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Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

The Strange Case of Monsieur Bertin

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Lincoln Child and Douglas Preston 

dedicate this story to 

our most excellent readers 

Constance Greene was sitting at the harpsichord, brows furrowed in concentration, when she heard a small intake of breath from A. X. L. Pendergast. She let her hands drop from the keyboard and glanced over. Her guardian was sitting in a comfortable leather chair by the fire, a glass of sherry on a nearby table, a curious expression on his face. He’d been opening the mail that Proctor had recently carried in on a silver platter.

“Is my playing disturbing you, Aloysius?” she asked.

It took him a moment to respond. “Never, Constance. Quite the opposite.”

“I feared my mistakes were wearing on your nerves.”

“Not in the least. And quite understandable: Contrapunctus XIV is not only the trickiest section in Art of the Fugue , but probably the most difficult harpsichord piece Bach ever wrote.”

Constance prepared to continue, then paused again, curious at how very still Pendergast had become. She noticed he was holding a black-edged card he’d just removed from a thick cream envelope. Rising from the instrument, she came over and seated herself in the chair on the opposite side of the hearth. It was a dark winter evening, a blizzard rattling the windows and wailing around the Riverside Drive mansion, the storm punctuated by a deep rumble of that rare phenomenon — lightning in winter. But the fire burned brightly, and the library was warm and snug.

“What is it?” she asked.

Without replying, Pendergast handed the card and envelope to her.

Death Notice 

Monsieur Gaspard Louis Bertin, 81, 

peacefully passed away at home on December 28, 2019. 

The viewing will be held at the Culp Funeral Home, New Orleans, 

on January 5, 2020, from Ten to Three o’Clock. 

The service and interment will take place at the Metairie Cemetery on January 6, 

at Two o’Clock, the Reverend Father Charles Fazande presiding. 

Constance lowered the card. “The name’s familiar.”

“He was very close to the family. My childhood tutor, in fact. Our correspondence had become sadly infrequent, although I did see him briefly in New York a few years ago. It was when you were in Tibet, during the time of your — ah — confinement.”

“‘Confinement,’” she repeated in a dry voice. “Aloysius, sometimes I believe the difference in our ages is not as great as previously thought.” She handed him back the note. “Odd there’s no return address.”

“Odd indeed.” Pendergast took the envelope and looked at it for a long moment before reinserting the card. He remained unmoving, silvery eyes looking into the fire. A silence settled into the room. Constance felt very much at home in the warmth, the firelight reflecting off the spines of the books, the crackling of the fire making a contrapuntal rhythm to the ticking of snow on the windows.

Finally, Pendergast roused himself. “As I recall, your last visit to New Orleans was rather short — we were there only for the sale of Penumbra. It would probably be a good idea — for your genealogical research, I mean — if you saw more of the, ah, cradle of my family. Would you care to join me on another little trip?”

Constance crossed one leg over the other and smoothed her skirt. “You plan to attend the service, then?”

“I fear there is no other Pendergast left to do so. I should like very much to pay my respects to the late Monsieur Bertin.” He reached for the glass of sherry. “If nothing else, it would allow us to escape this beastly Hudson River wind.”

New Orleans was as different from Manhattan as could be imagined. A warm, lazy breeze stirred the flags on the wrought iron balconies lining the streets west of the French Quarter, the buds of the magnolia trees ready to burst. The limousine eased to the curb in front of a striking, well-tended redbrick mansion. This was the Culp Funeral Home, its discreet and stately prosperity a contrast to the rather shabby and trash-strewn neighborhood.

Pendergast descended from the car and Constance followed, glancing around curiously with her violet eyes.

The two of them made their way down the walkway to the main doors, which were standing open. This would be a first in Constance’s long experience: viewing a dead body, at least one that was not the product of sudden violence. Having spent much time around crypts and tombs, she knew the secrets of the mortician’s trade, and she found it peculiar that people would want to view the corpse of a loved one that had been arranged, through artifice, to appear merely asleep instead of decomposing. She knew Pendergast had been raised as a Catholic, but she had never been able to figure out his feelings about the church. He rarely spoke of it, but when he did it was usually in reverential tones. He never responded to her droll observations on religion — her own view was grounded in skepticism and indifference — even when she tried to bait him. But despite his outward respect, he never went  to church.

A lone employee met them under the covered portal. He leaned toward them and spoke in a solemn, confidential voice. “Are you here for the Bertin viewing?”


“Right this way, miss. Sir.” He led them down a hallway to a second set of double doors, wedged open, before a large, softly lit room. A man, evidently the funeral director, came forward out of the shadows and pressed their hands in turn, murmuring, “I’m so sorry for your loss.”

They nodded their thanks and the man looked at them sympathetically for a moment. Then, with a muffled step on the soft carpet, he gestured for them to enter.

The room was entirely empty of people save for a lone figure swathed in black, sitting in a corner of the last row. The open casket stood on draped supports at the far end of the room, banked with lilies of the valley on either side. Near the head of the casket, a blown-up photograph of the deceased in life was displayed on an easel.

Constance followed Pendergast into the room, where he took a seat in one of the front rows.

