Mortal Remains

Chapter 1

Monday, October 22, 10:00 a.m. Near Hampton Junction in the southern Adirondack Mountains

Mark Roper followed sheriff Dan Evans down, staying so close to the man's flippers that they occasionally brushed his face mask. But he didn't want to get too far behind the tunnel of light from Dan's headlamp, which led them ever deeper into the darkness. Unable to see anything but black outside its range, Mark couldn't tell up, down, or sideways unless he focused on the illuminated streams of algae streaking at them. Like snow against a windshield, they heightened his sense of speed.

The cold penetrated his hood, giving him a doozy of an ice-cream headache; it burrowed through the vulcanized rubber of his dry suit and a double layer of thermal underwear, then through skin, muscle, and bone to settle directly into his marrow. Despite diving gloves, even his fingers threatened to freeze up, but he kept his grip on the safety line, kicking and propelling himself ever lower, moving hand over hand. God, when would they get there? he wondered, repeatedly having to pinch his nose through his mask, then blow to relieve the painful pressure in his ears.

He'd been down this deep before, but in the warm blue ocean off Hawaii. Here he might as well have been swimming in ink. Though the water was clear, the mountain lake, nestled in a steep gorge, was so narrow and deep that it swallowed most of the sunshine from the surface. Other dives they'd made in the district were shallow, but with this one claustrophobia pressed in with smothering force. He couldn't let himself get far from Dan, who carried the big handheld spotlight. If he ended up alone, his own headlamp would be too feeble at this depth, and Mark wasn't at all sure that he'd be able to hold panic at bay. A dangerous situation, because down here cold and disorientation were killers. Already he was breathing too hard, the sound rushing loudly through his ears, and he made a conscious effort to slow it down.

A white cord trailed out in front of them to nothingness. If it hadn't been there, the end abruptly marking where the bottom lay, they might have hit the thick layer of silt and muck that covered the lake's floor and thrown up such a cloud of debris they'd be in a virtual blackout that not even a lamp could penetrate. As it was, their arrival kicked up plumes of dirt that hung suspended around them like giant gray fronds.

Dan looked at the dive computer on his sleeve. Mark did the same, barely able to read the screen. According to the numbers-measurements of the cold, the pressure, the depth, the altitude of the lake-the calculation told him they could only stay about fifteen minutes before having to head back. Their ascent would be no faster than a half foot per second, and they would have to make a three-minute safety stop fifteen feet from the surface to allow the release of excess nitrogen from their bloodstreams. The clinical consequences if he got it wrong-multiple emboli, pneumothoraces, mediastinal emphysema, subcutaneous emphysema, all of them air bubbles where they shouldn't be-were nasty enough that he'd die screaming. As county coroner, in the last four years Mark had seen three dive victims with just such injuries, and he sure as hell was going to be careful.

With so little time, he wanted to get going. But the silt remained-in fact, seemed to grow worse-making it impossible to see at all, cutting him off from Dan. Waiting for it to settle felt like an eternity, and he began to doubt his senses, unable to make out even his own bubbles or tell if the rope in his hand led to the surface or the bottom.

Stop! Think! Act! he said to himself. It was the diver's credo to stay out of trouble. He breathed deeply, slowly, to gain control. Then he adjusted the pressure in his suit with a small squirt of compressed air to maintain neutral buoyancy.

Dan came into view, floating just below. Mark suspected that he, too, was trying to conquer a sense of panic and probably regretting the day they'd flown off to Hawaii together for the week of scuba training that would qualify them for these forensic dives. But Mark had pushed the idea so they'd no longer have to wait around for an outside team every time someone drowned.

Finally, the particles in the water cleared.

The area around them hadn't so much as a strand of seaweed on it. But it wouldn't be easy to spot what they were after, he decided, surveying the little he could see of the barren landscape. The hooks from the search-and-rescue boat must have snagged their catch deep within this soft mush because anything of any weight would have buried itself under its surface.

Unless the pulling had rooted up the rest of the remains before the limb tore off, he knew they'd never find them.

Dan slowly turned and swept the surrounding area with the probe of his lamp. It barely penetrated ten feet before the thick, absolute darkness sucked it up.

Hopeless, Mark thought.

Indeed, after a complete rotation, they had seen nothing.

Mark took a reading from his compass. The draggers had told him the target should lie approximately north to northeast from the anchor line. He oriented himself so that what they were looking for should be in front of him, if the men above had been right in their guesstimates. He handed Dan his headlamp, took the powerful handheld light, and started forward.

He'd gone only twenty feet when it loomed up before him.

A headless thorax, rib cage included, protruded out of the soft mud, resting at a slight angle. The left humerus and a more or less intact right arm trailed into the black sediment, making it seem as if the skeleton were trying to push itself up out of its grave. The bottom half, the pelvis and legs, remained out of sight. There was no sign of the skull.

Earlier that morning Dan's volunteers had been dragging the lake for the body of a seventy-nine-year-old man with Alzheimer's disease who'd wandered off the previous weekend. Retrieval should have meant a simple transfer to the undertakers in Saratoga Springs, the paperwork to follow. Instead they hauled up the bones of a left forearm barely attached to the remnants of a fingerless hand. They called Dan and Mark, but not before dropping an anchor with a line attached.

