Her Perfect Bones – Ellery A. Kane

Life as she knew it had ended. That was an absolute fact. The irrefutable evidence could be neatly catalogued, the same way Mr. Humphrey classified species of reptiles in her sophomore biology class. To start with, the interior of the Greyhound bus had the odor of Kris’s football cleats the day after a game. No matter how many times their mother doused them with bleach, they reeked of wet dog and cheese. Strange, but she already missed her big brother, even if he did stink to high heaven. Everything she owned now fit into the oversized blue duffel bag she’d swiped from his closet. That included her Def Leppard T-shirt, a worn copy of Pride and Prejudice, the ragdoll she’d kept on her bed since kindergarten, and twenty-two dollars that she’d gutted from her own piggybank. Thankfully, her ticket had been paid for and delivered to her after school in a crisp white envelope. Then, there was the sickness. Twice, she’d thrown up into the bus’s metal toilet. Once, while riding waves of nausea like a wayward boat in a storm, and then again, as she stared into the toilet’s disgusting throat. The remains of the peanut butter and jelly sandwich she’d packed floating like icebergs in blue liquid below. But worst of all, the bus had been lurching down the freeway for over thirteen hours now, slumping its way toward Fog Harbor like a dying beast.

Every time it stopped, the doors opened with a death rattle sigh, and she wondered if the old thing would make it there at all. Even the batteries in her Walkman had finally given out. Her mixtape grinding to a sudden stop, the final nail hammered into her proverbial coffin. Without Journey and Air Supply, she’d resorted to playing the alphabet game with road signs. But after the signs dwindled, the road winding its way deeper into the forest, she had nothing left to do but stare at the towering redwoods and wonder if she’d ever see the pale blue sky again. Everything in her old life faded from view, getting smaller and smaller out the bus’s rear window. The moment the bus finally arrived at the Fog Harbor station, she felt an unexpected burst of energy. A need to suck up the salt air and feel the sand between her toes. To see the cabin in the woods, the river behind it that led to the ocean. It all sounded like a dream.

She hurried then, cursing under her breath while she struggled with the duffel and up the narrow aisle. But after she clunked down the two steps and dropped the bag on the pavement, the whole journey and what it meant finally caught up with her. Exhausted, she rested on the curb, waiting, while the other passengers filed past her to destinations unknown. Her hand wandered to her face, pressing against the days-old bruise on her cheek. It had faded to an ugly yellow, easily hidden beneath her Cover Girl foundation, but it still ached. When the car arrived for her, she felt a sickening flutter in her stomach that she blamed on nervous butterflies, beating their demented little wings inside her, stirring up a strange mixture of anticipation and dread. She walked toward it anyway, stepping over the still-warm corpse of her old life and into the new one that lay out before her like a highway to all the places she’d never been. ONE Detective Will Decker recognized the smell of death. He knew it the same way he knew the brine of the ocean, the tang of the Hickory Pit, the vanilla aroma of Olivia’s hair. He closed the pruning shears and dropped them at his feet, wiping the sweat from his forehead.

Above him, a buzzard circled in the cloudless sky, confirming what he already suspected. With a gloved hand, Will pushed back the weeds he’d been whacking and searched for the source of the foul odor. The flies led him right to it, swarming the bits of fur and gristle with frenzied delight. He grimaced as he tossed the remains of a gray squirrel into a trash bag. “Cy! Not again, dude.” The prime suspect in the homicide—Will’s one-eyed cat, Cyclops—stretched in the sun, gloating like a true psychopath. At least he hadn’t deposited his victim on Will’s tailgate this time. Not even an animal carcass could ruin the first warm day of March. Will had left the station early, intent on finally tackling the weeds behind the cabin that had grown kneehigh in the wet winter. He’d finished unpacking the last of his boxes a few weeks ago, unofficially declaring himself a permanent resident of Fog Harbor, seven months and several brutal murders after his arrival.

Will checked his watch: 4:30 p.m. Hopefully Olivia would know soon, if she didn’t already. These things are unpredictable, she’d told him. Sometimes, they go on for hours. Sometimes, they’re over before they even start. Either way, she’d promised to call right after, but he chided himself for expecting it. She owed him nothing. They were friends. Just friends.

Try telling that to his stubborn heart that wouldn’t stop jumping like an eager puppy whenever she came around. Will grabbed the pruning shears with newfound purpose and turned back to the weeds, taking out his frustration by beheading a few stalks of thistle. He trampled their purple heads underfoot as he made his way around the side of the cabin. The fine hairs on his neck raised when he heard the sound behind him. He looked to Cy first, thinking the cat had yowled. But Cy, sensing danger, had already taken off for the sanctuary of the garage, disappearing inside the hole in the door Will had yet to fix. The sound came again, closer this time. The frantic cry of a terrified man. Up the road, Will saw him coming closer in a dead sprint. Sam… He searched his memory for the man’s last name and came up empty.