The FBI agent sat very quietly for a long time, his head lowered. Constance, seated next to him, put on a grave face but surreptitiously cast her eyes about the room, taking a deep interest in the proceedings. She was fascinated by all things related to mortality — and the lack thereof. She could just see the deceased in his open casket, the bearded chin and nose sticking above the plush satin edge. The picture of him next attracted her interest. It showed a small, round-faced man wearing an old-fashioned wide-brimmed plantation hat, a coat, and a string tie, clutching a silver-headed cane. Around his neck dangled some odd-looking objects on a string, hard to identify in the poor-quality reproduction. But she believed they might be gris-gris charms or similar objects. A pair of beady black eyes stared at the camera, and a slightly ironic smile graced his face.

She knew quite a lot more about Bertin than she had let on to her guardian — at the time, it had seemed more polite to allow him to tell her of the man’s history. She knew, for example, that he was considered a scholar in the secret arts of obeah, Santeria, and other similar mystical beliefs. In fact, he had been rumored in some instances to have moved beyond mere scholarship into actual practice. She also knew that the last time Pendergast had seen him, Bertin had come to New York expressly at the agent’s request. Although she didn’t know the details, it had to do with the strange and tragic death of Bill Smithback, a reporter who had been Pendergast’s sometime antagonist and then friend. What sort of “studies” Bertin might have offered as Pendergast’s tutor she did not know, but she suspected they might have been rather more esoteric than usual. New Orleans was a city saturated in myth and ritual, a strange and exotic mix of the formal and the uninhibited, hidebound tradition and sensual carnality. Even this funeral parlor, normally the most neutral of buildings, had some subtle but surprising touches: strangely carved moldings on the outside. She had noticed figures of woven straw and grass hidden among the funeral sprays of flowers. The elderly lady in the corner was also enigmatic. She looked like someone from Constance’s childhood, dressed as she was in a shapeless Victorian dress of black muslin, her head swaddled in a veil, hunched over in what appeared to be fervent prayer. This was a place both in and out of time: where some religions were intoned by day, and others whispered by night. Bertin seemed to have had a foot in both.

She glanced over at Pendergast. Was he praying? Probably not in the traditional sense. More likely he was honoring his old friend in some ineffable mental way of his own. Sneaking a glimpse, she noted his eyes were only half closed.

At the same time, she observed that the funeral director was now standing at a side door, hands clasped one over the other. He was a small, dapper man, bald on top with black hair perfectly slicked down around each ear. He slowly rocked on his feet. Save for the lack of tailoring and the quality of the material, the man’s suit could almost be mistaken for Pendergast’s.

Pendergast raised his head so abruptly she nearly jumped.

“Let us view the body,” he said, rising.

She followed him to the casket, where Pendergast, growing motionless once again, gazed at the body a long time. Bertin was dressed in white tie and full evening dress, beautifully pressed. He looked just like the photograph — no doubt it had been used as the model for re-creating his face in death — his round visage with its pursed mouth and tiny nose almost doll-like in their perfection. The beard was neatly trimmed, the makeup expertly applied, hands folded on his chest sporting immaculately clean and polished nails.

After a long moment of contemplation, Pendergast leaned over the deceased, and for an instant Constance thought he was going to kiss him — but no; he simply laid a familiar hand on the man’s chest.

Then he raised his hand again and touched the dead man’s hair, giving it an affectionate stroke. His long white fingers slipped lightly down the corpse’s face and brushed the lips in an affectionate gesture that, Constance thought, was uncharacteristic but quite understandable, given how much of an influence Bertin had had...

Her thoughts were interrupted when she saw Pendergast insert one finger of his caressing hand into the corpse’s mouth, the other hand coming over now to assist. He jerked at the man’s jaws and they parted with a sucking sound; apparently they had been stuck together with some sort of wax. Working more swiftly now, Pendergast pulled several cotton balls out of the mouth and flicked them aside, followed by two wax inserts in the cheeks.

Constance had come to believe that nothing Pendergast did could surprise her anymore. But now she found herself looking on with a mixture of disbelief and amusement. “Aloysius,” she said in a low voice, “may I ask what exactly you’re doing? You’re ruining all the mortician’s hard work.”

Pendergast’s silvery eyes flickered toward her, but he said nothing and continued his bizarre work. Glancing around, Constance noticed that although Pendergast had strategically positioned himself between the corpse and the funeral director, the latter was now squinting at them, apparently perceiving that something was amiss.

The mouth cleared, Pendergast now pulled back the lips, tilted the head, and examined the teeth as he might a horse, and then grasped and pulled aside the tongue and, with his other hand, whipped a penlight out of his pocket and shone it down the man’s throat. Next he pried open the eyes, removed two cosmetic inserts over the eyeballs, and examined them with the penlight as well, followed by a brief palpation of the lymph nodes in the neck. He then unbuttoned the jacket, fingers flying, and threw it open to reveal a false shirt that ended mid-torso, exposing Bertin’s abdomen. Pendergast reached in and palpated the abdomen with both hands, front and sides. His fingers, now covered with stage makeup, left flesh-colored prints on the corpse’s sallow skin. Quickly wiping the rest of the makeup off his hands with a handkerchief, he took both the corpse’s hands in his own and examined them, backs and palms, along with the nails and wrists.

