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Ninth House







Alex hurried across the wide, alien plane of Beinecke Plaza, boots thudding over flat squares of clean concrete. The giant cube of the rare-books collection seemed to float above its lower story. During the day its panels glowed amber, a burnished golden hive, less a library than a temple. At night it just looked like a tomb. This part of campus didn’t quite fit with the rest of Yale—no gray stone or Gothic arches, no rebellious little outcroppings of red-brick buildings, which Darlington had explained were not actually Colonial but only meant to look that way. He’d explained the reasons for the way Beinecke had been built, the way it was supposed to mirror and slot into this corner of the campus architecture, but it still felt like a seventies sci-fi movie to her, like the students should all be wearing unitards or too-short tunics, drinking something called the Extract, eating food in pellets. Even the big metal sculpture that she now knew was by Alexander Calder reminded her of a giant lava lamp in negative.

“It’s Calder,” she murmured beneath her breath. That was the way people here talked about art. Nothing was by anyone. The sculpture is Calder. The painting is Rothko. The house is Neutra.

And Alex was late. She had begun the night with good intentions, determined to get ahead of her Modern British Novel essay and leave with plenty of time to make it to the prognostication. But she’d fallen asleep in one of the Sterling Library reading rooms, a copy of Nostromo gripped loosely in her hand, feet propped on a heating duct. At half past ten, she’d woken with a start, drool trickling across her cheek. Her startled “Shit!” had gone off like a shotgun blast in the quiet of the library, and she’d buried her face in her scarf as she slung her bag over her shoulder and made her escape.

Now she cut through Commons, beneath the rotunda where the names of the war dead were carved deep into the marble, and stone figures stood vigil—Peace, Devotion, Memory, and finally Courage, who wore a helmet and shield and little else and had always looked to Alex more like a stripper than a mourner. She charged down the steps and across the intersection of College and Grove.

The campus had a way of changing faces from hour to hour and block to block so that Alex always felt as if she were meeting it for the first time. Tonight it was a sleepwalker, breathing deep and even. The people she passed on her way to SSS seemed locked in a dream, soft-eyed, faces turned to one another, steam rising off the cups of coffee in their gloved hands. She had the eerie sense that they were dreaming her, a girl in a dark coat who would disappear when they woke.

Sheffield-Sterling-Strathcona Hall was drowsing too, the classrooms closed up tight, hallways cast in energy-saving half-light. Alex took the stairs to the second floor and heard noise echoing from one of the lecture halls. The Yale Social screened movies there every Thursday night. Mercy had tacked the schedule to the door of their dorm room, but Alex hadn’t bothered to study it. Her Thursdays were full.

Tripp Helmuth slouched against the wall beside the doors to the lecture hall. He acknowledged Alex with a heavy-lidded nod. Even in the dim light, she could see his eyes were bloodshot. No doubt he’d smoked before he showed up tonight. Maybe that was why the elder Bonesmen had stuck him on guard duty. Or maybe he’d volunteered.

“You’re late,” he said. “They started.”

Alex ignored him, glanced once over her shoulder to make sure the hallway was clear. She didn’t owe Tripp Helmuth an excuse, and it would look weak to offer one. She pressed her thumb into a barely visible notch in the paneling. The wall was supposed to swing open smoothly, but it always stuck. She gave it a hard nudge with her shoulder and stumbled as it jolted open.

“Easy, killer,” said Tripp.

Alex shut the door behind her and edged down the narrow passage in the dark.

Unfortunately, Tripp was right. The prognostication had already begun. Alex entered the old operating theater as quietly as she could.

The room was a windowless chamber, sandwiched between the lecture hall and a classroom that grad students used for discussion sections. It was a forgotten remnant of the old medical school, which had held its classes here in SSS before it moved to its own buildings. The managers of the trust that funded Skull and Bones had sealed up the room’s entrance and disguised it with new paneling sometime around 1932. All facts Alex had gleaned from Lethe: A Legacy when she probably should have been reading Nostromo.

No one spared Alex a glance. All eyes were on the Haruspex, his lean face hidden behind a surgical mask, pale blue robes spattered with blood. His latex-gloved hands moved methodically through the bowels of the—patient? Subject? Sacrifice? Alex wasn’t sure which term applied to the man on the table. Not “sacrifice.” He’s supposed to live. Ensuring that was part of her job. She’d see him safely through this ordeal and back to the hospital ward he’d been taken from. But what about a year from now? she wondered. Five years from now?

Alex glanced at the man on the table: Michael Reyes. She’d read his file two weeks ago, when he was selected for the ritual. The flaps of his stomach were pinned back with steel clips and his abdomen looked like it was blooming, a plump pink orchid, plush and red at its center. Tell me that doesn’t leave a mark. But she had her own future to worry about. Reyes would manage.

Alex averted her eyes, tried to breathe through her nose as her stomach roiled and coppery saliva flooded her mouth. She’d seen plenty of bad injuries but always on the dead. There was something much worse about a living wound, a human body tethered to life by nothing but the steady metallic beep of a monitor. She had candied ginger in her pocket for nausea—one of Darlington’s tips—but she couldn’t quite bring herself to take it out and unwrap it.

