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A Whisper of Bone

A Whisper of Bone

ELEMENTAL WEB TALES, BOOK 6

Strange, secretive neighbors.

Groundhogs run amok.

The steep price of resurrecting the past.

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After years of avoiding his family, cryptobiologist Ryan Nolan returns to New Haven to investigate rumors of a dragon sighting. Yet instead of a giant mythological lizard, he stumbles upon a dead body. Connecting the murder to missing Mexican artifacts leads him on a path straight back to his long-lost love, Charlotte.

Charlotte Reid has never been one to shy away from a challenge. As a bone hunter in the Wild West and a paleontologist in the East, she has a taste for adventure. But when secretive neighbors move in next door, and strange groundhogs invade her backyard, she finds herself in the middle of a cryptozoological conspiracy.

As their feelings for each other emerge stronger than ever before, the duo must pair Charlotte’s knowledge of the past with Ryan’s expertise in the present to uncover the truth. Encountering unimaginable dangers in their search for clues, will their bond be strong enough to survive the unknown?

"an exciting adventure with the dangerous and unpredictable elements of a quest novel"

"Love this author and the worlds she creates. Always intriguing, full of passion and science. Charlotte and Ryan are perfect for each other and for the story!"

"Anne Renwick keeps us hooked from the first to the very last page as these twists and turns which include plots, murders, animal monsters, mad scientists and half eaten gophers take hold. A thoroughly enjoyable read!"

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80K words | 352 pages | 8 hrs and 45 mins

  • Paleontologist Heroine
  • Cryptobiologist Hero
  • Second Chance Romance
  • Mad Scientist
  • Misguided Smuggling
  • Interracial Romance

Chapter One Look Inside

New Haven, Connecticut

June 1885

Special Agent Ryan Nolan rolled his shoulders and knocked again.

“Open the door, Mr. Alcantra.” He tossed the brass key and its fob, letting them jangle and clank as they slapped back into his palm, his message clear. “There is no escaping this discussion.”

Taking a room at the expensive and exclusive Sea View Hotel was the water rat’s first mistake. Escorting loud and giggling paid female company through the lobby in broad daylight was his second. Mothers pushing wide-eyed children behind their skirts while fathers directed their ire at the hotel manager was never good for business. Complaint after complaint had been registered. But it was the many rough-sided crates the Spaniard carted through the lobby to his room that twisted a final knot in the manager’s cravat. He’d dispatched a kinetic chiroptera, an official cry for help.

The hotel’s mechanized bat had flapped its way to central New Haven, dropping a message down the Customs House chute, alerting the agents within to the peculiar behavior of a certain hotel guest they might wish to investigate. All notes were ignored until the third or fourth such missive arrived, whereupon Ryan imagined the receiving agent sighed heavily before flipping through pages listing the names of known and suspected smugglers. The half dozen red flags beside Mr. Francisco Alcantra’s name had snapped that agent wide awake. Soon, electrical signals traveled along south-bound wires to the Improbable Biologics Investigational Service—IBIS—and the resulting telegraph message landed on Ryan’s desk in the predawn hours alongside a train ticket and a sealed envelope.

The name inside was that of a Spanish man recently overheard bragging about the ungodly sum he’d been paid for his latest job and hinting at the existence of a cuélebre.

If there was any truth to this report at all, any positive proof of the giant, winged serpent-dragon of Iberian Celtic mythology’s presence on U.S. soil, the Spaniard was in for a world of pain under the Rare and Emergent Species Act of 1862.

Excitement had zipped through Ryan—no cryptobiologist could be indifferent—until he’d noted the destination.

New Haven. 

Struck by sudden ossification, his heavy, cold heart had dropped to his toes, momentarily depriving the ice-cold blood in his lungs of oxygen.

Really, it had only been a matter of time. He’d forced his jaw to unlock and his diaphragm to drag in a deep breath. Any city with a port was bound to have trouble arrive on its shores. His hometown was no exception.

By the time the steam train chugged north, and an omnibus deposited him on Beach Street, the strain of mollifying affronted guests had taken its toll on the hotel manager, now bug-eyed, sweating bullets, and desperate to rid himself of “that Spanish scourge”.

With no more than the gold flash of a badge, a few hushed words, and a grateful glance from said manager, Ryan gained unfettered access to the smuggler’s room. 

“There is a vile odor emanating from his room, but he refuses to let anyone enter.” The distressed man had shoved a key across the counter. “Please remove him, his guest, and the rest of his baggage.”

