Also By Kathy Reichs
DEATH DU JOUR
1230 Avenue of the Americas
New York, NY 10020
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2003 by Temperance Brennan, L.P.
All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form.
SCRIBNER and design are trademarks of Macmillan Library Reference USA, Inc., used under license by Simon & Schuster, the publisher of this work.
DESIGNED BY ERICH HOBBING
Text set in Stempel Garamond
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Bare bones/Kathy Reichs.
1. Brennan, Temperance (Fictitious character)—Fiction. 2. Forensic anthropology—Fiction. 3. Women anthropologists—Fiction. 4. Endangered species—Fiction. 5. Smuggling—Fiction. 6. North Carolina—Fiction. I. Title.
Visit us on the World Wide Web:
Dedicated to all those fighting to protect our precious wildlife,
The United States Fish and Wildlife Service
The World Wildlife Foundation
The Animals Asia Foundation
I WISH TO EXPRESS GRATITUDE TO CAPTAIN JOHN GALLAGHER (retired); to Detective John Appel, Guilford County, North Carolina, Sheriff ’s Department (retired); to Detective Chris Dozier, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department; and, especially, to Ira J. Rimson, P.E., for help with the Cessna/drug scenario.
Many of those working to protect endangered wildlife gave generously of their time and expertise. Special thanks to Bonnie C. Yates, forensics specialist, Morphology/Mammals Team Leader, and Ken Goddard, director, Clark R. Bavin National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory; to Lori Brown, investigative assistant, and Tom Bennett, resident agent in charge, United States Fish and Wildlife Service; and to Agent Howard Phelps, Carolyn Simmons, and the staff at the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. You are on the front lines, battling to save what we can’t afford to lose. Your efforts are appreciated.
David M. Bird, Ph.D., McGill University, provided information on threatened bird species. Randy Pearce, DDS, and James W. Williams, J.D., shared their knowledge of the Melungeons of Tennessee. Eric Buel, Ph.D., director, Vermont Forensics Laboratory, coached me on amelogenin. Michael Baden, M.D., and Claude Pothel, M.D., enlightened me on the details of diatoms and death by drowning.
Captain Barry Faile, Lancaster County Sheriff’s Department, and Michael Morris, Lancaster County coroner, were patient with my questions. Michael Sullivan, M.D., welcomed me at the Mecklenburg County Medical Examiner facility. Terry Pitts, D.Min., NCFD, offered suggestions on funeral home basements. Judy H. Morgan, GRI, kept me accurate on Charlotte real estate and geography.
I appreciate the continued support of Chancellor James Woodward of the University of North Carolina–Charlotte. Merci to André Lauzon, M.D., chef de service, and to all of my colleagues at the Laboratoire de Sciences Judiciaires et de Médecine Légale.
A thousand thanks to Jim Junot for answers to a million questions.
Thanks to Paul Reichs for comments on the manuscript, and to the whole ragtag beach bunch for title suggestions and other minutiae.
My incredibly patient and brilliant editor, Susanne Kirk, took a rough piece of work and made it flow.
A special thanks to my supersonic agent, Jennifer Rudolph Walsh. You delivered Wyatt Z. the same day I delivered Bare Bones. It was a very good year.
AS I WAS PACKAGING WHAT REMAINED OF THE DEAD BABY, THE man I would kill was burning pavement north toward Charlotte.
I didn’t know that at the time. I’d never heard the man’s name, knew nothing of the grisly game in which he was a player.
At that moment I was focused on what I would say to Gideon Banks. How would I break the news that his grandchild was dead, his youngest daughter on the run?
My brain cells had been bickering all morning. You’re a forensic anthropologist, the logic guys would say. Visiting the family is not your responsibility. The medical examiner will report your findings. The homicide detective will deliver the news. A phone call.
All valid points, the conscience guys would counter. But this case is different. You know Gideon Banks.
I felt a deep sadness as I tucked the tiny bundle of bones into its container, fastened the lid, and wrote a file number across the plastic. So little to examine. Such a short life.
As I secured the tub in an evidence locker, the memory cells floated an image of Gideon Banks. Wrinkled brown face, fuzzy gray hair, voice like ripping duct tape.
Expand the image.
A small man in a plaid flannel shirt arcing a string mop across a tile floor.
The memory cells had been offering the same image all morning. Though I’d tried to conjure up others, this one kept reappearing.
Gideon Banks and I had worked together at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte for almost two decades until his retirement three years back. I’d periodically thanked him for keeping my office and lab clean, given him birthday cards and a small gift each Christmas. I knew he was conscientious, polite, deeply religious, and devoted to his kids.
And he kept the corridors spotless.
That was it. Beyond the workplace, our lives did not connect.
Until Tamela Banks placed her newborn in a woodstove and vanished.
Crossing to my office, I booted up my laptop and spread my notes across the desktop. I’d barely begun my report when a form filled the open doorway.
“A home visit really is above and beyond.”
I hit “save” and looked up.
The Mecklenburg County medical examiner was wearing green surgical scrubs. A stain on his right shoulder mimicked the shape of Massachusetts in dull red.
“I don’t mind.” Like I didn’t mind suppurating boils on my buttocks.
“I’ll be glad to speak to him.”
Tim Larabee might have been handsome were it not for his addiction to running. The daily marathon training had wizened his body, thinned his hair, and leatherized his face. The perpetual tan seemed to gather in the hollows of his cheeks, and to pool around eyes set way too deep. Eyes that were now crimped with concern.
“Next to God and the Baptist church, family has been the cornerstone of Gideon Banks’s life,” I said. “This will shake him.”
“Perhaps it’s not as bad as it seems.”
I gave Larabee the Look. We’d had this conversation an hour earlier.
“All right.” He raised a sinewy hand. “It seems bad. I’m sure Mr. Banks will appreciate the personal input. Who’s driving you?”
“Your lucky day.”
“I wanted to go alone, but Slidell refused to take no for an answer.”
“Not Skinny?” Mock surprise.
“I think Skinny’s hoping for some kind of lifetime achievement award.”
“I think Skinny’s hoping to get laid.”
I pegged a pen at him. He batted it down.
Larabee withdrew. I heard the autopsy room door click open, then shut.
I checked my watch. Three forty-two. Slidell would be here in twenty minutes. The brain cells did a collective cringe. On Skinny there was cerebral agreement.
I shut the computer down and leaned back in my chair.
What would I say to Gideon Banks?
Bad luck, Mr. Banks. Looks like your youngest gave birth, wrapped the tyke in a blanket, and used him as kindling.
Wham-o! The visual cells sent up a new mental image. Banks pulling a Kodak print from a cracked leather wallet. Six brown faces. Close haircuts for the boys, pigtails for the girls. All with teeth too big for the smiles.
The old man beaming over the photo, adamant that each child would go to college.
I slipped off my lab coat and hung it on the hook behind my door.
If the Banks kids had attended UNC–Charlotte while I was on the faculty, they’d shown little interest in anthropology. I’d met only one. Reggie, a son midrange in the offspring chronology, had taken my human evolution course.
The memory cells offered a gangly kid in a baseball cap, brim low over razor-blade brows. Last row in the lecture hall. A intellect, C+ effort.
How long ago? Fifteen years? Eighteen?
I’d worked with a lot of students back then. In those days my research focused on the ancient dead, and I’d taught several undergraduate classes. Bioarchaeology. Osteology. Primate ecology.
One morning an anthro grad showed up at my lab. A homicide detective with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg PD, she’d brought bones recovered from a shallow grave. Could her former prof determine if the remains were those of a missing child?
I could. They were.
That case was my first encounter with coroner work. Today the only seminar I teach is in forensic anthropology, and I commute between Charlotte and Montreal serving as forensic anthropologist to each jurisdiction.
The geography had been difficult when I’d taught full-time, requiring complex choreography within the academic calendar. Now, save for the duration of that single seminar, I shift as needed. A few weeks north, a few weeks south, longer when casework or court testimony requires.
North Carolina and Quebec? Long story.
My academic colleagues call what I do “applied.” Using my knowledge of bones, I tease details from cadavers and skeletons, or parts thereof, too compromised for autopsy. I give names to the skeletal, the decomposed, the mummified, the burned, and the mutilated, who might otherwise go to anonymous graves. For some, I determine the manner and time of their passing.
With Tamela’s baby there’d been but a cup of charred fragments. A newborn is chump change to a woodstove.
Mr. Banks, I’m so sorry to have to tell you, but—
My cell phone sounded.
“Yo, Doc. I’m parked out front.” Skinny Slidell. Of the twenty-four detectives in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg PD Felony Investigative Bureau/Homicide Unit, perhaps my least favorite.
“Be right there.”
I’d been in Charlotte several weeks when an informant’s tip led to the shocking discovery in the woodstove. The bones had come to me. Slidell and his partner had caught the case as a homicide. They’d tossed the scene, tracked down witnesses, taken statements. Everything led to Tamela Banks.
I shouldered my purse and laptop and headed out. In passing, I stuck my head into the autopsy room. Larabee looked up from his gunshot victim and waggled a gloved finger in warning.
My reply was an exaggerated eye roll.
The Mecklenburg County Medical Examiner facility occupies one end of a featureless brick shoebox that entered life as a Sears Garden Center. The other end of the shoebox houses satellite offices of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department. Devoid of architectural charm save a slight rounding of the edges, the building is surrounded by enough asphalt to pave Rhode Island.
As I exited the double glass doors, my nostrils drank in an olfactory cocktail of exhaust, smog, and hot pavement. Heat radiated from the building walls, and from the brick steps connecting it to a small tentacle of the parking lot.
Hot town. Summer in the city.
A black woman sat in the vacant lot across College Street, back to a sycamore, elephant legs stretched full length on the grass. The woman was fanning herself with a newspaper, animatedly arguing some point with a nonexistent adversary.
A man in a Hornets jersey was muscling a shopping cart up the sidewalk in the direction of the county services building. He stopped just past the woman, wiped his forehead with the crook of his arm, and checked his cargo of plastic bags.
Noticing my gaze, the cart man waved. I waved back.
Slidell’s Ford Taurus idled at the bottom of the stairs, AC blasting, tinted windows full up. Descending, I opened the back door, shoved aside file folders, a pair of golf shoes stuffed with audiotapes, two Burger King bags, and a squeeze tube of suntan lotion, and wedged my computer into the newly created space.
Erskine “Skinny” Slidell undoubtedly thought of himself as “old school,” though God alone knew what institution would claim him. With his knockoff Ray-Bans, Camel breath, and four-letter speech, Slidell was an unwittingly self-created caricature of a Hollywood cop. People told me he was good at his job. I found it hard to believe.
At the moment of my approach Dirty Harry was checking his lower incisors in the rearview mirror, lips curled back in a monkey-fear grimace.
Hearing the rear door open, Slidell jumped, and his hand shot to the mirror. As I slid into the passenger seat, he was fine-tuning the rearview with the diligence of an astronaut adjusting Hubble.
“Doc.” Slidell kept his faux Ray-Bans pointed at the mirror.
“Detective.” I nodded, placed my purse at my feet, and closed the door.
At last satisfied with the angle of reflection, Slidell abandoned the mirror, shifted into gear, crossed the lot, and shot across College onto Phifer.
We rode in silence. Though the temperature in the car was thirty degrees lower than that outside, the air was thick with its own blend of odors. Old Whoppers and fries. Sweat. Bain de Soleil. The bamboo mat on which Slidell parked his ample backside.
Skinny Slidell himself. The man smelled and looked like an “after” shot for an antismoking poster. During the decade and a half I’d been consulting for the Mecklenburg County ME, I’d had the pleasure of working with Slidell on several occasions. Each had been a trip to Aggravation Row. This case promised to be another.
The Bankses’ home was in the Cherry neighborhood, just southeast of I-277, Charlotte’s version of an inner beltway. Cherry, unlike many inner-city quartiers, had not enjoyed the renaissance experienced in recent years by Dilworth and Elizabeth to the west and north. While those neighborhoods had integrated and yuppified, Cherry’s fortunes had headed south. But the community held true to its ethnic roots. It started out black and remained so today.
Within minutes Slidell passed an Autobell car wash, turned left off Independence Boulevard onto a narrow street, then right onto another. Oaks and magnolias thirty, forty, a hundred years old threw shadows onto modest frame and brick houses. Laundry hung limp on clotheslines. Sprinklers ticked and whirred, or lay silent at the ends of garden hoses. Bicycles and Big Wheels dotted yards and walkways.
Slidell pulled to the curb halfway up the block, and jabbed a thumb at a small bungalow with dormer windows jutting from the roof. The siding was brown, the trim white.
“Beats the hell outta that rat’s nest where the kid got fried. Thought I’d catch scabies tossing that dump.”
“Scabies is caused by mites.” My voice was chillier than the car interior.
“Exactly. You wouldn’t have believed that shithole.”
“You should have worn gloves.”
“You got that right. And a respirator. These people—”
“What people would that be, Detective?”
“Some folks live like pigs.”
“Gideon Banks is a hardworking, decent man who raised six children largely on his own.”
“Wife beat feet?”
“Melba Banks died of breast cancer ten years ago.” There. I did know something about my coworker.
The radio crackled some message that was lost on me.
“Still don’t excuse kids dropping their shorts with no regard for consequences. Get jammed up? No-o-o-o problem. Have an abortion.”
Slidell killed the engine and turned the Ray-Bans on me.
“There may be some explanation for Tamela Banks’s actions.”
I didn’t really believe that, had spent all morning taking the opposite position with Tim Larabee. But Slidell was so irritating I found myself playing devil’s advocate.
“Right. And the chamber of commerce will probably name her mother of the year.”
“Have you met Tamela?” I asked, forcing my voice level.
“No. Have you?”
No. I ignored Slidell’s question.
“Have you met any of the Banks family?”
“No, but I took statements from folks who were snorting lines in the next room while Tamela incinerated her kid.” Slidell pocketed the keys. “Excusez-moi if I haven’t dropped in for tea with the lady and her relations.”
“You’ve never had to deal with any of the Banks kids because they were raised with good, solid values. Gideon Banks is as straitlaced as—”
“The mutt Tamela’s screwing ain’t close to straight up.”
“The baby’s father?”
“Unless Miss Hot Pants was entertaining while Daddy was dealing.”
Easy! The man is a cockroach.
“Who is he?”
“His name is Darryl Tyree. Tamela was shacking up in Tyree’s little piece of heaven out on South Tryon.”
“Tyree sells drugs?”
“And we’re not talking the Eckerd’s pharmacy.” Slidell hit the door handle and got out.
I bit back a response. One hour. It’s over.
A stab of guilt. Over for me, but what about Gideon Banks? What about Tamela and her dead baby?
I joined Slidell on the sidewalk.
“Je-zus. It’s hot enough to burn a polar bear’s butt.”
“I should be at the beach.”
Yes, I thought. Under four tons of sand.
I followed Slidell up a narrow walk littered with fresh-mown grass to a small cement stoop. He pressed a thumb to a rusted button beside the front door, dug a hanky from his back pocket, and wiped his face.
Slidell knocked on a wooden portion of the screen door.
Slidell knocked again. His forehead glistened and his hair was separating into wet clumps.
“Police, Mr. Banks.”
Slidell banged with the heel of his hand. The screen door rattled in its frame.
Condensation dripped from a window AC to the left of the door. A lawn mower whined in the distance. Hip-hop drifted from somewhere up the block.
Slidell banged again. A dark crescent winked from his gray polyester armpit.
The AC’s compressor kicked on. A dog barked.
Slidell yanked the screen.
Pounded on the wooden door.
Bam! Bam! Bam!
Released the screen. Barked his demand.
“Police! Anyone there?”
Across the street, a curtain flicked, dropped back into place.
Had I imagined it?
A drop of perspiration rolled down my back to join the others soaking my bra and waistband.
At that moment my cell phone rang.
That call swept me into a vortex of events that ultimately led to my taking a life.
“Pig pickin’!” My daughter gave a series of guttural snorts. “Barbecue!”
“Can’t talk now, Katy.”
I turned a shoulder to Slidell, pressing the cell phone tight to my ear to hear Katy over the static.
Slidell knocked again, this time with Gestapo force. “Mr. Banks!”
“I’ll pick you up at noon tomorrow,” Katy said.
“I know nothing about cigars,” I said, speaking as softly as I could. Katy wanted me to accompany her to a picnic given by the owner of a cigar and pipe store. I had no idea why.
“You eat barbecue.”
Bam! Bam! Bam! The screen door danced in its frame.
“You like bluegrass.” Katy could be persistent.
At that moment the inner door opened and a woman scowled through the screen. Though he had an inch on her in height, the woman had Slidell hands down in poundage.
“Is Gideon Banks at home?” Slidell barked.
“Katy, I’ve got to go,” I whispered.
“Boyd’s looking forward to this. There’s something he wants to discuss with you.” Boyd is my estranged husband’s dog. Conversations with or about Boyd usually lead to trouble.
Slidell held his badge to the screen.
“Pick you up at noon?” My daughter could be as unrelenting as Skinny Slidell.
“All right,” I hissed, punching the “end” button.
The woman studied the badge, arms akimbo like a prison guard.
I pocketed the phone.
The woman’s eyes crawled from the badge to my companion, then to me.
“I think it might be best to wake him,” I jumped in, hoping to defuse Slidell.
“This about Tamela?”
“I’m Tamela’s sister. Geneva. Like Switzerland.” Her tone suggested she’d said that before.
Geneva backhanded the screen. This time the spring made a sound like piano keys.
Removing his shades, Slidell squeezed past her. I followed, into a small, dim living room. An archway opened onto a hall directly opposite our entry point. I could see a kitchen to the right with a closed door beyond, two closed doors to the left, a bath straight ahead at the end.
Six kids. I could only imagine the competition for shower and sink time.
Our hostess let the screen whrrrrppp to its frame, pushed the inner door shut, and turned to face us. Her skin was a deep, chocolate brown, the sclera of her eyes the pale yellow of pine nuts. I guessed her age to be mid-twenties.
“Geneva is a beautiful name,” I said for lack of a better opening. “Have you been to Switzerland?”
Geneva looked at me a long time, face devoid of expression. Perspiration dotted the brow and temples from which her hair had been pulled straight back. The lone window unit apparently cooled another room.
“I get Daddy.”
She tipped her head toward a worn couch on the right wall of the living room. Curtains framing the open window above hung limp with heat and humidity.
“Wanna sit.” It was more a statement than a question.
“Thank you,” I said.
Geneva waddled toward the archway, shorts bunching between her thighs. A small, stiff ponytail stuck straight out from the back of her head.
As Slidell and I took opposite ends of the couch, I heard a door open, then the tinny sound of a gospel station. Seconds later the music was truncated.
I looked around.
The decorating was nouveau Wal-Mart. Linoleum. Vinyl recliner. Oak-laminate coffee and end tables. Plastic palms.
But a loving hand was clearly present.
The frilled curtains behind us smelled of laundry detergent and Downy. A rip on my armrest had been carefully darned. Every surface gleamed.
Bookshelves and tabletops overflowed with framed photos and crudely made objets d’art. A garishly painted clay bird. A ceramic plate with the impression of a tiny hand, the name Reggie arching below. A box constructed of Popsicle sticks. Dozens of cheap trophies. Shoulder pads and helmets encased forever in gold-coated plastic. A jump shot. A cut at a fastball.
I surveyed the snapshots closest to me. Christmas mornings. Birthday parties. Athletic teams. Each memory was preserved in a dime-store frame.
Slidell picked up a throw pillow, raised his brows, set it back between us. God is Love, embroidered in blue and green. Melba’s handiwork?
The sadness I’d been feeling all morning intensified as I thought of six children losing their mother. Of Tamela’s doomed infant.
The pillow. The photos. The school and team memorabilia. Save for the portrait of a black Jesus hanging above the archway, I could have been sitting in my childhood home in Beverly, on the south side of Chicago. Beverly was shade trees, and PTA bake sales, and morning papers lying on the porch. Our tiny brick bungalow was my Green Gables, my Ponderosa, my starship Enterprise until the age of seven. Until despair over her infant son’s death propelled my mother back to her beloved Carolina, husband and daughters following in her mournful wake.
I loved that house, felt loved and protected in it. I sensed those same feelings clinging to this place.
Slidell pulled out his hanky and mopped his face.
“Hope the old man scores the air-conditioned bedroom.” Spoken through one side of his mouth. “With six kids, I suppose he’d be lucky just to score a bedroom.”
I ignored him.
Heat magnified the smells inside the tiny house. Onions. Cooking oil. Wood polish. Whatever was used to scrub the linoleum.
Who scrubbed it? I wondered. Tamela? Geneva? Banks himself?
I studied the black Jesus. Same robe, same thorny crown, same open palms. Only the Afro and skin tones differed from the one that had hung over my mother’s bed.
Slidell sighed audibly, hooked his collar with a finger, and pulled it from his neck.
I looked at the linoleum. A pebble pattern, gray and white.
Like the bones and ash from the woodstove.
What will I say?
At that moment a door opened. A gospel group singing “Going On in the Name of the Lord.” The swish of padded soles on linoleum.
Gideon Banks looked smaller than I remembered, all bone and sinew. That was wrong, somehow. Backward. He should have seemed larger in his own space. King of the realm. Paterfamilias. Was my recall incorrect? Had age shriveled him? Or worry?
Banks hesitated in the archway, and his lids crimped behind their heavy lenses. Then he straightened, crossed to the recliner, and lowered himself, gnarled hands gripping the armrests.
Slidell leaned forward. I cut him off.
“Thank you for seeing us, Mr. Banks.”
Banks nodded. He was wearing Hush Puppies slippers, gray work pants, and an orange bowling shirt. His arms looked like twigs sprouting from the sleeves.
“Your home is lovely.”
“Have you lived here long?”
“Forty-seven years come November.”
“I couldn’t help noticing your pictures.” I indicated the photo collection. “You have a beautiful family.”
“It’s jus’ Geneva and me here now. Geneva my second oldest. She hep me out. Tamela my youngest. She lef’ a couple months ago.”
In the corner of my eye I noticed Geneva move into the archway.
“I think you know why we’re here, Mr. Banks.” I was flailing about for a way to begin.
“Yes’m, I do. You lookin’ for Tamela.”
Slidell did some “get on with it” throat clearing.
“I’m very sorry to have to tell you, Mr. Banks, but material recovered from Tamela’s living room stove—”
“Weren’t Tamela’s place,” Banks broke in.
“The property was rented to one Darryl Tyree,” Slidell said. “According to witnesses, your daughter’d been living with Mr. Tyree for approximately four months.”
Banks’s eyes never left my face. Eyes filled with pain.
“Weren’t Tamela’s place,” Banks repeated. His tone wasn’t angry or argumentative, more that of a man wanting the record correct.
My shirt felt sticky against my back, the cheap upholstery scratchy under my forearms. I took a deep breath, started again.
“Material recovered from the stove in that house included fragments of bone from a newborn baby.”
My words seemed to catch him off guard. I heard a sharp intake of breath, and noticed his chin cock up a fraction.
“Tamela only seventeen. She a good girl.”
“She weren’t with child.”
“Yes, sir, she was.”
“Who say that?”
“We have that information from more than one source.” Slidell.
Banks considered a moment. Then, “Why you go looking in someone’s stove?”
“An informant stated that an infant had been burned at that address. We investigate such reports.”
Slidell didn’t point out that the tip came from Harrison “Sonny” Pounder, a street-corner dopeman bargaining for favor after his recent bust.
“Who say that?”
“That’s not important.” Irritation sharpened Slidell’s tone. “We need to know Tamela’s whereabouts.”
Banks pushed to his feet and shuffled to the nearest bookshelf. Easing back into the recliner, he handed me a photo.
I looked at the girl in the picture, acutely conscious of Banks’s eyes on my face. And of his second oldest looming in the archway.
Tamela wore a short-skirted gold jumper with a black W on the front panel. She sat with one knee bent, one leg straight out behind her, hands on her hips, surrounded by a circle of gold and white pom-poms. Her smile was enormous, her eyes bright with happiness. Two barrettes sparkled in her short, curly hair.
