He swung his eyes, which appeared as black as midnight in the ethereal, splintered light of the church, toward the men before him. He reached into his trouser pocket and pulled out a dark gray concave object about the size of a half-dollar. “Can any of you tell me what this is? Pellinore, you’re not allowed to answer… No? No one? Then I shall give you a hint: I found it inside the good reverend’s house just now. Nothing, not even a guess? Very well. This, gentlemen, is a fragment of temporal bone, from an adult human male approximately forty to forty-five years of age. For those of you whose knowledge of anatomy is a bit rusty, the temporal bone is part of your skull, and not incidentally the hardest bone in your body. Despite its appearance, the large egg-shaped hole you see here in the middle”- Kearns held it up to his eye, looking at his rapt audience as if through a peephole-“was not neatly drilled by a surgical tool, but punched by the tooth of a creature whose bite force exceeds two thousands pounds. This is what happens when a ton of pressure is applied to our strongest bone, gentlemen. You can imagine what happens when it’s applied to the softer portions of our anatomy.” He slipped the piece of skull back into his pocket. “The evolutionary reason for their tremendous bite is that the Anthropophagi lack molars. Two rows of smaller teeth ring the outside of the larger, central teeth. Those first rows are for snaring and grasping; the remainder, of which there are approximately three thousand, are for slicing and slashing. In short, they do not chew their food; they swallow it whole.
“And we, gentlemen, like the eucalyptus leaves of the gentle koala, make up the entirety of their diet. They are, quite literally, born to eat us. Naturally that fact has created some tension between our species. They need to feed; we would prefer that they not. The advent of civilization and its fruits-the spear and the gun, for example-tipped the scales in our favor, forcing them into hiding and forcing upon them another adaptation of which the brutal assault yesterday is a prime example: The Anthropophagi are fiercely territorial and will defend their homestead down to the last little snappy-toothed toddler. In other words, gentlemen, the ruthlessness with which they hunt is exceeded only by the sheer savagery with which they protect their territory.
“And that is precisely where we shall meet them tonight-not on our ground, but on theirs. The time will be of our choosing, but not the place. We shall take the fight to them, and they will give us the fight we ask for.
“And when that happens, gentlemen, you may expect something akin to a two-year-old’s temper tantrum, albeit a tantrum thrown by a creature topping seven feet and weighing approximately two hundred fifty pounds, with three thousand razor-sharp teeth embedded in the middle of its chest.”
Kearns smiled, his sunny countenance in stark contrast with his words. “Tonight you will witness the stuff of nightmares. You will see things that will shock and appall you, that will freeze you down to your God-fearing marrow, but if you do everything I say, you may survive to see the next sunrise, but only if you do everything I say . If you are willing to make that pledge now, with no reservations, you’ll live to enthrall your grandchildren with the tale of this night. If not, I suggest you take your Winchesters and go home. I thank you for your kind attention, and Godspeed to you.”
Silence fell over the little assembly while Kearns waited for their verdict. They had hardly needed the lecture; they all had seen the human wreckage left in Anthropophagi’ s wake. They understood what they faced. They understood, and none made a move. None accepted the invitation to depart.
One of the men cleared his throat, and growled, “They’re not the only ones that defend their own, the bastards. What do you want us to do?”
Kearns put them to work at once constructing two four-by-eight-foot platforms from the load of timber deposited in the front yard. Once completed, the platforms would be transported to the cemetery, raised into position with a system of ropes and pulleys, and attached to the foremost trees of the woods along the cemetery’s western border, to a height of ten feet.
“Why ten?” asked the doctor out of earshot of the hammering and sawing crew. “They can easily jump that high.”
“Ten is high enough,” answered Kearns cryptically. More concerned was he with the weather. He hovered near the back of the truck that contained his crates and the mysterious shrouded box, constantly casting his eye overhead. Around three in the afternoon, as the last nails were being driven, a drizzling rain began to fall, spotting the constable’s spectacles, forcing him to yank them off his nose every two minutes for a quick wipe across his vest. The rain dampened his tobacco as well as his spirits; his bowl refused to stay lit.
Kearns took note of it, and said, “When this is over, I’m sending you a pound of the finest perique, Morgan. Far superior to that rabbit dung you smoke.”
The constable ignored him. “Pellinore, I’m concerned about the boys.” He nodded toward Malachi and me. “I say we either leave them here in the church or send them back to your house. It serves no purpose-”
“To the contrary,” interrupted Kearns. “It serves my purpose.”
“Perhaps you’re right, Robert,” Warthrop reluctantly acknowledged.
“I will not leave,” avowed Malachi angrily. “I am not a boy, and I will not leave.”
“I won’t have it on my conscience, Malachi,” the constable said, not unkindly.
“ Your conscience?” Malachi fairly shouted. “What of my conscience?”
