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Warning: This novel contains profanity and graphic violence.

Chapter One

Early-morning sunlight gilded the cobbled drive of the staff entrance at the New York Museum of Natural History, illuminating a glass pillbox just outside the granite archway. Within the pillbox, a figure sat slumped in his chair: an elderly man, familiar to all museum staff. He puffed contentedly on a calabash pipe and basked in the warmth of one of those false-spring days that occur in New York City in February, the kind that coaxes daffodils, crocuses, and fruit trees into premature bloom, only to freeze them dead later in the month.

"Morning, doctor," Curly said again and again to any and all passersby, whether mailroom clerk or dean of science. Curators might rise and fall, directors might ascend through the ranks, reign in glory, then plummet to ignominious ruin; man might till the field and then lie beneath; but it seemed Curly would never be shifted from his pillbox. He was as much a fixture in the museum as the ultrasaurus that greeted visitors in the museum's Great Rotunda.

"Here, pops!"

Frowning at this familiarity, Curly roused himself in time to see a messenger shove a package through the window of his pillbox. The package had sufficient momentum to land on the little shelf where the guard kept his tobacco and mittens.

"Excuse me!" Curly said, rousing himself and waving out the window. "Hey!" But the messenger was already speeding away on his fattire mountain bike, black rucksack bulging with packages.

"Goodness," Curly muttered, staring at the package. It was about twelve inches by eight by eight, wrapped in greasy brown paper, and tied up with an excessive amount of old-fashioned twine. It was so beaten-up Curly wondered if the messenger had been run over by a truck on the way over. The address was written in a childish hand: For the rocks and minerals curator, The Museum of Natural History.

Curly broke up the dottle in the bottom of his pipe while gazing thoughtfully at the package. The museum received hundreds of packages every week from children, containing "donations" for the collection. Such donations included everything from squashed bugs and worthless rocks to arrowheads and mummified roadkill. He sighed, then rose painfully from the comfort of his chair and tucked the package under his arm. He put the pipe to one side, slid open the door of his pillbox, and stepped into the sunlight, blinking twice. Then he turned in the direction of the mailroom receiving dock, which was only a few hundred feet across the service drive.

"What have you got there, Mr. Tuttle?" came a voice. Curly glanced toward the voice. It was Digby Greenlaw, the new assistant director for administration, who was just exiting the tunnel from the staff parking lot.

Curly did not answer immediately. He didn't like Greenlaw and his condescending Mr. Tuttle. A few weeks earlier, Greenlaw had taken exception to the way Curly checked IDs, complaining that he "wasn't really looking at them." Heck, Curly didn't have to look at them-he knew every employee of the museum on sight.

"Package," he grunted in reply. Greenlaw's voice took on an officious tone. "Packages are supposed to be delivered directly to the mailroom. And you're not supposed to leave your station."

Curly kept walking. He had reached an age where he found the best way to deal with unpleasantness was to pretend it didn't exist. He could hear the footsteps of the administrator quicken behind him, the voice rising a few notches on the assumption he was hard of hearing. "Mr. Tuttle? I said you should not leave your station unattended."

Curly stopped, turned. "Thank you for offering, doctor." He held out the package.

Greenlaw stared it at, squinting. "I didn't say I would deliver it." Curly remained in place, proffering the package. "Oh, for heaven's sake." Greenlaw reached irritably for the package, but his hand faltered midway. "It's a funny-looking thing. What is it?" "Dunno, doctor. Came by messenger."

"It seems to have been mishandled." Curly shrugged.

But Greenlaw still didn't take the package. He leaned toward it, squinting. "It's torn. There's a hole . . . Look, there's something coming out."

Curly looked down. The corner of the package did indeed have a hole, and a thin stream of brown powder was trickling out. "What in the world?" Curly said.

Greenlaw took a step back. "It's leaking some kind of powder." His voice rode up a notch. "Oh my Lord. What is it?"

Curly stood rooted to the spot. "Good God, Curly, drop it! It's anthrax!"

Greenlaw stumbled backward, his face contorted in panic. "It's a terrorist attack-someone call the police! I've been exposed! Oh my God, I've been exposed!"

The administrator stumbled and fell backward on the cobblestones, clawing the ground and springing to his feet, and then he was off and running. Almost immediately, two guards came spilling out of the guard station across the way, one intercepting Greenlaw while the other made for Curly.

"What are you doing?" Greenlaw shrieked. "Keep back! Call 911!" Curly remained where he was, package in hand. This was something so far outside his experience that his mind seemed to have stopped working.

The guards fell back, Greenlaw at their heels. For a moment, the small courtyard was strangely quiet. Then a shrill alarm went off, deafening in the enclosed space. In less than five minutes, the air was filled with the sound of approaching sirens, culminating in an uproar of activity: police cars, flashing lights, crackling radios, and uniformed men rushing this way and that stringing up yellow biohazard tape and erecting a cordon, megaphones shouting at the growing crowds to back off, while at the same time telling Curly to drop the package and step away, drop the package and step away.

But Curly didn't drop the package and step away. He remained frozen in utter confusion, staring at the thin brown stream that continued to trickle out of the tear in the package, forming a small pile on the cobbles at his feet.

And now two strange-looking men wearing puffy white suits and hoods with plastic visors were approaching, walking slowly, hands outstretched like something Curly had seen in an old science fiction movie. One gently took Curly by the shoulders while the other slipped the package from his fingers and-with infinite care-placed it in a blue plastic box. The first man led him to one side and began carefully vacuuming him up and down with a funny-looking device, and then they began dressing him, too, in one of the strange plastic suits, all the time telling him in low electronic voices that he was going to be all right, that they were taking him to the hospital for a few tests, that everything would be fine. As they placed the hood over his head, Curly began to feel his mind coming back to life, his body able to move again.

"Scuse me, doctor?" he said to one of the men as they led him off toward a van that had backed through the police cordon and was waiting for him, doors open.

"Yes?"

"My pipe." He nodded toward the pillbox. "Don't forget to bring my pipe."

 

Copyright © 2006 by Splendide Mendax, Inc., and Lincoln Child

BOOK OF THE DEAD is available in paperback from Grand Central Publishing, www.HachetteBookGroup.com.

2019 Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child