Bone Key

Bone Key

by Les Standiford
Bone Key

Bone Key

by Les Standiford


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Its tough being a small-time hustler in Key West, FL. When this hustler is being beaten by a cop, John Deal steps in to stop it, but it is only a temporary rescue: the hustler turns up dead only two days later. The cops are claiming ignorance and the locals arent saying a word. Could the dead man be somehow connected to a seventy-year-old tale of piracy, murder, and greed? No one knows what really happened on that storm-swept night. But something about the legend and the recent murder are haunting John Deal to the bone.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781615953097
Publisher: Sourcebooks
Publication date: 07/31/2012
Series: John Deal Series , #7
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: eBook
Pages: 304
File size: 668 KB

About the Author

Les Standiford is the bestselling author of twenty books and novels, including the John Deal mystery series, and the works of narrative history “The Man Who Invented Christmas”, a “New York Times” Editor’s Choice, and “Last Train to Paradise”. He is the director of the creative writing program at Florida International University in Miami, where he lives with his wife, Kimberly, a psychotherapist and artist.


Miami, Florida

Date of Birth:

October 31, 1945

Place of Birth:

Cambridge, Ohio


B.A., Muskingum College; M.A. and Ph.D., University of Utah

Read an Excerpt



The storm had passed through the Florida Straits the night before, at that time a piddling hurricane, with winds no more than seventy-five or eighty miles per hour, according to the newspapers. Gusts in everyday summer thunderstorms might reach those speeds in this part of the world. If you were a seafaring man, you understood that much, and being a Caymaner by birth, and therefore a seafarer, Ainsley Spencer understood, even if he could not read the newspapers.

He also understood that hurricanes were feckless creatures that considered no man's prayers or wishes, and disregarded probability and logic when it suited them. Take what was bearing down upon them now: a storm that had somehow done the impossible.

Just when everyone on the island had breathed a sigh of relief and muttered their good riddances, this storm retraced its steps, whirling right back through the broad channel that separated Key West from Cuba. Just as it seemed the storm would barrel into Havana Bay, it had, in an ultimate display of capriciousness, turned due north, gathering strength from the warm August waters all the while.

Now the storm carried winds twice its original strength, a real monster, barreling hell-bent toward this island of one mile by four, where the highest land lay no more than sixteen feet above the boundless waters on the calmest of days. Already Ainsley could taste salt in the sheeted rain running down his face.

The senator had called for Ainsley just after supper, asking that he bring three of his best men along. By then, the winds were howling, and most anyone with sense had taken the best shelter they could. But when the senator called, there was no saying wait or maybe, much less no. That was just the way it was, and the three men whom Ainsley had picked felt exactly as he did. He'd told June Anna where he was going and why, and she'd nodded and sent him on his way with a wordless embrace.

Now, the four of them dragged themselves down windswept Whitehead Street toward the harbor, none of them wasting energy trying to talk about the clamoring storm. Ainsley glanced up as they passed the Rexall drugstore to see the swinging sign tear loose of its standard and go flying into the ever-darkening distance. Pity the man who looked up to see that metal sail bearing down on him, he thought. Slice him in two and keep on going, that's what. Growing up in the islands, Ainsley had seen such things and worse.

He led the way past the two-story brick bank building that marked the entrance to the docks, where the wind seemed to kick up another notch now that there was nothing left to shield them. The iron gates had been drawn shut and padlocked across the broad double doors of the bank's entrance, creaking and clanking against their chain in the gusts. Gates that might keep a thief out, Ainsley thought, but useless in a certain wind. He stepped off the sidewalk curb over a sodden wad of feathers that was a pigeon's carcass, but told himself it had likely been lying in the gutter before the storm's approach. Things had not gotten that bad yet.

There was a sheriff's car parked at the entrance to the docks, its headlights flaring at the group's approach. Ainsley lifted his chin into the gale and held up a hand, the rain nicking his palm as hard as buckshot. A spotlight snapped on and ran across his spattered features, then lapsed back into darkness, along with the headlights. Ainsley motioned the others forward.

