Read Jordan's Stormy Banks: A Body Farm Novella Online

Authors: Jefferson Bass

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Jordan's Stormy Banks: A Body Farm Novella

BOOK: Jordan's Stormy Banks: A Body Farm Novella
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JEFFERSON BASS

JORDAN’S STORMY BANKS

A BODY FARM NOVELLA

 

Dedication

On Jordan’s stormy banks I stand,

and cast a wishful eye

to Canaan’s fair and happy land,

where my possessions lie.

I am bound for the promised land,

I am bound for the promised land;

oh, who will come and go with me?

I am bound for the promised land.

S
AMUEL
S
TENNETT

To all the brave men and women who have stood, and have marched, and have strived—and who still strive—for justice and equality.

 

Epigraph

“Civilization . . . has spread a veneer over the surface of the soft-shelled animal known as man. It is a very thin veneer; but so wonderfully is man constituted that he squirms on his bit of achievement and believes he is garbed in armor-plate. Yet man today is the same man that drank from his enemy’s skull in the dark German forests, that sacked cities, and stole his women from neighboring clans like any howling aborigine . . . Starve him, let him miss six meals, and see gape through the veneer the hungry maw of the animal beneath. Get between him and the female of his kind upon whom his mating instinct is bent, and see his eyes blaze like an angry cat’s, hear in his throat the scream of wild stallions, and watch his fists clench like an orangutan’s . . . It requires a slightly different stick to scrape [the veneer] off. The raw animals beneath are identical.”

J
ACK
L
ONDON
, “The Somnambulists,” 1906

 

 

Perimortem, Part I

perimortem
(adjective): at or around the time of death

December 24, 1990

THE FLAMES FLARED WITHIN
the darkness, swirling red and orange and oily black, as the cross caught fire on the courthouse lawn. Lit and shadowed by the fiery undulations, as if in a nightmare, I saw angry faces, oiled guns, and the tight, heavy coils of a noose.

But it was no nightmare. I was wide-awake, it was Christmas Eve, and it was not entirely clear to me who would be found swaying from the noose by the light of Christmas morning: the black man huddled inside the Morgan County jail, or the meddlesome scientist standing on the building’s steps, his back—
my
back—pressed tight against the wooden door.

How had it come to this? Was I wrong about the century I inhabited? Had I somehow been transported back in time a hundred years, from 1990 to 1890? How had matters come to this—for the man behind bars, and especially for me? Had I spoken out of turn, or rushed in where angels fear to tread? Maybe I should have stayed in Kansas instead of taking the job in Tennessee.

Or maybe it was all just because of the memo. That damned memo . . .

 

1

Antemortem

antemortem
(adjective): occurring before the time of death

July 4, 1990

I STARED AT THE
stinky, sodden mess on the stainless-steel gurney, my eyes watering and my brain reeling. “What am I supposed to do with this?” I asked the man who’d just delivered the mess, which was a corpse he’d pulled from the back of a hearse and wheeled into the basement of Neyland Stadium. Above our heads reared the stadium itself, the University of Tennessee’s massive shrine to college football. Around us—in the dingy basement room I’d grandly named the Osteology Laboratory—clustered a few government-surplus lab tables and a few thousand boxes of Indian bones, so recently arrived and unloaded that they’d not even been shelved yet.

The hearse driver, who worked for a funeral home in Crossville, seventy miles west of Knoxville, shrugged. He pulled a piece of paper from his shirt pocket, unfolded it, and glanced at the wording. “I guess you’re supposed to do whatever the Chief M.E. says you’ll do,” he said. He handed the page to me. “Welcome to Tennessee,” he said, then spun on his heel and scuttled away in the hearse before I could stop him.

I read the memo with a mixture of puzzlement and rising alarm.

Date: July 1, 1990

To: Tennessee Medical Examiners

From: Dr. Gerald Francis, M.D., Chief Medical Examiner

Subject: Dr. Bill Brockton, State Forensic Anthropologist

I am pleased to announce that I have appointed Dr. Bill Brockton to the newly created position of Tennessee State Forensic Anthropologist, effective immediately.

Dr. Brockton has just been hired as chairman of the Anthropology Department at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. He comes to UT after ten years on the faculty at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, as well as ten summers of field work in South Dakota, where he and his students excavated thousands of eighteenth and nineteenth century Arikara Indian skeletons. Dr. Brockton received his Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania; his mentor, Dr. Wilton Krogman, was one of the nation’s foremost physical anthropologists, sometimes called “the Sherlock Holmes of bones.”

As State Forensic Anthropologist, Dr. Brockton is available to examine any unidentified remains found in your county, as well as identified corpses that have, or might have, skeletal trauma. I am confident that Dr. Brockton will be a strong and valuable addition to our staff, and I trust that you will all extend him a warm Tennessee welcome.

Cc: Tennessee District Attorneys General

Tennessee Sheriffs

Dr. Bill Brockton, Ph.D.

