“Let’s have a look,” he said, taking up the bag. Inside was a thin gold belt with an Uffizi buckle, set with a topaz. It had already been run through the lab, he knew, but he still wasn’t allowed to touch it. He noticed the belt had a number on its back plate.
“Expensive,” Padelsky said, nodding toward the belt. “Maybe it’s Piltdown Woman. Or a transvestite.” And he roared again.
Rocco frowned. “May we show the dead a little more respect, Dr. Padelsky?”
“Of course, of course.” He hung the clipboard on a hook and adjusted the microphone that hung above the gurney. “Switch on the tape recorder, will you, Sheila darling?”
As the machine snapped on, his voice suddenly became clipped and professional. “This is Dr. Louis Padelsky. It’s August 2, 12:05 P.M. I am assisted by Sheila Rocco, and we’re commencing examination of”—he glanced at the tag—“Number A-1430. We have here a headless corpse, virtually skeletonized—Sheila, will you straighten it out?—perhaps four feet eight inches in length. Add the missing skull and you probably got someone five foot six, seven. Let’s sex the skeleton. Pelvic rim’s a little wide. Yup, it’s gynecoid; we’ve got a woman here. No lipping of the lumbar vertebrae, so she’s under forty. Hard to say how long she’s been submerged. There is a distinct smell of, er, sewage. The bones are a brownish orange color and look like they’ve been in mud for a long time. On the other hand, there is sufficient connective tissue to hold the corpse together, and there are ragged ends of muscle tissue around the medial and lateral condyles of the femur and more clinging to the sacrum and ischium. Plenty of material for blood typing and DNA analysis. Scissors, please.”
He snipped off a piece of tissue and slipped it into a bag. “Sheila, could you turn the pelvis over on its side? Now, let’s see… the skeleton is still mostly articulated, except of course for the missing skull. Looks like the axis is also missing… six cervical vertebrae remaining… missing the two floating ribs and the entire left foot.”
He continued describing the skeleton. Finally he moved away from the microphone. “Sheila, the rongeur, please.”
Rocco handed him a small instrument, which Padelsky used to separate the humeras from the ulna.
“Periosteum elevator.” He dug into the vertebrae, removing a few samples of connective tissue, cutting away at the bone. Then he pulled a pair of disposable plastic goggles over his head.
She handed him a small nitrogen-driven saw and he switched it on, waiting a moment while the tachometer reached the correct rpm. When the diamond blade touched the bone, a high-pitched whine, like an enraged mosquito, filled the small room. Along with it came the sudden smell of bone dust, sewage, rotten marrow, and death.
Padelsky took sections at various points, which Rocco sealed in bags.
“I want SEM and stereozoom pictures of each microsection,” Padelsky said, stepping away from the gurney and turning off the recorder. Rocco wrote the requests on the Ziploc bags with a large black marker.
A knock sounded at the door. Sheila went to answer, stepped outside for a moment, then poked her head back in.
“They have a tentative ID from the belt, Doctor,” she said. “It’s Pamela Wisher.”
“Pamela Wisher, the society girl?” asked Padelsky, taking off the goggles and backing off a little. “Jeez.”
“And there’s a second skeleton,” she continued. “From the same place.”
Padelsky had moved to a deep metal sink, preparing to remove his gloves and wash up. “A second one?” he asked irritably. “Why the hell didn’t they bring it in with the first? I should have been looking at them side by side.” He glanced at the clock: one-fifteen already. Goddammit, that meant no lunch until at least three. He felt faint with hunger.
The doors banged open and the second skeleton was wheeled under the bright light. Padelsky turned the tape recorder back on and went to pour himself yet another cup of coffee while the nurse did the prep work.
“This one’s headless, too,” Rocco said.
“You’re kidding, right?” Padelsky replied. He walked forward, glanced at the skeleton, then froze, coffee cup to his lips.
“What the—?” He lowered the cup and stared, open-mouthed. Laying the cup aside, he stepped up quickly to the gurney and bent over the skeleton, running the tips of his gloved fingers lightly over one of the ribs.
“Dr. Padelsky?” Rocco asked.
He straightened, went back to the tape recorder, and brusquely switched it off. “Cover it up and get Dr. Brambell. And don’t breathe a word about this”—he nodded at the skeleton—“to anyone.”
She hesitated, looking at the skeleton with a puzzled expression, her eyes gradually widening.
“I mean now, Sheila darling.”
= 3 =
THE PHONE RANG abruptly, shattering the stillness of the small museum office. Margo Green, face mere inches from her computer terminal, sat back guiltily in her chair, a shock of short brown hair falling across her eyes.
The phone rang again, and she moved to answer it, then hesitated. No doubt it was one of the computer jocks in data processing, calling to complain about the enormous amount of CPU time her cladistic regression program was soaking up. She settled back and waited for the phone to stop ringing, the muscles of her back and legs pleasantly sore from the previous night’s workout. Picking up the hand trainer from her desk, she began squeezing it in a routine so familiar it had grown almost instinctive. Another five minutes and her program would be finished. Then they could complain all they wanted.
She knew about the new cost-cutting policy requiring that large batch jobs be submitted for approval. But that would have meant a flurry of e-mail before she could run the program. And she needed the results right away.
At least Columbia, where she’d been an instructor until accepting the assistant curatorship at the New York Museum of Natural History, wasn’t always in the midst of some new round of budget cutting. And the more the Museum got into financial trouble these days, the more it seemed to rely on show instead of substance. Already, Margo had noticed the early buildup for next year’s blockbuster exhibition, 21st Century Plagues.
She glanced up at the screen to check the progress of her regression program, then put down the hand trainer, reached into her bag and drew out the New York Post. The Post and a cup of black Kilimanjaro coffee had become her weekday morning ritual. There was something refreshing about the Post’s truculent attitude, like that of the Fat Boy in The Pickwick Papers. Besides, she knew she’d catch hell from her old friend Bill Smithback if he ever found out she’d missed a single homicide article carrying his byline.
She smoothed the tabloid on her knees, grinning at the headline despite herself. It was vintage Postean, a screaming 96-point banner that covered three-quarters of the front page:
IDENTIFIED AS MISSING DEB
She glanced down at the opening paragraph. Sure enough, it was Smithback’s work. Second front-page article this month, she thought; on the strength of this, Smithback would be strutting and primping, even more impossible to be around than usual.
She quickly skimmed the article. It was quintessential Smithback: sensationalist and macabre, full of loving attention to the gruesome details. In the opening paragraphs, he quickly summarized the facts that were by now well known to all New Yorkers. The “beautiful trust-funder” Pamela Wisher, known for her marathon late-night carousings, had disappeared two months earlier from a basement club on Central Park South. Ever since, her “smiling face with its dazzling teeth, vacant blue eyes, and expensive blond hair” had been plastered at every street corner from 57th to 96th. Margo had often seen the color photocopies of Wisher as she jogged to the Museum from her apartment on West End Avenue.