Read The Bone Key Online

Authors: Sarah Monette,Lynne Thomas

Tags: #fantasy, #short story, #short stories

The Bone Key (3 page)

I opened the book. It was, as Blaine had said, in cipher, but it was not a terribly difficult cipher. I thought I recognized it after looking at a few lines, and my estimation of the unknown forger went up several notches. It might not have been difficult, but it was quite obscure, a cipher invented and used almost exclusively by a circle of Flemish occultists who had flourished in the late sixteenth century. Even then, it did not occur to me that the book might be genuine, only that the forger had done his homework. I refreshed my memory of the cipher and got to work.

Within a page, I knew that the book was no fake, but by then it had trapped me.

I dare not describe it too closely, for fear that there may be another copy somewhere in existence, and that I may excite curiosity about it. If there is another copy, let it molder to dust wherever it lies.

I have dreams sometimes, in which I throw the book again on the fire, but this time it does not burn. It simply rests on top of the flames, its pages flipping randomly back and forth. I can feel my hands twitching and trembling with the need to reach into the fire and rescue it. Inevitably, I do reach. I plunge my hands into the fire, and I wake up. Although my hands are marred by neither blisters nor burns, they throb and sear for hours afterwards as if the fire in my dreams were real.

I will not give the book’s true title. I have since found a few veiled references to it in the writings of those Flemish occultists, and they refer to it always as the
Mortui Liber Magistri

The Book of the Master of the Dead
or, perhaps,
The Book of the Dead Master
. I will do the same. Freed of the cipher, the
Mortui Liber Magistri
was written in perfectly straightforward Latin, with all the mesmerizing power of a cobra’s inhuman gaze. Once I had read the first two sentences, I was lost. I could neither look away nor put it aside, and I finished my translation just as the sun was rising.

Then I telephoned Blaine. When Blaine answered, I wanted to say,
Blaine, this book is an abomination. I think you should burn it.
But the words that came out of my mouth, calmly and rationally, were nothing like that at all. The words I spoke were the words the
Mortui Liber Magistri
wanted spoken: “I know how to do it.”

Blaine was amazed, delighted. We made our plans. We would meet that night at his house, and I would show him how to bring Helena back. Then we would perform the ritual. “Very good,” I said to Blaine, replaced the telephone receiver, and staggered to bed.

I slept until sunset, when I woke up screaming.

I will not—
—describe the ritual. If I could excise it from my brain, believe that I would. I cannot, and the ineradicability of the memory is no more than I deserve. The ritual was an evil, perverted thing, and I neither know, nor want to know, where Blaine found the materials he used—except for the human blood. That was mine.

Blaine had always been able to persuade me to do what he wanted, and he was full of good, rational reasons why it had to be my blood instead of his. Sometimes, when my insomnia is particularly sere—a vast, arid, cracking wasteland in which the dead trees do not give shelter—I wonder if perhaps that was the crux at which things began to go wrong. Blaine loved his wife enough to spend thousands of dollars and to perform this obscene ritual, but not quite enough to open a vein in his own arm and let his own blood pool on the obsidian slab in his cellar.

There is a hard, angry little voice in my head, a voice like hers, that says,
Blaine deserved his death.
That is not true, and I know it. What Blaine
was a friend good enough and strong enough to stop him, but I was not that friend.

The book had released me as soon as I had explained everything to Blaine, so I have no excuse. Where a stronger, better man would have said,
Blaine, this is madness
, I looked into his burning, haunted, driven eyes, and I rolled back the cuff of my shirt.

The ritual worked. That is the most ghastly thing. I hold no particular brief for the rationality of the world, but that this vile obscenity should actually have the power to bring back the dead seems to me a sign not merely that the world is not rational, but that it is in fact entirely insane, a murderous lunatic gibbering in the corner of a padded cell.

