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Warning: this novel contains profanity and graphic violence.


Prologue

August 30, 1889

The young doctor bid his wife good-bye on the Southsea platform, boarded the 4:15 express for London, and arrived three hours later at Victoria Station. Threading his way through the noise and bustle, he exited the station and flagged down a hansom cab.

“The Langham Hotel, if you please,” he told the driver as he stepped up into the compartment, flushed with a feeling of anticipation.

He sat back in the worn leather seat as the cabbie started down Grosvenor Place. It was a fine late-summer evening, the rarest kind in London, with a dying light falling through the carriage-choked streets and sooty buildings, enchanting everything with a golden radiance. At half past seven the lamps were only just starting to be lit.

The doctor did not often get the chance to come up to London, and he looked out the window of the hansom cab with interest. As the driver turned right onto Piccadilly, he took in St. James’s Palace and the Royal Academy, bathed in the afterglow of sunset. The crowds, noise, and stench of the city, so different from his home countryside, filled him with energy. Countless horseshoes rang out against the cobbles, and the sidewalks thronged with people from all walks of life: clerks, barristers, and swells rubbed shoulders with chimneysweeps, costermongers, and cat’s-meat dealers.

At Piccadilly Circus, the cab took a sharp left onto Regent Street, passing Carnaby and the Oxford Circus before pulling up beneath the porte cochere of the Langham. It had been the first grand hotel erected in London, and it remained by far the most stylish. As he paid off the cabbie, the doctor glanced up at the ornate sandstone façade, with its French windows and balconies of wrought iron, its high gables and balustrades. He had a small interest in architecture, and he guessed the façade was a mixture of Beaux-Arts and North German Renaissance Revival.

As he entered the great portal, the sound of music reached him: a string quartet, hidden behind a screen of hothouse lilies, playing Schubert. He paused to take in the magnificent lobby, crowded with men seated in tall-backed chairs, reading freshly ironed copies of The Times and drinking port or sherry. Expensive cigar smoke hung in the air, mingling with the scent of flowers and ladies’ perfume.

At the entrance to the dining room, he was met by a small, rather portly man in a broadcloth frock coat and dun-colored trousers, who approached him with brisk steps. “You must be Doyle,” he said, taking his hand. He had a bright smile and a broad American accent. “I’m Joe Stoddart. So glad you could make it. Come in—the others just arrived.”

The doctor followed Stoddart as the man made his way among linen-covered tables to a far corner of the room. The restaurant was even more opulent than the lobby, with wainscoting of olive-stained oak, a cream-colored frieze, and an ornate ceiling of raised plasterwork. Stoddart stopped beside a sumptuous table at which two men were already seated.

“Mr. William Gill, Mr. Oscar Wilde,” Stoddart said. “Allow me to introduce Dr. A. Conan Doyle.”

Gill—whom Doyle recognized as a well-known Irish MP—stood and bowed with good-humored gravitas. A heavy gold Albert watch chain swayed across his ample waistcoat. Wilde, who was in the midst of taking a glass of wine, dabbed at his rather full lips with a damask napkin and motioned Conan Doyle toward the empty chair beside him.

“Mr. Wilde was just entertaining us with the story of a tea party he attended this afternoon,” Stoddart said as they took their seats. “At Lady Featherstone’s,” Wilde said. “She was recently widowed. Poor dear—her hair has gone quite gold from grief.”

“Oscar,” Gill said with a laugh, “you really are wicked. Talking about a lady in such a manner.”

Wilde waved his hand dismissively. “My lady would thank me. There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.” He spoke rapidly, in a low, mannered voice.

Doyle examined Wilde with a covert look. The man was striking. Almost gigantic in stature, he had unfashionably long hair parted in the middle and carelessly thrown back, his facial features heavy. His choice of clothing was of an eccentricity bordering on madness. He wore a suit of black velvet that fitted tightly to his large frame, the sleeves embroidered in flowery designs and puffed at the shoulders. Around his neck he had donned a narrow, three-rowed frill of the same brocaded material as the sleeves. He had the sartorial audacity to sport knee breeches, equally tight fitting, with stockings of black silk and slippers with grosgrain bows. A boutonnière of an immense white orchid drooped pendulously from his fawn-colored vest, looking as if it might dribble nectar at any moment. Heavy gold rings glittered on the fingers of his indolent hands. Despite the wild idiosyncrasy of his clothing, the expression on his face was mild, balancing the keen quality of his eager brown eyes. And for all this the man displayed a remarkable delicacy of feeling and tact. He spoke in a curious precision of statement, with a unique trick of small gestures to illustrate his meaning.

