A Thousand Bones
Mass Market Paperback
Publisher: Pocket Books
The sharp buzzing noise filled her ears, coming from everywhere and nowhere at the same time. It took her a moment to realize it was coming from somewhere outside her brain.
She looked up into the green lace of the leaves. She knew that was where they were, up there in the trees. That's where the cicadas were hiding as they sang their dying summer song.
A bead of sweat fell from her brow and into her eye. She blinked and looked down to the yellow crime-scene tape hanging limp between the trees. Down to where the men worked over the dirt. Down to where the clean white bone had been found.
She turned toward the deep voice.
"You want to come take a look?"
Cliff Leach was standing at the bottom of the gully inside the yellow tape. The three other officers had all glanced up when he spoke, looked first at him, then up to her. She wished the sheriff had not singled her out, but her curiosity was stronger than any worries she had about how the others felt about her.
Joe slipped under the tape and came down the hill. The three other deputies didn't give way, and she had to stand behind them to see.
Not that there was really much to look at. Set in a shallow hole with a light covering of pine needles, the bone looked more like a shard of a broken white plate. Joe felt a small stab of disappointment.
When the call had come in that two boys walking in the woods had found the bone, a current had crackled through the station. She had been in the women's bathroom changing into uniform, and through the thin walls she could hear the others talking about it, their deep voices rising in pitch as they speculated about how a human bone had found its way into a remote scrap of woods up by Bass Lake. Things like that didn't happen in places like Echo Bay. Echo Bay was just a mosquito bite on the tip of the little finger of the Michigan mitten. That's how folks in Echo Bay pinpointed their place in the world. They'd hold up their right hand, palm forward and point to the tip of the little finger. "That's where I come from," they'd say, "Echo Bay."
The cicadas had stopped. No sound, not even the rustle of a leaf in the still October air.
"That don't look like no human bone," one of the men said.
"Deer maybe," another said.
"We came all the way out here for a fucking deer carcass?"
Joe glanced at the last man who had spoken. Unlike the rest of them, Julian Mack didn't wear the dark brown uniforms of the Leelanau County sheriff's department. He wore gray Sansabelts, and a thin black tie hung like a dead snake down his sweat-soaked white shirt. Joe knew he was just a deputy like the rest of them, but he was the closest thing the seven-man department had to an investigator, and he affected the casual dress of one.
Mack's brown eyes met hers. For an instant, she could see resentment in them. She had seen it before, whenever Cliff Leach made it a point to include her in conversation or ask her opinion on how something should be handled. Part of that came from her status as a rookie. Most of it was because she was a woman.
She looked back down at the bone, inching closer so she could see better.
Leach squatted down and inserted a stick into one of the bone's cavities, pulling the bone clear of the needles. They all fell silent.
Joe took a deep breath. "Sir?"
He looked up at her.
"I think it's a pelvic bone," she said.
She could feel the damp press of the polyester uniform on her back and thighs. She could feel all their eyes on her.
"And I think it's from a female," she said.
A snort and a chuckle, but she wasn't sure which of them it had come from. She kept her eyes on the sheriff.
"Why female?" Leach asked.
When she hesitated, he motioned her forward with a small nod. She squatted next to him and picked up a stick.
"See this?" She pointed to the base of the butterfly-shaped bone. "This is the pubic arch. In a man, it is real narrow. But a woman's arch is wide, like this one. It's part of the birth canal."
"How do you know that?" he asked.
She shrugged, her eyes willing him not to press it.
Leach tossed his stick aside and let out a sigh. "Great," he said softly, his eyes wandering over the pine needles and dirt before he looked up to Mack. "This looks like it was dug up. Did the kids do it?"
Mack looked at the other rookie officer standing next to him. "Holt," he said, "you were here first. Who dug it up?"
Holt licked his lips. "I don't know, sir. I just know the two kids and the dog were standing here when I showed up."
