Startled, the monstrumologist asked, “Who? Who tried to—”
“Mr. P. T. Barnum! That old blackguard offered me seventeen thousand dollars for it—just to borrow it for six months, so he could put it on display right alongside Tom Thumb and the Feejee Mermaid!”
“The Lakshadweep nidus?”
“No, Warthrop, my toenail clippings! Gah! You were fairly clever once. What in heaven’s name happened to you?” Click, click, click went the teeth of his son. “I refused, of course. Denied I even knew what he was talking about. How he heard about it, now that’s a mystery. He used to chum around with that unsavory Russian monstrumologist. What was his name?”
“Sidorov,” said my master. Apparently he needed to hear only the words “unsavory” and “Russian” to know the answer.
“Shish kebob? No, no—”
“Sidorov!” shouted Warthrop, his patience at last wearing thin.
“Sidorov! That’s the one. Thick as thieves, those two, and they were, too—thieves, I mean. I suspect it was Sidorov who told him about the nidus. It was my idea, you know.”
“I’m sorry, Professor. Your idea?”
“To boot him! Kick him out upis rapacious two-faced arse!”
“Whose two-faced arse? Barnum’s?”
“Sidorov’s! ‘He’s a schemer,’ I told von Helrung. ‘Up to no good. Expel him! Strip him of his credentials!’ I had it on good authority Sidorov was an agent of Okhranka.” Adolphus looked at me, muttonchops aquiver. “The czar’s secret police. I’ll wager you didn’t know that, which is why I say monstrumology is no business for children! Really, Warthrop, you should be ashamed of yourself. If you’re lonely for companionship, why don’t you just get a dog? At any rate, you can hardly blame him.”
“Blame… Will Henry?”
“The czar! If I were him, I would want a monstrumologist in my secret police! Anyway, that’s how Barnum got wind of it, is my guess. Whatever happened to him, do you know?”
“Back in Saint Petersburg, the last I heard,” said the doctor, and then hurried on. “Professor Ainesworth, I promise you, I am no friend to Mr. P. T. Barnum or Anton Sidorov or the czar. I’ve come here today—”
“Without an appointment!”
“Without an appointment—”
“And unannounced, yes… in order to entrust to your care this rare and altogether incredible addition to our—your— collection of extraordinary finds and irreplaceable oddities. It would, in short, be an honor if you would secure it in the Locked Room with its cousin, the Lakshadweep nidus, which you have so admirably protected over the years from the likes of Barnum and Sidorov and the treacherous Russian secret police.”
Old Adolphus’s eyes narrowed. His teeth clicked. He pursed his lips and stroked his muttonchops.
“Are you attempting to flatter me, Dr. Warthrop?”
“Shamelessly, but with all sincerity, Professor Ainesworth.”
Down the narrow poorly lit halls of the Monstrumarium we followed him, past darkened chambers wherein thousands of samples and specimens, artifacts and esoterica, relating to the field of monstrumology were housed. The Monstrumarium was the premier research facility of its kind in the world, a treasure trove of rare curiosities from every continent—the kind of rare curiosities that would make a proper lady blush and a grown man faint. The facility’s name literally meant the “house of monsters,” and that it was. Within the Monstrumarium were enough grotesqueries to fill fifty of P. T. Barnum’s sideshow tents—things that did not seem possible—or seemed possible only in our worst nightmares. Stored within those musty rooms were the things your parents told you were not real, floating in jars of formaldehyde or mummified behind thick glass, dismembered in drawers, disembowed, flayed open, hanging from hooks, or stuffed like trophies borne back from a safari in hell.
In all the Monstrumarium there was but one locked room. It had no name; most monstrumologists simply referred to it as “the Locked Room.” An irreverent wag had christened it the Kodesh Hakodashim (“Holy of Holies”), for here was kept that portion of the collection deemed too precious—or too dangerous—to be left unsecured. There were some things—well, as you already know, there still are things—that must have escaped our benevolent Creator’s notice in his haste to make the world in only six days. All other explanations are simply unthinkable.
Admittance to the Locked Room was restricted to only two classes of organisms—those that posed the highest risk to human life and those fools who would pursue them.
I feel shame for saying that; I should not call the doctor a fool. Without question he was the most intelligent man I have ever met, and there are many descendants of those whose lives he saved who would argue that his life’s work was considerably less than foolish. But wisdom and sacrifice were never enough for the monstrumologist. He wanted recognition, to be held in the highest esteem by his fellow man (it was the only kind of immortality in which he could bring himself to believe), but, tragically, he had chosen the wrong profession. There are those who labor in darkness that the rest of us might live in the light.
“He doesn’t like you very much,” I said to the monstrumolo-gist in the cab afterward.
“Adolphus? Oh, no. He dislikes human beings as a general principle; he expects to be disappointed by them. Not an unwise position to take, Will Henry.”
“Is that why he’s so mean?”
