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Bones of Betrayal
The colorful tents crowding the clearing where I stood wouldn't have looked out of place at a carnival or Renaissance fair. It would be an interesting irony: a Renaissance fair...a "rebirth" fair...here at the University of Tennessee's Body Farm, the one place in the world that revolves around the study of the dead and how they decay.
The tents...white, red, green, yellow, blue...jostled for space at the Anthropology Research Facility. Decades earlier, an FBI agent had dubbed the UT facility "the Body Farm" after seeing the corpses scattered throughout the three wooded acres. The nickname had stuck, and now it was even inspiring a spin-off nickname: a former UT graduate student was now setting up a similar research facility in San Marcos, Texas. Even before her first research cadaver hit the ground, the Texas facility was being called "the Body Ranch."
Several of the tents huddled together were supported by inflatable frames, the rest by spidery arcs of geometric tubing...Quonset huts, twenty-first-century style. Normally there were no tents here; normally the brightest splash of color, apart from the grass and the leaves on the trees, was a large blue tarp draped over our corrugated-metal equipment shed and its small, fenced-in concrete pad. The tents...whose festive colors belied the barren winter landscape and bitter cold of the day...had been erected just twenty-four hours earlier, and twenty-four hours from now they would be gone again. Despite the carnival look, the tents were a stage for the acting out of a nightmare scenario, one of the darkest events imaginable: an act of nuclear terrorism.
Anude male body lay faceup on a gurney within the largest of the tents, his puckered skin gone gray and moldy from three weeks in the cooler at the morgue at the University of Tennessee Medical Center, visible just above the Body Farm's wooden fence and barren treeline. Fourteen other bodies...selected and stored over the preceding month...were locked in a semi-tractor-trailer parked just outside the fence. The fifteen bodies were stand-ins for what could be hundreds or thousands or even...God forbid...tens of thousands of victims if nuclear terrorists managed to inflict wholesale death in a U.S. city somewhere, someday.
Five people surrounded the gurney. Their faces and even their genders were masked by goggles, respirators, and baggy biohazard suits whose white Tyvek sleeves and legs were sealed with duct tape to black rubber gloves and boots. One of the white-garbed figures held a boxy beige instrument in one hand, and in the other, a metal wand that was connected to the box. As the wand swept a few inches above the head, then the chest and abdomen, and then each arm, the box emitted occasional clicks. As the wand neared the left knee, though, the clicks became rapid, then merged into a continuous buzz. Having spent my childhood shivering through the Cold War...practicing "duck and cover" during civil defense drills, as if my wooden school desk could shield me from a Soviet hydrogen bomb...I was well acquainted with the urgent clicking of a Geiger counter.
As the wand hovered, the other four people leaned in to inspect the knee. One took photographs; two others began spraying the body with a soapy-looking liquid and scrubbing the skin, paying particular attention to the knee. As they scrubbed, one of them removed a small orange disk, about the size of a quarter, and handed it to the team leader. A tiny, safely encapsulated speck of radioactive strontium...enough to trigger the Geiger counter, but not enough to pose any hazard...simulated contamination on the corpse. Once the scrubbing was complete, the technician with the Geiger counter checked the knee once more. This time the instrument ticked lazily, signaling normal background radiation. At a sign from the team leader, the body was wheeled out of the tent and returned to the trailer that held the other fourteen corpses, which had already undergone similar screening and decontamination procedures.
One by one, the Tyvek-suited figures rinsed off beneath what had to be the world's coldest shower: a spray of soapy water mixed with alcohol, a last-minute addition necessitated by the day's subfreezing temperatures. The team's contamination, like that of the bodies, was simulated, but the goal was to make the training as realistic as possible, despite the added challenges provided by the bitter cold. Only after the shower did the goggles and respirators come off. My red-tressed, freckled graduate assistant, Miranda Lovelady, emerged from one of the white suits, followed shortly by Art Bohanan, the resident fingerprint expert at the Knoxville Police Department. The team leader was Hank Strickland, a health physicist, one who specialized in radiation and radiation safety. Hank worked at a facility in Oak Ridge called REAC/TS...the Radiation Emergency Assistance Center and Training Site...that sent medical response teams to help treat victims of radiation accidents anywhere in the world.But Hank, like Miranda and Art, was here today as a volunteer team member of DMORT, the Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team. Formed in the early 1990s to identify victims of mass disasters such as airliner crashes and hurricanes, DMORT was part of the U.S. Public Health Service, but the teams were staffed by volunteers with specialized, and even macabre, skills: their ranks included funeral directors, morticians, forensic dentists, physicians, forensic anthropologists, police officers, and firefighters...people accustomed to working with bodies and bones. DMORT volunteers, including some of my students, had performed heroic service at Ground Zero after the World Trade Center bombings. They'd also spent two months recovering and identifying bodies after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and the Gulf Coast in 2005.Art himself had spent six weeks in Louisiana after Katrina, lifting fingerprints and palm prints from bloated, rotting corpses. One body was that of a man who'd been trapped in an attic by rising waters. More than a hundred days after the man drowned in the attic...how ironic was that?...Art and a colleague managed to lift a print and ID the man.Bones of Betrayal
. Copyright © by Jefferson Bass. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.