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Jim looked up from his computer with a soft, almost silent sigh. For as long as Simon had known about his senses, he still seemed to have it firmly fixed in his head that he needed to yell as loudly for Jim as he did for everyone else.
Of course, if he didn't, the others in the bullpen would wonder... but really, why couldn't he just walk to the door, open it, and say the name of the person he wanted?
Jim hit 'save' and went over to Simon's office.
Inside, Simon waved him to a chair. "Coffee?" he asked.
Simon poured coffee into two mugs, handed one to Jim, then sat behind his desk. "Where's Sandburg?"
"He'll be in by three," Jim said. "He's got a class at ten and another at one. In between he'll be grading essays, if his students give him peace - this is when the assignments he gave out a month ago are due to be handed in, but some students come looking for extensions because they were too busy socializing to get on with those assignments."
"The 'I'll get on with it tomorrow' syndrome, only tomorrow something else more interesting crops up, and... ?"
Jim nodded. "He says some of their excuses are so far-fetched he has trouble keeping a straight face - but as soon as his one o'clock is finished he'll come in." He looked thoughtfully at Simon. "You want him for something?"
"I don't know," Simon said. "Couple of backpackers found some bones out in Cascade National Forest a couple of days ago. At first they thought it was a big animal of some kind, carcass stripped clean by scavengers, but then they realized there was a human skull mixed in with the rest of the bones, so they reported it.
"The local county sheriff took one look and contacted us. Said there were far more bones than could be accounted for by one body; he reckoned more like eight or nine, though he also thought a lot of bones had been carried off by animals. But from what he said... I'd certainly like to hear what the kid thinks about it."
"I take it the bones have been left in situ, at least for the moment?"
"Yes." Simon frowned. "Does Sandburg have commitments at Rainier tomorrow? Because getting to the site, checking it out and getting back will take most of a day."
Jim thought for a moment, and took a sip of his coffee before he answered. "I think tomorrow is clear," he said, "though he's probably planning on spending it grading essays. But if we need him, he'll come." He grinned briefly, without humor. "At least he understands being distracted by something more urgent than what he should be doing."
"Do you ever feel guilty about dragging him away from what he should be doing?" Simon asked. "Because I do, sometimes. He's not a cop, we don't pay him, and he sure does a lot of work for us!"
"Often," Jim admitted. "But at the same time... even if he's still - well, working, when he's here, it's a different kind of work. It gives him a break from the academic stuff. And heaven knows there are times he needs one."
Blair arrived a few minutes before three and moved quickly across the bullpen to join Jim. "So what's happening? Anything interesting?"
"You don't have to go to Rainier tomorrow, do you?"
"Then we're taking a trip into Cascade National Forest."
Blair looked thoughtfully at him. "You're not talking a pleasure trip, are you."
Jim shook his head. "County sheriff called us in. All we know is that he's got a pile of human bones from - he reckoned - at least eight bodies - "
"Eight?" Blair whispered.
"Could be anything from an old family grave site that's somehow been dug up to a serial killer who's found an out-of-the-way place to dump his victims."
"Just bones?" Blair asked.
"That's what he said."
"Odd. I'd have expected at least some remnants of cloth... unless everything was several hundred years old."
"You're right - unless it was a serial killer who stripped his victims, maybe to keep the clothes as trophies, there should have been bits of cloth there too, but Sheriff Flavell just said 'bones'. Doesn't mean to say there wasn't the remains of clothes, could be he just registered the number of bones lying around... Well, we'll see for ourselves tomorrow. Meanwhile - how did your office hours go?"
"Don't ask," Blair said. "Most of the students are conscientious, don't get me wrong, the number who aren't is really quite small - "
"But they make an impact?"
"Yeah. Even among the conscientious ones there are one or two who for one reason or another ask for an extension, but the reasons are usually... well, reasonable. One this week... his father was killed in an accident last month and his mother is a nervous wreck because of it; he hadn't been able to do much - even attend lectures - because every time he tried to leave the house she started screaming for him, convinced that if he was out of her sight he was going to be involved in an accident and killed as well. He's just managed to get her to agree to psychiatric treatment as an in-patient at Conover. Luckily he has a couple of good friends who shared their notes with him, so he's up to date with the lectures, but he wasn't able to do any research for the assignment; he has a laptop so he can type out his essays, but he's not on the Internet, has to do all his research at the library."
"I thought everyone who had a computer was connected to the Internet."
"That was what I said. Apparently his older cousin had a helluva problem after being hacked a couple of years ago, and when Ross got a laptop he decided he didn't need the potential hassle. He gets stuff off the library computer on a memory stick and transfers it to his laptop - he has a whole load of stuff saved, but none of it was relevant to the theme of the assignment. So I gave him an extra couple of weeks.
