Warthrop was shaking his head. “I am not convinced.”
“And I am not concerned. But I am curious. Why do you resist an explanation that makes far more sense than your own? Really, Pellinore, would you care to compute the odds of them migrating here, to your own backyard, by sheer chance? In the back of your mind you must know the truth, but refuse to acknowledge it. Why? Because you cannot bring yourself to think the worst of him? Who was he to you? More important, who were you to him? You defend a man who barely tolerated your existence.” His boyish face lit up. “Ah! Is that it? Are you still trying to prove yourself worthy of his love-even now, when it’s impossible for him to give it? And you call yourself a scientist!
“You’re a hypocrite, Pellinore. A silly, sentimental hypocrite, much too sensitive for your own good. I’ve often wondered why you even became a monstrumologist. You are a worthy man with admirable attributes, but this business is dark and dirty, and you never struck me as the type. Did that have to do with him as well? To please him? So he would finally notice you?”
“Say no more, Kearns.” The doctor was so agitated by these barbs set with such exquisite surgical precision that I thought he might strike Kearns again, this time with something harder than his hand, perhaps the fireplace poker. “I did not invite you here for this.”
“You invited me here to slay dragons, did you not? Well. That’s what I’m trying to do.”
I slipped out of the room shortly after this fevered exchange. It was quite painful to watch, and, even now, decades later, to remember in such vivid detail. As I mounted the stairs to the second floor, I thought of soup and of the doctor’s words. Don’t suffer under any illusions that you are more than that: an assistant forced upon me by unfortunate circumstances. I did not, at the time, know why I should remember those words at that moment. Now, of course, the reason is obvious.
I paused at Malachi’s door and peeked inside. He had not moved a muscle since I’d seen him last, and I watched him sleep for a moment before closing the door. Then up the ladder to my loft, to catch or at least chase slumber myself. But an hour later I was up again, for I heard my name being called by a voice shrill with distress. At first, in my groggy condition, I assumed it was the doctor’s; however, upon reaching the second floor, I realized the voice emanated from Malachi’s room. My route took me by the room now occupied by Jack Kearns, and I paused there, for the door was ajar, and light from within streamed into the darkened hall.
Inside I saw Kearns kneeling before the long wooden box. He had removed the silk covering and the lid, which he had laid on the floor beside him. I noted several quarter-size holes had been drilled into it. Kearns reached into the valise next to him and removed a thin pencil-shaped object that appeared to be made of glass. He flicked it twice with his finger, then bent over the box. His back was to the door, so I could not see more, nor did I wish to. I stepped quickly into Malachi’s room and closed the door.
He was sitting up, his back pressed against the head-board, his bright blue eyes shining with apprehension.
“I woke up and you were gone,” he said in an accusatory tone.
“I was called away,” I said.
“What time is it?”
“I don’t know. Very late.”
“I was having a dream and a loud noise woke me. I almost jumped out the window.”
“You’re on the second floor,” I pointed out. “You would have broken your leg, Malachi.”
“What was the noise I heard?”
I shook my head. “I don’t know. I didn’t hear anything. It may have been Dr. Kearns.”
“Who is Dr. Kearns?”
“He is…” In truth I did not know who he was. “He’s come to help.”
“Another monster hunter?”
“When do they plan to do it?” he asked.
He did not speak for a moment.
“I am going with them,” he said.
“They may not let you.”
“I don’t care. I’m going anyway.”
I nodded again. Me too, I fear, I thought.
“It was Elizabeth,” he said. “My dream. We were in this dark place, and I was searching for her. She called my name, again and again, but I could not find her. I searched, but I could not find her.”
“She is in a better place now, Malachi,” I offered.
“I want to believe that, Will.”
“My parents are there too. And one day I’ll see them again.”
“But why do you believe that? Why do we believe such things? Because we want to?”
“I don’t know’ I answered honestly. “I believe because I must.”
I stepped into the hall and eased the door closed behind me. Turning to go back to my room, I almost collided with Kearns, who was standing just outside his door. Startled, I stumbled backward. Kearns was smiling.
“Will Henry,” he said softly. “Who is in that room?”
“What room, sir?”
“The room you just came out of.”
“His name is Malachi, Dr. Kearns. He’s… It was his family that…”
“Ah, the Stinnet boy. First he takes you in, and now another. Pellinore’s become quite the philanthropist.”
“Yes, sir. I suppose, sir.”
I looked away from his smoky eyes, recalling the doctor’s words: Steer clear of Dr. John Kearns, Will Henry!
“‘Henry,’” he said. “I remember now why that name seemed familiar to me. I believe I knew your father, Will, and you’re quite correct: His name was James, not Benjamin.”
“You knew my father?”
