Part Four: The Methods of Murder Chapter Forty-Six
It was a long walk to a bad end, with the bell pealing a spritely dirge.
Matthew and Berry were side-by-side as they progressed along the road toward the vineyard. ahead of them strode Chapel, deep in conversation with Evans. arrayed around the hapless prisoners in a dangerous triangle were Jeremy, Ripley, and Count Dahlgren. and keeping pace were the boys, hooting and laughing with joyful glee, jostling one another for closer looks at Berry, darting in and plucking at Matthew's coat or Berry's dress and then being chased back by an almost playful feint from Jeremy's knife or a backhanded threat and Prussian yell from the count. No one bothered Ripley and Ripley reacted to no one; he'd put on dark-tinted spectacles to shield his eyes from the sun and walked with a solemn but inexorable forward motion.
"What are they going to do to usi" Berry pressed up close beside Matthew, flinching as a yellow-haired boy of about fourteen ran in and pulled at her dress. She started to turn and shout at him, as she'd done to several others, but as that had just brought about a storm of laughter she decided it was wasted breath.
Matthew wanted to say I don't know but the time for that lie was well and truly done. after all, he was so damned honest. "They're going to kill us," he said.
Berry stopped. She stood gaping at him, her blue eyes scorching holes through his head, until Dahlgren gave her a shove that almost propelled her into Matthew. Oh, how the boys did convulse themselves! One-a little brown-haired imp not over twelve-started massaging the front of his breeches and grinningly pranced a jig, his boots kicking up dustpuffs.
"Kill usi" she gasped when she could speak. "Kill usi What have you got me intoi"
"an adventure," he replied. "I thought you liked those."
"I like adventures I can live through!" Her mouth was so close to his right ear Matthew thought she was going to bite it off. Her hair was wild and tangled and whitened by dust. She looked desperately around and saw only woods beyond the laughing faces and capering figures. "We can run, can't wei"
"Not faster than they can catch us."
"They're not going to kill us!" Her mouth twisted. Her eyes were wet. "They're just going to frighten us, aren't theyi"
"I don't know. I don't think I could be any more frightened."
"You're supposed to do something!" she insisted, again right up at his ear.
Matthew just grunted. What are you going to do, moonbeami
He could cry, he thought. Break down in tears and let them see his real courage. Let them see what happens when a chess-loving moonbeam plays...what was that word he'd conjured up in Philadelphiai Detective. Ho, ho, what a joke! One has to survive his first investigation, Matthew thought grimly. He gave another pull at his bonds, as he'd done at least half-a-dozen times, but the cords were only going to come off when his wrists had thinned a little more.
"Someone's coming, aren't theyi" Berry pleaded. Her voice cracked and she caught herself. "Tell me. Someone's coming."
"No one's coming. and the gate's locked." Was he being too crueli He thought to put an arm around her, but found how quickly he had forgotten about the cords. His mind was swimming in the blood of the future. The very near future. Well, his heart might explode and he might fall down and die without further injury.
But not further insult, for he realized he had just stepped into a pile of manure left by the coach horses on their way to the stable. The laughter and hollering swelled up and someone called him a "shitfoot." Could someone actually die of embarrassmenti he wondered. Regrettably, no.
"Mister!" Berry shouted. Then, louder to be heard over death-bell and merriment, "Mister Chapel!"
Chapel interrupted his discussion with Evans and drifted back. "Yes, missi"
"We won't say anything!" she told him.
"That's right," he agreed.
"I mean it! We'll be quiet! Won't we, Matthewi"
"Yes, you'll be very quiet," Chapel said.
Berry suddenly sat down on the ground. at once Chapel motioned for help and a swarm of boys rushed in to oblige. Matthew thought Berry's clothes were going to be torn off, and her breasts and private area squeezed and felt by every hand on an arm. She got up red-faced, swollen-eyed, and fighting, until Count Dahlgren came forward, grabbed a handful of her hair, shook her head back and forth, and hollered, "You vill valk!" into her ear. His fist was ready to strike before her forehead could. Matthew saw her eyes go blank and her mouth slack, and a pain beyond agony pierced his heart as she staggered forward and the little parade marched on.
