Authors: Mark C. King
Sigmund sat in the back of the steam powered carriage, happy to be out of the weather for a few minutes, and let out a long breath. Another carriage passed by, its electric lamps briefly illuminating the inside of his cabin, hurting his eyes. Blinking away the resulting spots, he tried to use the chugging of the engine, the sound of the rain, and the ominous darkness that enveloped London to distract him from even darker thoughts, from the possible favor that Dr. Ferriss would be asking him to perform.
Some years back, Dr. Ferriss had hired Sigmund for a job. He was to create a special carriage and an inconspicuous chute to the doctor’s basement with the stated purpose of making the delivery of medical packages easier. Once completed, Sigmund realized the true purpose of the request – to deliver dead bodies. Dr. Ferriss had created an operating theatre in his basement that he used to teach his students and conduct experiments.
Sigmund’s feelings were torn at the time. If a cure for his niece, Sarah, was to be found, it could come from the efforts of someone like Dr. Ferriss. Still, the source of the bodies was questionable at best, and disrespectfully criminal at worst. His current feelings were not so torn. The idea that this owed favor would be along the lines of a grave robbery disturbed Sigmund greatly. This was simply a side of medicine that he would rather be ignorant of, let alone be a participant in.
Besides the dark potential of the unknown assignment, there was no stopping the memory of their last meeting. Sigmund had been injured and was being pursued by the police – wrongly accused of a bombing. Remembering the hidden chute, he used it to drop into Ferriss’s basement and avoid his capture. The doctor was surprised to see him, of course, but helped his injuries and gave him a place to sleep. Sigmund stayed the night but awoke to being strapped down to the cot he had been recovering on. Evidently, Ferriss became aware of what Sigmund was accused of and was not at all happy to be harboring a criminal. The moments leading up to their bargain walked the line between life and death. Ferriss had had murder in his eyes and was barely persuaded by Sigmund’s honest pleas of innocence and, of course, the agreement to a favor at a later time, to spare his life.
This experience certainly did not endear the doctor, or his practices, in any way to Sigmund. In fact, Sigmund’s disgust and anger grew with each returning memory. As the steam-carriage jostled along the road towards its destination, a silent vow was made. After the completion of this favor, never would their paths meet again.
The slowing of the cab surprised Sigmund. He hadn’t been paying close attention to where they were and was a little annoyed that they had reached the destination so quickly. As much as he wanted to get this behind him, he wasn’t exactly in a hurry to start. A puddle greeted his foot as he stepped out of the cabin, soaking his shoe and sock thoroughly. He popped his umbrella open, wondering if it would help at this point, and paid the driver. Gazing up at the dark four story brownstone, he marveled at the commonness of it, knowing what lurked in its bowels. Checking his pocket watch, he saw that it was quite late, which explained the lack of any lights in the windows. Closing the watch, he rubbed its cover out of a nervous habit and willed himself up the front stairs. To say that it was unpleasant to be outside was an understatement, but Sigmund felt that it would be more unpleasant inside. The front door to the building was unlocked and he stepped into the foyer out of the weather. A wooden staircase greeted him which ran up the left wall and to the right of the staircase was a hallway with an entrance that stood alone. The doctor’s door.
Reaching it, he knocked loudly three times. As he waited for an answer, he allowed his anger to build up inside him even more. He used this to fuel a confident attitude that he did not completely feel.
It took another three loud knocks before he heard movement from inside. The lock turned and the door opened a crack. A hoarse, “Who is it? What do you want?” launched from inside.
“It is Sigmund Shaw, Doctor. I believe we need to talk.”
There was a pause before the door opened fully. Inside the apartment was dark beyond the entrance, with only a little light spilling in through the front windows from a streetlamp. As Sigmund walked in, the Doctor grumbled, “It is quite late, Mr. Shaw.”
“Since when is propriety something that concerned you?” quipped Sigmund with some of his anger seeping through.
Dr. Ferriss sighed and ignored the question. Walking over to a side table, he withdrew a match from a small silver container and used it to light the table lamp. The glow would have made the room feel welcoming under different circumstances, but not that night. The sitting room was nicely decorated, had multiple chairs and small tables – altogether pleasant if you did not know the kind of person who lived there.
Sigmund sat on an overstuffed arm chair without being offered. Insulting Dr. Ferriss was of no concern to him. Ferriss looked at his guest for a moment and then took the seat opposite.
“I take it that you received my telegram.”
“I did,” Sigmund said darkly. “As did my sister.”
“Yes, regrettable that, but I had to be sure that you would respond. People today are so unreliable and, after all, it has been quite a while since our little deal and the terms could have easily been forgotten.”
“A threat on my family is not something I would soon forget.”
“Hmm. Well, better safe than sorry, as they say.”
Sigmund narrowed his eyes and glared at the doctor in front of him. He wore a burgundy robe along with well-worn slippers. His gray hair was sticking up in different directions and his gaunt face had a bit of stubble. The man looked so harmless, but a devious mind lurked under the outward appearance.
Seeing that Sigmund was not going to comment further, Dr. Ferriss asked, “Tell me, Mr. Shaw, what do you know about the human brain?”
Annoyance mixed with confusion as Sigmund wanted the doctor to just get to the point.
Why is he asking me about brains?
He decided to play along for only a very short period of time. “Not much. We use it to think and store memories.”
“Simple, but accurate. However, I go as far as to say that it is the single most remarkable creation in the entire world. Our muscles, skin, and organs are merely springs that drive the unfathomable clockwork of our mind.”
