Home > The Library at Mount Char(3)

The Library at Mount Char(3)
Scott Hawkins

Her nose wrinkled. The wind smelled of rot. Is Margaret back as well? But no, she realized, the rot was David. After a while you didn’t notice so much, but she had been away. Flies buzzed around his head in a cloud.

A year or two ago, David took up the practice of squeezing blood from the hearts of his victims into his hair. He was a furry man and any one heart yielded only a few tablespoons, but of course they added up quickly. Over time, the combination of hair and blood hardened into something like a helmet. Once, curious, she asked Peter how strong this would be. Peter, whose catalog included mathematics and engineering, looked up at the ceiling for a moment, thinking. “Pretty strong,” he said meditatively. “Clotted blood is harder than you’d think, but it’s brittle. The strands of hair would tend to alleviate that. It’s the same principle as rebar in concrete. Hmm.” He bent to his pad and scribbled numbers for a moment, then nodded. “Yeah. Pretty strong. It would probably stop a twenty-two. Maybe even a nine-millimeter.” For a while David had dripped it into his beard as well, but Father made him chisel this off when it became difficult to turn his head. All that was left was a longish Fu Manchu mustache.

“Where were you?” David demanded, shaking Michael by the shoulders. He spoke in Pelapi, which bore no resemblance at all to English, or any other modern language. “You’ve been off playing in the woods, haven’t you? You finished up weeks ago! Don’t lie to me!”

Michael was close to panic—his eyes rolled wildly, and he spoke in fits and starts, conjuring the words with great effort. “I was…uh-way.”

“Uh-way? Uh-way? You mean away? Away where?”

“I was with…with…the small things. Father said. Father said to study the ways of the humble and the small.”

“Father wanted him to learn about mice,” Jennifer translated, calling over her shoulder, grunting at the weight of her rock. “How they move. Hiding and the like.”

“Back to work!” David screamed at her. “You’re wasting daylight!”

Jennifer plodded back to the pile and hoisted another rock, groaning under the load. David, six-foot-four and very muscular, tracked this with his eyes. Carolyn thought he smiled slightly. Then, turning back to Michael: “Gah. Mice, of all things.” He shook his head. “You know, I wouldn’t have thought it possible, but you might be even more useless than Carolyn.”

Carolyn, safe in her hiding blind, made a rude gesture.

Jennifer dropped another rock into the underbrush with a dry crash. She straightened up, panting, and wiped her forehead with a trembling hand.

“Carolyn? What? I…not know…I…”

“Stop talking,” David said. “So, let me get this straight—while the rest of us have been killing ourselves trying to find Father, you were off playing with a bunch of mice?”

“Mice…yes. I thought—”

A flat crack rang out across the clearing. Carolyn, who had long experience of David’s slaps, winced again. He leaned into that one.

“I did not ask what you thought,” David said. “Animals don’t think. Isn’t that what you want to be, Michael? An animal? Come to that, isn’t it what you actually are?”

“As you say,” Michael said softly.

David’s back was to her, but Carolyn could picture his face clearly. He would be smiling, at least a bit. If the slap drew blood, perhaps he’ll be giving us a look at his dimples as well.

“Just…shut up. You’re giving me a headache. Go help Jennifer or something.”

One of Michael’s cougars rumbled. Michael interrupted it with a low yowl, and it went silent.

Carolyn’s eyes narrowed. Behind David, she saw from the grasses on the western edge of the valley that the wind was shifting. In a moment the three of them would be downwind of her, rather than vice versa. In her time among the Americans Carolyn had gotten acclimated to the extent that their smells—Marlboro, Chanel, Vidal Sassoon—no longer made her eyes water, but Michael and David had not. With the wind coming from the west she would not stay hidden long.

She took the risk of staring directly at their eyes—Isha had taught her that to do so was to invite notice, but sometimes it was unavoidable. Now she was hoping for them to be distracted by something north of her. Sure enough, after a moment Michael’s glance was drawn to a moth fluttering to a landing on the cairn. David and the cougars followed his gaze, as predators will do. Carolyn took advantage of the moment to slip back into the underbrush.

She circled down the hill, south and east. When she was a quarter mile distant she doubled back, this time walking without any particular caution, and announced her arrival by purposefully cracking a dry twig underfoot.

“Ah,” David said. “Carolyn. You’re louder and clumsier than ever. You’ll be a real American soon. I heard you blundering up all the way from the bottom of the hill. Come here.”

Carolyn did as she was told.

David peered into her eyes, brushed her cheek gently. His fingers were black with clotted blood. “In Father’s absence, each of us must be mindful of security. The burden of caution is upon us all. You do understand?”

“Of cour—”

Still stroking her cheek, he punched her in the solar plexus with his other hand. She had been expecting this—well, this or something like it—but still the air whooshed out of her lungs. She didn’t go to her knees, though. At least there’s that, she thought, savoring the coppery taste of her hate.

David studied her for a moment with his killer’s eyes. Seeing no hint of rebellion, he nodded and turned away. “Go help them with the cairn.”

She forced herself to draw a deep breath. A moment later the fog around the corners of her vision cleared. She walked over to Margaret’s cairn. Dry autumn grasses brushed against her bare legs. A truck roared by on Highway 78, the sound muffled by the trees. “Hello, Jen,” she said. “Hello, Michael. How long has she been dead?”

Michael didn’t speak, but when he came near he gave her neck an affectionate sniff. She sniffed back, as was polite.

“Hello, Carolyn,” Jennifer said.

Jennifer dropped the stone she carried into the underbrush and wiped the sweat from her brow. “She’s been down since the last full moon.” Her eyes were very bloodshot. “So, that’s what? About two weeks now.”

Actually, it was closer to four weeks. She’s stoned again, Carolyn thought, frowning a little. Then, more charitably, But who could blame her? She’s been alone with David. All she said was, “Wow. That’s quite a bit longer than usual. What’s she doing?”

Jennifer gave her an odd look. “Looking for Father, of course. What did you think?”

Carolyn shrugged. “You never know.” Just as Michael spent most of his time with animals, Margaret was most comfortable with the dead. “Any luck?”

“We’ll see shortly,” Jennifer said, and looked pointedly at the pile of rock. Carolyn, taking the hint, walked over to the pile and hefted a medium-sized stone. They worked in silence with quick, practiced efficiency. With the three of them at it, it wasn’t long before the pile was gone, scattered throughout the surrounding underbrush. The ground beneath it had sunk only a little since the burial. It was still relatively soft. They squatted down on their knees and dug at it with their hands. Six inches down, the smell of Margaret’s body was thick. Carolyn, who hadn’t done this in some time, stifled a gag. She was careful to make sure David didn’t see. When the hole was about two feet deep she touched something squishy. “Got her,” she said.

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