Read Without Mercy Online

Authors: Jefferson Bass

Without Mercy (5 page)

BOOK: Without Mercy

“Soooo . . .” Miranda trailed off. All three of us turned to her, leaving her little choice but to finish what she'd started. “I hate to ask—I'm not sure I want to know the answer—but
was the victim already dead when the bear came along, or did the bear kill him?”

I looked at Waylon and the sheriff, but they both shrugged—possibly because they didn't know, but possibly because they hated to say. “Hard to tell,” I answered. “It's rare for a black bear to kill a human. Far as I know, there's only ever been one person killed by a bear in the Smokies. That was a woman back in 2000, if I remember right.”

“Killed by a mama bear and a cub, lessen I disremember,” offered Waylon. “The mama mighta been protectin' the cub, or thinkin' she was.”

I nodded. “But this situation? A human chained in the wilderness for days or weeks, with food wrappers and maybe even scraps lying around, giving off scent? The smell would be pretty appealing to a hungry bear, and once he was here, who knows?”

“Another thing we don't know,” O'Conner added, “is whether the killer kept bringing food and water, or whether he stopped at some point. The victim could've died of thirst or hunger.”

“Or maybe the guy come back and shot him after a while,” said Waylon. “Reckon I should bring me a metal detector up here, see if they's a bullet on the ground somewheres.”

“Good idea,” I agreed. “Once we're back at UT, we can x-ray the remains and see if there's a lead wipe on any of the bones.”

“A which?” said Waylon.

“A lead wipe,” I repeated. “A smear of lead, left by a bullet grazing the bone. A lead wipe shows up on an x-ray like a streak of white paint, much brighter than bone. I'll let you know if we find anything. How soon do you think you can get back here with the metal detector?”

“Tomorrow mornin', I reckon. I'd go get it now, 'cept it's about to get dark on us.”

He was right. I hadn't noticed, but the sun was beginning to drop behind the adjoining ridge. Late-afternoon light—already golden from the low angle—was incandescent through the yellow leaves of the tulip poplars. I paused to take it in, the astounding beauty that surrounded us, even here at the scene of a terrible death. “Guess we'd better wrap this up,” I said. “If we're here after dark in a vehicle with a state plate, no telling what's liable to happen to us.”

Waylon chuckled. “Hellfire, Doc, I'll be behind you all the way to I-40. Ain't nobody'll mess with you, lessen they go through me first. And I don't see that happenin'.”

“Neither do I,” I said. “Not unless they've got a death wish. Or a huge pain wish, at the very least.”

wish, nor a Waylon-sized pain wish. Aside from the deputy's monster truck, I saw no vehicles trailing us back to Jonesport, nor on the twisting drive back to the interstate.

As we turned off River Road and onto the westbound ramp of I-40, I rolled down my window and waved. Behind us, I saw the headlights of the mammoth truck flash once, twice, three times, and the notes of the truck's aftermarket horn—tooting the opening bars of “Dixie”—came wafting through the twilight, growing fainter as we picked up speed and merged with the stream of cars meandering out of the mountains and flowing, a ceaseless river of humanity, toward the distant confluence of Knoxville.

The drive was quiet. Perhaps Miranda was preoccupied with her own thoughts—possibly thoughts of the young man
whose fragmentary skeleton rode behind us in the truck's cargo bed—or perhaps she was simply giving me room to think my own thoughts. At any rate, we rode in silence.

As we neared the outskirts of the city, I overtook a slow-moving semi. Flicking my turn signal, I checked my outside mirror to be sure the left lane was clear.

It was, but in the mirror, I caught a glimpse of a lighted billboard on the other side of the median.
, it read.

Out of the corner of my eye, I watched as it fell farther and farther behind, shrinking and dwindling until finally it disappeared altogether, and I felt my chest loosen and lighten.

Almost as if something in the air around us had shifted, Miranda now spoke.

“At least Hugh Glass had a fighting chance,” she said sadly.


Glass,” she said, and I was reminded of the old “Who's on first?” joke.

“Who's Hugh, and what are you talking about?”

“Hugh Glass, the mountain man. In
The Revenant
. You're kidding, right?” Despite the darkness in the cab, I could tell she was staring at me. “Oscar-winning performance by Leonardo DiCaprio? In a movie that won two other Academy Awards this year, too?”

I shrugged, feeling sheepish. “I don't see a lot of movies,” I said. “Kinda depressing to go by yourself.”

“Duh,” she said. “Tell me something I don't know. But you should totally see this one.”