"But one of the lazy ones, he tried telling me that his parents wouldn't let him do it 'because university work should be done at the university, not at home'. I told him to bring me a note from his parents telling me that so that I could then write back and explain why he got work to do at home... I don't expect to get one, and if I do it's a safe bet that he'll have written it himself - in which case I'll know, because his punctuation is... not good. Besides, why did he want an extension if his parents wouldn't let him do it in the first place?"
"I take it you didn't give him one."
"Nope. Told him he has a week, and I don't care where he does it, but I want it on the day it's due or he gets a straight F." "Oh, you're cruel," Jim grinned.
"When I have to be," Blair agreed with an answering smile. "Now, what do you have for me to do today?"
Six o'clock next morning saw the pair on their way to the Cascade National Forest.
By prearrangement, they went first to the county sheriff's office. Eddy Flavell - who looked as if might be quite near retiring age, but had kept himself in good physical shape - rose to greet them. He looked from one to the other.
Jim shook his hand. "Just call me Jim. This is my colleague, Blair Sandburg; he's a consultant to the department."
"Right, Jim. I'm Eddy." He turned and shook Blair's hand as well. "And you're Blair?"
"When Jim doesn't call me by any one of a hundred other names."
Jim cut in, bringing the conversation back to the point. "So - you've got some bodies."
"I'd be less bothered if they were bodies," Eddy said. "There's just bones, mostly scattered over several square yards, but they're definitely human."
"You told Captain Banks there were at least eight bodies. How did you work out that number?"
"Just going by how many jawbones there were. The backbones were pretty fragmented, a lot of the long bones were broken, and I don't think there were enough actual bones to make up that number of bodies. Some of the skulls had the top or back missing, but the lower jaws seemed to be complete."
Jim nodded. "Fair enough."
"Todd!" Eddy called. A man who looked about thirty came through an inner door and into the office. "I'm taking Detective Ellison out to our bone field."
"Right, Boss - I'll hold the fort."
Eddy grinned and led the way out.
"If you want, I could follow you - that way you don't have to waste the rest of your morning waiting for us," Jim suggested.
"No, I don't mind waiting," Eddy said. "If I'm honest - I'd like to see what a city detective like you makes of it."
"Have you ever seen anything like it before?" Blair asked.
"No. Oh, we get animal carcasses quite often - I've even had one or two of those reported as a suspected crime; a lot of city folk see a partly disarticulated skeleton and if they don't see the head they don't know it's just a deer. The guys who reported this one were the other way - they thought it was a deer till they saw a skull. Then they looked a bit further and saw there were a lot more bones."
They got into Eddy's SUV, Jim in front, Blair in the back seat, and Eddy set off.
It wasn't long before he turned off the road onto a rough track. After about an hour they came to a wider part of the track. There, Eddy turned the SUV.
"We could drive maybe a mile further," he said, "but if we did, we'd have to back out to here before we could turn. Easier just to walk from here."
It took nearly an hour to walk to what Eddy had referred to as the bone field.
"Long way to come carrying one body, let alone several," Eddy commented as they reached the site.
"Some serial killers want their crime noticed, others will make this kind of effort to stay in the shadows," Jim replied.
It was a big clearing, at least three acres in size, in the forest that covered a lot of the hillside. It wasn't natural; they could see the stumps of many trees, though in one or two places saplings were putting on height. "Odd place for felling," Blair said. "I'd have expected them to start at the edge of the forest and work their way in."
"The trees here were diseased," Eddy said. "Some sort of fungus. Best way to stop it before the whole forest was affected was to cut 'em down and burn 'em. But that was just four, five years ago, so the bones haven't been here longer than that."
Eddy led them round the edge for some distance before stopping beside a collection of bones that looked as if they came from one body that hadn't yet been scattered. "This was the one that was reported. But - " He pointed. A little further away, almost hidden by grass, were a lot more bones.
Jim frowned as he looked down at the remains. He moved in the direction Eddy had pointed, looking around, understanding what the sheriff meant when he said the bones were mostly in an area of several square yards. Further away he could see one or two, but not enough to draw anyone's attention if they hadn't actually been looking. He then walked back and pulled on a pair of latex gloves - not that he really considered it necessary - and picked up what had clearly been part of a femur. "This has been cut with a saw." He turned it to show Eddy.
Blair, who had moved a few yards away, pulled on his gloves and also picked up a bone. He turned it over, studying it thoughtfully.
