Below the Bones – Kendra Elliot

Jerry Hooper scratched his gray beard as he pushed a fir branch out of his path. The morning May air was cool in the deep forest of Bishop State Park, and he had decided a hike on the island would clear the fuzzy cobwebs from his brain. He always sampled new marijuana from his distributers. As a longtime connoisseur of pot, he found it important to share his personal opinion of each variety with his buyers. He took pride in Buzz’s Pot Shop’s wares, but last night’s sample had created a miserable morning. “I won’t be carrying this garbage in the store,” he muttered. “Can’t think at all today.” He stopped in a clearing, appreciating the sight of the dense mist that hovered over the tall grass. “Rocky! Here, boy!” he shouted, wondering where the dog had wandered. Rocky’s hearing wasn’t too sharp, and he usually stuck close. Jerry checked the time. Nine fifteen. The sign on his store’s door stated he opened at nine, so it was nearly time for him to head back to North Sound to set up shop for the day. To him the opening time was an estimate, not a definite. As summer came closer, the tourists had started to crowd the streets and stores of Widow’s Island in the Salish Sea off the coast of the state of Washington.

The out-of-staters loved to browse in his store, giggling at the jars of weed they couldn’t legally buy back home and slyly hinting they wanted a sample. As if he’d never been asked that before. The tourists annoyed the hell out of him. Lots of lookers. Few buyers. Especially when they learned he was a cash-only business. The island residents respected his business; mainlanders treated it like a freak show. Almost made him miss the days before marijuana was legalized in Washington and he sold only pot paraphernalia. And a little homegrown marijuana on the side. He cupped his hands around his mouth.

“Rocky!” The tall grass on the far side of the clearing shuddered, and he watched the wiggling of the stems move toward him. “Good boy.” The dog burst out of the grass, happiness and pride in his dark eyes, a new bone between his teeth. Rocky sat at Jerry’s feet and dropped his prize. Jerry stared at the bone, blinking several times, his brain still slightly fogged. “No way,” he mumbled. “No fucking way.” He crouched to get a closer look and got a sloppy kiss from Rocky. He rubbed the dog’s head, dread growing in his stomach. A life-size plastic skeleton had hung in the corner of his store for twenty years.

The educational type found in a high school science room. Many shoppers had wanted to buy it, but Jerry wouldn’t part with Mr. Bones. Jerry sucked in a deep breath. He’d dusted the skeleton enough times to be pretty confident that Rocky had found a human femur. 2 Cate Wilde sat on a gigantic flat rock as she watched deputies Tessa Black and Bruce Taylor excavate the skeleton along with Dr. Henry Powers. She and her boyfriend, Henry, had been drinking coffee at her bakery when Tessa had called the doctor to report that Jerry Hooper believed he’d found a human femur. Henry had unknowingly inherited the job of coroner when he’d bought the island’s sole medical practice a year ago. Jerry had led the four of them deep into Bishop State Park.

Cate didn’t think even she had been this far into the forest in all her years of exploring the island while growing up. Jerry had brought them to a clearing, and at the small meadow’s edge, rough dirt had indicated where his dog had dug up the bone. Jerry had previously poked around in the dirt a little until he’d seen more leg bones. Then he’d hiked to a spot where he got cell service and called Tessa. It hadn’t taken long to expose the entire skeleton. A female. They carefully continued to excavate and document each bone. “Gonna be a nice day,” Deputy Bruce Taylor said as he approached Cate’s rock. He twisted the top off a water bottle and stretched his back. Bending over the shallow grave was backbreaking work, and Cate was frustrated that Tessa had refused her help.

Cate was no longer in law enforcement. She’d left the FBI last winter and moved back to the island, her childhood home. Now she owned a bakery and a bookstore. A much quieter, less stressful life. But sometimes a little dull. “Tessa told me your mother is coming for a visit,” Cate said, studying the young deputy. He’d been on Widow’s for a year or so, a transplant from Southern Oregon. Bruce’s eyes lit up. “Yeah. Tomorrow.

Haven’t seen her since Christmas.” Cate knew he came from a large close family, many of whom were in law enforcement. “Julie and I have searched unsuccessfully for a house for her to rent,” he said. “We don’t have the space in our home, and I won’t let her sleep on the couch for a month, but Chris found her a place down the street,” he said, referring to the island’s real estate agent. “That’s great. It’ll be nice to have her close.” Bruce’s lips curved. “She’s an opinionated character, so she’ll fit in just fine on Widow’s.” “Bruce!” Tessa yelled from the grave site. “Bring some water.