A decided possibility. But that would depend upon what Ryan found within.

The walls of the hotel hallway pressed in on him. At its end, a damp, salt-infused breeze drifted in through an open window carrying with it the garish sounds of the carousel. It wasn’t that he disliked New Haven itself—or in this case, nearby West Haven. Not exactly. Rather, associated memories forced him to confront certain uncomfortable truths of his existence and reminded him of local family members owed a visit. 

But such dark musings were irrelevant to the task at hand. Time to roust the man who fancied himself a modern-day pirate.

Within, the low murmur of voices mixed with faint, if frantic, scrambling noises. It wouldn’t be the first time he’d rousted an undressed couple from bed. He smirked. In most circumstances, catching a man with his trousers down, distracted and off guard, made an arrest that much easier.

Ryan rapped on the door and called out, “Last chance, Mr. Alcantra.” 

Inside, glass clinked. A thud sounded. Still the door didn’t open. Instead, he heard the rattle and scrape of a window sash rising. The Spaniard attempting a jump from the second floor?

Cursing, Ryan jammed the key home and twisted.

The door slammed open as a loud crack split the air—the report of an air gun discharging. 

Ducking, he rushed into the room, quickly assessing the situation. Amidst a backdrop of open crates, a scatter of imported goods and general disarray, there was a woman collapsed upon the floor, laughing. A man slumped in a chair. And a third hooded individual leaned out the window with a grappling hook gun in her hands and a six-shooter in a holster belted low on her hips and tied securely to her thigh.

Her. Or so the curve of hips beneath close-fitting trousers suggested. A fashion choice he’d grown to appreciate during his days in the western territories, especially as worn by one particular woman. The one that got away.

A reflection that cost Ryan a precious moment.

“Stop! U.S. Customs!” He drew his Eagle B29 sidearm and ran forward.

The woman glanced over her shoulder offering him a glimpse of dark eyes framed by long lashes and lips that pulled in a smirk as she tossed something onto the floor that snatched his feet from beneath him to send him careening, arms windmilling. Crash! He landed—hard—atop a scattering of small, round seedpods. Embarrassed victim to a classic delay tactic. Yet one that granted her all the time she needed to secure her grappling gun, clip a hook to the front of a five-point harness strapped about her body, seize the handle of a large canvas bag and leap. 

He pushed off the floor, lunged for the window and took aim. 

Suspended from a wire cable, the woman zipped through the air, a dark blur soaring over the crowds of people below. Hoots, hollers, and screams of delight erupted as tourists caught sight of the figure overhead, numbering her flight among the many spontaneous performances that drew visitors to Savin Rock Park. 

Was it wrong of him to take dark pleasure in disabusing them of that notion? He squeezed the trigger—bang!—firing a dart that skewered the woman’s thigh and guaranteed her a world of pain.

The crowd gasped, searching for the source of the sound, not quite convinced they’d heard the report of a gun. Especially as the fleeing figure gave no indication she possessed any nerve endings. 

A string of curses fell from his lips as she drew a knife from her boot and sliced through the rope from which she hung, dropping to the ground in a crouch. Plucking the dart from her leg, she sprinted along the tree-lined path and climbed into a waiting steam carriage. Within moments, the vehicle lurched into motion and disappeared from view. 

Wonderful, a criminal with a sky-high pain threshold. She ought to be on the ground, writhing in agony. An unsettling beginning. Dammit. He clenched his jaw, both annoyed that he’d not pursued her yet secure in the knowledge his primary directive was to apprehend one Francisco Alcantra. Speaking of…

“Who is she?” He turned toward the man at the table, reaching to shake the man’s shoulder, to wake him from his silent stupor. 

But his hand hovered in the air and his next words caught in his throat as he reassessed everything about this assignment. There was a bullet hole in the man’s forehead, one so recent the trickle of blood between his eyes had yet to dry. All while the woman on the floor laughed and sang a song of sixpence.

The scene before him was both disquieting and absurd. He didn’t relish informing the hotel manager of the violent death that had occurred on his watch. The resulting histrionics would be the least of his problems. 

Ryan tipped the dead man’s chin up, making a positive identification from the tintype included with the IBIS directives. He sighed heavily. Of course it would be the Spaniard, Francisco Alcantra, the man responsible for this landslide of events. The complications and questions just kept piling up. He’d located the smuggler, but now hunted a murderer and possible thief, given the bag gripped in her fist as she jumped from the hotel window. His sole witness a warbling madwoman.