“Absolutely!” Kearns laughed. “You should have stayed in that room so she could rip your head off your shoulders after she was through breaking every bone in your little sister’s body. What kind of brother are you?”
With an enraged cry Malachi launched himself at his tormentor. The doctor intercepted him as he swung impotently at Kearns ’s face, wrapping his arms about Malachi’s torso in a fierce embrace.
“Your choice was the right one, Malachi,” Warthrop whispered sharply into his ear. “You had a moral imperative-”
“I wouldn’t speak of moral imperatives if I were you, Pellinore,” cautioned Kearns, his eyes sparkling with delight. “And anyway, this absurd notion of the immutability of morals is a wholly human construct, the fanciful invention of the herd. There is no morality save the morality of the moment.”
“I begin to see why you delight in hunting them,” said Morgan with disgust. “You’ve so much in common.”
Malachi went limp in the arms of the man whom just the night before he had come within a hairsbreadth of murdering. His knees gave way, and the doctor’s arms kept him from collapsing to the wet ground.
“Why, yes, Constable, that’s true,” agreed Kearns. “We are very much like them: indiscriminate killers, ruled by drives little acknowledged and less understood, mindlessly territorial and murderously jealous-the only significant difference being that they have yet to master our expertise in hypocrisy, the gift of our superior intellect that enables us to slaughter one another in droves, more often than not under the auspices of an approving god!” He turned to Malachi. “So bear up, boy. You’ll have your revenge; you’ll redeem the ‘moral’ choice that tears your soul in twain. And tonight, if you meet your God, you can look him straight in the eye and say, ‘Thy will be done!”’
He spun on his heel and marched away. Morgan turned his head and conspicuously spat. Warthrop urged Malachi to be calm. Now was not the time to give in to his guilt or indulge in self-pity, he told him.
“You cannot keep me away,” he said in reply. “Nothing can.”
Warthrop nodded. “And no one will.” He looked over the boy’s shoulder at the constable, and said, “Give him a rifle and we shall find him a place, Robert.”
“And Will Henry? Surely you’re not taking him.”
I spoke up, hardly believing the words coming from my mouth, as if spoken by a hardier soul, “Don’t send me away, sir. Please.”
His answer was presaged by a smile, small and sad.
“Oh, Will Henry. After all we have been through, how could I send you away now, at our most critical hour? You are indispensable to me.”
The platforms were too large and heavy to transport by wagon, so as the misting rain gave birth to premature twilight, Morgan’s men carried them down the long lane to Old Hill Cemetery Road, and then another half mile to the main gates, where the men rested for a moment before the final push to their ultimate destination: the birthplace of this bizarre affair, where its midwife, the old grave-robber, had met his untimely end, dying waist-deep in the very grave he had invaded. The cause of Kearns ’s mysterious absence that morning became clear upon our arrival, for he was well-acquainted with the lay of the land, had chosen which trees to use as anchors for the platforms, and had carefully drawn out upon a sheet of foolscap the precise dimensions of the place, down to the locations of the tombstones. In the open area between Eliza Bunton’s grave and the stand of trees, he had sketched a circle in red and labeled it, in exquisitely ornate script, The Slaughter Ring.
The men set to lifting the platforms into position, pounding the anchoring pins into the trees using hammers whose heads were wrapped in rags, communicating with one another through hand signals and hoarse whispers, for Kearns had issued stern orders before we left the rectory grounds: as little noise as possible, and then no more than was absolutely necessary.
“Though they are sound sleepers-besides eating and copulating, it’s their chief occupation-hearing is their most acute sense. Even through several feet of dirt and stone, I daresay they could detect our presence. The rain will be good for one thing, at least. It will soften the ground and hopefully muffe the noise.”
While three men hung on to the ropes that kept the backs of the platforms against the anchor trees, the others slid four-by-four braces into place along the front edge. Scrap pieces of wood were nailed into the trunks of the two trees on either end for makeshift ladders. Then Kearns directed O’Brien, Malachi, and me to unload the crates from the truck. “Except my box and my bag. Leave them there for now; I don’t want them getting wet. Ah! This accursed weather!”
Warthrop drew him aside, out of earshot of the agitated constable, whose distress seemed to grow by the minute.
“I will probably regret asking this question,” he whispered, “but what is in that box?”
Kearns returned a look of mock astonishment at the doctor’s ignorance. “Why, Pellinore, you know very well what’s inside that box.”
He walked over to one of the crates and popped open the lid. Packed into individual compartments within were a dozen dull black canisters, each about the size of a small pineapple, wrapped in straw. Kearns removed one and called softly to me, “Mr. Henry! Catch!” He tossed it underhanded to me; it hit me in the stomach, and I comically juggled it before gaining a grip on its slick hide. “Careful, Will. Don’t drop it!”
“What is it?” I asked. It was quite heavy relative to its size.