An excerpt of Brooklyn Bones by Triss Stein, the first traditional mystery featuring historian Erica Donato (available February 5, 2013).
Erica Donato—young widow, over-age history Ph.D candidate, mother of a teen, product of blue-collar Brooklyn—is drawn into a mystery when her teen-age daughter Chris finds the skeleton of a young woman behind a wall in their crumbling home in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood. Chris’s dangerous curiosity and Erica’s work at a local history museum start them on a trail that leads right back to her neighborhood in its edgy, pre-gentrification days—the period when the Age of Aquarius was turning dark.
It began with a sobbing phone call from my daughter, the kind of call every parent dreads. All I made out was that something terrible had happened; she was terrified, would never get over it. It was all my fault.
Chris is fifteen. Pretty much everything is all my fault, and yet—and yet—her voice told me it was more than teen-age hysterics. Maybe.
With my heart in my mouth—oh, yes, some of those old clichés are dead accurate—I slapped a note on my desk to say I was out for the afternoon, ran out of the museum where I was an intern, and hustled across downtown Brooklyn at an undignified half-run. I was in and out of the subway and running up the stairs to my house less than half an hour from the moment the phone rang.
“Oh, mommy.” She flew from the back room and threw herself into my arms.
Well, I thought. She hasn’t done that in years.
“What’s wrong?” I used my best time-to-stop-the-hysterics mom voice.
The contractor who is renovating my house appeared behind Chris.
“Come on.” He patted her curly hair. “You know you’re all right. Here’s your soda. Drink up now. No one can drink and cry at the same time.”
She shook her head, hard, without lifting it off my shoulder.
Meeting my eyes over the back of her head, he said calmly, “Erica, we do have a problem.”
Joe, my friend, my biking buddy, my contractor, is big, dark, deliberate. He’s always calm. He says I will be too, when I get another decade down the road. I tell him not to treat me like a kid sister, and that he’s learned to be cool because it was necessary to his work. He has to be calm, dealing as he does with stressed-out homeowners in the throes of expensive, complicated renovations of century-old houses.
I sat down on a drop cloth-covered sofa, Chris in my lap. In the tiny part of my mind not crazed with anxiety I wondered when was the last time she’d let me hold her like this?
“We do have a problem,” he repeated. “Chris, do you want to tell or should I?”
As his quiet voice got through to Chris, the sobbing subsided.
“If someone doesn’t tell me something, right now, I’ll be hysterical myself,” I said.
A muffled moan came from my shoulder. “We found something today when we broke through that wall.” Joe pointed to broken plasterboard, and behind it, a long-hidden, crumbling fireplace.
Chris shuddered, as she whispered, “It was awful.”
“Damn it, Joe!”
“All right, Erica. Brace yourself. We found bones behind the wall.”
His seriousness chilled me. “I don’t understand. Mouse bones? That’s what this is all about?”
He shook his head. “Not mouse. It’s human, and Chris found it.” The sobbing on my shoulder renewed its intensity.
“OK.” I took another breath, a little shaky this time. “Let me get this straight. Chris is all right. And you were working on the house, like always, and you were taking down that wall and you…”
“Me!” Chris suddenly sat up. “It was me. I found them. And if you hadn’t made me take this dumb job working for Joe, I never would have. And now I’ll have nightmares forever.” She jumped up from my lap and ran upstairs. I was too stunned to move.
Joe smiled sympathetically. “She’ll get over it, but I have to tell you, it shocked both of us.”
I didn’t want to discuss my daughter’s emotional state, so I turned to something safer. Plain facts.
“Tell me again. I can’t quite take it in. I have heard stories like this, but I never believed any of them.”
“Urban legends, right?”
“Yeah, I guess I’ve heard those tall tales, too, but I know a guy who really did find a skeleton behind the wall in an old house. It was an infant, probably someone’s secret baby, from way back when.”
I shuddered. “And this?”
He hesitated. “I’m no expert, but it’s not a baby, and not so old, I guess.” He saw me turn pale and added quickly, “No, no, it’s not a recent corpse. Only bones. Mostly bones, anyway. But I had to call the police.”
“Of course,” I said, absently, still in shock.
“We ought to leave it alone, not touch it, until the police come.”
“I won’t touch it, but Chris has seen it. You show me too.”
