Once I get Dead Friends done and out, I’m giving Detective Will Diaz a break before we dive into the Family Secrets series and completely turn his world upside down.
Coming up is a fun book for Will, with him and a bunch of friends at the NCO club at Ft. Riley, Kansas, where he and several of the Regulators have converged to teach young MPs “street smarts.” They’re sitting around a table drinking beer along with the MP Battalion Sgt. Major and the Provost Marshal. Of course it’s nothing but war stories (again, what’s the difference between a fairy tale and a war story?).
The other, Dead Cold is going to take some ramping up. With a few exceptions, Will isn’t in it much. This one centers mostly on his partner RJ, RJ’s love interest Pam, and a case that is already almost a year old. While it’s not exactly a cold case, it is a crime that took over a year to discover. Then it’s play catch-up.
If you have a queasy stomach or are eating lunch, you might want to stop here. It gets pretty graphic from here on.
So, here’s some of the research that has to happen here. First, the body that’s found has been out in the wild for almost a year. It’s been frozen, thawed, frozen again, been a meal to animals and so on. I need to research and understand what happens to a body in those conditions.
I have a little experience with this, but not enough, so it requires a lot of research to get it down.
First, according to forensic anthropologists, there’s four stages of human decomposition.
Stage One is called Autolysis and it starts the minute an organism dies. When respiration and blood circulation stops, the body has no way to getting oxygen or removing waste. Excess carbon dioxide causes an acidic environment which causes cell membranes to rupture. The ruptures release enzymes that begin destroying the cells from the inside out.
Stage Two is bloat. This can be pretty nasty. Basically, the leaked enzymes mentioned above produce gases. We also see skin discoloration, and the gases can easily cause the body to double in size. The gases produce an extremely unpleasant sickly sweet odor, and alert insects and scavengers (and hopefully us) that someone has died. Even after the body has been removed, the odor can persist in the area, or on sheets, blankets, articles of clothing, etc., the deceased may have had.
In the case I’m thinking of, we recovered the remains of a sheep herder found in the mountains. He’d been dead for more than three years, and his remains were scattered over several acres. We recovered clothing he’d been wearing and his wallet. Handling the clothing or wallet was enough to send you to the bathroom.
I also smelled the sickly sweet odor in Iraq along the so-called Highway of Death. I’m sure any human remains in the devastated tanks and vehicles had been recovered by the time I went through the area, but you knew they’d been there.
Stage Three is active decay. The organs, muscles, and skin liquify. Once the soft tissue is gone, all that’s left is bone, hair, cartilage, and the byproducts of decay.
Stage Four is skeletonization. Like it says, that’s all that left, and even that will decay and fall to dust sooner or later.
Our unfortunate sheepherder was someplace between three and four. He was mostly skeleton, but there was still some bits of the byproducts of decay hanging in there. For instance, the lower and upper legs were still connected.
There’s a lot of factors that can impact the path mentioned above. In the novel, one of the factors is freezing cold. The body becomes frozen, and as such wouldn’t enter into Stage Two quickly. You’ll still get rot, but slower. And a human body in the wilderness is a bonanza of resources for wildlife. Coyotes and others animals will quickly find it and begin feeding off it. This will eventually cause the body to scattered.
Once the temperatures start to warm up, this process will continue, with actual decay setting in. There’s a chance that by this time the body parts are separated. If not, it will certainly begin, and soon.
There’s other factors that will impact this. First, clothing. That well help protect the body from scavengers to a degree. In the case of our sheepherder, we found part of the body with clothing still on it. This helped to impede the process of decay, leaving some parts of the body almost mummified. The liquification process still happened and the clothing was stained from it, but the clothing slowed some of the process.
The ground can also impact what happens. In our case, some of the body had been partially buried by run off, or the actions of scavengers. Those bones came out rather clean, the soft tissues consumed by whatever lived in the mud. Others were found dried when the bones had been exposed on rock faces or the like.
There are cases where the remains of the dead have been found in peat bogs and are so fresh looking that whoever found them was sure they were a recent homicide when in truth, they’d been dead for centuries.
Another thing that will have to paid attention to is the crime scene processing. Recovering a body in this condition has a lot in common with an archaelogy dig. One needs to map out where everything was found, recover as much as you can with the objective of rebuilding as much of the skeleton as possible.
There’s a reason for this. The crime scene and in this case, the body, is a witness to whatever happened to it. His crime scene no longer really exists. It’s almost impossible to say where exactly whatever happened, happened. (He does figure it out). But now he has to work backwards to figure that out, and that’s the challenge RJ finds himself facing.
So stay tuned for both books coming out sometime next year.