Revised Chapter 26

Inside, windows rattling, floor creaking, pipes clanging. Dr. Handley steps in and through a spider web that’s so thick it leaves her with something of a mask and the sensation of millipedes crawling across her forearm. The foyer funnels into a dim hallway that corkscrews around and empties into a large vestibule. The light’s yellow with a tinge of orange-brown. There’s a table at the far end of the vestibule behind which, snoring, sits a beanpole of a woman dressed all in black with dark bags under her eyes. Dr. Handley raps twice on the table. Nervous, though she’d deny it, Handley takes note of her surroundings—the floral-print wallpaper, the ledger book open on the table and a pen dripping ink across its pages. The curtain behind the caretaker falls, slanted and flimsily, so the gas lanterns’ dim light from outside creeps in. The caretaker has a nose that’s crooked and a misaligned jaw line, as though someone, or something, had rearranged her entire face bit by bit. Her skin is so pasty she appears, and for a moment Dr. Handley figures she is, deceased. Perhaps the Husker’s latest victim. Impatiently, Handley raps a third time on the table, startling the woman, who pins her eyes, one green and the other blue, on the Doctor and says, “No vacancy, I’m sorry.”

Handley scans the open ledger for a moment. According to its contents, the Inn has but four occupants accounted for. During this moment, the caretaker’s eyes have sealed out the world’s light once again and she’s taken to snore, throatier than before. A gust of wind slams into the World’s Fair Inn and the whole structure buckles. The light stutters. The streetside window directly behind the caretaker rattles so forcibly now its glass threatens to shatter at any moment. Yet even this doesn’t rouse the caretaker from her slumber, so Dr. Handley slaps the table, saying, “I’m not looking for a room.”

The caretaker, awoken, cackles, then after loosening the phlegm in her throat looks at Handley, befuddled.

“The proprietor of this establishment, please. I’d like to speak with him.”

Another cackle, and the caretaker says, “You’re not the first.” Handley’s not certain what that means, so she rearranges herself, throwing the balance of her weight from one side to the other. A floorboard beneath her squeaks. At the same time, a pipe behind her clangs. The caretaker, who seems not to have noticed either stray sound, throws a thumb over a shoulder, motioning toward the avenue out front, but says, “Sleeping, he is. Upstairs and to the rear.”

“Thank you.”

As Handley turns to locate the stairwell, the caretaker says, “If you wake him, I’ll be thanking you.” Even though she hasn’t moved, a floorboard under Handley creaks. The caretaker, coughing, cracks a knuckle. “My boy’s at home with the snivels, see, and I should have been out of here hours ago, but somebody’s got to watch the place when that man’s passed out drunk for the third night in a row. Can’t seem to help himself, he can’t.”

Handley nods and passes across the hallway and into an adjacent front room. This must be the lounging area, for there are countless couches and settees and tall-backed chairs with spindly legs and armrests that appear, only in miniature, as sailor-eating oafs. The upholstery that’s not coated with dust is floral in nature and kaleidoscopes off into plant and vegetal before returning, wilted, to floral, as does the wallpaper. Colors have been mismatched, one presumes intentionally. Everything feels askew. The room’s pitch black save for a slant sliver of light from the hallway that’s escaped in. On the far side of the room, there’s a fireplace inside which smolders a log turned into ash hours ago. Periodicals have been thrown haphazardly across some of the furniture, and in the far corner, mostly shadowed, there’s a white sheet over what Handley can only guess is yet more furniture. She lifts the sheet—yes, just another settee, although this one happens to be missing its upholstery.

Wind escapes in, repeating, Yes yes yes yes yes.