"She's not doing well," Chapel remarked as he walked at Matthew's side.
"This is her first time to be murdered," he answered, in a stronger voice than he'd ever imagined he could summon up, if he'd ever imagined such a situation at all.
"Just don't run very far," Chapel advised, in the manner of a friendly confidant. "Far enough to give them some exercise. Then just lie down and let them have at it. It won't take long."
"am I being murdered or having a tooth pulledi"
Chapel laughed softly. The bell stopped, which made Matthew's guts churn like a barrel of fresh-caught cod. "Being disposed of," the man replied. "as any commodity might be used up and thrown away. That's what all human beings are, really, when you get down to things. Correcti"
"If I said yes, would I and the girl livei"
again that soft laugh.
"So that's what all this is abouti" Matthew saw at the end of the road the vineyard and the arrangement of buildings all constructed from chalkwhite stone. One of the buildings had a small belltower. "Creating commodities for use by Professor Felli"
"Yes, and for use by anyone willing to pay. Come on, Matthew! Surely you understand how important it is for the...how shall I phrase it...i"
"Criminal underworldi" Matthew supplied.
"Brotherhood," said Chapel, "and sisterhood, also, to replenish itself. We are commodities, too. all our talents make us valuable to different degrees and different worths. Take Billy Hodges, for instance. as I said, he did some wonderful work for us and became an instructor in the screever's art. See that building off to the left, therei Beside the one with the belltoweri That would be our primary classroom. Billy taught his pupils in there. Some of them advanced to take other positions in the colonies, where they are waiting for certain signals. Some have been sent to England to work. The same as with all our classes: the art of self-defense, the study of finance, the techniques of human management, the art of communication...and on and on until you get to the more defined studies of assassination, arson, blackmail, theft, extortion, cardsharping, dipping, forgery, and-"
"Poisoningi" Matthew interrupted. "How to concoct drugs to kill five innocent people in a Philadelphia taverni"
"Oh, those five people were unfortunate byproducts of the contract. Someone had to drink that wine. We couldn't exactly ruin Swanscott and his business if no one was poisoned, could wei"
"Necessary. Don't you see that this is a businessi Really, Matthew! This is a business with a great future. It's been sailing along in England and Europe for many, many generations. Now, with the new world opening up and all its potential ahead, we'd be pretty foolish not to want to get in the door too, wouldn't wei" He sighed, because he knew he wasn't making much of an impression. "as for the poisoning, you might be interested to know that when Mr. Nack committed his acts of revenge, only Mr. Deverick had any idea why he might be getting his throat cut." He slid a sidelong glance at Matthew to gauge his interest, then went ahead anyway when Matthew showed none. "ausley only supplied the human commodities, without knowing their exact use. as for Godwin, the doctor was involved with a young whore in London after his wife died. We found out her name was Susan. He fawned over her, and she used him as her ponce. Made a real fool out of him, as the tale goes. I suppose he'd do anything to stay around her, for that is the illusion we call love. Me, I would have ripped her gutless and thrown her out a window. But Godwin must have thought himself a noble soul who would someday wean his sweetheart off the throbbing cocks of other men and lead her to a better life. Until she got herself knocked up and he killed both his sweet Susan and the little bastard on the abortion table. an accident, I'm sure. But you know, he was always drawn to the doves. a sad episode in an otherwise exemplary life. However, we thrive on such episodes. They make our business so much simpler. Therefore when we approached the good doctor about making a small batch of poison for us-out of belladonna he purchased at the Smith Street apothecary, by the way-he was at first very reluctant until we brought all that up about Susan. Could we prove iti Witnesses could be found and letters written, we said." Chapel gave a broad wink. "We have ladies with great imagination and not a little experience. But Godwin was a weak nut. Guilt-ridden and pliable, so not much pressure had to be applied. We were going to kill him ourselves, if he tried to approach the high constable. We would have found someone else. a commodity. You seei"
"a tragedy," Matthew replied.
