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By Jonathan Maberry, James Frenkel
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2010 Universal Studios Licensing LLLP
All rights reserved.
London, England, 1891
He reached down and lifted the skull from the grave. It was old and battered, its jaw missing, the eye sockets fixed in an eternal stare. The man who held it brushed dirt from the cheeks and brow and held it in one hand, considering the lines and planes of the old bones. The eyes of the skull and the eyes of the man met and for a long minute they shared the secrets of eternity, the subtle truths of the grave.
"Alas," murmured the man in a voice that could hide no trace of the real hurt that wrenched his heart. "Poor Yorick." He half turned to his companion. "I knew him, Horatio."
In the shadows beyond a row of candles, thousands of invisible hands began applauding. Lawrence Talbot did not flick so much as a covert glance at the audience. His eyes remained locked with those of the skull, though his features shifted with a half dozen emotions as he turned the skull this way and that. When he regarded the brow his own brow knotted as if remembering old conversations; when turning it away from him his mouth betrayed the sadness of a boy suffering the disappointment of a beloved tutor; when he tilted the head back he smiled in remembrance of countless old jests. He shared the moment with the skull while the applause ran its course, and when it abated he spoke softly.
"... a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy. He hath borne me on his back a thousand times. And now how abhorred in my imagination it is! My gorge rises at it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft. Where be your gibes now, your gambols, your songs, your flashes of merriment that were wont to set the table on a roar? No one now to mock your own grinning. Quite chap-fallen?"
Lawrence did not shout or bleat. He spoke with tenderness to the skull and everyone in the theater bent forward to be included in the private discourse, hanging on his words, their senses entirely given over to the soft voice of the Prince of Denmark, for — to the watching crowd — this was not Lawrence Talbot, the American actor, this was Hamlet himself. Alive, real, his mocking words clear evidence of the tortured pain within his troubled soul.
Except for one man, a well-dressed buffoon to whom Shakespeare was a bore and Shakespeare performed, a torment. Before Hamlet and Horatio had wandered into the cemetery the man had nodded and drifted off to sleep and now his buzzing snore sought to undercut the moment.
But Lawrence was too practiced a professional to allow a fool to upstage him. He tossed the skull into the man's lap and continued with his soliloquy as if the act had been staged to include this moment. The skull landed hard on sensitive softness and the man shot upright in his seat, flushing red as the crowd around him erupted into laughter.
"Now get you to my lady's chamber and tell her," continued Lawrence as he drew his energy and all eyes back to center stage, "let her paint an inch thick, to this favor she must come ..."
Lawrence wore a suit of dark velvet and a ruffled shirt open to midchest. His wavy hair was as black as the pit and it framed a face that was rough and thoughtful and angry and handsome. "Brutally handsome" was the phrase used by The Times theater reviewer. He knew that everyone packed into the theater had read that review, and more than half of them were there because of it. When he stepped close to the footlights he was able to see past them to the rows of faces, each as pale as the moon, tilted up toward him, eyes fixed on him. The naked adoration in the faces of the women stoked fires within him, but the similarity of the faces — each as empty and vacuous and uncomprehending as the next — made him feel cold, empty. Gutted.
His full lips curled into a sneer. But they saw it as a smile and the applause rolled over him in waves.CHAPTER 2
The broadsheet tacked to the dressing room door read:
LAWRENCE TALBOT The Eminent American Tragedian Stars as the Melancholy Dane
* in *
The Tragical History of Hamlet Prince of Denmark
The stagehand pushed through the door with a grunt, stepped over the velvet jacket and nameless frilly detritus that belonged to who knew whom, ducked under the wild swing of an actress demonstrating a wobbly pirouette that she performed while drinking from a champagne glass, sidestepped a couple — a man and woman? Two women? He couldn't tell — passed a dozen other performers in various stages of undress and inebriation, and set the heavy tray down on the dressing counter. He off-loaded the six chilled bottles and clean glasses, accepted a couple of coins from Lawrence, tried not to goggle at an actress wearing a very sheer slip who was sucking on an opium pipe, and crept out of the madhouse before his sanity fled entirely.
In the hall he passed another stagehand who was tottering under the weight of a tray laden with steaming loaves of fresh bread and a dozen different wheels of cheese.
"Whotcher, Tom?" said the second hand. "You look like you've had a fright."
The first hand jerked a thumb over his shoulder. "Just come up from the underworld, Barney. Bleedin' Sodom and Gomorrah in there." Tom leaned close. "Some of those ladies aren't exactly dressed, mate."
Barney, older and more seasoned, grinned. "Tut-tut, lad. Those aren't ladies, if you catch my meaning. Besides ... it's all good fun."
"Not if you're just passing through," complained Tom.