Dr. Handley, though she knows she hasn’t, has the sense she’s been here before once long ago. It is a primordial feeling, as if she’s standing in a spitting replication of Grandmother Handley’s living room. Perhaps that is where the sensation comes from, Grandmother Handley. And when Dr. Handley spots the painting above the fireplace, it’s confirmed. The painting depicts an elderly woman with a beaked nose, sunken cheeks, ears that tent out, a forehead streaked with wrinkles, and piercing eyes in cavernous sockets that follow her as she moves about the room. The resemblance is strikingly chilling. The only difference is the nose—Grandmother Handley’s was a button, not a beak. Still, Dr. Handley’s skin crawls. She’s perfectly aware that she must be imagining the resemblance, or willing it, creating some kind of familiarity, since she finds herself in such foreign surroundings. Embarrassment steals across her whole being. Presently, the feeling that she’s standing on a floor made of glass so fragile it might crack at any moment, dependent on whether or not she takes the right step, overwhelms her. She has no idea how to proceed. If what the Survivor said is true, if what she believes to be true is, if in fact the proprietor, Holmes, is Clemantis and Clemantis, Holmes, she’s in his lair. She gazes at the painting as if searching for an answer. Grandmother Handley, or whoever it is, does not seem to know what to do, either, so the Doctor figures it’s time to move on, this room’s covered, no killer here, and so after a deep breath she’s out a door at the other end of the room and back in the dim-lit hallway, the floorboards beneath her now creaking almost in chorus.

Just down the hall, there’s another room, about half the size of the lounging room, with a door cracked open and shedding an invitingly warm orange light. Handley enters. It’s a library, every wall covered in books. Two chairs upholstered with leather that smells fresh, recently flayed, sit in the far corner by a curtained window. Handley lifts the curtain, revealing a paltry view—garbage receptacles covered with snow so thick it’s as frosting on a cake. Between the two chairs is a table with a crystal lamp and a sheet of paper but no pen. Handley inspects the paper. It appears, as far as she can discern, to be the start of a love letter: Dearest Emma, I do not feign to understand what prompted me to act as I did this Sunday evening past, but there are—then there’s a sloping streak, an aborted S, the letter’s author interrupted in the heat of composition or his imaginative faculties hastily drained. She returns the letter to its place and peruses the bookshelves. As expected, there’s little of interest, volumes by Aristotle, Copernicus, Kipling, Longfellow, Dickens, Poe. And then she spots the Doyle. It’s her favorite, The Sign of the Four. She removes the book from its nesting and runs her fingers over the slick leather cover and the embossed faux-gilt lettering. Momentarily, everything’s silent—no pipes clanging, no floorboards creak under foot. An eerie moment, to be sure. Handley flips through a few pages, the familiar words running wild through her mind. Soon, though, she opens to a hole that’s been bored in the center of the book, a hidden safe that conceals no priceless jewels, only a paltry skeleton key. Handley places it in her pocket, just in case. With the hollowed Doyle back on its shelf, she inspects other volumes. Many, it turns out, are hollow. Why is she not exactly surprised? It’s not that she was expecting it, but now that she’s traipsed upon it, it makes a perfect kind of sense. Even Gray’s Anatomy—an odd keeping in a hotel, to be sure—has been hollowed out by a crafty hand, but like all other hollowed books aside from the Doyle, there’s nothing in it, no jewels, no key. They’re props. Dr. Handley’s suspicious, so she starts removing books by the row, to inspect the bookcase to see if it, too, is a sham. She raps her knuckles against the back wall of the bookcase; it doesn’t budge. A moment later, however, there’s a muffled sound. She’s still, placing an ear to the back of the bookcase as she can manage without breaking her neck wedging her head between the shelves. At first, she hears nothing, and figures perhaps she only imagined it a moment ago. But then it comes again, positively, undeniably a human whimpering, only it’s not coming from behind the bookcase. Handley trails the sound vigilantly as a dog on a scent. She locates a heating grate on the far side of the room, by the door. It is, as far as Handley can tell, the whimpering of a young girl or boy, high-pitched and petrified. Its source could be anywhere in the Inn; at least she feels she’s in the right place now—Clemantis is here, just as the Survivor said.

Above her, a pipe clangs. She jumps from fright and without looking back exits the library.

