Read Without Mercy Online

Authors: Jefferson Bass

Without Mercy (6 page)

BOOK: Without Mercy

Miranda was shaking her head now. “Thanks a lot,” she said bitterly, scooping up her armload of credentials. “Wish me luck.” And with that, she swept out of the lab.

“Good luck,” I said, too lamely and too late, as the steel door slammed between us.

Standing there, abandoned by Miranda and appalled by my own thoughtlessness, I wondered if she'd ever be back.


the dirty work of sifting through the debris we'd brought back from Cooke County. But in view of her trip to Quantico, and my failure to write the recommendation I'd promised, I reassigned the scut work to myself. For one thing, I didn't want to let it sit until Miranda's return. For another, the task—smelly and tedious though it was—could serve as penance, as distraction, and possibly even as a contribution to the case.

But before turning trash detective, I needed to make a phone call. I looked up the cell-phone number—I was surprised I still had it after so many years—and dialed. “Brubaker,” said a crisp voice on the other end of the line.

Pete Brubaker was an FBI profiler, or had been, until his retirement a few years before. Now he worked for a forensic consulting firm, and rumor had it that he was working on a book—either a memoir or a crime novel. Either one, I figured, could be mighty interesting. “Pete, it's Dr. Bill Brockton, from the University of Tennessee,” I said. “You may remember that we worked together a while back—”

“Of course,” he said. “I still follow you. Anytime my colleagues visit your research facility, they always bring back gory stories. And your name pops up in my newsfeed every now and then. Glad to see you're still catching bad guys. How can I help you, Doc?”

“Two ways, I'm hoping. First, I've got a case down here,” I said. “Damnedest thing I ever saw. We found . . . I can't say a body, because all that's left is some bones. A young man. Twenty, plus or minus. Race unknown. Chained to a tree in the woods to die.”

“Cause of death—starvation?”

“No, bizarrely. There were empty food cans all around, so he was kept alive—until he wasn't. I think he was killed by a bear.”

I heard a low whistle at the other end of the line. “Well, that's a new one even for me, Doc.” There was a pause. “Could it be a kidnapping gone wrong? Chained up while they were waiting for the ransom, but the ransom never came—or it came, but they left him there anyhow?”

“Could be, I reckon, but we don't know of any kidnappings.”

“Anything found at the scene that indicates some other motive?”

“Not a thing.”

“Hmm. Well, it's not much to go on, but just off the top of my head? Two possibilities. One, the victim could have been mentally ill.”

This hadn't occurred to me. “Interesting. Like, the hillbilly version of locking crazy cousin Vern in the attic?”

“Maybe. But I think that's less likely than the other possibility.”

“Which is . . . ?”

“Revenge. The victim was being punished for some wrong—real or perceived—that he'd done to the perpetrator. That's a very personal crime. A very big power differential. Chained to a tree, totally dependent on his captor for food and water. Punishment plus degradation. It's ‘I'll show you' and ‘How does it feel?' and ‘You messed with the wrong damn guy' all in one, right? See what I'm saying?”

“I do,” I said. “I'll pass that along to the sheriff and the TBI agent.”

“Have they asked for the Bureau's assistance?”

“No,” I admitted. “I'll suggest it, if you think I should.”

“You might wait and see if anything similar occurs,” he said. “If it's a case of personal revenge, you're probably not looking for a serial killer. But if another case like it shows up, this could be the start of something bad.”

“We do have a lot of trees here in Tennessee,” I said. “And a lot of bears. Anything similar happens, we'll holler for help. But what you've just told me is really useful. Now I've got an angle or two we can work, and I didn't have to jump through any bureaucratic hoops to get 'em. One advantage of getting old is that you know a lot of people you can call up and ask for favors.”

He laughed. “Well, ask anytime. Which reminds me. You said you had two favors to ask. What's the second?”

I told him, and he didn't hesitate. “I might be able to help you out,” he said. “No promises, but I'll do what I can.”

