THE INQUISITOR'S KEY
A Body Farm Novel
"There is no yesterday
nor any tomorrow, but only Now, as it was a thousand years ago and as it will
be a thousand years hence."
— Meister Johannes
Eckhart, circa 1300
"Nothing ever happened
in the past; it happened in the Now. Nothing will ever happen in the future; it
will happen in the Now."
The Power of Now, 1999
A mockingbird twittered on a branch of a dogwood as a
middle-aged man—his hair going to salt and pepper, but his body fit and
his movements brisk—approached a chain-link gate at the edge of a wooded
hillside. The man wore a black Nomex jumpsuit, which was heavy and hot for
Knoxville in June, but he'd scheduled a meeting with the university president
later in the day and didn't want his street clothes reeking of human decay.
Sewn to each shoulder of the jumpsuit was a patch embroidered with the words "Forensic
Anthropology" and the image of a human skull, a pair of swords
crisscrossed beneath it.
The gate, like the rest of the fence, was topped with shiny
coils of concertina wire. Above the gate, the unblinking eye of a video camera
kept constant vigil; other cameras monitored the perimeter of the fence, which
enclosed three wooded acres. A large metal sign wired to the mesh of the gate
proclaimed University of Tennessee
Anthropology Research Facility. Keep Out. Official Use Only. For Entry or
Information, Contact Dr. Bill Brockton, Anthropology Department, 865-974-0010.
The gate was secured by a padlock whose shackle was as thick as the man's index
The man in the jumpsuit—Brockton
himself—unclipped a large ring of keys from his belt, selected one, and
opened the padlock. Swinging the chain-link gate outward, he proceeded to a
second, inner gate, this one made of solid planks. The wooden gate, part of a
high privacy fence shielding the enclosure from prying eyes, was secured by a
second padlock, which was fastened to a heavy steel chain threaded through
holes bored in each door of the gate. When the lock clicked open, Brockton fed
one end of the chain through the hole in the board, link by clattering link,
and then pushed the wooden gate inward. It opened onto a small grass clearing
surrounded by locust trees, oaks, maples, dogwoods, and climbing honeysuckle
vines. Stacked at one edge of the clearing, just inside the gate, were three
aluminum cases, each the size and shape of a no-frills coffin. Faded shipping
labels hung from the cases, along with red Biohazard
Retracing his steps, Brockton exited the enclosure, returned
to a white University of Tennessee pickup idling just outside the fence, and
backed it through the gate and into the clearing. At the far edge of the grass,
he tucked the truck between two trees and shut off the engine. Opening the
camper shell and the tailgate, he slid out a sheet of plywood, pulling it
across the tailgate until it was close to dropping off.
His muscles strained with the effort, for atop the plywood
lay a black vinyl bag seven feet long by three feet wide, as thick and lumpy as
a human body. He lowered the end of the plywood to the ground, forming a ramp,
and then slid the bag down. Kneeling beside it, he tugged open the
zipper—a long C-shaped
zipper edging the top, one side, and the bottom of the rectangular
bag—and then folded back the flap. Inside was a fresh corpse, a white
male whose abundant wrinkles and sparse white hair seemed to suggest that he'd
lived out his allotted threescore years and ten, maybe more. The face appeared
peaceful; the old man might almost have been napping except for the unblinking
eyes ... and the blowfly that landed and walked unnoticed across one of the
From the back of the truck Brockton retrieved two thin dog
tags, each stamped with the number 49-12 to signify that the corpse was the
forty-ninth body donated to the research facility in the year 2012. With a pair
of black zip ties, he fastened one tag to the corpse's left arm and the other
to the left ankle: a seemingly insignificant act, yet one that conferred a whole
new identity on the man. In his new life—his life as a corpse, a research
subject, and a skeletal specimen—the man would have a new identity. His
new name, his only name, would be 49-12.
Upriver, the bells of a downtown church began to toll noon
as Brockton lay 49-12's hands across his chest. The anthropologist looked up,
listening, then smiled slightly. Peering into the vacant eyes of the corpse, he
plucked a line of poetry from some dusty corner of memory. "Never send to know
for whom the bell tolls," he advised 49-12. "It tolls for thee."
