Publication date January 23, 2007
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FLESH AND BONE
A Body Farm Novel
The chain-link gate yowled like an angry
tomcat in the watery light of dawn. Once my jaw unclenched, I made a
mental note to bring grease for the hinges next time I came out to the
Body Farm. Don't forget, I chided myself, just as I had each
of the past half-dozen times I'd mentally made and mislaid that same
It wasn't that my memory was failing,
or so I liked to believe. It was just that every time I headed for the
Anthropology Research Facility, as the University of Tennessee preferred
to call the Body Farm, I had more interesting things on my mind than
WD-40. Things like the experiment I was about to rig with the body in
the pickup truck Miranda was backing toward the facility's gate.
It never ceased to amaze me, and to frustrate
me, that the Body Farm remained the world's only research facility
devoted to the systematic study of postmortem decomposition. As an imperfect
human being, with failings and vanities, I did take a measure of pride
in the uniqueness of my creation. As a forensic anthropologist, though—a
"bone detective" who had branched out into seeking clues in decaying
flesh as well—I looked forward to the day when our data on decomp
rates in the moist, temperate climate of Tennessee could be compared
with rates from similar research facilities in the low desert of Palm
Springs, the high desert of Albuquerque, the rain forest of the Olympic
Peninsula, or the alpine slopes of the Montana Rockies. But every time
I thought a colleague in one of those ecosystems was on the verge of
creating a counterpart to the Body Farm, the university in question
would chicken out, and we would remain unique, isolated, and scientifically
Over the past twenty-five years, my graduate
students and I had staged hundreds of human bodies in various settings
and scenarios to study their postmortem decay. Shallow graves, deep
graves, watery graves, concrete-capped graves. Air-conditioned buildings,
heated buildings, screened-in porches. Automobile trunks, backseats,
travel trailers. Naked bodies, cotton-clad bodies, polyester-suited
bodies, plastic-wrapped bodies. But I'd never thought to stage anything
like the gruesome death scene Miranda and I were about to recreate for
Jess—Dr. Jessamine Carter—was the
medical examiner in Chattanooga. For the past six months, she'd been
the acting ME for Knoxville's Regional Forensic Center as well. She'd
been promoted, if that's the right word, to this dual status by virtue
of a spectacular screw-up by our own ME, Dr. Garland Hamilton. During
what no one but Hamilton himself would have described as an autopsy,
he had so badly misdiagnosed a man's cause of death—describing a
superficial accidental cut as a "fatal stab wound"—that an innocent
bystander ended up charged with murder. When his mistake came to light,
Hamilton was promptly relieved of his duties; now, he was about to be
relieved of his medical license, if the licensing review board did its
job right. Meanwhile, until a qualified replacement could be appointed,
Jess was filling in, making the hundred-mile trek up I-75 from Chattanooga
to Knoxville anytime an unexplained or violent death occurred in our
neck of the Tennessee woods.
The commute wasn't as time-consuming
for Jess as it would have been for me. Her Porsche Carrera—fire-engine
red, fittingly enough—generally covered the hundred miles in fifty
minutes or so. The first state trooper to pull her over had gotten a
quick glimpse of her badge and a brisk talking-to about the urgency
of her mission before she left him standing on the interstate's shoulder.
The second unfortunate officer, a week later, got a verbal vivisection,
followed by scorching cellphone calls to the highway patrol's district
commander and state commissioner. She had not been stopped a third time.
Jess had phoned at six to say she'd
be in Knoxville this morning, so unless she'd been called to a Chattanooga
murder scene in the past half-hour, the Carrera was streaking our way
now, closing like a cruise missile. I hoped I could get the body in
place by the time she hit Knoxville.
As Miranda eased the UT pickup toward
the fence, the backup lights helped me fit the key into the padlock
on the inner gate. The inner gate was part of an eight-foot wooden privacy
fence, erected to deter marauding coyotes and squeamish humans—or
voyeuristic ones. Originally we'd had only the chainlink fence, but
after a couple of years, a few complaints, and a handful of thrill seekers,
we topped the chainlink with barbed wire and lined the entire half-mile
perimeter with the wooden barrier. It was still possible for nimble
critters and determined people to climb in or see over, but it took
The padlock securing the wooden gate
sprang open with a satisfying click. I unhooked one end of the chain
from the shackle and began walking the gate inward. As the opening widened,
the chain began snaking into the hole bored near the gate's edge,
like some metallic noodle being slurped up with clattering gusto.
