“‘Satisfied’?” von Helrung asked, watching impassively the tears coursing down Arkwright’s cheeks. “No, I suppose anyone would be ‘satisfied,’ Thomas, though not the one who might have risked all to see the thing that devoured him!”
“It happened too fast! In the wink of an eye, Meister Abram—the wink of an eye! And a moment later—he returned… raining all around me. I lifted my face to the sky and was soaked to the skin with… him. With him! And you would judge me for it? You were not there; you were not the shore upon which the flotsam of a human being washed down!”
He slumped over again, rocking back and forth, clutching the doctor’s case, caressing it.
“Forgive me, Thomas,” von Helrung said kindly. “I do not pass judgment on your actions. It is not to me you must answer in the final days. But you are here and he is not. And so I am glad and aggrieved, relieved and burdened. As you are, I’m certain. Here, though. You haven’t finished the tale, and I would hear all of it, how you tracked down Jack Kearns and found the home of the nidus maker and all of that, but first a drink to steady your nerves, ja? Will Henry, be a dear and fetch a drink for Mr. Arkwright. What would you have, Thomas?”
“A bit of whiskey would be nice, if you have it, with some ice.”
I went to the liquor cabinet while von Helrung stationed himself directly in front of Arkwright, who raised the case with both hands, holding it toward von Helrung like a high priest making an offering to his god. “I went back at first light, and found this. I thought you might want it. It’s all that’s left of him.”
Arkwright swallowed hard and whispered, “The rest I was able to wash off in the tidewaters of the sea.”
His drink was ready. Von Helrung took it from me and handed it to Arkwright, who emptied the glass in a single, shuddering gulp.
“Would you like another?” von Helrung asked.
“It does help somewhat.”
“Then, you shall have another. You deserve it, Thomas. You deserve all you can drink, to the last drop.”
When Thomas Arkwright came to, an hour later, he was no longer in Abram von Helrung’s cozy parlor on Fifth Avenue. Where he found himself was neither cozy nor on Fifth Avenue.
I wonder what he noticed first. Was it the strange smell of moist air mixed with chemicals and the subtle undertones of decay? Or was it how the world had gone gray—gray walls, gray ceiling, gray floor—and was covered in the grimy residua of the smoke from oil lamps. Or did he notice the dust not yet captured by the walls, lazily floating in the tiny chamber’s atmosphere? Perhaps. But I suspect he first noticed the ropes.
“Well, baby’s up from his nap,” murmured Jacob Torrance.
Arkwright jerked in the chair and, as he was bound tightly hand and foot to it, nearly toppled over. He squinted in the weak light of the single kerosene lamp on the table behind Torrance, who stood in front of him, a six-foot-six hulking shadow, with face hidden and the voice of God’s avenging angel come to bring justice to the wicked.
And in me the thing unwinding, a swift, fierce thrill when I saw the fear in Thomas Arkwright’s eyes.
“Who are you?” Arkwright asked in a remarkably steady voice. Sound can play tricks in the underground crypts of the Monstrumarium. It careens from the walls, skitters down the serpentine passageways, smacks back and forth, ceiling to floor, wall to wall and back again. Did I hear the faintest trace of an accent far removed from the shores of Long Island?
“I’m the man who’s going to kill you,” Torrance answered evenly. “Unless Will would like the honor.”
“Will!” He peered into the murk until his eyes fell upon me. I willed myself not to look away. “Where is von Helrung?”
“I killed him,” Torrance answered. “No, I didn’t. Did I? What do you think?”
“Where am I? Why am I tied to this chair?” The drug still floated in his blood. He was fighting it, willing his tongue to mold the words.
“What, you don’t recognize the smell? I thought you’d been here before. And you know why you are tied to that chair. So you’re even now: two questions to which you don’t know the answer, and two to which you do. You are only allowed five, so I would suggest that you ask one from the first category.”
“The last one I don’t—I didn’t know the answer to. What—what has happened? I really don’t understand.… Will, can you tell me what’s happened?”
“You’re asking him because you haven’t liked my answers. That isn’t my fault.”
“Very well, then! I shall ask you: Why do you want to kill me?”
“I didn’t say I wanted to. I said I was going to. I’m not a monster, you know; I just study them.” He shrugged out of his jacket, handed it to me. He pulled out his Colt revolver.
“This is my gun. I named it Sylvia. It’s a long story.”
He flipped open the cylinder and held it a foot from Arkwright’s aristocratic nose.
“She is empty, see?”
He dug into his vest pocket and removed a single bullet.
“A bullet,” he said, holding it up.
He slid it into a chamber and slapped the cylinder closed. Then with no further preamble he stepped forward and pressed the muzzle against Arkwright’s finely formed forehead.
Our captive did not flinch. His gray eyes looked unblinking into Torrance’s face. “Go on; pull the trigger. You don’t frighten me.”
