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The Cabinet of Curiosities
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Inside are thirty-six bodies–all murdered and mutilated more than a century ago.
While FBI agent Pendergast investigates the old crimes, identical killings start to terrorize the city.
The nightmare has begun.
Table of Contents
More Preston and Child
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PEE-WEE BOXER SURVEYED THE JOBSITE WITH DISGUST. The foreman was a scumbag. The crew were a bunch of losers. Worst of all, the guy handling the Cat didn't know jack about hydraulic excavators. Maybe it was a union thing; maybe he was friends with somebody; either way, he was jerking the machine around like it was his first day at Queens Vo-Tech. Boxer stood there, beefy arms folded, watching as the big bucket bit into the brick rubble of the old tenement block. The bucket flexed, stopped suddenly with a squeal of hydraulics, then started again, swinging this way and that. Christ, where did they get these jokers?
He heard a crunch of footsteps behind him and turned to see the foreman approaching, face caked in dust and sweat. "Boxer! You buy tickets to this show, or what?"
Boxer flexed the muscles of his massive arms, pretending not to hear. He was the only one on the site who knew construction, and the crews resented him for it. Boxer didn't care; he liked keeping to himself.
He heard the excavator rattle as it carved into the solid wall of old fill. The lower strata of older buildings lay open to the sun, exposed like a fresh wound: above, asphalt and cement; below, brick, rubble, then more brick. And below that, dirt. To sink the footings for the glass apartment tower well into bedrock, they had to go deep.
He glanced out beyond the worksite. Beyond, a row of Lower East Side brownstones stood starkly in the brilliant afternoon light. Some had just been renovated. The rest would soon follow. Gentrification.
"Yo! Boxer! You deaf?"
Boxer flexed again, fantasizing briefly about sinking his fist into the guy's red face.
"Come on, get your ass in gear. This isn't a peepshow."
The foreman jerked his head toward Boxer's work detail. Not coming any closer, though. So much the better for him. Boxer looked around for his shift crew. They were busy piling bricks into a Dumpster, no doubt for sale to some pioneering yuppie around the corner who liked crappy-looking old bricks at five dollars each. He began walking, just slowly enough to let the foreman know he wasn't in any hurry.
There was a shout. The grinding of the excavator ceased suddenly. The Cat had bit into a brick foundation wall, exposing a dark, ragged hole behind it. The operator swung down from the idling rig. Frowning, the foreman walked over, and the two men started talking animatedly.
"Boxer!" came the foreman's voice. "Since you ain't doing squat, I got another job for you."
Boxer altered his course subtly, as if that was the way he'd already been going, not looking up to acknowledge he had heard, letting his attitude convey the contempt he felt for the scrawny foreman. He stopped in front of the guy, staring at the man's dusty little workboots. Small feet, small dick.
Slowly, he glanced up.
"Welcome to the world, Pee-Wee. Take a look at this."
Boxer gave the hole the merest glance.
"Let's see your light."
Boxer slipped the ribbed yellow flashlight out of a loop in his pants and handed it to the foreman.
The foreman switched it on. "Hey, it works," he said, shaking his head at the miracle. He leaned into the hole. The guy looked like an idiot, standing daintily on tiptoe atop a fallen pile of brick, his head and torso invisible within the ragged hole. He said something but it was too muffled to make out. He withdrew.
"Looks like a tunnel." He wiped his face, smearing the dust into a long black line. "Whew, stinks in there."
"See King Tut?" someone asked.
Everyone but Boxer laughed. Who the hell was King Tut?
"I sure as shit hope this isn't some kind of archaeological deal." He turned to Boxer. "Pee-Wee, you're a big, strong fella. I want you to check it out."
Boxer took the flashlight and, without a glance at the weenies around him, hoisted himself up the collapsed pile of bricks and into the hole the excavator had cut into the wall. He knelt atop the broken bricks, shining his light into the cavity. Below was a long, low tunnel. Cracks doglegged up through the walls and across the ceiling. It looked just about ready to collapse. He hesitated.
"You going in, or what?" came the voice of the foreman.
He heard another voice, a whiny imitation. "But it's not in my union contract." There were guffaws.
He went in.
Bricks had spilled down in a talus to the floor of the tunnel. Boxer half scrambled, half slid in, raising clouds of dust. He found his feet and stood up, shining the light ahead. It lanced through the dust, not getting far. From inside, the place seemed even darker. He waited for his eyes to adjust and the dust to settle. He heard conversation and laughter from above, but faintly, as if from a great distance.
