The Final Descent
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“You should point out to him that you saved his life.”
“He doesn’t look at it that way.”
“Well, he wouldn’t. He is an ass. I’ve never understood why Uncle loves him so.”
I cleared my throat. “He thought of Warthrop as a son.”
“Uncle never had children. So to him practically everyone is. He has a very soft heart for a doctor of monstrumology.”
“The last of his kind.”
“What does that mean?”
“Nothing. Only . . . only it always surprised me, your uncle’s kindness, his . . . gentleness. What he was didn’t fit what he did.”
“You are speaking of him in the past tense.”
“Am I? I didn’t mean to.”
“Has something happened to Uncle Abram, Will?”
I looked into the untainted blue, clear all the way down, and said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
She nodded. “I thought so.”
“What? What did you think?”
“That he’s too kind and gentle and much too trusting of people.” She wrinkled her nose. “He would have made an excellent deacon or professor or poet, or even a scientist practicing in any field but aberrant biology. I suppose that’s why your master loves him so much in return—he sees in Uncle the possibility that you don’t have to become a monster to hunt them.”
“Well,” I said with a small laugh. “You don’t have to hunt them to become that.”
She cocked her head at me, a smile playing on her lips. “I saw Samuel today.”
“Who?” For a moment my mind went blank.
“Isaacson, the mediocrity. He told me the most remarkable story—so remarkable it cannot be true. Or maybe I have that backward. So remarkable it must be true.”
“I dangled him over the Brooklyn Bridge and threatened to drop him if he didn’t confess to—”
She raised her hand. “Please, I’d rather not hear it a second time.”
“I am surprised, to be honest, Lilly. I didn’t think he had it in him to tell you.”
“I am curious about something, though. If he had said yes to your question, would you have dropped him for what he had done?”
“Does it matter?” I asked. “I didn’t drop him, in any case.”
I stood up. I felt extraordinarily large; I even flinched, expecting my head to smack into the ceiling. She did not move as I advanced. She lay still as I came on. I knelt beside the bed to bring my face level with her eyes.
“The monster is dead; the monster never dies. You may catch it; you will never catch it. Hunt it for a thousand years and it will forever exceed your grasp. Kill it, dissect it, place its parts in a jar or scatter them to the four corners of the world, but it remains forever one ten-thousandth of an inch outside your range of vision. It is the same monster; only its face changes. I might have killed him, but it doesn’t matter one way or the other. The next one I will, and the next, and the one after that, and the faces will change but not the monster, not the monster.”
There were tears in her faultless eyes and the inarticulate fear in them was not too different from the fear in the dead eyes of the head in the box. And then she grabbed my face in her hands, and her hands were cool and slickly dry as silk. She pressed her lips gently onto mine and spoke, “Don’t be afraid,” mobile moist lips rubbing over mine, “Don’t be afraid,” and I saw the head with the amber eyes in her uncle’s open mouth, the eyes that held me that shamed me that trapped me that crushed me that ground me into dust.
I was on the bed—I don’t remember climbing up, but I found myself crushing her against me, as I was crushed by the amber eye, and she both resisted and yielded, fought and surrendered, and there was loathing in her longing, fear in her joy, and the unspeakable sorrow of insatiable fullness.
And in me the thing unwinding.
“Stop,” she said, pushing against my chest. “Will. Stop.”
“I don’t want to.”
“I don’t care what you want.”
She slapped me across the cheek. I flung her away and fell off the bed—literally, for my feet slipped out from under me on the wooden floor. I hit my knee hard and grunted with pain.
“You’re not being honest with me,” she said from above.
“I don’t know. Do you?”
“I think that would be best.”
“There is something I have to do.”
“I won’t ask you.”
“I wouldn’t tell you if you did.”
“Then why bring it up? Just go.”
“I just wanted to say . . .”
“. . . just one thing. One thing before I go.”
“Then I will go.”
“Then you should say it.”
“If he had said yes on that bridge, I wouldn’t have dropped him.”
“Really?” She laughed. “I would have.”
Warthrop slept on. I was wide awake; I would never sleep again though I lived for the next one thousand years.
