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Chapter 5


Ryan and I had rarely crossed paths since our first breakfast. I'd been up and gone each day before seven, returning to High Ridge House long after dark to shower and collapse into bed. We'd exchanged only “Good morning” or “Have a good one,” and we'd yet to discuss his time undercover or his role in the crash investigation. Because a Quebec law officer had been on the plane, the Canadian government had asked that Ryan be involved. All I knew was that the request had been granted.

Blocking thoughts of Ryan and coyotes, I emptied the body bag onto my table. In recent days I'd processed dozens of severed limbs and appendages, and the foot no longer seemed macabre. In fact, the frequency of lower leg and ankle trauma was so high it had been discussed at that morning's meeting. The pathologists and anthropologists agreed that the injury pattern was disturbing.

There is little one can say from eyeballing a foot. This one had thickened yellow nails, a large bunion, and lateral displacement of the big toe, indicating an older adult. The size suggested female gender. Though the skin was the color of toast, I knew this meant nothing since even short-term exposure can bleach or darken flesh.

I popped the X rays onto a light box. Unlike many of the films I'd viewed, these revealed no foreign objects embedded in the foot. I noted that on a form in the disaster victim packet.

The cortical bone was thin, and I could see remodeling at many of the phalangeal joints.

O.K. The lady was old. Arthritis and bone loss fit with the bunion.

Then I got my first surprise. The X ray showed tiny white clouds floating among the toe bones, and scooped-out lesions at the margins of the first and second metatarso-phalangeal joints. I recognized the symptoms immediately.

Gout results from inadequate uric acid metabolism, leading to the deposition of urate crystals, particularly in the hands and feet. Nodules form adjacent to joints, and, in chronic cases, the underlying bone is eroded. The condition is not life-threatening, but those affected experience intermittent periods of pain and swelling. Gout is relatively common, with 90 percent of all cases occurring in men.

So why was I seeing it in a female?

I returned to the table, picked up a scalpel, and got my second surprise.

Though refrigeration can cause drying and shrinkage, the foot looked different from the remains I'd been seeing. Even in the charred bodies and body parts I'd examined, the deep tissue remained firm and red. But the flesh inside the foot was soupy and discolored, as though something had accelerated its rate of decomposition. I made a note, planning to seek other opinions.

Using my scalpel, I teased back muscle and tendon until I could position my calipers directly against the largest bone, the calcaneus. I measured its length and breadth, then the length of a metatarsal, and jotted the figures onto a form in the disaster victim packet, and onto a page in a spiral pad.

Stripping off my gloves, I washed, then took the tablet to my laptop in the staff lounge. I called up a program called Fordisc 2.0, entered the data, and asked for a discriminant function analysis using the two calcaneal measurements.

The foot classified as that of a black male, though the typicality and posterior probabilities indicated the results were meaningless. I tried a male–female comparison, independent of ancestry, and the program again placed the foot in the male range.

O.K. Jockey shorts fit with gout. Maybe the guy was small. Atypical size could explain the weakness of the racial classification.

Returning for the packet, I crossed to the identification section, where a dozen computers sat on tables, and bundled wires snaked across the floor. A records specialist worked at each terminal, entering data obtained from the family assistance center and information provided by the forensic specialists, including fingerprint, X ray, anthropology, pathology, and dental details.

I spotted a familiar figure, half-moon glasses on the end of her nose, upper teeth nibbling her lower lip. Primrose Hobbs had been an ER nurse for over thirty years when she switched from defibrillators to data sets and moved to the medical records department at Presbyterian Hospital in Charlotte. But she hadn't severed herself completely from the world of traumatic injury. When I joined DMORT, Primrose was already a seasoned member of the Region Four team. Past sixty, she was patient, efficient, and shocked by absolutely nothing.

“Can we run one?” I asked, dragging a folding chair next to hers.

“Hang on, baby.” Primrose continued to type, her face illuminated by the screen's glow. Then she closed a folder and turned to me.

“What have you got?”

“A left foot. Definitely old. Probably male. Possibly black.”