The ritual worked. The patterns of blood and graveyard earth, the stench of burning entrails, the repulsive Latin phrases that Blaine chanted, they combined exactly as the book said they would. A presence coalesced in the middle of Blaine’s obsidian slab. It was shapeless and colorless at first, but as Blaine’s incantations mounted in fervor and monstrosity, it drew itself together, taking on Helena’s shape and garbing itself in her chic, severely tailored clothes. The colors were slower to come, but I remember the way her hair washed in, a torrent of blood and gold down her back. She was facing away from us.

“Helena,” Blaine said, breathless with wonder and desire. “Helena, darling, it’s me.”

The shape did not turn.

“Helena, it’s me, it’s Augustus. Darling, can you hear me?”

Still she did not turn, but a voice, undeniably hers, said, “Where’s Ruthie? I want Ruthie.”


She moved a little, restlessly, in the circle, but still she would not turn. “Ruthie loves me,” she said. “He says so.”

“Helena, it’s Augustus!” I had an unwelcome flash of insight: that I was watching the distillation of the nine years of their marriage, Helena never looking at Blaine, always looking for something else, Blaine pleading and coaxing, talking always to her back, to the amazing sunset river of her hair.

“Why isn’t Ruthie here?” Helena said petulantly, as if she had not heard Blaine at all.

Blaine stepped into the circle. I do not think he realized at that point what he was doing, for the warnings in the
Mortui Liber Magistri
against the caster crossing the circle were dire and uncompromising, and I know that he heard me when I explained them.

“Blaine!” I lunged forward, but I could not catch him in time; I had drawn too far away from the circle when Helena began to manifest. My fingers brushed the back of his shirt with no more force than a butterfly’s wing, and he was beyond help. The instant Blaine was within the circle, Helena turned. She had heard him all along, had known to a nicety—as she ever had—how to get him to do what she wanted.

Her face was ghastly. It was not simply that she was, all too clearly, still dead. It was that she was dead and yet animate. Her face was gray and stiff and bloodless, but it was filled with a monstrous vitality. Blaine had not brought Helena back to life; he had done something far, far worse.

I suppose it is possible that the thing in the circle was not Helena Pryde Blaine at all, that it was a demon or some other sort of inhuman spirit. My own belief, however, is that it was the quintessence of Helena, the thing in her that Blaine had never been able to see, and that I had been powerless to show him: the greedy selfishness of a child who can never be satisfied with her own toys if another child has a toy, no matter how shabby, that she does not. Blaine was just another toy to her, and one that bored her.

He saw the truth of her then, the insatiable, heartless greed, although he had never seen it before. He recoiled from her and tried, far too late, to back out of the circle.

“Kiss me, darling Auggie,” said Helena, in her breathless, mocking way. She caught his arms and drew him toward her. Blaine stiffened and made a noise that would probably have been a scream if he could have gotten enough air into his lungs before her lips closed on his. When she let him go—five loathsome, endless seconds later—he fell down dead.

I was pressed into the corner, the cold damp bricks prodding at my back like angry fingers. My whole desire at that moment was that Helena should ignore me as she always had.

She looked at me. The face was livid and hard, but the eyes were still hers. “Boothie,” she said.

I moaned, somewhere in the back of my throat. It was all the noise I could make.

She cocked her head to one side, a hideous parody of the way she had been accustomed to flirt. “I don’t suppose I can talk
into the circle, Boothie, can I?”

My head was shaking “no,” wobbling back and forth on my neck as if it belonged to someone else.

“No,” she said, with a little moue of disappointment. “Auggie could have, I’ll bet. But you never liked me, did you?”

“I hated you, Helena,” I said, the truth croaking out of me unwilled.

She actually smiled then, and I would give anything I possess if I could stop seeing her smile in my dreams. The smile was hers, the little, gloating smirk that I had always loathed, but the dead stiffness of her face made it a rictus. “I don’t hold that against you, Boothie. I always knew you were jealous.” She tittered. “Boothie and Ruthie—Auggie and I both had our little lapdogs, didn’t we?”

I should have held my tongue, but my hatred of her, my crawling revulsion, was greater than my fear. “Yours killed you,” I said.

“And now Auggie’s has killed him. So I guess we’re even.”

