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My name is Temperance Deassee Brennan. I'm five-five, feisty, and forty-plus. Multidegreed. Overworked. Underpaid.
Slashing lines through that bit of literary inspiration, I penned another opening.
I'm a forensic anthropologist. I know death. Now it stalks me. This is my story.
Merciful God. Jack Webb and Dragnet reincarnate.
I glanced at the clock. Two thirty-five.
Abandoning the incipient autobiography, I began to doodle. Circles inside circles. The clock face. The conference room. The UNCC campus. Charlotte. North Carolina. North America. Earth. The Milky Way.
Around me, my colleagues argued minutiae with all the passion of religious zealots. The current debate concerned wording within a subsection of the departmental self-study. The room was stifling, the topic poke-me-in-the-eye dull. We'd been in session for over two hours, and time was not flying.
I added spiral arms to the outermost of my concentric circles. Began filling spaces with dots. Four hundred billion stars in the galaxy. I wished I could put my chair into hyperdrive to any one of them.
Anthropology is a broad discipline, comprised of linked subspecialties. Physical. Cultural. Archaeological. Linguistic. Our department has the full quartet. Members of each group were feeling a need to have their say.
George Petrella is a linguist who researches myth as a narrative of individual and collective identity. Occasionally he says something I understand.
At the moment, Petrella was objecting to the wording "reducible to" four distinct fields. He was proposing substitution of the phrase "divisible into."
Cheresa Bickham, a Southwestern archaeologist, and Jennifer Roberts, a specialist in cross-cultural belief systems, were holding firm for "reducible to."
Tiring of my galactic pointillism, and not able to reduce or divide my ennui into any matters of interest, I switched to calligraphy.
Temperance. The trait of avoiding excess.
Double order, please. Side of restraint. Hold the ego.
The verbiage flowed on.
At 3:10 a vote was taken. "Divisible into" carried the day.
Evander Doe, department chair for over a decade, was presiding. Though roughly my age, Doe looks like someone out of a Grant Wood painting. Bald. Owlish wire-rims. Pachyderm ears.
Most who know Doe consider him dour. Not me. I've seen the man smile at least two or three times.
Having put "divisible into" behind him, Doe proceeded to the next burning issue. I halted my swirly lettering to listen.
Should the department's mission statement stress historical ties to the humanities and critical theory, or should it emphasize the emerging role of the natural sciences and empirical observation?
My aborted autobiography had been smack on. I would die of boredom before this meeting adjourned.
Sudden mental image. The infamous sensory deprivation experiments of the 1950s. I pictured volunteers wearing opaque goggles and padded hand muffs, lying on cots in white-noise chambers.
I listed their symptoms and compared them to my present state.
Anxiety. Depression. Antisocial behavior. Hallucination.
I crossed out the fourth item. Though stressed and irritable, I wasn't hallucinating. Yet. Not that I'd mind. A vivid vision would have provided diversion.
Don't get me wrong. I've not grown cynical about teaching. I love being a professor. I regret that my interaction with students seems more limited each year.
Why so little classroom time? Back to the subdiscipline thing.
Ever try to see just a doctor? Forget it. Cardiologist. Dermatologist. Endocrinologist. Gastroenterologist. It's a specialized world. My field is no different.
Anthropology: the study of the human organism. Physical anthropology: the study of the biology, variability, and evolution of the human organism. Osteology: the study of the bones of the human organism. Forensic anthropology: the study of the bones of the human organism for legal purposes.
Follow the diverging branches, and there I am. Though my training was in bioarchaeology, and I started my career excavating and analyzing ancient remains, I shifted into forensics years ago. Crossed to the dark side, my grad school buddies still tease. Drawn by fame and fortune. Yeah, right. Well, maybe some notoriety, but certainly no fortune.
Forensic anthropologists work with the recently dead. We're employed by law enforcement agencies, coroners, medical examiners, prosecutors, defense attorneys, the military, human rights groups, and mass-disaster recovery teams. Drawing on our knowledge of biomechanics, genetics, and skeletal anatomy, we address questions of identification, cause of death, postmortem interval, and postmortem alteration of the corpse. We examine the burned, decomposed, mummified, mutilated, dismembered, and skeletal. Often, by the time we see remains, they're too compromised for an autopsy to yield data of value.
As an employee of the state of North Carolina, I'm under contract to both UNC-Charlotte, and to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, which has facilities in Charlotte and Chapel Hill. In addition, I consult for the Laboratoire de sciences judiciaires et de me;decine le;gale in Montreal.
North Carolina and Quebec? Extraordinaire. More on that later.
Because of my cross-border treks and my dual responsibilities within North Carolina, I teach only one course at UNCC, an upper-level seminar in forensic anthropology. This was my biannual semester in the classroom.
And the conference room.
I look forward to the teaching. It's the interminable meetings that I detest. And the faculty politics.
Someone moved that the mission statement be returned to committee for further study. Hands rose, mine among them. As far as I was concerned, the thing could be sent to Zimbabwe for permanent interment.
Doe introduced the next agenda item. Formation of a committee on professional ethics.
Inwardly groaning, I began a list of tasks requiring my attention.
1. Specimens to Alex.
Alex is my lab and teaching assistant. Using my selections, she would set up a bone quiz for the next seminar.
2. Report to LaManche.
Pierre LaManche is a pathologist, and chief of the medico-legal section at the LSJML. The last case I'd done before leaving Montreal the previous week was one of his, an auto-fire victim. According to my analysis, the charred corpse was that of a thirty-something white male.
