The Bone Lady’s Revenge
by Sue Parman
Part 1 appears|
in this issue
The corridors were dark — courtesy of budget decisions — and I found myself tiptoeing. The janitors had gone, and the thick walls almost succeeded in cutting out the sound of the coyotes.
My office door was locked, but on the desk was a third cardboard box. I didn’t turn on the lights, but took the last of the essays into the conference room and finished grading them before returning to the room and flipping the switch for the fluorescent bulbs overhead. They flickered and steadied, casting their white light over the room, creating shadows just big enough to hide tarantulas.
This box was larger, and, instead of being folded in newspaper, the bones lay inserted in foam cut to house their shapes. Someone had sent me human vertebrae: seven cervical, twelve thoracic, and five lumbar.
I took them out one by one. They felt smooth and unreal. The foam had been perfectly cut to house them so each spiny transverse process was intact. I lifted out the foam. No spiders or snakes, but there was a ripped-off corner of a sheet of paper stuck in the bottom of the box. Maybe someone had used newspaper first and then changed their minds.
I unwedged the torn piece of paper. It wasn’t the rough, thin fabric of newsprint but the smooth, reflective surface of a magazine page.
START YOUR OWN MASK BUSINESS! Everything you need to know: diagrams, formulas, suppliers, sculpture tips, distributors’ addresses, etc. Send a SASE to David Ayres Special
I put it back into the bottom of the box. In forensic cases, all evidence is potentially useful. The foreground is often misleading; the background can be significant.
The foreground of this case, however, was unavoidably stark. Someone was sending me a body. First the cranium, then the mandible, then the vertebrae. Would I get the arm bones or the leg bones next? I was certain they came from Cecily; but how could she have done it from a Swiss insane asylum unless someone was helping her? And who would have the expertise and the connections to commandeer, diassemble, and deliver body parts? And what exactly was she trying to say? This is my previous victim. You’re next.
Unless, of course, she had escaped and was lurking in the building. As soon as my classes were finished, I went home, looking over my shoulder all the way.
Mrs. Stirling went out of her way to smile at me when I came in the next morning, and even asked if I had solved the mystery of the box on my desk.
“Three boxes,” I said automatically, and she said, “Nonsense!” I made an appointment to see the Department Chair but cancelled it at the last minute. What was I going to say? That I was being stalked by someone locked up in Switzerland? That I was becoming paranoid about my own students, or about the department secretary? I remembered Cecily’s diatribes about people out to get her; I was turning into a smaller, more timid version of her — less dangerous to others, perhaps, but equally mad. You’re not paranoid when someone really is out to get you.
I asked C. if I should consult a psychiatrist, and he climbed into the inside of my jacket and began to purr. If he got any larger, I would have to change the size of my jackets.
The phone rang, and after letting it ring about ten times I finally answered it.
“Damon — are you all right?” What a stupid question. Of course he was all right. The source of his persecution was thousands of miles away. I hoped.
“I was just wondering if you had a chance to think about my doing my thesis with you.”
I poured myself a glass of scotch from the bottle near the phone. “Damon, how many vertebrae does a grown man have?”
I heard the hesitation in his voice before he spoke. “Twenty-four, sir: seven cervical, twelve thoracic, and five lumbar.”
I drank the glass without stopping. “I’ll take you as my student. Meet me tomorrow morning with a synopsis and a new title.”
“A new title?”
“Your title sucks, Damon. Try something with dignity and respect for your reader.”
“You mean something boring?”
“I’ll accept any title that doesn’t have the word ‘stupid’ in it. I’ll be in my office at exactly 7:30 a.m. Can you be there that early?”
I put down the phone and poured myself another scotch, then opened up the box with the vertebrae in it. C. didn’t stir. He had not reacted to the vertebrae either; none of these bones were real to him.
I put down my glass and began to lay the bones out on the carpet. The first rule in forensic anthropology was to assemble all the skeletal material as if you were laying out the body, to make sure you weren’t missing anything, and to make sure that you didn’t have more than one body. Cranium first, mandible added, the top ringlike cervical bone called the atlas contacting the skull at the occipital condyles in the cranium—
I stopped, amazed that I was already too drunk to assemble a skeleton. The bones weren’t fitting together. The mandible seemed small and too narrow to articulate well with the cranium. One condyle fit loosely in the mandibular fossa of the temporals and the other condyle didn’t fit at all.