The hallway forks just outside the library. Handley considers her options. There are three: one is a stairwell that descends, the second is a stairwell that ascends, and the third is a corridor that leads to another snaking hallway. Since Handley’s of the mind that one should never descend unless one has to, and since, according to the Inn’s caretaker, Holmes is upstairs, Handley decides, therefore, to check the first-floor corridor first. But finds nothing, just a series of rooms. These, Handley figures, must be guest rooms. She tries the first door, but finds it locked. Most likely they’re all locked, everyone inside sleeping fitfully, exhausted after a long day at the White City. The killer might be behind one of these very doors, perhaps sleeping, but this does not correspond to the Clemantis Handley’s developed in her mind. Even if he were in one of these rooms, he wouldn’t be sleeping, and he wouldn’t be alone. Even if the Survivor was right and Holmes is the killer, he wouldn’t be here now, he’d be out, prowling, picking up his next victim. Just to be certain, though, Handley checks each door in turn. They are, it turns out, all locked.

The staircase up is narrow as a beam, and Handley, with her hoop skirt, barely makes it at all. The walls, on account of the pipes in them clanging with force, seem to be surging in, and the ceiling feels as if it’s coming down on her. She has to duck. Before too long, she finds herself nearly crawling. The wires of her dress scrape against the walls. There’s one long lantern at the very top of the staircase, her only guide in ascension. Since she can’t see her feet, she trips, so that for every three steps up, she’s pressed to take two back.

As she crawls out onto the second-story landing, she hears a faraway voice. It is a familiar sound, a panicked sobbing. A sound she’s familiar with from her days at McClean. Once it might have been comforting, even encouraging. Now, though, it’s a frightening, desperate sound. She rights herself and stomps down the hallway, no longer worried about being so stealthy. She just wants to find the source of the sobs. The lanterns as she passes them flicker out. First she checks the front of the hotel, then the rear. The sobbing follows as if hunting her.

When she reaches the end of the hallway, everything is silent. It’s an eerie silence, the kind that comes just before something horrific happens.

Symphonic, devilish laughter comes from a room toward the end of the hall—a common area of some sort, a place where conversations flow freely, greased by drink and midnight fatigue and furnished with tattered chairs, a settee, footstools, tables.  A table for 100-point billiards.  Paintings that appear to have been done by an amateur hand are hung crookedly from dangling nails.  The light’s emerald on account of the emeralds that pattern the lone lantern’s shade.

“Sit down.”

His voice is cavernous, reverberating.  He’s seated, legs splayed outward, on a dingy chair opposite her as she enters, but she can tell he’s tall and gangly.  He’s the only person in the room, so far as she can see.  And what a sight!  His fingers are spindly as twigs; his cheeks are sunken; there’s droplets of dried blood along his forehead.  His hair’s waxy black and he appears to have been wearing a hat, since there’s the impress of a brim that affects his hair to wing out, sticky with sweat.  His teeth, the few that remain, are a particularly dark umber color, the tips appearing jagged as daggers.  And his sinister smile curves suspiciously upward.  Despite appearances, Handley isn’t frightened by him in the least.  In fact, based on first impressions, she pegs him at once as a rather timid sort, a man who once had a stutter and cured it at age fourteen simply by concentrating before speaking, an unresolved sort who has a low regard of himself and fears and distrusts most men of regard. Dr. Handley can relate.

Not looking for anything in particular, she surveys the room once more, then circles the billiard table, her hoop dress scraping against the wall.  With this the man laughs again.  Handley stands over him and offers a hand in greeting.  Instead of his hand in return he offers the bottle he’s been drinking from.

A pipe behind them clanks, but neither jolts.  Handley mistakes a rushing of wind outside for trapped human voices.

“I couldn’t sleep,” he says, “so I thought perhaps I forgot to take my morning elixir today.”  Here he flings the bottle across the room.  It lands on the soft felt of the billiard table, so it doesn’t shatter.  “I just love this weather.  Invigorating.”

