The constable knew the doctor too well to press the argument further. After heaving a heavy sigh and drawing one last time upon the beneficent balm of its bowl, he removed the pipe from his mouth, handed it to one of the nervous deputies, pulled his kerchief from his pocket, and then pressed it against his nose and mouth.
My presence must still have troubled him; he looked down upon my upraised face a moment longer before saying softly, his words muffled behind the cloth, “There are no words, Will Henry. No words!”
He threw open the door over which a sign had been hung, the words etched upon it an ironic preface to the char-nel house within: THE LORD IS MY SHEPHERD.
A body lay facedown six feet from the doorway, both arms outstretched, clad in the bloody remnants of his nightshirt. Gone were both his legs. Missing too were five of his fingers, two from the left hand, three from the right. His head lay upon one arm nearly perpendicular to his body, for his neck had been partially ripped from his shoulders, exposing his spinal column, the serpentine tendrils of major blood vessels, and the stringy tendons of the connecting tissue. The back of his head had been smashed in and his brains scooped out, the pulpy remains ringing the wound like grayish curd on the lip of a shattered bowl. During the necropsy, the doctor had informed me, in that dreary, lecturing tone, of Anthropophagi’s singular fondness for the noblest of organs, that apogee of nature’s design, the human brain.
The room stank of blood, and hanging in the air was the same nauseating stench of rotten fruit I had smelled in the cemetery. The odors did not so much war with each other as mix into a stomach-churning atmosphere that burned the nostrils and set the eyes on fire. No wonder the constable had covered his orifices on the outset of our expedition.
Morgan and I lingered in the open doorway, hesitating, as it were, between the worlds of light and dark, but Warthrop suffered no such disinclination: Rushing to the body, leaving footprints in the tacky blood that pooled round all sides like a shallow moat, he squatted near the head and bent close to examine the gaping wound. He touched it. He rubbed bits of cerebral matter between his thumb and finger.
He remained still for a moment, forearms resting upon his splayed knees, taking in the remains before him. He bent low, barely maintaining his balance, to study the victim’s face, or what was left of it.
“This is Stinnet?” he asked.
“It is the reverend,” Morgan confirmed.
“And the others? Where is the rest of the family?”
“Two in the parlor: his wife and youngest child, Sarah, I believe. Another child in the hall. A fourth in one of the bedrooms.”
“And the child who escaped. That leaves one unaccounted for.”
“No, Warthrop. That one is here.”
“He is all around you,” replied the constable, in a voice thick with revulsion and pity.
And so he was. The reverend, whose body remained more or less intact, had captured our attention as the locus of the slaughter, but all around it, like shards thrown from a grisly centrifuge, upon the walls and floorboards and even the ceiling above our heads, were fragments and scraps of human flesh, unrecognizable effluvia cemented by blood to nearly every surface: tufts of hair, bits of entrails, splinters of bone, shavings of muscle. In some places the walls were so saturated they literally wept with his blood. It was as if the child had been shoved into a grinder and then spewed out in every direction. Lying but a few inches from the doctor’s right shoe was the severed foot of the boy, the only recognizable portion left extant by the marauding Anthropophagi.
“His name was Michael,” the constable said. “He was five.”
The doctor said nothing. In a slow circle he turned, hands upon hips, pirouetting to survey the carnage, his expression at once one of fascination and detachment, marveling at the sheer savageness of the attack yet removed from its arrant horror, heart divorced from mind, emotions from intellect, the quintessential scientist, set apart from the very race to which he belonged. Thus he stood, a living temple among ruins crushed in the literal sense of the word, and whatever he was thinking remained hidden within the hallowed halls of his conscious.
Growing impatient, perhaps, with the doctor’s disconcerting reticence in this time of utmost urgency, the constable stepped into the room and said, “Well? Would you like to see the others?”
The dreadful tour commenced. First the bedroom where the oldest children had slept. There were the remains of a girl whose name, the constable informed us, was Elizabeth, ripped to shreds like her brother, though her gutted torso was intact, lying upon the remnants of the shattered windowpane. The lace curtains, freckled with her blood, fluttered in the beneficent breeze and, past the jagged glass that still clung to the window’s frame, I could see the pleasant meadow of spring grass shimmering in the morning sun.
“The point of entry?” mused Morgan.
“Perhaps,” answered the doctor, bending to examine the frame and the shards of glass clustered beneath it. “Though I do not think so. The improvised exit of our witness is my guess.”
Next, Morgan led us down the hall, where, upon turning a corner, we found the fourth victim, similarly dismembered and disemboweled, skull crushed and hollowed out, bits and pieces of the vital organs strewn upon the floor and cemented by gore to the walls. And here in this hallway, on the bloody floorboards, we discovered the first evidence of the Anthropophagi’s presence: impressions of their passing left in the congealing blood of their prey. The doctor gave an exultant cry at the sight of these footprints, fell to his hands and knees, and spent several excited seconds surveying the find.
“Eight to ten, at the least,” muttered Warthrop. “Females, though this and this may be a juvenile male.”
“Females? Females, you say? With prints larger than a full-grown man’s?”
“A mature female measures seven feet from sole to shoulder.”
“A mature female what, Warthrop?”
