The Bone Thief
Publication date March 8, 2011

William Morrow

Large Print: ISBN: 9780062017789, $24.99 US

Unabridged Digital Audio: ISBN: 9780062027313, $24.99 US

E-Book: ISBN: 9780062074560, $19.99 US

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A Body Farm Novel

Chapter 1 of The Bone Yard

I held the last of the dead man's bones in my left hand. It was his skull, which I cradled upside-down in my palm, as comfortably and naturally as an NBA player might hold a basketball. As I searched for a place to hide it, I felt the tip of my index finger absent-mindedly tracing the edges of a hole in the right temple. It was a square-cornered opening, about the size of a small postage stamp, and it had been punched by a murder weapon—a weapon I'd tucked into a tangle of honeysuckle vines a few moments before. The honeysuckle was in bloom, and its fragrance was an odd contrast to the underlying odor of death. Funny thing, I thought, how something that smells so good can grow in a place that smells so bad.

Chattering voices floated up the hillside, growing louder as the people came closer. If I didn't hurry, I'd be caught with the skull in my hand. Still I hesitated, turning the cranium rightside-up for one last look into the vacant eye orbits. What did I hope to see there—what meaning did I think I might find—in those empty sockets? Maybe nothing. Maybe only the emptiness itself.

As the voices drew nearer, I finally forced myself to act, to choose. I tucked the skull under the edge of a fallen oak tree, piling dead leaves against the trunk as camouflage. Then a worry popped into my head: Is the pile of leaves too obvious, a giveaway? But it was too late to second-guess myself; I'd run out of time, and the makeshift hiding place would have to do.

Stepping over the tree, I strolled downhill toward the cluster of people approaching. I feigned nonchalance, resisting the urge to glance back and check for visible bones. A woman at the front of the group—a thirty-something blond with the energetic, outdoorsy look of a runner or a cyclist—stopped in her tracks and looked at me. Her eyes bored into mine, and I wondered what she saw there. I tried to make my face as blank and unenlightening as the skull's had been.

She shifted her gaze to the wooded slope behind me. Her eyes scanned the forest floor, then settled on the fallen tree. Walking slowly toward it, she leaned down, studied both sides, and then brushed at the leaves I'd piled on the uphill side. "There's a skull beside this log," she announced to the group. She said it as coolly as if it were an everyday occurrence, finding a skull in the woods.

"Wow," said a young red-haired woman in a black jumpsuit. "Police, one; Brockton, zero. If Dr. B decides to turn killer, he'd better steer clear of Florida."

The redheaded smart-aleck was Miranda Lovelady, my graduate assistant. The blond who'd found the skull so swiftly was Angie St. Claire, a forensic analyst from the Florida state crime lab. Angie, along with the 23 other people in the group Miranda had brought up the trail, had spent the past ten weeks as a student at the National Forensic Academy, a joint venture of the University of Tennessee and the Knoxville Police Department. Taught by experts in ballistics, fingerprinting, trace evidence, DNA, anthropology, and other forensic specialties, the NFA training culminated in the two death scenes Miranda and I had staged here at the University of Tennessee's Anthropological Research Facility: the Body Farm.

The Body Farm was perched on a hillside high above the Tennessee River. Here, a mile downstream from the heart of Knoxville, more than a hundred corpses in various states of disrepair were dispersed across the facility's three fenced-in acres. Most of the bodies lay above ground, though some were buried. And in a far corner of the facility, looking like eerie sentinels standing at attention, were three nude men: not standing, actually, but hanging, suspended by the neck from wooden scaffolds. With some misgivings, we had carried out three post-mortem lynchings, so we could observe the difference in the decomposition rate when bodies decayed off the ground, where they were less accessible to insects. We'd hung the three in the most isolated part of the facility, because important though the experiment was—the research data would help us determine time since death when a hanged body wasn't discovered for weeks or even months—the dangling corpses were a shocking sight. I'd seen them dozens of times by now, yet I still found it unnerving to round the bend in the trail and find myself confronting the trio. Their necks were stretched a few inches, their faces downcast, their arms and legs angled outward, as if accepting their grim fate with a mixture of resignation and shame. The NFA class included four African American men, and if I, a privileged white man, felt disturbed by the hanging bodies, I could scarcely imagine the complicated response the black men might feel at the sight of dangling corpses in the woods of Dixie.