I arrived at the Zeno Club at a quarter till eight and requested a private room. There were no private rooms. I slipped the manager a hundred-dollar bill. Oh, how could he have forgotten about the private room? There had been a last-minute cancellation. The room was cold. A fire was lit. Dark-paneled, thick carpeted, lined with bookshelves and crowded with overstuffed furniture, with paintings of stern men hanging on the walls. The room had a second door that opened to a back hallway. It was perfect. I handed the manager another twenty and told him to admit my guests when they arrived. I ordered a Coca-Cola and sat in the chair closest to the fireplace; I was cold down to my bones. I couldn’t shake the memory of that afternoon. The most chaste of kisses . . . Had I passed to her my curse, my blessing? After leaving Riverside Drive, I had wandered the streets, feeling as if I were descending a long winding stair, a descent not measured in feet or miles but in hours and years. Darkness closed round me; faces receded into the grasping dark. Down, down I went, and there was no terminus; there was no bottom to reach. A loud voice called out to me, a woman’s voice, and I looked up and saw a face painted garishly, her blouse unbuttoned immodestly, winking and waving from her superior height, I at the bottom and she at the top: Come up, deary, come up. And I imagined climbing the stairs of the tenement and the smell of cabbages and the reek of human desperation and her sour-faced broker who collected the money and protected her from the overzealous sailor or merchant marine, and then I imagined her room and the roughness of the boards beneath my bare feet and the roughness of her hands and the heaviness of her scent, and would it not be better to touch and be touched than to never touch at all? And then I’d hurried on, seething with that most dangerous kind of anger: the anger quietly conceived.
By a quarter past nine, in the private room of New York’s most exclusive club, that anger had departed, like a recalcitrant child retreating to his alcove to pout, and I was empty. My mind was as unruffled as the surface of a mountain lake.
The outer door swung open and Mr. Faulk stepped into the room, followed by a short, burly man wearing a wool jacket and a bowler hat. Behind him was a jowly, taller, and much older gentleman in a calf-length mink coat, carrying a shiny black cane. Mr. Faulk divested him of his outer garment, but his companion declined. I rose and crossed the room.
“Don Francesco,” I said with a bow. “Buon giorno.”
“Signore Competello,” Mr. Faulk said. “This is Mr. William Henry, the doctor’s allievo.”
The Camorra padrone tilted his massive head back to stare down his thick, flat nose at me. He turned to Mr. Faulk without taking my offered hand.
“Where is Dottore Warthrop?” he demanded.
“The doctor wishes to convey his deepest regrets,” I answered. “He has been unexpectedly delayed.”
Francesco Competello lowered himself into the love seat next to the fire, holding the cane upright between his legs, and his companion stood behind him with his hands in his pockets, looking at nothing, observing everything. I returned to the chair across from Competello. Mr. Faulk remained by the door, hands empty and loose by his sides.
“I come here because I am a peaceful man,” Competello said. His English was heavily accented but flawless. “It is why I left my country. Wars, vendettas, blood feuds, oppression . . . I did not flee; I was driven out. I also come because Warthrop is not my enemy and I do not wish harm upon him.”
I nodded soberly. He went on: “I am a businessman, yes? You understand? Vendettas, they are not good for business.” His eyes narrowed and he jabbed a thick finger in my direction. “But family is family. Il sangue non è acqua. And Warthrop should be upset by this? I am the wounded party here! What I love has been taken from me and I am to do nothing? No, no. I am a peaceful man, a reasonable man, but blood calls for blood.”
I was still nodding. “The dottore understands. He is a peaceful man too. He is a reasonable man. He too has lost much—he loved von Helrung as a son loves his father. The ledger sheet has been balanced, Signore Competello.”
“That is why I have come, to hear this from his lips. He does not ask often, but when he does, he asks much. I give. I repay the debt I owe him, for bringing me and my friends to this great country, and how do I repay? In blood. But does he make recompense for my loss? No! He asks me to make good on his. ‘I need the mostro that was taken. You must deliver it unto me.’”
“And you have,” I said. “Although I’m sure he mentioned he preferred that you deliver it alive. It was the last of its kind.”
His black eyes narrowed. He drummed his thick fingers upon the golden head of his cane.
“My promises were kept,” he said darkly. “That is more than I can say for him!”
I pointed out it was not Warthrop who was responsible for the deaths of his men—neither the one in the Monstrumarium nor his nephews on Elizabeth Street. That Warthrop—and his fellow scientists—had no quarrel with the Camorristi. A truce was desired and entirely warranted. In truth, monstrumology needed men like Competello: reasonable, discreet, undeterred by the niceties of the law. That the first death had been without our knowledge and outside our control, and the two that followed had been a terrible misunderstanding. That we would mourn for von Helrung but accept the cost of our misunderstanding. That our sole and most fervent desire was for peace.
He listened closely, stone-faced, drumming his fingers. When I finished, he turned to Mr. Faulk and said, “Who is this boy and why is he talking like this to me? Where is Dottore Warthrop? I am a busy man!”
I stood up. I apologized. “We won’t keep you any longer, Don Francesco.”
I shot him in the face. His bodyguard fumbled in his jacket pocket, and I shot him. He swayed, staggered backward; the bullet had punched him in the chest, but he was a heavy man with a low center of gravity, and I must have missed his heart. I stepped forward and fired again, aiming higher this time. His body hit the floor with a muffled thump, for the carpet was very thick.