Evie and Will crossed the long green of Columbia, heading toward the Low Memorial Library, an enormous marble building whose ionic columns gave it the countenance of a Greek temple. To their right, the crooked-tooth rooftops of the apartment buildings of Morningside Heights stood in relief against the gray autumnal sky. Somewhere, a church bell tolled. The day was blustery, but students still sat on the library steps leading up from the green. Heads turned as Evie passed. She allowed herself to think it was because she was devastatingly pretty in her rose silk dress and peacock-patterned stockings, and not because she was one of the only girls on campus.
Dr. Georg Poblocki’s office sat at the end of a long hall in a building that smelled of old books and yearning. Dr. Poblocki himself was a large man with craggy cheeks and puffy eyes overshadowed by unruly brows that Evie had the urge to trim.
“The full story behind that drawing you sent was rather hard to find, William,” Dr. Poblocki said in a faint German accent. He smiled with an almost mischievous glee. “But find it I did.”
He drew a book from a stack and opened it to a marked page showing the familiar star-encircled-by-a-snake emblem. “Behold: the Pentacle of the Beast.”
“The police should have consulted you instead of me, Georg.”
Dr. Poblocki shrugged. “I don’t have a museum.” To Evie he said, “Your uncle was my student at Yale before he started working for the government.”
“That was a long time ago.” Will tapped the page. “Tell me more about this Pentacle of the Beast, Georg. What is it? What does it mean?”
“It is the sacred emblem of the Brethren, a vanished religious cult in upstate New York.”
“I forget New York even has an upstate. Seems unnecessary after Manhattan,” Evie quipped.
“Delightful!” Dr. Poblocki smiled. “I like this one.”
“The Brethren?” Will prompted as if waiting out an unruly student.
“The Most Holy Covenant of the Brethren of God. They were formed during the Second Great Awakening, in the early nineteenth century.”
“The second what?” Evie asked.
“The Second Great Awakening was a time when religious fervor gripped the nation. Preachers would cross the country giving fiery sermons about hellfire and damnation, warning of the Devil’s temptations while saving souls during revivals and tent meetings,” Dr. Poblocki said, slipping into the sort of lecturing mode Evie imagined he used with his students. “It gave rise to new religions such as the Church of Latter-Day Saints, the Church of Christ, and the Seventh-Day Adventists, as well as this one.” Dr. Poblocki tapped the book with his finger. “The Brethren was formed by a young preacher named John Joseph Algoode. Reverend Algoode was tending sheep—very biblical, that—when he saw a great fire in the sky. It was Solomon’s Comet coming through the northern hemisphere.”
Evie suddenly remembered the two girls handing her the flyer on the street. “The same Solomon’s Comet…”
“On its way to us now in its fifty-year return. Indeed.” Dr. Poblocki finished. He settled into a chair, wincing as he did so. “This dreadful knee of mine. Old age comes for us all, I’m afraid.”
“I’ll be old before you tell us the story, Georg,” Will pressed, and Evie felt a bit embarrassed by his rudeness.
“Your uncle. He could never wait for anything. That impatience will cost you in the end, I fear, William,” Dr. Poblocki said, peering up at Will darkly, and it seemed to Evie that her uncle looked just a bit chastened. “Pastor Algoode claimed to have had a vision: that the old churches of Europe were a corruption of God’s word. There needed to be a new American faith, he said. Only this great experiment of a country could produce believers pure and devout enough to submit wholly to God’s word and judgment. The Brethren would be that faith. They would rule the new America. The true America. They would fulfill its great promise.” Dr. Poblocki removed his glasses, fogging the lenses with his breath and wiping them clean with a cloth until he was satisfied, then settled the hooks of them over his ears again. “Pastor Algoode brought his small flock to the Catskill Mountains in 1832. They settled on fifteen acres and built a church in an old barn, where they would meet each evening for prayers by candlelight and all day on Sundays. They painted their homes and church with religious signs in accordance with their holy book, and they farmed their land. They had an odd belief system, cobbled together from the Bible—particularly Revelation—and the occult. Their Book of the Holy Brethren was believed to be part religious doctrine, part grimoire.”
“Grimoire?” Evie said.
“A book of sorcery,” Dr. Poblocki explained.
“That explains the sigils, I suppose,” Will mused.
Dr. Poblocki nodded. “Indeed. There were rumors, as there always are in such cases, that the Brethren practiced everything from unsavory sexual practices to cannibalism and human sacrifice. It’s one of the reasons they were so insular and lived up in the mountains—to escape persecution. They did have extensive knowledge of hallucinogens, most likely learned from native tribes who used such things in their religious worship to achieve transcendence. The account of a French-Canadian fur trapper visiting the area tells of ‘a magnificent smoke and a sweet wine which, when consumed, cause the mind to imagine all sorts of angels and devils.’ Now. The Brethren were an eschatology cult.”