“Your daughter was a cheerleader,” I said.
“My daughter tried cheerleading when she was seven,” I said. “Pop Warner football, for the little kids. Decided she preferred playing on the team to cheering.”
“They all have their own mine, I guess.”
“Yes, sir. They do.”
Banks handed me a second photo, this one a Polaroid.
“That Mr. Darryl Tyree,” Banks said.
Tamela stood beside a tall, thin man wearing gold chains around his neck and a black do-rag on his head. One spidery arm was draped over Tamela’s shoulders. Though the girl was smiling, the fire was gone from her eyes. Her face looked drawn, her whole body tense.
I handed the photos back.
“Do you know where Tamela is, Mr. Banks?” I asked softly.
“Tamela a grown girl now. She say I can’t axe.”
“If we can just talk to her, perhaps there’s an explanation for all this.”
More silence, longer this time.
“Are you acquainted with Mr. Tyree?” Slidell asked.
“Tamela gonna finish high school, same’s Reggie, ’n’ Harley, ’n’ Jonah, ’n’ Sammy. Din’t have no problem with drugs or boys.”
We let that hang a moment. When Banks didn’t continue Slidell prodded.
“Then Darryl Tyree come along.” Banks practically spit the name, the first sign of anger I’d seen. “’Fore long she forget her books, spend all her time moonin’ over Tyree, worryin’ when he gonna show up.”
Banks looked from Slidell to me.
“She think I don’t know, but I heard about Darryl Tyree. I tole her he weren’t no fit company, tole her he weren’t to be comin’ round here no more.”
“Is that when she moved out?” I asked.
“When did that happen?”
“Roun’ Easter time. ’Bout four months back.”
Banks’s eyes glistened.
“I knew she had somethin’ on her mine. I thought it was jus’ Tyree. Sweet Jesus, I din’t know she was with child.”
“Did you know she was living with Mr. Tyree?”
“I didn’t axe, Lord forgive me. But I figured she’d went over to his place.”
“Do you have any idea why your daughter might have wanted to harm her baby?”
“No, ma’am. Tamela a good girl.”
“Might Mr. Tyree have placed pressure on your daughter because he didn’t want the child?”
“Weren’t like that.”
We all turned at the sound of Geneva’s voice.
She gazed at us dully, in her shapeless blouse and terrible shorts.
“What do you mean?”
“Tamela tells me things, you know what I’m sayin’?”
“She confides in you?” I said.
“Yeah. Confides in me. Tells me things she can’t tell Daddy.”
“What she can’t tell me?” Banks’s voice sounded high and wheedly.
“Lots of stuff, Daddy. She couldn’t talk to you about Darryl. You shouting at her, tryin’ to get her to pray all the time.”
“I got to be thinkin’ ’bout her sou—”
“Did Tamela discuss her relationship with Darryl Tyree?” Slidell cut Banks off.
“Did she tell you she was pregnant?”
“When was that?”
Geneva shrugged. “Last winter.”
Banks’s shoulders slumped visibly.
“Do you know where your sister is?”
Geneva ignored Slidell’s question.
“What d’you find in Darryl’s woodstove?”
“Charred fragments of bone,” I replied.
“You sure they from a baby?”
“Maybe that baby was born dead.”
“There is always that possibility.” I doubted the words even as I spoke them, but couldn’t bear the look of sadness in Geneva’s eyes. “That’s why we have to locate Tamela and find out what really happened. Something other than murder could explain the baby’s death. I very much hope that turns out to be true.”
“Maybe the baby come too early.”
“I’m an expert on bones, Geneva. I can recognize changes that take place in the skeleton of a developing fetus.”
I reminded myself of the KISS principle. Keep It Simple, Stupid.
“Tamela’s baby was full-term.”
“What’s that mean?”
“The pregnancy lasted the full thirty-seven weeks, or very close to it. Long enough that the baby should have survived.”
“There could have been problems.”
“There could have been.”
“How d’you know that was Tamela’s baby?”
Slidell jumped in, ticking off points on his sausage fingers.
“Number one, several witnesses have stated that your sister was pregnant. Two, the bones were found in a stove at her residence. And three, she and Tyree have disappeared.”
“Could be someone else’s baby.”
“And I could be Mother Teresa, but I ain’t.”
Geneva turned back to me.
“What about that DNA stuff?”
“The fragments were too few and too badly burned for DNA testing.”
Geneva showed no reaction.
“Do you know where your sister has gone, Miss Banks?” Slidell’s tone was growing sharper.
“Is there anything you can tell us?” I asked.
“Just one thing.”
Geneva looked from her father to me to Slidell. White woman. White cop. Bad choices.
Deciding the woman might be safer, she launched her bombshell in my direction.
AS SLIDELL DROVE BACK TO MY CAR, I TRIED TO QUELL MY emotions, to remember that I was a professional.
I felt sadness for Tamela and her baby. Annoyance at Slidell’s callous treatment of the Banks family. Anxiety over all I had to accomplish in the next two days.
I’d promised to spend Saturday with Katy, had company arriving on Sunday. Monday I was leaving on the first nonfamily vacation I’d allowed myself in years.
Don’t get me wrong. I love my annual family trek to the beach. My sister, Harry, and my nephew Kit fly up from Houston, and all my estranged husband’s Latvian relatives head east from Chicago. If no litigation is in process, Pete joins us for a few days. We rent a twelve-bedroom house near Nags Head, or Wilmington, or Charleston, or Beaufort, ride bikes, lie on the beach, watch What About Bob?, read novels, and reestablish extended-kin bonds. Beach week is a time of relaxed togetherness that is cherished by all.
This trip was going to be different.
Again and again, I ran a mental checklist.
Reports. Laundry. Groceries. Cleaning. Packing. Birdie to Pete.
Sidebar. I hadn’t heard from Pete in over a week. That was odd. Though we’d lived apart for several years, I usually saw or heard from him regularly. Our daughter, Katy. His dog, Boyd. My cat, Birdie. His Illinois relatives. My Texas and Carolina relatives. Some common link usually threw us together every few days. Besides, I liked Pete, still enjoyed his company. I just couldn’t be married to him.
I made a note to ask Katy if her dad had gone out of town. Or fallen in love.
Back to the list.
I added an item. Guest room sheets.
I’d never get it all done.
By the time Slidell dropped me in the ME parking lot, tension was hardening my neck muscles and sending tentacles of pain up the back of my head.
The heat that had built up in my Mazda didn’t help. Nor did the uptown traffic.
Or was it downtown? Charlotteans have yet to agree on which way their city is turned.
Knowing it would be a late night, I detoured to La Paz, a Mexican restaurant at South End, for carryout enchiladas. Guacamole and extra sour cream for Birdie.
My home is referred to as the “coach house annex,” or simply the “annex” by old-timers at Sharon Hall, a nineteenth-century manor- turned- condo- complex in the Myers Park neighborhood in southeast Charlotte. No one knows why the annex was built. It is a strange little outbuilding that doesn’t appear on the estate’s original plans. The hall is there. The coach house. The herb and formal gardens. No annex.
No matter. Though cramped, the place is perfect for me. Bedroom and bath up. Kitchen, dining room, parlor, guest room/study down. Twelve hundred square feet. What realtors call “cozy.”
By six forty-five I was parked beside my patio.
The annex was blissfully quiet. Entering through the kitchen, I heard nothing but the hum of the Frigidaire and the soft ticking of Gran Brennan’s mantel clock.
My cat did not appear.
Setting down my dinner, purse, and briefcase, I crossed to the refrigerator and popped a can of Diet Coke. When I turned, Birdie was stretching in the dining room doorway.
“Never miss the sound of a pop-top, do you, big guy?”
I went over and scratched his ears.
Birdie sat, shot a leg in the air, and began licking his genitals.
I knocked back a swig of Coke. Not Pinot, but it would do. My days of boogying with Pinot were over. Or Shiraz, or Heineken, or cheap Merlot. It had been a long struggle but that curtain was down for good.
Did I miss alcohol? Damn right. Sometimes so much I could taste and smell it in my sleep. What I didn’t miss were the mornings after. The trembling hands, the dilated brain, the self-loathing, the anxiety over words and actions not remembered.
From now on, Coke. The real thing.
The rest of the evening I spent writing reports. Birdie hung in until the guacamole and sour cream ran out. Then he lay on the couch, paws in the air, and dozed.
In addition to Tamela Banks’s baby, I’d examined three sets of remains since my return to Charlotte from Montreal. Each required a report.
A partially skeletonized corpse was discovered under a pile of tires at a dump in Gastonia. Female, white, twenty-seven to thirty-two years of age, five-foot-two to five-foot-five in height. Extensive dental work. Healed fractures of the nose, right maxilla, and jaw. Sharp instrument trauma on the anterior ribs and sternum. Defense wounds on the hands. Probable homicide.
A boater on Lake Norman had snagged a portion of an upper arm. Adult, probably white, probably male. Height five-foot-six to six feet.
A skull was found on the banks of Sugar Creek. Older adult, female, black, no teeth. Not recent. Probably a disturbed cemetery burial.
As I worked, my mind kept drifting back to the previous spring in Guatemala. I’d picture a stance. A face. A scar, sexy as hell. I’d feel a ripple of excitement, followed by a prick of anxiety. Was this upcoming beach trip such a good idea? I had to force myself to focus on the reports.
At one-fifteen I shut down the computer and dragged myself upstairs.
It wasn’t until I was showered and lying in bed that I had time to consider Geneva Banks’s statement.
“It wasn’t Darryl’s baby.”
“What!” Slidell, Banks, and I had replied as one.
Geneva remumbled her shocker.
No idea. Tamela had confided that the child she was carrying had not been fathered by Darryl Tyree. That was all Geneva knew.
Or would say.
A thousand questions jockeyed for position.
Did Geneva’s information clear Tyree? Or did it render him even more suspect? Knowing the child was not his, had Tyree murdered it? Had he forced Tamela to kill her own baby?
Did Geneva have a valid point? Could the infant have been born dead? Had there been a genetic defect? An umbilical cord problem? Had Tamela, heartbroken, merely chosen the most expedient way and cremated the lifeless body in the woodstove? It was possible. Where had the baby been delivered?
I felt Birdie land on the bed, explore possibilities, then curl behind my knees.
My mind circled back to the upcoming beach junket. Could it lead anywhere? Did I want that? Was I looking for something meaningful, or merely hoping for rock-and-roll sex? God knows, I was horny enough. Was I capable of committing to another relationship? Could I trust again? Pete’s betrayal had been so painful, the breakup of our marriage so agonizing, I wasn’t sure.
Back to Tamela. Where was she? Had Tyree harmed her? Had they gone to ground together? Had Tamela run off with someone else?
As I drifted off, I had one final, disquieting thought.
Finding answers concerning Tamela was up to Skinny Slidell.
When I awoke, scarlet sun was slashing through the leaves of the magnolia outside my window. Birdie was gone.
I checked the clock. Six forty-three.
“No way,” I mumbled, drawing knees to chest and burrowing deeper beneath the quilt.
A weight hit my back. I ignored it.
A tongue like a scouring brush scraped my cheek.
“Not now, Birdie.”
Seconds later I felt a tug on my hair.
A reprieve, then the tugging began again.
I shot up and pointed a finger at his nose.
“Don’t chew my hair!”
My cat regarded me with round, yellow eyes.
Sighing dramatically, I threw back the covers and pulled on my summer uniform of shorts and a T.
I knew giving in was providing positive reinforcement, but I couldn’t take it. It was the one trick that worked, and the little bugger knew it.
I cleaned up the guacamole Birdie had recycled onto the kitchen floor, ate a bowl of Grape-Nuts, then grazed through the Observer as I drank my coffee.
There’d been a pileup on I-77 following a late-night concert at Paramount’s Carowinds theme park. Two dead, four critical. A man had been shotgunned in a front yard on Wilkinson Boulevard. A local humanitarian had been charged with cruelty to animals for crushing six kittens to death in his trash compactor. The city council was still wrangling over sites for a new sports arena.
Refolding the paper, I weighed my choices.
Laundry? Groceries? Vacuuming?
Refilling my coffee, I shifted to the den and spent the rest of the morning wrapping up reports.
Katy picked me up at exactly twelve noon.
Though an excellent student, gifted painter, carpenter, tap dancer, and comic, promptness is not a concept my daughter holds in high esteem.
Nor, to my knowledge, is the Southern rite known as the pig pickin’.
Though my daughter’s official address remains Pete’s house, where she grew up, Katy and I often spend time together when she is home from the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. We have gone to rock concerts, spas, tennis tournaments, golf outings, restaurants, bars, and movies together. Never has she proposed an outing involving smoked pork and bluegrass in a backyard.
Watching Katy cross my patio, I marveled, yet again, at how I could have produced such a remarkable creature. Though I’m not exactly last week’s meat loaf, Katy is a stunner. With her wheat-blonde hair and jade-green eyes, she has the beauty that makes men arm-wrestle their buddies and perform swan dives from rickety piers.
It was another sultry August afternoon, the kind that brings back childhood summers. Where I grew up, movie theaters were air-conditioned, and houses and cars sweltered. Neither the bungalow in Chicago nor the rambling frame farmhouse to which we relocated in Charlotte was equipped with AC. For me, the sixties were an era of ceiling and window fans.
Hot, sticky weather reminds me of bus trips to the beach. Of tennis under relentless blue skies. Of afternoons at the pool. Of chasing fireflies while adults sipped tea on the back porch. I love the heat.
Nevertheless, Katy’s VW could have used some AC. We drove with the windows down, hair flying wildly around our faces.
Boyd stood on the seat behind us, nose to the wind, eggplant tongue dangling from the side of his mouth. Seventy pounds of prickly brown fur. Every few minutes he’d change windows, flinging saliva on our hair as he whipped across the car.
The breeze did little more than circulate hot air, swirling the odor of dog from the backseat to the front.
“I feel like I’m riding in a clothes dryer,” I said as we turned from Beatties Ford Road onto NC 73.
“I’ll have the AC fixed.”
“I’ll give you the money.”
“I’ll take it.”
“What exactly is this picnic?”
“The McCranies hold it every year for friends and regulars at the pipe shop.”
“Why are we going?”
Katy rolled her eyes, a gesture she’d acquired at the age of three.
Though I am a gifted eye roller, my daughter is world-class. Katy is adept at adding subtle nuances of meaning I couldn’t begin to master. This was a low-level I’ve- already- explained- this- to- you roll.
“Because picnics are fun,” Katy said.
Boyd switched windows, stopping midway to lick suntan lotion from the side of my face. I pushed him aside and wiped my cheek.
“Why is it we have dogbreath with us?”
“Dad’s out of town. Does that sign say Cowans Ford?”
“Nice segue.” I checked the road sign. “Yes, it does.”
I reflected for a moment on local history. Cowans Ford had been a river crossing used by the Catawba tribe in the 1600s, and later by the Cherokee. Davy Crockett had fought there during the French and Indian War.
In 1781 Patriot forces under General William Lee Davidson had fought Lord Cornwallis and his Redcoats there. Davidson died in the battle, thus lending his name to Mecklenburg County history.
In the early 1960s the Duke Power Company had dammed the Catawba River at Cowans Ford and created Lake Norman, which stretches almost thirty-four miles.
Today, Duke’s McGuire Nuclear Power Plant, built to supplement the older hydroelectric plant, sits practically next to the General Davidson monument and the Cowans Ford Wildlife Refuge, a 2,250-acre nature preserve.
Wonder how the general feels about sharing his hallowed ground with a nuclear power plant?
Katy turned onto a two-lane narrower than the blacktop we were leaving. Pines and hardwoods crowded both shoulders.
“Boyd likes the country,” Katy added.
“Boyd only likes things he can eat.”
Katy glanced at a Xerox copy of a hand-drawn map, stuck it back behind the visor.
“Should be about three miles up on the right. It’s an old farm.”
We’d been traveling for almost an hour.
“The guy lives out here and owns a pipe store in Charlotte?” I asked.
“The original McCranie’s is at Park Road Shopping Center.”
“Sorry, I don’t smoke pipes.”
“They also have zillions of cigars.”
“There’s the problem. I haven’t laid in this year’s stock.”
“I’m surprised you haven’t heard of McCranie’s. The place is a Charlotte institution. People just kind of gather there. Have for years. Mr. McCranie’s retired now, but his sons have taken over the business. The one who lives out here works at their new shop in Cornelius.”
“And?” Rising inflection.
“And what?” My daughter looked at me with innocent green eyes.
“Is he cute?”
Major-league eye roll.
“But he has a friend?” I probed.
“You got to have friends,” she sang.
Boyd spotted a retriever in the bed of a pickup speeding in the opposite direction. Rrrrppping, he lunged from my side to Katy’s, thrust his head as far out as the half-open glass would allow, and gave his best if- I- weren’t- trapped- in- this- car growl.
“Sit,” I ordered.
“Will I meet this friend?” I asked.
Within minutes parked vehicles crowded both shoulders. Katy pulled behind those on the right, killed the engine, and got out.
Boyd went berserk, racing from window to window, tongue sucking in and dropping out of his mouth.
Katy dug folding chairs from the trunk and handed them to me. Then she clipped a leash to Boyd’s collar. The dog nearly dislocated her shoulder in his eagerness to join the party.
Perhaps a hundred people were gathered under enormous elms in the backyard, a grassy strip about twenty yards wide between woods and a yellow frame farmhouse. Some occupied lawn chairs, others milled about or stood in twos and threes, balancing paper plates and cans of beer.
Many wore athletic caps. Many smoked cigars.
A group of children played horseshoes outside a barn that hadn’t seen paint since Cornwallis marched through. Others chased each other, or tossed balls and Frisbees back and forth.
A bluegrass band had set up between the house and barn, at the farthest point permitted by their extension cords. Despite the heat, all four wore suits and ties. The lead singer was whining out “White House Blues.” Not Bill Monroe, but not bad.
A young man materialized as Katy and I were adding our chairs to a semicircle facing the bluegrass boys.
Kater? It rhymed with “tater.” I peeled my shirt from my sweaty back.
Palmer? I wondered if his real name was Palmy.
“Mom, I’d like you to meet Palmer Cousins.”
“Hey, Dr. Brennan.”
Palmer whipped off his shades and shot out a hand. Though not tall, the young man had abundant black hair, blue eyes, and a smile like Tom Cruise’s in Risky Business. He was almost disconcertingly good-looking.
“Tempe.” I offered a hand.
Palmer’s shake was a bone crusher.
“Katy’s told me a lot about you.”
“Really?” I looked at my daughter. She was looking at Palmer.
“Who’s the pooch?”
Palmer leaned over and scratched Boyd’s ear. Boyd licked his face. Three slaps to the haunch, then Palmer was back at our level.
“Nice dog. Can I get you ladies a couple of brews?”
“I’ll have one,” Katy chirped. “Diet Coke for Mom. She’s an alckie.”
I shot my daughter a look that could have frozen boiling tar.
“Help yourself to chow.” Palmer set off.
Hearing what he thought was a reference to his bloodline, Boyd shot forward, yanking the leash from Katy’s hand, and began racing in circles around Palmer’s legs.
Recovering his balance, Palmer turned, a look of uncertainty on his perfect face.
“He’s OK off the leash?”
Katy nodded. “But watch him around food.”
She retrieved the leash and unclipped it from the collar.
Palmer gave a thumbs-up.
Boyd raced in delighted circles.
Behind the main house, folding tables offered homemade concoctions in Tupperware tubs. Coleslaw. Potato salad. Baked beans. Greens.
One table was covered with disposable aluminum trays mounded with shredded pork. On the edge of the woods, wisps of smoke still floated from the giant cooker that had been going all night.
Another table held sweets. Another, salads.
“Shouldn’t we have brought a dish?” I asked as we surveyed the Martha Stewart country-dining assemblage.
Katy pulled a bag of Fig Newtons from her purse and parked it on the dessert table.
I did some eye rolling of my own.
When Katy and I returned to our chairs the banjo player was doing “Rocky Top.” Not Pete Seeger, but not bad.
For the next two hours a parade of folks stopped by to chat. It was like career day at the junior high. Lawyers. Pilots. Mechanics. A judge. Computer geeks. A former student, now a homemaker. I was surprised at the number of CMPD cops that I knew.
Several McCranies came over, welcoming us and expressing thanks for our coming. Palmer Cousins also came and went.
I learned that Palmer had been a fix-up through Lija, Katy’s best friend since the fourth grade. I also learned that Lija, having completed a BA in sociology at the University of Georgia, was working in Charlotte as a paramedic.
Most important of all, I learned that Palmer was single, twenty-seven, a Wake Forest biology grad currently employed with the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service at its field office in Columbia, South Carolina.
And a McCranie’s regular when he was back home in Charlotte. The missing piece in why I was now munching on pulled pork in a clover field.
Boyd alternated between sleeping at our feet, racing with varying aggregates of children, and working the crowd, attaching himself to whoever looked like the easiest touch. He was in nap phase when a group of kids ran up requesting his company.
Boyd opened one eye, readjusted his chin on his paws. A girl of around ten wearing a purple Bible Girl cape and headgear waggled a cornmeal muffin. Boyd was off.
Watching them round the barn, I remembered Katy’s words on the phone about Boyd wanting to have a conversation.
“What was it the chow wanted to discuss?”
“Oh, yeah. Dad’s got a trial going in Asheville, so I’ve been taking care of Boyd.” A thumbnail teased the edge of her Budweiser label. “He thinks he’s going to be there another three weeks. But, um…” She dug a long tunnel in the wet paper. “Well, I think I’m going to move uptown for the rest of the summer.”
“With Lija. She’s got this really cool town house in Third Ward, and her new roommate can’t occupy until September. And Dad’s gone, anyway.” The beer label was now effectively shredded. “So I thought it would be fun to, you know, just live down there for a few weeks. She’s not going to charge me rent or anything.”
“Just until school starts.”
Katy was in her sixth and, by parental dictate, last undergraduate year at the University of Virginia.
“You’re not thinking of dropping out.”
The World Cup of eye rolls.
“Do you and Dad have the same scriptwriters?”
I could see where the conversation was going.
“Let me guess. You want me to take Boyd.”
“Just until Dad gets back.”
“I’m leaving for the beach on Monday.”
“You’re going to Anne’s place on Sullivan’s Island, right?”
“Boyd loves the beach.”
“Boyd would love Auschwitz if they fed him.”
“Anne wouldn’t mind if you took him with you. And he’ll keep you company so you won’t be all alone.”
“Boyd isn’t welcome at the town house?”
“It isn’t that he’s unwelcome. Lija’s landlor—”
From somewhere deep in the woods I heard Boyd’s frantic barking.
Seconds later, the barking was joined by a blood-chilling scream.
I BOLTED FROM MY CHAIR, HEART THUDDING IN MY CHEST.
The picnickers around me appeared as on split screen. Those on the house side of the bluegrass quartet continued their milling and chatting and eating, oblivious to whatever calamity might be unfolding in the woods. Those on the barn side formed a frozen tableau, mouths open, heads turned in the direction of the terrible sounds.
I raced toward the screams, weaving among lawn chairs and blankets and people. I could hear Katy and others close on my heels.
Boyd had never harmed a child, had never so much as growled at one. But it was hot. He was excited. Had some kid provoked or confused him? Had the dog suddenly turned?
My mind scanned images of mauling victims. I saw gaping slashes, severed scalps. Fear shot through me.
Rounding the barn, I spotted a break in the trees and veered off on a trickling dirt path. Branches and leaves tugged my hair and scratched the skin on my arms and legs.
The screams grew shriller, more strident. The spaces between disappeared and the cries blended together in a crescendo of fear and panic.
I ran on.
Suddenly, the shrieking stopped. The sound vacuum was more chilling than the shrieks.
Boyd’s barking continued, frenzied and unrelenting.
The sweat went cold on my face.
Moments later I spotted three kids huddled behind an enormous hedge. Through a gap in the foliage I could see that the two girls were clutching each other. The boy had a hand on Bible Girl’s shoulder.
