Skeleton Dance (Gideon Oliver Series #10)

Skeleton Dance (Gideon Oliver Series #10)

by Aaron Elkins

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The French police call on the Skeleton Detective when a dog digs up some human bones: “Terrific” —Publishers Weekly
Les‑Eyzies‑de‑Tayac is known for three things: pâté de fois gras, truffles, and prehistoric remains. The little village, in fact, is the headquarters of the prestigious Institute de Préhistoire, which studies the abundant local fossils. But when a pet dog emerges from a nearby cave carrying parts of a human skeleton—by no means a fossilized one—Chief Inspector Lucien Anatole Joly puts in a call to his old friend, Gideon Oliver, the famed “Skeleton Detective.”   Once Gideon arrives, murder piles on murder, puzzle on puzzle, and twist follows twist in a series of unexpected events that threaten to tear the once sober, dignified Institut apart. It takes a bizarre and startling forensic breakthrough by Gideon to bring to an end a trail of deception thirty‑five thousand years in the making.

Skeleton Dance is the 10th book in the Gideon Oliver Mysteries, but you may enjoy reading the series in any order.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781497610217
Publisher: Open Road Media
Publication date: 04/01/2014
Series: Gideon Oliver Series , #10
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 220
Sales rank: 10,210
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Aaron Elkins is a former anthropologist and professor who has been writing mysteries and thrillers since 1982. His major continuing series features forensic anthropologist‑detective Gideon Oliver, “the Skeleton Detective.” There are fifteen published titles to date in the series. The Gideon Oliver books have been (roughly) translated into a major ABC‑TV series and have been selections of the Book‑of‑the‑Month Club, the Literary Guild, and the Readers Digest Condensed Mystery Series. His work has been published in a dozen languages.
 Mr. Elkins won the 1988 Edgar Award for best mystery of the year for Old Bones, the fourth book in the Gideon Oliver Series. He and his cowriter and wife, Charlotte, also won an Agatha Award, and he has also won a Nero Wolfe Award. Mr. Elkins lives on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula with Charlotte.

Aaron Elkins is a former anthropologist and professor who has been writing mysteries and thrillers since 1982. His major continuing series features forensic anthropologist-detective Gideon Oliver, “the Skeleton Detective.” There are fifteen published titles to date in the series. The Gideon Oliver books have been (roughly) translated into a major ABC-TV series and have been selections of the Book-of-the-Month Club, the Literary Guild, and the Readers Digest Condensed Mystery Series. His work has been published in a dozen languages.

Mr. Elkins won the 1988 Edgar Award for best mystery of the year for Old Bones, the fourth book in the Gideon Oliver Series. He and his cowriter and wife, Charlotte, also won an Agatha Award, and he has also won a Nero Wolfe Award. Mr. Elkins lives on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula with Charlotte.

Read an Excerpt

Skeleton Dance

The Gideon Oliver Series: Book 10

By Aaron Elkins


Copyright © 2000 Aaron Elkins
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4976-1021-7


Once, the thing in the cave had been a man, but that had been long ago. As the years passed it had lain buried in the rich, red-brown humus, slowly decomposing, its nourishing organic wastes feeding successive generations of flatworms and beetle grubs. Then, as the soil settled and fissured, the blowfly larvae had come, followed inevitably by streams of ants and earwigs, and, later still, by the busy rodents of the valley: wood rats, field mice, and squirrels. Over time the protective covering of soil had been largely scratched and worn away, allowing most of the bones to be pulled apart and many of them hustled off to forest dens and lairs, there to be gnawed at leisure.

But now the sounds of deep-chested snuffling and of strong claws scrabbling just beyond the entrance indicated that something more formidable than field mice or squirrels had found its way to the cave. A moment later a squarish, black head with glistening, excited eyes and a mouth filled with shearing, crushing teeth thrust itself into the entrance, low to the ground. The creature went for one of the largest bones, a partially buried femur, worrying it free of the soil with teeth and claws. It bent its head sideways to get its powerful jaws around the narrow part of the shaft, just below the lesser trochanter, where long ago the Quadriceps femoris had attached; the massive set of muscles that had once taken the living man striding upright along the valley paths.