“You’re most kind to be treating us out like this, Stoddart,” Wilde was saying. “At the Langham, no less. I’d have been left to my own devices otherwise. It’s not that I want for supper money, of course. It is only people who pay their bills who lack money, you see, and I never pay mine.”

“I fear you’ll find my motives are completely mercenary,” Stoddart replied. “You might as well know that I’m over here to establish a British edition of Lippincott’s Monthly.”

“Philadelphia not large enough for you, then?” Gill asked. Stoddart chuckled, then looked at Wilde and Doyle in turn. “It is my intention, before this meal is complete, to secure a new novel from each of you.”

Hearing this, a current of excitement coursed through Doyle. In his telegram, Stoddart had been vague about the reasons for asking him to come to London for dinner, but the man was a well-known American publisher and this was exactly what Doyle had been hoping to hear. His medical practice had had a slower start than he would have liked. To fill the time, he’d taken to scribbling novels while waiting for patients. His last few had met with a small success. Stoddart was precisely the man he needed to further his progress. Doyle found him pleasant, even charming—for an American.

The dinner was proving delightful.

Gill was an amusing fellow, but Oscar Wilde was nothing short of remarkable. Doyle was captivated by the graceful wave of his hands; the languid expression that became quite animated when he delivered his peculiar anecdotes or amusing bons mots. It was almost magical, Doyle considered, that—thanks to modern technology—he’d been transported in a few short hours from a sleepy seacoast town to this elegant place, surrounded by an eminent editor, a member of Parliament, and the famous champion of aestheticism.

The dishes came thick and fast: potted shrimps, galantine of chicken, tripe fried in batter, bisque de homard. Red and yellow wine had appeared at the beginning of the evening, and the generous flow had never ceased. It was astonishing how much money the Americans had; Stoddart was spending a fortune.

The timing was excellent. Doyle had just begun a new novel that Stoddart would surely like. His penultimate story, Micah Clarke, had been favorably reviewed, although his most recent novel, about a detective, based in part on his old university professor Joseph Bell, had been rather disappointingly received after appearing in Beeton’s Christmas Annual…He forced himself back to the conversation at hand. Gill, the Irish MP, was questioning the veracity of the maxim that the good fortune of one’s friends made one discontented.

Hearing this, a gleam appeared in Wilde’s eyes. “The devil,” he replied, “was once crossing the desert, and he came upon a spot where a number of fiends were tormenting a holy hermit. The man easily shook off their evil suggestions. The devil watched their failure and then stepped forward to give them a lesson. ‘What you do is too crude,’ said he. ‘Permit me for one moment.’ With that he whispered to the holy man, ‘Your brother has just been made bishop of Alexandria.’ A scowl of malignant jealousy at once clouded the serene face of the hermit. ‘That,’ said the devil to his imps, ‘is the sort of thing which I should recommend.’”

Stoddart and Gill laughed heartily, then began to fall into an argument about politics. Wilde turned to Doyle. “You must tell me,” he said. “Will you do a book for Stoddart?”

“I was rather thinking I would. The fact is, I’ve started work on a new novel already. I was thinking of calling it A Tangled Skein, or perhaps The Sign of the Four.”

Wilde pressed his hands together in delight. “My dear fellow, that’s wonderful news. I certainly hope it will be another Holmes story.”

Doyle looked at him in surprise. “You mean to say you’ve read A Study in Scarlet?”

“I didn’t read it, dear boy. I devoured it.” Reaching into his vest, Wilde pulled out a copy of the Ward Lock & Co. edition of the book, with its vaguely Oriental lettering so in vogue. “I even looked through it again when I heard you would be dining with us this evening.”

“You’re very kind,” Conan Doyle said, at a loss for a better reply. He found himself surprised and gratified that the prince of English decadence would enjoy a humble detective novel.

“I feel you have the makings of a great character in Holmes. But…”

And here Wilde stopped.

“Yes?” Doyle said. “What I found most remarkable was the credibility of the thing. The details of the police work, Holmes’s inquiries, were enlightening. I have much to learn from you in this way. You see, between me and life there is a mist of words always. I throw probability out of the window for the sake of a phrase, and the chance of an epigram makes me desert truth. You don’t share that failing. And yet…and yet I believe you could do more with this Holmes of yours.”

“I would be much obliged if you’d explain,” Doyle said.

