Read The Hunchback Assignments Online
Authors: Arthur Slade
with all my love
IX HUNTING HOUNDS HAD PERISHED
in previous experiments. Dr. Cornelius Hyde crouched in the cellar of his manor staring over his spectacles at Magnus, the last surviving hound. The iron cage was sturdy, its door locked tight, and the dog looked healthy except for his drooping head. He had survived the operation that replaced his skull, jaws, and teeth with metal, but the weight of it all was too much for him to bear for long periods of time. He needed strength and ferocity. Soon, Hyde hoped, these needs would be dealt with.
Hyde opened a hatch at the top of the cage and carefully attached a coiled wire to each of the bolts that extended out of the hound’s shoulders. The dog didn’t move. The doctor then connected the wire to a gyroscope sitting on a broken chair.
Hyde sat in another chair at a table. His smooth,
ink-stained hands trembled as he jotted down:
March 7, 1860, 7:35 p.m. Trial 7.
He felt certain that this time the elixir would have the desired effect. He hadn’t slept or washed in days, having spent every hour measuring the elements precisely, mixing them, and boiling the compound in a glass beaker. He didn’t wish to see his favorite foxhound suffer with the same tremors and terrors that had consumed the other hounds as they succumbed to a slow, contorted death.
Hyde spoke hoarsely. “You are a good companion.” Magnus raised his head with some effort and wagged his tail. His master winced and ran a hand through his graying shock of hair. It had been months since he’d had it cut. “This is for science,” he explained tenderly. “Science. Mother Nature’s design has failed you, but mine will not.”
Magnus went on wagging. He was nine years old. His back was lean and well muscled, his front legs as straight as posts. The dog had always been loyal and even-tempered; not once had he snapped in anger. He had hunted alongside Hyde in the days when the doctor needed to feign interest in such folly in order to procure funding from lords and gentlemen. Their contributions enabled him to continue his research. Those days were well past.
The members of the Society of Science in London now treated him with scorn, accusing him of madness and tampering with the natural order, as though changing a creature’s chemistry and structure for the better was something beyond evil.
they’d shouted. They cut off his funds. Half the scientists were members of Parliament. They convinced the government to declare his experiments a crime.
A crime! The thought of those fat, arrogant politicians debating the value of his work enraged Dr. Hyde. He pictured them voting to outlaw his experiments, the Society of Science dullards nodding their heads.
“Fools!” he whispered. “Stupid, mindless fools!”
A few days after the vote, constables kicked open the door to his city home and confiscated most of his equipment. He fled to his country manor to conduct his experiments in the cellar. He scrounged for funds and was reduced to using the last of his inheritance and his remaining few beakers and compounds to carry out trials upon his own animals. Soon he would be dragged away to debtor’s prison.
Above him the floorboards creaked. He listened intently, ears buzzing. Until recently he would have assumed it to be his manservant, but Hyde had dismissed him a fortnight earlier. Could it be a constable? He waited for a full minute, finally deciding the sound was only the shifting of the house. It grumbled every time the weather changed.
Hyde picked up a flask of bloodred liquid from the table, the burned almond smell making him cringe. He’d been working on this tincture now for seven years. “For the sake of knowledge,” he said to the air.
He carefully filled the bowl in the cage. The hound stared at his master, his neck even weaker from the weight of his metal head, his tail limp.
“Go on, Magnus,” Hyde urged, his heart near breaking. “Drink. Drink your medicine.”
But the dog wouldn’t move. Hyde couldn’t help wondering if Magnus knew he was in danger. Over the past few
weeks his keen ears had surely picked up the agitated barks, unearthly howls, and final whimpers of his brethren. Did he understand that he would be next? For a long time the dog watched Hyde, though he could barely hold his head up. He began lapping the tincture, his pink tongue rubbing on metal teeth. He kept his eyes on Hyde. The doctor swallowed hard, bile in his throat.
Beside him on the table was a clockwork model of a hound, about one-sixteenth life-size. He patted it and gears clicked and spun. The metallic dog wagged its tail. Hyde smiled; imagine what he might create if he could only get his hands on the proper resources!
He reached for his quill and notebook. The dog grimaced and revealed silver teeth. His head was higher now. For the first time ever Hyde heard the sweet-natured dog growl. Magnus’s head jerked from side to side, as though he didn’t recognize his surroundings. His attention settled on the cage’s hinges and locks, and he attacked them again and again. Sparks flew, metal bent, and Hyde stepped back. He crouched, ready to run, but the cage was holding together.
Under the gaslight, the doctor wrote copious notes, dipping his quill frantically into the inkwell. He was so absorbed in recording his observations that he didn’t hear the cellar door open. He didn’t see a figure steal down the stairway and slip into the shadows.
Magnus howled, arching his back until it pressed against the top of the cage. He banged his head against the side, making the bars bend. If his skull had been made of bone it would have shattered. Hyde’s eyes grew wide. The
hound seemed to have grown larger, his muscles swelling, quivering under his thin hide. His paws were bigger, his nails more like claws, and they dug into the iron-plated floor.