Sucked into the maw of death, I thought. Is that a mixed metaphor,
or just a nasty image best kept to myself?
As I held the wooden gate open, Miranda
threaded the narrow opening with ease, as if she made deliveries to
death's service entrance on a daily basis. She practically did. For
the past three years, thanks to a spate of television documentaries
and the popularity of "C.S.I."—a show I had watched only one incredulous
time—we were swamped with donated bodies, and the waiting list (as
I called the ranks of the living who had promised us their bodies eventually)
now numbered nearly a thousand. We'd soon be running out of room;
already, in fact, it was hard to take a step without stumbling over
a body or stepping on a patch of greasy ground where a corpse had recently
About half the bodies were simply brought
out here to skeletonize. It was a little slower but a lot easier to
let time, bacteria, and bugs—especially bugs—do the messy work of
separating flesh and bone. Thanks to nature's efficiency at reclaiming
her dead, all that remained for us to do after a body's residence
at the Farm was to scrub off and deodorize the bones, take detailed
measurements, plug those into our forensic data base, and tuck the skeleton
into our growing collection. The University of Tennessee now possessed
the world's largest assemblage of modern skeletons of known age, sex,
and race. That was important not because it gave us bragging rights,
but because it gave us a huge and continually evolving source of comparative
measurements for forensic scientists to consult when confronted with
the skeleton of an unknown murder victim.
The body in the back of the truck, though,
was destined to contribute more than just his skeleton. He would shed
crucial light on an unanswered forensic question. About fifty bodies
a year were used in faculty or student research projects, usually exploring
some variable affecting the rate of decomposition. One recent experiment,
for instance, demonstrated that people who died shortly after undergoing
chemotherapy decomposed far more slowly than what I'd since begun
to think of as "organic" or "all natural" bodies. Chemotherapy,
in other words, bore more than a passing resemblance to antemortem embalming,
which was not a particularly comforting notion.
Once Miranda had cleared the opening,
I closed the gate behind her and fed the chain back through its hole,
leaving the padlock open so Jess could get in when she arrived. Miranda
was already out of the truck, unlatching the camper shell and tailgate.
She turned the latches slowly and opened the back of the truck almost
gently, a gesture that seemed right and thoughtful in the peaceful morning.
It was early yet; the hospital's day shift hadn't begun arriving
in the adjoining parking lot, so the only traffic noise was the distant
drone of cars on Alcoa Highway, a mile away on the west side of the
medical complex. Tennessee was waking up softly, with just enough chill
in the early March air to cloud our breath. I also noticed mist rising
from several of the fresher bodies—not from breath or residual heat,
but from the teeming masses of maggots feasting on them. It pleased
me, for some reason, to possess the arcane knowledge that feeding was
exothermic, heat-producing, for the supposedly cold-blooded maggot.
Few things in science were as black-and-white as terms like "cold-blooded"
implied, and I wondered, in passing, if the chemical reactions in the
bugs' digestive tracts produced the heat, or if metabolizing calories
to fuel their wriggling muscles was what warmed them up. Maybe someday
I'd explore that.
Above the innumerable maggots, the oaks and maples dotting the hillside were beginning to leaf out. In their branches, a chorus of cardinals and mockingbirds chirped and trilled. A pair of squirrels played chase up and down the trunk of a ninety-foot loblolly. There was life abundant out here at the Body Farm. Long as you could see beyond the hundred-odd corpses lying about in various stages of disrepair.
Miranda and I stood in silence awhile,
soaking up the birdsong and the golden early light. One of the frolicking
squirrels began to fuss at the other for breaking some rule of their
game, and Miranda smiled. She turned toward me, and her smile widened.
It caught me by surprise, blindsided me, like a 2 x 4 upside the head.
Miranda Lovelady had been my graduate
assistant for four years now. We worked well as a team—in the decomp
lab, as we sorted through the skeletal wreckage of some highway fatality
or murder victim, our movements often seemed choreographed, our unspoken
communication akin to telepathy. But lately I worried that I had crossed
some invisible line with her; that I'd let her grow too attached to
me, or maybe that I'd grown too attached to her. Although she was
technically still a student, Miranda wasn't a child by any means;
she was a smart, confident woman of twenty-six now—or was it twenty-seven?—and
I knew the ivory tower was chockfull of professors who had taken up
with proteges. But I was thirty years older than Miranda, and even
if that difference might seem tolerable to her at the moment, I couldn't
imagine it would remain so forever. No, I reminded myself, I was a mentor,
and maybe a bit of a friend, but nothing more. And that was best for
both of us.