In the harbor, several small boats heaved at their moorings as if they longed to leave the frothing sea and hurtle skyward. Some of the smallest craft had been hauled out to drydock, one already out of its chocks and tumbled onto its side. The hull needed a scraping, Ainsley saw. Maybe it would get one-if the boat survived the storm, that is.

The bigger boats had put out to sea, some bent on racing the storm northward toward Miami, others intending to ride it out nose to nose, where there were no pilings, no reefs, no neighboring craft to contend with. If you knew what you were about, Ainsley thought, it was not a bad way to go.

There was one freighter that remained at the dock, however, its bulk rising and falling with the erratic tides, first straining at its heavy lines, then crashing back against the mooring bumpers with a crash of waves. The Magdelena, Ainsley nodded. Some Spanish he could read. The name didn't fit with the thoughts in his mind, though: Instead of a woman, he saw a giant metal bull thrashing panicked in its stall.

Men were staggering down a gangway that led to the docks from a port that yawned in the side of the big ship, each with a wooden crate on one shoulder and a hand on one of the swaying guy lines. There was a growing mound of crates on the dock below, fed by the antlike procession of the crew.

A man in a watch cap and slicker stood at the rail on the ship's bridge, measuring the progress intently. The captain, Ainsley assumed. A dark-browed man with Slavic features who looked like he'd be at home in the North Atlantic. Surely he longed to be untethered from this dock and out where he could deal with the storm on his own terms.

Ordinarily, a crane or cargo boom would make short work of such unloading, but in weather like this, such equipment was useless. If whatever it was had been owned by anyone besides the senator, Ainsley thought, there'd likely be no unloading going on at all.

As they crossed the docks toward the stacked crates, Ainsley felt more than heard the rumble behind him. As a heavy burst of rain swept over them, he turned to see a pair of canvas-topped trucks following in their footsteps, the lights of each flashing as they passed the sheriff's car. When the second truck had passed onto the docks, the sheriff's car roared into life, then rolled away quickly toward town. In moments it had been swallowed in the gloom.

Ainsley and his men stepped aside as the trucks rolled by. Ainsley didn't recognize the drivers, but he knew who employed them, as he knew there was no longer a need for whatever security the two in the sheriff's car might have been able to provide.

The trucks passed by the mound of crates then turned at the foot of the dock and came back to a stop beside the cargo, nosed toward town, their lights doused, engines running. The last of the crates had been stacked on the docks and the drenched crew members were making their way back up the bucking gangway toward the hold.

Ainsley saw that a man-small and hunched inside a yellow slicker that seemed to swallow him-had come to join the captain at the bridge. The captain said something to the man in the oversized slicker and pointed at the trucks. The man nodded and quickly clambered down a set of outer stairs onto the deck, then disappeared through a deckside door. In moments he reappeared at the gangway, pulling himself hand over hand down one of the lines to the dock.

Ainsley and his companions kept their distance as another man stepped down from the trucks and handed a satchel to the man in the flapping slicker, who opened it briefly and glanced inside. Whatever he saw seemed to satisfy him, for he turned to signal the captain on the bridge, then hurried back up the gangway with the satchel tucked to his chest.

"Let's go!" the man who'd handed over the satchel shouted to Ainsley then, and Ainsley motioned his men forward.

They had the crates loaded in less than half an hour, Ainsley reckoned, glancing out at the wind-riled harbor that receded behind him. He and his men had climbed aboard in the cargo space of the second truck, sitting now atop crates beneath the canvas that clattered with the waves of buckshot rain.

The Magdelena had long since steamed out of sight, and none too soon, he thought. As they'd finished loading the crates onto the trucks, a sloop had broken loose from its moorings out in the harbor to come shattering against the dock. With its mast and wheelhouse sheared away and a hole in her starboard hull, it had taken only moments for the boat to go down.

Ainsley, who felt about boats as most did about people, had watched it all as if witnessing a drowning he could do nothing to prevent. He glanced at the boats still rolling in the harbor and wondered how many of them would make it until morning.

