A Bone to Pick

Chapter 12


I woke up. I knew where I was instantly - in Jane's house. I swung my legs over the side of the bed automatically, preparing to trek to the bathroom. But I realized in a slow, middle-of-the-night way that I didn't need to go. The cats were quiet.

So why was I awake?

Then I heard movement somewhere else in the house, and saw a beam of light flash through the hall. Someone was in the house with me. I bit the insides of my mouth together to keep from screaming.

Jane's clock-radio on the bedside table had a glowing face that illuminated the outline of the bedside phone. With fingers that were almost useless, I lifted the receiver, taking such care, such care... no noise. Thank God it was a push-button. From instinct I dialed the number I knew so well, the number that would bring help even faster than 911.

"Hello?" said a voice in my ear, groggy with sleep.

"Arthur," I breathed. "Wake up."

"Who is this?"

"It's Roe. I'm across the street in Jane's house. There is someone in the house."

"I'll be there in a minute. Stay quiet. Hide."

I hung up the phone so gently, so delicately, trying to control my hands, oh Lord, let me not make a sound.

I knew what had given me away, it was my downward glance when the skull was mentioned, at the party. Someone had been watching for just such a reaction. I slid my glasses on while I was thinking. I had two options on hiding: under the bed or in the closet with the cats. The intruder was in the guest bedroom, just a short hall length away. I could see the flashlight beam bobbing here and there; searching, searching again, for the damn skull! The best place to hide would be the big dirty-clothes closet in the bathroom; I was small enough to double up in there, since it was almost square to match the linen closet on top of it. If I hid in the bedroom closet, the intruder might hear the cat noises and investigate. But I couldn't risk slipping into the bathroom now, with the light flashing in the hallway unpredictably.

In response to my thoughts, it seemed, the light bobbed out of the guest bedroom, into the little hall, through the big archway into the living room. When it was well within the living room, I slid off the bed onto my feet with the tiniest of thumps...

... and landed right on Madeleine's tail. The cat yowled, I screamed, a startled exclamation came from the living room. I heard thumping footsteps and, when a blob was in the doorway, pausing, maybe fumbling for a light switch, I leaped. I hit someone right in the chest, wrapped my right arm around a beefy neck, and with my left hand grabbed a handful of short hair and pulled as hard as I could. Something from a self-defense course I'd taken popped into my mind and I began shrieking at the top of my lungs.

Something hit me a terrible blow on the back, but I tightened my grip on the short hair and my stranglehold on the neck. "Stop," wheezed a heavy voice, "stop, stop!" And blows began raining on my back and legs. I was being shaken loose by all the staggering and my own weight, and I had to stop screaming to catch my breath. But I sucked it in and had opened my mouth to shriek again when the lights came on.

My attacker whirled to face the person who'd turned on the light, and in that whirl I was slung off onto the floor, landing not quite on my feet and staggering into the bedpost to collect a few more bruises. Lynn Liggett Smith stood leaning against the wall in the hall, breathing heavily, the gun in her hand pointing at Torrance Rideout, who had only a flashlight dangling from his hand. If the flashlight had been a knife, I'd have been bleeding from a dozen wounds; as it was, I felt like Lee's Army had marched over me. I held on to the bedpost and panted. Where was Arthur? Torrance took in Lynn's weak stance and huge belly and turned back to me. "You have to tell me," he said desperately, as if .she wasn't even there, "you have to tell me where the skull is."

"Put your hands against the wall," Lynn said steadily but weakly. "I'm a police officer and I will shoot."

"You're nine months pregnant and about to fall down," Torrance said over his shoulder. He turned to me again. "Where is the skull?" His broad, open face was crossed with seams I'd never noticed before, and there was blood trickling down from his scalp onto his white shirt. I seemed to have removed a square inch of hair.

Lynn fired into the ceiling.

"Put your hands against the wall, you bastard," she said coldly.

And he did.

He hadn't realized that if Lynn really shot at him she stood an excellent chance of hitting me. Before he got the idea, I moved to the other side of the bed. But then I couldn't see Lynn. This bedroom was too tight. I didn't like Torrance being between me and the door.

"Roe," Lynn said from the hall, slowly. "Pat him down and see if he's got a gun.

Or a knife." She sounded like she was in pain.

