Story by K. Sullivan
Illustration by Lee Dawm
Perhaps, I should never have gone to Bangkok with Jonathan Fawlscombe–perhaps I should have left him in that sty of a clip-joint in the shadows of the Soi Arab rather than wade in two-fisted, flash a butterfly-knife in the eyes of the pig-eyed owner, then grease the policeman at the end of the street with a thick roll of limp-worn baht as we made our escape. But then I would as well as never have gone to Harvard at all: for the real attraction to Harvard is the chance to rub elbows with the ancient New England aristocracy, to share their wild or sordid adventures and become adopted into their secret counsels, their ages-old lattice of privilege and stability worked into the fabric of everything like rebar in concrete. I wanted that–I wanted access to those rare and silent circles where life was neatly and tastefully arranged rather than clawed raw out of the world–and it was for that hash-dream that I led myself into the claws of the horrid Dr. Hermippus.
What I did for Jonathan Fawlscombe in the Soi Arab marked me as a “good egg”: someone who was unafraid and kept his wits in a crisis, and didn’t let an unfamiliar situation get the better of him. Trust is slow, but the reputation of a “good egg” gets around, and from the end of junior year onwards, I was in regular receipt of very official if by now informal invitations from some of the most exclusive interior circles of legacy Harvard: yachting, polo, “camps” in the northern reaches of Maine and New Hampshire where whole towns had been erased from the map at the snap of an ancestor’s fingers. I was being felt out, and I was conscious of my position: with neither finances nor family connections in the class of my hosts, I was not being entertained as a dynastic prospect on my own, but as a friend, a body-man, a gentleman’s gentleman. With competence, discretion, and loyalty, I would find a place and keep it, and in three generations, the name my parents brought across the deserts from Honduras would be as one with the Cabots, the Basses, the Fawlscombes in the ancient rolls of the Harvard within Harvard.
It was coming on spring break of senior year, and I was putting all my effort into building and working connections to finalize my place after graduation when Fawlscombe stopped me coming around one of the ancient houses at the foot of the Anderson bridge. “Say, Emil; could you do me a favor a bit?” I nodded; I was here to do favors–here to put people like him in my debt. Fawlscombe looked at the ground. “It’s–it’s awkward a little though. My old man wants me to body-man this doctor–this crank doctor out in Belmont. But it’s a long-term position, the doc said–and I’ve already promised Monica I’d be in Cannes with her people this summer. And I’ve got my own position to think about–the firm, and that. I can explain to pater about it, but he was hard after me to keep this doctor sweet with us for some reason–and so I thought of you. You don’t have a situation yet, do you, Emilio?”
I kept it straight and level. “I’ve got a couple lines out, but no, nothing solid yet.” Fewer doors were open for me, so far, then I hoped would be, but I couldn’t afford to let Fawlscombe think I was dependent on him.
He brightened up. “Then you might as well–just a look in, at least, eh? It might be a really good place–down Kendall it’s like they’ve got another Kendall stacked on top of Kendall, all those full-block biomed skyscrapers, that’s definitely something to jump out into–and even if it doesn’t work out, you’d be doing me a real solid just putting your face in.”
I nodded. Fawlscombe came from the floppy end of the New England aristocracy, but even for him, his word was his bond. If he said he owed me, he would pay me back. “Sure. I’ve got time this break, an you say, it could be a good place. What’s the address?”
The address was barely there in my phone’s map, a narrow, turreted jumble of bricks and ivy and roofs pitched as sharp as a knife blade backed into a hill up a winding trail away from Pleasant Street–not the placid surgery of a prestigious physician in the tiniest of the northern inner suburbs, but a secretive Castle Frankenstein buried in ageless hills that watched generations and centuries pass in an eyeblink. It felt like I was trespassing just to leave my car at the bottom of the path from the street: with no driveway to the house, it seemed like with every step I was treading up into an ancient past. There was no bell on the door, a monstrous iron-banded mass of oak, so I knocked with the knocker, the slam of the heavy wrought-iron ring against its strike plate echoing in the stillness of the empty street.
No answer came, and I was on the point of knocking again, my hand halfway back to the ring, when the door opened, falling away inside to reveal a bent and evil-looking man, unshaven and scowling. “You are the man from Harvard?” he demanded, and I nodded my assent. “Then, enter. The doctor will see you.” I followed this Portuguese servant into the entryway and was surprised as he closed the door behind us, manipulating switches on the wall.