The beast threw himself at the door of the cage and the whole contraption inched closer to the doctor, who scribbled down each change in behavior. Magnus stopped to glare at Hyde hungrily, then attacked the cage again.
Hyde was amazed at the dog’s increased stamina. No sign of weariness. No drooping neck. Then, when Magnus’s fury was at its highest, the gyroscope began to turn. Hyde held his breath as the machine spun so quickly it blurred, the base vibrating. It fell to the floor and thumped around until it disconnected from the wires and stopped. His theory was true! Some inner power that could be harnessed existed. The tincture had brought it out of the dog.
It was half an hour before Magnus let out a yelp, whimpered, and deflated. He looked affectionately at Hyde as if to apologize for his outburst, then collapsed. Hyde moved over to the cage, still making notes. The hound’s chest heaved. A wan smile crossed Hyde’s face. Alive! The next task would be to find a way to control the hound once it had been enhanced. What a wonder he would be then. The perfect hound. Ready to hunt much larger game than ducks.
Hounds would only be the beginning. The true test would be to discover the tincture’s effect on a man.
A soft clapping shocked him out of his imaginings.
, Doctor.” It was the voice of a woman with an unusual accent.
Hyde jerked around so fast he nearly toppled over. The intruder was on the far side of the cellar, cloaked in darkness.
“How did you get in?”
“Through the door, of course. It is a shame that someone of your stature is in such severe financial straits that you had to dismiss your staff.”
“Who are you?”
“I am the servant of a great cause. Our organization has had our eyes on you for years now, Dr. Hyde.”
He pointed his quill in the direction of her voice. “I’m doing nothing wrong. Are you with the inspectors?”
She laughed coldly. “No. I do not represent lackeys of your government. As I said, I am the humble servant of a guild of like-minded people; people who are unafraid to challenge the status quo. Let us just say my employer is very interested in your research. You have a marvelous mind, to understand clockwork and chemistry so well. We desire both, especially your potion.”
“It’s a drug, not a potion.”
She moved into the light. Hyde sucked in his breath. She was lithe and pale and beautiful, her bright red hair tied in complicated braids. Hyde had believed himself long immune to such beauty, but he couldn’t stop looking at her, couldn’t think of a word to say. Then he noticed that her left hand was a hook, the metal glinting in the low light. He adjusted his spectacles, squinting.
“Your hand,” he said. “I would have replaced it with a much better instrument.”
“Oh, I believe you,” she said, hiding the hook behind
her back. “But after all, it was just a hand. A man with your vision deserves a much larger canvas. You would like that, wouldn’t you, Dr. Hyde?”
He glanced at the sleeping form of Magnus, at the clockwork model on the table, at the crumbling walls of the cellar, then back at the woman. “Yes. Yes, I would.”
“Then, Doctor, we have so very much to discuss.”
he large carriage rattled with grotesqueries—bones of cats and pigs strung up as wind chimes, bleached bear skulls dangling from wires, and three shrunken monkey heads mounted on posts. Their glass eyes stared out at the approaching winter. Bells that hung from reins tinkled, warning away wandering spirits. Four horses pulled the carriage, hip bones protruding from their bedraggled flesh, hides scarred by thousands of whippings. Huddled behind them in a thick, worn coat and muffler was a grizzled old man.
The tall, slim gentleman watched the carriage approach down a rutted, moonlit road. A cold breath of wind tested his knee-length greatcoat, but he didn’t shiver. His close-cropped hair, white since birth, glowed in the dull light. His sharp eyes scanned the carriage, from the shivering driver to the clicking bones, and finally rested on the words
Merveilles et Mort
, written in red across the carriage’s side.
They appeared and disappeared with the swinging of a lantern.
Merveilles et Mort. Wonders and Death.
He hoped that a wonder waited inside. He had spent his life and a good part of his fortune seeking out those with special talents. The reports about this particular sideshow traveling through Provence were extremely promising.
At one side of the carriage a flag snapped in the wind, its skull and crossbones flashing. Pirates? An almost imperceptible smile crossed the gentleman’s lips. These weren’t pirates. Charlatans and gypsy souls, yes. But pirates? No. He had met real pirates on the open seas; had summarily put them to death.
The gentleman held up his hand and the driver pulled on the reins. The horses slowed to a stop and snorted out frosty air, stomping their hooves.
“I would like to see your display,” the gentleman said. His French was perfect, his accent Parisian.
“Oh, yes, yes, monsieur! I will be only too happy to show you.” The old man set his whip into its holder and climbed down, babbling excitedly. “It is a marvelous collection! The greatest this side of the Nile. Balms to cure cholera. Elixirs to stave off death itself. I have a fine ruby necklace, straight from Cleopatra’s tomb, that will make any arthritic condition vanish. And it will soften the skin, strengthen the bones—”