A Bone to Pick

Chapter 7



The first thing I felt was overwhelming relief. Jane, who had left me so much, had not left me holding the bag, so to speak, on a murder she herself had committed.

She had left me in the position of concealing the murder someone else had committed, a murder Jane also had concealed, for reasons I could not fathom. I had believed the only question I had to answer was Whose skull? Now I had also to find out who put the hole in that skull.

Was my situation really any better? No, I decided after some consideration. My conscience weighed perhaps an ounce less. The question of going to the police took on a different slant now that I would not be accusing Jane of murder by taking in the skull. But she'd had something to do with it. Oh, what a mess! Not for the first (or the last) time, I wished I could have five minutes' conversation with Jane Engle, my benefactress and my burden. I tried to think of the money, to cheer myself up; I reminded myself that the will was a little closer to probate now, I'd be able to actually spend some without consulting Bubba Sewell beforehand.

And to tell you the truth, I still felt excellent about that money. I had read so many mysteries in which the private detective had sent back his retainer check because the payer was immoral or the job he was hired to do turned out to be against his code of honor. Jane wanted me to have that money to have fun with, and she wanted me to remember her. Well, here I was remembering every single day, by golly, and I certainly intended to have fun. In the meantime, I had a problem to solve.

It seemed to me that Bubba knew something about this. Could I retain him as my lawyer and ask him what to do? Wouldn't attorney-client privilege cover my admission I'd located and rehidden the skull? Or would Bubba, as an officer of the court, be obliged to disclose my little lapse? I'd read a lot of mysteries that had probably contained this information, but now they all ran together in my head. The laws probably varied from state to state, too. I could tell Aubrey, surely? Would he be obligated to tell the police? Would he have any practical advice to offer? I was pretty confident I knew what his moral advice would be; the skull should go into the police station now, today, pronto. I was concealing the death of someone who had been dead and missing for over three years, at a minimum. Someone, somewhere, needed to know this person had died. What if this was Macon Turner's son? Macon had been wanting to know the whereabouts of his son for a long time, had been searching for him; if there was even a faint chance his son's letters to him had been forged, it was inhumane to keep this knowledge from Macon.

Unless Macon had caused the hole in the skull.

Carey Osland had believed all these years her husband had walked out on her. She should know he had been prevented from returning home with those diapers. Unless Carey herself had prevented him.

Marcia and Torrance Rideout needed to know their tenant had not voluntarily skipped out on his rent.

Unless they themselves had canceled his lease.

I jumped to my feet and went into the kitchen to fix myself - something. Anything. Of course, all that was there was canned stuff and unopened packages. I ended up with a jar of peanut butter and a spoon. I stuck the spoon in the jar and stood at the counter licking the peanut butter off.

Murderers needed to be exposed, truth needed to see the light of day. Et cetera. Then I had another thought: whoever had broken into this house, searching for the skull, had been the murderer.

I shivered. Not nice to think.

And even now, that little thought trickled onward, that murderer was wondering if I'd found the skull yet, what I'd do with it. "This is bad," I muttered. "Really, really bad."

That was constructive thinking.

Start at ground zero.

Okay. Jane had seen a murder, or maybe someone burying a body. For her to get the skull, she had to know the body was there, right? Jane literally knew where the bodies were buried. I actually caught myself smiling at my little joke. Why would she not tell the police immediately?

No answer.

Why would she take the skull?

No answer.

Why would anyone pick Jane's demise as the time to look for the skull, when she'd obviously had it for years?

Possible answer: the murderer did not know for sure that Jane was the person who had the skull.

I imagined someone who had committed a terrible crime in the throes of who knew what passion or pressure. After hiding the body somewhere, suddenly this murderer finds that the skull is gone, the skull with its telltale hole, the skull with its identifiable teeth. Someone has taken the trouble to dig it up and take it away and the killer doesn't know who. How horrible. I could almost pity the murderer. What fear, what terror, what dreadful uncertainty.

I shook myself. I should be feeling sorry for The Skull, as I thought of it.

Where could Jane have seen a murder?

Her own backyard. She had had to know where the body was buried exactly; she had had to have leisure to dig without interruption or discovery, presumably; she could not have carted a skull any distance. My reasoning of a few days before was still valid, whether or not Jane was the murderer. The murder had happened on this street, in one of, these houses, somewhere where Jane could see it. So I went out in the backyard and looked.

