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a cage of gentle hands

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Chester Whickman was dying.

It was strange, that. Dying. One never quite imagines the end correctly, for one never allows one’s imagination to diverge far enough off the path of usual human circumstance to fully comprehend what is always, ironically, the most important moment of one’s life. Chet—as we shall now refer to him, being referred to thusly by his friends—was a notable exception to this rule in that he thought about death constantly. Usually, it was not his own, but in this particular case, he had been thrust far enough into the nightmare of his own making that he permitted himself the morbid luxury of imagining his own death, vividly and often. It brought him no pleasure; rather, he felt almost obligated to perform this ritual daily as he faced his mirror, in order to prepare for the inevitable. Beheading, drowning, poisoning, strangulation—there were many options to choose from. Even so, Chet rather thought his death would be dull, probably a swift knock to the head with a heavy glass ashtray, or being trampled by a bad-tempered horse.

There was nothing the matter with him, any doctor could tell him that. He was fit as a fiddle and in the blossom of youth; all the bored young wives who frequented Regents Park clearly thought so. Having returned from his outpost in India a decorated officer, he was now free to pursue his former pastimes at his leisure, except that the billiards rooms and gentlemen’s clubs that had so attracted his childish attention now held no luster for him. They were distractions for society folk, that was all.

No; there was nothing the matter with him, except that he craved his share of death, even lusted after it. He had gotten a taste of it abroad and now the very coloration of it seeped into his hair, his clothes, his every word. Beauty in violence. The bloom of blood on hot yellow sand, his hands smeared with it as he dragged yet another body to a shallow grave, finished off with a smoke and a swig from his canteen, enjoying the noticeable mound that the nameless man created in the ground, the weight of him still aching in his shoulders. One evening, after such a butchering, he had taken a walk along the outskirts of the village, sober and suffused with a quiet energy, the moon behind his back. He had not encountered anyone on his midnight excursion, but he knew with horrid certainty that if he had, he would not have left them alive.

Truth be told, Chester Whickman was not dying; he was dying to kill. His arms, now being intimately acquainted with heft of a rifle, thirsted for that pleasant shape again. His legs, understanding the crunch of human cartilage trodden underfoot, wished again to be availed of such delights. And so, in his fantasies, he killed indiscriminately, performed such bestial slaughters that the hardiest of killers would have been aghast at his brutality. As was his wont, he always turned the bodies over afterwards, less to admire his handiwork than to confront the face of sacrifice. There was no remorse in this, even after the worst of them; he wanted to look only to satisfy his curiosity.

His mind, being limited by his imagination, always supplied his own face.


 

Dr Sally Grissom, incurable eccentric and social recluse, was not fond of calling upon people. Ever since her unconventional journey had landed her within the gates of of the British government, she had more or less avoided the requisite gatherings and soirees of established society, opting instead for time alone in her apartments along Cavendish Square. But today’s mission was assigned to her by the Head Commissioner himself, and if she was to play alienist to any of the officers he had hired to follow her round town, at least she did not mind visiting her favorite (or, comparatively least un-favorite) one. It was a fine June afternoon, after all.

“It’s me,” she said by way of greeting, letting herself into his austere-looking abode.

There was no answer.

The room looked decidedly un-lived-in. She realized that now. The curtains were open, allowing bright light to streak onto the carpet, and a thin film of dust was beginning to collect on the mahogany writing desk which was settled underneath the window. Sally approached it and ran one finger along the wood, then observed it. It could not have been more than a week’s worth of dust. She had not yet noticed any odor, which meant he was not likely dead.

“I appreciate the warm welcome,” she called out, in case he was listening.

Sally went to the bookshelf next; it was filled with leatherbound volumes on military history, all of which looked extremely prim and untouched. There was a slim, well-worn book near the bottom which looked better loved than the others, and this she slid out of its place. It was a novel, she discovered, about a young man—a doctor—who struggled against his impulses towards evil by occasionally indulging in them. The whole premise seemed to her rather far-fetched, perhaps even nonsensical, but Chet appeared to have enjoyed the book a great deal, for the spine was cracking badly even in her careful hands. She was just contemplating the perverse logic of allowing oneself to be evil in order to mitigate said evil when a rough voice said from behind her:

“What are you doing here?”

It was Chet. He stood in the doorway in a dressing gown, hair uncombed, with a glass of amber liquid in one hand. He looked unwell; on the whole his complexion was a good color and his posture did not evince any weakness, but there was something in his face that gave her pause.

“Where were you?” said Sally. “I called for you and you didn’t answer.”

“I was asleep.”

“At one o’clock in the afternoon?” she said peevishly. “Is that what retired officers do these days?”

Chet gave her a dirty look. “Yes, as a matter of fact, I am allowed to do as I please. May I take this opportunity to remind you that this is my home and what I am doing within it is perfectly lawful, and that you, Doctor, are trespassing on my time and property for the sole purpose of making a nuisance of yourself?”

