By Darlene N. Böcek

 

Dec. 24. Victim discovered 3 min. off San Pasqual Valley Road/Highway 78. Mile marker 12. Female. Mid 20s. Face down. Homicide suspected. No attempted burial. Thrown and discarded. Decomposition suggests 6 weeks since death. Wild animals got to body. Skeleton mostly intact. Left femur missing. No ID. Prostitute? Photograph in back pocket.

 

Detective Ralph Ellison, EPD

 

I sketch the scene, then stick the ballpoint pen in my breast pocket and stare at the cold, heartless facts. Some girl is found half-immersed in the mud of a sagebrush canyon, and I write a date. Life reeks of injustice.

 

“Whatcha think?” Hernandez asks. “Number six?”

 

I shrug. “Most likely.” Five streetwalkers have been dumped all around the county this fall. He scratches another into his logbook.

 

No one cares that the sky is gray like the girl’s pallid skin. That the rain leaves a crisp freshness to the valley below. Or that the storm chased away the vermin but not the smell. Those details don’t belong in our apathetic notebooks. From the signs, I’d guess she was murdered near Thanksgiving. Today is Christmas Eve. Tough luck.

 

Did she have a family? Do they care what happened to her? Or was she a match girl shivering in the cold, staring longingly into warm houses? No. No such drama. Prostitutes are and always have been nameless bodies. Lifeblood tied to crimes against humanity, crimes against their own humanity, crimes against their very souls.

 

I throw a curt nod to my forensics team, and they load petite Jane Doe 112 into an oversized black bodybag. The zip goes to my gut. I’ve seen enough of these to fill ten thousand notebooks. I hate it. Every time. What makes a girl choose this path? Why is there a market that sells cheap flesh to cruel men? As always, I hope for too much in a world where sin runs rampant.

 

***

 

“Ellison here.”

 

IAFIS comes back negative on her prints. Forensics on the phone has a lead. I jot it into my notebook.

 

Jan. 1. Jane Doe 112. No FP match. Photograph digital reconstruction complete.

 

Too many Jane Does to investigate, but this one has a single clue to her history. A pitiless police machine has decoded and spit out a possible face to the corpse.

 

“Okay. Be right there.”

 

A few minutes later, I drop into my desk chair and empty the contents of a manila envelope. I sigh. The enlarged photograph is something to go on. If it’s her.

 

Picture shows a middle-aged white woman and blonde preteen on a porch. Ranch-style house. 1950s/60s. Address unclear. Probably California. Will send to LA/OC/Riverside PD for recognition. On the back, one word: Bootstrap.

 

We need a name to solve the case. I zip off a brief email to the central police departments for those counties. They’ll know soon enough, or I’ll expand my search.

 

***

 

Darkness descends early in the winter, as it did for Jane Doe 112. The sky changes to the color of hopelessness as I wade through knee-high weeds and step onto the porch.

 

Knock, knock.

 

The home resembles the one in the photo, except for the chipped paint and the loose paneling flapping in the wind. The manicured lawn on paper testifies that love and life once flourished here. Now the decaying pepper and olive trees stand as relics of a war lost with insects, and brown leaves cling to overgrown rosebushes wild with thorns.

 

No answer, but floorboards creak inside.

 

I try again. “Hello?”

 

The faded curtain rustles, and a shaky voice filters through. “Almost ready. Please wait.”

 

Hinges groan, and a hunched-over lady drag-shifts a suitcase into the doorway. Her floral mumu is too sheer for the chilly weather, and too fluttering big for her gaunt figure. She meets my eyes through glassy cataracts. “Oh. You aren’t Fire Chariot.”

 

“No, ma’am. Escondido PD.” I flash my badge.

 

The restored photo seems to be the same woman, aged worse than her house and yard. Thin instead of heavy. Sparse white hair and whiskers tell me she’s given up, and a deep V-shaped crease between her eyes hints at why.

 

“Police?” She stiffens. A gulp bobs down her throat. “You here for me?”

 

“No, ma’am. Would you look at this photograph? Is this your home?” I don’t explain the ongoing investigation. Maybe I will, if she’s family.

 

The lady reaches for the walker that’s awkwardly angled behind the door before pulling the picture into her crippled fingers. One of her threadbare slippers catches on the threshold, and she loses her balance. I grab her before she falls. Yanking the walker onto the porch, I press her fingers to the handles.

 

She leans her weight forward and step-by-step maneuvers the walker to face me, then holds the picture close and squints at it. The odor of stale rot wafts from either the house or the dirt or her. Not sure.