By how many minutes had Ryan missed the sound of a pistol’s discharge? For this hole in Alcantra’s forehead was not the work of an air rifle, but a handgun. Had the death shot been fired by the woman who’d leapt from the window? Likely, given no weapon was readily visible in the room and the female on the floor appeared all but insensible. Not that he had entirely discounted her. Yet.

He holstered his weapon and ran a hand through his hair. So much for an open and shut case. Was it too much to hope that there would at least be evidence of a dragon species tucked somewhere inside one of the many crates lining the walls? Given the dead man’s occupation and the oversized canvas bag hauled away by a likely murderess, the contents of this room would need to be inventoried and thoroughly searched to discover what was taken in hopes of determining why the meeting had taken a deadly turn. Was it as simple as a dispute over the agreed upon fee? Or had the woman desired something Mr. Alcantra refused to sell? And so on.

Regardless, before the rude interruption of the Spaniard’s death, it appeared the threesome had gathered about the table to take tea. Two empty cups, a third untouched. Wait. Not tea. At least not of the Camellia sinensis variety. Ryan squinted at the green-tinged liquid that sat cooling in footed Spanish silver colonial teacups. he plucked the lid from the kettle that hung over a small burner. Inside, bits of cactus floated.  

Peyote. A powerful hallucinogen.

Unwise, consuming a mind-altering substance during a business negotiation. Then again, Mr. Alcantra’s whispers about his imports—such as a cuélebre—had landed him on a list of wanted smugglers. Shrewd, he was not. 

Ryan considered the sights before him. Everything spoke of confidence. From the casual manner in which the scene was set, he suspected the Spaniard believed the meeting a mere formality. That the murderess had arrived to collect her goods, only to discover the man wished to entice her into an additional transaction. A fancy hotel room with a large bed. Two pretty women in attendance. A little mescaline to lower barriers and enhance the overall sensual experience. 

But the water rat had badly misjudged and had paid for it with his life.

Still, many questions remained. And, as the situation reputedly involved a rare or emergent species, IBIS protocol dictated that Ryan remain in New Haven until the case was solved. So much for a brief visit to his childhood home. Against his screaming instincts, he would stay with family, kill two birds with one stone.

The tea did, at least, explain the state of his single witness. The half-dressed, cackling woman sprawled upon the floor, blonde curls cascading over the deep, red pile of the carpet, was oblivious to all save the images conjured by her drugged brain that were, seemingly, projected on the ceiling. A victim of circumstance? Spared an end similar to the Spaniard’s by Ryan’s timely arrival? Given her befuddled state and the precise placement of the bullet in the Spaniard’s forehead, she ranked low on his list of suspects.

A niggling sense of recognition gnawed at him. Then her head turned, and bright blue eyes met his. 

“Well, Polly, put the kettle on!” She grinned up at him. “If it isn’t Ryan Nolan.”

His eyebrows crashed together. “Rose?” 

Of all the women in New Haven, what were the odds he would find his ex-fiancée here on a hotel floor, drugged? 

He glanced at her hand—a wedding band. Married.  

In their youth, she’d been known as the Wild Irish Rose. Suitors had trailed behind her in Wooster Square, a dozen deep. Confident of his prospects, Ryan himself had courted her, presenting her with bits of sea glass and heart-shaped rocks collected on the shore. And it had worked. He’d slipped a ring on her finger, fulling intending to make her his wife.

Until his world unraveled. The morning of his mother’s funeral, at the very moment Rose ought to have stood with him graveside, she’d been sighted returning from Long Wharf after spending the night in Captain Donovan’s stateroom. 

After that, the bloom was off the rose, with all of Wooster Square Society focusing all attention on the wild. As for Ryan? He extended her the benefit of the doubt, sat in her family’s parlor for hours awaiting an explanation. But none ever came. She’d returned his ring, refused to speak with him. Taking that as a tacit admission of guilt, he’d left for Ireland three days later and never returned to New Haven. 

Until today.

As to her eventual fate? He’d assumed her father would buy her a suitable husband—but married to a smuggler? To Francisco Alcantra? That didn’t sit right.

There was one person who could answer all his questions involving local society. Not that the woman he called grandmother ever bestowed her knowledge freely. No, the vain, rapacious old woman filed away every dusty rumor that struck her as curious or valuable in that knife-sharp mind of hers, storing it until its revelation would inflict maximum effect. He could ask, certainly, but the price of such information would come at a steep price. One he refused to pay. 

