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A Book of Bones

John Connolly

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  To Paul Johnston, for beating the odds


  Waneth the watch, but the world holdeth.

  —Anonymous, “The Seafarer”


  Desert, scrub, and a city in the sunlight: Phoenix, Arizona.

  “Business?” asked the woman sitting next to Parker, as the plane made its final approach. They hadn’t spoken since the flight left Texas, but Parker had registered her curiosity. He’d passed her as he was being escorted to the gate, bypassing security entirely, a federal agent to either side of him, their weapons visible. He was surprised it had taken her so long to strike up a conversation. Her self-discipline was admirable.

  “I’m sorry?” he said.

  She was in her early forties, he estimated, and recently divorced. The pale circle around her ring finger was visible against her southwestern coloration. Her hair was dark, and her eyes were kind, if wary. The separation had probably been painful.

  “I was wondering if you’re here on business.”


  Parker returned his gaze to the window, but she was persistent.

  “Do you mind if I ask what it is you do?”

  The correct reply should have been “yes” for a second time, but he didn’t want to appear rude. It would make her feel bad, and he wouldn’t feel much better.

  “I hunt,” said Parker. He was surprised to hear the words emerge, as though spoken by another in his stead.

  “Oh.” Her disapproval was obvious.

  “But not animals,” he added, as the voice decided to make the situation yet more complicated.

  “Oh,” she said again.

  He could almost hear the cogs turning.

  “So, you hunt… people?”


  The wheels came down, and the plane hit the ground with a jolt that caused someone at the back to yelp in the manner of a wounded dog.

  “Like a bounty hunter?” asked the woman.

  “Like a bounty hunter.”

  “So that’s what you are?”


  “Oh,” she said, for the third time. “I guess I shouldn’t have asked, but I saw the people with you at the airport, and…”

  She trailed off. She was holding a magazine in her hands, which she now opened and pretended to read as they taxied to the terminal. Parker had set aside his own book, a copy of Montaigne’s Essays gifted to him by Louis. It was the first time Louis had ever passed on a book to him. Lately, Louis had become quite the bibliophile. They both had, because in recent months they’d been learning a lot about old volumes.

  Parker wasn’t entirely clear why Essays should have particularly engaged Louis, although he had to concede that Montaigne wasn’t short of opinions on just about every subject under the sun, from thumbs to cannibals. Initially Parker had persisted with the book because of its giver, but now Montaigne was getting under his skin. Montaigne knew a lot, yet his essays weren’t about displaying what he knew so much as working toward some understanding of all he didn’t know, which made him an unusual individual by any reckoning. Since the flight had been delayed by almost an hour, he’d had plenty of time to spend in Montaigne’s company.

  The plane came to a halt, but Parker didn’t rush to get up. He was seated in the second row, was traveling only with cabin bags, and knew that more federal agents would be waiting for him at the gate. He would be in a car and on his way from the airport before most of his fellow travelers had even claimed their baggage.

  The door opened, and the first passengers began to disembark. The woman who had been sitting beside him was now wrestling an overfilled case from the compartment. He helped her to free it, and she thanked him.

  “I’m sorry for prying,” she said.

  “It’s okay.”

  He followed her from the plane, and she fell into step beside him.

  “Look,” she said, “if you’re in town for a few days, maybe you might like to meet for a drink. I’ll buy, as an apology, and I promise I won’t ask any more questions about what you do for a living. At least, I’ll try not to.”

  “That’s very generous of you,” said Parker, “but I won’t be staying long.”

  They reached the gate. As predicted, two more federal agents were hovering by the desk. Parker saw them react as he appeared, and the woman picked up on it.

  “I guess it didn’t hurt to ask,” she said.


  She handed him a business card. Her name was Tonya Nichols, and she was the vice-president of a bank in Tempe.

  “In case your schedule changes,” she said. “Good luck with your hunting.”

  * * *

  PARKER HAD NEVER COME to terms with Arizona. He did not have the desert gene, and Phoenix Sky Harbor was one of his least favorite airports, even by the low standards of Brutalist architecture. Back in the late 1990s, the then mayor of Phoenix, Skip Rimsza, had proposed renaming the entire airport after Barry Goldwater. The proposal didn’t have enough support to go through, but Terminal 4, at which Parker had arrived, was still named in honor of the former Republican senator and UFO nut who’d had his ass handed to him by Lyndon Johnson in the 1964 presidential election. But Parker’s grandfather, a staunch northeastern Democrat, had always retained a degree of affection for Goldwater, mostly because the latter had once advised all good Christians to line up and kick the televangelist Jerry Falwell in the seat of his pants.

  The two agents marching alongside Parker didn’t look old enough to remember Goldwater’s funeral, which had taken place only in 1998, and were probably still being carded in bars. Parker wondered if the FBI was now recruiting straight out of high school. The agents, who introduced themselves as Skal and Crist, were very polite, and one of them insisted on carrying Parker’s case, leaving him to manage only his leather messenger bag unaided. Their solicitude made Parker feel old, and their height caused him to resemble an adopted mascot. Skal was north of six feet tall, and built entirely from blocks. Crist made him appear dainty by comparison.

