Excerpt from Beneath Bone Lake

Chapter One

“The very emphasis of the commandment: Thou shalt not kill, makes it certain that we are descended from an endlessly long chain of generations of murderers, whose love of murder was in their blood as it is perhaps also in ours.”
—Sigmund Freud

The boatman’s paddle dug deep beneath the moss-green surface, biting and twisting like a switchblade’s killing thrust. Pulse thrummed and muscles burned as he dragged the canoe forward, threading through a swamp-dank maze of pale trees, the ghost sentries of a forest flooded years before. Above, the skeletal branches reached skyward into silver, their bony fingers veiled in Spanish moss and predawn mist.

A harsh cry heralded a white egret’s low flap over the water, and a higher-pitched, more melodic twitter warned that the sun was close to rising. With a glance down at his watch, he swore, then flipped away the cigarette he’d been smoking. He had to get moving, get the hell out of  here, because cold or not, the damned bass fisherman would be out at first light. He couldn’t take the chance that the silent incursion of an electric trolling motor would bring one close enough to notice that he carried no tackle—close enough to hear the splash as his loathsome cargo slipped over the canoe’s side.

Easier said than done, he soon learned. Sweat erupted and his back screamed as he hauled and cursed, dragged and swore. He might have given up then, put ashore somewhere, and abandoned the old boat with its grisly cargo. But he had given his word to do this right, and that alone meant something to him. Separated him from the animals whose instincts ruled them, from those hollow beings who called themselves men and women but were, he knew, nothing more than shadow. Including that shadow to which he’d bound himself for the duration of this contract.

Finally, he thought to make a lever of his paddle. Using a crossbar for a fulcrum, he wedged the blade beneath the plastic-shrouded lower torso, then grunted with effort as he pushed down on the handle. At long last, his burden shifted to fl op heavily, its shoeless feet disappearing among dark-olive wavelets. Where the bound and weighted legs went, the body clumsily followed, the head banging a final, sickening thwoppp against the aluminum hull before it splashed down.

The canoe rocked dangerously, threatening to flip until he shifted from his knees to sit fl at on the boat’s bottom. Wincing as his pants wicked up moisture from an inch or so of cold, mud-and-blood seepage, he peered at the bubbles fizzing to the water’s surface and stared deeper to detect—or imagine he detected—pale fingers fl uttering. A farewell wave that swiftly vanished into the murk beneath Bone Lake.

He heaved a tired sigh, then turned the canoe back toward the spot where he would pierce the hull and send it to the bottom. Amid the nearby lily pads, a pair of eyes sank and a tail flipped—a huge gator’s.

The boatman started at the sight, then offered a wry smile . . .  and a little wishful thinking, colored with an accent he turned on and off at will. “Today’s breakfast’s on me, big boy. You be sure’n eat hearty now, you hear?”

Then he gave a tight nod, acknowledging the only kind of partner a man could trust to keep his secrets, the only kind he knew for sure he’d never have to kill.

April 4

As the plane touched down in Dallas, a wave of pure elation buoyed Ruby Monroe’s spirits. Elation fused with indescribable relief.

Despite her nervous stomach, she’d sailed right through customs in Atlanta. Breezed through with her possessions and boarded the connection that would take her home. After a year spent working as a contract bus driver shuttling personnel around Iraq, she would finally be free to trade that sandbox for Zoe’s, to hug and kiss the four-year- old daughter she had missed so desperately.

While the plane taxied toward the terminal, Ruby ignored the canned warning to keep her seat belt fastened. Instead, she jerked her backpack from the space beneath the seat in front of her and slid forward, her muscles drawn like bowstrings, tensed for the moment they could carry her into the heaven of SpaghettiOs and storybooks and Zoe’s endless schemes to drag out tuck- ins.

Her daughter’s phone conversations might have teemed with “Aunt Misty took me for a pony  ride” and “Aunt Misty braided my hair,” but Ruby was certain Zoe had missed the only parent she’d ever known. Ruby vowed to make the separation up to her—to put this past year in the rearview of their lives and do her best to forget it.

