The Bone Lady’s Revenge
by Sue Parman
part 1 of 2
Dr. Morriss Ferguson, a lowly Assistant Professor of Anthropology, is single, untenured, allergic to cats, always late to class, and hates to grade papers. His biggest problem, however, is the superstar of the department, Dr. Cecily Seck, who, having failed to add him to her long line of conquests, is determined to destroy him.
A famous Forensic Anthropologist who is always in the news when film stars or little children go missing, Dr. Seck can cut classes with impunity, bring her darling Tom Cat with her despite no-pet injunctions, and manipulate graduate students to accomplish her twisted goals.
Timid and antisocial, Dr. Ferguson is poorly equipped to counter the underhanded cunning of his nemesis. Each semester brings a battle of the bones over mystery and murder.
The coyotes were howling when I crossed the deserted parking lot at 5:30 a.m., headed to University Hall where my small office occupied a fourth-floor corner. The sound was hypnotic, like a picnic of sociable demons singing an off-key harmonic. You don’t normally associate coyotes with the crowded streets of Los Angeles, but in the chilly pre-dawn, there are cracks in the world where dark things slither through.
Coyotes howl when they’ve caught something. As I entered the path between towering hibiscus shrubs, the howls stopped abruptly, and in the silence I could hear the whisper of my sneakers. Personally I hate all small fuzzy creatures — I’m allergic to most of them — and I wished the coyotes good hunting.
As I came out of the hibiscus tunnel, I saw two rabbits crouched beneath an African thorn tree. The Biology Department took pride in dotting the campus with exotic flora, but the African thorn trees always gave me the willies. Maybe it was my primate heritage — the urge to climb a tree when demons howled in the distance. One slip on a thorn tree and you were eviscerated, the huge spikes that grew perpendicularly from the lime-green trunk ripping through soft underbelly and jugular.
The rabbits dived for the hibiscus as a pack of coyotes erupted from the darkness, headed straight toward me. I leaped into the air and they streaked past me, their feet soundless on the wet grass, a flash of glinting teeth and yellow eyes quickly swallowed by the dark, fat hibiscus leaves.
I listened for a scuffle, a scream, the blood-curdling howl that signaled success, but silence followed me as I ran for University Hall, a gray building with cracked concrete pillars that had been my academic home for the past two years. My hands shook as I fitted the key to the lock, turned it the requisite two turns, lifted the lever, and wrestled to get the key loose.
Once inside, I dared to look back through the glass doors. The leaves of the hibiscus shivered, and I thought I saw eyes.
So I wasn’t in the best shape when I unlocked the door to my office and found a large cardboard box sitting in the middle of my desk. I jerked aside the flaps and jumped back. Inside was a skull with a tarantula perched on top of the cranium.
A live tarantula.
My hatred of warm, fuzzy things extends to cold fuzzy things as well, especially when they’ve got more than four legs. I backed out of my office and walked quickly to the main corridor. The faint light of dawn showed through the glass doors at the end of the long hallway. Nothing moved, but I caught a faint scent that raised the hairs on the back of my arms.
It was the smell of death.
If you’ve worked with bodies, you know exactly what I mean. In the morgue, the smell is mixed with formaldehyde and disinfectant, but when you’re finding fragments of people scattered across a mountainside after a terrorist attack or a plane accident, the smell is sweet. In a department that featured forensic anthropology, I had learned to smell death.
The perfume in the hallway was a shade past sweet, as if it had been worked into the pores of a sweating skin. I knew that smell. It belonged to Dr. Cecily Seck, aka The Bone Lady who worked with the Coroner’s Office on famous cases.
Soon after I came to teach at the university, she had invited me to her house and taken me directly to her waterbed, from which I escaped only because I had a violent allergic reaction to her cat, which was sitting in the middle of the bed.
The smell permeated the university corridor where I stood. But she couldn’t be here, because she was on extended medical leave in a sanitarium in Switzerland after she had committed an unpardonable error interpreting bones in a forensic case, the error sending her into a mental tailspin.
The case had been a media sensation. A jewel case found in the forest, presumed by Dr. Seck to contain the bones of children murdered in a Satanic rite, had been revealed (by the defense) to contain only the bones of a cat. I move to dismiss the evidence given by this so-called expert.
Only I knew that the original bones of the children had been stolen from the jewel case. I knew because I had stolen them myself, substituting the bones of a cat*.
Somehow, Cecily had found out.
Beyond the double-paned glass of my office, from the darkness of the hibiscus-ridden quad, came the wild howls of a jubilant hunting pack.
In the cracks of dawn, dark things slither through.
I turned and ran back to my office, and locked the door and stood shivering in the dark, until I remembered the tarantula. When I turned on the light, the skull was still there but the tarantula had disappeared.
Mrs. Stirling, the Department secretary, found me asleep in the conference room, where I had moved to grade my papers.
“Dr. Ferguson! You missed your class! What are you doing in here?”