There was a sudden pulsing of light on the distant seaward horizon then, followed by a rumbling sound that might have come from the storm. One of the men with Ainsley glanced over.

"What do you reckon?" he asked.

"Just thunder," said the man next to him.

Ainsley glanced out in the direction where the flash had come, thinking that in all this storming, he'd heard no thunder yet, and probably still had not. He turned back to the others and nodded.

"I reckon thunder," he said, and for the others, that was that.

What was printed on the crates was indecipherable, neither English nor Spanish. Ainsley assumed that what they were hauling was some exotic kind of whiskey, valuable enough for the senator to have brought it to port in weather such as this. He'd unloaded similar goods for his employer many times before, and often ran a tender well out into the Gulf Stream to take on shipments from captains loath to flout the laws of Prohibition. Normally, they would offload their cargo, then truck whatever that might be to a warehouse on Stock Island, where it was shipped by rail to places Ainsley did not care to know about.

The senator, whom Ainsley understood lived in some distant northern state and wielded an influence greater than anyone he'd known, including the Cayman governor himself, seldom came to Key West, but when he did, he treated Ainsley with the utmost respect. He'd set up an account for Ainsley in the very bank they'd passed on the way to the docks and had instructed Ainsley how to draw from that source when he needed.

Ainsley understood that the senator derived a great portion of his income from means that the government considered illegal, but this caused him not the slightest discomfort. He was a Caymaner and a seafaring man, and he understood that no one governed the sea. Furthermore, islands, being surrounded by the sea, existed in a sealike state themselves. Whatever the inhabitants of an island deemed right and proper for the conduct of their lives constituted the natural law. In these climes, governments were like barnacles: You put up with them, and then you scraped them away.

He felt the truck slowing and glanced out the back in mild surprise. They hadn't passed over the cut to Stock Island yet. He wondered why they were stopping.

He heard a door open and slam, then saw the man who'd handed over the satchel at the docks appear at the back of the truck. The man grabbed hold of a stave and vaulted up onto the bed beside him, an adroit move for someone of his size and bulk, Ainsley thought.

"Have 'em put these on," the man said, tossing a soggy wad of cloth into Ainsley's lap.

Ainsley glanced down at the wad, realizing it was bandannas that he held, lengths of cloth folded up into long strips a couple of inches wide. Four of them. "Blindfolds?" he asked, staring up at the man.

Water dripped from the man's chin and from the brim of his hat. "It's for your own good," he said. "The less you know, the better."

Ainsley thought about this, but he didn't have to think for long. If the senator wanted him to be blindfolded, he would be blindfolded. He turned and handed each of his men one of the folded bandannas. When they had tied the blindfolds into place, Ainsley heard a banging on the side of the truck and then they were under way again.

There were several turns and much more driving than the confines of a four-mile island would have allowed, but the journey could have included some backtracking and unnecessary turning to throw them off, Ainsley thought. In any case, he made no attempt to determine where they might be going. He simply hoped to get there before the storm arrived with its full fury.

Finally, he felt the truck slowing again and sensed that they had reached their destination. "Just sit tight," the man who'd delivered the blindfolds said when Ainsley stirred.

There was a wrenching sound as if heavy doors were being opened, then a lurch as the truck moved forward again. The crashing of the rain and the wild flapping of the canvas top stopped abruptly, leaving a silence that was almost painful to Ainsley's ears.

The heavy doors slammed closed again and Ainsley felt himself enveloped by a damp mustiness, the sounds of the storm a distant rumble. "Okay," the man said, jumping down from the truck. "Take 'em off."

Ainsley did as he was told, blinking in the dim light that greeted him. As his eyes adjusted, he jumped down from the truck as well, his feet meeting a packed earthen floor.

It was a sizable room they'd pulled into-nothing as big as the warehouse on Stock Island, but able to accommodate the two trucks with plenty of room to spare. A lantern, which hung on a peg beside a pair of tall wooden doors, provided the only illumination. The windowless walls were formed of coquina, the native limestone, and the wooden roof loomed high above, barely illumined by the lantern's glow.

