I sat in the sun on a wrought iron bench on the town green on a lovely summer afternoon that was perfect for relaxing. Unfortunately, I was waiting, not relaxing. I wanted Dobson, the college administration building across the street, to be as empty as possible before I went inside, but I couldn’t delay too long because if everybody left, the building would be locked. I checked my watch for the umpteenth time and saw another text from my best friend Sid nagging me to get on with it. Okay, time to make the attempt.
I whispered, “I’m going in,” and then sauntered over to the building and up the granite steps. At least I meant it to be a saunter—it might have been more of a scurry.
I pushed the door open, looked around, then stepped into the quiet building. I’d hoped to get past the main office unseen, but I heard a friendly voice from the open door to the left.
“Hi, Georgia. Hope you don’t need anything that requires signatures. Everybody but us has gone home for the day.” Mo Heedles, whose formal title I didn’t know but which should have been something like “She Who Knows Where All the Bodies Are Buried,” was leaning against the reception desk with a cup of coffee in one hand. Two other admin people I knew just enough to nod to were examining the contents of a Dunkin Donuts box.
“Nope, just wanted to use the ladies room, if that’s okay.”
“Knock yourself out. Just be warned, it’s a little smelly in that part of the building. I don’t know if somebody made a mess in the men’s room or if somebody left some food in their trashcan before going on vacation, but maintenance hasn’t cleared it out yet.”
“We called them Monday morning,” one of the other admins said. “All they did was go into the men’s room and say it’s not in
“They are kind of overwhelmed these days, so we can wait,” Mo said. “As long as I don’t have to clean up the mess.”
“Don’t be so sure,” the other admin said darkly. “If those layoffs really happen—”
“Enough with the doom and gloom. It’s summer and we have donut holes—one of which better be a jelly-filled. Life is good!”
“Enjoy.” I started to head down the hall.
“Oh, Georgia?” Mo said.
“Stop by when you’re done—you can have a donut.”
“Thanks, but no, thanks. I’m heading in the other direction, and I’ll let myself out the back door.”
“Your loss.” Mo took a bite. “So what’s with the suitcase?”
I’d been hoping she wouldn’t notice, but like all good admin people, she had an eye for details. To be fair, it was pretty noticeable— a hard-sided rolling bag with a wavy striped pattern that the sale tag had identified as antelope, but which always reminded me of bacon. “It’s to carry my skeleton.”
The other two women goggled, but Mo just nodded. “Of course it is. Have a good one.”
“You, too.” And this time I did make my escape.
I’d been in Dobson a few times before, so I knew the way. There were half a dozen glass-fronted doors along the tiled hallway. All were closed and dark, which was fine with me. Gorgeous summer evenings were made for skipping out early, especially on college campuses, and it meant I didn’t encounter anybody else. On the bad side, it meant that my footsteps echoed, and combined with a couple of burned-out light bulbs overhead, it was a little creepy.
The hall ended at a flight of stairs, with corridors to the right and left. I went to the ladies’ room, the first door on the left. The light was off, which I figured was a good indication that nobody was inside, but I checked each stall to be sure. Then, just in case Mo or either of her friends came to use the facilities, I pushed the metal trashcan in front of the bathroom door so it would clatter if anybody opened it. Then I went into the stall at the very back and unzipped the suitcase.
I hadn’t been lying. I really did have a skeleton in there.
What I hadn’t told Mo was that it was a living skeleton. Or at least a walking, talking one. The living part is a philosophical question skeleton named Sid first showed up at our door over twenty years before and moved into our attic. Whatever else Sid is, he’s my best friend, and on this outing, he was my partner in crime.
Sid assembled himself quickly and silently in an uncanny process that makes no sense, then looked around. “Why are we in the bathroom?”
“I just wanted to make sure we’re on the same page.”
“Georgia!” He gave me an aggravated look, which isn’t easy with a bare skull. “I know the drill. I go in, I look around the office for obvious clues, and if there’s a computer, I root for information. But I don’t spend any more time than I have to. You stay in the hall and keep watch. Twenty minutes tops.”
“I don’t know when they lock up or when the janitors come by, and I don’t have a good excuse for being in that part of the building.”
“Fifteen,” he agreed. “Now let’s get moving!”
He collapsed back into the suitcase, with only his hand staying together to zip it closed, and after flushing the toilet for paranoia’s sake and returning the trashcan to where it belonged, I rolled Sid back out into the hall.
There was still nobody in sight, and I didn’t hear any footsteps, so I opened yet another glass-fronted door as quietly as I could, closed it just as quietly behind me, and started lugging the suitcase with its cargo of twenty pounds of bone up the stairs. There was an elevator in an out-of-the way corner of the building, but I knew it rattled as much as Sid did when he was irritated, and I didn’t want to attract attention.