“I met him once, in Amazonia. Pellinore was off on another one of his quixotic quests, I believe for a specimen of that elusive-mythical, in my opinion-parasitic organism known as Biminius arawakus. Your father was quite ill, as I recall-malaria, I think, or some other bloody tropical disease. We do work ourselves into a tizzy about creatures like the Anthropophagi, but the world is chock-full of things that want to eat us. Have you ever heard of the candiru? It’s also a native of the Amazon and, unlike the Biminius arawakus, not too difficult to find, particularly if you are unfortunate or stupid enough to relieve yourself anywhere near where one is hiding. It’s a tiny eel-like fish, with backward-pointing razor-sharp spines along its gills that it unfurls like an umbrella once inside its host. Usually it follows the scent of urine into the urethra, wherein it lodges itself to feed upon your innards, but there have been cases where it enters the anus instead and commences to eat its way through your large intestine. It grows larger and larger as it feeds, of course, and I hear the pain is beyond the power of words to describe. So excruciating, in fact, that the common native remedy is to simply chop off the penis. What do you think of that?” he concluded with a wide smile.
“What do I think, sir?” I quavered.
“Yes, what do you think? What do you make of it? Or of the Spirometra mansoni, commonly called a flatworm, which can grow up to fourteen inches long and take up residence in your brain, where it feeds upon your cerebral matter until you are reduced to a vegetative state? Or Wuchereria bancrofti, a parasite that invades the lymph nodes, often causing their male hosts to develop testicles the size of cannonballs. What are we to make of them, Will Henry, and the multitudinous others? What lesson is to be gained?”
“I-I… I really don’t know, sir.”
“Humility, Will Henry! We are a mere part of a grand whole, in no way superior, not at all the angels in mortal attire we pretend to be. I do not think that the candiru gives a tinker’s damn that we produced a Shakespeare or built the pyramids. I think we just taste good… What is it, Will? You’ve gone quite pale. Is something the matter?”
“No, sir. I’m just very tired, sir.”
“Then why aren’t you in bed? We’ve a long day tomorrow, and a longer night. Sleep tight, Will Henry, and don’t let the bedbugs bite!”
ELEVEN. “We Have No Choice Now”
The morning dawned overcast, the glowering sky an unbroken sheet of ruffled gray restlessly rolling, driven by a stiff westerly wind. When I woke from my uneasy nap (it could hardly qualify as anything more substantial), Harrington Lane was quiet but for the sighing of the wind in the eaves and the groaning of the house’s hoary frame. Both Kearns ’s and the doctor’s doors were closed, but Malachi’s was open, the bed empty. Hurrying downstairs, I found the basement door ajar and the lights burning below. I expected to find the doctor there; instead I discovered Malachi, sitting cross-legged on the cold floor in his stocking feet, contemplating the beast that hung upside down a few feet away.
“Malachi,” I said, “you shouldn’t be down here.”
“I couldn’t find anyone,” he said without taking his eyes from the dead Anthropophagus. He nodded at it. “It gave me quite a start,” he admitted matter-of-factly. “The missing eye. I thought it was her.”
“Come on,” I urged him. “I’ll make us some breakfast.”
“I have been thinking, Will. When this is over, you and I could run away, the two of us. We could enlist in the army together.”
“I’m too young,” I pointed out. “Please, Malachi, the doctor will be-”
“Or we could sign on to a whaler. Or go west. Wouldn’t that be grand! We could be cowboys, Will Henry, and ride the open range. Or become Indian fighters or outlaws, like Jesse James. Wouldn’t you like to be an outlaw, Will?”
“My place is here,” I answered. “With the doctor.”
“But if he were gone?”
“Then I would go with him.”
“No, I mean if he should not survive this day.”
I was startled by the notion. It had never occurred to me that Warthrop might die. Considering I was an orphan whose naïve faith in the ever-presence of his parents had been shattered, one might think the possibility would have been foremost in my mind, but I had not contemplated it, until that moment. The thought made me shiver. What if the doctor should die? Freedom, yes, from what Kearns had called this “dark and dirty business,” but freedom to do what? Freedom to go where? To an orphanage, most likely, or a foster home. Which would be worse: tutelage under a man such as the monstrumologist, or the miserable, lonely life of the orphan, unwanted and bereft?
“He won’t die,” I said, as much to myself as to Malachi. “He’s been in tight spots before.”
“So have I,” said Malachi. “The past doesn’t promise anything, Will.” I tugged at his sleeve to urge him up. I didn’t know how the doctor might react if we should be discovered, and I had no desire to find out. Malachi pushed me away, his hand hitting against my leg as he did. Something in my pocket rattled.
“What is that?” he asked. “In your pocket?”
“I don’t know,” I answered honestly, for I had completely forgotten. I pulled them from my pocket. They clicked and clacked in my hand.