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Return of the Bone Lady

by Sue Parman

part 1 of 3

Dr. Morriss Ferguson, a lowly Assistant Professor of Anthropology, is single, untenured, allergic to cats, always late to class, and hates to grade papers. His biggest problem, however, is the superstar of the department, Dr. Cecily Seck, who, having failed to add him to her long line of conquests, is determined to destroy him.

A famous Forensic Anthropologist who is always in the news when film stars or little children go missing, Dr. Seck can cut classes with impunity, bring her darling Tom Cat with her despite no-pet injunctions, and manipulate graduate students to accomplish her twisted goals.

Timid and antisocial, Dr. Ferguson is poorly equipped to counter the underhanded cunning of his nemesis. Each semester brings a battle of the bones over mystery and murder.

Because I was late for the Department meeting, I slithered past the conference room into my office. It was either make a spectacle of myself entering the meeting late or grade the papers I’d been promising for the last three weeks to return to my History of Anthropology class. To my dismay, my graduate student Damon was waiting for me.

“Damon, I haven’t got time to see you just now. You’ll have to wait till my office hours.”

Damon was taller than I am, and I’m six feet. He’s also twice as thin as I am, so he looks even taller. He was quivering like a birch tree, something he hasn’t done since his former advisor, the famous forensic osteologist Dr. Cecily Seck, entered an insane asylum in Switzerland last year.

“Dr. Ferguson,” he whispered, “I can’t see you again. She mustn’t know—”

With his blond curly locks and innocent face Damon had the capacity to look like a surfer-dude movie star. Right now he looked more like a heroin addict shaking with withdrawal symptoms.

“You haven’t finished the first draft of your thesis yet, have you?” I sighed.

Damon and I had a lot in common: we had great ideas but took our time getting them down on paper. I was in my third year as an untenured Assistant Professor and needed to publish four papers by the time I went up for tenure in my sixth year. I had none so far. Like Damon, I got nervous with deadlines. I should have been sympathetic but wasn’t. I had rescued him from a fate worse than death with Cecily (who tended to eat graduate students like popcorn), so he owed me more than a thesis. He owed me loyalty and dedication, not to mention coherence. He was babbling.

“Oh God, it’s too late,” he whimpered, and tried to cower behind me, which because of his height was a challenge.

I heard the click-click of high heels coming down the hall, which was dark except for small lights that illumined what was immediately beneath them. When the light shone on her, I almost jumped out of my skin.

The Bone Lady was back.

The last time I saw Dr. Cecily Seck, she looked like a red-headed sausage ready to explode. A paranoid schizophrenic and manic-depressive who behaved with some degree of normality only when she stayed on her lithium, she had been institutionalized after an episode in which she threatened to blow away the defense attorney, and me, in a case where she had testified as an expert witness and been humiliated on the stand. I had assumed she would be locked up permanently.

But apparently the Swiss asylum, which guaranteed a cure and return to society after a maximum of one year, had its reputation to protect. She had lost weight and her blazing red hair was now dyed strawberry blonde. Her grin looked sincere.

“Why, Morriss,” she said without spitting and hissing, “How nice of you to take care of Damon while I was gone. But I’m back now.”

Damon clutched my arm like a drowning man and I yelped.

“See here, Cecily,” I said, horrified to hear my voice quavering. “You’ve been away for a year. Damon is my graduate student now. He’s writing his thesis on fakes in paleoanthropology.”

“Fakes?” The soft voice had an edge of iron. Scientists never made mistakes, especially her.

“Uh, no, Dr. Seck, I never—” Damon darted out behind me and scuttled after her. I heard him say, “He chose my topic,” before the two of them vanished into her office.

His incoherent mutterings now made sense. He had come to tell me he was going back to her. Didn’t he know that she never forgot or forgave defection?

“Dr. Ferguson!” shouted a voice at my elbow, and I leaped into the air, dropping my papers.

I turned, expecting Cecily to be standing there with Damon’s heart in her fangs, but it was Mrs. Stirling, the Department secretary. The tight gray curls surrounding her pudding face bounced as she shook her head. “Shame on you, trying to sneak out of the Department meeting! Come to the conference room immediately!”

It was a symptom of my demoralized state that I followed her like a stray cat she had rounded up. Only when I sat down and accepted a stack of papers from the Department Chair did it occur to me to wonder why I hadn’t been notified of Cecily’s release. She had, after all, threatened to kill me.

“Any comments on the new courses proposed?” asked the Chair of the Curriculum Committee, another harassed Assistant Professor who was finding it difficult to publish.

I glanced down at the list and gagged. “We’re proposing to offer a new seminar titled ‘Cats as Watchdogs of the Underworld’?”

Mrs. Stirling smiled. “Dr. Seck sent that to me last year, and I saved it for the next round of submissions. I thought it would help to integrate her back in the Department.”

The fact that the Department secretary was making decisions about our curriculum didn’t seem to bother anyone else, and the list was approved unanimously. My hand shot up along with everyone else’s. Otherwise, Mrs. Stirling would have reported me to Cecily.

At the end of the meeting, Mrs. Stirling chimed in with an announcement that Dr. Seck was looking for volunteers for her Forensic Anthropology Recovery Team. She looked smug as she read a memo from the Dean requesting that all members of the Anthropology Department participate in the latest search, since it involved the disappearance of a prominent Los Angeles fund-raiser and there would be reporters and opportunities to make the Department (and the University) shine.

