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In this chapter, which closes Part 1, Margo Green, graduate student at New York's Museum of Natural History, gets her initial look at 'Superstition,' the new exhibition that is causing an uproar both within and without the Museum, and which may be linked in some unknown way to a series of gruesome murders which have occurred on Museum grounds in the past several days.


 

Warning! This novel contains profanity and graphic violence.

 

AS THE AFTERNOON drew to a close, Margo looked up wearily from her terminal. Stretching, she punched a command to the printer down the hall, then sat back, rubbing her eyes.  Moriarty's case write-up was finally done. A little rough around the edges, perhaps; not as comprehensive as she would have liked; but she couldn't afford to spend any more time on it. Secretly, she was rather pleased, and found herself eager to take a printout up to Moriarty's office on the fourth floor of the Butterfield Observatory, where the project team for the Superstition exhibition was housed.

She thumbed through her staff directory, looking for Moriarty's extension. Then she reached for her phone and dialed the four-digit number.

"Exhibition central," drawled a voice. There were loud good-byes in the background.

"Is George Moriarty there?" Margo asked.

"I think he's down at the exhibition," the voice responded. "We're locking up here. Any message?"

"No, thanks," Margo replied, hanging up. She looked at her watch: almost five. Curfew time. But the exhibition was being unveiled Friday evening, and she'd promised Moriarty the material. She stood up, grabbed her jacket and purse, and went down the hall to retrieve her printout. She'd hunt Moriarty down and give him the copy before she left. If nothing else, it might get her that guided tour of the exhibition, maybe find out what all the fuss was about.

A few minutes later, Margo walked slowly across the deserted Selous Memorial Hall. Two guards were stationed at the entrance, and a single docent stood inside the information center, locking away ledgers and arranging sale items in preparation for the next day's visitors. Assuming there are any, thought Margo. Three policemen stood just under the huge bronze statue of Selous, talking among themselves. They didn't notice Margo.

Margo found her thoughts returning to the morning's talk with Frock. If the killer wasn't found, the security measures could get stricter. Maybe her dissertation defense would be delayed. Or the entire Museum could be closed. Margo shook her head. If that happened, she was Massachusetts-bound for sure. She headed for the Walker Gallery and the rear entrance to the Superstition exhibition. To her dismay, the large iron doors were closed, and a velvet rope was suspended between two brass posts in front of them. A policeman stood beside the sign, motionless.

"Can I help you, Miss?" he said. His nameplate read F. BEAUREGARD.

"I'm going to see George Moriarty," Margo replied. "I think he's in the exhibition galleries. I have to give him something." She brandished the printout in front of the policeman, who looked unimpressed.

"Sorry, Miss," he said. "It's past five. You shouldn't be here. Besides," he said more gently, "the exhibition's been sealed until the opening."

"But--" Margo began to protest, then turned and walked back towards the rotunda with a sigh.

After rounding a corner, she stopped. At the end of the empty hallway she could see the dim vastness of the Hall. Behind her, Officer F. Beauregard was out of sight around the corner. On impulse, she veered sharply left through a small, low passage that opened into another, parallel walkway. Maybe it wasn't too late to find Moriarty, after all.

She moved up a wide flight of stairs, and, looking carefully around before proceeding, walked slowly into a vaulted hall devoted to insects. Then she turned right and entered a gallery that ran around the second level of the Hall of Ocean Life. Like everyplace else in the Museum, it felt eerie and deserted. Margo descended one of the twin sweeping staircases to the granite floor of the main hall. Moving more slowly now, she passed by a life-sized walrus habitat group and a meticulously-constructed model of an underwater reef. Dioramas such as these, originally fashioned in the thirties and forties, could no longer be made, she knew--they had become much too expensive to produce.

At the far end of the hall was the exit to the Weisman Gallery, where the larger temporary exhibitions were held. This was one of the suite of galleries in which the Superstition Exhibition was being mounted. Black paper covered the inside of the double glass doors, fronted by a large sign that read: Gallery Closed. New Exhibition in Progress. Thank You for Your Understanding.

The left-hand door was locked. The right one, however, pushed open easily.

As casually as possible, she looked over her shoulder: nobody.

The door hissed shut behind her, and she found herself in a narrow crawlspace between the outer walls of the gallery and the back of the exhibition proper. Plywood boards and large nails were strewn around in disarray, and electrical cables snaked across the floor. On her left a huge structure of sheetrock and boards, hammered clumsily together and supported by wooden buttresses, looked very much like the back side of a Hollywood set. It was the side of the Superstition exhibition that no museum visitor would ever see.

