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Authors: Aaron Elkins

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Old Bones

BOOK: Old Bones
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Old Bones

 

 

In the flood tides off Mont St. Michel, revered Resistance-hero Guillaume du Rocher is drowned. Already assembled at the Rocher estate to deal with family business, members of the Rocher clan instead read his will.

 

The next day a partial skeleton is found in the cellar and Gideon Oliver, a physical anthropologist, is called to examine the bones. They are those of a young man who died 50 years prior and Gideon believes the deceased was tied to the Resistance movement.

 

When Gideon is threatened, and Claude, Rocher’s principal heir, is poisoned, Gideon begins to unravel a web of espionage, family deceit and murder, whose dramatic resolution lies in the secret held by the old bones.

 

This taut thriller won the 1988
Edgar Award
for best mystery novel.

 

 

OLD BONES
A Novel by
Aaron Elkins

 

Gideon Oliver – 04
Copyright © 1987
by Aaron Elkins

 

 

 

ONE

 

 

   SO still and silent was the fog-wreathed form that it might have been an angular, black boulder. But there are no boulders, angular or otherwise, to mar the immense, flat tidal plain that is Mont St. Michel Bay. When the tide is out there is only sand, more than a hundred square miles of it. And when the tide is in, the plain becomes a vast, rolling ocean from which the great abbey-citadel of Mont St. Michel itself—St. Michael’s Mount—rears like some stupendous, God-made thing of dark and gloomy granite, all narrow Gothic arches and stark, medieval perpendiculars.

The mist eddied, then shifted, and the figure was revealed to be a lean, elderly man in a fur hat and a heavy, well-tailored black overcoat, kneeling in the sand and hunched over a limpet shell in his leather-gloved left hand. But though his head was appropriately inclined, the old man was not looking at the shell.

He stared without seeing, his thoughts far away. His right hand was thrust deeply into the pocket of the overcoat. For many minutes he remained so, unmoving, lost in reflection, and then he tensed suddenly. His head jerked up, then cocked to one side, the better to listen. The wide, aristocratic forehead was inquisitively wrinkled, the thick, white eyebrows arched. A terrible, white scar that began at the left corner of his mouth and disappeared under a black satin eye patch seemed to tighten, so that his thin mouth was jerked out of line. His right eye, gray and clear, held a look of strained disbelief.

The old man, who never spoke to himself, spoke to himself.

"The tide?" he whispered, and again: "The
tide
!"

He dropped the mollusk and rose stiffly to his feet. He bent again to fumble with one hand for the woven-straw mat on which he’d been kneeling to protect the knees of his dark-gray trousers, but then he flung that away too, turned, and made grimly for the Mont, more than a kilometer away, which was visible only dimly and intermittently through the mist. The man moved quickly but jerkily, his crippled leg throwing his balance off, his left hand energetically swinging, his right immobile in its pocket.

The tide! How could he have lost track of time so completely? It hardly seemed possible, but there was no mistaking the sound of it, nor the rush of cool, salt-laden air that streamed before it. "With the roar of thunder," went the old Breton nursery song, "and the speed of a galloping horse, comes the tide to Mont St. Michel."

He did not require the aid of metaphor to understand his predicament. The speed of the incoming tide was not quite that of a galloping horse, but it was fast enough—a gleaming skin of water rolling smoothly into the bay at nearly twenty-five kilometers an hour, its face endlessly collapsing and tumbling in on itself. It was no towering tidal wave of death, he knew that; but a seeping, stealthy flood that was not there one moment, sloshed at one’s ankles the next, then at one’s hips…

The wind had brought with it an icy squall of sleet, and already the man’s wool coat was wet, the rims of his ears burning. The thin fog shredded before the wind, wrapping the spires and turrets of the Mont with otherworldly filaments of silver, tinged pink by the pale and dying sun. On the rampart of the north tower he could see a few people, tourists, waving him earnestly on; shouting too, he thought. Simpletons. Couldn’t they see that he was moving as quickly as he could? That he was an old man and lame? Why didn’t they come down and help him instead of jumping uselessly about?

Even as he asked it, he knew it was a foolish question. Although the
tour du nord
was at the base of the walls surrounding the abbey buildings themselves, it hung high up on the rock, over fifty meters above the tidal plain, and the path down was rocky and uneven. They could never reach him in time. And why should they risk their lives in the treacherous sands to help him?

He didn’t let himself think about whether he could outrun the water, but limped on, his warmly booted feet dragging through the sand. The water was not yet visible behind him; there was only the thrumming. That and the rush of moist air. His chest heaved, and inside it hot needles twisted in his scarred lungs. The old wounds in his leg and foot burned. Still, he was advancing on the Mont. He was close enough to hear an occasional shout now. Perhaps, after all, there was a chance—

He stopped abruptly. There was water in front of him. He stared, blinking, at the shallow, mauve-tinged rivulet that ran from left to right across his path twenty or thirty steps ahead. He understood perfectly what it was and what it meant. The tide did not advance with a solid front, but threw out long tendrils—how beautiful they looked from up on the Mont—in sweeping, almost circular curves that first isolated, then encroached upon, and finally engulfed great bays of the yellow sand.

While he looked at it, the long finger of water became an arm of the sea, spreading and deepening before him. He spun about, expecting to see the main body of water close behind, but except for a few tentative feelers, it was still far away, perhaps a hundred meters. He had a chance yet, by the good Lord!