I found myself staring at the two cement benches flanking the birdbath. Jane had been fond of sitting there in the evenings, I recalled her saying. Sometimes the birds had perched on the bath while she sat there, she could sit so still, she had told me proudly. I did wonder if Madeleine had been outside with Jane enjoying this, and dismissed the thought as unworthy. Jane had been many things -

I seemed to be finding more and more things she'd been every day - but she hadn't been an out-and-out sadist.

I sat on one of the cement benches with my back to Carey Osland's house. I could see almost all the Rideouts' sun deck clearly, of course: no Marcia in red there today. I could see their old garden plot and some clear lawn. The very rear of their yard was obscured by the bushes in my own yard. Beyond the Rideouts' I could discern one little section of Macon Turner's, which had lots of large bushes and rather high grass. I would have to come out here at night, I thought, to find if I could see through the windows of any of these houses. It was hot, and I was full of roast beef and peanut butter. I slid into a trance, mentally moving people around their backyards, in various murderous postures.

"What you doing?" asked a voice behind me curiously.

I gasped and jumped.

A little girl stood behind me. She was maybe seven or eight or even a little older, and she was wearing shorts and a pink T-shirt. She had chin-length, wavy, dark hair and big dark eyes and glasses.

"I'm sitting," I said tensely. "What are you doing?"

"My mom sent me over to ask you if you could come drink some coffee with her."

"Who's your mom?"

Now that was funny, someone not knowing who her mom was. "Carey Osland." She giggled. "In that house right there," she pointed, obviously believing she was dealing with a mentally deficient person. The Osland backyard was almost bare of bushes or any concealment at all. There was a swing set and a sandbox; I could see the street to the other side of the house easily.

This was the child who had needed diapers the night her father left the house and never returned.

"Yes, I'll come," I said. "What's your name?"

"Linda. Well, come on."

So I followed Linda Osland over to her mother's house, wondering what Carey had to say.

Carey, I decided after a while, had just been being hospitable. She'd gone the afternoon before to pick up Linda from camp, had spent Sunday morning washing Linda's shorts and shirts, which had been indescribably filthy, had listened to all Linda's camp stories, and now was ready for some adult companionship. Macon, she told me, was out playing golf at the country club. She said it like she had a right to know his whereabouts at all times and like other people should realize that. So, if their relationship had had its clandestine moments, it was moving out into the open. I noticed that she didn't say anything about their getting married, and didn't hint that was in the future. Maybe they were happy just like they were.

It would be a great thing, not to want to get married. I sighed, I hoped imperceptibly, and asked Carey about Jane.

"I feel myself wanting to get to know her better now," I said, with a what-can-you-do? shrug.

"Well, Jane was a different kettle of fish," Carey said, with a lift of her dark brows.

"She was an old meanie," Linda said suddenly. She'd been sitting at the table cutting out paper doll clothes.

"Linda," her mother admonished, without any real scolding in her voice.

"Well, remember, Mama, how mad she got at Burger King!"

I tried to look politely baffled.

Carey's pretty, round face looked a little peeved for just a second. "More coffee?" she asked.

"Yes, thanks," I said, to gain more time before I had to go.

Carey poured and showed no sign of explaining Linda's little remark.

"Jane was a difficult neighbor?" I asked tentatively.

"Oh." Carey sighed with pursed lips. "I wish Linda hadn't brought that up. Honey, you got to learn to forget unpleasant things and old fights, it doesn't pay to remember stuff like that."

Linda nodded obediently and went back to her scissors. "Burger King was our dog; Linda named him of course," Carey explained reluctantly. "We didn't keep him on a leash, I know we should have, and of course our backyard isn't fenced in..."

I nodded encouragingly.

"Naturally, he eventually got run over, I'm ashamed of us even having an outside dog without having a fence," Carey confessed, shaking her head at her own negligence. "But Linda did want a pet, and she's allergic to cats." "I sneeze and my eyes get red," Linda explained. "Yes, honey. Of course, we had the dog when Jane had just gotten her cat, and of course Burger King chased Madeleine every time Jane let her out, which wasn't too often, but every now and then..." Carey lost her thread. "The dog treed the cat?" I suggested helpfully. "Oh yes, and barked and barked," Carey said ruefully. "It was a mess. And Jane got so mad about it."

