“They tore him apart before my eyes. Ripped him to pieces and tossed his limbless torso down the hall, where I heard it smack the floor, and then the thudding and snarling grew louder as they swarmed around it. It was then I felt Elizabeth go limp against me. She had fainted.
“By now the screaming had all but ended, though I could still hear the beasts in the hall and at the front of the house, their snarls and hisses, their horrible grunts, and the crunching and cracking of bones. Still I could not move. What if they should hear me? They moved so quickly, even if I got to the window, I feared they would be upon me before I could open it… and what horror might be lying in wait outside? Were there more patrolling the yard? I strained to rise from the bed, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t. I couldn’t.”
He fell silent. His gaze had turned inward again. The constable had risen from the pew while he spoke, and walked with heavy tread to stand before one of the stained-glass windows, his face turned toward the scene of Christ as the good shepherd attending his flock.
“But of course you did rise,” prompted the doctor.
Malachi nodded slowly.
“You couldn’t get the window open,” urged Warthrop.
“Yes! How did you know?”
“So you broke it open.”
“I had no choice!”
“And the sound alerted them.”
“It must have, yes.”
“Yet still you did not flee, though freedom and safety lay but a few feet away.”
“I couldn’t leave her.”
“Back to the bed for her?”
“They were coming.”
“You heard them.”
“I pulled her into my arms. She was as lifeless as the dead. I stumbled toward the window, lost my grip, dropped her. I bent to pick her up. Then…”
“You saw it in the doorway.”
Malachi nodded again, rapidly now, his eyes wide in astonishment.
“How did you know?”
“Was it male or female, or could you tell?”
“Oh, for the love of God, Pellinore!” said the constable in consternation.
“Very well.” The doctor sighed. “You abandoned your sister and fled.”
“No! No, I would never!” cried Malachi. “I would not leave her to that… for that… I grabbed her arms and dragged her to the window…”
“It was too late,” murmured the doctor. “The thing was upon you.”
“It moved so fast! In one leap it crossed the room, wrapped its claws around her ankle, and yanked her from me as easily as a man might a doll from a baby. It flung her upward, and Elizabeth ’s head hit the ceiling with a sickening thud; I heard her skull shatter, and then her blood rained down upon my head-my sister’s blood upon my head!”
He lost all composure then, covering his face with his hands, his body wracked with heart-wrenching sobs.
The doctor endured it for a moment, but only for a moment.
“Describe it, Malachi,” he commanded. “What did it look like?”
“Seven feet… perhaps more. Long arms, powerful legs, as pale as a corpse, headless, but with eyes in its shoulders… or one eye, I should say. The other was gone.”
“Just a… a hole where the eye should have been.”
The doctor glanced at me. There was no need to say it; we both were thinking it: Chance or destiny… that brought the blade in blindness thrust into the black eye of the accursed beast.
“You were not pursued,” said the doctor, turning back to Malachi.
“No. I threw myself through the broken window, suffering not so much as a scratch-not a scratch!-then I rode as fast as my horse would carry me to the constable’s house.”
Warthrop placed a hand stained with the family’s blood upon Malachi’s shuddering shoulder.
“Very good, Malachi,” he said. “You have done well.”
“In what way?” cried Malachi. “In what way?”
The doctor bade me remain in the pew with Malachi while he and Morgan withdrew to debate the best course of action, or so I assumed based on the heated snippets I happened to overhear.
From the constable: “… aggressive and immediate… every able-bodied man in New Jerusalem…”
And the doctor: “… unnecessary and imprudent… certain to cause a panic…”
Malachi regained his composure during their fervent deliberations, his sobs drying to a trickle of tremulous tears, his fear-borne palsy quieting to an occasional quiver, like the small aftershocks of a violent earthquake.
“What a strange man,” said Malachi, meaning the doctor.
“He is not strange,” I responded, a bit defensively. “His… calling is strange, that’s all.”
“What is his calling?”
“He is a monstrumologist.”
“He hunts monsters?”
“He doesn’t like them called that.”
“Then why does he call himself a monstrumologist?”
“He didn’t pick the name.”
“I never knew there were such people.”
“There aren’t many of them,” I said. “His father was one, and I know there is a Monstrumologist Society, but I don’t think it has many members.”
“Not very difficult to imagine why!” he exclaimed.
On the other side of the sanctuary the argument rose and fell like superheated magma bubbling to the surface of a volcanic lake.
Morgan: “… evacuate! Evacuate at once! Evacuate everyone!”
Warthrop: “… stupid, Robert, stupid and reckless! The mayhem borne of that intelligence would far exceed the benefits. This can be contained… controlled… It is not too late…”
“I never believed in monsters,” Malachi said.
Again his gaze turned inward, and I knew with the genius of a child’s intuition that he had lost his grip on the moment and had fallen as swiftly as Icarus down to the bright, bloody memory of that night, where his family now dwelled, like the tortured souls of Dante’s dream writhing in eternal torment, forever devoured but never consumed, their death throes replayed endlessly while he, Malachi, lay paralyzed with dread, helpless to halt the slaughter, his dear sister fainted by his side, the one who had sought salvation from him, the one and only one he had had any chance of rescuing, but whom even a brother’s love could not save.