“Let's see who needs a foot.”

DMORT relies on a software package called VIP, which tracks the progress of remains, stores all data, and facilitates the comparison of antemortem and postmortem information. The program handles more than 750 unique identifiers for each victim, and stores digital records such as photographs and radiographs. For each positive identification, VIP creates a document containing all parameters used.

Primrose worked the keys and a postmortem grid appeared. The first column showed a list of case numbers. She moved sideways through the grid to a column headed “Body Parts Not Recovered” and scrolled down. To date, four bodies had been logged without a left foot. Primrose moved through the grid, highlighting each.

Number 19 was a white male with an estimated age of thirty. Number 38 was a white female, with an estimated age of twenty. Number 41 was an African-American female with an estimated age of twenty-five. Number 52 was a male lower torso, African American, with an estimated age of forty-five.

“It could be fifty-two,” I said.

Primrose scrolled to the height and weight columns. The gentleman tagged as number 52 was estimated to have stood six feet two inches and weighed two hundred and fifty pounds.

“No way,” I corrected myself. “This is not a sumo tootsie.”

Primrose leaned back and removed her glasses. Frizzy gray hairs spiraled out at her forehead and temples, escapees from the bun atop her head.

“This event is more dental than DNA, but I've logged quite a few isolated body parts.” She let the glasses drop onto a chain around her neck. “So far we've had few matches. That will improve as more bodies flow through, but you may have to wait for DNA.”

“I know. I hoped we might get lucky.”

“You're sure it's male?”

I explained the discriminant function analysis.

“So the program takes your unknown and compares it to groups for whom measurements have been recorded.”


“And this foot fell in with the boys.”


“Maybe the computer got it wrong.”

“That's very possible since I'm not sure about the race.”

“That matters?”

“Sure. Some populations are smaller than others. Look at the Mbuti.”

She raised gray eyebrows.

“The pygmies of the Ituri rain forest,” I explained.

“We've got no pygmies here, sugar.”

“No. But there might have been Asians on board. Some Asian populations are smaller than Westerners, so they'd tend to have smaller feet.”

“Not like my dainty size tens.” She lifted a booted foot and laughed.

“What I do feel certain about is the age. This person was over fifty. Quite a bit over, I think.”

“Let's check the passenger list.”

She replaced the glasses, hit keys, and an antemortem grid appeared on the screen. This spread sheet was similar to the postmortem grid except that most of its cells contained information. There were columns for first name, last name, date of birth, blood type, sex, race, weight, height, and myriad other variables. Primrose clicked to the age column and asked the program to sort by that criterion.

Air TransSouth 228 had carried only six passengers over the age of fifty.

“So young for the good Lord to be callin' 'em home.”

“Yeah,” I said, staring at the screen.

We were silent a moment, then Primrose moved the cursor and we both leaned in.

Four males. Two females. All white.

“Let's sort by race.”

The antemortem grid showed sixty-eight whites, ten African Americans, two Hispanics, and two Asians among the passengers. The entire cabin crew and both pilots were white. None of the blacks was over forty. Both Asians were in their early twenties, probably students. Masako Takaguchi had been lucky. She'd died in one piece and was already identified.

“I guess I'd better try another approach. For now you can enter an age estimate of fifty plus. And the victim had gout.”

“My ex has gout. Only human thing about that man.” Another laugh, straight from the belly.

“Mmm. Could I ask one other favor?”

“Sure, baby.”

“Check Jean Bertrand.”

She found the row and moved the cursor to the status column.

To date, Bertrand's body had not been identified.

“I'll be back when I know more on this one,” I said, collecting the packet for number 387.

Returning to the foot, I removed and tagged a small plug of bone. If a reference sample could be found, an old gallstone, a Pap smear, hair or dandruff from a brush or comb, DNA might prove useful in establishing identity. If not, DNA testing could determine gender, or could link the foot to other body parts, and a tattoo or dental crown might send the victim home.

