Sitting in the cold basement before the warm egg, my eyes filled with tears. For true beauty—beauty, as it were, with a capital B—is terrifying; it puts us in our place; it reflects back to us our own ugliness. It is the prize beyond price.
I reached out my hand and laid it gently upon the pulsing skin.
Forgive, forgive, for you are greater than I.
The empty eye and the tangled strands of hair still clinging to the skull beside the ash barrel.
And what might Dr. Pellinore Warthrop be needing, Mr. Henry?
Oh, the usual things. He isn’t an invalid, but he is a careless housekeeper and never cooks for himself. He needs someone for the laundry and the shopping, cooking, cleaning, someone to answer the door, but I don’t anticipate much of that—the doctor receives hardly any callers these days.
Yes, sir. Bit of a recluse, is he?
Somewhere between that and a hermit.
So he doesn’t practice medicine anymore?
He never did. He isn’t that kind of doctor.
Oh, no. No, he is a doctor of philosophy, and I wouldn’t recommend you broach that topic with him—or any other topic, for that matter. If he wants to talk, he will. If he doesn’t, he won’t. You can expect to be ignored for a great deal of the time. Well, nearly all the time.
And the rest of the time, Mr. Henry? What might I expect then?
Well, yes. He has quite the temp— Well, let’s just say he’s a bit hotheaded for a philosopher.
A hotheaded philosopher? Oh, Mr. Henry, that’s funny!
More humorous in the abstract, I’m afraid. The best strategy is to agree with everything he says. For example, if he either implies or explicitly states that a worm’s intelligence exceeds your own, a good answer would be, “I have often thought so myself, Dr. Warthrop.” At other times, he may say something that makes no sense—it doesn’t mean he’s off his rocker; he’s just being Warthrop. He speaks out of context. I mean, the context is hidden.
Hidden, Mr. Henry? Hidden where?
Inside his own mind.
He hides things . . . in his mind?
Well, don’t we all, Beatrice?
I tapped the skull on its face with the edge of my shoe.
I knew I should fetch the constable. Have him arrested. It would be a fitting end for a doctor of monstrumology, whose business irrevocably leads to murder. We were both up to our elbows in blood, Warthrop and I.
But I did not fetch the constable. We are creatures of habit, and I had been his indispensable companion for too long.
I righted the overturned barrel and returned its macabre contents, her skull last, and I let the moment pass; I did not pause to contemplate the empty eye like some wavering Dane to whom human life held a measure of value. I tossed the skull into the barrel with the rest of the garbage; it clanged against the metal side, loud in the cold air.
More kerosene. Another match. And a blast of delicious heat against my face. There is no one on earth who doesn’t enjoy a good fire. The memory is embedded in our genes: Fire has been our friend for millennia. It made us who we are. No wonder the gods punished Prometheus. Master fire and in a few thousand years you will walk on the moon.
I crossed the yard to the old livery stable. I needed a shovel. Some bones would survive the fire and would have to be buried. All but one stall had been removed in 1909 to make room for the Lozier touring car, the most expensive on the market in those days, a gift from the company president to Warthrop for his help in the initial design. As I stepped into the dusky interior, I heard a soft bleating coming from the remaining stall at the far end. I peeked over the door. Three lambs were crowded together in the straw. They started when they saw me and rushed as one into the far corner. Black eyes against white faces. Startled mewling from dark lips. Stamping anxiously the straw that crackled in the dry air.
It won’t bother me, Mr. Henry. A bad temper shows a strong heart; that’s what my ma always said.
And black eyes in white faces and mewling lips and straw that crackles like dry bones in an ossuary.
The thing behind the thick glass. The thing in the burlap sap.
Form casts shadow and all shadows are the same: There is no difference between the thing behind the glass and the thing in the sack. Their essence—to ti esti—is the same. All life is beautiful; all is monstrous. And Lilly with eyes like a mountain lake, pure all the way down, lips slightly parted.
“You are the first and only girl I’ve ever kissed,” I told her that night.
“You’re lying, William Henry,” she said. “You kiss much too well for that to be true.”
“Lying is the worst kind of buffoonery,” I said, quoting Warthrop. “You don’t meet many girls in a monstrumologist’s laboratory.”
“Not living ones, anyway.”
I laughed. “Am I better than Samuel?”
“I refuse to answer that.” Her breath warm on my face.
“For his sake or your own?”
She stood up so suddenly I flinched. Warthrop was standing in the doorway.
“Will Henry,” he said quietly. “Where is the revolver?”
“I have it,” Lilly answered, clutching it in both hands.
“Place it on the floor in front of you, very slowly now, and step away from it.”
I rose, keeping a grip on the bag with one hand while dropping the other into my pocket. Warthrop shook his head. He stepped into the room, followed closely by a man wearing a bowler hat pulled low over a face ravaged by smallpox, deeply scarred and cratered. He gestured toward me with the empty hand, the hand that wasn’t holding a gun against the doctor’s head.