Over the weekend, Will had spotted an unfamiliar face clearing out the old cabin next door—the one that had been vacant for so long he’d been certain it was abandoned—and the detective in him had insisted on going over to flash his badge and take a look around. Fog Harbor was no San Francisco, so Will had almost hoped to catch the guy robbing the place, just to get his blood pumping again. But Sam had introduced himself and assured Will that his grandfather, Jack, had owned the worse-for-wear cabin for twenty years until his pack-a-day habit caught up with him. Apparently, Grandpa Jack hadn’t lasted long once they’d moved him to Sundown Nursing Home. Weatherby. That was it. Sam Weatherby. “Are you okay?” As Sam drew closer, Will realized the utter stupidity of his question. The man’s face had paled beneath the sheen of a cold sweat. His breath came in shallow gasps.

He pulled up short and doubled over, wheezing as he spoke. “The barrel.” For a full minute, those two words were the only ones Sam Weatherby could say. “I’m not going back down there.” Sam planted himself on the top step of the basement stairs, his hands shaking, his breath ragged. Will didn’t argue with him, the steps creaking with his weight as he padded down alone into the nearly empty basement. According to Sam, all of his grandfather’s possessions had been donated, trashed, or sold for pennies on the dollar at the estate sale last weekend. All except for a large barrel too heavy to lift. In the light from the single bare bulb, Will took in the barrel’s rusted bottom. Its black paint peeled back like burnt skin.

Corrosion freckled its belly. At the bottom, faded white letters spelled out HAZARDOUS. A crowbar rested at Will’s feet, discarded in a panic. The lid too, thrown aside on the dirt basement floor. A few feet away was a puddle of what Will assumed to be Sam’s vomit. Will’s body filling with dread, he approached the steel drum with his nose and mouth covered by his shirtsleeve, and looked into the throat of the barrel to confirm what Sam had described. The skin of the hand extended toward him had turned an unnatural brown. Will didn’t touch it, of course, but the fingertips were likely stiff as stakes, unyielding as cheap leather. They reached upward, in a permanent grasp toward freedom. The rest of the body was coiled like the shell of a snail and packed into the barrel with sand, which explained why it had been too heavy to move.

“You said your grandfather didn’t know where the barrel came from?” Will didn’t buy that for one second, but he felt bad for poor Sam. Saying what he really thought would only add insult to injury. How could a man have a body in his basement and not have a clue? “He told me the thing was down here when he moved in. Since it had those markings on it, hazardous and all, he figured it was better to leave it alone. When I was a kid, we joked about it whenever we’d come down to the basement together. Imagining what might be inside. Pirate’s chest, time capsule, alien pod. It was like a game between us. But I never…” Sam trailed off as Will backed away from the barrel and pointed up the stairs. “Let’s head outside.

We can talk while we wait for my partner.” Judging by JB’s curt—this better be good—followed by radio silence, Will expected Detective Jimmy Benson to arrive in his usual mood. Since JB had given up nicotine and sugar cold turkey a few weeks ago at his ex-wife’s request, he’d been all black cloud rainbows and arsenic lollipops. At least Fog Harbor’s medical examiner, Chet Clancy, had picked up on the first ring. The doc had a way of smoothing everyone’s rough edges. Sam plodded through the empty kitchen and onto the front porch, where he leaned against the railing while Will sucked up the fresh air, questions sprouting like thistle weeds in his mind. “Why’d your grandfather move out to Fog Harbor anyway? It’s a big change from San Francisco.” And didn’t Will know it. He still had a hard time sleeping. It sounded crazy.

But a place could be too quiet. “Well, I was a kid, maybe eight or nine, when he bought the cabin, so I can’t say for sure. But after my grandma died, I think he wanted a change of pace. He retired early and moved up here. My mom always said he needed a place where his ghosts couldn’t find him.” Good luck with that. Will knew better than most that you can’t outrun the past. All of his own ghosts had located him easily enough. Like someone had gone and given them his goddamned GPS coordinates. Sam frowned.

“You don’t think Grandpa Jack had something to do with it, do you?” “To do with what, exactly?” Will felt like a prick for saying it, but that was the job sometimes. One minute you had your knee in a guy’s back, the next you were rescuing kittens. Sam opened his mouth, closed it again. It stayed that way until JB’s blue Camaro made a sharp turn, kicking up dust in the drive. “Is that your partner?” Will nodded, though he hardly recognized JB as he emerged from the car in a crisp white polo, white shorts, and a pair of blindingly white sneakers. Only his beer belly gave him away. The scowl too, after he removed a matching visor from his head and flung it onto the passenger seat. Moments later, Chet’s old truck rumbled up the drive, grumbling as it came to a rest next to JB’s Camaro. JB headed for the porch, shaking his head, and motioned Will over. “C’mon, Deck.

What happened to taking the afternoon off?” “Duty calls, man. I didn’t realize you and Federer were going five sets at Wimbledon. You pick that outfit yourself?” “You’re a real joker, aren’t you? I’ll let you have the pleasure of explaining to Tammy why I had to leave our first doubles tennis lesson before she got to show me her backside.” “You mean ‘backhand’?” JB winked. “If you say so.” Will huffed out a quiet laugh, still amazed JB had convinced ex-wife number four to give it one more go. Though he supposed JB had a certain charm. If you could look past the dumpster fire of his personality. His reunion with Tammy benefitted both of them, since she’d worked for years as a technician at Del Norte County crime lab. Chet sidled up between them, giving JB a once-over.

