Return of the Bone Lady
by Sue Parman
|part 2 of 3|
Try willing a cat to do anything. As if challenged by my telepathic plea, C climbed out from beneath the badger onto the stack of papers on my desk where he began to groom.
“Tom Cat! I knew it!” Cecily’s eyes glistened.
“This is not your cat,” I said, and began to sneeze.
“Everyone knows you’re allergic to cats,” said Cecily. “You’re the last person in the world to keep a cat.”
“He’s-ACHOO!-mine. You keep away from-ACHOO!”
Cecily leaned over the desk, her long braids swinging. “Hello, Tom Cat,” she said.
C stopped grooming and stared at Cecily, the tiny tip of his tail twitching the way it did when he was about to spring on a bird.
“Tom Cat,” whispered Cecily. “Come here, my little man.”
“Keep your hands off my cat!”
C meowed and lunged at her braids. Cecily gave a cry of triumph and folded him into a tight embrace. I collapsed in a paroxysm of sneezing as she kissed him, rubbed his ears back and forth, and raked his tummy with her desiccated fingers. I felt like I was watching a pornographic movie.
“See you tomorrow at the search,” she said gaily. “Tom Cat will show everyone the truth of my theory about cats as watchdogs to the underworld.”
She exited, C draped around her neck like a fur collar, his fangs sunk in one of her braids. I leaped after her but sneezed so hard my nose bled, and by the time I got it under control, Cecily had left the building. I ran into Mrs. Stirling’s office. “Call the police!” I shouted. “She stole my cat!”
Mrs. Stirling gave me a smug smile. “I thought you were allergic to cats.”
I stormed out to the parking lot and stood shaking and fuming, alternating between fury with C for being so stupid, and horror at the memory of what happened to the first Tom Cat that I had dared to befriend. What did I really understand about how cats thought? Cecily smelled of blood, bones, and decay. Maybe to C it was a kind of deadly perfume.
There was only one hope of getting him back. I had to show up for the FART search the next morning, when Cecily brought him to prove her crazy theory about cats and the underworld.
I slept very little, and was at the search site in Dakers Field Park an hour before the announced time. The park was a series of hills and canyons in the middle of Los Angeles, the perfect meeting place for lovers and gangsters.
Besides me, there were two reporters on the site, one from the Los Angeles Times and the other from The Register. They wore badges that reflected the light of the early morning sun that filtered through the dead branches of burned trees. An August fire had burned through the park, and a November rain had sloughed off the top surface. When it rained in northern California, you found gold; in southern California, bones.
The reporter from the Times was a tall, burly Anglo who wore a ski jacket and a fur hat. The Register reporter was a slim Latina who had forgotten to wear a jacket and was shivering in the cold. I was shivering too, even in a jacket, and walked off into the chaparral to get away from her; but after about ten minutes I walked back, took off my jacket, and offered it to her. She looked at me suspiciously, and I hoped she would turn me down.
“I’m Dr. Ferguson,” I said. “I’m with the recovery team.”
“I’m Esperanza Flores. You do this often?”
“Go on bone hunts, or offer my coat?”
“I can’t take your jacket. You look blue with cold.”
“I live in the world of the ideal rather than the real. This is California, which everyone knows never gets cold.”
“You’re babbling,” she said.
“University professors talk like that.”
She smiled and slipped into the jacket. I liked the way she pulled it around her, as if she were C settling into the sporran. “Thanks,” she said. “Your hypothetical jacket warms my hypothetical bones.”
I looked at her strong brown face and heavily-lashed eyes and felt an unhypothetical lurch in my loins. “Nice bones,” I murmured.
She opened her eyes wide, like a camera lens snapping my picture. And then they shifted to something behind me. I turned and saw Cecily striding up the path toward us, C walking on one side of her and Damon on the other.
“C!” I shouted, and then began sneezing. By the time I stopped, a sizeable crowd had assembled. Esperanza Flores, wearing my coat, was at the front of the crowd holding a notebook, and Cecily was standing on the stump of a dead tree calling for order. I couldn’t see C, which didn’t surprise me, as he disliked crowds. I hoped he was looking for a tightly enclosed space to crawl into, such as the sporran I was wearing.
Cecily introduced the Chief of Police, who gave a brief synopsis of the case. Willard Raintree had disappeared three months ago under shady circumstances that the chief refused to divulge. Some hikers in Dakers Field Park had discovered a shoe that was similar to those worn by Raintree. No other evidence had been found. It was critical that the body of Willard Raintree be clearly identified because unspecified business transactions hinged on his being declared dead.
