He laughed. I did not. His macabre attempts at humor were getting on my nerves.
“Well, don’t just stand there with it. Put it in the tub with the rest. We are running out of time. I think I should cut the torso in half, at the seventh thoracic vertebra. What do you think?”
I confessed I did not have an opinion; I was only thirteen, and this was my very first dismemberment.
The monstrumologist nodded. “That is true.”
We divided Mr. Kendall’s remains, separating the longer pieces (like his thighs) from the smaller (his hands), the former to be burned in the alley, the latter in the library fireplace.
“What about the bones?” I asked. “What will we do with them?”
“Keep them, of course. I’d like to reconstruct the skeleton, once I have a little time. Ideally we should use acid, but I haven’t enough for the jobit’s not as quick as fire. Time is of the essence now, Will Henry, if we have any hope of tracking down the magnificum.”
We were standing in the alley by the ash barrel, our feet buried in four inches of freshly fallen snow. The brunt of the storm had passed, but a few fat flakes spun down lazily, glowing in the amber light of the streetlamp, like the golden leaves of my father’s island, the one that he had promised to show me, the one he never did.
Warthrop doused the remains in kerosene. He struck the match and held it until the flame scorched his fingers, then dropped it to the ground.
“Well, I suppose something should be said. A few appropriate words. I know some might say that Wymond Kendall reaped what he sowed, that curiosity killed the cat, that he should have minded his own business and kept his nose out of monstrumology’s business. And there would be an equal number who could justly say he is an innocent victim of a vicious madman, the tragic consequence of man’s inhumanity. What do you say, Will Henry?”
“No one deserves that,” I answered.
“Ah. I think you’ve touched on the heart of the matter, Will Henry. Half the world prays they will be given what they deserve, and the other half that they will not!” He looked down at the tangled jumble of parts, a nidus not yet made.… That would be one way to look at it.
“I did not know you, Wymond Kendall,” said the monstrumologist to the dismantled man stuffed into the ash barrel. “I do not know if your life was happy or sad, if you ever loved anyone more than yourself, if you enjoyed the theater or books or were interested in politics. I do not know if you were querulous or kind, vindictive or forgiving, pious or profane. I know next to nothing about you, and I am the one who has held your brain in the palm of his hand. I hope, before your light went out, you made peace with your past, that you forgave those who trespassed against you, and that, more important by far, you forgave yourself.”
He struck a second match and tossed it into the barrel. The flames leapt upward, smoky and dark-edged, and there was intense heat and the acrid smell of burning hair and the sizzle of water boiling out of flesh and the spinning of golden snow. Without thinking, the monstrumologist and I shuffled closer to the barrel, for the night was very cold, and the fire was very warm.
Chapter Ten: “I Am the One”
We departed the next morning for New York. I fell asleep on the train, waking upon our arrival at Grand Central Depot with my head in the crook of the doctor’s arm, dizzy and disoriented and feeling sick to my stomach. I’d had a horrible dream in which the monstrumologist had been demonstrating to a group of school children the proper method of removing a brain from a human body—my body.
We dropped our luggage at the Plaza Hotel (save for the doctor’s black valise, into which Warthrop had packed, with exquisite care, the nidus ex magnificum) and left immediately for the Society’s headquarters. As our hansom rattled south along Broadway, the monstrumologist cradled the valise in his lap like a anxious mother with her newborn child. He chided our driver over the slightest delay and eyed every passerby, cart, and carriage suspiciously, as if they were bandits intent on separating him from his precious cargo.
“I am loath to part with it, Will Henry,” he confessed to me. “There is only one other of its kind in the world—the Lakshadweep nidus, named after the place of its discovery in 1851, the Lakshadweep Islands off the Indian coast. If something should happen to it…” He shuddered. “Tragic. It must be safeguarded at all costs, and if I cannot trust him, then no one can be trusted.”
“Dr. von Helrung?” I guessed.
He shook his head. “Professor Ainesworth.”
He was very old, the curator of the Monstrumarium, very cross most of the time, and very hard of hearing. He was also quite vain, a fault that prohibited him from admitting to his near-deafness, which in turn produced his foul temper. Constant disagreement over what was said rendered the old man altogether disagreeable. He had a habit of shaking the head of his cane (fashioned from the bleached skull of a long-extinct creature, a noisome little beast called an Ocelli carpendi that he had nicknamed Oedipus) in the face of any who dared raise their voice to him. Since raising one’s voice was the only way to talk to him, there was not a single monstrumologist—Warthrop included—who had not been the recipient of what one wit had dubbed “the full Adolphus.” The heavy chin thrusts forward; the bushy white eyebrows meet over the bridge of the bulbous, slightly pink, pockmarked nose; the muttonchops bristle and contort in cottony confusion, as a cornered cat’s fur; and then up comes the gnarled fist clutching the walnut cane, at the end of which, waving an inch from your nose, the carpendi’s two-inch fangs and the sightless glare of its oversize ocular cavities.