At that moment, the cell phone on Brockton's belt chimed.
"And for me," he added.
A Bell JetRanger helicopter skimmed low across a wooded
ridge and dropped toward a river junction, the confluence where the Holston and
the French Broad joined to form the emerald-green headwaters of the Tennessee.
Beneath the right-hand skid of the chopper, a rusting railroad trestle spanned
the narrow mouth of the French Broad. Just ahead, at Downtown Island Airport, a
small runway paralleled the first straightaway of the Tennessee, and a
single-engine plane idled at the threshold, preparing for takeoff. The
helicopter pilot keyed his radio. "Downtown Island traffic, JetRanger Three
Whiskey Tango is crossing the field westbound at one thousand, landing at the
"Three Whiskey Tango, this is Downtown Island. Did you say
landing at the Body Farm, over?"
"Three Whiskey Tango, are you aware that the Body Farm is a
"Downtown Island, we're a Tennessee Bureau of Investigation
aircraft. I reckon they won't mind."
Two miles west of the airstrip, the modest skyline of
downtown Knoxville sprawled above the right-hand riverbank. The skyline was
defined by two twenty-five-story office towers built by a pair of brothers who
began as bankers and ended as swindlers; a wedge-shaped pyramid of a hotel,
Marriott-by-way-of-Mayan; a thirty-foot orange basketball forever swishing
through the forty-foot hoop atop the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame; and a seventy-five-foot
globe of golden glass balanced on a two-hundred-foot steel tower like a golf
ball on a tee—the Sunsphere, a relic of a provincial World's Fair
orchestrated by the swindling banker brothers in 1982.
The epicenter of Knoxville, though—its beating heart
if not its financial or architectural nucleus—lay another mile downriver:
the massive oval of Neyland Stadium, home and shrine to the University of
Tennessee Volunteers. During home games against the Florida Gators or the
Alabama Crimson Tide, the stadium roared and rattled with the fervor of 102,000
rabid fans. Beneath the stadium, in a grimy building wedged under the stands,
nestled the university's Anthropology Department, home to twenty professors, a
hundred graduate students, and thousands of human skeletons.
A mile beyond the stadium, the TBI helicopter crossed to the
river's hilly, wooded left bank. Easing below the treetops, it touched down
just outside the fence of the Body Farm. Brockton emerged from the research
facility's entrance. Fighting the blast of the rotor wash, he wrestled the
wooden gate into place and locked it, followed by the outer fence. Then he
ducked under the spinning blades and clambered into the cockpit. As he swung
the door shut, the turbine spooled up and the chopper vaulted upward, buffeting
the fence and shredding oak leaves as it climbed. The pilot banked so steeply
that Brockton found himself looking straight down at the naked form of 49-12,
and he realized with a queasy smile that if his harness should fail and the
door fly open at this moment, he would deliver his own fresh corpse to the Body
Farm. But luck and latches held, and the chopper leveled off and scurried
upriver with the anthropologist strapped safely aboard.
The GPS screen on the instrument panel displayed a map and a
course heading, but the pilot didn't need either. He simply aimed for the plume
of smoke twenty miles to the east.
The plume marked the smoldering remnants of an airplane
hangar, and the charred remains of a dead undercover agent.
March 18, 1314
Jacques Fournier has three advantages over most of the
spectators filling the square of Notre Dame. He's uncommonly tall, so he's able
to see over everyone else; he's uncommonly stocky, so he's able to push his way
through the throng; and he's uncommonly dressed—in the white cassock and
black scapular of a Cistercian monk—so he benefits from grudging
deference as he nudges his way toward the cathedral. If someone moves to
protest or shove back, he makes the sign of the cross, and that generally
settles the matter. Nudge by nudge, foot by foot, cross by cross, Fournier
edges toward the front of the cathedral, where a platform has been built for
this morning's spectacle. The cathedral's façade is shadowed, backlit by the
rising sun, but the massive rose window—fired from within by sunbeams
slanting through the nave—blazes red and gold.
A murmur of excitement stirs the crowd, and a shout sweeps
across the plaza like rolling thunder: "They're coming! They're coming!"