She was starting to fade; with the death of its caster, the ritual was losing potency. She noticed it herself. “Phooey,” she said. She looked at me, her eyes bright with all the malice of the living Helena Pryde Blaine. “Are you going to have a go at calling Auggie back, Boothie? I’m sure you could do it. He always said you were the smartest man he knew.” With that, she was gone, dissolved into the stinking smoke, leaving nothing behind her but her husband’s corpse.

It took me until dawn to clean the cellar, washing away the blood and dirt and other materials. I had to lift Blaine to clean under him, but after that I left him where he was. His body looked sixty-two now instead of thirty-two, and there was not a mark on him: nothing to show that he had not fallen down dead of a heart attack. He was cold and stiff, and obviously had been dead much longer than five hours, although he had died only seven minutes before two o’clock.

He had been living entirely alone, without even servants—he had dismissed them all when his interest in necromancy began to devolve into obsession—and that was my good fortune. I took away the paraphernalia of the ritual and threw all its repellant ingredients into the river on my way home.

Then I waited.

Blaine was found four days later. One of his sisters finally became worried enough about him to use her key to his house. No one, except apparently for me, had heard from him in over a week. His family had known nothing of his dabblings in necromancy. He had told no one of his latest purchase—save of course the book dealer—and no one at all of his decision to consult me. There were, as I myself had seen, no signs of violence on his body, and the coroner’s judgment was that his heart had simply given out: he was awfully young for such a death, but he had been under a severe strain for a very long time, and these things did happen . . . If someone had gone exploring through Blaine’s effects, they might have found evidence to suggest another possibility, but his family did not wish any further inquiry, and the Blaines are powerful. No one else asked questions, and I heard later that the book dealer who had supplied Blaine’s mania had left the city unexpectedly and precipitously.

My culpability was not discovered, nor even suspected. Only I knew, and the things that came to find me in my dreams. They knew and I knew that Helena was right. I had killed Blaine, just as surely as Rutherford Chapin had killed her. The guilt and the loneliness were all but unbearable; I was as comfortless as Cain.

And all the while Helena’s last question—
Are you going to have a go at calling Auggie back, Boothie?
—echoed meanly through my head. I could repeat the ritual. I had kept the book, and my notes, and I had watched Blaine. I could bring Blaine back.

I wanted to. I wanted to bring Blaine back, just as Blaine had wanted to bring Helena back. I wanted to see him again, to hear his voice. More importantly, I wanted to talk to him and to know that he was finally and forever hearing
, not the version of me that lived in his head. I wanted Blaine to love me as I had always loved him.

I sat by the fireplace in my living room, the book and my sheaf of notes in my lap.
It will be different,
said a voice in my head—the voice, I suppose, of Blaine’s “Boothie.”
Helena was greedy and loveless. Blaine is my friend. Blaine would never want to hurt me. And I won’t make the mistakes that Blaine did.

It said such wonderful, plausible things, that voice, and I wanted to believe it very badly. It was my hatred of Helena that saved me, my absolute, unassailable conviction that she would never have put any idea in my head that might have made me happy. I remembered her eyes, remembered her smirk, and with a sudden convulsive motion, flung the
Mortui Liber Magistri
and all my notes onto the fire.

The notes went up at once. For a terrible moment I thought the book was not going to burn at all, and I grabbed the poker and shoved it deeper into the fire. It was an old book, its pages dry and brittle. Once they caught, they were quickly consumed, my last link with Blaine destroyed, transformed in seconds into a pile of ashes and a bitter, noxious reek.

The sound of them burning was like the sound of Helena laughing.



There were fingers in the wall.

I was lifting a box when I saw them, saw the gap between the bricks where the mortar had fallen away and then the whitish-yellow gleam of bone. I lost my grip on the box; it fell and broke, sending yellowing holograph pages in all directions.

“Really, Mr. Booth!” Mr. Lucent said crossly.

“Bones,” I said, still staring at that crack in the bricks. “There . . . in the wall.”

? The dust has gone to your head.”

“No, really.” I wedged my fingers into the crack, cringing from the possibility of touching the bones; all the mortar was cracking and weak, and the upper brick came away easily.

