the Camorristi were driven out of Italy. I do not know all the details, but it has always been his practice to nurture relationships with unsavory characters.”
I nodded, thinking of Mr. Faulk and the others like him who would appear at all hours bearing packages to the doorstep of 425 Harrington Lane. Distrusted and despised outcasts—his spiritual brothers in a sense—who asked no questions and told no tales.
“Something to do with helping to secure safe passage for him and his fellow padrones,” von Helrung went on. “‘It is part of their code to honor a debt,’ he told me. Bah! I hope now he has learned his lesson.”
He lit a match, but not the cigar. The flame edged dangerously close to his fingers before he dropped the match into the ashtray beside him.
“Should we pay it?” I asked.
He looked sharply at me. My question startled him. “What do you mean? Of course we must pay it!”
“But what guarantee do we have that Competello will keep his end of the bargain?”
He snorted loudly: Mein Gott, the naivety of youth! “The Black Hand is a time-honored tradition, Will. How effective would it be if the recipient could not trust the sender? No, we must pay. I shall handle everything—including the boxing of my former student’s ears for his lack of judgment! For now he has tipped his hand; the Camorra knows of our special prize and even now must be marshaling every illicit resource at its disposal to find it!”
He rose, shoving the cigar into the breast pocket of the robe monogrammed with his initials, AVH. “I love him as my own son, but your master is the most maddening of human conundrums, young Will: at once calculating and headstrong, astute beyond measure and obtuse without equal.”
He rang the bell to summon his butler. I said, “I will handle the delivery of payment, Meister Abram.”
“No, no. You are too young to—”
“And you are too old.”
He stiffened; his bushy white brows crowded against each other; his chest expanded, parting the fold of the robe to reveal a profusion of curly white hair.
“The letter was addressed to me,” I went on quickly. “And for all we know, the clerk at the hotel is in on the deal.”
He nodded, clearly impressed with my reasoning. “Return this afternoon; I shall have the funds ready. But tell me—ach, there is so much that crowds the weary mind!—how did it go last night? Smoothly, I pray?”
“Had to size the refuse to fit the containers, but otherwise no problems.” I gave a little laugh. “Well, Sir Hiram’s assistant nearly took a tumble into the East River—luckily, Mr. Faulk was there to catch him.”
Von Helrung was nodding slowly, and his eyes were bird bright and watchful. “You know he is related to royalty. Fourth or fifth cousin to the Queen, I believe.”
“Who? Mr. Faulk or Mr. Isaacson?”
“You make a jest. Ha! Go now, and come back at three. Tell no one else of this! Particularly Mr. Faulk. I believe that man would sell his own mother for a dollar and a dram.”
“Oh, no, you’re wrong, Meister Abram. Mr. Faulk is a capital fellow, worth twice his weight in T. cerrejonensis venom.”
“Do not say such things!” he exclaimed, and then for some reason crossed himself.
I returned to the hotel intending to catch an hour or two of much-needed sleep, but I was too distracted and anxious about the unexpected kidnapping of my master to snatch more than a few minutes of restless slumber. I gave up finally and telephoned Lilly’s house.
“Three things are easily cracked and never well mended,” I said when she came on the line. “China, glass, and what is the third?”
“You are calling me at six in the morning to pose a riddle?”
“Reputation,” I said, raising my voice to overcome the incessant crackle of the connection. “I had a most interesting discussion with the Queen’s fifth cousin last night.”
“Oh!” Then silence.
“Lilly? Are you there?”
“Did you mean to imply a correlation between someone’s reputation and a conversation with Mr. Isaacson?”
“I meant to ask you to lunch.”
“But that isn’t what you did.”
“I did—I just have.”
“I have a prior engagement.”
She may have laughed or it may have been static. Then I heard: “. . . demanding.”
“The doctor has been kidnapped!” I shouted.
“Kidnapped! Was it the Irish?”
“I’ll pick you up at twelve.”
I disconnected the call before she could reply. From across the room, Mr. Faulk lowered his copy of the Herald. “Yes, that Lilly,” I told him.