I woke up sneezing. Mrs. Stirling was babysitting Cecily’s current Tom Cat while she was in the asylum. I recognized his orange hairs on the blue sweater she was wearing.
I stopped sneezing long enough to say, “I came in early to grade papers.”
“The students came looking for you. I sent them in to see the Chair since I didn’t know where you were.”
She smiled sweetly down at me, a look that chilled my blood. The only person that Mrs. Stirling ever covered for was Cecily — Poor dear, she had such responsibilities chasing down bodies, answering police calls, being famous, how could she be expected to meet her classes? — but for me in particular she reserved a special level of attention. I didn’t even rate the usual 15 minutes of leeway; she sensed when I was late, and always conveyed this information to the Chair.
I got up slowly from my chair and walked toward her. She was about the same height as Cecily, a little over five feet, but a good deal broader, and I made an effort to loom. “Mrs. Stirling, where were you at 5:30 this morning?”
“Me?” She stumbled backwards, probably as surprised by the fact that I dared to loom as by the question. “In bed.” She blushed. “I need my beauty sleep, you know.” The blush went even deeper, and she turned and ran for the door. I would have followed her, except I was transfixed by the image of the Iron Maiden blushing over the words “bed” and “beauty.” I let her go back to her midge-plagued philodendron plants, an awkward beast hiding in the rain forest of her office.
I looked at the stack of ungraded papers and sighed. My next class was at 11:30, and since I didn’t want to go back to my office I stayed in the conference room and worked steadily, an unusual practice for me. I even glowered at some of the graduate students who came in looking for a place to study.
I was known as the pushover, someone who could always be counted on to move out of the way. But today I didn’t move, and I was down to my last five essays when someone came in the door who didn’t leave. I finally looked up, my scowl in place, to find Cecily’s graduate student Damon standing there.
Damon the sheepdog. His curly locks boiled over his dirty designer shirts and his thin fingers trembled. I had noticed the tremors several months ago and concluded he was suffering from Cecily withdrawal. He had been one of her special pets, good at statistics and other things I didn’t want to imagine. His nose ran perpetually and I suspected that, like me, he was allergic to cats. He was always reading forensic murder mysteries; his pockets bulged with magazines with titles like Tales From the Crypt and Fangoria.
“Good morning, Damon. Have you heard yet from Stanford?”
“Actually, sir, I didn’t apply to the Ph.D. program at Stanford.”
“You told me you were going to apply to Stanford, Michigan, and Boston.”
“Dr. Seck told me to apply to Harvard, Yale, and Princeton.”
“Dr. Seck is in an insane asylum.” An idea occurred to me. “Damon, where were you at 5:30 this morning?”
I took the box home with me, after checking carefully to make sure the tarantula was still missing and was surprised, when I set it on the rug in front of the fireplace, that C. didn’t attack it.
C. is my cat. The “C” stands for various things, but I usually tell people it stands for Cat. Yes, you’re thinking I’m crazy, I’m allergic to cats so why do I have one? It’s complicated. It has to do with Cecily, and a good psychiatrist would probably mutter something about compensation and guilt and projection, but I don’t spend time thinking about why, just how — how I’m going to get all my papers graded, how I’m going to get through my days. The rest of the time I’m too busy sneezing.
I sat down on the rug and opened the box. He ignored it, and dug his claws into my knee. I reached for a Kleenex with one hand and with the other I poked his fat belly. “Cats are supposed to regulate their feeding,” I told him. “You’d never escape the coyotes in the quad.”
I was surprised that he wasn’t interested in the cranium. Normally he’s crazy about bones. He’s worse than a dog. I’ve been seriously clawed when I try to separate him from bones he’s dragged in, especially if they’ve still got a strong smell.
The next day I found another cardboard box on my desk, and stormed into Mrs. Stirling’s office. “Did you open my office and let someone put a box on my desk?”
She was spraying her philodendron leaves, the midges forming clouds around her fat fingers. “That box has been there since Monday.”
“This is a different box.”
“No it’s not.”
I quailed before her certainty. It did, in fact, look very much like the box with the skull and the tarantula in it. Had I absentmindedly brought it back into the office?
I ran back to my office, pursued by midges, and whipped open the flaps of the box on my desk. Nestled in newspapers was a mandible that I was sure would attach to the cranium that lay in the box on my living room floor, the mandibular condyles of the lower jaw fitting into both mandibular fossa of the temporals, and the teeth of the mandible aligning with those of the upper jaw.
I set the jawbone on the desk and carefully lifted out the newspaper. No tarantula, no brown recluse spider, no black widow fell from the crackling folds.
I spread the newspaper out on the desk. The New York Times, dated a week ago.
I jumped, and the jawbone flew off the edge of the desk.
Damon, just entering the room, caught it. When he handed it back, his hands shook and I caught a faint whiff of the perfume of death.
“Are you in touch with Dr. Seck?” I asked as I rewrapped the mandible.
He squirmed, shrugged, and avoided looking at me. “I tried to get her address from Mrs. Stirling and she wouldn’t give it.”
