Pee-Wee Boxer surveyed the jobsite with disgust. The foreman was a scumbag. The crew were a bunch of losers. Worst of all, the guy handling the Cat didn't know jack about hydraulic excavators. Maybe it was a union thing; maybe he was friends with somebody; either way, he was jerking the machine around like it was his first day at Queens Vo-Tech. Boxer stood there, beefy arms folded,watching as the big bucket bit into the brick rubble of the old tenement block. The bucket flexed, stopped suddenly with a squeal of hydraulics, then started again, swinging this way and that. Christ, where did they get these jokers?
He heard a crunch of footsteps behind him and turned to see the foreman approaching, face caked in dust and sweat. "Boxer! You buy tickets to this show, or what?"
Boxer flexed the muscles of his massive arms, pretending not to hear. He was the only one on the site who knew construction, and the crews resented him for it. Boxer didn't care; he liked keeping to himself.
He heard the excavator rattle as it carved into the solid wall of old fill. The lower strata of older buildings lay open to the sun, exposed like a fresh wound: above, asphalt and cement; below, brick, rubble, then more brick. And below that, dirt. To sink the footings for the glass apartment tower well into bedrock, they had to go deep.
He glanced out beyond the worksite. Beyond, a row of Lower East Side brownstones stood starkly in the brilliant afternoon light. Some had just been renovated.The rest would soon follow. Gentrification.
"Yo! Boxer! You deaf?"
Boxer flexed again, fantasizing briefly about sinking his fist into the guy's red face.
"Come on, get your ass in gear.This isn't a peepshow."
The foreman jerked his head toward Boxer's work detail. Not coming any closer, though. So much the better for him. Boxer looked around for his shift crew. They were busy piling bricks into a Dumpster, no doubt for sale to some pioneering yuppie around the corner who liked crappy-looking old bricks at five dollars each. He began walking, just slowly enough to let the foreman know he wasn't in any hurry.
There was a shout.The grinding of the excavator ceased suddenly. The Cat had bit into a brick foundation wall, exposing a dark, ragged hole behind it. The operator swung down from the idling rig. Frowning, the foreman walked over, and the two men started talking animatedly.
"Boxer!" came the foreman's voice. "Since you ain't doing squat, I got another job for you."
Boxer altered his course subtly, as if that was the way he'd already been going, not looking up to acknowledge he had heard, letting his attitude convey the contempt he felt for the scrawny foreman. He stopped in front of the guy, staring at the man's dusty little workboots. Small feet, small dick. Slowly, he glanced up.
"Welcome to the world, Pee-Wee. Take a look at this." Boxer gave the hole the merest glance. "Let's see your light."
Boxer slipped the ribbed yellow flashlight out of a loop in his pants and handed it to the foreman.
The foreman switched it on. "Hey, it works," he said, shaking his head at the miracle. He leaned into the hole. The guy looked like an idiot, standing daintily on tiptoe atop a fallen pile of brick, his head and torso invisible within the ragged hole. He said something but it was too muffled to make out. He withdrew.
"Looks like a tunnel." He wiped his face, smearing the dust into a long black line."Whew, stinks in there."
"See King Tut?" someone asked.
Everyone but Boxer laughed.Who the hell was King Tut? "I sure as shit hope this isn't some kind of archaeological deal." He turned to Boxer. "Pee-Wee, you're a big, strong fella. I want you to check it out."
Boxer took the flashlight and, without a glance at the weenies around him, hoisted himself up the collapsed pile of bricks and into the hole the excavator had cut into the wall. He knelt atop the broken bricks, shining his light into the cavity. Below was a long, low tunnel. Cracks doglegged up through the walls and across the ceiling. It looked just about ready to collapse.
He hesitated. "You going in, or what?" came the voice of the foreman. He heard another voice, a whiny imitation. "But it's not in my union contract." There were guffaws. He went in.
Bricks had spilled down in a talus to the floor of the tunnel. Boxer half scrambled, half slid in, raising clouds of dust. He found his feet and stood up, shining the light ahead. It lanced through the dust, not getting far. From inside, the place seemed even darker. He waited for his eyes to adjust and the dust to settle. He heard conversation and laughter from above, but faintly, as if from a great distance.
He took a few steps forward, shining the beam back and forth. Threadlike stalactites hung from the ceiling, and a draft of foul-smelling air licked his face. Dead rats, probably.
The tunnel appeared to be empty, except for a few pieces of coal. Along both sides were a long series of arched niches, about three feet across and five high, each crudely bricked up. Water glistened on the walls, and he heard a chorus of faint dripping sounds. It seemed very quiet now, the tunnel blocking all noise from the outside world.