Wilde took a sip of wine. “If he’s to be a truly great detective, a great persona, he should be more eccentric. The world doesn’t need another Sergeant Cuff or Inspector Dupin. No—make his humanity aspire to the greatness of his art.” He paused a moment, thinking, idly stroking the orchid that drooped from his buttonhole. “In Scarlet, you call Watson ‘extremely lazy.’ In my opinion, you should allow the virtues of dissipation and idleness to be bestowed on your hero, not his errand boy. And make Holmes more reserved. Don’t have delight shining on his features, or have him barking with laughter.”

Doyle colored, recognizing the infelicitous phraseology.

“You must confer on him a vice,” Wilde went on. “Virtuous people are so banal; I simply cannot bear them.” He paused again. “Not just a vice, Doyle—give him a weakness. Let me think—ah, yes! I recall.” He opened his copy of A Study in Scarlet, leafed quickly through the pages, found a passage, and began to quote Dr. Watson: “‘I might have suspected him of being addicted to the use of some narcotic, had not the temperance and cleanliness of his whole life forbidden such a notion.’” He returned the book to his vest pocket. “There—you had the perfect weakness in your hands, but you let it go. Pluck it up again! Deliver Holmes into the clutches of some addiction. Opium, say. But no: opium is so dreadfully common these days, it’s become quite overrun by the lower classes.” Suddenly Wilde snapped his fingers. “I have it! Cocaine hydrochloride. There’s a novel and elegant vice for you.”

“Cocaine,” Doyle repeated a little uncertainly. As a doctor, he had sometimes prescribed a seven percent solution to patients suffering from exhaustion or depression, but the idea of making Holmes an addict was, on the face of it, quite absurd. Although Doyle had asked for Wilde’s opinion, he found himself slightly put out at actually receiving criticism from the man. Across the table, the good-humored argument between Stoddart and Gill continued.

The aesthete took another sip of wine and tossed his hair back.

“And what about you?” Doyle asked. “Will you do a book for Stoddart?”

“I shall. And it shall be under your influence—or rather, Holmes’s influence—that I will proceed. Do you know, I’ve always believed there’s no such thing as a moral or immoral book. Books are well written or badly written—that’s all. But I find myself taken with the idea of writing a book about both art and morals. I’m planning to call it The Picture of Dorian Gray. And do you know, I believe it will be rather a ghastly story. Not a ghost story, exactly, but one in which the protagonist comes to a beastly end. The kind of story one wishes to read by daylight—not lamplight.”

“Such a story doesn’t seem to be exactly in your line.”

Wilde looked at Doyle with something like amusement. “Indeed? Did you think that—as one who would happily sacrifice himself on the pyre of aestheticism—I do not recognize the face of horror when I stare into it? Let me tell you: the shudder of fear is as sensual as the shudder of pleasure, if not more so.” He underscored this with another wave of his hand. “Besides, I was once told a story so dreadful, so distressing in its particulars and the extent of its evil, that now I truly believe nothing I hear could ever frighten me again.”

“How interesting,” Doyle replied a little absently, still mulling over the criticism of Holmes.

Wilde regarded him, a small smile forming on his large, pale features. “Would you care to hear it? It is not for the faint of heart.”

The way Wilde phrased this, it sounded like a challenge. “By all means.”

“It was told to me during my lecture tour of America a few years back. On my way to San Francisco, I stopped at a rather squalid yet picturesque mining camp known as Roaring Fork. I gave my lecture at the bottom of their mine, and it was frightfully well received by the good gentlemen of the camp. After my lecture, one of the miners approached me, an elderly chap somewhat the worse—or, perhaps, the better—for drink. He took me aside, said he’d enjoyed my story so much that he had one of his own to share with me.”

Wilde paused, wetting his thick, red lips with a delicate sip of wine. “Here, lean in a little closer, that’s a good fellow, and I’ll tell it you exactly as it was told to me…”


Ten minutes later, a diner at the restaurant in the Langham Hotel would have been surprised to note—amid the susurrus of genteel conversation and the tinkle of cutlery—a young man in the dress of a country doctor abruptly rise from his table, very pale. Knocking over his chair in his agitation, one hand to his forehead, the young man staggered from the room, nearly upsetting a waiter’s tray of delicacies. And as he vanished in the direction of the gentlemen’s toilet area, his face displayed a perfect expression of revulsion and horror.


1

Present Day

Corrie Swanson stepped into the ladies’ room for the third time to check how she looked. A lot had changed with her since she’d transferred to the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the beginning of her sophomore year. John Jay was a buttoned-down place. She had resisted it for a while, but finally realized she needed to grow up and play the game of life instead of acting the rebel forever. Gone were the purple hair, the piercings, the black leather jacket, the dark eye shadow and other Goth accoutrements. There was nothing she could do about the Möbius strip tattoo on the nape of her neck, beyond combing her hair back and wearing high collars. But someday, she realized, that would have to go as well.