” He grabbed two more bottles and went back to work. Cate’s instinct urged her to examine the grave site, to search for clues as to why the woman had been buried in such a remote area. Her brain wanted the challenge of solving the puzzle, working the investigation. She’d done it for years. She’d loved her job, but after she was shot on a routine interview, her mind couldn’t handle the stress any longer. She tried to distract herself from the grave and thought about relaxing on the big rock. Maybe stretch out in the sun. It’d be a perfect lounger for sunbathing if it wasn’t in the middle of nowhere. And that’d be rude when three people were tirelessly working close by. Instead she closed her eyes and listened for sounds of the forest beyond the digging and low conversations.

A faint electrical tickle went up her spine as a pocket of cold air touched her neck and arms. Her eyelids flew open, and she scanned the meadow. Twenty yards away, a wisp of rising steam hovered above the grass. And then vanished. “Ruby?” Cate whispered. Infamous Ruby Bishop was the island’s ghost. Some locals believed they had seen her on the cliff on the island’s southern edge known as the Widow’s Walk. But Cate had a special connection to the spirit: Ruby was her great-great-grandmother. The chill. The electricity in her spine.

The wisp. No one else had mentioned those sensations when they’d claimed to have seen Ruby. Cate had encountered her long-dead ancestor a few times since she was a child but had kept her sightings—and sensations—to herself, worried she’d sound like a nut. She felt the tickle again, and an overwhelming urge to act now made Cate hop off the rock and approach Tessa and Henry, who had their heads together, closely examining something on Tessa’s palm. Drawing closer, Cate watched Tessa remove a locket from a dirty plastic bag. Her lungs stopped as her gaze locked on the large piece of jewelry. She didn’t recognize it. She was positive she’d never seen it before. Tessa flicked it open as Cate arrived. “Shit,” muttered Tessa.

The image inside was water damaged, but Cate could see the bound hands of the naked woman in the photo. She froze, her vision locked on the picture. Not again. “Cate?” Henry asked sharply. “What is it?” She jerked her gaze away from the locket, meeting his concerned eyes. “There’s more,” she said quietly. “There will be more graves here. We need to search the whole area.” Henry listened as Cate quickly spoke to him and Tessa. He was watching Cate for signs that she felt faint again.

She’d gone white when she’d first seen the locket in Tessa’s hand, but now her color was back and her speech was rapid, her tone higher than usual as she explained what she’d meant about more graves. “It’s been eight years,” Cate said. “I was assigned to support a case in a rural Central Washington community. Several graves had been discovered in a wooded area.” She glanced around at the firs. “Not unlike this one. Six women had been killed. All from different cities but within a twohundred-mile radius.” “Did you catch him?” Tessa asked. Cate nodded.

“We did. His name was Jeff Lamb, and he confessed.” She looked at the skeleton again. “Each victim was buried with a locket of some type. Inside was a photo of the woman not long before she’d been killed. They were always bound and had tape over their mouths.” “An odd MO,” Henry said. “You’d think he’d keep the images instead of burying them.” “Lamb kept images,” Cate said in a grim voice. “We found tons in his home.

There were photos from his victims’ everyday lives that he must have taken as he stalked them. And then there were the images of the women being tortured before he killed them.” Henry watched the fast pulse at Cate’s neck. She seemed stable and in control now, but her face was somber, and he recognized she’d transitioned into work mode. Alert. Focused. Challenged. He hadn’t seen her like this since she’d officially left her FBI job. It suited her. He’d often worried she’d find the pace of her bakery and bookstore too slow after the intensity of being an FBI agent.

Does she regret her decision? He’d asked her a few times, but she’d always asserted she loved the slower speed and having less responsibility. “Lamb must not have told you about this grave because it was in a different location.” Tessa scanned the immediate ground. “Or possibly graves.” Cate frowned. “He admitted to the ones we found. I believed him when he said there weren’t more.” “So this grave is at least eight years old,” Tessa said. Henry raised a brow. “Don’t you think that’s a big assumption? You can’t be certain he did this.

It could be a copycat . or coincidence.” “Good point,” agreed Tessa. Cate shook her head. “It can’t be a copycat. The public knew a photo had been left with each victim, but they were never told that the photo was in a locket or that the women in the photos had been tortured. I can’t see something this specific being a coincidence either.” “Someone working the murders could have talked about it to their family or friends,” Tessa pointed out. “Sometimes a hundred people can be involved in a case that size.” Studying the ground, she walked a couple of yards to their left.

