The Skeleton’s Knee (1993)

The Plot

A hermit dies in the hospital of a bullet he received twenty years earlier. At his mountaintop home, a skeleton with a bullet hole and a metal knee is found buried in the yard. On the way to the medical examiner’s office, the hearse comes under machine gun fire. A long-hidden crime is obviously very much on someone’s mind-someone who would love to destroy what little evidence remains. The serial number on the metal knee takes Joe Gunther to Chicago, where he is snubbed by the big city cops, and confronted with some ancient and bloody history. When he returns to Vermont with newly discovered evidence, he’s no longer alone. He’s picked up a shadowy presence as eager as himself to unmask the person who buried the skeleton with the knee.

 

An excerpt from The Skeleton’s Knee

To set the stage: Abraham Fuller has died in the hospital of a bullet wound received twenty years ago. Baffled by what is automatically an ancient homicide case, Joe and his colleagues go the near-hermit’s secluded home on property owned by a man named Conyers, to search for clues. There they find a grave with a skeleton equipped with a shiny metal knee.

“Hello, Lieutenant.”

I turned away from the jumble of people setting up staging and equipment by the roped-off grave site and saw Beverly Hillstrom coming toward me. I had called her right after discovering the skeleton, to ask her advice on how to deal with it. It was now ten a.m. the following morning.

I smiled at her with genuine pleasure and shook her slim, elegant hand. “Doctor. It’s wonderful to see you; I thought one of your regional MEs would be attending. I didn’t know you were coming.”

“I wasn’t going to initially, but then I couldn’t resist it. Besides, once I’d recommended a forensic archeologist, I thought the least I could do was to introduce him personally.”

She turned and gestured to a short, wiry man whose face was as bushy with black hair as his head was gleaming bald. His eyes looked enormous behind thick, dark-framed glasses, and he squinted at me slightly as we exchanged formalities, as if considering what a slice of me would look like under a microscope.

Hillstrom beamed between us, the immaculate hostess. “Dr. Boris Leach-Lieutenant Joe Gunther.” Leach’s eyes shifted away from me after a cursory glance, focusing instead on the activities by the hole. His hand was cold and limp in mine and I dropped it as soon as I could.

“Lieutenant, I take it no one has aggravated the hole any further?” He stepped around me and ducked under the yellow mylar “Police Line” we’d used to surround the site.

Hillstrom patted my arm quickly and smiled, encouraging me to ignore Leach’s arrogant tone of voice. I realized then she wasn’t here purely out of professional curiosity. When I’d called her about the skeleton, she’d warned me that Leach was no Miss Manners; she’d obviously decided upon reflection to run interference between us.

I lifted the barrier for her and we followed in Leach’s wake. “It’s just the way we left it last night, except for what your assistant dropped off a while ago.”

He stood at the edge of the hole, now illuminated by the bright, cool sunlight. The metal knee joint shone like a white spark, nestled in its pit. He looked around suddenly, “Where’s the back hoe? I told Henry to specifically request a back hoe. I can’t be expected to remove four feet of dirt by myself. It’s idiotic… Pointless.”

I held up my hand to interrupt him. “It’s coming, Doctor; it should be here in a few minutes. What about everything else?” That sidetracked him for a while. He left us to examine the pile of equipment his twitchy, birdlike “assistant” Henry had brought in a pickup truck some forty-five minutes earlier.

Watching him, I muttered to Hillstrom, “Too many years digging in the Gobi Desert?”

She smiled like an indulgent mother. “Take the bad with the good, Lieutenant. This man is very good.”

Leach returned from his inventory and fixed me with his fierce, owl-wide eyes. “Who’s the forensics man on your team?”

“J.P. Tyler.” I shouted over to J.P., who was doing his own surreptitious examination of Leach’s assembled hardware.

