Publication date February 5, 2008
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THE DEVIL'S BONES
A Body Farm Novel
The last drop of daylight was draining
from the western sky—a fading that seemed more a suffocation than
a sunset, a final faint gasp as the day died of heat stroke. To the
east, a dull copper moon, just on the downhill side of full, struggled
above the ridgeline of the Great Smoky Mountains. From where I stood,
in a ridgetop pasture above the confluence of the Holston and French
Broad rivers—above the headwaters of the Tennessee, in other words—I
had a ringside view of the demise of the day and the wavering birth
of the night.
Just below the ridge, across the river
on Dickinson's Island, the lights of the Island Home airport had winked
on, etching the runway's perimeter in white and the taxiway in cobalt
blue. The main landmarks of downtown Knoxville shimmered a few miles
farther downstream—two tall office towers, a wedge-shaped Mayan-looking
Marriott, the high bridges spanning the river, and the looming waterfront
complex of Baptist Hospital. A mile beyond those, as the fish
swims, lay the University of Tennessee campus and Neyland Stadium, where
the UT Volunteers pack in a hundred thousand football fans every game,
most of them clad in bright orange. Tucked beneath the stadium, along
a curving corridor that echoes the stadium's ellipse, was UT's Anthropology
Department. My Anthropology Department, the one I'd spent 25
years building from a small undergraduate major to one of the world's
leading Ph.D. programs. A quarter-mile long and one room wide, Anthropology
occupied the outer side of the stadium's dim, windowless second-floor
hallway. Mercifully, the classrooms and labs and graduate-student offices
did possess windows, though the view out those windows was a bizarre
and grimy one, consisting mainly of girders and crossbraces—the framework
supporting those hundred thousand orange-garbed, foot-stomping football
fans in the bleachers, keeping them from crashing down amid the countless
human bones shelved beneath them.
Many of the bones shelved in the bowels
of Neyland Stadium had arrived by way of the Anthropology Research Facility—the.Body
Farm; my Body Farm—a three-acre patch of wooded hillside behind
UT Medical Center. At any given moment, half a hundred human corpses
were progressing from fresh body to bare bones, helped along by legions
of bacteria and bugs, plus the occasional marauding raccoon or possum
or skunk. By studying the events and the timing as bodies decompose
under a multitude of experimental conditions—nude bodies, clothed
bodies, buried bodies, submerged bodies, fat bodies, thin bodies, bodies
in cars and in sheds and in rolls of scrap carpeting—my graduate students
and colleagues and I had bootstrapped the Body Farm into the world's
leading source of experimental data on what happens to bodies after
death, and when it happens. Our body of research, so to speak, allowed
us to pinpoint time since death with increasing precision anytime the
police asked for help solving a real-world murder. Not surprisingly,
our competition for top honors in decomposition research was never what
you'd call stiff. But our research subjects always were.
Tonight would yield a bit more data to
the scientific literature and a few hundred more bones to the collection.
We were conducting this experiment miles from the Body Farm, but I had
brought the Farm—two of its inhabitants, anyhow—along with me to
this isolated pasture. I couldn't conduct tonight's research so
close to downtown, the UT campus, and the hospital. I needed distance,
darkness, and privacy for what I was about to do.
I turned my gaze from the lights of downtown
and studied the two cars nestled in the high grass near me. In the faint
light, it was hard to tell they were rusted-out hulks. It was also difficult
to discern that the two figures behind the steering wheels were corpses:
wrecked bodies driving wrecked cars, down what was about to be a roadtrip
The wrecker driver who had brought the
vehicles out to the UT Ag farm a few hours before—minus their cadaverous
drivers—clearly thought I was crazy. "Most times," he'd said,
"I'm hauling cars like this to the junkyard, not from
I smiled. "It's an agricultural experiment,"
I'd said. "We're transplanting wrecks to see if a new junkyard
will take root."
