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Authors: Tim Waggoner

Beneath the Bones

BOOK: Beneath the Bones
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Beneath the Bones

Tim Waggoner

a division of F+W Media, Inc.



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Night wind. The rustle-skitter of dead, dry leaves on pavement. Cold, white stars scattered across a clear night sky, pale-yellow quarter moon hanging in their midst — distant, remote, and uncaring. Birdsong, cricket chirp, and the Doppler-rush of traffic passing on the highway close by. Still early in the evening, so keep to the shadows. Stay unseen. The parking lot, poorly lit by the glow of a single fluorescent light set atop a wooden telephone pole, is empty, save for a single car — an old Ford with a dented front quarter panel. Good. The more shadows, the better.

Show time.

• • •

Debbie Coulter was getting ready to shut off the lights when she heard knocking at the door. She glanced at the clock behind the counter and saw it was 9:18, almost twenty minutes after closing. She’d locked the front door at nine and turned off the neon sign outside so that CAFFEINE CAFÉ no longer blazed into the darkness, but she’d left the lights on while she finished cleaning up, like she usually did. Rhine was one of the largest towns in Cross County, due primarily to its proximity to Route 75, and truckers often detoured off the highway to fill their thermoses with Debbie’s rich dark roast coffee, which was pretty damned tasty, if she did say so herself. It might be one of her regular customers at the door, in desperate need of a caffeine jolt to keep him awake while he drove through the night. Of course, her regulars knew that she closed at nine every night. The café was mostly a one-woman operation since her husband Les had passed away a few years back, and while she employed several local teenagers to help her out, she couldn’t get any of them to stay later than eight, especially on the weekends. But that was okay. She didn’t mind closing by herself. Rather liked the peace and quiet. But just as her regulars knew the Caffeine Café closed at nine, they also knew that Debbie had been known to unlock the door and let them in if she was still around and hadn’t poured the leftover coffee down the drain yet. Debbie hated to disappoint her regulars, and while she liked quiet, she didn’t like it
much. And she
have some coffee left….

The knocking came again, louder this time, insistent.

“All right! Just hold on a minute!”

She put down her spray cleaner and rag, came out from behind the counter and walked to the front door. She was breaking in a new pair of walking shoes, and their rubber soles squeaked on the cracked, yellowed tile floor as she walked. As she did at least a hundred times a day, she told herself that she was finally going to start fixing up the damned place — put in a new floor, get new chairs and tables, replace those godawful orange curtains. Maybe she’d start next spring. By summer, definitely. Sure, she’d been making the same vow for at least a decade, but this time she really meant it.

She stopped before the glass door and reached for the lock, but her hand froze halfway. Taped to the outside of the glass was a small poster, turned inward so she could see the photo and writing on it. Looking back at her was the grainy photocopied image of a smiling teenaged girl. A Homecoming picture, Debbie recalled, or part of one anyway. The girl’s date had been cut away and her face had been enlarged, hence the picture’s graininess. Debbie hadn’t seen the girl’s face for almost twenty years, but she knew it as well as her own. Better, in fact, for it had been burned into her memory — along with three others. She saw those faces whenever she closed her eyes, saw them in her dreams, and now she was seeing this one taped to the front door of her café, her own reflection in the glass superimposed over the image.


The girl smiling, eyes bright with joy and hope. Below the picture, these words:

MARIANNE HENDRICKSON, 17, LAST SEEN SATURDAY, MAY 11 OUTSIDE THE TASTEE FREEZE IN RHINE, OHIO. IF YOU HAVE ANY INFORMATION ABOUT HER DISAPPEARANCE, PLEASE CALL THE CROSS COUNTY SHERIFF’S DEPARTMENT. The sheriff’s phone number came next. No e-mail address, though. The poster had been made eighteen years ago, before the world got wired, and well before Amber Alerts.

Emotions surged through Debbie — fear, anger, but strongest of all was shame. Her hand snatched out of its own accord and disengaged the lock with a single savage twist. She gripped the handle, shoved the door open, and leaned out into the night.

“You think this is funny, you son-of-a-bitch? Do you?” She yelled so loud her throat felt instantly raw. “You come here and I’ll show you something funny!” She paused, listened, heard only cars going by on the highway, a soft whisper-rush like the sound of waves breaking on some distant dark shore. “What’s wrong? Don’t have the stones to show yourself?”

Still nothing. Only the sound of her own breathing, ragged and rough. She was down to half a pack a day, but the way her lungs and heart were going now, she knew she should quit screwing around and stop smoking altogether, unless she wanted to drop dead from a massive coronary like Lester.

“Goddamn kids,” she muttered. She reached around the door, took hold of the poster, and tore it off the glass with a single vicious swipe. The edges where the flier had been taped ripped and triangular pieces of paper remained stuck to the glass, but she didn’t care. She’d remove them later. Right now all she wanted to do was get the hell out of there and go home. She stepped back inside, closed the door, and locked it. She started to crumple the poster, but something made her stop. She walked over to the counter, sat on a stool, spread the paper out before her, and stared at Marianne’s now wrinkled paper face. The poor girl had never lived to get actual wrinkles, though, had she? She’d died young and pretty, body sleek, skin smooth … where the knife hadn’t touched, at any rate.

