“Hello?” he called.
“I can’t feel my hands or feet. Be a good lad and help me.”
“I—I can’t untie you, Mr. Kendall.”
“Did I ask you to untie me? Just loosen the knots a bit. The rope’s cutting into my skin.”
“I will ask the doctor when he comes back.”
“Comes back? Where did he go?”
“He’s in the laboratory,” I reminded him.
“I am a British citizen!” he cried shrilly. “My uncle is a member of Parliament! I will prosecute your ‘doctor’ for assault and battery, kidnapping, false imprisonment, and torture of a foreign national! They’ll hang him for certain, and you with him!”
“He is only trying to help, Mr. Kendall.”
“Help? By stripping me bare and tying me up? By refusing to take me to a proper doctor?”
The revolver’s skin was cold beneath my fingers. Where was the dawn? The sun would rise soon; it had to.
“I’m cold,” he whimpered. “Can’t you at least put some covers on me?”
I gnawed on my bottom lip. The man was shivering uncontrollably, teeth literally chattering in his head. What should I do? The doctor hadn’t forbid covering him, but I was sure if he’d wanted him covered he would have done it himself. It would clearly ease his suffering, if only by a little—and wasn’t that my duty, my simple human obligation?
I laid down the gun and pulled the coverlet from the closet. As I bent to spread it over his quivering form, I caught a whiff of a familiar odor, one that I had smelled many times before—the cloyingly sweet smell of putrefying flesh.
I raised my head, bringing my eyes to the level of his right hand, and saw that the skin had gone from a rosy red to a light gray. It seemed almost translucent. I imagined I could see right down to his bones.
The hand that had touched it, the thing that Warthrop had called beautiful, was beginning to decompose.
“I am dying.”
I swallowed hard and said nothing.
“Squeezed, that’s how I feel. Like a giant fist squeezing me, every inch, down to my vry bones.”
“The doctor will do everything he can,” I promised him.
“I don’t want to die. Please. Please don’t let me die.”
His rotting fingers clawed uselessly at the empty air.
Chapter Five: “The Singular Cure”
He slipped into semiconsciousness—not awake, not quite asleep.
Dawn came. The doctor did not come with it. He didn’t appear until an hour later. I jumped in my chair when the door opened; I was exhausted, my nerves shot.
“Why did you cover him?” he demanded.
“I didn’t touch him. He was cold,” I added defensively.
Warthrop peeled off the coverlet and let it drop to the floor.
“It was my mother’s. Now I shall have to burn it.”
“I’m sorry, sir.”
He waved my apology away. “As a precaution—the precise toxicity of pwdre ser is unknown. How long has he been out?”
“About an hour and a half.”
“‘About’? Haven’t you been keeping notes?”
“I—I didn’t have anything to write with, sir.”
“Will Henry, I thought I had impressed upon you the urgency of this case, one of the most—if not the most—important discoveries in the history of biology—aberrant or otherwise. We must be meticulous. We must not allow our personal failures or biases to compromise our observations.… When did this grayish discoloration begin to manifest itself?”
“Shortly after you went downstairs,” I answered, my face hot with shame. I had not noted the hour. “It started with his hand—”
“His right hand, sir.”
“Hmmm. Stands to reason. It’s spreading rapidly, then.”
It had, I told him. A slaty tide swamping hands, then arms, then torso, groin, legs, feet. Kendall’s face was a paper-thin gray mask stretched drum-skin tight over protruding bone.
“What has he reported?”
“He said he’s going to have you arrested and hanged.”
Warthrop sighed loudly. “About his symptoms, Will Henry. His symptoms.”
He was bending over the bed, listening to Kendall’s heart through his stethoscope.
“He said he was cold and that it felt like a giant fist was squeezing him.”
The doctor told me to bring over the lamp. With great care he slowly removed the cloth covering Kendalleyes and peeled up one eyelid. The orb jittered in its socket as if maddened by the onslaught of light.
“The pupil is grossly dilated. The iris has completely disappeared,” he observed.
He dropped his gloved fingers to Kendall’s cheek and pressed gently. The skin ripped apart at his touch, exposing the dark gray bone beneath. A viscous mixture of pus and blood dribbled from the fissure. The noxious stench of decay wafted around our heads.
“Both dermal and epidermal layers are in active decay, the tissue having begun to liquefy.… Early stages of imperfect osteogenesis noted in the zygomatic bone,” Warthrop breathed. “Forming non-arthric osteophytic structures…”
He ran his hands over the rest of the face, over the arms, the chest and abdomen, down the legs. He had learned his lesson; he did not press hard. His touch was whisper-soft.
