Cut to the Bone: A Body Farm Novel bf-8, page 1part #8 of Body Farm Series
Cut to the Bone: A Body Farm Novel
( Body Farm - 8 )
In this long-awaited prequel to his New York Times bestselling series, Jefferson Bass turns the clock back to reveal the Body Farm's creation-and Dr. Bill Brockton's deadly duel with a serial killer
In the summer of 1992, Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton and Tennessee Senator Albert Gore begin their long-shot campaign to win the White House. In the sweltering hills of Knoxville at the University of Tennessee, Dr. Bill Brockton, the bright, ambitious young head of the Anthropology Department, launches an unusual-some would call it macabre-research facility, unlike any other in existence. Brockton is determined to revolutionize the study of forensics to help law enforcement better solve crime. But his plans are derailed by a chilling murder that leaves the scientist reeling from a sense of déjà vu. Followed by another. And then another: bodies that bear eerie resemblances to cases from Brockton's past.
The police chalk up the first corpse to coincidence. But as the body count rises, the victims' fatal injuries grow more and more distinctive-a spiral of death that holds dark implications for Brockton himself. If the killer isn't found quickly, the death toll could be staggering. And the list of victims could include Brockton… and everyone he holds dear.
Cut to the Bone
To our loyal and encouraging readers, who’ve made these last ten years — and these first ten books — such a pleasure
And this is the forbidden truth, the unspeakable taboo — that evil is not always repellent but frequently attractive; that it has the power to make of us not simply victims, as nature and accident do, but active accomplices.
— JOYCE CAROL OATES
Some wounds heal quickly, the scars vanishing, or at least fading to thin white lines over the years. Some assaults are too grave, though; some things can never be set right, never be made whole or healthy again, no matter how many seasons pass.
In this regard, wounded mountains are like wounded beings. Cut them deeply — slice off their tops or carve open their flanks — and the disfigurement is beyond healing.
So it was with Frozen Head Mountain, in the foothills of the Cumberland Mountains of East Tennessee. In the early 1960s, Frozen Head’s northern slope — thickly forested with hardwoods and hemlocks — was blasted and bulldozed away by wildcat strip miners to expose a thick vein of soft, sulfurous coal. Geologists called it the Big Mary vein, and for three years, Big Mary was illegally carved up, carted away, and fed into the insatiable maw of Bull Run Steam Plant, forty mountainous miles south. Then Big Mary’s vein ran dry, and the miners and their machines — their dredges and draglines and stubby, hulking haul trucks — departed as abruptly as they’d appeared.
They left behind a mutilated mountainside, naked and exposed, its rocky bones battered by the sun and the rain, the heat and the cold. After every rain, a witch’s brew of acids and heavy metals seeped from the ravaged slope, blighting the soil and streams in its path.
And yet; and yet. Nature is persistent and insistent. Years after the wildcatters moved on, kudzu vines began slithering into the shale, latching onto bits of windblown soil and leaves. Scrubby trees — black locust and Virginia pine — slowly followed, clawing tenuous toeholds in the rubble. A stunted sham of a forest returned, one instinctively shunned by birds and deer and even humans of right spirit.
And so it was the perfect place to conceal a body.
Like the mountain, the corpse was partially reclaimed by the persistence and insistence of Nature. A year passed, or perhaps two or three or five. One spring afternoon, a seedpod on a nearby black locust tree split open, and half a dozen dark, papery seeds wafted away on a warm mountain breeze. Five of the six seeds drifted and sifted into deep crevices in the shale. The sixth spun and swirled and settled into a neat oval recess: the vacant eye orbit of a now-bare skull. By summer the seed had germinated, sending pale tendrils of root threading down through fissures in bone and rock. One day a female paper wasp — a queen with no court yet — lighted on the skull, tiptoed inside, and began to build her small papery palace. And so was formed an odd ecosystem, an improbable peaceable kingdom: wasp colony, flowering tree, crumbling corpse.