“Adolphus isn’t mean, Will Henry. Adolphus merely speaks plainly. The old should speak plainly; it is their prerogative.”
Our knock upon the door of the von Helrung brownstone on Fifth Avenue was answered by the great man himself, who threw his short, thick arms around my master without preamble. The snow flitted and fussed about them with confounding complexity, a fitting metaphor for their complicated relationship.
Von Helrung was more than Pellinore Warthrop’s former teacher in the dark arts of monstrumology; he was friend, surrogate father, and sometimes rival. Three months before, the conflict between them over the future of monstrumology had nearly torn their friendship asunder. If von Helrung had been a less forgiving man, the two might never have spoken again, but the master loved his pupil as a father his son. I will not say Warthrop loved him—that is a very insubstantial limb upon which to venture, indeed!—but he was fond of von Helrung, and my master had lost so much already. Discounting me (and I think the doctor probably would have), the old monstrumologist was the only friend Warthrop had left.
“Pellinore, mein Freund, how wonderful to see you again! And here is William, too—dear, brave Will Henry!” He pulled me into his chest and proceeded to crush the air from my lungs. Leaning over, he whispered into my ear, “Every day I pray for you, and God in his mercy must hear. But what is this?” He had noticed my bandaged handp>
“An accident,” Warthrop said tersely.
“Dr. Warthrop chopped off my finger with a butcher knife.”
Von Helrung’s brow knotted up in confusion. “By accident?”
“No,” I answered. “That part was on purpose.”
The old man turned to my master, who shook his head impatiently and said, “May we go inside, von Helrung? We are quite cold and careworn, and I’d rather not talk about such things on your front stoop.”
Von Helrung ushered us into the well-appointed parlor, marvelously cluttered in the Victorian style, cupboards and cabinets groaning with oddities and knickknacks, overstuffed chairs and settees and sofas, and a mantel the surface of which could not be seen for all the bric-a-brac. The doctor’s tea was ready, and for me von Helrung had thoughtfully arranged for a glass of Mr. Pemberton’s delightful concoction, that remarkable confection of fizzy delight called Coca-Cola. I particularly enjoyed the first sip, that tickling sensation upon the tip of my nose.
Von Helrung settled into his wingback chair, clipped off the end of a Havana cigar, and rolled it back and forth over his wide tongue.
“I shall guess the circumstances of young Will’s ‘accident.’” His expression was stern; he clearly was not pleased with my master for allowing such a calamity to happen. His bright blue eyes shone beneath his bushy white eyebrows. “The child was allowed to handle your special delivery from Dr. John Kearns.”
“Not precisely,” replied the doctor. “The child was ‘handled’ by the one who handled it.”
He then proceeded with the story from the beginning, the midnight call of Wymond Kendall and the astonishing gift he’d borne from England. Von Helrung did not interrupt him, though occasionally he injected an ach! or winced in revulsion or grew misty-eyed with wonder and pity.
“Pwdre ser— the rot of stars!” he said softly at the conclusion of the doctor’s tale. “So the stories are true. I never quite believed them, for I did not wish to believe them. That the Creator of all things could create such a thing! Is it not unbearable, Pellinore, even for us, who devote our lives to this work, the import of its existence? What kind of God is this? Is he mad or is he malicious?”
“I like to refrain from burdening myself with questions that cannot be answered, Meister Abram. Perhaps he is neither mad nor malicious but adores all his creatures equally—or is indifferent to all equally.”
“And you do not find either possibility appalling?”
“They are only appalling in the context of human arrogance. Now you are going to argue that we were given dominion over the earth and all its creatures, as if that sets us apart from the very creation to which we belong. Tell that to Wymond Kendall!”
The monstrumologist returned to the reason for our visit. He found philosophical discussions like this distasteful—not precisely beneath him, but useless in the sense that the unanswerable was a waste of his time.
“What have you learned about Jack Kearns?” he asked.
Von Helrung shook his head. “Vanished, Pellinore. His flat abandoned, his offices at the hospital cleaned out. He is gone, and no one seems to know where he might have fled.”
Now Warthrop was the one shaking his head. “Impossible. He must have told someone.”
“My sources assure me he did not. The hospital staff, his former patients, neighbors—they all know nothing. Or I should say, all they can say is that one day Herr Kearns was there; the next he was not. The only person he seems to have confided in is the man you immolated in your fireplace.”
“Kearns didn’t tell Kendall where he had obtained the nidus; I asked.”
“And I believe him. He would not have told poor Mr. Kendall.”
The doctor nodded. “That is the true prize. More valuable than the nidus is where it came from. How did he get hold of it? Did someone give it to him, and if so, who? And why?”
The ember of the old monstrumologist’s cigar had perished. He placed the expired stogie on the ashtray beside him and spoke somberly to my master. “There is something rotten here, mein Freund. Kearns is no monstrumologist—he would have no scientific interest in nidus ex magnificum— but he is also no fool. He must know how valuable it is.”