“Well, for one thing, the guy—this mountain man, Glass, played by DiCaprio—he's torn to pieces by a bear, a big grizzly, and gets buried alive by the guys who are supposed to be
taking care of him. So there's a connection to our case, sort of. For another thing, the movie's full of Arikara Indians.”

Now she had my full attention. “Arikara? But they're all gone. Died out, mostly, and assimilated with the Mandans and Hidatsu.”

She made an impatient, clucking sound. “The film's historical. Set in the 1820s. Along the Missouri River.”

I grinned. “Why didn't you say so? That's where all my skeletal remains come from!”

,” she repeated. “I
. That's why I mentioned it. But the movie's set farther north—up in North Dakota or Montana, looks like. Serious mountains.”

I turned off I-40 onto James White Parkway, to loop along the riverfront to Neyland Stadium. Across the Tennessee, streetlights and houselights on the south shore smeared and danced in the black, rippling river. I was puzzling over the plot of the movie Miranda was describing, worrying at it, like a dog with a bone. “What are Plains Indians doing up in the Rocky Mountains?”

“Good grief, Dr. B. Don't pick it apart before you even see it. So this guy Glass is a guide for a bunch of fur trappers. The trappers get attacked by a band of Arikara Indians. The Indians are looking for an Arikara woman who's been abducted by a white man. Maybe that's what brought them to the mountains—the search for the woman. Anyhow, Glass spends a lot of time getting chased by them.”

“I thought you said he got killed by the bear?”

She sighed. “Just see it,” she said. “You'll love it. You'll laugh. You'll cry. You'll thank me.” By now we had arrived back at UT. As I turned off Neyland Drive, Miranda said, “Don't you want to take this stuff out to the facility? Put the bones in to simmer?”

I shook my head. “It's late. Just do it in the morning, how 'bout?” Glancing over, I saw her shrug and nod.

I pulled in front of her pale green Prius, which was tucked beneath the stadium just outside the bone lab, and switched off the truck's engine. “So, this mountain man, Glass—is he the one who abducted the Arikara woman?”

“Quit asking annoying questions. I've already told you too much.” She paused, then added, “You know what? Forget I mentioned it. Don't see it. You'd probably hate it.”

Now, of course, wild horses couldn't keep me from watching it.

As Miranda jolly well knew.


into bed. Harder, alas, than people do.

Kathleen had been dead for a decade—more than a decade, in fact—but I still slept on “my” side of the bed. Actually, for the thirty years of our marriage, “my” side had also been “our” side: no matter where she started out (usually in the middle), Kathleen had always ended up crossing the midline, and I had always ended up on the edge of the mattress, sometimes hanging partway off.

For years I had grumbled about her Territorial Imperative. Now I would have given anything—everything—to feel her crowding me, nestling me, spooning me in her sleep. “Don't it always seem to go,” I serenaded myself, pulling up the covers, “that you don't know what you've got till it's gone.” Truth was, though, I
known what I'd had with Kathleen. I'd felt lucky beyond all deserving to be with her, and bereft beyond all reckoning when I lost her.

Since Kathleen's death I had slept with only two women—just one time apiece—and both those women were dead now,
too. It wasn't as if I were responsible for their deaths, any more than I'd been responsible for Kathleen's, but all the same, I sometimes wondered if I might carry some sort of jinx, or bad karma. Could it be that immersing myself, day after day, year after year, in death, dismemberment, and decay, had somehow tainted me? That I had steadily absorbed, and now subtly emanated, mortality—and not just its faint odor of it, but its
as well? That I was a carrier, like Typhoid Mary?
Mortality Bill
, I thought.

The absurdity of it almost made me smile. Almost, but not quite.

As I reached for the switch on the bedside lamp, my eye happened to light on a card that lay on the nightstand. It had arrived in the previous day's mail, sent by a California woman whose father's remains I had identified a few weeks before. His skull had recently turned up on a riverbank a few miles downstream from Knoxville, years after he'd gone missing. The man had long struggled with depression, and the general consensus, once we'd identified him, was that he had probably committed suicide by jumping from the Gay Street Bridge, Knoxville's favorite suicide spot. “Thank you for giving me closure at last,” she had written. “It saddens me to know, once and for all, that he's dead, but it helps me, too. Not knowing was worse. I know I speak for others when I say how much I appreciate the work you do. Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

“No, thank
,” I whispered as I snapped off the light, grateful for something—anything—that could counter my sense of being a jinx. “And good night.”

slowly and heavily, as if I were wading in waist-deep water or weighted down. After a while, I realized that indeed I
weighted down. A heavy chain wrapped around my neck and trailed behind me. Despite the difficulty, I kept walking, but soon I realized that I was walking in a circle, covering the same ground again and again. So I stopped.