 

I scan the room behind her. On the right, paper bags stuffed with junk litter a couch, and a stack of curl-edged magazines on a coffee table threaten to topple. On the left, a hutch spews cardboard boxes onto the stained carpet. Dust floats in the air that smells of wood accented with sour milk.

 

“That’s Janice,” the old woman reveals at last, returning the photo.

 

“The girl? Janice?” I write down the information. No longer Jane Doe 112. “Do you know her last name?”

 

“No. Shoulda been slut, but who’s askin’?”

 

Whoa. Her words are mumbled, and maybe I misheard. “Should have been?”

 

Her eyes get glassier, haunted, and she sways.

 

I scribble Slut = prostitute? We must have guessed right. “Do you remember when this picture was taken?”

 

Her leathery cheeks quiver. She shuts her eyes and shakes her head. But then she adds, “Laurel was eleven. She lived next door with the Blakes. Bad family. Bad blood.”

 

“Laurel? Who’s Laurel?”

 

“The girl in the picture. With me.”

 

“Not Janice?”

 

Her wrinkled brow puckers. “Janice who?”

 

I mirror her frown, scrambling to understand.

 

Beep-beep! Behind me, the Fire Chariot driver pulls up.

 

“Where are you traveling? Maybe I can take you and we can talk on the way.”

 

“But what about the fare?”

 

I deliver a hard-earned twenty to the acned kid in the front seat. After he drives off, I slap myself—he’s already been paid for the ride. Online.

 

Oh well. Wherever this cryptic lady is going, I have to figure out how she’s connected to the victim.

 

I haul her suitcase to my squad car while she fumbles through her purse. In a million movements, she removes a set of keys, secures two locks, scoots her walker to the side, and latches the outer screen door. When she inches backward, she notices her kitchen light is still on. Her shoulders hunch.

 

I offer to turn it off for her. She hesitates, then agrees. I sprint down the driveway and open the car door for her first, but she continues waiting at the top of the steps.

 

Right. The walker.

 

I help her down the three rotting planks. She gives me the house keys, and I finish my task in ten seconds.

 

“Did you lock all three?” she asks as I climb behind the wheel.

 

“Yes, ma’am.”

 

“You sure? I’m never coming back. We don’t want the electric company to steal Laurel’s inheritance.”

 

I pause before starting the engine.

 

Jan. 4. Jane Doe 112 is Janice? Laurel? Old woman at residence. Dementia? Leaving house as inheritance to Laurel.

 

I text the station, requesting intel on the Blakes next door.

 

***

 

Not the airport. The sign reads Happy Meadows Nursing Home and Hospice. The old woman has the address memorized. I hold the car door for her and brace her elbow, but she still strains to get out.

 

A nurse rushes toward us. “Octavia! Where have you been?” She glances at me, eyes widening at the badge on my belt.

 

“Detective Ellison,” I explain and heave the suitcase out of my trunk.

 

She frowns but speaks to Octavia. “Let’s get you back to your room.”

 

I follow them inside. More eyebrows lift and scrunch at my presence. Other semi-mobile residents shuffle behind us, and we march down the hall in a slow, morose parade.

 

Octavia Marrows, DNR is printed on the door. The room contains two beds, both empty, and the far one is a mess of rumpled sheets and wires. A chart clipped to the edge lists diabetes, heart disease, and advanced liver cancer. Tough break.

 

Three nurses fuss to plug Octavia into the machines. How could she have snuck out of here? Called Fire Chariot? Let alone known about the service or how to set up payment? Her cell phone rests on the side table, but elderly people usually struggle with technology.

 

I tap out a memo query to the station: Info on Octavia Marrows, Happy Meadows Nursing Home and Hospice.

 

The frozen-faced nurses keep flicking their heads toward the exit. I claim a chair and adjust my badge so it’s visible. Official business.

 

Beep. Beep. Beep. The steady sound of the heart-rate monitor matches the weary calm of Octavia’s expression. Quite the adventure for an old lady. The nurses brush past me to a wide station just outside the room.

 

“Ma’am? May I ask you a few questions about Janice or Laurel?”

 

Octavia seems to sink deeper underneath her blanket. “If you’ve got to.”

 

There’s been a death, I want to say. But if I voice that aloud, the beeping might flatline.

 

“The girl in the picture. Where does she live now?”

 

Her eyes close, repeatedly tightening and relaxing in a battle of opposing emotions.

