The amber-colored liquid in the empty jar that sloshed when I bumped into the cart on the way out. Then, behind me, the soft tink of the spatula falling to the floor, and then the wobbly wheels complaining as Torrance shoved the cart toward me.
The nidus was now in the hall, and right behind it was Torrance, who slammed shut the door and threw home the bolt. He hurled his huge fist against the locked door. He howled with unloosed rage.
I do not think the man on the other side heard him.
“Stupid, stupid, stupid!” Bang, bang, BANG! “You stupid, stupid, stupid limey bastard!” BANG!
I slid down the wall of the passageway. I pressed my hands to my ears. It goes on forever, the unwinding thing; it has no beginning or end, no top or bottom; it is not contained by the universe; before the universe was, it had been; and when the universe has burned itself to a handful of dust, it will still be there, the thing in me and the thing in you, das Ungeheuer, the abyss.
“This wasn’t the plan! You weren’t supposed to really do it!” I screamed at Torrance’s back as he pounded on the locked door. “You were supposed to make him just think you were!”
He whirled on me. I saw his eyes clearly, in the lamplight dark, in the dim hall, white-less. Oculus Dei, I thought, the es of God.
“Shut up and listen!” he roared. “Just shut your trap and listen to—”
Now, from the chamber, silence, and the man inside sees before him the two doors, his two doors, and the man asks himself, Which will it be, the lady or the tiger? And he stretches out his hand…
Jacob Torrance stiffened when the shot rang out. His gaze flew toward the low ceiling, and then he closed his eyes.
“It’s the lady, then,” he murmured.
Chapter Nineteen: “Little Good Can Come of This”
Abram von Helrung crossed his arms behind his back and stared out the window to the street below. Beneath him the great city was coming to life. A large gray draft horse clopped along the granite avenue pulling a dray loaded with dry goods. A man on a boneshaker bicycle whizzed along the sidewalk. Two pretty girls with red ribbons in their hair skipped arm in arm across the street, lifting their bare knees high, their high-pitched laughter like the little lame balloon man’s whistle, far and wee.
“‘Go, for they call you, Shepherd, from the hill,’” he said quietly. “‘Come Shepherd, and again begin the quest!’”
He turned from the window and said, “I was ten, and my father took my little sister and me from our little village of Lech to Stubenbach, where a band of Gypsies had arrived with their traveling show. It was just the three of us; my mother refused to go and warned Papa he must watch us with an eagle eye, for the Gypsies were widely believed to steal children. ‘Devil-worshippers,’ she called them. But my Papa, though only a poor farmer, had the heart of an adventurer, and so we went. There were dancers and acrobats and fortune-tellers—and the food! Mein Gott, you had never tasted such food! In the afternoon we were approached by two men, one very old and the other much younger—his son, perhaps—who offered us a peek inside their tent for a small fee. ‘Why?’ asked Papa. ‘What is in your tent?’ And the older one answered, ‘Come and see.’ So Papa paid the fee, and I went inside. Not Papa or my sister. The younger Gypsy said to him, ‘Do not take her. She should stay outside.’ And Papa wasn’t going to leave her and risk her being stolen—or my mother’s wrath for suffering her to be stolen. I went in alone. There was a large wooden crate—it reminded me very much of a coffin—and inside the crate was an abomination. It paralyzed me with dread—froze me to the spot. I wanted to look away, but I could not look away. ‘What is it?’ I asked the old man. ‘It is a monster,’ he said. ‘Slain by my kinsmen in Egypt. It is called a griffin. This one is only a baby. They grow very large, large enough to blot out the sun. Is it not marvelous?’
“It had the body of a lion, the head of an eagle, and a python for a tail. A fake, and not a very good fake. They had sutured the parts together with thick black twine, but I did not come to that conclusion until many years later. I was a child. I saw the beast with a child’s eyes, eyes that could not look away. What sort of thing is this and how could it be? How could such a thing exist? I remember feeling tightness in my chest, as if a great hand were sezing the life from my heart. I would run; I would stay. I would turn aside; I would look closer.… It held me, and in some strange way that I do not pretend to understand, I held it. I still hold it. And it still holds me.”
He turned back to the window. The sun broke over the buildings on the eastern side of the street, flooding the avenue with golden light.
“That day was the beginning.”
“I was fifteen, and my first monster had the same name as me,” Jacob Torrance said. “He came home after a night with his mistress and a bottle of rotgut and started beating my mother with the business end of a joiner’s mallet. So I picked up the closest thing at hand—just happened to be his Springfield musket—and blew a hole the size of a turnip through the back of his head. Been killing monsters ever since.”
Von Helrung was frowning. “Thomas Arkwright was no monster until you made him one.”
“Thomas Arkwright was an agent for the British intelligence service.”
“How do you know this? Did Arkwright tell you? No! You assume it. You guess at it!”
