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A Book of Bones, Page 2

John Connolly

  Skal and Crist led him through the gates, past a prefabricated hut where a hairless man, his skin tempered to terra-cotta by the sun, sat in a plastic chair, smoking a cheroot while a pair of mongrel dogs dozed at his feet. In the doorway of the hut lounged a Latina who looked too young to be in the company of such a person, unless she was his daughter. The manner of her dress, which barely concealed her breasts, and the way she was using the toes of her right foot to stroke the inside of his left thigh, her ankle nudging his groin, suggested otherwise.

  The man removed the cheroot from his mouth as Parker walked by.

  “Are you the one they’ve been waiting for?” he called out.


  “About fucking time.”

  Parker felt Skal bristle beside him.

  “Deviant,” Skal muttered, as they moved on. “Earlier, he closed his office door and had sex with that girl while some of us were drinking iced teas.”

  “At least he did close the door,” said Parker.

  “We told him he could go home,” said Crist, “but he insisted on staying. Said he wanted to be sure we didn’t steal anything.”

  “Well, you can’t be too careful,” said Parker.

  “We’re federal agents.”

  “Like I said, you can’t be too careful.”

  They advanced deeper into the yard, and Parker saw Ross. The SAC was speaking with a trio of agents in windbreakers who stood in the shadow of a small tower of oil drums. Farther back, the bodies of innumerable cars lay discarded like great skulls, and Parker picked out a second road winding through the premises from a distant gate to the west. The yard was much larger than it had first appeared, descending in a series of declivities to a massive pit at its heart, where Parker glimpsed a fire burning. Previously hidden from view, but visible as he advanced, were more huts, each devoted to a particular item, or a selection of related salvaged goods: engines and exhausts; wheels and tires; glass panes of every conceivable shape and size; piles of wiring and connectors—whatever one might require, it was not inconceivable that it might be found somewhere in here, as long as one was familiar with the order of the place. Yet every scavenged part bore a patina of sand and dust, and seen up close the rubber on the tires had hardened and degraded to such an extent as to render them useless. No car appeared to be of more recent vintage than the end of the last century, and it would have been no surprise had the television screens bloomed into life to reveal only ancient and unloved shows transmitting in black and white.

  Parker turned his attention back to the chest freezer, but did not approach it. Instead he waited for Ross to conclude his conversation, and thought about finding a room for the night. He didn’t want to stay in Arizona longer than necessary. He had obligations back in Portland, not to mention the case left hanging in Houston. He’d called Ermenthal on the way from Sky Harbor, to be informed that the court hadn’t taken kindly to one of the witnesses for the prosecution vanishing into the blue while the judge was contemplating said witness’s character over coffee and a cinnamon roll. Still, it appeared that Ross had managed to give a better account of Parker than the defense, and his testimony would be heard, but the clock was ticking.

  Ross’s voice pulled Parker from his thoughts.

  “Good flight?”

  “A woman on the plane tried to pick me up.”

  “She has my sympathies.”

  Even though it had only been a couple of weeks since he and Ross last spoke face-to-face, Parker thought the FBI man had aged disproportionately during that time. New lines showed at the corners of his eyes, and his skin was mottled: illness, perhaps, or more likely stress. It was the face of a man who wasn’t sleeping enough, and when he did, dreamed unpleasant dreams.

  “You look like you need a vacation,” said Parker.

  “That’s why I came down here. I thought a little sunshine might help, and I figured it couldn’t hurt you, either.”

  “I don’t like the sun. I’m a winter person. You know, you could have just told me everything I needed to know over the phone, and saved me a trip.”

  “I don’t trust technology,” said Ross. “I’ve always preferred the personal touch.”

  Parker waited. Ross was hardly known for his warmth.


  “I think you were meant to see this. When you’re done, we’ll talk. The federal government may even spring for dinner and a drink, along with a bed for the night.”

  “I don’t eat at McDonald’s, and I’m not sharing a room.”