He took another step, angling the flashlight beam along the walls and ceiling. The network of cracks seemed to grow even more extensive, and pieces of stone jutted from the arched ceiling. Cautiously, he backed up, his eye straying once again to the bricked-up niches along both walls. He approached the closest one. A brick had recently fallen out, and the others looked loose. He wondered what might be inside the niches. Another tunnel? Something deliberately hidden?
He shined the light into the brick-hole, but it could not penetrate the blackness beyond. He put his hand in, grasped the lower brick, and wiggled it. Just as he thought: it, too,was loose. He jerked it out with a shower of lime dust. Then he pulled out another, and another. The foul odor, much stronger now, drifted out to him.
He shined the light in again. Another brick wall, maybe three feet back. He angled the light toward the bottom of the arch, peering downward. There was something there, like a dish. Porcelain. He shuffled back a step, his eyes watering in the fetid air. Curiosity struggled with a vague sense of alarm.
Something was definitely inside there. It might be old and valuable. Why else would it be bricked up like that?
He remembered a guy who once found a bag of silver dollars while demolishing a brownstone. Rare, worth a couple thousand. Bought himself a slick new Kubota riding mower. If it was valuable, screw them, he was going to pocket it.
He plucked at his collar buttons, pulled his T-shirt over his nose, reached into the hole with his flashlight arm, then resolutely ducked his head and shoulders in after it and got a good look.
For a moment he remained still, frozen in place.Then his head jerked back involuntarily, slamming against the upper course of bricks. He dropped the light into the hole and staggered away, scraping his forehead this time, lurching back into the dark, his feet backing into bricks. He fell to the floor with an involuntary cry.
For a moment, all was silent. The dust swirled upward, and far above there was a feeble glow of light from the outside world. The stench swept over him. With a gasp he staggered to his feet, heading for the light, scrambling up the slide of bricks, falling, his face in the dirt, then up again and scrabbling with both hands. Suddenly he was out in the clear light, tumbling headfirst down the other side of the brick pile, landing facedown with a stunning blow.
He vaguely heard laughter, which ceased as soon as he rolled over. And then there was a rush to his side, hands picking him up, voices talking all at once.
"Jesus Christ, what happened to you?"
"He's hurt," came a voice.
"He's all bloody."
"Step back," said another. Boxer tried to catch his breath, tried to control the hammering of his heart.
"Don't move him. Call an ambulance."
"Was it a cave-in?" The yammering went on and on. He finally coughed and sat up, to a sudden hush.
"Bones," he managed to say.
"Bones? Whaddya mean, bones?"
"He's not making any sense."
Boxer felt his head begin to clear. He looked around, feeling the hot blood running down his face. "Skulls, bones. Piled up. Dozens of them." Then he felt faint and lay down again, in the bright sunlight.
© 2002 Splendide Mendax, Inc., and Lincoln Child
In nineteenth-century New York, the public flocked to collections of strange and grotesque oddities called "cabinets of curiosities." Now, in lower Manhattan, a modern apartment tower is slated to rise on the site of one of the old cabinets. Yet when the excavators break into a basement, they uncover a charnel pit of horror: the remains of thirty-six people murdered and gruesomely dismembered over 130 years ago by an unknown serial killer.
In the aftermath, Museum archaeologist Nora Kelly is visited by an enigmatic, silver-eyed FBI agent who is obsessed with the mystery of the bodies. Together, Special Agent Pendergast and Nora Kelly embark on an investigation that will take them from the gleaming skyscrapers of midtown Manhattan to the crumbling archives of the Museum, from a mass grave under a Chinatown brownstone to a house of abominations on Riverside Drive. Their search unearths the faint whisper of a mysterious doctor who once roamed the city...a genius who carried out medical experiments on living human beings. But just as Nora and Pendergast begin to unravel the clues to the century-old killings, a fresh spree of murder and surgical mutilation erupts around them...and New York City is awash in terror.
Fast-paced and filled with the brilliant scientific details that have become the trademark of Preston/Child novels, The Cabinet of Curiousities presents readers with the duo's most delicious conundrumand most gripping readto date.
Douglas Preston worked for the American Museum of Natural History, is a regular contributor to The New Yorker, and in 1989 retraced Coronado's thousand-mile odyssey on horseback. He lives in Santa Fe with his wife and three children.
Lincoln Child was an editor at St. Martin's Press until 1987 and then worked for Met Life do technical programming and systems analysis. He lives with his wife and daughter in New Jersey.