Bones of the Lost
I’VE BEEN HELD PRISONER BEFORE. In a basement, a morgue cooler, an underground crypt. It’s always frightening and intense. But this captivity exceeded all others for pure physical pain.
The jurors’ lounge in the Mecklenburg County Courthouse is as good as such facilities get—Wi-Fi, workstations, pool tables, movies, popcorn. I could have applied for a waiver. Didn’t. The judicial system called, I came. Good citizen Brennan. Besides, given my line of work, I knew I’d be excused from actually serving. When I’d planned today’s schedule I’d slotted sixty, ninety minutes max, cooling my heels.
Heels. Follow my leap here. In my business exciting footwear is Gore-Tex hikers that breathe, maybe wellies that don’t land you on your ass. Buying, much less wearing, murderous high heels is about as likely for me as finding Giganotosaurus remains behind Bad Daddy’s Burgers.
My sister Harry had talked me into the three-inch Christian Louboutin pumps. Harry, from Texas, land of big hair and mile-high stilettos. You’ll look professional, she’d said. In charge. Plus they’re marked down 60 percent.
I had to admit, the burnished leather and snazzy stitchwork did look great on my feet. Feel great? Not after three hours of waiting. When the bailiff finally called our group, I near-tottered into the courtroom, then into the jury box when my number was called.
“Please state your full name.” Chelsea Jett, six minutes out of law school, four-hundred-dollar suit, pricey pearl choker, heels that left mine in the dust. A new prosecutor, Jett was cloaking a case of nerves with brusqueness.
“Temperance Daessee Brennan.” Make it easy on both of us. Excuse me pronto.
“Please state your address.”
I did. “That’s at Sharon Hall,” I added, just to be affable. Nineteenth-century manor, red brick, white pillars, magnolias. My unit is the annex to the carriage house. Can’t get more Old South than that. I offered none of that.
“How long have you resided in Charlotte?”
“Since I was eight.”
“Does anyone live at that address with you?”
“My adult daughter has at times, but not now.” The bracelet Katy gave me hung loose on my wrist, a delicate silver band engraved MOM ROCKS.
“Your marital status?”
“Separated.” Complicated. I definitely didn’t add that.
“Are you employed?”
“Please state your employer.”
“State of North Carolina.” Keep it simple.
“What is the educational requirement for that profession?” Stiff.
“I hold a PhD and am certified by the American Board of Forensic Anthropology.”
“So you perform autopsies.”
“You’re thinking of a forensic pathologist. Common mistake.”
I offered a smile. The counselor didn’t.
“Forensic anthropologists work with the dead for whom normal autopsies are impossible—the skeletal, mummified, decomposed, dismembered, burned, or mutilated. We’re consulted on many issues, all of which are answered through analysis of the bones. For example, are the remains in question human or animal?”
“That requires an expert?” Restrained skepticism.
“Some human and animal bones are deceptively similar.” I pictured the mummified sets awaiting me at the MCME. “Fragmentary remains can be especially difficult to assess. Are they from one individual, several, humans, animals, both?” The bundles I was not examining because I was sitting here, feet bloating like corpses in water.
Jett flicked a manicured hand, impatient for me to continue.
“If the remains are human, I look for indicators of age, sex, race, height, illness, deformity, or anomaly—anything that might be of use in establishing ID. I analyze trauma to determine manner of death. I estimate how long the victim has been dead. I consider postmortem body treatment.”
Jett raised one questioning brow.
“Decapitation, dismemberment, burial, submersion—”
“I think that covers it.”
Jett’s gaze dropped to her scribbled questions. A long, long list.
My eyes found my watch, then wandered to the unfortunates still waiting to be grilled. I’d dressed to look respectful, to project the image expected of a representative of the Mecklenburg County Medical Examiner’s Office. Tan linen pantsuit, silk turtleneck. Such was not the case for all my fellow captives. My personal favorite was the young woman in a tight sleeveless turtleneck, jeans, and sandals.
Not haute couture, but I suspected her feet felt better than mine. I tried to wiggle my toes inside the torturous pumps. Failed.
Ms. Jett took a deep breath. Where was she headed? I didn’t wait to find out.
“As forensic anthropologist for the state, I’m under contract to both UNC Charlotte—I teach an upper-level seminar there—and to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Chapel Hill and the Mecklenburg County Medical Examiner here in Charlotte. I also provide expertise to the Laboratoire de sciences judiciaries et de médecine légale in Montreal.” Read: I am busy. I consult to police agencies, the FBI, the military, coroners, and medical examiners. You know the defense attorney will excuse me if you don’t.
“Do I understand correctly? You work regularly in two countries?”
“It’s not as odd as it sounds. In most jurisdictions, forensic anthropologists function as specialty consultants. As I’ve stated, my colleagues
and I are only called in on cases where there’s insufficient flesh for an autopsy, or the remains—”
Jett finger-scanned the endless lineup on her yellow pad.
I stretched—tried to stretch—my unhappy phalanges.
“In the course of your work with the medical examiner’s office, do you come into contact with police officers?”
Finally. Thank you.
“Prosecuting or defense attorneys?”
“Both. And my ex-husband is a lawyer.” Sort of ex.
“Do you personally know anyone involved in this litigation, the defendant, his family, the police investigators, the attorneys, the judge—”
And I was excused.
Ignoring my protesting pedal digits, I hobble-bolted from the courtroom, across the lobby, and out the double glass doors. My Mazda was at the farthest corner of the parking deck. Arriving ten minutes past the eight A.M. hour demanded on the summons, I’d grabbed the first space I could find, halfway to Kansas.
