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“Anatomy,” answered Kearns.
Warthrop deposited two more coins upon the table by Starr’s elbow and immediately inaugurated the interrogation.
“Who were Slidell and Mason?” he asked.
“Madmen,” murmured Starr.
“Is that a formal diagnosis?” wondered Kearns.
“No, but I assure you, Dr. Schmidt, madness is my area of expertise.”
“They were agents of the Confederacy?” pressed the doctor.
“They never claimed to be, Warthrop, at least not to me, but I met them only once, and that briefly. Certainly they were fanatical over ‘the cause,’ as they called it, the most dangerous kind of fanatics too: fanatics with fabulous sums at their disposal.”
“My father introduced you,” said the doctor. It was not a question.
The old man nodded, and even that small gesture propelled him into a coughing jag that lasted at least two minutes, at the end of which he produced the same disgusting scrap of cloth and spat into it. Beside me Kearns chuckled, as if something about the ritual delighted him.
“And who did my father say they were?”
Kearns stifled a guffaw. The doctor shot him a look and turned back to Starr. “Philanthropists?”
“Interested-keenly interested, in their words-in the advancement of the science of eugenics.”
“Fanatical philanthropists,” ventured Kearns, still chuckling.
“My father,” said Warthrop. “He enlisted their aid in an experiment.”
Starr nodded. “As I understood it, it involved the merger of the two species.”
“Oh, dear God!” Kearns ejaculated with mock horror.
Warthrop’s revulsion was not feigned, however. “Anthropophagi with Homo sapiens? To what possible purpose?”
“The obvious one, Pellinore,” said Kearns. “A killing machine with an intellect on par with its bloodthirstiness. The ultimate predator. The bestial equivalent to Nietzsche’s Übermensch.”
“I don’t think he looked at it that way, Dr. Schmidt,” said Starr. “ They might have, Mason and Slidell, but not Warthrop. ‘It may be in our power to give a soul to the soulless,’ he told me in private. ‘Mercy to the merciless. Humanity to the inhuman.”’
“And you agreed,” said Warthrop.
“Not at first. I rebuffed the offer outright. I had no desire to play God.”
“But you changed your mind. Why?”
Starr stayed silent. His chest rattled in counterpoint to his tortured breath. Warthrop added two more coins to the stack.
“How do you know I changed it?” the geezer croaked.
“You shut up Varner for them. Convinced the court he was insane and locked him away lest anyone ever believe his tale.”
“Varner was mad as a hatter.”
“And you agreed to the second part of the bargain.”
Starr wet his purplish lips. “There was no other part,” he insisted. “What is this about, Warthrop? What do you want from me? I am an old man, a dying old man, I might add. Why have you come here to badger me about the past?”
Warthrop whirled and, seizing my wounded arm, shoved it under the agitated alienist’s nose.
“Because it isn’t the past,” he growled. He released me and leaned into the old man’s face. “You ask what I want. I will answer with the same question: What is it that you want, Jeremiah Starr? You have my word as a gentleman I will tell no one what transpires between us this day. You shall not spend the remainder of your miserable little life in prison or end it upon the gallows, though the blood of your countless victims calls to heaven for it! I know most and suspect I know the rest, but I wish to hear it, and there is no one left alive to confess to it but you. You have my word; what else?”
Starr refused to answer, but his greed betrayed him: His rheumy gaze flickered for an instant to the stack of coins at his elbow. Warthrop opened his purse and dumped the entire contents onto the table. The coins clattered, cascaded to the worn carpet. One landed heads-up on top of the old man’s throw.
“There!” Warthrop cried. “All I have with me. Tomorrow I’ll give you ten times that, only answer the question so the matter can be put to rest once and for all… The creatures in my father’s care needed two things to survive during the course of this ‘experiment’ in eugenics, whatever its true purpose: a safe haven, which no doubt Mason and Slidell funded, and food. Yes? They built the subterranean enclosure and you supplied the meals. Yes? Say ‘yes,’ you damnable monster.”
“Yes,” said Starr. A coughing fit doubled him over, and when he sat back, his face was the color of ripe strawberries. Spittle dotted his stubbly chin. Warthrop recoiled in disgust.
“And when the war ended…?”
“He offered to finance it himself,” Starr admitted. “He could not let it go.”
“Not let it go?” The doctor seemed aghast. “Not let what go?”
“He had grown rather fond of them, I think. Rather like his pets or children. I mean no offense, Warthrop. He was very possessive of them.”
“And you cared not where the money came from.”
“Warthrop,” replied Starr in a condescending tone. “Really. These…” He waved his mottled claw in the air, searching for the word. “Patients, so-called, they are the dregs of society. They come here because there is literally no place else for them to go. No family, or none that would claim them. All are insane-most criminally so, and those who are not have the intellectual capacity of a turnip root. They are human garbage, discarded by men, toxic to the general populace and to themselves, forgotten, unwanted, cruel, comical mockeries of all things that make us human. They could rot here or they could be sacrificed to the higher good.”
