The Breaking Point: A Body Farm Novel, page 1part #9 of Body Farm Series
In memory of Clyde Snow, Walter Birkby, and
Ted Rathbun: good friends, valued colleagues,
superb teachers, and crusaders for justice.
Writer’s Note: On Fact and Fiction
About the Author
Also by Jefferson Bass
About the Publisher
The Two Faces of Richard Janus
And thus does Fortune’s wheel turn treacherously
And out of happiness bring men to sorrow.
—Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales
One of ancient Rome’s most powerful and mysterious deities, Janus—the god of two faces—was guardian of gateways and transitions. The two faces signified not hypocrisy, as people often assume, but dual vision: One face turned toward the past, the other toward the future, Janus stood sentinel on the threshold of birth, as well as the threshold between death and the afterlife. In one hand he held a key; in the other, a cudgel.
—Sofia Paxton, Ancient Teachings, Modern Wisdom
Friday, June 18, 2004
MCCREADY STOPPED AND KNELT BESIDE A RUT IN the dirt road, raising a hand to halt the six men and two women fanned out behind him. The road, if a pair of faint tracks through grass, weeds, and leaves could indeed be called a road, meandered down a hillside of oaks and maples, their trunks girdled with vines. The mid-June morning was sweet with honeysuckle blossoms; the exuberant lushness of June had not yet given way to the duller green of July and the browning scorch of August, but underneath the perfume lurked something darker, something malodorous and malevolent hanging in the air.
McCready—Special Supervisory Agent Clint “Mac” McCready—studied the rut, which was damp and also deeply imprinted with multiple layers of sharply defined tire tracks. He pulled two evidence flags from a back pocket and marked the ends of the tracks, then, with the camera slung around his neck, took a series of digital photographs. The photos were wide-angle views at first, followed by tighter and tighter shots. As he snapped the final, frame-filling close-ups, he said, to no one in particular, “It rained, what, couple days ago?”
“Night before last.” The answer came from behind him, from Kimbo—Kirby Kimball, the youngest, newest, and therefore most eager member of SSA McCready’s Evidence Response Team. “The front passed through about thirty-six hours ago. Rain stopped shortly after midnight.”
McCready nodded, smiling slightly at the young agent’s zeal, and lowered the camera, focusing now solely with his eyes. “These tracks look like they’ve been machined. What does that tell us?”
“New tires,” said Kimball. “Deep tread blocks. Almost no wear. But there’s a nick—a cut—here. At the outer edge.”
“Big, off-road tires,” Kimball added, squatting for a closer look. “SUV or four-by-four. Just one, looks like. One set of impressions heading in, another—on top—heading back out.”
“Right.” McCready glanced over his shoulder at the other agents. “Mighty quiet back there. I thought maybe the rest of you guys had gone for coffee.” The agents exchanged sheepish glances. “Okay, what else can we tell from these tracks? Somebody besides Kimbo jump in. Anybody?”
“The vehicle passed through after the rain stopped.” This from Boatman, an earnest, thirtysomething agent who looked and listened a lot more than he talked.
“Right, far as it goes. But can you pin it down any tighter than that?”
Boatman stepped forward and bent down, his brow furrowing, his gaze shifting from the tracks to the surrounding vegetation—crabgrass and spindly poison ivy. “Quite a while after the rain stopped. Hours later, I’d say; maybe yesterday afternoon or even last night.”
“The impressions wouldn’t be so crisp—so perfect—if there’d been a puddle there when the vehicle went through,” Boatman said. He surveyed the margins of the rut, then inspected the undersides of some of the blades of grass there. “Plus, if there’d been standing water, there’d be mud spatter on the vegetation. There’s no spatter.”
“Good.” McCready focused on Kimball, who stood motionless yet somehow seemed cocked and ready to fire: his T-shirt stretched by the tension in his shoulders and biceps; the heels of his boots hovering a half inch off the ground, as if he were ready to spring into action. “Kimbo, you’re an eager beaver this morning; you wanna cast these?” It wasn’t actually a question.
“Yessir. On it.” Kimball jogged back to the truck, a Ford Econoline chassis with a big cargo box grafted behind the cab; the vehicle might have passed for an ambulance on steroids if not for the prominent FBI logo on the side and the foot-high letters reading EVIDENCE RESPONSE TEAM. Opening a hatch on the side of the vehicle, Kimball hauled out a large tackle box and lugged it to the tracks. He unlatched the lid and took out a gallon-sized Ziploc bag, half filled with powdered gypsum crystals—dental stone—and a graduated squeeze bottle. Squirting ten ounces of water into the bag, he resealed it and began kneading, creating a slurry the color and consistency of thin pancake batter: runny enough to flow into every block and groove of the tire tracks, thick enough not to seep into the soil itself.