He pointed to the jagged hole Chris had smashed in the wall, and gave me his flashlight. I took a deep breath and stuck my head in. It was a walled-over fireplace, all crumbling brick and tile. A musty, sour smell filled the space. Mice, I thought, and yes, the flashlight beam caught a few tiny bones, then a flash of silver.
It was a human body, all right, folded up to fit the space, but neatly arranged and partly dressed, and pathetically small. I knew the living person had probably been bigger, that the skeleton tends to collapse. Even in the dim flashlight, I could see there was more there than bones. The body was wearing what was left of a tie-dyed T-shirt, and it was wrapped in the shreds of an Indian print cloth. She, he, it must have been wearing jewelry. The flashes of silver shone from among the wrist and finger bones, and near the head where the ears might have been. The bones of one arm may have been wrapped around a large teddy bear. Neatly arranged along one side of the body were colorful tattered squares, magazines perhaps, and a twisted object made of metal piping.
The sight took a minute to sink in, and when it did, I stopped breathing. I was looking at the remains of someone young enough to hug a teddy bear. Old enough to wear jewelry. I thought of Chris’s room, with her stuffed animals still lined up on her bed, and her vast collection of earrings, and my eyes stung.
It was warm and dry in there, Joe was explaining in a voice that seemed to come from very far away. A heat pipe ran behind the back wall and the dry heat preserved a lot.
Yes, I could see that.
“So you can see why I think it’s not that old?” Joe’s voice came from behind me.
“Relatively modern stuff. Sort of 1960s, maybe.”
“That metal thing is a bong.”
“I never saw one like that.”
“You fill it with water and get a nice, soft smoke.”
My astonishment must have showed in my face, because he said with a dismissive gesture, “Ah well, it was all a long time ago, in my wild youth.”
“Joe.” My voice shaking. “This looks like a burial, doesn’t it?”
“Afraid so. Hey, you look kind of pale. Do you need to put your head down on your knees?”
“No, no, I’m OK. It’s not the bones so much. I took an archaeology course. I’ve seen bones. It’s the teddy bear. And the hair. Dear lord, Joe, did you see that? There’s still hair on the skull. This was once a real person, with light hair and a teddy bear.”
“Here, take this. Sugar’s good for shock.”
He handed me Chris’s still cold soda and I touched the icy metal to my face as he gently guided me away from the wall.
“You know,” he went on matter-of-factly, obviously trying to distract me, “Chris is doing fine on this job. She’s been a lot of help, and she’s really earning her paycheck.”
He went on talking, but I didn’t hear him. This was all my fault, Chris said, and in a way it was true. I had insisted she take this job, and I knew exactly how she felt about it. She made sure of that by leaving a resentful e-mail to her best friend up on the computer screen. Only someone who’d never heard of Freud could think that was an accident.
Joe disappeared into the back of the house, and I paced up and down around the mess in the room, trying to figure things out.
My daughter was upstairs crying, and I didn’t know what to do with her. Or for her. She was so angry, I didn’t know if she would let me near her.
Not so long ago, there would have been no question about what to do. I’ve been a mother since I was twenty, and I was thrilled right from the start. My husband was too. I guess we were too young and dumb to be scared. And all these years after he died, years when it was only Chris and me, we were the best of friends, our own little family of two.
I used to know what to do; I used to have answers. Lately, I only have questions. We aren’t exactly friends these days and we aren’t exactly a happy family.
I decided who was in charge—me—and started up the stairs. Then the doorbell rang.
Two young officers in uniform, who were so much like guys I knew when I was young that it hurt. They identified themselves and politely asked me to take them to the “situation.”
Joe and I stood nearby watching, keeping an eye on them and at the same time, curious to see what they would do.
When they poked their head into the hole in the wall, one of them said, “Holy shit!” then he looked at me and muttered a quick “Sorry.”
“It’s OK. I’ve heard it before.”
“Jeez,” he said to his partner, “it looks like a burial or something.”
“You said it. We’ve got to call detectives in, crime scene, the works.”
The other one agreed. “They’re going to drop their teeth when they hear this one.” He turned to us. “We need to ask you some questions, and we’re gonna tell you not to touch a thing until the experts show up. Got that?”
“I need names, addresses, phone numbers, occupation.” He whipped out a notebook and pen. “So you live here? What were you doing when you found these bones?”
