The Bone Thief
Publication date 03/23/2010
William Morrow
Hardcover, $24.99
ISBN: 0061284769
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A Body Farm Novel

Chapter 1

The woman’s face blurred and smeared as I pivoted the camera on the tripod. Then her familiar, photogenic features—features I’d seen a thousand times on my television screen—whirred into auto-focused perfection: wavy, honey-blond hair, indigo eyes, a model’s cheekbones, polar-white teeth outlined by Angelina Jolie lips. Knoxville news anchor Maureen Gershwin was 42—middle-aged, technically speaking—but she was a low-mileage, high-dollar version of 42. She was beautiful and vibrant and healthy-looking, except for one minor detail: Maureen Gershwin was dead.

“Pardon my cynicism,” said Miranda, “but I can’t help noticing that out of dozens of corpses to choose from, you’ve picked one worthy of Victoria’s Secret for your little photo shoot.”

Miranda Lovelady was both my graduate assistant and my self-appointed social conscience. A smart, seasoned Ph.D. candidate in forensic anthropology, Miranda was a young woman of liberal opinions, liberally dispensed. We didn’t always see eye to eye, but five years of collegiality and camaraderie tempered our occasional personal differences. One of Miranda’s duties was running the Anthropology Department’s osteology laboratory, the bone lab tucked deep beneath the grandstands of the University of Tennessee’s football stadium. Miranda also helped coordinate the body-donation program at the Anthropology Research Facility—“the Body Farm,” UT’s three-acre plot devoted to the study of human decomposition. By studying bodies as they decayed in various settings and conditions, we’d gained tremendous insights into postmortem changes—insights that allowed forensic scientists all over the world to give police more accurate time-since-death estimates in cases where days or weeks or even years elapsed between the time someone was killed and the time the body was discovered.

Despite the rural-sounding name, the  Body Farm was beginning to resemble a city of the dead, at least in population density. The number of bodies donated to our research program had grown steadily—from a handful a year in our early years to well over a hundred a year now. Scientifically, the population boom was a bonanza, but it was also an embarrassment of riches: the facility was rapidly running out of elbowroom—and ribcage room, and skull room; lately, Miranda had taken to mapping the location of each body with GPS coordinates. With a few keystrokes, she could print out an up-to-the-minute map of our postmortem subdivision. The technology helped us keep track of where we’d already put people, and it also helped us pinpoint patches of unclaimed ground in which to house new residents. Unfortunately, the patches of unclaimed ground were becoming scarce and small.

We’d tucked Maureen Gershwin—known to television viewers throughout East Tennessee as Maurie, or sometimes by her nickname, “The Face”—in the most distant corner of the fenced-in area, to minimize the gawking. Gershwin had risen through the television ranks, from weather girl to reporter to anchorwoman, and recently had added occasional commentaries she called “Maurie’s Minutes,” which took a more personal, reflective tone. Those had made her more popular than ever, so I wanted to give her some measure of privacy at the Body Farm, even though I was photographically invading that privacy. The facility was off-limits to the general public, of course, but a surprising number of living, breathing people passed through its gates: Anthropology grad students, the UT police force, the instructors and students of the National Forensic Academy, FBI trainees, even the occasional, strong-stomached VIP visitor from the University’s Board of Trustees. Like all our donated corpses, Maurie Gershwin was identified not by name but by a number—her metal armband and legband identified her only as “21-10,” the 21st donated body of the year 2010—but she was so well-known to Knoxville television viewers that there was no hope of keeping her anonymous, at least not until the bacteria and bugs had rendered her famous face unrecognizable.

As I tinkered with the camera’s zoom control, Miranda took the opportunity to chide me further. “The T-shirt and sweatpants she’s wearing—you sure you don’t want to swap those out for something flashier? Maybe a little black dress that shows some thigh and some cleavage?”

“Come on, Miranda,” I snapped, “you saw the letter she sent with her donor form. She asked to have her decomposition documented. Why is that worse than honoring other donor requests, like being put in the shade of a maple tree?” She frowned, unwilling to concede. “Besides, I’m only photographing her face, not the rest of her.”

“But you can see my point,” she persisted, “can’t you? Don’t you think it’s a tad creepy that you’re aiming this camera at this particular corpse, the most beautiful corpse in the history of the Body Farm? Crap, Dr. B., she looks better dead than I do alive.”