He plunged ahead into the ankle-deep water, knowing he ran the risk of stepping into a submerged stream or a patch of quicksand, but knowing too that he had no choice. His calf-high boots kept the wetness and cold from his feet, but they seemed to pull him down, as if they were lined with lead and not with wool, and each step was an exhausting effort that puffed out his lean cheeks. The furrowed scar pulled at the satin-covered socket of his empty eye now, so that his entire face felt awry.

"Vite!"
they shouted from the north tower.
"Vite!"
As if they thought he was taking his time!

With dismay the old man watched the arm of water through which he plodded swell and send out tendrils of its own. It was almost up to his calves now, and the leading edge rolled onward, pulling maddeningly away from him as he dragged himself towards it. His heart pounded with each lurching step through the sucking sand, and he was hot and fearfully cold at the same time. Icy water began slopping onto the tops of his boots, weighing him down still more and setting his limbs to convulsive shivering.

The boots, he thought. If he could get them off …But he knew he couldn’t afford to stop in the rising water, and he knew he didn’t have the strength to do it; not with only one good hand. In growing confusion he tore off his fur hat instead and threw it away. The chilling blast of sleet on the back of his neck made him cry out and tremble so convulsively that he could barely see. Still, with the water sloshing in his boots and his breath like knives in his throat, he managed three more blind steps before he finally stumbled into the quicksand.

The infamous
sable mouvant
of Mont St. Michel Bay is not quicksand, strictly speaking, not a slippery, shifting mass of smooth-grained sand and upward-percolating water; it is a phenomenon unique to this colossal tidal flat: deep pockets filled with water and covered with a layer of sand that somehow floats on top of them. From the battlements of the north tower they are invisible, and to the small, avid crowd gathered there it seemed as if the legs of the staggering man on the darkening plain below suddenly disappeared. A woman screamed and locked her fingers over her mouth. The others watched in rapt, shocked silence. Below, the tiny figure struggled, flailing at the still-shallow water with one arm and sinking all the more rapidly for it.

Until the very instant it closed smoothly over his head he was wriggling so desperately it seemed he must come up again, but the surface remained unbroken except for an innocuous dimple that marked the place he had been. And within a few seconds it was as if he had never been there at all.

 

 

 

TWO

 

 

   LUCIEN Anatole Joly,
inspecteur principal
of the Police Nationale’s Provincial Department of Criminal Investigation, Côtes-du-Nord, tapped his long and graceful fingers noiselessly on the lined tablet that lay on the flat writing arm of his chair, which was in the center of the second row. He was not the sort of man who skulked to the back of the room when he attended a lecture; he came to listen and to learn.

So far, however, the Eighth Annual Conference on Science and Detection, held for the first time in St. Malo, had failed in its promise of useful edification. After a full morning the lined tablet held only a quarter of a page of Inspector Joly’s neat, symmetrical script. Moreover, he was bored.

Inspector Joly was easily bored and not inclined to bear it magnanimously. There were many things he did not bear magnanimously. His subordinates referred to him as "Monsieur Giscard" because—Sergeant Denis had confided to him one day—of a resemblance to the former president of France; they were both tall, both bald and long-faced, both lean. So Denis had said. But Joly knew better. He knew very well that he looked nothing like the old conservative, whom he in fact admired greatly. No, the nickname had caught on because of a certain regal stiffness the two had in common, an awkwardness and impatience with trivia, and sometimes with social intercourse in general, that often projected itself as arrogance. Well, that was fine with him. As reputations went, it wasn’t a bad one for a policeman.

The morning session had been a lecture and slide presentation by a dour Finnish entomologist who mumbled away in such a bizarre combination of French and English that he would have done as well to deliver it in Finnish. No doubt a part of the problem was the subject: "Sarcosaprophagous Insects as Forensic Criteria"—less than inviting in any language. Even with the language barrier, however, Joly now knew far more about the actions of blowfly larvae on decomposing corpses than he liked.

He was hoping—without much confidence—for a little more from the afternoon’s topic, "Forensic Anthropology." At least he knew what it meant. Well, perhaps not precisely, but he could pronounce it, and that was an improvement. He settled back in his chair, his lunch of
omelette aux champignons
and coffee sitting well inside him, and studied the speaker, who was arranging a few index cards at the head table while the conference chairman droned on with his remarks. Joly glanced again at the program notes:

Dr. Gideon P. Oliver, Professor of Anthropology, University of Washington—Port Angeles. Dr. Oliver has an outstanding reputation in the fields of biological anthropology and human evolution, having authored the distinguished text
A Structuro-Functional Approach to Pleistocene Hominid Phylogeny,
now in its third edition. He is almost equally well known to the international police community as "The Skeleton Detective" for his remarkable achievements in the forensic analysis of human skeletal remains.

Well, he certainly didn’t look like Joly’s idea of a scientist-
cum
-skeleton detective. Gideon Oliver was no gaunt and dessicated elderly man steeped in the dank aura of the morgue—or more appropriately the shallow grave in the open field. (Professor Wuorinen of the blowflies would have done perfectly.) He was, surprisingly, a big, wide-shouldered man with a broken nose and an easy smile, who looked more like a good-natured prizefighter than a professor. Joly had noticed him during the milling-about of the registration period, talking familiarly with the equally large Hawaiian FBI man—who didn’t look much like the inspector’s idea of an FBI special agent, for that matter. Ah, well, the world was changing.

BOOK: Old Bones
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