THE STORY STASH
THE SKULL IN THE
by Doug Lane
TWO WOMEN HAPPENED ACROSS a human skull in the Switchback. They were walking the loop trail on their lunch break from the office when one of them noticed its gaze from the shallows, eyes of mud above the dancing water, its toothsome mouth below like a strange, bleached fish.
One of them called the Sheriff's office. The other failed in a dozen tries to take a picture worthy of Instagram. Neither turned her gaze from the skull until the first deputies arrived on the scene.
- o -
“Do you come down here much?" Deputy Tyler asked.
Sheriff Babcock watched the forensics officers step their dance in the shallows, glad it wasn't him. “No. I’ve never really cared for it." He shooed a fly. "You remember Dimitri Cooper?"
"Doesn't ring a bell."
"Mobster from the city. I helped in his prosecution. He liked to transport his bodies upstate and dump them in places like this."
“Still doesn't ring a bell. Where's he now?"
Babcock found the memory was an eel. One of the 'C' prisons? Clinton? Cayuga? Babcock couldn't keep them all in his head any more. He was an oak of a man, an old-time Hollywood small-town cop shaped more by discipline than doughnuts. He'd worn a badge for as long as he could recall. Before he was Sheriff, he was a village cop. Before that, a highway patrolman. Before that, he was a kid who wanted to solve mysteries and put crooks behind bars, Scooby-Doo his spirit animal. His fifth term as County Sheriff was proving same as the others, crime and the ability to fight it waxing and waning like the pale moon.
The Switchback was a three-mile long watery ribbon sliced off the Hudson River, a man-made channel dredged through old swampland and persistent shallows. The water didn't reach five feet at its deepest. The middle ground was filled and raised to create a recreational park adjacent to what the county board called a "wetlands conservancy". Babcock figured calling a former swamp 'wetlands' ticked a critical box on a federal grant form, but the Switchback had conserved the chunk of bone well enough. If the skull wasn't a gag--some ceramic mock-up dumped there by a med student with a snoot full of Jaegermeister and a macabre sense of humor--Babcock saw limited possibilities. Murder victim was obvious. Could also be a missing person, lost to snowpack on the mountain and carried down in the winter runoff. Maybe a washout from upriver; old graves got disinterred by floods sometimes. Occasionally, remains of bridge jumpers in the north country made it this far, but currents didn't favor the Switchback. Suicides usually showed their bellies in the rocks on the east bank of the river.
Dr. Alleck, the pathologist who led the county's forensics team, had ten years and a hundred cases on Babcock. He stalked towards the shore in his mustard-colored waders, a shallow silver pan with the skull in his hand. "It's definitely real," he proclaimed as he drew up beside the sheriff. "Offhand, based on size, thickness, the more blunt rim to the orbits of the eyes, and the ridging near the superciliary arch here--" he indicated a feature that defied Babcock's vision-- "I can tell you right off the bat this was an adult male."
"How long has be been dead?"
"Long enough for zero soft tissue to remain, but that's all I could say without running it through the lab. No immediate sign of trauma to the skull, but that doesn’t mean much in the grand scheme. Teeth are in excellent shape. Might give us a dental ID."
"If he had a dentist." Babcock couldn't remember the last time he'd let Doctor Silvestri poke around his gums.
"If not, you’ll have the devil’s time figuring out who it was."
"Let me know if you find anything else." Babcock watched Alleck trudge back to the shallows, then ambled up the embankment and to his Crown Victoria. He'd spent a lot of time with the law, had seen more than his fair share of unidentified remains come through the door. He expected when the last form was signed, all he’d have was a cold case marked by a skull in a box.
- o -
The press conference was succinct. They only held one because it was a skull. A femur, a tibia--those were abstractions. You could find one of those in the woods and get away with five lines in the police blotter. But a skull was a head, a face, a person. Home of the smile and the eyes, the brain and most human distinctions. A skull drew the families of the missing on strands of hope, questions on their lips.
The local paper sent a stringer. Two regionals also showed up, plus one reporter each from the radio stations perched on opposite shores of the river. A TV news crew drove down from Albany. Behind the press, a crowd gathered around the steps of the Sheriff’s Department, larger than most. While Babcock was familiar with human remains, a random skull made an uncommon Monday for everyday people.
Babcock relayed the facts, turned it over to Alleck for the established forensics, then opened it to questions. Babcock believed invoking reporters was like pulling back the flap of the circus tent. Their leaps of logic often bordered on acrobatic, made less nimble by too much cable TV and too little thought.
"Is there any indication this was a murder?"