I hated getting so close to Torrance. Did he respect the gun enough? Had he picked up on the strain in Lynn's voice? I wished, for a moment, that she had gone on and shot him.

My only ideas about patting a suspect down came from television. I had a shrinking distaste for touching Torrance's body, but I pursed my lips and ran my hands over him.

"Just change in his pocket," I said hoarsely. My screaming had hurt more than Torrance's ears.

"Okay," said Lynn slowly. "Here are the cuffs." When I looked right in her face, I was shocked. Her eyes were wide and frightened, she was biting her lower lip. The gun was steady in her hand, but it was taking all her will to keep it so. The carpet looked dark around her feet, which were wearing slippers that were dark and light pink. I looked more closely. The darkness on her slippers was wetness. She had fluid trickling down her legs. There was a funny smell in the air. Lynn's water had broken. Where was Arthur?

I closed my eyes for a second in sheer consternation. When I opened them, Lynn and I were staring at each other in panic. Then Lynn hardened her glare and said, "Take the cuffs, Roe."

I reached through the narrow doorway and took them. Arthur had shown me how to use his one day, so I did know how to close them on Torrance's wrists. "Hold out your hands behind you," I said as viciously as I could. Lynn and I were going to lose control any minute. I'd gotten one cuff on when Torrance erupted. He swung the arm with the cuff on it around, and the flying loose cuff caught me on the side of the head. But he mustn't get the gun! I gripped whatever of him I could grab, blinded by pain, and hobbled him enough to land us both on the floor, rolling around in the limited space, me hanging on for my own dear life, him desperately trying to be rid of me. "Torrance, stop!" shrieked yet another voice, and we were still, him on top of me panting and me underneath barely breathing at all. Past his shoulder I could see Marcia, her hair still smooth, her blue shorts and shirt obviously hastily pulled on.

"Honey, it doesn't make any difference anymore, we have to stop," she said gently. He got off me to swing around and look at her heavily. Then Lynn moaned, a terrible sound.

Torrance seemed mesmerized by his wife. I crawled past him and past her, actually brushing her leg as I went by. They both ignored me in the eeriest way. Lynn had slid down the wall. She was making a valiant attempt to hold the gun up but couldn't manage anymore. When she saw me, her eyes made an appeal and her hand fell to the floor and released the gun. I took it and swung around, fully intending to somehow shoot both the Rideouts, our recent hosts. But they were still wrapped up in each other, and I could have riddled them both for all they paid attention to me. With the affronted feeling of being a child whose anger adults won't take seriously, I turned back to Lynn. Her eyes were closed, and her breathing was funny. Then I realized she was breathing in a pattern.

"You're having the baby," I said sadly.

She nodded, still with her eyes closed, and kept her breathing going.

"You called some backup, right?"

She nodded again.

"Arthur must have been out on a call; that was you on the phone," I observed, and I went into the bathroom right at my back to wash my hands and get some towels.

"I don't know nothin' 'bout birthin' no babies," I told my reflection, pushed my glasses up on my nose, had the fleeting thought that it was nothing short of amazing they hadn't been cracked, and went to squat by Lynn's side. I gingerly pulled up her nightgown and lay towels on the floor beneath her drawn-up knees. "Where is the skull?" Torrance asked me. His voice sounded defeated.

"At my mom's house in a closet," I said briefly, my attention absorbed by Lynn. "So Jane had it all the time," he said, in a wooden voice from which all the wonder was leached. "That old woman had it all the time. She was furious after the tree thing, you know. I couldn't believe it, all those years we were good neighbors, then there was this trouble about the damn tree. Next thing I know, there was a hole in the yard and the head was gone. But I never connected the two things. I even left Jane's house for last because I thought she was least likely to have it."

"Oh, Torrance," Marcia said pitifully. "I wish you had told me. Was it you who broke into all the houses?"

"Looking for the head," he said. "I knew someone around here had to have it, but it never occurred to me it could be Jane. It had to be someone who could have seen me burying him, but not Jane, not that sweet little old lady. I just knew that if she'd seen me burying him, she'd have called the police. And I had to wait," Torrance meandered on, "so long between each house, because after each break-in, people would be so cautious for a longtime..." "You even pretended to break into our house," marveled his wife.

Gingerly I stole a peek under the nightgown. I was instantly sorry.