Leach grunted to a standing position. He was a burly man, with a halo of sparse white hair surrounding a florid face punctuated by a thick white mustache. Joe suspected he probably got whatever Santa Claus gigs there were in Echo Bay. He had that kind of gentle aura -- until you got a good look at the keen gray-green eyes behind the wire-rimmed glasses. She had seen him angry only once, and those eyes had turned as dark as a storm- tossed Lake Michigan.
Holt was getting that look from the sheriff now, and the rookie gave an embarrassed shrug. "I'll go talk to the kids," he said.
"No," Leach said. "You and Mack start looking for more bones." He wiped his sweating face, leaving a smear of dirt near his nose. "Frye can deal with the kids."
Joe stood up, her eyes locked on Leach. What was this? One minute, he was bringing her in, and now he was banishing her to babysitting chores? She tried to catch Leach's eye, but he had turned away.
She took off her hat, wiped her wet hair off her forehead, and put the hat back on. The two boys were still waiting at the top of the ravine. She trudged up to them.
"Okay," she said, "which one of you found the bone?"
They just looked up at her. Even the damn black Lab was staring at her. The cicadas were going at it again, their buzz and the awful heat bringing on a headache.
The kids were still staring. She was twenty-two, unmarried. What did she know about kids? "What are you looking at?" she blurted out.
The older boy looked at his friend, then back at Joe. "You really a policeman?"
"Yeah, I'm really a policeman."
"I ain't never seen a lady policeman before."
"Well, now you have."
Joe realized the kid was staring at her breasts. His eyes flicked to the gun at her hip and back to her chest. She couldn't help it. She laughed. The kid's face went crimson beneath his freckles.
"Okay, okay," she said. She pulled a small pad and pencil from her pocket. "Let's get to work here. You two are witnesses, and I need your statements."
The boy's eyes widened. "Witnesses? Wow."
Joe held back her smile. "Names?"
"I'm R. C. Mellon. That's R.C., like the cola," the boy said.
"And Mellon, like muskmelon brain," the other boy chimed in.
"Shut up, Frankie!"
"All right," Joe broke in. "Spell your names for me, and give me your addresses and phone numbers." Joe wrote it all down. "And who found the bone?"
"Farfel did," R.C. said, patting the Lab's big head. "We were playing, and Farfel ran off. I whistled for him, but he didn't come. We finally saw him over that way." He pointed north to a stand of tall pines. "But when we went after him, he ran off."
"Did he have the bone?"
"Yeah. We chased him, and when we caught up with him, he was down there burying it."
The boy pointed to where Holt was stringing up more yellow crime tape. Joe surveyed the trees. She knew a little bit about this part of the woods, knew it covered a couple of miles, running all the way west to the shore of Lake Michigan. If the dog had found the bone somewhere other than where it lay now, the search for the rest of the bones or for a crime scene would be near impossible.
She closed the notepad. "You guys have been a big help. Wait here, okay?"
Sheriff Leach was standing back at his cruiser, talking on the radio, the coiled cord stretched through the open window. It sounded as if he were making arrangements for the coroner. The coroner would come from Traverse City, if he was in town. And any crime-scene guys would probably travel from Cadillac or even Lansing.
She tapped Leach's shoulder. He held up a finger as he gave directions to their location. She tapped him again. Leach finally told them to stand by for a moment and looked at her. "What is it, Joe?"
"Where we found the bone is not a burial site."
"What do you mean?"
"The kids say the dog picked it up somewhere else."
"We know where?" he asked.
Joe shook her head. Leach let out a sigh and rekeyed the microphone. "Yeah, Augie," he said. "We're going to need more than just the usual team. Give Michigan State a call, and see if they have any criminology students who want to participate in a search for some remains."
Leach signed off and leaned an elbow on the cruiser. He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his face.
Joe glanced back at the kids. "I'll see if the kids can show me where the dog found the bone."
The boys were sitting on a log, the Lab sprawled at their feet. When she asked them to show her where they were playing, the boys started off down the incline, the dog following. Joe trailed, kicking softly at the pine needles, her eyes scanning the ground. The kids led her into thicker trees and the shadows deepened as the leaves grew denser, blocking the sun.