The boy and the younger girl were staring at Boyd, expressions of fascination/repulsion distorting their features. Bible Girl had her eyes shut, clenched fists pressed to the lids. Every now and then her chest gave an involuntary heave.
Boyd was with them on the far side of the hedge, lunging forward then backpedaling, snapping at something a yard from the base of the growth. Every few seconds he’d point his nose skyward and let loose with a series of high-pitched barks. His hackles were engaged, giving him the look of an auburn wolf.
“You kids all right?” I gasped, pushing through the gap in the hedge.
Three solemn nods.
Katy and Palmer and one of the McCranie sons raced up behind me.
“Anyone hurt?” Katy panted.
Three head shakes. A tiny sob.
Bible Girl ran to McCranie, wrapped her arms around his waist, and collapsed against him. He began stroking the crooked part between her ponytails.
“It’s OK, Sarah. You’re fine.”
McCranie looked up.
“My daughter’s a little high-strung.”
I shifted my attention to the chow.
And knew immediately what was happening.
Boyd whipped around. Seeing Katy and me, he loped forward, nudged my hand, then darted back to the hedge and reengaged.
“Stop!” I shouted, bending to relieve the stitch in my side.
When unconvinced of the wisdom of an order directed at him, Boyd rotates the long hairs that serve as his eyebrows. It’s his way of asking “Are you crazy?”
Boyd turned and did that now.
Boyd spun and resumed barking.
Sarah McCranie’s arms tightened around her father. Her playmates watched me with saucer eyes.
I repeated my command.
Boyd twisted his head and did the eyebrow thing, this time with feeling: Are you frigging nuts?
“Boyd!” Keeping my left hand on my thigh, I leveled my right index finger at his snout.
Boyd canted his head, blew air out his nose, and sat.
“What’s wrong with him?” Katy was panting as hard as I was.
“Dork Brain probably thinks he’s discovered the lost colony from Roanoke.”
Boyd turned back to the hedge, flattened his ears, and drew a long, low growl from deep in his chest.
Ignoring my daughter’s question, I picked my way through roots and undergrowth. When I drew close, Boyd shot to his feet and looked at me expectantly.
I squatted beside him.
Boyd rocketed up, tail rigid and trembling.
My heart sank.
Boyd’s find was much larger than I’d expected. His last hit had been a squirrel, dead perhaps two or three days.
I looked at the chow. He returned my gaze, the large amount of white visible in each eye an indication of his agitation.
Refocusing on the mound at my feet, I began to share his apprehension. I picked up a stick and poked at the center. Plastic popped, then a stench like rotting meat rose from the leaves. Flies buzzed and darted, bodies iridescent in the sticky air.
Boyd, the self-taught cadaver dog, strikes again.
I heard rustling as Katy worked her way toward the chow and me.
“What did he find?” My daughter squatted beside me, then bounced to her feet as though tied to a bungee. A hand flew to her mouth. Boyd danced around her legs.
“What the hell is it?”
Palmer joined us.
“Something’s dead.” After that masterful observation Palmer squeezed his nostrils with a thumb and forefinger. “Human?”
“I’m not sure.” I pointed to semi-fleshed digits projecting from a tear Boyd had made in the plastic. “That’s definitely not a dog or deer.”
I probed the dimensions of the half-buried bag. “Not many other animals are this big.”
I scraped back dirt and leaves and examined the soil below.
“No evidence of fur.”
Boyd moved in for a sniff. I elbowed him back.
“Holy crap, Mom. Not at a picnic.”
“I didn’t will this here.” I flapped a hand at Boyd’s find.
“Are you going to have to do the whole ME bit?”
“This may be nothing. But on the outside chance it’s something, the remains have to be recovered properly.”
“Look, I don’t like this any more than you do. I’m supposed to leave for the beach on Monday.”
“This is so embarrassing. Why can’t you be like other mothers? Why can’t you just”—she looked at Palmer, then back to me—“bake cookies?”
“I prefer Fig Newtons,” I snapped, rising to my feet. “Might be best to take the kids back,” I said to Sarah’s father.
“No!” the boy yelped. “It’s a dead guy, right? We want to see you dig up the DOA.” His face was flushed and glossy with perspiration. “We want to know who you like for the hit.”
“Yeah!” The younger girl looked like Shirley Temple in pink denim coveralls. “We want to see the DOA!”
Inwardly cursing TV crime shows, I chose my words carefully.
“It would be most useful to the case if you’d collect your thoughts, talk over your observations, and then give a statement. Could you do that?”
The two looked at each other, eyes grown from saucers to platters.
“Yeah,” said Shirley Temple, clapping chubby hands. “We’ll give cool statements.”
The crime scene truck arrived at four. Joe Hawkins, the MCME death investigator on call that weekend, showed up a few minutes later. By then most of the McCranies’ guests had folded their blankets and chairs and departed.
So had Katy, Palmer, and Boyd.
Boyd’s discovery lay beyond the hedge dividing the McCranies’ property from the adjacent farm. According to Sarah’s father, no one occupied the neighboring house, which belonged to someone named Foote. A quick check drew no response, so we brought in our equipment through its driveway and yard.
I explained the situation to Hawkins as two crime scene techs unloaded cameras, shovels, screens, and other equipment we’d need for processing.
“It may be an animal carcass,” I said, feeling apprehensive about calling people out on a Saturday.
“Or it may be some guy’s wife with an ax in her head.” Hawkins pulled a body bag from his transport van. “Ain’t our job to second-guess.”
Joe Hawkins had been hauling stiffs since DiMaggio and Monroe married in ’54, and was about to hit mandatory retirement age. He could tell some stories. Autopsies were performed in the basement of the jail back then, in a room equipped with little more than a table and sink. When North Carolina overhauled its death investigation system in the eighties, and the Mecklenburg County ME facility was moved to its current location, Hawkins took only one memento: an autographed portrait of Joltin’ Joe. The picture still sat on the desk in his cubicle.
“But if we’ve got a bad one, you’ll make the call to Doc Larabee. Deal?”
“Deal,” I agreed.
Hawkins slammed the van’s double doors. I couldn’t help thinking how the job had molded the man’s physiognomy. Cadaver thin, with dark circles under puffy eyes, bushy brows, and dyed black hair combed straight back from his face, Hawkins looked like a death investigator from central casting.
“Think we’ll need lights?” asked one of the techs, a woman in her twenties with blotchy skin and granny glasses.
“Let’s see how it goes.”
I looked at Hawkins. He nodded.
“Let’s do her,” said granny glasses.
I led the team into the woods, and for the next two hours we photographed, cleared, bagged, and tagged according to ME protocol.
Not a leaf stirred. My hair bonded to my neck and forehead, and my clothes grew damp inside the Tyvek jumpsuit Hawkins had brought me. Despite liberal applications of Hawkins’s Deep Woods, mosquitoes feasted on every millimeter of exposed flesh.
By five we had a pretty good idea of what we were facing.
A large black trash bag had been placed in a shallow grave, then covered with a layer of soil and leaves. Close to the ground surface, wind and erosion had taken their toll, finally exposing one corner of the bag. Boyd had accomplished the rest.
Beneath the first bag, we discovered a second. Though we left both sealed, except for such tears and holes as they already had, the odor oozing from the sacks was unmistakable. It was the sweet, fetid stench of decomposing flesh.
The fact that the remains appeared to be limited to their packaging sped our processing time. By six we’d removed the sacks, sealed them in body bags, and placed the bags in the ME van. After receiving assurances that granny glasses and her partner and I would be fine, Hawkins set off for the morgue.
An hour of screening turned up nothing from the surrounding or underlying soil.
By seven-thirty we’d packed the truck and were rolling toward town.
By nine I was in my shower, exhausted, discouraged, and wishing I’d chosen another profession.
Just when I thought I was catching up, two fifty-gallon Heftys had entered my life.
And a seventy-pound chow.
I lathered my hair for the third time and thought about the day to come and my visitor. Could I get through the bags before meeting him at baggage claim?
I pictured a face, and my stomach did a mini-flip.
Was this little rendezvous such a good idea? I hadn’t seen the guy since we’d worked together in Guatemala. A vacation had seemed a good plan then. We’d both been under tremendous pressure. The place. The circumstances. The sadness of dealing with so much death.
I rinsed my hair.
The vacation that never was. The case was done. We were on our way. Before we’d reached La Aurora International, his pager had sounded. Off he’d gone, regretful, but obedient to the call of duty.
I pictured Katy’s face at the picnic today, later at the site of Boyd’s discovery. Was my daughter serious about the intensely captivating Palmer Cousins? Was she considering dropping out of school to be near him? For other reasons?
What was it about Palmer Cousins that bothered me? Was “the boy,” as Katy would call him, just too damn good-looking? Was I growing so narrow-minded that I was starting to judge character by appearance?
No matter about Cousins. Katy was an adult now. She would do what she would do. I had no control over her life.
I soaped myself with almond-peppermint bath gel and reverted to worrying about Boyd’s plastic sacks.
With a little luck, the contents would be animal bone. But what if that wasn’t the case? What if Joe Hawkins’s ax theory wasn’t a joke?
In a heartbeat the water went tepid, then cold. I leaped out of the shower, wrapped one towel around my torso, another around my hair, and headed for bed.
Things will be fine, I told myself.
Things were going to get worse before they got worse.
SUNDAY MORNING. TIME: SEVEN THIRTY-SEVEN. TEMPERATURE: seventy-four Fahrenheit. Humidity: eighty-one percent.
We were heading for a record. Seventeen straight days busting ninety degrees.
Entering the small vestibule of the MCME, I used my security card and passed Mrs. Flowers’s command post. Even her absence was imposing. All objects and Post-it notes were equally spaced. Paper stacks were squared at the edges. No pens. No paper clips. No clutter. One personal photo, a cocker spaniel.
Monday through Friday, Mrs. Flowers screened visitors through the plate-glass window above her desk, blessing some with a buzz through the inner door, turning others away. She also typed reports, organized documents, and kept track of every shred of paper stored in the black file cabinets lining one side of the room.
Turning right past the cubicles used by the death investigators, I checked the board on the back wall where cases were entered daily in black Magic Marker.
Boyd’s find was already there. MCME 437–02
The place was exactly as I’d expected, deserted and eerily quiet.
What I hadn’t expected was the fresh-brewed coffee on the kitchenette counter.
There is a merciful God, I thought, helping myself.
Or a merciful Joe Hawkins.
The DI appeared as I was unlocking my office.
“You’re a saint,” I said, raising my mug.
“Thought you might be here early.”
During the recovery operation, I’d told Hawkins of my plans for a Monday escape to the beach.
“You’ll be wanting yesterday’s booty?”
“Please. And the Polaroid and the Nikon.”
“Main or stinky?”
“I’d better work in back.”
The MCME facility has a pair of autopsy rooms, each with a single table. The smaller of the two has special ventilation for combating foul odors.
Decomps and floaters. My kind of cases.
Pulling a form from the mini-shelves behind my desk, I filled in a case number and wrote a brief description of the remains and the circumstances surrounding their arrival at the morgue. Then I went to the locker room, changed to surgical scrubs, and crossed to the stinky room.
The bags were waiting. So were the cameras and the items needed to accessorize my ensemble: paper apron and mask, plastic goggles, latex gloves.
I shot 35-millimeter prints, backups with the Polaroid, then asked Hawkins to X-ray both bags. I wanted no surprises.
Twenty minutes later he wheeled the bags back and snapped a half dozen plates onto a light box. We studied the gray-on-grayer jumble.
Bones mixed with a pebbly sediment. Nothing densely opaque.
“No metal,” Hawkins said.
“That’s good,” I said.
“No teeth,” Hawkins said.
“That’s bad,” I said.
“Nope,” I agreed.
After donning my protective gear, sans goggles, I opened the twist tie and emptied the uppermost bag onto the table.
“Holy buckets. Those look like the real deal.”
In all, there were eight semi-fleshed hands and feet, all truncated. I placed them in a plastic tub and asked for X rays. Hawkins carried them off, shaking his head and repeating his comment.
Slowly, I spread the remaining bones as best I could. Some were free of soft tissue. Others were held together by leatherized tendon and muscle. Still others retained remnants of decomposing flesh.
Sometime in late Miocene, roughly seven million years ago, a line of primates began experimenting with upright posture. The locomotor shift required some anatomic tinkering, but in a few epochs most kinks had been ironed out. By the Pliocene, roughly two million years ago, hominids were running around waiting for someone to invent Birkenstocks.
The move to bipedalism had its downside, of course. Lower back pain. Difficult childbirth. The loss of a grasping big toe. But, all things considered, the adjustment to upright worked well. By the time Homo erectus cruised the landscape looking for mammoth, approximately one million years back, our ancestors had S-shaped spines, short, broad pelves, and heads sitting directly on top of their necks.
The bones I was viewing didn’t fit that pattern. The hip blades were narrow and straight, the vertebrae chunky, with long, swooping spinous processes. The limb bones were short, thick, and molded in a way not seen in humans.
I drew a sigh of relief.
The victims in the bag had run on all fours.
Often bones delivered to me as “suspicious” turn out to be those of animals. Some are leftovers from Sunday dinner. Calf. Pig. Lamb. Turkey. Others are relics of last year’s hunt. Deer. Moose. Duck. Some are the remains of farm animals or family pets. Felix. Rover. Bessie. Old Paint.
Boyd’s find fell into none of those categories. But I had a hunch.
I began sorting. Right humeri. Left humeri. Right tibiae. Left tibiae. Ribs. Vertebrae. I was almost through when Hawkins arrived with the X rays.
One glance confirmed my suspicion.
Though the “hands” and “feet” looked jarringly human, skeletal differences were evident. Fused navicular and lunate bones in the hands. Deeply sculpted ends on the metatarsals and phalanges of the feet. Increasing digit length from the inside toward the outside.
I pointed out the latter trait.
“In a human foot, the second metatarsal is the longest. In a human hand, it’s the second or third metacarpal. With bears, the fourth is the longest in both.
“Makes it look like the critter’s reversed.”
I indicated pads of soft tissue on the soles of the feet.
“A human foot would be more arched.”
“So what is it, Doc?”
“Bears, I should say. I’ve got at least three left femora. That means a minimum of three individuals.”
“Where are the claws?”
“No claws, no distal phalanges, no fur. That means the bears were skinned.”
Hawkins chewed on that thought for a while.
“And the heads?”
“Your guess is as good as mine.”
I flipped off the light box and returned to the autopsy table.
“Bear hunting legal in this state?” Hawkins asked.
I peered at him over my mask.
“Your guess is as good as mine.”
It took a couple of hours to sort, inventory, and photograph the contents of the first sack
Conclusion: Bag one contains the partial remains of three Ursus americanus. Black bear. Species verification using Gilbert’s Mammalian Osteology and Olsen’s Mammal Remains from Archaeological Sites. Two adults and one juvenile represented. No heads, claws, distal phalanges, teeth, or outer integument present. No indicators of cause of death. Cut marks suggest skinning with a nonserrated double-edged blade, probably a hunting knife.
Between bags I took a break to phone US Airways.
Of course the flight was on time. Airlines operate to the nanosecond when the passenger or pickup is running late.
I looked at my watch. Eleven-twenty. If bag two held no surprises I could still make it to the airport on time.
I popped a can of Diet Coke and took a Quaker caramel-nut granola bar from a box I’d stashed in a kitchen cabinet. As I chewed I studied the Quaker pilgrim. He beamed at me with such a kindly smile. What could possibly go wrong?
Returning to the autopsy room, I glanced again at the X rays of bag two. Seeing nothing suspicious, I untied the knotted ends and upended the sack.
A soupy conglomerate of bone, sediment, and decomposing flesh oozed onto the stainless steel. A stench filled the air.
Readjusting my mask, I began poking through the mess.
I lifted a smaller long bone that was clearly not bear. It felt light in my hand. I noted that the outer envelope of bone was thin, the marrow cavity disproportionately large.
I began a triage.
Time passed. My shoulders began to ache. At one point I heard a phone. Three rings, then silence. Either Hawkins had answered or the service had picked up.
When I’d separated by taxonomic affiliation, I started an inventory of the new bear bones. Again, there were no heads, claws, skin, or fur.
An hour later the bear count had risen to six.
I rolled that around in my head.
Was it legal to hunt black bears in North Carolina? Six seemed like a lot. Were there limits? Did these remains represent one slaughter, or were they the accumulation of multiple outings? The unevenness in decomposition supported that hypothesis.
Why had six headless carcasses been bundled in trash bags and buried in the woods? Had the bears been killed for their skins? Were their heads kept as trophies?
Was there a bear season? Had the hunting taken place during a legally approved period? When? It was hard to tell how long the animals had been dead. Until Boyd came along, the plastic had acted as an effective barrier to insects and other scavengers that hasten decomposition.
I was turning to the bird bones when voices floated in from the corridor. I stopped to listen.
Joe Hawkins. A male voice. Hawkins again.
Holding gloved hands in the air, I pushed the door with my bum and peeked out.
Hawkins and Tim Larabee were engaged in conversation outside the histology room. The ME looked agitated.
I was retreating when Larabee spotted me.
“Tempe. I’m glad to see you. I’ve been phoning your cell.” He was wearing jeans and a tweedy golf shirt with black collar and trim. His hair was wet, as though he’d just showered.
“I don’t bring my purse to an autopsy.”
He looked past me to the table.
“That the stuff from out near Cowans Ford?”
“Good. I need your help on something else.”
“I got a call from the Davidson PD about an hour ago. A small plane went down just past one.”
“East of Davidson, that spot where Mecklenburg County corners out to meet Cabarrus and Iredell.”
“Tim, I’m pretty—”
“Plane slammed into a rock face, then fireballed.”
“How many on board?”
“Can’t Joe help you out?”
“If the victims are both burned and segmented, it’ll take a trained eye to spot the pieces.”
This couldn’t be happening.
I checked my watch. Two-forty. Ninety minutes to touchdown.
Larabee was gazing at me with soulful eyes.
“I have to clean up and make a few phone calls.”
Larabee reached out and squeezed my upper arm.
“I knew I could count on you.”
Tell that to Detective Studpuppy, who’ll be hailing a cab in an hour and a half. Alone.
I hoped I’d make it home before he was sound asleep.
AT 4 P.M. THE TEMPERATURE WAS NINETY-SEVEN, THE HUMIDITY roughly the same. Slam dunk for the record keepers.
The crash site was almost an hour north of town, in the far northeastern corner of the county. Unlike the Lake Norman sector to the west, with its Sea-Doos and Hobie Cats, and J-32s, this part of Mecklenburg was corn and soybeans.
Joe Hawkins was already there when Larabee and I pulled up in his Land Rover. The DI was smoking a cigarillo, leaning against a quarter panel of the transport van.
“Where’d she go down?” I asked, slinging my backpack over a shoulder.
Hawkins pointed with a sideways gesture of his cigarillo.
“How far?” I was already perspiring.
“’Bout two hundred yards.”
By the time our little trio traversed three cornfields, Larabee and Hawkins with the equipment locker, I with my pack, we were wheezy, itchy, and thoroughly soaked.
Though smaller than usual, the normal cast of players was present. Cops. Firemen. A journalist. Locals, viewing the proceedings like tourists on a double-decker.
Someone had run crime scene tape around the perimeter of the wreckage. Looking at it across the field, I was struck by how little there seemed to be.
Two fire trucks sat outside the yellow tape, scars of flattened cornstalks running up to their tires. They were at ease now, but I could see that a lot of water had been pumped onto the wreckage.
Not good news for locating and recovering charred bone.
A man in a Davidson PD uniform appeared to be in charge. A brass tag on his shirt said Wade Gullet.
Larabee and I introduced ourselves.
Officer Gullet was square-jawed, with black eyes, a sculpted nose, and salt-and-pepper hair. The leading-man type. Except that he stood about five-foot-two.
We took turns shaking.
“Glad you’re here, Doc.” Gullet nodded at me. “Docs.”
The ME and I listened as Gullet summarized the known facts. His information went little beyond that which Larabee had provided outside the autopsy room.
“Landowner called in a report at one-nineteen. Said he looked out his living room window, saw a plane acting funny.”
“Acting funny?” I asked.
“Flying low, dipping from side to side.”
Looking over Gullet’s head, I estimated the height of the rock outcrop at the far end of the field. It couldn’t have exceeded two hundred feet. I could see red and blue smears maybe five yards below the peak. A trail of scorched and burned vegetation led from the impact point to the wreckage below.
“Guy heard an explosion, ran outside, saw smoke rising from his north forty. When he got here the plane was down and burning. Farmer—”
Gullet consulted a small spiral notepad.
“—Michalowski saw no signs of life, so he hotfooted it home to call 911.”
“Any idea how many were on board?” Larabee asked.
“Looks like a four-seater, so I’m thinking less than a six-pack.”
Gullet apparently wanted to compete with Slidell for movie cop work.
Flipping the cover with a one-handed motion, Gullet slid the spiral into his breast pocket.
“The dispatcher has notified the FAA or the NTSB, or whatever feds need contacting. Between my crew and the fire boys, I think we can handle the scene here. Just tell me what you need on your end, Doc.”
I’d noticed a pair of ambulances parked on the shoulder where we’d pulled up.
“You’ve notified a trauma center?”
“Alerted CMC down in Charlotte. Paramedics and I took a peek once the fire was under control.” Gullet gave a half shake of the head. “There’s no one sucking air in that mess.”
As Larabee started explaining how we’d proceed, I snuck a look at my watch. Four-twenty. Visitor ETA at my condo.
I hoped he’d gotten my message saying I’d be late. I hoped he’d found a taxi. I hoped he’d spotted the key I’d asked Katy to tape to the kitchen door.
I hoped Katy had taped the key to the kitchen door.
Relax, Brennan. If there’s a problem he’ll phone.
I unhooked and checked my cell phone. No signal.
“Ready for a look-see?” Gullet was saying to Larabee.
“No hot spots?”
Hating my job at that moment, I followed Gullet and Larabee through the cornrows and under the police tape to the edge of the wreckage.
Up close, the plane looked better than it had from a distance. Though accordioned and burned, the fuselage was largely intact. Around it lay scorched and twisted pieces of wing, melted plastic, and a constellation of unrecognizable rubble. Tiny cubes of glass sparkled like phosphorous in the afternoon sun.
At the sound of the voice, we all turned.
A woman in khakis, boots, and dark blue shirt and cap was striding toward us. Big yellow letters above her brim announced the arrival of the National Transportation Safety Board.
“Sorry it’s so late. I got the first available flight.”
Draping a camcorder strap around her neck, the woman offered a hand.
“Sheila Jansen, air safety investigator.”
We took turns shaking. Jansen’s grip was anaconda strong.
Jansen removed her cap and ran a forearm across her face. Without the hat she looked like a milk commercial, all blonde and healthy and lousy with vitality.
“It’s hotter here than in Miami.”
We all agreed it was hot.
“Everything as it was, Officer?” Jansen asked, squinting through the viewfinder of a small digital camera.
“Except for dousing the flames.” Gullet.
“No one’s reported in to us.”
“How many inside?” Jansen kept clicking away, moving a few feet left and a few feet right to capture the scene from different angles.
“At least one.”
“Your officers walked the area?”
“Give me a minute?” Jansen raised the camcorder.
Larabee gave a go-ahead gesture with one hand.
We watched her circle the wreckage, shooting stills and video. Then she photographed the rock face and the surrounding fields. Fifteen minutes later Jansen rejoined us.
“The plane’s a Cessna-210. The pilot’s in place, there’s a passenger in back.”
“Why in back?” I asked.
“The right front seat’s not there.”
“Any idea who owns the plane?” Larabee asked.
“Now that I have the tail registration number I can run a trace.”
“Where’d it take off?”
“That could be a tough one. Once you come up with the pilot’s name I can interview family and friends. In the meantime, I’ll check whether radar had tracking on the flight. Of course, if it was only a VFR flight, radar won’t have an identifier and it’ll be harder than crap to trace the plane’s course.”
“VFR?” I asked.
