“Well, she is pretty, I suppose,” he said. “And you are getting older, and there are some contagions for which we will never find a cure.”
He handed the photograph back to me. “I told you once never to fall in love. Do you think that was wise advice or self-serving manipulation?”
“I don’t know.”
He nodded. “I don’t either.”
Kearns returned at dusk with a fresh catch of camel spiders and a chip on his shoulder. For Kearns, he was downright sullen.
“Bagged only three today,” he said. “This isn’t a hunt; it’s a turkey shoot.”
“Except they are not turkeys and we are not hunting them,” replied the doctor. “We are ending their agony and preventing the spread of a deadly disease.”
“Oh, you’re always desperate to be so bloody noble.” Kearns glanced at me. “Are you cured?”
“It appears so,” Warthrop answered for me. He preferred to limit Kearns’s interaction with me, as if he feared an altogether different sort of contagion.
“Then, shouldn’t we be using what you have to cure them and not be slaughtering them like cows?”
“Human beings are not cows,” retorted the doctor, echoing his old master. “I’ve only two vials of sera. These vials must be preserved in order to replicate the antidote.”
“You realize you are talking out of both sides of your mouth, Pellinore. You didn’t worry about preserving the antidote when it came to your assistant here.”
“And you really should avoid mimicking the voice of conscience, Kearns. It rings hollow, like someone attempting to speak in a language he does not understand.”
Smiling mischievously, Kearns stuffed a whole spider into his mouth. The monstrumologist turned his head away in disgust.
The doctor had designed a brutally efficient protocol to finish the grisly work of eradicating the magnificum from the island. We set up camp at a spot that provided good cover and some shelter from the elements, a few hundred feet below the clouds that enveloped the nesting grounds. We kept our quarry’s hours, sleeping by day and luring them into the killing zone by night.
Fire was our bait. It drew them in, and Warthrop and Kearns would hide behind an outcropping or a boulder and pick them off as they crept into the circle of light. The bodies from the night before were used for fuel for the next night’s fire.
It was grim, grisly work. There was no thrill of the chase, no near brushes with death. There was just death.
This was the somber side of monstrumology, heroism of the grittiest kind, the labor in darkness that the rest might live in the light. It began to take its toll on my master. He stopped eating. He slept only a few minutes at a stretch, and then would be up again, staring into the distance with eyes that had taken on a desperate, haunted look, like a man caught between two unthinkable alternatives.
Kearns was not faring much better. He complained constantly that he still had not found his Minotaur and this was far from the epic quest he had envisioned.
“Come now, Pellinore. Surely we could make this more fun,” he said late one night. Not a single victim had wandered into our trap. “We could split up—make a game of it. Whoever bags the most wins the prize.”
“Leave us if you like, Kearns,” Warthrop said wearily. “In fact, I wish you would.”
“You’re being very unfair, Pellinore. It isn’t my fault, you know. I didn’t invent the myth of the magnificum.”
“No, you just used it to turn a profit.”
“And you would have used it to profit your reputation and take revenge upon your rivals. ‘All hail the great scientist, the self-righteous knight who brought home the grail to Christendom, Pellinore the Pure, Pellinore the Proud, Pellinore the Magnificent!’” He laughed merrily. “As motives go, mine was by far the most pure.”
“Leave him alone!” I snapped at him. I wanted to take Awaale’s knife and slice off that insufferable smirk. “It’s your fault—all of it! He almost died because of you!”
“What are you talking about, boy? The Russians? I didn’t tell the Russians to kill Pellinore. That was their idea.”
“You sent him the nidus.”
“For safekeeping, and you should thank me that I did it.”
“I should kill you, is what I should do!”
His eyebrows rose in surprise. “Well! Aren’t we the bloodthirsty little savage? What have you been teaching this child, Pellinore?”
The monstrumologist shook his head ruefully. “Lessons of the unintended kind.”
For a week we labored in the vineyards of the dead. After two nights without a sighting, Kearns began to talk of returning to Gishub, where we would await the arrival of the Dagmar.
“I suppose I must give up on my Minotaur.” He pouted. “But all things—even the best of things—must eventually come to an end.”
A troubled look passed over the doctor’s face. He pulled me out of Kearns’s earshot and whispered, “I have made a terrible mistake, Will Henry.”
“No, you didn’t,” I whispered back. “Everyone thought the magnificum was real—”
“Shhh! I’m not talking about the magnificum.” He glanced toward the ledge upon which Kearns lay hidden. “I don’t know what he’s waiting for. Perhaps his mind is divided; perhaps he still retains some vestige of his humanity, though I’m hard-pressed to see much evidence of that. Most likely the opportune moment simply has yet to present itself.”
