The Isle of Blood
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He sipped his espresso and allowed his eye to roam dreamily over the winsome landscape, his gaze as languid as the water of the Canalasso.
“Here is the trouble with Venice,” he said. “Once you have seen it, every other place seems dull and tired by comparison, so you are always reminded of where you are not.” His eye was drawn to two comely young ladies walking arm in arm along the Molo, where the sun sparked and spat bright flashes of gold upon the blue water. “The same is true about nearly everything else Venetian.”
He stroked his new whiskers thoughtfully. “Monstrumology, too. In a different way. You’ve been with me long enough, Will Henry; you must know what I mean. Would not life seem terribly… well, boring, without it? I am not saying it has always been enjoyable or even pleasant for you, but can you imagine how mundane and interminably gray life would be if you had to give it up?”
“I have imagined it, sir.”
He looked closely at me. “And?”
“I was… I had my chance to…” I could not look at him. “I lived with Dr. von Helrung’s niece while you were gone—Mrs. Bates—and she offered to adopt me—”
“Adopt you!” He seemed astounded. “For what?”
My face felt warm. “For my own good, I think.”
He snorted, saw my wounded expression, set down his cup, and said, “And you said no.”
“My place is with you, Dr. Warthrop.”
He nodded. What did that nod mean? He agreed my place was with him? Or was he merely assenting to my decision regardless of his own opinion? He did not say, and I dared not ask.
“I was there, you know,” he said. “On the night you were born. Your mother was staying in one of the guest rooms—a matter of convenience. My convenience, I mean. I had just received a fresh specimen and required your father’s assistance in the dissection. We were in the basement when your mother went into labor two floors above us, so we did not hear her cries until we came upstairs several hours later. James rushed up, came back down again, and then dragged me to her bedside.”
I stared at him in disbelief. “I was born at Harrington Lane?”
“Yes. Your parents never told you?”
I shook my head. It wasn’t something I would have asked them. “And you delivered me?”
“Did I say that? What did I just say? I said I was dragged to your bedside by your agitated father. As I recall, your mother’s words were, ‘Do not let that man come near me!’” He chuckled. “I had the impression your mother did not like me very much.”
“She told Father your work would kill him one day.”
“Did she? Hmmm. A prescient remark, though the prediction came true in a roundabout way.” He stroked the whiskers on his chin and regarded the statue of Saint Theodore slaying the dragon atop the granite column nearby.
“Did you, Dr. Warthrop?”
“Did I what?”
“I am not a midwife, Will Henry. Neither am I a physician. I know how to kill things, cut things up, and preserve things. How do you suppose that qualifies me to bring life into the world?” He would not look at me, though, and I found it very hard to look at him. He crossed his legs and clasped his hands over his upraised knee, the delicate fingers interlaced. Were those the first hands that had held me? Were those the eyes that first saw me and the eyes that I first saw? It was a dizzying thought for reasons I could not articulate.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” I asked.
“It is not the sort of thing that comes up naturally in conversation,” he answered. “Why the look of dismay, Will Henry? I was born in that house too. It does not carry with it—as far as I know—the mark of Cain.”
We lingered in the piazzetta until sunset. The doctor drank four espressos, the last in a single swallow, and when he stood up, his entire body seemed to vibrate inside his clothes. He strode off without a backward glance, leaving me to keep up the best I could in the burgeoning crowd, passing the magnificent Basilica di San Marco before turning into the Piazzetta dei Leoncini. There I lost him in the throng, then caught sight of him again as he was leaving the square, striding east along Calle de Canonica toward the canal.
He stopped abruptly before an open doorway and stood absolutely still, a striking image after the fury of motion, now as motionless as a statue in the velvet dusk. I heard him murmur, “I wonder if… How long has it been?” He looked at his watch, snapped it shut, and motioned for me to follow him inside.
We entered a dimly lit low-ceilinged room crowded with wooden tables, mostly unoccupied, at the rear of which was a small stage. The platform was bare except for an ancient upright piano pushed against the wall. The doctor sat down at a table close to the stage, beneath a dance hall poster that somehow managed to cling to the crumbling plaster of the wall. A basset-hound-faced middle-aged man wearing a stained apron asked us what we wanted to drink. Warthrop ordered another caffè, his fifth, to which the cameriere replied, “No caffè. Vino. Vino or spritz.” The monstrumologist sighed and ordered a spritz. It would sit untouched; Warthrop did not drink alcohol. He asked our sad-faced waiter if someone named Veronica Soranzo still sang at the club. “Sì. She sings,” he said, and disappeared through the doorway to the right of the stage.
The doctor settled into his chair and leaned his head against the wall. He closed his eyes.
“Yes, Will Henry.”
“Shouldn’t we be getting back to the station now?”
“I am waiting.”
“For an old friend. Actually, three old friends.”
He opened one eye, closed it again. “And the first has just arrived.”