"Lynn," I told her hesitantly, "I see what I think is the baby's head, I guess." Lynn nodded emphatically. Her eyes flew open, and she focused on a point on the wall opposite. Her breathing became ragged for a few moments. "Get yourself together!" I said earnestly. Lynn was the only person who knew what was happening. Lynn seemed to take that as advice offered from compassion, and squeezed my hand till I thought of screaming again. Suddenly she caught her breath, and her whole body tensed.

I peeked again.

"Oh dear," I breathed. This was really quite a lot worse than watching Madeleine the cat. I followed my own advice and pulled myself together, despite my desire to run screaming out of this house and never come back. I let go of Lynn's hand and moved between her legs. There was barely room. It was lucky I was a small person.

Lynn strained again.

"Okay, Lynn," I said bracingly. "It's coming. I'll catch it."

Lynn seemed to rest for a moment.

"Whose skull?" I asked Torrance. Marcia had sunk to the floor, and they were sitting knee to knee holding hands.

"Oh," he said as if he'd lost interest. "The skull is Mark. Mark Kaplan. The boy who rented our apartment."

Lynn gathered herself and pushed again. Her eyes were glazed, and I was scared to death. I hesitantly put my hands where they might do some good. "Lynn, I see more of the head," I told her.

Amazingly, Lynn smiled. And she gathered herself. And pushed. "I've got the head, Lynn," I told her in a shaky voice. I was trying to sound confident, but I failed. Would the baby's neck break if I let its head flop? Oh dear Jesus, I needed help, I was so inadequate. Lynn did it again.

"That' s the shoulders," I whispered, holding this tiny, bloody, vulnerable thing. "One more push should do it," I said bracingly, having no idea at all what I was talking about. But it seemed to hearten Lynn, and she started pulling herself together again. I wished that she could take a break, so I could, but I had told her the truth out of sheer ignorance. Lynn pushed like she was in the Olympics of baby extrusion, and the slippery thing shot out of her like a hurtling football, or so it seemed to me. And I caught it. "What?" asked Lynn weakly.

It took me a second of sheer stupidity to understand her. I should be doing something! I should make it cry! Wasn't that important? "Hold it upside down and whack it on its back," Marcia said. "That's what they do on TV."

Full of terror, I did so. The baby let out a wail. So it was breathing, it was alive! So far so good. Though still hooked up to Lynn, this child was okay for now. Should I do something to the umbilical cord? What? And I heard sirens coming, thank the Lord.

"What?" Lynn asked more urgently.

"Girl!" I said jerkily. "A girl!" I held the little thing as I had seen babies held in pictures and made plans to burn the rose pink nightgown. "Well," said Lynn with a tiny smile, as pounding began on the front door, "damn if I'm going to name it after you."

It took some time to sort out the situation in Jane's little house, which seemed more crowded than ever with all the policemen in Lawrenceton. Some of the policemen, seeing Arthur's former flame kneeling before his new wife, both bloody, assumed I was the person to arrest. They could hardly put cuffs on me or search me, though, since I was holding the baby, who was still attached to Lynn. And when they all realized I was holding a newborn baby and not some piece I'd ripped from Lynn's insides, they went nuts. No one seemed to remember that there'd been a break-in, that consequently the burglar might be on the scene.

Arthur had been out on a robbery call, but when he arrived he was so scared he was ready to kill someone. He waved his gun around vaguely, and when he spotted Lynn and the blood he began bellowing "Ambulance! Ambulance!" Jack Burns himself pushed right by the Rideouts to use the phone in the bedroom. Arthur was by me in a flash, babbling. "The baby!" he said. He didn't know what to do with his gun.

"Put the gun away and take this baby," I said rather sharply. "It's still attached to Lynn, and I don't know what to do about that." "Lynn, how are you?" Arthur said in a daze.

"Honey, put a towel over your suit and take your daughter," Lynn said weakly. "My - oh." He holstered his gun and reached down and took a towel off the stack I'd brought out. I wondered if Jane could ever have imagined her monogrammed white cotton towels being used for such a purpose. I handed the baby over with alacrity, and stood up, trembling from a cocktail of fear, pain, and shock. I was more than glad to vacate my position between Lynn's legs. One of the ambulance attendants ran up to me then and said, "You the maternity?