McCready had already moved on, following the tracks in a hunched-over crouch: half bloodhound, half Quasimodo. “Looks like they parked here,” he said, stopping to study the ground again. The soil was covered with leaves, and McCready frowned at the lack of castable shoe impressions. A trail of scuffed leaves led toward the trees at the edge of the clearing, but the undergrowth beyond the tree line appeared to be undisturbed; indeed, the scuff marks led only as far as a large, convex oval of mussed leaves situated just short of the trees. McCready began circling the oval, pausing occasionally to take photos. “This matches the C.I.’s description of where it went down,” he said. Heads nodded in agreement; earlier, McCready had passed out transcripts of his interview with the confidential informant. “Boatman, you and Kimbo . . .” He paused to glance over his shoulder at Kimball, who had already finished pouring the slurry of dental stone into the rut. “You and Kimbo set up the total station and start mapping. Rest of you, suit up and get ready to dig in.” The other six team members returned to the truck and wriggled into white biohazard suits and purple gloves. They came back laden with rakes, shovels, trowels, plastic bins, and a wood-framed screen of quarter-inc
As they laid their tools neatly beside the oval mound, Boatman latched the 3-D mapping unit onto a tripod. Kimball returned to the tire tracks again, this time holding a long, reflector-topped rod, its length marked in alternating, twelve-inch bands of red and white. Boatman swiveled the instrument toward Kimball and sighted on the reflector. “Lights, camera, action,” he deadpanned, and he began pressing buttons to capture the position of the track. Checking the small display screen, he nodded. “Got it,” he said, rotating the unit toward the oval mound, to which Kimball jogged with the reflector.
The mound, uncovered by careful raking, was red-brown clay, roughly four feet by six feet. The clay was broken and infused with pale, shredded roots, freshly shorn and torn from the soil—a raw, ragged wound in the earth’s smooth, dark skin. McCready’s gaze ranged over the lumpy surface, then zoomed in on something no one else had seen, tucked beneath a clod of clay. Kneeling just outside the margin of the oval mound, he leaned down, his nose practically in the dirt. “Cartridge case,” he said. “That was careless of somebody.” Then, without looking around: “Kimbo.” By the time he’d finished saying the name, Kimball was already placing the end of the rod beside the piece of brass.
“Got it,” Boatman called a moment later.
Still kneeling, McCready took a twig from the ground and used it to lift the shell from the clay. Angling it to catch the light, he peered closely at the marks in the base. “Remington. Nine millimeter.” A paper evidence bag materialized beside his knee, held open by one of the agents; McCready dropped the case into it, and the agent sealed and labeled it, then set it in one of the plastic bins.
He sat back on his heels. “All right. We’re burning daylight, so let’s get to it. Boatman, you and Kimball keep mapping. The rest of you, dig in: shovel till you see something, then switch to trowels. Screen everything—dirt, leaves, twigs, everything but the air. Hell, screen the air, too.” He waved a hand in a sweeping gesture that encompassed not just the mound of clay but the surrounding area as well. “Might be more brass, buried or scattered around the periphery. Maybe cigarette butts, too, if we’re lucky or the shooters are stupid. Maybe they left us some DNA.”
“Maybe a signed confession, too,” joked one of the agents. McCready did not laugh, so no one else did, either.
“All right,” he said. “Dig in. Easy does it, though. If our C.I.’s playing straight with us, we’ve got three bodies here—the two buyers and our undercover guy. Way the C.I. tells it, the traffickers never intended to sell; their plan all along was to kill the buyers, keep the coke, and move their own distributors into the dead guys’ turf.”
“Nice folks,” muttered someone.
“Aren’t they all?” someone else responded.
THEY BEGAN BY DEFINING THE MARGINS OF THE grave with probes—thin, four-foot rods of stainless steel, each topped by a one-foot horizontal handle. Pressed into the soft earth of a fresh grave, the slender shafts sank easily; encountering hard, undisturbed soil, though, they balked and bowed, resisting. The probes weren’t actually necessary; the perimeter of the grave was clearly visible, once the leaves and the slight mound of excess fill dirt had been removed. Still, the Bureau prided itself on thoroughness, and McCready was a Bureau man all the way. There would be no shortcuts today, for himself or his team.
Once the grave’s outline was flagged and mapped and photographed, three of the agents—already sweating inside their biohazard suits—began digging. They started with shovels, working at the margins, digging down a foot all the way around before nibbling their way toward the carnage they expected to unearth at the center. After a grim twenty minutes, marked mainly by labored breathing and the rasping and ringing of shovel blades against soil and rocks, one of the agents—Starnes, a young woman whose blond hair spilled from the hood of her moonsuit like a saint’s nimbus—paused and leaned in for a closer look. “Sir? I see fabric. Looks like maybe a shirtsleeve.”
McCready knelt beside her. With the triangular tip of a thin trowel, he flicked away crumbs of clay. “Yeah. It’s an arm. Lose the shovels. Switch to trowels. Let’s pedestal the remains.”
Two sweaty hours later, digging downward and inward from all sides, they’d uncovered a tangle of limbs, torsos, and heads. The pedestaled assemblage resembled a macabre sculpture—a postmortem wrestling match, or a pile of tacklers on a football field. It also reminded McCready, for some odd reason, of an ancient Roman statue he’d seen years before, in the Vatican Museums: a powerful sculpture of a muscular man and his two terrified sons caught in the crushing coils of sea serpents. Maybe the reason wasn’t so odd after all, he realized: like the chilling figures frozen in stone, these three men had died in the coils of something sinister, something that had slithered up behind them as surely and fatally as any mythological monster.