Mo had been right about the smell, which got worse the further up the stairs I went. I wondered if one of the power outages that had been plaguing the campus all summer had blown out the fuse on an office refrigerator. The stench I was trying to avoid inhaling was awfully rank for a single spoiled lunch.
There was another unlocked door at the head of the stairs and then doors to the right and the left that led to suites of offices. Neither showed signs of life, which was what I’d expected to be the case. According to what I’d gleaned via the campus grapevine, everybody in both the financial aid office and human resources was either on vacation, on maternity leave, or working remotely, leaving the floor deserted. I didn’t blame the maintenance crew for not wasting their time cleaning when nobody was around, but the smell was definitely coming from up there. Unfortunately, it was worse closer to the human resources office, which was our target.
“Can you smell that?” I whispered. Of course, it made no sense that Sid could smell, since he had neither nose nor nerve endings, but he insisted that he could, in fact, smell, so who was I to argue?
“Not from in here.” He unzipped the suitcase partway and stuck his nasal cavity close to the resulting gap. “That’s nasty. What do you think? Rotten fruit?”
“More like rotten eggs. Are you going to be able to stand it?” I could hold my nose, but Sid didn’t have that option.
“Sure. I just won’t breathe while I’m in here.”
“You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din.” Of course, breathing wasn’t optional for me the way it was for Sid.
“Is the department door locked?”
I was reaching for the knob to check when Sid said, “No touching!”
“Right, sorry.” Now that we were reasonably sure we were alone, Sid would do the honors—he didn’t have fingerprints to worry about.
Sid unzipped the rest of the way, pulled himself out of the suitcase and back together, and tried to turn the knob. “It’s locked.”
“Can you open it?”
“Easy peasy,” he said, pulling a set of lock picks from inside the suitcase. My locksmith sister Deborah probably hadn’t realized that teaching my daughter Madison how to pick locks was tantamount to teaching Sid. Madison had shared everything she’d learned with him, and he’d promptly ordered his own picks online. “You really should learn to do this, Georgia. It’s not that hard.”
Despite his assurance, it seemed to take an awful long time to get the door open. Or maybe it just seemed like a long time because I kept looking down the stairs, worried that somebody would hear us and come to see what was going on.
Finally there was a loud click, and Sid said, “Nailed it!” He opened the door, and cold air streamed out.
“Brr!” I said. “Wouldn’t you know that a department with everybody on vacation would be the one with overachieving air conditioners?” The window unit in my classroom had gone out twice. “Not to mention the waste of electricity.”
“You can complain about it later,” Sid said. “Come on.”
I followed him into the human resources department, pulling the empty suitcase along.
There were four more closed doors: three offices labeled with names and one marked File Room.
“Here we go,” Sid said, using his picks on one of the office doors. This lock was easier to deal with, which was a relief, but unfortunately, the smell seemed to be coming from that office. “I’m going in.”
“Remember what I said. Get in, look around fast, get out.”
“Got it.” He stepped inside.
Between the cold, the horrid stink, and the fear of being
caught, I was hoping that Sid would be swift, but I was surprised when he came out in under two minutes. “That was fast. Did you find something?”
“Don’t go in there.”
“I wasn’t going to—”
Then I looked at him.
He shouldn’t have been able to look like anything but bone-colored, but somehow he seemed paler than usual, and his bones were so loose he was nearly falling apart. “What’s wrong?”
“He’s in there. At least I think it’s him.”
“Did he see you?” I said stupidly.
He slowly shook his skull, and only then did I realize what it
was we’d been smelling.
Five Days Earlier
The cabin I was renting that summer was far from ideal. It was out in the middle of nowhere and could only be reached via a poorly paved track through the woods, which made for a long commute to my current job. Once you arrived, it was to find cramped bedrooms, a kitchen the owner had furnished at a time when turquoise blue appliances had been the fashion, and a noisy generator. Still, the advantages outweighed the disadvantages. The living room was plenty roomy, we each had our own private cramped bedroom, and thanks to a business school with an executive retreat center nearby, the internet access was solid. Best of all, it was next to a small lake that was mostly surrounded by undeveloped forest. There were three other cabins with access to the water, but they were only inhabited on weekends, meaning that from midday Monday to late Friday afternoon, the lake was our private swimming hole.
That Wednesday evening in July, there was a lot of splashing going on as Madison, Sid, and I played in the water. We’d intended to keep at it until the mosquitos came out but were interrupted by Madison’s Akita, Byron, who started barking as he ran toward the front of the cabin.
“Dive!” I said to Sid.
“Diving!” He instantly sank down into the water, where he would stay until we gave him the signal that it was safe to come out.