“Sorry. Pilots are rated as instrument flight rule or visual flight rule. IFR pilots can fly in all kinds of weather and use instruments to navigate.
“VFR pilots don’t use instruments. They can’t fly above the cloud line or within five hundred feet of the ceiling on overcast or cloudy days. VFR pilots navigate using landmarks on the ground.”
“Good job, Sky King,” Gullet snorted.
I ignored him.
“Don’t pilots have to file flight plans?”
“Yes, if an aircraft takes off from a GA airport under ATC. That’s new since nine-eleven.”
Investigator Jansen had more acronyms than alphabet soup.
“GA airport?” I asked. I knew ATC was air traffic control.
“Category-A general aviation airport. And the plane must fly within specific restrictions, especially if the GA airport is close to a major city.”
“Are passenger manifests required?”
We all stared at the wreckage. Larabee spoke first.
“So this baby may have been out on its own?”
“The coke and ganja boys aren’t big on regulations or flight plans, GA airport or not. They tend to take off from remote locations and fly below radar control. My guess is we’re looking at a drug run gone bad, and there won’t be any flight plan.”
“Gonna call in the Feebs and the DEA?” Gullet asked.
“Depends on what I discover out there.” Jansen waggled the digital. “Let me get a few close-ups. Then you can start bringing out the dead.”
For the next three hours that’s just what we did.
While Larabee and I struggled with the victims, Jansen scrambled around shooting digital images, running her camcorder, sketching diagrams, and recording her thoughts on a pocket Dictaphone.
Hawkins stood by the cockpit, handing up equipment and taking pictures.
Gullet drifted in and out, offering bottled water and asking questions.
Others came and went throughout the rest of that sweaty, buggy afternoon and evening. I hardly noticed, so absorbed was I with the task at hand.
The pilot was burned beyond recognition, skin blackened, hair gone, eyelids shriveled into half-moons. An amorphous glob joined his abdomen to the yoke, effectively soldering the body in place.
“What is that?” asked Gullet on one of his periodic visits.
“Probably the guy’s liver,” Larabee replied, working to free the charred tissue.
It was the last question from Officer Gullet.
A peculiar black residue speckled the cockpit. Though I’d worked small plane crashes, I’d never seen anything like it.
“Any idea what this flaky stuff is?” I asked Larabee.
“Nope,” he said, attention focused on extricating the pilot.
Once disengaged, the corpse was zipped into a body bag and placed on a collapsible gurney. A uniformed officer helped Hawkins carry it to the MCME transport vehicle.
Before turning to the passenger, Larabee called a break to enter observations on his own Dictaphone.
Jumping to the ground, I pulled off my mask, tugged up the sleeve on my jumpsuit, and glanced at my watch. For the zillionth time.
Five past seven.
I checked my cell phone.
Still no service. God bless the country.
“One down,” said Larabee, slipping the recorder into a pocket inside his jumpsuit.
“You won’t need my help with the pilot.”
“Nope,” Larabee agreed.
Not so for the pax.
When a rapidly moving object, like a car or plane, stops suddenly, those inside who are not securely fastened become what biomechanics call “near-flung objects.” Each object within the larger object continues at the same speed at which it was traveling until coming to its own sudden stop.
In a Cessna, that ain’t good.
Unlike the pilot, the passenger hadn’t been belted. I could see hair and bone shards on the windshield frame where his head had come to its sudden stop.
The skull had suffered massive comminutive fracturing on impact. The fire had done the rest.
I felt plate tectonics in my stomach as I looked from the charred and headless torso to the grisly mess lying around it.
Cicadas droned in the distance, their mechanical whining like an anguished wail on the breathless air.
After a moment of serious self-pity, I replaced my mask, eased into the cockpit, climbed to the back, and began sifting bone fragments from their matrix of debris and brain matter, most of which had ricocheted backward after hitting the windshield frame.
The cornfield and its occupants receded. The cicadas faded. Now and then I heard voices, a radio, a distant siren.
As Larabee worked on the passenger’s body, I rummaged for the remnants of his shattered head.
Teeth. Orbital rim. A chunk of jaw. Every fragment coated with flaky black gunk.
While the pilot had been speckled, the passenger was totally encrusted. I had no idea what the substance could be.
As I filled a container, Hawkins replaced it with an empty one.
At one point I heard workers setting up a portable generator and lights.
The plane reeked of charred flesh and airplane fuel. Soot filled the air, turning the cramped space into a miniature Dust Bowl. My back and knees ached. Again and again I shifted, fruitlessly searching for more comfortable positions.
I willed my body temperature down by calling up cool images in my mind.
A swimming pool. The smell of chlorine. The roughness of the boardwalk on the soles of my feet. The shock of cold on that first plunge.
The beach. Waves on my ankles. Wind on my face. Cool, salty sand against my cheek. A blast of AC on Coppertone skin.
Ice cubes popping in lemonade.
We finished as the last pink tendrils of day slipped below the horizon.
Hawkins made a final trip to the van. Larabee and I stripped off our jumpsuits and packed the equipment locker. At the blacktop I turned for a closing look.
Dusk had drained all color from the landscape. Summer night was taking over, painting cornstalks, cliff, and trees in shades of gray and black.
At center stage, the doomed plane and its responders, glowing under the portable lights like some macabre performance of Shakespeare in a cornfield.
A Midsummer Night’s Nightmare.
I was so exhausted I slept most of the way home.
“Do you want to swing by the office to pick up your car?” Larabee asked.
“Take me home.”
That was the extent of the conversation.
An hour later Larabee deposited me beside my patio.
“See you tomorrow?”
Of course. I have no life.
I got out and slammed the door.
The kitchen was dark.
Lights in the study?
I tiptoed to the side of the annex and peeked around the corner.
“Good,” I mumbled, feeling stupid. “I hope he’s not here.”
I let myself into the kitchen.
Not a sound.
Dumping my pack on the floor, I unlaced and pulled off my boots, then opened the door and set them outside.
I walked to the study and flipped the wall switch.
And felt my mouth open in dismay.
I was filthy, exhausted, and light-years past niceness.
“What the hell are you doing here?”
RYAN OPENED ONE VERY BLUE EYE.
“Is that all you ever say to me?”
“I’m talking to him.”
I pointed a sooty finger at Boyd.
The dog was flopped at one end of the couch, paws dangling over the edge. Ryan lay propped at the other end, legs extended, ankles crossed on top of the chow.
Neither wore shoes.
On hearing my voice Boyd sat bolt upright.
I moved the finger.
Boyd slunk to the floor. Ryan’s size-twelves dropped to the cushion.
“Furniture infraction?” Both blue eyes were open now.
“I take it you found the key?”
“How did chowbreath get here, and why did he permit you to just waltz in?”
Boyd and Ryan looked at each other.
“I’ve been calling him Hooch. Saw it in a movie. Thought it fit him.”
Boyd’s ears shot up.
“Who let Hooch in, and why did Hooch let you in?”
“Hooch remembers me from the TransSouth disaster up in Bryson City.”
I’d forgotten. When his partner was killed transporting a prisoner from Georgia to Montreal, Ryan had been invited to help the NTSB with the crash investigation. He and Boyd had met at that time, in the Carolina mountains.
“How did Hooch get in here?”
“Your daughter brought him.”
Boyd wedged his snout under Ryan’s hand.
Nice ambush, I thought, fighting back a smile. Katy figured a guest couldn’t refuse the dog.
Ryan scratched Boyd behind the ears, swiveled his feet to the floor, and gave me a once-over. The corners of his mouth twitched upward.
My clothes were filthy, my nails caked with mud and soot. My hair was sweaty-wet and matted, my cheeks fiery from a zillion insect bites. I smelled of corn, airplane fuel, and charred flesh.
How would my sister Harry describe me? Rode hard and put away wet.
But I was not in the mood for a fashion critique.
“I’ve been scraping up fried brain matter, Ryan. You wouldn’t look like a Dior ad either.”
Boyd regarded me but kept his thoughts to himself.
“Have you eaten?”
“The event wasn’t catered.”
Hearing my tone, Boyd jammed his snout back under Ryan’s hand.
“Hooch and I were thinking about pizza.”
Boyd wagged his tail at the sound of his new nickname. Or at the mention of pizza.
“His name’s Boyd.”
“Why don’t you go upstairs and clean up some. Boyd and I’ll see what we can rustle up.”
Born in Nova Scotia, Ryan has lived his entire adult life in the province of Quebec. Though he’s traveled extensively, his view of American culture is typically Canadian. Rednecks. Gangsters. Cowboys. Now and then he tries to impress me with his Gunsmoke lingo. I hoped he wasn’t about to do that now.
“I’ll be a few minutes,” I said.
“Take your time.”
Good. No “podna” or “ma’am” tacked on for effect.
It came as I was trudging up the stairs.
Another sudsy, steamy bathroom session to cleanse body and soul of the smell of death. Lavender shower gel, juniper shampoo, rosemary-mint conditioner. I was going through a lot of aromatic plants of late.
Soaping up, I thought about the man downstairs.
Andrew Ryan, lieutenant-détective, Section de Crimes contre la Personne, Sûreté du Québec.
Ryan and I had worked together for nearly a decade, homicide detective and forensic anthropologist. As specialists within our respective agencies headquartered in Montreal, the Quebec coroner’s bureau and the Quebec provincial police, we’d investigated serial killers, outlaw biker gangs, doomsday cults, and common criminals. I’d do the vics. He’d do the legwork. Always strictly professional.
Over the years I’d heard stories about Ryan’s past. Bikes, booze, binges closed out on drunk-tank floors. The near-fatal attack by a biker with the shattered neck of a twelve-ounce Bud. The slow recovery. The defection to the good guys. Ryan’s rise within the provincial police.
I’d also heard tales about Ryan’s present. Station-house stud. Babe meister.
Irrelevant. I had a steadfast rule against workplace romances.
But Ryan isn’t good at following rules. He pressed, I resisted. Less than two years back, at last accepting the fact that Pete and I were better off as friends than spouses, I’d agreed to date him.
Jesus. I sounded like my mother.
I squeezed more lavender onto my scrunchy and lathered again.
What term did one use for singles over forty?
Go out? Court? Woo?
Moot point. Before anything got off the ground, Ryan disappeared undercover. Following his reemergence, we’d tried a few dinners, movies, and bowling encounters, but never got to the wooing part.
I pictured Ryan. Tall, lanky, eyes bluer than a Carolina sky.
Something flipped in my stomach.
Maybe I wasn’t as tired as I thought.
Last spring, at the close of an emotionally difficult time in Guatemala, I’d finally decided to take the plunge. I’d agreed to vacation with Ryan.
What could go wrong at the beach?
I never found out. Ryan’s pager beeped while en route to the Guatemala City airport, and instead of Cozumel, we flew to Montreal. Ryan returned to surveillance in Drummondville. I went back to bones at the lab.
Now Detective Don Juan had his buns parked on the couch in my study.
Tight. With all the curves in the right places.
I twisted the handle, hopped out of the shower, and groped for a towel. The steam was so thick it obscured the mirror.
Good thing, I thought, picturing the handiwork of the mosquitoes and gnats.
I slipped into my ratty old terry-cloth robe, a gift from Harry upon completion of my Ph.D. at Northwestern. Torn sleeve. Coffee stains. It is the comfort food of my garment collection.
Birdie was curled on my bed.
If cats could look reproachful, Birdie was doing it.
I sat next to him and ran a hand along his back.
“I didn’t invite the chow.”
Birdie said nothing.
“What do you think of the other guy?”
Birdie curled both paws under his breast and gave me his Sphinx look.
“Think I should pull out the string bikinis?”
I lay back next to the cat.
“Or hit the Victoria’s Secret stash?”
Victoria’s Secret knockoffs, actually, from Guatemala. I’d found them in a lingerie store, and bought the mother lode for the beach trip that never was. Those items were still in their Vic-like pink bag, tags in place.
I closed my eyes to think about it.
The sun was again cutting through the magnolia, throwing warm slashes across my face.
I smelled bacon and heard activity in my kitchen.
A moment of confusion, then recollection.
My eyes flew open.
I was in a fetal curl on top of the spread, Gran’s afghan over me.
I checked the clock.
Rolling from the bed, I pulled on jeans and a T and ran a brush through my hair. Sleeping on it wet had flattened the right side, pooched the left into a demi-pompadour.
I tried water. Hopeless. I looked like Little Richard with hat hair.
I was halfway down the stairs when I thought about breath.
Back up to brush.
Boyd greeted me at the bottom step, eyes shining like a junkie’s on crack. I scratched his ear. He shot back to the kitchen.
Ryan was at the stove. He wore jeans. Just jeans. Slung low.
“Good morning,” I said, for lack of a more clever opener.
Ryan turned, fork in hand.
“Good morning, princess.”
“Listen, I’m sorr—”
He filled a mug and handed it to me. Boyd gamboled about the kitchen, high on the smell of frying fat. Birdie remained upstairs, radiating resentment.
“I must have bee—”
“Hooch and I had a hankerin’ for bacon and eggs.”
“Sit,” said Ryan, pointing his fork at the table.
I sat. Boyd sat.
Realizing his mistake, the chow stood, eyes fixed on the bacon Ryan was transferring to a paper towel.
“Did you find a pillow and blanket?”
I took a sip of my coffee. It was good.
“Thank ya, ma’am.”
No doubt about it. This was going to be a cowboy day.
“Where did you get the bacon and eggs?”
“Hooch and I went for a run. Hit the Harris-Tooter. Weird name for a grocery store.”
“Right. Makes more sense for product recognition.”
I noticed an empty pizza box on the counter.
“I’m really sorry about flaking out last night.”
“You were exhausted. You crashed. No big deal.”
Ryan gave Boyd a strip of bacon, turned, and locked his baby blues onto mine. Slowly, he raised and lowered both brows.
“Not what I had in mind, of course.”
I tucked hair behind my ears with both hands. The right side stayed.
“I’m afraid I have to work today.”
“Hooch and I expected that. We’ve made plans.”
Ryan was cracking eggs into a frying pan, tossing shells into the sink with a jump-shot wrist move.
“But we could use some wheels.”
“Drop me off, you can have my car.”
I didn’t ask about the plans.
As we ate, I described the crash scene. Ryan agreed that it sounded like drug traffickers. He, too, had no idea about the odd black residue.
“NTSB investigator didn’t know?”
I shook my head.
“Larabee’ll autopsy the pilot, but he’s asked me to deal with the passenger’s head.”
Boyd pawed my knee. When I didn’t respond he shifted to Ryan.
Over second, then third cups of coffee, Ryan and I discussed mutual friends, his family, things we would do when I returned to Montreal at the end of the summer. The conversation was light and frivolous, a million miles from decomposing bears and a shattered Cessna. I found myself grinning for no reason. I wanted to stay, make ham and mustard and pickle sandwiches, watch old movies, and meander wherever the day might take us.
But I couldn’t.
Reaching out, I pressed my palm to Ryan’s cheek.
“I really am glad you’re here,” I said, smiling a smile with giggles behind it.
“I’m glad I’m here, too,” said Ryan.
“I have a few animal bones to finish up, but that shouldn’t take any time at all. We can leave for the beach tomorrow.”
I finished my coffee, pictured the shards of skull I’d extricated from the charred fuselage. My cupcake smile drooped noticeably.
“Wednesday at the latest.”
Ryan gave Boyd the last strip of bacon.
“The ocean is everlasting,” he said.
So, it would turn out, was the parade of corpses.
RYAN COULDN’T DROP ME OFF. I HAD NO CAR.
I called Katy. She arrived within minutes to taxi us downtown, cheerful about the early-morning errand.
The air was hot and humid, the NPR weatherman negative on the subject of a temperature break. Ryan looked overdressed in his jeans, socks, loafers, and chopped-sleeve sweatshirt.
At the MCME I handed Ryan my keys. Across College, a kid in an extra-large Carolina Panthers jersey and crotch-hangers headed in the direction of the county services building, bouncing a basketball to a rhythm he was hearing from his headphones.
Though my mood was gloomy, I couldn’t help but smile. In my youth jeans had to be tight enough to cause arteriosclerosis. This kid’s drawers would accommodate a party of three.
Watching Katy then Ryan drive off, my smile collapsed. I didn’t know where my daughter was going, or what plans Ryan shared with my estranged husband’s dog, but I wished I were heading out, too.
Anywhere but here.
A morgue is not a happy place. Visitors do not come for pleasant diversion.
I know that.
Every day greed, passion, carelessness, stupidity, personal self-loathing, encounters with evil, and plain bad luck send otherwise healthy people rolling in with their toes up. Every day those left behind are sucker punched by the suddenness of unexpected death.
Weekends produce a bumper crop, so Mondays are the worst.
I know that, too.
Still, Monday mornings bum me out.
When I came through the outer door, Mrs. Flowers waved a chubby hand and buzzed me from the lobby into the reception area.
Joe Hawkins was in his cubicle speaking to a woman who looked like she might have worked at a truck-stop counter. Her clothes and face were baggy. She could have been forty or sixty.
The woman listened, eyes glazed and distant, fingers working a wadded tissue. She wasn’t really hearing Hawkins. She was getting her first glimpse of life without the person whose corpse she’d just viewed.
I caught Hawkins’s eye, motioned him to stay at his task.
The board showed three cases logged since yesterday. Busy Sunday for Charlotte. The pilot and passenger had checked in as MCME 438–02 and 439–02
Larabee already had the pilot on the main autopsy room table. When I peeked in he was examining the burned skin through a hand-held magnifier.
“Any word on who we have here?” I asked.
“Prints or dentals?”
“Fingers are too far gone on this one. But most of the teeth are intact. Looks like he might have seen a dentist at some point in this millennium or the last. He definitely saw his tattoo artist. Check out the artwork.”
Larabee offered the lens.
The man’s lower back must have been protected from the flames by contact with the seat. Across it writhed the south end of a snake, taloned and winged. Red flames danced through the coils and around the edges of Mr. Serpent.
“Recognize the design?” I asked.
“No. But someone should.”
“Guy looks white.”
Larabee sponged upward on the tattoo. More snake emerged from the soot, like a message on a Burger King scratch-and-win. The skin between the scales was pasty white.
“Yeah,” he agreed, “but check this out.”
Snugging a hand under the pilot’s shoulder, Larabee eased the man up. I leaned in.
Black patches clung to the man’s chest like tiny charred leeches.
“That’s the same stuff that’s all over the passenger,” I said.
Larabee let the pilot’s shoulder drop to the table.
“Any idea what it is?” I asked.
“Not a clue.”
I told Larabee I’d be working in the other room.
“Joe’s got the X rays up on the box,” he said.
I opened a case file, changed to scrubs, got a small cart, and walked to the cooler. When I pulled the handle on the stainless-steel door, a malodorous whoosh of charred and refrigerated flesh blasted my nostrils.
The gurneys were parked in two neat rows. Seven empty. Four occupied.
I checked the tags on the body bag zippers.
MCME 437–02. Ursus and company.
MCME 415–02. Unknown black male. We called him Billy in recognition of the site of his discovery, off the Billy Graham Parkway. Billy was a toothless old man who’d died under a blanket of newspapers, alone and unwanted. In three weeks no one had come forward to claim him. Larabee was giving Billy until the end of the month.
MCME 440–02. Earl Darnell Boggs. DOB 12/14/48. I assumed the unfortunate Mr. Boggs went with the lady in Joe Hawkins’s cubicle.
MCME 439–02. Unknown. The passenger.
I unzipped the pouch.
The body was as I remembered, headless, charred, upper limbs curled into the pugilist pose. The hands were shriveled claws. There would be no prints on this one either.
Hawkins had centered my plastic tubs in a clump above the passenger’s shoulders, as though trying to simulate the shattered head. Transferring the tubs, I rezipped the bag and wheeled the cart to the small autopsy room.
The X rays glowed black and white like the test patterns in the olden days of television. The second film showed two metallic objects mingled with teeth and chunks of jaw. One object looked like a fleur-de-lis, the other like Oklahoma.
Good. The passenger had also seen a dentist.
I gloved, spread a sheet across the table, and emptied container two. It took several minutes to locate and remove the two loose dental restorations. After sealing those items in a vial, I picked out all jaw and tooth fragments, placed them on a tray, and set it aside.
Then I turned to the skull.
There would be no reconstruction for this guy. The fire damage was too severe.
Teasing off charred flesh and flaky black gunk, I began working my way through the jigsaw puzzle of cranial architecture.
A segment of frontal bone rolled down into a pair of prominent brow ridges. Occipital pieces showed bulbous mastoids and the largest neck muscle attachment I’d ever seen. The back of the guy’s head must have bulged like a golf ball.
The rear-seat passenger had definitely been male. Not that useful. Larabee would nail that during his post.
On to age.
Taking two steps to the right, I studied the tray of dental fragments.
Like plants, teeth send roots into their sockets long after the crowns have sprouted through the gums. By twenty-five, the garden is in full bloom, and the third molars, or wisdom teeth, are complete to their tips. That’s a wrap, dentally speaking. From that point on, it’s dental breakdown.
Though the passenger’s enamel was either missing or too crumbly to evaluate, every viewable root was complete. I’d need X rays to observe those hidden in the sockets.
I returned to the cranial wreckage.
As with dentition, skulls come with some assembly required. At birth, the twenty-two bones are in place, but unglued. They meet along squiggly lines called sutures. In adulthood, the squiggles fill in, until the vault forms a rigid sphere.
Generally, the more birthday candles, the smoother the squiggles.
By stripping blackened scalp from the cranial fragments, I was able to view portions of suture from the crown, back, and base of the head.
The basilar squiggle was fused. Most others were open. Only the sagittal, which runs from front to back across the top of the head, showed any bony bridging.
Though vault closure is notoriously variable, this pattern suggested a young adult.
On to ancestry.
Race is a tough call at any time. With a shattered skull it’s a bitch.
The upper third of one nasal bone remained in place on the large frontal fragment. Its slope downward from the midline was acute, giving the nasal bridge a high, angled shape, like a church steeple.
I swapped the piece of forehead for a chunk of midface.
The nasal opening was narrow, with a rolled lower edge and a tiny spike at the midway point. The bone between the bottom of the nose and the upper-tooth row dropped straight down when viewed from the side. The cheekbones ballooned out in wide, sweeping arcs.
The steepled nasal bridge, sharp inferior nasal border, and nonprojecting lower face suggested European ancestry.
The flaring zygomatics, or cheekbones, suggested Asian or Native American ancestry.
Back to the dentition.
Only one front tooth retained a partial crown. I turned it over. The back was slightly ridged at the point where the enamel met the gum line.
I was staring at the incisor when Joe Hawkins poked his head through the door.
“You look stumped.”
I held out my hand.
“I’m not sure it’s shoveled, but there’s something weird there.”
Joe looked at the tooth.
“If you say so, Doc.”
Shoveling refers to a U-shaped rimming on the tongue side of the center four teeth. Shoveled incisors are usually indicative of Asian or Native American ancestry.
I returned the tooth to the tray and requested X rays of the jaw fragments.
I checked the time. One-forty.
No wonder I was starving.
Stripping off gloves and mask, I washed with antibacterial soap and threw a lab coat over my scrubs. Then I went to my office and washed down a granola bar with a can of Diet Coke.
As I ate, I scanned my phone messages.
A journalist from the Charlotte Observer.
Skinny Slidell. Something about the Banks baby case.
Sheila Jansen. She’d called early. The NTSB works hard.
The fourth pink slip caught my attention.
I tried the Bankses’ number. No answer.
I tried Jansen.
Her voice mail invited a message.
I left one.
I stopped back into the main autopsy room. The passenger lay where the pilot had been, and Larabee had just made his second Y incision of the day.
I walked over and looked at the body. Though gender was clear, age and race were not. Those aspects would have to be determined skeletally.
I explained the discrepancy in racial features. Larabee said he’d spotted nothing useful in the body.
I asked for the pubic symphyses, the portions of the pelvis where the two halves meet in front, and the sternal ends of the third through fifth ribs to tighten my age estimate. Larabee said he’d send them over.
