“And how do you British know of the nidus?” Rurick asked next.
“Well, how do you think? Kearns told us about it,” returned Arkwright.
“He tells you of the nidus but does not say where it comes from?”
“No, he did not say. He said he didn’t know where it came from. We knew he had it, and we knew he sent it to Warthrop, and we knew he disappeared. That is all we knew.”
“So you pay Warthrop to be your bird dog?”
“No. It was our understanding that Dr. Warthrop is one of those rare creatures whose honor cannot be bought. We decided to trick him instead. Play to his ego, which by all accounts is considerably large and substantially playable. My job was to stick with him until he found the origin of the nidus.”
“Ah. And then you kill him.”
“No,” Arkwright replied patiently. “We are British. We avoid murder if we can help it. Killing is expensive, risky, and usually results in a plethora of unintended consequences. That is what I’m trying to help you to understand, Rurick. Killing us creates more problems than it solves.”
“Not if you have discovered magnificum,” Rurick argued. He turned to Warthrop. “Do you know where it is?”
The monstrumologist turned from our reflections and sat in the chair beside my bunk. His shoulders swayed in rhythm to the rocking of the train. At that moment its whistle shrieked, a shrill, almost hysterical sound, like a wounded animal.
“It was an interesting dilemma, Will Henry,” he said calmly. We might have been sitting by a cozy fire on Harrington Lane discussing a paradox of his favorite philosopher, Zeno of Elea. “A bit more complicated than the question implies. If I lied and said no, the wisest course for the Russians would be to kill me, for the alternative was setting me free to find the answer, a risk Rurick—and his government—could not afford to take. However, if I told the truth and said yes, the decision would be even easier. He knew that his British rivals did not know the location of the magnificum, a secret they were willing to keep at all costs. He would have to kill us. Neither the truth nor a lie would spare my life.”
“The lady or the tiger,” I said.
“The lady or the what?”
“It’s nothing, sir. A story Dr. Torrance told.”
“Dr. Torrance told you a story?” He was having some trouble picturing it.
“It doesn’t matter, sir.”
“Then, why did you interrupt me?”
“Rurick didn’t shoot you or Mr. Arkwright, so you must have figured something out.”
“Correct, Will Henry, but that is rather like Newton’s saying the apple fell, so it must be on the ground! Understand that my problem was compounded by the presence of Arkwright, whom I had just discovered was an agent of Her Majesty’s government. If I told the truth and by some miracle we were spared, the British would know where to find the magnificum, and that would be only slightly less disastrous than my death.”
The answer to his “interesting dilemma” occurred to him with no more than a second to spare. Saying nothing broke rule one. Lying broke rule two. Telling the truth broke no established rule except the law of necessity; the end result would be the same.
He could feel Rurick’s sour breath bathing his face. He could hear the incessant drip, drip of water and smell the nauseating cocktail of urine and human waste wafting up from the trench below. He looked up into those depthless black eyes, the eyes of a predator, a hunter like himself—into those shining eyes, his eyes, and he said the one thing, the only thing, that could save his life:
“I do know where it is. The Faceless One hails from an island off the coast of Oman, called Masirah.”
“Masirah?” I asked.
“Yes! Masirah, a long-suspected hiding place of the magnificum. It was the perfect bluff, Will Henry. Any other answer, as I’ve demonstrated, would have resulted in our deaths. Our only hope lay in the possibility that the Russians already thought that the origin of the nidus was Socotra. If they believed I was wrong about the nidus’s origin, they might let us go. In fact, it served their interest to let us go. By the time we discovered the magnificum was not on Masirah, their mission to Socotra would be complete. It was perfect in another, albeit secondary, sense. Assuming I was correct and we survived, Arkwright would return to his superiors with the intelligence he’d been tasked to gather: Typhoeus magnificum was on the isle of Masirah!”
“But why would the Russians kidnap you and Mr. Arkwright if they already knew where the magnificum was? I don’t understand, Dr. Warthrop.”
He patted my shoulder and whirled from his seat, strode back to the window, and admired his newly whiskered profile in the glass.
“In the affairs of nations, Will Henry, all governments, whether democtic or despotic, are desperately interested in two things—obtaining information they wish to protect and protecting information they’ve already obtained. Rurick’s question wasn’t ‘Where is the magnificum?’ It was, ‘Do you know where the magnificum is?’ That struck me like a thunderbolt. Not ‘Tell me where to find the magnificum’ but ‘Do you know where the magnificum is?’ It tipped his hand; I played my little bluff, and we survived.”
Rurick’s finger relaxed upon the trigger. He looked over at his bald partner, who wore a thin-lipped smirk and was nodding.
“You are sure of this Masirah?” Rurick asked the doctor.
Warthrop drew himself erect, or as erect as the rope around his neck would allow, and said (Oh, how well I can picture it!), “I am a scientist, sir. I seek the truth and only the truth for truth’s sake, without regard to the interests of governments or principalities, religious beliefs or cultural biases. As a scientist, I am providing you a theory based upon all the data at my disposal. Hence it can only be called a theory until it is proven otherwise—in other words, until someone actually finds the magnificum on the island of Masirah.”
