Dr. Cooper and her graduate-student assistant, David Roberts, were bent over the partial skeleton arranging the small bones of the hands and feet in the correct order. It must be a difficult task, Michelle realized from the one brief anatomy course she had attended, and how you told one rib or one knuckle from another was quite beyond her. Dr. Cooper seemed to be doing well enough. She was in her early fifties, a rather stout figure with very short gray hair, silver-rimmed glasses and a no-nonsense manner.
"Do you know how many bones there are in a human hand?" Dr. Cooper asked without looking away from the skeleton.
"A lot?" Michelle answered.
"Twenty-six," said Dr. Cooper. "Twenty-six. And awkward little buggers to make out, some of them."
"Got anything for me yet?" Michelle took out her notebook.
"A little bit. As you can see, we're still trying to put him back together again."
"Oh, yes. You can take my word for that. The skull and pubis bear it out. Northern European, too, I'd say." She turned the skull sideways. "See that straight facial profile, the narrow nasal aperture? All signs. There are others, of course: the high cranium, the eye sockets. But you don't want a lesson in ethnic anthropology, do you?"
"I suppose not," said Michelle, who actually found the subject quite interesting. Sometimes she thought she might have chosen the wrong career and should instead have become an anthropologist. Or perhaps a doctor. "Not very tall, though, is he?"
Dr. Cooper looked at the bones laid out on the steel trolley. "Tall enough for his age, I'd say."
"Don't tell me you know his age."
"Of course. Only a rough guess, mind you. By measuring the long bones and applying the appropriate formula, we've calculated his height at around five foot six. That's somewhere between a hundred and sixty-seven and a hundred and sixty-eight centimeters."
"A kid, then?"
Dr. Cooper nodded and touched the shoulder with her pen. "The medial clavicular epiphysis--collarbone to you--is the last epiphysis in the body to fuse, normally in the mid-twenties, though it can occur anytime between fifteen and thirty-two. His hasn't fused yet. Also, I've examined the rib ends and vertebrae. In an older person, you'd expect not only signs of wear and tear, but sharper ends and more scalloping on the ribs. His rib ends are flat and smoothly rounded, only slightly undulating, and the vertebrae show no epiphyseal rings at all. Also the fusion of ilium, ischium and pubis is in its early stages. That process usually takes place between the ages of twelve and seventeen." "So you're saying he's how old?"
"In my business it doesn't pay to go out on a limb, but I'll say between twelve and fifteen. Allow a couple of years either way as a fair margin of error. The databases we get these figures from aren't always complete, and sometimes they're out of date."
"The teeth. Of course, you'll have to bring in the odontologist to examine the roots and check the levels of fluoride, if there is any-it wasn't introduced in toothpaste here until 1959-but I can tell you three things right now. First off, there are no deciduous teeth left- that's baby teeth-and the second molar has erupted. That means he's aged around twelve, again give or take a couple of years, and I'd hazard a guess, given the other evidence, that he's older rather than younger." "And the third thing?"
"A bit less scientific, I'm afraid, but judging by the general state of his teeth and the look of all these metal fillings in the posterior teeth, I'd guess vintage-school dentist."
"How long ago was he buried there?"
"Impossible to say. There's no remaining soft tissue or ligaments, the bones are discolored, and there's some flaking, so I'd say more than a decade or two, but beyond that, it's anyone's guess until I've done more rigorous tests."
The foregoing is excerpted from Close to Home by Peter Robinson. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022
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