It seemed a veritable fortress they'd come to, but still the rain pounded hard on the roof and the heavy doors bulged and gave with the winds like a pair of weary lungs. Spray managed to find its way into the cavernous room with each inward pulse brought by the winds, and Ainsley decided that it was a most illusory kind of safety they had found. His own home was built of native South Florida pine, the strongest wood capable of being carpentered, its few windows shuttered by the same materials.

His home, anchored to the coral rock by deeply driven pilings no storm could budge, might be small, but it was strong, and he longed to finish this business and join June Anna that they might weather this mess together. He assumed that he and his men would make quick work of stacking the crates along the walls and then be gone. He had turned in fact to begin the organizing of his men, when an odd creaking noise sounded behind him and he turned to peer into the recesses of the room.

Two men had pried a massive iron grate up from where it had been set into the floor, he realized, and were staggering about trying to keep it from falling back into place. "Sonofabitch is heavy," one of the men said.

"Just hold on," the other one said, grunting with effort. "Help me ease it against the wall."

Ainsley turned to the man beside him with a questioning gaze. The man pointed. "Take it down there," he said, handing over a second lantern he'd got going. "Be careful with the steps."

Ainsley glanced at the man, then took the smoking lantern to the portal that yawned in the corner of the room. He passed the two men who'd pried the gate up without looking at them, mindful of their panting as he held the lantern high to illumine a dank set of steps leading down to a sizable storage area chiseled out of the coral rock. Whoever had managed the feat had accomplished something, Ainsley thought with a glance at the heavy grate. And whatever you put down there would surely be safe.

"I didn't know you could have a basement in Key West," one of the men behind him said, still breathing heavily from exertion.

"There's a couple," the other said.

"Better get a move on," the man who'd wanted them blindfolded said. He pointed at the heaving doors. "This storm's turning into a bitch."

Ainsley moved quickly back to the truck and organized his men into a fire brigade. They'd stack all the crates at the portal to the subterranean room, he had decided, and then set up another line down the narrow stairwell.

The process worked well in fact. Unencumbered by the rain, they had the trucks emptied in half the time it had taken to load up on the docks. Outside, the storm had worsened steadily, however, the wind battering the big double doors until the cross brace that held them closed snapped like a matchstick. The doors flew inward, slamming against the stone sidewalls, the wind driving horizontal sheets of rain halfway into the room. It took all seven of them to shove the doors closed and wedge a section of the shattered cross brace back into place.

Ainsley managed a look outside, but it told him nothing. The sky was dark by now, the visibility down to nothing in the driving storm. The Titanic could have been bearing down upon them from a dozen yards away, for all he knew. He wondered if he would ever make it home.

With the doors shored up, they turned their attention back to the movement of the crates into the subterranean vault. Ainsley hurried down the narrow stairwell and took up the post at the end of the line, leaving two of his men on the stairs and the last to hand the crates down.

He was a man who had spent most of his life on the open water, and while he'd spent his own share of time in the cramped holds of a score or more of ships and boats, he had never overcome his aversion to close quarters. He'd never heard the word "claustrophobia," but if the symptoms had been described to him, he would likely have admitted an understanding. Furthermore, as the foreman of this hastily assembled crew, he could have been the one to stay up top and pass the boxes down, but he knew that all the others felt as he did about such dungeon places, and he would not put that on anyone else. He'd swallowed his own fears, therefore, and carried the lantern down.

"Come on now," he called up the narrow stairwell and saw the first crate come through the opening.

It was a dank, low-ceilinged space, barely enough room for him to stand his six feet straight, but wide and long enough to hold what they'd brought here, he thought. He held the lantern high and saw at the far end of the room what looked like another set of steps chiseled into the rock...leading up to what? he wondered, but then the first crate was ready for him to stack and there was no more time to see.

