We ducked into the offices of the North-West Mounted Police, the precursor to the Royal Canadian Mounties. A strapping young sergeant dressed in a crisp red uniform rose from his desk.
“May I help you gentlemen?”
“I sincerely hope so,” replied the doctor. “I am looking for an American by the name of Dr. John Chanler. I understand you’ve been advised of his disappearance.”
The sergeant nodded, and his eyes narrowed slightly. “Are you a friend of Dr. Chanler?”
“I am. His wife asked that I look into the matter.”
“Well,” the man said with a careless shrug of his broad shoulders, “you are free to look, Mr.—”
The Mountie’s eyes widened in astonishment. “Not the same Warthrop who’s the monster hunter?”
“I am a scientist in the natural philosophy of aberrant biology,” the doctor corrected him stiffly.
“Right—you hunt monsters! I’ve heard of you.”
“I’d no idea my reputation had preceded me so far north,” replied Warthrop dryly.
“Oh, my mother used to tell us children tales of your exploits—and I always thought it was to get us to mind!”
“Your mother? Then they were not my exploits. She must have been speaking of my father.”
“Well, whoever’s they were, they frightened the pants off us! But this Chanler—was he a monster hunter too?”
“His wife did not tell you?”
The man shook his head. “She said he’d come for the moose. He and his guide went in, and only the guide came out.”
“Yes, that’s his name. Only he’s gone missing too, is my understanding.”
“So you were not able to question him?”
“Be the one I’d most like to lay my hands on, Dr. Warthrop, if I only knew where to put them. He’s the key to this whole riddle—last to see the man alive and then gone into thin air without even reporting it to us. We spent nearly a month in the bush trying to pick up their trail, all the way up to Sandy Lake and the Suckers encampment—”
“Right. Jack Fiddler’s people.”
“Fiddler. I’ve heard that name before.”
“I’ll wager you have! He’s no doctor of monster philosophy, but he hunts them just the same. He’s a shaman, too—a medicine man—and fairly civilized for a savage. Speaks passing English. Used to work down here on the boats. Makes fiddles, that’s how he got his name.”
“And you questioned him about Chanler and Larose?”
“And got nothing from him—nothing of any use anyway. Told us the same thing Larose told Chanler’s poor wife—”
“Lepto lurconis,” murmured the doctor.
He sighed. “The Wendigo.”
The sergeant nodded slowly, and then the connection dawned on him. His voice shook with wonder as he said, “You don’t mean to say—I never put any stock in those stories. Is that why you’ve come? It’s real?”
“Of course it isn’t real,” the doctor said irritably. “It’s a convenience, like the stories your mother told to frighten you into submission.”
“You mean those weren’t real either?”
“No, those probably were. It’s an entirely different species.”
“The stories. My good man, I understand Chanler is missing, but I’d hoped I might be able to dredge up information on Larose’s whereabouts . . .”
“You and half the town of Rat Portage. The man’s melted away like a puff of smoke.”
“It has been my experience that men do not simply ‘melt away,’ Sergeant. But it seems to me the best place to start is the last person to see both men alive.”
“You mean Jack Fiddler, but I told you I’ve already talked to him and he claims to know nothing about it.”
“Perhaps he will be more convivial with someone of the same spiritual inclinations.”
“I beg your pardon, Doctor?”
“A fellow monster hunter.”
“You Will Live to Regret It”
When the monstrumologist asked where he might find the best man to guide us to Sandy Lake, the young sergeant, whose name was Jonathan Hawk, eagerly volunteered his services.
“There’s no one knows these woods better than me, Dr. Warthrop. I’ve wandered them since I was no bigger than your boy here. Why, I used to hunt the very same creatures my mother told me you hunted—all in play, you understand, and it’s surely a comfort to know none of them were real! My relief arrives from Ottawa this evening, so we can set out tomorrow at first light.”
The doctor was delighted, saying later we could not have procured a more ideal guide than a member of the North-West Mounted Police. Hawk then inquired as to what kind of gear we had brought along for the expedition. Our passage would be a hard one through dense boreal forest, a hike of more than four hundred miles round-trip. Warthrop admitted we’d brought little but our resolve, just some warm clothes and, he added darkly, as if to make an impression, his revolver, at which point the sergeant laughed.
“Might do you some good against the muskrats or a beaver, maybe—not much else. There’re grizzlies and wildcat and of course the wolves, but I’ll find you a rifle. As for the rest, leave it to me. I will tell you, Doctor, I had a funny feeling when I spoke to Fiddler—like he wasn’t telling all he knew. But his kind don’t trust us—the police, I mean—and maybe you’re right; he’ll talk to a brother monster hunter.”
