"Chris...you aren't going to like this."
Chris Jennings tensed, and moved warily toward the window where Sabrina was standing.
"Sorry," she said quickly. "It's not the police, or anything like that. Just a relative you - ah - aren't overly fond of."
"A relative?" He strode the few remaining steps to the window, pulled the curtain back - and dropped it as if it had burned him. "Damn!"
There was no mistaking the tall, rangy figure standing across the street, waiting impatiently for the light to change.
"I don't think he saw us."
"Chris, he must know we live here. He couldn't turn up in a place like this by coincidence." Sabrina wiped her hands on her jeans, looking hopelessly around their dingy fourth-floor walkup. "The apartment's a mess."
"So what? We're not going to answer the doorbell."
"Chris! I know you blame Quentin for the werewolf curse, but -"
"It's not just that he brought the curse on us. He only had to live with it for four months. Then he found a way, not only to get rid of it, but to keep himself young and handsome forever. Talk about adding insult to injury - he's my great-grandfather, for Christ's sake, and I already look older than he does!"
"No, you don't," she said automatically, turning back to the window. "And you can't possibly blame him more than he blames himself -" She broke off suddenly. "That's odd."
"He's crossing the street. And I could swear he's walking with a slight limp."
"So? You know what a dandy he is. His fancy new shoes probably hurt his feet."
"Yes, I suppose that's it. That has to be it..."
Moments later the bell rang. The long, insistent ring of a caller who wouldn't give up easily.
Chris caught her arm as she headed for the door. "Ignore it."
"Oh, for Pete's sake." She shrugged him off. "I don't particularly want to see him either. I'm ashamed of this dump we're living in. But he won't go away, so we may as well get it over with."
The downstairs door had been left unlocked, and Quentin was halfway up the stairs when Sabrina went out into the hall. He was not, she noted, bounding up with his usual vigor. Chris must be right about the shoes.
"Good to see you, Sabrina!" He pumped her hand enthusiastically. "Is Chris - oh yes, I see he is." He beamed. "I've been searching for you two for weeks."
"You shouldn't have bothered," Chris muttered.
"I'll pretend I didn't hear that." Quentin walked into the living room and flopped on the sofa - which creaked dangerously under his weight, despite his slender build.
"Let me get you a drink." Sabrina looked daggers at Chris. "Uh - I'm afraid the only choices are red table wine, beer and coffee."
"Whatever you're having," Quentin replied gallantly. So she poured three glasses of wine. He accepted his with an engaging grin, Chris with a glare.
"I suppose you'll want to talk in private," she said awkwardly. "I'm not really family."
"Don't be silly, of course you are!" Quentin pulled her down on the sofa beside him. The sofa groaned. "Will you sit down, Chris? What I have to tell you is so big that if you're not sitting down, you may fall down."
Chris perched on the edge of a chair. "This had better be good."
"It is." Quentin smiled broadly. "I know how to free you from the werewolf curse!"
Chris fell off the chair.
"All right, tell me." Chris had a beer in him by now, but his hands still shook as he popped the lid on another.
Quentin took a deep breath. "The idea came to me while I was attending the Bayreuth Festival back in August."
"The Buy What Festival?" Chris frowned. "What sort of word is roit? Do you mean Buy Right or something?"
"Buy ROIT," Quentin repeated patiently. "Spelled B-A-Y-R-E-U-T-H. It's a city in West Germany. If you don't use the German pronunciation, people think you're talking about Beirut, in Lebanon. In fact, that's where the neck of Wagner's dragon was wrongly shipped, back in 1876."
"Huh?" Chris was totally lost. "Even you aren't old enough to remember 1876!"
"I was five years old at the time. But no, I don't remember, I've just read about it." Quentin started over. "Do you know anything about the Wagner operas?"
"I know a little," Sabrina ventured. "Wagner was a 19th-century German composer, and most of his operas are about mythological subjects. I guess that accounts for the dragon." She screwed up her face, concentrating. "And - and - Bayreuth is where he lived toward the end of his life, and they have an annual festival of his operas."
"Right," Quentin said gratefully. "I was there in August for Lohengrin."
