“Let it come to us,” he said.
“So your plan is to use the boy as bait,” said the doctor. “Because he has heard voices inside his head.”
“Only as the last, desperate measure,” Torrance replied, his face turning red. Warthrop clearly intimidated him.
“There is a flavor of desperation about it,” Warthrop returned.
“For myself,” intoned Pelt in his sonorous voice, “I am heartened by the news of this attack—if it was an attack; I do not say that it was, Pellinore—for it’s the only news that I’ve heard from last night. Have any of you seen the papers this morning? I’m happy to report there’s nothing that fits our subject’s modus operandi.”
Von Helrung waved his hand. “That means nothing. The city will suppress all that it can now to avoid panic and political embarrassment. I doubt a reporter can get within a hundred yards of police headquarters.”
“If any representative of the third estate can, though, it is Riis,” said Dobrogeanu.
“Speaking of Riis, where the devil is he?” wondered Torrance.
“It would be terrible, would it not,” Gravois said with a sparkle in his dark eyes, “if he, the one indispensable cog in our machine, should have fallen victim to the one we seek?”
“That is a horrible thought,” huffed Pelt.
“I am a monstrumologist,” returned Gravois easily. “It is my business to think horrible thoughts.”
Riis had survived the night, of course. He appeared near midmorning, when the discussion had petered out to an errant comment here and there with long pauses in between. The day, as if in spite, grew darker. The buildings across Fifth Avenue brooded in semidarkness; the snow, now half an inch deep, shone gray on the sidewalk. Von Helrung smoked two puffs from his Havana and then put it out. When the bell rang, he jumped from his chair, knocking over the ashtray and sending the extinguished stogie rolling across the Persian carpet. Gravois picked it up and slipped it into his pocket.
“Warthrop,” the Danish journalist said, shaking the doctor’s hand. “You look terrible.”
“It’s a pleasure to see you again too, Riis.”
“I meant no offense. If it’s any comfort, I have seen much worse coming out of Mulberry Street, the kind that is carted away in a hearse.”
“Thank you, Riis; I feel much better now.”
Riis smiled. That smile quickly faded. “Well, von Helrung, you had better break out your box of red pins. Your beast has been quite busy. There have been three, perhaps four, more,” he informed the monstrumologists. He pointed out the spots on the map, whereupon von Helrung stabbed it with his symbolically colored pins. “I say ‘perhaps’ because one is a disappearance, from the Bohemian quarter. No body has turned up, but the circumstances seemed to fit the disturbing criteria you described. Witnesses report a terrible smell, glimpses of a wraithlike figure with enormous glowing eyes, and, in one remarkable report from a none-too-reliable source, the appearance of a large gray wolf upon a nearby rooftop.”
“A wolf?” echoed Torrance.
“It is a shape-changer,” von Helrung said. “Fully supported by the literature.”
“Yes, catalogued under fiction,” Warthrop responded contemptuously.
Riis shrugged. “The others are clearly the work of our man—or whatever it is. Remains—and I do mean remains—were discovered high above the street. Two upon tenement roofs, the third impaled upon a stovepipe above a restaurant there”—he nodded toward the pin—“in Chinatown. That one is particularly striking, I thought, if for no other reason but the sheer force it would take to drive such an object through a human body.”
I glanced at the doctor. Was he thinking the same thing as I? Did he see in his mind’s eye, as I did, the jagged trunk of a shattered tree rising from Pierre Larose’s desecrated corpse?
“All were missing their eyes and the skin on their faces,” Riis continued. “It had been stripped from the underlying musculature with surgical precision. All were found nude.” He swallowed, for the first time a bit overcome. He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and dabbed his brow.
“And all three were young. The oldest was the only son of a Chinaman who immigrated here last August. The boy was fifteen and quite small for his age.”
“The weakest,” murmured von Helrung. “The most vulnerable.”
“The youngest was found at Mulberry Bend, only a few blocks from my office. A girl. She was seven. She suffered by far the worst mutilations. I will spare you the details.”
No one spoke for a moment. Then von Helrung asked softly, “Their hearts.”
“Yes, yes,” Riis nodded. “Ripped from their chests—and when I say ‘ripped,’ I do mean ripped. Flesh flayed open, ribs snapped in two, and the hearts themselves . . .”
He did not finish. Von Helrung placed a consoling hand on his shoulder, a hand that Riis immediately shrugged off.
“I thought I had seen every horror imaginable in the slums of this metropolis. Starvation, drunkenness, depravity. Deprivation and despair that rivals the worst of the most wretched European ghetto. But this. This.”
“It is only the beginning,” von Helrung said somberly. “And only the part of the beginning we know of. More victims will be found this day, I fear.”
“Then we haven’t a moment to lose,” said Torrance. Riis’s report had gotten his blood up. “Let’s do what we’re trained to do, gentlemen. Let’s hunt down this thing and kill it.”
