by Stuart Livener
The Ossuary is a fictional horror story by writer and film-maker Stuart Livner. This story addresses the question of why so many people go missing in Chicago, inspired by upsetting events that occurred between 2014-2015.
Livner’s writing is amazing and the story (the first horror story published in Cough Syrup!) had me hooked from the very beginning. We know you’ll enjoy this.
Miss Collins lived a house down from me. She took care of her garden. She was forty-three and with two children. They reported she didn’t return home one night and a day later we found a severed hand with rose-red painted fingernails. I got involved when I became convinced it belonged to her.
There are a multitude of paths to take when trying to identify what seems unidentifiable. Aaron Howell and his team of yes-men took none of them.
He was young. He had a carefully managed stubble, a blonde back crew cut, and circular black-rimmed glasses.
I was in line for a position as detective as well as to work heavily with the forensic team. At one point I had no control over my position, and my status was pushed further and further back into the obscurity of our law enforcement agency’s miscellaneous crew.
Irwin, the Medical Examiner was in his early seventies. I don’t know if it was years of his career or the people surrounding him. He did his work alone and rarely spoke. Supposedly he used to talk a lot.
Irwin’s voice withered away with the rest of the legitimacy of this team’s practices.
I’m not allowed at crime scenes. It wasn’t because of any action or palpable reason, there’s something that diverted me from the guys running everything. I thought of it like a joke I wasn’t in on. I tried to remain civil and never interfere, but I would count everything they did wrong. It began with a missing piece in chain of custody. Something would happen to a piece of evidence: the weight of something would change slightly with no explanation and no one would answer to it.
I’m not sure why it took so long for me to realize what was happening evaded simple laziness. Sean was the coroner. He didn’t like me either. When I first met him, he introduced himself by just saying, “Sean!” I extended my hand to shake. He glanced at it and walked away.
I’ve always imagined slithering in and breaking apart the interior of their clique, but it seemed pointless, because regardless of what Irwin could check, they had reign of every individual piece of investigation. Something snapped. Miss Collins opened the floodgates.
While heading to work I caught a glimpse of protective services leading her children out of what was no longer their home. The eldest, William, couldn’t have been more than ten. He walked with his head toward the ground and his little sister, Mary, wouldn’t leave the front steps while an older man tried to coax her out. She was about to cry and looked straight at me.
They were normal kids. They cried and made a ruckus. They didn’t know any better.
Miss Collins knew everyone on the block and we all knew her. Her Garden was ten-feet wide and five-feet long, but diverse: flowers, tomatoes, shallots, and an array of other things I couldn’t begin to identify. If it was cold she still planted bulbs. She shared what she grew with the everyone on the block.
Of anyone, her children deserved to find out what happened to their mother.
Anything I would do from this point on would be for their benefit.
I didn’t know where to go so I went to Irwin. It crossed my mind he might be the only place to start.
His hair was grey and stuck to the sides of his head. His clothes were two sizes too small, voice low like he was tired, with rasp from the center of his throat. As I approached, he stuck his hand out toward me without looking away from his work.
“Don’t come near me, I’m sterile.” he said, “I used to work in Connecticut. They had funny standards for their police officers.”
“How so?” I asked.
“All officers had to take an IQ test. Every official in any position of power should be required to take an IQ test.”
“The only issue was there being a maximum IQ for them. It was 120.”
“That’s not funny.” I’m an idiot, “Where do you fall on the spectrum?”
“155. The rule doesn’t apply to pathologists. What do you want?”
I told him everything. He dressed me up and brought me into the lab. He’d been cleaning out the severed hand’s fingernails.
“I found three samples of soil. One is identified as from the lot the hand was found in. The other two are unidentified.”
“If it’s above fifty degrees she’s in her garden. It’s most likely one of them.”
“Do you think you could get me a sample?”
“There’s a great deal of it. I’m judging she was abducted midway through digging.”
“What makes you say that?”
“I would wash my hands after submerging them in dirt,” he cracked his back, “Collect it for a sample, bring it back here tomorrow.”
The next day I returned with his request. It matched. This hand belonged to Miss Collins. Our attention reverted to the last unidentified sample.
“It might as well be dirt from the moon,” Irwin said.
“I’ll meditate on it. What do you have?”
“I have no idea. I don’t think I’m capable of figuring that out.”
Irwin leaned an inch away from my face, “You work for the law,” his voice got high “Do your god damn job.”
“I don’t know where to even start.”
“You said she has kids. Talk to them.”
Mary and William Collins were relocated to an orphanage on 31st
street before being immediately placed in foster care.
I forgot the power having a badge gave me. I flashed it and their guardians escorted me straight to them. They sat on the floor putting together a Play-Mobile scene and running toy cars through them. I sat down cross-legged remaining eye-to-eye.