After a fast limp across a traffic lane, I rounded a row of vehicles and found my car closely flanked by a humongous SUV on the driver’s side and even more closely wedged on the passenger side. Sweat glands pumping, I wriggled between the two sets of handles and rearview mirrors, butt and chest skimming the grimy doors and side panels squeezing my torso. My classy tan linen now looked like I’d taken a roll in a landfill.
As I wedged the door open and squeezed behind the wheel, something clinked at my feet. A sensible citizen—that is, a citizen in sensible footwear—would have stopped to identify whatever automotive adornment had been dislodged. I focused on my escape, fingers searching for keys in the zipper pouch of my purse.
Feet aflame, I jammed the keys into the ignition and bent sideways to tug at my right shoe. The thing gripped as though grafted onto my flesh.
I tugged harder.
My foot exploded from its casing. With much twisting and maneuvering, I repeated the process on the left.
Settling against the seatback, I eyeballed a pair of spectacular blisters. Then the hated Louboutins in my hand.
My bare wrist!
A familiar stab of fear pierced my chest.
I pushed it away.
Focus. The bracelet had been in place in the jury lounge, in the jury box.
The clink. The little silver band must have caught on something during my slither along the SUV.
Cursing, I squeezed back out and slammed the car door.
The human brain is a switching station that operates on two levels. As a reflex order fired to my hand, a neural connection was already taking place in my cerebellum. Before the door hit home, I knew I was screwed. Pointlessly, I tried the handle, then checked the position of all four lock buttons.
Cursing even more colorfully, I reached for my purse. Which was lying on the passenger seat.
And the keys? Dangling from the ignition.
I stood a moment, pant cuffs waterfalling over my bare feet, suit streaked with dirt, underarms soggy with sweat. And wondered.
Could this day get any worse?
A muted voice floated from inside the car. Andy Grammer singing “Keep Your Head Up,” announcing an incoming call on my iPhone. I almost laughed. Almost.
I’d told my boss, Tim Larabee, that I’d be at the lab before noon. In the jury lounge, I’d phoned to update my ETA to 1:00 P.M. My watch now said 2:00. Larabee would be wondering about the mummified remains awaiting my evaluation.
Maybe it wasn’t Larabee.
Hell. So now what? There was no one I wanted to tell I was standing shoeless on a parking deck, locked out of my car.
But you gotta keep your head up . . .
I scanned the lot. Full of vehicles. Devoid of people.
Break the car window? With what? Frustrated, I glared at the glass. It countered with an image of an angry woman with really bad hair. Clever.
But it was. My eyes took in the glass that no longer snugged tight to the frame. A worn or missing tooth in the window regulator, Jimmy, my mechanic, had said. Dangerous. Enough gap for some kid to drop a wire and be halfway to Georgia before you realize your car’s been boosted.
Seriously? I’d said. A ten-year-old Mazda?
Parts, he’d said solemnly.
Was a coat hanger too much to ask? I scanned the detritus collected where the deck’s pavement met its back wall. Pebbles, cellophane wrappers, aluminum cans. Nothing likely to get me into the car.
I moved along the wall, gingerly positioning my feet. Though the blisters now looked like patches of ground beef, I soldiered on, cuffs dragging on the filthy concrete.
Mummified bones at the lab growing older by the minute.
Given all the delays, I’d be at the ME office until well into the evening. Then home to a cranky cat. Microwaving whatever was left in the freezer.
But you gotta keep your . . .
Then I spotted a glint in the debris two yards ahead. Hopeful, I inched toward it.
My prize was a two-foot segment of wire, perhaps once part of a jerry-rigged arrangement such as the one I envisioned.
After a fast hobble back to the Mazda, I created a small loop at one end and fed the wire through Jimmy’s gap.
Working two-handed, face flat to the window, I tried to drop the loop over the button. Each time the gizmo seemed well positioned, I pulled up sharply.
I was on my zillionth loop-and-yank when a voice boomed at my back.
“Step away from the vehicle.”
Clutching the wire firmly in one hand, I turned.
A uniformed parking attendant stood three yards from me, feet spread, palms up and pointed my way. His expression was one of nervous excitement.
I smiled what I hoped was a disarming smile. Or at least calming.
The attendant did not smile back.
“Step away from the vehicle.” The guy’s hair was blond, his face flushed a shade of red just a tick down from that of my blisters. I guessed his age at maybe eighteen.
I beamed a “silly me” charmer. “I’ve locked myself out of my car.”
“I’ll need to see ID and registration.”
“My purse is inside. The keys are in the ignition.”
“Step away from the vehicle.”
“If I can manage to catch the lock I can show you—”
“Step away from the vehicle.” Blondie had quite the repertoire.
I did as ordered, still holding on to the wire. Blondie gestured me further back.
Eyes rolling, I increased the distance. Let go. The wire slid inside onto the car seat.
Irritation overcame my resolve to be pleasant.
“Look, it’s my car. I’ve just left jury duty. My registration and license are inside. I need to get to work. At the medical examiner’s office.”
If I hoped the last reference would do it, I was wrong. Blondie’s expression said dirty barefoot woman with burglary tool. Dangerous?
“Call the ME office,” I snapped.
A beat. Then, “Wait here.”
Like I was a flight risk with no shoes and no wheels.
Blondie hurried off.
I leaned against the Mazda, fuming, shifting from damaged foot to damaged foot, alternating between checking my watch and scanning the pavement for my bracelet. I began to pace the parking lot. Finally I heard the sound of an engine.
Seconds later, a white Ford Taurus rolled up the ramp.
Could this day get any worse?
It just had.