The churlish reply did not faze her, but it was unusual for him. She raised an eyebrow at his tone.

“When is the last time you left the house, Whickman?”

“Last night,” he threw over his shoulder, as he made for his bedroom again.

Sally followed him, but he stopped at the door and turned to her. “Do you know that the Head Commissioner sent me? Your behavior has not gone unnoticed. Keeping odd hours, refusing to answer the door, forgetting to write your reports—you must admit that it’s odd .”

“It’s also odd that he would send you on a house call,” said Chet with considerable irritation. “I thought you were not ‘that kind of doctor.’”

“I’m not!”

“What other kind of doctor is there?”

“Well, to start, there are doctors of philosophy ,” said Sally hotly, before shaking her head. “Never mind. Let’s not get distracted. I came to see how you were. You look a bit unwell.”

“Do I?”

“Yes, my dear fellow, you do. It’s nothing to do with your physical condition; I am speaking of the black cloud that hangs over you. Don’t laugh!”

“I’m not,” said Chet, laughing. “No, no, don’t give me that sour look, Sally! Only, it’s rather out of character for a scientist to be so superstitious, isn’t it?”

“It’s not superstition!” returned Sally. “But I see how it is. I wish I hadn’t agreed to come. What business of mine is it if you want to drink like a fish in your pajamas? Go on, then.”

Chet set the glass down on the writing desk and folded his arms over his chest. “Did you come to interrogate me? I must say that you are doing an abysmal job of it.”

Sally exhaled noisily. “Shall we start with something a bit easier, then, Whickman?”

“Let’s.”

“Where were you last night?”

He looked at her guardedly before answering, “I was walking round Oxford Circus.”

“Why were you so far from home?”

“No reason. I fancied a walk.”

“Was there no one with you?”

“No one.”

“No one to attest that you were doing what you say you were doing?”

“I don’t appreciate being treated like a common criminal,” Chet rejoined. “Why should you need the corroboration of witnesses when I tell you I was only walking about?”

“No witnesses?”

“None but the old drunks which frequent the pubs on that street corner.”

“What weighs so heavily on your mind, that you have need of a walk in the middle of the night?”

“That’s none of your business—hang on, I didn’t tell you it was midnight. It could have been evening I was out.”

“It was midnight,” said Sally, “that Roberts stopped by to knock on your door. There was no light in the window and no noise from within, so she let herself in to find you in absentia .”

Chet cursed under his breath. “Who gave the two of you permission to intrude on me so shamelessly?”

“Sir Donovan, if you want to know the truth.”

“He’s been watching me?”

“Whickman. He is always watching; you of all people should know that, having peeped through my rose bushes more than once.”

“In earnest? He has been watching me in earnest?”

“That I do not know.”

He sighed and went to his writing desk, rummaged through the first drawer before finding some paper and a pencil, and began to scrawl an urgent note.

“I hope you don’t expect me to cover for you.”

“Just be quiet a minute, will you?” He finished writing and handed the slip of paper to her. The note read:

W. D. —

Thanks for sending the doctor. Promise that I’m fine. It’s working.

C. W.

“What’s working?” asked Sally.

Chet gazed at her darkly and went to open the front door for her. The deadened look in his eye from earlier was back, and when he smiled at her there was an almost mocking quality to his usually earnest face.

“Another time, Doctor,” he said, and shut the door on her.

Perhaps it was her imagination that conjured a low moan from within the apartment, primal and desperate, followed by laughter that belonged to someone she had never before met. She paused on the landing downstairs and looked up at his window, but she could see nothing of the inside. Sally frowned and began walking home, unsettled in spite of herself.


 

The October night was chill and rainy, and a fine, unrelenting mist spread like cold fingers into the collars of evening wanderers and through their veils and gloves. There were not many people about tonight; it was not the damp weather that deterred them, but a pall which had settled across the moon and gave it a sinister red tinge. Blood moon was an unlucky night to be out, as the old wives’ tales cautioned, and even the revelers that frequented the corner pubs had slunk home for the occasion.

Down the alleyways of the eastern quarter, there stalked a dark figure with an obscured face, seemingly impervious to the elements. It had a purposeful gait which resembled a prowl, and though there were few loiterers at this hour, those who watched it pass were struck with fear as if they had seen the devil himself. The flickering lamps had burned low and dim in the evening drizzle, and now there was no one to light them.

As the figure made its way towards the bridge, a second figure, who had been standing nearby unnoticed, stepped forward and began to follow. She was a slight, energetic young woman with pretty eyes that suggested something calculating just under the surface, and at present she was attired like a man, a dark padded overcoat slung over her shoulders and stout silk hat casting a long shadow over her face. She made no noise as she followed, nor made any attempt to communicate with the figure ahead, but loped effortlessly after it, perhaps a stone’s throw distance behind, and merely observed.