Larabee told me he’d talked with Jansen. The NTSB investigator would be dropping by in the late afternoon. Neither Geneva Banks nor Skinny Slidell had phoned him.
When I returned to the stinky room, Hawkins had popped the dental X rays onto the light boxes.
The roots of the left canine and second molar, and of both wisdom teeth, were visible in various jaw fragments. While the canine and M-2 were complete to their tips, the M-3s were not quite over the plate.
Dentally, the passenger looked eighteen to twenty-five.
Race was still a crapshoot.
Back to the zygomatic arch.
Yep. Mongoloid-looking cheeks.
Back to the maxilla and frontal.
Yep. Caucasoid-looking nose.
As I was staring at the frontal bone, an irregularity on the nasal caught my eye. I carried the fragment to the scope and adjusted focus.
Under magnification the irregularity looked circular and more porous than the surrounding bone. The edges of the circle were clearly defined.
A puzzling lesion, unlike usual findings in nasal bones. I had no idea what it meant.
I spent the next hour mining fragments, stripping flesh, and recording observations. Though I found no other signs of disease, I decided to request X rays of the rest of the skeleton. The nasal lesion looked active, suggesting a chronic condition of some sort.
At three-thirty, Hawkins delivered the ribs and pubes. He promised to take a full set of films when Larabee finished with the passenger’s body.
I was placing the pubes and ribs in a solution of hot water and Spic and Span when Larabee entered, followed by Sheila Jansen. Today the NTSB investigator wore black jeans and a sleeveless red shirt.
Hours of exposure had numbed me to the smell of the passenger’s unrefrigerated head, now decomposing on my table. My greasy, soot-stained gloves and scrubs undoubtedly added to the room’s bouquet.
Jansen’s lips and nostrils tightened. Her expression went opaque as she attempted to regain control of her face.
“Time to swap stories?” I asked, peeling off mask and gloves and tossing them into a biohazard container.
“Why don’t I meet you two in the conference room?”
“Good idea,” Larabee said.
When I joined them, the ME was going over his findings.
“—multiple traumatic injuries.”
“Soot in the airways?” Jansen asked.
“That makes sense,” Jansen said. “When the plane slammed the cliff face, the fuel tanks ruptured. There was immediate ignition and fireball. I figure both victims died on impact.”
“External burning was severe, but I didn’t find a lot of deep-tissue destruction.” Larabee.
“After impact gravity took over and the fuel cascaded down the cliff face,” Jansen explained.
In my mind’s eye I saw the trail of burned vegetation.
“So the victims were exposed to the fireball effect of the explosion, but the burning wouldn’t have lasted very long.”
“That fits,” Larabee said.
“Both bodies show evidence of a black residue,” I said, settling into a chair. “Especially the passenger.”
“I found the same stuff all over the cockpit. I’ve sent a sample off for testing.”
“We’re screening for alcohol, amphetamines, methamphetamines, barbiturates, cannabinoids, opiates,” Larabee said. “If these guys were flying high, we’ll catch it.”
“You’re calling them guys.” Jansen.
“Pilot was a white male, probably in his thirties, five-eight to fiveten, lots of dental work, great tattoo.”
Jansen was nodding as she wrote it all down.
“Passenger was also male. Taller. With his head, that is.” He turned to me. “Tempe?”
“Probably early twenties,” I said.
“Racial background?” Jansen asked.
She looked up.
“I’m working on it.”
“Any unique identifiers?”
“At least two fillings.” I pictured the nasal. “And he had something going on with his nose. I’ll let you know on that, too.”
“My turn.” Jansen flipped pages in her notebook. “The plane was registered to one Richard Donald Dorton. Ricky Don to his friends.”
“Age?” I asked.
“Fifty-two. But Dorton wasn’t flying yesterday. He’s riding out the heat wave at Grandfather Mountain. Claims he left the Cessna safe and sound at a private airstrip near Concord.”
“Did anyone see the plane take off?” I asked.
“And no one spotted it in flight.”
“Do you know why it crashed?”
“Pilot flew it into a rock face.”
We let that hang a moment.
“Who is Ricky Don Dorton?” I asked.
“Ricky Don Dorton owns two strip joints, the Club of Jacks and the Heart of Queens, both in Kannapolis. That’s a mill town just north of here, right?”
Nods all around.
“Ricky Don supplied sleaze for gentlemen of every lifestyle.”
“Man’s a poet.” Larabee.
“Man’s a lizard.” Jansen. “But a rich lizard. The Cessna-210’s just one of his many toys.”
“Are tits and ass that profitable?” I asked.
Jansen gave a beats-me shrug.
“Could it be that Ricky Don is also in the import business?” I asked.
“That thought has crossed the minds of local law enforcement. They’ve had Dorton under surveillance for some time.”
“Let me guess,” I said. “Ricky Don doesn’t hang with the Baptist choir.”
Larabee clapped me on the shoulder. “She’s good, isn’t she?”
Jansen smiled. “One problem. The plane was clean.”
“Nothing so far.”
We all stood.
I asked one last question.
“Why would a grown man call himself Ricky Don?” It sounded like one of Harry’s Texas saloons.
“Perhaps he doesn’t want to appear pretentious.”
“I see,” I said.
It was four-thirty by the time Jansen left. I wanted to go home, take another long shower, tap into the Victoria’s Secret knockoff reserve, and spend the evening with Ryan.
But I also wanted to split for the beach first thing in the morning.
And I had bear bones in the cooler.
If annoying tasks are avoidable, I am a world-class procrastinator. I advance mail from pile to pile, then chuck it when the deadline or opportunity has passed. I wait out snow until it melts. I coexist with dandelions and weeds. My garden relies on rain.
Conversely, unfinished but ultimately unavoidable chores hang over my head like guillotine blades. All through school I submitted papers in advance of due dates. I never pulled an all-nighter. I pay bills on time. I can’t rest until the inescapable is put to bed.
I phoned Ryan’s cell. Four rings, then his voice requested a message in French then in English.
“Get cooking, slick. I’ll be home by seven.”
Hanging up, I questioned the wisdom of my phrasing. I was referring to steak and potatoes. Ryan might take it to mean something else.
I tried Geneva Banks. Still no answer.
I considered Skinny Slidell.
Returning to the autopsy room, I tied on a new paper apron, changed the soaking solution for the pubes and ribs, and packed up the remains of the passenger’s skull. Then I went to the cooler, reunited the tubs with their headless owner, and rolled out The Three Bears.
Only a portion of one bag remained unexamined. How long could it take?
Untwisting the plastic, I dumped the contents onto the table.
The large bones took ten minutes. All bear.
I was laying down the last tibia when something crawled into my peripheral vision. I turned to the mound of smaller material I’d scooped into a pile by my left elbow.
My eyes went to an object that had rolled free.
My heart plunged.
I poked through the pile, teased free another.
My fingers curled into fists and my head flopped forward like a Dalí clock.
I DREW A DEEP BREATH, OPENED MY EYES, AND REEXAMINED THE two small bones. One was cuboid with a hooklike process. The other resembled a miniature, half-carved bust.
Neither had anything to do with Ursus.
My heart was in free fall.
Scooping the carpals onto my glove, I sought out Larabee. He was in his office.
I held out the bones.
He glanced at them, then up at me.
“A hamate and a capitate,” I said.
“From the Goldilocks gang?”
His face skewed into a frown.
I did not reply.
“Damn!” Larabee tossed his pen onto the desk.
“My thought precisely.”
He leaned back in his chair.
“Damn it to blue blazes!”
“I’ll go with that, too.”
“We’ll have to haul ass back out there.”
“If that”—he jabbed a thumb at my upturned palm—“hand is recent, whoever did the burying might rethink his arrangement.”
“Could be searching for a shovel as we speak.”
Larabee reached for the phone. “Could it be an old unmarked grave?”
I didn’t believe it.
Joe Hawkins dropped me at the annex.
Ryan was stretched out watching an I Love Lucy rerun. His day had obviously included shopping, for he now featured plaid shorts and a T-shirt that proclaimed BEER: NOT JUST FOR BREAKFAST ANYMORE. Though his face was tanned, his legs were the color of uncooked perch.
Boyd was dozing at his end of the couch.
The coffee table held a dead Heineken and a cereal bowl containing a half-dozen chips. An empty bowl sat on the floor.
Four eyes scanned me when I appeared in the doorway. Birdie was sulking out of sight.
Boyd slunk to the floor.
“Bonjour, Madam La Docteure.”
I allowed my pack and purse to slide from my shoulder.
“Rough day?” Ryan asked.
I nodded, smiled. “Hope yours was better.”
“Hooch and I went to Kings Mountain.”
“The national park?”
“The Yanks kicked some serious British butt there, right, podna?” He scratched Boyd’s ear. Boyd laid his chin on Ryan’s chest.
While I was up to my elbows in putrid flesh, these two were strolling down history lane. At least someone had enjoyed the day.
Ryan palmed chips into his mouth. Boyd’s eyes followed his hand.
“Hooch kicked some serious squirrel butt.”
I crossed to the couch. Ryan drew back his feet, and I dropped into the spot Boyd had vacated.
Boyd sniffed Ryan’s chip bowl. I nudged him and he turned and gave me the eyebrows.
Lucy and Ethel were hiding in a closet, trying to change out of work clothes. Lucy was cautioning Ethel not to tell Ricky.
“Why doesn’t she just get a job?” Ryan asked.
“Ricky won’t let her.”
I thought about Ricky Don Dorton.
“Turns out the Cessna belongs to a local bar owner who’s probably running drugs on the side.”
“Doesn’t matter.” I wanted no comments on the naming preferences of my Dixie brethren. “The plane was clean and the owner wasn’t flying.”
“The fine citizen’s aircraft was stolen.”
“I hate it when that happens to me.”
I cuffed Ryan on the chest and gave him the spare-me face.
“Who was on board?”
“Don’t know. The NTSB investigator is liaising with the cops. They’ll check their missing persons, then run our descriptors through NCIC.”
Ryan fought back a smile.
“But you already know that.” I scratched at a mosquito bite on my elbow. “I’ve got some bad news.”
Boyd shifted his chin to my knee.
“Remember the animal bones I mentioned?”
“Rin Tin Tin here actually discovered them. They were buried on farmland out in the county. I was pretty sure the stuff was animal, but I brought it in to the ME office just in case. I spent most of Sunday going through it.”
Lucy was on her bum. Ethel was trying to pull the coveralls over Lucy’s shoes.
“And?” Ryan coaxed.
“Today I found a pair of human hand bones.”
“Mixed in with Smokey.”
“So tomorrow’s going to be another special day.”
“Unfortunately. Look, I’m really sorry. You know I would much rather be with you.”
“And Hooch.” Ryan flicked his eyes to the dog, then back to me.
“And Hooch.” I patted Boyd’s head. “By the way, I really do appreciate you looking after him.”
Ryan raised palms and eyebrows in a gesture of c’est la vie.
“If Hooch has unearthed a homicide, you don’t want the perp relocating his vic.”
Boyd transferred back to Ryan.
“No,” I agreed, with an enthusiasm I reserve for Pap smears and rectals.
“You gotta do what you gotta do.”
Ryan was, of course. Nevertheless I felt trapped, stuck in town like a moth on a pest strip.
I leaned forward, arched my back, and rotated my head. Things crunched in my neck.
Ryan sat up and scootched close.
Ryan began kneading my shoulders with strong, circular movements.
I closed my eyes.
“Hm uhm.” I hadn’t realized how tense I was.
Ryan ran a thumb along the inner edge of each shoulder blade.
A tiny groan curled up from my throat. I cut it off.
Ryan’s thumbs moved to the base of my skull.
Up the back of my head.
Back down, across my shoulders, and along the muscles to either side of my spine.
Seconds later the hands withdrew, and I felt the couch cushion change shape.
“Here’s a plan.”
I opened my eyes.
Ryan was leaning back, fingers laced behind his head. The chip bowl was empty. Boyd had crumbs on the side of his mouth.
“I’m buying you dinner.”
“No argument. Where?”
“Your town, your choice.”
An hour later Ryan and I were munching bruschetta at Toscana. The night was Hollywood-summertime perfect, the moon a full O overhead.
Toscana is an Italian eatery hidden in Specialty Shops on the Park, an enclave of cafés, spas, and boutiques at which Charlotte’s elite sip Silver Oak Cabernet, get wrapped in mud, and purchase bandannas for their dogs.
While the establishments are a bit too special for my budget, I do enjoy Toscana, especially in the outdoor dining months. It and Volare are my favorites of the Italian places, and are roughly equidistant from Sharon Hall. Tonight I chose Toscana.
Ryan and I sat at a small wrought-iron table in the restaurant’s cobbled courtyard. Behind us, a fountain tinkled softly. To our left, a couple debated the mountains versus the beach. A female threesome on our right compared golf handicaps.
Ryan sported tan Dockers and a crisp cotton shirt the exact cornflower blue of his eyes. His face was tan from the Kings Mountain outing, his hair still shower wet.
He looked good.
I wasn’t chopped liver myself.
Man-eater black linen sundress. Strap sandals. Guatemalan Victoria’s most secret thong.
The last few days had served up too many corpses and too much death. I’d made a decision. Like my neckline, I was taking the plunge.
“Does everyone in North Carolina play golf?” Ryan asked, as a white-shirted waiter handed us menus the size of legal briefs.
“It’s state law.”
The waiter inquired as to our cocktail preferences. Ryan asked for a Sam Adams. I ordered Perrier with lemon. Barely masking his disappointment, the waiter withdrew.
I looked at Ryan. He dragged his gaze from my chest to my eyes.
“I’ve had a few lessons.”
In truth, I hadn’t swung a club in years. Golf was Pete’s thing. When I left my husband, I left the game. My handicap was probably a forty-two.
The woman to our right was claiming six strokes.
“Would you like to hit a few balls?” I asked.
Since Pete and I had never legally terminated our marriage, technically I was still a spouse and could use the facilities at Carmel Country Club.
Why hadn’t I done the paperwork? I wondered for the zillionth time. Pete and I had been separated for years. Why not cut the cord and move on?
Was it a cord?
Not the time, Brennan.
“Could be fun,” Ryan said, reaching across the table to place his hand on mine.
Definitely not the time.
“Of course, Hooch wouldn’t like being left out.”
“His name is Boyd.” My voice sounded as though I’d inhaled helium.
“Hooch must learn to enjoy the serenity of his own inner beauty. Maybe you could get him started on yoga.”
“I’ll mention that to Pete.”
The waiter returned with our drinks, explained the menu. Ryan ordered the sea bass. I went for the veal Marsala, carefully leaving my palm on the table.
When the waiter departed, Ryan’s hand came back to mine. His face showed a mixture of concern and confusion.
“You’re not nervous about tomorrow, are you?”
“No,” I scoffed.
“You seem tense.”
“I’m just disappointed about the beach.”
Ryan tiptoed his fingertips up my arm.
“I’ve been waiting these many years to see you in a string bikini.”
The fingers spidered back down.
“We will get to the beach.”
If goose bumps can burn, mine did.
I cleared my throat.
“There are scores of unmarked graves on these old farms. Those hand bones have probably been underground since Cornwallis crossed Cowans Ford.”
At that moment the waiter placed salads between us.
We switched gears during dinner, talking about everything but ourselves and our work. Not a word about bones. No reference to tomorrow.
No reference to later tonight.
It was after eleven by the time we’d finished coffee and tiramisu.
Hooch/Boyd greeted us at the door of the annex. When I unpegged his leash, the chow yelped and bounded around the kitchen.
“Hooch does appreciate the small things,” Ryan said.
Again, I pointed out that the dog’s name was Boyd.
“And he’s flexible,” Ryan added.
The night smelled of petunias and mown grass. A light breeze ruffled the periwinkle. A million crickets performed a summer symphony in the round.
Boyd led us from tree to tree, tail and nose working double-time, now and then flushing a bird or squirrel. Every few seconds he’d loop back, as though reminding us to stay focused on him.
I wasn’t. My mind was in countdown to plunge.
Back home, Boyd went straight to his bowl, guzzled water, blew air like a baleen, and flopped on the floor.
I hung up the leash and locked the door. As I set the alarm, I felt the warmth of Ryan’s body inches from mine.
With one hand Ryan took my wrist and turned me to him. With the other he reached up and flicked off the light. I smelled Irish Spring and cotton tinged with male sweat.
Pressing close, Ryan raised my hand and laid it against his cheek.
I looked up. His face was swallowed in shadow.
Ryan brought my other hand up. My fingertips felt the features I’d known for a decade. Cheekbones, a corner of his mouth, the angle of his jaw.
Ryan stroked my hair. His fingers slithered down the sides of my neck, moved across my shoulders.
Outside, my wind chime tinkled gaily.
Ryan’s hands glided over the curves of my waist, my hipbones.
A strange sensation flooded my brain, like something remembered from a distant dream.
Ryan’s lips brushed mine.
I drew in my breath. No. It drew in of its own accord.
Ryan kissed me hard on the mouth.
I kissed back.
Let go, every cell in my brain commanded.
My arms went around Ryan’s neck. I drew him to me, heart racing like some wild, frightened thing.
Ryan’s hands moved to my back. I felt my zipper slide down. His hands rose, eased the straps from my shoulders. I lowered my arms.
Black linen pooled at my feet.
All the sadness and frustration and unfulfilled desire of the past few days evaporated in that instant. The kitchen receded. The earth. The cosmos.
My fingers sought the buttons on the cornflower shirt.
PALMER COUSINS, KATY, AND I WERE IN MONTREAL, SIPPING CAPPUCCINOS at an outdoor café. Across the way a street busker was playing the spoons.
Palmer was describing a yoga class to which participants brought their dogs.
Instead of clacking, the spoons began shrilling in the busker’s hands. The noise grew louder and louder until I couldn’t understand what my daughter’s friend was saying.
I opened my eyes.
And looked at the back of Ryan’s head.
And felt like a kid who’d given it up on prom night.
Turning onto my side, I groped for the phone.
I felt Ryan roll over behind me.
“Sorry to wake you.” The ME didn’t sound all that sorry.
Scooping me by the waist, Ryan tucked my bum into the angle formed by his hips and thighs. My breath came out with a soft “Hmff.”
I squinted at the clock. My thong obscured the digits.
“Time?” Monosyllables were all I could handle.
Ryan molded our bodies together like spoons.
“Did you get my message?” Larabee asked.
A protrusion was forming where the bowl of Ryan’s spoon met the handle.
“I called around eight last night.”
“I was out.” And too busy getting nooky to check my voice mail.
“I couldn’t score a dog to save my life. Your chow zeroed in on those bear bones, so I figure he must have a nose for rot. Thought maybe you could bring him along today.”
The protrusion was growing, severely hampering my ability to concentrate.
“Boyd’s not cadaver trained.”
“Better than nothing.”
Larabee had never met Boyd.
“By the way, Sheila Jansen got a match on the Cessna pilot.”
I sat up, raised my knees, and pulled the quilt to my chin.
“That was quick.”
“Harvey Edward Pearce.”
“Plus the snake tattoo. Harvey Pearce is a thirty-eight-year-old white male from Columbia, North Carolina, out near the Outer Banks. Popped right up on the NCIC search.”
“Pearce’s only been dead since Sunday. Why were his identifiers in the system?”
“Seems Harvey’s ex wasn’t real patient about child support. Hubby skipped a payment, the little woman reported him missing.”
“And Harvey missed a few.”
“You’ve got it. Eventually the locals got wise to the bogus missing person reports, but not before Harvey’s personal stats were well known to the law.”
Ryan tried to draw me back to him. I pointed a finger and scrunched my face into an exaggerated frown, as I would with Boyd.
“Where exactly is Columbia?”
“About half an hour west of Manteo on US 64.”
“Tyrrell County. See you in an hour at the farm. Bring the dog.”
Clicking off, I faced the first problem of the day.
I could bolt from the room naked. Or I could take the quilt, leaving Ryan to fend for himself.
I was opting for a bare-ass sprint when Ryan’s arm snaked around my waist. I looked down at him.
His eyes were fixed on my face. Amazing eyes. In the pale gray of dawn they looked almost cobalt.
“I respect you with my whole heart and my whole soul, ma’am.” Somber as an evangelical preacher.
I drummed my fingers on his chest. “You’re not half bad yourself, cowboy.”
We shared a laugh.
Ryan tipped his head at the phone. “Sheriff rounding up a posse?”
I lowered my voice, CIA style. “If I told you that, I might have to kill you.”
Ryan nodded knowingly.
“Could you and the boys use an extra hand?”
“Seems we could. But they’ve only requested Boyd.”
He feigned disappointment. Then, “Could you put in a word, ma’am?”
I finger-drummed his chest again.
“Have you other talents, gunslinger?”
“This boy can shoot straight as a yard of pump water.”
Where did he get this stuff?
“But are you good at recovery?”
Ryan lifted the quilt.
I took a peek. Oh, yeah.
“I’ll see what I can do.”
“I’m beholden, ma’am. In the meantime, how about I hep you out in the shower?”
“Anything you say, ma’am.”
“Loose the Chester bit.”
We both sprinted naked to the bathroom.
Two hours later I was heading toward the Cowans Ford bridge. Ryan was beside me. Boyd was doing his bird dog routine in back. My car’s AC was whirring at “max.” I hoped I would recognize the turnoff.
Noting the high ceiling and clear sky, I pictured Harvey Pearce and wondered why the man had augered into a visible rock face on a sunny Sunday afternoon.
I pictured the macabre black residue coating Pearce and his passenger, and wondered again what that substance could be.
I also wondered about the passenger’s parentage. And about his odd nasal lesion.
“What are you thinking?” Ryan pushed Boyd’s snout from his ear.
Boyd shot to the window behind me.
“I thought men hated to be asked that question.”
“I’m not like other guys.”
“Really.” I cocked an eyebrow.
“I know the names of at least eight colors.”
“I don’t kill my own meat.”
“Thinking about last night?” Ryan flashed his eyebrows. I think he was picking the schtick up from Boyd.
“Something happen last night?” I asked.
“Or tonight?” Ryan gave me the have- I- ever- got- something- in- mind- for- you look.
Yes! I thought.
“I was thinking about the Cessna crash,” I said.
“What troubles you, buttercup?”
“The passenger was in back.”
“Why was that? No upgrades?”
“There was no right front seat. He flew forward on impact. Why wasn’t he buckled in?”
“Didn’t want to wrinkle his leisure suit?”
I ignored that.
“And where was the right front seat?”
“Blasted out on impact?”
“I didn’t see it among the wreckage.” I spotted the turnoff and made a left. “Neither Jansen nor Gullet mentioned one.”
“Davidson PD. The local cop on the scene.”
“Could the seat have been removed for repairs?”
“I suppose that’s a possibility. The plane wasn’t new.”
I described the black gunk. Ryan thought a moment.
“Don’t you people call yourselves tarheels?”
For the rest of the trip I listened only to Public Radio.
When I pulled up at the farm adjoining McCranies’, vehicles clogged one side of the road. This time the assemblage included Tim Larabee’s Land Rover, a police cruiser, the CMPD crime scene truck, and the MCME transport van.
Two kids watched from the opposite shoulder, spindly legs hanging from cutoff jeans, fishing gear strapped to their bikes. Not bad as far as gawkers go. But it was still early, just past eight. Others would arrive once our little army was spotted. Passersby, the neighbors, perhaps the media, all salivating for a glimpse of the misfortune of others.
Larabee was standing on the lawn with Joe Hawkins, two CMPD uniforms, one black, one white, and the pair of crime scene unit techs who’d helped recover the bear bones.
Someone had made a Krispy Kreme run. Everyone but the black cop held a Styrofoam cup and a doughnut.
Boyd leaped up, nearly knocking himself unconscious against the roof when Ryan and I left him in the backseat. Righting himself, he stuck his snout through the six inches of open window and began licking the exterior glass in a circular pattern. His yips followed us to the little circle beside the blacktop.
After introductions, during which I simply identified Ryan as a visiting police colleague from Montreal, Larabee laid out the plan. Officers Salt and Pepper looked hot and bored, seeming curious only about Ryan.
