Home Page of Author Cassandra Zaruba

Liquid Bones synopsis

First the synopsis.... then below is the first chapter...


The people living on the outskirts of Bismarck, North Dakota rarely see a crime worse than petty theft.  So when a couple of residents disappear, no one guesses that they were murdered.  Five key characters piece together the story: Emilia is a recent college graduate, broke, and on her way to North Dakota to care for her last living relative.  Luke is an art dealer whose real passion is snowboarding.  Gavin is a basketball player-turned-coach with a guilty conscience, and Caleb, a theology student, is tormented by unpredictable and unwarranted visions.  The final character, known as “The Emperor of Ice Cream,” is a former psychiatrist and hypnotherapist who turns into a seemingly deranged killer, creating a pattern to determine his victims. 

            The novel opens with the Emperor’s account of his first murder, the victim being an escaped prison convict.  Believing that a prisoner would hardly be missed, the Emperor indulges a murderous fantasy, and then cannot stop there.  He becomes a serial murderer.  As a literature aficionado (hence the title he gives himself), the Emperor of Ice Cream uses a book of poems to determine his next victims.  Page by page, he finds someone who fits the poem, and kills that person.  He keeps the bodies in an abandoned house in the woods of North Dakota.  There, he is discovered by Emilia, who became stranded when her car broke down.  She does not fit the profile of the next intended victim, so he cannot kill her.  Instead, he makes her forget what she saw in that house. 

            Luke, Caleb, and Gavin find Emilia unconscious in her car shortly thereafter, and they take her to Luke’s house in Cannon Ball, North Dakota.  Just as the Emperor intended, she does not remember seeing dead bodies in the house in the woods, and she is afflicted by the gap in her memory.  The five characters’ lives become intertwined in a series of events that lead to the shocking truth of who the Emperor really is, and what becomes of the dead bodies otherwise known as the Emperor’s victims.

Liquid Bones excerpt - Chapter 1

The Emperor of Ice Cream


        Bones don’t burn as easily as they break.  All Little Johnny has to do is slip off the swing set the wrong way, and you hear the sickening snap of an arm or leg breaking.  But put those bones in a fire, and the flames will probably die out before the bones are even charred.  The flesh will burn away fairly quickly, exposing white enamel like wrinkled skin peeling back off an old man’s grin. 

I discovered this during my first killing. 

It was when I was living in Dresden, which isn’t far from the border of Manitoba.  A fierce blizzard had swept in from Canada and kept many people inside their houses for days.  And the astronomical accumulation of snow in those few days was also responsible for causing part of the roof of an old correctional center in Devil’s Lake to cave in.  In all the chaos, several inmates managed to escape, but within twenty-four hours, all were caught and hauled off back to prison.  Except for one. 

The storm knocked out all the power lines, too.  By nightfall, I had to venture out back to the shed to gather up all the flashlights I owned.  The nights there were very, very dark. 

In the shed, I could make out a shadowy figure hunkering down in the corner, shivering.  The wind blew the door open wider, and the remaining light of day distinguished his features.  The man was young, probably late twenties.  He had dark eyes and about a five-day’s beard.  He almost resembled a wolf.  After the flash of fear had diminished, his jaw tightened.  He stared as if I had done something wrong by entering my own shed.  The folded tarp I kept on the shelf was now wrapped around him. 

“That can’t be too warm,” I observed. 

His eyes narrowed suspiciously at first.  “It isn’t.”  He drew in the tarp more tightly around his shoulders, exposing a patch of the floor underneath one corner.  Several of the tools from my toolbox were next to him, including a hammer and wrench.  It was a deliberate move, of course.  “This your shed?” he asked. 


“Then you don’t mind if I stay here for a while.”  It was a statement, not a question.  His eyes dropped down to the hammer for a split second, then back up at me. 

“Actually, I do,” I replied.  His hand crept out from beneath the tarp, snaking toward the tools.  “You’ll freeze to death out here in the shed.  Come inside.”  I moved quickly to the shelf where the flashlights were kept, grabbing several.  My back was to him; he didn’t take advantage of it.  I turned back around, handing him my heaviest flashlight.  “Carry this one inside, would you?  We’re going to need all the light we can get.  Who knows how long the power will be out.”

I could read his thoughts by the look on his face.  He took the object from my hand, and when he did, the tarp slid off his shoulder, revealing a dirty and tattered shirt. 