The doctor hesitated for half a breath and said, “A hominid species of carnivores called Anthropophagi.”
“Anthro-po-phagi,” corrected the doctor. “Pliny named them Blemmyae, but Anthropophagi is the accepted designation.”
“And where in heaven’s name did they come from?”
“They are native to Africa and certain islands off the coast of Madagascar,” answered the doctor carefully.
“That is a far cry from New England,” the constable observed dryly, and waited with narrowed eye for the doctor’s response.
“Robert, you have my word as a man of science and a gentleman that I had nothing to do with their appearance here,” said the doctor carefully.
“And you have my word, Warthrop, as a man of the law, it is my duty to discover who, if anyone, might be responsible for this massacre.”
“I am not responsible,” declared the doctor firmly. “I am as shocked as you by their presence here, and I shall get to the bottom of it, Robert, of that you have my word.”
Morgan nodded, but his tone was dubious. “It simply strikes me as exceedingly odd, Pellinore, that such monstrous creatures should appear in the very town where the country’s-if not the world’s-preeminent expert in these matters resides.”
Though spoken in the mildest of manners, the constable’s observation caused the doctor to stiffen and his eyes to flash with indignation.
“Are you calling me a liar, Robert?” he asked in a low, dangerous tone.
“My dear Warthrop,” replied Morgan, “we have known each other our entire lives. Though you are the most secretive man I have ever met and much of what you do remains a mystery to me, I have never known you to tell a deliberate falsehood. You tell me their presence here comes as a shock to you, and I believe you, but my faith does not change the fact that the coincidence is exceedingly odd.”
“That particular irony has not been lost on me, Robert,” admitted my master. “One might say oddities are my business, and this case has more than its fair share of them.” Then he added quickly, before the constable could press the matter further, “Let’s see the others.”
We returned down the hall toward the front of the rectory. Here, in the cozy parlor where doubtless the reverend’s family gathered round the piano for an evening of convivial song or lounged upon the overstuffed chairs and couches before a cheerful fire while the north wind howled, here we confronted the final, terrible scene: a headless corpse lay in a heap in the middle of the room, clutching the remains of an infant to her chest. Her dressing gown had been white, but was no longer, and lay pooled upon the floor where her legs should have been. One leg we discovered discarded partially shredded beneath the broken window that looked out upon the little lane leading to the house. The other was nowhere to be found-likewise her head, though the doctor had me hunt for it, crawling on my hands and knees to peer under the furniture. He examined the mother’s corpse while Morgan lingered in the doorway, his labored breath fluttering the corners of his makeshift mask.
“Both shoulders have been dislocated,” the doctor said. He ran his hands down the woman’s arms, deft fingers pressing into her still-pliant flesh. “The right humerus has been broken.” Now to the fingers locked around the tiny body. “Five fingers broken, two on the right hand, three on the left.”
He tried to pry the baby from her hands, his jaw clenching with the effort. Thwarted by the stubborn will of rigor mortis, he relented and examined the baby without removing it from the frozen arms of her mother.
“Multiple puncture wounds and lacerations,” he said. “But the body is intact. The baby bled to death or her lungs were crushed. Or she was smothered by her mother’s breast. A cruel irony should that be the case.
“How strong is the maternal instinct, Will Henry! Though they tore her shoulders from the sockets and broke the very bones that held it, she did not surrender her child. She held firm. Though they broke her arms and tore off her head, still she held firm. Held firm! Even when she became a cruel imitation of the things that devoured her brood, she held firm! It is a wonder and a marvel.”
“You’ll forgive me, Warthrop, if I do not consider what happened here in any way marvelous,” said the constable with disgust.
“You mistake me,” rejoined Warthrop. “And you judge prematurely things unknown to you. Do we judge the wolf or the lion? Do we blame the savage crocodile for obeying the imperatives of nature’s design?”
As he spoke, the doctor considered the bloody pietà at his feet, his attitude now wholly introspective and remote, his face an inscrutable, emotionless mask. What tempests, if any, raged hidden beneath the surface of that icy facade? Did the macabre tableau remind him of the words spoken only hours before? The unfortunate Mr. Gray should keep them satisfied, at least for another day or two. Words spoken with the characteristic self-assurance that often was mistaken for arrogance-or would it not be a mistake to call it that? I would be less than honest if I said I understood this man to whom I owe so much, this man who took the homeless, orphaned boy I was and sculpted him into the man I became. How oft do they rescue or ruin us, through whimsy or design or a combination of both, the adults to whom we entrust our care! The truth I confess is that I understand him not. Even with the gift of much time and the perspective it grants us, I still do not understand Dr. Pellinore Xavier Warthrop. Did he honestly accept the premise that he was blameless for this horrific slaughter of six innocents? What convolutions and contortions of logic did he employ to ignore the symbolic significance of the Stinnets’ blood upon his hands? Or did he look upon the facts, with the same pitiless stare that Eliza Bunton had received, to reach the conclusion obvious to even a twelve-year-old boy? Each possibility was as likely as the other, and neither discernable by his stoic expression. He betrayed nothing, regarding in silence the headless mother and the babe broken against her breast, the two curled at his feet like discarded offerings to a bloodthirsty god.