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“What is it? And you call yourself an assistant-apprentice monstrumologist! This is an indispensable tool of the trade, Mr. Henry. It’s a grenade, of course. Give that little pin there a pull.”
“He’s joking, Will Henry,” called the doctor softly. “Don’t pull it!”
“You’re no fun,” Kearns chastised him. “What do you say, Will? I’ll put you in charge of them. You can be my grenadier! Won’t that be grand? Be a good boy now, and once they’ve that platform secure, you and Malachi can move them up.”
He flung open the lid of the second crate. He pulled out a length of sturdy rope with a heavy iron chain attached to one end. A hook was welded to the other end of the chain. Next he reached into the crate and withdrew a metal rod, about four feet long and two inches round, pointed on one end and looped on the other to create an eyehole. It looked like a monstrous sewing needle. The last thing he removed was a large mallet of the size used to drive railroad spikes. He threw the rope over one shoulder, picked up the hammer and spike, and called for me to follow.
As I trotted after him, I heard the constable whisper, “What the devil is all that for?”
And Warthrop’s reply, his voice filled with disgust: “To secure the bait.”
Kearns stopped about twenty yards from the tree line, went to one knee on the wet earth, and squinted through the gray mist toward the platform.
“Yes, this should be about right. Hold the stake like this, Will Henry, with both hands, while I drive it. Don’t move now! One missed stroke and I’ll break your arm!”
I kneeled in the mud and jammed the sharpened end of the stake into the ground. He swung the mallet high over his head and let it fall, the square head hitting the top of the metal loop with enough force to fling tiny pieces of shrapnel in all directions. The impact sent a ringing echo across the cemetery grounds. The men, who were now nailing the cross-braces onto the platform’s legs, started at the sound, swiveling their heads around in alarm. Thrice Kearns raised the hammer and thrice let it fall. My arms reverberated with each blow, and I gritted my teeth lest I accidentally bite my tongue in two.
“There; one more should do it,” muttered Kearns. “Would you like to give it a try, Will?” He offered me the huge hammer.
“I don’t think I could lift it, sir,” I replied in all honesty. “It’s as big as me.”
“Hmm. You are quite small for your age. What is your age? Ten?”
“Twelve! I must have a word with Pellinore. He can’t be feeding you properly.”
“I do all the cooking, sir.”
“Why doesn’t that surprise me?”
He gave the rod another whack, dropped the mallet, and tugged on the stake with both hands, grunting with the effort.
“Should do it,” he said thoughtfully. “How much do you weigh, Will?”
“I don’t know exactly, sir. Seventy-five, eighty pounds?”
He shook his head. “The man should be reported. Here.” He threaded the chainless end of the rope through the loop and tied it off in a complicated knot. He bade me take the other end-the one with the chain attached-and walk toward the trees until the rope went taut.
“Now give it a hard pull, Will!” he called softly. “Hard as you can!”
He stood, one hand on his hip, the other caressing his nascent mustache, watching the effects upon the metal rod as I strained toward the trees, my feet slipping on the slick ground. He waved for me to stop, picked up the mallet, and gave the rod one last mighty blow. He motioned for me to return to him.
“A bit too long, Will Henry,” he said. He untied the knot, hiked up his pants leg, and removed a bowie knife from the sheath strapped to his calf. He cut off a two-foot section, the blade slicing through the thick rope as if it were a snatch of sewing thread. Then he reattached the rope to the rod. “You’ll find three bundles of wooden stakes in the same crate, Will Henry. Be a good lad and fetch them for me, will you?”
I nodded, a bit out of breath from my exertions, and ran back to the truck to comply. Warthrop and Morgan were engaged in a whispering heated argument when I arrived, Morgan emphasizing each point with a jab of his pipe stem into the doctor’s chest.
“A full investigation! A thorough inquiry! I cannot be bound by guaranties made under duress, Warthrop!”
As I jogged back to Kearns, he was consulting his soggy diagram and pacing off the dimensions of his “ring of slaughter.” He directed me where to jam the stakes into the ground, at four-foot intervals, until a nearly perfect circle had been marked out, around forty feet in circumference, the metal rod marking the center, the circle’s western edge coming within fifteen feet of the platform. Kearns admired his handiwork for a moment, and then clapped me on the shoulder.
“Excellent work, Will Henry. The Maori tribe who invented this method could not have done better.”
The hunting party had congregated by the back of the truck, each man having armed himself with a shovel. He motioned for them to join us, and they gathered round him, grim-faced, breath high in their chests, their bodies already aching with fatigue. Kearns addressed them in a low, urgent voice, “Night falls sooner than we anticipated, gentlemen. Quickly now. Quickly-but as quietly as you can. Dig, gentlemen, dig!”
Using the stakes as their guide, working in methodical rhythm, the men dug a shallow trench. The rocky, wet soil crunched beneath their biting blades, the sound somewhat muffled by the rain that now fell from the windless sky in a steady thrum, ten thousand tiny drumbeats a second, enough to soak us to our skins and plaster our hair to our heads. Oh, why had I left my hat at home! From the truck several yards away the laboring men looked gray and ghost-like through the opaque curtain of rain.