The world contains a multitude of postmortem microcosms. Many remain forever undiscovered. But all leave some mark, some indelible stain, upon the world; upon the collective soul of mankind.
Some — a handful — give rise to reclamation or redemption.
In the Beginning
And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.
— GENESIS 1:2
Now the serpent was more subtle than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made.
— GENESIS 3:1
Tugging the battered steel door of the office tight against the frame — the only way to align the lock — I gave the key a quick, wiggling twist. Just as the dead bolt thunked into place, the phone on the other side of the door began to ring. Shaking my head, I removed the key and turned toward the stairwell. “It’s Labor Day,” I called over my shoulder, as if the caller could hear me. “It’s a holiday. I’m not here.”
But the phone nagged me, scolding and contradicting me, as if to say, Oh, but you are. I wavered, turning back toward the door, the key still in my hand. Just as I was about to give in, the phone fell silent. “Thank you,” I said and turned away again. Before I had time to take even one step, the phone resumed ringing. Somebody else was laboring on Labor Day, and whoever it was, they were damned determined to reach me.
“All right, all right,” I muttered, hurrying to unlock the bolt and fling open the door. “Hold your horses.” Leaning across the mounds of mail, memos, and other bureaucratic detritus that had accumulated over the course of the summer, I snatched up the receiver. “Anthropology Department,” I snapped. The phone cord snagged a stack of envelopes, setting off an avalanche, which I tried — and failed — to stop. I’d been without a secretary since May; a new one was scheduled to start soon, but meanwhile, I wasn’t just the department’s chairman; I was also its receptionist, mail sorter, and answering service, and I was lousy at all of those tasks. The envelopes hit the floor and fanned out beneath the desk. “Crap,” I muttered, then, “Sorry. Hello? Anthropology Department.”
“Good mornin’, sir,” drawled a country-boy voice that sounded familiar. “This is Sheriff Jim Cotterell, up in Morgan County.” The voice was familiar; I’d worked with Cotterell on a murder case two years before, a few months after moving to Knoxville and the University of Tennessee. “I’m trying to reach Dr. Brockton.”
“You’ve got him,” I said, my annoyance evaporating. “How are you, Sheriff?”
“Oh, hey there, Doc. I’m hangin’ in; hangin’ in. Didn’t know this was your direct line.”
“We’ve got the phone system programmed,” I deadpanned. “It puts VIP callers straight through to the boss. What can I do for you, Sheriff?”
“We got another live one for you, Doc. I mean, another dead one.” He chuckled at the joke, one I’d heard a hundred times in a decade of forensic fieldwork. “Some fella was up on Frozen Head Mountain yesterday, fossil hunting — that’s what he says, leastwise — and he found some bones at a ol’ strip mine up there.”
I felt a familiar surge of adrenaline — it happened every time a new forensic case came in — and I was glad I’d turned back to answer the phone. “Are the bones still where he found them?”
“I wish my students paid me as much mind, Sheriff. Have you seen the bones? You sure they’re human?”
“I ain’t seen ’em myself. They’re kindly hard to get to. But my chief deputy seen ’em yesterday evening. Him and Meffert — you remember Meffert? TBI agent? — both says it’s human. Small, maybe a woman or a kid, but human for sure.”
“Meffert? You mean Bubba Hardknot?” Just saying the man’s name — his two names, rather — made me smile. The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation agent assigned to Morgan County had a mouthful of a name — Wellington Harrison Meffert II — that made him sound like a member of Parliament. His nickname, on the other hand—“Bubba Hardknot”—sounded like something from a hillbilly comic strip. The names spanned a wide spectrum, and Meffert himself seemed to, also: I’d found him to be intelligent and quick-witted, but affable and respectful among good old boys like Sheriff Cotterell. “Bubba’s a good man,” I said. “If he says it’s human, I reckon it is.”
“Me and Bubba, we figured there weren’t no point calling you out last night,” Cotterell drawled on. “Tough to find your way up that mountain in the damn daylight, let alone pitch dark. Besides, whoever it is, they ain’t any deader today’n what they was last night.”
