The Bone Collection
I clung to an upright as the Mule bounced and lurched, engine churning, parts rattling like a junker from the Korean War. Though the sky was overcast, it was still warm for October. I blew upward in a vain attempt to unstick hair from my forehead, unwilling to release my death grip on the four-wheel-drive ATV.
However I’d pictured an artist colony, the image definitely involved more numerous and better-maintained roads. This one consisted of dense forest, a cleared seam for power lines, and rough tracks spidering through bushy undergrowth. North Carolina meets Jurassic Park.
But I hadn’t come to commune with nature, or to nurture the creativity of my right brain. I’d come to recover a corpse.
My plan for the day had been a nice run on Charlotte’s Booty Loop, lunch with my friend Anne, and a crawl through the galleries in NoDa, the art district north of Davidson Street. I’d gotten as far as lacing my Nikes when the call came from my boss.
“It’s Saturday,” Anne had protested when I gave her the bad news. “Why can’t it wait?”
“You want to talk details of decomp before lunch?”
“Don’t they have cops for this kind of thing?”
“It’s my case.” As forensic anthropologist for the Mecklenburg County Medical Examiner, I considered unidentifiable human remains my domain. “A fibula, tibia, and two vertebrae were discovered at Mountain Island Lake a few weeks ago. Cops thought it was a missing person named Edith Blankenship.”
“I heard about her on the news. College kid, right?”
“Grad student at UNCC.” I referred to the University of North Carolina–Charlotte, my other employer.
“Amelogenin testing indicated the bones came from a male,” I said.
“I love it when you talk dirty.”
“I still haven’t ID’d the guy.” John Doe was in a box at my lab. Case file: ME422-13. I’d requested a sonar scan of the cove where the bones washed ashore. Perhaps not needed now. Less paperwork. Small consolation.
Anne didn’t congratulate me for my commitment to public service.
“The same guy who found the bones thinks he’s spotted more.”
“And you have to retrieve the rest of Mr. Tibia Fibula.” Theatrical sigh.
“I might have time to meet you after.”
“Be sure to wash your hands.” Anne disconnected.
The Mule jogged left and shot downward through an invisible break in the trees, nearly tossing me headfirst out the open side. The guy at the wheel shouted over his shoulder.
“You good?” Slight accent.
“Dandy,” I managed.
My driver was an art cowboy named Emmett Kahn, his term not mine. He’d greeted me an hour earlier with a smile and a bone-crushing handshake.
I guessed Kahn’s age at somewhere north of sixty. Shaggy black
hair, olive skin, lidded dark eyes, muttonchops the size of prime ribs. A successful art dealer, Kahn owned the three hundred acres through which we were taking Mr. Toad’s wild ride.
“I call the place Carolitaly because the property’s shaped like a boot. We’re heading to The Toe.” The last conveyed in capital letters. “Know much about Mountain Island Lake?”
I shook my head, jaw clamped. By the time we rattled to our goal, I’d need fillings replaced.
“The lake was created in 1929 to support the hydroelectric and steam stations. It’s fed by the Catawba River and is the smallest of the three man-mades in Mecklenburg County.”
“Big.” All I could muster was caveman speak. Land large. Drive bumpy. Tempe rattled.
“That’s why I have a caretaker. Skip handles security.” Kahn tipped his head toward the block of cement riding shotgun. More Thud than Skip, the man was square in every sense of the word. Square shoulders, square back, brush cut that squared the top of his head. Aviator shades hid Skip’s eyes, but I hadn’t a doubt he was scowling.
“Skip’s a cop with Gaston County. Helps to have local grease, you know?”
The Mule leveled, allowing a clear sight line to the eastern horizon. Clouds hung low, dark and bloated with rain.
Smoother ground allowed me to yell, “I thought this was Mecklenburg.”
“County line runs through the middle of the lake. My property spans both sides. My man Skip knew Mecklenburg had a bone lady and suggested I call down there.”
Clever Skip. The CMPD had rolled it to the MCME. My boss had rolled it to me.
“Actually, I work for the medical examiner.”
“You’re a coroner?”
“Forensic anthropologist. I examine bodies too far gone for normal autopsy.”
“Like floaters.” Kahn’s use of the term suggested way too much television.
“Yes. And the skeletal, mummified, decomposed, dismembered, burned, and mutilated.”