“So, what do we have, gentlemen?” “I’m still waitin’ on City Boy to enlighten me.” Will rolled his eyes at JB’s ridiculous nickname for him. He had no doubt his partner would be calling him City Boy no matter how long he’d lived in sleepy Fog Harbor. “You’ve got to see it to believe it.” Will glanced in Sam’s direction. The color had returned to his face, but his eyes looked haunted. A look Will understood well; death was a hard thing to shake. “He found a body in his basement.” Chet made a few slow circles around the barrel, studying the contents with a small flashlight, the wrinkles in his forehead deepening. His voice came out muffled from behind a disposable face mask.

“It’s a body, alright.” “Anything else you can tell us?” Will couldn’t look away from the barrel, no matter how much he wanted to. He’d seen his share of dead bodies, but this one horrified him in a way none ever had. While Sam Weatherby had grown from a boy to a man, the body had been here, cold and alone in its dark tomb; frozen in time, reaching for a rescue that never came. “I’d speculate it’s a woman. There’s a ring with a stone around the fourth metacarpal. And she’s been here a hell of a long time. With no air in the barrel, the body mummified. That’s a lucky break. We need to get this whole thing to the medical examiner’s office where I can inspect it properly.

” Tearing himself away, Will followed JB past the barrel and further into the bowels of the basement, where the light from the single bulb didn’t reach. Before the darkness swallowed them whole, JB clicked on his own penlight, sweeping it across the brick walls and bare dirt floor. In the corners, the spiderwebs hung heavy with dust. “This place is like something out of a bad horror movie.” JB ran his hand along the bricks, inspecting the mortar. “Got something?” “Maybe.” He directed his light at the back wall. “Take a look.” Will stepped closer, scanning the rows until he’d found what drew JB’s attention. A large U-shaped bracket was affixed to the wall, its surface rusted with age.

Near it, two perfect holes punched in the clay. “What do you make of it?” “Looks like there might have been another bracket hanging there. Could’ve been a shelf or…” “Grandpa Jack told me a story about that bracket.” Sam appeared on the top step. Backlit by the sun, he loomed over them in a way that made Will uneasy. Even if his voice still wavered when he spoke. “You’re right. There used to be another one.” With JB behind him, Will made his way back past the barrel and across the dimly lit floor so he could look Sam in the eyes. “A story?” JB snuffed his penlight, leaving the lone bulb to spotlight Sam.

“Let’s hear it. I love a good yarn.” Will conjured his own childhood bedroom, huddled with his brothers Ben and Petey under a blanket fort, Ben spinning the classic tale of an escaped serial killer with a hook for a hand to distract them from their parents going nine rounds in the kitchen. The thought of Ben grabbing Petey from behind after he delivered the final line, of them collapsing into giggles, caused a familiar ache behind Will’s breastbone. “But I don’t know if there’s any truth to it.” “That’s the best kind of story.” JB gave Will a look that said he’d gone into full Good Cop mode now, complete with the gracious smile and the trite reassurances. Already Sam seemed more relaxed. “Well, Grandpa Jack said the man who owned the cabin before him had these two wolfdogs, Zeus and Hera. Scariest dogs you ever saw, with teeth sharp as razors.

One day, the dogs got out of the yard and killed a bunch of chickens at the cabin next door. You know, a real bloodbath. The cops told him he had to keep Zeus and Hera chained up down here. But then, the strangest thing happened. The chickens kept disappearing. Other animals too. The neighbor—fella’s name was Crawley—decided to keep watch on the cabin. He hunkered down in the redwoods with his Winchester and waited.” JB rubbed his arms. “Anybody else gettin’ goosebumps?” “Under the light of a full moon, old Crawley caught the man red-handed, sneaking into his chicken coop.

As you can imagine, Crawley didn’t take kindly to it. No one ever saw that man again.” “I feel like you’re settin’ me up,” JB said. “But, I’ve gotta ask. What happened to the man? Did Crawley shoot him?” “Nope. According to my granddad, Crawley shackled him up down here and raised Zeus and Hera as his own. Turns out those wolfdogs got along with the chickens just fine.” Sam half-smiled, reeling them in. “As long as he kept them well fed.” “Jeez.

” JB’s eyes widened. “Your grandpa could spin one hell of a story.” “See for yourself.” When Sam gestured back toward the belly of the basement, where the shadows melded into a pool of darkness, Will felt like a boy again, imagining that hook hand scraping down his back. To be a cop, you had to welcome fear. To claim it as your friend. He snatched the penlight from JB and directed it at the courses of bricks below the brackets. Down, down, down. Until, sure enough, several long, thin scratches marred the clay. “Grandpa Jack always said he tried to claw his way out.

.

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