“Stay here,” I told her. “I have to fetch the key.”
She gasped, terrified and delighted. “It’s in the Locked Room?”
“I told you it was Warthrop’s greatest prize. There’s a bit of risk involved—not from it; don’t worry—from Adolphus. The key’s hanging from that hook directly over his querulous old head.”
I went back down the hall to his office. It was a treacherous journey through his inner sanctum to secure the key. The path was narrow and tortuous, snaking through listing shipping crates stacked four boxes high and chest-high stacks of papers and journals. The slightest nudge would bring one of these fragile towers down with a raucous crash. I eased past his chair; he kept the key on a hook in the wall directly behind his desk, beneath the Society’s coat of arms, with its motto Nil timendum est. I glanced down at his upturned face. The upper plate of his false teeth, fashioned from those of his dead son, martyred on the bloody fields of Antietam, had come loose; Adolphus slept mouth open, teeth together, a decidedly odd and disconcerting visual effect. But I did not tarry at the sight. Despite his exceedingly advanced years, Adolphus was a light sleeper and always had his heavy cane by his side. One well-placed blow would be enough to land me in a premature grave. And I was not ready to die, not on that night, anyway, while Lilly Bates, in a resplendent gown of silk and lace, waited for me and the night, like the unopened crates in the curator’s crowded office, hid promises of mysteries yet to be unpacked.
“What’s the matter?” Lilly asked when I rejoined her. She noticed at once the look of consternation upon my face.
“The key is gone,” I answered. “Someone’s taken it from the hook.”
“Perhaps Adolphus put it in his pocket for safekeeping.”
“It’s a possibility. Not about to frisk him, though.” I rubbed the back of my four-fingered hand across my lips.
“Let’s leave,” she said. She had picked up on my nerves, I think. “You can always show me another time.”
I nodded, and then seized her hand and drew her down the hall, away from the stairs, deeper into the belly of the Beastie Bin.
“Will!” she cried softly. “Where are we?”
“Let’s have a look at the room itself, just to be sure.”
“Just to be sure of what?”
“That it’s locked. That his special prize is still safe and sound.”
“His special prize,” she echoed.
The floor sloped ever so slightly downward. As we descended, the air grew heavier; our breath became shallow and our breathing a bit desperate. Black walls, slick floor, low ceiling. Past darkened doorways through which the meager light could not leach, down a path that ended at the sole locked door in all the Monstrumarium, the door to the Kodesh Hakodashim, the Holy of Holies, in which nature’s most perverted jests resided, those compelling arguments against our desperate conceit that the universe is ruled by divine love and an unblemished intelligence.
“William James Henry,” Lilly growled through gritted teeth. She stopped dead in her tracks, refusing to take another step. The Locked Room was just around the next corner. She pulled her hand from mine and crossed her arms across her bosom. “I will not move from this spot until you tell me what is in that room.”
“What? Don’t tell me the unconquerable Lillian Bates is afraid!” I teased her. “The girl who proudly informed me she would be the first lady monstrumologist? I am shocked.”
“The first rule of monstrumology is caution,” she replied archly. “I would think the apprentice to the greatest philosopher of aberrant biology the world has ever seen would know that.”
“Apprentice?” I laughed. “I’m no apprentice and never was.”
“Oh? If you’re not, then what are you?”
I looked deeply into her eyes, the blue so dark and so richly depthless in the flimsy light. “I am the infinite nothing out of which everything flows.”
She laughed and nervously rubbed her bare arms. “You’re drunk.”
“Too esoteric? Very well, how about this? I am the answer to humanity’s unspoken prayer: the sanest person alive, for nothing human taints my sight. The wholly objective narrator of the story.”
She became very serious and said in a level voice, “What is inside the Locked Room, Will?”
“The end of the long road, Lilly. The terminus of the journey—for those who have the eyes to see.”
It had begun months earlier, with the arrival of an unexpected caller.
“I am seeking a man by the name of Pellinore Warthrop,” the man told me at the door. “I was told that I might find him here.”
A vaguely continental accent, hard to place. Traveling cloak, dusty from a journey of many miles, draped over a tailored suit. Tall. Well apportioned. Eyes glittering wise as a bird’s beneath a finely sculpted brow. The unmistakable air of royalty about him, a thinly veiled haughtiness.
And, behind him, the shadows gathering upon Harrington Lane.
“This is the house of Dr. Warthrop,” I answered. “What is your business?”
“That is between me and Dr. Warthrop.”
“And you are?”
“I would rather not give my name.”
“The doctor is not in the habit of entertaining nameless visitors on clandestine missions, sir,” I said easily—and untruthfully. “But thank you for calling.”
I closed the door in his face. Waited. The knock came, and I opened the door.
