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Pendergast [07] The Book of the Dead

By´╝ÜLincoln Child

1


Early-morning sunlight gilded the cobbled drive of the staff entrance at the New York Museum of Natural History, illuminating a glass pillbox just outside the granite archway. Within the pillbox, a figure sat slumped in his chair: an elderly man, familiar to all museum staff. He puffed contentedly on a calabash pipe and basked in the warmth of one of those false-spring days that occur in New York City in February, the kind that coaxes daffodils, crocuses, and fruit trees into premature bloom, only to freeze them dead later in the month.

“Morning, doctor,” Curly said again and again to any and all passersby, whether mailroom clerk or dean of science. Curators might rise and fall, directors might ascend through the ranks, reign in glory, then plummet to ignominious ruin; man might till the field and then lie beneath; but it seemed Curly would never be shifted from his pillbox. He was as much a fixture in the museum as the ultrasaurus that greeted visitors in the museum’s Great Rotunda.

“Here, pops!”

Frowning at this familiarity, Curly roused himself in time to see a messenger shove a package through the window of his pillbox. The package had sufficient momentum to land on the little shelf where the guard kept his tobacco and mittens.

“Excuse me!” Curly said, rousing himself and waving out the window. “Hey!” But the messenger was already speeding away on his fat-tire mountain bike, black rucksack bulging with packages.

“Goodness,” Curly muttered, staring at the package. It was about twelve inches by eight by eight, wrapped in greasy brown paper, and tied up with an excessive amount of old-fashioned twine. It was so beaten-up Curly wondered if the messenger had been run over by a truck on the way over. The address was written in a childish hand: For the rocks and minerals curator, The Museum of Natural History.

Curly broke up the dottle in the bottom of his pipe while gazing thoughtfully at the package. The museum received hundreds of packages every week from children, containing “donations” for the collection. Such donations included everything from squashed bugs and worthless rocks to arrowheads and mummified roadkill. He sighed, then rose painfully from the comfort of his chair and tucked the package under his arm. He put the pipe to one side, slid open the door of his pillbox, and stepped into the sunlight, blinking twice. Then he turned in the direction of the mailroom receiving dock, which was only a few hundred feet across the service drive.

“What have you got there, Mr. Tuttle?” came a voice.

Curly glanced toward the voice. It was Digby Greenlaw, the new assistant director for administration, who was just exiting the tunnel from the staff parking lot.

Curly did not answer immediately. He didn’t like Greenlaw and his condescending Mr. Tuttle. A few weeks earlier, Greenlaw had taken exception to the way Curly checked IDs, complaining that he “wasn’t really looking at them.” Heck, Curly didn’t have to look at them—he knew every employee of the museum on sight.

“Package,” he grunted in reply.

Greenlaw’s voice took on an officious tone. “Packages are supposed to be delivered directly to the mailroom. And you’re not supposed to leave your station.”

Curly kept walking. He had reached an age where he found the best way to deal with unpleasantness was to pretend it didn’t exist.

He could hear the footsteps of the administrator quicken behind him, the voice rising a few notches on the assumption he was hard of hearing. “Mr. Tuttle? I said you should not leave your station unattended.”

Curly stopped, turned. “Thank you for offering, doctor.” He held out the package.

Greenlaw stared it at, squinting. “I didn’t say I would deliver it.”

Curly remained in place, proffering the package.

“Oh, for heaven’s sake.” Greenlaw reached irritably for the package, but his hand faltered midway. “It’s a funny-looking thing. What is it?”

“Dunno, doctor. Came by messenger.”

“It seems to have been mishandled.”

Curly shrugged.

But Greenlaw still didn’t take the package. He leaned toward it, squinting. “It’s torn. There’s a hole… Look, there’s something coming out.”

Curly looked down. The corner of the package did indeed have a hole, and a thin stream of brown powder was trickling out.

“What in the world?” Curly said.

Greenlaw took a step back. “It’s leaking some kind of powder.” His voice rode up a notch. “Oh my Lord. What is it?”

Curly stood rooted to the spot.

“Good God, Curly, drop it! It’s anthrax!”

Greenlaw stumbled backward, his face contorted in panic. “It’s a terrorist attack—someone call the police! I’ve been exposed! Oh my God, I’ve been exposed!”

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