“So?” she asked. “Perché pensi di avere un problema? Kill them.” She said it casually, like she was advising him on how to treat a headache.
“I’m afraid that would further compound my problem. My business is difficult enough without becoming a fugitive on top of everything else.”
She slapped him across the cheek. He kept himself very still; he took care not to look away.
“Bastardo,” she said. “When I walk out and see you sitting there, my heart, it…Sono stupido, I should have known. For six years I do not see you. I do not receive a single letter. Until I think you must be dead. Why else would you not come? Why else would you not write? You are in the business of death, I think; you must be dead!”
“I never pretended to be something that I am not,” the monstrumologist replied stiffly. “I was very honest with you, Veronica.”
“You sneak out of Venice without even saying good-bye, no note, no nothing, like a thief in the night. You call this honest?” She tilted her chin in his direction. “Sei un cardardo, Pellinore Warthrop. You are a not a man; you are a coward.”
>“Ask Will Henry. It is how I say all my good-byes,” he said.
“I am married,” she announced suddenly. “To Bartolomeo.”
“Who is Bartolomeo?”
“The piano player.”
The doctor couldn’t decide whether to be relieved or hurt. “Really? Well, he seems very… energetic.”
“He is here,” she snapped.
“As am I. Which brings us back to my problem.”
“Exactly! Il problema. I wish the Russian with the knife luck to find your heart!”
She spun from the chair in a dramatic flourish, allowing him to catch her by the wrist before she could escape. He pulled her close and whispered urgently into her ear. She listened with head bowed, her eyes fixed upon the floor. Her heart was clearly torn. Once drawn into the Warthropian orbit, even the strongest of hearts—and women possess the strongest of any—find it hard to break free. She hated him and loved him, longed for him and loathed him, and cursed herself for feeling anything at all. Her love demanded she save him, her hate that she destroy him.
The cruelest aspect of love, the monstrumologist had said, is its inviolable integrity.
Veronica and Bartolomeo lived directly above the nightclub, in a cramped, sparsely furnished apartment that she had labored to brighten with fresh flowers and colorful throws and art poster prints. There was a small balcony in the front that overlooked the Calle de Canonica. The balcony doors were open when we came in; the white curtains undulated in the balmy wind, and I could hear the sound of the Venetian street life below.
Bartolomeo joined us, his shirtfront saturated in sweat, his eyes possessing that distracted, otherworldly stare universal to artists—and to madmen. He embraced Warthrop as if he were a long-lost friend and asked him how he liked his playing. The doctor replied that a musician of his caliber deserved a better instrument, and Bartolomeo threw his arms around him and kissed him sloppily on the cheek.
The monstrumologist explained our predicament and his idea to resolve it. Bartolomeo embraced the plan with the same ferocity he had just employed upon the doctor, but worried that the difference in their height could pose a problem.
“We’ll extinguish the light in here,” Warthrop said. “And Veronica will station herself between you and the street. It won’t be a perfect disguise, but it should buy us the time we need.”
The doctor retired to the bedroom to undress; Bartolomeo stripped right where he stood, smiling all the while, amused, perhaps, by my astonishment at his decidedly un-Victorian lack of modesty.
The bedroom door opened, and Veronica emerged with the doctor’s clothes, fussed in Italian at her husband, returned to the bedroom, and slammed shut the door. Bartolomeo shrugged and said to me, “La signora è una tigre, ma lei è la mia tigre.” The monstrumoloist’s clothes were too big for him—Bartolomeo was not a tall man—but from the street, at night, in dim lighting… I prayed the doctor was right.
After several more minutes the bedroom door came open again and Veronica came out, followed by another woman—or anyway a womanish creature akin to something Mr. P. T. Barnum might include in his sideshow attraction, wearing the same faded red gown that had, just a few moments before, adorned the decidely more curvaceous form of Veronica Soranzo. Bartolomeo burst out laughing at this ludicrous mockery of all things feminine, from the hastily applied makeup to the doctor’s bare heels hanging over the back of his wife’s shoes.
“The lady, I think, needs a shave,” he teased.
“There isn’t time,” Warthrop replied seriously. “I will need a hat.”
“Something with gold,” Bartolomeo suggested. “To bring out the color in your eyes.”
He held out the doctor’s revolver, which he had found in the jacket pocket.
“Give it to Will Henry; I’ve nowhere to put it.”
“If you carried a smaller weapon, you could stick it in your garter.”
“I like your husband,” the monstrumologist told Veronica as she pushed a wide-brimmed hat onto his head.
“He is an idiot,” she said, and Bartolomeo laughed. “Do you see? I insult him and he laughs.”
“That’s what makes me a good husband,” Bartolomeo said.
Veronica hissed something under her breath, grabbed her husband by the wrist, and dragged him toward the balcony.
“You don’t say nothing, understand? You stand by the door and lower your head, and I do all the talking.”