With a heavy exhale, he asked, “What do you know of Mr. Alcantra?” Given the drug she’d imbibed, coherence was probably too much to expect. He bent to lift Rose off the floor, grateful she was mostly dressed, freeing him from any later implications of impropriety. 

“Cisco?” She patted his cheek. “A large seagull pecked his eye out.” 

“A seagull?” Confusion wrinkled his brow. He set her down on a tangle of sweat-stained sheets, a questionable improvement over the floor. “A bird.” Had the mescaline given the murderess wings in Rose’s mind?

She flapped a hand. “The one that flew away. Out the window. Voomph!” A statement made with much conviction and a roll of the eyes. As if he were the unbalanced one. “Vicious demons, those salty feathered fiends. But no worries, Cisco will sort it out with an eye patch. All the ladies will sigh.”

Over a dead man? “Including you?” 

“Me?” She giggled and winked. “Never. But more will make him all the merrier!”

He thought of the three teacups. Of the possible assumptions implied therein.

“Is that so?” Something oily and fetid twisted through his innards. How deeply was she entwined in this mess? Openly cavorting in a popular hotel with a known smuggler who may or may not be her husband. Sipping peyote tea in the presence of a murderess. What more disappointing facts would he learn?

Pity was an uncomfortable sensation when it lodged against suspicious disapproval before backing misplaced loyalty against a wall.

Aether, there was little hope of extracting any useful information from Rose until she was in possession of all her faculties. Which might be quite some time, judging from her flushed face, dilated pupils, and the irregular pulse throbbing at her neck.

He couldn’t let her go. But he couldn’t keep her here. Not like this. 

“And where are you residing these days?” Fingers crossed there was a responsible adult to whom he could deliver her.

“A house on Olive Street serves as a proper birdcage.” 

Not far away, then. But a birdcage? He knew both relief and worry simultaneously. “And what is its number?”

“Why? Wouldn’t you rather stay here? With me?” She lifted a leg and pointed a stockinged toe toward the ceiling, tracing a lazy circle of invitation in the air. Petticoats pooled at her hips as she slid her palms from her corseted waist upward to frame her breasts. 

A move that left a bitter tang in his mouth. “Not an option, Rose.”

Her lips pursed into a pout. “I’ll do anything you—”

“No.” He turned away, hiding the curl of his lip.

A number of agents might mock him for failing to take full advantage of such an opportunity, but Ryan found such behavior distasteful. He was no monk; he merely preferred the women in his bed not to arrive there for the purpose of negotiating a business exchange. He refused to trade sex—or anything else—for the protection of a potentially complicit witness.

He studied the room. Open crates lined its edges, their lids propped against their sides. Packing material—various dried tropical leaves—littered the floor. Ignoring Rose, he examined one import item after another, wrinkling his nose at the foul odors of preservative that wafted upward, all while keeping his eyes peeled for a possible murder weapon.

There were bottles of thick and opaque glass, each corked, sealed with wax and labeled with a twist of twine and a brown-paper tag. Within floated dark and shadowy shapes. As he read the scrawled ink on each, he mourned the loss of life caused by those who believed severed parts of an exotic animal would cure ailments their physician could not. Much as he wished to stop his inventory, to leave the task to another, such was his job. It had to be done. He needed to know exactly what had been imported. 

A few bottles held tantalizing clues to the existence of creatures not yet listed in the Linnaean classification literature and he set them aside for closer study. Such were the moments that defined his ambition and drove his career. Far too late for the individual animal sacrificed to provide the raw ingredients, but not necessarily for the population that provided them. IBIS would investigate and, if located, protect those who remained in the wild from a similar fate.  

For now, he moved on, continuing his inspection of the room’s contents while Rose sang breathily, “Birds of a feather flock together, And so will pigs and swine.”

He found boxes filled with peyote buttons, with various seed pods. Bottles of tequila and mezcal. Packets of powders and pills. Rolls of musty furred, feathered, and scaly skins. Entire wings of brightly colored birds. Assorted eggs with both leathery and rigid shells. Dry bones. A bag of monkey feet. And entire dried animals—fish, turtles, lizards, snakes.

Only one creature still lived. An irate, hissing iguana locked inside a cage far too small. Perfect. His brother Liam, in one of his many efforts to guilt Ryan into a visit, had written at length about his son’s fascination with all things dragon-like. Meaning Owen, his ten-year-old nephew, was about to receive the gift of a lifetime. A smile tugged at his lips. The creature was bound to upset everyone else in the household, an unexpected bonus.