Warthrop’s reaction was immediate. He whirled upon the younger man and slammed his cane onto the tabletop, causing Torrance to jerk in his chair.
“Any man who harms John Chanler will answer to me!” the doctor snarled. “I will not truck with cold-blooded murder, sir.”
“Nor I,” agreed Pelt. “Unless we’ve no choice.”
“Of course, of course,” von Helrung said hurriedly. He avoided Warthrop’s icy glare. “The line between what we are and what we pursue is razor thin. We will remember our humanity.”
Von Helrung proposed the division of the group into three teams, each to investigate the crimes reported by Riis. Warthrop did not like the idea; he insisted the party should stay together; division only weakened us and diminished our chances for success. He was overruled, but he retreated by inches, not yards, disagreeing next with the composition of the teams as devised by von Helrung. He had paired Warthrop with Pelt, himself with Dobrogeanu, and Torrance with Gravois.
“Experience should be paired with youth,” he argued. “I should go with you, Meister Abram. Pelt with Torrance, Gravois with Dobrogeanu.”
“Pellinore is correct,” agreed Pelt. “It would not do if you and Dobrogeanu were faced with it—if it is as strong and fast as you say.”
Dobrogeanu stiffened. He was offended. “I resent the implication that I can’t handle myself in a pinch. Need I remind you, sir, who it was that single-handedly captured—alive, I might add—the only specimen of Malus cerebrum comedo in the history of monstrumology?”
“That was quite a few years ago,” Pelt said dryly. “I meant no offense. I am not much younger than you, and I think Pellinore’s idea makes capital sense.”
That—and the urgency of the hour—put an end to the debate. Riis took his leave, promising he would return at nightfall with an update and, hopefully, to congratulate us on a successful prosecution.
It fell to me to escort Riis to the door. He tucked his muffler into his coat and tugged the collar high, squinting through his round spectacles at the gray landscape. The snow brought back disquieting memories; we had left the gray land, and now it seemed the gray land had come back for us.
“I would like to give you a piece of advice, young man,” he said. “Would you like to hear it?”
I nodded dutifully. “Yes, sir.”
He leaned toward me, bringing to bear the entire force of his formidable presence. “Leave. Run away! At once, without delay. Run as if the devil himself were after you. There is something altogether unnerving about this business. Unfit for children.” He shuddered in the cold air. “He seems to like children.”
Back in the war room von Helrung had laid out six boxes and several long silver-plated knives. All, with the exception of Warthrop, were checking their weapons, testing the firing mechanisms and examining with frank curiosity the contents of the boxes, holding the gleaming silver projectiles up to the light.
“There is nothing in the literature to suggest that Lepto lurconis requires sleep,” the Austrian monstrumologist was saying. “And it is my inclination that we will not find it in such a felicitous state.
“Legend does tell us with what tremendous speed it attacks and what frightful power is employed in that attack. The Outiko uses its eyes to mesmerize its prey. To look into the Yellow Eye is to perish; do not forget!
“Do not waste your ammunition; it is precious. Only by piercing the heart can you destroy Lepto lurconis.”
“And only as a last resort,” put in Warthrop.
Von Helrung cut his eyes away and said, “More powerful than its eyes is its voice. Little Will heard it last night and nearly succumbed. If it calls your name, resist! Do not answer! Do not think you can deceive it by pretending to fall under its spell. It will consume you.”
He looked at each man in turn. The gravity of the moment settled over our little assemblage. Even Gravois seemed subdued, lost in his own dark thoughts.
“What we seek, gentlemen, is as old as life itself,” von Helrung said. “And as constant as death. It is ruthless and cunning and ever hungry. It may be as devious as Lucifer, but in this at least it has been honest with us. It has not hidden from us its true nature.”
There remained but one small matter—what to do with me. I had expected, naturally, to accompany the doctor, but even Warthrop didn’t seem keen on the idea. He worried with some justification that I might be in danger of falling into a venom-induced delirium at any moment, rendering me an unwanted and potentially fatal hindrance. Equally unattractive was leaving me behind. Von Helrung was particularly opposed to this alternative; he was convinced that the beast had “marked” me the night before. Dobrogeanu suggested they drop me off at the Society.
“If he isn’t safe among a hundred monstrumologists, where will he be?” he wondered.
“I think he should come with us,” Torrance said. Apparently he had not given up on the idea of somehow using me as bait. “Other than Warthrop, he’s the only one among us who’s come face-to-face with one of these things.”
Warthrop winced. “John Chanler is not a ‘thing,’ Torrance.”
“Well, whatever he is.”
“But I do agree that his experience could prove indispensable,” Warthrop continued. “Therefore, he should come, but not with me. Gravois, you and Dobrogeanu shall take him.”
“But I don’t want them to take me!” I cried out, forgetting myself at the intolerable notion of being separated from him. “I want to go with you, Doctor.”