The figure never turned nor acknowledged her, though she felt with absolute certainty that it knew of her presence. She followed it for more than an hour, into the center of town, then back out to the north, seemingly changing directions at random, until it suddenly stopped and doubled back around Cavendish Square, and then disappeared under a bridge. The woman halted her steps just round the corner, then crept closer in order to hear the ensuing conversation.

“I swear, I know nothing about the device you speak of! This is all a misunderstanding, I’m sure, if you would just allow me to explain—”

“No explanations will be necessary, Mr Carew,” interceded the stranger hoarsely. “I was given a simple assignment, and this assignment I intend to complete.”

Carew, who immediately caught his drift, sank onto his knees, his hands clasped in prayer. “Please, sir! Have mercy!”

“Mercy? Who are you to speak of mercy?”

“Heavens, sir, I haven’t done anything wrong!”

“Indeed? And how have our blueprints been found in the hands of the foreign ambassador you were seen lunching with just two days prior? Do you expect us to believe it is mere coincidence?”

“But it was coincidence, sir! You must believe me, I would never sell my country’s secrets, not for my own weight in gold—”

A rustling of papers silenced him, and the woman knew that the stranger had retrieved the records he kept in his breast pocket. There was a long pause, then the prostrate man said, quietly—

“Where did you find that?”

“Does it look familiar, Mr Carew?”

“It’s not mine!”

A sickening crunch assailed her ears, followed by a muffled scream.

“Now does it look familiar, Mr Carew?”

Carew panted heavily, his voice a weak and tremulous whisper. “I know it, alright. I’ve seen those papers. But they’re not mine. No, sir.”

“Very well. What else can you tell me about them?”

“Nothing.”

“Whom do they belong to, if not you?”

“I cannot say.”

“Cannot, or will not?”

“Cannot.”

“I caution you,”  said the stranger, “your life is only as long as your usefulness.”

“Then kill me,” said Carew defiantly. “I have told you all I know. And I have told you that I am innocent, so my conscience is clear. God will judge, sir. God will judge, should you kill an innocent man! Lord be my witness—”

A loud crack, and then a thud, and the woman was face to face with the stranger. He loomed impressively over her, and she felt suddenly that the scene which had transpired before her had been arranged especially for her benefit.

“Did you see what you came to see?” asked the stranger in a toneless voice.

“I did,” she said.

“I do not like being supervised, Roberts. Will you tell His Excellency that?”

“It is not for you to say whether your assignments are supervised or not,” said Esther Roberts, aide to the Head Commissioner of Anomalous Resources. “You have gotten unruly, Hyde. Do not forget that you are the instrument, not the master.”

Hyde leered down at her, his ugly face distorted with something wholly inhuman. “Who is to say who is instrument and who is master?”

“Perhaps you have forgotten the nature of your own inception, but His Excellency has not. He has use for you yet, if you will behave according to your proper station.”

“And how have I behaved improperly?”

Esther narrowed her eyes. “You know very well that this man was not on the list of targets.”

“He was as guilty as they come. If he was not on the list, then it would only be a matter of time before we discovered he had had a hand in some covert operation that threatened the existence of our entire department.”

You are not Head Commissioner, Hyde. Therefore, these decisions shall not be yours to make.”

“Perhaps I ought to be, since ours is apparently blind.”

Esther stared at him for a moment before shaking her head. She pulled a vial from inside her pocket and shook it, held it up to the weak ruddy moonlight before uncapping it and holding it out to him.

“If you will not be reasonable, then let me speak to the other one,” she said.

“You would cage me up again?” snarled Hyde. “I shall not go quietly any time thereafter, Roberts.”

“‘Your life is only as long as your usefulness.’ Were those not your words? Drink the serum, Hyde.”

The brute snatched the vial from her hands and downed it in one swallow, and, almost immediately after the liquid had gone down his throat, an unaccountable change came over him. The man which had formerly been ugly beyond description now had features that might have resembled anyone, might even be called handsome. And yet there was no discernible change in the length of his nose or the shape of his chin—no difference at all insofar as the eye could see, except that the repulsiveness of his physiognomy had somehow suddenly dissipated.

He sank to his knees, and Esther approached with some trepidation, unsure whether he would be amenable to her commands in this state.

“Whickman.”

“Roberts.”

“It might be best if you do not take the serum anymore.”

“Perhaps you are right.” He looked up at her with pale eyes, bleeding light, and smiled in spite of his evident exhaustion. “But then who would take over my duties?”

“Oh, drop the pretense, Whickman.”

“I employ no pretense.”