And she would forget, the moment she made public the information she had. She wished she could do more. Wished she could risk going forward with her suspicions regarding her employer, DeserTek. But her family’s future had to come fi rst, so she planned to drop the item she’d brought into a mailbox and move on.

The instant the plane stopped rolling, other passengers—nearly all of them in front of her—popped out of their seats and went for the overhead bins to wrestle winter coats and carry-ons and ostriches and elephants down into her path. Ruby, all of fi ve-three on her tiptoes and a light weight besides, had no luck pushing her way forward, and by the time she thought to play the just-back- from-Iraq card, it was entirely too late. Though a few sympathetic souls allowed her to squeeze past them, there was no breaking up the bottleneck. Shifting anxiously, she fought for patience, prayed for release, and did her best to keep from swearing.

After two centuries and an epoch, she squeezed out the exit and bolted down the Jetway—until a large woman huffing hard behind a walker blocked her path. Skidding to a stop, Ruby whimpered, but since she’d been raised far too southern to say anything, she forced herself to wait. When at last she made it to the terminal, she sprinted along the moving sidewalk, her backpack punching at her shoulder blades with each step.

“Excuse me. Sorry,” she said as she trotted toward a revolving door leading into the baggage claim area. Once inside, she scanned the crowd for the top of Misty’s golden head. No sign of her in the crowd, or Zoe, either, so Ruby jogged, heart pounding, to see which carousel would have her luggage.

After reading the information from a screen, she raced to the correct location. Grinning as she peered right and left, she wormed and jostled and apologized her way through knots of people. The conveyor buzzed and lurched to life, but by the time the fi rst few suitcases began their orbit, Ruby understood that her family wasn’t there.

Her smile withered like a cut flower.

“Probably out parking,” she guessed. Or maybe her sister, who tended to zone out to music during long drives, had missed the airport exit. Or there could be traffic, even at one thirty, since Dallas was about a million times more crowded than the East Texas hometown where they’d lived since their teens.

Doubt flickered, and Ruby felt the slow burn of annoyance. Could her sister, who was never late, have somehow lost track of the time? She knew what this day meant to Ruby. Knew this was the most important homecoming of her life.

“Damn it, Misty.” Ruby knew she had no business begrudging her sister a few minutes. For a  whole year, Misty had juggled her own classes and part-time job while seeing Zoe through skinned knees and stomach bugs, through moods that ranged from bubbly to demonic. All so Ruby could save enough to finish her nursing degree and secure her daughter’s future.

She swung her backpack off her shoulder and pulled her mobile from one pocket, then pressed the number 1 on her speed-dial. A digitized voice announced that Misty’s cell phone was no longer in service.

“Well, shit,” Ruby said, forgetting her resolution to clean up her language before coming home to Zoe.

Had to have been a mistake, Ruby decided, since she had spoken to her sister only three days earlier. As she hit redial, a fortyish man in a loosened tie and rolled-up shirtsleeves jostled past her, bumping the corner of her backpack and knocking its strap off her shoulder. Her arm jerked downward, the pack’s weight pulling the phone away from her ear.

Waving off the man’s apology, Ruby set the pack at her feet and brought her cell phone back to her ear. In time to hear the canned message repeating, maddeningly insistent.

“Come on, Misty. You  couldn’t get the stupid bill paid?” Indebted to her or not, Ruby felt like throttling her younger sister for the lapse. It wasn’t as if Misty didn’t have the money; Ruby had given her access to her bank account so she could replace the leaking roof and keep up with Zoe’s day care. With Ruby covering the utilities as well, the least Misty could have done was send the payments on time. And without a landline at the lake house, Ruby had no other way to reach her sister.

The bright notes of a child’s voice caught Ruby’s attention. Relief bubbling through her, she looked around eagerly. Her breath hitched at the sight of the man who’d bumped her scooping up a giggling, red-haired toddler who threw her chubby arms around his neck.

With a sigh, Ruby turned away and reached down to snag her backpack’s strap, then froze. Shit! She’d taken her eyes off it only for a moment. Heart thumping, she looked around frantically, glancing from an older woman to two teenagers to several people she’d seen aboard the plane.