“Oh!” said Mr. Lucent in a sort of gasp. “There’s a
back there!”

There, clearly visible, were the bones of a hand, clawed into the absence of mortar as if whoever they had belonged to had died trying to dig through that brick wall with his bare hands.

,” I said.

Mr. Lucent and I were in that storeroom only because of Dr. Starkweather’s inventory, which had been eating the time and energy of the Samuel Mather Parrington Museum staff for months now. Dr. Starkweather had come in February and instituted his comprehensive reforms amid a searing barrage of contempt and invective; it was now mid-June, and there was some faint hope that we could have a preliminary, albeit woefully inadequate, catalogue ready by his six-month anniversary. We had started at the top of the museum, in its extensive attics, the ballrooms of the bats, and worked our way down with desperate, slipshod haste, aware of Dr. Starkweather smoldering in his office like an unappeasable pagan volcano god. At the end of May, we had reached the basements.

The Parrington’s basements were an empire unto themselves, a sprawling labyrinth of storage rooms and sub-basements, steam tunnels and abandoned stretches of sewer. No one knew the full extent of them now, although there were rumors that old Mr. Chastain had had maps that he had burned in a fit of pique when the previous museum director, Dr. Evans, had forced him to retire.

It had been discovered years earlier that watchmen and janitors could not be paid sufficient money to make them include the basements in their rounds. They complained of drafts and dampness and strange noises, and it was beyond argument that the electric lights in the basements—installed by the stubbornest of all the stubborn men who had headed the Parrington—burned out at twice the rate of the lights in other parts of the museum buildings. People going down to the basements told the docents at the information desk—perhaps half a joke, perhaps a little less—to send search parties if they had not returned within an hour.

This particular room—long and narrow, more like a corridor than a room—was in the second level of the basements, as near as I could reckon it beneath the Entomology Department and its horrid collection of South American cockroaches. The unfortunate junior curator who had been detailed to scout the basements had observed that this room was full of books and boxes of papers, and so its more thorough investigation had fallen to Mr. Lucent and me, as the senior archivists of the Department of Rare Books. We had been down there three hours before I saw the bones, and were hot, miserable, and thickly coated in dust.

“Wh-what should we do?” said Mr. Lucent, staring at the hole in the wall, the handkerchief he had been using to clean his glasses pressed to his mouth.

“I, er, I don’t know. I suppose . . . we have to tell someone, don’t we?”

“God, yes—we can’t just brick him back up and leave him there, Mr. Booth!”

“I didn’t mean that,” I said, mostly to my shoes, as I followed Mr. Lucent back up toward the daylight. We were climbing the stairs from the first basement to the ground floor before I realized I was still carrying the brick, and at that point there seemed no sense in setting it down.

In the storeroom where the basement stairs debouched, Mr. Lucent stopped. “Who should we tell, do you think? I don’t . . . I don’t like to bother Dr. Starkweather.”

I had no more wish than he did to disturb Dr. Starkweather with the news that we had found a skeleton in the basements. Dr. Starkweather did not like me. I said, “Major Galbraith?”

Major Galbraith was in charge of the Museum’s custodial and security staff; he was a dour old veteran, no more in awe of Dr. Starkweather than he had been of Dr. Evans. And I was sure that even news of a body in the basement would not shock him.

“Yes, of course,” Mr. Lucent said, beaming with relief, and we emerged from the storeroom, turned down a cross-corridor, and came to Major Galbraith’s office. Mr. Lucent knocked quickly, as if to get it done before either of us could change our minds. I was strongly reminded of the nervous sensation of guilt I had felt whenever I approached a master’s office at my prep school, regardless of the reason I was there.

“Come in!” called Major Galbraith. Mr. Lucent, the brick, and I entered his office.

He listened imperturbably, digging at his pipe, while Mr. Lucent explained our find. When he was in possession of what few facts we had, he sighed, put his pipe down, and said, “Suppose I’d better come have a look. Have you notified Dr. Starkweather?”

“We, um,” said Mr. Lucent.