I thanked him and hung up, then hurried to my truck. Trash detail beckoned; the crime-scene sewer awaited. And suddenly I couldn't wait to dive in.

lab's stone counter, lumpy and ominous, stuffed with the detritus of human cruelty and depravity. I approached it warily, donning nitrile gloves and a paper surgical mask to protect myself, not just from bacteria or stinking scraps, but from subtler, more sinister contaminations—spiritual toxins and contagions, if such things existed—waiting to escape the bag we'd brought with us from the death scene.

The bag rustled, its contents shifting and clinking and rattling, when I lifted it and carried it across the room, placing it on a stainless steel counter beneath the largest of the lab's exhaust hoods. I touched the switch and the fan whirred and whooshed, smooth and powerful. The hairs on my arm moved and tickled in the rush of air, and the ruff of loose black plastic above the bag's twist tie twitched, as if something in the bag were alive and trying to get out. The hairs on my neck suddenly prickled, too—stirred not by the fan's updraft, I suspected, but by some psychic currents of superstition or premonition.
Get a grip, Brockton
, I ordered myself.

And so I did. Gripping the bag's tightly cinched neck, I untwisted the plastic-coated twist tie and laid it aside, then slowly lifted the bottom of the bag. Clattering and clanking, the contents tumbled out: Tin cans. Plastic bottles and jugs. Bags and wrappers and pouches of paper, foil, cellophane.

Where to begin? Did it even matter, my arbitrary starting point, since I'd be sifting and sorting and scrutinizing the whole mess? “Eeny . . . meeny . . . miny . . .
,” I said, my gloved index finger tapping a flattened milk jug at “moe.” Starting with the milk jugs made good sense, I realized. For one thing, they were the largest items, so examining them first would shrink the trash heap the fastest, creating at least the
illusion of rapid progress, as well as freeing up counter space for sorting the smaller items. Best of all, though, the pull dates on the cartons might tell me when the young man's captivity had begun . . . and when his feeding, and his life, had ceased.

“Okay, Moe, tell me your story,” I commanded the first crumpled plastic milk jug. I picked it up by the edges, rather than the handle, on the off chance that the TBI crime lab, to which I would relay everything, might be able to coax a DNA sample or a latent print from the surface. The latter seemed doubtful; the container's textured plastic was the sort of print-defying surface I'd heard forensic technicians curse countless times. Still, it never hurt to try. “You have to try,” I reminded myself, quoting from a Lyle Lovett song. “What would you be if you didn't even try?”

The jug's paper label had peeled off—it was probably curled or wadded up elsewhere in this portable trash midden—but I didn't need a label to identify the brand. A glance at the yellow polyethylene and the circular medallions embossed on the jug's sides told me that the milk had been bottled by Mayfield, an East Tennessee dairy that was headquartered just fifty miles south of Knoxville, in Athens. Mayfield operated a large distribution center in West Knoxville, beside Interstate 40. For decades, the industrial-looking building was elevated from eyesore to quirky landmark by the larger-than-life figure of Maggie, an immense fiberglass Jersey cow. Twelve feet high by twenty feet long, endowed with forty-gallon udders, Maggie stood serenely on a large flatbed trailer alongside I-40. Her location and her wheels made it easy for Mayfield to herd Maggie to county fairs and cornbread festivals . . . and also made it relatively simple for pranksters to borrow Maggie from time to time, during fraternity initiations or other alcohol-fueled rites of passage. Maggie had, alas, been put out
to pasture in recent years, retired to Mayfield's original dairy farm, which was now open to tourists and school groups. I missed her, and I suspected the UT fraternities did, too.

The jug's pull date, printed by a dot-matrix printer around the neck, read “Sell by 10/03/16.” I blinked, stunned—
He couldn't have been alive two weeks ago
, I thought—but then I looked again and saw that I had misread the year: the fading ink read 2013, not 2016. That, too, was puzzling, though, given that it seemed clear—from the lack of leaf litter atop the bones—that the death had occurred only a few months before, perhaps during summer. Removing the jug from beneath the hood, I raised it toward my face, sniffing as I did, ready to thrust it back into the exhaust the moment I caught the stench of sour milk. But I never did, even when the open spout was practically touching my nose.
, I realized: The jug had been rinsed out and used to store water. I set it on a table behind me and reached for another jug.