“With the added benefit that if they vanished, they would not be missed.”
Starr nodded, appearing relieved that the doctor understood. “They would not be missed,” he echoed.
“And you kept your end of the bargain,” prompted Warthrop, his jaw clenched. He would see the truth out whatever the cost. The coins glittered in the lamplight, part of that cost, but not the greatest to him. “Every month, until he died and the money stopped coming, you transported two or three victims to New Jerusalem.”
“No, no, no,” objected Starr. “Right in the essentials, Warthrop, wrong in the particulars. I never brought them over. I had a man for that job. And I didn’t stop sending them.”
Warthrop was flabbergasted. “What do you mean, you didn’t stop?”
“I mean just that, Warthrop. I didn’t stop.”
Beside me Kearns murmured, “That cannot be true.”
The doctor ran his hands through his hair. He collapsed into a chair and rested his elbows on his knees, speaking now to his shoes, “Why didn’t you stop?” he managed to ask.
“Your father begged me not to. He established a fund for their safekeeping. He was concerned the experiment had put him in an untenable position: If he cut off their food supply, they would simply look for it elsewhere. I happened to agree with him. The genie was out of the bottle, Pandora’s box had been opened; there really was no choice but to continue.”
“Otherwise real people might die,” suggested Kearns. He was nodding and smiling at the wicked old man, as if to say, We are simpatico, you and I.
“Yes! That’s it exactly.” Starr nodded eagerly. “So after he died, nothing changed. Once a month at the stroke of midnight I dispatched Peterson to the cemetery with a load.”
“A three-hour journey, putting feeding time at three a.m.,” said Kearns. “The witching hour.”
Warthrop was shaking his head. “Your story does not match the evidence of the case, Starr. An alpha male was discovered feeding upon a corpse; only Anthropophagi pushed to the edge of starvation would resort to that. They had recently dug their way to the surface: unnecessary if you were serving them fresh meat every month. And I do not think the sealing of the tunnel between the nesting and the feeding chambers was the result of any natural phenomenon. You say you never stopped, but you must have stopped.”
“Yes, yes, yes,” retorted Starr impatiently. “You indicated I must have stopped after your father died, and I said I did not, for he had left funds for my trouble and expense. That money ran out, Warthrop, in December of last year. Their last feeding was on Christmas Day.”
Kearns barked a laugh. “O holy night!”
“Then Peterson dynamited the tunnel, sealing off the abominations on the other side.”
“Peterson,” echoed Kearns.
“Yes, Peterson. I trust him completely; he’s been doing the job since the beginning.”
“What is his Christian name?”
“Jonathan. Why do you ask?”
Warthrop gave Kearns no chance to respond. “You assumed they would starve to death.”
“I thought it the wisest course. It was something your father and I discussed before his death. If it makes you feel any better, Warthrop, he did express morbid remorse from time to time; I don’t think the operation gave him any joy. More than once he mentioned to me the possibility of terminating the experiment-starving them, poisoning them, setting their pens ablaze. But at heart he was an optimist, I think.” Starr added, “He truly thought with enough time he could tame them.”
“Tame them?” asked Warthrop. “I thought the idea was to interbreed them.”
“Oh, he gave up on that after a few years,” said Starr with another wave of his splotchy talon. “Every potential mate I sent over they simply tore to pieces.”
Kearns laughed. “Not too different from human marriage!”
Warthrop was nodding, but not at Kearns ’s cynical observation. “That explains all of it, or nearly all. There was no reason to leave the safety of their man-made dens, until their food supply was cut off and hunger drove them to the surface. I had assumed the attack upon the Stinnets was a territorial response brought about by our trespass upon their domain…” The monstrumologist sighed, an exhalation of both relief and painful acknowledgment. “I was wrong. Wrong in my assumption and wrong in my response. But not all questions have been answered, Starr. Why did you let Varner live? Wouldn’t it have been safer to discard him in the pit with the other ‘garbage’?”
“Dear God, Warthrop, what do you take me for? I may be avaricious, but I am not completely corrupt.”
I thought of flies buzzing maddeningly upon a windowpane, of their repugnant progeny squirming in open sores, of boots filled with liquefying flesh. I am not completely corrupt.
“Oh, no,” agreed Kearns. He crossed the room to stand before the withered, wheezing old man. With great tenderness he said, “To the contrary, you are a humanitarian, Dr. Starr. Let no one tell you otherwise! An anthropological alchemist, turning lead into gold! The chains that bind most men do not bind you, and in this you and I are brothers, dear Jeremiah. We are the new men of a new and glorious age, free of lies and unbound by any ridiculous rectitude.”