“Do you not? I know you enjoy killing. Every time you return from these confrontations your eyes are ablaze with satisfaction. You never look better than after you drop another body off at the burial site. No; your problem is that you cannot bear the hypocrisy of being England’s own golden boy atop your mountain of graves. So, you don’t like the sight of your own face in the glass after a murder, do you? You don’t like the manic glee that you feel in your heart? You are not alone. But a fraction of one’s soul is a small price to pay for the security of one’s homeland, wouldn’t you say?”

“You seem to have rehearsed this speech, Roberts.”

“Consider what I have said.”

Chet shook his head in amazement. “Would that I had your iron will.”

“The will can be trained, Whickman. But not if you choose the path of cowardice.”

A cloud passed over his face presently; he rose unsteadily to his feet and retrieved his hat from the ground, dusting it off rather ineffectually. His voice, which had been rather soft since his transformation, suddenly grew gravelly again. He said, “You must suffer me to go my own dark way. I have brought on myself a punishment and a danger that I cannot name. If I am the chief of sinners, I am the chief of sufferers also.”

His features were a chiaroscuro of yellow and black, with one keen eye peering at her in the lamplight. He played the role of tragic hero well, but tragedy had never impressed her. It was too dignified to be realistic. And dignity was a luxury not afforded to the custodians of the Crown.

“I am sure you believe so,” said Esther. “It is nearly morning. You had better get home.”


 

Chet did not see Sally again until spring of next year, when the icy downpours of April gave way to the sweet budding splendor of May. He did not like to admit, even to himself, that he missed her dearly—missed the sound of her odd voice, her braying laugh, her endless good cheer. There was something unconstrained about her that gave him great pleasure, especially as he felt the leash tightening around his own neck. Each time he saw her his heart was pierced by the twin emotions of joy and anguish; joy, because she was bright and lovely as a star, and in her presence he always felt guided, as if by compass, towards what was right; anguish, because he knew that such goodness was now forbidden to him, and, if it had ever existed within him, was now so thoroughly extinguished that it might have been tamped out by the devil himself.

Of late, he had been afraid to go near her, due to an incident which had occurred less than a week ago after their last meeting, and of which he had no recollection.

He had been leafing through the daily papers when he chanced upon an article crowded urgently onto the front page which announced the murder of a yet unidentified man not too far from his own quarters. The man had not simply been killed, but also disfigured in such a savage manner that it was almost impossible to say who he might have been or what life he might have lived. However, it was not until Chet noted the mention of a cane—the description of which matched the cane he always carried—that he became pale and shoved the papers away from him, unable to continue. He rested his head in his hands, shaking like a leaf, trying futilely to remember the night of the incident. That Hyde was able to transform now at will was more frightening than any moral squeamishness that had clung to him in the beginning. For if he could overtake Chet’s life when he was not awake, who could tell what nameless horrors he would visit upon the world?

For the following nights he was stricken with terror. After boarding up the doors and windows, he spent the days in a restless drunken haze and the nights sleeping with his wrist tied to his bedpost. These measures would not have stopped the preternaturally strong Hyde from escaping, but they would have notified Chet of his venturing out, at least. Eventually, though, he gave up on these measures, satisfied that Hyde would probably not return without his permission any time soon.

And so Chet had avoided Sally whenever possible. She had not noticed, for the most part, until the Christmas party when she had invited many of her friends in the Anomalous Resources Department to her home, and he had declined her invitation with nary an excuse or apology. She was, he knew, indifferent to any lack of social graces on his part, but she was puzzled that he would not come, even on Christmas day, when there could be no other duties to accomplish or diversions to enjoy. Perhaps she suspected already that something was wrong. In any case, she sent a sweet little note, which read:

Merry Christmas! Missed the sight of your stiff upper lip. Hope all is well. — Sally

He replied:

Thanks for the well wishes, and same to you. — C. W.

And that was that.


 

But on one fateful morning in May, cold and wet but warmer than usual, visit she did, and in her characteristic Sally fashion, nearly took his door off its hinges with the force of her pounding.

“Whickman,” she cried from outside, her voice surprisingly angry, “open up this door or I shall see to it that you won’t have one!”

Chet, groggy with sleep, lifted himself off the sofa reluctantly. He did not like to keep late hours, but the previous night he had slept only fitfully, disturbed by a shifting and uneasy dream, the content of which he could no longer remember. In the gray, drizzly light, all was distant, irresolute; memories were as substantial as dreams, and dreams, like blood, left their stain on the morning air like a handprint on a white sheet hung out to dry. Sally’s first knock, however, clarified everything instantly. The twenty that followed foretold the a headache.

Though the door was no longer boarded, it had several latches, and he undid all of them with a practiced hand before throwing it open to face her.

“Well,” said he, “how are you, Doctor?”

“Are you planning to invite me in?”

Chet opened the door wider and beckoned her in, then shut it behind her. Sally, for her part, found an ottoman in the center of the room and flung herself on it unceremoniously.

