The Final Descent
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I did not play dumb. What would be the point? “In the basement.”
He nodded. “I must have a look at it.”
“It’s alive,” I said.
“Well, of course it is. You wouldn’t have come looking for me if it weren’t.”
He stopped before me, placing his hands upon my shoulders and drilling into my bones with his dark, backlit eyes. “I hope you didn’t pay too much for it.”
“Maeterlinck received what was coming to him,” I said.
“You are now resisting the urge to brag.”
“No.” An honest answer.
“Or chide me for losing my temper.”
“You? You are the most even-tempered man I have ever met. It’s as you’ve always told me, sir: A man must control his passions lest they control him.”
Or, in the alternative, he might choose to have none at all and thereby escape the struggle entirely.
He laughed out loud and clapped me on the shoulder. “Let’s snap to it, then! It might be alive, as you say, but still could be a case of mistaken identity.”
He did not ask me for any particulars of the transaction, that night or ever. Did not ask the price or how it was arrived at or why I decided to seek out Maeterlinck myself without telling him. For all his flaws, Warthrop was not one to look a gift horse in the mouth. The path to immortality did not lie in that direction. He was proud of me, in his way, for taking initiative in the battle, as a good foot soldier in service to the cause.
And as for Maeterlinck: I never heard from him again. I can only assume he fled to London seeking a dead man who’d been left for carrion on an island six thousand miles away. Finding neither the man nor the antidote, since neither existed, he must have thought himself doomed, until the dire moment he thought must be coming never materialized. From time to time, I wonder if his heart was filled with rage or joy—rage for having been tricked in so cruel a manner, joy for having survived when death was all but certain. Perhaps neither, perhaps both; what did it matter? It certainly didn’t matter to me. He received the priceless gift, and I the prize beyond price.
“T. cerrejonensis!” Lilly whispered after hearing some—but not all—of the tale. “It can’t be, Will!”
“It is,” I said.
“They’ve been extinct for nearly a hundred years. . . .”
In a lavender gown, holding my wrist, looking into my face with depthless blue eyes.
“Or so everyone assumed,” I said.
In my morning suit, with carefully gelled hair fashionably long, smiling down into those eyes.
“Are you satisfied?” I whispered. “Shall we go on? Or do you wish to turn back? The dance is over, but I know this little club on the East Side . . .”
She pursed her lips impatiently and shook her curls and her luminous eyes glittered with a fire too bright for such dingy surroundings and I might have kissed her then, before that final turn, that last juncture, in her lavender dress with lace that whispered against her bare skin. But a man must control his passions lest they control him—if he has them. And that is the rub, the central question, the paramount if.
“Of course,” she scolded me. “Don’t be a fool.”
“I am no fool,” I assured her, and, clasping her hand firmly in mine, drew her around the last corner, the final turn, the terminus of the labyrinth, where the Locked Room waited for us.
I held up immediately, pushing her behind me with one hand while fumbling in my pocket for the doctor’s revolver with the other.
The door hung open.
The Locked Room was not.
And outside it a man lay facedown in a pool of blood that shimmered black in the amber light.
Behind me Lilly gasped. I eased forward, stepped carefully over the body, and stuck my head inside the room.
“Will!” she called softly, edging closer.
“Stay back!” I took in the scene within the room quickly, and then stepped back into the hall.
“Is it . . . ?”
I nodded. “Gone.”
I knelt by the man in the hall. Body warm, blood cool but tacky; he had not been dead long. The fatal wound was not hard to discern: a high-caliber bullet administered to the back of the head at close range.
I looked up at her; she looked down at us, at me and the dead man beside me.
“The key is still in the lock,” I said.
And she replied, “Adolphus.”
I sprang forward, seizing her hand as I went, and together we raced back to the office of the old man, the one who had told me, not so very long ago, that he would never join the monstrumological ranks because, in his words, They die! They die like turkeys on Thanksgiving Day!
His body was not quite as warm as the one lying in the hall. I flung him to the floor and pounded upon his chest and breathed into his open mouth—after flinging aside the upper dentures—and cried his name into his sightless eyes. I pulled open his jacket. His entire shirtfront was soaked in blood. I looked up at Lilly and shook my head. She covered her mouth and turned away, stumbled through the dusty detritus toward the door. I was upon her in two strides.
“Lilly!” I grabbed her arm and whirled her round. “Listen to me! Warthrop—you must find him. He’ll be back at our rooms at the Plaza—”
“The police . . . ?”
I shook my head. “This is no matter for the police.”
Pushing her toward the stairway.
“You aren’t coming?”
“I’ll wait for him here. We did not miss it by much, Lilly. He may still be down here—it, too.”
We had reached the foot of the stairs.
“Who may still be down here?”
“Whoever shot that man by the Locked Room.” But it wasn’t his killer I was most concerned about—it was Warthrop’s prize. Should it somehow escape . . .