McCready photographed the entwined bodies from every angle, seemingly oblivious to the stench that grew steadily stronger as the day—and the corpses—got hotter. “All right,” he said finally. “Give me three body bags over on this patch of grass. Let’s lift them out one at a time. I’ll want pictures after each one.”
It took another half hour to lay out the corpses, faceup, on the open body bags. By then, several of the techs were looking green around the gills, though no one had vomited. The last of the bodies to be lifted from the grave—the eyes gone to mush, the cheeks puffed out—was recognizable, just barely, as the man whose photograph McCready had passed around in the morning’s briefing. “This one’s Haskell, our undercover guy,” he said grimly.
“So the C.I. was telling us true,” said Kimball. “The drug buy goes bad, turns into a shoot-out.”
“Looks like it,” said McCready. “But just to be sure, let’s ask him.” He turned, looking over one shoulder toward the trees on the far side of the clearing. “Hey,” he called out. “You—Brockton. Step out from behind that tree. And keep your hands where I can see them.”
The team turned as a man emerged. He did not appear to be a seedy specimen from the sewers of the drug-trafficking world. The man looked more bookish than dangerous, and as he raised his hands, a broad smile creased his face.
“YOU—BROCKTON,” I HEARD MCCREADY CALLING. “Step out from behind that tree. And keep your hands where I can see them.”
“I’m unarmed,” I yelled, stepping from my observation post behind an oak tree. “But I’ve got a Ph.D., and I’m not afraid to use it. One wrong move, and I’ll lecture you to death!” The joke—mostly a joke—drew laughs from the weary FBI agents, as I’d hoped it would. “I’m Dr. Bill Brockton,” I added as I approached. “Welcome to the Body Farm.” I approached the rim of the empty grave, which was ringed with evidence flags and sweat-drenched FBI forensic techs. Peering into the hole, I saw that they had excavated all the way down to undisturbed soil, four feet down. The clay there was deeply grooved, as if it had been clawed by an immense monster. I, in fact, was that monster, and I’d left those marks the day before, when I’d dug the grave with a backhoe.
I’d missed most of today’s excavation, having spent the morning entombed deep inside Neyland Stadium, the colossal cathedral to college football that the University of Tennessee had erected beside the emerald waters of the Tennessee River. Wedged beneath the stadium’s grandstands, caught in a spiderwork of steel girders, was Stadium Hall: a dingy string of offices, classrooms, and laboratories, most of them assigned to the Anthropology Department, which I chaired. The rooms were strung along one side of a curving, quarter-mile corridor, one that underscored the hall in Stadium Hall. At midafternoon, when McCready had texted to say that the training exercise was nearly finished, I’d hopped into my truck, crossed the bridge, and slipped through a high wooden gate and down through the woods, stepping carefully to avoid treading on the bodies and bones scattered throughout the three-acre site: donated corpses whose postmortem careers were meticulously scrutinized, itemized, and immortalized, in photos, journal articles, scholarly dissertations, and law-enforcement anecdotes.
Officially, my macabre laboratory was named the Anthropology Research Facility, but a few years before, one of McCready’s waggish FBI colleagues had dubbed it “the Body Farm,” and the moniker—popularized by crime novelist Patricia Cornwell—had caught on so thoroughly that even I, the facility’s creator, tended to call it by the catchy nickname. For several years now, the FBI had been sending Evidence Response Team members to the Body Farm for training exercises like this one. With a ready supply of actual human corpses, plus plenty of privacy, the facility was the only place in the nation—possibly in the entire world—where forensic teams could hone their skills in such realistic scenarios.
The three corpses just unearthed by McCready’s team had gradually attracted a cloud of blowflies, some of which strayed—either at random, or in an excess of eagerness—from the faces of the dead to the eyes and nostrils of the quick, causing the agents to squint and swat at the unwelcome intruders. Off to one side was a large mound of sifted dirt, plus piles of clay clods and rocks too big and too hard to pass through the quarter-inch wire mesh. On the ground beside the dirt lay the screen and—atop the mesh—three cartridge cases, two cigarette butts, and one wad of chewing gum, plus a gum wrapper.
I scrutinized the screen, then the bodies, then the hole in the ground, taking my time before turning to face the assembled agents. “That’s it? That’s all you got?” Their expressions, which had been confident and proud a moment before, turned nervous when I added, “So y’all just ran out of steam before you got to the fourth body?” Exchanging worried glances, they returned to the edge of the grave, their eyes scanning its floor and walls. I chuckled. “Kidding,” I said, and a chorus of good-natured groans ensued. “Okay, so tell me what you’ve learned from the scene.”
I pointed at Kimball, the eager young agent who’d cast the tire tracks. “Agent Kimball,” I said. “You like to make a good . . . impression.” More groans, as the dreadful pun sank in. “What else does that rut tell us, besides the fact that the puddle had dried up by the time the tracks were made?” McCready had texted me a few notes on the team’s findings, starting with their observations about the tire impressions. Kimball frowned, so I gave him a hint. “How many sets of tracks did you cast?”
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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