This one—translucent and colorless, not Mayfield yellow—didn't require the sniff test, as it had flecks of clotted milk clearly visible within the hollow handle. It also had a far more recent pull date: May 29, just five months before. The remaining half-dozen jugs followed the same pattern as the first two: three of them were clean, odorless jugs, stamped with pull dates ranging from six months to three years earlier; the other three stank of sour milk, and bore dates ranging from May 17, the earliest, to June 24, the latest.
Chained in the woods for six weeks
, I calculated.
God in heaven

Next I tackled the cans—a few beer cans, but mostly an assortment of pull-top tins of processed meats, including, I grimaced to see, cheap dog food. The cans, whose contents were supposedly tasty for years, were less informative than the milk jugs, so I gave each one only a quick look before setting
it aside. Next came a series of crumpled wrappers and bags: Slim Jim meat sticks. Lay's Potato Chips. Armour Star Bacon. McDonald's Egg McMuffin—a delicacy consumed by the killer, I suspected, who didn't seem the sort to waste a warm, tasty breakfast sandwich on a victim he sometimes fed dog food. Three Red Man Tobacco foil pouches, whose contents likewise had probably gone into the killer's cheek: chewing tobacco was a luxury item, an indulgence, which almost surely would not have been offered to the captive victim, except, perhaps, in the form of a stream of brown spittle, delivered to the face and followed with an insult.

I set the beer cans, the Egg McMuffin wrapper, and the Red Man pouches to one side. I would package those separately for the TBI lab, in hopes that the killer's mouth had contacted their surfaces and left behind a trace of telltale DNA. A cigarette butt might have done the job also, but apparently our perpetrator preferred saliva to smoke as his nicotine delivery system.

After I'd removed the jugs, the cans, the wrappers, and the bags, very little was left. A foil chewing-gum wrapper. A whiskey bottle. An empty Altoids tin. And, oddly, two sticks of deodorant—or, rather, two empty deodorant dispensers, their labels peeling and tightly curled.
Why on earth . . . ,
I wondered. It seemed inconceivable that the victim had been provided with toiletries to keep him smelling fresh during his ordeal in the woods. But it also made no sense that our tobacco-chewing perpetrator would be attending to his own personal hygiene at the scene of the crime, either. If he
been, why stop with deodorant? Where were the empty toothpaste tubes, the nail clippers, the dental floss?

On a whim—curious about what brand of deodorant might appeal to the sort of person who would chain a young
man in the woods for weeks—I gave the deodorant a tentative sniff. It didn't smell like my own “sport” fragrance, nor like baby powder, nor lavender, nor any other deodorant I'd ever smelled. It smelled pungent, like rancid meat. Involuntarily I made a face, then gave the curled label a tug to remove it from the dispenser. As I held the paper in my upturned palm and smoothed it flat, it gave a sudden flutter, then—caught by the exhaust hood's rising column of air—it fluttered upward and plastered against the mesh screen guarding the fan. “Crap,” I muttered, switching off the fan. As the spinning blades slowed, the label detached from the screen and drifted down, landing faceup on the soiled steel counter.

I read the label—once, twice, three times—and then heard myself whispering, “Son of a bitch. You sick, sick sonofabitch.”

Then I dialed Sheriff O'Conner to tell him we were looking at a case of carefully planned, meticulously executed murder.

“Bear bait,” I told O'Conner when he asked how I knew. “The victim was smeared with bear bait. ‘ConQuest Scent Stick. Smoked Bacon,' the label says.” I had a sudden realization, and I spun around to the table where I'd piled the empty cans and wrappers to confirm that I was remembering correctly. Armour Star, the plastic wrapper still cloudy with grease. “There was actual bacon, too—raw bacon. When I saw the package, it didn't make sense—all those empty cans, all that processed food, but raw bacon? Why would he feed the kid raw bacon? But he wasn't feeding it to him.”

“Lord, Doc, are you saying what I think you're saying?”