 

“She was a wee thing when the Blakes took her in. They never paid her no mind, but I did.” The tended garden of yesterday wins for the moment, and a slight smile curves her lips.

 

“She’d wander over to my porch and visit for hours. I’d give her lemonade I made from my trees. And sun iced tea I made in my windows. Strange how such simple treats would make her smile. I gave her my heart.” For an instant, the cataracts disappear, and her blue eyes sparkle. “She coulda had the world. I says to her, Laurel, you choose the way your life’s gonna go, honey.” Her words fade, and she stills.

 

“Ms. Marrows?”

 

Octavia blinks, and when she focuses on me, the blue fogs over.

 

“A word is written on the back of this picture. Bootstrap. Does that mean anything to you?”

 

Octavia’s blood pressure rises, but not enough to trigger the nurse alarm. Her lips pinch as tight as the fist of a boxer poised for a knockout. “She called me that, did she? Always had a mouth on her. And after all I did. As if I ever beat her. Ingrate.”

 

I click the end of my pen a couple times. Should I tell her Laurel’s dead?

 

“She insists I know nothin’ and ain’t nothin’ to her to stop her. She gonna do what she gonna do.” Tears pool in her eyes, but she chases the grief away with a clench of her jaw. “She yells that she don’t want me, and to stop meddlin’! Those words ain’t no one oughta hear. Especially not someone who loved that precious little girl who had no one in the whole world.”

 

A lone tear glides down her cheek. “I never seen her again. If she wanna be a Janice hooker, I say let her be one.”

 

I do a double-take. If Laurel was on the street, I’d need a city to go on.

 

My phone rings. The station.

 

I excuse myself.

 

***

 

Charles and Winona Blake. Serial foster parents for 20 years. Assigned Laurel Johnson during ages three to fourteen. Girl went off-grid.

 

Of course. Runaway foster kid. Lives on the street. Would have been picked up by a pimp for protection. The way of the world, sadly. Octavia was right to warn her.

 

Octavia Marrows, never married. From Atlanta. Moved to Riverside fifty years back. Retired public school librarian.

 

Her story, likewise, predictable. Helps the neighbor kid. Hurt when the girl ditches her.

 

If I can dig up a last-known residence, we’ll be able to track down Laurel’s killer. Still, bootstrap nudges my mind.

 

I re-enter the room. Drawing in a breath, I flat-out ask, “Are you sure Laurel lived on the streets? Do you have any idea which city?” I cringe that I used past tense. Will she notice?

 

“Janice was a tramp,” she seethes. “Johnny was gonna ask me. Since we were kids we was gonna get married. But Janice lured him to give up on me. ”

 

Janice.

 

She stares out the window. “He was my beau. And Laurel was my girl. After all I was to her.”

 

Her muttering sheds light on her past. Heartbroken, she flees to California. Starts over. Laurel becomes her lifeline, only to abandon her too. The two women blur into one.

 

But I still have a murder to solve. I finger the victim’s photo in my pocket.

 

Octavia grits her teeth and clutches her belly. More tears well in her half-seeing eyes. Her BP level summons the nurses. They order me to leave, and I comply.

 

My phone dings with a message.

 

***

 

A Laurel Johnson registered as UC San Diego grad. Psychology major. Had a practice in La Jolla. Newspaper photo scan attached.

 

I scratch my head and compare the old and new photos. Could this be the same Laurel? The skeleton off Highway 78?

 

From a bench in the hall, I watch Octavia’s door. Nurses bustle in and out, carrying blood samples in vials. One fastens a tray across Octavia’s torso and props her up in preparation for a meal.

 

“I have one more question for Ms. Marrows,” I inform a nurse. Her name tag says Barbara. “Okay if I take a couple more minutes?”

 

“Octavia has terminal cancer. Not doing too well today. If we’re not with her, your company will be more than she’s had since…forever.”

 

“No visitors at all?”

 

“She’s got no one. One lady came in a couple months ago, but Octavia refused to see her.”

 

“What lady?” I show Barbara the news clipping. “Her?”

 

“Yeah. That’s her. She left brokenhearted.”

 

My theory unravels. Educated, with a career. Farthest description from a runaway or prostitute. How did she end up hurled into a canyon?

 

When I return, Octavia’s face brightens. “You didn’t leave me.” She extends her hand, palm up. “It’s so good to have such a nice young man with me. I’m not feeling so well.”

 

I squeeze her hand. The doctor strides in, adds papers to the chart, and walks out with a shake of his head. A nurse spoon-feeds Octavia, wiping her chin with each drip of the…what? Porridge? Octavia avoids the mush like a highchair infant until finally the nurse gives up and removes the tray.

