Chapter One – The Taxidermist
The skull bounced against my hip. “El, slow down.”
He turned to look at me and raised an eyebrow.
“I don’t want to break it,” I said.
He slowed his pace. “Sorry. Want me to carry it?”
We were trudging up a hill in North Laguna, a residential area of Laguna Beach, which is one of the wealthiest cities in Orange County, California, home of the original Real Housewives.
“No,” I said. “I got it.” Truth was, I didn’t want him to carry it any more than I wanted to. What I wanted was to put it back where it belonged and enjoy my life, or at least the day.
It was a beautiful December morning. The sun was shining. A breeze blew off the ocean. The scents of salt and jasmine were in the air. Laguna would be such a great place for a date, and we’d had so few of them. I loved the town’s artistic vibe, beautiful coves, and cute shops. I even loved the tourist traps. I didn’t love skulking around with a purloined skull.
“We’re almost there.” El took my hand, and I felt a familiar jolt of pleasure.
We’d only recently become an item. We’d been friends, best friends, for about six months. Two weeks ago, we realized how much we actually meant to each other. At least, I realized how much he meant to me. Apparently, he’d fallen for me the first time we met.
As happily in love as I was, the relationship wasn’t without its complications. One of those complications was the reason we were carrying a two-hundred-year-old skull up Myrtle Street.
We turned into an alley, and El pointed. “There it is.”
Three garages away was a wooden sign with burned lettering that read Laguna Beach Taxidermy. The sign was nailed onto the wall next to a green gate surrounded by pink bougainvillea. He pushed the gate open. A bell jangled our arrival, and we stepped through into a brick courtyard.
Laguna Beach is famous for tiny, un-permitted apartments located in garages and sheds or fabricated from the unused rooms of larger homes. Out of the ordinary was ordinary here, but I yanked El to a stop, needing a moment to take in my surroundings.
A fountain bubbled in the center of the courtyard. Nothing strange about that. It was what surrounded the fountain that had made me catch my breath. A panoply of bizarre animals posed as if leaping and cavorting on the bricks. There was a large cat with a chihuahua head. A threatening, masked raccoon flashing sharp teeth at one end, and dachshund hindquarters at the other. There were squirrel-puppies, parrot-kittens, and even a St. Bernard with a horse’s main and tail.
“What?” I couldn’t come up with a full sentence.
“Randy’s a little . . . “ El didn’t finish his sentence, either. “You’ll see.”
He led the way past the fountain to a peeling set of French doors and rapped on the glass. “Enter,” a low voice intoned.
I let El go first, for obvious reasons.
“Elmore, my man,” the low voice said. “Good to see you. How long has it been?”
I peered around El’s large back to get a glimpse of the speaker. Randy Newman—the FBI forensic anthropologist turned taxidermist, not the musician—was seated at a long, scarred table. A desk lamp pointed at a furry object I wasn’t anxious to examine, leaving his face in shadows.
“I think last time was the expo, wasn’t it?” El answered.
The shadow nodded, and I caught a glimpse of a blond beard. “Right. Right. Too long, anyway.”
Randy stood and walked into the thin light streaming through the French doors behind us. He was as tall as El, maybe six-foot three or four, and heavy; but where El’s bulk was mostly muscle, Randy’s seemed to run to fat. His size surprised me. I’d expected him to be short, though I’m not sure why. I think the song “Short People” had played in my head when I’d heard his name. His skin was pallid, his hair sparse and uncombed, and his clothes hung on him as though he’d recently lost weight.
The two men shook hands. Then Randy cocked his head to one side and smiled at me. “This must be Imogene.”
“Right.” I stepped around El and stuck out a hand. “That’s me.”
He shook my hand.
The smile dropped from Randy’s pale face, and suddenly he was all business. “So, what do you have for me?”
El glanced my way, and I removed the wrapped skull from the Greener Pastures Mortuary tote bag I’d hung over my shoulder and handed it to Randy. He received it reverently, turned, and placed it on his workbench, tipping the gooseneck lamp so its light shone on the package.
He lifted the folds of the towel as if he were opening a valuable gift, carefully and slowly. When the brown bones were revealed, he frowned. “Where did you find this?”
A wave of irritation swept over me and set my skin itching. This had been happening ever since I’d touched the damn thing. I scratched my arms.
“In the crypt,” El said. “The one they just found under the Mission in San Juan Capistrano.”
Randy’s eyes cut to El’s face. “Thought that hadn’t been excavated yet.”