  “Where does the name Skal come from?” Parker asked.

  “Denmark, sir.”

  “Isn’t it some kind of toast?”

  “Yes, sir. I believe the derivation is from a cup or bowl.”

  Parker wasn’t used to being addressed so politely by federal agents. It made him nervous.

  “Do you mind not calling me ‘sir’?” he asked.

  Skal looked at Crist, who shrugged helplessly, as though to suggest that the ways of men remained mysterious to him, but he’d back his colleague to the hilt if the decision to drop the “sir” came back to bite him somewhere down the line.

  “I’ll try not to,” said Skal.

  By now they were at the terminal door. A heavy-duty Chevy Suburban was parked in the area reserved for law enforcement personnel, a Phoenix PD cruiser idling nearby just in case anyone became alarmed.

  “I take it Ross is already here.”

  “SAC Ross is at the scene,” Crist corrected. His voice might have come from the bowels of the earth, so deep was the rumble.

  “Did he say anything before he sent you to pick me up?”

  It was Skal who answered the question.

  “Sir”—and the word held an additional unspoken apology for its return—“
he told us not to let you shoot anyone.”

  “He was pretty clear on that,” Crist added.

  Neither of the agents offered even the hint of a smile. If anything, they bore the slightly fretful demeanor of two straight-A students who had somehow fallen in with a bad element, and were certain it was going to impact on their report cards come the end of semester.

  “Well, I wouldn’t want to get you into any trouble,” said Parker.

  “Thank you,” said Skal.

  “Yes,” said Crist, “thank you very much. We wouldn’t want you to get us into any trouble, either.”

  The three men stood awkwardly by the Suburban for a moment.

  “If you’re waiting for a hug…” said Parker.

  Skal bounded to open the rear door of the Suburban as quickly as he could. Clearly, thought Parker, he wasn’t the hugging kind.


  The call had come through that morning, while Parker was taking a break from listening to an attorney attempt to convince a federal judge in Houston, Texas, of the inadmissibility of evidence Parker was scheduled to give. The case in question concerned a pair of counselors accused of sexually assaulting a series of vulnerable teenagers in at least three states over a period of ten years, sometimes after incapacitating them with narcotics, whether ingested willingly or unknowingly. The men, Bruer and Seben, had most recently operated as licensed “conversion therapists” in Maine, their clients referred to them by parents or guardians who viewed the children’s sexual orientation as a perversion or aberration, and sought to have it dealt with coercively. Bruer and Seben’s state-acquired shingle had effectively permitted them to abuse children under its aegis, and earn good money along the way.

  But one of the Maine victims, a girl named Lacey Smith from Old Orchard Beach, had committed suicide in the aftermath of her “treatment,” and Moxie Castin, Parker’s lawyer, occasional employer, and possibly even friend, had been engaged by her family to obtain proof that could be used to force a prosecution by the state. By then the counselors had already left Maine to seek fresh prey elsewhere, but Parker tracked them to Texas, where he spent a week monitoring them with the aid of a pair of local PIs. Eventually the counselors made an error, which was why Parker was now sitting in a Texan courtroom, waiting to add his testimony to the body of evidence mounting against the abusers.

  Their defense attorneys had already tried unsuccessfully to have Parker’s testimony shot down on the grounds that their clients had a reasonable expectation of privacy when they were recorded at a bar in Baytown comparing notes on the oral rape of a sixteen-year-old boy. Parker had used an acoustic vector sensor to listen to, and record, the conversation, which had subsequently required only a minimal digital wash to be made entirely comprehensible. It had barely been worth the prosecution’s time to point out that the two men could have no expectation of privacy under such circumstances, as the booth of a bar could not be construed as a private place, and the evidence had not been gathered in a way that broke any law.

  Now the defense was altering its plan of attack, focusing instead on Parker’s character, and calling into question his credibility by documenting a pattern of illegality during previous investigations, along with what the attorney described as “a propensity for violent acts up to and including homicide.” Parker didn’t particularly relish having his character traduced in court, but couldn’t disagree with some of what was being said, not that anyone was asking his opinion of himself. The judge announced a brief adjournment to consider the arguments, and Parker went to get coffee and some air, which was when his cell phone rang. He recognized the number, and paused for a moment before answering. From bitter experience, he knew that little good could come of what would follow.

  “Agent Ross,” said Parker. “What a pleasure.”

  SAC Edgar Ross of the Federal Bureau of Investigation was based at Federal Plaza in New York, and had coordinated the FBI’s internal inquiry into its handling of the hunt for the Traveling Man, the killer who had taken the lives of Parker’s wife and first child. Since then, the paths taken by Parker and Ross had grown increasingly intertwined. As a consequence, Parker now banked a monthly retainer from the FBI as a consultant, and had been more than useful to Ross on occasion, if sometimes only on grounds of plausible deniability. Meanwhile, Ross offered Parker a degree of protection, in addition to improving his financial situation considerably. Parker didn’t entirely trust Ross, and Ross didn’t entirely trust Parker, but they were allies, of a kind.