“I thought you said there would be acting involved.”
She peeked through the curtains to the street below. “I don’t see this man you describe, Pellinore.”
“He’s there,” Warthrop assured her, adjusting his hat in the mirror.
She started outside, stopped, turned back, and then abandoned her husband in his baggy clothes, the monstrumologist in miniature, to return to the doctor’s side.
“I will never see you again,” she said.
“We cannot know that.”
She shook her head. “Non si capisce. You are an idiot like him. All men are idiots. I say I will never see you again. Never come here again. Thanks to you, every time I see my husband, I will see the man who he is not.”
She kissed him: the love. Then she slapped him: the hate. Bartolomeo watched all of it, smiling. What did he care? Warthrop might have her heart, but he, Bartolomeo, had her.
They went onto the balcony. Her voice, trained to project itself in large, open spaces, rang out, saying, “How dare you come back here now, after all these years! I am married now, to Bartolomeo. I cannot leave, Pellinore. I cannot leave! What is that? What is that you say, Pellinore Warthrop? Amore! You speak of love?” She laughed cruelly. “I will never love you, Pellinore Warthrop! I will never love another man again!”
“Well, Will Henry.” My master-cum-mistress sighed. “I think that is enough; we’d better go.”
We left through the front door, Warthrop’s hand resting protectively upon my shoulder, a (very tall and overdressed) governess with her charge, walking as fast as the doctor’s wobbly gait would allow, down the Calle de Canonica toward the canal. The doctor kept his head down, but I could not resist and glanced about for the Russian assassin. I spied him lounging in an archway across the street, pretending not to listen to Veronica’s performance overhead. Her acting was only slightly better than her singing; still, it seemed to be doing the trick. Rurick did not abandon his post.
Reaching the Rio di Palazzo unmolested, we climbed aboard a gondola whose pilot was a model of discretion. He made no comment or reacted in any noticeable way to this very homely woman—or very strange man—stepping into his craft. He even asked, with a perfectly straight face, if his passengers would like to hear a song.
The sounds of the street faded. The dark water glittered like the star-encrusted heavens as we passed with but a whispery ripple beneath a limestone bridge shining bone white in the glow of the quarter-moon.
“The Ponte dei Sospiri,” the monstrumologist said in a quiet voice. “The Bridge of Sighs. See the bars over the windows, Will Henry? Through them prisoners would have their last view of the beauty of Venezia. They say lovers will be blessed if they kiss beneath the Ponte dei Sospiri.”
“Sì, signor—signorina… sì. That is what they say,” acknowledged our slightly confused gondolier.
“I might have kissed her here,” said Pellinore Warthrop to himself—the fugitive, the prisoner. “I do not remember.”
Chapter Twenty-Nine: “Before You Were, I Was”
The hunt for the Faceless One resumed, with us, the hunters, now hunted ourselves. The doctor adjusted better to this change of fortune than his young apprentice, who could not rid his thoughts of the cold fire in his pursuer’s eyes, so similar to the one that burned in his master’s, the ancient, unquenchable flame that blazes in the eyes of all predators, the flinty remnants of the primordial conflagration. With each tick of the clock, with every passing mile, the fire in the monstrumologist’s eye grew colder and brighter. That which drove him was older than he. It was as old as life and just as inexorable. It burned in him and it consumed him. He was the predator; he was the prey.
“How did they find us?” I wondered aloud that night as we readied for bed.
“I think they never ‘lost’ us,” he answered. “They have been on this train since Calais, or at least since Lucerne. They followed us into Venice because it was thei first and best opportunity.”
“Opportunity to do what?”
“To say hello and catch up on old times. Really, Will Henry.”
“If they let you go before, why do they want to kill you now?”
“They did not let me go, as you recall. Unless you consider throwing someone into a lunatic asylum letting him go.”
“But why would they want to kill you if they think you don’t know where the magnificum is?”
“For the same reason they wanted to kill me when they didn’t know what I thought.” He lay back in his bunk and said, “They’ve had months to consider my little trick in the sewer, long enough for even a man of Rurick’s limited mental agility to come to the conclusion that I might have been lying. Or it could just be they think I’m better off dead.” He gave a dry little laugh. “And they are not alone in that!”
“Who is she, Dr. Warthrop? Who is Veronica Soranzo?”
“Someone I do not wish to talk about.”
“Were the two of you…” I did not know the word I should use.
He apparently did, for he answered, “Yes… and no. And what does it matter?”
“Then, why did you bring it up?” he asked testily, flopping onto his side and fussily snapping the sheet.
“I just never thought…”
“Yes? What did you never think? There are so many possibilities; don’t make me guess. What? That I might have had a life before you came into it? I did not spring into existence upon your entrance, Will Henry. Before you were, I was, and for a good while too. Veronica Soranzo belongs to what was, and I try to concern myself with what is and what will be. Now, please, give me some peace. I must think.”