Rather than waiting for Tyler to join us, Leach marched off and made his own introductions. Both men took hammers and large spikes and set off toward opposite trees near the grave site. Once there, they drove the spikes into the trunks, fastened them to the ends of two reeled measuring tapes, and unrolled the tapes toward the hole, establishing both a double set of fixed surveying points, and an accurate triangulation system. From now on, all maps of the site would feature the two trees, and all items on that map would be measured from them. Indeed, even as I was admiring the simple efficiency of the plan, I saw Leach thrust a drawing pad, a pencil, and a ruler into Tyler’s hands.

At that point, Leach shouted over to Hillstrom. “You can play photographer now, if you want to earn your keep.”

Hillstrom merely chuckled and pulled a camera from the bag hanging off her shoulder. Even considering our friendship, it never would have occurred to me to address her in such a tone.

From that point on, Dr. Leach was like a caricature general in the field, shouting orders to his troops, and doing most of the work himself.

After a quick sketch of the scene as it was, the surface debris of leaves and stray stones was cleared away to reveal the true topography of the land. Shovels were handed out, and slowly, inch by inch, the top layer of soil was removed over about a ten foot by five foot area, revealing at first a uniform mantle of dark, moist, nutrient-rich dirt.

I wandered near Hillstrom at one point in this drawn-out process and asked how deep we were going to go. She shook her head in shocked amusement. “Not to worry. That’s why he was asking for the back hoe. Soil like this is divided into two parts: the upper layer can be about eight inches deep, like it is here, and it tends to be dark and rich. Below it is the lighter colored, generally sandier layer, which usually goes down until you hit ledge or water or whatever. The premise is that if you dig a grave, you’ll punch through the top and burrow into the lower layer, but when you later fill in the hole, the dirt you throw in will be a mixture of both dark and light. So, years later, if you skim the dark top soil off of a larger surrounding area, chances are you’ll discover one spot in the lighter, deeper soil which looks slightly different, because it’s been disturbed. That’s how you know exactly where your grave is.”

“But we know where the grave is,” I persisted, unembarrassed to display my archeological ignorance.

“Yes, but we don’t know its orientation or size. People rarely dig nice big, deep, rectangular holes for their murder victims. They do what they can in a hurry, crunch their victims up as tight as possible, and stuff them in. Boris and I have found them head first, balled up, and cut into pieces. It’s amazing.”

Her explanation was right on the mark. At about one foot down, a barely perceptible darker patch, about three-and-a-half feet round, distinguished itself from its pale surroundings. The hole we’d dug the night before was right at the edge of it.

The back hoe had long since arrived, accompanied but not operated by the high strung Henry, whom Leach put to work laying out wooden stakes and a grid. Once a cut line was established, the machine began digging a wide, deep trench right next to the grave site.

Leach stood next to me as we watched the back hoe at work. “You ever been to a dig before?” he asked suddenly without looking at me.

“No.”

“Well, it’s a pain in the ass to dig straight down. The position’s uncomfortable, the visibility stinks, and the dirt keeps falling back into the hole. Plus, if the body’s still ripe, the stench comes straight up at you. Much easier to put a trench alongside the site, and work at it in comfort, directly in front of you. Then it’s more like emptying a chest of drawers, from the top one down.”

I was about to thank him for this unexpected tidbit when he left as abruptly as he’d come, signaled to the back hoe operator to stop, and jumped over the trench like some bespectacled billy goat, falling to his knees at the point where the light dirt and the mixed dirt met. He used a long knife to cut a cake-sized wedge between them and then signaled to me to join him.

I knelt down by his side and he pointed at the cleavage the wedge had left behind. “Shovel marks left by whoever dug the hole. You can see from the scalloped cut that it was a spade-shaped shovel, about twelve inches wide at the base and slightly curved.”

