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Through the window over the diaper table, in the backyard, I could see them hitting.
I tried to hurry with diapering Moira, but she kept squirming away from me, chattering loudly in a language known only to hersself. I let her stand up, but then I stuck her ever so slightly with the diaper pin. I should have used the disposable diapers. Bridget had gotten a supply of them before leaving me with her four interesting offspring for a week.
I had spurned the disposable diapers on the grounds that they were not ecologically sound. I was going to be super-sitter. I was going to have everything under control. I'd been in charge for a total of two hours, fifteen minutes, and already it was disintegrating all over the place.
Moira stopped screaming about the diaper-pin stick. Really, it was no more than a poke, hardly breaking the skin, but for some reason she didn't like it. She didn't like the way I'd put the big piece of cloth on her, either. When I set her on the floor, she stood up and started pushing the diaper down over her nonexistent hips in a businesslike way.
Bloodthirsty screams came from the backyard. Framed in the window, I saw Corky, the seven-year-old, whack his brother Sam with what looked like a big bone. I blinked, but the weapons didn't change. Sam. five, also armed with a bone, hollered with outrage and swung back. Mick, the three-year-old, dug placidly in the sandbox. While I watched, he used a reddish-brown curve of cranium to scoop up some sand. He picked something out of the sand he'd scooped and regarded it thoughtfully before popping it into his mouth.
I grabbed Moira's small, damp palm and hurried her out of the room. Two hours, twenty minutes,and counting. It was going to be a long week.
How had this happened to me? Liz Sullivan, confirmed spinster, good at ducking commitments. Of course, I felt a sense of obligation to Bridget Montrose, a woman so nice she worries about hurting her occasional cleaning service's feelings by telling them they missed a spot. Bridget and Emery had been looking forward to their Hawaiian vacation for months. Emery was attending a conference, and Bridget was wild to go with him. She'd mentioned several times that she hadn't been away from the kids since before Mick was born. She'd lined up her mother to come from the Midwest and stay with the kids for the week of the conference. She and Emery had spent evenings poring over guideBooks, trying to figure out how to get the most out of their six days.
Then Bridget's mother had broken her ankle. She'd begged off of watching four active children while tottering around on crutches, and I could see why. A person would need to be totally able-bodied. In fact, I felt much too old for the job, and I was only thirty-five.
I went out on the back porch with Moira's little hand clasping mine, the diaper it had taken me several minutes to put on sagging down around her tiny butt. Corky and Sam were still facing off with their femurs. I thought they must be some kind of Flintstone-related toy bones, until I heard the solid thwack they made when the boys engaged again.
"Corky. Sam. Drop your bones."
Sullenly, the boys complied, casting hate-filled glances at each other. Most of the time, Bridget's children were pretty easygoing and had a lot of fun with each other. But Corky and Sam were old enough to realize that their folks weren't coming back for a while.
"He started it," Sam said, pointing at his older brother.
Cork's brilliant red hair blazed in the sun when he tossed his head. "Yeah, well, you asked for it." His sneer couldn't have been bettered by Hollywood coaching.
I picked up Moira to go down the steps, noticing once more that a fourteen-month-old child was not really small when you carried her. She didn't want to be carried. She wanted to do it herself, judging from the way her small fists pummeled my chest. But I had a mission. I went over to the sandbox. Sure enough, Mick was using a piece of skull for his sand-sifting. Sure enough, he was finding little bits of unidentified matter, which I suspected were cat poop, to gnaw on.
"Spit that out, Mick. It's nasty."
He looked up at me, considering. "No," he said. He was a boy of few words.
I hooked a finger through his mouth to get everything out, as I'd seen Bridget do a thousand times. He bit me. At least, the thing he'd been gnawing on was nothing worse than a mummified plum pit from the tree overhanging the sandbox.
I grabbed the piece of skull and put it on the picnic table along with the big bones the boys had been using. The gruesome collection gave me a bad feeling.