“I don’t want to frighten you,” Torrance replied. He dropped the gun onto the bound man’s lap and said, “I want to tell you a story. It’s one of my favorite stories, written by a very good friend of mine who happens to be the world’s reigning hot dog-eating champion. He ate two and a half hot dogs, plus buns, in sixty seconds. It’s hard to make a decent living eating hot dogs, so he turned to writing—which pays a little better but wins not half the glory of achieving two and a half wieners in a minute—plus the buns. It’s the buns that’s impressive. The story’s pretty famous; you’ve probably heard of it.
“Once upon a time there was a very mean king. He had a beautiful daughter whom, despite the fact that he was very mean, he loved very much. Well, one day this beautiful daughter of his disobeys him and falls in love with a fellow well below her station—a commoner, in other words. This made the mean king very, very angry, and that’s a bad spot to be in if you’re this princess’s paramour. The king threw the poor sucker into the deepest, dankest, darkest dungeon—not too different from this place. He was just going to kill him, but the mean king was an ol’ softie when it came to his daughter, who was just as heartbroken as Juliet over her lover’s misfortune—that is, his being born out of the wrong womb.
“So the mean king doesn’t kill him, but boy, does he set him up good. He plops him down in this big closed-off arena, like a coliseum, the kind the Romans had, and in the arena are two identical doors. Behind one door is a very good-looking woman—not a real looker like the princess, but several degrees from not bad. Behind the other is a ferocious man-eating tiger. The prisonr must choose one door—no coercion, entirely up to him. If he opens the door that hides the lady, he must marry her—the till-death-do-us-part kind of marrying, or the mean king will kill him. If he opens the door to the tiger… Well, you can picture the outcome.
“Now, you might be thinking, ‘Well, I know which one I’d try for!’ But wait. Right as he’s about to pick, he looks up and sees the princess. Ah, true love will triumph! Good will overcome immoderate meanness! For she does indeed know what is behind each door. And lo, when he looks up at her, she flicks her finger to the right—meaning ‘Pick the door on the right; trust me!’
“Now, her lover may have been a commoner and may not have had all the perks of a royal education, but he was no simpleton. He begins to think about it. He begins to wonder how his dear would feel if she had to watch her true love spend the rest of his life in the arms of another, albeit just a notch or two less beautiful, woman. Did that flick of the finger mean, therefore, ‘Dinner’s served?’ Oh, but no, ‘Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not.…’ Wish him to be torn limb from limb and eaten before the king and the court and her? Impossible! So it must be the lady behind the right door.
“But wait! Did I mention who the lady is? She is well-known to the king’s daughter, a woman she despises, loathes with all her being, so if it is her behind the right door, the princess will be forced to watch, for the rest of her life, this hateful creature have what she, the royal princess, cannot. And her poor lover knows this.
“‘Still, I cannot believe she could simply sit there and watch me be eaten,’ our poor lover thinks. ‘So she points to the door that will slay her heart but save my life.’ He starts to turn the knob on the right-hand door.
“‘But wait!’ he thinks. ‘What if she is worried that I do not trust her? That would mean she points out the tiger, thinking I will choose the other door and thus live. I must choose the door on the left!’
“So he steps to the door on the left. But just as he’s about to open it, he thinks, ‘But wait! I do trust her. Her heart could not bear the sight of my mangled corpse being dragged around the arena by a wild animal, entrails trailing in the sawdust, blood everywhere, a mess. The lady must be behind the right door! Unless… unless I shouldn’t trust her. Love may suffer long, but a lifetime is an awfully “long” long. The tiger is behind the right door. I should open the left!’
“Two doors. Behind one, the lady. Behind the other, the tiger. Which should he choose?”
Torrance fell silent. Arkwright, convinced by this point, perhaps, that he was in the presence of a lunatic, said nothing at first, and then, unable to bear the tension any longer, blurted out, “All right, which is it? Which door did he choose?”
“I don’t know! The bugger just leaves it there. He can knock off two and a half hot dogs in a minute, but he can’t finish a damn story. Anyay, it’s the wrong question. The correct question is which will you choose—the lady or the tiger?”
Torrance nodded to me. I stepped into the hall and returned with the rolling cart; its wheels had not been oiled since its construction, most likely; they squeaked and squealed as I pushed it into the small chamber. Arkwright’s eyes cut to the cart and the large jar sitting on top of it—and then cut away. His shoulders bunched and relaxed; his right leg jerked.
“You know what this is,” Torrance said with a flick of his finger toward the thing suspended inside the amber-colored preserving solution. Arkwright did not answer. His face shone with sweat. A nerve beneath his right eye danced. “Now, where did I put my gloves?” Torrance wondered. “Oh, here they are on the table. You too, Will. Put them on.” He picked up the scalpel from the cart and sliced through the wax ring around the lid. “Hold this a moment, please, Will,” he said, handing me the scalpel. He unscrewed the lid. The sound was very loud in the closed space.