I reread the memo. Three times. “Crap, Gerry,” I muttered, as if Gerry—Chief Medical Examiner Gerald Francis—could hear me, despite the fact that he was 180 miles away, in Nashville. “Why didn’t you run that past me before you sent it out all over the damn state?” Thanks to the memo, every M.E. and D.A. and sheriff, in however-the-hell-many counties my new home state had, had gotten the wrong idea about me.

The appointment itself was no surprise—I’d agreed to take the post—and it wasn’t the memo’s description of my education and experience that had me fretting. When it came to analyzing skeletal remains and skeletal trauma, I felt competent and even confident; I had, after all, studied some ten thousand skeletons over the past dozen years, half of them in the dusty collections of the Smithsonian Institution, half of them in the fine-grained soil of the Great Plains, where I’d found and excavated them just ahead of rising waters, on rivers newly dammed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. “The legions of the dammed,” one of my waggish students had dubbed the five thousand or so Indian skeletons I’d saved from watery graves.

No, what troubled me about the memo was its promise of what I could do—what I
would
do—for the state’s far-flung M.E.’s: “examine any unidentified remains,” as well as “identified corpses that have, or might have, skeletal trauma.”

I’d consulted with law enforcement investigators for years in Kansas, before moving to Tennessee; that consulting work, in fact, was how Gerry Francis knew me—from a case I’d described at a forensic conference a few years before. My collaborations with law enforcement had begun by accident, or, more accurately, by happenstance: One summer early in my teaching career at Kansas, as my students and I were pulling Indian bones from the shoreline, a South Dakota sheriff’s deputy had jounced to a stop at the dig site and asked if I’d be willing to examine a skeleton a rancher had found in a dry wash on his property and tell him whatever I could about it. “A skeleton’s a skeleton,” I’d told the deputy. “Sure, let’s go.”

The skeleton—a robust white male—bore a striking resemblance to many of the male Indian skeletons I’d dug from their compact, circular graves: the skull struck by a heavy blunt object, which had left an oval depression—remarkably similar to that created by a Sioux war club. As it turned out, the dead white man actually
had
been struck by a Sioux war club. The man was a relic poacher, and—in a case of ironic just desserts—he’d been killed by a rival collector in a struggle over the club: a trophy that had emerged from a century of retirement to become once more a lethal weapon.

After I helped the sheriff’s office with that case, one thing had led to another, as things have a way of doing, and by the time I’d left Kansas for Tennessee, I was averaging six or eight forensic cases a year for local police, county sheriffs, and the Kansas Bureau of Investigation.

But those six or eight cases invariably involved dry, weathered bones, not slimy, stinking corpses like the one that had just been delivered to me.
Dumped on me, more like it
, I thought. I could picture the relief—the utter delight—the Cumberland County medical examiner must have felt when he read his boss’s memo and realized that he could wash his hands of this body, literally and figuratively, by sending it to Knoxville. To me.

As I unzipped the body bag and folded back the large, C-shaped flap that formed the bag’s upper surface, I jumped back, startled and repulsed by the sudden sight and sound of thousands of maggots—blowfly larva—swarming and squirming and writhing to escape the light to which I’d suddenly exposed them. Diving for cover, they quickly slithered into the large openings they’d created in the face, neck, and lower abdomen of the body; as I watched their swift migration, my revulsion gave way to scientific fascination. Once they were out of sight, though, my gaze strayed back to the memo.
God, how many more bodies like this am I gonna get?
I wondered silently. Aloud, looking back at the body once more, I repeated, “What am I supposed to do with this?”

I was still without an answer an hour later when the phone rang. I started to ignore it—it was July Fourth, after all—but remembered that I’d given Kathleen, my wife, the bone lab’s number. “I’ll only be a minute,” I’d told her. “Just long enough to sign for some skeletal remains. Call me if you need me to pick up anything on the way home.”

“Hello?”

“Bill?” She sounded surprised to hear my voice, and that in turn surprised me, since I’d given her the number and told her that this was where I’d be.

“Hi, honey,” I said. “What’s up? Need something?”

“I need
you
. We have fifty people showing up for this cookout in twenty minutes. Your new colleagues and my new colleagues and our new neighbors. You said you’d be home half an hour ago to help.”

I checked my watch and felt myself wince. “Oh, crap—I’m sorry. This turned out to be more complicated than I expected. I’m leaving right now.”

As I hung up the phone, my earlier, unresolved question continued to hang in the air, nearly as tangible as the odor from the body on the gurney. Then inspiration came to me. “Ah,” I said to the corpse. “
That’s
what I’ll do with you.”

 

2

IT HAD SEEMED LIKE
a good idea at the time, but in hindsight, perhaps what I’d done with the corpse hadn’t been so inspired after all.

The building that was shoehorned beneath the grandstands of Neyland Stadium—a wedge-shaped warren of grimy rooms named Stadium Hall—had begun its life, decades before, as an athletic dormitory. Now, deemed too dilapidated to house athletes, it housed the Anthropology Department. Stadium Hall’s chief virtues, as best I could tell during my first week on the job, were two: It contained plenty of rooms—hundreds of rooms—to accommodate what I hoped would be a fast-growing population of Anthropology faculty and graduate students. It also contained an abundance of bathrooms and showers, and it was in one of these showers—the one in the stairwell adjoining the basement bone lab—that I’d decided to stash the corpse over the July Fourth holiday, until I could figure out how best to clean and examine the bones of the dead man.

