The Final Descent
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He nodded, but moved not a muscle. I pulled a blank check from my shirt pocket and laid it on the table beside the snifter. He finished his drink. Set the empty glass beside the check. He stepped over to the bed, knelt, pulled out from beneath it a crate constructed of slatted boards, and set it carefully upon the mattress. The color was high in his cheek. I rose and handed him his glass, which I had filled while his back was to me, then addressed the crate. The top was hinged. I undid the heavy clasp on the opposite side and pulled up the lid.
Nestled in a bower of straw was an egg, dull gray and leathery in appearance, roughly the size and shape of an ostrich egg. The shell—though it more resembled human flesh cracked and brown from too much sun—was slightly translucent; I could see something dark moving beneath the surface, a black pulsing something, and my heart quickened.
Behind me Maeterlinck said, “You’ve no idea the trouble it is. New England is not the tropics, and keeping it warm is a constant worry and obstacle. I’m up all night tending to it. Putting it by the fire so it doesn’t get too cold. Pulling it away so it doesn’t get too hot. I am exhausted in mind and body.”
I nodded absently. I could not tear my eyes away from the object in the box. It would be beyond price.
Maeterlinck’s voice rose in consternation. “Well, then? Are you satisfied? I am willing to let you take delivery immediately upon receipt of payment. I usually only accept cash, but in this case I’m willing—”
“You should have brought it, Maeterlinck,” I murmured. It took every ounce of my willpower not to touch the egg, to feel the warmth of its life beneath my hand. “If he had seen it, he would have lost all self-control and forgotten to be stingy.” I closed the lid carefully. “Some men lust for gold, others for power. The monstrumologist is that rare man who covets what others would destroy. But it is not too late. I think we can come to an agreement, you and I.”
I swung away from the bed and returned to the chair between the table and the fireplace. He remained standing for a moment, then sank into the chair across from me with a sigh. He rubbed his eyes. I filled his glass a third time.
“One million dollars,” he said, though I could tell from his tone that the price was not firm. He was willing to negotiate and be done with this unnerving business.
I picked up the check. “Too much and you know it.”
He was losing patience with me. “Then tell me what you’re willing to offer, boy.” He sneered the word. It offended his dignity, being forced to bargain with someone far less than half his age.
I played with the check, turning it over and over in my hands, my heart pounding furiously. Part of me had the strange sense of having been here before, as if he and I were acting out a scene a hundred times rehearsed, the other part that I was a mere spectator to the melodrama, restless, a bit bored, wondering how long till intermission.
“Nothing,” said I, the actor, the onlooker.
He watched, speechless, while I tore the check in two and slipped the pieces into my pocket.
“Get out,” he said when he found his voice.
“But you haven’t heard my counteroffer. I am prepared to tender something far more valuable than money, Maeterlinck. This find is priceless, and I will pay you in kind. I don’t need to spell it all out for you, do I? Everyone knows the one thing that is beyond price.”
He jumped to his feet; his chair fell back, clattered to the floor. He fumbled in his pocket and his hand came out gripping a derringer pistol.
“It is too late for that,” I said levelly.
“No, you supercilious young pup, it is too late for you. Get out!”
He swayed; he tried to steady himself with his free hand upon the tabletop, but the room was spinning around him, the center would not hold, and the gun slipped from his fingers and fell to the floor. His eyes were wide, the pupils grossly dilated, the lids fluttering frantically like a butterfly’s wings.
“What have you done?” he whispered hoarsely. “What in heaven’s name have you done?”
“Nothing at all in heaven’s name,” I replied, and then I watched him fall.
I set the box on the floor. Laid Maeterlinck upon the bed. Removed the syringe from my pocket and placed it on the bedside table. Then I rolled up his shirtsleeve. I picked up the derringer and placed it on the table beside the syringe.
The sleeping draft would wear off in less than twenty minutes. I checked my watch, and waited.
Where did I fail?
You didn’t fail me, sir. You succeeded past all expectations. The wisest teacher desires to be surpassed by his student, and I have surpassed you: My lamp burns brighter than yours; it allows not the remotest corner a smidgen of dark; I see clear to the bottom of the well. And what I see is all there is and nothing more. There is no room in science for any sentimental thing.
I had considered the alternative.
An overdose of the anesthetic. Or a pillow over his face while he slept. But disposing of the body posed a problem. How to remove it from the room without being seen? And even if I could accomplish that feat, there would be inquiries; I knew nothing about this man, where he was from, who had hired him, if anyone had, and who, if anyone, knew his business here. There were simply too many unknowns, too many places where the brightest of lights could not reach.
I had another drink. The room was overly warm now. I unbuttoned my vest, rolled up my sleeves. From a great distance I watched myself return to the bed. I had been here before; I had never been here.
Do you know what this is, Kendall?