To a chorus of cheers and jeers, a chevron of royal guards
pushes through the square leading four shackled men. The men are France's most
famous prisoners: the last and most illustrious of the Knights Templar, the
warrior-monks who acquired staggering wealth and power during the Crusades. For
more than a century, the Templars were highly valued by both the king and the
pope. Escorting pilgrims to the Holy Land, the Templars provided safe passage
and carried letters of credit—less appealing to bandits than gold or
silver—and, upon arriving in Jerusalem, cashed in the credit for currency
from their vaults on the Temple Mount. But when the Holy Land was lost to
Saladin and his Muslim hordes, the Templars began falling from favor. And seven
years ago, in 1307, King Philip the Fair arrested hundreds of the knights,
charging them with acts of heresy and perversion. "God is not pleased," the
arrest warrant began—a phrase Fournier finds applicable to many
situations and many people. "We have enemies of the faith in the kingdom."
The shackled prisoners are led up the steps and onto the
platform just as Fournier reaches its base. The first is Jacques de Molay,
Grand Master of the Order of the Knights Templar. A tall, silver-haired seventy-year-old,
de Molay appears gaunt and haggard—seven years of captivity have taken
their toll—but he walks with as much dignity as chains, weakness, and
advanced age allow. Behind him shuffles Geoffrey de Charney, the
Templars' chief commander in Normandy, followed by Hugues de Peraud and
Godefroi de Gonneville. After the prisoners and guards have mounted the stage,
one of the cathedral doors opens and a procession of sumptuously robed
clergymen emerges: the high-ranking officials who have decided the Templars'
fates. At their head is William, Archbishop of Sens, who serves also as Inquisitor
of France and as the king's own confessor. The archbishop is followed by
Cardinal Arnold Novelli—Fournier's own Uncle Arnold. Three years ago,
when he was made cardinal, Uncle Arnold handpicked Jacques to succeed him as
head of Fontfroide Abbey, a remarkable opportunity and honor. Three weeks ago,
a missive bearing Cardinal Novelli's wax seal arrived at Fontfroide, inviting
Jacques to journey to Paris for the sentencing: "an event," the cardinal wrote,
"that cannot fail to reinforce your zeal for protecting the faith." And indeed,
the young abbot already feels a surge of inspiration as he surveys the solemn
clerics, the chained heretics, and the mighty façade of Notre Dame.
The cathedral occupies the eastern end of the Île de
la Cité, the slender island at the center of the River Seine. The island's
western end is dominated by the royal palace and gardens, and this division of
the island into two halves—God's half and the king's—is pleasing
and instructive, Fournier thinks. Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's,
he reminds himself, and unto God that which is God's. Evenly ballasted
by church and state, the boat-shaped isle maintains an even keel, at least most
of the time. Occasionally the balance of power on the island shifts to one end
or the other, causing France itself to tip precariously. But not today; today,
king and cardinals alike agree that the Templars must be punished, for the good
of the kingdom and the salvation of their souls.
As the watery late-winter sun rises above the twin bell
towers, the archbishop steps forward. Quieting the crowd, he reads the
Templars' names and the charges against them. "Having confessed to these crimes
fully and freely," he tells the four, "you are hereby sentenced to perpetual imprisonment.
May Almighty God have mercy on your souls." The crowd roars, some in approval,
some in protest.
De Molay, the old Grand Master, steps to the front of the
scaffold and raises his hands for silence. After a scattering of whistles and
catcalls, the noise subsides. "Listen to me, and hear me well," de Molay calls
out, his voice thin but strong. "We have indeed confessed to these terrible
crimes." He pauses to let those words sink in, and the archbishop bows his
mitred head gravely. Then de Molay shouts, "But those confessions were
false—forced from us by torture!" Geoffrey de Charney steps
forward, nodding and shouting that what de Molay says is true; meanwhile, the
other two prisoners shrink back, distancing themselves from de Molay and de
Charney. At the other end of the platform, the Archbishop of Sens,
Cardinal Novelli, and the other clerics huddle in consternation; then the
archbishop hurries to the captain of the guards, whispering urgently and
pointing at de Molay. "The Order of the Knights Templar is holy
and pure," de Molay cries as the soldiers converge on him. "Our sin was not
heresy—our sin was weakness! We betrayed the Order! We signed false
confessions! These clerics are the real traitors to God!" A blow from one of
the guards knocks the old man to his knees, and the crowd surges forward, on
the brink of mayhem. As the soldiers drag the prisoners from the scaffold and
force their way back to the prison, swords and lances at the ready, Fournier
feels a mixture of outrage and sadness: outrage at de Molay's brazenness;
sadness for Uncle Arnold and the other holy men, publicly denounced by a lying
Word of de Molay's outburst is relayed to the palace. King
Philip—taking a late breakfast—roars his rage, rakes the dishes to
the floor, and roundly cudgels the unfortunate messenger. Next, he swiftly
convenes a council of civil and church lawyers. The lawyers, no fools, assure
the king that a relapsed heretic—what better proof of heresy, after all,
than denying one's heresy?—can be executed immediately, without
further trial or appeal. With equal parts fury and satisfaction, the king
decrees that de Molay and de Charney will die before the sun sets.