They parted for the time being, each with the highest estimation of the other, though Hawk was clearly the more impressed. He seemed positively starstruck, unable to grasp that the hero of his childhood fantasies was the elder Warthrop and not my master.
The doctor, his spirits buoyed by this serendipitous turn of events, made straight for the telegraph office, where he fired off a telegram to Muriel Chanler in New York:
ARRIVED RAT PORTAGE THIS MORNING STOP LAROSE HAS DISAPPEARED STOP LEAVING AT DAWN FOR SANDY LAKE WITH SGT HAWK STOP WILL ADVISE
“I can’t imagine her reaction when she receives the telegram,” he confided over our supper. His face fairly glowed with the thought. “Surprised, I would guess, but not shocked. I probably should keep mum till I have a definitive answer—I don’t want to get her hopes up. The odds that the poor fool is alive are practically nil, but I fear she might take it into her head to come look for him herself. It would be just like her. Muriel is a woman of remarkable—some might say damnable—stubbornness. She will not believe he is gone until she lays her hands on his lifeless corpse.”
So expansive was his mood, I decided to step foot into the no-man’s-land of his past and risk getting my head blown off.
“What happened, sir?”
He frowned. “What do you mean?”
“Between you and Muriel—Mrs. Chanler, I mean.”
“Weren’t you there? I distinctly remember it, though I also distinctly remember telling you to leave.”
“I’m sorry, sir. I meant before . . .”
“Why do you presume anything at all happened?”
My face grew hot. I looked away. “Some things that she said . . . and that you said, afterward, when you couldn’t sleep. I—I heard you calling out her name.”
“I’m certain you heard nothing of the kind. May I give a piece of advice, Will Henry? In everyone’s life, as the apostle said, there comes a time to put away childish things. What happened between Muriel and me is one of those things.”
On the night she had arrived at our house, it seemed to me he had put nothing away, childish or otherwise. He might have told himself so—even believed it to be so—but that did not make it so. Even the hardest cynic is gullible to his own lies.
“So you’ve known each other since you were children?” I asked.
“It is an expression that refers to the thing, Will Henry, not the person. I was not a child when we met.”
“She was married to Mr. Chanler?”
“No. I introduced them. Well, in a manner of speaking. It was because of me that they met.”
I waited for him to go on. He picked at his venison, sipped his tea, stared at a spot just over my right shoulder.
“There was an accident. I fell off a bridge.”
“You fell off a bridge?”
“Yes, I fell off a bridge,” he said testily. “Why is that surprising?
“Why did you fall off a bridge?”
“For the same reason as Newton’s apple. Anyway, I wasn’t injured, but it was February and the river was cold. I became quite ill with a fever and was laid up for several days in the hospital, and that’s how they met, more over me than through me, I guess you could say.”
“Over my bed.”
“Was she your nurse?”
“No, she wasn’t my nurse. Dear God! She was—we were engaged, if you must know.”
I was stunned. The thought of the monstrumologist betrothed to anyone was beyond my poor power to comprehend.
“Why are you looking at me like that?” he demanded. “It was a fortuitous fall into that river. Barring it, in all likelihood I would have married her and suffered much more than the discomfort of a fever. I am not constitutionally suited for it, Will Henry. Think of it—a man like me, married! Think of the poor woman in it. I am not opposed to marriage in principle—it is, at least in our culture, necessary for the survival of the species—only as the institution relates to monstrumology. Which is why I told both of them not to do it.”
“Not to do what?”
“Get married! ‘You will live to regret it,’ I told her. ‘He will never be home. He may never come home.’ Obviously, neither listened to me. Love has a way of making us stupid, Will Henry. It blinds us to certain blatant realities, in this case the spectacularly high mortality rate among monstrumologists. Rarely do we live past forty—my father and von Helrung being the exceptions. And now time has proven me right.”
He leaned forward, bringing the full force of his formidable personality to bear upon me. Involuntarily, I shrunk back, slipping down in my chair to make myself the smallest possible target.
“Never fall in love, Will Henry. Never. Regardless of whether you follow in my footsteps, falling in love, marriage, family, it would be disastrous. The organism that infects you—if the population remains stable and you do not suffer the fate of your father—will grant you unnaturally long life, long enough to see your children’s children pass into oblivion. Everyone you love you are doomed to see die before you. They will go, and you will go on. Like the sibyl cursed, you will go on.”
Sergeant Hawk was waiting for us in the lobby the next morning. We shared a hearty breakfast—our last proper meal for many days to come—and then stepped outside under a sky blanketed with clouds, into a brisk artic wind, reminders that the brutal Canadian winter was fast approaching. Our gear lay piled beside a hitching post: two bulging rucksacks, each festooned with tools and implements—shovels, hatchets, pots and pans, and the like; a smaller bag containing our provisions; and a pair of Winchester rifles.