He glanced at Morgan, who misread the meaning of it. The constable dropped a hand onto my shoulder. “I’ll look after Will Henry.”
Before Malachi or Kearns could protest, Warthrop ducked into the opening. The light of the lamp faded, then disappeared altogether. For several excruciatingly elongated minutes we waited without speaking, straining our ears for any sound to emerge from the stygian darkness that dwelled behind the secret door. The lamp’s glow returned at last, attended by the doctor’s lean shadow, following next its glow upon his drawn features; I’d never witnessed him wearier.
“Well, Warthrop, what did you find?” demanded Morgan.
“Stairs,” replied the doctor quietly. “Descending down a narrow shaft-and a door at the bottom.” He turned to Kearns. “I stand corrected, Jack.”
“When have you ever known me to be wrong, Pellinore?”
The doctor ignored the question. “The door is locked.”
“A good sign,” Kearns said, “but a bad circumstance. I don’t suppose your father bequeathed you the key to it.”
“My father willed me many things,” replied the doctor darkly.
Kearns called for the crate to be brought inside the tomb, and he quickly laid out the supplies for the hunt: extra ammunition for the rifles; six of the remaining grenades; a small sack containing a collection of sachets, perhaps two dozen in all, their shape and size reminding me of tea bags; a tight coil of sturdy rope; and a bundle of long tubes with short, fat strings protruding from one end.
“What is that, Cory?” asked Morgan, pointing at the bundle. “Dynamite?”
“Dynamite!” exclaimed Kearns with a slap of his open hand against his forehead. “Now, that is something I should have thought of!” He pulled three canvas bags from the crate and packed each with two grenades, bullets, and a fistful of the little paper packets. He patted the empty sheath strapped to his leg and wondered aloud where his knife had gone.
“I have it, sir,” I said, and held out the knife.
“How is it you keep ending up with my knife, Will Henry?” he asked playfully. He flicked the wickedly sharp blade against the twine binding the sticks and distributed them equally into the bags.
“They’re long-burning flares, Constable,” he informed Morgan. “Bright light for dark work.” He slung one of the bags over his shoulder and handed another to the doctor. The last he dangled in the constable’s direction. “Bobby-or would you prefer to delegate the duty to one of your brave volunteers?”
Malachi snatched the bag from Kearns. “I am going.”
“Your zeal is admirable, but I worry about its effect upon your judgment,” Kearns replied reasonably.
“I watched this thing murder my sister,” Malachi shot back. “I am coming with you.”
Kearns responded with a sunny smile. “Very well. But if your bloodlust gets in the way of my job, I’ll put a bullet in your head.”
He turned away from the tortured boy, his gray eyes twinkling merrily in the lamplight. “She has every advantage, gentlemen. She is faster, stronger, and what she lacks in intelligence she more than compensates for with her cunning. She knows the lay of the land, whereas we do not, and she can navigate it in darkness as black as pitch, which of course we cannot. We’ve no choice in the matter, of course, but the light we bring announces our presence; it will draw her to us like a moth to the flame. Her only weakness is the overriding instinct to protect her young, a vulnerability we may be able to exploit, should we be lucky enough to separate them from her maternal care. When threatened in the wild, poppies sequester their young in the lowermost chambers of their underground dens. That’s our destination, gentlemen, the very bowels of the earth, though we might not reach them; she may meet us halfway, or she may simply wait for us, but the odds we will have the element of surprise on our side are practically nil: We are the hunters-and we are also the bait.”
He turned to the constable. “You and your men will remain above, two on patrol of the cemetery’s perimeter, two for the grounds, and two on the watch here. She may flee to the surface, but I sincerely doubt it. It isn’t in her nature.”
“And if she does?” asked the constable, his round, owlish eyes blinking rapidly behind his spectacles.
“Then I would suggest you kill her.”
He clapped his hands, beaming with delight at our startled reaction to its echoing retort. “Jolly good, then! Any questions? Fools rush in, you know. Will Henry, be a good lad and grab that rope.”
“I thought only the three of you were going,” the constable said, dropping his hand upon my shoulder.
“Only as far as the door, Constable,” said Kearns. “To save us a trip back up for it. Your concern is touching, though. Here.” With the toe of his boot he pushed the rope across the smooth floor toward Morgan. “You carry it.”
Morgan stared at it as if it were a rattlesnake coiled at his feet. His hand dropped from my shoulder. “Well… I suppose it would be all right, as long as it’s only to the door.”
“Touching,” repeated Kearns with soft derision. He turned to the doctor as I picked up the rope. “Pellinore, after you.”
Now through the black slit in the wall we followed the doctor’s dancing light, Kearns first, then Malachi, and finally me, shuffling forward, borne down by the heavy rope draped over my shoulder. A flight of narrow stairs confronted us on the other side of the wall, descending thirteen steps to a small landing, then, after turning sharply to the right, continuing for another baker’s dozen to a cramped chamber, six feet long and six wide, its walls and ceiling reinforced by wide wooden planks that reminded me of a ship’s decking. Into this claustrophobic space the four of us crowded, our lamps throwing our misshaped shadows upon the weathered timber.