Sigmund’s father was a clockmaker and had demonstrated the marvelous complexity and organization of even the simplest of watches. Despite the current circumstances, Sigmund liked the analogy and understood what was being said.
“I am an expert of human anatomy,” continued Dr. Ferriss, “but I know very little about the human mind. Perhaps it will become my focus in later years, but for now, I am not much more knowledgeable than a layman.”
Despite a reluctant growing interest in the subject, Sigmund recalled the purpose of his visit and directed, “How does this tie in to the favor I owe you?”
Without preamble, Dr. Ferriss stood, picked up the table lamp, and said, “I think it best that I show you. Follow me, Mr. Shaw.” Without waiting for a response he headed out of the living room.
Sensing no physical danger from this strange man, Sigmund stood and followed. Ferriss led them to the one place that Sigmund did not want to go, the basement – the doctor’s place of ghoulish occupation. A door in the kitchen opened to a simple wooden staircase, framed by spider webs, that descended into darkness. As they walked down the creaking steps, the lamp gave them a halo of light to maneuver by. Sigmund’s wet sock squished with every other footfall, which annoyed him, but it was quickly forgotten as the smell of chemicals grew. The aroma was unpleasant and stirred bad memories, but was at least preferable to the smells of death that this space held on a regular basis. Although the foul odor increased, the temperature did not, and a renewed chill passed through Sigmund.
At the bottom of the steps, the two of them walked by the very cot that Sigmund had been strapped to when the favor was demanded. Dr. Ferriss paid it no attention that Sigmund could tell, but his own mind reacted. It reminded Sigmund of his anger, which was currently being tempered by curiosity. The heart of the lab was a large desk along the left wall with shelves over it. On the desk surface and on the shelves were the instruments, liquids, flasks, and other medical items that the doctor used for his practice. Next to the lab desk was a large table with a hole in the middle – this is where the bodies were laid for dissection, the hole allowing for fluids to drain. It was vacant at the moment, a small relief for Sigmund.
Dr. Ferriss placed his lamp on the desk, then bent under it, and said, “Continuing our discussion on the brain, did you know that for all it does, it is only about the size of a loaf of bread?” As he finished the sentence he straightened up and turned to face Sigmund, a large jar in his hands. He placed it next to the lamp, illuminating what was inside.
It took only a moment for Sigmund to realize that it contained a brain floating in preserving liquid. His first instinct was to be sick, but he fought the urge and focused on anger and curiosity. This again brought him back to the purpose of the visit.
“What is it you want me to do for you, doctor?” he said flatly. “Are you looking for a second opinion?”
Ferriss smiled in amusement and said, “A second opinion will not be necessary. However, I do want you to examine this specimen. Notice the size and general look of it. A perfect example of a healthy human brain.”
“Alright,” answered Sigmund cautiously. The other shoe had to drop soon.
“Now,” continued Ferriss, “examine this one.” He once again bent under the lab desk and returned with another jar, which he placed on the other side of the lamp.
Sigmund leaned a little closer to get a better look at this second container and was repelled at what he saw. It was a shriveled, blackened lump floating in the same preserving liquid. He looked at Ferriss and said, “I do not know what I’m looking at.”
“This, Mr. Shaw, is also a human brain.”
Sigmund felt disgust at the comparison. This second brain looked nothing like the first. “What happened to it?” he asked in true curiosity.
“That is an excellent question. I’ve come across brain deformities from time to time, but nothing like this. I would have dismissed it as an aberration, a science oddity, but I’ve seen this ailment four times in the last
. There is something new in London that is causing this. An unfortunate genetic trait of a recently located family, perhaps. Or even worse, and more likely, a previously unknown disease.”
Sigmund stared at the blackened remains of the brain, pondering darkly on what Dr. Ferriss had just suggested. A disease that shriveled the brain? It was an awful thought.
“And this is where you come in, Mr. Shaw. I would like you to discover the source of these bodies and find out what you can about the individuals prior to their death. It is imperative that we know what we are dealing with. It would be wise to avoid another black plague, don’t you think?”
Sigmund stopped looking at the jar and now looked at Dr. Ferriss. The favor was now known. It was far different than anything that he had imagined. He felt a bit of relief that he would not be digging up dead bodies, but immersing himself into a search for a brain shriveling disease was not exactly a pleasant alternative. He asked, “Why haven’t you brought this to the attention of the medical community?”
Ferriss gave Sigmund a sideways glance with a disappointed look.
“Ah, of course.” Sigmund said. “They would wonder how you found out about this problem and that would lead to questions about your, um, practice.”
“Precisely,” Ferriss answered, and then, in a bright voice, said, “Be glad, Mr. Shaw. This favor is for the greater good, the potential safety of London, including you and your family.”
Sigmund narrowed his eyes at the mention of his family. The feelings of anger started to overtake his disgust and curiosity. He recalled to mind the vow he had made on the way over and said coldly, “I will do this favor, as agreed upon. But its completion will bring an end to our relationship. You will never contact me or my family ever again. Understood?”
“Very well, Mr. Shaw.” Ferriss answered with a touch of remorse in his voice, as if a friend just declined an invite to dinner. “This will complete our arrangement.” He then took a piece of paper off of the desk and wrote on it. Handing the paper to Sigmund, he said, “This is the name and location of the person who has procured my most recent specimens. He is your starting point.”