“You, sir!” came a loud voice from behind Pendergast. “What in God’s name do you think you are doing?”

It was the funeral director, furiously red in the face, who had strode up behind just in time to witness the end of this outrage.

Pendergast dropped the corpse’s hands, straightened up, and, tucking his handkerchief back into his suit coat, asked: “Perhaps you can tell me who paid for Monsieur Bertin’s funeral?”

“Like most people, he bought a package ahead of time.” The funeral director waved this question away as if it were a fly. “That’s immaterial. What the devil do you mean by this? You’ve — you’ve desecrated a corpse! I’m calling the police!” Constance glanced at the corpse, which now indeed looked rather desecrated: eyes open and staring, makeup smeared over his cheeks and lips, jaw crooked, arms askew, hair sticking up, clothing disarranged.

With an easy motion, Pendergast slipped out of his black suit coat a checkbook and pen. “No need for such histrionics, my friend. Please lower your voice — and remember the solemnity of this place. I fear Monsieur Bertin will need a little touching up around the visage, and perhaps a bit of sartorial tidying as well, but I’m sure your capable staff can handle both.” He wrote a check with a flourish, snapped it off, and held it out for the enraged man to see. “For your trouble.”

“This is outrageous!” the funeral director cried. “This—” His eyes focused on the check. “Why, three thousand dollars?”

“Along with my sincere apologies for the extra work.”

As the funeral director reached for the check, Pendergast withdrew it slightly. “And as for the police...?”

“Under the circumstances, I, ah, see no reason to call them,” the man said. “This will certainly take care of any necessary fixes. And...” He looked around. “There really isn’t anyone here aside from the old lady, who hasn’t even looked up from her prayers. So there’s no harm done.”

“May I ask when the package was purchased?” Pendergast asked.

“Some weeks ago,” the man replied, his avid fingers grasping the check.

Pendergast released the check from his spidery fingers and the director folded it into his breast pocket. With another glace at the old lady — who had, in fact, not moved during the brief imbroglio — he gestured for an employee, who came over and silently began attending to the corpse.

“The viewing will be closing,” the funeral director said to Pendergast in a low voice. “Perhaps you should leave now. I’ll let the lady in the back sit a few more minutes, then escort her to the door myself.”

Pendergast nodded. “Most kind.”

Out on the street, Constance turned to Pendergast. “Well, did you satisfy yourself that he was really and truly dead? The way you were inspecting his person, I thought you were about to have him turn his head and cough.”

Pendergast raised an eyebrow. “Forgive me for mortifying you like that — no pun intended. I was looking for evidence that Monsieur Bertin might have been the victim of foul play.”


“I saw nothing unusual.”

“What, may I ask, made you think he might have been murdered?”

“You may be amused to hear this, but when I first opened that death notice, I felt a sudden chill in the library — as if caused by the brief passing of a spirit. And as you pointed out, the lack of a return address on the notice was abnormal.”

“I wonder who else got the notice?”

“As do I.” Pendergast was silent a moment, as motionless as he had been back in the funeral parlor. “But it appears my suspicious nature has been overactive and I shall let it go. Forgive me, Constance; I have been in this disgraceful business too long.”

But, as Constance soon discovered, Pendergast did not let it go. Instead of returning to their suite in the Pontchartrain Hotel, Pendergast insisted on paying a visit to Monsieur Bertin’s doctor, an old Dutch fellow with the unpronounceable name of TenSpoecke who operated out of a ground-floor office in the French Quarter. The doctor was in — he didn’t seem to have many patients — and they were ushered into a consultation room that looked more like a fortune-teller’s parlor than a doctor’s office, with lampshades draped in tasseled silk, Persian rugs, and heavy Victorian furniture.

“I last saw him only a month ago,” the doctor said, seating himself neatly in a massive wing chair, a white doctor’s coat worn over an expensive and beautifully cut suit. “He was in his usual health, which, I’m sorry to say, was not good. He had angina, he was overweight, and he resolutely refused any alteration of diet or exercise. Exercise, in particular, was abhorrent to him — he refused to get on a treadmill even long enough to perform a stress test. And that codeine he was so enamored of — when he could get it — certainly did no good to his heart.”

“Did you examine the body?” Pendergast asked.

“Yes, indeed. I was called in to the morgue to sign the death certificate. Death by heart failure, precipitating factor atherosclerosis.”

“No autopsy?”

“My dear Mr. — Pendergast, was it? A private autopsy costs fifteen thousand dollars. The authorities had no interest in looking into the matter. And rightly so, there was absolutely no need, not the whiff of suspicion of anything beyond simple heart failure.”

As they climbed back into the limousine, Constance turned to Pendergast. “Satisfied, Aloysius?”

“Am I ever satisfied?”

The Metairie Cemetery was an amazing place, Constance thought as they walked along rows of spectacular marble tombs and mausoleums, statues of weeping angels and cherubs, Christs on crosses, saints in various drooping postures, men on horseback, and even a miniature Egyptian pyramid with a sphinx. All in all, she thought, a pleasant spot to spend an afternoon among the resting dead.