“Mrs. Stirling has her address?”
“E-mails her every day, too.” He grinned. “Wherever she is, Dr. Seck gets access to a computer for one hour. The e-mail comes in like clockwork at 10:00 a.m., and the last messages stop at 10:59.”
I sank into my chair. “How in the world do you know that?”
He sat down across from me and rested his long chin on his lean hands. I noticed that his eyelashes were ragged, as if someone had chewed them.
“I go in and talk to Mrs. Stirling every morning. The e-mails pop up on her screen, one after the other. It started by accident, I just happened to be in there, and when the e-mails started coming they reminded me of the way Dr. Seck talks — you know, kind of fast, jumping from one thing to another.
“It was the rhythm that got my attention. I’ve got pretty good vision, and even though I didn’t recognize the address I could tell the message was from her. Do this, do that. I want this. I’m going to kill my doctor. How’s my Tom Cat. If anything happens to him I’m going to sue you. The usual stuff.”
I had never heard Damon talk so much. I was certain he was lying. I looked at his prominent chin. Chins developed from the receding size of teeth in human evolution. I wondered why he hadn’t asked about the mandible. I wondered what instructions Cecily was giving Mrs. Stirling. “Did you come here for a reason, or were you just passing by?” I asked.
He cleared his throat and the trembling in his fingers grew more pronounced. “I need a new advisor, Dr. Ferguson, since Dr. Seck is gone. Even if I get into a Ph.D. program, I’d like to finish my M.A. before I leave here.”
I looked at him carefully. He was sitting up straight, his earnest eyes peering at me beneath his shaggy bangs, his sinewy fingers touching the surface of my desk as if he were about to play the piano. I remembered what happened to Cecily’s students who defected to other faculty and, more important, what happened to faculty who took her students.
Of all Cecily’s students, Damon had been the most devoted, taking her complaints, recriminations, and hysterical fits like a medieval monk for whom pain was a prerequisite of faith. Even if I were to take him, he’d be gone like a shot if Cecily returned before he was done, and he would tell her that I had pressured him to change over to me. Cecily forsaken was Kali incarnate.
“Absolutely not,” I said. “If you get into a Ph.D. program, go. You don’t need to finish your M.A. first.”
He blinked, and I could have sworn he was about to cry. “I’ve got a first draft. It’s based on a lecture you did on the history of anthropology.”
Damon interested in the history of anthropology? He, like all of Cecily’s students, talked only about what a relief it was to do “hands-on stuff,” “knowledge with real consequences.” What they really liked to do was play God, up to their elbows in the gore of human mortality. I’m alive, you’re dead, and I get to play with your bones.
He reached into his back pack, drew out a manila envelope, and placed it gingerly on my desk, reminding me of C. with a dead mouse on the dining room table. “I don’t think it would take much to finish it. If you could just—”
When I opened my mouth to refuse, he turned and ran from the room.
I still hadn’t finished the five remaining essays of my 8:30 class. They were under the box with the mandible. I moved the box to the floor and began to grade them, but I kept thinking about Cecily’s e-mails and Damon’s request. Ten a.m. would be 6:00 pm in Switzerland. I wondered what life was like in a Swiss insane asylum. Perhaps something like Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain, with six meals a day and a clear view from on high, but of madness rather than death; wounded tongues rather than tainted lungs. Freedom to talk of blame, to invent the self.
I wondered if e-mails were monitored and analyzed, or if Cecily had managed to seduce some Swiss janitor or clerk who had given her access to a computer when his shift began at 6 pm. A whole day’s accumulation of bile and spit, and she had chosen to vent it in the direction of Mrs. Stirling. She formed her own chorus of pre-dawn howls.
I picked up Damon’s manila envelope and slid the contents out on my desk, expecting to find a tarantula. It was forty pages long, and I read it with growing interest. I had given a talk on Piltdown Man; he had turned it into a thesis about major fakes in paleoanthropology that had influenced the interpretation of human evolution. The title of his thesis, rendered in Britannic Bold 28 font, was, “It’s Not the Brain, Stupid, It’s the Feet!”
When I got home I gave the thesis to C., who shredded it with fascination but paid no attention to the box with the mandible that I set down next to the cranium.
I came in early the next morning to finish grading the last of the essays, and as I left the parking lot and entered the hibiscus tunnel I was greeted with a chorus of howls, some distant and some close by. At one point I caught a glimpse of open ground, and it was apparent that there had been a rabbit explosion. Hundreds of rabbits covered the sand hills, which were pocked with holes. Suddenly they leaped into the air and vanished in a blur. I ran the last few feet to University Hall, a thin trickle of sweat turning cold on the back of my neck.
* See “Tom Cat and the Bone Lady,” Bewildering Stories, issue 313, 2008; originally published in Swedish as “Katten och kotdamen” in Short Stories of Crime, Detection, and Mystery 1: 13-26 (2004)
Copyright © 2009 by Sue Parman