“So, you have been avoiding me, Whickman.”

Chet felt his ears prickle as he replied, “Why would you think that I am avoiding you, Doctor?”

“Need I remind you that your ears turn red when you lie? You neglected to attend my Christmas party, which left me at the mercy of an extremely drunk Partridge all evening. I have hardly even seen your face for a year—and not for lack of trying. You reply to my notes so curtly and so cryptically, I’ve half a mind to work out a cipher. That is not all: I spoke to Esther just last week and she said she had not visited you since winter, and you were not in when she came, besides.”

“His Excellency is unsparing in his demands.”

Sally gazed at him with a quirked eyebrow. “Convenient excuse, I dare say. True as it may be, it does not explain some unusual mystery surrounding your apartments.”

“And that is?”

She bent forward and said, conspiratorially, “Someone has been entering and exiting your rooms during your absence.”

“Why, how do you know?”

“Wyatt told me. He said he once ran into a fellow with a nasty temperament, trudging down the lane with an old cane that looked like yours, and when he confronted the man to ask him what business he had hanging round your flat, the stranger swung his cane at him with alarmingly good aim, and hurled abuse at him until he left.”

Chet lowered himself casually into the armchair across from her. “And how is old Jack?”

“Fine, though scared out of his right mind. As are the rest of us, I might add.”

The two of them fell into a meditative silence before Sally spoke again:

“Do you have any idea who the intruder might be?”

“No, I haven’t the foggiest idea.”

“Have you given your keys to anyone?”

“Never.”

“Made any enemies of late? The old widow downstairs looks suspicious, like she would be capable of uprooting one’s hydrangeas in cold blood.”

“I have always had my enemies,” said Chet, one side of his mouth twitching upward, “though I suspect Mrs Fairfax is not one of them.”

A smile fluttered briefly across Sally’s face before it settled into its usual crinkled consternation, and her gaze seemed to flicker like the aperture of a camera snapping shut, so that she was insensible to the world outside her mind. “Here is what I do not understand. You could not be acquainted with this violent intruder, as you were surprised when I told you of his existence. You could not have allowed him access to your apartments, as you have but the one set of keys, which you do not lend to others. There is no reason, should you have enemies, that one of them would desire only to go about wreaking havoc as randomly as possible, without attempting either to pin the crime on you or take any pains to disguise his use of your apartments. It must be surmised from his behavior that he is either careless or indifferent to his connection to you. And yet you and he have never once made contact with one another; so it seems that carelessness is out of the question, as it would be bizarre for one to be so utterly careless in one fashion and yet exactingly scrupulous in another. Now, you see, we have created a paradox. If we are to accept all this as true, then there is an impossible mystery at hand. But I believe that things are often simpler than they seem—for example, one or more of these statements might be a lie.”

“Do you think I am lying, Dr Grissom?”

“Obviously. The question is, which ones are lies, and what is the motivation behind the deception.”

Chet shifted in his seat. He wished she would not stare at him so intently; he was a soldier, used to harsh words and unkind looks, but to receive such cold suspicion from her pained him more than he could say. She did not turn such a scathing eye on Partridge or Roberts or any of the others, though God knew they would have deserved it. No; the assumption of guilt was reserved for him, and him only.

“Ask me,” said Chet quietly.

“Were you lying when you said you were not acquainted with this violent intruder?”

“Yes.”

“Were you lying when you said you did not lend him your keys?”

“Yes.”

“And were you lying when you said that you had never made contact with him?”

“…Yes.”

“Why conceal his wrongdoing? Who is he, to you?”

Chet found her dark eyes observing him coolly yet with a certain restrained excitement. She was glad to be getting to the bottom of this; she had tinkered with theories for months and was ready for an answer. But this was a misleading aspect of Sally Grissom’s character: behind her avaricious thirst for knowledge there lay a real, steady warmth, and he knew that at the first sign of pain her icy demeanor would thaw, and her distrust from a moment ago would disappear into concerned perplexity as her brilliant mind whirred with the problem of how to best offer comfort.

“Who is he?” he echoed. “Who could he be, but an extension of my will, the rotted portion of my soul?”

Sally did not react to this information. She seemed to sense that he was on the verge of confessing something profane, something deep and dark as the inside of a mouth.

“Sally,” said Chet, slowly, “what horrors do you believe I am capable of?”

She considered, meeting his gaze with characteristic confidence. “All human beings, as we meet them, are commingled out of good and evil. So much of you is yet a mystery to me—what you have done, and what you would do, given the opportunity. The kindness that you have shown me, I shall not soon forget; but the cruelty that I know you have inflicted upon others, I cannot ignore. What can I say to you, Chet? I have long learned to recognize the thorough and primitive duality of man; I see that, of the two natures that contend in the field of your consciousness, even if you can rightly be said to be either, it is only because you are radically both.”

