Flesh and bone, p.1

Flesh and Bone, page 1


Flesh and Bone

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Flesh and Bone










  The chain-link gate yowled like an angry tomcat in the…


  “Knoxville police.”


  A century ago, Broadway had been one of Knoxville’s grand…


  The Knoxville police department was housed in a gray and…


  The westbound lanes of Kingston Pike were as clogged as…


  I heard a sharp rap at my front door, but…


  The ringing phone sounded far away, and I felt myself…


  My students weren’t going to be happy.


  Testifying at a hearing to revoke a physician’s medical license…


  I was halfway through a stack of a hundred test…


  There was a light tap on my doorframe, and a…


  I had just parked my truck outside the loading bay…


  The drive from Knoxville to Chattanooga passed in a hundred-mile…


  The Chattanooga Medical Examiner’s office occupied a small building on…


  The sun was gone and the evening star—Venus—was hanging like…


  I’d arranged to meet Art at KPD headquarters at 7:30 A.M.…


  At 10:50 A.M., I strolled around the curve of Circle…


  My phone rang just as I was getting into bed.


  As I reached into my briefcase, I thought, This could…


  I winced when I unfolded the newspaper. Murdered Drag Queen…


  The head had been simmering for three days down in…


  Jess still seemed skittish hours after being attacked by Craig…


  Three days had passed since Jess and I had parted.




  The uniformed Police Officer led me down the path to…


  Like a sleepwalker, I shuffled through my forensic anthropology class,…


  I would not have believed a single day could creep…


  The jumble of drab boxes that constituted KPD headquarters possessed…


  Evers put me in the back of his car for…


  I could see Burt DeVriess’s office gleaming on the far…


  I took a cab from DeVriess’s office to McGhee Tyson…


  It was 4 A.M., and I was so exhausted my…


  Jess was stretched out in my bed, lying on her…


  I pulled the rental car into the driveway at Jeff’s…


  It was still early April, but the midday sun hit…


  Twenty-four hours after I’d gotten dressed up for my arrest,…


  I slipped out the church’s side door and made it…


  The daylight filtering through the dusty screens of the cabin…


  I was lunching alfresco—wolfing down a drive-through deli sandwich…


  After I left DeVriess’s office, I sat for several minutes…


  My cellphone rang at seven the next morning; it took…


  It was ten o’clock when my cellphone rang. I checked…


  My arms and legs ached from wrestling the wheelbarrow up…










  THE CHAIN-LINK GATE YOWLED like an angry tomcat in the watery light of dawn. Once my jaw unclenched, I made a mental note to bring grease for the hinges next time I came out to the Body Farm. Don’t forget, I chided myself, just as I had each of the past half dozen times I’d mentally made and mislaid that same damn note.

  It wasn’t that my memory was failing, or so I liked to believe. It was just that every time I headed for the Anthropology Research Facility, as the University of Tennessee preferred to call the Body Farm, I had more interesting things on my mind than WD-40. Things like the experiment I was about to rig with the body in the pickup truck Miranda was backing toward the facility’s gate.

  It never ceased to amaze me, and to frustrate me, that the Body Farm remained the world’s only research facility devoted to the systematic study of postmortem decomposition. As an imperfect human being, with failings and vanities, I did take a measure of pride in the uniqueness of my creation. As a forensic anthropologist, though—a “bone detective” who had branched out into seeking clues in decaying flesh as well—I looked forward to the day when our data on decomp rates in the moist, temperate climate of Tennessee could be compared with rates from similar research facilities in the low desert of Palm Springs, the high desert of Albuquerque, the rain forest of the Olympic Peninsula, or the alpine slopes of the Montana Rockies. But every time I thought a colleague in one of those ecosystems was on the verge of creating a counterpart to the Body Farm, the university in question would chicken out, and we would remain unique, isolated, and scientifically alone.

  Over the past twenty-five years, my graduate students and I had staged hundreds of human bodies in various settings and scenarios to study their postmortem decay. Shallow graves, deep graves, watery graves, concrete-capped graves. Air-conditioned buildings, heated buildings, screened-in porches. Automobile trunks, backseats, travel trailers. Naked bodies, cotton-clad bodies, polyester-suited bodies, plastic-wrapped bodies. But I’d never thought to stage anything like the gruesome death scene Miranda and I were about to re-create for Jess Carter.

  Jess—Dr. Jessamine Carter—was the medical examiner in Chattanooga. For the past six months she’d been the acting ME for Knoxville’s Regional Forensic Center as well. She’d been promoted, if that’s the right word, to this dual status by virtue of a spectacular screwup by our own ME, Dr. Garland Hamilton. During what no one but Hamilton himself would have described as an autopsy, he had so badly misdiagnosed a man’s cause of death—describing a superficial accidental cut as a “fatal stab wound”—that an innocent bystander ended up charged with murder. When his mistake came to light, Hamilton was promptly relieved of his duties; now, he was about to be relieved of his medical license, if the licensing review board did its job right. Meanwhile, until a qualified replacement could be appointed, Jess was filling in, making the hundred-mile trek up I-75 from Chattanooga to Knoxville anytime an unexplained or violent death occurred in our neck of the Tennessee woods.

