“Dominoes?” he asked.
“Bones,” I answered.
He took one and examined it. His bright blue eyes shone with fascination.
“What are they for?”
“For telling the future, I think.”
“The future?” He ran a finger over the leering face. “How do they work?”
“I don’t really know. They’re the doctor’s-or his father’s, I should say. You toss them into the air, I think, and how they land tells you something.”
“Tells you what?”
“Something about the future, but-”
“That’s what I mean! The past is nothing! Give them to me!”
He snatched up the five remaining bones, cupped them in both hands, and shook them briskly. The ensuing clatter sounded very loud in the cool, moist air. I could see his hands moving in the big, black blind eye of the Anthropophagus.
He tossed the bones into the air. End over end they spun and twisted and turned, and then fell back to earth, scattering willy-nilly on the cement. Malachi crouched over them, eagerly surveying the result.
“All faceup,” he murmured. “Six skulls. What does it mean, Will?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “The doctor didn’t tell me.”
Thus, buffoon that I was, I lied.
I had managed to coax him into the kitchen for something to eat and was setting the water on the fire to boil when the back door burst open and the doctor barreled into the room, a look of profound anxiety contorting his haggard features.
“Where is he?” he cried.
At that moment Kearns entered from the hall, his countenance as calm as the doctor’s was disturbed, his clothes and hair as neat as the doctor’s disheveled.
“Where is who?” he asked.
“ Kearns! Where the devil have you been?”
“‘From going to and fro in the earth, and from walking up and down in it.’ Why?”
“We’ve been loaded up for more than half an hour. They’re waiting for us.”
“What time is?” Kearns made a great show of removing his pocket watch from his vest pocket and opening it.
“Half past ten!”
“Really? As late as that?” He shook the watch beside his ear.
“We won’t be ready if we don’t leave now.”
“But I haven’t eaten anything.” He glanced toward me, and then noticed Malachi at the table, ogling him with mouth half-open.
“Why, hullo there! You must be the poor Stinnet boy. My sincere condolences for your tragic loss. Not the usual way we meet our Maker, but whichever way we go, we always get there! Remember that the next time you fancy putting a bullet into Warthrop’s brain. I try to.”
“There’s no time for breakfast,” insisted Warthrop, his face growing scarlet.
“No time for breakfast! I never hunt on an empty stomach, Pellinore. What are you making over there, Will? Eggs? Two for me, poached, with a bit of toast and coffee, strong mind you-as strong as you can make it!”
He slid into the chair opposite Malachi and granted Warthrop a glimpse of his dazzling orthodontics. “You should eat too, Pellinore. Don’t you ever feed the man, Will Henry?”
“I try, sir.”
“Perhaps he has an intestinal parasite. It wouldn’t surprise me.”
“I’ll be outside,” said the doctor tightly. “Don’t worry with the washing up, Will Henry. The constable and his men are waiting for us.”
He slammed out the door. Kearns gave me a wink.
“Tense,” he observed. He turned his charcoal eyes upon Malachi. “How close was it?”
“Close?” echoed Malachi. He seemed a bit overwhelmed by the natural force of the hunter’s personality.
“Yes. How close did you come to pulling the trigger and blowing his head off?”
Malachi dropped his eyes to his plate. “I don’t know.”
“No? I’ll put it to you this way, then: At that crystalline moment when you pressed the muzzle into his face, when the bullet was a squeeze of your finger away from blasting his head apart, what did you feel?”
“Afraid,” answered Malachi.
“Really? Hmmm. I suppose, but did you not also feel a certain… oh, how shall I put it? A certain thrill in it too?”
Malachi shook his head, shaken, but also, I think, mystified and strangely compelled.
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“Oh, you must. That euphoric moment when you hold their life here.” He held up his hand, palm facing us. “And now you are the captain of their destiny, not some ineffable, invisible fairy-tale being. No? Well, I suppose intent has everything to do with it. The will must be there. You didn’t really intend to blow his brains out.”
“I thought I did. And then…” Malachi looked away, unable to finish.
“Nice bit of poetic justice if you had. Though I wouldn’t hold him entirely accountable. And I do wonder, if he had knocked on your door that night and told you, ‘Better get out quick; there’s headless man-eaters on the loose!’ whether your father would have barred the doors or had him carted away to the nearest lunatic asylum.”
“That’s a stupid question,” said Malachi. “Because he didn’t warn him. He didn’t warn anyone.”
“No, it’s a philosophical question,” Kearns corrected him. “Which makes it useless, not stupid.”
The doctor was pacing in the courtyard when we finally stepped outside. O’Brien stood nearby, beside a large wagon already loaded with Kearns ’s crates, the sight of which caused the English dandy to clap his hands and exclaim, “What’s the matter with me? I nearly forgot! Will, Malachi, trot upstairs and fetch my box and bag, the small black bag, that’s the one, and step lively! Be careful with them, particularly the box. It’s quite fragile.”