He smiled grimly at my startled expression. “He has to kill me. Well, you too, of course—both of us. What choice does he have? He’s trapped here until the end of the monsoon, and even then he will find it difficult to escape. To whom can he turn for help? The only port on the island is controlled by the British, but he’s wanted by them for murder and treason. The Russians? They will hold him accountable for the expedition’s debacle and will seek retribution. Stay and be hunted—or risk escape and be arrested.”
“But that’s why he won’t kill us,” I argued. “He needs us to escape.”
“Does he? He knows when and where we will be rendezvousing with the Dagmar. That was my terrible mistake, telling him that. All he has to do is inform Captain Russell that you and I were lost or killed on the hunt. And then John Kearns is free to go anywhere he wants, become anyone he wants. He will melt back into the human family with his human mask—and life—intact.”
I was quiet for a moment, thinking it through, worrying with it, trying to poke holes in his argument. I decided it was useless and focused instead on finding a solution.
“We could hit him over the head, knock him out, tie him up.… Or wait till he falls asleep…”
The doctor was nodding. “Yes, of course. It’s the only way. He has to sleep sometime.…” His voice trailed off. The haunted look of the past few days flitted across his countenance. “Well, we can’t tie him up. That would be a death sentence, and a particularly cruel one at that.”
“Then, we hit him over the head and take his rifle.”
“Why do you insist on hitting him over the head? We merely have to wait for him to fall asleep to take his rifle.”
“Then, that’s what we do. Wait till he falls asleep and take his rifle.”
“And then… what? Take him prisoner?” he asked.
“We can turn him over to the British.”
“Who will then question him about Arkwright, and you will be arrested omplicity in his murder—von Helrung, too.”
“He said he didn’t know Arkwright.”
Warthrop gave me a withering look. “Why is it, Will Henry, that at the precise moment when I begin to think you might actually have a head on your shoulders, you say something like that?”
“Then, we don’t turn him over to anyone. We hold him until we board the Dagmar, and then we leave him here.”
The monstrumologist was nodding, but he still seemed troubled. “Yes. It’s the only acceptable alternative. When our work is finished, we’ll spring the trap.”
I did not ask, The only acceptable alternative to what? I did not need to.
It was close to dawn on the last night of our bitter harvest, and so far only one of the stricken had stumbled into our trap. Kearns shot him, and then pushed the body onto its back and stared down with disappointment at its face.
“Where is he?” he wondered aloud. “Where is my Minotaur?”
“Dead, I’d guess,” answered Warthrop.
“Oh, don’t say that! Should I fail to take him, I would feel the entire enterprise was for naught.”
“What, not enough death for you, Kearns?”
“That’s the wonderful thing about life,” retorted Kearns heartily. “It’s just chock-full of all the death you can handle!”
“I hope you get your fill, then, before the Dagmar returns tomorrow.”
“It’s tomorrow? Then we must find my Minotaur tonight. Perhaps we should return to the locus. He might be up there, ready to pop.”
“You see the condition of this one,” replied Warthrop, referring to the victim at their feet. “If the uninfected populace has isolated itself safely, the contagion has nearly run its course. The odds are he has already ‘popped.’”
Kearns was not willing to let it go easily, however. He decided to bleed the latest victim instead of burning him, hoping the smell of blood would succeed where the fire had failed. Then he shooed us away. “Have a good rest. We’ve quite a hike down to the sea in the morning. I won’t abandon you, I promise.”
“Perhaps that is his plan,” mused the doctor after we had retired to our shelter. “Sneak off and trust we won’t find our way out in time.”
I thought my master was being naïve. A man like John Kearns did not leave such things to chance.
“We should do it now,” I said. “He thinks we’ve gone to sleep. I’ll do it, if you’d like.”
“You will do ‘it’? What is ‘it’?”
“Hit him over the head.”
“Again, I understand the appeal of such an act…”
“You heard him, sir. He won’t go to sleep today, and today we are going to Gishub to meet the Dagmar.”
“We could wait till he quits for the night,” he proposed. “He’ll have to lay his rifle down at some point.”
“Why would he do that?” I felt myself losing patience with him. Me, with Pellinore Warthrop! “He plans to kill us today, as soon as the sun rises.”
“Yes. Yes, of course you’re right, Will Henry. That must be his plan. And he must suspect ours, so he will be on his guard. How do we lower it?”
I told him my idea. He raised several objections to it, the chief of which being the most obvious—Kearns might smell a rat.
“And if he does,” the monstrumologist said, “most certainly you will pay the ultimate price.”
But he could think of nothing better. We needed to act quickly; at any moment Kearns might decide our time had come.