"Can you tell us if other human remains have been recovered recently by the department?"
"Should the public be worried bodies are being dumped in the Switchback?"
"When will we know a cause of death?"
The crowd didn't like any of Babcock's uncertain answers.
- o -
The department probed the Switchback for a couple of days. If additional bones in the 206-piece puzzle were there, they evaded discovery. Alleck was able to pull the net tighter based on the skull. "If his frame was consistent, he topped out between five foot ten and six flat. Confirmed no trauma, either as a contributor to death or post-mortem. Clean as a whistle inside."
“And dental records were a big goose egg." Babcock skimmed the man's report. "Any idea yet how long it was there?"
"No. There was no residual tissue in the cranial cavity, but if it was in the river that's no surprise. Fish and bugs will do everything but polish the bones when they're done. Nothing in the sediment deposited inside the skull suggests a particular time of year, either.”
Babcock set the sheaf of paper on the desk. "I doubt it was a wash-up. A scout troop did a nature thing in that stretch a week ago. No one saw it, and we haven't had rain enough to put it there in the interim."
They bandied theories about to little result. "I suppose the next thing would be to have the federal boys in Albany do a facial reconstruction," Alleck suggested.
Babcock sighed. He hated getting the feds involved in anything but poker games. "I suppose it could help the public put a name to it."
"I know the head of the lab up there. Let me call and set it up."
If Alleck wanted to handle it, Babcock was willing to let him, and said so.
After Alleck left, Babcock's mind wandered back to Dimitri Cooper. The brass balls on him. He'd followed Babcock to a bar, threatened him in front of God and bartender alike. Not a care he'd be heard. The smug smile then on Cooper's lips recurred on his mug shot when they finally arrested him, and again at his trial.
Could he be out already?
Babcock tried the corrections database, gave up after the third connection failure. He called Tyler in, handed him a slip of paper with Cooper's name. "When you get a minute, give Jamal DuBois a call at State Corrections, and see if you can get the current file for this prisoner. Computer's down."
"When is it not?" Tyler glanced at the slip. "The mobster?"
"Is this about the skull?"
My whole life is now about the skull, Babcock thought. All he offered Tyler was a stern look.
- o -
On Thursday morning, Babcock drove the skull north to the FBI field office in Albany. Summer shimmered over the road, gave the asphalt that liquid look. Babcock wondered as he navigated the Thruway about the day the skull's owner died. Had it been a hot summer day? A wet autumn night? Either would have sped decomposition, especially down in the Switchback. But it wouldn't eliminate the other bones, and the county wasn't a hotbed of gangland-style body chops. The only thing remotely similar in Babcock’s recollection was Ricky Krantz, busted disposing of a couple of rival contractors in a cement plant kiln in Smith's Landing, and that was a decade ago. He supposed it could have been an old Mohawk Indian or some misplaced contemporary of Henry Hudson, lost to the river, pressed down in the mud, untouched by the dredge and only now working its way up from where it had lain below. Babcock wondered if facial reconstruction had a point if there was no picture for comparison.
Beside him, from within the sealed container, the skull spoke. Smoke and mirrors, Babcock. You already know who I am. You just can't see it yet.
Babcock ignored his imagination and drove on. His belly ached. No cop likes an unsolvable mystery.
- o -
The agent in charge of the facial reconstruction team, Zabinski, was a small man on a spare frame, meticulously shorn, his gray suit the color of soot. His eyes were uncomfortably close to one another; or at least his glasses conveyed that impression. The plaque beside the door declared him a forensic anthropologist. Babcock had to read it twice. The first time it parsed as 'forensic apologist'.
Zabinski had an easy manner. They might have been golfing, or sucking down Genesee beer watching the Jets. He turned the skull in his hands, probed eye sockets with confident fingertips, peered in the gap between the mandible and the occipital bone. "It's in very good condition. If recently deceased, it was well-cleaned before it was dumped. Was there a chemical check?"
"He doesn't appear to have cared for floss and Novocain."
"Hmm." Zabinski frowned. The way he held it, Babcock thought of Hamlet, about to lament poor Yorick. ”Okay. Let's make a face."
He walked Babcock through two options. They could build a physical, three-dimensional clay model of the face on the skull itself, using statistical tissue depth values at dozens of points, nasal bone angle, tooth size and shape averages, and a half-dozen other techniques that sounded to Babcock like science, fiction, or a verbal cocktail of the two.
The other option involved photographing the skull in what Zabinski called the Frankfort Horizontal position. From the photos, a sketch artist could recreate the face from the same data for tissue depth and bone contour and so on. In both cases, soft-tissue elements--skin and eye color, lip shape and contour, hair--would be guesswork, but the result would generally resemble the person concerned.