Archaeological artifacts were also among the collection. Ornaments of beaten gold and carved jade. An assemblage of ancient pottery.

Every last item in this room would interest and inflame all who worked within the walls of the Peabody Museum at Yale.

But they were Mexican exports, not Spanish goods.

So much for finding evidence of a cuélebre. Or the murder weapon.

Wait. What was that?

He tugged at a box shoved beneath the bed, pushed the lid aside. The box was only half full, its contents wrapped in newspaper—he unwrapped a gold torc, blinked and dragged his stunned gaze away to the top of the newspaper page—from Gijón, a coastal city in northern Spain, dated a few months past. Next, he unwrapped a bronze spearhead. Followed by a stone fragment with an eroded carving. 

He almost set the stone aside when the sunlight pouring through the window cast curious shadows across its surface. He squinted. Tilted it back and forth. Was that a feathered wing protruding from a dragon’s back? His heart soared—a cuélebre!—then took a swan dive into a dark pit. If this was the cuélebre the smuggler had bragged about, then his mission was complete. There was no actual cryptid—living or dead—only a fanciful artistic rendering of one.

Still, all three items were Iberian, artifacts from continental Europe, likely modern-day Spain. Not even the same hemisphere as Mexico. Yet tucked among Mesoamerican commodities. Why?

He set his jaw. Several crates were only half full. What inventory was missing? What was in the canvas bag whisked away by the hooded presumed murderess? Was she the competition, a cryptid hunter sans ethics? 

He straightened. “Have you met many of Mr. Alcantra’s customers, Rose?”

“Met the chickens,” she said. “But not the rooster.”

He sighed. So they were back to birds. “And where might this chicken coop be?”

“Oh? What’s good for the goose is good for the gander? As if I’d send a fox to chase the geese.” She cackled. “They bite, you know. Such pretty feathers but they’ll nip off your nose.” She dropped the back of her hand against her forehead and waggled her fingers. 

“Rose,” he exhaled, frustrated and wishing to be free of this nonsense. There was a murderess to hunt.

“Fine, fine. As we are speaking of ruffled feathers and eggs, when not in his counting-house, the king has provided a home in which I roost.” She pushed herself into a sitting position and reached for a day gown. “It’s quite the nest, you know. If we must take wing, drop me at Sixty-Five Olive Street?”

Finally, her inane blather had coughed up a proper address. Perhaps tomorrow she could converse without quoting a mishmash of Mother Goose. One last task, though, before he faced the next steps of this nightmare.

Ryan turned back to the dead man who stared blankly across the room, blissfully beyond Rose’s inane avian-themed prattles. He dug through Francisco Alcantra’s coat pockets, searching. 

There. Worn leather and paper met his fingertips. 

He tugged free a small book and flipped through its pages. Code. He’d expected nothing less. Thankfully, it appeared to be a simple substitution cipher, nothing he couldn’t break with an evening’s work. With luck, it would contain all the man’s local contacts. Including the true identity of this aforementioned chicken coop where his customers might—

Ryan jumped back, his hand falling upon his weapon.

Mr. Alcantra’s eyes had shifted. Ryan could swear the man was looking directly at him.

But no. The hole in the man’s forehead negated that possibility. 

Ryan fished a loupe from inside his coat and held the optical device to his own eye. Ignoring the jump in his heart rate and the curdle in his stomach, he peeled back the Spaniard’s eyelid and leaned closer.

Something small, ridged and wormlike swam beneath the Spaniard’s cornea.

He grimaced. So much for a clean death and a simple death certificate. The Customs House authorities would be extremely put out when they were forced to employ the autopsy services of a pathologist.

Mr. Alcantra might be dead, but the creature in his eyeball was not.


* * *


Hand clutching her thigh, Maria writhed on the floor of the jolting steam carriage, cursing as an unknown drug burned through her veins and arteries. 

She’d know the face of the man who had shot her anywhere. More than one framed photograph of his visage had graced the fireplace mantle of their American host. Handsome enough and good with a weapon. 

The timing of his arrival, however, left much to be desired. She’d long since given up any hope that an IBIS agent might be persuaded to aid their cause. Not that they needed him anymore. The canvas bag beside her held key artifacts, if ones that had taken far too long to be liberated from storage, and the greedy Spanish smuggler with his unreasonable demands was no longer a problem.

If their luck held, she need only endure a few more months in this god forsaken country.

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