“This property is supposed to be abandoned, but the officers are going to look around to see if they can interest anyone in their warrant.”
Officer Salt shifted his feet, finished the last of his chocolate with sprinkles. Officer Pepper folded his arms across his chest. The muscles looked the size and strength of banyan roots.
“Once the officers give the go-ahead, we’ll cruise the dog around, get his thoughts on the place.”
“His name is Boyd,” I said.
“Boyd sociable?” asked the CSU tech with the granny specs.
“Offer him a doughnut, you’ve got a buddy for life.”
Red sun flashed off a lens as she turned to look at the chow.
“Boyd hits, we dig,” Larabee went on. “We find any human remains our anthropologist here determines to be suspicious, the warrant says we can toss the place. Everyone OK with that?”
Nods all around.
Ten minutes later the cops were back.
“No signs of life in the house. Outbuildings are empty,” said Officer Salt.
“Place has the charm of a hazardous waste dump,” said Officer Pepper. “Watch yourselves.”
“OK,” Larabee said to me. “You three take the western half.” He raised his chin at Hawkins. “We’ll take the east.”
“And we’ll be in Scotland afore ye,” sang Ryan.
Larabee and Hawkins looked at him.
“He’s Canadian,” I said.
“Boyd hits, give a holler,” said Larabee, handing me a radio.
I nodded and went to leash the chow, who was bursting with eagerness to serve.
The farm wasn’t really a farm. My herb garden produces a higher yield of edibles.
The crop here was kudzu.
North Carolina. We’re mountains. We’re beaches. We’re dogwoods, azaleas, and rhododendron.
And we’re up to our asses in kudzu.
Pueraria lobata is native to China and Japan, where it’s used as a source of hay and forage, and for control of soil erosion. In 1876 some horticultural genius decided to bring kudzu to the United States, thinking the vine would make a great ornamental.
The legume took one look at the Southern states and said, “Hot diggity!”
In Charlotte, you can sit on your porch on summer nights and hear the kudzu edge forward. My friend Anne claims she once set out a marker. In twenty-four hours the runners on her banister had advanced two inches.
Kudzu covered the rusted chain-link fence at the back of the property. It slithered along power lines, swallowed trees and bushes, and blanketed the house and its outbuildings.
Boyd didn’t care. He dragged me from vine-draped oak to magnolia to pump house to well, sniffing and wagging as he had at the annex.
Other than the depression left behind by the bear bones, nothing got a rise but the chipmunks and squirrels.
Boyd of the Baskervilles.
By eleven the mosquitoes had drained so much blood I was starting to think “transfusion.” Boyd’s tongue was barely clearing the ground, and Ryan and I had said “fuck” a thousand times each.
Fat, leaden clouds were drifting in overhead and the day was turning dark and sluggish. An anemic little breeze carried the threat of rain.
“This is pointless,” I said, wiping the side of my face on the shoulder of my T-shirt.
Ryan didn’t disagree.
“Except where we went digging for bear by the McCranie hedge, dogbreath hasn’t so much as stiffened a whisker.”
“He liked that sneak swoop-and-sniff of your tush.” Ryan addressed Boyd. “Didn’t think I was watching, did you, Hooch?”
Boyd looked at Ryan, went back to licking a rock.
“Ryan, we need to do something.”
“We are doing something.”
I cocked an eyebrow.
Katy would have been proud of the eye roll.
“And doing a damn fine job of it, considering this heat.”
“Let’s stroll Boyd past the hedge one more time, remind him what we’re looking for, then make a final sweep and call it a day.”
I put my hand down and Boyd licked it.
“Sounds like a plan,” said Ryan.
I wrapped the leash around my palm and yanked. Boyd looked up and twirled the eyebrow hairs, as though questioning the sanity of another sortie.
“I think he’s getting bored,” Ryan said.
“We’ll find him a squirrel.”
When Ryan and I set off, Boyd fell into step. We were weaving through the outbuildings at the back of the house, when the chow went into his “sniff-squirt-and-cover” routine.
Moseying up to a kudzu-shrouded shack, Boyd snuffled the earth, lifted a leg, took two forward steps, then kicked out with both back feet. Tail wagging, he repeated the maneuver, working his way along the foundation.
Sniff. Lift. Squirt. Step, step. Kick, kick.
Sniff. Lift. Squirt. Step, step. Kick, kick.
“Good rhythm,” said Ryan.
I was about to tug Boyd from the shed when his muscle tonus changed. His head and ears shot forward and his belly sucked up.
Snout to the ground.
Muscles rigid, Boyd inhaled then exhaled through his nostrils, sending dead vegetation spiraling outward.
Then the dog went absolutely, utterly still.
A heartbeat. A lifetime.
Boyd’s ears flattened, his hackles rose, and an eerie sound crawled from his throat, more keening than growl.
The hairs on my neck went vertical. I’d heard it before.
Before I could speak, Boyd exploded. Lips curled, teeth gleaming, the keening gave way to frenzied barking.
The chow lunged forward and backward, delivering his threat from every angle.
I tightened my grip and braced both feet.
“Can you hold him?” I asked.
Without a word, Ryan took the leash.
Heart pounding, I circled the shed, searching for a door.
The radio crackled. Larabee said something.
I found the entrance on the south side, away from the house. Gingerly brushing back spiderwebs, I pulled on the handle.
The door wouldn’t budge.
I looked up and down along the frame. Two nails held the door in place. They looked new compared with the dry, flaky wood around them.
Boyd’s frenzy continued. Ryan held tight to the leash, calling “Hooch,” then “Boyd” to calm him.
Unfolding my Swiss army knife, I gouged out one nail, then the other.
Larabee’s voice sounded small and tinny on the radio, as though emanating from some alien star system.
I depressed the button and reported my position.
When I tried again, the door creaked open, and a fetid, earthy smell drifted out, like dead plants and garbage left too long in the sun. Flies buzzed in agitation.
Cupping a hand across my mouth and nose, I peered in.
Flies danced in threads of light slicing in through gaps in the boards. Slowly, my eyes adjusted to the dim interior.
“Perfect,” I said. “Picture fucking perfect.”
I WAS STARING INTO A PRIVY.
At one time chez toilette offered state-of-the-art comfort in human waste disposal technology: insect control, toilet paper, a spiffy one-seater with a flip-top lid.
All that was gone now. What remained were dried and shriveled pest strips, a rusted flyswatter, two nails driven into a board at sitting height, a pile of splintered wood, and a chipped and flaking wooden pink oval.
A pit approximately two feet square yawned through an opening in the floorboards at the far end of the shack.
The stench was familiar, bringing to mind privies in summer camps, national parks, and Third World villages. This one smelled sweeter, softer, somehow.
My mind added a string of expletives to those Ryan and I had floated during our walkabout with Boyd.
“Crap!” I said aloud for emphasis.
Not three months earlier I’d been up to my elbows investigating debris in a septic tank. I’d vowed never to slog through feces again.
“Crap! Crap! Crap!”
“Not very ladylike.”
Larabee craned over my shoulder. I stepped aside. Behind us Boyd continued his frenzy and Ryan continued his attempts to calm him.
“But entirely apropos.” I slapped a mosquito that was lunching on my arm.
Larabee stuck his head into the privy, pulled it back quickly.
“Could be Boyd was just rocked by the smell.”
I scowled at Larabee’s back.
“Could be. But you’re going to want to check it out,” I said. “Make sure no one’s been pissing on Jimmy Hoffa.”
“No one’s been pissing on anyone in here for some time.” Larabee let the door bang shut. “The grand-finale whiz probably took place during the Eisenhower years.”
“Something’s going bad in that pit.”
“Suggestions?” I backhanded gnats from my face.
“Backhoe,” he said.
“Can we take a look in the house first, try to estimate when Farmer John splurged for the indoor pipes?”
“Find me one human bone, I’ll have CSU shooting close-ups under the sink.”
A metacarpal came up with the seventh scoop.
Joe Hawkins, Ryan, and I had been working the privy for three hours. Bucketful by bucketful, the pit was giving up its treasure.
That treasure consisted of shards of broken glass and china, scraps of paper, chunks of plastic, rusted utensils, animal bones, and gallons of deep, black organic matrix.
The backhoe operator would scoop, deposit, and wait. Hawkins would triage bones to one pile, household debris to another. Ryan would transport buckets of compost to my screen. I’d sieve and rummage.
We were growing optimistic. The skeletal part of the treasure looked strictly nonhuman and purely culinary. And, unlike Boyd’s discovery at the McCranie hedge, the privy bones were devoid of tissue.
These animals had been dead a long time.
The metacarpal turned up at 3:07 P.M.
I stared at it, searching for something to allow me doubt.
There was no doubt. The bone had been part of a thumb. A thumb that could hitchhike, twirl spaghetti, play trumpet, write a sonnet.
I gave in and closed my eyes.
Hearing footsteps, I opened them. Larabee was circling the pile of wreckage that until hours earlier had been the outhouse.
“How’s Boyd doing?” I asked.
“Enjoying a cool one on the front lawn. The chow’s not bad company.”
Seeing my face his smile evaporated.
I brought my hand up and positioned the metacarpal next to the base of my thumb.
Ryan and Hawkins joined us at the screen.
“Damn.” Ryan echoed Larabee.
Hawkins said nothing.
The backhoe operator put a boot heel on the control panel, leaned back, and gulped bottled water.
“Now what?” Larabee asked.
“The digger’s got a delicate touch,” I said. “And the pit conforms pretty well to the shape of the shovel. I think we can keep going like this. Whatever’s in there isn’t likely to be damaged.”
“I thought you hated backhoes?”
“This guy’s good.”
We all glanced at the operator. He looked like he could possibly be less interested. But only with the aid of serious pharmaceuticals.
Thunder rumbled in the distance. The sky was now dark and menacing.
“How much longer?” Larabee asked.
“I’ve started seeing sterile subsoil in the last few scoops. We’re close to the bottom.”
“OK,” Larabee said. “I’ll turn CSU loose on the house.”
“And Tim?” I said.
“This may be a good time to get homicide on board.”
We finished as drops began sputtering from the sky.
I raised my chin, thankful for the cool wetness on my face.
I was exhausted and incredulous. So much work, and just when I most wanted to be free.
Gran would have been unsympathetic. Born on the auld sod and educated by nuns, the old lady had a unique perspective on sex, particularly sex not sanctioned by the parish priest.
No marriage, no whoopie. In her eighty-nine years on earth, she’d never budged from that position, and to my knowledge, had never condoned exceptions.
Wrapping my arms around my waist, I watched Ryan bundle the animal bones into a Hefty bag.
I watched Hawkins seal the human remains in a plastic tub, pull a body tracking form from a zip valise, and start filling in data.
Address where decedent was picked up.
OK. We had that.
Decedent’s name. Age. Race. Sex. Date of death.
All those lines remained blank.
To be precise, a skull and mandible, three cervical vertebrae, and bones comprising the better part of a right and left hand.
We’d screened and rescreened, but that’s all that turned up.
Hawkins matched the number on the tag to the number on the form, then dropped the tag into the plastic container.
I looked around. A human being had been killed in this place. The victim’s head and hands had been severed and thrown into the privy, the body dumped elsewhere.
Or had the killing occurred at another location, the head and hands brought to the privy for disposal?
Either case was a common pattern. Ditch the head, ditch the hands. No dentals. No fingerprints.
But on a farm in rural Mecklenburg County?
I closed my eyes and let rain fall on my face.
Who was this victim?
How long had the body parts been in the privy?
Where was the rest of the corpse?
Why had two of the hand bones been buried with bears? Was the slaughter of the animals related to the killing of the human?
Ryan’s voice snapped me back.
When we circled to the front of the property, I could see that a white Taurus had joined the cars and vans on the shoulder. A large man was emerging from the driver’s side, a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth.
A tall, lanky man was unfolding from the passenger seat, feet splayed, long, bony fingers braced against the door frame.
Larabee exchanged a few words with the men as he and Hawkins passed them on the way to their vehicles.
“Great,” I muttered under my breath.
“What?” Ryan asked.
“You’re about to meet Tweedledum and Tweedledee.”
“That’s not very charitable.”
“Rinaldi’s OK Slidell wouldn’t make the cut for Jerry Springer. ”
Skinny Slidell exhaled a stream of smoke, flicked the butt, then he and his partner started toward us.
While Slidell lumbered, Rinaldi seemed to move by fits and starts. Standing six-foot-four and carrying just a little over 160, the man looked like a stilt walker dressed by Hugo Boss.
Skinny Slidell and Eddie Rinaldi had partnered for nineteen years. No one on the force could understand the attraction.
Slidell was sloppy. Rinaldi was neat. Slidell mainlined cholesterol. Rinaldi ate tofu. Slidell was beach music and rock-and-roll oldies. Rinaldi was strictly opera. Slidell’s fashion sense ran toward the blue-light special. Rinaldi’s suits were custom-made.
“Hey, Doc,” said Slidell, yanking a wadded hanky from his back pocket.
I returned the greeting.
“Ain’t so much the heat as the humility, eh?” He ran the yellowed swatch across his brow, jammed it home with the backs of his fingers.
“The rain should cool things down.”
“Good Lord willin’.”
The skin on Slidell’s face looked like it had been stretched forward hard then allowed to drop. It hung in crescents below his cheeks and eyes, and drooped from the border of his jaw.
“Dr. Brennan.” Rinaldi’s hair was wiry thin on top, and stood out from his scalp like that of one of the characters in “Peanuts.” I could never remember. Was that Linus or Pigpen? Though Rinaldi’s jacket was off, his tie was meticulously knotted.
I introduced Ryan. As the men shook, Boyd ambled over and sniffed Slidell’s crotch.
“Boyd!” Grabbing his collar, I yanked the dog back.
“Whoa, girl.” Slidell bent and roughed Boyd’s ears. The back of his shirt was soaked in the shape of a T.
“His name’s Boyd,” I said.
“No news on the Banks case,” Slidell said. “Little mama’s still AWOL.”
“So you found yourself a stiff in the crapper.”
Slidell’s face remained flaccid as I described the remains. At one point I thought I saw a flicker in Rinaldi’s eyes, but it came and went so quickly, I couldn’t be sure.
“Let me get this straight.” Slidell sounded skeptical. “You think the bones you found in the grave come from one of the hands you found in the dumper.”
“I see no reason to think otherwise. Everything is consistent and there are no duplications.”
“How’d these bones get out of the dumper and in with the bears?”
“That sounds like a question for a detective.”
“Any clue when the vic was chucked in?” Slidell.
I shook my head.
“Any impression on gender?” Rinaldi asked.
I’d made a quick evaluation. Though the skull was large, all sex indicators were annoyingly intermediate. Nothing robust, nothing gracile.
“White. But I’ll have to verify that.”
“How confident do you feel?”
“Pretty confident. The nasal opening is narrow, the bridge steepled, the cheekbones tight to the face. The skull looks classically European.”
“Skeletal maturation is complete in the fingers, the teeth show little wear, the cranial sutures minimal closure.”
Rinaldi pulled a leather-bound notepad from his shirt pocket.
Rinaldi jotted it down.
“There is one other little thing.”
Both men looked at me.
“There are two bullet holes in the back of the head. Small caliber. Probably a twenty-two.”
“Cute, saving that for last,” said Slidell. “Don’t suppose you found a smoking gun?”
“Nope. No gun. No bullets. Nothing for ballistics.”
“Why’s Larabee cutting free?” Slidell tipped his head toward the parked cars.
“He’s giving a talk tonight.”
Rinaldi underlined something in his notes and slid the pen into its slot.
“Shall we go inside?” he asked.
“I’ll be there in a minute.”
I stood, listening to rain tick the magnolia leaves overhead, unconsciously putting off the inevitable. Though the scientist in me wanted to know whom we’d pulled from the privy, another part of me wanted to turn away, to take no part in the dissection of another murder.
Friends often ask, “How can you constantly deal with the remains of death? Doesn’t that debase life? Make brutal death commonplace?”
I shrug off the queries with a stock response about media. Everyone knows about violent death, I say. The public reads about the stabbings, the shootings, the airline disasters. People hear the statistics, watch the footage, follow the trials on Court TV. The only difference? I see the carnage closer up.
That’s what I say. But the truth is, I think a lot about death. I can be fairly philosophical about the hard cases who do each other in as part of doing business. But I can never avoid the sense of pity for the young and the weak who simply happened to get in the way of some psychopath listening to voices from another planet, or some druggie in need of fifty dollars for a fix, or for the genuinely innocent who through no fault of their own happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and were subsumed by events of which they had no understanding.
My friends interpret my reluctance to discuss my work as stoicism, or professional ethics, or even as a desire to spare their sensitivities. That’s not it. It’s more a concern for me than them. At the end of the day, I need to leave those cadavers cold and silent on their stainless steel. I need to not think about them. I need to read a book, or see a movie, or discuss politics or art. I need to reestablish perspective and remind myself that life offers much more than violence and mayhem.
But with certain cases, the emotional fire wall is harder to maintain. With certain cases, my mind loops back to the pure horror of it, no matter what rationalizations I make.
As I watched Slidell and Rinaldi walk toward the house, a tiny voice sounded in my head.
Be careful, it whispered. This may be one of the rough ones.
The wind kicked up, agitating the dried magnolia leaves and blossoms at our feet and whipping the kudzu into undulating green waves.
Boyd danced around my legs, looking from me to the house, then back again.
The dog whined.
Boyd’ll take on a rottweiler without batting an eye, but storms scare him silly.
“We going in?” Ryan asked.
“We’re going in!” I replied in a Walter Mitty contralto.
I bolted for the house. Ryan followed. Boyd overtook us.
As I bounded onto the porch, the screen door opened and Slidell’s face appeared in the gap. He’d abandoned the cigarette and was now chewing on a wooden toothpick. Before speaking, he rolled the toothpick with his thumb and index finger.
“You’re gonna shit your Calvin Klein’s when you see what’s in here.”
THE TEMPERATURE IN THE HOUSE WAS WELL OVER A HUNDRED. The air was stale and moldy, with that no- one’s- lived- here- in- a- long- time smell.
“Upstairs,” said Slidell. He and Rinaldi disappeared through a double doorway straight ahead, then I heard boots moving around overhead.
The porch overhang, kudzu, dirt-crusted screens and windows, and the impending storm limited the interior light to subterranean levels.
I found it hard to breathe, hard to see. From nowhere, a cloud of foreboding engulfed me, and something menacing tapped at the back of my thoughts.
I sucked in my breath.
Ryan’s hand brushed my shoulder. I reached up, but already it was gone.
Slowly, my eyes adjusted. I appraised my surroundings.
We were in a living room.
Red shag carpet with navy flecks. Faux-pine paneling. Early American couch and chair. Wooden arms and legs. Red-and-blue-plaid upholstery. Cushions littered with candy wrappers, cotton stuffing, mouse droppings.
Above the sofa, a flea market print of Paris in springtime, Le Tour Eiffel all out of proportion to the street below. Carved wall shelf overflowing with glass animals. More figurines parading across a wooden cornice above the windows.
Collapsible TV trays, the kind with plastic tops and metal legs. Soft drink and beer cans. More cans on the carpet. Cheetos and corn chip bags. A Pringles canister.
I enlarged my scan.
Dining room dead ahead through a double doorway. Round maple table with four captain’s chairs. Red-and-blue ruffled seat pads. Upended basket of plastic flowers. Junk food packaging. Empty cans and bottles. Stairs rising steeply off to the right.
Beyond the dining room table was a swinging door identical to one that had separated my grandmother’s dining room from her kitchen. Beveled wood. Clear plastic panel at hand level.
Adult hand level. Gran had spent hours wiping grape jelly, pudding, and little prints from the paint below.
Again, my nerves buzzed with an ill-formed sense of apprehension.
Through the swinging door came the sound of cabinets being opened and closed.
Boyd put his forepaws on the couch and sniffed a Kit Kat wrapper. I pulled him back.
Ryan spoke first.
“I’d say the last decorating order was placed around the time that latrine was dug.”
“But someone tried.” I gestured around the room. “The art. The glass animals. The red-and-blue motif.”
“Nice.” Ryan nodded false appreciation. “Patriotic.”
“The point is, someone cared about the place. Then it went to shit. Why?”
Boyd oozed back to the couch, mouth open, tongue dangling.
“I’m going to take the dog out where he’ll be cooler,” I said.
Boyd offered only token objection.
When I returned, Ryan had disappeared.
Stepping gingerly, I crossed the dining room and pushed the swinging door with my elbow.
The kitchen was typical of old farmhouses. Appliances and workspace spread for miles along the right-hand wall, the centerpiece a white porcelain sink below the room’s single window. Kelvinator at the far end. Coldspot at the near end. Formica countertop at waist level. Worn wooden cabinets above and below.
To move from stove to sink or from sink to refrigerator required actual walking. The place was massive compared with my kitchen at the annex.
Two doors opened from the left-hand wall. One onto a pantry. One onto a basement stairway.
A chrome-and-Formica table occupied the middle of the room. Around it were six chrome chairs with red plastic seats.
The table, chairs, and every surface in the room were coated with black fingerprint powder. The granny glasses–wearing tech was shooting close-ups of prints on the refrigerator door.
“Think tank’s upstairs,” she said, without looking up from the camera.
I returned to the dining room and climbed to the second floor.
A quick survey revealed three bedrooms. The remaining footage was given over to the glorious modern WC. Like the first-floor motif, the bathroom fixtures looked circa 1954.
Ryan, Slidell, Rinaldi, and the male CSU tech were in the northeast bedroom. All four were focused on something on the dresser. All four looked up when I appeared in the doorway.
Slidell hitched his pants and switched the toothpick to the other corner of his mouth.
“Nice, eh? Kinda Green Acres Gone Trailer Park.”
“What’s up?” I asked.
Slidell swept a hand over the dresser, Vanna White displaying a game show prize.
Entering the room was like walking into a moldy greenhouse. Violets, now brown with age, covered the wallpaper, the fabric on an over-stuffed chair, the curtains hanging limp at each window.
A framed picture lay against one baseboard, a cropped magazine shot of a nosegay of violets. The picture’s glass was cracked, its corners off their ninety-degree angle.
Crossing to the bureau, I glanced at the focus of everyone’s attention.
And felt the buzz electrify in my chest.
I raised my eyes, not comprehending.
“What’s up is your baby killer,” said Slidell. “Take another gander.”
I didn’t need a second look. I recognized the object. What I didn’t understand was its meaning. How had it come to be in this dreadful room with its terrible flowers?
My eyes dropped back to the white plastic rectangle.
Tamela Banks stared from the lower left corner, curly black hair outlined by a red square. Across the top of the card a blue banner declared State of North Carolina. Beside the banner, red letters on white stated DMV.
I looked up.
“Where did you find this?”
“Under the bed,” said the CSU tech.
“With enough crud to make a bioterrorist pee his shorts.” Slidell.
“Why would Tamela Banks’s driver’s license be in this house?”
“She must have come here with that hump, Tyree.”
“Why?” I repeated myself. This wasn’t making sense.
The CSU tech excused himself, returned to processing the next room.
Slidell pointed his toothpick at Rinaldi.
“Gosh, what do you think, Detective? Think it could have something to do with the two kilos of blow we found in the basement?”
I looked at Rinaldi.
“Maybe Tamela lost the license,” I groped. “Maybe it was stolen.”
Slidell pooched out his lips and rolled the toothpick. Looking for gonadal camaraderie, he turned to Ryan.
“What do you think, Lieutenant? Either of those theories ring true to you?”
Ryan shrugged. “If the queen invited Camilla to that Golden Jubilee concert, anything’s possible.”
Slidell’s left eye twitched as a drop of sweat rolled into it.
“Did you run a history on this place?” I asked.
Another toothpick repositioning, then Slidell pulled a notebook from his back pocket.
“Until recently, the property didn’t change hands that much.”
Slidell read his notes. We all waited.
“Place belonged to Sander Foote from 1956 until 1986. Sander got it from his daddy, Romulus, who got it from his daddy, Romulus, blah, blah, blah.” Slidell rotated a hand. “String of Romulus Sanderses on the tax records prior to fifty-six. Not really relevant to current events.”
