Read The Bone Key Online

Authors: Sarah Monette,Lynne Thomas

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

The Bone Key (4 page)

We finished our lunch in dismal silence.

By five o’clock, Mr. Lucent and I had, after a necessarily inadequate examination, morosely divided our spoils, the books going to me and the holographs going to him. Miss Coburn had excavated a window in the wall that would allow her to use her photographic equipment and had taken several plates. She had then continued removing bricks, with a methodical neatness I could only admire. By the time we started carting our new responsibilities toward the dumb-waiter that was all the Parrington had in the way of an elevator, she had managed to extract a double row of bricks straight down to the floor without disturbing the bones (the heap at the base of the wall, and the morbid grouping of finger bones still on the brick where I had first spotted them), and was preparing her photographic equipment again.

Mr. Lucent and I flipped a coin. He got the job of going up to the mail room on the first floor and unloading everything; I would stay in the basement and ferry boxes and stacks from the storeroom to the dumb-waiter’s alcove. “At least,” Mr. Lucent said glumly, “we have the satisfaction of knowing that neither of us is happier than the other.”

When I came back into the storeroom, Miss Coburn turned to me from where she was kneeling by the tau-shaped hole, her face white. “It’s a woman.”

“B-beg pardon?”

“The pelvis—that’s a
’s skeleton.”


“Is that all you’re going to say? ‘Oh’?”

“Miss Coburn, I don’t . . . I, er . . . ”

“My God, he must have been mad!”


“The man who did this!”

“What makes you think it was a man?”

“Oh,” said Miss Coburn and sat back on her heels. “Yes, of course, Mr. Booth. Let us have equal rights in all things.”

“I didn’t mean . . . ”

“No, no—if there was anything nasty in that comment, it was directed at me. You’re quite right.” She pushed straying strands of hair away from her face, and her voice became abstracted, “Who was this woman, that someone had to brick her up in a wall?”

“Is there anything with her?”

“There’s a thought,” she said, and a distant thumping from the dumb-waiter reminded me of Mr. Lucent in the mail room. I grabbed up another stack of boxes and left.

When I returned to the storeroom, Miss Coburn said, “Hairpins, buttons, rotting cloth. And there’s something else, off to the side, but I can’t make it out. Some kind of bundle. That’ll have to wait until I’ve gotten her out, and
will have to wait for tomorrow.” She stood up, putting her hands in the small of her back and stretching her spine. “Can I give you a hand with the boxes, Mr. Booth?”

“That . . . that’s very kind of you, Miss Coburn. Thank you.”

With the two of us working, it took less time than I had feared to transport enough material to fill the area in the mail room set aside for the purpose. We returned to the ground floor, whereupon Mr. Lucent emerged from the mail room and said, “What
you so long? I was beginning to wonder if you’d died.”

“Sorry,” I said.

“It’s my fault,” Miss Coburn said. “The skeleton is a woman.”

After a stunned moment, Mr. Lucent said, “Well,
isn’t your fault.”

“I distracted Mr. Booth.”

Mr. Lucent waved it away. He was contemplating something else. “But who could it be? Really, you’d think she’d be the museum’s great
cause célèbre
, the patron who came in and never came out.”

“She doesn’t seem to be,” Miss Coburn said.

We stayed together, nervously and without discussion, as Mr. Lucent and I locked our offices and Miss Coburn collected her handbag. The knowledge of that skeleton, huddled in her darkness somewhere beneath our feet, was not something any of us was eager to contemplate alone in the Parrington’s echoing halls. We came out the back door; I locked it behind us. Then I went one way, toward my apartment, and they went the other, to the street-car stop.

I went home, where I did not sleep, but spent the night searching my books for reasons that one might brick a human being up in a wall. There was an unpleasantly large number, testifying to the ingenuity and malice of the human mind.

When I arrived at the museum in the morning, Miss Coburn was standing at my office door, as if she had been waiting for me. “I think it must be a woman named Madeline Stanhope,” she said as soon as I was within speaking distance.

“Madeline Stanhope?” I said, unlocking the door.

