“What do I owe you? Nothing. Whatever I owe, I’ve repaid the debt a hundredfold. I did not ask for this. I did not ask for your . . . unintended cruelties.”
He does not look old in the preternatural gloom. He looks like a child. A child who has been starved, a child who has seen things no child should ever see. I don’t think I would have been shocked to see him clutching a tattered hat two sizes too small for him.
“But here I am. In this same damnable chair. ‘Snap to, Will Henry!’ And here I am, indispensable as always. ‘Yes, Dr. Warthrop. Right away, Dr. Warthrop!’ God damn you, anyway.”
I leave him. It is too cold, colder inside than out; he must have failed to pay the heating bill, or the furnace is broken again. I flip the light switch in the hall to make sure the power hasn’t been shut off. Then downstairs, pausing to scoop up the revolver from the floor, and into the kitchen, a disaster of spoiled food and dirty pots and plates and half-filled cups of tea growing mold. I hear something scratching beneath the sink. Rats, probably. Turn toward the basement door, through which I must pass to inspect the furnace, though the basement is the last place I wish to go. The basement is where I lost the last of my childhood—and left a part of it. He kept it all those years, the finger he chopped off with a butcher knife, floating in a jar of formaldehyde.
You kept it?
Well, I didn’t want to just throw it out with the trash.
He did it to save my life. Another unintentional cruelty.
The door has been padlocked. Recently. The lock looks brand-new. I don’t remember it being there the last time I visited.
Back upstairs. He’s moved not an inch. I pull down the blanket and gingerly go through his pockets. Empty. Warthrop, you old conspiracist, where have you hidden the key? And what do you have locked up in the basement?
I cover him, return to the chair, turning the old revolver in my hands. I check the chamber. Empty. I laugh softly. The irony is as thick as the dead leaves upon the stoop.
“I won’t come here again,” I tell him. “This is the last time. You’ve made the bed; sleep in it. And before you judge me, consider that in all the history of the world, no maker has ever despised his own creation.”
“What of Satan?” A hair-thin whisper from the bed. So he is awake. I suspected as much.
“Satan was the destroyer,” I answer. “He created nothing.”
“I am speaking of his creator. The all-loving one who imprisoned him in ice in the lowermost circle of the pit. Satan was his, too: ‘If he was once as beautiful as he is ugly now . . .’?”
“Oh, what is it this time, Warthrop?” I moan. “What are you dying from today?”
The thin lips draw back in a leering grin. My stomach turns at the sight. “Oh, the usual thing, Will Henry. The usual thing.”
And down I would go in darkness. And he would be curled upon the bed, clutching the covers like a child awakened by an unspeakable nightmare. And the boy in the chair, yawning, dry-mouthed, hardly acknowledged most of the time. It wasn’t the boy’s company he desired. It was an audience. Any audience would do.
“Why is it so cold in here?” I asked him.
“Is it? I don’t feel it.”
“When was the last time you had something to eat? Or a bath? Or a change of clothes? Do you think it makes one iota of difference to me, Warthrop? Do you think I waste a single moment wondering what you’re doing to yourself in this . . . this mausoleum you call a house? Well, don’t just lie there grinning at me like some battlefield corpse. Answer!”
“I have found it, Will Henry.”
“The thing itself.”
“What? What thing have you found? Speak plainly. I haven’t the time for riddles.”
His eyes burn bright—I know that look, and something deep in my chest aches, like a man in the desert who sees water in the distance or one who turns a corner on a crowded city street and bumps into a long-lost friend.
“?‘To go beyond Humanity is not to be told in words . . .’?”
“Well, I would agree with you there,” I said. “You certainly seemed to have gone beyond humanity.”
“My life’s work, Will Henry.”
“Your work? There are no monsters left, Warthrop, or men to hunt them.”
He shook his head—and then he nodded. “There will always be monsters, but it is true: I am the last of my kind.”
“I suppose I am to blame for that.”
“Oh, you would have been terrible at it. Better that it ends with me than with mediocrity.”
I laughed at the insult. What else could I do? The gun had no bullets.
“If I am a mediocrity, it isn’t my fault,” I said, returning to the theme of maker and his creation. “Could God not have made Satan beautiful through and through? He is God, after all.”
“And there is the difference,” the old monstrumologist wheezed. “He is what he is, and I am not.”
“Which? Not God or not you?”
He snorted and flicked a skeletal finger at my face. “Both.”
“Well, you have looked better. What has happened to you?” Suddenly I was very cross. “What has happened here? I hired that girl to cook and clean for you—can’t think of her name now . . .”
“Beatrice,” he said. I give him a look: Is this a joke? But he wasn’t smiling. “I sacked her.”
I nodded, inwardly seething. Something had come loose again, the dark, unwinding thing. “Of course you did! I have always wondered what would kill you first, Warthrop: your titanic ego or your colossal self-pity.”