He took a few steps forward, shining the beam back and forth. Thread-like stalactites hung from the ceiling, and a draft of foul-smelling air licked his face. Dead rats, probably.
The tunnel appeared to be empty, except for a few pieces of coal. Along both sides were a long series of arched niches, about three feet across and five high, each crudely bricked up. Water glistened on the walls, and he heard a chorus of faint dripping sounds. It seemed very quiet now, the tunnel blocking all noise from the outside world.
He took another step, angling the flashlight beam along the walls and ceiling. The network of cracks seemed to grow even more extensive, and pieces of stone jutted from the arched ceiling. Cautiously, he backed up, his eye straying once again to the bricked-up niches along both walls.
He approached the closest one. A brick had recently fallen out, and the others looked loose. He wondered what might be inside the niches. Another tunnel? Something deliberately hidden?
He shined the light into the brick-hole, but it could not penetrate the blackness beyond. He put his hand in, grasped the lower brick, and wiggled it. Just as he thought: it, too, was loose. He jerked it out with a shower of lime dust. Then he pulled out another, and another. The foul odor, much stronger now, drifted out to him.
He shined the light in again. Another brick wall, maybe three feet back. He angled the light toward the bottom of the arch, peering downward. There was something there, like a dish. Porcelain. He shuffled back a step, his eyes watering in the fetid air. Curiosity struggled with a vague sense of alarm. Something was definitely inside there. It might be old and valuable. Why else would it be bricked up like that?
He remembered a guy who once found a bag of silver dollars while demolishing a brownstone. Rare, worth a couple thousand. Bought himself a slick new Kubota riding mower. If it was valuable, screw them, he was going to pocket it.
He plucked at his collar buttons, pulled his T-shirt over his nose, reached into the hole with his flashlight arm, then resolutely ducked his head and shoulders in after it and got a good look.
For a moment he remained still, frozen in place. Then his head jerked back involuntarily, slamming against the upper course of bricks. He dropped the light into the hole and staggered away, scraping his forehead this time, lurching back into the dark, his feet backing into bricks. He fell to the floor with an involuntary cry.
For a moment, all was silent. The dust swirled upward, and far above there was a feeble glow of light from the outside world. The stench swept over him. With a gasp he staggered to his feet, heading for the light, scrambling up the slide of bricks, falling, his face in the dirt, then up again and scrabbling with both hands. Suddenly he was out in the clear light, tumbling headfirst down the other side of the brick pile, landing facedown with a stunning blow. He vaguely heard laughter, which ceased as soon as he rolled over. And then there was a rush to his side, hands picking him up, voices talking all at once.
"Jesus Christ, what happened to you?"
"He's hurt," came a voice. "He's all bloody."
"Step back," said another.
Boxer tried to catch his breath, tried to control the hammering of his heart.
"Don't move him. Call an ambulance."
"Was it a cave-in?"
The yammering went on and on. He finally coughed and sat up, to a sudden hush.
"Bones," he managed to say.
"Bones? Whaddya mean, bones?"
"He's not making any sense."
Boxer felt his head begin to clear. He looked around, feeling the hot blood running down his face. "Skulls, bones. Piled up. Dozens of them."
Then he felt faint and lay down again, in the bright sunlight.
NORA KELLY LOOKED OUT FROM THE WINDOW OF HER fourth-floor office over the copper rooftops of the New York Museum of Natural History, past the cupolas and minarets and gargoyle-haunted towers, across the leafy expanse of Central Park. Her eye came to rest at last on the distant buildings along Fifth Avenue: a single wall, unbroken and monolithic, like the bailey of some limitless castle, yellow in the autumn light. The beautiful vista gave her no pleasure.
Almost time for the meeting. She began to check a sudden swell of anger, then reconsidered. She would need that anger. For the last eighteen months, her scientific budget had been frozen. During that time, she had watched the number of museum vice presidents swell from three to twelve, each pulling down two hundred grand. She had watched the Public Relations Department turn from a sleepy little office of genial old ex-newspaper reporters to a suite of young, smartly dressed flacks who knew nothing about archaeology, or science. She had seen the upper echelons at the Museum, once populated by scientists and educators, taken over by lawyers and fund-raisers. Every ninety-degree angle in the Museum had been converted into the corner office of some functionary. All the money went to putting on big fund-raisers that raised more money for yet more fund-raisers, in an endless cycle of onanistic vigor.
And yet, she told herself, it was still the New York Museum: the greatest natural history museum in the world. She was lucky to have this job. After the failure of her most recent efforts—the strange archaeological expedition she'd led to Utah, and the abrupt termination of the planned Lloyd Museum—she needed this job to work out. This time, she told herself, she would play it cool, work within the system.