"Oh, it'll take root all right,"
he said. "I guaran-damn-tee you. Word gets out there's a new dump
here, you'll have you a bumper crop of cars and trucks and warshin'
machines before you know it." He spat a ropy stream of tobacco juice,
which rolled across the dirt at his feet and then quivered dustily for
a moment. "Shit, I know all kinds of folks be glad to help
with that experiment."
I laughed. "Thanks anyhow," I said.
"Actually, we are doing an experiment, but it's not agricultural,
it's forensic. We're going to cremate a couple of bodies in these
cars and study the burned bones."
He eyed me suspiciously, as if I might
be about to enlist him forcibly as one of the research subjects, but
then his face broke into a leathery grin. "Aw, hell, you're that
bone detective guy, ain't you? Dr. Brockton?" I nodded. "I knew
you looked familiar. My wife's a big fan of all them forensic shows
on TV. She talks about donating her body to you'uns. But I don't
think I could hardly handle that."
"Well, no pressure," I said. "We
can use all the bodies we can get, but we're getting plenty. Nearly
a hundred fifty a year now. We'll put her to good use if she winds
up with us, but we'll be fine if she doesn't."
He eyed the back of my pickup truck,
which was covered by a fiberglass bed cover. "You got them bodies
yonder in the back of your truck?"
I shook my head. "If I did," I said,
"you'd see a huge swarm of flies around it. Hot as it is, you'd
be smelling something, too. We'll wait till the last minute to bring
them out here. And we'll use a UT truck, not mine."
He'd nodded approvingly—I might be
crazy, I could see him thinking, but at least I wasn't dumb enough
to stink up my own truck. After unloading the cars from the bed of the
wrecker, he'd given me a big wave and a couple of toots of the horn
as he drove away. If he told the tale well to his forensic-fan wife
over dinner, I suspected, he might be able to persuade her to donate
her body to him tonight.
"We all set, Dr. B?" Miranda Lovelady,
my research assistant of the past four years, edged up beside me in
"Just about," I said. "Let me check
with Art." I looked around, and finally spotted Art Bohanan's dark
form half-hidden by the lone tree in the pasture. "Art," I yelled,
"mind your manners—there's a lady present."
"Oh, sorry," he called back, stepping
away from the tree. "I thought it was just you and Miranda." He
tugged up his zipper. "I was just wetting down this fine specimen
of a tree to make sure it doesn't catch fire."
"Very eco-friendly of you, pig,"
"That's Officer Pig to you," said
Art pleasantly. Like me, he'd long since learned to enjoy Miranda's
sarcasm, since it was tempered by forensic smarts, a tireless work ethic,
and a big heart. Besides, Art had an equally big streak of smart-ass
of his own. His East Tennessee roots had infused him with a down-home
sense of fun; his three decades of crime-scene and crime-lab experience—he
was the Knoxville Police Department's senior criminalist—had added
a dark, gallows topspin to the hillbilly humor. Art cracked deadpan
jokes about murders, suicides, and extreme fingerprinting techniques
("give me a hand, Bill," he'd once said at a crime scene; he was
asking me to amputate a murder victim's right hand so he could take
it back to the lab right away for fingerprinting). To someone unaccustomed
to daily doses of death and brutality, our humor might have sounded
shocking, but Art—like Miranda, and like—took his work seriously,
but himself and his colleagues lightly. It made the bleakness bearable.
"Okay," I said, "we've got both
bodies in position, we've poured two gallons of gasoline into both
passenger compartments, we've hosed down the area till it's the
only patch of mud within a hundred miles, and we've got the Ag farm's
water truck standing by with another 500 gallons just in case. Anything
"I believe you've forgotten to explain
why it is we had to wait till my bedtime to get started," said Art.
"It's not like the night's all nice and cool for us. It's still
ninety, easy, and if that moon burns off some of this haze, it could
get back up to ninety-five here pretty soon."
"It's not the heat," I said to
Miranda, "it's the stupidity. You want to explain it to Sherlock
"Sure, boss," she said. "I live
to serve." She turned to Art. "Our primary research objective, of
course, is to incinerate all the soft tissue, so we end up with nothing
but burned bones—comparable to the ones in the case you're working."