“This is one of the finest cemeteries in New Orleans,” Pendergast told her, “famous for its extravagant sepulchres. Much of the cream of New Orleans society was interred here, in aboveground tombs due to the high water table. As you know,” he continued after a moment, “my own people were buried under the manse on Dauphine Street, in a lead-lined catacomb fashioned by my ancestors almost two centuries ago.”

“No doubt they found the idea of mingling the Pendergast dead with strangers to be disagreeable.”


They arrived at the grave site, which was in a newer, more modest section of the cemetery, prepared with Astroturf laid down around the open hole. The mahogany casket with its gleaming brasswork sat in position over the gaping grave, on a lowering machine. The pleasant weather had given way to leaden skies and a winter drizzle. The elderly priest in his vestments stood to one side, Bible in hand, with an assistant holding an umbrella over his head, next to a man Constance presumed to be the cemetery director. The only other people at the graveside were two attendants — and the lady in black from the funeral home, standing in the drizzle.

At the appointed hour, the priest, after looking around as if surveying a vast crowd in attendance, began the service. He read the standard passages from the Bible in a tenor voice with a fine quaver, a bit cracked from age. Constance noticed that as the service progressed, several limousines and town cars with smoked windows eased past along the adjacent graveled path, pausing for a moment as if to pay respects. One such car stopped and the windows went down, revealing a group of elderly gentlemen, who crossed themselves multiple times. Then the windows went up again and the car drove on.

When the priest finished, one of the attendants released the brake of the lowering device, and with the humming of gears the casket descended slowly into the hole and at length disappeared. A moment later, when the device stopped, the attendants slid out the nylon webbing straps and laid them aside.

The priest said a prayer, then tucked a silver trowel into a pile of dirt, tossing some in while intoning: “We therefore commit his body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust; in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection to eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ; who shall change our vile body, that it may be like unto his glorious body.”

Constance listened attentively to the old words. It was the first burial she had witnessed since she was a child — during the smallpox epidemic that ravaged New York — and that had been a hurried and tragic event that she did not care to remember.

And then it was over. The priest closed the Bible, handed it to his assistant, and — as the attendants began filling in the grave — approached Pendergast and Constance. He held out his hand. “You must be Aloysius Pendergast,” he said, shaking. “I know something of you and your old family. Gaspard spoke highly of you, and often. I am Father Fazande.”

Pendergast inclined his head. “I’m most pleased to meet you, Father. Monsieur Bertin tutored me and my brother, Diogenes, when we were children.”

“What an interesting tutor he must have been.”

“He was certainly eccentric. In addition to history, mathematics, biology, and Latin, he introduced us to all kinds of peculiar things — the natural sciences, the heavens, anatomy, medicine, even ciphers and codes. He had an old Jefferson disk, a sort of wooden cylinder with letters on it for coding messages. Diogenes and I spent hours sending each other secret missives.”

“He always told me you were his favorite. He did not speak of Diogenes much, except to note that over time the boy’s interests became rather... discursive. Where is your brother now?”

“He perished in a house fire in the Florida Keys.”

“Oh, dear Lord. Another house fire.” The priest frowned and shook his head. “I’m so sorry for your loss.”

“Thank you.”

There was a slightly awkward silence. Then the priest said, “I hope Gaspard didn’t neglect your religious education.”

“Not at all. We enjoyed re-enacting some of the more exciting stories of the Old Testament with swords and knives. As I recall, he especially liked the story in Judges nineteen of the dismembered concubine. You know it, of course, Father?”

Father Fazande cleared his throat. “Yes, yes indeed. The Old Testament is full of, ah, colorful tales. But as curious as I’ve been to meet you in person, I particularly wanted to see you about this.” He removed a small envelope from his cassock. “Several weeks ago, Gaspard sent me a note with instructions and the key to his house.”

Pendergast raised his eyebrows. “The key? Indeed?”

“Yes. He’d been in poor health for a while, I’m sorry to say, and it seemed to be declining. He wanted me to make sure that, when he passed away, you received one of his dearest possessions: his Bible.”

He presented the key to Pendergast. “In his note, he said the Bible would be found in the library, on a rectory table — a large book with a silver clasp.”

“I recall it well,” said Pendergast, taking the key. “The very same Bible he read to us as part of our lessons.” He slipped the key into his pocket. “Thank you, Father, for giving me the message.”

“Think nothing of it. Gaspard was a good churchgoing soul, there every Sunday without fail. He did harbor some odd ideas, and naturally one heard rumors, but at base he was a good Christian. Besides, this is  New Orleans, after all.”

With a final handshake and a blessing the priest went off, and Pendergast turned to Constance.

Another  house fire?” she asked, scattering stray drops of rain with a shake of her mahogany hair.

Pendergast nodded. “A man as old as Father Fazande would be familiar with the history of New Orleans — including the destruction of Rochenoire.”

Constance said nothing. She recalled the strange story of how the Maison de la Rochenoire, the Pendergast family mansion, had burned to the ground many years before, when Pendergast had been away at boarding school. The blaze had taken the lives of his parents.

“Monsieur Bertin was one of those who, with several of the servants, escaped the burning house,” Pendergast murmured as he glanced around.