 

I hand my phone to Octavia, the newspaper clip of Laurel on the screen. “Do you know this woman?”

 

Her eyes become watery again, but she shakes her head. “Where’s my suitcase?”

 

I roll it over and hoist it onto a chair. “Do you need something? Should I open it?”

 

Another tear trickles down, and she nods.

 

The suitcase is crammed with crocheted sweaters in rainbow and pastel patterns. Boutique quality.

 

“Take one out.”

 

I lift the top one.

 

“Emily floral pattern. The first one I made. Was for her fifteenth birthday, but she never got it. She was on the streets by then. Just up and left me alone. I was so kind to her, and she hated me. Even wrote it on your picture. Bootstrap, eh? But she was like that. Thankless.”

 

Her mind is intact. I unfold a few more sweaters. All excellent workmanship. She tells me about each one. The stitching. The type of wool. The time spent. The birthday it was meant for.

 

“Fifteen of them. She never came. She could’ve. But she wanted the streets. Like Janice.” She sighs. “Just like Janice.”

 

Something doesn’t mesh. “Didn’t Laurel visit you here?”

 

“Nope. I wouldn’t see her. Not after she abandoned me all those years.” She swings her hand at the mound of sweaters. “Get those away from me.”

 

I repack the suitcase and set it at the foot of her bed, out of sight.

 

Octavia shoves her cell phone aside and absently strokes the wooden side table. Tears overflow. Her heart rate increases, and she blinks staccato-like. At the nurse’s station outside, Barbara glances up at the monitor, then back down at her paperwork. Normal.

 

I need to get back to the station. But bootstrap, or maybe a bigger mystery, tugs at me.

 

I offer a tissue to Octavia that she wads into a ball. I wipe her face myself, then grasp her hand again. Her chest pumps up and down in restrained sorrow. She sags into her pillow, deep like Laurel in the mud, deep like a flattening life. Aging has never been worse than this image of broken love in front of me. Flowering gardens wilt in unforgiving hearts.

 

My phone buzzes, and I extract my hand from her tight grip. She doesn’t acknowledge me.

 

***

 

Autopsy report for Jane Doe 112. Cause of death: blunt force trauma to the neck and spine. Car belonging to Laurel Johnson, 5 weeks ago towed from around the bend. Transmission failure. Phone belonging to Laurel Johnson located across the highway from the crime scene. Suspected hit and run.

 

Pen back in my pocket, I inhale and rake my fingers through my crewcut.

 

Car breaks down. She goes for help. Vehicle runs into her. Injured, she struggles, tumbles into canyon.

 

Not a murder investigation anymore. I clench my teeth, hating that assumptions pulled me in the wrong direction about the girl. I’m not alone there.

 

Octavia’s alarm blares. Bee-bee-beep. Nah-nah. Bee-bee-beep. Nah-nah.

 

Five nurses flood the room. One sits next to Octavia and massages her hand. “Call Dr. Ross,” another says.

 

Octavia arches her back. She flails an arm, reaching, fingers grasping, and knocks her cell phone to the floor with a clatter.

 

The doctor arrives and stands at the foot of her bed, arms crossed. Barbara dabs her forehead with a wet cloth. “Shhh. Shhh. You’re fine, Octavia.”

 

Fine? She’s dying, for pity’s sake! My mind flicks to the three locks at her front door. Never coming back, she’d said. She’d known, somehow.

 

“Laur…el,” she moans. A final tear dribbles out the corner of her eye, leaving a wet streak of useless comfort. Her tense body collapses, and the covers puff before settling across her motionless form. The heart monitor flatlines. No one cries.

 

Stiff-lipped Dr. Ross presses the artery at her throat. “Time of death nineteen fifty-four.”

 

Barbara crosses Octavia’s arms over her chest, discarding the crumpled tissue. She slides a hand over her eyes to close the lids. Another nurse pulls the sheet over her face, separating her from the world and its cruel injustice.

 

The passing is like clockwork. Heartless. Indifferent. Routine.

 

Dr. Ross pivots to leave and notices me. “Oh. You her son?”

 

“No.” Don’t they know anything about her?

 

Barbara lingers with me. “Were you friends long?”

 

I shake my head, rubbing my thumb over the picture of a younger Octavia and Laurel on the porch. Now I see the lemonade pitcher and the glasses in their hands. The wide smiles. Octavia’s chin is raised and her chest full. Laurel is leaning toward her. Trusting. Loving. Needing.