“May I help you?”
“I demand to speak to Dr. Warthrop immediately.” Nostrils flaring. Cheeky youngster!
“Do you see anyone else here?”
“I would gladly inform the doctor, but I am under strict orders not to disturb him under any circumstances that do not include a national emergency. Is this a national emergency?”
“Let us just say it has that potential,” he replied cryptically, glancing about in the gloom.
“Well, in that case, I shall be happy to inform him that you are here. And your name, sir?”
“Dear God!” he cried. “Tell him Maeterlinck is here. Yes, Maeterlinck, that will do.” As if he had other names available to him. “Tell him Maeterlinck has urgent news from Cerrejón. Tell him that!”
“Of course”—and I closed the door a second time.
I turned. The monstrumologist was standing just outside the study door.
“Who is calling?” he asked.
“He says his name is Maeterlinck—that will do—and that he has urgent news from Cerrejón—wherever that is—that has the potential to be a national emergency.”
His face drained of color, and he said, “Cerrejón? Are you certain? Well, what are you doing? Snap to and show him in at once! Then put on a pot of tea and meet us in the study.”
He whirled away. “Cerrejón!” I heard him exclaim softly. “Cerrejón!”
They were sitting by the fireplace, deep in conversation, when I returned with the tea. The man calling himself Maeterlinck glowered at me from underneath his heavy eyebrows, a look that did not escape Warthrop’s notice.
“It is quite all right, Maeterlinck. Will can be trusted.”
“Forgive me, Dr. Warthrop, but the fewer involved the better for all involved.”
“I trust the boy with my very life—he can be trusted in this.”
“Hmm.” Maeterlinck scowled. “Very well, but I do not like it. He hasn’t much manners.”
“What sixteen-year-old does? Come, have some tea. One sugar or two?”
I sat on the divan across from them and did the thing I did best, the tactic I had adopted since coming to live with him, out of self-preservation: blending into the woodwork. In a few moments I don’t think either of them remembered I was there.
“Of course,” the monstrumologist said, “you must understand that your story strikes me as extraordinarily far-fetched, sir. There has not been a sighting in nearly a hundred years.”
“For a good reason,” Maeterlinck countered. “I don’t pretend to be an expert in your field, Dr. Warthrop. I am no philosopher of natural history; I am a businessman. My client referred you to me. He said, ‘Go to Warthrop; he will authenticate the find. There is none better.’?”
“Very true,” the doctor said, nodding gravely. “There is no one better. And nothing would delight me more than to authenticate it. The only hindrance is that you have failed to produce it!”
Maeterlinck shooed aside the objection with a patrician wave. “It would not be wise to carry it about like a traveling salesman. It is quite close by, quite safe, and quite taken care of, in the manner prescribed by my client in order to preserve its fragile, shall we say, potential. If we can reach an agreement, I can have it to you within the half hour.”
Warthrop’s eyes narrowed. “Don’t you think, as a businessman, it makes better sense to have the goods on hand that you wish to sell? For even if I agree to a price, you won’t see a penny until I see it.”
“Then I shall ask you, Dr. Warthrop, are we agreed?”
Warthrop frowned. “Agreed?”
“You will take delivery upon our reaching a fair price.”
“I will take delivery when and only when I’m assured you aren’t a scoundrel trying to separate me from my money.”
Maeterlinck threw back his head and laughed heartily. “My client warned me you were tight with a dollar,” he said after catching his breath. Then he grew serious. “You do understand, sir, that there are a dozen men who would gladly fork over their weight in gold for it—well, who would sell their own daughters for it, truth be told. Men who are the furthest thing from a natural philosopher as you can get. I could bring my offer to one of those men . . .”
“Yes, you could,” the monstrumologist said, becoming very still in his chair. He was furious, but his guest had no inkling of it. The more emotional Warthrop became, the less emotion he revealed. “A living specimen would be worth twice the fattest person’s weight in gold and then some. It would also bring upon this continent a scourge more devastating than the plagues of yore sent down to teach the Egyptians a lesson.”
“And surely no one wants that!”
Warthrop rolled his eyes. He took a deep breath to steady himself, then said, “For the sake of argument, I will assume that you have it in your possession and this is not some elaborate hoax. What is your price?”
“Not my price, Doctor. My client’s price. As his broker, I will receive a modest commission. Five percent.”
“And that is . . . ?”
“Fifty thousand dollars.”
Warthrop barked out a laugh. “That is his price?”
“No, Dr. Warthrop. That is my commission.”
Warthrop was better at math than I. He had the answer quickly: “One million dollars?”
Maeterlinck nodded. He actually licked his lips. He smiled, as if he found Warthrop’s stunned expression amusing.