They both looked blank, so he launched into an explanation. "The plot of Lohengrin is set in the Middle Ages -"
"Do we have to hear all this?" Chris asked mournfully. "Can't you cut to the chase?"
"I want to explain where I got the idea!"
With a sigh, Chris settled back in his chair.
"The heroine, Elsa, has been falsely accused of doing away with her little brother, the heir to a dukedom. The real villain is her accuser, a witch named Ortrud. Ortrud wants to get rid of Elsa as well, so the king will grant the dukedom to her - Ortrud's - husband, and she'll be in a position to wield the power. But she didn't actually kill Elsa's brother, just bewitched him and turned him into a swan."
Chris snorted. "No wonder you like this stuff. Sounds like our family."
Quentin ignored him. "Elsa prays for a deliverer, and a mysterious knight arrives in a boat drawn by a swan - yes, the swan does eventually turn out to be her brother! The knight defeats Ortrud's husband in single combat, which is taken to reveal God's judgment as to which woman is telling the truth. He spares his opponent's life.
"The knight marries Elsa, but makes her promise never to ask his name. She breaks her promise, can't resist asking. Then he tells her his name is Lohengrin - he's sworn to serve the Holy Grail, and could only have stayed with her if his identity remained unknown. But before he leaves, he defeats Ortrud in a contest of white versus black magic, and restores Elsa's brother. As it's usually staged, Ortrud falls dead, and Elsa dies too, of a broken heart."
This time it was Sabrina who snorted.
"But at one point in the story," Quentin went on, "Ortrud persuades her husband to break into Lohengrin's bedchamber, catch him off guard, and attack him with a sword. She has her husband convinced it's Lohengrin who's the black magician, and she tells him he can end the sorcerer's power simply by cutting off part of his body. A finger, even one joint of a finger.
"As it turns out, Lohengrin reacts quickly and kills him. But that's irrelevant." He leaned forward intently. "I understand German, and I must have heard that passage a hundred times without its registering. This summer it finally hit me.
"In the Middle Ages, the ability to transform into a werewolf was considered a power, not a curse! With that in mind, I remembered how Count Petofi was freed of his curse. The Gypsy who had put the curse on him later removed it - but as the 'price' of removing it, she cut off his hand."
Chris sat bolt upright. "Are you saying," he asked slowly, "that what she told him was her price wasn't a price at all - that cutting off part of his body was the actual means of stripping him of his 'power' to transform into a werewolf?"
"You've got it."
When his listeners sat dumbstruck, Quentin continued. "Of course, I'm sure she didn't need to take an entire hand..."
Chris looked up suddenly. "Are you suggesting I let someone cut off part of my body?" His voice rose in panic. "Hey, it's a neat theory, but that's all it is!"
"No, that's not all it is." Quentin sighed. "Do you really think I'd ask you to be the guinea pig?" He slowly removed his left shoe. And sock.
"Wh-what..." Chris swallowed hard. Sabrina made a dash for the bathroom, where they heard her throwing up.
"It's almost healed," Quentin said calmly. "It was only one toe."
"I destroyed that first, of course." He gazed levelly at Chris. "That was the hard part. Then I whacked the toe off myself. Julia probably would have done it for me, but I didn't want to put the responsibility on her.
"I wasn't sure a single toe would be enough. I had visions of having to give up an arm or a leg. But one toe is enough! I've been free of the curse for two months."
He laid a gentle hand on Chris's arm. "Do you understand, Chris? It's over, really over! The procedure isn't experimental now. Julia can amputate your toe properly, under anesthesia. At least, I'd advise you to go with a toe rather than a finger. It's less noticeable."
Chris was trembling uncontrollably. "You - you weren't experiencing the curse. You had eternal youth! And you gave it all up to test a theory that might not have worked, rather than test it on me."
Sabrina had returned, still a trifle pale. "Thank you, Quentin." She kissed him on the forehead.
But a moment later she grinned irrepressibly. "One question. Suppose you had amputated an arm, a leg, and it still didn't work. Would you have been willing to cut off any other...uh...protruding part of your anatomy?"
His face went pasty white. He pondered the question, then met her gaze squarely.
"Yes," he said without flinching. "Yes. With all that was at stake, I would have sacrificed...my nose."