“Did anyone pick up my backpack?” she asked loudly. “Did someone accidentally grab the wrong—?”

She saw several nervous glances. A few people looked around, too, half pretending they’d know her pack from anybody  else’s. But no one made eye contact, with the exception of a rumpled-looking man who nodded toward an airport security officer and said, “Better go report it.”

She cursed again, unable to believe that she’d survived a war zone, only to fall victim to a random crime as soon as she set foot in Texas.

What if it isn’t random? What if management’s figured out I was the last to speak to Carrie Ann, the only person she had the chance to give . . .   Dread pierced Ruby like a needle. She knew she shouldn’t have allowed herself to get involved.

Trembling, she hurried over to the airport security officer, a squatly muscular young black man who asked her to describe her backpack, then radioed for help. After a maddeningly long interval, during which she filled out a loss report and kept a lookout for her family, the officer returned, shaking his head.

“Wish I could tell you we’d recover it, but that’s not likely. Security cameras show a skinny dude, dark hair— Caucasian or Hispanic. Jogged out with a pack that could’ve been yours, hopped into his buddies’ light-colored Chrysler—we couldn’t get the plates—and lit out. Your wallet in that backpack?”

Nodding, she handed him the form, where she’d listed all except one of the contents. Other than the driver’s license she’d tucked inside her pocket to go through security and the credit card she’d last used to buy a magazine and a drink back in Atlanta, she’d left all her cash and cards inside—even her passport—along with a stuff ed animal she’d picked up for Zoe while awaiting her connection and several family photos. But those losses meant nothing, nothing whatsoever against the theft of the fl ash drive Ruby had sewn into the pack’s lining. Her knees weakened at the thought.

If DeserTek knows somehow . . .   She thought of the surreal offer management had made on her final day in- country. Remembered the upwelling of revulsion that had prompted her to turn down many times the salary she could expect as an RN.

The officer told Ruby, “Those dudes are nothing if not efficient, so you can figure on them running up charges all over God’s creation inside the next hour.”

“This goes on a lot, then?” Anger surged past her worry. “Why isn’t something done to stop it?”

The security officer shrugged shoulders that looked as if they could bench press a Humvee. “Sorry, miss, but for every two of those damn cockroaches we smash fl at, ten more crawl in off the streets. They’re organized, for sure, probably gangbangers. Best thing’s just to call this number.” He handed her a printed sheet. “They’ll help you contact your credit card providers and your bank. And if that’s your luggage, you’d better collect it before somebody else gets the same idea.”

Ruby had been watching the other baggage being claimed as her two lonely suitcases rode an endless loop to nowhere. She’d been waiting, fear in full bloom, to see if anyone approached them. In which case she’d planned to raise such hell that the thief would be caught for sure.

“You going to be all right, miss?” the young officer asked as they walked to the carousel. “Is someone coming for you?”

“Thanks,” she said. “I’ll be fine. My family’s on the way. Just running a little late.”

The officer’s radio squawked. He frowned and quickly excused himself, hustling in the direction of the shuttle pickup exit.

Ruby wheeled her suitcases toward a bench where she could sit. While waiting, she used her phone to cancel the credit cards she’d left in her wallet. By the time she’d finished, Misty and Zoe still hadn’t turned up. A glance down at her watch made Ruby’s stomach cartwheel.

Where on earth could they be? Had they had car trouble, a fl at tire? An accident on the way?

Ruby bit down on the thought. Because thinking of accidents jerked her back to the beeping monitors and the hissing respirator and the sad-eyed doctor glancing at her pregnant belly while suggesting that organ donation was a way to wrest some good from her family’s tragedy. Thinking of her husband, Aaron, reminded her that war zones  weren’t the only places people died, that even those she loved  were never truly safe. She imagined the little Honda she’d passed on to Misty as smashed as Aaron’s motorcycle had been . . .  her daughter’s tiny, broken body pulled from twisted wreckage.

Not going there, Ruby told herself. Not going. Think instead of hugging Zoe, of smelling her strawberry-sweet hair and lifting her into her arms. Think of seeing the real girl, not just pictures, and of hearing her laughter in person instead of settling for a phone call that was no doubt being monitored, recorded . . .  analyzed.

