The tour of the killing field was brief. What interested the forensic scientist more than the place of death were the recovered bodies. Where they died was secondary to why he was here: to restore the names taken from them in hasty death. That was his mission, and he wanted to be about it. He cut the interpreter off in mid-sentence and asked to be taken to the tent erected as a temporary morgue. Though the UN worker seemed distracted by the change in plans, he obligingly led the way.
The group side-stepped down a steep hill, slippery from Spring rains, and reached a small valley flat enough for the large, white tent that was the morgue. The tent itself was a long slash on the valley floor, leaving barely enough room for trucks and other equipment. UN Peacekeepers in blue berets ringed the tent, their weapons at the ready. The scientist wondered why the dead had to be guarded but remembered there were some who wouldn't want the dead to have their names.
The forensic scientist was a retired aviation accident investigator, renown for his ability to identify remains in the worst possible condition. With a bit of flesh from an accident site and a DNA sample from a relative, he could provide a family with something to bury. Even before DNA sequencing made some of his job easier, he had pioneered facial reconstruction techniques for forensic identification. At the time, his work had been revolutionary. For most of the history of plane crashes, unidentifiable remains were buried in a single grave, sometimes in a single coffin.
At first, people found it incredible that he didn't need whole bodies to make an identification, that a scrap of bone could reveal gender, age, medical, or injury history to his trained eye. Because of his genius and his dedication to solving problems, many a full-sized casket went into the ground with only a hank of skin and bone. A name and date of death for a specific person could go on a marker. That mattered to loved ones left behind. The only drawback was the number of casualties in an airplane crash kept him occupied for months.
He was optimistic about this job for the UN. Identifying victims of a massacre should be child's play compared to the jigsaw puzzle of plane crash casualties. That he could bring closure to people, he was confident as he walked toward the tent. And it was a good addition to his resume. His pension was more than adequate, but there was no reason why he shouldn't take advantage of his unique skills. This might be a big enough job that he could raise his consulting fees.
When he reached the tent, he felt his confidence buoy. There were massive, portable air conditioning units pumping cold air into the structure. That meant someone knew what was needed to be done to make his work efficient. He could feel the cold air leaking from the tent and realized it would be costing a pretty penny to keep this up. And that was good. No government bean-counting here.
A soldier at the tent's opening—a Finn by the embroidered flag on his uniform—checked everyone's identification and passes, then held the tent flap aside for them to enter. The scientist was unfazed when the smells billowed from the opening.
Dank, moldy earth, and corruption past the cloyingly sweet state he was most familiar with at accident sites. He heard several of his staff gag, but he knew to breathe through his mouth. He took a small jar of Vicks VapoRub from a pocket and put a generous amount on his upper lip, atop his graying mustache. His staff passed the jar around until the biting smell of Vicks overcame everything else. The soldier smiled with some condescension. He'd been here long enough to become inured.
The scientist re-pocketed the small, blue jar, and removed his hat, exposing his bald head to the weak sun. He stepped forward, into the tent and to the side to give room for his staff.
"Jesus Christ!" someone said.
The tent covered row on row of tables, some manufactured, some makeshift. Sheets of white plastic covered each table, and atop the plastic were lumps of indistinguishable meat, an occasional skull, a femur, an ulna, a rib protruding from rotted cloth.
He hadn't been told this. These bodies and body parts had been buried for months, perhaps years. From a quick assessment he could see mounds of decaying flesh with multiple heads and too many arms. Decomposition had congealed the remains. This was madness.
"Who is in charge here?" he demanded.
From a corner of the tent a woman walked forward, a white lab coat over black BDU's. Her hands were inside latex gloves, and a bio-hazard mask covered the lower half of her face. Except for two white streaks at her temples, her hair was dark, as were her eyes, and when she spoke, it was with a cultured, English accent.
"I suppose I am. I'm Mai Fisher from the UN. You must be Dr. Clifton Hume." Her latex gloves were dark with dirt and something else, and she didn't offer a hand to shake.
"Yes, I am. This…" Hume waved a hand toward some nearby remains, barely recognizable as human. "This isn't what I expected." Fisher removed her mask, and Hume saw she was in her thirties. Good skin. She had the typical round skull of those of Celtic descent.
"This is Bosnia, Doctor," she said. "What did you expect?"
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