Maeterlinck’s eyes roamed beneath the jittery lids. I picked up the syringe filled with amber-colored liquid and rolled it between my hands, five fingers on one, four on the other. The missing finger floated in a jar of preserving solution in the doctor’s basement. He’d chopped it off that I might live. I was indispensable to him, you see. I was the one thing that kept him human.
The man’s eyes opened. A few seconds before the world came into focus, but before his senses fully returned, I clamped my left hand upon his wrist and with my right jammed the needle home. His body stiffened as his head whipped toward my face, which was hovering a few inches over his, like a lover about to give him a kiss. I tossed the syringe aside and pressed my free hand upon his moving mouth, hard.
“You must remain very still and listen very carefully,” I whispered. “It can’t be undone, Maeterlinck, and if you wish to live, you must do exactly what I say. The slightest deviation would have devastating consequences. Do you understand?”
He nodded beneath my hand. His brain was still a bit foggy from the drug, but he gathered the gist of my meaning.
“You have been injected with a ten percent solution of tipota,” I informed him, keeping my hand upon his mouth, the other on his wrist. “A slow-acting poison derived from the sap of the pyrite tree, indigenous to a small island near the Galápagos Archipelago called the Isle of Demons. Tipota, from the Greek. Do you know Greek, Maeterlinck? No? It doesn’t matter.”
I reviewed for him a brief history of the toxin, how it had been discovered by the ancient Phoenicians and brought to Egypt, why it was preferred by assassins and certain governments’ secret police (extremely slow-acting in the proper dosages, giving the perpetrators days to effect their getaway), what he might expect in the coming hours—headaches, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, dizziness, nausea, insomnia—the lecture delivered in a dry monotone, like that of a white-coated man to a hall filled with other white-coated men. And Maeterlinck quivering beneath my grip, nodding with wide-eyed enthusiasm. It was, after all, the most important lecture he would ever hear.
“You have about a week,” I told him. “One week until your heart muscle blows apart and your lungs shred to pieces. Your only hope for survival is receiving the antidote before that happens. Here.” I stuffed a piece of paper into his shirt pocket. “His name and address.”
Dr. John Kearns, Royal London Hospital, Whitechapel.
“If you leave tonight, you might have just enough time,” I went on. “He is a close friend of the doctor’s, a doctor himself as a matter of fact, Warthrop’s spiritual twin and polar opposite, a man who has seen to the bottom of the well, if you follow my meaning. He will give you the antidote if you give him the name: tipota. Do not forget.”
I stepped back, scooping up the derringer from the nightstand.
And his mouth came open, and he said, “You’re mad.”
“To the contrary,” I answered. “I am the sanest person alive.”
I gestured toward the door with the gun. “I suggest you hurry, Maeterlinck. Every second is precious now.”
He eyed me for a moment, his wet lips twisting into a grimace of fear and rage. He scooted to the edge of the bed, swung his legs over the side, pushed himself off, and then crumpled into a heap with a startled cry. It was the remnant of the sleeping draft that dropped him, of course, not the tinted saline I had shot into his veins. He reached for me without thinking, the natural instinct, the human affliction. I stared down at him from the upper atmosphere, Maeterlinck a miniscule speck writhing at my feet, so far beneath me that no feature was distinct, so close I could see down to the marrow of his bones.
I could have killed him. It was within my power. But I stayed my hand, and so am I not merciful?
I found the monstrumologist in the library where I had left him, slouched in a chair, a volume of Blake open upon his lap, but he was not reading it; he was staring off into space with a melancholy expression. He did not react when I entered the room, did not rise to greet me or demand to know where I had been or why I had been gone so long. He closed his eyes and laced his fingers together over the book, leaned back his head, and said, “I have been thinking I acted rashly in dismissing this Maeterlinck fellow without demanding proof of his claim. It would be an extraordinary find and would seal my place as the foremost practitioner of my craft in the world.”
“You’ve already secured that place, many times over,” I assured him.
“Ah.” Rolling his head back and forth. “Fame is fleeting, Will. It is not fame I crave; it is immortality.”
“Perhaps you should seek out a priest.”
He chuckled. His right eye came open to consider me, closed again.
“Too easy,” he murmured.
He cleared his throat. “I’ve always thought, if heaven is such a wonderful place, why is entering it so absurdly easy? Confess your sins, ask forgiveness—and that is all? No matter what your crimes?”
“I haven’t been to church since my parents died,” I answered. “But if memory serves, there are one or two crimes for which there is no forgiveness.”
“Again, then what sort of god is this? His love is either infinite or it is not. If it is, there can be no crime beyond forgiveness. If not, we should pick a more honest god!”
He placed the book on the table beside him and stood up. He stretched his long arms over his head.
“But I have little patience for mysteries of the unsolvable variety. Tell me, where have you put it?”