Instead, she focused her gaze on some middle distance as the Haruspex called out a series of numbers and letters—stock symbols and share prices for companies traded publicly on the New York Stock Exchange. Later in the night he’d move on to the NASDAQ, Euronext, and the Asian markets. Alex didn’t bother trying to decipher them. The orders to buy, sell, or hold were given in impenetrable Dutch, the language of commerce, the first stock exchange, old New York, and the official language of the Bonesmen. When Skull and Bones was founded, too many students knew Greek and Latin. Their dealings had required something more obscure.

“Dutch is harder to pronounce,” Darlington had told her. “Besides, it gives the Bonesmen an excuse to visit Amsterdam.” Of course, Darlington knew Latin, Greek, and Dutch. He also spoke French, Mandarin, and passable Portuguese. Alex had just started Spanish II. Between the classes she’d taken in grade school and her grandmother’s mishmash of Ladino sayings, she’d thought it would be an easy grade. She hadn’t counted on things like the subjunctive. But she could just about ask if Gloria might like to go to the discotheque tomorrow night.

A burst of muffled gunfire rattled through the wall from the screening next door. The Haruspex looked up from the slick pink mess of Michael Reyes’s small intestine, his irritation apparent.

Scarface, Alex realized as the music swelled and a chorus of rowdy voices thundered in unison, “You wanna fuck with me? Okay. You wanna play rough?” The audience chanting along like it was Rocky Horror. She must have seen Scarface a hundred times. It was one of Len’s favorites. He was predictable that way, loved everything hard—as if he’d mailed away for a How to Be Gangster kit. When they’d met Hellie near the Venice boardwalk, her golden hair like a parted curtain for the theater of her big blue eyes, Alex had thought instantly of Michelle Pfeiffer in her satin shift. All she’d been missing was the smooth sheaf of bangs. But Alex didn’t want to think about Hellie tonight, not with the stink of blood in the air. Len and Hellie were her old life. They didn’t belong at Yale. Then again, neither did Alex.

Despite the memories, Alex was grateful for any noise that would cover the wet sounds of the Haruspex pawing through Michael Reyes’s gut. What did he see there? Darlington had said the prognostications were no different than someone reading the future in the cards of a tarot deck or a handful of animal bones. But it sure looked different. And sounded more specific. You’re missing someone. You will find happiness in the new year. Those were the kinds of things fortune-tellers said—vague, comforting.

Alex eyed the Bonesmen, robed and hooded, crowded around the body on the table, the undergrad Scribe taking down the predictions that would be passed on to hedge-fund managers and private investors all over the world to keep the Bonesmen and their alumni financially secure. Former presidents, diplomats, at least one director of the CIA—all of them Bonesmen. Alex thought of Tony Montana, soaking in his hot tub, speechifying: You know what capitalism is? Alex glanced at Michael Reyes’s prone body. Tony, you have no idea.

She caught a flicker of movement from the benches that overlooked the operating arena. The theater had two local Grays who always sat in the same places, just a few rows apart: a female mental patient who’d had her ovaries and uterus removed in a hysterectomy in 1926, for which she would have been paid six dollars if she’d survived the procedure; and a male, a medical student. He’d frozen to death in an opium den thousands of miles away, sometime around 1880, but kept returning here to sit in his old seat and look down on whatever passed for life below. Prognostications only happened in the theater four times a year, at the start of each fiscal quarter, but that seemed to be enough to suit him.

Darlington liked to say that dealing with ghosts was like riding the subway: Do not make eye contact. Do not smile. Do not engage. Otherwise, you never know what might follow you home. Easier said than done when the only other thing to look at in the room was a man playing with another man’s innards like they were mah-jongg tiles.

She remembered Darlington’s shock when he’d realized she could not only see ghosts without the help of any potion or spell but see them in color. He’d been weirdly furious. She’d enjoyed that.

“What kinds of color?” he’d asked, sliding his feet off the coffee table, his heavy black boots thunking on the slatted floor of the parlor at Il Bastone.

“Just color. Like an old Polaroid. Why? What do you see?”

“They look gray,” he’d snapped. “That’s why they’re called Grays.”

She’d shrugged, knowing her nonchalance would make Darlington even angrier. “It isn’t a big deal.”

“Not to you,” he’d muttered, and stomped away. He’d spent the rest of the day in the training room, working up a cranky sweat.

She’d felt smug at the time, glad not everything came so easily to him. But now, moving in a circle around the perimeter of the theater, checking the little chalk markings made at every compass point, she just felt jittery and unprepared. That was the way she’d felt since she’d taken her first step on campus. No, before that. From the time Dean Sandow had sat down beside her hospital bed, tapped the handcuffs on her wrist with his nicotine-stained fingers, and said, “We are offering you an opportunity.” But that was the old Alex. The Alex of Hellie and Len. Yale Alex had never worn handcuffs, never gotten into a fight, never fucked a stranger in a bathroom to make up her boyfriend’s vig. Yale Alex struggled but didn’t complain. She was a good girl trying to keep up.