I glanced from the newswoman’s face to Miranda’s: peaches-and-cream skin and green eyes, framed by a cascade of chestnut hair. I actually preferred Miranda’s looks, but I knew she wouldn’t believe me if I told her so. “Not for long,” I said. “Day by day—hell, hour by hour—she’ll get a lot less gorgeous. We’ll end up with one glamour shot and hundreds of pictures where she goes from bad to worse, and from worse to worser.”

“I don’t understand why she asked for this.”

“Doesn’t matter,” I said. “I understand, and more to the point, she understood. She talked to me about it a year or so ago, back when she produced that three-part series about the Body Farm for Channel 10. You remember the end of the series, when she added a ‘Maurie’s Minute’ about the importance of body donations? I thought that was a great touch, signing the consent form at the very end of the newscast.”

“I hated it,” Miranda said. “She was playing to the camera.”

I stepped away from the camera and caught Miranda’s eye. “Excuse me,” I said, pointing to the corpse, “but I refute you thus. Looks to me like she said what she meant and meant what she said. Remember what the letter said? ‘I wish I could watch what happens to me’? Her co-anchor, Randall Gibbons, said she’d told him she wouldn’t mind being the subject of a science documentary. Post-mortem participatory journalism, I guess; one last story, filed from beyond the grave.”

“Swell. Film at eleven, smell at twelve,” Miranda joked mirthlessly. “Deathstyles of the rich and famous. We do bow before beauty, don’t we?”

I snapped a picture, then checked the display on the back of the camera. The framing was slightly off and the screen was washed out by the daylight, but I had to agree that Miranda had a point: even dead, Maurie Gershwin was a beauty, at least for a few more hours. “Her looks did have a lot to do with her success,” I conceded, “but I don’t think they defined her, at least not to herself. In fact, I think she had a healthy sense of irony about the fleeting nature of physical beauty.”

“Yeah, well. Too bad her cardiovascular system wasn’t as strong as her sense of irony,” said Miranda. “Stroking out at forty-two, and right there on camera, no less.”

“Aneurysm,” I said. “Not stroke.” Gershwin had died of an aortic aneurysm that ruptured catastrophically, and in the middle of a newscast, no less. In hindsight, a diagnostic clue had gone undetected. “Did you see the news any of the last few nights before she died?”

Miranda nodded.

“Did you notice her voice was a little hoarse?”

She looked at me sharply, her eyebrows shooting up in a question.

“One of the laryngeal nerves—the recurrent vagus nerve, which controls the voice box—wraps around the aortic arch. A fast-growing aneurysm on the aorta can stretch that nerve, causing hoarseness. Maurie thought she’d just strained her voice last week during a charity telethon—that’s what she said on the air two nights ago, just before she died—when in fact, her body was trying to warn her.”

Miranda shook her head. “Sad. Ironic. Here’s another irony for you: her death made her a lot more famous than all those years of reporting the news. Somebody posted a YouTube video of that clip from the newscast where she collapses in mid-sentence. They called ‘Film at 11: Hot News Babe Dies on Camera.’ As of this morning, thirty million people had watched her die.”

“Thirteen million people have seen that footage?”

Thirty million.”

The figure stunned me. “That’s probably twenty-nine-and-a-half million more than ever watched her live.”

“YouTube fame’s an odd, viral thing,” she shrugged. “You remember Susan Boyle?”

I shook my head.

“Sure you do; you just don’t realize you do. That dumpy, middle-aged Brit who belted out a song on the limey version of ‘American Idol’?”

That did ring a bell, I realized.

“Her clip’s been watched fifty or sixty million times. She became this overnight mega-celebrity. Of course, that was a year or so ago. She’s old news by now.” Miranda studied the newswoman’s face, reaching down to shoo away a cloud of blowflies. It was absurd, of course, since the whole point of putting Gershwin out here was to allow nature to have their way with her, but the fly-shooing was a reflexive gesture of respect, so I kept my mouth shut. “What do you plan to do with all these pictures of the Face of Channel 10?”

“Couple things, probably,” I said. “I need to do a funding proposal for the dean’s office—apparently they’ve got some deep-pocket donor they think might be interested in adopting us—and I could see using a few of these photos to illustrate our decomposition research. I’ll probably also do a slide presentation at the national forensic-science conference next February. ‘Decomposition Day by Day’ or some such. Thirty slides, thirty days; talk for a minute about each slide.”

