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The Screaming Statue, Page 2

Lauren Oliver

  “Now, now, Max.” Using his large stomach to clear a path for himself, Mr. Dumfrey pushed his way through a knot of people gathered outside of the Metropole Radio Store. “It isn’t fair to judge. Some of my very best friends are dingbats! Smalls the giant was once declared insane in the state of Florida . . . all a terrible misunderstanding . . . apparently a newspaper mistook one of his poems for a bomb threat . . . really it was about the lily flower but, well, with a title like ‘The Explosion,’ I suppose you can understand—”

  “Mr. Dumfrey, wait.” Pippa seized Mr. Dumfrey’s arm. Despite the heat, she suddenly felt very cold.

  A newscaster’s voice was blaring from one of the radios on display in the window of the Metropole.

  “. . . reliable reports say that Professor Nicholas Rattigan, the FBI’s public enemy number one, has been spotted in the Chicago area . . .”

  Just the name, Nicholas Rattigan, was like something unpleasant snaking down one’s back. Pippa shivered.

  “Oh, dear,” Mr. Dumfrey murmured. His lips tightened to a fine white line. For the thousandth time since Pippa and the others had first confronted Nicholas Rattigan—and then learned, to their utter shock, that Rattigan and Dumfrey were actually related—she searched Mr. Dumfrey’s face for some resemblance to his half brother. But she could find none. Mr. Dumfrey was round everywhere that Rattigan was angular. His face was pink where Rattigan’s face was the sallow color of a dirty yellow waistband. The only similarity was in their eyes, which were blue. But where Mr. Dumfrey’s eyes reminded Pippa of a summer sky, Rattigan’s eyes were the pale blue color of an ice-covered lake. Sometimes now, when the old nightmare visited of long, dim hallways and cage bars and the sound of crying, she thought she heard also the echo of his laugh, cold and mirthless, like the howl of wind across snow.

  “Rattigan!” Thomas cried. “What’s he doing all the way out in Chicago?”

  “Good riddance,” Max said. “I hope he keeps going all the way to China.”

  “I hope he gets caught and thrown into a cage, where he belongs,” Sam said with uncharacteristic anger.

  Mr. Dumfrey patted Sam’s shoulder. “I’m sure the police will close in on him soon,” he said. But Pippa saw his left eyelid give a little flutter, as it did whenever he was telling a lie: declaring that a shriveled mermaid was absolutely authentic, when it was actually made of plaster, assorted doll parts, and a dried fishtail; or claiming that an old turkey feather was the actual quill used by Thomas Jefferson to sign the Declaration of Independence.

  The newscaster on the radio had passed on to another story. A tiger had escaped from the Bronx Zoo and had been spotted prowling down Pelham Parkway. The crowd around the Metropole store began to disperse.

  “Sam’s right,” Thomas said. “I won’t feel safe until Rattigan’s behind bars again.”

  “Don’t worry, Thomas,” Mr. Dumfrey said as they continued on their way. “I won’t let him get to you again. You can count on me.”

  That time, Pippa was sure his eyelid fluttered.

  Freckles lived in a narrow three-story brownstone with a dingy facade and a half dozen brown plants withering on the front stoop. The shades were drawn in every window, but Max yelped when she thought she saw a terrible face leering out at her from the second floor: straggly black hair, crooked yellow teeth, mouth open as though in an animal roar.

  Mr. Dumfrey followed her gaze.

  “Don’t be afraid, Max,” he said. “That’s just one of Herr Eckleberger’s little jokes. It’s a statue, you see? Designed to keep the children away on Halloween, I daresay.”

  Max blinked. Mr. Dumfrey was right, of course. When she looked a little longer, she saw that the man in the window didn’t move or blink. “Nuttier than an almond factory,” she muttered. Embarrassed to have been so easily fooled, she hung back while the others gathered in front of the door. On it, a small brass plaque read: Go Away.

  The words were repeated when Mr. Dumfrey raised his fist to knock. “Go away!” cried a gravelly and heavily accented voice, so it sounded like Go avay.

  “My dear Siegfried,” said Mr. Dumfrey, raising his voice to be heard through the door. “It’s Horatio Dumfrey. I’ve brought the children, too.”

  A rectangular peephole slid open. A pair of dark eyes appeared, surrounded by so many wrinkles and folds they looked like raisins set in the middle of a collapsing soufflé.

