September 24, 2019
Cover art: Reese Dante
Genre: Mystery, contemporary romance
The Mystery of the Bones
Snow & Winter: Book #4
My mornings at the Emporium were dictated by a comfortable and quiet routine:
Nat King Cole on the speakers.
Tolerable coffee from the cheap maker in my office.
Coaxing the thermostat until the ancient radiators pinged and hissed with steam.
And when someone disrupted that sense of order, it had a tendency to irritate me.
A sudden bang on the front door caused me to lose track of the till I was counting. I leaned over the counter and squinted at the blurry shape on the other side of the glass.
Whoever it was knocked again and called in a muffled voice, “Courier!”
I grunted and handed my assistant, Max Ridley, the wad of small change. “Count that for me.” I walked down the steps, made my way through the twists and turns of my cavernous store, then unlocked and opened the front door. A whoosh of bitterly cold, snowy wind entered. “We’re not open yet.”
The bike courier shrugged in her bulky winter attire. “Hey, man, not my problem,” she countered, speaking through a face mask. She thrust a clipboard at me. “Sign the last line.”
I brought the paperwork closer, but the details of the package’s origin were beyond impossible to read in the chicken-scratch handwriting of the courier’s office employee. “Hope you’re getting paid extra to deliver before business hours,” I said, signing my name on the form and handing it back.
The courier shoved the clipboard into her oversized bag, removed a square box, and all but threw it into my arms. “And many happy returns.” She turned, stepped back into the cold morning, and unlocked her bike from the lamppost across from the shop.
“Yeah. Happy holidays,” I muttered, closing the door. “What time is it?”
“Um… five ’til,” Max said from the counter.
I left the door unlocked.
Max shut the brass register’s drawer as I joined him once more. He picked up his mug and took a sip of coffee. “That’s not the Depression glassware, is it?”
“I hope not,” I replied, setting the box down. “Unless they sent the decanter in pieces.”
Max visibly cringed at the notion.
Depression glass was too new to have any sort of permanent residency in my shop, but I’d agreed to taking on a rare seven-piece drinking set in what was promised to be a ruby red color, as a project for Max. He’d been more adamant of late about helping with research and amassing contacts of his own. And since the market was always alive and well for Depression glassware, I decided what the hell.
I used a pair of scissors to slice the tape down the middle of the box. I pulled the cardboard flaps back and removed a single sheet of folded paper from atop thick, opaque plastic. Scrawled in what appeared to be a modern rendition of Spencerian script was: Mr. Sebastian Snow, Proprietor.
“What’s it say?” Max asked before I’d gotten any further than unfolding the note.
“It’s not a winning lotto ticket,” I remarked, glancing sideways at him. “So I’m already losing interest.”
“Life isn’t all about money, Seb.”
“You can say that. You don’t have a hospital bill the length of a CVS receipt.”
I’d been shot in May. That batshit crazy Pete White had nearly taken me out with an antique revolver, and all I had to show for surviving was a nasty scar and enough debt to choke a horse. Unsurprisingly, upon learning the value of the Dickson drafts I’d saved, the surviving Robert family members wanted them back and had zero interest in letting me handle their affairs at auction.
As if my percentage would even make a dent in what I predicted their payment would be. Which—fine. Good luck to them trying to maneuver the world of high-end auctions without contacts. Meanwhile, I’d be over here dodging phone calls from the hospital’s collection department. No big deal.
I pulled my magnifying glass from my back pocket and held it over the cursive that mimicked the aesthetic of business communications circa mid-nineteenth century.
An Intriguing Proposition for a Most Curious Man.
Who I am is of no great importance. What I am proposing is.
I, hereby known afterward as Party A, am looking to hire Sebastian Andrew Snow, hereby known as Party B, to recover a most unusual article lost to time and neglect.
I paused, touched the flap on the cardboard box, and tilted it to read, but the only address details were my own. Who the hell was this, and how’d they learn my middle name? I played Andrew pretty close to the chest. No offense to Pop, but I wasn’t a fan.
“What’s that smell?” Max asked suddenly.
I made a vague sound of acknowledgment before continuing to read.
Upon said article’s salvage, Party A is prepared to reward Party B with a most substantial sum.
“What?” I lowered the magnifying glass to the bottom of the page in order to inspect a disturbingly realistic hand-drawn eye. But that was it. No other details, no contact information, no nada.
“Did you shower this morning?”
At the second disruption to my thoughts, I set the paper down and turned to Max. “Yes.”
“Then what smells like sour milk?” He raised his own arm before shaking his head and saying, “It’s not me.”
“What’s it say about you that you needed to double-check first?” But then I got a whiff of the—death.
And as if Max and I came to the same conclusion at once, we both turned to stare at the steps on my left. Almost one year ago exactly, we’d found a rotting heart under the floorboards and my life forever changed when a redheaded detective came to the Emporium to investigate the mystery.
“‘Villains!’ I shrieked. ‘Dissemble no more!’” I quoted under my breath.
“Don’t.” Max moved around me and tiptoed down the stairs.
He crouched and began to inspect the steps for loose boards that would allow one to successfully conceal a human body part. “Don’t pull out your quotes. It makes everything go topsy-turvy real fast.”
“It does not.”
“It makes you obsessive.”
“Curious,” I corrected. “And it’s human nature to be curious.”
“Not you. And when you get obsessive, people try to kill you.” He looked at me briefly with an expression that read sort of like fight me.
“You act like you’re going to find me dead in a gutter on Staten Island by tomorrow. It stinks in here—I have a right to be curious.”
Max shook his head and continued checking for a floorboard that’d give way to a macabre surprise. “Hello, 911? My boss thinks he’s Columbo….”
“Keep it up and I’m going to trash your holiday bonus.”
Max glanced up a second time, considered, but ultimately dropped the conversation. “The floor’s fine.” He stood, took a step, then frowned as his gaze lowered to the package on the counter.
I looked at it too. It was a very unassuming box. I leaned in and took a sniff. The rancid stench coming from within the plastic made me gag.
“Who’d you piss off now?” Max whispered, a wobble in his voice.
We both studied the box again.
From the corner of my eye, I saw him raise his fist in the classic gesture of rock-paper-scissors. I followed, and on the silent count of three, threw scissors. Max knocked my hand with rock. I let out a breath, squared my shoulders, then grabbed the heavy plastic bag stuffed into the package.
I hoisted out a decapitated human head.