“I would, if I were you,” Major Galbraith said, with a quirk in one beetling eyebrow. “You go do that, Mr. Lucent. I fancy Mr. Booth can show me what there is to see.”

“Oh, yes, rather,” said Mr. Lucent and left distractedly. Major Galbraith shot me a look I could not decipher and said, “All right, then, Mr. Booth. Show me your skeleton.”

We made our way back to the basement room in silence. I had nothing to say, and I felt a greater and greater fool carrying that brick. It would have made more sense to take one of the finger bones, as proof that Mr. Lucent and I had not hallucinated the entire affair. I felt that Major Galbraith did not quite believe us.

But we came to the storeroom, and I pointed to the gap in the brickwork. Major Galbraith went across and took a look. “Hmmph,” he said. “Finger bones, sure enough.”

After a moment, I said, “What do we do now?”

“Wait for Dr. Starkweather,” Major Galbraith said and pulled his pipe out again.

“Er,” I said.

“Yes, Mr. Booth?” he said, his eyebrows shooting up alarmingly.

“The . . . the paper,” I said apologetically.

“Oh, yes. I’ll wait outside then, shall I?”

He went out. Since he had not invited me to join him, I stayed where I was. After some time—I hope that it was less than a minute, but I do not know—I pulled myself together and began collecting the contents of the box I had dropped, at last putting down that ghastly brick. The papers were letters. As I picked up the fourth one, I placed the signature as that of Jephthah Strong, a particularly obscure visionary and poet of the previous century. Another time, I might have tried to deduce the identity of his correspondent, but I was having trouble merely keeping my mind on my task. I kept catching myself looking at that unpleasant gap in the bricks, as if I were expecting the hand to reach forward, or the hand’s owner to peer out at me. The latter fancy made my neck crawl, and I was relieved when Major Galbraith stuck his head in and said, “That’ll be His Nibs coming now.”

His warning gave me just time to put the tidied stack of letters on top of the nearest box, and then Dr. Starkweather was in the room, striding across to stare at the hole in the bricks, his expression outraged, as if someone had done this to him on purpose. Mr. Lucent came in behind him, along with Major Galbraith and Dr. Starkweather’s secretary, Mr. Hornsby.

Dr. Starkweather rounded on us, demanding, “Who is it?”

“Er,” I said.

“What?” said Mr. Lucent.

“Dr. Starkweather, don’t you think—” began Mr. Hornsby.

“Well, clearly that’s the most important question,” Dr. Starkweather said. “Who is this fellow, and how did he get bricked up in our wall?”

Major Galbraith coughed. “I myself was wondering what we were going to do with him.”

“I’ve sent a message to Dr. Ainsley,” Dr. Starkweather said. Dr. Ainsley was the staff archaeologist. “He’ll know what to do about extracting him.”

“Should we . . . ” I said and stopped under the bombardment of Dr. Starkweather’s furiously blue eyes.

“Yes, Mr. Booth?” said Dr. Starkweather.

“The . . . I was only . . . that is, the police?”

“A cogent thought,” said Major Galbraith.

“Nonsense,” said Dr. Starkweather. “This clearly isn’t a
crime—if it is a crime.”

“Oh, but surely—!” Mr. Lucent protested.

, Mr. Lucent?”

“Well, I just—I frankly don’t see how this could be an accident.”

“We will wait for Dr. Ainsley,” Dr. Starkweather said with a fulminating glare at all four of us.

“Yes, Dr. Starkweather,” said Mr. Hornsby, whose particular gift was for placation. We waited in awkward silence. Mr. Lucent noticed my stack of letters and moved across to pick them up, but I could tell he was not looking at them, even though his eyes were fixed on the top page. I edged away from the hole in the wall, away from the stiff and savage figure of Dr. Starkweather, and gave myself occupation by examining the spines of a stack of books—although I was not looking at them any more than Mr. Lucent was looking at Jephthah Strong’s letters.