If she was going to play the game, she was going to play it well.

Unfortunately, her personal transformation had taken place too late for her advisor, a former NYPD cop who had gone back to school and turned professor. She got the feeling his first impression of her had been that of a perp, and nothing she’d done in the year since she’d first met him had erased that. Clearly, he had it in for her. He had already rejected her first proposal for the Rosewell thesis, which involved a trip to Chile to do a perimortem analysis on skeletal remains discovered in a mass grave of Communist peasants murdered by the Pinochet regime back in the 1970s. Too far away, he said, too expensive for a research project, and besides it was old history. When Corrie replied that this was the point—these were old graves, requiring specialized forensic techniques—he said something about not involving herself in foreign political controversies, especially Communist ones.

Now she had another idea for her thesis, an even better one, and she was willing to do almost anything to see it happen.

Examining herself in the mirror, she rearranged a few strands of hair, touched up her conservative lipstick, adjusted her gray worsted suit jacket, and gave her nose a quick powdering. She hardly recognized herself; God, she might even be mistaken for a Young Republican. So much the better.

She exited the ladies’ room and walked briskly down the hall, her conservative pumps clicking professionally against the hard linoleum. Her advisor’s door was shut, as usual, and she gave it a brisk, self-confident rap. A voice inside said, “Come in.”

She entered. The office was, as always, neat as a pin, the books and journals all lined up flush with the edges of the bookshelves, the comfortable, masculine leather furniture providing a cozy air. Professor Greg Carbone sat behind his large desk, its acreage of burnished mahogany unbroken by books, papers, family photographs, or knickknacks.

“Good morning, Corrie,” Carbone said, rising and buttoning his blue serge suit. “Please sit down.”

“Thank you, Professor.” She knew he liked to be called that. Woe to the student who called him Mister or, worse, Greg.

He settled back down as she did. Carbone was a strikingly handsome man with salt-and-pepper hair, wonderful teeth, trim and fit, a good dresser, articulate, soft-spoken, intelligent, and successful. Everything he did, he did well, and as a result he was an accomplished asshole indeed.

“Well, Corrie,” Carbone began, “you are looking well today.”

“Thank you, Dr. Carbone.”

“I’m excited to hear about your new idea.”

“Thanks.” Corrie opened her briefcase (no backpacks at John Jay) and took out a manila file folder, placing it on her knee. “I’m sure you’ve been reading about the archaeological investigation going on down in City Hall Park. Next to the location of the old prison known as the Tombs.”

“Tell me about it.”

“The parks department has been excavating a small cemetery of executed criminals to make way for a new subway entrance.”

“Ah yes, I did read about that,” said Carbone.

“The cemetery was operational from 1858 to 1865. After 1865, all execution burials were moved to Hart Island and remain unavailable.”

A slow nod from Carbone. He looked interested; she felt encouraged.

“I think this would make for a great opportunity to do an osteological study of those skeletons—to see if severe childhood malnourishment, which as you know leaves osteological markers, might correlate with later criminal behavior.”

Another nod from Carbone.

“I’ve got it all outlined here.” She laid a proposal on the table. “Hypotheses, methodology, control group, observations, and analysis.”

Carbone laid a hand on the document, drew it toward himself, opened it, and began perusing.

“There are a number of reasons why this is a great opportunity,” she went on. “First, the city has good records on most of these executed criminals—names, rap sheets, and trial records. Those who were orphans raised in the Five Points House of Industry—about half a dozen—also have some childhood records. They were all executed in the same way—hanging—so the cause of death is identical. And the cemetery was used for only seven years, so all the remains come from roughly the same time period.”

She paused. Carbone was slowly turning over the pages, one after another, apparently reading. There was no way to tell what he was thinking; his face was a blank.

“I made a few inquiries, and it seems the parks department would be open to having a John Jay student examine the remains.”

The slow turning of the pages paused. “You already contacted them?”

“Yes. Just a feeler—”

“A feeler…You contacted another city agency without seeking prior permission?”

Uh-oh. “Obviously I didn’t want to bring you a project that might get shot down later by outside authorities. Um, was that wrong?”

A long silence, and then: “Did you not read your undergraduate handbook?”

Corrie was seized with apprehension. She had in fact read it—when she’d been admitted. But that was over a year ago. “Not recently.”

“The handbook is quite clear. Undergraduate students are not to engage other city departments except through official channels. This is because we’re a city institution, as you know, a senior college of the City University of New York.” He said this mildly, almost kindly.