Maybe I needn't have worried. Everyone in the class was a seasoned forensic professional, after all; cumulatively, the two dozen students had worked hundreds of death scenes, and some of those had probably included suicide by hanging. The students had competed fiercely to get into the NFA course, and several had told me how thrilled they were to train at the Body Farm—probably the only place on earth, after all, where cinching a noose around a neck was an act of scientific inquiry rather than of suicidal despair or racist hatred or—very rarely—state-administered execution. Here at the Body Farm, as nowhere else on earth, we could replicate death scenes with utter authenticity, even lynchings or mass murders. This particular NFA class—one of two groups that would rotate through the course this year—included crime-scene and crime-lab specialists from as far away as the United Kingdom. They'd spend the morning recovering scattered skeletal remains and other evidence Miranda and I had planted in this part of the woods. After a quick picnic lunch on a strip of grass outside the fence, they'd spend the afternoon locating and excavating a shallow, unmarked grave where Miranda and I had buried three fresh corpses, simulating a gang-style execution by drug traffickers.

She and I had spent the prior afternoon digging the grave and then refilling it once we'd laid the bodies in it. We'd clawed into the clearing's rocky, red-clay dirt with a Bobcat—a pint-sized bulldozer—that a local building contractor had recently donated to the Anthropology Department. The Bobcat was a useful tool; it was also—for me, a guy who'd grown up driving dump trucks at my stepdad's quarry—a fun toy.

Excavating the buried bodies in the afternoon heat was going to be sweaty, smelly work for the NFA class. Already, by midmorning, the temperature was above 80 degrees, and the humidity had topped 90 percent; by late afternoon, East Tennessee would feel like the tropics. Divide the year's 365 days by the number of seasons, and you might think there'd be four seasons of 91.25 days apiece, each season serenely easing its way into the next. Not this year in Knoxville; not on this steamy, smelly day in mid May.

My own body was doubtless contributing a bit to the scent wafting across the hillside, and not as pleasantly as the honeysuckle was. Like Miranda, I wore an official-looking black jumpsuit, the shoulders trimmed with the skull-adorned patches of the Forensic Anthropology Center. The jumpsuits looked cool, as in stylish, but they were woven of Nomex, a flameproof fiber that, ironically, made them hotter than hell. Despite the heat, Miranda and I had suited up to give the training exercise a more authentic look—and to let the trainees know we took them seriously.

The forensic techs weren't exactly dressed for cool comfort, either. Over their clothes they'd donned white biohazard coveralls made of Tyvek, the slippery, indestructible stuff of FedEx envelopes. Tyvek was feather-light, but I knew from experience that it didn't breathe worth a damn. As the techs knelt, stooped, squatted, and crawled their way up the hillside, setting numbered evidence markers beside the bones and artifacts they found, I could hear, or at least imagined I could hear, the steady patter of droplets on dry leaves: droplets not of rain, but of sweat. If this were an actual crime scene, they'd need to be concerned about contaminating the bones with their own sweaty DNA. I made a mental note to mention that to them once they'd rounded up all the bones. Did the glamorous stars of "CSI" and "Bones" ever shed buckets of perspiration, ever rain monsoons of sweat?

# # #

After an hour of searching, the hillside bristled with numbered evidence markers—87 of them— flagging the sundry bones, beer bottles, cigarette butts, and gum wrappers Miranda and I had strewn in the woods. The markers resembled the four-inch sandwich-sign numbers restaurants sometimes put on customers' tables to tell the servers which order goes to what table, and I smiled as I imagined a macabre spin on that image: "Number 87? Half-rack of ribs, easy on the bugs?"