I turned in my chair and saw a hulking, slump-shouldered man filling the doorway. He wore a rumpled overcoat that was much too heavy for the clement weather, and a battered felt hat. It was not by his hair—the hat hid most of that—but by his eyes that I recognized him. I gasped and blinked, and he was gone.
“Rurick!” I whispered. “He followed us here?”
“He has been following us since we left the station house. He and his hairless cohort, the diminutive Gospodin Plešec, have wandered through all of Venice with us; they sat upon the steps of the Basilica di San Marco this afternoon while we enjoyed our drinks in the piazzetta.”
“What should we do?”
His eyes remained closed, his expression serene. He hadn’t a care in the world. “Nothing.”
What was the matter with him? Rurick is the real brute, a bloody, soulless predator, Arkwright had said. Warthrop must have thought we were safe inside this pathetic dive, but we could not stay ensconced here forever.
“That’s two old friends accounted for,” the doctor said. “Rurick is in front, so Plešec must be watching the back.” He opened his eyes and sat up straight. Bits of plaster from the crumbling wall rained to the floor behind his chair.
“And here comes the third!” He leaned forward, resting his forearms on his knees. His eyes gleamed in the shivery flicker of the gas jets.
A man in a wrinkled white shirt and black vest emerged from the doorway beside the stage, dipped slightly at the waist toward the meager audience, and sat down at the piano. He raised his hands high over the keys, held them suded there for a dramatic moment, and then brought them smashing down, launching into a rollicking rendition of “A Wand’ring Minstrel I” from The Mikado. The instrument was badly out of tune, and the man’s technique was horrible, but he was a very physical musician, throwing his entire body into the effort. His buttocks popped up and down in rhythm on the rickety stool while he swayed in time, a human metronome, a man who played the piano as if it played him.
Abruptly, with no bridge whatsoever, he switched to Violetta’s aria from La Traviata, and a woman emerged from the doorway dressed in a faded red gown, her long dark hair flowing freely over her bare shoulders. Her face was heavy with stage paint; still, she was a striking woman, on the cusp of her middle years, I guessed, with sparkling chocolate-colored eyes that, like those of so many Italian women, bespoke of promise as well as danger. I cannot say her voice rose to the level of her looks. In fact, it wasn’t very good at all. I glanced at the monstrumologist, who was listening in a state of complete rapture. I wondered what so entranced him; it could not have been her singing.
He pounded on the table at the conclusion of the song, shouting “Bravo! Bravissimo!” while the other patrons politely clapped and then turned back quickly to their bottles. The woman skipped lightly from the stage and swept straight toward us.
“Pellinore! Dear, dear, Pellinore!” She kissed him lightly on both cheeks. “Ciao, amore mio. Mi sei mancato tanto.” She ran her hand over his whiskered cheek and added, “But what is this?”
“Don’t you like it? I think it makes me look distinguished. Veronica, this is Will Henry, James’s son, and my latest acquisizione.”
“Acquisizione!” Her brown eyes danced with delight. “Ciao, Will Henry, come sta? I knew your father well. E ‘molto triste. Molto triste! But, Pellinore, perché sei qui a Venezia? Lavoro o piacere?” she asked, sliding into the chair beside him. At that moment our waiter came back with the doctor’s spritz. Veronica snapped her fingers at him, and he left, returning a moment later with a glass of wine.
“It is always a pleasure to be in Venice,” the monstrumologist answered. He lifted his glass to salute her but did not take a sip.
She turned those laughing eyes back to me and said, “The looks of a farabutto, the words of a politico!”
“Veronica is saying she likes my new whiskers,” the doctor said in response to my baffled expression.
“They make you look old and tired,” she opined with a sniff.
“Perhaps it isn’t the beard,” Warthrop returned. “Perhaps I “Tired, sì. Old, never! You have not aged a day, not an hour since I saw you last. How long has it been? Three years?”
“Six,” he answered.
“No! As long as that? It is no wonder, then, why I have been so lonely!” She turned to me. “You will tell me, yes? What brings the great Pellinore Warthrop all the way to Venice? He is in trouble, isn’t he?” And then to the doctor: “Who is it this time, Pellinore? The Germans?”
“Actually, it’s the Russians.”
She stared at him for a moment before dissolving into laughter.
“And the British,” Warthrop added, raising his voice slightly. “Though I’ve managed to put them off, for a while at least.”
“Sidorov?” she asked.
He shrugged. “Probably somewhere in the mix.”
“So it is business, then. You did not come to see me.”
“Signorina Soranzo, how could I come all this way and not see you? To me, you are Venice.”
Her eyes narrowed; the compliment did not sit well.
“I suppose you could say I am in a bit of trouble,” he hurriedly continued. “The problem being twofold. The first part is very large, heavily armed, and loitering outside on the Calle de Canonica. The second, I think, is in the alleyway behind us. He is not so large but carries a knife that is. My problem is compounded by the fact that my train is scheduled to depart in an hour.”