“They are one and the same, Will Henry. They have always been.”
I watched his tears fall. How many times had I sat in this chair while he watched mine?
“Why do you cry, Warthrop?” I asked in a harsh voice. “Do you think your tears will bring me back?” And the thing in me, unwinding. His gift to me, his curse. “What do you desire? Will Henry is gone; he is no more. You must harden yourself to that fact.”
His lips drew back. It was not a smile; it was a mockery of a smile.
“I have. Why haven’t you?”
We regarded each other across the vast space that separated us.
Himself in me.
And me in him.
In the gloom, he might have passed as a victim of one of his horrid specimens—the death-leer grin, the wide, unblinking eyes, the pale, wasted flesh. In a sense perhaps he was.
Please, do not leave me, he had begged me once. You are the one thing that keeps me human.
I went into the bathroom. In the mirror I saw a boy in a man’s mask, wearing a fashionable suit, hair neatly trimmed, beard neatly shaved. Only the eyes gave him away: They were still his eyes, the boy Will Henry’s, regarding the world as if in mid-flinch, waiting for the whatever-it-was to jump from the shadows. Eyes that had seen too much too soon and for too long, unable to look away. Look away, the man whispers to the boy in the mask. Look away.
I filled the tub and rinsed out the cleanest cloth I could find (there were none in the closet). Returned to his room.
“What are you doing?” he asked, voice quivering with fear as I came toward the bed.
“You stink. I’m going to bathe you.”
“I am quite capable of bathing myself, Mr. Henry.”
“Really? So what has stopped you?”
“I am too tired at the present. Let me rest a bit.”
I grasped his wrist and pulled him from the bed. He struck me lightly on the shoulder. I drew his arm around my neck and helped him into the bathroom.
“There is the soap. There is the washcloth. There is a towel. Call when you’re finished.”
“I’m finished!” he shouted in my face, and then cackled like a madman.
“And after you’re done washing yourself, I will give you a shave and find you something to eat.”
“You are not my creation, you know,” he said.
“No, Warthrop,” I answered. “I am not anything. I am not anything at all.”
It wasn’t in his study. At least I couldn’t find it in any of the drawers or on the dusty shelves or tucked in any of the usual hiding places. The room, like the rest of the house, was thick with dust and the desiccated remains of insects and the sepia-colored pall of memory. Here he had written all his important papers, his letters, his many lectures to the Society. Here had sat the luminaries of the day: scientists, explorers, writers, inventors, even a celebrity and a president or two. Warthrop was renowned, in his own way, even famous in some select circles. All had fallen from his orbit as his star faded, as the lamp he bore into the darkness exhausted its fuel and the darkness pressed in around him. The unanswered letter, the unreturned call, the ignored summons, and Pellinore Warthrop had faded into the background of memory, a towering figure shrinking into the horizon. Warthrop? Yes, of course I remember Warthrop! Was it Warthrop, though, or Winthrop? Warthrip? Well, anyway. Whatever happened to him, do you know? Did his luck finally catch up to him?
An old map hung on the wall behind his desk. Someone—I assumed it was him, for it had not been me—had stuck pins in it to mark the places where his studies had taken him. I knew those places, or most of them: I had been there with him. Canada, Mexico, England, Italy, Spain. Africa, Indonesia, China. Wherever the darkness drew him. I stood for a long while, staring at this map. How many lives had he saved where these little pins lay, facing terrors that no other man but he could face? Impossible to say. Hundreds, perhaps thousands. Perhaps more: T. magnificum had had the potential to wipe out the entire race, and he’d defeated it. He, Pellinore Warthrop, whose name lesser men now struggled to remember.
“Will Henreeeee!” His voice, strangely far and wee, floated down the stairs.
I closed my eyes. “In a moment! Soak a little longer!”
I’d been going about it all wrong. I should have started at the closest point and worked my way outward. That was the Warthropian way:
Nature progresses from the simple to the complex and, as her students, so should we. When presented with a problem, look for the simplest solution first; that is always the route nature takes.
If it wasn’t on his person, the simplest place to hide it would be in the vicinity of the lock, where he could fetch it quickly.
If, that is, he had locked the basement to keep something in as opposed to someone out.
I have found it, Will Henry. The thing itself. My life’s work.
I slapped myself lightly on the forehead. Of course! It made sense now. His ghoulish appearance, the all-too-familiar gleam in his eye, the air of frenzied stillness. The monstrumologist wasn’t falling apart because his life’s work—and thus all its meaning—was done.
I had walked into the middle of a case.
What do you have locked up in your basement, Warthrop? What is “the thing itself”? And will you refuse to share it with me?
Or will you undo the bolt, throw wide the door, and say, “Come and see”?
I led Lilly to a safe little nook well out of sight of the curator’s office.