“Don’t get me wrong now,” I added.  “I may be generous, but I’m not stupid.  I know exactly where you came from.”

He sneered.  “Is that supposed to be a threat?”

“Nope.  Just making everything clear between us.  I’m going to trust you, and you’d be wise to trust me, because you would die otherwise in this shed.  But if it makes you feel better, you can even bring that hammer or wrench inside the house with you.”

He gave me one last wary look, but left the tools behind, just as I anticipated.  He nervously glanced around in all directions during the short trek to the house, but no one was outside.  And why would they be?

He practically drooled seeing the fireplace.  He absentmindedly placed the flashlight on the table and plopped himself in front of the fire. 

“So how did you get here all the way from Devil’s Lake?” I inquired curiously. 

“Quickly and carefully.”

I chuckled.  How slick you think you are. 

“So, I should have something to call you by.”

He paused.  “Scott.  My name is Scott.”

I waited for him to ask my name.  He didn’t, so I offered it anyway.  “People call me Dr. T.”

His head swiveled with interest.  “You’re a doctor?”

I paced the kitchen, my shoes tapping softly against the linoleum.  “Not the kind you’re thinking of, probably.  I’m a psychiatrist.”

He smirked cynically.  “I’ve had to deal with a few of those.”

“And did it ever help?”

“Nah.  Hey, do you have any cigarettes, by chance?”

I shook my head.  “Sorry, I don’t smoke.”

“Damn.  Haven’t had a cigarette in years.”

“Since you’ve been in prison?”

“Yeah.  Eight long years.”

I studied him thoughtfully.  “May I ask what you were in for?”

He looked back at me, his eyes darkening.  “Why?”

I shrugged lightly.  “To satisfy my curiosity, is all.”

“I killed someone,” he stated bluntly. 

“Was it worth it?”

He was taken aback by my unfazed reaction.  “No,” he said after a moment.  “Death was too merciful for that bastard.”

Scott grimaced as he stretched his feet toward the fireplace, wiggling his toes around.  He had probably come very close to getting frostbite.  I suddenly was overcome by a vision of the grate not being there, and his foot was right in the flames.  His foot was so cold that he couldn’t even feel the flesh sizzling. 

I blinked the image away.  At that moment, I thought, I could kill him.  I could murder him right here and right now, and who would miss an escaped prison inmate?

I looked at him differently from then on.  The way I imagined a laboratory worker looked at his little white mice.  A project.  An experiment. 

“Do you think I could borrow some sweats or something?  And some socks?”

Sure.  Be nice and comfy when you die. 

I obliged.  Once he was all cozy in my clothes, he told me a little about his childhood.  I guess knowing that I was a psychiatrist made him think I’d be interested. 

“My family was really poor,” Scott was saying.  “We had food stamps and everything.  But we hardly ever had real food in the house—just a loaf of moldy bread and junk food.  My mom would buy cheesecurls, eat a couple, then leave the bag wide open.  And you know how fast cheesecurls get stale . . .”

His voice drilled in and out of my mind.  I was thinking about other things as I partially listened to my houseguest. 

I was wondering if his whole body could fit in my fireplace. 

And I was thinking about an old poem—“The Emperor of Ice Cream.”  It was a favorite of mine.  The poem was all about Epicureanism and indulgence.  Sitting there listening to a murderer complain about his childhood, riddled with tales of food stamps and such, I understood the poem a little better.  I was like the Emperor.  It became one of my many sobriquets—an alter ego, if you will.   

“I didn’t know the meaning of stale . . .” Scott went on. 

The poet is allowed to indulge as much as he wants.  I became envious.  Why shouldn’t we all be given the opportunity to fulfill our desires, entertain all our whims? 

Scott’s face was illuminated by the beam of the flashlight I had propped on the coffee table.  “Do you have any cheesecurls, by chance?  All this talk about them has made me hungry.”

Why, of course.  Silly me.  Why hadn’t I offered before?

 “So that’s basically my mother, summed up.”  Scott’s vulpine features became twisted.  “Now, my father is a whole other story . . .”

Jiminy Crickets, how did I get myself into this?

“As a kid, I had this plastic sword and shield.  I traded the sword for a friend’s lunch one day.  But the shield . . . I loved that thing.  It was actually called a scutcheon, because it had the knight’s emblem on it and everything.”  Scott sighed desolately.  “But my father took it away from me.  To me, it was more than a toy.  It was actually very fitting that it was a shield, because I would use it to shield myself from my father’s temper, you know?”

