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He closed his eyes; his head fell back; his expression was one of complete peace and acceptance. He disappeared by degrees, first his arms and chest, then his neck, until for the last time his eyes came open, staring into my mine, unblinking and unconcerned.
“For Elizabeth,” he whispered.
He vanished into the bloody froth. I threw myself backward, scrambling away from the spot as fast as I could. The earth heaved, the walls rocked, huge chunks of ceiling shook loose and came crashing down. The concussion of the subsequent blast sent me flying. My fall was broken by, of all things, the body of the juvenile that Malachi’s bullet had brought down. Draped over it, I lay stunned for a moment, ears ringing, drenched in water and mud, flecks of flesh and bits of bone. I sat up and rubbed my eyes, the harsh residue of the powder that hung in the air like a fine aerosol burning in the back of my throat. I looked toward the epicenter of the holocaust. The explosion had created a ten-foot crater, in the center of which bubbles lazily ascended to the rosy surface.
Where was the doctor? I turned to my right, peering through the smoky haze, searching for the opening. Had it collapsed? Were he and Kearns now trapped beneath tons of earth? Had the entire structure, weakened by water and ripped apart by the explosion, crashed down upon their heads, crushing them or, worse, burying them alive?
I swayed for a moment upon unsteady legs, took a shuffling step toward the wall… and stopped. The smoke had cleared a bit and I could see the opening; it had not collapsed; but it wasn’t this welcome sight that gave me pause. It was a sound-the sound of something rising out of the bloody bombed-out crater behind me.
The hairs rose on the back of my neck. The skin between my shoulder blades tingled, the muscles twitched. Slowly I turned my head, and saw her towering form rear up, like an obscene mockery of Venus from the surf, her pale skin pock-marked with shrapnel wounds and painted with her and Malachi’s blood, one arm completely gone, torn off by the explosion, her body mangled horribly but her will unbroken. In the cruelest of ironies, Malachi’s body had shielded her from the brunt of the blast.
And now she, the matriarch, the mother of the Anthropophagi, with her one remaining eye spied me standing beside her precious progeny, whom her instincts demanded she defend, as the doctor had said, to her last breath with ruthless ferocity. Her own pain did not matter. The fact that she was herself mortally wounded did not matter. What animated her was as old as life itself, the same irresistible force that the doctor had marveled at in the pastor’s parlor: How strong is the maternal instinct, Will Henry!
That overriding compulsion now drove her toward the spot where I cowered, frozen in fear’s icy grip, wavering in indecisive agony, for even in her injured state she moved with frightening speed and would catch me should I make a run for the passageway-which may or may not still have been open.
The space between us had shrunk by half when I regained my wits, pulled the doctor’s revolver from my belt, and took aim, remembering as I started to pull the trigger the thing that had nagged at me before, the thing I should have remembered but couldn’t: bullets. I had forgotten to ask the doctor for more bullets. There was but one left.
One bullet. One chance. A wild shot or one that missed a vital organ and it was over. I was bound by the bitter fruit of my own forgetfulness.
She gathered herself for the final, finishing leap. Her extant arm came up. Her mouth came open. Her good eye with merciless malevolence shone. I had to stop her before she made that leap, and I did, though not with a bullet. Instead I turned her mother’s love against her.
I flung myself beside the body of her young and jammed the gun against its lifeless side, screaming stupidly at the top of my lungs while praying that no animal instinct told her the child I threatened no longer lived. My feet slipped out from under me, and I landed with a startled grunt upon my backside, my left arm curled awkwardly around its headless shoulders. My desperate gambit had worked, however, for she did not jump but came to a complete and sudden halt. She snuffed the air. She issued a low, gurgling call, like a cow in the pasture lowing for her calf.
She did not hesitate long, perhaps only a second or two, and then she renewed her charge, leading with the shoulder that held her remaining eye, closing down upon me until I could smell her putrid breath and see the rows of jagged three-inch teeth marching toward the back of her cavernous mouth.
Wait. Wait, Will Henry. Let her get close. You must let her get close! Closer. Closer. Ten feet. Five feet. Three. Two…
And when the beast was close enough that I could see my own reflection in its black, soulless orb, when all the world was her rotten stench and her snapping teeth and her slick, glistening, pallid skin, when I reached that instant wherein a hairsbreadth separates life from death, I smashed the muzzle against her groin and pulled the trigger.
THIRTEEN.“You Bear His Burden”
On a May morning of that same year, a month to the day since the old grave-robber’s midnight visit that began the singular curiosity of the Anthropophagi affair, as the doctor had taken to calling it, I was bounding up the stairs in answer to his incessant summonses, ignored for too long (I did not appear upon the first shout, in other words) and now shaking the house at 425 Harrington Lane to its foundations.
“Will Henry! Will Henreeeee!”
I found him in the lavatory, straight razor in hand, his half-shaven chin dotted in styptic, the water of his bowl a not unpleasant shade of pink.