"Where did you get these bones?"
Corky and Sam looked at each other and away, united now against the common enemy. I softened my voice. I'm not used to talking much with kids. In the past, treating them as small adults has worked okay. But now that I was the authority figure, it wasn't going over so well.
"Listen, you're not in trouble about the bones. You're in trouble because you broke one of your mom's rules."
"Yeah, yeah. No hitting." Corky looked bored. "We weren't really hitting. We were just--swatting."
"He was hitting," Sam insisted stubbornly. "We were play-big apes from 2001, and he started hitting me."
"Where did you find the bones?"
Corky jerked his head toward the front of the house. "You said we could," he said defensively. Sam was more easygoing, but Corky, thin and intense, often had a chip on his shoulder. I swallowed my first impulse, and sat on the picnic table bench, bringing me closer to his level.
"I don't remember what I said you could do."
"You said we could escalate," Sam chimed in.
Corky snorted in disgust. "Excalate, dummy."
"No name-calling." The rules were coming automatically to mind. I have baby-sat for the Montrose kids, but only for the evening. At some point they go to bed. I wished devoutly that instead of being nine A.M., it was nine P.M. "You were excavating? I remember now."
"Yeah, like you said. Where they're tearing up the sidewalk." Corky jerked his head again. "There's lots of bones in there." For the first time, a thought struck him. "Are they real?"
They looked real to me, although they were a mottled brown, not the ivory color I would have expected. I ran a finger down the length of one long bone; it felt gritty. "I don't know."
"I thought," Corky stammered, losing some of his attitude, "I thought they were like dinosaur things. This guy I know, for his birthday party we dug in this pile of dirt in his backyard, and we found dinosaur bone things. His mom put them there."
"She did?" Sam was disappointed. He'd been to the party, too, it seemed. "I thought real dinosaurs lived in Jeffrey's backyard."
"Dummy." The response was automatic. I forgot to correct him, but Sam did it for me with a quick punch to the stomach.
"That's enough." I picked up the bones and the skull and looked over at the sandbox. "Mick, don't eat anything in there. Let's all go look where the sidewalk was."
Every so often in Palo Alto, the city replaces tilting or broken sidewalks, more, I suspect, to avoid liability than to pamper the residents. A magnolia tree in the parking strip before Bridget's house had raised the pavement, and a city crew had come by earlier in the week to tear out the old chunks of sidewalk and pare the roots of the tree, leaving smooth, flat dirt for the next crew, which would pour new concrete there.
The boys had done a good job of excavating, I had to give them that. I had told them they could, soon after Bridget and Emery left for the airport that morning. It was Cork's idea, but the thought of digging had made Sam much more cheerful, as anything involving dirt is likely to do for seven- and five-year-olds. And since Mick and Moira were both howling, I'd only made the condition that they had to put all the dirt back when they finished, and let them go at it.
They'd put the dirt back all right, although the careful mountain they'd built between the stakes and strings was unlikely to endear them to the Public Works crew. Despite its being Saturday, the hard hats were out in force down the street a little way, clanging around with huge metal plates to cover the holes they had dug in the pavement. So far they hadn't noticed the boys' work. All this tearing up is called maintaining the infrastructure, although its most obvious effect is creating a lot of noise and traffic problems.
"See?" Corky pulled a slender, curved, brownish wand out of the dirt pile and brandished it. "There's lots of those bones. Long, skinny ones like cutlasses." He spoke with relish, but then cast a doubtful glance my way. "If they're not play bones, what are they?"
"I don't know." Evidently the sidewalk crew hadn't found any bones when they'd pruned the magnolia roots. "We'd better find out, though. Let's go inside. You boys can fix a snack, while I try to figure out who to talk to."
I kept an eye on the snack-making while I phoned one Public Works number after another. I learned several things, the most important of which is that no one is available on Saturdays. The sidewalks were contracted out to a construction firm, which had the most intricate voice mail I'd ever heard--after several minutes of pressing one and entering pound, I was lost. The city voice mail claimed that in an emergency, someone would get back to me. Considering the state of the bones, I couldn't really say it was an emergency.