How very profound.  I’m just so amazed. 

My mind went back to poetry.  Sir Philip Sidney had some very interesting things to say about the genre.  The poet is free to range “within the zodiac of his own wit.”  Poetry is like a speaking picture.  It is as worthy of study—if not more—as the physical sciences, because poetry endorses invention.  The poet must be innovative. 

And the poet must be indulgent. 

Scott’s face had taken on a sickly pallor in talking about his father.

“So where is your father now?” I asked, giving the impression that I had been listening the entire time. 

“Dead,” he whispered.  “He’s the one I killed.”

Well, that makes for an interesting ending. 

“How about a game of chess?” I proposed, gesturing toward my wooden chess set.  “To pass the time more quickly, since there’s no electricity.”

He snapped out of his nostalgic reverie.  “Chess?”

“Yeah.”  I took a seat at the table, motioning him to the place across from mine. 

“Okay,” he agreed, moving away from the fireplace.  “I’ve got to say, though, I’m pretty good at chess.  So be prepared to get beaten.”

I smiled, straightening the pieces on the board.  “That’s very unlikely.  I always win in chess.”

“Not against me, you won’t!”

“How about a little wager on that?”

Scott frowned.  “I know you can’t be talking about money.”

“I’m not,” I replied mischievously.  “I wouldn’t expect you to have any.  This is the bet: if you win, I’ll keep you hidden well here, for as long as you want—what’s mine is yours.  You can use anything I have here.  But if I win,” I went on, turning the King piece to face Scott, “you won’t have the privilege of going back to prison.”

He was silent for a moment, then erupted in nervous laughter. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

I cocked my head to the side.  “I thought you said you were good.”

“Oh, I am!  Believe me—

“Then what more do you need to know?  Confidence is the first indicator of winning.”

He sure shut up then. 

“Make your move,” I instructed. 

It was a long game.  Halfway through, one flashlight died, its batteries needing replacement.  But Scott wasn’t too bad a player.  He just wasn’t good enough to beat me.  I could hear the fire crackling in the other room.  I didn’t bother putting on more wood.

Sliding my piece into its final location, I triumphantly said, “Checkmate.”  You’re dead.  Good-bye.

He was rendered speechless.  He stared at the board in confusion.  “What?  How did . . .?” 

He didn’t notice me rise from my seat.  Didn’t notice me open the drawer near the table.  Didn’t notice me pull out my other hammer.  The one I kept inside the house. 

“But I never lose,” he was blabbering.  “My king was right here, for God’s  sake—

The hammer came down on his skull.  There was a similar sickening thud as Little Johnny falling off the swing set. 

“You should have taken my advice when I told you to bring in the hammer or wrench,” I chided Scott’s body falling off the chair.  “But you should not have listened  when I said to trust me.  Even a so-called bad-ass like yourself shouldn’t trust strangers.”

I dragged his body to the living room, then flung away the grate of the fireplace using the poker. 

This is my indulgence, I thought wildly.  Killers have many faces, you know, and I was the Emperor right then.

“Scotty, get your scutcheon,” I told him.  “Call the roller of big cigars, and bid him whip!”

I shoved him into the fiery pit, letting the flames and embers take him.  It was near-surreal. 

Since Scott was the first victim, I hadn’t known how long it took for the bones to burn.  And I hadn’t known that once the bones were brittle enough, they snapped open like a hollow chocolate Easter bunny thrown on a hard floor.  But bones aren’t completely hollow.  Some liquid comes out, and the rest has to be scraped out, like getting the milk out of a coconut. 

I had dug Scott’s bones back out of the fire.  I saw something in them . . . and suddenly I didn’t want them smoldered to ashes like the rest of him. 

Scott was the first murder, but he wasn’t the last by far.  There have been several more since, and those more recent ones have had an order about them.  I’ve been going by the book—literally.  I laugh at my own little joke. 

There’s something satisfying about going to the grocery store, and no one has a clue about what I’ve done.  I killed the well-trained runner who bought his protein bars and milkshakes at that very store.  I can shop there too, and no one suspects a thing.  I also killed the hooker named Julia, who wore a silky blue dress.  I took much pleasure out of strangling her, but never have my intentions been based on prurience. 

           Now back to the present.  My most recent victim is the lovely Lauren, the one girl at the boys’ party.