"a business. Like any other, except..." Chapel thought about it. "It made me, a poor but ambitious tinker's son, very wealthy."
The boys suddenly rushed ahead. Ominously so, Matthew thought. They disappeared around the corner of the belltower building.
"ah, the ragged schools give us such dedicated pupils," Chapel said, with a hint of wicked delight. "Now listen, do as I say. Run a little bit to get them excited, then lie down. Tell the girl, if she's in any state to hear you. But you won't be able to run very far, anyway."
"What'll you do to us afterwardi Throw our bodies in the riveri"
"Certainly not. Billy jumped off that cliff over there," and here Chapel motioned in the direction of the Hudson, "before he could be stopped. He was half-blind, as it was. Couldn't see where he was running to or from. Ordinarily, we would have buried him back in the woods where we bury all our mistakes and failures. Which are unfortunately many, as we have very exacting standards, the same as any university. Out of all the candidates sold to us by ausley, we only pass through about six a year. Now this ausley situation is a problem. We're going to have to find a replacement for him and get our own representative heading up the girls' orphanage, so we have a lot of work to do the next few months."
Matthew's mind had latched on to something Chapel had just said. "Half-blindi What do you mean, Billy was half-blindi"
"Oh, his eyes were all torn up. The birds, you know."
"That's right. My hawks." and then they turned the corner and there around a large canopy-shaded aviary the pack of boys were waiting. Three of the biggest ones had hooded brown-and-white birds of prey perched on their leather gloves and forearm-guards.
Berry made a sound as if she'd taken a blow to the stomach. Her knees buckled, but the gentlemanly Count shoved her forward with sadistic relish.
"You are one bastard," Matthew said to Chapel, his teeth gritted so hard they were about to break. Chapel shrugged, as if this were a compliment.
"Young men!" Lawrence Evans had picked up a basket and was passing it around. "arm yourselves, please. Watch the blades, we don't want any accidents."
The boys, who Matthew noted had removed their colored badges so all were equal in this endeavor, were reaching in and coming up with knives. There was a disturbing variety of blades: short, long, hooked up or down, wide, thin, stubby, elegantly evil. The boys walked around sticking and stabbing the air, some delivering a brutal twist, some slashing as if trying to destroy the last vestiges of childhood before they stepped across the threshold of no return.
They all appeared to have done this before, though several-including the light-fingered Silas-looked just a bit green around the gills. But they too hacked and sliced the air with abandon.
"Your version of the professor's gauntlet," Matthew said to Chapel; or more correctly, heard himself say, as his face and mouth seemed numbed by frost.
"Correct. My version, utilizing a long-cherished hobby. Mr. Greathouse has been schooling you well. He'll be out here soon enough himself, you can mark that." He waited for Dahlgren to shove Berry into earshot, though she still looked too dazed to comprehend their fate. "Mr. Edgari Where's Mr. Edgari"
"Here, sir," said a large, stocky young man with close-cropped dark brown hair. He came forward out of the building's shadow cradling a small lamb in the crook of a meaty arm, and in the other hand a wooden bucket that held of all things a paintbrush. Edgar had a slight limp and a pock-marked face, his eyes also dark brown and obviously nervous for he was blinking rapidly. When he reached Chapel, he glanced up and said almost shyly, "Hello, Matthew."
Matthew was struck dumb for a few seconds. Then his mouth moved and he said, "Hello, Jerrod."
