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Return of the Bone Lady

by Sue Parman


After a while, when C didn’t show up, I stumbled back to the starting point where the other searchers had gathered, waiting to be told where to go next. Esperanza was gone, and the park felt empty.

Cecily kept us in tight formation this time, and I noticed that she headed us in the direction of the knoll where she had trysted with Praeger.

Shortly before lunch one of the volunteers gave a shout. We crowded around, but the police chief motioned us back. I caught sight of a pair of trousers laid out beneath an oak tree.

Within minutes Cecily had placed a grid of wooden posts and string around the area, and she and Damon walked carefully over the ground, placing flags to mark items to investigate: triangular for human remains, square for associated materials. Then she called a break for lunch, saying we would start a more detailed search in the afternoon.

I waited around, hoping to spot C once the crowds thinned. Cecily spoke with the police chief while Damon glowered nearby. He looked unhappy. Right now I couldn’t care less about Damon’s sufferings, since he had brought them on himself.

I sat down in the shade of a pepper tree and pulled my Metropolitan Water District cap down over my eyes, as if I were taking a nap, but from under the lip I watched Cecily. She was hyperactive, talking first to the police chief and then to Damon. I almost missed it when she slipped something into Damon’s hand. He watched her go off with the police chief, and I saw him look down at the object in his hand.

I got to my feet, and Damon shoved the object into his pocket and smiled his innocent surfer-dude smile at me.

“What are you up to?” I asked.

“Just getting the tools ready for body recovery,” he said. “Don’t you want to go to lunch?”

“I’m more tired than hungry.” I yawned and stretched. “I think I’ll finish my nap.”

“It’ll be quieter in the parking lot,” he said. “I have to bring some stuff up for Dr. Seck.”

“You go right ahead. I’m so tired you could bury me right now and I probably wouldn’t notice.”

The look he gave me indicated he wouldn’t mind. He scooted off down the hill and I was left alone beside a murder scene, without the cat, the girl, or any reason to stay there. I inspected the area enclosed by the string. It looked like one of those simulated search sites that Cecily set up for her students, the trousers neatly laid out, a leg bone protruding from one of the trouser legs. A few rib bones curled out from a column of vertebrae, whereas the shirt lay stretched out nearby. I didn’t see a head.

By the time Damon labored up the hill carrying a shovel, buckets for moving dirt, a tape measure and line level, insect collection jars, trowels, dental picks, and evidence bags, I was stretched out under the pepper tree with the sporran for a pillow, snoring loudly. He entered the closed-off grid and stood over the body, his back to me. He reached into his pocket, pulled something out, and bent down. I couldn’t see what he did, but his posture told me that he had gotten rid of a burden. With relaxed stride, he left the grid and headed downhill.

I was about to get up when I saw C stick his head out of a nearby bush. He started forward, crouching in the grass, then jumped sideways and twisted in the air. Maybe being out in the open park reminded him of what it was like to be a kitten. He paused near the place where Damon had stood, bent down to sniff, and then jerked his head up, ears perked. From the trail below I heard the high-pitched laughter of Cecily with a large group of volunteers hungry to get back to their death-hunt.

The volunteers stopped outside the grid and pointed at C, who was batting at the vertebrae and rib bones.

“Tom Cat!” shrieked Cecily.

C leaped into the air and ran for the hills, and for a second I thought Cecily was going to take after him. Then she looked at the site and got to work.

Cecily was thorough. She handed out tools and directed the workers to squares within the grid. Square by square, heading in toward the skeletal material, they skimmed dirt carefully from the surface, or brushed off debris from artifacts. Cecily photographed each item, and Damon moved from grid to grid with the metal detector. He seemed to spend a lot of time around the body, as if he expected to find something. Cecily never glanced at him but I could tell she was aware of every movement he made.

After the scene had been cleaned and photographed, the volunteers put on latex gloves and began to bag the items, labeling them carefully, as Cecily filled in graph paper with a hand-drawn map. Once the surface items had been cleared, volunteers used shovels and trowels to pick up the dirt, one inch at a time, and screen it for small artifacts and bone fragments. They worked until it began to get dark.

The police detective came up to Cecily and placed his hand on her waist, in a familiar manner that told me he hadn’t wasted his lunch hour. He murmured, “Anything yet?” and she shook her head jerkily, like she didn’t have full control of her muscles. “It’s not here,” she said.

“What’s not here?” asked a voice at my elbow.

I turned to find Esperanza standing beside me, her camera raised.

Cecily screamed and pointed. We both whirled around to see C in the last rays of the setting sun, his fur fluffed up. His tail stood rigidly in the air, and a golden light poured from his mouth.

“He’s found it!” shrieked Cecily. “My Tom Cat has crossed over to the underworld! He’s brought back the evidence!”

My scalp tingled. C looked like a tiny god dancing in the flames of the setting sun. Esperanza clicked away like crazy. Suddenly I saw Damon creeping up behind him and I yelled “Run!”

Damon threw himself on C, who leaped into the air, straight toward Cecily. She opened her arms and cried, “Come, baby! Come to me, Tom Cat!”

“No!” I screamed, but he leaped straight at her.