“Mrs. Donato wasn’t here,” Joe said emphatically. “She was at work. I’m her contractor. We started to break down that wall and there it was.”
“So you found it?”
“Not exactly. I was here, but Mrs. Donato’s daughter, who’s working for me, was the one who actually uncovered it.”
“Oh yeah? And where is she? We’ll need to talk to her.”
“She’s upstairs, but please,” I begged, “she’s only fifteen and she’s really upset. Can’t you just talk to us?”
“No, ma’m, we can’t.” He smiled. “I have a younger sister. We’ll be nice, don’t worry, but let me get straight on these other questions first. Now, do you own or rent? Anyone else live here, besides you and our daughter? And how long have you been here?”
“Own. Ten years. It’s only us right now. We used to rent out the garden floor, until we started all this construction.”
“And you’re fixing it up now?” He turned to Joe. “And you’re in charge of that?”
I said, “Of course he is. You don’t think we….”
“Nope, not thinking anything, just asking questions about stuff the detectives might want to know. OK, let’s get the young lady down here.”
I hesitated, wanting to argue, then gave in and went to get her. I found her curled up on the top step. She lifted her face from her knees and said, “I can’t. I won’t.”
“There is no choice here. You have to. If you don’t come down, I’m sure they’ll come up to get you. Wouldn’t that be worse?”
She gave me a considering look and went clattering down the stairs.
I followed, braced for more hysteria, but the young cops kept their promise and treated her gently. She described how she broke through the wall with a sledgehammer, and they teased her about not being that strong, and she offered to show them. Standing near the broken wall, looking in again, one of them said to the other, “Tell you something. I think that’s a kid. Not a little kid, but a young girl.”
The second cop said, “You can’t tell all that from bones!”
“Yeah, you can. The experts can, anyways. Bet you anything it turns out to be female and young. Ever know a guy with a teddy bear?”
Chris looked ready to cry again, but I knew they were merely being young cops, covering up their discomfort. Either that, or they were jerks. I barely got the words out—“Have a little respect here!”—when the bell rang again.
A crowd filled my steps, men and women, some in plainclothes, some in uniform. They came in, identified themselves, conferred with the cops already here. We sat in a corner, quiet and out of their way, and they forgot about us. In the blur of their intense activity, I never did figure out exactly who was who. Some were detectives, some maybe from a crime scene unit. They went right to work, carefully enlarging the hole Chris had made, taking pictures, taking samples, bagging up everything they found.
One would say, “Chain bracelet, silver-color,” and the other wrote it down. “Record albums here—Rolling Stones, Sympathy for the Devil. The Doors. Just called The Doors, I guess. Jefferson Airplane. Surrealistic Pillow. Real oldies. I mean, when do you see records at all any more?”
“Man, this is a weird one. I don’t see the head bashed in, we’re not finding bullets here. Sure looks suspicious, but there’s no obvious cause of death.”
Another voice said, “ME’s gonna have a field day with this one.”
Chris covered her ears.
Joe watched what they did, asked and answered questions, but I sat with my daughter, stroking her hair. Then someone handing out the objects gave a low whistle and muttered, “I’ll be damned.” Everyone turned his way as he carefully held up a broken piece of brick and said, “There’s writing on it. RIP. Then it says 9/16/72.
Over Chris’s hidden head, Joe and I stared at each other as one of the cops said, “Not a cover up, a freakin’ burial,” and another said, “Or both.”
Eventually one of the men in plainclothes came to us and double-checked all our answers to the questions of the first cops. He said to Joe, “Joe Greenberg? Office at 533 Bergen? We’ll want to check out your contracting license numbers,” and to me, “Can you verify when you moved here? And where you lived before? We might want that, but it can wait.”
He turned to his colleagues and said quietly, “If everything checks out, they’re OK. This situation looks way older than their residence.”
At last, they gently placed the body in a bag and wheeled it out, placed a bright yellow crime scene tape across the hole in the wall and started packing up their equipment. I hadn’t moved from the sofa but looking through the front window I could see a crowd gathered outside, curious neighbors, a few cars stopped to see what was going on.
I heard a familiar voice saying, “I live next door. Just checking to see if everything’s with Miz Donato. Anything I can do?” Mr. Pastore, my grandfatherly next door neighbor.