Miranda closed her eyes and let her head slump forward, then feigned a loud snore. “A slide presentation? That’s lame, totally 20th century,” she said. “How about a podcast—a real-time video camera, streaming continuous images to the web? That would actually fit the spirit of our gal’s life and work and last request.”

“Broadcast this on the web?” I shook my head. “No way. I don’t have nearly enough fingers and toes to count the ways that could get us in hot water.”

“Well, at least make a movie instead of slides for your presentation,” she said.

“But this is a still camera,” I pointed out. “Besides, neither one of us has the time to hang around and film a documentary.”

“Neither one of us needs to,” she said. “You’re setting the timer to take a picture, what, every few minutes, or every few hours, or some such?” I nodded. “So once she’s through skeletonizing, in a month or two, string all the pictures together into a video, and it’ll fast-forward through the entire decomp sequence in a minute or two. That would be cool.”

“You think that would work for the funding proposal, too?”

She cringed. “Why would seeing this woman’s face decay inspire some rich alumnus to fork over big bucks for body bags and bone boxes and such?”

“Actually, I’m hoping to raise money for your assistantship,” I said. Miranda’s head snapped around, and I wished I hadn’t said it, even though there was some truth to it. “Sorry. Bad joke. You’re covered.” She shot me a piercing look, hard enough to make me flinch. Miranda would make a terrific prosecutor or detective, I thought, if she ever got tired of forensic anthropology. “At least, I think you’re covered.”

“You’re the chairman of the Anthropology Department,” she responded. “If anybody should know, it’s you.”

“I do know you’re not affected by the cuts I proposed,” I said. “But the dean has to approve the budget before it goes to the chancellor and the president. The football scholarships are safe and the coaching salaries are safe, but nothing else is guaranteed.” She didn’t say anything, but the worry in her eyes pained me. “By the way,” I added, “I’m giving a lecture at the Smithsonian on Saturday afternoon, and I’m having lunch with Ed Ulrich beforehand.” Ulrich had been one of my earliest and brightest Ph.D. students at UT; now, he was head of the Smithsonian’s physical-anthropology department. “I’m going to see if I can twist his arm for some research funding. Enough to support two graduate assistantships.”

“Tell Ed I said ‘hi’.” She was too young to have been a classmate of Ulrich’s, but she’d talked with him at conferences many times, and he’d made two or three trips to UT during the time she’d been my assistant. “Tell Ed I said ‘help!’”

I zoomed in a bit more, filling the viewfinder with The Face, then snapped another test picture. Taking care not to jostle the tripod, I removed the camera from the mount and huddled under my jacket to block out the daylight. The photo showed a lovely woman, but her face had gone slack, and the light and life had faded from her eyes. I used the cursor to enlarge the center of the image, and saw that the camera had caught one blowfly in midair, just above her face; another was already emerging from the slightly opened mouth. Looking from the camera’s display to the body on the ground, I saw that those two flies had been joined already by dozens of others, swiftly drawn to the odor of death, even though I could detect no trace of it yet. Within minutes, small smears of grainy white paste—clumps of blowfly eggs—would begin to fill her mouth and nose and eyes and ears, and by this time tomorrow, her face would be covered with blowfly larvae, a writhing mass of newly hatched maggots.

I fiddled with the camera’s digital menu, calling up the control screen for the built-in timer. Initially I’d planned to set it to take a photo every 12 hours, but as I glanced down at the swarming flies, I realized that 12-hour intervals would miss many details of her decomposition. The funding people might not be interested in the subtle shifts of her decay, but I certainly was. What about a photo every half hour, or even every ten minutes? For that matter, why not just camp out here in person, and watch it all in real time? Finally I compromised: one picture every 50 minutes, the length of a typical classroom lecture. I did the math: a picture every 50 minutes would yield 30 pictures a day; at the end of two months, I’d have 1800 images. At 30 images a second—the speed of television images, I’d heard—1800 images would make a video 60 seconds long: exactly the running time of “Maurie’s Minutes.”

Swapping out the camera’s small digital memory card for a larger one—a 2-gigabyte chip, large enough to hold hundreds of images—I latched the camera back onto the tripod, and Miranda and I left the Body Farm, chaining the wooden gate shut and latching the metal fence behind us. As I snapped the outer padlock shut on the Body Farm’s newest and most famous resident, I found myself thinking of the words she’d used at the end of every newscast for years. “Good night,” I murmured as I snapped the outer padlock shut. “See you tomorrow.”

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