“Then you cannot stay!” Pulling on my arm.
“I can handle myself.” On impulse I grabbed her bare shoulders and kissed her hard on the mouth. “For how long I cannot say—so hurry. Hurry!”
She clattered up the stairs, and the darkness swallowed her quickly. Then the resounding clang of the door slamming closed. Then silence.
I was alone.
Or was I?
Warthrop’s prize was down here in the pit with me, if someone hadn’t carted it off or, more terrible still, slain it.
Its sense of smell is exquisite, he had told me, making it a marvelous nocturnal hunter; it can sniff out its prey for miles.
I could huddle at the top of the stairs with my back to the door and wait for the doctor to arrive. That would give the creature but one way to reach me and myself a fair chance of killing it before it could kill me. It would be the prudent thing to do.
But it was the last of its kind. If cornered, I would have no choice but to defend myself, and Warthrop would never forgive me.
I took a deep breath and plunged back into the labyrinth.
The way is dark, the path is not straight. Easy to get lost, if you don’t know the way, easy to go in circles, easy to find yourself at the place from which you began.
Hold out your hands. Steady now. Don’t drop it! Carry it over to my worktable and set it there. Careful, it’s slippery.
And the boy, with the tattered hat to keep his head warm in the icy basement, presses the ropy bundle to his chest, shuffling across the floor slick with blood. The slithering and slipping of the cargo in his arms, the offal smearing his shirtfront, and the smell that assaults him. And the antiseptic clink and clatter of sharp instruments, and the man in the white coat with its copper-colored stains leaning over the metal necropsy table, and the boy’s numb fingers wet with effluvia, and the tears of protest that run down his cheeks and the hunger in his belly and the light-headedness of finding himself in this place where no pies cool on racks and no woman sings over a warm fire, just the man and his gore-encrusted nails and the peculiar crunch of the shears snapping through cartilage and bone and the strangely hypnotic beauty of a corpse flayed wide, its organs like exotic creatures of the lightless deep, the surreal humming of the man as he works, fingers digging deep, black eyes burning, forearms bulging, the taut muscles of his neck and the clenched jaw, and the eyes, the eyes burning.
Nothing human yet. We’ll take a look at those intestines in a moment. What are you doing over there? Set it down on the table; I need you here, Will Henry.
Here: by his side. Here: in this cold place where not a molecule of air moves. Here: the boy in the tattered hat smelling of smoke and the blood sticky on his bare hands and the thing opened up before him like a spring flower straining toward the sun.
The monstrumologist’s hands were sure and quick then, like all else about him. He was in his prime. None could match him in dexterity of mind; none shared in the purity of his animus. What heights might he have risen to if he had chosen a different path—if true passion could be chosen, like the ripest apple in the basket? Statecraft or poetry? Another Lincoln, perhaps, or a Longfellow. If a soldier, then a Grant or a Sherman or, to reach further back, an Alexander or a Caesar. It seemed nothing could contain him, in those days. No light shone brighter than his lamp. It was overwhelming for the boy in the tattered hat: He had never been in the presence of genius; he did not know how to behave or think or speak or any human thing; and so he was forced to look to the man in the stained white coat to guide him, to tell him how to behave and think and speak. He was the bloody corpse beneath the bright lamp splayed open, straining toward the sun.
Why are you staring like that? Are you going to be sick? Do you find it hideous? I find it beautiful—more splendid than a meadow in springtime. Hand me the chisel there. . . . I was younger than you when I assisted my father in the laboratory. I was so small I had to stand on a stepping stool to help him. I held a scalpel before I could hold a spoon. Good! Now the forceps; let’s have a look at this fellow’s incisors. No, the large forceps—oh, never mind, hand me the pliers there; that’s a good boy!
Later, at the worktable, standing on my tiptoes to watch him dissect the intestines of the beast, discovering at last evidence of its human victim, and the joy upon his face in counterpoint to my horror as he pulled it free with a soft squish.
We have found him, Will Henry! Or a bit of him anyway. Step lively; hand me that jar over there. Snap to, quickly! It’s falling apart on me. . . . Hmm. Very difficult to tell the age by this, but it could be him; it could be. They said he was a boy around your age. What do you think?
Rolling the molar around in his palm like a dice player.
A boy around your age, or so I’m told. . . . What do you think?
A boy around my age? And that is all that’s left of him? Where is the rest?
Well, where do you think it is? What isn’t used is discarded—defecated, to be technical about it. Like all living things do, what it didn’t convert to energy it shat out. Waste, Will Henry. Waste.
A human being. He is speaking of a human being, a boy around my age was the report, and all that is left is a tooth—the rest now part of the beast or in a pile of its shit.
And the boy in the tattered hat, in the tattered hat, in the tattered hat.