“Additional osteophytic growths noted in the elbows, wrists, knuckles, knees, hips.… We’ll need to take some measurements of these, Will Henry.… Acute myositis throughout.…” He glanced down at my notes. “M-y-o, Will Henry, not m-i-o.… Myositis is the inflammation you see here in the skeletal, or voluntary, muscles. At this rate, in a few hours our Mr. Kendall will begin to resemble a circus strong man—a skinless one, I should say.”
He peered at Kendall’s right hand, then the left.
“Note the abnormal thickness and dark yellow color of the nails,” he said. He tapped one with his own gloved fingernail. “As hard as steel! The condition is called onychauxis.” Taking pity on me, he spelled it out.
He looked over at me, eyes shining with that unnerving backlit glow.
“A precise parallel to the stories in the literature, Will Henry,” he whispered. “He is… becoming. And it’s happening faster than I first assumed.”
“And you don’t think a hospital…”
“Even if I did think it, the nearest hospital is in Boston. It would be over before we got there.”
Warthrop shook his head. What did that mean? Did it mean Kendall was dying? Or did it mean the monstrumolo-gist did not know for certain?
“Is there a cure for it?” I asked.
“Not according to my sources, which are not very reliable. There is, of course, the singular cure that ends all ailments.”
Only a monstrumologist, I thought, would characterize death as a cure for anything. I watched him pick up the syringe loaded with morphine and roll it back and forth in his open palm. It would ease the poor soul’s suffering; it might give him the smallest measure of peace. But the drug also might interfere with the progress of Kendall’s becoming and thus compromise Warthrop’s scientific inquiry.
It would, in short, desecrate the temple.
Without comment the monstrumologist laid down the syringe. He seemed to tower ten feet above the writhing form in the bed, and his shadow fell hard upon that pile of bones wrapped loosely in its sack of gossamer skin.
He told me to rest; he would hold vigil for a while.
“You look terrible,” he observed dispassionately. “You need to sleep. Probably should find yourself something to eat, too.”
I glanced toward the bed. “I’m not very hungry, sir.”
He nodded. It made sense to him. “Where is my revolver? You haven’t lost it, have you? Thank you, Will Henry. Now off to bed, but first I’ll need you to take care of this.”
He handed me a slip of paper, a note jotted down in his nearly illegible scrawl.
“A letter for Dr. von Helrung,” he explained. “You may want to recast it in your own hand first, Will Henry. Send it by express mail marked ‘personal’ and ‘confidential.’”
I started out. He called after me, “Straight there and back, and be quick if you want any sleep this day.”
He motioned toward the bed.
“It appears to be accelerating.”
The letter to the head of the Society for the Advancement of the Science of Monstrumology was brief and to the point:
‘PERSONAL AND CONFIDENTIAL’
I have, under the most unusual of circumstances, come into possession of an authentic nidus ex magnificum, by way of Dr. Jack Kearns, whom I believe you’ve met. Expect me in New York within the week. In the interim direct our friends in London to make discrete inquiries into Kearns’s whereabouts. He is working—or did work—at the Royal London Hospital, Whitechapel, and resided in the same district, in a flat on Dorset Street owned by a Mr. Wymond Kendall, Esq.
I went straight to the post office, resisting all temptations along the way, Mr. Tanner’s shop in particular, where the fragrance of fresh scones hung warm in the bitter air. The wind was sharp upon my cheek, the day bright and bracingly cold, the snow faultlessly white—dazzlingly white, unblemished, pure. My heart ached for the snow.
I paused but once and then only for a moment. There, white upon white in the beneficent snow, my former schoolhouse, and children playing in the drifts. A battle raged for the highest ground, the defenders screeching, hurling down their hastily packed cannonade upon the heads of their attackers. A little ways off, a squadron of fallen angels had left its impression, and nearby a passable likeness of the headmaster, complete with cap and cape and walking stick.
And their cries were thin, their laughter high and hysterical in the biting wind.
There was a boy I recognized. He was shouting something from the top of the little hill, crouched behind the ramparts of the fort, taunting the assault force below, and I remembered him. The slightly pug nose. The shaggy blond hair. The splash of freckles across cheeks. I remembered everything about him, his high-pitched voice, the gap between his teeth, the color of his eyes, the way he smiled first with those eyes. You could see the smile coming a year before it arrived. I remembered where he lived, what his parents looked like. He had been a friend, but I could not remember his name. What was his name? He had been my friend, my best friend, and I could not remember his name.
The doctor was standing in the kitchen when I came in, eating an apple.
“You’re late,” he said. He did not sound angry, not his usual self at all. He said it casually, a knee-jerk response to my entering the room. “Did you stop somewhere?”
“No, sir. Straight to the post office and back.”
It struck me then, and with a heart in which fear and hope intertwined in an obscene embrace, I asked, “Is he dead?”
“No, but I had to eat something. Here, you should too.”