Unfortunately for LaManche, the presumed driver should have been a fifty-nine-year-old Asian female. Unfortunately for the victim, someone had pumped two slugs into his left parietal. Unfortunately for me, the case was a homicide and would probably require my presence in court.
3. Report to Larabee.
Tim Larabee is the Mecklenburg County medical examiner, and director of the three-pathologist Charlotte facility. His had been the first case I'd done upon returning to North Carolina, a bloated and decomposed lower torso washed up on the shore of the Catawba River. Pelvic structure had indicated the individual was male. Skeletal development had bracketed the age between twelve and fourteen. Healed fractures of the right fourth and fifth metatarsals had suggested the possibility of an ID from antemortem hospital records and X-rays, if such could be found.
4. Phone Larabee.
Arriving on campus today, I'd found a two-word voice mail from the MCME: Call me. I'd been dialing when Petrella came to drag me into the meeting from hell.
When last we'd spoken, Larabee had located no missing person reports that matched the Catawba River vic's profile. Perhaps he'd now found one. I hoped so, for the sake of the family. And the child.
I thought of the conversation Larabee would have with the parents. I've had those talks, delivered those life-shattering pronouncements. It's the worst part of my job. There is no easy way to tell a mother and father that their child is dead. That his legs have been found, but his head remains missing.
5. Sorenstein recommendation.
Rudy Sorenstein was an undergraduate with hopes of continuing his studies at Harvard or Berkeley. No letter from me was going to make that happen. But Rudy tried hard. Worked well with others. I'd give his mediocre GPA the best spin possible.
6. Katy shopping.
Kathleen Brennan Petersons is my daughter, living in Charlotte as of this fall, employed as a researcher in the public defender's office. Having spent the previous six years as an undergraduate at the University of Virginia, Katy was desperately in need of clothes made of fabric other than denim. And of money to buy them. I'd offered to serve as fashion consultant. There's irony. Pete, my estranged husband, was functioning as ways and means.
7. Birdie litter.
Birdie is my cat. He is fussy concerning matters of feline toilette, and expresses his displeasure in ways I try to prevent. Inconveniently, Birdie's preferred litter brand is available only in veterinary offices.
8. Dental checkup.
The notification had been delivered with yesterday's mail.
Sure. I'd get right on that.
9. Dry cleaning.
10. Car inspection.
11. Shower door handle.
I sensed, more than heard, an odd sound in the room. Stillness.
Glancing up, I realized attention was focused on me.
"Sorry." I shifted a hand to cover my tablet. Casually.
"Your preference, Dr. Brennan?"
"Read them back."
Doe listed what I assumed were three hotly contested names.
"Committee on Professional Responsibility and Conduct. Committee on the Evaluation of Ethical Procedures. Committee on Ethical Standards and Practices."
"The latter implies the imposition of rules set by an external body or regulating board." Petrella was doing petulant.
Bickham threw her pen to the tabletop. "No. It does not. It is simp -- "
"The department is creating an ethics committee, right?"
"It's critical that the body's title accurately reflect the philosophical underpinnings -- "
"Yes." Doe's reply to my question cut Petrella off.
"Why not call it the Ethics Committee?"
Ten pairs of eyes froze on my face. Some looked confused. Some surprised. Some offended.
Petrella slumped back in his chair.
Roberts dropped her gaze.
Doe cleared his throat. Before he could speak, a soft knock broke the silence.
The door opened, and a face appeared in the crack. Round. Freckled. Worried. Twenty-two curious eyes swiveled to it.
"Sorry to interrupt." Naomi Gilder was the newest of the departmental secretaries. And the most timid. "I wouldn't, of course, except..."
Naomi's gaze slid to me.
"Dr. Larabee said it was urgent that he speak with Dr. Brennan."
My first impulse was to do an arm-pump Yes! Instead, I raised acquiescent brows and palms. Duty calls. What can one do?
Gathering my papers, I left the room and practically danced across the reception area and down a corridor lined with faculty offices. Every door was closed. Of course they were. The occupants were cloistered in a windowless conference room arguing administrative trivia.
I felt exhilarated. Free!
Entering my office, I punched Larabee's number. My eyes drifted to the window. Four floors down, rivers of students flowed to and from late-afternoon classes. Low, angled rays bronzed the trees and ferns in Van Landingham Glen. When I'd entered the meeting the sun had been straight overhead.
"Larabee." The voice was a little on the high side, with a soft Southern accent.
"Did I drag you from something important?"
"Never mind. Is this regarding the Catawba River floater?"
"Twelve-year-old from Mount Holly name of Anson Tyler. Parents were on a gambling junket in Vegas. Returned day before yesterday, discovered the kid hadn't been home for a week."
"How did they calculate that?"
"Counted the remaining Pop-Tarts."
"You obtained medical records?"
"I want your take, of course, but I'd bet the farm the broken toes on Tyler's X-rays match those on our vic."
I thought of little Anson alone in his house. Watching TV. Making peanut butter sandwiches and toasting Pop-Tarts. Sleeping with the lights on.
The feeling of exhilaration began to fade.
"What morons go off and leave a twelve-year-old child?"
"The Tylers won't be getting nominations for parents of the year."
"They'll be charged with child neglect?"
"Is Anson Tyler the reason you called?" According to Naomi, Larabee had said urgent. Positive ID's didn't usually fall into that category.
"Earlier. But not now. Just got off the horn with the homicide boys. They may have a nasty situation."
Trepidation quashed the last lingering traces of exhilaration.
Copyright © 2008 by Temperance Brennan, L.P.