Or have you been injured?"

I pointed a shaky finger at Lynn. I didn't blame him for thinking I'd been seriously hurt; I was covered with smears of blood, some of it Lynn's, some of it Torrance's, a little of it mine.

"Are you all right?"

I looked to the source of the voice and found I was standing next to Torrance.

This was so strange.

"I'll be okay," I said wearily.

"I'm sorry. I was never cut out to be a criminal." I thought of the inept break-ins, Torrance not even taking anything to make them look like legitimate burglaries. I nodded.

"Why did you do it?" I asked him.

Suddenly his face hardened and tightened all over. "I just did," he said. "So when Jane dug up the skull, you dug up the rest of the body and put the bones by the dead end sign?"

"I knew no one would clean up that brush for years," he said. "And I was right. I was too scared to carry the bones in my trunk, even for a little while. I wailed till the next night when Macon went over to Carey's, and I carried the bones in a plastic bag through his backyard and up the far side of his house; then it was just a few feet to the brush.. .no one saw me that time. I was so sure whoever had taken the skull would call the police. I waited. Then I realized whoever had the skull just wanted... to have it. For me to squirm. I had almost forgotten that trouble about the tree. Jane was so ladylike. I never believed..."

"And he never told me about it," said Marcia, to his left. "He never let me worry, too." She looked at him fondly.

"So, what did you do it for?" I asked Torrance. "Did he make a pass at Marcia?"

"Well...," said Torrance hesitantly.

"Oh, honey," Marcia said reproving. She leaned over to me, smiling a little at a man's silly gesture. "He didn't do it," she told me. "I did it." "You killed Mark Kaplan and buried him out in the yard?"

"Oh, Torrance buried him when I told him what I'd done." "Oh," I said inadequately, swallowed by her wide blue eyes. "You killed him because - ?"

"He came over while Torrance was gone." She shook her head sadly as she told me.

"And I had thought he was such a nice person. But he wasn't. He was very dirty."

I nodded, just to be responding somehow.

"Mike Osland, too," Marcia ran on, still shaking her head at the perfidy of men.

I felt suddenly very, very cold. Torrance closed his eyes in profound weariness.

"Mike," I murmured interrogatively.

"He's under the sun deck, that's why Torrance built it, I think," Marcia said earnestly. "Jane didn't know about him."

"She's confessing," said an incredulous hoarse voice. I turned from Marcia's mesmerizing eyes to see that Jack Burns was sitting on his haunches in front of me.

"Did she just confess to a murder?" he asked me.

"Two," I said.

"Two murders," he repeated. He took his turn at head shaking. I would have to find someone at whom I could shake my head incredulously. "She just confessed two murders to you. How do you do if?"

Faced by his round, hot eyes, I became aware that I was in a torn and disheveled and rather skimpy-at-the-top nightgown that had become quite soiled in the course of the night. I was definitely reminded that I was not Jack Burns's favorite person. I wondered how much Lynn would remember of what she'd overheard while she was having the baby - was it possible she would remember my telling Torrance that I knew the whereabouts of the skull? Lynn was being carried out on a stretcher now. I presumed that the afterbirth had been delivered and disposed of. I hoped I wouldn't find it on the bathroom floor or something.

"This man," I told Jack Burns, as I pointed to Torrance, "broke into my house tonight."

"Are you hurt?" asked Sergeant Burns, with reluctant professional solicitude.

I turned to look in Torrance Rideout's eyes. "No," I said clearly. "Not at all.

And I have no idea why he broke in here or what he was looking for." Torrance's eyes showed a slow recognition. And, to my amazement, he winked at me when Jack Burns turned away to call his cohorts over. After an eternity, every single person was gone from Jane's house but me, its owner. What do you do after a night you've had a burglary, been battered, delivered a baby, and nearly been mown down by the entire detective force of Lawrenceton, Georgia? Also, I continued enumerating as I hauled the remains of the nightgown over my head, heard a confession of double murder and had your scarcely covered bosom ogled by the same detectives who had been about to mow you down minutes earlier?

Well. I was going to take a hot, hot bath to soak my bruises and strains. I was going to calm a nearly berserk Madeleine, who was crouching in a corner of the bedroom closet hoping she was concealed underneath a blanket I'd thrown in there. Madeleine, as it happened, did not react well to home invasion. Then, possibly, I could put my tired carcass back between the cool sheets and sleep a little.

