I tried to stay by his side, but little by little the wind wore me down, and I fell farther and farther behind. The doctor did not notice—or did not care—and kept walking, but Awaale came back for me, hollering to Warthrop that I needed to rest. The monstrumologist did not hear him—or did not care.
“Here, I will carry you, walaalo,” Awaale shouted over the wind.
I shook my head. I would be no one’s burden.
We did not halt until we’d reached the mountains’ rock-strewn base. We threw down our packs and collapsed against an outcropping, while the wind whined and whistled through the rocks and the setting sun broke through the clouds, painting the plain below us golden, a breathtaking, starkly beautiful sight.
You’ll swear the sun has fallen into the sea, for every tree on that island is a golden tree, and every leaf a golden leaf, and the leaves shine with a radiance all their own, so even in the darkest night the island seems to burn like a lighthouse beacon.
“Night is coming,” Awaale said. “We must find some shelter.”
The doctor did not argue with him. He may have been thinking, like I was, of iris-less eyes. Awaale rose, shouldered his rifle, and hiked farther up the trail, disappearing between two boulders that stood like mute sentries on either side of a narrow pass—the gateway to the lair of the magnificum.
“It’s the most beautiful thing I have ever seen,” the monstrumologist said, looking down upon the golden plain. “And I have seen many beautiful things. Did you ever dream of anything so lovely, Will Henry?”
I see it, Father! The Isle of Bliss. It burns like the sun in the black water.
He looked at me, and I looked back at him, and his face shone in the golden light.
“Did I show you the telegram I received before we left Aden? I don’t think I did.” He pulled the crumpled form from his pocket and pressed it into my hand.
TERRIBLE NEWS. FOOLS GOT IT
WRONG. WERE LOOKING FOR TWO
BALD MEN, ONE SHORT AND FAT
THE OTHER TALL AND THIN. JUST
NOW LEARNED. STAND GUARD,
He watched my expression carefully. I was careful too. I said, “Rurick and Plešec?”
He nodded. “Apparently they slipped through Fadil’s net.”
He pulled out his revolver and held it loosely in his lap. The barrel glistened in the kiss of the dying sun.
“There are two bullets in this chamber. By my count, Will Henry, there should be five. Three missing bullets. Two missing Russians.”
“I didn’t have a choice, sir.”
“Oh, Will Henry,” he said. “Will Henry! Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I don’t know—”
“I didn’t know how—”
“I didn’t want you to be… disappointed in me.”
“Disappointed in you? I don’t understand.”
“I was afraid you’d leave me behind again.”
“Why? Because you defended yourself against two soulless brutes who would have killed us both without batting an eye?”
“No, sir,” I answered. “Because I killed them without batting an eye.”
He nodded; he understood.
“Do you want to know how it happened?” I asked.
He shook his head. “The place may vary and the names may be different, but the crime is the same, Will Henry.”
He scrubbed his hand across his whiskered chin, picked up a stick lying by his foot, and began drawing in the soft ground.
“Born under the same roof,” he said pensively. “Perhaps it is like the mark of Cain.” He lifted his face to the setting sun, tapping the end of the stick against the dirt. “Do you remember when you first came to live with me—how we would keep a bucket beside the necropsy table in the event you became ill? And you always became ill—in the beginning. I can’t remember the last time the work made you sick.”
He tossed the stick away; it tumbled down the decline toward the golden plain and was lost.
“It is a dark and dirty business, Will Henry. And you are well on your way.” He patted my knee, not to congratulate, I think, but to console. His tone was sad and bitter. “You are well on your way.”
Awaale returned and reported he’d found a suitable spot to spend the night. We shouldered our packs and followed him up the narrow trail, a steep, serpentine corridor that wound between two sheer rock walls. A lid of low, gray clouds spun restlessly overhead; and a river of wind funneled through the pass. After traversing a hundred yards or so, we came to a cleft in the cliff face, six feet across at the bottom and about that high, narrowing to a point at the top, a deep gash in the stone that could not be properly called a cave, but it would offer some protection from the elements. The shadows inside the cleft were deep, and the doctor peered anxiously inside.
“It is safe,” Awaale assured him. “A scorpion or two, but I took care of them.” His smile was bright. He was proud of his accomplishment.
Exhausted, I threw myself upon the ground and refused to get up, though Awaale tried to entice me with some food. I rolled up my poncho to make a pillow and closed my eyes. Their voices floated over me—some discussion about who would take the first watch. Outside, the clouds sent down the wind and the wind blew out the light, and darkness lighted upon the trail like a great black bird of prey. Someone lay down next to me, and a warm hand pressed briefly upon my brow—Awaale.
I fell into the lightest of dozes, and then light shot into the space, and I sat up—Awaale, too, and then we stood up.