“Besides Kearns, there are at least two sets of players at this poker table, Meister Abram. Three, counting us. There’s the set Arkwright was afraid would kill him if he showed his hand, and the set that was going to hang us if we harmed one little hair on his thinning scalp. I don’t know who that first set could be, but I’m betting the second is Her Majesty’s government. Makes good sense to me. If I were Kearns and knew where the magnificum roosted, I could demand a hefty asking price. A nidus would fetch a pretty penny, sure, but compare that to having the momma whose one drop of spit turns grown men’s brains into jelly. He could expect a king’s ransom—or a queen’s!”
“Why would the English send a spy to infiltrate our ranks if Kearns holds the key to the magnificum?” asked von Helrung.
“Getting to that. Arkwright obviously knew Warthrop had the nidus. Will figured that one out all by himself. And the only way he could have known that, is from Kearns. Unless this first set of people, whoever they are, told him—or another set we don’t know about yet, but I don’t think so. I think Kearns told him. Well, not Kearns personally—the British government, the blokes who sent him. And they sent him because they needed Warthrop for something.”
“Needed him… for what?” Von Helrung appeared confused.
“Not sure. But I’m pretty sure that Jack Kearns had the nidus, but he didn’t know where it came from. That’s why they infiltrated our ranks. If you know where it comes from, you don’t need an expert monster hunter. You just go straight to the monster. But if you don’t know where it comes from, then you’re up the proverbiaanstalk. So what does our boy Jack do if he has the golden egg but not the goose that laid it? He’ll need a goose hunter. And not just any ol’ goose hunter. This ain’t no ordinary goose; it’s the goose, the goose of all gooses—eh, geese. Not just any goose hunter but the best goose hunter in the world, in the whole history of the world. You don’t dare play it straight with him. You don’t tell him why you want it hunted; he’s got it in his goose-hunting head somehow that morals apply to monstrumology.”
Von Helrung thought for a moment, and then snorted with disgust.
“And Arkwright is sent here to track Warthrop tracking the magnificum? It is absurd, Torrance. Once Pellinore discovered the hiding place of the magnificum, the British would have no reason to pay Kearns a penny.”
“That’s where I think the first set of players comes in. Kearns went to someone else, another government—maybe the French, no love lost there—and he’s playing them off each other.”
“I don’t know. Maybe Warthrop does. That’s the next step. And I say we don’t waste time taking it. They’ll be expecting Arkwright back soon, and Arkwright isn’t coming back… soon or any other time.”
“Because you killed him,” I piped up. I was still furious at him. “You didn’t have to do what you did.”
“Think so? And anyway, I killed him in only the loosest definition of the word.”
“Why did you kill him, Jacob?” von Helrung asked quietly. “What did you fear?”
Torrance said nothing at first; he played with his signet ring. Nil timendum est.
“Well, he did threaten to have me hanged, but never mind that. It’s like you stepping into that Gypsy’s tent, Meister Abram. Once we had him tied up, alea iacta est, the die had been cast. Stick to Will’s plan, and we get arrested—or worse—for the kidnapping and torture of a British officer, and Warthrop rots where they’ve stuck him until he’s older than you.”
“And what if they didn’t stick him there?” I shouted at him. “What if Arkwright lied? You didn’t have to kill him, and you shouldn’t have killed him. Now we may never find the doctor!”
Torrance stared stone-faced at me for a long moment, and then shrugged. Shrugged! I hurled myself toward him. I was going to pummel him to death with my bare hands. I was going to choke the life out of him. Von Helrung saved his life. He grabbed my arm and yanked me back, pulled my head to his chest and stroked my hair.
“So you are at peace with his self-destruction?” von Helrung asked Torrance. “The one you conveniently staged?”
“Everyboshould have a choice when it comes down to it—and, yes, I think I’ll sleep well tonight.”
“I envy you this once, Jacob, for I will not.”
I waited until Torrance had retired to the guest bedroom, to rest from the night’s labor, before I approached von Helrung with my request. I call it a request; it was more like a demand.
“I’m coming with you,” I told him.
“It is too dangerous,” he returned, not unkindly.
“I won’t be left behind again. If you try, I’ll stow away on the boat. And if I can’t stow away, I’ll swim there. I am the one who found him out. I have earned the right.”
He placed a hand upon my shoulder. “I fear it is more burden than right, mein Freund Will Henry.”
That afternoon I said good-bye to Adolphus Ainesworth, who was in a very foul mood, even for him.
“I don’t care what anyone says,” he snarled at me, his false teeth snapping in fury. “Someone has been inside the Locked Room! I always hang my ring with the outside key on the inside, and this morning how do you think I find it facing?”
“Toward the outside?”
“You took them.”
“No, Professor Ainesworth, I did not,” I answered honestly. It had been Torrance who’d entered the Locked Room.