The Final Descent
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He passed a tiny closet of a restaurant and ducked into the alley that ran beside it. He turned at the first juncture, disappearing behind the building with the restaurant. And that’s where I lost him. I turned the corner, and he was gone. The door beneath the rickety fire escape hung slightly ajar; had he gone in? Yes, obviously, unless he’d sprouted wings and taken off into the blue.
I stepped into the narrow back hallway and eased the revolver from my pocket, pausing to allow my eyes to adjust to the sudden falloff of light. I smelled bread baking, heard the clink and clatter of plates and a man’s strident voice speaking loudly in the lyrical Sicilian cadence. Light flooded across the hall from an open doorway several paces in. I pressed my back against the wall, sidestepped to the opening, and, holding my breath, slowly turned to peek into the room.
The boy was sitting at a table with three men, two of whom were very large and wore heavy coats, their heads bent low over plates of steaming pasta, a half-empty bottle of wine between them. The third man was not quite so large and his coat not quite as heavy, and it did not appear he had touched his food nor any of the wine, for Pellinore Warthrop frowned upon anything that muddied thought or dulled senses. I spied the white envelope beside one of the brutes’ plates.
My internal debate did not last long. No, I did not see the monstrumologist bound and gagged and awaiting execution. Though he did not appear particularly happy, there was no look of distress, no panicky glance at his companions; he even gave the boy one of his pained, humorless smiles as the child tucked the long napkin under his chin and dove into his meal with unrestrained ardor. But I did see the shotgun leaning against the wall within easy reach of the man to his left. And I did not see the “prisoner” get up and thank his captors for their hospitality, despite the successful consummation of the transaction. The money had arrived, yet Warthrop did not stir from the chair. That sealed it. I swung around and stepped into the room.
The one on Warthrop’s left reacted instantly, lunging for the shotgun with surprising litheness for a man his size. The gun was two feet away, but it might as well have been in Harlem. My bullet tore into his neck, severing his carotid artery, and blood a brighter and more vibrant red than his wine spewed from the gaping wound. The boy dove under the table. Warthrop shot out of his seat, his arm outstretched, but I was blind to him, blind to everything but the other thug fumbling with the handgun he had dragged from his coat pocket. I had the sensation of traveling at great speed down a dark tunnel, at the end of which his face burned with the energy of a thousand suns. I saw his face and that was all I could see. It was all I needed to see.
I rocketed past the monstrumologist, traveling at the speed of light, brought the gun within an inch of the man’s expansive forehead, and pulled the trigger.
That left the boy.
AND I, NOW DRAWING CLOSER TO THE END
OF EVERY LONGING, LIFTED TO THAT END,
JUST AS I SHOULD, THE FLAME OF ALL MY LONGING.
—DANTE, THE PARADISO
I circumnavigate the years to come round again, for time is the unforgiveable lie, and Mother and Father forever waltz in flame and a stranger forever leans over me, asking Do you know who I am?, and this is the thing I must tell you, this is the thing you must know: that we are infinitely more and nothing less than our reflections in the amber eye.
Are you listening; do you understand? Circles have no end: They go on and on like the cries of dead men long since gone. Have you known eternity in an hour? Have you seen fear in a handful of dust?
The universe gibbers. The center will not hold. There is a space one ten-thousandth of an inch outside your range of vision, and in that space a pinprick, a singularity, a wordless, lightless, silent, numb Nothingness without dimension, infinitely small, infinitely deep, like the pupil of the amber eye, darkness that goes all the way down to the bottomless bottom, the end of the circle without end.
I am there, and you are with me, and the boy in the tattered hat and the man in the stained white coat and the thing in the jar and the immortal chrysalis, ever cracking open, ever on the brink of birth.
His eyes are my eyes, the boy crouching under the table in the hat two sizes too small: wide, uncomprehending, beseeching, terrified. This is the end of the long dark tunnel, and I must not suffer him to face the faceless singularity; I am the breakwater to spare him the surge of the dark tide. It doesn’t have to be, the thing scratching in the jar and the man in the stained white coat saying You must become accustomed to such things.
I can save the boy beneath the table; I can save him from the amber eye; it is within my power.
Raising the gun to the level of his eyes. Do you know who I am?
“No!” Warthrop cried, and he knocked my arm into the air the moment I squeezed the trigger. The bullet punched into the ceiling and a hunk of plaster crashed onto the table, knocking over the bottle, and the wine gushed out like the blood of Christ from the thrust of the Roman spear. The monstrumologist seized my wrist, yanked the gun from my hand, slung me around, and shoved me toward the doorway.
A door slammed behind us. Hoarse shouts, a gunshot, and then we were in the hallway and then skittering along the cobblestoned alley worn slick by the tread of ten thousand feet, Warthrop’s hand like a vise around my forearm, avoiding Elizabeth Street, zigzagging through the narrow arteries bisecting the tenements, old men sitting at round tables playing cards and sipping grappa and boys pitching pennies against sooty walls and far-off laughter and the face of a beautiful girl in a third-story window, and Warthrop’s breath heavy in my ear: “You have done it now, you fool.”