I told them, “My name is Mr. Lieberman. I’m a police officer.”
They looked at me and remained silent until William asked,
“Do you know what happened to my mom?”
My throat swelled and I couldn’t respond. They had no idea what was going on; their entire world contained in a ten-foot radius. I couldn’t handle the thought of them learning how things really went. I stopped thinking about it.
“I’m here to try and find out where she is.”
He tossed the car across the rest of the play set as I tried to contain the thought of him having no idea his mother’s hand sat in Pathologist’s Lab two miles away. I pushed forward,
“What I want to know is if anyone has been visiting you or your mom lately.”
William shook his head, “I don’t think so.”
I smiled to try and make him more comfortable, “Are you sure? You really need to think. Try as hard as you can,” I clenched my face and make it turn red, “That’s my thinking face, William.”
He laughed at it.
“Put it on too. It’ll help I promise,” I did it again. He stood on his knees, did it as well, and fell over laughing. His sister tried it too.
“Well, there was Teddy.”
“Teddy?” I started writing this all down.
“Any one else?”
He looked up, twitching, exhaling a long, “Uuuhm,” until he popped back up.
He said, “There was one guy outside our gate. Mom told him to go.”
“Do you remember what he looked like?”
“He had glasses.”
“Okay, what else?”
“He had a beard.”
“Was it a long beard?”
“It was short and fuzzy.”
“What color was his hair?”
“It was. It was yellow.”
My writing slowed and I looked back up at him, “What kind of hair did he have?”
“Was it short on the sides? Shaved on the sides?”
“Uh-huh, shaved I think.”
“How many times did he come to the house.”
“I don’t know.”
“More than twice?”
“I think so.”
It sounded like Aaron. I passed it off as my spite inhabiting itself in William’s description. A theory as improbable as this bordered on conspiracy, though day-to-day life is already so god damn weird.
I promised to return with more information before I left.
In an attempt to rationalize contempt and suspicion for Aaron and his crew, I followed every case where they held chain of custody. They were mostly murder cases and a great deal of them pointed towards either one serial murderer who inhibited a gift for evading the law or several working simultaneously; either way it was unacceptable for their profession. It took a sleepless week to explore it all.
About a third involved miscellaneous body parts being found in south or west side fields, parking lots, sights of former buildings or of arson. The other third contained trace DNA of a victim never linked to an identified person – blood stains, seminal fluid, or even a chipped off tip of someone’s tooth. The last portion had nothing. People disappeared with no trace. I pushed back further.
Five-years prior there was a halt to the strand of mass disappearances. There were prior cases of arson where fragments of bone, or missing person’s clothes were found in a fire’s aftermath. Sometimes houses burned to the ground, sometimes remnants were in the middle of the woods, and sometimes just in parking lots on the far south or west side. They all took place in areas where the police turned a blind eye to bloodshed, though this was severely out of the ordinary. It’s always unfortunately been status quo for victims to be ignored in these areas, but it raised the question, where are they going?
The assumption of a skilled killer or group of killers turned into stupid criminals trying to cover it up by alternating disposal methods; leading investigators in a different direction until it becomes hopeless. Even the most incompetent criminals suffer paranoia. And returning to the thought of Aaron, Evan, Sean, or any of the mindless men who follow, the suspicion emerged again when Irwin’s comment on law enforcement IQ ran across my mind. It was severely improbable, but it was the Arson cases missing consistent mandatory areas of investigation like a fire’s point-of-origin, when I realized pieces of information were omitted.
The further I followed back, the more the geography compressed. In 2004, the reports of disappearances were less, though under similar circumstances, but crossed the city limits into south suburbs. I ruled Aaron out since he, Evan, Sean, nor I worked then. His predecessor’s history surrounded, until closing in on, the city of Ford Heights, Illinois. Among everything I sifted through, I was just curious why it led to Ford Heights.
Ford Heights didn’t have more than one squad car until recently and was given the title of the poorest town in Illinois. I continued through Aaron’s predecessor’s predecessor to the start-point: a warehouse fire. Again there was no point-of-origin for the fire, no suspect, and unlike everything following, no victims.
I no longer thought of Miss Collins or her children when I decided to go. I just wanted to know why.
Reports of bankruptcy and evasion surrounded the town, but every house and complex I passed were full of people. I reached the edge of the block and walked on a dirt field, not having to get close to understand nothing burned down.
Five or six structures resembling hangars covered in sheet metal stood alone. I walked closer and noticed tire tracks from different vehicles driving over one another until vanishing.
I looked behind me and saw the roofs of houses and the tips of overgrown weeds in vacant lots on street corners. I couldn’t see the Chicago skyline. There was nothing to see in front of me, just the structure, dirt, and sky.