“You said there was a door,” Malachi whispered to the doctor. “Where is it?”
“We are standing on it,” replied the doctor.
We followed his gaze downward. A trapdoor lay under our feet, hinged on one edge, with a rusting padlock on the opposite side securing it to a clasp bolted into the chamber floor.
“And there is no key?” asked Malachi.
“Of course there’s a key,” Kearns said. “We just aren’t in possession of it.”
“No, sir,” I spoke up. “I think I have it.”
All eyes turned to me, none more astonished than those of the doctor. I had completely forgotten about it in the hurly-burly of events since I’d found it. My cheeks tingling with embarrassment, I reached into my pocket and removed the old key.
“Will Henry-,” began the doctor.
“I’m sorry, sir,” I blurted. “I was going to tell you, but you were in a foul mood when I found it, so I decided to tell you later, and then I forgot… I’m sorry, sir.”
Warthrop took the key, staring at it with wonder. “Where did you find it?”
“In the head, sir.”
“The shrunken head, sir.”
“Ah,” said Kearns, snatching the key from Warthrop. “The constable had it. Will Henry has come to our rescue yet again! Let us see now if fortune smiles…”
He knelt beside the rusting lock and slid the key inside. Teeth ground against reluctant tumbler as he forced the ancient gears clockwise. The lock snapped open with a loud pop!
“Stand ready,” breathed Kearns. “She may be lurking on the other side, though I doubt it.”
He grasped the handle of the trapdoor-what bitter irony lay in that name!-and flung it open with a dramatic flourish, like a magician opening a cabinet to reveal its remarkable, heretofore unseen contents. The lid smashed to the floor, a corner nearly catching me in the shin as it came crashing down. From above we heard the constable’s consternated cry, “What was that!” and the rumble and clatter of footsteps racing down the stairs. A nauseating wave of putridity rushed through the hole, invading the enclosed space, a profane stench of such profundity that Malachi recoiled with a strangled gasp, retreating to the farthest corner, where he doubled over, clutching his stomach. Morgan and his man Brock appeared above us on the stairs, gripping their revolvers with shaking hands.
“Dear God!” cried the constable, patting his pockets desperately for his handkerchief. “What the devil is that?”
“The devil’s manger,” replied Warthrop grimly. “Will Henry, hand me your lamp.”
He knelt on the side of the hole opposite Kearns, and lowered the light the length of his entire arm. The darkness below seemed to resist its glow, but I could see a smooth, cylindrical wall, like the upended bore of an enormous cannon. This chute ran ten feet straight down before it abruptly terminated. What lay beneath it, I could not see.
“Clever,” murmured Kearns with frank appreciation. “Drop the victim into the hole, and gravity does the rest.” He dug a flare from his bag and lit it. The gloom was banished by brilliant bluish light. He tossed the device down the hole. Down the shaft it dropped, then tumbled into open space, perhaps fifty feet or more, before landing among the jumble of the macabre debris littering the chamber’s floor. Morbid curiosity overcame our sense of smell, and we crowded around the hole to peer into the pit.
Below was a jagged landscape of shattered bone that spanned the radius of the flare’s illumination, a morass of remains immeasurable in magnitude, thousands of bones, thousands upon thousands, flung willy-nilly in all directions, tiny phalanges and large femurs, ribs and hips, sternums and vertebral columns still intact, rising out of rubble like the ribbed, crooked fingers of a giant. And skulls, some with tufts of hair still attached, skulls small and skulls large, some with mouths frozen open as if the jaw had locked mid-scream. Into this vile vista of human wreckage we stared, this carnage that human folly and carnivorous frenzy had wrought, our hearts filled with wonder and awe at horror’s true face, at once monstrous and all too human.
Beside me Kearns murmured, “‘Through me the way into the suffering city… Through me the way to the eternal pain…’”
“There must be hundreds of them,” muttered Morgan, who, having found his trusty handkerchief, spoke now through it.
“Six to seven hundred, I would guess,” ventured Kearns dispassionately. “An average of two or three per month for twenty years, if you wanted to keep them fat and happy. It’s an ingenious design: The fall would more than likely break their legs, lowering their odds of escape from extremely doubtful to impossible.”
He hauled himself to his feet, slung his rifle over one shoulder, and the canvas bag over the other. “Well, gentlemen, duty calls, yes? Constable, if you and Mr. Brock here would hold the rope for us, I think we’re ready. Are we ready, Malachi? Pellinore? I’m ready. I’m practically giddy with anticipation: Nothing gets my blood up like a bloody good hunt!” His expression mirrored his words. His eyes shone; his cheeks glowed. “We’ll need our lamps lowered to us once we’re down, Constable-don’t want to waste the flares. So who is going first? Very well!” he cried without waiting for a volunteer. “I will! Hold tight, now, Constable, Mr. Brock; I fancy walking upright like a proper bipedal mammal. Pellinore, Malachi, I shall see you in hell-I mean, at the bottom.”