“He wasn't feeding it to him,” I repeated. “He was coating him with it. The killer turned that kid into living, breathing bear bait.”


next morning, huddled over the mountain of paperwork that had somehow accumulated on my desk during the hours I'd spent sifting through Beanee Weenee cans and bear-bait sticks.

I was just starting to flip through the annual inventory of Anthropology Department property—a twenty-page list of stuff that, apart from the equipment in the new DNA lab and the Body Farm's processing facility, was worth about fifty bucks—when my door burst open. “You!” exclaimed Miranda, coming toward me at a brisk clip. “You are unbelievable.”

“Come on, Miranda,” I said. “You're still mad at me? I told you how sorry I was.”

She had already made it across the room and around the end of the desk; she kept closing the distance, until she was directly beside me. “You are unbelievably wonderful.” She bent over, threw her arms around my neck, and gave me a quick hug, which—given that she was standing above me—felt more than a little awkward, from where I was sitting.
Mercifully, she turned me loose quickly. “How on earth did you do that?”

“Do what?” I asked. I wasn't just playing coy; I honestly didn't know what she meant.

“The director of the FBI Laboratory—the head honcho, the big cheese—he came
for me. He walked in on my job interview about five minutes after it started.”

“What for?”

Her eyes narrowed with suspicion. “He said he'd heard I was interviewing. Wanted to be sure he had a chance to meet me, since he'd heard ‘such glowing things' about me. He grilled me for twenty minutes, then shook my hand and said he thought they'd be lucky to get me.”

“Well, well,” I said. “Mr. Big Cheese is clearly a smart guy. Does he have a name?”

She rattled it off, then added, “As if you didn't know.”

“Actually, I didn't,” I said honestly. “Never heard of him. Pretty cool, though, that he's heard of you.”

“Are you telling me you didn't call him yesterday morning, after I left in a huff?”

I raised my right hand, my first three fingers nestled together and pointing upward, my pinkie and thumb folded and touching each other. “Scout's honor. How could I call him if I don't even know his name?”

“But you called
at the FBI lab yesterday morning.”

“No, I didn't call someone at the FBI lab,” I said. Then, realizing that Brubaker now worked for an outside consulting firm, I said, “As a matter of fact, I didn't call anyone
in the FBI.” I made a mental note to phone Brubaker again and thank him for his swift, miraculous intervention. It's possible that I wasn't entirely successful at hiding my sense of relief and self-satisfaction at how I'd managed to redeem
myself, because Miranda gave me a look of knowing triumph. She appeared to be formulating her next question—if Miranda had studied law rather than anthropology, she'd have made a damned good prosecutor—so I parried, hoping to derail her cross-examination.

“Hey, did you see Chip Thornton while you were there?”

Miranda flushed. “No, I did not see Chip Thornton while I was there.”

Thornton was an FBI agent specializing in weapons of mass destruction. He'd been sent down from FBI headquarters several years before to work with us on a murder committed with a powerful radiation source, and at the time, I'd noticed some serious sparks crackling between him and Miranda. “Oh well,” I said, all innocence. “Too bad. He's a nice guy. Maybe if you go to work for the Bureau, you'll cross paths with him.”

“The FBI's a big place,” she retorted. “Besides, he's in DC, not Quantico. Not that I'm keeping track of him. But yeah, maybe I will. If I'm lucky enough to get the job.”

“So you're pretty serious about it? You think you'd take it, if they offered it to you?”

“Well, duh,” she said. “I'd be crazy not to, don't you think?” She studied my face. “What?” She sighed. “I hoped you'd be excited for me.”

“I am,” I insisted. “It's a great opportunity. It's just . . . well, you know, we've talked about your staying on here—running the bone lab, running the body donation program. You know, as a real job, a faculty job, not an assistantship.”