She moved carefully down the crawlspace, scouting for some way to get into the exhibition. The light was poor--metal-shielded light bulbs, spaced about twenty feet apart--and she didn't want to stumble and fall. Soon she came across a small gap between the wooden panels--just big enough, she decided, for her to squeeze through.

She found herself in a large, six-sided anteroom. Gothic-style arches in three of the walls framed passages that receded into the gloom. Most of the light came from several backlit photographs of shamans high up on the walls. She looked speculatively at the three exits. She had no idea where she was in the exhibition--where it began, where it ended, or which way she should go to find Moriarty. "George?" she called softly, somehow unable to raise her voice in the silence and gloom. She took the central passage to another dark hall, longer than the last, and crowded with exhibits. At intervals, a brilliant spot illuminated some artifact: a mask, a bone knife, a strange carving covered with nails. The artifacts appeared to float in the velvet darkness; crazy, dim patterns of light and shadow played across the ceiling.

At the far end of the gallery, the walls narrowed. Margo had the odd feeling that she was walking back into a deep cave. Pretty manipulative, she thought. She could see why Frock was upset.

She went deeper into the gloom, hearing nothing but her own footsteps padding on the thick carpet. She couldn't see the exhibits until she was almost on top of them, and she wondered how she'd retrace her steps to the room of the shamans. Perhaps there would be an unlocked exit--a well-lit unlocked exit-- someplace else in the exhibit.

Ahead of her, the narrow hall forked. After a moment's hesitation, Margo chose the right-hand side. As she continued, she noticed small alcoves to either side, each containing a single grotesque artifact. The silence was so intense that Margo found herself holding her breath.

The hall widened into a chamber, and she stopped in front of a set of Maori tattooed heads. They weren't shrunken--the skulls were clearly still inside, preserved, the label said, by smoking. The eyes were stuffed with fibers, and the mahogany-colored skins glistened. The black, shriveled lips were drawn back from the teeth. There were six of them, a crowd grinning hysterically, bobbing in the night. The blue tattoos were breathtakingly complex: intricate spirals that intersected and reintersected, curving in endless patterns around the cheeks and nose and chin. The tattooing had been done in life, the label said, and the heads preserved as a sign of respect.

Just beyond, Margo could see the gallery narrowing to a point. A massive, squat totem pole stood before it, lit from beneath by a pale, orange light. The shadows of giant wolf heads and birds with cruel, hooked beaks thrust upward from the pole and splashed across the ceiling, grey against black. Certain she had reached a dead end, Margo approached the totem pole unwillingly. Then she noticed a small opening, ahead and on the left, leading into an alcove. She continued slowly, walking as quietly as possible. Any thought of calling out again for Moriarty had long since vanished. Thank God I'm nowhere near the Old Basement, she thought.

The alcove held a display of fetishes. Some were simple stones carved in the shapes of animals, but the majority were monsters depicting the darker side of human superstition. Another opening brought Margo into a long, narrow room. Thick black felt covered all of the room's surfaces, and a dim blue light filtered from hidden recesses. The ceiling was low above Margo's head. Smithback would have to go through here on his hands and knees, she thought.

The room broadened into an octagonal room beneath a high groined vault. A dappled light filtered down from stained-glass depictions of medieval underworlds set into the vaulted ceiling. Large windows dominated each wall.

She approached the closest window and found herself looking down into a Mayan tomb. A skeleton lay in the center, covered with a thick layer of dust. Artifacts were scattered around the site. A gold breastplate sat on the ribcage, and gold rings encircled bony fingers. Painted pots were arranged in a semi-circle around the skull. One of these contained an offering of tiny, dried corn-cobs.

The next window displayed an Eskimo rock burial, including an Eskimo mummy-bundle wrapped in skins. The next was even more startling: a lidless, rotting European-style coffin, complete with corpse. The corpse was dressed in a much-decayed frock coat, tie, and tails, and was well on its way towards decomposition. Its head was bent stiffly towards Margo as if prepared to tell her a secret, sightless eye sockets bulging, mouth ossified into a rictus of pain. She took a step backward. Good God, she thought, that's somebody's great-grandfather. The matter-of-fact tone of the label, which tastefully described the rituals associated with a typical nineteenth-century American burial, belied the visual hideousness of the scene. It's true, she thought; the Museum is definitely taking a chance with stuff as strong as this.