“Am I? Both?”

“As are we all.”

“Tell me,” said he, “what allowances might be made for evil done in the service of good?”

“Being acquainted with evil, how can one choose to believe it is in service of anything? Evil—good—they are such extremes as to be rendered meaningless in the abstract. That is why one learns by example; though it may be an imperfect teacher, still it is a better one than discussions like these that such lofty ideals as philosophers use to ply each other.”

Chet allowed himself a short laugh. “You think me a philosopher, then, Dr Grissom?”

“Hardly: you think yourself a philosopher. You muddle yourself when possible with questions of good and evil, and tell yourself you are concerned with the future of a nation. In fact, you are concerned with how much evil your conscience will tolerate in the name of good.”

“I thought I was a mystery to you.”

“The question is not new, Whickman,” said Sally, rolling her eyes. “Not to me, not to anyone. Humankind has tried and failed to grapple with what it calls the conscience since time immemorial. I have offered you my answer; now, you must tell me why you asked me the question.”

Her hands were folded in her lap as she leaned forward with one ear tipped slightly forward, all the better to hear him with. He desired to capture the moment in a photograph: the tendrils of hair round her face that waved gently as she moved, the absent-minded smile, the patch of her dress that was smoothed over her knee. He wished to remember her as she was now so that when she turned her back on him in disgust, he would be able to conjure up the tranquility of her pose at present—the suspension of judgment, the focus.

Oh, how lovely the calm before the storm.

Chet took from his breast pocket a small vial of the serum. “Please do not be alarmed,” he said, aware of the futility of the request. Then, before he could change his mind, he took the serum in one swig and waited for the change to begin.


 

Chet—

Have been thinking about what you told me the evening prior. I believe there is a way to reverse the effects of the serum. Do nothing drastic. Am working on a solution, consulting with professors of the chemical persuasion. Be aware that this does not absolve. Doing it anyway, just for you. Wait for my next note.

—Sally


 

By June, it became apparent that Sally did not have much time left. Her mind during this time was a haze of exhaustion and obsession, as if a wheel had been set into motion which spun on its immovable axis without regard for repast or repose. She could not have explained the fire lit within her, could not have provided a satisfactory excuse for the herculean labor she attempted everyday, even if she had so desired. She was not sure that he was worth saving, only that she desperately wished to save him.

She visited Chet once a day, when she could manage it, but on days that her experiments required her to stay late in the laboratory, she merely stopped by to see the light within his apartments. On one occasion, when she knocked on the door, an unfamiliar man answered. He was tall with a hideous, grim face that made one feel like a child caught doing something naughty. Presently he leaned over her in a manner she felt sure was meant to intimidate. She did not relent or crane her neck, but thrust her chin out.

“Name?” asked the stranger in a rough voice.

“Dr Sally Grissom, here to see Mr Chester Whickman.”

“Nobody of that name here, Miss.”

“It’s Doctor.”

“No need for a doctor neither.”

She scrutinized his face until she noticed something in the ugliness which caught her attention. Behind the eyes, there was something akin to a frightened animal looking out; in fact, the figure seemed only half a man, tall as he was in stature, for he appeared so hollowed out on the inside so that she might have toppled him with a kick.

“Whickman?” she hedged, feeling foolish.

“Who is Whickman?” A sardonic smile spread across his face.

“Then you are Hyde.”

“None of your business,” he said, turning to close the door.

On an impulse, she grabbed both of his hands in hers. The moment of shock was enough to knock something loose from within, and he stood blinking down at her owlishly for several seconds before he recovered his wryness.

“Now what’s all this?” he asked.

“I know about the serum,” she hissed. “Let me in so we may speak in confidence.”

It was impossible not to notice as she strode into the parlor that the place had fallen into shameful disarray. A coat was draped carelessly over the armchair closest to the window; an alarming amount of tobacco ash coated the surface of  the right armrest as if a pipe had lain there forgotten overnight; newspapers littered the floor and the table, some of which were torn as if in a fit of rage; and dirty dishes and empty bottles were propped (or, more likely, dropped) in precarious piles beside the desk.

“Lord give me strength,” Sally muttered, then, aloud: “How long are the episodes now? Several days between each transformation? Or is it perhaps more like a merging of… consciousnesses? I confess that I have never used the word in the plural.”

When he did not respond, she turned her head and found him much closer to her than she expected, staring out the window over her shoulder. His face was contorted in a grimace, though she could not tell if it was a response to some hidden turmoil or to something unpleasant that he had seen outside.

“Hyde.”

“That’ll be Mr Hyde to you, Doc.”