"I heard you might be coming out. How've you beeni"
"Fine, thank you. and youi"
"I'm all right." Jerrod Edgar nodded. His dull eyes did not show the most intelligence in the world, but Matthew had known him as a decent fellow in 1694, when Matthew was fifteen and Jerrod twelve. Jerrod had unfortunately been the target of some of ausley's most frequent and intense attentions, and Matthew had watched him withdraw into himself and pull all his shame and anger into the shell with him. Then Jerrod had stolen a burning-glass that ausley lit his pipe with during one of the punishment sessions, and afterward he was always setting fire to either leaves or donated prayer book pages or grasshoppers or his own plucked-out hair. When another boy had tried to steal it, the boy had left the orphanage for the King Street hospital folded up in a cart and obviously died there, as he'd never returned. "I guess I'm doin' all right," Jerrod repeated, as he gave the lamb to Simon Chapel.
"May I ask what you're doing herei"
"I don't know. Just playin' with fire, mostly. It's what I like."
"Knife, please," Chapel said, to no one in particular.
Matthew saw that the other boys were settling down. They had stopped swinging their blades. Their muscles were warmed up, and they were saving their energy. Matthew looked back into Jerrod's disturbed but fathomless eyes. "Jerrodi" he said quietly.
"are you going to kill mei"
Evans had brought a hooked knife to his master. Matthew realized it was the exact kind of slaughterhouse implement Kirby had used so well. Chapel stroked the lamb a few times and said, "There, there," to its pitiful call for its mother. Then he drew the head up and back with one hand while the blade in the other sliced the white throat from ear to ear. The bright red blood burst out and flooded into the bucket that Evans had taken from Jerrod and now held steady beneath the torrent.
"Yes, Matthew," said Jerrod. "I suppose I am."
"You don't have to," Matthew told him.
Jerrod cocked his head, listening to the blood spilling into the bucket. The three hawks began to shiver with excitement and clench their claws on the leather gloves, scoring deep grooves even deeper. "I do," Jerrod answered. "If I want to stay, I mean. They're good to me here, Matthew. I'm somebody."
"You always were somebody."
"Naw." Jerrod's mouth smiled, but his eyes did not. "I was never nobody, out there."
Then he looked at Matthew a moment longer, as the convulsing lamb emptied and the bucket filled up and the hawks stirred and made little eerie skreeling noises, and finally Jerrod went over to the basket on the ground to get himself a knife.
Matthew started to go over to stand beside Berry, to say-exactly what, pray telli-something to her to get her mind focused, but suddenly Evans grasped his upper arm and a bloody paintbrush that smelled of old Dutch copper duits was being liberally applied to his face: forehead, cheeks, around the eyes, circling the mouth, down the chin, and done.
One of the hawks, the largest of the birds and perhaps the one that had torn the cardinal to shreds over Matthew's head in the garden that day, twitched its hooded head back and forth and made a soft, high keening noise.
"They're trained to go for the color," Chapel explained, in all earnest seriousness. "Many hundreds of blood-soaked field mice and hares have gallantly given their lives. They smell the odor too, of course, which helps them home onto you, but their eyesight is simply magnificent." He had deposited the lamb's carcass into a black box with a lid on it that he now closed, so as not to give the birds a confusing signal. Lawrence Evans walked over, carrying the gore-bucket to paint Berry's face with the brush. She looked at him as if he were mad, tried to kick him and then strike his head with her own, but had to relent when again Count Dahlgren seized her hair, shoved a fist against her spine, and threatened to break her back before the game even began.
