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Chapter 11

In this chapter, the strange figures that are hunting Nora Kelly resort to other, even more sinister, methods of bringing down their quarry.


 

Warning: This novel contains profanity and graphic violence.

 

CALAVERAS MESA lay slumbering under the midnight sky, a shadowy island rising out of an ocean of broken rock—the vast El Malpaís lava flow of central New Mexico. A screen of clouds had moved over the stars, and the mesa lay still underneath: silent, dark, uninhabited. The nearest settlement was Quemado, fifty miles away.

Calaveras Mesa had not always been uninhabited. In the 14th century, Anasazi Indians had moved into its south-facing cliffs and hollowed out caves in the soft volcanic tuff. But the site had proved uncongenial, and the caves had been abandoned for half a millennium. In this distant part of El Malpaís, there were no roads and no trails; the caves remained undisturbed and unexcavated.

Two dark forms moved among the silent broken rafts and blocks of frozen lava that lapped the sides of the mesa. They were covered with thick pelts of fur, and their movements had the combined swiftness and caution of a wolf. Both figures wore heavy silver jewelry: concho belts, squash blossom necklaces, turquoise disks, and old sand-cast bow guards. Beneath the heavy pelts, the naked skin was daubed with thick paint.

They reached the talus slope below the caves and began to ascend, picking their way among boulders and rockfalls. At the bottom of the cliff itself they rapidly ascended a hand-and-toe trail and disappeared into the dark mouth of a cave.

Inside the cave, they paused. One figure remained at the mouth while the second moved swiftly across to the back of the cave. He pushed aside a rock, revealing a narrow passage. The figure wriggled through into a smaller room. There was a faint scratching sound and the wavering light of a burning splinter revealed that this room was not empty: it was a small Anasazi burial chamber. In niches carved in the far wall lay three mummified corpses, a few pathetic broken pots left beside them as offerings. The figure placed a ball of wax with a bit of straw stuck into it on a high ledge, lighting it with an uncertain glow.

Then he moved to the central corpse: a grey, delicate form wrapped in a rotting buffalo hide. Its mummified lips had drawn back from its teeth and its mouth was open in a monstrous grimace of hilarity. The legs of the corpse were drawn up to the chest and the knees had been wrapped with woven cords; its eyes were two holes, webbed with shreds of tissue; its hands were balled up into shriveled fists, the fingernails hanging and broken, gnawed by rats.

The figure reached in and cradled the mummy with infinite gentleness, removed it from the niche, and laid it down in the thick layer of dust on the cave floor. Reaching into the pelt, he removed a small woven basket and a medicine bundle. Tugging open the bundle, he extracted something and held it up to the uncertain light: a pair of delicate bronze hairs.

The figure turned back to the mummy. Slowly, he placed the hairs in the mouth of the mummy, pushing them deep into the mummy’s throat. There was a dry crackling noise. Then the figure leaned back; the candle snuffed out; and absolute darkness fell once again. There was a low sound, a mutter, then a name, intoned again and again in a slow, even voice: "Kelly... Kelly... Kelly..."

A long time passed. There was another scratch of a match, and the wax was relit. The figure reached into the basket, then bent over the corpse. A razor-sharp obsidian knife gleamed in the faint light. There was a faint, rhythmic scraping noise: the sound of stone cutting through crisp, dry flesh. The figure soon straightened up, holding a small round disk of scalp, dotted with the whorl of hair from the back of the mummy’s head. The figure placed it reverently in the basket.

The figure bent once more. There was now a louder, digging noise. After a few minutes, there was a sharp rap. The figure held up a disk of skullbone, examined it, then placed it in the basket beside the scalp. Next, he moved the knife down the mummy until it reached the clenched, withered fists. He gently pulled aside the rotted tatters of buffalo hide from the hands, caressing them in his own. Then he worked the knife between the fingers, methodically prying them loose and breaking them off one at a time. Cupping each finger, he cut off the whorl of fingerprint and placed the desiccated chips of flesh into the basket. Then the figure moved down to the toes, breaking them off the body like breadsticks and quickly carving off the toe prints. Small showers of dust rained onto the cave floor.

The little basket filled with pieces of the corpse as the makeshift candle guttered. The figure quickly rewrapped the mummy and lifted it back into its niche in the wall as the light winked out. Picking up the basket, he left the chamber and rolled the rock back into place. Gingerly, he pulled a buckskin bag from the pelt, unwound the tight knot of leather that sealed it shut, and teased the bag open. Holding it away from himself, he carefully sprinkled a thin trail of some powdery substance along the base of the rock. Then he carefully sealed up the bag and rejoined his companion at the cave entrance. Swiftly and silently, they descended the cliff face and were once again swallowed up in the darkness of the great lava flow of El Malpaís.

 


THUNDERHEAD is copyright © 1999 by Lincoln Child and Splendide Mendax, Inc. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this text, or any portion thereof, in any form.
THUNDERHEAD is available in paperback from Grand Central Publishing, www.HachetteBookGroup.com.


© 2019 Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child