  “Hello, Freckles,” Sam said cheerfully. Other than Dumfrey, he was the only one tall enough to be visible to the man behind the door.

  “Dumfrey, eh?” the man croaked out, his eyes ticking from Dumfrey to Sam and back again.

  “The very same,” Dumfrey said pleasantly.

  “Prove it!” he trumpeted. “What’s the secret password?” It sounded like: Vat iss der zeegret passvort?

  Mr. Dumfrey frowned. “Surely, Siegfried. After all these years . . .”

  “Der passvort!”

  “For heaven’s sake.” Mr. Dumfrey began patting his checkered vest front. “I always mean to write it down . . .”

  “Try the date book in your left pants pocket,” Pippa suggested.

  “What have I told you, Pippa, about reading the contents of people’s pockets without their permission? Although I suppose in this case . . .” Mr. Dumfrey withdrew a small leather-bound book from his tailcoat pocket, so stuffed with extra papers, crumpled receipts, and miscellaneous scribbled notes, it looked as though the leather binding had tried to swallow the contents of a paper factory. No sooner had he cracked open the cover than dozens of scraps of paper swirled onto the stoop. “Oh, dear, oh, dear,” Mr. Dumfrey said, flipping forward a few pages, and shedding more notes and business cards as he went. “Let me think. I’m sure I did write it down somewhere. Is it ‘A quart of milk, two cans of tuna, and a dozen eggs’? No, wait. That’s a grocery list for Miss Fitch. What about ‘notice of overdrawn account’? No. That can’t be right. That’s a letter from my bank. How about”—he squinted at the slip of the paper in his hand—“‘two-headed mongoose?’”

  “Not even close!” howled Herr Eckleberger.

  Mr. Dumfrey scratched his head, frowning. “Hmm. That must have been part of my Christmas wish list. Now let me think . . .”

  “I’m losing patience,” said Herr Eckleberger. His eyebrows—huge and knitted as fleece socks—were drawn tightly over his glittering dark eyes.

  “A moment, my friend, a moment,” Mr. Dumfrey said, still flipping through his date book. “It isn’t ‘Mexican python’ or ‘Chinese funeral urn’ or ‘stuffed cabbage’ . . . ?”

  “No, no, and no.”

  “Here, Mr. Dumfrey.” Pippa had kneeled to sweep up the mass of fallen papers on the stoop. Dumfrey shoved them carelessly into his pocket.

  “You missed one,” Max said, and plucked a small printed receipt from the straggly arms of a dying azalea bush.

  “Thank you, Mackenzie,” Mr. Dumfrey said, glancing absentmindedly at the receipt. Then he let out a triumphant cry. “Aha! I knew I had marked it down somewhere.” He held out the receipt so that Max could see the letters scribbled across the top. “The password is . . . Schokoladeveinetzmann!” The eyes vanished from the peephole. Max counted the sound of four locks opening, one after the other.

  “Schokoladewhat?” Thomas whispered to Dumfrey.

  “It’s a kind of Christmas chocolate,” Dumfrey responded, also in a whisper. “German, of course. One of his harder passwords to remember. Dear old Siegfried has an absolute passion for chocolate. Ah, but here he is. Siegfried, my fine fellow!”

  The door swung open. Max didn’t know what to expect after their rude treatment. Even Herr Eckleberger’s bushy gray eyebrows had looked threatening through the peephole, as if they might jump off his face and tickle a person to death. Dumfrey said Eckleberger hardly left the house anymore. Maybe he’d finally cracked, like an egg, and all his brains had been scrambled.

  But the man standing before them, arms open, was smiling widely, so that all his wrinkles melted t
oward his ears and he suddenly looked much younger.

  “Horatio, mein old friend!” he said warmly, stepping forward to pump Mr. Dumfrey’s hand vigorously. “Thomas! Pippa! Samson! Come in, come in. It has been too long.” He turned his twinkling black eyes on Max. “And who is this?”

  “That’s Mackenzie,” Mr. Dumfrey said. “Say hello, Max.”

  Something in Eckleberger’s kind expression made Max feel shy. “Hullo,” she muttered.

  “Mackenzie’s incredible with a knife,” Sam piped up, and then blushed.

  “Is she? How wonderful!” It came out: Hovunderful. “Now come in, come in! You’re just in time. I vas just making some Plätzchen.”

  “Some what?” Max said as they all shuffled forward into the darkness of the hall.