A cop replied, “Yeah, she’s all right. You can come back later. No one’s coming in right now.”
The plainclothes officer who seemed to be in charge came back to us and said, “We’re going to check out everything you told us, but for now, relax.”
Chris’s head snapped up. “Checking us out? Do you possibly think we had anything to do with that….that….those bones? ”
He smiled slightly. “No, young lady, we don’t think that, but we have to ask, you know.”
“Well, I do know. My uncle—well, almost uncle—is a retired detective. And he would know better!”
“Oh? What’s his name?”
“Sergeant Rick Malone,” she said proudly.
“Could be I’ve met him. Now, listen.” He glanced sternly from me to Chris to Joe. “No one, and I mean no one, touches anything! That’s what the tape is for, to keep everyone away. Don’t even touch the tape! Don’t even work near there. Don’t even think about it. Got that?”
“Good.” He saw his crew was gathered at the door. “Here’s my card, in case you need to get in touch. I’m Russo. I’ll be in touch with you, if we need anything else. That’s it for now.”
And they were gone at last. Chris, Joe, and I stared at each other. Then Chris stood, said, “This is too gruesome!” and disappeared upstairs.
Joe asked me if I were all right, but I waved him away and he left. He needed to get on with his evening plans and I needed to collapse.
I found a cold beer in the fridge and fell into my favorite chair.
I could barely take in what I had seen. There was a body in my house. It had been there, unknown, all these years. It was not scary, not physically threatening, and I don’t believe in ghosts, but my own little house that I loved so much now felt different to me. And not in a good way. Plus I might be dealing with the police for a long time to come. As if I did not have enough on my shoulders already.
The phone broke into my muddled thoughts. It was my best friend Darcy, “Can you come meet me for a bite of dinner in a little while? I want a glass of wine and girl talk.”
“Oh, no, not a chance, not tonight.”
“Try to change that to ‘yes of course.’ I’m a free woman and I want to make the most of it. ALL my kids are out doing teenager things and Carl is on a business trip.”
“I don’t know…”
She abruptly stopped her torrent of conversation. “What’s wrong? I hear it in your voice.”
So I told her about the discovery in our house and she was appropriately shocked. “And Chris was hysterical? Of course she was. You poor thing! But who can blame her? How are you doing?” Then she said, carefully, “Maybe it would be good for you to get out tonight. Don’t you think? Be with people, have a little distraction.“
“But I can’t … Chris…”
“Chris will be fine.” She said it with the confidence of one who had survived three teenagers.
“No, Darcy, I don’t think … not tonight….”
Then, the sound of teen-age chatter came drifting down the stairs.
“Hold on a minute.”
Standing at the bottom of the stairs, I could easily hear Chris. Our house is tiny for the neighborhood, with a separate rental apartment, now empty, on the garden floor and only two narrow stories for our own use. Her high voice came floating out of her room, rising and falling.
“Oh. My. God,” she said. “Oh my god! I hit the sheet rock with a hammer and it crumbled and there was this skeleton. It was the scariest, creepy…” Pause. “No, I am not kidding! How could you even think that? They were totally real bones and sort of dried skin too. And hair! Honest.”
Her voice fell again, and I could only hear the sounds, not the words, but it didn’t matter. She was working her own phone, processing the events of the day in her own teen-aged way, with her friends. I said thank you to someone out there, the patron saint of parenthood.
I returned to my own call, told Darcy I would call her back and went upstairs. Before I could I knock, Chris’ door opened. She had changed her clothes and was in mid-makeup.
“I’ve got to get out of this house. It’s too creepy.”
“I hear that. Where are you going?”
“Meeting Mel for pizza.” Her tone was sulky but her expression was pleading. I thought time with her best friend might be good for her.
“Then I might have supper with Darcy. You have your phone? Be home by ten.”
“Whatever.” She closed her bedroom door.
I wanted to smash the door down, even though I knew she was just trying to get control of her shock. Because I am a mature adult, I called Darcy instead, jumped into the shower, dressed quickly in a cool sundress and sandals, skipped makeup, and left the house. The ten-block walk to the restaurant, a cute patisserie with light meals, would give me time to compose myself. At least I hoped it would.