“I’m Elizabeth,” Dr. Handley says snappily.  “Are you staying at the Inn?”

“There are nights I prefer to sleep with the window open, even in this cold.”  He’s wearing a loose-fitting black shirt made of a wispy fabric—she can see clear through to his skin—that’s unbuttoned halfway.  A scar, still fresh, crosses his chest.  “Do you know that feeling—of being pushed to your limits?”

“By any chance, are you the Inn’s proprietor?”

“I am in fact, yes,” he says, “staying here, but, no, I’m not the owner.”

“I am looking for a man called Holmes.  Do you know him, or where I might be able to find him?”

“Do I look like the proprietary sort to you?”  Here he laughs heartily, rattling a window or perhaps it’s just the wind.

“What do you do?”  Handley, though she could easily sit in the chair next to him or at the least lean back against the billiard table, doesn’t.  She’s not sure why she asked that; she truly doesn’t care.  He’s either a laborer or a thief or perhaps, unlikely, he’s a businessman of some sort.  All is of little interest to her.  In fact, as far as she’s concerned, they’re all the same—whatever their profession, they’re men at base.  It does strike her, though, standing over this strange person with the liquor breath, that she knows next to nothing about men

“What do you do?”

Handley says nothing.  She takes a step back, searching the pockets of her overcoat for the cigar she’d been smoking earlier, finding nothing.

He folds his hands on his lap, thumb rubbing thumb without stopping.  Handley takes note of his fidgetiness.  His body jerks about maniacally, whether or not he’s talking.  His hands graze his hair over and over.  He sticks a finger up and in his nose, then scratches his knee as if he’s trying to scratch down to bone.  She wonders if he is doing this intentionally, to distract her or hide something.  He might be on the lam, but if so, whatever it is he’s running from is of no concern to her.  He’s not methodical or multifaceted enough to be the man she’s looking for.  There’s a bit of laziness about him, either laziness or a kind of continual indecisiveness that would impede his killing anyone, unless by accident or randomly.  Too reckless, she concludes, to be Clemantis.

Finally she says again, “What do you do?”

There’s another snippet of laughter, intended to set Handley askew.  He leers, his open mouth stretching almost to the side of his face as he speaks.  “Rode Ferris’s Wheel today.”  He pauses, to see if she’ll say anything.  She doesn’t.  “Man, is it a piece of machinery.  Set my heart right on fire, I’ll tell you.  The thrill.  The charge.  It’s the future, they say, flying.”  (Or did he say “flaying”?  Dr. Handley might be hearing things.)  “Each car, you know, is as big as a house, certainly bigger than any house I’ve ever been in.  I don’t see how the whole thing doesn’t topple over and kill everyone out to have a good time.”  Here’s another pause.  Still Handley says nothing.  “Actually,” the man says, “I meant to ride it but never got to it.”

“I haven’t yet been to the Midway.”

Crossing his legs and attempting to sit as if civilized, he crinkles his forehead together so that it appears sinister and meddling.  He stomps his feet on the floor in rapid succession, delirious.  Both it and the walls shake.  The bottle on the billiard table rattles.  He bolts toward her, very nearly snapping his neck, as if lunging at her jugular.  But he will not assault her.  Laughing, he says, “I do not believe you.”

“It’s true, I’m afraid,” says Handley.  Without warning, she laughs, just about choking on her own good humor.  Spittle runs out the sides of her mouth, causing her only to laugh harder, laughing now in spasms and shuddering.  The man begins to laugh also, only all at once he stops and his face becomes as a statue’s, cold and inflexible.  Even so, her laughter doesn’t fade. At times, she surprises herself.  All the stress of finding Clemantis, all the pressure, it all seems to fall away for a brief moment.  It feels so good to laugh spontaneously and without restraint, it’s as if a warm liquid fills her, rising inside her from her toes on up.  She blushes.