  “We’ll do better than fast food, if you still have an appetite, and I’ll see what we can do about upgrading you to the presidential suite.”

  Ross began walking toward the chest freezer. Parker noticed that all activity around the junkyard had ceased. The attention of agents, deputies, medical staff, workers, and the hairless man and his concubine, was now focused on him. Even the dogs roused themselves from their slumber and turned circles as they barked, until their master aimed a booted foot first at one, then the other, but failed to connect with either. Behind him, the young woman reached for his groin with her left hand and kneaded what she found there, her eyes distant and desolate.

  “I hate Arizona,” said Parker softly, before following Ross to the body.


  Far to the northeast, over land and ocean, in another country—and, perhaps, another time—a woman knelt on cold ground beneath a waning moon. Her hands were bound behind her back, and her mouth was sealed by layers of tape. She had spent the last hours breathing only through her nose, inhaling and exhaling in the shadow of suffocation. She had given up trying to make herself comprehensible through the gag. He understood what she was trying to say, and it had done her no good.

  She did not know this place. She would never know this place.

  She thought of her mother and father, of her sister, of men who had whispered her name in the dark. She saw other lives, a delicate tracery of paths not taken, of alternative existences rejected, the pattern of them like the veins beneath her skin or the buried roots of a tree. She held infants that had never been born, walked fields with sons who had no name, and consoled daughters without histories. She became unmoored from this spot, from the final moments of her life, floating backward to unmake decisions: turning right instead of left, going up instead of down, saying yes instead of no, no instead of yes, so that this other self, the one about to die, might yet be designated the phantom, an ephemeral product of errors not made but merely considered and rejected.

  I would have had children, she thought. I always wanted them. They would have had children of their own, and their babies would have made babies, but now none of this will come to pass, and how much smaller this universe will be without them.

  His footsteps moved behind her. She could hear the sound of his breathing, and smell his aftershave: masculine, and probably expensive, but not overpowering. She had liked that about him. He had seemed so clean. Perhaps he was a little uncouth in his speech, a fraction rough in his bearing, but she had been with men who boasted an education at the finest schools, men with old names and old money, while under their silk suits and their veneer of fine manners they were no better than rapists.

  I should have stayed with Simon. He was decent and honest, but I thought I wanted something more. I mistook gentleness for dullness, and kindness for weakness. I realize my error now. Late, too late.

  A hand in her hair. A knee against her back.

  Mum, I am sorry for all those times I hurt you. I am sorry for not being a better daughter. I would have tried harder, had I lived. Dad, I—

  The world changed around her. Where formerly there had been only bare ground and distant trees she saw the stones of an old church, its walls rising to encompass her, and the earth turned to flagstones against her bare legs. The chapel was a small, primitive construct, but she felt no sense of the Divine there, as though God had turned His back on it, or it had never been raised in His name to begin with, for she could
see no crosses, no Christian carvings. There were faces on the walls, but they were leering, hostile presences, born of wood and branch, tree and leaf. If they demanded worship, they offered no love in return, only the deferral of some inevitable retribution.

  And yet even they feared something more terrible than themselves.

  “You see it?” he asked. “You do, don’t you?”

  She could not help but nod.

  Yes, I see it.

  Yes, I see them.

  Daddy, oh Daddy.

  As the blade commenced its explorations, and the agony began to unfold.


  It was not the first body Parker had viewed, and certainly not in such a state of disfigurement, but he was more familiar with remains yielded by northern ground, not the fruits of this arid place. Still, he knew a little about such matters, enough to feel troubled from the moment he saw it.

  The rate of decomposition of a corpse is affected by a number of factors, but all are linked to the environment in which the remains are situated, and the way in which they were deposited. Is there water or oxygen in the vicinity? What is the temperature? Is the ground acidic? Has the body been exposed to insects, animals, or the actions of men? These are the most basic questions that must be asked when investigating the natural ruination of a deceased human being. Of these factors, the most important are temperature, insects, and depth of burial, and of these, in turn, burial may be the principal. A body interred in shallow ground will decay in a manner different from one exposed to the elements. Similarly, a deep burial will result in a singular pattern of decomposition.