She decided to forego the other windows and proceeded through a low archway in the far side of the octagonal room. Beyond, the passage forked. To her left was a small cul-de-sac; to her right, a long, slender passage led into darkness. She didn't want to go that way; not just yet. She wandered into the dead-end room, and stopped suddenly. Then she moved forward to examine one of the cases more closely.

The gallery dealt with the concept of ultimate evil in its many mythic forms. There were various images of a medieval devil; there was the Eskimo evil spirit, Tornarsuk. But what arrested her was a crude stone altar, placed in the center of the gallery. Sitting on the altar, lit by a yellow spot, was a small figurine, carved in such detail it took Margo's breath away. Covered in scales, it crouched on all fours. Yet there was something--the long forearms, the angle of its head--that was disturbingly human. She shuddered. What kind of imagination gave rise to a being with both scales and hair? Her eyes dropped to the label.

 MBWUN. This carving is a representation of the mad god Mbwun, possibly carved by the Kothoga tribe of the Upper Amazon basin. This savage god, also known as He Who Walks On All Fours, was much feared by the other indigenous tribes of the area. In local myth, the Kothoga tribe was said to be able to conjure Mbwun at will, and send him on errands of destruction against neighboring tribes. Very few Kothoga artifacts have ever been found, and this is the sole image of Mbwun known to exist. Except for trace references in Amazonian legends, nothing else is known about the Kothoga, or about their mysterious `devil.'

 Margo felt a chill creep over her scalp. She looked closer, repulsed by the reptilian features, the small, wicked eyes...the talons. Three on each forelimb.

Oh, dear God. It couldn't be.

Suddenly, she realized that every instinct she had was telling her to keep absolutely still. A minute passed, then two. Then, it came again--the sound that had galvanized her. It was barely audible. An odd rustling, slow, deliberate, maddeningly soft. On the thick carpet, the footsteps had to be close...very close. A horrible stench threatened to choke her. She looked around wildly, fighting down panic, searching for the safest exit. The darkness was complete. As quietly as possible, she moved out of the cul-de-sac and across the fork. Another rustling noise and she was running, running, headlong through the darkness, past the ghoulish displays and leering statues that seemed to leap out of the blackness, down twisting forks and passages, trying always to take the most hidden path. At last, thoroughly lost and out of breath, she ducked into an alcove containing a display on primitive medicine. Gasping, she crouched behind a case holding a trepanned human skull upon an iron pole. She hid in its shadow, listening.

There was nothing; no noise, no movement. She waited as her breath slowed and reason returned. There was nothing out there. There had never been anything out there, in fact--it was her overzealous imagination, fueled by this nightmarish tour. I was foolish to sneak in, she thought. Now, I don't know if I'll ever want to come back--even on the busiest Saturday.

Anyway, she had to find a way out. It was late now, and she hoped people were still around to hear her knocking, should she come up against a locked exit. It would be embarrassing, having to explain herself to a guard or policeman. But at least she'd be out.

She peeked out. Even if it had all been her imagination, she didn't care to go back in the same direction. Holding her breath, she stepped quietly out and stopped to listen. Nothing. She turned left and moved slowly down the corridor, searching for a likely-looking route out of the exhibit. At a large fork she stopped, eyes straining in the darkness, debating which of the branching pathways to take. Shouldn't there be exit signs? Guess they haven't been installed yet. Typical. But the hall directly ahead of her looked promising: the passage seemed to open up into a large foyer, ahead in the blackness where sight failed.

Movement registered in her peripheral vision. Body frozen, she glanced hesitatingly to the right. A shadow--black against black--was gliding stealthily towards her, moving with an inky sinuousness over the display cases and grinning artifacts. With a speed born of horror, she shot down the passage. She felt, more than saw, the walls of the passage roll back and widen about her. Then she saw twin slits of vertical light ahead, outlining a large double doorway. Without slackening her pace, she threw herself against it. The doors flew back, and something on the far side clattered. Dim light rushed in--the subdued red light of a museum at night. Cool air moved across her cheek. Weeping now, she slammed the doors closed and leaned against them, eyes shut, forehead pressed against the cold metal, sobbing, fighting to catch her breath.

From the crimson gloom behind her came the unmistakable sound of something clearing its throat.

 


RELIC is copyright 1995 by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child.
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this text, or any portion thereof, in any form.
RELIC is available in paperback in the United States from Tor Books, www.tor.com


2018 Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child