Miss Coburn leaned in the doorway, explaining as I went to put my morning’s mail on my desk. “I went and talked to my Aunt Ferdinanda—not her fault, poor thing. My grandfather was dead-set on having a Ferdinand Truelove III, which you can’t do when you only have daughters. Aunt Ferdy’s memory for gossip, rumor, and scandal is unequaled. She told me all about Alderman Stanhope’s wife, who was supposed to have run off with—wait for it—the Venebretti Necklace.”

“Oh,” I said weakly and sat down.

“You thought it was just lost? So did I. Apparently Mr. Stanhope forked over a remarkably generous contribution to several different civic institutions to get the thing hushed up. Aunt Ferdy said there was a fairly substantial minority who thought he’d murdered his wife himself, but they could never explain how the necklace was involved. And that was when Aunt Vinnie came in and said that a friend of hers had sworn herself blind that she’d seen Madeline Stanhope in San Francisco in 1905, covered in ostrich feathers and dripping with diamonds. But that seems unlikely at the moment.”

“Rather,” I said.

The Venebretti Necklace had been the property of Maria Vittoria Venebretti, a seventeenth-century Milanese witch and poisoner. Some stories said that she was the daughter of the Pope by a Spanish witch, others that she was the daughter of the Devil. She had been spectacularly beautiful, and as amoral as a serpent. She had married three times before she was thirty, each time to a husband wealthier than the last. When her third husband died, and clearly not of natural causes, Maria Vittoria Venebretti was tried and convicted of murdering all three of them.

The accounts of her life that I had read suggested strongly that most of Milan had known exactly what Signorina Venebretti was doing with her husbands but had feared to bring her to trial because of the influence of her father (whether papal or diabolical) and her own reputation as a witch. Even when convicted, she was not executed, but confined to a cloister, where she died three years later of unknown causes.

The Venebretti Necklace was given to her as a wedding present by her third husband, Signor Cosmo Baldessare, who would scarcely two years later die in a spectacularly grotesque fashion. The necklace was lavishly described, both by her contemporaries and by Samuel Mather Parrington in his day-book: a massive thing, made of gold and pearls and thirteen emeralds like great baleful eyes. The numerologists had, of course, worked themselves into a frenzy over those thirteen emeralds, and they were counted proof positive in some circles that Maria Vittoria Venebretti had been a witch and a devil worshipper as well as a poisoner. Others scoffed at this idea, along with the notion that Signorina Venebretti had cursed the necklace when it passed out of her hands. The necklace had been owned by five persons between Maria Vittoria Venebretti and Samuel Mather Parrington, and whether there was a curse or not, it was certainly an odd coincidence that the two of them known to have actually worn the necklace had both died by violence. Samuel Mather Parrington himself had famously been careful never to touch it with his bare hands.

“Do you think . . . you said there was a . . . a bundle . . . ”

“Oh, I surely do,” said Miss Coburn. “Are you and Mr. Lucent continuing your salvage operation?”

“Yes. That is, when Mr. Lucent gets in.”

Mr. Lucent was notorious for his erratic time-sense. Miss Coburn grinned and said, “Will you leave him a note? I want to get to work, but I don’t . . . I don’t want to be down there alone with her. Or it.” I could see her blush, even through her tan, but her eyes were steady and unapologetic.

“You want, er, me?”

She tilted her head a little. “You are good company, Mr. Booth. You don’t

“Oh.” Now I was blushing, and I turned away in a hurry to find a spare sheet of paper. “I’ll write Mr. Lucent a note.”

We walked through the morning bustle of the museum, Miss Coburn exchanging waves and greetings with her friends. I shoved my hands in my pockets and tried not to think about Madeline Stanhope. It made things no better to know the skeleton’s name; it seemed somehow worse to imagine, not merely a collection of flesh and bones and hair, but a woman named Madeline Stanhope, trapped there in the stifling darkness. Had she known who had murdered her? Had she known why? I felt as if I walked inside a cold shadow, a shadow cast by bricks and mortar.

No one else was in the basements yet. “Fortifying themselves with a third cup of coffee,” Miss Coburn remarked.

I opened the storeroom door. We both flinched back; then Miss Coburn caught herself and managed a laugh. “I suspect that both of us have overly morbid imaginations, Mr. Booth.”

“ . . . Yes,” I said and followed her into the storeroom.

The empty tau in the wall looked even more horrid this morning. I could see the sad jumble of bones on the floor, the great dark emptiness of the eye-sockets.