“Then . . . ?”
“I’m the night watchman.” El paused. I could tell he was searching for a way to explain what had happened without really explaining what had happened. “I didn’t think there’d be any harm in showing Imogene the antechamber, her being in the business and all.”
He was being nice. I’d begged him to let me in, and now I was paying for it. Curiosity killed the cat and all that.
Randy looked at me, a new respect dawning in his red-rimmed eyes. “You’re an archeologist?”
“Oh, no.” I shook my head as I dug my nails into my wrist to stop the crawling sensations running up and down my arms. “I’m the head embalmer’s assistant at Greener Pastures Mortuary.”
The respect disappeared. Randy returned his gaze to the skull. It stared back at him. “So you popped into an archeological site you were hired to guard and took a memento?”
“It wasn’t like that,” El sputtered. He was a very law-abiding citizen. So law-abiding, he was studying to become an actual law enforcement officer. Any hint of accusation incensed him.
“What was it like?” Randy’s tone was droll.
“There’s a stack of skulls in the entrance in, like, a design. You know?”
A flash of memory filled me as he described it, the musty smells, the mysterious structure made of bones, the thrill of malfeasance. I was normally an avid rule follower, but this . . . This was so tempting, and it seemed so innocent. Figured, the one time I indulged in a minor peccadillo, everything went to hell.
“Like the Catacombs in Paris?” Randy asked.
“Yeah,” El agreed. “Only on a much smaller scale.”
“Nobody’s counted yet, but there couldn’t be more than a couple of hundred skulls. Nothing like Paris,” I chimed in.
“So they’ll be more likely to notice if one’s missing,” Randy said, in an oddly faraway tone.
“It fell, okay?” Irritation laced El’s voice. “If you don’t want to help us . . . “ He took a step toward the table.
The reason it fell made my face burn, but Randy didn’t seem to notice.
He raised a hand. “I’ll take a look at it, but don’t get me involved. Okay? Whatever I find, I won’t repeat it to authorities.”
I pressed myself against El’s side and felt his ribs expand and contract as he blew out a relieved breath. “Of course. This is for us. We want to know.”
“I won’t ask why.”
It was my turn to exhale. There were only two people in the world who knew about my gift—or my curse—El and myself. And I wasn’t planning to make it public.
“How long?” I asked. I was eager to get the skull back into its place before anyone noticed the gaping hole in the structure composed of skulls and femurs.
“I have to finish this.” Randy waved at the pile of fur I’d noticed earlier. I looked away, not wanting to see what it was, and my gaze rested on a tall Afghan hound. It was so lifelike, I started, but like the rest of the creatures in this macabre zoo, it was stuffed.
“What are you working on?” El stepped closer. I didn’t think he cared what Randy was doing, just trying to move the conversation off our project.
“I’m creating a mock platypus for a museum of oddities in Nevada.” He stroked the fur lovingly. “I’m sure you heard that when George Shaw saw his first deceased platypus, he thought it was a joke, something stitched together by a local to pull the wool over his eyes. Then he discovered it was real.”
“I’d never heard that,” El said.
I had. I didn’t remember where. Some long ago history book, but I didn’t interrupt.
“The museum got a real taxidermy platypus, then asked me to create one from various animal parts to see if their patrons could guess which was the real deal.”
“That’s how you make your money?” The words escaped my lips before I realized how rude they must sound. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to—“
Randy cut me off. “No worries. It is a strange profession. I don’t mind talking about it. I make the bulk of my income from the taxidermy of beloved pets for owners who have more money than they know what to do with.”
He gestured to the Afghan hound. “That little beauty got hit by a car last week, but she’ll live on in the home of her irresponsible owners for years.”
“What about the rest?” I nodded toward the bubbling fountain in the courtyard.
“My zoo?” He grinned. “Those I sell online and in novelty shops. It’s surprising how many people are in the market for a dachsy-coon or a Maine Coon-huahua.”
I opened my mouth to ask another question, but he raised a hand like a stop sign. “Before you start lecturing me, all the parts come from road kills. I never harm living animals. I don’t even eat meat.”
I had more questions, like how did an FBI agent wind up making monstrosities, but El interrupted. “Sorry to break this up, but I have to get to work.”
I glanced at my watch, a gift from Gran for my twenty-seventh birthday. I had to be moving on myself. I’d told Alfonso, my boss, I’d be in by eleven. Randy promised we’d hear from him in a day or two, and we left, skirting past the crazy menagerie and out into the sunshine beyond.