As I rested, uncertain what to do next, I became aware of someone nearby. It was a young man—a boy, really—and like me, he was wearing a chain and walking in a circle. After he had made several turns around the tree to which he was chained, I noticed that he was being followed by an immense black bear. I opened my mouth to warn the boy, but I found myself unable to speak.

I tried to reach him, so I could turn him around, show him the bear, but my chain was too short, and he remained just out of reach. He kept walking, faster and faster, and then he began to run, as if he sensed danger even though he had not seen the bear. And then, as he ran, he began to scream, louder and louder, until his shrieking woke me.

As I lay in my bed, my heart pounding, the sheets soaked with sweat, I realized I could still hear the boy shrieking.

But the shrieking was not from the boy in my dream; the shrieking, I finally understood, was from a fire truck—a rare sound in my quiet neighborhood—and as the pounding of my heart subsided, so, too, did the wail of the siren, and I was left, awake and alone, on my side of a bed that felt as empty as a black hole in space: a void so vast and dense, not even light could escape.


night, I drove on autopilot, winding behind UT Medical Center and through the staff parking lot, then parking beside the twin gates of the Body Farm: an outer, chain-link gate, topped with razor wire, and an inner, wooden gate. The chain-link fence that surrounded our three wooded acres was there to keep out trespassers, and it worked well, although not perfectly. Occasionally fraternity boys—either as an initiation rite or as a show of bravado—tried to break in, but being drunk, they usually got snagged in the barbed wire. More seriously, we'd had one damaging robbery: someone had made off with half a dozen skulls, though the police eventually recovered three of them when the thief, who was a drug addict, tried to sell them. The inner wooden fence—eight feet high, made of pine boards butted tightly together—was there to shield the corpses from prying eyes . . . and to protect squeamish hospital employees (if there were in fact any of those) from the sight of my dead and decomposing research subjects.

I unlocked the metal gate and took a step inward to the
wooden gate. The padlock's shackle clasped both ends of a loop of chain, which was threaded through a hole bored in each half of the gate. As I lifted the lock and felt the heft of the chain, I couldn't help thinking of the Cooke County victim, his neck encircled by hard, cold links, dragging that fifty-pound length of chain around and around that tree. The Tree of Death.

Just as the lock sprang open in my hand, I realized my mistake. “
, Brockton,
,” I scolded myself aloud. Clicking the lock shut once more, I fastened the outer gate, got back into my truck, and threaded my way down to the parking lot exit. A hundred yards beyond the exit was a small, recently paved driveway, which I turned up and followed to a new brick building, so new that its “landscaping” consisted mainly of raw, red clay. I had been here dozens of times, but now, distraught and distracted by my nightmare, I'd reverted to autopilot, following the route I'd taken thousands of times over the course of some twenty years.

The building—a combination morgue, laboratory, and classroom facility—was the culmination of years of need, hope, planning, and pleading. For more than twenty years, my decomposition research program had operated on a shoestring, my “laboratory” consisting of trees and dirt, bacteria and insects. The first version of the Body Farm had been born, so to speak, in an abandoned barn on a UT pig farm, located miles outside of town. A few years later, the facility had moved to a small fenced enclosure on what had once been a trash-burning pit for the UT hospital. But gradually the Body Farm's footprint—or was it plural: footprints?—had spread over three wooded acres. The infrastructure, though, had remained quite primitive, limited to one electrical power outlet and one water spigot.

Until now; until our new building, which was a remarkable upgrade. Inside the brick walls, beneath the green metal roof, was virtually everything I'd ever wished for: A cooler big enough to hold a dozen bodies, if need be. Two electric-jacketed kettles, each one big enough for me to curl up inside, for simmering bodies and skeletons: for separating flesh from bone. A pair of industrial-sized sinks, overhung by exhaust hoods whose whooshing fans could whisk away the last lingering odors as final bits of tissue were scrubbed and removed. Computerized workstations, complete with 3-D digitizing probes for taking skeletal measurements and plugging the data into ForDisc, our software program for determining—for “estimating,” to be pedantically precise—the race or ancestry of an unknown skeleton.

In the case of our Cooke County victim, whose long bones were chewed up and whose skull was MIA, ForDisc was probably useless, our 3-D digitizing probes reduced to expensive, high-tech paperweights. Lacking more bones—especially, but not only, the skull—we had very little data for ForDisc to plug into its predictive models of race or ancestry, and that was a loss. ForDisc had shown me how well its models worked, in memorably humbling fashion, in its first forensic outing: the soggy skeleton from Polecat Creek.

