We were parked outside the one-armed man's house, photographer Edmund Fountain and I. We'd been waiting an hour or so for some sign of movement, some signal that he was inside, so we could approach him and ask if he'd answer our questions.
More than 300 men were claiming that the man, Troy Tidwell, had abused them — beat them bloody with a thick leather strap — while they were in state custody decades ago at the Florida School for Boys, on the edge of the Panhandle town of Marianna. He wasn't answering his phone or door, so we staked out his house and waited.
That's when I noticed in the rearview mirror a man walking toward us, carrying a long metal rod.
I shouldn't repeat what I said in the car that day, but for a tense dozen seconds we braced for a violent confrontation. About the time the man reached our rear bumper, he turned, stepped onto a lawn and used the metal rod to lift the heavy cover off a water meter.
We breathed, then felt silly for letting our imaginations run wild.
I thought about that incident, and several others Edmund and I experienced while reporting a series of stories about the reform school in 2009, as I read the latest Body Farm novel from Jefferson Bass, the name used by the writing team of Jon Jefferson and Bill Bass: The Bone Yard. The book is full of that kind of creepy small-town tension we often felt.
The novel is based on real events and real characters at the Florida School for Boys, which has had half a dozen names since it opened in 1900, most recently the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys. The authors rename it yet again (the North Florida Boys' Reformatory) and fictionalize the town (Marianna is McNary), but there are plenty of facts sprinkled throughout the book. (There really is a greasy spoon called the Waffle Iron in Marianna.) That makes for a particularly chilling read if you've paid any attention to the flesh-and-blood story of abuses at the school.
The Bone Yard begins with Dr. Bill Brockton, founder of the human-decomposition research facility at the University of Tennessee, agreeing to help a forensic analyst with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement determine whether her sister's death was murder or suicide, which serves as a sort of subnarrative throughout the book. Brockton's short consulting trip to Florida is disrupted when the FDLE is alerted that a hound has unearthed a boy's skull on land near the reform school. In the novel, the school was closed in the 1960s after a fire killed several boys, so the property has been vacant for years.
When another skull is unearthed by the same dog in the same area, and when it's determined that both boys were homicide victims, Brockton agrees to lend his expertise to the FDLE. He and a team of investigators eventually find the mother lode of human remains, a hidden graveyard with all sorts of boys' skeletons. The authors' technical, detailed descriptions of the forensic techniques Brockton and others employ as they exhume the bodies and determine cause of death is interesting reading, even if you're not a fan of CSI.
The story is spiced when the investigators run into opposition during their quest to determine how the boys died. The local snuff-spitting sheriff has secrets. The former chief of the school knows more than he's saying. Someone has killed the dog that found the skull, and its owner. And a villain thought dead, the abusive one-armed guard at the school called Cockroach, appears out of nowhere to . . . well, we're not exactly sure why he comes back.
In a dramatic scene, Cockroach, a nickname for Seth Cochran, says the locals thought he was dead, and he let them think that. They even buried an empty coffin. He moved to west Texas after the fire to start a new life.
"Stayed there for 40 years, under the radar," he tells Brockton, "till you came along and started pulling skeletons out of the closet."
This leaves us wondering why he returned if no one knew he was alive, but it isn't a big distraction because the story is frothing at this point, nearing its bloody and frightening climax.
The convergence of truth and fiction in the book is fascinating and also disheartening. It left me wishing Bass' story were true, that some caring and capable forensic anthropologist had exhumed bodies from the very real cemetery, called Boot Hill, where 31 very real crosses mark very real graves. Made me wish that the very real one-armed guard would resurface, or at least answer his door.
Ben Montgomery can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 310-6066. The St. Petersburg Times' series on the Florida School for Boys can be found at tampabay.com/specials/2009/reports/marianna.