“Remove your shoes,” he said, pointing at a rack of slippers. “The doctor forbids shoes in his house. Take, and you may enter.” I sat down on the raised shelf of the entryway to pull off my kicks, noticing a change in the air. The old man could be as particular as he liked with his house, but there was something strange about this–something off in the way the air felt heavier, perfumed with strange smoke: like this was more of an airlock than merely an entranceway. I stood up on the raised inner floor, and the Portuguese unlocked the inside door before me.
The house was dark inside, the dim coils of archaic carbon-filament bulbs flickering against deeply-varnished wooden paneling, and the air was leaden with that strange aromatic smoke. Our slippered feet made no noise as the servant lead me down the hall, and everything around us was as silent as the tomb. He opened a door off a side passage, and as I stepped after him into the study, I came face to face, for the first time, with Dr. Hermippus.
He was seated behind an immense dragon-footed oak desk, writing by candlelight in his windowless study, projecting nothing than the image of absolute deathless age. A black skull-cap sat at the back of his head over a few straggling gray strands, and his long white beard hung down ragged over deep, black, formless robes that might have belonged to a scholar of a thousand years before. His skin was drawn in close and tight across his bones, such that I could almost see the very cells straggling through the veins in his gnarled, skeletal hands, but his eyes burned with a desperate, indomitable fire that must, alone, be keeping him attached to life in the body. Around him, thousands of books of impossible age and undiscoverable provenance mounted high into the gloom of the ceiling–or a dark infinity beyond all sight, beyond all knowing.
This picture of a perfect Doktor Faustus was spoiled only–or thrown only into more terrible relief–by the child at his elbow, a girl of six or eight in a pink-and-white pinafore with ribbons in her hair. She was humming as I came in, playing at the Itsy-Bitsy Spider with her hands, and the whole scene was so strange, so utterly inexplicable, that I stopped dead in the middle of the carpet, trying as best I might, to keep myself stable, under control–to master this bizarre nightmare and not be mastered by it. The doctor looked up as the Portuguese closed the door behind me.
“You are Alvarez?” I nodded, trying not to wilt under his gaze. The doctor stared on at me a second more, and then laid down his pen and gestured away at the door. “Blanes, leave us. Clara, you may stop singing.” “Yes, doctor,” she answered, folding her hands before her in silence; I didn’t understand but made a note that while he sent away his servant, he did not dismiss the child.
“I had expected another,” the doctor began, in some ancient accent that I couldn’t place even after four years in all-polyglot Cambridge, “the old Fawlscombe said as much. And he should, for what he seeks.”
I made a half-bow. “The younger Fawslcombe had other ideas–as youth will to age. I am a friend of the young Fawlscombe; I’ve gotten him out of some tight scrapes by good sense and discretion, and to discharge his debt, he thought to make me a good recommendation.”
“And he should,” the doctor nodded, answering. “For what I need most is good sense and discretion, and I have scarce noted their like in the elder of that house, let alone his scions. Are you aware of my situation?”
I thought for a moment; it was best to be absolutely honest–I had to, with those terrible burning eyes boring into my brain. “No, sir; what I had heard was merely that you required an assistant, a confidential secretary.”
The old head nodded slowly. “It is so–and more than so. My last man left me…abruptly. And I require not merely a young hand to administer my papers, to press them into the forms that these modern conferences and journals must require, but for many, many other things.” He stood, sweeping up to an unbent height over six feet, and seemed to drift around the side of the desk, Clara following closely at his side.
“I am a man out of time,” he said, gesturing at the books in their files along the wall. “You see me, and you think me old, ancient–but I am more ancient still than you can reckon. I have survived these centuries by the sternest application of science–but it has left me marooned on an ancient island in your sea of modern numbers. You–you are assigned a number at birth, and so it continues–those who are not, produce a certificate of birth and can gain a number. But I–I was old, young Alvarez, before your government thought of numbering its people for reference files. And I was old before such a thing as certificates of birth, signed and attested, were conceived and made general. In former days there was no inconvenience: a man might attest who he was and be accepted on his own recognizance, but now everything must have a number. Without the numbers that I cannot produce, I can have no legal existence–or if I must, only by a laborious process of exception, and making such an exception must draw attention that would be…unwelcome.”
He drew himself up and turned, glowering. “What I require from my man, Alvarez, is not merely your service and your competence, but yourself. You will prepare my papers for the journals; you will handle my correspondence where it must touch the electric appliances of your century. But you must also become my executor, my legal actor: my income and my salary will be drawn on your name and paid into an account opened with your credentials. You will be the interface between myself and this modern society that has no place for me.
“In return, you will learn. You will have a place in my house, and I shall have no secrets from you. You shall breathe in the air that I breathe, and benefit as I benefit. You will learn things that are beyond the dreams of your feeble classmates–you will have the secrets, as you come to discover them, by which I have defied the years and decades. You will have all of this, and a handsome salary of your own, if you can bear this burden, and preserve these conditions three alone.
