I grabbed my jacket and slung it over my shoulder.
“What are you doing? Dinner’s on the way.”
“You’re wrong about him,” I said. “And I’m going to prove it.”
He sighed. It was a letting-go kind of sigh. “Okay. I hope you do.”
I slammed out of the Priest Hole and started walking, heading nowhere in particular. Sometimes you just need to go through a door.
It was true, of course, what my dad had said: I did worship my grandfather. There were things about him that I needed to be true, and his being an adulterer was not one of them. When I was a kid, Grandpa Portman’s fantastic stories meant it was possible to live a magical life. Even after I stopped believing them, there was still something magical about my grandfather. To have endured all the horrors he did, to have seen the worst of humanity and have your life made unrecognizable by it, to come out of all that the honorable and good and brave person I knew him to be—that was magical. So I couldn’t believe he was a liar and a cheater and a bad father. Because if Grandpa Portman wasn’t honorable and good, I wasn’t sure anyone could be.
* * *
The museum’s doors were open and its lights were on, but no one seemed to be inside. I’d gone there to find the curator, hoping he knew a thing or two about the island’s history and people, and could shed some light on the empty house and the whereabouts of its former inhabitants. Figuring he’d just stepped out for a minute—the crowds weren’t exactly kicking down his door—I wandered into the sanctuary to kill time checking out museum displays.
The exhibits, such as they were, were arranged in big open-fronted cabinets that lined the walls and stood where pews had once been. For the most part they were unspeakably boring, all about life in a traditional fishing village and the enduring mysteries of animal husbandry, but one exhibit stood out from the rest. It was in a place of honor at the front of the room, in a fancy case that rested atop what had been the altar. It lived behind a rope I stepped over and a little warning sign I didn’t bother to read, and its case had polished wooden sides and a Plexiglas top so that you could only see into it from above.
When I looked inside, I think I actually gasped—and for one panicky second thought monster!—because I had suddenly and unexpectedly come face-to-face with a blackened corpse. Its shrunken body bore an uncanny resemblance to the creatures that had haunted my dreams, as did the color of its flesh, which was like something that had been spit-roasted over a flame. But when the body failed to come alive and scar my mind forever by breaking the glass and going for my jugular, my initial panic subsided. It was just a museum display, albeit an excessively morbid one.
“I see you’ve met the old man!” called a voice from behind me, and I turned to see the curator striding in my direction. “You handled it pretty well. I’ve seen grown men faint dead away!” He grinned and reached out to shake my hand. “Martin Pagett. Don’t believe I caught your name the other day.”
“Jacob Portman,” I said. “Who’s this, Wales’s most famous murder victim?”
“Ha! Well, he might be that, too, though I never thought of him that way. He’s our island’s senior-most resident, better known in archaeological circles as Cairnholm Man—though to us he’s just the Old Man. More than twenty-seven hundred years old, to be exact, though he was only sixteen when he died. So he’s rather a young old man, really.”
“Twenty-seven hundred?” I said, glancing at the dead boy’s face, his delicate features somehow perfectly preserved. “But he looks so …”
“That’s what happens when you spend your golden years in a place where oxygen and bacteria can’t exist, like the underside of our bog. It’s a regular fountain of youth down there—provided you’re already dead, that is.”
“That’s where you found him? The bog?”
He laughed. “Not me! Turf cutters did, digging for peat by the big stone cairn out there, back in the seventies. He looked so fresh they thought there might be a killer loose on Cairnholm—till the cops had a look at the Stone Age bow in his hand and the noose of human hair round his neck. They don’t make ’em like that anymore.”
I shuddered. “Sounds like a human sacrifice or something.”
“Exactly. He was done in by a combination of strangulation, drowning, disembowelment, and a blow to the head. Seems rather like overkill, don’t you think?”
“I guess so.”
Martin roared with laughter. “He guesses so!”
“Okay, yeah, it does.”
“Sure it does. But the really fascinating thing, to us modern folk, anyway, is that in all likelihood the boy went to his death willingly. Eagerly, even. His people believed that bogs—and our bog in particular—were entrances to the world of the gods, and so the perfect place to offer up their most precious gift: themselves.”
“I suppose. Though I imagine we’re killing ourselves right now in all manner of ways that’ll seem insane to people in the future. And as doors to the next world go, a bog ain’t a bad choice. It’s not quite water and it’s not quite land—it’s an in-between place.” He bent over the case, studying the figure inside. “Ain’t he beautiful?”
I looked at the body again, throttled and flayed and drowned and somehow made immortal in the process.
“I don’t think so,” I said.
Martin straightened, then began to speak in a grandiose tone. “Come, you, and gaze upon the tar man! Blackly he reposes, tender face the color of soot, withered limbs like veins of coal, feet lumps of driftwood hung with shriveled grapes!” He threw his arms out like a hammy stage actor and began to strut around the case. “Come, you, and bear witness to the cruel art of his wounds! Purled and meandering lines drawn by knives; brain and bone exposed by stones; the rope still digging at his throat. First fruit slashed and dumped – seeker of Heaven – old man arrested in youth – I almost love you!”
He took a theatrical bow as I applauded. “Wow,” I said, “did you write that?”
“Guilty!” he replied with a sheepish smile. “I twiddle about with lines of verse now and then, but it’s only a hobby. In any case, thank you for indulging me.”
I wondered what this odd, well-spoken man was doing on Cairnholm, with his pleated slacks and half-baked poems, looking more like a bank manager than someone who lived on a windswept island with one phone and no paved roads.