Flesh and Bone Cover
Publication date January 23, 2007
William Morrow
Hardcover, $24.95
ISBN: 0060759836
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A Body Farm Novel

Chapter 1

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 damn note.

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 alone.

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 Carter.

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 some doing.

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 decomposed.

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, or infatuated?"

I laughed. "Probably a little of both," I said. "She's smart and she's tough. Funny, too, and easy on the eyes."

"All true," said Miranda. "She'd sure keep you on your toes. About time you found somebody to do that, you know."

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 guy to?"

"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 us stronger?"

"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."

"Hun-uh," she grunted through gritted teeth, shaking her head for emphasis.

"Okay," I gasped, "you're the boss. If I stroke out before we get up the hill, use me for some especially spectacular research."

"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 research.

"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 legs."

"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, isn't it?"

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."

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