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A human skeleton. He tried again to slow his breathing, get his mind working properly. Common sense and training told him he couldn’t just leave it there. He’d have to bring it up.

He began threading the guide rope through the hip joint and down around the long bones as best he could in the thick muck. He figured there was still enough gristle on the bones to hold the thing together on its trip to the surface. Snow had never tried to tie a knot with gloved fingers in pitch-black mud before. This was something the Sergeant hadn’t gone into during Basic.

He hadn’t found the heroin. But it was still a stroke of luck: Snow had stumbled onto something important. An unsolved murder, perhaps. Muscle-bound Fernandez would shit a brick when he found out.

Yet, somehow, Snow felt no exhilaration. All he wanted was to get the hell up and out of this mud.

His breath was coming in quick, short pants, and he no longer made any effort to control it. His suit was cold, but he couldn’t stop to inflate it now. The rope slipped and he tried again, holding the skeleton close to him in the ooze to make sure it didn’t slip away. Again and again he thought of the yards of mud above his head, the whirlpool of silt above that, the viscous water through which sunlight never penetrated…

The rope pulled tight at last and he gave a mental whimper of thanks. He’d just make sure it was secure, then give three tugs on the line, signaling he’d found something. And then he’d climb up the line and out of this black horror, onto the boat and onto dry land, and maybe then he’d shower for ninety minutes, get drunk, and think about getting his old job back. Dive boat season was just a month away. He checked the rope, feeling it tight around the corpse’s long bones. His hands moved up, probing for the ribs, the sternum, threading more rope through the bones, ensuring the fit was snug and that the rope would not slip off when they hauled it topside. His fingers continued to travel upward, only to find that the spinal column tapered off into nothing but black muck.

No head. Instinctively Snow jerked his hand away, then realized in a surge of panic that he had let go of the guide rope. He windmilled his arms and bumped against something: the skeleton again. He grabbed at it desperately, almost hugging it with relief. He quickly felt downward for the rope, grasping and feeling along the long bones, trying to remember just where he’d tied it.

The rope wasn’t there. Had it come loose? No, that was impossible. He tried to shove it, to turn it, looking for the rope, and suddenly felt his air hose catch on something. He jerked back, disoriented again, and felt the seal on his mask loosening. Something warm and thick began trickling underneath. He tried to shake loose and felt his mask pulled aside, a surge of mud flooding his eyes, oozing into his nose, sucking across his left ear. With escalating horror he realized that he was tangled in a macabre embrace with a second skeleton. And then came blind, mindless, screaming panic.

On the deck of the police launch, Lieutenant D’Agosta watched with detached interest as the novice diver was hauled to the surface. He was a remarkable sight: thrashing around, bubbling yells partly muffled by mud, streams of the ochre-colored stuff bleeding away from his dry suit and staining the water chocolate. The diver must’ve lost his hold on the rope at some point; he was lucky, very lucky, to have found his way back to the surface. D’Agosta waited patiently while the hysterical diver was brought on board, unsuited, rinsed off, and calmed down. He watched the man vomit over the side—not on deck, D’Agosta noted approvingly. He’d found a skeleton. Two of them, apparently. Not what he’d been sent down for, of course, but not bad, for a virgin dive. He would write the poor guy a commendation. The kid would probably be okay if he hadn’t breathed in any of that shit that clung to his nose and mouth. If he had… well, it was miraculous what they could do with antibiotics these days.

The first skeleton, when it appeared at the churning surface, was still coated with sludge. A sidestroking diver dragged it to the side of D’Agosta’s launch, eased a net around it, and clambered onto the deck. It was hoisted up the side, scraping and dribbling, sliding onto a tarp at D’Agosta’s feet like some grisly catch.

“Jesus, you could have rinsed it off a bit,” D’Agosta said, wincing at the smell of ammonia. Above the surface the skeleton became his jurisdiction, and he fervently wished it could simply go back from whence it came. He could see that where the skull should have been there was nothing.

“Shall I hose it down, sir?” the diver asked, reaching for the pump.

“Hose yourself down first.” The diver looked ridiculous, an unraveled condom plastered to the side of his head, filth dribbling from his legs. Two divers climbed aboard and began gingerly hauling in another rope while a third diver brought up the other skeleton, buoying it with a free hand. When it landed on the deck and those aboard saw that it, too, had no head, an awful silence fell. D’Agosta glanced over at the huge brick of heroin, also recovered and safely sealed in a rubber evidence bag. Suddenly, the brick had grown a lot less interesting.

He drew thoughtfully on his cigar and looked away, scanning the Cloaca. His eyes came to rest on the ancient mouth of the West Side Lateral Drain. A few stalactites dripped from the ceiling, like small teeth. The West Side Lateral was one of the biggest in the city, draining practically the entire Upper West Side. Every time Manhattan got a hard rain, the Lower Hudson Sewage Treatment Plant hit capacity and shunted thousands of gallons of raw sewage out the West Side Lateral. Right into the Cloaca.

He tossed the remains of his cigar over the side. “You guys are gonna have to get wet again,” he said, exhaling loudly. “I want those skulls.”

= 2 =

LOUIE PADELSKY, Assistant Medical Examiner for the City of New York, glanced at the clock, feeling his gut rumble. He was, quite literally, starving. He’d had nothing but SlimCurve shakes for three days, and today was his day for a real lunch. Popeye’s fried chicken. He ran his hand over his ample gut, probing and pinching, thinking that there might be less there. Yup, definitely less there.

He took a gulp from his fifth cup of black coffee and glanced at the ref sheet. Ah—at last, something interesting. Not just another shooting, stabbing, or OD.

The stainless steel doors at the end of the autopsy suite banged open, and the ME nurse, Sheila Rocco, rolled in a brown corpse and laid it out on a gurney. Padelsky glanced at it, looked away, glanced back again. Corpse was the wrong word, he decided. The thing on the gurney was little more than a skeleton, covered with shreds of flesh. Padelsky wrinkled his nose.

Rocco positioned the gurney under the lights and began hooking up the drainage tube.

“Don’t bother,” Padelsky said. The only thing that needed draining around here was his coffee cup. He took a large swallow, tossed it into the wastebasket, checked the corpse’s tag against the ref sheet and initialed it, then pulled on a pair of green latex gloves.

“What have you brought for me now, Sheila?” he asked. “Piltdown Man?”

Rocco frowned and adjusted the lights above the gurney.

“This one must’ve been buried for a couple of centuries, at least. Buried in shit, too, from the smell of it. Perhaps it’s King Shitankhamen himself.”

Rocco pursed her lips and waited while Padelsky roared with laughter. When he was finished, she silently handed him a clipboard.

Padelsky scanned the sheet, lips moving as he read the typed sentences. Suddenly, he straightened up. “Dredged out of Humboldt Kill,” he muttered. “Christ almighty.” He eyed the nearby glove dispenser, considered putting on an extra pair of gloves, decided against it. “Hmm. Decapitated, head still missing… no clothing, but found with a metal belt around its waist.” He glanced over at the cadaver and spied the ID bag hanging from the gurney.