“I…Well, I’m sorry, I didn’t recall that from the handbook.” She swallowed, feeling a rising panic—and anger. This was so unbelievable. But she forced herself to keep her cool. “It was just a couple of phone calls, nothing official.”

A nod. “I’m sure you didn’t deliberately violate university regulations.” He began turning the pages again, slowly, one after the other, not looking up at her. “But in any case I find other problems with this thesis proposal of yours.”

“Yes?” Corrie felt sick.

“This idea that malnourishment leads to a life of crime…It’s an old idea—and an unconvincing one.”

“Well, it seems to me worth testing.”

“Back then, almost everyone was malnourished. But not everyone became a criminal. And the idea is redolent of…how shall I put it?…of a certain philosophy that crime in general can be traced to unfortunate experiences in a person’s childhood.”

“But malnourishment—severe malnourishment—might cause neurological changes, actual damage. That isn’t philosophy; that’s science.”

Carbone held up her proposal. “I can already predict the outcome: you’ll discover that these executed criminals were malnourished as children. The real question is why, of all those hungry children, only a small percentage went on to commit capital crimes. That’s the real question. And your research plan does not address that. I’m sorry, this won’t fly. Not at all.”

And, opening his fingers, he let her document drop gently to his desk.


2

The famous—some might say infamous—“Red Museum” at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice had started as a simple collection of old investigative files, physical evidence, prisoners’ property, and memorabilia that, almost a hundred years ago, had been put into a display case in a hall at the old police academy. Since then, it had grown into one of the country’s largest and best collections of criminal memorabilia. The crème de la crème of the collection was on display in a sleek new exhibition hall in the college’s Skidmore, Owings & Merrill building on Tenth Avenue. The rest of the collection—vast rotting archives and moldering evidence from long-ago crimes—remained squirreled away in the hideous basement of the old police academy building on East Twentieth Street.

Early on at John Jay, Corrie had discovered this archive. It was pure gold—once she’d made friends with the archivist and figured out her way around the disorganized drawers and heaping shelves of stuff. She had been to the Red Museum archives many times in search of topics for papers and projects, most recently in her hunt for a topic for her Rosewell thesis. She had spent a great deal of time in the old unsolved-case files—those cold cases so ancient that all involved (including the possible perps) had definitely and positively died.

Corrie Swanson found herself in a creaking elevator, descending into the basement, one day after the meeting with her advisor. She was on a desperate mission to find a new thesis topic before it became too late to complete the approval process. It was mid-November already, and she was hoping to spend the winter break researching and writing up the thesis. She was on a partial scholarship, but Agent Pendergast had been making up the difference in tuition, and she was absolutely determined not take one penny more from him than necessary. If her thesis won the Rosewell Prize, with its twenty-thousand-dollar grant, she wouldn’t have to.

The elevator doors opened to a familiar smell: a mixture of dust and acidifying paper, underlain by an odor of rodent urine. She crossed the hall to a pair of dented metal doors, graced with a sign that said RED MUSEUM ARCHIVES, and pressed the bell. An unintelligible rasp came out of the antiquated speaker; she gave her name, and a buzzer sounded to let her in.

“Corrie Swanson? How good to see you again!” came the hoarse voice of the archivist, Willard Bloom, as he rose from a desk in a pool of light, guarding the recesses of the storage room stretching off into the blackness behind him. He presented a rather cadaverous figure, stick-thin, with longish gray hair, yet underneath was charming and grandfatherly. She didn’t mind the fact that his eyes often wandered over various parts of her anatomy when he thought she wasn’t paying attention.

Bloom came around with a veined hand extended, which she took. The hand was surprisingly hot, and it gave her a bit of a start.

“Come, sit down. Have some tea.”

Some chairs had been set around the front of his desk, with a coffee table and, to the side, a battered cabinet with a hot plate, kettle, and teapot, forming an informal seating area in the midst of dust and darkness. Corrie flopped into a chair, setting her briefcase down with a thump next to her. “Ugh,” she said.

Bloom raised his eyebrows in mute inquiry.

“It’s Carbone. Once again he rejected my thesis idea. Now I have to start all over again.”

“Carbone,” Bloom said in his high-pitched voice, “is a well-known ass.”

This piqued her interest. “You know him?”

“I know everyone who comes down here. Carbone! Always fussing about getting dust on his Ralph Lauren suits, wanting me to play step-n-fetchit. As a result, I can never find anything for him, poor man…You know the real reason he keeps rejecting your thesis ideas, right?”

“I figure it’s because I’m a junior.”