“Indeed?” Constance had not known this. “How did that happen, exactly?”

“Some of that day’s details remain a mystery to me still.” Pendergast’s roving eyes fastened on something. “Ah, there she is. Come. I should like to speak to the mysterious mourner in black.”

The woman in question was trundling along one of the cemetery lanes, using a cane for support, her garments drooping from the damp. Pendergast walked quickly toward her, Constance following.

They drew alongside and Pendergast stopped, covering her with his umbrella and giving her an ingratiating smile. “May I introduce myself? Aloysius Pendergast.” He took her hand and gave a little bow.

The lady drew aside her veil to reveal a well-lined but still handsome face. Curls of white hair framed bright blue eyes, and a smile exposed two chipmunk-like teeth.

“How do you do, young man?”

“Well, very well. And this is my ward, Constance Greene.”

“I am Madame Brissot. Delighted to meet you.”

The old lady paused to examine Constance more closely, her expression becoming curious. But Constance was used to scrutiny by now, and nodded in return.

“Monsieur Bertin was my tutor as a child,” said Pendergast. “Since you are the only other person I saw at his funeral, naturally I wanted to introduce myself to you.”

She looked back at him and pressed his hand. “Gaspard was a dear old friend. He was one of the few left who had the gift.”

“The gift?” Constance asked.

The woman smiled and nodded, without explaining.

“He gave me a gift once,” Pendergast said, smoothly altering the course of conversation. “It was my first pet, a little piebald mouse. I named it Incitatus, after the favorite horse of the emperor Caligula.”

“Is that the one your brother, ah, killed?”

Once again, Pendergast looked surprised. “Did Monsieur Bertin tell you about that?”

“He certainly did. He loved those mice of his. He often spoke of you, Mr. Pendergast, and the time he spent in your family’s house on Dauphine Street.” She tut-tutted. “He could never understand why that mob showed up.”

“Indeed,” murmured Pendergast, now changing the subject in earnest. “Did Monsieur Bertin have any particular enemies?”

Madame Brissot’s gaze sharpened. “Why do you ask?”

“Mere curiosity.”

“Well now, Gaspard was involved in...” Here the old woman moved in and lowered her voice. “In the old ways. The darker arts, so to speak, although of course he was extremely discreet.”

“Naturally,” Pendergast said.

Madame Brissot’s gaze relaxed. “That’s why no one showed up at the funeral. At least publicly, so as not to be marked as a... follower of the John the Conqueror root. I know you understand.”

Pendergast nodded.

“His clientele came from old New Orleans society, as did he. Publicly, they scoff at the old ways. But when they got into a real fix, or their luck took a bad turn, or somebody wished them ill, they knew they could count on his talents — and his silence. But he gave all that up years ago.” She paused, as if struck by a new thought. “If you’re wondering if his death was caused by something unnatural ...” She paused at the word. “I shouldn’t think so. Who would wish harm on an eighty-one-year-old recluse?”

“He was ailing at the end, I understand.”

“It was a steady decline. He had a bad heart.”

“He spoke to you of that?”

“Yes. He said he sometimes took those gunpowder pills for it.”

“You mean nitroglycerin?”

“I knew it was something explosive.”

“Of course.” Pendergast took her hand and bowed again. “It was delightful to meet a friend of Bertin’s, especially someone with the courage to show

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up at his funeral.”

“At my age, I’ve got nothing to lose but my eternal soul.”

“Can we bring our car around for you, Madame?” Pendergast asked. “It’s still some ways to the parking lot.”

“Oh, no. I adore walking. It is what has kept me alive these past ninety-nine years. Surely you  would understand, my dear?” And she fixed Constance with a most unsettling expression.

“Ah yes, walking,” Pendergast repeated quickly.

“Plain old simple walking. With a little protection against muggers and falls.” She patted what appeared to be an invisible pocket in her dress. “Gaspard gave me a mojo bag forty years ago. Very special, he said. Very rare. And it hasn’t failed me yet.”

At this she gave a strangely girlish giggle, then set off, cane thumping the ground in vigorous syncopation with her footsteps.

Monsieur Bertin’s house was on Governor Nicholls Street, a three-story Creole town house in brick, with stacked balconies and elaborate cast-iron railings. It looked neglected: the second-floor shutters hung awry, the balconies sagged, and the bricks were cracked and in need of repointing.

Pendergast inserted the key in the door and it opened easily into a long foyer. The first-floor shutters were closed and the interior was dim, but its salient features were nevertheless evident.

“The gentleman was a hoarder,” Constance said, gazing around.

“So it would appear.”

She glanced at him. “Do you mean to say this is your first time in his house?”

“This is the first time I’ve received an invitation — even indirectly.” And he held up the key.

Through the open door on the left, leading into the front parlor, Constance saw a mountain of books, papers, and magazines, along with other bric-a-brac, piled almost to the ceiling, leaving a narrow alley to the next room. A mouse scampered into the middle of the floor and stopped to stare at them with curiosity, joined by two others.

“Oh dear,” said Constance drily.

Pendergast reached out and flicked on the lights, which did little to dispel the gloom. “In houses like this, the library was usually down the hall to the left, behind the parlor.”