He hadn't counted the crates exactly, but having moved them all twice, he had a fair notion of the numbers. He stacked the crates five high-just above head height-against the near wall and built out from there, six crates abreast. He was past the point where the stairs descended quickly and, leaving room to maneuver at the foot, worked himself steadily backward toward the other flight of steps, grabbing and stacking, grabbing and stacking. Sooner or later, he thought, feeling the sweat trickling down his weary back, he'd satisfy his curiosity.

"That's all," he heard then, from Ben, his mate at the bottom of the stairs, and he paused to survey the work they'd done. He glanced over his shoulder toward the other flight of steps and saw that his stacking had hidden the far end of the cavelike room in shadow. He'd need his lantern if he wanted to see anything back there, and he wondered if he had the time to waste. Working below several feet of rock had shielded the sound of the storm, but he knew from the popping in his ears that its force could only have grown.

He reached a hand to massage his back and began to make his way toward Ben, thinking that he could live without knowing where that staircase led, when he heard a pair of explosions from above. At first, he thought it might have been the cross brace snapping again, or something crashing on the roof, but he knew at once it was nothing so benign.

Ben gave him a startled glance and began to hurtle up the steps even before Ainsley could warn him. Another explosion sounded, and another and another, and Ainsley felt himself covered by something wet at the same time he heard Ben cry out and tumble backward down the staircase.

Ainsley staggered back, gasping, wiping at the gore that drenched his face and chest. Ben lay at the foot of the stairs, his head twisted oddly, his eyes sightless. Richard lay slumped halfway up the steps where he'd been working, and Marcus's body had tumbled to a step just above. He could hear the storm pounding up there now, and could hear the big double doors crashing free once more.

Ainsley felt his legs weaken, his breathing gone wild. He heard scuffing noises at the head of the steps and stared in disbelief as the body of one of the senator's drivers tumbled through the portal, followed quickly by the second. Five men dead in moments, he thought, his mind a mad whirl. He heard an odd clinking sound, then saw what might have been brass pebbles dancing down the steps. Shell casings, he realized, and heard the click of a revolver's cylinder settling back into place.

"Let's don't make this difficult," Ainsley heard a familiar voice call, then saw the thick black oxfords of the man who'd had them blindfolded descend onto the first of the rough-hewn steps. There was a crashing noise from somewhere, and a fine, salt-laden spray rolled down the narrow staircase along with it.

The roof, Ainsley thought. With the doors blown open and the storm roaring inside after them, all that wind had to go somewhere. A roof, built to ward off forces from above, was not nearly so strong when a giant force was shoving from below.

"Come on now, boy," the man called down. He descended to the second step and bent to peer into the misted cellar, his revolver raised. "We'll make this quick and clean."

Ainsley, still holding his lantern, realized he was a framed target in the little cove he'd left for himself at the foot of the steps. He tried to backpedal into the darkness, but the man had seen him and was already swinging his weapon about. There was an explosion that seemed deafening in the confined space and the sound of splintering glass at Ainsley's side. Instinctively, he flung the lantern up the stairwell.

The glass chimney shattered against the coral, and flaming kerosene splashed upward. Ainsley saw one leg of the man's trousers burst into flame and heard a cry as the man retreated up the steps.

It was altogether dark in the cellar now, a dim glow marking the portal where the heavy grate had been, a glowing square cloud in a stony sky. Ainsley heard curses and scuffing noises from above. Had it been gasoline, he thought, the bursting lantern might have done the job. But kerosene was not much better than crude oil for burning, and the man's clothing had been soaked through as well.

No, Ainsley thought, he'd likely done little more than prolong the inevitable. His right hand went to the knife he kept sheathed at his belt-a seafaring man would sooner go out without britches than leave his knife behind-thinking that he might have a chance if he could only manage to lure the man down here with him in the dark.

Scarcely had the thought come to him than he heard a tremendous crashing from above and felt a fine rain of rock fragments shower onto his head and shoulders. When he glanced up, he saw that a vague crosshatching now obscured the portal at the top of the stairs. A shadow flashed across the grid, and there came the sound of a bolt slamming home.

