The Monstrumologist
Page 42

 Rick Yancey

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Standing before the seething pile of the immolated Anthropophagi, no more than a five-minute walk from their graves, I shuddered at the long-slumbering memory of that night. What happened? Malachi had asked me, and I had answered, I ran.
And my confession had been true: I did run, and I have been running ever since. Running from the acrid smell of my parents’ melting flesh and the pungent stench of my mother’s burning hair. Running from the groaning joists as they collapsed behind me, and the bestial roar of the gluttonous flame chomping and chewing everything in its path. Running, running, ever running. Running still, running to this day nearly thirty thousand days later, always running.
You have heard it said that time heals all wounds, but I have found no succor in its inexorable march, no relief from the crushing burden of my loss. My mother calls my name in the final fiery consummation, victim of a no less ravenous monster than the Anthropophagi. Skewered in its scorching jaws, she cries out to me, Will! Will! Will, where are you?
And I answer: I am here, Mother. I am here, an old man whose body time in its mercy has ground down, whose memory time in its cruelty has left pristine.
I escaped; I am bound.
I ran; I remain.
TWELVE.“The Devil’s Manger”
To the bone-weary men gathered round him, against the backdrop of blackened carcasses, with the rain thrumming a subtle timpani, of final descents and dead reckonings, the monstrumologist spoke.
“Our work is not yet done. There is one who has gone into hiding, taking with her the most vulnerable members of her brood. She will defend them to her last breath with a ferocity far exceeding any you witnessed here tonight. She is their mother, the Eve of her clan, and its unrivaled ruler, the most cunning and vicious killer in a tribe of cunning and vicious killers. She has risen to her supremacy through the power of her unerring instincts and indomitable will. She is their heart, their daemon, their guiding spirit. She is the matriarch-and she is waiting for us.”
“Then let her wait, I say!” interjected the constable. “We’ll seal her off and starve her out. There’s no need to go after her.”
Warthrop shook his head. “There must be dozens of hidden apertures to their dens. Finding them all would be a hopeless task. Miss one, and our efforts would be for naught.”
“We’ll set round-the-clock patrols,” persisted Morgan. “Sooner or later she must come out, and when she does-”
“She will kill again,” finished Warthrop for him. “Those are the odds, Robert. Are you willing to accept them? Now is the time to hunt her down, when she is at her most vulnerable, her full attention focused on protecting her young. We shall have no finer opportunity, no better chance than now, tonight, before she deems it safe to venture above and perhaps move them to another territory entirely. If that should happen, we are doomed to repeat the Maori Protocol all over again.”
“Hunt her down, you say. Very well. How? And where? How do you propose we find her?”
Warthrop hesitated in reply, and Kearns stepped into the breach: “I don’t know what Pellinore would propose, but I suggest we use the front door.”
He turned toward the apex of the burying ground, and our gaze followed his, to the top of Old Hill Cemetery, where the Warthrop mausoleum brooded, its alabaster columns shining like bleached-out bones in the firelight.
We trudged up the hill toward the final resting place of the doctor’s antecedents, with bent backs and wary eyes, Morgan’s men flanking us on either side, two as lookouts, two as torchbearers, and two as coolies, hauling one of Kearns ’s crates. Malachi and I walked together, a few steps behind Morgan and the two doctors, who traded heated remarks in a debate that lasted from the smoking ruins of the Anthropophagi to the gleaming marble steps of the mausoleum. I could not make out their words, but suspected the doctor had renewed his arguments against Kearns ’s theory of the case. Upon the portico Warthrop ordered Morgan’s men to remain outside; it was clear he thought this a fool’s errand and that we would not be long within the tomb.
A central corridor separated the building into two sections. The doctor’s ancestors rested behind slabs on either side, their names, chiseled into the hard stone, destined to last long past his forebears’ earthly confines. Warthrop’s great-great-grandfather Thomas had built this familial temple to serve a dozen generations: whole sections remained to be filled, their compartments empty, their creamy marble facades blank, waiting patiently for a name.
We traversed the length of the echoing sepulcher, pausing briefly when Warthrop stopped before his father’s vault and stared silently and without expression at it. Kearns trailed his fingertips along the smooth walls, eyes flicking from side to side, or occasionally dropping to scan the floor. Morgan sucked nervously on his extinguished bowl, the sound, like our footsteps, magnified by the mausoleum’s towering walls and arched ceiling.
On our way back to the entrance, Warthrop turned to Kearns and said, unable to disguise his grim satisfaction, “As I said.”
“It is the most logical choice, Pellinore,” Kearns said reasonably. “Small risk of trespass, well out of sight of prying eyes, a ready excuse if someone should happen to see him. Chosen for the same reason he picked the cemetery for their pen in the first place.”
“I’ve been here more than once; I would have noticed,” Warthrop insisted.
“Well, I doubt he would have hung a sign over the door,” Kearns replied with a smile. “‘Here there be monsters!’”