The news spreads across the island, and out to the rest of
Paris, like wildfire. Within the hour, boats begin delivering bundles of
kindling to the place of execution: the Île aux Juifs—the tiny Isle
of the Jews, a stone's throw upstream from the royal palace—where
countless unbelievers have been executed over the years.
And so it is that six hours after the dramatic scene in the
cathedral square, Fournier is jostling and nudging and sign-of-the-crossing his
way forward once more, this time toward the western end of the Îlede la
Cité—the king's end of the island—to see de Molay and de Charney
put to the torch. Fournier bulls and blesses his way to a choice viewing spot
on the shore and sizes up the stack of firewood accumulating across the narrow
divide of water. There's fuel enough to incinerate ten heretics, he judges, let
Fournier's assessment is based on more than a little
experience with heretic burnings. Happily, he was a theology student here
four years before, when King Philip burned fifty-four Templars for the same
shocking crimes as de Molay and de Charney: spitting on the cross, denouncing
Christ, worshiping a pagan idol, and performing acts of sexual depravity.
Burning the fifty-four Templars consumed two full days and a veritable forest
worth of wood; this immolation should require only an hour, or perhaps two, if
the fire is kept small to prolong the pain.
Satisfied that the fuel is more than adequate for the task,
the young abbot turns in a slow circle and studies his fellow spectators.
They're a mangy and flea-bitten lot, most of them—enemies of the
faith, thinks Fournier, or unreliable friends, at best—but a
few arm lengths to his right, he notices a cluster of other clerics. They're
Dominicans, judging by their habits: a handful of novices; two friars who
appear to be about his own age, possibly younger; and an older man, seemingly
the group's leader. The older man is talking—lecturing, more like
it—about heresy in general and the Inquisition in particular. That's not
terribly surprising, since the Dominicans are the pope's chosen order for
detecting and uprooting heresy. But there's something about the man's easy
confidence that Fournier finds grating.
He edges closer, listening to the older man's comments with
keen interest, a critical ear, and rising irritation. Fournier's no Dominican,
but he's taken a keen interest in the Inquisition since his arrival at
Fontfroide. Geographically, the center of the
Inquisition—Toulouse—is near Fournier's abbey; theologically, the
spirit of the Inquisition is close to Fournier's stern and austere heart.
During the past year, in fact, he's spent weeks in Toulouse, observing and
admiring the work of Bernard Gui, the devout Dominican whose masterful wielding
of physical pain, theological cunning, and abject terror has broken hundreds of
heretics during his seven years as Chief Inquisitor. Fournier wonders if Gui is
here today, but he doubts that the Inquisitor's busy schedule allows him time
to travel from Toulouse to Paris, even for such a worthy cause.
Suddenly, from the knot of Dominicans, he hears Gui's name
spoken aloud, as if the older friar has somehow been reading his thoughts. The
man is speaking in Latin so that the rabble around him cannot understand, but
his words are clear to Fournier. The Dominican is criticizing Gui—and not
just criticizing him, but mocking him: mocking a brother friar, and the Chief
Inquisitor at that. "He has the fierceness of a bull," the man says with a
smile. "The intelligence of a bull, too."
Fournier pushes sideways, further closing the distance
between himself and the Dominican. The movement catches the eye of the friar,
and when he meets Fournier's gaze, Fournier calls to him in Latin: "Would you
dare to say such things about Bernard if he were here to listen?"