  The portable lights surrounding the freezer offered Parker a clear view of the remains, but he still accepted Ross’s offer of a flashlight, and a smear of Olbas Oil for his upper lip to offer some protection from odors. The woman lay on her side at the base of the freezer, her legs drawn up against her chest, her mouth open. Parker could see no signs of clothing. As he leaned in, he discerned the recession of the lips and gums, the marbling of the skin, the bloating around the abdomen, and—even through the oil—the smell of her. Her teeth had been removed, probably with a hammer or other tool; jagged and broken edges were embedded in the jaws. Both hands were gone, the severance marks rough at the wrists, as though it might have taken a number of blows to complete the work. Parker didn’t have to ask if the teeth or hands had been found with the body. As soon as he saw the empty mouth, he knew they had been disposed of elsewhere. There would be no hope of identification using dental records or fingerprints, and DNA testing would only help if samples were available for comparison. He detected signs of insect activity—flies mostly, probably first generation. There was a crack in the floor of the freezer, large enough to admit bugs. There should have been more of them, though.

  Parker shifted position, and saw what might have been entry and exit wounds to the left of the abdomen and the upper left thigh respectively. Louis believed that he had hit Mors when he fired at her. If these were her remains, he was right.

  He switched his attention to the woman’s hair. It was silver-gray, like that of an older person, but Parker estimated that Mors was probably in her thirties, and the absence of pigmentation to her skin might have been caused by some disease of the thyroid or pituitary. The hair of the woman in the freezer was artificially colored, darkening significantly at the roots.

  Finally, he shone the light on what lay against her breast, clasped in her crossed arms. Whoever was responsible for putting her in the chest had taken the time to wrap wire around the limbs, holding the book in place. It consisted of loose pages—and the cover—of an early-twentieth-century hardcover copy of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, illustrated by Arthur Rackham. Quayle’s little joke: he had come to Maine seeking this very book, one into which had been sewn the older vellum pages he desired. Now he had left his discards.

  Parker stepped back.

  “I take it you haven’t examined the book yet?” he said.

  “Haven’t touched it,” said Ross. “I thought we’d wait until we got her inside. Thoughts?”

  “Isn’t that why you have a medical examiner?” Parker looked past Ross to where two of the ME’s team were waiting by their vehicle. He understood now why they had brought their largest truck: the freezer would be coming with the body. They wouldn’t risk removing her from it out here.

  “The ME’s been and gone, so I know what she thinks, for now. I’d like to hear what you think.”

  Parker killed the flashlight. A discovery of this kind would usually have fallen under the remit of the Homicide Unit of the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office, but they were unlikely to object if the FBI was willing to take a potential homicide off their hands.

  “She wasn’t put in the chest immediately after she died,” said Parker. “I know enough about the actions of moisture and humidity to make that assertion. The body was exposed to the elements, maybe for a couple of weeks, before being placed inside. There are signs of disturbance, although I can’t say for sure if they occurred when the freezer was dumped here, or before. I’ll be curious to read the entomology report, because I’d have expected more insect activity. It’s odd—off, somehow.”

  “Do you think this is Mors?”

  “The gunshot wounds and the presence of the book might suggest it. Even allowing for anomalies, the body looks to be in about the right state of decay.”


  Parker hit the flashlight again, and shone it on the woman’s head. In the aftermath of the killings in Indiana and Maine, descriptions of Mors and Quayle had been red-flagged to every law enforcement office in the country. Mors’s hair was certainly her most identifiable feature.

  “I don’t believe Mors dyed her hair.”


  “None, or not much beyond seeing her up close, and then only for a short time. The night was dark, and she had just kicked me in the balls, so I admit I was distracted, but her eyebrows were a similar color to her hair, and she had very fine down on her upper lip and her cheeks, as though someone had sprinkled silver filings over her skin. This woman’s face looks smooth.”