  “Cookies, child!” Eckleberger said, beaming, and closed the door behind them, carefully locking all four locks.

  Eckleberger’s studio was large, high-ceilinged, and full of light. Every possible surface was cluttered with statues in varying degrees of completion: a plaster head sat next to several clay noses, drying on a tray; an enormous wax torso shouldered up next to a wire frame, roughly human-shaped, covered with papier-mâché and strips of newspaper. The bed—the only indication Max could see that Eckleberger used the space for living as well as for work—was strewn with sketchbooks, cardboard boxes, and colored pencils. Sketches were tacked to every wall, and when the breeze came in through one of the open windows, they rustled like autumn leaves. The air smelled equally of paper and clay, cinnamon and butter.

  While Thomas peppered Eckleberger with various riddles from his new book, Max wandered the room, careful not to knock into anything. She was immediately drawn to a beautiful silver scalpel, with a teardrop-shaped blade, which was sitting out next to a lump of unformed clay. Unconsciously, she reached out to touch it, but Eckleberger stopped her.

  “Careful, fräulein,” he said. He waggled a finger—which was as knotted as an old piece of oak—in her direction. “It’s very sharp.”

  “It’d be perfect for my act,” Max said wistfully.

  “Watch out, Freckles. She might steal it,” Pippa said. Pippa had obviously not forgiven Max for her habit of pocketing whatever items happened to be conveniently lying around.

  Max glared. “I never stole nothing.”

  “For heaven’s sake, Max,” cried Pippa, exhaling so hard that her long, straight bangs lifted off her forehead. “It’s ‘I never stole anything.’ How many times do I have to tell you?”

  Eckleberger just laughed. “Perhaps I vill leaf you ze little knife in my vill, if you are a very goot girl, Max.”

  Thomas grinned. “Fat chance of that.” Max stuck her tongue out at him when Eckleberger wasn’t looking.

  “Now, my dear friends,” Eckleberger said as he bustled over to a worktable, shoving aside a wax head bearing an uncanny resemblance to the King of England, and gestured for the children and Dumfrey to sit, “to vat do I owe the pleasure?”

  “I have a job for you, old friend,” Mr. Dumfrey said as Eckleberger bent over an oven in the corner, almost entirely obscured from view by a large coatrack filled with hanging wigs, and produced a large tray filled with lacy, golden-brown cookies. That must be where the smell of butter came from, Max realized.

  “It’ll be your best—your most astounding—your most momentous work yet!” Mr. Dumfrey kept talking, even as he fed a large cookie into his mouth. “Surely you’ve been following the case of poor Mrs. Richstone and her husband, Manfred?”

  “I have seen it mentioned, yes,” Eckleberger said. Then: “Be careful, children. Zey are very hot.”

  It was too late: Max had already burned her tongue. It was worth it. The cookie tasted like hot cocoa and spiced milk and snuggling under a blanket by a warm fire.

  “Seen it mentioned?” Mr. Dumfrey repeated. His eyes went wide behind his glasses. “My dear Freckles”—agitatedly, he brushed the crumbs off his shirtfront, leaving buttery streaks in their place—“it’s the crime of the century. Seen it mentioned? It’s been everywhere! People can talk of nothing else!”

  “Manfred Richstone will get the chair for it,” Thomas said in between mouthfuls of cookie.

  Eckleberger looked at him sharply. “Vill he now?” He stroked the half dozen gray whiskers sprouting from the end of his chin, which reminded Max very much of the straggly plants outside on his doorstep. After a moment, he roused himself. “Let me guess, Horatio. You vant me to re-create the scene—the beautiful young woman in her bedroom—the jealous husband—the last horrible moment!”

  “So you do know all about it,” Pippa said reproachfully.

  “I know all about everything,” Eckleberger said with a wave of his hand. “You see, children, inspiration is everywhere. It is in everything! Even in zese awful modern newspapers.” He stubbed a crooked finger down onto a stack of folded-up papers, which Max recognized as The Daily Screamer.

  “Does that mean you’ll do it?” Sam was crouching several feet away, attempting to coax an enormous fluffy white cat, which Max had originally mistaken for a giant ball of yarn, from underneath a bureau. Eckleberger, Mr. Dumfrey had told her, was always taking in stray cats and dogs. He treated them like artistic projects, nursing them back to health before placing them in families that could care for them.

  “Come on, Freckles,” Thomas said. “The museum needs you.”