With a final jerk of its head to set the bone more firmly in its mouth, the creature turned back to the opening and loped out of the dimness and into the sun. The next day it was back, and the next, and the next one after that....

* * *

Dr. Émile Grize, the long-time holder of the Chair of Paleopathology at the Institut de Préhistoire, scanned the meager assemblage of bones with a sniff of disapproval. "You've brought me very little to work with."

"It's all that we have," said Auguste Marielle, prefect of police of the village of Les Eyzies. He said it with a self-deprecating smile, but in truth he didn't care for Grize's attitude at all, for the implication that Marielle himself, or his department, was somehow at fault. What was he supposed to do, bring bones that didn't exist?

"They look like something my dog might bring home," Grize added, in case Marielle had failed to grasp the point.

"That is the case, in fact," said Marielle. "Ha, ha, you've hit the nail on the head there, professor."

The bones, he explained, with his plump shoulders jiggling in a show of good humor, were from an untended patch of weeds and dirt behind the cottage of a stonemason and his wife, where they had been buried by the family dog, which had been returning with them from its solitary outings for several days. The mason, a reclusive malcontent well-known in the village, had belatedly notified the police at the urging of his uneasy wife, and the bones had been dug out of the Peyrauds' backyard by Marielle's people only an hour or two earlier. The dog had watched the unearthing of his treasures with indignation and amazement and Peyraud himself, beginning to regret that he had done his duty in contacting the police, had threatened legal action unless he was compensated for the ruin of his "vegetable garden," whereupon Marielle had told him in no uncertain terms—

"Yes, very interesting," said Grize. "Now this may take some time. You can wait here if you wish, or I can have you notified."

Marielle chose to wait, drinking wretched coffee from a plastic cup and twiddling his thumbs while Grize fingered the materials, leaning over them like a monkey lost in the mysteries of a length of knotted string or a pair of spectacles. And at last, at long last, he straightened up and delivered his pronouncement.

"Yes, they're human, there's no question about that. Right ulna, right femur, right fibula ..." He arranged each as he named it, so they lay in a perfect row. "... right first and third metacarpals, rib, rib, partial navicular ..."

Marielle put down his watery coffee while Grize rambled on. If there was no question about it, he thought sourly, what took you all morning to tell me?

"Except for these tiny ones, of course," the paleopathologist concluded, "which I believe to be Apodemus sylvaticus."

"Apo ... Apo ...?"

"Mouse bones. You see, here is a tibia, here a little scapula, here a—"

"But these others are human—you're positive?"

Grize's chin came up. "If you're not satisfied, you can always get another opinion."

"No, no, sir, I assure you, I'm satisfied, extremely satisfied."

"Dr. Beaupierre, perhaps, or Dr. Montfort might be—"

"No, professor, believe me, if you say these bones are human, that's certainly good enough for me, oh, more than good enough."

"Umf," said Dr. Grize.

That's the way it was with Grize, Marielle thought, you were always walking on eggshells with him; he had dealt with him before and he'd known what to expect. He was a little man, that was his problem. Like Napoleon, it made him quarrelsome. And since he was unmarried, he wasn't used to losing arguments every day, which didn't help either; no doubt it also explained why he was so used to hearing himself talk. Difficult as he might be, however, Grize was a scientist of repute, and he knew his bones.

"And is it possible to say anything about the manner of death?" Marielle asked.

"From these? Impossible. As you see, they have been thoroughly gnawed. Any possible indicators of disease or trauma have been eradicated. However, speaking as a trained paleopathologist, I can state with assurance that they are probably male—the general robusticity strongly supports this; they are adult—in those few places where it can be detected, symphyseal union is complete; and they are possibly—I repeat, possibly— from the same person."

"And that's all you can tell me?"

Crunch, there went another eggshell. Grize's mouth compressed into a tight little bud. "As a paleopathologist, my area of expertise is ancient disease," he said. "It may be that one of your modern 'forensic' specialists"—the quotation marks were practically audible—"could do better, but I doubt it very much. You are welcome to consult one, however." He placed the bones, including the mouse bones, back in the typing-paper carton in which Marielle had brought them and pushed it across his desk.

"Good day, sir."