She turned away from the window and glanced around the office. System or no system, there was no way she could complete her research on the Anasazi-Aztec connection without more money. Most importantly, she needed a careful series of accelerator mass spectrometer C-14 dates on the sixty-six organics she had brought back from last summer's survey of southern Utah. It would cost $18,000, but she had to have those damn dates if she was ever going to complete her work. She would ask for that money now, let the other stuff wait.
It was time. She rose and headed out the door, up a narrow staircase, and into the plush trappings of the Museum's fifth floor. She paused outside the first vice president's office to adjust her gray suit. That was what these people understood best: tailored clothing and a smart look. She arranged her face into a pleasantly neutral expression and poked her head in the door.
The secretary had gone out to lunch. Boldly, Nora walked through and paused at the door to the inner office, heart pounding. She had to get the money: there was no way she could leave this office without it. She steeled herself, smiled, and knocked. The trick was to be nice but firm.
"Come in," said a brisk voice.
The corner office beyond was flooded with morning light. First Vice President Roger Brisbane III was sitting behind a gleaming Bauhaus desk. Nora had seen pictures of this space back when it belonged to the mysterious Dr. Frock. Then it had been a real curator's office, dusty and messy, filled with fossils and books, old Victorian wing chairs, Masai spears, and a stuffed dugong. Now, the place looked like the waiting room of an oral surgeon. The only sign that it might be a museum office was a locked glass case sitting on Brisbane's desk, inside of which reposed a number of spectacular gemstones—cut and uncut—winking and glimmering in little nests of velvet. Museum scuttlebutt held that Brisbane had intended to be a gemologist, but was forced into law school by a pragmatic father. Nora hoped it was true: at least then he might have some understanding of science.
She tried to make her smile as sincere as possible. Brisbane looked sleek and self-assured. His face was as cool, smooth, and pink as the inside of a conch—exquisitely shaved, patted, groomed, and eau-de-cologned. His wavy brown hair, thick and glossy with health, was worn slightly long.
"Dr. Kelly," said Brisbane, exposing a rack of perfect orthodontry. "Make yourself at home."
Nora dropped gingerly into a construction of chrome, leather, and wood that purported to be a chair. It was hideously uncomfortable and squeaked with every movement.
The young VP threw himself back in his chair with a rustle of worsted and put his hands behind his head. His shirtsleeves were rolled back in perfect creases, and the knot of his English silk tie formed an impeccably dimpled triangle. Was that, Nora thought, a bit of makeup on his face, under and around his eyes, hiding a few wrinkles? Good God, it was. She looked away, realizing she was staring too hard.
"How go things in the rag and bone shop?" Brisbane asked.
"Great. Fine. There's just one small thing I wanted to talk to you about."
"Good, good. I needed to talk to you, too."
"Mr. Brisbane," Nora began quickly, "I—"
But Brisbane stopped her with a raised hand. "Nora, I know why you're here. You need money."
Brisbane nodded, sympathetically. "You can't complete your research with a frozen budget."
"That's right," repeated Nora, surprised but wary. "It was a tremendous coup to get the Murchison Grant to do the Utah Anasazi survey, but there's no way I can finish the work without a really good series of carbon-14 dates. Good dates are the foundation for everything else." She tried to keep her voice pleasantly obedient, as if eager to play the ingenue.
Brisbane nodded again, his eyes half closed, swiveling slightly in his chair. Despite herself, Nora began to feel encouraged. She hadn't expected as sympathetic a reaction. It seemed to be working.
"How much are we talking about?" Brisbane asked.
"With eighteen thousand dollars, I could get all sixty-six samples dated at the University of Michigan, which has the best mass spectrometer laboratory for carbon-14 dating in the world."
"Eighteen thousand dollars. Sixty-six samples."
"That's right. I'm not asking for a permanent budget increase, just a one-time grant."
"Eighteen thousand dollars," Brisbane repeated slowly as if considering. "When you really think about it, Dr. Kelly, it doesn't seem like much, does it?"
"It's very little money, actually."
"Not compared to the scientific results it would bring."
"Eighteen thousand. What a coincidence."
"Coincidence?" Nora suddenly felt uneasy.
"It just happens to be exactly what you are going to need to cut out of your budget next year."
"You're cutting my budget?"
Brisbane nodded. "Ten percent cuts across the board. All scientific departments."
Nora felt herself begin to tremble, and she gripped the chrome arms of the chair. She was about to say something, but, remembering her vow, turned it into a swallow.