Now that I looked at it closely, the teeth didn’t align, and the uppers were stained brown whereas the teeth in the mandible were a stark white. The skull was robust, typical of a male; the jaw looked female.
You’ve got to be careful with the atlas; it has to be pushed forward to match up with the cranium. But no matter what I did, the occipital condyles in the cranium didn’t match up with the upper surface of the atlas. Not only that, the vertebrae didn’t fit together. There were large gaps between the cervical vertebrae.
This wasn’t a dismembered person; it was a whole tribe of dismembered people.
I looked closely at the teeth in the upper jaw, then reached for my Swiss army knife and began to scrape away at the surface. It was white underneath, and the bone was dense and almost rubbery, as if it had been soaked in a preservative. Then I noticed the holes drilled in the occipital condyles, parietals, and at the top of the cranium. The vertebrae showed the same treatment: preservation, staining, and holes drilled at the places you’d expect if it were prepared to be hung for display.
“I’m so stupid,” I said to C.
No wonder C. hadn’t reacted. These bones were as far removed from the ground as you could get.
As I drank my third (or was it my fourth?) drink, I tossed the bones, one by one, into one box, naming them as I went, and laughing so hard that if Mrs. Stirling had heard me, she would have called the local insane asylum. This wasn’t a forensic case at all. I was looking at skeletal material from a biological supply house.
Eventually I fell asleep on the floor, C. fitting like a heating pad against the small of my back.
I woke with a start at 5 a.m., trying to remember where I was. Damon. I had to meet Damon. Fix his clock. No, fix his title. “It’s Not the Feet, Stupid, It’s the Brain!” I tried to put both my feet and my brains in gear, but they were competing with each other.
It was 5:30 by the time I drove into the parking lot and lifted the box of bones out of my trunk. What would a policeman do if he found me here at dawn with a body in my trunk? Or rather, parts of many bodies. I tried to assemble them and they didn’t fit, Officer. There was something about playing with bones that drew you to the edge of sanity. It was probably something existential.
I’m sure the psychiatrist analyzing Cecily’s brain had written hundreds of pages full of long words in complicated relationships to each other. My take on the situation was simple: when you spend more time with death than with life, you go a little nuts.
I almost dropped the box as I saw movement in the tunnel of hibiscus. It was still so dark that I couldn’t tell if it was human or canine. I held the box carefully and entered the tunnel, wondering why it was so quiet. Had the rabbit population been cleaned out? Had the pack moved on to a new wedge of greenery in the dense concrete of the overcrowded Los Angeles basin?
The bushes to my right suddenly erupted into a paroxysm of activity, leaves and flowers flying, the ground torn up as what sounded like a dozen bodies collided in growling, screaming fury. Something flew through the air, spraying me with what felt like blood, and a limp, leaking body landed on top on the box I was carrying. It was just light enough for me to see that it was a large jackrabbit, its throat torn open and one ear ripped off. And coming at me from all sides were at least ten coyotes, looking so big that I thought they were wolves, their eyes yellow in the dawn light and their jaws slavering.
I heard a loud hiss, and the top of the box flew open. C. clawed his way out and up to the top of my head, his claws raking my forehead. He must have climbed into the box looking for a cozy corner when my jacket wasn’t immediately available.
I kicked at the nearest coyote, but the pack saw the snarling cat at the top of my head and swarmed like dogs up a telephone pole. I felt claws dig into my skull and then C. was gone. All I saw were the leaves of the hibiscus quivering. The pack abandoned the telephone pole and launched themselves into the bushes after their prey. I shouted. I threw the dead jackrabbit after them. I tried to force my way through the hedge but it was too thick. I ran down the path, looking for a break in the hedge, and then stopped dead.
Someone was in the tunnel ahead of me, clearly human, headed for University Hall.
I hesitated, and at that moment a triumphant howl trumpeted through the quad, and I stood unable to move, my heart stopped, black dots dancing in front of my eyes. I felt as though all the bones in my body had been removed by some magical surgery and were strung out along the winding concrete path. One body disassembled, waiting for a forensic anthropologist to gather up the bones and breathe the cold air of interpretation into the spaces once occupied by skin.
I found myself sitting beside the torn body of the jackrabbit. The howls rose in a glorious chorus. I remembered Cecily’s Tom Cat. Somehow Cecily was involved with this. Another death. Another murder.
Long live the Cat.