"I understand that," said Art, "and
I do appreciate it. No, really. But don't dem bones burn just as good
in the daytime as they do in the dark? Or is there something you osteologist-types
know that we mere mortals are not privy to?"
"Many things, actually," said Miranda.
"Bodies and bones burn just as well in the daytime, but they don't
photograph near as well, and we want to document the process in detail."
She pointed to the four tripods and digital video cameras we'd set
up beside the vehicles. One camera was aimed through each vehicle's
windshield, another through each driver's window. "If we did this
during the day, the video would show nothing but smoke. Lit from the
outside, by the sun, the smoke steals the show. Lit from within, by
only the flame, you get a great view of what's happening as the tissue
burns off and the bones are cremated."
"I knew that," said Art.
"I know you knew," said Miranda.
"You were just checking to make sure I did. Right?"
"Okay, you two" I said, "a little
less conversation, a little more incineration."
Miranda fished around in a pocket of
her jumpsuit. "Rock and roll," she said. She flicked a disposable
lighter, and a jet of flame appeared at the tip. She swayed like a drunk
or a stoner, waving the lighter, and sang, "SMOKE on the WA-ter, a
FIE-uhr IN the sky-y."
I laughed. "Aren't you a little young
to know that song, junior? That's from back in my heyday."
"My grandpa used to play it on the
Victrola," she said, "whenever he grilled up a wooly mammoth he'd
clubbed." She grinned, and her teeth shone golden in the glow of the
"Very funny," I said. "Remind me
to laugh on the way back to the old folks' home."
"Ouch." She took her thumb off the
trigger, and the flamed died.
"Serves you right," I said. "Okay,
let's light it up." I walked toward one of the cars, and Miranda
headed to the other. Fishing a book of paper matches from one pocket,
I lit one—it took three tries to get enough friction from the tiny
strip at the base of the book—then used that match to set off the
rest. The matchbook erupted in a fusillade of flame, flaring bigger
than I'd expected, and I reflexively flung it away, through the open
window of the car. The gas-soaked upholstery ignited with almost explosive
force, and I wondered if I'd been too liberal with the accelerant.
I also wondered, as I felt the heat searing my face, if I had any eyebrows
Overhead, I caught the drone of an airplane
propeller. Looking up, I saw a small plane, just off the runway from
the nearby airport, bank in our direction. As it circled, the flash
of its wingtip strobes illuminated the smoke from the burning cars in
bursts, like the fireworks that explode with a bright flash and a loud
boom—in this case, minus the boom. I tried to wave them away, but
if they could even see me, they ignored my frantic gestures.
Backing away from my vehicle, I glanced
over at the other car, also engulfed in flames. Despite the intensity
of the inferno, Miranda stood barely ten feet from the car, one arm
shielding her face, a look of utter fascination in her eyes. I forced
my way through the blast of heat and took her by the arm. "You're
too close," I shouted over the hiss and roar of the fire. "
But look," she shouted back, never
moving her eyes, pointing into the vehicle at the figure slumped in
the driver's seat. I looked just in time to see the skin of the forehead
peel slowly backward, almost like an old-fashioned bathing cap. As it
continued to peel backward, I realized that what I was seeing was a
scalping. A scalping done by fire, not by knife. "Very interesting,"
I yelled, "but you're still too close. That's what we've got
the video cameras for."
Just as we rejoined Art in the shelter
of the water truck, the gas tank of the car Miranda had been standing
beside exploded, and pellets of hot glass rained down on us like some
infernal version of hailstones. The car's spare tire—launched skyward
by the blast—arced toward the water truck, and smashed through the
windshield. it's going to be a long, hot summer, Bill Brockton,
I said to myself, and you've got some serious
'splainin' to do.
The circling airplane beat a hasty retreat into the safety of darkness, and a moment later I heard sirens.