What’s in the Box?

Woah, I am a bad blogger! I need to do a much better job of posting. True, I have been very busy finishing Where the Blood is Made, and so far the feedback justifies the effort. But now that it is out there, I’m rededicating myself to the blog.

I have some rather exciting things happening — a book reading in Washington DC on Friday, August 12th at Lost City Books (https://www.instagram.com/p/Cgr0uB8JnRo/), as well as a book signing in Salt Lake in October, an interview with the Rapid City Journal to be published in late August, and a few other noteworthy events. I will post more information on these as they get closer.

Thank you to everyone who has supported this little writing journey of mine. If you like the books, please tell a friend. I’m getting asked a lot about book four in the Sebastien Grey series (already!). I would love to make that happen. And I have an idea for a new series and a few stand-alone novels. If I could do nothing but write, I would. That is the goal, but it is a high one.

Now, here is an experience that I’ve wanted to share for a long time. I don’t think it will ever make it into one of my novels. But you never know.

Many years ago, I was called into the coroner’s office by the district attorney who had a bit of a problem. Apparently, the DA’s staff were cleaning out an evidence storage room and they came upon a very old trunk. I don’t really remember what the outside looked like, but I’ll never forget the inside. The interior was lined in copper, which by that point had oxidized and turned green. Inside the box was a skeleton, which had also turned green. Bone is porous, and this skeleton absorbed the copper carbonate hydroxide. So, as you can imagine, it looked like something out of a science fiction movie, or Scooby Doo cartoon. Even more alarming was the fact that the arms and legs of the skeleton were bound with twine, which was also stained by the copper. Whoever this was had been tied up and stuffed into the trunk. Clearly an act of villainy.

But herein lay the problem: the trunk had been in storage so long that not a single person in DA’s office knew from whence it came. Not even a hint of remembrance or rumor of “that one case from way back when.” Who was the victim? Which police agency did it belong to? What is the disposition? Try as they might, they just could not find any records on the trunk, victim, or case. That’s where I came in.

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but forensics is not at all like it is portrayed on television. If this had been an episode of CSI, one of the lab techs would have coincidentally been a vintage box enthusiast, with a collection at home and dozens of academic articles to their name. And the lab would have had that handy database on storage containers by size, shape, era, lining material, etc. Then, to take the cake, some smarmy brainiac in the chem section would identify the metal hinges as coming from a single factory that went out of business in 1920 (smarmy because I can imagine them saying, “you didn’t know hinges with florets and square rivets were invented in the 1700’s by Gustav Hingemeyer? What school did you go to?”).

Alas, we did not have those make-believe advantages. But we did have Google! So, there I was pulling green bones from the green box and untangling the green twine while the coroner’s technicians poked away at the computer on the lab bench. We would divide and conquer. I would do an analysis of the remains — was this person male, female, tall, short, old, young — and the others would look on the internet for any mention of a local homicide where the victim was left tied up in a trunk (take that, CSI!). Maybe the case was resolved, but for some reason, the body was never given a proper burial. Or perhaps, if we could pin the trunk down to an era, we could narrow our search.

Here’s where it gets stupid. After about thirty minutes of the three of us examining the trunk and the remains, I noticed something.

“Hey, what’s this?” I asked, pointing to some very small writing on the outside of the trunk.

“What,” responded the lab tech.

She leaned in closely, squinting at the scribble that was only faintly legible.

“Well, damn.”

And that, ladies, and gentlemen is called looking beyond the mark. We were so taken with the mysterious copper trunk and the strange emerald victim that we failed to notice the solution to the whole thing, literally right under our noses. On the outside of the trunk was written the date, case number, and name of the victim. We wanted a hard-to-find answer. We wanted to analyze, detect, and investigate. It turned out, we should have just…looked.

What’s the lesson in this? I’m not sure. Technically, I was doing what I was brought in to do — examine the bones. What would I have done differently? Probably nothing, to be honest. It’s hard to spot the obvious when the obvious lies outside of your protocol and when you are trained to untangle (pun intended) complex problems using specialized knowledge. But as a scientist, I should have known better. Data collection is critical, and I nearly missed the most important thing. I don’t think Ockham’s Razor quite applies here, but I have no doubt that ol’ Willie of Ockham was not impressed with any of us that day.

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The Sebastien Grey Series