"You'll be given a running start." Chapel walked a few paces away to a horse trough to wash his hands. The boys were striding back and forth, also eager to hunt. No one was laughing and whenever someone spoke the voice was tight and clipped. "To the first row of vines," Chapel continued, motioning toward the sunny field some seventy yards away. "Then I'll signal the handlers to release their birds. It'll take them a few seconds to reach you. They'll see your face as just another bloody little animal, though perhaps a more difficult challenge. They seem to particularly like the eyes. at my discretion, I'll then send the boys. Everyone gets some exercise, everyone gets some experience. Everyone forges a bond to his brother. Do you seei"
Matthew was watching Berry shudder as the brush left her face bloodied in the same pattern as his own. The rings around the eyes were the worst. Billy Hodges had leaped to his death not only to escape the blades, but to escape the beaks and claws. "If we're going to die anyway, why should we runi"
"Well, there's no way you can get off the estate because of the wall all around, that's true, but in several instances we've had young men who've fled from the vineyard into the woods and hidden there for a day or so. Sometimes the birds do get tired and distracted and they turn away. We have had to go into the woods on hunting expeditions. Very bothersome, but again it's experience. Now: are you sure you want to stand there and die without resistancei Of course I would recommend that you not try to get into the woods, as it would simply prolong your inevitable deaths, but if you're interested in perhaps spending a last night communing with your Maker before you go, or hanging on to life as we know it to be, then you will give us a good display, won't youi"
Matthew looked at the group of young killers. Nineteen had never seemed so many. Had a few ghosts of previous failures slipped in among them, to rectify their failingsi Movement at an upper window of one of the buildings caught his attention. Someone had just pulled a curtain aside and was peering out. an indistinct face. One of the instructors, perhapsi Was that their living quartersi
"Oh...one last thing. Mr. Hastings!" To Chapel's summons came a burly, thick-shouldered boy of about seventeen, who carried a knife with a long slim blade. "Clear his pockets, please," Chapel directed. Hastings came up with some coins and the silver watch, which Chapel immediately took charge of. "I'll give you a little time to ready yourselves," he told Matthew, as he wound his new possession.
Matthew walked to Berry's side. She was trembling and tears had rolled down through her bloodmask, yet her eyes were no longer scorched blue blanks. She was hanging on.
"Listen to me," he said, looking her square in the face. "We have two choices." One of the hawks loudly skreeled. He felt his own nerve quickly ebbing. "We can fall on the ground and wait for them to kill us, or we can run. The hawks are going to be after us first, then the boys. We can cut across the vineyard and try to reach the woods. That way." His gaze ticked to the right. "We might get there. If we can find a place to hide-"
"Wherei" Berry asked, with welcome fury in her voice. "Hide wherei"
"If we can find a place to hide," he continued, "long enough to get these ropes off." How that was to be done without a knife he didn't offer. "We might be able to climb the wall."
"Ready, Matthewi Missi Ready, young meni" Chapel called. a few of the boys crouched down, Indian-style, with one knee to the ground.
"Keep going," Matthew said. "Don't fall." He feared he was losing her, as she blinked heavily and wavered on her feet. "Berry, listen!" He heard a raw edge of panic. His arms gave a final convulsive wrench against the cords, which would not be loosened. "Just keep going, do you-"
"Time!" Chapel shouted, and instantly the boys began to shout with voices as sharp as their blades.
Berry set out like a deer, even as Matthew said, "-hear mei" Then he followed right on her heels and immediately tripped over his own feet and fell to his knees to a chorus of frenzied laughter. He hauled himself up, cursing under his breath, and caught up with her. She was running faster and more nimbly than he would have expected, her hair flowing back and her face grim as the grave beneath the blood. He kept pace with her, and though she staggered once and crashed against his side neither of them fell this time but kept going onto the vineyard itself.
as they neared the first vine row, Matthew realized the true vintage on these few acres of Hell was the wine of corruption. The field was overgrown with weeds and the gray clumps of grapes were rotten and shriveled. a sickly-sweet odor akin to graveyard decay wafted in the sun. He felt the urge to look back but dared not. He cried out, "This way!" and ran along the row toward the green line of forest perhaps another hundred yards distant. a gnarled root caught at his right foot and he pitched forward, out of control for a few seconds before he righted himself. Berry was close beside him, her hair whipping into his face.
a shadow passed over them, followed by a second and a third.
The boys were silent, waiting.
Eighty more yards to the woods, Matthew judged it to be. They were still running at full speed. a giddy spark of hope flared in his heart that they would make the forest. He glanced back to see if the boys were coming yet, and the hawk that was swooping down right on top of him spread its wings wide and struck.
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