Dr. Ulysses Abernathy wore frameless oval glasses tinted blue-gray. Oren guessed he was five-eight or five-nine and was a little on the pudgy side. His ash brown hair was shaved on the sides and had a styled curly mound on top that likely had been doused with a liberal amount of hairspray or mousse; Oren swore he could smell it. His cheeks were dotted with freckles, standing out because his skin was so light. A dime-sized gold skull and crossbones hung from his pierced left ear, and his clothes were casual—jeans and an orange pocketless, oversized polo.
Young, Oren thought, and then corrected himself when he noticed the crinkles at the edges of Abernathy’s eyes and lips. Young-looking, but probably late thirties, maybe even a touch over the forty-year mark. A little more scrutiny, and he spotted some gray in the buzzed sides. That made Oren feel a little better.
“Dr. Neufeld,” Abernathy said with a nod. “Good to meet you.”
“And I’m happy to meet—”
Abernathy took a position by the table and plowed ahead, interrupting Annie’s pleasantries. “Interesting,” he said. “See the dent on the right side of the skull here? Forceps were used during delivery. The bone was deformed. As a person grows, the bones thicken. The skull is normal on the inside. But the dent on the outside. Forceps. No lower teeth and jaw available for inspection. Would make it a little more challenging for a facial reconstruction. But the upper teeth on cursory examination suggest that your remains are that of an eight- to ten-year-old. The teeth are not permanent, they are deciduous—milk teeth, some call them.” His voice was low-pitched and strong. Oren figured he would do well in front of a classroom.
“Because permanent teeth are in by age twelve,” Annie said.
Abernathy hummed. He pulled a pair of gloves from his pocket, put them on, and picked up pieces of vertebrae. “T1 and T2, broken. Yet to determine if post mortem, but not likely.” He looked up at Oren. “These are the first and second vertebra in the thoracic spine.”
Replacing them, he slid farther down the table and picked up the femur. “Note the diaphysis.” He pointed with his free hand. “And the epiphyses at each end? There is no fusion there, definitely a child. Look here.” Abernathy replaced the bone and indicated the arm. “Not joined, no fusion, under the age of twelve.” He made a clicking noise. “It’s the ribs. Fortunately we have the desirable third, fourth, and fifth ribs. You were lucky with these bones, Dr. Neufeld. Count your stars providential. But I’m probably not telling you anything you don’t know. I understand you were a pediatrician for many years. For the sheriff here—”
Oren did not correct him with chief deputy sheriff, though he noted Annie’s raised eyebrow.
“—the ends of these ribs are rounded, and they’d be smooth to the touch. As a man ages the ribs display pitting, and the edges here and here—they’d be sharper. I want an MRI done. X-rays are good, but not sufficient. An MRI will give us the calcium density, and that’s useful in a final determination of age. I suspect they’ll reveal that your boy was eight or nine years old. The ribs tell me that, not the ten I first mentioned as a possibility. I’m very good at this. Eight or nine. Probably nine. I’ll want to pull DNA, too, though it might not help because—” He looked to Annie. “You mentioned these remains might be forty to sixty years old.”
“They found some coins.”
“Sixty,” Oren said. “I’m leaning toward sixty.”
“That old, might be hard to trace to relatives. But you never know. MRI, DNA. Might not need to bother with facial recognition if there are dental records to compare with missing children reports. We’ll see.” Abernathy shifted his weight. “No evidence of carnivore scavenging on these bones, no rat bite marks. But the lack of some bones might indicate animals removed pieces. They’ve been subjected to repeated freezing and thawing cycles, and those reduced some of your finger and toe bones to fragments. Some evidence here and here of plant abrasion—roots growing across the body, probably into the flesh before it dissolved. Can’t tell if these bones were moved. You didn’t call me to the scene. You packed them up and brought them here.” He paused and frowned. “Then you called me. You should have called me to the scene.”
Abernathy stood a little taller and Oren figured the forensic anthropologist was thoroughly “full of himself.” Nevertheless, Oren was impressed.
“Eight or nine, eh?” Oren said.
“Probably nine.” Abernathy made the clicking sound again. “I’m always right to within a year to a year and a half. Always. But like I said, I want the MRI before I write a report. I see some evidence of nutritional deficiencies, but a further analysis will confirm that.” He made a circle of the table, picked up the skull, turned it over in his hands and replaced it. Picked up a few vertebrae to study, and then put them back down. “This arm bone is thicker than the other. See? That was the boy’s dominant side. So he was right handed. The right femur would be thicker than the left, dominant side. But we don’t have a right femur. The radius of this arm bone, and the skull—it has a more distinct ridge here—say ‘boy.’ The pelvis is not, in my opinion, strong enough evidence given the young age. Still, it all suggests ‘boy.’ Caucasian. Right handed. Nine, eight on the outside. I think—”