“First, you must reveal nothing of the conditions of this house, nor the people you meet within, to any person who is not admitted. Second, when you cross the threshold of the house, entering or exiting, you must not open the second door until the conditions of the entry have changed: until entering, it has become the inner atmosphere or, exiting, it has become the outside. Blanes should, mostly, operate the doors for you, but in time you shall learn to operate the air controls for yourself as well.
“And the last, and the most important, you must never, ever, under any circumstances, open the brass door marked with the alchemical sign of Mercury, nor, that door happening to be open, look inside that room. The apparatus within is the most sensitive of my researches and operates under the strictest parameters–even Blanes, who has been in my service for fifty years, operates it only under my supervision, and only in those cases where my bodily strength will not suffice. It is absolutely forbidden: transgressing any of these conditions will instantly terminate your employment, but this last may risk you your life. Are we understood?” I nodded, swallowing dry. “And are we agreed?”
I thought for a moment. This house was strange, and the doctor was strange, and the dissonant little girl standing under the folds of his cloak was stranger still, but it was a chance–it was unmistakably the ancient and secret circles of power and control that I’d spent my college life clawing towards. I couldn’t accept–not as it was–but I couldn’t afford to turn it away. “I must have some time to consider,” I said, trying to open myself some space, “a night, and I’ll reply. It is a great opportunity, but a great sacrifice, and I must consider.”
The doctor nodded slowly, returning to his desk. “It is well. You are right. And for your consideration, here are the salary and terms–and for your trouble today.” He handed me, in skeletal talons, a parchment thick with long-s handwriting and a dollar amount in the middle six figures, and a worn golden eagle struck a hundred and fifty years gone. I accepted them, wordlessly, and the doctor rapped at a desk bell to call his servant.
— ♦♦♦ —
I sat up long that night with a glass of neat whiskey, staring into the fire at the Pequot Club, considering. The doctor’s immense age was unnatural, inexplicable, and Clara’s presence led his house of horrors from the bizarre into the surreal. Could I live in such a place, in that terrible silence and that stifling atmosphere with those disquieting companions: the ancient doctor and the barely less ancient servant–he’d said Blanes had been in service for fifty years, but the Portuguese barely looked fifty himself–and the little girl in ribbons and frills. It was infamous–it was monstrous–but there would be no lack of infamy and monstrosity wherever I went, seeking those inner halls of power: and here, it was already in my hand, as securely as the ounce of soft yellow gold I’d received merely for showing up. I considered, and I thought, and I signed my contract, and from the next morning entered the household of Dr. Hermippus.
I knew I could adapt–I forced myself to adapt as I’d adapted to Harvard. But the ways were smoothed under me by what I learned, immediately, transcribing the doctor’s papers. He was a genius–he was more than a genius–he was a leading light of the age who, in his correspondence, his preparation of papers as an uncredited author with other scions of the Harvard establishment, set himself at the root of a staggering proportion of the greatest advances in modern biology and chemistry, and their assorted, blended disciplines where he could work by himself, with his own mind rather than a computer, in his confined and cryptic house rather than a modern industrial laboratory. Any number of Nobel’s might have been his if he only wished to reach out his hand for them–but conditions prevented him from doing so.
As the days became weeks and then months, I grew to realize that it was not merely that Doctor Hermippus preferred to hide from the eyes of humanity, concealing his abhorrently advanced age from a society that might still have burned him as a witch for it–indeed, Hemippus could not survive outside of his peculiar atmosphere. I found the first hints of this in his papers, in links of footnotes to footnotes to papers and articles published under a name I realized was his pseudonym in the middle of the nineteenth century: that vital processes might be enhanced–what we could now recognize as telomere conservation–by extended exposure to certain compounds most easily absorbed across the membranes of the lungs. This explained the hints of sweet smoke, the careful evacuation, and reventilating of the airlocks whenever Blanes or I needed to pass to the outside–but it did not explain Clara, and it did not explain why suddenly, in the middle of the second year of my employ, it was not Clara but Bianca clinging to his arm, smaller, snuffly, and scared.
I wasn’t sure how or where to begin in this regard: I had no idea what relationship these girls might have to him, or what purpose they served–Clara had seemed to be nothing more than a pet, a living music box, to hum, sing, play finger games, simply be at the doctor’s sepulchral side, an inverted memento mori no less macabre than the usual skull. I had dark fears about her, to be sure, but nothing more than fears–I knew the usual signs of abuse and couldn’t find them. But I could not be sure, for at the end of her day she passed from my sight as surely as the old man did: Blanes had charge of her, and I was barred by custom from the stairs that went up to her back turret.