I'd laid all the vertebrae of the spinal column close together, in anatomical order, as they might be found at an actual death scene, so those required only a single marker. Other bones, though, were dispersed more widely, simulating the way dogs or coyotes or raccoons would tend to scatter them over time. My last-minute hiding spot for the skull had actually been a logical place for it. Skulls on a slope tend to tumble or wash downhill once the mandible comes loose; that's exactly what had happened to the skull of former congressional aide Chandra Levy, who'd been murdered in the woods of a Washington, DC, park in 2001. In the case of my "victim," the fallen tree where I'd tucked his skull was lower, I now noticed, than the area where I'd scattered most of the bones. After years of death-scene searches of my own, I'd intuitively picked a natural place for the skull to end up.

The one thing the students hadn't yet found was the murder weapon. I took a sort of perverse pride in that, as I'd been careful to tuck it deep into the honeysuckle. But lunchtime was coming up fast, and they'd need the whole afternoon to excavate the mass grave. Finally, just as I was about to start offering helpful hints—"you're cold"; "getting warmer"; "really, really hot"—I noticed Angie in scan mode again, her gaze ranging just beyond the ragged circle of evidence markers. Her eyes swept past the honeysuckle thicket, then returned, and she headed toward it, like a dog on a scent. Getting warmer, I thought, but I kept quiet as she knelt at the edge of the vines and began parting the leaves carefully. "Got something here," she said, and then she laughed. "Looks like somebody takes his golf game really seriously." With that, she extricated the murder weapon. It was a golf club—a putter—and the cross-section of the club's head matched the hole in the skull perfectly: a square peg in a square hole.

The flurry of interest in Angie's find was accompanied by a series of groan-inducing golf-club murder jokes—"fore...head!"; "keep your eye on the skull"; "I told you not to cheat"; and the worst of all, "say, old chap, mind if I slay through?" The chatter was interrupted by a series of urgent beeps from Angie's direction. "Oh, crap," she said, laying the putter on the ground. She peeled off a glove and fished a cellphone from inside her coveralls. Frowning at what she read on the display, she stepped away from the group and answered the call. At first her words were too low to make out, but the tension in her voice was unmistakable, and it was rising. As the tension ratcheted up, the volume did, too. "Wait. Say that again. Kate what? ... What are you talking about? ... When? ... How? ... A shotgun? ... Bullshit. That's not possible. That is just not possible." Her eyes darted back and forth, tracking something I suspected was hundreds of miles away, at the other end of the call, and she began to pace the hillside. "Please tell me you're making this up, Ned. Please tell me this is some really, really mean joke you're playing on me. ... Please tell me you're not telling me this."

By now everyone in the group was listening, though most were careful not to look directly at Angie. Some people exchanged worried glances; others studied the ground intently, as if the particular twig or bone in front of them held the key to all meaning in the universe. "Oh, shit. Oh shit. Jesus God. ... Have you looked at flights? .... No, I'll just drive. It'll be just as fast. ... Okay, I'm leaving now." She took a few steps down the hillside, returning to where she'd found and flagged the skull. She bent and picked it up, staring into the eye orbits, exactly as I had just before hiding it. "I have to go by the hotel to grab my stuff. ... I'll be there by midnight. I'll call you from the road." She was walking toward us now, head down, still talking. "God damn that son of a bitch. ... Look, I have to go." She snapped the phone shut, shaking her head, a look of bleak dismay on her face as she walked toward Miranda and me. She didn't slow down when she reached us; she simply handed me the skull and kept walking. As she passed, she rubbed her ungloved hand across her dripping face, and I realized she was wiping away tears, not sweat. "I have to go," she said again, not looking back. Her voice sounded hollow and haunted. "I have to go."

She broke into a jog, ran out the gate of the Body Farm, and was gone.

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