"The cost of the new dinosaur halls turned out to be more than anticipated. That's why I was glad to hear you say it wasn't much money."
Nora found her breath, modulated her voice. "Mr. Brisbane, I can't complete the survey with a cut like that."
"You're going to have to. Scientific research is only a small part of the Museum, Dr. Kelly. We've an obligation to put on exhibitions, build new halls, and entertain the public."
Nora spoke hotly. "But basic scientific research is the lifeblood of this Museum. Without science, all this is just empty show."
Brisbane rose from his chair, strolled around his desk, and stood before the glass case. He punched a keypad, inserted a key. "Have you ever seen the Tev Mirabi emerald?"
Brisbane opened the case and stretched a slender hand toward a cabochon emerald the size of a robin's egg. He plucked it from its velvet cradle and held it up between thumb and forefinger. "The Tev Mirabi emerald. It's flawless. As a gemologist by avocation, I can tell you that emeralds of this size are never flawless. Except this one."
He placed it before his eye, which popped into housefly-like magnification. He blinked once, then lowered the gem.
"Take a look."
Nora again forced herself to swallow a rejoinder. She took the emerald.
"Careful. You wouldn't want to drop it. Emeralds are brittle."
Nora held it gingerly, turned it in her fingers.
"Go ahead. The world looks different through an emerald."
She peered into its depths and saw a distorted world peering back, in which moved a bloated creature like a green jellyfish: Brisbane.
"Very interesting. But Mr. Brisbane—"
"No doubt. But we were talking about something else."
"What do you think it's worth? A million? Five? Ten? It's unique. If we sold it, all our money worries would be over." He chuckled, then placed it to his own eye again. The eye swiveled about behind the emerald, black, magnified, wet-looking. "But we can't, of course."
"I'm sorry, but I don't get your point."
Brisbane smiled thinly. "You and the rest of the scientific staff. You all forget one thing: it is about show. Take this emerald. Scientifically, there's nothing in it that you couldn't find in an emerald a hundredth its size. But people don't want to see any old emerald: they want to see the biggest emerald. Show, Dr. Kelly, is the lifeblood of this Museum. How long do you think your precious scientific research would last if people stopped coming, stopped being interested, stopped giving money? You need collections: dazzling exhibitions, colossal meteorites, dinosaurs, planetariums, gold, dodo birds, and giant emeralds to keep people's attention. Your work just doesn't fall into that category."
"But my work is interesting."
Brisbane spread his hands. "My dear, everyone here thinks their research is the most interesting."
It was the "my dear" that did it. Nora rose from her chair, white-lipped with anger. "I shouldn't have to sit here justifying my work to you. The Utah survey will establish exactly when the Aztec influence came into the Southwest and transformed Anasazi culture. It will tell us—"
"If you were digging up dinosaurs, it would be different. That's where the action is. And it happens that's also where the money is. The fact is, Dr. Kelly, nobody seems terribly concerned with your little piles of potsherds except yourself."
"The fact is," said Nora hotly, "that you're a miscarried scientist yourself. You're only playing at being a bureaucrat, and, frankly, you're overdoing the role."
As soon as Nora spoke she realized she had said too much. Brisbane's face seemed to freeze for a moment. Then he recovered, gave her a cool smile, and twitched his handkerchief out of his breast pocket. He began polishing the emerald, slowly and repetitively. Then he placed it back in the case, locked it, and then began polishing the case itself, first the top and then the sides, with deliberation. Finally he spoke.
"Do not excite yourself. It hardens the arteries and is altogether bad for your health."
"I didn't mean to say that, and I'm sorry, but I won't stand for these cuts."
Brisbane spoke pleasantly. "I've said what I have to say. For those curators who are unable or unwilling to find the cuts, there's no problem—I will be happy to find the cuts for them." When he said this, he did not smile.
Nora closed the door to the outer office and stood in the hallway, her mind in turmoil. She had sworn to herself not to leave without the extra money, and here she was, worse off than before she went in. Should she go to Collopy, the Museum's director? But he was severe and unapproachable, and that would surely piss off Brisbane. She'd already shot her mouth off once. Going over Brisbane's head might get her fired. And whatever else she did, she couldn't lose this job. If that happened, she might as well find another line of work. Maybe she could find the money somewhere else, rustle up another grant somewhere. And there was another budget review in six months. One could always hope…
Slowly, she descended the staircase to the fourth floor. In the corridor she paused, surprised to see the door to her office wide open. She looked inside. In the place she had been standing not fifteen minutes before, a very odd-looking man was now framed by the window, leafing through a monograph. He was wearing a dead black suit, severely cut, giving him a distinctly funereal air. His skin was very pale, whiter than she had ever seen on a living body. His blond hair, too, was almost white, and he turned the pages of the monograph with astonishingly long, slender, ivory fingers.