We found Professor Ainesworth in his musty basement office, perched upon a tall stool behind the massive desk upon which Everests of paper rose halfway to the ceiling. This after we negotiated the serpentine path through books, boxes, and crates—shipments waiting to be catalogued and stocked in the Society’s house of curiosities on the corner of Twenty-second Street and Broadway. On the wall behind the irascible old man hung the Society’s coat of arms, inscribed with the motto Nil timendum est—“fear nothing.”
“There are no children allowed within the Monstrumarium!” he shouted at my master without preamble.
“But this is Will Henry, Adolphus,” replied Warthrop in a loud but respectful tone. “You remember Will Henry.”
“Impossible!” shouted Adolphus. “You can’t be a member until you’re eighteen. I know that much, Pellinore Warthrop!”
“He is my assistant,” protested the monstrumologist.
“You watch your language with me, Doctor! He’ll have to leave immediately.” He shook the head of his cane at me. “Immediately!”
Warthrop placed a hand on my shoulder and said in a voice only slightly softer than a shout, “Iehind the Will Henry, Adolphus! You remember—last November. You saved his life!”
“Oh, I remember very well!” cried the old Welshman. “He’s the reason we have the rule!” He wagged a gnarled finger at my face. “Poking around in places where children shouldn’t poke, weren’t you, little man?”
The doctor’s fingers squeezed the back of my neck, and I, as if his puppet, nodded quickly in response.
“I will keep him under the strictest supervision,” promised the doctor. “He shan’t stray an inch from my sight.”
Before Professor Ainesworth could protest further, Warthrop placed the black valise on the desk. Adolphus grunted, popped the clasps, pried open the top, and peered inside.
“Well, well,” he said. “Well, well, well, well!”
“Yes, Adolphus” returned the doctor. “Nidus ex—”
“Oh-ho, do you really think so, Dr. Warthrop?” interrupted the curator, clicking his teeth. He shoved his gnarled hands into a pair of gloves and reached inside the bag. The doctor stiffened reflexively, perhaps apprehensive that the arthritic hands might damage his precious cargo.
Adolphus pushed the empty bag aside with his forearm and gingerly lowered the gruesome nest onto the desktop. He produced a large magnifying glass from his coat pocket and proceeded to inspect the thing up close.
“I have already thoroughly examined the specimen for—,” began the doctor, before Ainesworth cut him off.
“Have you now! Hmmmm. Yes. Have you? Hmmmmmmmm.”
His eye, magnified comically large by the glass, roamed over the specimen. His false teeth clicked—a nervous habit. Adolphus was quite proud of his dentures and somewhat emotionally—as well as biologically—attached to them. They’d been fashioned from the teeth of his son, Alfred Ainesworth, who had been a colonel in the Union army. He’d fallen in the battle of Antietam, and his teeth had been rescued after his death and sent to Adolphus, who thenceforward proudly—and literally—sported a hero’s smile.
“Of course, I would not have brought it to you for safekeeping were I not unequivocally certain of its authenticity,” said the monstrumologist. “There is no one else in whom I place more trust or hold in higher admir—”
“Please, please, Dr. Warthrop. Your incessant chattering is giving me a headache.”
I cringed, waiting for the explosion. But none came. Beside me Warthrop was smiling as benignly as Buddha, completely unfazed. No one in my experience had ever talked to my master with such impertinence, with such condescension and disdain—in short, the way he usually spoke to me. Many times I had witnessed eruptions that would rival Krakatoa in their ferocity over the smallest slight, the most trivial of untoward looks, so I expected “the full Warthrop,” as it were.
The curator pinched a bit of the sticky resin between his gloved thumb and forefinger and tugged it free. He rolled it into a tiny ball and snifft, bringing it dangerously close to the end of his nose.
“Not bad,” he opined. “Not bad—very close. More—what is the word?—pungent than the Lakshadweep nidus, but that is to be expected.… But what is this? There are fingerprints here!” He looked across the desk at Warthrop. “Someone has touched it with his bare hands!” Then his gaze shifted to the bandaging on my left hand. “Well, of course! I might have guessed.”
“I didn’t touch it,” I protested.
“Then, what happened to your finger?” He turned to the monstrumologist. “I am surprised and disappointed, Dr. Warthrop. Of all who desire to apprentice under you, and I know there are many, you choose a liar and a sneak.”
“I did not choose him,” the doctor replied, brutally honest as always.
“You should send him away to an orphanage. He’s no good to you or himself. He’ll get both of you killed one day.”
“I shall take my chances,” Warthrop returned with a wan smile. He nodded to the nidus between them; it was not an easy task, keeping Professor Ainesworth on track. “You’ll note it is nearly identical in every aspect—well, except, perhaps, the smell, which of course I had no means to compare to the Lakshadweep nidus.”
“Do you know he tried to bribe me!” the old man barked suddenly with a shake of his cane.