I reached into the back of the truck
and busied myself with a pair of purple nitrile gloves, forcing my thoughts
back to the experiment we were here to set up. "Jess—Dr. Carter—should
be here soon," I said. "Let's find a good tree and start tying
this fellow up."
"Ah, Dr. Carter." Miranda grinned
at me. "I thought you seemed a little nervous. Are you intimidated,
I laughed. "Probably a little of both,"
I said. "She's smart and she's tough. Funny, too, and easy on
"All true," said Miranda. "She'd
sure keep you on your toes. About time you found somebody to do that,
I knew all too well. My wife of nearly
30 years, Kathleen, had died of cancer more than two years ago, and
I was only now recovering from the blow. The prior autumn, I had felt
the first stirrings of interest and desire. Those stirrings had been
kindled, I was embarrassed to recall, when a student impulsively kissed
me; fortunately and mortifyingly, the kiss had been cut short by Miranda's
appearance in the doorway of my office. Shortly after that inappropriate
but memorable kiss, I had invited a woman closer to my own age—none
other than Dr. Jess Carter—to have dinner with me. Jess had accepted
the invitation, though she had to cancel at the last moment, when she
got summoned to a murder scene in Chattanooga. I hadn't worked up
my nerve to ask her out again, but the notion occurred to me every time
our overlapping cases—her fresh homicides, my not-so-fresh ones—brought
us into contact.
Miranda's question brought me back
to the task at hand. "Does it matter what kind of tree we strap this
"Probably not, but she said the victim
was tied to a pine, and we've got several of those, so we might as
well make it realistic. Doesn't cost any extra." I pointed at the
tree where the squirrels had been scampering. "How about that one?"
Miranda shook her head. "No, not that
one," she frowned. "That one seems too … exposed. Might be hard
on the campus cops or on visiting researchers if this experiment were
the first thing they saw when they walked in the gate." She had a
point there. "Besides, didn't you say the victim was found way back
in the woods?" She had a point there, too.
"That's my understanding. Prentice
Cooper State Forest. Covers some pretty rugged terrain along the Tennessee
River Gorge, just downstream from Chattanooga." I pointed farther
up the hillside, to another tall pine near the upper boundary. "There
you go. That look secluded enough?"
Miranda nodded. "Yeah, that seems better.
Bit of a haul to get him up there. But good exercise, I guess."
"If it doesn't kill us, it makes
"Right," she said. Then she stuck
out her tongue at me.
In unison, we leaned into the back of
the truck and each grabbed one of the straps sewn onto the sides of
the black body bag. We slid it out over the tailgate until it hung about
a foot off the end. "Ready?" I asked.
"Ready," she said, and with that,
we each grabbed another strap, about two-thirds of the way down. Sliding
the bag farther off the tailgate, we gradually bore more and more of
the corpse's weight. It was heavy—180 pounds, which was roughly
the weight of the victim whose death scene we were about to recreate.
The more faithfully the recreation mirrored the crime—not just the
victim's weight, but his injuries, clothing, and positioning—the
more accurate our eventual time-since-death estimate would be, allowing
the police to focus their investigation more precisely.
We hadn't gotten more than fifty feet
up the hillside before I broke a sweat in the chilly morning. I could
tell Miranda was straining, too, but I knew she'd collapse before
she complained. That was okay by me; I was willing to whine for both
of us. "You wanna rethink that first tree? Sure would be convenient."
"Okay," I gasped, "you're the
boss. If I stroke out before we get up the hill, use me for some especially
"Gladly," she huffed.
We stopped twice to catch our breath
and mop our brows, but even with the rest breaks, we were half-dragging
the bag by the time we reached the pine near the upper fence. Still,
as I opened the long, C-shaped zipper running around three sides of
the bag, I had to agree that a secluded location was much more appropriate
for this particular experiment.