"There you have me, lad. But wait 'til the spring when they do Midsummer Night's Dream. You can't keep those scalawags in their britches, male or female."
Tom shook his head. "I tell you, Barney, it's these Americans. They're uncouth."
"And what's 'uncouth'?"
"They ain't got class and breeding."
Barney snorted. "And here we are, the two of us grown men carrying trays of food for the animals in the zoo, and you're going on about class and breeding. Are we a bit above ourselves, lad?"
A girl opened the door and leaned out. She wore a red silk ribbon around her throat and nothing else. Wafts of opium smoke curled around her thighs like lecherous fingers. "Is that the food? Get your gnarly ass in here you bloody old sod!"
She slammed the door. Barney and Tom exchanged a long look.
"Aye," conceded Barney, "I take your point."
He took a breath and headed into Lawrence Talbot's dressing room.
* * *
Lawrence was almost indifferent to the debauchery around him. It had become old hat to him and with familiarity had come a contempt of the excess. He required it as a matter of course because it fed the newspapers and it drew his audience. He had also long ago lost amusement of the irony that the theater seats were filled by idiots who came to share in the reflected glory of his own legendary excesses, but who came back because of the quality of the actual performance. A cosmic joke. Very droll.
He sighed and sipped wine from a goblet encrusted with glitter and jewels. It was the prop used for the poisoned cup in the final act. The goblet Gertrude drank from before her death scene. Lawrence searched the mirror for the actress who played his "mother." She had her skirts up around her waist and sat astride the young buck who played Rosencrantz. She certainly looked alive at the moment. Next to the wrangling couple, the impresario nibbled the wrist of one of the makeup girls. He gave Lawrence an amused nod, Pan to Bacchus. Lawrence returned his nod and turned back to the mirror. He was shirtless — that confection of fluff and frills had been clawed off of him by ... by ... God, he couldn't remember the name of the girl he had spent twenty minutes kissing after the performance. Just as well. She was over there kissing Polonius.
Lawrence slumped in his chair, sipping his wine, brooding as profoundly as the character he played. That irony was not lost on him as well. The energetic rush of the performance was gone and now the black tide of depression lapped at him. It was always like this. He was only ever alive onstage; he was only ever himself when he was not himself. Here, when things were supposed to be real, Lawrence felt cheap and artificial and alien.
A mass of blond curls obscured his vision of the mirror as Ophelia leaned in to kiss him. She was very drunk and barely dressed, but when she kissed she put her whole soul into it, God bless her. He resisted for half a second, but then gave in to the moment. This, too, was a performance of sorts, and Lawrence could never let his audience down. Ophelia's hot mouth moved from his lips to his cheeks and chin and ears and throat. Lawrence felt little fires ignite under his skin. Her burning line of kisses trailed lower to his chest ...
"Naughty little minx ..."
The room went out of focus as she nipped his skin with the skill of an artist.
God! What was she doing to him ...
He jerked erect and looked around to see who had spoken but there was no one behind him.
The girl looked up. "What's wrong, love? Did I hurt you?"
"What? No ... no," he said, distracted. "I thought I heard ..."
But he left it unsaid. What he thought he'd heard was impossible. For just a moment he could have sworn he heard his brother Benjamin speak his name. Not Ben as he would be now — a grown man, full in his prime — but Ben as he had been all those years ago, a boy.
Suddenly the noise and smoke and laughter was oppressively loud and coarse. The room swam in and out of focus, and he blinked his vision clear. In a moment of clarity the scene around him shifted from a Roman debauch that was perfect in every sinful sense of the word ... to a debauch that was fractured and wrong. He felt suddenly sickened, unclean. He pushed the woman aside.
"What is it?"
Lawrence fought the urge to bark at her like a dog. He bit down on the words that rose like bile to his lips.
"Nothing," he said. "It's nothing ... a headache."
She smiled and sidled closer. "I'll bet I can make you forget you even have a head, let alone an ache —"
"No," he said quickly. He stood up and snatched a dressing gown from the back of chair. "No, I'm fine. I just need some air."
He pulled a robe from a rack, thrust his arms into it and yanked the flaps tight around him as if that could separate him from the squalor. A few of the revelers cast vaguely questioning looks at him, but he shook his head and picked his way to the door, opened it, stumbled up a flight of steps and shoved open a door to the alley. The cold air cut through the thin cloth of his robe, pebbling his flesh with goose bumps, but at least he could breathe.
Lawrence opened his eyes and he was alone. He was always alone, no matter how large the crowds, no matter how thronged the parties.
"Ben ..." he said aloud, but the name echoed emptily off the brick walls of the alley and vanished into the limitless black of the sky.CHAPTER 3
Lawrence walked naked to the window. The breeze was cool and thick, and the sheers moved as if in slow motion. Ever since he'd left the party earlier that evening everything had a surreal air, as if he had stepped into one of those obscure French plays that made no sense even to the playwrights.