I pushed dirt into several coin-envelopes from different areas around it without getting too close to the structures and left.
I woke up late the next day. I missed my shift and Irwin’s ended in two hours. I sped there for the sake of giving him the soil. When I got there it was evident he wasn’t leaving anytime soon.
He turned his head and said, “Haven’t seen you in a while, I was worried.”
“I took your advice,” I said.
“When did I give you advice?”
“You told me to do my god damn job.”
“Huh. That was very considerate of me.” He stood up as I handed him the envelope, “I’m stacked tonight. Come back at noon tomorrow and I’ll have it for you.”
I returned to Irwin’s office at noon and his door opened as I reached for the handle. He popped out and said, “It matches.”
“Identical. Did you find this in the city?”
“Suburbs. Still in Cook County.”
Without a breath he said, “Don’t go there.”
“You heard me.”
“No, where ever you found this sample, stay away.”
He wasn’t speaking but his mouth opened and tongue rubbed against his teeth trying to articulate a vowel, until it turned into a sigh.
I asked again, “You need to tell me what it is.”
“I thought it was gone.”
“Sometimes people are better labeled as missing.”
“This is absurd. Whatever it is, I found it and should have a right to know.”
“You do, but you don’t want to know. Most of all, I don’t want to talk about it. Every day I wake up to a news alert. It’s something much larger than you or me. Every day something very close, I’m sure to you, still feels far away, leaving you untouchable. I know you may feel forgotten, but someone definitely remembered you the moment you dug this up.”
“We’re not talking about this. Especially not here. Just don’t go.”
He was at this point an inch away from me, “Do–not–go. Do you understand?” He handed me a cigarette and matches, “You need one more than I do,” sat down back at his desk and said, “I need to be alone.”
He told me not to go once more before I shut the door. The next day I went.
Daylight seemed safe. The same people who saw me walk the path last time watched me again. Something looked different. It wasn’t until later I realized the tire tracks were gone.
The first two buildings were empty. I squinted my eyes trying to block out the sun and didn’t notice the thick, bald, man standing six-foot-five, step out from the third building. He approached aggressively and quietly said while looking down, “What is it you want?”
“Should I ask again?” I couldn’t think of anything other than the realization he saw my face and now knows who I am. I slowly reached for my badge in desperation, trying to reinforce the power it gave me.
“I just want to come in,” I said.
He looked between the badge and my face several times. He smiled and said, “Of course. Come in, I just need to pat you down.”
He searched me and said, “Ha. Boys in blue always get it for free. Go on in, you, sick puppy.” before returning to his area of watch next to the entryway.
The only light came from the holes in the metal and doorway. There were miscellaneous tools for construction and pieces of brick or cement laying about, large and small. I followed a cellar door with a steep staircase into pitch black, pressing my hands against the walls to keep balance.
My feet touched a flat surface and I saw light ahead. Further down the tunnel were work lights standing up to my chest, lining the hallway with every other one on the opposite wall, their stingers disappearing into black.
I reached an intersection. The hallway continued forward. Right and left wasn’t any brighter, but there were doors. A thousand-watt fluorescent light dangled above, giving a white light to the mold-stain tint the rest of the place had. Every few steps I was assaulted by the scent of sulfur and fruit before being submerged in bleach again. I didn’t plan on getting this far. I took a left and walked slow.
Even the lights weren’t buzzing. I heard crunching. It nearly gave me a heart attack until I realized my shoes were making the sound.
I took them off and voyaged forward in socks, putting my ear an inch from one of the doors. Nothing.
I crept to the one across from it and still heard nothing. My head followed down to the bottom crack of the door. Something hyperventilated behind it, sounding like it echoed from the other side of the room. I pulled away and heard someone else.
I ran to where the four hallways intersected. I flattened my back against the wall to peer into the hallway I came in through. I clearly heard footsteps. I didn’t know where to go, just to stay in the dark, so I followed the path of work lights until I found an open door.
It was empty and unlit, but enough light leaked in from the hallway to identify shapes.
I saw a desk. Steel frames hung at the edges to a foot-and-a-half from the floor.
It felt like my adrenaline stopped and I took a deep breath out, and back in. My knees slowly approached the tile floor. I heard the crunch of dirt get closer so I crawled to the other end and pulled myself behind the desk.
The lights turned on. I peered under and saw black rubber boots, with thin aqua scrubs tucked into them, walk toward the table so I slid under it.
I was on my back, my head turned toward the door. I covered my mouth to refrain whispering an expletive upon seeing my shoes next to the frame. I heard a deep voice,
“For the love of everything holy, do I have to dispose of everything myself here?”
I heard rustling of bags. They were heavy and set close to me. I heard something spill out, then something heavy slide open. The man grunted.