“Is that even legal?” Evie said.
“Charming lady!” Dr. Poblocki laughed and patted Evie’s hand. “Are you certain you’re related to that one?” He nodded at Will, and Evie had to fight the urge to giggle.
“Eschatology,” Dr. Poblocki continued, “from the Greek eschatos, meaning ‘the last,’ is about the end of the world and the second coming of Jesus Christ. Ah, but here is where things become quite interesting!”
Evie’s eyes widened. “More interesting than dope and sorcery?”
“Indeed! You see, the Brethren didn’t just believe that the end of the world was nigh; they thought it their God-given duty to help bring it about.”
“How did they plan to do that?” Will asked.
“By raising the anti-Christ. The Beast himself.” Dr. Poblocki paused to allow his words time to settle. Evie’s skin prickled with goose bumps.
“Why would they do that if they were Christians?” Evie asked.
“The line between faith and fanaticism is a constantly shifting one,” Dr. Poblocki said. “When does belief become justification? When does right become rationale and crusade become crime?”
“How did they intend to raise the Beast, Georg?” Will asked.
“With this.” Dr. Poblocki reached into his pile of books and produced a gnarled, leather-bound volume. “The eleven offerings. It’s a sacrificial ritual, both magical and religious in origin, for manifesting the Beast here on earth.”
The book was very old, and the thin, veined paper felt leathery against Evie’s fingers. It reminded her very much of some macabre illuminated Bible. Each page featured a small, colorful illustration of a ritual murder, accompanied by a scripture-like passage. The same sigils found on the killer’s notes also ran along the edges of the book’s entries.
Evie read the offerings aloud in order. “The Sacrifice of the Faithful. The Tribute of the Ten Servants of the Master. The Pale Horseman Riding Death Before the Stars. The Death of the Virgin. The Harlot Adorned and Cast upon the Sea…” The drawing was of a sightless, bejeweled woman arranged on water, surrounded by pearls. Above her head was an eye symbol. “Unc,” Evie said, shivering. “It’s just the way Ruta Badowski’s body was found.”
Will reached over Evie and turned to the next page. “The sixth offering, the Sacrifice of the Idle Son…” The illustration showed a boy hung upside down with one leg bent, like the Hanging Man of the tarot. The boy’s hands were missing, and a pair of hands bent in prayer was the symbol above the drawing. “Tommy Duffy.”
Evie read on. “The seventh offering, the Turning Out of the Deceitful Brethren from the Temple of Solomon.” She raised her head, thinking. “It’s a template for the murders.” She continued. “The eighth offering, the Veneration of the Angelic Herald. The ninth, the Destruction of the Golden Idol. The tenth, the Lamentation of the Widow. The eleventh offering, the Marriage of the Beast and the Woman Clothed in the Sun.”
The last page was a drawing of a bestial, horned man with the feet of a goat, two enormous wings, and a tail. He sat upon a throne and his eyes burned. In his hand was a dripping heart. At his feet was a woman wearing a golden crown and dress, her chest torn open. The symbol at the bottom was a comet. It made Evie shudder.
“Does it say how the Beast was supposed to come into this world?”
“It’s unclear. It says only that they needed a chosen one.”
“A chosen one to commit the murders?” Evie clarified.
Dr. Poblocki gave a small shrug. “There, I’m afraid, I can only conjecture.”
“What is this?” Evie pointed to a page near the back. It showed a man kneeling before another man in dark robes, possibly a minister. The Pentacle of the Beast hung over them both like a sun, and heavenly spirits floated nearby. Piles of kindling had been gathered. The minister placed a pendant around the kneeling man’s neck.
“That’s just like the pendant Jacob Call was wearing,” Evie said. “What is the pendant for?”
“Possibly to signify to others that they are members of the same tribe, much like a cross or a Star of David,” Dr. Poblocki said. “Though I cannot say that for certain.”
“What is the next offering?” Will asked.
Evie flipped back. “ ‘The seventh offering: the Turning Out of the Deceitful Brethren from the Temple of Solomon.’ Whatever that means.” Evie turned to Dr. Poblocki. “Do you suppose our killer believes the comet is some sort of sign?”
“Comets were often thought to be holy portents. God’s messengers. When Lucifer, the light-bringer, fell, he streaked through the sky just like a tail of fire, it is said.”
“When will the comet be overhead in New York?”
“October eighth, about midnight,” Will said.
“That’s less than two weeks away.” Evie bit her lip, thinking. “You said that the Brethren is a vanished cult. What happened to them?”