He stopped suddenly, his eye captured by a shiny brass plaque, embossed with the Warthrops’ family crest, riveted into the stone. An ornate silver W was attached at the bottom.
“Now, what is this?” Kearns wondered.
“That would be my family crest,” answered Warthrop dryly.
Kearns patted his right calf and muttered, “Where is my knife?”
“I have it, sir,” I said.
“Right! Christened with poppy’s blood; I forgot! Thank you, Will.”
He pressed the tip of the blade against one edge of the plaque, trying to force it between the metal and the cold stone. Thwarted, he tried the opposite edge. Warthrop demanded to know what he was doing, and Kearns made no reply. He regarded the insignia, frowning, rubbing his mustache.
“I wonder…” He handed the knife back to me, and grasped the silver W. It turned counterclockwise in his hand until it stopped, upside down, and Kearns gave a soft, delighted laugh. “Now it’s an M! Alistair Warthrop, you clever devil. W to M, and M for… Now, what in the world could M stand for, hmm?”
He tugged on it gently, and the plaque, hinged on one side, swung outward, revealing a small recessed chamber. Mounted in the back was a clock face, its hands frozen at twelve o’clock.
“Curiouser and curiouser,” Kearns breathed as we crowded behind him to peek over his shoulder. “Of all places to put a clock! What do the dead care of the time?”
“What do they care?” echoed Morgan in a hoarse whisper.
Kearns reached into the nook and pushed against the minute hand. He brought his ear close, moving the metal arm slowly to mark a quarter past. He grunted and leaned back to smile at Morgan. “They don’t, Constable. It’s a letter shy of being a clock.”
He rotated the large hand back to the 12, pressed his hands against the marble, spread his legs for balance, and pushed with all his might against the stone.
“This is ridiculous!” cried Warthrop. He had reached the end of even his considerable endurance. Beside him Morgan’s mouth moved as he spelled out the word “clock,” trying to puzzle out Kearns ’s enigmatic answer. “We are wasting precious-”
“It would be a number that held some significance to him,” Kearns interrupted. “Not an actual time of day. A date, or perhaps a verse from the Bible, a psalm or something from the Gospels.” He snapped his fingers impatiently. “Quickly, famous passages!”
“Psalm twenty-three,” Malachi offered.
“Not enough hours,” Morgan argued.
“Might be military time,” Kearns mused. He set the clock to 8:23. This time both he and Malachi, who seemed infected with Kearns ’s excitement, pushed against the stone, but the huge slab did not budge.
“John 3:16,” Malachi guessed next. Still nothing. Warthrop snorted with disgust.
“Pellinore!” called Kearns. “What year was your father born?”
The doctor waved him away. Kearns turned back to the clock face, fingers restlessly caressing his mustache. “Perhaps the year Pellinore was born…”
“Or his wife, or his anniversary, or any number of combinations for your clock without a C!” huffed the constable, having decoded Kearns ’s cryptic phrase at last. “It’s hopeless.”
Behind us Warthrop said, “The witching hour.” I noted the sad expression in his eyes, an acknowledgment of the unacceptable, the recognition of a conclusion unavoidable.
“‘The witching hour approaches,’” he continued. “From my father’s diary: ‘The witching hour approaches… The hour comes, and Christ himself is mocked.”’
“Midnight?” asked Kearns. “But we tried that.”
“The witching hour is an hour past,” said Morgan. “One o’clock.”
Kearns appeared dubious, but with a shrug tried that combination. Again the great slab would not move, even with all our shoulders pressed upon it.
“What did he say again?” Kearns asked. “The hour when Christ himself is mocked?”
“After his trial he was mocked by the Roman soldiers,” Malachi said.
“But what hour was that?”
Malachi shook his head. “The Bible doesn’t say.”
Warthrop thought for a moment, bringing all his prodigious powers of concentration to bear upon the riddle. “Not mocked by soldiers,” he said slowly. “By witches. The witching hour is three a.m., in mockery of the Trinity and a perversion of the hour of his death.” He drew a deep breath and nodded decisively. “It’s three o’clock, Kearns. I’m sure of it.”
Kearns set the hands to three o’clock, the tumblers inside softly clicked, and, before Kearns or anyone else could try his luck, Warthrop reached out and pressed against the nerveless rock. With a grinding groan the secret door slid straight back, creating an opening on one side through which two men could walk abreast. Neither light nor sound escaped from that dark fissure, only the faintest odor of decay, a smell with which I had, unfortunately, become all too familiar. Like the grave, what lay behind the great marble door was black and silent and reeked of death.
“Well!” Kearns said brightly. “Shall we draw lots to see who goes first?”
Malachi pulled the lamp from my hand. “I will go,” he announced grimly. “It is my place; I’ve earned it.”
Kearns pulled the lamp from Malachi’s hand. “It is my place; I’m being paid for it.”
Warthrop pulled the lamp from Kearns ’s hand. “The place is mine,” he said. “I inherited it.”