He looked up suddenly. “Beverly, where the hell are you? You want to take possession of this mess fast, you’ve got to help me out.” Hillstrom, standing nearby, shook her head silently and joined us, focusing her camera on the evidence as Leach laid out a ruler for comparison. In the meantime, I called over to Dennis to check the tool shed for a shovel fitting Leach’s description. As I did so, I noticed State’s Attorney James Dunn quietly joining the crowd at the police barrier, as irresistibly drawn to this death scene as he was to all the ones I’d ever attended during his tenure. I’d realized by now that we’d be here most of the day; it astounded me that Dunn’s specialized curiosity would allow him to abandon the office for so long on such short notice. Hard to keep a man from his personal interests. I gave him a small wave and went back to being a spectator. The trench now complete, Leach set to work in earnest, scraping the side of the dirt wall before him until the faintest change in color indicated he was right at the wall of the narrow, vertical, cylindrical grave. Then, as he’d told me he would, he set to work removing the dirt from the top down. By the time he’d reached the artificial knee, Dennis had returned with a shovel, and we took a brief pause to document that we had indeed found a match for the scars in the dirt. This was no small matter to me privately, for while everyone else was narrowly focused on the task at hand, I was still wondering if the body in the hole had anything at all to do with Abraham Fuller. The shovel was a comforting bridge over that gap. It didn’t prove culpability; it didn’t even point at Fuller, since it was perfectly possible that the shovel was Coyner’s, and that he’d buried Old-Kneecap before Fuller had appeared on the scene. Nevertheless, it was a link, until something better came along.

The artificial knee, it turned out, was the highest point of the body, since both upper and lower leg bones angled downward from where we’d found it. Indeed, as Leach progressively laid bare the skeleton, we could all see that it rested upside down on the nape of its neck, its torso curved and twisted skywards, and its heels tucked in so as not to stick out of the ground.

With that much clear, but with most of the body still encased in dirt, Leach summoned Tyler, Henry, Hillstrom, and me to his side.

“Okay, this is what we’ve got so far. You-” he pointed at Tyler, “Take measurements and make a sketch while I point all this out. Henry, help him out.”

Hillstrom had already begun taking photographs, so he left her alone and focused on me, standing before the half visible skeleton as he might have before a blackboard. “We’re looking at an adult, probably fully grown, whether male or female I don’t know. It’s about six feet in length, which would statistically indicate a male, but that can be misleading-there are a lot of tall women around.

“He or she was dressed at the time of death, in what looks to be a nylon shirt and a pair of blue jeans, but he wasn’t wearing any shoes. If he was wearing a sweater, all traces of it have long since vanished, but I’m pretty sure he was not wearing a coat of any kind. The only buttons here are consistent with the shirt alone.”

I bent forward and put my eyes a few inches away from where the skeleton was held by the dirt like a bug on flypaper. All I could see was skeleton. I didn’t know what the hell he was talking about.

My body language gave me away. With a sigh of impatience, he began pointing out the telltale signs. “Blue jeans, see? The zipper and the copper stress point tabs they use to secure the pocket corners have all left telltale green stains on the bone. The nylon shirt-” he pointed at a small shred of rotted material. “It’s the only material that might survive this long; cotton and wool vanish very quickly. And here, see the plastic buttons? Also, look at the feet; no lace grommets, no leather or rubber sole, no boot nails, no nothing. Therefore: no shoes.”

I was beginning to see what he saw. I pointed to a mass of tiny, confetti-sized fragments that seemed to surround the entire outline of the body. “And that?” “Plastic. He was wrapped in it-or she was; I’m just saying ‘he’ for convenience. Don’t forget that.” He pulled a small trowel from his back pocket and scratched away at his exhibit. “Look, see those round plastic circles, like lifesavers? Those are the reinforced holes running along the top of a shower curtain. You’ll notice they’re all bunched together, as if they were gathered in a knot. And just below them, see that? Rope strands, indicating that the curtain had been tied off above the head, to make it a container for the body.”

He shifted to the feet. “Same thing here, see? No little circles, of course, since this is the bottom of the curtain, but you can see where there are more plastic fragments from where the curtain has been bunched together, and again, here are the rope strands.”

“So he was wrapped in the curtain, which was tied off at both ends with rope, and dragged to the hole.”

“From inside the house,” Leach finished.

“Because of the lack of shoes?”