But he didn’t leap into her arms. His jump was high. He handed on her head, and before she could grab him he launched himself into the darkness and disappeared into the underbrush. Cecily disappeared after him, and for a long time all we heard were shouts, thuds, rips, and a plaintive “Tom Cat! Come back to me!”

Damon stood rigidly beside the grid, the rest of us frozen in place as well. Finally Cecily trudged back up the hill, twitching and spitting. “I’ll kill that cat,” she muttered. She looked at Damon and in the twilight I thought I saw her eyes shine and her fingernails glisten like phosphorescent talons. “You! Come with me.” He whimpered and followed her down the hill.

“Poor kid,” said Esperanza.

“You’re the first person who wasn’t dazzled by her star power.”

“Oh, I’ll give her good copy,” she said. “My editor told me to stick by her so that when the next big case starts, I’ll have an in.”

“Is that why you came back?” I asked.

The moon peeked up over the hill, so bright that it cast shadows even in the late twilight. Her eyes were huge. “Are you married?” she asked.

My heart thudded in my chest. “I used to be. I’m really not a very reliable person. I probably won’t get tenure. I haven’t got any real skills—”

She reached out and touched her finger to my lips. It was a smooth, firm finger, and it smelled like cilantro. “Even your lips are cold,” she said. “Come back to my apartment and I’ll give you back your coat.”

I drew in a deep breath. Somewhere out in the chaparral among the coyotes was C. A distant chorus of howls sent a wave of panic through me. I imagined him falling into the quarry, or getting cornered by coyotes on the knoll of the vulture. “I can’t,” I said.

“Still waiting for her?” she asked.

“It’s a he,” I said.

She burst out laughing. “Boy, do I pick ‘em.” She turned away and started to walk downhill.

All I had to do was let her walk away, and my life would continue in its uncomplicated way, with only C and Cecily to worry about, along with tenure, publishing, growing old.

“Wait,” I said.

She turned in the moonlight.

It sounded ridiculous, but I had to say it. “The ‘he’ I’m waiting for is a cat. The cat you were taking pictures of. I’m afraid he’ll get caught by the coyotes if I leave him here.”

She walked back toward me, her hands on her hips. “Dr. Seck’s cat?”

“It’s my cat. She kidnapped him.”

“But he was walking beside her like a dog.”

A watchdog for the underworld. “My cat is crazy,” I said. “He does things I don’t understand.” I walked back to get my sporran, and she fell into step beside me.

“Yeah, I know about cats,” she said. “I’ve got one, and it drives me nuts. And the thing is, I’m allergic to them.”

I picked up my sporran, and we both started to sneeze at the same time. Empty when I brought it, it was now stuffed and purring.

I dumped the contents of the sporran on the ground. “Esperanza, meet C, my cat.”

C stood up, pranced around, and laid a small glittery object at my feet, with all the pride of delivering a dead mouse.

Esperanza gasped. “That isn’t what I think it is,” she said.

I picked it up and held it. It was heavy and cold and shaped like a large tooth. “It’s not Willard Raintree’s gold molar,” I said. “Cecily gave it to Damon, who planted it on the site.”

“That must be what Praeger gave to Dr. Seck,” said Esperanza, outrage in her voice. “It’s the one piece of evidence that would have confirmed that this was Raintree’s body. Someone must be desperate to prove he’s dead. Hey, what a great story this will make!”

I imagined Cecily and Damon being carted off in chains for planting false evidence. Then I remembered the police chief’s hand on Cecily’s waist. “Hold on, Watson,” I said. “They’ll all support her. She’s famous, and you’re just a muckraking reporter.”

“You want me to walk away?” Her eyes flashed in the moonlight, giving me the same chill I got when I saw C on fire in the light of the setting sun. “I’m not a coward like you!”

I winced. “All I’m suggesting is that you wait and see what other evidence they get besides this gold tooth. What about DNA from the bones in those pants?”

She hesitated. “They wouldn’t have done a DNA test if they’d found the tooth. But now they might.”

Three months later, DNA confirmed that the body found by Dr. Seck’s Forensic Anthropology Recovery Team was definitely not the body of Willard Raintree, and a stakeout of the site by a private detective hired by the Register nabbed Fred Praeger trying to plant a fake gold tooth.

Esperanza Flores won a Pulitzer for her coverage of the case, which included an interview with the famous Dr. Cecily Seck who provided the court with evidence of why the gold tooth was a fake. Esperanza’s investigation led to the conviction of Fred Praeger for the murder of Willard Raintree. He had killed him and dumped him from a yacht, expecting the body to wash ashore; but when it didn’t, he had tried to manufacture evidence of his death.

The identity of the person whose bones were found in Dakers Field Park was still unknown, but Dr. Seck was hard at work using all her forensic skills to track down the victim. After all, the reputation of a forensic osteologist depended on such successful reconstructions. The last I heard, Dr. Seck had tentatively identified the body as Caucasian, or possibly Asian or African.

As for the first fake molar, I had it encased in plastic and attached it to C’s collar, like a charm. It was this charm that C was playing with when Cecily barged into my office on a late Friday afternoon. She ignored both the charm and C, and invited me over for wine and popcorn.

I declined. C and I were expecting a guest for dinner.

Someone returning a jacket.

Copyright © 2009 by Sue Parman

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