He dropped what he grabbed on the table making it shake. The room became heavy with the scent of cleaning solution. I heard the squeal of metal against metal. I pulled my legs further up to my chest as he walked to the end of the table.
I heard a bottle being unscrewed and liquid being rubbed in his hands. The man sighed.
The table shook like he was digging something out. I focused on controlling my breathing until I turned my head toward the garbage he dropped. What peaked out was labeled, “BLONDIE,” with a wrap over it and dried red stains like wax, texture like green wood, white scratches, little lines, a polish plait, and most haunting of all: two yellow ovals, dried fruit with ink blots. Across it all was a chicken-scratch note, “USED.”
I gagged. The digging stopped. He heard me.
His legs started to bend. In desperation I pulled his ankles toward me. His head cracked against the tile. I ran to the door, but stopped in fear of who else could be out there, feeling my way while backing against a desk of embalming fluid, cleaning supplies, and lubricant.
I caught a glance of the table. It was the corpse of a young man on his stomach, legs spread apart, stitches running down to his thighs, which were covered by a thick clear jelly, with a pair of large forceps sticking out.
The man in the boots held his head repeating the same sounds, starting as words but fading into grunts, while regaining his balance, hanging his head like a bull ready to charge. He plunged toward me. I moved and he went straight into the desk. Bottles fell and fluid went everywhere.
He nearly slipped, but managed to push himself off the desk. I lit a match and tossed it in his direction. All I felt was heat and all I heard was him screaming. I darted out of the room, trying to regain equilibrium, hitting the opposite wall. I look behind me and the flames breathed out through the door.
The elements connected as I ran to the stairs: the private doors, panting, the lubricant, and the digging; an accumulation of unmitigated power given to those using it for power’s sake.
I ran up and burst through the cellar door without thinking of the man keeping watch. He turned his head,
“That was fast. I’da thought you’d take your time.”
It only took a few seconds for him to realize I wasn’t a regular. He started toward me.
I stumbled back and tripped over structural pieces on the floor, falling into the corner. I was not going to die there. I ran through the space between his legs. He turned and grabbed the bottom of my jacket.
I kicked the dirt back attempting to run, but he dragged me back into the corner. I hastily attempted to take the jacket off until his other hand grabbed my collar.
He pulled me up. My hands sifted through dirt and broken brick for something to hold. As my knees left the ground, I felt a piece of cement: a loose piece, but large.
He almost had me off my feet.
I pushed my body weight into the piece of cement, driving it directly to the center of his nose.
He let go, and as I came down I let it into him again. He lost his balance and fell to the ground, almost coming to immediately, so I dropped my knees, onto his chest, and swung the cement against his face until he no longer had one.
The next thing I recall was running. I reached the houses and complexes, with people coming out of their apartments to see me shaking and crying.
I slowed down in the comfort of others, reached my car and drove home.
I woke the next morning to Aaron, Evan, Sean, and two officers surrounding me. My landlord stood by the doorway. They didn’t have to say anything for me to know I wouldn’t be around much longer.
I sat on the edge of the bed defeated, without an urge to resist.
I asked, “Why?”
“You’re under arrest for the murder of Natasha Robyn Collins.”
They applied handcuffs.
“Not about that. You know what I’m referring to,” I said.
They ignored my question and escorted me to the back of a cop car. An officer was in front. Aaron got in the passenger seat and whispered into his ear.
The officer left and Aaron took the driver’s seat. He started the car and drove.
“You did a number back there,” he said. I didn’t say anything, but he continued, “I underestimated your strength. Your tough when you’re angry.”
I remained silent.
“You killed a man. Two men, actually. Pretty impressive.”
I saw him smile while glancing at me in the rear view mirror.
“Have you ever killed someone, Aaron?” I asked.
“No. Never had to.”
“Or wanted to?”
He laughed, “By the way, we already have a confession from you.”
“I never confessed.”
“Doesn’t change us having one: dated with your signature. You should have left it alone. I can’t imagine how much you probably hate me.”
“I don’t have the energy to hate you.”
“You have a way out though.”
“No I don’t.”
“At some point in the future, if you agree to shut your mouth and comply, you can come back. We’ll be watching you, but it’s better than where you’re going.”
“I don’t want to.”
“Let’s see how you feel five years from now.”
“Why do you do this?”
“If you searched for the edge to measure its size, you wouldn’t live long enough to find it. If you had the resources to search to see how far back it goes, the same would happen.”
It got silent for a while.
“What if I don’t comply?” I asked.
“Then you won’t live long enough to see the next five years.”
“You’ve killed enough people by complying, Aaron,” my voice was cracking, “If a county, or even just a station revolts, something could be done.”
“It’s just not how things work.”
I leaned my head against the window, watching the buildings get shorter and fewer, waiting for the drive to end.