  The commute wasn’t as time-consuming for Jess as it would have been for me. Her Porsche Carrera—fire-engine red, fittingly enough—generally covered the hundred miles in fifty minutes or so. The first state trooper to pull her over had gotten a quick glimpse of her badge and a brisk talking-to
about the urgency of her mission before she left him standing on the interstate’s shoulder. The second unfortunate officer, a week later, got a verbal vivisection, followed by scorching cellphone calls to the highway patrol’s district commander and state commissioner. She had not been stopped a third time.

  Jess had phoned at six to say she’d be in Knoxville this morning, so unless she’d been called to a Chattanooga murder scene in the past half hour, the Carrera was streaking our way now, closing like a cruise missile. I hoped I could get the body in place by the time she hit Knoxville.

  As Miranda eased the UT pickup toward the fence, the backup lights helped me fit the key into the padlock on the inner gate. The inner gate was part of an eight-foot wooden privacy fence, erected to deter marauding coyotes and squeamish humans—or voyeuristic ones. Originally we’d had only the chain-link fence, but after a couple of years, a few complaints, and a handful of thrill seekers, we topped the chain-link with barbed wire and lined the entire half-mile perimeter with the wooden barrier. It was still possible for nimble critters and determined people to climb in or see over, but it took some doing.

  The padlock securing the wooden gate sprang open with a satisfying click. I unhooked one end of the chain from the shackle and began walking the gate inward. As the opening widened, the chain began snaking into the hole bored near the gate’s edge, like some metallic noodle being slurped up with clattering gusto. Sucked into the maw of death, I thought. Is that a mixed metaphor, or just a nasty image best kept to myself?

  As I held the wooden gate open, Miranda threaded the narrow opening with ease, as if she made deliveries to death’s ser vice entrance on a daily basis. She practically did. For the past three years, thanks to a spate of television documentaries and the popularity of CSI—a show I’d watched only one incredulous time—we were swamped with donated bodies, and the waiting list (as I called the ranks of the living who had promised us their bodies eventually) now numbered nearly a thousand. We’d soon be running out of room; already, in fact, it was hard to take a step without stumbling over a body or stepping on a patch of greasy ground where a corpse had recently decomposed.

  About half the bodies were simply brought out here to skeletonize. It was a little slower but a lot easier to let time, bacteria, and bugs—especially bugs—do the messy work of separating flesh and bone. Thanks to nature’s efficiency at reclaiming her dead, all that remained for us to do after a body’s residence at the Farm was to scrub off and deodorize the bones, take detailed measurements, plug those into our forensic database, and tuck the skeleton into our growing collection. The University of Tennessee now possessed the world’s largest assemblage of modern skeletons of known age, sex, and race. That was important not because it gave us bragging rights, but because it gave us a huge and continually evolving source of comparative measurements for forensic scientists to consult when confronted with the skeleton of an unknown murder victim.

  The body in the back of the truck, though, was destined to contribute more than just his skeleton. He would shed crucial light on an unanswered forensic question. About fifty bodies a year were used in faculty or student research projects, usually exploring some variable affecting the rate of decomposition. One recent experiment, for instance, demonstrated that people who died shortly after undergoing chemotherapy decomposed far more slowly than what I’d since begun to think of as “organic” or “all natural” bodies. Chemotherapy, in other words, bore more than a passing resemblance to antemortem embalming, which was not a particularly comforting notion.

  Once Miranda had cleared the opening, I closed the gate behind her and fed the chain back through its hole, leaving the padlock open so Jess could get in when she arrived. Miranda was already out of the truck, unlatching the camper shell and tailgate. She turned the latches slowly and opened the back of the truck almost gently, a gesture that seemed right and thoughtful in the peaceful morning. It was early yet; the hospital’s day shift hadn’t begun arriving in the adjoining parking lot, so the only traffic noise was the distant drone of cars on Alcoa Highway, a mile away on the west side of the medical complex. Tennessee was waking up softly, with just enough chill in the early March air to cloud our breath. I also noticed mist rising from several of the fresher bodies—not from breath or residual heat, but from the teeming masses of maggots feasting on them. It pleased me, for some reason, to possess the arcane knowledge that feeding was exothermic—heat-producing—for the supposedly cold-blooded maggot. Few things in science were as black and white as terms like “cold-blooded” implied, and I wondered, in passing, if the chemical reactions in the bugs’ digestive tracts produced the heat, or if metabolizing calories to fuel their wriggling muscles was what warmed them up. Maybe someday I’d explore that.