I stopped to exchange a few words with Mr. Pastore, assuring him I was fine, and Chris was fine, and promised to tell him all about it later. I stopped his flood of questions by admiring the magnificent roses he was pruning, and hurried down the block to our main avenue.
Before I got there, a voice called to me from across the street. It was Mary, our neighborhood crazy lady. Sometimes she was Ellen or even, occasionally, Zsa Zsa.
Of course we all teach the children to say the more correct “mentally ill.” There were days she was incoherent, weeping, ranting, clearly unwashed and smelly, and probably off medication. Other days we have had wholly rational conversations about the changing color of the leaves or who was moving in and out, but she has never told me exactly where she lived, or where she comes from. I was pretty sure she was alone in the world, but even that was only a guess.
Today seemed to be a somewhat lucid day. She called out, “Everything all right, dear? I saw police at your house. They scared me.”
I only gave her what I hoped was a friendly wave and an “Everything’s fine.” I didn’t want to be unkind, but I didn’t have the time or energy for her tonight.
I turned the corner into the crowds on the avenue. My modest house is on what used to be the far raggedy edge of Park Slope, this famously beautiful, historic neighborhood. But the neighborhood keeps spreading. Sometimes I miss the butcher and the sprawling, shabby toy store, so handy for last minute gifts, and even the tired corner bars where old men drank beer at eleven a.m. Coffee bars that offer four-dollar cappuccinos are replacing them all.
Actually, I was powerfully tempted when I passed one of them. The stress from this strange day was rapidly sinking in. Something sad and ugly had happened right there, in the home where Chris and I had been living our ordinary lives. It didn’t feel quite so much like our shelter any more. Caffeine and sugar to go suddenly seemed like a wonderful idea.
I exercised self-control on the coffee but could not control my thoughts. Was there someone out there in the world wondering about the dead girl all these years, or was she one more of the city’s tragic lost souls? I thought of my own child and I shuddered.
At the same time, I walked along through the warm summer night, skirting a chattering group of Chris’s friends, who smiled nervously, no doubt wishing to be invisible to parental eyes. Outside the car service storefront, I passed the South Asian drivers, smoking and lounging, who always pretended I was invisible myself.
I passed the laughing, Spanish-speaking teen-agers on the corner, not so different from me and my friends, hanging out back in the day, and the young professionals waiting to get into the glossy new Thai restaurant with its smells of garlic and curry calling to me as I went by. I waved to an acquaintance, calling, “Hi, got to run, I’m late.”
Summer night in a living city neighborhood.
It hit me, not for the first time, what a long way from home this neighborhood is for me. Only a few miles physically, but mentally, more of a leap than if I’d come here from North Carolina. I grew up on the other side of Brooklyn, blue collar Brooklyn, Italian, Irish, Jewish, filled with endless rows of semi-modern, identical attached brick houses, boring and charmless, though much loved by their owners. Children went to college locally, if at all, married, and moved nearby. I had happily expected to spend my life right there, where people mostly looked alike. Mostly thought alike too.
This whole odyssey across Brooklyn was financed by my young husband’s life insurance. After he died I became desperate to make a fresh start in a neighborhood completely devoid of his presence. Now a small legacy from my mother was making the desperately needed work on the house a reality.
I ordered myself to push all those all thoughts away. Tonight the here and now was more than complicated enough.
In a few minutes I was sitting in the patisserie, tossing back my iced coffee, heavy on the sugar and whipped cream, and waiting for my chronically late best friend. We met at a nursery school bake sale all those years ago, and instantly clicked over the chocolate cupcakes. I have no idea why. I don’t exactly understand her work—media research—what the heck is that?—and I’m a Brooklyn girl and she’s a Darien girl, and she has an MBA from Wharton and I started out as a middle school teacher, but—I don’t know—we turned out to be the friend we each didn’t know we were looking for.
She greeted me with a hug and sat down. “You don’t look well. In fact you look awful. Are you in shock?”
“Me? No, just tired. Well, maybe shock. I don’t know!”
She patted my hand. “Oh, honey, you’re in shock, and you have a right to be. Let’s order and I’m treating to wine, too. Call it restorative. Then tell me all.”
So I did. I must have needed to talk, because we were looking at the dessert menu before I suddenly stopped. I apologized for the monologue and Darcy said, “Don’t be silly. Ready for an éclair? Or two?”
