Publication date 01/24/2006
Buy the Book
CARVED IN BONE
A Body Farm Novel
I picked up the hunting knife with my left hand and tested its heft, then shifted it to my right hand to compare. Golfing and batting, I’m a leftie, but I grade papers and dial phone numbers with my right. The knife felt more at home there, too. Okay, I thought, add “stabbing” to the list of right-hand activities.
The nude man lay facedown in the woods, the Tennessee sun filtering through the trees and dappling his back. Kneeling beside him, I slid my left thumb along his spine, feeling for the gap between his fourth and fifth ribs, just behind the lower chambers of the heart. Having found the spot, I set the tip of the hunting knife there—it snagged in the soft flesh—then leaned in and began to push. It took more force than I’d expected, and I found myself using both hands, plus some weight. Once the blade was deep into the muscle tissue, I cocked the handle to the left, skewing the blade in the opposite direction, toward the man’s spine. It wasn’t angling as sharply as I wanted, so I leaned harder. Still no go. I sat back and considered whether there might be some other angle of attack that would land the tip of the blade in his right lung. As I contemplated the weapon jutting from the bare back, a black-and-white SUV—blue lights strobing—roared up and slid to a stop on a concrete slab in front of me. A young deputy leapt out, his eyes wild and his face a battleground of warring impulses.
I held up my left hand, keeping a tight grip on the knife with my right. “You reckon you could hang on for just one second?” I asked. “I’m not quite done with this.” Grunting with the effort, I gave the handle one final sideways shove and bore down with all my weight. As my victim jerked and skidded from the force, a rib broke with the sound of a green tree branch splintering. The deputy fainted dead away, his fall cushioned by the corpse I knelt beside.
Five minutes had passed since the deputy’s eyelids first fluttered open, and he still hadn’t spoken, so I figured maybe it was up to me to break the ice. “I’m Dr. Brockton, but I expect you know that,” I said. He nodded weakly. According to the bar of brass on his chest, his name was Williams. “This your first visit to the Body Farm, Deputy Williams?” He nodded again.
I looked down at the corpse, the knife handle still jutting from the oozing wound. “I’m running a little experiment here,” I said. “Despite the knife in his back, this fellow actually died of a coronary--halfway through a marathon.” Williams blinked in surprise, but I just shrugged in a go-figure sort of way. “Forty years old, ran every day. I guess you could say his legs just outran his heart.” I waited for a laugh, but there wasn’t one. “Anyhow, his wife took some of my anthropology classes here at UT about twenty years ago, so when he keeled over, she donated his body for research. I’m not sure if that says good things or bad things about the marriage.”
Williams’s eyes cleared and focused a bit—he seemed to be at least considering whether to smile at this one—so I kept talking. The words, I figured, gave him something to latch onto as he hauled himself out of his tailspin. “I’m trying to reproduce a stab wound from a homicide case that’s about to go to trial—what the medical examiner’s autopsy called the fatal wound—but I’m not having much luck. Looks like I’d have to violate a couple of laws of physics or metallurgy to get that blade to follow the path the ME described.” His eyes swiveled from my face to the corpse and back to me again. “See, the ME’s report had the blade entering the victim’s back on the left side, then angling up across the spine, and finally veering sharply into the right lobe of the lung. Can’t be done. Not by me, at least. Between you and me and the gatepost, I think the ME botched the autopsy.”
I had propped the deputy against the trunk of an oak tree. By now he looked like maybe he was ready to get up, so I peeled off a glove and hauled him to his feet. “Take a look around, if you want,” I said, nodding toward a cluster of clothed bodies at the edge of the main clearing. “You might see something that’ll help you with a case someday.” He considered this, then took a tentative glance around the clearing. “Over there, we’ve got a decomp experiment that’s looking at cotton clothing versus synthetic fabrics. We need to know if the type of fabric alters the rate of decomposition. So far, looks like cotton’s the winner.”
“What difference would it make?” Ah: he could talk!
“Cotton holds moisture longer, which the flies and maggots seem to like. Keeps the skin nice and soft.” He winced, clearly regretting the question. “Up the hill in the woods,” I went on, “we’ve got a screened-in hut where we’re keeping the bugs away from a body. You'd be amazed how much the decomp rate slows when bugs can’t get to the corpse." I turned to him. "One of my students just finished a study of cadaver weight loss; guess how many pounds a day a body can lose?" He stared at me as if I were from another planet. "Forty pounds in one day, if the body's really fat. Maggots are like teenage boys: you just can't fill 'em up."
He grimaced and shook his head, but he grinned, too. Finally. "So you've got bodies laid out all over the ground here?"
"All over the ground. Underneath it, too. That concrete slab you just parked your Cherokee on? Two bodies under it. We’re watching them decompose with ground-penetrating radar.” He spun toward the SUV, looking all panicky again.
“Don’t worry,” I laughed, “they’re not going to come after you for parking on ‘em.” I felt an urge to goose him in the ribs and yell "boogedy-boogedy-boogedy!’" as I might have done with a skittish student, but I resisted.“And they’re not feeling any pain. Just relax, son. Take a deep breath—or maybe not so deep, now that I think about it. Look at all this as research, not as dead people.” I paused for effect, then delivered my dramatic closing argument. “What you’re seeing here is forensic science in action.” With that, I reached down and wrenched the knife from the back of my research subject with a flourish. The blade popped free with a wet, sucking sound. A blob of purplish goo arced toward the deputy and plopped onto his left shoe, where it quivered moistly.
This time, I caught him before he hit the ground.