But a quick call to Mrs. Lambert, who ran the home day care her daughter attended, made Ruby feel no better.

“Praise the Lord that you’re home safely,” the older woman told her. “But Zoe hasn’t been here for the past week. Has a fearsome cold, I understand. Stuff y nose and cough and fever. Misty wanted to keep her away from the other children until she’s certain—”

“Zoe’s been sick?” That didn’t make sense. Misty hadn’t said a word about it three days earlier.

“I’ve put that precious child on my prayer list,” Mrs. Lambert assured her. “But what about you? Do you need someone to pick you up there? You’re in the city, you said?”

“DFW,” Ruby answered, naming the larger airport that served the Dallas/Ft. Worth metroplex. “But I’ll be fine, thanks. I’ll rent a car if they don’t show up.”

Ruby had no intention of waiting around for three hours for one of Myrtle’s church friends, who would doubtless preach to her every mile of the journey back home. More than likely about the Lord’s preference for the kind of mothers who remained in the same country as their off spring. “Probably Misty’s just taken Zoe to the doctor. Or maybe they both fell asleep and—anyway, it’ll be better if I drive out.”

As soon as Ruby disconnected, she tried Misty’s best friend, Crystal, but her phone went straight to voice mail. At Hammett’s on the Lake, where both Misty and Crystal waited tables, Ruby connected with yet another recorded message, this one telling her that the restaurant was closed but would reopen “for all your bar, grill, and recreational needs” in time for happy hour at five p.m.

Frowning, Ruby racked her brain for anyone  else who might have some idea of Misty’s whereabouts. Finally, an idea struck: Call Sam McCoy, though turning to a near stranger—particularly this stranger—didn’t set well with her. Sure, Aaron had always stuck up for his foster brother, ignoring any whispers about “bad blood.” But that had been when McCoy was a big-shot computer security wizard and partner in his firm in Austin, not some disgraced felon who’d moved back to the area— after purchasing the house next door—to lick his wounds. She saw him in her mind’s eye: the dark-hair so close-cropped it brought out sharp-looking honey-brown eyes, and a fine set of muscles straining as he’d helped the movers manhandle a king-sized mattress off the truck only a couple of months before Ruby had left the country.

“I could stand to help him christen that,” Misty had commented with a grin.

“Don’t even think about bringing that criminal around my daughter,” Ruby had warned her. He’d been polite enough when they’d met briefly at the mailbox, but she’d heard of his conviction, even if he hadn’t actually served time. She knew, too, that the Monroes, whose patience had run as deep as their faith, had given Sam the boot a few months shy of his eighteenth birthday, though she’d never heard why he was kicked out.

Before she could lose her nerve, Ruby tried information: “Unincorporated Preston County, please, Dogwood area. I’m looking for a listing for a Sam or Samuel McCoy on South Cypress Bend.”

“I have a business listing,” the operator told her. “At Forty-one South Cypress Bend. Could that be it?”

“Has to be.” Since there was nothing  else but state preserve within a half mile of her own place, Ruby scribbled the number on the back of her drink-and magazine receipt and punched it into her phone.

The machine picked up on the fourth ring before regurgitating a recorded message that took her by surprise. “You’ve reached the Reel McCoy, Bone ’s premier fishing guide. I’m most likely on the water at the moment, but if you’ll leave your name and number . . .”

Fishing guide? Ruby frowned, wondering if she’d dialed the right number. But that address had to be his. She disconnected, feeling more anxious than ever about Zoe’s and Misty’s whereabouts.

Frustrated, Ruby watched a fresh crop of passengers begin picking up their luggage. Any second now, she told herself, her sister would show up apologizing, with Zoe bouncing along at her side and shrieking with excitement.

Imagining that moment, Ruby took a deep breath and filled her lungs with painfully sweet anticipation. Anticipation that ticked inexorably toward panic as she watched the steady stream of travelers welcomed home by loved ones, as she felt the minutes and the hours hurtling toward eternity.

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