“Let’s have it, boy,” he said in a thick Irish brogue.
“Do as he says, Will Henry!” Warthrop ordered in a sharp voice. “Let the man have it.”
I held out the bag. He reached around the doctor and snatched it from my hand. Behind me Lilly hissed between her teeth. Warthrop’s eyes burned with fury.
“Thank you very much!” the man called, backing away into the corridor. “And here’s for your trouble!”
He fired once, striking the doctor in the leg, before racing away. I whirled toward Lilly, who’d already picked up the revolver; she tossed it at me, and I leapt over Warthrop writhing on the floor, paying no attention to his cry for me to stop. I fired as the bowler-hatted man turned the corner toward the curator’s office. The bullet chewed off a chunk of Monstrumarium wall. I reached the foot of the stairs; a bullet whistled past my ear, embedded itself in a crate. Then the loud clang of the upper door slamming shut, and I raced up the winding stairs to the first floor, down the hall to the exit, and that door was swinging shut and I caught a glimpse of the brown burlap, and then I was through the door and on the street and he’s swinging onto a horse behind another man also wearing a bowler hat and I fired again as the horse bolts, hooves clattering on the granite, beneath the smoky arc lights and the nak*d branches of the trees etched against the winter sky.
I hurried back to the Monstrumarium. In retrospect, I should have taken my time.
He was sitting against the same crate I had sat against, while Lilly tied a tourniquet above the wound in his calf. It was the purple bow from her hair. Warthrop’s face, shining with sweat, darkened as I stepped through the doorway.
“Well?” he barked. “Where is it?”
“He got away,” I gasped.
I feared for an irrational moment that he was going to level the revolver at my forehead and pull the trigger. You could see the thought flicker through his mind like a swift-moving thunderhead. Instead he heaved himself to his feet.
“What?” I asked, reflexively taking a step back. “You told me to give it to him.”
“No,” he replied, his voice tight as a constrictor knot. “I told you to let him have it, which is something altogether different—in fact, altogether the opposite.”
He was deathly pale, swaying on his feet. Lilly stepped to his side to offer herself as ballast, but he shrugged her off. “This is a calamity of the highest order, and you are our age’s Pandora, Mr. Henry.”
“Well, he did have a gun pointed at your head,” I snapped. “What would you have had me do?”
“Allow him to blow my brains out before giving up the T. cerrejonensis!” he shouted, astonished by my stupidity. “My life means nothing . . .”
I was nodding. I was in complete agreement. Regardless, I suggested we proceed to Bellevue Hospital posthaste.
“Why?” he demanded, pale, swaying. His shoe was dark with his blood.
“To affect the removal of the bullet from your leg—”
“No, I must go to von Helrung’s at once, and you to gather the others. We haven’t a moment to lose.”
He staggered toward me—or rather toward the exit, which I was blocking. I did not move. He stopped. He had perhaps an inch on me back then, and his dark eyes bored down hard, but I did not move.
“Stand aside,” he said.
“I shall not,” I said.
“You will or I will shoot you. By God I will.”
“Then by God you should, but be sure the shot drops me, Dr. Warthrop.”
“You’re no good to the hunt like this.” Lilly spoke up to break the stalemate—or perhaps to keep me from being shot. “I will take you to the hospital, Dr. Warthrop. Will and Uncle Abram can assemble the search party—and make the report to the police, of course.”
Then Warthrop and I simultaneously: “No! No police!”
The monstrumologist gave in to Lilly’s suggestion, accepting her offer—and her arm—to help him up the stairs. “You have failed me,” he said to me. “Once again.”
I might have pointed out that my “failure” had resulted in the continuation of his disagreeable existence, but I held my tongue—as I so often did. Such retorts only led to an escalation of counter-retorts and counter-counter-retorts ad nauseam, and lately it had struck me how embarrassingly like an old married couple we had become in our discourse. It also occurred to me that the continuation of his disagreeable existence might be the very failure to which he referred.
Pellinore Warthrop had always been a little in love with death.
Plop. Thwack! Plop. Thwack!
In the basement on Harrington Lane.
Plop. Thwack! Plop. Thwack!
The motion is fluid and quick, the grace of the practiced hand grasping the thin hairless tail firmly between the thumb and forefinger, lifting the rodent from the cage, plopping it down on the wooden board, and the glint of light off the ball-peen hammer as it rises, and the muffled thwack! of the deathblow to the rat’s head.
Plop. Thwack! Plop. Thwack!
And the tiny claws scratching at empty air and the soundlessly moving mouth and the silkiness of gray fur in the blare of light.
“The first few days of life depend on scavenging,” he explains. “Until it’s large and quick enough to hunt living prey.”
Plop. Thwack! Hard enough to kill instantly, but not so hard to produce a drop of blood. A delicate wallop, a gentle smash. And a line of corpses, plump bodies, flattened heads.