Выбрать главу

In the center of the light lay a large specimen table. Something brown and knobby lay on it, along with a blue plastic sheet covering some other long, low object. As she stared curiously, Margo realized that the knobby object was a human skeleton, decorated with desiccated strips of sinew and flesh. There was a faint but unmistakable odor of corpse-reek.

The door closed and locked behind her. Lieutenant Vincent D’Agosta, wearing what looked like the same suit she remembered from the Museum Beast murders of eighteen months before, walked back to join the group, nodding briefly at her as he passed. He seemed to have shed a few pounds since she’d last seen him. Margo noticed that his suit matched the dirty brown color of the skeleton.

Margo scanned the row of figures as her eyes adjusted to the dim light. To D’Agosta’s left was a nervous man in a lab coat, a cup of coffee gripped in his pudgy hand. Next came the tall, thin form of the Museum’s new director, Olivia Merriam. Another figure stood farther back in the shadows, too dim for Margo to make out anything but a vague outline.

The Director gave Margo a wan smile. “Thank you for coming, Dr. Green. These gentlemen”—she waved vaguely in D’Agosta’s direction—“have asked for our help.”

There was a silence. Finally, D’Agosta sighed irritably. “We can’t wait for him any longer. He lives way the hell out in Mendham, and didn’t seem too thrilled about coming in when I telephoned last night.” He looked at each person in turn. “You saw the Post this morning, right?”

The Director looked at him with distaste. “No.”

“Let me backtrack a bit, then.” D’Agosta gestured toward the skeleton on the stainless steel table. “Meet Pamela Wisher. Daughter of Anette and the late Horace Wisher. No doubt you’ve seen her picture all over town. She disappeared around 3:00 A.M. on the morning of May 23. She spent the evening at the Whine Cellar, one of those basement clubs off Central Park South. Went to make a phone call and never came back. At least, not until yesterday, when we found her skeleton—minus the skull—in the Humboldt Kill. Apparently it was flushed out of a West Side storm drain, probably during a recent heavy rain.”

Margo looked again at the remains on the table. She had seen countless skeletons before, but none belonging to anyone she’d known, or even heard of. It was difficult to believe that this grisly assemblage of bones had once been the pretty blond woman she had been reading about barely fifteen minutes before.

“And with the remains of Pamela Wisher we also found this.” D’Agosta nodded at the thing lying beneath the blue plastic sheet. “So far, the press knows only that a second skeleton was found—thank God.” He glanced at the figure standing apart in the shadows. “I’ll let Dr. Simon Brambell; Chief Medical Examiner, do the talking.”

As the figure stepped into the light, Margo saw a slender man of about sixty-five. The skin lay tight and smooth across a devious old skull, and a pair of beady black eyes glittered at the assembled company behind ancient horn-rims. His long lean face was as devoid of expression as his head was devoid of hair.

He laid a finger across his upper lip. “If you would all take a few steps forward,” he said in a soft Dublin accent, “you might have a better view.”

There was a sound of reluctant shuffling. Dr. Brambell grasped the end of the blue sheet, paused a moment to look impassively around again, then flipped it off with a deft motion.

Beneath, Margo saw the remains of another headless corpse, as brown and decayed as the first. But as her eyes scanned the remains, she sensed there was something odd. Her breath drew in sharply as she realized what it was: The bizarre thickening of the leg bones, the odd curvatures of several of the major joint structures, was all wrong.

What the hell? she thought.

There came a sudden thump on the door.

“Christ.” D’Agosta moved toward it quickly. “At last.”

The door swung wide to reveal Whitney Cadwalader Frock, the famous evolutionary biologist, now a reluctant guest of Lieutenant D’Agosta. His wheelchair creaked as it approached the specimen table. Without looking at the assembled company, he examined the bony corpses, his eyes coming to rest on the second skeleton. After a few moments, he leaned back, a shock of white hair falling away from his wide pink forehead. He nodded at D’Agosta and the Museum Director. Then he saw Margo, and a look of surprise came over his face, changing quickly to a delighted smile.

Margo smiled and nodded in return. Although Frock had been her primary adviser during her graduate work at the Museum, she had not seen him since his retirement party. He had left the Museum to concentrate on his writing, yet there was still no sign of the promised follow-up volume to his influential work, Fractal Evolution.

The Medical Examiner, who had paid Frock’s entrance only the briefest of glances, now continued. “I invite you,” he said pleasantly, “to examine the ridging of the long bones, the bony spicules and osteophytes along the spine and at the joints. Also the twenty-degree outward rotation of the trochanters. Note that the ribs have a trapezoidal, instead of the normal prismatic, cross section. Finally, I would direct your attention to the thickening of the femurs. On the whole, a rather unbecoming fellow. Of course, these are only some of the more outstanding features. You can no doubt see the rest for yourselves.”

D’Agosta breathed out through his nose. “No doubt.”

Frock cleared his throat. “Naturally, I haven’t had a chance for a thorough examination. But I wonder if you’ve considered the possibility of DISH.”

The ME looked at Frock again, more carefully this time. “A very intelligent guess,” he said. “But quite wrong. Dr. Frock is referring to diffuse idiopathic skeletal hyperostosis, a type of severe degenerative arthritis.” He shook his head dismissively. “Nor is it osteomalacia, though if this wasn’t the twentieth century I’d say it was the most nightmarish case of scurvy ever recorded. We’ve searched the medical databases, and can find nothing that would account for this condition.”

Brambell ran his fingers lightly, almost affectionately, along the spinal column. “There is another curious anomaly shared by both skeletons, which we only noticed last night. Dr. Padelsky, would you please bring the stereozoom?”

The overweight man in the lab coat disappeared into the gloom, then returned, rolling before him a large microscope with an open stage. He positioned it over the neck bones of the deformed skeleton, peered through the eyepieces, made a few adjustments, then stepped back.

Brambell gestured with the palm of his hand. “Dr. Frock?”

Frock rolled forward and, with some difficulty, fit his face to the visor. He remained motionless for what seemed several minutes, leaning over the skeletonized cadaver. At last he rolled his wheelchair back, saying nothing.

“Dr. Green?” the ME said, turning to her. Margo stepped up to the microscope and peered in, aware of being the focus of attention.

At first, she could make nothing of the image. Then she realized that the stereozoom was focused on what appeared to be a cervical vertebra. There were several shallow, regular scores along one edge. Some foreign brownish matter clung to the bone, along with bits of cartilage, strings of muscle tissue, and a greasy bulb of adipocere.

Slowly she straightened up, feeling the old familiar fear return, unwilling to consider what those scores along the bone reminded her of.

The ME raised his eyebrows. “Your opinion, Dr. Green?”