From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Excerpt from The Bone Key by Sarah Monette

EXCLUSIVE EXCERPT! Here’s a sneak peek at The Bone Key, the new collection of necromantic mysteries by Sarah Monette (author of Mélusine and The Virtu). These ten stories draw museum archivist Kyle Murchison Booth from the safety of his scholarly work into the darkness of both the supernatural and the human psyche, where he will uncover secrets held for decades and learn truths about himself he would rather never have known.

The Bone Key

THE BONE KEY: THE VENEBRETTI NECKLACE, Part One

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.”

Bones? 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 person 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.

“There was,” 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 recent crime–if it is a crime.”

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

Yes, 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 belong 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 say 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 be?”

“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 terrifically 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.”

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 woman’s skeleton.”

“Oh.”

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

“Miss Coburn, I don’t… I, er…”

“My God, he must have been mad!”

“Who?”

“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 that 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 took 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, that 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.

* * *

Read more in THE BONE KEY: Available now!

“Sarah Monette can write like a dream.” –Charlaine Harris

Trade paperback / $12.95 / 256 pp. / ISBN 978-0-8095-5777-6

Sarah Monette was born and raised in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, one of the secret cities of the Manhattan Project. She studied English and classics in college, and has a Ph.D. in English literature. Her latest novel, The Mirador, continues the story begun in Melusine and The Virtu, and her short stories have appeared in lots of different places, including Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, Alchemy, and Strange Horizons.

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