"To be honest, both provide similar results, and you can have either by Monday. It depends on whether you prefer clay or charcoal, and how much you want to pay to have a look at this guy."
Babcock didn't know from art techniques, but he knew the county supervisor's thoughts on expenses related to identifying random skulls.
Charcoal was cheaper. Charcoal won the day.
- o -
Corrections had no information on Dimitri Cooper. Tyler relayed this news to Babcock on his return with a hangdog expression, stood away as if the sheriff might swing at him.
"How is that possible?"
"They searched twice. Also searched for aliases. There's nothing in their system. They think maybe he was arrested and released, that maybe you got him confused with someone else."
Babcock sat hard behind his desk. "I remember the trial. I was there when they convicted the son of a bitch."
Tyler didn't know what else to say. He stood there fidgeting until Babcock told him to go.
Babcock didn't open the bottle in his desk drawer often. After shift, he did and poured himself a double. He remembered drinking a toast from it when Cooper was sentenced, when they sent him off to one of the 'C' prisons, no matter what the corrections database said.
The double helped neither memory nor mood.
- o -
The weekend passed like a month of rain.
On Monday afternoon, Babcock was at a tangle of steel that no longer resembled a compact car and a pickup when Tyler texted his cell: Facial reconstruction was in from the FBI. Babcock was another half-hour while the Troopers and wreckers sorted the mess.
Chatter dropped to nothing when Babcock entered the office. He felt everyone’s eyes on him. Saw their expressions. Confusion. Suspicion. "What's going on?"
They all looked at Tyler, their mouthpiece with saucer eyes. "The facial reconstruction is on your desk."
"And we don't understand, Sheriff."
Annoyed, Babcock walked past them and through his office door. Retrieved the folder. Opened it. Looked at the sketch coaxed from bone by the FBI. As expected, the eyes were off, and so was the hair, but the rest was a charcoal jolt.
Babcock stared at his own face.
- o -
Zabinski explained every step, every measurement, every reason for each placement of muscle and cartilage until Babcock glazed like a December road. They rechecked and confirmed the result. They did the entire effort a second time, clay-modeled the skull using techs uninvolved with the first attempt. Babcock dropped his own coin for it. The skull produced Babcock's visage again, even more cleanly in clay.
When he returned to the station, Babcock had the skull tagged and placed in a battered evidence box on a high shelf in the locker. If it was a hoax, no one came forward to explain how or why it was done. Babcock never spoke of the skull in the Switchback again, and no one in the office asked.
That Autumn, Babcock declined to seek an additional term. The papers trawled him for a few months for reasons, to no avail. He was easy to find: he spent several hours a day on the Switchback trail, stood near the place the skull had emerged from the earth. Some days, Babcock considered the cold of the mud. Others, he pondered his memory of Dimitri Cooper's sentence, as clear as the waters of the Switchback ever since he’d laid eyes on the reconstructed skull. Cooper had drawn life without parole, up the river in Coxsackie. One count under New York Penal Law § 125.27(i)--Murder in the First Degree, with aggravating factors for killing a member of law enforcement.
One day the following Spring, Babcock didn't appear for his riverside vigil. His absence was noticed. Concerned citizens asked the new sheriff to check on him. Deputies found his house empty, his car gone from the driveway, no forwarding address for his mail. He'd moved on.
Wherever he'd headed, Babcock seemed to have made peace with it all.
ABOUT “THE SKULL IN THE SWITCHBACK”
The story had its genesis in a newspaper bit my sister Michelle passed along about the discovery of a human skull along a hiking trail in Coxsackie, NY. Sure, it could have belonged to Indian remains washed up by a flood, or could have belonged to a jumper from the Albany area washed down-river. But where’s the fun in that? That’s all way too straightforward.
It was shopped for about three years; the sad fact of the matter is mystery magazines are a more-dying breed than most, and this one touched 98% of them before coming to rest in the stack. I expect part of what works against it is it isn’t just a mystery, but treads into other genres. Nor is it’s not a brilliant tale that will cure rickets and restore pitch to the tone deaf, but it was fun to write, and there’s a little more to it than meets the eye.
The Story Stash is a place where I’ll drop work from time to time - pieces from the trunk,
reprints, even new fiction that hasn’t ever found a home. Stories will be here for
a random time (at least a week, probably longer) before they get replaced
by the next in line. Typically accompanied by some insightful story notes.
(Insightfulness not guaranteed.)