Speaking in Bones is the new novel by forensic anthropologist and bestselling author Kathy Reichs, and the eighteenth book in the Dr. Temperance Brennan series.
When Tempe is approached by amateur detective Hazel ‘Lucky’ Strike, at first she is inclined to dismiss the woman’s claims that she’s matched a previously unidentified set of remains with a name.
But as the words of a terrified young woman echo round her office from an audio recorder found near where the bones were discovered, something about the story won’t let Tempe go – and as she investigates further Tempe finds herself involved in a case more complicated and horrifying than she could ever have imagined.
We think Kathy Reichs’ work is brilliant – but don’t just take our word for it! Read on for a taster of Speaking In Bones…
Speaking in BonesbyKathy Reichs
The woman’s knuckles bulged pale under skin that was cracked and chapped. Using one knobby finger, she depressed a button on the object in the Ziploc.
The room went still.
I sat motionless, the hairs on my neck lifted like grass in a breeze.
The woman’s eyes stayed hard on mine. They were green flecked with yellow, and made me think of a cat. A cat that could bide, then pounce with deadly accuracy.
I let the silence stretch. Partly to calm my own nerves. Mostly to encourage the woman to explain the purpose of her visit. I had flight reservations in just a few hours. So much to do before heading to the airport. To Montreal and Ryan. I didn’t need this. But I had to know the meaning of the terrible sounds I’d just heard.
The woman remained angled forward in her chair. Tense. Expectant. She was tall, at least six feet, and wore boots, jeans, and a denim shirt with the cuffs rolled up her lower arms. Her hair was dyed the color of the clay at Roland Garros. She’d yanked it into a bun high on her head.
My eyes broke free from the cat-gaze and drifted to the wall at the woman’s back. To a framed certificate declaring Temperance Brennan a diplomate of the American Board of Forensic Anthropology. DABFA. The exam had been a bitch.
I was alone with my visitor in the 120 square feet allocated to the Mecklenburg County Medical Examiner’s consulting forensic anthropologist. I’d left the door open. Not sure why. Usually I close it. Something about the woman made me uneasy.
Familiar workplace sounds drifted in from the corridor. A ringing phone. A cooler door whooshing open then clicking shut. A rubberwheeled gurney rolling toward an autopsy suite.
“I’m sorry.” I was pleased that my voice sounded calm. “The receptionist provided your name but I’ve misplaced my note.”
“Strike. Hazel Strike.”
That caused a little ping in my brain. What?
“Folks call me Lucky.”
I said nothing.
“But I never rely on luck. I work hard at what I do.” Though I guessed Strike’s age at somewhere north of sixty, her voice was still twentysomething strong. The accent suggested she was probably local.
“And what is it you do, Ms. Strike?”
“Mrs. My husband passed six years back.”
“He knew the risk, chose to smoke.” Slight lift of one shoulder.
“You pay the price.”
“What is it you do?” I repeated, wanting to draw Strike back on point.
“Send the dead home.”
“I’m afraid I don’t understand.”
“I match bodies to people gone missing.”
“That is the task of law enforcement in conjunction with coroners and medical examiners,” I said.
“And you pros nail it every time.”
I bit back another priggish response. Strike had a point. Stats I’d read put the number of missing persons in the United States at around 90,000 at any given time, the number of unidentified remains from the past fifty years at more than 40,000. The last count I saw placed the North Carolina UID total at 115.
“How can I help you, Mrs. Strike?”
Strike placed the Ziploc beside a bright yellow case file on my blotter. In it was a gray plastic rectangle, roughly one inch wide, two inches long, and a half inch thick. A metal ring at one end suggested dual functions as a recorder and a key chain. A loop of faded denim suggested the device had once hung from the waistband of a pair of jeans.
“Impressive little gizmo,” Strike said. “Voice activated. Twogigabyte internal flash memory. Sells for less than a hundred bucks.”
The yellow folder called to me. Accusingly. Two months earlier a man had died in his recliner, TV remote clutched in one hand. The previous weekend his mummified corpse had been found by a very unhappy landlord. I needed to wrap this up and get back to my analysis. Then home to packing and the delivery of my cat to the neighbor.
But those voices. My pulse was still struggling to return to normal. I waited.
“The recording lasts almost twenty-three minutes. But the five you heard is plenty to get the drift.” Strike gave a tight shake of her head. Which reangled the bun to an off-center tilt. “Scares the patootie out of you, don’t it?”
“The audio is disturbing.” An understatement.
“Perhaps you should play it for the police.”
“I’m playing it for you, Doc.”
“I believe I heard three voices?” Curiosity was overcoming my reticence to engage. And apprehension.
“That’s my take. Two men and the girl.”
“What was happening?”
“Who was speaking?”
“Only got a theory on one.”
“And that is?”
“Can we back up a bit?”
I brushed my eyes past my watch. Not as discreetly as I thought.
“Unless you’re not ‘tasked’ with sticking names on the dead.”
Strike hooked sarcastic finger quotes around the term I’d used moments earlier.
I leaned back and assumed my listening face.
“What do you know about websleuthing?”
So that was it. I vowed to keep my tone patient, but my answers short.
“Websleuths are amateurs competing online to solve cold cases.” Wannabe forensic scientists and cops. Overzealous viewers of NCIS, Cold Case, CSI, and Bones. I didn’t add that.
Strike’s brows drew together over her nose. They were dark and looked wrong with the pale skin and fake carrot hair. She studied me a very long time before responding.
