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THE CABINET OF CURIOSITIES

Part 1 ("Boneyard"), Chapter 4

Nora Kelly is working in her curatorial office at the New York Museum of Natural History when a thin, ascetic-looking, severely-dressed man abruptly appears in her doorway. He identifies himself as Special Agent Pendergast of the FBI. In one hand he holds a small, brown skull.  A "rather interesting" site has been unearthed in lower Manhattan, he tells her, and her archaeological skills are urgently needed there. With little additional information, he ushers her out of the Museum and into his waiting car.


 

Warning: This novel contains profanity and graphic violence.

 

Nora stepped out of the Rolls Royce, feeling uncomfortably conspicuous. Pendergast closed the door behind her, looking serenely indifferent to the incongruity of the elegant vehicle parked amidst the dust and noise of a large construction site.

They crossed the street, pausing at a high chain link fence. Beyond, the rich afternoon light illuminated the skeletal foundations of a row of old buildings. Several large dumpsters full of bricks lined the perimeter. Two police cars were parked along the curb and Nora could see uniformed cops standing before a hole in a brick retaining wall. Nearby stood a knot of businessmen in suits. The construction site was framed by forlorn tenements that winked back at them through empty windows.

"The Moegen-Fairhaven Group are building a sixty-five story residential tower on this site," said Pendergast. "Yesterday, about four o’clock, they broke through that brick wall, there. A worker found the skull I showed you in a barrow inside. Along with many, many more bones."

Nora glanced in the indicated direction. "What was on the site before?"

"A block of tenements built in the late 1890s. The tunnel, however, appears to predate them."

Nora could see that the excavator had exposed a clear profile. The old retaining wall lay beneath the nineteenth-century footings, and the hole near its base was clearly part of an earlier structure. Some ancient timbers, burned and rotten, had been piled to one side.

As they walked along the fence, Pendergast leaned toward her. "I’m afraid our visit may be problematic, and we have very little time. The site has changed alarmingly in just the last few hours. Moegen-Fairhaven is one of the most energetic developers in the city. And they have a remarkable amount of, ah, pull. Notice there are no members of the press on hand? The police were called very quietly to the scene." He steered her toward a chained gate in the fence, manned by a cop from whose belt dangled cuffs, radio, nightstick, gun, and ammunition. The combined weight of the accouterments pulled the belt down, allowing a blue-shirted belly to hang comfortably out.

Pendergast stopped at the gate.

"Move on," said the cop."Nothing to see here, pal."

"On the contrary." Pendergast smiled and displayed his identification. The cop leaned over, scowling. He looked back up into the agent’s face, then back down, several times.

"FBI?" He hiked up his belt with a metallic jangle.

"Those are the three letters, yes." And Pendergast placed the wallet back in his suit.

"And who’s your companion?"

"An archaeologist. She’s been assigned to investigate the site."

"Archaeologist? Hold on."

The cop ambled across the lot, stopping at the knot of policemen. A few words were exchanged, then one of the cops broke away from the group. A brown-suited man followed at a trot. He was short and heavyset, and his pulpy neck bulged over a tight collar. He took steps that were too big for his stubby legs, giving his walk an exaggerated bounce.

"What the hell’s this?" he panted as approached the gate, turning to the newly-arrived cop. "You didn’t say anything about the FBI."

Nora noticed that the new cop had gold captain’s bars on his shoulders. He had thinning hair, a sallow complexion, and narrow black eyes. He was almost as fat as the man in the brown suit.

The captain looked at Pendergast. "May I see your identification?" His voice was small and tight and high.

Pendergast once again removed his wallet. The captain took it, examined it, and handed it back through the gate.

"I’m sorry, Mr. Pendergast, the FBI has no jurisdiction here, particularly the New Orleans office. You know the procedure."

"Captain–?"

"Custer."

"Captain Custer, I am here with Dr. Nora Kelly, of the New York Museum of Natural History, who has been placed in charge of the archaeological survey. Now, if you’ll let us in—"

"This is a construction site," broke in the brown-suited man. "We’re trying to build a building here, in case you hadn’t noticed. They’ve already got a man looking at the bones. Christ Almighty, we’re losing forty thousand dollars a day here, and now the FBI?"

"And who might you be?" Pendergast asked the man, in a pleasant voice.