“I’ve seen that on TV. You figure out how old the vic is. Man or woman, black or white. How they died, right?”
“You can do that with just four bones?”
“Fragments are tough,” I shouted. “It’s good you found more.”
Something winged from a back tire and ricocheted off a boulder.
“We getting close?”
Kahn either ignored or didn’t hear my question.
“So the more bones, the easier to catch a murderer.”
“If it’s murder.”
I had my doubts. Mr. Tibia Fibula’s cortical surfaces were smooth and bleached. Too smooth and bleached. I suspected they’d been around for decades. My money was on a washed-out grave. North Carolina has relaxed laws on private burial. In the Appalachians, it wasn’t uncommon for Grandpa to end up in the backyard with Rover.
“Were all the bones found at the same location?” I bellowed over the roar of the engine.
“The first four washed up on Arch Beach. Want to detour over there?”
“Another time.” An ominous rumbling juddered from the clouds. “And today’s find?”
“At The Toe, facing the Meck side.”
“The opposite shore of the peninsula,” I clarified.
“When the river flooded last week the lake rose fifteen feet. The whole point was underwater, so the bag could have come from either side. Skip was checking out the damage when he saw it snagged on a tree. One whiff and he called me.”
Bag? Whiff? Apprehension rippled a neural pathway.
“I thought you found bones.”
Kahn beamed over his shoulder. “You insisted we call if we found anything else, so we did. We didn’t touch a thing, so the scene’s not compromised.” Definitely too much crime TV.
Irritation battled uneasiness. Was this a goose chase? A colossal waste of my Saturday?
With a twist of the wheel, Kahn jerked the Mule ninety degrees, bounced down a hill, and stopped just short of the water. When the motor died, the silence was deafening. “Here we are.”
I jumped out and surveyed my surroundings.
We were on a finger of land showing signs of recent submersion. Rippled soil. Scattered pebbles and shells. Mud-coated vegetation.
I looked a question at Skip. He gestured toward the lake.
Branches snagged my hair as I picked my way toward the water. Kahn and Mr. Loquacious waited upslope.
A dead fish lay on the muddy shoreline, guts ballooning like mushrooms from its belly. Surprisingly, few flies were availing themselves of the free lunch. Feeding elsewhere? Spooked by the coming storm?
I scanned the length of a pine tree lying half out of the water. Saw an oversized blue canvas bag ten feet out, its surface crawling with flies.
I turned to question my chatty companion. “You didn’t touch the bag?”
“Nope.” Skip could speak. “Smell was enough.”
“How long since you found it?”
“Two, three hours?”
I pulled on gloves, the neural pathways now pinging fortissimo. Smell? Flies on old bones?
Thankful I’d worn rain boots, I waded into the lake. The men watched without comment.
Footing was awkward. The mucky bottom sucked with every step I took. The water rose, eventually topping the rims and spilling
into the boots, soaking my socks and chilling my feet.
At mid-thigh depth, I reached the bag and a waft of odor.
Hopes of viewing watercolors with Anne vanished instantly.
The flies. The odor. Something didn’t track.
I stared at the bag, debating. Call for help? Drag it ashore, then phone the lab?
Clouds pulsed with electricity on the far side of the lake. The rumbling sounded louder.
Screw protocol. No way I wanted lightning frying my ass.
After shooting pics with my iPhone, I leaned toward the bag and tugged. My balance wasn’t good enough to free the thing.
I stepped closer. Calliphoridae bouncing off my face and hair, I yanked the handles from the branches on which they were snagged. The bag dropped with a smack.
Moving as quickly as my water-filled footwear allowed, I lugged my prize toward shore. Irritated flies trailed in my wake.
Skip helped drag the bag across the mud and up onto the rise. Water oozed from the canvas and poured from a six-inch tear on one side.
Back on terra firma, I took several more shots. Then I pulled the zipper and peeled back the top flap. Disenchanted, the flies set off for the fish. Sushi al fresco.
A skull stared out, orbits round and empty, as though startled by the sudden intrusion of sunlight. Hair covered the cranium and trailed the face like long, dark seaweed.
The body was clothed. Beneath the sodden fabric I could see remnants of ligament, a tag of gray-green tissue here and there.
That wasn’t what froze my breath in my throat.
The legs were tightly flexed, the bones slender tubes running below the muck-covered denim.
No way this was Mr. Tibia Fibula.