“The entire sect burned to death in 1848.” Dr. Poblocki opened a groaning file drawer overstuffed with papers. “There had been an outbreak of smallpox, you see. Several of the Brethren died from it. Apparently Pastor Algoode became convinced it was a sign of God’s judgment and that they should prepare themselves to bring on Armageddon. No one knows exactly what happened, but they think that Algoode gathered his followers and doused the meetinghouse in kerosene—a jar of it was found in the ruins. The doors were barred. A hunter nearby saw the flames and smoke. He said you could hear prayers and hymns turning to screams.”
Evie shuddered. “How awful. Did no one survive?”
“Not a soul,” he said solemnly. “The town of New Brethren was built in the valley below, about five miles from the original camp on the hill. They say that unquiet spirits still haunt the woods of the original Brethren. They’ve heard terrible sounds and seen lights in the trees up on the mountain. No one ventures there, not even the hunters.”
Evie tried to imagine all those souls locked inside the meetinghouse, singing and praying, the mothers clutching their children while the flames raged. “Burned to death. Why would they do such a thing?”
“Why does anyone do anything? Belief. A belief that they are right and just in their actions. Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son, Isaac, because he believed that God had commanded it. To kill your son is unthinkable. A crime. But if you are acting in the belief that your God, your supreme deity whom you must obey, has demanded it of you, is it still a crime?”
“Yes,” Will said.
Dr. Poblocki smiled. “I know you do not believe, Will. But imagine for a moment that you believe fervently that this is truth. In this framework, your actions are justified. Glorified, even. They are inculpatus—without blame. If this is the case with your killer, then he is on a holy mission, and nothing will stop him from seeing it through.”
“What is this?” Evie asked. She had turned to the last page in the Book of the Brethren, which had been torn out. Only the ripped edges remained.
Dr. Poblocki moved in close and peered over the tops of his glasses, squinting. “Ah. That. I can tell you what it is supposed to be. According to the accounts, the Book of the Brethren contained a spell for trapping the spirit of the Beast in an object—a holy relic of some sort—and then destroying the object, casting the Beast back to hell once the mission of the faithful had been accomplished.”
“I don’t understand,” Evie said.
“It’s like the Arabic jinn, or genie. A spirit or demon can be contained in an object and then destroyed,” Will said. He looked troubled.
“Doesn’t seem like much to hang your hat on,” Evie said. “Not that it matters, since the page is missing.”
“Not just missing, but deliberately torn out,” Dr. Poblocki reminded her.
“But who would do that, and why?”
“It seems someone didn’t want the Beast to be destroyed after all.”
“Georg, may I keep this?” Will said, holding up the book.
“Be my guest. Just promise me you won’t start your own doomsday cult with it.”
Engrossed in the book’s illuminated pages, Will didn’t respond.
“And now, it is high time I joined Mrs. Poblocki for our Sunday repast.” Dr. Poblocki gave Evie’s hand a courtly kiss. “I wish you the best with your investigation. Do keep your uncle in line.”
Outside, it had begun to rain. Will opened the day’s paper and offered half to Evie. They cupped the flimsy sheets over their heads and walked quickly across the lawn toward Broadway.
“If our killer is following the eleven offerings of this Brethren cult, he had to hear about them somehow. Is it possible he’s from that region?” Evie gazed at the vast expanse of city. “Don’t you think? Will? Unc, are you listening to me?”
“Hmm? Yes,” he answered absently. His brow was furrowed and his eyes looked tired. This case was obviously bothering him far more than he’d let on. “A solid observation, Evie.”
Evie couldn’t help but smile. From Will, this was quite a compliment.
“I’ll let Detective Malloy know that we might have a lead, that the killer could be from the New Brethren region. Perhaps they can ask around upstate and see if there has been anything out of the ordinary happening in or around New Brethren. But we do have something on our side now.”
“What’s that?” Evie asked. The rain was coming down harder now. The newspaper sagged and the back of her neck was wet.
“If we’re correct and our killer is working from this Book of the Brethren, then his next offering will be the seventh—the Turning Out of the Deceitful Brethren from the Temple of Solomon.”
“But what does that even mean?”
“It will be our job to try to figure that out in time,” Will said.
A taxi swerved into view and Uncle Will raised his hand for it, edging out two students. “Sorry. My niece is ill,” he told them, and Evie thrilled a bit at this small lie. They settled into the taxi just as the clouds unleashed a gully washer.
Evie leaned her head against the seat and watched the rain come down. “Unc, what happens when the killer has completed all eleven offerings? He isn’t really raising some mythical biblical demon from the deep. So what is he after?”
“But he believes that he is. Such strong belief is a powerful force.”
“Then what sort of powerful belief does it take to stop someone like that?”
“Turn left here, please, and don’t take the avenue,” Will instructed the driver, who decided to argue, in true New Yorker fashion, about which route was the best to take at this hour. It wasn’t until well after they’d returned to the museum that Evie realized he had never answered her question.