“Isn't that a bit like the plantation owner offering to pay his house slave actual wages, after she's been freed by the Emancipation Proclamation?” She smiled to pass it off as a joke, but her words had an edge, and I felt myself flinch as
they cut into me. “I'm sorry, Dr. B. I didn't mean that. I've loved my time here—my course work, my assistantship, the forensic cases. I can't imagine a better way to learn forensic anthropology. But don't you see? If I stay here, I'll always be your assistant. And that's been great, but it's time for me to leave the nest. To be a grown-up. To be the professor or the professional that you've trained me to be.” Her eyes seemed to be pleading now, and I thought I saw moisture welling up in her lower eyelids. “Besides, you can't offer me a tenure-track faculty job. UT won't allow it.”

“That's true,” I admitted. To make sure that the university didn't become too inbred, UT policy required that our doctoral graduates hold faculty positions at other schools for at least five years before we could hire them.

“If you create a job for me,” she persisted, “I can never get tenure here—which means I can never get tenure anywhere. I'd always, only, be the hired help.”

“That's not necessarily true,” I protested. But it was a weak protest, and we both knew it. Academics are notoriously snobby. If you start out in the ivory tower's minor leagues—the leagues that don't dangle the possibility of tenure after seven grueling years of teaching, research, and service—your chances of ever playing in the tenured league are slim. Skeletally slim, in fact. “I know, it's a gamble. But if anybody can do it—if anybody can make the jump from nontenured to tenured—it's you, Miranda.”

“I appreciate your faith in me, boss,” she said. “But it's not the way things work.”

“Just don't rule out staying here,” I said. “Not yet.”

Our discussion was interrupted by a knock. A nanosecond after the knock, Peggy appeared in the open door looking astonished and amused.

“Excuse me, Dr. Brockton,” she said, “but there's a sheriff's deputy from Cooke County here to see you. A
very large

I grinned. “Waylon,” I called through the doorway. “This is a nice surprise. Come on in.”

He loomed into view, his immense bulk dwarfing Peggy. She backed out of the doorway to let him enter, but the space between her desk and the front wall wasn't designed to allow two people to pass—not, at least, if one of them was Waylon. Miranda and I watched as Peggy flattened herself against the wall and Waylon squeezed past, mumbling a red-faced “'scuse me, sorry ma'am,” as his broad back rubbed across her chest, her eyes widening in . . . discomfort? dismay? delight? I shot a quick glance at Miranda, who met my gaze. Then, in unspoken agreement, we quickly looked away from each other, lest we both burst into guffaws.

I reached out and gave him a handshake. “Waylon, what brings you all the way to UT?”

“Wellsir, you asked me about going back up yonder to the scene with a metal detector,” he said, “so I did. Got lucky, too.” He began fishing a pair of large fingers into his shirt pocket.

I felt a rush of excitement. “A bullet? Did you find a bullet?” But even as I said it, I doubted it. I had taken the bones to the hospital's radiology department for x-rays the prior afternoon, after I finished cleaning them, and the films hadn't shown any traces of lead.

“Nah, it ain't no bullet,” Waylon said. “But it's kindly interestin' all the same.” He held out his hand to reveal a clear plastic sleeve that contained a silver coin, its rim ridged all the way around. In Waylon's palm, it appeared tiny—a dime,
I thought at first, but then I realized it was much larger. “It's a ol' half-dollar,” he said. “Almost a hunnerd years old.” He handed it to me.

“I'll be,” I said, examining the back. Indeed, it looked antique. Instead of the Great Seal—the stylized eagle clutching arrows in one set of talons and an olive branch in the other—this one was embossed with an eagle that looked like an Audubon engraving, wild and predatory, its wings half spread and its gaze fierce. The detail remained sharp, and the coin was virtually free of tarnish.

Miranda leaned in to look. “It's in really good shape, to've been layin' out there for all these years,” she said.

Waylon looked puzzled. “Come again?”

“I said it looks great, considering how long it's been out there. Didn't you say the town shut down in the 1930s, when the government bought up all the land?”

“Yes'm, I did say that—'cause it's true—but I don't b'lieve this has been a-layin' out there all this time. Not on account of what it is. Take a closer look.”

Miranda plucked the coin from my palm and held it up, angling it to catch the light. “Memorial to the Courage of the Soldier of the South,” she read. She looked at Waylon. “Huh?” She flipped it over to look at the front. “And who are these guys on horseback?”