They passed the central staircase. Even the treads were stacked with clutter, barely leaving room for going up and down. They passed through a door and went through an equally overstuffed passageway, barely navigable, that ended in a library. This room, oddly enough, was clear, and it appeared it was where Bertin spent his waking hours in reading — along with esoteric studies, if the mortar and pestle, test tubes, and various bottles of dried insects, frogs, spiders, and roots were any indication. Constance was aware of a mixture of familiar smells: formaldehyde, ether, alcohol, as well as a sweetish herbal odor she couldn’t immediately place. At the far end of the room stood an elaborate marble fireplace, covered with carved wooden statues and strange ornaments that reminded Constance of certain decorations she had seen in the funeral home. To the right of the fireplace was the table mentioned by the old priest. Both ends were stacked with books, but the center was bare save for a massive leather-bound Bible, heavily tooled with silver studs and a chased-silver clasp.

“The Bible of my youth,” said Pendergast. He stepped into the room, and Constance followed. More mice came out from hiding, staring at them, noses raised and twitching.

“The house is overrun!” said Constance.

“Have you noticed the empty bowls on the floor, here and there? It appears the poor creatures haven’t been fed since their master died.”

“At least they’re not cats,” Constance said as they walked to the Bible on the table. It was a beautiful specimen, the well-worn leather cover dark with age. She reached for it curiously.

Suddenly Pendergast spoke:

“Do not touch it!” 

She pulled her hand back, then looked at her guardian. “What on earth’s the matter?”

“Look under the table.”

There, barely visible in the dim light, lay a dead mouse, mouth yawning in a nasty grimace, eyes cloudy, feet curling into empty air.

“Note the recent gnawing around the clasp of the Bible,” said Pendergast. “The mouse was hungry, looking for a meal. That would seem to be the result.”

He glanced about for a moment, then took a few steps toward a stack of books on which a mouse was sitting back on its haunches, waiting. With a lightning movement, he snatched up the mouse and brought it over, while it struggled and peeped. With his free hand, he reached into his suit coat and removed a DNA evidence collection tube containing a small swab. He unstoppered the tube and swabbed the silver clasp, then brought the cotton end of the swab toward the mouse he was holding.

“Wait,” said Constance. “Please don’t do that. It’s cruel. That was a pet, you know.”

Pendergast hesitated, an expression of something like chastisement crossing his face. “You are right. What was I thinking?” He gently released the mouse, then got down on his hands and knees and started turning over some papers that were scattered in a far corner. In a moment he snatched up something else and brought it over.

It was a huge, disgusting palmetto bug. He held it up, antennae and legs frantically churning. “Does this sacrifice meet with your approval?”

“Indeed. There are far too many roaches in the world.”

Pendergast swabbed the silver clasp again, touched the swab to the head of the cockroach, then released it. It started to scurry off, but before it could get even a few inches it went into a mad dance, flailing and twitching hideously before flipping over and becoming still, legs contracted.

“Poisoned,” said Constance. “What does it mean?”

Pendergast did not answer. He knelt down and, removing a loupe from his suit coat, examined the dead mouse under the table, looking particularly closely at the paws. Then he stood up, his expression grave. “I must re-evaluate everything. Everything .” He closed his eyes and stood still as five minutes ticked off, then ten.

At last he began to speak, eyes still closed. “I’ve been a fool. As you know, I was initially suspicious of Bertin’s demise... but for the wrong reasons. And when those reasons didn’t bear out, I let down my guard. But now I can see all the clues that have been so carefully laid out for me. Including this last, deadly one.”

“Would you mind explaining?”

“Not at all.” Pendergast paused a moment. “Back at the viewing, I noted Bertin’s left hand was slightly more necrotized than the right. I didn’t think anything of it at the time, since bodies in death don’t always decompose evenly. Now I understand. Bertin was left-handed, and thus he would have received the strongest dose of poison on that hand when unclasping this Bible. The mouse’s paws are similarly black and show distinct signs of necrosis.”

“Murdered by a poisoned Bible.”


Constance peered gingerly at the clasp of the Bible, then at its edges. “The poison lacks any distinct scent,” she said. “The doctor missed it.”

“I have little doubt it will prove to be a rare and exotic compound. And I have no doubt now that we were the only ones who received the death notice. It was intended to lure us down from New York. And then, there is the clue of the key.”

“What about the key?”

“Why would Bertin mail  the key to the priest, when he went to church every Sunday? And, lastly, we have the funeral package so conveniently, and recently, purchased. I have little doubt whoever drew us into this game was behind that, too.”


“An excellent question.”

“Do you think the poison on the Bible was meant for us?”

“Meant for us, yes. But perhaps not to kill  us. Another lure, perhaps.”

“For what, then?”

“For what, indeed?” Pendergast’s glittering eyes rested on her. “The Bible seems to be at the heart of this little scheme. Let us open it.” He fetched a letter opener and a small dagger lying on the library desk, and used them to unfasten the clasp and open the heavy cover. On the endpapers was drawn, in a beautiful nineteenth-century hand, a family tree.

“Why,” said Constance, “this isn’t Bertin’s ancestry. This is yours!”