* * *

Marielle spent the rest of the morning pondering his situation. Under the French system of criminal justice, rural police departments did not perform important criminal investigations; these were left to higher levels of authority. Thus, should these bones turn out to be linked to some old murder, which seemed not unlikely, the responsibility would fall to the regional police judiciare, headquartered in Périgueux. This being the case, his obvious course of action would be to notify Inspector Joly in that city at once and let him take charge.

Yes, but suppose that no foul play was involved? Suppose that the reason for the sudden appearance of human bones in old Peyraud's backyard were to prove innocent—the result, for example, of graveyard remains exposed by the early rains, as had happened more than once in the past? What then?

Then, of course, the great Inspector Joly would have been put to inconvenience over nothing and, as Marielle knew all too well from previous experience, he would not bother to hide his vexation. Joly was, in fact, famous for not bothering to hide his vexation. And the thought of that stiff-necked, long-faced prig treating him to an hour or two of oh-so-forbearing sighs was too much to bear. No, Joly was not to be called in, not yet.

By noon he had come up with a plan. With luck, he might never need to bring in the police judiciare at all.

"Now, Noyon," he said to the crisply uniformed young officier de la paix whom he had summoned to his office, "having determined that the bones in question are human, what is needed is to establish whether or not we are dealing with a case of homicide, wouldn't you agree?"

"Yes, sir!" said Noyon. Freshly graduated from the national police academy at Nice and newly assigned to Les Eyzies for his field training, he was grateful for this early opportunity to show his mettle.

"And to do that it is necessary first of all to locate the place from which the dog has been bringing the bones, so that the scene can be properly examined, wouldn't you say?"

"Yes, sir, exactly!"

"And to accomplish that, it would seem logical to let the animal lead us to it, no?"

"Yes, sir," Noyon said a little less eagerly, beginning to have some reservations.

"What I want you to do, then, Noyon, is to find an unobtrusive spot within sight of the Peyraud backyard, keeping your eye on the dog. It's brought home bones before. It will bring them home again. See if you can find out from where. That's your assignment. Are there any questions?"

"You want me to ... to stake out the dog?"

Marielle eyed him frigidly. "Unless you have an objection?"

"No, sir, no objection at all! I think it's a fine plan. I'm sure it'll work. I'll do my best. Thank you, sir, I appreciate your confidence. I'll get over there right now."

Damn, Noyon thought, you sure know when you're the new man on the team.

* * *

Three days later, a dusty and bramble-scarred Officer Noyon was back at his commander's desk with discouraging results. The dog was cunning, devious, two-faced, malicious, he said with a tremor of real hatred in his voice. "He tricked me. He wouldn't let me follow him. He left by different routes, and he never came home the same way twice. When he brought bones back, I swear he laughed at me! I know when a dog's laughing."

Marielle listened with narrowed eyes. "So after three days we're no closer to finding out where they're coming from than we were when we started, is that the substance of your report?"

"Well, yes," Noyon replied, scrambling for a good side to things, "but we do have several more bones than we started with."

Marielle lifted his eyes to the ceiling and resigned himself to the inevitable; he'd come to the end of the line and he knew it. To wait still longer without notifying the judicial police would be disastrous.

And turning to his secretary with a heavy heart, he said: "Get me Périgueux."


The Peyraud "vegetable garden" was scarcely large enough to hold the four men, one woman, and one dog that stood in it. Lucien Anatole Joly, inspecteur principal of the Police Nationale's Directorate of Judicial Police, Department of Dordogne, had been looking steadily at Marielle for some time without speaking.

"You are telling me, then," he said without expression, "that since the matter has been in your charge, no action has been taken other than to observe the animal? For three days?"

He wasn't really surprised. He had had dealings with Marielle before: a puffed-up functionary better suited to have been the village postmaster, where he could have known everybody's business even better, and without having to exert himself.

Under his stiff, blue uniform collar the back of Marielle's neck burned, but he wasn't about to let this bloodless dandy in his fine Paris suit get on his nerves, especially not in front of Noyon and that old crank, Peyraud. He smiled knowledgeably at Joly, colleague to colleague. "Well, it's not as if the bones were going to go bad in three days, you know, inspector."

"The bones?" Joly replied without returning the smile. "No, the bones won't have been harmed by the passage of a few days. The site from which they come, however, is a different matter. Three days, we may add, during which an active and inquisitive dog has been permitted—encouraged—to disturb the scene to its heart's content."