Up top Dan had shown Mark the limb as they prepared for the dive. It was pretty well stripped of flesh, but enough cartilage and connective tissue held it together that one of the grapple prongs had caught the space between the ulna and radius, the long bones running from the elbow to the wrist.

To Mark's amazement, the bones' owner appeared equally intact. Except down here the strands of remaining tissue waved in the water like tattered clothing. Using the beam, he signaled Dan to swim over.

Everything had been colored brownish green by a heavy overgrowth of algae. That the flesh and organs were otherwise mostly gone certainly meant many years had passed since this person went in the water. That some of the bones were still connected at all, he thought, had to be from the preservative effects of cold and mud on gristle. Certainly the absence of a head was no surprise. The bony portion that joined a skull atop a spine was a small peg no bigger than the end phalanx of the little finger. In life it took a neckful of muscle, sinew, and cartilage to hold everything together, more than for any other joint in the body. No amount of cold mud could preserve that much connective tissue and keep everything in one piece. The skull would have detached from the spine and stayed in the sludge at the first yank of the grappling hooks. Better not go rummaging about for it either. There'd be other much smaller bones scattered about in the sediment, such as the fingers. One of them might have a ring on it that would help with identification. They'd have to get a forensic dive team with specially insulated suits to sift through the gunk and, using a modified scopes basket, do a proper retrieval. And they'd have to do it pronto-or wait until next spring to finish. Freeze-up could occur by late October, early November around here, and no one in his right mind would go diving for a skeleton once it meant cutting through ice with a chain saw.

Mark got down to basics.

After returning the lamp to Dan, he took an underwater slate from his belt and made a primitive sketch of the find, indicating its distance from the marker. He then used his favorite tool for gathering underwater evidence, an Olympus camera in a light-and-motion housing with a built-in strobe. The blast of light firing once every second animated the skeleton, making it appear to move and shift position as if it were posing for him while he drifted around taking shots at different angles.

He looked at the spot where the pelvis disappeared into the dirt. He'd better confirm that the lower half was all there, not wanting to miss the outside chance he was dealing with a cut-up body.

He drifted gently over the top of the hipbones and dipped a hand down either side to where the legs should be.

The sand beneath him exploded to life, and a six-foot ribbon of black undulated out of the murk. He screamed into his mouthpiece and jerked backward, crashing into Evans, who'd been floating a foot above him. The shape writhed between his arms and shot into the darkness.

An eel.

Normal in the lakes around here. Even known to wrap around the legs of swimmers at night. But harmless.

Tell my pounding heart that, he thought, peering into the thick silt the creature had stirred up.

He could make out his watch only by holding it up to his faceplate. Less than five minutes left before they'd have to head up. No time to wait for this latest disturbance to clear. But unable to see his nearest surroundings, he'd lost all sense of direction again, and felt a nauseating swirl of vertigo.

Stop! Think! Act! he once more reminded himself, slowing his breathing, then expelling a few bubbles from the side of his mouthpiece. Be- fore they disappeared in the gloom he glimpsed enough of their passage toward the surface to orient himself, and, trying not to think of the eel circling somewhere out there, reached toward the bottom.

Once more passing his hands through the silt, he found the long shafts of both femurs and palpated along them. The tibiae and fibulae of the lower legs came next. He slid his hands farther down to confirm the presence of feet-and his finger caught on something that felt like thick chains.

What the hell?

They were looped around the ankles.

Oh, shit!

Running his fingers along them he came to what must be a padlock. A few links more led to a smooth hard surface that felt like a metal shaft about six inches in diameter. Following its shape deeper, both his arms up to the shoulder in muck, he made out the double-pointed flanges of an anchor.

He reached up to grab Dan, who hovered just above and, drawing him closer so they floated faceplate to faceplate, guided the sheriff's hand into the ooze. Dan's eyes grew wide behind his mask, and he immediately signaled for them to start up.

Mark agreed. This was now a crime scene, which they must not further disturb. The forensic team would have to sift through the muck not just for parts of the body, but also for evidence that might help them determine who had sent it to the bottom.

They rose slowly, no faster than the proscribed one-half foot per second. Mark felt they weren't even moving. Any quicker, however, and the nitrogen bubbles would appear in their bloodstreams, blocking every tiny artery in their bodies. So they hung there, two specks suspended in a horizonless, charcoal world, the surface still invisible beyond an infinity of gray twilight.

Mark's thoughts slid to the scene below, and thinking about their find unnerved him more than when he'd actually seen and touched it. The idea that they were swimming in water steeped with the remains of human rot didn't bother him. His head knew that that part of the process had mostly ended long ago. It was the possibility the person went into the lake alive and conscious that made his skin crawl. The image of someone plummeting through this nether world, struggling round-mouthed to scream, nothing but bubbles streaming out, filled his head. From the way Dan kept staring down, pupils magnified big as dimes behind the Plexiglas, he, too, appeared to have trouble keeping his imagination in check.

Who could it be? Mark wondered. No one had been reported missing from the Hampton Junction area since he'd started general practice seven years ago. The ten years before that, while in New York at the university, med school, and during his residency, he'd gotten home often enough he would have heard about anyone who'd disappeared. It was possible, of course, that someone had brought the corpse here to dump it. Might be Jimmy Hoffa down there for all he knew. Everybody from the Northeast came here to party and play. Why wouldn't they import their murders as well?
Excerpted from Mortal Remains by Peter Clement Copyrightę 2003 by Peter Clement. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.