“Good point, Sheriff.” I smiled, tucking away his observation for my own possible future use. “Couldn’t’ve said it better myself.” I checked my watch. “It’s eight fifteen now. How’s about we — my assistant and I — meet you at the courthouse around nine forty-five?”
“Bubba and me’ll be right here waitin’, Doc. ’Preciate you.”
* * *
Tyler Wainwright, my graduate assistant, was deep in thought — figuratively and subterraneanly deep — and didn’t even glance up when I burst through the basement door and into the bone lab.
Most of the Anthropology Department’s quarters — our classrooms, faculty offices, and graduate-student cubbyholes — were strung along one side of a long, curving hallway, which ran beneath the grandstands of Neyland Stadium, the University of Tennessee’s massive temple to Southeastern Conference football. The osteology laboratory lay two flights below, deep beneath the stadium’s lowest stands. The department’s running joke was that if Anthropology was housed in the stadium’s bowels, the bone lab was in the descending colon. The lab’s left side — where a row of windows was tucked just above a retaining wall, offering a scenic view of steel girders and concrete footers — was occupied by rows of gray, government-surplus metal tables, their tops cluttered with trays of bones. A dozen gooseneck magnifying lamps peered down at the bones, their saucer-sized lenses haloed by fluorescent tubes. The lab’s cavelike right side was crammed with shelving units — row upon row of racks marching back into the sloping darkness, laden with thousands of cardboard boxes, containing nearly a million bones. The skeletons were those of Arikara Indians who had lived and died two centuries before; my students and I had rescued them from rising river reservoirs in the Great Plains. Now they resided here in this makeshift mausoleum, a postmortem Indian reservation beneath America’s third-largest football stadium.
Tyler laid down the bone he’d been scrutinizing and picked up another, still not glancing up as the steel door slammed shut behind me. “Hey, Dr. B,” he said as the reverberations died away. “Let me guess. We’ve got a case.”
“How’d you know?” I asked.
“A,” he said, “it’s a holiday, which means nobody’s here but me and you and a bunch of dead Indians. B, any time the door bangs open hard enough to make the stadium shake, it’s because you’re really pumped. C, you only get really pumped when UT scores a touchdown or somebody calls with a case. And D, there’s no game today. Ergo, you’re about to haul me out to a death scene.”
“Impressive powers of deduction,” I said. “I knew there was a reason I made you my graduate assistant.”
“Really? You picked me for my powers of deduction?” He pushed back from the lab table, revealing a shallow tray containing dozens of pubic bones, each numbered in indelible black ink. “I thought you picked me because I work like a dog for next to nothing.”
“See?” I said. “You just hit the deductive nail on the noggin again.” I studied his face. “You don’t sound all that excited. Something wrong?”
“Gee, let’s see,” he said. “My girlfriend’s just moved four hundred miles away, to Memphis and to med school; I’ve blown off two Labor Day cookouts so I can finally make some progress on my thesis research; and now we’re headed off to God knows where, to spend the day soaking up the sun and the stench, so I can spend tonight and tomorrow sweating over the steam kettle and scrubbing bones. What could possibly be wrong?”
“How long’s Roxanne been gone?”
“A week,” he said.
“And how long does medical school last?”
“Four years. Not counting internship and residency.”
“Oh boy,” I said. “I can tell you’re gonna be a joy to be around.”
* * *
The big clock atop the Morgan County Courthouse read 9:05 when Tyler and I arrived in Wartburg and parked. “Damn, we made good time,” I marveled. “Forty minutes? Usually takes an hour to get here from Knoxville.”
Tyler glanced at his watch. “Sorry to burst your bubble, but it’s actually nine thirty-seven. I’m guessing that’s one of those clocks that’s right twice a day.”
“Come to think of it,” I recalled, “seems like it was nine oh five two years ago, too, when I was here on another case.”