Bloom put a finger to his nose and gave her a knowing nod. “Exactly. And Carbone is old school, a stickler for protocol.”

Corrie had been afraid of this. The Rosewell Prize for the year’s outstanding thesis was hugely coveted at John Jay. Its winners were often senior valedictorians, who went on to highly successful law enforcement careers. As far as she knew, it had never been won by a junior—in fact, juniors were quietly discouraged from submitting theses. But there was no rule against it, and Corrie refused to be deterred by such bureaucratic baggage.

Bloom held up the pot with a yellow-toothed smile. “Tea?”

She looked at the revolting teapot, which did not appear to have been washed in a decade. “That’s a teapot? I thought it was a murder weapon. You know, loaded with arsenic and ready to go.”

“Always ready with a riposte. But surely you know most poisoners are women? If I were a murderer, I’d want to see my victim’s blood.” He poured out the tea. “So Carbone rejected your idea. Surprise, surprise. What’s plan B?”

“That was my plan B. I was hoping you might be able to give me some fresh ideas.”

Bloom sat back in his chair and sipped noisily from his cup. “Let’s see. As I recall, you’re majoring in forensic osteology, are you not? What, exactly, are you looking for?”

“I need to examine some human skeletons that show antemortem or perimortem damage. Got any case files that might point to something like that?”

“Hmm.” His battered face screwed up in concentration.

“The problem is, it’s hard to come by accessible human remains. Unless I go prehistoric. But that opens up a whole other can of worms with Native American sensitivities. And I want remains for which there are good written records. Historic remains.”

Bloom sucked down another goodly portion of tea, a thoughtful expression on his face. “Bones. Ante- or perimortem damage. Historic. Good records. Accessible.” He closed his eyes, the lids so dark and veiny they looked like he might have been punched. Corrie waited, listening to the ticking sounds in the archives, the faint sound of forced air, and a pattering noise she feared was probably rats.

The eyes sprang open again. “Just thought of something. Ever heard of the Baker Street Irregulars?”

“No.”

“It’s a very exclusive club of Sherlock Holmes devotees. They have a dinner in New York every year, and they publish all sorts of Holmesian scholarship, all the while pretending that Holmes was a real person. Well, one of these fellows died a few years back, and his widow, not knowing what to else do, shipped his entire collection of Sherlockiana to us. Perhaps she didn’t know that Holmes was a fictional detective, and we only deal in nonfiction here. At any rate, I’ve been dipping into it now and then. Lot of rubbish, mostly. But there was a copy in there of Doyle’s diary—just a photocopy, unfortunately—and it made entertaining reading for an old man stuck in a thankless job in a dusty archive.”

“And what did you find, exactly?”

“There was something in there about a man-eating bear.”

Corrie frowned. “A man-eating bear? I’m not sure—”

“Come with me.” Bloom went to a bank of switches and struck them all with the flat of his palm, turning the archives into a flickering sea of fluorescent light. Corrie fancied she could hear the rats scurrying and squealing away as the tubes blinked on, one aisle after another.

She followed the archivist as he made his way down the long rows between dusty shelving and wooden cabinets with yellowed, handwritten labels, finally reaching an area in the back where library tables were piled with cardboard boxes. Three large boxes sat together, labeled BSI. Bloom went to one box, rummaged through it, hauled out an expandable folder, blew off the dust, and began sorting through the papers.

“Here we are.” He held up an old photocopy. “Doyle’s diary. Properly, of course, the man should be referred to as ‘Conan Doyle,’ but that’s such a mouthful, isn’t it?” In the dim light, he flipped through the pages, then began to read aloud:

…I was in London on literary business. Stoddart, the American, proved to be an excellent fellow, and had two others to dinner. They were Gill, a very entertaining Irish MP, and Oscar Wilde…

He paused, his voice dying into a mumble as he passed over some material, then rising again as he reached a passage he deemed important.

…The highlight of the evening, if I may call it that, was Wilde’s account of his lecture tour in America. Hard to believe, perhaps, but the famed champion of aestheticism attracted huge interest in America, especially in the West, where in one place a group of uncouth miners gave him a standing ovation…

Corrie began to fidget. She had so little time to waste. She cleared her throat. “I’m not sure Oscar Wilde and Sherlock Holmes are quite what I’m looking for,” she said politely. But Bloom continued to read, holding up his finger for attention, his reedy voice riding over her objections.