The tenements’ bowels disgorged us onto Houston, where he waved down a cab, flung open the door, and shoved me across the seat. He shouted our destination at the driver and then fell back as the cab lurched forward. He held the gun in his lap for several blocks, staring out the window and muttering under his breath while I struggled to catch mine.
“Saved you,” I gasped.
He whirled upon me and snarled, “What did you say?”
“You said I’ve done it, and that’s what I did.”
“Saved me? Is that what you think?”
He was shaking with fury. His fist rose, froze before my face for an agonizing moment, then slammed into his own thigh. “You very well may have just signed my death warrant.”
Abram von Helrung handed me the glass of port and lowered himself into the divan beside me. He smelled of cigar smoke and that odd musty odor of the very old. I could hear his breath rattling deep in his barrel chest.
“There you are, dear Will,” he murmured. “There, there.” Patting my leg.
“What the devil are you doing, von Helrung?” Warthrop demanded. He was standing by the windows overlooking Fifth Avenue. He had not budged from the spot since we’d arrived. His hand fidgeted in the pocket that held his revolver.
“Now, Pellinore,” his old master scolded gently. “Will Henry is just a boy . . .”
The monstrumologist laughed harshly. “That ‘boy’ just murdered two men in cold blood! More to the point, he has declared war upon the Camorra, which will not limit itself to retribution upon him—or me, or even you, Meister Abram. Those men were not lowly foot soldiers; they were Competello’s nephews, his youngest sister’s sons, and we may expect wholesale slaughter!”
“Oh, no, no, mein Freund. No, let us not lose ourselves in wild talk of war and retribution. He is a reasonable man, as we are, all of us, reasonable men. We will talk to Competello, explain to him—”
“Oh, yes, I am sure he will understand how ten thousand dollars justified the execution of his family!”
“Dr. von Helrung told me he owed you a favor,” I said, keeping my voice under control. It was not easy. “It made no sense that he would kidnap you—”
“Shut up, you imbecilic hotheaded snot!” the monstrumologist yelled. “It makes no sense to betray the code of the Black Hand.”
“Which is exactly why I betrayed it!”
Warthrop’s mouth came open, snapped closed, and then opened again: “I may just kill you myself and save them the trouble.”
“Well, did Competello owe you a debt or not?” I asked.
“Pellinore,” von Helrung said softly but urgently. “We must tell him.”
“Tell me what?”
“What good will it do now?” Warthrop asked, ignoring me.
“So he may understand.”
“You give him too much credit, von Helrung,” the doctor said bitterly. He turned back to the window.
Von Helrung said, “The debt was repaid, Will, the slate wiped clean, and so Competello had no obligation to keep.”
I shook my head. I did not understand. Perhaps Warthrop was right: The old monstrumologist was giving me too much credit.
“The man who was shot in the Monstrumarium, he was a watchman and an ally, not a thief,” von Helrung explained.
“He was . . . ? What are you saying, Meister Abram? He was a Camorrista?”
“Oh, dear God!” Warthrop cried out, his back still to us.
“Pellinore and I thought it wise to post men about the headquarters, just to keep an eye on things until the presentation before the congress. It was I who suggested calling in Competello’s chit to perform the service. The Irishmen were spied breaking in, the poor soul followed them down and was ambushed from behind, and then . . . well, you know the rest. The prize was snatched from our grasp.”
“No,” Warthrop said firmly. “It was handed over by a certain mentally challenged apprentice possessing all the subtlety of a three-toed sloth!”
“I will endure no more of these uselessly cruel remarks,” von Helrung said sharply. He wagged his finger at the doctor.
“Very well; I shall stick to only the useful ones.”
“The murder of that man in the Monstrumarium wasn’t Dr. Warthrop’s fault,” I said. “So why was Dr. Warthrop kidnapped?” I, the three-toed sloth, was trying to think it through.
“Because kidnapping me had nothing to do with it!” The monstrumologist couldn’t help himself. “Do you begin to understand the terrible burden under which I labor, von Helrung?”
Von Helrung patted the terrible burden’s leg. “Pellinore went to Competello to offer his condolences—and to ask for help, as I explained yesterday, Will. My old pupil ignored my advice that a sleeping dog is best left undisturbed and it was in bad form to ask a favor from one who had just repaid one in blood. Competello took offense, as I warned you he would,” von Helrung said to Warthrop, glaring at him beneath his bushy white brows. He turned back to me. “You know the rest. He made Pellinore his ‘guest,’ pending payment for his generous ‘hospitality.’ Not for the money so much, I think, but to make a point.”
“You might have told me this, Meister Abram,” I scolded him. “You should have told me. If you had, those men would still be—”
“The point is they are not,” Warthrop barked. “And now not only have you turned a potential ally into a deadly enemy, you have jeopardized the survival of the greatest find in monstrumology in the past hundred years! The last of its kind! I would have thought that you, being the apprentice to the greatest aberrant biologist who has ever walked the face of the earth . . .” He sputtered for a moment, the thought skittering away. “That that fact might have occurred to your reptilian brain before you took it upon yourself to play white knight to my damsel in distress!”