His eyes flickered from side to side. "Ed Shenk."

"Ah, Mr. Shenk." In Pendergast’s mouth, the name sounded like some kind of crude implement. "And your position with Moegen-Fairhaven?"

"Construction manager."

Pendergast nodded. "Of course you are. Pleased to meet you, Mr. Shenk." Immediately, he turned back to the Captain, ignoring Shenk completely.

"Now Captain Custer," he continued in the same mild voice, "am I to understand that you will not open the gate and allow us to proceed with our work?"

"This is a very important project for the Moegen-Fairhaven group, and for this community. Progress has been slower than it should be, and there’s concern at the very highest levels. Mr. Fairhaven visited the site himself yesterday evening. The last thing they want is more delays. I’ve had no word about FBI involvement, and I don’t know anything about any archaeological business—" He stopped. Pendergast had taken out his cell phone.

"Who’re you calling?" Custer demanded.

Pendergast said nothing, the smile still on his face. His fingers flew over the tiny buttons with amazing speed.

The Captain’s eyes darted toward Shenk, then away again.

"Sally?" Pendergast spoke into the phone. "Agent Pendergast here. May I speak with Commissioner Rocker?"

"Now, look—" began the Captain.

"Yes, please, Sally. You’re a treasure."

"Perhaps we could discuss this inside." There was a rattling of keys. Captain Custer began to unlock the gate.

"If you could kindly interrupt him for me, I’d be so grateful."

"Mr. Pendergast, there’s no need for this," said Custer. The gate swung open.

"Sally? I’ll call back," said Pendergast, snapping the phone shut.

He stepped past the gate, Nora at his side. Without pausing or speaking, the FBI agent took off across the rubbled ground, trotting directly toward the hole in the brick wall. The others, taken by surprise, began to follow. "Mr. Pendergast, you have to understand—" the Captain said as he struggled to keep up. Shenk followed angrily, like a bull. He stumbled, cursed, kept coming.

As they approached the hole, Nora could see a faint glow within, and a flash of light. A pause, another flash. Someone was taking pictures.

"Mr. Pendergast—" Captain Custer called.

But the lithe FBI agent was bounding up the pile of rubble. The others halted at the base, breathing heavily. Nora followed Pendergast, who had already vanished into the dark hole. She paused on the broken wall and peered down.

"Do come in," said Pendergast, in his most inviting Southern voice.

She scrambled down the fallen bricks, coming to a stop on the damp floor. There was another flash of light. A man in a white labcoat was bent over, examining something in a small arched niche. A photographer stood at another niche with a four-by-five camera, bracketed by two slave flash units.

The man in the white coat straightened up, peering at them through the dust. He had a thick shock of grey hair which, combined with his round black-framed glasses, made him look faintly like an old Bolshevik revolutionary.

"Who the devil are you, barging in like this?" he cried, his voice echoing down the barrow. "I was not to be disturbed!"

"FBI," rapped out Pendergast. His voice was now totally different: sharp, stern, officious. With a snap of leather, he shoved his badge toward the man’s face.

"Oh," the man said, faltering. "I see."

Nora looked from one to the other, surprised at Pendergast’s apparent ability to read people instantly, then manipulate them accordingly.

"May I ask you to please vacate the site while my colleague, Dr. Kelly, and I make an examination?"

"Look here, I’m in the middle of my work."

"Have you touched anything?" It came out as a threat.

"No... not really. Of course, I’ve handled some of the bones—"

"You handled some of the bones?"

"Consistent with my responsibility to determine cause of death—"

"You handled some of the bones?" Pendergast pulled a thin pad and a gold pen from his jacket pocket and made a note, shaking his head in disgust. "Your name, doctor?"

"Van Bronck."

"I’ll make a note of it for the hearing. And now, Dr. Van Bronck, if you’ll kindly let us proceed."

"Yes, sir."

Pendergast watched as the M.E. and the photographer climbed laboriously out of the tunnel. Then he turned to Nora and spoke in a low, rapid voice. "It’s your site now. I’ve bought us an hour, maybe less, so make the best of it."

"The best of what?" Nora asked in a panic. "Just what am I supposed to be doing? I’ve never—"

"You’re trained in ways that I’m not. Survey the site. I want to know what happened here. Help me understand it."

