- Text Font:
- Text Size:
- Line Height:
- Line Break Height:
He placed his hands on either side of Starr’s weathered pate, cupping his face while he bent low to purr into his oversize ear, “The only truth is the truth of the now. ‘There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.’ There is no morality, is there, Jeremiah, but the morality of the moment.”
And with that, John Kearns, student of human anatomy and hunter of monsters, with his bare hands gave his victim’s head a violent twist, snapping his neck, severing his spine cord, killing him instantly.
Then, brushing past a stunned and speechless Warthrop on his way out of the room, he said this, with no trace of irony: “He will not be missed.”
The doctor could barely contain his fury, though by all outward signs he appeared perfectly collected; but I knew him too well. He held his tongue until we had turned off the narrow lane to the house on Motley Hill, and then he turned on Kearns.
“It is murder, Kearns, plain and simple.”
“It was a mercy killing, Warthrop, simple and plain.”
“You’ve given me no choice.”
“One always has that, Pellinore. May I ask a question? What would happen should the old coot’s heart suddenly spring to life and he makes a deathbed confession to his crimes? Would you not like to continue your life’s work?… Sorry, that was two questions.”
“I have a better question,” retorted Warthrop. “What is my choice if staying silent allows you to continue your life’s work?”
“Why, Pellinore, you wound my feelings. Who is to say whose work is more worthy of approbation? ‘Judge not, lest you be judged.”’
“They say no one knows the Bible better than the devil.”
Kearns laughed merrily, reined in his mount, and turned back toward town.
“Where are you going now?” demanded the doctor.
“To and fro in the earth, my dear monstrumologist, walking up and down in it! Look for me upon the rising of the moon; I shall return!”
He spurred his horse and rode off at a full gallop. Warthrop and I watched him until he disappeared behind the crest of the last hill. The doctor was chewing his bottom lip anxiously.
“Do you know where he’s going, sir?” I asked.
He nodded. “I think so.” He sighed, and then laughed long, softly, and bitterly. “‘John J. J. Schmidt’! Do you know, Will Henry, I don’t think Kearns is his real name either.”
He kept his word, though, whatever his true name was. An hour after our dinner, as the full moon lifted her silvery head above the treetops, he returned, retreating to his room without a word for either of us, only to clump down the stairs again in fresh clothing, draped in his traveling cloak, bags in hand.
“Well, Pellinore, I’m off,” he announced. “Jolly good fun this, but I don’t wish to overstay my welcome, which I suspect I might have by at least a day.”
“More than one, John,” replied Warthrop dryly. “What have you done to Jonathan Peterson?”
“Who?” He seemed genuinely bewildered. “Oh! The old codger’s lackey. Yes. Him. Why do you ask that?”
“Where is he?”
He shook his head sadly. “No one seems to be able to find him, Pellinore. It is a sad case.”
Warthrop said nothing for a moment, and then, gravely: “I still intend to inform the authorities.”
“Right, and really I can’t blame you for it, so I will make no more appeals to your good sense. It’s rather like God switching the covenant to the insects.” He giggled into the doctor’s stony countenance. “Do you know why I like you so much, Warthrop? You’re so bloody earnest.”
He turned to me. “And you, Will Henry! No hard feelings, I hope, about that unfortunate incident in the caves; it really couldn’t be helped. Not that I would, but if I ever told anyone of your bravado in battle, I would be taken for a liar. You shall make an excellent monstrumologist someday, if you can survive the tutelage of Warthrop here. Goodbye, Will.”
He shook my hand and tousled my hair. The doctor asked, “Where are you off to next, Kearns?”
“Oh, really, Pellinore, you threaten to turn me in and then ask for my whereabouts? I’m not a complete fool, no Bobby Morgan, after all. By the way, however did you convince him not to throw you in jail?”
Warthrop stiffened, and said, “Robert is an old friend of mine. He understands the importance of my work.”
“Keeping you on the hunt keeps New Jerusalem safer? Tell that to the good reverend Stinnet and his clan.”
“I thought,” the doctor said evenly, “that you were leaving.”
“So I am! In all seriousness, though, I do think I need a nice long holiday. A more leisurely kind of hunt, a less daunting quarry to tax me, particularly since I shan’t have the indispensable services of Master Will Henry here.”
“Another matter I haven’t forgotten,” the doctor replied darkly. “You should leave, Kearns, before I begin to dwell too long upon it.”
He took the doctor’s advice, taking his leave at once, and the next morning Warthrop kept his promise, reporting the murder to the authorities, though nothing, to my knowledge, ever came of it. One notice appeared in the papers regarding the mysterious disappearance of Jonathan Peterson, but to my knowledge, nothing else; his body was never found.
We did not speak much of Jack Kearns after that spring of ’88. The topic seemed to subject the doctor to moral dilemmas with which he did not care to be burdened.
