The Devil's Bones Cover
Publication date February 5, 2008
William Morrow
Hardcover, $24.95
ISBN: 0060759836
Buy the Book


A Body Farm Novel

Chapter 1

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 to hell.

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 the junkyard."

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 the twilight.

"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," said Miranda.

"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've forgotten?"

"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 here?"

"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 flame.

"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 left.

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.

Site by Erik Bledsoe & Jack Hardcastle