"But why cut the body up if the killer is just going to dump all the bits in one place?" Eddy asked. "I could see butchering it to scatter the pieces, make it harder to find, harder to identify, but not this!" He waved a hand in a gesture that took in the entire clearing. "And why bring it this far into the forest? In among the trees, drop a piece here, another there... it's not likely that anyone would ever identify an odd scrap of bone as human."
"It's not going to be easy to establish a cause of death," Jim said. "That makes it harder to find a killer - "
"I think they've all been natural deaths," Blair said.
"Then why bring them out here and dump them like this?" Eddy asked.
"Excarnation," Blair said.
Jim hid a grin. "Einstein here is my partner," he said, "but he's also an anthropologist. Something about these bones has reminded him of something. Go on, Chief."
"There's a small Tibetan Buddhist community in Cascade," he said, "and probably more in some of the other cities within two or three hours' distance. I think they - or some of them - are using this as a charnel ground, though - possibly because of the distance involved - they're not carrying out a full excarnation ceremony. American laws also mean they're probably having to be a bit imaginative in their observance. Could be they left parts of bodies in other places until they found here."
"Chief," Jim said patiently, "ignorant laymen here. How would you explain it to a six-year-old?"
"Oh. Sky burial," Blair said. He looked from one puzzled face to the other.
"How can you bury someone in the sky?" Eddy asked.
"Buddhist belief is that once a person dies, the body is just an empty shell; it's the soul that's important, but that has moved on to be reborn. The last thing that soul can do with his empty, discarded body, is have it be used to feed the birds that eat flesh. So his friends and relatives take it to a charnel ground where it's slit open and left for... well, in Tibet, the vultures that know about the place and gather there. This is called excarnation or sky burial. The vultures can strip a body of flesh in less than quarter of an hour, according to one anthropologist who was lucky enough to witness a ceremony. Then the men whose job it is to deal with the bodies pulverize the bones, mix them with barley flour, and leave the mixture for the smaller carnivorous birds, like crows. So within a very short time there's nothing left for anyone to find.
"Other methods throughout history and prehistory - all over the world - have been just to leave the body in the open, maybe on a platform, for the birds to eat, then the bones are collected and put in an ossuary - maybe a lot of skeletons stored in one 'tomb', all the skulls in one place, the arm and leg bones in another... "
"You... You have to be joking," Eddy muttered.
"Burial as we know it only belongs to the religions that believe in the resurrection of the body," Blair said, automatically sliding into lecture mode. "That's why the ancient Egyptians mummified bodies, so that they would be there for when they were needed again. But religions that believed in reincarnation - the body had been discarded, it wasn't going to be needed again, why keep it? Unless you went in for ancestor worship, in which case having the bones nearby... In Catalhoyuk in Turkey they stripped the bones of their dead relatives of flesh, possibly through excarnation, then buried the bones in the floor of the house underneath the bed. Can't say I'd like to do that myself, sleep on top of... well, a grave, but for those people it was a way of keeping their ancestors close."
He glanced at his audience and noticed that Eddy was looking a little shell-shocked.
"But I'm digressing. Sorry. Let's get back to this." He waved his hand around.
"Digression is your middle name. How do you ever get any lectures done?" Jim asked.
"I have notes," Blair said sheepishly.
Jim grinned. "Okay, then. So why do you think this place has been used for these ex... sky burials?"
"Some Buddhists - a lot of them - have probably adapted to our burial practices, and either bury or cremate their dead," Blair said. "But there are bound to be some that adhere to their traditional beliefs, and... well, think that by not giving the body to be eaten, preferably by birds, they're delaying the deceased's passage from one life to the next. Tibetans regarded the vultures as holy birds, dakini - that is, sky spirits, angels if you like, and feeding them with the discarded body speeded up the soul's journey to another incarnation.
"The people with that belief probably accepted that they'd have to compromise, because finding somewhere remote, yet within a reachable distance of a big city, isn't easy. In any case, American vultures aren't the same as Tibetan ones - I don't think they're even related; though their habits are similar. They probably did start off cutting the bodies up and scattering the pieces in the forest; but when they found here - secluded, open... perfect. Why they didn't wait and pulverize the bones? Maybe they didn't want to risk being caught; maybe not enough vultures came, maybe they realized they'd have to leave the bodies to be finished off by coyotes." He gestured with the bone he still held. "There's certainly been an animal gnawing on this one. And even deer will gnaw on bone or antler.
"We could set a watch on the place, catch whoever it is - but if I'm right they're not actually doing anything illegal - they're probably registering the deaths - and if we stop them here they'll just move to somewhere else."
"But we can't just leave a load of human bones lying around!" Eddy exclaimed.