Polecat Creek was a stream in Loudon County, about thirty miles southwest of Knoxville, where I'd worked a case years before. Acting on an anonymous tip, divers from the Loudon County Sheriff's Office had fished a body from the creek, directly beneath a two-lane bridge. The victim, wrapped in plastic and badly decomposed, was clearly a male, and—judging from the narrow nasal opening and the vertical structure of the mouth—a white male, of middle age. Trouble was, there were no middle-aged white males
missing in Loudon County, or anywhere within a hundred miles of Loudon County.

At the time, my colleague Richard had just put the finishing touches on the first version of ForDisc. ForDisc was short for Forensic Discriminant Functions, a mouthful of a name that referred to the complicated algorithms, or equations, that Richard had written to calculate what racial group a particular skeleton best matched. To create a basis for comparison, Richard, along with helpful students and colleagues worldwide, had keyed thousands and thousands of measurements into ForDisc, from skeletons around the globe. As it happened, on that very day—long past, yet still vivid in my memory—I had grumbled about the lack of progress in identifying the John Doe from Polecat Creek. “Let's see what ForDisc says about him,” Richard suggested. With an indulgent smile I handed over the bones, knowing that ForDisc would agree with me.

But ForDisc
agree with me. I had focused almost entirely on the Polecat Creek victim's skull, but ForDisc also considered measurements from the postcranial skeleton, the bones below the skull. On the basis of the postcranial elements, ForDisc judged the Polecat Creek victim to be African American, or perhaps mixed race. And sure enough, when the detective checked missing-person reports for African Americans instead of whites, he hit pay dirt immediately: A black man from Oak Ridge had gone missing a year or so before, and when we compared his dental records with the teeth from our victim, they matched perfectly. Brockton 0, ForDisc 1. Fortunately, ForDisc and I had agreed on virtually everything since Polecat Creek, but Polecat Creek had taught me the value of a second opinion, even if that opinion came from a bunch of circuit boards and arcane formulas.

Ever since Polecat Creek, I'd always been open to whatever light ForDisc could shed on an unknown skeleton. In the Cooke County case, though, ForDisc would likely be as clueless and hamstrung as I was.

Quit whining
, I chided myself.
The only way forward is forward. Step by step
. The first step for case 16–17 was some quick orthopedic surgery. Normally I would do a bit of dental work instead, but here, too, I was thwarted by the lack of a skull.
My kingdom for a skull,
I silently declaimed. I had promised to send a DNA sample to the TBI lab, and teeth generally provide the best DNA samples. Tooth enamel does a good job of encapsulating and protecting the genetic material from potential damage by weather, bacteria, and other environmental or chemical factors. But there were no teeth; hence the orthopedic surgery: A bone sample would have to do.

Reaching up to a tool rack above one of the lab's counters, I took down a motorized implement that resembled a Dremel tool—a heavy, chrome-plated version, pumped up on steroids. A slender shaft projected from one end of the stainless housing, and attached to the shaft at a right angle was a flat, asymmetrical blade, one whose fanlike shape never failed to put me in mind of a ginkgo leaf, though I'd never seen tiny teeth rimming the curve of a ginkgo leaf. Hefting the tool, a Stryker autopsy saw, I felt weight, solidity, and power. I flicked the switch, and with a hum and a jolt it kicked on, the edge of the blade twitching in rapid, almost invisible oscillations.

Slowly I moved the vibrating blade toward my own forearm—closer and closer, millimeter by millimeter—and touched it to the flesh midway between my wrist and elbow. The blade buzzed and tickled, but it did not cut, my pale skin oscillating in perfect sync with the minuscule movements of the tiny teeth. This was one of the wondrous things about
the Stryker saw: it could slice through bone like a hot knife through butter, but it wouldn't cut soft tissue, not unless the soft tissue was immobilized by pressure from underlying bone. If I bore down hard on my forearm, the result would be terribly different: a sudden spurt of blood, followed by the rasp of teeth chewing through my radius and ulna. But I did not bear down, my flesh and bone remained intact, and I turned, smiling, to the task at hand.