I grabbed the body of the rabbit and stuffed it into the box, then ran through the tunnel toward University Hall. I could no longer see anyone ahead of me, but I could smell the perfume of death. The door had been left unlocked, and I went quickly down the dark corridors and took the steps two at a time.
Damon was just setting another box on my desk when I came in behind him and turned on the light.
His face was covered with sweat; the surprise made him look naked.
“Dr. Ferguson! You said you’d be here at 7:30!”
“I couldn’t sleep. I’ve had these bones to think about.” I threw the box I had been carrying on the desk beside the new one. “What did you bring me today? Let me guess — feet.”
He didn’t even look embarrassed. The sullen, edgy look that had been growing in him ever since he started working with Cecily was printed on his body like a stain.
“Where did you get the keys?” I asked.
“She gave me all her keys before she left.”
“Let me see them.”
I was surprised that he handed them over. There must have been a hundred keys on the chain. I looked at the numbers. The key to my office was next to the keys to the rest of the department, all in order. She had keys to every building on campus, carefully labeled. She even had keys to the President’s office.
I felt as though a hundred spiders with deadly fangs were crawling all over my body. She could have gotten into my office at any time, could have gathered information from any office on the campus. Why would anyone want that kind of control over her world, and how had she managed it? I remembered her affairs with the janitors, and was surprised that it was Damon, not they, who had done her bidding.
But the janitors wouldn’t have been able to come up with a skeleton. “Where did you get the bones?” I asked. “Which supply house?”
He acted as if he were in a trance. I could have asked him to throw himself out the window and he would probably have done it. Cecily’s training, no doubt. He reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a folded magazine and handed it to me. A white skull branded with a dripping, blood-red swastika graced the cover, and the title FANGORIA quivered in orange against a purple background. I opened to the Table of Contents.
Living Dead Underworld Mutants, p. 6
Elvira, Sexy Mistress of the Dark, p. 22
Nazi Zombies and the Ghoul Brothers, p. 60
At the back of the magazine were the classified ads.
THE NEXT TIME SOMEBODY GETS ON YOUR CASE, GIVE THEM A PIECE OF YOUR MIND... literally. Bloody brain pieces made from high quality foam latex.
There were several ads for human skulls and skeletons.
“She really hates you,” said Damon.
“I want her address,” I said.
He wrote it down on a pad of paper. I began to breathe again. She was still in Switzerland. My hands shook as I filled out an address label.
“What about my thesis?” asked Damon.
I turned and stared at him, thinking of responsible, professorial things to say: how he must first stop believing everything he heard, especially from unreliable sources; how he was sorely lacking in Critical Thinking Skills, so highly valued at the university. But what happened was that I opened my mouth and began to howl, high and hard, like a coyote that had just captured its prey.
When I stopped howling, the room was empty. Run, Damon, run!
I opened the box he had brought and found the tiny tarsals, metatarsals, and phalanges of a single foot. Impress your friends! Put your best foot forward!
I dumped the foot bones in with the rest of the bones I had brought back, and mixed them with the blood of the dead, oozing jackrabbit. When the plasticized bones were coated with blood, I sealed them up in a plastic bag, wedged the bag in a fresh box, affixed the label, and put the box with the outgoing mail. How many years would I get for sending bodily fluids across international borders?
Without knowing quite how I got there, I found myself outside University Hall and back on the concrete path that wound its way between the claustrophobic hibiscus. The sun was up and the leaves looked glossily green, the flowers orange red. The pistils were furry like cat hair.
I listened for the coyotes but all I heard were the scattered murmurings of students making their way to early morning class. The voices sounded loud and unselfconscious, like all young voices did these days, trained as they were to carry on intimate conversations on cell phones in public places.
“No, Karla, I’m not kidding you.”
No response. Karla must be on the other end of a cell phone. I couldn’t see the speaker, but I guessed she was in her late teens, probably wearing a belly blouse with a tattoo of a black widow spider next to her navel.
“I’m in the quad next to that crazy tree with all the thorns. I’m telling you there’s a cat up in the tree.”
I plunged through the hibiscus in the direction of her voice. I noticed her only long enough to note that it was a skull, not a spider, that was tattooed on her stomach, because I was preoccupied with how to climb an African thorn tree without getting eviscerated. I’ve never understood how cats can get up trees but never seem to be able to get down without help.
I never did find the tarantula.
Copyright © 2009 by Sue Parman