“No,” I agreed impatiently.
“When Foote died in eighty-six, the farm went to his widow, Dorothy Jessica Harrelson Oxidine Pounder Foote.” Slidell looked up. “Lady was the marrying kind.”
Back to his notes.
“Dorothy was the third Mrs. F. She and Foote married late, had no kids. He was seventy-two, she was forty-nine. But here’s where the story gets interesting.”
I wanted to shake Slidell to make him go faster.
“The widow didn’t really inherit the farm. Foote’s will allowed Dorothy, and her son by a previous marriage, to live on the place until her death. After that, the kid could stay until he was thirty years old.”
Slidell shook his head. “This Foote must have been some kind of fruit bat.”
“Because he wanted his wife’s son to have a home until the boy was established?” I kept my voice calm.
The wind picked up. Leaves thrashed the window screen.
“After that?” Ryan asked.
“After that, the place goes to Foote’s daughter by his first marriage.”
Something rolled across the lawn with a hollow, thunking sound.
“Dorothy Foote is dead?” I asked.
“Five years ago.” Slidell closed the notebook and returned it to his pocket.
“Has her son turned thirty?”
“Does he live here?”
“The little sleaze rents the place out to turn a few bucks.”
“Can he do that under the terms of the will?”
“Couple years back Foote’s daughter hired a lawyer to look into that. Guy couldn’t find any way to get the kid tossed. Kid does everything under the table, so there’s no record of money changing hands. Daughter lives in Boston, never comes to God’s little acre here. Place isn’t worth that much. Kid’s twenty-seven.” Slidell shrugged. “Guess she decided to wait it out.”
“What’s Dorothy’s son’s name?” I asked.
Slidell smiled. There was no humor in it.
Where had I heard that name?
“You remember him, Doc.”
I did. From where?
“We discussed Mr. Pounder just last week.” Toothpick. “And it wasn’t because the squirrel’s appearing on our new career leaflet for police recruits.”
“Harrison ‘Sonny’ Pounder,” Rinaldi supplied.
Recollection sluiced through my brain.
“Sonny Pounder?” I asked, incredulous.
“Mama Foote’s baby boy,” Slidell said.
“Who’s Sonny Pounder?” Ryan asked.
“Sonny Pounder’s a dime-a-dozen, low-life dirtbag who’d sell his mama to the Taliban for the right price.” Slidell.
Ryan turned to me.
“Pounder’s the dealer who traded the tip about Tamela Banks’s baby.”
“Why didn’t you know this was Pounder’s place?” I asked.
“When dealing with authorities, Mr. Pounder prefers listing his city address. Legally, this farm is deeded to Mama,” Rinaldi said.
Another peal of thunder. A low wail from the porch.
“Tamela may have come here with Tyree, but that doesn’t mean she dealt dope or killed her baby.” My reasoning sounded weak, even to me.
In the yard, a door banged, banged again.
“Are you going to talk to Pounder?” I asked Slidell.
The hound-dog eyes settled on mine.
“I’m not a moron, Doc.”
Yes, you are, I thought.
At that moment, the storm broke.
Ryan, Boyd, and I sat on the porch until the squall played itself out. The wind flapped our clothes and blew warm rain across our faces. It felt wonderful.
Boyd was less enthused about the raw power of nature. He lay at my side, head thrust into the triangle of space below my crooked knees. It was a tactic on which Birdie often relied. If I can’t see you, you can’t see me. Ergo, I am safe.
By six the shower had dwindled to a slow, steady drizzle. Though Slidell, Rinaldi, and the CSU techs continued their search of the house, there was nothing more Ryan and I could do.
As a precaution, I trotted Boyd around every floor a couple of times. Nothing caught his interest.
I told Slidell we were taking off. He said he’d call me in the morning.
When I let Boyd into the backseat, he circled, curled with his chin on his hind paws, and gave a loud sigh.
Ryan and I got in.
“Hooch is probably not looking at a career as a narcotics dog.”
“No,” I agreed.
On his first circuit Boyd had sniffed the two bags of cocaine, wagged once, and continued prancing around the basement. On his second visit, he’d ignored them.
“But he’s a pistol with carrion.”
I reached back and Boyd licked my hand.
On the way home I swung by the MCME to pick up a laptop power cord I’d left behind. While I went inside, Boyd and Ryan played the chow’s single idea of a game: Ryan stood stationary in the parking lot and Boyd ran circles around him.
As I was leaving the building, Sheila Jansen swung in, got out of her car, and crossed to me.
“You’re here late,” I said.
“Got some news, so I came by on the chance I might catch you here.” She did not comment on my appearance. I did not offer.
Boyd abandoned Ryan and shot to Jansen to try the crotch schtick. The NTSB agent cut him off with a double-handed ear scratch. Ryan ambled over and I made introductions. Boyd began orbiting the three of us.
“Looks like the drug theory’s right on,” Jansen said. “When we rolled the Cessna, damned if the right front door hadn’t been fitted with another, smaller door inside.”
“I don’t understand.”
“A hole was cut in the right front door, then covered by a small flap hinged at the bottom to swing down inside the plane.”
“Like a one-way doggy door?”
“Exactly. The modification wouldn’t have been obvious to a casual observer.”
“To allow air drops.”
I pictured the two kilos of blow we’d just left behind.
“Of illegal drugs.”
“You’ve got it.”
“To a pickup crew waiting with a car on the ground.”
“Why go to all the trouble of modifying the plane? Why not simply open the door and shove the stuff out?”
“Stall speed for a C-210 is around sixty-four miles per hour. That’s the minimum they could fly at drop time. It’s tough to push something out at that speed. Think about holding open your car door while going down the highway at sixty-five.”
“Here’s the scenario I’m liking. The right front seat’s been removed for access to the modified door. The passenger is in back. The product is in the small cargo compartment behind the passenger. Are you picturing this?”
She flicked her eyes to Ryan. I nodded. She turned to him. “That’s the pilot.”
“Pearce is using the rock face as his landmark. He spots the cliff, gives the signal, the passenger unbuckles, reaches back, and starts shoving product from the plane.”
“Coke?” Ryan asked.
“Probably. You couldn’t get enough weed into a C-210 to make the run worth your while. Though I’ve seen it done.”
“Wouldn’t a fall from that height cause the packets of coke to explode?” I asked.
“That’s why they’re using parachutes.”
“Small cargo chutes they could have purchased in a surplus store. The locals are checking that out. Anyway, the coke is bundled inside heavy plastic sheeting, padded with bubble wrap, and bound with enough duct tape to cover my aunt Lilly’s ass. Auntie was a big girl.”
“Sounds like my great-aunt Cornelia,” Ryan said. “Good eater.”
Jansen glanced at Ryan, turned back at me.
“Go on,” I said.
“Each bundle is attached to a chute with more duct tape and a cinch strap. The chute is wrapped around the bundle, and a twenty-foot polypropylene line is overwrapped around the chute to hold it tight around the bundle. You with me?”
“Pearce gives the word. The pax secures the loose end of the line to something inside the aircraft, opens the doggy door, and shoves the bundle out. As the bundle tumbles, the rope unwraps, the chute is pulled free and deploys, and the snort drifts to earth, sweet as a songbird.”
Boyd nipped Ryan’s calf. Ryan clapped at him. The dog leaped backward and resumed looping.
“So what went wrong?” I asked.
“How’s this. They’re flying low over the drop area, close to stall speed, things are hunky-dory, then the last bundle streams back toward the tail. The chute or bundle gets tangled in the rudder or elevator, the pilot can’t steer, loses control. Hello, rock face.”
“Explains why Pearce was belted and his passenger wasn’t.”
I pictured the two burned corpses, each coated with the crispy black residue.
“These chutes are made of lightweight nylon, right?”
“How about this. The last chute deploys prematurely, inside the plane. It envelops the passenger. He struggles. Pearce reaches over, tries to disentangle him, loses control, flies into the rock face. Fireball.”
“Explains the black residue. Fried parachute.” Jansen was with me.
“But this is still all conjecture,” I said.
“Not really,” Jansen said.
“Couple of kids made an interesting discovery yesterday morning.”
“THREE KIDS WERE RUNNING THEIR DOGS IN A FIELD EAST OF THE crash site early Monday, spotted what they thought was a ghost flapping around on Grandpa’s old tobacco barn.”
An image. A pilot’s corpse, parachute rising and falling with the wind. Ryan voiced my thought.
“Lord of the Flies,” he said.
“Perfect analogy,” Jansen said. “Having pondered the situation over Nehi and Moon Pies, our little geniuses decided to do some sleuthing. When their beastie turned out to be a parachuted packet of white powder, they voted to stash the booty while considering further action.”
“That action included a broader search,” I guessed.
“They found three more packets of blow in the woods. Knowing about the Cessna, and being Cops and CSI regulars, they figured good fortune had befallen them.”
“They called 911 to inquire about a reward.”
“Phoned around ten this morning. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg PD contacted the parents, and an open discussion ensued. Bottom line: the kids had four bundles of snort and four parachutes squirreled away in Gramp’s shed.”
“You’re sure it’s cocaine?” I asked.
“The stuff will have to be tested. But, yeah, I’d bet my ass it’s coke.”
“Why would the pilot’s pickup crew leave the stuff behind?”
“Access to the location is by one narrow, winding road. They probably watched the Cessna go down, figured if they lingered they’d meet emergency responders on their way out. Opting for freedom over fortune, they hauled ass.”
That made sense.
“According to our scenario, the last chute opened prematurely,” I said. “Why?”
“Could have been just lousy luck. Or the blowout could have been caused by an airstream.”
“The army airborne has had deaths over the years from parachutes inflating accidentally while the jumper stands in the door. The reserve chute is worn in front, and the whipping airstream sometimes gets inside and rips the pack open, dragging the chute and the jumper out the door prematurely.”
“Opening the doggy door would have caused an airstream to whip around inside the cabin?” Ryan asked.
“It’s possible,” Jansen said.
“But they’d successfully launched four chutes. Why a screwup with the fifth?” I asked.
“Maybe the last bundle was lighter. Maybe the pax didn’t get the chute wrapped fast enough. Maybe the pilot made a sudden maneuver with the plane.”
“Maybe,” I said.
“The snort was packed in one-foot-square bundles. That was a pretty tight fit for the doggy door. Maybe the last bundle got jammed and the chute blew before they could knock it free,” Ryan suggested.
“Wouldn’t that leave one bundle in the plane?” I asked.
“Or under it.” Jansen hesitated a microsecond. “I did find something.”
“Another packet of drugs?” I asked.
“Hardly a packet. Mostly ash and melted plastic.”
“Underneath the wreckage?”
“Ash from what?”
“I’m not sure. But the stuff doesn’t whisper nose candy to me.”
“Is a mixed payload common?”
“As a wino with a muscatel buzz.”
When we arrived at the annex Boyd went straight to his bowl.
Ryan won the toss on which I insisted. Bad idea. While he showered I checked my messages.
A UNCC colleague.
I tried Lija’s town house. A male voice answered, said my daughter was out, but that she was expected shortly. The voice did not identify itself.
I left a message, clicked off.
“And who the hell are you?” I asked the handset. “The intensely engaging Palmer Cousins?” And why didn’t you say so? Are you living at Lija’s town house, too? I didn’t want to think about it.
Boyd looked up, went back to eating.
I tried my colleague. He had a question about a graduate thesis that I could not answer.
Having inhaled every nasty brown nugget in the bowl, Boyd flopped onto his side.
To call Harry, or not to call Harry?
My sister doesn’t grasp the concept of the short conversation. Besides, Harry can smell sex over a phone line, and I didn’t want to discuss my recent adventures. Hearing footfalls on the stairs, I laid the phone on the table.
Ryan appeared with Birdie pressed to his chest. The cat’s forepaws and chin rested on his shoulder.
When I reached out, Birdie turned his head.
“Aw, come on, Bird.”
Two unblinking eyes swung my way.
“You’re a fraud, Birdie.” I stroked the cat’s head. “You’re not even trying to get away.”
Birdie’s chin went up, and I scratched his throat.
“If he wanted down,” I said to Ryan, “he’d be doing this pushy-paw thing on your chest.”
“I found him on the bed.”
Hearing Ryan’s voice, Boyd scrambled to his feet, tags jangling, toenails scrabbling for purchase on the wooden floor.
Birdie rocketed off Ryan’s chest like a shuttle at Canaveral.
“There’s beer in the fridge,” I said. “Paper’s in the den. I won’t be long.”
When I returned, Ryan was at the kitchen table, Observer open to the sports section. He’d finished a Sam Adams and started on a second. Boyd’s chin was on his knee.
When I entered, both looked up.
“Of all the gin joints, in all the towns in all the world, she had to walk into mine,” Ryan played Bogey to the dog.
“Your daughter called.”
“Oh?” I was surprised Ryan had answered my phone.
“The thing was lying here, it rang, I answered by reflex. Sorry.”
“Did she say why she was calling?”
“I didn’t realize who it was. I told her you were showering. She said it wasn’t important, gave her name, and hung up.”
So Katy and I both had some ’splaining to do.
Ryan and I drove to the Selwyn Pub, a tiny tavern just a few blocks from Sharon Hall. To the uninitiated, the brick bungalow looks like a private home, small for Myers Park, but not intolerable.
Other than a nondescript sign, the only indication that the place is a bar is the assemblage of cars parked where the lawn should be. When I turned in, Ryan looked puzzled, but said nothing.
Patrons descend on the Selwyn Pub in two shifts. Early evenings it’s free-range professionals knocking back brews before a game, a date, or dinner with June and Wally and the Beaver.
Later, as the developers and lawyers and accountants head out, students from Queens College pour in. Silk, gabardine, and Italian leather yield to denim, cotton, and hemp sandals. The Benzes, Beemers, and SUVs give way to Hondas, Chevys, and cheaper SUVs.
Ryan and I arrived in the lull at shift change. I’d been in good spirits after my shower, a bit down over Tamela’s baby and the privy find, but buoyed by Ryan’s presence. Sad-happy. But crossing the pub courtyard, I felt a gloom settling over me.
I loved having Ryan here, was having a terrific time with him. Why the sadness? No idea. I tried to push the darkness aside.
Most of the regulars had gone, and only a few tables and barstools were occupied. Feeling less sociable by the minute, I led Ryan to the pub’s single booth.
I ordered a cheeseburger and fries. Ryan chose the evening’s special from a handwritten blackboard above the fireplace: barbecue and fries.
Diet Coke for me. Pilsner Urquell for Ryan.
As we waited, Ryan and I rehashed our conversation with Sheila Jansen.
“Who owns the Cessna?” Ryan asked.
“A man named Ricky Don Dorton.”
Ryan’s draft and my Coke arrived. Ryan flashed the waitress a giant Pepsi smile. She beamed him a Jumbo Super Deluxe. My downward spiral gathered speed.
“Any chance I could have my burger medium rare?” I interrupted the dental exchange.
“Sure.” Sister Pepsi turned to Ryan. “You all right with Eastern?”
After smiling the waitress back to the kitchen, Ryan turned to me.
“What’s geography got to do with barbecue?”
“The barbecue from down east is made with a vinegar-mustard-based sauce. Western Carolina sauce relies more on the tomato.”
“That reminds me. What’s ‘swite tay’?”
“Servers keep offering it to me.”
Swite tay? I rolled the phrase around.
“Sweet tea, Ryan. Iced tea with sugar.”
“Learning a foreign language is a bitch. OK. Back to Mr. Dorton. When we first spoke of him you said the gentleman was saddened by the theft of his aircraft.”
“Who is Ricky Don Dorton?”
The waitress delivered our food. Ryan asked for mayo. We both looked at him.
“For the fries,” he explained.
The waitress turned to me. I shrugged.
When she’d gone, I pounded ketchup onto my fries, transferred the lettuce, pickle, and tomato from the plate to my burger, and added condiments.
“I told you. Dorton owns a couple of strip clubs in Kannapolis, just north of Charlotte.”
I took a bite. The ground beef was somewhere between scorched and vaporized. I took a swig of Coke. It was Coke. Not Diet Coke.
My mood was darkening by the nanosecond.
“The police have been watching Dorton on and off for a few years, but they’ve never been able to nail him with anything.”
The waitress presented Ryan with a tiny corrugated cup of mayonnaise and more teeth than a coping saw.
“Thanks,” he said.
“Anytime,” she said.
I felt my eyes roll toward my frontal lobe.
“They think Mr. Dorton’s lifestyle exceeds his earning power?” Ryan asked, dipping a fry into the mayo.
“Apparently the man’s got a lot of toys.”
“Dorton’s back under surveillance?”
“If Ricky Don so much as spits on a sidewalk, he’s busted.”
I upended the ketchup, pounded, returned the bottle to the table with a loud crack.
We ate in silence for several minutes. Then Ryan’s hand slipped over mine.
“What’s bugging you?”
I looked up. Deep concern in the cornflower eyes. I looked down.
“Talk to me, cupcake.”
I knew where this was going and I didn’t like it.
“What is it?” Ryan probed.
Easy one. I didn’t like feeling depressed by my work. I didn’t like feeling cheated because of a postponed vacation. I didn’t like feeling jealous over an innocent flirtation with an anonymous waitress. I didn’t like feeling that I had to answer to my daughter. I didn’t like feeling left out of her life.
I didn’t like feeling I was not in control.
Control. That was always my problem. Tempe had to be in control. That was the sole insight I’d gained from my single experience with analysis.
I didn’t like analysis, didn’t like admitting I needed outside help.
And I didn’t like talking about my feelings. Ever. Not with a psychologist. Not with a priest. Not with Yoda. Not with Ryan. I wanted to slide from the booth and forget this conversation.
As if in betrayal, a lone tear headed south from one eye. Embarrassed, I backhanded my cheek.
Ryan paid the check.
The parking lot held two SUVs and my Mazda. Ryan leaned against the driver’s door, pulled me to him, and tilted my face upward with both hands.
I tried to lower my chin.
“Does this have to do with last night?”
“No. Last night was…” My voice trailed off.
God, I hated this.
“Fine.” Skyrockets and the William Tell Overture.
Ryan ran a thumb under each of my eyes.
“Then why the tears?”
OK, buster. You want feelings?
I took a deep breath and unloaded.
“Some sick son of a bitch torched a newborn. Some other prick’s been slaughtering wildlife like it was mold under the sink. Two guys wasted themselves on a rock face while in the act of boosting the Colombian economy. And some poor bastard got his brains blown out, and his head and hands lobbed into a shithouse.”
My chest gave a series of tiny heaves.
“I don’t know, Ryan. Sometimes I think goodness and charity are racing toward extinction faster than the condor or the black rhino.”
Tears were now flowing.
“Greed and callousness are winning out, Ryan. Love and kindness and human compassion are becoming just a few more entries on the list of endangered species.”
Ryan pulled me close. Wrapping my arms around him, I wept on his chest.
The lovemaking was slower, gentler that night. Cellos and a triangle, not drums and a crash cymbal.
Afterward, Ryan stroked my hair as I lay with my cheek nestled in the hollow beneath his collarbone.
Drifting off, I felt Birdie hop onto the bed and curl behind me. The clock ticked softly. Ryan’s heart thudded with a peaceful, steady rhythm. Though perhaps not happy, I felt secure.
It was the last I’d feel safe for a long, long time.
I LOOKED AT THE CLOCK. FOUR TWENTY- THREE. BIRDIE WAS GONE. Ryan was snoring softly beside me.
I’d been dreaming about Tamela Banks. I lay there a minute, trying to reassemble fragmented images.
Gideon Banks. Geneva. Katy. A baby. A pit.
My dreams are usually a piece of cake. My mind takes recent events and weaves them into nocturnal mosaics. No subliminal puzzlers. No Freudian brainteasers.
So what the hell was this dream all about?
Guilt over my failure to return Geneva Banks’s call?
Guilt for not telling my daughter about Ryan?
Katy had met him when she dropped Boyd off.
Met him, yes.
Fear for Tamela? Sadness over her baby?
Then my mind was off and running.
Why was Tamela Banks’s driver’s license at a farm belonging to Sonny Pounder, a man recently busted for dealing drugs? Had Tamela gone there with Darryl Tyree? Did the cocaine belong to Tyree? To Pounder? Why had it been left in the basement?
Where was Tamela?
Where was Darryl Tyree?
A sudden terrible thought.
Could the victim in the privy be Tamela Banks? Had Darryl Tyree killed her out of fear she’d reveal what had happened to the baby? Out of anger that the child wasn’t his?
But that was impossible. The bones in the privy were devoid of flesh. Tamela’s baby was found only a week ago.
But when had the infant died?
I recapped what I knew about timing.
Tamela told her sister about the pregnancy last winter. She left her father’s home sometime around Easter. Witnesses reported she’d been living with Tyree in a South Tryon Street house for four months.
The baby could have been born in July, or even late June. When had Tamela last been seen? Could she have died several weeks ago? Could the highly organic environment in the privy have hastened decomposition?
If not Tamela, who was the privy victim? Why was he there? Who had shot him?
I thought the skull looked male, but was it a he?
Where was Darryl Tyree? Could I be wrong about the skull looking Caucasian? Could we have pulled Tyree’s head and hands from the pit?
Had I really seen a reaction in Rinaldi’s eyes? Had the head and hands triggered some recollection? If so, why keep it to himself?
Slidell’s question was a good one. How had two of the privy pit hand bones ended up in a shallow grave with bears and birds?
Who had killed all of those animals?
If the privy remains were not Tamela’s, could she have suffered the same fate as that victim?
Questions looped and spun in my head.
From the privy pit farm, my mind traveled west across the county to a cornfield crash site. I pictured Harvey Pearce and his anonymous passenger, their corpses encased in crispy black shrouds.
Who was Pearce’s passenger? What was the strange lesion on his nasal bone?
Jansen found charred matter under the Cessna. Was it more cocaine, or some other illegal drug? Something else entirely?
What was the relationship of the men in the Cessna to Ricky Don Dorton? Had Pearce and his passenger stolen Dorton’s plane, or were the three part of a drug trafficking ring? The doggy door and the missing seat seemed inconsistent with a recently stolen plane.
I turned my head on the pillow.
Was I making a mistake with Ryan? Could this work? If not, could we hold on to the friendship we had? To an outsider, our constant bantering might look like hostility. That was our way. Sparring. Teasing. Jousting. But underneath lay respect and affection. If it turned out we couldn’t be lovers, could we once again be colleagues and friends?
Did I want to be a couple? Could I really yield my long-fought-for independence? Would I have to?
Did Ryan want a committed relationship? Was he capable of monogamy? Was he capable of monogamy with me? Could I again believe in it?
It was a relief when day finally dawned. In the gathering light I watched familiar objects take shape in my room. The conch shell I’d collected on the beach at Kitty Hawk two summers back. The champagne glass into which I tossed my earrings. The framed pictures of Katy. The kabawil I’d purchased in Guatemala.
And the unfamiliar.
Ryan’s face was darker than usual, tanned from his days at Kings Mountain and the farm. The early light lay golden on his skin.
“What?” Ryan caught me gazing at him.
I stared into his eyes. No matter how often I experienced it, the intensity of the blue always surprised me.
I shook my head.
Ryan raised up on an elbow.
“You look tense.”
I wanted to say what was on my mind, to form forbidden words, ask prohibited questions. I held back.
“It’s scary stuff.”
“Yes,” I agreed.
What’s scary, Andrew Ryan? You? Me? A baby in a woodstove? A HydroShok to the head?
“I’m really sorry about the beach.” Safer ground.
Ryan broke into a grin. “I’ve got two weeks. We’ll get there.”
Ryan threw back the covers.
“I think today it’s the Queen City.”
Ryan and I swung by Starbucks, then he dropped me at the MCME office. Immediately upon arriving, I phoned Geneva Banks. Again, I got no answer.
A prick of apprehension. Neither Geneva nor her father worked outside the home. Where were they? Why wasn’t someone picking up?
I was dialing Rinaldi when he and his partner walked into my office.