The aggravatingly superior tone was too much for Marielle. "And you would have done it differently, inspector?"

Joly, his head tipped back, eyed the shorter, stubbier Marielle down his nose. The man was forever arguing, forever questioning. In themselves, these were commendable traits in Joly's eyes, but only when they went along with listening and learning, which Marielle, for all his quibbling, rarely did.

"To begin with," Joly said crisply, "I would not have permitted the animal to continue to disrupt the site," he said.

"Very true," old Peyraud contributed from the sidelines. "There you have it. Not permit the animal to continue to disrupt the site." He scratched at the gray stubble on his jaw.

Marielle threw him a scalding glance but addressed Joly. "Oh? And how then would you propose to find this 'site'?"

"Yes, that's the question, isn't it?" Joly said, speaking mostly to himself. There wasn't any point, and certainly no pleasure, in quarreling with Marielle. "What is the dog's name?" he asked Peyraud.

"He doesn't have a name."

"Sometimes we call him Toutou," offered Madame Peyraud.

Joly turned to the dog and bent from the waist so that his hands were on his knees. "Come here, Toutou, come on now." Smiling, he held out one hand.

To Marielle's amazement, the cur came, sniffing at the inspector's fingers. Did it think it was going to get its bones back? Ha, good luck to it. When Joly scratched it behind a fleabitten ear, the dog licked his wrist. Well, they said Hitler had gotten along with dogs too.

"Now, Toutou," Joly said, his tone friendlier than the one he'd been using with Marielle, "now, old fellow, we'll need to find out where you've been getting those bones. Are you going to help us?"

Toutou grinned and wagged his tail.

"Good dog." Joly straightened up. "You won't mind," he said to Peyraud, "if these gentlemen and I take Toutou out for an hour and look about the countryside? You have something we can use as a leash, perhaps?"

Marielle stifled his irritation. How like Joly that was. That smug assumption that the great and wise inspecteur principal could accomplish in an hour or two what the poor, benighted police force of Les Eyzies couldn't manage in three days

"Any particular direction you'd care to go in, Inspector?" he asked lightly as Joly was knotting a length of rope around the dog's collar.

"I was hoping you might help me with that, Marielle."

"I? If I knew—"

"The wind, does it usually come from this direction?"

Marielle gawked at him. "What?"

Peyraud cut in. "Yes, almost always from the northeast. It rides up the valley."

"Well, then, Marielle," said Joly, "I suggest we stroll northeast with a good hold on Toutou, permit him to follow his nose, and see what we find."

"Now that's a good idea!" cried Officer Noyon, who instantly made himself as small as possible.

"All set, Toutou?" Joly asked, coiling the end of the seven-foot rope around his hand. "Lead away, then."

* * *

It was as if the dog had been waiting all along to be asked. Straining at the rope, his narrow red tongue lolling between stretched black lips, he led the three men along the sloping shelf at the base of the limestone cliffs that backed up against the village, into a copse of stunted oak and juniper and out again, still skirting the undulating, cave-riddled foot of the cliffs as they curved into the forest, away from the village and the river. Never once did he stop to mark a bush, investigate an intriguing hole, or chase a rabbit, real or imaginary. Without deviating he led them to a fall of jumbled boulders that had dropped away from the face of the overhanging cliffs not so many years before—one could still look up and see the whitish patch near the top from which a vast block of the limestone had sheared off and slid down to fracture into huge pieces below.

Once there, the eager Toutou dragged them among the rocks, then sidled into a narrow crevice that had been invisible until they were almost on it. Pulling the panting, excited dog back and keeping it still with a handhold on the collar of rope around its neck Joly squatted on his haunches to peer into the opening. The crevice was an irregular, waist-high space between the base of the concave wall of the cliff and the lower part of one of the big boulders that leaned against it, forming a constricted corridor, narrowing toward the top, about four meters long and less than a meter high. At the far end, dim and shadowed, was what appeared to be a shallow, low-ceilinged cave in the base of the cliff; what the locals called an abri—the sort of place that little boys were forever stumbling into and turning up one prehistoric find or another, bringing real and would-be archaeologists out in droves.


Excerpted from Skeleton Dance by Aaron Elkins. Copyright © 2000 Aaron Elkins. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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