We had prepared the body in the morgue,
so I knew what to expect, but even so, I took a sharp breath when I
folded back the flap to expose our subject. The blond wig had shifted
a bit, sliding down over the face and concealing much of the trauma
I'd inflicted, but what remained visible was strong stuff. According
to Jess, most of the bones of the victim's face had been shattered
by blunt-force trauma—she was guessing something fairly big, maybe
a baseball bat or a metal pipe, rather than something smaller, like
a tire iron, which would have left sharper, more distinctive marks in
the bone. I couldn't bring myself to whale away on a donated body
with such violence, so I'd settled for cutting through the zygomatic
arches—the cheekbones—and the lower jaw in several places with an
autopsy saw, then smearing a liberal amount of blood on the skin in
those areas to simulate the bleeding that perimortem trauma would have
induced. Miranda, being more skilled in the art of makeup, had applied
base and rouge to the cheeks, plus violet eye shadow and a pair of long
false eyelashes. I doubted that the makeup would affect the decomp rate,
but I didn't want to throw any unnecessary variables into the equation.
Procuring the leather corset that we'd
cinched around our subject's torso had proved far easier than I expected.
Less than twenty-four hours before, Miranda had spent five minutes Googling
and websurfing, then demanded my UT credit card. A few more keystrokes
and she announced, "Done. One extra-large bustier arriving at 6 a.m.,
First Overnight, thanks to the efficient teamwork of FedEx and Naughty&Nice.com."
I foresaw some red-faced explaining to the UT auditors once the American
Express bill arrived, but such was the occasional price of original
"Have you got the rope," I asked,
"or do I need to go back to the truck and get it?" Miranda was wearing
a black jumpsuit that bristled with pockets.
"No, I've got it," she said. She
reached down and unzipped a big pocket just abover her left knee and
fished out a package of nylon cord and a big, military-looking pocketknife.
With one twist of her thumb, she flipped open a wicked serrated blade.
"Whoa, that's some serious cutting
power," I said. "What is that, a six-inch blade?"
She snorted. "Do men really believe
that's what six inches looks like? Try three and a half." With the
tip of the blade she deftly flicked off the package's plastic wrapper,
then unspooled about six feet of cord—or was it three and a half?—and
cut it with a swift stroke. "You wanna tie his hands while I do his
feet?" I took the piece of rope and began to bind the corpse's
wrists in front of him. Miranda sliced off another length of cord and
lashed the ankles together. The rope snagged on the fishnet stockings
as she cinched it taut above the stiletto heels. "I've never understood
the appeal of cross-dressing," she said, "either for the guys who
do it or for the people who go to drag shows. But I also can't understand
how anybody could get so enraged about it that they'd beat a guy to
death for putting on a wig and some slutty clothes."
"Me neither," I said. "The one
thing I understand, after all these years and all these murders, is
that there's a lot I don't understand about human nature."
Once our stand-in was trussed up like
the Chattanooga victim, the next task was to tie him to the tree. "Jess
said his hands were up over his head," I remarked, half to Miranda
and half to myself. "Hard to get ‘em up there without a ladder,
though." I spied a low branch. "Maybe if I throw a rope over that
limb, we can use that like a pulley to hoist him up." Miranda whacked
off another length, which I tossed across the branch where it joined
the trunk. Then I tied one end to the wrist bindings, and together we
hauled on the line. The nylon cord was thin, so it bit into our hands
as we pulled. Once we had him upright, though, the friction of the rope
on the branch helped support his weight.
"You think you can hold him," I asked,
"while I fasten his legs to the tree?"
"Yup," said Miranda, taking a turn
of rope around one hand.
Kneeling at the base of the tree, I pulled
the feet close to the trunk and began tying them there. A yellowjacket
circled my still-sweaty face, and with one hand I waved it away. Suddenly
I heard a sharp exclamation—"dammit!"—followed by a slapping
sound. Then: "oh, shit, look out!"
With a thud, the corpse toppled forward,
draping himself over my head and shoulders and knocking me flat. Wriggling
like some giant bug, I lay trapped at the base of the tree, pinned by
the garishly dressed corpse. "I am so sorry," Miranda said,
and then she began to snicker. But the snicker died suddenly, and I
soon saw why.
A pair of rattlesnake boots, topped by
black leather jeans, entered my peripheral vision and planted themselves
a foot from my face. I knew, even before she spoke, that the snakeskin
boots were coiled around the feet of Dr. Jess Carter. After a moment,
her right toe began to tap, slowly and, as best I could tell, sarcastically.
"Don't let him get you down, Brockton,"
she finally said. "I think you can take him. Best two out of three?"
"Very funny," I said. "Y'all
mind getting this guy off of me?"
