“I came to consult you,” she said to Milo with frosty dignity. “Would you follow me to the kitchen, please?”

Milo obediently trailed after her into the kitchen, where Bill was turning over pieces of chicken in the iron skillet. “Go ahead,” he told her. “I’m listening.”

“Well, it’s really Milo that I wanted to talk to.”

Bill shrugged. “Be my guest.”

“Okay.” She hoisted her blue canvas bag onto the table and leaned against the back of a kitchen chair. “Our assignment for tomorrow was to find three woodland herbs, and since I didn’t want to get the same stuff everybody else was finding, I took the car and drove a few miles out of town to look around in the woods out there.”

Milo groaned. “Okay. What did you find? Some fraternity’s marijuana crop?”

“Poison oak?” snickered Bill. “Or-not kudzu! I refuse to taste kudzu in any form!”

Elizabeth wrinkled her nose. “I don’t think kudzu is edible,” she decided. “But I can ask tomorrow in class if you want me to.”

“No, that’s okay,” said Milo quickly. “Just show me what you found.”

“This!” said Elizabeth dramatically.

She unzipped the canvas bag and set the skull in the middle of the kitchen table. In the center of its forehead was a neat round hole.


ELIZABETH noted their astonished faces with satisfaction. She folded her arms and waited. “Well?”

“I’ll phone the police,” Bill said hoarsely.

“No! Wait! Let me take a look at it.” Milo shook his head. “In the first place, Elizabeth, you shouldn’t have moved it. The police want to see a gravesite as undisturbed as possible.”

“Well, I didn’t want to just leave it there!” Elizabeth protested.

“Yeah, that’s a natural reaction,” Milo conceded. “I suppose you’d be able to find the place again? Did you mark it or anything?”

“No, but I think I could find it.”

Milo looked as if he wanted to embark on a lecture, but he checked himself, merely remarking: “Oh, well, as long as it’s here I might as well take a look.” He picked up the skull with practiced familiarity and peered at it closely. The lower jaw was missing, and many of the upper teeth had been broken out. The brain case was discolored with brownish streaks, and the back of the head was a gaping hole of jagged perimeters, parallel to the neat round hole in the forehead. After a moment’s scrutiny, Milo said simply, “It’s real.”

“Of course it’s real!” said Elizabeth indignantly. “What did you think it was? Plastic?”

Milo shook his head. “No. I know it’s a human skull, but I thought it might have been part of a skeleton swiped from a med school or doctor’s office. That’s been known to happen. I just checked for little steel pins in the skull, which would have held the mandible in place. They aren’t there, so it’s no lab specimen.”

“Well, of course it isn’t!” snapped Elizabeth. “I told you I found it in the woods! It’s a murder victim. Don’t you see that bullet hole in the forehead?”

Milo smiled. “Sure, I see it,” he told her. “People bring skulls like this to Dr. Lerche every now and then. Usually they turn out to be lab specimens or skulls from an Indian grave. And about twice a year, we get Yorick brought in.”

“Yorick?” echoed Bill.

“Yeah. You know-the skull from the drama department. Some fraternity wise guys steal him every so often and leave him on the steps of a girls’ dorm or on top of a parking meter. Then somebody finds him and brings him to us, thinking they’ve discovered Jimmy Hoffa or something.”

“But-this isn’t Yorick?” asked Elizabeth, pointing to the skull.

“Oh, no,” Milo assured her. “I know Yorick on sight. This guy is much younger. And he’s been in the ground awhile. Yorick is bleached a nice glossy white.”

“Anyway, Yorick didn’t have a hole in his forehead, did he?” asked Bill.

“Not the last time I saw him,” said Milo. “But that’s what I started to tell you. We get skulls brought in with bullet holes in them, but they’re usually not murder victims. They’re skulls from Indian graves or people who died from natural causes, and some hunter has found the skull and used it for target practice.”

Elizabeth sat down. “Oh,” she said in a small voice. “I never thought of that.”

“Sure. It’s amazing what clowns some people are. So before we jump to any conclusions about murder, we examine the bullet hole to see if we can determine whether it’s a new hole in an old skull or the original death wound.” He lifted the skull again and peered at the small, neat hole.

Bill and Elizabeth watched the examination in uncomfortable silence. Finally Elizabeth burst out: “Stop being so mysterious, Milo! Tell us what you think!”

Milo looked thoughtful. “Well, I wouldn’t want to say for sure without Dr. Lerche to back me up, but if you insist on having an answer right this minute…” He glanced at his audience and saw that this was indeed the case. “Okay, now remember I can’t be positive, but I’d say that the indications are that this is not a postmortem injury. There are no cracks radiating from the entry wound, and the bone on the inside of the hole is the same brownish color as the exterior. New breaks show whiter bone.”

“You mean he was murdered?” asked Elizabeth, leaning down to look at the skull.

“I think he was shot while he was still alive,” said Milo carefully.

“Same thing!” Elizabeth declared, slapping the table. “Hah! I knew it! Call the police, Bill.”

“Hold it, Bill,” said Milo. “I’d like to check out the site before you get the cops out there tramping all over the evidence. This guy”-he pointed to the skull-“has been in the ground for at least five years, judging by those soil stains and root marks. Another couple of hours isn’t going to make much difference.”

“Five years, huh?” said Bill thoughtfully. “Did anybody disappear around here five years ago? Wasn’t there a camper from Richmond…”

Milo gave him a disgusted look. “You don’t think it’s that easy, do you? It could be five years or fifty, Bill. Once it’s been in the ground for more than two years, it’s hard to pinpoint age. I mean, I can tell you that this guy died around age… oh… twenty-five to forty…” He ran his fingers along the lines on the top of the skull and nodded. “Yep. Say thirty-five when he died. But I don’t know whether he was thirty-five in 1980 or 1880. It’s a tricky business.”

“A lot of help you are,” Elizabeth remarked.

Milo stood up. “Well, I might do better if I could see the actual site. Take me to where you found him.”

Bill flipped off the burner under the pan of chicken. “I take it nobody’s hungry any more?”

No one paid him any mind. Elizabeth got up and was following Milo into the living room, listening to him expound on the fine points of site investigation.

Bill gazed sadly at the skull, still sitting in the middle of the table. “I don’t suppose you’re hungry either?” He tossed the potholder on the countertop and went off to join the expedition.

“Why do I have to sit in the back? My legs don’t bend this way!”

“I’m driving,” said Elizabeth, glancing at her brother in the rearview mirror. He was stuffed into the back of her Volkswagen, all legs and elbows, looking like an improperly folded jack-in-the-box.

“I’m consulting,” said Milo. “Consultants always get the front seat. You’re just a tourist. Now, Elizabeth, how far is this place?”

“Couple of miles. Don’t worry. I know where I’m going. It’s on your side of the road, past a church, a couple of barns, and a darling little black goat.”

“A darling little black goat!” mimicked Bill. “Gimme a break! Whatever possessed you to take this screwball course anyway? Couldn’t you find one on Scottish history?”

Elizabeth frowned. “They don’t offer one here. Anyway, I don’t see why you tease me about being interested in the family origins. If you aren’t proud of being a MacPherson, I certainly am.”

“Well, if you’re interested in the family origins, you ought to take Milo’s course,” Bill suggested.

Elizabeth glanced at Milo. “Oh? What are you teaching?”

“Uh…” Milo looked uncomfortable. “I’m just the lab instructor, really.”

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