…Towards the close of the evening, Wilde, who had indulged a great deal in Stoddart’s excellent claret, told me, sotto voce, a story of such singular horror, of such grotesque hideousness, that I had to excuse myself from the table. The story involved the killing and eating of eleven miners some years previous, purportedly by a monstrous “grizzled bear” in a mining camp called Roaring Fork. The actual details are so abhorrent I cannot bring myself to commit them to paper at this time, although the impression left on my mind was indelible and one that will, unfortunately, follow me to the grave.

He paused, taking a breath. “And there you have it. Eleven corpses, eaten by a grizzly bear. In Roaring Fork, no less.”

“Roaring Fork? You mean the glitzy ski resort in Colorado?”

“The very one. It started life as a silver boomtown.”

“When was this?”

“Wilde was there in 1881. So this business with the man-eating bear probably took place in the 1870s.”

She shook her head. “And how am I supposed to turn this into a thesis?”

“Nearly a dozen skeletons, eaten by a bear? Surely they will display exquisite perimortem damage—tooth and claw marks, gnawing, crunching, biting, scraping, worrying.” Bloom spoke these words with a kind of relish.

“I’m studying forensic criminology, not forensic bearology.”

“Ah, but you know from your studies that many, if not most, skeletal remains from murder victims show animal damage. You should see the files we have on that. It can be very difficult to tell the difference between animal marks and those left by the murderer. As far as I can recall, no one has done a comprehensive study of perimortem bone damage of this kind. It would be a most original contribution to forensic science.”

Very true, Corrie thought, surprised at Bloom’s insight. And come to think of it, what a fabulous and original subject for a thesis.

Bloom went on. “I have little doubt at least some of the poor miners were buried in the historic Roaring Fork cemetery.”

“See, that’s a problem. I can’t go digging up some historic cemetery looking for bear victims.”

A yellow smile appeared on Bloom’s face. “My dear Corrie, the only reason I brought this up at all was because of the fascinating little article in the Times this very morning! Didn’t you see it?”

“No.”

“The original ‘boot hill’ of Roaring Fork is now a stack of coffins in a ski equipment warehouse. You see, they’re relocating the cemetery on account of development.” He looked at her and winked, his smile broadening.


3

Along the Cote d’Azur in the South of France, on a bluff atop Cap Ferrat, a man in a black suit, surrounded by bougainvillea, rested on a stone balcony in the afternoon sun. It was warm for the time of year, and the sunlight gilded the lemon trees that crowded the balcony and descended the steep hill to the Mediterranean, ending in a strip of deserted white beach. Beyond could be seen a field of yachts at anchor, the rocky terminus of the cape topped by an ancient castle, and the blue horizon.

The man reclined in a chaise longue covered with silk damask, beside a small table on which sat a salver. His silvery eyes were half closed. Four items sat on the tray: a copy of Spenser’s Faerie Queene; a small glass of pastis; a beaker of water; and a single unopened letter. The salver had been brought out two hours ago by a manservant, who now awaited further orders in the shade of the portico. The man who had rented the villa rarely received mail. A few letters bore the return address of one Miss Constance Greene in New York; the rest came from what appeared to be an exclusive boarding school in Switzerland.

As time passed, the manservant began to wonder whether the sickly gentleman who had hired him at excessively high wages might have suffered a heart attack—so motionless had he been these past few hours. But no—a languid hand now moved, reaching for the beaker of water. It poured a small measure into the glass of pastis, turning the yellow liquid a cloudy yellowish green. The man then raised the glass and took a long, slow drink before replacing it on the tray.

Stillness returned, and the shadows of afternoon grew longer. More time passed. The hand moved again, as if in slow motion, again raising the cut-crystal glass to pale lips, taking another long, lingering sip of the liqueur. He then picked up the book of poetry. More silence as the man appeared to read, turning the pages at long intervals, one after another. The afternoon light blazed its last glory on the façade of the villa. From below, the sounds of life filtered upward: a distant clash of voices raised in argument, the throbbing of a yacht as it moved in the bay, birds chattering among the trees, the faint sound of a piano playing Hanon.

And now the man in the black suit closed the book of poetry, laid it upon the salver, and turned his attention to the letter. Still moving as if underwater, he plucked it up and, with a long, polished nail, slit it open, unfolded it, and began to read.

Nov. 27

Dear Aloysius,

I’m mailing this to you c/o Proctor, in hopes he’ll pass it along. I know you’re still traveling and probably don’t want to be bothered, but you’ve been gone almost a year and I figured maybe you were about ready to come home. Aren’t you itching by now to end your leave of absence from the FBI and start solving murders again? And anyway, I just had to tell you about my thesis project. Believe it or not, I’m off to Roaring Fork, Colorado!