But when a week passed and there seemed to be nothing changed but a name, and that Bianca was closer to five where Clara had been closer to ten, I had to ask. With Blanes out on some errand, I brought a sheaf of proofs into the doctor in his library and found her asleep, snuffling into his lap like a contented cat. “The proofs of the McLay paper, doctor,” I said, as softly as I could manage. “Unless, you’re occupied, and–”
He cut me off with a wave of his hand. “I shall correct the papers. If she is disturbed, it is no account; she is an appliance as much as you and Blanes are. Stay while I confirm the copy.” He scowled at the papers, riffling through with claws of bone.
“She, also, seems to be used to the house,” I hazarded, wary that I was imposing by interrupting him. “It is a pity that Clara wasn’t able to continue in her place, but Bianca does seem to fit her part.”
“Yes, she does,” the doctor said, surprisingly, stroking absently at the girl’s hair like one might pet a lapdog. “And it is a pity. Little girls should stay little. Clara could not–and so she is no longer with us.” There was something in that, a half-note that I was afraid to pursue further. The doctor felt my discomfort and looked up. “I should warn you against inquiring further into my domestic arrangements. She is an appliance–you should not mention previous appliances.” He took a deep breath, his lungs seeming to rattle in his narrow chest. “But you must learn–and this you can learn. Her use, you will find in the papers of my illustrious ancestor: Lucius Clodius Hermippus, whose doctrines are the foundation of my life, and of my science.” He drew to the end of the paper and shoved the bundle of proofs back at me. “It is done–prepare to post it. Dismissed!” I bowed and turned from the room as Bianca stirred, rubbing at her eyes with a small hand.
I had limited opportunities to read on my own in the doctor’s library, but I look them, and it was not many weeks more before I had located the cryptic manuscripts of his ancient namesake, then slowly picked out the obscure and spider-copied Latin. There had been a Doctor Hermippus in Rome as well, a physician and a philosopher who had extended his life to a hundred years or more–by absorbing daily the exhalations of little girls. In the mad orgies of the Augustinian capital there might be found nothing amiss by an aged doctor keeping a slew of young maidens at his feet to sing, and sport, and breathe into his nostrils–nothing strange about a wizard claiming to live for hundreds and hundreds of years by his arcane arts. It was arrant madness and pure idiocy, an obvious blind for perversion–or it could only have been if I was not living daily in the house of a circumscribed and scientific example. It made no sense. It defied reason. But the facts themselves could not be argued: Hermippus ancient beyond description, beyond any sense of youth and age or of time itself; Bianca coupled to him like a walking shadow; Clara dismissed, somehow, mysteriously, when she grew too old and her “exhalations”, presumably, whatever they were, diminished.
Only one thing confounded me. The books of the former Hermippus were certain that the fumes of breath needed to be constant in their application to preserve life, and while in depraved Rome an old man might sleep without scandal in a pile of children, such was not the case in modern Massachusetts, and such was not the case in Hermippus’ house. Bianca slept in her own turreted chamber, and the doctor in his, behind a felt-sealed door in the lower rear part of the house. It was a mystery to me how he ensured himself a supply of those necessary fumes, for so he must, having gone to such extreme extents in every other aspect of his life to preserving his health, with the seals and the airlocks, the smoking fumes and the provision, indeed, of the young girl companion in the first place. I had an idea that it might have something to do with the machine behind the door of Mercury–but I was forbidden that door and the room behind.
The fatal truth did not come until one fatal night three years further on. Alone in the library as I integrated the doctor’s notes into a paper, then in preparation for one of the most prestigious journals in the molecular genetics field, single-mindedly cross-checking and in-referencing, I lost all track of time and was only stopped by an empty coffee flask–only then noticed that the clock was long past midnight. I snuffed one candle and stood with the other; the paper was not on deadline, and I should long since have been closed up in my own chamber, behind my own felt-sealed door.
The house should have been totally dark, totally silent, as I made my way along the corridor to the stair, but I noticed a light–another light beyond the one I carried, spilling out around the frame of the forbidden door–and then I heard the scream. “NO!” Bianca screamed, “NO! NO PIPE!”
No door on earth is forbidden when a child screams in such absolute terror behind it. I threw the door all the way open, and confronted Blanes, tugging and yanking at Bianca, in a one-piece shift, crying and clinging to a stanchion of an immense and insane machine rather than be thrown through an open gate of rubber-sealed glass into what looked like nothing so much as a gigantic vacuum pressure cylinder. “Blanes!” I yelled, “Blanes, what are you doing! Explain yourself! What are you doing to Bianca?”