“Most people die, they get a funeral, a wake, a memorial service. There are eulogies, an obit in the paper. Some get holy cards showing their faces with angels or saints or whatnot. You’re really hot stuff, maybe there’s a school or a bridge named in your honor. That’s what’s supposed to happen. That’s how we deal with death. By recognizing a person’s achievements in life.
“But what happens when someone just disappears? Poof.” Strike curled then exploded her fingers. “A man leaves for work and vanishes? A woman boards a bus and never gets off?”
I started to speak but Strike rolled on.
“And what happens when a body turns up lacking ID? On a roadside, in a pond, bundled in a carpet and stashed in a shed?”
“As I’ve stated, that is the job of police and medical examiners. At this facility we do everything possible to ensure that all human remains are identified, no matter the circumstances or their condition.”
“That might be true here. But you know as well as I do it’s a crapshoot elsewhere. A corpse might luck out, be examined for scars, piercings, tattoos, old trauma, get printed and sampled for DNA. A decomp or a skeleton might end up with an expert like you, have its teeth charted, its sex, age, race, and height entered into a database. Another jurisdiction, similar remains might get a quick once-over then storage in a freezer, maybe a back room or basement. A nameless body might be held a few weeks, maybe a few days, then cremated or buried in a potter’s field.”
“Lost. Murdered. Dumped. Unclaimed. This country’s overflowing with the forgotten dead. And somewhere someone’s wondering about each and every one of those souls.”
“And websleuthing is a way to solve the problem.”
“Darn right.” Strike shoved her sleeves hard up her arms, as though the cuffs had suddenly grown too tight on her flesh.
“Do you? Have you ever visited a websleuthing site?”
“You know what goes on in those forums?”
Recognizing the question as rhetorical, I offered no response.
“UIDs are tagged with cute little nicknames. Princess Doe. The Lady of the Dunes. Tent Girl. Little Miss Panasoffkee. Baby Hope.”
The ping exploded into a full-firing synapse.
“You identified Old Bernie,” I said.
Old Bernie was a partial skeleton found by hikers in 1974 behind a shelter on the Neusiok Trail in the Croatan National Forest. The remains were sent to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, in those days located in Chapel Hill, and were determined to be those of an elderly black male. A New Bern detective assigned to the case had no luck in establishing ID.
For years the skeleton remained in a box in an OCME storeroom. Somewhere along the way it came to be known as Old Bernie, named for New Bern, the town closest to the point of the old man’s discovery.
Articles ran at the time Old Bernie turned up—in Raleigh, Charlotte, New Bern, and surrounding towns. The case was featured again, with the photo of a facial reconstruction, in the New Bern Sun Journal on March 24, 2004, the thirtieth anniversary of the gentleman’s discovery. No one ever came forward to claim the bones.
In 2007, a technician at the OCME mentioned the case to me. I agreed to take a look.
I concurred that the remains were those of an edentulous African American who had died between the ages of sixty-five and eighty. But I took issue with one of my predecessor’s key findings and suggested the victim’s nickname be changed from Bernie to Bernice. The pelvic features were clearly those of a female.
I took samples for possible DNA testing, then Old Bernie went back to her cardboard carton in Chapel Hill. The following year, the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, NamUs, came online. NamUs, a database for unidentified remains, in cop lingo UIDs, and missing persons, in cop lingo MPs, is free and available to everyone. I entered case descriptors into the section for UIDs. Soon amateur websleuths were swarming like flies.
“Yep,” Strike said. “That was me.”
“How did you do it?”
“I scanned a billion pictures on NamUs and other sites listing MPs. Made a lot of calls, asking about old ladies missing their teeth. Came up blank on both fronts. Then I went offline, pulled up stories in local papers, talked to cops in New Bern and Craven County, the park rangers at Croatan, that kind of thing. Nothing.
“On a hunch I started phoning old folks’ homes. Found a facility in Havelock had a patient disappear in 1972. Charity Dillard. The administrator reported Dillard missing, but no one really made much effort. The home is close to a boat ramp, so they figured Dillard fell into the lake and drowned. When Old Bernie turned up two years later, no one paid attention because the skeleton was supposed to be that of a man. End of story.”
“Until you made the link.” I’d heard about the ID through the state ME grapevine.
“Dillard had one living grandson, out in L.A. He provided a swab. Your bone samples yielded DNA. Case closed.”
“Where is Dillard now?”
“Kid popped for a headstone. Even flew east for the burial.”
“It wasn’t right, her gathering dust in a box.” Again the shoulder shrug.
I now knew why Strike was sitting in my office.
“You’ve come about unidentified remains,” I said.
I angled two palms in a “go on” gesture.
“Cora Teague. Eighteen-year-old white female. Disappeared up in Avery County three and a half years back.”
“Was Teague reported missing?”
“What does that mean?”
“No one filed an MP report. I found her on a websleuthing site. The family believes she took off on her own.”
“You’ve spoken to the family?”
“Is that a common part of websleuthing?”
“Something’s happened to this kid and no one’s doing dink.”
“Have you contacted the local authorities?”
“Eighteen makes her adult. She can come and go as she likes. Blah. Blah. Blah.”
Strike jerked a thumb at the Ziploc. “That sound like someone doing as she likes?”
“You think Cora Teague is the girl on that recording?”
Strike gave a slow nod of her head.
“Why bring this to me?”
“I believe you’ve got parts of Teague stashed here.”