I smiled. She turned her face and pressed it to her mother's legs. A brown hand reached down and stroked her head.
According to witnesses, the hole in which we worked had been intended as a cistern. Begun but never completed, it was hastily transformed into an unmarked grave on the night of the massacre.
A grave for people identical to those keeping vigil above.
Fury swirled in me as I resumed digging.
Focus, Brennan. Channel your outrage to uncover evidence. Do that which you are able to do.
Ten minutes later my trowel touched something hard. Laying the implement aside, I cleared mud with my fingers.
The object was slender, like a pencil, with an angled neck ending in a corrugated upper surface. Above the neck, a tiny cap. Surrounding neck and cap, a circular cup.
I sat back on my heels and studied my find. A femur and pelvis. The hip of a child no older than two.
I looked up, and my gaze met that of the little girl. Again she whipped away. But this time she turned back, peeked through the folds of her mother's skirt, smiled shyly.
Sweet Jesus in heaven.
Tears burned the back of my lids.
I pointed at the little bones. Mateo crawled to my corner.
Along most of its length, the femur was mottled gray and black from exposure to fire and smoke. The distal end was crumbly white, suggesting more intense burning.
For a moment neither of us spoke. Then Mateo crossed himself and said in a low voice, "We've got them."
When Mateo stood and repeated the phrase, the entire team gathered at the edge of the well.
A fleeting thought. We've got whom, Mateo? We've got the victims, not the assassins. What chance is there that any of these government-sanctioned butchers will ever face charges, let alone be punished?
Elena tossed down a camera, then a plastic marker stamped with the numeral "1." I positioned the case number and took several shots.
Mateo and I went back to troweling, the others to sifting and hauling. After an hour I took my turn at the screen. Another hour, and I climbed back down into the well.
The storm held off, and the cistern told its story.
The child had been one of the last lowered into the clandestine grave. Under and around it lay the remains of others. Some badly burned, others barely singed.
By late afternoon seven case numbers had been assigned, and five skulls stared out from a tangle of bones. Three of the victims were adults, at least two were adolescents. Number one was a child. For the others, age estimation was impossible.
At dusk, I made a discovery that will stay with me the rest of my life. For over an hour I'd been working on skeleton number five. I'd exposed the skull and lower jaw and cleared dirt from the vertebrae, ribs, pelvis, and limbs. I'd traced the legs, found the foot bones mingled with those of the person beside.
Skeleton five was female. The orbits lacked heavy ridges, the cheekbones were smooth and slender, the mastoids small. The lower half of the body was enveloped in remnants of a rotted skirt identical to a dozen above my head. A coroded wedding band circled one fragile phalange.
Though the colors were faded and stained, I could make out a pattern in material adhering to the upper torso. Between the arm bones, atop the collapsed rib cage, lay a bundle with a different design. Cautiously, I separated a corner, eased my fingertips underneath, and teased back the outer layer of fabric.
Once, at my Montreal lab, I was asked to examine the contents of a burlap bag found on the shore of an inland lake. From the bag I withdrew several rocks, and bones so fragile at first I thought they were those of a bird. I was wrong. The sack held the remains of three kittens, weighted down and heaved into the water to drown. My disgust was so powerful I had to flee the lab and walk several miles before resuming work.
Copyright © 2002 by Temperance Brennan, L.P.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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