“Alright, Mr Hyde. I cannot help you if you do not provide me with the requisite information—”

“And what makes you think I’d like to be helped?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“What makes you think I want to return to my little cage? Am I a dog, being shut into its kennel? Am I a slave, insensible to the oppressive shackles of my master? No, Doctor , I am full as human as you, and I refuse to be held captive any longer.”

Sally gazed up at him with a growing sense of unease. “Is it Hyde now, or Whickman?”

“Does it trouble you that you cannot tell the difference?” inquired he with a nasty grin.

“One is my friend; the other is not. If, by acting in accordance one’s wishes, I must perforce act against the other’s, then I would choose to help my friend.”

“As if it is so simple. He and I are hardly separate individuals, you know.”

“So it is more a merging of consciousnesses,” said Sally, watching him intently. “That will no doubt be useful in future experiments.”

“Merging?” He burst into raucous laughter. “So you conceive of it as a sort of double identity, do you? You seem to think I am like the two-faced Janus—here, I shall even imitate the masks one sees at the theatre. What a funny imagination you possess, Doctor. You are capable of the most exquisite scientific genius and yet you are unable to confront the truth which stands in front of you.”

“Then enlighten me, if you please,” she said through gritted teeth.

“Tell me, what do you think the serum does?”

Sally stared into his bloodshot blue eyes. A fear such as she had never known uncoiled itself within her belly, cool and scaled as a snake. This was not her domain, this psychic—nay, spiritual disturbance. She was a staunch believer in the material, the provable, palpable foundations of the universe. Here was something wholly original which bordered on supernatural, something even the alienists would not be able to explain.

“The serum creates a identity known as ‘Hyde,’ who does not abide by social or moral restrictions, and is prone to violent behavior,” said Sally, and as soon as she uttered the words, she knew that it could not be true.

“The serum,” said Hyde, “is a placebo.”

“Impossible.”

“It tastes foul, I assure you. But it’s quite harmless.”

“Please. What would be the purpose of this charade? What would be the point of a serum which has no chemical effect on the body?”

“Permission,” he said.

“What?”

“Permission. To kill.”

She could only shake her head.

“And why not?” he jeered. “Does it come as a surprise, Dr Grissom? Really? Did you really believe in a miraculous elixir capable of creating the perfect murderous alter-ego? Or did you just want so badly to believe that your friend was not as brutal, as selfish and bloodthirsty and cruel as you knew him to be?”

Sally was silent. She hated the doubt that had overtaken her heart, but did not dare contradict his assessment. She did not want to be convinced, and he had proven himself a convincing villain—if that was his role in all this. Finally, she said:

“Do you have any more of the serum?”

“A drop, perhaps.”

“Take it.”

“It’s all I have left.”

“Take it,” she repeated. “Humor me. A scientist requires observable phenomena.”

He quirked one eyebrow but obeyed, allowing the last of the serum to drip onto his tongue. He shook the empty vial in front of her, then threw it on the floor where it rolled languidly until it hit the leg of his armchair.

He spread his arms. “Happy?”

“What do you feel?”

“Nothing out of the ordinary.”

Sally sighed and pinched the bridge of her nose. “Why tell me now?”

“Because I am Hyde,” he said mockingly, but soon abandoned the sneer. “And because I must ask a favor of you.”

“Yes?”

He took from his desk a parcel which looked as if it had been wrapped long before. “The serum was, itself, an experiment. I have written about the results here. Deliver it to the Head Commissioner today, if you would, or as soon as is convenient.”

“May I read the contents?” she asked as she took the package.

“I would rather you didn’t,” he replied quickly, and then smiled. “There is nothing inside that I have not already told you, anyhow.”

“I intend to continue searching for a cure, if you don’t mind.”

He looked at her with a trace of sadness. “By all means.”

“Then it will be goodbye for now, Mr Hyde?”

“Indeed, Doctor.”

At this proximity, she observed a strange shifting of emotions across his face, like a succession of rapidly moving clouds: there was sadness in it, as before, but there was desperation, and fear, and even longing. It was truly as much a patchwork of human expression as Frankenstein’s monster, and as lurid a juxtaposition of light and dark.

She said quietly, “Lean down a little, will you?”

He obliged, and Sally pressed a kiss to his forehead.

“Be careful,” she said, “with your life.”

“Is it precious to you?” He did not quite manage his former sarcasm.

“Yes,” she said, feeling, somehow, that it was the last time she would see him. In this light, he looked like Chet once again. “It is precious to me.”


 

On the 15th of June, a strange parcel was delivered to the Head Commissioner’s office. It was a manuscript, some hundred pages long, written in the style of a confessional and not signed. Rumors sprang up like daisies in the office concerning the author of the manuscript, the subject, and His Excellency’s role in the whole sordid matter. But the speculation never came to a head, for the document was soon filed away with other secret materials, and eventually the gossip was forgotten, by all but a few.