 

Barbara studies the snapshot. “That girl looks like the lady from the newspaper clipping. Is she the same person?”

 

“I suspect so.”

 

Barbara picks up Octavia’s cracked phone and places it on the side table. “I tried, oh, how I tried to convince Octavia to let the lady visit. But she was adamant. So the lady left a letter for her.” She retrieves an envelope from the drawer and hands it to me. “When Octavia thought no one was watching, she’d smell it and press it to her cheek. But she never opened it.”

 

I stare at the envelope, fumbling to voice a question that seems to burn on my tongue. “Who is listed as next of kin?”

 

Barbara skims the clipboard. “Laurel Johnson. Huh. That’s the name on this envelope. Between you and me, it doesn’t matter. Word is, she signed over her house to the hospice to pay for her room. It’s not uncommon. She probably has nothing left.” She sighs. “How sad.”

 

It’s not the loss of the house that’s sad.

 

She motions to the letter. “You going to open it?”

 

The envelope is dated two months ago. Just before Laurel’s accident. A letter from the deceased. Might help clear up what went sour between them.

 

I slip my pinky under the flap and tear the seal.

 

My dearest Octavia,

 

I’m overjoyed to finally find you. You are my greatest inspiration. I’m sorry I left you like I did. I was angry. And young. I didn’t know any better. Please forgive me.

 

I understand why you don’t want to see me today. But I hope you’ll change your mind after reading this.

 

You were closer to me than a mother. You cared for me when nobody else did. Thank you. Thank you for telling me that I choose for myself how I will live. “Bootstraps or banana peels,” you said. I’ll never forget.

 

I was mad because it sounded like a joke or a threat. But it wasn’t. Either I could lift myself up by my bootstraps or let the banana peels of life trip me up. I hated your words. Life seemed so unfair. I had more than my share of hardships and rejection. Except for you. You stood up to my self pity. You believed I could make something of myself.

 

And I did. I went to a church and met the Lord. The people there helped me, and I attended college, Octavia! UCSD. I graduated with a degree in psychology and have my own counseling practice, working with foster kids like I was. I tell my own clients, “Bootstraps or banana peels.” I’ve seen so many young people turn around. You did this.

 

I regret that I caused you pain. It took me years to build the courage to come back. But praise God that I have a chance to admit before you’re gone that you were right. About me. About life. I stayed safe because of you. Thank you, my dearest, oldest friend. I can’t wait to hear back from you, to see you with my own eyes, to hug you once more. Please forgive me. Please call me.

 

Love,

 

Laurel

 

At the end, a number is scrawled. It matches the phone from the crime scene.

 

***

 

How can I write in my calloused notebook? What would I report? Chased by shadows, ghosted by lies, we might all be Laurel, a second before impact.

 

I lay the letter on Octavia’s unbreathing chest. Over her soundless heart. Under her gnarled fingers.

 

Barbara has disappeared. The lights are off. The tubes and wires and machines withdrawn.

 

Dust hangs in the air, and a tight sheet covers what once was and is no more—heartbeats of shattered hope.

 

Now two dead women. But who cares?

 

I tuck my notepad into my breast pocket and leave the dis-haunted woman. My squad car seems to drive itself back to her house.

 

I mount the steps and touch a parched rosebud. It crumbles in my hand.

 

Her last day.

 

An escape.

 

Her last thoughts.

 

Laurel.

 

This porch is a crime scene. Discovered too late. I smack my hand on the banister and paint flutters to the ground.

 

What does it matter?

 

But it does.

 

Because the door remains triple locked.

 


Darlene N. Böcek lives amidst an olive orchard in the land of old Byzantium: Izmir, Turkey. A pastor’s wife, former public school teacher, and California native, she homeschools her teenage son while her three adult daughters study dentistry.

 

Darlene uses a variety of genres to emphasize mystery, grace, and the pursuit of truth. Trunk of Scrolls, her historical fiction novel taking place in Byzantine Turkey, delves into the reason behind suffering. And her contemporary speculative series (Return to Me) and sci-fi series (Pogland/The Immortals, which is currently being considered for publication) likewise weigh in on the big questions. “Skeleton” is her foray into the detective genre and short fiction.

 

Alongside truth-wrangling fiction, Darlene teaches Bible and apologetics in online and church venues. In her cross-genre writing, new people, strange places, and old ideas compel readers to consider and treasure the deep truths of the Christian faith.

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