The Forensic Anthropology Recovery Team (that everyone except Cecily called FART) was a volunteer organization composed of students, faculty, and members of the community who, under the direction of the famous Dr. Seck, conducted searches for skeletal material. It was a great idea. It galvanized interest in the Department, enhanced the University’s reputation as a community-based institution, and contributed to the growing interest in forensic studies that over the past ten years was sweeping the nation. It also provided a platform for Cecily’s career and fed her unstable ego. If a newspaper story about one of the searches appeared without her photograph in it, heads rolled.

After the meeting, I sat at the table filling out some forms that everyone else had filled out earlier, and only gradually did I notice that Mrs. Stirling was still in the room. I tried to ignore her. Ever since the Case of the Satanic Jewel Box, she had looked on me with suspicion, and her only interest in me was to gather gossip that she passed on to Cecily.

To my surprise, she said, “Dr. Ferguson, can I ask your advice?”

She rubbed red-rimmed eyes with lavender-colored fingernails, and I felt a stab of pity for this grandmotherly woman who had gone back to work, in her 60s, to avoid growing old. “It’s Tom Cat,” she said. “I was supposed to take care of Dr. Seck’s cat while she was gone.”

I felt the same stab of terror that I saw in her eyes. “What happened to him?” I whispered. Tom Cat was Cecily’s one true love; the only faithful male in her life.

“He disappeared last week. She’s coming over tonight to pick him up. I don’t know what to do.”

I took a deep breath, held it, and let it out slowly. Mrs. Stirling should know by now that Tom Cat wasn’t one cat. He was an ideal, the image of a Faithful True Love for Cecily, who used cats like she used men, chewing them up one after another. “Go to the pet store and get another cat. Believe me, she won’t know the difference.”

“Cat hater!” she shouted as I ran out the door.

I shuddered as I drove home, wondering if this latest incarnation of Tom Cat had sensed Cecily’s imminent return and had decided to beat it while the going was good.

My Scottish sporran was lying in the middle of the living room, and it twitched when I knelt down to pick it up. A sporran is one of those purses Scotsmen belt around their waist to carry their flint, farthings, and now cell phones.

I opened the lid of the sporran (the flattened head, shoulders, and arms of a badger) and peeked inside. My cat C batted my nose, and I dumped him out of the bag onto the hearth rug. He immediately leaped onto my lap and tried to get into my pocket, but he had grown much too large.

I sneezed (I’m allergic to cats) and told him about my day, and he didn’t seem at all bothered to learn that the Bone Lady was back in town.

To avoid meeting Cecily again, I kept a record of her schedule and made sure I was out of the office when she was in. I kept my office door closed and locked, even during my own office hours. I never went down to Mrs. Stirling’s office, where Cecily could usually be found cooing and oohing over the health and sleeping habits of her latest Tom Cat.

I did learn, from a fear-ridden Damon who came to borrow some books, that Cecily had already begun teaching her seminar on cats as watchdogs to the underworld, and that Damon had signed up for it. Seeing my look of horror, he said, “It’s not as weird as it seems. She says that cats are very sensitive animals that can locate crucial evidence associated with cause of death. She suggests that every forensic search team should have a cat involved in the search.”

“That’s nuts, Damon,” I said and immediately regretted it. What went into the ears of Cecily’s disciples unerringly ended up in hers.

A week later, I was forced to go to the department to pick up my paycheck. As Mrs. Stirling handed me my envelope, her face turned white. I realized why when I heard Cecily’s voice behind me.

“Have you seen Tom Cat?” she asked. “I’m trying to find him.”

I breathed a huge sigh of relief that I had decided not to bring C in with me today, and that I now kept my office door locked. Cecily fixed us both with a glassy stare and drifted down the hall.

Mrs. Stirling’s brow glistened with perspiration, attracting the midges. She didn’t look at me, and I realized that she had taken my advice. She had gotten a new orange tom to replace the missing Tom Cat, and Cecily hadn’t caught on to the switch (and why should she, since she’d been through at least twenty incarnations of the poor animal already?).

A 16-font flyer in my mailbox that day reminded me that I should show up at 9 a.m. in Dakers Field Park next Saturday to assist the Forensic Anthropology Recovery Team in its search for the bones of Mr. Willard Raintree, a mover and shaker in the construction industry and major donor to the Republican Party and the University.

I had been following the story in the Los Angeles Times, ever since Mrs. Stirling had read the Dean’s memo requesting our participation in the search. Mr. Raintree, in my view, was a mobster who had finally gotten what he deserved, and I had no intention of participating.

My plans changed, however, on Friday afternoon, when Cecily barged unannounced and unexpected into my office while I was grading papers. I had left my door open because Cecily never came in on Friday.

“Where’s Tom Cat?” she demanded. Already she was beginning to fill out. The lean ingénue was converting back into a middle-aged sausage, and gray showed in the roots of her hair.

“Did you lose him again?” I asked, and immediately regretted saying anything. A rictus of paranoia distorted the polished skin of her face, and in her eyes was the old glint of madness.

“You and I both know that Tom Cat’s soul has been reincarnated many times,” she said. “But though he is lost, I will find him again.”

I almost swallowed my tongue. This was a new twist on the old madness, more powerful for being closer to the truth. I was so surprised by her statement that I barely noticed the squirming of C waking up inside my sporran. I had brought him with me, thinking it was safe. I willed him to go back to sleep.

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2009 by Sue Parman

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