“Dhaktar?” Awaale called softly. “You said no light!”
We could see him standing just outside the opening, holding the lantern in one hand and the revolver in the other, peering off into the gloom.
“There is something out there, on the other side of those rocks,” he said. “Awaale.”
He motioned with the gun. Awaale picked up his rifle and stepped outside. The two men remained motionless for some time.
“There!” whispered Warthrop. “Did you hear it?”
Awaale slowly shook his head. “I hear the wind.”
“There it is again! Stay here.”
The doctor eased up the path, disappearing from view. I scooted forward; Awaale waved me back. He raised his rifle. The doctor’s light faded, and the dark washed over Awaale, swallowing him whole.
“Awaale,” I called to him quietly. “Do you see him?”
The light returned, throwing jittery shadows as it came, flowing over Awaale and then illuminating the entrance to the cleft. Awaale slung his rifle over his shoulder and accepted the lamp from the doctor, who needed both hands to keep his burden upright.
Leaning against the monstrumologist was a young woman, her clothes hanging in tatters, her long hair matted and encrusted with filth, her bare feet leaving bloody tattoos on the rock. He brought her inside, eased her down carefully, and motioned for Awaale to hand me the lamp. I saw then the woman was not alone: She was clutching a sleeping baby to her breast.
She said something. The doctor shook his head; he did not understand. She repeated it, her eyes wide and frightened.
“What is she saying?” Warthrop asked Awaale.
“I don’t know.”
The doctor looked sharply at him. “What do you mean? You speak their language.”
“I speak Somali and English and a little French. I do not know the language on Socotra.”
“You don’t…” Warthrop was staring at him as if he’d just confessed to murder. “Captain Russell told me that you did.”
The woman pulled on Warthrop’s sleeve, pointed outside, and jabbered something hysterically. The doctor’s focus, however, was on poor Awaale.
“It was the only reason I allowed you to come with us! Why did you lie to me?”
“I didn’t lie to you. Captain Julius lied to you.”
“To what purpose?”
“So you would let me come? I don’t know. You should ask him.”
“And I will, if I live long enough!” He turned to me. “My instrument case, Will Henry.” He turned back to the woman. “I am doctor. Doctor. Do you understand?” He tried it in French. Awaale tried it in Somali. The monstrumolo-gist tested Arabic next. Nothing. He pulled the stethoscope from the case and held it up. “See? Doctor.”
She nodded emphatically and broke into a smile. Her teeth were dazzling white against the backdrop of her smudged face. She calmed down considerably, shaking her head with wonder at her good fortune—a doctor, here, of all places! She meekly submitted to the examination—heart, pulse, breathing, and last, her eyes, while I shone the light. The doctor sighed, and pointed at the child. “I will need to examine him. Yes?” He gently slid his hands beneath the slumbering infant, and her eyes hardened; she shook her head violently and tightened her grip. Warthrop held up his hands, smiling reassuringly, and said, “All right, good mother. You may hold him.” He pressed his fingers gently against the child’s wrist. Listened to his heart. Peeled up one eyelid and stared for a very long time at the exposed orb. He smiled again at her, nodding as if to say, He’s fine. He set down the lamp and backed out of the cleft, motioning for me to follow.
“She is in the early stages of exposure,” he said.
Awaale gasped. “And the child?”
“The child is not infected.”
Awaale wiped his hand across his mouth. He looked up and down the path, then back at the doctor.
“What must we do?”
“We must convince her somehow to give up the child,” whispered the monstrumologist.
“And then… what? Kill her?”
Warthrop said nothing. In his eyes was something I rarely saw—the agony of the impossible choice.
“That is what you’re thinking,” Awaale said. “We must kill her.”
“She is doomed,” my master said hoarsely. “She will die anyway, and not before infecting her he child.”
“So we must kill them both.”
“Is that what I said? Listen to me! She has hours. The child could have years, if we can get him away from her in time.”
“I will get him away,” Awaale said grimly. “I will save him, and then you do what you will do.” He stepped into the opening.
“No!” Warthrop grabbed his arm and pulled him back. “If you try to take him now, you risk her inadvertently infecting him—or yourself. It takes but the slightest scratch.”
“Then, what do you suggest?” snapped Awaale. He’d reached the end of his endurance.
“I don’t… I don’t know.” As if winded, the monstrumologist was struggling to catch his breath. “Probably… if I can get close enough, a quick shot to the head…”
“Your hands are shaking,” Awaale pointed out. And they were, badly. “I will do it.”
“You won’t be able to get close enough,” the doctor argued. “Besides, it’s me she trusts,” he added bitterly.
“I’ll do it, Dr. Warthrop.”