Jess reached down and grabbed the rope
around the dead man's wrists; Miranda seized a leg. Together, they
gave a heave that rolled the corpse onto his back beside me. I regained
my feet and as much of my dignity as I could. Jess winked at me with
the eye that Miranda couldn't see. I would have blushed, but my face
was already red.
"This wasn't one of the questions
you asked me to research," I told her, "but I'm thinking maybe
more than one person was involved in the murder. Pretty tough to tie
his arms that high on the tree without some help."
"I see what you mean," she said,
"but the forensic techs couldn't tell. Ground's pretty rocky around
there, and we had a dry spell for a couple weeks, so nothing useful
in the way of footprints."
"I'm sorry I wasn't in town when
he was found," I said. "My secretary said you called right about
the time my plane was taking off for Los Angeles."
"Damned inconsiderate of you to help
the LAPD with a case," she said. "We may need to fit you with one
of those electronic ankle monitors to make sure you don't leave Tennessee."
"Can't do it," I said, pointing
to my faded jeans and work boots. "It would spoil my fashion statement."
"Nonsense," she said. "Word is,
Martha Stewart's coming out with a designer line of corrections apparel
and accessories. I'm sure the Martha anklet will look fabulous on
you." Jess handed me the rope. "Shall we try this again?" This
time, once we'd hoisted the subject upright, I took the precaution
of knotting the rope to the branch immediately. I tied off the legs,
Jess pronounced herself satisfied with the positioning, and Miranda
trimmed the loose ends of the rope.
"The strange thing is, the head and
neck were in better shape than I'd expected," she said. "Lots
of trauma, but not much decomp, considering how much blood there was
to draw the flies. That would lead me to think he wasn't out there
all that long, except there was almost no soft tissue left on the lower
"You think maybe carnivores did that?
Coyotes or foxes or raccoons?"
"Maybe," she said, "but I didn't
see a lot of tooth marks. I'd like you to take a look at him, though,
see if maybe I missed something."
"Sure," I said, "I could probably
come down to Chattanooga later in the week. One thing I was wondering
about, though: Why are you even working the case? I checked the map,
and Prentice Cooper State Forest is across the line in Marion County,
She smiled. "I bet you were a whiz
at map-and-compass back during your Boy Scout days, weren't you?"
I grinned; she was right, even if she was just joking. "Cops got a
report of an abduction from the parking lot of Alan Gold's one night
a couple weeks ago. Alan Gold's is a gay bar in Chattanooga. Has the
best drag show in East Tennessee. A female—or female impersonator—fitting
the victim's description—was seen being forced into a car and speeding
away. We're working on the theory that the crime began in Chattanooga."
She paused briefly, as if considering whether to say something else.
"Besides," she said, "Marion County is rural and has a small sheriff's
office. They just don't have the forensic resources to work this."
"Makes sense," I said. "Okay, I
think we're ready to let nature take its course here. We'll check
this guy every day, track the temperatures. The forecast for the next
fifteen days—if AccuWeather can be believed—calls for temps about
like what you've had in Chattanooga over the past couple weeks. So
the decomp rate here should track the victim's pretty closely. Once
this guy's condition matches your guy's, we should know how long
he was out there before that poor hiker found him."
Jess took another look at the corpse
tied to the tree. "There's one more detail we need to make the recreation
authentic." I look puzzled. "I didn't tell you about this,"
she said. "You were already skittish about the trauma to the head
and face, so I figured this would send you clear over the edge." Reaching
down to her belt, she unsheathed a long, fixed-blade knife from her
waist. She stepped up to the body, yanked down the black satin panties
and stockings we'd tugged onto him, and severed his penis at the base.
"Good god," Miranda gasped.
"Not hardly," said Jess. "I'd
say this was more the devil's handiwork." She took a deep breath
and blew it out. "Bill, you sure this guy is clean?"
I struggled to speak. "Well, I can
tell you he didn't have HIV and he didn't have hepatitis. That's
all we screen for, though. I can't promise he didn't have syphilis
or a case of the clap."
She eyed the penis. "I don't see
any obvious symptoms," she said. With that, she peeled off her left
glove, dabbed her bare thumb on the severed end of the organ, then carefully
rolled a print onto the shaft. As Miranda and I stared in disbelief
and horror, she pried open the corpse's jaw and stuffed the penis
into the mouth.
"There," she said. "Now it's authentic."