The stuck clock seemed right at home atop the Morgan County Courthouse, a square, two-story brick structure built back in 1904, back when Wartburg still hoped for a prosperous future. The building’s boxy lines were broken by four pyramid-topped towers — one at each corner — and by a graceful white belfry and cupola rising from the building’s center. Each side of the cupola — north, south, east, and west — proudly displayed a six-foot dial where time stood still. I suspected that it wasn’t just eternally 9:05 in Wartburg; I suspected that it was also, in many respects, still 1904 here. Sheriff James Cotterell, who stood leaning against the fender of the Ford Bronco parked behind the courthouse, would certainly have looked at home perched on a buckboard wagon, or marching in a Civil War regiment. Special Agent Meffert, on the other hand — one foot propped on the bumper — was a different matter. I could picture Meffert wearing a Civil War uniform, too, I realized, but Bubba’s eyes somehow had a 1992 knowingness to them; a look that — Civil War uniform notwithstanding — would have branded Bubba as a modern-day reenactor, not a true time traveler.
I made the briefest and most perfunctory of introductions: “Sheriff Cotterell, Agent Meffert, this is my assistant, Tyler Wainwright”—and then Tyler and I followed the lawmen out of town and up a winding mountain highway, parking on the shoulder at a narrow turnoff. There, we transferred our field kit into the back of the sheriff’s Bronco, a four-wheel-drive vehicle with enough ground clearance to pass unimpeded over a knee-high tree stump. The road to the strip mine was far too rough for my UT truck, Cotterell had assured me, and Meffert had agreed. Once we turned off the winding blacktop and into the pair of ruts leading up to the mine, I realized how right they’d been: I saw it with my jouncing eyes, and felt it in my rattling bones.
Cotterell and Meffert rode up front; Tyler and I sat in the back like prisoners, behind a wire-mesh screen, as the Bronco lurched up the mountain. “Last time I had a ride this rough,” Tyler shouted over the whine of the transmission and the screech of clawing branches, “I was on the mechanical bull at Desperado’s, three sheets to the wind. I hung on for twenty seconds, then went flying, ass over teakettle. Puked in midair — a comet with a tail of vomit.”
“If you need to puke now, son,” Cotterell hollered back, “give me a heads-
“I’m all right,” Tyler assured him. “Only had two beers for breakfast today.” He was probably joking, but given how morose he seemed over his girlfriend’s move to Memphis, he might have been telling the truth.
Eventually the Bronco bucked to a stop beside a high, ragged wall of stone, and the four of us staggered out of the vehicle. The shattered surface beneath our feet might have been the surface of the moon, if not for the kudzu vines and scrubby trees. “Watch your step there, Doc,” Cotterell warned over his shoulder as he and Meffert led us toward the looming wall. The warning was absurdly unnecessary — not because the footing was good, but because it was so spectacularly bad. The jagged shale debris left behind by the strip-mining ranged from brick-sized chunks to sofa-sized slabs.
“I’m glad y’all are leading the way,” I told the backs of the lumbering lawmen.
“Be hard to find on your own,” said the sheriff.
“True, but not what I meant,” I replied. “I figure if anybody’s going to get snakebit, it’ll be the guy walking in front. Or maybe the second guy, if the snake’s slow on the draw.”
“Maybe,” conceded Meffert. “Or maybe the two crazy fools sticking their hands down in the rocks, rooting for bones.”
“Dang, Bubba,” I said, wincing at the image he’d conjured. “That’ll teach me to be a smart-ass.”
“Man,” muttered Tyler after a hundred slow yards. “Every step here is a broken ankle waiting to happen.” The gear he was lugging — a big plastic bin containing two cameras, paper evidence bags, latex gloves, trowels and tweezers, clipboards and forms — couldn’t have made it easy to see his footing or keep his balance. The trees were too sparse and scrubby to serve as props or handholds; about all they were good for was to obscure the footing and impede progress.
Other author's books:
- Bones of BetrayalThe Inquisitor's Key: A Body Farm NovelFlesh and BoneThe Inquisitor’s KeyThe Breaking Point: A Body Farm NovelThe Devil's BonesThe Devil's Bones bf-3Identity Crisis
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