And failing. She should have been here early to observe the making of the signs and ensure the circle was secure. Grays as old as the ones hovering on the tiered benches above didn’t tend to make trouble even when drawn by blood, but prognostications were big magic and her job was to verify that the Bonesmen followed proper procedures, stayed cautious. She was playacting, though. She’d spent the previous night cramming, trying to memorize the correct signs and proportions of chalk, charcoal, and bone. She’d made flash cards, for fuck’s sake, and forced herself to shuffle through them in between bouts of Joseph Conrad.

Alex thought the markings looked okay, but she knew her signs of protection about as well as her modern British novels. When she’d attended the fall-quarter prognostication with Darlington, had she really paid attention? No. She’d been too busy sucking on ginger candy, reeling from the strangeness of it all, and praying she wouldn’t humiliate herself by puking. She’d thought she had plenty of time to learn with Darlington looking over her shoulder. But they’d both been wrong about that.

“Voorhoofd!” the Haruspex called, and one of the Bonesmen darted forward. Melinda? Miranda? Alex couldn’t remember the redhead’s name, only that she was in an all-female a cappella group called Whim ’n Rhythm. The girl patted the Haruspex’s forehead with a white cloth and melted back into the group.

Alex tried not to look at the man on the table, but her eyes darted to his face anyway. Michael Reyes, age forty-eight, diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic. Would Reyes remember any of it when he woke? When he tried to tell someone would they just call him crazy? Alex knew exactly what that was like. It could be me on that table.

“The Bonesmen like them as nuts as possible,” Darlington had told her. “They think it makes for better predictions.” When she’d asked him why, he’d just said, “The crazier the victima, the closer to God.”

“Is that true?”

“It is only through mystery and madness that the soul is revealed,” he’d quoted. Then he’d shrugged. “Their bank balances say yes.”

“And we’re okay with this?” Alex had asked Darlington. “With people getting cut open so Chauncey can redecorate his summer home?”

“Never met a Chauncey,” he’d said. “Still hoping.” Then he’d paused, standing in the armory, his face grave. “Nothing is going to stop this. Too many powerful people rely on what the societies can do. Before Lethe existed, no one was keeping watch. So you can make futile bleating noises in protest and lose your scholarship, or you can stay here, do your job, and do the most good you can.”

Even then, she’d wondered if that was only part of the story, if Darlington’s desire to know everything bound him to Lethe just as surely as any sense of duty. But she’d stayed quiet then and she intended to stay quiet now.

Michael Reyes had been found in one of the public beds at Yale New Haven. To the outside world he looked like any other patient: a vagrant, the type who passed through psych wards and emergency rooms and jails, on his meds, then off. He had a brother in New Jersey who was listed as his next of kin and who had signed off on what was supposed to be a routine medical procedure for the treatment of a scarred bowel.

Reyes was cared for solely by a nurse named Jean Gatdula, who’d worked three night shifts in a row. She didn’t blink or cause a fuss when, through what appeared to be a scheduling error, she was slated for two more evenings in the ward. That week her colleagues may or may not have noticed that she always came to work with a huge handbag. In it was stowed a little cooler that she used to carry Michael Reyes’s meals: a dove’s heart for clarity, geranium root, and a dish of bitter herbs. Gatdula had no idea what the food did or what fate awaited Michael Reyes any more than she knew what became of any of the “special” patients she tended to. She didn’t even know whom she worked for, only that once every month she received a much-needed check to offset the gambling debts her husband racked up at the Foxwoods blackjack tables.

Alex wasn’t sure if it was her imagination or if she really could smell the ground parsley speckling Reyes’s insides, but her own stomach gave another warning flutter. She was desperate for fresh air, sweating beneath her layers. The operating theater was kept ice cold, fed by vents separate from the rest of the building, but the huge portable halogens used to light the proceedings still radiated heat.

A low moan sounded. Alex’s gaze shot to Michael Reyes, a terrible image flashing through her mind: Reyes waking to find himself strapped to a table, surrounded by hooded figures, his insides on the outside. But his eyes were closed, his chest rising and falling in steady rhythm. The moan continued, louder now. Maybe someone else was feeling sick? But none of the Bonesmen looked distressed. Their faces glowed like studious moons in the dim theater, eyes trained on the proceedings.

Still the moan climbed, a low wind building, churning through the room and bouncing off its dark-wood walls. No direct eye contact, Alex warned herself. Just look to see if the Grays—She choked back a startled grunt.

The Grays were no longer in their seats.

They leaned over the railing that surrounded the operating theater, fingers gripping the wood, necks craned, their bodies stretching toward the very edge of the chalk circle like animals straining to drink from the lip of a watering hole.

Copyright © 2019 by Leigh Bardugo



Ninth House
by by Leigh Bardugo