“You are a bad influence.”
“Of course. Isn’t that what friends are for?” I smiled, still scraping up the last of my Cobb salad.
“So, did I get it that the cops took everything away and now you go back to normal?”
“I don’t know. They said to leave it alone so they can take another look if they want to. And I don’t know about back to normal. I don’t think either Chris or I will just forget about it. It was too…. it was a shock..…and you know Chris was already mad at me for making her work instead of going to camp. And the part about it being a young girl most likely…” My hand started to shake a little.
Darcy gently took the wine glass from my fingers and set it on the table. “I didn’t mean that you would forget. Even I won’t, and I’ve only heard it from you. No one who has teen-agers could. Did they at least say they’d let you know what they learn? If they ever do?”
“Umm not exactly, but I could get back to them. Badger them if I have to. She’ll haunt us otherwise.” I smiled at Darcy to let her know I was joking. Sort of.
“I’m sorry I can’t help with that. I don’t have any contacts to tap into in that world.”
That made me want to smile for real. Networking is like breathing to Darcy. In our decade of friendship she has found me a pediatric ophthalmologist, a termite expert, and someone to make a flower girl dress. I had no doubt she could find me samba lessons too.
“I’ll ask my dad, but I think it’s out of his sphere too. Oh!” she went on. “I completely forgot. Your discovery blew it right out of my mind. Speaking of contacts, could I set up a meeting with a friend of my dad’s?”
She saw my bafflement and said, “Sorry to change subjects, but just listen. He’s advising on something involving Brooklyn development and he asked me about how to get a quick tutorial on the issues. I’m probably the only person in Brooklyn he knows. I thought, who better than you?”
“Uh, I’m not such an expert. Not yet.”
She waved a dismissive hand. “Doesn’t matter. Now listen, here’s my thinking. Seriously. He would be a useful contact for you. He’s a golf buddy of my dad and he is very connected.” She added quickly, laughing, “The proper kind of connected, not the crime kind, as in Deerfield, Princeton, family names on old banks. That kind. More to the point, his family is on museum boards. You work in a museum. And he’s a nice man, too. Plus, there would definitely be a consulting fee. I’ve already laid that down with him.”
She added, “Come on, Erica. Think. People in his world support museums. He supports museums. They all know each other. They put in good words for people they like, and they put them in with the people who are at the top of the pyramid. Getting it now?”
I was, sort of. And even if I didn’t, entirely, like I said, my buddy is the queen of networking. Maybe my judgment was softened by the éclairs, because I said yes.
She whipped out her phone, speed dialed and said, “Steven, Darcy here. My friend Erica said yes, she’ll make the time for you. Call her.” She added my number and turned back to me.
“And wear something nice? And makeup? It makes a more professional impression.” I started to protest, but she said firmly, “No, not office clothes, but not those ratty gym shorts you wear at home, either.” I sighed. She knows me too well.
“Your eyes are closing. Come on, let’s get home.” She walked me out, hugged me and said, “No nightmares tonight,” and I hopped a bus home. Suddenly the walk seemed too much. All the way home, I dreaded dealing with my moody child, even with Darcy’s words still in my head. “She’s a teen-ager. She’ll be grown up someday. Trust me on this.”
There was a note from Chris. “Went to bed. Please don’t make noise coming up! Uncle Rick called. I told him everything. He wants to change our locks and said to tell you he’s coming for dinner tomorrow and he’ll bring pizza. Wants a full report.” Good, I thought. Rick was the very person I most wanted to see.
Before I went up, I glanced into the dining room, where the bright yellow police tape seemed to shine in the dark, and the dusty sour smell seemed to have spread through the first floor. Then I checked on Chris, who was already sound asleep, and went to bed, finally, wondering if I would dream all night about that sad little skeleton. That body had been hidden, buried carefully, it seemed, but hidden. Had there been a terrible accident?
Or—I finally had to say the ugly words I’d been trying to keep away all evening. Had someone killed her?
Copyright © 2013 by Triss Stein
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Triss Stein, author of Murder at the Class Reunion and Digging Up Death, is a small-town girl who has spent most of her adult life living and working in New York City. Brooklyn Bones is the first in a new series about everyday Brooklyn life, Brooklyn history, and Brooklyn crime.