He had returned the lid and cover, tying down the silken wrap with the same thin rope as before. I set the small black valise on top, and Malachi said, “No, Will; it’ll slide off when we go down the stairs. Here, I’ll slip it over my arm… It’s lighter than I thought it’d be,” he said as we hauled the box down the stairs. “What’s in it?”
I confessed I did not know. I spoke true; I did not know, but I suspected. It was macabre; it was well nigh unthinkable, but this was monstrumology, the science of the unthinkable.
We loaded the box beside the crates, alternately goaded and cautioned by Kearns: “Load it up, load it up, boys!… Not so rough with it; gently! Gently!” Kearns inspected our packing, nodded briskly, and then craned his neck to study the sky. “Let’s hope these clouds clear out, Pellinore. There’s an indispensable full moon tonight.”
The doctor and Kearns rode with O’Brien in the truck; Malachi and I followed on horseback, he astride the doctor’s stallion and I on my little mare. With each inexorable step toward the locus of his family’s slaughter, Malachi grew more withdrawn, his eyes assuming that eerie, faraway stare with which he’d first greeted me in the sanctuary of his father’s church. Did he know it then, in the subterranean recesses of his soul, the fate that awaited him at the fall of night, in that black, lightless chasm beneath the land of the dead? Did he know, deep in his marrow where wordless verity dwells, what the roll of the bones had presaged, and that he now rode upon that dark road to which Kearns had alluded? If so, he did not turn aside. With his head up, his eyes forward, and his back straight, Malachi Stinnet rode on to his doom.
It was near noon when we rendezvoused with Morgan and his men at the Stinnet house. An argument ensued, the second that day and not the last, between the doctor and Kearns: Kearns wished to examine the scene of the previous day’s carnage, and Warthrop wanted to begin preparations at once for the night’s grisly work.
“It isn’t a voyeuristic exercise, Warthrop,” said Kearns. “Well, not entirely. There may be something you missed that might prove helpful.”
“As in?” asked the doctor.
Kearns turned to Morgan, whose drawn features and reddened eyes bespoke of his quality of rest the night before. “Constable, it’s your crime scene. May I enter, please?”
“If you feel it’s absolutely necessary,” answered Morgan testily. “I’ve agreed to defer to your judgment, haven’t I?”
Kearns tipped his hat, winked, and disappeared inside the house. The constable turned to Warthrop and growled under his breath, “If you did not vouch for this man, Warthrop, I would take him for a charlatan. He seems altogether too cheerful for such grim business.”
“It’s the joy of a man perfectly suited for his work,” replied the doctor.
Morgan ordered O’Brien to wait by the door for Kearns, while we joined his deputies inside the church. He had chosen six men for the hunt. They sat on the first pew, the same bench where Malachi had cowered the day before, their rifles at their sides, with expressions stern and stares unflinching, as Morgan introduced the monstrumologist.
“This is Dr. Warthrop, for those of you who don’t know him-or of him. He is… an authority in these matters.”
The doctor nodded gravely to the men, but none spoke and none returned his sober greeting. We waited in gloomy silence for Kearns to complete his gruesome inspection. One of the men picked up his rifle and commenced disassembling it; when he was satisfied with its condition, he methodically put it back together. Beside me Malachi did not stir or speak, but stared at the cross hung high. At one point Morgan glanced our way and whispered to Warthrop, “Surely you don’t mean to bring those boys along?” The doctor shook his head and whispered something back that I could not hear.
A half hour later the doors flew open and Kearns strode down the aisle with O’Brien in his wake, pulled along like flotsam in his powerful current. He walked past us without acknowledging our presence, to the front of the sanctuary, where he stood for a moment, his back to our little congregation, contemplating the cross, or so one who did not know him well might think. Morgan endured it as long as he could, then rose from his seat and bellowed, his voice echoing in the cavernous space, “Well? What are you waiting for?”
Kearns crossed his arms over his chest and bowed his head. Another moment he took before turning, and when he did, a small smile he wore, as if he were enjoying some private joke.
“Well, it’s Anthropophagi, no doubt of that,” he said.
“There was never any doubt of that,” snapped Warthrop. “Let’s get on with it, Kearns.”
“My name is Cory.”
“All right,” muttered Morgan. “I’ve had enough.” He turned to the sharpshooters in the first pew. “Dr. Warthrop has engaged the services of this… person who purports to have experience-”
“ Extensive experience,” Kearns corrected him.
“-at killing these things. I would tell you his name, but at this point I’m not sure even he knows what it is, if he has one at all.”
“To the contrary, there are more than I care to count.” He smiled, but his winsome grin would be short-lived. “Thank you, Constable, for the warm introduction and the ringing endorsement. I shall endeavor to live up to it.”