The Fate of Doctor Fincher
L. Andrew Cooper
Louis Jardin found Dr. Fincher’s body on a night when the wind made the Massachusetts cold pierce his skin like knives. Boston, just on the other side of the river, felt remote. Studying until daybreak had accustomed Louis to darkness, but the blackness of Dr. Fincher’s house, the blackness in which the body shone like a candle, unnerved him. He should have found out ahead of time why Dr. Fincher wanted him here. But that was ridiculous. Dr. Fincher told him what to do, and he did. No man since his father had held such sway. Was that what brought him to a professor’s house in the middle of the night? Looking for a father figure? But that was ridiculous, too. Dr. Fincher was a famous man. His summons was a privilege. Yet looking at the body through welling tears, looking at the doctor’s chalky skin and staring eyes, Louis felt everything get infected with meaning.
The sounds of his own breathing made Louis want to scream.
Someone once told Louis that when Dr. Fincher first came to Harvard in the 1890s, everyone believed he would be the most acclaimed scholar of the twentieth century. Dr. Fincher’s first book, Six Theses on Global Anthropology, identified threads that ran through every significant mythological system in the world. It demonstrated the threads’ existence on the anthropological level and hinted at a deeper, biological causality. Had it continued along these lines, Dr. Fincher’s thinking might have changed the world as radically as Darwin’s had, and Fincher and Darwin would have stood together as two of the greatest immortals of science.
The great doctor’s second book, The Alchemy of Will, changed everything. It made people speak his name only in cautious whispers. Dr. Fincher wrote that, with the help of certain rituals, a “seeker” could, through the force of will, transform matter, redefine space, and reweave the fabric of reality. Dr. Fincher didn’t claim to turn lead into gold, but he might as well have. He explained that the transcendent power of will comes through the combination of thought, flesh, and blood. The human sacrifices rumored among South American tribes and the symbolic blood-drinking of Christianity are, according to the learned doctor, scions of this ancient wisdom. Prayer is ritual. Sacrifice is ritual.
The doctor speculated about disembodied wills, wills that evade death, incorporeal entities that some people call spirits or demons. The doctor’s public detractors used this detail more than any other to prove that a once great mind had gone from studying superstition to professing it. Many thought the doctor was mad, that he valorized primitive acts of bloodshed and murder.
The power of the doctor’s reputation weighed on Louis as he stared at the man’s corpse. Had the great scientist committed suicide? Or was that, too, just an evocation of Louis’s father? Had Dr. Fincher been murdered? Was Louis, a poor kid getting through Harvard on charity, going to be discovered alone in the house with a murdered man?
Dr. Fincher’s arms lay on the desk in front of him, and between the arms stood a candle, lit and flickering. His serene, chalky face almost smiled amidst the writhing shadows. The doctor’s wrists were gashed, but Louis couldn’t see any blood. Louis stared, searching, seeking. He needed to know what had happened. More than that, he needed to know what he should do. He wished someone would tell him.
“Shut the door.”
Louis obeyed. As he heard the door click shut—a bolt turning—he realized that the command had been in Dr. Fincher’s voice. He wasn’t dead! Relief exploded in Louis’s chest as he turned to face his employer. Shut the door. Yes, those had been the words, and the voice had been the doctor’s, but the chalky face was as still and silent as before. Louis scanned the doctor’s rigid, curved lips. The dead expression had not changed.
Louis’s gaze drifted between the doctor’s face and the candle. The more he looked at the flame, the more distant the body seemed. The flame became foreground, and the doctor became an unfocused background. As the orange light moved, Louis began to understand what he had heard. It had been a memory. Those had been the first words the doctor had used in their first official meeting.
“Shut the door.”
Louis hadn’t known what to expect. His roommate Philip had told him not to go, that the doctor was insane. Louis went anyway. Unlike Philip’s, Louis’s future was not assured. A strong recommendation from the author of the Six Theses on Global Anthropology was something he couldn’t afford to turn down, no matter what people thought of the doctor’s later work. Besides, Dr. Fincher was perfectly pleasant in the brief encounter when they set up the meeting. Louis was alone in the laboratory long after sunset, finishing up an assignment at an hour when he could use a microscope without having to wait. He was staring into the lens, studying little blobs, when the voice spoke up behind him. “Shut the door,” it said. “Now tell me, why are you here?”
Staring at the flame, Louis heard that question again. He answered, “Dr. Fincher, I’m here because–,” but he stopped, realizing that what he heard was only a memory, and what he addressed was a corpse.
[The full story is in LEAPING AT THORNS (BlackWyrm, Sept. 2014)]