“Yes, well,” Miss Coburn said and took a deep breath. “No point in putting it off.” She knelt down again among her equipment and leaned forward into the hole.

I could not help her and did not wish to watch; I began the work I would have to do in any event, jotting in my pocket-sized notebook a rough catalogue of the books still in the storeroom. As I worked, I became more and more aware of how carefully judged the collection was. Like the letters of Jephthah Strong, these books were all obscure without being rarities—collections of sermons, histories of various regions of the state, tedious genealogies of prominent local families. Someone had chosen the contents of this room with an eye to books that no one was likely to seek out.

I must have made some kind of a noise, an indrawn breath, a click of tongue against teeth; Miss Coburn said, without looking up from her collection of vertebrae, “What is it, Mr. Booth?”

“Oh, just the books.”

“Anything in particular about the books?”

“It . . . it rather looks like they were chosen carefully as . . . as watchdogs.”

“What do you mean?

I explained about the bracket into which the books and holograph manuscripts fell, between valuable for their rarity and discardable for their irrelevance. By the time I was done, she was staring at me, two vertebrae forgotten in her hands. “You mean this whole
was premeditated?”

“Well, it might be, er . . . 
meditated. That is, they mightn’t have had the books and papers here first.”

“But pretty damn quickly thereafter.”


She hunched her shoulders, as if against a sudden draft. “Someone must have hated Madeline Stanhope very much indeed.”

“Yes,” I said, and we each went back to work.

It was about half an hour later that Mr. Lucent finally showed up. He looked ill. Miss Coburn said, “Hard night on the town, Mr. Lucent?”

“Well, I couldn’t just go
,” Mr. Lucent said. “I mean, really! Are you ready, Mr. Booth?”

“Yes,” I said, and we returned to our labors; I felt rather like the Danaides, condemned forever to carry water in sieves. We had to start by clearing the mail room, which took longer than it should have because we were both clumsy with lack of sleep. Then I returned to the storeroom to carry things to the dumb-waiter, while Mr. Lucent waited in the mail room to carry things from the dumb-waiter to our respective offices.

“Thank goodness you’re back,” said Miss Coburn. She now had most of the skeleton—Mrs. Stanhope’s skeleton, I reminded myself and looked away—laid out on the floor. “This is not a pleasant place to be by oneself.”

“I’ll be in and out,” I said.

“Yes, I know. But if something jumps out of the wall and grabs me, at least you’ll hear the scream.”

“ . . . Yes,” I said and picked up an armload of books.

I had been in and out twice and was on my way back for the third trip when I found Miss Coburn standing outside the door, pressed up against the wall as if it were the only thing keeping her from falling down.

“Miss Coburn? Are you all right?”

“Yes,” she said, although her voice was faint and breathy. “I’m fine. It’s just . . . there . . . there are shackles.”

“ . . . Shackles?” I said, feeling my body contract as if with extreme cold.

“One of them was broken,” Miss Coburn said, her voice still small but very steady. “I had been wondering, because building a wall—even a narrow one like that—it isn’t the sort of thing you whip together in five minutes. It must have . . . it must have taken hours. And we know she wasn’t dead, because of the hand. So I thought, maybe she was unconscious, or maybe she was tied up with ropes that have disintegrated. But she was . . . ” She stopped and swallowed hard. “She was chained to the wall. I don’t know how I missed them last night, except that they’re old and rusty and don’t . . . they don’t catch the light. She must have sat there, with whatever’s in that bag, and watched her murderer building that wall.”

“But why?” I said helplessly. “Why would anyone do that?” My books had suggested reasons, but not the sort of reason I needed now. They did not talk about how one might nerve oneself to do such a thing, to mix the mortar and lay the bricks with one’s victim watching. Had she begged for her life? Had she cursed? Wept? Screamed? Had her murderer gagged her?

“I don’t know,” Miss Coburn said, and she sounded as cold and helpless as I felt. “I just don’t.”

Our eyes met for a moment, and then we went back into the storeroom together.

Although her morbid and unwilling curiosity must have been as insistent as mine, Miss Coburn was unwaveringly methodical. She assembled the entire skeleton plus its collection of earthly detritus and then spent the rest of the morning carefully documenting that much of what she had found.

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