The older man registers mild surprise, but not the
contrition and fear that Fournier expected from him. "My words will reach his
ears soon enough, I feel certain," he says to the hulking young Cistercian.
"When you relay them, be sure to tell Brother Bernard who spoke them: Johannes
Eckhart, master and chair of Dominican theology here at the University of
Paris." He bows, with a slight smile and a sideways tilt to his head—is
he mocking Fournier now?—and then turns his back on the indignant abbot.
"God is not pleased," Fournier mutters beneath his breath.
He considers pushing through the half-dozen people who stand between them,
considers teaching the old man a lesson in respect. Suddenly a shout ripples up
the shore, like a bow wave from the boat that is making its way upstream toward
the Isle of the Jews, making its way toward the towering stake and the stacks
The boat, rowed by eight men, carries half a dozen of the
king's guards, as well as Jacques de Molay and Geoffrey de Charney. One
of the guards raises a flaming torch high overhead, and the mob roars.
The pyre burns until midnight. The two Templars are long
since incinerated, but the crowd lingers, loath to leave until every stick of
wood is consumed.
When the flames finally gutter and die, the Order of the
Knights Templar has been extinguished. But hanging in the air, like the
lingering smoke and the scent of charred flesh, is the dying cry of Grand
Master Jacques de Molay: "I summon the king and the pope to meet me before
I heard a click in my headset, followed by the voice of the
TBI pilot. "Dr. Brockton, you okay back there?"
"I'm still kinda puckered from that takeoff," I answered,
"but yeah, I'm fine."
He laughed. "I'll go easier on the landing."
He circled the plume of smoke, which rose from the ruins of
a house. Fifty yards away was what might have been an airstrip except for the
fact that it was hemmed in by houses. I pointed at the ribbon of asphalt.
"What's up with that? Looks like they accidentally put a runway smack-dab in
the middle of a neighborhood."
"They did, but not by accident," the pilot said. "This is
Smoky Mountain Airpark. A subdivision for aviation nuts. Instead of a garage,
every house has its own airplane hangar."
A small fleet of vehicles ringed the smoldering hangar and
half-burned house we landed beside. In addition to the helicopter, I counted
four fire trucks—two of them still spraying water on the house—plus
three Sevier County Sheriff's Office cruisers and four unmarked cars, which I
supposed were TBI vehicles.
I was only half right, I learned when four investigators met
me halfway between the helicopter and the house.
"Good to see you again, Doc," shouted Steve Morgan over the
ebbing noise of the turbine and the rotor wash. Steve had majored in
anthropology, but he'd been working for the TBI for about ten years now, and he
was the one who'd called to ask if I could take a quick look at a death scene.
"Where's your assistant? Miranda? I thought you two were joined at the ileum."
"She's in France for the summer," I yelled. "Left a couple
days ago. On a dig with some fancy French archaeologist." Whatever expression
my face was showing, it made him laugh.
"Doc, do you know Dave Pendergrast, from our Sevier County
"I didn't, but I do now. Good to meet you." I shook
"This is Special Agent Craig Drucker, of the FBI," Steve
went on. He turned and nodded toward a man striding toward us from the ruined
building. "And Special Agent Robert Stone of the Drug Enforcement
I smiled. "No need to introduce me to this guy," I said.
"Rocky Stone and I go way back. Last time we worked together was that big
meth-lab explosion that killed a couple guys up in Scott County. That was,
what, three, four years ago, Rocky?"
"Ha. More like six or eight." He grinned. "My oldest kid was
being born while you were piecing those two bodies together." I smiled,
remembering how antsy Rocky had been to get to the hospital to see his wife and
the baby, and how proud he'd been the next day when I dropped by the maternity
ward to see them. "Thanks for coming on such short notice," Rocky said. "Sorry
we kept you in the dark on the ride over."
"Hey, I'm not complaining," I assured him. "I'll do just
about anything for a helicopter ride."
The subdivision wasn't just an aviation nut's dream; it was
also, the DEA agent explained, a drug runner's dream. "For the past year,"
Rocky said, "we've been investigating a smuggling ring based in Colombia.