Like the cabin, a skeletal roommate has advantages and disadvantages. On the plus side, since he doesn’t breathe, there’s no limit to how long he can stay on the bottom of the lake; his meatless physique doesn’t appeal to any fish that might swim by looking for a snack; and without skin, he doesn’t have to worry about getting pruney. On the minus side, there’s that whole don’t-let-anybody-see-him thing.
Once we realized it might be possible for Sid to go swimming for the first time in his life, or what passed for a life, we’d had to plan for the occasional unexpected visitor. Hence Sid’s immediate retreat into the depths.
A moment later, Byron escorted a girl I didn’t recognize from around the front of the cabin. She was wearing a royal blue polo shirt tucked into her khaki shorts, her sneakers were as white as if she’d just bought them on her way to the cabin, her medium-brown hair was tightly braided down her back, and her bangs looked as if they could give straight line lessons to a ruler. I guessed she was sixteen or seventeen years old, close to Madison’s age.
A moment later, a woman followed them into the yard, hurrying a bit to catch up. She had curly hair the same shade as the girl’s and was wearing blue jeans that might as well have had MOM embroidered on the back pocket.
I looked at Madison to see if she knew either of the intruders, but she shook her head.
“Hello?” I said. “Can I help you?”
The girl said, “Nobody answered the door, but I saw the dog so I came out here.”
“I’m sorry,” the woman added. “She kind of got away from me.”
I waited a moment for more of an explanation, but when none came, I repeated, “Can I help you?”
“I’m looking for somebody,” the younger one said. She glanced at Madison, then back at me. “Are either of you Skalle Beinagrind?”
“No, I don’t think I know anybody named . . .” I wasn’t about to try repeating what she’d said. “I don’t know anybody with that name. You must have the wrong house.”
“It’s a Scandinavian name. I checked online, but I could be pronouncing it incorrectly.”
“Well, I’m Georgia Thackery, and this is my daughter Madison, so we’re not even close. The dog is Byron.”
“Skalle isn’t an IRL name.”
“She means ‘in real life,’” the woman I assumed was her mother explained. “Jen is talking about the name her friend uses while playing an online game.”
“What game?” Madison asked.
“Runes of Legend,” Jen said.
“I’ve heard of it, but I’ve never played. It’s an MMORPG, right?” In case I hadn’t caught all the letters, Madison added, “That’s a Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game.”
I knew the term, though I was more of a Candy Crush kind of gal. “Are you sure you have the right address?”
“I don’t have an address, but I do have a picture.” She reached into a blue canvas messenger bag slung on her shoulder and retrieved a photo. “That’s the view from where I’m standing.” Then she looked at the picture again, and stepped three steps to the left. “Precisely from where I’m standing.” She handed it to me.
I looked at the picture, and as far as I could tell, it really had been taken from that spot, but I hadn’t taken it. “Madison?”
My daughter took a peek. “It’s not mine. I sent a couple of selfies to Samantha and Liam, but I took them from closer to the dock.”
I gave the girl back her picture. “I’m sorry, but we didn’t take this, and we don’t know anybody by that name. We’re just renting the place for the summer, so maybe it was taken by the owner or a previous tenant.”
She squinted across the lake. “The trees are almost exactly the same height in the picture as they are now, and the leaves are the same color. It couldn’t possibly be that exact a match over multiple seasons, could it? Is anybody else living here?”
“Jen!” her mother said in an exasperated tone. “The lady already said your friend Scaley or Scully or whatever-his-name-is isn’t here.”
“It’s Skalle,” Jen said, “not Skully.”
I tried not to show it, but thanks to Jen’s mother’s mispronunciation, I had a strong hunch that I knew who Skalle Beinagrind was in real life. Well, in real existence. “I’m afraid . . . Jen, is it?”
“I’m sorry,” the woman said. “This is my daughter Jen Cater-Brame, and I’m Judy Cater.”
“Pleased to meet you both,” I said, “but I’m afraid I don’t know what to tell you. Madison and I are the only people living in the cabin this summer.” Sid was not, by the strictest definition, alive.
“Have you had any guests?”
“Jen!” her mother said again, but I thought the best way to get rid of them was to answer her questions.
I said, “No one who play Runes of Legend.” My parents had come up for a couple of weekends, and my sister had been up once, but none of them were gamers.
“This doesn’t make sense,” Jen said. “This is definitely the lake in the picture, and Skalle Beinagrind definitely resides in this region.”
I probably shouldn’t have, since I wasn’t supposed to have any idea who Skalle Beinagrind was, but I had to ask, “Is there some particular reason you need to find him?”
“I need his help.”
“His help with what?”
“With a case. You see, in real life, Skalle is a detective.”
That’s when I decided that as soon as I got Sid out of the lake, I was going to push him right back in.