"She said she would call the pound," Linda chimed in. "Because there's a leash law and we were breaking it."

"Well, honey, she was right," Carey said. "We were."

"She didn't have to be so mean about it," Linda insisted. "She was a little shirty," Carey said confidentially to me. "I mean, I know I was at fault, but she really went off the deep end." "Oh dear," I murmured.

"I'm surprised Linda remembers any of this because it was a long time ago.

Years, I guess."

"So did Jane end up calling the animal control people?" "No, no. Poor Burger got hit by a car over on Faith, right here to the side of the house, very soon after that. So now we have Waldo here" - and the tip of her slipper poked the dachshund affectionately - "and we walk him three or four times a day. It's not much of a life for him, but it's the best we can do." Waldo snored contentedly.

"Speaking of Madeleine, she came home," I told Carey. "She did! I thought Parnell and Leah picked her up from the vet's where she'd been boarded while Jane was sick?"

"Well, they did, but Madeleine wanted to be at her own house. As it turns out, she was expecting."

Linda and Carey both exclaimed over that, and I regretted telling them after a moment, because of course Linda wanted to see the little kitties and her mother did not want the child to cough and weep all afternoon. "I'm sorry, Carey," I said as I took my leave.

"Don't worry about it," Carey insisted, though I am sure she wished I had kept my mouth shut. "It's just one of those things Linda has to learn to live with. I sure hope someday I can afford to fence the backyard, I'll get her a Scottie puppie, I swear I will. A friend of mine raises them, and those are the cutest puppies in the world. Like little walking shoe brushes." I considered the cute factor of walking shoe brushes as I went through Carey's backyard to my own. Carey's yard was so open to view it was hard to imagine where a body could have been buried on her property, but I couldn't exclude Carey either; her yard might not have been so bare a few years before. I could be rid of all this by getting in my car and driving to the police station, I reminded myself. And for a moment I was powerfully tempted. And I'll tell you what stopped me: not loyalty to Jane, not keeping faith with the dead; nothing so noble. It was my fear of Sergeant Jack Burns, the terrifying head of the detectives. The sergeant, I had observed in my previous contacts with him, burned for truth the way other men burn for a promotion or a night with Michelle Pfeiffer.

He wouldn't be happy with me.

He would want to nail me to the wall.

I would keep the skull a secret a little longer. Maybe somehow I could wriggle out of this with a clear conscience. That didn't seem possible at this moment, but then it hadn't seemed possible someone would die and leave me a fortune, either.

I went in to check on Madeleine. She was nursing her kittens and looking smug and tired at the same time. I refilled her water bowl. I started to move her litter box into the room with her, but then I reconsidered. Best to leave it in the place she was used to going.

"Just think," I told the cat, "a week ago, I had no idea that soon I'd have a cat, four kittens, a house, five hundred and fifty thousand dollars, and a skull. I didn't know what I was missing."

The doorbell rang.

I jumped maybe a mile. Thanks to Jane's cryptic note, I now knew I had something to fear.

"Be back in a minute, Madeleine," I said, to reassure myself rather than the cat.

This time, instead of opening the door, I looked through Jane's spyhole. When I saw lots of black, I knew my caller was Aubrey. I was smiling as I opened the door.

"Come in."

"I just thought I'd drop by and see the new house," he said hesitantly. "Is that okay?"

"Sure. I just found out today I have kittens, come see them."

And I led Aubrey into the bedroom, telling him Madeleine's saga as we went.

The proximity of the bed startled him a little, but the kittens entranced him. "Want one?" I asked. "It occurs to me I'll have to find homes for alt of them in a few weeks. I'll have to call a vet and find out when they can be separated from her. And when I can have her neutered."

"You're not going to take her back to Jane's cousin?" Aubrey asked, looking a little amused.

"No," I said without even thinking about it. "I'll see how I like living with a pet. She seems pretty attached to this house."

"Maybe I will take one," Aubrey said thoughtfully. "My little house can get lonely. Having a cat to come home to might be pretty nice. I do get asked out a lot. That's where I've been since church, as a matter of fact; a family in the church asked me to their home for lunch."

"I bet it wasn't as good as my lunch." I told him about Sally's roast beef, and he said he'd had turkey, and we ended up sitting by the kittens talking about food for a while. He didn't cook for himself much, either. And the doorbell rang.