An involuntary shudder ran through Ainsley, as he realized. The man who'd shot at him would not be coming down those steps again, not anytime soon. He stared up glumly at the heavy grate that now blocked the portal and understood that he had become a prisoner, that this room where he now stood might well have been intended for such a purpose.

"You'll die the hard way, then," came the voice from above, over the roar of the wind and the sound of roofing planks being wrenched away. Rain pelted down through the bars above him now, and a stream of water was splashing down the steps.

"The senator wouldn't do this," Ainsley shouted back, not sure if it was a threat or a prayer.

He heard a barking sound that might have been meant as a laugh. "Your senator's a dead man," the voice called down from above. "Come on up where I can see you, now. I'll end it for you quick."

The stream running down the stairs had become a set of rapids, Ainsley realized, his feet already sloshing in water on the cellar floor. He glanced around the darkness, fighting the panic that rose inside him like fire. The rock-carved room was as watertight as a cistern, and there was a hurricane up there, pouring its all down that steel-grated chute. Maybe it'd be best, a part of him said. Go up the steps with his head hung down like a packing house cow and get it over with.

But he dismissed the possibility as quickly as it came. He'd go down fighting, no matter what. He glanced up at the grating and thought he saw a shadow hovering there. The openings in the grid seemed big enough to get his hand through. If the bastard were pressed close enough to the grating, he thought, his hand tight on the handle of his knife, there just might be a chance.

"What happened to the senator?" Ainsley called.

"That's none of your concern," the man said. There was a crashing as if waves were breaking above his head and a mighty gush of water down the steps.

Dear Lord, Ainsley thought. If this place was close to the water's edge and the tide rose sufficiently with the press of the winds, the cellar could be full of ocean in minutes.

The voice above him came again. "Come on, boy, we're wasting time."

Ainsley had stacked a second crate atop the first now, and had climbed onto it with his knees. If he stood, he could easily reach that shadowed portion of the grate.

"Just come on up to the light, boy," the man called, as a flashlight beam snapped on.

The backwash was enough to outline the man's silhouette now, and Ainsley knew it would be this moment or never. He rose straight from his heels, as if he meant to take flight, his arm extended rigidly, his hand around the knife handle like iron.

He felt the point of his knife glance off the heavy gratework and the flesh of his knuckles shear away, but nothing could have made him lose his grip. In the next second he heard a gasp and felt his fist burying itself in soft flesh.

There was a bright flash and a blinding explosion, and then another, but Ainsley held fast to his blade, his arm driven up through the gate past the elbow. He heard the man gasp and felt his bulk rising from the grating where he'd lurked. Ainsley twisted and pulled down hard and felt a gush of warmth bathe his arm and shoulder.

There was a groan from above him then, and the clatter of metal on metal as the revolver tumbled free. The man's weight was crushing, suddenly, and Ainsley felt the crates going sideways, his feet flying from under him, his grasp loosening on the knife as he fell. He went down on his back, hard enough to have brained himself, but there was a foot of water covering the rough-hewn floor now, enough to cushion his fall.

Still the blow stunned him. He lay momentarily paralyzed, his breath knocked away. A beam of light shot up toward the grating from the foot of the steps, he realized, and he managed to move his head enough to see that the flashlight had tumbled down to rest on Ben's unmoving chest. The man who'd meant to kill him lay facedown on the grate, blood dripping from a place below his belt.

But he wasn't dead, Ainsley saw. The man's gaze was glassy, but focused upon him, and while his body was still, his hand was moving slowly across the grating like a giant white spider, inching toward the fallen revolver.

Do something, Ainsley willed himself. Run. Douse that light. Go for the gun yourself. But all he could manage was a feeble splashing of his arms in the rising water and a huunnh, huunnh, hunnh bleating from his airless lungs.

The man's hand had found the revolver's grip now, and Ainsley watched in fascination as his arm snaked down through the grate. He was raising the barrel slowly into position-the sonofabitch was dying at the same time he was going to kill him, Ainsley thought-when there came an awful screaming from above. Nails wrenching free of wood, thick shards of wood shattering, and a stab of pain at Ainsley's ears that suggested all the air around them had been sucked away in an instant.