  Above the innumerable maggots, the oaks and maples dotting the hillside were beginning to leaf out. In their branches, a chorus of cardinals and mockingbirds chirped and trilled. A pair of squirrels played chase up and down the trunk of a ninety-foot loblolly. There was life abundant out here at the Body Farm. Long as you could see beyond the hundred-odd corpses lying about in various stages of disrepair.

  Miranda and I stood in silence awhile, soaking up the birdsong and the golden early light. One of the frolicking squirrels began to fuss at the other for breaking some rule of their game, and Miranda smiled. She turned toward me and her smile widened. It caught me by surprise, blindsided me, like a two-by-four upside the head.

  Miranda Lovelady had been my graduate assistant for four years now. We worked well as a team—in the decomp lab, as we sorted through the skeletal wreckage of some highway fatality or murder victim, our movements often seemed choreographed, our unspoken communication akin to telepathy. But lately I worried that I’d crossed some invisible line with her; that I’d let her grow too attached to me, or maybe that I’d grown too attached to her. Although she was technically still a student, Miranda wasn’t a child by any means; she was a smart, confident woman of twenty-six now—or was it twenty-seven?—and I knew the ivory tower was chock-full of professors who had taken up with protégées. But I was thirty years older than Miranda, and even if that difference might seem tolerable to her at the moment, I couldn’t imagine it would remain so forever. No, I reminded myself, I was a mentor, and maybe a bit of a friend, but nothing more. And that was best for both of us.

  I reached into the back of the truck and busied myself with a pair of purple nitrile gloves, forcing my thoughts back to the experiment we were here to set up. “Jess—Dr. Carter—should be here soon,” I said. “Let’s find a good tree and start tying this fellow up.”

  “Ah, Dr. Carter.” Miranda grinned at me. “I thought you seemed a little nervous. Are you intimidated, or infatuated?”

  I laughed. “Probably a little of both,” I said. “She’s smart and she’s tough. Funny, too, and easy on the eyes.”

  “All true,” said Miranda. “She’d sure keep you on your toes. About time you found somebody to do that, you know.”

  I knew all too well. My wife of nearly 30 years, Kathleen, had died of cancer more than two years ago, and I was only now recovering from the blow. The prior autumn, I had felt the first stirrings of interest and desire. Those stirrings had been kindled, I was embarrassed to recall, when a student impulsively kissed me; fortunately and mortifyingly, the kiss had been cut short by Miranda’s appearance in the doorway of my office. Shortly after that inappropriate but memorable kiss, I’d invited a woman closer to my own age—none other than Dr. Jess Carter—to have dinner with me. Jess had accepted the invitation, though she had to cancel at the last moment, when she got summoned to a murder scene in Chattanooga. I hadn’t worked up my nerve to ask her out again, but the notion occurred to me every time our overlapping cases—her fresh homicides, my not-so-fresh ones—brought us into contact.

  Miranda’s question brought me back to the task at hand. “Does it matter what kind of tree we strap this guy to?”

  “Probably not, but she said the victim was tied to a pine,
and we’ve got several of those, so we might as well make it realistic. Doesn’t cost any extra.” I pointed at the tree where the squirrels had been scampering. “How about that one?”

  Miranda shook her head. “No, not that one,” she frowned. “That one seems too…exposed. Might be hard on the campus cops or on visiting researchers if this experiment was the first thing they saw when they walked in the gate.” She had a point there. “Besides, didn’t you say the victim was found way back in the woods?” She had a point there, too.

  “That’s my understanding. Prentice Cooper State Forest. Covers some pretty rugged terrain along the Tennessee River Gorge, just downstream from Chattanooga.” I pointed farther up the hillside, to another tall pine near the upper boundary. “There you go. That look secluded enough?”

  Miranda nodded. “Yeah, that seems better. Bit of a haul to get him up there. But good exercise, I guess.”

  “If it doesn’t kill us, it makes us stronger?”

  “Right,” she said. Then she stuck out her tongue at me.

  In unison, we leaned into the back of the truck and each grabbed one of the straps sewn onto the sides of the black body bag. We slid it out over the tailgate until it hung about a foot off the end. “Ready?” I asked.

  “Ready,” she said, and with that, we each grabbed another strap, about two-thirds of the way down. Sliding the bag farther off the tailgate, we gradually bore more and more of the corpse’s weight. It was heavy—180 pounds, which was roughly the weight of the victim whose death scene we were about to re-create. The more faithfully the re-creation mirrored the crime—not just the victim’s weight, but his injuries, clothing, and positioning—the more accurate our eventual time-since-death estimate would be, allowing the police to focus their investigation more precisely.

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