“See, but that’s exactly the problem.  There is so much there.  Strongmen, magicians, the Bewitching Bellyrina.  But most fabulous of all,” the man says, “is Buffalo Bill—you know, of Custer’s Last Stand?  He puts on a large show, far and away the biggest most spectacular show I have ever seen.  There are cowboys, there are Indians, there’s gunfire.  Everything a boy would ever want.”  He is beginning, Handley notices, to slur his words.  As he talks, too, spittle flies everywhere—on the floor, on Handley’s face.  She doesn’t seem to mind.  And when he removes a second brown bottle and swills and then offers her a swill, she accepts, out of curiosity as much as politeness.  When she hands the bottle back, his hand grazes her, sending trembles up her spine.  Whatever it is, it tastes as coal, chalky and bitter.  “MypoptoldmeaboutitoncebutIneverwent-nowthatIhaveit’slikeI’makidagain.”

The door behind her creaks open.  She turns.  It is a boy, his hair moppy and his eyes fatigued, rimmed with dark splotches.  His clothes are tatters, a frayed, soot-stained shirt and threadbare trousers that seem three sizes too big.  He is skinny, his skin pasty, his bones showing clear through, so skinny, in fact, wrinkles scar his forehead, effecting him to appear a few years older than he must be, according to his mannerisms.  He stands in the doorway, looking at Handley and then down at the floor, and then back at Handley, his hands digging hastily into his pockets.

“What are you doing?”  The boy does a curtsey, then sprints toward the man, who, with a tenderness Dr. Handley doesn’t expect, wraps an arm around the boy, squeezes him in a motherly fashion, whispers in his ear.  Before too long, a particularly sinister laugh floods the entire Inn.

The boy’s cheeks flush sunset red.  He hides his head in the man’s side.  A moment later, he peers out from the dark cavern and he smiles, briefly, before burying his head once again.  Then, suddenly, with a burst of energy only boys can summon forth, he sprints over toward Handley, offers a miniature hand.

“Hello, I’m Billy,” says Billy.

“Hello, Billy.”  Handley has the feeling she’s seen him before, once.  Still, she can’t place it.  There’s just something familiar about him—the droopy eyes, the crooked smile, the pointed ears.  His face is innocent and carefree, just as any other boy.  He’s lithe and limber, sprightly, but under all that Handley senses a desperateness, a confusion.  She can’t put her finger on it, it’s just a first impression.  Something, however, is amiss.

“Who are you?”

“Elizabeth.”

“Elizabeth,” says Skurlock.  “I knew an Elizabeth once,” and snickers.  “Tough to the bone, she was.  Rambunctious too.  Had quite the mouth, she did.  Swore like a sailor.”  Here booms a laugh, big and brawny.  “I called her Ma.”

Billy laughs, too.  And then so does Handley.  She worries they’ll rouse the whole Inn, but in contradiction to her nature she laughs nonetheless.  Momentarily, in fact, she forgets they’re not alone, forgets too that she’s on the prowl for a killer.

All at once, the man’s laughter ceases and he stands and paces around the room once and then once again and then stands by the window watching the snow falling.  His body in an uncomfortable looking pose, with his legs as if twisted in on themselves and his knees buckling, he shades his eyes from the glare of the moonlight on the snow.  It’s almost as bright as high-noon sunlight, only with a blueish tinge.  He removes a spindled protrusion from a shirt pocket and sparks it, inhaling deeply.  The scent of its contents isn’t familiar to Handley.