Tornado, he thought. A whirlwind spawned in the midst of the storm that had lifted up the roof of the building and all the air beneath it. Then there was a mighty crash from above that made the dropping of the steel grate seem like the blow of a feather in comparison. Great chunks of the cellar ceiling rained down, one crashing down on Ben's lifeless body, knocking the flashlight askew, another boulder narrowly missing Ainsley's skull.

He rolled over in the water and thrashed madly toward the shelter of the crates, fully expecting a gunshot to drop him at any instant. But there was nothing.

He was past the place where the steps came down to the room now, one of Ben's outflung hands stretching barely a yard away, the flashlight half-in, half-out of the water nearby. Ainsley's breath had come back in ragged gasps, his heart pounding so loudly he couldn't hear the storm. He struggled to calm himself, listened for a few more moments, but heard nothing but the unearthly rumble of the storm and the cascading of water down the steps.

Finally, he ducked down and reached quickly to snatch the tumbled flashlight. In the instant that he jerked himself back out of sight, he saw something odd...what had seemed like a pair of arms dangling down from the grate above. He inched one eye out past the corner of the roughly chiseled wall and stole another glance.

The man's hand dangled down, the pistol no longer held there. And what he had taken for a second arm was not that at all, he realized, as he stepped out into the open, sloshing shin-deep toward the sight.

The man's eyes were still open but frozen now, his cheek flattened against one cross member, his tongue squeezed out like a tiny pink flag of surrender. A section of the roof had broken loose and toppled down on him, Ainsley realized

Had crushed him against the grate like the roach he was. A splintered shard of planking had plunged through his back and burst out of his chest where his heart would have been, if he'd had one. But there had been no such organ there, could not have been, as far as Ainsley was concerned. And whatever was that dark stuff dripping from the end of the shattered plank, you wouldn't even call it blood.

The old man awakened then, spared the reliving of what had happened next; and for that much, he was grateful. Ainsley knew that he had been dreaming, but he woke with a shudder nonetheless, for it was as much a memory as a dream, every bit of it being true. Though he had survived, it brought him no great pleasure to recall just how, as it brought him little cheer to recall the events at all.

The dream, or living memory, had come upon him before, at certain times in his life when great change loomed ahead. He had relived the events the night before the first of his sons had been born, and again the night before his son's son had been born, and also the night that his great-grandson, Dequarius, had come into this world.

The old man might have been relieved if he could assume that the dream was an omen of good things to come, but he had also relived those events the night that his own June Anna had died, which put the lie to good-omen foolishness, yes indeed.

What struck him when he awoke this morning, breathing hard, sweat soaking his nightshirt as briny as those nightmare waves, was how few possibilities there were, when it came to portents at least. If the dream was a harbinger of his own death, it hardly seemed worth the trouble. He was old and worn and expected to die, himself not least among those who did the expecting. His wife was gone, his two sons likewise, his grandson alive, but who knew where.

That left among the possibilities his great-grandson, a boy for whom no sane man could hold high hopes. And yet still, the old man loved him. Which is why he sat on the edge of his bed and trembled in the tropical dawn, pondering those events so long ago...all the while praying that it could not be a curse he'd brought upon them all, but just an old man's stubborn memory that came and went at random, that calamity no more loomed above this island now than that which chance might bring.

The wail of distant sirens broke Ainsley Spencer's reverie, and he glanced around his tidy bedroom to reassure himself of what was real, then forced himself up from his bed, willing the vision of the dead man's sightless stare from his mind. That had been then, and this was now, he told himself.

What a man might remember was one thing, but the events themselves belonged to the past. And even if he felt a certain responsibility for what had happened, it was far too late to change things now. Events that had happened once could not happen again.

His concerns should be with what could be managed, he reminded himself. Take this day in hand and do with it well.

Indeed, he thought as the sirens wailed. He would go check on his great-grandson now, though he already feared what he was likely to find.

—From The Bone Keyby Les Standiford (c) April 2002, Putnam Pub Group, used by permission.

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