"Excuse me, but what are you doing in my office?" Nora asked.
"Interesting," the man murmured, turning.
He held up a monograph, The Geochronology of Sandia Cave. "Odd that only whole Folsom points were found above the Sandia level. Highly suggestive, don't you think?" He spoke with a soft, upper-class southern accent that flowed like honey.
Nora felt her surprise turning to anger at this casual invasion of her office.
He moved toward a bookcase, slid the monograph back into its place on the shelf, and began perusing the other volumes, his finger tapping the spines with small, precise movements. "Ah," he said, slipping out another monograph. "I see the Monte Verde results have been challenged."
Nora stepped forward, jerked the monograph out of his hand, and shoved it back onto the shelf. "I'm busy at the moment. If you want an appointment, you can call. Please close the door on your way out." She turned her back, waiting for him to leave. Ten percent. She shook her head in weary disbelief. How could she possibly manage it?
But the man didn't leave. Instead, she heard his mellifluous plantation voice again. "I'd just as soon speak now, if it's all the same to you. Dr. Kelly, may I be so bold as to trouble you with a vexatious little problem?"
She turned. He had extended his hand. Nestled within it was a small, brown skull.
NORA GLANCED FROM THE SKULL BACK TO THE VISITOR'S face. "Who are you?" Regarding him more carefully now, she noticed just how pale his blue eyes were, how fine his features. With his white skin and the classical planes of his face, he looked as if he'd been sculpted of marble.
He made a decorous gesture somewhere between a nod and a bow. "Special Agent Pendergast, Federal Bureau of Investigation."
Nora's heart sank. Was this more spillover from the trouble-plagued Utah expedition? Just what she needed. "Do you have a badge?" she asked wearily. "Some kind of ID?"
The man smiled indulgently, and slipped a wallet out of his suit pocket, allowing it to fall open. Nora bent down to scrutinize the badge. It certainly looked real—and she had seen enough of them over the last eighteen months.
"All right, all right, I believe you. Special Agent—" She hesitated. What the hell was his name? She glanced down but the shield was already on its way back into the folds of his suit.
"Pendergast," he finished for her. Then he added, almost as if he had read her thoughts: "This has nothing to do with what happened in Utah, by the way. This is an entirely different case."
She looked at him again. This dapper study in black and white hardly looked like the G-men she had met out west. He seemed unusual, even eccentric. There was something almost appealing in the impassive face. Then she glanced back down at the skull. "I'm not a physical anthropologist," she said quickly. "Bones aren't my field."
Pendergast's only reply was to offer her the skull.
She reached for it, curious despite herself, turning it over carefully in her hands.
"Surely the FBI has forensic experts to help them with this sort of thing?"
The FBI agent merely smiled and walked to the door, closing and locking it. Gliding toward her desk, he plucked the phone from its cradle and laid it gently to one side. "May we speak undisturbed?"
"Sure. Whatever." Nora knew she must sound flustered, and was angry at herself for it. She had never met someone quite so self-assured.
The man settled himself into a wooden chair opposite her desk, throwing one slender leg over the other. "Regardless of your discipline, I'd like to hear your thoughts on this skull."
She sighed. Should she be talking to this man? What would the Museum think? Surely they would be pleased that one of their own had been consulted by the FBI. Maybe this was just the kind of "publicity" Brisbane wanted.
She examined the skull once again. "Well, to start with, I'd say this child had a pretty sad life."
Pendergast made a tent of his fingers, raising one eyebrow in mute query.
"The lack of sutural closing indicates a young teenager. The second molar is only just erupted. That would put him or her at around thirteen, give or take a few years. I would guess female, by the gracile brow ridges. Very bad teeth, by the way, with no orthodontry. That suggests neglect, at least. And these two rings in the enamel indicate arrested growth, probably caused by two episodes of starvation or serious illness. The skull is clearly old, although the condition of the teeth suggests a historic, as opposed to prehistoric, dating. You wouldn't see this kind of tooth decay in a prehistoric specimen, and anyway it looks Caucasoid, not Native American. I would say it's at least seventy-five to a hundred years old. Of course, this is all speculation. Everything depends on where it was found, and under what conditions. A carbon-14 date might be worth considering." At this unpleasant reminder of her recent meeting, she paused involuntarily.
- On Sale
- Jul 1, 2002
- Page Count
- 480 pages
- Grand Central Publishing