Identifying him would be difficult. Raintree was of medium height, had never broken any bones, and did not wear designer clothing. The best bet would be to find a cranium and jawbone with the teeth intact. In his thirties he had replaced a decayed molar with a solid gold tooth. Such a tooth would prove that the body was his.
Cecily explained the procedures to be followed. We would be doing an organized ground search using visual assessment, which meant that we walked side by side and scanned the ground for any indications of human incursion. We should look for bare areas or areas where the ground vegetation had been disturbed, which would indicate that a body had been buried. We should also use our sense of smell and hearing: swarms of insects would be attracted to a decomposing body. With that grisly thought in mind, we spread out in a line and moved forward.
I was surprised to find Esperanza Flores at my side. She pointed at my sporran and asked, “Are you Scottish?”
“My grandfather was.” It seemed too complicated to explain about C.
“Isn’t the sporran usually worn with a kilt?”
“You wouldn’t want to see my knees.”
“No, I’d rather see a dead badger.”
“You’re not vegetarian, are you?”
“I was going to ask you out. I wouldn’t take you to a steak house if you were vegetarian.”
She pulled out her notebook. “So you’re a colleague of Dr. Seck? What’s she like?”
“I’ll tell you what she’s like,” said an eager voice behind us, and Damon pushed between us.
I hung back to tie my shoelace as the two of them walked on. Damon would keep her busy for quite a while. Cecily gave her students copies of her CV and told them to memorize it.
My heart was pounding. I never asked women out on dates during hunts for dead bodies after only a few minutes of conversation. It was unprofessional.
Who was I kidding? I never asked women out on dates period, because they always did what Esperanza had just done: steered the conversation to safer ground. What had possessed me?
The phalanx of searchers finished a cross-section of the park, moved north, and headed back. We were in a more tangled part of the park and, at Cecily’s direction, split up into teams. I formed my own team, fighting my way up to the top of a ridge where I sat on a rock, hoping that C would find me if I was alone. Where was he? When would he realize the danger he was in? I flapped the badger in the breeze, hoping he would catch the scent.
“Am I interrupting a sacred ritual?” Esperanza Flores pushed her way through the chaparral and stood before me, the early morning sun infusing her skin with a golden glow.
I accidentally bit my tongue, which reminded me that I should be professional. “Didn’t you get enough information about Dr. Seck?” I asked.
“I came to see if your offer was hypothetical.”
My heart skipped a few beats. “I’m never hypothetical about steak,” I said.
She sat down beside me on the rock. “You gave me your coat,” she said, “And I was rude.”
“I was unprofessional.”
“What would be the professional way to ask me out?”
“I suppose I should solve the crime first. Prove my credentials by finding the body of Willard Raintree.”
“I hope I don’t have to wait too long.”
The early morning sun hit me square in the eyes, and I felt suddenly warm.
“What are you going to do first?” she asked.
“What would Sherlock Holmes do?” I asked.
“Shoot up with cocaine and fill a room with pipe smoke.”
“He would think,” I said severely. “Why would Willard Raintree come to Dakers Field Park?”
“I can help you a little with that. Raintree owns the baseball stadium about a half a mile from here. He was last seen talking to someone who wanted to buy it from him. His heirs want to sell it but can’t unless there’s a body.”
“Thank you, Watson. But someone like Raintree wouldn’t meet someone in a park. He’d meet in a crowded restaurant where there were plenty of witnesses.”
She pulled some binoculars from her purse and scanned the hillside. “Does Cecily Seck know a man named Fred Praeger?”
“One of the heirs who desperately wants the body to show up. He’s up there at the top of that knoll, talking to Dr. Seck.”
She handed me the binoculars. I thought it was more likely that Cecily had arranged a tryst with one of her lovers.
“How do you know that’s Fred Praeger?” I asked. He and Cecily were deep in conversation.
“Same way a bird-watcher identifies a bird. Plumage and behavior. Praeger has a yellow stripe down his back. There’s nothing he does straight.”
“He just handed something to Cecily.”
She grabbed the binoculars back, watched for a few minutes, and then started to laugh. “I don’t know what he gave her,” she said, “But if it was money, we can get him for soliciting.”
I kept my eyes on the ground. I felt rather than saw her attention shift. “Is that why you went off alone?” she asked. “Were you waiting for her?”
“But you were waiting for someone, weren’t you?”
I didn’t reply. How could I explain about a cat?
“Men!” she exploded. “What is it about death and sex?”
She stalked off, my coat wrapped around her like a second skin.
Copyright © 2009 by Sue Parman