They've been flying cocaine into small airports all over the Southeast,
changing the drop point every time. But this place is perfect as a more
permanent base—a clandestine hub, I guess you could call it. No control
tower, very little traffic, virtually no risk of detection. You land whenever you've
got a shipment, taxi the plane into your own private hangar, lock the door, and
unload in complete privacy. This operation could have run without a hitch for
"So what happened?" I asked, nodding at the smoking ruins.
"Turf war? A raid that got too hot to handle?"
"I wish," Rocky said. "One of our undercover agents had
infiltrated the operation. What's left of him is there, in what's left of the
hangar. We've got an arson investigator coming, but we'd like you to examine
the body. See if he died during the fire or died before the fire. We
need to know if it was an accident or a homicide."
"Dr. Garcia's the medical examiner," I pointed out. "He's
got primary jurisdiction here." Dr. Edelberto Garcia—Eddie—served
as ME for Knoxville, Knox County, and several surrounding counties.
"Actually, we called Dr. Garcia just before we called you.
He says if the body's rotten or burned, you're the guy to look at it."
"That's damned decent of Eddie," I joked, "letting me have
all the good ones." All four agents smiled.
"The scary thing is," Rocky said, "the Doc's not being
sarcastic. He actually means it."
The truth was, Rocky was right. I actually did.
The dead agent was Maurice Watson, alias "Perry Hutchinson,"
whom the DEA had planted as the manager of the airpark. Six months before,
working through the drug smugglers' distributors in Atlanta, Hutchinson had
offered them a sweet deal: a house, a hangar, and a key to the gas pump in
exchange for a small cut of the profits.
"They brought in the first load two weeks ago," said Rocky.
"It was small—just a test run. Smooth as silk. They were planning another
run next week. A big load. We were all set to come down on them. But somebody
got spooked—or got tipped off." He shook his head grimly. "You ready to
take a look?"
"Sure. Let's go."
The intense heat of the fire had reduced the hangar to
scorched brick walls and sagging steel roof trusses silhouetted against blue
sky and gray smoke. Entering through a side door, I found myself sloshing
through an inch of muck—a slimy mixture of water, ash, soot, and
petrochemicals—and I was grateful that I'd put on my waterproof boots
before delivering corpse 49-12 to the Body Farm.
Occupying one side of the hangar was a blackened Ford
pickup; on the other side was a scorched plane, a V-tailed Beechcraft Bonanza;
and tucked between them was a riding lawn mower, its gas cap removed. Lying on
the floor next to the mower, face-up in the muck, was the corpse, its facial
features all but obliterated, its left hand still clutching a five-gallon
gasoline can. The heat of the fire had shrunk the flexor muscles of the arm,
locking the man's fingers around the handle in what was, quite literally, a
death grip. "So, looks like an accident," Stone said. "Might even have been
"Mighty convenient accident," I said, "the way the fire just
happened to break out so close to so much gasoline."
"Damned convenient," Rocky agreed.
I knelt beside the body. "I assume he's not carrying his DEA
badge," I said, "but have you checked him for other identification? What was
his undercover name? Hutchinson?"
Rocky nodded. "He's got the Hutchinson driver's license. Can
you get a DNA sample so we can be sure? Or did the heat ...? Is the DNA ...?"
I finished the question for him. "Is the DNA cooked?
Probably not. The femur is pretty well insulated by the muscles of the thigh,
and most of that tissue's still there, so we can probably get a good DNA
sample. But the dental records might be quicker and easier. Can you get me
those?" Tugging on a pair of gloves and kneeling beside the corpse, I opened
the mouth. "Agent Stone? Unless your man had just come from a barroom brawl, he
wasn't refueling his lawn mower when he died." Leaning back so Rocky could get
a better view, I showed him the teeth. All eight incisors had been snapped off
at the roots.
"Shit," Rocky muttered. "That doesn't look like something
the fire did."