I selected one of the long bones—the left humerus, or upper arm bone—and clamped it carefully in a bench vise that was bolted to the counter beneath one of the exhaust hoods. Then I switched on the fan, switched on the Stryker saw, and bent over the bone, bringing the oscillating blade closer and closer to the bone at what had once been the middle of the shaft, before the elbow had been gnawed off by the bear. The blade sang as it began chewing into the bone, a zinging soprano pitch that always reminded me of cicadas, though more musical, somehow. As the blade bit deeper, wisps of bone dust spun and swirled upward, drawn into the fan's slipstream like tendrils of cigarette smoke. It took less than ten seconds to cut through the bone, which was roughly the diameter of my index finger. The cut I'd made had removed the bone's jagged distal end, along with an additional two inches of the shaft, creating a clean cross section through the bone, showing the dense outer, cortical bone and the inner, spongy bone.

Next I bore down with the saw again, this time cutting off only a half-inch piece: the cross section for the TBI's lab. Protected from the weather and from contaminants—bacteria, bear's saliva, and my own DNA, if the exhaust hood and my surgical mask were doing their jobs—this clean cross section would, I hoped, give the TBI's genetic technician plenty of intact, uncontaminated DNA to analyze. Sealing the disk of
bone in a plastic film canister, I set it aside to send to the TBI lab later in the day.

The surgery complete, now it was time for 16–17 to have a bath. A long, hot bath.

The processing lab's equipment included two immense electric-jacketed kettles, the sort restaurants used to cook fifty pounds of potatoes or twenty gallons of chili in a single batch. We used them to simmer skeletons—like making soup or stock, except backward: we threw away the stock and kept the bones instead. I raised the lid on one of the kettles and began filling it with hot water. As it filled, I poured a scoop of Biz Stain & Odor Eliminator into the kettle, followed by a capful of Downy Fabric Softener: the two additives I'd found most effective at helping clean and deodorize the bones. Gently I added the bones, which, being few in number and fragmented, occupied a poignantly small percentage of the kettle's capacious interior. Given how weathered and bare the bones already were, they wouldn't need to simmer overnight, as most remains did. These might be ready for a final scrubbing by the end of the day, and that was a task I would definitely delegate to Miranda.

I walked into the bone lab. “Did you just come from the facility?” she asked. “The truck was gone when I got here, so I wondered if you might already be there.”

“I was. I woke up early—”

wake up early,” she interrupted.

“I woke up even earlier than usual,” I amended, “so I figured I might as well get the bones in to simmer.”

“Thanks,” she said. “I was planning to do it on my way to
the airport, but it's taking a while to pull this stuff together, so I appreciate that.”

“What stuff?” I asked, and then, “The airport? Why are you going to the airport?” Suddenly I noticed her appearance for the first time since walking into the lab. Miranda was wearing a suit, of all things—a dark gray skirt, white blouse, matching gray jacket, and—could it be?—honest-to-God
. Had I ever seen Miranda in stockings? And her hair, normally hanging in long waves of chestnut, looked oddly short and . . . springy. I stared, thunderstruck. “Did you . . .
roll your hair

“What? Oh. Yeah, I did,” she said, looking embarrassed. Or was it defensive?

“Okay,” I demanded, “who
you, and what have you done with the real Miranda?” She rolled her eyes and glared. “And what's with the fancy getup? You better change into a jumpsuit. Those stockings won't last five minutes up in the woods.”

“The woods? What woods? What are you talking about?”

“The Cooke County woods. I've been thinking. We need to go back. Take another look at the death scene. I can't help thinking we missed something yesterday.”

Miranda stared at me, her face a study in astonishment. “Are you kidding me, or do you honestly mean you forgot?”

“Forgot what?”

“Forgot why I can't go back up to Cooke County today. Forgot why I'm in this ‘getup,' as you put it. Forgot why I've been here for two hours printing out a stack of this stuff. I'm on my way to Quantico.”

“Quantico? What for?” Even as I said it, I sensed a recollection beginning to bubble up from deep in the tar pit of my memory, bringing with it a bad feeling. A very, very bad feeling.

, Dr. B. I have a
interview there. With the FBI. That didn't even register with you? It wasn't worth remembering?”

“No—I mean yes. I remembered. Of
I remembered. It just slipped my mind for a minute.”

She concentrated on straightening her stack of printouts—her dissertation, I noticed, and reprints of several journal articles we'd written. No: several journal articles
written, but for which I got credit as a coauthor, as professors always do when their students publish.

When she looked up, her eyes were accusing and hurt. “Did that letter of recommendation slip your mind, too?” I felt myself reddening, and a bloom of sweat sprang from my brow. “
it, Dr. B,” she said, before I could stammer out an explanation. Not that there
an explanation. Had I really failed to write the letter? Had I recently relocated—moved from the state of Tennessee to the state of Denial? What, if anything, had I been thinking?
If I ignore it, it'll go away—and she won't go away?

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