Every few years a new batch of kids turned into teenagers, and there were always some who decided to get their rocks off by tormenting the mother of Carl the Cutter. The trees in her yard had been TP’d so many times over the years that she’d finally had the goddamned things cut down. Enough eggs had been smashed on her windows to make breakfast for every starving Third World orphan for at least a year. Plastic skulls left in her mailbox, rubber knives dropped on her doorstep, and last Halloween some bastards had draped a shredded blow-up doll drenched in red paint over the CAFFEINE CAFÉ sign. But no one had ever done anything like this before.

Debbie ran her fingers over the wrinkled surface of Marianne’s face.

This was worse than all those other times, for while they were essentially thoughtless cruelty, this … this had taken planning. Finding a copy of the poster, waiting for her to be alone in the café, taping the poster to the door when she wasn’t looking … It was the amount of forethought put into this that made it cut so deep, that reopened wounds that Debbie knew would never fully heal, no matter how long she lived.

My baby paid for his sins
, she thought.
He’s been in the ground six years now. Why can’t they let him rest in whatever peace he’s found?

Debbie stared at Marianne’s grainy black-and-white face one last time before crumpling the poster up once more, this time squeezing it into a compact wad. She pushed off the stool and, holding the wadded-up poster in a fist so tight it shook, she walked back to the front door. Without bothering to look outside to see if anyone was watching, she flipped off the light switches on the wall, and the café plunged into darkness. Not completely, though. Fluorescent light filtered in from the parking lot, and the lights were still on in the kitchen. She headed there now, fist still tight and shaking, knuckles white, fingernails digging into the soft flesh of her palm.

The kitchen was mostly done for the night. It’d been slow this evening, and she’d managed to get the bulk of the cleaning finished around eight. There was only a little bit still to do, but she didn’t feel like working any more tonight. Screw it. She’d come in an hour earlier than usual tomorrow and take care of it then.

She gave the poster-wad one final squeeze and raised her arm, prepared to toss it into the large plastic trash container sitting in the corner next to the fridge. But she stopped herself. The container was empty. She’d taken the trash out to the Dumpster already, and if she threw the poster in there, it would be waiting for her when she returned in the morning. She knew it was dumb, but she couldn’t stand the thought of Marianne’s wadded-up face lying there. She’d obsess over it all night, and she knew she’d have a hard enough time getting any sleep as it was. The last thing she wanted to do was lie awake and stare up at the ceiling while she thought about this goddamned poster as the hours slowly ticked away toward dawn. But she sure as hell wasn’t about to take the damned thing with her, either.

She walked over the sink and held the crumpled wad of paper between her thumb and forefinger. With her other hand she reached into the front pocket of her jeans and brought out her lighter. She smiled grimly, glad that she hadn’t gotten round to quitting smoking yet. She pinched the paper ball by a loose corner and held it out over the sink. She flicked the lighter to call forth a flame and stared for a moment at its flickering orange glow. The tiny fire seemed warm and comforting, almost cheerful somehow. Then slowly she moved the lighter until it was less than an inch beneath the wadded-up flier, and she watched as the paper on the bottom began to turn brown, then black, its edges curling, turning to ash, pieces breaking away and drifting gently down into the sink. She raised the lighter a fraction of an inch higher, and the remainder of the crumpled flier caught flame.

At that precise instant, the sound of glass shattering cut the silence. Startled, Debbie turned to glance over her shoulder, forgetting that she was holding a piece of flaming paper. She yelped in pain as heat seared her fingers, and she dropped the blazing wad into the empty sink. The crumpled flier hit the bottom of the metal basin with a soft ringing thud, rolled to a stop, and continued burning, flames reducing Marianne’s photocopied face to black ash.

Normally, Debbie would’ve stuck her burnt fingers beneath the tap and turned on the cold water full blast. But she barely registered her burn. She was too busy holding her breath and listening. She couldn’t see out into the front of the café from here at the sink, especially with the outer lights off, but she thought she heard a soft scrabble-scuff of movement. For an instant she stood like that — burnt hand lifted as if it were still holding the crumpled flier, head turned to look back over her shoulder — frozen with indecision. Should she call 911? Should she make a run for it? She tried to remember where her cell phone was. In her purse, she thought, but where the hell was
Here in the kitchen? Out in front? She
knew where her purse was,
lost track of it. But for the life of her, she couldn’t recall where it was.

For the life of her
. Unfortunate choice of words.

She heard a soft metallic
, and cold fear twisted her stomach. She realized then what was happening. Someone — probably the joker who’d plastered the flier to the front door — had broken the glass, reached through, and was disengaging the lock. Whoever it was, and whatever he or she wanted, they were coming inside.

BOOK: Beneath the Bones
12.21Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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