“See the subtle depression here? I want to dig here next.” Henry knew that when buried bodies’ torsos collapsed from decomposition, a depression could be created in the ground above them. He saw the faint dip that had caught Tessa’s attention. “Call the FBI first,” Cate said. “You need someone who knows the background of the Lamb case, if this turns out to be what I think it is.” Tessa eyed her. “I have someone. You.” “Absolutely not,” Cate stated. “I’m done with that.

” Henry heard a faint questioning tone behind her firm words. She wants to be involved. “I’ll call, but what else can you tell me first?” Tessa asked Cate. “Why did he choose the women he did?” Cate closed her eyes, her brows coming together in concentration. “He wouldn’t say. They were all mothers. They all had young children.” Her lids flew open. “I almost forgot. He always kidnapped them on the fifth of the month.

Not every month, but always on the fifth.” “Shit,” said Bruce. “That’s just days away.” “This skeleton has been here for a few years,” Henry pointed out. “I think we would have heard if women were disappearing every month.” Bruce grinned sheepishly. “True.” He turned to Cate. “Did he tell you why he picked that date?” “He said it was a coincidence.” “Six coincidences?” asked Henry.

“A psychiatrist theorized that the date and the fact that the victims were young mothers had to do with some trauma from his childhood.” Henry didn’t respond. He respected psychology. But not killers. Mental health issues were real; he’d seen more than he could count in a Los Angeles ER. But plenty of people had shitty childhoods and trauma without turning into murderers. “What’s going on?” Henry spun around to find Luke Ruell watching them. Luke’s gaze went to the excavation site, and he pushed his hair out of his eyes. “Is that a skull? Cool.” His tone was diffident.

Henry hadn’t interacted often with the island resident who avoided most people and rarely talked—a rarity on Widow’s Island. Luke’s age was uncertain. Somewhere between thirty and fifty. It was hard to tell behind the thick beard and the hair in his eyes. Luke shaved the sides of his head, exposing intricate tattoos on his skull, but let the dishwater-blond top grow long. He didn’t have tattoos anywhere else. That I can see. Luke owned the kayak-rental shop near the bay, but his business was very seasonal. Henry didn’t know what the man did to support himself the other nine months of the year. He was an odd duck on an island full of unique people.

Even Jerry Hooper thought Luke was weird. “This is a police investigation,” Tessa told him. “Please leave the area.” “You don’t own the park,” Luke told her. “I have every right to hike through here.” His gaze went to the grave again. “Got a murder?” “Deputy Black politely asked you to leave,” said Bruce, stepping between Luke and his view of the grave. “You gonna make me, big guy?” Luke’s tone was bored. Luke was pencil thin with spiderlike limbs. His kneecaps protruded and looked as if a mild blow would knock them off.

How he managed to lift a kayak was a mystery. If Henry were Luke, he wouldn’t challenge Bruce Taylor. The deputy was young and muscular. “Beat it, Luke,” Tessa told him. “Or I’ll tell everyone here what I caught you doing behind the ice creamery.” Luke flushed. Even his tattoos on his skull reddened. He turned and left without a word. Cate snorted as Luke vanished into the woods. “What’d he do?” Tessa wrinkled her nose.

“It was last summer. One of the insanely hot days. He was using ice cream like suntan lotion on his chest and shoulders and legs.” She raised a brow. “He was just about to start on body parts that don’t need suntan lotion when I found him.” Henry couldn’t speak. “In public?” “Not really. His kayak shop isn’t that far from the creamery if you take the alley behind the buildings. No one else was around.” “That’s creepy,” added Cate.

“He’s harmless,” said Tessa. “Other than being rather odd, he’s never done a thing.” “Will he spread the word about what’s going on up here?” Henry asked. “I don’t think so,” said Tessa. “He’s not a gossip.” “Unlike everyone else on the island,” said Cate. She was studying the ground, walking away from the current grave. Henry agreed. There were few secrets on Widow’s. Cate halted.

“I think we’ve got another depression. And it makes an almost perfect line if the first depression is another body.” She paused. “That’s how we found them before. Six graves in a line. This is looking more and more like Jeff Lamb’s work.” Tessa sighed and pulled out her phone. “Anyone got a signal?”

.

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