Skeleton's Key

By: Stacy Green

Dust particles danced in the beam of his flashlight and then dived for Cage’s nose. He sneezed. The entire stairwell trembled.

Cage quickened his pace, trying to ignore the moldy stench and pressure of the encroaching darkness. He reached the earthen floor and cast his light around the black space. Like so many houses of its time, Ironwood only had a partial basement. The winter kitchen, or what was left of it, dominated half of it.

“The fuse box is under the stairs.” Cage shined his flashlight toward the area. Ducking massive spider webs, he hurried to the box, yanking on the rusty handle to the lid, and then flipped the switches. “Made sure I tried them before I called you.”

“Step aside.” Harvey busied himself at the fuse box. “Keep the light focused for me.”

“Right.” Cage peered over his shoulder, easy to do as he was a good six inches taller than Harvey. Of course, Cage was taller than most people. “Thanks again for coming out so quickly. The other two guys didn’t want to mess with the place.”

“Nice to know I was your third choice.”

“Yeah well, I’d have preferred to go to the hardware store and handle it myself, but electricity isn’t my strong suit. Figured I’d better call a professional.”

Harvey grunted, dropping his toolbox on the floor. He rummaged around the greasy tin box. “Fuse needs replacing. Shouldn’t take too long.”

“Good deal.” Cage kept the light focused as Harvey worked. “The wiring in this place is supposed to be up to code. You see anything that says otherwise?”

“Not so far. Sometimes you blow fuses.”

Harvey retrieved his own flashlight from the pocket of his overalls, shining it around the murky basement. “Wiring’s copper. That’s good. I don’t see anything that stands out, but I’d have to do a full inspection to be sure.”

“No thanks,” Cage said. “Church had one done before the place was sold last month, so I’ll have to take their word for it.”

Another grunt from Harvey, and then his flashlight stalled, the beam now shining against the sinking foundation. A deep crack running all the way to the ground had splintered the brick and mortar.

“Looks like you got varmints down here.”

At the base of the brick, the earth had been turned up as though something had been digging. A rat? Raccoon, maybe?

Cage shone his own light into the disturbed earth.

At first, he saw only white. Not bright white, like an untouched piece of paper, but a bleak gray-white. Aged.

Bone, he realized. Some critter had died down here–probably more than one.

He stepped closer, using the toe of his boot to shovel some of the dirt aside.

Behind him, Harvey emitted a sound resembling a frightened dog. “Is that what I think it is?”

Cage’s heart tightened into an iron-like fist, jumping at first into his throat and then dropping into the pit of his stomach.

An empty eye socket and cavernous smile protruded out of the earth.

A human skull.


“Son. Of. A. Bitch.”

Half-buried in the dirt, it had the weathered look of the skeletons he’d seen in an exhibit at the Mississippi Museum of Science. And on the Discovery Channel.

Harvey stepped forward, hands outstretched. Cage caught him by the arm. “Don’t touch the damned thing.”

Cage yanked his handkerchief out of his pocket. It was damp with sweat but would protect him from getting fingerprints all over the skull. He knelt down, balancing on his heels, careful not to touch the earth around the skull. Fingers protected by the thin cloth, he ran his hand over top of the gray bone.

Above him, hovering and breathing through a stuffed nose, Harvey angled for a better look. “What’s it feel like?”

“Brittle.” Cracked along the top, a gaping hole in the back. Cage’s cop-trained brain immediately thought of murder, but he quickly dismissed it. Who knew how long the thing had been here?

He collected the flashlight, shining the beam around the perimeter of the skull. Something had been digging all right. Clumps of earth splattered the brick foundation, and smoother, gray objects peeked up from the earth.

“Shit.” Cage swore again.

“Knew’d it though, didn’t you?” Harvey inched closer.

“Knew what?”

“That the story was true. About old John James and what his crazy daughter did with his body. Daddy’s little girl lost her marbles when he died. Kept his body in this house.”

“He’s buried in the Roselea cemetery.”

“So she said.”

Cage didn’t have time to listen to crazy Ironwood legends. He cast the light over the skull again. “No idea what time period this skull is from, or if it’s even a white person. Could be a slave. Could be a Natchez Indian. Could be any damned body.”

He toed the loose earth around the skull. He didn’t see any more bone, but Cage had a feeling it was there. Skulls don’t just end up in the earth all by their lonesome. Irritated by the intrusive light, a fat black beetle scuttled across the top of the skull and disappeared into the earth.

Cage straightened, swiping another cobweb aside. He’d better call the sheriff. His boss would love this.