  “Not definitive.”

  “No,” Parker admitted, “not at all. How was the body discovered?”

  “Last night, a male caller contacted the owner of the yard—that’s Mr. Lagnier, the fornicator, who you probably met as you entered. The caller said he’d noticed a chest freezer when he was searching for stove parts a few days back, and thought it might have an element worth scavenging. He asked Lagnier to set it aside so he could take a closer look.”

  The light was fading rapidly, and the temperature was falling: not so much yet as to be uncomfortable, but enough to be noticeable. The sky was cloudless, and already stars were visible. A slight breeze had arisen, blowing the smell of smoke in Parker’s direction. It would cling to his clothes, he thought, but not like the burning of wood. These fumes were unclean.

  “What are the chances Lagnier killed her?” said Parker, if only for the sake of asking.

  “Pretty low, unless he’s either massively dumb or incredibly clever. My sense is he’s smart, but not that smart.”

  Parker took in the junkyard again.

  “It doesn’t look as though business is booming.”

  “I doubt he has an oligarch’s tastes, but the Maricopa County sheriff believes Lagnier may be supplementing his income by unlawful means.”

  This close to the border, it had to be at least one of three commodities: drugs, guns, or people.

  “Not worth the bust?” said Parker.

  “As I said already, Lagnier’s smart.”

  “But also, like you said, not that smart.”

  Ross put on his best poker face.

  “He has a rabbi?” said Parker.


  “One of yours?”


  So Lagnier was being protected by another agency. Down here, that meant the Drug Enforcement Administration or the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, F
irearms and Explosives, or maybe even Immigration and Customs Enforcement, although informants like Lagnier weren’t really ICE’s style. Under the deal, Lagnier probably kept a listening ear for large-scale movements of contraband, and in return was allowed some leeway in his own affairs. Not guns—that would be too risky for all involved—which left only people and low-level narcotics.

  “Did Lagnier call the police when he found the body?”

  “Eventually, but I can’t say for sure how much time elapsed between the discovery of it and his coming forward. We got a heads-up to say we’d be hearing from him about ten minutes before he called.”

  Ross softly whistled a couple of bars of the Batman theme, confirming the source of Lagnier’s protection. He was under the wing of the ATF: the Batmen, the damned rev’nooers. Lagnier would first have contacted his rabbi after finding the body.

  “Do you mind if I talk to him?” said Parker.

  “No,” said Ross. “But I wouldn’t go making a habit of it—not that you’re likely to. I think you’ll find one conversation with Mr. Lagnier is more than sufficient for a lifetime.”

  * * *

  LAGNIER HAD MADE A concession to the departure of the day’s warmth by donning a filthy white cardigan. He had also lit himself a fresh cheroot, which he smoked as he leaned against the doorframe of his office, watching Parker and Ross approach. His dogs had resumed their station at his feet, joined by the woman, who had recommenced her rhythmic squeezing of his groin, or perhaps had never stopped.

  Seen up close, Lagnier presented an even more unprepossessing figure than when viewed at a distance, and Parker hadn’t thought much of him then. The bulb above the door revealed a skin covered in tiny lumps, like the carcass of a plucked chicken, and his eyes were a faded brown, as though exposure to the desert sun was progressively draining them of color. His bare pate was without blemish or indentation, resembling a skull stripped of flesh prior to being painted. The teeth that gripped the cheroot were too white and even to be natural. His limbs were emaciated, and his waist small. His clothing hung from his frame as those of one being eaten away by illness, but who refuses to concede that death may take him before he can grow back into them again. Parker estimated that he was in his fifties, but it was hard to be certain, so strange was his aspect. Meanwhile, the woman sitting beside him was even younger than she had first appeared. She could have been out of her teens, but not by much, and Parker and Ross might as well not have been present for all the attention she gave them.