See all of the Ira “Doc” Pearson novels here!
The Van Bent courthouse burns down and a body is found to have been stuffed into the floorboards years before, when the building was built. Ira Pearson is determined to discover the identity of the woman, but Sheriff Wood has little interest in the matter for he has more important matters on his hands–including a numbers runner and big city tough who came to Van Bent for some reason and promptly lost a thumb in an alley fight. Could the back alley fight and the woman in the floor somehow be connected?
“What’s going on, Chief?”
“I just—you need to see, first.”
The chief led the way over to the smoldering remains of the courthouse and to a ladder that had been lowered into the basement. He handed Ira some big, rubber boots, saying, “Put these on. Foller me. It’s safe,” Buckler directed as he descended the ladder.
Ira hesitated, but the man seemed to be going down with no fear. And it did look like everything was safe but soaked, hence the boots, which he put on. He took a breath, then followed the man down the ladder and into the pit that had so recently been the courthouse basement. He was glad of the rubber boots if for no other reason than that they came up to his knees and the piles of muddy ash were at least that deep.
They slogged over to a space almost in the center of the building’s footprint—which seemed surprisingly small to Ira, now that the building was gone—and Buckler knelt down and pointed. “Looky here, Doc.”
Ira bent over and saw instantly what the man was pointing at. “Human hand, ain’t it?” Buckler asked.
“Sure looks like it. Right hand.”
“No chance it’s just a fake of some kind? I seen a human skeleton over to El Paso once made out of plaster. This looks real to me, but I ain’t seen all that many human bones in my day.”
Ira moved in closer and peered at the strange object before him. “My early thought is that it’s real. Is there more?”
“We stopped work when we seen this,” Buckler answered. “If there is, I reckon it extends in under that pile there,” he continued, pointing. “I didn’t want to go no further ‘til we had you here to supervise. Thought you could tell us if this person died in the fire.”
“At an early guess, I’m going to say no. As hot as that fire was, if this were a, um, ‘fresh body’, there would probably still be more signs of flesh. And the burn marks on the bones would be different if flesh were melted off or if it were just bones in the fire.”
Buckler nodded and said, “I git ya, Doc.”
“Chief, you know of any reason there would be a skeleton in the courthouse?”
“None I can think of. Nobody had one in an office or anything—that I know of.”
“And this is on top of some things,” Ira commented, mostly to himself. Realizing he had said it out loud, he explained, “Not like this courthouse was built on top of an old cemetery and this was someone buried here. This person is above the rock of the basement. Any chance this person was stored in the basement?”
“What for?” Buckler asked, almost laughing.
“Who knows? Any old rumor that there was a body in the basement, though?”
“None that I ever heard. An’ I been here since the foundation was laid on this place. Before that, even. I helped to dig the hole.”
“All right,” Ira said, standing up. He looked around, then said, “This person’s dead, so it’s not like we can hurt him—or her—in any way. Still, let’s see if we can dig him out without jostling the bones around any more than we have to.”
“Okey-dokey,” Buckler said. “We’re going to need to brace that west wall, though. It’s bucklin’ a little and liable to collapse on us if we don’t.”
Ira nodded and said, “You get some men on that. You and me, let’s get some shovels and maybe a pry bar and see if we can find out whether there’s more under here than just a hand.” As the fire chief went off to put those instructions into action, Ira looked at the hand and remembered how finding a hand like this had landed his friends the Jameses in all sorts of trouble. He hadn’t been there, but he had heard the story. He also had thought over the years that, if he had been there, he could have kept Polly from spending that year in prison that she hadn’t deserved.
Buckler was soon back and, as three men worked to shore up the west wall, he went to work with Ira at pushing the ash and dirt away from the hand.
Soon, they were seeing a wrist, and then part of a forearm. And then, it seemed as if the arm were reaching out from within a wooden frame. “A casket?” Buckler asked as he looked at the wood.
Ira took up one of the shovels and scraped some of the dirt and ash away, then said, “Look at this, Chief. This isn’t a casket. Not built like that.”
Buckler shoved some of the dirt away himself and said, “That there’s flooring.” As Ira nodded, Buckler commented in worried awe, “This body was inside a floor! Somebody hid a body in the floor.” He reached out and rubbed some ash away from the top, saying, “That’s the tile from the first floor. I’m picturing in my mind and them joists for the first floor was foot-wide beams. Two foot on center.”
“Plenty of room to hide a body,” Ira commented.
Buckler tried to made a joke as he said, “Ain’t nobody goin’ to fit me in a foot-by-two space lessen they squeeze me down a might.” He looked up suddenly and asked, “You don’t reckon it’s a child, do ya, Doc?”
“Based on the size of that hand, I’d say it’s at least someone fifteen years old, or more. Not a big person. Might be a lady.”
Buckler took off his hat, as if at a funeral, and said with reverence, “God be with us.”
Ira raised up, tapped through the mud and ash in a couple places, then said, “Looks like there’s a fair-sized portion of that floor here still intact. Relatively speaking, anyway. Let’s clear it off and get some more pry-bars over here.”
“Think the whole body’s still together?”
“I’d have to say that would be beyond belief, but finding this at all is pretty incredible. And somebody better go fetch Sheriff Wood.”
“After all this time?”
“Whether we can figure out how this person got here I have my doubts, but it’s not likely to have been for benign reasons that someone hid a body in between floorboards. I think the sheriff needs to know.”
Buckler nodded again, then detailed someone to go get the sheriff and the other two men to help them pry the boards apart. It was not easy for the floor had been well made and they were trying to not disturb the bones any more than absolutely necessary.
Sheriff Wood was with them a while later—and quite a crowd had gathered nearby though the volunteer fire department men and Wood’s deputy Chubby were keeping them back—when they finally got the right boards pried up. There were a couple of reverent exclamations, the Catholics present crossed themselves, and Ira was the first to articulate any recognizable words.
“This was a woman,” he said. Though the visage before them was mostly of bones, there was just enough muscle and tendons still clinging to the form to keep the skeleton intact.
“How old, you reckon?” Buckler asked, watching with great curiosity, but also with a clear reluctance as to touching the bones.
Ira shook his head, but leaned closer and said, “I can give a better answer with more study, but her hips make me think she was old enough to have given birth. There was no sign of arthritis in that hand we saw first.” He then pointed and said, mostly to Wood, “Look there, Sheriff. However she came to be between these boards, someone murdered her to get her here.”
Wood looked, as did the other men close by, and could see the crack in the skull Ira was pointing to. Wood, feeling the need to say something, “She was either dead when she was put in here or close to it. Nobody would have lived long after a rap like that.”
Ira nodded in agreement then said, “It’s been a long time, Sheriff. Trail’s going to be colder than a polar bear. But this fire just revealed a murder.”