  Max would have added that so far that week they had had only three visitors, one of whom merely wanted to use the toilets, but she was already on her third cookie and her mouth was full.

  Just then, a tremendous yowl split the air. Sam had at last succeeded in luring the cat out into the open. But no sooner had he made his first tentative attempt to pet it than the cat streaked away, shooting Sam an injured look.

  “It’s no use.” Sam seemed to be on the verge of tears. Even when he was trying to be gentle, he ended up smashing or squeezing things to splinters. Max had once seen him accidentally topple a stone pillar when he had done nothing more than lean against it. “Animals never like me.”

  “Maybe you should get an armadillo,” Pippa suggested. “They have lots of natural armor.”

  Eckleberger was still lost in thought. “I see . . . perhaps . . . zer might be a vay . . . But it vill be difficult . . . very difficult.”

  “Come on, Freckles,” Thomas said. “Be a sport.”

  Eckleberger slammed his gnarled fist down on the worktable. “I’ll do it!” he said, and everyone cheered. Pippa had obviously forgotten that she had been initially against the idea; she applauded louder than anyone. But Eckleberger quickly silenced them. “But first, I vill need photographs. Photographs of everyone and everything—the wife, the jealous husband, the bedroom ver she vas killed. I can do nothing without photographs.”

  “That’s easy enough,” Dumfrey said. “Mr. and Mrs. Richstone have been on the front page every day for the last week.”

  “Bah.” When Eckleberger frowned, he resembled a very old and very wise turtle. “Useless! Zese photos zat everyone has seen . . . Printed and stamped and sent halfvay around der vorlt . . . zese are photos with nothing to say. I need photos zat speak in whispers, zat hum, zat sing of life!”

  Max had no idea what Eckleberger was talking about, but she was mesmerized by the way he spoke. He leaned forward and dropped his voice, as if he were sharing a delicious secret.

  “A sculptor does more than sculpt the nose, the eyes, the ears, and cheekbones.” He placed a hand on his chest over his heart. “Vee must sculpt the soul!”

  “Spoken like a true artist,” Mr. Dumfrey said, dabbing his eyes with his ever-present handkerchief. He coughed delicately. “But as to the, erm, photographs you require, I’m afraid that may present certain difficulties. Perhaps, just this once, you might stick to sculpting the nose and ears and cheekbones?”

  Eckleberger’s eyes gleamed. “Do not vorry,” he said. “I vill see to that. An old dog has his tricks.” And he winked at Max.

  Mr. Dum
frey announced that he had an urgent appointment back at the museum, and after waving to Herr Eckleberger and promising to visit again soon, Thomas, Pippa, Max, and Sam followed him out onto the street, their pockets filled with chocolate-studded sugar cookies wrapped in wax paper.

  But it was too hot to move quickly, and Pippa rebelled at the idea of taking the subway, which was as wet and smelly as the inside of a mouth, so the children said good-bye to Mr. Dumfrey at the entrance to the subway and instead made their way leisurely toward Eleventh Avenue and from there turned north. Thomas estimated that they were moving at roughly the same pace as ketchup oozing out of a bottle. But at least there was a slight breeze coming off the Hudson River.

  A man in a tall hat and ragged pants was dozing on a bench. A thin woman was dragging a red-faced child behind her. Two fruit merchants were arguing about the position of their pushcarts. And Thomas realized that for the past couple of months, without knowing it, he had been carrying around a weight in his stomach, a squeeze of fear that kept him glancing suspiciously at strangers and searching every crowd for Rattigan’s face.

  But now he felt a breaking relief: Rattigan was a thousand miles away. They were safe.

  “What are you smiling about?” Pippa asked.

  “Nothing,” he said. Instinctively, he threw an arm around her shoulders. Everything was going to be okay. Even knowing that Thomas’s real family might be out there somewhere couldn’t destroy his happiness. For Thomas, the museum was the only home that mattered.

  Pippa swatted him off. “Get off me. You’re making my hair sweat.”

  Definitely back to normal.

  As they approached the corner of Eighth Avenue and Thirty-Fourth Street, Thomas spotted a familiar figure: his friend Chubby, a newspaper boy who’d staked every corner from Herald Square to Forty-Second Street as his own. Chubby was somewhere between fifteen and sixteen years old. Chubby didn’t know, exactly, and he often celebrated a birthday several times a year. He had no parents, a fact of which he was very proud, as if he had deliberately ensured they would get rid of him.