“What are you doing?” he demanded upon my breathless entrance.
“You called me, sir.”
“No, Will Henry. What were you doing before I called you, and why did it take you so long to stop doing whatever it was that forbade you from coming in the first place?”
“I was cooking breakfast, sir.”
“Breakfast! What time is it?”
“Nearly nine o’clock, sir.”
“I detest shaving.” He held out the razor and sat upon the commode while I finished up his chin. “Is it finished?” he asked.
“There’s still the neck,” I answered.
“Not the shave, Will Henry. Breakfast.”
“Oh. No, sir, it isn’t.”
“No? Why not?”
“I had to stop.”
“You called me, sir.”
“Are you being cheeky, Will Henry?”
“I don’t try to be.”
He grunted. I wiped the blade clean. His eyes followed my hand. “How is the arm, Will Henry? I’ve not taken a look at it lately.”
“Much better, sir. I noticed last night the scars seem to glow in the dark.”
“That is an optical illusion.”
“Yes, sir. That was my conclusion too.”
“What is for breakfast?”
“Potato pancakes and sausage.”
He grimaced. The razor raked down his throat. There was a rhythm to it: scrape, scrape, wipe… scrape, scrape, wipe. His eyes never left my face.
“Any mail today, Will Henry?”
“And no mail yesterday. That is unusual.”
“Yesterday was Sunday, sir, and the mail doesn’t run till ten.”
“Sunday! Are you sure of that?”
I nodded. Scrape, scrape, wipe.
“I don’t suppose you remembered to pick up a scone or two at the market.”
“I did, sir.”
He sighed with relief. “Good. I think I shall have one of those.”
“You can’t, sir.”
“And why can’t I? Now you are being cheeky, Will Henry. I am the master of this house; I suppose I can have anything I please.”
“You can’t because you ate the last one last night.”
“I did?” He seemed genuinely surprised. “Really? I don’t remember that. Are you certain?”
I told him I was, and wiped the lathery remnants from his face with a warm towel. He looked in the mirror and gave his reflection a cursory glance.
“A pity,” he mused. “A pity squared: first that I have none to eat and second that I can’t remember eating one to begin with! Where is my shirt, Will Henry?”
“I think I saw it on your wardrobe, sir.”
I trailed behind him into the bedroom. As he buttoned his shirt, I said, “I could run down there now, sir.”
“Run down where?”
“To the market, for some scones.”
He waved his hand, absently dismissal. “Oh, I’m not really hungry.”
“You should eat something, though.”
He sighed. “Must we plow that same tiresome row again, Will Henry? What are you doing now?”
He started to say something, and then apparently changed his mind. “Anything in the papers today?”
I shook my head. One of my duties was to scan the dailies for tidbits that might interest him. Of late there seemed to be only one potentially hazardous matter that concerned him. “Nothing, sir.”
“Remarkable,” he said. “Not even in the Globe?”
I shook my head again. It had been more than a fortnight since he had reported the murder to the authorities, and to date only a brief notice and an obituary had appeared in Dedham ’s weekly. The police, it appeared, were not taking seriously the doctor’s allegations of foul play.
“Damn him,” the monstrumologist muttered. I did not know if he referred to Dr. J. F. Starr, the victim, or to Dr. John Kearns, his killer.
Warthrop had promised justice for Hezekiah Varner and those other poor unfortunates suffering behind the heavy padlocked doors of Motley Hill. That promise was kept, though doubtlessly not in the way he had anticipated. Indeed, I do not think that promise was foremost in his mind the morning we arrived in Dedham, three days after the felling of the mother Anthropophagus. It wasn’t justice he sought; it was answers. Not equity, but exorcism.
“Charming,” Kearns commented upon our arrival at the decrepit sanatorium. He had insisted, before taking his leave of New England, on accompanying us. He, too, wanted to verify Warthrop’s revised theory of the case-or so he said. “I was committed once. Have I ever told you, Pellinore? Oh, yes, for three long years before I managed to effect my escape. I was all of seventeen. The entire abysmal episode was my dear mother’s doing, God rest her angelic soul.” He looked down at me and smiled. “She is catalogued with your employer’s Society, under M for ‘Monsters, Maternal.’ Four days after my return she fell down the stairs and broke her neck.”
“Why did she commit you?” I asked.
“I was precocious.”
The erstwhile black-clad Mrs. Bratton showed little surprise at our unexpected appearance upon the sagging stoop. The doctor handed her his card and twenty dollars in gold, and presently we were escorted to the little parlor with its odiferous atmosphere and tired trappings, where the ancient alienist huddled in his dressing gown beneath a threadbare blanket, shivering despite the robust fire dancing in the hearth.
There were few preliminary pleasantries. With a gleam in his charcoal eyes, Kearns introduced himself as Dr. John J.J. Schmidt of Whitechapel.
“And what is your area of expertise, Doctor?” inquired the old man.