"This is it. This is the tree we were climbing on," R.C. said suddenly.
Joe glanced up. It was a majestic old beech tree, set down in a clearing of smaller trees. The canopy was so dense it almost felt like nightfall. Joe looked at the boys. "You're sure this is the tree?"
R.C. nodded and pointed. "Yup. I remember 'cause of those two weird branches that look like arms."
The dog was whining and pawing at the leaves. Joe pulled him away by the collar. "R.C., hold him back," she said, handing the dog off.
She knelt and brushed away the remaining leaves and needles. The ground seemed untouched underneath. She grabbed a stick and tried to work away some of the dirt. But she quickly realized that if there was a shallow grave here, a stick wasn't going to get her to it. She stuck the stick in the dirt to mark the spot and looked back at the kids.
Their faces were lined with dirty sweat. "I'm tired. Can we go now?" Frankie asked.
"I'm sorry, you guys are probably hungry," she said. "How about I buy you a hamburger on the way home?"
Suddenly, the dog started growling, and Joe turned. He had something in his teeth. As she grabbed for his collar, he dropped what he had at her feet. It was another bone.
Long, thin, whitish-brown, and perfectly clean. Maybe an arm or leg bone. Joe cupped her hands around her mouth and hollered, "Sheriff Leach! Over here!"
She heard footsteps and the snapping of brush, and she glanced back to make sure the kids were still with her. R.C. was holding a third, smaller bone between his fingers, looking at her.
"R.C., drop that, please," she said.
"It's not yucky."
"I know, but please put it down."
The boy dropped it just as Leach, Mack, and Holt reached them. Leach immediately saw the large bone and motioned to Holt.
"Holt, take the kids back to the cruiser and drive them home."
"I promised them a burger," Joe called as Holt herded the kids and the dog back toward the road.
When they were gone, Leach knelt by the two bones. Mack remained standing, his little eyes scooting over the leaves, past the bones, and finally back to Joe.
Leach pulled himself up. "I'm guessing this is an arm bone and maybe a rib."
Joe was scanning the ground around the tree. Something odd and clumped caught her eye. She squatted down for it, then remembered she shouldn't touch it. She carefully cleared away the dead leaves.
"Sheriff," she said.
Both Mack and Leach came up behind her, bending to look over her shoulder.
"What is that?" Leach asked.
"I don't know," Joe said. "Maybe a piece of jewelry?"
Mack picked up a stick and poked at the caked dirt, trying to break it loose from the object. A glint of tarnished silver appeared, and what looked like a tiny cross. He let out a grunt and tossed the stick aside.
Then he turned and walked away. Joe watched him until he disappeared into the trees, then she picked up the stick Mack had left.
Leach touched her shoulder. "Don't touch it," he said. "Let the tech get it."
She stuck the stick in the ground near the piece of silver, then dusted her hands on her trousers. Leach was staring out at the forest.
"What are you thinking, sir?" she asked.
"That this is going to be a helluva investigation," he said.
She knew their small department couldn't handle a homicide and that Leach would ask the state for help. But she hoped he would let her be marginally involved.
"Sir, is there anything I can start doing?" she asked.
Leach smiled, hearing the eagerness in her voice. "Let's relax here a little," he said. "First, we have to let the experts take a look. It doesn't look like she was buried, so her bones could be scattered for miles. We can keep searching for that, at least."
Joe's eyes wandered out over the heavy woods, coming back finally to the tree. She hadn't noticed it before, but now its strange beauty registered.
The tree rose from a base of knotted roots covered by green moss. About ten feet from the ground, its wide, straight trunk split into two thick branches that curved straight upward. Like arms, just as R.C. had said.
Like a woman's arms, Joe thought. The tree looked like a kneeling woman, her emerald skirt spread out and her arms reaching upward as if awaiting rescue or salvation.
© P.J. Parrish