Suddenly, there are raised voices in the hall.  First from faraway, but then the sounds become louder, the voices and stomping nearer.  Lanterns flicker.  Right behind her, a man with orange mutton chops wearing a long black coat and a black hat and trailing a brisk arctic chill into the room enters.  He says nothing.  His face is devoid of expression, save determination.  Handley can tell he’s here looking for something specific.  Behind him comes another man … and behind him yet another, totaling six, each man wearing long black coats and black hats, each trailing in the brisk arctic chill of outside and stomping snow.  She recognizes none.  It all happens so quickly, in a minute or less, Handley’s dizzy, she can’t keep track of what exactly is going on, she keeps craning her neck about the room, trying to gauge what’s happening.  She grasps about for Billy, to pull him in and protect him, but he’s not there, he’s sprinting toward the man, hiding between his legs.  He looks terrified, confused.  His eyes are wide and probing.  The men stomp in and head straight for the man.  At first, he doesn’t turn, just remains at the window watching the snow falling outside with one hand upon the crown of Billy’s head, mussing the boy’s hair.  For a moment, they seem as if frozen in time, man and boy in full understanding of each other.  As the men approach, however, Billy screams out, high-pitched and truncated, then stands out from between the man’s legs and faces the others full on.  One whisks him up and turns to remove him from the room, but in the process of turning Billy has bitten the man’s cheek.  There’s blood, the man shrieks and drops the boy.  Handley lunges for him, but he slithers past her and out of the room, down the hall and away.  In the meantime, the gangly man is surrounded.  Handley stands, meaning to intervene but she does nothing of the sort.  He turns as if to confront the men but instead simply stands there, blank-faced and saying nothing.  Four men move in, two grabbing him by the arms and two by the legs.  He’s shackled and gagged.  One man punches him in the gut, another lands a roundhouse-right on his cheek.  The man does not put up a fight, he doesn’t protest in any way, he allows them to drag him off, out of the room.  As they pass, he and Handley lock eyes.  He winks, grinning salaciously.  Sometimes a wink’s nothing more than a wink.  Handley’s not certain this is one of those times.

“Congratulations, Doctor.”  It is Tiggs, standing flush behind her.  He stays but a moment and before leaving offers a hand and when she doesn’t take it says, “Delighted to have worked with you.  Good luck.”

Simonds, once Tiggs is gone, approaches Handley.  “Without Moreau trailing you, I shudder to think what might have happened,” he says.  “Are you all right?”

Snappily, “Yes.  Why?”

“I don’t know how you managed to do it,” he says as he places an arm around Handley, as if to warm her.  She shrugs him off.  “Really, it’s one for the history books.”

Behind him various Pinkertons and policemen mill about, pacing the hallways frantically, searching—what else would they be doing?—for the disappeared boy.  Oh, now everything’s clear.  Billy Rockland, the missing boy.  She forgot about him, but here he was just a moment ago, in the flesh, living.

“You must have so much to say,” says Simonds, “and now the world will hang on your every word.  You’re going to be famous!”  That he says this excitedly and with a freakish glint to his eye is to put it mildly.  Handley’s embarrassed by the man’s wayward enthusiasm.  “I must admit, Doctor, that I wasn’t fully taken with your methods, but you proved me wrong.  You did it.  You caught Clemantis!”

“But the boy … He’s still …”  She is about to say “living,” but without her fully realizing it, Chief Detective Simonds has commandeered her off, downstairs and outside, where a moderate mob awaits her—curious Englewood residents and one lone reporter from the Times-Herald, who has neither pen nor paper.  Later this morning, when at long last Tiggs fields questions from the world’s reporters and one erstwhile photographer (from the Times of London) snaps a photo of the Husker on the sly, this original Times-Herald reporter will be heard to say, “And there I was, face to face with Beelzebub!”  For now, however, snow swirls, wind roils, and soon sunlight will break over the lake.  It’s early morning, but for Handley it feels like midnight.  She’s so fatigued she can hardly keep her eyes open, and her head’s pounding, and her body feels slack, like it might just melt into a puddle at a moment’s notice.  By the time anyone notices, she’s halfway up the stairs of the World’s Fair Inn.  Were she to turn around, she’s see, on the far side of the street, men in the long black coats and black hats place Clemantis into a carriage, shackled and gagged by now, the two horses, both braying, waiting for the crack of the whip, breath steaming in the air.

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