The large carriage rattled with grotesqueries--bones of cats and pigs strung up as wind chimes, bleached bear skulls dangling from wires, and three shrunken monkey heads mounted on posts. Their glass eyes stared out at the approaching winter. Bells that hung from reins tinkled, warning away wandering spirits. Four horses pulled the carriage, hip bones protruding from their bedraggled flesh, hides scarred by thousands of whippings. Huddled behind them in a thick, worn coat and muffler was a grizzled old man.
The tall, slim gentleman watched the carriage approach down a rutted, moonlit road. A cold breath of wind tested his knee-length greatcoat, but he didn't shiver. His close-cropped hair, white since birth, glowed in the dull light. His sharp eyes scanned the carriage, from the shivering driver to the clicking bones, and finally rested on the words Merveilles et Mort, written in red across the carriage's side. They appeared and disappeared with the swinging of a lantern.
Merveilles et Mort. Wonders and Death. He hoped that a wonder waited inside. He had spent his life and a good part of his fortune seeking out those with special talents. The reports about this particular sideshow traveling through Provence were extremely promising.
At one side of the carriage a flag snapped in the wind, its skull and crossbones flashing. Pirates? An almost imperceptible smile crossed the gentleman's lips. These weren't pirates. Charlatans and gypsy souls, yes. But pirates? No. He had met real pirates on the open seas; had summarily put them to death.
The gentleman held up his hand and the driver pulled on the reins. The horses slowed to a stop and snorted out frosty air, stomping their hooves.
"I would like to see your display," the gentleman said. His French was perfect, his accent Parisian.
"Oh, yes, yes, monsieur! I will be only too happy to show you." The old man set his whip into its holder and climbed down, babbling excitedly. "It is a marvelous collection! The greatest this side of the Nile. Balms to cure cholera. Elixirs to stave off death itself. I have a fine ruby necklace, straight from Cleopatra's tomb, that will make any arthritic condition vanish. And it will soften the skin, strengthen the bones--"
"I'm not interested in trinkets or balms," the gentleman cut in. "I want to see your prize attraction."
A door behind the bench slid open and a hag stuck her head out. Her eyes gleamed within a nest of wrinkles. She was a hundred years old if she was a day. "It is an expensive view," she rasped. "An extremely rare specimen."
The gentleman opened a gloved hand. Two golden coins caught the moonlight. "I assume this will cover it."
The hag nodded and waved a hand at the driver.
"Yes, yes, monsieur," the driver said, palming the coins. "Of course. Come right this way."
He led the gentleman to the rear door of the carriage. More bones were strung across the back, charms against death. The gentleman grinned. Only savages relied on such charms and magic to defeat the unknown. Learned men relied on logic.
The old man took a key from his pocket and unlocked the door with a brassy click. He swung it open, and warm, moist air belched out. The gentleman didn't turn his nose from the rotten smell. He had encountered much worse on the Crimean battlefields.
"Inside, that is where the prizes are!" The old driver tried to climb in, but the gentleman placed a hand on his shoulder and pulled him out of the way.
"I will enter alone."
"But, monsieur, only I can explain the origins. The magic! The mystery! The restorative power of each item."
"I don't need explanations."
The driver nodded and the gentleman stepped up into the fetid compartment, stooping to keep from banging his head. The cramped space was poorly lit by one lantern swinging on a wire. In a moment his eyes had adjusted and the details became clear. There were canopic jars; glass bottles with hairless, pink creatures; tiny coffins marked with hieroglyphics; shrunken heads dangling from wires; and the taxidermied body of a half-cat, half-rabbit. He had seen such stuffed creatures before, but this was a very good representation--it didn't even look as though it had been stitched together. He moved through the collection quickly, ducking under the lantern. He squeezed between a stuffed snake and a giant bat with marbles for eyes.
At the far end of the carriage was a cage draped in black cloth. He leaned in close. From behind the fabric he heard something wheezing. Without hesitation he pulled away the cover.
Two eyes, one larger than the other, goggled up at him in fright. Above them was a tinge of red hair set on a rough-hewn, pockmarked skull. The gentleman flinched; he had been expecting something ugly but this was beyond his imagining. A true wretch of a creature crouched in the cage, pressing its back against the bars. It wore a jackal fur vest, which was ill-fitting due to the enormous hump on its back. Pity wormed its way into the gentleman's heart.
The unfortunate monster couldn't be more than a year old. It was standing upright, but the small cage forced it to bend its neck, emphasizing its hump. On the bottom of the cage a plaque read l'enfant du monstre.
The gentleman could not stop staring. The specimen's arms looked strong; its legs were unnaturally muscled, but bowed and crooked. Nature had been particularly cruel.
The thing was shivering, but seemed to grow curious. It blinked, mewling softly. The gentleman peered at it impassively. This had been a wasted journey; three days' travel from London to Provence only to find a child imprisoned by its ugliness. His informant had spoken so highly of this prize, had said the creature was beyond description and value. Ah! That scoundrel would feel the lash of his anger. The gentleman had lost time, when he had none to lose. All the while England's enemies would be inching closer to their goals.
He turned away, but the creature mewed again and whispered, "Puh-puh-ere?"
Father? The gentleman stopped. The voice sounded so human, so mournful, and it struck a chord in the man's heart. Years ago he'd had a wife who died giving birth to their child. A boy, who had only lived long enough for his father to hold him. The gentleman swallowed. It was all in the past and best forgotten.
Yet, he turned back to the creature. By its size and shape he decided it too was a boy. A monstrous, malformed boy. The man considered whether he had any food in his pockets. Foolishness. It was time to leave.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Hunchback Assignments by Arthur Slade. Copyright © 2009 by Arthur Slade. Excerpted by permission of Ember, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.