In the end, it was not Dr. Ainsley who appeared. He was much occupied, and had been for weeks, by a box of Greek potsherds someone had found at the back of a broom cupboard on the second floor; he dispatched in his place his senior assistant, Miss Coburn. She was in her thirties, tanned from field-work, with curly, sandy-red hair that habitually escaped from its pins to hang in fine strands around her face. The common remark about her in the museum—apart from the usual, stupid calumnies about spinsters and bluestockings—was that she knew more about Dr. Ainsley’s work than he did.

“Well, Dr. Starkweather?” she said. “Dr. Ainsley said he couldn’t make heads or tails of your message.”

“I should think the situation would be clear to a child of five,” Dr. Starkweather said and pointed. “There.”

Miss Coburn investigated. “Bones,” she said pleasantly. “Human phalanges. Surely you didn’t need an archaeologist to tell you that.”

Dr. Starkweather said through his teeth, “What. Are. We. To. Do. With. Them.”

Miss Coburn straightened up, looking surprised. “I haven’t the faintest idea. Who do they belong to?”

“No one seems to know, miss,” Major Galbraith said. “Bit of a mystery, this lad is.”

“No,” said Miss Coburn, “I mean, who do they
to? Are they museum property?”

“They’re in our wall,” Mr. Lucent said.

“We’ve got skeletons in our inventory.” Miss Coburn’s face became thoughtful. “Do you suppose . . . ”

“They’re all accounted for,” I said—except for the miscellany of vertebrae and skull fragments still waiting patiently in my office for me, in my semi-official capacity as the museum’s “puzzle man,” to have time to identify them. But there was nothing that could possibly explain this.

“Drat,” she said.

“I don’t want him in my wall,” Dr. Starkweather said. “How should we go about extracting him?”

“Oh!” said Miss Coburn, clearly meaning, Why didn’t you
so? “I can do that for you, if you don’t mind me taking the wall apart.”

“Please, Miss Coburn,” Dr. Starkweather said with a grotesque little bow. “Be my guest.” He looked around at the stacks of books and boxes surrounding us. “Will it disturb you if Mr. Booth and Mr. Lucent get on with their work?”

“Not at all,” said Miss Coburn. She glanced at the hole in the wall and added in a lower voice, “Company will be welcome.”

Mr. Lucent and I worked the rest of the day around Miss Coburn, her tools, and a steadily growing rampart of loose bricks. At one o’clock, Mr. Lucent fetched down sandwiches and lemonade from the museum canteen, and we ate in a cleared space on the floor.

After the first desperate attack on the sandwiches had slowed, Mr. Lucent burst out, “Who could he

“I don’t know,” Miss Coburn said. She had been dismantling the wall starting from a point about two feet above the finger bones, hoping (she said) to make a hole large enough to get a photograph of the skeleton
in situ
before she disturbed the bricks around it. “They’re old bones, but they’re not
old. I shouldn’t think he’s been there more than fifty years.”

“But why,” I said and stopped. Miss Coburn raised her eyebrows at me, and I went on, “Why would you brick somebody up in the basement of the museum?”

“It seems to have been a remarkably effective hiding place,” Miss Coburn said, very dryly.

“Yes, but you’d have to . . . you’d have to think of it first.”

“Oh. Yes, I see what you mean.”

“I don’t,” Mr. Lucent said.

“If you’re plotting a murder,” Miss Coburn said, “what kind of person do you have to be for your plan to involve bricking up your victim beneath the Samuel Mather Parrington Museum?”

“A seriously deranged one,” Mr. Lucent said.

“Yes, granted, but you also have to know about the basements. You have to have access to them. And I should think you have to be fairly sure that no one’s going to notice your new wall—so you have to know where to build it. When would you say was the last time anyone was in this room, Mr. Lucent?”

“Gracious,” said Mr. Lucent. “We haven’t come across anything more recent than eighty years ago—a little older than what you’re guessing for the bones.”

“Besides,” I said, “it took us most of the . . . the morning to, er—”

“To reach that wall to begin with!” Mr. Lucent finished triumphantly.

“Yes, I see,” Miss Coburn said. “A little judicious rearrangement of these several tons of paper, and no one can get near enough to the wall to notice there’s something odd about it. How exceedingly clever.”

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