“How’s it going?” I asked, replacing the receiver.
We gave each other prefab smiles.
“Have you spoken to Geneva or Gideon Banks recently?”
Slidell and Rinaldi exchanged glances.
“Geneva phoned Monday,” I said. “I returned her call, but got no answer. I just tried again. Still no answer.”
Rinaldi glanced down at his loafers. Slidell looked at me flatly.
Cold fingers wrapped around my heart.
“This is the part where you tell me they’re dead, right?”
Slidell answered with one word.
“What do you mean, gone?”
“Splitsville. Vamoosed. In the wind. We’re here to see if you might know something, you and Geneva being girlfriends and all.”
I looked from Slidell to his partner.
“The shades are drawn, and the place is secured tighter than a nuclear reactor. A neighbor saw the Bankses’ car pull out early Monday. No sign of them since.”
“Were they alone?”
“The neighbor wasn’t sure, but thought she saw someone in the backseat.”
“What are you doing about it?”
Rinaldi adjusted his tie, carefully centering the top flap over the bottom.
“We’re looking for them.”
“Have you spoken to the other Banks kids?”
I turned back to Slidell.
“If this Tyree’s the scumbag you say he is, Geneva and her father could be in danger.”
“Tamela and her family could already be dead.”
“You’re preaching to the choir, Doc. Far as I’m concerned, the faster we haul their asses to the bag, the better.”
“You’re kidding, right?”
“Ever heard of aiding and abetting?”
“Gideon Banks is in his seventies, for God’s sake. Geneva probably has the IQ of parsley.”
“How about obstructing justice, or accessory after the fact?”
“After what fact?” I wasn’t believing this.
“Let’s start with infantalcide.” Slidell.
“The word is ‘infanticide,’ ” I snapped.
Slidell put a fist on each hip and leaned back, stretching his lower shirt buttons to their tensile limits.
“You wouldn’t have any idea as to the whereabouts of these folks, now, would you, Doc?”
“I wouldn’t tell you if I did.”
Slidell’s hands dropped and his head came forward. We glared across my desk, baboons challenging for first dibs at the watering hole.
“Let’s talk about this other situation,” said Rinaldi.
As if on cue, a cell phone rang. Slidell scooped his out of a pocket. “Slidell.”
He listened a moment, then stepped into the hall.
I looked Rinaldi straight in the eye.
“When I was describing what we found in that privy yesterday, something clicked for you.”
“What makes you say that?”
“Something in your eyes.”
Rinaldi tugged his shirt cuffs from underneath his jacket and smoothed them against his wrists.
“Have you completed your examination of the skull and hand bones?”
“It tops my agenda.”
The fluorescents hummed overhead. Slidell’s voice drifted in from the hall.
“Who is this Darryl Tyree?” I asked.
“A pimp, a drug dealer, and a pornographer. Although I’m not sure that’s the order Mr. Tyree uses on his résumé. Let me know what you decide about the skull.”
Rinaldi started toward the door just as Joe Hawkins appeared in it. Both men stopped. Hawkins reached past Rinaldi and handed me a large brown envelope.
I thanked him. Hawkins withdrew.
Rinaldi did a slow turn and rolled his eyes in his partner’s direction.
“Skinny can be a bit gruff. But he’s a good cop. Don’t worry, Dr. Brennan. We’ll find the Bankses.”
At that moment Slidell stuck his head through the door.
“Looks like Green Acres ain’t the crime scene for the privy vic.”
Rinaldi and I waited for him to continue.
“CSU shined a LumaLite around the place this morning.” Though Slidell smiled, the corners of his mouth stayed flat. “No blood. Dark as a mall on Christmas Day.”
When Rinaldi and Slidell had gone, I took Hawkins’s envelope to the stinky room and began popping X rays onto the light boxes.
Each film inspired a fresh title for Slidell.
One-syllable appellations worked best. Unless a corner slipped and the film needed readjustment.
Plate by plate, I worked my way through the passenger’s infrastructure. Ribs, vertebrae, pelvis, arm, leg, breast, and collarbone.
Other than massive deceleration trauma, the skeleton looked perfectly normal.
Until I popped up the last four plates.
I was staring at the passenger’s hands and feet when Larabee came up behind me. For a full ten seconds neither of us spoke.
Larabee broke the silence.
“Jesus Christ in a blooming pear tree. I hope that’s not what I think it is.”
I STARED INTO THE PATTERN OF GRAYS AND WHITES RADIATING from the X ray. Beside me, Larabee did the same.
“Could you see involvement when you examined the nasal bones?” the ME asked.
I heard Larabee’s soles squeak on the tile, his palms rub up and down on his upper arms.
“Are you thinking leprosy?” he asked.
“Sure looks like it.”
“How the hell does someone get leprosy in North Carolina?”
The question hung in the air as I dug through layers at the back of my mind.
Graduate school. Systematics of bone pathology.
A: anatomical distribution.
I pointed the tip of my pen at the finger and toe bones.
“Other than the nasals, the process seems to be restricted to the bones of the hands and feet, especially the proximal and middle phalanges.”
B: osseous modification. Abnormal size, shape, bone loss, bone formation.
“I see three types of change.”
I pointed to a punched-out-looking circle. “Some lesions look round and cystic, like the one on the nasal.”
I indicated a honeycombed pattern in the index finger.
“There’s lacelike coarsening in some phalanges.”
I moved my pen to a phalange whose shape had altered from that of a dumbbell to that of a sharpened pencil.
“Resorption in one.”
“Looks like classic radiology textbook leprosy to me,” said Larabee.
“Did you pick up hints of anything elsewhere in the body?”
Larabee turned both palms up and shrugged in a “not really” gesture. “A couple of enlarged lymph nodes, but they didn’t strike me as any big deal. The lungs were hamburger, so I couldn’t really see much.”
“With lepromatous leprosy, the most obvious skin lesions would have been on the face.”
“Yeah. And this guy didn’t have one.”
Back to my hindbrain.
No macroscopically observable changes in soft tissue.
Diffuse spotty rarefaction, cortical thinning, penciling of at least one phalange.
Down through the mental strata.
Neoplasias. Deficiency diseases. Metabolic. Infectious. Autoimmune.
Slow, benign course.
Hands and feet.
“But you can bet your ass I’ll take a close look at the histo when the slides are ready.”
Larabee’s words hardly registered as I thumbed through possible diagnoses. Leprosy. Tuberculosis. Spina ventosa. Osteochondromatosis.
“Don’t phone Father Damien yet,” I said, clicking off the light boxes. “I’m going to do some digging.”
“In the meantime, I’ll take another look at what’s left of this guy’s skin and lymph nodes.” Larabee wagged his head. “Sure would help if he had a face.”
I’d barely settled at my desk when the phone rang. It was Sheila Jansen.
“I was right. It wasn’t coke burned onto the underbelly of that Cessna.”
“What was it?”
“That has yet to be determined. But the stuff wasn’t blow. Any progress on the passenger?”
“We’re working on it.”
I didn’t mention our suspicion about the man’s health. Better to wait until we were sure.
“Discovered a bit more about Ricky Don Dorton,” Jansen said.
“Seems Ricky Don got into a slight misunderstanding with the United States Marine Corps back in the early seventies, did some brig time, got the boot.”
“Corporal Dorton decided to send a little hash home as a memento of his time in Southeast Asia.”
“There’s an original thought.”
“Actually, his scheme was pretty ingenious. Dorton was assigned to casualty affairs in Vietnam. He’d slip drugs into coffins in the mortuary in Da Nang, then an associate would remove them on arrival Stateside, before the serviceman’s body was processed on to the family. Dorton was probably working with someone he’d met during his tour, someone who knew the morgue routine.”
“Clever.” Jesus. “Cold, but clever.”
“Except Corporal Einstein got nailed the last week of his tour.”
“Dorton disappeared for a while after his release. Next we see him, he’s back in Sneedville running field trips for the Grizzly Woodsman Fishing Camp.”
“Grizzly Woodsman? Is that one of those outfits that helps accountants from Akron reel in the bass of their dreams?”
“Yeah. Guess the GED education and dishonorable discharge limited Ricky Don’s options with the big Wall Street firms. But not his aspirations. Two years as an angling coach, and Dorton opens his own operation. Wilderness Quest.”
“You don’t suppose Ricky Don got some product across before the Corps discovered his little export scheme?”
“Nah. Fine citizen probably set aside a little from every paycheck, worked a civilian job on weekends, that sort of thing. Anyway, by the mid-eighties, Dorton switched from hip waders to pinstripes. In addition to the fishing camp he owns a sporting goods store in Morristown, Tennessee, and the two entertainment palaces in Kannapolis.”
“A respected businessman,” I said.
“And Ricky Don’s military experience taught him well. If Dorton’s into something illegal, he operates from a distance now. Stays so cool the cops can’t make him flinch.”
Something moved in the sludge at the back of my brain.
“Did you say Dorton’s from Sneedville?”
“Yeah. Mama Dorton and about a trillion kin still live there.”
The sludge thought rolled over, sluggish and lazy.
“Any chance Dorton’s a Melungeon?”
“How did you guess that?”
“Sure is. I’m impressed. Until yesterday I’d never heard of Melungeons.” Jansen may have picked up on something in my voice. “That trigger a line of thought?”
“Just a hunch. Could be nothing.”
“You know how to reach me.”
I sat a moment when we’d disconnected.
Upper layers. Recent deposits.
American Academy of Forensic Sciences. Scientific session.
What year? What city?
I turned to the AAFS programs on my shelf.
Within ten minutes I found what I was looking for. Twelve years back. A graduate student presentation on disease frequencies among Melungeon populations.
As I read the abstract, the sludge thought lumbered to its feet and slowly took form.
When Larabee looked up, his desk lamp threw shadows across the lines in his face.
“That would take us back to lymph nodes, lungs, and skin.”
“Approximately fourteen percent of sarcoidosis cases show skeletal involvement, mostly in the short bones of the hands and feet.”
I laid a pathology textbook on the desk in front of him. Larabee read a moment, then leaned back, chin on palm. His expression told me he was unconvinced.
“Most cases of sarcoidosis are asymptomatic. The disease pursues a slow, benign course, usually with spontaneous healing. People don’t even know they have it.”
“Until they get an X ray for some other reason,” he said.
“Like being dead.”
I ignored that.
“Sarcoidosis primarily affects young adults,” I said.
“And is most evident radiographically in the lungs.”
“You said the lungs were hamburger.”
“Sarcoidosis is mainly seen among African-Americans.”
“There’s a high incidence among Melungeons.”
Larabee looked at me as though I’d said Olmec warriors.
“It all fits. There’s an Anatolian bump on the back of the passenger’s head and modified shoveling on his incisors. His cheekbones are flaring, otherwise the guy looks like Charlton Heston.”
“Refresh me on Melungeons.”
“They’re fairly dark-skinned people with European-looking features. Some have an Asian eye fold.”
“Most are in the mountains of Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia, and North Carolina.”
“Who are they?”
“Survivors of the lost colony of Roanoke, Portuguese shipwrecks, the lost tribes of Israel, Phoenician seamen. You can take your pick of theories.”
“What’s the current favorite?”
“Descendants of Spanish and Portuguese colonists who abandoned the settlement of Santa Elena in South Carolina during the late sixteenth century. Supposedly these folks mingled with the Powhatans, the Catawbas, the Cherokees, and a number of other tribes. There may even have been some input from Moorish and Turkish galley slaves and from Portuguese and Spanish prisoners left on Roanoke Island in 1586.”
“Left by whom?”
“Sir Francis Drake.”
“Who do Melungeons think they are?”
“They claim to be variously of Portuguese, Turkish, Moorish, Arabic, and Jewish origin mixed with Native Americans.”
“Any evidence to support that?”
“When first encountered back in the sixteen hundreds they were living in cabins, speaking broken English, and described themselves as ‘Portyghee.’ ”
Larabee made a give-me-more gesture with his hand.
“A recent gene-frequency study showed no significant differences between Melungeon populations in Tennessee and Virginia and populations in Spain, Portugal, North Africa, Malta, Cyprus, Iran, Iraq, and the Levant.”
Larabee shook his head. “How do you remember stuff like that?”
“I don’t. I just looked it up. There are lots of Melungeon Web sites.”
“Why is this relevant?”
“There’s a large population of Melungeons living near Sneedville, Tennessee.”
“Remember Ricky Don Dorton?”
“The owner of the Cessna.”
“Dorton’s from Sneedville, Tennessee.”
“Thought it might.”
“Give Sheila Jansen a call. I’ll get on the horn to Sneedville.”
I’d just completed my call to the NTSB agent when Slidell and Rinaldi made their second appearance of the day.
“Ever hear of a man named J. J. Wyatt?” Rinaldi asked.
I shook my head.
“Looks like Wyatt was on Darryl Tyree’s speed dialer.”
“Meaning Tyree called Wyatt frequently?”
Rinaldi nodded. “From his cell phone.”
“The final three calls were placed just before seven last Sunday morning.”
“Wyatt’s cell phone.” Slidell face looked poached with heat.
“Which was located where?” I asked.
“Most likely in Wyatt’s hand.” Slidell mopped his brow.
I was biting back a reply when Larabee joined us wearing a smile wider than a lean face such as his could support.
“Guys,” the ME said to Slidell and Rinaldi, “you are in the presence of genius.”
Larabee did a half-bow in my direction, then waggled a slip of paper in the air.
“Jason Jack Wyatt.”
Absolute quiet crammed my little office.
Puzzled by our nonreaction, Larabee looked from Slidell to Rinaldi to me.
Slidell spoke first.
“What about Jason Jack Wyatt, Doc?”
“Twenty-four-year-old male Melungeon from Sneedville, Tennessee. Wyatt was reported missing three days ago by a worried grandma.”
Larabee glanced up from his notes.
“Granny says young J.J. suffered from ‘the arthrity’ in his hands and feet. Dental records are in transit, and it looks good for a match on the Cessna passenger.”
No one said a word.
“Ready for the best part?”
“Grandma’s name is Effie Opal Dorton Cumbo.”
Larabee’s impossibly wide smile broadened.
“J. J. Wyatt and Ricky Don Dorton are Tennessee kissin’ cousins.”
THIRTY SECONDS PASSED BEFORE ANYONE SPOKE.
Rinaldi stared at the ceiling. Slidell studied his shoes. Both looked like they were doing complicated math in their heads.
Knowing he was out of the loop, but not knowing why, Larabee waited us out, the smile gone. His slack face looked like it had spent a lifetime baking in an oven.
I started the dialogue by holding up an index finger.
“Jason Jack Wyatt might be the passenger on the Cessna.”
“The Cessna was owned by Ricky Don Dorton,” Rinaldi said.
I added a finger.
“Wyatt was Dorton’s cousin,” Slidell offered.
“Darryl Tyree made frequent calls to Wyatt, including three on the morning the Cessna crashed.” Rinaldi.
“Having off-loaded at least four kilos of blow.” Slidell.
My thumb went up.
“Tyree is a dealer,” Rinaldi said, “whose girlfriend has recently gone missing.”
I started on a second hand.
“Having offed her own kid.” Slidell.
“Maybe,” I said.
“Two members of Tamela’s family are also missing.” Rinaldi ignored our exchange about the baby.
My second middle finger went up.
“And sweet cheeks’ license turned up in a house with two kilos of snort and a dead guy in the privy.” Slidell.
Ring man number two.
“A house in the possession of Sonny Pounder, a low-level dealer who snitched to the cops about Tamela’s baby.”
Pinky number two.
“A house with bears interred in the yard,” I added, dropping both hands.
Slidell tendered an emphatic expletive.
I suggested one of my own.
A phone rang in Larabee’s office.
“You’re going to fill me in on all of this,” the ME said to me, then shot out the door.
Rinaldi reached into an inside pocket, withdrew a Ziploc baggie, and tossed it onto my desk.
“CSU found this stashed with the cocaine. Thought it might mean something to you.”
Before reaching for the bag I glanced at Rinaldi.
“Trace analysis has already gone over it.”
Unzipping the seal, I studied the contents.
“Very unusual feathers.” Rinaldi.
“I know nothing about feathers.”
Slidell shrugged. “You were all over Yogi and his friends, Doc.”
“That’s bone. These are feathers.”
Rinaldi withdrew an eight-inch plume and twirled it. Even under fluorescent light the blues looked rich and iridescent.
“It’s no song sparrow,” he said.
“I’m not following this,” I said.
“Why would someone hide avian plumage with illegal drugs?”
“Maybe the feathers were already in the basement and the coke was accidentally parked on top of them.”
“Maybe.” Rinaldi replaced the feather.
I flashed on the bear bones.
“Actually, there was some kind of bird mixed in with the bears.”
“Tell me more.”
“That’s all I know.”
“Identifying the species might not hurt.”
“You need an ornithologist.”
“I can make a few calls.” I gave Rinaldi a look that had talons. “But first let’s talk headless bodies.”
Rinaldi’s arms folded across Brooks Brothers linen.
“I don’t like being kept in the dark, Detective.”
“And we don’t like woolly thinking, Doc.” Slidell.
I turned to him.
“Is there something you’re not sharing?”
“Nothing gained by a lot of pointless wheel spinning.” Slidell scowled at me.
I scowled back.
“When we’ve verified what we’re looking at, we’ll pass it on.” Slidell.
Rinaldi picked at a callus on his thumb. Between the spiky hairs, his scalp looked pale and shiny.
Larabee’s voice drifted down from his office.
Slidell held my look. I wondered if he could hang on to it with my boot up his ass.
Rinaldi broke the silence.
“I see no harm in including Dr. Brennan in our thinking.”
Slidell’s eyes rolled to his partner, snapped back to me.
“What the hell.” Slidell sighed. “No skin off my nose.”
“Three, four years back. I can’t precisely recall. An inquiry came across my desk.”
“About a body with no head or hands.”
“It’s a big state.”
“Fort Mill. Gaffney. Chester.” Rinaldi flapped a long, bony hand. “Nothing is centralized down there, it’s hard to backtrack.”
Unlike the Tarheel State, South Carolina relies on a coroner system, with practitioners operating independently in each county. Coroners are elected. A nurse, a funeral director, a cemetery owner. Few are trained in medicine, fewer still in forensic pathology. Autopsies are farmed out to local doctors.
“Most South Carolina coroners don’t have the facilities to keep a corpse very long.”
“Got that damn straight,” Slidell snorted. “Gave Michael Jordan’s daddy, what, three days before they smoked him?”
Slidell had the tact of a sledgehammer. But he was right.
“I’ve sent out a query,” Rinaldi said. “I hope to hear back by the end of the day.”
“Was this headless, handless body in good shape?”
“As I recall, the remains were skeletonized. But it wasn’t relevant to anything we were investigating at the time, so I didn’t take much notice.”
“Black or white?”
Rinaldi raised then dropped his shoulders.
“Male or female?”
“Definitely,” Rinaldi said.
When the detectives had gone I phoned the university. A colleague could look at the feathers the following day.
Next I went to the cooler and rolled out the gurney with the animal remains. I packaged everything that looked like bird, and placed the bundle in a sack with Rinaldi’s baggie of feathers.
Exchanging the animal gurney for that holding the privy remains, I spent the next several hours doing as thorough an analysis as possible.
My initial impressions changed little, though I was able to be more precise on the age estimate.
Age: twenty-five to forty years.
Sex: roll the dice.
When I returned to my office, Ryan was leafing through a copy of Creative Loafing, Nikes resting on the edge of my desk. He was wearing the same luau shirt and shorts he’d had on that morning and a Winston Cup cap. He looked like Hawaii Five-O does NASCAR.
“Have a good day?”
“Latta Plantation then Freedom Park.”
“Didn’t know you were such a history buff.”
“Hooch can’t get enough of the stuff.”
“Where is he?”
“The call of Alpo overpowered the call of the wild.”
“Surprised he let you out on your own.”
“When last seen, man’s best friend was investigating the contents of an Oreo bag.”
“Chocolate is bad for dogs.”
“We discussed that. Hooch thought he could handle it.”
“If Hooch guessed wrong, you’re cleaning the carpet.”
“Making progress with privy man?”
“Apt segue.” Tossing the privy case folder onto my desk, I dropped into my chair. “I just finished.”
“That took a while,” Ryan said.
“Toody and Muldoon came by twice today.”
“Slidell and his partner?”
“Aren’t you kind of hard on the guy?”
“Slidell probably needs instructions to make ice cubes.”
“Is he really that stupid?”
I thought about that.
Slidell was not actually stupid. Not in the way that a fern is stupid. Or a wood frog. Slidell was just Slidell.
“Probably not. But he’s off the bell curves for uncouth and annoying.”
“What did they want?”
I told Ryan about Jason Jack Wyatt and the cell phone link to Darryl Tyree.
“The boyfriend of the lady with the dead baby?”
“Curiouser and curiouser.”
“Here’s another flash. Rinaldi remembers a headless, handless body inquiry a few years back. He and Slidell are tracking it down.”
“Descriptors match your privy guy?”
“Rinaldi’s recollection is a bit vague.”
“Is yours a guy?”
“I think so.”
Ryan raised his brows in a question.
“There’s not a single cranial feature that’s definitive for gender. I ran every measurement possible through the Fordisc 2.0 program.”
“Let me guess. The skull falls into the overlap range.”
I nodded. “Though closer to the male than the female end.”
“Ditto for measurements on the hand bones?”
“What’s your gut feeling?”
“A young-adult white person who probably used the little boys’ room. That’s not a bad start.”
“With lousy teeth.”
“Lots of decay. At least on the teeth we recovered.”
“Missed a few?”
“How did I know you would say that?”
“Any dental work?”
I shook my head. “The victim was not a believer in regular checkups.”
“Maybe some slight bone demineralization.”
“I think you’ve made an excellent start, Dr. Brennan.”
“Rinaldi also had feathers.”
“Doesn’t seem like his style.”
“They turned up with the coke in the cellar.”
“What kind of feathers?”
“He wants me to find out.”
“Do you know any big birdbrains?”
“I know you, cowboy.”
Ryan made a pistol with his hand and pointed it at me.
“Ready for another field trip tomorrow?”
This time the finger made a lasso.
We were passing Mrs. Flowers’s desk when the phone rang. She answered, then flapped a hand in my direction.
I waited while she spoke, then placed the call on hold.
“It’s Detective Slidell.”
I felt a sigh elbowing up my chest, but resisted the impulse toward melodramatics.
Mrs. Flowers smiled at me, then at Ryan. When he grinned back, a pink spot blossomed on each of her cheeks.
“He sounds like the cat that swallowed the canary.”
“Not a pretty picture.” Ryan winked.
Mrs. Flowers giggled, and her cheeks went raspberry.
“Do you want to take it?”
Like I wanted Ebola.
I reached for the receiver.
I heard cellophane crinkle, then the sound of chewing.
“That’s about forty minutes south of Charlotte.”
“Uh-huh. Straight down five twenty-one.”
“What about Lancaster, South Carolina?”
“Skeleton.” Garbled through what sounded like caramel and peanuts.
Slidell was in Snickers mode. My grip tightened on the receiver.
A lot of crinkling, and a comment I couldn’t make out.
“Hikers found a headless, handless skeleton in a park near Lancaster?” I prompted.
A click, as though Slidell were picking a tooth with a thumbnail.
“Were the remains ID’ed?”
“What happened to them?”
“Packed up and shipped to Columbia.”
“To Wally Cagle?”
“He the anthropologist down there?”
“Stubby little fruit fly, goatee looks like a mallard’s arse?”
“Walter Cagle is a highly qualified, board-certified forensic anthropologist.” It took an effort to keep my voice level. “You haven’t answered my question.”
“What does that mean?”
“Fine citizens of Lancaster County elected themselves a new coroner two years back. New kid claims his predecessor didn’t keep real good records.”
“Who circulated the query?”
“What does he say?”
“Says talk to the former coroner. Sheriff ’s new, too.”
“Have you done that?”
“Tough order. Guy’s dead.”
I was gripping the receiver so tightly the plastic was making small popping sounds.