"Easiest thing to do would be to have a quiet word with the monks at the Cascade Buddhist temple, ask them to pass word around that if a body is excarnated, the people involved should go back a day or two later and remove - bury - any bones that are still lying there. They've still followed their beliefs, but if bones are found, the police become involved, and it's a waste of police time because there's been no crime committed - but wasting police time counts as a crime."
Eddy looked at Jim. "What do you think?"
"I think Sandburg's got a point," Jim said. "American law does allow for different funeral practices, according to different religions, and if this... leaving the body to be eaten by wild animals is what these people believe - "
"Bad karma if they don't," Blair said. "I know there's a temple in Cascade, though I don't know where it is - for some reason they're a bit secretive about it, so I'd guess they're probably using someone's house - but I do have a student who's a Buddhist, and I can have a word with him. Give me a week, then we can come back and check the place, see if they're willing to compromise. If they aren't... then we'll have to set a watch and catch them in the act, even if they only get a slap on the wrist for wasting police time."
Eddy sighed. "It seems terribly disrespectful of the dead," he began.
"Not to them," Blair said. "There are all kinds of what might be called funeral rites. Some South American tribes cremate the bodies, pound the bones into a fine powder and make soup out of it - because they think the best place for their dead is inside the bellies of their relatives. Technically that's cannibalism... but they believe that burying the dead in the cold ground isn't showing proper respect.
"To a Tibetan Buddhist, the body is like... oh, a crab's shell. A crab outgrows its shell, it molts and discards the old shell. A body gets old, feeble, the soul discards it and enters a new body. The old body has to be disposed of by the relatives. Some religions cremate or accept cremation. Others insist that the body is buried so that it'll be available come Judgement Day. These people believe in making use of it to feed the vultures.
"How some customs ever started... who knows? But I think we have to accept and respect the different customs even if we don't understand them."
Jim, at least, recognized the words for the quiet reprimand they were, though he was far from sure that Eddy did.
Eddy, however, nodded. "I can't say I understand; I don't. It just seems terribly... well, callous."
"I hear that," Blair said quietly.
"And... no matter how I personally feel... I hear you," Eddy said.
Blair grinned. Eddy might or might not have been part of it, but he had at least known a member of the hippie community.
The young Buddhist student was in one of Blair's anthropology classes, and next morning Blair made a point of seeking him out.
"Quon - you know I work with the police."
"Yes." The young man nodded.
"I'm not asking if you know anything about it or even if your temple does, but a couple of days ago someone accidentally came across a charnel ground in Cascade National Forest, and reported it as a crime scene. The cop I ride with was sent out to check it and I went with him. I recognized what it was, so the police know there was no crime committed, but they do have concerns that there are a lot of bones still lying there, because if one hiker came across the place, so could others. It could be reported again, and even though the police know now what it is, they'd still have to check out the report, which would waste police time - and that counts as a crime.
"What I'm asking... can you have a quiet word with your monks, and ask them to pass the word around your community. I know that with excarnation, ideally the bones should be eaten too, but this isn't Tibet; it's difficult for the full procedure to be followed. So I'm suggesting that two or three days after the ceremony, someone goes back and collects the uneaten bones, takes them back to the temple, maybe has them pulverized and then takes the powder back and scatters it thinly among the trees. That way everyone benefits. Tradition is followed, but nobody is going to find bones and report a 'crime' that isn't. Can you do that?"
Quon looked thoughtful. "I think the monks in Cascade have been a little worried that the American authorities wouldn't recognize traditional Tibetan funeral customs, so I don't think our people here would be responsible. I certainly haven't heard of anyone being given to the dakini in the traditional manner. I'll tell the monks here - they will surely know who does."
"Thank you. The local sheriff will be checking the place in a few days, and if the bones have gone he'll forget about it."
Ten days later Jim got a phone call.
"Hi, Jim, it's Eddy. Just to let you know the bones have been cleared. I don't say they haven't missed the odd one that was taken a fair distance by an animal, but there's nothing obvious there now."
"Good. I don't suppose this'll stop them from disposing of the dead that way, but as long as they clear the bones afterwards... "
"I don't think I want to know. Incidentally, how did you report it?"
Jim chuckled. "I just got Sandburg to do the report, with an explanation of the ritual involved. My Captain had a slightly bemused look after he finished reading it and told me to file it as a cold case."
"I suppose that's all you could do," Eddy agreed.
Jim rang off, stretched, and turned his attention back to the report he was reading on what the evidence indicated really was a murder victim.
Unpleasant, but easier for a simple cop to deal with than an esoteric death rite.