“Pellinore,” said Kearns, “a hand with my box, please.”
“Now, then, this box,” Morgan muttered as they eased it from the back of the truck. “I would like to know precisely what you’ve got in it, Cory.”
“Patience, Constable, and you’ll know precisely what I’ve got… Easy, Pellinore; set it down easy! Will Henry, grab my bag there, will you?”
He slipped off the silk sheet and pulled off the lid. The doctor stepped back with a sigh of resignation; he had known what was in the box before Kearns had opened it, but knowing and seeing are often two very different things. Morgan stepped forward to peer at the contents, and gasped, all color draining from his cheeks. He sputtered something unintelligible.
A woman lay inside the box, robed in a sheer white dressing gown, reposed as a corpse, eyes closed, arms folded over her chest. No younger than forty, she may have been pretty once; but now her face was fleshy and pockmarked with scars, perhaps from smallpox, her nose enlarged and blushed rose red from the burst capillaries beneath the skin, the result, no doubt, of years of alcohol abuse. Other than the diaphanous gown, she wore nothing, no ring upon her hand or bracelet upon her wrist, except around her neck was a tight band the color of dull copper, a metal ring affixed to the portion beneath her wide chin.
After a few seconds of appalled silence, Morgan found his voice. “This is the bait?”
“What would you have me use, Constable?” wondered Kearns rhetorically. “A baby goat?”
“When you asked for immunity, you never mentioned murder,” Morgan said indignantly.
“I didn’t kill her.”
“Then, where did you-?”
“It’s a woman of the streets, Morgan,” snapped Kearns. He seemed put out by the constable’s outrage. “A common tramp with which the gutters of Baltimore are choked to overflowing. A piece of rum-besotted, disease-ridden filth whose death serves a purpose far nobler than any she achieved in her miserable, squandered life. If using her offends your sense of moral rectitude, perhaps you would like to volunteer to be the bait.”
Morgan appealed to Warthrop, “Pellinore, surely there has to be another way…”
The doctor shook his head. “She is past all suffering, Robert,” he pointed out. “We have no choice now: It must be done.” He watched Kearns lift her still form from the makeshift coffin, a questioning look in his eye. Her head fell back, her arms slowly slid from her chest to dangle by her sides, as Kearns carried her into the ring of slaughter.
“Will Henry!” he called softly over his shoulder. “My bag!”
All work halted when the men spied his approach. Their mouths fell open; their eyes darted from Kearns to Morgan, who made a motion with his hand: Dig! Dig! Kearns gently lowered her to the ground beside the iron stake, cradling her head tenderly in his hands. He nodded toward the rope. I set down the bag beside him and handed him the end attached to the chain. He slipped the hook into the ring about her neck.
“I fail to understand what he’s so upset about,” he said. “The Maori use virgin slaves-teenage girls, Will Henry, the savage brutes.”
He gave the chain a sharp tug. The woman’s head jerked in his lap.
“Good enough.” He eased her head onto the muddy ground. Then he stood and surveyed the field. I looked to my right, toward the platform, and saw standing there a solitary figure, a rifle cradled in his arms, staring down at us, as still as a sentry on the watch. It was Malachi.
Though the monotonous rain droned on and the gray light heralding night’s inexorable arrival seemed to linger, unchanging, still there was a sense of time speeding up, a quickening of the clock, an acceleration of the march to battle. Two large barrels were unloaded from the truck, their contents, a pungent black mixture of kerosene and crude oil, emptied into the freshly dug trench encircling the sacrificial victim. Kearns ordered everyone onto the platform to review what he called the “Maori Protocol.”
“I shall take the first shot,” he reminded the rain-soaked, mud-spattered men. “You will wait for my signal to open fire. Aim for the area just below the mouth, or the lower back; anywhere else is just a flesh wound.”
“How much time will we have?” asked one.
“Less than ten minutes, I would venture, in this weather, more than enough time to get the job done, or this phase of it, anyway, but ten minutes will seem an eternity. Remember, there are only two conditions under which we abandon this platform: when our work is done or if our barrier is breached. Who is on the trench?”
A thin-faced man named Brock raised his hand. Kearns nodded, and said, “Stay by my side and wait for the order-do nothing until I tell you! Timing is everything, gentlemen, once we’ve marked the scout… All right, then! Any questions? Any last-minute reservations? Anyone who’d like to bow out? Now is your time, for now is the time.” He raised his face to the weeping sky, closed his dark eyes, and sighed deeply, a smile playing on his sensuous lips. “The bloody hour is come.”
We crowded to the edge of the platform, squinting through the gathering gloom, as Kearns knelt beside the body in the center of the circle and dug into the bag I had left there. He bent low over her, his back to us, blocking our view.
“What in the name of all that’s holy is he doing now?” wondered Morgan.