But in the late fall of that year the subject did come up in a roundabout way. I was in the dining room polishing the family silver when I heard a loud cry from the library and the sound of something heavy falling to the floor. Alarmed, I rushed to the room, expecting to find the doctor collapsed in a heap. (He had been working very hard for days without sleep or sustenance.) Instead I discovered him wearing a path back and forth on the carpet, incessantly running his hand through his hair, long overdue for a trim, muttering angrily to himself. He stopped when he spied me in the doorway and watched silently as I scurried to pick up the small table he had hurled down in his consternation. Next to the table was the front section of the Times of London. The headline under the masthead blared: RIPPER STRIKES AGAIN/WHITECHAPEL KILLER CLAIMS FOURTH VICTIM.
Whitechapel. I had heard that name, in the parlor of the house on Motley Hill six months before: Dr. John J. J. Schmidt of Whitechapel.
The doctor said nothing as I read the gruesome article, remained silent for a few seconds when I looked up at him, and it was I who at last broke that awful silence.
“Do you think…,” I asked. There was no need to finish the question.
“What do I think?” he said rhetorically. “I think Malachi should have taken him up on his offer.”
After dressing and picking over the profoundly disappointing potato pancakes (he left the sausage untouched), the doctor summoned me to the basement. It was time for my bimonthly checkup.
I sat upon the tall metal stool. He shone a bright light into my eyes, took my blood pressure and temperature, measured my pulse, examined the back of my throat. He drew a vial of blood from my arm. I watched, quite accustomed to the ritual by this point, as he squirted a small amount of iodine solution into the tube and swirled the concoction for a few seconds. You will have to know how to do this, Will Henry, he had told me. We will not be together forever.
“Eyedropper,” he said, and I pressed the implement into his open palm. He squeezed a drop of the bloody mixture onto a slide, placed another slide on top of the first, and then slid the sample under the microscope’s lens. I held my breath as he bent to examine the outcome. He grunted, motioned for me to have a look.
“See those oblong black specks?” he asked.
“Yes, sir, I think so.”
“Yes you do or yes you think you do? Be precise, Will Henry!”
“I see them. Yes, sir.”
“Those are the larvae.”
I swallowed. The shapes resembled tiny obsidian orbs, thousands of dead little black eyes, swimming in a single drop of my blood.
The doctor removed his gloves and said matter-of-factly, “Well, it appears the population has remained more or less stable.” He flipped open the file beside the microscope, marked Subject: W. J. Henry/ Diag: B. arawakus Infestation and scribbled a sloppy note under the date.
“Is that a good thing?” I asked.
“Hmm? Yes, it is a good thing. No one knows why in some cases arawakus maintains perfect symbiosis with its mammalian host, giving the host unnaturally long life, and in other cases overwhelms the body with the sheer volume of its numbers. Singularly curious is your case, Will Henry, for it falls in the former category, whereas clearly your father’s did not. There is a theory much too complex for me to explain adequately in all its elegant detail, from an excellent paper written by one of my colleagues at the Society, which, briefly put, postulates that what happened to your father was a means of propagation, a way for the parasite to find a new host.”
“A new host,” I echoed. “Me.”
He shrugged. “I doubt it happened the night of the fire. You weren’t near him when they made their ill-timed exit. It is only a theory; the method by which they infest a host is not known.”
“But it was an accident, wasn’t it?”
“Well, I doubt your father infected you on purpose!”
“No, that is not what I… I mean, sir, what happened to my father. It was an accident, wasn’t it?”
He frowned. “What are you asking, Will Henry? Are you suggesting your father was intentionally infected?”
I made no reply, since no reply was necessary. The doctor placed his hand on my shoulder and said, “Look at me, Will Henry. You know I do not lie. You know that about me, yes?”
“I am not the midwife to your affliction, if affliction and not boon it turns out to be. I do not know how or when your father picked up this contagion, though undoubtedly it was a by-product of his service to me. In that sense, I suppose, it was no accident what happened to him and what is now happening to you. You are his son, Will Henry, and as his son you bear his burden.” He looked away. “As do all sons.”
Later that same afternoon, the doctor retreated to his study to prepare a paper he intended to present at the annual congress of the Society, cautioning me he was not to be disturbed. The week before he had received by post an early draft of a monograph to be delivered by a fellow monstrumologist-the chief presiding officer of the Society, no less-forwarded to him anonymously by a concerned colleague, who urged Warthrop to compose a public reply.
I vouch it is no hyperbole to aver that the very future of our discipline is at stake, wrote his friend. And I can think of no better man to contest our esteemed president’s alarming and dangerous disquisitions.
After perusing the draft of the venerable Dr. Abram von Helrung, Warthrop found himself in complete agreement with his colleague on both counts: The president’s paper was dangerous and there was no better man to avert the anticipated catastrophe than Warthrop himself. He set about the task with his usual single-mindedness. On that particular afternoon, he was working on the twelfth version of his reply to von Helrung.