“Them's Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson,” he said. “The most famous generals of the Army of the Confederacy. You see that inscription right there above the year, 1925?”

She squinted. “Stone Mountain. What's that about?”

“This here's a special coin that was sold to raise money for that big monument carved in the side of Stone Mountain. Right outside Atlanta.”

“Oh, right,” she said. “I've actually seen it from an airplane. Huge. It's like the Mount Rushmore of the Confederacy, right?”

“Yes'm. I reckon so.”

“But I thought there were
guys carved in that mountainside?”

“That's right.” He nodded approvingly. “Somebody kicked up a fuss, so Jeff Davis, the president of the Confederacy, ended up getting hisself a piece of the rock, too.”

My mind was still processing Waylon's suggestion—his guess that the coin wasn't a relic from the heyday of Wasp, the mountain hamlet that had been abandoned in the 1930s. If the coin was a collector's item, it seemed unlikely that it had belonged to the victim, since he'd been chained to the tree naked—stripped of even his clothes, much less something of value. Could it have belonged to the killer? I took it back from Miranda and studied it closely. It was in near-mint condition, that was true, so clearly it couldn't have been weathering for the past eighty years. As I shifted my grip to the coin's rim, I felt an odd sharpness, like a splinter or sliver, projecting beyond the regular ridges. Looking closer, I saw what appeared to be a bit of silver solder there, with a sharp line suggesting that a piece of it had broken off. “Hmm,” I said. “Waylon, did you notice this piece of solder?”

“I sure did, Doc. That's partly what makes me think it's part of the crime scene. I'm guessing somebody used to wear that around his neck on a chain.”

I nodded. “Maybe the victim pulled it off in a struggle.”

“That's the way I figure it, too,” he agreed.

I glanced at Miranda, whose eyes were darting to and fro, a sign that she was thinking hard. Suddenly her gaze snapped back to me. “Jesus,” she said. “It's a hate crime. Has to be.
Some redneck racist chained a black kid out there to die. God, I

“Hang on,” I said. “We don't know the victim was black.”

“But we don't know that he
, either,” she pointed out. “And aren't you always quoting Occam's razor? ‘The simplest explanation that fits the facts is almost always right'?”

“I might have said that a time or two,” I conceded.

“Or two hundred,” she retorted.

“But we don't
the facts,” I said. “Not enough. Not yet.”

Waylon cleared his throat. “How y'all figure on tellin' was he black or white?”

“Well, it's harder without the skull,” I said. “If the distal ends of the femurs weren't chewed off, we could tell by looking at the angle of Blumensaat's line.”

“'Scuse me, Doc. You done lost me there.”

“Blumensaat's line,” I repeated. “It's a seam, basically, in the bottom of the thigh bone. Where the shaft of the bone joins the condyles, the knuckles of the knee.” I touched my outer thigh, just above my knee, and traced a line angling down and backward. “Nobody knows why, but the angle of that seam—named after the doctor who first studied it—is different in blacks and whites. One of my graduate students was the first to notice and measure that difference. If we had an intact femur—or the skull—we'd have a lot more to go on.”

“Still,” said Miranda, “you're willing to consider the possibility that it's a racial hate crime. Right?”

“At this point,” I said, sighing, “I'm willing to consider

“Good,” she said as she flashed a smile. Was it just my nervous imagination, or was it another look of triumph?

Waylon told us good-bye and began maneuvering his bulk toward the doorway, but then he stopped and turned back toward us. “Oh, hell, I 'bout forgot. I found something else you might want.” He reached down and fished around in the thigh pocket of his cargo pants, then hauled out a large, lumpy plastic bag and laid it on my desk.

“What is it?” I asked.

“That there's some bear scat,” he said. “While I was up there, I figured I might nose around a bit, see if maybe I could find the young feller's skull. Didn't have no luck finding that, but I did find some scat, with a few buttons and some pieces of bone in it.”

“Great—can't wait to sink my teeth into
,” I said, and Waylon and Miranda both laughed.

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