As I sealed the specimen bag and made notes in the file, something bothered me. Was the computer in error? Could I have been right in my initial impression that the foot belonged to a woman? Very possible. It happened all the time. But what about age? I was certain these were the bones of an older person, yet no one on the plane fit that profile. Could some pathology other than gout be skewing my assessment?

And what about the advanced putrefaction?

I cut a second slice of bone from the highest intact point on the tibia, tagged and sealed it. If the foot remained unidentified, I would attempt a more precise age estimate using histological features. But microscopic analysis would have to wait. Slides were being made at the ME facility in Charlotte, and the backlog was monumental.

I rebagged the foot, returned it to the body tracker in charge of the case, and moved on, continuing with a day identical to the previous four. Hour after hour I sorted bodies and body parts, probing their most intimate details. I didn't notice when others came and went, or when daylight dimmed in the windows high above our heads.

I'd lost all track of time when I glanced up to see Ryan rounding a stack of pine caskets at the far end of the fire station. He walked to my table, his face as tense as I'd ever seen it.

“How's it going?” I asked, lowering my mask.

“It'll be a bloody decade before this is sorted out.”

His eyes were dark and shadowed, his face as pale as the flesh that lay between us. I was shocked by the change. Then, realization. While my grief was for strangers, Ryan's pain was personal. He and Bertrand had partnered for almost a decade.

I wanted to say something comforting, but all I could think of was “I'm so sorry about Jean.”

He nodded.

“Are you all right?” I asked gently.

His jaw muscles bulged, relaxed.

I reached across the table, wanting to take his hand, and we both looked at my bloody glove.

“Whoa, Quincy, no gestures of sympathy.”

The comment broke the tension.

“I was afraid you'd pocket the scalpel,” I said, snatching up the implement.

“Tyrell says you're done for the day.”

“But I—”

“It's eight o'clock. You've been here thirteen hours.”

I looked at my watch.

“Meet me back at the temple of love and I'll update you on the investigation.”

My back and neck ached, and my eyelids felt like they'd been lined with sand. I placed both hands on my hips and arched backward.

“Or I could help you”—When I returned to vertical Ryan's eyes locked onto mine and his brows flicked up and down—“relax.”

“I'll be asleep before I hit the pillow.”

“You've got to eat.”

“Jesus, Ryan, what is this concern with my nutrition? You're worse than my mother.”

At that moment I spotted Larke Tyrell waving at me. He pointed to his watch then made a slicing movement across his throat. I nodded and gave him a thumbs-up.

Telling Ryan that I'd take the briefing, and only the briefing, I zipped the remains into their pouch, made notes in the disaster victim packet, and returned everything to the body tracker. Stripping down to my street clothes, I washed and headed out.

Forty minutes later Ryan and I sat with meat loaf sandwiches in the kitchen of High Ridge House. He'd just voiced his third complaint concerning the absence of beer.

“The drunkard and the glutton shall come to poverty,” I replied, pounding on a ketchup bottle.

“Says who?”

“According to Ruby, the Book of Proverbs.”

“I will make it a felony to drink small beer.” The weather had cooled and Ryan was wearing a ski sweater, the cornflower blue a perfect match for his eyes.

“Did Ruby say that?”

“Shakespeare. Henry VI. ”

“Your point being?”

“Like the king, Ruby is being autocratic.”

“Tell me about the investigation.” I took a bite of my sandwich.

“What do you want to know?”

“Have the black boxes been recovered?”

“They're orange. You have ketchup on your chin.”

“Have the flight recorders been found?” I blotted my face, wondering how a man could be so attractive and so annoying at the same time.



“They've been sent to the NTSB lab in Washington, but I've listened to a copy of the cockpit voice recording. Worst twenty-two minutes I've ever spent.”

I waited.

“The FAA has a sterile cockpit rule below ten thousand feet, so for the first eight minutes or so the pilots are all business. After that they're more relaxed, responding to air traffic controllers, chatting about their kids, their lunch, their golf games. Suddenly there's a pop, and everything changes. They're breathing hard and shouting to each other.”

He swallowed.