The tête-à-tête beneath the fractured light of the stained glass was nearing its crescendo. The doctor punctuated each point with a poke of his finger into the constable’s chest, his strident voice echoing in the cavernous confines of the church: “No evacuations! No hunting parties! I am the expert here. I am the one-the only one-qualified to make the decisions in this case!”
Morgan’s measured response came quietly yet insistently, in the manner of a parent to a recalcitrant child-or the manner of a frightened object of a madman’s attention. “Warthrop, if I had the slightest doubt as to your expertise, I would not have brought you here this morning. You may understand this foul phenomenon better than any man alive; you are, by the nature of your peculiar pursuits, obligated to understand them, even as I am obligated, by virtue of my duty, to protect the lives and property of the citizens of this town. And that duty compels me to act with alacrity and without delay.”
The doctor mustered every ounce of his forbearance and spoke through gritted teeth, “I assure you, Robert-indeed, I am prepared to stake my reputation upon it-they will not attack again today, tonight, or for many nights to come.”
“You cannot assume that.”
“Of course I may assume that! The weight of three thousand years of direct evidence supports it. You offend me, Robert.”
“That is not my intent, Pellinore.”
“Then why in one breath do you acknowledge my expertise and in the next inform me you intend to ignore it? You bring me here to seek my counsel, then rebuff it out of hand. You claim you want to avoid a panic while you make decisions based upon your own!”
“Granted,” allowed Morgan, “but in this instance panic might be the most beneficent response!”
The doctor’s visage blushed scarlet and he righted himself to stand with his back ramrod straight, his hands clenched into fists, knuckles as white as bleached bone.
“Very well. You reject my opinion. It is a perilous choice, Robert, but of course that too is an opinion. Your duty, as you say, compels you, and therefore the consequences of your compulsion rest solely upon your shoulders. But when that compulsion undoes you, even at the cost of your very life and the lives of your men, I do not expect the judgment to fall upon me. I shan’t be held responsible. My hands are clean.”
Of course they were not, far from it! Both literally and figuratively, the blood of the Anthropophagi’s victims was upon his hands. The old grave-robber’s, the entire Stinnet clan’s, he was soaked through and through with it.
“Come, Will Henry!” cried the doctor. “Our service here was sought but not accepted! Good day, Constable, and good luck to you, sir. If you need me, you know where you may find me.”
He strode down the center aisle to the doors, calling in a voice that boomed against the weathered boards, “Will Henry! Snap to!”
I rose from the pew, and when I did, Malachi sat upright and reached for me, his fingers finding my wrist and pulling me back.
“Where are you going?” he demanded. His expression was desperate.
I nodded toward the doctor. “With him.”
“Will Henreee!” shouted the doctor.
“May I come with you?” Malachi asked.
The constable had appeared before us. “Fear not, Malachi. You will be staying with me until a more permanent arrangement can be…” He searched for the word, and then with a shrug said, “Arranged.”
At the door I turned to find the tableau unaltered: Malachi and Morgan against the backdrop of the cross, one slumped in the foremost pew, the other standing, his hand resting upon the boy’s shoulder.
Outside, the doctor breathed deep the warm spring air, as a man might take a draft of laudanum to steady his jangled nerves, then, ignoring the two men stationed at the rectory door whose demeanors darkened upon his appearance, he strode straight to the constable’s carriage, where the driver loitered, spinning the chamber of his revolver in an attitude of studied boredom.
“ Harrington Lane!” the doctor snapped at him, throwing open the carriage door and heaving himself inside. He snapped his fingers impatiently at me, and I clambered in beside him.
We pulled off the narrow lane once to allow three black hearses to pass. We halted a second time for a cart bearing several men with rifles and a pack of hunting dogs, the excited animals barking and straining against their tethers, the attitude of their subdued handlers playing counterpoint to their agitation. The doctor shook his head and muttered derisively under his breath. Through gritted teeth he growled, “I know what you’re thinking, Will Henry, but even the tenets of the victims’ faith hold a mistake to be no sin. A miscalculation is not negligence, nor prudence a crime. I am a scientist. I base my action or inaction upon probability and evidence. There is a reason we call science a discipline! Inferior minds bolt or build pyres to roast the witches in their midst! It is a false argument to assert that simply because we do not see fairies dancing upon the lawn proves naught as to their existence. Evidence begets theory, and theory evolves as new evidence emerges. Three thousand years of research, direct eyewitness accounts, serious scientific inquiry-was I to abandon all of it upon the doorstep of speculation and doubt? In all crises are we to demand reason’s abdication or, worse, champion the coup of our baser instincts? Are we men, or anxious gazelles? An impartial examination of the facts would lead any reasonable man to conclude that I am blameless, that I reacted with prudence and forbearance in the case, and indeed a lesser man might have squandered his energies pursuing those fairies on the lawn, which no one can see!”