Lawrence saw the white face of the moon through the curtains, huge and full, but as he parted them with his hand he saw that it was only the face of Big Ben. Equally cold, but far less threatening. He stepped through the curtains and leaned against the frame, watching as the mist from the Thames curled like a nest of snakes through the gaslit streets. It was a typically thick London fog that rose like drapes to cover most of the clock tower and virtually all of the city.
There was a soft moan behind him and Lawrence half turned to look at the woman on the bed. She was beautiful and lush, her naked skin painted to porcelain whiteness by the misty light. Her dark hair lay scattered around her lovely face like a dreamy chestnut storm. Her nipples were dusky in the filtered light, her lips dark and parted, black lashes downswept against perfect cheeks. Lawrence saw her and didn't see her. As he stood there in his melancholy and weariness, his waking mind was subsumed by his unconscious and he slipped into a dream of memory that swirled like fog around him and took him back to another place and time....
* * *
At nine years old Lawrence Talbot was a thin boy. Not yet strong, not yet the muscular predator he would become as he strode the stage and stalked the avenues of the world's great cities. At nine he was pale and brooding, as dreamy as a poet, lost in frequent reveries whose particular nature he shared with no one.
Except his mother. Solana Talbot knew all of her son's secrets.
Lawrence lay with his head on her lap, his dark curls lost against the intricate embroidery of her gown as if he were still, years after his birth, enmeshed with her. Solana sang an old Spanish song to him, a fanciful rural ballad so old that its meaning has changed a hundred times in as many years. Lawrence lay with his eyes closed, listening, flowing in and out of dreams, guided by the melody and the promises hidden in the words....
* * *
Lawrence lay in the big hotel bed, awake in the depths of the long and roiling night. The woman had welcomed him back to bed with a sleepy moan and snuggled up against him, and Lawrence had allowed it while detesting it. It wasn't where he wanted to be. This wasn't who he wanted to be with.
It wasn't who he wanted to be.
The night ground on. Boats on the river bellowed warning calls with muffled horns that sounded like the moans of the dead. Through the open window, past the black spike of Big Ben, Lawrence saw the night pull back its garment to reveal the swollen white breast of the moon.
He wished that he could tear free of his skin and become anyone else. Anyone who was not Lawrence goddamned Talbot. He hated living the pretense of who he had become. He closed his eyes and pretended to sleep. But that, too, was a lie.
* * *
In the morning, after the woman had left him, there was a discreet knock on the door and Lawrence opened it to see a liveried footman holding a crisp envelope.
"Sorry to disturb you, sir," said the footman, "but this was just delivered and it was marked urgent."
He handed the letter to Lawrence, who grumbled something and thrust a handful of coins into the man's hand and slammed the door on his grateful smile.
His name had been written on the envelope in a woman's hand, addressed to him here at the hotel. He held it up to the light and saw that the smudged cancel stamp was for Blackmoor in Northumbria.
Home, he thought. Or, the place that had been home to him a million years ago. Who there knew he was in London? Ben?
He tore it open and read the single page.
"God ...," he breathed.
Five minutes later found him running for a hansom cab to take him to the train station.CHAPTER 4
The train was old, and though the first class carriage was newly refitted it still creaked and rattled as it rolled across the ancient trestle over a deep gorge cut down into the wild lushness of Northumbria. Some miles back Lawrence had finally managed to find a comfortable nook between wall and seat and sat cross-legged, his traveling cloak shed, his unadorned walking stick beside him on the bench seat to discourage anyone from sitting too close.
Lawrence held a daguerreotype in one hand and for the last quarter hour he had alternately studied it and stared thoughtfully at the rolling hills. In the photograph he and his brother Ben stood beside their mother. It was deeply unnerving in a thousand different ways for him to realize that everyone in that photo was gone in one way or another. His mother, dead all those years ago; and now Ben gone missing. As for himself ... he had felt absent from reality all his life, more like a ghost haunting the life of some stranger named Lawrence Talbot.
He raised the photo and traced the crenellated folds of his mother's dress with one fingertip, and then touched Ben's image, placing his finger over his brother's heart.
Where are you, Benjamin?
Even if Ben was found hale and happy somewhere — as surely he must — the old photograph was a lie gouged like a thorn into his heart. In that picture they were all happy, all gathered together as a family. Anyone looking at the picture would see happiness and unity. They would see life and possibilities. All lies. All promises proved false by the unwavering cruelty of circumstance.
Excerpted from The Wolfman by Jonathan Maberry, James Frenkel. Copyright © 2010 Universal Studios Licensing LLLP. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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