Eventually, of course, I called Paul Drake. As soon as a skull came into it, I'd known it would involve him. Paul Drake is a homicide detective for Palo Alto, where Bridget and I both live. He lives here, too; in fact, he lives right in front of my house, a couple of blocks from the scene of the bone find. Of course, since it was Saturday morning, he wouldn't be quite so excited to hear that I wanted him in his professional capacity.
In fact, it appeared to be quite early on Saturday morning from his point of view. His answer to the telephone was a grumpy monosyllable.
Having been up for what seemed like hours--not only up, but engaged in nonstop combat duty--I had no sympathy. "Drake. I need you to come and look at some bones."
"Your bones?" He yawned through the phone. "You want me to jump them?"
This was rather heavy-handed of him, but since he'd obviously not had his morning espresso, I forgave him. "No. These bones are dead. Very dead, from the look of things."
"Human bones? Really?" He sounded more awake.
"I don't know." I looked at the cranium. It wasn't a whole skull--just a bowl-shaped curve about the size of the back of my head. "But could be, I guess."
He yawned again. "Where are you, anyway?" It must have just occurred to him that if I'd found bones at home, I'd be knocking on his back door by now.
"I'm at Bridget's, remember? You're supposed to be taking care of Barker for me while I take care of things here."
"Right." I could hear various rustling noises, and created a picture of Drake in his rumpled bed. Although I have seen Drake in his bed in early morning dishabille, I haven't been in there myself, despite being invited, and despite thinking quite a lot about the invitation.
Drake's not a tall man, or particularly handsome. He's a few years older than I, with wild, curly, graying hair and granny glasses. But his body is surprisingly muscular for someone with his stocky build, and he has a teddy-bear quality that is very appealing when he's caught off-guard, as he would be in the morning.
"Okay," he said, after a moment. "I've got my glasses on. I'll get dressed and bring Barker over. It's probably nothing more than an Indian burial--they're sometimes found near San Francisquito Creek. Don't let the boys stir it up any more than they already have."
He hung up before I could think of a retort to that implied criticism. I sliced the bagels I'd brought with me, wondering if disturbing ancient Indian bones would bring unhappy ancestral spirits down on my head. I don't need extra bad vibes in my life. There are plenty to go around already.
With his mouth full of bagel, Corky harangued me about moving all the dirt again to put the femurs and the rest back with the other bones. "We should put them back," he insisted. "It's the scene of the crime, Aunt Liz."
Sam was not up for this. He was spooked by the idea that they were not fake-dinosaur bones. "They're dirty," he said fastidiously, as if this were normally any kind of deterrent to him. "We shouldn't touch them. Right, Aunt Liz?"
The spirited discussion stopped just short of physical violence. Finally I gave Corky permission to arrange the bones he'd already found in a cardboard box in any way he wanted, as long as he stayed on the front porch and didn't bring any specimens inside. Sam drank extra juice and seemed to feel better about it all. At any rate, he announced that "Reading Rainbow" was on and settled in front of the TV.
Corky was back within minutes to join Sam and Mick in front of the TV. I changed Moira again after all that juice. Her eyelids were at half-mast; she'd been up early to say good-bye to Bridget and Emery. I hoped she would have a nice long morning nap, which the schedule Bridget had given me indicated would happen. I rocked her, and gradually she got heavier and heavier until she fell asleep. Putting her to bed, I comforted myself with the thought that although the weekend stretched before me with hours to fill until Monday morning, the children would be going back to school then, even Mick, and I would only have Moira to deal with. I might be able to get a breath or two in then.
Unless the bones turned into something major. I collapsed on the front porch steps, staring at the mountain of dirt the boys had made and wondering what the odds were of them being, after all, dinosaur bones.