  “Where are you?” said Ross.

  “Houston. I’m waiting to see if a federal judge thinks I can be trusted to give evidence against a pair of sexual predators. It seems to be a question of my character.”

  “That’s unfortunate for you. Maybe you should try bribery.”

  “Wouldn’t that just confirm the truth of the allegation?”

  “Only if the bribe is refused.”

  “I think I’ll let justice run its course. Is this a social call?”

  “You’ll have to wait a while longer for that particular first. We have a body. It may be that of Mors.”

  A month earlier, a woman who went by the name of Pallida Mors had cut a bloody swath from Indiana to Maine, killing men, women, and one unborn child in an effort to secure older vellum pages bound into an edition of Grimm’s Fairy Tales dating from the early part of the previous century, and illustrated by Arthur Rackham. Mors was working for an Englishman named Quayle, who may or may not have been a lawyer. Both had subsequently escaped from Maine with the pages, although not before Louis injured Mors in a gunfight, and was wounded in turn. No trace of Quayle and Mors had been found since then, and there was no record of them having left the country.

  “Where?” Parker asked.

  “Near Gila Bend, Arizona.” He heard Ross speak to someone else on the other end of the line. “We’ve booked you on an American Airlines flight departing at two-forty.”

  “In the movies you send private jets.”

  “Movies tend to leave out the boring parts about budgets and congressional oversight.”

  “It’s already after one-thirty.”

  “Then you’d better hurry.”

  “What about the court case?”

  “I’ll take care of it. Who knows, I may even manage to present your character in a favorable light. We’ll have agents waiting for you at George Bush. They’ll get you to the gate on time. Expect a call from one of them in about twenty minutes.”

  Ross hung up just as a federal prosecutor named Tracey Ermenthal emerged from the courthouse.

  “Problem?” she asked.

  “I have to go to Arizona.”

  “Wait, we need you here. We didn’t fly you from Maine for dinner and a show.”

  Parker told her about his conversation with Ross, and gave her the first of two cell phone numbers he possessed for the agent. The second was changed regularly, and rarely used. It was strictly for off-the-books business.

  “Fucking feds,” said Ermenthal, as she dialed the number.

  “Wait a minute,” said Parker. “Aren’t you—?”

  “Don’t even think of finishing that question,” said Ermenthal, and then she was shouting at Ross, and Parker could hear Ross shouting back in turn.

  He left them to it, and caught a cab to the airport.


  Parker and the two agents put Phoenix behind them, heading west to Route 85, which they followed south toward Gila Bend. After about an hour’s drive, conducted mostly in silence, the Chevy took a left turn down a road pitted and rutted by the passage of trucks. By now it was almost six and, in anticipation of night, the route was already illuminated by lights strung from a series of posts set at irregular intervals, their bulbs occasionally dimming to the barest flicker as the Chevy passed before returning to semi-brightness once it was gone, as though the lighting itself were complicit in some greater scheme to dissuade the strangers from approaching their destination.

  Eventually th
ey came to it: a junkyard set in a desert hollow, fenced in to discourage thieves. Parker could discern the remains of refrigerators and stoves, computers and microwaves, the husks of old vehicles, and what might have been the carcass of a light aircraft. The yard was lit in a similar fashion to the road, down to the guttering of the bulbs. Here, though, further illumination was provided by the headlights of two more Chevys, along with the full array of a pair of cruisers from the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office, and an additional set of high-intensity lamps. All the beams were directed toward one spot, where a chest freezer stood isolated from a small mountain of white goods.

  They pulled up at the gate of the junkyard, in a spot beside a vehicle from the Maricopa County Office of the State Medical Examiner. Parker got out just in time to prevent Crist from opening the door for him. Next thing, the agent would have been offering to lift him down.

  Parker wondered how long all these people had been here. He counted at least thirty individuals, including deputies, federal agents, and the ME’s staff, and that didn’t include a handful of Latino workers who sat or stood at one remove, sheltered by a makeshift lean-to as they watched in silence all that was unfolding. A couple of the Latinos looked more miserable than the rest, and Parker guessed they might be undocumented, and therefore cursing their bad luck at being caught up in some gringo business that would ultimately bring them to the attention of la migra. Behind them, a deputy slouched against the hood of a cruiser, his arms folded, making sure everyone stayed where they were, for now. A plastic picnic table inside the gates was littered with the remains of meals from McDonald’s, probably bought in Gila Bend for those on the scene. At least they’d fed the workers, too: Parker could see bags folded neatly beside the Latinos, and a couple were still sipping sodas.

  Parker sniffed the air. It smelled of chemicals, and tasted metallic. There was a feeling of inertia about the scene, a sense of those involved being trapped in limbo, like worshippers anticipating the arrival of a final votary before the ceremony can proceed. From the looks he was receiving, Parker thought he might well be that visitant.