We had been getting along so cozily, I had to resist an impulse to say something very nasty.

I left him in the bedroom staring at the kittens, all asleep and tiny, while I scrambled into the living room and opened the door. Marcia Rideout, wide awake and gorgeous in white cotton shorts and a bright red camp shirt, smiled back at me. She certainly wasn't drunk now; she was alert and cheerful.

"Good to see you again," she said with a smile. I marveled again at her perfect grooming. Her lipstick was almost professionally applied, her eye shadow subtle but noticeable, her hair evenly golden and smoothly combed into a page boy. Her legs were hairless and beautifully brown. Even her white tennis shoes were spotless.

"Hi, Marcia," I said quickly, having become aware I was staring at her like a guppy.

"I'll just take a minute of your time," she promised. She handed me a little envelope. "Torrance and I just want to give a little party on our sun deck this Wednesday to welcome you into the neighborhood." "Oh, but I - " I began to protest.

"No no, now. We wanted to have a little cook-out anyway, but your inheriting the house just makes a good excuse. And we have new neighbors across the street, too, they're going to come. We'll all get to know each other. I know this is short notice, but Torrance has to travel this Friday and won't be back until late on Saturday." Marcia seemed like a different person from the indolent drunk I'd met a few days before. The prospect of entertaining seemed to bring her to life.

How could I refuse? The idea of being honored at the same party with Lynn and Arthur was less than thrilling, but refusal would be unthinkable, too. "Do bring a date if you want, or just come on your own," Marcia said.

"You really won't mind if I bring someone?"

"Please do! One more won't make a bit of difference. Got anyone in mind?" Marcia asked, her brows arched coyly.

"Yes," I said with a smile, and said no more. I was just hoping with all my might that Aubrey would not choose this moment to emerge from the bedroom. I could picture Marcia's eyebrows flying clean off her face. "Oh," Marcia said, obviously a little taken aback by my marked lack of explanation. "Yes, that'll be fine. Just come as you are, we won't be fancy, that's not Torrance and me!"

Marcia seemed very fancy indeed to me.

"Can I bring anything?"

"Just yourself," Marcia responded, as I'd expected. I realized that the party preparations would keep her excited and happy for the next three days. "I'll see you then," she called as she bounced down the steps and started back over to her house.

I took the little invitation with me when I went back to Aubrey. "Could you go to this with me?" I asked, handing it to him. I thought if he turned me down I was going to be horribly embarrassed, but I had no one else to ask, and if I was going to a party with Arthur and Lynn present, I was damn sure going to have a date.

He pulled the invitation out and read it. It had a chef on the front wearing a barbecue apron and holding a long fork. "Something good is on the grill!" exclaimed the print. When you opened it, it said, "... and you can share it with us on Wednesday, 7:00 at Marcia and Torrance's house. See you then!" "A little on the hearty side," I said, as neutrally as I could. I didn't want to seem uncharitable.

"I'm sure I can, but let me check." Aubrey pulled a little black notebook out of his pocket. "The liturgical calendar," he explained. "I think every Episcopalian priest carries one of these." He flipped through the pages, then beamed up at me. "Sure, I can go." I blew out a sigh of sheer relief. Aubrey produced a little pencil in disgraceful shape and wrote in the time and address, and, to my amusement, "Pick up Aurora." Would he forget me otherwise? Stuffing the book back into his pocket, he got to his feet and told me he'd better be going. "I have youth group in an hour," he said, checking his watch. "What do you do with them?" I asked as I walked him to the door. "Try to make them feel okay about not being Baptists and having a big recreation center to go to, mostly. We go in with the Lutherans and the Presbyterians, taking turns to have the young people on Sunday evening. And it's my church's turn."

At least it was too early in our relationship for me to feel at all obliged to take part in that.

Aubrey opened the door to leave, then seemed to remember something he'd forgotten. He bent over to give me a kiss, his arm loosely around my shoulders. There was no doubt this time about the jolt I felt clear down to the soles of my feet. When he straightened up, he looked a little energized himself. "Well!" he said breathless. "I'll give you a call this week, and I look forward to Wednesday night."

"Me, too," I said with a smile, and saw past his shoulder the curtains in the house across the way stir.

Ha! I thought maturely, as I shut the door behind Aubrey.

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