I returned to the stadium to reclaim the remains at 9:00
A.M.
on July fifth. Unfortunately, the building’s janitor had returned at
8:00
A.M
., and by the time I showed up, he was mad as a hornet. The university police officers summoned by the janitor were none too happy, either.

I explained the situation to the police officers briefly, showing them the memo about my appointment as State Forensic Anthropologist, and then phoned the Cumberland County medical examiner, so he could corroborate my story—something he did with evident amusement.
Great,
I thought as the grinning police officers departed.
I’ll never hear the end of this—not from the campus police, and not from the M.E.’s, either.

It had taken only twenty minutes to resolve the police officers’ concerns. Not so those of the janitor, who, rightly or wrongly, considered Stadium Hall his territory, not mine, and who threatened me with a smorgasbord of dire fates if he ever found another rotting corpse in his building. “I don’t mind all them Indian bones you got in them boxes,” he said. “But this-here nastiness ain’t got no place in my building. I want it out of here, and I don’t mean tomorrow.”

“It’ll be gone by the end of the day,” I assured him, wondering how on earth I would manage to keep that promise.

“Y
ou’ve got a
what
in one of the showers in Stadium Hall?” The dean of the College of Arts and Sciences—my new boss, as of four days before—sounded groggy when he answered the phone, and the thought that I’d awakened him during a five-day holiday weekend made me wince.

“A decomposing body,” I repeated. I explained the situation to him. It was the third time in an hour I’d summarized the series of unexpected events, hasty decisions, and unhappy consequences.

“And what, exactly, do you want me to do about this?” He no longer sounded groggy; he sounded wide-awake and more than a little annoyed.

“Here’s the thing,” I said. “I think I need some land to put bodies on. The Cumberland County medical examiner isn’t the only one likely to send me rotting John Does. The way this memo reads, bodies will be coming in from all over the state. It wasn’t a problem out in Kansas—Kansas is twice the size of Tennessee, with only half as many people. So out there, it takes a while for folks to be found, and by that time they’re generally down to nice, dry bone. Here, on the other hand . . .”

He sighed. “I’ll make some calls.” I felt my spirits lift, but they plummeted a moment later when he added, “First thing Monday.”

“Monday? But that’s four days from now,” I squawked. “What am I supposed to do with this guy for the next four days?”

“You’re a bright young man,” he said. “You’ll think of something.”

“Y
ou’ve got a
what
in the back of your truck?” Kathleen stared at me as if I’d lost my mind.

“A decomposing body.” I explained the situation yet again; by now I could have told the story in my sleep.

“Where—
here
? In
our garage
?”

“No, no. Of course not. I’m not
that
dumb.”

“How dumb are you? Did you leave it parked somewhere at UT?”

“Uh, not exactly,” I hedged. She gave me a gimlet-eyed look, waiting me out. “It’s in the driveway. Halfway between the house and the street.”

“Bill
Brockton
,” she groaned. “What am I supposed to do with you?”

“Hey, it could be worse,” I pointed out.

“How, exactly?”

“I could’ve brought him home
before
the cookout.”

She shook her head and heaved a sigh. “Thank heaven for small favors,” she muttered.

T
he dean summoned me to his office at mid-morning Monday. By that time the cab of my truck smelled to high heaven, even though the body bag was back in the cargo bed. I’d driven to campus with the windows down and my head in the wind, like a dog’s.

As I left the stadium for the walk up the hill to the dean’s office, I noticed a thick cloud of flies surrounding the truck; on the camper shell’s window screens, they were packed wing-to-wing, as tightly as planes on an aircraft carrier’s deck.

An hour later, trailing a plume of flies in my wake, I pulled away from the stadium and threaded my way up the Tennessee River, a map open on the seat beside me. Six miles to the east—where the French Broad and the Holston rivers converged to form the Tennessee—the university owned a farm where, for half a century, the College of Agriculture had raised pigs. The pig-farming venture had ended a few years before, and the old sow barn, where countless piglets had been born and nursed, now sat empty and idle. That barn, the dean had informed me in our brief, curt meeting, was the place—the
only
place—where I was to warehouse any corpses I happened to receive from my colleagues in the medical examiner’s system.

“Empty and idle” were accurate descriptors, as far as they went, but they were not comprehensive. A complete description of the sow barn—
my
sow barn—required “crumbling and stinking,” too.
Fair enough
, I realized, considering that I’d be contributing more than a little decay and odor to the property myself.

I backed the truck up to the barn, opened the cargo shell and tailgate, then slid the body bag out. It dropped to the ground with a dull, squishy thud. By the time I dragged it across the wooden threshold and into the dim, foul-smelling interior of the barn, the bag and I were already being buzzed by a new squadron of flies.

“Welcome to Tennessee,” I said to myself.

BOOK: Jordan's Stormy Banks: A Body Farm Novella
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