"In an hour? I don’t have any tools, anything to store samples—"

"We’re almost too late as it is. Did you notice they had the precinct captain on the site? As I said, Moegen-Fairhaven pulls an enormous amount of weight. This will be our only chance. I need the maximum amount of information in the minimum amount of time. It’s extremely important." He handed her the pen and pad, then withdrew two slender penlights from his coat and passed one to her.

Nora switched it on. For its size, the penlight was very powerful. She looked around, taking note of her surroundings for the first time. It was cool and silent. Motes drifted in the single banner of light streaming through the broken hole. The air smelled corrupt, a mixture of fungus, old meat, and mold. She breathed it in deeply nevertheless, trying to focus. Archaeology was a slow, methodical business. Here, faced with a ticking clock, she barely knew where to begin.

She hesitated another moment. Then she began to sketch the tunnel. It was about eighty feet long, ten feet high at the arch, bricked up at the ends. The ceiling was filmed with cracks. The dust covering the floor had been recently disturbed, moreso than could be explained by the presence of a single Medical Examiner: Nora wondered how many construction workers and policeman had already wandered through here.

Half a dozen niches ran along both walls. She walked along the wet floor of the tunnel, sketching, trying to get an overall sense of the space. The niches, too, had once been bricked up, but now the bricks had been removed and were stacked beside each alcove. As she turned the flashlight into each niche, she saw essentially the same thing: a jumble of skulls and bones, shreds of clothing, bits of old flesh, gristle, and hair.

She glanced over her shoulder. At the far end, Pendergast was making his own examination, quick eyes darting everywhere. Suddenly he knelt, peering intently not at the bones, but at the floor, plucking something out of the dust.

Completing her circuit, Nora turned to examine the first niche more closely. She knelt in front of the alcove and scanned it quickly, trying to make sense of the charnel heap, doing her best to ignore the smell.

There were three skulls in this niche. The skulls were not connected to the backbones—they had been decapitated—but the rib cages were complete, and the leg bones, some flexed, were also articulated. Several vertebrae seemed to have been damaged in an unusual way, cut open as if to expose the spinal cord. A snarled clump of hair lay nearby. Short. A boy’s. Clearly, the corpses had been cut into pieces and piled in the niche, which made sense, considering the dimensions of the alcove. It would have been inconvenient to fit a whole body in the cramped space, but one severed into parts...

Swallowing hard, she glanced at the clothing. It appeared to have been thrown in separately from the body parts. She reached out a hand, paused with an archaeologist’s habitual restraint, then remembered what Pendergast had said. Carefully, she began lifting out the clothing and bones, making a mental list as she did so. Three skulls, three pairs of shoes, three articulated ribcages, numerous vertebrae and assorted small bones. Only one of the skulls showed marks similar to the skull Pendergast had originally shown her. But many of the vertebrae had been cut open in the same way, from the first lumbar vertebra all the way to the sacrum. She kept sorting. Three pairs of pants; buttons, a comb, bits of gristle and desiccated flesh; six sets of legbones, feet out of their shoes. The shoes had been tossed in separately. If only I had sample bags, she thought. She pulled some hair out of a clump—the desiccated part of the scalp was still attached—and shoved it in her pocket. This was crazy: she hated working without proper equipment. All her professional instincts rebelled against such hasty, careless work.

She turned her attention to the clothing itself. It was poor and rough, and very dirty. It had rotted, but, like the bones, showed no signs of rodent gnawing. She felt for her loup, fitted it to her eye, and looked more closely at a piece of clothing. Lots of lice; dead, of course. There were holes that seemed to be the result of excessive wear, and the clothing was heavily patched. The shoes were battered, some with hobnails worn completely off. She felt in the pockets of one pair of pants: a comb, a piece of string. She went through another set of pockets: nothing. A third set yielded a coin. She pulled it out, the fabric crumbling as she did so. It was a U.S. large cent, dated 1877. She slipped everything hastily into her own pockets.

She moved to another alcove and again sorted and inventoried the remains as fast as she could. It was similar: three skulls and three dismembered bodies, along with three sets of clothing. She felt in the pockets of the pants: a bent pin and two more pennies, 1880 and 1872. Her eyes returned to the bones: once again, those strange marks on the vertebrae. She looked more closely. The lumbar vertebrae, always the lumbar, opened carefully—almost surgically—and pried apart. She slipped one of them into her pocket.