“In the background you hear beeps then chirps then wails. A member of the recorders group identified each sound as we listened. Autopilot disconnect. Overspeed. Altitude alert. Apparently that meant they'd managed to level off for a while. You hear all this and you picture those guys struggling to save their plane. Shit.”

He swallowed again.

“Then there's this chilling whooping noise. The ground proximity warning. Then a loud crunch. Then nothing.”

Somewhere in the house a door slammed, then water ran through pipes.

“You know how it is when you watch nature films? You've got no doubt that the lion is going to gut that gazelle, but you hang in anyway, then feel awful when it happens. It's like that. You hear these people moving from normalcy into nightmare, knowing they're going to die and there's not a damn thing you can do about it.”

“What about the flight data recorder?”

“That'll take weeks, maybe even months. The fact that the voice recorder worked as long as it did says something about break-up sequence, since power is lost to the recorders once the engines and generator go. But all they're saying now is that input ceased abruptly during a seemingly normal flight. That could indicate a midair disaster.”

“An explosion?”


“Bomb or mechanical failure?”


I gave him a withering look.

“The repair records indicate there were minor problems with the plane over the past two years. Normal parts were reworked, and some sort of switch was replaced twice. But the maintenance records group is saying it looks pretty routine.”

“Any progress on the tipster?”

“The calls were made from a pay phone in Atlanta. Both CNN and the FBI have tapes, and voice analysis is being done.”

Ryan swigged his lemonade, made a face, set it on the table.

“What's the word from the body teams?”

“This is strictly between us, Ryan. Anything official has to come from Tyrell.”

He curled his fingers in a “go on” gesture.

“We're finding penetrations and a lot of lower leg and ankle fractures. That's not typical of ground impact.”

I flashed back to the gouty foot, and again felt puzzled. Ryan must have read my face.

“What now, buttercup?”

“Can I bounce something off you?”


“This is going to sound weird.”

“As opposed to your normally conventional views.”

More withering eye action.

“Remember the foot we rescued from the coyotes?”

He nodded.

“It doesn't match any passenger.”

“What doesn't fit?”

“Mainly age, and I feel pretty confident in my estimate. There was no one that old on the plane. Could someone have boarded without being listed?”

“I can look into it. We used to hitch rides in the military, but I suspect that would be pretty tough on a commercial flight. Airline employees sometimes ride free. It's called deadheading. But they'd be listed on the manifest.”

“You were in the military?”

“Crimean War.”

I ignored that.

“Could someone have given a ticket away? Or sold it?”

“You're required to show a picture ID.”

“What if the ticketed passenger checks in, shows ID, then passes the ticket to someone else?”

“I'll ask.”

I finished my pickle.

“Or could someone have been transporting a biological specimen? This foot looks muckier than the stuff I've been processing.”

He looked at me skeptically. “Muckier?”

“The tissue breakdown seems more advanced.”

“Isn't decay rate affected by the environment?”

“Of course it is.”

I dabbed up ketchup and popped the last of my sandwich into my mouth.

“I think biological specimens have to be reported,” Ryan said.

I recalled times I'd flown with bones, boarding with them as carry-ons. In at least one instance I'd transported tissue sealed in Tupperware so I could study saw marks left by a serial killer. I wasn't convinced.

“Maybe the coyotes got the foot someplace else,” I suggested.

“Such as?”

“An old cemetery.”

“Air TransSouth 228 nosed into a cemetery?”

“Not directly into one.” I remembered my encounter with Simon Midkiff and his worry about his dig, and realized how absurd I must sound. Nevertheless, Ryan's skepticism irked me. “You're the expert on canids. Surely you're aware that they drag things around.”

“Maybe the foot took a jolt in life that makes it look older than its actual age.”

I had to admit that was possible.

“And more decomposed.”


I gathered napkins and utensils and carried our plates to the sink.

“Look, how 'bout we stroll Coyote Canyon tomorrow, see if anyone's pushing up daisies?”

I turned to look at him.


“Anything to ease your troubled mind, cupcake.”

That's not how it went.


@by txiuqw4

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