I got the most amazing idea for a thesis. I’ll try to be brief because I know how impatient you are, but to explain I do have to go into a little history. In 1875, silver was discovered in the mountains over the Continental Divide from Leadville, Colorado. A mining camp sprang up in the valley, called Roaring Fork after the river flowing through it, and the surrounding mountains became dotted with claims. A year later, in May of 1876, a rogue grizzly bear killed and ate a miner at a remote claim in the mountains—and for the rest of the summer the bear totally terrorized the area. The town sent out a number of hunting teams to track and kill it, to no avail, as the mountains were extremely rugged and remote. By the time the rampage stopped, eleven miners had been mauled and horribly eaten. It was a big deal at the time, with a lot of local newspaper articles (that’s how I learned these details), sheriff’s reports, and such. But Roaring Fork was remote and the story died pretty quickly once the killings stopped.

The miners were buried in the Roaring Fork cemetery, and their fate was pretty much forgotten. The mines closed up, Roaring Fork dwindled in population, and in time it almost became a ghost town. Then, in 1946, it was bought up by investors and turned into a ski resort—and now of course it’s one of the fanciest resorts in the world—average home price over four million!

So that’s the history. This fall, the original Roaring Fork cemetery was dug up to make way for development. All the remains are now stacked in an old equipment shed high up on the ski slopes while everyone argues about what to do with them. A hundred and thirty coffins—of which eight are the remains of miners killed by the grizzly. (The other three were either lost or never recovered.)

Which brings me to my thesis topic:


A Comprehensive Analysis of Perimortem Trauma in the Skeletons of Eight Miners Killed by a Grizzly Bear, from a Historic Colorado Cemetery

There has never been a large-scale study of perimortem trauma on human bones inflicted by a large carnivore. Ever! You see, it isn’t often that people are eaten by animals. Mine will be the first!!

My thesis advisor, Prof. Greg Carbone, rejected my two earlier topics, and I’m glad the scumbag did, if you’ll excuse my language. He would have rejected this one, too, for reasons I won’t bore you with, but I decided to take a page out of your book. I got my sweaty hands on Carbone’s personnel file. I knew the man was too perfect to be real. Some years back, he’d been doing an undergraduate student in one of his classes—and then was dumb enough to flunk her when she broke it off. So she complained, not about the sex, but the bad grade. No laws were broken (the girl was twenty), but the scumbag gave her an F when she deserved an A. It was all hushed up, the girl got her A and had her tuition “refunded” for the year—a way of paying her off without calling it that, no doubt.

You can find anybody these days, so I tracked her down and gave her a call. Her name’s Molly Denton and she’s now a cop in Worcester, Mass—a decorated lieutenant in the homicide department, no less. Boy, did she give me the lowdown on my advisor! So I went into the meeting with Carbone armed with a couple of nukes, just in case.

I wish you’d been there. It was beautiful. Before I even got into my new thesis idea, I mentioned all nice and polite that we had a mutual acquaintance: Molly Denton. And I gave him a big fat smirk, just to make sure he got the message. He went all pale. He couldn’t wait to change the subject back to my thesis, wanted to hear about it, listened attentively, instantly agreed it was the most marvelous thesis proposal he’d heard in years, and promised he would personally shepherd it through the faculty committee. And then—this is the best part—he suggested I leave “as soon as possible” for Roaring Fork. The guy was butter in my hands.

Winter break just started, and so I’m off to Roaring Fork in two days! Wish me well. And if you feel like it, write me back c/o your pal Proctor, who will have my forwarding address as soon as I know it.

Love,
Corrie


P.S. I almost forgot to tell you one of the best things about my thesis idea. Believe it or not, I first learned about the grizzly bear killings from the diary of Arthur Conan Doyle! Doyle heard it himself from no less than Oscar Wilde at a dinner party in London in 1889. It seems Wilde was a collector of horrible stories, and he’d picked up this one on a lecture tour of the American West.

The manservant, standing in the shadows, watched his peculiar employer finish reading the letter. The long, white fingers seemed to droop, and the letter slid to the table, as if discarded. As the hand moved to pick up the glass of pastis, the evening breeze gently lofted the papers and wafted them over the railing of the balcony, over the tops of the lemon trees; then they went gliding off into blue space, fluttering and turning aimlessly until they had vanished from view, unseen, unnoticed, and completely disregarded by the pale man in the black suit, sitting on a lonely balcony high above the blue sea.





WHITE FIRE is copyright © 2013 by Splendide Mendax, Inc. and Lincoln Child.
WHITE FIRE is available in hardcover from Grand Central Publishing, www.HachetteBookGroup.com.

© 2018 Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child