They both stared at the diagram in silence.

“Freshly inked,” said Pendergast. “Almost certainly drawn after Bertin died.”

Constance gazed at the tree. She was familiar with it, having spent much of the last year untangling the Pendergast family’s complicated genealogy. This tree was remarkably detailed and accurate, and it ended with Pendergast himself — the last of his line. At least, almost the last.

But she continued to stare. There was something off about the tree, something not right.

“This Edmond Pendergast,” she said, pointing at a dead-end branch of the tree. “1815 to 1910.”

“How odd,” said Pendergast. “I don’t recall an ancestor by that name. Certainly there’s no such tomb in the family catacombs. I would have seen it as a child.”

“There is  no ancestor of that name.”

A silence settled in the stuffy library. At last Pendergast stirred. “Was he invented, then?”

“It would seem so.” She paused. “I assume the Rochenoire catacombs no longer exist?”

“The fire consumed the entire house down to its foundations. Afterwards, the lot was cleared with bulldozers and paved over. It now functions as a parking lot. The idea was to seal up the catacombs forever, with no access.”

“Are there any Pendergast graves outside of those catacombs?”

“The family had a small mausoleum in the St. Louis Cemetery Number One, not far from the house. Comstock Pendergast, brother of my great-grandfather Boethius, was responsible for its construction well before the turn of the century. And there’s a graveyard out at Penumbra Plantation.” He paused, then said: “It would seem we’re now on some sort of malign treasure hunt, and this Edmond Pendergast is the next clue. I would presume we’re meant to visit his tomb, if in fact there is such a tomb.”

A muffled rumble of thunder announced an approaching storm.

“The St. Louis Cemetery Number One is just around the corner,” he went on. “Let us go.”

By the time they reached the cemetery, the heavens had opened up and rain was driving down, lightning forking through the black skies, peals of thunder echoing across the city. The branches of the live oaks along Basin Street lashed and twisted in the wind, as if under torture.

It was a small and ancient cemetery, surrounded by a whitewashed wall, in which ancient and dilapidated tombs were jumbled together amid meandering alleys, cheek by jowl with marble and granite mausoleums in various stages of decay. It was very different from the splendor of the Metairie Cemetery.

Hunched under her umbrella, Constance followed Pendergast through mazelike passageways. They finally reached the southeastern corner, up against the Basin Street wall, where a sadly neglected mausoleum in marble announced the name PENDERGAST.

It was a miniature temple with a pillar on either side holding up a pediment, with a bronze door in the middle. Above the door a shield had been carved, containing a lidless eye over two moons: one crescent, the other full. Beneath was a lion couchant. The entire plot was surrounded by a wrought iron fence with broken spikes, the gate rusted ajar.

They squeezed through the gate and Pendergast approached the bronze door. Most unusually, the lock on the door resisted his overtures — he fumbled with it for almost two minutes before succeeding. He pressed against the door and it inched open with a groan. One after the other, they squeezed into the tiny interior space.

Constance shook out her umbrella, leaned it against the door, then looked around curiously, following the beam of Pendergast’s penlight as it roved around, illuminating crypts along the two walls and the back. A few of the closest crypts, she saw, were apparently occupied, but there was no carving on them save for death’s heads. She was as curious about who might be interred in them as she was about the existence of this mausoleum in the first place. She could understand why a family plot existed at Penumbra, the old family plantation, but why had Comstock Pendergast insisted on this structure when the family had a large private crypt beneath the Maison de la Rochenoire? Pendergast had never told her what happened to the remains of his parents, both killed in the fire. Maybe this was their final resting place.

“Ah. Here it is.” Pendergast’s light fell on a crypt in the back row that, unlike the others, had a bronze instead of a marble door.

Edmond Pendergast 


Requiescat in Pace 

“I can’t begin to imagine,” he murmured, “who might be resting peacefully within. I should like to see for myself.” He handed her the flashlight. “Hold this, if you please.”

Constance shone the light over his shoulder while Pendergast knelt before the tomb. Taking a small knife from his suit coat, he slid it between the door and the marble jamb, working it around and loosening years’ worth of encrustation. After a minute of prying, it came free. Pendergast eased out the knife and laid it aside; Constance handed him the light and he shone it in.

“Empty,” he said. “No bones.”

“Not surprising,” Constance replied, “considering it’s the tomb of a nonexistent person.”

He continued shining his light around. “Not only empty, but clean. Too clean. And... look!”

Constance knelt and peered in while the light played on the back panel of the crypt. At the bottom of the panel was a handle.

“How peculiar.” Pendergast reached inside, grasped the handle, and pulled. Immediately, the bottom of the crypt swung open on hinges, revealing a staircase descending into blackness.

They paused a moment, staring into the dark passage beneath the crypt.

“Isn’t this an occasion for one of your imperishable bon mots?” Constance asked.

“I find myself too surprised for speech.” He took a step forward. “I’ll be back shortly.” He paused to reach into his suit coat, remove his Les Baer 1911 Colt.45 pistol, rack a round into the chamber, and reholstered it.

“Aloysius, please .” And with that, Constance withdrew the antique Italian stiletto she always kept hidden on her person. “I’m armed as well.”