The Portuguese spun in place, spitting with fury. “Nothing that concerns you! You, this place is forbidden! Go to your room! The doctor will settle you for this!”
“I’ll settle you, you dog!” I shot back. “What is the meaning of this! Does he know you’re putting his pet into this infernal contraption? I’ll report, and he’ll have your skin!”
Blanes smiled, an evil and hair-raising grin of broken teeth from ear to ear. “Infant! Can you think I’m not the doctor’s hands, that he doesn’t know my every thought? Who forbade you this room! How do you think he breathes, with his mask at night? What did you think became of that Clara?”
“You monster, I’ll kill you!” I dove for him and ducked as he snatched at a wrench, sending it whistling at my head. I stepped aside as he attacked, grinning madly as he thought his monkey wrench more than a match for my bare fists–and then with a flip and a twist I opened another smile just above his collar, my knife hand still as fast as it had been in the Soi Arab.
With Blanes spluttering and buckling in a fountain of aerosolizing blood, I spun my knife closed again and knelt, opening my arms to Bianca. “It’s all right, child. It’s okay. The bad man won’t hurt you. Emilio will keep you safe. The doctor will keep you safe. Come, let’s go back to bed.” Bianca took a step forward and then stopped, her eyes wide with renewed terror.
“You will not!” I shot a glance behind, and saw Dr. Hermippus in the door, eyes blazing, his tall scarecrow frame twisted as though he was in some awful internal pain–as though he was absolutely consumed with rage. “You dog! You murdering beast! No matter–as Blanes took the place of Edmiston, so you shall take his! You will be broken–you will realize what you have been a party to and learn–and you will put that wasting asset in its tank!”
“Doctor–wasting asset? Bianca–what do you mean?”
He drew himself up straight, shaking with anger. “She is growing–she is too old–she will not stay little. I must have a new girl–Blanes should have found one and retrieved her tonight, but he is dead, and you have your work to do. And she-she must go in the tank. She must be intubated, and the last of her exhalations recovered. At her age, she is nothing but a wasting asset. Long days gone, I might have sent her away–but these hundred and thirty years, there have been too many questions: and thus, the machine–the pressure–the final extraction. You have served here–you will be convicted in this house–you shall see, and you shall obey!” With a lunge, the doctor dragged at a heavy fire curtain, tearing it away from its frame, revealing the machine in the full depths of its horror.
The tube intended for Bianca was not the only one attached to the gigantic, infernal engine. In at least three more, red masses crumpled by pressure shifted and gurgled–that was what was meant for Bianca. One of these was Clara, who’d played Itsy Bitsy Spider with ribbons in her hair. Doctor Hermippus turned back, demonic, imperious. “You will obey, Alvarez–you will obey, or you will find yourself in a prisoner’s dock, with all of these on your conscience. Do it! You dare not defy!”
“No,” I said, hand back to my back pocket as I stood, fingers flipping the hilt out in a circle, “I do dare defy.”
— ♦♦♦ —
I cut three more throats, such as I could identify throats–there were only the three cells occupied, thank God, and I was fast enough that I could flatter myself that I was merciful, that the pitiful wrecks were not dead of the pressure change as soon as I opened the seals. I had no idea where Blanes had stolen Bianca from, so I blindfolded her in the car and set her down, spun around in circles, on Lexington Green–hoping someone would find her, someone take her in. And I returned, alone, to Doctor Hermippus’ house of blood and death.
The doctor was right. When his infernal machine and its horrific contents were discovered, I would be identified, I would be blamed: I was the doctor’s agent, his executor, his confidential secretary and representative to the world. All of this, I had a part in, and I had nothing in this world beyond my association with the mad vampire. No matter what I did, I would be discovered when the carnage was discovered, and then I would be hunted to the end of the earth.
Or–would I? Only if it was discovered: I had Hermippus’ bank accounts, papers, personal correspondence–three hundred and more years of the doctor’s work at my fingertips. I was his one point of contact with the world: for a time, for as long as it might take to efface the horror from behind that door, I could act for the doctor dead exactly as I had when he was alive. And–longer. I could keep this life, for as long as it might take to make my own place in this world. As long as it took–no matter how long. For did I not have, in the last eventuality, that certain and terrible prescription of Dr. Hermippus?
— ♦♦♦ —
Fistful of Fire. By William Stiteler, Art by Carol Wellart
Trilby paused and took another sip, trying to sort out what had happened in her memory. “Happened all at once. The one of them–tall one, dressed all in black–gunned him down and his gun…kinda threw off some flames. Started up the grass fire.” …Find out who the name named Hanekin was and how he was finally taken down