"No way," I told him. "See how the teeth are folded backward
into the mouth? That's called a ‘hinge fracture,' and it means somebody swung
something at him—a baseball bat or a steel pipe or the butt of a
rifle—and caught him square on the mouth." I studied the face with my
eyes, and then with my fingertips, pressing and squeezing in order to feel the
bones through the burned flesh. From there I worked my way down the entire
body. When I finally got down to the feet, I looked up at Rocky. "I'll X-ray
the body when I get it back to the Regional Forensic Center," I said, "but I
can tell you already he's got multiple fractures. Half a dozen, at least. I hate
to say it, Rocky, but somebody broke your man, bone by bone, before they killed
Stone's eyes had gone narrow and cold, and his jaw muscles
pulsed rhythmically, forming knots the size of walnuts. "Damn those bastards to
hell," he said. "How long will it take you to do the exam?"
"The exam itself, half a day," I said. "But I've got to get
the tissue off the bones to do it right. And that'll take a couple
weeks—we'll put him out at the Body Farm and let Mother Nature clean him
He grimaced. "Isn't there any other way? Something more
respectful? More dignified?"
I shook my head. "I could dismember him, put him in kettles,
and cook him down. That'd be a little faster. But it seems less respectful, to
my way of thinking. And an aggressive defense attorney would claim that I
damaged the bones in taking him apart."
He sighed. "All right, do it the way you think is best. Just
find everything—everything—so we can nail these scum-sucking
bastards." He looked at the vehicles. "Thank God we got the fire out so fast.
If the gas tanks had gone up, I doubt there'd've been any of him left for you
to look at."
"Wait. Wait." I looked up, my gaze swiveling from his face
to the blackened vehicles. "You're saying there's still unburned gas in here?"
He nodded. "In the truck and in the airplane?"
"Yup. The truck holds twenty-six gallons; the plane holds
"There's almost a hundred gallons of high-octane aviation
fuel sitting right over our heads? We shouldn't even be in here, should we?"
Stone shrugged. "Fire's out."
"There might be an ember somewhere in that plane. One of the
tanks might fail. The roof could collapse. A spark from—"
I was interrupted by a metallic clatter—the clatter of
metal punching through metal—and a neat round hole suddenly appeared in
the side of the airplane.
"Shots! Shots! Take cover!" yelled one of the agents.
Another bullet slammed into the plane, this time into the wing, and a thin
stream of pale blue liquid began dribbling from the wing and pooling atop the
"Jesus, that's avgas," said Stone. "We gotta get outta
here." He hoisted me to my feet and began pulling me toward the door. All
around us, agents and deputies were scrambling, staring and pointing in various
directions, drawing weapons. Another bullet chipped a cinder block and
ricocheted off in a shower of sparks. A flame bloomed at the base of the far
wall. From there it followed a finger of gas, a finger beckoning it toward the
center of the hangar, toward the leaking airplane.
I tore free of Stone's grasp and ran back toward the plane.
Behind me, I heard him shouting, "Doc, come back! Get out!"
A wall of flame had engulfed the far wing of the plane by
the time I reached the dead agent. Grabbing his feet—the closest things
to me—I tucked them under my arms and dragged him behind me like a
sleigh, slipping and staggering as I hauled him through the muck. I'd almost
made it to the door when the plane exploded, and a fist of fire slammed into my
Rocky Stone helped me carry the body of his dead agent to
the most secluded corner of the Body Farm and lay him at the foot of a big oak.
Unzipping the body bag, I tugged it free, fastened ID tags on the left arm and
left ankle, and then draped the bag over the corpse.
"You broke half a dozen procedures and every rule of common
sense, going back for him like that," Stone said. "And I am incredibly
grateful. If you hadn't gotten him out, we wouldn't have a prayer of making a
"I wish the shooter hadn't gotten away."
"You and me both, Doc. He was only a couple hundred yards
away—up on that low ridge—but by the time any of our guys got
there, he was gone." Stone knelt and laid a DEA medallion on top of the bag.
Closing his eyes, he said a few silent words, then stood. "So, you say it'll
take about two weeks to get us a report?"
"More or less. More if it turns cool, less if it gets really
hot. Once the bugs and I have cleaned him off, I'll take photos of all the
fractures." I had already documented them, or at least most of them, with X-rays,
which I took with a portable machine at the loading dock of the Forensic
Center. But if the case came to trial, the prosecutors would need crisp photos
to corroborate the fuzzy X-ray images.