She went down the tunnel, examining each niche in turn, scribbling her observations in Pendergast’s notebook. Each niche held exactly three corpses. All had been dismembered in the same fashion, at the neck, shoulders, and hips. A few of the skulls had the same dissection marks she’d noticed on the specimen Pendergast first showed her. All of the skeletons displayed severe trauma to the lower spinal column. From her cursory examination of skull morphology, they seemed to fit within the same age bracket— thirteen to twenty or so— and were a mixture of male and female, with male predominating. She wondered what the forensic examiner had discovered. There would be time to find that out later.

Twelve niches, three bodies to a niche... All very neat, very precise. At the next to the last niche, she stopped. Then she stepped back into the middle of the tunnel, trying hard not to think about the implications of what she was seeing, keeping her mind strictly on the facts. At any archaeological site, it was important to take a moment to stand still, to be quiet, to quell the intellect and simply absorb the feel of the place. She gazed around, trying to forget about the ticking clock, to blot out her preconceptions. A basement tunnel, pre-1890, carefully walled-up niches, bodies and clothes of some thirty-six young men and women. What was it built for? She glanced over at Pendergast. He was still at the far end, examining the bricked-up wall, prying out a bit of mortar out with a knife.

She returned to the alcove, carefully noting the position of each bone, each article of clothing. Two sets of britches, with nothing in the pockets. A dress: filthy, torn, pathetic. She looked at it more closely. A girl’s dress, small, slender. She picked up the brown skull nearby. A young female, a teenager, perhaps sixteen or seventeen. She felt a wave of horror: just underneath it was her mass of hair, long golden tresses, still tied in a pink lace ribbon. She examined the skull: same poor dental hygiene. Sixteen, and already her teeth were rotting. The ribbon was of silk and a much finer quality than the dress; it must have been her prized possession. This glimmering of humanity stopped her dead for a moment.

As she felt for a pocket, something crackled under her fingers. Paper. She fingered the dress, realizing that the piece of paper wasn’t in a pocket at all, but sewn into the lining. She began to pull it from the alcove.

"Anything of interest, Dr. Kelly?"

She started at the Medical Examiner’s voice. Van Bronck. His tone had changed: now he sounded arrogant. He stood over her.

She glanced around. In her absorption, she had not heard him return. Pendergast was by the entrance to the barrow, in urgent discussion with some uniformed figures peering down from above.

"If you call this sort of thing interesting," she said.

"I know you’re not with the M.E.’s office, so that must make you an FBI forensics expert."

Nora colored. "I’m not a medical doctor. I’m an archaeologist."

Dr. Van Bronck’s eyebrows shot up and a sardonic smile spread over his face. He had a perfectly formed little mouth that looked as if it had been painted on by a Renaissance artist. It glistened as it articulated the precise words. "Ah. Not a medical doctor. I believe I misunderstood your colleague. Archaeology. How nice."

She had not had an hour; she had not even had half an hour.

She slid the dress back into the alcove, shoving it into a dusty crevice in the back. "And have you found anything of interest, Doctor?" she asked as casually as she could.

"I’d send you my report," he said. "But then, I could hardly expect you to understand it. All that professional jargon, you know." He smiled, and now the smile did not look friendly at all.

"I’m not finished here," she said. "When I am, I’d be glad to chat further." She began to move toward the last alcove.

"You can continue your studies after I remove the human remains."

"You’re not moving anything until I’ve had a chance to examine it."

"Tell that to them." He nodded over her shoulder. "I don’t know where you got the impression this was an archaeological site. Fortunately, that’s all been straightened out."

Nora saw a group of policemen sliding into the barrow, heavy evidence lockers in their hands. The space was soon filled with a cacophony of curses, grunts, and loud voices. Pendergast was nowhere to be seen.

Last to enter were Ed Shenk and Captain Custer. Custer saw her and came forward, picking his way gingerly across the bricks, followed by a brace of lieutenants.

"Dr. Kelly, we’ve gotten orders from headquarters," he said, his voice quick and high-pitched. "You can tell your boss he’s sadly confused. This is an unusual crime scene, but of no importance to present-day law enforcement, particularly the FBI. It’s over a hundred years old."