“Possibly, although it was apparently warm weather-no jacket, remember-so he might have been running around barefoot. But the shower curtain also implies an interior death. If he dies outside, why tear down the curtain from inside? Why not just dig the hole and dump him in? If he dies inside, possibly pouring out a lot of blood, then you’d be more inclined to wrap him in something both handy and waterproof, like a shower curtain.” A slow smile spread across my face, which he seemed to take as an affront, adding, “Of course, all that’s utterly meaningless with a body this old-just a little magic show to entertain the unwashed masses.” He turned to Henry and Tyler. “You finished yet? I’d like to get this over with before next summer. Set up the rocker screens over there and filter the dirt I’ve already removed.”

The next stage of Leach’s “magic show” took on the more traditional appearance of a documentary on digging up dinosaurs. The back hoe was retired, the shovels stacked, and even the hand trowels put away. Now Hillstrom’s cranky little expert was down to dental tools and toothbrushes. The fact that he was toiling over an upside-down corpse with a metal knee instead of bits and pieces of a brontosaurus gradually lost its impact. As the hours went by, most of us lost sight of the overall horror of what had led us here. Like Leach, we became locked onto one minute patch of bone and dirt after another, cataloguing with him the retrieval of each button, belt buckle, scrap of cloth, and wristwatch that gradually was pried from the hard-packed damp earth.

Also, the skeleton itself lost its ghoulish powers as it was slowly dismantled and laid in an open body bag spread out on a stretcher, the soil supporting it having been removed and sifted through the fine-mesh rocker screens that Henry and J.P. steadily shook back and forth. James Dunn, despite his own peculiar enthusiasm, began looking distracted, glancing at his watch more and more frequently, and no doubt ruing his decision not to have sent an assistant in his place.

The care and time finally paid off, however, when Leach quietly gestured to Hillstrom to take a photograph of the area just below the skeleton’s inverted ribcage. Looking over her shoulder as she focused for the shot, I saw the recognizable remains of a small caliber bullet resting in the dirt, where presumably it had settled after the flesh holding it in place had rotted away.

That was all James Dunn needed. With a satisfied grunt, he rose from the rock he’d claimed as his chair for the past several hours, and headed back to his office, the proud owner of another felony. My own emotions were more complicated, since we were the ones who’d have to name the skeleton, as well as the person who’d placed him in his pit. Though not disproved by this latest discovery, any chances that Abraham Fuller had acquired his lethal wound through an accidental shooting had become microscopic.

Beverly Hillstrom stood beside me, watching as Leach carefully removed the ribcage and placed it on the stretcher, leaving only the skull in place. Her voice was very soft. “I feel like apologizing.”

“For what?”

“Ever since I called you about Mr. Fuller, your job seems to be getting increasingly difficult.”

I let out a little sigh. “Looks that way now. Maybe once you get this guy on your examining table in Burlington, things’ll improve.”

She shook her head. “I don’t see how. I might be able to trace the bullet’s trajectory, get a little more precise about his sex, age, and race, but there’s a limit, and that’s about it.”

“What about the knee?”

“Yes-I was thinking about that. A complete data search might yield something, especially if we can locate a serial number. If this fellow’s been in here too long, though, chances are the prosthesis originated in Europe, and that’ll open up a whole new set of problems… and expenses.”

I remained glum and silent.

“There is one thing, though… “ she added tentatively, revealing that terrier-like inability to let go that I so valued in her.

“What?”

“I have a friend-a forensic anthropologist-who might be interested in taking a look. She’s very good, and bones are her specialty.”

“So what’s the catch?”

“Money. If I bring her in, my office has to pay.”

“And you’re as broke as everybody else.”

She didn’t answer at first, but a slow smile crossed her face as she abstractly watched Leach remove the last of the skeleton from its grave, destined for the nearby hearse that would carry it to Burlington. Finally, she turned to me. “Look, let me get back to my office and make a couple of phone calls. There might be a way around this. Will you be available tomorrow?”

“Absolutely,” I answered without hesitation.

She gave my forearm a squeeze and began walking toward the slope leading out of the trench. “We’ll get this fellow to talk one way or the other.”