“Very well — if you insist. I hope you won’t mind if in this instance I don’t allow the lady to go first.”

“As you wish.”

Pendergast nodded. He eased himself down the stairs and Constance followed. As they descended, the ceiling gradually rose until there was enough room to stand. The narrow staircase went down steeply about ten feet before leveling out into a brick passageway, its walls covered with niter. The tunnel ahead was flooded.

Pendergast stopped on the second-to-last step, eased his leg into the water, found the bottom, put the other foot in, and waded out.

“It’s only a foot deep.”

Constance hesitated, looking down at herself. Her pleated skirt fell just below the knee, and could of course be cleaned, but her leather flats were custom-made Perugias with a gommato finish and had cost $1,000. The foul water would surely ruin them, if they hadn’t already been destroyed by the tramp through the muddy cemetery. But the dark passage ahead appeared curiously alluring.

She followed Pendergast into the water.

A damp, unwholesome odor arose as they moved slowly along the corridor, tracing the winding course of the tunnel. It appeared to be heading southeast. A bloated rat drifted past. Insects, disturbed by Pendergast’s light, skittered along the walls — greasy centipedes, water bugs, and giant vinegaroons, some so startled that they dropped into the water and thrashed about, trying to climb up on their legs.

As they waded along, the humidity and the foulness of the air increased. The passage continued a few hundred yards farther, turning here and there but generally maintaining the same southeasterly direction.

And then Pendergast’s light fell upon a stout doorway that marked the end of the passage. It was also of bronze, heavily corroded with verdigris. Once again, Pendergast worked on the lock and the door reluctantly yielded, swinging open to reveal a vast, dark space.

As they stepped through, the beam of light revealed a capacious crypt, with a vaulted and groined ceiling held up by pillars. Like the passage, it was partially flooded. Row after row of marble sarcophagi stood half-submerged in the water.

“Good Lord,” Pendergast breathed. “We’re in the Pendergast family catacombs. We must be directly beneath the site of Rochenoire!”

As he played the beam around, Constance abruptly realized why the space had looked familiar to her: it was similar to the sub-basements of the mansion at 891 Riverside Drive — which had, she knew, been built to replicate the old layout of the house on Dauphine Street.

“I thought this was sealed up and lost forever,” said Pendergast in a whisper. “But now... now  I begin to understand. Comstock was a magician, and his shows sometimes involved terror, injury, or worse to members of his audience.” His silvery eyes gleamed in the reflected light, registering vast surprise. “I can see now why he insisted on building that mausoleum in St. Louis Cemetery Number One when the family had a perfectly satisfactory and far more private crypt here. And it wasn’t, my dear, to bury the dead.”

“So Comstock needed an escape route?” said Constance.

“Exactly,” Pendergast said, nodding slowly. “If a mob came for him, this was his back door. How ironic that the fire that destroyed Rochenoire happened after his death.” He turned to Constance. “This must be the way Bertin and a number of servants managed to escape. Strange he wouldn’t speak of it to me — or explain how he knew of its existence.”

As he spoke, his flashlight had been roaming amid the silent tombs. Now it stopped abruptly. “What’s this?”

Near one wall, away from the procession of tombs, two school chairs with attached desks sat in the water.

Wordlessly, the two approached them. Constance saw that one desk was labeled Aloysius  and the other Diogenes .

At the sight of the name of Pendergast’s brother, Constance felt her grip tighten on the stiletto.

“Exact replicas of the chairs we sat in when Monsieur Bertin gave us our lessons,” Pendergast said.

He moved toward them. And now, Constance saw that on the desk marked Diogenes  sat a little toy box.

Wading over to the desk, Pendergast picked up the box and opened it. Constance came up beside him and looked.

The flashlight beam illuminated a small, dimpled pillow of white satin, on which were nestled two cut gemstones, one a cloudy blue, the other greenish brown.

Holding the light close, Pendergast examined the stones. “I believe one is a milky aquamarine, and the other a rare dravite tourmaline... How peculiar. I’m not sure I understand the significance of this.”

Even as he was speaking, Constance felt a most awful chill crawl up her spine.

“I do,” she said.

Pendergast turned to her in the dim light.

“Those two stones are exactly the color of your brother’s eyes .”

Pendergast gave a small intake of breath. Then, a long silence grew in the sepulchral space, disturbed only by the sound of dripping water and the squeaking of invisible rats.

“I see it now,” said Pendergast, his voice cold. “I see it very clearly. The elaborate setup, the malevolent treasure hunt. And the death of Bertin: no doubt that served as an amuse-bouche. This is Diogenes — announcing his return.”

In the long silence, Constance had been thinking. Now she almost hesitated to speak. “His return, but... for what?”

Pendergast did not speak. Instead, he took her hand. Much more quickly now, he led the way out of the crypt, splashing along the quarter mile of passage and up the winding staircase. Helping Constance out of the tomb, he pushed the bronze door closed behind them and they exited the mausoleum. They stood in the night, the rain having ceased, the cemetery now filled with a low-lying mist. Only then, in the relative safety of the surface, did he turn to answer her question.

“The final reckoning.” 

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