And there’s a building that needs to be built, Nora thought, glancing at Shenk.

"I don’t know who hired you, but your assignment’s over. We’re taking the human remains down to the M.E.’s office. What little else is here will be bagged and tagged."

The cops were dropping the evidence lockers onto the damp floor, and the chamber resounded with hollow thuds. The M.E. began removing bones from the alcoves with rubber-gloved hands and placing them into the lockers, tossing the clothing and other personal effects aside. Voices mingled with the rising dust. Flashlight beams stabbed through the murk. The site was being ruined before her eyes.

"Can my men escort you out, Miss?" said Captain Custer, with exaggerated courtesy.

"I can find my own way," Nora replied.

The sunlight temporarily blinded her. She coughed, breathed in the fresh air, and looked around. The Rolls was still parked at the street. And there was Pendergast, leaning against it, waiting.

She marched out the gate. His head was tilted away from the sun, his eyes half closed. In the bright afternoon light, his skin looked as pale and translucent as alabaster.

"That police captain was right, wasn’t he?" she said. "You’ve got no jurisdiction here."

He slowly lowered his head, a troubled look on his face. She found her anger evaporating. He removed a silk handkerchief from his pocket and dabbed at his forehead. Almost as she watched, his face reassumed its habitual opaque expression, and he spoke. "Sometimes, there’s no time to go through proper channels. If we’d waited until tomorrow, the site would have been gone. You see how quickly Moegen-Fairhaven works. If this site were declared of archaeological value, it would shut them down for weeks. Which of course they could not allow to happen."

"But it is of archaeological value!"

Pendergast nodded. "Of course it is. But the battle is already lost, Dr. Kelly. As I knew it would be."

As if in response, a large yellow excavator fired up, its motor coughing and snarling. Construction workers began to appear, emerging from trailers and truck cabs. Already the blue lockers were coming out of the hole and being loaded into an ambulance. The excavator lurched and made a lumbering move toward the hole, its bucket rising, iron teeth dribbling dirt.

"What did you find?" Pendergast asked.

She paused. Should she tell him about the paper in the dress? It was probably nothing, and besides, it was gone.

She tore the hastily-scribbled pages from the pad and returned it to him. "I’ll write up my general observations for you this evening," she said. "The lumbar vertebrae of the victims seem to have been deliberately opened. I slipped one into my pocket."

Pendergast nodded. "There were numerous shards of glass embedded in the dust. I took a few for analysis."

"Other than the skeletons, there were some pennies in the alcoves, dated 1872, 1877, and 1880. A few articles in the pockets."

"That gives us 1880 as a terminus post quem for the site," murmured Pendergast, almost to himself, his voice grave. "The tenements here were erected in 1897. There’s our terminus ante quem. So we have a 17-year window of time, at the least, during which this, ah, situation must have occurred."

A black stretch limousine slid up behind them, its tinted windows flaring in the sun. A tall man in an elegant charcoal suit got out, followed by several others. The man glanced around the site, his gaze quickly zeroing in on Pendergast. He had a long, narrow face, eyes spaced wide apart, black hair, and cheekbones so high and angular they could have been fashioned with a hatchet.

"And there’s Mr. Fairhaven himself, to ensure there are no more untoward delays," Pendergast said. "I think this is our cue to leave."

He opened the car door for her, then climbed in himself. "Thank you, Dr. Kelly," he said, indicating to his driver to start the car. "Tomorrow we will meet again. In a more official capacity, I trust."

As they eased out into the Lower East Side traffic, Nora looked at him. "How did you learn about this site, anyway? It was just uncovered yesterday."

"I have contacts. Most helpful in my line of work."

"I’ll bet. Well, speaking of contacts, why didn’t you just try your friend the Police Commissioner again? Surely he could have backed you up."

The Rolls turned smoothly on to East River Drive, its powerful engine purring. "Commissioner?" Pendergast blinked over at her. "I don’t have the pleasure of his acquaintance."

"Then who were you calling back there, then?"

"My apartment." And he smiled ever so slightly.

 


THE CABINET OF CURIOSITIES is copyright 2002 by Lincoln Child and Splendide Mendax, Inc. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this text, or any portion thereof, in any form.
THE CABINET OF CURIOSITIES is available in paperback from Grand Central Publishing, www.HachetteBookGroup.com.


2018 Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child