Rurick frowned, trying to wrap his reptilian brain around the doctor’s answer.
“So… you do not know if it is Masirah?”
“I think it is highly probable.”
“Damn it, Warthrop,” Arkwright cried out. “For the love of bloody hell, before he blows both our brains out, did the nidus come from Masirah?”
“Why, yes. I believe it did.”
Rurick and Plešec withdrew to consider their options. There were only two. Warthrop used the time to collect himself. It was not the first time he’d faced down death, but that was one thing to which one never got accustomed. As the Russians whispered urgently—it appeared Rurick still thought the best and simplest option would be murder; his comrade, however, had seen the wisdom of releasing them—Arkwright turned to Warthrop and said quietly, “I can save us both, but you must go along with everything I say.”
“Excuse me, Arkwright. It sounded like you just asked me to trust you.”
“Warthrop, you do not know these men; I do. They’re Okhranka, the Russian secret police, and you could not find a more vicious pair of killers this side of the Ukraine. We’ve been tracking them for more than a year. Rurick is the real brute, a bloody, soulless predator. He was questioned twice by Scotland Yard for the Whitechapel killings last year. He cannot be reasoned with. If he has been given orders to kill you, he will kill you.”
The monstrumologist refused to let go his grip upon the faith he put in reason; he was a scientist, as he’d said; reason was his god. Rurick’s hesitation to pull the trigger had convinced the doctor beyond all doubt that he’d been correct. The Russians knew Socotra to e the home of the magnificum. But he could not explain his reasoning to Arkwright. To do so would give away the game to the British.
“Then, how do you propose we proceed, in that case, Arkwright?” he asked.
The English spy winked at him. “Leave everything to me.”
Warthrop sighed at his reflection. “Well, you know what happened next. Arkwright ‘revealed’ to them the British plan for handling me once I discovered the location of the magnificum. It was, he confessed, not the first time an ‘inconvenience’ to the Crown had found himself in a home for the insane. Rurick was skeptical, or perhaps just confused, but Plešec caught on at once, thought it a capital idea and quite humorous. In another thirty minutes we were on our way to Hanwell. Rurick pulled Arkwright aside at the gatehouse, stuck his Smith & Wesson into his rib cage, and informed him that he knew where his family lived and he’d better keep his end of the bargain, which meant convincing von Helrung that I had met my maker in pursuit of the magnificum. Everyone parted company extremely satisfied, with the exception of the one about to be thrown into a lunatic asylum until the end of his days. Arkwright was pleased that he had walked away with the information he’d sought from us, and with his life; the Russians were satisfied that the secret of Socotra was safe; and both felt that there was nothing more to fear.”
A feeling of sadness unexpectedly swept over me, and heart-crushing guilt over the fate of Thomas Arkwright. I had distrusted and then hated him for taking Warthrop from me, had tried and convicted him in my mind for a crime conceived only in my mind, and in the end it was not a “bloody, soulless killer” who had orchestrated his final test, no “mean king” as in Torrance’s parable. No, it had been a thirteen-year-old boy consumed with jealousy and self-righteousness, casting himself in the role of protector and avenger of a man who had rejected him for another and exiled him from the rarified atmosphere of his presence.
Chapter Twenty-Eight: “The Trouble with Venice”
The doctor was not pleased that his great quest for the ultimate prize in monstrumology would be delayed by a six-hour layover in Venice—despite the fact that it was Venezia, La Serenissima, the queen of the Adriatic, one of the most—if not the most—beautiful cities on earth.
We arrived around three o’clock in the afternoon on a warm, bright day in late spring, when the westering sun turned the canals into ribbons of gold and the buildings lining their eastern banks shone like jewels. The sweet serenades of the gondoliers leapt from their boats and gamboled merrily after us, along every narrow lane and back alleyway, and golden light pooled in the archways of the little shops and restaurants and the balconies framed in wrought iron overlooking the water.
Ah, Venice! You recline like a beautiful woman in her lover’s arms, bare-armed and free of care, your beating heart filled with light undefiled. I wished we could have remained nestled in your dewy bosom sixty times six hours. A boy wanders in a dry land of dust and bones, of bleached, broken rocks and the grinding of the wind in a waterless season. The lamentation of the arid earth, the anguish of the bonesbe delaydust and the broken rocks gnawed by the hot wind; this has been his home, this his inheritance… and then the boy turns round. He turns round and beholds Venice singing in golden light, and he is entranced, her loveliness all the more heartbreaking for what he has inherited.
The monstrumologist seemed to know every byway and backwater of this floating city, to be familiar with every tiny shop and sidewalk café. “I spent a summer or two here during my European period,” was how he put it. Perhaps he was reverting to his days as an aspiring poet; it sounded like something an artist might say of himself, ‘my European period.’ We ate an early dinner at a café in the Piazzetta di San Marco, near the lagoon, a welcome respite after hiking for two hours in the city with no clear—or so it seemed to me—purpose or destination in mind. The doctor ordered a caffè and settled back in his chair to enjoy the mild air, and the beautiful women, who seemed so plentiful in Venice and whose careless laughter echoed between the Libreria and the Zecca like water splashing in the fountain of the piazza.