Soon, the Head Commissioner was possessed of a new right hand man. Nobody could remember his name, but then again, nobody could remember the name of the first, either.


 

Chet was dying. The crimson spatter soaking his sleeve had cooled, a rusted stain on the fine woven carpet. He watched it spread, an insidious tentacle which turned the white roses red, wrapped around his head like a question mark.

One never quite imagines the end correctly, does one? He could never have imagined the sensation of a bullet passing through his brain, for instance—the excruciating cleaving of his mind, the almost-pleasure. As the hot flash of metal blinded him, he heard the roar of the sea, just as he remembered and loved as a child, and the sweep of the water that knocked him to the ground. He closed his eyes and allowed the waves to overtake him. The memory came unbidden: his head underwater, his eyes open in spite of the saltwater sting, captivated by a sky awash with the tide. They were wrong, he realized. A sailor does not take to the water in search of the sea; he chases only the sky. For the sea is an inconstant mistress, liable to storm and tantrum, but in such dire straits a man can keep his spirits up if he can see the sky. Infinitude in every color imaginable—such a miracle might even have inspired hope.

A bright star in a sea of black.

Where had he heard the phrase before? He could not rightly remember. Perhaps it was Schiller, or Wordsworth. He was drowning—no, not drowning, not that terrible robbery of air, no—he was sinking, filling with water. It was a quiet becoming, the dawning of something else, something bright beyond imagination, perhaps a star.

It was her, and she was smiling. He was in the hold of the old sloop-of-war again, sitting in one corner of the cell with her in the other, her arms folded over her tented legs, like a little girl.

There you are , she said.

Were you waiting for me?

Of course. You took rather longer than I expected.

I’m sorry.

Never apologize for the passage of time. She shifted into a cross-legged position, then said conspiratorially, I expect it won’t be long now. They’re preparing a room for you upstairs.

How do you mean?

She laughed. Not an interrogation room. I suppose you mightn’t call it a room at all.

He must have looked confused, for she laughed again and shook her head.

Chet , she said, suddenly serious, you’re dying.

He nodded.

I am only here to make the transition easier, if I am able. So it is with the cell. A familiar nook, is it? Albeit not very comfortable. She glanced at the storage crates piled high just behind him. Your thoughts must have returned here often if it is the last place on earth you seek to visit.

Indeed; I thought of this place often. I… thought of you, often. When I was away, alone and tasked with some barbaric violence in a foreign land, I would remember the first day you landed aboard our ship. The defensive ill-humor in your eyes, disguising a genuine fear. I knew that glare. I inhabited that glare. Somehow, I felt very fortunate to have witnessed you. Perhaps it is no surprise that I am returned here after death, though it is better than I deserve.

She was silent for a moment, and then she replied, You were a great man.

The real Sally wouldn’t say that.

What would you have me say, then?

Something true.

Her eyes gleamed with emotion. You were a great man. But you could have been a better man. You could have been a kinder man, a wiser man, a good man. You allowed yourself to become a tool to the brazen and strong, Chester Whickman. You enacted the horrors which they desired but could not have accomplished themselves, and you justified yourself with excuses, but you know that it was your uncaring that killed the meek and downtrodden.

That is what she would say?

Yes , she said, looking into her lap. That is what she would say.

Chet smiled wearily at her. She is, as always, brutally insightful.

There is one more thing, that she would not say to you, but that has crossed her mind more than once.

What is that?

She… loved you dearly. She found it difficult to take your darker nature in stride, and sometimes she contemplated breaking with you entirely, but she could never bring herself to do it. She trusted you and rebuked herself for trusting you. She wished she could have helped you, in the end. She never wanted you to die. She will be the first to discover your body, and it will injure her immeasurably. She will carry the scar of your passing until her dying day. She will remember you fondly long after everyone else has forgotten your name.

Thank her for me , said Chet. A tear trembled at the end of his nose and fell, discreetly, onto the dark canvas of his shirt.

She already understands. She owes you one, remember? She smiled cheekily. Now, my dear friend, I believe it is time you went upstairs.

The captain requires me, is that it?

Naturally. You have shirked your duty for far too long. Off with you, now.

Chet struggled to his feet against the pitch and roll of ship. He turned to bid her farewell, but she had disappeared, quite as if she had never been there. He saw before him the stairs that he knew did not lead to the deck, but somewhere entirely new. That country from whose bourne no traveler returns.

His feet carried him almost of their own volition, down a corridor which had not been there before and, one step at a time, into the darkness. It was cold, in this belly of a whale, and terribly lonely. When the phantom left, she took with her the vestiges of remorse that resided within his heart, and left in her wake something fierce as a battlecry. For there was relief in abandoning oneself to the savagery of one’s true desires, of loosing the shackles of pretense. A wolf need not hide among sheep any longer, if it may show its teeth.

He went unafraid.