Her name is Alice and she "lives" in a Leesburg art studio.

Loudoun County sheriff's deputies hope that she holds the key to unraveling a mystery -- perhaps a homicide -- that they have been working on for two months now.

Alice -- actually a woman's head, fashioned in clay -- is the work of Loudoun County artist Margaret Siner, who offered to help authorities after the skeleton of an unidentified woman was found Dec. 8 in an isolated area east of Leesburg.

The remains, which a medical examiner determined were those of a woman, aged 19 to 23 and 5-foot-5 to 5-foot-7, were found by gas pipeline workers just off Rte. 653. The medical examiner said the woman had been dead for two to four months.

The skeleton was unclothed. Investigators said some brown hair, and blue jeans and tennis shoes were found nearby. Beyond that, deputies had little to go on. The body was so badly decomposed that identification was not possible, and missing-person checks with other police departments yielded nothing.

Enter Margaret Siner.

Two days after the skeleton was found, Siner was reading a newspaper over breakfast at a fast-food restaurant in Leesburg when she came upon a story about the unidentified skeleton.

Siner, who has a master's degree in fine arts from American University, had a thought. Perhaps she could help, using skills learned last summer at a five-day workshop in Alexandria taught by Betty Gatliff, an Oklahoman who Siner said is an expert in facial reconstruction.

Siner called the sheriff's office and offered to help.

"I told the officers to make sure they had the skull clean," she said in an interview this week. "Well, when I got it, it wasn't clean by my standards."

Instead, she said, it was "rather ghoulish," and for three nights she refused to sleep above her studio on Loudoun Street.

"I didn't expect for it to have the effect on me that it did," said Siner, who had reconstructed two heads during her training. " . . . It was eerie . . . . I felt like I was in the middle of a mystery novel."

She began by studying the skull's structure: making sketches and taking pictures and measurements of the nose, eye and lip areas.

Then she consulted medical textbooks to learn the average tissue depth for a person fitting the medical examiner's description. She found that 22 spots on the human skull have been measured for depth of skin and muscle tissue.

Siner placed rubber markers on the skull at those points to indicate how thick the flesh-colored clay should be layered on.

Glass eyes were put in. "I wondered what color her eyes really were," she said. "I chose brown because she had long brown hair."

Siner then began forming the clay over the skull's cheekbones, forehead and jaw. Her earlier study of human anatomy gave her the required knowledge of muscle structure, she said.

Alice had her face after about 30 hours of work. Given a wig and a cap, she turned out "gorgeous," in the eye of her creator.

Siner acknowledges that such reconstruction is an inexact science. For example, she cannot be positive of the precise shape of the dead woman's lips or eyelids. "What we would hope is that someone would recognize a family resemblance, that she would look like the sister of someone," she said.

What did she think of as she worked on Alice? "I've thought she was alone and that no one cared. Or that there are parents out there wondering where she is. They may be suffering not knowing what happened to her."