There'd be hell to pay in the morning.

My mother would call.

But I only slept four hours. When I woke it was eight o'clock, and I lay in bed and thought for a moment.

Then I was up and brushing my teeth, pulling back on my shorts set from the night before. I managed to get a brush through my hair, which had been damp from the tub when I'd fallen asleep the night before. I let Madeleine out and back in - she seemed calm again - and then it was time to get to Wal-Mart. I walked in as the doors were unlocked and found what I was looking for after a talk with a salesperson.

I stopped in at the town house and got out my box of gift wrap. At Mother's house both cars were gone. I'd finally gotten a break. I used my key one last time; I never would again now that John lived here, too. I sped up the stairs and got the old blanket bag out of the closet and left the gift-wrapped blanket bag on the kitchen table on my way out. I left my key by it. Quickly out to my car then, and speeding back to the house on Honor.

Another stroke of luck; no police cars at the Rideouts' yet. I went out the back kitchen door and looked around as carefully as Torrance Rideout must have the night he buried Mark Kaplan, the night he buried Mike Osland. But this was daylight, far more dangerous. I'd counted cars as I pulled into my own driveway: Lynn's car was at the house across the street, Arthur's was gone. That figured; he was at the hospital with his wife and his baby. I did falter then. But I reached up and slapped myself on the cheek. This was no time to get weepy.

The elderly Inces were not a consideration. I peered over to Carey Osland's house. Her car was home. She must have been told of the confession by Marcia Rideout that Mike Osland was in the Rideouts' backyard. I could only hope that Carey didn't decide to come look personally.

As I started across my backyard, I had to smother an impulse to crouch and run, or slither on my belly. The pink blanket bag seemed so conspicuous. But I just couldn't bring myself to open it and carry the bare skull in my hands. Besides, I'd already rubbed my prints off. I got to the sun deck with no one shouting, "Hey! What are you doing?" and took a few deep breaths. Now hurry, I told myself, and unzipped the bag, grabbed the thing inside by hooking a finger through the jaw, and, trying not to look at it, I rolled it as far as I could under the deck. I was tempted to climb the steps to the deck, look between the boards, and see if the skull showed from on top. But instead I turned and walked quickly back to my own yard, praying that no one had noticed my strange behavior. I was still clutching the zip bag. Once inside, I glanced in the bag to check that no traces were left of the skull's presence, and folded one of Jane's blankets, zipped it inside, and shoved the bag to the back of the shelf in one of the guest bedroom closets. Then I sat at the little table in the kitchen, and out the window toward the Rideouts' I saw men starting to take apart the sun deck.

I had just made it.

I shook all over. I put my head in my hands and cried. After a while, that seemed to dry up, and I felt limp and tired. I made a pot of coffee and sat at the table and drank it while I watched the men demolish the deck and find the skull. After the hubbub that caused was over and after the skull had been placed carefully in a special bag of some kind (which actually made me smile a little), the men began digging. It was hot, and they all sweated, and I saw Sergeant Burns glance over to my house as though he'd like to come ask me a few questions, but I'd answered them all the night before. All I was ever going to answer.

Then one of the men gave a shout, and the others gathered round, and I decided maybe I wouldn't watch anymore. At noon the phone rang, and it was my mother, thanking me crisply for the lovely new blanket storage bag and reminding me that we were going to eat dinner together and have a long talk. "Sure, Mom," I said, and sighed. I was sore and stiff; maybe she would cut it short. "Mom, tomorrow I'm going to come in and list this house." Well, that was business. That was different. Or maybe not. "I'll list it myself," she promised meaningfully, and hung up. The phone was on the wall by the letter rack and the calendar, a sensible and convenient arrangement. I stood staring blankly at the letter rack for a few seconds, finally taking down a charity appeal, pulling out the begging letter, looking it over, throwing it away. I took out another letter, which should have been a bill from the bug-spray people by the envelope.. .why didn't Bubba Sewell have it? He should have all the bills. But the stamp had been canceled months before.

Suddenly I knew what this was, knew even as I shook the paper out of the slit that it was not going to be a bill from Orkin.