Normally I'd have delegated the cleanup to my graduate
assistant, Miranda Lovelady, who ran the bone lab and did much of the legwork
at the Body Farm. Miranda had left for France only three days before, but
already I was feeling her absence. I missed her help, and I missed her
camaraderie. At the moment, though, I was relieved she hadn't been with me in
Sevierville. I'd narrowly escaped being incinerated; in fact, the hair on the
back of my head was singed, and if I'd been wearing my usual outfit—jeans
and a cotton shirt—instead of the Nomex jumpsuit, my clothes would surely
have caught fire. Thank God Miranda wasn't there, I thought.
She'd left on short notice, under circumstances that
remained slightly mysterious to me. A week earlier, she'd received an urgent
e-mail and then a phone call from a French archaeologist, Stefan Beauvoir,
asking her to come help with a hastily arranged excavation. The site was a
medieval palace dating from the thirteen hundreds—practically prehistoric
by American standards, but nearly modern for Europe.
I'd hesitated before saying I could spare her; after all,
during half a decade as my graduate assistant, she'd made herself
indispensable. I valued and respected Miranda's intelligence and forensic
expertise. But it went deeper than that, I had to admit: She was as important
to me personally as she was professionally. In some ways, I felt closer to
Miranda than to anyone else on earth, even my own son. If you took DNA out of
the equation, Miranda was my next of kin. I felt certain that the bone lab and
the Body Farm could limp along without Miranda for six weeks, but I wasn't sure
I could manage that long.
"Excuse me, Doc?" Rocky's voice seemed to come from far
away, not so much interrupting my thoughts as awakening me from some dream. "So
if we're done here, I guess I'll be taking off. The TBI's gonna think we've
hijacked their chopper."
"Sorry," I said. "Didn't mean to check out on you there.
Hang on—I'll walk you out and lock up."
I bent to straighten one corner of the body bag, and as I
did, my cell phone began bleating. Fishing the phone from the pocket of the
jumpsuit, I glanced at the display. I didn't recognize the number; it started
with 330, an area code I didn't know, and it looked longer than a phone number
should be. I stared dumbly for a moment before I realized why. It was a foreign
call, and 33 was the country code—the code, I suddenly remembered, for
France. Miranda! I flipped open the phone, but in my excitement, I
fumbled it, and it fell onto my foot and skittered beneath the body bag.
Flinging aside the bag, I rooted for the phone, which had
lodged—ironically and absurdly—beside the dead man's left ear. I
had just laid hold of it when it fell silent. "Damn it," I muttered. I
punched the "send" button, only to be told by a robotic voice that my call
"cannot be completed as dialed," doubtless because it was an overseas number.
"Damn damn damn," I muttered, but just as I finished the third damn,
the phone rang again, displaying the same number.
This time, I did not drop it. "Hello? Miranda? How are you?"
"Ah, no, sorry, it is not Miranda." The voice was a man's,
accented in French. "This is Stefan Beauvoir. The archaeologist Miranda is
helping. She wanted me to call you."
My internal alarms began to shriek. "What's wrong? Has
something happened to Miranda? Tell me."
"The doctor says it is—merde, how do you say
it?—the rupture of the appendicitis?"
"Miranda's got a ruptured appendix?"
"Oui, yes, a ruptured appendix. She asked me to call
and say, please, can you come?"
"Can I come? What, to France?"
"Oui. Please, can you come to France? To Avignon?" Ah-veen-YOHN.
I didn't like the sound of it. "She is having the surgery now, and she will be
very grateful if you can come."
"Doesn't she want someone from her family?"
"Ah, but it is not possible. I call her mother and her
sister. Neither one has a passport. So she thinks next of you, and asks if you
can please come quickly."
"Of course. I'll be there as soon as I can. I'll get on a
plane this afternoon."
"Bon, good. You can fly into Avignon, but the flights
are better if you come to Lyon or Marseilles. Marseilles is one hour by car."
Racing down the path and out the gate, I frantically flagged
down the TBI chopper, which was quivering on its landing skids, transitioning
toward flight. Stone took off his headset, scrambled out of the helicopter, and
hurried over to me.
"Doc, is something wrong?"
"Can you guys give me a ride? I need to get someplace fast."
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