Of course: "The Purloined Letter." Jane liked classics.

"On a Wednesday night in the summer, four years ago," the letter began abruptly,

I, Jane Engle, was sitting in my backyard. It was very late because I had insomnia, and I often sit in the garden in the dark when I have insomnia. It was about midnight, when I saw Mark Kaplan, the Rideouts' boarder, go to Marcia's back door and knock. I could see him clearly in the floodlight the Rideouts have at their back door. Marcia always leaves it on all night when Torrance is out of town. Marcia came to the door, and Mark Kaplan, right away, attacked her. I believe he had been drinking, that he had a bottle in his hand, but I am not sure. Before I could go to her help, she somehow knocked him down, and I saw her grab something from her kitchen counter and hit Mark Kaplan on the back of the head with it. I am not sure what she picked up, but I think it was a hammer. Then I became aware another car had pulled up into the Rideouts' carport, and realized that Torrance had come home.

I went inside, thinking that soon I would hear police cars and I would have to talk to the police about what I'd seen. So I changed into my regular clothes - I'd had my nightgown on - and sat in the kitchen and waited in the dark for something to happen.

Instead of police cars, sirens, and whatnot, I saw Torrance come out in a few minutes with a tablecloth. Clearly something body size was wrapped in it, and I was sure it was Mark Kaplan. Torrance proceeded over to their old garden plot, and began to dig. I stayed awake the rest of the night, watching him. I didn't call the police, though I gave it some thought. I knew what testifying in court could do to Marcia Rideout, who has never been any too stable. Also, Mark Kaplan did attack her, and I knew it.

So I said nothing.

But a little over a year and a half later, I got into a dispute with Torrance over my tree, from which he arrogantly trimmed some branches. Every time I looked out my kitchen window, the tree looked worse. So I did something I'm not proud of. I waited till the Rideouts were both out of town, and I went over in the night and dug where I'd seen Torrance dig many months before. It took me three nights, since I am an old woman, but I reached the skull. I removed it and brought it home with me. And I left the hole open, to be sure Torrance knew someone had the head, someone knew.

I am truly not proud of this. Now I am too sick to put the skull back, and I am too afraid of Torrance to just give it to him. And I have been thinking of Mike Osland; he disappeared before Mark Kaplan was killed, and I remember seeing him look at Marcia at parties. I think now that Marcia, just a little eccentric on the surface, is actually quite disturbed, and I think Torrance knows this; and yet he goes on with his life as though by denying she needs special care, she will get better.

I am too close to my own death to worry about this anymore. If my lawyer finds this, he must do as he thinks best: I don't care what people say about me when I am gone. If Roe finds this, she must do as pleases her. The skull is in the window seat.

Jane Engle

I looked down at the paper in my hands, then refolded it. Without really considering it, I began shredding the letter, first in halves, then quarters, then thirds, until finally I had a little pile of confetti on the counter. I gathered it all up and dropped it down the sink, running the water and starting the disposal. After it had rumbled for a moment, I turned off the water and carefully checked all the other letters in the rack. They were exactly what they seemed.

I looked at Jane's calendar, still turned to two months before. I took it down and flipped it to the right page and hung it back up. It was perfectly blank. The strangest thing about not having a job was that it made the whole week so shapeless. I wasn't even taking a day off from anything. Suddenly emptiness spread out in front of me like a slippery ramp. Surely there was something I had to do?

Sure there was. I shook my head in horror. I'd almost forgotten that today was the day I was supposed to pick up my altered bridesmaid's dress. Miss Joe Nell would have had a fit if I'd forgotten.

And then I knew what I'd do tomorrow.

I'd start looking for my own house.

I detoured by the cemetery on my way to Great Day. I walked up the little hill to Jane's headstone, already in place. If Bubba Sewell could get things done that fast, perhaps he was worth voting for. Feeling stupid and sentimental, I stared at the headstone for a few seconds. This had been a dumb idea. Finally, I said, "Okay, I'm going to enjoy it."

I hadn't come out to the cemetery to do this. I could've talked to Jane from anywhere. A trickle of sweat tickled my spine. "Thanks a lot," I said, hoping I didn't sound sarcastic. "But don't do me any more favors," I told the stone, and began laughing.

I got back in my car and went to pick up the bridesmaid's dress.

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